Get to know Nadine Levy Redzepi, author of the warmly personal cookbook, Downtime. In an extract from the book, we join Nadine in Portugal, some years before she met René...
The Early Years in Portugal
As far back as I can remember, I have loved to eat. I was born in Portugal in 1985. My parents were penniless musicians: my mother was born in a tiny Danish village and my father came from London. They met in Paris while my mother was an au pair and my father was making whatever money he could as a street musician in the Latin Quarter.
They had my brother, Marcus, not too long after they met. He was born while they were living on a campsite in Saint-Tropez. Six months of the year, they would travel the country, busking around, until 1984, when my paternal grandfather bought the three of them a small home in a Portuguese village called Boutoque, not far from Tavira.
I only spent my early years in Portugal, so I don’t remember everything about the experience perfectly. But some vivid memories, both dark and beautiful, have stuck with me. On the more sombre end, I can easily remember how my dad acquired a very strong taste for alcohol. His mood would change for seemingly no reason, and he was hard on my mother. He never took it out on my brother and I directly, but whenever we had to deal with any of these episodes, my brother would cover my eyes and sing to me. He’d tell me that everything would be okay and that it would be over soon.
I would spend most days with my mother, since my brother had school and my father was at the bar. The house came with five acres of land on which my mother grew as many different fruits and vegetables as possible. It already had some pretty amazing trees on it: olive, fig, orange, pomegranate, almond and walnut among them.
My good, warm memories from this time are all connected to food.
I would walk around the garden picking, touching, smelling and tasting the various plants. During one of my early explorations, I found a bush with what looked like lightgreen peas on it. I tasted them – they had a sweet flavour, so I ate lots and lots. I then showed them to my mother. I remember the look on her face, thinking I had just eaten something poisonous. She forced her fingers down my throat to make me vomit. It was horrible, but after that, I learned to master the area. She often reminds me that I learned to identify all the varieties and that she would ask me to go fetch certain things for her throughout the day.
One of my favourite bits of the land was a patch of poppies. I would lie in the middle of it. It was my little secret world. When I was there, alone, I felt like a princess from one of my fairy-tale books.
My good, warm memories from this time are all connected to food
We had chickens, a donkey, chameleons, sheep, goats, geese, several cats and a dog. Every once in a while, my parents would buy a whole pig, and the men of the village would hang it, let it bleed out and then butcher it. The wives taught my mother what to do with every bit of the animal – down to the blood.
But my clearest memory from Portugal was being able to eat pomegranates right off the tree, warm from the sun. I can still feel the light hitting the top of my head and back of my neck, the sticky, sweet liquid running down my chin and arms, and the resinous taste from the peel that I was too impatient to ever deal with properly. I hated its bitter taste, but the flavour of the actual fruit was amazing. Picking out the fragile seeds within was a favourite ritual. When I managed to get one out without damaging it, I would kind of admire it for a second, holding it up to the sun, which would reveal the little tiny seed in the middle of the beautiful pink pearl. I would then put it between my teeth, bite down and feel it burst into my mouth.
One of our neighbours would always come by with buckets of the ripest, plumpest tomatoes. When she arrived, I’d instantly take a seat on the ground and eat her offerings as she and my mother chatted. Their voices would fade into a blur as I sat right there on the ground devouring the tomatoes, the juice and seeds bursting out of the fruit.
My brother was great to me. He was patient with me and never showed any signs of being annoyed about having to take care of his little sister. One of the things we would do together was gather almonds. We would sit on the steps of the house cracking them. I’d have to use a large rock, since my brother never let me have the one hammer we had in the house. On some unfortunate occasions, that rock would also catch one of my fingers. The pain was all worth it, since cracking open those almonds meant that my mother could make her stunning almond and marzipan cake – a recipe she came up with so that none of the nuts that grew on the tree went to waste.
Enjoy recipes woven together my Nadine's personal anecdotes and experiences in her debut cookbook, Downtime.
More about the author
'This is great family cooking: inviting, achievable and simply delicious.' Nigel Slater
'This book is full of ideas, enthusiasm, flavour - and heart.’ Nigella Lawson
'A wonderful collection of everyday home-cooked meals.' Jamie Oliver
Bring love and deliciousness into your kitchen.
Inspired by her own childhood and life-long love of food, Nadine Levy Redzepi has created a personal and inviting notebook of recipes that bring her family together around the kitchen table. Nadine talks you step-by-step through each recipe with warmth, encouragement and detailed instructions.
Nadine ensures that home cooking always feels relaxed and enjoyable and your kitchen becomes the heart of your home, no matter your skill or confidence level.
Downtime is the wonderful, simple food that Nadine and the Redzepi family share.