Thursday, 19 July 2012

"Polpo - A Venetian Cookbook (of sorts)"

Polpo - A Venetian Cookbook (of sorts)
Russell Norman
This book was born out of a love affair.  Anyone who has visited Venice has special memories and for Russell Norman a one week stay in his youth kindled a love for the city, the food and the drink which has never dimmed.  Several years and many more visits and a plan began to form.  Inspiration did not come from the restaurants of Venice, which Norman points out in the tourists areas are".. about as authentic as the plastic golden gondolas for sale on the Ruga dei Orsi .." but the tiny Bàcari (wine bars) of the authentic Venice.  Here locals meet to chat, eat chichèti (Venetian tit-bits) and down a Prosecco or Spritz, or two.  A dish of warm octopus was the catalyst that lead Norman to open a sixty-seater Bàcaro in London in 2009.

I recognise the Venice of Russell Norman and I know Polpo the Bàcaro so I'm familiar with some of the dishes in the book.  Reading it takes me right into the heart of the kind of Venetian food I love.  Not all the recipes are strictly Venetian but the influence is clear.  The dishes are deliberately uncomplicated, made with admirably few ingredients and most are quick to prepare.  Some are hardly recipes at all but a ".. delicious exercises in assembly .." of good ingredients. 

Polpo's Broad bean, mint
ricotta & bruschette
Anchovy and Chickpea Crostini is an inspired coupling.  Broad Bean, Mint, Ricotta and Bruschette is fresh, light and summery and whilst I think the flavours would overpower a good fresh ricotta, it works brilliantly with the type available to most of us.  Pork Belly, Radicchio & Hazelnuts produced a dish of tender fatty pork cut by a sweet, sharp vinegar and bitter leaf, the crackling and hazelnuts providing the essential crunch.  Mozzarella Pizzaiola uses tomatoes slow-roasted with oil, vinegar and oregano.  Pairing them with a milky mozzarella makes for a deeply comforting dish.  The recipe for Rìsi e Bìsi is quite similar to my own but the simple addition of mint lifts this Venetian classic to a higher plain than any I have previously achieved. Recipes I have book-marked for cooking include Spicy Pork and Fennel Polpette, Pilgrim Scallops with Lemon and Peppermint, Burrata with Lentils and Basil Oil, and a Blood Orange and Campari Cake.

The photography by Jenny Zarins captures both achingly beautiful Venice and the simplicity of the dishes very well.  I must mention the design which blew me away on first sight.  An Old Venetian style typeface is used and the stripped-away spine reveals bright green stitching.  The book is lovely to handle, looks good and is eminently practical for kitchen use as it sits flat without breaking the spine (would that some of my other books were like this).

So, if you're planning a trip, how do you find the authentic Venice.  Well, there's help on that here too.  A Gazetteer at the back of the book includes two of my favourite places in La Serenissima.

UPDATE 23 July 2012: Alessandro Swainston @touchfood read this piece and very kindly got in touch to offer the use of his beautiful video of Russell Norman talking about how Venice influenced Polpo.  Here is a link

Book courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing