I came around to her apartment, laden with a bottle of wine. It was late spring, and the air was heavy with the scent of flowers. Dust swirled on the road, left behind by passing traffic, but the weather was warm, pleasant, and dry.
Having just moved in, she had only one plant in the whole apartment: a large rosemary, sitting on her kitchen bench, leaves raking the sky. “I don’t think you’re supposed to let it get ‘woody,'” she said, fingering its fragrant leaves. I said I didn’t know. Many years later I realised that it didn’t matter, because you would just pick from the part of the plant you needed — peel leaves from any stalk or snip off younger shoots if you wanted whole stems.
We were two people a long way from home — I was in my third country, while she had just moved to her fourth and wasn’t entirely happy with the arrangement. Our trajectories have covered completely different sides of the earth and somehow ended up crossing here, in a city of temporary people.
We stood in the kitchen, exchanging stories, wine glasses within reach. She started to mince some garlic. Quite a lot of garlic.
“I have a theory,” she said, without glancing up from her chopping board, “that people who don’t chop their garlic are wimps. I’m absolutely not convinced that you get any flavour from crushing garlic with one of those gadgets. Isn’t it about how much surface area you expose to the oil?”
I laughed, because I had often thought the same, whether it was true or not. My mother’s cooking at home had always used finely chopped garlic. Later on, I learned the pleasure of slicing it thin, so that when the garlic is fried in oil just enough, there would a tiny crisp of ring on the outside. And on the inside, soft, sumptuous, pale-gold earthiness that melts in your mouth. It makes anything taste good.
The spaghetti was cooking in a pot of salted water. She fried the garlic over medium heat with a generous amount of oil and dried chilli, until we could just smell it. She didn’t time it quite right so we had to wait for the pasta to cook a little longer, but it was close enough.
“Still getting used to this electric stove,” she muttered.
The moment the pasta was done and drained, she reheated the frying pan and poured in the spaghetti, combining it with the garlic, chilli and oil. She opened a can of marinated oysters and poured the contents on top, giving everything a resolute stir. Dishing it out onto two big plates, I watched as she made sure each dish had a good share of oysters and garlic. They had a habit of falling back into the pan.
“He won me over with this dish,” she began, stars suddenly appearing in her eyes, and went on to tell me about the boy she had to leave behind in Rome. Then there was the story of a visit to her old Italian landlady, who picked a big fresh tomato from her garden and proceeded to make her a meal.
A lightbulb went off in my head. From that day on, I stopped buying tomato-based pasta sauce in jars or bottles: what was the point? They were just supposed to be tomatoes, right? Instead, I just made sure I was always well stocked with fresh tomatoes, including growing my own when weather permitted. A bit of garlic in good olive oil, a smattering of sliced baby tomatoes, and maybe a few fresh basil leaves from the garden. A sauce made with baby tomatoes is so tasty I’ve never found the need to add salt. Some oregano, fresh, if you feel brave. Dried mushrooms for that earthy-woody flavour, or just cooked for a crisp but spongy texture. A few slivers of marinated anchovies. Knife-shaved parmesan. Chopped flat-leaf parsley. A small clatter of freshly cracked black pepper. The combinations of good things are endless, and why should a pasta sauce be any more complicated?
We took our plates and wine glasses out to the balcony that overlooked the backstreet. The early evening sun was still high, coating everything in gold, gradually deepening the shadows with its slow descent. I pointed at a very green garden a few doors down, obviously grown to be eaten, and she acknowledged with a nod. Backstreets tell real life stories. Broken down chairs, abandoned bicycles, forgotten toys, bedsheets hung out to dry. I made a mental note to bring my camera with me the next time I dropped by.
She ladled a generous amount of grated parmesan onto her pasta and pushed a small glass jar of dried chilli towards me, grinning. “Just in case you wanted a top-up.” Already, we shared an understanding that could only belong to two travellers who truly knew how to withstand the heat of spice.
But summer would soon give way to winter; here, fall never seems to last more than a week. And fleeting friendships leave a strange, empty echo in the aftermath, a twinge of bittersweet on the tongue.