by Silvana de Soissons•14th September 2011
The Whitehorse Bookshop in Marlborough hosted an evening with Anna del Conte at The Food Gallery in celebration of her recently released cookery book “Cooking with Coco”, published by Chatto and Windus, London.
Anna came to tell an assembled audience of loyal readers how the book had been in her head for at least five years before she had the opportunity to actually sit down and write it, and in the meantime little Coco had almost grown into a teenager.
More than just a cookbook, it is a family recipe reference work:
“I think that children should just cook whatever is being prepared for the family and not something different, like fairy cakes or cupcakes,” she told us.
She decided to divide the book into sections of manual dexterity and practical ability according to ages, depending on whether a child was capable, at whatever age, to slice, blend, whisk, mix, pour or use the stove. I wondered whether, like the Italian educationalist Maria Montessori, she divided practical tasks because of the different stages of children’s development, and how this concept had shaped the structure of the book.
“It really depends at what age a child comes into the kitchen, and, of course, the earlier the better. If a child comes into the kitchen to cook, for the very first time, say when they are already six or seven, and not at three or four, there may be some catching up to do. I did find that once I had thought of the structure of the book in terms of chapters showing types of activity, it then became easier to write the recipes,” Anna explained.
Even after writing 12 bestseller Italian cookbooks, winning a multitude of awards, among them the Guild of Food Writers Lifetime Achievement Award and the Ufficiale dell’Ordine al Merito della Reubblica Italiana in recognition of the work she has done for Italian food in Britain, Anna del Conte still counts herself as a home cook.
“I do not like it when people refer to food as being “fashionable”. Food should not be fashionable, it should be part of everyday culture. I do not particularly like it when cookbooks are published which are very “cheffy”: homecooking is completely different to the sort of food that is prepared in restaurants. I see it myself when I am preparing for a dinner party, there is just not the time to do lots of fancy things.”
After having written thousands of recipes across half a century, she admitted she knew measurements, quantities, volumes and methods off by heart and could tell immediately whether a new recipe was going to work or not.
Anna told us how, when she was growing up, it was Maria, her mother’s capable cook, who sowed the seed of love for good cooking.
“In my era, growing up during the Second World War, children were never entertained as they are now. When I came home from school I used to go into the kitchen and talk to Maria, watch her and learn from her.”
“Risotto with Nettles”, Anna’s autobiography, also published by Chatto and Windus, tells the story of how she moved to London sixty years ago, and at the beginning she did find the change in food shopping to be quite a shock.
“There was rationing, of course, but I remember that we could park right outside the delicatessen Fratelli Camisa in Soho, load up the car, and then in Berwick Street market I used to buy aubergines and peppers, which were unheard of really in the rest of Britain until the eighties really. There was a very good butcher from whom I bought pork trotters, tripe and liver, which, of course, the Italians love, and on the Fulham Road I used to buy horse meat. If you mix it well with Parmiggiano and salame and make a wonderful polpettone, or meat roll, it tastes really very good. I remember giving it to my friends for dinner, without telling them what it was, and they thought it was really delicious!”
Questions from the audience were many and varied: some wanted cookery and recipe advice for small toddlers whilst others wanted to know what British dishes Anna enjoyed most.
“Well sometimes you go to an English pub and you are more likely to find lasagne al forno than you are to find a really good steak and kidney pudding. British food is very good: take for example freshly cooked gammon ham with parsley sauce. It is absolutely delicious!” she replied.
Amongst Anna’s favourite cookery writers we found some surprises:
“I read absolutely anything written by Nigella Lawson, Josceline Dimbleby, Delia Smith, Nigel Slater and Jane Grigson. In particular I love very much “The Four Seasons” by Margaret Costa. I also like Simon Hopkinson and Katie Stewart.”
One member of the audience asked whether Anna thought that Italians had any food fashions, to which she replied:
“I think Italians are quite classic in their cooking, but what they do look for in terms of change is to just get better and better all the time. My mother, for example, used to make a wonderful cassoeula (a traditional Milanese pork and cabbage stew), and my younger brother loved it so much he just wanted her to make it again and again. When you have a really good family recipe that you love, there is no point in changing fashions really.”
We all agreed that there is now a food renaissance and possibly even a revolution taking place in Britain, where more and more people are looking to grow their own food, prepare recipes from scratch and become more self-sufficient.
“I see it particularly with the friends of my grandchildren. They love to prepare food, to eat it, to talk about it. It’s all up to the mothers, of course, to teach them.”
Anna will be doing a cookery demonstration at the Feast of Dorset Food Festival at Deans Court, Wimborne, on Sunday 18th September.
“This is the first time, really, that I am making a recipe that is created especially for children. I am going to make chocolate tagliatelle, and there are going to be four children and four pasta machines and, of course, we are going to serve it with a sweet sauce.”
Signing copies of her new book, Anna del Conte chatted to her fans whilst the street lights of Marlborough High Street flickered through the rain outside. Anna explained to me that the following day she was going to a celebration party for Sacla, the Italian food brand, in London, and, in fact, her whole week was taken up with appointments and a signing schedule that would make far younger writers retreat to their rest bed.
“Placido Domingo once said “If I rest, I rust”. Well, if I drop I die, so I just keep going. I think that's the very best approach.”
“Cooking with Coco” and “Risotto with Nettles” are both published by Chatto and Windus, London. www.randomhouse.co.uk. Follow the team on Twitter: @ChattoBooks
The White Horse Book Shop in Marlborough: www.whitehorsebooks.co.uk Follow the team on Twitter: @whitehorsebooks
The Food Gallery in Marlborough: www.thefoodgallery.co.uk Follow the team on Twitter: @TheFoodGallery