Dinner with a Guinness
In March earlier this year an extraordinary book hit the shelves. Part cookbook, part memoir, A House Party in Tuscany tells the story of chef Amber Guinness’s childhood home – an 18th century podere in Tuscany her parents Jasper and Camilla Guinness bought and renovated.
It is also where, in 2014, Amber established the Arniano Painting School, after her father’s death in 2011, alongside friend Will Roper-Curzon, to “breathe life back into” the home. Now, artists flock from around the world to paint the Tuscan hills surrounding the farmhouse under the tutelage of Roper-Curzon, and to sit around the table gorging on Amber’s sensational seasonal food.
What were your first memories of Arniano?
Predominantly builders! When we moved in it was a building site for years. And there was this cohort of local builders I was obsessed with. And obviously Italians are obsessed with children, too, so, it was kind of mutual adoration. I would sort of follow them around as they installed water and put windows in and built the fireplaces while my dad was doing the garden.
Did your parents often entertain at Arniano?
They entertained all the time. Their friends were very curious to come and see what they were up to because at the time 30 years ago Motalcino [where the Arniano Painting School is based] was not fashionable like it is now. All their friends wondered why they were moving to the middle of nowhere in southern Tuscany. They all wanted to come and have a look. My dad was such a good host – and company – just as my Mum is. And she is famously a very good cook – so people knew it was going to be worth the drive. It was all very relaxed. They knew they’d get a glass of good wine and some good food, but they didn’t really have any facilities. They’d get two wheelbarrows and put an old wooden door on top of it and use it as a table. You look at the photos now and think God, this is like a joke sort of paradise – at the time it felt quite rough and ready.
Do you try and emulate that style now?
I like long, relaxed lunches with lots of different dishes that people can attack all in one go or kind of go back up for more. You might start with the pasta, then move on to salad. It’s kind of long, and languid, I’d say. I always make sure no one ever has an empty glass, and that it’s convivial and encourages lots of conversation.
How would you describe your style of cooking?
I would describe it as Tuscan home cooking, colourful and varied and very much celebrating amazing produce that happens to be in season. Easy accessible food, always presented beautifully. My mum is a very aesthetic person. She's always been a designer. And so meals were always kind of a feast for the eye as well as the palate. Peppers were always skinned and beautifully laid out in canary yellows and scarlets. She’d put a juicy ball of mozzarella in the middle with some salsa verde dribbled over to give it an extra pop of colour. Italians also want food to look good and look yummy, so there’s some sort of osmosis from growing up here, too
Do you like that painting school to feel like one long house party?
Yeah. Everyone eats together for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We also have a cocktail hour every evening and everyone dresses up. Whenever I’m worried that things might not work out, I remind myself that actually it’s quite self-selective. If you like Tuscany, and art, and good food you’re going to find some common ground and hopefully get on with other people who are here.
Any horror stories of your time working in restaurants and private cheffing?
Oh, there’s one. I was helping on a photoshoot. I can’t remember who it was but it was a big fashion brand. But they hadn’t told us that they had no sink to wash up in and didn’t even really have a working kitchen. The chef had these amazing, beautiful langoustines. It was so stressful. And then there were all these racks of beautiful designer clothes, which then was in the same place as this makeshift kitchen, and they just stank of langoustine for two days. It was revolting.
Would you say the Guinnesses as a family have a particular talent for entertaining? Is it in the blood, so to speak?
I think like with any huge families there are different branches who enjoy different things. I mean, some of the family are country hermits and some are very sociable beings. But I think our branch – my mom and dad – are super, super good at it.
Can you tell us five tips for hosting?
1. Menu plan – write down what you want to make.
2. Prep as much as possible in advance, particularly laying the table and the dessert because those two things are really fun to do if you have time but really stressful if you don’t.
3. If you are really stressed, cut one of the dishes and make life easy for yourself.
4. If you’re busy – do something failsafe.
5. Remember people are in part there to see you – so you should make sure you have a nice time. They don’t care if you’re making them a souffle or a pasta.
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