Back to Basics

The beauty of cooking fresh fish over an open fire

I’m from Anglesey, a small island off the north of Wales. Generally, when you’re young, you start working in little restaurants and bars on the seafront, so I’ve been exposed to fresh fish and shellfish from a really young age. You don’t really think there’s a future in it, so go off to study. When I was at Cardiff University, studying politics and history, I was also cooking part-time in a French restaurant called Le Gallois. Around that time I realised that’s what I really wanted to do, so I threw myself into cooking as much as I could.

I moved to London and worked at the River Café, and then at Noma. I always felt that I wanted to cook over fire. I had a summer residency at Climpson’s Arch in London Fields, and we cooked over these big amazing fires; there were ever-changing menus. I really went for it; I wanted to hone that skill. When you’re cooking from an archway in Hackney there aren’t so many financial pressures, so it’s a really fantastic opportunity to try different things, just seeing the interaction between the fire and the fresh ingredients.

Then I worked at Kitty Fisher’s in Mayfair. It was really quite successful, but it threw me in at the deep end. What I really wanted was to go back to east London, and in order to do that I had to open my own restaurant. Brat feels like a middle ground between the archway and a restaurant like Kitty Fisher’s – it’s reminiscent of an English pub and an old Georgian building. It has a lot of texture and character to it. The energy and creativity is very exciting in this part of London; I feel very connected to this area.

With fire, it’s a primitive approach. You’re in more contact with the produce because you do very little to it. One of the farmers I source from, Calixta Killander, is very inspiring. She’s looking back; using old traditional methods. To be forward-thinking you have to look backwards; you have to look at the old ways of farming that were lost after the war. I take a similar approach with my cooking, looking at very old methods.

In Getaria, in the Basque Country, the cage is their preferred method to cook fish. The cages hang outside people’s houses – it’s an amazing sight. I’ve really drawn from their way of cooking. What I learnt is, buy well and don’t ruin it. It sounds simple but it’s really hard to do. Their cooking method is very different – they do this slow grilling method on a low heat; it’s a slow roasting and delicate way of grilling, rather than a ‘macho’ way. It’s a gentle method.

At Brat, I want it to feel like a Basque restaurant, so I thought one of the ways to achieve this would be to apply their principles – they get their friends to make the fish cages… to make their grills, their chairs. So, I decided, if I apply this method, the restaurant’s character would build up naturally. One of my good friends in Somerset works with metal, so I asked him to make the cage. It took six months of back and forth, because of the smallest details; they have to be correct – if the cage is too big, the fish falls out, or too small and they don’t get enough char. It was worth the effort.

We often go back to the Basque Country; we chat with fishermen and try new dishes – it refreshes everyone’s focus. It also gives you confidence that it’s OK to serve a plate of tomatoes. In London people are constantly telling you that you have to reinvent the wheel, and you forget the reality of food.

It’s rewarding to know that when you get a concept in your head and work at it, people then really enjoy it. We’re lucky that people in London are very open now; they’re into weird cuts of fish, or eat whole fish on the bone. This wouldn’t have happened 10 or 15 years ago. We’ve come a long way – people enjoy sharing plates and getting stuck in.

As told to Sonia Zhuravlyova

Photography William Bunce

Creative direction and styling Paulina Piipponen

bratrestaurant.com

This article is taken from issue 26. To buy the issue or subscribe, click here

Cooking with the Adi Tribe

Neetole Mitra travels to Central Arunachal Pradesh to cook the traditional Ma Dong dish

     

Someone has started a raging fire in the middle of the room. Dripping men have walked in from never ending rains outside; wading through dark and slush. The warm central fireplace is the best spot to seek comforts in the Adi home they have entered – a wooden rectangle put together with bamboos, cane, dry leaves and bark, balanced on raised stilts. The gaps in the walls and floor offer ventilation to the earthiness of the room. An assortment of Dao (single-edged Chinese saber) jut out from odd corners. Odd tokens from the rainforests that surround the village adorn the edges of the room – cured animal hides, eagle feather hand-fans, a furry black bear skin bag and a grey mass of animal skulls darkened with age.

Sights like these are common in the villages of Upper Siang and East Siang districts of Central Arunachal Pradesh – the largest north-eastern state of India. The width of the Brahmaputra segregates the region from the rest of the country while the dense rainforests, with an imaginative assortment of wildlife prowling its depths, offer exclusivity. Cluster of leaf roofs peaking from forests form independent settlements, with the Gao Burra (village elder) at the centre of all administrative issues.

The Adi tribe lead a simple life but they are a fierce and proud community of people; not ones to oversee an insult easily. The British Empire unfortunately learnt this the hard way. Tapir Darang, a proud Adi and my host in Abor Country in Pasighat tells me about Manmur Jamoh, his ancestor from the same sub-tribe. Jamoh is a local legend. The man hacked a British officer to death in 1911 to avenge his lost pride (an example of early imperial resistance by the hill tribes of Arunachal Pradesh). Noel Williamson who had made a disparaging comment about Jamoh’s skin condition in 1909, had no idea the man was waiting for him to return. Williamson’s gory end triggered the bloody Anglo-Abor Wars of 1911 resulting in many brutalities against the community and the beginning of permanent Colonial presence in an area that was left untouched thus far. The term Abor, lent to the Adi tribe by the British back in the days is now deemed an inappropriate slur.

The Adi sub-tribes live a no frills kind of life – the community is as much a part of the forest as the forest is a part of them. The tribe doesn’t just draw extensively from nature but also worships it. Every ailment here has a natural remedy; every social custom is mixed with the elements of nature. Even folk tales that have survived generations of oral narrations talk about carving out animals from giant evil rocks and the creation of the world from earth (Sedi) and sky (Melo).

For the Adi tribe, hunting isn’t just survival but also a part of their culture and customs. During Unying Aran Giidi festival, Adi tribesmen pack off to the forest for a week, returning with their catch for the consumption of the entire community. Some of it even acts as bride price, particularly the Kebung squirrels. Nothing goes to waste. Even the skulls become family heirlooms passed down generations. It’s a nature-based life reflected directly in their culinary traditions.

Tapir Darang cooks the traditional Ma Dong – literally translating to ‘food in bamboo’ – a special treat for the evening. Traditionally, Adi tribesmen would pack rice, and basic condiments like salt and dried bamboo-shoot powder when they went out on hunting expeditions or set up machan (a raised platform) to tend to their seasonal farms, away from the village. The forest and river provided meat or fish and all one needed was to find the abundant bamboo to cook their meals in.

It is a way of preparation more than a particular recipe. A lesson in sustainable living from the Adi tribe to the rest of the world. One of the key ingredients for the recipe is the Ekkam patta (Phyrnium – a banana like plant) – a sturdy and large leaf that serve as base. At Abor Country I try two variations of this dish – Ngo Dong (bamboo fish) and Ek Adin Dong (pork bamboo). While the fish is cooked with just a sprinkling of salt, turmeric and ginger paste, the meat is marinated with chilli powder, salt, ginger-garlic paste and a sprinkling of dry bamboo shoot before it is wrapped in Ekkam patta and stuffed inside the bamboo barrel. The rice which has been soaked for 15 minutes is drained and similarly encased. The last step is to roast the barrels in open fire till the leaves become a shade of olive.

Ma Dong

Ingredients

500 gm pork

2 tsp turmeric

1 (1-inch piece) ginger

3 garlic cloves

2 tsp chilli powder

1 tbsp dry bamboo shoot (Eup)

1 sheet of fresh bamboo shoot (Ekung)

Salt to taste

250 gm rice

2 Phyrnium leaves (Ekkam patta)

2 foot-long Bamboo barrels

Directions

  1. Soak rice in water and set aside for 15 minutes.
  2. Make a paste of the ginger and garlic.
  3. Mix turmeric, chilli powder, salt and ginger-garlic paste with the pork. Add the bamboo shoot powder. Adding the ekung is optional but might add a layer of tanginess to the meat.
  4. Set the meat aside for 30-minutes.
  5. Chop off the edges of the Phyrnium leaves and place the meat at the centre. Carefully wrap it in a tube and slide inside the Bamboo barrel. Seal the top with a roll of the leftover Phyrnium leaf.
  6. Drain the rice and wrap it in the Phyrnium leave same as with the meat. Slide in Bamboo barrel and seal with a roll of the leaf.
  7. Cook the bamboo barrels in open wood fire, rotating occasionally so as to avoid charring one side and undercooking the other.
  8. Remove from flame when the leaf seal on the top becomes olive green and the bamboo is a deep shade of black.
  9. Break the barrels open and serve hot.
  10. The rice can be served as a spread or cut out into leaf wrapped rolls.

Neetole Mitra is a travel writer and photographer chasing off-beat experiences on LivingUnplanned & @livingunplanned.

The Mythical Beef Sandwich You Need in Your Life

Chef and food writer Samin Nosrat reflects on the panino bollito, a masterpiece of understated Italian fast food

I started at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, in my home state of California, in 2000 with one adult travel experience under my belt: a year abroad in Europe, where the choices I made were informed by the cost of train tickets or the availability of creaky hostel beds. Food never entered the equation.

But from my first moments in the restaurant, when I sat through a menu meeting where the chef shared the origin story of each dish on that day’s menu, I saw how travel begets memory, which in turn begets great cooking. Each day – and each new menu – brought new stories of the far-flung restaurants, roadside stands and dear aunties and grandmothers whose food had inspired our cooking.

Many of the memories the chefs shared were of extravagant meals, but the ones that struck me most involved revelations about the simplest foods: a pot of beans cooked in coals, pasta made with dandelion greens, polenta fortified with cheese and thick cream. I knew that the next time I travelled, it would be in pursuit of those powerful, simple flavours.

So three years later, when I secured an apprenticeship in the kitchen of a tiny trattoria in Florence, I immediately started dreaming of all of the storied dishes I’d hunt for on my days off. I’d eat porchetta, thinly sliced roast pork seasoned with sage and garlic, and ribollita, the Tuscan bean, bread and kale soup that’s so thick it’s served on a plate.

One dish in particular, however, incited such universal obsession among the cooks at Chez Panisse that it had taken on an almost mythical quality: the panino bollito from a stall called Nerbone in Florence’s central market. While parts of it sounded great – the drizzle of salsa verde, the price: two euros – parts of it sounded terrible; it was, after all, essentially just boiled meat on a bun. What, I wondered, was mythical about that?

“The counter guy will dip the bun into the beef broth if you ask nicely,” the chefs told me. “It’ll put the best hamburger you’ve ever had to shame,” they said. I was doubtful, but I left it on my list.

A week after I arrived in Florence, I made my way to Nerbone. While I waited in the long line, I rehearsed the Italian under my breath until it was my turn to order. “Un panino bollito con tutte due le salse. Bagnato, per favore.”

Samin Nosrat. ©Aya Brackett

I’d studied Italian intensively before arriving but when the man at the counter replied in Tuscan dialect, I froze. Stubbornly refusing to admit that I had no idea what he’d said, I blushed, nodded and paid the cashier. He handed me my sandwich, which I took to eat on the steps of the market. I took a bite.

How could this strange-textured, off-tasting thing be the dish that inspired so many sighs at Chez Panisse? I forced myself to continue to chew, and then to swallow. There was no way this was the brisket I’d heard about. I went back and hovered near the sandwich stand, studying the signs, until I finally figured out what the man at the counter had been trying to tell me: He’d sold out of brisket. All he had left was lampredotto, a Florentine specialty. With my vehement nodding, I’d signalled that instead of brisket, I’d be fine with tripe.

Though embarrassed by my mistake, I couldn’t give up. I returned to Nerbone the following week. I arrived early to beat the lunch rush, ordered my sandwich and, just as before, I took it to the steps. I took a bite and swooned. Suddenly, I understood. The tender meat melted in my mouth. The bun had absorbed twice its weight in savoury broth, which amplified the flavour of the meat. Any other sandwich composed simply of bread and meat might have threatened tedium of taste.

But this one was enhanced by the kick of chilli oil and the punch of an acidic salsa verde. Not only was the panino better than any burger I’d ever tasted, it was the best sandwich, of any kind, I’d ever eaten.

I grew obsessed, eventually moving to an apartment almost solely for its proximity to Nerbone. I ate there so often that I got to know the cooks. I convinced them to let me into the kitchen so I could learn their secrets. They showed me how to season the meat generously with salt. They taught me that the pot of meat must never boil, but rather remain at a simmer for hours. And they demonstrated exactly how they make their textbook-perfect salsa verde: not by painstakingly chopping parsley and celery and gently blending it with olive oil and vinegar, but by throwing everything into a food processor and pressing the ‘on’ switch.

Two years later, I returned to Berkeley and started cooking at an Italian restaurant. I put a bollito sandwich with chilli oil and salsa verde on the menu, and waxed poetic about Nerbone to the staff. A few years later, one of our young cooks moved to Florence to study and cook. As I printed out a list of my favourite spots in Tuscany the night before he left, I gave him a few tips: “Watch how the Italians use olive oil. Eat everything you can. Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t understand Italian.” And finally, I warned, “Watch out for the lampredotto at Nerbone.”

Photography Mattia Micheli

This is an extract from issue 21 of Port, out now. To buy or subscribe, click here.

An Introduction to Eating Insects

Slowly but surely, the idea of eating insects is being introduced to European countries thanks to insect-based food projects and recipe books hoping to put an end to the ‘creepy-crawly’ taboo 

The concept of entomophagy, as its known, was once almost impossible to fathom in the West, but in the last few years there has been a growing interest in insects as an alternative food source. Very slowly, supermarkets are beginning to stock insect-based snacks, while chefs and restaurants are experimenting with insects as ingredients. 

Two billion people across the world already eat bugs regularly. Countries including Africa, Australia, Thailand and even the Netherlands incorporate insects into their diets, so why has it taken so long to catch on in the UK? The answer is arguably a combination of convention and unfamiliarity, but the reality is that eating insects is no different from eating shellfish. There are more than 2037 edible insects in the world and many contain a vast number of minerals, protein and good essential fats that Westerners have overlooked.  
 
“It is reported there are over 2000 edible insect species on the planet so that’s essentially 2000 different flavours,” explains Neil Whippet, co-founder of Eat Grub, an edible insect source that produces insect-based snacks and hosts food events in London. “People just need to get over the psychology of it. That’s what our company ethos is all about. We’re just trying to be a brand that welcomes people to eating insects.” 
 
In addition to selling snacks, energy bars, and cooking packs containing crickets, grasshoppers, Mealworms and more, Eat Grub also develops new recipes to try at home. These include grasshopper stir fry, buffalo worm fried rice, spicy grasshoppers with beansprouts and chocolate cherry cricket brownies. “Crickets are related to shellfish so if you like prawns, you’ll like crickets,” Whippet says. “They’re high in protein and calcium, plus the protein is complete so it has all nine essential amino acids and they’re high in vitamin B12 and fibre. We call them the original superfood.”  
Bente’s bees, Denmark.
As further evidence of the trend, a new book produced by the non-profit, open-source organisation Nordic Food Lab, On Eating Insects, is the first publication to take a comprehensive culinary view on eating insects and how to prepare, cook and enjoy them. 
 
Inside, Michael Bom Frøst – a sensory scientist and director of Nordic Food Lab – discusses his first experience eating insects. “Through tasting them I learned why we should eat them,” he writes. Many have interesting and unusual flavours that he claims we are missing out on. Frest looks back on his first taste of an Amazonian ant (apparently similar to lemongrass and ginger) as an almost religious experience that he found mind-changing. 
 
By 2050 the world could have a population of over nine billion people and according to research, food production may be forced to increase by 70 per cent. In preparation, we need to develop a more sustainable approach to food. It follows that eating insects could very well be the answer. And for those still struggling with the idea of eating insects whole, products like ground cricket flour can be a softer introduction.  
 
“When people talk about wanting to eat more healthily and sustainably, eating insects ticks both those boxes,” Whippet explains. “And they taste great too which is key for any food product.”
 
On Eating Insects: Essays, Stories and Recipes by Josh Evans, Roberto Flore, Michael Bom Frøst, published by Phaidon, is out now
 
Find out more about Eat Grub 
 
Photographs by Chris Tonnesen
 

Francis Mallmann on Gaucho Grilling

From the wilds of Patagonia to the English countryside, the Argentine chef best known for his appearance on Chef’s Table muses about his roving lifestyle and his love of cooking over open wood fires

It would be easy to roll your eyes at Francis Mallmann. The 61-year-old Argentine super chef, who came to global attention after appearing on Netflix’s Chef’s Table, speaks in gravelly, earnest platitudes. When I meet him in London in June, he sits there, all silk cravat, linen suit and grizzled white beard and doles out lines about freedom and the power of nature. It would be easy to scoff, sure, but the thing is, you’d be hard pressed to prove any of this was inauthentic.

Mallmann practises what he preaches. The chef, born in 1956 in Buenos Aires but raised in the wilds of Patagonia, has long eschewed any semblance of a normal life. In any one week, he can be in five different countries, he sees his wife two weeks a month, has “lost respect” for most of his sedentary friends, and lives mostly on a remote Patagonian island, where he long ago rejected the kitchen for vast fire pits outside.

“I’ve created a life for myself in which I am constantly moving,” he muses. “I’m in love with so many places but surface-level sightseeing is a beauty that passes through your heart, it doesn’t stay. If you really want to know a place, or a country, you have to nurture that relationship.”

Bizarrely, it all began in the ‘60s when he heard The Monkees. Something about their music proved a catalyst for his sense of adventure and he flew off to Paris to study under Michelin-starred chef Alain Chapel. There, he began to learn his craft, but his efforts to master traditional French cuisine were not met without criticism. It took an unimpressed French business man – the head of Cartier to be exact – to tell him his food was, well, lacking. “This is not French food” were his exact words.

This seemingly catastrophic encounter was actually exactly what Mallmann needed to find his own culinary signature. “I went back to my memories of childhood,” he says. “Slowly I started creating this language of cooking with fire that I think represents the naked cooking of South America so much.” One of Mallmann’s favourite ways to cook is in a pit dug out of the earth, a technique he grew up with and one that goes back thousands of years.

He now has 11 restaurants across South America, France and Miami, with a London outpost coming next year. This July, he will be collaborating with Krug for their Into the Wild festival in the English countryside.

So how does this self-possessed wandering chef find himself cooking at a luxury festival for a high-end Champagne house? Set in the grounds of the Grange, a romantic 19th century estate in Hampshire, this is a luxury event, yet it oddly chimes well with Mallmann’s philosophy.

“This will be a beautiful event, outside with big, big fires for the cooking, all in the grounds of this old haunted house,” he says, growing wistful about fire and its power to command a ‘stillness’ from people. “The most important thing for me is not the champagne or the food, it’s sharing the experience of being outside amongst the trees and the music. That’s luxury”

Indeed, Mallmann has a curious irreverence for the hushed worship of food and wine, especially the latter. “I find it very boring, all this talk about wine. It’s like ‘shut up and drink’,” he laughs. “There’s this magic that happens with a great bottle of wine and a great conversation. That’s what I like about wine, as opposed to writing a poem about the bottle.”

This thinking carries over into the very food he eats himself. What he would cook on his last day on earth? “A simple cabbage salad with white rice and a nice bottle of wine,” he says. I ask him where he would be but the answer is obvious: “On my island in Patagonia, in the middle of nowhere.” 

The Unlikely Chef: Harry Gesner

At his Malibu beach house, the influential Californian architect introduces Julia Sherman to a signature dish set to feature in her new cookbook 

Photography by Julia Sherman
Harry Gesner’s architecture heightens your awareness of the sun, the horizon, the water, the overwhelming improbability of being perched on the edge of a cliff. His work is an homage to the earth itself. He sketched his most famous project, the Wave House, directly on his handmade balsa-wood surfboard, bobbing in the ocean and looking back at the land that was his to adorn.
 
I first learned of Harry when I stumbled upon the little-known Scantlin House (referred to now as the Trustee House), which remains hidden behind a grove of trees on the Los Angeles Getty Museum grounds. It was built in 1965 and features a swimming pool that reaches under a rock wall and into the living room, an indoor waterfall and fern garden, two fireplaces, and sweeping views of the city. As soon as I stepped foot in this mysterious building, I accepted my mission to find its creator. 
 
Harry stopped surfing a couple of years ago (in his eighties), but he swims in the Pacific Ocean every morning. He has adventured around the world, befriended the most eccentric of characters, and loves to tell a good story. When I finally finagled my way into Harry’s Malibu beach house, a cylindrical building anchored by a cavernous central fireplace, he put on his chef’s hat (literally) and got to work. 
Harry Gesner’s Red Fresh Dates, Marcona Almonds, and Upland Cress Salad
Serves: 4 to 6
  
For the dressing
 
1 teaspoon flavourful honey such as buckwheat
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1 teaspoon minced shallot
3/4 teaspoon grated tangerine zest 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons olive oil
 
For the salad
 
2 cups (360 g) fresh whole dates
1/2 cup (55 g) chopped salted Marcona almonds
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 head Red Ruffles or Red Oak leaf lettuce
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
 
1. Make the dressing: Dissolve the honey in the vinegar in a large salad bowl. Add the shallot, zest, and mustard and stir to combine. Add the oil to the dressing in a slow stream, whisking to emulsify. 
 
2. Make the salad: Remove the base of the dates’ stems. Smash the dates with the broad side of a chef’s knife to crack them. Remove and discard the pits and toss the fruit in the bowl with the dressing.
 
3. Preheat the oven to 350°F (175°C). Toss the almonds with the oil and spread them on a baking sheet. Bake for 10 minutes, until golden brown. 
 
4. Wash and spin the lettuce and tear it into bite-size pieces. Toss it in the salad bowl, season with salt and pepper, and toss to coat with dressing. 
 
5. Sprinkle the almonds on top of the salad and serve immediately.
 
This is an excerpt from Julia Sherman’s forthcoming book, Salad for President: A Cookbook Inspired by Artists, available May 16. For more information, click here.