Born in Rotherham, forged in Italy

Livio and Ashleigh

NOT every ristorante or trattoria you see is “Cento per cento italiano” – totally authentic.

So many nationalities have seen the lucrative potential of pizza and pasta and jumped on the bandwagon. But it takes more than a tin of tomatoes and shake of oregano to produce food a momma or a nonna would cook.

So catch the chef at Nonna’s in Stag, Rotherham, hear an accent as broad as the dual carriageway outside the restaurant and you might not expect that much.

But pensa di nuovo, as they say in Italian, think again.

That chef, Livio Maccio, aged 29, has an Italian name but was born in Rotherham, third generation of a family which emigrated here over half a century ago.

Chilli squid with ciabatta

He speaks fluent Italian, lived for a while and trained at cookery school in his family’s homeland, and has been cooking since 14 in his father’s numerous restaurants.

Any doubts and just try a slice of the home baked ciabatta bread served up as garnish on your starter or main.

With its spongy open crumb it looks and tastes just like the real thing – which it is.

Livio and his charming fiance Ashleigh Mills had been running the place with his father Dino until his dad backed out a few months ago in a sort of semi-retirement from the hospitality business.

So now they’re on their own: a rather young “mamma and papa operation.

It had been a former Cooplands sandwich shop until they turned it into cafe and deli then a restaurant – until Covid struck.

Bistecca Livio: Sirloin and scallops

“We were selling pizzas from a van on the front,” says Livio in Nonna’s compact kitchen.

There’s a pizza oven in place but because Nonna’s is very much a one man band, at least in the kitchen, you won’t find them on the menu. ” We just do them once a month.”

Pizzas apart, the menu is pretty much what you would expect to see in any Italian restaurant. There are specials but Livio and Ashleigh, knowing their market, have not yet gone down the new wave Italian route.

I’d been invited as a guest and took along with me fellow blogger and Italophile Craig Harris.

While I opted for one of the specials, a lively and tender squid in chilli as a starter, he went for the meatballs, a sure test of any self-respecting Italian restaurant. They were beefy, meaty and firm-textured with a herby lilt in a rich tomato sauce.

Livio’s honest and thoughtful cooking paid off in my ultra-trad main, a melanzane parmigiana, with plenty of aubergine, plenty of sauce and plenty of taste. I liked the parmesan tuille garnish and more of that ciabatta.

Across the table Craig relished his accurately cooked rare sirloin steak with scallops, the Italian version of surf n turf

Melanzane Parmigiana

Livio clearly loves cooking. “It’s been my dream from a young lad. It’s all I ever wanted you do,” he says.

His grandfather moved from Caserta, midway between Rome and Naples in the Fifties, originally to find jobs in the steel works. Livio’s father Dino has had several restaurants including E Lupo in Rotherham, which I favourably reviewed three decades ago.

Livio is lucky to have found Ashleigh – or maybe she found him. She first visited the family restaurant at 17, then heard they were looking for waitresses and has stayed ever since. That was 11 years ago.

They make a great team. It’s a cosy little restaurant with a pleasant, easy-going menu and well worth giving a spin.

Nonna’s is at 342B Herringthorpe Valley Road, Rotherham S60 4HA. Tel: 01709 837 881. Open Wed-Sat eve.

Nonna’s at night

Christmas is not just for turkey

Boxing Day cold meat and bubble

CHRISTMAS lunch or dinner plays a big part of most people’s interest in food over the holiday period but what about the rest?

In our house we can count at least five special meals we have every year at this time.

They are almost, but not quite, as important as the main event but eagerly anticipated all the same.

The first comes on Christmas Eve. We’ve boiled and glazed the ham so we carve off the ends to make it look trim and have ham, egg and chips with pickles for tea.

Of course, the liquid in which you’ve boiled it up with herbs and vegetables will make soups. It’ll be salty and needs diluting but stick a few big peeled spuds in to absorb it. Then you can eat those too, fried.

Christmas Dinner needs no explanation and I bet we’re not alone in having a Boxing Day treat of cold meats and bubble and squeak, fried up from the leftover vegetables. And more pickles.

This year we visited for Christmas Day but did bring home the remains of the turkey.

So apart from dripping for breakfast, there was the carcase to pick for curry (into the freezer because you can have too much turkey in one go) then the bones were boiled up for yet more soup and stock.

Just look at all that dripping

And there was quite a bit of skin left over so sections were crisped up in a pan, with the fat released used to fry the bubble.

Turkey is the bird which keeps on giving and it’s my mission in life to make it disappear from the fridge as quickly as possible.

Bits that get left over can always go into pies or be minced up finely, along with the ham, as potted meat.

I am also planning a stir-fry so we’ll round that up with the dripping ( for me only) and lunchtime soups ànd call them meal number four.

Finally, at my wife’s insistence, we always have beef Stroganoff on New Year’s Eve. Probably because it’s not turkey or ham of which she is getting tired.

Mind you, that turkey essence, nicely jellied in the fridge, would really enhance the Stroganoff. She doesn’t need to know . . .

The Fermentation Generation makes a fizz

BACK IN the Sixties as a young reporter for the Beccles & Bungay Journal I would be sent to cover village shows.

There would invariably be a tent or at least a table full of homemade jams and jellies, pickles and preserves, usually made by stout matrons from the Women’s Institute.

All very motherly and middle class but never for one moment did I guess this might one day be hip.

Then it was raspberry jam and pickled onions, these days it’s more likely to be a kombucha or kefir (fermented drink)  bubbling up for prizes.

I am at Hideaway, a dishevelled former factory, the White Rose Works, in Eyre Lane, Sheffield  for the city’s second Pickle Fest.

I can give 30 or 40 years on the next oldest person there, and rather less hair, as people gather for workshops, talks, browse a few stalls, buy food or enter one of the several categories to have their prized jam, chutney, sauce, pickles or ferments to be judged in a mass taste test later that day.

I bring along three entries, two for the non- hot sauce category:  Pontack, made with elderberries, and a brown fruit sauce from prunes and apples, plus a chutney from foraged windfall apples in my neighbourhood.

I’m delighted to find these are the first entries if you don’t  count the jar entered last year which no one could open and has been resubmitted this year. Tough competition.

The festival is organised by a loose group of people called Social Pickle, explains Lisa Marriott, one of the organisers who, like other young women, is wearing a fetching sash with the organisation’s name.

It gives the event, for an old-timer like me, the slightly disconcerting air of a Sixties beauty contest with Miss Pickles on display although of course the real beauties are the jars of  Green Bean Chunky Ketchup and evil- looking Carrotchanga for sale at the pay-as-you-feel stall.

“We started during Lockdown preparing surplus ingredients for meals for our Food Hall Project ( on Brown Street) and realised there was a lot of energy around,” she says.

What couldn’t be used immediately was pickled and preserved.

“Cider vinegar was our first project, sold in local shops, and we’ve expanded into weekly Glut Clubs.”

I’m impressed. They are not just sitting back and waiting for surplus food to come in. Some are going out and foraging for it.

With things like sauerkraut, kimchis and kombuchas the Fermentation Generation is a lot more adventurous and sophisticated than its grannies. In fact, they’re making a bit of a fizz.

I couldn’t stay for the judging and I’ve been waiting at home for the telephone to ring and tell me if I’d won a category ( not that they were overwhelmed with entries ).

To pass the time I took home one of the jars of Carrotchanga. ” We fermented the carrot to make a Ketchup then added other stuff,” someone said. It tastes how it looks, wicked.

And did they have a serving suggestion? ” Put it on your chips.”

# For more details see

Greasing up for the sunflower shortage

THERE is alarm in the nation’s kitchens and supermarket aisles over the impending shortage and rise in the price of sunflower oil. It is already being  rationed to two bottles per customer.

It’s yet another oil shortage.

I shall not be worried. While sunflower is a component of very many foods there are other oils to cook with, vegetable (mostly soy), rapeseed and good old olive oil – although undoubtedly there will be knock-on increase in price due to demand.

It’s been triggered by the disgusting Russian invasion of the Ukraine, which produces much of the world’s sunflower oil, and is likely to last several years.

There are alternatives.

For a start we can all eke out our supplies by following the Chinese practice of saving leftover oil from frying and filtering it back into a separate bottle. Waste not, want not.

If you are frying bacon cut off the rinds, or the fat at the edge of your rashers, and put them in a warm pan to render enough grease in which to fry.

Then there is lard. It’s cheap and acts exactly the same as oil for most purposes when heated. Or duck fat. I keep mine in a jar in the fridge. It’s amazing how much you get from a duck.

I also save any fats obtained from cooking processes – bacon, dripping from roasts, renderings from duck or chicken skin, grease from chops etc – in a pot. After all  it’s what our great geandmothers did in the last war. There is a war on now you know.

If you make your own stocks – and everyone should – you’ll get more than enough fat solidifying on top to use.

It will need to be clarified to rid it of impurities but that’s done easily enough. There are plenty of videos on YouTube like this one:

This fat, which will turn snowy white on solidifying, can be used exactly the same as cooking oils. Well almost, sunflower’s smoke point of 450F is twice that of lard. But enough for us.

It may take a little time and effort but it’s one in the eye for Putin.

A pint of prawns, a bowl of soup

Prawn bits and crab ready for the pot

ONE of the perks of being a journalist, at least when I did it for a living, was going on a a holiday, hopefully overseas, disguised as a working trip. We called them ‘freebies,’

If you were lucky you took your spouse or partner. Sometimes you went with a group of random journos. Either way you had a good time,

Back in the Nineties I managed to wangle the same trip for at least four years to Calais, organised by the port’s local chamber of commerce.

The idea was to write a story convincing at least some of the holidaymakers who passed through on their way to their various destinations to tarry awhile, perhaps at local attractions, wineshops or restaurants and spend some money.

I don’t know whether it worked but every year I came back with a brightly coloured ‘Via Calais’ tea tray and memories of a meal at the Hotel Atlantic.

It was always the same: heaps of pink, glistening shell-on prawns, crisp baguettes, garlic butter and glasses of crisp white wine. I am a sucker for shelling a pint of prawns, slowly, leisurely, for a hour or so. I can do it in my sleep: twist off the head, pull the tail and shuck off the legs with a thumb.

I like to have it at home, too, perhaps a couple of times a year. Buying the prawns is no problem, finding a decent baguette is impossible.

On the boil

Not only is it an enjoyable tea but I can look forwards to a fish soup. For the prawn carcases make an ideal stock. Just cover them with water, bring to boil, swim off the scum, add a few vegetables and, voila, the basis for a soup in 30 minutes. These days I usually add the shell of a crab.

Strained, it goes in the freezer to join various bits of fish, usually offcuts from portions I have bought earlier. When I have enough I make fish soup.

There isn’t really a recipe. The ingredients are whatever you have, onions, carrots, celery and potatoes, some garlic, loads of herbs, a grated tomato or two, bay leaf, tomato puree, Thai fish sauce and a spoonful of paprika, seasoning and a squeeze of lemon.When all is cooked add your fish.

It’s the ultimate in waste not- want not cooking, using up scraps to make something delicious. I’ve just had some. It was lovely. Now I am already planning the next prawn tea.

The finished soup

How I bottled Spring


THE COLOUR is a shimmering greeny-gold, the aroma is like that of a damp morning and the taste is nutty, warm and smooth.

I think I have just bottled Spring!

A couple of months ago, you may recall, I picked young, fresh leaves from a beech tree overhanging my garden to make noyau, the French liqueur. I posted then because there was only a short period when the leaves are at their best.

I promised to let you know how I got on. The answer is splendidly!

To recap, I picked and washed enough leaves to almost fill a one litre jar and poured over a full bottle of gin, making sure the leaves were submerged, then left it in the dark to infuse. As you can read here

Some weeks later the leaves at the top had turned brown – not really a problem but it explains why recipes call for them to be ‘tightly packed – but those at the bottom were still bright.

Leaves in the Kilner jar

The colour as I strained the gin off was brilliant green ( it looks darker in the picture as I photographed it after adding brandy ) but I wouldn’t want to drink it ‘neat’ as the taste was rather harsh.

This was solved by adding a strong sugar solution, 150g of caster sugar in 200mls of water. It was a lot better! But, of course, the alcohol has been diluted ( the gin was 37.5 ABV ) so 125ml of brandy brought it back up and added pep and smoothness.

It’s a really pleasing drink, ready to drink now but will, they say, improve over time.

I can see this being a regular nightcap, bringing back memories of spring. Now I wonder what other leaves I can turn into a tipple . . .

Noyau – a glorious colour

Hoping I’ll be nuts about this liqueur

Washed beech leaves

SOMETIMES EVEN I am surprised how stupid I can be. I was out collecting nettles for beer (post coming up) and keeping an eye out for a likely looking beech tree. I fancied making noyau, that liqueur made from its leaves.

Of course, I didn’t find one and only later did I realise there was one less than 20 feet from my kitchen door – my neighbour’s but one which I had paid expensively some years ago to lower and give me a little more afternoon sun.

That realisation stung more than the nettles.

I am posting shortly after picking the leaves and before the noyau is ready to be drunk but if I leave it until then your chance of following suit will be over until next year.

There is only a short ‘window’ when the leaves are fresh, green, tender (and edible) and delicate enough to make this drink. That is now. So I will update this post as the drink develops.

In a nutshell (pun!) the idea is to macerate big handfuls of beech leaves in gin (or vodka) for five to six weeks, strain, add sugar syrup, fortify with brandy, mix, leave for a bit longer and drink.

Leaves in the Kilner jar

They say you can eat the young leaves in salads or sandwiches as they have a citrus taste. I chewed through five or six and only got the merest hint of lemon although that could have been auto-suggestion.

Now technically a noyau is made from nuts and this uses leaves. They say it was devised by foresters in the 18TH century who used beech to make furniture.

First find your tree. Then stuff as many leaves as you can into a carrier or paper bags, avoiding as much as possible any detritus such as the flowery bits which would eventually become nuts.

It’s a faff picking the leaves but as the tree badly needed a prune I broke off twigs and branches and sat down to strip the leaves. I quite like tedious routines but prefer to do it seated.

They need washing. Put them in a bowl and hopefully some of the detritus will float off. Wash them again and then drain, each time picking off bits of flowers or brown bracts.

I finished them off in the salad spinner. If you have any detritus left at least it will be clean.

Every recipe I have seen uses the phrase ‘pack loosely’ when putting them in your sterilised jar. I have only heard one dissenting voice. As I had a two litre Kilner jar my 80g of leaves was never going to fill it.

I poured in a 70cl bottle of cheap gin (you can also use vodka) and kept the leaves submerged with an old yoghurt pot lid before sealing the jar.

It is now in the cellar with a note to go on to stage two in a month’s time: I have yet to decide how sweet I want it and how much brandy to add.

So if you’re up for it, go out and find those beech leaves. I’ve read you can also make a liqueur from the nuts so I may give that a go later in the year.

Either way, I hope to be raising a glass of noyau to the tree at the bottom of the garden come summer.

I’ll keep you posted.

My neighbour’s beech tree

Like salmon? Here’s a cure for it!

IT was a bargain too good to miss: a whole side of salmon, weighing a kilo, for just £10 using our Tesco Clubcard. But we only wanted a couple of fillets to steam for tea and the small ones on the lower shelves cost a fiver.

Naturally I bought the side, cut off my two fillets and didn’t really have to think too much about what to do with the rest.

A nice plump section would make me gravadlax, cured pressed salmon, an excellent alternative to smoked, with the chance to add subtle flavours. The rest went in the freezer for a family dinner later in the week, cooked Chinese-style, with even more, the tail end, reserved for soup.

It was the Scandinavians who came up with gravadlax as a way of preserving salmon, smothering it in salt and herbs and burying it in the ground. That’s why you’ll see it alternatively translated as buried or pressed salmon. I have heard it had a bit of a reek!

Things have moved on a bit since.

Essentially you cut your salmon into two equal pieces, leaving the skin on, smearing it on both sides with sugar, salt, herbs (fresh dill gives that distinctive flavour), peppercorns, and a splosh or two of spirits, in my case gin, although alcohol is not essential. If you’re teetotal crushed juniper berries will give the same kick.

Now sandwich the two pieces of salmon together, fleshy sides inwards, wrap in clingfilm or put in a ziplock bag and nestle the whole thing in a handy container. Raid the pantry for two or three tins to press down on the salmon and pop it in the fridge.

Curing can take between one and four days, depending on the result you want or how long you can wait. Just remember to turn the salmon every 12 hours.

When ready, drain the liquid from the salmon, wipe clean and lay on a flat board. Now find a very sharp knife (I use a fish filleting knife) and cut the thinnest slices you can, on the slant, starting at the tail end. Hold the salmon still with a pad of kitchen paper.

Don’t worry about the skin. Curing will have toughened it up and you won’t slice through it, cutting at an angle.

You may disagree but I think gravadlax, as with smoked salmon, gains in texture by being sliced as thinly as possible.

I like it in thinly cut sandwiches with cream cheese or on blinis, little buckwheat pancakes (recipes are everywhere on line) with sour cream.

It’s improved by marinating briefly with a little lemon juice but taste first for pepper.

My cure is taken from Shaun Hill’s Salt is Essential but it is much the same, whatever your reference. Quanitites are for a kilo fillet, scale down if necessary.

You need 4 tablespoons each of rock or sea salt and granulated or Demerara sugar, a bunch of chopped dill and a tablespoon of crushed peppercorns. He adds two tablespoons of brandy to the mix. I used gin plus crushed juniper berries.

Now enjoy it. Gravadlax will keep for at least a week in the fridge, depending on the length of cure, and will freeze, keeping it in one piece. Obviously you won’t refreeze it.

Strange brew in the kitchen

I AM a great fan of tepache, that mildly alcoholic Mexican drink made from pineapple skins, water, sugar and any spices you care to add.

You don’t know it? Well wash a pineapple, trim off the peel and pop it in a large clean jar.

Add a tablespoon of sugar, brown is best but white will do (or honey), a sweet spice or two if you like, any pineapple juices, fill up with tepid water, give it a shake and cover loosely to keep the flies off (still some about), put somewhere warm and forget it for a few days. You can have the pineapple slices for tea.

Airborne yeasts and those on the pineapple will work their magic. You might find some scum on the top but scoop it off, strain and drink. I tend to leave it longer than a couple of days for a stronger brew. It keeps working in the fridge.

Sometimes I’ve had a little tepache left over in the fridge and I have added fresh apple juice to it. The mixture fizzes like mad after a couple of days.

This time, when I cut up my pineapple for tea I added some leftover homemade cider to the brew, the bit at the bottom of the bottle with the yeasty dregs in. Then a handful of crushed cranberries not used in the cranberry sauce at Christmas. A spoonful of sugar, some boiled water and that’s it.

Basically you can use any fruit for this mildly alcoholic beverage but pineapple does seem to be a good base.

I kept the fruit submerged with a large jar lid covered in clingfilm and tied down the muslin after taking the picture.

I like the idea of all this. There’s absolutely no waste as you get an almost free drink, your compost heap gets a feed and you might even finish up with a free plant.

Peel the lower leaves off the pineapple crown to reveal a lot of little nodules and stick it in a pot of plant compost or a jar of water to develop a root system.

It doesn’t work every time but you might strike lucky.

Let’s drink to that.

Rafters’ team dip more than a toe in the Riverside

Alistair (L) and Tom: new boys at Ashford

ALISTAIR Myers was mixing negroni cocktails at Rafters when he got a call from a free-spending customer. It wasn’t to book a table but a new chapter in his career.

How would he like to upsticks and run another restaurant? asked care home boss John Hill of Hassop Hall.

“I said there was no way we could do it,” recalls Alistair, who runs the high class guidebook-listed Sheffield restaurant with chef Tom Lawson.

Flash foward some time later and he and Tom are being shown around the Grade II listed Riverside hotel and restaurant on the banks of the River Wye at picturesque Ashford-in-the-Water.

“By then it was no way we could NOT do it,” enthuses Alistair, aged 36.

And so on from November, Covid-permitting, the pait will reopen the building as Rafters at the Riverside, a restaurant with rooms. There are 14 bedrooms, a restaurant seating around 30-36, a smaller Range Room for 14 (featuring an old cooking range) and a private dining room for a dozen guests.

The old Riverside, owned by Penelope Thornton and once a feature of the food guides, had closed in March and was on the market for £1.6 million.

Ironically neither John Hill nor his wife Alex had visted Riverside before deciding to buy it, unlike Hassop Hall, which they have converted back from a hotel to a swanky private residence. “We celebrated our wedding anniversary there,” says Alex.

The Riverside: On the market at £1.6 million

She will be heading up the renovation and I caught her knee deep in paint charts. With a background in design, she’s already done a similar job at Hassop. The paint was Farrow and Ball, of course.

With her youngest child now at school, she was looking around for a project. “I like to keep myself busy,” she says.

The couple are regular diners at Rafters in Oakbrook Road. “We have been a few times and it is a little gem. We absolutely love the food,” adds Alex, who recommends the place to their friends.

Now she and John will have another recommendation up their sleeves, Rafters at Riverside. But expect the menu to be a little different. Rafters has long run a set tasting menu. Alistair and Tom, aged 29, think their North Derbyshire customers will prefer a three course menu.

“Tom’s putting together the new menu and there will be a bloody good Sunday lunch,” says Alistair. Fingers are being crossed about Covid-19 but bookings are already being taken.

Oernight guests can expect to pay £350-£390 for dinner, bed and breakfast.

The biggest pitfall in catering is when a successful restaurant expands: how to keep those elements which have made it a hit in the first place. So will Alistair and Tom be stretching themselves too far?

They think they’ve left a strong team in charge in Sheffield. “Ben Ward will be front of house at Rafters. He’s spent five years with us, rising from pot washer to manager. And sous chef Dan Conlon, who came from Sheffield College, has been promoted to head chef,” adds Alistair.

Riverside looks romantic at night

For the Hills this is another big venture. And just as when they bought Hassop, there were also rumours locally that Riverside was to be another care home. The gossips were wrong again.

Meanwhile, back at Hassop, the family are not shy of showing the world how they are getting on, as can be seen on the Instagram site Hassop Interiors. “Our kitchen is now finished” (the couple had been using the Butler’s Pantry, as you do)” but everything else has come to a standstill, says Alex.

However they do wish people would stop driving through the gates to have a gawp as their children play on the driveway. There’s a plea to this effect on Instagram.

Meanwhile Tom and Alistair have a big task on their hands. And Alistair may well be reflecting what might have happened if he had taken the advice of that teacher who, hearing of his interest in hospitality, advised him to get a proper job!

John and Alex Hill