Philip and Mary Contini are joint owners of Valvona & Crolla, Scotland’s oldest and most famous specialist deli and wine merchant, and are both direct descendants of the shop’s founders.
The business was established in 1932 and, though it’s grown considerably, is still located in the original shop on Edinburgh’s Elm Row. As well as the deli and café, Valvona & Crolla showcase Scottish food from over 250 small producers in the food halls at Jenners in Edinburgh and Loch Lomond. Mary is also the successful author of acclaimed cookbooks ‘Dear Francesca’, ‘Dear Olivia’ and ‘A Year at an Italian Table’, while daughter Francesca runs the family restaurant VinCaffè in Edinburgh. There's also a bakery and online shop. Interview by Sarah Scott.
The deli was once described as “the Sistine Chapel of delis”; how would you describe Valvona & Crolla?
First and foremost, it’s a family business with an 80 year history. Our descendants were shepherds from central Italy who understood and lived from the land and who bartered their mountain produce for food from the coast. Very simply, we source and sell high quality Italian and Scottish food and wine from small, independent producers.
What was your grandfather’s vision and ethos? Does it differ from your own?
Valvona & Crolla was born of a survival instinct, to serve the fledgling Italian community in Edinburgh. This has naturally evolved and grown over many years but we still firmly believe in the democracy of food – food is a great leveller.
How do you source the food you sell?
We’re still foragers like our ancestors, rooting around and finding new products. We travel constantly, meeting and listening to tips from our existing producers. We’re a catalyst between the producer and the consumer and we believe we have a responsibility to ethically source food. Basically, the radar is always on.
What changes have you seen in food tastes over the years?
Good food never goes out of favour; however, the advent of big supermarkets has changed the face of our high streets and dominated and controlled the general UK market. We’re committed to offering an alternative and our customers, who are from all walks of life, are testament that the alternative is a welcome one.
Has the economic downturn affected Valvona & Crolla?
There’s been a marked shift in eating habits; until 2007 there seemed to be endless budgets, but that’s definitely changed. We’ve seen a decline in customers eating out in VinCaffè but, on the other hand, an upturn of people buying food in the deli and the food halls. To survive these rocky times it’s important to spread yourself. We specialise in both Italian and Scottish food, and you can eat in or take it home and cook it yourself.
As a food lover what ingredient could you not live without?
Fonteluna sausages! My great, great grandparents kept pigs and it was a bi-annual event to make these sausages from their meat. They used every part of the animal, wasting nothing. We make and sell the same sausages, seasoned and cured to a 500 year old secret recipe.
Mary appears at lots of food events and you’re a seasoned performer singing with your Be Happy Band and performing ‘Italia ‘n’ Caledonia’ at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Is this another passion or just a way of publicising the business?
Oh, it’s definitely a passion. Mary’s recipes come alive when she demonstrates them with her stories. As for me, I’m a born performer. If I hadn’t joined the family business 40 years ago I would definitely have been a crooner!
Mary’s books are highly regarded, can we look forward to another?
There’s another book in the pipeline, a sequel that’s full of more stories and recipes that hark back to what went before. The emigrant’s story is as relevant today as it’s always been and so is the food that provides sustenance and a connection to roots and identity.
Valvona & Crolla is an Edinburgh institution but would you consider branching out of Scotland?
We hope that our online shop goes some way to bringing the food we’re passionate about to a wider audience, but our home and heritage is here. To try to recreate this somewhere else would dilute the spirit and essence of our business.
What is your best-selling product?
The Fonteluna sausages are not just my favourite, they’re a bestseller too and ideal as the basis for tomato sugo. Montepulciano D’Abruzzo – our own brand, – a rich, smooth, spicy dry red wine from Abruzzo, is another. Actually, they go perfectly together!
Valvona & Crolla website