eat in my kitchen

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Tag: Tuscany

Meet In Your Kitchen | Sheep, Peace & Tuscan Pecorino at Podere Il Casale

The light was warm and golden as we drove down the rocky alley to Podere Il Casale. It was late in the afternoon, later than expected, but that’s what happens when you enjoy Tuscany. The sun was so low that it almost touched the Tuscan hills that seem to embrace the secluded farm tucked in between Pienza and Montepulciano. I came to visit the celebrated Swiss cheese maker Ulisse Braendli, to see his sheep and goat herds, and try his Pecorino, but I found so much more. There is a silent peace laying over this farm like a blanket, it calms your mind as soon as you walk past the old terracotta-colored farmhouse. As you stand on the terrace, a breathtaking viewing platform, under fragrant pine trees protecting you like an umbrella, as you see the landscape laid out majestically in front of your eyes, soaked in dimmed shades of green and ocher, you can only smile and thank life for such unbelievable beauty.

All the people and places I visited in Tuscany for my culinary trip around the world together with Zwilling had one thing in common, they all give themselves into the hands of nature with great trust and respect. No matter what obstacles they have to fight, what problems they have to solve, they know that nature gives and takes and that there’s a balance. It’s not an easy life, but that’s also not what Ulisse was looking for when he and his partner Sandra left their home country and started a new adventure in Italy almost 30 years ago. Life is tough on this piece of land that they bought, but it’s also incredibly rewarding. They started with 3 sheep and now there are 200 of them, living an enviably good life under the Tuscan sky.

Ulisse loves Tuscany for being real, traditional, and romantically old-fashioned. Electricity only came to Podere Il Casale in 1980, before, it was a very simple, basic life. The farm is the perfect setting for his vision, to “help” nature create beautiful raw milk cheese. All the cheese, vegetables, and olive oil from the farm are organic, but that’s not an option, that’s the standard in his philosophy: “Conventional farming is strange, organic farming is normal. Wasting less of our food than the 40% that actually end up in the bin, is one of the solutions to open the doors for organic, local, and seasonal food for the broader population.” His mother planted the seed for his critically creative mind, she taught him to be open and experiment. “I blame the 60s,” says the cheese maker with a smile on his face.

The cheese at Podere Il Casale is made with just three ingredients: raw milk, rennet, and salt. Every kind of milk is different, depending on the four seasons, the weather, the soil, and the food that the sheep find on the fields. “Great food makes great milk and that makes great cheese – and every season makes a different cheese.” That’s the whole humble secret behind a Pecorino that so many people praise as one of Tuscany’s best. When the animals are outside, when they eat good food and there’s space, you have less problems with diseases, you don’t need chemicals, you can keep it under control with homeopathic methods. The animals eat barley, oats, and beans when they are in the barn, their “power food”, and hay and grass on the fields. Raw milk cheese has a strong connection to the place where it comes from, to the animals and the climate. To taste Ulisse’s sheep and goat milk cheese, young and ripe, pure and refined with white truffle or saffron, was one of the purest pleasures during my trip in Italy. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to visit the farm’s praised restaurant, but eating that wonderful cheese and enjoying the views of Pienza at sunset definitely made up for it.

When Ulisse stood amongst his sheep, playing with his two rowdy snow-white Maremma sheepdogs, the last rays of the low sun in our faces, I asked him what he loves the most about his life and he said: “To be free here on the farm. To do what I would like to do and not to make too many compromises – not to do something because it’s convenient.”

Many new Meet In Your Kitchen features took me to California, Japan, France, and Italy in the last few months. 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!

 

Homemade Quark (fresh cheese)

By Ulisse Braendli – Podere Il Casale

Makes 1 pound

1.8l / 7.5 cups farm fresh milk, preferably still warm (don’t use ultra pasteurized milk!)
Cheese starter culture (amount according to the package instructions)
Liquid rennet

In a large saucepan, slowly warm up the milk until it’s about 25°C / 77°F, then stir in the cheese starter culture and take the pan off the heat. After 1 hour, add a tiny (!) drop of the rennet, cover the pot, and let it rest at room temperature for about 24 hours. The cheese is done, when the curd pulls away from the sides of the pot.

Transfer the milk mixture to a cheesecloth-lined strainer set over a bowl. Keep the milk mixture in the strainer at room temperature for 12-24 hours to drain the whey from the cheese, or until it reaches the desired texture; the whey should be clear. Whisk until smooth and transfer to a glass container, cover, and keep in the fridge for 2-3 days.

 

What made you leave Switzerland?

I decided to start a new experience and when you start a new experience, why not change the place? It was more a about the concept. What is also better here is a shorter winter…

And you don’t like winter?

No, I like winter – it’s better for relaxing but here, winter means you have to go in the forest to cut wood. It’s one thing if you have to heat for two months, but if you have to heat for six months, it’s much more work! But it’s better here – you can make olive oil which is a great product. After the butter experience, the olive oil experience is better. It’s great. Tuscany is a nice place – it’s very real, and has an old style. In Switzerland it’s difficult. It’s just another experience. Perhaps next time I wouldn’t choose Italy.

So you never had a close connection to Tuscany? You just looked at the world and said, “Tuscany!”

No, first it was Piedmont because it’s a bit cheaper! But it’s foggy, there are too many Swiss, and the people are really a bit weird (laughing). I would not say that Tuscans are really open, but they are a little bit better! The further south you go, the better the Italians – in my opinion!

When did you arrive in Tuscany?

In 1991.

How did you find this piece of land?

By chance. We were here for the first time. We had a good relationship to the farmer. He gave us time to find the money, he helped us a lot. It was very simple.

Was it a smooth transition? Did you have a chance to grow into it?

Yes, a bit. Obviously, he had helped us more for the network and less for the cultivation. You have to imagine that these farmers are never really learning, they are just doing what they do because that’s how it’s always been done. Their father did it this way, their grandfather did it this way. It was very simple here. There was no tourism here in this valley. Pienza was sleepy so we really had a bit of this old-style life. Imagine, the farm got electricity in 1980. So, before, life was really simple. Basic. Crop-sharing families in the 60s meant that there were 20 people in four rooms. The farmers didn’t read or write – they didn’t go to school. That’s also Tuscany.

How much did you know about farming when you came here?

Nothing. I grew some vegetables at home (laughing).

Did you have a balcony (laughing)?

No, ground and soil but very small! But my mother always taught me about seasonal food, local food. I’m speaking of the 60s! She taught me about taste, that it’s not convenient to eat something that is not good, to experiment, to not always eat the same thing…

Was there ever a moment when you felt like giving up?

No, no. When I decide something, I go.

What do you love most about your life here?

To be free here on the farm. Not to be free with the society, but here on the farm. To do what I would like to do and not to make too many compromises – not to do something because it’s convenient. I do what I like to do. When I do what I like to do, I can convince people. If I have to do things that I don’t like to do, I’m not convincing. I think that’s normal! That’s why evolution or new things are really based on ideas that come from inside.

The cheese that you produce, is it organic?

Sure. Organic in our case is not really a must or even optional. It’s normal. Because who likes to eat chemicals that are used for normal farming? I would say that normal farming is strange. Organic is normal. Just to explain this better, it’s a question of when you want to be convinced of your product, you have to know what you use. The cheese is made with three products: milk, rennet, and salt. Anything more – that might be normal for processed food – is useless. So that’s why real food is organic food – not because organic is really important but because organic is kind of a brand that is about not needing more than what is necessary.

Do you believe that organic is the future?

I think more local should be the future. Local and seasonal. Organic is already too industrial in certain cases.

Do you think that local, seasonal, and organic works for cities?

Sure.

Do you believe that there is enough food if it is produced organically and locally?

Definitely, because if you are buying food with a certain concept in mind you waste less. We still waste 40% of food. That’s why all this talk recently of “saving the world with genetically modified crops,” that’s all blah blah blah.

Emiko Davies, who introduced me to you, told me that you make the best cheese in Tuscany.

Wow!! (Laughing)

What makes your cheese so special?

Our cheese is raw milk cheese. That means our cheese is connected to the animals – the sheep or the goats. What they eat is transferred into the cheese through the raw milk process, because of the bacteria. You have to know that a rainy day milk is different to a sunny day milk. Spring milk with beautiful clover and grass is amazing milk, but also winter milk is amazing because it’s colder. Summer milk is a bit boring, but it’s still great.

Why is it boring?

There is no food! Look (indicating around him), the fields are all brown! Basically, I always tell people we don’t produce cheese. We just help the great milk to become cheese. The rest is done by the bacteria. The chaos of the bacteria gives the cheese its character. The rest is hygiene, how healthy the animals are…that’s our job. So we create the fundament for a great cheese. But the rest is done by the animals, bacteria, and the environment.

I read on your website that you found truffles on your land and for a long time you didn’t even know you had truffles here! How did that happen?

Because the truffle hunter came and said, “You have white truffles in a really small corner of the forest. Could I have an exclusive deal?” I said, “Sure, I didn’t even know that there were truffles here!” Now, we do truffle hunting with him. He has all the dogs and the knowledge, because you don’t find truffles without it.

You could make a truffle cheese, or are you not interested in these kind of mixtures?

We do a truffle cheese, but a very small, limited edition because the truffle has a very fragile aroma. If you don’t use chemical aroma you really have to use a lot of truffle and that means a lot of money!

Expensive cheese!

Yes, it’s not extremely expensive but it’s not a normal cheese. A few people, for example Russians, they go crazy for truffles. When they see truffle cheese they buy it. But we are here in Italy, not in Russia.

You said that you have a closer relationship to some sheep – do you have a favorite sheep at the moment?

(Laughing) Great! But no, that would be politically incorrect!

If you had one, would you be able to find it?

I have a few that I know very well. There is for example one – now it’s difficult to find her (looking around) – her name is Castagna because she always ate chestnuts. There was a time when we had a period of chestnuts here – not chestnuts in the forest but chestnuts for feeding the pigs. We always gave her chestnuts and she would always follow you if you had chestnuts. But she’s very old – she’s about 8 or 9 years old.

Really? And she is one of them here?

Yes, but she has a bit of a different relationship to humans because she obviously remembers all these chestnuts!

Thank you, Ulisse!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meet In Your Kitchen | Farm Life at San Gimignano’s Fattoria Poggio Alloro

If I could draw the most perfect Tuscan farm in my mind, in the perfect setting, with the perfect food and wine, with loving people taking care of the land, it would be the almost unreal Fattoria Poggio Alloro. Facing the elegant towers of San Gimignano, you can see straight lines of green vines painted in the landscape, crossed by the gentle curves of the surrounding hilltops. A little pond lays peacefully at the lowest point of the valley creating the serene scene of a Tuscan dream.

Family and food are two basic columns of the Italian culture, they are inseparably connected with each other. From childhood to adult life, so many memories are created by the two of them. It’s the backbone of a country known for its genuine hospitality, where the cuisine is strongly influenced by the fact that food and wine are meant to be shared at the table. Poggio Alloro is an old farm where a family of sisters and brothers, sons, daughters and husbands, aunts and uncles lives together, works together, and enjoys the pleasures of life together – and I’m more than thankful that they decided to share it with the rest of us. This little paradise is a microcosm, it’s self-sufficient, everything you need in the kitchen comes from their own fields, their winery, and the cattle farm. The family produces their own wheat to bake bread and olive oil to dip it in. Whatever you find on your plate or in your glass is of outstanding quality, created by a family that believes in living in harmony with nature. Therefore cultivating organic farming is the only choice in their eyes. They are blessed and they know it, thanks to the way their fathers and mothers have respected and worked with the land for generations.

Renowned chef und cookbook author Sarah Fioroni invited me to spend a day at the farm, to meet her 82 year-old father, Amico, and cook the famous Bistecca alla Fiorentina at the grill of their rustic outdoor kitchen together with him. I totally fell for the man’s rugged charm – I guess it’s a talent that Italians just know better to use than anyone else – and I fell in love with his gorgeous vegetable garden: L’Orto di Amico. You just have to watch this man walk through his kingdom, past obscenely lush basil plants filling the greenhouse with their addictive perfume. If you hear him swear that it was the hottest summer in 200 years and that the sun destroyed a great part of his tomato harvest, if you see him stroke the farm’s snow-white Chianina cows, one of the world’s oldest breeds, then you’ll understand how much he has grown together with his land, with the soil, the produce, and the animals. There’s fennel, lettuce, and beans, dark Tuscan kale with long pointy leaves waiting to be picked for the Tuscan Ribollita soup, there are plenty of leeks, as Amico himself loves it so much. It’s all organic, it’s all there to feed the family and their guests at the farm’s fantastic restaurant. You can also stay at the farm that has been mentioned in the Michelin guide for years and imagine that it’s your kingdom – even if it’s just for a night.

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!

 

Bistecca alla Fiorentina

By Amico and Sarah Fioroni

You can find the German recipe here.

Chinanina bistecca must be eaten rare, if you cook it too long, it’ll be tough and lose flavor.

Serves 3-4

1 (7.5-cm / 3-inch) Chianina bistecca, about 1 kg / 2 1/4 pounds
Flaky sea salt
A few black peppercorns, crushed with a mortar and pestle

Heat the BBQ grill, preferably using charcoal. The grill should be very hot for this recipe.

Grill the bistecca for about 5 minutes on each side, flipping once, or until rare. Take the steak off the grill, season with salt and pepper on both sides. Let the meat rest for about 10 minutes, covered, then cut into thick slices and enjoy with a glass of excellent red wine (Chianti of course)!

 

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your father?

My name is Sarah Fioroni and this is Amico Fioroni, my father. He’s 82 years old, even if he seems 60 years old! We are here at Fattoria Poggio Alloro, right in the middle of Tuscany in San Gimignano. We are an organic, real working farm, and this is our family business.

You’ve just mentioned that this is a family business. Is it always fun to work in a family business? 

It’s not always easy working in a family business but I feel that we’ve been lucky. We have a great relationship, not only with my dad but with the rest of the family. Vero, Babo?

(Amico) Certo!

So things are a little bit easier here because we are so busy working all day long that when we see each other the last thing we want to do is fight. So, we just sit at the table with a glass of wine and some food and life is better!

(Amico) Uniti si vince!

Together we will win (laughing)! It means that together we do something good. Otherwise if you fight, you get separated, you don’t keep going with your farm, or with your family business.

What do you love about your life here?

My father loves the land. And us, the family. We are three daughters and the wife, of course!

(Amico) E la moglie! (And the wife!)

For me, what I love the most is this genuine life here – the feeling of living and growing up on a farm with such a pure and beautiful example of him (my father), my uncle, and my aunt. I think we’ve been blessed. And the love that we have for the land and the nature makes our life here really, really beautiful.

So, I guess you’ve never considered leaving!

No, I’ve never considered leaving!

What does healthy food mean for you?

It means everything. Healthy food is a major part of my life. I’ve been eating healthy and organic for my entire life so I cannot think about eating anything else. We eat food that comes from my father’s hands or my family’s hands. It’s so genuine with a huge respect for the land and where the food comes from.

And for you, Amico?

Supermercato, no! 

(Sarah) He only loves the things that he produces on his farm: organic and seasonal. That’s the way back to the origin where we all come from – to the organic way of life.

This house was already here when my parents arrived in 1955, but it was totally different. I will show you some pictures in black and white, later, so you can see how it looked. My parents rebuilt everything. They worked very, very hard on rebuilding this farm, by planting new vineyards, new olive trees and everything. But the house was already here. Also, the name of the farm was the same – Poggio Alloro.

What does it mean?

Actually, it’s the bay leaf tree! Poggio means little hill, because the house is on top of a little hill. And alloro means the bay leaf tree. So, it means bay leaf tree hill. It’s nice because we have a lot of bay leaf trees and it’s very typical in Tuscany. It smells very good and you can cook with it. It’s really nice!

How many family members live here?

We still have our family house here, so all three families are still here. We are about 15 members of the family working here. Not all of us live here together anymore because the house is still the same. You’re not allowed to build any other buildings here because it’s a very protected landscape. It’s a shame, because instead of living here on the property you have to move somewhere else nearby. On the other hand, it’s a beautiful thing because you still have the same landscape as 60 years ago – and it may be for another 100 years.

Can you tell a bit about your olive oil?

Frantoio, this is the typical Tuscan variety. We have three different varieties: Moraiolo, Leccino, and Frantoiano. This is the Frantoiano, the olives turn darker. By November, they will be a dark purple colour, almost black. That’s the time for the harvest. We harvest by hand in this way: we put our hands in like this (reaching an open, outstretched hand upwards into the branches, and closing the hand as it moves downwards, gathering the olives between the fingers), and we collect all the olives in a net on the ground, and then collect the olives into a basket. Our olive oil, and I would say Tuscan olive oil in general, is very herbal, very grass-flavored, like artichokes, and it’s very spicy. It makes you cough sometimes when it’s fresh! It burns a little bit in your throat! It’s a good thing! All the nutrients and all the flavour are there. It’s a good sign.

Has this farm always been organic? 

Actually, my parents, my whole family, they have been organic for generations. You have to remember that almost 60 years ago, there weren’t even tractors here so they were working the land and fields with their hands and with animals to help them move the soil. It was totally pure organic farming. It’s definitely not a new decision or a new style for our family. It’s embracing where they come from and what they have been doing for so long, for so many years, and they are still doing it now. 100% organic, not using any pesticides, not using any compost or chemical products – just as they did 60 years ago. In the 1970’s and 80’s, when agricultural farming was very tough and hard, we were 80% organic. We did use treatment, but only when we needed it. After that, we decided to go back to our origins and we became a 100% organic farm again. So, that’s their style of living. That’s the way they grew up.

My father really hates the industrial agriculture. For him, organic agriculture is the best agriculture in the world because he says that it’s the natural way to do it, using organic remedies, and not using pesticides. It’s the same for all of the other fields that we have, like the vineyards, crops, fruit trees – not only in the garden, but everywhere on our property. Everything that we produce, wine, wheat, spelt, sunflower, barley, everything is produced organically. It’s always a good sign to see fruits with little bugs inside – you just have to remove the bugs and eat the fruit! The bugs are a sign that the fruits are organic – if the fruits come from industrial agriculture the bugs wouldn’t be present.

Do you believe that organic agriculture is the future?

My answer is that it is the past and the future! It’s the way we used to be. Maybe in a very, very long time starting from now, the buyers or customers will finally understand that buying products of industrial agriculture is not healthy – for themselves and for the environment – and then finally move back to organic farming.

Do you believe that we can produce enough if we only produce organically?

The production will definitely be less, especially if you have neighboring farms that are non-organic – it disrupts production. All the insects will move from one farm to the other and that’s not very helpful for organic farming. Here, luckily, many of the farms are organic so we are in a very lucky paradise here. But in other places, it would be a hard choice if you are the only one producing organically in the middle of an industrial agricultural area. It will be hard. For example, a very natural method of avoiding those stinky bugs – you know the green, stinky bugs? – there is also a smaller type that attacks lettuce and tomatoes– the natural remedy is to plant lots of basil in your garden. And a lot of hot chilli pepper! It really bothers them, so they go away! Going back to the future of organic farming – what I believe – is that yes, we are going to produce less, for sure, but do we really need to produce so much? Do we really need to waste all this food, to over produce, and to overeat every single day? To me, the answer is no, we don’t need to use this massive amount of food. We can produce less in a very organic way. It’s a big dream, of course, I do understand that! But if we eat less we don’t need to have all our grocery stores full of fruits and vegetables that will go in the trash can. Just produce less, eat healthier, and this will help our world to function better. It’s easy to say. It will be very hard to do it, but if we start now in a small way – in our garden, in our backyard – we can change. Little by little!

Grazie, Sarah and Amico!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

meet in your kitchen | Emiko Davies’ Grape Focaccia & her life in Tuscany

Emiko Davies' Schiacciata-2

Our long wooden dining table has seen many luscious lunches and dinners. It has its scars and scratches and I’m sure that a few of them came from an unexpected meal with friends a few months ago. It must have been spring, I was still busy proof reading my book and I was rather stressed. What was supposed to be a one hour snack with a friend from Malta turned into a little Friday feast, with three friends, salads, cheese, and salami, and with a few more bottles of white wine than one should open (and empty) on a Friday afternoon – but who cares, we had a wonderful time. We laughed so much that I managed to relax and forget my duties for a few hours – and it was the start of this meet in your kitchen feature.

One of the friends who sat at my table that day was my dear Heilala. Whenever we meet, we get lost in long conversations. Between nibbles of cheese and sips of wine, she told me about a friend from her school days who just published her first cookbook and had also gone through all the excitement that comes with the adventure of being a book author. Her friend lives in the heart of Tuscany, in Florence, once the breeding ground of breathtaking Renaissance art and architecture. If you’ve seen it once, you’ll never forget its magical beauty. So Heilala told me that her friend lives right there, in this Italian paradise with her Italian husband and their little daughter, she writes a food blog and as I found out later, she’s already at work on her second cookbook – she’s called Emiko Davies.

I knew Emiko, not personally, but I’ve been a huge fan of her work for quite a while. Her recipes, her writing, and her photography have depth, every single aspect of her work shows that she’s knows what she’s talking about. Every picture she shares speaks of the beauty that surrounds her. If you live in a place that’s so full of history, culture, and evolving traditions, where the fine arts have flourished for centuries, you can only grow. The former art and history student dug deep into Florence’s culinary traditions. Like a scientist, she observed, read, and learned about the original cooking and baking of this part of Tuscany, a region that’s so versatile and rich. Florentine, The True Cuisine of Florence is a declaration of love, of someone who has experienced the city from the outside and has now become a part of it.

The curiosity and persistency of this food loving woman fascinated me – even more so after I found out that we share a beloved friend. We only got in touch last week, but I immediately knew that I wanted to meet Emiko in her kitchen. For know it’s just a virtual meeting, but I’m planning to visit her next year, in real life – to be continued.

All pictures in this post are taken by Emiko Davies.

Emiko Davies' Schiacciata

 

Emiko Davies' Schiacciata

Schiacciata all’uva | Grape focaccia

from ‘Florentine: The True Cuisine of Florence’ by Emiko Davies, published by Hardie Grant Books

For one or two fleeting months of the year from September to October, the appearance of schiacciata all’uva in Florence’s bakery shop windows is a sign that summer is over and the days will begin to get noticeably shorter. This sticky, sweet focaccia-like bread, full of bright, bursting grapes, is a hint that winemakers are working hard at that moment harvesting their grapes and pressing them. 

These days, it is usually made with fragrant, berry-like concord grapes (uva fragola) or the more traditional sangiovese or canaiolo wine grapes. These grapes stain the bread purple and lend it its juicy texture and sweet but slightly tart flavour. They are also what give the bread a bit of crunch, as traditionally the seeds are left in and eaten along with the bread. Avoid using red or white seedless table grapes or white grapes for this – they just don’t do it justice in terms of flavour or appearance. If you can’t get concord grapes or it’s the wrong season, try replacing them with blueberries. It’s completely unorthodox, of course, but it’s a very good substitute, giving you a much closer result than using regular table grapes.

Makes 1 large schiacciata, serves 6–8

500 g (1 lb 2 oz) plain (all-purpose) flour, plus extra for dusting
20 g (3/4 oz) fresh yeast, or 7 g (1/4 oz/2 1/2 level teaspoons) active dry yeast
400 ml (131/2 fl oz) lukewarm water
75 ml (21/2 fl oz) extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for greasing
600 g (1 lb 5 oz) concord grapes (or other black grape)
80 g (23/4 oz) caster (superfine) sugar
1 teaspoon aniseed (optional)
icing (confectioners’) sugar (optional)

Preparing the dough

This can be done the night before you need to bake it, or a couple of hours ahead of time.

Sift the flour into a large bowl and create a well in the centre.

Dissolve the yeast in some (about 1/2 cup or 125 ml) of the lukewarm water.

Add the yeast mixture to the centre of the flour and mix with your hand or a wooden spoon. Add the rest of the water little by little, working the dough well after each addition to allow the flour to absorb all the water.

Add 1 tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil to the dough and combine.

This is quite a wet, sticky dough. Rather than knead, you may need to work it with a wooden spoon or with well-oiled hands for a few minutes until it is smooth. Cover the bowl of dough well with some plastic wrap and set it in a warm place away from draughts until it doubles in size, about 1 hour. If doing this the night before, leave the dough in the bowl to rise in the fridge overnight.

Assembling the schiacciata

Separate the grapes from the stem, then rinse and pat dry. There’s no need to deseed them if making this the traditional way.

Preheat the oven to 190°C (375°F).

Grease a 20 cm (8 in) x 30 cm (12 in) baking tin or a round pizza tray with olive oil. With well-oiled (or wet) hands, divide the dough into two halves, one slightly larger than the other. Place the larger half onto the greased pan and with your fingers, spread out the dough evenly to cover the pan or so that it is no more than 1.5 cm (1/2 in) thick.

Place about two-thirds of the grapes onto the first dough layer and sprinkle over half of the sugar, followed by about 30 ml (1 fl oz) of olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon of aniseed.

Stretch out the rest of the dough to roughly the size of the pan and cover the grapes with this second layer of dough, stretching to cover the surface. Roll up the edges of the bottom layer of dough from underneath to the top, to seal the edges of the schiacciata. Gently push down on the surface of the dough to create little dimples all over. Cover the top with the rest of the grapes and evenly sprinkle over the remaining aniseed, sugar and olive oil.

Bake for about 30 minutes or until the dough becomes golden and crunchy on top and the grapes are oozing and cooked.

Remove from the heat and allow to cool completely. Cut into squares and enjoy eaten with your hands. If you like, dust with icing (confectioners’) sugar just before serving – although this isn’t exactly traditional, it is rather nice.

This is best served and eaten the day of baking, or at the most the next day.

Emiko Davies' Schiacciata

You’ve lived in many countries and experienced a variety of cultures in your life, your mother is Japanese, your father is Australian, your husband is Italian and you grew up in Beijing. How has your diverse cultural identity influenced your life and cooking?

Moving around a lot and identifying with different cultures, I grew up not feeling like I was particularly attached to just one place. I think this made it very easy (perhaps even necessary – at least that’s how I felt about it when I was 20!) for me to pick up a suitcase, buy a plane ticket and move to a new country to learn a new language and discover the new culture. I am also pretty sure this travel and experience partly contributed to me being an adventurous eater – always willing to try anything once. From the beginning, I understood that food is a way to connect with and understand a new culture – if, for Florentines, their number one beloved comfort dish is a warm panino made with the fourth stomach of the cow (it’s known as a panino al lampredotto), then you can be sure it’s one of the first things I tried – and fell in love with too!

What do you love the most about Florence? Do you find anything difficult to connect with?

There are many sides to Florence and the longer I live here, the more I discover another aspect! When I first moved here, it was so easy to fall head of heels for Florence – especially for someone who studied art and art history as I did! Everywhere you look, the place is touched with the Renaissance and the most important artists in history, it’s like one giant museum. That’s what drew me in. And it’s what drew a lot of expats to Florence, so there is a large expat community with many similar-minded people, who are all here for similar reasons (love, food or art, usually!). I made friends easily here and felt really at home, ironically (as I always feel more at home amongst expats). But having said that, I find it’s really difficult to make friends, really good friends, with Florentines. That’s been a struggle. I ended up meeting and marrying one, but I have to say, he’s quite different from the typical Florentine man!

Was it easy to become a part of the Florentine way of life?

I think yes and no. Living it the historical centre of Florence, visiting the local butcher or fruit vendor or bakery for your shopping, the same bar for coffee every morning, you begin to get to know your neighbourhood and they begin to know you, it becomes your little world. I’ve met some wonderful people this way, and this feeling of a neighbourhood or quarter is something I love about Florence – something that I hope everyone who still lives in the centre continues to cling on to, as tourism tends to take over in a city like Florence. On another aspect, since having a child, I can see the cultural differences coming out more than ever! My parenting ideals are much more anglo-saxon and more often than not they seem to clash with the ‘norm’ here!

Your husband is head sommelier at the Four Season’s Michelin-starred Il Palagio, do you find it inspiring that both of you work in the fields of the culinary pleasures of life?

Always. We work in two quite different worlds – I write about and cook homely, traditional food, while he has, for the past five years or more, worked solely in fine dining and wine. But at home we always cook together and we have a similar appreciation for good food and good ingredients, cooked properly. He inspires me and helps me in ways he probably doesn’t know.

You say that “Italian cuisine doesn’t exist, there are many cuisines”. Why do you think regional cuisine is so diverse in Italy?

There are many theories, but the simplest answer is history. Italy is actually a very young nation – it was unified in 1861, that’s little more than 150 years ago! But the traditions, dialects, dishes and ways of life of each region are ancient. In many cases, even the differences you’ll find from town to town are huge. This is what makes Italy such a fascinating place – it’s not really one country to discover but so many different places, which means it’s almost a new cuisine in every town you visit.

On your blog, you mention an author called Pellegrino Artusi and his cookbook, known in English as Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, published in Italy in 1891. Can you tell us a bit about this book and why it fascinates you?

Italy had only been unified for 30 years when this book – documenting 790 “Italian” recipes – was published. It became the sort of cookbook every household acquired and had sitting on the shelf. Artusi himself was from Emilia-Romagna but he spent much of his life in Florence, so many of the dishes are Tuscan, or familiar to Tuscans. But it wasn’t meant to be a regional cookbook, it was more like an encyclopaedia of recipes for the “modern” housewife. I love it because it’s not only a snapshot into what Italian food was when the country was newly unified, but also because many of the recipes are still made the same way, so it’s a fantastic reference for traditional recipes. It’s a good read, too, Artusi is witty and at times hilarious in his anecdotes that accompany recipes.

Why do you think that there are many Florentine dishes that didn’t change much since medieval times?

Traditions change very slowly in Florence! They have this saying here, la squadra che vince non si cambia, or the don’t change a winning team. It’s a bit like the phrase, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Partly there’s that at play, it’s the proud nature of Florentines to continue to prepare and eat their all-time favourite dishes more or less the way they’ve been prepared for centuries. There’s also the philosophy to cook the local ingredients that have always been available for Florentines, and to use the long-time staples of the cuisine – bread and olive oil being two of the most important! These have been around for a long time and are still what humble, earthy Florentine cuisine is based on.

Can you imagine living in Tuscany for the rest of your life?

For the same reason that I’ve always found it easy to pick up and move, I can’t really imagine being in one place forever! But I’ve lived in Florence longer than any other single place on the planet, so that’s already quite an achievement! Italy is not an easy place to live in, despite the romanticism and beauty. I think that we are lucky to have the option to be able to live in two wonderful countries – Australia and Italy – whenever we want. For now, it’s Italy’s time.

Florentine, your first cookbook, came out in March this year. At the moment you’re working on your next book, Acquacotta, which will be about the cuisine of the southern Maremma area of Tuscany. It will be published exactly a year after the first one. Why did you decide to start working on the new book immediately and what feels different now, after the experience of the first book?

It came about quite quickly because we were living in Porto Ercole, in southern Tuscany for six months last year, well before Florentine came out, and it was just such a beautiful place I knew it had to be shared in the form of a cookbook! So I contacted my publisher and we talked about the pitch for a couple of months and came up with Acquacotta. She was aware that starting to work on it while I was living there would be the best way to bring it to life, so essentially I started working on Acquacotta while I was still finishing Florentine. It’s been difficult to juggle between the two and ‘switch’ from one to the other when Florentine finally came out, but the experience of the first book has helped me feel much more confident about the second one – from the recipe testing to the writing to the photographs, even how the recipes were made and shot. It really helped that I have the exact same wonderful team from Florentine working on this book too, it felt really good and seemed to just make itself, almost!

Your photography is stunning, do you prefer taking the pictures of your dishes yourself?

Thank you! I still feel like I have a long way to go – my background is in analog film photography, and I still feel like I struggle with digital photography, especially the editing part. I’m self-taught for the most part. For my blog, I take all my own photographs, but for the cookbook I took the location photographs, leaving the recipe shots to a wonderful photographer Lauren Bamford. In Australia, a cookbook is really a team effort, with one professional looking after each and every aspect of the book. For the recipe shots, I wanted to make sure the dishes looked completely authentic and real – just like how you’d find them in Florence. So I cooked them myself (with some help from my husband Marco and a home economist) and while I was busy in the kitchen, Deb Kaloper, an absolute magician in food styling, styled the dishes and Lauren Bamford took the photographs. It was a dream to work with them.

How do you develop new recipes for your book and your blog? What inspires you?

What inspires me most is travel and seeing how a place – its landscape, its history – is so strongly connected to the food that is made there and vice versa. It’s why I am so interested in regional Italian food. In Florentine I wanted to share how the food in this city belongs entirely to Florence – not just Tuscany. It’s not Tuscan food. It’s Florentine food. And for Acquacotta, which is still about Tuscany, I wanted to show people how different Tuscan food is when you come to a place like the Maremma – more isolated, less touristy, hidden, and full of beautiful, rugged landscapes, mountains and the sea, which inspire the food. For the blog, I talk about not only dishes that I’ve found in old cookbooks or tasted in a new place, but also create some travel pieces for people who might be coming to Italy on holiday and want to avoid touristy food and know where to taste the real deal.

Who is your biggest inspiration in the kitchen?

In every day cooking, it’s probably my husband. Everyone who likes to cook for other people knows that the best thing about cooking is making something that you know someone else will love! In developing recipes for the blog and my books, it’s usually some old cookbooks that inspire me to try new dishes – aside from Artusi, I also love Ada Boni’s 1921 cookbook, Il Talismano della Felicita’ (known as The Talisman in English) and Elizabeth David’s Italian Food. I’ve discovered some other older cookbooks recently that I have at my bedside table too, like Patience Gray’s Honey from a Weed and Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book.

What was the first dish you cooked on your own, what is your first cooking memory?

I can remember a few mud pies when I was very little, but from memory the first real food I made was scrambled eggs. My grandmother in Sydney taught me how to make them, using real butter and showing me how to take them off the heat when they’re still soft and wobbly, just before they look ready so you don’t risk overcooking them. I still make it the exact same way.

What are your favourite places to buy and enjoy food in Florence?

My favourite food market is Sant’Ambrogio. It’s a local market on the eastern edge of town. It’s not huge but it’s got everything you’d ever need and more. Plus there’s always a nice neighbourhood vibe there, and we have a little ritual of stopping off at the news stand, then going to a pastry shop for coffee and a mid-morning treat. It’s the little things. Many of my favourite restaurants are in the same square as the market – Caffe Cibreo is a really pretty spot for coffee or lunch, and the buffet lunch at Teatro del Sale is one of my favourite food experiences in Florence. Pasticceria Nencioni a little down the street is a wonderful, tiny pastry shop and right next to the market, Semel, a little hole in the wall panino shop, makes a fantastic quick lunch – a crunchy roll with maybe some anchovies, fennel and orange (my favourite one) and a small glass of wine.

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

It’d probably be my mum, I’d ask her to make me my favourite Japanese dishes – cold somen noodle salad and chargrilled baby eggplants if it’s summer, miso soup with clams, her sushi and sashimi platters. Whenever I’m home I always request sukiyaki or shabu-shabu (a hot pot dish where each diner cooks their own food in the bubbling pot in the middle of the table) at least once.

You’re going to have ten friends over for a spontaneous dinner, what will be on the table?

Food that is unfussy to make (i.e. easy for the cook) and easy to share (i.e. fun and informal for the guests) – a creamy chickpea soup or a steaming pan of freshly tossed vongole and spaghetti, a roast of some sort (a whole roast fish or chicken are my favourites), stuffed with lots of herbs on a bed of roast potatoes and cherry tomatoes so you have the main and side dish in one. Dessert, either an after-dinner stroll to the gelateria or some whipped, coffee-laced ricotta with homemade lady finger biscuits to dip.

What was your childhood’s culinary favourite and what is it now?

I loved everything as a child, but in particular I loved Japanese food and Japanese sweets – anything with sweet red bean paste is my weakness! They’re still my favourite, most comforting foods, but it’s very hard to get good Japanese food in Italy so I wait until I’m visiting my mother to indulge in it.

Do you prefer to cook on your own or together with others?

I like the social aspect of cooking together, when you’ve got something special planned and there’s a lot to do, it’s nice to have someone to chat to while you’re chopping, or kneading or stirring all day. But when I get the chance to have some time to myself (rare these days, with a three and a half year old around!), I like to be alone in the kitchen, cooking is very therapeutic and relaxing, almost meditative, for me. That’s one of the reasons I’m looking forward to the cooler weather, so I have a good excuse for long, slow cooking and baking, my favourite ways to cook.

Which meals do you prefer, improvised or planned?

I do like both, but I think I might be rather good with improvising a meal! One of my best food moments was pulling together a totally improvised meal for my very new boyfriend (so new I probably couldn’t even call him that!) from a practically empty fridge. I made him pasta with broccoli and garlic. He took one bite and said “I’m going to marry you.” And he did.

Which meal would you never cook again?

I don’t know if there’s something I’d never do, but probably things I’d change the next time I tried it. For me, right now, being a mother and writing cookbooks, I have to be a bit picky with what I cook when I have the time to do it, so I tend to lean towards low maintenance, unfussy, simple dishes. Things that are fiddly and require every minute of my attention are things I avoid lately – caramel, for example, is something I may not try for a while!

Thank you Emiko!

Emiko Davies' Schiacciata

 

Emiko Davies' Schiacciata

 

Emiko Davies' Schiacciata

 

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Emiko Davies' Schiacciata

 

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