Last week I wrote about the raw salmon starter we served to 300 guests at the 57th Venice Art Biennale Commissioner's Dinner in honour of New Zealand artist Lisa Reihana. That was one half of the first course. The other was a hot pasta vongole (Italian for clams) that I had given a Pacific twist.
I was keen to serve clams, because one of the most famous Venetian dishes is linguine vongole. I just had to find away, culinarily, of uniting two peoples who rely so much on the oceans and lagoon (in the case of Venice) for a major portion of their sustenance.
I also enjoyed the fact that I was going to be quite controversial by serving the Italians clams in a way they’d never have eaten them before, certainly something their mothers would raise their eyebrows at. The dinner was held so the New Zealand Commissioner could thank the hosts, supporters, families, technicians and sponsors of the New Zealand exhibition, but included artists, collectors and gallery and museum leaders from around the world.
It was a way of showcasing the creativity that New Zealand can produce. The dinner was based on the proverb: ‘Ko tāu rou, kotaku rou, ka ora te iwi; With your basket and my basket the people will live.’
The first step in making sure I could create such a dish was to approach Cloudy Bay Clams which I did via email. And I kid you not, within 10 minutes Isaac Piper had replied saying “what can we do to help?” I was blown away. What they eventually did was to ship a mixture of live and blanched tua tua and other clams to Venice. It was incredibly generous of them.
To tie in with the proverb I sourced Venetian clams, which we mixed with the New Zealand ones. It was a perfect mash-up. As for the pasta, I decided I didn’t want to serve linguine — partly because it would be slightly messy for the guests, but also near-on impossible for those helping me serve it. Imagine trying to portion-control 300 servings of al dente linguine!
I wanted to make the pasta as interesting as the finished dish and I am fortunate that our fab London friend Caz (among many things she has designed my cookbook Savour, all of Nigella’s, most of Yotam Ottolenghi’s etc) is a partner in a Tuscan pasta company called The Geometry of Pasta.
They provided the pasta — and I chose four different shapes to show that you can serve clams with things other than linguine. I rejoiced in the fact that my vongole pasta was getting further and further away from anything vaguely Italian or historical in origin. After all, this was at the world’s largest art exhibition and the blurring of defined ideas is what it’s all about, more or less.
So, I had lined up pretty much everything I needed to make the perfect dish. Because of Lisa’s art work, it needed to be Pacific-themed which meant using coconut I felt, but I also wanted it to contain aromatic ginger, garlic and chillies, and tomatoes (for that Italian twist). I was also desperate to use lots of coriander.
In my mind it was a dish that a marooned Italian sailor trapped somewhere between Thailand and Tonga might dream of eating.
As with the salmon dish I wrote about last week, the New Zealand patron chef helpers prepped with me, and then we enlisted a few extras to serve the dish up nice and hot — which can be tricky when you’re catering from a strange venue with limited facilities including electricity.
Nonetheless, we enlisted Tanah Jane, Sarah Jane, Peter B and my Providores business partner Michael to join Helen and I as we plated up, conveyor belt style, the clams. The highlight for me was when one of the Italian secret police, who had been looking after our Governor General, said it was the best vongole he’d ever had! And he was serious! Now, that made it all worth it.
The exhibition opened the following morning to the public and it will run for seven months. Make sure you include Venice in your itinerary if you travel to Europe before November 26. The crowds will be far less than during the Vernissage, when it’s almost impossible to get a ticket.
I should also mention that for dessert we served a vegan meringue (made with chickpea water, or aquafaba) topped with a tofu cream, strawberries, and a coffee syrup made from Allpress espresso syrup —another of our sponsors. My oh my, it was fun!