Pasta master class with Anna Del Conte

Anna Del Conte

Anna Del Conte - Credit: Archant

Nigella Lawson named Anna Del Conte “the best writer on Italian food there is” so Helen Stiles was delighted to join Anna and her daughter Julia for a pasta master class

Anna with her daughter Julia

Anna with her daughter Julia - Credit: Archant

Nigella Lawson, who is to return to our screens this autumn, credits cookery writer Anna Del Conte with inspiring her own culinary career. “There are really only two important influences in my cooking life: my mother and Anna Del Conte,” the Domestic Goddess says.

Anna is a woman revered by the likes of Nigella and Delia; she changed the way the English thought of Italian cookery in the 1970s. Her contemporaries were the cookery writers Jane Grigson and Elizabeth David, but where David used Mediterranean ingredients that were then hard to find, Anna’s recipes were adapted to British life at the time, as she had been cooking Italian food in England for over 25 years when her first book A Portrait of Pasta was published in 1976. “There was a lot more butter in the recipes - you couldn’t easily get ingredients like ricotta.”

Nearly 40 years later, the book has been updated and republished with a new title Anna Del Conte on Pasta and new recipes. Anna is delighted she can use authentic ingredients that are now widely available, including from Lidl, which she declares sell very good Parmesan and Parma ham.

These foods come from the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, to which Anna was evacuated to from Milan during the Second World War. She is telling me about this time as I sit in the sunny kitchen of a rambling old house on the outskirts of Shaftesbury. For a wealthy family in Milan, the decision to flee to the countryside was a bold one but ultimately a wise one. “People were starving in the city, but in the countryside, especially on our farm, food was not an issue. We also foraged for lots of herbs as well as mushrooms, dandelion and nettles,” she recalls.

Anna and her daughter Julia slip effortlessly between English and Italian as they make one of their favourite dishes - tortellini filled with ricotta and sweet herbs (or in Italian tortellini di ricotta e erbe aromatiche). Julia chops sage, parsley, oregano and chives with an impressive mezzaluna - a family heirloom which Anna says must be over 150 years old. “It belonged to my great grandmother. It was one of the few things we took with us when we fled from Milan.”

Her book Risotto with Nettles: A Memoir With Food, talks about life under Mussolini - she was briefly imprisoned for anti-fascism and was strafed by machine-gun fire from Allied planes when cycling home one day. It also reveals her passion for Italy’s rich food heritage and her desire to introduce it to her adopted homeland.

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“Emilia-Romagna is the motherland of this kind of pasta with egg,” says Anna, as she makes a well in the centre of the pile of flour on the kitchen table, cracks the eggs into it and whisks briskly with a fork. “An Italian doesn’t use a bowl to make pasta: flour on the table, then beat the eggs and work in the flour from around the sides gradually.” She expertly brings the pasta dough together and hands it to Julia. “I don’t have the strength in my hands to do it properly these days,” she confesses. While Julia kneads the dough, the still youthful 90-year-old, who walks her dog Poppy every day, talks about the smells and tastes of her childhood. “We had a wonderful cook called Maria, who made pasta every day. She didn’t mind if I sat and watched her, we would talk and I would learn.”

After the war, in 1949, Anna came to Britain to work as an au pair and she met a dashing young man, Oliver Waley. “We married the following year,” Anna recalls. They were together for nearly 60 years, till Oliver passed away in 2007.

For a young Italian woman used to eating good fresh seasonal food full of flavour, it was a shock to arrive in grey post war Britain. The newly married couple set up home in Fulham and every Saturday they would drive to Soho to shop at Berwick Street Market, which Anna said gave her a little taste of home. “There were fresh peppers and courgettes, a fishmonger and a very good French butcher. He had all sorts of wonderful cuts that the English wouldn’t touch like tongue, liver and kidney and they weren’t rationed.” Anna, who had honed her cooking skills with Maria, was also able to buy Italian salami and prosciutto, Parmesan cheese and olive oil. “My passion for cooking came for my desire to eat well. The food in England at that time was a disaster. I think the English lost touch with the connection between food, the seasons and the landscape during the Industrial Revolution, whereas in Italy and France that connection has remained resolutely strong and is celebrated.” She shakes her head, “When I brought out my first book on making pasta in the 1970s you still had spaghetti in hoops in a tin. I couldn’t believe it!”

Anna makes the pasta dough while Julia chops the herbs with the mezzaluna

Anna makes the pasta dough while Julia chops the herbs with the mezzaluna - Credit: Archant

The calling to write about the food she loved came some 25 years later, when her children were quite grown up. “The catalyst was my brother, who said ‘the English have no idea what real pasta, why not write about it?’” At that time Anna was teaching Italian. The father of one of her pupils was a publisher, so she pitched the idea to him. “He called me back the same night and commissioned me,” she smiles.

The new edition of that first book, A Portrait of Pasta, has remained true to its original format, with tasteful illustrations of ingredients. “I didn’t want photographs in the book, my publisher - thank god - agreed. Have you seen photos in Elizabeth David’s books? She would be horrified,” exclaims Anna. “It’s a serious cookery book, it doesn’t need photos.”

One of Anna’s biggest fans is Nigella Lawson who cites Anna’s book Amaretto, Apple Cake and Artichokes: The Best of Anna Del Conte as the inspiration for her becoming a food writer, saying: “She is the most inspiring teacher. Her recipes are part of my life and my own cooking history. Anyone who loves food - reading about it, cooking it, eating it - should have her books.”

These days it’s very much a mutual appreciation society, Nigella often credits recipes in her books as inspired by her mentor, but Anna insists “the pupil has overtaken the master!” In Anna’s updated book there is a recipe that was inspired by Nigella - a kedgeree using orzo. “I was going to make a delicious risotto kedgeree from Nigella’s Feast, but I had no rice so I decided to make a pasta kedgeree with orzo and it worked brilliantly.”

Anna lives in an annexe next to Julia and her family and has taught her grandchildren to cook. Cooking with Coco: Family Recipes to Cook Together was a rare occasion when the camera was let into her kitchen, capturing enchanting portraits of Anna cooking together with her then 12-year-old granddaughter. “Family is very important in old age, it’s good to mix with different generations,” says Anna, as her youngest granddaughter arrives home with a cheery wave.

With the festive season rapidly approaching I ask what Italian elements Anna likes to bring to their Christmas. “The grandchildren love my parrot pudding.” She pauses and says rather seriously, “there are no parrots in it. It’s a soft chocolate nougat salami with nuts, biscuits and butter. I do that every year, the children love it!”

And if she was to cook something for herself? “I like to have a variety of food I get bored if I have one type of thing, I can’t eat just pasta,” she laughs. “I would make a risotto with truffle on top, I love truffle though I haven’t tried a Dorset truffle as yet – I would love to!”

As I leave Anna presses a box of the homemade tortellini into my hands. “Just serve it with melted butter, some sage leaves and Parmesan – it will be delicious.” And so I cooked the pasta in water ‘as salty as the Mediterranean’ and served a delicious supper made by a legendary woman who helped to bring good Italian home cooking into Britain’s kitchens. Mille Grazie Anna!

Anna rolls the pasta dough

Anna rolls the pasta dough - Credit: Archant


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