In Italy they say the pope and the king ate the same food as the peasants because the food is of the earth and of the season. It’s still the same
EDINBURGH RESTAURATEUR MARY CONTINI ON THE FOOD CULTURE AND FAMILY FIGURES BEHIND HER LATEST BOOK
IN April 1951 a salesman, newly arrived in Edinburgh from London, was trying to find a certain wine and spirit merchant in Elm Row. He had been walking up and down the street, frowning as he checked off the street numbers. It was the smell of roasted coffee that alerted him to the shop he was after: a delicatessen, which happened to be closed for lunch. When it reopened he entered the narrow, busy store of Valvona & Crolla, every last inch of it put to some purpose. And the distinctive blend of smells … coffee, brie, fresh bread, mortadella, ham. Spices, too: cardamom, chilli, paprika, saffron. Overhead dangled sizeable strings of salami and pork sausages, dripping on to the sawdust scattered across the floor.
“There’s not so much modern air-conditioning in Elm Row,” reflects Mary Contini, a director of the company, “so the smells accumulate and linger. There are coffee beans, and there’s cheese being cut, and it has an impact. It’s a seasonal thing, too. Just now we have peaches and strawberries. In about two or three weeks we’ll start to get the truffles in: the place will start to fill with the smell of white truffles from Alba, and that takes on a lovely headiness of its own.”
Contini is sitting at an outdoor table at Valvona & Crolla’s VinCaffe in Multrees Walk, 10 minutes’ walk from the Elm Row deli and Caffe Bar. We’ve got on to the subject of the smell of food because it crops up often in Contini’s latest book, Dear Alfonso, which tells the story of her enterprising father-in-law, Carlo. Born into poverty in the old fishing port of Pozzuoli, near Naples, he came to Scotland in 1952. He met, fell for and married Olivia Crolla, and became part of her family’s business, Valvona & Crolla. The book is based on a long-forgotten manuscript of his, addressed with gratitude to someone he had never met – Olivia’s father, Alfonso, who had died in 1940 as an enemy alien – arrested, imprisoned then deported – aboard the Arandora Star, which was torpedoed by a U-boat and sunk off Ireland with the loss of some 700 lives. Carlo himself died in 2008.
THE book reminds you of the startling
extent to which food is Italy’s defining passion. As Jamie Oliver observes in his book Jamie’s Italy, Italians spend ages “arguing about where the best stew is from, or the best pappardelle, or olive oil, or seafood … they’re not being aggressive – they’re simply arguing their point!” The inhabitants of one village will argue that they make a certain thing in a perfect way and look with contempt at another village’s method, he adds.
This attitude towards food also comes over strongly in Contini’s book, as does the Italians’ love of shared mealtimes. “They say in Italy that the pope and king ate the same food as the peasants,” she says, “because the food that is eaten is of the earth and of the season, and it’s still the same.
“It’s very regional. One village will eat a different meal from the next, but to the same standard. The press has said that Italy’s food is changing, and that supermarkets have had a big impact, but in our experience, in our homes, there’s still the yearning to eat
properly, to eat what grandmother used to make.
“So that habit is not lost – though maybe, if you’re a tourist in Italy, it’s harder to find. But there’s been a resurgence for example, in Sicily, where the food is so fantastic: the restaurants are enjoying a revival and you get fabulous fresh seasonal food served there now. Venice is fabulous as well.”
Contini’s earliest food-related memory is an interesting one. “I was about four, and I was at the table in my own home, which was above an ice-cream and fish-and-chip shop in Cockenzie. I remember distinctly that when my older brother and sister were taken away to school, I went round to see what food was left on the table and scooped it all up.”
Another food memory: on Sundays her paternal grandmother, Marietta di Ciacca, “would make sugo [pasta tomato sauce], homemade pasta, roast chicken, stuffing chicken with ricotta and pecorino … all these traditional dishes, from scratch, and that’s what we grew up with. It was great.
“There was always plenty of food. In Naples, no matter what was on the table it would be shared among everyone who was seated around it.
“When I went to Naples 40 years ago, when I was first married, Vincenzo, Carlo’s brother, was the host. He would sit at the head of the table and say ‘Come in and sit down’ to anyone who arrived at the door. It’s part of the message of the book: with people who have nothing, the sharing of food with family is natural.
“Carlo’s mother, Annunziata Conturso, used to say that as soon as people got refrigerators, they used to hoard food, so rather than buy for the day they would buy extra, and end up throwing it out.”
With the rise in popularity of takeaways, ready meals and snacks consumed on the go, some might think that in Scotland we’re straying far from the way
Italians celebrate food. Contini disagrees. “I think we’re further ahead than we have ever been. There’s more available. If you look round every town there’s far more food specialisms, people enjoying selling food or trading in it. There are farmers’ markets everywhere.
“I’m down on the coast [at North Berwick] now, and there’s a lobster shack on the beach. So people are really interested. They have a natural appetite.”
A recent Cancer UK survey found that
consumers across Scotland choose cut-price items with sugar content equivalent to almost 110 tonnes of sugar every day. Contini is convinced that if we can wean ourselves off sugar and eat three meals a day, “you actually get more pleasure out of your food: you don’t feel hungry. That’s a big change that will make a difference”. She recalls the Government assaults on smoking and is encouraged that sugar has begun to be targeted.
Fast food is popular in Italy, too, of course. In Via Toledo, the ancient main street of Naples, the current fashion sees people queuing for chips served with squid or sprats. There’s a thriving street-food scene, she says, which means you can graze all day long, should you wish.
The recipes in Dear Alfonso are from Carlo’s mother. Her philosophy was very much one of making delicious meals for a large family on the tightest of budgets: wasting food would have been a grave offence. Bread salad; spaghetti with fishhead sugo; rice with mozzarella: in these recipes, you realise, is the story of a family – and the stories of millions of families just like them.
The bestselling American novelist Jonathan Safran Foer once said “stories about food are stories about us – our history and our values”.
“I think that’s absolutely the truth,” says Contini. “Our greeting in Italy is ‘Hai mangiato?’ – ‘Have you eaten?’ – because you have got to survive before you can do anything, before you can think. Before you can have energy to do anything, you need to eat.
“My daughter Olivia has been studying Chinese in China, and when she first went there she was absolutely amazed because it felt like Naples. Everybody is interested in food, all day long. They don’t say to you when you meet, ‘How are you?’, they say the equivalent of ‘Hai mangiato?’ And I think that’s fundamental.” She laughs as she adds, “But here in Edinburgh, of course, they say, ‘You’ll have had your tea’…”
Our greeting is ‘Hai mangiato?’ – ‘Have you eaten?’ because you have got to survive before you can do anything
Contini grew up in a Scots Italian family surrounded by food
Contini is also a director of popular Edinburgh deli Valvona & Crolla
Dear Alfonso: An Italian Feast of Love and Laughter is published by Birlinn, priced £17.99, on Thursday. Mary Contini will appear at the Wigtown Book Festival on October 1 at 3pm. Visit wigtownbookfestival.com