“Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.”
Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities (1972)
I Camisa & Son in the 1970s
No big successful city is ever static, but London is currently in accelerated glittery metamorphosis. Walk around the city and tiny mediaeval lanes have become fjords between shiny cliffs of glass and steel, their original inhabitants, printers, flower sellers, monks, have left no trace other than the name of the street. The east end, grimy and ragged for years with each wave of impoverished immigration pulling itself up by grinding hard work and education and moving out has now become an end in itself. French silk weavers, Russian Jews, Bengalis, all began the journey to English betterment here, and little signs remain, but now rickety damp rooms, with the ghost of TB lurking in the air have become desirable places to be, scrubbed back to their original Georgian simplicity, creating a residential gentility for the first time in the history of the area.
Westwards through Fleet Street, named after a tributary of the Thames, which was where newspapers were printed. All gone, leaving the odd masthead on the side of a building, all the news fit to print is now Goldman Sachs. Holborn, still a grimy thoroughfare, festooned with gentlemens’ clubs to which no gentlemen would dream of belonging, and then Soho. Forever a shady area of poorly built houses, it has always been a haunt of people on the edge of society, whether through nationality, income or activity. It was a favourite haunt of artists in the mid-twentieth century, rent was cheap, you could drink yourself into a stupor, imagining, in your gentle coma, that really you were as talented as Francis or Lucien. Years pass, the liver discreetly decomposes and nothing really matters except the next drink.
Into this mid-20th century world came families from Europe, French, Spanish, Polish but predominantly Italian. Sprouting all over the damp greyness of oily London streets like spring flowers. London’s Little Italy had been established in the nineteenth century in Clerkenwell, but this was something new.
“In Soho, but almost nowhere else, such things as Italian pasta and Parmesan cheese, olive oil, salame, and occasionally Parma ham were to be had. There too Italian rice, Tuscan haricot beans, chick peas and brown lentils were beginning to come back. In the rest of the country such commodities were all but unobtainable. With southern vegetables such as aubergines, red and green peppers, fennel, the tiny marrows, called by the French courgettes and in Italy zucchine, much the same situation prevailed …”
Elizabeth David: Italian Food (1954)
Imagine Britain, a nation to whom, largely, pasta was maccheroni cheese or spaghetti hoops on toast, confronted with all this? Full steam ahead, you would think. But as Mrs David notes, in her introduction to the 1963 edition of her book, the huge difference is that “in London or Paris can be found … the best of everything which England or France produces. In Italy the best fish is actually to be eaten on the coast, the finest Parmesan cheese in Parma, the tenderest beef in Tuscany, where the cattle are raised. So the tourist, having arrived in Italy via Naples and there mistakenly ordered a beef steak which turns out to be a rather shrivelled slice of veal, will thereafter avoid bistecca so that when he visits Florence he will miss that remarkable bistecca alla fiorentina, a vast steak grilled over a wood fire, which, tender and aromatic, is a dish worth going some way to eat.”
And so, armed with poor quality tinned tomatoes, horrid mince and some dried oregano, the ignorant armies marched forward, spaghetti alla bolognese, pollo sopressa, that extraordinary cushion of tasteless pinky grey which, when punctured, issues a steaming jet of fat down your front. Dishes which should be of extraordinary and subtle complexity became the staple of impoverished students, and the idea of focussing just on a piece of meat, or fish, or cheese was never entertained. French food has jus, reduced and minutely adjusted, like a formula one engine, and British food had gravy, cornflour and caramel, gelatinous and anaesthetising. All the basics for Italian cooking were available in the little shops in Old Compton Street but we had no clue what to do with them.
But now, fast forward several decades. Only two of the original food shops remain, Soho is largely now cleaned up, vice no longer dominated by chatty Maltese, but by taciturn Albanians, teeth, not hearts of gold. Expiring leases mean rents have gone up beyond the reach of small family businesses. Weary tourists, killing time before the Lloyd Webber matinee gawp at the gay bars. But, along the pavements, in between the grotty shops, something stirs. Little Italian cafes and restaurants. They don’t serve spaghetti alla carbonara, there is no groin grinding with the metre high pepper mill, no tenor warbling on the sound system. The recession in Italy and the movement of labour in Europe has meant that there are now around 120,000 Italians in London, only a few thousand below the French population, who are so numerous as to make London the sixth French city in terms of population size. With volume and with education comes confidence. Clean-tiled, utterly urban, no hanging herbs or sausages, serving bruschetta, deep fried anchovies wrapped in sage leaves, little polpettini, fritto misto with the proper batter, but, but …..
Massimo Faccincani has worked in London for 12 years. A professional chef, he now works some of the time in Camisa & Son, one of the remaining original grocers. He has observed the metamorphosis of Italian food in London as creator, merchant and consumer. He comes from the Veneto. It is so hard for us I think to separate fiction and reality with Italy, it is everything England is not, in both a good and a bad way. If you meet someone born in Portsmouth, do they close their eyes when they describe their grandmother’s cooking? When talking to an Italian, does the memory inspire them to do this, or is it that they are too polite not to do what is expected of them? Massimo closes his eyes and describes gnocchi di malga, (butter cheese and sage). I feel myself falling down an abyss of pleasure. How much would I have to eat in order to look like a young Sophia Loren or a less tense Anna Magnani. If I ate a metric tonne would I suddenly become a buxom young matriarch, strong forearms pounding tipo 00 while the sun blazed down outside and my extended family took part in a de Sica movie, without the misery.
So, what about this Italian renaissance? Hmm, Massimo is not signed up. Firstly, unlike French haute cuisine, the food we think of as Italian is generally cooked by women, mothers, grandmothers. They do it with pride and love (though surely even Italian mothers sometimes get fed up and long for a night off), it is unconnected to the changing times. Food in London is, unfortunately, inextricably linked with fashion and consumerism. Is it possible to imagine Corriere della Sera reporting on a Turin restaurant where the bill was E50,000 because four bankers ordered wines at E6000 a bottle. Of course you can spend that much on wine in Italy, and, doubtless some people do, but there is a sense that you are enjoying something truly precious, scents and flavours from heaven, not glugging it back just because you can. And so, just as the City tends to favour Japanese cuisine, the West End tends to Italian, it’s rustic, if you don’t understand it you think it’s simple, it perfectly fits the zeitgeist of this city where there is so much money, so many possibilities, that we crave simplicity. But England runs through our veins, we don’t have the same connection to the earth, our families have been small and nuclear for decades, we don’t, in general, grow up being cooked for by someone who knows what she is doing. It becomes food from the head, not the heart. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not Italy. As Massimo says, a superficial familiarity, a profound distance.
Is it a particularly Anglo-Saxon trait, this deference to food cultures other than our own, to re-create under our battleship skies food from another air, another language, under another sun? It is particularly futile in the case of Italian food which, in general, was traditionally cooked in a domestic environment by women. I can look up how to cook Escoffier’s Supreme de Volaille a la Jeanette (an extreme example, but an enjoyable one) or any other pillar of classic French gastronomy, it will be exact in it’s instructions, rigorous in it’s reductions, unforgiving in its unvarying list of ingredients and, eventually, weary and besmirched, I have made it, a pale imitation of what comes out of a well-equipped professional kitchen. By contrast there is no definitive spaghetti bolognese, as there is no definitive grandmother from Bologna. I have always used Anna del Conte, oil, butter, pancetta and beef, full-fat milk added at the end. No no no. Massimo’s has a soffrito of onion and carrot, with a little celery and the meat is equally pork, veal and beef, and some luganaga sausage. There is no nutmeg, but there is oregano, there is no milk but, as with del Conte, there is wine, but this is burned off. Who is right? Why does it matter to us so much? Let us stuff ourselves with bolognese, with ricotta, with all the irresistible fruits of the Boot, we remain prosaic, stolid and phlegmatic in our daily life, Italy is the stuff that dreams are made on.
“A smell! A true Florentine smell! Every city, let me teach you, has its own smell!’
‘Is it a very nice smell?’ said Lucy, who had inherited from her mother a distaste to dirt.
‘One doesn’t come to Italy for niceness,’ was the retort; ‘one comes for life. Buon giorno! Buon giorno!”
E M Forster: A Room with a View (1908)
with thanks to Massimo Faccincani and I Camisa and Son
this blog first appeared in In Search of Taste (www.incearchoftaste.com)