Read an Excerpt
My Italian Country Childhood
A Chef's Journey from the Hills of Abruzzo to the Heart of Soho
By Aldo Zilli
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2011 Aldo Zilli
All rights reserved.
Six-year-old boys should be thrilled when their dad takes them out for the day at Christmas. Especially if they've spent all year dreaming that he will spend time with them. But I wasn't thrilled. I was crying my eyes out. Dad and I weren't off to see Santa or a pantomime. We weren't going to buy Mum a present or do any fun stuff. We were off to the abattoir. It was my turn to help kill all the family pigs. I ended up hoarse with crying and covered in pigs' blood. Oh, and did I mention it was Christmas?
Life on a poor Italian farm is never going to be a barrel of fun. It's about survival, not enjoyment. And life in a big Italian family isn't always all it's cracked up to be either — especially if you are the forgotten final son who was too young to join in any of his big brothers' games.
I was born on 26 January 1956 to a pair of exhausted, shell-shocked parents. My mother Maria was forty-two and had thought her childbearing days were long gone. My dad Massimo was ten years older. If he had wanted a new child at all, he had wanted another daughter. Instead, he got me, his eighth son, born six years after the last of all the others. One day I would be extra help for his fields, but until then he just saw me as an extra mouth to feed — a noisy one, at that.
The farm my dad rented was lost in the Abruzzo hills on the Adriatic side of Italy. We had snowy peaks above us, thick forests all around and very few near neighbours. But we did have plenty of land and there was nothing we didn't try to grow on it, no single inch we didn't work. I was on the team from the moment I could walk. Every spring we would all help plant out our fields for watermelons while the eagles circled above.
We tended the vines, the fig, almond, cherry and olive trees. We had herb gardens stocked with everything and dominated by rosemary. We grew our own rocket, courgettes, chickpeas, lentils, artichokes and asparagus — you name it. We went truffle hunting and we kids were sent out to pick wild mushrooms and berries. That was the fun stuff. The hard bit was that all year ditches had to be dug or cleared to move the rains around. Old bushes had to be burned off and good soils lugged around by hand.
Nothing ever stopped. And the crops and the fields and the harvests were only the half of it. The animals mattered almost as much. We had pigs, cows, sheep, chickens, rabbits and ducks — which meant at least once a year we also had piglets, calves, lambs, chicks, bunnies and ugly little ducklings. That part of farm life should have been paradise for a little boy of six. I loved to nurse the little lambs and thought newly hatched chicks were the most wonderful creatures in the world. But I also knew that these weren't my pets. Going to the abattoir at Christmas had taught me that. Going to the market with the cows always reminded me.
My brothers would walk the cows to auction once or twice a year. I always cried when I saw the herd being taken away by its new owners. I liked the cows' faces — I used to go out into the stable and talk to my favourites when no one else was looking. It felt as if they were my friends. But they didn't get to hang around. If we weren't eating my favourite animals we were selling them! I was a sensitive little boy and it took me a long time to get over that.
Our farmhouse was big, basic and crowded. Mum, Dad, my sister Giuseppina, my seven brothers and I weren't alone. By the time I was walking, my sister and two of my elder brothers had got married and started families. They all lived with us as well. I shared a room with a whole gang of kids no more than a few years younger than me. Back then, I hadn't realised that I was actually everyone's uncle. If I had thought about it, I could have pulled rank — I might have got a bed to myself instead of having to share.
We had a big wooden table to crowd around at mealtimes. My dad said grace before meals and we ate when he did. If anyone was late to the table, they missed the meal. Nothing was saved. We all moved fast, we ate fast, we talked fast. If you wanted to be noticed, you had a struggle because everyone else was always too busy to pay attention. If you screamed, you really screamed. We all made so much noise it would probably be drowned out.
My brothers love telling the story of the day I was left in the fields as a baby. Everyone had been working on the tomato harvest and I was lying on a rug on the ground. When the sacks were full and ready to be taken back to the barn, I was forgotten. For about six hours, I lay and poached in the afternoon sun. Then I practically froze to death when the moon came up. Mum only noticed I was missing halfway though dinner and the family rushed into the darkness to find me.
'You were pickled as red as any of the tomatoes, Alduccio,' my brothers would laugh.
'If we hadn't found you, the wolves would have carried you away.'
'You might have been eaten by bears, or plucked up by eagles, little Aldo!'
I never really understood why this was such a funny story.
As a boy, my main role was to follow my brothers everywhere, every day. I had to watch and learn from them. If there was ever a job I was big enough to do, then I did it. That meant planting a lot of seeds, feeding a lot of small animals and collecting a lot of eggs. I spent my life outdoors, in the sunshine and the dirt. Looking back, it probably should have been a lot more fun.
One thing I didn't like was the fact that you never get a day off when you live on a farm. You can never just lie in the sun and daydream. You can never just play. Cows need to be milked on weekends, just like in the week. You can't leave the pigs without grain just because it's cold and wet. You can't leave olives or cherries on the tree just because it's burning hot. I could see from my dad and my brothers how hard the work was as well. We didn't have a tractor and when I caught up with my brothers I knew I'd have to do the back-breaking jobs alongside them. No wonder everyone was so tired.
I was thinking about all this one day when Pasquale, one of my older brothers, announced he was going into training for the priesthood. Church is central to Italian village life. It was hugely important to my family, so everyone was intensely proud of Pasquale. They said he had a calling. I think he just wanted a break from working in the fields.
I don't think my dad ever scared me, but he did confuse — and inspire – me. He couldn't read or write, but he ran the best business I have ever seen. There were no figures he couldn't remember. He knew where every lira was spent and where every centesimo of our income would come from. With no pen or paper, he was the best accountant I have ever met.
I remember joining some of my brothers and their friends one hot summer night, sneaking out of the house to eat some of the watermelons from one of our fields. They were so rich, so sweet, so tempting. But somehow my dad knew exactly how many he had been planning to take to the market. He knew some had been stolen and he made us work extra hard when we owned up to what we had done. I learned right from wrong pretty early. And I learned how important the little things were when every season was pretty much a new battle for survival.
After the tomato harvest, for example, we would sit and peel the fruit for days on end. The skins would make soups – rich, warm bowls of vegetables and the rag ends of any meat. The rest of the tomato crop went in sacks, then were boiled in bottles for an hour on top of an open fire before being left to cool to make our passata. Dad would wake up screaming in anger if one of the bottles exploded because it had cooled too fast. We all lived our lives in a desperate fear of waste. 'A lost bottle of tomatoes is a lost meal,' Dad thundered. And he had accounted for every piece of our crops, every one of our animals.
We used every inch of our crowded house to prepare and store our food. In summer, the roof would be laden with capers, tomatoes, salt. A lifetime later, I nearly fainted when I first saw how much London shopkeepers charged for sun-dried tomatoes. And I think I did faint when I saw how much you had to pay for dried capers. It's the same with olive oil. We made our own, a whole tree's crop making a single bottle we could then use or sell depending on our need. If only we'd sold it in West London in the 21st century – we could have bought a bloody tractor with our profits!
In the good years, we also stewed cherries, made grape marmalade, harvested honey from our hives and made every type of cheese from our animals. None of us got to enjoy it much, though. We all knew when the hams, cheeses and other cured and smoked stuff we left in the attic all year was finally ready to be eaten. That was when Dad nailed a plank of wood across the bloody stairway. No one was allowed into this treasure trove without his permission. No one could eat anything without his say so.
Of course, the years weren't all good. They never are on a farm. Bad weather was our one big fear. When the rains went against us, we were screwed. Too little water and we were on our knees after days of digging new irrigation channels and carrying buckets around the farm. Too much rain in the wrong season and the animals would have to be brought in to whatever shelter we could find. Feeding them and mucking them all out indoors was just as hard as carrying all those bleeding buckets. When we had to ration food in a really bad season, life got really tense and Dad grew older in front of our eyes.
But rain or no rain, the Zilli family survived. We scratched away at our rented land and we made it all work. The crops we produced proved that Dad had magic fingers. There was nothing he couldn't grow. And he also had a silver tongue – there was nothing he couldn't sell.
I loved to watch him on market days, when all the nearby farmers would set up stall in town. It was typically Italian – a mad, massive, noisy free-for-all. Rules? What rules? There were animals everywhere; traders competing to outbid and out-talk each other. My dad always got what he needed. He had respect because he never relaxed for a single second. It made him a great provider, but a nightmare to live with.
I don't think my parents ever showed each other a single second of affection. Mum was Dad's second wife after the death of his first. But if it had ever been a love match, the passion had soon cooled. I laugh now at the idea that they would ever tell each other that they loved each other. As far as us kids could tell, they hardly even looked at each other, let alone touched. Who knows how they managed to have so many children. With role models like that, no wonder it took me so long to learn about love.
The only time I remember my parents showing any emotion at all was at a village wedding. One of the other farmers asked my mother to dance. Dad flew into a rage, but it wasn't because he was jealous. It was simply that his Italian male pride had been hurt. Back then, marriage was about ownership and making do. What's love got to do with it?
Our whole house was turned upside down for my first day at school. Mum looked at every item of clothing anyone had to find me something clean to wear. It didn't matter if it fitted, and it certainly didn't matter whether it matched. I wasn't being especially hard done by – all my brothers had worn hand-me-downs as well. It's just that Mum had never expected to have another child at 42. So, by the time I came along, there wasn't a lot left to hand down. Anything good had long since been used as rags or to keep the animals warm. I looked like a clown in what was left. No change there then, as my wife Nikki likes to say today.
Despite my ridiculous clothes, I loved school from my very first day.
I was the good boy. I was so happy to be away from all my brothers and to get a break from the farm that I'd have gone seven days a week if possible. It took me nearly an hour to get there every day and the moment I left our gates I felt like a new person. I felt free, as if I could be myself. In the classroom with kids my own age, I noticed how much older my sister and all my brothers were. Despite sharing the house with so many nephews and nieces, I realised I'd been lonely on the farm.
Something else made me rush to school every day. Maybe it was because I hardly ever got any praise at home that I was desperate to get it from my teachers, but I was a perfect pupil. I was a happy little boy and I would have walked through fire just to hear my teacher say 'Bravo!' for something I had done. I just wish I could have kept that attitude. Right from the start in the village school, I made good friends. We were all country kids and nobody had any money, so no one was judged on anything other than how they behaved. We played with stones and sticks and we loved it.
When I got home most days, Mum would have saved me some of the day's bread, maybe smeared with raw sausage or covered in leftover peppers or cheese. Some of those flavours live with me to this day. When I smell the freshest of tomatoes, I am back in that kitchen, loving my mother and dressed in those ridiculous clothes.
Unfortunately for me, I didn't get to enjoy those calm after-school moments for long. As soon as any of us kids were home, we were supposed to get back out on the land. The circle of life never stopped spinning on our farm. Forget homework. Our job was still to plant, to water, to nurture, to harvest, to store and to start again; to feed and to protect our animals and then to get ready to kill or sell them.
That final bit is why, when I was seven, I started to dread Christmas. Holding the pigs' tails in the abattoir the previous year had been the worst moment of my life. And something told me I'd be doing the same – and more – the following year. I was right.
'Aldo, hold that leg. Don't let it kick you. Hold tighter!' Dad was shouting at me as the first of that year's pigs started to scream.
I had forgotten that pigs could scream. It's the most awful noise you'll ever hear. They can also struggle like beasts from hell. They knew, somehow, what was going to happen to them. Blood smells. Abattoirs reek. You can't miss it.
It can take up to half a dozen men to hold down a big, strong pig; I was still a boy, but I was supposed to be acting like one of those men. I had the back leg to hold this year. One stage up from the tail, one stage away from the man with the knife. His job is to stab the pig in the neck. If he hits the right vein, the pig dies fast. Over the years, I would find out how often he missed.
Either way, my next job was to hold the bucket and catch as much of the pig's blood as possible. We used that in sanguinaccio, our very own black pudding. Nothing was wasted.
Every Christmas, the pigs were all screaming so much and the abattoir was so crowded that no one could hear me crying. But I always had tears streaking right down my face. Most of me wanted to be strong in front of my dad – I wanted to prove that I was as tough as my brothers were. But part of me just wanted to run away forever. That second Christmas, I remember looking up at my dad when the last of our pigs was quiet. He was just standing there in the doorway, smoking. Always smoking. I don't think he even noticed me. Happy Christmas, Aldo.
Back at home the horrors went on – and I was tortured by the fact that I hated what we were doing but I loved eating the results. It's a confusion over animals and meat and food that has never left me. I'd watch, tears in my eyes, as my dad cut up all the carcasses, again making sure no part of them went to waste. Piece by piece, part by part, we found a use for it all. We got fresh steaks, early on, for the Christmas celebration. For New Year's Eve, we had the trotters, cooked in lentils and herbs. Then the pigs' legs were laid down in salt and dried out in the loft to become cured ham for the following year.
We had sausages, we used the pigs' skin, we hung, dried and cured the meat for up to a year. I knew Dad had to do all this. And like I say, I was happy enough to eat the food it produced. Seeing little suckling pigs cooking on a spit outside the kitchen door broke my tiny heart – but I loved how they tasted. And it's not as if my dad was the only one killing our animals. Mum would kill rabbits with a single blow on the back of their heads. We were all able to hold the ducks' heads between our feet before pulling up their legs and breaking their necks. It was brutal, but it was the way life was.
On Christmas Day, our Italian family tradition was to write notes to our parents, telling them how much we loved them. We put the letters under their plates at lunchtime, then – because neither Mum nor Dad could read – we would read the messages out loud. If it was a beautiful letter – and, of course, it always was, even when I was seven and couldn't write more than a couple of messy words – we got some coins as our thank-you present. Then, between endless church services, we watched Dad go back out into the fields to feed the cows. The farm didn't stop for Christmas. Either that, or maybe he just didn't want to spend too much time with us.
Excerpted from My Italian Country Childhood by Aldo Zilli. Copyright © 2011 Aldo Zilli. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.