After bringing Middle Eastern food to the UK, Yotam Ottolenghi has toured the Mediterranean for inspiration and shares his findings with Andy Welch.
I’m sorry to keep you waiting,” says Yotam Ottolenghi, turning up for our interview a few minutes late. “I was in the middle of tasting a new soup recipe and got carried away.”
Once he describes the recipe –his take on a classic minestrone –it’s perhaps understandable why he lost track of time. “We’re very nearly there with this one,” he says. “The recipe will be on my website soon, which is just so satisfying. So much work goes into perfecting these recipes.”
It’s a process the Israeli chef has been through countless times in recent months. He spent most of June and July filming Ottolenghi’s Mediterranean Island Feast, his second series for More4, the sequel-of-sorts to Ottolenghi’s Mediterranean Feast broadcast almost exactly a year ago.
“I went to Sardinia, Corsica, Majorca and finally Crete,” he says of the new series. “Each island was a journey in its own right, and we spent 10 days in each place. I’d come back to London for a few days before going back out again. My friends saw me with a tan and thought I’d just been holidaying, but honestly, I was working very hard!”
On each island, Ottolenghi, 44, tried to unravel the local food culture and understand the essence of the place, focusing not only on the cuisine, but why it had evolved as it had.
On Corsica, he was surprised to discover a rich shepherd’s culture, but due to regular invaders, locals moved inland to work the hills rather than live off of the fruits of the sea. “The terrain is so mountainous, lush and fertile, so the diet is lots of lamb and chestnuts, a lot like Spain in many ways,” he says. “Crete feels much more Middle Eastern, with spices, herbs and pulses, as you might find in Lebanon or Israel.”
Sardinia, meanwhile, confounded Ottolenghi’s expectations. Where he thought he might find beaches, bland tourist resorts and wall-to-wall restaurants, he came across stunning landscapes and a wealth of other ingredients beyond locally-caught fish. He feels sorry when people don’t leave such a resort, saying: “It’s easy not to make an effort because you’re on holiday and you want to relax, but in doing so you can miss so much.”
While on the island, the Mediterranean’s second- largest – it’s just slightly bigger than Wales – he drove up into the hills to spend the day with a goat shepherd. They milked goats and, after returning to the shepherd’s rudimentary home, made ricotta, which is formed from whey left over from cheese production. “It could’ve been 2,000 years ago and fresh ricotta is out of this world,” he says. “I used it to make little fritters mixed with orange and Sardinian honey. It was incredible. The surroundings were so basic, but the food I’ll remember forever.”
Despite establishing a string of famous delis in London over the past 12 years, two of which with award-winning adjoining restaurants, this is only Ottolenghi’s second TV series.
He explains that while offers came in thick and fast after he moved to the UK (in 1997, after completing his Israel military service), he had been reluctant to get involved. “I didn’t think it was about the food,” he says, “so I was always a little put off by the idea. I’m glad I gave in, because I’ve really enjoyed these two series and we’ve managed to make the shows more about the food than just stylish production. I’ve realised it’s completely worthwhile on that front.
“Not just that, when I come back from travelling with new ideas for myself, I think I’ve done something worthwhile. These are ideas I can use again and again. On a personal level, some of the experiences I’ll never get to do again.”
He adds: “Whether I was learning a new dish or about the island’s history, or recreating a local dish with my own twist, it was all about discovery. My favourite recipe was a grilled fish, brushed with herb-infused oil as it cooked. Like the rest of my summer, it was a revelation.”
• Ottolenghi’s Mediterranean Island Feast continues on More4 on Thursdays at 9pm