Food & Drink

Why Jamie Oliver’s mentor Gennaro Contaldo wants to banish boring boiled veg

Chef Gennaro Contaldo talks about how to cook vegetables the Italian way. By Prudence Wade.

Gennaro Contaldo’s latest book is all about championing veg
Gennaro Contaldo Gennaro Contaldo’s latest book is all about championing veg

Gennaro Contaldo has a bone to pick with traditional British Sunday roasts.

The Italian chef has lived in England for over 50 years now, and he suggests the food here could see one big improvement.

“When you have a Sunday roast somewhere, [you get] three vegetables: boiled potato, boiled broccoli, boiled beans – they don’t taste of anything! Sometimes you get the beans and they’re so hard,” Contaldo says.

Instead, he wants “flavour” in his veg – and it’s really not that difficult to do.

“Salt it, put a bit of garlic in, season it with olive oil, or squeeze a lemon on top – hallelujah!” he says with his signature enthusiasm, often seen on TV when he appears alongside his protégé, Jamie Oliver.

These are “the humble things you buy every day”, Contaldo says, so it’s about time we treat our veg properly.

“Where I come from, we celebrate all the vegetables – they used to call us ‘leaves eaters’, because we used to eat a lot of vegetables,” says Contaldo, who heralds from Minori on Italy’s Amalfi Coast.

In the “small village” he grew up in, Contaldo says everyone had an allotment and it was the done thing to swap different types of fruit and veg with your neighbours – all of which was, of course, in season.

And when you get Contaldo talking about his favourite varieties, he can barely contain his excitement.

“It is all such a pleasure. Even the zucchini – you fry, you soak it, you cook it with pasta. The humble onion – onions are so beautiful! Onions, you don’t just fry them. Onions can be done in so many different ways. And the potato – it’s not just a chip.”

There are “hundreds of different ways” to cook vegetables, Contaldo says, and that’s part of “Italian culture”.

Despite what you might think, “Meat plays little part where I come from”, he explains. “We used to have lovely meat – but once every other week.”

That’s why Contaldo has dedicated his latest cookbook to vegetables, aptly called Verdure. Each chapter is dedicated to a different vegetable – from artichokes, fennel and rocket, to mushrooms, aubergines, beetroot and more.

Vegetables might be central to the book, but it’s not entirely vegetarian. “There is a lot mixed with meat – guanciale, pancetta, fish – combined all together, but the hero at the end is the verdure, the vegetable.”

Contaldo is passionate about seasonality – that was, after all, how he grew up.

“Now, you can get almost anything… In England, especially London [where Contaldo lives] you can get everything you want. But I won’t touch the stuff. Imagine – now there are cherries everywhere.”

Contaldo says when cherries are in season he will “indulge himself”, but for now, he has the “pleasure of waiting” – meaning the first crop isn’t “spoiled” when it eventually comes.

Right now, artichokes are in season in Italy – and that’s what everyone there is eating.

“You go from north to south, artichokes, artichokes, artichokes. People say, how do you eat artichokes every day? Because you do the vegetable in so many different ways,” Contaldo explains – and some of these dishes appear in the book, like artichoke pâté and tuna-filled artichoke hearts.

Now 75, Contaldo thinks back to his youth, when “there was no freezer” so “everything had to be seasonal” – so maybe it’s time we all tried some new things with our veg.

Take a traditional recipe from Contaldo’s village, which marries up aubergine and chocolate – which he calls “delicious” and urges everyone to try.

“You fry the aubergines in egg and as soon as it’s fried, you put it straight in cocoa powder and sugar. Then you leave it to absorb, then you melt some chocolate with liquor in and put that on top and eat.”

And his love of food comes from a young age, too – he tracks it back to when his father, who was a linen dealer, made him sit in a friend’s restaurant at around 10 years old while he went off to work.

Gennaro Contaldo

“I liked it so much, every time I had the chance I used to go help,” he remembers. “My job was simple – preparing the vegetables was one of my things.”

Now a septuagenarian and still going strong – constantly writing recipes, appearing on TV shows like Saturday Kitchen and updating his Instagram account for his 800k followers – Contaldo gives a lot of credit to his Mediterranean diet.

“I eat a lot of vegetables – whatever is in season – I eat a lot of pasta as well,” he says.

“It does help, it helped me. All the people I know where I come from, they all eat a lot of vegetables and beans.”

He adds: “At my age, it’s a privilege and I wish it for everyone. With good luck and working very hard, I’m still enjoying being a cook. And do you know what cooks do? Cooks make people happy through cooking, and this is what I do.”

Gennaro's Verdure
Gennaro's Verdure (Pavilion Books/PA)

Gennaro’s Verdure: Big And Bold Italian Recipes To Pack Your Plate With Veg by Gennaro Contaldo is published by Pavilion Books, priced £26. Photography by David Loftus. Available March 14