The memory collector: Tessa Kiros
Tessa Kiros’s work has been very important to us: her book on Tuscan cooking ‘Twelve’ was the first cookbook we bought together as a young couple and the pages have been worn and loved over the years. She has written an incredible selection of fascinating books, combining her love of travel and collecting, but also her heritage and eclecticism. She was very kind to speak to Frantoi.org about her journeys, life in Tuscany and naturally Extra Virgin Olive Oil. You can find out more about her and her wonderful books via tessakiros.com
You come from a mixed heritage, spent time growing up in different countries, but have been living in Italy for many years now. What brought you to Tuscany in the first place? Is there a culture you truly feel is yours now? Have your children leant more towards their Greek, Italian or Finnish heritages?
I first came to Tuscany to study the language & the food. Here I met Giovanni – we have been married for 22 years this November. I travel a lot – so I probably spend as much time away as in Tuscany. I am comfortable to call many places home – but I think the one that I feel is most home is Greece.
I have always incorporated all of our nationalities into our lifestyle – through food, travel & stories with my children & family. I think it is important. At home now we have a mixture of everything & my daughters have spent time in all of the places. They love it all.
How does your South African upbringing fit in to your cultural tapestry?
I spent all of my school years in South Africa – I think these are important years. We had a mixed cultural upbringing – a rich tapestry of different traditions, also mingled in with friends of many nationalities in different elementary schools. I went to a Greek High School. At home we followed Finnish & Greek traditions & holidays – like Greek Easter, Finnish Christmas Eve celebration with regular Christmas on the 25th. I love South Africa – I still love visiting.
When did you become a food writer?
I became a food writer when I wrote my first cookbook ‘Twelve’ – It was a way for me to keep all the recipes I had collected from my time in Tuscany & from working in Giovanni’s family restaurant. I had always kept notebooks & journals even before that.
What is your first memory of olive oil?
The summers we would spend in Greece from a young age – sitting at long tables by the sea at a taverna & the Greek salad with bright oil poured over the top. We always loved the end part where the oil had mixed with the tomato juices & origano at the bottom of the bowl – to dip our bread in.
The 3 cultures of your childhood treat fats and flavour layering very differently. Do you find yourself mixing methods and trying to incorporate one ingredient rather than another one? Or do you remain a purist when cooking for family and friends?
I am not a purist – unless it is essential to the taste of a dish. But I don’t like mixing things up for no reason. Finnish foods often use butter & cream & have fats in the wonderful salmons for example. When I cook Finnish food I do add olive oil with a mixture of butter. I also often like to add a blob of butter to Greek & Italian foods here & there if I think it will be good in a dish. I also love to use ghee & sesame oil in my food. I believe in artistic license – but I also really do love traditional foods – when you can taste the place in the dish.
What is it that you just don’t get about the Italians?
That not much English is spoken – at least around where I live. The dubbing. I mean I get it that they do a great job. But I personally don’t like to go to movies that are dubbed. I think films should be left in the language they were made in with sub-titles.
The closing hours in small villages – I live in the countryside & very often feel frustrated about the 10-1 then 4-7 shop opening hours. The time that things are closed is often when I find I need something! By the time I actually get out somewhere there is not enough time to get several things done in the morning for example…. In the bigger towns this is different. I don’t get it though – that even those small wonderful alimentari shops close at lunch time! I still haven’t managed to cultivate the before-hand planning for the day – even after all these years in Italy!
What do you eat for breakfast usually?
My very favourite breakfast is a cappuccino & croissant – but I don’t have this always.
I also love a bowl of Greek yoghurt with honey, nuts & some fruit. In winter I sometimes love a bowl of warm oat porridge with cinnamon.
Of the various books you wrote which one stretched your professionally the most? Given that you continue to add different cuisines to your storytelling and cooking repertoires, which one was hardest to feel you understood it and therefore which book was hardest to complete?
I think my latest book ‘Provence to Pondicherry’. I knew from that start that it would be a stretch but it was one that I really wanted to do. The challenge was in the several places – that were each very diverse – that had to be covered for the research & photography. It is very different to write a book in these circumstances than to write from a place where you have grown up or have relatives for example. But it wasn’t hard for me to complete – this is exactly what I love about my work – this opportunity to explore other cultures & represent them from my viewpoint. I loved this journey – it was so inspiring. And when I am inspired I can write & work. So many incredible things happened along the way, such wonderful people happened upon my path – I truly love this process in my work.
You call yourself a collector: what are the most extraordinary things you have collected?
Of recipes. I am a collector of images. Spices. Ideas. Of memories. I have come home with a tortilla press from Mexico. A beautiful piece of silk from Sri Lanka. Fabrics are amongst my greatest loves.
Living in Tuscany, which ingredient do you find you miss the most from your larder?
Fresh coriander, dill, rice vinegar, salt & vinegar chips, cheddar, stilton, sesame oils. The base for tarama for example. Fresh lime leaves, curry leaves. Papaya, green mangoes & tamarind. Makrut limes. I do miss being able to get different breads like a proper Lebanese or Persian flatbread or a great souvlaki on the run.
In compensation – we have wonderful panini places & really incredible ingredients in Tuscany – something which I am always grateful for & am lucky that I can cook many things at home. I go to Florence often & come home with a stack of ingredients.
What is your relationship with Olive Oil?
Olive oil is one of my top ingredients that I would never be without in my kitchen – along with a good crunchy salt, & fresh herbs like sage growing outside.
Do you have a favourite type of olive oil?
I love many oils – Tuscan, Ligurian, Greek. Any oil that comes from the village. And of course freshly pressed oil is so impressive – it is a time I really look forward to – savoured with the November vegetables & recipes.
Which recipe do you feel represents best your relationship with olive oil?
For me – it is hard to beat a fresh raw artichoke dipped into a bowl of olive oil, salt & pepper. A summer tomato scattered with salt & olive oil. Bruschetta or the Greek Dakos, the toasted bread rubbed first with a piece of garlic. A piece of feta or burrata, scattered with herbs & a liberal splash of olive oil. An egg – soft fried in a small pan in olive oil.
The recipe that best represents me I think is the Greek ‘Ladolemono’ which is olive oil whipped with lemon, salt & pepper & poured over warm grilled fish. I love this. I also make a rice pudding with olive oil & plums.
As a seasoned traveller can you name your best places for a) street food, b) taverna food and c) fine dining?
Street food: Vietnam & Thailand.
Taverna: Greece & Italy.
Fine(and generally great) dining: Australia.
PHOTO CREDIT: Manos Chatzikonstantis @manoswashere