Emiko Davies is an Australian-Japanese food writer based in Florence and author of three cookbooks including Acquacotta (March 2017), inspired by the Argentario landscape and Il Pellicano. “Il Pellicano is the entire reason why we were in Porto Ercole in the first place. If Marco [her husband] hadn’t accepted the job there, I wouldn’t have been able to fall in love with that part of Tuscany so deeply! My book Acquacotta came about purely because of that — living there in Porto Ercole I was overwhelmed with how beautiful and unique the place and cuisine in that area is,” she explains. Davies shares her love for this special corner of the Maremma with ISSIMO.
There is a scene that is etched into my memory from my first visit to Monte Argentario one Easter, watching the frothy waves crashing against the cliffs in slow motion from far above in a cottage built on a cliff above the pretty cove of Cala Piccola – it’s quite impossible not to fall in love with 180 degree views of indigo sea and Campari-coloured sunsets. Little did I know at the time that the following year we would move to Monte Argentario when my husband Marco Lami landed his dream job as head sommelier at Il Pellicano, a beautiful, chic resort perched on one of those classic Argentario cliffs.
Monte Argentario was, in ancient times, an island. Over time two strips of sandy beach built up to tie the ‘Monte’ (which means mountain) to the mainland, creating Orbetello’s lagoon in the process. It still has the feel of an island, with steep, rocky cliffs and pebbly beaches surrounded by magnificent ink-blue sea, and, as its name suggests, an overgrown, mountainous centre. There are just two towns, Porto Santo Stefano and Porto Ercole, a small Tuscan fishing village that expands in the summer with holidaymakers seeking some dolce vita.
So we moved – with a two and a half year old in tow – from Melbourne (where we had moved to from Florence) to Porto Ercole. Marco leapt into his role as head sommelier and I spent the summer falling in love with this southernmost corner of Tuscany’ Maremma. On his days off we would jump in the car and explore the area – visiting nearby wineries and farms, discovering sandy beaches, villages and hot springs and hopping over to rustic Giglio Island, me taking as many photographs and eating as many things as I could. The beauty of this area, such a little known, even wild, part of Tuscany, is so incredible that I wanted to tell its story through food, and that is how my cookbook, Acquacotta, began taking shape.
The entire book is inspired by this corner of Maremma – drag your finger over a map from Monte Argentario, the lagoon town of Orbetello to Giglio Island, then down to Capalbio (on the border of Lazio), across to Pitigliano, about an hour inland, then up to the hot springs of Saturnia on a twisty, windy road through beautiful hills and pastures and back. It is my ideal road trip and it encompasses the best of this corner of Tuscany: the seaside, an island, a lagoon, mountains, hilltop towns, farms, fields, forests and hot springs. The food that comes from here is unlike your average Tuscan fare — there is a lot less red meat with plenty of seafood and game taking centre stage, there are mushrooms from the mountains, delicious ricotta from the farms and ancient traditions from old hilltop towns. It is a local cuisine that is incredibly diverse, but also rustic, thrifty and, when it comes down to it, simple.
Recipes and old traditions in the Maremma are fast disappearing, so I managed to find recipes by talking to locals like the kind Elisa at her family’s fish shop Da Ledo right on the waterfront in Porto Ercole, and Umberto, the hairdresser, who is an excellent fisherman and mushroom hunter. Talking to locals, I was able to discover some of their favourite family recipes or older traditions. Every now and then we would visit a sagra (a local food festival), which are usually hosted by volunteers cooking local specialties (like the wild boar sagra in the impossibly pretty historical town of Capalbio). They became the perfect recipe-hunting ground, as well as a colourful, bustling night out with the whole family.
The recipes in this book are ones that I enjoy preparing, sharing and eating, much of it according to the seasons. In the long, hot and humid summer months in southern coastal Tuscany, I try to avoid heating up the kitchen with too much cooking, except for a quick boil of some pasta here or there or some toasted bread, rubbed with tomato and doused in olive oil. I could live on cold dishes made with just-hauled-in seafood, like lemon-cured sole or marinated, fried mackerel. Come late summer and early autumn, you find any way possible to eat wild mushrooms – fried, on crostini, in pasta with thick, silky handmade pappardelle and in soup. As soon as the temperature becomes remotely reasonable to begin cooking long and slow again, one of the things I crave most is acquacotta, the Maremma’s signature dish, a stew of tomato and onions with a poached egg on top.
Recently named one of 50 powerful women in food by Italy’s Corriere della Sera, Davies is all over Italy’s food scene as contributor to Financial Times, YOLO Journal, Saveur, Gourmet Traveller and more, and author of three cookbooks, Florentine: The True Cuisine of Florence (March 2016), Acquacotta (March 2017) and Tortellini at Midnight (March 2019).
All photos are by Emiko Davis.