We caught up with Amber to ask her a few questions about her cooking and inspiration behind it.
Your home in Arniano, Tuscany, is clearly in one of the most beautiful and atmospheric parts of the world, can you tell us a bit about how the area inspires the food you cook?
Food in Tuscany, and generally throughout Italy is highly seasonal and localized, both of which really inspire the way I cook. This is in part because when I was growing up in Tuscany as a child, it simply wasn’t possible to get things which weren’t grown locally and that weren’t in season.
For instance, until about 1995 the local greengrocer simply didn’t sell mint or lettuce in the summer, assuming that everyone grew their own and therefore not feeling it worth her while to stock it. The shopkeeper would always look incredulous when my mother would go in and ask for salad in July to supplement our own measly crop, and exclaim “Ma signora, non lo cresce nell’orto?” (Madam, don’t you grow it in your vegetable patch?). While I don’t think one should be dictatorial with anything when it comes to food, including eating seasonally, I do think that it is the most efficient and economical way to plan a meal and thinking about what is in season is a useful starting point when deciding what to cook and what will be the centrepiece of any meal. For instance, if asparagus are in season, I might decide that to make an asparagus and ricotta tart and work my way out from there as to what to have with it. Or when broad beans are first in season and are young and tender enough to be eaten raw from their pods, I love nothing more than a simple broad bean and pecorino salad, dressed only with a drizzle of good oil and black pepper.
“Lunches that I cook at Arniano, tend to be informal feasts, laid out so that everyone can help themselves to a bit of everything”
What made you first take up 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, and carried on from there. I later cooked for private dinners, photoshoots and retreats during my spare time at university to make some extra cash, and since 2014 have been cooking two meals a day for guests on the Arniano Painting School, artist retreats that we host at Arniano six times a year.
What type of cooking do you most enjoy. Your book’s title: ‘A House Party in Tuscany’ conjures up beautiful images of delicious Italian food shared across large tables with lots of people – is this your favourite type of cooking or is it something else?
Most definitely. I love an easy, convivial table filled with lots of delicious and attractive looking dishes to pick at con calma. Lunches that I cook at Arniano, or on any of our painting courses that we host in Italy and England, tend to be informal feasts, laid out so that everyone can help themselves to a bit of everything. There will be a central dish – a pasta, a tart or a pie – accompanied by one or two salads, a plate of prosciutto, finocchiona or similar, and a variety of vegetables. What these meals always are, is slow and unstressed, which allows time for chatting and another glass of Vermentino.
We are thrilled to be showcasing an exciting collection of chefs, including yourself, in our Cubitt House Eats With… series. Can you give us a sneak preview of what dishes you will be cooking and why?
I’m really excited about this menu, it’s a collection of some of my favourite dishes from the book. For the antipasti, we have some lovely fresh recipes that really showcase some lovely produce of early summer – Crostini with broad beans, ricotta and mint, which are so fresh, light and zingy, a Trapanese dip – not strictly Tuscan, but something I make often during the hot Italian summers to have on pasta as it involves no cooking except for the pasta, and for the supper club it’s an ode to Ben’s beautiful book Sicilia – which will be served with some gorgeous colourful crudité, plus one of my favourite things to eat, a tomato thyme and mascarpone tart which really shows off summer’s cherry tomatoes.
For the main a delicious and rich pork loin roasted with prunes and pine nuts, and served with my mother’s signature balsamic glazed lentils with pancetta and parsley, and some roast cherry tomatoes and a peppery rucola salad which add a lovely balance of acidity to the plate.
To finish we’ll be having a marmalade and mascarpone tart. Marmalade ‘crostata’ was first made for me by my friend Maria, a Tuscan cook with over forty year’s experience. I slightly tweaked the recipe for the book by adding a layer of mascarpone and cream cheese to add a layer of richness to it which works really well with the gorgeous, bitter orange marmalade.