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MY mum means many things to me: strength, survivor, determined, loving. Gina is an ordinary woman with an extraordinary life. Born in December 1942 in the small village of Castelforte, southern Italy, she is the eldest of four children to Armando and Maria. By the age of 13 she was an accomplished seamstress, a protégé of a local skilled embroider, fluent in three languages – Italian, Portuguese and French, although never formally educated until she reached Lyon with her parents. Her path took her from the idyllic Mediterranean village to San Paolo, Lyon and then finally to Glasgow.
I try to imagine her life, her identity, before she became my mum. Yes there had been hardship leaving Italy, and new lives created in other lands. She embraced and adapted for sure. Lyon was where she lived her adult teen years, working in the old silk weaving area of la Croix – Rousse. Everyday, four times a day, she would climb the 200 stairs and covered passageways known as the traboules to her place of work, producing the finest silk garments. Her dresses were made from the remnants of the factory floors and would stand proudly on any catwalk today. She savoured the pain au chocolat and shopped in the food markets along the Rhône each day for her mother; Bresse chicken, Andouilette, Cardoons and Rigotte cheese being her favourites. Her life was carefree and free of responsibility.
A brief holiday to her birthplace chanced on an encounter with my father – an East End Glasgow boy of Italian immigrants. They married a year later. She was 19. She arrived in Central Station clutching a suitcase with her trousseau, a parting gift of hand-sewn sheets and embroidered table covers from her mother. My father picked her up in his ice cream van. Saying that last goodbye to her parents must have been heart wrenching. Goodbye was goodbye; no mobiles, FaceTime or flights, just memories to keep connected.
She learned English behind the café counter in my grandparents’ Rendevous Café in Partick. She learned to cook peas and vinegar and make ice cream. She saw frozen food for the first time; not realising it had to be cooked; she served it straight out the packet.
She learned to drive a few years later. The day after passing her test she drove to Italy in a BMW van. She put a mattress in the back for my brothers and set off on an arduous drive, with no motorways, no maps, on a challenging route that took her over the Mont Cenis pass and Susa Valley to Rome. She drove the whole way with no headlights, not realising they were activated in the pedal.
Food and family became the two most important things in her life. Growing up in Italy, good ingredients were abundant. Breakfast was fresh figs, grapes, and cactus fruit picked from the tree in her garden. If she wanted salad leaves, she stepped outside to cut chicory or dandelion greens. Nature reminded her that no two days were the same and to take each day as it comes.
A mantra that became her religion when in her mid 30s and then later in her early 50s, cancer came knocking at the door for the second time.
Food was now the currency for her recovery. Her diet was mainly vegetables, fresh herbs and bone broth. Drinking the cooking liquor from boiled greens, chicken and sage, nothing was wasted, stalks, stems, roots from vegetables and seeds dried and replanted. Peelings and coffee grains were used to feed her plants. To this day she abhors processed food. The ready-prepared salad bags are “full of pesticides” and the fruit is “pumped with chemicals”. According to my mum, if you have flour and water you have life. She is a genius at making a meal out of nothing.
As children we never left her side. Our second home was the “back shop” – behind the counter. Her first business was a children’s boutique in the early 1970s in Partick. The business wasn’t a success. She sewed curtains to make ends meet and took a stall at the Barras market at weekends to offload the stock. The market was vibrant and as a five-year-old I was captivated by the candyfloss and hawkers. Failure was never in her vocabulary and she was never too proud for a job.
Later, our second home was a fruit shop. Her fruit displays were works of art and award winning. She won a national competition two years running for the best window display in the UK, beating all the big guys. Her currency to feed and educate us was her entrepreneurial skills. In the evenings she would make extra money by selling potatoes and vegetables from a van around Castlemilk. In later years she cooked in the East End Deli. Customers would bring their empty dishes and she would fill them with hand-rolled pasta, meatballs and fritte. She comforted people with her food. I’m sure the customers who came to the shop all left feeling that little more loved.
Every evening, even after long working days, our meal was on the table, cooked from scratch, and she insisted we eat together. The table is where the family talk. She worked into the small hours to wash and press our clothes for the next day.
I don’t ever remember a moment of extravagance or self-indulgence. She never lay down to hardship, and was determined to give us all a good education and a happy home.
She has travelled a long way from her carefree days in Italy and France. Her journey has taught her to value the simple things – health and family. Riches are measured in time spent with her children and grandchildren. She is formidable, humble, incredible and inspirational. Mum, I love you.
Gina’s Healing Salad
100g of dandelion, chicory, radicchio, turnip tops, rocket, escarole
4 violet/baby artichokes, outer leaves removed, stalks trimmed and peeled
100ml white wine
Finely grated small shallot & ½ clove of garlic
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
3 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
4 baby carrots
Small fennel bulb and tops, thinly sliced
Candy or golden beetroot, shaved.
1. Cook the artichokes in 1 litre of boiling water with 100ml of white wine for 10 minutes. Drain. When cool, slice thinly.
2. Blend all the dressing ingredients together.
3. Arrange leaves on a plate. Place the sliced artichokes in the middle. Scatter over the garnish and season.
4. Drizzle over the dressing