My Gelato love has strong Welsh roots

area-llangollen-big (300x200)Growing up in 1950s rural Wales grounded me in food. We ate in season and most fresh produce came from the garden – ours or friends who’d share when there were gluts.

Llangollen (300x225)Welsh mountain lambs came from the hills around. Black beef from the valley pasture. Pigs went more for ham and bacon – every farmhouse I visited with Grandpa had a fatty flitch hanging off big black hooks bedded deep into the white-washed kitchen ceilings. Butter was near white and fresh churned on the farms. Chicken came from those farm yards, wild brown trout from the brooks and some of the best of salmon from the river Dee. I’ll stop with mushrooms from the meadows, wild strawberries from the hedgerows and plovers’ eggs off the plough.

Trips out to the coast, a couple of hours away from our house, meant ‘Italian’ ice cream.  It was ‘Italian‘ because it was made by Italians who’d chosen to settle around the coast and open ‘milk bars’  many of which became ice cream parlours. Whether they took the word ‘parlour’ from the dairy farm’s milking parlour is lost in time. They were cool places for sure – decorated in ice cream colours with contemporary furniture that owed more to the American diner than Italian roots. We’d seen nothing like it. The swooshing and wooshing of the 6 or 8 port shiny chrome or testa rossa Gaggia’s, the clinking of the glass coffee cups, the music from the juke box and the ice cream. The word ‘gelato‘ was many years off entering my vocabulary.

My rock & roll was born in the Italian ice cream parlours and coffee bars – Buddy, Jerry Lee, Lonnie, the Everly’s and Elvis came into my young life over tubs of this Italian ice cream. This was something one couldn’t have at home and that made it more special again. Flavours seemed limited to vanilla, strawberry, chocolate – still the world’s three most popular flavours – although there were maybe more. Also for the parents there were tutti-frutti and cassata, but we kids didn’t care for Sicilian candied peel. I’m sure there’d have been knickerbocker glories, sundaes and banana splits – the first being deemed vulgar,  the second being as sedentary as childhood Sundays and what’s to say of the banana split except that bananas were a rare treat back then after WW2 rationing.

Sometime in the mid-1960s a certain Michael Forte arrived in our town – brother of one who was to go on to become Sir Charles. The Forte’s became family friends and I found myself a holiday job working as a barista. We had real gelato and were allowed to indulge ourselves. It takes the years to roll by so as one can appreciate one’s early awakenings in real food.

Spin on the years and my love of good ice cream has never dissipated. The prefix ‘Italian’ keeps showing up wherever I get to taste superior ice cream – not just in parlours like Pelosi (sadly no longer family run), Morelli’s, Verdi’s, Minghella’s and others I’ve visited. Which was the one in old South Shields where I’d stay with ‘Aunties’ – three eccentric spinsters from my mother’s Scottish family, one even had a moustache and makings of a beard. Aunt Beatie was  best – she being the local photographer and so outgoing. Beatie always took us for Italian ice cream and spoke a good few words of Italian too.

IMG_9237So many of the seaside gelaterias are still in business across the British Isles and in our favourite ports of call like Llanes (Asturias), Etretat and Le Tréport (Normandy). Lucky too in making this special – once couldn’t have this Italian delicacy at home so place was as special as taste.

IMG_2247Industrial, high overrun ice cream can never compete with gelato – the two are as different as an apple from an orange. Gelato maestro Vetulio Bondi explained: “It’s like ice and snow. Ice is hard and snow is soft. Air makes the difference, as long as it’s not over-used.”

Here, just today I was sent this ingredients panel for an American ‘Premium’ ice cream by a good friend in Idaho: INGREDIENTS: Milk, Skim Milk, Cream, Sugar, Strawberry/Banana Revel {Strawberries, Corn Syrup, Sugar, Banana Puree (Bananas, Sugar, Ascorbic Acid), Water, Modified Corn Starch, Natural Flavor, Food Acids (Citric, Malic), Red 40, Blue 1, Pectin (Pectin, Dextrose)}, Fudge Revel {Water, Corn Syrup, Sugar, Palm Oil, Chocolate Liquor, Cocoa Processed with Alkali, Pectin, Mono & Diglycerides, Polysorbate 80}, Pineapple Pieces, Cherries (Cherries, Water, Corn Syrup, Sugar, Modified Food Starch, Citric Acid, Sodium Benzoate, Potassium Sorbate, Fruit Concentrate, Natural Flavor, Red 40), Mixed Nuts (Almonds, Cashews, Partially Hydrogenated Soybean Oil, Salt), Corn Syrup, Mono & Diglycerides, Carob Bean Gum, Guar Gum, Carrageenan, Cellulose Gel, Cellulose Gum, Vanilla Extract, Artificial Flavor.

Is it only in America they can find an ice cream machine big enough to include all those industrial ingredients, little of them on sale to the home gelato maker – thanks be.

Main ingredients of a Florentine Bondi gelato are full cream milk (3-5% fat) with cream added to no more than 10% of the mixture. Then sugar – brown or white depending on the recipe – with a little dextrose (80:20 ratio). If the recipe is say with pistacchio, Bondi buy in Greek shelled new season pistacchio’s. These are roasted in a medium oven for 10′, cooled and then a little sunflower oil and salt are added before the mixture is chopped fine enough for it to have some texture.

If the gelato is to be fruit flavoured, for example strawberry, they take 1kg of fresh hulled strawberries, ½ litre of water, 300g white sugar, 100g dextrose and juice of half a fresh lemon. This is liquidised, added to the milk and cream. 15′ later the machine is ready with perfect gelato.

IMG_2349 (225x300)Talk to any artisan gelato maker and their story is the same. They prefer to make each flavour in small batches – it takes no more than 5′ or so to clean down the machine for the following flavour. The process is continuous and the gelati are always fresh. All the gelati makers I talked with raved about the Bravo™ gelato making machine from Brescia.

I know Brescia as the northern end of the Mille Miglia. I know it too for hunting and Beretta – we tasted the Beretta family’s wines only two years ago. Now I learn that the city of Brescia has more gelaterias than any other Italian city.

“Such high concentration of gelaterias encourages people to enjoy more gelato. It keeps competition high. That’s exciting for gelato, yes, no?” smiled Vetulio Bondi.

Industrial ice cream is frozen deeper and many months old. They rely on heavy overrun and use the likes of palm oil. Overrun makes money as it greatly increases yield – and air comes free but for the energy used to turn the machines. Once again, industrial food production comes under doubt for its practices which have been going on with ice cream since my childhood and probably long before. “Some make their ice cream with whale fat,” we were firmly told as children without even the wave of the forefinger.

IMG_2227 (225x300)Back to the happy world of gelato and we learn of the original recipe still made today by another Florentine gelateria,  Badiani, where their maestro is Paulo Pomposi (left).

IMG_2230 (225x300)This is the Unico Buontalenti, said to be the recipe first made in the late 1500s when the Medici family commissioned famous artist and architect Bernardo Buontalenti to prepare a beautiful feast for the visiting King of Spain. Using his culinary skills to present an elaborate and visually pleasing display, Buontalenti presented the King of Spain with a creamy frozen dessert that we now call gelato. Buontalenti is thus considered the inventor of gelato and Badiani’s recipe stays true to the 16th century original.

Reads almost like ‘Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie……..wasn’t that a tasty dish to lay before a king’.IMG_2295 (225x300)

IMG_2228 (225x300)Then we taste a gelato named ‘The Black Pearl of London‘ from London’s newest gelateria (ie opening soon) run by an architect turned gelato maestro, Massimiliano Leoncini. Fabulous Ice Fires will open in days at 54 East Dulwich Road (London SE22 9AX) – it promises to be a star turn for the jaded capital.

IMG_2311 (225x300)‘Black Pearl’ gelato is made from milk, cream, sugar, rubdi (mango base), mascarpone, green cardamon, saffron, kewra (panadanas syrup), rosewater, oyster brioche wafer, chilli and black pearl topping.

IMG_2264 (225x300) (2)London gelato makers fought back with Oddono’s Bacio di Dama. “It was actually a mistake. Bacio we know is the Perugina flavour based on hazelnut. An assistant bought pistacchio. We tried it and wow! A new flavour was born in the Oddono chain,” explained Christin Oddono – a man whose grasp of technology almost scared me.

I rewound myself to my visit to Carpigiani in Bologna – their university and museum. Being like minded I signed the pledge back then to help make gelato understood as being distinct from ice cream.

IMG_2417 (225x300)Then comes the Gelato Festival rolling into London with its F1-style trucks. Would I help launch the festival they said?

IMG_2280 (225x300)The trucks each have names – Buontalenti, De’ Medici and Il Ruggeri. They are homages to the history of gelato – and here I quote:

‘………It was during the Italian Renaissance when the great tradition of Italian gelato began. The famed Medici family in Florence sponsored a contest, searching for the greatest frozen dessert. A man named Ruggeri, a chicken farmer and cook in his spare time, took part in the competition. Ruggeri’s tasty frozen dessert of sweet fruit juice and ice (similar to today’s sorbet) won the coveted award, which immediately put Ruggeri in the spotlight.

IMG_2279 (300x225)The news of Ruggeri’s talent travelled quickly and Caterina de’ Medici took Ruggeri with her to France. Caterina was convinced that only he could rival the fine desserts of French chefs – and had to make his specialty at her wedding to the future King of France (then Duke of Orléans).

In the late 1500s, the Medici family commissioned famous artist and architect Bernardo Buontalenti to prepare a beautiful feast for the visiting King of Spain. Using his culinary skills to present an elaborate and visually pleasing display, Buontalenti presented the King of Spain with a creamy frozen dessert that we now call gelato. Buontalenti is considered the inventor of gelato.’

IMG_2453 (223x300)At this point consider this – we are in Old Spitalfields Market in a custom built gelato truck named after Caterine de’ Medici. Wouldn’t she be proud to know the truck full of gelato was minutes away across the street from the first settlement of French Huguenots – the Protestants she did so much to help from their persecution in France.

DSC_9462 (2) (159x300)Speaking at the launch press conference, my good friend the Italian Trade Commissioner, Fortunato Celi’ Zulo turns accepted history on its head. He is a proud Sicilian – he is also a cook and, says he, he once made gelato for his family’s deli back in Sicily.

He tells of frozen desserts first coming into Europe with the Arabs when they settled in Sicily. They would eat flavoured snow from Mt Etna where they’d have buried fresh fruits to preserve them through the achingly hot summer months.

The Ancient Romans did the same by using snow from Mt Vesuvius.  This was eons old and the true origins of sorbet / sorbetti – a story as pure as driven snow we might say.

Fortunato offered his story from Sicily about the arrival of gelato with a restaurateur from Palermo, Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli. In 1689, Procopio moved from Palermo to Paris where he opened a café serving exotic coffee and drinking chocolate as well as ‘a refined gelato served in small glasses that resembled egg cups’.

Le Procope, as the café was known, became hugely successful and gelato spread throughout France and into other parts of Europe. We still have Le Procope at its original address in St Germain – 13 Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie (7e). I have walked past so many times without knowing its importance to the world of gelato. Since the 1960s, I have rarely moved out of St Michel and St Germain when in Paris. It’s all there – Le Procope was the first café; La Petite Chaise on Rue de Grenelle (opened 1686) was the first restaurant. I celebrated my 25th there.

IMG_2430Back then to Buontalenti and the Florentine Paulo Pomposi who has the gelateria ‘Badiani’  (Viale dei Mille) known to all for their recreation of that first ever gelato recipe known simply as ‘Buontalenti’. This is a perfectly balanced mix of full cream, egg yolks, sugar and vanilla – imperative is the word balance. This is gelato. I have found my nirvana. Like with the finest cassoulet of Castelnaudary, Caterine de’ Medici has impacted on my life.

When Countess of Lauragais in 1530, she introduced the South American white lingot bean to Castelaudary. Her brother, Alessandro, had gifted her a bag of these beans at her marriage, claiming them to have aphrodisiac qualities. This became a tipping point for the cassoulet’s excellence – and why Castelnaudary has been recognised since the 1920s as ‘La Capitale Mondiale du Cassoulet’. There’s even a sun bleached, beaten up sign on entry to the town on the RN in from Villefranche and Toulouse – or was all those years we’d stay nearby through the 1980s.

We have Expo Milano happening right now and to celebrate we have a gelato in Expo logo colours – mango, strawberry and kiwi. If I don’t make it to Expo, at least I have tasted the logo.IMG_2238 (225x300)IMG_2233 (225x300) (2)

More, far more to come on gelato and what I learn from the masters before their F1 trucks roll on to Amsterdam and Valencia. My Valenciana family is well known to these pages – so expect horchata, saffron, citrus and nisperos. When in Amsterdam, will there be Jenever, Ketel One and if someone’s smart enough with recipes from WW2, tulip bulb – like the soup we ate there in February at the amazing Amsterdam Food Symposium.

IMG_1332 (150x200)The emphasis is always on local meaning sourcing the best local ingredients and getting as close to 0Kms as possible. That’s the Italian drive right now and Slow Food’s Carlo Petrini supports it all the way.

‘Made in Italy’ is one of the world’s biggest brands – millions are spent to promote it and millions more to protect it. Gelato is but one example of Italy’s right to the laurel wreath in desserts. I learned that at an early age – in Wales – and now I get to play with the real toys of gelato in a big grown up truck. I am happy. ‘I scream, you scream, we all scream……….gelato’.

IMG_2433 (300x225)My special thanks to Gabriele Poli, director of the Gelato Festival for helping me with this article (seen here left of shot). Thanks too go to ICE Londra, Vetulio Bondi, Paulo Pomposi, Massimiliano Leoncini and Christin Oddono for sharing their art. You made a Welsh boy very happy.

All you need to know about this summer’s Gelato Festival as it rolls onto Amsterdam, Valencia and then home to Italy: http://www.gelatofestival.it/IMG_2289 (225x300)IMG_2281 (225x300)IMG_2284 (272x300)IMG_2287 (300x225) (2)IMG_2327 (225x300)IMG_2302 (225x300)IMG_2374 (300x225)IMG_2383 (300x163)IMG_2446 (300x225) IMG_2345 (225x300) IMG_2451 (225x300)IMG_2411 (300x282)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Posted in 0Kms, American Dishes, Food of the Ancients, Food travel, Gin & Jenever, Ice Cream & Gelato, Ingredients, Normandy, Real Italy, Southern Italy, Terroir | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Salt Mashes, Inter-Allies and Cold Gigots

Part of my time in food has been in the red meat trade – helping take across to France and Belgium the best beef and lamb that British farmers reared. Our clients were importers, butchers and chefs in France, Belgium and Germany – some further afield. We were working with the best selected carcases, as is always the way with export. Breeds were important, so was provenance. Imagine a time when, taking a cue from the Icelandic ‘Cod Wars’, the so-called Lamb Wars (and definitely not the French board game known as ‘Geurre des Moutons’) were raging on front pages of the French press and this writer inviting 40 of France’s main meat importers to a meeting in central Paris.

IMG_0537 (300x296)My brief was to turn minds. With help I organised the venue and took charge of the food; a group of farmers crossed the Channel to talk meat with the biggest meat men from Rungis. Beef was never threatened; only lamb collided with those big tough men from the Massif who wore sheepskin waistcoats, sang loud songs and spoke their mind.

We succeeded in getting a near full house. The chosen venue was on the über chic Faubourg St Honoré, No 33 being the next house along from the British Consulate. The meal was to be a buffet campagnard in the salon overlooking the gardens. The weather was kind. The chef was kinder.

Ribs of beef, selected, slaughtered and hung on the hook for 40+ days and legs of salt marsh lambs from Romney and South Wales took centre stage. Most of my colleagues were sniffy about serving cold lamb in November. I stood my ground and chef was my support. The legs became gigots and were tunnel-boned to be roasted to rosé pink; when cool they were sliced through and set in aspic. The beef stayed on the bone as the very symbol of an England then rich with pure beef breeds. Ours were Hereford  and Black Angus – large and small carcases as if to make a point on choice. It’s worth mentioning the wine – magnums of an unfiltered Morgon sourced from Les Caves de la Madeleine’s original shop in the mews off Rue Royale. We had budgets to do things properly back then.

37 of the 40 invitees showed in the courtyard on the dot of 12 noon. If I’m honest my mentor at the Consulate had pulled the master stroke. We were to meet and feast at the exclusive Cercle de l’Union Interalliée – a club established in 1917 where the allied commanders and senior politicians could meet and talk world affairs. This was late 1970s and the club’s premises were still closed doors to all but those who had connections. The Cercle’s house and gardens made the British Consulate and Embassy look like a poor relation and I write that without prejudice and knowing both. That the sky was bright blue and the garden still much in flower only made the day better still.

IMG_0543 (300x270)The farmers took their brief well. They were united on the party line of ‘our lambs rank well against the best that France produces’. We knew the French wanted to buy, but politics had rather dirtied the page. Already they were importing quantities of ‘Belgian lamb’ with both sides knowing these were carcases from England and Wales coming in through Ostende. Always we were against the vile, cruel and unnecessary trade in live exports. Thanks be, that never appealed to the French who knew their meat and preferred it not be stressed, unlike customers further south who don’t deem lamb as fresh unless it’s slaughtered in to order.

IMG_0542 (300x225)All our lambs were from the salt marshes and we’d tasted them against those from the Cotentin peninsula. In the UK our carcases were graded as no more than ‘lamb'; in France we could make a 10-20% premium for pré-salé (salt marsh) lambs. French pré-salé has strict rules under the AOC – the lambs must be reared ‘sous la mère‘ and allowed to graze on the salt marsh grasses for a minimum of 75 days. Some ‘sous la mère‘ is raised for the Easter Sunday feast as ‘agneau du lait‘, milk fed lamb – the sweetest, smallest lamb you will eat where a leg or shoulder just about feeds two diners with modest appetites, but where flavour over-rules volume thanks be. Again, one pays a high premium for such luxury and there are ever fewer abattoirs prepared to handle the trade as slaughtering baby lambs can make grown men cry.

In Genoa’s Mercato Orientale there’s a man who comes across from Sardinia every week to sell nothing else but milk lamb and kid in season. In Boulogne we can buy salt marsh lambs off the AOC Baie de Somme. Many of the lambs reared on the British salt marshes go for export where they mercifully make higher prices for the farmers, so only by sourcing from a good butcher can you be sure of the real thing.

This was the spring and summer lamb of my Welsh childhood, when the smaller Welsh mountain lambs made way for those from the coast. Edwards’ the Butcher – and father to my school friend Tudor – taught me meat without realising he was teaching or I was learning. My Grandma finished off my schooling in good Welsh lamb as it came from the Aga in her kitchen.

IMG_0529 (300x221)Premium pricing can bring with it trickery and dastardly acts. With the essential minimum requirement for a lamb to be labelled ‘salt marsh’ it must be finished on the marshes. This means that unscrupulous traders will bring lowland lambs to the marshes for their last few weeks. I was tipped off on this in Normandy with several butchers and a cook telling me that unless I knew the farms and the lambs came with guarantees of provenance, then just possibly I was being tricked into paying a premium for an also-ran – not until one tastes does one know which way the dice has tumbled.

We can buy meat on conformation and I will ask to taste a sliver when in doubt, but not until the joint is cooked does the full story emerge. Engage with the butcher and ask questions; if he’s indifferent or reticent to talk, then best find another butcher – just don’t do this on a busy Friday or Saturday. We have a new breed of butcher and farmer in the UK who want to share their stories – witness Jan McCourt at Northfield Farm as one such a man (http://www.northfieldfarm.com/).

IMG_2123 (225x300)A shoulder of pale pink salt marsh lamb came our way this week – from a butcher tucked away across from Jackson’s Fields in Rochester, Kent. There I found a butcher who wants to talk about his meat sourcing. £15 is the going rate for a new season shoulder; the salt marsh shoulder comes to me at £18 – a deserving price premium. It’s cut from the carcase as we talk sheep.

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The best ingredients call for the simplest preparations. The slight bitterness of baby artichokes will offset the sweetness of the meat; Jersey Royal potatoes finished with salty Breton butter will be there too.

IMG_2162 (300x225)This year has seen the joyful return of real Jersey Royals after 4-5 years of indifferent taste and texture. Ours are creamy, kidney shaped and undoubtedly grown under seaweed in sloping coastal fields. We have twice feasted on nothing more than Jersey potatoes dressed with the Breton butter – the trick being to melt the butter first and serve at table over potatoes that have been allowed to cool, and not put the solid butter into the dish with potatoes straight from the stove. It took many visits to Germany to learn the art of a good boiled potato – Hamburg’s historic potato week helped plenty.

IMG_2146 (225x300)I trimmed off what little excess fat there was – barely a handful that lessened the weight only a few grams. Note the pure white colour and no whiff of ‘sheep’ that sometimes comes with and older lowland lamb. IMG_2127 (300x225)I removed the blade bone (scapula) to use as a trivet and make for smarter carving. Fresh lightly chopped garlic went into where the scapula once was – then just the lightest coating of olive oil and a squeeze from a fresh cut lemon massaged on by hand – then finally a little coarse sea salt – from Cervia as it happens, as if to celebrate the Festa Artusiana.IMG_2150 (225x300)

We cook in a well aged cazuela. Potatoes are baked whole from raw in its larger brother. A little olive oil and some coarse salt – then half way through cooking, over goes fresh cut rosemary, twigs and all. Give the pan a shake and expect the potatoes cooked in an hour or thereabouts.

IMG_2175 (300x278)The shoulder roasts on at 170-180°C and is alternatively basted and doused every 15-20′ – this is important to build up the patina and texture of the skin. I baste with pan juices; I douse with my finger over a bottle of Soave. This is no exact science.

IMG_2188 (300x225)The meat is ready in around two hours. Then a 20′ rest before bring to table to share in the No 19 way – each diner cuts their own choice pieces from the joint following no carving etiquette, just instinct.

IMG_2194 (300x225)We started this when the boys were young and shoulder of lamb is rarely served any other way.

IMG_0548 (300x225)Lamb off the salt marshes only gets better as the summer rolls on. The grazing is thin and so these lambs tend not to go to fat. September has them at their peak condition – fully grown and still lean. A good time to talk to your butcher.IMG_2198 (225x300)

 

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Posted in AOC, Beef, Genoa, Lamb & Mutton, Memories, Mercato Orientale, Normandy, Rare Roast Sirloin, Salt Marsh Lambs | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Celebrating the remarkable Elena Salvoni

I love a modest hero. Such a person is Elena Salvoni, a London-born Italian who was the first woman to become a maître d’ in London’s lively Soho restaurant scene. It was Elena Salvoni, more than any before her, who set the pace to put the real Italian kitchen on the culinary map in London from the 1950s onwards. This lady is remarkable and the London scene has recognised her as such.

IMG_0541 (212x300)Elena Salvoni has something of Edith Piaf about her at just 5 feet tall. “When I talk to customers at their table, they can look me in the eye,” she likes to quip. Whatever her physical height, her reputation is gigantic in Soho and yet, for all she has done in these past 70+ years, the lady is little known in Italy.

Elena Salvoni was awarded the MBE in 2005 – Member of the British Empire, a high honour granted by the Her Majesty the Queen for services to the London restaurant scene over her long career which began as a waitress in the 1940s.

IMG_1960 (237x300)Her life from birth to 1990 is celebrated in the book ‘Elena – A Life in Soho’ co-written with Sandy Fawkes. Copies of this are on sale for +£2000, so rare is the edition. It is a reading text at the university in Salerno and yet nobody there has explained why to Elena herself. Effectively a part 2 of her amazing life is planned, picking up the story from 1990 to the present day.

P1050623 (300x225)We recently met after a gap of around 10 years over a coffee in the art cinema, Curzon Soho. Elena, as energetic as ever has just turned 95, and comes by bus from home along the same route she has travelled since childhood in the 1920s. It was then that her family moved away from an impoverished network of Dickensian streets running south of the Clerkenwell Road, down Saffron Hill and Leather Lane to Hatton Garden known unofficially as ‘Little Italy’.

She retired in 2012, just three years ago – at 92 – but truth told, she’d still like to be walking the floor greeting and caring for her customers. Her new employers who’d acquired the restaurant she was running under her name had told her that she was no longer possible to insure. Elena shakes her wise head at this as a sign of disbelief. She had moved to L’Etoile when already in her early 70s and under the then owners, the place was rebranded Elena’s L’Etoile. The walls were hung with the dozens upon dozens of signed celebrity photographs she had amassed over her years in Soho – “Too many for the already well covered walls at home – and anyway, I want everyone to enjoy them,” she says.

It could be said that Elena has not entirely left the restaurant scene. Quo Vadis celebrates her with ‘Elena’s Table’ on the 3rd Wednesday of every month cooked by Chef Jeremy Lee.

“It means a great deal to us having these extraordinary monthly lunches at Quo Vadis,” delights Lee. “They rekindle fond memories and there’s something so strangely right about harking back to the days of Bianchi’s, old Peppino Leoni and that marvellous Soho world back then.”

Peppino Leoni opened Quo Vadis on Dean Street, Soho in 1926. It was another 20 years before Elena began working as a waitress at Café Bleu on Old Compton Street – a time when stark WW2 food rationing was in place and females were needed for men’s jobs with the menfolk being away at war.

IMG_1967 (300x225)A devastating kitchen fire at Café Bleu had her move to what was to become one of the most important London Italian restaurants of all. This was Bianchi’s – a few steps around the corner at 21a Frith Street.

IMG_3649 (225x300)By then Elena had got to know Mr Leoni and so it follows that Quo Vadis has many fond memories of a lifetime spent in Soho. Elena talks of Mr Bianchi, Mr Leoni and other Italian restaurateurs meeting every morning on the corner of Frith Street and Old Compton Street – outside the Italian grocery store, Parmigiani Figlio. Interestingly for one who is on first name terms with hundreds of famous people, Messrs Bianchi, Leoni and Bossi are always referred to as ‘Mr’ – even today when she tells the story. Each morning these three would chew the fat (gossip) and agree on supplies for their restaurants.

This was and still is a tight-knit community. London’s Italians have never lost this fraternity and food is still at the core. Mr Leoni (here with his head chef at Quo Vadis in the 1960s) once said: “There are twenty people working in the kitchen which is absolutely spotless. My kitchen is not as clean as the Savoy’s……the Savoy’s is as clean as mine.”IMG_2111 (300x272)

Customers return like friends to ‘Elena’s Table’, many to share reminiscences from Elena’s 40+ years in Bianchi’s, 10 years at L’Escargot, her short stay at the wonderful Gay Hussar and finally her 15 years at L’Etoile.  At L’Escargot too, Elena had her own room on the upper floor.

Old habits die hard as Elena likes to walk the tables, as she’s done all her working life. Fuelled only on bread and coffee, she won’t take her place at table until everyone is comfortable, introduced one to the other and probably mid-way through their main course.

This is a long road travelled by an Italian girl who left school at 14. Her parent’s families had come to London from a country town near Piacenza in search of work in the first wave of Italian immigrants in the late 1800s.

IMG_1961 (200x150)Elena reminds me that we first met in 1969, by when she was already London’s first lady as Bianchi’s front of house. For years, we all believed Elena and husband Aldo were the owners. We never knew of a Mr Bianchi.

Months after arriving in London I was taken to Bianchi’s by my boss. My name in the reservations book moved from the formal Mr Jones, to Gareth Jones, then Gareth and finally, a big bold ‘GARETH’.  So important was Bianchi’s to London’s social history that a collection of reservation books and menu cards are now held safe by the Museum of London.

IMG_2113 (300x248)Soho was largely dominated by Italians for most of the 20th century. Old Compton Street was London’s ultimate and only destination to shop for diverse foods, wines, exotic teas and coffee, European newspapers and foreign cigarettes – and it stayed that way until the 1980s.

IMG_3794Out of Parmigiani Figlio, Epicèrie Française, Gomez Ortega, Bifulco, King Bomba, L. Roche, Del Monico’s, Pasticceria Amalfi, Fratelli Camisa and the Algerian Coffee Stores, only the last three continue on the street. Just days ago I noted that Pasticceria Amalfi looked like it was being made over into something ersatz.

During WW2 and the several years which followed, times were hard, with food in short supply through Government Rationing. Imports were near on impossible so home grown was how restaurants continued. The very nature of Italian cooking meant Bianchi’s could continue serving dishes that tasted as home-made.

“These were tough times for all of us. We went through a living hell, but we worked through it, and with our faith came out of it,” sighed Elena in a rare sombre moment.

Early in WW2, the Italian community suffered the indignity of their menfolk being interned by the British just days after Mussolini declared war on Britain in June 1940. Wartime leader, Winston Churchill made the cold-hearted command ‘Collar the lot’. By ‘lot’ Churchill  meant all Italian males aged 16-60 being sought out, arrested and sent to internment camps. Many came from families like Elena and Aldo’s who’d lived in the UK since the 19th century; some were part of the establishment. This shocking decision is now much regretted.

Still remembered was the sinking of the SS Arandora Star torpedoed by a German U-boat on July 2 with, among others, 712 Italian internees on board – 486 of whom drowned and the Salvoni’s knew many on board who were lost that night. The tragedy is remembered with an annual service at St Peter’s Italian church on the first Sunday in November. What surprises us all is that Italian families like Elena’s bear no grudge – they just wanted to get on with their lives in their new country where they’d come in search of work.

She tells of a pastificio staffed by Italian men who’d returned jobless to London from internment. When the British weather allowed, spaghetti was hung to dry over broom poles stretched between chairs in the yard outside – the pasta was mostly destined for Italian restaurants in Soho. By then, most Italian chefs were Neapolitan.

Try as I may, I can find no others who remember Little Italy’s pastificio. It says much of Elena’s memories, inspiring and remarkable, full of minute details as I have learned spending time with her these past few months.

Come the 1950s and 60s, London began to live again and Soho was mostly where the post-war rebirth began with genuine restaurants like Bianchi’s at its centre. This is the more remarkable as Londoners favoured French cuisine when eating out, but Soho’s bohemian streak enabled Italian cooking to hold up its head alongside French.

Bianchi’s built its reputation around a daily changing, fair priced menu of simple Italian dishes and, says Elena, the certainty of good sized portions for hard up actors and actresses, artists and musicians who’d come there.  Elena tells of putting extra bread, butter and grissini on their tables to appease their hunger pangs as their food was prepared in the kitchens below.

Meals there could some nights degenerate into raucous affairs with customers often getting out of hand as the wine kicked in.

“It never bothered me,” said Elena. “I knew it was only the drink talking. It’s all part of running a good, if lively restaurant where so many customers came from the creative world and so many lived on their nerves.”

One regular was the rumbustious Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, who would roll in with pals and never having reserved after drinking at bars nearby like Pillars of Hercules or the York Minster (later to become the French House). Knowing my affection for Dylan, Elena shared that he ate his last dinner in London the evening before leaving on his fateful trip to New York where he died on November 9, 1953. Even with her pin sharp memory, she can’t recall what he chose that evening – probably something simple and easy, he was a messy eater, she said.

Bianchi’s was one of the very first in London to offer aperitifs like Punt e Mes, Campari Soda, Americano and Negroni. The Spritz was yet to arrive, but the classic Italian aperitifs took precedence over the more familiar spirit based drinks like Gin & Tonic, Whisky & Soda and Brandy & Ginger.

IMG_1380 (2) (225x300)The menu was always printed in Italian with a small and much abbreviated English translation below each dish. This too was significant in the 60s and 70s because the language of food was always French, never Italian.

IMG_2116 (300x225)Bianchi’s was one of the first to offer dishes from the classic Italian canon as well as the Italian regions. Popular with Bianchi clientele were antipasti like Affettato Misto (mixed salami), Prosciutto e Melone, Insalata di Tonno (canned tuna prepared with broad beans and onion) and Filetti d’Anguilla Affumicati (smoked eel). Fresh grapefruit was listed as the fruit was considered exotic to 1960s Londoners, alongside avocado pear with prawns or crab – and then vegetables like aubergine, zucchini, peppers even closed cap and cultivated button mushrooms. Many Italian waiters knew where to forage for wild funghi but little of their bounty came to restaurant tables. Looking back this is hard to imagine, but Bianchi’s made its living from cooking from the Italian canon even though its chefs had come mostly from around Naples and would have travelled nowhere else in Italy before emigrating to London.

Soups included Stracciatella alla Romana, Zuppa Pavese, Pastina in Brodo and Minestrone. Pasta dishes included Spaghetti alle Vongole and a real Carbonara, Cannelloni Parmigiana and Fettucine alla Crema. Popular too were Uova alla Nerone (eggs baked in Marsala with finely sliced veal kidney).  I ate my first polenta in Bianchi’s, long before River Café was to open and take it as its own. Risotto too was made from scratch and to order. Again, Bianchi’s was one of the first to serve all these dishes.

Scampi and other fish prepared ‘alla Livornese’, the ever popular Fritto Misto di Mare and a grand sounding Filletti di Branzino Claudius (pimentos, garlic and unspecified herbs – most likely dried oregano). Sea bass was not to become popular until the Chinese featured it on banquet menus in the 1980s. Real scampi was a treat – many lesser restaurants would pass off monkfish as scampi as it was then one of the cheapest and least known fish, it being considered too ugly to bring to the table unadorned. To this day, monkfish (rospo) is still rarely seen for sale with head still attached.

Speciality dishes in the 1960s and 70s were IMG_2114 (300x225)Fegatini di Pollo Burro e Salvia, Escalope di Vitello alla Vadostana, Petto di Pollo Sorpresa, Saltimbocca alla Romana, Cotolette di Vitello alla Sassi, Intercosta di Manzo al Ferri and Pollo Novello alla Diavola (always with poussin – a baby chicken but named in the more exotic French so as not to offend those faint of heart at table).

The happy buzz of Bianchi’s was much to do with Elena working the tables with good humour, affection and efficiency – knowing when customers were pressed for time, when they wanted to be left to their deal making, or even when to go unnoticed as they dined with another but their partner.

IMG_1955 (256x300)Elena’s husband Aldo, sat behind a high desk preparing the bills in long hand and taking the reservations.

Carafe wine was more popular than listed bottles – as much because fewer diners knew their Italian wines as well as they’d know those from Bordeaux or Burgundy.  Soave, Frascati,  Orvietto and Verdicchio led the whites; Valpolicella, Chianti and for very special occasions, Barolo headed up the reds. Always there was the red and white Corvo from Sicily  – jokingly referred to as Mafia wine by the customers. Prosecco came much later – sparkling wine was either expensive French Champagne or cheap and sweet Asti Spumante.

The queen of desserts (dolci) was always the Zabaglione al Marsala – hearing the copper bowl being whisked was a better marker of the hour than one’s wristwatch. Served warm in a Paris goblet on a saucer with 2-3 langues du chat, and heady with the Marsala, this was living the high life in 1970s Soho.

Across the street from Bianchi’s is Ronnie Scott’s jazz club – re-located there in 1965. Elena recalls Ella Fitzgerald when she was in residency there. The club’s co-owner, Peter King, ordered Bianchi’s famed fettucine, requesting the dish be brought across for ‘Miss’ Fitzgerald in her dressing room. Elena took it on a covered tray and was asked to make her way backstage. The curtain was pulled aside and there was the great Ella.

IMG_1956 (300x213)“You must be Elena. Peter has told me so much about you,” smiled Ella as she lifted the lid. “I shouldn’t really eat this,” she confided – and then tucked into the lot.  The singer usually never ate before a performance. The two women found they had birthday’s just two days apart so Ella promised to celebrate hers in Bianchi’s and a long lasting friendship began. Elena tells of Ella singing a lullaby to one of her grandsons in her dressing room before a big concert at the Royal Albert Hall.

Peter King confided with Elena the following day, “Ella usually likes to be on her own for an hour before going on stage, but last night she went on truly elated.”

I found a big comment on social trending as I looked back over the many reservation books at the Museum of London. In the early 1980s there was a marked shift from lunch to dinner bookings. This was 2-3 years into Margaret Thatcher‘s tenure as Prime Minister and the loathsome, unhealthy trend for sad sandwiches at the desk became established.

When the long lunch dies in Soho, the English long lunch is surely dead.

IMG_1975 (300x225)Bianchi’s under Elena’s tenure was at the crux of a fast evolving London restaurant scene – not just making Italian more fashionable than French for all but Michelin starred eating, but being first to be introducing dishes from the Italian regions.  Polenta, an everyday staple in Northern Italy, was unknown in London before it featured on Bianchi’s menu. Polenta stays a favourite at home for family Sunday lunch. Her son Louie still talks excitedly of plates of hot, creamy polenta with Italian salsiccia. He also tells of Elena and her mother’s tradition of preparing 400 ravioli on Christmas Eve for the following day’s family feast after Mass – “………so much work by Nonna and Mum and we’d have eaten the lot in minutes.”

IMG_0681 (225x300)“Italian cooking makes do with what’s to hand. Given a few ingredients you can do almost anything – and we did when food was short after WW2. It was easier then to source fresh asparagus or mushrooms than it was Italian canned tomatoes,” Elena tells me.

To me, Elena is not so far from Arrigo Cipriani who, around the same time as Bianchi’s launched real Italian in London, he began serving polenta, risotto, brodo and simple pasta dishes in the original Harry’s Bar in Venice San Marco, much to the amazement of his critics.

Indeed Arrigo and Elena are closer than either could imagine. Both have had their lives blessed by stars, but only because they served their customers elegantly and with the best the kitchen could produce at the time. Neither establishments sought Michelin stars and yet Bianchi’s had more stars step up its stairs to the first floor dining room than today’s fashionable London restaurateurs could dream of. I wonder if Arrigo Cipriani ever ate at Bianchi’s on his recces in London, the city he likes so much.

A book by Elena Salvoni, Eating Famously (published 2007), lists  dishes favoured by all that Elena has served – among them, Faye Dunaway, Robert Redford, John & Yoko, Mick Jagger, film director David Lean, Lady Diana and a Harry’s Bar regular, Maria Callas.

“She (Callas) came sweeping into Bianchi’s one night wearing a full-length mink coat, as befits the ultimate diva……….in the days before Onassis. ‘La Callas’ draped her coat over the back of the chair…… the mink flowed over the floor around her like a black puddle,” wrote Elena.

Ella Fitzgerald’s listed dish is named ‘Linguine Elena’  – pasta dressed with skinned broad beans, basil, chopped chives and parsley, then stirred through with crème fraîche and fresh grated Parmesan moments before serving.

“One of my secrets from the start was that I treated everyone as equals, whether famous or not, rich or impoverished. Those who came back week after week over the years became a sort of family – my Soho family.

“I’ve often had young couples on their first date telling me how their parents and even grandparents had done their courting at Bianchi’s.”

Asked about changes to Soho in her +70 years working there, Elena replies: “Yes, there are many, but the one that stays with me is having to learn to write the orders in English not Italian when I moved from Bianchi’s to L’Escargot.”

This is Elena Salvoni MBE. May her star shine on forever as the reminder and original text of how a good restaurant should be organised and run.

Last word to chef Jeremy Lee: “To hear Elena still clacking her heels on the Quo Vadis floor is something special. Long live the Queen.”

Italy should raise its glass to Elena Salvoni – the lady from the Angel who has been the Queen of Soho restaurants for more than seven decades.

CREDITS: My special thanks to all who helped me assemble this celebration – Elena’s family (specially Louie and Adriana), Danielle Sterrie, Chef Jeremy Lee, John Parmigiani, Sebastian Nicolas, Teresa Arrigo and her son Marco Arrigo (Bar Termini).

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This celebration of Elena Salvoni MBE will soon be published in Italy by Di Testa e di Gola (www.ditestaedigola.com)

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