3 weeks ago

Lockdown Life: Amber Guinness’ Tales From Tuscany

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The cook, food writer and co-founder of a painting school describes nine weeks of lockdown in Italy …

My husband Matthew and I were in Florence on the evening of March 9, when we were informed that Italy was now in full lockdown. We had come up that evening from Arniano, my family’s house in the countryside, to have dinner with friends. Towards the end of the evening in the eerily quiet Trattoria Cammillo, usually buzzing with life, its famed proprietress Chiara came to our table to announce: “That’s it, we are all in lockdown. This will be the last dinner service until it’s all over”. We drank and commiserated with her and her thirteen staff, before promptly heading upstairs to our flat, grabbing what we thought we would need for a protracted stay, and driving back home just four hours after having left. The expectation was that we would all be reunited with our friends within three and a half weeks. As the days went on, that became less realistic, and here we still are, nine weeks later – Matthew and I amazingly still as fond of each other as when we arrived. 

It was winter then, but, along with the initial feelings of anxiety and unease, winter has slowly ebbed away, replaced with the advent of spring and acceptance that we are doing what we need to be doing. Matthew and I are incredibly lucky, both being able to work anywhere. He is a journalist, and I am a cook, food writer, and co-founder of the Arniano Painting School – a residential painting holiday that we run four times a year with my friend and partner, the painter William Roper-Curzon. With the postponing of all overseas holidays, there has been a lot of reorganising to do, and we were sad when we had to admit in mid-March that to hold a painting course in May would be impossible. We are fortunate that our regular painters have remained optimistic, and message us to say they look forward being reunited here soon.  

As for many, cooking has been a solace. Meals are a joyful way to punctuate the day and to create a sense of occasion. Usually at this time of year I would be cooking for twelve hungry painters. I miss the spring feasts that I would be putting together for them, and the laughter as we all sit around the table. I have been trying to recreate these fun-filled meals on a smaller scale, by laying elaborate tables for two: foraging for wild flowers, and going through my mother’s collection of crockery and Lisa Corti tablecloths for colour. 

I am currently writing a collection of recipes of the food we make at Arniano for a book, so during the week, the mornings are spent testing the recipes, making notes as I go, and if I am happy, writing them up in the afternoon, or writing down what went wrong if not. Weekends are for non-work related cooking, revisiting old favourites, and trying to recreate the dishes we are most missing from our favourite restaurants. Speaking to friends in Florence, we have all been sad to miss the fresh pea season at Cammillo. This lasts about a month, when the restaurant serves its famous fresh peas with tagliolini, which is impossibly sweet and buttery. Thankfully, I have had time to address this by simply making tagliolini, and shelling my own peas – delicious, but never so good as when you don’t have to go through the trouble yourself. My husband adores pizza, and being in the middle of nowhere, a delivery is not an option, so we have become adept pizzaiole – Matthew making his favourite of crumbled Italian sausage and red onion, me, a margherita with lots of basil and chilli. The slower pace of life affords one the time to make these more time-consuming dishes, which would have been a matter of course to the Italian mamma of 50 years ago. 

At the start of our isolation, I found that I was too distracted to read, which surprised me, having always longed for time to do just that. I was anxious and always looking at my phone, and only cooking or drawing could distract me from the suffering I was reading about in the news. I addressed this by ceasing to engage, knowing that if something important happened, I would find out about it on one of the many family WhatsApp groups. Happily, I now find that I can read for hours, turning to old favourites like Anthony Trollope, Jane Austen, and Charlotte Bronte, whose stories are set in times when a slower pace of life, interminable stints in the country and being divided from one’s loved ones for a long time were the norm. 

I have been taking strict instructions by phone from my mother as to how to take care of the garden, which was laid out by my late father. It has been wonderful to observe the gradual waking of the plants from their winter slumber and I have surprised myself by becoming the sort of person who talks to her tomato plants, and worries terribly if it doesn’t rain for seven days straight. Time will tell if I have developed green fingers, or whether I am just in want of time with friends. Either way, nature is a solace, and I try to reflect that if winter is not endless, neither can this crisis be. Like spring, we’ll slowly emerge, and the reunion will be all the sweeter.  

www.arnianopaintingschool.com

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