WHEN IN NEED, TURN TO PASTA IT WILL NEVER BETRAY YOU

6.8

Fifty shades of yellow. It is not a Chinese imitation of the excruciating movie, but rather the flood of colours that overwhelm the senses when driving down any road in the north of Puglia in July. Fields of gold so large only the sky is the limit. Their colours are a feast for the eyes, colours that linger long after your eyes have closed.

You press your eyelids together, in the hope of getting some relief – but to no avail, for the sunlight blinds your mind more than your sight. It is then that you realise those colours have already travelled down to your soul to light up your inner self. After the wheat harvest, come new, darker and browner shades. The chaffs of wheat are burnt to purify the earth and in the summer evenings you can see the land turning black and smell the smoke from miles away. Less than a century ago the poorest peasants used to walk slowly along these fields after the fires, leaning down to handpick the single few grains, which had escaped the harvest. The fire had turned these grains from yellow to black, the so-called grano arso, roasted wheat. 

Bread and pasta made from it were as dark as the desperation of those peasants. Nevertheless, progress draws funny shapes at times and pasta made of grano arso is now a delicacy. To me, it is a childhood nostalgia I hold dear. Everyone has their own Proustian madeleines and personally I have a few (some I can mention, others I cannot), but possibly the most powerful one is pasta. The stream of consciousness starts from the sea of light where I used to let myself drown when sitting perilously on the edge of the harvester as a kid; I watched my friend in the driving seat in masculine admiration, with my hand stuck trailing in the piling wheat in the tank whilst the noisy machine marched on in the yellow field. I soaked up the sun and brightness, the hot air of July, the smell of gasoline and the sweat and the dirt. Stop time, thou art so beautiful! That was a moment worth of a Faustian pact. But at the time I could not know that it would now be a memory of my lost Arcadia. After the harvest, it was the time for numbers around the kitchen table: production per hectare, its likely wholesale price, the rent for the harvester and the pay for the driver, and finally the inevitable lean margin.

The day after the car journey to the local wholesale broker was a moment for excitement and banter; I got acquainted already as a kid of the electrifying feeling of holding a cheque in your hands.

It was also a day of cursing and bad language, huge trucks with their muscly drivers, fine merchants and negotiations. And awe. Piles of wheat all around the barnyard, a ridge of little yellow mountains. Their next journey was to the imposing concrete silos of the mills, where they took on the nobler forms of bread and pasta. To me, a dish of pasta is all this, no wonder I check my watch to get the cooking time to the second. Pasta cannot be demoted to a soggy starch fix and has to be treated as a delicacy. It needs to be al dente – literally to the teeth – because its tactile pleasure in the mouth is potent.

I can remember only one occasion when I did betray this pleasure pursuing a higher one, the night Nina came for dinner at my place. A beautiful American girl, I can remember her accent going to my head lighter even than the little bubbles of prosecco. The zabaione with liquorice had proved a successful starter and it was now time for pasta, artisan ravioli with ricotta and pumpkin directly from an Italian deli in Soho. The motto was clearly minimum effort for maximum result. My mind focused on her lips as they softly squeezed around the fork for the first mouthful of ravioli, waiting for the obvious compliments. ‘What is this sour twist in the flavor?’ she unexpectedly asked. Sour? That was not possible. Pumpkin and ricotta ravioli are actually sweet. I tried myself. The taste was actually acidic. It was an unusually hot July for London and the ricotta in the ravioli had clearly gone bad during the journey from the shop. My high hopes for the night were about to be shattered. I had to think fast. ‘It’s lemon. This is ravioli with pumpkin and lemon’, I lied with a serious face. ‘Ah, yes, it’s really nice. I’m vegetarian by the way, did you know that?’ Bless you Nina, and thank you for being American.