In his new BBC2 series, Rick Stein takes a gastronomic road trip to Istanbul through the countries of the former Byzantine Empire - a melting pot of East and West. His journey begins in the city of Venice, and on the idyllic Greek island of Symi he cooks some of his favourite Venetian dishes including seafood risotto, tiramisu and gnocchi with spider crab. Here are his top five culinary revelations from the countries he visited...
The peasant food of Venice
People can be rude about Venetian cooking, saying it’s ordinary and too simple. I think it’s wonderful. You are fooled into thinking there’s nothing to it, but behind it there’s an innate understanding of what really works. Nothing illustrates it better than bigoli in salsa. You look at it and think, “Why should I be ordering this? It’s just pasta with an onion sauce.” But then you taste it and can’t believe it’s so good. The sauce is basically slow-cooked onions, garlic, anchovy fillets, olive oil and a bit of parsley. It’s the combination of the sweetness of the onions and the savouriness of the anchovies that makes it special. You don’t notice the anchovies: it’s a bit like using fish sauce in Thai cooking. All you really taste is the sweet onion and the pasta and parsley.
Bigoli is a really thick type of spaghetti that has a firm bite to it, so it works very well with the silky, melt-in-your-mouth sauce. It’s hard to get hold of outside Venice, so you can use bucatini instead, which is like tubular spaghetti. What’s interesting about Venetian cuisine is that the food is quite peasanty and tourists expect it to be elegant, like Venice itself. I think it’s because the Venetians are practical people. They probably had better things to do. It’s about the local ingredients, from the lagoon, from the wonderfully fertile mainland. The cuisine wonderfully reflects this.
An inky seafood treat
Croatia is known for its fantastic puddings, but I’ve chosen a cuttlefish risotto that we ate completely by chance. We stopped off in this little fishing village, at a little restaurant on the quayside. It was mid-May and there was nobody around. It was clearly a tourist destination but at that point there was only this one restaurant open, so we asked if we could look at the menu. And the owner said, “We don’t have a menu because we’ve only just opened. But we have a black cuttlefish risotto that the chef’s cooking for lunch, do you fancy that?” We all said yes, and it was just so wonderfully good, washed down with a local wine called grk (that’s the correct spelling – he spelt it for me!). I suppose what made it really special was that we hadn’t been intending to film there; it was just that we were stopping off so we were all quite relaxed.
When I’m filming, most of the time I’m eating on my own, so to sit down with everybody else and to tuck into this fabulous risotto, that was a memorable dish for me. The thing I found unusual was how black it was, and that’s because the chef said he put in twice as much ink as most people do. The cameraman took a still of me and I look like the Joker in Batman with a black tongue and ink all over my face! It’s a lovely recipe; we’ve got it on at the Seafood Restaurant in Padstow, so that tells you how much I rate it.
Eating with shepherds
They cook a lot of lamb and goat in Albania and, in a shepherd’s hut right up in the mountains, I ate a really amazing dish that I have tried to re-create. There were probably about four or five shepherds living up there for the whole summer and it was very primitive. They cooked a goat over a spit for us, then they made this thing called kokoretsi, using lamb’s lungs, liver, heart and kidneys, all wrapped up in entrails and cooked over charcoal. It sounds horrible but it was really rather nice. It’s not that dissimilar to haggis.
Once you become an enthusiast for it, it’s bloody good. You wrap all the organs up in the entrails to make a cylinder so they don’t fall off the skewer – they’re like a parcel with bandages wrapped all around them – and you put it over charcoal and turn very slowly. It was such a lovely afternoon… delicious food in a memorable setting. You could see right over the sea because we were so high up. The shepherds were really nice people and great cooks. I ended up liking it a lot. That dish uses everything; it’s poor people’s food, which of course haggis originally was. When it’s cooked it solidifies and you can slice it. You eat it with lamb chops, as a mixed charcoal grill. I don’t know if that’s the dish you want from Albania, but I unashamedly liked it and would encourage you to try it!