Five tender apricots in a blue bowl, a brief and exact promise of things to come. ~Frances Mayes
Somewhere along my path, I decided that making something special for others meant hard work and complex compositions. If I was having company for dinner, I was going to make new dishes with ingredients I had never heard of and I was going to work hard to get it all done. If I was going to throw a birthday party for one of my children, it needed to be unique and homespun and creative, while looking effortless. If I was going to learn something new, I would apply myself with vigor too extreme to allow for frivolity.
This week, as I looked over the menu for the lunch that is served at my children’s public school in Italy, I counted a total of 7 ingredients for the week: Bread, pasta, fresh vegetables, fresh fruit, cheese, meat, and beans. The school lunch menu is organized seasonally and specializes in regional dishes. It is simple. What brings the menu to life are the lunch staff who wait for raised hands to bring the children more soup or fresh bread. They set the table with real plates and bright blue jugs of water. They blush when the children ask for more of what they have prepared.
The simplicity struck me again as we dined in a family restaurant for Valentine’s Day. The Mediterranean diet on the Italian Riviera consists mainly of vegetables, fruit, everything from the sea that is edible, and of course bread and pasta. Rich sauces and dressings would be seen as distracting from the purity of the food. Lemon juice, new olive oil, vinegar, and fresh herbs are used to add a punch if needed. The pastry chef spun sugar into hearts wherever possible and served each piece himself with a “hands flying” description of flavors.
What struck me is that the food is prepared with such passion. It is not the complexity of flavors that make the food so distinctive. It is the purity of the seasonally available matched with the respect for the time it takes to prepare things well, that make Italian food so nourishing. Italians knead the freshest ingredients until they taste like home. Whether it is a school cafeteria or a restaurant by the sea, what fills us up is the feeling that we have been invited into a family kitchen with every bite. The passion is palatable and it takes work to not overcomplicate things. It is a delicate balance for which I no longer need a recipe.