Just think about this, an Englishman, specialising in British food in Italy, cooking risotto for Positano’s mayor? Of course, it 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 in the late sixties, my mother cooked a dish I will never forget. In fact, there were two dishes. One was a chicken Chow Mein with crispy noodles, and two, a beef risotto made by Vesta. To this day, I distinctly remember my mum frying thin strips of what looked like dried rubber bands in a frying pan. Then, in no time at all, we had beautiful crispy noodles, light and airy. This was a 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 it came from, she replied, “it’s 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 ’60s, 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 an 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 the rain on a Sunday afternoon, then toasted on the Parkway 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 wingback chair, dressed in a silk smoking jacket, slightly boss-eyed. I think he was employed to make up rhymes and riddles. His strapline 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; Janice, my director/producer, did. So 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. I can’t remember that bit (not sure why?) Still, the fact that it is still around amazes me, and even Martin Lewis 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’ (it’s 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 and 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 sidekicks 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 Chinos and a 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 harbourside. 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. There is an impressive view of the beach, hundreds of houses clinging to the rock side, and all the beachfront bars and restaurants.
Having said that it was the festival of Madonna, so there was lots of singing, drinking and fireworks until very late. Then, quite bizarrely, the fireworks started before it was dark. I 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. Next, 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 here 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. But, 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 calamaretti. Even now, the lads ask when we are going back!!