SIX months ago I sat, espresso in hand, reading John Cheever on a hillside balcony overlooking the Tyrrhenian Sea, as the sun set on a centuries-old Italian fishing village below.
Six days ago I waded through horizontal rain and sub-zero Siberian easterlies to commute to a storm-lashed Dublin city centre. Needless to say the two days couldn’t have been further apart. At the outset at least.
Last week witnessed the start of a cold snap which lashed Ireland towards Easter in flurries of snow and icy winds. With a Friday off I had planned to hit Wicklow Mountains, a sub-1000m chain located near Dublin, for a day hike.
I’ve spent enough masochistic days in the Irish hills to know the true worth of the word ‘postpone’, though. So I nixed the trip, only to experience vintage mountain weather on the city streets instead.
After a couple of sodden chores I still had rain-lashed hours of the day ahead to fill and little idea how to do so.
Then it occurred to me. It was time to get back to the Amalfi Coast. After a visit there in the early 1950s John Steinbeck wrote that the area “becomes beckoningly real after you have gone.”
Memory, and how I engage with it, is something I’ll return to in other posts. Put briefly, I’ve found certain senses can bridge the years and return me to a particular time and place. In my 20s music did this. So did certain books. On occasion an aroma or fragrance would.
But, until I met my wife, I never really understood how people could recall specific meals, even dishes, and link these to the people they ate with, their lives at that time, their emotions, who they were.
I could have come home, fired up the coffee maker and pulled out ‘Goodbye, My Brother’. And it might have worked.
But instead I decided to try it with food. I had spent that blissful afternoon six months ago in Praiano, five miles from Minori, the Amalfi Coast hometown of chef Gennaro Contaldo.
An episode of Contaldo’s Two Greedy Italians’ show saw him return to his home town and cook a dish his mother would prepare on the feast day of Saint Andrew, the town’s patron saint.
The dish was simple: ricotta dumplings in a tomato and chilli sauce. Nothing, but nothing, speaks ‘comfort’ like these flour-based gnocchi. No better day for it.
Getting back to Italy took effort – from wading through the wet streets to measuring zero-zero flour gram by gram. This was my first batch of gnocchi and it wasn’t all smooth rolling. But after a brief wobble and a plea for advice from Clare I got the gluten working.
Pretty soon the dumplings were bobbing on the surface, ready to go. But the clincher, and what really returned me to Italy, was the smell of chilli, garlic and tomatoes wafting from the sauce.
Here were three simple and inexpensive ingredients that put me right back tableside at any of the half-dozen great meals we had in Praiano.
Dublin faded out and the setting was half a world away, my wife and I there again, in the villa on the hill above the sea. Thankful for the memory.