"It's a bit like how in England and New Zealand you talk about the weather when you meet new people because you have to find a way into talking about more serious matters." Having travelled across the Eastern Mediterranean for his latest book and television series, From Venice to Istanbul, Rick Stein believes making small talk with strangers about your favourite meals is similar to discussing whether it's sunny or rainy outside.
"It's an amazingly easy way of getting into what makes people tick," he says. "In a lot of countries, talking about what you've eaten recently is a good way of doing that. To me, that's all we really do; we go to somebody and ask, 'Well, what do you really like to cook when you're at home?' and then you're off into a much more interesting conversation."
Beginning in the famous Italian canal city, Stein recommends avoiding the obvious tourist traps that charge "€34 for a slab of lasagna". From there, he takes in lesser-known nations and their cuisines, moving from Croatia to Albania and northern and southern Greece.
"We came up with the idea of Venice and Istanbul being like the bookends, with all these other places and stories in the middle," he says. Inspired by Yotam Ottolenghi's recent book Jerusalem, he originally intended to focus on the Middle East.
"I wanted to start in eastern Turkey and go into Syria and do Lebanon. But it soon became obvious that I couldn't do that, although I'm not saying that Greece and the rest of it are like the next best thing.
I just thought, 'Where can you get eastern Mediterranean food?' and you definitely can in Greece and Turkey."
Describing it as "fabulous", Stein and his long-time director David Pritchard settled on Venice as the perfect starting point for their journey. "We came up with this idea of Byzantium," he says, referring to the ancient East Roman Empire that counted Constantinople - now Istanbul - as its capital. "All the countries we travelled through had a Byzantine influence, particularly in the architecture. But we also discovered there's a connection there with a lot of the food, particularly in how the cooking in those countries has a lot of spices like nutmeg, coriander, cloves and cinnamon, which you can even find in Venetian seafood."
Stein is known for his fish restaurants in England and, more recently, Australia, so seafood predictably takes up the largest section in From Venice to Istanbul.
"Most of the travel was by the coast because that's what David likes doing," says Stein. "It's always rewarding filming when you're near the water, hence there are a lot of fish recipes in there, which is still my first love."
With the migrant crisis in Croatia breaking out a couple of weeks after our meeting at a London bookshop, Stein is also careful to take into account any relevant political subtext. "When we filmed in Cambodia, we definitely made reference to the Khmer Rouge because it affected people," says Stein, who visited Southeast Asia for 2009's Far Eastern Odyssey. "But when we filmed in Vietnam, people didn't talk about the Vietnam War, although I'm sure underneath it all there's bound to be a lot of strong feelings. People do talk about the Civil War in Croatia, so it's worth bringing that into it. When we were in Greece, we did a piece about people being out of work and the incredible upset that the Greek financial crisis has caused for local people."
Joking he's no Simon Schama, Stein points out in the first episode he is not a trained historian or art expert. "Food is my thing and that's my reason for being in the country but that doesn't stop me commenting on other issues," he says. "The great thing about making cookery programmes where you travel is that you've always got a reason to be in a place."
Stein is always on the lookout for new culinary experiences. "People get that because most of us are interested in food and getting new taste sensations and dishes from other countries," he says.
"I still remember the first time I tasted Thai food at a London restaurant, and it was like a great revelation of that type of cooking. That's what I do all the time, I go around the world looking for food epiphanies."
Insisting that he prefers travelling incognito, Stein is wary about relying on his reputation to secure interviews.
"If I go to a country where they know who I am, it's easier but that's not necessarily the best thing to do," he says.
"You end up getting people who are aware of the power of television, and will then try
to sidetrack you into their restaurant or what they're making or producing. We don't really want that, so it's good if nobody knows who I am."
Not everyone Stein meets appreciates the attention - one Croatian restaurateur was not keen at first on welcoming a film crew on to his premises. "Sometimes it's hard because people might not want a TV camera in there," he says. "The director on the other hand, always takes it personally when they say, 'No, I'm not interested.' He's like, 'All right, clear off, then!'
"But my view is, 'Good for you, you don't have to do this.'"
From Venice to Istanbul is coming soon to Prime.