“My name is Gilda,” said the striking-looking woman sitting next to me. “I am a lawyer. We are from Brazil.” She gestured to the two women beside her. “They are judges.”
I blinked. The judges were of improbable youth and considerable beauty. Blimey, I thought, they’d liven up the Old Bailey in wig and gown.
“So what are you doing here?” I asked.
“We have just spent five days at a legal conference in Portugal, and we added on a few days to come to here. We love Jamie Oliver.”
“Here” was Fifteen, Jamie Oliver’s flagship restaurant in Westland Place, London N1, and Gilda and her friends were three of 110 people who had paid £125 a head to eat the food of Dario Cecchini and drink the wines of Giovanni Manetti during a night that danced along the edge of orderly chaos.
Neither of those names will mean much to the average British gastronaut, unless they happen to be someone who keeps pace with the world of European butchery and Italian wine-making. It’s probably true to say, too, that most of the diners were drawn rather more by the name of Jamie Oliver than they were by the prospect of eight courses of esoteric meat cookery and Tuscan wine. Oliver is old friends with signori Cecchini and Manetti, and enthusiastically endorsed the evening – even if he, himself, had to be in Berlin for a prior engagement, his Italian enforcer, Gennaro Contaldo, was on hand to keep an eye on things.
On that night’s performance, you might think Cecchini was part showman, part clown, leaping around in a red and white shirt and trousers, blowing a hunting horn, rather than a serious craftsman. However, when I began questioning him about the provenance of his animals, hanging periods, methods of butchery and the like, his face lost its festive exuberance and became professional and passionate, and you realised just how serious and thoughtful he was about his occupation.
I wouldn’t say that all the dishes met with universal appreciation. And that doesn’t include the bowls of creamed lardo mixed with herbs, or the arrival of various bits offal (interiore), including coratello (odds and ends from inside a sheep), at various points throughout the meal. Some dishes proved a mouthful too far for the dentally challenged.
However, taken as a whole, it was a masterclass in understanding the precise nature of some very particular parts of beef and lamb, and how to cook them. Ciccia in humido, neck muscle of beef, cooked very gently for seven hours with onions, herbs, back fat, water and vinegar, was utterly seductive. It produced a remarkable velvety sludge of imperious flavour, rich with fat, with a mist of acidity from the vinegar that balanced each mouthful.
Tenerumi (beef Achilles tendon) in a salad of roughly cut, barely acidulated vegetables was another revelation. This had been boiled, essentially, for three hours to render it edible. The flavour of the nodule of meat attached was vestigial, and then you hit the tendon itself and suddenly got a searing shaft of essence of animal. Bloody brilliant. I could have happily gone on eating the coratello, too, had I not been stuffed to the gills
Each dish was matched by wines from Manetti’s Fontodi estate, and while I am not expert enough to comment on the qualities of each, they illustrated the fact that Italian wines are made to go with food, not to be drunk on their own. The take on their full, rich life only when mixed in the mouth with appropriate food. There were some marvellous matches, especially the Flaccianello with the ciccia in umido.
Gilda and her judges whisked off with some regret – they were due to catch a plane to Ireland at 6am the next day – so I listened to Gennaro Contaldo telling a group about his adventures filming a new TV BBC2 series, Two Greedy Italians, with his old sparring partner, Antonio Carluccio. Meanwhile, signori Cecchini and Manetti were congratulating the kitchen and front-of-house staff on an immaculate performance. Odd couples were taking pictures of each other, exchanging contact points. Me? I was adjusting the band of my trousers. Eight courses of meat is a lot of protein. Full, rich life. Yes, I think that just about sums up the evening.