I'm posting a little ahead of schedule this time since today I'm off to Italy with my oldest son, Joseph, who turned seven last week. He has been there before but this is the trip that I have some expectation he'll remember, so we'll try to do the odd extra-special memorable thing - two days in Venice ought to cover that - and get him acquainted and re-acquainted with the people and the places that my family and I cherish the most. My mother's age and ill health lend some urgency to these endeavours, and we take that seriously, but of course we are also mindful that the young lad needs a plan of fun.
As luck would have it, much of my family's memory travels by means of food, and Joseph is not going to mind that one bit. I promise you it has got nothing to do with Marcel Proust and everything to do with the surname on my maternal grandmother's side: Magnoni, or 'big eaters'. My grandma (hereinafter nonna) married a Farina (or 'flour' equivalent to the Anglo-Saxon name Miller), and that took care of the need for ingredients.
Here she is, my nonna, at age 16.
It was her first ever photo and there wouldn't be another for close to fifty years. Of her own mother, who died in 1911 aged 39, no picture was ever taken, which of course was not at all unusual in those days. But it does put the notion of how you remember your ancestors in perspective. Nonna was barely literate, worked as a seamstress of her life, and left none of those documentary traces that nowadays we demand of ourselves and society and decorum demand of us - my partner and I have taken roughly one squillion photos of Joseph alone, for instance. But she was a good person, a socialist back when it meant something, generous, a great cook, loved her whanau fiercely.
And boy, did she not travel. Close to her entire life was spent on this rectangle of land, measuring scarcely 15 miles across. Born in Pieve di Coriano, a long time resident of Villa Poma, died in Quistello. This was her patch.
Armed with Google Earth and some family knowledge, or better still direct contact with the relevant old lady, you too can measure your Grandmother Range, and compare it to your own. The results may or may not surprise you. In the case of nonna, apart from the odd visit to her daughter's family in Milan (that's us) and a trip to Padua to thank Saint Anthony for helping her with a fibroma, the above little patch of the Po Valley, at the crossroads of Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia, the cradle of Parmigiano Reggiano, was her whole world.
I don't know how to explain that to Joseph, who at seven has already touched down on four continents and is reserving the option of one day becoming an astronaut. But I can tell him about the food, and even cook him one or two things, in a clumsy but well-meaning attempt to keep that memory and those connections alive. So, pausing only to acknowledge the formidable Islander over at Public Address, with whom I had a lovely email conversation on the topic of food and grandmothers just last week, here is one of nonna's favourite recipes, and mine. It's for mericonda, breadcrumbs and Parmigiano dumplings in a beef and chicken stock. Or, as my recently converted friend Giacomo calls it, 'boiled dough'. (Cheeky bugger.)
For the stock: half a chicken, 400g of chuck steak - or the piece that in Italian is referred to as the priest's hat, some butchers will know where to cut that - one clove of garlic, one onion, a celery stick, a carrot. Dump everything in when the water is still cold, bring to the boil then let simmer for three to four hours.
For the dumplings: two cups of breadcrumbs, one cup of grated Parmigiano Reggiano (don't even think of buying the fraudolent 'parmesan', you'd make an entirely different dish I'm afraid; Grana Padano will do in a pinch), three eggs. When the stock is ready, simply mix the dumplings ingredients together into a nice moist big lump. If it seems too dry and hard, mix in a tablespoon or two of the stock.
Back to the stock pot: salt to taste, remove the meat, chuck the veges in the nearest compost bin, bring back to the boil and use a two handed potato masher or ricer with big round holes to press the lump into little worms about 3-4 cm long, dumping them directly into the pot.
through the ricer
The ricers made in New Zealand are a bit too flimsy for the job, I find, so it may be safer to use a masher. It's essential that the holes are big, though, at least 2.5 mm but preferably 3 or 4. The dumplings cook in a couple of minutes.
The finished product
After the mericonda you serve the boiled meat ("il bollito"), with some sort of sauce or gravy and potatoes sliced and cooked in oil, with garlic and parsley. The wine that goes with this meal is a red Lambrusco, but I understand that most people abroad - not to mention in Italy - turn down their noses at the idea of a sparkling red. And a novelty wine it may be, but it is a key part of the experience so I'm going to gently but firmly demand that you use it. It is my memory, after all, although I would love nothing more than hearing about and trying out the family or ancestral recipes that others might have to offer.
If the concept of boiled dough fails to appeal, I have a couple of testimonials. Here's Joseph:
and here's young Lucia. The Magnoni genes are strong in this one.
To me a trip home means also reconnecting with the source of these memory foods, and every time I go I try to learn to make one or two of the old dishes. This time mum has promised to teach me how to bake pane ferrarese, a type of bread that defies the laws of physics by keeping for weeks in a steady state of deliciousness - I'll report back on that. But now the lad and I are better be off.
Cross-posted at Public Address, with thanks to Russell Brown.