Sarah Johnson struggles with shaping pizza dough, but she does pick up some Italian when taking a combined cookery and language class.
Photograph: Massimo Borchi/Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis
“Everyone take a big gulp of wine. We’re going to start speaking Italian.”
I’m sitting at a table in an Italian restaurant in London with a group of people I’ve never met before. We’re here for a combined cooking and language class, and a bit of Dutch courage sounds like a great idea. I’ve always wondered why learning languages doesn’t incorporate more drinking. It’s a social lubricant, boosts confidence levels and loosens the tongue. And my language skills always seem so much better after a few drinks.
The class is led by language teacher, Rafaella Palumbo, and her assistant Guido Piccoli, a city worker by day and Italian cooking and language maestro by night. Palumbo tells me, “Italian is not requested so much as a language, but everyone loves Italian food. I started the classes three years ago to introduce get people speaking Italian in a relaxed environment.”
We’re separated from the rest of the restaurant by a small corridor where waiters congregate waiting for food from the kitchen. Palumbo warns us that, in true Italian style, the chefs get more animated as the night goes on. Images of men chucking flour and eggs at each other while gesticulating and cursing at each other in Italian flash through my mind. I make a mental note to avoid the kitchen area.
Class starts with learning the correct pronunciation of bruschetta. Commonly pronounced across the English speaking world with a soft ‘sh’ sound in the middle of the word, I get the impression from Raffaella’s insistence on repeating it over and over again, that it is a cause of great annoyance to Italians who say brus-k-etta, instead. The bastardisation of one’s native language is never nice to hear, after all.
We then move on to introductions. Rafaella and Guido make a great double act as they demonstrate how to say “what’s your name?” (come ti chiami?) and “my name is …” (mi chiamo …).
We go around the table, one by one, to give everyone the chance to practise greetings, how to say their name and where they’re from. Butterflies start flapping in my stomach. It’s a long time since I was in a language class speaking up in front of classmates, let alone a room full of strangers. I’m not the only one to feel a bit nervous. The pressure is so much for one girl that she temporarily forgets her name.
With introductions out of the way, we learn how to say the ingredients we are going to cook with. On the menu tonight is bruschetta, followed by a margharita pizza and a crostata – a baked tart – for dessert. We practise saying the words for olive oil, butter, jam, lemon, egg, basil, and flour, among others. Then comes competition time. We’re split down the middle of the table into two teams. Rafaella holds up an ingredient and tells us to raise a hand if we know what it is. The game becomes rowdy and certain members of the class shout out the answers before they’ve raised their hand. A gaggle of school children would have obeyed the rules better than we did.
After learning some Italian it’s on to the cooking. Over the years, the art of cooking and I have had a tumultuous relationship. Aged 15, I managed to fill the house with green smoke while making popcorn. I cooked pizza complete with the polystyrene base and ruined my friend’s baking tray. I put a plastic bowl in the oven only for it to melt. The list goes on and on.
To my relief, most of the hard work is done for us by Rafaella and Guido. After a demonstration on how to make pizza dough, they hand us each some. We shape it and then spread tinned tomatoes and mozarella cheese on the top. Mine is about as far from a circle as you can get; shaping pizza dough is clearly beyond my expertise, and a friend later asks if I was trying to recreate a map of Germany.
While the pizzas are cooking in the oven, we prepare the crostata. As we spread the dough over the base of a container and spread jam (marmellata in Italian – a false friend) on top, conversation turns to languages. Palumbo asks what everyone thinks about learning another language. A chunk of the class are from other countries including Portugal, Russia and Spain, and language learning is second nature. One lone male voice at the other end of the table booms, “I don’t want to learn a language because I speak English.” Palumbo’s face drops. There is a sharp intake of breath. I struggle to contain myself. His remark is soon forgotten, however, as we start talking about takeaway pizza. The Italian in Palumbo makes a dramatic appearance. She makes the sign of the cross and says, “I don’t recommend any takeaway pizza. It’s not Italian. I like to pass on authentic Italian cuisine. Pizza in America is terrible. It’s not the real thing.” She says of one famous takeaway brand: “I tried it once … It was like chewing gum.” As for a lasagne sandwich, “It’s not possible. It’s blasphemy.”
By now, the atmosphere in the room is buzzing. Everyone’s talking to each other. The girl next to me is a fashion designer and about to move to Rome for work. She and the other girls around us agree that learning a language when you’re doing something is much easier as you associate the words with the image.
The pizza is ready. We tuck in. Even though mine is misshapen, it tastes delicious. The room goes quiet as everyone wolfs down their creation. It’s not long before it’s time to leave. I take my crostata with me to put in the oven at home. The next day, I decide to take it into work with me as a kind gesture. Its “rustic”, as one colleague puts it, appearance is met with laughter. Another colleague likens it to a poppadom. Presentation always was my downfall, but at least it tasted good. Back at the restaurant, everyone’s had a good time, and I’m almost sad to leave.
On the tube home, there are some Italians talking. I smile when I understand a little of what they’re saying. I think to myself that it’s about time I learned another language, and how to cook.