Jamie Oliver comes to Manchester to chat about the Italian nonnas that have inspired his latest cookbook and TV series ‘Jamie Cooks Italy’
Do you feel a responsibility to keep Italian nonna’s way of cooking alive?
[The book and TV series] was a two-year piece of work. There were so many trips to Italy, through summer, winter, from the mountains to the islands, that I’ve lost count. I think this is the last generation of proper, old school cooks, without fridges, without freezers, without a supermarket down the road, really agile cooks that learnt as babies – I’m talking six, seven years old. Most of the nonnas I cooked with were cooking for whole families over an open fire at seven, eight, nine when the family would be out working. The concept of vulnerability and poverty and hunger is completely different to what we would judge it as now, so the upside of what you get from that is actually what the planet craves now – a really frugal cook. All the nonnas were fairly consistent in saying these dishes don’t get cooked anymore, so they were just like ‘take it, go on’.
What influence did the nonnas have on your cooking technique?
I almost learnt to un-cook. As a chef, you’re trained in a French, regimental way; you do knife skills, you do specific cuts, it’s all about accuracy, but nonnas don’t want accuracy. They’re using the wrong knife – in my opinion – to cut the wrong way to create irregular things, but of course then it cooks irregularly, so you get a depth of flavour that’s not like a chef. They have these quite brutal, crude ways to prep things, which is actually much more like what regular people do, but their food is incredible. If it nourishes you and it’s good, that’s the only thing that matters on the conversation about food.
“I could finally understand the concept of soul food; it’s not extravagant or a bit funky… it’s life or death – that’s soul food!”
Also, most of the waste that happens in Britain happens in the home. It just wouldn’t happen [in the nonna’s cooking]. One of the biggest waste things in Britain is bread. You’ve never seen so many incredible recipes for bread soups, bread sauces, bread desserts. Dry bread reacts differently, it tastes differently, so you have salads with pangrattato which is like loads of little, fried breadcrumbs with herbs. Delicious! It reminded me of when I did my ‘American Road Trip’ because I could finally understand the concept of soul food; it’s not extravagant or a bit funky, no, no, no, life or death – that’s soul food!
What was the most important thing that the nonnas taught you?
To be grateful. All food is a tapestry of conflict, poverty, celebration, religion. When you talk to the nonnas, you see what they went through, so there was no gas, no electricity, no penicillin, no antibiotics. They’d rattle out eight or nine kids; they’d lose a couple – standard. Throw in a couple of World Wars, a bit of Stalin, and then being in quite a brutal part of the country at a high altitude, so, without being too dramatic, all of them were really grateful for every little thing they cooked with.