--- Watch Ainsley's Mediterranean Cookbook Sundays 8.30pm on SBS Food Channel 33 and on SBS On Demand from 23 August ---
If ever we needed a singing, dancing tour guide, laughing with infectious glee as he meets, eats and cooks his way through a parade of scenic destinations, now is that time. And Ainsley Harriott is delivering in spades.
Harriott is big, bold, and clearly genuine in his enthusiasm for every experience in any of his TV shows, but there’s even more dancing, joking and singing than usual in Ainsley’s Mediterranean Cookbook. And you can’t help but feel happier watching him embrace every moment, from meeting local cooks to serenading a sprig of rosemary.
This latest series, filmed before COVID-19 made travel a dream for many, is a wonderfully eclectic journey through the Mediterranean, taking in Corsica, Sardinia, Morocco, Spain and Jordon. He meets local cooks and producers, wanders markets, visits restaurants, whips up fab food and even gets a pottery lesson! It’s as delicious as it sounds, but far from predictable – as Harriot says, he aims to “prove there’s more to life in the Med that you’d expect”.
Ready for some excellent armchair travel? Here’s a preview of the dancing, laughing adventures you can look forward to when Ainsley's Mediterranean Cookbook starts on 23 August.
Sailing, seafood and sweets in Corsica
Ainsley kicks off his adventures on the water – and in the water! He’s in Corsica, jumping on board a catamaran and then trying his hand at paddleboarding (“I’m a little bit nervous!" he confesses), before cooking up seafood skewers (there’s singing!) and a Corsican mint omelette in the boat’s galley kitchen.
Back on dry land, he visits a family restaurant and classic French boulangerie to sample some patisserie. Chestnuts and chestnut flour make an appearance at both (and there’s singing AND dancing at the boulangerie!) so for his final cooking session, he whips up chestnut flour beignets (yes, there’s more singing…. You’re getting the idea now, aren’t you!?)
Episode two brings Harriott to the medieval Corsican fortress town of Bonifacio. He visits a local honey producer and an olive oil maker, and whips up a vibrant cheesy eggplant dish in his outdoor kitchen overlooking the harbour. Also on the menu, today are honey glazed figs served with a charcuterie platter, and fish stew with homemade garlic mayonnaise.
Pasta, cheese parcels and paradise cocktails in Italy
For a taste of Italy, Harriot visits the island of Sardinia, where his eating adventures range from a pasta masterclass, where he learns a recipe that’s been in a farming family for five generations, to a pig on a spit cooked on a beach and stew with shepherds. His own creations include seadas (heavenly parcels of semolina dough filled with cheese and honey), a sausage and fennel pasta dish, a classic soup with a twist, a ‘Pompia Paradiso’ cocktail using a liqueur made with a unique local fruit, and pane frattau, a salad made with a special flatbread. It doesn’t always go to plan – it rains while he’s making his sausage pasta dish, but for Harriott, that’s just an excuse to sing: “And as my sausage meat cooks, the heavens have opened again. Let’s not let it dampen our spirits, though, eh?” he jokes, before bursting into song. “I’m cooking in the rain, I don’t feel no pain.” It’s moments like these where you realise that he can genuinely find something fun about almost any experience.
Spice, tea and clay in Marrakesh
“You know, when you think of the Mediterranean, Morocco is not the first country that comes to mind, but part of its northern coastline is on the Mediterranean Sea. So, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to include it in my travels,” Harriott explains as he kicks off his Moroccan visit in Marrakesh. “Morocco is often described as the gateway to Africa. This enchanting country is right at the northwest tip of this vast continent and is separated from Spain by a mere nine miles of the Straits of Gibraltar.” The food boasts Arabic and French influences, and in Marrakesh, “street food is king,” he says. Down a tiny alleyway, he finds a restaurant cooking lamb in an underground oven. It’s so good he gets extra to take away with him, so he can serve it up with his first dish: flatbreads with tomato salsa. There’s a visit to a vibrant spice souk, a trip out of town for a pottery lesson (“My mum would be so proud of me!”), plenty of that excellent street food, sweet pastries and traditional mint tea. Along the way, he also cooks up harissa and preserved lemon chicken skewers, a tagine, corn on the cob with a spicy ras el hanout and lemon butter, and barbecued fish with chermoula.
Ham, convent sweets and Papal pastries in Spain
His next two stops are in Spain, and there’s so much good food it’s hard to know what to tell you about first. In stunning Seville he visits visiting San Leandro convent where nuns have been selling homemade sweets to visitors for 400 years; drops into a deli to learn more about Iberico ham, which he uses in a classic Spanish sandwich; and visits local cookery teacher Ana Lopez Marin to learn how to make spinach ‘pudding’ (it’s more like a spread) and a traditional soup.
In Granada, he samples a sweet local treat called pionono, which has a fascinating history. “Pionono, it’s a delight with a sponge cake rolled up and soaked in sweet syrup, and … crème brûlée on the top,” explains local guide Katia. The dessert, she explains, represents Pope Piuz IX, who visited Granada in 1897. “Ceferino Isla González created this dessert in his honour. And look, do you see this cylindric aspect [Mm-hm] of pionono? That represents the Pope’s cope, and, cream top, the crown he wears.” Harriott declares the rum-spiked treat delicious: “This is just wonderful… a recipe that’s over a hundred years old, still in existence today, and I’m eating it in front of one of the most magnificent sights I’ve ever seen.” (The pair are enjoying their pionono along with views of the Alhambra, a palace and fortress). Harriott’s own dishes in Spain include a charred orange salad, Spanish chicken with saffron potatoes, a traditional thick, creamy hot chocolate, seafood paella and tapas.
Falafel, fattoush and date syrup in Jordan
Living up to his promise to explore the unexpected and surprising aspect of the Mediterranean, Harriott arrives in Jordan. “Considered an eastern Mediterranean country, although almost entirely landlocked and part of Asia, the kingdom of Jordan borders Israel to the west, Iraq and Saudi Arabia to the east, and just touches the Gulf of Aqaba, in the south… This is a place I’ve visited before, and absolutely loved, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to include it in my adventure,” he explains.
And his visits to Amman, Petra and Aqaba pack in so many experiences: market shopping, a visit to a local winemaker, a catch-up with an old friend, eating with a local falafel fan and then making his own, a visit to a family who make date syrup and date seed coffee, and the stunning sights of Petra.
And in his own al fresco kitchens, along with some falafel dancing, there's a fattoush salad, a chargrilled vegetable platter with labneh, chargrilled sumac lamb cutlets, chicken shawarma with tahini sauce and pita breads packed with spiced beef. All of it, of course, made with a huge smile.
It's not that common in Western cooking to mix sweet and savoury but the soft texture and mild flavour of eggplant makes it surprisingly good for a sweet-savoury mashup.
“In the Medina of Fez, I was mesmerised by the colourful stands selling spice mixes, bowls of fiery harissa and great piles of shiny olives and golden preserved lemons. It takes about a month to ‘pickle’ the local whole lemons in brine, but when they’re ready they have a unique flavour and salty tang that goes brilliantly with chicken cooked on coals. You can preserve lemons at home if you like a bit of pickling, but you can also find them in most good delis.” Ainsley Harriott, Ainsley Harriott’s Street Food
“I love one-pot dishes like this. They almost get on with the cooking by themselves and this recipe is one of the hidden gems of the Middle East. Hopefully you’ll be as lucky as I was when I ate it: sitting on a sunny terrace in Amman as the steaming dome of fragrant rice, spiced chicken and vegetables appeared on a big plate for us to tuck into. Heaven.” Ainsley Harriott, Ainsley Harriott’s Street Food
“While exploring the fantastic Kadikoy markets in Istanbul, I was keen to try the slow-roasted lamb’s heads, cooked in the back of a butcher’s shop. The fresh clean flavours of fattoush makes it the perfect side salad for the rich lamb meat and everything I needed was right there in the market including the bread, tomato, radish, cucumber, mint and sumac. You could also serve this salad on its own or with fish or poultry.” Ainsley Harriott, Ainsley Harriott's Street Food