Sun-drenched Italian tomatoes and the flavour of Nonna’s cooking

THE bounty of seasons is a blessing to be celebrated. Every happy memory of my life in Pakistan is associated in some way with seasonal produce, from the way my Nani (maternal grandmother) would make us gorge on mangoes in summer and how we all feasted on freshly-pressed pomegranate sharbat (juice) in the winter.

Each season was captured in a bottle to be rejoiced all year, be it tiny Pakistani fermented lemons in salt, pickled carrot achar or concentrated rose petal murabba (jam). In a world where food trends conquer the mainstream, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that many of these ways are the norm in so many cultures, each based on authenticity, integrity and necessity. So when I meet someone who shares my deep-rooted sense of seasonality, we both connect at the very heart of true flavour, a passion for heritage cuisine and our common family values.

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As I entered a deli in the west end of Glasgow, I felt I had walked into a café in Italy with enticing cakes, the aroma of freshly ground espresso beans, an urgency in the atmosphere and, most of all, a friendly welcome. Giovanna, the owner of Eusebi Deli, is a first-generation Scots-Italian, with whom I was excited to spend a morning sharing the definitive memory of her Nonna’s simple home cooking which, she explains, has always been the inspiration behind all she cooks.

Italian flavours are deeply imprinted on Scotland’s culinary landscape, as the Italians have a way of weaving their flavours through every society they have settled in. Coupled with their enterprise, family focus and, of course, food being at the heart of everything they do, it is no wonder that they easily set up food businesses wherever they settle. From the stories that Giovanna narrated, it was clear that though Italians have now integrated into Scotland – though initially their presence was not always as welcome – as with most immigrants it took time to open the hearts, minds and taste buds of their adoptive home.

Giovanna said that when the Italians came to Scotland there was a strong cafe culture, and this was central to social engagement. “You would go to cafes to meet new people," she said. "There were no nightclubs or social media.” Entrepreneurial Italians caught on to this and their cafes flourished, bringing with them new and unusual dishes for Scots, including Italian ice cream made using Scottish milk. They also helped develop Scotland's fish and chip culture.

“They are survivors of migration and barriers,” Giovanna describes her family and the people of her homeland as she emotionally narrates the hardships of her paternal grandmother, who ran her family cafe in Glasgow’s east end when her grandfather served with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (1939-1945). Her grandmother was left alone to run the cafe and bring up Giovanna’s father. She would not have enough money to clothe her son so she would take hessian coffee sacks to the "steamie" to wash and make them soft enough to stitch clothes for him – as well work tirelessly in a cold cafe with her little boy beside her, seven days a week. Such are the modest realities that her family have been though, but today I sit in a cafe that was inspired by the simple flavours driven by produce that Giovanna was exposed to on her trips to Italy as a child – food and flavours that fill my heart with warmth. Each time she went to her Nonna’s rustic kitchen she would taste the fresh tomatoes from the fields in the summer, wild asparagus in the winter or attend village bean festivals to rejoice the season.

Giovanna’s cooking and food is based on purity of produce and simplicity of flavour. When creating dishes or menus, she always starts by going back to the dining table in the home where she grew up, stripping back fuss and drawing on her Italian heritage. She says: "It's all about flavours, colours and not presentation – it's all about real food."

When moving to another land you have to find a way to make it home, using ingredients that are unfamiliar. But both Giovanna and I agree that in a foreign land you have to work with what you have got, and sometimes you need to add ingredients to the recipe that might be different but compensate for the original flavour and create a sense of authenticity. Maybe that is what creates a new hybrid cuisine, but it keeps the true flavour of home intact.

As a Scots-Italian, Giovanna feels very connected to Scotland. She sees herself very much a Glasgow girl, and when asked what she loves most about Scottish people she says it is "genuineness, kindness, Glasgow humour". She adds: "Nobody makes me laugh like Glaswegians do.” As we laugh and share our love for Scottish food, I find that like me, she thinks traditional Scottish dishes like stovies and mince and tatties are based on the abundance of Scotland’s natural larder, making them more than just a recipe. "It's all about the love in your gran’s comforting food,” she says.

In her heart, Giovanna is very Italian too but as I have come to realise that those who make their home in Scotland strongly identify as Scottish. I think it has much to do with how warm, friendly and inclusive the country is, but most of all how Scotland absorbs the flavours of those who call it home. While Giovanna loves her Scottish grub, it is the flavours of Italian peasant food and memories of her Nonna’s kitchen in Castelforte that will always blanket her with love for good, honest, home cooking.

Nonna Maria’s Simple Tomato Pasta Sauce

The simplicity of this quick, fresh tomato sauce for pasta is what connects Giovanna to home. Don’t chop the garlic – the Italians merely flavour the oil with it and take it out. Giovanna says you only need to add chopped garlic and onions to the sauce if the tomatoes aren’t sweet.

For the sauce:

A large splash of extra virgin olive oil

1 large clove of garlic

3-4 ripe, good-quality seasonal tomatoes

salt to taste

1 handful of fresh basil leaves

Heat the oil in a saucepan, add the garlic clove (without chopping), allow it to flavour the oil then take the garlic out. Add tomatoes and salt, allow to soften. Add basil leaves but don’t cook too much. Add to cooked pasta and eat hot.

Nonno Armando’s leftover bread and tomatoes:

For Giovanna, this recipe goes to the heart of the Italian kitchen, and was made by her maternal grandad for her. In Italian homes, bread is never wasted. Use any stale crusty bread, wet it slightly with water, top with hand-crushed ripe, sweet tomatoes, salt and a good chug of olive oil. Enjoy at room temperature.