my italian housekeeper

The story of my Italian Housekeeper.

When I worked in Italy, years ago, we rented an enormous house on the Amalfi Coast, very close to Amalfi, right on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Mediterannian.  It had six terraces, with heavy marble tables on each one and a pool right on the edge of the cliff.  I was working for a film family and managed their lives, their houses, their children, families, their travel and the book. It was a short term job that flows through my memory like a river.  I had just quit my job as a full time classroom teacher and was weary right to my bones. When I lived in Italy, I crossed the metaphorical river and began to live IN my life instead of battling to pay for another one. This job developed into being  a directors PA but at this point I spent more time walking the hills and beaches with the children and doing homework on the terraces, strolling through the markets and eating, than I did poring over scripts. I wriggled into this interlude in that glorious sparkling late summer Italian sunshine.

In this big house I had an Italian Housekeeper who came in daily and put me and the house to rights. She  was  a very sexy, very energetic Italian beauty.  She spoke no English and I spoke no Italian.   I tried to speak Italian with a NZ accent  because she absolutely refused to have anything to do with the English language.  Her scorn was gorgeous. Every morning she would call to me loudly as she entered the house. My name was pronounced the Italian way Chicheelia (Cecilia), and rolled around on her laughing tongue with ease. She was either laughing or in a fury. At the beginning I was terrified of her.

She held the keys to the linen cupboard which I coveted, the linen not the keys. I love fresh white linen. She would dole monogrammed sheets out to me like treasures with stern looks. Slowly we found out about each others families and children.  We discovered that we both loved the sea, blank sheets of paper, (which we both scribbled all over trying to communicate) wine and food and sparkles. She always wore the most startling jewellery. And I remember one particularly entertaining morning when she told me why she had left her husband. He had been a very naughty boy indeed! All this with no words.

I tried to use my English-Italian dictionary and she would swat at it with scorn. Soon we would be shouting with laughter, swapping stories in mime!  In desperation she tried to teach me enough Italian to get by and would smile like a Mama when I got the sounds right. She made me write my grocery lists in Italian and  would send me off into the piazza with a big bag to practise.

She was appalled at my bangers and mash cooking mentality, though in my defense the sausages were amazing there. They had tiny deli/butchers  hidden in teensy wee corners of the piazza  with mouth-watering sausages, in great circular links.  I held my hands apart to show him how much I wanted – (‘this much, grazie‘).  The butcher was a great big Italian fellow who taught me the words to order my favorites, and laughed with me (I think) when I mimicked him. After a few weeks he decided what I was to have anyway,(adjusting my grocery list with big strokes of his pencil, actually I suspected he was writing wicked notes to my housekeeper but she never let on). I would  buy today’s fresh vegetables. (I learnt to point after the owner gently smacked my hand out of her way. She put the fruit into the bag, not me!)  Then I would buy half a loaf of bread (This was real bread, it went stale in a day.) Found great wedges of pungent cheese,  quickly drank my macchiato standing up at the cafe counter (earning a swift nod of approval from cafe staff and an upgrade to locals prices) and back up the hill to begin to cook. One of us would  shop in the market twice a day.  It was our larder. Food was not stored, you shopped for today.

Once the housekeeper had decided that she liked me (I was so relieved)she  proceeded to teach me about real Italian food. She taught me about all the cured meats, how to store cheeses, simple pasta sauces. The taste explosion of pesto.  On a few precious Saturdays when I was not working,  she and her sister would come over with bags full of food, I would open a bottle of wine, they would rummage about in the garden for herbs then teach me to  cook real Italian food.

This proved to me comprehensively that food is the universal language.

I have been making my favorite dish from these days ever since. I did not even know its name.  Our language was so visual. I just called it Aubergine and Tomat.  However using  the magic labyrinth of the Blog World I have found it.   Parmigiana di melanzane   or aubergine parmesiana. (In the US an aubergine is an  egg-plant.) I discovered this site when nosing through the favorite blog reads of  The Dinner Files (which is kind of like rummaging through a persons book shelves trying to find out what they are like by what they like to read. A dubious exercise at best. ) These people are the professionals at food writing and will make it much easier for you to make this simple dish. And you know how I love simple.

This one is so close to the favorite dish of my Italian Housekeeper. And yes that is a wheel of my own parmesan cheese (above).. though it only came out for the shot.. it is 6 months away from being eaten yet so back into the storeroom it goes! My Italian housekeeper would think I was quite mad making my own.

ciao c

22 Comments on “my italian housekeeper

  1. i love how you write. stories like this make me want to travel even more…to know the people, the food, culture – and have stories such as this one. lovely photos, too. i was proud that i recognized the first as basil (…this is the first year i added herbs into my summer garden!) it’s been exciting to eat what i grow. fresh is best! ps – eggplant parmesan is my favorite…i should learn to make it myself.

  2. How wonderful to get a glimpse into your past Cecilia! And to see the fabulous training you have had that makes you a whiz in the kitchen! I’m guessing that these amazing photos are from your garden. Wow! And I’m very curious about the making of parmesan cheese. Will that be a recipe you will post in the future? We are still looking for our milk goats, and thinking about a dairy cow. We may be looking in the spring. I will make cheese too, but will begin with super easy recipes. Di

  3. Now that’s a story! Amazing. Say, are you still in contact with the italian housekeeper? Sounds like a fascinating person. Great post!

    • Sadly I never saw her again. But in a strange way that was OK. Our relationship could only be in the living of it. Because of the lack of actual words. We were always doing.

  4. God, how I love the Amalfi coast. Your pictures and writing style are deeply evocative of the warmth of the people, the fabulousness of the ingredients and magic of Italy. Brilliant.

  5. Italy holds a very special place in my heart as well, so visuallising your story unfold was a lot of fun.
    I don’t think you are mad for making your own parmesan, I think that’s fantastic!

    • When I read your description about yourself I thought you sounded like me before I came out to live in the country. Being a farm girl in town is great too! c

  6. Just signed up – found your story on Amalfi via my friend Deb’s blog comments. We have sought a sea change but still trying to grow as much as poss. Our neighbours gifts make up for what we cannot sow.

    • Hullo Roz and welcome! the best part of gardening is being able to feed your neighbours, sounds like you have a lovely arrangement!

  7. I love this story! I lived on this coast 40 years ago. Although I didn’t have a lovely housekeeper in my story, much of the rest is familiar. I wrote a post recently called The Best of Italy about my family there.

  8. I think this should def. go in the book! Your life there, and working with this woman, is a big part of why you cook the way you do today! It also shows where your life changed to doing things to make yourself happy. I think it should be near the beginning!

  9. Hey there Chicheelia. Loved that post. Such beautiful descriptions. Wanna go. Great snap of son#1. Looks like he’s doing some cool stuff. Had to put my son on a behaviour contract today! Argh. SO not cool teaching ones own offspring!! Luv ya x the cuz

  10. Oh, this is so gorgeously written! I hope this makes it into your book, and it left me wanting to hear more stories about your time in Italy. It also made me desperately want to know your Italian housekeeper’s method of making pesto!

  11. I think you need a book just about your life experiences before the farmy, then one on the farmy life, then one for kids…not necessarily in that order. I just love reading about your life adventures…always so interestingly told and you definitely bring us along with you into the experiences….and what experiences you have had! I loved your stories about working with the old folks, so much, too. Would love to know more about this time in Italy, your film days and yes, in the book please, Chicheelia.

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