How best to pay homage to the passing of one of the greatest chefs of his generation? No brainer: cook one of his signature dishes. But will my take on Alastair Little’s Pollo Orvietano evoke the tastes and aromas of a chicken cooked with wild fennel and local olives at La Cacciata, the farmhouse cookery school he founded in the Umbrian hills?
The death of ‘the godfather of modern British cooking’ at the age of 72 came out of the blue, so I haven’t had time to acquire my chicken of choice from Loose Birds, Paul Talling’s unmatchable operation near Harome, North Yorkshire, but I’m happy with a Soanes from Driffield in the Wolds, bought on Todmorden Market, and serendipitously I’ve been able to supplement fennel from my daughter’s garden with a bunch inside my ‘No Dig Club’ veg bag (£14.95 via this link) from Cinderwood Market Garden.
I always associate Little with his eponymous restaurant that sprung up in Frith Street, Soho, in the mid-Eighties. Behind its Venetian blinds it offered a rebuke to haute cuisine thanks to its menu restricted to soup, salad, fresh fish and meat, plus puddings, changing twice a day according to availability of raw materials.
Paper napkins and an absence ot tablecloths contributed to the determinedly Keep It Simple ethos. That was the name of his first book, aimed squarely at the adventurous home cook. Jonathan Meades, greatest food critic of Little’s era, said of it: “What makes Alastair such a good cook (apart from talent, taste, application and curiosity), is that he possessed the un-English conviction that eating well is a normal part of a civilised society.”
There’s a recipe for Chicken Orvieto-style in there and a subtly different one on his website, referring to the town not the wine, but it would seem wrong not to use that straw-coloured, slightly bitter white for the 250ml of wine required. In the end I’ve adapted an alternative recipe from his second, equally evocative, cookbook, Italian Kitchen: Recipes from La Cacciata (pictured in the autumn mists above). It came out at around the same time as Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers’ first River Cafe Cookbook, cementing rustic Italian cucina as the aspirational ingredient-led cuisine du jour (apologies for my French).
Ingredients were always paramount for Little, always ahead of his time and a handsome, engaging champion of real food on television. In the Noughties he ran a deli-trattoria called Tavola in Notting Hill; in 2017 he moved to Australia (check out the archive of BBC Radio 4’s The Food Programme for a Sheila Dillon entertaining interview with him on the eve of his departure. He was to open a restaurant in his wife’s home town of Sydney, where he died this week.
The Colne-born chef had trained in top London kitchens before setting up on his own, but he initially seemed defined by his academic pedigree, having read archaeology and social anthropology at Downing College, Cambridge. He taught himself to cook in his last year,dishing up meals for, among others, his exact contemporary, Rowley Leigh (Christ’s) later a chef/restaurateur and food writer in his own right.
With them I always associate (though his only Cambridge connection was winning a choral scholarship aged eight) another chef/scholar Simon Hopkinson, two years younger. Little was from Colne, Leigh from Manchester, Hopkinson from Bury. A fourth member of an incomparable quartet has to be Jeremy Lee, who worked for both Little in Frith Street and for Hopkinson at Bibendum in Fulham. The Scot, a mere stripling at 58, is still manning the stoves in Soho, at Quo Vadis and has a highly anticipated book coming out on September 1 – Cooking: Simply and Well, for One or Many.
Lee led the tributes from the London food world this week: “Alastair Little was a godfather of modern British cooking and a champion of keeping it simple. His cooking was just incredible, peerless. Unique, charming, brilliant, a joy to cook with, a huge inspiration, a great pal and a great boss, gone too young, too soon, much missed and never to be forgotten.”
As I write this, my own tribute is sizzling in the Aga. I’ve never cooked Pollo Orvietano before. I just hope I do it justice.
1.5 kg free range chicken; good olive oil; 500g chicken livers, cleaned and diced
2 large potatoes, cut into 1cm dice; an enormous bunch of leaf or feather fennel; 48 black olives, stoned; salt and pepper; 48 large fresh garlic cloves in their skins; 250ml dry white wine; 500ml chicken broth.
Prepare the stuffing in advance. It takes around an hour. Sauté the livers in the 4 tbsp of olive oil, stirring until coloured. Add the potatoes and gently cook until thoroughly cooked through. Add the fennel with half the olives, season well and set aside to completely cool. Pre-heat the oven to 400F/200C/gas mark 6.
Spoon as much of the stuffing as will fit into the cavity of the bird without overfilling; place the rest, lubricated with a little olive oil, in an oven-proof dish. Rub the chicken all over with a little more olive oil and season generously. Place in a deepish casserole dish, on its side, and put in the oven to roast for 20 minutes. Slide it onto its other side and continue roasting for a further 20 minutes. Finally, turn the right way up and throw in the garlic cloves. Turn the oven down a notch, put in the dish of extra stuffing and continue cooking for a further 30-40 minutes, adding the remaining olives for the last 10.
Remove the bird to a chopping board, allow it to rest. Put the garlic and olives in a dish and keep warm. Pour off any excess fat in the roasting dish and add the wine. Bring to the boil and reduce until almost evaporated. Pour in the chicken stock and reduce the lot by three-quarters. Cut the chicken into eight pieces and arrange on a serving dish surrounding the extra stuffing. Scatter with the olives and garlic and strew with more chopped fennel fronds.
We accompanied the dish with a Pheasant’ s Tears Poliphonia, a Georgian red matured in a qvevri (earthenware amphora). It’s a blend of 100 indigenous red and white grape varieties. Thanks for the recommendation, Dan at Flawd.