2 minutes with Emiko Davies
Occupation: food writer and photographer
Lives: Florence, Italy
You're an Aussie but have spent two-thirds of your life living abroad, tell us about life growing up?
I spent chunks of my childhood growing up in Canberra, Tianjin and Beijing (my father was a UN diplomat). My mother is Japanese so we always spent some of our school holidays every year in Tokyo too. By the time we moved to Beijing I was 11 ½ and we stayed there until I finished high school, so I have no idea what it's like to be a teenager in Australia, but most of my childhood was spent climbing gum trees and collecting tadpoles from the dam, eating banana paddle pops (which bring back a whoosh of nostalgia whenever I even see them!) and spending summer holidays on the NSW south coast. Life in China (in the 80's and 90's especially) was a whole different world, but I absolutely loved it, I had friends from all over the planet and an enormous amount of freedom. By the time I finished high school, I felt like I could go or live anywhere in the world -- so I packed my bags and went to university in the US.
How did you go learning the language when you first arrived in Italy?
I had taken some Italian classes during university but you learn so very little without actually being immersed in the culture. It was only when I was here, struggling with the language and trying to learn it, being forced to listen to it and understand it that it suddenly all just clicked and came together. When I first arrived in Florence, I couldn't afford to take language classes so I made some Italian friends doing language exchange: we'd meet for a coffee, spend the first half an hour speaking in English and the next in Italian. It was fun and cheap and handy to have someone to ask questions that you couldn't find out looking up in a dictionary. I had a scholarship to study art restoration so I began doing this three-month course -- all day, every day, in Italian. None of the teachers or other students spoke much English but being thrown in the deep end really turned out to be an amazing way to learn a language almost without even realising it! I remember one day during the summer when an Italian colleague said to me, as surprised as I was, "Hey, you're speaking Italian!" That was it!
What's your favourite phrase in Italian?
Oh, there are so many! But one that I love is "fritta e' buona anche la ciabatta" which means even a slipper is good fried. It basically means anything is good if you deep fry it, showing the admiration and approval most Italians have of anything deep fried. No one is scared of a little oil here.
How did your book Florentine: The True Cuisine of Florence come about?
I think it was pure luck. Someone was smiling down at me that day when I got an unexpected email from a publisher asking if I'd like to make a cookbook. It's something I'd dreamt about even as a child. When they asked what I wanted to write about, that was easy. I didn't even need to think twice: Florence. It was my home for years (after all the moving about I've done, Florence is the place I've lived the longest) and where I started my food blog. It's what I know best, and, amazingly, no one had written a book specifically on the traditional cuisine of Florence in English. Many people don't realise that Florentine food is very specific to Florence. It's not just found all over Tuscany, it has a link and a history and a reason to be Florentine. The publishers said yes, and that was it!
Ingredients that are always in your kitchen?
Extra virgin olive oil (one that you'd be tempted to drink, it's that good), coffee (an Italian moka pot is always ready in our house), salt, fresh eggs and whole milk for my daughter (it's her favourite drink). We travel a lot and often prefer to stay in apartments than hotels so we can cook. The only downside is that apartment rentals never have anything good in the pantry and there's nothing worse than being stuck with the shops closed and not having your own essentials, so I can say from past experiences that we as a family are all pretty miserable without these things always present!
There's a new cookbook in the pipeline, what's this one about?
Yes! It's called Acquacotta and is about the cuisine of a tiny part of the Maremma in the southernmost corner of Tuscany, where we lived for six months last year. It's a really beautiful, untouched, unknown part of Tuscany (sounds impossible, but it's true!), where the cuisine is completely unique to the area. I think it will appeal to Australians as there's a strong summery, coastal lifestyle in this area, with its beautiful beaches and islands, there's a lot of seafood, lots of vegetables, a lot of one-pot or simple, satisfying, comfort food that's easy to prepare and good for sharing and for drinking with wine (which this part of Tuscany also does well). It's also an area that historically was struck by poverty, so much of the traditional food was foraged, farmed or hunted and many dishes are actually what we'd label now vegetarian, vegan, gluten free or dairy free -- which is the complete opposite of what most people think of when they think of Italian food or Tuscan food. I'm hoping to open people's minds about what regional Italian cuisine actually means through this little journey through the Maremma!
24 hours in Florence, where should we eat and drink?
Start with coffee and pastry in a grand old Florentine cafe like Rivoire or Gilli (only don't sit down, you'll pay an arm and a leg, do it like locals do and stand at the bar counter). Florence does panini really well, you need to seek out the traditional hole-in-the-wall paninoteche, some of them date to the 1800s and haven't changed much since then! I Due Fratellini is one of the classics, Semel is another great one. Or you can just head to one of the food vans that sell lampredotto panini for proper, classic Florentine food -- it's a really tender type of tripe (abomasum tripe), almost like a soft, delicate mortadella, on a warm bun dipped in broth -- there's usually a good dose of chilli or salsa verde that goes on there too. A drink at my favourite wine bar, Le volpi e l'uva is a must for anyone who wants to try some artisan, little-known wines (and perhaps a nibble of cheese or Cinta Senese prosciutto). For dinner, stick to something traditional like a no-frills trattoria (you've come all this way, right? You want to eat like Florentines do). Trattoria Casalinga, Ristorante i Fagioli, Il Brindellone and Sostanza are some great choices for eating like a local.
You can follow Emiko and her life in Italy on Instagram @emikodavies