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Fergus Henderson on Italian food

Defender of the British culinary faith as he may be, Fergus Henderson outs himself as a closet Italianist.
Antonia Pesenti

I’m not the first to say it, but Italy has a curious effect on my people. Australians probably find this hard to understand, but the thought of the Mediterranean, and the promise of ease and warmth that come with it, does odd things to the British soul. One of the side-effects of this phenomenon is the now long-standing connection between Italy and Britain which entails Britons, having been whipped into a frenzy by food writers such as Elizabeth David, Jane Grigson and Patience Grey, buying up farmhouses, barns and villas in Tuscany. Chiantishire indeed.

Interestingly, Italians are not buying great tracts of the British countryside, though they have a particular relationship with British culture, ripe with its own quirks. I remember a cartoon in The Guardian depicting a British couple taking an Italian couple to the Tate gallery; as they’re leaving, the Italians wax lyrical about the colours, the muted tones, the gorgeous hues. So, their hosts ask, are they referring to the Turners? The Sickerts? “No,” they reply, “we speak of Burberry and Pringle.”

I live in Britain and cook British ingredients. Not in a jingoistic way: I am a British chef by default. But I love Italian food. I’m always coming back from Italy with the mantras in my head: less on the plate, simple but delicious. The fact that you can go out to the garden and pick a warm, perfectly ripe tomato for lunch, or have a perfect dinner of pasta and white truffle, then a slice of roast lamb – very hard on the outside, melt-in-the-mouth in the middle – and finish off with fortified red wine and biscuits is hard to resist. The meals I have eaten – what joys.

We cook a lot of Italian at home, mainly because the only good shop near us is a little Italian deli. In spite of this I find that you can watch an Italian cook pasta or a risotto very closely, but you never can make it as well as them. There’s a mysterious vibration between ingredients and cook – maybe this is what takes the British to Tuscany to learn the ways of the pasta force. We can’t talk about Italian food in the UK without mentioning Giorgio Locatelli. The force is very strong with him. Come the white truffle season you want to go straight to his restaurant to marvel at his Jedi pasta ways.

There is a danger that if Italians stay away from the homeland too long, the force can weaken and we get the Italian who has been off the reservation too long – a species that seems to continue to flourish in the UK. In the ’60s and ’70s these folk opened slightly out-of-kilter trattorias all over Britain, with waiters in tight red shirts, large phallic pepper grinders, chicken Kiev and always very good linen. These certainly have their place, but they add confusion to the question of what Italian food means in the UK.

There is always hope, and in the ’60s this hope was Franco Taruschio at the Walnut Tree near Abergavenny in Wales, who cooked fantastic food from ingredients gathered in his surroundings, showing a respect for his genius loci. This and Marcella Hazan, who prepared the fertile ground for the River Café, marking a happy new chapter in Italo-British culinary relations. This was a much truer form of cooking, bringing ingredients from Italy and cooking them here appropriately, and cooking things here in an Italian fashion. Where there was chaos, now there is order.

While I am outing myself as an Italianist I must pay further tribute to Marcella. When her book landed in Mum’s kitchen our life changed. She showed us the way. This was a real Italian talking about food, not a rose-tinted outsider’s view. You could learn from her and apply what you learnt to a British larder. Her writing on boiled meat! That pot-roast chicken with two pricked lemons! The squid and potato stew! Influential stuff.

Since there’s less on the plate, it has to be delicious. Recipes can be like huge steaks that can defeat you even before you pick up your knife and fork; Marcella is like a sparkling apéritif in comparison. Everything works. Before her, olive oil was something bought from the pharmacy to be poured into gloopy ears. Parmesan is now a marvellous cheese, not the smelly granules that came in a shaker. The bringer of light, Marcella. Consider my tricolori nailed to the mast.

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