I am ready for the pitiful cries of derision as I write this piece. London’s bi-annual became a biennale when the food industry was invited to strut its stuff in front of thousands who visited IFE – the International Food Exhibition. I have attended every one since they began and am remembered by many for my stand designs for JA Sharwood – ‘Trading Post’, ‘Explorer’s Tent’ and then the ‘White Cube’ with tens of thousands of pounds worth of Indian and Chinese silks and historic artifacts on display – but always with the sharp eye and focus on taste.
Such was the cost of having an 1880s explorer’s tent made to the original design by a dedicated Glaswegian sail-maker, I had to pledged to find a buyer for the large tent and I did. It went to the then new owners of Cotchford Farm, that being the celebrated home in the Ashdown Forest of AA Milne with Winnie the Pooh, Roo, Eyeore and later, the great Brian Jones. Wonder where it is today – that canvas explorer’s tent we had pitched on desert sand at those early IFE’s in accessible Olympia, not boondocks ExCel. I digress.
Walking the 2015 show was mostly a steeply downward journey as aisle after aisle of booths – few designed stands – showed off salty and sweet foods mostly ‘comically’ prefixed with descriptives like Better, Get, Just, Great British, Heavenly, Hungry, Love, Mighty, then came Mr, Mrs, My, Proper, Simply and so it rolled on, booth after booth as ennui struck. One couldn’t have taken a shopping basket there to bring home ingredients for a meal. Vegetables were dying, fresh meat was oxidised, chickens were floppy and ducks well dead.
Then came solace and some joy. People who knew, grew and made their products. Hand’s up that I am not making this up, but IFE 2015 was saved 80% by Italy and the rest by France, Spain, Romania and those few independents not in my notebook or with photos on my since stolen portable – two of the best being here for the enthusiasm, charm and range. They knew food. One I worked with in another age and I can swear for his approach.
Real chefs manned the kitchen of the Italian national stand – in Italian the Trade Commission is ICE, pronounced ‘Itchy’ – so I thought it amusing to proclaim IFE as ‘Iffy’.
The chefs included Italian Chef of the Year for 2014, Enzo Olivieri and the president of the Italian Chefs Association, Carmelo Carnevale (left). Both men are Sicilians working in London. Both are all round good eggs oozing with talent.
Around the corner on the large Italian island site was an zone given over to Daunia Rurale and this is extremely interesting.
As their organiser Antonio Tomassini explains: “Daunia is probably the last Puglian site still unknown to the majority of people outside Italy – and even many Italians would know little of the region that is rich in indigenous products like Peranzana olives, Nero di Troia and Bombino Bianco grapes. I would like to make it my mission to introduce the UK to Daunia.”
The food of the region – Alto Tavoliere cooking – is cucina povera in style. Centuries old dishes made possible by locally grown ingredients. San Severo bread and pasta like orecchiette (of course, this is Puglia), lintorci, troccoli and cicatelli. We will talk more on Daunia when I visit in a few weeks.
South Italy’s olive trees, we know, have been literally plagued this past year. Olive oil production lies between zero and not very much. Imagine then the joy of meeting Ugo Ametta whose 6th generation family produce a certified organic, mono-varietal extra virgin oil from the local Peranzana olives.
The Antico Frantoio Ametta still uses stone for the pressing and, if that’s not good enough, their fruit comes from a farm where the trees are hand picked over just three days each November. These trees, Ugo Ametta proudly tells me, were brought to the farm near Torremaggiore 350 years ago from the South of France. According to family records kept by Vincentius Ametta (the founder), the trees were already mature when transported across from Provence to northern Puglia.
The Vincentius Ametta 2014 oil is sublime to taste – it’s bottled in never more than 12 hours from harvesting to cold pressing at never more than 27°C stresses their Swiss agent, co-producer, film maker and music man, Marco Palmieri. Production this year to little more than 1,100 litres.
They tell of how they sing or say, as the first green oil comes from the press ‘Olio amaro, tienilo caro‘. As amaro means bitter in English, but amore means love – and then caro is a word play between dear and expensive – we are already lost in translation. This special oil – selling for €47 per 50cl in Switzerland – has already arrived in the UK. Raymond Blanc was one of its early adopters at the Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons – further west they serve it at the Broomhill Art Hotel in Barnstaple. Two food stores in Banbury are also listed as selling Vincentius Ametta 2014 – Italian Larder and Bread & Milk. I know neither.
At the mill, 50cl of this oil can be purchased for around €25 – www.anticofrantoioametta.it - I have that in mind for my next visit to Puglia.
Francesco Salcuno, the current family member running Salumi Salcuno – www.salumisalcuno.com – tells me how. Francesco began learning the art of butchery at the age of 12.
Salumi Salcuno work with a few of the protected, rare breed Suino Nero Gargano pigs, but most of their production is what they call the ‘Italian pig’ – this being the workhorse cross of Landrace and Large White sows with Duroc boars. They take in 80 sides, minus heads and feet, each week.
For Capocollo, the pig’s whole +/- 2kgs neck muscle is salted and cured, massaged by hand and flavoured using the local Gargano rich red Nero di Troia – the whole process takes 4-5 months. Let us hope Salumi Salcuno find an importer for such excellent artisan salumi – Salsiccia Sottolina, Soppressata, Scamone and their 16 month old Prosciutto Crudo.
Scambato was another find – made from a boned-out and pressed whole gammon (pig thigh). With a Scambato, each slice is near the same from start to finish – should that be what you want. This came from another family affair near Bologna (Emilia-Romagna) who have a desire to popularise the Valle del Samoggia for its cheese, hams and wines - www.pmontevecchio.com.
Blood oranges from around Mt Etna have been covered, but still with Sicily I close with two comments from Chef Carmelo Carnevale: “The wild thyme we find in the mountains, but it work well with the fish from the sea.”
And on spicing: “Black pepper was always very expensive and so not common in Sicilian kitchen where we have plenty peperoncino.”
When Daunia arrived at the Italian Embassy all came good. Again, Italy won the day. Now let’s hope for importers to step forward and up to the plate.