Books are a fabulous way to travel to distant exotic lands without spending a penny. And sometimes, they are perfect for the foodie in me to really explore the cuisine of a region. I live to eat, and so when I read, I often try to emulate the same principle and one of the books that had me salivating is Risotto with Nettles – A Memoir with Food by Anna Del Conte.
Anna, a renowned Italian food writer, is often credited with teaching the “culinary wasteland” of Britain about real Italian food when all they probably knew was tinned Heinz spaghetti. In this book, she maps out her life with food. Every chapter is dedicated to a certain dish that left an impression on her or affected her in some way, followed by a recipe or two. I may not be much of a cook, but the only possible item here that I can try is a lemon granita. And with summer already here, imagine a scoop of vanilla ice cream showered with perky lemon granita. Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
Anna’s childhood was spent in a well-to-do area of Milan, marked by numerous visits by artistes and marrons glaces, a chestnut glazed candy. She also recounts how her mother would buy roasted chestnuts in a paper cone, and how they would quickly pop the hot chestnuts while warming their hands during winter. This particular memory reminded me of how my mother, a big fan of groundnuts, would always enjoy them roasted in winter, breaking the shells and blowing the crispy skin off. I couldn’t help but draw a parallel here. My mother and brother have been instrumental in the way I have developed my tastebuds, and my desire to always try something different. For Anna, it’s been her mother and her cook, Maria, who have had an impact on her cooking style and choices.
The writer’s love for food started when she was sent to the market alone to buy Russian salad and prosciutto. Interestingly, Russian salad is not Russian at all. She says how in Russia, it is known as Italian salad. But this independent experience sparked her passion for shopping, not for clothes and shoes but for food. This reminded me of my numerous trips to the market with my mum and as a child, I despised grocery shopping. I loved visiting the spice market, and those in Calcutta would know the strip of spice sellers at the rear end of New Market. Sometimes, if I got lucky, some chap would also be seen either dry roasting the spices or pounding them. Ah, the aroma. Intoxicating.
She goes on to describe the many pre-war picnic lunches she’s had with her family, by the sea, where they tuck into fried veal chops and ripe peaches or apricots. Christmas eve was all about eels for lunch, pasta and bean soup and even snails in a sauce with polenta. Capitone, she says, is an eel preserved in olive oil, cut into chunks and eaten cold. Gosh, when do I get to try one? She goes on about how stock was religiously cooked every week, and the same broth was boiled every day, getting stronger with each sunrise.
She recounts her passion for truffles where she and her mum would go to a small market and buy from an old lady. Truffle was her favourite scent and cleaned by scrubbing with a small brush. She describes it as a “fungi with a peculiar small of gas mixed with a touch of parmesan garlic and armpit.”
Anna’s favourite cake is Bavarese Lombarda, a recipe by Pellegrino Artusi, and interestingly, I am in love with this tiny Italian establishment in Greater Kailash called Artusi. Named after the great Pellegrino, Artusi employs chef from the Emilia-Romagna area and their food is out-of-this-world, and pillowy-soft gnocchi.
As a teenager, Anna has seen her life turned upside-down during the Fascist regime and the Second World War, where they were forced to leave their urban dwellings and hide out in rural homes. From being twice imprisoned to throwing oneself into ditches to avoid being spotted by fighter planes, falling in love with a soldier, this period was marked by risotto with nettles, a reminder of tough times. During the war, when it wasn’t possible to get the choicest of cuts easily, she learned to cook a pig’s head, but she would always ask the butcher to chop off the teeth since she could never stand it.
In 1999, she arrived in England and she enjoyed dishes she never had before – meat pies, fish pies, fruit tarts, tartlets, steam puddings, trifles and even Aberdeen sausage, which is also known as elephant’s turd. In due time, she got an offer to write a book on the history of pasta, and she travelled back to Italy for research. Most of her recipes were tried and tested on her husband, especially to better understand the British palate.
On one of her many trips, she visits her son in Tokyo and while she liked soba and tempura, she did not like sushi or sashimi. For her, the aroma of the food is important.
Apart from penning books, she has even made live demonstrations, and Anna candidly talks of a few cooking disasters she’s had. No one’s perfect, and when she admits her mistakes, it makes me respect her even more. At one particular event, she talks of an enthusiastic person sitting in the front row, who turns out to be Nigella Lawson. This was quite a revelation for me. I had chanced upon this book at the Delhi book fair, and till that day I had no knowledge of any Anna Del Conte. But when I came to know that Nigella, whom I love, is in turn an ardent follower of Anna, it felt like fate. On one occasion, Anna has described Nigella as the only person in Britain (at that time) who truly understands Italian cooking. That’s quite a compliment, and yet my mother throws a fit every time she sees Nigella generously adding butter or chocolate. It’s real love really.
Needless to add, I loved this book. Food for me is not just to live through one day to the next, but a celebration of life, diversity and harmony. Label me a romantic, but food brings people closer and multiplies love. When I want to read books about food, it is not a mere recipe book, but a life entwined with the culinary. If I were to every write a memoir myself, food would easily take up a whole lot of chapters.
This post is part of the eighth annual A to Z Challenge that takes place in the month of April. The theme for this month is ‘Between Pages’. It’s my second attempt at this. Feedback is most welcome, constructive criticism, even more. Share your experiences and let’s enjoy this month of fabulous blogging.