Lee Valley little Sicily

Nonna's Kitchen, Hoddesdon

Nonna's Kitchen, Hoddesdon - Credit: Archant

An influx of Italians in the 1950s to Hoddesdon and Broxbourne sowed the seeds (quite literally) for a food revolution in the area and enriched the culture with a Mediterranean flavour. Julie Lucas reports

Mario DiFrancesco, Hoddesdon 1960

Mario DiFrancesco, Hoddesdon 1960 - Credit: Archant

When Italians arrived in the Lee Valley in the late 1950s, it was small market towns like Hoddesdon and Broxbourne where many of them chose to settle, finding work in the local nurseries. Part of a wave of immigration to the UK after the Second World War, the Italian community has grown to become part of the fabric of the area, with migrants and their descendants still celebrating their rich Italian heritage.

Ties to Italy are so important, the community even has its own consul. Carmelo Nicastro was given the position of honorary Italian consul for the Italian government in 2011 and is based at the council offices in Broxbourne, where he helps Italians in a wide range of matters. ‘I do whatever people want me to do,’ the 50-year-old explains. ‘Italian letters can be very bureaucratic and hard to understand so I try to simplify things, but I also offer advice on all things Italian.’

He says people came to England for a better life. ‘Back in Sicily you had a little piece of land and you grew your food – it was subsistence farming, but people wanted wages. It was during the time when Europe was changing. There was a big migration from the south of Italy. The Lee Valley area was agricultural and most English people had moved into the factories, which were better paid. The idea for most Italians was to make a bit of money and go back, but many then stayed.’

From small acorns grow big trees and when a local farmer sold off some of his land a few Sicilian families bought it and started their own market gardens. These nurseries prospered and as news spread back home it encouraged more Sicilians to move to the area. Their hard work and determination paid off. The Lee Valley Growers Association estimates that more than 70 per cent of the 100 or so nurseries in the Lee Valley are now owned by Sicilian descendants, producing 75 per cent of UK-grown cucumbers and 50 per cent of its peppers in their glasshouses.

Mario DiFrancesco and his nephew Sammy Turone in a broccoli field

Mario DiFrancesco and his nephew Sammy Turone in a broccoli field - Credit: Archant

Nicastro came over aged nine from Sutera, a small town in Sicily, and within two or three months had picked up English. ‘Children will play with each other even if they don’t speak the same language,’ he says, adding, ‘It was more of a culture shock for the elderly people. People came from very close communities and small towns so they got together. Two brothers or friends would buy one house and the families would share, then once they had got on their feet, one of them would buy another house.’

He states that it is this unity that has given the expat community strength. ‘We come from villages where everyone knew everybody. We helped each other, which made a strong community. When we arrived, every weekend there would be a procession of people visiting. I remember the espresso machine was on all day. Back home, life had revolved round the piazza, of course we couldn’t do that here because of the weather, so we visited each other.’

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Nicastro feels he has two homes: England and Italy. ‘I don’t believe in borders and feel at home in both places. It enriches your life, especially when you are in command of the language. If you integrate you get so much more from the culture.’

Mario DiFrancesco, 66, also came from Sutera, which at the millenium was twinned with Broxbourne, something he helped to spearhead as president of the twinning association, He came to England ‘as a very excited nine-year-old’ in 1958. He says he helped form the twinning association to bring the large community of Sicilians together and for others to learn about the history and culture of his home town and believes it benefits both communities.

Meatballs and spaghetti at Nonna's Kitchen, Hoddesdon

Meatballs and spaghetti at Nonna's Kitchen, Hoddesdon - Credit: Archant

His father began a nursery in 1964 and DiFrancesco found work in the greenhouses, making cardboard boxes for produce at the weekends. In 1976, he opened his own cucumber nursery, DTN Stubbins, which he has just handed on to his son to run. Today, Stubbins supply major supermarkets nationwide with a range of salad vegetables.

Reflecting on his roots, DiFrancesco says, ‘It does feel sometimes like you have two homes. I go back each year to Sicily but as the family has grown we have grown stronger roots here. My children married English partners so we have really integrated.’

David Sorrentino, 57, says it can be like having a split personality for his generation: ‘My English friends see me as Dave the Italian but when I am in Italy they see me as the English cousin.’

His family came over from Trapani when he was four. ‘I remember the train ride and also seeing snow for the first time,’ he says. ‘My father held down two jobs to provide for a family of seven and would work as a baker from 2am to 7.30am, and then cycle to Bell and Webster and make concrete until 5.30pm. He did this for seven years without a holiday.’

Sorrentino inherited his father’s strong work ethic, and also his love of opera. His father was a tenor and his mother a soprano. Sottentino trained at Vidal Sassoon and now runs Changes Hair Salon in Hoddesdon, singing as a tenor in his spare time.

The Italian influx to the Hoddesdon area brought with it delicious food too, of course. A recent edition is Nonna’s Kitchen, which has created a little bit of Sicily in the town. Run by the Ricotta family, it began with the idea to bring families together to enjoy traditional Sicilian food; translated, Nonna means Grandmother. The restaurant bakery uses Sicilian flour to create traditional bread and pasta and its gelato (ice cream) counter has more than 20 tempting flavours. It is not surprising the Italian community finds it a home from home.

Paola Ricotta, 23, is third generation Italian-British, her grandfather having emigrated here. ‘My father opened the restaurant nearly two years ago wanting to offer fresh Sicilian food,’ she explains. ‘Both my grandmothers taught the chefs recipes that had been passed down through the generations. I think when you have fresh produce, people appreciate it. People have said it’s been one of the best things for the town. Mums meet up, boys come in for ice cream, families eat together. It’s very relaxed, and on a Friday and Saturday night we clear the tables and dance. Sicilians love life and love food and we really embrace this.’