She went from one island to another, keeping the flavors and traditions of Sicily firmly in her heart. Writer and lawyer, Simonetta Agnello Hornby was born in Palermo, yet has lived in England since 1972 where, for eight years, she was part-time president of the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal. She is Ambassador of WE-Women for Expo
and, on February 7, took part in one of the discussion tables at The Expo of Ideas, the first stage for the Charter of Milan.
Here, she talks about women’s role in the Charter of Milan
and how, through food, she has been able to narrate her family history.
What contribution does WE-Women for Expo bring to the Charter of Milan?
Our contribution is to bring to the table not only women, but also gays and transgender people, on the subject of food and what can be done to avoid waste, so that we can live in a better and healthier way. Women account for 42 percent of the workforce in food production, a huge number. We Italians find this hard to comprehend but, in the third world this is the reality. The woman is always seen as the person who knows less, who is less cultured, and who has less access to all the things needed for creating a world without hunger.
What challenges need to be overcome for you to achieve your goal?
I think the biggest difficulty is to be taken seriously. The mother is loved, but she is always the one who is pushed aside, who always says “Yes”, who loves her children and who suffers. This is what I have seen in my work as a children’s lawyer in England. The woman is strong, but at times her strength becomes her weakness, because she succumbs to her husband, her father, her son, because culturally that’s what she’s been used to doing. It’s no longer the time to say "just keep going”. The moment has come to say "enough is enough", and this is for the good of both men and women.
Both your latest memoir, Il pranzo di Mosè, which has been made into a television series in Italy, and your autobiographical novel Un filo d'olio, reveal your love for the family estate in Mosè, near Agrigento in Sicily. It is where your entire family used to stay each year from June to October, set among the Saracen olive trees, in the countryside, an atmosphere of conviviality, all eating together around the table. Can you tell us about your memories of those times at the table, and of the place in general?
I had a very “old life”, as we say in Sicily. I stayed at home, I studied and spent the summer months at our country house, near Agrigento. It was there that we would all get together, my uncles and aunts, my sister, my paternal grandparents. We would eat whatever the land produced. We would cook together, talk about what we would eat, what we were eating and, a short while later, we would already be deciding what to eat the next day. Our lives revolved around food, food as family history. We would cook with my mother and my Aunt Teresa who recounted stories of their mother, my grandmother, Maria. We spoke about eggplants and sweet peppers as much-loved objects, almost as friends rather than mere vegetables. "This eggplant is sick," we would say when one had some dark spots on its skin.
In Il pranzo di Mosè, there are recipes made with "les beaux restes", or leftovers. What does wasting food mean to you, and how were you raised in this respect?
In our house we wasted nothing, and I mean nothing. Not being peasants, but a family of landowners with certain values, we fully embraced the culture of the countryside, where anything could prove useful and nothing gets thrown away. There were never any leftovers at home, they just became that evening’s dinner or lunch the next day. There’s a real art to knowing how to use what’s left over. And it’s an art that’s in my family’s blood. Sometimes we even cook more just to create leftovers, for example cooking extra pasta for lunch so that, in the evening, we can fry the remains and make fried pasta.
In Un filo d’olio you wrote: "For years I wanted to copy down my grandmother Maria’s dessert recipes that she had transcribed into a notebook with numbered pages and an index, just like a real book". Did you rediscover certain foods or ways of cooking that had been forgotten?
Here was a book of recipes, only desserts, from my grandmother Maria. It was really more of an aide-mémoire than a cookbook. From my grandma’s recipes I learned about 'ounces', as this was how measures in some recipes were expressed, not in grams. There were recipes that called for leaf lard, or sugna
as it was called, which is no longer really used. I discovered cream of tartar, a type of baking powder that we used religiously, and how to create the colors for pasta reale from spinach.
In the same book you wrote, "Just the fragrance of bay leaves and the rich aroma of lemon zest immediately transports me back to Mosè, wherever I might be". What do those bay leaves mean to you?
Warm water with bay leaves is the best drink I know. Not for the taste, but because of the way it elicits so many memories. When my mother was sick, she sat down and drank this bay leaf infusion. The water was boiled with a couple of bay leaves and a little lemon peel, it was then poured into a teapot and always drunk from a good china teacup, because the water and bay leaf, as my mother would say, "deserve this, because they make us better". We took it for stomach aches, for colds, when someone was sad, and when there was nothing else to take, because it was basically good for everything.
When I went to America at the age of 19, the first time that I spent a year away from home, I thought "What can I bring with me from Sicily?" And the answer was clear: some bay leaves. Because bay leaves are light, keep for a long time, and a little water you can find wherever you go, and, with a little luck, also some lemon. My children also take water with bay leaves. My grandchildren, who don’t speak Italian but eat Sicilian, say to me, "Grandma can you make me some warm water with bay leaves?" And they drink it from coffee cups as a delicacy.
You’ve lived in London for many years, before which you lived in both the United States and Zambia. Has anything changed in the way you cook, eat and entertain?
I’ve lived abroad for almost 50 years, and I cook Sicilian because I don’t know how to cook in any other way. But I have, in my cooking, introduced a number of things that my friends have taught me, such as using ingredients from Indian cuisine. I don’t know how to cook English food, apart from a few desserts, because English desserts are really good, but I'm a lazy cook, so I usually go back to what I know best.
I entertain as a Sicilian, although I do know how to entertain as the English do, which is totally different. For example, the cutlery is laid in a different way, dishes are presented differently, they eat the sweet before the cheese course, as they do in Russia. What I've learned from living abroad, not from the English, but from life in general, especially from Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the father of gastronomy, is that the guest must be respected in every way. Brillat-Savarin says, for example, that those who make guests wait until the last one has arrived is not worthy of having guests at his house. For me, if a guest arrives late, I go ahead and serve the meal at the appointed time and, when they arrive, I seat them at the table, but we don’t go back and start from the beginning, they have to take whatever is there.
In an interview with Exponet, Shirin Ebadi said that the defense of civil rights improves education and this can lead to an improvement in diet and lifestyle. Do you agree?
Education not only improves the way you eat, it improves the way you see things. Education means knowing things so we are able to relate to the world in a better way. With food, where we are told so many wrong things, or we think they are right only to find out they are wrong, education is critical. We all need educating because we now live in a world where we have lost the concept of seasonality. I recall with horror that I used to give my children fresh orange juice every day, while I, as a child, drank it only for two months of the year, because after that the oranges were gone. A dentist told me that there is a real problem in Britain, because orange juice erodes tooth enamel if you do not not rinse your mouth afterwards with water. Often the wealth that we have leads us to a frightening level of ignorance.