Risotto with Nettles

‘Oh, ecco la cuoca teoretica!’

I have always had a thing for Italy, a thing for Italian things.

Just as Hairy Biker Dave was overjoyed to discover he had Viking DNA – great episode, that – I have always fantasised that perhaps I’m descended of some Roman legionary and that this explains my instinct for Pasta, for catenaccio, for Puccini. I can see my ancestor now: huddled in his cloak, steely and miserable on the Wall, but destined to stay behind in the Scottish wilderness, to marry a Pict, to settle on his wee bit of land. That would be what puts the Italian mountains in my soul, Barolo in my veins. It would explain this passion I have carried around since Marco Tardelli stuck in that goal in ’82. I’ve written before about the start of my love of Italian food, and it seems a long story …

But, it’s fanciful nonsense, I know – I’m probably just as likely to be descended from a fishmonger in Norfolk. Or a Spanish bookbinder. The Pict.

One of the most interesting books about the relationship between Italy and the UK is by one of Italy’s greatest food writers, Anna Del Conte, and it looks at things like this from a different perspective.

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While Risotto with Nettles is ostensibly a memoir, it is really much more than that. It’s a fascinating study of Italian society before the Second World War, and is just as fascinating about English society after it. It’s also an eye-opening insight into Italy during the Second War – especially if your studies of that terrible conflict tended to have the Italian Front as the bit at the back of the book you didn’t need to revise.

It is a story of family, of love and loving, with a very exciting and bold candour, I think, of affairs and compulsions. And it is, of course, about Italian food. Accompanying quite beautiful reminiscences of the food of her childhood are fascinating accounts of the footholds gained for Italian cooking in our country and further afield – notably Japan – and her development as a cookery writer over nearly five decades. And, a big “and”, it includes recipes – beautiful, wonderful designs for the dishes of her life. I’ve mused elsewhere about how I will always focus in on recipes where the writer attaches personal significance to dishes – they are nearly always special in result – and here there is an entire book of this intensely emotional harmony between experience of life and cooking of food. It’s sublime.

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One of the really notable aspects of Risotto with Nettles, and this is obvious straight away, is the fierce detail of memory. The early chapters about her childhood are bright and sunlit with the sensations of a bygone Italy. She describes wonderfully the days of accompanying her mother shopping:

“Next stop, farther up Via Montenapoleone, was Zanocco, the salumeria – deli – bulging with salami and cheeses, where chubby Arturo used to cut a slice of pink and white prosciutto and present it to me on a piece of greaseproof paper … At the corner of Via Montenapoleone and Via Borgospesso, two street vendors would be selling calde arrosto – roasted chestnuts – and roasted onions and beetroots from their tricycles, each with its burning drum for roasting on the front …”

Obviously I don’t recall these delicacies – not here in Scotland – but my instinctive emotional reaction is to find parallel in the experience; my memories of the 1970’s are not so different, what with the stop by the baker, the hour chatting in the fish shop, the sawdust of the butcher’s floor. And all the time my hand in my mother’s, accompanying her on this procession through the world of food, and the individual people who “made” it – a world which is on the verge of disappearing forever. Supermarkets, bless them, have killed it.

One of the standout sequences in these early chapters is when the young Del Conte meets Toscanini. In the way that some of us were mad about The Clash or The Jam at a similar age, she is in love with Opera. Her memory of meeting the great man, entwined with a memory of marron glacé, is a delight to read, and if love of Opera is part of your own “thing” for Italy, Risotto with Nettles will hook you right there – within ten pages.

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Avanti o popola
alla riscossa,
Bandiera rossa
Bandiera rossa

One of the things Risotto with Nettles tells me is that I don’t know nearly enough about Italy immediately before and during World War Two, and that it’s important I correct this. Del Conte’s description of the rise of Fascism, and of her family’s experiences during the war are entirely compelling, and discuss a complexity I for one had never really considered.

But I need to stress that she’s not writing a history text – what makes this section of the book so interesting is the way that she simply tells the story of her family’s experiences against this backdrop, and to a large extent leaves the reader to fit the pieces together. In fact, this is one of the most admirable qualities of the book – the way Del Conte seems somehow to capture the emotional world view of each iteration of herself so completely. She doesn’t, for example, have any inclination to airbrush. So, to illustrate, the moment she writes a letter to one Cicci. She is seventeen and he twenty-seven, a soldier on leave and bound for the Eastern Front. It’s all up for Cicci:

“So, displaying the callousness of youth, I wrote and told him I did not love him anymore. End of affair. How I could ever have written that heartless letter to a man who was fighting in the worst battle ever, at Stalingrad, I don’t know, but I was young.”

The war years are a kind of chase for Del Conte’s family, as they move time and again from harm’s way. Their home having been destroyed by bombs, they go through what are basically a succession of hideaways. The war does catch up with them, of course, as it had to – and they see fighting, imprisonment and the chaos and despair of the carnage around them. What Del Conte conveys over and above this, as well, are the fractured lines of the Italian response to the war, to their alliance with Hitler, their allegiance to Mussolini, to their resistance.

The title of the book comes from an incident where Del Conte throws herself into a patch of nettles as warplanes machine-gun a nearby bridge, and throughout these sections on the war, it is hard to put the book down. At times the almost dislocated reality of the experiences recalled for me some aspects of J.G. Ballard’s Jim, in that different zone of war in Empire of the Sun. Time and again, this juxtaposition of everyday and horrific is just incredibly moving:

“The thing that affected me most about that attack was the shooting of the six partisans, which took place the next day. Giovanna and I were passing by the Villa Rossi on our way to our English lesson when we heard the spray of the firing squad’s machine guns. Petrified, we stopped and looked at each other … And then a few minutes later, the six single shots of the six coups de grâce rang out. Giovanna and I knelt down and prayed …”

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After the war, Del Conte leaves Italy to work in England. Just as she is about to later give up this new life and move back home – this last minute shifting of fate being a recurring theme of the book – she meets the young Englishman who is to be her husband, Oliver Waley. It is here that the memoir moves into a deeply interesting study of post war England – the everyday recollections of buying new houses, prams in the pavement and ‘making the best’ of rationing. In fact, by the time we reach the early 60’s it made me think strongly of the world created in Helen Dunmore’s recent novel, Exposure.

Del Conte’s culinary career begins to take shape, and even though she realises that television is a kind of hell on earth for her, the great talent of her writing carries her through regardless:

“My book, Portrait of Pasta, was published both in the UK and the USA in 1976 by Paddington Press … Nobody in Britain knew much about Italian food then. Pasta generally meant tinned Heinz spaghetti, olive oil was used to settle your stomach and hardly anybody knew what salame, prosciutto and Parmigiano were …”

And this is the heart of the matter: despite the modest way she describes her life in cookery writing, Del Conte is one of the select few writers who have helped to completely alter the way one nation relates to the food and culture of another.

The situation she describes, where Spaghetti Hoops were the norm, was even more acute and longlasting in rural parts of the country, and to some extent, still is. I can recall quite vividly the first time I tasted proper Italian food – the very first time I tasted pasta that wasn’t either out of a tin or providing the bulk of a bulky mac n’ cheese. It was very close to the start of Italia ’90, shortly after I had first seen Moonstruck and discovered Puccini, and shortly before my first experiments in cooking it myself. I could probably even pin down the date if I could bear to, and it all seems laughably naive now, but that’s how it was. You simply cannot underestimate the role that writers like Del Conte played in making sure that when I tumbled out of the restaurant after that glorious Lasagne sometime in the 1980’s – it was Poldino’s in Aberdeen as it happens – there were books in the shop to buy when I decided to cook it myself.

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There are nearly forty whole recipes in the book, and they range from family favourites and inventions like Elephant’s Turd and Spaghetti with Marmite, to the food of Del Conte’s own childhood memory, and from her travels around the world. The most notable of these latter selections, for me, is the Tokyo inspired tomato sauce, Spaghetti al Sugo di Pomodoro. I’ve cooked this, and it’s fabulous, but as Del Conte describes it, she is harnessing that great mystery of the tomato sauce, the unpredictability of predictable ingredients:

“Three days later, back home in Barnes, I cooked Giuseppina’s spaghetti al sugo. It was good, but it was not the same. Was it the different tomatoes, the different hands or the different ambience? Who knows?”

My favourite recipe in the book is the Tagliatelle al Prosciutto e Piselli. There is something endlessly wondrous about the combination of the cream, Parmesan and peas. I won’t knock Macaroni & Cheese – sometimes it’s just what you crave – but part of my Italy “thing” is knowing completely that a dish such as this one of Del Conte is of another level.

Del Conte never lords it up in her recipe writing, though, she is simply helping us cook and learn, and in that sense is the ultimate enabling Italian cook for me. She has a simplicity of language and straightforwardness that I find totally compelling. An example of this I come back to time and again is from one of her own cookery books – the treasure chest that is The Classic Food of Northern Italy. It’s from her instructions to prep one of my favourite foods – Ragû. “Remember,” she says, “that it is very important to chop the vegetables very finely, so that they are the size of grains of rice.”

Grains of rice. Got that? In an age of instagram close-ups of every last bowl of chips we eat, where cookery books are somehow seen as insufficient if every dish isn’t pictured so hi-res you could put it on the side of a van, the very best writers  – like Del Conte – just have sharper tools.

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The end of Risotto with Nettles finds Del Conte alone in Dorset – except of course for her beloved grandchildren – and as she puts it herself, in a place where “musings cease to be memoirs, as they change into the present tense, and today, inexorably, becomes yesterday.” In the final chapter she describes the death of her husband, and the enormous impact this has on her world, and finding her way in this world. It is deeply, deeply moving.

Throughout her wonderful book, Del Conte muses relentlessly on her relationship with her adopted country and the tug of war that goes on between ‘home and here’ and ‘here and home’ in a way that will be instantly vivid for anyone who has spent long periods away from the place they ‘come from’. There is forever a balance being weighed, between the foraging of her own childhood in Italy, say, and the rambles with her grandchildren in Dorset. Between the weathers. Between early memories, and late. Between people and places. Between hopes and realities.

There is no question that food is one of the driving forces of her life, and at the end of her memoir this is clearly a source of solace, and her book is filled with the recollections and recipes of a rightly acclaimed career in cooking and eating. That’s a given. But actually, when you finish the book, important though all that is, it’s the writer as a person that stays with you strongest – a sense of a brave, brilliant, independent person. It is Del Conte who is the legionary, standing at the edge of an unknown world, while I’m just crying at Tosca and shouting at Zazu’s penalty.

A book like Risotto with Nettles inspires us to take bigger steps. It is wise, generous and quietly magnificent.