His latest series has taken him from the tourist hotspot of Venice to the street food haven of Istanbul, but Rick Stein had originally planned to make a far more ambitious – and dangerous – journey.
He told an audience at the Cheltenham Literature Festival that, while he was excited to trace the flavours of the eastern Mediterranean, the place he really wanted to visit was where these flavour influences all came from: the Middle East.
“We were filming in Turkey maybe five, six years ago,” Stein said. “And we were in eastern Turkey in Gaziantep and Adana and Tarsus, and we were very taken with these more Middle Eastern flavours in that part of Turkey.
“And we wanted to go to Syria. There’s this fantastic ingredient called Aleppo pepper which you can still buy in Turkey, because it’s just a generic name for chilli pepper they use.”
“I was sold on it, and I really did want to make a programme about the Middle East,” the chef said. “So did the BBC for that matter. But when we got round to it, I said, ‘Are you issuing flak jackets then?’ It was very sad, because most of the countries we wanted to visit we couldn’t.”
It wasn’t just Syria that attracted Stein. Iran, also then off limits to the programme makers, has been on his bucket list for a while, not least because their assistant producer is Iranian.
“One of the places when we wanted to do the Middle East was Iran, of course,” he said. “We did go as far as to make some enquiries. But when we were looking at it we just couldn’t go because there was no [British] embassy.
“We had no diplomatic association with Iran at that time, and if you were working for the BBC doing a cookery programme you couldn’t go. But we were really keen to go. In fact our assistant producer Arezoo Farahzad is Iranian, and never stops giving me mouthwatering descriptions of what the food’s like.
“My brother has been twice, and I’ve been to Iranian Persian restaurants in London. I think there’s no question they do the best rice in the world, so one day I will get there.”