Culinary legacy of the old SAR & H

Review: Vivien Horler

Loves & Miracles of Pistola, by Hilary Prendini Toffoli (Penguin)

For more than 60 years people have been flocking to La Perla Restaurant, first in the city centre and since 1969 in Sea Point.

Its existence – and that of many other Italian restaurants in South Africa – springs from a strange and almost forgotten episode in South Africa history, one exploited by journalist, food writer and now novelist Hilary Prendini Toffoli.

In the prologue to the delightful Loves & Miracles of Pistola, she explains that in the 1950s in apartheid South Africa, the SA Railways had a problem. They needed stewards for their long-distance passenger train service, which in those days criss-crossed the country and took travellers into neighbouring countries too.

It was felt inappropriate to have black or coloured stewards serve morning tea and coffee to white women who might be in their nightwear. But local whites felt the job was beneath them.

The then Minister of Transport, Ben Schoeman, who had been impressed by  Italian prisoners of war working on his farm during World War II, had a brainwave: what if they were to offer steward jobs to young Italian men?

Anxious about post-war unemployment, the Italian government was keen, and thousands of young men applied. Eventually 110 arrived in South Africa seeking a new life. After a few years working on the railways – and hating the local food – most left the service and some opened Italian restaurants, including the institution that is La Perla.

Pistola lives in a village in northern Italy with his grandfather, who once ran a trattoria. His mother and grandmother died in the war, and there appears to be no father. Pistola’s grandfather is fierce and strict, but loves his grandson.

The book opens with Pistola helping Nonno Mario to prepare a wedding feast for Teresa, the girl Pistola has been in love with all his life. But sadly, Teresa is not marrying him – she’s marrying the village thug.

This is a source of heartbreak, so that when a friend tells him about the possibility of working on South Africa’s railways, he’s fairly receptive.

Pistola and friends set sail for Durban, and on the voyage Pistola meets an elusive girl called Malikah, who turns out to be Muslim and a political activist.

At first Pistola and his friends are based in Hillbrow and the young Italians learn all about partying, Sophiatown style. Later Pistola is sent to Cape Town, where he meets Malikah again. With only the dimmest grasp of the principles underpinning apartheid, he has no idea his relationship with her is the subject of police scrutiny.

Half the book is set in Pistola’s Italian village – the author drew on her Italian husband Emilio’s experiences growing up to provide authenticity to her tale –  and we learn all about the local characters, including the postman who’s an amateur archaeologist, the woman who catches frogs in the rice paddies to eat, the pig farmer whose animals are the source of “some of the world’s great taste sensations. Salami, coppa, pancetta, cotechino and the sublime prosciutto”.

As befits a food writer like Prendini Toffolo, there is a lot of food in this novel, mostly wonderful Northern Italian food, but also some South African food like piles of meat on the braai, which has the Italian lads’ eyes on stalks, and disgusting tins of slippery spaghetti in tomato sauce.

On the whole the Italian stewards dislike the South African food, and almost go on strike for the right to make and cook their own pasta. Railway authorities are not impressed, but the Minister, Ben Schoeman, has a soft spot for the Italians and allows this.

Loves & Miracles of Pistola is a warm, vivid novel and a lovely read. I feel a visit to La Perla coming on.






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