A good friend of mine has just returned from her first trip to Italy. First trip to Italy. It’s like some adolescent awakening a first trip to Italy. You will never be the same again.
My Mother will probably disagree here but I regard my time spend working as an au pair in Milan, at the age of 19, as my culinary awakening and the way I think about food now is defined by lingering memories and habits formed at that time. I saw a great quote on another blog site where the author remarked ‘well I’m off to make more food from food’. I think the author is American, but that sentiment would apply to the British too. Sufficient flavour in some foods can be an issue and the contrast if you are lucky enough to be eating in Italy is marked.
Now I know that the situation here has improved a lot over the last 10-15 years say but the Italian fruit, vegetables, cheese, cured meats and wine, all those deli items which can make a delicious lunch, have a depth of flavour which is hard to match except possibly by the French. One of the reasons for this is I suspect is the ambient temperature. Fruit and vegetables ripening on the plants, the intensity of the sun, storage methods, coupled with better collective culinary know-how, it all makes a difference. Before the restrictions on transporting liquids a few bottles of red wine would be heaved onto the plane as carry-on, you remember? In our case it was cases of the red in the car as we drove the 1,500 miles back up through France to the ferry at breakneck speed. Once home the wine would be presented as a rarefied object at some special event and it was supposed to transport us all back to our holiday. It didn’t really work though, England is too cold. It’s even worse with Languedoc Rosé, what was fruity and thirst quenching down in the South-West of France, seemed more like paint stripper in Blighty. It was always very disappointing.
Cheeses, salad ingredients and cured meats also travel about as well as the French Rugby Team. We in the UK tend to keep everything in the fridge and don’t let the food even warm up to our ambient temperatures before we consume it. Tomatoes are a case in point. Virtually tasteless straight from the fridge, yet given a couple of hours at room temperature, sliced and drizzled with Olive Oil and the merest pinch of salt they are transformed.
So when you catch those moments when you achieve a flash of those heady delicious Mediterranean lunches it’s always a surprise as much as a treat. Believe it or not a trip to Tesco recently produced such a lunch. Bread, cheese and tomato was about the size of it. However due to the fact that I had been shopping, the deliciously ripe looking beef tomatoes weren’t fridged anyway, the Spanish Manchego cheese out of the chiller for long enough and my new basil plant emitting the most pungent aroma, I felt compelled to assemble the following:
The tomatoes were sliced and oil, from a long since eaten jar of artichokes, drizzled over them (I do store such remnants in the fridge for such moments). A few torn basil leaves topped the dish off. The Manchego (ewe’s milk cheese, nutty and delicious) was in slices too and the Panini, Tesco own brand which I toasted, released a faint smell of Olive Oil. Pear, from the veg box and just ripe, has an affinity with sheep’s milk cheese, something understood by the Italians of Pienza, the home of Pecorino and some pear based jelly like condiment I can’t remember the name of……
Child 2 was with me and chose a grilled ham and cheese Panini. It is mildly irritating to me that he hates tomatoes.