Well I’ve been raving about Ottolenghi and cooking up a storm of recipes from his wonderful new book, Jerusalem, over the last couple of weeks so you will understand, I’m sure, my excitement and pleasure to see in the paper today, as I looked at the TV listings, that a new Ottolenghi series was starting tonight, at 9pm on More4: Ottolenghi’s Mediterranean Feast.
The first in the series of four programmes was based in Marrakech, with excursions into the stunning and beautiful Atlas Mountains to learn how the Berbers make couscous and to the sea at Essaouira where fishermen made gorgeous fish balls on the water’s edge, cooked in a fresh tomato and preserved lemon sauce.
I’ve talked a number of times of loving Ottolenghi’s last TV programme, almost a year ago, Jerusalem on a Plate, and I have to confess to a certain anxiety before the new series began: could he really do it again? Could this new programme match the Jerusalem one’s brilliance? I need not have worried because, of course, it is Ottolenghi himself who makes the programmes so good. He must surely be the most watchable chef on TV. He has a natural affinity with the camera. While many chefs look awkward, or sets look far too staged, Ottolenghi looks entirely natural and not only at ease in his environment, but to be genuinely enjoying himself.
Of course there has to be some element of staging – the cooking with the Berbers, for instance, in the mountains. But I was interested after the Jerusalem programme when my son told me that a number of his Jewish friends who regularly go to Jerusalem knew all the places Ottolenghi had visited and eaten and cooked in and were as excited by them as he was. Ottolenghi’s cooking is about real cooking and real people.
It’s his interest in people and the traditions of the places he visits as well as the food, that makes this so much more than ‘just a cookery programme’. He talked this week of it being the ‘collision of culinary influences’ in Morocco that excites him: the Berbers, Jews and other people who have come there over time. It’s easy to share his excitement at the ideas he can bring home and he makes us feel we can easily reproduce some of these wonderful dishes ourselves. He tells us most of the ingredients are easily available here; when he cooks he explains his methods well so we understand why he’s doing certain things and the difference they make to flavour or texture. We can instantly understand the importance of the tagine to the Moroccan when Ottolenghi tells us it’s comparable to the importance of the wok to the Chinese.
He finished in the extraordinary main square in Marrakech, Jemaa el-Fna, the heart and soul of the city. It’s at night it really comes alive: it’s enormous and crowded with food stalls, musicians, snake charmers and other entertainers. Smoke rises from fires and the rich smell of grilled meats mingles with the aroma of spices and the whole places brims with life.
I was last there myself in 2008 (photo above) and the whole incredible experience came rushing back as I watched Ottolenghi.
What a great start to the new series. Next week, the second episode is set in Istanbul. I haven’t been there – yet! – but if you read my bucket list of 2013 destinations the other day, you’ll know it’s there and I can’t wait to see what Ottolenghi has to say about this great city.