Most people were charmed by the Italian-born writer and journalist Gaia Servadio, who died in Rome in 2021, at the age of eighty two. At her London home on the Chelsea-Pimlico border she hosted one of the last notable literary salons; Homeric meals were laid on for, among others, Italo Calvino, Salman Rushdie, Philip Roth and Bernardo Bertolucci. Witty and cultivated company seemed to thrive under Gaia, who happened to be the mother of Boris Johnson’s first wife. From an early age she had proved a capable and fiercely independent reporter for the Turin daily La Stampa; Primo Levi, for one, had followed her career admiringly, and called on her in London in 1986 during one of his final book-signing tours.
La cucina in valigia (Cuisine in the Suitcase) is the last of Gaia’s 40-odd books; it rounds off a life driven by curiosity and a sensuous appreciation of opera, art, archaeology and, not least, food. In the course of her many travels round China, Israel, Syria, Russia and her adored Sicily, Gaia was keenly attentive to the foodstuffs on offer, and always made a point of visiting street markets. This book, an amalgam of travel and gastronomy, is tinged with an autumnal sense of loss and the self-examination of an older woman looking back on an extraordinary life.
As a journalist in Israel in 1967 during the Six Day War, Gaia had eaten hummus for the first time, and she never forgot the taste of the chick pea dish that is now a supermarket staple. On the Sicilian island of Lampedusa in the early 1970s she was served spaghetti in the company of a group of mafiosi. (The London Sunday Times had commissioned an interview with one of them). Along the way, recipes are offered for cooking pasta with handfuls of Tuscan “monk’s beard” – a relative of chicory – and roast pork in Calabrian bergamot orange sauce.
Orlando Mostyn-Owen, the youngest of Gaia’s three children, relates in his foreword to the book that his mother saw Terence Conran as the “catalyst” who brought a taste of Italian design (not to mention duvets) to a newly affluent postwar British public. After he opened his first Habitat store in London in 1964, Italian food became more readily available in the capital and Italian restaurants up and down the country began to adopt a Pop minimalist décor. (Out went the Kodachrome photographs of Vesuvius and Sophia Loren; in came Warhol.) Conran was, in a sense, an early Mod figure, beholden to the Italian fashion and design he had seen displayed in Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita. Gaia, who arrived in London from Italy in the mid-1950s, generally had little time for British food or cooking (though she did like haggis).
Published posthumously, La cucina in valigia can be read in tandem with Gaia’s fine 2014 autobiography, Raccogliamo le vele (Lower the Sails). Both books share a dry, droll humour and an unmistakable verve and love for life. Gaia was an adored friend and I will miss her.
A version of this review appeared in the Times Literary Supplement on 14 October 2022