Recipes for a Heatwave
Mum has had the paddling pool out for a few weeks now. She's been sending me pink updates from England.
'29 degrees!' she exclaims, via whatsapp (hot, red emoji, complete with sweat bead).
As I sit in my pants in the dark (we shut the blinds, windows & shutters at 8am) fan whirring and blowing around the scattered sheets of my unfinished book, I sigh deeply at the thought of a fresh-as-the-inside-of-a-summer-lettuce 29 degrees.
And this isn't even the worst it's been in Sardinia. This week the Maestrale (the cool breeze that blows in from France and the North) has graced us with her refreshing presence. During the hottest summer months you come to know the cMaestrale intimately; we talk of her in hushed and hopeful voices. If she blows in cool from the North in the early morning, we know perhaps we might be able to work today, to cook even, and - holy of holies - to sleep tonight. If, instead, the hot and heavy Scirocco blows in from the South, we are doomed. The Scirocco brings with it hot, sandy rain which muddies the cars and windows, and a feeling of oppression. The Maestrale is a cool sigh of relief.
This week the Maestrale is blowing, and it is bearable (just) to eat outside. The nights are sacred; we fling open all the shutters at 8 pm. During the night, perhaps a caress of cold air licks your foot, poking out of the single sheet under which you sleep, and it feels delicious. We take the dog to the beach and swim at sunset - 9pm - just as the sun sets in a flamingo sky and the mosquitoes rise from the ground with a communal whine.
July in Sardinia: it hasn't rained properly for nearly 3 months now, and each morning we wake to a sapphire sky, not a cloud in sight. The hedgerows are gold, the ground dry. Bechamel's long cream coat carries half a hay-field in it. The hay is cut, left in lazy piles to dry. The strawberry fields bare, the melons plump and prolific. The only green left is the pale silver-sage of olive trees which is unshakable, as old as time itself. This, people’s pampered garden plants, watered every day at dawn and dusk in the dusty heat, and then the vines. The vines remain a glowing lush green as the ground around them dries to dust, and the once-proud weeds that wind between them wither and wilt in the heat.
Do you water them? I ask, innocently.
Never, scowls Mauro. Watering the vines changes everything, it ruins the wine. The vines must become strong, plant their roots deep and learn to cope on their own without us giving them water. Watering dilutes the product and makes them weaker, dependent. Like us, they are made stronger by hardship. He winks.
As I walk my dawn route the once-quiet vineyards are a hive of activity. The vines are being pruned, the grapes need to be sprayed with a sulphur treatment if they are sick; whether sick or not they need to be pruned and trimmed, any unruly tendrils snipped and thrown to the ground (these are then gathered once dry and tied in bundles to be used for lighting outdoor bread-ovens. Nothing is wasted, everything has a purpose). The little green grape bunches are checked over, held in Mauro's hand with the tenderness of a lover, as he inspects them for signs of the dreaded malattia. We must prune just the right amount of leaves around them, he says, so that they are nicely shaded and protected from the sun (the delicate grapes will otherwise burn) and yet also thin out their individual canopies so as to avoid clustering which can lead to humidity and sickness. The air and a little sun must reach them, but not too much. We must find the baby-bear porridge point; just peaking out from amongst the leaves.
Mauro fondles each grape bunch, green spheres jumbled together tightly, they look as yet unpromising. He points out another grape bunch exactly the same as the one he just cradled.
'Now, look at this one! Guarda! Guarda che meraviglia!' he says, beaming from ear to ear and turning to me, eager to witness my approval.
Along the row we go, marvelling in turn at each quasi-identical bunch. These bunches will become as familiar as friends to me over the coming months, as when not admiring them in person he will dig out his phone during conversational lulls over Sunday lunch and pull up endless blurry photos of each bunch.
Guarda questo! he says, winking.
I nod in appreciation.
His enthusiasm is contagious. Even as a somewhat lackadaisical wine-consumer, I can appreciate his zeal and begin to feel some distant rumblings of it myself, stirred at the very bottom of the barrel by someone who is so unashamedly, so proudly, so touchingly passionate.
Once the pruning has been done, and the treatments administered (bio-approved Sulphur in tiny quantities is the only treatment Mauro uses – and only in the worst cases of sickness) the vines are checked and tended to frequently before the crucial moment, when we Vendemmiare. But that’s still a while away, and we pray it will be cooler by then. For now we are still in the throes of the high-summer heat, and it takes all the strength we have to not succumb to the infectious somnolence and doze away the entire afternoon. A thrice-daily shower becomes obligatory. One after every meal, because eating is hot work. Not to speak of the cooking and cleaning up afterwards.
I lie awake at night and dream of Air Conditioning.
Meanwhile mum is in her paddling pool in England, and picking perhaps the first plums.
I envy her cool kitchen with its cold floors and cucumber temperatures. I long for that pre-summer feeling – when was it I last felt it – when my body didn’t feel like a large padded costume which I had to wear all day, dragging it damply around from place to place, pink with exertion.
But I must cook, sometimes at least, because there are recipes to test and write and hungry, hollow-legged Lorenzos to feed. School is over for the summer, there are no more packed lunches. And whilst salad is welcome and frequent, we cannot live like rabbits forever. He needs to get fat.
There’s a crate full of zucchini to do something with, and sage leaves to fry. Aubergines too. For now I have dug out some of my favourite summer recipes to turn to before I get around to writing any new ones; sitting semi-naked in the dark.
Enjoy, and perhaps buy yourself a paddling pool, too.
In praise of not cooking, Bless the Burrata, a way of creating an entire meal out of a cheese. Just peel the peaches.
A beloved Bitter Honey number. Easy and satisfying.
My all-time favourite sorbet