Some passions are born from within. We can be so heavily influenced by our heritage, the connections to what we have experienced growing up, the family members that have offered us the opportunity to understand the true meaning of the word identity and instilling within us a strong sense of pride so that our connection to heritage is never lost, that surprisingly, it is not by coincidence that we have this innate pull to sometimes cultivate that into our working life. When the opportunity to interview the Italian food photographer, published author and cook – Paola Bacchia came up, I was fascinated to find out more about her celebration of Italian life, expressed through her stunning photography and gorgeous cookbooks. Storytelling is at the heart of our human connection. It is how we invite others to glimpse intimate aspects of who we are, we express our passion, our love for what we want to share with the world through this narrative. Paola’s ability to create sensory storytelling through food and photography and connecting it to the memories of family and Italy has been the core ingredient in attracting her audience and sharing what she loves. It is a reminder that at its essence, we are drawn to what evokes memory for us. When it is expressed from a deep knowing as a result of years of exploration, when you have been immersed in the heart and soul of a place as Paola has, what translates back to your audience is an authentic fire that captures people’s attention and makes them want to connect and find out more. I’m incredibly grateful to share the heartfelt passion of Paola’s story as part of The Mediterranean & Me:
As a self-taught photographer, your ability to capture a gorgeous visual narrative and connecting it to the memories of family and Italy is very sentimental. What drew you to this particular subject matter in the first place?
My parents have many old photo albums at home, with black and white images taken from their childhoods in Italy, the journey to Australia and the early years here. When I was little, I loved nothing more than looking at these photos and hearing the stories they told of them. They captured sentiments and moments in time; I know those photos, people and places in these images by heart and not a day goes by when I do not think of them in some way.
Where did your love for cooking come from?
Growing up in an Italian family it was hard not to love cooking. Although mamma worked full time in a factory, she always prepared meals from scratch. Though she enjoyed cooking it was my father who was the gourmand; he did the weekly shopping and tended the vegetable garden so meals were indirectly driven by him.
Sunday morning was when my mother would let my sister and I help her in the kitchen; lunches on those days were a celebration. On weeknights and Saturdays, my sister and I were banished from the kitchen as my father in particular wanted us to study, the old story of migrants wanting the very best for their children in the new country. It was only as an adult that I started cooking, really exploring food, and it was those Sunday meals, being part of the creation of the lunches with my mother that influenced me the most.
Your ancestral heritage is a vital component to what you bring to your work and something you strongly identify with. What makes this so important to you? How did that evolve into being a part of what you bring to the cooking practice and your photography?
My ancestral heritage makes me who I am. I am Australian, but one who was brought up by Italian migrant parents in a time when at school we were called names for being Italian and derided for bringing salami sandwiches for lunch. My first language is the dialect of Trieste (very much like Venetian) and one that I’m speaking less and less of as that older generation dies. I feel compelled to hang onto these memories, the most precious gift from my parents. I share the memories through food and shared meals, capturing the recipes of my family in words and in images. It made sense to capture the memories this way; food is so important to Italians, dominating most conversations, and connecting people at the dinner table.
What has practising the art of Italian cuisine over the years come to reveal about the cooking process for you?
The traditional Italian dishes, the simplest ones and the ones I love most, evolved from necessity. The season, terrain, and climate influenced what ended up on the kitchen table. I love the story of “cecamariti” (husband blinders) in Puglia, which was about creating a dish with leftovers, reheating it and adding pieces of fried day-old bread, so that husbands would (apparently) be blind to the fact it was the same as yesterday’s meal. The dishes I love are the simplest ones, often vegetarian and mostly served with homemade pasta or bread. The process of cooking for me is about turning ingredients, selected because of their seasonality, provenance and taste into a simple meal that speaks of the season.
How does your photography work come to influence the way you take in the world around you? How has it sharpened your eye?
Everywhere I go and everything I cook is an opportunity to capture a memory on film, an opportunity to tell a story. I am more conscious of available light, time of day and season to visit a place than I was before I took photos. I also look at framing photos and creating angles that lead the viewer into an image. It used to be more happy-snapping, which can work out beautifully, but these days I mostly look and plan before I shoot.
You are the author of soon to be two cookbooks. How do you approach writing your cookbooks? What inspires them into creation?
The connection of the people and the land to the food is my biggest inspiration. There are so many cookbooks on the market, and most recipes can be found online. What makes your book stand out from the others is the stories it tells and the photos that connect the food to a place and its people. I have researched, written, cooked, styled and photographed both books so starting the journey was pretty daunting; I remember sitting on the concept of Adriatico before my research trip for about two months, having no idea of how to start. So I took out a detailed map of Italy and traced the coast, finding seven of the most interesting coastal features and taking it from there. Once I arrived in Italy, it was the photos that were the starting point, generally the fresh food market of each town, which is where I can best connect to the people, their food and the essence of the location.
Who have been the biggest influences in your life in terms of your career and the way you approach your work?
My career crosses several areas – cooking (in my home cooking school), photography and writing. So it is difficult to give just one influence as there are so many. I am inspired by Yotam Ottolenghi’s Mediterranean cooking series, to cooking with local ingredients in gorgeous locations – it is a bit of a dream, to one day have a show like that, and I love the food Yotam makes. Rachel Roddy is one of the best cook book writers in recent times; her lyrical words, recipes and home-taken snaps in Rome and Sicily tell her story with such beauty and simplicity. For photography I have been inspired of late by Luisa Brimble’s instastories about dynamic symmetry in photography; I see lines and circles everywhere now!
Given the range of your creative ventures, what Mediterranean inspired projects of yours do we have to look forward to next?
2018 is shaping up to be big! My second cookbook Adriatico will be released in the first half of 2018; it is in the design phase now. As well as recipes and stories about the people I met during my research trip, there will be plenty of photos of the beautiful Adriatic Sea and nearby towns.
I am back at the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School in Sicily in May 2018 running my third workshop, a late Spring/early Summer inspired cooking workshop.
And I am planning to run tours in North-Eastern Italy, where my parents were born. It is an area I know well and feel strongly connected to; it is still early days but hopefully it will happen in late 2018.
Paola’s Quick Tips:
What is your most memorable dining experience in the Mediterranean?
Eating freshly caught wild mussels at Portonovo in Le Marche
What are the essential items you take when you’re travelling there?
A long frock and long dangly earrings
Your favourite beach?
Best accommodation experience?
Masseria Potenti in Puglia
Where in the Mediterranean are you heading to next?
Sicily, and possibly Sardinia.