A fascination with ingredients and a love of eating are such universal interests. Wherever you travel, there will always be something to stimulate your curiosity or give you the inspiration to search out new experiences or knowledge.
I’ve been very lucky in the last few weeks to have been to both Italy and Greece. These are both places where simple produce counts above all and of course cooking to match.
There is some truth to the expression ‘una faccia, una razza’ in the place and people, though when it comes to cooking they are very different. My constant search is to understand the principles of their dishes, ways of eating, and habits around food. This is particularly tricky with the Italians, who make up the rules as they go along. But they can afford to because they have something over and above the technical skills of the French, who, let’s say, might know everything about cooking. The Italians know everything about eating- they understand innately the profound truth that eating is all about love. Without it, what can food be?
I am very lucky to have been introduced to Italy by my friend who is the British Consul in Naples, and his partner, the excitable and thoroughly gorgeous Maria, herself a Neapolitan . Michael is a tireless cook and food enthusiast with vast knowledge about produce and cooking from Salerno to Sicily. On this trip my aim was to learn to make the traditional Neapolitan ragu, something that ought to be simple but requires patience and love to succeed. So in true style Michael arranged a quick lesson for me from Antonio Tubelli, one of the founders of the slow food movement and an expert Neapolitan chef. His tiny restaurant in the city is really just a home for his culinary art, with one table and some products for sale. And in his tiny kitchen he had made ragu al la guardiaporta – so named because the door-keeper’s wife was the only person with the time to keep an eye on the fire to ensure the tomato cooked long and slow, so the meat in it emerges perfectly tender. You first eat the ragu with pasta and after, the meat. On this last trip I was also taken to Vanullo where the finest mozzarella di buffala is made and to Pisciotta where the alici di menaica are caught. The little anchovies are caught in the nets and their heads pulled right off there and then by the fishermen, so the flesh stays a rosy pink. As I say, the Italians know everything about eating.
The Greeks are altogether different in their culinary habits. And particularly on the islands where you are entirely hostage to the sea. I cannot say there is anything I enjoy more than the meze – that collection of fresh, light ingredients, simply dressed with lemon and oil, flattered by mountain herbs – followed by the plainly grilled fish and maroulosalata – green salad with dill and imam bayildi – aubergines ever so slowly baked. On the beach of Renia, just off Mykonos, I had the extraordinary experience of eating sea urchins, dived from the bay. But my avowed goal for this trip was in search of that most refined of floral culinary tastes; wild capers. Mary, my kitchen partner, has lived in Greece for some years, and sent me off on a hunt around her island of Aegina. And search I did high and low, on sea walls, in olive groves and finally found them on an old bit of ruin next to the main road. Prickly and hard to reach but once salted, the buds and small leaves are next to heaven. I’m too greedy for them to use them for my customers, so you’ll need to get yourself invited to my house for dinner to try them.