Mangia, Mangia!

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Demi chef de partie Matthew Leadbetter-Conti shares his experience of lockdown cooking…

I had just completed a trial week at Murano in Mayfair working under Angela Hartnett, when lockdown was announced.  So instead of embarking on the next stage of my training, I found myself back at home in Northamptonshire.

My mother is Italian and comes from the northern town of Bardi, a castle town in the mountains above Parma.  Angela Hartnett’s family also happens to come from the same region.  So with these two influences behind me, lockdown felt the perfect time to explore further the culinary heritage of the Val Ceno valley.

These past few months have required a focused mind and shown me how important it is to set oneself daily challenges. I took over the family kitchen, its counters, cupboards and fridge, and got to work.  Some of my favourite early dishes included butternut squash tortelli; creamy beetroot risotto, mascarpone and cress salad; roast chicken breast, potato puree and pine nuts: chef-contis-lockdown-favourites. My parents and brother soon got used to a gourmet three course meal every night. Desserts were expected. No excuse for a chef in lockdown.

“Buon appetito! Mangia, mangia!” These familiar words, common to most Italian family kitchens, were a huge part of my life when I was growing up. My family’s village was a farming community which provided milk to the local Parmigiano makers. Many Italians made their way from there into restaurants and ice-cream making, as did my Nonna. I have grown to love the simplicity of the Emilia-Romagna “cucina”, where the emphasis is placed on fresh ingredients of the highest quality. My mother, as all Italians, has handed down her repertoire of recipes and techniques, and whether it’s making pasta with lovely golden yokes and extra virgin olive oil, or slowly stirring a risotto made from the Carnaroli  or Arborio or rice so prevalent in our region, I can feel my aunts and grandmother looking over my shoulder. During lockdown I’ve enjoyed time talking with my Mamma about our Italian family — its love of food, but also about times of struggle and poverty when their farming community was hard hit.

A good focus these past 4-5 months has been concentrating on what is in the larder, freezer and the bottom of the fridge. This was especially important in the early weeks of the lockdown when shopping was restricted. We enjoyed sourcing a box of the daily catch from @ishfishuk, and this would spread across quite a lot of meals making it very good value. I also enjoyed practising with meat from good local butchers and farm shops. It really has shifted my focus  on the importance of ‘keeping it local’ where possible. As well as Italian dishes, I’ve studied the Roux Legacy, attempting such indulgent dishes as the famous Soufflé Suissesse!

With the easing of lockdown, I’ve been able to work for a stint at the Michelin starred Hambleton Hall in Rutland.  I am now hoping to restart my opportunities in London and perhaps at some stage in Italy. This lockdown has proved that innovative and creative cooking cannot be stifled.  Like my mother’s family who managed to make a living from the land even during wartime, a certain inventiveness springs from crisis. In the meantime, as with so many other young people in this profession, I am waiting until hospitality opens up and returns to something more normal.

Things I’ve learnt during lockdown:

  • Homemade minestrone, a typical rustic lunch rustled up in my Nonna’s village, can last for 3-4 days. It’s wholesome, nutritious and  makes use of any vegetable leftovers.  The simple addition of some chopped, smoked bacon raised a humble dish to another level.
  • Make more butternut squash risotto than you need. The following day, after a beautiful unctuous risotto, when all the flavours have had time to marinate, can be turned into scrumptious balls of arancini with an oozing mozzarella cheese centre. I served these with a light mayonnaise and some rocket leaves – an outstanding and easy dish. Serve with a lovely chilled pinot grigio white wine.
  • Make a lasagne using half beef and half lentils . It is not only cost effective, but also healthy and very tasty – even if my Nonna might have been shocked by this deviation from her pork, lamb and beef tradition.
  • A tin of chickpeas is surprisingly versatile. I’ve made hummus (served with Morrocan flat-breads) and egg free mayonnaise with the aquafaba from the chickpea liquor left in the tin.

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