When we moved to Powerscroft Road in Hackney, we were delighted to find the Kia-Ora Cafe at the bottom of the road. It was owned and run by Annie Maltese, already in her seventies then. Annie was tiny, but a real London character, and no push-over. If any workman, however big and burly, was heard to swear, she would immediately order them out. "Oh please, Annie, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to swear, can't I stay?" I recall hearing one
beg, "No, out you go, I won't have bad language in here." We discovered to our delight that Annie was actually aunt to the aforementioned Vince of Alfredo's.
Annie had white hair and a bit of a stoop, and the dark eyes and slightly hooked nose of her clan. Her father had emigrated from his home village in the region of Emilia Romagna to London at the turn of the 20th century and had met and married Annie's mother, who was working in a grocery in Clerkenwell, part of the diaspora community who lived and worshipped there. Annie had a faded wedding photograph of her parents proudly displayed in the cafe. She recalled that her mother had every week rolled out pasta on a table with a broom-handle, and had once come dangerously close to dying after a splinter from the handle had worked its way deep into her arm. Annie's father used to wheel a barrow all the way to Billingsgate to buy huge blocks of ice for making ice-cream back at the cafe.
Annie and her brother had been lifelong Arsenal supporters, and had regularly gone to matches before her brother had died some years back. They had run the cafe together, and when Annie's brother passed away, relatives had exhorted her uncle, Padre Emilio, to move in and help Annie to carry on with the business. Padre Emilio, a Roman Catholic priest, had been on the verge of retiring home to Italy after long service in England.
So Padre Emilio had taken up residence, and greeted customers courteously, with black beret and cigarette-holder, making coffees and teas at the counter while Annie served at table, in her bobble-hat if it was cold weather. Although Padre Emilio had lived in England for over four decades (he was interned in the Second World War on the Isle of Wight with other Italian residents, including Charles Forte of the famous catering family), he still had a pronounced accent. He helped out at the local church, taking Mass when the priest went on holiday, and he grew tomatoes in tubs on the cafe roof, once proudly giving us a tour of his
Flo held sway in the kitchen, and would smile warmly whenever you encountered her on your way to the outside toilet. She fried mushrooms straight from the cardboard trug without washing them. so occasionally you might find a tasty morsel of fried manure on your plate! Once she knew jam roly-poly was one of Martin's favourites, she would save him the last portion as soon as she saw him come through the door at lunchtime.
I had a theatrical agency at the time which I ran from our house, and at Christmas time, where my West End colleagues invited their clients to lunch at The Ivy or L'Escargot, my actors were booked in for Christmas lunch at the Kia-Ora. You could not have found anything, in my opinion, more charming than the Kia-Ora 's Christmas Lunch. There were carols playing on the cassette-recorder behind the counter, fairy-lights rigged around the mirrors, Christmas cards on strings, and Padre Emilio serving his home-made wine with a starched white tea-towel over his arm.
We once asked Annie, when a cafe opened up across the road, whether she was worried
about losing trade . "Oh no," she said, "the more the merrier. I don't care how many cafes open - it brings more people and more business for everyone".
We moved from Hackney over 20 years ago now, and the Kia-Ora is today a Turkish-owned corner shop. I imagine Annie must have passed away, but our family will always fondly remember her - a real Hackney character. Her going-away present to us, a brass plaque of the Lord's Prayer, hangs on our wall to this day.
*Alfredo's - http://www.classiccafes.co.uk/Best.html