Bruce McMichael, The Lemon Grove
Sharing food around a table is one of life’ great pleasures, and one that so many of us are missing in these times of Covid-19 and Social Isolation. So when an email invitation popped into my inbox from Jo and Alive with Flavour, I jumped at the chance to meet virutally with a group of likeminded Italophiles. Gathering around the kitchen table or a barbeque fire flickering in the garden with friends and family are wonderful pleasures we’ve had to put on hold. But that shouldn't prevent us from sharing food and good company.
So, with this in mind group of us logged-in on a Wednesday night Zoom, a ‘virtual dinner’ hosted by Jo and Alive with Flavour one evening in early May. Knowing Jo, and this shared love of Italy, bonded us in our pixel forms with many of us enjoying an Aperitivo or glass of wine, perhaps a Barolo or Chianti.
After a brief introduction from Jo, we all took a turn unmuting our mics and talking about the dishes we had prepared and were now plated up in front of our computer screens. One lady appeared under the beautiful, virtual ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel in Rome, while others sat in the kitchen cupboards, or like myself, in my office with a carefully tidied desk. This turned out to be Paola, but more about her later.
During the evening we shared dishes, cooking tips, and memories of eating such plates of thick, juicy sausages nestled in a bed of slow-cooked lentils during past holidays . “If I close my eyes, the flavours of this dish takes me straight back to lovely times in Florence,” said Jill. This memory evoked another comment recalling rich, flavoursome wild boar sausages cooked and eaten amongst the beautiful rolling hills of Umbria.
Julie proudly showed her plate of linguine soaked in a sauce of crab and chilli seasoned with lemon zest and a generous sprinkle of finely chopped parsley. “It’s so delicious and takes very little time to make,” said Julie. “Ooh, I’ll try that at home,” I thought, thinking about the upcoming Friday and the newly re-opened, fresh seafood stalls in the small, foodie town in northern Italy where I currently live.
Tuscany had been the inspiration for Susan’s dish, while Emily proudly showed off her ‘Monday Night Linguini’, a family tradition that normally starts the week, but for this special occasion had been served for Wednesday dinner.
For Toni’s dish, she’d made a super delicious and popular dish showcasing three classic ingredients found in so many of the country’s home and restaurant tables, a Mozzarella , Tomato and Basil salad with a generous splash of olive oil. But not just any olive oil, oh no! It was crushed in Italy from trees grown in her family’s grove and, we were all thrilled to hear, sold in-and-around east Surrey and London.
My dish involved using a spinach, ricotta, mashed potato and lemon juice sauce made the day before to stuff a specialty pasta dish from northern Italy, tongue-twistingly called Schlutzkrapfen. For Jo’s dinner, I chose Bucatini as my pasta base, similar in shape to the familiar spaghetti but slightly thicker with a hole running through the middle which speeds cooking time. However, I did find eating Bucatini or even spaghetti, in front of a screen is not advisable! Next time I logon, I’ll be eating something that doesn't flick sauce over my shirt, or screen!
This virtual supper then took a new turn with Paola, of Sistine Chapel fame, taking on a cook school teaching role. Born Italian and now living in England with her family, including an unseen daughter whom kindly had volunteered to hold a video camera which followed her Mum around the worktops, Paola entertained and educated us in the art of pasta rolling and shaping.
She was an engaging source of stories and cooking tips, the type of which you only hear from someone who has spent years making and sharing her home cooked, Italy-inspired food. Supportive comments such as, ‘it’s fine to use a rolling pin to flatten and shape your dough, Italy’s nonnas, or grandmothers, have been making it so for centuries,’ were very helpful. Oh, and ‘keep the dough in tightly wrapped cling film or crusts will form on the edges, and ‘nobody likes crusty lumps,’ she suggests.
As the evening drew to a close several delicious looking Tiramisu puddings were proudly offered to the guests. A spoonful of the moreish coffee-flavoured dessert was the perfect coffee-flavoured Italian dessert to end an evening of chatting, eating and sharing around our virtual table.