20 October 2013
For several months now, I have been going around with an article from the Financial Times carefully folded and tucked away in the back of my wallet. The article describes a recipe for the French dish ratatouille, and is there ready to be whipped out at a moment’s notice in a supermarket so that I can purchase the necessary ingredients.
Truth to tell, I should have whipped it out in the days immediately after the article’s appearance back in mid-August, when the vegetables which form the core of this dish were still in season. But sloth and general laziness got in the way, so now I have to wait until next summer to try out the recipe, by which time the article will, I fear, be frayed and tattered.
After the release back in 2006 of the animated film of the same name
it seems hard to believe that there should be anyone on this planet who doesn’t know the dish, but just in case there are a few dinosaurs out there who, like me, have never seen the film and, unlike me, have never had the pleasure of eating ratatouille, let me quickly explain what this dish consists of. It is a stew of five vegetables:
aubergines (eggplants to some)
courgettes (zucchine to my wife and 60 million other Italians)
Ratatouille connoisseurs will immediately roll their eyes and cry out oh, la, la, it is not voilà, there is much more to it than that! They are right of course. For instance, you cannot just mix all the vegetables together and stew them, non, non! Each vegetable must be cooked separately, and then put together – in a certain order, messieurs-dames! – to stew gently. And not just any oil can be used to cook them, it must be olive oil. And the stewing must be gentle and long, to impart a creamy texture to the vegetables and an intensity to the sauce. And we have not even started talking about the minor ingredients: the garlic, the basil, the thyme, the saffron …. Yes, yes, all of this is true. But still, when all is said and done, it is a vegetable stew – or a ragout, if you prefer to remain French.
My wife asks me what I see in ratatouille. It’s OK, she says, but after all it’s just – well, a vegetable stew (or ragout). It’s the tomatoes, I reply, and some of my readers may immediately understand this. In previous posts, I have unveiled an unfeigned passion for this vegetable (and even for its wastes). OK, she responds, but in Italy we have a very similar dish, capponata, and I’ve never heard you going on about that. She’s absolutely right, of course (as she always is), and indeed to complete the catalogue several Mediterranean countries have similar dishes: the Spaniards have the Catalan samfaina, the Majorcan tombet, the Castilian-Manchego pisto; the Maltese have kapunata; the Greeks have briám and tourloú; the Turks also have türlü as well as şakşuka (just the names make me lust to try them). Then the South-Eastern European countries have similar dishes. Even the Philippines has a similar dish!
So I have to confess to a deeper reason for my being fond of ratatouille. I was introduced to the dish when I was a young boy spending my summer holidays with my French grandmother. I still remember with great clarity one lunch where a steaming bowl of ratatouille was put before us with great fanfare and to much ooh, la, la around the table. For this was not a dish from my part of Burgundian France. It hails from Provence, and more specifically from Nice. Its presence on the table reflected my mother’s childhood history. In the mid 1920’s, and in short order, my grandfather’s business went bust and he contracted tuberculosis. The family was destitute and without a bread-winner. In this moment of desperation, my grandmother managed to get a job as secretary to a rich English friend of hers, who with her husband spent the winters in Menton (a stone’s throw away from Nice). The whole coast of Provence pullulated with rich English during this period. It’s not for nothing that Cannes’s main boulevard along the sea – the one the film stars walk along during the festival – is called “Promenade des Anglais”
Coming back to the English lady, I suspect it was an act of kindness on her part to hire my grandmother; she had no real need of a secretary. In any event, it meant that until the Second World War the whole family would move south to Provence for the winter and return to Burgundy for the summer when the English lady and her husband went home to England (the family got smaller during the early 1930’s when my grandfather finally died of his tuberculosis). At some moment during these stays in the south my grandmother picked up the recipe for ratatouille. So for me, every forkful of ratatouille reconnects me with my mother’s family history.
I have to thank the kind, rich English lady for more than just ratatouille; I have to thank her for being of this world! When my mother was 18, my grandmother packed her off to stay with the English lady for a couple of months to polish up her English (she was studying English Literature). It was in the lady’s house that she met my father, aged 19, who was studying at the University down the road. The rest, as they say, is (my) history.
Ratatouille: http://www.bonappetit.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/grilled-ratatouille-salad-646.jpeg [in http://www.bonappetit.com/drinks/wine/article/the-5-best-wine-pairings-for-tomato-dishes-from-caprese-to-ratatouille-to-blt%5D