Who is Anna Del Conte? Meet Nigella Lawson’s hero and ‘The Cook Who Changed Our Lives’

Find out more about the celebrated Italian food writer Nigella is paying tribute to on BBC2 this Christmas

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TV chef Nigella Lawson is celebrating a woman very close to her heart this Christmas, in her new one-off documentary The Cook Who Changed Our Lives.

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Who is this remarkable woman? Her name is Anna Del Conte, a 91-year-old Italian chef who, Nigella claims, changed the way we Brits think about food.

If Nigella’s documentary has you intrigued to find out more, read on.

Who is Anna Del Conte?

Del Conte is a celebrated Italian food writer and cook who arrived in England from Milan in 1949. Now aged 91, the writer is credited with transforming British attitudes to home cooking, opening up a whole new world of European food to hesitant British palettes.

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“Pasta generally meant tinned Heinz spaghetti, olive oil was still used to settle your stomach, and hardly anybody knew what salami, prosciutto and parmigiano were,” she said of England in 1949 when she first came to live in London as an au pair. However, it wasn’t until 1973 that a publisher approached her to work on her first book, Portrait of Pasta.

“This is essentially a crime that not everyone in the country has at least one of Anna’s books,” says Nigella in the documentary, but it’s not just Nigella who sings her praises. Angela Hartnett says her writing “really illustrates the essence of Italian food”. 

Del Conte’s most recent recipe collection, Classic Italian Recipes: 75 signature dishes, was published in 2011. If you were to have one book? Del Conte’s definitive encyclopaedia of Italian cooking, Gastronomy of Italy.

Del Conte now lives in Dorset, and occasionally refers to herself as a ‘Britalian’. “I am né carne né pesce – neither meat nor fish – as we Italians would say (neither fish nor fowl as we English would put it),” she writes in her memoir, Risotto with Nettles. “That’s why friends in Italy say I am no longer Italian but English, while, here in England, my friends find me very much Italian”.

What are Anna Del Conte’s top Italian recipe tips?

As she tells Nigella, we Brits apparently use far too much sauce to pasta. “It’s important what you put in, but equally important what you leave out,” she told the Independent in 2011. “Somehow, the British use more sauce with pasta than it needs and you tend to add too much parmesan. It should always be used with discretion.”

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Anna Del Conte in her Dorset kitchen with her granddaughter Coco

When telling the Guardian her ’10 commandments of Italian cooking’, she admitted, “I felt God had an easier job to do”. Even so, they are well worth a read, from creating a ‘soffritto’ – the basis for many Italian dishes – to what herbs and spices should be used for each type of meat.

As for the Ragù bolognese she cooks with Nigella? Here is the recipe written down, courtesy of Country Life. Just in case another helping of roast turkey this Christmas makes your stomach shiver…

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The Cook Who Changed Our Lives airs on BBC2 at 6.30pm on Thursday 22 December, and is available on iPlayer for 30 days after.