When he set out to eat his way from Venice to Istanbul, Rick Stein probably wasn’t expecting dangerous drives, a mule ride in search of cheese, or a nerve-wracking Turkish fishing trip.
Or maybe he was expecting something like that – after all, he’s roamed the world so many times in search of good food and the people who make it. He certainly finds plenty of great food, with side serves of adventure, in Rick Stein: From Venice to Istanbul, a food lover's road trip through the lands that were once part of the Byzantine Empire.
“I'm no historian; I'm a cook, but I love the golden culture of the Byzantine Empire. I'll be dropping bits of history in here and there, but, basically, it's about the food,” says Stein, as he sets off on a journey through countries he knows well (Greece) – and places he’s never been before (Croatia).
There is – no surprise – plenty of delicious seafood, both in what he eats along the way and in the dishes he cooks. But there are also amazing encounters with local cooks, such as the Albanian chef and his wife who cook up a traditional Albanian pancake. In one episode, his son Jack Stein joins him and the pair undertake some hair-raising travel, by donkeys and in cars, in search of local cheese and other good food. We find out that there is actually something the seafood chef with the adventurous palate doesn’t much like to eat and get fascinating glimpses of local history along the way.
His journey takes him from Venice – a city where fish features strongly in the local cuisine – and on through Croatia, Albania, Greece and Turkey, finishing in the fabulous city of Istanbul. Ideas from his travels find their way into his kitchen on the Greek Island of Symi.
A city of seduction … by aroma
“I remember the first time I came to Venice, I was on a water taxi, going through these little canals and I remember the cooking smells from people's kitchens that, every few yards, would change. one minute, I'd be smelling seafood dishes and then a waft of cooked pasta... and then mussels... and then, again, roast chicken. and, because there are no cars here, the sense of smell was so acute, so pronounced. For a cook, it's fabulous,” says Stein of Venice, where his journey begins. Why here? Venice, he explains, made a fortune out of trade with Byzantium. And given its watery location, it’s not surprising that seafood features strongly in the food: Stein eats schia - little prawns dusted in flour and fried quickly, then served up in paper cones; a seafood ragu with pasta; spaghetti vongole (pasta with clams); baccala; and octopus and wine at a little bar as he embraces the local tradition of going a chichetti – more or less, going from bar to bar enjoying small bites. And it’s Venice, so of course, he has a Bellini (which is named after the 14th-century Venetian artist). And then there’s one of the water city’s most famous dishes, fegato alla Veneziana (famous it might be, but not every visitor gives this one a go …. It’s liver and onions). In a segment filmed later, on the island of Symi, he cooks up gnocchi con granseola (gnocchi with crab), seafood risotto and tiramisu.
Piadina and “the best piece of roast lamb I’ve ever tasted”
Watching Stein’s journey will do more than make you hungry. It will help your trivia game too. What was Istanbul once known as? Which Italian city is known for that delicious filled flatbread, the piadina? Stein’s next stop is Ravenna. “It was the western bastion of the Byzantine empire. The eastern of course, was Constantinople. Istanbul,” he explains. And it’s also a good place to chow down on a piadina, a bread typical of parts of northern Italy. So there’s a visit to a local piadina maker and a version stuffed with prosciutto, rocket and a soft, luscious local cheese to devour – “absolutely delicious”, he says. Next, some hearty local soup, and a visit to see Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna’s Basilica of San Vitale, then it’s onto a boat to head to his next stop, Croatia – the first time he’s been. There’s super-fresh fish in the seaside city of Split, and then a trip up into the mountains to eat lamb, made by a chef who’s been running his restaurant for 41 years. After watching how it’s done, Stein declares it “simply the best piece of roast lamb I’ve ever tasted”. There’s plenty more of Croatia to explore, including a visit to the island of Korčula, (more trivia: some say Marco Polo was born here) to make goat stew with a cook and her mother at a local restaurant, and to devour some of the local super-fresh seafood.
There’s one more discovery to be made here in Croatia. Although it might seem that Stein will happily eat pretty much everything, apparently there’s one thing he’s not fond of – violets. Not the flower – he’s talking about a particular kind of Mediterranean shellfish. We discover this intriguing fact about our favourite seafood TV chef when he visits Ston, a settlement famous for salt; the huge walls that were built, as Stein explains “to stop the pesky Venetians, Turks and an assortment of pirates from nicking it [the salt]”; and the fabulous local oysters. Along with the oysters, he tries a violet, despite admitting he’s never liked them. (Despite the name, they are a yellow-orange colour – “Always look a bit like scrambled egg, I think”, says Stein).
A is for Albania (and H is for hair-raising drives)
When Stein heads to Albania, he’s not sure what he’ll find. “I don't know whether the food’s gonna be good or whether it’s gonna be frightful,” he says of a land that lived under strict communism until the early ‘90s. But along with some fright-inducing driving (“I didn’t even open my eyes. I had them buried between my knees!" says Stein’s son Jack, who’s keeping him company on part of the trip) and even a ride on a mule into the mountains in search of cheese-making shepherds, there proves to be plenty to discover on the food front. The Steins visit a restaurant in northern Albania run by a chef called Altin Prenga, who has a reputation for self-sufficiency. Along with jufka, one of the restaurant’s most popular dishes (chicken with a fermented pasta), there’s a chance to try a traditional pancake, flia (also fli or flija), cooked by Prenga’s wife. A simple batter – usually made with flour, water, and salt, sometimes with butter and/or yoghurt added – is added a layer at a time in a round pan, with each layer brushed with cream or butter after it cooks. The flia, traditionally cooked under a curved lid covered with coals, can take several hours to make. (If you’d like to give it a go, try this recipe for a home version, made under a grill.)
The mule ride also pays off, with the pair eating what Rick Stein describes with great enjoyment as "golden, sweet, slightly smoky roast lamb", plus cheese made by hanging bags of milk from the trees, with Albanian shepherds.
A slice of Greek pie
Next, it's on to northern Greece. Greece is a country Stein has visited many times - "I love Greece, it's part of my past", he says, but there's always more food discoveries to be made and old favourites to revisit. And it's in Greece that he does a lot of cooking, on the scenic island of Symi. "Someone on my journey, from Venice to Istanbul, said the journey seemed like a pearl necklace; I suppose with the two biggest pearls at either end - Venice and Istanbul. But lots of lovely glistening pearls all the way. And, to me, the island of Symi, here, is like the centre of the necklace... When you close your eyes and dream of Greece, these are the pictures that fill your dreams." In northern Greece, there's a visit to a mountain village for horta (wild greens) pie and chicken pie; in the south, marvellous vegetables and seafood, the secrets of moussaka, visits to a local taverna for all kinds of rustic eats from wood-fired oven lamb to chicken pasta, and a Byzantine-inspired dinner with local gastronomic society. Back in his island kitchen, it's time for Stein to make galaktoboureko, a sweet Greek classic, and saganaki, the delicious fried cheese.
A big Turkish breakfast, gozleme and Gallipoli
Finally, it's on to Turkey. "The meeting place of two continents – Europe and Asia. Through here came the spices and aromatics from India and south-east Asia. Mace and cloves, cinnamon, saffron and ginger, and vegetables and fruits that we take so much for granted, like aubergines, okra and spinach. This is the land that cooked meat, spices and fruits together. This is the place that gave us our much-loved mince pie, not to mention the Friday night special, the doner kebab," says Stein. First up there's a Turkish breakfast ... at 3 pm! He's stopped at a place that does all-day breakfast to tuck into olives, kumquats in syrup, rose petal jam, tomato salsa, local cheeses including ricotta-like lor and a goat's cheese, cucumber, glazed figs, fried aubergine, a dish of scrambled egg and local sausage, and house-made bread to scoop it all up. Also on the menu during his days in Turkey: a cheese made in goat skin ("I know perfectly well what the film crew are thinking. You can see them working out their excuses why not to taste it!" says Stein, who tries it and declares it "absolutely wonderful"); slow-cooked lamb tandir with rice; scorpion fish soup after a visit to a local fish market; spit-roasted goat; halva; and sardines grilled in vine leaves at a beachside cafe.
There's also a visit to a vineyard where local women are making gozleme - the more common savoury ones, and a tahini and sugar-stuffed sweet version - which puts Stein in a reminiscent mood.
"I just watched those two ladies make these gozleme ... and I actually watched them about five times because it’s just so mesmerising watching them doing it. And when I was watching them I was thinking, like, when you’re a child and you watch your mother making maybe just some shortcrust pastry. It has that same sort of effect, that there’s something incredibly comforting and reassuring about people, particularly women I think, making something like these. I think that’s where my love of cooking came from, originally it was just watching my mum cooking. ‘Cause that’s the same feeling I get watching them."
Stein stops at Gallipoli - "I just couldn’t pass here because my wife’s Australian and I’m so conscious of what happened here on this beach" he says - before a stop to try another local favourite. "My interpreter Bora is passionate about kofte kebabs. He calls them ‘kiuftehs’ and he says this place on the motorway with an unpronounceable name is as good as it gets," Stein says, and after trying them, he agrees. "Here it’s traditionally eaten with a salad of white beans sprinkled with lemon juice, a glass of ayran, that’s yoghurt, very creamy, and a spicy dip with lots of chilli. Very definitely yummo!"
Finally, in Istanbul, there's some nerve-wracking fishing on a boat being pummelled by the wash of passing tankers, a delicious fisherman's stew, a visit to a heady spice market, a snack on the classic Turkish bread rings, simit, and a stop to see Turkish delight being made in a shop that's been doing it for more than 100 years. In a humble cafe serving home-cooked food, he discovers kapuska, a stew made with cabbage and mince. Finally, there's a visit to the royal kitchens of the Topkapi Palace, a fitting end to a journey that embraces tradition and unexpected moments in equal measure.
Watch Rick Stein: From Venice to Istanbul Fridays 8.30pm from March 28 on SBS Food Channel 33. Each episode will be available for two weeks on SBS On Demand after it airs.
This what you might call Spain on a plate, a sum-up dish of everything we love about Spanish cooking: serrano ham, chorizo, pimentón, tomatoes, garlic and onion. To these basic ingredients I have added green beans and peas; you could also add sliced, cooked new potatoes or chickpeas or the big butter beans called judion. Actually I first tried this in Cádiz and wasn’t particularly knocked out by it, but I love eggs with tomato sauce, so I did a bit of research and came up with my own version.
This is a very Icelandic combination; they love liquorice and chocolate.