Beijing, 5 August 2012
My wife and I once compiled a list of the foods and recipes we each brought to our marriage as culinary dowry from our mothers’ kitchens: she is Italian and I am Franco-British. Without a possible shadow of doubt, her contribution has dwarfed mine. Through her, I entered a magical land of taste which I have never left nor ever wish to.
I had my first glimpse of it when I visited Italy as an impecunious student in the 1970s. In those days, simply by flashing a student card one could access University cafeterias, where for a ridiculously cheap price one got a three-course meal, a small bottle of wine, and a coffee. Mmm, even now, after all these years, I still remember with crystal clarity those few weeks of initial revelation. The pasta, just a little hard – al dente – with velvety tomato-based sauces and a sprinkling of parmesan cheese! The meat – veal, beef, pork, chicken, whatever was on the day’s menu – grilled to juicy, tender perfection! Accompanied by a simple tossed green salad, with perhaps a few slices of tomato, drizzled with a little wine vinegar, a generous portion of virgin olive oil, and a pinch of salt. Then just a piece of fresh, ripe fruit of the season to round it off. Washed down with a simple, robust wine, no fuss, no pretensions. And to cap it all, a strong expresso. After such a meal, I had been revitalized and was more than ready to endure another round of museums and churches.
This was just the start. My wife took me by the hand and led me through a fairytale land of food: pastas of all dimensions and geometric complexities accompanied by an astonishingly wide spectrum of sauces; dried and cured meats from every animal and every part of the animal; pizzas and foccaccias; cheeses, whose variety leaves my French cheeses in the dust (let’s not even mention British cheeses); fruits whose names even now I know only in Italian – nespole, cachi, fichi d’India; wines of a breathtaking range which all those fussy French wines can never hope to emulate. And the food always cooked with a minimum of artifice, allowing its essential goodness to come to the fore. Lord, may the cooks in Paradise be Italian!
I was reminded of this cornucopia – indeed, became quite homesick – when my wife served up bresaola for supper last night. From time to time, we feel the need for food from home, and last night was one of those times. For those of you who do not know bresaola it’s a dried beef meat from one of the Italian Alpine valleys, the Valtellina. It’s difficult to find in Beijing, and – even more important – to find of good quality. It has to have the right ratio of fat to lean, it has to be sliced very thin, it must not be too salty. Last night’s bresaola was of excellent quality. And we ate it with a drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice. That’s all. Nice and simple. And delicious.