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.
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.