Other people's pantries. Q&A with Valentina Raffaelli
A culinary nomad and a food researcher | The pantry at home and the work in the kitchen of an agriturismo | Her book: Italian Scraps | Valentina's recipe for pickled turnips
Other people’s pantries is back. It is a series of Q&A with a focus on pantries as a privileged way to get into people’s lives, cooking styles, and favourite recipes. It is also an opportunity to chat with professionals I admire, and with friends with whom I have shared an important part of my personal and professional growth.
Today we chat with Valentina Raffaelli, a culinary nomad and food researcher, food writer and chef, one of the most interesting profiles to follow on Instagram for her creativity in the kitchen, her research, passion, insight and, last but not least, for the glimpses of the world out there she shares with us when she is out and about with her BigBlue.
You can find Valentina on Instagram: @valentina.raffaelli and this is her first book: Italian Scraps, From North to South, a culinary journey where nothing is thrown away
Part of our conversation is paywalled, and the subscribers will find Valentina’s recipe for pickled turnips, delicious to combine with salads or in an appetiser spread to accompany a cheese board.
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Ciao Valentina, can you briefly introduce yourself?
Hi, I am Valentina, originally from Trentino but based in Amsterdam for more than ten years now. I am originally a designer, with a degree in architecture and interior design. At some point, though, I fell madly in love with cooking so much that I never left it and completely turned my work upside down. I had been working as a designer for several years, first in a large museum design studio, then I opened my own studio with a friend and we did interior styling for product companies and editorial work for magazines. I got into the kitchen for fun and haven't been able to stop since.
I worked for four years in the brigade of a famous Italian restaurant in Amsterdam, then in 2019, I left for a journey of research and exploration in Italy, which led me to do several small internships in various restaurants in our Bel Paese and to research for a book to be published in 2020: Scarti d'italia, Italian Scraps, published by Corraini.
The book tells the journey through Italy on board a van to discover the gastronomic traditions and stories linked to quinto quarto (literally the fifth quarter, offal), the cuisine of food scraps, a subject that needs to be rediscovered if we want to talk about food sustainability.
From that trip, I started cooking and doing research and sharing my findings on the topics of biodiversity, food waste, reuse traditions, forgotten products, and sustainability. My cuisine became geographically mobile, and I’ve been a resident chef in various restaurants in Europe, the latest experience being in Tuscany at the Follonico agriturismo, which is coming to an end in these very weeks.
You define yourself as a culinary nomad and food researcher. How has this affected your relationship with the pantry?
I call myself a culinary nomad because over the past few years I have found myself cooking in different places, which has led me to research different products, ways of cooking and traditions related to the areas I was in. I was lucky enough to learn incredibly interesting recipes and to be in exactly the place where I could find the necessary products. My pantry expanded in terms of possibilities and ingredients, it became in a way a sentimental pantry, linked to a context that was home for a while. I have Fulvio's olive oil, Rossella's sun-dried tomatoes, elderberries preserved by Signora Franca, Fabio's spicy olive oil, which sits alongside the wild fennel I picked in Provence, the dried roses I bought in Marrakech, and the hazelnuts I found at a farmer's in the Langhe and which I have never found so good ever since.
I like to collect both products that I come across, but also research particular products, producers who strive to preserve ancient traditions or who work according to ethical and sustainable principles.
And what has been the role of the pantry in your family?
I have to be honest, in my family, we always cooked a lot for the meal itself. My dad was the cook, and my grandmother, who lived below us, had the vegetable garden. In the pantry there was a lot of pasta, always good flour for polenta, we kept old bread to make canederli. We ate a lot of fresh seasonal vegetables but I don't remember jars of preserves and we rarely cooked to “stash food away”.
You were born in Trentino, studied architecture and interior design in Venice, Milan and Paris, and now live in Amsterdam but you are currently cooking in Tuscany, at Follonico. Does your pantry reflect your movements?
Let's say that the constant moving around, even for relatively short periods of time, has led to the creation of two parallel pantries: the pantry at home (in Amsterdam), the place of the heart, the refuge after travelling, the nest where I keep all the treasures I pick up on the go, the place where I feel I have everything I need, where I cook with love; and then there is the portable pantry, those essentials that I take with me wherever I go. They are the cooked fig must that makes the father of a dear friend from Puglia, some varieties of pepper, Timur, black pepper, and the lightly smoked Isot chilli. I always carry toasted sesame seeds because it is not always easy to find them, nigella seeds, which I love to use on salads, and a small jar of the aforementioned dried roses. I always carry my bottles of vinegar with me, an ingredient I love and use a lot in my cooking: red wine vinegar for strong marinades, rice vinegar, a couple of good balsamic vinegars, including a white balsamic that I find very delicate, and apple vinegar. As for the extra virgin olive oil, I usually buy it where I go, a chance to taste different ones.
What is the one ingredient that just cannot be missing from your ideal pantry?
In my cooking, I use seeds and nuts a lot: almonds, hazelnuts, pumpkin, sunflower and sesame seeds. There’s always dried fruit, too: dates, figs, sultanas. I love the reference to Middle Eastern cuisine that uses dehydrated fruit in stews, combined with vegetables, which is also found in many Italian regional cuisines, I am thinking of the Venetian saor (marinated sweet and sour sardines), which I like to turn into a vegetarian course with pumpkin or zucchini, or Sicilian couscous, and in general the use of sultanas and citrus fruits in many preparations.
I don't know if it can be considered part of the pantry, but in my kitchen, there should never be a lack of fresh herbs: basil, mint, coriander (which I love), nasturtium, watercress, but also sprouts, pea shoots for salads, and edible flowers that are not only wonderful to see on a plate but have distinct flavours. Think about fresh borage flowers, which are reminiscent of cucumbers, or the begonia flowers, sour and crunchy.
You are a chef in a farmer's restaurant that relies heavily on the garden and its seasonality, so what is the role of the pantry in your cooking at Follonico?
In Follonico, I had a unique experience that I had never had the chance to experience before, namely cooking completely local; my only 'supermarket' was my vegetable garden and a few farms within a 15 km radius. This was a very interesting and at times equally challenging opportunity. One is used to using this expression a lot, but to find oneself applying it to the letter is quite another thing. You have to deal with very prosperous periods full of vegetables and transitional phases when you can only rely on a few ingredients, and finding yourself building an entire restaurant menu is not an easy thing.
Here, this limitation pushed me to experiment with processing and preserving, a type of pantry I had never dealt with before: drying, fermenting, marinating, and aromatic oils became valuable supporting ingredients.
I started drying herbs or using parts of vegetables that are usually discarded, such as the green part of onions, garlic shoots, vine or fig leaves, creating aromatic oils with the green part of leeks for example, and fermenting unripe fruit. This increased the possibilities of combinations and allowed me to create interesting dishes even when I did not have a large variety of products available. Conversely, at times of overproduction of a particular vegetable, we preserved for later seasons the produce that would otherwise not be consumed.
It is a logical procedure which has nothing innovative about it. On the contrary, it belongs to the way of cooking and supplying the pantry in the agricultural and peasant tradition of our culture. This is something we have lost in recent decades and now we always find everything in the supermarket, we don't care how much remains unsold, how much we cannot consume and how much does not even reach the market chain because it is discarded at the start. I am not nostalgic for the time past, but I do cultivate the awareness that a change is necessary, that we have more and more opportunities, even in the city, to buy directly from producers and to adapt our cooking to what is available rather than to what we want, and to go back to learning to stock up your pantry with those ingredients we cannot consume immediately.
Which is your favourite recipe to make with pantry ingredients at the restaurant and which one at home?
One of my favourite times of the day is definitely breakfast: I have the great privilege of being able to take my time. I make coffee, which I drink with a few cookies dunked in it, and then I always prepare a bowl of yoghurt with seeds and fruit: in my larder, there are always various seeds and cereals, millet, spelt, oat flakes, and I enrich it with honey, another ingredient that is never missing from my pantry, fresh fruit, and sometimes some spices.
At the restaurant, I have started to use fermented products a lot. I especially love those made from unripe fruit, which, as they are not yet very sugary, remain sour to the right point and always give a pungent touch to the dish. I particularly liked some small green plums that I fermented for about two weeks and am still using after four months.
Has the arrival of a child, Galileo, changed anything on your pantry shelves?
During Galileo's weaning, I alternated baby food such as cereal creams, legumes soups, and mashed vegetables with what one would call self-weaning meals, in which he would eat what we ate, just cut into smaller pieces. The pantry was always full of different cereals and legumes, and I simply took more care to combine and alternate them according to more precise nutritional guidelines. I introduced almond, peanut, and sesame butter, which I didn't use before and which I still add to fruit or yoghurt snacks. The variety of pasta shapes has reduced considerably and now our pantry almost exclusively contains fusilli (Galileo's favourite) and spaghetti, but I plan to expand the selection again soon.
A curiosity. Do your past as an architect and graphic designer and the work of your husband Luca, an illustrator, influence you when choosing what ends up in your pantry? Tell me I'm not the only one who gets convinced by beautiful packaging!
Well, it's a fact, some packaging is wonderfully irresistible! Although I have to be honest, we vent our aesthetic fixations more in other areas because, as we said before, we like to buy, whenever possible, those homemade things that are not even labelled.
Fortunately, more and more niche products are renewing their image and have beautiful packaging and labels, which we also invariably buy to keep as a reference for the food graphics work that Luca and I do together. In fact, it often happens that we take care of the corporate image of a new product or a new food-related establishment: we recently worked on the entire image of a beautiful food shop in Rome and we are now working on a brand of extra virgin olive oil. Luca takes care of the illustration and graphics, I take care of the concept and creative direction.
I know that a new book is on the way. Can you tell us about it?
The new book coming out very soon, Scarti d'Italia 2 | Italian Scraps 2, will be, as you might guess, the sequel to the one already published. It is the result of the research collected in our journey through Italy in 2019, 11 months from North to South in search of traditions and ways of cooking without waste. Luca took care again of all the illustrations.
This new chapter will talk about vegetable scraps: it is not just what we throw away, but mainly what we do not even consider, the biodiversity hidden and crushed by the agri-food industry.
It is a book about Italy as a fertile garden where people used to (and fortunately many traditions still remain) eat much more than we are used to: ugly, earthy, lumpy foods, endless varieties of green leafy vegetables, roots, different tubers that we are no longer used to distinguish, and even parts of plants that we usually throw away but which in some parts of Italy are considered delicacies. We felt there was a need to share this information, these stories, and these ways of doing things that often remain relegated to local practices. It is an illustrated catalogue of over 300 pages with typical recipes collected from the trattorias that hosted us, from the ladies we chatted to along the way, and from the traditional recipe books I consulted.
It talks about vegetables, mushrooms, salads, wild herbs and weeds, with many interesting external contributions that make me proud to have created a choral discourse that highlights those who have the courage to follow a different path from that of large-scale distribution and trade with rules imposed by the market.
It is meant to be a small gentle revolution in our approach to food, how and where we buy it and how we use it.
Last question, can you share a recipe to make something to keep in the pantry?
I would have loved to tell you the recipe for fermented unripe plums, but as it is no longer in season, I will save it for next summer. Instead, I will tell you how I prepare pickled turnips; they are the typical snubbed vegetable, guilty of the excessive use of the past, especially in times of war, which then completely downgraded them from the market. I well remember my grandmother seeing me cook them, exclaiming 'ah, rave...' in a derogatory tone. Instead, they are a noble vegetable, with a delicate and pungent flavour at the same time. I use them in purees or soups and even roasted in the oven they are extremely good.
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