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Chioggia, at the southern tip of the Venetian lagoon, has given its name to at least three foodstuffs that I know of. There is a rather knobbly, grey-blue pumpkin, Marina di Chioggia, which is of excellent quality. Then we have radicchio di Chioggia, which is the round, slightly-larger-than-a-tennis-ball variety that was the first radicchio to be imported to Britain and perhaps the least interesting member of that family.
The Chioggia beet, however, is possibly the best beetroot of all. If red beetroot is a little sweet and earthy for some tastes and golden beetroot sweet and a little bland, the Chioggia beetroot is probably the most savoury. There are other candidates – the estimable Cheltenham beet, for example – but I still give top ranking to the Chioggia.
It is not without disappointment. It starts off with striking concentric rings, giving it the “candy stripe” moniker, but the colour is soon lost as it cooks and it turns a rather dull purply-brown.
More than squid, more than octopus even, with its thick-fleshed body and muscular tentacles, I can think of nothing marine that stands up to long cooking or yields so much to a stew as the cuttlefish. Despite this, one sees it disappointingly little. We know there are buckets of it all over the Adriatic and western Mediterranean but there is also a huge amount which drifts up on the Gulf Stream and finds itself on the southwest coast of Britain. Most of what is caught is sent straight back whence it came, by the lorry load, as it seems the Spanish appreciate it a great deal more than we do.
I can sell squid and octopus by the ton but, for some reason, cuttlefish is a slow seller, however I dress it up. Yet the time for this Cinderella of the sea will surely come. Indeed, now that beef cheek is as popular as fillet and pork bellies the price of rubies, the redemption of the cuttlefish can only be around the corner.
Cuttlefish stew with beets, chilli and orange
This is almost a one-pot dish that practically cooks itself and improves with time. It is also a good substantial main course for four.
- Separate the tentacles and bodies of the cuttlefish. Cut the tentacles away from the entrails and remove the central beak. Discard the entrails unless you wish to use the ink for a sauce or for pasta.
- Pull out the cuttle bone, rub the bodies to remove the membrane and rinse off tentacles and bodies alike. Cut the bodies into manageable pieces. Separate the stalks and leaves from the beets and peel the latter, before cutting them into segments.
- Peel and slice the onion and stew it gently in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy casserole. Peel and chop the garlic, remove the seeds from the chilli and chop that also, adding both to the softened onion. While these stew, heat a large frying pan with another two tablespoons of oil and throw in the cuttlefish pieces. Toss them in the hot oil until they are well sealed and add them to the casserole. Add the beet pieces at the same time, season well with sea salt and finely grate the zest of orange over them. Squeeze and strain the juice over the ensemble. Add the white wine and bring this stew to a very gentle simmer. Cover with a close-fitting lid and leave to cook very gently for an hour and a half, by which time both the cuttlefish and the beets should be tender.
- Pick the beet leaves from their stalks, wash them well and add them to the casserole to cook for a couple of minutes. Add the shredded basil, taste for seasoning and serve.
Rowley’s drinking choice
As this dish has a bit of “heft”, I would not rule out a red as long as it had vigour and freshness. My choice would be a Friulano (Savagnin), which has the requisite acidity and aforesaid heft.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais
Photograph: Andy Sewell
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