Sometimes in life, you need a wake up call. Something to remind us that people are not robots with infinite lifespans so long as you keep the oil tank filled. At the ripe old age of 24, I have four grandparents alive. A miracle, some may say. But for this scientifically minded dietitian, I see it as the work of the Mediterranean diet in action. Almost picture’s of perfect health, I often see patients 1/3 their age with more health problems then they have, due largely to diet, substance abuse and lack of physical activity. Yep, whilst many 80+ year olds watch Bold and the Beautiful reruns all day, my grandparents ensure their backyard is bursting with fresh produce and their 3 freezers are full to the brim with the fruits of their labour (because any Italian household of two needs three freezers). So naturally, I assumed they would live forever.
Being so far from home has been particularly tough recently as two of my grandparents have encountered some unexpected health problems. As expected, it hasn’t stopped them from keeping those gardens and freezers full, but it has slowed them down. So when Easter came around this year and I could eagerly drive back home to see them, one priority was to actually pay attention when Nonna tried to pass down her beloved recipes.
Any conversation with Nonna will inevitably lead to her describing how to cook something, with quantities a guestimation at best. When she invited me around to help make her famous crema pasticcera, I couldn’t resist. Crema pasticcera is a thick custard, often used for filling cannoli or italian cakes, but (as I can vouch for) is just as delicious warm off the stove as a wintery dessert. The French call it crème pâtissière, whilst their crème anglaise is a thin version which omits the flour/ cornflour as a thickener. But Italian’s don’t have time for the thin stuff- go thick or go home. The two basic versions are lemon and chocolate, but liquors often make an appearance to fancy things up. So as Nonna whizzed around the kitchen, loosely throwing in “a bitta this e a bitta that” I frantically scribbled her instructions down and thought, how lucky am I to have her in my life, to share her 70+ years of knowledge and life experience, and of course, her cooking.
One week later, back in the outback, I was certainly not expecting to have a cultural food experience to rival that in Nonna’s kitchen. At my town’s biennial agricultural fair, where thousands of country folk flock from their stations to look at prized sheep and big tractors, I laid hands on a famous Italian chef’s own recipe notes. Stefano Di Pieri was the celebrity chef of the event, and his recipe of the day was a chocolate beer bavarois. Just like Nonna, he wasn’t clear with his quantities, and so when this food tragic requested a bit more information, he simply handed over his notes- very exciting! Before we get to the beer part, let me explain a bavarois. A French dish, imagine the lovechild of a crema pasticcera and pannacotta. Like crema pasticcera it is a custard made using egg yolks; like pannacotta it uses cream, is served cold on a plate as a dessert, and relies on gelatine (the sheets, not the powder, as according to Stefano, powder taste like horse hooves) for it to set.
Onto the beer part. Like the name suggests, these days if you’re lucky you can find beer with hints of chocolate flavours. The outback isn’t fancy enough to stock this, but with the wonders of the internet it can be yours in a few days and a small shipping fee. However, as Stefano reassures me, it can easily be substituted with chocolate milk. So I’ll experiment with both. The verdict? Whilst the chocolate bavarois is a classic, the beer- it works. It’s different and exciting and there is something about the sharpness of beer cutting through the creamy sweetness that makes the tastebuds sing. So here’s to the simple things in life that make it beautiful… chocolate, beer, warm custard, and Nonnas.