I was invited to a conference in Turin recently to talk about the food and wine of Turin and Piemonte. I got asked a few questions about my memories of Italian food and why I love Piemonte food at a round table event. Unfortunately, due to a difficult translator set up, I never really got to answer any question for longer than 30 seconds. This left me frustrated. I love this region and I can gasbag on about it all day but my answers at the conference were too abstract and without depth, due to the brief time I was given, so I thought now would be an opportune and cathartic time to tell you about my first memory of anything Italian and of course Italian food.
I grew up in Surrey, England, in a town called Walton-on-Thames. A pretty place, back then, with of course the Thames river flowing through it and lots of green fields near my house and lovely walks by the river. Things have changed in the last few decades sadly, but one thing has remained, all the wonderful Sicilian and Italian people who migrated there in the 1960’s and 70’s. It was more like Sicily-on-Thames looking back on it. But as a small child you don’t notice these things. It was normal for friends to be called Rosanna, Luigi, Francesca, Lucia, Gaspare. Just as it seemed normal to me to be going across our, not so busy back then, main road to shop in one of the first Italian delicatessens in Surrey, ‘Alio’s’.
Every Saturday, from about 8 years of age, I would march across to 'Alio's', with my father’s money in my pocket, and food order in my ear, to come back with Italian bread, Prosciutto, Salami, Mortadella and gorgeous Rosetta bread rolls. But this errand didn’t bother me, I loved this errand because arriving at ‘Alio’s’ on a Saturday morning meant entering another world, another country – Italy! Inside was a cavernous cool room, with rows of dried pasta in all shapes and sizes, a variety of tinned tomatoes from South of Italy, all sorts of Italian biscotti, savoury snacks and many other wondrous delicacies. On a Saturday all the local Italian Mamas and Papas were there, hustling and bustling and ringing up the till like a famine was on the way. Each order at the tiny counter took about 20 minutes in this wonderful store, as Ben (Beniamino), the owner, sliced heaps of the whole variety of Italian charcuterie you can think of and cut large slabs of aged Parmesan cheese with his menacing cheese wire. I was tiny back then, probably no more than 4 foot and my memories were of looking up all the time, always in awe of these loud noisy, boisterous, people. They all spoke in Italian, fast and passionately with hands gesticulating wildly. The word ‘Ciao’, was my first Italian word, as I guess it is for most non-Italians, but I heard it at 6 for the first time when I was first taken to ‘Alio’s’ in 1981, as each customer shouted it in friendly greeting and on exiting. This was way back before many of us bundled off to Tuscany and the Amalfi for annual holidays, only the wealthy went there for holidays back then, but I didn’t feel I was missing out and had no urgent need to visit, as I grew up in my very own little Italy.
One of my close friends at primary school was Rosanna. I would head to her house to play and often have dinner there. I loved having dinner there, as her father had an ice-cream van business, which meant ice-cream for pudding! But one of the best memories I have is trying a 'Ragu' sauce with pasta at her kitchen table. I am guessing it was spaghetti, but all I can remember is the gorgeous, picante, rich sauce dripping down my chin and wanting to eat it forever. This was always thought of in my mind as a ‘Spaghetti Bolognese’, though now we all know that there is no real dish of that name in Italy and it is just a version of ‘Ragu’. So, my first real Italian dish was that one, a ‘Ragu’, cooked by a real Italian woman in her kitchen in Walton. It wasn’t long until my own father perfected a delicious ‘Ragu’ or ‘Spag-Bol’, as it became known, with some initial kind direction from Ben in ‘Alio’s’. I guess I and Walton were lucky because ‘Alio’s’ stocked the most amazing olive oil, which we all know these days can make or break an Italian meal. Back then, it wasn’t common in England to cook with olive oil and I don’t think it had been many years since olive oil had only been available to buy in the chemist, where it had been traditionally sold to clean out ear wax!
Another memory of my childhood is regularly seeing a big 'Artic' lorry arriving periodically with Italian number plates outside ‘Alio’s’. It was always stuffed full of seasonal Italian food treasures and big drums of real olive oil. Every early Autumn, it arrived with a special delivery – red and white grapes, ready for the local Italians to turn into wine. What a great place!
At middle school I was again blessed with another Italian best friend, Natascha. This was another step up in Italian cuisine for me, as her father owned three Italian restaurants in Surrey. I had my first wood fired Italian pizza at his restaurant in Weybridge and was instantly hooked. And so it went on. I went to a local secondary Catholic school where there were many of the Walton Italians. I rode on the school bus from Walton next to my school friends Luigi and Gaspare and my one wish of those school years is that I wish that in my school years they had taught Italian instead of French, I might have been fluent by now! But as a child I just didn’t notice all these Italians in my life, they were just there. I think it was why I didn’t see an urgent need to visit Italy until I was 30. I even had an Italian boyfriend, Ciro, for a couple of years in my twenties, who himself owned a chain of Italian restaurants. I knew so many Italians, I had eaten so much Italian food and drunk so much Italian wine I wasn’t desperate to go and visit Italy at all. Italy was, in a way, already an extension of me and my own micro-culture. Instead, I wanted to explore other countries and foods, which I did do thoroughly.
When I did finally arrive in Tuscany at 30 years of age, I was blown away. Because there is more to a country than food and wine! There is beauty, landscape, smells, temperature and local cultural differences and customs. I fell in love instantly with Italy and never looked back. That is why I am here now, in my forties, in my personal favourite Italian region, Piemonte, making up for lost time but very grateful that I did travel the world first. There is after all no place like home and, thanks to my English-Italian quasi upbringing, I feel truly at home here in Piemonte.
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