Work had been so busy I didn’t think we’d have a holiday, but I managed to get a late booking for a farmhouse near Verona. It was too big for two people, but my boyfriend and I took it because it was cheap. ‘Late in the season,’ they said; ‘lots of room,’ we thought. It was 1989 and in London The River Café was still garnering dizzying praise. Everyone was roasting vegetables and dreaming about moving to Italy. Tuscany had overtaken Provence as the idyll and serious home cooks were trying to produce silky sheets of pasta and getting used to the grassy heat of Tuscan olive oil. I was careful not to fall into the trap of making Italy a fantasy place, but I did love the food.
With no time to deliberate over books, I packed only Anna Del Conte’s Secrets from an Italian Kitchen. The list of what I hoped to make – Sardinian peppers, stuffed tomatoes, ricotta and basil tart, peperonata – was scribbled on the last page. I was going to cook vegetables, because vegetables were the thing most worth cooking in Italy. I wanted to make plates of colour every day.
The farmhouse kitchen was enormous, with rough white walls and a tiled floor. Every bit of equipment you could want was stowed behind cotton curtains under the counters. I pulled each one back, as if peering into a doll’s house, to study the bashed saucepans, the pasta machine and the ancient Bialetti. It was a proper kitchen, stone-cool, with a huge table. Outside was an unruly orchard of peach and apricot trees, the fruit heavy, and a small vegetable garden.
We rattled around in the house. It was gloomy and imposing so I asserted our presence by dragging vegetables into it every day, chopping, cooking and making pasta at one end of the table, eating and drinking at the other, while Van Morrison sang from the CD player.
I started cooking Italian vegetable dishes at university, long before I visited Italy. Thrift was essential. I bought second-hand cookbooks by people I’d never heard of and marked up dishes that seemed economical. I repeatedly murmured, ‘Oh yes,’ as I worked my way through Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book. I’d never thought of braising broccoli in olive oil and chilli (an Italian dish translated as ‘red-hot broccoli’). I procured a volume – rather incongruously on a cold weekend on Islay – about Italian food by someone called Elizabeth David, and was delighted that she thought cooking carrots in Marsala was a good idea.
In the years that followed, every book that suggested a different way with aubergines, I bought: Italian Vegetarian Cookery by Paola Gavin (a gold mine), Leaves from Our Tuscan Kitchen by Janet Ross (old-fashioned and elegant), and the superb Cucina Fresca by Viana La Place. The food in La Place’s book was so shockingly simple – one dish is nothing more than shaved fennel, mozzarella, oil and lemon – that it was like drinking ice-cold Pellegrino on an arid August day.
What I learned, over time, was that, while Italian vegetable cookery was inexpensive and seemed easy, you had to pay attention. Courgettes were better if you dried them a bit before frying them; you couldn’t remove too much of a tomato’s insides before stuffing it or you’d weaken its structure and it would split while cooking; mushrooms were best fried briskly in olive oil for colour, with a little butter added at the end for flavour. Seemingly small things mattered.
I did the most ambitious meal on our last night: stuffed courgette flowers, large ravioli, each one filled with an egg yolk, aubergine polpette, roast peppers with pistachios and a vinegar sauce. I concentrated in that kitchen in Verona. I learned. And you could taste the sun in every dish.