Anna del Conte sits in her Dorset garden and offers me sherry. Her grandson, Johnny, brings it out very correctly on a tray: the bottle, two glasses, and little napkins just in case. The sun is shining, the apple blossom is out and her daughter Julia’s family is hard at work in the garden planting, edging and digging. It’s rather nice to watch their labour and talk bread and virtue.
“Virtue”, she muses, “I don’t know that I know very much about virtue….although I do know about le virtu. This is an Italian soup that one makes in the spring with the first greens and all the pasta and pulses in the cupboard left over from the winter. Shall we go find the recipe?”
How brilliant. As we pore over Italian cookery books, dictionaries, and gastronomica, I observe Anna del Conte, a cookery book writer, food commentator, expert on all matters pertaining to Italian cooking, and a national treasure. More or less self taught, she has now published several books and is working on more. Although a grandmother, she is as slender as a girl and has a fine, incisive, and curious mind. She also eats bread every day, three times a day.
“Bread is like life to an Italian. Like life. I cannot imagine life without bread. Not one single meal goes by when I don’t have bread. I must have bread. Italians must have bread. Italians have bread with everything. I have a memory of my father having bread with grapes. Yes! Just with grapes. He sat down in the middle of the day for a little meal of grapes and insisted on having bread with it. Of course, there are hundreds of varieties of bread. The bread in Tuscany is famously not salty because their sauces are terribly salty and you will always mop them up with bread. My favourite bread is called Biovette. I remember it from childhood trips to Venice…ahhh…it is just like a puff of air when you break it open. The key is the Italian flour. And lard. Never compromise on the lard.”
Does Anna bake?
“Well sometimes, yes, in my bread maker. Although, I must say, Italians are not the earth mother English types who seem to need to bake in order to express their womanhood! In Italy there is good bread on every corner and people buy it every day – maybe even twice a day. In England, however, I have not always been able to get good bread and so yes, I have made it. We have an excellent miller close by – Cann Mill – which is good and that is where we go to get flour. He is such a nice man. You should go see him.”
There are various stories about le virtu. Some books say it is made with seven ingredients – one for each of the seven virtues. Others say it was made our of three ingredients to honour three virtuous sisters. Still others don’t really offer an explanation about its origins. Anna is a follower of the “seven virtue” theory and maintains that the seven virtues are seven types of dried pasta and pulses combined with various other things like spring greens, pigs trotters, snout, rind, and sofritto.
Johnny comes in again. This time he is making pesto and wants us to taste it.
“Very nice, Johnny”, compliments Anna, “a bit more salt”.
Anna is a believer in salt. She is also a believer in encouraging children how to cook.
“Food is critical to the conviviality of families. Preparing food and sharing food is a great act of love. Sitting at the table: that is how children learn to eat and talk. Why is it important to eat good bread? That is an excellent question…”
“Because it makes you happy!”
You can find most of Anna del Conte’s books on amazon.com which is also an excellent resource for those that are currently out of print. Anna del Conte is currently working on at least two new books which are due to be published very soon.