PULL OF THE PAST
Chef Giorgio Locatelli revisits the kitchens of his early childhood in northern Italy
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.
Northern conquest: Lake Comabbio in Lombardy, left; chef Giorgio Locatelli at work