Appreciation: Clarissa Dickson-Wright
Dear Clarissa. She may have been egocentric, insecure and with a reportedly filthy temper but it was hard not to delight in this wondrous force of nature and today in Edinburgh there are no doubt many hundreds of her fans who feel pain at the news of her death.
I certainly feel that way myself.
One of the places where her public were lucky enough to enjoy her company on a face-to-face basis was at the café at the Edinburgh delicatessen Valvona and Crolla where for 20- odd years she would often lunch and even more often hold court over her lengthy Saturday brunches.
She hardly hid her light under a bushel, sitting lavishly at a table near the entrance and seldom failing to greet even the most irritating of the bores who approached her with anything other than extravagant grace and a pawky good humour.
Of course the restaurant owners loved her visits. “You always knew she was there,” remembers her friend the co-owner Mary Contini. “She had such presence. The waiting staff would know she was there, the chef would know she was there and we would warn new staff to expect her booking call so keen would we be to welcome her.”
This writer remembers one particular meeting when we were discussing the trials of cooking on charter yachts.
“I always found that the worst part was not so much the cooking as getting the silly rich people to do what they were told,” she confided with a twinkle.
Yet the irony was that she herself had indeed once been very rich and indeed very silly, losing several fortunes and falling victim to drink and other temptations.
And maybe that was why she was so patient and so loved. She knew despair, she knew failure, she knew humiliation and so in spite of her privileged upbringing she held an empathy for all who had felt similar pain no matter what their background.
It wasn’t only at Valvonas that she held court, running as she did a tiny cookery book shop in Edinburgh’s Victoria Street.
It was always hard to work out if the place was a cookery salon or a shop, she was certainly no great businesswoman, and the place seemed to throb with the heat from both the stove and the fiery observations from the many visiting chefs of renown who would gather round her lavish armchair to shoot the breeze.
One such, Christopher Trotter, remembers her as being a generous and yet insecure friend.
“I remember how at the height of her fame she came and did a small demonstration for me. Of course ‘Scotland’s larder’ was completely packed and she was much feted, yet afterwards she took me aside and begged to be reassured that she had done all right.”
At the end, when she was dying of a number of causes, some probably related to her diabetes, her friend Mary would sneak some of her favourite dishes into the hospital from Valvonas.
She has indeed been much loved, indeed it might even be said that in spite of the bankruptcies and the drinking, the excesses and the outbursts in the end she has been far more of a convenience to mankind than a burden.
And that’s not a bad epitaph for anyone.