It’s been a frantic summer at The Mother in Law’s House. The garden is outgrowing itself, and has transformed from ‘bohemian wilderness’ into a danger zone of wayward nettles, skin-piercing brambles, and precarious precipices. (The 7 metre-tall, 100 year-old back wall that collapsed during a storm in the spring – leaving a sea of crumbled bricks floating in four neighbours’ gardens and a good selection of sheer drops – has rendered child’s play an extreme sport and left The Mother-in-Law gasping for air every time a grandchild steps outside.) The damp patches and cracks dance a tango across the ceilings of each room in the house (keeping Bob in business), the light bulbs are snuffing themselves out, and the AGA is out of control in the heat. The ongoing series of unfortunate and expensive events has swiftly led to talk of The Mother-in-Law selling up.
It’s not the first time that she’s mentioned it, mind you. In fact, she probably talks about moving every couple of hours. But this time it feels very, very real.
From the moment we rattled down the M4 in a hired van jam-packed with our belongings (and me jam-packed in parturiency with our second child), the reality had always been clear to us: we would never be able to stay here for ever, in this utterly magnificent tumbledown place. But I had hoped we’d be here a little longer.
We’d been laying down roots and doing that whole ‘Friends’ thing: you know, where you high five the baristas in the local coffee shop like you’ve still got street cred, whilst one child nicks a scone and the other one legs it out the door. And it was here where I started a new life – having been dragged kicking and screaming from my last – and, whilst staring hypnotically at the plasterworked vine wrapped around the ceiling of the peach-coloured living room, brought another into this world. If I’m honest, all I really want to do is stay put. With a pillow over my head, so I can’t hear The Mother-in-Law flapping about the hallway in a state of panic.
And yet what will become of this place about which I write? Will the new owner “rip out the kitchen” (and my heart), as the estate agent so calmly executed yesterday. This lovely and lovingly-handmade working space that has the spirit of two generations of family infused into its scratched-up worktops and uneven walls. My children’s hands have grasped each wobbly handle. And drawn on the inside of each cupboard.
I find myself looking at the hand-printed tiles in the kitchen and working out how I can carefully extract each one-by-one to take with me, before they end up smashed and strewn in a skip, or buried deep in the soil of The Secret Garden for another family to unearth in a hundred years.
The Husband is finding it all rather tricky: this is where he grew up, and this is where he is – we are – growing up his children.
In response, he’s coming up with all sorts of ideas as to how we can stay. A bed & breakfast? An art gallery? A brothel? Jesus.
In the spirit of savouring what might be our last summer here, and using The Husband’s creativity as inspiration, lunch today was a seasonal twist on a dish I used to make quite a bit for us. Sugo alla Puttanesca – literally translated as ‘prostitute’s sauce’ – is a delicious salty-sweet Italian sauce made with tomatoes, olives, capers and anchovies, traditionally served with pasta.
The origins of the dish, and its name, are evidently murky. Some proclaim it was invented in the 1950s by an Ischian chef who had run out of ingredients (puttanata is an Italian noun meaning something worthless). Whilst other sources believe its roots lie closer to “the most ancient profession in the world”, with a colourful selection of tales propping up this theory.
Whatever the provenance, Sugo alla Puttanesca is probably one of the simplest yet most enjoyable dishes you’ll ever make and eat. It’s like Sophia Loren serving beans on toast, and will disqualify any attempt to equate ‘time spent in kitchen’ with ‘enjoyment of final product’.
Everyone should know how to make it, and if you’re one of those eaters who doesn’t do anchovies (really? REALLY?!) you’ll be eating your hat and licking the bowl. (I promise, I’ve made this so many times for friends who profess a disdain for those tiny, saliferous creatures.)
My version, Potatoes (or should that be Patatas?) alla Puttanesca, replaces the pasta with new potatoes, which are both in season now and bring an earthy, waxy, sweetness to the dish. Moreover, the potatoes are the only bit of the dish that requires cooking as we leave the ‘saucy’ bit (traditionally cooked) raw.
It’ll take you no more than half an hour to whiz up something that will speed your senses to a Neapolitan allotment in the height of summer.
Serves 2 as a main or 4 as a side dish
600g new potatoes, washed, cooked and quartered
1 shallot, finely diced
2 large soft tomatoes, chopped
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed and chopped
1 47.5g tin of anchovies (around 8 anchovies), rinsed, dried (on paper towel) and sliced in half width-ways
10-15 olives, pitted and halved
Lots of fresh parsley, finely chopped
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Put all the ingredients together.