Think of Italian food and words like pizza, pasta, risotto, lasagna, linguini, Parmesan, Parma, panna cotta, and semi fredo many come to mind. Perhaps ‘Tiramizoo’ if one has too much Prosecco!
I’ve travelled through a lot of Europe, but never to Italy, something that is shameful in my global travels in the culinary world. I wanted more for Italy than a pizza or pasta, I wanted to find a food right from the heart of Italy, a food and cooking method that shrieks Italy more than ‘Mamma Mia’. I realised the best place to start was to look at a map of Italy and find a food from the center. Abruzzo. Back to Google it lead me to the far end of the King’s Road in Chelsea to a restaurant called Terra Vergine near those interestingly named tower blocks for posh people called ‘The World’s End’. Matteo the general manager welcomed me in, offered me great Abruzzo hospitality and started to explain the food, the region and it’s culture. Terre Vergine is the only Abruzzo restaurant in London.
Right now, I will cut to the chase. It’s all about castrated lamb skewers cooked over hot coals – Arrosticini it’s called and Matteo has the job title of ‘Arrosticini Ambassador’. Ingredients from Abruzzo are flown to the UK to cook in the restaurant. Spending a life promoting all things British I asked why and his answer was fair. The type of wheat milled in the region and the food the hens eat make a difference to the wheat and eggs. Terra Vergine know that these produce the correct food from the region – they serve the taste of Abruzzo. I know in the past trying to make a sponge cake in the USA for an AGA demonstration was difficult as the sugar crystal size is different in size to the UK and the flour in the USA absorbs less liquid than my usual self-raising. At this point Matteo discretely points out the various celebrities in the restaurant and food arrives. Beautifully fresh seafood, tomato sauces with a flavor of tomato and basil I have not tasted since a child in my fathers greenhouse.
I meet Chef Francesco Puleo (one of the last few chef’s to still wear large chefs’ hats). A jolly man that pushes me into the kitchen to see his Arrosticini cooker – called a kenzino. This is like no other piece of cooking equipment I have ever witnessed, it’s a rotating disk over hot coals that the lamb skewers are placed into, they move around by plenary action and it can cook up to 72 Arrosticini at once. These marinated lamb skewers are served in a terracotta jug and covered in fresh lemon juice before serving. I now see why castrated lamb is used, the flavor of the meat is different, its not fatty, its not too ‘muttony’, it’s beautiful.
As the Arrosticini are grilled, I take some back to Divertimenti (after all it’s Italian for amusement or light entertainment) and grill them in the AGA. Now, I know many people think you can’t grill in an AGA, the fact is, you can, and very well indeed. The AGA ovens are made of cast iron and the roof of the Roasting Oven radiates heat onto food so it grills beautifully. In fact, radiant heat is how the AGA works, no fan to dry food, rather a moist heat radiating from the top, bottom, the 2 sides and the back of the cast iron. I would argue that a fan oven (by it’s very nature) would dry food as it has to push air at the food to cook, yet the AGA grills evenly, consistently and quickly.
I place 20 Arrosticini skewers onto the large AGA roasting tray with the grill rack on top, I know from experience that I can cook 18 sausages in one go – space is never an issue when cooking on an AGA, and I slide them onto the top set of runners in the Roasting Oven. A few minutes later I take them out, turn them round and pop them back in. A sprinkle of lemon juice and they taste of Abruzzo, just as Francesco cooked for me on his kenzino, but with AGA, less mess. One of the many benefits of this Great British cooker is that smells vent to the outside and that the ovens are self-cleaning.
As for cooking a pizza in an authentic wood fired oven at a pizzeria, the cast iron floor of the AGA Roasting Oven does this superbly with the base heat crisping the base and the radiant heat from above melting the cheese and cooking it to perfection. Pasta, well, the AGA Boiling Plate boils a pint of water in less than 2 minutes, so it’s fast. One word of warning about the myth that pasta is cooked when you throw it onto the wall and it sticks to the tiles – nonsense. Keep ones Fired Earth tiles clean and take a little bit of pasta out, place it between the teeth and it should be neither hard not soft. Al Dente as the Italians call it.
I do fancy some Tiramisu and an espresso.
My next stop in London world food is actually out of London. I’m off to Paris for the weekend to the World Cookbook Awards. Ohh la la. More next week.
Restaurant: Terra Vergine
Address: 422 King’s Road, London, SW10 0LQ
Extra virgin olive oil
Freshly grated lemon zest
Freshly chopped oregano
6 lamb skewers, using castrated lamb from the Abruzzo area cut into 1cm cubes
- Make the marinate by combining all of the ingredients together.
- Brush the marinade over the skewers. Place the skewers onto a Grill Rack sitting in a Large AGA Roasting tray that’s lined with AGA Bake-O-Glide, grill at the top of the Roasting Oven, turning regularly until cooked.
- Serve in a terracotta jug.