Chronicles of the Pantry
Nonno Tomasso & Nonna Norina in January 1962
- chapter one -
Geography, climate, tradition and history have shaped and determined the cuisine of Italy since the beginning of time. Perhaps for these reasons the country has the richest and most varied cuisine in the world. In fact, every region, every district, every city and even every family have a different take of a dish made with similar ingredients. As it is in our family in Parma, where my father came from.
Italians have always considered food and the moment of sitting down for a meal shared with family, and occasionally with friends, as a daily ritual. For our Nonne (le nostre Nonne in Italian) and for the most Italian homemakers, preparing a daily nutritious and tasty meal was a given.Our Nonna Norina learned from an early age how to make pasta, and since she was from Parma (a traditional rezdora or homemaker in the local dialect) it was de rigeur an egg pasta, made with the freshest eggs bought in the countryside where roaming (free range!) chickens fed with yellow corn, laid out eggs that had an intense yellow orange yolk. Every day in mid-morning, Nonna would effortlessly make 2 or 3 incredible thin oval sheets of golden egg pasta in no time at all. She would then cut them into whatever shape she fancied, for the menu of the day. It could be Tagliatelle or Mafaldi for a meat sauce, or a short grated pasta for beef and capon consommé. For special occasions or for high religious holidays, it had to be egg pasta stuffed with the traditional filling prepared the day before.
In the spring the delicious inviting aroma of home cooking would waft through the large open windows and the door opening to the veranda and front courtyard, reaching the wrought iron gate. Adults and children returning home would already savour the aroma of freshly prepared food at the gate. In the dining room all was already set for the gathered family meal: the long table was covered with the checkered cotton table cloth, the plates, glasses, cutlery, and the clean napkins.
- chapter two -
At the head of the table sat Nonno Tommaso. He liked to have a bottle of wine and mineral water in front of him. During the brief prayer of thanks, the freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano melting on the hot pasta plate would fill our nostrils with its inviting, delectable aroma, incredibly enticing to our appetite.
Nonno Tommaso produced top quality Parmigiano Reggiano in the Parma region of Emilia Romagna. He would keep a big black form of the cheese in the cellar, checking on it, tending to it and turning it once a week. We are specifying 'black' because at that time, the producers would cover the rind of the aged form of cheese with a black natural substance, a practice which is no longer followed.
Sometimes Zio Tonino and his family would eat with us. They lived upstairs, in a large apartment occupying the entire upper floor of the villa. Sitting opposite Zio Tonino we would look, in fascination, at the dexterity of his hands while he was peeling and cutting his unrefrigerated, room temperature fresh fruits and eating a great quantity of them at every meal. On important religious holidays, Nonna Norina would cover the table with her damasked white table cloth that she called "Tavaglia di Fiandre". It was a table cloth from the trousseau, hence, it had her hand embroidered initials on one corner and on each of the unusually large napkins.
The pasta portions were small and they were called "Il Primo", followed by "Il Secondo", rich in proteins and vegetables from the garden. Then fresh fruit would follow, but on Sundays we would also have a serving of apricot or peach or prune of Modena crostata, a sweet pastry. The Sunday meal would end with a platter of cheese on which a wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano would sit as king. Adults would linger at the table, sipping espresso and aniseed liqueur, whilst the children would hop outside to play in the courtyard.
A large fig tree in the backyard would yield sweet fruits, gathered twice in the season. Zia Altea would gather the fruits, but we would stay away from it because of the bees that liked to buzz around it on lazy, late summer days.
"Mari e Monti" was the diction for the summer vacations, so there we went, first to the sea and then to the mountains. One summer, when I was 1 year and 3 months old and my brother was 3, we started the preparation for the journey to the sea. Zia Altea, who had 2 older daughters, started to say that it would be healthy for the children's hair to have a crew cut before going the the sea. She persuaded my Mom to proceed with the operation. So she called the barber who duly came the same day, set us on a high chair in the backyard and to our dismay and tears reduced us to 2 little army recruits. Fortunately, at the sea, we quickly forgot the experience and played, blissful and happy, on the warm beach, our ideal playground as children in the summer.
I still have a picture of me as a baby happily waddling on the beach, with a little straw hat, and another one standing on a table with Nonna Norina holding me. Also my brother, in a Frank Sinatra hat, playing at the edge of the water with a toy boat.
- chapter three -
Nonna Caterina on my mother's side had a harder but more interesting life than Nonna Norina. She was born and grew up in Mune Grande, Istria (the same homeland as celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich), a region contested by Italy, Austria, former Yugoslavia and, after the latter dissolved, Croatia. As a consequence, after each conflict, this piece of land would pass from one to another contender, like playing ball between teams of players.
My great-grandfather's name was Giovanni, but everyone called him Johann, maybe because he was a staunch monarchist and a great admirer of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef. However, life was hard in that corner of the empire and America beckoned as a Promised Land. Thus, before the outbreak of the First World War, he decided to emigrate to the USA. He had left behind his wife and two children with the intention of sending for them once he established himself in the new land. But events or fate worked against his plans.
During his absence, his wife died, leaving behind little Caterina (my Nonna) and her brother Giovanni. The house was locked up and the two children went to live with their maternal grandmother (Nonna Caretova whose given name no one can remember).
Johann, now widowed, wanted to bring his children to the USA as soon as he could. Hence, he returned home with the plan to go back with them to the United States. But this was not to be. Dark clouds were quickly gathering over Europe and in no time, just a few months after his return, the first World War erupted. In fact, what was envisaged as a small localized war to punish Serbia for the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sofia, engulfed one by one almost all the European states and their allies.
Since Johann was not yet an American citizen, he was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army and sent to Galicia on the Eastern Front. While in action, he was captured and taken prisoner by the Russians. After three years of captivity in Siberia, he set on his journey home together with a Russian count. Russia was a chaotic state at that time, still gripped by internal wars between the White Tsarist and Red Bolshevik armies. The two men travelled sometimes by foot, and sometimes by train in crowded cattle wagons decorated with huge red stars. Only after a few months could they reach the West. While his aristocratic companion continued his journey towards France where he already had some relatives, Johann finally reached his own home.
- chapter four -
War had brought about radical changes to the region. New borders were redrawn and new states created. Like so many veterans returning home from captivity, Johann could not adapt to this new world and to the new political order. He was disillusioned and bitter, even more so because of the collapse of his beloved Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Johann was by nature a restless man and because of his opposition to Fascism during the dictatorship of Mussolini, he was sent to a swampy area in South Italy designated for political prisoners. After his release, he left Italy, and settled in Czechoslovakia with his cousin where they established a business trading wine and vinegar.
Johann never remarried. Years later, after Hitler's armies invaded Czechoslovakia and the SS killed most of his cousin's family (only one female survived because she was a nun in a convent), he somehow returned home to Italy with only a trunk full of books and some personal belongings. He was sick and old but still a man with a presence. My mother remembers him as a stern, tall figure with fine features and a commanding voice. He had a long moustache slightly curved at each end, the look of a typical Prussian officer one sees in 1917 illustrations. The small children were a bit afraid of him. He would cough, lying on a long comfortable bench behind the huge iron stove that would always burn wood in the winter, warming the house.
Although he was not an affectionate or particularly caring father, Nonna Caterina, his daughter, lovingly took care of him and attended to his every need. For example, once he expressed the desire for some fresh sheep ricotta that was hard to get. The shepherd would occasionally bring it down from the pastures and Nonna Caterina went out of her way to get it for him. He would sometimes discuss his life experiences with his son-in-law and the events that he had witnessed in Russia. He would warn him about the Bolsheviks and their ideas of Communist government in power. He maintained that they were foolish idealists or brutal oppressors, pitiless killers without respect for human life.
He died peacefully before Tito's Communist partisans arrived in the region, disrupting the peaceful life of the local populations. Thankfully, he did not live to see Hitler's SS units torching their home and taking his son-in-law (my Nonno, also named Giovanni, and husband of Nonna Caterina) to Germany, and subsequently to Dachau, where he perished leaving my Nonna Caterina a widow with six young children to feed.
- chapter 5 -
In the recollection of her earliest childhood, my Mother (daughter of Nonna Caterina), does not connect the beginning of the Second World War with September 1939, when Nazi Germany opened its aggression against Poland. Somehow she connects it to the day she heard the intermittent TA-TA-TA sound of a machine gun fired from a nearby pine grove against a Carabiniere walking unaware of the mortal threat. That sound marked the arrival to the region of Tito’s partisans and all of the subsequent ills that befell on the rural community. From that day on, a prevailing sense of anxiety and fear permeated everything. On some rare occasions my Mother would open up and recount swatches of the terrible events experienced in those dark days of the war.
Nonna Caterina tried to make life normal with her daily bread making in the massive oven that took up most of the space in the open farm kitchen. My Mother would fondly remember the yearly piglet that would be butchered and every single part used and savoured, the leg to cure and age as a prosciutto, the feet or zampini to boil and eat with flavoured sauces, and even the budello which the children would fill with water, tie up, and play with, like balloons. My Grandfather Giovanni, Nonna Caterina’s husband, who made coal from the forests on the farm, would fill up his cart and bring it by horse to be traded at the local market for supplies like flour, and rarely, sugar. Potatoes were a daily staple (to make gnocchi for example) but eaten so regularly that to this day are not a favourite food of my Mother.
My Mother dimly recalls the morning her Father, my Grandfather Giovanni, was taken away. He was eating his breakfast with deliberate calm when the German soldiers broke into their home, bayonets at the ready, grabbing him and pushing him out of the house. The family never saw him again. Years later, after the war, they would learn from the Red Cross that he perished months before the American troops liberated the concentration camp, the “death camp”, Dachau. He had been a bersagliere in the Italian army, but after the German capture was working as a forced labourer in Munich and as as freedom fighter was betrayed by a fellow worker and then sent to his death for espionage.
Other memories of events come back during conversations we would have of those days. My Mother can vividly recall a loud explosion and see in her mind’s eye her older brother reclined on the house steps, a small round hole on the side of his body, dark blood trickling from it. Or the tragic tale of a boy in her kindergarten class who used to tease her as they waited in line for their daily spoon of cod liver oil and cube of bread. One day the boy and his friends found a small red cylinder with a little tongue attached to it. The boy pulled the tongue and my Mother can still remember with horror and pity his screaming and crying, running, one arm outstretched with a hand dangling by a piece of skin.
Then, there came the day that changed Nonna Caterina’s life and that of her children. That morning the Wehrmacht arrived, barging in with their extended bayonets on their guns, barking out shouts of “AUS ! AUS ! AUS !" Thus they drove Nonna Caterina and her children out of their home. Since the house was next to the main road that gradually ascended to a hilly area and led to the train station, she set out in that direction. There were other frightened women and children and old people going the same way. Once Nonna Caterina reached the spot from where she could see the whole valley, she stopped and looked back. Holding my Mother by the hand, she stood there wiping tears from her eyes, until she saw her own home going up in flames. Then she turned and started walking slowly with my Mother and her other children toward an uncertain and unknown future.
Nonno Giovanni (back center)