ONCE upon a time the denizens of Great Britain thought that spaghetti was hoop-shaped and came out of a tin. But our tastebuds have travelled a long way since then, thanks largely to the efforts of Anna Del Conte. Her bestselling, prize-winning cookery books not only celebrate the wonders of Italian regional cuisine, but they've taught us how to import those flavours into our kitchens at home.
Home for Del Conte when she was a child was an exclusive street in Milan, in a beautiful flat that was one of four carved out of a mid-19th century house owned by a countess. She is the middle child and only daughter of a stockbroker and a mother "from good aristocratic stock".
As depicted in her new memoir, Risotto with Nettles, the Del Conte home was elegance personified; a realm where Persian rugs lay thick and plentiful on the polished floorboards and fine art crowded the walls. Her father, an Anglophile, was particularly fond of hunting prints.
It sounds very opulent, I say, but the 84-year-old pooh-poohs any notion that hers was a glamorous upbringing, arguing that it was "just normal bourgeoisie. Don't forget I was born well before the (Second World] war and the war changed everything. You cannot compare Europe then and now; then it was a very different society."
We are, rather aptly, settled in a corner of her publisher's canteen. It's long past lunch hour and the cleaners are drag-racing chairs, competing to see who can make the most noise dragging them around the room. We're shouting amiably at one another, laughing with the effort of communicating.
She's resplendent in a red-patterned jacket that cries out to be admired, and when I do, she acknowledges its loveliness then grabs the hem, tenting the fabric out for inspection. A gift from her son, who lives in the Far East, she explains. "The washing instructions are in Japanese, so I have no idea," she shrugs.
Her culinary philosophy is similarly pragmatic: top quality ingredients are essential, but practicality – that is, unfussiness – holds equal sway. It's unsurprising, then, that she bats away my confession that I cannot master hand-made pasta, and tuts, "Forget it! You buy it. I'm sorry – that we all do!"
As her syntax suggests, even after 60 years in England Del Conte retains her essential Italian-ness. Like many an ex-pat, she confesses that she's no longer sure whether she's Italian or English, though lately she's been feeling increasingly Italian, a phenomenon she attributes to the tendency to revert to our roots as we age.
Then again, perhaps it's a result of writing the book, and stirring up the old ghosts.
Her earliest recollections involve trips to local speciality shops in search of the perfect patisserie, the pinkest prosciutto, or roasted chestnuts straight off the coals. To this day shopping for food is a favourite pursuit, while the idea of hunting down the perfect outfit fills her with horror.
She had a tumultuous relationship with her beautiful, sophisticated mother, who, perhaps because she was so accomplished but so thwarted in her own ambitions – in her era, well-bred women became wives and mothers and little else – was harshly critical. "Always daughter and mother are the most difficult. Probably we are more passionate, more emotive, we feel more strongly, than men do. Yes, I had a difficult relationship, but my generation would never dream of criticising or judging our parents or the establishment, even though they were very critical of me. My mother and I would fight about everything. We could fight over coffee! It did get easier when I was older because I went away."
Most meals were prepared by their cook, Maria, whom Del Conte tailed, absorbing her food lore and her techniques. Anna was a picky child, with idiosyncratic taste buds: she disliked fruit and avoided chocolate, but adored truffles, sweetbreads and snails.
If art, literature, music and gastronomy were hallmarks of her home life, Fascism dominated her education. "Mussolini's famous march on Rome was in 1922 and I was born in 1925, when he became the leader and the king accepted his total command. We all had to have the silly armbands and uniforms otherwise you couldn't go to school. My father was a Fascist until the war. Being part of the stock exchange, he had to be, otherwise he couldn't work."
In 1942, with the world at war, the Del Contes fled to Emilia-Romagna. Ironically, the food was plentiful and glorious, but otherwise life was perilous, and all the more so when an occupying German general moved into the house across the street. Once, all their windows were blown out by a bomb going off in the adjacent field. Another time she and a friend were strafed with machine gun fire while cycling home. They leapt face down into a ditch to survive. A passing farmer and his donkey were less fortunate.
Del Conte was also arrested twice, once on suspicion of being a staffetta, or courier for the partisans, and again in December 1944.Then, the authorities were after the family sharing their house, but hauled both clans off to prison. The Del Contes were freed after a few hours but their friends were in jail for nearly a month.
"In your mind, during a war, (fear] works differently," she says all these years later. "I was never frightened during the war. I wasn't part of the resistance network. The people we stayed with, the husband was involved. (But] my older brother, Guido, deserted from the army, so I was involved to the extent that you become very careful about what you do – simply even talking, you should be careful to whom you speak and what you speak about."
They'd lost everything, so her elderly father was forced to return to work. For her part, finding university life tedious, she leapt at the chance to work as an au pair in England. Here she met her future husband, Oliver Waley, and here she's lived ever since, raising her own brood – also two boys and a girl.
In 1949, England still suffered shortages and rationing, but the woman she worked for was ingenious and passed on her love of British cooking.
"I like any food which is good and well cooked," says Del Conte. "I love cottage pie and lamb the way the English cook it. But very often English people don't know how to cook well. I'd even query the quality of the ingredients. The meat isn't as good as it used to be. And the fish – excuse me! This is an island, but often it's not of good quality."
Her own skill was born of necessity, she says matter-of-factly. "I had to cook because I wanted to eat decent food, no other reason." These were the days when the only pasta dishes known in Britain were macaroni and cheese and spaghetti with meatballs – a confounding combination. "In Italy no-one ate pasta with meatballs, least of all spaghetti!"
She worked part-time while raising three children, and the cookery writing happened accidentally. During an Italian lesson she asked her pupil whether her father, a publisher, might fancy a book tracing pasta's history. He did, and contracts were swiftly executed. She was surprised and grateful. "It was put on my plate so how can you refuse?"
Portrait of Pasta appeared in 1976 and momentum swiftly built. She was later asked to adapt Marcella Hazan's Classic Italian Cookbook and in 1984, her career took off with the publication of Gastronomy of Italy, an encyclopaedia of Italian food from the Romans onwards.
The book took her all over Italy and proved a labour of love. "The best part of any book, I find, is doing the research and meeting people. When you go home, the testing of a recipe can be boring, as you can imagine. If I did it twice and it didn't go I'd chuck it. I wasn't persevering."
Does she create these recipes from thin air, so to speak, or collect recipes already in existence? "No recipe is created out of nothing! You collect recipes and you also make them up in the sense that you change things. I think it was (Jean Anthelme] Brillat-Savarin (a French lawyer, politician, and gastronome] who said the most difficult thing is to create a good recipe. It's almost impossible, because the ingredients are what they are. Nobody has invented a new vegetable."
The most important requirement of good cooking, she says, is to know your ingredients. "It is important to learn what happens with the cooking, the chemical reactions. Creativity is not all that important. You can produce very good food without it. If you are creative it becomes much more fun because you put yourself into it, but you cannot be creative until you have a base and then you can embroider."
• Anna Del Conte is at the Book Festival tonight at 8:30pm. Risotto with Nettles (Chatto & Windus, 12.99) is out now.