“Food for the Soul”

“Two years ago, I received a small package from my mother. It was a Christmas present—a little recipe book that she had made herself. On the cover was a photograph of a field that my great grandfather used to work—the same field that our family home is built on today. The book was purely composed of family recipes—each one somehow connected to someone close to me.

“I was born and raised in Triuggio, a village in Italy set between Milan and the Alps. When I think of my village there are two things that spring to mind: a woodland called Four Chestnut Woods, because of the trees at its center, and the mountains in the distance—as a child I used to stand on the balcony of our fourth-floor apartment and try name each peak.

 “Food growing is part of my very first memories. My grandfather was a kind, tall and gentle man and I used to spend a lot of time with both him and my grandmother in their vegetable garden. It was quite small, but there was still enough room for a few animals. I remember being very little and picking carrots and tomatoes when they were ready. The garden was an oasis of peace to me. Everything we ate at their house was homemade—I don’t think they set foot in a supermarket more than a handful of times—and they used to make and exchange food with other people in their neighborhood.

“Both of my grandparents were very humble and hard working. My grandfather would build all of his garden tools himself. They also built their own house, on a street called Via Gramsci. It was three stories. My grandfather lived on one floor and his two brothers and their families lived on the others. They all shared a communal garden. In that garden there was a wooden awning covered in vines and under it there was a little oven. When the sun blazed overhead in the summer, we would all gather under the awning’s shade chatting as we waited for our food to cook.

“In late September we would collect all of the tomatoes we could pick from the garden, and with a tiny handmade machine we would blend them together to make Passata. All these experiences fueled my interest in Food Justice—the right of eating good healthy food.

“My father was a firm believer in equality and social solidarity. Together with a few friends, he founded the Solidarity Purchasing Group—a group that connected local producers with families in our village and allowed people to buy food directly from its source. The majority of things that my dad taught me, he taught me during walks; ‘You have to walk steadily one step after the other, but never stop,’ he would say, or things like, ‘If you are the slowest, you must walk ahead and set the pace’, and ‘When you see two roads always take the most difficult one, because that’s the one that will take you to where there is a nice view.’ We loved to go hiking in the Alps together.

“I was twenty-two when he passed away. I was in Milan studying. My father had wanted me to see the world, but at that time I didn’t want to leave our village.

“It was a sleepy summer afternoon in Bologna. I had finished my BA in Milan and had moved to Bologna to do a Social Economy Master’s. There was a conference that day, but I had decided to skip it— I was not feeling very energetic— but then I felt an urge to go.

“As I walked into the conference room the speaker was talking about responsible innovation. At the end I had a chat with him. He was a professor at the University of Exeter. I said, ‘I really liked what you were saying. I was thinking of writing my thesis on a similar topic, would you have any suggestions?’ He replied that he had a PhD student that was looking at the same thing. Shortly after this conversation I secured some funding for my studies. ‘Why don’t you come to Exeter?’ Asked the Professor when I told him. So, I did.

“Leaving my family in Italy was not easy, but my mother has always been great. Obviously, she would much rather I had stayed with her, but she’s always been supportive and has never held me back from anything. We talked on the phone for an hour every day when I first moved—she did most of the talking though,” says Laura with a smile. “She kept me up to date on all the village gossip and we also talked about food of course!

“I finished my PhD, joined a co-op, walked on Dartmoor, and found love. I was offered a teaching position at the University. I took it part-time so I could have time for other things; I’m the co-director of a community-owned grocery store in Exeter, offering local, organic and ethically sourced produce, and I enjoy growing vegetables with a growers co-operative.

“The question is, what do we need? What do we really need? For me it has always been about sharing and the need to strike a balance between money and time—you need time to take care of the places, people, and relationships you love.

“I live with my partner, David, in a small village near Totnes. It has not always been easy to build connections in England but cooking and sharing is my favourite way of building bridges.

“I have never had a destination; I just enjoy walking and I am enjoying walking now. The writer Eduardo Galeano said, ‘“Utopia is on the horizon. I move two steps closer; it moves two steps further away. I walk another ten steps and the horizon runs ten steps further away. As much as I may walk, I’ll never reach it. So, what’s the point of utopia? The point is this: to keep walking.’ And that is how I see life; you have a vision and that is what keeps you on the move. You know that you won’t truly get there but you enjoy it nonetheless.

“This Christmas I sent my mother a box of biscuits with the recipe that I came up with for them. It is now included in the book she gave me. My father planted the seed of curiosity for different cultures and ways of living in me. Wherever he is I hope that he can see what I have done with it.”