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The Umbrian supper club

 

You know the sort of book where you count the pages to see how many still remain? The one that when you read the final line, you wish - wish - you could start all over again? This is that kind of book. 

All of Marlena de Blasi's books (and she has written several, including the best-seller A Thousand Days in Venice) are like that. She has the magicial knack of drawing the reader in, adopting you as a friend - making her friends, your friends - creating a story so personal that for too short a while we are transported to another place.

Of course it helps if you love Italy. Even better if you love food. There is plenty of both in all her books. Marlena de Blasi has lived in Italy for decades and obviously speaks fluent Italian, knows the people and has cooked professionally and written books about Italian food.

And while this, her latest book, has recipes at the end, and the title itself does more than hint at the food focus of the book, it is much further-reaching than that. 

Basically this is the story: five women, four Umbrians and the author, meet weekly over several years to cook supper together, sometimes sharing it with others - friends, partners, passers-by. As they prepare these meals, celebrating the lushness of the passing seasons, the simple bounty available nearby, they share so much more. Each woman has a long and complex background, a shadowed present-day persona, and her story is slowly unrolled to the author as together they stir and mix and stroll together after the work is done while dishes mellow in the oven.

On the surface this is a simple collection of tales, but the women: Miranda, Ninuccia, Paolina and Gilda, have each experienced much in their lives. They have arrived at their own homespun philosphy on many issues, and their insights are as valuable in whichever country a reader may live, as they are in a rural Umbrian village. For these are axioms for life itself.

When de Blasi writes about food, she is generous, sumptuous, in her descriptions. You can see the huge chipped platters loaded with succulent pork, the crusty breads broken and passed along hand to hand, the viscous green olive oil fresh-pressed, the wine so recently from grapes within sight. Smoke from the wood-fired stove curls into your nostrils, and is spiked by a burst of freshly crushed garlic, the pungent citrus of lemon being squirted over a dish.

Having been so gently, irrevocably transported to another land, a simpler earthier cuisine, and a group of women who have allowed you to become their confidante for too short a time - is it any wonder you don't want to leave them? 

 

The Umbrian Supper Club, by Marlena de Blasi, published by Allen & Unwin, 2015, paperback, rrp. A$29.99.

- reviewed by Sally Hammond

 

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