Sweet, sweet memories are made of this

June 2014

Perhaps thirty years ago during one of the many summers in this house in Camigliano where I am now, I was supposed to be working on a book, and the family had gone to the beach or somewhere, leaving me on my own for the day so I could get on with it. By about noon I was desperate for a diversion (is there anything more solitudinous than trying to write something that requires thought and care?), so I decided I would try to make pasta, something I’d never done before; that is pasta fatta in casa, sheets of which can be cut up to make lasagna or tagliatelle, or folded into parcels with various names.

Elizabeth David’s Italian Food was the source of all such knowledge at that time (still full of  excellent recipes and information, and  beautifully written), before the River Cafe Cookbook, Jamie, and Carluccio, before indeed every cook of note has to pontificate on television about the origins of pesto in Liguria or how to stuff a Sicilian sardine. Elizabeth David has a section on Pasta Asciutta with an interesting introduction (devoted chiefly to the Futurist Marinetti’s attempt to abolish pasta as ‘an obsolete food: it is heavy, brutalising and gross; its nutritive qualities are deceptive; it induces scepticism, sloth, and pessimism.’) She says: ‘To make pasta at home it is essential to have either a very large pastry board … or a marble-topped table.’ It may have been this comment that inspired me to embark on the endeavour, having become the proud owner of such a table (bought for a few shillings: marble was cheaper than wood in those days, and people were throwing it out in favour of formica). ‘Pour the flour in a mound on the board, make a well in the middle and break in the 2 eggs… Fold the flour over the eggs and proceed to knead with your hands until the eggs and flour are amalgamated…’

At this point something very strange happened in my psyche. I was overcome by a sense of ecstatic excitement which welled-up inside me, so intense and overwhelming that I felt I might pass out. How long did this last? I haven’t a clue; perhaps just a couple of minutes. Its passing was slow, but complete and a little desolating.

What was this about? Some wholly buried memory from infancy, perhaps helping my mother cook or playing with flour and water paste? There were no further memories or incidents attached to it; this wasn’t like Proust eating his madeleine, becoming flooded with the remembrance of things past.

The pasta, when we tried to eat it in the evening, was completely revolting, like india-rubber. I have tried again a few times since, but scarcely with better results; and never again, alas, have I felt on the brink of drowning in a surge of unspecified ecstasy. Which brings me to the real point of this effusion. What unusual memories have I (or you) stored away from Learn Italy holidays? English seems peculiarly deficient in words for different sorts of memory. I’d like to specify one particular kind: the memory of recognition. When I hear the sound of waves on a beach, or the call of the cuckoo, I think, oh yes, that’s what it’s like, here I am again hearing these familiar but not for me everyday noises − without bringing any particular experience to mind. This recognition makes me mindful of layer upon layer of memory. There are at least two things that will always make me recall Learn Italy trips of the last dozen years. One is the rhythm of a coach driving over a bridge, or a section of elevated motorway − pe-dum… pe-dum… pe-dum… And the other is the smell of warm patisserie, those sweet brioches and cakes (that actually I don’t much like for breakfast), wafting up to me at about six in the morning, in bed somewhere on the upper floors of a hotel, waking to this heavenly aroma.