Of Risotto and Soufflé



By Francesco Bianchini




Between parents and children there is no middle ground. Either we scrutinize each other with a magnifying glass to find that flaw at the origin of all our failures, or the collapse of our illusions. Or, on the contrary, we turn a blind eye to macroscopic flaws because we want only to see the good in the people we love unconditionally. In both cases, only perfection is contemplated. Less is accepted from friends, brothers and sisters, even spouses, but not from parents or one’s own children.

Mamma and papa, tenth anniversary (July 1970)

With a perspective that time and detachment can offer, it is possible to scale back those roles in which we are all amateurs, and in which we are not given a second chance. For a long time I thought that my mother and father were messy improvisers; they weren’t particularly ‘cut out’ for the task. At a certain point, however, I stopped holding them responsible for every stone I happened to trip over, and to focus instead on the fact that, even though I won’t share their fate, I owe what I am to them.

Going against a mother’s instinct to hold her children back as long as possible, mine inspired me from an early age with the principles of independence. Although my sisters came after a string of boys, mamma never made anything a gender issue. We all had to be able to take care of ourselves, which meant fending alone in the kitchen, as in other domestic activities, so we would never have to make choices dictated by our need for others to unravel our skeins. I consider this gift one of the best that a benign fairy could formulate around the cradle of an infant, far superior to attractiveness and wealth.

Papa and me in the garden of Collevalenza

My mother, an avid reader, put all the tools at our disposal to create for us an esprit bien meublé, she said, a well-furnished mind. In the evenings during our summers at San Pietro – with no TV and no electricity – she would read aloud by candlelight fables and stories that would unfold for weeks, keeping us in suspense, so much so that often, not having the patience to wait for her measured pace, we would finish the book on our own. She never forced any of us to read, but set an example. Each book I read thus added elements of well-being, even elegance, to the living room of my mind; as a result it has become the place where I feel most at ease.

The living room of my mind – my library

From my father I inherited a passion for houses and gardens. He, who would have liked to have been an architect but ended up doing something else entirely, conveyed his inscrutable sentimentality into the dwellings of his life. When he died, going through his papers, we discovered that he owned a small house – just three rooms, one above the other – in the middle of an olive grove on a promontory of a lake. He had kept it unbeknownst to us, like one who hides a secret lover. When I began to take a similar interest in houses – buying, reselling, and restoring – he and I found a common language that included and paraphrased what father and son had never before said to each other.

My parents made rare incursions into the kitchen, usually only to satisfy a sudden craving, the whim of an idle holiday afternoon. Mamma – French at birth – however was and still is, very good at making soufflés. No one else dared to do the same because it was her specialty that allowed her to shine. Her soufflés – which amongst our cooks was called sformato della sora Adele, from the old Artusi cookbook – came out of the oven with beautiful golden crusts; they were placed on a silver tray and carried to the table where they perfumed the dining room with their warm fragrance of egg and cheese. It was only after mother began cutting the servings, exposing the tender, spongy yellow of the interior, that the soufflé barely deflated – thus safeguarding her reputation.

From time to time papa tried his hand at making risotto, preferring those with acidulous fruit – strawberries, peaches, grapes – and even made some with champagne. To arouse any interest in him, the kitchen had to appear like the bottega of a Renaissance painter, where inimitable masterpieces were produced thanks to the feverish efforts of a team of apprentices. He surrounded himself with his sons and daughters whom he ordered to clean, chop, and slice, and he used just about every utensil at hand, leaving the counters and sink cluttered and untidy, while my mother watched from the doorway with an expression of good-natured disapproval.

 Mamma and me aged five

After more than forty years of marriage, my parents separated. It is curious that only then did they seem to discover the kitchen as a means of family aggregation, as a vehicle through which to dispense their parental care. Mamma experimented with unusual flavors and discovered exotic ingredients to lure us to her table. Dad invited us to sumptuous banquets where we ate Indian specialties prepared by his Bangladeshi manservant. In his later years, however, he cooked without help in the small bachelor apartment to which he had exiled himself. His invitations were restricted because no more than four people could sit at the small, rickety table in his living room, crammed with antique books, papers, photographs, and heirlooms that he and my mother had fought over, and over which they had equal rights, being first cousins. Even though risotto was still his forte, papa surprised me with the competence he acquired in the choice and preparation of meats and fish. As he labored, we talked – him in his tiny kitchenette, me standing in the doorway because two people couldn’t fit. Watching him stir endlessly with a wooden spoon, I wondered how he coped in that confined space, he who was used to rooms where one could even take a little stroll. I realized with a twinge of apprehension that his gestures were becoming obsessive, mechanical, uncertain for a man I remembered lifting long beams, stacking bricks and tiles, to build the porch under which we ate our meals during our long summers at San Pietro.

First cousins

Francesco Bianchini welcomes your comments and reactions.  Please contact him at francesco.bianchini@orange.fr