I've recently readopted an old food tradition from my childhood. Merenda is a window between lunch and dinner that involves a quick snack after school, and a moment to recharge before tackling homework. Italians love merenda so much it even has its own national day.
In my family, merenda was practiced almost daily when we were young. It happened on the go, and it even at my father's tailoring shop. There, my younger sister and I would sit happily, school blazers and bags off, nibbling on pastries around dad's various sewing machines and chatting as he snipped through patterns at the cutting table. But more often than not though, merenda was a sit-down affair at our kitchen table while mum prepared something delicious.
Foods served during merenda vary depending on hunger levels, taste and mood. It's not a full meal, but a snack that tides you over until dinner without spoiling it. If possible, you should enjoy it sitting down.
For first-generation Italo-Australian Teresa Oates, the award-winning co-author of two cookbooks, co-founder of Mangia! Mangia! and head chef of All'antico Trattoria in Melbourne, merenda was prepared by her father when she and her brother returned home from school.
Oates tells SBS Food, "It was almost always something he had just collected from our backyard garden, for example in spring, a bowl of peas, [and] we would sit around the table shelling [the peas] ourselves, or freshly picked broad beans. In summer, warm tomatoes from the vine just sprinkled with salt or cucumbers…and we would eat whole skin and all."
For Sabrina Cappadocio, a third-generation Italian cheesemaker who now runs the cheese-making course and events business La Formaggeria Cheese Art in Melbourne, "merenda time was also a moment to play with my sisters and others friends," she says.
"I ate a lot of panzanella, [a kind of bruschetta with fresh tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, basil and salt], and pane, olio e zucchero [bread with extra virgin olive oil and sugar]."
Merenda can also be toast and fruit or even a muesli bar, but ultimately it should be something that nourishes or provides comfort, preferably both. One of my favourite dishes during merenda was mum's special egg and bacon sandwich served between two well-buttered pieces of golden brown toast.
However, on a celebratory day (or a tough one), you might even have Nutella, cake, or even the prized 'merendine' - individually wrapped baked goods that often feature two pieces of sponge, are filled with pastry cream and sometimes coated in chocolate.
Though popular with children, adults also enjoy merenda. For my father in his early 70s, it's long been an important tradition. His tailoring shop wasn't just a special place for my sister and me, it's also one for his friends, many who linger longer than you'd think a 'quick' coffee would allow.
"Irrespective of age or nationality, we could all do with a bit more merenda in our lives."
Given merenda's popularity, dad and his mates (not only Italians) began their own merenda for grown-ups at his friend's workshop. Here while snacking on homemade cured meats, cheese and wine, they would chat, share stories and confide in one another. But pandemic restrictions have paused their decade-long meetup, and it's one he misses greatly.
Food, though synonymous with fuel and nourishment, also provides other essentials like connection, conversation and friendship. Irrespective of age or nationality, we could all do with a bit more merenda in our lives. Whether we leave a snack by someone's door, arrange to eat together online or come together - subject to your area's gathering restrictions -, like all shared mealtimes, merenda ensures that not only are our loved ones fed but that they feel loved, heard and seen too.