As part our Grazie series we’re taking a closer look at the most exciting artists, designers, chefs and creatives inspired by Italian style
With its beautiful landscape, rich history and incredible food, Italy is easy to fall in love with. In fact, that’s exactly what happened to food writer and photographer Emiko Davies – she originally moved to Florence for a year and, after meeting her now-husband Marco, ended up staying for good. As someone who is passionate about exploring food and its traditions, it’s no surprise that Emiko was captivated by Tuscany; it’s a place that prides itself on recipes passed down over generations, all made with some of the best ingredients in the country. We caught up with Emiko to find out about her favourite Tuscan dishes, the importance of seasonal treats and the joy of browsing Florence’s food markets.
How long have you lived in Tuscany?
I moved to Florence in 2005, with a plan to stay for a year – I had a scholarship to study art restoration and was keen to learn Italian and absorb everything about Florence. A year wasn't enough. So I stayed another and met my husband-to-be, and aside from a three-year stint that we did back in Australia where our daughter was born, I have been here ever since.
Why do you love Tuscan food?
I think what really drew me to it first was a fascination about its intensely long history and how unchanging it is, even after centuries. We don't have food traditions with such old roots like this in modern Australia, so it is something that I was always curious about. You can visit ten trattorie and find the same exact menu on each one – things that Florentines have been eating for hundreds of years the same way.
I thought – it must be so good if no one wants to change it or eat different things! And it is. And then there is the fact that, although simple, the cuisine is based on really good ingredients. We are very spoilt in Tuscany with fantastic produce and I believe it is what makes all the difference.
What are your favourite Tuscan dish to cook?
I love the classics. There is something very satisfying about cooking Tuscan food, especially when cooking classic, reliable, comforting dishes like crostini with chicken liver pate (which is always part of a proper Tuscan antipasto and present at any Tuscan celebration), pappa al Pomodoro (a Tuscan bread and tomato 'soup') or arista (a roast pork dish that dates back to the Renaissance).
Another very special thing about Tuscan food is the seasonal treats. When there is something that doesn't last long at the markets, like artichokes, porcini mushrooms or wine grapes, I love cooking with them as I know I won't be able to for long.
Are there any particular ingredients that you always turn to?
Extra virgin olive oil. We are never without it at home, and we go through a lot of it! Tuscany produces excellent olive oil and it is the base of practically the entire cuisine. You just wouldn't be able to cook without it, but we also use it as a condiment – to drizzle on top of soup (a must on top of the pappa al Pomodoro), salad, on bread, everything! I even use it in cakes in place of butter. I also have a bit of an obsession with salt. It needs to be a good, flaky sea salt and it needs to be used well.
Does your Japanese / Australian heritage influence your cooking?
At home it definitely does. I think many people turn to the food of their childhood when they want a bit of comfort or for cooking for their own children, and I do the same! I often make simple Japanese dishes like miso soup and rice or maki rolls for my daughter – and almost always when I'm not feeling well I make an egg and rice dish that my Japanese mother used to make me when I was a child. We tend to eat breakfast more like Australians than Italians – a savoury breakfast of eggs and toast, for example, rather than a sweet breakfast of cookies and cake, the Italian way.
I also believe that my international upbringing is part of what has made me constantly curious about food, as well as the exploration and understanding of another culture through food, so in a way, I think my heritage always influences my cooking.
Authentic Italian food is seasonal. Where do you source your ingredients throughout the year?
I make trips to the markets several times a week. They are a constant source of inspiration for meals and recipes, not only because I love just being spontaneous and seeing what looks good, but also because you can get some great ideas by talking to the farmers and produce sellers. For example, in autumn you begin to see huge pumpkins and interesting wild mushrooms at the market stalls. The other day, while I was eyeing a long, green-skinned pumpkin, the farmer told me that it's wonderful when cooked in large slices in a pan with olive oil, then, right at the end of cooking you place a slice of cheese on top and let it melt. Perfectly simple and wonderful. Meanwhile, the mushroom sellers will always stuff in some herbs to go with your mushrooms – in Tuscany, this is always nepitella, a minty wild herb that looks a little like oregano.
Other than Tuscany, which province do you think has the best cuisine?
I absolutely love Puglia for its incredibly fresh produce – it's known as the 'vegetable patch' of Italy – and wonderful seafood. For me, it is the epitome of 'Mediterranean cuisine' – think lots of vegetables, olive oil, grains, delicious cheeses, simple handmade pasta made with just flour and water, abundant fresh seafood and arguably the best-tasting bread in the country.