The Lost Recipe

In memory of Riccardo Cardellicchio

Riccardo was a journalist and author of short memoirs, plays and poems, and he was my mother in law’s brother. His book Il Pozzo di Muscioro, a memoir full of short stories, was vital in me piecing together some family history that inspired my cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, which came out in 2019. I started referring to it a lot more when he began to get really sick and could no longer communicate with me. He had written stories that even my mother in law, Angela (7 years younger), had only heard as stories and never experienced, like the one where he visited his Nonna Anna in Turin and she confided in him how her family (Counts, as one family story has it, from Taranto in the deep south) had disowned her after she fell in love with the postman.

He also wrote a short story about cake. He printed it out for me to read one day, knowing that I would love it. And oh I did. In it he describes the smell of this cake that his maternal grandmother, Nonna Maria, use to make. She was a good baker and was often baking cakes and treats for his father’s alimentari in Fucecchio. He remembered that she would make it in November, when the fiera was in town. He called it “una bomba,” as it was dense, rich and sweet, made with plenty of eggs and lard. He remembered eating it around the fire (the only form of heating they had at the time) and devouring piece after piece.

He wrote it decades after tasting his last bite and it struck me because it was full of yearning and memory, perhaps for his grandmother, perhaps for being young and eating a special treat that someone made for you with love. And I’m sure some of the yearning was also because it had been so long since he had eaten a cake quite like this one, decidedly old fashioned after butter (once uncommon in Tuscany) became more mainstream, and lard (as practical as it had been in countryside and farmhouse kitchens) less popular.

Riccardo was born during World War Two, in May of 1939. I think his food memories are also so important because of this unique time in history, a turning point really in Italy’s food culture too. He had some very good pieces of the puzzle to add to the family story. Angela, on the other hand, born in 1946, has no recollection of this cake. Maybe she didn’t pay much attention to it, or maybe she was less fond of it, or perhaps Nonna Maria stopped making it by the time Angela was big enough to collect these kind of memories.

But it made me think — as with all of the recipes I was penning for this cookbook — about our family recipes and what makes us nostalgic, what become family favourites, what comforts us the most as children (the smells, the tastes, the situations or events when we ate these things we loved) and what eventually become our powerful teleportation devices as we grow older. {What are yours? Mine are mostly Japanese, in particular my grandmother’s clam soup and my mother’s egg and rice.}

I ended up going on a search for this lard cake, tracking down recipes from this area where Nonna Maria was from, and searching through old cookbooks, baking them and having Riccardo taste them until we found something close (I just shared the recipe today for the final result above, Torta con i ciccioli, on my blog). Franca, his wife, who remembered the cake too, thought I had nailed it. But I could sense that Riccardo wasn’t totally satisfied and I wondered if it was something to do with what Bee Wilson describes so well in her excellent book, First Bite: How We Learn To Eat, that often “Remembering through food is bittersweet, because even when you have tracked down every last herb and spice, the missing ingredient is the cook. You find you don’t want pasta ‘just like Mama used to make’; you actually want Mama herself.”

Not to mention the difference between certain ingredients, like tasteless store bought lard today and the real deal in 1950s-60s Tuscany. But rather than be disappointed that nonna or mamma isn’t cooking the food, for me, the act of cooking nostalgic family recipes is actually a way to feel closer to that person because those food memories that are linked to smell and taste can transcend time and space — and that’s quite a comfort to me right now.

The no-longer lost recipe that I shared in Tortellini at Midnight for Torta con i ciccioli is now on my blog — another thing that Bee Wilson so wisely wrote in that book is that “Childhood food memories, like family jokes, are often untranslatable to outsiders,” and I knew when I included a recipe for sweet cake with lard and pork scratchings that it was unlikely to ever be cooked by anyone. But it was such a strong piece of the family puzzle, and I thought that the search for this recipe that that pervaded Riccardo’s memory might inspire someone else to look for their lost family recipes — and write them down too.

In loving memory of Riccardo Cardellicchio, 2 May 1939 - 14 August 2021.