Pasta alla Nonna
The key ingredient is parmesan. Think of an amount and double it. At least. The first time I cooked Pasta alla Nonna, or grandmother’s pasta, I was 12 years old and had never tasted parmesan. That may sound ridiculous, especially as I’m half Italian, but I grew up in 1970’s England, a time of the knickerbocker glory and fake mashed potato promoted by aluminium aliens.
The actual cooking of Pasta alla Nonna doesn’t take long. The labour is all in the grating of the cheese. That first time I kept asking my grandmother if it was enough. I couldn’t imagine what she was going to do with all that cheese.
“No! Non basta!” she would reply stroking my face, as if she couldn’t believe I was real.
Even though she didn’t speak a word of English and I spoke no Italian, we seemed to understand each other perfectly. In fact, our mutual understanding got worse as my Italian got better. Until the teenage years passed and we understood each other again.
My mother had left Italy with me when I was two years old to go back to England. Until the week before I went to Rimini to meet my Italian father and family, I had no idea they existed, though I suspected there was more to my past than my mother had let on. We had driven there in my mother’s aubergine coloured Ford. It was as much an escape as a homecoming. For her the escape was more crucial, she had married a violent man. For me it was more about discovering my family. Although leaving Psycho, as I had nicknamed him, was a bonus.
Once you have grated industrial quantities of parmesan, you put the water on to boil. This needs to be in a large saucepan as the type of pasta used is a very delicate one called Angel Hair pasta, which needs space so as not to stick. Then you melt a large knob of butter in a pan and pour in a couple of bottles of passata, depending of course on how many you are.
That day it was the four of us; my parents (the first time I had seen them together since before I could remember), my diminutive grandmother and me. We ate under the watchful eye of Padre Pio and a silver-framed photograph of me as a baby lying on an expensive looking carpet, big brown eyes to the camera. My grandmother told me she’d kept that picture there all those years, praying that one day I would come back. And here I was! “Un miracolo!”
She was like a little toy grandmother; all perfect proportions and affection. You could have shrunk her even more and put her in a doll’s house in her black dress and pink housecoat. Her long grey hair was tied up, and she would comb any bits that fell loose back into the bun with her delicate thin fingers. She shuffled about talking constantly to us, Padre Pio and herself, preparing the lunch while admonishing my father for not going to confession.
“It would take too long,” he yelled. He thought she was deaf, so he had to shout.
“If anyone’s deaf around here it’s him,” my mother said to me.
Once the passata is warm and the pasta water is boiling you throw in the Angel Hair (you will of course have salted the water beforehand). It only takes two minutes to cook and you should stir it with one of those oversized forks to make sure it separates. While this is cooking add some single cream to the passata and butter sauce. I sometimes put some more butter in when I cook it now. I don’t think my grandmother would mind.
She was adorable, but it was really my father that interested me. Who was this man who had made me and what was he to me now?
We had arranged to meet that first day on the beach. I went for a swim before he was due to show up and got lost. Rimini beach is one of those places where everything looks the same; rows of plastic sun loungers, umbrellas and overweight tourists. I ran towards where I thought my mother was sitting, afraid of being late. Suddenly I felt two arms around me and I was pressed into a cream silk shirt, my wet hair leaving marks on it.
“I recognised you by your legs,” said my father.
Once the pasta is around 30 seconds from being cooked, and do not on any account overcook it or you spoil the whole thing, drain it and put it in the saucepan with the passata. Spread the parmesan evenly all over it and stir the tomato sauce over it to help it to melt. Obviously keep some of the parmesan to put on once it’s served. If you have a sprig of basil put that on top for decoration. Before this final stage everyone must be sitting down because this pasta needs to be eaten immediately. It’s at its best when the cheese is still melting and the flavours are just meeting. Having said that, if there ever is any left over it is delicious the next day heated up in yet more butter.
The main issue that first lunch was what I should call my father. It felt odd to call him daddy, because that was what I’d been forced to call the man we’d run away from. My grandmother was all for the Italian word ‘babbo’, which she repeated as frequently as she told me to “mangia, mangia”. My mother suggested I just call him by his name, Benedetto, but that seemed too impersonal. Finally, we settled on biologico, because that is what he was.
My grandmother was nonna right from the beginning. A perfect nonna. My children never met her sadly, but every time we eat pasta alla nonna it’s like she’s alive again.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019