One hundred years ago, D.H. Lawrence was awaiting the publication of what would become his most famous (and most controversial) novel. Sons and Lovers celebrates its centennial this May—but in the weeks leading up to its release, Lawrence’s thoughts were elsewhere, in a little house across the Alps: “I want to go back to Italy,” he wrote.
Lawrence made his first trip to Italy while working on Sons and Lovers, and he felt an immediate connection. “I think I shall be happy there, and do some good work,” he said in 1912, just before settling near Lago di Garda, a few miles from Verona. Several months later, his writing was already moving along. “I do my novel well, I’m sure. It’s half done.”
But when taking a break from his desk, Lawrence was at work in the kitchen, which he praised in letters home. “There’s a great open fireplace, then two little things called fornelli – charcoal braziers – and we’ve got lots of lovely copper pans, so bright. Then I light the fornello and we cook. It’s an unending joy.” He found beauty in the smallest act of cooking—he loved his pots so much, he made sketches of them. “Everything is just red earthenware, roughly glazed, and one can cook in them beautifully.”
For Lawrence, Italian cuisine meant a chance to experiment with ingredients of all kinds, from the quotidian to the obscure. “We eat spaghetti and risotto and so on all of our own making,” he wrote. “We eat quantities of soup … midday polenta made of maize flour boiled to a stiff porridge that one cuts in slices with a string … queer vegetables – cardi – like thistle stalks, very good – and heaps of fresh sardines.” He frowned upon the tendency of the locals to use too much oil, but had certain indulgences of his own: “Maggi and I grate pounds of cheese,” he admitted.
If we’re lucky, we discover for ourselves what Lawrence found in Italy: that place that inspires all our creative pursuits, whether it’s at the desk or at the stove. The freedom and adventure he felt there, through, dissipated when he left Italy to go north. “I have suffered from the tightness, the domesticity of Germany. It is our domesticity which leads to our conformity, which chokes us.” Little did he know how non-conformist his new novel would be seen—a little reminder of Italy that lingered there.
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Lawrence didn’t stay away from Italy for long; in 1914, he and his wife-to-be, Frieda, returned for an eight-month stay, and began to cook again, focusing on the specialties of the north that they had come to love: risotto, polenta, and hearty sauces and soups.
“We are cooking out of Mrs Waterfield’s book,” Frieda wrote in a letter home, referring to Lina Duff Gordon’s Home Life in Italy, a cookbook written and illustrated by two other ex-pats who lived close by. The book is now in the public domain, so you can browse through the recipes the Lawrences likely used, including one for D.H.’s beloved polenta, stirred until creamy then poured on “a wooden slab to the thickness of an inch” to harden into cakes.
“Polenta, when made with a well-flavored sauce, is an excellent dish,” Gordon notes. She starts her sauce out with “the usual soffrito of onion, parsley, funghi, a sausage and some mortadella (bacon would do as well).” All those meaty flavors come together in this sausage and mushroom ragu. Serve à la Lawrence—with a liberal grating of cheese.
1 cup whole milk
1 cup cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Sausage and Mushroom Ragù:
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 pound hot Italian sausages
1 yellow onion
12 ounces shitake mushrooms
2 slices bacon
4 large basil leaves
1 can (14 ounces) diced tomatoes
1 cup chicken broth
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper to taste
1. Combine milk and salt with 2 cups water in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a boil. Slowly add cornmeal, stirring constantly, and reduce heat to low. Continue to stir 10 minutes, then add salt and pepper to taste. Pour polenta into an 8×10 inch baking pan. Set aside.
2. Heat oil in a large pot. Add sausages and cook until the fat is rendered and sausages start to brown, about 5 minutes. Transfer sausages to a plate lined with paper towels and set aside.
3. Chop onion, mushrooms, bacon and basil leaves in 1/2-inch pieces, then add to the remaining fat in the pot. Cook over medium heat until onions are soft, about 10 minutes.
4. Preheat broiler. Add tomatoes, broth and vinegar to pot, then lower heat and let simmer 10 minutes. Cut sausages into 1-inch pieces and add to sauce until cooked through, 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.
5. While sauce is reducing, put baking pan with polenta under the broiler until the top is crispy, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from broiler and sprinkle cheese over the hot polenta. Cut into squares, top with sausage ragù, and serve.