By Annalisa D’Alessio
The UK’s beloved Hairy Bikers duo, Dave Myers and Si King, have been sharing their love of food with the world for more than two decades. The down-to-earth chefs are best known for their Hairy Bikers TV series on the BBC and their wide portfolio of cookbooks—the latest being the highly anticipated The Hairy Bikers’ Mediterranean Adventure. Read on for their exclusive interview with World Food Tour magazine.
Q: Congratulations on your new cookbook! To start off, why did you choose the Mediterranean cuisine?
Dave Myers: I think because it’s food we love, it’s food we know. I live in France for as much as I can and Si’s sister has been in Italy for years now and he spends a lot of time there. You think you know the Mediterranean but you want to spend some time finding out more. When we had the idea…there are 121 countries that border the Mediterranean. It’s really massive, and it nearly has 200 islands. So, we couldn’t do the whole Mediterranean. We went to southern Italy, Sardinia, Corsica, southern France, Menorca and Mallorca and into southern Spain. You get the most wonderful culinary art. And you got the north African influence and the Moorish influence in southern Spain. And in Menorca and Mallorca you’ve got the British influence, and that’s very evident and going back to the 18th century. It was just a dream trip. We knew it would make a really good cookbook. What we found is that the Mediterranean is accessible to anyone now, with low cost flights and tourism. We tried to find the hidden side. We knew we’d get a good book out of it and a beautiful series. We really wanted to do it and had the best time ever.
Q: What was your favourite food and the best thing you ate at each of the places you visited?
DM: Down in southern Italy around Puglia I learned a lot more about the ‘cucina povera’—the poor people’s food. In Italy, you get a bowl of pasta and it’s like culinary crack, it’s so addictive and so simple. One of the first days, we filmed with a chef called Giuseppe in a very little trattoria in Puglia and he made three ‘cucina povera’ dishes and they were so good! He couldn’t understand why we were so excited, it’s just normal food to him. But it’s alchemy and magic. An Italian dish—quite a classic one—is pasta with chickpeas. The chickpeas are cooked in a vegetable broth and a third of the pasta is fried and the rest is boiled. You get the crunch and the vegetables and a lot of really good olive oil.
In Sardinia, I think we were in Cala del Forte on the western coast which is basically the Sardinian capital of tuna fishing. In the 18th century, the king of Sardinia got fishermen over from Genova to fish tuna in Cala del Forte. The fishing is sustainable, it’s ethical and the tuna is wonderful. When we were there, there was tuna and they were 100 kilograms each. There was a restaurant—tuna is such a big fish—they use different cuts of tuna for different purposes. We had tuna sperm, the testicles, and you have it sliced. To be fair it’s not bad at all.
Corsica, that’s the land of chestnuts and charcuterie. In Bonifacio, down the coast, they are really big in stuffed mussels. It’s like the 1970s ones in the cookbooks where you get mussels and stuff them with breadcrumbs and garlic. They still do that there. The mussels are blanched, opened, put in a half shell. Then they are put on a griddle and then covered with garlic, parmesan, breadcrumbs, lemon juice, lemon zest and then put back under the grill. They are so addictively good. Seafood there is stunning. You also have the tiger cows in Corsica; they’re like a prehistoric breed but have got stripes like a tiger. Si [King] did say it was the best beef he’d ever tasted.
In the south of France, Marseille was amazing. We visited a lady called Fatima, she’s a Moroccan lady who is an amazing cook. She cooked a Bourride which is a Moroccan and French fish stew. It was like a tagine with potatoes and fish and Moroccan spices. It was superb.
Menorca, Mallorca…there’s lots of dishes there. There was Tumbet, which is basically like a ratatouille. But in this version, the vegetables are roasted or barbecued separately and then layered up then baked together. We cooked something—it was an homage to the British. They were the ones who brought the gin manufacture there and we made fish and chips with the gin and tonic batter. It works really well. Of course, mayonnaise as well. We’ve always struggled to make mayonnaise on the telly. There was a lady in the market in Mahon in Mallorca which is where mayonnaise—Mahon—started from. We had the most wonderful mayonnaise. We saw her make the mayonnaise with a pestle and mortar with great style and ease. We had that with anchovies and squid.
In Spain, there was a restaurant that specialised in squid and octopus. Some of it fresh, some of it dried, some of it cooked very simply. We were in a restaurant in Torremolinos, a little bodega and the chefs did tapas. They were the most amazing tapas. They came with that mayonnaise; they put the boquerones—which is deep-fried anchovies—just dipped in mayonnaise…superb. Another thing, is the true paella. Actually, when you go there, each valley has its own version of paella. The Moors were the ones who brought irrigation into southern Spain. In that valley, where we went to, their paella was made with rabbit and cherries. To them, the real paella is rabbit and cherries. It was sensational. That stood out as well. But there’s so many. And in our book there are 150 recipes, there was a lot to get our teeth into—literally.
Q: What was the most interesting you learned on your trip to the Mediterranean?
DM: I think I found a slice of heaven really, I’ve always liked the Mediterranean. it’s a different outlook on life, it’s a different culture. One of our directors, we just sat with him one morning looking out over the sea before we started filming with our morning coffee. He just looked at us, grinned and said: ‘This has got to be like heaven’. People really live the good life there, through food and through sunshine. It’s about the simple things in life. A lot of southern Italy is very poor, but by god there is a quality of life there. I think because of the cost of the Mediterranean and what it gives, it really is a special place to live. I think everybody should aspire to retire there or live there a little bit. It’s got a lot going for it.
Q: While you were in Sardinia, you learned the secret to long life is the humble minestrone.
DM: Si actually went to visit this lady, she is 110. There is a blue zone where people live longer than anyone else. She’s called Michela.
Si King: I’ll tell you what. Bear in mind this lady is full of joy, full of great stories and sense of humour. She’s 100 odd. What’s hilarious is that I asked what the secret to long life is and she went: ‘Minestrone soup’. And I went, ‘Right okay…yep!’ She says minestrone and hard work. And basically what was in it was cheese, onion, a lot of pork fat…like a LOT of pork fat, water and beans. It was pretty simple but it was great.
Q: Is there a connecting thread between all the places you’ve visited?
SK: I think the Mediterranean is defined very much by its climate. It’s a massively eclectic cuisine, it has so many influences. There are 121 countries around the Mediterranean and, historically, it’s been a super highway of cultural exchange and diversity. If you have that cultural exchange and diversity, then what happens is that comes through in the food. You have the most amazing food which isn’t just sundried tomatoes, basil leaves and mozzarella. It’s everything. There are so many different layers to it. That was the common thread. That exchange of culture and diversity.
Q: You’ve both travelled a fair bit together. What is your favourite cuisine and why?
SK: The thing is that each individual cuisine is different. But my favourite food would be foods from the sea. The foods of the sea and however they are cooked. A favourite cuisine is very difficult to choose. Indian cuisine is amazing. Dave and I love Japanese cuisine. Sushi, sashimi. Dave is a big fan of that, as am I.