Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Dear Francesca

On Leith Walk, in Edinburgh, there is a very famous Italian grocery called Valvona & Crolla. Established in 1934, and staffed over the years by members of both the Valvona and Crolla families, it brought authentic Italian foods and flavours to Edinburgh. Scotland has long been a third home to Italians (the second, I think it’s fair to say, being America). When I was a child, growing up in a grey part of Scotland where a red pepper would have been out of place and exotic, the one real taste was the Italian ice cream provided by Toni’s, with the raspberry sauce familiar to anyone who came from north of the border in the sixties. White and icy, it was a world away from the yellow blocks of lard sold by the big conglomerates. Round about that time I went on holiday with my family to Naples and had my first taste of something called ‘tutti frutti’ – I remember it as if it were yesterday.

Both families, the Valvona and the Crolla, came from poor peasant stock in the south of Italy. Emigrating to Scotland in the 1920s in search of a better life they found a supportive community of Italian folk who, prior to the great pizza boom, were providing ice cream and fish suppers to the local Scots, and importing Italian groceries to sell in their shops.

Mary Contini is part of the Crolla family, and this delightful book is written to her daughter, Francesca. She describes the background and history of her own family, their origins in the hill country of Southern Italy, and the recipes they brought with them to this foreign land. Running water was the great gift that Scotland gave in return for the wisdom and culinary lore of a century of womenfolk.

Mary Contini’s observations on food, its quality and history, coupled with a nostalgia for family traditions that have enriched their adopted land, make this a charming book. She includes careful notes on method, one of which - how to prepare artichokes – coincided with the arrival in my house of the tricky vegetable (flower bud actually), and was therefore timely.

Put some cut lemon quarters in a bowl of cold water, get a sharp knife and turn on the cold tap.

Pare down the stalk end nicely, removing some of the tough stalk fibres, and snap off the dark green spiky outer leaves just where they break until the inner pale yellow ones are revealed.

Trim off the top of the artichoke, which is spiky. Inside is revealed a beautiful magenta heart. Rub every cut surface immediately with lemon juice.

Cut the artichoke in quarters and rub with lemon juice. You can see the hairy centre. With a sharp knife cut it away otherwise its like eating a pillow.

Drop the pieces into the acidulated water as you go.

To cook as an hors d’oeuvre:

Put the quarters into a pan with:

1 clove of garlic, peeled and finely chopped

A handful of flat leaved parsley, chopped

About a teaspoon of salt

About 4-5 tbsp olive oil

Same amount of water.

Bring to the boil and then simmer gently until tender.

You might like to add some mint leaves towards the end of the cooking.

Serve warm, and mop up the juices with good bread.

Dear Francesca: An Italian Journey of Recipes Recounted with Love, by Mary Contini

Published by Random House, Ebury Press

1 comment:

Jeanne said...

Those are great pics and the recipe sounds simple & lovely. My other half Adores artichokes but usually doesn't bother with niceties - he boils the whole thing, makes a vinargrette and then eats as much as he can - dragging the fleshy base of each leaf between his teeth to get all that he can out of the flower. And he eats absolutely everything except the hairy bits - he REALLY gets his money's worth! ;-)

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