A few days ago a gift arrived at my door. It had travelled from the US and through time as well. I was holding in my hand a small bottle of home produced garum. I opened it and was hit in the face by a strong, strong smell. Fishy? Not quite. The manufacturer is Laura Kelley, the talented author and researcher; the recipe source is Roman. Garum is a mysterious historical relict. Fish, in this case mackerel, is piled with salt and left to mature at room temperature for a few weeks, then distilled to an almost clear liquor (read Laura’s post for much more information). Fish sauces are alive and kicking in the Far East, but they are not common any more in the Mediterranean. In Roman times, however, this great-grandfather of nuoc mam was a prized and popular ingredient. Why did we stop using it? It is a mystery. In Italy colatura di alici is still produced with a similar process, but it certainly is no common ingredient.
I confess it: I’m not cooking much lately. I do have excuses: I’ve been in Calabria, and you see, summer in Calabria is a world where cooking is not required. First of all, you can’t cook with the water supply coming and going without notice. And then, anyway, you won’t cook with fruit and vegetables that good. You just don’t bother. You can very well survive on bread and tomatoes and ricotta and watermelon. When you really feel like a cooked meal, you go to a pizzeria – after all, expats have a right to eat as much pizza as they want when they go back to Italy. It is a recognized human right. Another food staple is granita: when you come back from the sea, you stop at a little place under a vine, you order a ‘granita con la brioscia’ – you can choose between a handful of very good flavours, but honestly more (black mulberry) is the way to go. Whipped cream is optional, although it does decrease the amount of granita you are going to get. La brioscia, a brioche, is not optional.You have a moral obligation to have granita every day – the season is so short, it has just started and it is going to be gone by the middle of September. After that, there may be still 40 degrees and you may still be going to the sea, but this little bar will only serve normal patisserie and excellent coffee, waiting for another short season of shine. It is always deserted outside the season, I wonder how they survive.
I’m back to Germany now so I guess I should start cooking again. And I always start again from the basics.
Of my go-to ingredients that never make it to the blog, couscous is a probably the biggest suspect. I use it quite often, ready in a handful of minutes for a quick lunch salad, or to bulk up a meal, and here I find good, cheap bags of all varieties of couscous at the ethnic shops (I almost choked when I saw how much more it costs at the local supermarket, once..). A no brainer, really. But it is not something I personally would consider for a high-end meal. Precooked couscous has always a bit of a soggy consistency. When friends make it for me from scratch, or I go to a North African restaurant, the real version is one of the things I enjoy the most. It has a great texture and the flavour of good durum wheat is hard to beat for the pasta addict Italian that I am at heart. By comparison, I’m always a bit underwhelmed by the precooked variety. I think a person that really enjoys cous cous probably sees my lunch salads the way I’ll look at people cooking soft wheat pasta. I understand it has some conforting and convenient charms, but please, do not compare it with the real thing.
It is easy to be carried away by memories, especially when they are connected to food. So bear with me. I know this recipe is simple, but this little side dish, blede con patate, chard and potatoes, is a symbol of what I want to carry with me.
I probably tasted it the very first day I moved out. I was going to live on my own, finally, something I’ve always wanted so badly. And now that was happening, me armed with a big, heavy suitcase, on a train heading east. The phone beeped, a message. The guy I’d met at the hostel the other time, he came from Milan like me, the mathematician with funny glasses. Would I meet him for lunch? Well, why not. It sounded good. A great start for making new friends in my new town, actually.
We met on a rainy night. It was not the first night for me in Trieste. I had already been there a few years before, and I remembered the landscape, the city gleaming over the water from the pier right below the hostel at Miramare. The pier, a great place where to sit and think, where I took all of the hardest decisions in my life. But that was yet to come: that night, it rained, and I was yet so much of a child. I came with a friend to take a test for a job. We were both nervous and depressed by the heavy rain. It was dinner time and we needed food, so we just crossed the piazza from the station and headed to the first bar. I have never returned to that bar for some reason, but it did surprise me. The food was good, fresh, something you don’t expect from the anonymous place right in front of the station. Spaghetti with fresh tomatoes and fresh sardine. Fresh and good as they can be, and this can happen only at sea. We caught the bus to the hostel, the last one. It had stopped raining, and we walked in the scented air, a scent of rain and sea. And then we sat on the main room at the hostel , and it was full of young people like us, and we started chatting. Somehow the topic turned to food and I launched into one of my monologues that would eventually evolve into this blog – on gubana, a typical pastry filled with dried fruit and made with a brioche like dough (at least the version I was more familiar with from Friuli, but things change wildly here in a few kilometers) and how you should eat it with some slivovitz (prune spirit) to keep it moist. I noticed the guy with the funny glasses looking at me, his eyes gleaming with interest. I did not know it, but I had already conquered an ally for my culinary obsessions.
Ok, ok, I know, officially spring is coming. I know that soon I will have too much asparagus to cook with and zillions of the best strawberries ever. But in Germany spring does arrive late. Oh so late. Yesterday an English friend of mine was telling us how he’s so fed up with the trees for not displaying any #@&%$? leaves, yet. The weather did turn milder, but the fields are still bare.
So for the moment I’m relying on the usual leeks, potatoes, cabbage, plus more or less tasty imports. I live with a serial tomato eater. When we came back here after being in Calabria for a month, we went to shop for food. While I was all in all quite happy with the selection of products, he bursted out: “Where are the vegetables I can actually eat?”. He loves Brussel sprouts, potatoes and leeks, but when you grow up with tomatoes, aubergines and peppers, you miss them bitterly. Now and again I buy them because food nostalgia is too strong.
Have you ever tried sprouting beans? I hadn’t until about a month ago. I was intimidated, with all the times I had forgotten beans into their soaking water and they fermented, by the expensive and complicated looking sprouting kits at the organic store, and, last but not least, by the fact that some sprouts are poisonous. I have never understood how sprouting works, other than it is an incredibly complex process, involving structural changes in the biochemistry of a seed, which means that what you eat is going to be different. In most cases, better.
Do you like oranges? And if you do, are you a moderate fan, or could you eat oranges until you change colour?
Here we definitely belong to the second category. I am surrounded by orange lovers. My sister once had some serious talks with her doctor about orange addiction – allegedly vitamin A toxic effects are to be considered if you eat a kilo of oranges per day, six months a year. Since when I am here in Calabria, I have been eating comparable amounts as well: the father of my partner grows oranges, mandarins and lemons, and with great trepidation we have watched the oranges get better and better as the season progresses. They will keep improving until March apparently, but trust me when I say they are already the best oranges I’ve ever eaten. They are so good I even forgot to cook with them, apart from the occasional salad. And I do love orange desserts.
To me, winter was fog. When I was a child fog was thicker, especially in town. Fog has a distinctive smell; it dampens sound; it reveals architectural details that otherwise would go unnoticed, hiding the ugliness of the whole; it is beautiful on flat rice fields, where you could be in a lost, far away world, and the farmer’s house could be a witch’s den. I find fog very charming and I miss it sometimes.
On traditional items, it is the best food in the world. On anything just outside of the traditional boxes, it is totally rubbish or, most likely, it simply does not exist. Traditional food is simple, based on local ingredients, more of a mountain cooking than a sea one: long cooking times, no spices apart from chilli and occasionally fennel, no sweet-sour tastes, no mixing of sweet and savoury flavours. Sicily might be visible, actually in these clear winter days it looks almost as if you could touch it, but the Arabic influences are a world apart.
The traditional food is simple, but this does not mean that the taste itself is not extremely refined. Everything tastes just ‘right’ and the variations in a recipe are almost negligible. Why would you want to mess up with something that is just perfect as is? Among the traditional items, the best ones, according to my humble, but internationally trained, taste, are coffee and salami. They are just out of scale from anywhere else. You can find similar quality coffee in just two places in Europe: Napoli, where it was ever better, and Trieste, where it was more northern (lighter and thinner) but seriously good. Both in Italy, though somehow apart, like all proper Italian places they don’t feel as if they were Italian. In Reggio Calabria coffee is short and dense and full of aroma. The locals really love it, and the best bars are always crowded. I am endlessly fascinated by the barman’s ability to keep up with the orders and never miss a single client, always keeping cool and moving with grace, whispering among screaming people, and yet somehow always heard by the intended person. I could stare at them for hours – but the wait is never more than a few seconds even in the most crowded bar.
I am so deeply into cooking that I don’t even have the time to think about blogging, and I am sure I am not the only one. I am a lucky girl: I feel well enough to cook up my usual storm and I can’t wait.
This year everything will be different from my usual celebrations. We are spending some time far away from Germany and its snow. We are in Reggio Calabria, the tip of the Italian boot, and we are going to spend some time there. Temperatures are up to 15-20 degrees but when the sun is shining, it feels warmer. Healing. I felt as if I spent the last two months (since Palermo) in total darkness. And the smell of the sea is everywhere, the wind and the occasional rain smell of it, and they are warm.
I am slowly going back to the kitchen. Which is all I want to do, really, with the ice and snow and dark out there.
My body has gone in hibernation mode, like nature out there. Since I cannot move, it has kindly switched off hunger, so that eating less is much easier. I never managed to diet successfully: actually, just the word ‘diet’ gives me sweaty palms. I am not thin and I think you might have a sneaky suspicion that I kind of like eating at this point, but I have always managed to keep my weight more or less stable. Now I know I have some internal regulator to thank for. Certainly not my iron will to resist temptations…