I am coming to you today as an old friend you don’t see for a while would: I’m full of things to tell you. The excitement is such that I might speak quickly and jump from one thing to the next without much of a connection. But I’d rather be overflowing than forgetful. So please stick with me, and we’ll get to the recipe before you know it.
First and foremost, I meant to tell you about Veneto, my cookbook (you see it up there), which will be released this Thursday. I feel like I’ve talked about it for so long now, that I’m struggling to fathom how fast time has passed. One week and those of you who preordered it in Europe will have a copy at their doorstep. I’m excited and terrified. Most of all, though, I just can’t wait for you to see it. It’s time.
Then, the book trailer.
The decadence and totally over-the-top nature of this pasta are what makes it so very good. I don’t say this lightheartedly: usually, Italian recipes are very much about the ‘less is more’ approach, and this is what I love about them the most. Yet, sometimes, piling it all up high is just the right thing to do. In the case of this recipe, for example, it works.
The base is a Roman-inspired spring concoction called vignarola. This is a dish made of fresh peas, broad beans, artichokes, sometimes lettuce, sometimes fresh herbs, others bits of guanciale for extra flavour – all braised in oil and white wine until tender and utterly flavoursome. Vignarola is often served on bread, which has the double purpose of carrier and sponge for absorbing the delightful juices left at the end. You can sometimes find vignarola served alongside some fresh ricotta, but mostly, it can hold the stage on its own.
The truth is, I am not a butter eater. In front of a loaf just out of the oven, I will reach for peppery olive oil and flaky salt. Butter can sit in my fridge, ignored, for months, until the baking itch attacks.
But since our last trip to Rome – where I ate my weight in gluten and dairy – I have been using that packet of butter surprisingly often. It was either melted into a puddle, mingled with anchovies and used to season pasta. Or eased in thin yet un-spread layers over toasted bread, and covered with whole, plump anchovies only seconds before the first bite. And anyway, as hazardous as this combination might sound, they are actually the perfect match – a classic case of opposites that attract each other.
Burro e alici (butter and anchovies) is a traditional Roman dish of poor origins, combining all the main nutrients in one simple and filling dish: fat from butter, proteins from the fish, and carbs from the bread or pasta. Cucina povera at its finest.
The bruschette are a very nice and quick option for aperitivo, especially if last minute. I like the butter to be in shavings that melt on their own over the warm bread, and whole anchovies for texture.
The pasta is not for the faint of heart, but I made it for an enthusiastic American who thought anchovies were the enemy only a couple of years ago. It has a strong, stubborn attitude, and attacks your nose with its fishy notes before you even taste the first forkful; but the sweetness of the butter will there, waiting to reward the brave hearts with its deeply satisfying lusciousness.
We landed in Bari on a Saturday in September, past dinner time. We had spent the day – the week even – in anticipation, thinking about our first meal in Puglia, perhaps outside on a terrace, with the air still balmy and the white wine well chilled. We both needed this weekend away so desperately. Not because of London per se – the weather had been particularly lovely lately. But we were restless and exhausted. We needed a few days of that lifestyle we both adore and miss so much: easy, slow and warm.
The little flat we had booked looked promising from the listing – bright, new and with a rooftop overlooking the roofs of Polignano. We had decided not to rent a car but to walk everywhere instead, so our host offered to pick us up at the airport. His name was Paolo.
Unsurprisingly, most of my family tales have food at their core. No matter if it’s about my dad’s tribulations as a high school student, with only enough lire in his pocket to buy a dramatically small bread roll and three slices of salami for lunch. Or about grandma going to the communal mill/oven to make bread, on a bike loaded with branches and bags of flour; or about grandpa, who spent years as a captive in Germany during World War II, and had been dreaming of polenta e baccalà for months even after he made it home. Food permeates all our personal stories and intersects with our collective memories.
From all these stories, though, one truth emerges clear and sharp: the women in my family were and are some really good cooks, able to put on the table meals for dozens after spending long days in the fields, and taking care of the house. Strong women who could prepare nutritious, filling, if only a tad repetitive food out of humble ingredients. Women whom, in part, I didn’t get to meet, and whose cooking I heard so many times about but sadly didn’t get to experience.