How many culinary books on Italy have you written now and where are they sold?
'We've been riding the waves and are still afloat'
5 January 2015
Pamela Sheldon Johns, from the US, has been hosting cooking classes and writing books about Italian food for years. She also runs an agritourism site in Tuscany and makes her own olive oil. She talks to The Local about juggling it all, and weathering several crises, in Italy.
Of my 17 books, a dozen are about Italian traditional and regional food.
The books are sold worldwide (several with translations in French, German and Spanish), on internet sources such as Abes Books and Amazon, and bookstores can order them. In Rome, the Anglo American Bookstore has several of my books. In Florence, B&M books has always carried them, and I just saw my Cucina Povera book at the beautiful new Feltrinelli bookstore in the Santa Maria Novella train station!
How did you go about setting up cooking workshops across Italy?
In 1992, I started bringing groups from the US in collaboration with a friend who imports artisanal Italian ingredients.
Our idea was to make professionals and home cooks aware of true Italian regional cuisine and how to re-create that back home with the right ingredients.
This is still very much my philosophy. We held our workshops at a well known wine and olive oil producer near Florence. That was our home base for a few years. Then, we moved on to Montepulciano, where I continued it for several years while still living in the US.
I was acting as a tour operator, marketing and organizing groups to come over to Italy. The business activity was under the umbrella of the wineries.
In 2006, my activity became managed by the American-based office for Italian Food Artisans. The workshops are still organized from the US and I join the groups as a guest host/educator.
You also run Poggio Etrusco, an agritourism in Tuscany. How did you go about setting this up?
Poggio Etrusco is a 100 percent Italian business, and completely accountable in Italy. Here we have rooms/apartments for holiday stays, cooking classes and agricultural production.
I would love to give advice on how to start a business in Italy, however I only know about doing this for an agritourism in the town of Montepulciano, in the province of Siena.
It's all "apples and oranges" when it comes to getting things done, and a tremendous amount has changed from when I started in 2001.
I was lucky to have a great accountant and a friend who is a lawyer. In fact, I had many friends in the area from having worked here before I moved here who helped us immensely.
I am certain someone doing this now will have a much easier time as there is so much information on the internet now that didn't exist then. Our experience involved waiting for the dial-up internet to connect, looking up legal vocabulary in the dictionary, and counting the outgoing lire in the millions.
And you produce olive oil! What does it take to become an olive oil producer?
I am so proud of our oil. We adopted over 1000 trees when we acquired our property. Our small artisanal production is from four varieties of traditional organic Tuscan olives: moraiolo, leccino, cor
reggiolo/frantoiana, and pendolino.
The oil is extra-virgin. By law it can only be called extra-virgin if it has an acidity of 0.8 percent or less. Ours has 0.15 percent at pressing, thanks to our careful handling.
In 2003, we certified organic and have seen our production more than doubled, even though we lost a few trees in the hard winter of 2012.
Due to our relatively small production, most of our oil is purchased by our guests and friends. We ship directly, right after harvest. We have one reseller in the states, www.Olio2go.com who will also ship in the summer when it is too hot for us to send the oil.
You seem to have a lot to juggle! But I guess the most interesting thing would be how you're finding it 15-years on, especially with the challenges of the crisis.
We're in our 15th year, and juggling is the right word. Luckily many things are seasonal, such as the olive harvest and our guest season, but it does mean there isn't much down time.
Even in the winter, I am busy writing, renewing the apartments, marketing, and touring to do cooking classes. But, it's ok… I love my work, and can't imagine giving any of it up.
Being diversified helps, too, especially when you speak of the crises (and I really have to make that plural…). We've been riding the waves, and all I can say is that we are still afloat. It started as soon as we got here in 2001 when, in September, all American tourists just stopped coming. Another crisis in 2003 with the Iraq war slowed things down again, and then the dollar tanked in 2008.
It pushed me to widen my base and become more internationally oriented, and in the long run that has been good. The crisis of the Italian economy is hitting us, too. We used to have a lot of Italian guests, especially in particular holiday seasons such as 25 April and 1 May. We have had very few for the last two years, and I miss them.
Are you still happy with your decision to settle in Italy?
Yes. Absolutely. It has been hard work, but every day when I look out my window, or take a bite of a fresh pecorino cheese, or take a sip of our organic Sangiovese wine, I know it has been worth it.
What would you say to others considering a similar move?
Learn Italian. Live here for a while before making a big purchase. Be resourceful.