Friday, 2 March 2012

Origins of the passion for food and rail journeys

So how did these passions for food and rail start?

Let’s start at the beginning. The garden of the house where I was born in Hucknall backed onto what was the Great Central Railway. My grandfather had been the Station Master at Hucknall and other Great Central Stations, including Quorn, where my father was born. My  father followed in the footsteps of his father and uncles after returning from six years as a soldier in World War II. When I was three my father was transferred to Cambridge and we grew up in Suffolk. My childhood revolved around railways: travelling with my father around East Anglia; with him or my mother to Italy; and as soon as I was able to travel alone spent lengthy periods at Cambridge station or, with use of privilege tickets, the London terminals.

The food passion started from having an Italian mother and having to improvise during the period of rationing after World War II. We grew virtually everything and improvised in the making of certain Italian products. For example, despite the meat shortages, my father was able to obtain rabbits from which he made salami!  During the mid-1950s Italian food products started to arrive in the UK (London) and making use of the free rail travel we ventured to the Italian food store in Soho and brought back wooden cases of pasta (long spaghetti or macaroni) in the traditional blue wrapping.

Travel to Italy started very early in my life and there I was exposed to totally different food culture; variety, freshness and of course TASTE! I can remember eating with my great-grand-father above Via Giuseppe Panini on the opposite shore to Lecco on Lake Como; him with his large fiasco of wine on the floor that he would lift every now and then to fill his glass; the smell of grano that he ate in large quantities - I can also still smell the kitchen! My mother had a number of aunts; I remember excitable Zia Piera and Zia Gianna who had been a minor film actress and fantastic cook. She had visited England in 1950 and was desperate for her niece (my mother) for whom she had acted as guardian when my mothers parents had died. So our visits to Italy were all accompanied by large meals to “feed us up” for the return to England.

My real passion for Italian food was reinforced when I started to spend longer periods in Italy. At the age of thirteen-and-a-half I travelled alone to Italy by train and spent almost time between family and my mother’s friends. In Lecco, I stayed with my mother’s cousin, whose son Giacomo Mojoli would later in life become vice president of Slowfood International, and during the day help out her brother Peppino who had a fruit and vegetable store. I would help Renzo deliver groceries around Lecco on a tricycle made for carrying goods: at lunch time I would often eat with Peppino’s mother Serena (my mother’s aunt) who would often improvise with ingredients from the shop; sometime would take a picnic to lake shore or on special occasions eat at the restaurant next to the shop in Piazza XX Settembre. In the late afternoons I would sometimes go fishing with my great-grand uncle who would sell fish on the market.

Later in the 1960s I spent a year working in Italy; it was then that I was introduced to the gastronomic extravaganzas; I would regularly eat with Zia Gianna and watch her prepare food or at week-ends eat for hours on-end with my mother’s friend Paola in Lissone; an incredibly versatile cook. These were the experiences I always looked forward to when I later travelled back to Italy and especially during the ten years that I lived in Denmark. I would always make a point of stopping off in Milano to savour Zia Gianna’s food and that of Fulvia my mother’s cousin.

Whether it is the family DNA or Italian blood or not, I am passionate about food and what goes into the preparation and I love improvisation! The other evening I watched Giorgio Locatelli prepare caponata; something that can be varied by the individual preparing it. A couple of years ago I prepared my own version for an Eat-In held in Torino. Leo Reiser  from Slowfood still comments on it when I met him; I assume he thought it was good!!!

A very satisfying experience was the conceptualisation of an Eat-In instead of a traditional welcome cocktail for the conference that marked the end of a ten year project I had been managing in South Africa for almost ten years. A large marquee was installed outside of Durban City Hall; small producers from the community gardens and farms our programme had supported brought their produce to sell to the conference delegates who then had their raw ingredients prepared
a group of students from the local hotel school supervised by two professional cooks (one Italian and one South African).The event was voted a great success.

For the past ten years we spend our summer holidays at a small farm on the Tuscan coast at Pian di Rocca close to Castiglione della Pescaia. This will be discussed when we reach Tuscany on our journey through Italy.

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