Friday, September 9, 2011

A Bee, Today...

My blog lately came to a halt, first because of the aftermath of my beloved cat Billie's death (at the end of July); and then because of the weather. It's been so hot here (and long overdue!) that I've been wanting to do nothing other than sitting in my garden, in the shade, and admire the progressive blooming of my vegetables. Red and orange tomatoes, green and purple basil, yellow round cucumbers, white eggplants, deep violet chili peppers, and a multitude of fuchsias in all shades of pink and mauve are the colors in my otherwise very, very green garden.
Today, as I sat under the carport that has been set aside as our seating and BBQ area, I saw a bee alight on the pink and lilac flowers of a blouse that was hanging on my washing line.

So, a bee's memory can be fooled by bright colors that mimic real flowers; and our memory can also trick us with a sudden spark of color, a sudden burst of sound, a sudden issue of scent that bring us back to another place, another time.

In these days of summer heat, when scents are particularly salient in the air, and I've been living off the bounty of tomatoes and basil off my garden (all manners of pasta sauces hot and cold, cooked and raw; gazpacho; pesto galore) I've experienced food as memory in deep and powerful ways.

Gentle readers, you all know, of course, the oft-quoted proustian passage about the madeleine, which recounts the tricks that memory can play on our mind: one morsel of a taste long lost, and we are suddenly precipitated back into the past, a past we'd believed gone forever.

Indeed, since leaving Italy in 1984 I have been experiencing the almost obsessive recall of three distinct smells, that for me have always represented the quintessence of Naples (yes, I know, the cynics out there will want to add the smell of burning garbage to my proustian list, but I must assure you that what you read in the news is never the complete story).

Firstly, there is the smell of basil: the particular kind that here is in fact called Napoletano, and has tough, large, crinkly leaves of an emerald shade. This variety is not the most suitable for pesto (though it will do), being rather fibrous and a touch bitter if eaten raw.
But it is heavenly if a few shreds (ie. juliennes for all you culinary purists) are tossed into a caprese salad (if possible, made with the best mozzarella di bufala, and the ripest summer tomatoes); and it is wonderful to add to a tomato sauce because its big leaves do not disintegrate and retain some flavor even with the long cooking.
In Italy, you could buy this basil in large bunches at the greengrocer's, but if all you needed it for was your sauce or salad, they'd give it to you for free, together with some parsley and a celery stalk; these are called gli odori, the scents, and most greengrocers will just slip them into your bag of fruit and vegetables without you needing to ask.

And then, there is my second proustian smell: coffee.

Oh, sure, there's plenty of coffee alright in the Northwest (too much, I think, used as an addictive pick-me-up against the depression derived from a constantly grey sky—but that's another story); but that is most definitely not the coffee of my heritage.
In Italy, there are no "varieties" of coffee, no fancily named concoctions of syrups and foam and milk and chocolate, in different shapes of cups; there is only espresso, and espresso doesn't come in "one shot or two?" (a question that here always makes me chuckle internally), you order it simply as un caffĂ©, a coffee, because it's the only coffee there is (yes, there is also cappuccino, but no one in Italy would drink it in the middle of the afternoon as tourists do, only in the morning for breakfast with a cornetto—a particular type of Italian croissant—or a brioche to go with it).

The smell of coffee, or espresso, has accompanied me all my life in Italy: if Naples is the Italian capital of pizza, it is also the capital of espresso. You can use Naples as a departure point on the scale of espresso strength and move upward along the boot, with the strength of coffee decreasing as you go. Espresso in Milan resembles more the kind of coffee you get in Paris (also simply called coffee, not espresso), with the unlikely yet nice twist of a lemon rind draped along the rim of the cup like the scarves that Parisian women do so well.
But, in Naples, coffee is dark, black with a brownish tinge, strong, very strong: as we say in Italy, ristretto (literally, tightened, or short, to indicate a small amount of coffee). It is served very hot, in a very hot cup (at the bar—which in Italy is not a drinking hole but a place where you drink your coffee or other drinks standing up at the counter—they keep the coffee cups immersed in boiling hot water).
And the smell, the smell is everywhere, the sharp and slightly acidic and nose-tingling smell of coffee wafting out of every window in every apartment block in the city, at most hours of the day (and, sometimes, night).
And I miss that smell, and when I make myself a coffee at home, it brings my city back to me—my crazy city with its over-the-top behavior, its over-ripe smells, its all-around sensory overload...

And then, there is the smell of jasmine; a jasmine that may not rival its Indian, or Persian varieties, but it is certainly much more fragrant than anything I've ever smelled in non-Mediterranean countries. In the summer nights, when the intense heat of the day slowly dissipates but lingers on just enough that you can sit bare-armed on a terrace under a jasmine/entwined pergola and converse with your friends into the wee hours while sipping some cold white wine, the smell of jasmine emanating from above your head can be deeply intoxicating.

Maybe I'm bitter because my own memoir might never get published, and it will certainly never sell for a six-figure sum, but I just don't get the appeal of books like "Eat Pray Love". She didn't have to go to three different countries for these activities, she could have found them all in Italy. And the foods to accompany each one of them.

Yes, basil for eating, coffee for praying, and the jasmine most definitely for loving.

1 comment:

  1. Smells are such wonderful creatures. I too have memories wrapped in jasmine. My mom and I walking the streets of my city at night, me asking her why the moon was following us, her laughter at my question. And there is also this wacky thing about smells that I call instant transportation: certain smells of my house taking me back to Manchester 15 years ago, or my grandmother's kitchen when I was seven. As I read your post I tried to identify the smells of my city and of other cities I have have lived in...It's funny to think that no thinking on my part will bring back these memories as fast as the smell itself!