Travel

Interview with Emiko Davies, author of Tortellini at Midnight

The third book of Emiko Davies, Tortellini at Midnight, is a celebration of recipes passed down through the generations over hundreds of years — in Tuscany and beyondMonday, 8 April 2019

By Heather Taylor
In her books, Emiko Davies celebrates Italian recipes

Tell us about your career in food so far.
My husband, Marco, is Italian, and I’ve been living in Florence since 2005. In 2010, I started a food blog about living in Tuscany and Florentine food traditions. I wanted to dispel some of the myths that people have about Italian food, and to explore how it varies so much, even from village to village. My first book, Florentine, was born out of my experiences of living in the city. My second, Acquacotta, was inspired by a six-month stay in Maremma, where Marco — a sommelier — worked. It’s in southern Tuscany and it’s a beautiful place; so different from the rest of the region with an abundance of game, wild boar and seafood.

How did you come up with the idea for your latest book Tortellini at Midnight?
I’d thought about it for years, although it took me a while to establish how it would translate into a useable cookbook. It’s inspired by my husband’s family — in particular his great-grandparents, who are from the port city of Taranto in Puglia. His great-grandmother was a noblewoman and she eloped with his great-grandfather, a postman; they had nine children. When the First World War hit, the family moved to Turin. The children grew up there, one of whom was Marco’s grandfather, who subsequently moved to Tuscany. So, the book is the story of a family moving from one region to another, and the recipes are what they took with them — dishes my family still makes today. The recipes in the book span not only different places, but different times. In the end, it’s a book of comforting family meals you’d want to make at home.

How did you go about researching recipes?
I’m a big fan of vintage cookbooks, so I used these as well as handed-down recipes. The thing about Italian cuisine is that the recipes are more or less as they have been for hundreds of years — they haven’t changed all that much.

Why do you think Italian cooking is still so regional, and rooted in tradition?
Italy is a relatively young nation. It was only unified in the 19th century — before this, each region had its own dialect or language — and I think that’s why recipes traditionally haven’t spread as much. Even now, my mother-in-law hasn’t travelled to Puglia, where her parents are from. She’s very Tuscan. She tells me she remembers eating aubergine parmigiana, now ubiquitous in Italy, with 20 of her Tuscan friends for the first time. None of them had tried it, or even heard of it. Italian cooking is about using what grows nearby.

Which old cookbook stood out from your research?
I came across a book called Nonna Genia by Beppe Lodi during a trip to Langhe in Piedmont, a beautiful wine region about an hour from Turin. There was a restaurant called Nonna Genia, which I discovered was named after the book, which in turn takes its name from the author’s grandmother. It’s a collection of traditional recipes, anecdotes and stories. I love the description of how bagna càuda, that warm garlic and anchovy dipping sauce, was always made to accompany the autumn grape harvest — to be eaten with a glass of vino novello, a young, freshly pressed red wine.

The book promises ‘heirloom family recipes’. What constitutes an heirloom recipe?
They’re those recipes that are worthy of continuing down the family line: crowd-pleasing dishes, which people remember eating as a child and want to continue making. In my family, one of those is polpette: veal meatballs cooked in a tomato sauce. The recipe comes from Marco’s Puglian great-grandmother, who always made it for her children, who made it for their children and so on. The recipe is now about 100 years old, and it’s still the dish my mother-in-law makes for special guests.

What inspired the book’s title?
Tortellini was the dish Marco’s grandmother, Lina, would make on Sundays and to mark important celebrations. On New Year’s Eve in the 1950s, Marco’s grandfather used to prepare tortellini al sugo [in sauce], which he’d serve at his father-in-law’s bar at midnight, along with spumante wine. He started a trend that was soon adopted by the rest of the town.

Which recipe do you hope to pass down to the next generation?
I’d love to continue the tradition of polpette in tomato sauce. If my daughter enjoys it and makes it herself one day, that would make me very happy.

Check out recipes from Emiko’s book:
Polpette di Nonna Anna (Granny Anna’s meatballs)
Peperoni arrostiti (roast peppers)
Torta con i ciccioli di Nonna Maria (Granny Maria’s lard cake)

 

Published in the March 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller Food (UK)

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