Rick Stein is becoming to food TV what Sir David Attenborough is to the world of wildlife. He’s on his umpteenth series combining a passion for simple flavours with travel and, to his credit, not always the sunniest destinations. For me, he fills the gap left by the wonderful Keith Floyd – a great chef willing to lay himself bare to the audience. Part of the fun is in the failure and the lack of celebrity pretention. He’s willing to learn, fail and speak plainly if he doesn’t like something. I’ve eaten at a few of the Stein establishments in Padstow and there is something there for every wallet. There is unfortunately also a bit of a negative feeling about the Rick Stein influence. I’m unqualified to judge as an outsider but he must have had a tremendous impact on tourism.
In his latest series he turns the tables on tourism by taking weekends in B-listed cities. He is avoiding the big cities of Barcelona, Rome and Paris and instead heading for Reykjavik, Bordeaux and, this week, Bologna. It may seem like a cushy number but he maximised the BBC budget by heading for the minor airports in cold and wet spring rather than full summer.
In the first restaurant he visited, Scacco Matto with chef Mario Ferraro, Rick demonstrated for me the essence of what he brings. Firstly, he likes to be alongside the chef preparing the food and he is very interested in the process. The scene began with a lovely shot of Raviolini stuffed with sweet onion and Parmesan being ladled into a bowl. Some other series are clearly advertisements for the chef and their mates but I suspect almost all of the people Rick meets on his travels have never heard of him and he only knows of them through his local crew. Rather than list the ingredients Rick was fascinated by watching Mario roll out the pasta and he revealed his love of watching a craftsman at work. He applauded the rolled out pasta and you suspect he will explode by the end of the dish. The sweet onions for the filling are just local white onion, fennel, oil and water and then just simmered until they are soft. The telling point is that Stein loves using simple ingredients to make something delicious “this is what I call being a chef”. He probably uses many of the same adjectives as Nigella but to emphasise his passion and anticipation for the food rather than being a dizzy flirt. To be fair, the Raviolini do look pretty.
From there to the market which always features in Rick Stein visit. He hunts down the local Spring produce and bemoans the absence of most of them in the UK. Of course he goes for the fish stall and then pops into the market cafe. I’ve never been to a market cafe like it because the dish Rick chose at his plastic table was calamari and it was served with a highly dressed plate and with a glass of wine. He couldn’t help poking fun at the plate decorated with a few “strands of nonsense”. He did love the calamari stuffed with potato, capers and olive oil.
Then it’s back to Rick’s stable door to his kitchen and his take on a veal cutlet dish. He always strikes me as a quite rough and ready chef in that it’s all about flavour rather than presentation. His chopping is sometimes a little haphazard. In a previous programme he says the onion needs to be sliced as fine as possible and then proceeds to create chunks even by my standards. His signature is to fade out a full plate of food and replace it with an empty one. When he cooked the tagliatelle at home he showed a truly enormous bowl of the stuff that surely couldn’t have been finished just by him.
Rick Stein is also about people and appreciative of the people who make the food which harks back to his Food Heroes series. Even with his coffee stop it is important there is a namecheck. He’s also at his best in teasing out the subtext of food. With Mario it was about the role of fennel in dishes; with Cristina it was about the social side of the espresso. It’s a charming element of his shows and makes them are more accessible and human. The human element was further enhanced by Rick’s trip up one of the city towers where his vertigo got the better of him.
I like the section of the show where he met with students who described their love of food and even its role in their university selection – imagine that in the UK! They told him that tortellini are the representative dish of Bologna and showed him some of the tortellini tattoos that local boys often have. He then hunted down some tortellini and tortellone makers lovingly knocking out row after row of beautifully finished pasta parcels. They then proceeded to dismiss Bolognese ragu eaten with spaghetti. Spaghetti is a Neapolitan thing apparently.
A theme throughout the show was “handmade” – the appreciation of literally crafting food by hand whether it’s rolling pasta, twisting the tiny tortellini, opening an aged Parmesan, gesturing appreciation or butchering pigs. Rick Stein is more up close with the food than most other cooks on TV. He strips away the fuss and nonsense and actively dislikes over-finicky dishes. He’ll eat them but not with any relish.
I can’t pigeonhole the show. There aren’t enough recipes for some but it is travelogue/food appreciation and watching anyone display their passion for something is great TV.