With the kind permission of the publisher, Starts at 60 has great pleasure in publishing this extract from the first chapter of The Umbrian Supper Club by Marlene di Blasi, reviewed by Karen O’Brien-Hall here.
Having poured oil into a large, deep pot and set it over a quiet flame, she sets out for a quick tour of the garden and the meadow just as we are arriving. Shedding coats and shawls, greeting one another as though years have passed since last Thursday night, we see to the table, to the filling of the wine jugs from the demijohn of red sitting in the corner. One of us lays uncut loaves of new bread on the table, another pokes about to see what it is that Miranda has cooking over the hearth fire though none of us dares to put a hand to anything without her command.
Her breath a bit short from fervour for her mission, Miranda returns holding her apron together with two hands and in its hollow there are what must be the last of the string beans – green and yellow – the first of the brussels sprouts, the chopped-off long leafy heads of celery, apples, zucchini blossoms, sage. Two brown-skinned pears she has stuffed into her sweater pockets for tomorrow’s breakfast.
‘Out of my way, via, via,’ she says, pushing us aside, bussing cheeks as she passes each one, then sets to the tasks of rinsing and drying and trimming, preparing her bounty for glory. All of us familiar with her frying dance, we surround her, hungry children in her thrall.
Starting with the celery leaves, dragging the branches a few at a time into a batter no thicker than cream, she slips the dripping things into the hot oil, letting them be until they rise to the surface of the now bubbling oil, the force of which turns them over – without a prod – to crust the other side of them. Her feet anchored in place, the whole of Miranda’s generous upper body sways, her hands f lying over the leaves and the blossoms and the beans to the batter, to the pot, lifting batch after batch from the oil with a wide skimmer, turning the gilded stuff out to rest on a long, flat pan lined with a tea towel. We pass the pan among us, devouring the fritters out of our hands, burning fingers, burning mouths, and have barely placed the empty pan back to her reach – we still chewing and sipping and moaning – as Miranda piles it with another batch. And another. She saves apple peelings and sage leaves for the last, since these are what she, herself, craves most. As she lifts these onto the pan and moves the frying pot off the heat, she turns to us, taking a long pull from the glass of white someone slaps into her hand. Then Miranda eats, drinks.
‘Pan-to-hand-to-mouth food, I like the wine cold, nearly gone to ice following the hot shattering crust in my mouth, the contrast sending one’s whole body into ecstasy,’ she tells us. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever served a frittura at the table. No time to get it there since I’m always on to the next round of dragging things through the batter, slipping them into the oil, lifting them out dark and crisp. I prefer everyone gathered around the pot, waiting. Sighing and laughing and crunching and sipping, Miranda asks for more wine. The three bottles of white (a rare luxury is ‘bought wine’ on Thursday nights), which she’d cooled in a tub of supermarket ice, are dead soldiers. Someone suggests we drink the bottle of Champagne that has been lying on its side in some cupboard for months, a bottle from some lesser-known house in Reims, which was gifted – read: lifted – by one of the truckers among Miranda’s admirers.
‘Shouldn’t it be drunk cold?’ she wants to know but two of the men are already fiddling with the foil, the wire, shouting ‘Attenzione, attenzione,’ though the cork slides out with a quiet plunk. We pour it, flat and sour, into one another’s tumblers, toasting Miranda and the thieving trucker. They go quiet, all of them, searching for some motive to compliment their first taste of ‘real French’ when Miranda says, ‘Yeasty stuff, we might better have made bread with it.’
I begin a cliffs-notes version of the story of Dom Pérignon and the sometime glories of what came to be la méthode champenoise but Miranda couldn’t be less interested. She says, ‘Leave a monk in a cellar and there’s bound to be a travesty.’
Flailing her toasting fork now, she bosses us into our places at table, stoops down then to the small hearth on the wall behind it to turn the thick, spluttering slabs of pancetta, which have been slowly crisping on a grate over olivewood embers and branches of wild sage. Sitting deep in the red-hot ash below the grate is a long, shallow terracotta baking dish of potatoes, small as a thumbnail, and the luscious sage-smelling fat drips over them. From the pocket of her pinafore she takes a handful of dried wild fennel flowers, rubs them between her palms over the potatoes, and the maddening perfumes they send up cause sighs of longing from us. Struggling to rise from her bent position, steadying herself with one hand on the mantel, once she is upright, Miranda-of- the-Bosoms is flushed with delight. For the pancetta, for the potatoes. For her frying dance and because it’s Thursday. Likely for much more than that.
‘Quasi, quasi – almost, almost,’ Miranda laughs over her shoulder, her great beautiful form juddering back behind the faded flowery bedsheet that secludes the kitchen from the dining room in the tiny derelict and woodsmoked house she calls her rustico.
It’s a Thursday in a long-ago October. And in this squat stone building, which sits on the verges of the Montefiascone road, we are nine still-hungry souls awaiting supper. Four women – five including myself – form the core group and, tonight, we are joined by four men: two husbands, the widower of a former member, and a lover, the last being Miranda’s long-time friend, Filiberto.
The ten small tables at which Miranda’s guests sit to dine on other evenings in the week have been pushed together into one, the diversity of their heights and widths smoothed over in green-checked oilcloth. Under sheaves of dried olive branches that hang from the slouching, split-beamed ceiling barely a metre above our heads, we sit on plank benches and half-broken chairs along its length. A merry troupe, having our way with Miranda’s purple wine, passing along a thin-bladed knife and a two-kilo round of her crusty sourish bread, still warm from the wood-fired oven in the back garden, each of us saws off a trencher, passes it to the person on their right. When everyone has bread, we tear it into pieces, wet the pieces in the wine, and chew the fine pap with gusto. Pane e vino, bread and wine.
We slide further into our cups, wet more bread in more wine until Miranda parts the bedsheet curtain – keeping it pinned to the wall with a tilt of her hip – and comes forth holding a great steaming basin of wild porcini braised in red wine and tomato. Into small deep white bowls she spoons the mushrooms with their dark potent juices and directs someone to fetch more bread and another to remove the pancetta from the grate and lay it over the potatoes where it’ll stay warm without burning. She asks if the wine jugs are full, then serves herself. We raise tumblers and voices in buon appetito and the house goes silent as stone save for low-pitched salacious murmurings.
We share in the clearing of plates and the resetting of others. One of the Thursday night rules is: Once the supper begins, Miranda will not leave her chair at the table until the meal is finished.
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