Renée Bintje is a travel and leisure writer, whose professional work in the environmental and humanitarian sectors saw her living and travelling across Asia, Europe and Africa. In this column she shares some of her travel sketches, which is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
The Hills of Sabina – Part 3
By Renée Bintje
The next day I woke up extra early. I knew that I really wanted to work in Elda’s kitchen, and this was my shot; one of the two things I really wanted to do in Italy, speak Italian and cook Italian, has fallen on my lap, and it would be an act of foolish irreverence to let this slip. I had to prove I was worth the chance, and I was ready to face the moment of truth.
Whenever I cooked to impress, I would give plenty of time and space to plan, change my mind, tweak and permutate so that the final show is perfect. The Murphy’s Law I religiously observed was to never choose something complicated that had to be prepared last minute… as anything that can go wrong will go wrong, at the worst possible moment!
After my usual coffee at dawn, and a little blessing from Bello, I started off with the tiramisu as it had to be in the fridge for a while to properly set. Then I made the soup, which would have infused all day, just needing a reheat before serving.
After lunch, I prepared the melanzane – I learnt how to handle aubergines by watching my grandma, who would slice them, throw them in water to reduce oxidation, salt them generously and leave them aside for the bitterness to weep away. In order not to make the dish too oily, I chose to grill the aubergine slices instead of frying as they tend to soak up oil like sponges. Next, I prepared sugo napoletano, started with a layer of sugo at the base, then alternated one slice of aubergine with one slice of tomato, one slice of mozzarella ending with a basil leaf, repeated the layers until I finished all the ingredients, then topped the dish generously with parmigiano. I let it rest and baked it a couple of hours before serving time, so that it was still warm enough, but has had sufficient sitting time for the ingredients to marry each other.
Finally, I prepared the spring leaves salad, twenty minutes before serving time so that it was fresh and crisp, not wilted and watery.
At 7 pm sharp, I served. Everyone was already seated at the table, eagerly waiting. They complimented me as I brought the dishes in, both on the presentation and colours. As soon as I said “Buon Appetito!!!”, they tucked in! I nervously waited as everyone took their first mouthfuls.
To my utter delight, Elda burst out, “Mmmmmm, buonissima, Bella!!!” with everyone unanimously agreeing the food was delicious. After the starters and main, I brought out the tiramisu which had been chilling all day in the fridge. To my surprise, my humble tiramisu was the biggest hit with everyone, far surpassing my anticipation. Elda congratulated me and said, “Brava, Bella, welcome to my kitchen!!!”, while Gianna was so impressed that she requested I included these in the menu for guests.
That evening I was on cloud nine. I shared the good news with Karen.
“Congratulations!!! Good luck and do your best,” she was happy that I would finally be doing something I liked to do.
“However, do consider your enthusiasm for aubergines carefully when your guests come!!! Perhaps offer them a questionnaire. They would not be eaten by anyone on any form of serious macrobiotic or detox diet. They’re part of the nightshade family, the same as potatoes, tomatoes, bell peppers and tobacco! They’re considered to be very inflammatory for arthritis for one thing. I know you love them, but…,” she cautioned.
I thought that her idea about the questionnaire was brilliant and raised it with Gianna. Sadly, Gianna dismissed it completely, stating that the costs would be unsustainable to cater to individual likes and dislikes. Instead, she gave me a fixed list that she uses each year, with the addition of locally available seasonal produce.
**Artichoke, lettuce, fennel, broccoli, spinach, cicoria, urtica, cabbage, cucumber, avocado, sweet potato, potato, rucuola, zucchini, aubergine, tomato, squash, parsnip, dandelion leaves, string beans, green bell pepper, beetroot, green peas.
**Orange, apple, banana, lemon
**Oats, brown rice, quinoa, barley, couscous, rye and whole wheat flour, lentils, chickpeas, mung, adzuki.
**Sesame, sunflower, pumpkin seeds, almond, walnuts.
**Vegetable stock, miso, nori, kombu.
**Vanilla, cinnamon, gingerroot, cayenne pepper, chilli flakes, basil, parsley, mustard seeds, cumin, coriander, bay leaves, turmeric, asafoetida, oregano, fennel, curry leaves, tarragon, nutmeg, sage, garam masala, mint.
**Dried figs, apricots, raisins, olives.
**Honey, mustard, olive and sunflower oil, tahini.
**Soy milk, rice milk, coconut milk, dairy.
Gianna said anything anyone requested outside this list can be accommodated at additional charges. I have started to notice that she was scrupulous when it came to money. She said that Elda normally had set menus and asked if I could come up with other creative variations using this list. I was so grateful to be relieved from household chores, I said yes of course.
I had some ideas, but was also keen to hear what Karen, whose knowledge on food and its properties I trusted, would recommend. As I had expected, she came up with an assortment of interesting alternatives to complement Elda’s traditional retreat menus.
“You need a little bit of garlic – are you allowed? I know it’s very heating, but in balance with other stuff and only a tiny bit, I think it would be okay.
Vegetable pate is very easy. I could offer you: squash pate, pea and mint (divine!!!), spinach and lentil pate, beetroot pate (divine colour!!!), carrot, sweet potato and lentil pate with a soupçon of turmeric…
Throw dandelion leaves into all your lettuce salads. They’re incredibly healthy and cleansing. If you put them in cold water just for a few minutes, they will go crunchy…Anytime you’re using finely shredded cabbage for anything, put some nettle leaves in too. They’ll just integrate. Stir fry very little with the cabbage. HEA…LING…!!!
Warm potato and Puy lentil salad, olive oil, zest and juice of two lemons, a big handful of finely chopped mint; Sweet potato and spinach gratin with a big bowl of lettuce, grated carrot, grated zucchini, cucumber, and lots of mint with lemon, oil and honey dressing. Flatbreads to mop up juices; Braised fennel or cicoria with herbed couscous…..
You know I can go on all day about food, so if you’re interested in particular ones, let me know, and I’ll send the recipe across,” she offered generously.
I was ecstatic at the prospect of all the flavourful options that became available to me, thanks to Karen’s refreshing additions. I shared some ideas with Elda, who accepted them enthusiastically. She said she would not mind having some evenings and weekends off and I can cover the meals during her absence.
Working with Elda in the kitchen was pure joy. She liked to plan the whole week’s menu in advance, and I added mine to hers, covering some evenings and weekends. She would normally come to the retreat at around ten in the morning and we would set off to work. On the days she was in charge, I would do all the chopping and cleaning, while she created her magics. The best part was her stories…she had lots of kitchen stories to tell while I was peeling onions or washing pots, from fairy to folk tales to history, how to use the ingredients properly, what to do and what absolutely not to do, occasionally dropping little secrets of how she liked it, with a personal Elda twist. She would stay to oversee lunch was served and then leave to go home and return around five in the evening to prepare supper.
The volunteers, including myself, served, and cleared the tables, did the dishes, and returned the kitchen sparkling clean, by the time Elda returned to make supper, and then repeat the process after supper. On alternate weekday evenings and weekends, I would cook on my own.
The group stayed for a week. It was hard work to be part of the volunteer team covering general housekeeping and have a dedicated duty in the kitchen, as lots of the cleaning and prepping fell on me. On Elda’s evenings off, I would start preparing for supper almost immediately after the lunch service was over to make sure I had plenty of time to prepare my recipes and would finish nearly at midnight. I would be the first one to rise and the last one to retire.
Be careful what you wish for was not said for nothing.
I was also starting to feel that I had no time and space that I could consider mine. No matter how much I did during the day, there was always one more thing, and I found it impossible to withdraw into my own private space. I was fully serving other people’s lives and never in mine.
The first retreat was a success. After the first group left, we had a few days break before the second group came. Sally and Dan decided to go away on a short holiday. I could see that they were, like me, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work that was involved. Gianna also went away on a shopping trip to buy some stuff for the next retreat group with her friends. Before going away, she mentioned that she had made some arrangements with a paid cleaner, called Elena, who will come on Sunday to do the all the deep cleaning of the retreat.
That weekend, I was left alone in charge of the whole place, to change the beddings and do the laundry and get all the linens and towels ready for the next group. I spent whole days doing laundry one after another, drying, folding hundreds of towels and beddings, taking care of the enormous garden, and had to walk for miles in the rain for my own food and supplies.
I was very grateful when Elena arrived as planned early on Sunday morning to do up the rooms, clean the bathrooms and get the place ready. She was energetic and worked through the rooms quickly and efficiently, like a true professional. Everything was shining after her touch!
“Ahhhh guarda come sono sporchi i bagni …,” Elena sighed at the state of the en-suite bathrooms she had to clean.
“It is much better that they are maintained daily rather than leaving it all to the end of the week, with so much needing done in one day! But I guess it is all about saving money….,” she grumbled, shaking her head.
She mentioned that in the past she used to have regular work at the retreat but in recent years, this has drastically reduced as most of the work are being done by unpaid volunteers who come and go, while she struggles to find work to keep her family going.
I was so stunned and utterly ashamed to realise, just in that moment, for the first time, that my casual enterprise was actually affecting someone else’s livelihood. I was feeling her pain completely and was so overcome by guilt and remorse I could hardly look her in the eyes.
When Elena left, leaving the place immaculately clean, I reached out to Karen, and shared my realisation, guilt and regret.
“But of course you would feel bad!!! Gianna’s certainly getting the full use out of you! She has not paid anyone apart from the cook, gardener and interior decorator. The enormous place just reopened with nothing set up. She seems to be expecting a helluva lot out of three voluntary people…,” she observed accurately.
I told her I was sleeping less than four hours and became very weak.
“I keep telling you about drawing firm boundaries!! Everyone else has gone away, why are you there doing laundry and stuff? I would say be firm, draw the line and take time off like everyone else and make the most of your quiet time. Cooking for the next twenty people plus staff is not going to be a doss!” she reminded.
I knew she was right, but Elena has touched me in a very, very deep way. I even started to wonder if Elda was also being very gracious to share her evenings and weekends slots with me, by sacrificing some of her earnings. My head was suddenly full of existential questions. I wondered what I was doing, what I was searching for and how I have participated, carelessly albeit unintentionally, to feed a system that was making the rich richer and the poor poorer.
When everyone returned, I announced my intentions to move on from the place and continue with my travels. Sally and Dan did not look surprised at all, but Gianna was so disappointed and furious with me for leaving her to find a replacement volunteer at short notice. I apologised and politely reminded her that I had stayed on much longer than my initial agreement and explained that I had limited time and money and there was so much of Italy I wanted to explore. She left without saying anything. I asked Elda if she would take me to the station. She said of course, very kindly, as if she had completely understood why I was leaving.
That evening Bello did not come to my yurt. I packed all my stuff and brought them to the front gate. I felt really sad leaving like that, but I knew that it was the right thing to do. Just when I thought I was sorry for not having a chance to say goodbye to Bello, he appeared, all of the sudden, by my luggage, sniffing them. I sat on the ground, cuddled him and gave him a little peck on his face. He looked at me, and then walked away, disappearing behind the olive groves.
Elda took me to the station, gave me a big motherly warm embrace and said I was always welcome back, and I should visit her at her home next time. I again found myself standing at the station with all my luggage, which at this point, was becoming a torture.
While waiting for the train, something strange happened. A tiny snail crawled past me. I peered at it but instead of seeing the snail as one normally would, I saw through his body. I saw its body as a translucent ball with filaments. I looked at it again and I could not see the snail as a snail, but it was appearing as a luminous ball.
At this moment, my perceptions went into a somersault. My brain would involuntarily translate every exchange into a deeper, more sinister meaning. A man asking me in a friendly manner whether I was here to work would translate into cheap labour, denying locals of paid jobs, another politely asking what I was doing there, in the middle of nowhere, would translate into immigrant, go home, not welcome. It was as if I was reading from the deepest, darkest dimension of paranoia, totally unrelated to what people were actually saying.
It was a hellish experience. I was terrified of anyone who tried to talk to me and quickly fled into the next train that stopped, dragging all my luggage with me. On the train, the conductor asked for the ticket. I no longer had any ordinary memory, I had no idea where the ticket was, where I was going, and what I was doing. After searching my luggage for what felt like an eternity, I found the ticket, which said Perugia on it.
The conductor saw that I looked totally lost and confused. He spoke to me softly and kindly, “Signorina, you are in the wrong direction for Perugia. Soon we will be arriving at Assisi, I will tell you when we arrive. You can get off there and change to platform…..” he said each word slowly and clearly.
I got off at Assisi.