It’s not often you eat something that sticks in the mind for almost 20 years, but that is the case with the recipe below. I can remember reading a review that raved about a restaurant in Clapham back in 2002. It served what we now call small plates: four or five courses that hit you with concentrated flavours rather than filling you up with bread and potatoes, as many of us were doing at the time. It was clearly my duty to see what was going on at this place. Luckily it was very near to my old friend Lindsey’s house, and so we arranged to meet up there.
When I called Lindsey to fix the details, she announced that she was already a regular. This was a very good sign. Lindsey had been the person who first arranged for me to do a trial in a professional kitchen, and her knowledge of food and restaurants was prodigious.
The restaurant was called Thyme, and it was truly radical: in many ways the blueprint for how a lot of restaurants operate today. It stopped just short of doing a full-blown tasting menu, and it was just right for a good lunch.
The dish that has lingered in my mind for all these years was red mullet with “sardine lasagne”, which sounds strange in itself, although it had come from the chef Adam Byatt’s previous restaurant The Square, under Phil Howard.
I tried to work out why it resonated with me so much and concluded that it took me back to when I would cook for 10 workmates on the campsites of France in 1984. We toured the sites before the season started, getting them ready for the new season. I was the cook. One of my standbys was seafood pasta: you could make a huge amount on two camping rings. It was basically a tomato, pepper, courgette and onion sauce cooked with plenty of olive oil; at the very end I would add any tinned fish I had around, along with the cooked pasta.
I cooked this dish in the spring sunshine on campsites from Brittany to Biarritz: now, in Clapham I was transported back to those days. It gave me the shivers – flavour memory is a very powerful thing. There was something about the way the shredded tinned sardines clung to the al dente pasta like a bolognese sauce.
Thyme only lasted for a couple of years, because it struggled to build a strong lunch trade – both times I went, there was only one other table – but the impact and influence was huge, not least on me.
Adam Byatt still cooks in Clapham, at Trinity Restaurant and when I went last year it reminded me of what is often missing from restaurants these days. Every dish had a clear impact and wasn’t afraid to really push flavour to the limit. I will take my kitchen to eat there after this lockdown, because it exemplifies the kind of food I like to eat and serve.
Adam has adapted his lasagne to make a sardine bolognese sauce to serve with pasta and I have seen it everywhere since the quarantine was declared. It was even on Saturday morning television and I have seen versions all over Instagram as the tinned fish’s long shelf life makes it ideally suited to these strange times.
It may have taken almost 20 years, but this simple yet effective dish deserves its day in the sun.