Just think about this, an Englishman, specialising in British food in Italy, cooking risotto for Positano’s mayor? Doesn’t really fit does it, but hey ho, I’m always up for a challenge.
Let me start at the beginning. Many years ago, probably late sixties, my mother cooked a dish I will never forget. In fact there were two dishes, one, a chicken Chow Mein with crispy noodles and two, a beef risotto made my Vesta. To this day I distinctly remember my mum frying thin strips of what looked like dried rubber bands in a frying pan. In no time at all we had beautiful crispy noodles, light and airy. This was another Vesta classic, chicken chow mein. Both were dried or freeze dried packs with bits and pieces and a separate pack of rice.
My brothers and I sat on the sofa and had this risotto; I still remember the flavour and smell of the dish. Bear in mind this was the late 60’s, the time when olive oil you bought at the chemist and poured into your ears to clear out wax!!!! It was soft, full of flavour and nothing like I had ever eaten before. We had a small amount each, and swiftly put it away. When I asked my mum where did it come from, she replied ‘its from Italy’ wow!!!!
When This Morning asked me to film my earliest food memories I racked my brain. I can remember most things, fresh crab in Padstow, in the late 60’s, tripe with tomatoes vinegar and black pepper from the UCL tripe shop in Blackpool. Fresh cockles and Dungeness bay shrimps collected with an ingenious net my father has fashioned from and old bicycle wheel and two net curtains. My uncle Ian, who in those days worked on the Dover harbour board, giving my mother seagull and pigeons eggs that made the lightest of sponges. Plate sized mushrooms picked in ‘the country’ where we lived, along with chestnuts gathered in late Oct in rain on a Sunday afternoon, then toasted on the Parkwray coal fire whilst watching the Flaxton boys. But one stood out more than all those and that was the Vesta beef risotto!!!!!!!!
I can remember the tv advert very clearly indeed. The voice over was by Cyril Fletcher, he of Esther Rantzen's That’s Life programme fame. The chap who sat in a wing backed chair, dressed in a silk smoking jacket, slightly boss eyed. I think he was employed to make up rhymes and riddles. His strap line right at the end of the advert went - ‘Simple moral fun to eat, these Vesta dishes are complete’
After a bit of digging around I found a facebook page all about this iconic packet food. Well I say I did, I meant Janice my director/producer did. There it was in all its splendour, blue and white logo, picture exactly as I remembered it, and weirdly exactly like my mother presented it to us. It even had a logo of the leaning tower of Pisa on the side. They have even made the side of the box look like a posh briefcase now, can’t remember that bit (not sure why??) Still, the fact that its still around amazes me, and even Martin Lewis’s Money Saving Expert.com has a piece on them. Forget £1.40, you can get them online for 99p, an emailer excitedly tells online readers.
Well onto the trip, we were to fly to Naples, pick up our transport, driver and ‘fixer’ (its always the best way to organise things) and drive for 1 hour 30 minutes to Positano, along the stunning Amalfi coast. We would then spend 2 days filming, the travel back on the fourth day.
Our driver Leo was a stout Italian, funny and had a good grip of the British humour. He reminded me of one of Fletcher’s side kicks in the 70’s series Porridge with Ronnie Barker. Rino, our fixer, on the other hand was a quiet man, rather dashing and softly spoken. (On the right here) He reminded me of an Italian Nigel Havers, dressed in white Chino’s and perfectly ironed shirt. They were total opposites. but had worked well together and for many years.
We were staying in the 5 star Covo De Saraceni hotel, right on the harbour side. It has a stunning view, but is rather understated. Nice, pleasant, attentive staff. The rooms are clean, and rather small with no frills. But once you open your windows you see what you pay your £250 per night for. An impressive view of the beach, hundreds of houses clinging to the rock side and all the beach front bars and restaurants.
Having said that it was the festival of Madonna, so there was lots of singing, drinking and fireworks until very late. Quite bizarrely the fireworks started before it was dark, can’t quite see the point of that...Anyway, quick dinner then off to bed...
Day one (Sunday) Went well, as with most of these films we tend to film backwards. So we started with general shots and small pieces to camera on the beach and around the hotel. We moved onto harbour shots, and fishing with Simone and his 7 year old son.
We caught a few fish for the Mayor’s risotto, including red mullet and other small fish I have never heard of before.
There was a big kerfuffle when we tried to dock, as somebody had very sadly died on the quay, so this quite understandably held us up for a couple of hours.
Next, it was onto some shopping shots, and to one of my favourite restaurants, Cambusa. My wife and I ate her some 11 years ago, whilst on our honeymoon. The setting is perfect, right on the beach line, high enough to see what’s going on. Here I had a simple dish that I will remember for the rest of my days. As simple as it was, it was just superb. Baby squid, lightly floured, and deep fried with lemon. That was it, wonderful.
The restaurant is only open for 6 months of the year, specialising in fresh fish. By the way I also ate a lovely salty, stewed baby octopus with tomatoes and red wine. Rich, tender and delicious.
In the subsequent years, I have taken the family and all have eaten the calamritti. Even now the lads ask when we are going back!!
After eating and filming at the restaurant I asked Baldo, the owner what he thought about me making a risotto for the mayor. He replied, stoney faced ‘You will poison him’ and laughed. I laughed nervously with him. By this point I was indeed feeling the pressure of cooking for the mayor, it was a big thing here and he was a revered man indeed.
Day 2 started very early to beat the traffic as we were filming the driving sequence in a vintage, soft top Alpha Romeo. There is something rather nice about driving a vintage car along the Amalfi coast, several times to get all the shots you understand!!! Although as the traffic increased, so did the irritation of the locals, Italian’s aren’t the most understanding nation in the world when it comes to driving.
After a couple of hours we drove to the Scirocco restaurant for a little breakfast and a welcome cup of coffee. What a fabulous view here, probably the best I’ve seen. It was also have a quick break to meet the restaurants owners and chat through the filming plans. They had been ‘turned over’ once by a film crew so were understandably cautious.
The family were charming, from Francesco, right down to Nona Maria, the 84 year old grandmother who still makes superb pasta everyday. Apparently Francesco says, she arrives early at the restaurant, makes the pasta, then goes off picking wild plants and herbs before returning for a light lunch and several glasses of red wine and a lay down, good on her!
Here I was to learn about the risotto process, and film Pasquale making a vegetable and smoked cheese (provolone) version. I was in good hands, as Pasquale had been the head chef at the very Famous Le Sirenuse hotel and restaurant in downtown Positano for many years. In fact, he was the chef when I ate there a few years ago, and remember the food well.
Filming went really well, Pasquale was a one take wonder, and the vegetable risotto was a masterclass in simplicity and taste. He did not smile too much, which threw me slightly, but in the end warmed up and was fine.
We had a nice lunch; it was so good we booked a table for that evening after I had cooked for the mayor. Francesco said he would come along also to see how I got on.
The pressure was now building, it was mid afternoon, and the mayor was arriving at 5pm, time to get my skates on.
Back at the hotel, the chefs had cleaned all the fish, which was very good of them. All I had to do was scale, fillet and cut up into large pieces.
The risotto went well, adding wine, onions and garlic, the latter Francesco said I should not add!
The kitchen looked out across the beach, similar to my bedroom view, bang on 5.15 the mayor walked past. On no he’s early! Thank goodness Janice asked him to walk back again for camera purposes.
I added water quickly, checked and re checked. Sealed the fish and kept warm, added cheese, fresh basil and salt and pepper.
When ready, added the half cooked fish and warmed trough, seasoning and making sure it was creamy and loose (chefs speak for runny)
At that point, I served 8 plates, off it went, nothing else I could do now. I carefully watched all the reactions of the Italians, not much reaction at all, oh dear. I was summoned and introduced. He liked it very much, although he did not each much, nor did his number 2.
Halfway through all the pleasantries he upped and went. Was he happy? Not really sure, I like to think so and our fixer Rino assured me he was very happy. Hurrah.
Thank goodness, what an ordeal, finally I could relax and have a cold beer. What a lovely trip, and what nice memories....now it's over.
My personal thanks to all involved, the Staff and owners at the Covo, Baldo and his staff, Francesco and all the staff at Sirocco, Simone and his lad for the fresh fish on a Sunday and finally to Rino and Leo, whom made the whole trip helpful and fun.
Covo Dei Saraceni Hotel
Via Regina Giovanna 5 Positano
Pizza A Vespucci-Spaggia Grande
Via Montepertuso 126/1 Positano