Monday, December 8, 2014

Dolce Elena: a Turinese in the UK

Elena Serrajotto Johnson was born and raised in Turin, Italy where she graduated in Foreign Languages and Literatures. She moved to the UK to complete her graduate studies. Following her passion for baking, she now sells her cookies and Turin pastries around England to share the flavors of her hometown.

Turin, Piazza Castello

When I arrived in the UK on 13th August 2001 (funny how all us expats hold on to that date like a new birthday!) the plan was to stay for 10 months, time to complete a Masters. Then life happened and here I am 13 years later still in the UK, still trying to understand how exactly has this happened. 
I love the UK, I love the craziness of London, the deep tranquillity of the manicured countryside, the warmth of a pub after a walk along a frozen canal, the smell of a bluebell covered wood. And after so many years, thanks to that ‘understatement’ both Piedmontese and British share, I have to say that bouts of nostalgia apart, I feel home here. But.

Marrons glaces 
If I close my eyes now in this dark and cold morning at the end of the Fall, I can recall to perfection what the air smells right now in Piazza Castello. Like tiny metal tasting smithereens of alpine ice, the faintest smell of bread lingering like a feather duvet and resting in every corner of the piazza, the gentlest Marseille soap scent used to clean the marbled floor under the porticos, the sweet burnt smell of roasted chestnuts coming from the kiosks, and if you are anywhere near Baratti, be it your over excited taste buds, be it the truth, the aroma of hot chocolate and coffee will wrap itself around you like a coat.

Carnival fritters: bugie - "lies" in Italian
Easter Dove cake: la colomba in Italian
Along with the general sense of disorientation following me everywhere during the months of my arrival in the UK, what bothered me most then was the disconnection I felt with the changing of the seasons. Having been born into a family of patissiers and wine makers meant that perhaps even more than most, our lives were neatly framed by the regular carousel of the seasons, and for me, nothing could take more into the moment than the delicious scents my father’s clothes and hair carried when he came home from the shop for his meals every day: almonds, chocolate and orange zest: it’s Easter and the Colombe - doves are being baked, the chocolate eggs decorated; crushed strawberry, peach, fresh milk and spearmint: it’s summer and time for the best gelato in town; chestnuts, hot chocholate: it’s Autumn now and marron glaces and pralines are being prepared; vanilla, yeast, raisins, powdered sugar: it’s Christmas and the panettoni  and pandori  are left to rise for the night. And of course the smell of bugie - Carnival fritters which lingered in our home throughout Carnevale and that still today I associate with the butterflies in my stomach as the first appearing of that scent meant fairgrounds and practical jokes and dressing up and being allowed for the first time to go out with a group of school mates at the Pellerina park to enjoy the rides and the strange excitement of the Luna Park.
Huge chocolate Easter eggs
Food and emotion needless to say, go hand in hand, and I am certain that good food and food cooked with love has got to have some sort of inherent healing and transforming power. Like nothing else, a good meal has the power I mean, to make us into a better person in a matter of minutes. The same goes alas for a bad meal, but we are not here to talk about those, are we!

Historical Caffe' Mulassano in Piazza Castello
But to go back to my experience as an expat, what do I miss more gastronomically speaking about Piedmont? Bagna caoda, Topinambur - Jewish artichokes, artichokes, asparagus, grapes, chestnuts, porcini, truffles on fondue, the bigne’... And then, the strong yet mellow espresso at Mulassano, the rubata’ grissini the Signora Elena in the bakery in Via Monte di Pieta’ still bakes daily, the Soresina butter (like no other!), and the wine… I was in Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen International Airport a couple of days ago ready to fly back to London after a rather harrowing three day stay. Three days of freezing weather, the rain as constant as the feeling of being a little more than a walking wallet.  We sat for a meal before our flight and I could not stop myself from ordering a glass of Barbera d’Asti from the Trattoria Milano menu (the only acceptable dining offer there really). When it arrived I was bracing myself for the worst. In fact I had so little faith even as I was ordering that I didn’t even notice the label! And yet, it was gorgeous. Absolutely wonderful. Oak, red cherries, vanilla… the familiar notes instantly transported me under my auntie’s patio in Vinchio on a warm summer night. I was home, I was safe. Encouraged by that sip I went on to order risotto and that is where my luck ended.


Elena Serrajotto Johnson

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