We would stop at the grocer on our way to the beach. Each of us carrying a bag of towels, or an umbrella, or magazines and rackets, we would dump everything in a corner of the store to be unencumbered in our perusing of the food. My task: to pick four perfect peaches from the large vat sitting right outside the entrance. Meanwhile, Mum was queuing at the meat and cheese counter. When her turn came, she summoned due etti di mortadella and four white rolls that looked like small daisies but were called rosette, small roses. I could catch a whiff of freshly fried doughnuts and begged for one, but she was unmoved by my plea.
“You can have gelato later.”
“Can I have the ice-cream sandwich?”
“Perhaps we’ll have popsicles.”
I handed her the peaches, she fetched some water and some juice and we were on our way.
Mortadella sandwiches and peaches were our beach lunch on days when Mum was caught off-guard – when the decision to go to the beach was somehow last-minute because of the weather or desperate boredom. At twelve-thirty on the dot, hungry after many games in the sand and jumps in the shallow, often murky Adriatic Sea, hair still dripping with water, she would sit us on the lounge chair and make us a panino. I remember thinking that the scent of the mortadella must have travelled faster than light: it hit you with its sweet fattiness and made you salivate in eager anticipation. My salty lips acted as seasoning for the sandwich as I tried to take small morsels to make it last longer. At every bite, the crisp outside of the rosetta atomised into a million crumbs that flew everywhere and stuck to my wet skin or landed on the towel underneath – some as sharp as small shards – or fell on the sand for the small sparrows to enjoy. As I worked on the chewy crumb, I observed the neighbouring umbrellas as they also began the ritual of lunch.
Many seemed to me as if they were better equipped than us. They had big coolers with not just one but a variety of sliced meats and cheese and many rolls for many rounds of sandwiches. I saw them slicing tomatoes and draining mozzarella and making caprese on the spot. They had large bags of chips that they would munch on distractedly throughout the day, and big bottles of sweet lemon iced tea to ease the saltiness. I saw a family carrying a whole watermelon, which they tackled in the late afternoon with what looked like a machete.
“Why don’t we ever bring watermelon to the beach? It’s my favourite fruit.”
“Go to the fountain to wash the peaches, will you? Scrub them really well and then put them back in the bag.”
I felt despondent then, and though complying with that request, I braved the scorching sand sans sandals as a silent sign of protest, as if showing how tough I was would have earned me the right to make my own choices in the realm of fruit, or life in general. I spent the short distance between our umbrella and the fountain trying to conceal the pain underfoot and finally found solace in the wet puddle that surrounded the fountain – an oasis. The four furry fruits bobbed inside the plastic bag as I filled it with water and scrubbed off any sand and dust. They were firm but slightly giving, and heavy with juice.
Back under the shade of the umbrella, I picked the most perfect of the four peaches and took a bite into the bright-yellow and red-specked flesh. Fat drops of juice ran down my wrist, reached my elbow and trickled down onto my thighs. I kept devouring the fruit with real pleasure then, ignoring or rather enjoying the mess I was making. At the end, I headed towards the water and, disregarding Mum’s subtle warnings about indigestion, took a quick dip to wash off the sticky sweetness.
This is what happened when we were unprepared. When the trip to the beach was planned, on the other hand, Mum would spend the previous evening making that vintage-looking, kitschy medley of delights known as insalata di riso. Actually, she would make two types: the adult version, and the children’s version. The former featured rice mixed with all the ingredients one could think of: capers, tuna, cubed ham and cheese, hard-boiled eggs, olives, and a mix of colourful pickles named giardiniera. The latter skipped the olives and the pickles and was therefore very beige, but also less challenging on younger palates.
Store-bought insalata di riso didn’t fit the bill, really. It had a distinctively different feel – oilier, sloppier. Also, you couldn’t choose the add-ins. And wasn’t the whole point of it the fact it was highly customisable – a perfect excuse for throwing in all your beloved foods in one go? Take that out of the equation and it loses its appeal. No. It had to be done at home. That was a food rule I learnt rather quickly.
The freshly made rice salad sat in the fridge overnight for the flavours to mingle. We would take it out right before getting in the car, sat it in the cooler bag alongside a tub of sliced melon and a bottle of homemade, vaguely sweetened iced tea, topped it all with packed ice, and off we went.
I loved that stuff. Loved it. I would always ask to serve myself so that I could do so strategically, so that my portion had a higher cheese-to-rice ratio.
“Stop doing that.”
“Eating all the cheese, then there’s just rice left.”
The act of eating something with a fork and a paper plate while sitting on a beach chair felt right and civilised to me. It satisfied the extreme hunger brought on by all of the pottering around the shore in a way I found deeply fulfilling. I could have seconds and thirds and revisit my favourite flavour combination at every forkful: was it the tuna and egg that worked best, or the ham and cheese, or all of them together?
A nap would always follow, which I tried to stretch for as long as three hours, so that by the end I could observe the unwritten Italian rule of fully digesting before getting back into the water, conscious that after that I could have sweet slices of sunny melon and, if lucky, a lemon granita to close the day and cool off before returning to our sultry car, feet coated in dark sand, hair coiffed by the sea air, windows down as we drove along the river and fields of corn, not yet aware that the best days in life would forever look like the one we just had.