When I look back on my childhood what we ate was a great feature of our lives.
We were creatures of routine, the same dishes every week: shepherd’s pie on a Tuesday, macaroni cheese on a Wednesday, jam sandwiches on a Thursday and something very typical to my heritage, ‘stovies’ (which for the curious is basically a mash up of leftover meat and potatoes from the Sunday dinner) served on a Monday with a side order of oatcakes and ice cold milk.
My grandma did most of the cooking as my mum and dad were out at work all of the time.
Grandma was a fairly plain cook, fond of barley and split peas, and a bit heavy handed with the salt, but you knew where you stood with your dinner, and you knew what you were getting.
It is always a real treat to eat my mother’s cooking which is brilliant, creative and packed full of unusual ingredients.
For example, I remember the first time we ate broccoli (it was pretty unusual back in the day), the first time we ate soufflé and the best of the best, the first time we ate lasagne.
I think as well because it was my mum making these special meals it made them more important and tastier than anything poor old Grandma could have turned out.
So Italian food has always had a special place in my heart, and my stomach: because of my mum, who wasn’t and still isn’t Italian, and because of that first love, lasagne.
It was a trip to La Opera Restaurant on Sunday evening which set me off down memory lane again.
La Opera in Portals Nous has been going for 24 years, and has always been run and staffed by the same couple, Catherine and Javier, at the helm, they’ve had the same man, Jesus, making pizzas in the wood oven all of that time.
It’s homely and friendly, just like a Italian family restaurant (or Trattoria) should be in my opinion.
Catherine, like my mum, is so not Italian, but is a brilliant cook who trained with Swiss Italians way back when.
The Opera uses paper tablecloths and give you jars of coloured pencils to draw on them with: this is strangely satisfying.
Catherine told me that the pencils are not just the preserve of children either as they have grown ups sketching out their perfect house and scrawling their ideas down on the tables too.
Sitting inside, sipping a glass of decent red house wine and waiting for my starter of creamed spinach (this dish is so loved by one client of the Opera that he has even gone to the lengths to make a wood oven in his garden in the UK specifically to cook it) whilst watching my own little family drawing on the table I had a bit of a moment, I can tell you.
A kind of pasta epiphany: I realised for me that Italian cooking is in fact my version of soul food.
Simple ingredients put together with love that make me feel as looked after and as special as I did when my mum fed me pasta as a kid.
That ‘nothing bad can happen to you’ feeling I got from my parents, which I am trying to recreate for my own little girl.
So now I have to add La Opera’s Creamed Spinach to my list of dishes which make me feel nostalgically safe and happy.
And by the way, it was absolutely delicious.