The true story of the Umbrian Thursday night supper club - a group of four rural women who gather in a derelict stone house in the hills above Italy's Orvieto to cook, eat, drink and talk.
'The only sauce is olive oil – green as sun-struck jade – splashed in small lustrous puddles, through with one skates the flesh, the fat, the bones, the potatoes, the bread. In the last, best drops, one skates a finger"
Luscious and evocative, The Umbrian Supper Club recounts the stories of a small group of Umbrian women who – sometimes with their men and, as often, without them – gather in an old stone house in the hills above Orvieto to cook, to sit down to a beautiful supper, to drink their beloved local wines. And to talk.
During the gathering, the preparation, the cooking and the eating, they recount the memories and experiences of their gastronomic lives and, as much, of their more personal histories. For a period of four years, it was Marlena de Blasi's task, her pleasure, to cook for the Supper Club – to choose the elements for supper, to plan the menu and, with the help of one or another of the women in the club, to prepare the meal. This book is a celebration of what Marlena learnt, what they cooked and ate and drank, and how they talked.
Including a dozen recipes, drawn from the Supper Club, The Umbrian Supper Club is a delight to read and to taste.
Marlena de Blasi is the bestselling author of A Thousand Days in Venice, Tuscan Secrets, An Umbrian Love Story, That Summer in Sicily, Antonia and her Daughters and a novel Amandine. She has been a chef, a journalist, a food and wine consultant and a restaurant critic. She is also the author of two internationally published cookbooks of Italian food. She and her husband, Fernando, moved from Venice to San Casciano in Tuscany and now live in Orvieto in the region of Umbria.
The Umbrian Supper Club
Allen and Unwin
Author: Marlena de Blasi
Question: What inspired you to write The Umbrian Supper Club?
Marlena de Blasi: I suppose it was because those years of Thursday Nights were a central part of the life I was living then. My everyday existence was shaped and conditioned by those women.....by the way we cared for one another, how and what we cooked, how we fought, supported, learned from one another. How we loved one another. And how all of it became ritual, a kind of mass, when we sat at table together. Not so many epochs in a life present this sort of emotional richness. I guess I wanted you to know that events as simple and beautiful as these were still possible. I wanted to pass on that beauty, hoping you'd pass it on further.
Question: Which of the recipes featured holds the most memories, for you?
Marlena de Blasi: I chose each recipe for its own particular stash of connected memories but I think I'd say that the Schiacciata con Uve di Vino -- Winemaker's Flatbread Laid with Wine Grapes and Crusted with Pepper and Sugar -- is a singular symbol of the genuine traditional gastronomic culture of my part of Italy. An inevitable crowd pleaser -- especially when one presents it with its story -- it's nothing less than luscious. A few lines from the text:
A truly ancient ritual bread made once a year to celebrate the harvesting of the grapes, there are as many ways to put it together as there are woman who have and who still do bake it. The single commonality is the rite which dictates that the eldest and the youngest members of a family "holding the secateurs together"cut the first branch of grapes while the winemaker's wife stands at the ready with a fine white cloth in which to take the grapes and carry them to her kitchen. This ceremony signifies continuity, the passing down of -life' from generation to generation.
Question: What type of recipes can we expect from The Umbrian Supper Club?
Marlena de Blasi: As I say in the narrative, many of the Supper Club dishes are described in detail sufficient to guide a home cook to a fine result. Even so, I've chosen to further describe some of these, to put them down in more traditional recipe form. Also you'll find dishes not described in the narrative, dishes which, over these long years of my Umbrian life, have become well-loved emblems of our table, dishes guests expect to find there. I offer two caveats: first, I'm wordy but not complicated (as a cook, as a woman). In other words, I talk to the reader as though he or she were in the kitchen with me. I want you to know more than the means to the end and so I take liberties, assuming that you, too, want what I want for you…. that is, the stories, the chatter which can be passed on.
Question: Why was it important of you to share what you learnt as the chef for the Supper Club?
Marlena de Blasi: Because I feel so fortunate. And because, as the world grows more rife with isolation, vulgarity, poverty and terror, a scintilla of light from another time might make a difference to a reader. I don't know how much further we can proceed in the direction we've assumed, calling it progress or accepting it as some inevitable zeitgeist. Only the past offers antidote to what's left of the present and, more, to what will be.
Question: What's next, for you?
Marlena de Blasi: Fernando and I are long overdue for a change of address. Or so we tell one another. Though we've been tooling up and down the peninsula for several years by now in search of -next' place or -- as the destiny might have it -- -last' place, we keep returning here to Orvieto always more perplexed about what remains of the real Italy.
In all their varied costumes and intentions, tourists have had their way with Italy's traditions, they claiming the desire for the ancient world while demanding what they left behind in Des Moines or Stuttgart. Being the historically gracious, malleable and obsequious populace that they are, many Italians have surrendered to the purse -- fat or thin -- opened by tourism. And to the inevitable harm of soul-selling. Orvieto is no exception. All this is to say that I've yet to break stride in chasing my unselfconscious hungers, of hunting down the storytellers, the country people, the ones who still live as though the past was the present. I want to know how things were, how things tasted. And I want to tell you all about what I've learned. Thus I'm working on a book which traces our search for another beginning, our journeys into the regions of the penisula where we've been looking for the next place to live.
Interview by Brooke Hunter