I’m really fond of Rick Stein’s television programmes. Recently when I was writing about his book India, I suggested that series – a hugely evocative search for the perfect curry – was probably my favourite.
Well not any more.
He’s now halfway through his new BBC series Rick Stein’s Long Weekends – which so far has been easily the most enjoyable food programme for quite a long time and I think the best thing he’s ever done. The premise – a long weekend of food and some adventure in an exciting city – has taken in Bologna, Berlin, Reykjavik, Bordeaux and Vienna in part one. Part two, scheduled for later this year will include – if his Twitter travels are a guide – Copenhagen and Lisbon.
What could easily have been quite an antagonistic bit of TV – rich and famous guy has expensive weekends away – is anything but. The series is warm, kind-hearted and driven by Stein’s customary – if somehow gentler in this series – passion for food, travel and culture. By culture I don’t mean anything pejorative, because in this series he busies himself to the point of submerging in history, in place, language, nature. And he does this in an incredibly generous and genuine way. Some of the sequences are quite moving, if anything, and at the end of the Icelandic episode, for example, as he stands in awe of that enormous hot spring, you sense his very real wonder, and share in it. It’s highly achieved TV when this sort of thing happens.
What’s more important is that he isn’t lording it up and staying in ludicrously expensive hotels, but in the kind of places ordinary folk might, just might, be able to afford. In every episode we get to see his hotel room, which is just really charming in itself – particularly the one with the duck in the window – and none of them are great opulent suites. In Bologna he is half in love with his room for its central location, and half mortified by the likely buzz of mopeds and the wail of sirens all night long. But you can see a kind of boyish giddiness in him, the excitement of a new city, the Phileas Fogg in him is beaming.
The first five episodes are so full of highlights it would really take pages and pages to pin them all down. But, in the spirit of the series, here goes …
I love the first Bordeaux episode where he drives precariously around the countryside in a blue 2CV – only slightly in control of it by the looks of things, and just a bit like a character in a Graham Greene novel. “It’s mainly about the food,” he says of his new series, charging up the backroads and rambling through the gears. The sequence with Veronique in the vineyard is priceless – is there just a slight panic in his eyes after he describes the stony ground as terrible? Should I have said that he seems to be thinking? Veronique – who runs the place – takes it in good humour. “We’re not growing carrots,” she replies.
In Bordeaux, Stein is brilliant and the series is sold. His enthusiasm is infectious as he strolls the rain washed streets, where you could make a period drama “without changing a thing” and the fountains flow wine. And what a restaurant he visits, literally within sight of his hotel balcony – you’ll remember it from his earlier canalboat series in France. “Keep it simple,” he says. “Keep flavours simple, and then you’ll be rewarded.” To amply demonstrate this, he tucks into what looks like the greatest plate of chicken and chips in the world ever.
Film references do abound – Iceland is like something from ‘Fargo’, for example, “with a touch of Twin Peaks”, and in Berlin and Vienna he can’t help but call to mind the noir of the Cold War era. It has become a defining feature of Stein’s presenting this willingness to search for references – from screen, in poetry and prose, from history – to help describe his voyages. He is not pretending to be the face of all wisdom, but approaches things as a real traveller, a tourist, even – sometimes in awe, sometimes perplexed, and in another steady feature of his work, sometimes by looking a bit foolish. And never, ever, is he afraid just to eat something like a sausage in a bun and love it as it is, and tell it like it is. Hopefully the day will never come when Rick Stein bounces out at us with that wild-eyed zeal to cut out absolutely any foodstuff that isn’t made of air and regret.
There are so many good bits – the taxi ride in Berlin, the coffee shop in Vienna, making pasta in Bologna, the ‘funky’ restaurant in Bordeaux where he can hardly disguise a grimace at the supposedly taste sensational ‘modern’ cooking (“I’m just getting a bit old, I think,” he says, ruefully). I like his trip to the top of the tower in Bologna, his vertigo taking over, and little wonder as the tower sways like a sunflower beneath his feet. In Berlin, his hotel room overlooks the zoo. In Vienna, he goes to a Strauss concert. In Iceland he eats stuff he clearly finds completely rancid. In Italy he is proferred a sample of cheese so valuable it is like a holy offering.
It’s all just lots of fun and he succeeds in making you just want to pack your bags there and then – but to where? Every week the destination is tantalising. Every dish he makes back in his Padstow kitchen is delicious-looking and down-to-earth demonstrated in that inspirational and enabling sort of way he has perfected.
In five weeks, there just isn’t a single duff episode.
In many ways though, the Iceland trip is my favourite.
The welcome Stein gets from the people he meets is really very affecting, as is the totally genuine sense of enjoyment and no little wonder he exudes in return. He does seem overwhelmed at times: well met, Iceland & Rick Stein. The cod he has for breakfast in the hotel is just an utter delight – absolutely gorgeous big old flakey pieces straight out of a little steel pan – fried in butter, his enthusiasm for its “delicious firm steakiness” is obvious. And if I’m not mistaken, the jammy swine is also having a lager, for breakfast. Fantastic.
Above all, Reykjavik looks utterly beautiful, the fiercely exposed snowy bay with its cathedral spire the highest rising point against a white harbour of winter. Later in the day he buys a jumper, has waffles with the mayor and quotes ancient poetry by a monument to the Viking achievement of exploration. I seem to think Britten’s Sea Interludes were lifting off in the background as well. It’s beautiful stuff.
And Matur og Drykkur looks like an amazing restaurant, the fish looks fantastic, the chef driven and brilliant. The diced green apples in dill oil look like sweets, surrounded by swirls and drops circling the dish when the crazy green oil cracks in the sauce. Later, he is boiling eggs in one volcanic pool, then swimming in the other. The Secret Lagoon, indeed. By the time he’s digging up bread – baked-buried in black volcanic sand by a couple of hip young dudes – you realise it’s all pretty magical.
“If you ever wanted to look the world in the eye,” says Stein as he stands before those great geisers of the hot springs, “this would be the place”. His wide-eyed emotional response to this otherworldy place just is genuinely moving. The camerawork is exceptional as he turns from his amazement to speak to us …
“Fabulous,” he says. And it is.