A Foodie’s History

The world, I have often been told, is divided into two sorts of people: those who like to divide the world into two sorts of people and those who don’t. Pursuing this theme, it occurs to me that the world is divided into those who live to eat and those who eat to live. This is no mere semantic difference – it underpins a way of looking at the universe and a way of living in it; it determines priorities when it comes to cooking and eating the edible parts of the world that surrounds us.

I don’t really remember if there was a precise moment when I first took an interest in food. Having a gourmand for a father and a brilliant cook for a mother must have had a bearing on my early gastronomic development. I suppose there was a gradual transition from eating out of necessity or habit, to eating for pleasure.

I remember as a small boy of seven or eight my mother taught me to make ‘uove al tegamino’ or eggs in a skillet. What differentiates this from two fried eggs is a good example of what I mean about an attitude to food. You take a small two-handled skillet and heat some good olive oil in it. When the oil is hot, add two fresh farm eggs and reduce the heat. As the eggs start to firm up season with salt and black pepper, add two tablespoonfuls of home-made tomato sauce and grate some fresh parmesan on top. When the whites are cooked take the skillet to the table along with two slices of fresh bread and eat the eggs using the bread as a spoon and pusher.

It’s only a fraction more effort than frying two eggs, but that tiny expenditure of effort has turned a basic piece of sustenance into a simple but elegant snack. And that’s when I learnt lesson one: the difference between food simply for nutrition and food as pleasure is only one of care in preparation and a little extra effort.

In my last year of boarding school we sixth-formers were given access to what was called a kitchen. I seem to remember it was part of a greater scheme to encourage self-reliance. This kitchen contained a two-ring electric hob, an electric kettle and nothing else. Maybe that was part of the master plan – make young men use initiative in the face of culinary deprivation. Anyway we soon learnt that two rings are perfect for pasta. One ring boils the pasta, the other makes the sauce. This was the year of pasta alla carbonara and saffron rice with curry.

The luxury of four university years in a comfortable flat in Herbert Street was tempered with the whole new world of having to clean up after yourself. The in-built indolence of young adulthood ensured that all cooking done had to comply with one essential criterion; there had to be almost no washing-up. To eat interestingly and well needed a little ingenuity. Old friends may remember just how often they were served pan-fried steak with a bearnaise sauce. It’s such a winner; with a modicum of effort a plain steak becomes haute cuisine. Well, not very haute, but hautish in studentland.

When I moved into the flat my mother had thoughtfully equipped me with a slim volume by Pomiane for my new life of self-reliance. It was the cookery classic ‘Cooking in Ten Minutes’. A lifetime’s experience of a great chef reduced to simple, easy to follow techniques. Here is Pomiane’s recipe for Sauce Bearnaise:

‘Peel a shallot and cut it very fine. Put it into a saucepan with two spoonfuls of vinegar. Put it on the gas. Boil it until the vinegar has evaporated considerably. Add a spoonful of cold water. Salt. Lift it off the fire. Add two yolks of egg and put this little saucepan into a large one containing boiling water, holding the smaller one firmly. Stir quickly, with a fork. The mixture of water and yolk of egg will begin to thicken. At this moment lift the small saucepan out of the water, add two ounces of butter cut into pieces the size of a nut. Put it back into the hot water. Stir the mixture all the time with a wire beater. The butter melts and the sauce becomes creamy. Lift it out of the water a little. Add two more ounces of butter cut in pieces. Stir. Put it back into the water. The sauce thickens. Keep on stirring. Dip your finger into the sauce. If it burns, lift the saucepan out of the hot water. Stir fifteen seconds more. The sauce is ready. It should be thinner than mayonnaise. It should, however, coat a spoon which you dip in and lift out again. If you like the flavour of lemon, add a few drops at the beginning of the operation, before the butter. You are then much more likely to be successful with your sauce. This sauce is a delicious accompaniment for a fried steak or any grill.’ He’s right, it is delicious and it works.

Despite my father’s clearly expressed view of the madness of the idea, some years later I found myself the owner of a restaurant. It was from this point onwards that my love of food evolved into a rather more passionate affair – my skills improved and my weight increased. All through the eighties I delighted in eating and serving others staunchly old-fashioned cuisine grandmere. Offal of all kinds, game, strongly-flavoured roasts, home-made terrines and breads, wild greens from the hedgerows and lush, creamy sauces.

It was during these heady and fattening years that I learnt lesson number two: some of the simplest recipes can be among the finest. It’s a lesson that takes time to learn because it needs self-confidence to produce something so simple that it appears to be without effort or skill. Yet it’s true; some foods are at their finest when at their simplest. And the obverse is equally valid: complexity of preparation is no guarantee of a pleased palate.

For ten years we changed our menu fortnightly. Even by the roughest of counts that’s a lot of different dishes, so it’s by no means easy to try and pick out a winner. But I’ll nominate this one: fillet of pork with lemon and cumin. True to lesson two I’ve chosen it because it’s blindingly simple. Take a pork steak and cut it into medallions, that’s to say cut across the meat making slices about quarter of an inch thick. Heat enough butter to cover the bottom of a frying pan and when it’s sizzling add the medallions. Turn them after a minute, and after another minute reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Sprinkle with salt and ground cumin and squeeze the juice from half a lemon into the pan. Cover the pan. After three minutes turn the medallions again and cover it again. Three minutes later serve the medallions with the juices from the pan.

Since then my only experience of restaurants has been in other people’s, which certainly has much to recommend it. There have been some memorable meals in the last ten years: dinner and lunch over a week-end at Le Manoir au quat’ Saisons, carpaccio in Harry’s Bar in Venice, warm pate de foie in Les Trois Garcons in Aix-en-Provence, wild boar in Au Coin des Enfants Perdus in Belgium, crayfish on a brai in Cape Town, fresh marlin on a Mauritian beach – the list is long and the remembrance brings salivation. But over and above these mouth-watering memories there is a dish beyond compare, a dish of such blissful delight that custom can never stale – truffle salad.

Yes, I do know what truffles cost, but in my part of Italy they grow in the woods, and sometimes friends have more than need or want. These are the circumstances that have produced three times so far my own culinary nirvana. Once again it’s simple to make. Take half a kilo of truffles and half a kilo of fresh parmesan. Cut the truffles and parmesan into quarter inch cubes and mix them together in a bowl with enough good extra virgin olive oil to coat the cubes. And that’s it. Without a doubt one of the most spectacular dishes I’ve ever eaten and as simple as 1,2,3.

People who eat to live are mostly people in a hurry. For them food is an irksome necessity that takes time away from an already full agenda. But to a genetically pre-determined gourmand like me, a good meal is life-affirming – it’s a big part of the delight of living. Taking the trouble to make eating a pleasure seems entirely sensible to me. Because when you think about it, the joy of eating is the longest lasting of all the bodily pleasures – from the moment of birth until the last breath it gives gratification to us all.