Other people's pantries. Q&A with Manuela Conti
A baker, and a mother who is half cook and half farmer | A sustainable pantry in Brianza | Manuela's new book | Her recipe for pan de mej
After a summer break, 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 Manuela Conti. Although we already knew each other online, Manuela and I met in person in 2016 when she took part in our first Three Acres Creative Gathering. Now she is a dear friend. She touched us with her emotion, her love for bread. She taught us how to work with a sourdough starter. It is not a matter of flour and techniques, as everything is involved: heart, soul, and dedication.
Since then, I have followed her path with great admiration: her sourdough baking courses, her first book, and the years spent cooking in an agriturismo. I was looking forward to interviewing her for this column, curious to know more about her way of considering the pantry and the projects she is working on.
Besides this, Manuela lives in Brianza, an industrious area in the North of Italy, at the foot of the Alps, in the North-West of Lombardy, between Milan and Lake Como: I wanted to give you an insight into this lesser-known area of Italy.
You can find Manuela on Instagram: @conlemaninpasta and on her blog, where she shares all her recipes: Con le mani in pasta
Part of our conversation is paywalled, and the subscribers will find Manuela’s recipe for pan de mej, a cookie made from corn flour and dried elderflowers, a must-have in her pantry.
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Ciao Manuela, can you briefly introduce yourself?
Hello! My name is Manuela, I live in the province of Lecco with my family - husband, children, dog, cats and chickens - in a farmhouse in the Montevecchia and Curone Valley Park.
Home is also where I work: here we have started our small farm and together with my husband I take care of both growing and processing our products.
In addition to this, I have been writing cookbooks, baking and organising bread-making courses for almost ten years now.
Soon I will delve into another exciting project, involving bread and its production: I am about to open my own micro bakery that will finally allow me to sell my products. Fingers crossed!
What is your relationship with the pantry? And what has been the role of the pantry in your family?
The pantry is the mirror of who I am and of my studies (I have a degree in Environmental Science). There is a kind of emotional attachment, as I devote a lot of my time to self-producing and it is often the cause of our internal struggles: each of us is reflected in what we eat and in our family, this aspect comes out daily.
The choice of the day's menu often leads us to look at the pantry shelves and what we have and we often find ourselves having discussions about food: I have three children who are almost all teenagers and the pantry for me is one of the filters through which a certain type of education is passed.
To quote Wendell Berry, 'eating is an agricultural act', and in the pantry this concept for me becomes tangible: I believe it is essential to be aware of the path our food takes.
You were born and raised in the hills of Brianza. How would you describe your land and its cuisine?
Brianza is a strange land, torn between its rare unspoilt corners and the modernity that has devoured its ancient beauty and agricultural vocation.
At times it may appear inhospitable, and unwelcoming, but that is not how it presents itself: at times I think it is just a victim of its sense of duty and its work ethics, but it retains some aspects that are still capable of making people fall in love with it and that make me feel at home.
Its gastronomic tradition is a mirror of this ambivalence: the cuisine of the farmsteads is a cuisine of few words, which has to guarantee energy and vigour and does not lose itself in grand embellishments, that of the osterias, on the other hand, tells of the Brianza of festive days and its people's desire for conviviality.
What are the ingredients that characterise a Brianza pantry?
The larder in Brianza is quite simple, but there are some ingredients that just can't be missed: corn, milk, eggs, foraged herbs, and vegetables, the historical legacy of peasant life of the past.
On feast days, the larder and table are enriched with fresh pasta and risotto, as well as pork and farmyard animals.
It is a larder that is rooted in the earth.
Which is your must-have pantry ingredient?
Undoubtedly the flours, for baked products, but also to create cakes, savoury pies, or fresh pasta.
I like to select mills that work in a sustainable way and that produce both modern and ancient grains, fully aware of the precious work that they are doing.
For every product that ends up in the pantry, the key is always the same: the quest for sustainability.
On your blog, you describe yourself as a half-cook, half-farmer mum. What role does the vegetable garden play in stocking your pantry?
Mine is a seasonal larder, it changes all the time and tells the story of different periods: how generous a year has been, or how little time we have had to devote to the land.
The vegetable garden is the thread that ties in with the kitchen and gives life to our pantry: without it (and it happened) I felt lost as if I no longer really knew who I was.
It's not just about flavours, but about lived life, memories, and awareness.
At home, we only keep a part of what we self-produce in the pantry, while the rest remains in the barn room we use as storage. I only have to take a quick glance at the shelf and see it filled with jars to feel a real sense of well-being!
There are five of you in the family, you and your husband and three children, now teenagers. How does the pantry reflect the needs and tastes of all family members?
Our pantry is an open fight: when they were children, my kids let themselves be guided without too much hassle.
They would ask and if my answer was no, it was enough to give an explanation, the reason for certain choices, and they would accept it.
Now it is more complicated, I think that in food there is a quest for affirmation of a young identity that is being formed... let's say it is tiring at times, but we always try to find a balance.
Do you have a favourite recipe to make with pantry staples?
At the risk of becoming repetitive, I still have to say bread and baked goods in general.
This is not an exercise in style: over the years I have often baked loaves full of mistakes from a technical point of view, yet I have rarely experienced the same deep synergy that is created with a yeasted dough with the preparation of other recipes.
You were in charge of an agriturismo kitchen for a few years. In that case, what role did the pantry play?
Yes, almost four years ago I ventured into this work experience that involved the whole family.
The pantry in this case has been even more crucial, 'stocking up' during the seasons is not only a choice but also a necessity if you want to offer a certain type of experience at the table.
It was useful and stimulating to discover new ways of preserving or transforming ingredients.
You are about to publish a new book, which has a lot to do with the pantry. Can you tell us about it?
Yes! My new book will be published on October the 7th, Fino all’ultima briciola, (Until the last crumb) is a complete recipe book with recipes for reusing old bread.
Bread is a fundamental food in our pantry and deserves to be valued up until the last crumb.
I started baking ten years ago, with very mixed results: one successful loaf included would follow at least two wrong ones. The result did not always match my expectations, but slowly I was growing fond of and accustomed to the idea of a different, long-lasting bread. The hours and effort spent baking it brought me back to value this food.
In the new book, I somehow try to recount this journey: a change of perspective that - as often happens - turns out to be a great opportunity.
Last but not least, would you share a recipe to make something to keep in the pantry?
Of course! I’ll share the recipe for a cookie from our tradition, pan de mej, a cookie made from polenta flour and dried elderflowers.