“I hope you’ll find something you’ll want to cook again and again, and will eventually make yours, moulding the recipe to your own tastes as you become familiar with it. That is, in my mind, the best part about home cooking.”
It’s easy to lose your way with cooking. All of a sudden you just start to feel everything you make tastes awful & by the time you’ve finished making it you can’t stand to eat it yourself much less serve it to anyone. Sometimes this is just how it is.
If there’s such a thing as writer’s block, this is the chopping block version.
What I love most about cookbooks – the really good ones – is they help you out of this hollow. Good cookbooks remind you why you love cooking, why you grew to love it in the first place, why it’s so important to make food for folk & sit around a table and feel part of something. Such books are always the ones that read like a labour of love, that feel like a genuine reaching out to share something important – just in case it’s the only moment in time the story will get a voice.
North Sea Scullery lost its way with cooking ever so slightly this year & Valeria Necchio’s gently brilliant Veneto has fixed it.
Separated into ‘Then’ and ‘Now’ sections (with a third, ‘Pantry’, to close), Veneto is both a commemoration of the recipes of her upbringing “inland” of Venice and a celebration of her continuing modern take on this heritage. In its genuine and tender reflections on place and memory, Veneto recalls the superb Mamushka, by Olia Hercules. It’s also in this sense like one of our favourite books of last year – Julia Turshen’s Small Victories.
We spent a lot of time with Veneto – cooking first the warming ‘Chicken in Red Sauce’ and the ‘Slow-Cooked Beef Stew’. These felt familiar places to start – dishes that just seem like a universal sort of food – but here with little nuances like juniper berries to rekindle the curiosity. Then on to the ‘Meatballs in Red Sauce’ – the mashed potato combination being something of a revelation here – and even to mincing up duck for the delicious Duck Ragu.
Days passed and the kitchen was fun again. By the end of the week there was ‘Baked Peaches with Mascarpone’ and miracle of miracles – ‘Polenta Olive Oil Cake with Rosemary & Lemon’. North Sea Scullery is generally the very nerve centre of bad baking, so the success of this last was laugh-out-loud enjoyable. Last but not least the ‘Spaghetti with Fresh Tomato’ using little juicy San Marzanos improbably found down the supermarket. This dish, fresh and sudden and truly simple, is a highlight.
Necchio’s ‘Then’ and ‘Now’ sections are not I think a conceit in any sense. This ordering seems intended as a mark of respect for the ageless cookery of Necchio’s childhood as balance to the celebration of the culinary change and invention that comes with travel & expanding communication. Jokingly, in reference to her mother’s cooking, these newer dishes are contemporary ‘heretical’ takes on the old cooking.
Veneto allows a great deal of range. There is straightforward cooking and slow and simple food for some recipes & there is challenge and technique in others. Ingredients, fresh high quality ingredients, are key though, and this can sometimes be difficult depending on where you live and sometimes, how much you can afford.
North Sea Scullery loves Italian food, drawn to it by some kind of moonlike pull, so this treat of a book set me off to the shelves for Marcella Hazan, Anna Del Conte – particularly The Classic Food of Northern Italy – Locatelli and for her own playful Italian ‘heresies’, Nigelissima. It is also something of a natural partner for Florentine by Emiko Davies. The compass was being put back together.
The story of Veneto makes me long for this countryside around Venice, for Venice itself, to go and see it all – like the Colonel in Hemingway’s Across The River And Into The Trees as he gazes from the hillside to the lagoon:
“But he continued to look and it was all as wonderful to him and it moved him as it had when he was eighteen years old and had seen it first, understanding nothing of it and only knowing that it was beautiful.”
Veneto by Valeria Necchio is available now from Faber, £20.00