16 comments

Romance Coming of Age Christmas

   “Is there such a thing as too much tiramisu?”

   “We’ve still not found the one that beats your grandma’s recipe.”

   “I can’t face another spoonful.” I sigh in defeat. “That’s me.”

   “Ha!” Jenny laughs, poking my stomach. “Lightweight!”

   “You’re joking, love,” I say. “The diet starts tomorrow.”  

* * *

Jenny and I had agreed to sample as many varieties of tiramisu as possible during our anniversary weekend. It’d started off as a joke, but once we’d embarked on our Venetian safari, we couldn’t stop. We spent our entire weekend asking locals in the Castello neighbourhood for directions to fabled family-run eateries. They’d whispered names of legendry chefs and listed the best restaurants to visit. When we’d asked for directions, they scrawled vague maps and scratched half-remembered addresses on paper napkins accompanied by enthusiastic arm waving. We’d nodded as if we understood and embarked on our quest, regardless. 

   It’s easy to lose one’s bearings in Venice, especially when Italian isn’t your first language. We wandered down labyrinthine alleyways, crossed crumbling bridges and meandered along deserted backwaters, searching for the perfect pudding. On more than one occasion, we arrived back where we started to laughter and applause. We’d shake our heads and our newfound friends shrugged and repeated their instructions, and off we’d trudge. The confusion and jovial exchanges were all part of a memorable experience. 

   Of course, we discovered parts of the city we’d never find again, visiting bars and traditional taverns unknown to guidebooks and only frequented by residents. The owners welcomed us and offered an infinite variety of colourful delicacies served on small plates. We learned these items changed not only seasonally, but day by day and hour by hour. The Venetians call these cicchetti, said to derive from the Latin “ciccus,” meaning “little” or “nothing.” The term embraces a broad range of dishes: fried meatballs, small open-faced sandwiches, small sandwiches on crusty rolls and a scintillating array of pickled, baked, stuffed or sauced seafoods and vegetables. 

   However, it was the tiramisu we’d endeavoured to locate and sample, and we weren’t disappointed. I’m biased, of course, because I knew grandma’s tiramisu would take some beating. Each bar we encountered had its distinct interpretation of the basic ingredients. The proportions and quantities varied from place to place depending on taste and preference and the method of presentation. There was no fixed way of serving the toothsome dessert; the proprietors presented their offerings in bowls, dishes, or plates. But what gourmet expedition would be complete without a glass of the local Prosecco? And perhaps a sip or two of homemade limoncello offered by an affable host, raising a glass to our future health and happiness.

* * *

There was a family rumour that my grandma had learned the recipe from her first fiancé. Apparently, he’d seduced her with elaborate cooking and wooed her with his delicious puddings. Tiramisu was his specialty. Maybe that’s what irked my grandfather so much? 

   I don’t know where and how she acquired her recipe, but it was a family favourite during my childhood. Whenever there was a birthday or special event, she’d rustle up her epicurean speciality, mixing her magical ingredients together as prescribed in her ancient recipe book. I loved her tiramisu as a youngster, convinced she had alchemical powers and a book of spells. There was talk about who would inherit the fabled tome and she guarded its contents with a passion that matched her culinary achievements. 

   My aunty Doreen once enquired about the recipe for grandma’s tiramisu and her attempt to recreate it was disastrous. It was more like a sloppy blancmange that ran off the spoon than a proud pudding that held its shape on the plate. I discovered grandma had written cottage cheese rather mascarpone; an accusation she denied.

   My eldest sister said grandma had promised her the book, however there was competition from both sides of the family. It was the source of as many arguments as delicious recipes, which is a shame, considering how much pleasure it had offered. Its modest cloth-bound cover contained handwritten pages about gathering herbs and preparing spices, methods for preparing sauces or mouth-watering dressings, tips on roasting, frying, baking and sautéing, and endless lists of exotic elements. It was a lifetime’s experience and the secret to a long and happy marriage, or so grandma claimed.

   I’m not convinced grandpa would concur, but then he never agreed with anyone, on principle. He struggled to raise a smile most days and never enjoyed life or couldn’t relax and thank God for his good fortune. We got used to his curmudgeonly attitude and joked with him, in the hope he’d lighten up, but it never happened. In the end, he collapsed at the end of a Christmas feast and left us dumb-struck. It was a sobering experience when the ambulance arrived and the evening ended without warning.

   I thought ‘death by chocolate’ was a joke until my grandpa’s untimely departure. It was a phrase I associated with Christmas as a young lad, relaxing with my relatives after a hearty meal and watching them all nod off in front of the Queen’s speech. My grandmother would open a couple of family-sized selection boxes and pass them around the gathering. The temptation to indulge was ever present because grandma had made a sport of enticing us. Everyone’s willpower disintegrated as the boxes travelled from hand to hand. The chocolates never lasted long. Grandma made that her priority.

   “Won’t you have another one?”

   “No thanks. I’m fine.” 

   “But they’re ever so tiny.”

   “Well, maybe---”

   “I knew you wanted one.”

   “Jesus!” Grandpa would rattle his newspaper. “You just don’t know when to stop.”

* * *

It was my grandmother’s fault. She was to blame. We knew she’d mark every special family occasion with her delicious tiramisu. It didn’t matter whether it was a birthday, Christmas or even Easter; her tiramisu was certain to be present.     

   She’d prepare it a couple of days before and deliver it straight from the fridge in her favourite green ceramic dish. 

   “Anyone for a ‘pick-me-up?’”

   We’d all cheer when she presented it.    

   “Can I offer you a little tiramisu?” 

   I recall her asking each of us in turn. As if anyone could resist a spoonful of her heavenly pudding. It was the most satisfying way to end a meal that’s imaginable and her recipe was the best. Our various holidays in Veneto had proved beyond doubt; she had the perfect combination. My grandmother set such a high benchmark it’s been impossible to locate anything better. Maybe it was the mascarpone, double cream and raw egg combination? Or the home-made brittle chocolate biscuits she lined around the oven-dish? Or the time she left it soaking in coffee liqueur? I’ve never experienced one like hers. Maybe it’s out there, but I’ve never encountered it. Who knows?

* * *

   My grandmother had a habit of persuading people to have another portion or a second helping; tempting guests to indulge themselves beyond redemption. Her tiramisu was the pinnacle of sinful indulgence and my grandfather always refused to have more. His lips would tighten and purse into a tight knot when she asked everyone if they could manage another morsel. His face would change colour and take on a shade of light beetroot when she ladled more helpings to weak-minded guests who succumbed to her patter.

   “It’s full of air,” she’d say, her loaded spoon hovering mid-air.

   “No, really, thank you.”

   “Oh, go on,” she’d say. “A little helping won’t hurt you.”

   “Honestly, I couldn’t.”

   “It’s a shame to throw it away.”

   “Well, maybe.”

   “You see,” she’d say, in triumph. “I knew it.”

   “Thank you.”

   “You were just being polite.” Turning to my grandfather, she’d smile. “It always pays to be polite. Wouldn’t you agree?”

   My grandfather had witnessed the routine for decades and made his excuses, tottering off before his head self-combusted. He lacked patience as a younger man, and what remained when his retirement arrived evaporated after his first year at home. As the years progressed, his tolerance for my grandmother’s antics diminished in direct relationship to the increase in his blood pressure. 

   “You said it was full of air, my dear?”

   “Of course,” she’d say to him. “Can I press you to soupçon?”

   “No!” He’d say, growling. “You know I can’t—-”

   “Oh, go on.” She’d say with glinting doe eyes. “It’s just a bite…”

   When grandpa said he couldn’t have any, it was because he didn’t dare. His cholesterol levels were sky high and the delicious combination of double cream and cream-cheese, chocolate and coffee liqueur was enough to finish him off. But then, my grandmother’s portions would give anyone a cardiac arrest. Her tiramisu was both delicious and deadly; toothsome and terrible for you in one moreish mouthful; perfection on a spoon, devastating and irresistible, too. 

   My grandpa had a way of offsetting his stance by making our guests feel guilty. 

   “A moment on the lips is a lifetime on the hips,” he’d say, heading for the kitchen to make after-dinner coffee for everyone.

   It was a moment that killed any joy and embedded a sober thought into our minds. My grandmother would roll her eyeballs as if to say, “there he goes again.” Her resigned smile suggested a lifetime of enduring his miserable comments, which was true by all accounts. 

   “So, was it your grandma’s fault?” Jenny asks, as we waddle out of the restaurant.

   “Well,” I say, clenching my stomach. “Not really, but it’s an odd coincidence that the last time I saw grandpa, he was in the kitchen licking a serving spoon of tiramisu with one hand and clutching the green ceramic dish in the other.”

   “My stomach feels like it’s carrying a pound of lead-shot.” 

   “Me too, love,” I say, wincing. “I shouldn’t have finished that tiramisu.” 

   “Was it worth it?”

   “God, yes. It was delicious. Almost perfect in fact.” 

   I’d collected every morsel that remained on the glass bowl and given the spoon a lingering slurp with my tongue, relishing the dark chocolate’s bitter taste and the coffee liqueur’s harsh tang. However, being sick at the end of a weekend away leaves a terrible aftertaste. It was my fault, but maybe it was the thought of grandpa’s last spoonful of tiramisu that churned my stomach.

   “Better out than in,” Jenny says, consoling me. “I knew you should have left that last mouthful.”

   “Oh, yeah?”

   “It smelled raw.” 

I convulse and retch onto the gleaming porcelain. “I wish you’d said so, love.”

   “Well,” she said, frowning. “Didn’t you notice?”

   “At least we know the answer to our question.”

   “That’s true.” She handed me a towel and rubbed my shoulders. “You’ll feel better tomorrow.”

   “Now that’s true,” I said, wiping my face on the hotel’s soft Egyptian cotton.

   Suddenly, everything felt better, as if none of it had happened.


The End




December 16, 2023 04:50

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

16 comments

Martin Ross
17:12 Jan 04, 2024

I love good tiramisu, I love cooking, and my wife has pounded away on post-holiday dieting for days, exhaustingly. Food both conjures great holiday memories and can spur a lot of passive-aggressive, recriminating hurt. The Venetian setting was perfect for a culinary drama. Well-done (no pun intended!).

Reply

Howard Halsall
00:38 Jan 05, 2024

Happy New Year Martin, And thank you for indulging in my toothsome offering. I’m not sure it’s the type of story one wants to read after making all those resolutions, however I’m pleased it struck a chord and hope it conjured up happy memories of moreish morsels of perfect patisserie. HH

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Kailani B.
23:08 Dec 20, 2023

I have to admit I've never been a fan of tiramisu (it's probably my dislike for coffee), but your story has me wondering if I should try making it again. Thanks for sharing this tasty tale!

Reply

Howard Halsall
23:48 Dec 20, 2023

Hello Kailani, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughts. Despite the content of my tempting tiramisu saga, I have to admit I find it a bit rich too, and best eaten in modest portions, but then maybe I’m talking from experience :) Anyhow, I’m pleased you enjoyed my story and for heaven’s sake don’t let me put you off; a homemade tiramisu’s quite a treat. Take care HH

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Mary Bendickson
17:08 Dec 17, 2023

Thanks for liking 'Words'

Reply

Show 0 replies
Helen A Smith
08:13 Dec 16, 2023

What an old misery the grandad was! Determined to spoil everyone’s fun. I wonder why he was like that and didn’t appreciate what he had. It wasn’t just bad health as he’d always been like that. Curmudgeonly - says it all. I loved the way you presented this particular dish as evoking powerful memories. Also, I’ve never been to Venice. It sounded a little scary, although the local people in the restaurants were most welcoming. I can almost taste the grandma’s tiramisu. I’d definitely have gone back for second helpings! I do like this dish, b...

Reply

Howard Halsall
00:52 Dec 17, 2023

Hello Helen, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughts. I would definitely recommend a long weekend in Venice and a mission to locate the ultimate tiramisu, but go there between major holiday periods to enjoy a peaceful and contemplative visit or you’ll be overwhelmed by crowds of tourists. The Sant Elena district at the eastern end of Venice makes an ideal base to retreat to and has a variety of family-run restaurants that’ll satisfy the agenda. Concerning the old curmudgeon; I find some old people who become reliant on f...

Reply

Helen A Smith
15:34 Dec 18, 2023

Thank you. I hope I do get to go one day. I don’t like places when they’re too crowded so thanks for the advice. I’ve definitely come across such curmudgeonly behaviours. It doesn’t entice people to form close bonds. Being like that makes no sense unless someone is in pain. The kinder and more appreciative people are, generally the more they are valued. Still, there’s nowt so strange as folk, as the saying goes.

Reply

Howard Halsall
18:31 Dec 18, 2023

I’m always intrigued to see how people react given a change of circumstances; it’s the stuff of a good book, wouldn’t you agree? It’s certainly keeps life interesting….

Reply

Helen A Smith
20:41 Dec 18, 2023

It certainly is the stuff of a good book. Mostly, humans tend to fear change, especially with age. Maybe it’s the changes that are forced on us we least like. Definitely intriguing.

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
05:29 Dec 16, 2023

Fun story. I love a story where I learn about a different city, culture and/or family, and you had all three. Oh, and I enjoy tiramisu so much, this made me hungry. I had spent a month in Turin and never had a tiramisu, it must be a regional dish within Italy (bcz outside the country its in every italian restaurant!)

Reply

Howard Halsall
06:52 Dec 16, 2023

Hey Scott, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughts. I had a bit of fun putting this one together, so I'm pleased the humour translated to the page, even if it is dark in places... I'm sure tiramisu originates in the Veneto region in northern Italy, so it is quite particular to Venice and its neighbouring towns, despite appearing in every Italian restaurant. As with all such things there are numerous people who claim to have invented it, but according to my research it first appeared in the 1960s in Treviso. The dialogue li...

Reply

07:08 Dec 16, 2023

yeah, i've heard that expression a lot, especially I used to have a coworker from east London who would say it everytime desert came;)

Reply

Howard Halsall
07:48 Dec 16, 2023

It's a funny old expression from a time when people had a sense of modesty and restraint that's generally lacking nowadays or present in gyms and juice bars as opposed to churches and places of worship. Maybe its current use is an indication of changing values and reflects the mode for self-reflection, body modification and taking selfies. It occurs to me that its modern usage is more closely linked to the phrase, "my body is my temple." Maybe the body itself has become a place of worship? hmm... food for thought or a stretch too far, I'm no...

Reply

08:52 Dec 16, 2023

yes, agree. the idea that my children have been exposed to every possible immodest thing on the internet is worrying. the source of so many new emotional problems for children these days.

Reply

Howard Halsall
00:59 Dec 17, 2023

You’re right, they grow up too quickly - it’s no wonder the pharmaceutical industry is making so much money. But, of course, it’s an infinite commercial loop, wouldn’t you agree?

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
RBE | We made a writing app for you (photo) | 2023-02

We made a writing app for you

Yes, you! Write. Format. Export for ebook and print. 100% free, always.