Author Nicky Pellegrino writes about the love of food which has inspired her novels.
Here’s my guilty secret: I write about food far better than I cook it. It’s not that I’m entirely hopeless in the kitchen; just that I don’t quite meet the standards I set in my novels. Never has this been more apparent than when I travelled to Sicily to research my latest book The Food Of Love Cookery School. For one week in the baroque hill town of Modica I wrestled with pasta dough. The recipe they use in this part of the country is simple – it doesn’t even have any egg in it. They don’t stuff it with cheese or meat as they do further north; it’s too hot to bother. It’s simply a matter of mixing semolina flour with tepid water and a little salt, then kneading and shaping it. And therein lay the problem. The dough stuck to my hands, to the kitchen surface, to the rolling pin, it refused to be manipulated into the required shape and when it came time to push it down the little wooden cavatelli board with my thumb with a firm and constant pressure; well you can imagine.
Nicky in Modica
The other pupils at Katia Amore’s Love Sicily cooking school were kind enough not to comment but truly I was rubbish. Still there were other areas where I held my own, eating for example.
The food of Sicily differs from that in other parts of Italy. It’s a place that has been invaded many times; by the Greeks, the Spanish and the Arabs – all have left something behind to enrich the cuisine. Spices are used; lots of nuts and honey; vegetables are served agrodolce – the traditional sweet and sour flavour Sicilians love. Rules are broken too. Meat is mixed with chocolate to produce the divine bittersweet pastries ‘mpanetigghi, fish is served with cheese in direct contravention of what I’d assumed to be an actual Italian law. Oh and the desserts, in particular the cannoli, crisp shells filled with orange-flower infused ricotta and dipped into crushed pistachios. I can almost taste them now.
Often I’m asked why I include so much food in my fiction. Erm isn’t it obvious? It gives me license to eat, to taste my way around the place a story is set, to loosen my belt and keep on going, purely for research purposes.
When I was working on my first novel Delicious there wasn’t the money to journey all the way from my home in New Zealand to Italy. It was the memory of my Neapolitan aunts and their cooking that sustained me. Those childhood summers when I watched them rolling out gnocchi on a long marble table as chickens scuttled beneath it, waking early to produce trays of baked pasta and meatballs to eat at the beach, blistering ripe peppers over a wood-fired barbecue, steeping peaches in red wine. See there I go again, writing about food. I can’t help myself.
Recently I travelled to Venice where I plan to set my next novel. There I ate pasta black with cuttlefish ink and sarde in soar (fried sardines steeped in a vinegary mix of white onions, raisins and pine nuts). I lived on Venetian cicchetti, the exquisite bites of bar snacks served with a refreshing Aperol spritz or a small glass of wine. And as I explored the cuisine and the labyrinth of narrow streets and canals, I marinated my ideas for a novel.
Most of my books have been love stories; this one will be different though I think. At least that’s the plan. Still it will have food in it; of course it will. For as the character of Vincenzo says in The Food Of Love Cookery School: “Food is a kind of miracle really, isn’t it? You take the raw ingredients, transform them in endless ways, put them in your body and eventually they become your skin, your hair, your blood. What could be more magical than that?”
The Food of Love Cookery School is out now in trade paperback and eBook