Since October I have been teaching English to a group of women in the village. I am up to 4 students now; two neighbours and a couple of their friends and we meet every week (more or less) at one of the neighbours’ house, a couple of minutes away from ours.
Over the last few weeks, my English lessons have always ended with cake! First there was some left over ciambella, a ring shaped cake usually eaten for breakfast. This prompted the other neighbour to discuss her torta caprese, a chocolate and almond cake named after the island of Capri from where it originates. ‘Can you eat almonds?’, she thoughtfully asked me, and happy that I could, she made one for the next week’s lesson. It wasn’t as rich as I thought it would be and M was particularly pleased when I returned home with a generous slice for him. Then it was Carnevale which not only marks the beginning of Lent, but means a whole new range of cakes and sweet things. For the end of our lesson, it meant chiacchiere, ribbons of fried dough, dusted in icing sugar, surprisingly not too sweet but certainly addictive. It also meant, for me, a bag to take home for M. Just when I thought I might get a week off, there was a birthday to celebrate, with an impressive looking sponge-cream-raspberry concoction. I am not a lover of cream but it seemed rude to turn down a slice and despite my protestations, a plastic container was handed to me as I left.
Each time, as the plate is passed over, the ingredients are reeled off with such precision and ease to suggest that the making of the cake is just as simple. I am pleased to say that the chiacchiere ingredients were given in English! However, I have never been one for making cakes, or eating them for that matter. I have 3 tried and tested Italian ‘puddings’: tiramisu, a ricotta tart and ricciarelli (soft almond) biscuits, that I alternate depending on the occasion. I have yet to make any of them for any of the neighbours. The bravest I have been was to make an apple and blackberry crumble for our neighbour L (who took us mushroom picking a couple of years ago) and his family. His daughter’s boyfriend grew up in England and she was enthusing over the typical English dishes she had tried, crumble being one of them. It went down very well and was followed a few weeks later by L making us a typical Lunigianese ciambella following his mother’s recipe.
However, with the fear that this teaching/cake making might become something of a regular fixture I feel I may need to up my game. A couple of weeks ago, I made a traditional Tuscan aniseed ciambella also eaten at Carnevale. I even bought the ring shaped tin for added authenticity although I have yet to understand this fascination (or significance) for cakes with a hole in the middle. Given the recipe called for almost a whole jar of aniseeds, I wasn’t quite confident enough to take it to my class un-sampled. The trouble was, by the time M and I finished it, Carnevale was over and it was too late to make another. I have lived here long enough to know better than to offer the wrong cake at the wrong time of year!
In the meantime, having found half a packet of bread flour in the cupboard on the verge of expiry, I knocked up a very rustic looking loaf of bread. Now this is more my thing.
Yesterday, while practicing the past tense, one of my students asked the main cake maker: ‘did you make a cake for today’s lesson?’ I held my breath. ‘No’ she said, ‘I was planting vines’. I smiled; the pattern may have been broken, but their English is coming on a treat!