Nigella Lawson credits Anna Del Conte with inspiring her first cookbook, How to Eat. For Michelin-starred chef Giorgio Locatelli, Del Conte’s book, Gastronomy of Italy, is prescribed reading for every chef who works in his kitchen. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall says that, without Del Conte, there’d be no River Cafe - and therefore, no Jamie Oliver. It’s heady stuff, but after watching Nigella: The Cook Who Changed Our Lives, this delightful documentary on the 93-year-old cookery writer, you get the impression that all of it is, without a doubt, absolutely true.
Del Conte may not be a household name in the way that, say, Lawson or Oliver are, but make no mistake: she’s made just as impactful an impression on British cuisine as the cookery writer and chef have. Born in Milan in 1925, Del Conte lived something of a charmed existence, cooking at her mother’s feet, until World War Two, when the family fled to Emilia-Romagna.
Despite the violence in Europe at the time, it was here, in Emilia, that Del Conte learned to cook, in particular, cucina povera, or “pauper food,” that became her signature later. At the farm, says Lawson, Del Conte learnt that by matching even basic ingredients with creativity and attention, you could transform humble food into a dish worth raving about. The farm the family stayed at was something of a cornucopia: peaches, apricots, apples, fresh eggs and dairy, and the yearly pig feast, featuring home-cured prosciutto.
When Del Conte arrived in Britain after the war, though, she found a rather different scene. "It was the smell of ... fried fat,” she recounts to Lawson, speaking about the foods she found that ruled the British food scene at the time. Olive oil was only found at the pharmacy (it was used to cure earaches) and Del Conte struggled without basic Italian ingredients like garlic, parmesan - even zucchini.
For Michelin-starred chef Giorgio Locatelli, Del Conte’s book, Gastronomy of Italy, is prescribed reading for every chef who works in his kitchen.
It wasn’t until mid-life, however, that Del Conte turned to cookery writing - her first book, Portrait of Pasta - was released in 1976, and the game-changing Gastronomy of Italy first appeared in 1984. The magic of this documentary is the way it tracks not only Del Conte’s journey to beloved cookery writer, but also the way the British culinary scene transformed because of Del Conte’s influence. One only has to look at the popularity of the River Cafe and its focus on basic ingredients, like legumes and vegetables, for instance, to see Del Conte’s impact on the British food scene.
Filmed when Del Conte was 91, the author is fiercely intelligent and witty onscreen; she playfully chides Lawson (and laughs when the tables are turned) as they make traditional pesto, ragù and tiramisu in Del Conte’s storybook-style farmhouse in Dorset. Charming and quietly moving, Lawson paints a vivid portrait of a woman one senses would much rather stay behind the camera, working away on the thing she loves best: cooking.
Nigella: The Cook Who Changed Our Lives airs Wednesday 31 October at 8.35pm on SBS. After it airs, it will be stream at SBS On Demand.