Atina in the Val di Comino

Food and Home Cooking – Mamma Was A Wonderful Cook

Mamma was a wonderful cook, creating traditional, wholesome, homemade Italian food, using fresh ingredients.   She had the knack of being able to make a delicious meal out of very little at all, what is known today as “Cucina Povera”. Food played a role of great importance in our lives. Although we were relatively poor our diet was probably more varied and balanced than most Londoners, being close to many Clerkenwell markets, such as Exmouth Street, Leather Lane, Chapel Lane and of course Smithfields, a wide variety of food was readily available.

I recall the delicious, mouth-watering Italian culinary aromas that pervaded our kitchen, the smell of Mamma’s home made bread and pizzas baking in the oven and other tasty dishes that simmered on the stove.

Delicious Italian sausages, homemade meatballs cooked in a rich tomato sugo, “Involtini”rolled up slices of beef stewed in a similar tomato sauce served on top of polenta.  “Gnocchi”, Cheese and Potato Pie,  “Frittata”, Stuffed Hearts.  

Whitebait or Sprats baked in the oven with garlic, oil and vinegar, or deep fried in oil. “Zuppa di Baccalà” (salted cod). Roasted peppers cooked over the gas flame, tossed in olive oil and garlic. Stuffed peppers filled with breadcrumbs, garlic and olives.

Our house in Little Saffron Hill in Clerkenwell
Me and Mamma in the kitchen
Italian Tagliatelli
Italian Sausages
Italian Caponata
Italian Pizzafrit
Italian Gnocchi

The womenfolk, who had roots in Northern Italy, taught Mamma some new recipes that were not familiar to her, such as how to make ravioli and risotto. We ate well, lots of  fresh fruit and vegetables even though we were poor. Papà would often go down to the nearby Smithfield Meat Market where he would buy some lovely joints. Meat was relatively cheap in those days, and as there were no refrigeration facilities then, it would be sold off  cheap at the weekends to get rid of stock.  Mamma would slowly cook a joint of beef covered in a rich Italian “salsa” (tomato sauce) for several hours until it just melted off the bone.  From this Mamma could then make two delicious meals.  For one meal the sauce was served with some kind of pasta and Parmesan cheese.  Then the following day the cooled, tender meat was sliced up and served with a salad or a few vegetables.

Sometimes Papà would like to help out in the kitchen.  I can remember him making his own pasta.  Before he was allowed to start, Mamma would insist that he washed his hands thoroughly and made him put on a clean white apron. It fascinated me to watch as Papà lovingly rolled out the pasta dough into a very thin sheet using with a special long rolling pin and then the pasta was carefully rolled up into a spiral, before he cut the pasta dough into the finest strips.  

As a family we always sat and eat together with Papà at the head of the table.  The meals were lovingly served by Mamma.  I can hear her voice now, saying “Mangia!!!”

Back in Atina it had been the custom for Italian families to keep animals in the cellars under their houses.  Here they would also store olive oil and brew their own homemade wine. Even while living in the middle of London, Papà sought to continue some of these traditional practices. From time to time, he would buy a live animal from a livestock market, and keep it out in our tiny back yard, his intention being to fattening it up and eventually kill it for the pot. 

Sometimes he would bring home live chickens and pigeons, and sometimes rabbits.  One particular black and grey rabbit was seemingly spared the knife, as I had adored and adopted it as my pet and named him “Pim”.  Some time later, when I was about to go out for the day with a friend, Papà announced that he would have a meal ready for us when we got back.  Later just as we had sat at the table and started devouring the prepared dish, which I thought was chicken, Papà suddenly announced that we were eating rabbit – yes!  My Pim! As you can imagine, I was heartbroken and outraged, and have never been able to eat rabbit since!  

Before a special occasion such as Easter, Papà would go out and buy a little lamb, which was intended to be for our Easter celebration meal.   As a child I could not help but become fond of such animals, and would love to feed the lamb with a baby’s bottle of milk.  The poor little the lamb, unaware of its fate, would think that I was its mother and would follow me around everywhere.

Sunday was always a day to look forward to, also special days of celebration, when there were bigger meals with our extended family. My aunts, uncles and cousins would all join us around the table.  Zio Giovanni and zia Marietta and their set of twins, Lino and Lina.  Zia Annunziata and Zio Luigi and my cousins John and Nino, all dressed in their Sunday best.

There would be a clinking of wine glasses with the Italian toast of “Salute!”. These meals were always long drawn out, noisy and animated  –  a celebration of great food, the companionship of our loved ones, and the traditional Italian way of life.  

To me it seemed miraculous,  just like in the parable of “The Feeding of the Five Thousand” as there was always plenty of food to go around, for any number of visitors that turned up at our door, and no one would ever go away hungry.  

Family From Atina Italy
John, Zia Annunziata and Nino
Family From Atina Italy
Lino, Zio Giovanni, Lina and Zia Marietta

The Aunts and Uncles would often bring treats of cakes or chocolates for us children.  Aunty Marietta would call a sweet a “swiff-a-da”I don’t know why, sometimes I think they just created their own new dialect – a mixture between Italian and English.

The women would spend much time in the kitchen – of course the clearing away of dishes and washing up afterwards was always left to them. Meanwhile the men remained in the living room,  sitting back and relaxed in their chairs, chatting, smoking and sipping their “digestivo” liqueurs. Perhaps a game or two of cards would follow.  When all the chores were done, sometimes Mamma and her sisters would start singing their favourite traditional folk songs, and Papà would get out his mandolin. Simple pleasures which perhaps gave a little relief from the hard work and difficult realities of life.

Sometimes when we had visitors I was sent round the corner to Ted’s cafe, with some cups to be filled with ice-cream.  On special occasions I would be sent to buy cornets.  However, on the way back, I found the temptation was just too great for me to resist, and I would systematically lick around each ice-cream in turn, except for one which I had already ear-marked as my own.  Mamma would always query why my ice-cream was much larger than any of the others – I used to give a rather pathetic excuse such as “the sun had melted them”!

Italian Heart

Images marked * are in the Public Domain.

All other photos belong to my family or I have taken myself –  © Louise Shapcott