Alphabetti Spaghetti

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Cannelloni, conchiglioni and conchigliette…Sally Bayley recalls an early lesson in Swiss-Italian cuisine

As an eight year old child I was sent abroad to stay with a Swiss-Italian family. The mother spent a great deal of time in the kitchen, pulling sausage-strips of pasta from a silvery machine. I dutifully recorded this domestic ritual in my diary.

Everyone in Switzerland was related to someone else and they all spoke French, Italian or German, a funny sort of German. Languages passed to and fro like the big bowl of pasta that Madame Grosjean served every lunchtime (who was Italian even though she had a French name). Every morning, after choc-au-lait, in the kitchen with the high windows and long wooden table, I pulled out my notebook and added more names to the list of pastas Madame Grosjean had taught me: ‘spaghetti’, ‘cannelloni’, ‘conchiglioni’, ‘conchigliette’ (which was a smaller sort of ‘conchiglioni’), ‘fusilli’, ‘fettucine’, ‘gemelli’.

My eyes bulked at the words, strange insects, those slugs or snails, crossing the page. How could anyone possibly eat anything called ‘conchiglioni’? But I wanted to remember the size and shape of those foreign curls that sat squirming on my plate, those little soft things covered in butter or cheese. I wouldn’t be able to remember them as they were; to remember the shiny pink mouths of Monsieur and Madame Grosjean as they pushed silver forkfuls inside them, while ‘jabbering away 19 to the dozen’ as my grandmother would say, in a language that sounded like French wrapped around Italian, sliced through with German (German only when they were swallowing). It would have been rude to take photographs then as they spoke about ‘la famille’ and ‘mariage’ and ‘le méchant garçon’ and ‘la petite’, who I think was me.

I wanted to remember what the pasta looked like when people weren’t eating it. ‘Cannelloni’, ‘conchiglioni’, ‘gemelli’: a different pasta for every day. Where could I use these words? I would never be able to say them properly. Monday was a ‘fusilli’ day, Tuesday a ‘fettucine’, Wednesday a ‘gemelli’; lundi, fusilli, mardi, fettucine, mercredi. I could learn the days of the weeks by pasta. Every pasta would have a different colour, a different Caran-d’Ache pencil colour: sky blue, lavender-purple, moss green. But I ran out of colours and got confused when I tried to label them in my journal. So I decided to take photos instead. I took out one piece from each of the glass bottles Madame Grosjean kept in the kitchen and laid them out on a large plate with plenty of white space in between. Then I sat at the end of the long table and leaned towards them with my elbows on the table top, balancing my camera, trying to hold it perfectly still. But it kept moving. ‘Click, click, click.’ The table wobbled on top of the slippery flagged floors; the pasta slid forward, rolling away from me. I tipped further over the table, lifting up my leg, then my skirt, wrapping my foot around the twisty table leg.

Madame Grosjean found me when she came in to do the ironing and laughed. She laughed so loud I thought she was going to explode. Her body tipped over in half, folded down the middle. She looked like a paper cut-out doll. ‘Qu’est-ce que tu fais, ma petite?’ Another question. But I wasn’t lost. I was doing something important: I was recording things for my journal so I could remember exactly what had happened. Eating pasta, after all, was the main thing. That was what I’d done every day since I arrived. That was what you did if you lived in Switzerland with an Italian mother who made fresh pasta from a machine with a silver handle she turned and turned as though she were pumping water from a well. But instead of water, long flat strips of pale dough came out; it never stopped. It just kept coming and coming as Madame Grosjean’s arms rose up and down. I could see the muscles in her upper arms poking through like Popeye with his shirt open and his sleeves rolled up to impress Olive Oil.

Extract from The Private Life of the Diary, from Pepys to Tweets by Sally Bayley (Unbound, £20)

Photo credit: ElleFlorio via