Lifestyle & Culture

Kitchen Detail: Translating Italian Food

By Nancy Pollard

After owning one of the best cooking stores in the US for 47 years—La Cuisine: the Cook’s Resource, in Alexandria, Virginia—Nancy Pollard writes Kitchen Detail, a blog about food in all its aspects—recipes, film, books, travel, superior sources and food-related issues.

ANNA DEL CONTE did not write a cookbook until the age of 51, when she published Portrait of Pasta. And, like the funghi she foraged on Wimbledon Common in London with her sons, her cookery writing mushroomed. Who is this extraordinary woman responsible for putting authentic Italian pasta on the British plate? You’ll find out when you pick up her memoir, Risotto With Nettles: A Memoir. The title is from one of her many World War II experiences, as is her recipe, included in this post: She had to throw herself into a field of stinging nettles to avoid the lethal fire of enemy planes.

Born in Milan to a cultured and well-heeled family in 1925, a period when the Fascist ideology was well established, Anna resisted at every turn the Fascist ideology that had formed the backdrop of her early life. She recalls wearing “silly armbands and uniforms,” spending the war years in the Emilia-Romagna area, where food was plentiful but so were Fascist and Nazi sympathizers. She was arrested twice, believed to be a staffetta (a courier for the partisans). She recalls that at the end of the war in April 1945, her family made tagliatelle for the American soldiers who had brought coffee. The Del Contes experienced their first decent cup of coffee in years.

Telegraph photo of Anna Del Conte and her husband

A London Telegraph photo of Anna Del Conte and her husband, Oliver Waley.

Her return to Milan was bittersweet. Gone was the home on the tony Via Gesù and gone were many of their friends. In their place were rationing, food shortages, living at home, and boring work. Together with her “lean left” friends, she signed on as an au pair with an agency that placed girls in English homes. In 1949, at the age of 24, armed with her Gladstone bag and limited English, she became the au pair for a typical upper-class English family. Here she observed how Kitty, the matriarch, miraculously turned rations into wonderful meals. She credits Kitty “with her knowledge of good British cooking and the art of entertaining “à l’anglaise.” Anna’s plan was to stay for a year, then return to Italy, but love was in the air. A week before her planned return home, a chance encounter at Westminster Abbey changed the course of her life.

Life as a Britalian

She met and married  Oliver Waley, had three children, and spent her adult life in a foreign country. Her return to Italy included visits to their summer home in Tuscany and later in Venice, and work-related trips. She often remarked that being Italian and living in England made her feel like neither fish nor fowl (né carne né pesce). Her “married mom” days were spent cooking for family and friends, who always asked for pasta that she dressed with unheard-of sauces: bucatini alla carbonara, penne ai quattro formaggi. She introduced her sons’ young friends to polenta and biscotti. She herself  learned to make a great paella from her Spanish au pair! And when she and her family hunted for those mushrooms on Wimbledon Common, Anna prepared them “a cotoletta”—breaded and fried in golden butter—for her sons and their friends. This was a huge change for the English, she noted.

Not Spag Bol

image from Taste Bologna site of dish at Trattoria Anna MariaNobody in Britain knew much about Italian food back then. Pasta generally meant tinned Heinz spaghetti, olive oil was still used to settle your stomach, and hardly anybody knew what salame, prosciutto, and Parmigiano were. But change was coming from this former Italian au pair.

From the 1950s to the early 1970s,  Del Conte maintained part-time jobs while managing her family life. She was an interpreter for Robson Lowe Limited, the premier philatelic dealer; taught at London College and London Opera Centre, and gave private Italian lessons. In 1973, she got a call from a friend whose father owned Paddington Press, a small UK book publisher. He had expressed interest in her  writing a definitive book on the history of pasta: the shapes, the making, the people, not just recipes. Her career as a cookery writer was launched.

In 1976, her hard work of research in Italy and testing recipes paid off.  Her first book, Portrait of Pasta, was published by Paddington Press in the UK with also a US version. The book was favorably reviewed by Caroline Hobhouse, “the best cookery editor in the UK,” and she was in. Hobhouse, then the cookery editor at he publisher Macmillan, asked Del Conte to adapt Marcella Hazan’s first book and second edition, The Classic Italian Cookbook, for the British market. In 1984, as she was approaching 60, Del Conte’s career really took off with the publishing of Gastronomy of Italy. This encyclopedia of Italian food is likened to the French Larousse Gastronomique or Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times Food Encyclopedia. This book is so much more than a recipe book. It is a time travel from Roman times to the present on produce, products, tools, and cooking methods.

With Secrets From an Italian Kitchen and Entertaining all’Italiana, Del Conte truly developed her own style of recipe research and testing  from  17th- and 18th-century cookbooks. She gave us many lost gems, such as risotto al limone and chicken in sweet and sour sauce. To date, she has written or co-authored or edited more than 25 cookbooks. She was also a regular contributor to the Sainsbury’s (like our Safeway) Magazine with a monthly feature, Anatomy of an Ingredient, and later Travels at Table, which combines travel and food. She consulted for them on producing Italian food commercially. In 1981 she began her TV cookery demonstration career. Del Conte writes that she was too shy, not comfortable on a podium or speaking to large groups to make a go of a TV career. She also had a successful cookery school in the Chianti area of Tuscany. In April 2007, her beloved Oliver died. They had moved from London to Dorset to be near their daughter and grandchildren. Today, the 94-year-old Del Conte continues to live in Dorset “thinking of all the meals to cook and share with her grandchildren.”

Great Awards and a Good Read

Anna Del Conte has won the Duchessa Maria Luigia di Parma award for Gastronomy of Italy, and  awards from the Guild of Food Writers and the Accademia Italiana della Cucina. In 2010 Anna received from the president of the Italian Republic the honor of Ufficiale Ordine al Merito della Repubblica Italiana in recognition of the work she does for Italy and Italian food in this country. In 2011 Nigella Lawson presented her with the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Guild of Food Writers. Her cookbooks are so much more than recipe collections. Her philosophy that “one cannot understand a cuisine and its development without seeing it in relation to the history of the country in question” guides not only her memoir but her books on cookery as well. Each chapter takes you on a journey, teaches you about flavors and ingredients, and infuses you with the history of the people who grow and create the food we eat. Risotto With Nettles: A Memoir With Food is a good way to meet Anna Del Conte.

Risotto With Nettles

Nettles are a bit like spinach, a bit like arugula, and once they are defanged, they make wonderful pasta, soups and sauces—and this risotto from Anna Del Conte. But if the hunt for nettles doesn’t appeal (you can sometimes find them in farmers markets), feel free to substitute the aforementioned spinach or arugula. It won’t be quite the same, but the spirit will be Anna’s.

Recipe by Anna Del Conte.
Adapted from Risotto With Nettles: A Memoir With Recipes.
  1. 300g nettle shoots (or spinach or arugula)
  2. Sea salt
  3. 2 shallots or 1 small onion, very finely chopped
  4. 60g unsalted butter
  5. 1 liter vegetable stock
  6. 300g Arborio rice
  7. 4 tablespoons double cream
  8. 60g freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  1. If using nettles, pick the leaves and discard the stalks. Wash in 2 or 3 changes of water. Put nettles in a saucepan with 1 teaspoon salt and boil over high heat until cooked. Drain the greens, but keep the liquid (put nettles in a sieve over a bowl to catch the liquid).
  2. Sauté the onions (or shallots) in some of the butter, very gently, till soft. Heat the stock and keep at a simmer.
  3. Chop the drained nettles (or other greens) coarsely and add to the onions or shallots. Sauté for a minute, stirring constantly, then add the rice and fry until the outsides of the grains are translucent.
  4. Pour the nettle liquid into the simmering stock and then add about 150ml of stock to the rice. Mix well. Once absorbed, add another ladleful and continue adding and stirring (frequently but not all the time) until the rice is cooked. Should take about 20 minutes.
  5. Take the pan off the heat, add the cream, the rest of the butter and the cheese. Leave it to rest for a couple of minutes, then stir vigorously to incorporate the butter and cheese so that the risotto becomes creamy. Serve immediately, sprinkling over the remaining cheese.

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