Or Saint Lorenzo, Loneliness and a Loosening
I’m not really someone who cooks alone.
I have tried to be one of those people who really revels in preparing and devouring a full meal for myself. Occasionally I am, about once a week I can be. On Sundays. I can make myself a whole pan of pasta with clams and eat it with messy abandon, knowing that no one is watching me or stealing all the biggest clams from the communal pan. Most of the time, however, when left to my own devices I live on bread, butter, anchovies, peanut butter, crackers, tomato pasta, crisps and biscuits. And aperitivo. Often during this monumentally lonely year I have just had aperitivo for supper. A few large and strong Camparis, a big bowl of olives and crisps, maybe some chunks of cheese and a slice or two of cured meat. Then an early night and a little weep in front of Strega per Amore (the only TV show I can get in English here. My Wifi isn't good enough for Netflix). All this interspersed with a half-hearted iceberg salad or some wilted spinach when I feel I’ve probably been too unhealthy for too long and am at risk of getting scurvy.
The thing is I can cook for myself, of course I can, but I don’t really enjoy it. I don’t enjoy tasting my own food and thinking to myself, ‘yes, this is nice’. When I cook, I like an audience. I like to bask in the glow of others’ appreciation. It’s not just attention-seeking, there's an altruistic element too. I really like to make and give food to someone else. To give someone else pleasure. And ultimately I need feedback other than my own. I want to watch the recipient intently as they chew the first mouthful, and to bark at them before they’ve swallowed; ‘Well, how is it?!”
I am – that gruesome word – a feeder.
It has been two years and two months since Luca and I broke up; I’ve published two books, fostered two pets, lived in two flats.
I like symmetry.
I will admit the last two years have been incredibly lonely, the last one especially so. There was a point where I began to wonder if I’d ever have company to cook for again (I’ve a natural tendency for fatalism which has been nicely fluffed by a few years in Italy).
And then, one month ago, along came Lorenzo. Another L and a name (and frame) so fitting it seems to have mushroomed out of a fairy-tale. Lorenzo comes from the Latin for bay leaves. Saint Lorenzo is also the patron saint of chefs, comedians and grills.
‘Turn me over, the other side isn’t done yet’ said the Saint, as he was toasted over hot coals. This comedian/martyr/zealot is celebrated every year on the 10th August in Florence when lasagne is eaten in the streets, followed by slices of soothing watermelon.
Lorenzo - like his name-sake - is an anomaly. He is 6 years younger than me, which makes me nervous. He is a little shorter than me too, and much, much, skinnier. Lanky, even. He speaks English tentatively, having only studied at school. He plays the drums and studies Dante. He is training to be a teacher (Latin, Italian & Greek) and drums the summer season with his band. He has long, thin fingers and bony hands which are always drumming on something. Otherwise his movements are slow, languorous, careful. He doesn’t talk much, and when he does it is measured, quiet, thoughtful. But, despite this slow, almost-sleepiness he has a steel to him that scares me. A self-assurance and ease-with-himself that seems extraordinary for someone so young (at his age I was a complete mess; a collapsed pudding of a person). An acute intelligence and a curiously languid and lithe physicality; Lorenzo was a champion swimmer before he drummed. The broad shoulders stayed. A long aquiline nose, narrow hips. Eyelashes 'like Babycham' as my granny would say. Eyebrows of such magnificence and bounty that he has developed a slight twitch whereby he stops and smooths them if he’s getting particularly fired up about something (sometimes he does get fired up, but it's always about something unexpected, like why the local council scrapped Christmas decorations this year).
Lorenzo cannot put on weight. He is trying, desperately trying to ingrassare (fatten up) but he can’t do it. He needs to eat lots more, and to eat lots of rich and fatty foods, he tells me, po-faced.
My whole being bursts into flames.
Finally, I have found someone to feed. Lorenzo likes everything I cook. After living with Luca for 2 years, officially (and by his own admission) the World’s Fussiest Man, who would only entertain vegetables if they were buried in béchamel and shrouded by steak, and absolutely had to have meat at every meal (a point of contention as – apart from salami/mortadella/prosciutto – I eat meat about once a month). I cannot tell you how happy this makes me.
After a year of solo cooking, I may have got a little overexcited about the prospect of having someone (a skinny someone) to cook for. As someone who measures out their life in meals I make no exception for relationships. I measure them in meals too. So far I’ve made cannoli, amatriciana, focaccia, a sort of Sardinian Nicoise, pasta with pesto (rocket, pecorino and walnut), pasta with clams and bottarga, bream and potatoes baked in the oven. I’ve kept it fairly classic; I will work in the butter and cream slowly. Lorenzo has valiantly eaten it all and had seconds, thirds. He has scraped every plate clean and done the scarpetta.
His belt has loosened one notch.
We have been eating lots of strawberries as they are now in season in Sardinia, where everything is a month or two ahead of what I’m used to in England. Of course I love strawberries as they are, or with cold cream, but I thought it was time I did something a little different with them, especially as good cream here is hard to find. So I worked them into my favourite pudding – Tiramisu. Every time I make tiramisu, I think to myself that the mascarpone-mousse element of it is so good is deserves to be used in all kinds of desserts. So here it is, under another guise. No coffee, which is anathema with strawberries, but some sweet Moscato and some citrus (of course). The Savoiardi remain spongier and lighter, and the whole thing is quite Trifle-like.
A happy hybrid of a pudding, a bit English, a bit Italian. A little Lorenzo, a little Letitia.
The belt loosens another notch.
Feeds 6-8 hungry people, 10 dainty eaters. It’s very rich.
3 eggs, separated
a few vanilla seeds or a drop of extract (optional)
1 orange, juice
1 lemon, juice
1 glass of Moscato (or sweet wine)
26-30 Savoiardi biscuits
Choose a container to suit your wishes. You can make this in a trifle bowl to serve in scoops, in individual glasses, or in a gratin dish to serve in squares (or scoops). I make mine in a lasagne dish.
Whip the egg yolks with 100g of the sugar and vanilla until thick and mousse-like.
Meanwhile wash, hull and halve the strawberries. Marinate them in the remaining sugar and the juice of the orange and lemon, plus the glass of Moscato. Set aside for 10 minutes while you finish the cream.
Add the mascarpone to the yolks and continue whisking until you have a smooth, pale-primrose cream. In a separate bowl whisk the egg whites until you have soft peaks. Fold the whites into the mascarpone mixture and mix gently until smooth.
Delicately dampen and dunk the savoiardi into the (now abundant) liquid from the strawberries and then begin layering. Add a layer of soaked biscuits, then decorate with halved strawberries, then a layer of the cream. Repeat.
Place in the fridge to firm up (if you want to serve in neat slices) or serve as is, messily. Top with extra strawberries or edible flowers or as you see fit.