Amber Guinness: from country to coast

Amber Guinness: from country to coast

The English cook/writer shares some Florence secrets ahead of the release of her second book, Italian Coastal

Thu 28 Mar 2024 3:19 PM

The English cook and food writer Amber Guinness is sitting, relaxed, on her sofa in central Florence. Following the 2022 success of the memoir-based book, A House Party in Tuscany, featuring recipes, stories and art from her Arniano Painting School, near Siena, Amber’s second publication, Italian Coastal, is about to be released this April. We chat about her shift in focus from the Tuscan countryside to the Tyrrhenian Sea.

Amber Guinness. Ph. Saghar Setareh

We are sitting here in your beautiful apartment near the Ponte Vecchio, but you actually grew up in the Tuscan countryside. Do you feel more Italian or more British? More of a city girl or a country bumpkin?

I went from 0 to 13 in a village school in Buonconvento, so when I’m here, I feel super English and when I’m in England, I feel super Italian. When I’m in England, I miss here and when I’m here, I often miss England. In terms of city versus country, when Matthew [Bell, Amber’s husband, ed.] and I decided to move here for six months eight years ago, I wanted to do something different. Arniano is more my mum’s house anyway. I was 26 and we were too young to move to the middle of nowhere, even though that’s where all my school friends are. I liked the idea of getting to know Florence more. When we’re at Arniano, which is remote and peaceful, you focus on cooking, going for walks and being in the garden. It’s nice to have the contrast with being in the thick of it.

And now, the tourists are back.

They’re back, they’re back. We step out of our front door and there’s the queue for Cinghiale Bianco on one side and Cammillo on the other. It’s nice to nip into Cammillo for an expensive plate of pasta. It’s fun, all the theatre in there. The Cinghiale Bianco is owned by our landlords, so if Matthew’s on his own, they will sometimes say, We haven’t seen your wife around. Come in, we’ll feed you.

That’s reassuring. We all talk about the “Disneyfication” of Florence, but that essence of looking out for each other is something we need to maintain.

Absolutely. I think Florentines are actually very good at looking after people who they see time and again. That’s why we all like being here really.

The fruttivendolo knows us and pops in an extra peach. How did you get into food writing? Was it the writing or the food that lured you in?

My mum is a trained cook. She was strict with my sister and I, growing up. She’s such an instinctive cook that she couldn’t really explain what she was doing and she’d get annoyed if you asked her. “I don’t know, you have to watch me!” So, we would watch her assiduously. She moved to Tuscany in 1982, so it was her way of getting under the skin of the culture and meeting people. She’d meet someone and say, “Oh, will you give me the recipe for that?” We used to live in Greve in Chianti and, about six years ago, I went with her to the butcher there. She hadn’t been for 20 years and they went, “Ma Signora Guinness! Che bello!

When did you start cooking in earnest?

When I was at university, it was a way to earn money and in the summer holidays I was cooking and assisting chefs on photoshoots or catering jobs. My friend, William Roper-Curzon, and I started these painting courses in April about 10 years ago. We had this informal idea of him teaching people how to paint, me cooking, and the whole thing being like hosting a house party. The more you cook, the better you become. Ten years ago, it was chaotic. Now I’m much more regimented and it’s much more honed.

Amber Guinness with her new book, Italian Coastal

How did you make the leap to writing?

Over the years, people would always ask for the recipes. Matthew and William were encouraging me to write a cookbook and I’d say, I’d love to, but I don’t really have time. I was working for Ortigia, doing painting courses and working with Emily FitzRoy as an interpreter for those massive weddings she sometimes does. I met Robyn Lea, who was doing a book called A Room of Her Own about creative women. She featured me as a cook, my mum as an interior designer and my sister as a producer. I was chatting to her about the idea of writing a cookbook and she ended up introducing me to her publisher, Thames and Hudson. It was actually good timing in a way because I got the commission in March 2020. Matthew and I were at Cammillo the evening that the “red zone” became everywhere. We finished dinner, got in the car with two suitcases, went to Arniano, and didn’t move from there for four months. I had infinite time to write, recipe test and cook that I normally didn’t have.

Now you’ve gone from the countryside to the sea with your second book. What is it about the Italian coast that appeals to you so much?

It was the nearest stretch of sea to us when we were growing up. I love that it’s quite buttoned up, but then you have weird things like Niki de Saint Phalle’s Tarot Garden. There’s a lot of juxtaposition going on. Giglio is such a special spot and it’s three hours door to door. There’s something understated and Dolce Vita-esque in the feeling of that stretch of coast. The food is so localized. Someone who lives in Ansedonia said to me that the thing about food in Maremma is that if you have a restaurant on the inland side of the Aurelia, it will only be terra. On the coastal side, they only serve fish, but the only divide is the road.

You venture outside Tuscany too.

After we moved here, I started to be drawn to the south. As part of my job for Ortigia, I travelled to Salina, Salento and Cilento. I fell in love with it and kept eating surprising and delicious things. I thought it would be fun to do a cookbook based on geography. You’ve got the undulating dunes in Maremma, the sheer dramatic cliffs of Amalfi and the Aeolian Islands, which are so insular. It’s so varied, the nature is so vast, which makes you feel insignificant and aware of history. You feel this sense of people, recipes and ingredients moving around. You can understand why someone would attribute mythology to places like Monte Circeo, with Circe, and Punta Campanella, with Ulysses and the Sirens.

Florence Q&A

Your favourite place to relax?

I like wandering over to Sant’Ambrogio. Everything about that market is just so great.

Where do you take your little one?

The ludoteca on via Maffia.

Favourite bar?

My favourite bar used to be Pitta M’Ingolli in piazza Santo Spirito, but it’s too close to the road with a toddler, so now I go to Volume. I also like the Circolo Rondinella for the signore with their crocheting.

Tip to avoid the crowds?

I often go to the flower market early on a Thursday morning, and I’ll go to Rivoire early and stand at the bar. The other day I got there too late and there must have been a cruise ship gang because the woman ordered 27 cappuccinos. They stood there with a spoon, pushing their froth around. You actually can do all the greatest hits that people consider touristy as long as you navigate it in a particular way and get your timings right.

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