My Italian great-grandmother came from Minori, south of Naples. She came to London after World War I. She ran cafés in Islington.
I knew her the last decade of her life, before she died at 80. She was a large woman, who wore a cotton dress and apron and wrinkled ‘flesh’ stockings. I asked my family for memories of her cooking and my father wrote to me….
“I have a distant memory of being in a pram outside Nanny’s cafe in Copenhagen St. It was in the top part of Copenhagen Street nearest the Angel. Customers called her and Dada, Mary and Tom because they could not handle the Italian names Assunta and Panteleon.
Dada had an icecream stall in London before he was married. Nanny said he sold the secret of how he made it and she could not remember. I have my doubts about this.
In my mother’s kitchen were a couple of glasses, the size and shape of small eggcups, which she said were used to serve as tasters for ice-cream customers.
I think Nanny set up cafes for others in the family. Lou and his wife Florrie were unable to make a go of theirs. My mother Millie helped Uncle Cyril in his first one. It was situated near The Cut, south of Blackfriars Bridge. I imagine the food served in the cafes was standard English fare and unlike what Nan cooked at home.
I remember most what she cooked when I left school and first went to work. You could tell the days of the week by the meals she served. It was usually herring cooked in vinegar on Fridays. I brought home my pay on Thursday so I was rewarded with fried steak. I think it was a cheap cut called skirt. We would have rabbit as often as chops until myxamatosis killed off so many. She often boiled up a bacon joint. Chicken was a luxury for Sunday lunch. I liked all the Italian dishes. Spaghetti was usually served with tomato sauce. She would cook the “ruus” the night before and spread some on a slice of bread like bruschetta for us. More often than not, the spaghetti was accompanied by meat balls but sometimes she bought topside of beef, sliced it thinly, wrapped it around a herb stuffing and held the rolls together with black cotton. She liked to make soups: pastafazule, pasta and beans which appears on restaurant menus as pasta e fagiole; chicken soup with pasta stars; minestrone which I think she shortened to “minas”. In my memory, minas was different to minestrone containing more greens than anything else.
She would whisk up a cheese omlette in a bat of an eye for an unexpected visitor and serve thick coffee from a metal pot. Grounds of coffee were put in the pot followed by hot water, allowed to settle, then poured through a tea strainer.
The cold bathroom was where she kept delicacies such as pigs feet in jelly and trays of toffee apples. I never ate the trotters but loved the toffee apples which she made with treacle. If she did not have treacle, she would boil up sugar and darken it with malt vinegar.
Bread pudding and spotted dick were my favourite desserts. Stale bread was never thrown away but saved until there was enough to fill a baking tray. It turned out dark, chunky with raisins, slightly moist and cut into squares. Spotted Dick, like Plum Duff, is a version of suet pudding with the addition of currants. The mixture of flour and suet was held together in a tea towel and steamed over a saucepan of boiling water.
During the war we were restricted to jelly and custard, rhubarb pie, or blancmange. The only cakes I remember her making were rock cakes. I can’t describe her pizza but loved her battered aubergine slices so much that I still make them. We called it “moulinyan”. I am using phonetics since I don’t know the correct spelling of the Minorese.”
My Aunt continues: “Her pizza was more like that known in the New World as Sicilian pizza. My memory recalls square slices of bread spread with lard, bits of garlic, pieces of tomato and anchovy (aliche). During Lent I’d be sent over to Beales when the hot bread came in to buy long crusty loaves which she’d fill with lard and garlic – re warm in the oven as needed and I’d scarf up as fast as she could make it. It’s a wonder we didn’t all die of heart attacks at a young age.”
I remember the two types of toffee she made, light and dark, which we had to crack out of their tins. The apple fritters. The excitement of fetching little packets of Woodbines from under her tall iron bed, to sell to people at the door of her council flat (Neapoletan habits die hard even in Holloway). Nanny buying us pomegranates with a pin, from a man who went round the flats.