I wrote this post a hundred times in my head, while I was enjoying a few hours off towards the end of summer, making the most of the last rays of sun, walking along the beach in Riccione trying to escape from the rainy weather we found there, while I was cooking and inhaling the inviting smells from a risotto. I cut down on words and weighed up carefully my words and statements. I deleted and re-wrote sections during long car trips around Italy for work, over the past months. The words started to take shape and fill out the gaps, beginning to take hold within my writing, before disappearing shortly after we passed through tunnels.
It has been a tiring summer. It felt like an uphill journey, between work, deadlines and projects, which all required adequate levels of attention and concentration. We chose not to go away on holiday in order to make time for all of the following, to carve out time for important events for personal growth in between cooking classes and a work trips.
I had also set myself an ambitious goal – to arrive at autumn with all ongoing projects finished, so that I could start afresh from there, completely from scratch, with a new approach to guide me through from there on out. These first few weeks of October were used to start again. They were like a refreshing rainfall, washing away the dust from the hot season to reveal the burning colours of a Tuscan autumn.
A few days ago, I sent my last lot of emails, I shut my suitcase and we left for our long-awaited, five-day holiday in Berlin.
Now that I am back, I can tell you the secrets behind the silence of the past few months, about what I have been working on, about which books and which women have been sources of inspiration and about my future plans for the months and years to come. Now at 35 years old, I thought about how I have recently been going about life and work and realised that something was wrong.
Write Where You Are, workshop by Nicole Gulotta
In August, I followed the online workshop, Write Where You Are, by Nicole Gulotta, the blogger and food writer behindEat this Poem, one of the most up-to-date and well written blogs out there, which is also a great source of inspiration. I’ve been following Nicole for a while now and I am an avid reader of her newsletters, which are perhaps the only ones I always read from beginning to end.
For four weeks, we discussed creativity and the balance between private and working life. I added new books to my collection, which break down the concept of writing and inspiration. It was just what I needed. Something without specific guidelines about the use of adjectives in food writing, but, instead, broader texts which manage to touch on the main focus of my thoughts and, above all, my doubts.
In a few days I devoured Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, the latest book from Elizabeth Gilbert, a writer who also happened to accompany me in another important step in my life. If Eat, Pray, Love caused me to reflect and work on myself, Big Magic made me confront all my doubts from the past years.
How can I write about something which many others are already writing about, with already high standards? How can I bring something new to it? My vision, my one-of-a-kind stance and fresh view point.
I realised how important it was to be able to let things go: insecurities, but also competition, feelings of inadequacy and inferiority. The first step was to stop comparing my work and results to other people’s. It isn’t something natural to do, since we are brought up and bound in a culture which tells us to look at what our neighbour is doing, to consider that their garden is more luscious and green than our own, that their blogs and recipes are more popular. It is therefore easy? Not at all. Did I manage? Not quite yet, but every time I find myself comparing my achievements to those of my colleagues, I stop, take a deep breath and try to smile.
I search within myself and embrace myself as if I can physically feel my own presence surrounding me and think about all the small steps I have already achieved and about what I can do. I pride myself on the progress I have made, I take inspiration from others, I surround myself with beautiful reads, words and images which help me to grow, and I go my own way, down my own path, at my own pace.
Week after week with Nicole, we tackled myths associated with the figure of the writer, time organisation for writing, a list of priorities, a list of weekly goals. We are women, human, fragile and insecure. I learnt how to carve out pockets of time for writing, or, at least, enough time to throw together a list of ideas, which then sometimes develop into thoughts, and other times stay there, in black and white, just to remind me of my upcoming goals.
I learnt to straight away scribble down thoughts which come into my mind, or a few words which have an effect on me, on a piece of paper or on my phone Notes. They seem to be disjointed and disconnected thoughts, but I need them to make frame a moment. When I come back to the thoughts later on, they become sentences and phrases with broader meanings, comments, this post.
One of the questions which had the greatest impact this summer was, what is success for you? Getting the contract for a new cookery book or writing for an important magazine? Success, I realised, is actually having enough time to write a post which means something to me, choosing recipes which work, respecting the deadlines I have given myself, finding the right words and the most captivating approach. Success is to do well and to be satisfied with your own work. Success is having the time to read, to research and study and to understand what interests you in a given moment.
We also touched on the fundamental issue of permission. Who is it that gives you permission to do something, to be someone? Nobody. Nobody can tell you that the time is right, that you now have what it takes to try. There is no official license allowing you to try. We are the only ones who can guarantee this. As irony will have it, we are also often the ones to deny ourselves this.
When I stopped calling myself a food blogger and began introducing myself as a food writer, food photographer and a cooking class teacher, I made a huge step towards self awareness and self acceptance. It’s not about being full of yourself, but about labelling yourself with the title which best represents you. By no longer calling myself a food blogger, I removed myself from the sometimes excessive, competition, from the fear of not belonging to a group. The blog is one of my channels where I can express myself, where I collect words, thoughts and images, recipes and memories. It is my place in the world, but I am not just a blogger.
I also realised that by cramming my life full of commitments, by using every second of free time to be productive and by saying yes to every work proposal, I was doing more harm than good. Because, although it is sometimes hard to admit it, my work is creative, and, as with every creative job, you need time and space to explore, research, or even just to contemplate ideas, running them over in your mind. I need to be in touch with nature, to read, to create things with my hands, to write with a pen on paper, to take care of me, to exercise, to see my friends and to spend an evening at the cinema, to have my own space to grow, to explore the outside world. All of the above does not take time away from work, in fact, it allows me to do it better.
One of my goals coming into this new season, is to do less, but to do it better. Always being busy and not even having time for a cup of tea in peace is nothing to boast about. It should not be a point of pride, but rather should start alarm bells ringing.
I heard the alarm bells and I am taking preventative measures. I began by buying a very good green tea, an innocent luxury, which takes time and a little concentration to be made properly. It’s all about taking baby steps.
Food Styling and Photography Workshop with Hélène Dujardin
Then there was the workshop with Hélène. When I discovered that I enjoyed taking photos as much as I loved cooking and writing, her blog became my main source of inspiration for learning and refining my style. I followed the evolution of her work, from blogger to professional food photographer, and the development of her style. Now, it is personal, recognisable, like the little black dress of food photography. Hélène manages to capture the essence of a dish, making it appetising and appealing with her strong sense of composition and colour, playing with the light, with empty and filled spaces.
I’ve admired her for years, devouring her book, Plate to Pixel, which became my Bible for food photography. And then, finally, after all this time, I met her. How I wished I could turn back six or seven years and tell the Giulia then that this would happen, that she would meet the person who had helped her the most to understand which kind of photographer she wanted to be, who, with her skilful use of colour and form, had shown her the right path. How much I wish I could have told that Giulia that, despite the difficulties, she was right to believe in her skills and to invest in her future.
When you meet someone who has been so important for your personal growth, there is always a risk that the reality won’t match your imagination. It is with great relief and gratitude that I can say that Hélène is everything I had imagined, and more. We spent more than a week cooking together, talking about style, professionalism and choices. I learnt, just by watching, how to take a photo, and even more so, how to teach. She is never disparaging, but always positive and always able to put a positive spin on it all. Her shyness forces her to open up even more, putting everyone at ease.
From her, I learnt about the importance of perseverance, of working with your head down to achieve a goal, of making brave choices which include some no. Saying no to jobs which are perhaps well paid, but not in line with the vision of yourself is important, as this will define who you are and what your want to do for a living.
She made me smile when she admitted to work a lot on one photo to make it as perfect as possible, thus cutting down on post production time. I love my work, she said, but I love my friends more. How many light bulbs went on over my head when she said that, how many alarm bells were ringing. She had summed up, in a few words, my thoughts from this summer.
For a few weeks I decided not to take photos. Bit by bit, I gathered all the pieces in order to understand what kind of photography matched my style, so that the tone of voice, words and images would all join harmoniously together… and now I am back.
It took me a long time and a lot of effort. I was holding back the urge, with itching hands, because I wanted to wait until I had finished everything else which I needed to do – finish the book and meet all other work deadlines. It was like a loaded bow and arrow, with the tension building until you finally shoot. Freedom.
Now that I am (almost) back to starting afresh, with new pages to write and more time for myself to dive into new projects and to set new goals, to believe, once again, in the beauty of what I am doing, I am starting over.
I’m starting over with something simple, which I often made during the last cooking classes and which I want to share with you all now. A pear and chocolate olive oil cake. After all you deserve it, since you have followed me this far!
Pear and chocolate olive oil cake
This cake is also my virtual birthday cake for Tommaso. This summer, many women have been sources of inspiration and have shed light on a section of the journey which I was undertaking, but the first source of inspiration is down to him. He made me understand that I needed to slow down and change my perspective. In addition to the thank said through kisses, hugs and smiles, and sometimes through tears, which I have given him with on more than one occasion, he deserves another here, a more official thank you.
But let’s talk about the cake. It is an autumnal cake in colours and ingredients. Chocolate is slowly making its way back into the kitchen, hand in hand with the pears. The olive oil gives the cake a humble and homely flavour. It is an elegant cake, though: look at the pears, sliced and arranged on top of the cake, baked in the oven and caramelized under a sprinkling of brown sugar and some knobs of butter.
It felt like the right cake to start over with: something simple, but with character.
- 4 eggs
- 180 g of brown cane sugar
- 180 g of extra virgin olive oil
- 240 g of all purpose flour
- 50 g of unsweetened cocoa powder
- 15 g of baking powder
- 1 pinch of salt
- ½ teaspoon of powdered cardamom
- 2 pears
- 80 g of dark chocolate drops
- 2 pears
- 2 spoons of brown cane sugar
- A few knobs of butter
Whip the eggs, at room temperature, with the sugar until foamy and white.
Add the olive oil and whisk it in gently.
Sift the flower, cocoa powder, baking powder, salt and cardamom powder and incorporate delicately into the batter.
Peel the pears, cut them into cubes and add them into the batter along with the chocolate drops.
Butter and dust with flour a 26cm round baking tin before tipping in the batter.
Decorate the top with the two other pears, peeled and cut into thin slices. Sprinkle sugar on the pears and scatter with some butter slivers.
Heat the oven to 190°C and bake the cake for about 45 minutes, until it is golden brown and cooked through.
Cool completely before slicing.
Here are some interesting links and good reads, to finish what seems to be more a self-analysis than a blog post:
- Here you will find a list of books chosen by Nicole and other great bloggers, the 16 best books about writing. Right now, I am reading Bird by Bird, by Ann Lamott and waiting to be read isOn writing well by William Zinnser and On Writing by Stephen King.
- The article which sparked by thoughts and will to change: 9 ways to have more creativity, imagination and big magic in your life.
- Still on the topic of writing, How to be a better writer: 10 tips from Rebecca Solnit.
- Here, an article which warms the heart, The simple, soothing pleasure of great cookery writing, with a review of the latest book from Diana Henry, ‘Simple’.
- Then, a little moment of self promotion. Here you will find my guide to Florence, written for Nicole, Florence Literary City Guide.