The last time I wrote this was almost two years ago after coming back from the UK when the world was still as we knew it. Two years later and we’ve lived through a global pandemic.

The first place to be affected in Europe was the northern region of Lombardy in Italy where I live. A man in the town of Codogno just south of Milan was diagnosed with coronavirus late at night on Thursday 20 February. By Saturday afternoon, about fifty cases had been identified. On Sunday morning Giorgio Armani announced he would show without guests. It was Milan Fashion Week and the city was brimming with the fashion world. At lunchtime news began to come through that the regional government of Lombardy was planning to close the schools. By Sunday evening I was looking at emptying shelves in my local supermarket.

On Monday 24 February, the kids didn’t go back to school. Our lives changed, all our lives changed as the coronavirus spread its way through our worlds. On Saturday 7 March Lombardy and 14 other Italian provinces went into lockdown. Two days later Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte announced that the whole of Italy would go into lockdown. Days merged into one as the numbers of the dead rose, each number a world of grief and pain. Two weeks later we watched images of army trucks taking the dead out of the city of Bergamo. On the evening of Friday 27 March a lone Pope Francis conducted mass in Saint Peter’s Square, a symbol of national and personal grief that many of us are still trying to process. There are towns and cities which have lost generations, families who are grieving several family members. For some it is still not over.

Then on 3 June Italy opened its regional and national borders once more. Lockdown is over and we’re all now learning how to move forward in the era of social distancing. When we went into lockdown, I’d just finished a book about fashion in Milan. It should have been published this year but like many things got postponed, and will be published next spring.

In the meantime I’ll be writing here again, so check back soon for more travel, food and culture and various other bits about this beautiful country I call home.

Photo: Venice in the rain, Rachael Martin

Home, memory, sand in your sandwiches

Then we came home again, after a summer that included our usual trips to Spain and the UK, via the two month mark of the three month Italian school holidays when we all started to feel like it was time to go back to school. Yet the holidays continued, and the UK was a round of the Great British seaside and visits to old friends, a recall of memory, of tastes mixed with smell and images that roll by like some home video that was never made and appears in snapshots in mostly forgotten boxes.

We used to go to the North Sea coast when I was a girl. Staithes and Whitby, Runswick Bay, and the beach at Sandsend where the sands never seemed to end.  Sand in your sandwiches, sand in your hair. The crisp sandwiches that I barely remember when I was young, although I know they were there. I have a thing about crisp sandwiches now. Crisp sandwiches in the UK, crisp sandwiches on the beach on Spain because we wouldn’t be on the beach without crisp sandwiches. And the wind and the windbreaks. I’d forgotten about the windbreaks until this summer. That part definitely happened, never being on the beach without windbreaks.

When I was a girl we’d stay in a cottage on the cliff in Cowbar near Staithes, walk down the hill and over the bridge and there was the shop selling the candy floss at the end. There was always the candy floss at the end, and a café selling the crab sandwiches that I’ve never liked but still get nostalgic over. We went to Scarborough this year and after eating fish and ships on the front and watching the boats, my husband said to me: “Why didn’t you tell me they had crab sandwiches?” Because I never thought. Crab sandwiches were never a part of it for me. Yet now it’s always fish and chips in newspaper or more often on plastic trays.

We ate fish and chips out of newspaper one summer, the summer my mother died. The boys were only little and they thought it was wonderful, this sitting and having a picnic of fish and chips in the garden, or rather sitting and eating fish and chips out of newspaper on the step. We ate the fish and chips in a different garden, a garden that wasn’t hers, as by this time she’d become so ill. She was riddled with cancer and we were riddled with stomach bugs so had to stay away.

This summer we were in my mother’s garden once more. This summer I was in my mother’s kitchen once more, knowing that this summer could well be the last time. Grief poured out. You think that it will somehow stop or heal. That’s when it tricks you, sneaks up on you, behind you, throws itself in your face. It’s the cruelty of grief, the cruelty of illness, of loss and ultimately our own mortality.

Then we were home again, and it was September.

Every year it comes around, and every year I can feel that usual tug between feeling so grateful that we’re all back to our own lives, and nostalgia at the realisation that these times will never come again.

So yesterday we made a cake, because some days are just for making cakes. I was reminded of Joan Didion in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” of how after losing her husband she talks of learning to find meaning in the domestic, in the rituals, the food and the making of a home. She writes of how it mattered, of how it helped to stave off the rest.

So yesterday we made a cake, and food and memory all rolled into one and we sat on our sofa and ate that cake.

Wild boar stew is part of my identity

When I told my family I was toying with the idea of being vegan or at least vegetarian, my younger son looked at me in that way he has when it’s obvious he thinks his mother cannot possibly be serious. “You’ll never manage it,” he pronounced.

Of course he was right. I can’t see myself becoming vegetarian either although I have noticed some differences. Rather than making any major decisions, it’s been more to do with making certain choices. If I’m going to eat cheese, I’d rather it be goat’s cheese and fresh. I no longer look for the grated parmesan for my pasta, unless that’s what we’re specifically having. I didn’t want mince ragù with my pasta the other day. I have this  dialogue going on in my head when I’m approaching meals. Is this vegan or vegetarian? I guess you could probably call it mindful eating, although believe me that sounds far worthier than it is. I do think more about what I want to eat though. We are what we eat as we all know in theory but may not necessarily always practice.

Then the other day I made wild boar ragù as the snow had started to fall again and the whole kitchen was lit up by the snow outside in that way that I’ve always loved. I was happy to cook it, unlike the fajitas the other day which became deconstructed fajitas as I decided I didn’t want the meat in them. Raw chicken just didn’t do it for me, although if I’m honest it hasn’t for a long while.

Wild boar on the other hand has memories. It reminds me of when I first came to Italy and spent several winters skiing every weekend in the mountains.  It was sitting round tables with – I want to say other young Italians – because time brings with it an altered state of identity and you gradually you start to wear the country in which you live. It involves going back to your home country and feeling like you don’t quite belong any more. And it involves feeling part of the country in which you’re living to the point that you’ve forgotten you didn’t always live here. Children helped in my case. Or rather, motherhood didn’t help at all before it did. And then what was originally a huge pull back to the UK gradually transformed into a this is home here and now.

Naturally – or possibly, naturally for me – food played its part. It was mountain food based upon stews, and polenta, always a dish of steaming polenta. Wild boar stew, venison stew, any stew, pizzoccheri and plates of sciatt on chicory. This was the place and this was its food, and through this a whole culture spoke.

I made the stew with a small jar of tomato passata because I have a friend whose Tuscan mum swears by it and says this always gives a richer flavour. It does. Brown a couple of carrots and onions in a casserole dish or pan that will go in the oven with a whole clove of garlic. Add the meat – about 1 kg. Then add five juniper berries, a bay leaf, a slug of red wine and a small bottle of good quality passata and it does have to be good quality because it really does make a difference. Then cook in a low oven until the meat starts to fall apart. Most Italian recipes will tell you to cook it on the hob for about an hour and a half but I always cook mine in the oven as it always turns out better for me that way. Another thing to note is that if you marinade the meat beforehand it takes away what Italians call that “wild taste”. It all depends on personal preference. If you do prefer a slightly sweeter taste then marinade the meat for 24 hours in enough red wine to cover it, a couple of bay leaves, about 5 juniper berries, a carrot and an onion. What’s important is that you throw this away before cooking, otherwise you’ve defeated the object.

This is a stew to be eaten with polenta or fresh pappardelle, the day after cooking though as the flavours will always improve.

Mountain passes optional, though highly recommended.

Photo: Albergo della Posta, Passo dello Spluga

Albergo della Posta, Via Dogana, 8, 23024 Madesimo; 0343 54234;

Bologna porticoes and the women’s marches

I took the picture last Thursday in Bologna before the women’s marches. There’s something so calming about Bologna. It manages to be lively and vibrant without feeling chaotic. It’s also one of Italy’s oldest university cities (yet feels more like a big town), is home to so much cultural and political activity. I sat in a bar in via Zamboni’s university area, amidst students on laptops and various flashbacks to my own student days in 1990s Manchester.

On Sunday at the Women’s March in Milan there were women younger than this who got up and shared their stories, stories we can imagine. On Saturday I went to the Women’s March in Rome and heard other stories from other women. There was Asia Argento and other women who’ve worked all their lives for women’s rights, women who’ve lived a lifetime and share experiences of that lifetime. I got the lowdown on menopause. I need other women to tell me how they did it, to give me the nitty gritty this-is-how-it-is-sweetheart because at the end of the day we’re living in women’s bodies. I might find the social definition of woman problematic but the truth is I’m still a woman with periods and a body that’s been through childbirth and hormones that are rapidly turning me into this middle aged woman and I never knew until it’s happening now just quite how liberating that could be. So I listened to it all, met new faces and saw old ones and was so glad to see them.

Of course some of us will never be involved in politics. We’re far too busy drowning in the myth of having it all, the one where we’re supposed to have perfect families and brilliant careers and sex at least three times a week with our partners when actually most of the time we’d rather sleep. We’re the daughters of the witches, or rather the semi-witches who were still working out how to do it all themselves and mixed messages became rooted in our conscience. Our politics become the everyday, our lives, our work, the way we educate our children. The voice in my head tells me stop being sentimental. It’s not sentimentalism, it’s our own form of politics. Where women don’t feel they’re heard, they’ll find a way. Where women feel their children are being educated by other people’s values, where they see a society moving in a certain direction, where they feel they’ve been stripped of the age-old communities that fed them and nourished them, they’ll still find a way.

Like a friend said to me on Sunday, it’s sisterhood. And it’s very real. Not that men aren’t invited, but really, there are some pretty good reasons why sometimes we need this private party. To quote Gloria Steinem, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” Really piss you off.

It’s a #metoo that feels permanently fused with a fuck you, even though you have this voice that tells you there’s always another side to any story and maybe I’m playing the victim. That’s where the social conditioning kicks in. Keep quiet, don’t complain, think how lucky you are, be grateful, the slightly more sophisticated version that they’ll throw at you where you’re supposed to float off into some calm state and forget about all this – permanently, and shut up while you’re at it. I have no intention whatsoever of shutting up. Besides, I’ve realised it’s good for my kids. It causes them to ask questions, difficult ones. Oh, you don’t like that idea? But aren’t you the ones who are always telling me to do what’s good for my kids?

The Bologna porticoes say it all. You walk through one, and then you walk through another. What matters is that you keep walking. And sometimes you will only keep walking if there are other women walking with you. The crucial part is that there are women walking with you. It’s where me becomes we, and that is always the difference.

Arancini di riso alla milanese or Milanese style rice balls

Saturday 25th November marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. I want to share a recipe for arancini di riso, or little oranges of rice as they’re known, a popular dish from the south of Italy.

The reason I want to share them is because I ate them once, cooked by a woman in a women’s refuge. She’d made them that night, and now every time I make mine, I think of her. There are just some people and situations that you know you’ll always remember.

I don’t profess to make the best arancini, nor could it really be considered an authentic recipe. But that’s what I love about home cooking. It’s where you can get creative in the kitchen, and besides, most of the best home cooks I know cook with what they have to hand. They wouldn’t dream of going out to get something that they didn’t have. They’d just substitute it with something else. So rather than arancini, my fried rice balls are more a northern Italian riso al salto, or fried risotto. Whereas the original ones have ragù inside or mozzarella and prosciutto, are a Sicilian speciality and are in the shape of a ball or a cone.

So how do I make mine? Whenever I make risotto giallo or risotto alla milanese as it’s generally known, I make extra. The same if I’m making risotto alla salsiccia (risotto with Italian sausage.) Then I put it in the fridge overnight, take it out the next day and add some chopped up mozzarella, maybe some ham or whatever cheese I have in the fridge. Mix it all in with the leftover risotto and shape the mixture into small balls. If you want to use ragù you can.

Then make two halves of a rice ball with a dip in the middle of each, kind of like you were making Scotch eggs, presuming you’ve ever made Scotch eggs. Put a couple of spoonfuls of ragù in the middle of one and then close by putting the other half on top. Roll the balls lightly in beaten egg and then in breadcrumbs. Deep fry in vegetable oil.

I have a Gloria Steinem quote that pretty much forms the background to it all. “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”

Then, if you’re lucky, you pick yourself up and take action the way you can.