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Murano celebrated its 15th anniversary in August. We’ve had a great time looking back. It was interesting to redesign the restaurant. It really needed it – the wear and tear these restaurants take is enormous, as they’re always so busy. And guests notice if something’s broken – and with restaurants charging the prices they need to per head at the moment, you need to make sure people are seated in a lovely restaurant. And it’s so important to update and move forward, because restaurants and dining habits and the way people want to eat change all the time.
At this time of year, I’m all about cooking simply. There’s no point going over-complicated. I like pulses and cooking something stew-like – something I can bung in the oven, like a nice roast chicken or sausages with lentils with anchovies stirred through. That said, I find I’m eating less and less meat at home these days. I like lots of vegetables on the plate. The other day, we went down to this amazing farm in Hampshire and ended up with a sack of ten different varieties of onions. I made a lovely onion tart – I was so proud of myself. Then my painter gave me a marrow and I made all sorts – I really enjoy using stuff up.
I really loved making my own jarred sauce this year. I’ve always loved Belazu, right from the days when it was just a fresh olive company. We’ve always used them in the restaurants. It feels a bit like The Apprentice: you come up with an idea and then they’ll go away and make it work because they know how stuff gets to market. Obviously, I can make a sauce at home that will last in my fridge for 48 hours, but I don’t know how to create something with a really long shelf life.
The sauce was, of course, inspired by Italy. Even though I’m from the north, I really like the south and I especially love Sicily. I love everything about it, right down to the fact that across the island shops will close early on a Thursday and they’re not open at all on a Sunday. I love all that tradition and history. Sicily has great produce and the good thing about it is that it’s above Africa, so you get all that Moorish influence in its dishes. I’ve been to Noto a few times and we always like to go to Syracuse. This summer, Neil (my husband who is head chef at The French House) and I ended up driving down all the way across to Trapani and we rented a house in Agrigento. I’ve never been there and been disappointed. I remember going with friends years ago around Easter time. We were all in shorts and t-shirts and flip-flops and all these women kept pointing at us. They were still in fur coats and hoodies! I love the Sicilian people and who they are.
The pesto is obviously a classic when served with pasta – I love to serve it with gnocchi and a few ceps. It’s also great mixed into breadcrumbs to make a crust on fish, as a marinade for chicken, tossed into leaves or a potato salad – basically anything that goes well with that sweet and sour flavour. It’s full of raisins and capers and tastes great on a crostini with some salami or alongside some dolcelatte – which are both great snacks or canapés at this time of year.
When it comes to festive entertaining, less is more. At Christmas, everyone suddenly goes wild and starts putting little bowls of nuts around the house. I believe that if you don’t buy something normally, don’t buy it just for Christmas. Plan ahead – I decided back in October what we’re all doing and what we’ll be eating. It’s too much of a headache if you leave it all for the day itself. And finally, share it. If you’ve got a lot of guests or people coming to stay, then ask someone to make a pudding and someone else to bring the red cabbage. Often people will come round to ours as it’s the bigger house – not because we’re cooking – and we’ll get different people to bring a starter, pudding and sides. Nobody ever minds, as everyone likes to contribute in some way. I’d rather people did that than bring over host gifts I don’t need.
I always make Christmas food in advance. My mother always used to make the Christmas cake, but she’s getting slightly older now, so I’ve started making it. I always use Nigel Slater’s recipe – it’s really fantastic. I’m also making the Christmas pudding this year and I’ll be using Nigel’s recipe again. If you haven’t got it, buy his The Christmas Chronicles cookbook – it’s so beautifully written. We always make angolini at Christmas time too. It’s a beautiful pasta that’s served in broth. We always make that ahead of time – hundreds of them – and put them in the freezer so they’re ready to go for Christmas Day. My mum always makes the mince pies and we always have spaghetti alle vongole on Christmas Eve.
There are a few festive traditions in our house. On the day itself, Neil and I like to get up early and go for a nice long walk. When all my godchildren were much younger, I used to take them all ice skating, but they’re too old for that now! But on Boxing Day, we’ll always go and watch Arsenal and then we’ll head to the cinema.
Every New Year, we’ll head up to Scotland. My husband’s Scottish and we have a lot of friends up there. I really like Inver, an incredible restaurant with rooms. Then there’s The Pierhouse in Appin, which is a bit further down the coast. And if you want to splash the cash, I really do think The Fife Arms is worth it. It’s the most beautiful hotel – even looking at the artwork alone is incredible. I love Scotland a lot – I’d love to live there, but Neil says no!