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On Ponds

and Puddings, Primroses and Plymouth Pavilions

I went to the UK last week for a job interview. It was a head chef job, a new opening in Sussex, and I was tempted to take it. After what has been a hard year, I was lured in by the promise of people (colleagues!), a pension (a dangling carrot if ever there was one), perhaps even some residual feeling of patriotism.

Patriotism is a difficult word. It can jangle with jingoism, prickle with prejudice; clunk with cant. It seems too strong for something that is, in my case, really just acute homesickness. Despite its leanings towards the much-more-sinister Nationalism, originally it simply means (according to trusty Wikipedia, at least) ‘the feeling of love, devotion, and sense of attachment to a homeland’. Such emotive words; love and devotion. But perhaps these are the only appropriate words to describe how you can feel about the place you were born and grew up in.

I remember when Luca and I lived together in London and he was trying to book holiday to get home to Sardinia. We were talking about when he would go, and he said ideally if he could get the time off he needed to go back every 10 weeks or so. He used the word bisogno. A need. He said, with the matter-of-factness that is so particular to him,

‘Letizia, I cannot go for three months without seeing my land’.

It struck me, this need. This passion, this patriotism. It was both so prosaic and poetic. So natural, so unaffected. I wondered if I would ever say - or think - the same thing about England, and be able to express it without any sense of irony or self-consciousness.

Perhaps it is a sort of feeling we can only feel once we leave a place, rather than when we are still in it. Sometimes it’s easier to love from a distance. It’s always easier to love something in retrospect.

I love Derriford Hospital, Plymouth, where I was born. I love Plymouth Hoe where we used to get fish and chips and banana fritters with syrup when Dad picked us up from work, and then we’d sing to his Dire Straits tapes and feel sick all the way home. I love Plymouth Pavilions where I spent almost every Saturday of my childhood and where we used to ice skate in an indoor ring, graze our knees and bruise our shins before eating a Mr Whippy ice cream with 2 flakes, the smell of shaved ice, plastic skates and wet socks still in our nostrils. I love the place where I spent the first 30 years of my life – my home, the UK. I love it with the fierce and passionate love you feel for something you have left behind. With a kind of love and devotion which isn’t blind to its (many) faults, to its bombast and Boris Johnsons, but loves sometimes because of and often in spite of them. I love its clichés. The inevitability of Quality Street and queues. I love its green lushness, its cold churches and cold houses, hard frosts and soft furnishings; its porridge, pork-pie, picture-postcard, crumpets-and-Christmas Englishness. The neatly hedgerow-ed quaintness that is all the more poignant when seen from the little plastic box-window of an Alitalia aeroplane.

I came back home this time and Mum picked me up from Heathrow. She was an hour late, as usual. I waited on the platform outside Terminal 2 in the bitter cold eating a Boots sandwich, and remembering all the Boots sandwiches I have ever eaten in my life. I washed down the sandwich with a cup of tea from Caffe Nero – the first tea I had had for a year. I don’t drink tea in Sardinia. It just feels wrong, somehow. It also means that the first thing I do whenever I get home is drink a cup of tea, and feel happy.

Mum arrived flustered. She had lost the car in the multi-story car park. We went up and down in the lift searching on every level. Then we keyed into a special computer the number plate and it looked up the location of the car for us. Heathrow versus the airport I had just flown from, Cagliari, where flying and parking have never been so simple. Having parked in a neat and empty car park right in front of the entrance under billboards of flamingos in flight you glide through security in seconds, handbag bulging with liquids, as the staff talk amongst themselves and wave you through the barriers.

We drove back to Mum’s and I ate roast meat and gravy, with roast potatoes and over-boiled veg from her garden. The next day we went for a walk and there were primroses in all the hedgerows. I picked some and inhaled their scent, so reminiscent of the beginning of every spring I have ever known in England. Mum had a vase of daffodils on the table too. I miss them. Daffodils. I miss the primroses. Her cherry blossom was out. Funny how you can miss flowers.

We arrived at the site and looked around, met the team, had a meeting. There were lambs gambolling in the fields, the sun shone, more daffodils swayed. Sussex was putting on a good show.

But something in my gut told me not to take the job. Even after all the loneliness and pain since Luca and I broke up – break ups get harder the older you get; you are not just losing a partner but also a planned life together - there was a little knot deep down in my stomach that was saying, muffled but persistent,

No, this isn’t it now. You’ll lose something you love if you leave.

And the thing I would lose wasn’t Luca anymore, it was Sardinia. My home, in sickness and in health; for better or for worse.

Every time I’ve flown home in the past 3 and a half years it has felt just that, it has felt like I am going home from somewhere which isn’t. But this time it felt the other way round. As the plane flew over Cagliari and I saw the city perched on the hill in sharp sunlight, I felt a sense of relief. I was coming home. Was it a loss, or a gain? In gaining a new home, had I lost my old one? Perhaps you truly can have two.

Either way I felt a shift. When does that shift happen? How does it? I don’t know. I just know that it has, without me really being able to put my finger on it. Anyone that moves countries, immigrant, emigrant or ex-pat, must always feel like they have multiple personalities. Split in two, in three, in four. What is nationality, anyway? What does it mean to belong to a place? Or have a place belong to you? Does it mean anything at all?

I came home to my little rented flat. I saw the dog, the cat. I ate a plate of pasta. I went to bed. The next morning I saw my landlady, Monica.

‘Quindi?’ she said. And so?

‘I’ve decided I’m staying’ I smiled.

‘Che bello!’ she squealed, miming an embrace (we’re still not supposed to touch).

‘Ormai sei Sarda!’ Now you’re Sardinian!

This year, at Ferragosto, it will be my anniversary of 4 years in Sardinia. When I have been here for 5, I become an automatic Italian citizen. I am excited at the prospect, but I have no idea what will change, in terms of everyday life. I think my Carta Identita will have a special metallic chip in it which means I can buy cigarettes from the machines on the street, otherwise things remain much the same. Metallic chip or not, the internal shift has happened anyway. I noticed it first with my tongue. I talk to myself in Italian now, not English. I scold myself with phrases like, ‘Guarda, Letizia….ma!.... veramente’. When I stub my toe it is an Italian curse that bubbles from my lips, sometimes even an exclamation in Sardo (Ih!). When I see or feel something beautiful I think, Che Bello.

And so from tongues to mouths, from mouths to food, and into the kitchen to cook something to celebrate the shift, the split; not a loss but a gain. A gain. Again and again.

And what to make? A pudding. A budino. A pudding that is poignant. Pudding is always poignant, this pudding especially so.

A very English pudding, in many ways, but somehow also at home in Italy, because it contains lemon. The lemons that are so inseparable with life in Italy; real lemons dangling from real trees. One of the things I would miss the most, if I left. A small thing, but significant, somehow. Just like the primroses. Life is made up of such small things.

This pudding also has the word Pond in its title, which immediately makes me fond of it. I like both the word and the idea of Ponds (how can you not?). I grew up with a pond, an old bathtub sunk into the ground filled with tadpoles and weed, into which I pushed my little brother often. It is also a traditional pudding from Sussex, and one of the things I had wanted to put on our opening menu, if I had taken the job.

Sussex Pond Pudding, a pudding made with suet and with a whole lemon baked inside it. I have a box of Atora suet my mum sent me to make dumplings. A real Sardinian lemon from a tree; suet sent from Sainsburys. An undeniably old-fashioned pudding, but so delicious: echoes of marmalade, buttered toast and toffee. Fluffy dumpling pastry.

A bravely brown pudding which unites my two homes, impregnated with a whole lemon; sweet as a memory, as sharp as reality. Served in a shining brown pond of syrup.

A loss, and a gain, again.

Adapted from Felicity Cloake’s Perfect Sussex Pond Pudding

N.B: Sadly I don’t have a spectacular photo of the finished un-moulded pudd because – long story – I couldn’t find a proper pudding basin to cook it in (I’m not sure they exist in Italy) so I had to cook it in a cereal bowl, and the top collapsed. Looks aren’t everything, and this is especially true of suet puddings.

Serves 6

150g plain flour

1 tsp baking powder

80g shredded suet (replace with cold, grated butter if you hate suet)

A pinch of salt

50ml milk

50ml water

100g butter, plus extra to grease

100g demerara sugar

1 whole, unwaxed lemon

Grease a 750ml pudding basin generously with butter and line the base with a piece of greaseproof paper.

Heat the oven to 180 and fill a deep baking tray with hot water (this will become the bain-marie for your pudding)

Mix the flour, salt, suet and baking powder together in a mixing bowl and make a well in the centre.

Mix in the milk and water and bring together to form a smooth dough (add more liquid if necessary).

Roll out 2/3 of the dough to line the pudding basin.

Mix the sugar and butter together to form a rough mass. Place half of this mixture into the base of the lined pudding bowl.

Slit the lemon with 3 deep slits not quite all the way through.

Place the lemon on the sugar bed and then bury it like a coffin with the remaining sugar (soil) mixture. Roll out the remaining piece of pastry.

Wet the edges of the pastry bowl and secure the lid.

Cut out 2 pieces of greaseproof paper larger than the lid and make a pleat in the middle. Secure them with string and form a handle. More instructions on tying steamed puddings can be found here.

Place the pudding in the tray in the oven (make sure the water comes at least 2/3 up the sides of the basin) and cook for 4 hours.

Remove, unmould, and serve warm/hot with puddles of cold cream and dreams of primroses.

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