Sunday, May 20, 2007

Le lezione italiana

It is through the table rather than textbooks that you learn a language. It is not about listening and reading words. It is about absorbing a language, ingesting it.

In Naples, I learnt to speak beginners italian through my stomach. Each day is a lesson about food - what to eat, when to eat and how to eat. The flavours of the food are like the local dialect. Distinctive and unique. In Naples, the endings of words disappear, the letter e becomes ie in pronunciation, v turns into b and d into r.

This is my la lezione italiana from a week in southern Italy.

Lezione uno: Posso avere dell’altro café, per favour?
The sun raises and the haze falls away to a morning that begins with a walk and the sound of church bells in the distance.

Breakfast is at 8.30. A breakfast of il toast, la burra, la marmelata di casa (la prugna e l'albicocca), e epxresso. Naples is well known for its coffee – a rich, almost sticky, sweet coffee that goes perfectly with il cornetto con la nutella. Such il colazine makes for a leisurely and welcome start to the day. The coffee comes in small pots and quickly goes. So, one of the first things I learn is – can we have some more coffee please.
Half an hour break and then our lesson starts.

Lezione due: Si prega di non toccare
It is impossible to travel to the south of Italy and not discover limoncello.

This sweet liqueur made from the rind of lemons is the epitome of relaxed Italian life. I drink it every night after dinner, even though I remain unconvinced about the taste. Yet, it seems the perfect conclusion to each day. It reminds me of the local cernamic tiles from nearby Vietri sul Mare (the southern tip of the Amalfi coast), the olive trees that surround the agristourismo, the sound of the goat herds and the lemons that smell and taste sweet. They are monstrous in size and we see them grow on vines down the mountains on the way to the coast.
I am tempted to buy a bottle to take back to London but in the tourist shops in Postiano and Naples, the colour of the limoncello is too exaggerated and the bottles made for tourists seem too obvious. So in Postiano, I avoid the tourist shops and go food sampling.
My favourite ... frozen yogurt flavoured with limoncello.

Lezione tre: C’e un carciofo?
The word for artichoke in Italian is il carciofo. We eat it as an antipasto and with spaghetti. As an antipasto, it is grilled on open flames and served with a light drizzling of oil. It is from the garden and has been cooked on the bbq earlier in the afternoon. Its flesh is succulent and chewy. You tear off each petal and grip the flesh with your teeth enjoying the smokeness of the taste. Its heart is filled with a dressing of oil from the agristourismo and fresh parsley.
The following night it comes again from mama’s cena served parmigiana style. Delicate in flavour and enhanced by the taste of fresh tomatoes, it is wonderful.

Lezione quatro: The art of filleting a fish
There is something about a flirty waiter and I find myself in the company of a professional at Ristorante 'o Parrucchiano la Favorita, Corso Italia, Sorrento.

Dinner here is an occasion: both a thank-you dinner to Marco and Marcello and an opportunity to eat some spectacular food. We begin with simple carciofi, presented on fine china as our antipasto.

Per primo, I am served i stellini agli ravioli – star shaped ravoli with prawn in orange and lemon sauce. The taste is of crystallised fruit, perfect and extraordinary.

Next is Sogliola del Tirreno al Forno (or simply the catch of the day baked in olive oil). Again, it is extraordinary in taste – the olive oil is fruity and surprisingly doesn’t overwhelm the dish.

I find the fish very bony- almost impossible to eat, and so il cameriere swiftly removes my place and fillets it. It returns to the table, arranged in delicate fillets, snowy white and perfect.

I am amazed. He speaks to us in English. I tell him that we only speak Italian. At the end of the evening, I kiss him good night. Buona sera.

Lezione cinque: Fare tiramisu : a lezione per Marco nella cucina.
There is only one way to eat tiramisu – on the evening that you make it and then in the morning for breakfast.

Marco finally delivers on his promise of teaching us how to make this classic Italian dish. A promise that begun several weeks beforehand in our Italian class. Eight of us crowd into the kitchen, eager to learn his secret and to ensure that he actually makes it.
The recipe is easy enough but the art of tiramisu is in the making – several glasses of the house vine, great showmanship and lots of laughter. So in Naples, I learn how to make tiramisu.
Here’s the recipe:

Make a good pot of expresso– very strong, and then add some water to make a large bowl of coffee. While it is cooling, grab a glass of house wine and whip 200g white refined sugar with 2-3 egg yolks until well blended. (Note: do not add house wine, it's for you to drink.) Add a splash of milk to moisten the mixture and then add 0.5 kg of mascarpone cheese. You can add marsala but we didn’t have any and it still tasted great.
Once the coffee has cooled, dip the savoiardi (biscotti) into the bowl. Avoid talking or getting distracted as the biscuits quickly dissolve. Line the tray with the biscotti.

Once you have finished your first layer, cover with mascarpone. Continue this layering until you have filled the tray.
Cover the final layer (don't forget the mascarpone), finish with a dusting of drinking chocolate and then refrigerate. Wait a couple of hours and then eat.

Lezione sei: La dolce vita

The agristourismo where we stay is one of the many farmhouse stays, so popular in Italy. Four generations live here in this working farm that produces olive oil, wine and legumes. Each meal is another lesson in Italian cuisine as we literally eat the harvest of the garden.

Pasta e fagioli, penne alla funghi e spaghetti al carciofi are simple seasonal dishes. Provola cheese cooked between lemon leaves. The ingredients are fresh, the tastes uncomplicated but each time, so memorable.

This is the life. The days are long and warm. There is no rush and I enjoy just sitting looking out to the Bay of Naples after lunch, half dozing and half revising the lesson. There is a job going or so Marco tells me. It is domestic work but I’m tempted. Perhaps I could manage to work in the kitchen, if I’m lucky.
It’s the perfect life. Someone always seems to be cooking and someone is always eating.

Lezione sette: Che ora e? Siesta. Tutto chiude.
A day in Naples begins in the University sector, we wind our way through the streets discovering churches and local delicates like Naples famous baba. It's a sweet pastry, almost cake, soaked in rum and filled with chocolate cream or custard. We walk pass street stalls, piazzas and cafes, following our local guides - Marco e Marcello.

From a distance, Naples is surprising large. A sprawling and dirty city that has almost cast off its seedier reputation in a renaissance that started in the 1980s. Despite its nod to tourism, it stubbornly refuses to become another Roma or Venezia.
Come 12.00 noon, everything closes. Naples stops for lunch, a rather leisurely lunch that ends at 16.00. Plans for shopping are abandoned and I embrace this most civilised and anti-tourist practice. This is the time to people watch. A favourite place is Gambrinus, a previous haunt of Oscar Wilde’s. Yes it’s expensive and a little clichéd but the views are perfect.

Fashionably attired Italians coo over their expressos and groups of business men talk. It proves to be the perfect place to try sfogliatella, another pastry filled with ricotta and dusted with icing sugar.

Lezione otto: Molto grazie ma non mangio la cena stasera.
I arrive in Capri welcomed by rugged vistas, swags of bougainvillea and tourist buses. I quickly walk pass the men with placards advertising hotels to the bus station. Another opportunity to practice my Italian: a che ora e il prossimo l’autobus a Anacapri? In ten minutes or so is the answer.

I go to Anacapri because it is away from the main tourist spots and it’s considerably cheaper than Capri, made famous by Jackie O and Ms Bardot. After a boat ride and two bus trips, all I want is a expresso decaffeinatto. There is a café directly opposite the bus stop and this where I meet Enzo. He buys me a café, no doubt charmed by my ‘perfect’ Italian! Why not I tell myself, I can practice.

He was born in Anacapri and has lived here all his life. He is charmed that I think it is a bella isola e mi preferisco Capri a Napoli. He even corrects me when I confuse newspaper (il giornale) with day (il giorno).

He asks me what am I going this evening and would I like to go out to dinner. I gratitiously decline for two reasons. One, I have eaten so much over the last five days in Naples that I literally cannot eat – sono molto piena and two, he is my father’s age. I am flattered and thank him. He tells me that I am beautiful.

I wave goodbye from the bus as I head to Capri and amaze at Italian men. I am at least twenty years younger than him – but that’s the fun of being in Italy.

Lezione nove: Always arrive early
It is my last day in Capri and I decide that I can’t leave without seeing the Blue Grotto. I catch the local bus and find myself at the top of the hill with no idea where I am going. I walk down the stairs, pass the obligatory tourist shop, to find myself at the water’s edge wondering where the grotto is. Then suddenly it become clear, I need to get into a boat. Five euro is the going rate. I step in to cheers of the surrounding boatmen.

The entrance to the Blue Grotto is small. I have to lie down to avoid decapitation and once through this small entrance, I open my eyes to see a most lustrous blue. The word for blue in Italian is azzurro and the sound of this word somehow embodies what I see. The light simmers, like an aura, luminating the grotto and the water beneath.

Do I want to go for a swim, he asks me. No, not today.

Instead, he sings. It is just him and me. I bathe in the light to the sounds of his voice. This is tranquility, only interrupted by the arrival of some Japanese tourists. In quick succession, five boats come through the opening and the stillness is interrupted by camera flashes and laughter.

Time to go. Will I come back again, he asks.

Of course.

Lezione dieci: Quando tornare a Italia?
I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s the food or just the slowness of living, but Italy gets into your skin. I arrive back in London and it's gray and somber. I hit the underground and people push and shove as they squeeze onto the 8.20 District line train.

Naples seems such a long way away – a lifetime away. I grab a coffee and walk to work from the tube. Holding onto my holiday experience before I hit the hayhem of the office.

So what’s a girl to do? Well, she books a flight to Milan in June. Why? To practice her Italian.