Green Bean Books

Q&A with Silvia Nacamulli, for author of Jewish Flavours of Italy.

1. Let’s get the tricky question out the way first – this has taken you a very long time to write and publish. How long has it taken, and why?

Jewish Flavours of Italy has been fifteen years in the making, with a few breaks in between, for professional and personal reasons. The journey has been both exciting and difficult at times, but I am glad that it worked out this way in the end, as I could not wish for a better publisher and timing for the book to be published. It started as a self-publishing project, but it was not an easy task. I was lucky to find, work and publish my book with Green Bean Books – it made all the difference. For the last year, I worked with an incredibly talented team of editors, project managers, proof-readers and graphic designers. They were able to embrace my ideas and writing with an Italian accent, and transformed it into the cookery book that is today. I am incredibly grateful.

2. Do you have a favourite recipe? It can be one that is included the book, or any recipe that you have ever used.

I love anything with artichokes and aubergines so my favourite recipe may have to be Carciofi alla giudia, Carciofi in tegame or Caponata di melanzane alla giudia … I only cook dishes I like, so all the recipes I included in the book are what my family in Rome and in London eat at home, day in and day out.

3. From the book, there are lots of lovely family stories – is there one particular recipe that stands out above the rest? Maybe the Pangiallo di Teresa?

There are a few, actually, all related to different special people in my family and beyond. One is the Melanzane alla parmigiana di Nonna Bianca, which is a cold version of the classic aubergine parmigiana. My nonna used to host memorable family lunches every Thursday when I was growing up in Rome, and this dish was often on the menu, as were her gnocchi –
such a classic. There are then my mum’s Pizzarelle col miele, which are soooo delicious! These little matza fritters are made for Passover and are a living tradition in my family: every year my mum devotes an evening to them, frying literally hundreds for friends and family. Finally, there is the Pangiallo di Teresa, from the wonderful Teresa, who, along with her husband Pietro, hid and saved my mum and her family during World War II. Our families are still in touch and after Christmas every year we receive a piece of pangiallo from them. Their family is Catholic and pangiallo is a traditional Christmas dessert from the Rome area. So, although this is not an Italian Jewish recipe, it is close to our family’s heart and encapsulates what food and traditions represent for me – sharing wonderful flavours with your loved ones and bringing memories back to life.

4. What advice would you give to someone who wants to cook but has no experience? Can anyone learn to cook, or is it a gift you are born with?

Anyone can learn to cook if they want to. Italian cooking is the perfect place to start, and Italian Jewish cooking is no different, as the ingredients are few and techniques simple. A dish does not need to be complicated to taste good – in fact, often the opposite is true. I suggest choosing good-  ingredients, a simple recipe that you like, and just give it a go! And be forgiving if it doesn’t quite work the first, second or even the third time round – when you get it right it will taste delicious. Most of all, enjoy yourself and have fun in the kitchen!

5. Who are your Jewish food heroes and why?

My answer is twofold. There are my everyday Italian Jewish food heroes, where my mum and my grandmothers reign. Then there are my Jewish food heroes whose books stimulate and inspire me to this day. First, Claudia Roden, who continues to pass on her knowledge and passion for food in her books. There is then Edda Servi Machlin and Ariel Toaff, who inspired me through their fascinating books on Jewish Italy. Last, but not least, there is the wonderful Yotam Ottolenghi, Italian Jewish in origin from his father side, who elevated cooking to a different level. He always challenges and inspires the nation’s palate. He taught me to be adventurous and forgiving in the kitchen, not necessarily in Italian Jewish cuisine – Italian are pretty strict in their culinary rules – but outside of it, inspiring me to experiment and to trust my taste buds to go further. I am grateful to them all.

6. Which cookbooks do you reach for if you are looking for inspiration?

I usually look in the fridge and cupboards for inspiration rather than cookery books! I like to create dishes from what I have at home and to experiment with new combinations of flavours. For new original recipes, though, usually Ottolenghi wins as a source for inspiration.

7. The book is about Jewish flavours of Italy, but what makes a recipe Jewish?

Is it something that is kosher? Something that was invented by Jews? Or something Jews like to eat? All of the above. Kosher rules are the pillar of dietary laws in Jewish life, so everything that
(practising) Jews eat evolves from them, all over the world. In order to conform to kosher rules, Jews in Italy – as elsewhere – created new and original dishes inspired by the local cuisine and products. In Italy it translated in creating cold cuts of meat using goose or beef rather than pork, or making lasagne without mixing meat and dairy, or a carbonara pasta with courgette or kosher salami instead of bacon, hence creating new combination of flavours. Jews have been living in Italy for over two thousand years; Italian Jewish cuisine is, therefore, inextricably linked to Italian cuisine. Jews also immigrated to Italy from a variety of countries, and each time they brought with them new and much-loved ingredients – such as aubergines to make Caponata di melanzane alla giudia or Melanzane alla parmigiana – or they introduced the tradition of mixing sweet and savoury flavours, in dishes such as Cipolline in agro dolce or the Venetian Carote sofogae. During the three hundred or so years of Jewish ghettos across Italy, the segregation in cramped and poor neighbours made Jews
masters of using parts of food that others would throw away, such as peapods, fish bones and offal, or small bony fish, creating delicious dishes with them. Many of these dishes are part of Italian cooking today, but the origins were within the different Jewish communities.

8. A classic Friday night for an Ashkenazi family in London would be roast chicken and potatoes, probably with chopped liver and chicken soup. What is an Italian Friday night Shabbat meal?

I don’t know of any Italian Jews who eat the same meal every Friday night! Like all Italians, Italian Jews mostly eat seasonal food, therefore the Shabbat menu changes regularly. There are, of course, dishes that are more likely to be eaten for Shabbat, such as the Beef stracotto in Rome, Sarde in saor in Venice or the Fish haraimi or Lubia bel cammun by the Libyan Jews who settled in Italy in the 1967 and introduced delicious new food to the Italian Jewish repertoire. I certainly cook different dishes every Friday night.

9. Do you ever have kitchen disasters?

Very rarely, to be honest, but I can be a little absent-minded and sometimes forget something and leave a dish on the stove a few minutes too long and it gets a little charred, but I don’t really mind as I quite like it that way. Ah, once I forgot to add salt in my challa: it was completely tasteless!

10. Is it best to find you on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok or YouTube?

There are so many platforms – where is the right place to look for your recipes and classes?
Instagram @silvia_nacamulli is the best place and I’m working on a brand-new website which will be ready in June, I’ll keep you posted.

11. When can we come for dinner?

Anytime!

Jewish Flavours of Italy is an incredible achievement. Thank you!
THANK YOU for liking my food, believing in my project and publishing my book!