by Silvana de Soissons•10th July 2011
As a Lombard living in Britain for a quarter of a century, there is one cookery writer whose work has influenced my life more than any other, and who I wanted to meet ever since the publication of “Portrait of Pasta” in 1976. Since then, “The Classic Food of Northern Italy”, “The Gastronomy of Italy”, “Amaretto, Apple Cake and Artichokes”, and “The Painter, the Cook and the Art of Cucina” (arguably one of the most beautiful cookbooks ever published, with paintings by Val Archer) have formed the working bibles of my daily cooking. Splattered with flour, eggs, cream, butter and chocolate, I could find my way to their spot in my cookbook shelf in the dark.
I have taught scores of Italian cookery classes using Anna del Conte’s recipes as text book examples to the class, held up her books in front of hundreds of students over a decade of teaching, catered for dinner parties and receptions guided by her words and have even read her books on holiday and in bed, as if they were novels.
Before the publication of her latest book, “Cooking with Coco”, I made contact with both Anna herself and with Chatto and Windus’s PR department and I was given the opportunity to meet my cooking idol.
So, sitting one metre away from the hands that have written my cooking reference touchstones, at her dining table, in her home in Dorset, it all does seem a very surreal and emotional day for me. Since moving to Britain 60 years ago, and despite a Vesuvian explosion of cookery tomes over the decades, there is no doubt Anna del Conte is still regarded by most celebrity chefs and restaurateurs as a reference touchstone in Italian gastronomy. Marcella Hazan, whom Anna later told me she thought very influential upon her own work, went to live in America before she wrote her most successful works, and, as a result, never achieved the same level of readership over here in Britain.
Anna del Conte’s daily family life now seems many miles removed from all the accolades, gongs and prizes that her twelve cookbooks have brought her, among them the Duchessa Maria Luigia di Parma Award, the Guild of Food Writers Lifetime Achievement Award, the Glenfiddich Award and the Ufficiale dell’Ordine al Merito della Reppublica Italiana award she was presented at the Italian Consulate in London recently. She lives in a simple converted barn, attached to her daughter Julia’s family home in deepest, darkest rural England, living a quiet life, surrounded by farmland, a beautiful garden, her four grandchildren, her cooking and her writing. All around her are fields, farm tracks and hedgerows, as distant from her Milanese childhood stomping ground as could be imagined.
When I arrive she is looking after Kate, her 9 year old granddaughter, and she makes me an espresso, poured into two pink, flowery porcelain cups from the wooden dresser. Her lurcher Poppy is nudging my legs, seeking attention, as I tell Anna that my mother, Luciana Maestri, is also from Milano, also a cook and also an admirer of her work. She tells me I must bring my mother to see her, she would love to meet her, and I think that she quite possibly means it. I have a feeling that few Milanese have crossed the threshold of this homestead and she probably misses the banter and memories such a meeting would evoke.
“I have been recently to visit the Cilento region of Italy. Have you been to Cilento?” Anna asks me. I have been on holiday to Santa Maria di Castellabate in Campania, and I am trying to remember if this is part of the Cilento, but my geography fails me. “It is so lovely there, and the food so delicious. It has not been at all discovered by tourists, really, and it is very good value for money.”
She has travelled widely across the twenty regions of Italy to compile her exhaustive research and analysis of Italian cooking, but Anna believes that, in today’s competitive book market, it is not enough just to write a cookbook.
“Nowadays, what matters is your own personal background, your family, your private thoughts and habits. Readers want to know more about the writer as a person, and look inside their life” she continues."The PR department of my publishers are always telling me how important it is to be out there, to be talking to the media. I am not really sure," she tells me, looking down, understandably tired of the merry-go-round that would exhaust even a writer half her age.
There can be no work more open, however, than her latest, a cookbook of family recipes garnered over half a century of cooking and writing, written in collaboration, and with the inspiration of, her granddaughter Coco. In “Cooking with Coco” Anna writes,
“Coco is my 12 year old granddaughter and my tireless helper in the kitchen. Her ambition in life is to open a restaurant that she will call “Il Ristorante della Nonna”, where she will recreate all the dishes we have cooked together.”
The premise of the book is to provide a useful and imaginative series of recipes that parents and children can enjoy cooking together, as a team, from the age of 3 till the teenage years. The book is split into four sections. The first, “Mixing and Messing” is about introducing toddlers and primary school children to the simpler recipes and techniques, such as making minestrina, a light broth with pasta, or a broad bean and goat cheese salad, bruschetta and sweet, milky puddings.
By the age of six, children are ready for “Chopping and Cutting”, and the gentle art of making ravioli and cappelletti stuffed with ricotta and herbs, or farfalle with ham and peas, granny’s own fish fingers and soft chocolate nougat.
At the age of nine thai chicken with noodles, a meat roll with mushroom sauce and a cream and coffee trifle are all achievable in "Inventing and Creating". The teenage years provide more complex and layered menus with eggs in a pasta nest, a swiss chard torte, a cake of chocolate and bananas and brandy snaps filled with cream. "The Budding Chef" is a chapter which showcases Coco's greater independence and control in the kitchen. Anna writes: "Whether she will become a fully-fledged chef is immaterial. What she will always be is a good cook, who, I hope, will one day teach her own children the importance and the pleasure of good food in a family."
Throughout the book, Anna provides hints and tips of working with “your own Coco”, how to ignite children’s interest in food, how crucial it is to taste and to communicate with children about seasonings, likes and dislikes, the importance of the seasons and good quality ingredients. “A good dish begins in the shop” Anna quotes her own mother in some sections, and believes that “frequent exposure to good food and systematic analysis will teach so much.”
In her autobiography, “Risotto with Nettles”, also published by Chatto and Windus, Anna recalls how very good her mother’s cook, Maria, was and how much she learned from her. Anna’s mother, in her opinion, was a very accomplished cook, but one that, maybe, did not have a heartfelt love for preparing food. She wrote:
“Mamma was fundamentally an intellectual, however manqué, and preferred to focus her attention on interests that involved the mind. She never understood why I wanted to write cookery books. Not once did she acknowledge my success in having them published. To her they were just recipe books.”
It is therefore extremely poignant to see Jason Lowe’s photographs in “Cooking with Coco” showing Anna and the children completely immersed in preparations. On one page they are buying fruit and vegetables at Gold Hill, her local shop in Child Okeford. Next, Anna is overseeing pasta making, as her grandson Johnny is whirring the handle of the Imperia pasta machine. Granny is then seen in the vegetable garden slicing cabbages with Coco and Kate, watching carefully and guiding closely. From shelling peas, to making pesto to frying little pizzas, the quiet rhythm of domestic activity and familial companionship are imbued in the pages of this captivating collection and repository of the useful, practical and frugal Italian repertoire of “la cucina casalinga”, home cookery.
“I sometimes wander through the supermarket here in Dorset, near where I live, and I see people buying ready made this and packets of the other for their children, and I think to myself, why on earth are mothers not cooking these things themselves? If you make your own food it is so much tastier, so much cheaper and so much healthier.” I tell her that I believe that many women of my generation, the first generation of mothers that was given the opportunity to go to University and embark on professional careers previously only entered by men, believe cooking to be a chore and an activity that is "beneath" their social standing. Anna believes that its was early industrialisation that removed the British from the land, and therefore an early disassociation from growing food set in and remained thereafter.
Like a couple of old Milanese housewives, we both have a moan and a groan about the English attitude to food, and how access to good food, and its enjoyment, are very much class issues. Your place in the pecking order of life drives and determines how well you eat in Britain, whereas in Italy, France, Spain and Portugal the less well off still eat healthily. We all aspire to eat like "contadini" in Italy, the smallholder farmers and people of the land that live close to nature and still know the forgotten skills of curing, preserving, drying, salting and distilling. “Well, you do have to be reasonable also” she says, “And remember that in England there is hardly any sunshine. The weather is instrumental in growing good ingredients, and Italians are extremely fortunate in the sheer quality and variety of their ingredients.”
She invokes Somerset Maugham’s motto that “To eat well in England you should eat breakfast three times a day.” Yet despite our grumblings, we agree that we have both found our way in our new homeland, that there is a nascent food revolution and that there are pockets of excellence which we should all support and commend. She tells me there are very good farmers’ markets and food shops in Shaftsbury and Sturminster Newton and, of course, she does not live too far from the Long Crichel bakery either.
Our biggest bug bear is fish: how can the population of a small island, in the middle of the sea, eat so little fresh fish? We cannot understand it. Nor can we understand how and why the British still value artisanal food and crafts so little, in relation to how very important they are to human civilisation and the enjoyment of life.
“In Italian and in French there are two words that describe the pride and honour felt for artisanal skills and crafts: “amor proprio”, “amour propre”. There is no literal translation for this in English, but those two little words denote the love, passion and respect that food artisans on the continent feel for their learning and labour, across generations.”
She tells me how, during the second World War, when Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime was waged a terrible, futile war against the Allies, Anna and her family went to live in Albinea in Emilia Romagna. She ate very well during the war, as they lived on a farm, unlike my mother, who spent the war in urban Milan, where raw ingredients were few and far between. “Italians have always been frugal, mind you, so we are able to survive very well, even in poverty,” she told me.
This is very much a theme that runs through “Cooking with Coco”: all of the recipes can be made using very simple ingredients, most of which cost very little to source.
“I have never understood this business of ready sauces for pasta. They are so expensive, and filled with all manner of additives. There are so many simple sauces you can make from very few, delicious ingredients, it takes minutes and costs a fraction.”
Anna has prospered in her working life because she has always had a good team around her. She is full of praise for her agent, Vivien Green, who has always protected and supported her, for her editor, Polly Hampson, who has “given shape” to her manuscripts and, above all, to her great friend, Nigella Lawson, who has always championed Anna’s work, referring to her as her own greatest Italian cookery influence.
“It’s a bit like the relationship between Sir Walter Scott and Alessandro Manzoni, when the latter published his most celebrated bestseller “I promessi sposi”. Scott then said that the pupil had overtaken the master. So I feel the same with Nigella. She says that she used my work a great deal in her research, but just look how well she has done all by herself.”
She also told me that she believes another reason for her success has been timing: she was really the first Italian cook to bring the gastronomy of Italy to Britain. Elizabeth David may have introfuced the food of the Mediterranean to these shores, but it was Anna who really focussed on making the cooking of her homeland accessible, approachable and widespread.
There is no doubt that widowhood and the move to Dorset means that there are lonely moments in Anna’s life. Her English husband, Oliver Waley, who she met on the steps of Westminster Abbey, in December 1949, died four years ago, after fifty years of the couple being together.
“I miss him in so many ways” she confesses. “He helped me with all my writing and especially the recipes, all written in a language that is not my own mother tongue, and which sixty years later I still find challenging. We bounced ideas off one another. He was my opinion sounding board" she tells me.
Her final paragraphs in her autobiography are very moving, describing the silence and solitude experienced by the partner that is left behind.
“There is nobody to tell me what article I must not miss in today’s newspaper, what television programme I must watch; nobody to switch on the radio for me so I can listen to my favourite piece of music while I’m cooking….And, worst of all, nobody to deal with banks, bonds, insurance policies, and to ring up and talk to people I cannot understand. At the venerable age of 82, there seems little hope of feeling less lonely, less quiet or less tired….And then I think of my grandchildren and all the meals I have yet to cook and share with them. Suddenly I have a reason for living.”
As soon as I returned home, I rang my mother to tell her where I had been that day, and she was speechless, which is highly unusual for my mother. "Quella Signora e una legenda!", she told me, "That lady is a legend!". In this overcrowded, noisy world, I considered what an achievement it is for any cookbook writer to reach across the arc of generations of women, and keep them all as loyal readers. Gracious and humble, Anna del Conte is one of Italy's finest 20th century exports, undiminished by the vagaries of the media spotlight.
Chatto and Windus