Every year, around Christmas, I make panforte. In a bowl I stir together flour; cocoa powder; toasted almonds, walnuts, and macadamias; nutmeg; cinnamon; ginger; chilli powder; and pepper. Then in one pan I melt chocolate, whilst in another I make syrup from sugar and honey. When both pots begin to bubble, I scrape them into the bowl and then it’s a race against time to mix it all together before the liquids turn back into solids. As the biscuit cake bakes in the oven and the smell of spices and roasted nuts and chocolate fill the kitchen, I think of Nonna. Not my Nonna, but: Nonna.
Nonna was my next door neighbour’s Nonna when I was growing up. Nonna – perpetually aproned – spoke always in rapid Italian (no doubt hoping her grand-daughter would pick it up better than her mother had) and moved in a cloud of faint flour dust that rose and fell with every gesticulation of her hands.
She also made the most magnificent food you have ever tasted. Her second-eldest grandson would go on to open a trendy cafe in the inner-city in her honour. In all of his press releases he would tell the story of how his Nonna taught him to cook. Reading about his hard-earned success from the other side of the world, I couldn’t resist a smug smile and the whispered thought; ‘yeah, same though.’ (And by the way, my pastas are also the stuff of legend).
I have no doubt that my memory of Nonna is romanticised. She was not my family, and she was also not a regular character in my childhood – it was rare that I would be at my neighbour’s house playing when Nonna was over; generally that was reserved for family time. In my more self-critical moments, I am fearful that I have simply amalgamated her from a series of Italian women who began making an appearance in Australian popular culture in the early- to mid-90s: Josie’s Nonna in Looking for Alibrandi probably would have made a heavy-handed appearance in my source material. But, at the same time, I also have no doubt that my memory of Nonna is genuine.
Nonna may not have been a regular character in my up-bringing, but she was nevertheless an incredibly important one. That smug, self-satisfied grin on the other side of the world was based in a deeply-personal truth: Nonna taught me to cook.
I come from a long line of women who couldn’t make a decent dish to save their life (and talent, ingenuity, and sheer dumb luck has meant they’ve never really had to either). My Yiayia was never the cook of her household. That honour went to her husband who – born in KL when it was still a British colony – would spend hours of a Sunday slow-cooking curries and kneading rotis. When it became necessary for Yiayia to cook, such delights were immediately replaced with over-boiled carrots (a dish that will still set me gagging at its mere thought) and hammer-and-chisel-tough strips of meat. For my mother – who lived through both the throwing off of the shackles of ‘women’s work’ that was the 70s feminist revolution and, less productively, the era of the ‘microwave dinner party’ – cooking was a much-dreaded chore frequently accompanied by ominous crashes and severe language warnings.
But in Nonna’s kitchen the crafting of a meal became an art form in which the simplest and easiest to manage processes churned out at the other end some brand new delight. She showed us how to prepare the vegetables; slicing them to different thicknesses to show us how surface area impacts cooking time, taste, and texture. She taught us how to balance simplicity with subtlety; never over-doing the number of ingredients, but always adding something extra – spice or salt or crunch – that could not be immediately discerned from looking at the plate. She taught us how to plan our order of battle; how to make sure that everything – from stews to pasta to salad – would be ready at the same time. She taught us how to balance the delights of flavour with the importance of being full, and watching her and her family delight in the eating of the food they had all prepared together, I realised that there is no ‘bad’ food.
Nonna taught me to cook, because she taught me to eat.
It wasn’t clear-sailing, and it still took me a long time to be confident in my cooking instincts; to not see food as a chore; and to realise that panforte is not ‘junk’ food: that it is love and family and sharing coated in honey and chocolate and nuts.
And so this year – as every other year – I will go to the spice shop around the corner and find the freshest ingredients I can. And then I will mix and melt and re-make them into my favourite Italian Christmas food. And then, once the cake has cooled and its exterior hardened, I will take a knife and run it through its middle. Then I will cut it in half again. And then I will find the middle points between those two cuts and I will slice two more times until I have my 8 slices of panforte. And then I will wrap them in cloth and ribbon and love, and I will distribute them to my friends and family. And together we will eat and live in joy.