PULL OF THE PAST

Chef Gior­gio Lo­catelli re­vis­its the kitchens of his early child­hood in north­ern Italy

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

MY first feel­ings for cook­ing came from my grand­mother, Vin­cen­z­ina. But my first un­der­stand­ing of the re­la­tion­ship be­tween food, sex, wine and the ex­cite­ment of life came to­gether for me early on, when I was grow­ing up in the vil­lage of Corgeno on the shores of Lake Comab­bio in Lom­bardy in the north of Italy, long be­fore I was sus­pended from cook­ing school for kiss­ing girls on the col­lege steps.

My un­cle Al­fio and my aun­tie Louisa, with the help of my grandad, built our ho­tel and restau­rant, La Cinzianella — named af­ter my cousin Cinzia — on the shores of the lake, on the edge of Corgeno, in 1963.

There were eight found­ing fam­i­lies in the vil­lage. The Caletti fam­ily, on my mother’s side, was one of them; and on my grand­mother’s side, the Tam­borini fam­ily, along with the Gnoc­chi fam­ily, who are our cousins, and who have a pas­try shop in Gal­larate, near Mi­lan, in the hin­ter­land, be­fore the scenery changes from city to green and beau­ti­ful space, and where the spe­cial­ity is gor­geous soft amaretti bis­cuits.

The shop gave me my first taste of an in­dus­trial kitchen. I used to love go­ing in there as a kid, be­cause the ovens were so big you could walk into them. In the sea­son run­ning up to Christ­mas, over and above the other con­fec­tionery, they would make about 10,000 panet­tone (our Ital­ian Christ­mas cake). It was fas­ci­nat­ing to watch the peo­ple take the panet­tone from the ovens, and then, while they were still warm, hang them up­side down in rows on big lad­ders in the fin­ish­ing room, so that the dough could stretch and take on that char­ac­ter­is­tic light, airy tex­ture. Years later, when I first started in the kitchens at the Savoy in Lon­don, I felt at home im­me­di­ately, be­cause I recog­nised that same sense of busy peo­ple, work­ing away in to­tal con­cen­tra­tion.

Of course, ev­ery­one in Corgeno seems to be some sort of cousin, though none of us can re­mem­ber ex­actly how we are re­lated. Six gen­er­a­tions of our fam­i­lies are buried in the vil­lage grave­yard, and the names are etched many times into the war me­mo­rial out­side the church with the two Ro­man tow­ers, above the makeshift foot­ball pitch where we kids played ev­ery day af­ter we had (or hadn’t) done our home­work.

Life in the north of Italy is very dif­fer­ent from the way it is in the pretty Italy of the south, the idyllic Italy, still a lit­tle wild, that you al­ways see in movies. The south ful­fils the Mediter­ranean ex­pec­ta­tion, whereas the north is the real heart of Europe.

His­tor­i­cally we have been un­der many in­flu­ences: Span­ish, French, Aus­trian; at home we are only about 20km from Switzer­land, and Mi­lan is the most cos­mopoli­tan city in Italy. In the north I don’t know any­one who hasn’t got a job and ev­ery­one comes to the north to find work.

While most of Italy used to stop for a big break at lunchtime — es­pe­cially in the south, where it was too hot to work — in Mi­lan and around Lom­bardy it would be one hour only. The fac­tory whis­tles would go at noon — the sig­nal for the wives and moth­ers at home to put in the pasta — and then the road would be full of bi­cy­cles and scoot­ers and mo­tor­bikes, as ev­ery­one shot home to eat and then straight back to work.

In the south, they are used to del­i­cate foods like moz­zarella and toma­toes and seafood. In the north, we are proud of our parmi­giano reg­giano and pro­sciutto di Parma and big warm­ing dishes such as po­lenta and risotto.

Corgeno is a place steeped in his­tory, first be­cause of its twin Ro­man tow­ers and more re­cently be­cause of its pocket re­sis­tance to fas­cism. On one of the old walls you can see the faded words of one of Mus­solini’s slo­gans that still makes me an­gry ev­ery time I see it, with its call to the youth of Italy to put down their picks and shov­els and take up arms. There are many sto­ries in our vil­lage of the lo­cal men of the re­sis­tance who used to hide in the woods where the women would bring them food. One of them, my fa­ther’s brother, Nino, was shot on one of his trips, try­ing to help 40 Jewish peo­ple to es­cape over the border into Switzer­land.

Be­low the vil­lage is La Cinzianella, only a few steps to the lake, which I love, es­pe­cially in au­tumn, my favourite time of year. Early in the morn­ing, you can’t see the lake be­cause it is hid­ing in a mauve mist, but when it rises the sky is bright blue and the trees around the lake, with their red and gold leaves, stand out clearly against it.

We are only 45 min­utes’ drive from the cen­tre of Mi­lan, and right next to the big­ger and more fa­mous Lake Mag­giore, so now a lot of peo­ple from the city come for week­ends; they have bought houses, and the vil­lage has grown. But when I was grow­ing up, there were only about 2000 peo­ple and ev­ery­one knew ev­ery­one else: who was just born, who died; it was al­limpor­tant to our lives.

Al­most ev­ery­thing we ate and drank was pro­duced lo­cally. We even picked up the milk ev­ery evening from the win­dow of the house of Napoleone, who kept a few cows. Each fam­ily had their own bot­tles and he would fill them up and leave them for us to col­lect, in win­ter out­side the win­dow, in sum­mer in the court­yard un­der a foun­tain. Later, when I was a young boy and I was work­ing in restau­rants abroad, when I came home for the hol­i­days, peo­ple would al­ways open their win­dows to lean out and say hello. They still do.

When­ever we go to Corgeno, my wife Plaxy com­plains that it takes an hour to walk through the vil­lage, be­cause some­one will al­ways shout: ‘‘ Hey, Gior­gio’’, and it al­ways seems to be an ex-girl­friend.

My aun­tie, un­cle and my fa­ther and mother all worked in the ho­tel and my un­cle ran the restau­rant where I worked, too, as soon I was big enough. Later we had a Miche­lin star, but then we just served good, hon­est Ital­ian food and on Satur­days we did ban­quet­ing and wed­ding re­cep­tions in a big beau­ti­ful room at the top of the ho­tel, look­ing out over the lake.

We used to feed about 180 peo­ple and when we were at our busiest, we would make 20kg of dough for the gnoc­chi and ev­ery­one, from the wait­ers to the women who did the rooms, would come into the kitchen to help shape them.

In sum­mer, our guests could sit on the ter­race un­der um­brel­las. If it was rain­ing they gath­ered inside around a big ta­ble in the cor­ri­dor, and no one ever com­plained.

There was a com­plic­ity be­tween restau­ra­teur and guest, which is one of the things I have tried to cre­ate in my own restau­rant (Lo­canda Lo­catelli). Even in the heart of Lon­don, I feel we have a spe­cial bond with our cus­tomers.

Eat­ing is not just about fu­elling up to get through the day; it is about con­vivi­al­ity, friend­ship and cel­e­bra­tion. This is an edited ex­tract from Madein Italy:FoodandS­to­ries by Gior­gio Lo­catelli (Fourth Es­tate, $65). Gior­gioLo­catelli:PureI­tal­ian, LifeStyle Food Chan­nel, Satur­days, at 10.30pm.

www.lo­can­dalo­catelli.com

Pic­tures: MadeinI­taly:FoodandS­to­ries

North­ern con­quest: Lake Comab­bio in Lom­bardy, left; chef Gior­gio Lo­catelli at work

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