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.
“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.
“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!
“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
Interview by Chrissie Walker © 2018