This is part of my Summer Reads 2018 series where I’ll be reviewing a series of “not just cookbooks”.
This week’s Summer Reads pick will have you wanting to pack your bags and head to Italy. Kamin Mohammadi‘s Bella Figura: How to Live, Love and Eat The Italian Way is part “how to” manual, part cookbook, part travelogue, part memoir and it will give you seriously itchy feet.
From the publisher:
Kamin Mohammadi, a magazine editor in London, should have been on top of the world. But after heartbreak and loneliness, the stress of her “dream life” was ruining her physical and mental health. Gifted a ticket to freedom–a redundancy package and the offer of a friend’s apartment in Florence–Kamin took a giant leap. It did not take her long to notice how differently her new Italian neighbors approached life: enjoying themselves, taking their time to eat and drink, taking their lives at a deliberately slower pace. Filled with wonderful characters–from the local bartender/barista who becomes her love advisor, to the plumbers who fix her heating and teach her to make pasta al pomodoro–here is a mantra for savoring the beauty and color of every day that Italians have followed for generations, a guide to the slow life for busy people, a story of finding love (and self-love) in unlikely places, and an evocative account of a year living an Italian life.
The book is a wonderful series of stories, told in journal-format that chronicles Kamin’s (self) discovery over the course of a year. Each month features produce in season (with recipes), the scent of the city during that month, an “Italian moment” (something that could only happen in Italy and something anyone who has ever lived in a foreign country will understand) and a word Kamin discovers during that month (as she’s also on a path to learning Italian). The book finds Kamin discovering the true meaning of “bella figura” (literally: fine figure) – basically making every aspect of your life as beautiful as it can be. Over the course of the year, she realises this can mean keeping your apartment clean but also inviting (so, have fresh flowers, for example), making an effort with what you wear, paying attention to what you eat (and not in the sense of a diet – more eating seasonally and fresh and taking the time to really slow down and appreciate food) and learning to appreciate and take advantage of one’s surroundings. We see Kamin learn to embrace the world around her, ultimately ending up happier and healthier. In the Epilogue, she offers some suggestions for “How to Bring the Bella Figura Home” and they are excellent life guidelines no matter where you live (no spoilers, you’ll need to buy the book!)
A big theme of the book, I found, was that of slowing down. Kamin finds herself in an unfamiliar lifestyle and pace of life compared to her London life which seemed like it might not work for her at the start. We wonder if this will be “enough” yet it turns out to be enough and then some. By taking the time to slow down and really appreciate the Italian way, Kamin reinvents herself and finds there is a better way to live and it doesn’t involve a high-paying job or fancy lifestyle. Less is more, in every sense of the word.
I loved the focus on food and lifestyle, but was less interested in the dating storylines, although I understand their importance in the big picture (also, “how to love” is part of the book title so it’s to be expected there will be a focus on this!). I was pleased to see the story ends with Kamin writing the book she set out to work on at the start of her adventure, healthy, happy and yes. in love. By leaving “everything” (read: an unsatisfying, unhappy life behind), she ends up with everything she dreamed of, and so much more. Kamin is a talented writer and the book is a pleasure to read. It will make you want to pack your bags and move to Italy for a year, though – be warned!
I’m lucky to be able to share an excerpt from the book today, courtesy of the publisher which I think really gives an excellent idea of what the book is all about. The scene is Kamin’s apartment where she has two plumbers working and an Italian friend in London chatting with her via Skype video. Over the course of an afternoon, as well as fixing the plumbing problem, the plumbers teach Kamin (with a little translation help from her friend in London) how to make an excellent meal, with very few ingredients and it really highlights the whole “Italian way” theme. I mean, can you see YOUR plumbers stopping to give you a cooking lesson because they believe you need to eat properly and learn how to cook with fresh ingredients?
“He says he is worried you don’t eat properly, darling,” she said, still laughing, as he interjected with dramatic gestures from his seat. “He says you only eat a slice of pizza for lunch—he’s discussed it with Pierguidi the baker . . ” At my protestations, Guido himself addressed me in Italian. “He wants to know what you are going to cook for dinner,” Kicca translated.
“Tell him I can’t cook. I will probably just go to Luigo’s and have some bits and pieces. Or open a can of tuna . . .”
At this Guido grew agitated. He approached my fridge, and, opening it, he pulled out all the salad leaves I had there. Filling the sink with water, he threw in handfuls of different leaves and left them to soak. Then he asked me if I had pasta and a can of tomatoes.
I pointed him to the cupboard, asking Kicca: “What’s he doing?” “Well, it looks like he is going to cook for you . . .”
“Are you serious?”
Guido turned toward us and told me, through Kicca: “I am going to teach you how to make the most simple and delicious dish of pasta. A beautiful woman like you cannot waste away on cans of tuna! Mamma mia, che peccato!”
I wanted to say that I was hardly in danger of wasting away, but instead I watched him get busy: he smashed cloves of garlic with one big hand clenched into a fist, telling me to open the can of tomatoes, talking all the while as Kicca furiously translated. I asked why he didn’t use the garlic crusher I had found at the back of a drawer—there was no need for Kicca to translate his reaction of horror. When Gabriele returned, I watched them both season and taste the tomato sauce as it simmered, discussing whether it needed more salt or perhaps a pinch more black pepper. The apartment was filled with noise and laughter and fizzing smells, suddenly, atmospherically, Italian. Guido instructed me to toast some pieces of bread, and, pulling them out of the toaster, he cut a clove of garlic in half and rubbed the fat end over the toast, smearing it with a pungent layer of paste. He then cut up a tomato, crushed it onto the toast, leaving traces of pulp, poured on some oil, and sprinkled on some salt.
“Eccolo,” he said, kneeling on the floor, holding out the plate toward me with a flourish with one hand while the other hand clutched his heart. We were all laughing so much that only Guido’s repeated protestations made me eventually reach for a piece of toast. “Yum,” said Kicca across the ether, her face distorting as she came closer to her camera. “Crostini! Typically Tuscan, darling, and oh God, I wish you could give me one.”
I understood Kicca’s envy as soon as I took a bite. Toast had never tasted so good, so sweet, so garlicky, so delicious. I turned to the grinning Guido and offered him the dish. He delicately picked up a small piece with his rough hand. Gabriele too took a slice, and for the first time since they arrived, there was silence as we all crunched and “aahhed” our way through the crostini.
At some point, Gabriele went to the bathroom and fixed the boiler while I filled what looked to me like an unnecessarily large pan full of water at Guido’s insistence.
“Pasta,” Guido explained, leaning over me, “needs a lot of water and space to turn in. This is not too big, even for one portion.”
He saw me reach for the oil to pour into the water and gasped dramatically, holding my arm. “No no no no!” he admonished. He told me that if the pan was large enough for the pasta to move freely in the water, there was no need for oil to stop it from sticking together, just a quick stir when the pasta was first thrown in. He added salt only when the water was boiling. By now Gabriele had joined us in the kitchen, and as Guido and I bent over the stove, I noticed him talking urgently to Kicca, having taken off his jacket, flexing his muscles, striking pose after pose.
“He is asking me if I think he’s handsome.” Kicca couldn’t stop laughing now. “Darling, these two are the most dramatic plumbers I have ever met. They make me miss my country!”
Guido snapped curtly at Gabriele and he stopped posing and got busy draining the lettuce leaves and drying them in a tea towel, the ends of which he held together and swung around to absorb the water. Throwing the leaves into the bowl I gave him, he dressed the salad with oil, the juice of half a lemon, and plenty of salt. He indicated for me to taste—it was delicious, the salad leaves crisp and fresh, the dressing just sour enough. I thanked him and he blushed, placing the salad on the kitchen table. He joined Guido in draining the pasta, the two of them throwing the twists of fusilli into the pan of simmering tomato sauce, Guido stirring it all with a wooden spoon to make sure each piece of pasta was coated with tomato, while Gabriele tore leaves of basil into the mixture.
I fetched a plate and set a place. The men handed me the steaming bowl of pasta, the smell filling my kitchen. They pointed for me to sit down, while I kept repeating “Grazie. Grazie mille!” unable to quite believe what had just happened.
Guido and Gabriele bowed deeply, Guido taking my hand and kissing it. “Now eat immediately, it’s no good cold! We will see ourselves out.”
And with that, the Dramatic Idraulici left me with a home-cooked meal on the table, my radiators fired back to life, and the best laugh Kicca and I had had together in ages.
Excerpted from Bella Figura: How to Live, Love and Eat The Italian Way by Kamin Mohammadi. Copyright © 2018 Kamin Mohammadi. Published by Appetite by Random House®, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
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Disclosure: I received a copy of Bella Figura from the publisher. I was not required to review this book, nor am I receiving compensation for doing do. All opinions my own.
MY BOOK! In the French kitchen with kids releases July 31, 2018! Click here for pre-order details!