"Open the cookbook. Freak out."
The instructions my uncle had tucked into Russell Norman's Polpo: A Venetian Cookbook (Of Sorts) were simple enough—and spot on. After opening the cookbook to the page my uncle bookmarked, and catching a glimpse of the blonde, curved cookies, I—to borrow the term—freaked out.
“Esse biscuits are particular to Venice,” Norman wrote in the headnote to the bookmarked recipe, but the only place I’d ever come across the buttery, crispy cookies was 6,000 miles away, in my grandmother’s home in Cobán, Guatemala, a small town five hours north of Guatemala City.
The house—where my great-grandmother was born 136 years ago, and where my mother and grandmother both grew up—has barely changed in the 150 years since my family moved from Ireland to the then-small village in Alta Verapaz. Tortillas are still transferred from the metate to cook on the wood-fired stove, and until recently, if you knew where to look in the kitchen the cabinets, you’d find a large sardine can, filled with esse cookies.
When my grandmother was still alive, the cookies I'd find were often still warm. My family's cook would heat them in the stove to evaporate all of the moisture, then layer the cookies into the tin between waxed sheets, to be served at tea time.
“They always set some aside [for the kids] so that the adults would have a shot at them with tea," my uncle remembered. My mom emailed me a supporting memory:
“I remember as a teeny child sneaking into the cookie tin. Those cookies, they were flaky, sweet, but not too sweet, and above all, buttery goodness. Incredible. I can almost taste them.”
But sometime after my grandmother’s death six years ago, many of the traditions that had marked the house for over a century disappeared. Dinners at the hotel across the street ended, annual Christmas celebrations became dispersed among nuclear families, tea time no longer fit into my family’s nine-to-five schedules, and the tins of cookies stopped appearing.
No one is quite sure where the original recipe, handwritten by my great-grandmother, nicknamed Doña Lulú, is and the bits and pieces that were passed down orally have been largely forgotten. Until Polpo's recipe brought on a flood of memories, I had nearly forgotten the cookies altogether—I'd been without them for six years.
The recipe in Norman’s cookbook could never yield the same, slightly hardened, warm cookies I remember, made with butter hand-churned from my family’s dairy cows. And it begs more questions than it answers: Where did my great-grandmother find the original recipe? Did she ever travel as far as Venice? But it tells a new story, about food's power to bridge oceans and create its own significance, cultures and miles away.
When I made my own esse cookies from Norman's recipe, my Manhattan apartment filled with the sweet, buttery smell that had filled my grandmother's kitchen. And the thought hit me: As far as I was from Guatemala, I was still closer to Cobán than I was to Venice.
- 130 grams unsalted butter
- 120 grams caster sugar
- 250 grams Italian 00 flour or pizza flour
- 2 medium, free-range eggs
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- Zest of 1 lemon
- Pinch of fine salt
- 1 to 2 tablespoons cold milk
Do you have any ocean-bridging family recipes? Tell us in the comments below!