29 June 2020

Federico Peliti - catering entrepreneur and photographer

Italian became important figure in British Colonial India

Federico Peliti, pictured in traditional Indian headdress
Federico Peliti, pictured in traditional
Indian headdress
Federico Peliti, whose skills as a chef and pastry-maker led him to spend a large part of his life in India under British colonial rule, was born on this day in 1844 in Carignano, a town in Piedmont about 20km (12 miles) south of Turin.

He was also an accomplished photographer and collections of his work made an important contribution to the documentary history of the early years of British rule in India.

The restaurant Peliti opened in Shimla, the so-called summer capital of the British Empire in India, became a favourite with colonial high society and was mentioned in the writings of Rudyard Kipling and others.

Peliti’s family hailed from Valganna, near Varese in Lombardy. They had mainly been surveyors and Peliti initially studied sculpture at the Accademia Albertina in Turin. 

He was diverted from a career in sculpture by the Third Italian War of Independence, in which he participated as a cavalryman in the 1st Nizza regiment of the Italian army. By chance, during his active service, he made friends with a group of confectioners and pastry-makers, who taught him some of their skills.

Armed with this new talent and in search of a job after leaving the army, Peliti entered a competition organised by Richard Bourke, the sixth Earl of Mayo and Viceroy of British India, to find a personal chef. Peliti won, moved to India in 1869 and settled in Calcutta. 

A postcard advertising Peliti's restaurant
in Calcutta. The building still stands today
Lord Mayo was assassinated three years later but Peliti stayed in Calcutta, teaming up with business partner Thomas O’Neill to form O'Neill & Peliti, a bakery in Bentinck Street. 

When the partnership broke up, Peliti moved to the more upmarket Chowringhee Road in 1875, and in 1881 opened a restaurant at Esplanade East which became popular among British high society.

In the same year he set up in Shimla, the so-called summer capital of British India, opening a cafe next to the Combermere bridge in Shimla, which had a terrace overlooking a valley and became very popular. Peliti built a grand home in nearby Mashobra, which he called Villa Carignano, where he lived with his wife, Judith, the daughter of a British-Indian government official.

As his reputation grew, Peliti was invited to cater for a lunch hosted by the Prince of Wales in Burma in 1891. 

He expanded his operations, establishing Peliti's Grand Hotel in Shimla and starting a company that canned food for export.

Peliti also trained other Italian confectioners, such as Angelo Firpo from Genoa, who set up another restaurant in Calcutta, and Felice Cornaglia, who took over his business in Bombay.

Peliti's Grand Hotel in Shimla was part of the Italian's business empire in India
Peliti's Grand Hotel in Shimla was part of the
Italian's business empire in India
British expats took to Peliti's restaurants in both Shimla and Calcutta and they became centres of society life. The author and journalist Rudyard Kipling, who was born in Bombay in 1865, immortalised Peliti's Shimla restaurant Regent House by referring to it in his short story The Phantom Rickshaw and his poem Divided Destinies. 

Peliti never returned to sculpture but channelled his creative talents in another direction through his interest in photography. Formally trained by the Turin photographer and instrument maker Felice Bardelli, Peliti was fascinated by the exotic and picturesque and his images of life in India at the time of British rule provide a valuable record.  Much of his collection is now housed at the Istituto Centrale per la Grafica - the Central Institute for Graphics - in Rome.

In 1902 Peliti decided to return to Italy, handing the management of his company to his sons, Edoardo and Federico, and moving back to Carignano, where he had a house decorated with frescoes by the painter Paolo Gaidano, a contemporary of Peliti’s from the nearby town of Poirino.  Peliti died in Carignano in 1914. 

Today, the name of Peliti’s lives on in Peliti’s Vermut, a vermouth manufactured in Turin which is based faithfully on the liqueur Federico Peliti produced for an official visit by the Prince of Wales, Edward VII, in 1877, using a blend of Indian spices, Piemontese flowers, absinthe and muscat wine.

Carignano's 18th-century Baroque cathedral built by Benedetto Alfieri
Carignano's 18th-century Baroque cathedral
built by Benedetto Alfieri
Travel tip:

Carignano is one of the oldest towns in Piedmont with a rich history, going back to the Bronze Age.  It was an important stopping-off point on a road built by the Romans between Turin and Carmagnola and archaeological finds such as Roman tombs, pottery, cobblestones and weapons have been discovered locally.  Carignano became one of the most important municipalities of Turin in the late 19th century thanks to the Bona wool mill.  In the centre of the town, there is an 18th-century Baroque cathedral dedicated to Saints Giovanni Battista and Remigio, designed by Benedetto Alfieri and decorated by Paolo Gaidano, which overlooks the town’s market square.

The Badia di San Gemolo
in Valganna, near Varese
Travel tip:

The municipality of Valganna, from which Peliti’s family moved to Carignano, is a few kilometres north of Varese in Lombardy, in the heart of the Italian lake district, surrounded by the picturesque countryside of the Parco delle cinque vette nature reserve.  The Maggiore and Lugano lakes are nearby. Visitors to Valganna are often drawn to the Badia di San Gemolo, a church and abbey complex dedicated to the memory of San Gemolo, the nephew of a bishop who died after being attacked by robbers nearby, whose remains are preserved in the abbey.

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