Many of you may know Judy Witts, otherwise known as the Divina Cucina. But, do you really know her?
Judy lives in Tuscany and her live revolves around food. Cooking food, teaching classes about food, shopping for food, etc. In fact, she has just written her first cookbook, Secrets from My Tuscan Kitchen! And if you stay tuned, after the interview, Judy has graciously agreed to give one away to a lucky reader. But more on that later.
Here is our interview.
MM: Can you tell us a little about how you came to love and live in Italy?
DC: I was a Francophile for most of my life, my grandfather was born in Paris ( English mom and Turkish dad) and I studied French for 13 years- travelled to Europe as soon as I got out of high school and spent most of the trip in France.
After 5 trips, I got a job in a 5 star hotel and was trained as a Pastry chef.
I was finally ready to leave the hotel and start my own business and wanted one last trip to Europe. My roommate at the time had just come back from a year in Paris and one in Rome. She told me to go to Italy, that I would love Italy and Italy would love me.
It was true!
MM: Of all the places to settle in Italy, why Tuscany?
DC: When choosing a place to stay for a month in Italy to study Italian so I could learn more about food, I was told that there were three places to study Italian, Perugia, Siena and Florence- where they spoke perfect Italian and not dialect.
Siena and Perugia were hill towns and I wanted to live in a city.
MM: Can you share one little secret about Tuscany with us? One that you might not find in any guidebook?
DC: I think people do not really realize what Tuscany is- many of my clients say, I am going to Florence and then to Tuscany- meaning Siena usually or south. Tuscany is HUGE and has mountains to go skiing just outside Florence ( Abetone) or a huge coast from just below the Cinque Terre all the way down to Maremma.
I think Maremma is waiting to be discovered by Americans. The British have been going for years. Some of Tuscany’s best wines come from there, the area has cowboys , incredible food both from the mountains and the sea. I adore Niki Saint Phalle’s Tarocchi garden, an incredible sculpture garden in the hills.
MM: What is your favorite Tuscan village and why?
DC: My local village Certaldo is rather untouched by tourism, and is a perfect example of a Medieval village. Located between Florence and Siena it is an easy day trip from both on the train or by bus.
MM: Who is your food hero? Who inspires you?
I have learned the most from Italian mamma’s. All Italians will tell you the best place to eat in Italy is at home.
I adore Fabio Picchi of Cibreo, as he has recreated the food his mom prepared, perfecting it for the restaurant.
I also was lucky enough to work with Master Butcher Dario Cecchini in Panzano in Chianti, he is another very passionate culinary professional and I have learned a lot working with him.
MM: How did you come up with the name Divina Cucina?
DC: Originally my cooking school was called Mangia Firenze- but no one knew that Firenze was Italian for Florence.
I did a play on words of the Divina Commedia, Dante’s famous writings to create Divina Cucina.
MM: We know your livelihood is based on food. Can you share the one Italian ingredient you couldn’t live without?
DC: Extra virgin olive oil and great sea salt.
MM: What is your favorite food market in the area?
DC: I was very lucky to live in front of the Central Market in Florence for 20 years, and before that near the San Ambrogio market.
Now in the countryside I can attend a weekly market in a different town almost any day I like.
MM: Your favorite wine bar?
DC: In Florence, I usually go to Gianni Migliorini’s Casa Del Vino, as it was near my house. Across the Arno I go to Le Volpe e L’Uva, just across the Ponte Vecchio, a tiny place with an incredible wine list and great small plates.
MM: What is the one local dish that you must order if you see it on a trattoria menu?
DC: Suckling pig- something I usually don’t prepare often at home and is cooked mostly for special parties.
MM: And your favorite recipe to prepare for friends and family?
DC: Ragu with fresh pasta, can be pici, the flour and water hand rolled spaghetti or lasagna
MM: Speaking of recipes, you just launched your first cookbook – what inspired you to write it, how long did it take you, and what surprised you most about the process?
DC: The cookbook is called Secrets From My Tuscan Kitchen– I share the secrets I learned living here and gathered from Mamma’s, chefs and at the market shopping. Usually one has to speak the language to gather these sorts of tips. So I wanted to share what I have learned over the years.
I started gathering the recipes when I moved here in 1984 and in 1988 I began teaching cooking classes to the local study abroad American college kids from Syracuse University. Eventually I hand-wrote the recipes and had them photocopied and spiral bound.
I had always dreamed of having it published and could not find a publisher in the states. So I decided to print it myself. Most Italian cookbooks in Italy are imported and so expensive here. So I have an Italian published cookbook in English.
I closed the school and took about a year for the whole project to happen. I created my own handwriting font, had my friends do artwork for the cover and I worked with the printing-house on how I wanted the book to “feel”. I chose Fabiano watercolor paper for the cover and a more rustic paper for the inside. The book is stitched and then glued, so made to be used. Every other page is lined for notes from the chef- I really wanted this to be a cookbook that would be used and passed on.
Thank you Judy, for taking the time out to chat!