I remember one of these afternoons particularly. It was mid-October, an unusually cold afternoon for the usually mild season.
The mist rose very early that morning outside the little kitchen window, and the sun almost disappeared in a grey, dull, charcoal-smelling fog.
The kitchen was a large room with a big twenty-four sits wooden table in the middle. The walls were ancient, tall, and coated with layers of paint crumbling in spots and revealing old forgotten colours. The kitchen's furniture was reasonably minimal: an ample reddish wooden counter on the left, a white laminated cupboard on the right, and the red brick wood-burning stove on the far side, opposite to the main door.
The red brick wood-burning stove was, of course, minded by my great grandmother. She was sitting in the usual spot with a cat or two purring on her knees—the same song on her lips as a whisper.
Kneeling from a chain, at the table, I was constantly drawing and writing on some scrap paper: I oddly used to be obsessed with drawing houses and churches. The only things I pulled from age four to six were houses and churches and a sporadic family portrait.
One of the cats suddenly jumped down from its cozy place on my great grandmother’s apron to the floor, like if something was suddenly happening, and that spark I was talking about, the glow of magic immediately appeared on my great grandmother's eyes.
The recipe book was already spread open on the table, and we began the most beautiful of the afternoons.
The large kitchen room quickly turned into a happy bubble of smells, exotic scents, fun, flour dust, and powdered sugar. Outside the kitchen, the thick fog and the cold autumnal mist thickened, like to create a soft shield around the kitchen and hide the magic to the outside world. No sounds, no noise could be heard from the garden, and the entire house looked enchanted. All that mattered in that cold afternoon was inside the kitchen: the red brick stove, the book of recipes, the flour, the butter, the eggs, the vanilla essence, and my great grandmother’s magic.
With a quick swing of the hand, she opened the book and scrolled through dozens of leaflets and bookmarks, and found the right recipe.
Apple Pie, it was!
The Ingredients for the topping of the pie:
1 kg of "Golden Delicious" Apple, sliced relatively evenly
1 hg of Caster Sugar
A splash of Rum
A spritz of lemon juice
The filling had to be prepared first by mixing the apple finely sliced, the caster sugar, and the rum, together in a large bowl, and let it rest for a good thirty minutes afterward.
The spirit's flavour must fill the fruit, and the juice that trickles from the apples had to melt the sugar creating the most delicious trickle, in a beautiful wedding of tastes.
A spritz of lemon juice had to be added to the mix just to prevent the apple to turn brown. But only just a few drops. My great-grandmother never liked lemon, so she always was really parsimonious with it.
My duty was to mix and add the caster sugar a tiny bit at a time. Although the sugar could go in all at once and that slow pouring wasn't necessary for the recipe's outcome, it was probably and expedient to keep me busy while my great grandmother was cutting the apple and preparing the other ingredients.
I was meticulous in this operation, pouring the sugar teaspoon after teaspoon, very slowly.
I only realized later that adding the full measure would have saved me quite the trouble of spattering sugar everywhere, rather than into the bowl.
Although my great-grandmother was a pretty tough woman, she never got angry because of my clumsiness. Never a word of rebuke or twit.
While I was still over my pot of apple, almost befuddled by the potent smell of rum, she turned on the oven at two hundred degrees Celsius.
You must know that the oven was not like the modern one that you can set at a required temperature. It was fire operated, part of the range of the red brick stove, and had to be minded and fed very carefully. My great-grandmother had an eye for it, and she knew precisely how many logs were needed in the stove and the precise strength of fire to keep it almost at 200 degrees.
Coming to think of it, I doubt she knew it was 200 degrees either. She just knew the right temperature to cook a cake and that was basically it. Later on, when trying these recipes in a modern oven, I figured out that the correct temperature for an optimal result is 200 degrees Celsius.
The ingredients for the dough:
An Egg plus an Egg Yolk
1hg of Caster Sugar
1.5 hg of All-Purpose Flour
1 Teaspoon of Rising Powder
50g of butter
1 Teaspoon of Vanilla essence
A Pinch of Salt
Putting the filling on one side, my great-grandmother started preparing the base of the cake.
First of she measured the flour - Always the flour first! - She used to say.
The scale she used for all her baking was old and rusty, with some traces of the original blue paint here and there. It was like those on the counter of old apothecaries or pharmacies or that can be found in antique shops.
The measuring dish went lost and forgotten a long time before, and so we used a regular plate. Altogether it was working fine, or at least my great grandmother knew how to interpret it and detect the measurement by how much it was low or high in the reading.
The flour properly measured was poured into a bowl.
After the flour, in goes the sugar, the raising powder, a pinch of salt, and the eggs.
I mixed all these ingredients in the bowl with a cumbersome wooden spoon that looked taller than me back then.
While I was all busy stirring the dough, my great grandmother zested the lemon skin and poured it into the bowl with the mix.
She hated lemon, so I remember. She always washed her hands after peeling a lemon or an orange. I found it so funny and sometimes odd because I loved the fresh smell of citrus.
Time goes by, and now that I'm about to turn thirty, honestly, I'm not too fond of lemon, and even worse the smell of mandarins. I can't even touch them, and if I do, I need to wash my hand straightaway. It's amusing to see how things are so deeply embedded in you from your childhood. Uses, manners, and tastes are a sort of tradition or heirloom, an inheritance that you bring over with you no matter what you become or where you end up growing up.
The butter was melted and poured into the sponge mix, along with the vanilla essence.
-Vanilla loves the butter; they always go together- my great grandmother always repeated, like a magic formula.
That saying was more scientific than my child's mind could imagine. Apparently, essences stick to fats, and in a greasy environment, they develop all their potential of odours and flavour. This is probably why master perfumers have for centuries, used the technique of lying flower petals on beds of animal fat, to steal their essence and create beautiful fragrances.
The dough wasn't too hard, but my great grandmother always took it out of my hands for the final, last good stir. It was like a sort of seal of approval or quality control mark that she had to stamp on any preparation.
The mix was silky now and of a light-yellow colour. Into the sponge batter, went half of the apple preparation made in advance, and it was finished with one last energetic whisk, till everything was well combined and uniform.
While my great-grandmother was mixing, I dusted a 24 centimetres cake mould with some flour, paying particular attention that all the edges were well covered.
Then she poured the mix into the baking dish and tapped on the table to smooth everything down and get the mix evenly distributed.
The last thing to do was to arrange the remaining apple slices on the top and create a harmonious design that looked like a sunflower or a fancy pointed star like the one we used on the top Christmas tree.
He piping hot oven was ready and in went the cake, for about an hour, or until of gorgeously golden-coloured.
Just before the hour was gone, my great grandmother used to check the bake with a wooden skewer, pricking through the surface of the pie in a few spots at intervals of five minutes: when the skewer came out dry, the magic was done, and the pie was perfectly baked inside as it was on the outside.
The main scope, or purpose of this pie, the why behind making it, was to use and not waste leftover apples. You have to know that we lived in the middle of the Venetian countryside. The house was situated right where the flatland meets the Dolomites. That is a wonderful place to grow apples and pears, and inf fact all the surroundings are scattered with orchards and vineyards.
My family owns a farm and quite a vast piece of land surrounding the house. What can be considered the backyard of the house garden, although for the regular person just looks like a field, was set as an apple orchard. There were hundreds of trees, some really old and robust, some other quite skimpy and young, but all of them produced a lot and lot of fruit every year.
The apple matter was a big one for my family as our orchard produced so many, way beyond a normal family’s need, and avoiding waste was of course a priority. Apple pies and apple strudels and all sorts of other bakes and jams were the solutions.