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The Neapolitan boyfriend, red roses and his mother's ragu

I remember certain things about G, my very first boyfriend, incredibly clearly.  Other memories have just faded away completely – it was 50 years or so ago.  I do remember realising rather suddenly he was not the love of my life after all, two years after we first met, and being very clear and horribly blunt about how I felt. His response was to send me two dozen beautiful long stemmed red roses.  I’ve always felt guilty about that incredibly romantic and forgiving gesture.

 

We met one evening in summer through mutual friends in that seemingly haphazard way that young people all seemed to meet each other in Rome in those days – hanging around with your moped outside a café or bar and flirting, joking, chatting – but mainly just being there.  His much more handsome friend did the initial chatting up as I tried to negotiate eating my ubiquitous Suppli di Riso with its strings of melting mozzarella and bottle of Chinotto whilst still looking cool, and then G sort of hove into view. Before I knew it, I had a Neapolitan boyfriend: my first boyfriend, who, embarrassing as it is to confess now, sported a tremendously well-kept mullet.

 

I do remember New Year’s Eve celebrations with him. Two of them, to be exact.  One was on a beach, in a freezing cold wind, drinking champagne straight out of the bottle and the liquid being dragged away from my mouth by the wind and splashing wasted into the sea.  The other was when he created a kind of den in his parent’s garage and we spent the evening down there, surrounded by candles and music, eating smoked salmon with our fingers. He was, without question, a true romantic, and deliciously crazy.

 

I was very fond of his parents, and often spent time with his mother in the kitchen.  They were truly Neapolitan, and shared with me a side of Italian culture that I had hitherto never really had any occasion to know or understand.  Italy is still very much divided from a regional standpoint, and was even more so in the 1970s compared to how it is now. To put this into some kind of perspective, let me give you some examples of just how clear the regional divisions were in those days. When I was training to be a chef in Rome in 1975, and we were first given Balsamic Vinegar to use, this ingredient was as mysterious as ambergris to us.  We laughed about it a lot, remarking that this laxative - in Rome at the time it was only available from a chemist for constipation, was something that those mad loons in Modena used to dress their salads with.  And as a child, one of the most exciting things about driving to Tuscany for a weekend or a holiday was knowing that Focaccia would soon be available to enjoy again – Focaccia simply did not exist in Rome in those days.

 

Sunday family gatherings at G’s house were enormously formal and involved many different generations, all in their very best frocks and suits, the table covered with mountains of food that was mostly completely unfamiliar to me, and which I was enthusiastically encouraged to get stuck into with as much gusto as everybody else. 

All the Neapolitan relatives would be there, G’s old and wrinkled Nonne on the sofa with their shiny, twinkling eyes; several aunts and cousins helping in the kitchen, each one with their own opinion about how to make this or that dish; the men out on the balcony, tending the outdoor pizza oven and decanting wine into jugs from a battered demi-john, their voices rising in volume as their (usually) football-based conversations got more and more animated.

 

The ornate, lace covered sideboard was laden with Baba’, Sfogliatelle and Pastiera (but only in Springtime); while huge platefuls of Sartu di Riso, Impepata di Cozze and Vongole Veraci steamed open in white wine, Pesce all’Acqua Pazza and the most amazing buffalo mozzarella I have ever tasted slumped over ripe, sweet tomatoes that somebody would have grown on their allotment, were all brought out from the tiny kitchen. The arrival of each course, each dish, was greeted at the table by cries of pleasure and clapping of hands, and the mere idea that we might have too much food never seemed to occur to anybody.  This family really knew how to celebrate, with all their favourite regional specialities laid out for all to enjoy in enormous quantities. The only possible outcome was to stay sitting for hours on the very uncomfortable, baroque style chairs with dangerously spindly legs, washing each triumphantly served dish down with rivers of somebody’s fabulously drinkable home made wine that somehow never made any of us visibly drunk.

 

Sometimes, these endless lunches would move on almost seamlessly into dinner. The outdoor pizza oven would by then, by universal agreement, have reached optimum temperature and the dough was so well risen it was almost alive and fizzing out of the linen covered bowl where it had sat since dawn. With renewed energy, pizza making would begin. “Its so light after all! And the children love it so much!” they’d cry, as they slapped the dough into submission, flinging it over their heads and down again before smearing it with a veil of tomato and a hailstorm of mozzarella.  A handful of torn basil leaves, and then into the oven it went, taking just a minute to bake before emerging, golden, crisp and scented. “Eccola qui! La Pizza! La Pizza!” they’d cry, welcoming the fragrant, piping hot pizza to the table. Needless to say, we would all be able to find room for at least one pizza each before the party finally broke up, but not before several thimblefuls of yet another relative’s ice cold home made Limoncello, made with lemons picked from their own lemon grove on the Amalfi coast. “Salute! Salute! Cin Cin!” everybody would shout as the glasses clinked and the Limoncello slid down. “Buona la pizza eh?”

 

Of all the wonderful things I learned about and enjoyed eating so much during my time with G, the one dish I remember the best was the extraordinary, amazing and very complicated dish called Ragu alla Napoletana, which differs so widely from the classic Bolognese version that it is impossible to confuse the two.  One day I asked G’s mother if she would teach me to make it, and this resulted in the two of us spending about five hours in her minute, clinically clean kitchen. Her recipe has remained a much loved and adapted favourite ever since, and one that never fails to remind me of those two dozen, long-stemmed, perfect, red roses. 

 

Not long after those red roses had faded, I headed for London and began to cook for a living instead of purely for pleasure.

 

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