Spam fritters aside, our ‘Nonnas’ should be world famous for their baking, says Stephen Jardine.
If you had a struggling chain of Italian restaurants resulting in a dozen site closures and a £10 million loss, what would you do to turn things around?
You might look at the menu or wonder if over-exuberance had led to expanding too fast? Alternatively, you could cobble together a TV series seeking to inextricably link a boy from Essex with the food of Emilia-Romagna and keep your fingers crossed.
Jamie Cooks Italy is currently the cornerstone of Monday nights on Channel Four, delivering his standard mix of mouth-watering food and bonhomie that is not as irritating as it should be. The object of his enthusiasm this time is the Italian grandmother, or Nonna as Jamie likes to call them.
We are led to believe they are the true disciples of Italian food. For as long as they live, it will always be the best in the world. The inference is, just by rolling up his sleeves beside them, Jamie is touched by this greatness which he can pass onto his staff in Jamie’s Italian in Birmingham’s Bullring Shopping Centre and beyond.
Codswallop. I knew a boy from Italy with a grandmother who could burn toast and a mother who only ever served pasta in the form of macaroni cheese topped with Trump-orange grated cheddar. I’m sure some Italian grandmothers are amazing home cooks but to fetishise them as culinary angels is ridiculous. Especially when we know the real nan knowhow lies right here in Scotland.
Of course, Italian Nonnas are good with food. For generations they have had access to ripe tomatoes, fresh garlic, risotto rice, Amalfi lemons and Pinot Grigio. On that basis, how could they be anything else? In contrast what have Scottish grandmothers had going for them down the years? In a land of tomato ketchup and Jif lemons, they are the ones who have had to rely on ingenuity to feed the family down the years. The fact that they remembered to buy enough marrowfat peas to save us from scurvy makes them the real culinary queens.
Growing up, we used to eat at my granny’s once a week. There was none of the Nonna nonsense of living just to cook. My grandmother would happily have never peeled another spud in her life but that wasn’t an option.
Her repertoire was short and memorable. Spam fritters featured frequently as did pork luncheon meat, always served with iceberg lettuce, crinkle-cut chips and salad cream. Our reward for getting through the main event was what came afterwards. My granny was a reluctant cooker but a brilliant baker. Like many of her generation, with minimal resources or equipment and only Fanny Cradock for inspiration, she made it seem so easy.
From her tiny kitchen came billowing scones, sponge cakes oozing lemon curd and cream, fruit bread, jam tarts, meringues dipped in chocolate and drop scones hot from the griddle. We would all have happily skipped the previous course to get to the sweet treats but the fact that my grandmother toiled at the hot stove to save us from nutritional neglect makes me love her even more.
But do you ever see some smart young Italian TV chef coming to Scotland to learn the secrets of home baking and making something out of nothing from an 85-year-old woman called Isabella in a bungalow in Prestonpans? No you don’t. Which is a shame because what Scottish grannies have achieved down the years is just as amazing as anyone else.
They may not be able to stuff a squid or make papardelle or saltimbocca but they can bake caramel shortcake, produce jam without a sugar thermometer and know the nearest shop to stock Creamola Foam and frankly, that is good enough for me.