memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Life among the Italians

During my third contract in the Sahara in the autumn of 1979 I stayed for about 3 months on an Italian Pipe line (IPL) camp in the oil-fields of the eastern part of the desert.


It is one of my life’s ironies that there, in that barren place, I consistently ate some of the best food of my life.

I took to the Italians at once. It was the first time that I’d had any real contact with these vivacious and agreeable people.

One of their priorities was food. When they first came to construct a camp in the desert one of the first things they would do was to gouge out deep cellars with their mechanical diggers, under the kitchens, where the large quantities of cheeses, wines, hams and sausages flown in from Milan, Parma or Siena could mature in cool peace far from the desert heat.


All the pasta was freshly made the same day; the fettuccini was delicious, the ravioli in its steaming crust was to die for and the spaghetti olio é àlio tossed in chives, parsley, crushed garlic and virgin olive-oil was, in its simplicity, a work of art. Nor was fish, steamed, grilled or baked neglected. The cook was a real chef from a smart restaurant in Milan, lured to the African desert no doubt for huge sums. He was a dead ringer for the American actor Ernst Borgnine. He trained up his three Arab boys in many culinary skills, ranging from rolling out the pasta to laying out the diced carrots and spring onions for the dips, all under his watchful eye. Pudding was often a Cook’s Creation, a cake, fruit-trifle, blancmange or soufflé.

Not surprisingly the fame of the cooking on the IPL camp spread up and down the line and elaborate excuses would made to be in that vicinity at lunch or dinner time.

As SAIPEM, the parent company and part of the Italian energy giant ENI, was based in the Milan area, most of the personnel were recruited from the north of Italy (Lombardy) and had a healthy disdain for Romans, considering their city Milan as being more dynamic, productive and creative than the capital.

I as a northerner myself could relate to this; indeed there was nothing new about this first-city/second-city rivalry – Osaka/Tokyo, Peking/Shanghai, Madrid/Barcelona, London/Manchester, Lisbon/Oporto … the list is endless, with the recurrent theme that the industrial north was providing wealth for the southern capital.

I was intrigued by the interpersonal reaction between them, so different from the dour style of the Anglo-Americans. The beauty and expressiveness of the sing-song cadences of the language, (I’d spent eight lacklustre and seemingly unproductive years studying Latin at school), the expressive gesticulation (yes, Italians really do talk with their hands) all contributed to increase my admiration of the culture which had burned so richly and with such artistic splendour during the Renaissance. To sum up, just as the Dutch know floods, Italians know food.


They were presided over by an approachable, youngish bearded man whom they would respectfully address as «Signor Engineero». Sometimes he would come into the hall and have lunch with his crew with whom he had an unassuming but authoritative manner. One day I was pointed out to him, as someone who liked a game of chess, so he came across and proposed a game. Quickly the table was cleared and a board was fetched and the game begun watched by a cluster of spectators.

This is a new one, I thought, playing chess in the Sahara Desert with an audience of hairy Italian pipe-liners. The Italians make a drama out of it; I could just imagine their murmured commentary (in demotic English):

–              My money’s on our Engineer, but you never know; the Englishman’s an unknown quantity ….

–              Yeah, so far they seem to be equally matched … king’s pawn opening, classic pawn defence by   the Englishman … the Sicilian Defence offered by the cunning Englishman but rejected by our clever Engineer etc.

I gained some kudos by these games with our Engineer. Just to finish this section, I’d like to make two completely disparate observations.

Firstly my schooldays study of Latin has since proved invaluable in the analysis of my own language, English which though belonging to the Germanic group is cognate to the Romance languages.

Secondly and more importantly when the shy chef made one his rare appearances at the end a meal he was usually greeted by a round of appreciative applause.


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