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Cooking and eating lunch with Anna Del Conte, the UK’s undisputed authority on Italian food
There’s a small sauté pan of raw clams on the table. Like both Anna Del Conte and I, they are ready for a drink. Tipped out of their bag and arranged by Anna’s practised hands, they now cover the base of the pan, while respecting each other’s personal space.
I open the wine I brought so Anna can give the clams a generous glass. She topples it over them, covers the pan and sets it on a medium flame. This will create an intoxicating steam room in which the clams surrender; the tight muscles that clamp them shut relaxing under the wine’s influence. It will soon have a similar effect on us.
Anna says we might as well have a glass as it’s open, I tell her I’m sorry it’s not cold. She says she doesn’t care, because she’s not French. And so she waves me over to her dresser – apologising for treating me like family (about which she’s not remotely sorry really, and about which I’m very pleased) to fetch some glasses. Warm wine is poured; glasses are raised, we slurp and Anna Del Conte – the UK’s very own doyenne of Italian cookery – goes to check on the clams.
Italians tend to like cooking with what they see growing
They are magnificent, fat and heart-shaped, bought yesterday at the fish market in Bridport, a small market town on the Dorset coast around an hour from Shaftesbury, where Anna now calls home. We are in her kitchen, the windows obscured by sheets of rain that could only be British. The cocked lid of the pan emits a fume of wine and brine. The clams, too, are British, and currently the cause of Anna’s concern.
“It looks terribly mean, I’m sorry,” she says. “I wanted a kilo of clams for this much pasta but they’re very big, so that hasn’t got us many. In Naples they are much smaller.”
We are making spaghetti alle vongole – spaghetti with clams (and garlic, wine, parsley, lemon and chilli) – a dish originally Neapolitan but now made all over Italy. Anna is not from Naples (she was born in Milan) nor from Britain, but has lived in this country for nearly 70 years and, now 91, considers herself a hybrid of her birthplace and her adopted home; “Britalian,” she sometimes says. She writes in the introduction to her autobiography, Risotto With Nettles, that she is neither nationality – né carne né pesce (neither meat nor fish). And Anna’s quandary about the size of the Bridport vongole – about what’s available to her locally versus what’s authentic – somehow encapsulates, in a clamshell, a life spent negotiating two nations in the kitchen.
We are all creatures of habit. When you break a child’s routine they get ill.
British food was “a sad story” when she arrived in England in 1949. She came here when the opportunity to work as an au pair in southwest London presented itself, providing an escape from the banality of life in post-war Italy (she’d been living with her parents, half-heartedly studying and doing secretarial work for an uncle.) After one year, only a week before she was due to return to Milan, she met her (late) husband Oliver in Westminster Abbey.
Suddenly the course of life changed. London became home, Anna and Oliver had children (Paul, Guy and Julia) and life took on a new challenge: learning to lift lacklustre produce and negotiate the absence of key ingredients (“pasta generally meant tinned Heinz spaghetti, olive oil was still used to settle your stomach, and hardly anybody knew what salami, prosciutto and parmigiano were.”)
It wasn’t until 1973 that Anna – at the time working as an Italian tutor – was approached by a publisher (who happened to be the father of a client). From this fortuitous connection, her first book, Portrait of Pasta, was born. This was followed by an adaptation of Marcella Hazan’s tome The Classic Italian Cookbook, then a book of her own – Gastronomy of Italy – and many, many more.
She has rightly been credited with demystifying Italian cooking – most of all pasta. She translated some of the magic of nonna’s kitchen into straightforward recipes using a small, familiar set of techniques and ingredients. Nigella Lawson has long cited her as one of her great influences, and the two have forged a firm friendship.
Always quick to attribute recipes to particular regions, she emphasises two crucial tenets of Italian cooking: geography and seasonality. You just have to know where, when and what to order: “In Venice I would never ask for pasta, it’s risotto country. And Tuscany is very poor on pasta, but great on soup! Ribollita, acquacotta, pappa al pomodoro…” She goes on, “Italians tend to like cooking with what they see growing,” she says as she explains it is not traditional to put onion with garlic in a dish. In the northern regions of Piemonte and Lombardy, there are famous onions, but no garlic plantations. There are also no olive trees (“north of the Apennines is butter; south is olive oil”) so the base of a tomato sauce would traditionally differ vastly between the north – butter, onions – and the south – with olive oil and garlic. Nowadays Anna makes both.
She speaks ardently about so many dishes, but ask Anna her favourite, or if she is particularly fond of one of Italy’s regional cuisines, and she wrings her hands and retorts: “It depends on the season, of course!” And this, I think, taps into a fundamental truth about Italian cooking: that what happens in the kitchen is merely a detail. The ingredients themselves – and the place, people, climate and culture that produce them – are more important than the actual cooking. Quite simply, they need to be the very best you can find. This in turn translates into a deep appreciation of good food; Anna tells me that, despite their lower average incomes, Italians spend more money than Brits on what they eat.
Back to the vongole – the lunch that’s supposed to be a joint effort, but to which I’ve contributed nothing so far but warm wine – and Anna is salting the pasta water. “It should taste like the Mediterranean,” she says, “not the Atlantic.” She says the Med is saltier than the Atlantic – which is why it produces superior fish – but still, this is a hefty amount of salt for someone raised with a neurotic awareness of sodium. The principle here is that if salt is added (and properly dissolved) then it will be absorbed into the pores of the spaghetti as it cooks.
Anna is full of these truisms, kitchen mantras that resound like Hail Marys and ritualise her cooking. They negate the need for a recipe, writing themselves instead into your kitchen behaviour: cooking becomes an instinct rather than a rubric. Another of Anna’s mantras is that what you choose to leave out of a dish is just as important as what you decide to put in. Sometimes you want just the faintest whiff of garlic, for example, so you bash one clove and then fry it in oil, before taking it out and cooking the other ingredients. And some people would put tomatoes in their spaghetti alle vongole, but Anna is convinced that leaving them out allows the clams to really sing (“leave the clams alone!” she proclaims.)
“How much chilli was that, Anna?” She turns around, cocks her head at the curiosity of such a question and says: “I haven’t the foggiest idea. I’m sorry.” (I am starting to like Anna’s readiness to apologise matter-of-factly; a flicker of British self-effacement in an Italian accent.)
What you choose to leave out of a dish is just as important as what you decide to put in
Perhaps ironically for someone who has dedicated their working life to writing recipes, Anna is an imprecise cook – all “a drop of this, a little of that.” The only thing she measures meticulously is the spaghetti – she wants 280g for three of us – which we weigh out on her mercantile scales. “Elizabeth David was never precise,” she says, as though such an icon of Italian cooking needs any other reason to justify her influential approach.
I am given the task of shelling three-quarters of the clams, leaving a few in their pods “for beauty”. Meanwhile, Anna checks the spaghetti and declares it cooked. “As a Milanese, this is perfect for me, but a Neapolitan would call it overcooked,” she says, acknowledging another truism: that the further south you travel in Italy, the tougher they like their pasta. In a nimble whirl, Anna tosses the spaghetti with the parsley and garlic mix as well as the clams and their winey juices, and we sit down.
It is 1.30PM on the dot, Anna’s lunchtime, and I’m starting to understand her routine: a little wine with every meal, some fruit afterwards, two cigarettes a day (one after lunch, another before bed). I remark that she is a creature of habit and she says knowingly: “Yes, we are all creatures of habit. When you break a child’s routine they get ill.”
And habits are, of course, extended to her cooking. She doesn’t like to use other people’s kitchens, and – inspired by scent – she prefers not to cook in her oven: “I like to taste, to add wine or water or salt, and I like to smell it as I go.” She explains that cooking on the hob is essential in Italy because, particularly in the south, ovens would have made homes too hot to bear. She goes on to describe the rosto l’acqua her mother made – beef cooked in nothing but 3-4 tablespoons of water, some salt, and some rosemary. For an hour and a half she would stand by the stove adding water by the tablespoon, “slowly, slowly.” Nowadays, “the patience and love required to sit next to and nurture that pot of beef – it isn’t available to many…”
Anna is not uptight about change. Indeed more than me (60 years her junior) she keeps apace with it. A plate of spaghetti strands flecked with fat clams sits before me – pasta, I think, is wheat’s masterpiece. As I shovel it down I wonder why anyone would give it up. I ask Anna if she’s tried any gluten-free varieties. She leans back in her chair, opens the cupboard, and pulls out what can only be described as a library of pasta alternatives, from mung and edamame to black bean (“that one’s for the dog.”) At 91 she could be forgiven for avoiding the new-fangled altogether, but Anna is dismissive only after sampling the alternatives – pretty comprehensively, it would seem – and this is an openness I am growing to love about her.
I leave in a state of happiness I can only ascribe to a combination of pasta, wine and good company, brushing through the huge rosemary bush arching over Anna’s door as I go. I couldn’t have had a nicer lunch.
Anna, however, was less forgiving of the Bridport clams than she was the warm wine. She clearly spent a couple of days reflecting on them, and that weekend wrote to tell me: “Frankly I thought those beautiful vongole tasted of nothing. Give me anytime the smaller ones from Naples…but they were photogenic.”
1kg/2lb 4oz fresh live clams in their shells 6 tbsp dry white wine 350g/12oz spaghetti 5 tbsp olive oil 3 garlic cloves, finely chopped grated rind of ½ unwaxed lemon salt ¼ tsp crushed dried chillies ½ tbsp dried oregano (optional) 3 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
The only clams I use are palourdes – also known as carpet shells or Manila clams – which in Italian are called vongole verace (‘true clams’). These are larger than the common variety of clams, have grey shells marked with a dark line, and have a far superior flavour.
Soak the clams in a sink full of cold water and go through them carefully; throw away any that remain open after you tap them on a hard surface, and any with a cracked shell.
Rinse the clams in fresh cold water and then put them in a large sauté pan. Pour in the wine, cover the pan and cook over high heat until the clams open, about 3 to 4 minutes. Shake the pan occasionally so that they all get the same amount of heat from the bottom of the pan. Set aside about 20 clams in their shells and remove the meat from the shells of all the remaining clams. Reserve the clam cooking liquid in the pan.
Drop the spaghetti into a pan of boiling salted water.
While the pasta is cooking, heat the oil with the garlic in a large frying pan over moderate heat. Reduce the clam liquid over high heat until full of flavour and then add it to the frying pan, pouring it slowly through a fine sieve and leaving behind any sand. Cook for 1 minute over high heat and then add the lemon rind, a pinch of salt, chilli, oregano and parsley. Mix well.
When the pasta is ready, drain and turn it into the frying pan. Add the shelled clams and stir-fry for no longer than 1 minute, using two forks to separate all the strands. Divide the spaghetti among four warmed plates and put some clams in their shells on top of each mound of spaghetti.
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