Meet Valvona & Crolla’s Mary Contini, a woman with a taste for history and an appetite for bringing authentic Italian sausages to the Capital
THE last time I saw Mary Contini she was briskly whisking egg whites while attempting to ignore the less-than-culinary antics of a half-naked Neapolitan TV chef on the stage of the Edinburgh Playhouse.
To say she looks more relaxed in the caffe bar of her Valvona & Crolla delicatessen is putting it mildly. Though, rather aptly, she is talking about Italian sausage.
The director of Edinburgh’s famous Italian produce store has written yet another book, although this time rather than a family history peppered with mouth-watering recipes, it’s a slim volume stuffed with ideas on what to do with sausages.
But there’s that afternoon with Gina D’Acampo to mention first.
“Oh, that stage show with Gino – it was something else, wasn’t it?” she laughs. “My youngest daughter was there that day and told me she was so embarrassed about it all.”
Certainly Mary looked rather perturbed when what should have been a cookery demonstration with the Ready, Steady Cook star ended with him parading around, chef whites undone, hairy chest on show and the mostly female crowd wolf-whistling. Meanwhile Mary got on with making pasta and tiramisu. Getting on and doing the job seems to be her mantra in life. She and her husband, Philip, took the small, popular family-run deli in Elm Row, founded by his grandfather, Alfonso Crolla, in 1934, and made it a must-visit destination for foodies throughout the UK. Even the hard-to-please palates of Gregg Wallace of Masterchef and critic AA Gill have been sated by its mouth-watering array of foodstuffs.
But they also expanded, opening a cafe, taking over the Jenners food hall (as well as the one at Lomond Shores) and running a new food, wine and whisky department in Frasers at Princes Street’s west end. And while her daughter Francesca is in charge of running the trendy Vin Caffe and restaurant on Multrees Walk, it’s Mary who creates the menus.
She’s also managed to fit in writing – two books are dedicated to her daughters, Dear Francesca and Dear Olivia – while the third was a more standard recipe book entitled A Year at an Italian Table. Not that there’s anything standard about the food.
Now, though, the 51-year-old has turned her hand to the Italian sausage. “The books I wrote for my daughters were real labours of love,” she says. “They gave me a chance to explain to them the history of our families, how they came from Italy to Edinburgh and Cockenzie and what happened when they got here – the good and the bad. And of course, they gave me a chance to pass on family recipes.
“But I wanted to do something different. And I thought the sausage is such an important part of Italian food – and also in Scotland – that it was time to celebrate it a little.”
She adds: “In Italy the sausage is like the haggis here. People write poems about them and every area produces a different sausage even if they basically always use the same ingredients – pork and three spices. It’s amazing.”
Apparently January is the time when pigs are slaughtered in Italy, which triggers much celebration. Food festivals there are still very much part of the culture. Food festivals in Edinburgh, though, are at the mercy of the weather.
Mary had been due to appear at Taste of Edinburgh last weekend, but the floods in the Meadows put paid to that. So now her grand sausage tour will take in the North Berwick Festival next month, and of course the Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Perhaps the organisers should have prayed to San Antonio Abate. “He’s the patron saint of sausages in Naples,” Mary laughs. “Italians do take their food very seriously.
“Of course sausages hark back to times when food was scarce, you had to eat everything from an animal and there were few ways to preserve it. When I was young sausages used to be kept in jars of lard, and you would use the lard to cook them in, so nothing was wasted. I get the feeling that people want to get back to that kind of living – eating local produce, not wasting any – a time before supermarkets flew everything round the world.
“It used to be the same in this area, the Port Seton gala was a time to celebrate the fishing. It still goes on, but most places here have forgotten that kind of culture.”
The eating of sausages, though, is done very differently in Italy to Scotland. While we might like them grilled or fried, served with eggs and black pudding, or in a roll smothered with sauce, in Italy they are used in sausage sugo for pasta dishes, or broken up and used as a stuffing.
“It depends where you go,” says Mary. “Tuscans like sausages grilled with vegetables, Neapolitans put them on pizza, Calabrians like it so spicy it could knock your socks off. The Lucanega sausage was invented by the Romans for the soldiers, but as they conquered other parts of Italy it was adopted by others. It looks like a Cumberland sausage but thinner, and is now mostly associated with the north.”
She adds: “You know the sausage has suffered from a bad image in Scotland because it’s not been packed with meat and has been adulterated over the years by chemicals.
“That has been changing, and it would be great to be able to help people get their teeth back into proper sausages.
“I also think that the recession and austerity mean that produce like sausage becomes more important. The book has 55 recipes so there are loads of ways to eat it.”
Of course, Valvona & Crolla has its own special sausage recipe for a fonteluna sausage which includes paprika, coriander seeds and chilli, “but,” laughs Mary, “it’s like Coca-Cola or Irn Bru, only a few family members know the actual recipe.” One day that will include her daughters – and possibly her new, and first grandchild, Alfie. Perhaps then with a new addition it’s time for another family book?
“Dear Alfie, or Hello Alfie?” she smiles. “I was completely panicking when Francesca was taken into hospital, but she was fine and so was he. He was born on June 30 and it’s wonderful to have him.
“It’s also wonderful that she and Eoghan (Mackie) have named him after Philip’s grandad. He’s really an Alfonso, but Alfie is such a cute name.”
What’s probably more likely is a Contini book on how to introduce your baby to fresh, unprocessed food. You can’t imagine a jar of baby food ever passing his lips.
“Francesca has already said to me she’s so excited at the idea of giving him his first tastes of foods like figs. Perhaps I should give him some sausage. But we might do a book about feeding the baby between us,” she smiles.
“But I do want to do a follow up to Dear Olivia, to talk about my own upbringing and look at the women in my family when I was young, so that’s what I would like to concentrate on next.
“I feel really privileged to have both the Scottish and Italian cultures and to have been brought up by strong women, who believed in the power of food. All this recession stuff wouldn’t have fazed them. If you can afford to eat, feed your family, maybe even have a little wine then that’s really all that matters would be their philosophy.”
n The Italian Sausage Bible by Mary Contini, illustrations by Bob Dewar, will be published by Birlinn in August, priced £5.99. Visit www.birlinn.co.uk to pre-order.