The Moors the merrier for love of Mediterranean food
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Chef and restaurateur Ben Tish might have grown up in fish and chip shop-strewn Skegness, but his ultimate passion is the food of the Med.
He's travelled to the region every year for more than a decade, spending lots of time particularly in Sicily, Andalucia and on the Amalfi Coast – and his latest cookbook Moorish, as the title doubly suggests, focuses on the region and its culinary legacy of the Moors, which people still can't get enough of.
The Moors were Muslims of North African descent, who invaded Spain and occupied the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages. "They had a pretty good run of it, it was fairly short-lived [around 200 years]," says Tish of their attempts to conquer the world, "but it's still being felt now."
He is entranced by the advancements and innovations the Moors brought with them, from their scientific developments, such as distillation processes, even though they didn't drink alcohol for religious reasons, to their planting habits – as they invaded, they planted citrus trees as they went, both for the fruit, and the scent; hence Seville's famous orange trees.
Their presence, says Tish (44) can be found in architecture ("In some parts of Sicily and Andalucia you could be in Morocco") and through certain dishes; from nutrient-rich cold soups, granita, aubergines and spices, to the area's penchant for sweet and mouth-puckering sourness. Even Ibizan biscuits and cakes ("There's not just partying in Ibiza") owe culinary debts to the Moors.
Cooking techniques, like deep-frying and grilling over wood and charcoal, were also introduced largely by the Moors.
"You'll get very typical non-Muslim ingredient like pork for example, but rubbing shoulders with cumin and cardamom, and that's just a natural way of cooking – it's not a fusion, it's just how the food's morphed over the centuries," says Tish.
Their legacy is as lively as ever, and intact, down largely to the fact that "the places I'm talking about, Andalucia, Seville, Malaga, they haven't changed and they're not going to", says the restaurateur with affection. "There are probably a few more cars – but that's it."
He feels that, although the dishes he makes are his "take" on a cuisine, he has fully adopted the food and sensibility around produce and seasonality of people in southern Italy and Spain.
"Their attitude to eating, how important food is in their daily life – it's all about when they go shopping for their food, it's top of the list. It's not like us here, where it's bottom of the list. I fell in love with that."
Skegness-born Tish has been a professional chef for 25 years, and is the culinary director of The Stafford London, but he actually "fell into" cooking.
"I didn't really come from a foodie family as such; my parents were both terrible cooks," he says, explaining this was more down to their lack of time and being overworked, than a lack of interest in food.
"They did enjoy eating nice food," he notes, recalling trips to France where they'd eat their way around the Loire Valley with his parents' friends. "So I understood there was nice food out there, but I think the most important thing is my gran – my dad's mum, a Jewish grandmother basically. She lived with us, downstairs in a granny flat at the back of the house. I would spend a lot of time with her because my parents were busy.
"Honestly, she was the most amazing cook," he adds. "And that stuck with me."
So, in his late teens, when he was ready to leave Skegness, "a friend of mine was living in London and it was suggested, 'Why don't you give it a whirl, become a chef?' And I did."
He calls his subsequent lurch into kitchens "a baptism of fire".
"I thought I knew it all, 18 years old, coming from Skegness, and then landed in this huge kitchen where everyone was quite aggressive and it was really testosterone-fuelled, very competitive, but also very disciplined."
He notes that back then, "the kitchen was pretty draconian, you couldn't be a minute late; if your hair wasn't brushed – it was like being in the army I suppose. It was horrendous.
"A year, and not a day went by when I didn't think, 'I can't do this', crying, calling my mum up saying, 'I want to come back', but she said you've got to stick at it."
That's what he did – and he has no regrets.
Fortunately, the kitchen environment of today is much more welcoming. "You'd get hung out to dry if you treated your staff like that," says Tish of the old days.
The problem now is there's not enough people turning to cheffing in the first place: "There's a real skills shortage, it's a real problem."
It's a shame when "it is genuinely a wonderful thing to get into", he enthuses.
"People will always want to eat food, right? And if you can learn to cook, you will have a job for life," says Tish. "You're in this wonderful club, people have each other's backs, you can work anywhere in the world, apply your skills to any cuisine, travel the world for years with a good cooking qualification.
"It's seen as a profession now – not something you did because you weren't very good at school."