Tucked down a quiet little side street in Tunbridge Wells lies a little corner of Italy. It is the home of Alida Zamparini, an Italian who has been living in Tunbridge Wells for 17 years and for the past six of those she has been running the successful food blog My Little Italian Kitchen.
As I side step the numerous terracotta pots of fragrant herbs which are perched on her little terrace, I wonder whether Alida’s own kitchen and its contents will mirror the delicious appeal of her virtual one online.
Thankfully I’m not disappointed when I step inside her smart townhouse which boasts a beautiful handpainted mural which wouldn’t look out of place in a Tuscan villa and breathe in the smell of rich coffee brewing away.
Passing by a stack of exotic looking bottles filled with olive oil and spying a tray of delicious looking little pastry bites topped with passata, parmesan and herbs it definitely seems like the real deal.
“I have always loved cooking,” explains Alida as she pours two dinky cups of super strong espresso and offers me a chunk of cantuccini biscuit.
“Of course it’s part of the Italian culture to see your mother and grandmother cooking but I started cooking myself when I was 15.”
This she says was in her home town of Udine near Trieste, in northern Italy. The food there she says is ‘traditionally rustic’ with soups, stews and hearty pasta dishes making up the lionshare of culinary basics. Although her particular take is on creating ‘lighter and healthier’ food.
Alida got into blogging after she had her children, Sofia, now 10 and Luca, eight. “When you have children you are always cooking. I started putting recipes on a blog six years ago and now I can’t stop – I love it! I update the website two to three times a week and take all my own pictures. I’ve developed a real passion for food styling and love photography.”
It certainly shows on her website because as well as a raft of mouthwatering recipe ideas, including pea mint and ricotta balls and spinach and gorgonzola risotto, there are lots of gorgeous images of Alida’s numerous trips back to her homeland.
“I like to visit at least four times a year,” she says. “I usually return to where I am from as there are so many artisan producers and small farms making honey, vinegar and cheese – and obviously I know lots of people. I’m friends with a dairy farmer who last summer took me up to the Alps to see how ricotta was made. I took lots of photos because people just don’t see that kind of thing anymore and I want to remain genuine.”
On her blog, which attracts around 18,000 followers, the lighter, less obvious Italian dishes take centre stage to that of the traditional fare of pizza, pasta and lasagne.
“I try to be on the healthy side of things,” adds Alida. “In Italy things are changing, there is a lot more organic food, more vegans and gluten free foods.”
What are her favourite things to eat? “I like a bit of everything. Why not? Sugar is being demonised but a little is good for you. It’s all about eating sensibly. There are too many food fads.” She says she describes her cooking as being ‘modern Mediterranean’.
Alida has also published her adventures with some very famous Italian chefs such as Giorgio Locatelli and Antonio Carluccio whom she deems as ‘so lovely’. She’s also a big fan of Jamie Oliver: “His recipes are so authentic,” she says. “I’ve appeared with him twice on [his Channel 4 TV show] Friday Night Feast.”
Given her ability to cook, blog, take photos and do the odd turn in the kitchen of a celebrity chef Alida is now keen to move forward with things. Does she perhaps think writing a recipe book is on the cards I ask?
“I haven’t thought about that really but I’d like to start doing cookery classes in small groups, teaching people to make healthy, light and easy meals for any day of the week. And obviously for the blog to keep going and get bigger to do more photography and continue with my food writing. My dream is to use all those skills locally.”
On the subject of her adopted home town, where she lives with her two children and husband Mark, Alida says she is very impressed by the quality of the produce and specialist shops on offer in Tunbridge Wells.
“The local food is really good. I use quite a lot of the shops here such as Chegworth on The Pantiles and Locality on Camden Road – their bread is amazing. I also go to Sankey’s for fresh fish and The Organic Health Shop on the High Street, too. I buy mostly organic and I spend a lot of money on food but I never waste anything.”
Not surprisingly Alida’s children, whom she always speaks to in Italian, love their mama’s cooking. “Their favourite foods are soups like minestrone and they also love slow cooked polenta which I make often, especially in winter to accompany my stews. They also like fresh squid stew cooked in tomato sauce and my own version of British fish and chips.”
Lucky children – and lucky Tunbridge Wells to have such a genuine Italian gem right on the doorstep.
PUFF PASTRY MINI PIZZAS
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 12 to 15 minutes
Makes: 15 mini pizzas
What you need:
1 sheet of puff pastry
50 g tomato sauce (passata)
80 g mozzarella or cheddar cheese
1/2 tbsp dried oregano
What you do:
Using a glass or a pastry cutter (measuring approx 8 cm diameter) cut out some circles of pastry.
Place them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper; prick the middle of each circle with a fork.
Spread a teaspoon of tomato passata on each circle, sprinkle with dried oregano and place a piece of cheese on top.
Cook at 200C for 12 to 15 minutes or until golden. Serve warm or cold.