Monday 3 May 2010

A Taste of Italy With Anna Del Conte

This week, Critical Literature Review presents a review of the Random House published food memoir of Anna Del Conte. We hope that this whets your appetite for more. Enjoy! 

I must admit, for a foodie like myself, I still find a little enjoyment out of eating tinned, hoop spaghetti that I have warmed in the microwave. Call it harkening back to my childhood. Anna Del Conte, the world renowned food writer and author of the autobiography Risotto with Nettles would be ashamed of me. However, I can appreciate even more the merits that a fine bowl of handmade pasta with a rich tomato sauce can have. And, thanks to Del Conte, I am allowed to choose between my tinned shame and Italian magnificence. Because of Del Conte’s Italian food writing which emerged in the 70’s in Britain, Italian food—real Italian food, found its place in restaurants and home dinner tables alike. Gone were the days of canned, spongy ravioli. Del Conte’s first publication Portrait of Pasta (1976) opened up the doors, or indeed the kitchens, of the British public and made olive oil a household item.

I had read snippets of Del Conte’s books, on recommendations of other food writers. Her recipes were generally easy to follow and she would reveal an interesting history of her dishes that further intrigued me to cook them. I knew that she was extremely influential in Italian cooking, and indeed helped make Italian food in Britain as we know it today. But her memoir Risotto with Nettles, reveals what I did not know; the sheer strength, resolve, and stunning life of a woman who grew up in Milan during World War II, travelled to England as a young woman in a time when the suitable thing was to marry and settle down, and who experienced love, loss, and being torn between two worlds—all of which informed her recipes and her writing.

Anna Del Conte was born in Milan in 1925 to a prosperous family in an idyllic, pre-war time. It was here that she began her love affair with her native food, and developed the interest she would need to be such an immensely talented food writer. Each chapter has at least one (and sometimes two or three) recipes which seem to define a period or anecdote that has particularly influenced Del Conte’s life. You won’t find any of the clich├ęd Italian recipes here. With examples such as Spaghetti with Marmite, Elephants Turd, Boiled Meats Piedmontese Style, or an excellent recipe for Risotto with Lemon (one which I tried myself), Del Conte always has you captivated.

The instructions in the recipes themselves are sometimes a bit vague and she does not get specific enough for my precise cooking mind to handle. What temperature exactly should I put this on? Does it go in the oven? She doesn’t specify! However, do not let that deter you. If you want precise, buy a Jamie Oliver cookbook. But if you love learning about food, dream about sultry Italian holidays and are interested in the social history behind the dishes then this is the book for you. Even if you don’t, you will after reading this book.
What I found riveting about Del Conte’s memoir was the almost nonchalant way she writes about extraordinary events and circumstances. From getting shot at from overhead war planes, being chased and imprisoned by Nazi soldiers, losing all her worldly possessions and fleeing her home, repeated flagrant affairs outside of her marriage, and the death of her beloved husband after a marriage of more than fifty years, Del Conte writes it all with an understated elegance, absent of any sensationalized ‘tell all’ memoir.

As Del Conte grows older she travels to England as an Au Pair and finally meets the love of her life. It is in Britain where she decides to start a family and settle down, and so forever embark on the divided life on an expatriate. This also begins to cultivate her desire to bring true Italian food to the British gastronomy. She also so succinctly describes the life of an ex-pat that I think I fell completely in love with her when I read this section, “being neither English nor any longer Italian, always missing something when I am here or something else when I am there. Even now that I am old, I have the dilemma of where I should be buried: here in the lovely churchyard of this picturesque village in Dorset, where I now live, or in my family tomb in the grand Monumentale cemetery in Milan. Even dead I will not settle.” Being an ex-pat myself, I have never read something which so captured the feeling of the fractured existence of choosing to live in a place which is not your own.

Del Conte ends the memoir with a touching and moving dedication—and gives an honest portrayal of what it is like to lose one’s partner—there will not be dry eyes after reading this chapter.

Risotto with Nettles surprised me. It is a book I will go back to, and bring up over dinner conversations. You will love her character, her anecdotes, charm, and most of all her dedicated discussion of Italian food.

[Emily Varga is an English Literature graduate who has worked in book publishing in North America. She has previously reviewed works in her university newspaper literary and arts supplements. She currently lives in Scotland where she works in the public sector. Emily is an active member of her city book club and still enjoys writing the occasional book review.]