In Search of Lost Cake

The van careened into the parking lot, screeching to a halt in front of us and the handful of other bleary-eyed travelers, shivering in the pre-dawn cold of the Sicilian spring morning. As we slowly came to the realization that this mini-bus was the low-capacity stand-in for a 2am train that would never fill its seats, the doors opened, spilling forth a platoon of rose vendors and cologne. Minutes later, we were on board and on our way, winding our way up the eastern coast of Sicily from Catania to Messina, where we would board a ferry to cross back over to the mainland.

Four years later, I walked into work on a Saturday morning. Saturdays are my favorite day to start work. The mornings are quiet, the kitchen team always makes breakfast for the rest of the staff, there is just a pervading sense of calm not present on weekday mornings. Some days, in addition to leftover pizza topping egg scramble, a few desserts are set out for the team. A slice of cake that lost its frosting, a cookie overbaked but within the realm of edibility, and on this particular morning, the zuppa inglese.

Zuppa Inglese is an Italian dessert derived from the English trifle (hence its name, which directly translates to “English soup”, but would colloquially be something more akin to “sopped up in the English style”). It is a layered dessert, alternating pound cake and pastry cream. The sopping of its name refers to the soaking of the cake layers in Alchermes, a brilliantly red and aromatic liqueur.

Despite my deep and abiding love for Italian liqueurs, I was entirely unfamiliar with Alchermes by name until about a month before the Saturday morning in question, when our pastry chef asked me to order him a bottle for a dessert he planned to make. I sourced it easily from one of our suppliers, and then immediately left for a two week vacation, knowing nothing about this mystery bottle I had ordered for Leo, other than that it bore the Luxardo label, and thus presumably tasted like cherries?

The finished dessert greeted me in our pastry case upon my return, its striking composition reminiscent of the patriotic tricolore Italians like to work into all kinds of dishes. Yet, it would be another week until I would walk into the restaurant on a calm Saturday morning and feed myself a breakfast taco or two before discovering a slab of the zuppa inglese, sliced down into bite size pieces, no longer suitable for sale, but certainly suitable for me.

I had no real expectations, and visually, the dessert reminded me of the cloyingly sweet and flavorless pastries that often populate the shelves of an Italian pasticceria. For while I have a sweet tooth, it’s really more of a tooth that likes a nice sweet savory balance, topped off with a dollop of whipped cream. Except for sour patch kids, I could eat those suckers all day long. And sometimes do.

And so, I grabbed a piece of the dessert out of habit more than anything else. Yes, curiosity about a new treat that had been selling well and which I should also probably be able to discuss knowledgeably with customers, but really, it’s just because it was there. I opened my mouth, preparing my tastebuds for what I conjured up in my mind to be a fruity tiramisu. I took a bite, closed my eyes, and opened them in Calabria.

When we talk about taste and memory, there is a pervading sense of nostalgia – something tasting just how you remembered it, or just how Grandma used to make it. Often an unrelated bite will evoke flavors and sensations reminiscent of something you ate long ago. The archetypal literary example being, of course, Proust’s madeleine. What is remarkable about Proust, however, is that it is not just the madeleine, the presence, or the scent of the cookie that evokes his childhood. In fact, when the passage begins, the bite only evokes a general nostalgia, one that takes a moment for him to place. It is the specificity of the cookie dipped in tea, that particular mingling of aromas and textures that transports him to childhood in a way that none of the intervening cookies could.

But what I often forget is that taste doesn’t need specificity to transcend. It can evoke a moment and a feeling, not just a memory. Perhaps a moment and a memory unrelated to taste. Just as a sip of wine can send you frolicking through the meadows of the Loire even if you’ve never been to France (I’ve actually never been to the Loire…are there even meadows?), a bite of food can transport your mind and your memory.

The zuppa inglese, however, sent me to a very specific place, a very specific time, and a very specific memory. Despite the opening paragraph here and its allusions to the floral aromas that pervaded the minibus in question, my time traveling dessert sent me instead to a moment several hours later that day. A moment that occurred after rocketing up the Sicilian coast along a road that hugged the curves of the island, at a speed that often felt like it left us with only two wheels on the ground. A moment that came after we arrived in the port town of Messina and boarded a sunrise ferry destined for Calabria.

Calabria. The toe of the Italian boot. A peninsula bisected by several interior mountain ranges, whose crags ease into a plateau which never fully descends to sea level. Fishing villages perch on the edge of sheer cliffs which give way to some of the world’s most spectacular beaches. It is arguably the site of the earliest human presence on the Italian peninsula, and was inarguably colonized by the Greeks nearly 4000 years ago. Calabrese history is long, complicated, occasionally sad, and frequently soaked in wine. But through it all, they love to eat.

We disembarked in Villa San Giovanni, and the ferry ride, while smooth, had not done much to settle our stomachs and souls after tearing up the Sicilian coastline. With an hour to kill before our train, we went in search of a cappuccino. We found a bar. We went in. We were there for maybe twenty minutes. I can’t even remember if I ordered anything other than a cappuccino, although I remember a soccer game on television, and pink lace adorning every visible surface.

And yet, four years later, early on a Saturday morning as I prepared the restaurant for the day, I bit into a dessert, layered with chocolate, pastry cream, and caked soaked in Alchermes, and I returned to that anonymous bar in a nondescript town that until this moment could have easily held the title of least memorable stop on a two week journey through Southern Italy. But why? I don’t recall if I ate anything there, let alone a slice of zuppa inglese. Was there a scent in that bar which the cake evoked?

I think it’s actually a bit more abstract than that. And I think it comes back to the Alchermes. While I had never heard of this liqueur, and did not recognize the bottle, it’s taste and aroma have a vague familiarity. It is a flavor that pops up in any number of Italian desserts, from the memorable to the less so and everything in between. It is, for lack of a more eloquent descriptor, generic. It is generic Italian dessert flavor. Sweet, fruity, floral, and altogether pleasant. And I think the bar in Calabria played the same role in my memory. It was generic stop in the midst of chaotic day and journey. It was purely, yet ineffably Italian, just like my Saturday morning snack.





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