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Photo: Elena Bradley

Review: ‘Polpo, A Venetian Cookbook’

A student trip on the Orient Express to Venice in the mid-eighties spawned Russell Norman’s adoration for Venetian cooking. This then paved the way for his seven London-based ‘Polpo’ restaurants (‘Polpo’ means octopus in Italian). Opening in 2009, the crammed bustle of the Venice streets was mimicked by Polpo’s immediate London success. With that success, Norman’s book was published. Based on the Venetian philosophy of bacàri (tiny wine bars), cichèti (Italian ‘tapas’) and aperol spritzes, the book is a refreshingly minimalist read. It is littered with beautiful photos of Venice and divided into cichèti, bread, fish, meat, vegetables, desserts, drinks and gazetteer (a section describing Venice’s best eateries). The book’s beauty lies in its simplicity and modesty.

Though self-effacing, the food it details is certainly not. Whilst Norman explains the origin of Venetian cichèti (“a single anchovy from a tin wrapped around a single pickled onion stabbed with a toothpick”), the book screams chic dining ideas and impressive, effortless taste combinations. Norman’s ‘holy grail’ – ‘cichèti ‘baccalà mantecato’ – involves salt cod, which is sadly something the UK neglects but something that my Catalan family stuffed me full of – it’s delicious. The cod is flaked with olive oil into a cream, topping toasted baguette with roasted fennel. I promise you the directions are as simple as that explanation.

In the bread section, the spinach, soft-egg and Parmesan pizzetta makes use of their classic pizza dough. It showcases runny yolk on a pizza which is something everyone needs to try. As a fish-lover, the John Dory with orange, fine herbs and pink peppercorns is something that I cannot afford to make but want to go under the breadline for. Something I can afford to make, however, is the linguine vongole. A classic Italian dish of linguine with clams, white wine, chilli and offensive amounts of garlic (I don’t offend easily).

The meat section has multiple kinds of ‘polpette’ (large meatball) ranging from the classic pork and beef to the more sexy duck and porcini and lamb and pistachio. Each braised in a tomato sauce, these are delicious with pasta or simply with hunks of baguette and a fork. The duck, black olive and tomato ragù, was absolutely divine. Whilst you may be thinking these recipes are incompatible with uni life, I did in fact make this ragù last year on an Oak House hob and managed to persuade my gentleman diner that I was resourceful enough to fondle. With ‘osso bucco’ (braised shin of beef) saffron risotto  and panzanella, you too could secure yourselves a fondle from whomever you cook this for.

Fondling aside, the dessert section is understated but classy. Walnut and honey semifreddo, saffron pears with meringue and blood orange and campari cake are exactly the kinds of Venetian sweet that force you to try something new but also make you look incredibly cosmopolitan. All incredibly straight-forward in direction too – a godsend for those who feel less comfortable with the art of baking. Ultimately, this book would make a perfect present for foodies and the aesthetically concerned. It’s easy to follow, filled with delicious content and most importantly… looks stunning on your bookshelf.


Tags: book review, cookbook, Italian food, Manchester food, Venice

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