It’s almost unbelievable that only in the last 20 years or so has foodie culture become mainstream. It was once something rarefied – now it’s everywhere, from pub grub to TV chefs to supermarket aisles. Even as late as the 1980s getting decent salami or coffee beans could be a hardship. For those within reach and with the money, delicatessens such as a Valvona and Crolla in Edinburgh proved a godsend where taste buds could be held hostage by sun-dried tomatoes, flavourful bread, or piquant taramasalata. Foodies have long since moved on, demanding desiccated kale, chipotle sauce, sriracha mayo or acai for smoothies. But Valvona and Crolla, and others like them, were pioneers.
Mary Contini has written before about her sprawling Italian family, many of whom immigrated to Scotland in the 40s and 50s to establish cafes, restaurants, fish and chip shops, and delis. In post-war austerity Britain, they were a beacon in a world of rationing and stodge.
Mary bases her book on a family manuscript written by her father-in-law Carlo about his life growing up in Italy. Carlo Contini married Olivia Crolla whose father Alfonso co-founded the famed deli that still stands on Elm Row today. A forgotten manuscript written by Carlo becomes an extended letter to his father-in-law telling of hardship, happiness, and heartache.
The story of Italian immigrants to Scotland is well known but always worth hearing again. As a boy – practically the Neapolitan street urchin from Central Casting – Carlo survives war-torn Italy with its happy families but grinding poverty. He arrives in Edinburgh 1952.
The book is written like a novel, opening in poor backstreets of two-room tenements with its parade of head-scarfed grannies and squealing kids and big family mealtimes where much imagination went into meagre fare to make it extra special. Food is never far from Mary Contini’s heart and storytelling. When young Carlo was unwell he visited his grandparents, whose cave-like home was hung with drying garlands of garlic and tomatoes.
Sometimes the number of names can become confusing and it’s difficult to remember who is who and how they are related to each other. Tragically the book doesn’t feature a family tree which would have helped immeasurably. And although it may be the perfect holiday read – upbeat, sunny, and easy reading – it lacks a bit of contrast. There have been tragedies in the family but a dearth of the kind of fallings out that must have been all too common in such an extended setup. This can make the story cloying in places. But as an evocation of a time long past it’s deftly written, tender, and true.