My favourite childhood dish has a rather unassuming name, ‘walnut pasta’. It is made up of a simple list of ingredients – fettucine, ground walnuts and honey. However, this dish, served by my grandfather once a year during our celebration of Jugoslav Christmas, is so much more to my family than just a simple dessert.
For my grandfather, born into a Serbian Orthodox family in Zrenjanin, Serbia, in the 1940s, this dish provides a link between his own childhood and the new life he has found in Australia, seventy years on. He vividly recounts the Christmas traditions he observed as a child in Serbia, from hanging silver-painted walnuts on the tree with his mother, to hoping to receive a lucky coin during the splitting of česnica. After moving to England when he was twelve, my grandfather’s family continued to keep these traditions alive, adapting them to their new life where necessary. Most significantly, the traditional walnut cake was transformed into our beloved walnut pasta when butter, eggs and sugar were rationed in the post-War years and hard to come by. The walnut pasta we eat today is a mixture of the Serbian and English traditions that have influenced my grandfather’s upbringing.
For me, my grandfather’s walnut pasta has come to represent my own childhood in Australia. It is the pure childish excitement of celebrating a second Christmas and bragging to my friends that I ate pasta for dessert. It is the warm, lyrical tone of my grandfather’s voice as he tells these stories, and my grandmother’s perfume that permeates the entire home. It is falling asleep on the leather couches after the meal is over: cosy, warm and safe as the sun bakes through the drawn curtains, listening to the incoherent murmur of my parents in the adjoining room.
Now that I live and study in England, twenty-four hours’ travel from my family and my home, walnut pasta signifies those precious first few weeks of January, when I am back home with my family. It is skin weathered by the sun and clothes covered in sand. It is the quietness of a long summer evening overlooking the water, conversations which deny any distance existed at all. Everyone in my family carries on separate lives with different memories of the past, and expectations for the future, but this dish provides a distinctive moment in the year that we can share together.