Posted in Other News on Thursday, 12 September 2019
Extract from ‘Dear Olivia, an Italian Journey of Love and Courage’ Mary Contini Canongate Press …the True story of Valvona & Crolla.
1, St. John’s Hill.
Adolorata was very excited. She had been up since five thirty, cleaning out the grate for her mother, scrubbing the table and sorting the clothes for her younger siblings. As soon as the fire was lit, she put the kettle on to boil. She stirred the porridge oats with water and added a teaspoon of salt. She would just have time to run to the dairy to get some milk before they were all up.
When she got back the house was like bedlam, youngsters crying, boys fighting, mother screaming “Madonna mia!” in exasperation. Adolorata dumped the warm jug of milk on the table and before her mother could ask her to do anything she ran into the bedroom.
By quarter to seven she was scrubbed and clean, her long raven black hair was pleated and tied round her head, covered by a black wool scarf. Her black cotton overall was nipped in at her slender waist, tied tight with a belt. Her dark wool stockings and brown brogues made her look older.
“How do I look, ma?”
“Let me see you. Ah, Dora, darling, you look a picture. Go on you’d better hurry or you’ll be late. You don’t want Miss Garland to sack you on the first day.”
Adolorata always wished she had been called something else. Who would want to call their first born ‘full of pain.’ Maybe it was a prediction, because, to be fair, she had suffered quite a bit of pain so far in her fourteen years. But things were going to change. This was going to be the start of a new life.
As she came out of the stair, she ran quickly past Dirty Boab’s in case he opened his door, her eyes squinting in the morning sun. The Grassmarket always looked beautiful at this time of day, with the castle towering above her and the dark tenement buildings lit up by the sparkling sunlight.
She turned left and ran along the Cowgate, crossing at St. Patrick’s church shouting good morning to Father Mario.
“Where are you off to so early in the morning, Dora?”
“I’m off to work, Father. My first job. Wish me luck.”
She crossed to St. John’s Hill and catching the scent of the pungent smell of roasting coffee she followed it. The wooden door of the warehouse was open. She thought it best just to go in. There were two flights of stairs in front of her. No one was around so she made her way up. At the top of the stair was a frosted glass door with a sign embossed in gold lettering.
B.Valvona & Sons
Italian Produce and Wine Merchants
Telegrams: Chianti Edinburgh
Adolorata blessed herself and said a quick prayer. Now that her chance had come, she had lost all courage and stood stricken with fear at the door.
“Who’s that? Who’s that at the door?”
Miss Garland’s Morningside accent ripped through Adolorata’s nerves like the pencils on the slate at school.
“It’s me, Miss Garland, Dora.”
She pushed the door open and taking a deep breath stepped into the office.
“Adolorata, what time is this to start work on your first day? I expect all employees of Valvona & Sons to arrive at least fifteen minutes early.”
Miss Garland was badly named. She was slender, austere and mean spirited, thin lipped and short sighted with a pale washed out complexion. Her dull brown hair was pulled severely back from her face in a tight bun.
“Is that clear, young lady?” she put her head down and looked at Adolorata over the rim of her glasses.
“Is that clear?”
“Yes, Miss Garland. I’m sorry Miss Garland.”
“Sorry is not a word in my vocabulary. If you are going to keep your job you had better never be tempted to use the word again.”
Miss Garland, sly as she was, was aware of this young Italian girl’s circumstances. The girl was the oldest of six children living with her widowed mother in a room and kitchen in one of the slums in the Grassmarket.
Miss Garland knew that she needed the job. Her mother had a cleaning job. Clothes for the children came from the Police fund. If she kept a tight reign on her, wee Adolorata would be a good worker. Now that Mr. Valvona had opened this new warehouse the workload had almost doubled, but according to Miss Dennis who did the accounts, the takings hadn’t. Adolorata would earn ten shillings a week, a quarter what a grown man would want for the same work.
When Adolorata went downstairs to the first floor she walked into paradise. To a young girl used to hunger and hardship this long narrow room full of ceiling to floor with food and wine looked like Aladdin’s cave. The smell overpowered her and made her stomach lurch with hunger.
Cheeses and butter were stacked on high shelves, ones as she had never seen before: huge, golden round ones and small wrinkled grey ones –all pungent and sweaty. Pale white soft cheeses wrapped in white greaseproof paper, dripped milky water onto a tray underneath. Flat round white, cheeses oozed a juicy cream from the cracks in the rind. Adolorata found it almost impossible to resist putting her finger into it and greedily licking the soft cheese.
The salamis hung from hooks in the ceiling, arranged like soldiers, the biggest ones at the back, the smaller crinkly ones at the front. Next were the prosciuttos, wrapped majestically in Royal blue shiny paper and stamped with red and gold stars, to declare their superiority. Then rows of sausages, mottled, pink and cream, fat and juicy, thin and gnarled, tied together in links, shiny and appetising.
A huge pink, pistachio studded mortadella lay on a counter beside a red slicing machine. When the girl behind the counter sliced it and layered each slice like gold leaf between sheets of white paper, Adolorata nearly fainted with desire to taste it. Once she got to know the girls, they cut her a sly slice which she ate behind the coffee sacks, tapping her foot gently to stop the mice coming forward to join her.
A long wide wooden counter stretched the length of the room. The front had long, brass lined, glass windows displaying different shapes of macaroni like diamonds in a jeweller’s shop: long, thin, short, fat, ridged, smooth, tiny star shaped pastina and broad sheets of pasta for lasagne and tortellini, little baubles stuffed with sweet pork and herbs.
Adolorata soon learned how to open the drawer for the customer and take the pasta out with white gloved hands and weigh it before wrapping it in huge sheets of delicate white tissue paper.
The shelves stretched high, right up to the ceiling, packed with gold and red tins of tomatoes and tuna and beans and sardines. There was a section for smelly salt cod, and brown jute sacks full of dried beans and peas, prunes and dried fruits. Adolorata loved to slip these under her tongue when Miss Garland was not looking and suck on the sweet dried fruit.
The far end of the store was piled with olive oil and vinegar, and bags of chillies, pepper, fennel and coriander as well as countless other spices that made her sneeze and her eyes water when she spent hour after hour weighing them up into brown paper bags.
The wine was stacked downstairs. Adolorata was not allowed to touch the wine and was constantly reminded by Miss Garland, a staunch member of the temperance society, of the evils of drink.
In her office upstairs, with her ledgers and pencils, only Miss Garland managed to stay sober and avoid the foreign cacophony that took place every day.
As she got to know her way around, Adolorata became indispensable to her. Mr. Valvona and his son Ralph came in, usually around nine thirty, dressed in suits with their bowler hats and walking sticks, nothing like a pair of grocers. Adolorata made them a coffee in the Neapolitan coffee maker on the stove in the office. As she spoke dialect Italian and English, she got a good idea of what was going on.
Miss Dennison, the accounts clerk, was not pleased with the sales figures. A tall slender woman she had a thin face, with an austere look. Her narrow figure betrayed a cautious nature, incongruous in such a colourful environment.
“Mr. Valvona, it’s all very well getting all these wonderful products up from London, but the Italians here aren’t quite as well off. They are just buying the same stuff, Chianti, rigatoni and pecorino. Even the sausages are not selling so well. I think Mr Crolla is cutting into your sales when he goes around with his suitcase.”
“Miss Denison, don’t you worry. We have an idea how to handle Mr. Crolla, haven’t we Ralph?”
Ralph was a delicate young man, mildly asthmatic, more interested in books and cars than salsiccie. Unusual among the Italians, he had been to University and had ambitions to become a lawyer. Adolorata thought he was a snob. He could never remember her name and called her missy if he wanted her to do anything.
The warehouse was busiest at the end of the week. On Thursdays and Fridays all the deliverers arrived from Italy and London. Most of the vans stopped off at Manchester, supplying the grocery shops in Ancoats, then came on up to Edinburgh, then across to Glasgow.
The ‘Big Italians’ came in on those days as well, travelling in their new fancy cars as far as Dundee and Fife, the borders and East Lothian. They all had businesses of their own and Adolorata thought that although they were Italian like her, they were way above her and her likes that lived in the Grassmarket.
Some of their sons were very handsome. Her mother told her to be especially nice to the young men.
“Dora, if you marry one of them, you’ll get a business of your own. How about Ralph Valvona? Do you not fancy him?”
“Ma, I wouldn’t marry him if he was the last man on earth. I like Victor Crolla, though, he’s always nice to me.”
“Don’t mix with the Crolla’s, Dora. They’re too big for the likes of us.”
Dora thought her mother was mad. The next day when Mr. Crolla came in with Victor and his three wee girls he gave her a handful of liquorice allsorts and asked her to watch the girls while he talked with Mr. Valvona.
Dora was surprised when Miss Garland said it would be alright. She took the wee girls to the delivery shoot and they spent a lovely hour sliding down from the open window on the first floor to the square below. They ran squealing up the stairs again laughing and joking waiting in line to slide down again.
Miss Garland showed the two men upstairs to the office. Mr. Valvona and Ralph stood up and shook hands with their guests.
“Mr. Crolla. Thank you for coming. May I introduce you to Mr. Pretsel, the company’s auditor?”
Mr. Pretsel looked like an auditor if an auditor has a look.
“Cavaliere Crolla, how nice to meet you”. They all shook hands and sat down. “Victor, shall I begin? As you know, Mr. Valvona has recently invested heavily in expanding his business, opening this new warehouse in this prime area of the city and increased his product lines to over three hundred.”
The two sons sat opposite each other, eyeing each other suspiciously.
“I have here the copies of all the accounts over the last three years. It is apparent that the business is growing, increased 6 % last year. It is apparent that there is a real need for a good supply of Continental Produce for the Italian Community in the city.”
Alfonso said nothing; his bank manager had approached him and told him that Valvona was desperate to get out of the business and that his expansion had backfired. His son, Ralph was not a natural businessman. Alfonso thought he had been over educated. In his opinion this makes the young soft.
“Now, I understand, Cavaliere, that you have already built up a substantial business yourself in this field, supplying direct from Italy to your relations.”
Victor tried not to snigger. His father’s substantial business were packs of cheese and sausages from Zio Pietro sent in parcels from the Fontitune, his village in the middle of the Italian mountains. Smelly salsiccie sold from the back of his car hardly constituted a business!
“Yes, I am aware from talking to my clients, (actually his cousins and his Aunt Maria Di Ciacca), that they prefer the quality of my authentic product.’’ He bowed his head to one side.
‘‘No offence Signor Valvona.”
“Well, that is exactly why we are talking.” Mr Pretsel was relieved that Mr. Crolla had spoken at last.
“We, in the Company of B. Valvona & Sons, think that you have an intimate, more personal relationship with our mutual clients. We would like to put it to you that, in the interests of both families, it may be advantageous if we work together.”
Afterwards in the car with the girls in the back, Alfonso discussed the meeting with Vittorio.
“You see, Vittorio. They approached us for help. That puts them in the weaker position. They are showing us their accounts, but we show them nothing.”
“But Dad, you have no accounts. You just get cash from Zio Bennie for the salsiccie and put it in your pocket!”
“They don’t know that. Let them think we have a big importing business. Let them think that because we have two shops now, and maybe three. Let them think we’re not desperate. You’ve not to let them know the truth. Never let them know what you’re thinking.”
“Papa`, you haven’t any money. Mamma has saved up plenty. But you have nothing.”
“I know that. But they don’t know that. Mamma is like Zio Giovanni, she likes to save. Her way of making money is not to spend it. But remember Vittorio, to move forward, sometimes you have to take a risk”
When they got back home to 8, Brunton Place, Maria was waiting. She ushered the girls in.
“Come in girls. Go and wash your hands. The dinner has been ready for ages. Alfonso, Vittorio, where have you been? It’s after one thirty.”
Alfonso waited till they had eaten, a thick plate of zuppa di lenticchie and a piece of fried lemon sole, before he had the courage to tell Maria what he was up to.
“You’re going into business with Valvona! Alfonso are you mad! Dio mio! Vittorio in God’s name what are you up to?”
“Now, Maria. Just stay calm. It makes sense. Benedetto Valvona wants out. The son wants to take over but he doesn’t keep good health. We’ll buy up most of the shares but keep the name so that we get all their business. They’ve opened this wonderful new place, but they aren’t doing any good selling. They are too intellectual. Loro non capiscono. They don’t understand.”
If Alfonso was going to take on another hair- brained business risk it might never happen. Alfonso put his arm round her.
“Maria, darling. We have to do this. It’s a big chance for Vittorio. Trust me.”
“How much have you borrowed?”
Alfonso made a fatal mistake. He told her the truth. He forgot his own rule not to let her know what he was thinking.
Victor saw the look on his mother’s face.
He yanked the girls out of the door and they tumbled down into the street.
From the open window above they heard their mother screaming at their father!
‘Oh, dear,’ Victor looked at his sisters. We’d best make ourselves scarce!’
If you enjoyed this extract from 'Dear Olivia' you can buy the paperback here: https://www.valvonacrolla.co.uk/dear-olivia-paperback
To celebrate the 85th anniversary of Valvona & Crolla we have created a hamper showcasing some of our signature products: https://www.valvonacrolla.co.uk/85-years-hamper