Posted 26th March 2021
“No Nonna No!” I shout at my Italian grandmother as she tries to serve a chunk of bread with my food.
“Mangia, mangia” [eat! eat!] she demands as I shout “Sono allergica!” [I’m allergic!] in a panicked voice.
On your toes, that’s what you have to be in Nonna’s kitchen, and my allergy has been a big learning curve for us both.
My Nonna lives in a tiny village in the South of Italy, not too far from Naples. Picture this...
A local greengrocer in his tiny truck weaves through the narrow, sun-soaked streets like a portable market. He arrives below your balcony every Sunday hollering “fresh tomatoes!” to those who hear the buzz of his motor and blaring Neapolitan music.
This village is beautiful, the envy of landscape painters everywhere. It’s surrounded by mountains, fields of olive trees and dusty footpaths. The locals all know each other and it’s considered rude not to greet one another with a kiss on both cheeks, God forbid you don’t say Buongiorno [Good Morning!] to a nun!
The local produce is fresh and everything is homemade. My Nonno [Grandad] used to make his own wine, he would grow and pick the grapes for his neighbour to press and bottle.
I always close my eyes and remember the brilliant days of my youth, lying back under the branches of a vibrant olive tree at “La Sera”, the allotment my grandparents had in the South of Italy, to help them pick some fruit and veg. We would head home with a bag brimming with courgette flowers ready to prepare a risotto, sun beaming down on us.
As a little girl, I was inspired and in awe of my Nonna’s cooking. I used to sit on the kitchen side and watch as she would cover her whole marble table with gnocchi. Each tiny parcel was curled with loving care. I was always so shocked at how fast she could shape them, and make more than enough for our family of seven.
She would rise at 5am, go to the land and pick her veg and make sure she was back at 7am to gethersugo[tomatosauce] brewing.So much time andvalue was invested into every single meal. A joy to watch, let alone eat!
It was in my early teens I found out I was allergic to wheat and gluten.
It all started with stomach cramps. Each time the cramps would get worse, until I was hospitalised on several occasions looking puffy, covered with hives and struggling to breathe. It wasn’t a fabulous look!
I thought I would never be able to eat my Nonna’s food again. I was never going to be able to eat pasta, pizza, or bakery bread - oh, how I still miss that fresh bread taste! I was eating oatcakes, smothered in Nutella to mask the taste, and rice cakes. I lost a lot of weight and felt I missed out on a lot. When I went to University I missed out on the 2 am post nightclub kebab - although, I’ve been told I dodged a bullet there!
Then the world seemed to adapt a little better to us ‘allergy lot.’ Better products and greater variety appeared in the supermarket aisles: I could have great quality pasta again! I was saved!
But prices for gluten-free items remained high, so I began to think about cooking from scratch more. I created my own recipes and set up my blog (Gluten Free Girl in Exeter) to help people just like me: Those who love to eat and struggled with a salad and oatcake diet. I wanted people to know that there were options out there for them!
As I wrote, I reminisced. Those days with my Nonna, watching her cook inspired me to go back to cooking fresh, local and simple.
Whilst my Nonna cooks with a lot of pasta and flour, I realised I could do the exact same thing with gluten free substitutes. Courgettes covered in egg and gluten free flour are just as lovely crisped up in olive oil.
Last summer (2019 obviously! 2020 just doesn't count) Nonna and I were cooking side by side with different pots to avoid cross contamination, and it was one of the best moments ever.
We peeled, prepared and boiled the courgette flowers we had picked together and she let me handwrite her recipes out: Recording her every tip and trick. I am going to treasure these notes forever and I am going to pass them onto my children. My fiance snapped my Nonna and I together and it’s on our fridge in pride of place.
My mamma once spent three hours with Nonna writing down every detail of her famous lasagna so she could teach me and I will treasure it forever. It’s a recipe I get out for the people I treasure just as she did. If someone is sad or we need to celebrate, it calls for Nonna’s lasagna. It takes an entire day to prepare; a mission, but the results are worth it.
So if you do one thing this week, I urge you to call your relatives and ask them to recount their favourite dish and how they cook it. Write down every word, every quirk and every tip. Let them inspire you and pass on their wisdom and when you cook it, you will be cooking with love and heartfelt memories: just like Nonna taught me.
Antonia D'Alessio - @glutenfreegirlinexeter