SHORT & SWEET REVIEW: THE UMBRIAN SUPPER CLUB BY MARLENA DE BLASI

Note, the format of my Short and Sweet reviews differs in that they simply comprise the book blurb and a short response (hence, the short and sweet). 

The Umbrian Supper Club

I’ve been a Marlena De Blasi fan for several years – I’m only missing one of her books, most of which are memoirs that showcase her love of food, life and Italy. A former chef and restaurant critic, with two cookbooks to her name, she has a special gift when it comes to describing food and the eating of food, as well as creating a sense of place that makes readers feel like they are on location. I started reading The Umbrian Supper Club after eating a home-cooked feast of chicken stuffed with herbs and roasted with truffle oil, served with golden rosemary potatoes crisped in duck fat, so I was not hungry … but De Blasi made me feel hungry all over again with her lush descriptions. Here’s the blurb:

Luscious and evocative, The Umbrian Supper Club recounts the stories of a small group of Umbrian women who – sometimes with their men and, as often, without them – gather in an old stone house in the hills above Orvieto to cook, to sit down to a beautiful supper, to drink their beloved local wines. And to talk.

During the gathering, the preparation, the cooking and the eating, they recount the memories and experiences of their gastronomic lives and, as much, of their more personal histories. For a period of four years, it was Marlena de Blasi’s task, her pleasure, to cook for the Supper Club – to choose the elements for supper, to plan the menu and, with the help of one or another of the women in the club, to prepare the meal. What she learnt, what they cooked and ate and drank and how they talked is the fundamental stuff of this book.

The Umbrian Supper Club is like a degustation of words, a series of stories flavoured with friendship, a love and understanding of food, and connected by one main ingredient – the essence of womanhood. De Blasi’s training as a journalist and food writer is evident in her detailed observations of traditional (with a twist here and there) food preparation, as well as in the mouthwatering descriptions of the final result, in appearance and taste. Here are some samples of her prose, a delectable style that marries poetry and fact flawlessly:

The only sauce is olive oil – green as sun-struck jade – splashed in small lustrous puddles, through which one skates the flesh, the fat, the bones, the potatoes, the bread. In the last, best drops, one skates a finger.

and this one:

One of the new cousins is toasting bread in the hearth, smearing it with the new oil, thick as honey and green as jade. Jugs of wine and a collection of tumblers are set out on a long wooden table where Ninuccia’s beans wait in a deep, black-speckled terracotta pot. Half-dried figs threaded on butcher’s twine hang from iron hooks on the stone wall behind the table and Gilda takes down a string, pulls the still-plump fruit free and begins slicing it thickly, pressing  the pieces onto the hot oiled bread and offering the trenchers to the old cousins, to us. (p58)

As the women cooked and prepared, they opened up to De Blasi (sometimes over days and weeks), sharing their stories of struggle, heartbreak, loss, strength and hope. These stories, preserved for many years in the minds and hearts of each woman, are re-told to readers with tenderness, understanding and humour, offering nuggets of wisdom to readers, as much as to De Blasi herself. Two things stood out for me – a passage in which Paolina relates how she came to “understand” food and therefore became a cook (rather than someone who simply cooks because they have to), and a saying “What there was, there was” or “What there is, there is” … I love the matter-of-fact way this phrase was used by some of the women.

A delicious read enhanced by the recipes at the back. I’m hoping to make the Red Wine Braised Pasta soon.

vailable from good bookstores (RRP $29.99). My copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.