I love Italy and I love Italian food. Although Italian culture is not in my blood, it is a big part of who I am. In fact, the first time I visited Italy was also the first time I left Australia. It was the beginning of an infatuation with not just a country, but it's people and their culture.
Unlike Italians, I have always been an eat and run kind of girl. I never truly appreciated the ritual of the meal, living in the moment, savouring the flavours, and enjoying the company. For Italians, food is fundamental to their culture, it's embedded in who they are and what they live for. It isn't just about filling your belly; food is an essential element of the beauty that surrounds you. It’s a part of the landscape, the people, and the traditions. Italians cook with passion and eat for pleasure. They view sharing a meal as a quintessential ingredient of identity and happiness. Because of this, Italy was the birthplace of my passion for cooking.
I started cooking for myself as a way of bringing my memories of Italian holidays back to my home in Australia. It was a way of making my life a little more Italian, to bring the joy of something I love to the everyday. It was my relationship with Italy that taught me to see cooking as a pleasurable part of living. It allowed me to relive my time spent in this country that I so adored.
As my confidence with Italian cooking began to grow, I started to seek out new recipes. This search led me to Paola's web site Italy on My Mind, which has now become my favourite destination for food inspiration. Paola’s passion for simple, seasonal produce from her hometown in Melbourne lends her recipes an Australian flavour with a traditional Italian feel. Italian food is so much more than pizza and pasta; it is about cooking with what is available in your local area. This rich agricultural diversity is the reason for such a variety of styles in Italian cuisine. I recently got together with Paola to chat about her thoughts on Italian food, produce, and culture.
Melbourne has always been a culturally diverse region of Australia, how does living in a city with such a vibrant Italian community influence your cooking style?
When my parents arrived here in the 1950s, they built a community with others that were from the same north-east corner of Italy. So the food that I cook from instinct is from that area: risotto, polenta, egg-yolk pasta, a lot of seafood and Austrian and Slavic inspired sweets. It was only after I moved away from home and was cooking for my own family that I connected with the broader Italian community of Melbourne: the Calabresi, the Abruzzesi, the Pugliesi through our shared love of food. Many of the early migrants were producers of food, or vegetable and fruit growers, or cheese makers and they brought their trades to Melbourne, initially only catering for the Italian migrant community but now for everyone, as Italian food is much-loved and very well known. Through Italian migrants from the South I started cooking dishes that were more inspired by their local produce – using broad beans, lamb, pecorino (sheep’s milk cheese), pasta made without eggs (orecchiette, cavatelli and so on) and chilli. So my cooking style changed quite a bit though I still cook my family’s traditional dishes regularly.
How did your passion for music lead to becoming a presenter on a German TV show?
I went to a casting for a show called Housefrau (hence my Instagram name). It was a program about house and techno music and I landed a job as one of the presenters. For the next decade my life was all about music. During the week I was either at the TV station working on the show, or I was traveling. If I wasn’t on the road for Housefrau, I was DJ’ing all over Germany, Switzerland and Austria. In ’96 I went to Australia to do a show about the local music scene. I had a DJ gig in Brisbane and Sydney where I met Martin, my tour manager. From the moment he picked me up from the airport it was love at first sight!
Both of your parents are from North Eastern Italy. Your mother comes from a little town on the outskirts of Treviso, in the Veneto region, and your father was from Pola. Many people travel to Venice but have rarely heard of the smaller towns and cities of this North Eastern part of the country. Are there any food or cultural aspects that make this part of Italy special to you?
People are starting to realize the beauty of Veneto as separate from Venice; there are stunning Paladian villas along the Brenta River and the recent popularity of Prosecco as a drink means that Conegliano and the wineries in the area get a bit more tourist trade. There are many more towns that are worth a visit: Padova, Bassano del Grappa, Asolo. Treviso has a moat on the outside of the town walls with a bike path that you can cycle around; and the Piazza dei Signori is the perfect place to sit and people-watch in the late afternoon.
My father was born in Pola, which was under Italian rule until the late 1940s (it is now Croatia). The closest Italian town is Trieste, which has the largest sea-facing piazza in Italy and a vibrant café culture. The Triestini are mad for sailing and every October there is a historic regatta held in the Gulf called La Barcolana, the biggest anywhere in the Mediterranean. Must-see places include Miramare castle and Caffè degli Specchi in Piazza Unità. Inland from Trieste you will find the hills of the Collio, wineries, and many producers of cured meats, in particular prosciutto (San Daniele).
In September last year, you hosted a seasonal cooking workshop at the well-known Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School in Sicily. You will return this November to host another six-day workshop. Can you share how this came to be and what people can expect from such an experience?
Fabrizia Lanza, the owner of the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School was raising money for a documentary called Amuri, the Sacred Flavours of Sicily. I had donated to the project and so connected with her when she was visiting Melbourne. She invited me to visit her at the cooking school, which is in the centre of Sicily. I feel so very lucky that she invited me to run workshops at her cooking school, which is on the Regaleali wine estate. Case Vecchie houses the cooking school and most of the accommodation. Nearly all the food is grown and produced on the estate. It is a place where you can immerse yourself in the traditions of the land, of making food from scratch, of seeing how food is grown and understanding its place in the Sicilian culture.
The focus of the November 2017 workshop is olive oil; activities include visits to a ceramic workshop, to the historic fish markets of Catania, and to the shepherd to learn about cheese production. There is a resident chef, Mike, plus a number of other staff who make sure we are well fed and well hydrated with Regaleali wines. There are daily cooking lessons with a focus on seasonal Sicilian foods. The property is lovely to just walk around – vines as far as the eye can see. My 2018 workshop with be in May/June, so the focus will be on early summer produce.
Have you had a chance to explore other parts of Sicily during your stay? Do you have any favourite places on the island that you would encourage people to visit?
Sicily is an incredible island to visit. It can feel like you have entered another era, especially if you are happy to venture off the beaten track, to the tiny towns in the centre such as Polizzi Generosa and Valguarnera Caropepe. A visit to the Villa del Casale at Piazza Armerina is a must for lovers of Roman history.
If you love the beach and island life, then the Eolian islands are the place to go. I stayed on Salina for several days and was particularly interested in the capers grown on the island. It is a great place to escape.
Palermo is vibrant and colourful, in particular a visit to the historic markets that radiate out from the Quattro Canti.
The whole Baroque southeast corner Ortigia, Noto and Ragusa are stunningly beautiful. It is also near Scicli, which is on my list of places to go.
You have recently travelled back to Italy, specifically the eastern coast along the Adriatic Sea, to research your new book Adriatico. Were there places along your journey that were new to you, that you hadn't visited before? Any places that surprised you along the way?
Puglia won me over completely. We rented a gorgeous home in Otranto, one of the most southerly towns in Puglia and the coastline down there was stunning, with white-washed towns on very blue seas. One of my strongest memories of the place is the abundance of silvery leafed olive trees – they are literally everywhere. I am going back to Puglia in late October to take some photographs for Adriatico as there were no olives on the trees when I visited in April. It will be lovely to return in a different season.
Another new place for me was the Conero, which is in the region of Le Marche. Mount Conero is where the easternmost point of the Appenines meets the coast, so the shore line has high cliffs and incredible beaches. I visited the Slow Food Presidium for wild mussels in Portonovo; there is a natural reef off the shore where mussels grow wild. Luckily the season had just started when we arrived so we feasted on a 3-course meal of mussels at the oldest restaurant in the town, Da Emilia which was unforgettable.
Have you noticed over the years, from your travels around different regions of Italy, that your own cooking style has been influenced by these new places? Has your North Italian cooking style taken on any Southern Italian flavours? If so could you give an example?
My cooking has definitely taken on more of a Southern influence. I love cucina povera and we have taken to this in a big way. I find that I am making less meat-based dishes, risotto, polenta and fussy sauces, though all these occasionally make an appearance in my kitchen, it is less often. When I make pasta, it is often eggless and I flavor simple sauces with anchovies, chilli and bitter greens like chicory.
Now that it is winter, I love making dishes that are cooked in the one pot; one dish on high rotation is a traditional “tiella” from Puglia. The word refers to the earthern cooking vessel it is cooked in but also to its content. One of my favourite tielle consists of layers of onion, potatoes, rice and mussels, various herbs, grated pecorino, breadcrumbs, olive oil, water or stock. The dish is baked until the potatoes are cooked through. There are many variations to these bakes; they are all simple, hearty and very tasty.
Can you share a little about your upcoming book Adriatico?
I am so excited about how Adriatico is coming along. The book will tell the story of the foods of the people who live along or near the Adriatic coast of Italy. There are 84 recipes in the book, many but not all are traditional, with about a quarter being seafood-based. I am doing all the photography for the book and managed to start the food photos and recipe testing at my friend Alice’s studio in Rome in May. I took thousands of location photos while I was in Italy and as the book will be over 350 pages, expect a lot of photos of the Adriatic Sea, boats, fishermen, of towns along the coast and markets. Visually it will be beautiful (or I hope it will be!). I have almost finished the recipes (8 to go) and most are being recipe-tested during August and early September. The photos are complete except for the food photos of the recipes I am yet to make and now I am just starting the writing process. It is an all-consuming but also thrilling time.
What's inspiring you in food at the moment?
At the moment I am immersed in writing my book so it is a bit difficult to see outside of that. My husband, who is half Maltese, loves Middle Eastern cooking so when he cooks, we eat dishes that are inspired by Ottolenghi, Joudie Kalla and Shane Delia. I love eating grains and vegetables with spices I do not usually cook with as well as the balance between sweet, salty and sour. Getting that balance is something that is inspiring me to modify even the most traditional Italian recipes. I also adore Greek cooking, Kathy Tsaples’ books and recipes are simple, not fussy and delicious. There are so many recently released Italian or Italian-inspired books I would love to pore over but I don’t want to until I submit my manuscript!
All images by Paola Bacchia, except photo one of Paola in Burano , taken by her friend Ian Summers
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