Whenever the first snow falls, I am reminded of my grandfather. Clean fresh snow layering the backyard and roofs, whatever is left in the garden (if there is a tomato stalk or two) and lining the patio stones making them look gleaming white. It’s usually a surprise from overnight, but early fresh snows meant a special treat that I haven’t made, and don’t know if I will make, in years.
I know that where my grandfather came from in Calabria the only snow they ever received was at the top of a neighbouring mountain (as he lived on the side of another one). Monte Cacuzzo I think – or at least that was his favourite funny name for it as he was always making things up or making a joke. I know that now there, my cousins sometimes experience snow and ice in their small town but I think that has something to do with climate change and a number of other environmental events there – the main river from the mountains drying up, the loss of forested land, etc. But maybe that’s a blog post for another time.
I think of snow as something my grandfather wholeheartedly embraced about life in Canada. In fact, I never really heard him complain about it other than to swear in awe when it piled higher that our heads on either side of the driveway after clearing it day after day. After the longer snow falls, and after the winter wore on so that the snow was never pure white again but mix with mud and sand and salt, it wasn’t the same as the first few days of clean snow.
As my grandfather lived next door, I always waited for the call for shurabetta. Ok, fine, I’ve looked it up and that isn’t a word. It was his way of saying sherbert.
My grandfather would take the cleanest, freshest snow from the backyard porch, carefully spooning it into a metal bowl and mix in a number of ingredients, though it would strain me to list them now. From what I can remember usually, a bit of coffee, sometimes liquor, molasses or honey and, if he could find them in my aunt’s baking cupboard in the downstairs kitchen, chocolate chips. How he kept it from completely melting before I got over his house was beyond me, but it was always the best treat – never too too cold like ice cream, and melted delecately on your tongue. It was something you had to eat quickly before it escaped your thoughts and your plate. I never took a picture of it, I never asked him how to make it, but I figure, all the better – this was his thing.
He stopped making it sometime in the 90s, I remember my mom going on for a time about acid rain then and how there was probably nothing but pollution in the snow itself. It was a shame really, the last few times we had it was more secretive, but I loved it just the same.
I’m writing about shurabetta because its not just a great memory for me, that comes back every year with the changing season, but because for me it also represents a few things I’ve always loved about my family and my life: Inginueity for one. Who would have thought the cheapest dessert can come free from the sky? My grandparents, and still often my parents, have ways of rigging things, making things happen, fixing things that never amount to just going to the store and buying a part. Use your head instead.
Adaptability is another. I remember as a young child always thinking – how did he know to do this with snow? Where he came from there was no snow! But that was the Italians from another generation, and perhaps all immigrants from the earlier 1900s, they walked onto boats that took them to a place they had never seen before and made it work. There’s few my age now who could do that with the same amount of bravery, hope and perserverance and make it work. It has to be those traits that make someone say, let’s take ice from the sky and make it dessert.
I know that nothing really is original, so I thought maybe my grandfather was doing this as some sort of long standing tradition but Google revealed for me that no one else has written the word shurabetta – at least not publicly. Though what I did find is the history of sherbert or sorbet. According to his journals, history has it written that, of course, Marco Polo brought back sorbet-like desserts from China and of course, the Italians took it on (like pasta). Folklore about Nero, the Roman Emporer, says that he invented sorbet during the first century AD when he had runners along the mountains pass buckets of snow hand over hand to his banquet hall where it was mixed with honey and wine (thanks Wikipedia). Though its hard to beleive that that was true, or could actually work without the snow melting, some historians do believe that he, and further Italian emporers had large chunks of ice brought from the Alps into Rome where it was most likely shaved or crushed into a sorbet-like dessert. So I guess the heat of the Italian south is no match for Italians getting the food and taste they want – whether its Nero or my grandfather.
So I have a little more history on Italians and dessert – that’s the point of this blog, trying to find out more about me and about being Italian – but that will do little to change my feelings, always, towards our first snow. So there it was today, a little sprinkling of memories. Italian-Canadian memories in my own way.