I am what I eat: Marcello Basini

Categories: Reflections and opinions

In a series of interviews with Borough Market traders, regular blogger Victoria Brown continues to explore the inextricable ties between food and identity. This month she talks to Marcello Basini, manager of Jumi Cheese

Words and images: Victoria Brown

When I embarked on the first series of this project, my brief was to look at the relationship between food and national identity, interviewing traders from a range of cultural backgrounds about the foods that were important to them. What I found was that national identity rarely played a central role. Instead what united those individuals was the importance that particular people and places on a more local level—family home, hometown—played in developing their attachment to certain foods.

I wasn’t surprised, then, when Marcello Basini, manager at Jumi Cheese, began by telling me: “I am very much attached to the cuisine of my grandmother and my town, Piacenza” (Emilia Romagna, Italy). What did surprise me was that, unlike everyone else I have spoken to about this, he chooses not to recreate these dishes now that he lives in London.

Marcello moved to London in 2011. He wasn’t planning to stay, but he “met a girl here and we started dating and all these kind of dirty things…” She is now his wife. Marcello is warm, charismatic and, as you may have gathered, a little bit cheeky. I am surprised and delighted by the ease with which he jokes and teases in English, his second language and one that he still speaks with a thick and equally charming Italian accent.


Special occasions
He tells me about his grandmother’s pisarei, a type of gnocchi with a slow cooked sauce of celery, carrots, onions, tomatoes, borlotti beans and plenty of olive oil. “It’s the best meal I can recall ever.” His grandma used to make it for special occasions—Sunday lunch with relatives, “or when we had some family friends visiting, someone not from the city. It was the thing that you would show everyone.”

Another favourite is a tomato-based sauce made with horsemeat and served with polenta and parmesan. He also loves anolini: tortellini served in beef broth with lots of vegetables. His grandparents grew 80 per cent of the vegetables themselves. “I can recall the difference now, a lot of the stuff I eat from the supermarket is a bit tasteless.”

His grandmother’s house is important in his food memories: “Everywhere had this very characteristic smell, a mix of oak and old dust. It’s a house that has got history to it, you know? You cannot really describe it, but I guess if I think of the food, I go back also to this feeling of protection that you get from the place.”

Spoiling the recipe
It’s not just because his grandmother’s dishes take a long time that he doesn’t like to cook them in the UK, nor because he can’t find the ingredients. “I guess it’s because of the people, the memories and the smell. Everything is a certain way and if I do it here, it’s not the same and I feel like I’m spoiling the recipe or the memories.”

I find this incredibly interesting. Where other migrants choose to make foods that remind them of home, of the people they associate with those foods and to share this with others, Marcello chooses not to for exactly the same reasons. He prefers to save those dishes for trips back to Italy, to share them with his family and friends from there who can appreciate them. “Here if I have friends over I would rather identify myself with a pizza. It comes out nice, of course; nicer than if someone else made it. ‘Hey, everyone enjoy, good guy doing the nice Italian pizza!’” he laughs.

Anthropologist Richard Wilk suggests that in migration, ethnic cooking tends to become simplified somewhat, with a focus on a few emblematic dishes. He makes an interesting distinction between ‘cooking’ and ‘cuisine’, suggesting that cooking is the private, taken-for-granted, “unconscious and unreflective form of preparing and eating food”, whereas cuisine is overt, public or ‘performed’.

Italian identity
Marcello’s approach seems to support this, in that he consciously chooses pizza—“a generic Italian dish”—to demonstrate his Italian identity in the UK. The food he cooks on a day-to-day basis tends to be more varied and is also influenced by his wife’s taste (she’s Russian): pelmeni (Russian dumplings), all sorts of salads, lots of pasta, hummus and soups like borscht.

In this series I hope to explore these themes further, but also to move beyond them. I have taken a different approach to selecting the interviewees this time. Rather than choosing people to cover a range of nationalities, I have sought out traders with different or complex relationships with food.

For example, I will interview traders with food intolerances; people with a moral stance on what they eat, such as vegetarians; and traders for whom healthy eating and living is important. I will also chat with traders like Marcello, who are hugely passionate about all things food and have plenty to say on the subject. “It’s one of my main interests, one of the things I love… It’s a massive part of who I am”—it can’t fail to lead to a good conversation.

Read Marcello’s recipe for margherita pizza here