Extract from ‘Dear Alfonso, an Italian Feast of Love and Laughter’ by Mary Contini

Cockenzie, East Scotland, July 1935

On a morning like this, with the promise of a beautiful day, Sis felt, for the first time, Scotland was his home. He watched the boats lingering outside the harbour, waiting for the tide to come in, the hills of Edinburgh clear on the horizon and the fresh smell of the sea mingled with the appetising aroma of kippers slowly smoking in Dickson’s kiln were all so familiar now.

He realised he would be reluctant to leave and return to his homeland in southern Italy. He and his family would stay. One thing was sure, though. He’d never be able to say he was a Scotsman!

It had been a remarkable summer; a heatwave, if you believed the headlines in the newspapers. It had been unusually dry, with temperatures as high as 35C, about as hot as he remembered when he grew up in Italy.

What he really loved about living in Scotland were the long summer days. It was so bright already, though it was just past 6 and the sun wouldn’t go down till well past 10 o’clock tonight. It was quite enchanting.

Apart from anything else is was good for business. It was the Glasgow Fair. They arrived in bus loads. At this time of year you couldn’t move along the promenade; families strolling with push chairs, men smoking a cigarette, kids eating ice cream. Late-night feasts of fish suppers, white-puddings and ‘pokes’ of chips. All supplied by him. They made the most of their holiday. They never wanted to go to bed.

He made the most of it. He never got to bed! Business was booming.

Life was simple living so close to the harbour. He bought his fish directly off the boats as they landed their catch every morning. He could buy potatoes from the local farmers exporting them to Holland and Russia. He could even buy ice that he needed to keep the fish fresh and make his ice cream. The milkman’s horse and cart delivered the milk he needed every day at his back door.

Now that Alfonso Crolla had a new van, his wife, Marietta, could get all her Italian ingredients she needed delivered as well. It was very convenient. They were settled in Scotland, but they weren’t going to eat Scottish food.

Alfonso Crolla was an older cousin. It was he who had helped Sis to emigrate from Italy about twenty years ago. He gave him work until he found premises and got started on his own. Sis owed a lot to him. They were from Picinisco, a remote village in the south of Italy, 750 metres high, hidden in the mountains between Rome and Naples.

Later that morning, as he was finishing gutting the fish, Sis heard a commotion outside his shop. He wiped his hands on his floor length apron and went outside to see what was happening.

It was Alfonso Crolla in his new van. What a picture! Painted in bright livery, battleship grey with bold green and gold branding emblazoned along the side: Valvona & Crolla Ltd. He greeted his friend enthusiastically and congratulated him. A van that could drive all round Scotland delivering groceries. What a great idea. Who could imagine?

To his delight he was greeted by Alfonso’s wife Maria, and his young daughters, Olivia, Gloria and Phyliss as they all clambered down from the front seat.

‘He kissed them all on both cheeks calling to his wife and daughter.

‘Marietta, Anna, look whose here!’ come and see Zi’Alfonso’s new van!’

A crowd had quickly gathered. Men on the ‘broo’ who had nothing to do. A gaggle of housewives, their best pinnies hastily pulled on, hair piled up in coloured scarves. A straggle of barefoot bairns ran around excited, amazed at this magnificent contraption. Even the Reverend Osborne had come out from his kirk to see what all the fuss was about.

These ‘Ayeties’ brought an air of the exotic to the village that’s for sure. They’d never seen anything like it.

Playing to the crowd, Alfonso proudly moved to the back of the van, looked steadily at his audience and, with a wide flourish, opened the doors. He stood aside and waved his arm to invite them to come closer to admire.

An overpowering pong of sweating cheese, sticky salami, pungent coffee and reeking garlic hit them with a shock. They covered their mouths and held their noses. As one, they took a wide step back. The children, unimpressed, ran away in disgust.

Only the boldest hung around to watch as Marietta, thrilled with the selection Alfonso had piled from floor to ceiling in his van, hoisted herself up and disappeared inside. She selected what she needed, passed them out to Alfonso, who passed them to his daughters who ran with everything into the shop. A mouldy pecorino cheese, packets Buitoni macaroni and spaghetti, bottles of Bertolli olive oil, red wine vinegar, twenty four tins of tomatoes, half a dozen flasks of Chianti.

The crowd encouraged by Marietta’s enthusiasm, moved towards the van again. They were familiar with the tempting aromas that drifted every morning from her kitchen at the back of the shop. They had watched as the family ate together enthusiastically sharing large plates of strange looking food. Pasta? Lasagna? She obviously knew something they didn’t about cooking. She was like a magician, always at the stove surrounded with pots of bubbling red sauce, roasting whole chickens stuffed with cheese, big bowls of long spaghetti, saucepans of sizzling greens. They had never tasted any of it but it always smelled so good.

Sis called to Anna.

‘Make some cones and sliders for us all, Anna. Girls, would you like a snowball on top of a cone?’

The girls licked the ice cream with relish. It was soft and creamy, deliciously sweet with just the right hint of vanilla. The chocolates flakes on top cracked and drizzled dark specks all over the white ice cream. The fresh raspberry sauce dribbled blood red down their fingers.

The local children looked on, mouth’s watering.

These ‘Ayeties’ have all the fun.

Extract from Dear Alfonso, an Italian Feast of Love and Laughter by Mary Contini

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