Walking into my local food shop yesterday, I was greeted not only by the usual Christmas carols and decorated tree, but also by a vast display of shining panettones. Wrapped in gold, silver or red, they were chocolate, chestnut or simply the original recipe of dried fruits and raisins. At the cheese counter there was a gorgonzola to rival the traditional Christmas stilton, while in the alcohol section bottles of Campari lined up next to the sherries for pre-lunch drinks. Italy is now everywhere at Christmas.
When chef Rose Gray and myself opened the River Café in 1987, however, options were limited to say the least. Every visit we made to Italy resulted in bringing ingredients back to London. One year it was a whole parmesan, another it was San Daniele prosciutto from Venice. I fondly remember the time Rose brought a precious pumpkin back on the plane — Rose travelled economy while the pumpkin had its own seat in business class.
As someone who believes in looking outward and as a chef who has been influenced by everything Italian, the opening up of British tastes is very gratifying. But how did this revolution in UK cuisine happen? I like to imagine it was the invention of cheap travel in the Eighties when it became the same price to fly to Milan or Rome as to get to York or Bristol on the train. If you enjoyed a puntarella salad in Rome you might want to make it in London.
Vegetable suppliers in the UK started delivering from the Milan markets and more adventurous British farmers found they could also grow the vegetables here. To her great credit, it was Rose who brought back some cavolo nero seeds and asked our farmer in Southampton to grow them for us. In 1989 in the River Café garden we grew what I like to think of as the first borlotti beans grown in Hammersmith, and we’re still growing them 29 years later.
Perhaps the biggest change of all was the popular discovery of olive oil, first pressed and then estate-bottled, and now available in supermarkets and farmers’ markets everywhere.
And Italy excels at Christmas food. We celebrate our favourite ingredients with our Christmas gift boxes. They are full of the ingredients that we use in our kitchen every day: Pugliese plum tomatoes, dried porcini, salted anchovies, wild oregano — and, of course, 2019 olive oil.
This year you will also find Italian vegetable seeds to grow yourself, chocolates from Turin and a beautiful set of bright linen napkins from Designers Guild. Once you’ve made your way through the food and drink, the strong, bright box itself is perfect for storing toys or anything else.
Getting to Italy before Christmas is no longer as easy — and it’s not environmentally friendly. But now Italy has come to London — so no more having to find space for a pumpkin on a plane.
River Café gift boxes start at £275 and can be ordered at rivercafe.co.uk