My paternal grandfather was one of the great loves of my life. He introduced me to the concept of unconditional love, though neither of us ever used those words. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I never heard him use the word love and he wasn’t particularly demonstrative either. But I knew he loved me – long before I knew much of anything at all.
My grandfather lived in the north of England, in Yorkshire. Before he moved into a row-house backing onto a school yard, where he said the sound of children playing helped keep him young, he lived in an ancient stone house on the banks of a river. His backyard garden was a steeply terraced walkway down to the water. In the garden along either side of the path, he grew a huge variety of roses along with peas and lettuce. He probably grew other things too but my memory is of beautiful pink roses spilling out everywhere and of being allowed free rein to pick and eat all the fresh peas I wanted.
For my fourth birthday, he invited my only and dear cousin, Jackie, and baked me a fruit cake and decorated it with marzipan and white icing. On the top of the cake there were tiny marzipan fruits. To this day every time I eat fruit cake – I think of my fourth birthday. Of my beautiful, sophisticated cake.
In the kitchen, there was an old wooden door, which led down four or five stone steps into the larder. Being sent to the larder was one of my favourite tasks. On the open shelves were baskets of brown eggs straight from the farm, a loaf of bread, marmalade, jams and honey, blocks of cheese, a bowl of pears or plums, often a large leg of ham, or a joint of beef (as it was called in those days – before joint meant something else entirely). There was often a Victoria sponge cake dredged with sugar and filled with whipped cream and raspberry jam. There was tea and sugar and flour in tin canisters. There was always chocolate – usually from Terry’s of York – now known for their chocolate orange. And Fox’s glacier mints. Sometimes there were tarts or Yorkshire Parkin or thick fingers of shortbread. And always gingernuts. And Jacob’s cream crackers. And a huge glass dish of butter. Milk was delivered daily in pint jars. We poured the cream off the top and used it on top of baked puddings. On the floor of the pantry there were potatoes and carrots and onions.
My grandfather who wore a suit and crisp white shirt with silver cufflinks every day, often donned an apron and cooked. He baked bread, cooked roasts, and made cakes. He often let me help him – standing me on a small stool while I kneaded a piece of dough or spooned jam into tart shells or shelled peas. Before I went to bed each night, he made me a cup of hot cocoa and served it alongside cream crackers slathered in butter.
This is how I came to know love.
The intersection of food, longing, and love is one of my favourite subjects. Food is at the heart of everything that matters. At the most basic level – food is about life and about our survival as a species. It’s how we all begin our lives and the thing that sustains us until the end.
At some point along our evolutionary path, our human brains became wired to remember food and those who provided it for us. We eat in order to live but we have also developed powerful emotional connections to food. In other words, food, nurture, and love are inextricably linked in our minds.
I know my grandfather would have loved this dish even though I don’t ever remember him eating pasta. The tortellini merely serves as the backdrop for the beautiful smooth flavours of sage, butter and cheese. This is comfort food. It’s also fast, easy, inexpensive, and incredibly delicious. Think of it as grown-up Mac & cheese. It’s sophisticated enough for company – so you can share the love. You can use packaged tortellini or make your own if you are so inclined – in which case strike out the words “fast” and “easy.” Serve it with a side salad.
Tortellini in Brown Butter Sage Sauce (for 4)
1 lb (454 grams) fresh cheese or pumpkin tortellini
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup loosely packed fresh sage leaves, washed and chopped roughly
1 cup of shredded Pecorino cheese (or substitute freshly grated parmesan or asiago cheese or a blend of these and old white cheddar)
Bring a large pan of salted water to a full boil and cook the tortellini as per the instructions (usually about 6-8 minutes).
While you are waiting for the tortellini to cook, melt the butter in a large skillet over medium heat. When the butter is melted and just starting to turn golden, add the sage and cook for about three minutes or until the mixture has browned. The sage will become almost crispy. Reduce heat to low.
Once the pasta is cooked, drain and add to the browned butter sauce in the skillet. Add some freshly ground pepper and toss the pasta to coat. Sprinkle with cheese and serve immediately.