Apropos of a Salt Herring

Appears in

Honey from a Weed

By Patience Gray

Published 1986

The discrepancy between what is happening in the world today and what I describe as going on in obscure places prompts me to take a long look backwards, rather than to plunge into an examination of changes affecting food habits. These changes could more properly be viewed as ethnocide even when euphemistically called progress. So I turn to another discrepancy which often strikes the cook – the time some dishes take to prepare and the reckless speed with which they are consumed.

In the wonderful book of Elio Vittorini, Conversazione in Sicilia, written in the winter of 1936-7, the salt herring cooking on a charcoal brazier in the mountain dwelling of La Concezione, Silvestro’s heroic mother, defies this experience. It is the centrepiece of one chapter only, while its subsequent despatch by mother and son, meeting after a lapse of fifteen years, occupies a further three. While it cooks the pungent smell of the modest but nourishing object evokes a whole string of childhood memories in which broad beans (an indigenous plant in Sicily, Apulia, Greece), cooked with sowthistle and a dish of lentils (the first legume to be found in early neolithic sites in Thessaly) flavoured with onions, dried tomatoes, lardo, and rosemary, rise up from the past like subterranean suns. But for the mother the fundament remains: braised salt herring in winter, roast peppers in summer. These are what she has always eaten with a great deal of olive oil and a lot of bread – and olives, of course, and sometimes pork in autumn, if they had happened to raise a pig near a plantation of Indian figs.