Half an hour in the company of Elena Johnson will make your mouth start to water, and the pride and enthusiasm with which she talks of her authentic Italian pastries and biscuits is as beguiling as the products themselves.
Elena came to the UK in 2001, intending to stay for a year. Originally from Turin in the Piedmont area of Northern Italy, she had a Masters in US studies and a scholarship for a PhD in American Literature and was looking forward to studying in the UK. Life has a habit of taking unexpected turns, though, and she found a job and met her (British) husband before settling down in Kidsgrove, Staffordshire.
Elena’s family were wine producers, but her father, Franco, is a maître pâtissier (master pastry chef) in Turin, and Elena grew up in a heady atmosphere of handmade chocolates and hand-baked bread.
“My father’s speciality is very small, very delicate patisserie,” said Elena. “The most famous Italian pastry is baci di dama (ladies’ kisses), which are tiny hazelnut biscuits around the size of a coin, sandwiched with chocolate ganache. They’re often served in bars as an accompaniment to coffee, or you can eat them for breakfast. Unless you have been to Italy and had them there, you probably haven’t tasted the real thing before, to be authentic they should be made with just four ingredients.
“When I set up my business, I wanted to make only traditional Italian pastries as it represents my culture, and I use my father’s precious recipes. He’s been working as a pâtissier for over 40 years, and he passed a few of his secrets down to me. He had a shop in Turin for 30 years, and it closed four years ago when he retired, but we still bake together whenever we can.
“I’ve always loved cooking, as that’s what Italians do. I grew up seeing my father preparing all this delicious food, so it was quite natural to pick up a love of food. When I first moved to the UK in 2001, it was quite difficult to find the right Italian ingredients to make my recipes, but it’s much easier now. Jamie Oliver made life much easier for people who like real Italian food! For years, the only thing people in the UK knew of Italian desserts was tiramisu, so I’m trying to introduce the specialities of my own region.
“I’ve been making my recipes on and off for three years, but in the last couple of months I’ve decided to launch the business seriously. I currently sell at three farmers’ markets in Cheshire – Northwich, Rode Hall and Wilmslow – and can take orders through my Facebook page.
Elena is currently concentrating on two main products, the baci di dama and crostata, a tart made from light, friable pastry flavoured with lemon zest and filled with raspberry, apricot or strawberry jam. Crostata is a traditional Italian breakfast food, but Elena recommends a slice in the evening served with a glass of bubbly, fruity white wine for a treat. She’s also experimenting with adding lemon jelly sweets to her range, using the juice of the lemons whose zest goes into the crostata.
“My father used to make his own sweets, so that’s an area I’d really like to get into,” she explained. “They’re in test mode at the moment, as I need to establish the shelf life etc. I’m also making round lemon biscuits which are like shortbread, they’ve proving very popular. I’ve got a caramel and salt version in the pipeline, too, and maybe a rhubarb crostata as I like to use seasonal fruit.”
Elena currently finds all her ingredients in the UK, except the hazelnuts.
“My father brings those in from Turin!” she laughs. “I toast them and make them into a fine powder for the baci di dama. I’d really like to use Sicilian lemons as well, as they’re the best, but at the moment I’m trying to keep the prices down so that as many people as possible can enjoy the products.
“I saw my father working very hard throughout his life as a baker, he’d work at Christmas, Easter and Sundays, taking pleasure in helping others celebrate. He encouraged me and my brother to do something else, but he’s very happy that I’ve come back to baking, and that he’s taught me to love it as I do. We were baking together last week, and I kept thanking him for teaching me the magic – I realised how much it meant to him to be able to pass some of his knowledge on.”