When you’re an expat, you have three favourite complaint topics: weather, food and language. If you come from Italy, food might even trump weather. I promise you, the next 5 minutes will not be dedicated to complaining about the bad eating habits of British people munching crisps on the train for breakfast and washing them down with coke. Mh.
By the way, welcome to Britalian, the podcast where an Italian tries to make a better job than Jamie at marrying Italian and British cuisine.
After so many years, so much effort on my boyfriend’s side and good will on my side, I have become sort of a champion of the British cuisine in Italy. I can praise big times the Bakewell tart, the Saffron buns from Cornwall, and above all, anything with rhubarb. I could sell my soul for some rhubarb and ginger jam. My soul comes very cheap. And I love a Sunday roast. I am learning to make a decent Yorkshire pudding-which should count for at least 20 points on my citizenship application. My boyfriend, in turn, is better than me at making green pesto, with whatever basil we manage to grow on our windowsill. I had to teach him how to avoid overboiling pasta, but he’s a good learner. And I taught his mum how to make fresh pasta with a pasta machine.
Food is where one’s national identity stands out the most. I have worked as a kitchen porter in a canteen and one day I was helping chopping herbs. Handfuls of basil. I stopped and inhaled that divine smell. My colleague looked at me across the table and said: “Disgusting, eh?” No! I am Mediterranean and herbs are part of my smell bouquet which stirs emotions and memories: basil, sage, rosemary, bay leaf and even pine.
And I know I am Mediterranean when it comes to choosing vegetables and fruit at the greengrocer’s. Watermelon: you knock on it. Melon: you smell it. I was at a biology seminar when the lecturer asked: “how do you know when tomatoes are ripe? you squeeze them gently”. I was about to jump up and scream: you don’t touch them you smell them! I reckoned it was not a clever thing to do among cell biologists. But what does a Brit know about tomatoes?
I normally cook Italian at home, and I must have two cooked meals per day (eggs on toast is not a proper dinner for me). If I’m feeling really nostalgic for home, I will crave polenta, that kind of cornmeal porridge we cook in the north east of Italy. We used to have it with anything when we were really poor. Our potatoes, basically.
I am a sweet tooth. Worse than that, I usually have a sweet breakfast, which means, bread and jam, porridge with chocolate, a piece of cake. Yes, you heard it right. In Italy, we have cakes called “breakfast cakes”, sort of sponge with no filling, very dull and perfect to be dunked in your caffelatte.
My boyfriend first introduced my to the full English breakfast, and now I love it, baked beans and all. It’s my comfort food. I have it for tea when I’m really under the weather and want to treat myself.
Another kind of treat is fish and chips, although I’m picky with chips and we end up going to the same selected chippie. No salt nor vinegar, please. Mushy peas, yes please. And of course, gravy. I’m a proud Northerner.
Let’s move on to desserts. I won’t go into the endless discussions we have in our households about Birds custard and Italian dry cakes. My metamorphosis into a British passes through cakes too. One day I was craving for a Victoria sponge, and I decided to bake one. I mean, it’s just four ingredients, you chuck them in a bowl and you use a hand mixer. A piece of cake, literally. Once I baked it, it was as hard as cardboard. Nick asked me how I made it.
“Did you use Stork margarine?”
“No, I used butter?”
“But did you use caster sugar?”
“Did you use self-raising flour?”
“Normal flour, is that fine?”
At least the eggs were right. Eventually we made it again together. Now I am a proud Victoria sponge baker.
One more thing before I clear the table. Have you ever heard of Chocolate Charlies? They’re those chocolatey little things you sprinkle over cakes, like little worms…yes, chocolate sprinkles. Wait, Nick told me they’re called chocolate charlies. Maybe it’s just a family word. I’ve asked his mum if she’s ever heard of them? No. Maybe it’s just a thing his nanny used to say when they were children.
“We used to use chocolate sprinkles, and we…I always thought that they were called Chocolate Charlies. Sprinkling some chocolate charlies over things.”
“I never heard you say chocolate charlies. And I baked with you. I’ve never heard you call them chocolate charlie. It’s something you picked up somewhere. It must be.”
Anyway, I have decided what my stage name will be. Chocolate Charlie. Watch this space.
My taste has definitely changed over these years-but so has people’s taste. It’s so much easier to find good Italian restaurants and food in the shops. When I was living in Scotland I became addicted to Irn-Bru. I mean, how many people actually like Irn-bru? This should be evidence enough I am Britalian. I want the citizenship just for this.
Next time: manners.