Food

GRAND DISHES – COOKING WITH ITALY’S NONNAS

Summer in Sicily. The air is hot and dry and Ella and I hit the ground running as we arrive into Palermo, sucked into the nighttime vortex of Vucciria market for a song, dance and perhaps one too many negronis. 

Voooolaaaaareeeee. Our road trip starts here, but it’s no ordinary summer holiday.

This time, we’re in the land of pasta for more than just a sun tan. Our mission, other than to eat obscene amounts and variations of arancini, is to cook with as many grannies as possible. From Corfu to Cuba, Moscow to Madrid, I’ve been cooking with grandmothers, collating their time-perfected recipes and the life stories that have seasoned them for the Grand Dishes book, a project that has taken me all over the world to cook with grandmothers over the course of four years. 

We’ve come to a fair few of these grandmothers through friends of friends. The first is Fina – via our good friend Stefano. As usual, we have no idea what to expect but have been guaranteed a classic Sicilian dish.  

So excited are we for our granny hat-trick (we’ve got three nonnas booked in for this trip) that the night before meeting Fina, we get carried away with the negronis and Palermo’s crumbling gothic charm. One of us doesn’t make it home until 5am, the other doesn’t make it back to the hotel at all. 

 
 

Nonna Fina

 

The next day, we still show up to Nonna Fina’s modest home with time to spare, albeit a little bleary eyed. We’re by Mondello beach and thankfully, the breeze we feel getting out of the car gives us the breath of life we needed. 

Nonna Fina’s all hugs and hand gesticulations, knocking our hangovers out of us with her gusto for life. She knows what we were up to last night. She rolls her eyes, like our own grannies might. More gesticulations and we’re whirled into a frenzy of activity. Fina wildly chopping fennel between deheading sardines and stirring a rich, red sugo. Us trying to keep up with the Italian. 

“I’m ‘La Sugara’”, she says, telling us all her friends come to her for a tomato sauce that sings of summer. We’re making Pasta con Le Sarde – a typically Sicilian dish of bucatini in a sauce comprising sardines, fennel, pine nuts and raisins. “The raisins and the pine nuts came with the Arabs,” says Fina, explaining Sicily’s rich history.  She dances around the kitchen, taking the odd moment to chastise her husband for dipping his fingers in the sugo. No airs and graces here. We’re whipped into the action, arguments and all. 

At lunch, we sit with all the family, including Fina’s husband, niece and grandchildren. It’s a shouty affair but we’re so welcomed into the house that we don’t care. This sweet-savoury bucatini dish is exactly what we need and by our second helping, we’ve all but forgotten our throbbing temples. The formaggio povero (poor man’s parmesan) – essentially fried breadcrumbs – that’s sprinkled on top adds texture and depth of flavour. It’s also essential for soaking up the alcohol. 

 

Nonna Ciccina

 

Next is a drive to Licata, rural Sicily for Nonna Ciccina’s traditional new year’s eve Taiano. We travel five hours across the sun-burnt landscape to arrive into Licata’s old town the night before we meet Ciccina. We’ve learnt from our mistakes though and choose to stroll through the old town with a gelato, ignoring every bar we walk past. There isn’t a tourist in sight. Just old, moustached men in flat caps, kids cycling past trying to get our attention and young couples in their best outfit for the passeggiata . Once again, we feel the pure joy of travelling with purpose, finding ourselves in towns, homes and villages we might never see were it not for our granny mission. 

The next day we meet Ciccina – as idiosyncratic a nonna as you can get. She’s already wrapped a scarf around her head in the searing morning sun. We’re in her country home, cooking in the dappled shade of an out-house kitchen. She’s deftly rolling pasta as we ogle her skills. She’s been up since 5am rolling enough pasta for a mega tray of Taiano – a pasta bake usually  reserved for feasting days like New Year’s or Ferragosto. It’s a real process:

When I was younger, we had no such thing as this primi, secondi nonsense. We just put everything we had on the table and we’d feast. Taiano is one of my favourite dishes and I love it because I make it with all my heart for special occasions. Traditionally, we would make this specifically for New Year here in Sicily. Now when the family comes together, I’ll also make it on a Sunday. We would prepare this three or four days in advance of the big occasion because it takes time.”

First she prepares the pasta dough, returning to knead and roll hundreds of intricate individual pieces of strozzapretti before moving onto the many individual components that make up the layers of a traditional Sicilian, pasta al forno (oven baked pasta).She makes the rolling look simple but when I give it a go, my pasta breaks apart and flops off the rolling pin. Ciccina elbows me out of the way and gets on with it. I’m only slowing her down.

After five hours of preparation, countless stages and continual poking of the traditional wood fired oven from impatient Ciccina, the Taiano is ready. What we’re not counting on is the entire tray being dropped on the floor by her son-in-law just as he takes it out of the oven. The moment is paused and we all hang in suspense, our eyes turning to Ciccina. She is not a happy Nonna. Cue more gesticulations. We see the funny side but tensions in the family are at a high. Thankfully, we did prep a veggie Taiano for Ella, so that’s the recipe we’ve decided to include in the book. 

 

 

Nonna Nico

 

We round the week off back in Palermo, in a dream kitchen of blue patterned tiles, hanging herbs and shining jelly moulds. As we learn to prepare Nonna Nico’s favourite Sicilian dessert, she’s also intermittently checking on her husband setting the table (“he always does this – he didn’t wait for the dishwasher to finish before taking out the cutlery”), making dinner for the evening and texting the boiler man to come and fix a problem with the heating. It could be the ultimate scene of everyday domesticity, were it not being played out in a 16th century Sicilian palace by the Italian duchess of Palma. 

“Unfortunately, modern duchesses don’t have time to polish their nails,” shrugs Nicoletta while shoving a tray of rosemary-seasoned potatoes in the oven, brewing us a tea and ordering her husband – Duke Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi, adopted son of Italy’s most celebrated author, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa – to “just please wait for the dishwasher to finish its cycle.”

We’ve been invited into the palazzo of ‘the cooking duchess’ for a special culinary masterclass spiced with Sicilian history. We’re given a historical run down of the spice rack before attacking perhaps the biggest watermelon we’ve ever seen for our refreshing watermelon jelly dessert. 

Niccoletta calls each of us ‘piccola’, which instantly puts us at ease. Her spirit is every bit that of a true matriarch and her fierce command of the kitchen is enough to dispel any image of a puffed-up aristocrat lethargically lounging on a chaise longue. An Italian nonna’s need to feed is real – duchess or no duchess. 

“It has been said by my son and grandchildren that I’m the only Mamma that’s ready to cook at any time of the night or morning.  I love to host very much. I always love to cook and love when my son brings his friends and I’m ready to cook any time of the day or night. I’ve cooked a whole meal for him and his friends at 3 in the morning. He was one of the most popular kids in the American school because he would trade my beautiful food for all this horrible junk food like peanut butter jelly sandwiches. At a certain point, one of the other mothers stopped me and asked me for my meatball recipes. I said, “How do you know about my meatballs?”, to which she responded that all the children were eating my food. Of course he’d give the blonde girls with blue eyes two meatballs. Food is love, after all.”

 

The Grand Dishes book is released on 25 March.