Anna Atkins: 'The shorter the time between ground and plate, the better'

 

My earliest food memory…Eating raw mussels fresh from the sea on the beach in Puglia when I was four. Like many Italian families, we would decamp to a beach house not far from home for the summer. At sunset everyone would gather to meet the fishermen bringing ropes of mussels ashore for the local restaurants. We ate the mussels like oysters, with just a dash of lemon. Without the lemon they just tasted of sea water, but with it they were heavenly.

My store-cupboard essentials… Keep good-quality pasta and olive oil, garlic, lemon and chilli flakes and you are only ever moments away from a delicious meal. In Italy we cook seasonally, so in the winter we rely on dried, crushed chilli but it tends to be underrated in the UK. I remember my grandmother stringing fresh chillies out to dry in the hot air every summer. They add a wonderfully intense aroma and flavour to dishes.

My favourite cookbook… I've discovered so much about different cuisines from the Cairo-born cookery writer Claudia Roden. Her books take you on a fascinating journey through the history and culture of a region so you can understand how that cuisine developed.

My top culinary tip… Keep it simple and let the ingredients be the stars of the show. Less is usually more – as long as you start with quality food.

My favourite food shop… The Natural Kitchen on Marylebone High Street, London, for its quality, but I'd also have to say any good farmers' market or even a roadside stall selling freshly harvested produce. The shorter the time between ground and plate, the better.

The kitchen gadget I couldn't live without… A lemon zester – I love the way it gives you such fine strips and leaves the pith behind. You lose so much of the precious zest with an ordinary grater. Lemon isn't just for adding lemon flavour. It marries superbly with so many herbs, enriching flavours and tempering woodiness, and in marinades it tenderises as effectively as vinegar but without the harshness.

My top table… Bentley's Oyster Bar & Grill in Piccadilly. The food is always truly fresh, never overcomplicated and I'm continually surprised and delighted by their unusual pairings. Sometimes these might not sound very promising but they taste amazing.

My desert-island dish… Oysters with lemon. The taste of home and of my childhood.

My guilty pleasure… The best ice-cream in the world, which is fior di latte – the nearest English equivalent is probably clotted-cream ice-cream – and stracciatella gelato, rich with melted chocolate drizzled through it. Whenever I'm in Italy I have a scoop of each in a cone every day. And since I can't indulge this passion at home in England, I don't even feel too guilty about it! No other ice-cream is worth the calories.

My comfort food… After more than 30 years living in England, it's fluffy mashed potato made with hot milk, butter and sea salt. I peel the potatoes after boiling to retain the flavour.

The strangest thing I've eaten… I had to eat sea cucumber at a business dinner in Beijing a few years ago and it was truly revolting; deep-fried, battered discs of giant slug that were bitter-tasting and the texture of rubber.

My pet hates… Tubs of grated Parmesan. All the rind is ground up in there, too, it tastes like sawdust and you pay a premium for it. Parmesan needs to be good quality and freshly grated – then, it's wonderful.

Anna Atkins is a former City banker who has just launched a free website called Lemon Squeezy (lemonsqueezy.eu), featuring recipes, cooking tips and nutritional information for busy people

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