Over the past month, life as we know it has been irrevocably altered. The new normal, as we’ve been prone to call it, revolves around staying indoors as much as possible, finding a semblance of community through Zoom parties and thousand-piece puzzles, and spending a lot more time bent over the stove.
And while the world seems awfully large most of the time, these days much of the population is doing the same thing—no matter what language they speak, where they live, their race, gender, or financial situation. So to get a sense of what life is like in Italy—where the coronavirus has disrupted life to an unimaginable extent—we spoke to food writer Emiko Davies who resides in Florence with her family. To keep her family well fed and distracted, the “Tortellini at Midnight” author has certainly been making plenty of pasta at home (think homemade noodles swirled with prosciutto, cream, and peas), along with Italian dishes like focaccia baked fresh in her wood-fired oven.
Ahead, Emiko shares what life in Florence has been like, how she’s managing to live in her small Florentine apartment with her two daughters and husband home all day, and how cooking has served as both a therapeutic and inspirational activity.
Amy Schulman: How has your day-to-day life changed since lockdown began in Italy?
Emiko Davies: I live in Florence with my husband Marco and our two daughters, who are 7 and nearly 2. Our second grader had already been out of school for most of the week before the official national lockdown began. Her not going to school has been one of the major shifts to our daily life, but she has a set amount of homework to do every day and the teachers upload videos of them reading stories; we try to keep a routine going for her.
View this post on Instagram
At first the lockdown didn’t seem so bad, restaurants were still open, albeit for shorter hours, and there was always the park to take the kids too, or go for a walk through the woods. But soon the government forced restaurants, bars, and non-essential shops to close completely (so my husband, who is a sommelier, is now at home indefinitely), parks and gardens were locked, and citizens were asked to avoid taking walks except short ones, very close to home. We have been encouraged to stay at home as much as possible, only one of us coming out to do food shopping or, if necessary, doctor’s appointments. Not seeing any friends or even my mother-in-law, who lives in another town, has been a big change. It means we have had to adjust to spending time with each other without driving each other crazy, while juggling work commitments from home. Really we have just been making the most of this time spent together as a family.
AS: How do you get food? Is food sparse? Are grocery stores stocked? What are the general feelings behind stocking up on food?
ED: We haven’t had to change anything in our regular food shopping during lockdown. Back in late February when the coronavirus began breaking out in the northern Italian regions, many Italians across the entire nation, not just the affected areas, went into panic for a moment—it seemed to last all of a weekend—and bought out all the pasta on the supermarket shelves. But not everyone panicked, and, in fact, there were a lot of jokes circulating about the pasta shapes that were left behind! But once supermarkets and the authorities began assuring people that there would not be any food shortages and they quickly restocked every morning, the panic-buying stopped just as suddenly as it started. Since then, there haven’t been any issues at all for food buying.
Even during lockdown, the supermarkets and food stores like our local deli, remain open, the outdoor markets are still running albeit with fewer stalls than usual. Pharmacies, newsagents, and tobacco shops all remain open too. There is absolutely no problem with getting fresh bread as bakeries still function behind closed doors, and the produce is just as abundant as always. It’s maybe a little slower to shop at the supermarket as everyone has to respect a distance of at least one meter from anyone else, and shops are limiting the number of people allowed inside at once. It’s quite amazing to see Italians form a very calm, orderly line, respecting the space between each other. It’s all been very calm, very respectful and going out to do the food shopping has become a quiet, slow activity and a chance to get out of the house for a moment.
AS: What are some pantry staples you find yourself purchasing and cooking with the most?
ED: We have a very small apartment with no proper storage space so I don’t tend to stock very much in the house at a time, but we usually have a few different types of flour—locally stone ground, ancient grain flour, chickpea flour, polenta, for example—and I always have various dried legumes around: lentils, chickpeas, and cannellini beans in particular. These are on regular rotation, along with pasta, which we eat almost every day. Nothing too different from our regular routine, though.
AS: While you’re home, do you often find yourself being drawn into the kitchen?
ED: Being in lockdown means we spend literally all day in the kitchen other than sleeping! But that is also because we live in a tiny Florentine apartment where aside from the two bedrooms and the bathroom, the only other room in the house is the kitchen/living/entrance/study combination! It’s here that the four of us play, cook, eat, relax, on repeat, all day. Thankfully we also have a communal courtyard that we share with neighbors and being able to send the kids outside to run about for a bit has been a game changer.
AS: Has cooking become a therapeutic activity?
ED: Cooking has always been our remedy for anything slightly stressful. My husband finds it’s one of his favorite ways to wind down. For me, baking is my calm place and cooking in general is a constant source of inspiration. Getting the girls involved in helping me cook gives them plenty to do—it’s a way for them to play, learn, and acquire skills too. It is our number one favorite activity, and since we’re in the kitchen all day, we always have some kind of cooking project on the go that we are doing together.
Related Reading: How to Make Easy Italian Meatballs in Tomato Sauce
AS: Is there a certain meal or snack that is helping to quell anxiety about the situation?
ED: We try our best to be calm and patient, to take things one day at a time, keeping in touch with family and checking in on friends and neighbors while staying informed on the changes that seem to be happening almost every day. This has all helped not feeling anxious about the situation. When we do feel a little bit of cabin fever coming on, I send the girls outside and we pull out a picnic blanket and just do our activities, even eating outside in the courtyard. But now that I think about it, you could say we are also cooking all our favorite meals these days, simple meals like spaghetti with parmesan and olive oil, gnocchi with tomato sauce, pizza in the wood-fired oven, just the little things that make everyone happy.
Tortellini at Midnight: And Other Heirloom Family Recipes from Taranto to Turin to Tuscany, $22.24 on Amazon
AS: What is one thing you want people outside of Italy to know about what the lockdown is like?
ED: I want people to know that the lockdown is a serious thing, but it is incredibly calm. There is no panic buying, no food shortages, no apocalypse. Life is simply slower and quieter with everyone staying at home, and keeping to themselves. But the most important thing we can do right at the moment to protect ourselves and our entire community is to stay at home. Some people (particularly older people) are still leaving their homes without any reason other than they are probably bored, or lonely, and although that’s understandable, they don’t seem to get that it’s just not going to help the situation. There are many that have been singing from their balconies to keep up their and their neighbours’ spirits and that’s the kind of thing that will help us all get through this: a little bit of joy, a little reminder that we are all in this together and that we can do it.
Header image courtesy of Emiko Davies.