JOANNA'S FOOD: family cooking, from scratch, every day

Friday, April 13, 2007

The secret of cooking is the release of fragrance ...

"The secret of cooking is the release of fragrance and the art of imparting it. Fragrance: the bay laurel, Laurus nobilis, a sacred tree, how brightly, how fiercely it burns. Gather its dark-leaved branches in summer if you can. Sweet the influence of rosemary, its ungainly shrubby stems bursting with pale lilac flowers. Pungent the mint trodden underfoot on the way to the orchard. Peppery and sweet the scent of wild marjoram, origano, self-drying in July on droughty limestone hillsides; lemon-scented the clumps of wild savory, poor man's pepper, producing its minute snapdragon flowers in August, picked by quarrymen on their way down from the quarry. Irresistible the bunches of herbs sold in the market place by an old man who bothers to gather them, shrubby sprigs of thyme nibbled by hares in high pastures and green-leaved sage, and clary. Holy the Byzantine perfume of coriander leaves and seeds, recalling the smell of incense burning in a Greek chapel perched on the spine of a bare mountain. Passer-by, grasp the invitation proffered by fennel flowers and seeds on brittle stalks leaning out from the hillside. Savour the strange sweet taste of juniper berries, blue-black, picked in September on a chalk down where nothing much else will grow. Wander through the maquis in spring when shrubby sages, thyme, rosemary, cistus, lentisk and myrtle are in flower. Inhale the fragrance of the wilderness.

"I would like to transport you to the house of Maurin Bacciagulupo, the guardian of the temple of Diana at Luni. In front of his door on the plain of Luni stands the skeleton of the Roman temple. Maurin's threshing floor is divided from it only by the twisted branches of an immeasurably old vine. Looking west you see the great extent of Tyrrhenian Sea at a distance and the long line of hills which terminates in the promontory, the Punta Bianca. Looking eastwards, are the high Apuanian mountains, in springtime still capped with snow, behind which barrier lurk the mysterious backlands of the Lunigiana. On the lower slopes the mountain villages adhere to their mountain background like lumps of coral.

"Maurin used to keep seven bulls. He was a bachelor as befits the guardian of this temple. In his house was a spacious kitchen with red brick floor, the high ceiling made of beams, whitewashed. There was a big hearth, a bottle gas stove, a table, chairs, a settle. Behind the settle was an array of copper and aluminium pans suspended from a wooden framework on the wall. At the window was a stone sink, the drinking water kept in a large terracotta Tuscan bowl with a glaze of green marbling inside. The water was drawn from the well outside. The cheese was kept in the kitchen drawer out of the way of the cats, and the bread in the bread chest. The cantina across the passage was well stocked with wine, both white and red.

"This man had always lived on the farm within sight of the sea and in touch with the sea breeze. The house was exposed to the moon's rise and the sun's set. He had the lilting speech of the Genoese. He had reduced his diet to a very few things because he refused to touch anything that was not genuine. This eliminated bread baked in an electric oven, industrially confected sausages and salami, cheese which had been artifically matured, wine which had been tampered with.

"He prepared the meal with deliberate movements and a certain solemnity. The pasta was cooked in an enormous aluminium cauldron in a great quantity of boiling water, salted of course with sea salt. When it was al dente he strained it through an impressive colander at the sink, and then placing an ample white china bowl on the kitchen table, at which we were already sipping his delicious white wine, he poured in the pasta, then the sauce, and with great deliberation, turned the spaghetti about with two forks to distribute the sauce. The fragrance of this sauce, whether it was a pesto or made of fresh tomatoes slowly simmered with garlic and herbs, was not only communicated to the pasta but to his guests. Beato te! Maurin."

This is taken from Honey from a Weed, an extraordinary book I am reading at the moment, by Patience Gray. It was published in 1986, and describes her life and the food she cooked and ate in various Mediterranean locations from the early 1960s. I was originally going to give you only the first paragraph, but this passage is so entirely whole, so closely argued, that I wanted to share the whole chapter with you. Food for thought, and of the highest quality. No wonder it's never been out of print.

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