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IXTA BELFRAGE: ON FLAVOUR DIVERSITY
Ristorante Pizzeria Acone is perched on the side of a mountain in the tiny Tuscan town that it’s named for. Tables at the no-frills, community-run restaurant are clad with gaudy coloured tablecloths, plain crockery, and glass salt and pepper shakers. They’re also exceedingly hard to come by on weekends. The restaurant is down the road from where Ixta Belfrage grew up and she recalls:
“The mountain would become super busy on Friday and Saturday because everyone was coming up to eat this pasta dish.” The pasta dish — penne all’Aconese, a secret recipe that consists of spicy pork and porcini ragù — is in Ixta’s words, “just unbelievably good.” It holds a special place in her heart, not only because she’s eaten the dish every year since she was a toddler, but because she’s been able to share it with lots of important people in her life. “Of course I used to eat it with my family, but I’ve since brought friends there, partners there. I’ve eaten that pasta with so many people.”
Growing up in the food capital of the world, it’s no wonder that Ixta’s appreciation for good food developed at an early age. The family of Ixta’s best friend Guiditta owned a Tuscan restaurant called La Cavallina. “Her uncle was the chef-owner and her grandad used to make the pasta. I spent a lot of time there and it’s how I got into loving food. That, and simply being in Tuscany,” says Ixta. Guiditta taught Ixta to cook her very first dish, a classic Tuscan snack called pane con vino e zucchero, at the tender age of four. “It’s basically stale bread with old red wine poured over it and crunchy brown sugar,” she says. “It sounds gross but it’s surprisingly delicious and something that people, including kids, have quite often in the late afternoon.”
It was these formative experiences, of being in and around kitchens and watching people make food, that inspired Ixta’s love of cooking. “I was completely obsessed with food,” she says, “always hungry, always thinking about what the next meal would be, wherever I was.” Ixta’s family lived there for just three years when she was a child, but Tuscany was her first home and still the place where she feels the greatest sense of the word, even now having lived in London for far longer. Despite the deep attachment that Ixta has to Italy and its food culture, she’s not Italian by blood. Her dad was born in the US to English parents and his father lived in Mexico for the last 35 years of his life. He and Ixta’s mum met there, eventually coming to name their daughter after the volcano Ixtaccíhuatl visible from her grandparents’ garden. Similarly to Italy, then, Ixta’s deep connection to Mexico is one borne out of strong familial ties rather than heritage.
Ixta’s mum is Brazilian and, by her own admission, not a great cook. “She grew up with debilitating health problems and she had to start healing herself, so she became a nutritionist. This meant that at home we ate healthy — or what I would have described as boring and bland — food. No sugar or crisps or juice or bread. I was a boisterous kid and so I would argue with my Mum about it. She told me that if I wanted to eat different food, then I needed to make it myself.” If Ixta had to pinpoint a moment where it started it might be this, but hers was an informal path to cooking, through nothing so stifling as catering school or the learning of sciences. “It’s always come naturally to me. I don’t know the right way of doing things and I avoid reading up on the science. Not knowing why things happen frees you up to be more relaxed and creative.”
It’s this freedom of creativity that Ixta enjoys the most about cooking; “being able to be expressive without boundaries, dancing around the kitchen, adding whatever I like to the pot.” The end results are a spectacular display of this liberal approach. With an enviable collection of passport stamps under her belt at such a young age, Ixta’s food influences are exceptionally diverse. Her magic is bringing it all together in a way that makes complete sense. “I love clams and prawns. Clams in a really spicy, garlicky, tomatoey broth. You can chuck whatever you want into the sauce. Odds and ends of herbs, different chillies, always loads of olive oil. A classic el pastor taco, pork and pineapple with simple toppings, chopped raw onions, coriander, lime, maybe a pineapple habanero salsa. Seafood and tacos — those are my favourite things to cook,” she concludes. “And pasta. And lasagne.”
Ixta’s prawn and requeijão lasagne is a notable fusion of these eclectic influences. Though she insists that she “can’t exactly take credit for seafood lasagne”, the dish is ingeniously unique, combining fresh pasta sheets and fiery prawns with miso, Parmesan and a smokey habanero chilli oil. Her starter, fish torta ahogada, is made using a prawn miso bisque that shares the same flavour profile as the lasagne: “I did that intentionally; they’re completely different things but they’re a good segue into each other.” Inspired by a classic Mexican snack, torta ahogada roughly translates as “drowned sandwich”. Traditionally, the sandwich is loaded with meat and onions and served on a plate pooling with sauce. “You eat it with your hands and it’s messy, soggy and completely delicious,” Ixta describes. In the same spirit as the original dish, Ixta’s version — cured fish, quickly cooked in a lime and Scotch bonnet butter, stuffed into a warm roll and drenched in prawn miso bisque — is a messy experience and strictly for eating with the hands, “so that the sauce trickles down your wrists.”
“It’s not a super interesting salad,” says Ixta, “as I didn’t want it to steal the show.” That said, the gem lettuce is limey, cut through with pickled onions, spring onions and chilli to give a crunchy zing to balance the richer dishes. Strawberries, lime, mint and cinnamon run through Ixta’s Mexican hibiscus agua fresca, and she recommends adding a splash of tequila or mezcal and serving it with lots of ice “to really lighten the whole experience.” Finally, packing much more punch than the term “snacks” might suggest: crunchy radishes spritzed with lime and cassava crisps tossed in tempero Baiano, a Brazilian spice mix with paprika, turmeric and cayenne. “A lot of ingredients that people think are native to Brazil were brought over from West Africa or Portugal,” Ixta explains, “but cassava is absolutely Brazilian. It was around when indigenous Brazilians were cooking. They had lots of uses for it, and it’s very sacred.” The radishes and crisps are served with a lime mayo. “Yes, more lime. It helps to keep everything fresh,” she laughs.
Indeed, limes are one of the most fundamental cooking ingredients in Mexico and Brazil. Although there are official Spanish words for limes (limas) and lemons (limónes), many Latin Americans refer to the smaller green citrus fruit as limón simply because they’ve never seen the larger yellow one. In regions where lemons do exist, they’re greener than they are in the UK, and have a taste that sits halfway between a lemon and a lime. On the contrary, Italians — with Amalfi lemons so creamy that the rind can be eaten as a snack — would almost never use lime. Even so, “people used to be more strict about these things. If you’re cooking Italian you wouldn’t add this, or if you’re cooking French you wouldn’t do that,” Ixta reflects, “but things are more relaxed now.” With such a melting pot of influences, it’s no surprise that Ixta’s cooking has always and instinctively been fusion, but she acknowledges that this style used to be looked down on. “People assumed that fusion would be busy, confused or lacking sense,” she says, “but it’s almost impossible not to cook some sort of fusion these days.” With inspiration available at the simple refresh of a phone screen, and ingredients shared around the world, knowledge travels digitally as well as physically. The style might not overtly be referred to as “fusion” but many chefs happily dip in and out of different cuisines and bring them together. “This is where the enjoyment happens,” says Ixta.