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Taste of the Med inspires ‘new’ Ainsley Harriott

By Features Reporter

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Ainsley Harriott. Picture: Dan Jones/PA
Ainsley Harriott. Picture: Dan Jones/PA

Has there ever been a happier man on TV? Ainsley Harriott, with his broad smile and infectious laugh, was a mainstay in living rooms for years on Ready Steady Cook and Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook back in the nineties and noughties, and at 63 he’s as cheerful as ever.

“I have a young heart,” he says. “I love energy, I love to give people energy, I love to feed off energy – it makes me happy. I don’t think of age as a barrier.”

The cook and presenter took some time out from the spotlight after the height of his fame but has had a late resurgence with recent TV shows Ainsley’s Caribbean Kitchen and, his newest offering, Ainsley’s Mediterranean Cookbook.

“It felt close to home,” he says of the food of the Med. “There’s a familiarity, being trained as a French chef all those years ago. It’s a wonderful melting pot of cultures.

“Everybody has their own identity, but what comes across stronger than ever is how people are passionate about local produce, about where their food comes from – and the closer it is, the better.”

He also loves the Sardinian way, for example, of “taking simple ingredients and not messing about with them too much. It’s cleaner, more rewarding, they’ve been kissed by the sun so they don’t tend to over-refrigerate – which is what we do here.”

The new series sees Harriott travel to regions linked by the Mediterranean sea, from the French island of Corsica, and Sardinia and Andalucia to the coast of Morocco and Jordan.

“We still don’t know much about the Middle East,” he muses. “There’s a softness and a lightness about the people [of Jordan].”

He regales stories of the food producers he met; a former rugby player in Corsica who now runs his family’s olive oil business, a Granadian man who used to be fit before he opened a deli with his wife and now spends all day tasting Iberico ham and breads – “No wonder he had a happy smile on his face” – or de-stoning a mountain of dates to make molasses in a family home in Jordan.

“But what’s really special is they take the date stones and dry them out and make them into coffee – just fantastic!”

The accompanying book is packed with recipes he picked up along the way, or inspired by the produce and people he met; seafood paella from Andalucia or harissa lemon chicken skewers with aubergine from Morocco.

He learned how to make “wonderful pasta using a cheese grater” and served it with a sausage and fennel sauce.

It’s classic fare, yes, but crucially doable for most people at home. “I’m not Ottolenghi ,” he says. “I’m not here to try and take food and twist it up and do lots of different things to it. Classics are classics, and I don’t think we should hide away from that.”

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