Gennaro Contaldo’s zest for life

Gennaro Contaldo coffee

BeanScene speaks to Italian chef Gennaro Contaldo about his obsession with lemon espresso, morning coffee with Jamie Oliver, and magical adventures on the Amalfi Coast.

There’s two things Gennaro Contaldo can’t live without: coffee and lemons.

Talking to BeanScene from his England home, the Italian-born chef starts the Zoom conversation with a warm greeting, and as if conveniently positioned, has a gigantic Amalfi lemon on one side of the screen, and a Neapolitan flip coffee pot on the other.

“I’ve just made us some coffee,” says Gennaro, holding up his cafetière as he pours the steaming hot liquid into an espresso cup. “Then, I add a little sugar and a tiny bit of lemon zest.”

As Gennaro raises his espresso to the camera and salutes from a far, he marvels at the beverage, which he says is part of Italy’s cultural identity.

“In my house, and many others in Italy, the ceremony of making coffee starts by buying green beans and roasting yourself. My father was so particular. He would roast his coffee beans over the ashes. You could hear the cracking of the beans. Crack. Crack. Crack. We would look to see if enough oils were coming out, which would indicate if the beans were roasted enough, then put them out in the sun to dry. My mother used to think we were mad,” Gennaro says.

Gennaro Contaldo’s Tagliatelle with lemons.

“We’d put the roasted beans inside a macchina per caffè to grind, and when the particles were fine enough, we put it in a caffetiera to boil. There really is a wonderful ceremony about making coffee.”

Even in the city of Salerno, not far from the coastal town of Minori where Gennaro was born, he recalls walking through the streets with his father and smelling the most incredible aroma of roasting coffee from neighbouring shops.

Gennaro has shared many wonderful coffee experiences throughout his career, including with friend and co-host of Two Greedy Italians, the late Antonio Carluccio, but says making coffee for chef Jamie Oliver on their travels around Italy for Jamie Cooks Italy, always brought him much joy.

“I loved making Jamie coffee in the morning. I’d bring my little cafetière with me for a home-made coffee, then we’d drink more coffee throughout the day at little Italian bars,” he says. “Italians are particular about their coffee – they don’t like it too strong or too weak, not too dark or too light – but that’s only because we love it.”

Along with his cafetière, Gennaro never travels anywhere without a lemon inside his suitcase. Gennaro came to England 50 years ago, and his addiction to the citrus fruit has never ceased. Lemons are part of him, his childhood, and his culture. Even now, Gennaro can recognise whether a lemon is from Amalfi or not just by rubbing the skin and inhaling. The Amalfi lemon, locally known as the Sfusato Amalfitano, is like no other: a huge, elongated-in-shape, knobbly, thick-skinned citrus fruit, but wonderfully sweet and aromatic, with a soft pith that can be eaten.

Gennaro says his love for lemons, a cultural symbol of the Amalfi Coast, was the inspiration behind his new cookbook titled Limoni, publishing in the UK from 14 October. A book he’s been wanting to write for years, Gennaro says Limoni is a celebration of more than 80 recipes that pays homage to the most revered fruit in restaurants and kitchens the world over.

“Amalfitanos call lemons ‘a gift from God’. They are part of our lives and grow everywhere along the 18 kilometres coast of the Amalfi Coast from Vietri sul Mare to Positano, and we use it with everything,” Gennaro says. “Limoni is not just for gin and tonic. They can transform a dish. You can make the most beautiful candied fruit with the skin, a salad with the flesh, the juice drizzled over meat, even the leaves can be used to cover a baked rabbit or smoked mozzarella on the barbeque. Oh, my goodness I get excited – but remember to use every little piece of lemon until there’s nothing left, even the zest.”

To shoot the photography for Limoni, Gennaro partnered with renowned photographer David Loftus and travelled to the Amalfi Coast just as the second wave of COVID-19 hit Europe in September 2020. Not only did they have to battle quarantine restrictions, but on arrival, saw that the lemon season had ended.

“We were a little bit late, and there were no lemons left. Thankfully many of the neighbouring farmers kept lemons on their trees for us to use, but that’s why the lemons on the cover of the new cookbook are green – green but still beautiful,” he laughs.

For Gennaro, lemons are not just an ode to his beloved homeland, but a connection to fond memories of his childhood spent exploring on the Amalfi Coast.

“The sea was my swimming pool. The mountains were my back garden, and the village was my playground where I learned everything: cooking, fishing, and how to swim like a dolphin,” he says.

They are also connected to precious time spent with the late Antonio Carluccio. Ten years ago, the pair travelled to Piedmont to film Two Greedy Italians, where Gennaro cooked one of Antonio’s favourite pasta dishes, tagliatelle al limone. Upon learning it would take Gennaro some time to cook the dish, Antonio put his chair against the wall of a derelict house and fell asleep, with Gennaro covering him with a blanket.

Gennaro returned to the same spot years later to recreate the lemon pasta dish, three years since Antonio’s passing, and was overwhelmed with emotions.

“The memories took over me. I was in at state of happiness and sadness, with tears in my eyes. For the second time I cooked the same dish Antonio loved. I sat in the same chair, and I put a blanket over me to recreate the memory I shared with Antonio until I couldn’t film any longer,” Gennaro says. “But it was the best lemon pasta dish I ever made.”

Over the past year, Gennaro has embraced COVID-19 lockdowns from his UK-base, using the time to reinvent and rediscover childhood dishes.

“My life is usually very fast paced, so it was nice to stop and embrace some treasured family recipes,” he says. “Food is life. We have to eat at least three times a day, so why not make it count? Food is for sharing, and everyone is welcome at my table. I am a cook. It’s what I enjoy doing, and I love seeing people enjoy the food I prepare.”

Never far from his mind, however, are those still suffering the impact of poverty and famine.

“People have died of starvation and a lack of water. There are so many people and children that still don’t have anything. That’s why we must always celebrate food and where it comes from. A fish once had life swimming in the sea, then we took it. A lemon was once growing on a tree. God gave us these beautiful things, so we need to respect them, celebrate them, and use every single bit of them,” Gennaro says.

“This includes coffee beans. Every time I drink a cup of coffee I’m thinking about where the coffee comes from. I think of all the lovely people working very hard to ensure we enjoy this simple pleasure in life. Coffee growing is laborious work. There’s lots of challenges, care and passion that goes into producing a tiny coffee seed. The process is incredible, and it creates livelihoods for so many people all over the world.”

Gennaro is also fortunate to have made a career through his love for food. Known as the “legend who taught Jamie Oliver all he knows about Italian cooking”, Gennaro worked in some of London’s most popular restaurants, before opening his own called Passione in 1999, which was awarded Best Italian restaurant in 2005.

Gennaro’s quintessentially Italian spirit and positive nature has made him a TV favourite. He regularly appears on BBC1s Saturday Kitchen, his TV series with the late Antonio Carluccio remains a culinary treasure, as does his adventures in Jamie’s Italy with Jamie Oliver.

Gennaro is excited to bring more joy to his loyal followers through the launch of his new cookbook and is hopeful 2022 will ignite more teaching masterclasses and opportunities to scour Italy once again for new delights to share.

“I’ll keep cooking until I can’t anymore. Life is to live – with caffè and lemoni,” Gennaro says.

“Until we meet for a nice coffee together one day, arriverderci e buona notte.”

Gennaro’s Limoni: Vibrant Italian recipes celebrating the lemon by Gennaro Contaldo (Pavilion Books) is available now from HarperCollins Australia and usual book retailers.

This article appeared in the October 2021 edition of BeanScene. Subscribe HERE.

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