Endearing Portuguese term for Granny / Grandmother
The room was functional and minimalist in style, but still managed to feel warm and enticing. The feature was undoubtedly the gigantic cheese plant dominating one entire corner. A mulberry and raspberry candle ignited a sweet, honeyed aroma to the air. Maria felt comfortable here. The counsellor had kind eyes, and closed them unhurriedly as she savoured each sip of her green tea. “Had you ever considered trying to bake any of them yourself?” the counsellor suggests with a sincere but slightly condescending tone. “Oh wow. No no no! I couldn’t possibly do them justice. These hands aren’t made for baking!” Maria chortles, presenting her rough, overworked, nail-bitten hands to drive home the point. “Give me a eucalyptus tree over a chocolate cake any day!” She’s attempting to be flippant but the counsellor isn’t buying it. There follows an uncomfortable silence.
Maria’s mind returns back to that charming era. The wooden blue and white painted porch, vovó gently tilting back and forth in her rattan rocking-chair, whistling her favourite tune. Bizarrely, Maria realises that she had never actually recognised the melody, or come to think of it, even asked what it was. Maria would relish every moment in that garden as a child, plucking succulent bitter-sweets from the plentiful fruit trees covering the downward slope with their radiant beauty. Such a marvellous time.
When returning there as an adult, Maria had been surprised at how close vovó’s cottage had been to the overhead motorways connecting Porto to the rest of mainland Portugal. This was despite the fact she had lived there into her twenties when studying Fine Arts and English at the Universidade do Porto. Maybe there hadn’t been so much traffic back then, she had surmised. Or perhaps she had just been so absorbed in enjoying her life, that no amount of nearby congestion could ever disrupt that.
Vovó’s garden was an artistic vision of lush green slopes, covered by thriving orange trees, quince apple trees, fig trees and beautiful flowering laurels. She adored all of them in their sylvan glory. Their fruitage was out of this world and the scene, mesmerising. From the porch, in the distance, you could spot the Ponte da Arrabida to the backdrop of the captivating, cerulean sky. Together they would saunter the market each morning and barter for fresh sardines, then sit beside the numerous trestle tables packed in-between food and flower stalls, attentively watching people passing period buildings that had been transformed into impressive hotels and restaurants. Maria had enjoyed many a summer waitressing at the nearby Capa Negra II café and would pinch herself frequently to confirm she wasn’t in fact living someone else’s dream.
“It was just a thought”, the counsellor tactfully interrupts Maria’s daydreaming. “You mention your Grandmother’s cakes quite a lot. It seems her baking was quite a large part your life together.” It was true. Maria’s Grandma had spent much of her time baking. The cottage offered it’s own unique scent with a blend of energising citrus, consoling vanilla, rich and velvety chocolate, along with the supreme aroma of local port and fresh arabica coffee. If vovó wasn’t in the kitchen, she was collecting fruit into her apron from her plentiful fresh and succulent garden produce, the pouch heaving under the weight. Maria favoured assisting in the garden, but sometimes she was permitted in the kitchen too. She would enjoy surveying vovó’s every move, from that rickety old orange stool that was kept just for her under the pine table. Her Grandma had a particular way of making her creations and was insistent on maintaining a spotless and hygienic work area at all times. Maria was permitted to dice up the fruit sometimes, the tangy zest spritzing into the air, it was her most loved fragrance. Soon enough though, Maria’s incessant need to give a running commentary and constant cross-questioning would result in her being shooed away with a “very special” task to complete or a trip to the market for an ingredient she’d forgotten, anything to persuade the eager, inquisitive child to leave the kitchen and politely get out of her hair. The radio would immediately be turned turned on and vovó would be transported into her own little world singing, bopping and tapping merrily with the wooden spoon as she mixed and whipped. Maria would head straight back outside, forgetting immediately what she’d been asked to do and amuse herself in the garden, observing the fascinating wildlife and passionately tending to the plants. This was undoubtedly where her love of the outdoors had its roots. She loved every minute.
“Maybe I should.” Maria announces with a renewed conviction. The counsellor looks up from her notes. “I’ve never even thought about it to be honest,” she continues. “My favourite cake was the sweet, sticky marmalade tasting Pastel de Laranja, they were just so heavenly…” Maria licks her lips as her tongue tingles from recalling the tasty morsels and how quickly she could make her way through an entire basket-full. Her mouth starts watering as she reminisces fondly. The moment is rudely interrupted by an alarming buzzer blasting through the office speakers. The counsellor knows that Maria understands what this means. “I look forward to hearing how that goes, Maria” she encourages as Maria gathers her coat and purse.
On leaving the building Maria’s head is swimming. She’s emotionally drained, and on pushing her way out of the hefty, timber doors, she aches inwardly from the sight before her: concrete, concrete and more concrete. To see anything even remotely beautiful she would have to travel far outside the city. On arriving in Britain Maria had worked tirelessly, setting up her own business. It included her love of all things green, specialist design, an eye for detail and creative thinking. She converted Londoners’ dreary and purposeless roof spaces into a retreat of potted plants, therapeutic herbs and vibrant, bright-coloured flowers. She particularly savoured the conclusion of the project, when she would invite the owner up to their own roof garden complete with trellis, contemporary seating, a canopy and shimmering lighting, revealing the wonderful transformation. Their eyes widening in delight at the picture of serenity before them. Now an unrecognisable area, fit for savouring the surroundings, a relaxing and tranquil haven, everything city life couldn’t offer.
Maria found the stories of her fellow city-dwellers compelling. Most were there out of choice, of course, having moved from quaint villages elsewhere in the UK or from another country, much like herself. But let there be no mistaking, these pint-sized sheltered retreats were no rival to the real deal. And although proud and delighted with a job well done, Maria’s heart would never embrace anywhere the way it had Porto. That had been home for so many years. That’s where her contentment had been born, and sadly also dwindled. Once her beloved vovó had succumbed to the tragic disease that had her in its grips, and with no other family, Maria had decided to take it as an unplanned opportunity for adventure, to reach out for something contrasting, fresh, rousing. But the loss had taken its toll, and regardless of how deftly she’d convinced herself she was thriving, she knew deep down she was anything but. The counselling had been her attempt at, not so much happiness, as she was sure that she’d never experience that joy in the same way, but maybe acceptance. To welcome the fact that her life had irreversibly changed and maybe her heart would allow her some peace once more.
On the bus ride home, Maria found herself contemplating those orange treats. Surely they couldn’t be that difficult to replicate? She disembarks at an earlier stop and nips into the local greengrocers. Right. Oranges. That’s a start. Only Portuguese oranges will do, obviously. She selects some grown in the Algarve, not quite the same as vovó’s home-grown delicacies but as close as she’s going to get. She pauses for a moment, frustrated that she didn’t pay more attention to vovó’s preparations in the kitchen. From the recess of her mind Maria recollects seeing sugar (a lot of sugar if her memory serves correctly), then there were eggs, the quantity unsure of. Butter? And flour, obviously. She remembers the unique texture of the tarts. It’s difficult to explain. The centre was very soft, a bit dense, not really resembling a cake, but it held its moisture perfectly and Maria would like to dig the centre out with a spoon. The outer edge was the part she’d love to nibble at, a chewy texture. It had the obvious orange flavour, but there was more to it than that. The consistency resembled a hybrid of cake and custard. She begins to regret the decision to bake from memory alone and momentarily considers looking up the recipe, but her inner self slaps her, reminding her of her resolve. She’d watched vovó make these pastries time and again, there really was no excuse to mess this up.
Maria whips into the local store for orange juice, just in case, more flour as she’s not sure the pack she has at home is even in date, and more butter and eggs. On entering her apartment she flings her belongings onto the side with excitement. Her cat greets her with an equal share of affection and distain. “No time for cuddles, Mimi! I’m going to bake us some special cakes! Well, tarts…pastries actually...” Mimi looks at her amiss. She’s not interested. Just feed me and I’ll be out of your way. Maria swiftly pours herself a glass of red, feeds her increasingly doting cat and rolls up her sleeves with determination.
The sugar, eggs and flour are the obvious starting points. They cream together pleasingly and it reminds her of her cookery classes back in Porto. She was a dab-hand at “Bola de Berlim” in middle school, so she’s pretty confident this will be an enormous success. Does she add the fresh orange juice into the flour and butter or does she add that later? She recalls the slightly browned pastries were the tastiest as they offered a slightly caramelised flavour. Maria resolves to bake two separate batches, one with the fresh orange juice and the other with added orange rind. The crisp essence permeates her small apartment, and Mimi sniffs the air with scrutiny.
6pm soon becomes 11pm and Maria looks like she’s been in a dumpling throwing contest. She’s splattered in a sticky residue of citrus juice and flour, she even has it in her hair, her mascara is smudged and dribbling down her face and her hands are in even more of a state that usual. Maria is furious and seething at her utter lack of natural talent for all things culinary. She slumps over the sink, tilting her head to regard layer upon layer of baking trays displaying her disappointingly ridiculous attempts. Hard, stodgy and inedible mounds are littering the side. Bowls, spoons, torn packaging, measuring cups and clogged sieves are cluttering every inch of the worktop. A complete shambles. Maria collapses onto the kitchen floor and begins to blubber. Once the floodgates are opened, she can’t stop. The tears gush as her mind and body succumb to despair and grief. Heartbreak from her loss, from leaving behind the life she cherished, for forgetting how precious all those memories were. She hadn’t realised how much of her sorrow she’d kept locked up inside.
For what feels like an eternity, Maria is consumed by her anguish, and she allows the tears to flow, but then something within her shifts and she begins to smile. She envisions vovó, standing there, hands on her hips, emitting her utter disgust at this deplorable mess. “Que diabos?!” and out comes the wagging finger, “Voce nao aprendeu nada, crianca?!” her accent becoming stronger and her words spoken faster as her annoyance increases. She would indeed be appalled if she were here. Had Maria learned nothing from all those years in her home? Maria finds herself inexplicably laughing…and now the tears are flowing for a different reason. Somehow, she’s relieved. She’d needed this and hadn’t even realised it.
“MILK!!!!” She screams in triumph so suddenly the cat yelps and nosedives off her nearby perch. “It’s milk!! I forgot the milk! Estupido!” She starts leaping around in glee, almost stumbling due to her tipsiness and exhaustion. “I was right all along,” Maria reports with amusement, “these hands really aren’t made for baking!” She erupts again into hysterics.
Mimi remains unimpressed.