Vintage £8.99 (326pp) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Risotto with Nettles, By Anna Del Conte
Friday 20 August 2010
Described by Nigella Lawson as "the best writer on Italian food there is", Del Conte had qualms about writing an autobiography: "Who on earth would be interested?" She was reassured by her agent that, "Frankly, I have never heard of another cookery writer who was machine-gunned and sent to prison twice." An even better reason for this memoir is that Del Conte is a great stylist.
Her opening chapters transport the reader to the upper class bohemia of inter-war Milan. She was given a marron glacé by Toscanini and her next-door neighbour was a Zuleika Dobson of the era: "The bottom of the canal is covered by the rejected corpses of my admirers."
Inevitably, food plays a big part in the book and is described with tempting intensity. We learn that snails were acceptable even during meat-free Lent because a former Pope could not bear 40 days without eating them. Though her grand, patrician father had a lover at the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo, he was fond of peasant dishes like minestrone with tripe and polenta with salt cod. Del Conte's list of her favourite childhood foods explains the current pre-eminence of Italian cuisine: "Truffles, brains and sweetbreads, artichokes and all sorts of fish, including squid, cuttlefish, octopus, vongole and mussels, but especially bouillabaisse." Despite the adventurous nature of this list, she describes her younger self as a "finicky eater" and expresses surprise at her fondness for truffles "with their peculiar smell of gas mixed with a touch of parmesan, garlic and armpit".
The tone darkens with the approach of war. "The whole of my education was immersed in fascist culture," writes Del Conte. Her family still managed to eat well, even if it meant digging up the beloved chicken of a neighbour that had been killed by a cat. "The best meal of the war years," recalled her aunt. When she moved to the country to avoid bombing, billeted German officers emerged with pistols drawn at the sound of a nocturnal explosion.
The bang was caused by an illicit alembic used for distilling grappa and the Germans were placated by a tot of the previous year's production. And the jailing and machine-gunning? During the war, when she was twice briefly interned, Del Conte was repeatedly attacked by German fighter planes while bicycling on a rural road. With admirable sang-froid, she described the attack as "quite unnecessary".
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