Mary Contini

11th May 2012 at 01:00
The renowned cook and owner of Valvona amp; Crolla restaurants recalls the head of a convent who inspired her love of music

There were two Catholic schools in Edinburgh. One had a nice uniform and the other had a horrible uniform - so that was the school my dad sent us to. My sister and I both went up to St Margaret's Convent School in Edinburgh at the same time. I was in P3 and she was in P4. We lived 10- and-a-half miles outside Edinburgh and we used to have to do two changes of bus every morning.

On the first day, dad took us. We would leave at 7am and be back by 6pm. If we missed the bus, it was a big drama.

When we went to St Gabriel's Primary in Prestonpans, we used to go home every lunchtime to eat and then back to school. But when we went to school in town, we had to stay all day and eat the nuns' food. It was a shock and that alone was quite drastically different compared with what we were used to.

We came from an Italian household and our parents owned shops, so we were used to going into the shop and into the cafe and getting fed whatever was on the menu. We would have pasta or stew or big pots of soup and we got to play on the threepenny gaming machine. Looking back, I think the nuns did not use salt. I remember smuggling in HP sauce just to give the food some flavour.

The headmistress of the convent, Sister John of the Cross, was a great inspiration. She had very high standards that you had to adhere to. Uniform, punctuality and behaviour in class were high on her agenda. She taught music and other things that were outside the usual curriculum. She was a great one for hauling us together and doing something with us out of the blue.

I remember on one occasion, she sat us in the hall and played Beethoven's sonata. That opened up a whole musical interest that might otherwise have lain dormant; if she had done that any other way, it might not have sparked the same reaction.

I was very frightened of her at school and it is only looking back that I realise what an inspiration she was. I remember she had a tuft of grey hair on her chin. They were Ursulines of Jesus nuns. They were a classical order of nuns, with the long habits and the wimples.

St Margaret's was quite a small school, set in beautiful grounds, with its own chapel. We would have morning assembly, and then at 12pm we had to line up and say the Angelus, which was 20 minutes of prayer and to a child was very boring. If you were not there, you were in big trouble. But a lot of the routines and customs were very charming and were things you looked forward to. On certain feast days, we went through the grounds picking petals and on our feast day the Archbishop would come and visit and we would all get sent home for an extra day off.

Although it was strict, it was great fun. There was a huge amount of laughter and humour and lovely friendships. It was also quite competitive - who was the best at certain subjects or doing well at sport? It was instilled in us that we should try and be better than everybody else. I was rubbish at sport, but good at maths and science.

In P6 we were taught the Ten Commandments and I asked what the sixth commandment "thou shalt not commit adultery" meant. I was told I would find that out when I was older.

Valvona amp; Crolla Vin Caffe is just one of 16 award-winning restaurants at this year's Taste of Edinburgh taking place 6-8 July. Mary Contini was talking to Emma Seith


Born: Edinburgh 1957

Education: St Gabriel's Primary, Prestonpans; St Margaret's Convent School, Edinburgh; University of Edinburgh (biological science); Heriot- Watt University, Edinburgh (business studies)

Career: Manager with Littlewoods; director of Valvona amp; Crolla in Edinburgh since 1983.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today