From some angles, Rick Stein looks like a victim of his own success. So inspiring are his televised cookery quests to India, the Med and the Far East that every year, fellow foodies follow in his footsteps, thus taking the locations from “off the beaten track” to “on the tourist trail”.
“I think part of the reason the programmes are successful is because people want to go to the places we’ve been to,” explains 68-year-old Stein, who adds that it’s “lovely” when people are inspired by the shows.
“Sometimes I think, ‘Would you really want to go there?’ Quite a lot of the time, they are slightly quirky places that say something about the area, but we look on the internet and there are people doing tours on the back of where we’ve been.
“Sometimes I say to David, the director, ‘We don’t want people coming here, it will ruin it!'”
Then there’s the way his name is occasionally used in vain after he’s visited an area or a restaurant. Once, he had some “fantastic fish and chips” in a Scottish restaurant.
“They’ve still got this thing up saying, ‘Rick Stein says this is the best fish and chips in the country’,” he explains. “Well it’s changed hands about three times – so some aggrieved customer of the shop wrote to me saying, ‘Do you know we’ve had the most disgusting fish and chips and they’re saying that you’re recommending it?’ I went in there and actually took the stuff down!”
Last year the chef, who travels to Australia three times a year to work on his restaurants out there, headed back to the Med for his latest six-part BBC 2 series and accompanying cookery book, From Venice To Istanbul.
Between weaving around the Mediterranean and chatting to interesting local characters, including the Albanian guide who “was a good friend of the prime minister Edi Rama, good at her job and had the additional advantage of looking like Audrey Hepburn”, Stein found himself in a “ludicrous situation” in some of the restaurants he visited en route.
If he was recognised, sometimes the “top person” – the one who wouldn’t usually cook, as they’d ordinarily leave that to the servants and cooks – would take the reigns in the kitchen to have their moment of glory on the camera, despite “almost never having cooked it before”.
“You’re just thinking, ‘Oh for God’s sake, just get the cook to do it!”‘ Stein recalls with a grin.
Though he is recognised in his Cornish home in Padstow, where he “absolutely loves” living and running several businesses, he’s always happy to hop on a plane and explore new nooks and crannies.
“I’ve been travelling a fair bit since I was in my teens, and I just love being away,” he says.
“I don’t know whether it makes you a calmer, happier, more interesting person, but I do like being in other countries.”
If you fancy exploring some of Stein’s recipes, here are two from his new book to try at home.
MESUT’S BLUE FISH STEW WITH CHILLI CORNBREAD
4 small mackerel or herring, scaled and gutted
100ml olive oil
1 onion, halved and sliced
6 green finger chillies, split open but kept whole
Large handful flat-leaf parsley
12 turns/grinds of the black pepper
3 tomatoes, peeled and chopped
6 cloves garlic, sliced
1 lemon, skin and pith removed, sliced
For the Chilli Cornbread:
200g plain flour
70g yellow cornmeal
1tbsp baking powder
4tbsp chopped coriander
2-3 jalapeno chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
50g feta cheese, crumbled
30g soft light brown sugar
3 large eggs
70ml sunflower oil
To make the cornbread, first heat the oven to 180C/gas 4 and warm a baking sheet. Place paper cases in a 12 hole muffin tin.
Sift the flour, cornmeal, baking powder and salt into a large bowl. Stir in the coriander, chillies, feta and sugar.
In a jug, mix together the water, eggs and oil. Add to the dry ingredients and mix together until just combined.
Fill each paper case about two-thirds full, then sit the tin on the warmed baking sheet. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until a sharp knife inserted into the centre comes out clean. Allow the cornbread buns to cool in the tin for five minutes.
While the cornbread is baking, sprinkle the fish with the salt inside and out.
Pour two tablespoons of the olive oil into a large pan with a lid, scatter the onions in the base and lay the fish on top.
Tuck the chillies and sprigs of parsley in around the fish and sprinkle with the pepper. Add the tomatoes, garlic and slices of lemon, and pour the remaining olive oil over the top. Cover the pan with the lid, bring to a simmer and cook on a medium heat for about 25 minutes. Serve with warm cornbread.
PATRICK LEIGH FERMOR’S MOUSSAKA
1 aubergine, sliced lengthways
3 courgettes, sliced lengthways
About 300ml olive oil
2 large potatoes, peeled and sliced lengthways
2 small onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
750g minced beef
3 beefsteak tomatoes, chopped
1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
12 turns/grinds black pepper
For the bechamel sauce:
100g plain flour
750ml full-fat milk
1/4tsp grated nutmeg
150g graviera cheese (or Gruyere if unavailable), freshly grated
Begin by salting the aubergine and courgette slices and leaving them for about 30 minutes, then rinse and dry on kitchen paper. Fry in plenty of the olive oil over a medium heat until lightly browned and starting to soften, then drain on kitchen paper and set aside. Fry the potatoes in the same way.
In a separate pan, heat 70ml of the olive oil and fry the onions and garlic for five minutes until softened. Add the minced beef and brown it before adding the tomatoes, cinnamon stick, bay leaf, one-and-a-half teaspoons of salt and the pepper. Simmer for 30-40 minutes. When done, remove the cinnamon and bay leaf.
In a deep, ovenproof dish, about 24cm x 35cm, arrange the potatoes in a layer. Top with a third of the beef, then the aubergine, another third of the beef, the courgettes, and finish with the remaining beef.
Heat the oven to 220C/gas 7.
Make the bechamel sauce: melt the butter in a saucepan over a gentle heat, stir in the flour and cook for two minutes so it loses its raw taste. Slowly incorporate the milk, and continue stirring until the sauce thickens.
Remove from the heat and whisk in the eggs, nutmeg and 100g of the grated cheese. Spread the bechamel over the layered meat and vegetables and top with the remaining 50g of grated cheese. Bake for 30 minutes, then take out and leave to cool. Serve warm. The dish is also very good the following day.
DALMATIAN FRESH FIG TART
For the pastry:
170g plain flour, sifted, plus extra for dusting
100g unsalted butter, cubed
50g caster sugar
1 egg yolk
50ml double cream
For the filling:
500g mascarpone cheese
6tbsp clear honey
6 large, 7 medium or 8 small fresh figs, stems trimmed, halved
For the pastry, mix the flour, salt and butter until it resembles breadcrumbs, and then stir in the sugar. Mix the egg yolk and cream, and add to the flour mixture so that it comes together to form a dough.
On a floured surface, roll out the pastry and use it to line a 26cm, loose bottomed flan tin. (If too difficult to handle, wrap and chill for 30 minutes in the fridge.)
Trim the edges of the pastry, cover with cling film and rest it in the freezer for 30 minutes.
Heat the oven to 180C/gas 4. Line the pastry with baking parchment, fill with baking beans or rice and bake blind for 10 minutes. Remove the paper and beans and cook for a further three minutes. Take out of the oven and lower the temperature to 160C/gas 3.
Soften the mascarpone with the honey in a small saucepan over a low heat. Pour into the pastry case, then lay the figs on top, cut-side up. Bake for 30 minutes until just starting to turn golden around the edges. To serve, allow to cool to room temperature before removing from the tin and cutting.