Under the Olive Tree – Introduction:
This book began when I set out to write down for my three young adult children the family recipes – mine and those of previous generations. The project quickly took on a life of its own and I found that talking about the food was inseparable from the places and the people.
There have been serious cooks in our family for over 120 years, so what began as a simple exercise to write about food turned into a trip – for me very much a sentimental journey – to the sources of my personal inspiration. I decided to visit yet again the two places where it all began for me – Lugano and the Costa Smeralda. It is a story in words and pictures of what is special to me about these places, the people who have been part of my life and how I came to develop my personal preference for a relaxed and casual way of eating that went with the life we lived.
This life, at least in my memory, seems to be a time of endless summer. In my mind’s eye we are eating outside on the terrace, “al fresco” as the Italians call it, enjoying the food, the company and the magic of the setting. I have called this book Under the Olive Tree after the table in the garden under an ancient olive on the terrace at my family home in Lugano where it all began.
My travels centre on two places that are not really linked except in my life – Lugano, the elegant lakeside city in southern Switzerland, and the Costa Smeralda, on the rugged north-east coast of the island of Sardegna – Sardinia. For my parents, and later for me as well, Lugano was the place they came from, even though the family lived all over the world for long stretches at a time. Lugano was where I was born, married, lived and have visited frequently since. The language at home was Italian, our food was northern Italian and the centre of our mental landscape was that area between the Alps and the great city of the Lombard Plains, Milano. Sardegna was where we spent out summers, at a white-washed Mediterranean house, looking out over a changing sea to the islands of the Maddalena archipelago and beyond them to the towering distant peaks of Corsica.
When you move from places, memory plays some tricks. The colours seem sharper, the people take on slightly mythical proportions and the life you lived there is bathed in golden light. I have lived much of my life away from Lugano, firstly for eight years in Iran, then at school in Zurich and later, after travelling the world for years, in Sydney, Australia. But I have always returned to Lugano and the Costa Smeralda as often as I can to see my family and to immerse myself in the life there.
I am a passionate amateur cook so food plays an important part in this story. I love growing it, buying it, preparing it, serving it and, of course, the rituals of cooking it. Food is at the centre of our family life. Above all, the moment when it all comes together for me, when I feel I am creating something magical, is when we enjoy simple food in an outdoor setting. At such times the ingredients seem to blend and create something that, like the truly memorable dishes of the world, is greater than the sum of its parts.
It is what I call al fresco living – and it is, by far and away, my favourite way to eat. Just what makes al fresco living and the food that goes with it will be different for everyone: it is very much a personal thing. To me it means to be uncomplicated and relaxed, the opposite of everything that is stiff, formal, stuffy or over-elaborate. It begins with an attitude of mind as much as anything else. There are no particular rules – the choices, settings and styles are your own.
My own food is a grab bag of styles and influences. It is grounded in the north Italian cooking of my childhood, but has elements from the places where I have lived and the things I have enjoyed wherever I have been, my personal scrapbook of likes and dislikes. There is nothing purist about my food – sometimes I feel that if you could read my lunch table as a book, it would be the story of my life.
Cooking is also in my blood. My great-grandfather founded a restaurant 120 years ago. His son, my grandfather, made it famous and my mother was a renowned home cook. The restaurant was in Lugano, queen city of an alpine lake, so this is where the journey begins. Last year I travelled back there, in summer of course, with photographer Simon Griffiths. Together we have tried to capture the elusive qualities of these places and the life I lived there.
So travel back with me to enjoy what I see, to taste what I taste and perhaps be a little inspired too.