Carmen’s parents have a brilliant botanical garden where we had our wedding ceremony many years ago and where we’ve been spending many long summer evenings these days, drink in hand and eating food for the soul, under the brilliant sun.
A great feature of the garden is the abundance of herbs that get clipped and cut and added to the meals we make together. Basil, lemongrass, coriander, parsley and garlic chives – they add notes of freshness and zest to everything they touch.
And by far the most popular is kaffir lime leaf, which we’ve been adding to our mango salsas for an extra kick. It’s an almost indescribable flavour – part zesty, part bitter, all perfume fragrance and rounded flavour. A recipe we followed the other week told us we could swap out milk for cream, change brown sugar for white, alter lemon zest for orange. But when it comes to Kaffir Lime, well, there’s no substitute.
That pithy phrase – there’s no substitute- ran through my mind again and again on the Christmas Day just gone when I was presented with a heaving slice of something so delicious that a picture truly is worth a thousand words:
But seeing as this is a blog, I’ll give it my best shot. The image you are feasting your eyes upon is of Mrs Martinelli’s Lasagne – note the capitalisation there. This not simply lasagne. This is Mrs Martinelli’s Lasagne. It’s a concept, a singular experience that cannot be replicated. I can count on one hand the times have been able to eat and enjoy this incredibly rare dish – it is the Halley’s comet of my gastronomic galaxy.
Mrs Martinelli is the mother of my aunt Bianca, who is married to my father’s brother, Phillip. She emigrated from Italy to Australia back in the 1950s and brought a wealth of cooking knowledge with her from the old, romantic world to the new, sun baked land. Lasagne is her signature dish along with stuffed breaded olives (a dish that’s served up even more rarely). Growing up, my cousins feasted on her lasagne all the time. But my siblings and I only ever got to have it once in a blue moon – and it tormented us.
Imagine layer after layer of hand made pasta rolled so thin it’s almost paper-like. In between each layer is a delicately cooked mix of chicken, beef and veal in a sparse, intense umami edged tomato sauce. The seasoning is a little bit of this and a little bit of that, done by hand and eye and guided by countless instinctive bits of muscle memory and tradition.
There is no recipe. No method, diagrams, schematics or instructions. She’s never written it down – and only passed on what she knows through demonstration and instructions in broken English.
So imagine by delight, my pleasure, my relief when Mrs Martinelli’s lasagne was presented as part of the wonderful Christmas Day feast my Uncle Phillip put on. I usually eat quickly. But with this dish I sliced every bite like a surgeon and ate with the care of a taster for the Queen. I may never have the chance to eat it again.
There is no substitute – the lasagne made by Mrs Martinelli has no equal.
Our global travels have taught me time and again that the power of food is astonishing. And certain dishes are more than just food – they are food for the soul. It provides more than simple nourishment. Food is the parchment of our history, the glue of our families and traditions, the very thing that allows life and makes it worth living. To come home and take a bite of Mrs Martinelli’s lasagne is to connect with something much larger than a simple combination of ingredients. It is her soul.
I like to imagine that every family is lucky enough to have a Mrs Martinelli, because I sure as hell am not sharing!