Sunday feasting with Valeria Necchio
Meet Valeria Necchio; food stylist, cook, writer and photographer of all things edible and Venetian. She moved to London from Italy’s most romantic city three years ago, and has been celebrating the food of her roots ever since. As well as working as a freelance Venetian food expert, she has a by-monthly column in Italy’s Corriere della Sera called ‘Market to Table Eating’, where she explores seasonal Italian ingredients.
Tiny but mighty Valeria has a passion for the simple, colourful food that she grew up eating. And since moving to rainy old England, has been cooking it more than ever. Visiting her website is a feast for the eyes. Her recipes incorporate the traditional culinary tricks of her grandparents with artful, vivid photography that turns each plate into a palate. Her lyrical descriptions of food call to mind crumbling, sun blushed buildings, bars stocked with sweet wine and days that blur into nights spent sitting around dishes of fresh fish and olives.
Visiting her site makes you want to strap on a canvas bag and head to the local farmer’s market, with sections on ‘Bright Food’, ‘Dark Food’ and ‘Cheese’, as well as a ‘Food and Travel’ section that makes our feet perpetually itchy.
Us Brits should learn a thing or two from Italian culture. Slow Sundays are ingrained into the culture of the place; it is a day dedicated to eating, drinking and dozing. With this in mind, Valeria invited us over to her airy Wimbledon apartment for a Venetian feast like no other. “Sundays are for eating!” She told us. We couldn’t agree more.
One by one, she filled the table with platters of vibrant, decadent food. Grilled Italian peaches with stringy mozzarella and rocket; local Black Russian tomatoes with balsamic vinegar Borlotti beans from her grandmother’s garden; fleshy Venetian olives; cold Hibiscus tea brought back from a recent jaunt to Mexico; German bread flecked with dried stone fruit; home baked raisin buns with ricotta and Mexican honey; and, of course, a bottle of Prosecco. And yes, there were only three of us. Breakfast unfolded into lunch, minutes turned to hours, conversation flowed like wine, and by the afternoon we were ready for a slumber. This is the kind of Sunday Valeria grew up with in Venice, sipping Spritz and wandering into the piazza for ice cream and conversation with neighbours.
Between towers of fresh food and three glasses constantly topped up (one for coffee, one for tea, and one for prosecco), Valeria told us all about her food roots, her life in London, and all the reasons to make Venice your next trip. A plain old slice of marmite toast will never be the same again.
Tell us about your recent trip to Mexico, what was the best thing you ate?
The best food I had was at this taco place that was only open for a couple of hours in the morning. The cooked the pig in the jungle, and then brought it straight to the shop. It was the most tender, beautiful meat.
Where is the best place to eat in Venice for a first-time visitor?
In Venice, you can get lost and end up getting so hungry that you just follow the crowd and end up in some horrible pizza place. If you do your homework, you can scratch the surface and end up at a Bacari with all of the locals, sipping tiny glasses of wine and eating amazing food. It’s very similar to tapas; you can hop from place to place.
What do you have to eat on a weekend?
These raisin buns! We eat them for breakfast most days, actually, and you can find them in every bakery in Venice. They’re brioche dough with milk, eggs, butter, flour and raisins. They are very simple and they go with everything! They’re a great carrier for flavour. I can’t have a Sunday without these…
What do you like to do on Sundays in London?
I love picking up fish, chicken or eggs at the farmers market in Wimbledon, or meet friends at Maltby Street Market to buy cheese from Neal’s Yard. I think it’s the best in the city.
I like to have breakfast at home most Sundays. Mostly because I like to go out on Saturdays... My husband and I always wake up pretty early, completely starving! There’s always bread in the house. He’s American so he loves making French toast and pancakes, and we like to sit down and have a lot of coffee. My Moka pot serves 12…or 2 of us. I love Lavazza beans. Coffee is such a ritual in Italy. Which probably explains why I’m so addicted to it!
I like to walk in the park, especially Hampstead Heath. It’s so beautiful there. A couple of my friends have a wine company called Tutto Wines. They do a lot of tastings on a Sunday, so I go to a lot of them and try their natural wines (low intervention without sulfites!). It’s never formal; it’s very interactive and fun!
So what inspired you to start exploring Venetian food more?
As I grew up, I became more and more interested in writing about the food of my roots. I’ve never been a very nostalgic cook. But when I moved to England I noticed myself cooking more of the food that I ate growing up. I guess it was a way to bring Italy here and keep those traditions alive. Cooking in Italy is extremely seasonal, and each season brings so much. Cooking in that way is so fulfilling. I try to keep things simple, seasonal. I like to keep some kind of tradition alive. I want to connect the things I learned when I was young, and teach people a modern way of cooking that is influenced by that.
Is it hard to find the same ingredients to make Italian food in England?
You can get most things here! London is amazing for that. And England has some beautiful produce of its own. But, it has to be said, foods that are ripened under the sun are just the most beautiful.
When do you most like to revisit Venice?
I love it at all times of the year, but in October it becomes very foggy. It has this decadent charm, with all of the crumbly buildings.
What’s your favourite part of the city?
I love the island of Sant’Erasmo. It has a convent and you can trail it by bike. I also love the Castello district. There’s a hospital there with the most beautiful façade. There’s not much to do, so it’s lovely to just get a coffee and sit outside.
What weekend traditions do you miss in Venice?
The tradition of a Sunday meal is still very much alive in Veneto; usually a huge seafood feast. My favourite dish is deep fried sardines topped with sweet onions, and served with raisins and pine nuts. Or squid ink risotto. That I miss…! After that comes a huge nap, especially in the summer. If you go into an Italian town on a Sunday at around 2pm, it’s like a ghost town, because everyone is snoozing. And then if you go at around 5pm, the world is out again, strolling, digesting and having gelato. I miss the food and the sunshine, and the lifestyle that comes with that. In Italy we cook together and eat together, and everything happens around that.
Did you learn to cook from your mum and grandma?
For a long time, my mother really embraced modernity. She liked to cook, but she didn’t have to make everything at home like traditional Italian women. She was happy to take shortcuts.
I learned all about starting from scratch from my Grandma. She used to preserve things from her garden and making these huge batches of fresh tomato or sweet aubergine sauce. Preserving the summer produce for the winter months is something that was done a lot in the past, and something my grandma knows a lot about. It’s really ingrained in the culture.
What was your kitchen like growing up?
The table at home was never put together. Meals were always made up of lots of different things to pick at, complete with homemade sauces and bread.
Our kitchen at home was always piled with dishes. After a big meal we’d always leave a big mess! Italians are very generous with their portions! Especially at home. So we would, of course, eat a lot and talk about the food. Italians love food, and they love talking about it even more!
What do you think is the biggest difference between Italian and English people?
The first difference that I noticed is the way we conceived conviviality. Here, you meet people at the pub and you can spend the whole evening there without a bite to eat. Italians very much meet around the table. Dinner invitations are maybe a bit more common there!
Where do you like to eat Italian food in London?
I like Artusi in Peckham. It’s really simple, seasonal and tasty. And it’s run by Italians.
And where else do you like to eat here?
I love Peckham Bazaar, they have Balkan cuisine and it’s delicious. They have wines from Georgia and Greece, and I love their chargrilled squid. I also love Portland, that’s always delicious. St. John is so beautiful, too. I like that old school food mentality.
What keeps you in London?
It is just so exciting. You can get whatever you want here. It’s so open-minded, in food and everything else. Everyone here wants to try new things. Revisiting the recipes you know well is great, and very therapeutic, but I think there’s a lot to be said for trying new things. Eating out in London keeps you inspired and makes you want to get out of your comfort zone.
I’ve met so many beautiful people through working in food. Everyone is so lovely in the food world here. Food is a kind thing, and I think it attracts those kinds of people.