Two decades ago a baby-faced Jamie Oliver jumped on his Vespa to zip round London looking for fresh vegetables and kick-started a food revolution. Now he’s back on the road, pursuing his enthusiasm for all things Italian, specifically the fabled Mediterranean matriarch, the nonna.
Oliver and his old friend and mentor Gennaro Contaldo have toured Italy to recover disappearing regional recipes and techniques from the women he believes to be “the last generation of true Italian nonnas, the incredible matriarchs” who have kept family stomachs full through war, recession and other hardships.
“The nonnas that we came to learn from struggled – a lot,” says Oliver. “And I don’t think modern-day people can really understand what that struggle meant.”
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The aim was to capture, for a new Channel 4 series called Jamie Cooks Italy, the rich histories and dying arts of the ageing nonnas before it’s too late. But Oliver soon discovered that working with nonnas is not easy. The advanced age of some of the women posed one of the challenges. “We would have to stop production because they fell asleep,” he says. “They get really tired.”
He obviously enjoyed meeting “these beautiful, beautiful women”. They, in turn, were delighted to cook with him and to pass on their recipes. Intellectual property rights dictate that Oliver couldn’t just replicate the recipes in his accompanying cookbook. But, he says, sometimes the nonnas would “just grab you and say, ‘Here, take it. No one else is cooking it!’”
He recalls visiting a Jewish community in the small Tuscan town of Pitigliano, appropriately known as Little Jerusalem. There he and Gennaro cooked with Nonna Elena, who escaped persecution during the Second World War by living in a cave hideout.
“She taught us this artichoke recipe and she hadn’t been well so we had to talk to her for three hours, again and again, to get the method,” says Oliver. “Not just the method but the nuance, the invisible little things: you take it, peel it… how much do you peel it? Down to what point? All the intimate knowledge that only a craftsman could share. Three hours! There’s no ‘Cut!’ – we’re talking!”
The series took nearly two years to film, off and on, and, by Oliver’s own admission, was delivered over budget because it took so long. This is slow TV in every sense – as I discovered when I joined him on the final leg of his journey, in Tuscany…
We’ve come to the postcard-pretty wine estate of Petrolo, on the edge of the Chianti hills. It has been a filming location for Oliver’s programmes over the years, and again for part of the new series. As well as journalists, he has in the past brought students here from London, from the now defunct apprentice scheme run through his Fifteen restaurant, to learn about ingredients. It’s just the kind of trip that brought him to Italy for the first time as a young-pup chef.
That was 21 years ago, with his former employers Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, co-owners of London’s River Café. They came with groups of ten or 20, “to buy produce for the restaurant. It was really wild. It sounds glamorous but it was hard work. It was all about the sourcing – eating a lot, and thinking about it, and ordering at the same time, like, 5,000 bottles of this or that. We would be in Tuscany, not far from here, blending olive oil from different vessels with teaspoons. You’d go: that one, that one, that one. Here’s the label. Bosh. You’d be making big decisions for the year.”
Even before that, while still a student, Oliver knew that the land of pasta and porcini was calling him. “On my last day at college, the head said, ‘OK boys, where do you want to be in a year’s time?’ Everyone was like, I want to work for Marco Pierre White, I want to work for Raymond Blanc, I want to work at the Ritz. And I said, ‘I just want to learn to make the best pasta in London’ – and everyone laughed. But my Italian friend Marco took me aside and said, ‘Listen, there are two men in London who cook the best pasta. One is my dad, but he works in a deli. The other is a guy called Gennaro Contaldo, and he’s the one you need to go and work for.’”
The very same day, as he remembers it, his girlfriend Jools (now his wife) pointed out a vacancy she’d seen for a pastry chef at the Neal Street Restaurant in Covent Garden. “I had to completely bull***t my way into the job,” he says, but that is how, at the age of 18, he began working for Gennaro, and Gennaro’s boss, the late Antonio Carluccio.
“It was the two of them – Gennaro and Antonio – these Italian dons. Every day there would be Italians, Greeks, gypsies coming in with boxes of stuff that had been foraged and we’d be paying in some peculiar cash-in-hand way. It was about the simplicity of the food and flavours. It felt a very inclusive way to cook and to eat. I love Italian food!” He belts out this last declaration so loud it makes me jump. “Sorry, darling.”
I like him all the more as we chat on. He doesn’t take his success for granted, and doesn’t stop thanking his lucky stars (for his great job and its privileges, for his lovely wife and family, for his generous mentors). But now in his 40s with five children between the ages of two and 16, he is also at a crossroads, and the nonnas have given him pause.
“I’m at a stage in my life where I’m contemplating what is good, and where do I want to go and what is a good use of my time and what do I care about. When you’re young you don’t give a f ***. You bounce around like you’re bullet-proof, but when you see these beautiful women, and their faces and their hands, and the way they touch flour to make bread, and they tell you stories…”
Gennaro is 69 this year, he goes on, “I’m 43. We both think about our mortality. How long have we got left? The people around us that we love. We’ve got a lot of children between us” – Gennaro also has five – “and we’re very grateful for the things and people that our lives have crossed through and what we were trying to do here was dig a bit deeper at a time when things are quite shallow.”
There is, of course, a whole generation now who, far from learning cooking skills from grandmothers, are not cooking at all. The need isn’t great when a takeaway can be delivered to your door with a few taps of your mobile phone. “Our job [with this series] is to remind them that there are some really basic things that are important that we are forgetting,” Oliver says. “As Deliveroo celebrates its ten millionth burger sold, I don’t know” – he shakes his head – “are you celebrating or are you commiserating?”
What’s this? Oliver’s beginning to sound a bit mournful. Is he feeling disillusioned? Is he thinking of giving it all up, or making like the nonnas and taking life more slowly?
“Not yet. I’ll slow down in ten years. I’ll be exhausted by then but I’ll slow down at the end of 2030.” Can we hold you to that? “I’m setting myself up now.”
He’s talking about the next chapter in his campaign to combat childhood obesity. His project is to halve the number of unhealthily overweight children by 2030. “That fundamentally is at the centre of everything that we’re doing now. Nothing is allowed to function in my business unless it contributes to that strategy. It can come in different shapes and form, whether it’s storytelling, documentaries, campaigning or just cooking shows – getting people to cook – or it could be a product that’s healthier than any of the competition.”
Oliver estimates that campaigning now accounts for about a third of what his organisation does. He recently made contact with a group called Chefs in Schools – “I’m going to put the profits from Fifteen London into hopefully working with them – it’s like a revisit of School Dinners.”
There is a grand plan, too. Nothing if not ambitious, Oliver is currently working up a proposal to make a documentary that will follow ten families and their unborn children, from the womb to their first day of secondary school. He wants to trace nutrition and behaviour, what the mothers eat, how the children develop, “to get a really legitimate crosssection of Britain today and bring them back every year, kids and family. It’s like 7 Up and it requires real commitment from them and real care from us. Basically, I want to do a Blue Planet of people instead of ants!”
Jamie Cooks Italy airs on Mondays at 8.30pm on Channel 4