When I was growing up I thought that twenty-four hours was the perfect length for a day. With age, this has changed: I’d now like thirty-six at least so that, among other things, I’d have more time to cook delicious things which take ages to prepare. As it is, I am your typical time-poor, full-time, professional woman with limited stamina and a pile of ironing that I’m never quite on top of. In spite of this, I’m ready meal-averse so at the end of most workdays, I cook. Sometimes I get so tired that by the end of it, I have no energy left to eat. Ironic, I know, but apparently quite common among my ilk.
Roll on the weekend – that blissful ideal of rest over two whole days, which seldom happens by the time housework, paperwork, special occasions and familial duties are taken into account. For just those times when hunger pangs hit but there’s little time to spare, I’ve got just the thing: a quick and easy lunch that can be thrown together in a jiffy.
Fill a bowl with cherry tomatoes cut in half, cubes of feta cheese, plenty of chopped parsley, a drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice to taste. Toss and spoon onto your plate. Leftovers can be added to another meal later. Put slices of mozzarella onto slices of beef tomato, season and heat in the oven until just melted (just a few minutes at 150C). Add a few of these to the plate and garnish each with a basil leaf. That’s the hard part. Now just add anything vaguely Mediterranean you might have to your lunch: slices of prosciutto or salami, a handful of olives, some lettuce leaves topped with emergency artichokes (from the jar that dwells in the pantry) – their preserving juice creates an immediate dressing so no vinaigrette-concocting required.
For the above example I grabbed some herby ciabatta from our local deli and warmed it through while I was heating the tomatoes. Other additions might include marinated anchovies, leftover grilled vegetables, a spoonful of couscous drizzled with lime juice and coriander, a few slices of grilled halloumi tossed in lemon juice and parsley, marinated peppers, some burrata (if you’re lucky enough to have it in the fridge) sprinkled with a handful of sliced green grapes.
One last point: if you have visitors and don’t want to spend too much time wearing your trusty oven gloves, just set out all of the Mediterranean foods that you have to hand, give them each a plate and tell them to help themselves, buffet-style. Couldn’t be easier! This is a seriously low-maintenance lunch that’s tasty, healthy and just as easy to make for a crowd as it is for one person.
If you have guests and want to show that some sort of effort was made in the feeding of them, you can even tailor this lunch to a specific Mediterranean country with a minimum of hassle. For instance, if you want to put the emphasis on things Italian, drinks might include San Pellegrino with a slice of lemon, prosecco, a glass of Pinot Grigio or a chilled Nastro Azzuro. Don’t fuss over dessert: just put out some fresh fruit or have a scoop of gelato. A really snazzy ice cream trick is to serve lemon gelato with a shot of limoncello poured over the top, but don’t plan on finishing the laundry afterwards! It works just as well with strawberry gelato and fragolino… divinISSimo! Finish with espresso. If you have a machine, all well and good, but if not, there are some really good instant espresso grounds on the market nowadays - trust me, I’m über- fussy about my coffee. Serve it with a bacio or two and get everyone to read out the love messages wrapped inside. Now, that’s what I call la dolce vita.
Buon appetito a tutti!
Following our day spent visiting the islands of the lagoon, Monsieur and I returned to the Fondamenta Nuove and followed the signs to Rialto. Turning down a wide, vibrant street leading to the Ferrovia, or train station, we came across a particularly crowded souvenir shop window. Something in it caught Monsieur’s eye and drew him in like a magnet. It was a gaggle of black and gilt plastic gondolas. His interest surprised me.
“My grandfather had one just like that,” Monsieur explained, “It sat on his mantelpiece. Funny. They haven’t changed in fifty years!”
Crossing the street we walked through turnstiles into the brightly-lit Billa supermarket. Inside was a crowded mess of aisles, but ah, the ingredients in those aisles were worth the struggle. We wandered among the shelves of oils and balsamic vinegars, pastas and grissini, past jar upon jar of sundried, sun-blushed and regular tomatoes to the wall of tinned anchovies with retro labels and the bottles of olives in black or green, stuffed with pimento or garlic or lemon or feta. Had a Venetian genie been in a wish-granting mood, right then and there I would have dropped to my knees to beg him to transport the entire Billa and contents to our London neighbourhood. Monsieur and I ogled the fresh deli section with watering mouths. The array of cheeses and meats was begging to come home with us, but we were restricted to what we could realistically carry without it breaking, rotting or leaking en route.
In one refrigerator we found fresh handmade pasta in little twists, just like the type we’d so enjoyed at Algiubagio, so a couple of packs of that christened our wire supermarket basket. Bulbs of smoked provolone cheese joined the pasta, along with long slabs of Italian nougat for my parents and boxes of Cipster!, a moreish potato snack in bright red boxes. Monsieur marvelled at the wine selection while I stood mesmerised by the olive oils – virgin, extra virgin, infused with chilli, garlic, lemon and basil, in different sizes and shapes of bottle and tin, with labels from all over Italy and (quel sacrilege) Spain and Greece.
Following a last circuit of the aisles, we joined the check out queue, something that’s so universally mundane. As in all supermarkets around the world we stood and waited, shifting the heavy basket from arm to arm, listening to incomprehensible conversations ahead of and behind us. Then, as shoppers do all over the world, we stacked our goods for the teller and packed them into sunshiny yellow Billa plastic bags. Our predecessors in the line were now leaving with their loads of as much shopping as their taut tendons could take. We’d be next.
Out of Billa we went and into a delicatessen along the street. There I found cellophane packs of stuffed olives, Ascoli style, filled with a sausage mixture and coated with breadcrumbs. These are a local delicacy, turning up on platters at all the right Venetian events and normally they have to be ordered in advance so this was a real find. As I paid, the man behind the big glass counter full of yet more cuts of meat and rounds of cheese was incredibly brusque, causing me to wonder if he’d stepped out of his gondola on the wrong side that morning. I smiled at the thought of his big, grumpy self splashing into a dirty canal.
Back in the dark outdoors we turned a corner and I stopped in my tracks. “That’s the bar I dreamed of last night,” I told Monsieur. “You know, the one where we drank Campari, which I don’t even like?” Monsieur raised his eyebrows at me as if to say “you’re nuts,”. Perhaps I am, perhaps I’m not. All I know is that we hadn’t passed this bar until now and even when I was an intern so many years ago, I only visited this part of Venice on a very few occasions. I wasn’t a Campari drinker back then and I’d never set foot in this particular bar, so how on earth did it get into my dream?
Trying not to over-analyse the mysterious machinations of my mind, we walked up Canale Cannareggio in search of La Marisa, the restaurant at Tre Archi which had been so enthusiastically recommended to us by the Guggy interns. It was dark and cold next to the wter, with an icy breeze rushing towards us from the lagoon ahead. Flummoxed, with no discernible restaurant to be found, we trotted up the steps into a toasty hotel reception to ask directions.
“La Marisa? Aaaaah,” came the response. “e chiuso.” It’s closed, the receptionist said with a sympathetic nod, slapping his sides in a sort of Latin defeat. He pointed across the canal at the building which housed the hibernating eatery, its windows dark like a pair of napping eyes. So much for that plan.
As we waited at the TRE Archi vaporetto stop for a boat to chug us back to the hotel, we tried in vain not to watch the only other people in the shelter. The pair were not exactly hiding their raging hormones. With their youthful appearance and sporting the latest in leisure brands, I thought they were a teenage Romeo and Juliet until a flash of gold caught my eye. Wedding bands. The babes in arms were married. So far I’d had offers but I’d never actually taken the plunge myself. I could practically be the mother of this pair of kids now cavorting in the snow. It was a sobering moment.
Back at the hotel, Monsieur and I decided to spend our final night in Venice dining at Algiubagio. It was far too cold to venture further afield for a meal at some unknown quantity of a restaurant, an act we may later regret. No. The Algiubagio benchmark had proven hard to beat.
Now regular patrons we were met again with glasses of prosecco. More importantly, what would we eat tonight? I tried the starter of a creamy cheese called Burrata, garnished with juicy grapes from the lagoon. Each mouthful melted like a cool marshmallow against my tongue, contrasting beautifully with the tart bite of grape. This was the food of my paradise, sending me off into a cook’s own dreamworld. If only I could find this cheese in London, I’d devote a shelf of my fridge to it and it alone.
I moved onto a main course of those delicious fresh twirls of pasta with cherry tomatoes, warm mozzarella chunks, fresh parsley and Planeta olive oil. Monsieur’s enjoyment of the same pasta dish as his starter was evident. “There isn’t enough of it,” he complained with a grin. Having now tracked down some Planeta of our own for Epicurienne’s kitchen, all I can say is you should definitely try it. The taste is like olive syrup, bringing to mind images of olive groves in the height of summer as Mediterranean cicadas chirp in the shade of the trees.
Monsieur’s main was a laid-back pizza capricciosa drizzled with a liberal dose of chilli oil, and disappeared down his throat so quickly that he had plenty of time to spear my precious pasta twirls with his greedy fork, stealing them from my plate. The minute we’d finished, our waiter was back at our sides. “You must try the warm ice cream,” he urged, and we relented. After all, it was out last night in Venice. We could afford to be decadent and on this occasion, it was worth it. The ice cream was a smooth, vanilla semi-freddo, peppered with shards of spicy chocolate. It was sensational. Would we ever regret dining at Algiubagio on all three nights of our weekend in Venice? In a word: never.
Later we lay cocooned in our bed watching TV. News reports focussed on the inclement weather currently washing over the entire boot of Italy. Down in Tuscany the Arno was flooding and it had snowed that day in Milan. Thus, with images of snowflakes floating through my head, I drifted off to sleep that night, wondering if Monsieur and I might see snow on Venetian gondolas after all.