Speaking the Language of Food

During my first few weeks in Mestre, I was lucky enough to discover the Women’s Multicultural Center, financed by the Municipality of Venice. The Center offers information, advice and support and organizes cultural events for immigrant women, including Italian and English lessons and — to my delight — cooking classes. I immediately signed up for the November session composed of four classes held every Friday morning. The first three classes would teach traditional Italian foods and the fourth lesson each of us would teach a traditional dish from our country. I couldn’t wait.

Learning how to make gnocchi

I arrived the first morning to find two lovely Italian grandmothers, who would be our teachers, and a truly diverse group of women. We came from all over the world — Nigeria, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka, Japan, South Korea, the United States. Many of the women spoke hardly any Italian or English and it seemed that food would be our unifying language, as we smiled and nodded at each other.

In the first lesson, we learned how to make fresh pasta, hand rolled and cut into tagliatelle and farfalle (butterflies) with a simple tomato sauce. Three women from the past session joined us, as they had run out of time and hadn’t been able to share their recipe. They worked in the corner, crushing walnuts, beating eggs and stirring a simmering pot of syrup. After we finished tasting our fresh pasta, the women presented us with their finished product — a tooth-achingly sweet cake called Scendetgli from Albania, drenched in sugary syrup and honey.

Gnocchi ready to go in the pot

In the next two sessions, we learned how to make a vegetable risotto and a delicious Venetian carrot cake, potato gnocchi and a traditional chestnut-flour cake. While the two women showed us how to roll and cut the gnocchi, slowly stir the risotto and incorporate beaten eggs into the chestnut flour, they told us stories about their families and about Venice. They shared tips on cooking and on life. As we stood around the table together, hands covered in flour and writing down the recipes, I felt a true sense of community. Even if I wasn’t able to speak with many of the women, I still felt close to them, connected by the shared experience of cooking together.

Cooking together

The final session came and I was excited to learn more about these women through learning their traditional dishes. But no one brought anything. I was the only one who taught my recipe for fruit crisp, showing the women how to combine the chunks of cold butter into the sugar, flour and nut mixture with their hands. I was confused and disappointed. Had they not been able to find the right ingredients? Did they not value their own cuisines? I heard one woman say she preferred to learn more Italian recipes as she thought her native food was too heavy and not as delicious. And so instead, we learned how to make spinach and ricotta tortelloni and I showed them how to make a crisp.

I was sad when the classes ended and the group dispersed. I knew I wouldn’t see most of the women again. I was grateful, though, to have been part of a community centered on cooking, even if only for a short while, and to feel once again the power of food to connect people across race, culture, and even language.

Recipes for Venetian Carrot Cake and Chestnut-Flour Cake

Both of these cakes are typical of the Veneto region. They are easy, light and delicious and leave plenty of room for creativity. The doses are in grams and milliliters but can easily be converted online.

Torta di Carote

When I think of carrot cake, I automatically think of the American version with walnuts and raisins and topped with cream cheese frosting. This is a lighter, more refined version with the optional addition of chunks of almonds and chocolate.

Ingredients

250g peeled and grated carrots

3 eggs

230g brown sugar

185g flour

100g sunflower seed oil

2 teaspoons of baking powder

2 teaspoons of cinnamon

pinch of salt

optional: handful of toasted and chopped almonds, semi-sweet chocolate chunks/chips

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 170° C.

2. Mix the flour, baking powder, and brown sugar in a medium-sized bowl. Add the eggs and a pinch of salt and beat in lightly. Then add the oil and cinnamon and mix well. Stir in the carrots and, if using, the chopped almonds and chocolate chunks. Line a cake pan with parchment paper and pour in the mixture.

3. Bake in the preheated oven for 40-45 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Let cool before serving.

Torta di Castagne

The hardest part of this cake will most likely be finding chestnut flour in the US (there are lots of online vendors if you can’t find any locally). During the fall and winter here, the stores are flooded with fresh chestnuts and chestnut flour and the streets are lined with vendors roasting and selling chestnuts. This cake is an unusual and delicious gluten-free option.

Ingredients

350g chestnut flour

200g sugar

16g baking powder

4 eggs, separated

125 ml sunflower seed oil

125 ml water

pinch of salt

a handful of toasted pinenuts

optional: a handful of raisins

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 170° C.

2.  Mix the flour, sugar and baking powder in a medium-sized bowl. Add the egg yolks and a pinch of salt and beat lightly. Add the oil and water and mix well, adding a bit more of each if the mixture is dry. Add the pinenuts and raisins, if using.

3. Whip the egg whites with an electric mixer until light and frothy. Gently fold into the mixture until just combined. Pour into a parchment-lined cake pan.

4. Bake in the preheated oven for about 40 minutes, until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.

Buon appetito!

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Categories: kitchen, lessons, recipes

3 Comments on “Speaking the Language of Food”

  1. barbara t. ganley (BG the Grandmother)
    December 5, 2011 at 2:11 pm #

    Your piece for Open View Gardens was a good read and your observation of how preparing food can bring people together was excellent. After all, nourishing of our selves, our family, our community is elemental, so I guess this becomes a means of correspondence in itself. Thanks.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Potlucks & Culture Kitchens: My Kind of School | Open View Gardens - February 8, 2012

    [...] As I prepare to head to Morocco and Italy for two months, and as I listen to Elizabeth tell stories of cooking with the immigrant women in Venice, I’m thinking about exploring not just the traditional cuisines of the places I will [...]

  2. Potlucks & Culture Kitchens: My Kind of School | Open View Gardens - February 8, 2012

    [...] I prepare to head to Morocco and Italy for two months, and as I listen to Elizabeth tell stories of cooking with the immigrant women in Venice, I’m thinking about exploring not just the traditional cuisines of the places I will [...]

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