After making his name bringing beautiful Middle Eastern-inspired food to the UK, Yotam Ottolenghi toured the Mediterranean for inspiration and shares his findings.
“I’m sorry to keep you waiting,” says Yotam Ottolenghi, turning up for our interview a few minutes late. “I was in the middle of tasting a new soup recipe and got carried away.”
Once he describes the recipe - his take on a classic minestrone - it’s perhaps understandable why he lost track of time. “We’re very nearly there with this one,” he says. “The recipe will be on my website soon, which is just so satisfying. So much work goes into perfecting these recipes.”
It’s a process the Israel-born chef has been through countless times in recent months. He spent most of June and July filming Ottolenghi’s Mediterranean Island Feast, his second series for More4, the sequel-of-sorts to Ottolenghi’s Mediterranean Feast broadcast almost exactly a year ago.
“I went to Sardinia, Corsica, Majorca and finally Crete,” he says of the new series. “Each island was a journey in its own right, and we spent 10 days in each place. I’d come back to London for a few days before going back out again. My friends saw me with a tan and thought I’d just been holidaying, but honestly, I was working very hard!”
On each island, Ottolenghi, 44, tried to unravel the local food culture and understand the essence of the place, focusing not only on the cuisine, but why it had evolved as it had.
On Corsica, he discovered a rich shepherd’s culture he didn’t expect to find, but due to regular invaders, locals moved inland to work the hills rather than live off of the fruits of the sea.
“The terrain there is so mountainous, lush and fertile, so the diet is lots of pork, lamb and chestnuts, a lot like Spain in many ways,” he says. “Crete feels much more Middle Eastern, with spices, herbs and pulses, as you might find in Lebanon or Israel.”
Sardinia, meanwhile, confounded Ottolenghi’s expectations. Where he thought he might find beaches, bland tourist resorts and wall-to-wall seafood restaurants, he came across stunning landscapes and a wealth of other ingredients beyond locally-caught fish.
“I always feel really sorry for people who don’t leave the resort when they’re in a place like that,” he says. “If you want calamari, you’ll find it, and it’s easy not to make an effort because you’re on holiday and you want to relax, but in doing so you can miss so much.”
Despite establishing a string of famous delis in London in the past 12 years, two of which with award-winning adjoining restaurants, this is only Ottolenghi’s second TV series.
He explains that while offers came in thick and fast after he moved to the UK (in 1997, after completing his Israel military service), he’d been reluctant to get involved. “I didn’t think it was about the food,” he says, “so I was always a little put off by the idea. I’m glad I gave in, because I’ve really enjoyed these two series.”