It’s been a busy couple of weeks for me which is why this post is well overdue. This time last week I was climbing a mountain! … literally. But enough of me as there has been loads going on in the food world too and with so much to report, I am inundated with topics to cover.

A perfect pasta bowl from the lovely Il Leone Mastrantonio, Cape Town

I was catching up on the results of the latest Zagat London Restaurant Survey earlier on this week as voted by the public. Interestingly, Italian maintains its position as the most popular cuisine, driven by the fact that people choose to eat it more frequently than French which is the second spot even though their restaurants rate higher individually. Japanese food came third. Despite the big fashion for British food, only one in ten people voted it their favourite style of food to eat so it was way down the list.

Chef Patron Daniel Toledo of Il Leone with my friend’s wonderful daughter

What is it about Italian that rings true with us all? Maybe it’s the chefs themselves. Personally, I was hooked the moment I met Daniel Toledo at his restaurant Il Leone in Cape Town. And his food was equally beautiful.

Seriously though, I think there are some clear reasons why we all relate to this type of food. Firstly it is the simplicity. Most dishes take a few authentic ingredients which are simply prepared and cooked with all the flavour coming from the base product itself. This simple way of eating has also scored well with the Zagat guide who have concluded that we are all moving away from formal dining experiences towards something more casual which offers value for money.

The second reason we all relate to Italian is that it is quick to cook so we can all have a go at home without a great investment in time or energy. There are some basic tips that are passed down from Nonna that really do transform recipes and these are worth getting under your belt. I learnt a few tips of my own from Mamma Agata when I did her cookery course in Ravello on the Amalfi coast a few years ago now.

Mamma Agata in her kitchen

Mamma and I went to the market every day to pick our ingredients depending on what was fresh that day. But what I loved even more than that was the fact that she topped those up with items from her garden. She simply shouted out of the window and minutes later her husband would come in armed with stunning stuff plucked fresh from their garden which overlooked the beautiful Amalfi coastline. Lemons, tomatoes, eggs, aubergine, their own olive oil…it was endless. Once the food was ready, we sat outside taking it all in and enjoying the fruits of our labour.

Dinner with Mamma

Clearly the third element to make up the art of Italian cookery comes with the ingredients themselves. We all know that authentic San Marzano tomatoes transform a dish and thick skinned juicy Sicilian lemons have a following of their own. As for burrata….what can I say? Creamy cheesey heaven. So, it was fascinating to see an Irish company win the Supreme Champion of the Great Taste Awards last week with their unique Italian Guanciale.

Hannan Meats of County Antrim are experts in gourmet meats supplying top restaurants and hotels in both Northern Ireland and the UK. They were approached by Italian chefs and restaurants to develop Guanciale which is a traditional ingredient in many pasta dishes. This product is rare in Italy so the fact that a Northern Irish company is making it at all is very impressive. This is a dry-cured bacon made from pigs jowl with a mixture of herbs and spices, garlic and red wine and is used as an alternative to pancetta in many central Italian recipes. The judges at Great Taste were unanimous in making Hannan’s Guanciale the overall winner having judged over 8800 products in the past few months. So Italy wins again.

All this talk of Italian food is making me hungry. I think I will go back to Il Leone’s prawn pasta myself tonight for dinner. It is a tried and tested favourite of my own.

Mamma’s Amalfi lemons

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