La Cucina

WHEN EL­IZ­A­BETH MERED­ITH MOVES TO TUS­CANY AND TAKES COOK­ING LES­SONS FROM A LO­CAL WOMAN, HER AT­TEMPTS AT FRIEND­SHIP ARE MET WITH STONY SI­LENCE. BY ALEX WIL­SON

In the Moment - - Take a moment -

Carlo was meant to have told his mother what time I was com­ing, but when she opened the door of the Villa Conti, it ap­peared I had caught her un­awares.

“Buon Giorno, Sig­nora An­tonelli,” I said, o er­ing my hand, “El­iz­a­beth Mered­ith, I hope you are ex­pect­ing me?”

She was cer­tainly not what I was ex­pect­ing, dressed all in black and tall and an­gu­lar, un­like her rounded cheer­ful son, Carlo.

There was a mo­ment’s pause, but no wel­com­ing smile be­fore she ges­tured for me to fol­low her down a dark hall­way, where she melted into the shad­ows. Just as my eyes were grow­ing ac­cus­tomed to the gloom, she opened a door into a large kitchen. Bunches of sage, rose­mary and basil hung from hooks in the white­washed ceil­ing, and a cast iron pot sim­mered on the stove. A long, nar­row wooden ta­ble stood in the mid­dle of the ag­stone oor, and tall win­dows opened out onto a ter­race, where tubs of scar­let gera­ni­ums blazed and bougainvil­lea tum­bled down stone steps to the ter­races be­low.

I clapped my hands in child­ish de­light. “What a fab­u­lous kitchen! This is ex­actly what I would love at the Casa Mas­simo; at the mo­ment it’s just a pile of bricks,” I said, but Sig­nora An­tonelli merely in­clined her head, in­di­cat­ing for me to sit at the ta­ble be­fore mut­ter­ing “Scusi” and leav­ing the room. The cookery les­sons had been Carlo’s sug­ges­tion. Peter and I had spent hol­i­days in Tus­cany for years.

Our love a air with the coun­try was con­sum­mated when we stum­bled across the small ruin of a house in the hills near Barga. On an im­pulse we’d bought it, spend­ing the ex­pected in­her­i­tance from my mother. Our project was to ren­o­vate Casa Mas­simo, how­ever it needed a lot of work to make it hab­it­able. Carlo was a god­send, not only help­ing us nd builders who wouldn’t rip o two ex-pats who only spoke phrase­book Ital­ian, but also for be­ing a fount of knowl­edge on such mat­ters as when the tru e sea­son be­gan, and where to buy the best wine.

The build­ing work was ex­pen­sive and, as Peter kept re­mind­ing me, while we were still pay­ing the enor­mous fees for mother’s nurs­ing home, our fu­ture in­her­i­tance was dwin­dling rapidly.

“It’s not that I wish your mother would… you know,” he pulled a face, “but I doubt if she will even no­tice you’ve been gone next time you visit. I sup­pose that’s an ad­van­tage in some ways.”

One evening over a de­li­cious meal in

the lo­cal trat­to­ria, where the spe­cial­ity was roasted meat over an open re, I’d men­tioned to Carlo that I was keen to learn Ital­ian cook­ing.

“Real Ital­ian cook­ing, to im­press my friends back home.”

“My mother is best cook in Italy, she will teach you!” said Carlo. So here I was, alone in his mother’s kitchen, the only sound that of a y buzzing, trapped on a sheet of brown sticky pa­per hang­ing from the ceil­ing. Where had Sig­nora An­tonelli gone? Hear­ing a noise out­side, I looked down into the gar­den and was sur­prised to see her with Carlo. His head was bowed, and she was wav­ing her arms around in the air ges­tur­ing wildly. Were they hav­ing a quar­rel about me? As I stared down at them Carlo looked up, and I drew back em­bar­rassed. ‘Re­ally, this is ab­surd,’ I thought, ‘I’m not a child, and if she doesn’t want to teach me how to cook, she should tell me her­self.’ An un­ex­pected wave of home­sick­ness swept over me, and for the rst time I thought about my mother’s pale face at her bed­room win­dow as we drove away from the nurs­ing home. “She’ll set­tle when you’ve gone,” the nurse had said.

Carlo’s mother re-ap­peared hold­ing a bag of our. There was no ex­pla­na­tion of where she’d been, and no smile. Open­ing the our bag, she tipped some out onto the ta­ble, heap­ing it into a mound and mak­ing a hol­low in the cen­tre. Tak­ing an egg from a green glazed bowl, she cracked it into the hol­low.

“Pap­pardelle,” she said, and with small deft move­ments be­gan to fold the our into the egg be­fore ges­tur­ing I should copy her.

“Like this?” I asked. She shrugged as I pro­ceeded to make a sticky mess. “Sorry, I’m not very good with my hands,” I said, and un­ac­count­ably felt my eyes prick with tears. Silently she rolled up her sleeves and plunged her hands into the mix. Af­ter a few min­utes pound­ing and knead­ing, she pro­duced a smooth, golden ball of dough. When Sig­nora An­tonelli nished her knead­ing, her black dress was still pris­tine, but my blue sun­dress was streaked with our.

Stand­ing at the stove, the sig­nora stirred some­thing in a small pan, and soon the sharp smell of gar­lic and lemon per­me­ated the kitchen. I helped roll out the pasta be­fore cut­ting it into thick rib­bons. Stand­ing side by side, we watched it sink and then rise again in the boil­ing wa­ter. Tak­ing a large la­dle from a hook, she spooned some onto a white plate and la­dled a spoon­ful of the creamy, lemon sauce over it be­fore placed it in front of me. “Pap­pardelle al limone,” she pro­nounced. I smiled at her, “Bel­lis­simo,” I said, but she sat in stony-faced si­lence at the other end of the ta­ble while I ate.

“Per­haps she doesn’t un­der­stand English?” Peter sug­gested.

“She un­der­stands what I say al­right. I know she does.”

“Then maybe she just doesn’t like

Brits dar­ling. You can’t blame her, we are the in­vaders.”

“I am de­ter­mined to get her to speak, one way or an­other.”

“Well you usu­ally get your own way,” said Peter.

“That’s not true, but I do want to know how to make gnoc­chi. Celia and Ru­pert will be mad with jeal­ousy.”

Peter looked at me over the rim of his glasses. “That’s the spirit,” he said.

I ap­peared at the villa for my next les­son armed with a packet of short­bread.

“My mother’s recipe,” I lied, but she merely nod­ded po­litely.

Chop­ping the onion she’d handed me, I said, “You must be ter­ri­bly proud of

Carlo. I don’t have any chil­dren and my mother is…” I paused, “she does not re­mem­ber things any­more.”

Sig­nora An­tonelli was stand­ing with her back to me at the stove. I could hear some­thing spit­ting in the pan, and the smell of ba­con. She turned to look at me, a wooden spoon in her hand.

“Where mama?” she asked frown­ing.

“In Eng­land be­ing looked af­ter,” I replied brightly, “we hope Carlo will visit us there, maybe you too?”

“I not travel,” she an­nounced sti y, and turned back to the stove.

I felt a mild tri­umph at get­ting her to talk, but it was the only thing I got out of her all morn­ing. We made gnoc­chi that day, and af­ter we’d cooked and mashed the potato and added an egg and our, she stood next to me while I tried to copy her move­ments as she turned the paste into tiny cres­cents. I pressed my thumb down to make a ridge in the lit­tle shapes, how­ever I only man­aged to squash them. When the gnoc­chi were cooked, and she’d spooned tomato sauce over them, she placed a dish in front of me.

“Gnoc­chi con salsa di po­modora,” she pro­nounced.

“Won’t you join me, Sig­nora?” I asked, but she didn’t re­ply, and as usual we sat in si­lence while I ate.

All my at­tempts to make friends with Sig­nora An­tonelli were met with a cool, but po­lite for­mal­ity.

“It is di cult for my mother,” Carlo be­gan when I men­tioned her ret­i­cence. I sus­pected he was about to say more, but Peter in­ter­rupted us.

“What’s my wife up to Carlo?” he said, smil­ing. “She’s a ma­nip­u­la­tor, be care­ful.”

“What is ma­nip­u­la­tor?” Carlo looked puz­zled.

“Never mind,” I said crossly. “It’s noth­ing you need to know.”

The colours of the land­scape were chang­ing as au­tumn ap­proached. I loved the burnt si­enna and soft olive greens of the hills. It was still warm, and the air smelt of wood smoke and basil; but I was miss­ing the friends who had de­scended like larks when we’d rst ar­rived. The hol­i­day sea­son was over, and they had gone back to their cen­trally heated houses in Eng­land. My cookery les­sons were com­ing to an end too. I thought care­fully about what to give Sig­nora An­tonelli, and de­cided on a sil­ver photo frame I’d bought in Lucca.

We were to cook a rab­bit on our last les­son. Its bony car­cass lay on the ta­ble next to a pile of vel­vety brown mush­rooms. Out­side, some­one was burn­ing wood at the bot­tom of the gar­den, and plumes of smoke rose into the blue air. I sud­denly felt sad that I hadn’t been able to break through what­ever bar­rier there was be­tween

Sig­nora An­tonelli, and me.

“I shall miss this, miss you,” I blurted out, sur­pris­ing my­self. I meant it. For all her for­mal­ity, there was a still­ness and con­sis­tency about Sig­nora An­tonella that a ected me. She looked at me, and for the

“She opened it to show me a pho­to­graph of a young woman with

large, sad eyes.”

rst time I felt some­thing soften. Fum­bling in my bag, I handed her my gift. She opened it care­fully, smooth­ing out the wrap­ping pa­per in the same way I re­mem­bered my mother do­ing when I was a child. “Bel­lis­simo,” she said, with a faint smile. “Per­haps you can put a photo of Carlo in it,” I said, but she turned to open a drawer in the dresser and took out a red leather al­bum with a faded cover. She opened it and ten­derly lifted up the sheet of thin tis­sue to show me a pho­to­graph of a young woman with large, sad eyes. “Mama,” she said.

“Your mother? She’s beau­ti­ful. Carlo has her eyes, and your fa­ther, do you have a photo of him?”

She shut the al­bum abruptly and turned away. ‘I have said some­thing wrong,’ I thought, ‘oh what a bum­bler I am.’ Peter was al­ways telling me how tact­less I was.

“My fa­ther no good,” Sig­nora An­tonelli said, nally. “He,” she made a scut­tling move­ment with her hands across the ta­ble. “Left?” I ven­tured.

She nod­ded. “When I am baby, he in Scot­land. He not al­lowed come to Italy.”

“Oh,” I said star­tled, “you mean he was a pris­oner of war? I am so sorry.” Im­ages of thin, dark men, their faces pressed against wire fences, ashed across my mind. “Did he get back safely?”

“No, never. He meet English lady. My mother,” she placed one hand on her heart. “Bro­ken. She never for­get. I miss you, un­der­stand? Mi manca il suo.”

She sat down next to me and closed her eyes as though in prayer. Through the win­dow, I watched smoke evap­o­rat­ing into the air.

“I miss my mother too,” I blurted out. “She is alive but it feels as though she is dead.”

I hadn’t been able to ad­mit it to my­self but I had lost her. She had gone into a realm where I had no place, where for all I knew she had no mem­o­ries; a place where time and events were stripped of mean­ing and she couldn’t even re­mem­ber her only daugh­ter.

Sig­nora An­tonelli looked at me and pat­ted my hand lightly. We sat in si­lence for some time, watch­ing the sky darken un­til the rst chill, au­tumn wind made us shiver, and she got up to close the win­dow.

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