Eat better al inglese

Eating Italian food in England can be better than in Italy

Lisa Hilton

The Harbour Hotel, Chichester: Chilli and tempura feature on the menu, showing how far the British palate has come  (©HARBOUR HOTELS)

Some years ago I wrote a piece for another political magazine whose title begins with “S” on the depressing monotony of Italian food, in response to which I received a record amount of hate mail. Even back then, when online trolls were just sprouting their first horns, there were some heresies to which it was unwise to confess publicly. I had only pointed out that while I love Italian cooking and ingredients I also love Vietnamese and Spanish and Thai, French and Lebanese and Georgian, and that fond as one might be of pasta asciutta, in culinary terms Italy remains parochial, conservative and arrogant. That was a decade ago, and very little has changed. The Milanese still labour under the illusion that sushi is the last word in cosmopolitan cool, whilst at the other extremity of the peninsula “Il Strit Fud” has arrived in Sicily (which means you now pay double in Palermo for the same nasty chickpea fritters they have been frying there since the medieval Arabs arrived) but otherwise, if you want to eat anything that someone’s nonna didn’t make better you’d better take a plane.

(N.B. — for the trolls — if you’re going to write and tell me that I’m an ignoramus and what about that marvellous little Cambodian place just outside Macerata, thank you, and please be sure to include the address.)

The Jetty at the Harbour in Chichester serves neither sushi nor street food, but a recent visit reinforced my conviction that for the present at least you can eat as well in England as anywhere in the world. Yes, our native cuisine was destroyed by the industrial revolution and the servant crisis, yes, brown Windsor soup and HP sauce, yes, identikit chains on every high street and the fattest children in Europe, but oh goodness, Waitrose. Even the word makes me happy. The quality, the freshness, the choice. Coriander and nori seaweed. Raw cacao and guacamole. We have no idea that we have come to take for granted what elsewhere would be considered madly exotic. I was in there for two hours before meeting my guest at the Harbour and I couldn’t have been happier with a trolley dash round the Chanel flagship store. Springform cake tins and Neal’s Yard bath products in the same shop? This isn’t a supermarket, it’s the Land of Cockaigne.

The Harbour is a small hotel in a delightful 18th-century building on Chichester’s equally delightful 18th-century North Street. Screw up your eyes and you might expect to see Lydia Bennett looking at bonnets in the window of Jack Wills. The menu at the Jetty restaurant though, is anything but old-fashioned. Singapore chilli, tempura batter and kohlrabi were not commonplace ingredients ten years ago, but it is a measure of how international the British palate has become that they harmonised rather than glared amongst classics like fish pie, cheese soufflé and superb local crab. Asian flavours mingled with French staples such as moules marinières and a confit duck salad whilst Spain got a look in in the form of squidgy ham croquettes, crunchy outside, dangerously molten within if like me you’re too greedy to let them cool. The strongest European influence though, was Italian-truffle arancini, burrata mozzarella, risotto primavera, a carpaccio of octopus with lime, chili and spring onion, artichoke hearts stewed with broad beans and pecorino. My starter was scallops with ‘nduja, the fiery sausage paste which originates in Calabria. Pork and shellfish is always a brilliant combination and in this iteration the smooth firmness of the scallops was beautifully set off by the spiced oil and a dressing of tense wild samphire. If only they thought of using it that way in Calabria. I ordered courgette fritti with mint yoghurt to accompany my steak: again excellent and again an innovative twist on a convention which would seem radical in Italy but raises no eyebrows in West Sussex.

The often-repeated rhetoric behind the plainness of much Italian food is that excellent ingredients require little in the way of adornment. This is fine if what you’re eating is a tomato picked fresh from a Ligurian garden with the merest whisper of sea salt scraped from the pink rocks of Carrara and that marvellous grassy elixir that Zio Giuseppe delivers on his Ape once a year from the olive groves of Umbria. Less so if what you have on offer is packaged supermarket vegetables which have barely seen sunlight and industrially farmed olive oil. And for years, this is why Italian food in England didn’t really work — the bases were too poor and flavourless to allow for simplicity. But I think the argument has been reversed, and that much Italian food is now hoist on its own salami. Partly because precious little Italian food nowadays comes fresh from the farm to the table and partly because the innovations required to perk up those rather dreary ingredients have altered our palates. We expect complexity and contrast, so it’s hard to get excited about repetition. Even an excellent grilled fish adorned with just a smidgen of lemon is still a plain grilled fish, and delicious though it might be once or twice, familiarity does breed contempt (or in my case a longing for Szechuan chilli or Jamaican jerk sauce, anything to relieve the monotony).

Of course one can find restaurants in Italy which are treating the classics of regional cuisine in an original fashion, but the point is that  thes days Michelin-level daring in Bologna looks standard in Bognor. When my former father-in-law, who is Milanese, read the original piece, he was more than offended, until he came to stay in London. Discussing British food over lunch last summer, a friend of his suggested that it was still all baked beans and frozen chips.

“Oh no,” he replied knowledgeably, “You’ve seen nothing until you’ve been to Waitrose.” Maybe the myth of the effortless purity of Italian cookery is one we’re reluctant to surrender, but I wonder whether it’s now possible to eat better Italian food in many British establishments than in many Italian ones. The Jetty certainly points that way. Outrage on a postcard please.

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