“How a plate of three-ingredient spaghetti changed my life”

Olia Hercules is an award-winning food writer. She’s written two books so far, to great acclaim, and she’s been one of delicious. magazine’s food writers in residence.

“How a plate of three-ingredient spaghetti changed my life”

I grew up eating some outstanding food, but it took me 20 odd years to realise exactly how out of the ordinary it was.

It was partly due to the ingrained ‘Eastern European food’ complex imposed on us by those who have never been or, if they have been, only ever tried the grey some-cabbage-matter slush of Soviet canteens. And it was partly because of all the things I now realise were special, which seemed just normal when I was a kid: a tomato the size of a baby’s head, full of juice and sweetness in July and the same preserved in brine in winter… It was all ordinary, unremarkable, boring even.

I pined for exotic octopi and French haute cuisine. When you are born in a country with an iron curtain blocking you from world travel and discovery, zagranitsa – the ‘abroad’ – seems better, more interesting, more tempting. So it took being removed from my homeland for it all to start making sense.

Even though I left for Cyprus when I was 12 and to the UK when I was 18, it was in Sicily, at 20, where I had that Eureka moment. I never cooked before my year abroad in Italy and I was spellbound by my fellow student friends: a butcher’s son from Puglia; a pig farmer’s daughter from Sardinia; Giacomo from Sicily. All of them cooked with so much ease and joy. I now realise that a plate of aglio-olio-pepperoncino, cooked by the Pugliese after a night out, was the precursor of the big food lightbulb moment to follow.

But then I got a breath of the sea – that fresh waft of ozone and salty-sweet smell of iodine that makes you think of rock pools. I took a (rather big) bite.

It was in July 2004, when I got an impromptu waitering job at a restaurant at La Vucciria fish market in Palermo, that my perception of food changed forever. I’ll never forget the day when the restaurant’s owner and cook, a husky-voiced Vincent Pastore lookalike, brought out a plate of pasta for me after my shift.

It looked like a bowl of semi-naked spaghetti, sheathed in just a little olive oil. But then I got a breath of the sea – that fresh waft of ozone and salty-sweet smell of iodine that makes you think of rock pools. I took a (rather big) bite.

And I believe I swore in Italian out of pure shock at how good this seemingly nude plate of pasta was. I asked what it was, and ‘Vincenzo’ smiled and said – ‘spaghetti ai ricci’. I did not know the word (‘che cazzo sono ‘sti ricci meravigliosi!?’), so he explained by calling them, in English, ’hedgehogs of the sea’.

 

How could it be: just three ingredients, cooked so simply… How could they have delivered such a powerful impression on my senses?

It was urchin. Raw and straight out of its spiky body, it was stirred through the hot oily spaghetti, gently cooked by its residual heat. How could it be: just three ingredients, cooked so simply… How could they have delivered such a powerful impression on my senses? I sit here now and I can easily and enthusiastically relive it all. It wasn’t just a revolution of the senses, though, it made me think about food for the first time.

The ordinary flipped upside down and became the miraculous.

It really was a lightbulb moment – a realisation, a simultaneous discovery and a re-discovery. Because the next time I ate my mother’s food in Ukraine, it finally all made sense. My ‘potato and cabbage’ complex was cured. “Pah!” I thought, “Our potatoes and cabbage are amazing actually! When grown and cooked simply and expertly by Mum, forget those rank canteens, people! We have moved on and opened up… Welcome through the looking glass!”

The ordinary flipped upside down and became the miraculous. That tomato, fresh in the summer and brined in winter, became as delicious and special as my first sea urchin, and it has all (eventually and in all seriousness) changed my life.

Check out Olia’s garlicky Georgian poussins recipe or discover her top advice for starting an allotment

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