Last week I spent 3 days in Italy. The Cinque Terre and a flying visit to Portofino and Santa Margherita. What a beautiful part of the world. We were lucky with the weather and crammed in a lot of sight seeing and a lot of eating in the short time we were there. Whenever I visit somewhere new I have a little check list of what local foods I would like to try. This time was all about the seafood.
Italian food is naturally simple and they make the most of the resources they have. They resist the urge to mess with things too much which I love. In the area we stayed seafood is everywhere, dominating most menus. There is actually very little meat available. Unsurprising considering the location is fairly mountainous and right next to the Med.
Fish and shellfish are simply grilled, steamed or fried with garlic, butter and lemon. I ordered scampi one evening which came head on, tail on, totally in tact and I wondered how many Italians get a shock when they order scampi in the UK. I think they might be a little disappointed.
My absolute favourite pasta dish has very few ingredients, it doesn't really have a sauce but it is so tasty. Spaghetti with seafood, olive oil, parsley, a small amount of fresh tomato and garlic. The ingredients speak for themselves. What a quick dish to throw together too.
I developed a slight obsession with anchovies on this trip which are abundant in the area. There are festivals devoted to these tiny fish and there are numerous ways to prepare them. Fresh anchovies are deep fried in a light batter and served as part of a frito misto platter or eaten from cones on the street. A delicious dish I had never tried before but which seems fairly common in this area was fresh anchovies cooked with tomatoes and potatoes, baked in one dish. Or the marinated anchovies as seen above. These were served with pine nuts and raisins but I also had a pasta dish which used just olive oil and anchovies for the sauce.
Pesto was also on the hit list. Pesto originates from Genoa and is found extensively across Liguria. In this area the pasta and pesto are served with cooked potato and green beans 'Pasta alla Genovese'. I actually first tried this dish in England but with the addition of cream and chicken and it really doesn't need those things. Keep it simple.
Simplicity is something we seem afraid of in the UK and I can understand it, if you don't have the best raw ingredients. Just look at the beautiful young courgettes and flowers we saw outside a little shop in Corniglia. We have to wait months for these. Eating seasonally is key to successfully keeping things simple. How can you let the ingredients speak for themselves when those ingredients include an out of season, tasteless tomato. The growing season is much longer in Italy and in the UK we just don't have the climate to grow all the foods we have become accustomed to eating all year round.
We can try though... And I know just the men for the job.
Nigel Slater is a master of simplicity. His recipes often have only 3 or 4 ingredients. This, to me, makes them all the more appealing and I'm more likely to try them out. Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall had a cook book and series called Three Good Things which, you guessed it, involved just 3 ingredients on a plate. This kind of cooking relies on the best quality raw ingredients. John Whaites has recently released his book Perfect Plates in 5 Ingredients. He states the reason for writing this book was because "food has gotten a little complicated in recent years". I couldn't agree more. Even Yotam Ottolenghi "the undisputed master of the multi-ingredient recipe" has just released 20 quick and simple recipes for spring.
There must be something in the water.