Meet In Your Kitchen | Emiko Davies & Marco Lami’s Dolce Vita in Florence

Italy is a luscious feast, its abundant beauty captures all your senses. As soon as I cross the border into the boot, I don’t even know where to start feeding my cravings, which food I should try first, which wine I should pick to fill my glass. You can’t help it, you fall in love with this country, over and over again, every day. And when you leave, you don’t know how you should ever put anything else into your mouth than the most perfect Truffle Carbonara from that tiny Trattoria in Orvieto, or the dark Chianti from that dreamy Fattoria enjoying spectacular views over San Gimignano. The kitchens and tables are always filled with the most wonderful treats waiting to be shared, the people have their own pace and a smile for you at any time, the past is treasured yet critically considered and wisely woven into the present.

We arrived in Florence on a cloudy day, the Tuscan hills spread out softly like open arms welcoming us to the next stop of our culinary trip around the world together with Zwilling. Before you even enter the region’s capital, before the man-made Renaissance buildings, sculptures, and gardens take your breath away, it’s nature’s creations, the landscapes that you’ll save in your head and never forget. It’s a stunning scene, seemingly peaceful in warm, earthy colors, but like a romantic painting, you can feel that there’s always the potential for more, a hint of drama in the air. Bright blue skies brushed with pastel-pink strokes are the background for cypress trees swaying silently in the warm wind, the darkest clouds part suddenly and let the sun break through to light up this glorious kingdom.

The farmers markets offer the most colorful produce. Fruits and vegetables grow happily under the Italian sun, and they are proudly celebrated in the country’s various regional cuisines. Italian cooking follows one philosophy: use only the best products, don’t distract from their quality, and be guided by sensible simplicity. Especially in the countryside, you can feel a lot of respect for nature and the will to go back to a more natural and sustainable way of growing produce and raising animals. The younger generation takes a look into the past to learn from the precious heritage of their ancestors. Traditional recipes are being modified yet never erased from the menu, they have always been an important part of the culture, they are memories of the childhood of every Italian and special treats for the rest of the world.

Somewhere in the soft hills behind Florence, between olive groves and cypress trees growing tall into the sky, you can find a heavy iron gate framed by a washed out yellow wall. If you walk though this gate, you’ll see a group of old houses, a former farm, overgrown with ivy, the roofs covered in terracotta tiles, and the wooden shutters painted as green as the lush trees and bushes along the gateway. It’s a little paradise in the heart of Tuscany, it’s the home of Emiko Davies and her husband Marco Lami.

Emiko Davies is the renowned author of two celebrated cookbooksFlorentine: The True Cuisine of Florence and AcquacottaRecipes and Stories from Tuscany’s Secret Silver Coast – and she’s also the voice behind her popular food blog of the same name. She lived in many countries, half Japanese, half Australian, and the daughter of a diplomat, she’s seen the world, but when she met Marco, she lost her heart to this man and his home country. Emiko loves food and cooking, she has a background in art history and fine arts, so Italy, and especially Tuscany’s traditional cuisine is a vast field for her to explore. She’s fascinated by all the regions and landscapes, towns and villages, treasuring their own recipes. The style is Italian, always, but the interpretation is distinct. Everything is done for a reason in Italian recipes: the way an ingredient is used, the season and region that it is used in shapes every recipe. And its origin often lies in the past.

Emiko’s eyes sparkle when she talks about historical cookbooks, about exhibitions at the Renaissance Palazzo Pitti in Florence showing still life paintings of solitary fruits at the Medici gardens. She finds inspiration for her creations at every corner, at the markets, in conversations with the farmers who share their family kitchen secrets with her. She often finds that many formulas, certain combinations and preparations, haven’t changed since medieval times. The food that’s been cooked in Tuscan kitchens for centuries still finds its way onto today’s tables, the stories behind these recipes are still shared when the families sit together.

The cookbook author is lucky, she found her perfect match. Her husband Marco is the sommelier at the Four Seasons Hotel Firenze, he approaches wine with the same love, passion, and precision, with the same curiosity that his wife feels for food. He loves to dig into Italy’s red and white classics and discover new tastes, the hidden gems from his country. To be able to chat about his finds and choices together with his guests and share the mutual love for good wine and food at the table is the greatest gift in his eyes. The story behind a wine maker, the philosophy, gets as much attention from him as the taste. “Ideally, you can taste the idea behind a wine.”

Emiko and Marco, both experience food and wine with all their senses, but they also involve their intellect to discover new fields to learn from, to find new stories and flavors to stimulate their creativity. It’s a passion vividly lived in their household and lovingly passed to the next generation. Their little daughter is already a skilled cupcake and cookie baker, watching what happens in her parents’ kitchen with a curious eye. When we met, the young girl shared some of her baking secrets with me, just like her mother who prepared the fluffiest “naked ravioli” for us – Florentine spinach and ricotta gnudi.

In the next months, I’ll share many Meet In Your Kitchen features with you that took me to California, Italy, France, and Japan. Thanks to Zwilling for sponsoring these features for our culinary trip around the world! Thank you, my man James Hickey, for joining me on these adventures and helping me take pictures!

 

Ricotta and Spinach Gnudi

By Emiko Davies, from “Florentine: The True Cuisine of Florence”

(published by Hardie Grant, 2016)

 Serves 4

350g / 3/4 pound firm ricotta, well-drained
300g / 2/3 pound cooked, chopped, well-drained spinach (if making from scratch, you need about 1 kg / 2 1/4 pounds fresh leaves)
2 eggs, beaten
A pinch of salt, plus more for the water
A pinch of ground nutmeg
About 50g / 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon plain flour
50g / 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
20 sage leaves
Salt and pepper for seasoning
Handful finely grated Parmesan cheese, to serve

Mix the ricotta, finely chopped spinach, eggs, pinch of salt and nutmeg together in a mixing bowl. You should have a thick, compact mixture.

Place the flour in a shallow bowl.

With hands, roll walnut-sized spoonfuls of the gnudi mixture in your hands, and then in the flour until well-coated. Place on a lightly-floured board until they are all ready.

Prepare a large pot of water (salted with a spoonful of salt) and bring to a simmer. Carefully drop the gnudi into the water and cook for about 4-5 minutes or until they begin to float to the surface.

In the meantime, prepare the sauce by melting the butter in a wide pan over medium heat with the sage leaves. When butter is melted and before it begins to brown, add about 2-3 spoonfuls of the gnudi water and swirl the pan to create a thick sauce. Season with salt and pepper.

When gnudi are ready, remove them from the water with a slotted spoon and place in the sauce. Turn heat to low and swirl to coat the gnudi gently with the sauce. Serve immediately with the cheese.

Emiko, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I’m originally from Australia, but have been living in Florence since about 2005. I live in Stettignano, which is a little neighbourhood, hilltop town just outside of Florence and here from home I cook and write cookbooks and look after this wriggly one (her daughter, Mariú). I also write a lot of articles for other publications as well.

And you, Marco?

I’m originally from San Miniato, which is just outside Florence. I work with wine. I work as a sommelier in Michelin star restaurants and I help Emiko, or I try to help her as much as possible with cooking and looking after Mariú.

Why did you choose to dive into the cuisine of the Maremma region for your second book, Emiko?

The second book was basically inspired by 6 months where we lived in Porto Ercole, which is a little fishing village essentially, it’s quite small on Monte Argentario. It’s on the very, very, southern part of Tuscany, on the coast. It just struck me how different that part of Tuscany is from Florence and from the parts of Tuscany that are better known to most people. So I wanted to write about the cuisine there partly because it was so interesting being on the coast and having a cuisine that’s inspired by the seafood, as well as the mountains from that area. It’s really rugged and wild, and a mountainous area. And partly because it’s not very well known. So I wanted to tell the stories of this place that people don’t think of really as Tuscany. When most people think of Tuscany, they think of these rolling hills and olive groves and cypress trees around Florence, the Chianti or Siena, but I don’t think they think of the seaside, islands, and mountains, really.

How important is the connection between the recipes and the region where they come from?

In Italy, I think that every recipe is so connected to a place, either the landscape or the actual region. Even within Tuscany. This is something I wanted to show through the two cookbooks that I’ve written, even within one region the recipes can change from town to town. As many towns as there are in a region, you have that many recipes in many cases. With Aquacotta, talking about the Maremma, that was really evident. Even with towns that are only a 15 minute drive away from each other have their own versions of an aquacotta, for example, which is a soup. Florence itself, has dishes that you only find in the city of Florence. So not only are they Tuscan, they’re actually Florentine. Even a ten-minute drive outside of Florence, there are some dishes that you just won’t see anywhere else outside of that invisible boundary. That’s true for all of Italy – it’s the same! – which is why I really like to write about a place that I get to know by living here or even visiting. I find it just endlessly fascinating how a landscape, or the town culture or a city culture – but even smaller than a city, like what they call in Italian a paesina, a little town – changes from one place to the next.

So first it’s a place and then the recipes? 

Yes, although sometimes it’s the recipe first and I ask “why is the recipe just like that? Is it always just like that?” And then you get to know that landscape and “Oh! It’s because the landscape is this way, or there are certain things that grow there, or certain things that have always grown there, or there are certain things that you only see in a particular season.” Everything has a reason, I find, with Italian recipes. There’s always a reason why there’s that particular combination of ingredients in a recipe and it’s usually to do with the landscape.

So, what’s next?

I have a book that I’m starting to work on, which will be family recipes. There will be a little bit of Tuscany, but also a little bit of some other regions based on Marco’s family history. So we’re going to the south of Italy, and also going to the north of Italy, and then meeting back in the center.

How do you develop and approach new recipes for your books?

It depends on how I come across it to begin with. But the way I usually approach a recipe, it’s often inspired by the market or the season, or visiting a place that I’ve just been to where I’ve tasted something and I want to recreate that recipe. Or if it’s the market, it’s because I’ve seen something really wonderful at the market and I really want to do a recipe. Then I really have to delve into finding out what is really the most traditional version of that recipe and why is it that traditional. So I often go into the history of that dish, I look at historical cookbooks – I love reading historical cookbooks! – so I’ll look at those, maybe talk to people. If it’s at a market, often people at the market know something. Or if it’s not from this region, then I try and talk to somebody who is from that region. So for example, I’ve got sitting in my fridge at the moment a recipe for quince. I found these beautiful quinces at the market and I just couldn’t resist – they looked so beautiful! – I just bought a whole kilo of them and then I thought later, what am I going to do with them? I wanted to try a recipe from Mantova (Mantua) and I just happened to be at the market with a friend of mine who is from there. She told me her aunt’s recipe for Mostarda Montovana, which is a really spicy fruit compote that you eat with cheese. That recipe is one that dates back to about the 13th century and there are many different ways to do it but I was looking at the very traditional ways. It’s amazing because it hasn’t really changed much since then. The recipe that my friend, Anna, gave me is more or less the same recipe that is recorded in cookbooks from centuries ago!

Does it happen very often that you find recipes that haven’t really changed much over the past few centuries?

Yes, a lot! Particularly a lot of Tuscan recipes are like that with no changes over centuries. They’re the same and that is also something that I find really fascinating because I come from a country which is so young and doesn’t have that deep rooted food culture. It’s really a mishmash of things brought from all over the world, in one place. So I’m always fascinated by these old, old recipes that haven’t changed for several hundred years.

Where do you find inspiration for your creative work?

The inspiration for my work really comes from a lot of things. The market, yes, and the season. As soon as it starts getting a little bit chilly, I suddenly start wanting to make soups and stews and baking things, for example. But I also get a lot of inspiration from historical books and cookbooks. I have an art history background and a fine art background so I also love looking at still-life paintings. In Florence, at the Petit Palace, for example, there’s a collection of paintings of still life. One of the Medici dukes had an artist paint all the different varieties of fruit that they had in their garden. So there are these paintings of just figs, and there are maybe forty or fifty different types of figs, each one painted singularly, and the same with apples, paintings of just apples, all the apples they had. And all the lemon trees – they had quite a big citrus collection…

So when you don’t know what to cook, you go to the museum?

Yes! I find it amazing when you see these things and it’s hard to find a lot of those old varieties of fruit, but now they are starting to come back. Well, somebody’s decided to care about it and has started growing these heirloom varieties and you can start to see them sometimes at the market. So whenever I see something kind of unusual and it looks like something from a Renaissance painting then I go “What is that thing?! I really want to cook with it! What can I do with it?” There’s a little old lady that sells fruit and vegetables in Piazza Santo Spirito and she has these heirloom apples that are about the size of an apricot…

…which you know from the paintings…

Yes! I did actually find them in a painting. She said they’re called Francesca apples and they’re from Florence and I saw them in one of these paintings… It’s amazing!

Marco, what makes Italian wine so special?

That’s a big question! So the special thing about Italian wines is – actually it could be a bit of a double-edged sword – is how complicated it is. A lot of wines in the world, new wine regions, even old wine regions, are quite simple to understand. Italian wines, what makes them different, is quite similar to the food. Every region has its own grapes and each grape is treated in a different way to make different types of wines. There are a lot of different wines to be discovered. So there are a few famous wines, a few famous names, but what is actually interesting is what’s hidden under those famous names in each of the 20 regions.

Do you have a favorite wine region?

No, I don’t have a favorite region. I don’t even have a favorite wine! As soon as a wine sparkles my curiosity, or makes me think a little bit it becomes a favorite. I think the good thing right now is that a lot of tradition is meeting with a lot of innovation, and as a general rule, things are getting simpler. There are a lot of wine regions that aren’t really famous that are now coming out with amazing stuff at good prices, which is also important for wine. For example, some parts of Sicily, like Etna especially. It’s for me, right now, one of the best regions in Italy.

What do you love most about your job?

I love talking to people who know more about wine and food than me, so learning! And the idea that wine and food are going back to an idea of simplicity and good stuff.

Is it just about the taste or is the philosophy also important to you?

It’s not just about the taste. The philosophy is sometimes more important, for me at least – knowing the context of something. If you consider wine like food, you cannot just concentrate on the taste. It’s like saying, this tomato is delicious but we had to chop down bushes, etc. to make it. The philosophy behind it is important, the idea of the produce is very important. I think what makes the difference between a good wine and a bad wine is actually what’s behind it. I mean, it’s almost strange for me to isolate the taste. Sometimes something can taste very good, but it’s kind of soulless. If there’s an idea behind it, it almost sounds very romantic, but it’s almost like you can actually taste the idea behind the wine. So sometimes the idea is more important than the actual taste… if you can talk about an objective taste!

Emiko, can you please tell us about the pasta with broccoli please, it’s such asweet story… the famous pasta!

(Laughing) Pasta with broccoli was a very improvised dish, but it was the first thing that I cooked for Marco when we were very early on in our dating phase, very early on. I really didn’t have anything in my fridge! At the time, I was living in this tiny, tiny apartment – the fridge was basically a mini-bar so to begin with I never had much in there anyway. Marco happened to be over and he happened to mention that he was hungry and I said, “Well, do you like broccoli?” and he said, “yes” which I found out later is….

(Marco)…a total lie!

It’s not his favorite food! If you couldn’t tell by the favorite things I like him to cook, he’s really into… he’s a protein man, less of an only vegetables man. But it was the only thing I had in my fridge so I made pasta with broccoli, a bit of garlic, some Parmesan cheese…

And did you like it, Marco?

I loved it.

(Emiko, laughing) He said, “I’m going to marry you!” when he took a bite of it.

If you could choose one person to cook a meal for you, who and what would it be, Emiko?

It would maybe be my grandmother, my mother’s mother, who passed away about 10 years ago. I would just ask her to make me a normal dish that she would make on any normal day. Something that I have lots of memories of. When I was eating her food I was a lot younger – I wouldn’t have recorded everything like I do now when I’m eating with somebody, where I mentally note everything about the dish! I would definitely have another one of her dishes.

And you, Marco?

It would definitely be my grandmother and one simple dish that I’ve been trying to make as well as she used to but it never works out really. It’s the simplest thing. A piece of meat, crumbed with Parmesan, cooked in butter and white wine. For some reason, it just doesn’t come out as nice. And the best part is actually not the meat itself because it’s just a piece of meat, but it’s the sauce that you could probably finish off a whole loaf of bread in it.

Thank you, Emiko and Marco!