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My life on a plate: Manuela Spinelli, Secretary General of Euro-Toques Ireland - 'I eat endless bags of crisps but I don't particularly like chocolate'

The Italian translator tells Katy McGuinness about her love for local produce... and packet soups


Manuela Spinelli

Manuela Spinelli

Manuela Spinelli

Manuela Spinelli is Secretary General of Euro-Toques Ireland, the Irish branch of the European Community of Chefs and Cooks, whose mission is to preserve Irish culinary heritage by supporting traditional cooking methods and promoting local and seasonal artisan products.

She is also an interpreter and translator and has worked with the Irish Football Association, World Rugby, the Six Nations and European Rugby, and with Pope Francis during his visit to Ireland in 2018. Originally from outside Milan, she first came to Ireland in 1993 to study at UCD and now lives in Sandymount, Dublin.

Did you grow up in a family where food was important?

Food is pivotal in my family, as in most Italian families. Our life revolves around the table. I spend hours on the phone with my mum talking about family recipes. My grandmother, Mariuccia, had Parkinson's disease and all her recipes were written down in Spanish by the lovely Peruvian nurse who lived with her. Mum and I are translating them back into Italian.

What's your most vivid food memory from childhood?

We lived in the countryside and my grandfather, Amedeo, kept rabbits, pigeons and chickens and he grew all his own vegetables. I remember him teaching me to skin a rabbit. Another vivid memory is my grandmother and then my mother cooking on a Sunday, after Mass. Lunch was often saffron risotto to start, followed by rabbit or pigeon. They would make a clear broth from chicken and veal bones that would bubble away slowly and would be used for a supper of ravioli with boiled meats and fruit mustard or pickles.

What was the first thing you learned to cook?

I grew up cooking with my grandmother. My first culinary achievement was making gnocchi with her. Her smile made me feel like I had won the food Olympics.

Did you always know that you wanted to work in food?

I always wanted to work with languages, food and sport. I studied languages, was a semi-professional athlete (I have a blackbelt in judo!) and dated a chef for the best part of 10 years. I was always immersed in the three worlds, I just had to figure out how to bring them together.

Who has been the biggest influence on the way that you cook?

My grandmother gave me an appreciation for the simplicity of flavours and a love for local foods. But I owe my knowledge in food to a great master chef, Luciano Tona. We hail from the same town and I have worked with him on many occasions. Although I am not a trained cook, I have absorbed his teachings like a sponge.

What's your signature dish?

Risotto. As with every dish in Italy, there are endless regional variations. At home we make it with saffron and luganega, a lean sausage made with pork, or with porcini mushrooms. The key is simplicity, and a few tasty ingredients.

Is there any ingredient that you hate?

I eat anything but I don't particularly like chocolate.

Is there anything that you love to eat that you'd prefer your friends didn't know about?

Powdered packet soups.

Is there anything that you won't or don't eat for ethical reasons?

I think we all, unavoidably, eat food that has been unethically produced. There is only so much control you can have over what you eat, particularly if you eat out a lot. At home my rule is to buy from small artisan producers as much as possible and follow seasonality.

What's the strangest thing you've ever eaten?

Turtle, it tastes like fish but has the consistency of chicken. I was in a kaiseki restaurant in Kyoto and had no idea what I was eating till the waiter drew a picture for me. The strangest thing I ever drank was donkey milk, a delicacy of Kazakhstan that to me tastes like vomit.

What's your guilty food pleasure?

Crisps! I can eat endless bags, which is why I avoid buying them.

What kitchen gadget could you not live without?

I am not a big gadget person but I cannot live without my digital scale and my hand blender.

What current food trend do you dislike the most?

Veganism. I think most vegans do not realise that it is not just about what you eat but how it is produced; it's better to focus on sustainable ways of producing all types of foods.

What's your desert island cookbook?

Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well by Pellegrino Artusi, first published in 1891, and still probably the most significant Italian cookbook of modern times.

What three things do you always keep in your fridge?

Parmesan, red peppers, pancetta.

What's your go-to store-cupboard meal?

Pasta with garlic, olive oil and chilli.

What was the last great meal that you ate?

Dinner at Il Ristorante by Luca Fantin at the Bulgari in Tokyo, Japan. It was the best Italian meal I have had outside Italy!

What's your favourite restaurant in the world?

Some of my favourites are Maca Castro in Mallorca, La Palta by Isa Mazzocchi in the tiny village of Bilegno in Italy and Casa Mia in Bristol.

Which chef do you admire the most?

Enrico Crippa of Piazza Duomo, Alba. He's a friend and having witnessed his career closely, I know how hard it is to make it to the top.

What do you think the impact of Covid-19 is going to be on food and restaurants?

I think there is going to be a biggerappreciation for simple rustic food and locally sourced produce. People will be more selective how they spend their money and service is going to play a bigger role in the 'eating out' experience.

Do you eat breakfast?

When I'm good, I eat a slice of home-baked cake or sourdough and jam, or porridge or muesli with almond milk if I am in a sweet mood, and eggs and sourdough if I'm in a savoury mood. When I'm bad, I just have a coffee.

What are you going to have for dinner tonight?

I bought some beautiful fresh mussels and will have them with spaghetti.

And what will you drink with that?

I made some lemonade. I love lemonade.

Weekend Magazine