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Issue 101 - From Lazio to Edinburgh

Scotland Magazine Issue 101
November 2018

 

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From Lazio to Edinburgh

It is impossible to underestimate the influence Italian Scots have had on the eastern seaboard of Scotland, revolutionising the eating habits of the Lowland Scot. From the mountains of Northern Italy, between Rome and Naples, they came in the early 20th century to pioneer an entirely new concept in healthy, simple food, while drawing on Scotland's natural larder. Some opened up fish and chip shops and ice cream parlours. Others sold produce imported directly from their home villages. The Italians had arrived! Carina Contini's family are from Picinisco in Lazio where they owned and farmed their own land. They kept sheep and goats and made cheese. There was a communal baking oven in the hamlet, and bread was made weekly. They kept pigs from which they made salami, sausages, and prosciutto, and they grew their own tomatoes, beans, courgettes, potatoes, apples, grapes and apricots They also made their own wine and grew olives, using olive oil or the lard from the pigs for cooking.

It was a letter from a family friend in 1919, coincidentally also the grandfather of Carina's husband Victor, that brought her grandparents to Scotland. 'The people are lovely, the food is good and the weather isn't too bad!' he wrote.

Carina's grandfather left Italy that same year and was joined in Scotland two years later by his wife Nonna, Carina's father Johnnie and his elder sister. They made their home at Cockenzie, a small fishing village in East Lothian where they opened an ice cream cafe and created a hub for the local community. By the late 1930s, Carina's grandparents and her father, who by then had joined the business, were doing very well.

Then came the Second World War, with Italy choosing to align with Germany. Overnight, Italians who had settled in the UK became enemy aliens. Over 7,000 internees were deported to Canada and Australia. Carina's father was sent to an internment camp on the Isle of Man. Both Carina's grandfather and Victor's grandfather boarded the SS Andora Star to be deported to Canada. On 2 July 1940, the ship was torpedoed by a German U-Boat 47 in the Irish Sea. Both grandfathers were among the 714 passengers who tragically drowned on that day. However, as soon as hostilities ended, Johnnie returned to Cockenzie and applied for British Citizenship, determined to help his mother rebuild the business.

In 1954, he married Gertrude, a Scot with an Italian mother and Irish father. Soon there were eight children, the youngest of which is Carina who, in 1994, married Victor and, having launched restaurant Centotre, today called Contini George Street, they now have three venues and three children: "A future ballet dancer, a lego designer, and a trouble maker!" Carina jokes.

"People are driven by circumstances and, with Victor and I, it was our children,"she explains. "Both of us had been working in the family business and in 2004 we decided the time had come for us to go it alone. Setting up on our own was definitely the right thing for us to do."

Contini George Street, with its Bute fabric wall, pzazz furnishings and accoutrements supplied by Anta Scotland, is modelled on a Florentine Palazzo and delivers everything you might want in an authentic, contemporary Italian restaurant. Albeit large, airy, and rather grand, the atmosphere is intimate and informal, making it an equally ideal destination for both business lunches and family dinners.

As for the food, the produce is sourced directly from markets in Italy and the menu changes every month with the season. The homemade pasta and delicious Puglian focaccia is made fresh every morning. Seating 18 guests, the Bellavista Private Dining Room (named after Bellavista Franciacorta, Italy's answer to Champage) is available for corporate dinners, family celebrations and tutored wine tastings.

The Canonball Restaurant and Bar is housed in one of Edinburgh's most important historic buildings and is named for the cannonball that is embedded high up on the western exterior. It is situated on the Royal Mile, at the foot of the Edinburgh Castle Esplanade, and the Cannonball Bar, which stocks 150 Scotch whiskies, is open for lunch, cocktails and pre-dinner drinks.

Specialities include fresh east-coast lobster, oysters, Bellhaven smoked salmon, seasonal Scottish game and the best Scotch beef sourced from Inverurie in Aberdeenshire. Haggis 'canonballs' are not to be missed and, with a nod to the restauranteurs' provenance, old fashioned fish and chips are served every day.

Collaborating with Mercat Tours, storytelling evenings, featuring tales of Scotland's heritage and music, have become a popular attraction. What's more, in partnership with Glengoyne Distillery, there is also a private dining room suitable for parties of between 15 and 40 guests.

The Scottish Cafe & Restaurant, spectacularly located beneath the Scottish National Gallery on Princes Street, is another triumph. Working with over 70 artisan suppliers, menus are again changed to reflect the seasons. This has to be one of the best venues in Edinburgh for breakfast and brunch, which is now served seven days a week. Highly recommended comes the Ham Benedict - a traditional Scottish butterie with Ramsay of Carluke ham, poached free range egg and hollandaise butter sauce.

Throughout all three venues, the Continis are committed to providing fresh, simple food, and buying from the best artisan suppliers. Carina is a magnificent ambassador for Scotland's locally sourced natural larder: "Beef, lamb, seafood, raspbrries and strawberries, we have it all on our doorstep," she says. "If we forget about the small producers, we fail!" She goes on to explain how the small independents in Scotland have really raised their game. Of course, 15 years of trading and learning has taught her what to look for and where to find it, from organic produce at Phantassie in East Lothian to Orkney oatcakes.

"Marcin, our Senior Head Chef, has the challenge of finding one new product per month. Recent newcomers to the menu include lamb from Mains Farm in the Pentlands and absinthe from Loch Ness." The Continis were among the first to champion support for Lanark Blue cheese and all three restaurants feature mouthwatering Scottish cheese boards. A list of suppliers is featured on a large map of Scotland at the front entrance.

The company's most recent innovation is a one-acre kitchen garden at Lasswade, in Midlothian, which supplies herbs, berry fruit and a whole range of vegetables and leaves for use in the restaurants' dishes. With a dedicated and creative team of 100 supporting their three vibrant restaurants, Carina considers herself and Victor blessed. Although very successful, she does not, as such, have an office to work from. "The floor of the kitchen!" she suggests with a laugh.

In 2014, she published the very popular Carina Contini's Kitchen Garden Cookbook, in which she includes a selection of over 100 seasonal recipes. It is a true celebration of her Italian heritage and Scottish roots. "Tradition, taste and hard work has made our business what it is," she adds confidently.

 

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