Flavour Buddies

Cooking at home has always been a daily activity for me, pretty much since my teens. I have been going through different phases of cooking, and I cannot really say that I have satisfactorily settled with one. There are times when I want to replicate recipes with absolute precision, other periods when I become obsessed with a cuisine style and its ingredients, or various intervals where experimentation takes multiple forms, whether in terms of taste or appearance, for example.

Nebula, oil and vinegar on ceramic

Through constant change, I like to rely on certain essential elements suitable for my cooking. For instance, I still get my rock salt from Italy, as it does not really exist in the UK. The same can be said for other ingredients, such as Abruzzo’s saffron. You can find good alternatives, from India or Iran for example, yet when I am looking for its specific sweet flavour, I need to use the proper Italian crimson stigmas, often combining them with some saffron powder as well.

Similarly, oil and vinegar are equally essential in my kitchen. I should actually say oils and vinegars. Each one has a specific aroma, texture, and cooking performance, so they can be real game changers if aptly used. A basic distinction can be made between broad categories, such as vegetable, seeds, or olive oils, or white and balsamic vinegars. However, the more you experiment and cook with different types, the better you get to choose your ideal flavour enhancer. In some way, you can think of it like wearing a different perfume according to how you feel, your dress code, or the people you are going to be with.

Due to my Italian upbringing and cooking tradition, my selection of oils and vinegars is a ‘tad’ biased and strongly leans toward Italian products. I linked some of the producers’ websites, but none of the products below are sponsored or promoted. These are just my home kitchen flavour buddies. Let’s have a look at my oil bottles.

My home kitchen oils

My dream team includes a range of oils I can use for cooking, marinades, dressings, or just plain raw, plus some flavoured ones. I use Waitrose Extra Virgin Olive oil for everyday cooking, as it is a decent EVO oil, with a mild flavour, quite versatile, and it is cheap. I use it for frying, marinades for meat, or as a base for spicy dressings.

The second bottle on the left is currently my good EVO oil to be used raw. It is a Tuscan oil from Fiesole, with a light yellow colour and an elegant flavoursome finish, quite silky on the tongue and slightly robust in the throat. This kind of oil is perfect for fresh salads, or to snack on some crispy vegetable, such as bell peppers or celery.

The three bottles in the middle of the picture are my ‘luxury’ EVO oils. I only open these when I find freshly-baked bread, or buy some serious fish, or get my hands on some proper burrata. If in luck with the food, a small bottle of these might easily not survive one sitting.

The taller bottle, Marfuga EVO oil, is what I call a green oil, and I am a sucker for it. This oil from Umbria has a superb finish, which feels like a gentle tingle on the sides of your tongue, while warm balsamic perfumes fill your mouth. Because of its taste, I associate it with the colour green and it makes me happy just smelling it.

The other two smaller bottles are EVO oils from Matera, organic gems from two small producers. They are as intense as fresh and mark an aromatic, long-lasting groove on your tongue. These are delicious oils; I can spend a good five minutes only enjoying their natural fragrance when I open a bottle.

The small can and the reuse bottle are my flavoured oils. The can contains EVO oil with white truffle aroma, good for cooking and also useful to dress some cooked food, such as chips or red meat. The reuse bottle contains EVO oil with chopped bird’s eye chillies. I prefer to make small quantities of spicy oil and I use fresh chillies—which is probably an abomination to purists, as you should use dried chillies in order to make a classic chilli oil. Using the fresh chillies allows me to have a clean EVO oil flavour with a sharp spiciness from the chillies, rather than the typical round, spicy hot flavour of a classic chilli oil.

Sometimes I also buy vegetable oil, if I know I will deep fry something, or if I am making a carrot cake, for instance. Because I do not use this type of oil very often, it tends to be a buy-on-requirement only item, hence the exclusion from the group above.

Looking at my vinegars, I am possibly even more a glutton than a cook. Different vinegars inspire so many of my food memories. I use vinegars for cooking, marinades and dressings, and I secretly have an occasional sip of my reserve bottles. I do not use just one type of vinegar and there are so many shades of flavour that I have several opened bottles on my kitchen counter.

My home kitchen vinegars

The first one on the left is a sherry vinegar, which I discovered when cooking with chef Gabriel Waterhouse at the Water House Project. We first used it to caramelise banana shallots braised in apple juice and thyme, which we used to serve with polenta, as a vegetarian alternative to one of our mains. This vinegar is perfect for colouring food in the pan and it leaves a quite sharp finish, distinctly different from the sweetness you would get from a balsamic vinegar, for instance. Notes of wood are still detectable in its aroma and it feels smooth and clean on the palate.

The small bottle of Filippo Berio balsamic vinegar is a rather ordinary IGP balsamic vinegar. It is acidic and young, it contains caramel, and I use it only for meat marinades, such as a šašlik/shashlik (pork or chicken marinated for skewers to be charred on the grill). It is runny and quite sharp for a balsamic vinegar, so I find it good only for limited cooking purposes.

In a nutshell, balsamic vinegar can be Modena IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) or Tradizionale di Modena/di Reggio Emilia DOP (Denominazione di Origine Protetta). The striking difference lies in two main factors, ingredients and aging. IGP allows the presence of other grapes’ vinegar and limited quantities of caramel, whereas DOP is made only with endemic DOC grapes (like Lambrusco, Ancellotta, Trebbiano, Sauvignon, Sgavetta, Berzemino), which are cooked right after pressing. Also, the IGP needs a minimum of 60-day aging to obtain the badge and can be called ‘aged’ after 3 years, whilst the DOP requires a minimum of 12 years of aging. If you do not mind waiting, the Tradizionale di Modena DOP ExtraVecchio requires a minimum of 25 years of aging.

The process of making balsamic vinegar is as relentless as it is elegant. The cooked grape must is sealed in wooden barrels for aging. With time, the vinegar reduces and it is moved to smaller and smaller barrels made of different wood (such as chestnut, durmast, cherry tree, and juniper), until it is ready. It is this long process of ripening which makes aging the real game changer.

The third bottle in the picture is a red wine vinegar from Reggio Emilia made with 100% Nebbiolo grapes, aged in oak barrels. It is not a balsamic vinegar, although it is produced with traditional methods by specialists of balsamic vinegar. It is fluid, with shades of brown and burgundy, gentle at the nose, yet punctual on the tongue. It is just lovely. This vinegar is exceptional on fresh vegetables and fish, as much as used for raw marinades.

The flask-shaped bottle is a luscious IGP, made by the oldest balsamic vinegar producer in Italy, Giuseppe Giusti, founded in 1605 (they even have a museum). It is made with must of cooked sun-dried grapes and aged wine vinegar, offering a powerful balsamic bouquet with a sweet, flavoursome finish. Its intensity makes it rather perfect for dressing on anything salty, but it is also great to glaze meat or strongly flavoured vegetables, like an aubergine steak for instance.

The next bottle is a prepared dressing with balsamic vinegar IGP. It comes from a deli shop in Parma, but it is produced in Reggio Emilia. This is perfect for salads or vegetable marinades, as it is slightly viscous and sweet on the palate. It performs similarly to commercial balsamic glazes, but it has no added sweetener such as honey or maple syrup, so it does not get sticky.

The two squared bottles are balsamic vinegar vintage reserves, the tall one coming from Acetaia Pagani, and the tiny inkwell sealed with wax from Giuseppe Giusti. They could be compared to a cuvée, as in selected prime grapes of one year.

The tall bottle from Acetaia Pagani has an insane consistency, practically impossible to describe without a degree in chemistry or physics. Even if you capsized the bottle, the vinegar would not accelerate during its fall, remaining perfectly fluid at the right density. The flavour of this vinegar is a precise equilibrium between sweet and savoury, with woody berries on the nose. I love it on strawberries accompanied by Parmesan cheese, a typical snack around Modena, as much as it tastes magic on red meat or grilled halloumi, for example.

Similarly, the inkwell contains a beautifully aged balsamic vinegar reserve, which is simply delectable. The bottle in the picture is still closed, but I had the pleasure to taste it some months ago in Milan. It is slightly fluid, yet it changes texture once opened and applied onto any food. It could be compared to lacquer, as it sets after a few minutes from use. This vinegar becomes like a flavour encasing, although without solidifying, since it releases its fruity aroma and melts on the tongue just with the warmth of your mouth. Similarly to the other balsamic vinegar reserve, it tastes fantastic when used in sweet and savoury contrasts, especially when punched by a salty flavour.

The last two bottles are quite basic vinegars that I use for cooking. Waitrose’s IGP is great for glazing food in a pan or for meat marinades before roasting. It is quite mild and makes a good base for stronger flavours, as it has no added sweeteners. The white wine vinegar at the end of the line is my go-to item for making ricotta at home, or also great for sharp, light pickling of vegetables such as radishes.

Growing up in Italy and pretty much spending a lot of time in the kitchen every day since I was a child, I learnt quite early how to use oils and vinegars for different types of food. But it certainly does not mean I know something or that these oils and vinegars above are my definitive dream team: I am always experimenting and still exploring new flavours and traditions.

Breaking A Long Silence

Back in January 2016, I started blogging about some of my favourite home recipes. I wanted to share my passion for cooking, while introducing my genuine Italian food culture. I also dragged in my friend Maria, an excited foodie who happens to make delicious desserts. We started our blog Foodamaze, wanting to publish more or less weekly, alternating a recipe each. Then, summer 2016 marked a series of unexpected and rather life-changing events, and Foodamaze went slowly dormant for almost four years, till now.

Meanwhile, I saw my kitchen life going through a rather exciting evolution: my then casual catering activity Matango London slowly became a full-time commitment, with exciting exploits in a few London restaurants, Taste of London, and extravagant private events. Later, in 2018, I became the sous chef of Gabriel Waterhouse, the mastermind chef behind one of the most inspiring and successful fine dining experiences in London, The Water House Project. After this truly game-changing experience, I became the senior-sous chef of Madera at Treehouse Hotel, till the outbreak of the Covid-19 virus and the subsequent global lockdown.

Last year, I created the platform called FoodVcancer to help fundraising for people suffering from sarcoma and other cancers. The idea is to broadcast on social media some home cooking time I spend with the patients, while supporting healthy eating and honest nutrition choices. My own experience with sarcoma and insatiable appetite give me the essentials, the rest usually comes naturally in a completely off-the-cuff flow. FoodVcancer also got me to become a judge of the Great Taste Awards at the Guild of Fine Food, exploring the mechanics of quality ranking without the despotism of brands—I owe this extraordinary opportunity to a simply fabulous lady foodie, Maya Orr.

photo by Gabe Waterhouse

So here I am now, reviving Foodamaze pretty much out of the blue, with the same intention of sharing the food I truly enjoy. It could be an impromptu fridge-emptier dish, or an engineered fine-dining-wannabe, or maybe just my oil and vinegar selection from my kitchen cupboard. I ignore how much I will keep going with writing it, with what frequency, and if it will ever mean anything. I just have a compulsive need to write and expose my food devotion.

Today, even more than ever, cooking is to me something exceptional. I believe in its pure alchemy, as cooking means mastering the art of transmutation and sublimating the harmful into delicious. I equate this with love. Plus, cooking is fun, is catharsis, it charms you into taming danger, while it revolves in constant variations. Food animates a choir of human senses, its music accented by trills wafting down our emotional core. Food is home. Cooking is hearth.