OK. I am officially envious. Bright green with envy! Rick Stein has just embarked in his new TV series on BBC2 on a road trip from Venice to Istanbul. If someone were to say, What’s your dream road trip? Then I’d be pretty likely to come up with this one. However, if I can’t actually be there, then there are few TV chefs more entertaining and pleasing to watch than Mr Stein. I’ve watched him travel round Spain, the Mediterranean, India and the Far East. He even had a go at trying to convince us that German cooking was good, tracing back his German heritage. I wasn’t so convinced by that one. The others I’ve loved and this latest takes in two of my favourite places: Venice – the journey’s beginning – and Istanbul, its final destination, which I visited for the first time a couple of years ago and was as entranced by as everyone said I would be. Rick’s journey follows a route through the old Byzantine Empire tracing where West meets East and later programmes will take in Croatia, Albania and Greece.
What I like about Stein’s cookery programmes is not just that nowadays they include travel too and we get to see him eat different cuisines in many exotic locations and learn how to recreate some ourselves, but he brings a deep intelligence to his observations. After an unhappy end to his schooling and failing his A Levels, he went to catering college. But then came the distress of his father’s suicide when he was aged 19, and he took off across the world to New Zealand and Australia and on to Mexico. He used his ‘gap’ year as a real year of self reflection as well as experience, came back to UK, went back to studying and ending up getting into Oxford Univeristy to read English. It’s not surprising then that he may branch out into poetry; read from a famous novel or want to tell us something of the history of the place he’s visiting. This takes his ‘cookery series’ on to a different plane. But he never loses sight of the main purpose: to cook. And not just to cook but to find out how the locals do it and then recreate the dish for us in a way we can follow.
I caught up on Friday’s first episode last night. To see Rick in my favourite city (other than London!) and enthusing as much as I do was quite special. Yes, it will be lovely to see the new places too as his journey advances, but it was quite exciting to see him visiting places I know and love as well. As he stood on the Ponte dell’Academia and enjoyed that most famous of views down the Grand Canal towards the Chiesa di Santa Maria della Salute, it reminded me of my last trip there is April – the photo above as I went under the bridge in a vaporetto.
He met up with that wonderful Venetian, Francesco da Mosto, whose own TV series about his home city and Italy have delighted millions. (I once passed him near my hotel but didn’t dare say hello!) Francesco introduced Rick to cicchetti and they went to one of the bars I visited near Rialto in April – All’Arco.
Cicchetti are a fabulous Venetian thing: little snacks – a little like Spanish tapas – that are generally enjoyed with a glass of prosecco (also from the Veneto) early evening. We saw how baccalà mantecato – a gorgeous creamy mashed cod – was made and watched the two men enjoy some of the best cicchetti Venice has to offer, standing at the bar, Italian fashion.
Rick stood at a barge selling vegetables that I also found on my last trip.
He sampled the best food Venice has to offer, especially the seafood, with gorgeous crab pasta dishes and the almost mandatory seafood risotto, which is the most glorious thing when made well. Rick recreated this back in his kitchen for the series (which is actually based on a Greek island!). He also visited the Lido and ate a meal so enormous that even this food blogger with her large appetite would have been challenged. They – Rick and the writer he was lunching with – finished with Tiramisu and again, Rick recreated this in his kitchen. Doing it properly, of course! Keeping things simple and classic.
I loved the programme. I loved seeing some of my favourite places, some of my favourite food, but I learned things too – about Venice itself and its food. I like Rick Stein’s easy, laid-back style. I thought some of the recipes he recreated weren’t quite a simple as he made out – but then he is a chef! And they were certainly ‘do-able’ at home. I can’t wait for next week’s stop in Croatia.