Simply Italian: Cooking at Home with the Chiappa Sisters - Michela Chiappa, Emanuela Chiappa, Romina Chiappa (2014)
Wales and Italy, family and food. For us, these four things are inextricably linked and at the root of our upbringing. Whether at our family home in Wales or on holiday in the small hilltop village in northern Italy where we are from, we have always heard Dad say that la tavola (the table) is the central focus of our lives – it’s where we cook, eat and socialize.
The three of us – Michela, Emanuela and Romina – grew up living in what some might call an entourage, a brood or even a clan of family in the Welsh valleys near Merthyr Tydfil. Our first home was a set of terraced houses on the side of a hill overlooking Merthyr Tydfil, where Dad had grown up with his own aunts, uncles and cousins. We later moved into one long farmhouse with interconnecting doors, with views of Aberdare. We were in one house, where our Mum and Dad, Paola and Graziano, still live. Next door is our Uncle Laz (Dad’s brother), his wife Giulia and their two daughters Antonella and Grazia, and next to them lived our Italian grandparents, Nonno Pino and Nonna Luisa.
Nonno Pino came from a tiny village called Pilati on the top of the Apennine Mountains in Emilia Romagna between Bardi, Bedonia and Borgo Val di Taro. He lived off the land through seasonal farming jobs such as lumber jacking, carpentry and goat or pig farming – basically, anything he could put his hands to!
Our Nonna came from a middle-class family. She would often tell us how Nonno hadn’t wanted to marry her; he said he had nothing to give her and therefore she couldn’t marry him. He would say, ‘I’m a simple farmer and all I do is dig holes for potatoes.’ Her loving response was, ‘Well then, you can dig the hole and I’ll be there to place the potato.’ They soon married.
‘ WALES and ITALY, FAMILY and FOOD.
For us, these four things are inextricably linked and at the root of our upbringing. ’
‘Our motto is:
‘ITALIAN FLAVOUR, BRITISH STYLE.’
After World War II ended, Italy was in the midst of a financial depression and many Italians emigrated abroad to find better opportunities. When Dad was three years old, Nonno and Nonna decided to follow many other Bardigani to Wales, where there was already a thriving Italian community. Nonno was a plumber and, although he didn’t speak a word of English, he managed to earn a decent living working for the Italian families and never had reason to learn the language!
Our grandparents, like most people at that time, had to live a simple life but even with the most basic ingredients Nonna always rustled up delicious, hearty Italian meals. La cucina povera (peasant food) can be a rich feast if you know how! She developed clever substitutes for ingredients that they couldn’t afford – a block of Cheddar, for example, air-dried for several weeks until it is as hard as rock, can be used instead of Parmesan. Obviously the real thing is preferable but Nonna used to say that you have to make the best of what you can afford.
Our other grandparents, on Mum’s side of the family, are the Ferrari-Lanes from Porthcawl in South Wales. Nonna Anna was originally from Bettola (a little Italian town about an hour from Bardi and Piacenza) whereas Nonno Muk-a-Muk, as we called him (real name Morwood), is our Welsh/English connection. He was a master baker and owned his own café and bakery in Bridgend – this is where we get all our baking secrets. Romina takes after him and has written down all of his recipes. Nonno’s speciality was puff pastry and he made the BEST coffee puffs! He was also influenced by our Italian side – see Nonno’s Mini Sausage Rolls .
The Italian immigrant community in Wales is now very well established – so much so that there is a society called the Amici Val Ceno (Friends of the Ceno, which is the river that runs through the Bardi valley). The society hosts events throughout the year, but the highlight of the calendar is the annual Italian Picnic – La Scampagnata . On one weekend in June, friends and family congregate in a field in Wales to eat together, but this isn’t an average picnic with a few sandwiches and a blanket spread out on the grass; Italians take picnics very seriously! Everyone turns up in vans with gazebos, garden furniture and barbecues, unveiling container after container of freshly prepared food. The day is spent eating and visiting each other’s tables to see who has cooked the best and the most that year.
‘All the recipes Nonna cooked have been passed through mum to us. This book is a collection of those recipes, as well as others deciphered from Nonna’s notebooks.’
In much the same way, each summer the Welsh–Italians flock back to Bardi for some festivities – the highlight being the Festa Dell’ Emigrante , held in the town centre, where you’ll find a huge feast of local delicacies like cured meats, pasta with porcini and wild boar with polenta. The food is spread out on trestle tables and accompanied by lots of wine. There’s dancing and even the cuccagna – a greased telephone pole that teams compete to shimmy up to win prizes. The funny thing is that the locals will often hear strong Welsh accents calling out across from one end of the bar to the other.
So, as you can see, we’ve been surrounded by family and food throughout our lives. As soon as we could walk we were helping out in the kitchen. Even though we were more likely to crack eggshell into the pasta dough, or get flour all over the floor, we always had a role in the kitchen. When you’re young, it’s the best time to learn about food. And all the recipes Nonna cooked have been passed through Mum to us. This book is a collection of those recipes, as well as others deciphered from Nonna’s notebooks. And we’ve also included little tips and tricks that we hope you find useful. We don’t claim to be professional chefs and we believe that cooking should be enjoyable – so just give it a go and play around with it!
Whilst our grandparents were able to spend lots of time in the kitchen, most people today need to fit cooking into their already busy lives, and home cooking often comes lower down in the list of priorities. With this book we want to show you how you can manage both; all three of us have hectic lives and careers but we also place huge importance on our traditions and family way of life.
A traditional Italian meal has more courses than a British menu (sometimes many more!). We usually start with an antipasto , followed by the primo piatto (which is usually a pasta dish), then the secondo (meat or fish) with a selection of contorni ( sides), and finishing with dolci (dessert) . As well as recipes for the traditional meals we eat at Casa Chiappa, we’ve included a few that we only eat in Italy and also some Welsh-inspired recipes. After all, you can take the girl out of Wales … In our Channel 4 television series, Simply Italian , we focused on pasta, but here we share with you the whole range – from snacks, soups and salads to mains, side dishes, desserts and cakes. Good, simple, fresh Italian food, which fits into our modern lifestyles without any fuss.