Giovanna Eusebi shares her recipe for Pastina in brodo…and an astonishing family story.
FOOD is powerful – it evokes emotion. Ingredients are only a small part in the story of every plate, and a dish can transport you to a moment in time. I love Italian food, it is the fabric of who I am. It keeps me connected to my ancestors, and every dish created has meaning and emotion.
Cooking, to me, is comfort. It is creating real food, full of goodness and flavour. The soul of all my cooking is “brodo” (broth). A dish cooked by my mother and all my Italian grandmothers, it’s a connection to their nurturing and love. In their village the addition of tiny pasta into the broth transforms it into “pastina”. In other parts of Italy it is transformed into “stracciatella” (egg swirled into the broth) and “tortellini in Brodo”, which welcomes the addition of meat-filled pasta.
Other parts of the world have their version of this soup, which has been revered across continents for centuries. Chinese medicine, which dates back 2500 years, prescribed it to strengthen the digestive system. They believe it nourishes the kidneys – the foundation of life in our bodies. In other parts of the world it’s known as “Jewish penicillin” and shows up on Jewish Sabbath with egg noodles. In Japan it’s known as Miso and drunk daily to boost the immune system. In the earliest restaurants in Paris, the bouillon was served to weary travellers.
Brodo took on a different meaning for me while researching this article. Previously it was the soup served to us as children when we were ill, or to comfort us in the chilly Scottish winters. It was a reminder of our “cucina povera” heritage and my mother’s resourcefulness to make a meal out of so little. I am a child of immigrants, but as I’ve only recently discovered, also of an Italian refugee.
My great grandmother, Antonia Russo (Eusebi), was born in the village of San Lorenzo, Castelforte – a village set amongst the hills overlooking the valley of the Garigliano River and halfway between the blue sea of the Marina Di Minturno and the Aurunci mountains. I spent my childhood summers on this beautiful strip of land in Lazio; a landscape of vineyards, citrus and olive groves interrupted by bell towers.
My great grandmother left her village in 1913 as a 16-year-old girl to come to Glasgow to clean houses for settled Italian immigrants in the east end. She married Pietro, a barber from the same village and they ran an ice cream café and barber’s shop in Shettleston Road. In 1939, while on holiday in Castelforte under doctor’s orders “to find a change of air”, she got caught up in one of the most violent battles of the Second World War.
Castelforte formed part of the German fortification, the Gustav Line, built by the Germans in 1943 to defend the advancement of the allies. She was caught between the two lines and for eight months was the victim of violence of the German army. I had heard stories of how she had hid British soldiers in the cellar of her home and smuggled them over the Garigliano River. There was also the tale of General Montgomery staying in her home while passing through. Her English was impeccable and she translated for the British Army. There were tales of espionage, a female German spy called Alma, and stories of escaping German imprisonment on countless occasions.
In an article in The Daily Record in March 1944, the headline read: “Heartbreak House – Women from Glasgow in Italian Refugee Centre.” The article tells the story of Mrs Antonio Russo (Eusebi). She is interviewed in a converted convent behind the fifth army line. An allied military camp run by a Los Angeles police sergeant, a doctor from Rome and “an Italian woman who sold ice cream in Glasgow and acts as an interpreter for officials”.
The story describes the harrowing scenes of truckloads of men, women and children brought to the camp. Starving and destitute, they are cared for and fed. She is described as a “spollati” (refugee) who was caught in No Man’s Land and went days without food. The journalist recounts a distinguished visitor passing through to drop off a truckload of people. He was an Italian baron who “sat down on the floor and consumed a dish of hot soup”.
Right there was the soup. The brodo. Elevated from a humble comfort food to representing the struggles of my ancestors, it is a soup that is as relevant today as it was then. A dish that reminds us of the continued struggle of many people displaced throughout the world – Syrian, Yazidi, Somalian.
The story of the plate in this instance is survival.
Pastina in brodo
- 1 boiling fowl or the best chicken you can afford
- 100g of small pasta (stelline, corallini or broken spaghetti)
- 4 whole carrots, peeled
- 2 whole onions, peeled
- 1 head of celery, washed
- Small turnip, peeled
- Bunch of flat-leaf parsley
- 2 bay leaves
- Salt & pepper, to taste
- Parmesan, to garnish
1. Place the chicken in a pot and cover with water that reaches two inches above the bird.
2. Add the aromatics and simmer for 1 hour 30 minutes. Season to taste.
3. Strain the brodo through muslin or a sieve. Reserve the meat and vegetables.
4. Heat the broth and add the small pasta. Cook for six minutes, adding in the meat and vegetables.
5. Season to taste and serve with a drizzle of oil and Parmesan.
The remaining meat and vegetables can be used for another meal.