In this extract author and chef Rick Stein introduces the inspiration for his latest recipe collection – From Venice to Istanbul – a celebration of the flavours of the Eastern Mediterranean.
I like to think of the cities of Venice and Istanbul as two large books propping up a shelf full of stories about the cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean. Tales like a Greek pie maker and her daughter in a Zagorian village in the Pindus mountains north of Ioannina, whose chicken pie caused me to shake their hands in earnest congratulation; or a pilgrimage to the Mani in the Peloponnese to visit the house of the late travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor and discover a recipe for moussaka, which he claimed not to like; or the morning spent high above the city of Split in Croatia with eyes streaming, watching the cooking of a whole sheep on a spit over a wood fire in a smoke-filled room. And earlier the goriness of a room below filled with hanging lambs slaughtered and waiting for impalement, then the roasting and the somewhat guilty delight in the moistness and tenderness of the slow-cooked meat.
It wasn’t hard to find Eastern influences in the cooking of Venice either, whose wealth came from the Byzantine Empire and beyond.Venetian dishes are surprisingly uncomplicated for a city with such a rich history. It is primarily the produce of the lagoon and the Adriatic, and the almost waterlogged land that surrounds the city. But it is the seafood that fills my imagination whenever I go there: tiny shrimps fried in their shells in olive oil and scattered over soft polenta; the meat of the spider crab in a seafood-flavoured sauce tossed with freshly made potato gnocchi; the Rialto market just by the Grand Canal with piles of tiny soles, bass, octopus and sardines split open ready for frying – perhaps the most colourful fish market in the world but sadly getting inextricably smaller as residents leave the city and tourism increases.
It’s a problem, but so is the sinking of the city and the rising of sea levels. So is the reality of a couple of nice elderly English tourists on a vaporetto complaining they’d been charged 34 euros each for lasagne. It’s much the same in Greece where we learnt how moussaka is often made in vast trays in Romania, frozen and sawn into portions for the tourist market. Yet it doesn’t stop you finding a moussaka cooked in a little house in Kardamyli in the Peloponnese where each ingredient, including long slices of potato, is fried before being layered with béchamel and tomato sauce and baked to complete perfection.Nor does it stop me being taken by Francesco da Mosto to a tiny restaurant called Antiche Carampane in San Polo, the historic courtesans’ area of Venice, there to eat bigoli in cassopipa, a thick spaghetti-shaped pasta with a shellfish sauce,made by cooking the shellfish in a pot with leeks, carrot, onion and a spice mix that could only have come from the East, containing nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves.
In the menu case outside it says:
No Menu Turistico
Thoughts of Byzantine culture followed me across the Adriatic to Croatia.We had stopped off at Ravenna on the way to the port of Ancona to see the mosaic there of the Eastern Roman emperor Justinian I and the empress Theodora, who built Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, and found time to enjoy a real ragù bolognese and take in the local flatbread stuffed with cheese, prosciutto and tomato: the piadina.
In Croatia there were plenty of Byzantine churches to continue the sense of edging towards the Eastern end of the Christian Roman Empire. I enjoy the shape of Byzantine churches, their proportions, the satisfying, almost human quality to the arches and domes, coupled with the dark, warm interiors and scents of incense and candle smoke.There’s a powerful connection for me between that and the flavours of the Dalmatian coast, the goat’s cheeses, the spit-roasted lamb eaten after a journey into the hills above Split to a Roman amphitheatre built for games by the emperor Diocletian right at the start of the Byzantine Empire. Venetian food followed us, too, right down to Albania – hardly surprising when one remembers that for almost four hundred years the coast was part of the republic of Venice. For me,Croatia was a country of tall, beautiful women with high cheekbones,and a sense of Ruritania about the red, white and blue flag with its romantic coat of arms in the centre. However, I didn’t miss the sense of a civil war recently fought, particularly when standing on the battlements in Dubrovnik looking up to the heights above, having learnt of the Serbian artillery raining shells down on to such a beautiful city.
As in other countries with a history of recent civil war that I’ve travelled to – Cambodia, Vietnam, Spain – you can be fooled into thinking everyone wants to forget about it.The reality is only the very young can, but there’s always a sense, too, in which enjoyment of food can be a way to forget.That’s why I believe in celebrating and taking delight in eating good food.The French epicure Brillat-Savarin reminds us in one of my favourite books, The Physiology of Taste: ‘The Pleasures of the table belong to all ages, to all conditions, to all countries and to every day; they can be associated with all the other pleasures and remain the last to console us for the loss of the rest.’
Extract taken from From Venice to Istanbul, Rick Stein (BBC Books) which is available now.