Raised in the restaurant business, food writer Laura Santtini has spent her life trying out new flavours; now she wants the UK to embrace the power of ‘the fifth taste’, umami
My thing is flavours and the feelings they evoke from a very early age. I even describe people or events through their flavour!’ explains Laura Santtini, food writer and restaurateur of Belgravia’s renowned Santini. Laura is now regarded as a world authority on using umami at home. Umami is known as ‘the fifth flavour’, that intense savouriness that makes you go ‘mmmm’ and is found in the bit of caramelised chicken stuck to the bottom of the roasting tray, in an anchovy that melts into a pizza, in parmesan and much more.
We’re talking at her family restaurant, which she’s recently redecorated in sumptuous velvet and silk brocade with touches of gold, adding a new glamorous bar, where customers can come for a glass of champagne and a plate of carpaccio or spaghetti lobster. ‘We strive to always provide a ‘treat’ environment,’ – Laura breaks off to welcome guests – ‘I’m very proud to be taking over as custodian of Santini and adore to be around people who love Santini.’
So much so that for the first time, Santini is opening for weekend lunches served all afternoon too. Restaurants are in Laura’s DNA. Although, she insists her parents didn’t assume she’d work at Santini, she chose to spend her holidays there. ‘It’s immensely challenging, a kind of groundhog business, yet something I feel I have been prepped for all my life. I realise I absorbed so much from listening to my father as we visited other restaurants.’
Aside from its fabulous food, Santini is renowned for attracting a rather glamorous crowd dating back to when Frank Sinatra was a regular. Laura remembers how he often visited in a gang with Albert R. “Cubby” Broccoli, producer of many James Bond movies. Sinatra’s favourite dishes on the menu included an artichoke dish created by Gino, Laura’s father, back in 1984, which became the signature of the restaurant. It is slow-cooked globe artichokes with an incredibly umami rich sauce made with garlic, parmesan and breadcrumbs, which Sinatra also liked served with homemade pappardelle.
Santini is renowned for attracting a rather glamorous crowd dating back to when Frank Sinatra was a regular
‘It amuses me to think Sinatra was evidently, if perhaps unknowingly, a huge fan of umami,’ laughs Laura. ‘My parents were really in awe of him and considered it a great honour that he dined with us so often. I remember they were thrilled that he once drew them a picture of an octopus on the tablecloth for fun.’ Laura also remembers meeting Bill Clinton, ‘I understood why he had such magnetism for women. He was dashing and had real presence and charisma.’
But then it’s back to her savoury obsession, ‘umami is the sexy, compelling flavour that keeps everyone coming back for more,’ enthuses Laura. Her new book At Home with Umami describes how to give home-cooked recipes such super savoury deliciousness. ‘It really does have the extraordinary ability to enhance individual flavours and transport everyday dishes to another level – it’s an absolute game changer and far from limited to Far Eastern cooking.’ Laura is adamant that she feels everything she tastes and tastes everything she feels. She believes too that flavours have the power to intensify, soothe, invigorate and inspire different feelings; I enjoy the way she matches moods with food.
The book is divided into chapters for ‘Fresh & Uplifting’ recipes including white miso and tahini roasted vegetables with a spicy, tangy harissa yoghurt and dishes from Santini’s menu such as chestnut mushroom carpaccio with pecorino and truffle oil and umami steak tagliata; ‘Mellow & Comforting’ recipes encapsulating bacon and cherry tomato cauliflower cheese, maple soy salmon (destined to become a regular in my household) and sweet potato cottage pie; ‘Heady & Daring’ garlic, chilli and parsley prawns, monkfish with mango and avocado salsa to walnut bagna cauda (great for Xmas drink parties) and the super-indulgent Santini dish – champagne and Parmesan risotto with bottarga.
Besides the cookbooks and restaurant, Laura has also developed the world’s first ever range of umami products
There’s even a chapter on ‘Sweet & Interesting’ with everything from Parmesan ice cream sandwiches with chocolate balsamic sauce to a ‘strange’ chocolate cake with a hint of marmite in the buttercream and a miso and sweet potato cheesecake I am most intrigued to try.
Besides the cookbooks and restaurant, Laura has also developed the world’s first ever range of umami products including a tube of paste called Taste #5 Umami Bomb which is incredibly moreish and a miso vegetarian version with chef Nobu Matsuhisa, founder of Nobu no less who has become a close friend, and a brand new range of instant umami sauce sachets, all available at Waitrose.
Unsurprisingly, Laura rates Nobu as her favourite treat meal out, though on weekends she is often to be found brunching with her teenage children and husband at Brew on Lower Richmond Road where she really likes the laidback atmosphere, popping into Byron for burgers or craving Busaba Eathai for its ‘super delicious’ flavours. Though after spending the whole week in the restaurant, Laura confesses she likes nothing better than what she calls ‘the best ever takeaway in Putney’ Holy Cow for a night in on the sofa. Her New Year’s resolution is to enrol for body strengthening classes with The Bodydoctor, David Marshall and to not need the services of the wonderful Central Heath physio so much. ‘I’ve had the ride of my life this past year, but I definitely need to take it easier and look after myself more next year.’
Laura prefers goose for Christmas dinner: ‘There’s something Dickensian about it’
Christmas is a big deal in the Santtini family and now usually hosted by Laura. Dinner invariably starts with smoked salmon, nice and simple – just served with sour cream with plenty of fresh herbs stirred in. The main course however, is packed with umami. Laura prefers goose, ‘there’s something Dickensian about it. I just get really excited about the way it looks and the dark meat especially is so delicious.
We always have two stuffings: one traditional English with chestnut and an Italian version with mortadella, Italian sausage, prosciutto, apricot, pistachio and plenty of my umami paste – it’s an absolute flavour bomb. Then there are roast potatoes, parsnips with soy sauce, maple syrup, a splash of fish sauce and sprinkling of dried lavender, bizarre but it really works, carrots with cumin, brussel sprouts with more chestnuts crumbled in and black pepper plus my own homemade cranberry and orange sauce.’ Laura’s key tip for taking the stress out of Christmas entertaining is to invest in a Wembury Warmer hotplate, and make the most of the leftovers. ‘I adore leftovers, especially served with my miracle gravy, ideally adding some chicken wings for extra umami. My husband has to virtually wrestle the carcass off me!’ Roll on Christmas, umami style.
At Home with Umami by Laura Santtini (Ryland, Peters & Small), is £19.99
Santini Restaurant, 29 Ebury Street SW1W ONZ; 020 3641 5847; laurasanttini.com