For centuries, Amsterdam has also been referred to as Mokum, from the Yiddish word mokem, meaning refuge, safe haven. The city earned the nickname during times of religious persecutions in Europe, when Jews and other religious refugees would seek asylum here. It wasn’t the best of times for Dutch Catholics, who – in turn – were discriminated and persecuted on this very land, especially during the Protestant Reformation. The Yiddish nickname, together with the celebrated ‘Dutch tolerance’, stuck with the city of Amsterdam, while refugees from all over Europe contributed their skills and resources to shape the Dutch economy, society and even the city landscape to this day.
During the Christmas holidays I reunited with my friend Nina after almost a year apart. She had moved back to South India after three years in the Netherlands and was in Amsterdam for a few days. Irresistibly, our catching up ended up revolving around food.
I have mentioned in a previous post how I picked up sourdough baking last spring. What defines sourdough baking and makes it critically different to any other cooking specialty is that you don’t just embark on its practice, you rather start a partnership with its material object and its very real sticky substance. It’s not an abstract hobby and it comes with all the responsibility of adopting a living being (mono-cellular as is) that needs to be looked after. You think that buying a yearly subscription to your local gym will feel binding enough to actually have you going to pilates at least a couple of times per week, but knowing that your instructor won’t starve to death if you desert your class will probably entitle you to keep watching tv-series instead. Try ignoring your cat when it’s hungry, on the other hand, and let me know what really gets you off your couch.
In the spring of 2005 I was dealing with my first real job in a communication agency. My office was in a business incubator located in a repurposed industrial site out of town; quite a charming setting, although hard to reach by public transport. As I stood waiting for my bus to the city after the working day, I would watch rows of cars leave the premises; nearly all of them left in my same direction and had no passengers. That patent waste of fuel, space, money and time (this latter being on me) kept nagging at me for a few days. As an optimistic 24 years old at the peak of her naivety, I soon worked out what seemed a common-sense solution: I wrote a friendly note introducing myself and my proposal and pinned it to the message-board in the hall of the building, positive that some of the many young and progressive people working there would respond enthusiastically to share car rides and expenses with me.
So your long-awaited holidays in southern Italy are over, you just travelled from 28°C sunny to 13°C solid grey in less than three hours and timely caught the Italian disease while waiting for your lift outside Amsterdam Airport. They call it il colpo di freddo, “the hit of cold”; its symptoms include chills, slightly sore throat, a mild cough or sneezing, headache, running nose, stiff neck and general asthenia. It may associate with grumpiness. There’s only one thing left for you to do: go home as fast as you can and make soup!
I’ve always been fascinated by people who are passionately obsessed with what they do, no matter what it is. For these individuals, the pursuit of excellence is highly addictive, they are quality-junkies with an insane attention for details. Typically, they have little interest in entertainment and live in a symbiosis with their obsession; others often admire them but tend to avoid inviting them to parties. Yesterday I went to Ten Katemarkt, a neighbourhood market in the West of Amsterdam, for my grocery shopping. Some veggies and a cone of fries was all I was after, in this unexpectedly sunny Dutch afternoon, but I ended up making an interesting encounter instead – the path to serendipity is unpredictable by definition.
Watch the book releases in September: something warm and tasty is cooking for you and some other millions people. That food connects us one another and to our environment is a very basic concept we first learn as school kids, with that of food chain. Unfortunately we tend to forget that we live in a network of feeding relationships with the world, until we bump into a reminder.
I am completely fond of etymology and the way one word or expression can condense centuries of history, stories and anecdotes within a bunch of syllables. Take the Italian expression pane e companatico, for instance. While it is quite easy to work out that ‘pane’ means bread, ‘companatico’ is slightly more challenging to decipher.
While the world had certainly more serious issues to deal with, yesterday I woke up scratching my head about the tangled mess of sprouts growing in my kitchen. I tend to recurring enthusiasms for self-made, home-grown stuff. I guess it’s a side effect of my obsession with self-sufficiency: in case I ever find myself in charge of starting a new civilisation from scratch, I like to think that at least I would know how start a fire, build a shelter and bake good bread – I’d stick around if I were you. Ideally, I would get to the point of stitching my own clothes, making my own pelati (peeled tomatoes) and preserves from my own produce, and only use the eggs laid by the three pet-chickens I will have one fine day (I dream of a vegetable garden and free range chickens hiding eggs in the backyard).
One of my absolute favourite books is Italo Calvino’s “If on a winter’s night a traveller” – first published by the renown Italian publishing house Einaudi in 1979. The novel is a hauntingly entertaining chain of inceptions based on the ultimate need of any reader, or simply of anyone who is listening to a story: the urge to answer the classic question “what happens next?” The very ordinary heroes of Calvino’s book – a man and a woman who meet in a bookshop while trying to find the missing part of a novel they both began to read – are after a story that never comes to a conclusion, but instead keeps drawing the readers to more and more unfinished stories, and eventually to one another.