In the early sixties, Kira Petrovskaya talked about the time she'd asked an aged bubushka how it was that she made such memorably excellent piroshki. "Well," the old lady replied, after a long pause for thought, "first of all I wash my hands...and then.....well, then, I tie a clean kerchief around my head." This was followed by another and longer pause..."And, then?" she was prompted. "Ah, yes. And then....then, I make sure to put on a very clean apron, and tie it tightly." At which point, the explanation required another prompt, and the babushka folded her hands together, and with a smile of apple-cheeked sweetness, concluded with an understated flourish 'And then...well, then, I cook the piroshki!". Petrovskaya was entirely convinced by the innocence of the delivery that she was in the presence of a natural cook, who couldn't conceive that any recipe could require explanation...someone for whom cooking was, after all, something that just happened when one was in the kitchen. Never being entirely persuaded by apple-cheeked innocence, however, I have my own view of what was what was going on here, and take a more cynical view of the babushka's inability to communicate...
We were in Belforte for the weekend, for a birthday. For a starter at dinner on Friday, we were served a dish of wonderfully succulent courgettes, gently sautéed to a melting softness, the flavour rich, but with an undertone of tanginess. "How have you done these?" I asked, and got a vague response, that it was an adaptation over many years of something that had originally come from Hazan. "Yes, but what's the recipe?" I persisted. To be met with an explanation that it was necessary first to cut up and salt the courgettes...which led to a discussion of whether or not this was actually necessary, since I never bother with this step, any more "Ah, but unless they're absolutely garden fresh, you have to..." which I think is nonsense, since no water ever comes out of the things, I find, even if I do salt them and leave them to sit for an hour, and so it's a complete waste of time. And by this stage we were on the second glass of grappa - the local production of which in Belforte is absolutely lethal, and is shortly followed by collapse of stout parties - and so that was the end of that particular conversation.
"You never actually explained how you cooked the courgettes," I reminded her, over coffee, the next morning. "Ah.....didn't I?" And the evasive tone might have existed only in my imagination. "Yes, we did that bit..." I said, as a repetition of cutting and salting your courgettes seemed about to start. And this time we got as far as heating olive oil in a sauté pan...."But, it must only be very good oil, and Olive oil, not sunflower, or peanut, or any of those other things they suggest in recipes...".
And then the phone rang. And although there might not actually have been an element of 'saved by the bell' about it all, it was with a raised eyebrow that the TD and I exchanged a glance across the kitchen table, as the explanation trailed off in the direction of the trilling machine.
"About those courgettes," I tried again, sometime later, over a rising pile of chopped carrots and leeks, as a couple of lamb shoulders were being prepped for lunch (Belforte lamb is melt-in-the-mouth wonderful!). "Hmmm?" Difficult to concentrate on lamb and a recipe explanation all at the same time, of course, but slowly, step by painful step (of which there are only about three, anyway) we finally managed to get there. Finally. Almost twelve hours after having first posed the question. Talk about pulling teeth!
And, I would pass it on here, so we can all enjoy the perfection of the end result....but I can hear the phone ringing....and then I have to wash my hands ....so...perhaps another time! (Perhaps)
Tagliatelle 'fata in casa', with a mussel and cream sauce.
Scaloppine alla milanese, with a cheese and prosciutto stuffing; fagiolini, with tomato and onion.
Apricot Cream 'Crimean style'.