A Virtual Visit to Italy (with a nod to Spain)

What to do with wanderlust when vast sweeps of the foreseeable future are charted with school and work commitments, and the calendar is crammed with highly important must-dos?

Well, there are always other ways to enjoy travel…

I discovered a treasure in our local Oxfam bookshop, high up on a display shelf. Its title drew me up on my tiptoes as I reached for it:

Edible Atlas by Mina Holland, World on a Plate, World food, tomato sauce, paprika

The Edible Atlas: an intriguing and appealing concept. I flicked through the book’s opening pages and found 39 world cuisines listed in its contents, from well-known French and Italian regional cooking to less explored Ethiopian and Peruvian styles. A whole world of food.

Further on led to maps, larder lists for each region, and cool graphics inviting the reader to learn about the ancient Spice Route, the fried bases of stews and soups across the globe (sofritos), the International Chilli Pepper, and the Melting Pots of the New World.

Now I love Italian cooking. It’s simple, unpretentious and honest. One of the best meals I have ever had was a feast produced from a tiny kitchen in a Ligurian refuge. It was food from the sea, food from the land. Made with passion and care. No menu. We ate at trestle tables, sharing abundant platefuls of food with fellow guests. The carafes of wine were constantly refilled, new dishes kept arriving, and as we talked, the sea below us was our background music.

That culinary diversion is merely to explain why I turned straight to the Edible Atlas’ section on Italian cooking. A heavenly memory works its influence (the echoing magic of travel).

There on page 93, (Lazio, Italy), was the Ultimate Tomato Sauce. I love a decent, homemade tomato sauce. It’s delicious, versatile and good for you. Mix with pasta, or pour over lamb and cannellini beans before roasting the dish with a grating of parmesan cheese. Yum.

I’d decided to buy the book before I saw that recipe, but it was a clincher. Tucking the book firmly under my arm, thereby hiding its enticing title (did I do that so no-one else would see and take it?), I swiftly gathered my daughter with her selection of reading matter, then paid at the till. We were a happy pair 🙂

We drove home that Saturday afternoon, and in my mind’s eye I was picturing the Ultimate Tomato Sauce drizzled over a freshly made pizza base, then topped with whatever took my family’s fancy. Our newly built pizza oven is a wonderful indulgence (a taste of Italy in our garden), and if we can ever master the art of fire-making it will be truly magnificent! While we continue to struggle with that, I felt that at least I could attempt a sumptuous sauce. And that is what I did.

Mina Holland has kindly allowed me to reproduce her recipe here. But as she says, it’s her version of Marcella Hazan’s original recipe. And if Mina Holland advocates tinkering with a recipe to make it your own, then by jove mine must have paprika! Plus garlic, because Mercedes in Villasbuenas de Gata – see blog post Jesùs and his caballos) told me that EVERY dish in Spain includes garlic (ajo in Spanish – what an elegantly short and simple word).

The Ultimate Tomato Sauce

2 x 400g tins plum tomatoes
2 x yellow or white onions
5 tbsp unsalted butter
Pimentón de la Vera (La Dalia is my preference)

Place the onions cut-side-down in a large saucepan. Add a clove or two of garlic (whole) if you like. Pour over the tomatoes, add the butter, dash it with paprika, then cover. Cook on a very low heat for 45 minutes. Give it an occasional stir to blend in the melting butter and prod the tomatoes into a pulp. Season to taste. Remember to take a secret spoonful from the pot before using (not just to test for taste): you will be richly rewarded.

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I have used this recipe a couple more times since that recent Saturday. It’s simple and sensational. With its deep, rich colours, it smells of sun-drenched lands and tastes divine.

The Edible Atlas is at my bedside table by night, when I read informative and fascinating pieces of cultural background mixed with personal anecdotes and recipes. By day in the kitchen I’m dipping in and fast-forwarding to recipes I like the look of (none seem too complicated).

Mina Holland pens her words with thought and writes from the heart, making clear her passion for food (spices, sweet stuff, Levantine raw lamb, tomato sauce – her comfort food), and her love of people and places. She is honest about her dislikes too.

This book is not intended to be a comprehensive encyclopaedia of global cuisines. It serves as a guide, a prompt for the reader to make his or her own discoveries, and is a celebration of “the common language” of food and its diversity and similarities across the world. Well-chosen quotes and sayings are strewn throughout, like this proverb from Ethiopia: “Those who eat from the same plate will not betray each other.

I can only assume that whoever gave my copy of The Edible Atlas to Oxfam had been given a duplicate copy (I’m glad they were). At least I’ve now assuaged any residual guilt I may have been feeling (in swiping it quickly off the Oxfam bookshelf before anyone else could grab it) by sharing it with you. In addition I’ve been able to take my family on a few ersatz trips to Southern Europe with the Ultimate Tomato Sauce. Maybe not quite as good as the real deal, but I haven’t heard any complaints yet!

Notes (hopefully more interesting than you expect them to be):

Mina Holland is acting editor of Guardian Cook, and won the Best Culinary Travel Book in the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards 2015 for The Edible Atlas, which has been translated into 12 languages. Her next book, Mama: The Food that Makes Us, explores the importance of our mothers’ cooking and its legacy. I can’t wait.

Marcella Hazan (1924-2013) was an Italian-American cookery writer. Shamefully, I never knew of her before reading The Edible Atlas, but my curiosity has been piqued, and I’d like to know more.

If you’d like to purchase The Edible Atlas (or World on a Plate in the USA) for yourself I can’t guarantee that you’ll find it in your local Oxfam bookshop (but why not have a look). Otherwise try Amazon or any good bookshop.

In any event, this is proof that many other treasures are to be found in Oxfam’s shops or online: http://www.oxfam.org.uk/shop

Mina Holland explains in her book that pimentón is a key ingredient in Spanish cooking, and makes reference to the intense smokiness of pimentón de la vera. How happy am I that Gwen of Finca las Cañadas introduced me to La Dalia’s Pimentón de la Vera, in her opinion the very best. More on this family-run company that has been producing quality pimentón de la vera for over a 100 years in my next blog post.

4 thoughts on “A Virtual Visit to Italy (with a nod to Spain)

  1. I saw this book in a bookshop somewhere and you’ve reminded me why I wish I’d bought it! What a book to find in a charity shop! Congratulations 🙂 I can highly recommend getting a copy of Marcella Hazan’s ‘Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking’. It’s worth paying full price for if you don’t see it in Oxfam 🙂 it’s a book people would not give away unless they’d never actually opened it. I’ve been cooking and blogging my way through it. 125 or so recipes so far and every one has worked and been lovely (apart from one chestnut recipe…) I’ll keep an eye out for Mina Holland’s book!

    Liked by 1 person

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