La merenda is the typical mid-afternoon snack that most Italians tend to associate with coming home from school as a child—that moment of the day, somewhere around 4 or 5 o'clock, when little tummies are groaning and need a small something to help make it to dinnertime, still a few hours away.
It is often something sweet (and in this case is usually called la merendina, "the little snack"), such as a warm bowl of milk with biscotti for dipping, a scoop of fresh ricotta with sugar sprinkled over the top, or a slice of bread spread thickly with Nutella. In the summer, gelato is quite possibly everybody's—big or small—favorite merenda.
Then there are those merende that go back to another time, before prepackaged snacks lined aisles at the supermarket—like the zabaione-ish uovo sbattuto. An egg yolk and some sugar are whipped up in seconds with a fork in a small teacup. Pellegrino Artusi describes this in his 1891 cookbook as "the antidote to a crying child." His version includes the white of the egg, whipped to peaks and folded through the creamy egg, served with bread for dipping. Some like to put coffee in it, too (my husband's nonna would do it this way).
Then there are the savory snacks. Pane con la mortadella is a classic—a floppy, paper-thin slice of mortadella sandwiched between 2 slices of bread. Or pane con pomodoro: a tomato, cut in half and rubbed over bread until it is stained pink. It needs only a sprinkle of salt and pepper and good olive oil. Toasting is optional. If you really wanted, you could embellish it—some fresh basil, some dried oregano, garlic, maybe an anchovy draped over it. But this really depends on how your nonna made it for you when you were a child.
It's not just little tummies that need filling up. A merenda can happen pretty much anywhere and at any time that justifies a little something to get you through to mealtime. I think of aperitivo (which is as much an excuse for a social gathering as it is for easing into the evening and appeasing your appetite while you wait for dinner) as a sort of a grown-up extension of a merenda.
Patience Gray, who spent many years living in Tuscany and Puglia and wrote a beautiful cookbook called Honey from a Weed, describes it this way: "A merenda can take place under the shade of a loquat tree on one's way up the muletrack on a summer evening, in the courtyard of a bar at a marble table, or in the winter in a ruined cottage which served as an illict wine bar." She devoted an entire chapter to the subject of la merenda, noting the main cultural difference between the British "snack" and an Italian "merenda": "The snack is snatched, la merenda is shared."
What was the classic after-school snack of your childhood (or adulthood—snacks are important at every age)? Tell us in the comments.