Nizar

Villa Manni Nizar for blog
Nizar Jawdat “at home”,  posing with lemon tree in front of Villa Manni’s main entrance.

Every afternoon, in Orte, sipping on a home-brewed glass of dried lime tea* (Noomi Basra), Nizar would begin his plans for dinner. He had “troops” to feed: four sons, a wife and numerous friends and guests who were either staying at Villa Manni or dropping by.

Scratching his beard first and his bald head second, he stares at the inside of the refrigerator. He then shuffles towards the pantry. He scans the shelves humming to the tunes of Mozart blasting in the next room: “Andiam! Andiam! Mio bene…**”. He admires the jarred tomatoes that the family had processed just a week before my arrival. “We had red splatterings all over the walls, outdoors, indoors! We harvested so many tomatoes! We turned this kitchen into a factory”, he laughs wholeheartedly.

His pantry is well stocked with tubs of dried beans, sacs of rice and onions, hanging braids of garlic, boxes of Pasta, jars of ghee, pickles and Indian chutney. Returning to the kitchen singing and swaying to the music, he grabs knives and cutting board and begins. Completely zoomed in on his actions, serenading his ingredients, he works away. Chopping, slicing, sautéing, toasting and roasting. Utensils and pans pile up around him. Olive oil, onion and garlic permeate the house with their heavenly aroma. Nothing is ever simple with Nizar. The frenetic activity continues for an hour or two and then suddenly, without warning, he announces: “Let’s have a drink!”  Leaving the mess behind, he sips on his scotch. Moving to the living room, he expects at least a few individuals to come out of the woodwork to join him in enjoying the moment. He lights a Gitanes for effect, and switches the music to Barbara or Piaf. Waving his cigarette around, he reminisces of a world gone by, another era. “Non! Rien de rien, Non! Je ne regrette rien”… He has done his part. Setting the table, making a salad and all other important details of bringing the meal and guests to table are now in the hands of his wife Ellen and any other volunteers willing to lend a hand.

I met Nizar and his family in the summer of 1973. Villa Manni was the family home at the time and his sons converged from university or boarding school to spend the summers. They understood and accepted that they were here to work, helping with the endless project of renovating the old farm house that was purchased many years before, after the family’s flight from Iraq. Ironically (or intentionally) the morning call to action was the blasting sounds of Creedance Clearwater Revival’s Fortunate Son.

I had been invited by fortunate son #3, Rakan, who was a classmate of mine at the American University of Beirut. It was the beginning of a new romance between us and I was feeling slightly nervous about meeting his folks but relieved that no fuss was made over my presence. I was expected to fit right in while everyone went on about their business.

Villa Manni Panorama

Villa Manni is a dream of a place: A massive old stone structure with a terra cotta tile roof nestled into a sunny hillside, fifty minutes North of Rome. The majestic fireplace in the living room competes with the three French windows that open onto a spectacular view of the Tiber valley and its surrounding fields. But the real hearth of the house is the kitchen. It is crude yet charming. Slabs of travertine serve as counter-tops. Pots and pans hang from the ceiling and from metal rods attached to the walls. On one side of the room, two narrow windows frame a huge weeping willow. On the other side, a sunny sill, lined with potted herbs looks out onto a terrace and the green wooded hills beyond where the wild boars roam. A round wooden table in the corner is set with a variety of breakfast choices of cereal, fruit, home-made marmalade, honey, cheese and bread, to welcome guests  emerging at different times of the morning from the three levels of the house. The sun slowly fills the room. A flurry of activity builds to a crescendo and suddenly dissipates.

Cars and bikes zip out onto the pebbled driveway, their humming engines and rumbling motors disappear down the hill towards various destinations: markets, Etruscan or Roman ruins in neighboring towns. The sun rises higher in the sky. The house is still. Now silence reigns for a few hours shattered occasionally by the bark of a dog in the distance or the whistle of a train arriving at the station less than a mile away.

That summer I learned at least a dozen different ways of serving Pasta. I learned to make Pesto, I tasted authentic prosciutto and fresh mozzarella di Buffola for the first time. I ate Riso Nero and the best hand-made Gelato. But I also tasted a few succulent Iraqi and turkish dishes that I would later adopt into my own repertoire. I drank Italian wine, discovered Aperol, Chinotto, zucchini blossoms and dried lime tea.

Nizar prefers to be alone in the kitchen, uninterrupted and undisturbed. He does not share his secrets. He gathers inspiration from Italian, French, Indian, Turkish or Iraqi recipes. If you ask, his answers are politely vague and shrouded in mystery. He has an extensive library of cookbooks yet he engages in bold experimentation. He allows his creative genius to take over, leaving the world’s famous chefs behind, while he concocts the sublime, the magical and the original dishes. An artist in the kitchen he pushes the envelope like he does with his life and lifestyle while relishing every moment.

The only way to learn from him would be to watch him. But the frenetic activity and the unbelievable mess he creates around him is a deterrent even for the most patient of fans. Besides, “Out of the kitchen!” are the words he often hurls at anyone peaking their head in the doorway. Nizar’s greatest gift to my culinary education was that recipes were not necessarily followed. A cook can deviate from the norm interpreting methods, substituting ingredients, using gut and palate as guide and drawing inspiration from the world’s cuisines and flavors. While my mother and grandmothers, had set the stage and established the foundation, Nizar encouraged me down a path of enlightened exploration.

If only I could tell him that now.

Nizar lies silently in bed in Washington, D.C. He no longer recognizes his sons and family. His eyes are shut tight. I hope he dreams of his Orte kitchen, of cooking and singing to Mozart, Piaf, Umm Kulthum and Nathem Al-Ghazali, an Iraqi singer he yearned to listen to during his last lucid years.


*Dried Lime Tea.
from The Splendid Table

IMG_0302
Photo©2016 Fadia Jawdat

Ingredients
2 dried limes (loomi Omani)
4 cups water
1/4 cup sugar, or to taste

Instructions
1. Break the limes into several pieces (you can use a mortar and pestle or put them in a sandwich bag and smack with a hammer.) Combine the water and lime pieces in a small saucepan, bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for 4 minutes.
2. Remove from heat and strain through cheesecloth or a coffee filter. Discard the solids. Add the sugar to the tea and stir until dissolved. Drink hot or cool to room temperature and then refrigerate.

Total time:
6 minutes
Yield:
4 cups


**Andiam, andiam, mio bene,
a ristorar le pene
D’un innocente amor.
from the aria “La ci darem la mano“/Don Giovanni by Mozart

Translation: Come, come, my darling,
to restore our pleasure
of an innocent love.

 

Author: slicesofquinceblog

Hello, Thank you for visiting my blog. My name is Fadia. Fadia, like “Nadia” but with an F as in “Food”. Food is a passion of mine, bordering on an obsession. It has kept me sane (and well-nourished) during a long and crazy career in the food business. I live in Washington, D.C. with my husband, where our two daughters were born and raised and where, they learned to spend hours in the kitchen watching, experimenting, learning, cooking and baking. Food has been the thread and fabric of my relationships with people who, like me, have researched its nourishing and healing powers and have shared their knowledge in underserved or “over-served” communities, or who simply are thrilled with the joys of cooking. I grew up in Beirut, Lebanon, in a household and a family of cooks, or should I say, in a country of fiercely competitive cooks (I will probably write about Middle-eastern cooking as adapted to the U.S. kitchen). I moved to New York in my twenties and there I began my life-long exploration of world cuisines while still perfecting the art of cooking elaborate and healthy dishes in a jiffy and on a budget. We never succumbed to frozen dinners— O.K. maybe, a frozen pizza on the occasional Friday night. This is America after all! I cook just about everyday. I have had many teachers and many mentors, and I have taught and mentored many. I am still discovering and learning. It’s a never-ending joyful process. I also cook for distraction and have cooked professionally as instructor and demonstrator. I am setting up a burgeoning business as a freelance recipe tester and developer and a food writer and photographer. (Bring on the requests! I am available for hire). In this blog I plan to share photos, recipes and stories. Most of all I would like to honor all my kitchen heroes who have and continue to inspire me. I would like it to develop into a forum of exchange between friends, a resource for tips, information and ideas. Finally, I must mention that I do not do this without a twang of shame. I‘ll mention it and move on, hoping that perhaps later, I could dedicate more time and writing to it. The dark side of food, is the lack of it, bringing on malnutrition, disease and hunger to billions around the globe and right here in our own backyards. Our culture has also contributed to devastating food disorders that are very hard to ignore. As much as food brings us joy, the lack of it brings devastation. I never forget that. I would like to think that while we relish our beautiful dishes and our gorgeous photos of elegantly plated food, we can take a moment to read a HUNGER blog or two and help the people and organizations that dedicate their lives to this universal cause. Each of us food fanatics can. Please start now, start thoughtfully . I know I shall. With gratitude. F.

5 thoughts on “Nizar”

  1. How beautiful fado to now bring rakans dad into your gastronomic reminiscences, I love it, it’s nearly as if I was there with you all, it’s a perfect setup; hope you are all having a wonderful time, and keeping nizars kitchen busy and full of delicious odours; love to you all xxxxxx

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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  2. I love to read your stories about moments in your life that include food and nature. Having met most of the family into which you married, “Nizar” opens my senses all the more. I’m right there with you as you walk me through Villa Manni. Shall we have tea? –Clare

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  3. A beautifully written story, where the author blends culture, food, music and atmosphere but most of all a little bit of her personal history into our world. And a recipe! Thank you.

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