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Mostly Food & Travel Journal

Interview: Valentina Harris

Fiori Di Zucca: Recipes and Memories from My Family's Kitchen Table

The Food and Cooking of Tuscany

The Food and Cooking of Venice and the North-East of Italy

Pasta Galore

Risotto! Risotto!


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Cookbook Collection:
Valentina Harris

On this page:

Interview: Valentina Harris

Fiori Di Zucca: Recipes and Memories from My Family's Kitchen Table

The Food and Cooking of Tuscany

The Food and Cooking of Venice and the North-East of Italy

Pasta Galore


Interview: Valentina Harris

One would think that Valentina Harris is the quintessential English lady, well-spoken with Home Counties proper accent; but there is something else. Turn the sound off and one sees the unmistakable animation of a Latin. In fact Valentina is only on nodding terms with Englishness.

valentina harris interview “Let me explain about the English voice,” says Valentina with her characteristic mischievous glint in the eye. “When I was about 6 or 7 my father realised that neither I nor my brothers had any particularly English characteristics – we had grown up in Italy so we couldn’t talk without moving our hands, we didn’t understand the ‘stiff upper lip’ and when and how to use it. He decided that he had better at least make us sound English, and he had a very good system – lock your children in a room with the radio tuned to the BBC World Service, and they end up sounding like Radio 4 presenters! Not feeling like Radio 4 presenters, you understand, not feeling that very Englishness, but sounding it. I still do everything that matters in Italian: working out problems in Italian, swearing in Italian, driving in Italian (including making signs in Italian, too – I have to watch it in Italy because other drivers know what I mean, but over here I can get away with it!).”

But how did English-sounding-very-Italian Valentina come to inherit those genes? “My parents: English man meets very Italian girl during the war and they fall wildly in love, which caused a great scandal because my grandfather (Carlo Sforza, my mother’s father) was a very big political figure, an anti-fascist, during Mussolini’s time and post-war. He was destined to be the man who would lead Italy out of the war, but lo and behold his daughter had fallen in love with a penniless Protestant Englishman with two kids from a previous marriage. When my grandfather’s political allies came to him and said, ‘You realise that you will not get voted in if she marries this Englishman’, he said the words that made it possible for me to be here today: ‘What matters now is my daughter’s happiness.’

“They were not allowed to have a church wedding, and were spirited away by my grandparents to one of the family properties, the house where I grew up, called La Tambura, near Forte dei Marmi on the coast of Tuscany. This is 1947 or 48, and in this ruined but beautiful house and on the land around it are living all these refugees from the war. So my father and mother arrived, and in the ‘Englishman’s home is his castle’ way he asked them all to leave. The one person who was allowed to stay was a man called Beppino. He had been a chef before the war, had become detached from his platoon and ended up at La Tambura. From the moment I first set eyes on him at age 10 days he became everything to me. He was in his thirties, and he grew the vegetables, kept the chickens and the rabbits, harvested the grapes and the olives. I followed him like a little shadow! He was already, back then, talking about additives and chemicals in food, so I grew up with this philosophy in my head: ‘Don’t mess with the food!’ long before anyone else.

“Before the war Beppino had been the risotto chef at Savini in the Galleria in Milan, so if he didn’t know about risotto, nobody would. A lot of people in the industry, as a result of my slightly obsessive nature, called me the ‘Risotto Queen’! It is my ‘thing’ and it was all because of that simple afternoon in the kitchen, he standing there taking me through it, making the stock together. It was like getting a masterclass every day that we were there - how to wring a chicken’s neck, gut a rabbit, use the entrails to nourish a vine, how to pick the leaves off a basil bush so as not to kill it.

“When I was ten my parents, with extraordinary foresight, gave me a camping-gas stove, spare gas canisters and a large box of matches (which these days would probably have them end up in prison, or at least in The Sun newspaper). But for me, I now had heat! So now I was able to buy food and cook it. I might only have five things on the menu, but it was real food! I was learning: the reason people stick at this business is the gratification you get when you serve a plate of food that you have laboured over with love, and put something of yourself into. I have been in this business professionally since 1983, and I still get that buzz. The day that stops is the day I will hang up my apron.

valentina harris interview “I finished school – a rather haphazard education, including a brief spell at an English boarding school which ended after six weeks when everyone realised what a terrible mistake it was to transplant someone in their adolescence from Rome, the hub of ‘La Dolce Vita’, to foggy Suffolk with charming English farmers’ daughters, regulation gym knickers and different shoes for different rooms (I never even got past getting the shoes right) – and rather than go to university I decided I would prefer to go the drama school. So my mother, with considerable ingenuity (very Machiavellian, she was), said, ‘Well, that’s quite a good idea, but I’ve noticed how keen you are on cooking. There’s a cooking school starting up here – why don’t you try that first?’ I can see now, looking back, that what she wanted to do was to keep me at home a little longer, but at the time I didn’t realise it, and she was the last person who was going to spell it out to me.

“So I did this course in Rome, and on Day 1 there in the kitchen was a carcass of a cow, and we were handed buzz-saws and all sorts of implements, chain-mail, masks, and I was hooked! Remember, I had been wringing the necks of chickens and rabbits since I was six, quite happily, so it didn’t faze me in the least. I was there for three years. The head teacher was a man called Luigi Carnacina, which means nothing to English people but he was in effect Italy’s Escoffier. He had worked with Escoffier, and was 83 years old by then. He was really ‘old-school’, and said, ‘The first thing you must learn is humility – you must be humble in the face of the food.’

“This was the 70s, and I soon realised it was grim out there, and I went back to my tutor and said, ‘I don’t think I can handle this. I’m spending more time hiding in the broom cupboard so people won’t see me weeping than I am working!’ He said, ‘If you want to change something in this business, you have to teach.’ So I retrained as a teacher, and I am qualified to teach chefs.

“I came to England and began cooking in private homes. I was in the right place at the right time: this is pre-Carluccio, pre-Jamie’s Italian, nobody knew about papardelle, gnocchi. I was the precursor, introducing this food in private homes. The first book deal was offered to me in 1983, then another and another, and suddenly I was offered a TV series! I won several international awards and the books were being translated into all sorts of languages, and all this was happening organically, without my doing anything! By now I was married, I was into family life, and I had my first son (Ben, who is a chef specialising in street food, and who has a stall on the South Bank every weekend; he has named his company ‘Beppino’ – I melted when I first saw his poster!).

“Of all the things I do the one I love the most is running my culinary tours. I can take you by the hand to meet small producers, passionate people who are creating things, and making you a part of their world for an afternoon. You go away with a true understanding of that bit of Italy, and that stays with you. One tour takes in the olive harvest in Liguria, and gets you involved in the picking, transporting and crushing, live. It’s hands-on, everybody gets busy in the kitchen, we eat what we produce, and siesta is compulsory – it’s a house party with cooking!

valentina harris interview “I also run the Food Festivals at the South Bank and elsewhere (Real Food, Real Bread, Cheese and Wine, Tea and Coffee, Chocolate), where I coordinate the theatre, the chefs, the ingredients – it’s almost a full-time job! I am working on two new books, I teach at nine schools around the country (I love that because it gives me a chance to perform, and I’ve never quite lost that desire), I do a bit of consulting here and there, and I run my culinary tours.

“I’d love to do some more TV, because I think we need someone real, more credible, to take it back to basics. But when I have a meeting about a TV programme I know the meeting is over when somebody asks, ‘That’s marvellous, but where’s the jeopardy?’ and I think ‘Can’t the soufflé, for once, come out of the oven perfect, looking delicious, without collapsing, or do we have to have the soufflé dropped on the floor and eaten by the cat?’”

Valentina Harris is a natural wit. Her soon-to-be released autobiography is likely to be a page-turner with adventure and laughs. She is the sort of woman you would want to have living next door, for the great conversation ...and some rather delicious dinners. I live in hopes of a sane producer snapping up this cook with impeccable culinary credentials and first-class pedigree.

Visit Valentina Harris here and find details of her unique Culinary Adventures


food and travel reviews Valentina Harris

Risotto! Risotto!

risotto Many a cookbook reviewer will start their article with statements of impartiality, even-handedness and cool, professional aloofness. Not me. On this occasion, at least. I am pinning my culinary colours to Valentina Harris’s gastronomic mast with a degree of unashamed pride.

This lady has been a supporter of Italian wine, produce and cooking for decades. What better ambassador for all things delicious could Italy have than this chef with such impeccable Italian social pedigree? She has cooking credentials gathered almost from the cradle.

Valentina spoke to me about her start in food. “This is 1947 or 48, and in this ruined but beautiful house and on the land around it are living all these refugees from the war. The one person who was allowed to stay was a man called Beppino. He had been a chef before the war, had become detached from his platoon and ended up at La Tambura. From the moment I first set eyes on him at age 10 days he became everything to me. He was in his thirties, and he grew the vegetables, kept the chickens and the rabbits, harvested the grapes and the olives. I followed him like a little shadow! I grew up with this philosophy in my head: ‘Don’t mess with the food!’ long before anyone else.

“Before the war Beppino had been the risotto chef at Savini in the Galleria in Milan, so if he didn’t know about risotto, nobody would. A lot of people in the industry, as a result of my slightly obsessive nature, call me the ‘Risotto Queen’! It is my ‘thing’ and it was all because of those simple afternoons in the kitchen, he standing there taking me through it, making the stock together. It was like getting a masterclass every day that we were there.”

And here it is – the paper representation of a life in risotto. The cover is simple and clean with formal ranks of grains of rice and the bold and simple title, Risotto! Risotto! There are plenty of coloured pictures to tempt one into the kitchen. Once the basic technique of risotto-making is mastered then it’s really down to sourcing the best of ingredients, and success is assured.

Risotto is a classic dish which doesn’t demand costly gadgets or an inclination towards rocket science to prepare. Valentina writes clear recipes to give confidence to the novice and inspiration to the more experienced domestic cook. Yes, perhaps that’s the secret to Valentina’s success as a cookbook author: she learnt her risotto craft from a chef but in a home environment.

Risotto! Risotto! isn’t just a recipe book, though. It’s about the history and evolution of this staple grain. Valentina has the advantage of being able to recount her own family association with rice and that started as far back as 1475, when the Dukes of Milan (yes, that is her family) promoted rice growing!

It’s hard to pick one favourite recipe from this charming book. Risotto alla Parmigiana would be on my list for its taste and texture and ‘comfort food’ factor. Risotto al Gorgonzola is another cheese-based dish but it’s an absolute winner and classy too! Valentina offers the very different barley risotto which is hearty and sweet with caramelised onions balanced by a little more cheese. Mushroom risotto is always popular and here it is. Brown Shrimp Risotto is a star and Risotto with Seafood is luxurious and unmissable.

Risotto! Risotto! offers support, anecdotes, practicality and good taste. It is, in short, everything that a good cookbook should be. In these times of belt-tightening this book encourages us to prepare delicious, good value dishes – dishes that will sustain as family meals and impress as dinner-party fare. It’s a book that will likely spend more time in the kitchen than on the book shelf.

Risotto! Risotto!
Author: Valentina Harris
Published by: Absolute Press
Price: £20
ISBN-10: 1472933206
ISBN-13: 978-1472933201

food and travel reviews Valentina Harris

Fiori Di Zucca: Recipes and Memories from My Family's Kitchen Table

cookbook review This is a family cookbook and the recipes, like the author, are truly international. Yes, Valentina Harris is Italian from a globe-trotting family, although she speaks English without a trace of an accent thanks to her English father and BBC radio. Forget the voice and notice the animated gestures and one will be in no doubt that this lady is a passionate Latina. Read interview here.

Fiori Di Zucca: Recipes and Memories from My Family's Kitchen Table has a marvellous collection of recipes but this is equally a family history, and it’s no ordinary family. Her grandfather, Count Carlo Sforza, who became an Italian Ambassador, was posted to Turkey, China, Corfu, Italy and France. He resigned in 1922 in order to return to Italy to fight rising fascism. He and his family were eventually forced to flee his homeland. The family only returned to Italy after the end of World War 2 and that is where Valentina's mother met her soon-to-be husband. The scandal over their marriage resulted in her mother and father being banished to Tuscany, where Valentina spent most of her childhood.

Valentina Harris has penned a book that tells of horror, hardship, love, life and memories. If I have a complaint, it is that the story finishes too soon. This must surely be the first of several volumes. OK, so it’s not the literary equivalent of The Perils of Pauline where each instalment left our heroine dangling over Niagara Falls. As we know, Valentina became a success and remains so but any lover of a great tale will want the next instalment of Valentina's autobiography.

But this is a cookbook as well as a saga, and it would still be a worthwhile buy if it had remained ungarnished by worldwide adventure. The recipes are eclectic and simple to prepare. Fried courgette flowers give the book its title ‘Fiori Di Zucca’ and deserves a place in this volume not only because they are delicious and moreish but because Valentina was taught to make them by Beppino who worked for Valentina's family and loved her since they first met when she was just a few days old.

Torta di Riso is a sweet rice cake. It uses economic ingredients but the result is more than the sum of its rather ordinary parts. It’s culinary alchemy. This Torta is sweet and made comforting and addictive by the liberal use of brandy. It’s a winner and you will already likely have all the ingredients in your larder.

Baked rice-stuffed tomatoes are delicious hot although I prefer to serve them at room temperature and preferably while sitting in the garden on a hot summer evening. Even if the weather doesn’t cooperate we can still enjoy these hot as a starter or part of a main meal. Use large ripe tomatoes and serve them directly from the tightly-packed roasting dish.

Fiori Di Zucca: Recipes and Memories from My Family's Kitchen Table is a remarkable book. It’s a heart-warming, sad, humorous and charming story of courageous and very human characters. It’s a delightful cookbook covering several continents. It’s a book written with Valentina Harris’ usual flair and enthusiasm. It’s a book with which to snuggle. It’s a book with which to cook.

Fiori Di Zucca: Recipes and Memories from My Family's Kitchen Table
Author: Valentina Harris
Published by: Duncan Baird
Price: £19.54
ISBN-10: 1848990855
ISBN-13: 978-1848990852

food and travel reviews Valentina Harris

Pasta Galore

cookbook review pasta galore Valentina Harris is an authority on Italian food and food culture. The name Harris might not sound very Italian but she is in fact descended from the noble Renaissance-era Sforza dynasty. Valentina is the youngest of a large Anglo-Italian family. Her education began in Rome, later qualifying with two diplomas for teaching and cooking at the Scuola di Alta Cucina Cordon Bleu School. Valentina moved to London and worked as a private chef and in restaurants.

1984 saw the publication of Valentina's first cookbook, Perfect Pasta, which was translated into 6 languages and won the award for literature and gastronomy in Germany. Seven other books followed, and even the BBC took notice. They offered Valentina a 6-part TV series called Italian Regional Cookery which was aired for the first time in 1990. The book of the series became a top-ten best seller. Valentina has now written 20 books of her own on Italian cookery as well as contributing to several others.

Valentina Harris is successful because she has a sunny disposition and is eminently approachable. She has given cookery demonstrations and lectures around Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Africa. Her style is relaxed and she encourages her viewers/students with humour and good advice. Her books reflect that same accessible style.

Pasta Galore is an attractive and practical volume. There are 120 pasta recipes between its covers so it’s safe to say there is something for every taste. There are dishes that will be new to the experienced home cook and a raft of simple recipes for the novice. Every common shape of pasta has its sauce and Valentina lists 30 forms of the 650 or so shapes available.

You might feel adventurous and want to make your own pasta dough. All you need is the correct flour, good eggs and a quantity of elbow grease to produce amazing pasta. A little pasta machine is handy and they don’t cost much these days. Valentina has a recipe for the standard homemade pasta although it’s perfectly acceptable to use commercial dried varieties just like the Italians mostly do.

This isn’t a vegetarian cookbook but there is so much here that would be appropriate for a meat-free diet. Seafood is also well represented with some unbeatable classics. Apart from recipes using vegetables and fish there are lots which use cheese and eggs and this section offers some of my favourite recipes.

For the card-carrying carnivores there is, amongst others, the ubiquitous Spaghetti Bolognese. It’s often a nasty, gloopy concoction and to be avoided, but this book offers a version that is a bit more authentic and a lot more delicious than the norm. OK, this isn’t a quick meal as it takes a couple of hours or overnight to come to comforting perfection. Do consider, dear reader, that you don’t have to sit by the stove and watch it while it cooks, but you’ll taste the difference if you allow it that extra time.

The dish that takes the prize for simplicity and economy goes to Pasta with Courgettes. This recipe always works as long as you can stir some vegetables. It takes only as long as it takes for the pasta to reach the ‘al dente’ stage. A revelation for novice cooks who might want to try this before venturing on to the more elaborate but still easy recipes.

Stuffed Conchiglie is a stunner. Yes, it is a bit more labour-intensive than some others from this collection but it’s not complicated and the end result will impress the in-laws. It’s a baked dish and ideal for making in advance.

Pasta Galore is truly a book for those who want to eat well, who don’t have endless time, and who love this most evocative of Italian food. Valentina Harris brings her usual down-to-earth approach so you’ll not feel overwhelmed. A book for those who want to add to their repertoire and for those who would like to be confident cooks. Fantastic value for money. Recommended.

Cookbook review: Pasta Galore
Author: Valentina Harris
Published by: Octopus
Price: £12.99
ISBN 978-1-84601-318-8


food and travel reviews Valentina Harris

The Food and Cooking of Tuscany

Valentina Harris is one of the most respected promoters of real Italian food in the UK. She has had a successful career encompassing cooking, writing and TV series. Her name might not seem entirely Italian but her pedigree doesn’t come any better, being a member of a noted family tracing its roots back to the Renaissance. That wouldn’t necessarily make her the best person to teach Italian cooking but she also has a personable style which allows her to transmit her passion for this fine cuisine.

cookbook review cooking of tuscany Many of us profess to love Italian food even though we might not have travelled south of Calais. We cook pasta because it’s quick and easy and we rustle up an approximation of that sauce we had at The Golden Gondola last Friday night. This book will introduce you to dishes other than your beloved spaghetti bolognaise, but for those who are dedicated to pasta there is a collection of truly authentic pasta dishes.

The Food and Cooking of Tuscany is a large-format volume with stunning photographs by Martin Brigdale. There are 65 recipes and over 370 photographs to illustrate food preparation and finished dish. It’s the sort of book that begs to be cooked from. It’s coffee table quality but eminently practical. Each recipe has clear instructions as well as nutritional information. The step-by-step photographs make this an ideal volume for even a novice.

If you love Italy as well as its food then this is a book for you. Valentina introduces the reader to festivals and celebrations which have food at their centre. Italians eat when they are happy, they eat when they are sad, they eat when they celebrate and they eat when they mourn. It’s a culture steeped in culinary tradition and pride. The Food and Cooking of Tuscany is a recipe book and a culinary travelogue which touches on not only the food of Tuscany but also that of its neighbours Umbria and Le Marche.

I have a dear friend in Ancona so I was drawn to the Brodetto All’Anconetana. This is a hearty fish stew. It’s more substantial than a soup and has all the ingredients that transport one to warmer climes: olive oil, garlic, red wine and some monkfish. Just add some crusty bread and satisfaction is assured. But if you’re after a proper and traditional soup then Valentina offers La Ribollita. It’s a celebrated Tuscan bean and cabbage soup flavoured with either Italian or boar sausage. Just right for a cold northern European winter ...or a cold northern European summer for that matter. It’s an economic dish but still with the unmistakable flavours of the south.

My favourite Italian recipes are all here. Tagliatelle with shrimp and cuttlefish (I confess I use squid) is a real crowd pleaser. Stuffed deep-fried giant olives are spectacular and simple to prepare. Polenta with canned tuna (buy the best you can find) is a quick and comforting meal and it’s good to be given permission to open a tin.

But then there are desserts and I could happily list all those in the chapter. Tuscan cream and chocolate pudding. It might sound a fiddle to make but it’s quite straightforward - the pictures alongside the recipe are a help so do try this one. I Ricciarelli are soft almond sweetmeats and particularly popular around Christmas. These would be lovely nibbled on those festive evenings when friends drop by to deliver gifts (we hope). A glass of chilled sweet wine served with a couple of these treats would make for easy but smart entertaining.

My pick of the book has got to be the soft Tuscan rice cake, La Torta di Riso. It has few ingredients, it’s simple to prepare and, in my opinion, can be enjoyed for any meal or at any time between meals. It’s labelled “budino” in cafés and pastry shops in Tuscany, but it is more of a dense cake than the pudding that the Tuscan name might suggest. I dare you to make this just once.

The partnership of Valentina Harris and Anness Publishing has proved to be a winner. One always expects charming and accessible books from Valentina and this one is no exception. It’s full of recipes which are suitable for both the novice and the experienced cook. A great gift for a food lover, an Italian food lover or anyone who appreciates good cookbooks. One of my top-ten reads this year.

Cookbook review: The Food and Cooking of Tuscany
Author: Valentina Harris
Published by: Anness Publishing
Price: £15.99
ISBN-13: 978-1-903141-74-8

food and travel reviews Valentina Harris

The Food and Cooking of Venice and the North-East of Italy

cookbook review Valentina Harris has long been the UK’s Italian culinary authority of choice. She has oft graced our TV screens in her own popular series as well as guesting on many food programmes. You might have had a glimpse of her working with the Supersizers, Sue Perkins and Giles Coran. That particular episode concerned the food of ancient Rome – not surprising as Valentina attended the Cordon Bleu in that very city, although not that many years ago.

The region around Venice does indeed offer Italian food, but its dishes is unlike those you will find in the more celebrated south. There the Pizza is king, and pasta is a religion, with fresh red tomatoes as the altar boys in attendance. The Food and Cooking of Venice introduces the reader to the less Mediterranean-influenced dishes of the north. Venice is, after all, closer to Basle than to Brindisi.

This book comprehensively considers everything from soups to desserts, from rice to cheese. There is a chapter on regional history and another on local festivals, to put the food into context. Valentina gives an overview of classic ingredients which are all available in regular supermarkets.

There are some hearty soups here that will be welcomed by those coming home frozen from snowy streets of cities even further north than Venice. Trentino Barley Soup – Minestra d’Orzo alla Trentina – is a thick soup of vegetables, potatoes and barley flavoured with ham. Some rustic bread and a glass of red would constitute a fine meal on a winter’s night.

Polenta Conzata – dressed polenta – is the archetypal Italian comfort food. The texture makes this a moreish dish although it must be said that polenta is bland. It’s a vehicle for robust flavours which, in this case, is Asiago cheese with some ricotta to add richness. This is a soft polenta rather than the more solid variety which can be sliced and grilled.

The most technically challenging recipe here is that for Anatra col Pien – Venetian stuffed duck. The method and cooking are simple but it does demand a boned duck. Ask your butcher (go to a real butcher rather than a supermarket) or have a go yourself. It is not as hard to do as you might imagine and it’s a handy skill to master. The boned and stuffed duck makes for a stunning presentation. This would make a change from turkey at Christmas and will feed six.

The desserts here are a collection that will tempt you away from righteous dietdom. Frittelle Veneziane – Venetian fritters – are light battered delights filled with sultanas, pine nuts and mixed peel. Eat these while still hot, dusted with a little icing sugar. Sit by your log fire (ok, use your imagination), sip a glass of chilled dessert wine and munch on a few of these. Delicious.

Valentina Harris continues to educate us on the virtues of Italian food. Both her style of writing and her recipes are accessible and you will likely want more of both. I am continually charmed by her books which are some of the best around on the subject. Her passion and enthusiasm are evident and this marvellous book is another fine vehicle for them. A great gift for any lover of Italy and its food. I look forward to more of Valentina’s culinary excursions.

Cookbook review: The Food and Cooking of Venice and the North-East of Italy
Author: Valentina Harris
Published by: Aquamarine
Price: £15.99
ISBN-13: 978-1-903141-82-3

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