Amber Guinness joins us for the latest instalment of The Chef’s Table.
After fawning over her book, A House Party in Tuscany, we simply had to sit down with the talented Ms Guinness for a tête-à-tête re Italian cooking, house parties, and menu navigation.
Here, Guinness shows us around her Tuscan kitchen.
How did you first get into cooking?
My mother was a trained cook, and was always very strict with my sister and me about learning from a very young age. She’s always been famed as a fabulous cook and hostess and we loved her food. If my sister or I were lounging or watching telly a few days after having shown an interest in any dish she had made for us, she would come in and bark “I thought you said you wanted to learn to make… ‘malfatti’ (a sort of ricotta and spinach gnocchi), well you’d better come and watch me do it”. So we would dutifully follow her into the kitchen, watch, learn, and help where allowed. By the time I was twelve, she had me roasting chickens and potatoes for family dinner.
What are some of your childhood food memories?
Most of them are from growing up at our family home Arniano, in Tuscany, where we lived full time, and where my sister and I went to school until I was thirteen. We moved to London when my parents realised that neither of us could read or write in English. Food and the rituals surrounding it, are melded for me with family, lovely surroundings, and nature. My mum claims to have hung up her skillet now, but was and is a wonderful cook, having a knack for imbuing any dish or dining situation with beauty and glamour, as well as lots of flavour. I remember roast red peppers painstakingly peeled and laid out in alternating canary yellow and ruby red on round plates and finished with perfectly spherical juicy balls of mozzarella placed at their centre. Broad beans would be shelled into beautiful blue or green-speckled Tuscan bowls, accompanied by wheels of fresh pecorino made by our local shepherds.
Who most influenced your cooking?
Definitely my mum, as she taught me to cook, and imparted an inherent love of making food for people, and making dishes look beautiful. She and my dad were famed hosts, and I try and recreate that style of spending time with people and cooking for them whenever I make food for anyone.
The food that makes you happiest and why?
Pasta, I just absolutely love it and find it such a good vehicle for vegetables. One of my favourites is pasta with cavolo nero and pancetta for instance, and of course when white truffles (which grow abundantly in our part of Tuscany) are in season, there is nothing better than fresh tagliolini doused in butter and topped with freshly shaved white truffle. I also adore eggs.
Favourite cooking gadget?
My mezzaluna for finely chopping herbs. It’s a curved knife with handles on each end and allows you to rhythmically rock back and forth to chop the herbs – I find it very efficient and therapeutic.
What’s the one ingredient you can’t live without?
Good olive oil and Maldon salt.
How does travel influence your cooking?
I love trying new things and coming across new flavour combinations. This is usually around Italy, which is the country I travel around the most as the high-speed trains are so quick and efficient for getting around. From where I live in Florence I can be in Rome in just over an hour, and Naples in just under three. I love going to restaurants to try out local dishes, and chatting to the owners or waiters about particular combinations of ingredients. I also love getting to the root of the history of local cuisine, for instance, my mother-in-law’s family are from Buenos Aires and when my husband and I went to visit, it was fascinating to find how mass migration from Italy, Scotland, Spain, France, Wales, and Eastern Europe in the 20th century have led to this complete melting pot of dishes which seem so similar to us as Europeans, but are in fact quite different and have a very distinct identity. These are all the things that I come away from anywhere thinking about and that then influence what I cook when I get home.
What do you always avoid ordering on a menu?
Anything with dill.
By contrast, must-order items on a menu include…
Fried zucchini flowers.
Why do you think it’s important to gather round the table to eat?
I think it was such a big part of my childhood as my parents would always have friends over and there were always interesting conversations going on across the table while everyone ate something delicious. Even when it was just us, it was always fun and convivial. It felt like a moment where everyone was brought together, and whoever had cooked, usually my mum, but sometimes my dad, would be showing a huge amount of love by taking the time to make something for us. I still find sitting down to a meal hugely bonding. The best meals are those which last for hours, and where you chat into the night even after the food is long devoured.
What is your go-to meal at home when you’re low on time?
Pasta – usually with a quick tomato sauce made from tinned tomatoes, olive oil, and basil, or aglio olio pepperoncino, or simply with whatever vegetables I have knocking around in the fridge, like zucchini or cavolo nero. Always with lots of garlic, olive oil, and chilli flakes. And if I’m really low on time, toast with butter and marmite.
Do you find cooking therapeutic?
Absolutely. I’m not a formally trained chef, but I have in one way or another been cooking all my life. After my father died in 2011, cooking provided me with so much comfort and solace, having something to do which kept both my mind and hands occupied was a godsend, and has since I started cooking in earnest, for a living in 2014, provided me with so much joy. It’s a hugely creative practice, and one where you get exponentially better the more you do it, which is satisfying. There is nothing more therapeutic than putting on some music, and just losing yourself in chopping, preparing and cooking – patiently waiting for the flavours to change and develop until you have something delicious to eat with loved ones.
Advice for women thinking about starting up a business in the food or restaurant industry?
Just keep at it, and surround yourself with inspiring people who bring out the best work you have in you. There will always be moments which are dispiriting at the start, but if you stick to your vision, have partners and colleagues who you work well with and make you laugh, it’s easier to keep going and come out on the other side with something you’re really proud of.
Book your place at ‘Cubitt House Cooks With…’ Amber Guinness on Wednesday 6 July. Tickets here.
Feature image: Credit: Robyn Lea