Photograph: Katharine Davies

Photograph: Katharine Davies

MICHELA CHIAPPA

Jo Denbury, Features Writer  

With two recipe books to her name, a Channel 4 series, two YouTube Channels, a new cookery programme airing in Australia and two young children, Sherborne resident Michela Chiappa is one busy mum. Here, we meet Chiappa and her daughters Fiamma and Serafina, her sister Emanuela, with daughter Fiorenza and a gathering of hungry little friends. They don’t stay hungry for long…

Fresh pasta is such a great thing to do with kids,’ declares Michela Chiappa, ‘as all you need are flour and eggs.’ The food writer’s winning enthusiasm and can-do verve come as no surprise when you consider that she is a protégée of Jamie Oliver’s. Besides, cooking is in her blood. ‘My nonna made pasta all the time and we children were encouraged to help – inevitably getting flour everywhere, of course. Making a well in the flour and cracking an egg into it is what we called the volcano stage; we had to stop the “lava” from escaping.’ >Michela and her two sisters, Emanuela and Romina, were born to Italian parents based in Wales, near Merthyr Tydfil. They grew up in a house that was connected to their grandparents on one side and their aunt, uncle and cousins on the other. ‘We had separate homes, but it was also one big house,’ she explains. ‘It meant lots of fun and entertainment for us, but so many meals were shared that it reinforced the importance of family and food. Not only that, but coming together taught us social skills as well as table manners and an appreciation of what we were eating.’

Every summer, the entire Chiappa clan decamps to northern Italy, to a village tucked in the foothills of the Alps. ‘When we are on holiday, our days revolve around what we are going to eat next and often we sit down to meals that last over five hours,’ says Michela. ‘Good food is not a trend in Italy – it is a way of life,’ she adds. ‘It’s not about being fancy; it’s about wholesome ingredients, cooking together and sharing a meal in company. The social aspect of sitting and interacting around a table is equally important.’

These twin elements of food and family are at the heart of Michela’s latest cookbook, Baby at the Table.  Published this month, it provides a wealth of nourishing, speedy recipes all the way from the weaning stage, designed to encourage families to eat together. With two daughters of her own – Fiamma, three, and Serafina, one – Michela hopes to pass her passion and experience onto the next generation, by way of her mother and grandmother’s example. ‘Nothing they made was complicated, but it was always fresh and home-cooked and, to me, this is the most important element for bringing up a family. It encourages a social environment in the kitchen, there are delicious smells and plenty of good things to eat!’

Perhaps unexpectedly, Michela never meant to make food her career. She studied at the University of Exeter and then went on to work in PR and marketing where she counted Olympic diver Tom Daley among her clients. A television producer heard about Michela and her sisters’ novel upbringing in ‘Little Italy’ in the Welsh Valleys and commissioned them to make the Channel 4 television series Simply Italian. A cookbook dedicated to their family’s favourite recipes, soon followed as did a recipe series for Jamie Oliver’s FoodTube channel. ‘Jamie saw some of the pilot films and has backed us ever since,’ says Michela. ‘He is a huge supporter of Baby at the Table, which itself advocates his own campaign to inspire kidsand families to cook good fresh food.’ Michela moved to Sherborne in 2014, when her husband, Dan, became director of boarding at Sherborne Preparatory School. ‘We live on-site where Dan is a houseparent,’ says Michela. ‘It is a fantastic opportunity for our little ones to feel part of a bigger community, which is a value that is so important to both of us. The Prep School is now an extension of our growing family.’ Dan spent much of his childhood in a boarding house alongside 80 pupils at Marlborough College, where his mother – who is, coincidentally, Welsh and originally from Cowbridge – was housemistress. An understanding of ‘big families’ ‘meant he fitted into the Chiappa household from the start and is a dynamic he and Michela are keen to recreate for their daughters.  With various projects on her plate (so to speak), including The Chiappa Sisters YouTube Channel and two small children to care for, there is little time to spend preparing food in the kitchen. Happily, the Chiappa way is to keep life as stress-free as possible.  ‘Who uses five pots and pans to cook a purée the size of a walnut for their six-month-old? I certainly don’t have time for that, so I decided to write this book with my sisters. If you are in a rush, there are plenty of 10-minute meals to turn to,’ she says. ‘Keep the timeconsuming stuff for the weekend, when you can restock the freezer with back-up meals – mine are gnocchi, fish pie and Bolognese. These can be life-savers when you’re in a rush during the week, with no spare hands.’ Clearly Michela is passionate about feeding her family to the best of her ability. ‘Letting children experience food where and whenever possible is so important,’ she explains. ‘But, really, I believe that giving your children variety from a young age can help them overcome fussiness and avoid obesity later on. It takes five minutes to make a pasta sauce and, after that, you can sit at the table for half an hour with your family enjoying it. What can be better than that?’

Baby at the Table: A 3-Step Guide to Weaning the Italian Way by Michela and Emanuela Chiappa, published by Michael Joseph, £16.99. For further information and recipes, visit www.thechiappas.com 

A very big thank you to Waitrose Sherborne, Boden, Kate Scorer, Lisa Lewis, Julia Chadwick, Beatrice, Teddy and Tilly