When I was eight years old family friends moved from here to Edinburgh. It was the mid seventies and food in the UK was a bit bland and more about sustenance than anything else.
On my first visit to see them we went to an Italian delicatessen called Valvona and Crolla. The first thing that struck me was the intense smell of cheese and another indiscernible scent that turned out to be the smell of cured salamis and ham.
This was the first time I tried Parmesan cheese and I can still see the jovial Italian server in his apron shaving some off for me to try. I thought it was the best thing I’d ever tasted. The next time I tried “parmesan” was back home a few years later. It smelled and tasted like dehydrated vomit and nearly put me off.
Last week, I was in the Scottish capital and as always made my way to Elm Row for some shopping and lunch. The Crolla family are from the Abruzzi region in Italy, about an hour from the pizza capital of the world, the city of Naples. I ordered sausage pizza and it transported me back to Italy immediately. Thin crust, great tomato sauce, fennel and garlic redolent sausage and cheese.
My first recipe is for pizza that you can make at home. You can pick the ingredients up easily but it requires a bit of effort to make the base. The recipe makes two large pizzas and they’ll cost about £10 to make. Dinner for four hungry adults for £2.50 a head. Consider what you’d pay for two mediocre pizzas from a pizza delivery shop – you wouldn’t have much change from £25.
Because I had hand luggage only last week, I couldn’t bring home the divine olive oil and balsamic vinegar that they sell at Valvona and Crolla (when I’m a bit flush I get them to send that over) but instead stocked up on lentils from the Umbria region, polenta and borlotti beans from the Abruzzo.
Italian lentils are a joy and they cook them simply with sausage and aromatic vegetables. To give it an Ulster slant my other recipe uses good old ham hock. The ham hock is cooked until tender with vegetables, lentils added and then baked with crumbs and cheese. A delicious lunch with crusty bread.