Sometimes we make decisions on a whim and what transpires can completely change our life. We might think we’re heading in a particular direction, but the Universe often has a funny way of conspiring and stepping in to change our fate. When I interviewed the gorgeous Emiko Davies, I thought about the enormity of what’s happened in her life since making the decision to call Florence home more than 15 years ago. Packing her bags and boarding a plane bound for Rome has led to a career that gifts her the opportunity to follow her greatest passions – photography, writing and cooking. An accomplished author of two stunning cookbooks – Florentine: The True Cuisine of Florence and Acquacotta, her work has featured in some of the most high profile publications including Gourmet Traveller and The Guardian just to name a few. Countless collaborations and workshops have her traveling to some of the most spectacular places on the planet. What impresses me most, is that despite a hectic work schedule, she still manages to find time to squeeze in an interview. When we were in touch, she was in the midst of preparing for the launch of Acquacotta. A dinner for special guests was being arranged in the fields of a stunning Tuscan backdrop and Emiko was preparing a feast alongside a woman that has served to truly inspire her cooking journey, the wonderful Tessa Kiros. I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to introduce the amazing Emiko Davies and share her story as part of The Mediterranean & Me…
Florence stole your heart a long time ago…You’ve spent over15 years living there, having completely embraced and fallen in love with the Italian way of life and establishing a successful career as a writer, photographer and cook. I’m curious to know how living in this amazing city has come to shape and influence your creative passions…
I came to Florence first to study art, and then to study art history and art restoration (and during this time I actually ended up working in a darkroom teaching black and white photography too), so for me Florence has always been a place where I could surround myself with art and be inspired. It still does, even though I may no longer be in a museum or a darkroom or a printmaking studio every day, I am still constantly inspired by the history of this city – it’s what makes me delve into a recipe or want to try a dish!
You’re well versed on the nuances of regional Italian cuisine and have a particular interest on how pertinent the relationship between food and language can be, particularly in regards to dialects. As much as it makes complete sense, it’s a concept that also intrigues me. What first sparked your curiosity about food and language?
I think it has a lot to do with having grown up in different countries. I was born in Australia but my mother is Japanese and we spent all our holidays in Japan as kids. We moved to China when I was young and lived there for about eight years – for me, language and food have always been intertwined in an interesting way. Just like you’d learn a new language when visiting a new country, I think you need to learn to eat and appreciate that country’s dishes too.
What has practising the art of Italian cuisine over the years come to reveal about the cooking process for you?
So many things – I think I really have learned to cook because of living in Italy and eating the Italian way. I like to cook slowly, to use my hands, to cook according to the season (it’s what is tastiest, and also the most economical). I can’t stand wasting food and I love to cook for people – food shared has been instrumental in making friends, neighbours and relatives happy!
Italians are renowned for their gusto and passion. The language is lyrical, like a serenade. How has that experience been for you, being immersed in a culture with so much heart?
Well, I think that’s exactly what made me fall so hard for Italy! I always thought I would end up as an adult living in Asia, as that’s where I spent so much of my childhood and adolescence but once I arrived in Florence – on a whim – I couldn’t leave.
You have a passion for preserving traditional recipes and honouring the regions they stem from. Tell me why this is so important to you?
It’s so different from my own experience of understanding food and traditions, so I have always found the longevity of traditional Italian recipes so fascinating. When I see how often in other countries these time-old and beautiful concoctions are messed around with (“a carbonara with a twist”!) without any understanding or thought about their origins and the reason for their being, I find it frustrating. Every dish has a story to tell. At the same time, I find also amongst Italian friends and relatives that love watching Australian Masterchef or reading Jamie Oliver magazine, that many don’t have any desire to keep cooking the way “nonna” did and so I worry that so much knowledge of those traditional dishes will become lost.
Access to fresh produce and cooking with seasonal ingredients must have you so attuned with the ebb and flow of nature. What’s that like, your cooking inspiration shifting with the seasons?
Alice Waters has the excellent advice to not plan your meals before you go to the market, and I love that. More often than not, a trip to the farmers market is the best way to inspire what to make because you can see what’s actually available, what is in season, what looks good and fresh and what is the best price. I hadn’t learned to cook like that until moving to Italy because unfortunately when you’re only surrounded by supermarkets that stock the same things year round, you don’t have the luxury (it is becoming a luxury in some parts) of eating with the season.
Who have been the biggest influences in your life in terms of your career and the way you approach your work?
I love the writing of Elizabeth David, I feel like her work is timeless. I have always loved the cookbooks of Tessa Kiros, who I feel really made the cookbook a treasured item to have in the house, not just to cook from but to look at, to read, to be inspired by and lend to friends. And I also love the writing of Rachel Roddy, who, like me, happened to fall in love with Italy (Rome in her case) and love the Italian way of things. She has a wonderful way of turning an everyday moment into the most beautiful thing.
Given the range of your creative expression as well as your workshop collaborations, what Mediterranean inspired projects of yours do we have to look forward to next?
In October I’ll be cooking for an international photography and lifestyle workshop in Florence, hosted by the very talented photographers Sanda Pagaimo, Renee Kemps and Marina Denisova. Then I’ll be hosting my own workshop in Puglia later in the month at the stunning Masseria Potenti, together with food photographer Saghar Setareh and stylist Alice Adams, where for a few days we will be immersed in this divine corner of Puglia, picking olives and foraging herbs, seeing the inside of ceramic studios and creating feasts to share. I can’t wait for the autumn!
Emiko’s Quick Tips:
What is your most memorable dining experience in the Mediterranean?
I just love eating at the fisherman’s cooperative in the lagoon of Orbetello in the very south of Tuscany. It’s not fancy, in the summertime when it’s very popular with families, you eat off plastic plates on communal tables at the edge of the lagoon, but it doesn’t get much better than a freshly caught, grilled whole seabass and a cold bottle of white wine from an estate only 10 minutes away.
What are the essential items you take when you’re travelling there?
A book, since I never seem to have enough time to read except while travelling, and mosquito repellent since Tuscany has become like the tropics, and they all seem to love feasting on my daughter.
Your favourite beach?
Acquadolce near Porto Ercole is a heavenly little turquoise beach in Southern Tuscany that is a little hard to get to so there are decidedly less people.
Best accommodation experience?
We love Il Baciarino, a hilltop, handmade, rustic-chic apartment for two with views over the mountains, forest and sea of Maremma. It’s so divine, we chose it as the place to shoot my cookbook, Acquacotta.
Where in the Mediterranean are you heading to next?
This summer I think we’ll probably spend a bit of time on Giglio Island, in Southern Tuscany, a little gem of a place, where we will go to recharge on the beach and drink ansonaca wine. But the place I’m really looking forward to spending more time this year is Puglia, this autumn.