NOT ONLY IS IT WIDELY CONSIDERED AS ONE OF THE MOST HEALTHY CUSINES IN THE WORLD, BUT CHEF WILLI HAUETER INSISTS IT’S ONE OF THE MOST HEADY TOO
Thinking Mediterranean, almost always makes one dream of warm winds, great beaches, better and more flavourful foods than anywhere else. Even better, almost all the products are freshly available every day, whether it’s fish, shellfish, vegetables, wild mushrooms, meats, cheeses in more varieties than anything else, sausages, cured, smoked and pickled meats, olives in infinite variations, and only everything else. All nicely procured by season and experience.
It was in 1990 when my conversion to Mediterranean food came into focus when I worked for a gentleman named Michel Richard, still possibly the best chef that I have come across to this day. His ability to pull me into his myth was the beginning of a beautiful love story that has sustained since.
I thought, after having apprenticed for seven years in Europe, that I had it all pretty much wired. But I found , to my great surprise, that not all was conquered yet.
So here I was, working with him, while exploring more and more of his southern French lifestyle and food creations. He punctuated each lesson with so many stories that I was mesmerised. Of course, it was only later, when I worked with other chefs such as Marc Ehrler, from Antibes, France; Victor Gomero from Valencia, Spain (who introduced me to the Spanish Mediterranean taste, which was just as good as French), and later Leonardo from Rome, Italy and Angelo Konidis form Athens, Greece that I realised that one must learn the cultures and habits of these countries first, before understanding the food and its influence in daily lives.
From Athens to Barcelona, the cuisine is rich, full of flavour, with fresh herbs, sun-ripened vegetables, notably the tomato, many fish and even more roots. I fell deeply in love with all these ingredients and worked closely with my ac-
quired friends on the issue of doing it right. I started to travel extensively to these regions to learn more, and to observe first-hand how they are grown, used and handled.
Italy is very much the pasta land, but not only. It is actually incredible to see the delectable variety of of dishes on offer: cacciucco (the seafood soup and stew), farinata (Tuscan bread made with chick pea flour), branzino (the small bass), brasato (Tuscan braised beef in pure red wine for hours in the oven), the polentas, cheese (most of them so creamy, like Acceglio, Pecorino; always consumed after meals and before dessert, with fresh fruits).
And, lets not forget the pride of Piedmont: the glorious white truffle, which is actually not white but brownish or dark brown. It is used in many ways; shaved over pastas or risottos. The famous bottarga, the dried tuna roe, which is also used over risottos and pastas, is always shaved paper thin and never cooked.
In the smaller towns in the Mediterranean, lifestyle is inextricably entwined with food and wine. People come out in the evenings, and weekends, to play boccia or boules; playing cards, or simply enjoying the company and the day. Possibly the only logical reason for achieving old age is to be able to enjoy the leisure of time and the company of food, friends and wine.
Spain, with its tapas known worldwide today, is more a lifestyle statement than a reign of food. The many varieties served daily vary depending on the region where they are located. Tapas can have a Catalan, Basque, or simply Spanish inspiration. Papas Bravas (mildly spicy potatoes with a tomato-mayonnaise sauce), arañitas (baby
squid heads, fried and served with tartar sauce and lime), el jabugo, or pata negra (24 and 36 months respectively of a curing process of marvellous hams) are just some of the delightful tapas on offer at most restaurants. The Campesino bread laced with garlic, which is the perfect accompaniment for the so called pan boli and bacalao pil pil, with its sauce made purely from the juice of fish and olive oil is another staple favourite.
The market in Barcelona is a show of cured meats, chorizos, chorizitos, and cheeses, (many made from goat milk) such as the manchego, which comes in various ages and styles. This cheese is always eaten with dulce de membrillo, the typical sweet paste derived from quince, which can also be derived from guava or mango. One has to see and savour the flavour and texture to believe the actual combination; just like Romeo and Juliet one cannot exist without the other.
The south of France, along with Antibes, is possibly the culinary centre of it all. The cuisine here is as fresh as it is flavourful with fresh herbs and seafood, especially small fish being used extensively to prepare mouth-watering dishes. Many are also used in the famous bouillabaisse fish soup with saffron and pistou. One can only admire the variety of all these products combined with other earthly pleasures such as, what I recall as, the largest variety of lettucein the world.
Many berries, wild and cultivated, wild mushrooms in dozens of varieties, that serve as vegetarian replacement to meats in daily meals, and fittingly, the black truffle—the piece de resistance of French food are also found here. Oysters also form an important part of French-- Mediterranean cuisine. The Belon oyster is undoubtedly the best and is always consumed raw with just a hint of mignonette or fresh lemon squeezed over. Wash that down with a glass of champagne brut for cold comfort.
Goose liver, another product of outstanding provenance and taste is procured from special geese, nurtured and fed until they reach maturity, to produce a large liver with just the right amount of fat, savoured in pates, mousses, terrines or freshly sautéed with truffles, fruits with just a touch of port wine.
French pastimes stretch langurously over more varieties than other Mediterranean countries with Petanque or what the Italians call Boules, being an obsessive preoccupation rather than an active pastime in the south of France.
Comprehending and coming to terms with all these experiences, I have recently started (due to a Japanese experience I had some years back in Tokyo) to experiment with a fusion of Mediterranean and Japanese ingredients, which are incredibly well balanced and light. Many items used in Japanese cooking such as light soy sauce, miso paste, hun dashi, green and yellow wasabi, pickled fruits etc., have a wonderful ability to pair with western foods such as butter, cream, risottos, meats and fish, combined with powdered wild mushrooms, such as porcinis. The melange produces a wide variety of new dishes yet to be presented in any restaurant. This is sure to offer gourmands a whole new world of taste and texture to experiment with and experience, even as we explore Mediterranean food in all its enviable versatile glory.
Chef Willi Haueter is executive chef at The Imperial, Delhi
The colourful smorgasboard that constitutes the core of Mediterranean food
Many tapas bars serve Mediterranean-inspired short eats; the famed cacciucco, which is a Mediterranean seafood soup and stew (below)
An impressive array of cured meats that include the popular chorizos and chorizitos (above) ; Fusion ravioli with truffle oil (left)
Terrine: French meatloaf made with coarsely chopped ingredients