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

The Herald Magazine - - FOCUS -

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

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