India Today - - FOOD -

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

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