Learning how to cook with Lauren

Cooking Vacations was written up as the most trusted culinary tour company to Italy by National Geographic Traveler and featured among the leaders in culinary tours to Italy:

To paraphrase a famous quote by Virginia Woolf: behind every great project there is (always) a great woman.

laurenLauren Birmingham comes very often to  Capri, for work and pleasure. Italian American, Italian husband, she spends half a year in Boston and the other half (the summer season) in Positano.

Not bad, isn’t it ? I decided to interview her to see Capri through the eyes of a conscious visitor, and especially to learn more about her profession, focussed on Mediterranean flavors and traditions.

Lauren Birmingham, how is living half-year in Positano and the other half in Boston? You can find a balance between these two different realities? 

Yes for myself, an Italian American, living between two great places is the perfect combination.  Italy is a place of ancient culture, tradition and food; and in summer there is no other place I would rather be.  We work hard from sun rise and then take early evening to go for swim (the beach is a short walk and we overlook it every day while cooking and writing).

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Living day-to-day with my Italian culture and tradition that I was raised with, having great parents, grandparents and parents, who kept and keep the Italian way of life alive, has been instrumental for me.  On the other hand, Boston is a place of culture, education, competition and ideas.  With all of the museums, colleges, universities and more, it is a hot bed for learning and succeeding- there is an incredible energy in this city.  The city of the Patriots who carved American history battling for their freedom.  I am very proud to be a Bostonian.  We have a great cosmopolitan city that is the headquarters of American history, freedom – it was were the US Constitution was signed and ratified.

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Regarding Capri, I love every part of this enchanting Blue Island.  Each little corner offers something special and different.  I love going to Santa Sophia and seeing the statue of Sant’Antonio who seems real.  It’s a joy to walk through the gardens of Villa San Michele at sunset when the crowds have gone, the flowers sway in the breeze and quietness is very special.  I also love walking along the via Matermania to via Dentecala for a romantic dinner at Da Tonino, one of my favorite restaurants.  Another dreamy place is Monte Solaro, you feel like you are walking in the heavens. I visited Capri when I was a young girl, after reading about it in many great books by the old world writers such as Axel Munthe, Oscar Wilde, Grahm Green along with Shirley Hazard.  And of course, I love Peppino di Capri songs, its an old music era that will never go out of style.

Capri expresses its beauty in all four seasons, spring and summer the best, and winter too.  Spring and summer’s hustle is wonderful and so electric while winter’s bluesy atmosphere is cozy and intellectual.  Among my favorite restaurants in Capri: L’Olivo, Il Riccio, Da Tonino, Grottino and Da Giorgio, all for different reasons.

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Tell us about your passion for food and gastronomic traditions? Which are the “must-try” ingredients of the Amalfi Coast? What makes them so special?  I grew up with my Italian grandmother and mom.  I make everything from scratch:  brodo, bread, pasta and desserts.  I grow my own vegetables and make our own olive oil.  I advocate organic vegetables, fruits, and grass fed – non hormone- fish and meat.  I almost no meat, and am fortunate enough to have the best fish on the Amalfi Coast.  Boston seafood, with its cold water fish, cod, lobsters, scallops and clams is good quality as well.  I love olive oil, lemons, basil and garlic.  With these few ingredients you can make just about anything.

citrus.jpgHow would you explain the importance of eating local food?   Eating good food and local is so imperative, and most do not understand this idea and overlook it completely.  Also eating in the season is a natural rhythm that our body needs and knows instinctively.  If your body is in a natural balance and well-being state, it will crave winter or summer fruits and vegetables, in their proper season and  when they are in season.  Read labels, read ingredients and stay away from white flour, sugar, pasta, bread and salt.  These are the 5 killer whites. Could you pick some of your favorite Italian ingredients?  Extra virgin first cold pressed olive oil  first cold pressed olive oil, lemons, garlic, basil and rosemary from the Amalfi Coast, then truffles from Savigno, Parmigiano Reggiano from Emilia Romagna, Ricci and Pistachio fromSicily, artichokes from Roma.

Do you think we ( in the Amalfi Coast) have  a wide range of good/healthy food at supermarket? ( Sometimes in big cities the choice is greater, even if the flavors are not the same)  Yes.  In Boston and across America, we are lucky to have Wholefoods.  This high end boutique super market works with natural growers of organic foods and from local artisans.  They advocate non GMO and buy foods without pesticides.  This is so important for our bodies and health.  We need to know what we are eating and eat clean!

My favorite market in Italy is La Tradizione, in Vico.  Owners Annamaria and Salvatore are the most talented purveyors of everything in season, high quality and made by caring artisans.  The cheese selection is amazing, their wood oven baked home made breads are works of art, a carefully selected wine collection and gourmet section from olive oils, teas, pasta, spices, and select products from Campania and all of Italy make it my absolute preferred market.

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How would you educate people to choose the right food products? My first rule of choosing the right food produces is know your source.  Buy non GMO, foods without pesticides, and be aware of eating foods in season (non waxed vegetables and fruits, never farm raised).  Become familiar with food combining.  Personally, I have always followed the organic and well-being way of life along with incorporating lots of exercise and meditation.  At Cooking Vacations, we offer hands on cooking classes, food trips, market and wine visits and excursions to interesting food places.  Our cooking tours are a unique approach to Italian culture.  You will work alongside qualified chefs, cooks, bakers and pastry makers who share their Italian recipes, hospitality, traditions and culture with you in small groups of 2, 4, 6 or 8 people.

cooking2.jpgWe carefully respect your food allergies, likes and dislikes-along with your cooking level catering to vegetarian, gluten free and any special request.  Following each cooking class, everyone enjoys the foods that were prepared in the kitchen together at our table.

Our tours are unique and authentic because I continually travel throughout Italy to create each one with our family of chefs, food artisans, cheese and wine makers and certified guides. I am an Italian American who lives Positano, Italy with my Italian husband Rino.  Together with our professional team, we welcome guests from around the world, personally meet you upon your arrival at the airport or train station ( together with my husband company Italy Car Drivers) and are with you throughout your cooking program from check in to departure.  We are at your service all along the way, for questions and streamlining so you can enjoy your trip!

You’re writing your first book, could you give us a taste of it?

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My first book, which will be out shortly, and is a compilation of short stories on the artisans, chefs and local people, with folkloric stories on food and the artisans who continue to make them.  Featured in my book, will be stories and recipes, with the leading feature story on Executive Chef Andrea Migliacco Michelin Star Chef of Capri Palace.

The story of how the Capri Cake was the island’s most fortunate mistake;  the nuns who made the first sfogliatella, how cheese dates back to ancient Pompeii over 2000 years ago, Italy-s premiere wine maker, Marisa Cuomo, and how her husband gifted her the vineyard as a wedding gift, Ravello’s ancient trattoria and the v.i.ps they served their poor man’s food to, sfumato lemons and how they got here;  eggplant and tomatoes are not Italian at all, to name a few.andrea.jpg

In cooking, good ingredients are essential, but chefs make the difference. In Italian we say “mettere il cuore” ( you have to put your heart into it ). How would you recognize a passionate Chef?

Mettere il cuore, is a term that we cannot really translate to English.  I see the feeling immediately in a chef when I meet and interview them.

I immediately sensed Chef Andrea Migliacco’s passion, dedication and determination on my first interview.  As I got to know him, I mentioned my book idea and he responded, “Che bello!”  I said when you have a question, who do you go to.  He responded, “I go to my Nonna.”  I said, ‘I wish I still had my Nonna to ask.?  He invited me to Ischia, his home town and from there the conversation lead to  a collaboration of him offering his recipes for my book..

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We just have to wait for the date of publication and presentation of the book to immerse ourselves in the best gastronomic tradition Campana, remembering that the stories of our dishes are made of people, work and passion, as saying: Pane, Amore e Fantasia.

AnnaChiara Della Corte: acdellacorte@capripress.com

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