Holiday memories - linguine with clams

This article was first written for the Guardian on 30.09.10 - click on to the recipe title for the recipe.

As my memories of walking through ancient olive groves high up on the Ligurian cliffs begin to fade, I decide to try and recapture the sparkling blue sea and dappled walks by cooking linguine alle vongole for supper.  Somehow, this simple combination of garlic, clams, olive oil and white wine encapsulates the Ligurian landscape. I’d eaten this dish everywhere, from tiny restaurants in the back streets of Santa Margherita to glamorous cafés in Portofino.

It’ll be easy, I think.  Just cook some clams with a little garlic, olive oil and wine, then remove and strain their liquor.  Fry a little more garlic with some fresh chilli, toss in my cooked linguine, clams and strained juice, and finish with parsley.  Just to be sure, I flicked through a pile of trusted Italian cookbooks before cooking the said clams.  Is it me, the autumn nights or the telly in the background?  It just doesn’t taste the same.

“It’s partly the oil,” explains Enzo Cassini, Ligurian-born general manager of Michelin-starred Zafferano in London. “Ligurian olive oil is made either from small, sweet Taggiasca olives or from Arnasca and Colombina olives. We use a Taggiasca olive oil here.” (Vittorio Cassini, available from Selfridges.) The olives are grown at a high altitude and produce a fragrant, almondy oil, quite unlike a peppery Tuscan oil.

Executive chef, Andy Needham, shows me the ingredients they use: slow-growing British carpet (palourde) clams which are much sweeter than their Ligurian counterparts, Ligurian olive oil and Voiello dried linguine.  The latter is Trafilate al Bronzo linguine n.111, which cooks within five and half minutes. It is cut with a bronze die, which gives the linguine a slightly rough texture that ensures that it absorbs more flavour. 

Exquisite smells are released as he stirred half a head of garlic, a strip of finely pared orange zest, fresh thyme and some finely sliced red chilli into the sizzling clams, before adding a splash of white wine. I feel as though I’m back in the Italian Riviera.

While the clams are shelled and their liquid strained, I suddenly understand why my dish hadn’t lived up to my memories – a ladle of sea bass stock is added. The linguine, already half-cooked in water, absorbs the broth before being finished off to a buttery consistency with olive oil, a dash of clam broth and a hint of chilli oil.  Finally the clams were heated through, parsley added and the dish served.

Back home, I replicated his recipe as best I can and, much to my surprise, it really did taste of sea, olive groves and thyme. 


Zafferano restaurant:


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