Life

Jamie Oliver on celebrating classic Italian home-cooking

Ella Walker talks to celebrity chef Jamie Oliver and finds him in a rather reflective mood as he launches his new book Jamie Cooks Italy

Jamie Oliver's new book takes inspiration from cooking by the last generation of Italian 'nonnas'
Ella Walker

THREE years ago, Jamie Oliver turned 40, and he really "didn't enjoy it much."

The prospect of entering his fifth decade made The Naked Chef more than a little "reflective", he admits. Meanwhile, his long-time mentor Gennaro Contaldo – who guided Oliver through his early days at the late Antonio Carluccio's Neal Street Restaurant during the 90s – was edging towards the big seven-oh.

"He was in a similar but different reflective kind of moment," remembers Oliver. Getting away, escaping for a bit became increasingly appealing to them both.

"Me and Gennaro felt we needed that time personally."

Italy, Contaldo's homeland, became the destination, and the pair spent months travelling from the northern mountains to the southern islands, across the seasons. The result is Oliver's latest cookbook and accompanying Channel 4 series, Jamie Cooks Italy.

It's not just about the duo barrelling around Italy gorging on pasta in an effort to scrub out the years though. Instead, the pair set out to learn from the last generation of Italian 'nonnas', women in their 80s and 90s who "didn't grow up with fridges, freezers, microwaves, gas, electricity – we're talking about old school," notes the Essex-born restaurateur, reverently.

The aim was to capture "a snapshot, a moment, a bit of history", and by meeting the "matriarchs of the best cooking on the planet", help preserve a way of cooking and eating that could cease with a generation.

"I am, and I think they are," says Oliver, when asked if he's worried the food of the nonnas is being gradually eroded.

"Things fade, things go, things that are loved and important and really good for family nutrition, or communities or farming or fun, they can be going for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years, [but] it only takes five years for something to completely die off."

"Every single nonna, without question, was like, 'Share this, get this to as many people as possible, people aren't cooking that in this village anymore'," he continues.

"It's fair to say that the new generation of young Italian boys and girls are not cooking like the one before, and the one before and the one before that."

Strangely, he says the recipes in the book are "almost smoke and mirrors" – the food is important, but with every encounter, whether it was making orecchiette by hand with nonna Graziella in Puglia, or eating sweet and sour rabbit with nonna Marina in Salina, it increasingly became apparent that Oliver and his crew were working on more than a cookbook, they were making a record of "life and being grateful".

"It's about love and seizing the moment," he says, shaking his head, keen to not sound overly romantic. "We laughed a lot, and we cried quite a lot.

"There were some really f****** intense moments."

He tells of making tiella, with nonna Linda in Puglia, a baked long grain rice dish bejewelled with tomatoes, courgettes and mussels.

"She shucked these mussels, not for mussels' sake, but almost as a seasoning – my god it was delicious", remembers Oliver.

"She was so welcoming. I was introducing everyone outside in this square, but I kept doing really s*** Italian, so she didn't understand what I was saying. I kept getting it wrong, and every time I got it right, the bells would ring.

"We started giggling – she hadn't got a clue who I was – then we just giggled like children for 15 minutes."

Eventually they got to around to the tiella, and "while it's cooking you've got an hour to talk. We're talking about how hard the winters were and life and money and family, and the loss of her husband.

"Then it was like, 'How many kids have you got? [Oliver has five children with wife of 18 years, Jools], and then she pulls out this jar with a baby [in it]. It was one that was lost. It takes your breath away," says Oliver, visibly moved.

"But that's completely normal [for certain generations in Italy], and just like cooking and technology, and opportunities and mortality, and the concept of a crematorium, that's very, very new.

"It's real, so then the conversation becomes about loss and love," he continues, "but also about the dish. As a parent, food's originally used to nourish your growing baby, and then your child, and then your teenager, and then they leave and you use food to bring them back because you want to see them again.

"You use it like a magnet, it's like currency, but the meaning of the currency is different – it's quite a fascinating thing."

For Oliver, who worked in the kitchens at the famed River Cafe, Italians ("They're just crazy enough") and Italian food have always held a certain charm.

He blames its winning combination of "high flavour, simplicity and comfort – a lot of it makes you feel good", and it not being "too elegant or over crafted".

Instead of demanding intricately diced vegetables and that you own a sous vide, "there's none of that, it's like, go and find this incredible stuff, get some of that, rip that up, tear that up, bash that, get that in there, drizzle", jabbers Oliver, hands flying.

"It's quite an accessible, simple, delicious cuisine."

And no, the nonnas weren't too zealous with him when sharing their recipes. "They'll go, 'You can do that if you want', because they're mums, right? Yes, they're strict about the recipe, but if two more people turn up, they've got to stretch it, and if it's not in season, they've got to use something else."

Most of the nonnas he and Contaldo met were from quite poor backgrounds, "so they were cooking fabulous food with not much resource or money," says Oliver.

"That's really empowering and really, really inspiring to see, particularly as – and largely only in Britain – we associate good food, loving food, with being rich. Although it's easy to think that, it couldn't be further from the truth.

"It's about knowledge. If you truly love something, regardless of how old or what people think of you, it's still OK to hunt and search and grovel for knowledge.

"And if you say, 'Do you want to go to this Michelin-starred restaurant for dinner, or go to nonna Marina?'

"I'm with Marina every time."

:: Jamie Cooks Italy by Jamie Oliver is published by Penguin Random House, priced £26

Recipes

:: BURRATA BRUSCHETTA WITH SWEET AND SOUR ROASTED CHICORY AND CELERY HEART

Basically fancy cheese on toast: "A bruschetta – basically an Italian open sandwich – enjoyed as a starter, antipasto or snack, gives you the opportunity to really celebrate seasonal produce at its best," says Oliver.

"It's a bold and confident move to simply put something extraordinary on toast and serve it up to kick off a dinner party – what a wonderful thing."

Here's how to make his fancy burrata version...

Ingredients (Serves 4):

4 white or red chicory

1 head of celery

2 sprigs of fresh rosemary

Olive oil

4 oranges (juiced)

1tbsp runny honey

1tbsp red wine vinegar

4 slices of sourdough bread

1 clove of garlic

Extra virgin olive oil

200g ball of burrata

2 sprigs of fresh flat-leaf parsley

1/2-1 fresh red chilli (optional)

Sea salt and pepper

Method:

1. Preheat the oven to 200C. Trim the chicory and halve lengthways. Trim the celery and cut 10cm from the base, saving the top half for other cooking, and reserving the inner yellow leaves. Use a speed-peeler to remove the base and stringy outer edges, then slice lengthways 1cm thick. Place the chicory and celery in a roasting tray. Strip in the rosemary leaves, drizzle with a little olive oil, add a pinch of sea salt and black pepper and toss to coat. Roast for 25 minutes.

2. Remove the tray from the oven to a high heat on the hob. Squeeze over the orange juice, drizzle over the honey and vinegar, add a splash of water and bring to the boil. Give it a stir, then carefully transfer back to the oven for a final 10 minutes, or until nice and sticky and the liquid has reduced.

3. Toast the bread, halve the garlic clove and lightly rub the cut sides over the toasts, then place on your plates. Drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil, then divide and tear over the burrata.

4. Delicately spoon over the roasted chicory and celery, and drizzle over that flavour-packed dressing. Pick over the parsley leaves and reserved celery leaves. Finely slice and scatter over a little chilli before serving, if you like.

:: LIMONCELLO TIRAMISU WITH MASCARPONE, CHERRIES AND WHITE CHOCOLATE

A light and super summery dessert: "Of course, this is not a traditional tiramisu, but the layering of the sponge and silky vanilla mascarpone provides the link to the dessert we all know and love," explains Oliver.

"Using cherries, limoncello and white chocolate gives you a lighter-feeling dessert that is hugely enjoyable, inspired by long summer days along the Amalfi coast."

Ingredients (Serves 8):

2 oranges

200ml limoncello

4tbsp runny honey

200g sponge fingers

200ml good espresso (cold)

250g mascarpone cheese

250g natural yoghurt

1tsp vanilla bean paste

250g ripe cherries

Extra virgin olive oil

100g white chocolate (cold)

Method:

1. Use a speed-peeler to peel strips of zest from the oranges into a small pan. Squeeze over all the juice, add 100ml of the limoncello and two tablespoons of honey, and simmer over a medium heat until you have a thick syrup.

2. Cover the base of a 24cm serving bowl with half the sponge fingers. Mix the cold espresso with the remaining limoncello, then drizzle half of it over the sponge layer, pressing down lightly to help it absorb the coffee mixture.

3. Whisk together the mascarpone, yoghurt, vanilla paste and remaining two tablespoons of honey until smooth, then spoon half into the bowl in an even layer. Remove the stones from the cherries, tearing the flesh over the mascarpone. Lay the remaining sponge fingers on top, drizzle over the rest of the coffee, and finish by spooning over the remaining mascarpone.

4. Spoon the syrup and candied peel over the tiramisu, and drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil. Cover and pop into the fridge for at least four hours, or overnight.

5. Shave or grate over the white chocolate to finish.

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