A week or so ago I was searching Netflix for some light hearted entertainment when I stumbled across “Chefs Table”. I’m immediately drawn like a moth to a flame towards anything that so much as hints toward having any kind of food photography in it, so I clicked play. What I wasn’t expecting was such an evocative, passionate story of Massimo Bottura and his fight to create truly original food at his Michelin Starred restaurant Osteria Francescana, in the very traditional town of Modena in Italy. Of course, there were a sufficient number of slow motion scenes filming wisps of steam rising from his freshly baked creations, but what really captivated me was the story of his passion for creating exciting new dishes and pushing the boundaries of haute cuisine. Flavour was the guiding light on his culinary pilgrimage- but it seemed his vocation to find the road less travelled and pave the way for those who followed.
It reminded me of a trip to Turin with work this summer, where I was lucky enough to fade into the background at dinner one evening and become the audience to a dialogue between my two Italian colleagues that made me salivate almost to the point of public embarrassment. They were talking about a tomato.
“You don’t get good tomatoes in England, there’s not enough sun”
“No, of course. How can it ripen under all that cloud?”
“Exactly, I remember when I grew up here; the smell of tomatoes was the smell of the summer. I used to eat tomatoes like apples, the flesh was so red and perfect. Biting into it and feeling the juice drip down your chin. I was like Eve eating the forbidden fruit in the garden of Eden.”
“Mhmm. And sliced, still warm from the sun, and sandwiched with fresh, creamy mozzarella”
“And basil! Picked from the windowsill!”
They were both eating that cheese and tomato salad in spirit as they spoke. There was a fire in their eyes (and, presumably, their stomachs) as the conversation moved on to other summer garden vegetables, grilled over an open flame to caramelise their sweetness. I was happy to sit and listen, understanding perfectly the nigh-on bliss of the Italian tomato (one of the first meals I ate when I arrived to live in Trieste was prosciutto and tomatoes on a rustic loaf).
I happily worked my way through the chewy crust and unctuous toppings of my wood-fired pizza as they continued their reverie… As we moved downstairs to pay the bill the owner of the restaurant invited us to share a measure of Limoncello with him. We politely declined- full of carbs and having had a long week hosting our library events- but before we knew it the shot glasses had been filled anyway. Lined up along the bar like tiny goblets of liquid gold, there was one for every adult in the vicinity.
“Mama made this with lemons from her own tree.” His eyes rolled back just a fraction as the memory seized him. “You don’t get lemons as good this far north, you need the Southern sunshine to help them grow and ripen…” We sipped the Limoncello as he reminisced, overcome with nostalgia for his lemon scented youth; it was like a little bit of Heaven had trickled down through the clouds and into our mouths.
You can learn a lot from listening to an Italian talking about food. They don’t gorge on additive laden convenience food; the act of eating is almost a ritual. Every morsel is cultivated with care, prepared slowly and considerately, and eaten with greedy appreciation. A single olive can elicit as much satisfaction as a homemade rabbit ragu, simmered over the stove for hours and poured over freshly rolled pasta ribbons.
Food passion is, I’ve realised, what I live for too. I sit eating breakfast, dreaming of lunch. The smell of my afternoon coffee sparks my appetite once more, and I mentally run through what I have in the cupboards.
I’m going to try and step up my cookery game over the next few months, in an homage to the Italians who have enlightened me as to the true potential of really good food. First though, I’m going to binge watch every other episode of Chef’s Table.
I hope you enjoyed reading the first of these Food Passion posts, I’m hoping to write more as I find more and more inspiration!
As a side note, I am deeply saddened by the events that are happening across the world at the moment, most notably in Paris. I don’t feel comfortable writing a post on this, as terrorism is so incomprehensible and inhumane, but I wanted to say that I am proud to have seen such an outpouring of empathy for the victims and resilience against the attempts to divide us. In these dark times, it is the strength of humanity that is providing hope to those who are struggling to see any light at the end of the tunnel. Thank you to everyone who is providing that light, however small.