Week three, and the last, of my trip to Italy with Joseph. Things are winding down and the boy persists in coping admirably with the high levels of stimulation and the extraordinary levels of cheek-pinching (the dreaded ganascino). The trip was engineered as a chance for him to spend some time with his grandmother and experience his other home country, at an age when he could form a lasting memory of both, so only time will tell whether it was a complete success. For mum we know the time has been precious, so that's a job well done.
And Venice was glorious. Although quite possibly the most tired cliche in Italy is the one that goes "Venice is beautiful, but I wouldn't want to live there", on the evidence of a one-night stay Joseph would strongly beg to differ. We were unstoppable. We saw the sights and we smelt the smells. We crossed the bridges and walked a walked and walked. We jumped on and off boats (except the gondolas. 80 euros? you've got to be kidding me). We had the bizarre, moment-frozen-in-time experience of boarding the Amerigo Vespucci, a magnificent school ship that usually operates out of Livorno but that Joseph knew from its visit to New Zealand a couple of years ago. And we even caught a glimpse of the extraordinary work that goes along and underneath the waterline to keep the city afloat. As a local work in progress sign eloquently put it, 'because of its extremely delicate environmental and urban fabric, Venice requires assiduous, unrelenting care.'
It seems to me that you could say the same of the work that goes into maintaining a family's fabric of memory, that same fabric that we're trying so earnestly to weave Joseph into. It pains me a great deal that he'll never meet my father, talking about him is all I've got. But I have to do it, and in a way that makes sense to a little boy. I know the stakes quite well: for what were probably entirely justified reasons, my father never spoke to me about his own, who died over fifty years ago, and that's a connection that is forever severed. A generation's silence is all it takes.
I touched in my two previous posts on the role of food and objects, and a lot more could be said of rituals and symbols and language, but of course memory travels primarily via people. That's why every family or group, it seems to me, needs at least one dedicated custodian of the past, somebody who keeps track and helps makes sense of those other things, the raw materials of memory, as it were.
On my paternal side, unfortunately, there is no such person. I could name a few of the people in the old photographs and reconstruct that half of the family tree going back a few generations by studying the appropriate documents, helped by the fact that many of those ancestors lived in a big city, but there is no longer a living connection there, no meaningful sense of family holding those documentary traces together.
On my mother's side we're considerably more fortunate. There was my grandfather, the local tailor, of whom they used to say that if the land register had been destroyed in a fire, he would be able to recreate it from memory without breaking a sweat; there was my cousin Mario, last of the storytellers and amateur historian with a passion for the local fables and the monsters evoked to scare the children into not exploring the wells or straying from home at nigh time.
And now we have his sister Maria, his younger brother Bruno and my mother, plus others in less of a full-time capacity. They're not only the people who can tell you who's related to you and how - last week Bruno stopped a passing tractor just so he could introduce me to the driver, who happened to be the grandson of one of my grandmother's sisters - but also, and more importantly, the ones who know how things used to work and who bother to retell the family stories, allowing us to feel that there is a debt of affection that rests on something older than each of us. Which helps I think to explain why, while there are many aspects of the culture that I have struggled to comprehend since moving to New Zealand, the concept of whanau isn't one of them.
Speaking of debts, I promised to update you on my attempt to master the art of pane ferrarese, the miracle bread that keeps on giving by turning over time into breadsticks, so let it be my parting gift. It is fitting, too, that I should return to the food, because it is around the table that those family memories are more easily shared: if you want a captive audience for the fifteenth retelling of a particular yarn, you had better set the table first, and set it well. On to the recipe, then.
First of all, by way of enticement: I met an old Italian gentleman in Hastings who hails from Veneto and in his youth used to travel to Ferrara to swap his wine with bread - that's how good the stuff is. And secondly, a disclaimer: I have been far from successful thus far. Indeed, I have it on good authority that the local water is a key ingredient to this bread, so it is entirely possible that it is a product of the land, just like the famously inimitable Parmigiano Reggiano. But I'm not giving up quite yet, and neither should you.
Ingredients for four loaves, or "ciope"
500 grams high grade flour. Ideally you'd want the double zero type, an extremely fine grind, but it's hard to come by outside of Italy.
50 ml extra virgin olive oil. The recipe actually calls for 50 grams of lard, but it's okay to make the switch for the sake of our vegetarian and vegan friends.
Salt to taste, let's say a teaspoon and a half.
20 grams of fresh yeast.
150 ml of water.
The preparation calls for an inordinate amount of kneading, which is possibly where my first attempt fell short - I simply didn't have the time. So set the breadmaker to its heaviest workload or set aside twenty or so minutes of patient manual work, until the dough is nice and soft and elastic. My mother tells me they used to do this on Sunday nights, leave the dough to rise overnight then shape to the loaves in the morning before taking them to the baker's to cook. But a couple of hours of rest into a dark and dry place ought to suffice. Once the dough has risen, split it into 8 portions of equal size. Each of them needs to be flattened into a long, thin strip, which then needs to be worked starting at the top of the short side using the palm of the hand, in short back-and-forth motions so as to roll it at each end and at the same time flatten it in the middle. There are some really helpful pictures on this here forum, scrolling down to the middle of the page. Except it's far easier to create two halves separately from two separate strips rather than using the same strip, then what you do is pinch the halves in the middle instead of doing the flippy thing shown. Bearing in mind that what you want to achieve post cooking (20-25 minutes on a hot oven at 220 degrees Celsius) is this:
My mother enjoyed giving me the demonstration; the bossing me around part, sure, plus she hadn't tried her hand at it for close to seventy years, so it was a trip back in time in and of itself. As it turns out, it's like riding a bicycle - it all came back to her. I'm quite determined to be that person some day.