Italian Ice- Creams and Fish Suppers in Scotland

I wrote this post for my travel Blog, But thought it might be of interest to you, so here it it!

I have just read Mary Contini’s book Notes to Olivia about her Italian family’s early days in Edinburgh. She is the owner of the famous deli, Valvont and Crola. Scotland’s oldest Delicatessen and Italian Wine Merchant and one of Europe’s most original Specialist Food Shops. I will come back to the story of this a bit later.

Scotland has long enjoyed an affiliation with Italians since the first immigrants arrived in the late 1800s. It is estimated there are tens of thousands of Scots of Italian heritage, including high profile figures. Italian immigration into Scotland forever reshaped the country’s culinary and social landscape.

Interestingly, post Brexit in 2016 there was the biggest surge in immigration in 100 years. One thing that makes it similar to the first phase of immigration from Italian is that large numbers are fleeing due to the lack of opportunity often in Puglia, Calabria and Sicily.

From the late 19th century, Scotland saw an increase in Italian immigrants. At this time, many Italians experienced poverty. Men fled to Scotland to make money to support their families in Italy, sending for them later. For some, it was seen as a stopping point en-route to America. Initially, they came from northern areas such as Tuscany, but emigration spread to the south by the 1900s. When America changed its immigration policy and closed the door of opportunity for many of the poorest Europeans, Scotland saw a further increase in Italian immigrants. The main reasons to seek a new life was as a direct result of economic conditions. Living conditions were harsh, with famine and sometimes droughts. Furthermore, Italy had an agricultural-based economy that was experiencing severe hardships and industrialisation was slower than in other European nations.  Many saw an opportunity to go elsewhere to earn a better living. After a slow start, in which the Italian immigrants failed to make any real economic progression, the Italians seized the opportunity to move into the catering world. Initially working as ‘hokey pokey’ men, selling ice cream from barrows, these men had been recruited in London and then sent to Scotland. They quickly moved into working-class areas, combining ice cream making with selling fish and chips. Restaurants and takeaways were established and sold food made using ingredients widely available in Scotland like fish and potatoes. To this day most Scottish towns still have an Italian chippy.

Fish and chips became essential to the diet of the ordinary man and woman, through the latter part of the 19th century and well into the 20th century. The fish and chip trade expanded greatly to satisfy the needs of the growing industrial population of Great Britain. In fact, you might say that the Industrial Revolution was fuelled partly by fish and chips! Nobody, however, could dispute the Italian influence after they had spotted the business opportunities to be had north of the border by selling pesce e patate. Stuart Atkinson, Scottish executive councillor with the National Fish Friers Federation, said their role was significant. As large numbers of Italian immigrants entered the Scottish fish and chip trade from around 1890 by 1914, they dominated the trade and opened shops throughout Scotland.

From humble beginnings, by the 1920s these barrows had been transformed into luxury establishments in the city centres via working class areas. There are many famous Italian businesses in Scottish society like Nardini’s which boasted a beautiful Art Deco tearoom that became a key attraction. There was a greater degree of acceptance from the Temperance Movement as the cafés chose not to sell alcohol. Cafés such as these were as much an assertion of identity in a new land as they were a business as a means of breadwinning. Helping to integrate the new arrivals into the communities of Scottish towns and cities. They were popular ventures for immigrants, and locals took very quickly to the idea.

In Glasgow, police statistics show that in 1903 there were 89 ice cream shops in the city. A year later that number had nearly doubled, reaching 184, and by 1905 there were estimated to be 336 ice cream shops in the Glasgow area alone. Many made a living from the Scottish sweet tooth. ITally is slang for Italian and the title refers to both Italian blood and to the raspberry sauce added to ice-cream. It is fair to say that Italian cafés were at the heart of Scottish culture, but the question remains as to whether Italians were fully accepted in Scottish society. Their cafés were often the scene of unruly behaviour. This led to cries that the Italian cafés were morally corrupt, articles appeared in newspapers reporting the ‘ice cream hell’. Their popularity wasn’t universal and they did encounter some hard times along the way, which most likely strengthened the ties of the growing Italian community, who helped one another when needed. Immigrants can enrich and bring a new dimension and flavour to the customs and culture of their adopted land. And I am sure that the colourful Italian community must have added character to the dour cities, towns and villages in Scotland.

What whetted by interest in this subject was the story of brothers Alfonso and Vittorio Crolla who emigrated to Scotland and established a small ice-cream and confectionery in 1906. They were to team up with Raffaele Valvona in 1934, by that time an elderly shopkeeper who was thought by the Italian community to need the acumen of the Crolla family. They sold easily affordable food, mainly to the Italian immigrant community. This succeeded brilliantly, helped by the fact that a lot of returning troops after the war, who had fought in Italy, had acquired a taste for the Italian meats, olives and cheeses. Having concentrated on inexpensive produce, Valvona & Crolla made the shrewd decision, as supermarkets began to undersell local businesses, to specialise by importing the best Italian food and drink. They were to be a pioneer of healthy food, never failing to point out the virtues of low-cost tomatoes and packets of spaghetti. Alfonso died in the war, but Alfonso’s son, Vittorio continued to work with his uncle, taking over the business in 1945 with his brother-in-law, Carlo Contini.

For 40 years Victor Crolla, was the head of the family at Valvona & Crolla.  His Italian delicatessen was famous not only in Edinburgh but among tens of thousands of festival and other visitors to the Scottish capital. The language in the shop was sui generis (a hybrid between Leith Scots and High Neapolitan) It speaks volumes for the family’s relationship with the Scots that during the Second World War the shop’s loyal staff continued to keep it open so that there was a business to return to. Victor Crolla, stepped down in 1985, but in the words of his nephew Philip Contini who ran the shop, he continued to be the spiritual head of the store. In 2019 Philip and his wife Mary, handed over the reins to their eldest daughter, Francesca Contini Mackie, Alfonso’s great-grand daughter making this a fourth- generation family business, bringing a little bit of Italian sunshine to the grey skies of Scotland.

I wish them a continued success; I am a great believer in family and local businesses. I also think it shows how important it is to mix cultures by immigration and hope this does continue as it enriches all our lives for the better!