Valvona and Crolla: A Year at an Italian Table
by Mary Contini
Publisher: Ebury Press, Country: UK
ISBN: 9780091930455, Year: 2009
Link to publisher’s page or site
This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.

Overview

Based on the food served at Edinburgh’s best-known Italian deli-cafe, Valvona and Crolla, this new recipe book makes for an evocative and mouth-watering read. Organised around the four seasons, there are recipes, personal stories and mini-travelogues, hints and tips, and detailed ingredient information specific to each time of year. Inspiration abounds throughout, supported by recipes which are as reliable as they are tempting. All in all, ‘Valvona and Crolla: A Year at an Italian Table’ is a veritable feast for foodlovers.

Full review

When, on taking an initial flick through the pages of a new cookbook, it falls open at a recipe for ‘grilled marinated wild boar loin chops’, you can be reasonably certain that this isn’t going to be any old cookbook. And so it proves with the long-awaited publication from Mary Contini, which takes its inspiration from her family’s Edinburgh deli-cafe, Valvona and Crolla (‘V&C’). On seeing the aforementioned wild boar chops recipe, my expectations were immediately raised, and my salivary glands swelled to a state of high alert. Only my puny biceps flagged slightly at the prospect – Valvona and Crolla: A Year at an Italian Table is a fair-sized tome, weighing in at some 320 pages (and 200 recipes).

Why is this book so eagerly awaited? Established in the 1930s by the grandfather of Contini’s husband, it quickly became a local institution following World War II, when soldiers returning from Italy sought out the foods they had eaten while stationed there. V&C’s reputation has spread far and wide ever since, with the addition of a caffé-bar in 1995 sealing its popularity with visiting customers. Nowadays, no food lover’s visit to Edinburgh is complete without a pilgrimage to this extraordinary Italian deli in the suburb of Leith.

Much rides on this book, and Contini is a brave lady to step up to the plate. Happily, she grabs the bull (or boar?) by the horns, and sticks to what she (and V&C) knows best: seasonal cooking celebrating the best and freshest of ingredients. She starts with winter, the season in which she and her husband go to Rome for New Year, returning to Edinburgh bursting with new ideas for V&C. Glorious ‘winter warmers’ abound in this section, from chestnut soup with smoked pancetta to oxtail sugo, and not forgetting those wild boar loin chops. But there are lighter touches, too; Contini promotes judicious use of winter vegetables to enliven the winter eating experience. Cue fennel, radish, and Camone tomato salad, for example, or Castelfranco lettuce griddled with taleggio and pancetta. Zesty desserts, such as orange cake with Marsala mascarpone, complete this part of the book.

Spring – in Contini’s words, ‘an explosion of gorgeousness – clearly has a special place in her heart. The recipes celebrate that abundance with the focus on the season’s vegetables. Lush greenness abounds: peas, beans, asparagus, and courgettes feature prominently, with recipes for, e.g., zucchini fritti, pea soup with ricotta and cucumber, taglierini with asparagus, crab, and cream, and broad bean, spinach, and mint frittata. Also included is a recipe for the Italian’s Easter favourite, new-season rack of lamb; but so, too, are recipes for the lesser-used spring meat, kid. In between all these, you’ll find features on, and accompanying recipes for crostini, burrata and pecorino, baccalà (salt cod), and Valpolicella.

For summer, Contini emphasises the outdoors, advocating spending less time slaving over a hot stove. Refreshing drinks (both alcoholic and non-alcoholic) set the tone here – Negroni, anyone? Food recipes are characterised by swift and/or minimal cooking – there’s lots of griddling, grilling, and salads to be had, along with light pasta dishes, and recipes making the most of choice seasonal produce such as new potatoes, salmon, (rose) veal, and grouse. Desserts are big on summer fruits such as the now-familiar combo of strawberries with balsamic, plus blueberry tart, baked figs, and plum, damson and apple crumble. Summer pudding gets a revamp with the accompaniment of orange flower water cream. Meringues and ice cream also star, as does the wonderful dessert alternative, sgroppino (lemon sorbet with sparkling wine and vodka).

‘Autumn’ turns to earthier foods – truffles, cheeses, beans and legumes, as well as seasonal meats, like venison, pheasant, goose and duck. We return to the haven of the kitchen, and to heat generation: boiling, braising, roasting and stewing. A typical recipe for this time of year might be for roast duck breasts with roasted beetroot and mustard fruits – a meal to savour, and to enjoy the contrast in the meatiness of the duck against the sweetness of the beetroot and mostarda di frutta to be relished. The same applies to other recipes from this section, such as roast pork belly with grilled pear, and wild halibut with roasted fennel. The colder autumnal weather is also marked by a change in sweet things: fresh fruit moves over for spiced and, more notably, for that ultimate comfort food, chocolate. So disregard the waistline, and indulge in recipes for bicerin, crepes with Nutella, brandy truffles, and chocolate hazelnut cake, among others.

This is also a book over which to spend some indulgent non-cooking time. For starters (pun intended), it’s most obviously a jolly culinary passeggiato through the seasons. But it’s also part social history of Valvona and Crolla, a part-fond reminisce by Contini of family times then and now, a part-gourmand’s hymn to some particularly noteworthy Italian (and Scottish) food and drink, from chestnuts through artichokes to Nebbiolo, Barolo and Barbera. Along the way, you’ll encounter mini-lessons in how to make proper pasta and gnocchi, as well as how to make the most of prime Italian ingredients, such as aged pecorino. If that wasn’t enough, almost every recipe is prefaced with a short explanation, and dotted throughout are wine pairing tips, and suggestions for recipe variations and for using leftovers. Numerous photographs provide the illustrative feast.

For all its beauty, I didn’t love everything about it. The paper used in the book doesn’t do justice to the photos — it’s the dull slightly grainy style seen in a number of other books in recent years. From a practical perspective, this large book refuses to lie flat, making it impractical in the kitchen (unless you indulge in a cookbook stand).

In short, it’s a food lover’s delight to browse through, and probably a ‘must-have’ for fans of Italian food, as well as for die-hard devotees of Valvona and Crolla’s own special blend of Italian-Scottish culinary magic. It’s a book to love, for sure, and to curl up with in a comfy chair. Strangely enough, it somehow didn’t excite me to cook from the recipes, but it’s nonetheless hard to think of a more appealing cookbook for a Christmas wish-list.

This is an original review for The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf.
Main rating: 4. Recommended – good
Visual appeal: Attractive
Suitability as a gift: Likely to be strongly appreciated
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Valvona and Crolla, Mary Contini | 2009 | UK, 5.0 out of 5 based on 1 rating

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