I last wrote anything on here in January (the 15th) – nearly three months ago. Writing is a craft I am learning. To become a good writer, you have to write, write some more, keep writing. “Write every day” my friend Rachel tells me. But I stopped. The words dried up. Or rather they bottle necked. I had plenty of words. Too many words, but there was no sense or reason to them.
The Sicilian and I finished. After nearly four years. On the shortest day of the year.
It was something that had been approaching for months. I thought that watching its slow and steady approach towards us would shield me from a Titanic moment. It turns out I was wrong. I may not be Leonardo di Caprio in this version, but I had a damn good go at being Kate Winslet.
For three weeks, I was fine. I stumbled through the horror of my dysfunctional family Christmas, I hosted New Year. There was sadness. Relief.
On the 16 January, I found myself at work, in front of the computer. Crying. Crying uncontrollably. Overwhelmed by loss, regret, coulda woulda shoulda, self loathing and doubt, emptiness. Hating my job, my life, myself.
I spent a week on the sofa. Sometimes in foetal position. Sometimes not. I wrote furious, vitriolic, crazed messages that helped no one and produced no answers. The GP ordered therapy and told me to call urgently if I had any suicidal thoughts. Dark days. One night I sat crying on a wall for an hour. I stopped eating and lost 8 kilos. The dogs got edgy and clingy.
And for three months nearly, I was off work. I thought that I would use my time to be productive. To make the allotment the best in the country. Become fluent in Italian. Visit Florence and Rome. Finish the book. Decorate the house. But I did none of these. I sat. I gardened a little. I walked the dogs. Every week I would meet my boss for a coffee and try not to cry. The thing that was furthest from and closest to my mind was writing.
I discovered that depression is exhausting and jealous. It demands all your energy, it allows no room for anything else.
Fortunately grief and madness faded. Time did its cliched work. There are still scabs that I mustn’t pick at and I will have scars, that I shall wear stoically, if not proudly. And I am left with the need to write, but without the knowledge of what to write about. Who wants to read the guesswork of some guy from Nuneaton fumbling his way through another culture’s food? Remember that self doubt I mentioned?
Friends reminded me to cook. To keep up the journey. To claim it as wholly mine. Rebrand it if you like. It was difficult. I had to stop reading Anna del Conte’s biography, there was too much to remind me of another life. There were many books I couldn’t finish. Couldn’t start. Recipes I couldn’t cook.
Just as Lombardy was starting the most localised of lockdowns, I went to visit my friend Stefano in London. I went to Borough Market and, as citrus season was in full swing, bought bergamots and citron. Something began to tilt. These were wholly mine, and what I did with them was down to me and to no one and nowhere else. I cooked more, I made the boobs of St Agata, blood orange curd, bergamot marmalade, candied citron, Agra dolce everything, polpette. I cooked English food, French food, Sicilian food. I had a few dates, I met a guy for one evening who’s great (apart from living in Amsterdam, damn this lockdown!).
As we know, the world then went to pot. On a Friday (the morning after my date with Mr Amsterdam), my GP and I decided I was well enough to return to work. On the Monday, the University where I work shut itself down and physically locked the gates. Officially I work from home, but it’s hard to operate a laboratory remotely.
And then I became ill. The worst flu I’ve ever had. Temperature, coughing, fatigue; began to get better and then 8 days in relapsed and spent nearly 48 hours asleep. This being Britain, I shan’t find out if this was just flu, or the new thing. I kept out of circulation, a friend walked the dogs.
This was a month ago now. Through it I cooked only with what I had in the house. Things grown on the allotment from the freezer, or pickled or jammed. Despite the illness, it was a fun experience. On the days that I had the energy, I had the time and the resources to eat wonderfully; alone, yes, but wonderfully. When I emerged from my isolation, I found the shops stripped bare. No eggs, no flour, but thankfully, still gin. So I carried on cooking from my reserves, and kept returning to Italian and Sicilian things of three or four ingredients. Beans and vegetables, pasta and tinned sardines, stale bread turned into bruschetta with peas and broad beans. I found cherries bottled in vodka and orange wine. I made a crostata with marmalade. Risotto got deep fried as little not arancine. I found a magnificent sacred heart of a cotagnata from last November. And I started to plant seeds – this year’s crops for next year’s stores. My peach tree had two flowers on it.
The world today is one of sadness, loneliness and strangeness. But these things in my freezer and cupboards have at least given me some hope again. The remind me that my past is not all waste and loss. With hope comes a voice. The bottlenecked words might have found a release.
So this is not a blog about Sicilian food written by the partner of a Sicilian, rather it is a blog about mostly Sicilian food – the growing and cooking of it, written by a single, adopted-Brummie, because he is greedy, loves the sun, and likes to grow and cook things.
Today (Good Friday), I made an utterly English Simnel Cake. It has some of that Borough Market candied citron in it (very Elizabeth David), candied ginger (for extra medieval). I ballsed up the crystallised flowers, because there is no caster sugar in the shops. They cracked and shattered, but now is not the time to be wasting eggs to have another go. I also made the marzipan lamb of Sicily, one of the campest, most delirious things in the world – Jesus as marzipan; my middle aged long sightedness means he ended up all googly eyed, with a distinctly home made look. My kitchen was both English and Sicilian today. Two places that my healing Irish heart is very attached to. Suddenly there were words again.