An Interview with Judy Witts Francini
Many years ago, when I first started to approach the world of social medias and Food blogging, Judy Witts Francini of Divinacucina.com stood out as one of the best public profiles to follow and to take as an example for food writing and cooking classes.
Eight years later, not only she still is one of the best Food Writers and Food bloggers in the world, she is also one of the best cooking class teachers I have had the pleasure of getting to know. And also a very good friend, one of the first people who says hello to me in the morning via Facebook, someone who has been very supporting, all these years, with good free advice, suggestions or simply by kicking my backside during my darkest times!
It dawned on me that, in all these years of accepting her endless help, I never actually returned the favour, so, I realized that it was now time to pay a tribute to Judy.
She has been one of the reasons I started food blogging, she has been the person I looked up to, when I started Cook In Venice, both for the website and the cooking classes.
But I did not want to write any incorrect information about her, so I decided to ask her for an interview.
As usual, even though she is always so super busy, she was so kind to say yes and she also included one of her recipes!
(scroll to the end of the blog!).
So here it is: an interview with the Queen of Cooking Classes in Italy!
Judy Witts Francini â€“ an interview
First of all thank you for accepting to spend some time answering my questions.
- How did you end up teaching in Italy and particularly in Tuscany?
I was a pastry chef in a 5 star hotel in San Francisco and was taking a break to come and study in Europe before opening my own place.
I spent a month in France and then came for the first time to Italy (my roommate told me I HAD to come).
I signed up to study Italian in Florence– for a month. They said it was the home to “pure Italian”. I ran out of money, but loved Florence so much I stayed.
I travelled back to USA once a year to apply for a work permit– and finally got one after 4 years.
- How long have you been teaching?
I started teaching cooking in 1988— working with an American University, teaching their students survival cooking.
I also created, for another language school, a â€œCulture through Cookingâ€ semester program, learning about the Tuscans through food- from the Etruscans to modern times. The New World foods, revolutioning Italian cuisine as well.
In 1997, when I had access to Internet, I opened my website and had a dining guide for Florence and one for Chianti. Then opened my program to the public, one-day market to table classes as well as weeklong programs. I featured local chefs and artisans.
For the students, we had a 4 weeks program and each week was a collection of 4 recipes, for a classic full meal.
- What is the part that you like the most about giving cooking lessons in Italy?
The reason I love to teach cooking is that I think people bond and exchange information at the table. You get to understand a culture.Â My students always ask questions about life; it’s really not about the recipes, but about sharing insights into daily life.
Being a tourist, travel guidebooks tell you want you are seeing. When you ask someone who has gone to America, what they loved the most, and what city they liked etc. I often here: Detroit, Iowa or some town I NEVER would have gone to. My question, then, is: What was her name? â˜º
People’s favorite towns are where they had a local show them around!
It’s all about interacting with the locals. One originally comes to discover the art and history of a place, to see it in person – but the heart of a city is the market and its people, who are usually not available to someone, if you don’t speak the language. The market is the heart of the city.
Although I am no longer doing the one-day classes, I am still doing my market tours. (I do one-day classes for clients at their rental villas).
- When did you decide to write your book and what does the book talk about?
I decided to make a book, by simply handwriting the recipes, having them photocopied and bound. Secrets from my Tuscan Kitchen by Judy Witts Francini.
Finally I self-published in 2009. To keep the same feel, I created my own handwriting font and used the book in my classes, as well as selling it on my site.
The book is composed by simple recipes, which I gathered from family and friends, market vendors and chefs. Recipes, which I have been teaching and made my own.
- Which is the region in Italy where you like the most to travel to and which is the region of Italy giving you the most inspiration for your recipes?
Coming from San Francisco, I adore the sea.
Over the past 8 years, I have started taking people on culinary tours to Sicily: it combines my favorite cultures.
I travel a lot in Italy, as I am very curious. Visiting local markets and learning regional recipes is always the best way to bond with people.
I feel food unites. Sharing a table, sharing stories is a great introduction to a full immersion in a culture and a stepping-stone to learning more.
My aunt lived in Venice for 35 years. When her husband died in USA, she followed her heart to be an expat and produce her art, painting in Venice. She died there at 84 years old. I went often to visit her, so I had a chance to explore Venice often. She had her favorite artisans, I still have her notebooks and some of her lovely Venetian boxes decorated with the lovely stamped paper. I adore the Fortuny Gallery as well.
One of the first places she took us was Vini da Gigio, then a bacaro in the front and a secret restaurant in the back.
When she moved to the Giudecca area, our secret place had been opened by men, who had worked at Harry’s bar and basically had the same food, at half the price. You could eat outside on the canal!
I love the wine bars. We had a hard time finding them, as the Venetians didn’t want to share the info – this was over 20 years ago.
I remember being reprimanded once for asking for lemon to put on my fish dish. I learned my lesson. Lemon covers flavors, to hides the fact that a fish dish may not be “fresh” and if you have fresh fish, it also kills the flavor – eating at Al Covo.
My aunt was friends with Peggy Guggenheim and the whole expat artist community, but by the time I got here, Peggy had already died. My aunt had a fabulous wild life: Venice, Mexico, Cubaâ€¦.
I first met her on a stopover from France going to Greece, travelling by train: we stopped in Venice.Â I bought boots, a jacket and met my aunt! It was the late 70’s early 80â€™s.
But I love also Greece, Mexico, with some French and Arab influences thrown in. I studied art in college, so this unites my passions!
- What are your dreams for the future?
I am constantly evolving, as I get older, ha ha ha.
Now I am writing more: I turned my online dining guide to Chianti to a FREE app— with more than just food and wine. It includes places to stay, things to do and some artisans.
Next I want to create some online classes: this winter I am collaborating with a friend on a cookbook and next I want to create a book, based on the Chianti wine region with recipes.
Then a Sicily app and possibly a Sicily cookbook.
I am concentrating on my custom programs. For about 20 years, I have done custom programs for my friends with cooking schools in USA or chefs, in all regions of Italy.
So now, I can offer the same programs to private clients. I had done the Veneto region several times. Just got back from Emilia Romagna where I did a program for return clients.
In May I am doing a custom program for a group wanting to learn about the Lucca area and the Garfagnana. Last year we did a Mare â€“ Montagna (Seaside-Mountains) starting around Pisa, then the Marmo di Carrara and the lardo di Colonnata,Â then down to Maremma, with cowboys and the laguna di Orbetello – mare e monti, always based on food and wine but with local guides – history as well.
A recipe by Judy Witts Francini
Being such a great and giving person, Judy allowed me also to publish her own recipe for Zaeti â€“ you can see Cook In Veniceâ€™s recipe here.
But here is Judyâ€™s recipe!
Zaletti- Venetian Cookie
125 grams/ 1 cup 00 Flour
125 grams/ 1 cup corn flour ( Polenta)
100 grams/ 1 cup powdered sugar
100 grams/ 3 oz soft butter
3 egg yolks
1/2 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
50 grams/ 4 oz of raisins, soaked
- Pre-soak the raisins in warm water or grappa.
- Mix together the flours with the baking powder and salt.
- Cream the butter and powdered sugar together.
- Add the flour mixture.
- Mix until it is all incorporated and creates a nice ball.
- Refrigerate for 30 minutes, it is a soft dough.
- Add the raisins and knead until incorporated evenly into the dough.
- Remove from the refrigerator and cut into 4 pieces.
- Roll each piece into a rope and cut each rope into 5 pieces, like you would for making gnocchi.
- Place the pieces on baking paper on a cookie sheet and lightly press down. They should not be perfect.
- Dust with powdered sugar before serving.
- Bake at 350 until lightly golden.
A Special thank you to Judy
Some people walk through your life and leave no trace of it, and then others simply create a huge impression â€“ a mark which more often than not, changes, even if imperceptibly, your life or the way you face life.
Judy, and I am pretty sure she has no idea of this, has made a huge imprint in my life: she is someone who I truly respect, my icon!
Thank you for being always so giving and nice, for remaining always so true to yourself and for showing everyone that following our passion can only be good!
Judy’s sheer ‘niceness’ comes through with every recipe! She knows what she’s doing, she knows what she is talking about, and it is so reassuring, and never condescending. I think the day will come when the Italian Tourist Board or Government will realise just how much the Italian economy owes to expats living in Italy who look after English-speaking tourists who want a real taste and connection with the country: “It’s not really about the recipes, but about sharing insights into daily life”. And Judy is sure to be mentioned in the top three.
I am so glad you feel the same way I do!!! 🙂