This is the kind of family I was always looking to adopt on my year abroad: Saturday night we go out and up into the mountains for an icecream supper. Icecream as a main course, mind. In a tall glass dish with swirls of cream, rivers of sauce. Hazelnuts for me, raspberries for them. The adults even seem more excited than the seven-year-old girl, who licks her cone regally.
On the way home, my host asked the little girl how her grandparents were doing.
Non mi ricordo. (I can’t remember.)
Mangiavano e camminavano, parlavano e ridevano? (When you last saw them, were they eating, walking, talking and laughing?)
Allora stanno bene. (Then they must be alright.)
I came to the Italian Alps to learn a little about their desserts, their style of baking. I noticed that Italians like their sweets sweet, full of jam or lemony cream, their crostata sturdy, striped with sweet short pastry. They prefer a small chocolate square with breakfast coffee to full-blown dessert after supper. What they normally order in the morning, a “brioche” (or else “cornetto“) is a more spongy, lighter croissant with much less butter.
I got a free cappuccino lesson thrown in, as I stood behind the stainless steel counter from 6.30 – 8 am. The locals trickled in, sat down, opened the paper. They didn’t order their coffee because they have the same every day. The patron knows. They know. Everyone knows everyone else and their business. Except me, the wandering English girl. I had to ask.
Caffe macchiato freddo. (A drop of cold milk, not cold coffee.)
Caffe corretto. (A generous splash of grappa, even at 7am.)
Macchiatone. (Slightly less milk than a cappuccino, slightly more than a macchiato. For the thrifty types from Turin, apparently.)
Cappuccino senza schiuma. (No foam. So, not actually a cappucino then.)
The milk for the cappuccino should be at just 65C, so it can be drank at once. A proper barista can tell the temperature by touching the metal jug, foaming the milk just the right amount. In any case, there should be enough milk for two small cappuccini at most. Reheated milk is just not as good. Froth the milk first, then do the coffee. Optimal time for the hot water to drip through the beans is 12-13 seconds. (Don’t fill the grinder to the top with beans – they should stay in the fridge to keep fresh.)
More than the coffee order, the barista also ought to know whether his client is left or right handed, in order to correctly position the spoon and cup handle. I learned a lot, not least from the old school pastry lessons from a grandfather in an apron and faded dolce and gabbana vest.
I learned most in those first few hours at dawn: how to welcome people in incredibly early, to kickstart their day with a jolt of caffeine and an insulting remark. (I wasn’t very good at this – but the boss knew their weak points off by heart too and his customers loved to be teased.)
You can talk a lot of guff about the Mediterranean lifestyle, a simpler way. A few select ingredients for delicious food, a long life. We love the idea of Italy – yet the Italians were quick to ask me what on earth I was doing there, in the mountains where most of the young people had already fled to Germany or elsewhere to get work. Not so simple.
Be that as it may, I did learn to appreciate the smallest pleasures, tying on an apron, admiring the evergreen peaks looming. I also learned that if you can walk and talk, if you are still eating and laughing, you’re probably just fine.