Category Archives: Domestic bliss

A kneadful call to arms

Pounding it out.

Pounding it out.

WHAT can you do today that your very primitive ancestors did 30,000 years ago?

Apart from the obvious I mean, the scavenging, breathing, procreating, and running from predators stuff.

Very little, really. Stare at the sunset. Complain about the rain. That’s about it.

And make bread.

Yes, pounding out dough in your 21st century kitchen provides a direct link to the palaeolithic hunter gatherers who first made flatbreads in Europe during the late Stone Age.

They did it by grinding roasted cereal grains, mixing this flour with water and cooking it.

It’s a simple skill but one which I myself managed to avoid for most of my 30-something years.

Then, three or more years ago, I famously promised my wife that I’d bake us bread. It took me a while but I eventually got my hands sticky in recent weeks.

If a hunter-gatherer could do it using stone tools how hard could it be?

And so I found myself, 1,400 generations on from those first breadmakers, standing in my kitchen slamming and kneading dough.

Unlike late Stone Age man I had the advantage of yeast – and a very simple recipe for Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s country white loaf.

Measure, mix, knead, proof, knead, proof, bake. Do it using five ingredients: flour, water, yeast, olive oil and salt.

And wait. Baking involves waiting, I quickly learned. Which involves patience. Which probably explains why it took me 30-odd years to get round to the practice (and enjoy it).

_____

Bread making was a skill somewhat lost to my generation. While my grandmother baked two loaves a day, and my mother a store of bread for the week on each Sunday of my youth, I never tried it.

Got crust?

Got crust?

Nor did many of my contemporaries. There were few, if any, loaves produced among my friends as I grew up and older.

Demands, usually of time but equally of inclination, ensured that bread was usually something that came from an aisle, not a bakery. The loaf gave way to the sliced pan.

So what changed?

A few years ago I embarked on mountaineering trips to France and Switzerland – a practice fuelled by husks of hardened, often week-old bread, carried in a backpack and softened in hot soup.

The durability and utility of these simple loaves stayed with me (unlike the taste, a unique flavour produced by five or six days rest in the bottom of a rucksack).

Shortly afterwards I met my wife and my diet changed in a few ways – one of which was her insistence on the sourcing of good bread (usually from Il Valentino or Arun Bakery).

Making my own was a logical next step.

_____

Writing during the Second World War the American food scribe M.F.K. Fisher lamented the then-fading practice of bread making at home.

Her call to (floury) arms is worth reading 70 years later:

“Breadmaking does not cost much. It is pleasant: one of those almost hypnotic businesses, like a dance from some ancient ceremony…

“But it takes a lot of time. If you can find that, the rest is easy. And if you cannot rightly find it, make it, for probably there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of meditation in a music-throbbing chapel, that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread.”

Except, maybe, eating it.

30,000 years later another loaf cools off.

30,000 years later, another loaf cools off.

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Time to raise the unread

Feels like one...

Feels like one…

I WILL read 756 books before I die.

That’s presuming that I’ll be reading right up to the fatal moment, at the same rate as I read now, that I don’t re-read anything and that I make 78 – the life expectancy of the Irish male.

It also presumes that I avoid the Russians, or Ulysses, or anything not in English. And that I don’t develop pernicious habits, like gardening or golf.

756 books. It sounds like a lot. But it’s not, of course. Every time I enter a bookstore I spot another dozen books I stick on the mental must-read list.

Add those to the many already on my ‘I’II have to get round to that one’ list, or titles recommended, or ones found browsing online, or classics.

Suddenly 756 doesn’t sound like too many. John Updike’s novels and short stories account for 39 books alone.

You’d therefore be inclined to think that I’ve refined book purchasing to a precise art, buying only what I really, really want to read.

Of course not. Our home is littered with purchases which seemed like a good idea at the time. Some of them are buried away, sources of shame, dead wood (in every respect).

Others have been placed on top of piles, as my better nature tries to remind my actual nature that they deserve a shot. Will they ever get it? Unlikely.

And this is before we get to the boxes in storage elsewhere, containing selections so dubious, or turgid, that they were never read. And never will be.

Dostoevsky’s The Idiot? Not a hope. Not even if I found myself transported to 1860s St Petersburg with nothing else to read.

Cogito Eco sum: I proscrastinate therefore I am.

Cogito Eco sum: I procrastinate therefore I am.

Eco’s The Island Of The Day Before? I made it to page 151 a few years ago. Pathetically, I can’t bring myself to remove the bookmark. On the plus side the cover looks good.

Steinbeck’s East Of Eden? I’ve even visited its setting – the Salinas Valley – in the years since I bought this one, but I’ve haven’t started into it.

Turns out I’m not alone when it comes to such procrastination.

Half of the books on the shelves in every homes are unread, according to a survey released to mark World Book Day last week.

These titles were no doubt bought with the best of intentions – like my own were.

It’s one thing lamenting the situation but what should I do about it?

As my wife – reading this –  is now about to ask: will I ever get rid of these unread books?

And here’s where the second part of the survey comes into play: two thirds of people hoard books because they’re emotionally attached to them, it seems.

Which explains my battered Penguin copy of The Odyssey, a title I’ve hopefully hauled from bookcase to bookcase since I bought it more than 20 years ago.

Like the others above its spine remains uncracked.

Not to worry. I have 756 chances to raise the unread, beginning today.

Page one of The Idiot sounds like a good place to start.

The Great Unread - a selection.

The Great Unread – a small selection.

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Back to the mountains

Slieve Donard, February 2014.

Slieve Donard, February 2014.

“Time and money – that’s the problem with this game.”

The game? Mountaineering. The sage? A sunburnt, rock-battered British climber.

We were sitting in the bar of a small hotel in Leysin, Switzerland. It was August 2010; I had just finished a week-long traverse of the Monte Rosa massif on the Swiss-Italian border.

My fellow climber had left his family behind in England to undertake two weeks of climbing in the Alps. He made the trip yearly despite, as he acknowledged, the financial and emotional difficulties of leaving home.

I didn’t have these challenges. I was working, single, with a severe dose of summit fever. His comments passed me by.

Getting to the mountains, and getting up and down them, was everything in these years. Nothing else would stand in my way – it was hard to think of an August that wouldn’t see me cleaning crampons and packing an ice axe before catching a flight to Geneva.

A group of us drank late that night at the Lynx Bar, planning new trips, checking diaries, before leaving for home early the following morning.

I haven’t been back to the Alps since.

_____

Looking at my diary for 2010 I see that I hiked and climbed in Ireland almost every weekend – for eight or nine months of the year at least.

Numerous days on Lugnaquilla, different routes in the Mournes, weekend raids on the Mweelrea mountains, a week spent around the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks. It was a year, like others before it, of days spent climbing or planning to climb.

And then time moved on. In 2011 I climbed Ben Nevis, made frequent trips to the Wicklow mountains, and summitted Carauntoohill by a couple of new-to-me routes..

Descending from Signalkuppe, Monte Rosa Massif, August 2010.

Descending from Signalkuppe, Monte Rosa Massif, August 2010.

The following year saw less trips. I moved house and got married. I had less weekend time to spend in the hills and less inclination to spend long days away from my wife. Nonetheless I got up when I could.

2013 started slowly but a spectacular snowy hike in Wicklow promised good mountaineering in the Spring.

Life then intervened. A loved one was seriously ill and I had no intention or desire to spend my free time away.

I managed a summer Saturday on Lugnaquilla but my heart wasn’t really in it.

I didn’t return to the mountains for the rest of the year.

_____

As the months passed it began to gnaw at me. Standing at the foot of Croagh Patrick a fortnight ago I made up my mind: I had to get back.

And so I found myself awake at 5am last Friday, after a fitful night’s sleep. Rushing my breakfast I departed at daybreak for Slieve Donard, the highest peak in the Mourne Mountains. Hours later I was standing on top, under a blue sky, facing down an icy northwesterly.

Sheltering behind the summit cairn I thought of the night in Leysin and the conversation with the English climber.

Yes, mountaineering costs time and money. But it takes more than these; it requires effort and energy. It often conflicts with home life. You’re often wet or cold or both. Injuries are commonplace.

Why do I go back?

At times I wonder, but never during the times I spend on the mountains. When I’m there I’m in the great immensity, part of The Whole Thing.

I imagine that British climber returns to Leysin. I might head back there myself one day, or not. But I’ll always keep going back to some mountains, somewhere.

Summit of Slieve Donard, February 2014.

Summit of Slieve Donard, February 2014.

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You say tomato, I say heuristic cultural device

Shopping a la cart.

Shopping a la cart.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

TURNING on a red light.

Slicing ‘toMAYtos’.

Answering ‘cell’ phones.

Rarely seeing, let alone using, public transport.

All things you do in the US, which you don’t in Ireland. And all of which I encountered on a visit this month to my wife’s hometown of Los Angeles.

These differences are usually small curiosities (unless I forget to look before turning on that red).

Like the way I stare blankly at voluminous LA coffee menus, or in wide-eyed wonder at the Whole Foods’ shopping cart escalator.

They’re just tasters to a deeper difference between American and Irish people, which is far more engrained than the rules of the road or in-store trolley conveyance.

In my experience this difference comes by way of a simple question: is the coffee cup half full or half empty?

Americans are often accused of being glibly optimistic, if not naive, in their world view. Many are, I’m sure, and many are not.

But they are considerably less cynical than the Irish, something that is impossible not to notice when you some spend time each year in both countries.

Cultural differences.

Cultural differences.

My other half is the perfect example. A music journalist, she cut her teeth in the first dot-com boom, before launching a catering business, returning to journalism for a number of major US publications and then, in her mid-30s, deciding to leave it all behind and move to Ireland.

At every turn her question was not (as I would have asked) ‘why?’ but ‘why not?’

Where I would seek out flaws in a plan she would see speed-bumps; where I might see regrets for past decisions she sees experience.

This faith in reinvention is not an exclusively American trait, of course. But I’ve seen more of it in citizens of that country than most others.

It’s been fodder for commentators, artists and academics for years. One New Yorker recently tried to explain it to me using, as he put it, ‘heuristic cultural devices’.

Tonias Wolff. Pic: Mark Coggins

Tobias Wolff.
Pic: Mark Coggins

But I’ve come across a simpler description. It is contained in a collection of Tobias Wolff’s short stories, gifted to me by my LA-based father-in-law on my visit earlier this month.

In one of the stories, A Mature Student, a Czech-born immigrant says of her adopted home: “Americans…such faith in the future, where all shall be reconciled. Such compassion toward the past, where all may be forgiven.”*

How much faith do you need, how much compassion can you have? That’s the $64,000 (or €45,000) question.

That, and ‘tomato’ or ‘tomayto’.

_____

*Tobias Wolff, “A Mature Student”, Our Story Begins (Vintage, 2008), p 315

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I got my brothers on hand

Juan and I, Trinity College, Dublin. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Juan and I, Trinity College, Dublin.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

A RARE thing happened last weekend.

I spent some time with my two brothers-in-law. In the same room. At the same time. No Skype necessary.

On one side was Cathal, my sister’s husband. On the opposite side of the room was Juan, my sister-in-law’s spouse.

We all hooked up, with wives and friends, to see Juan performing at the Button Factory in Dublin, where he played with hip hop collective Deltron 3030.

Afterwards we spent a short while catching up in a nearby bar.

Such meetings don’t happen very often; which is unsurprising, as we live more than 5,000 miles away from each other.

It didn’t last too long but it was great to get the family under one roof (albeit without my sister-in-law Anne, sadly stranded in LA for the night) for a couple of hours.

The conversation reminded me of how lucky I am.

Aside from being brothers-in-law par excellence Juan and Cathal have two things in common. They’re both craftsmen, guys who are talented with their hands.

Cathal’s an engineer and expert on all things electric. Juan’s a top bassist.

As a guy more used to breaking, rather than making, things with my hands they both make feel very inadequate – but in a good way.

About the only useful thing I can accomplish with my mitts is typing, so consider this post a seasonal shout-out to Cathal and Juan, to brothers-in-law and brothers of all and any types.

Happy Christmas guys.

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Dylan and the art of doing nothing

Another self portrait

Another self portrait (Looney).

MY automated to-do list usually kicks in at about 6am. In fact, it usually wakes me.

I lie in the Philip Larkin pre-dawn working through my planned tasks before gradually hauling myself up and into another day.

This happens on work days, on non-work days, on holidays. This morning, driving to the train station, my wife pointed out that I even manage to obsess about things I have to do on a day, like this, when I really don’t have to do anything.

And doing nothing, at the right time and in the right place, is just as important to me as doing something.

That’s why I crave the mornings when I wake and realise that my mental diary’s been closed overnight, that my mind and the hours ahead are clear.

With this clarity comes rest and with this rest comes peace of mind.

_____

Bob Dylan achieved this peace of mind, albeit briefly.

Waking early and at ease one morning last week I rose, walked into the sitting room, and turned on the stereo.

The most recent Dylan release, a bootleg series issue called Another Self Portrait, is made up of songs written when he was, to the public at least, living the life of a recluse in the Catskill Mountains.

The bulk of the collection’s 35 songs were either rehearsed or written in this period, in 1968 and early 1969, and recorded in New York City in 1970 when Dylan returned to live there.

Another Self Portrait (Dylan).

Another Self Portrait (Dylan).

Most are covers, something Dylan was criticised for when he included other versions of the same songs on his 1970 album Self Portrait.

Hearing these songs now though, at a remove of more than 40 years and in a digital age inconceivably different to the era of their recording, the listener is struck by a mood of peace and rest.

This feeling is most apparent on Time Passes Slowly #1, an early version of a track that appears on the album New Morning.

Dylan’s languid vocal is Walden-in-Woodstock. “Time passes slowly up here in the mountains,” is his entry line.

Later he sings, before his voice is joined by an blissed-out George Harrison vocal:
Ain’t no reason to go in a wagon to town
Ain’t no reason to go to the fair
Ain’t no reason to go up, ain’t no reason to go down
Ain’t no reason to go anywhere…

_____

Having no reason to go anywhere that morning I laid on the sofa and listened to half of Another Self Portrait. I encountered Railroad Bill (“never worked and he never will”), Thirsty Boots (“take off your thirsty boots and stay for awhile”) and All The Tired Horses (“in the sun”).

Much of this was and is beautiful art, offering everything except urgency.

That most of it was conceived during a period of apparent R&R for Dylan offers a lesson in how the best work can be done when the mental diary is cleared, or binned.

Or as the self portraitist puts it: “time passes slowly when you’re lost in a dream”.

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Let it rain. Somewhere else.

Come on in, the weather's lovely.

Come on in, the weather’s lovely.

I’m Irish; therefore I know rain.

The Gaelic word for the phenomenon, ‘baisteach’, is pretty close to my own reaction when I pull open the curtains on an October morning to be greeted by dripping leaves.

Rain. Vast soggy swathes of my youth were soaked in the stuff. Summers swept away, winters seeping into one single drenched grey mass.

In a part of my brain – call it the Celtic cortex – it never stops pouring down. Showers that struck on holidays in Galway at the age of 12 continue still; the deluge that I swam through the first time I climbed Carauntoohill continues to pour down its sodden flanks.

As an Irishman for me rain is as much a state of mind as a natural phenomenon.

Great Recent Downpours I Have Known: The 72 hour burst that drenched our American visitors on their first trip to Ireland in September 2012; the mist that soaked my wife and I as I proposed under Mweelrea mountain seven months earlier; the torrents of a single night that flooded our block’s garage in October 2011.

Magnificent falls all.

—–

After a dry (by Irish standards) summer the rain returned to Dublin this week, three days of grey skies and damp air, broken only by dreary deluges and spot flooding.

At least in the west of Ireland they had an unlikely distraction, an apocalyptic ‘black cloud’ attacking gravestones and a church tea room.

'Travellers surprised by sudden rain'. Utagawa Hiroshige

Soft day? ‘Travellers surprised by sudden rain’.
Utagawa Hiroshige

The only memorable airbourne event I encountered in recent days was a lightning strike over Dublin Bay early on Tuesday morning which – I later discovered – struck an Aer Lingus plane.

Other than that it’s been raincoats, umbrellas and the sodden, sinking feeling that Autumn is here, with winter (read: same rain, just colder) to follow.

This persistent feeling that, regardless of how pleasant it might be today, rain is just around the corner, likely accounts for the outlook of the Irish pessimist class.

The fact that I – figuratively at least – approach many of life’s challenges with an umbrella in one hand and a dripping macintosh in the other is often remarked on by my other half.

Hailing from Southern California, where rain is seen as some quaint Old World folk memory, her usual outlook is a progressive optimism.

Guess whose approach works better?

As I write this it’s…. well, let’s just say that it’s not dry outside. But it will be tomorrow, they say. And there may even be sun, we’re promised, ‘in parts’.

Until then I’ll be – like Christy Moore – cursing this cold blow and the rainy night.

Let it rain. Just elsewhere.

 

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The quickest way to get to Italy

Have apron will travel

Have apron, will travel.

Why did you eat that last meal?

Hunger, boredom, routine?

I’ll bet your response is often linked to one of the above.

But since I met my wife (and made my own first tentative ventures into the kitchen) another answer has occurred to me.

I eat to travel somewhere else, or to be someone else, somewhere else. Most often I find myself opting for Italian, because cucina povera is one of our favourite cuisines and we love being in that country.

The sunshine of recent weeks in Ireland reminds me of visits we made to Italy last year. But the sun, even chased with Chianti, is not enough to transport me back there.

Enter cooking. A way to return, even for us infrequent fryers.

I figured the only way to get us to Italy while remaining in Dublin was to produce a meal as Italian as I could manage. Simple would help too.

One question then – what dish?

. . . . .

Chicken liver has been a poor man’s food for as long as poor men have eaten. Even in overpriced Ireland half a kilogram of livers will only cost you about €3.

One of my favourite chefs, Antonio Carluccio, has a recipe from the Piedmont region of northern Italy which, executed correctly, will put you in the foothills of the Alps in 30 minutes.

The dish is tajarin con fegatini, thin pasta ribbons in a chicken liver sauce, popular in the town of Alba. The specifics are here.

As a kitchen novice I seek out dishes that combine a maximum of authentic taste with a minimum of technical ability.

Luckily it doesn’t take a great degree of culinary skill to make tajarin, which are tagliolini – a variation on tagliatelle.

After making the pasta it’s simply a matter of getting down and dirty with the chicken livers. I’ve read that people are put off by the slimy texture and, er, unique, aroma of the offal.

Alba having some of that. Tajarin con fegatini - pasta with chicken liver sauce.

Alba having some of that. Tajarin con fegatini – pasta with chicken liver sauce.

My only problem with these organs is that they’re so small (or my technique’s so unrefined) that cleaning can reduce them to mush. Last weekend’s batch came from some mighty birds, though, and held their consistency nicely.

They cook in 4 minutes, in a pan with butter-browned onions and – another Italian taste ticket – porcini mushrooms. Add tomato puree and 50ml (a shot, for those who prefer to drink it) of Marsala. The latter balances out the nasal earthiness of the liver.

A couple of teaspoons of truffle oil finishes the sauce, which is mixed with the tajarin and garnished with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

. . . . .

The aroma hits you first. Chicken liver, porcini, truffle. Then the taste, earthy, mineral, moist. We had left our Dublin dinner-table and were sitting down to eat, halfway across Europe, in a hillside courtyard in Alba.

It was proof that food is the quickest, more authentic way to travel, if don’t want to leave your apartment. Check it out.

The wine was a Sangiovese though. You can’t get every local detail right. We’ll just have to go there for that.

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The pasta fresca test

Rollling pasta.

On a roll.

You’re Irish? You like to eat pasta?

No you don’t. Not really.

Each Irish person eats a grand total of 1 kg of pasta every year.

That’s less than the hardly-well-known spaghetti-loving nations Guatamala (2kg) and Dominican Republic (4kg).

Needless to say it’s nowhere near the Italians’ incredible 26kg. In fact even the rice-renowned Japanese consume more of the carb than us (1.7kgs, for the record).

Irish consumption equates to about eight platefuls per annum. That’s one measly serving every six weeks.

Part of the reason for our lamentable take-up of one of the world’s most popular food staples may be the longstanding Irish obsession with potatoes. The most recent stat I can find sees us sucking down a staggering 143kg of spuds yearly.  (This is nothing compared to annual consumption of 766kg at the outbreak of the Great Famine in the 1840s, mind you).

It may also be because we prefer pizza. Or fried fast food. Who knows?

None of this occurred to me when I recently entered the kitchen, with An American In Ireland, to make some pasta.

Yes, that’s right – make. For many years pasta was something that, for me, had a five-step prep: snip, empty, boil, simmer, serve. But a successful dip a while back into the world of gnocchi-making convinced me to try making my own.

Cutting dough.

Cutting dough.

And, after three decades, I’ve also grown bored of the ‘boil, steam, bake or fry’ potato.

So pasta fresca it was. This was my first attempt too, but (as you might have read) I’m recently got hooked on the cucina povera recipes of Carluccio and Contaldo.

If I’m being honest it wasn’t the final taste I was going for (in the end I actually forgot one notable ingredient, a case of cucina idiota), nor the appearance.

What struck me as clever was the way you could mix the dough one-handed on a flat surface, by making a little crater in a mound of flour and dumping two eggs in. This was cuisine refined to a level so simple it didn’t require utensils. It was cooking, alpine style.

Pasta’s not something you should really need an individualised recipe for (at its simplest it’s all of two ingredients), but I used Contaldo’s one for tagliatelle, from his recent book.

This involved using my most versatile kitchen instrument, my right hand, to mix 300 grams of ‘00’ flour (best for pasta because of its high gluten content, food fact fans!) with 100 grams of semolina and two eggs. And pound, stretch, pound, stretch.

Tagliatelle fresca.

Tagliatelle fresca.

I took to all this with such gusto that I neglected to add the fourth ingredient, 125ml of white wine. Luckily Clare had stepped in to add some water to the mix instead, averting a dry dough disaster. Then it was a case of making a big ball of dough (like the mixing, more fun than it sounds written here), wrapping it in clingfilm and leaving it to one side for 30 minutes.

This is the point at which a sane person writes: ‘Then I took out my pasta maker’. In this case the pasta maker was me, and my wife. After some rolling and slicing we managed to cut our tagliatelle on the countertop. Foodies might call this ‘rustic’, I called it improvising.

From there it was simply a victory lap. We boiled the tangled little mounds for three minutes in salted water, and served with a mushroom and white wine we made on the side in that 30 minute window above.

So here it is. One of the eight plates of pasta that statisticians expect me to eat this year. They’ll be wrong.

Tagliatelle al vino bianco con funghi.

Tagliatelle al vino bianco con funghi.

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Can you hear me gnocching?

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.

Villa Frescura, Praiano.

Villa Frescura, Praiano, October 2012.

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.

On a roll. Gnocchi coming together.

On a roll. Gnocchi coming together.

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.

An American in Italy, in Ireland. Ricotta dumplings with braesaola salad.

An American in Italy, in Ireland. Ricotta dumplings with braesaola salad.

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