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Franca's Story

Childhood sweethearts, here are my Mamma and Papa at the ages of 18 and 17 respectively. It was a time when people married young, grew together and established a bond that lasted for life – proved by the fact that they are still together today.

They were born and raised in the tiny village of San Biase, as indeed I was, and seldom ventured far from their home, as was the norm of Italian village life of the era.

San Biase was a typical village in the South of Italy; close, communal, with a spirit seldom seen in larger towns and cities. Everyone knew everyone else – and everyone else's business – but it made for warmer relationships that were appreciated rather than nosiness!

The village was set in the foothills of the Appenines, a mountain range which runs north to south throughout Italy and which has historically been one of the most influential landmarks of the country.

In our region, the mainstay was always traditional agriculture; tending the land largely by hand and as a family unit. This type of existence was handed down through the generations and can still be seen today in many of the outlying villages.

Here my grandparents are laying out the seasonal bean crop to dry in the sun. Fortunately both then and now, the climate is such that this method of preservation is not only feasible but has the added advantage of being totally free!

One of the great advantages of a small village community is that everyone comes together at those times of the year, such as sowing and harvesting, when a lot of work has to be done in a small amount of time. The man kneeling is my Papa.

Indeed there's no age separation where this community spirit is involved. From the youngest to the oldest there is always a job for which they are capable or suited – and this type of coming together is often fun too. Four of my Zia's (Aunties) are at the back, with my eldest sister at the front (2nd from left).

Community spirit is incredibly strong. The men will ensure that if there are homes where male relatives have been lost, nonetheless all the hard work is successfully completed to support those less fortunate.

…And of course fun happens as well when all the hard work is over. Here's my Mamma and Papa taking time off during a 'festa' – a community celebration which happens either when seasonal work is finished or for particular religious festivals.

Certain tasks were largely the province of the female members of the family. This shows my Mamma and elder sister on wash day, using an old style washboard, having already used up a lot of energy fetching and heating the water by hand. Village life was nothing if not hard work!

One of the most memorable days of my life; this photo shows me with my grandparents (centre), eldest sister (far left) and my uncle (right) on the day my family left the village on what seemed the most incredible journey – to move to England – which at that time seemed the farthest end of the earth.

My first passport photo! Going to a new country and the first time ever leaving my native soil – what an adventure – which is probably why I look so serious.

But it didn't take long to get acclimatized, especially with my mamma, papa, five sisters and one brother all around me to keep me safe, secure and happy and deal with the inevitable touch of homesickness.

We quickly made English friends. This is my younger sister off on her explorations of the area with a new pal, complete with satchels of good, home-made picnic food of course, determined to show the Italian way of life, in search of treasure perhaps, but definitely of experiences that we could relate back at home later.

Always a very close family, it didn't take long before we felt at home in our new 'adopted' country which, despite the very different lifestyle, soon felt like we had been there forever.

Indeed it was my role to look after and encourage my younger siblings and to help them get used to all these changes. This is me (centre) looking after my younger sister and her English friend (and dolly helped too!).

And so I progressed. Here's me in school and, though I don't remember this particular day, I look as though I wasn't having too hard a time. They say that schooldays are the happiest days of one's life. I wouldn't go that far but I certainly didn't hate them.

This is my second ever passport photo. Taken when I was 19 it marks the time I made the momentous decision to go back to live in Italy.

Back to San Biase. And guess what? Nothing much had changed. I was so surprised as I had assumed my village would change as much as I had in the intervening years. Wrong!

In a total time warp … the village looked just the same; the people were just the same – but older. I knew our parents were very keen for us to maintain links to our heritage but somehow I had always thought our heritage would look different after so long.

Even the ways of doing things were those I remembered. Where were the cars to which I had become so accustomed to in England? Nowhere to be seen. The pace of life was still the same gentle routine that I had enjoyed so many years before.

And as though I had never been away, it was easy to fall back into the lifestyle I knew as a child and resume village life with its seasonal predictability and routine – at least for a while. In this picture my younger sister (a little older now) was too tired to go up and down the hills, so she decided to hitch a lift (left).

Here I am reunited with the family in England. And when I say family – it comes in spades! Italian families tend to be extended and when we all get together, as can be seen, we more than fill the house. And on these occasions we also really know how to party – family style.

Ultimately, however, I understood that my life was not in San Biase. Not because I didn't love it dearly. I did and I still do. But my place was with my family in England and my future too. I was not designed to be an Italian mamma in a small village; I had bigger plans.

By this time I knew I had an affinity with food (but then what Italian doesn't) hence my first business which, of course, was a pizzeria – what else could it be? Permed and styled to impress, I thought myself the queen of the takeaway!

Pre-techno and no computers, iPods or gamers we found other sources of amusement in our spare time. Here my sister and I have endless hours of fun recreating a map of Italy in different shaped and coloured pastas (yeah, I know by today's standards that would be considered sad but times were different then).

It turned out to be a really good idea after all. We created a poster from our idle amusement which became almost an USP (see I can do techno now and for those of you who can't it means Unique Selling Point)…

… in my second and third businesses – a pizza and pasta delicatessen. You can just see the poster proudly displayed on the wall …

… and an authentic Italian coffee bar (well before Costa and Nero made them the absolute in-places to get fourteen different types of coffee). All three of these, I am delighted to say even if I blow my own trumpet, were phenomenal successes with the local residents.

Indeed it was this success with my own, home-made pastas, pizzas, sauces and other authentic Italian dishes which spurred me on to create Prodotti Artigiani – a range of traditional Italian classics made in the old style from family recipes.

Everything is made from the finest ingredients, selected personally by me. Totally seasonal and from only the freshest produce. There's no artificiality in either colours, flavourings or preservatives; it's just like we made at home all those years ago in the village.

Of course it's incredibly labour intensive – again just as it was all those years ago in San Biase – chopping, slicing, dicing, mixing, tasting, adjusting, cooking and preserving as Mamma and Nonna did.

It's the only way to release all the true flavours, aromas and colours of Italy on a plate. To preserve the old way of life; the tradition and the love that was the core of every plate of food on the family table.

The ultimate goal is to be able to present to my foodie friends and clients the real taste of Italy – not in the pre-packaged, artificially preserved way of today's supermarket that has become the norm – but real, gutsy flavours that transport the consumer to a different time and a different place.

Every product I make in the Prodotti Artigiani is made by me. Yes, me. Personally with love and soul and pride of the kind that makes the Italian race famous for its food. Most of the western world works on the principle of 'you eat to live'. I, and most of my fellow Italians, work on the principle 'you live to eat' and we so love doing it!

Our foods are so pure and unadulterated that if it's not on our label we don't use it. We buy organic wherever possible and most of our products are suitable for vegans, vegetarians and gluten free. We try to source locally and seasonally so, when preserved, it's as fresh as possible and goes from garden to jar in the shortest possible time.

Perhaps our ethos is best summed up in the two statements to be found on all our menus: "Life's too short not to eat Italian" and "La passione per mangiare" a passion for food. We'd love to think that everyone who comes either comes to our Italian takeaway or buys our Prodotti Artigiani either at the shop or at markets we frequent, will only need one taste of our food to agree!

And given that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, here are my Papa and Mamma today. Still together, still sweethearts and still having input into the way I make and prepare my Prodotti – and God help me if it doesn't meet their standards because I'm still enough of their little girl in that village in San Biase that I take notice, make changes and, in the process – hopefully – make them proud of me and the heritage I have inherited and cherish.