The Scotsman, by Stephen Jardine
I was sitting in a restaurant in the hillside town of Picinisco, about 75 miles outside Rome, experiencing the real story of Italian food, when it was announced that the Newcastle branch of Jamie’s Italian was to close its doors.
You’ve probably never heard of Picinisco but you’ve almost certainly eaten favourite dishes with roots stretching out from here. Nestled in the Abruzzi foothills of the Appenines, Picinisco has a population of just over 1,000 but punches well above its weight in the world.
Up to 100,000 Scots have some Italian heritage and an estimated 36,000 of them have links to this one tiny town. In high summer, the population more than doubles as Scots-Italians return to their roots but even this week as the first chill winds of autumn arrived, I was surrounded by Scottish accents in the café in the main square looking over the valley.
This area was originally home to the I Ciaccas, the Continis, the Crollas and some of the other key names that have shaped Italian food in Scotland. Actor Peter Capaldi and violinist Nicola Benedetti also trace their roots back to the village.
Choose carefully and you will find wine from the vineyards here on the menus of some of the best Italian restaurants in Scotland alongside dishes cooked in olive oil from trees on the slopes leading up to the piazza.
When it came time to eat, the food in Picinisco turned out to be rather familiar. In a pizzeria on the edge of the village, I tried a sausage dish called Cotechino. It was made with pork rather than lamb but apart from that it looked and tasted just like haggis.
On the wall above my table hung a set of Zampogna – Italian bagpipes. The table next door was occupied by a man who looked like he could only be Italian. Except Massimo turned out to be the owner of an Italian restaurant in Bearsden.
What brought so many Italians to Scotland was a search for new opportunities and an escape from poverty but there are cultural links stretching way back in time. From the days of Robert the Bruce, Italian minstrels were retained at the Scottish royal court and elsewhere.
They were followed by craftsmen who helped with the construction of Edinburgh’s New Town. And years later they were followed by the ancestors of today’s Scots Italian food families. Next year will mark the centenary of the journey that some of those who travelled to Scotland.
They arrived with nothing except the recipes in their heads and an appetite for hard work. A hundred years on, their legacy touches many of us every day in the food we eat at home and where we choose to eat when we go out, even if Jamie’s Italian has been struggling of late.
The centenary celebrations will coincide with Brexit and fundamental changes to our relationship with Europe. However that ends up, Picinisco, with its haggis and bagpipes, is a reminder that some things will always be much more important than politics.