10 weeks ago my world was well and truly rocked by the arrival of the most amazing boy I’ve ever met. Alfred Elvis Chesterman arrived 16 days late, with a full head of glorious golden hair and a face I just can’t stop staring at in lovestruck awe. With Alfred, however, came a few lifestyle changes I wasn’t entirely prepared for. Days just seemed to vanish before my eyes so making time to cook and eat became rather challenging. If left to our own devices, we would have existed solely on a diet of stale hobnobs, mouldy cheese rinds and the leftover glucose tablets from my hospital bag. Thankfully our amazing friends and family didn’t let it come to that. As all the best mums would, Ma French knocked up vast quantities of her magic chicken soup round the clock. Ellie cycled up the hill with regular meals on wheels—fresh batches of spicy meatballs and macaroni cheese, even a thermos of Heinz tomato soup delivered to my bedside when I couldn’t face another mouthful of soulless hospital slop. Tasting something warm and familiar prepared by a loved one, or sometimes merely anticipating it, can make everything right again. So, thank you to everyone who fed us through those tough early weeks and helped us out of the woods.
After 7 weeks holed up in sunny South London, my new little family set off on our annual trip to see Alfred’s Great Grandfather in Italy, comfort food’s motherland. Emilia Romagna in the foothills of the Apennines is my personal food Mecca, where simple, hearty and affordable food is served up in every café, restaurant and household without fuss, frills or fanfare. In contrast to our experiences en route through France where, on two occasions, smug waiters served us smug food adorned with pointless tuiles and foams on various sizes of black slate—where’s the comfort in that? Italian food isn’t pretentious and Italians don’t cook to impress, they cook to eat and that’s how we like to do things at Salad Club.
There are two rifugios (mountain refuges) you should visit if you happen to find yourself high up in the Italian lake district. Both serve whatever the chef has decided to cook that day, using only the freshest of local ingredients. Rifugio Lagdei serves up a delicious penne ai fungi—they had plenty of rain this year so porcini were abundant and the sauce was packed full of them. Sensible people would stop at that but the cold wind outside howled for polenta, every northern Italian’s comfort food of choice, topped with a rich gamey stew of deer or wild boar. All finished up with a slice of the finest jam tart known to man and washed down with jugs of crisp, cold Malvasia. Bliss.
About 10km east, perched on the edge of beautiful Lago Santo, is Rifugio Mariotti. This is a very special place, reached via an ancient, single-seater chair lift which takes you and your rumbling tummy on a wonderful 10 minute flight slowly up through the pine forest to be greeted by mouthwatering smells wafting up the rocks from the kitchen.
Lunch here always kicks off with a bowl of ‘Pasta Gaudi’. I’ve eaten this dish every summer for 10 years and, if there were time, I think I’d request a bowl of it for my last supper. It’s simple but just incredible. Pasta perfectly al dente coated in a sauce of slowly softened and sweetened vegetables, sausage meat, parsley and cream. I realise it sounds and looks pretty average but this really is comfort food of the highest order.
I’m not a restaurant critic and, at the risk of boring you, I’ll let the rest of the meal speak for itself*:
Alfred experienced most of this from his carrier, cradled close to his dad’s chest and lulled into a contented sleep by the melody of clinking cutlery and happy Italian chatter. It’s nice to know that we all take comfort in something.
*Salad Club does not advise consuming this quantity of food on a regular basis. Such lunches should always be followed by a prolonged period of exercise.