As the current chef-in-residence at Villa Lena in Tuscany, Olivia Cavalli Williamson is honing her Italian culinary skills and shares a recipe for walnut, polenta cake for the festive season ahead.
Growing up, Olivia spent her summers on the coast of Emilia-Romagna in Italy where her grandparents were born, and would be fed rich ragu with tagliatelle. She would eagerly watch her nonna in the kitchen, absorbing these rituals and growing to understand their importance from a young age.
Now a chef, food stylist and writer, all of Olivia's dishes emulate her love of Italian cuisine and honour her heritage, whilst bringing people together around the table through her supper clubs and workshops.
This summer Olivia ventured back to Italy to take a chef-in-residence position at the Tuscan hilltop retreat, Villa Lena. Here, she reflects on her time working with fresh produce from the gardens, cooking for groups of artists and enjoying the local dishes.
Tell us a little about Villa Lena and your time there as chef-in-residence.
Villa Lena is an artist residency and hotel, spanning over 500 hectares of Tuscan woodland, vineyards and olive groves, with the villa itself dating back to the 1800s all frescoed ceilings, patterned tiles and a retro green kitchen. I arrived at the Villa at the end of July to begin working as Chef in Residence, along with a group of artists - painters, musicians, writers and architects who were all part of the programme. The residency runs for a month each time, though I ended up staying for four, cooking for each group of artists that came and went throughout the summer. I also did a few takeover' dinners where I cooked for the guests of the hotel and held twice weekly pasta workshops.
What seasonal ingredients were you incorporating into your dishes over the summer?
There are two vegetable gardens here at Villa Lena, and we were truly spoilt throughout the summer with colourful, fresh produce right on our doorstep. Tomatoes were stuffed with rice and roasted with potatoes, cooked slowly for sauces or sliced and served simply with fruity olive oil, burrata and basil. Zucchini were marinated with vinegar and chilli and their yellow flowers, filled with anchovies and ricotta, dipped in a light batter and deep-fried until crisp.
September brought figs - and lots of them - so jammy it felt a shame to do anything but eat them straight from the tree, but they also went into salads with prosciutto and their floral leaves used to infuse ice cream. Truffles also need a mention here as weekly truffle hunts meant there was often a nugget in the kitchen, ready to be sliced ever so thinly over fresh pasta and soups. Oh, and the mushrooms! It was a good day when a big box of nobly porcini was delivered by the gardener - they went straight into a rag to spoon over cheesy polenta.
What are some of your favourite traditional Tuscan dishes?
Since being here, some of my favourite traditional Tuscan dishes that I've been eating are ribollita and pappa al pomodoro. They both fall under the soup' category, but they're really more of a thick stew and they're both good examples of Italy's cucina povera' peasant cuisine, born out of necessity. Ribollita, meaning reboiled', combines wintery vegetables like cavolo nero, potato and beans into a hearty dish that warms you right through on a cold day. This was a meal that farmers would make in huge vats and reheat over the following days.
Pappa uses old bread that's cooked with tomatoes, lots of good olive oil and basil into a soft, comforting bowl of mush I know, but trust me and pappa' actually translates to mush'. If you're ever in Florence, go to Cibro and try their version then follow it with the chicken and ricotta meatballs.
Can you share with us a recipe you have been cooking recently?
A recipe I've been making a lot is a walnut and polenta cake - it's a great cake anytime but especially when you're cooking for a group with dietaries to cater for. It's both gluten and dairy free, but everyone enjoys it just the same, regardless!
Using extra virgin olive oil leaves a lovely fruitiness and ever so slightly savoury note to the cake. Switch up the flavourings as you please and according to the season. Figs and roasted apricots are lovely in late summer, or try orange zest and cinnamon for a more festive flavour. Chocolate chips are a good addition any time of year!
A Recipe for Walnut and Polenta Cake
1 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
150ml olive oil (extra virgin preferable)
220g caster sugar
3 large eggs
Zest of 2 lemons or oranges
1 tsp vanilla extract
Optional add-ins: chocolate chips, roasted fruit (e.g. plums, apples, pears), fresh fruit (must be soft e.g. figs, ripe apricots)
Preheat the oven to 170C (fan) and grease and line a 9-inch cake tin.
Grind the walnuts in a food processor until they resemble fine crumbs. Be careful not to keep the motor running for too long or it will start becoming oily. Tip the nuts into a mixing bowl and whisk in the polenta, baking powder and a nice pinch of salt.
In a separate bowl, use an electric whisk to whisk the olive oil with the sugar for a minute or so. The sugar won't dissolve but the mixture will become thicker and sludgy.
Add the eggs, one by one, whisking as you go and then the lemon/orange zest and vanilla until you have a nice velvety mixture and everything is well combined.
Fold the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients gently until everything is combined. If you are adding chocolate chips, fruit or anything else fold these into the batter now too or arrange the fruit on top (though it tends to sink whilst in the oven).
Pour the batter into the prepared cake tin and put in the oven for 20-25 minutes until golden on top and a cake tester comes out clean. Allow the cake to cool in the tin before digging in. Serve with a dollop of sweetened mascarpone or whipped cream.
Photography by Olivia Cavalli Williamson.
Portrait by Philippa Langley.