Anna Del Conte's recipes for her granddaughter (2024)

Coco is my 12-year-old granddaughter and my tireless helper in the kitchen. Her ambition in life is to open a restaurant that she will call 'Il Ristorante della Nonna’, where she will recreate all the dishes we have cooked.

Coco liked being in the kitchen from an early age. I used to sit her down with a spoon and a piece of bread, or a sprig of parsley and a clove of garlic, and she would try to copy whatever I was doing. Like any child, she enjoyed it because she liked being with me and being talked to. And of course I liked it too – a lovely cheerful face smiling at me; far easier for me than playing and also far more productive, since I had to be in the kitchen in any case to prepare a meal. I taught Coco to smell food and I gave her titbits to taste during the different stages of cooking. Soon enough she was able to do the simplest jobs, such as arranging decorations on a cake.

Her favourite job was weighing out ingredients, which we did with old-fashioned weighing scales. I would put the flour or the sugar in the bowl and she would put the weights on the flat plate – she put the copper weights on or took them off or changed them; and so she also learnt some arithmetic along the way. When Coco first began to help me she loved to shower grated Parmesan on to a mound of risotto. She would pick up the cheese with her fingers and then try to sprinkle it over; it usually finished up all together in a lump.

After several years by my side in the kitchen, she can make many dishes all on her own – such as custard, biscuits, mousses and some sauces. At the moment she is passionate about Moroccan cooking, thanks to her mother’s tantalising descriptions of the delicious food she ate while she was on holiday there. So Coco now forgoes meat pies in favour of tagines, she experiments with kofta and couscous, and leaves risotto and pasta aside. Of course we don’t make only foreign food; I teach her my Italian dishes but

I also want her to learn the English dishes that are part of the culture of her country.

Coco loves shopping, by which I don’t mean buying just toys and tops, but also tomatoes and lamb. I have shown her what to look for when we buy fennel bulbs (the bottom and outside should be creamy and have no brown spots); French beans (they should snap when you bend them and not just bow); beef (it should have a yellowish fat, not spanking white); prosciutto (with a lovely strip of fat around it); Parmesan (its colour and texture), and so on and so forth.

We also talk about the seasons and I have tried to teach her how important they are to good cooking. Unfortunately, in Britain seasons hardly matter any more. You can buy almost anything all year round. Children nowadays, alas, do not have the thrill of eating the first cherries in June and making a wish, as we used to when I was a child in Milan, or the first peaches in July and the first mandarins in November. But I tell my grandchildren that a tomato salad in the middle of January, for instance, is not only tasteless, but also is not in harmony with the weather. A rich risotto of mushrooms is far more enjoyable in the autumn, while one made with fresh vegetables can be eaten only in the spring. Who wants a beef stew or baked lasagne in July?

My mother used to say that 'a good dish begins in the shop’, and I will add that a good chef begins in the shop, too. During our time in the kitchen, I know that Coco has learnt the basics of cooking. She has also learnt the importance of the ingredients you buy, the respect you must have for each of them, and the ability to taste and criticise and improve. Tasting is a very important part of cooking, yet it is so often overlooked. But how do you teach a child the criteria for judging a dish? Well, through experience, and discussing with your helper the merits of what you are making. Encourage your Coco to make comments, negative as well as positive, and to try to express the reasons behind those comments. Your taste may be slightly different, but you will soon find out that if she judges that a little more chilli is needed or an extra pinch of salt, you will agree.

And if you want your young ones to help, you must encourage them into the kitchen with the prospect of eating food they like. After all, every child is different in their development as well as in their likes and dislikes. And even if I seldom cooked food with the children that was suitable only for them, I always took their tastes into consideration. I never asked Nell, my oldest granddaughter, now 16, to cook a fish, because she doesn’t like fish; nor Johnny, her 14-year-old brother, to fry a lamb chop, lamb not being part of his culinary dictionary. I never go into the kitchen with Coco and her siblings just to make treats, but I always keep in mind the food that they like best, which naturally is the food they most like to cook, just like any of us.

  • 'Cooking with Coco’ by Anna Del Conte (Chatto & Windus) is published on July 7 and is available for £16.99 plus £1.25 p&p from Telegraph Books (0844-871 1515;
  • Anna Del Conte and Coco are appearing at The Telegraph Ways With Words festival in Dartington, Devon, on Tuesday, July 12 at 5.30pm. Tickets cost £9 (01803-867373;
  • Copyright © Anna Del Conte 2011.
Anna Del Conte's recipes for her granddaughter (2024)
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