The last time I had seen Anna del Conte had been on Market Kitchen (Good Food Channel), which for a short, golden, glorious period I helped co-present with Tom Parker Bowles, among others. In the course of our item with Anna, Tom threw a chilli at me for reasons best known to himself. It missed and hit a bowl of olive oil, sending a tsunami of oil all over Anna’s exquisite blouse. She was immensely graceful about it in the face of Tom’s spluttering and abject apologies.
And there she was yesterday, sitting beside me in the private dining room at Hibiscus in London, as exquisitely dressed, graceful and delightful as ever, and as forthright in her judgments on food matters and personalities as ever.
As far I am concerned, Anna del Conte has been the lodestar of Italian food writing in this country, and of northern Italian food in particular (she comes from Milan). She’s been at it for over 30 years, and has written such classics as Secrets From An Italian Kitchen, Entertaining all’Italiana – both of which are packed with top-class recipes gathered from all over the place – and The Gastronomy Of Italy, a highly personal encyclopedia of Italian ingredients and their uses. She wrote a delightful and candid memoir, Risotto With Nettles, but for me her masterpiece is The Classic Food Of Northern Italy, which is full of memories, acute observation, scholarship and recipes for the greedy. I have very happy memories (as do a number of other people for whom I have cooked these dishes) of cassoeula, a magnificent, mulchy stew of pork and cabbage; of razza in salsa d’acciuga, skate made racy by an anchovy sauce; of fettine di mele all’antica, a ridiculously easy pudding of sautéed sliced apples with lemon, orange juice and calvados; and, perhaps most memorably, of piccioncini di Mafalda, which, in an ideal world, should be made with very young pigeons (ie, before they can fly) – they’re stuffed and cooked in various stages for an hour and a half. The result is a dish that combines delicacy and power, musky sweet pigeon and punchy stuffing, rich juices cut by sharp vinegar. Oh yummy, yummy, yummy.
The food of northern Italy is big, broad-shouldered, rollicking stuff, not at all like the dainty, neatly composed stuff you tend to find in the UK. It has heft and heart, and usually a lot of pork in various forms. It was influenced by both French cooking (or was it the other way round?) and by Austrian/northern European cooking (Italy was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for an unconscionable length of time).
The Classic Food Of Northern Italy reminds you, if you needed reminding, of the highly localised nature of Italian dishes. By local I don’t mean this region or province. I mean this valley, this hillside, this village and even, in extreme cases, this house. And how every Italian believes that the food of the place where they’re born is inherently superior to that of anywhere else. It’s that kind of blind passion that is slowing down the erosion of their food culture during a period when those of every other country in Europe is fast mutating or disappearing altogether.
The lunch in Anna’s honour had been convened by Sacla UK to celebrate the fact that Anna had been made a Cavaliere by the Italian government for her services to Italian food. It’s time she was accorded similar recognition in this country. After all, we’ve been the principal beneficiaries.