What Valentina Harris doesn’t know about Italian food and cooking probably isn’t worth knowing. The youngest child of an Anglo-Italian family, Valentina spent much of her unconventional childhood in Italy. Her mother, a descendant of the Italian Sforza dynasty, met her English father in Italy after the second world war. From an early age, food played an important role in Valentina’s life. Valentina is an accomplished chef, successful cookery book writer and leads Italian cooking classes in the UK and abroad. I spent a sunny morning with Valentina (and her excited dog) finding out about her incredible career in food.
What was your life like as a child?
I was born on the 4th July in 1957 in Maidenhead, Berkshire where my father was running an institute for teaching English to young Italian students. Aged 10 days, I travelled to Italy in the back of the car with the whole family. My father was this incredibly peripatetic human being and he could not settle in one place for very long. We were always moving or going somewhere.
Neither my brothers nor I had a particularly even education until we were quite a lot older. He’d say, “We’re going to be in India for a bit”, then “Oh now we’re going back to England”. Then it would be the south of France, or Milan, or Rome. My brothers had a governess in tow for quite some time. My mother then put her foot down and said they needed a proper education, so my father opened a school for them. When they took their Common Entrance Exam and came to England for boarding school at King’s School in Canterbury, they were absolutely miserable.
Where did your love of food start?
At the age of 8 I opened my first restaurant in the garden sandpit. I very happily made sand pies, leaf salad and gravel stew for anybody, but mainly my poor mother. My parents completely got that food was so much a part of me, even at that age.
When I was 10 they gave me a set of camping gas stoves. There were 6 camping gas stoves, with extra gas cylinders and a box of matches. I think these days you’d probably get arrested for buying this for a small child. I was in bliss as I now had heat. I would spend my pocket money on ingredients. Now my mother had to come and eat food I was actually cooking, including all my experiments.
How did you learn about food and cooking?
Well there was just so much food activity going on at home all the time. Every time I put my nose around the kitchen door nobody ever said, “Go away, off you go, we’re busy”. We’d have 30 people come to lunch or have a picnic for 60 up in the mountains.
We produced almost everything we were eating; we had an olive grove and vineyard, and rice fields up the road. At the end of the harvest a 50 kilo bag of rice would arrive which needed to be sorted. I can remember spending hours sorting the rice grains. Everybody would be pulled in.
I was also wringing the necks of chickens and breaking the necks of rabbits by the time I was 7 or 8, then stringing them up between two vines. We always chose the vines that were showing the signs of weakness. You’d dig a hole between them, and the guts and everything would fall into the mud and enrich the vines.
Tell me a little more about your home in Italy.
When my newlywed parents arrived in Tuscany at our beautiful family house, which we’ve now lost unfortunately, there were all these Italian ex-army people living in the rooms eking out a living. Amongst them was a man called Beppino. My father chucked all of the other men out except him.
Beppino was the ultimate factotum; he put the roof on the house, he built the stairwell, and all with the help of his mates. These were probably the same ones my dad had thrown out when we arrived. It meant there was a slight eccentricity about some of the things in our house, like the plumbing. Along with my mother, he was my great influence.
Our vegetable garden was just out from my bedroom window, and I’d fling back the shutters in the morning and look out on to rows and rows of tomatoes, lettuces, green beans, aubergines, peppers and melons – everything. When that was all gone and there were just miserable sticks of black, bitter wrinkly cabbage, I knew that this was it, it was all over and we were into winter.
Nobody who hasn’t lived in Tuscany understands how damp it is in winter. It’s bitterly cold and really, really damp, though blessedly short. We lived in a house built out of marble and stucco, with no central heating. My mother would stand in the doorway of a morning and throw hot water bottles at us with our clothes. We’d wrap the clothes around the hot water bottle and warm them up, put them on in bed and then get out! It was the reverse of that in the summer of course, which was very hot.
You mentioned that Beppino and your mother were big influences on your food.
Before the war Beppino was a chef. I completely adored him and followed him around everywhere. He tended the vines, olives, and vegetable garden, along with the rabbits, chickens and the pig. Oh, and the grappa still. If not tending the food production outside, he’d be in the kitchen showing me and teaching me, for example, how to chop an onion properly. My earliest childhood memory is standing on a chair with Beppino holding me, standing next to me taking me through the steps of making risotto. I must have been 4 or 5.
My mother had been in the States for a long when she was younger so brought back with her all these wonderful American baking things. With my mother I learned how to make angel food cake, devil’s food cake and key lime pie. It was so exciting. She found one place where they made milkshakes and Coke floats, and she introduced me to these. I thought they were both absolutely disgusting, but she was so excited as it brought back the whole memory of the States.
My mother introduced me to a very different kind of cuisine with the American baking. She also introduced me to more sophisticated French food, because of her Belgian grandmother and mother, and having been part of that whole diplomatic circle. She was very good with classic French dishes.
What was Italian food like in England when you were growing up?
My dad insisted each year that we had to spend a month in England being English, so going to the theatre and to the National Gallery, and all that la de da stuff. Eventually I’d kick up a fuss and say I couldn’t eat any more of this English stuff, and insist on having some pasta. My father would very graciously arrange to take us out to an Italian restaurant, where the food was completely unrecognisable. It was cannelloni you could build a shed with. And what on earth was pollo surprise; it doesn’t exist in Italy.
What they did always have, and which I mourn the passing of deeply, was zabaglione. Zabaglione is such a labour of love; someone has to stand over that double boiler with a whisk in their hand for 20 minutes, just for you. It is divine, it is delicious. The person sitting opposite you can ask you to do anything at the end of a bowl of zabaglione. It’s just this extraordinary cloud of deliciousness.
It disappeared with the arrival of tiramisu. For restaurants tiramisu is easier as you can make a pan at the beginning of the week to last you through until Thursday. Then you make another lot for the weekend. Zabaglione has to be made just for that person who ordered it.
How did your early love of food progress into a career?
When I was 17 or 18 I was absolutely determined to come to England. I wanted to go to university or go to drama school. My mother tried to encourage me to stay at home a bit longer. I’m the youngest of all of the children and the only girl, so she really wanted me to hang about a bit longer. We were living in Rome at that point. She said she’d noticed that a cooking course attached to a restaurant was starting. She asked me if I’d be interested in it, knowing how much I loved being in the kitchen. She suggested that I give it a go.
Well, I was completely hooked. On day one we walked in and there was a whole cow on the table. The first lesson was butchery; we got out the chainsaws and hacksaws, and everyone put on chain mail gloves. The following week we moved on to game, and then the week after it was fish. It was absolutely amazing, and the extraordinary thing was that I had no idea at the time what a privilege it was.
The course was run by Luigi Carnacina who was 80 at the time. He is like Italy’s Escoffier. In fact, he had worked with Escoffier and was really old school. If we ever freaked out, or allowed ourselves to become more important than the food, he was always reminded us that the most important thing is to be humble. To ground us, he’d say to remember that the most difficult thing to make perfectly is a fried egg.
What makes a perfect fried egg?
To get a perfect fried egg is the ultimate thing. It should have no leatheriness underneath and no crispiness around the edge. The yolk should also be perfectly set, with no gelatinous gooey raw white and nothing opaque. It’s really hard.
Later when I was working in kitchens, I would have to interview young chefs coming in. The first thing I would get them to make was a fried egg. I’ve always used making a fried egg as a way of centring myself again when I need to.
How would you describe yourself as a cook?
I definitely put my heart into it. If I’m not feeling good, my food is less good. In particular, I always say don’t start making a risotto if you’re not ready to commit. It’s better to get a takeout. A risotto requires you to be there. If you’re not prepared to be there… Well there are so many disappointments already in life, let’s not add to them.
People ask if I would you ever give this up, but how could I? What other thing can give you the instant hit that food does? What else can lift your spirits or provokes emotions like it does? If you’ve made food well, and you’ve made it with care and love, putting that down in front of people – whether it’s for people you love or people that are paying for it – is an amazing feeling.
My other great passion has always been the stories behind food. I’m a raconteur and a storyteller, that’s what I do. I like to tell the story of the food.
Are there some quick tips you could share for people cooking at home?
You can tell if fish is cooked by inserting the tip of a knife into the fish and then resting it against your lip. If it burns your lip a little then it’s hot enough. I know it’s an old tip and you probably wouldn’t get away with it in a restaurant, but it’s good if you’re at home.
Another very good tip that someone told me is for boiled potatoes. When you’re testing them to see if they’re cooked, don’t use a knife with a point on the end. Use a rounded ended knife as that’s the best test to check it’s properly cooked. This tip changed my life!
You spend a lot of time cooking for others, but when you get the chance, where do you like to eat out?
I love the treat of eating out. I really, really appreciate it and I try not to be too critical. I realise now that I’m a lot less critical than a lot of my foodie friends. They seem to think that because I’m there they maybe need to be more critical.
I have a little hidden away pub up the road that I like. It has very strange taxidermy and old men in old tweed supping ale in the corner. It’s called The Royal Oak and it’s at Wineham. Don’t bother trying to phone, or anything like that. If you’re a beer lover they have a whole beer room, and they have specials on. They have some fantastic local ciders as well. No fruit machines or juke boxes, or anything like that.
What are your big plans for this year?
I’m waiting to hear about some books, one of them based on the Italian food dynasties of the world. I’m very hopeful that I’ll find a publisher for this. I think it will make a fantastic book and an amazing television series. I’ve also started to write my autobiography as a series of letters. I’ve found it’s a much easier way of doing it. Although I’ve said I’m a raconteur, it’s very different telling stories when they’re written down. If you do it as a letter it’s as if you were talking. I’m writing about all the places I’ve cooked and all the people I’ve cooked for.
I have been asked to sit on an education board of a cookery school in Melbourne. I also keep acquiring cooking schools that want me to teach for them. The latest is Kingscote near Gravetie at the Kingscote Estate, as they’ve just opened a cookery school. I started doing courses at the School of Artisan Food in mid-June.
I’m going to be meeting with the Martha Stewart of India, Karen Anand. India has cottoned on to Italian food and there are a lot of people going over there doing training and consultancy. I really love India. It’s got so much in common with Italy: the matriarchal society, the importance of food and the importance of mother church, in whatever form that’s in. There’s also everybody talking at once around the table and outsiders thinking there’s a terrible row going on, but it’s just talking.
I’m also running my Italian cookery courses in Italy in September and October. These include visits to markets, shops and local restaurants, along with wine, drinks and lots of food.