My Grandma is 90 today. It’s thanks to her that I am a cook, and today I want to celebrate her, and the influence she has had on my life (and my cooking!).
Her name is Lucrezia. In Malta, she was known as Lella. To family she is Lola. To English friends, she is Grace (the only reason I can think of is that Grace sounds ever so slightly like Lucrezia).
She was born into a huge family in Malta in 1923, the second youngest of many siblings. I don’t know what her father did for work, but I know they kept chickens – she refuses to eat poultry, as she has memories of birds flapping about that she hates! She lived with her Godparents for a lot of her childhood – presumably because there wasn’t much room at home.
She was 15 when war broke out, and lived the end of her teens through the Siege of Malta. They had huge bombing raids, and very little food or fuel. The island was on the brink of starvation when the Santa Marija convoy limped into Grand Harbour in August 1942.
She is deeply proud of Maltese history, and of the George Cross awarded to the whole population in recognition of the suffering they bore. She told me about the soup kitchens they ate from, and the rumours of unsavoury meat (dogs and rats were mentioned) that people ate to survive. She told me about the three planes, Faith, Hope and Charity, that valiantly defended the Maltese skies. And she told me that one hot day she and her friends got in trouble with a policeman for swimming across from Sliema to Valletta (unsurprisingly this was considered unwise during war time).
I know very little else and, other than the swimming story, the tales she told of the war were stories of Malta’s triumph against adversity, not about her life and experiences. I think she had a boyfriend who died in the bombing, but I don’t know how she felt about that or how it impacted her life. And now I can’t ask her – two years ago she nearly died from a stroke, and has lost almost all of her speech, her ability to write, and a lot of her memories. I wish I’d asked her when I had the chance.
I do know more about her story after the war. I know she met and fell in love with a Military Police Officer called Dennis, and that he proposed after just four days. And I know that she was too scared to tell her mother (and her half a dozen older brothers!) that she was engaged to an English man (and a non Catholic!), so she persuaded her Priest to break the news.
They married in Valletta and stayed there for a few years. My Grandad worked in a tailors’ shop, and (from the pictures I have seen) they had a wonderful life. A few years later, a little girl was born (my mother) and then another (my Auntie Louise). Then, when my mum was about 5, they moved to England. I don’t know what triggered this, and I can’t begin to imagine what it felt like to leave the small-town old-world sunshine island, surrounded by family and friends, to go to cold, wet England.
She experienced racism, missed her family and, horror of horrors, could only buy olive oil from the chemists. She was not a fan of British food, and was particularly snotty about suet puddings. But she loved Guinness and Whiskey. Food culture clash aside, it must have been a real struggle, and I think there must have been times she was very lonely.
But she must have found comfort in cooking, and in food from home. She cooked, and cooked, and cooked. It’s the thing I always remember growing up – Grandma’s cooking. Cakes, big lunches, family festivities. There was always something freshly baked, and every single day, until my Grandad died, she would make a 3 course lunch (soup or pasta to start).
She didn’t only cook Maltese food, but there was a lot of it. Timpana (baked macaroni, with ragu and egg) was, and is, a firm favourite. Bragioli (stewed beef olives, stuffed with garlic, egg, bacon and parsley) was wheeled out for special occasions. And there were many, many pastizzi (mini pasties of puff pastry, filled with ricotta, egg and salt). Actually, ricotta got quite an airing. Grandma used to make her own, before it became usual for the supermarkets to stock it, and later she used to like trying the different supermarket brands and declaring which was the least awful. She’d mix it with icing sugar and pipe it into dates at Christmas, or make makeshift kannoli out of brandy snap biscuits.
Every Easter, without fail, you’d be asked if you wanted a fish, a duck or a basket. Easter meant Figolli – almond-filled iced biscuits in traditional shapes to symbolise resurrection and new life. When I was young, my Figolla seemed enormous – bigger than me! It also came topped with a Cadbury’s cream egg. Maltese traditions with an English twist. Tastes might have changed, and children of the 80s like me might prefer the egg to the biscuit, but the Figolli didn’t change. One each, every year, until her stroke stopped her cooking. That’s why every Easter, I make Figolli too. They’re messy, time-consuming and I suspect some people would prefer a chocolate egg, but I’ll make them anyway. They’re smaller than Grandma’s, spicier, and covered in crazy neon icing, and don’t tell Grandma I’m using her sister’s recipe…
I’m lucky that Grandma wanted to pass on her cooking traditions to me. Some of them, I haven’t adopted. She must have told me a hundred times how to stuff an artichoke with tuna. I’m still never going to do it. I can’t imagine myself stuffing a shin of beef either. Maltese cooking always seems to involve stuffing something. Often with bacon, parsley, garlic and an egg (“then you put an egg!”, she would say).
She’d also delight in collecting recipe cards from magazines and supermarkets for me. I must have the full set of Sainsbury’s cards a dozen times over. I was less keen on them, though I’d try to be appreciative. I wanted to know more about the egg-putting.
One day I went to Grandma’s for lunch (how much do I regret not doing this more when I had the chance?) to find a red envelope (no doubt recycled from Christmas) with my name on. Inside were written out her favourite recipes for me. They are Silver Spoon style, with no quantities and wonderfully vague instructions (“add 1 or 2 eggs according to how much mince you’ve got” and “if you get stuck, phone me up”). They are the recipes of a woman who didn’t need recipes to cook this food.
I’ve made one or two of them – but not enough. Perhaps I’ll celebrate her 90th birthday year by trying them all out. I know she’d like me to tell her about it, even if she can’t offer advice now. I’m glad I have them – her gift to me.
There are three things that spring to mind when I think of what my Grandma has passed on to me. Faith, family and food. All put into practice yesterday, as her children and grandchildren gathered with her for Sunday Mass in her nursing home, followed by a slap up lunch. We moved then to my Auntie’s house for more celebrations. She tutted “I don’t know how you can eat after that lunch” as she piled up plates of more food on the table. But she didn’t mean it. Feeding people is how we show our love in my family.
I regret not asking my Grandma more about her story when she could communicate. And I regret not eating more of her food while I had the chance. But I’m going to make up for it by cooking those recipes, baking those Figolli and by passing on some of that love for faith, family and food to my own children one day.
Happy Birthday Grandma. I love you, and may you be with us for many more birthdays. And I’ll be bringing some dates stuffed with ricotta next time I come to visit.