I’ve long admired the work of writer, photographer and now cookbook author, Emiko Davies. I think I first came across her on Instagram, where her beautiful photos of Italian food and Florence caught my eye. Emiko has lived in Tuscany on and off for many years and is married to a local, so it was a natural leap for this fine arts graduate to chronicle her Florentine adventures on her blog.
Now the Tuscan capital is the subject of her first book, Florentine, in which she shares classic Florentine recipes as well as Italian food history, stunning photos and her personal address list of where to eat and shop in Florence. As an obsessed Italophile, and a former Florence resident myself, I cannot recommend the book highly enough.
Last week I had the chance to chat with Emiko about the making of the book, cooking for a fussy toddler, and her sources of inspiration.
Congratulations on a beautiful book – can you tell me how it came about?
Thank you. Basically I started a food blog when I was living in Florence about five years ago. And I wanted to document some of the things I found fascinating about living in Florence, living in Tuscany. All the food traditions and the rich history — not only of the place, but the history of the dishes and the recipes as well. So I was writing the blog and taking photos for it, writing recipes, and dreaming about one day writing a cookbook. And one I got an email from a publisher saying, ‘We make these lovely cookbooks. Would you like to make one?’
So that was the start of this cookbook. That was two years ago. The email came through the London office of Hardie Grant. By then I was back living in Canberra, so they said I should go through the Melbourne office. So I had to send a pitch and wait and hear whether the answer was a yes or no. I almost thought I had lost my chance of writing a cookbook by having the publisher directly contact me!
In your pitch, did you envisage breaking the book into chapters like ‘Il forno’, ‘La pasticceria’ etc.?
Yes, the book as you see it is exactly what I wanted in the original pitch. It was really nice, I got to do everything I wanted to in the way I wanted to do it. I envisaged a walk through Florence: starting at the pastry shop for breakfast, wandering through town getting bread from the bakery, going to the market, ending up at a wine bar for food and a gelato! That was the idea and I had that in the original pitch.
How did you decide what recipes to include?
For me it was pretty easy because Florence’s food doesn’t change much as you go from restaurant to restaurant. All the trattorias in Florence pretty much have the same menu! There are always these standard dishes, classic Florentine dishes, and everybody has them, everybody’s Nonna makes them too. And when you go out to dinner, it’s for those dishes that are not new or different, they’re your favourite things. I knew I had to include all those dishes you see in the trattorias.
Or when you go to the pastry shop and you see certain things that you will only see in Florence like the sfogliatine – they’re like puff pastries custard inside. They’re really hard to find outside Florence. Or the pandiramerino, the rosemary and sultana buns you get at bakeries. You don’t find them very far from Florence.
In the wine bar section there are crostini that are more modern, but still using local ingredients and using traditional flavours and tastes. I’ve got a little address book at the back of the book so people can go and find these dishes.
Do you have a favourite recipe?
I have lots! But one of my favourite favourites is the schiacciata all’uva, which is what Tuscans call a focaccia. It’s a flattened bread, not a flat bread because it’s got yeast in it, and it’s filled with wine grapes. It’s something you can only find in Florence in September, maybe the first half of October, when it’s grape season and wine harvest season. It’s really beautiful and you wait 11 months of the year to be able to eat it.
You took all the location photos for the book. How did you get into photography?
I studied fine arts, majoring in print making, but I did photography as an elective. And when I first moved to Florence in 2005 one of the things I really wanted to do was black-and-white photography and play in the dark room. I did a course in black-and-white photography and learnt how to develop my own photos, and eventually I got a job teaching in the dark room. That was my first love when I moved to Florence. That’s why I wanted to have a lot of black-and-white photos in the book.
What was the most challenging part of working on the cookbook?
The hardest part was the ingredients. Because I’m writing about Florentine food, which often has pretty unique ingredients, and I’m writing it for an audience that lives outside of Italy. I knew there were certain things that might be troublesome to find and replicate – certain Tuscan salume like finocchione [salami with fennel] or lardo [lard]. Even things as simple as ricotta. The ricotta you get in Italy is super fresh, so different to the ricotta you get at the supermarket here. I had a lot of recipe testers from all over the world. That was a real eye opener because I could see what was tricky for people to make at home.
And the best part?
The best part was the week we spent doing the photo shoot. There are 50 food photos in the book. And I cooked – I wanted to make sure that the food looked like it had just come out of Florence. I cooked the dishes with the help of some wonderful people in the kitchen, and my husband Marco helped me do a lot of the meat dishes. And then we had a photographer and a stylist work their magic. We worked very much as a team. It was the most fun I’ve had, ever. It was really intense and busy, we hardly had time to sit down, but it was just so much fun.
Your mum is Japanese, your dad is Australian, you’ve lived in many different countries like China and the US. Was food always important to you?
I’ve always loved food and loved my mum’s cooking, and my grandmas’s food in Japan. Moving around a lot and living in different places, I realised quite early on that you can eat your way through a place and understand a culture that way. When I go on holidays, I always want to eat the thing that you can only eat in that place. I base my holidays around food.
You say in the book that Italy strangely felt like a place you could belong to. Why do you think that is?
There is something about it that I can’t put my finger on. I’m just drawn to it. I just love it. Another part is I love the culture and the lifestyle there – the food culture, the family culture. And then on another level, because I studied fine art and I love history and art history, Florence is a city that is wonderful to live in. It’s literally seeping out the walls and the stones in the pavement. It’s like your books coming to life.
What do you like to cook for your daughter?
I always imagined I would have this amazing foodie child. Growing up, I was never fussy. I loved eating anything. But my daughter is really picky, she barely eats. She eats like a bird. We keep trying to cook new things for her and she won’t even taste them! She’s got a thing against tomatoes. But she loves pizza, it has to be a proper Margherita with proper mozzarella. And I’ve tried to explain to her that it’s got tomatoes on it! She does like pasta but she’ll only eat it absolutely plain. I haven’t given up hope yet.
She is very good at helping in the kitchen. She likes making dough and rolling out things. She likes getting her hands dirty.
Do you cook much Asian food? Can you find those ingredients in Tuscany?
I’ve stopped. Having grown up in Asia, and with a Japanese mum, I was mostly cooking Asian food before I lived in Italy. But in Florence it’s hard to find the ingredients and they’re really expensive. But I do have a really good bottle of soy sauce and sometimes I’ll do little things like fried rice, which my daughter loves.
Who inspires you as a cook?
I love older cookbooks because I love the older style of recipe writing, where it’s almost like a conversation rather than a list of ingredients and method. Elizabeth David is one of my favourites. I could read her cookbooks like novels. She also talks about where dishes come from, or how to eat them, it’s not just the recipe. I often refer to her Italian cookbook, which is from the ’50s.
Then I have Pellegrino Artusi’s Science in the Kitchen & the Art of Eating Well – it’s from 1891. It’s considered the bible of Italian cuisine, pretty much everyone has it in their kitchen in Italy. I was first introduced to it through my mother-in-law. She’s got an old battered copy with lots of notes stuck to the pages. He was from Emilia-Romagna but he used to live in Florence, so many of his dishes are typically Florentine. He has anecdotes and stories that are often hilarious, and even though the book is old the recipes still work well today.
Do you have a favourite ingredient to cook with?
The ones I use all the time. Olive oil, which we use for everything in Tuscany. We use it in massive quantities, even as a condiment. And salt. I didn’t learn how to use salt properly until I moved to Florence. In Italian, the word for salad is insalata, which literally means salted. Mix good tomatoes, mozzarella, salt and olive oil, and you have my favourite thing to eat in the summertime.
My favourite vegetable is artichokes. We’re really spoilt in Italy because you can get many different kinds of artichokes. In Tuscany my favourite variety is from Empoli, which is near my husband’s hometown just outside Florence. They’re pointed and purple and usually smaller than the globe artichokes you know. You can eat them raw and I have a raw artichoke salad in the book.
Do you have a favourite Florentine restaurant?
I have a few, but when we were away and we had to make a quick visit to Florence, one of the first places I would visit would be Trattoria Sostanza. It’s a small trattoria, and they do really good everything, including this amazing butter chicken and a little artichoke tart, almost like a frittata, cooked over hot coals. Incredible.
If you were home tonight, what would you be cooking?
A favourite is Panzanella salad [see recipe below]. Half of the salad’s volume is made up of stale bread, so it’s a good one to make when you want to use up old bread. It’s really refreshing and filling – even though it’s just a salad, it’s a hearty salad.
- 250–300 g country-style stale bread, ideally a few days old
- ½ red onion, thinly sliced
- 60ml (¼ cup) red-wine vinegar
- 3 tomatoes
- 2 small cucumbers
- 1 large handful rocket, rinsed and dried
- 60ml (¼ cup) extra-virgin olive oil
- 20 basil leaves, torn
- Remove the crusts from the bread and cut the bread into chunks. Put the bread chunks in a sieve and pass them under running water briefly to moisten. Squeeze out any excess liquid, if any, then let the bread sit in the sieve for 10–15 minutes until springy. Crumble the bread into a large bowl.
- Place the red onion in a small bowl with half the vinegar and cover with cold water. Set aside while you put together the rest of the salad. Quarter the tomatoes and remove the seeds. Chop into 2cm pieces. Peel the cucumbers, slice them lengthways and spoon out the seeds with a teaspoon. Chop into pieces.
- Drain the onions and place in the bowl with the bread. Add the tomato, cucumber and rocket. Season with salt and pepper, and dress in the olive oil and the rest of the red wine vinegar. Toss to combine. Add the basil leaves just before serving.
This recipe and photo are an edited extract from Florentine by Emiko Davies, published by Hardie Grant, RRP $49.99