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A FOOD LESSON FROM ITALY – JUST KEEP IT SIMPLE

2nd Aug 2018

When you are as obsessed with food as much as I am, it is inevitable that your choice of holiday destination is as much influenced by the local cuisine as by the landscape or the local culture.  I cannot imagine spending my time somewhere where food is not an essential part of daily life.  Small wonder, therefore, that for my holiday this year, I chose to go to Italy.

Unfortunately, because of the shambles which is Schipol airport, my luggage appears to have taken a European tour all of its own.  Certainly for the first few days of my holiday, I had to make do with the clothes I was standing up in and the all too meagre contents of my carry-on luggage.

That wasn’t great when the temperature was up in the 30s every day, but when something like this happens, you realise (well, I do anyway) that you generally pack far too much when you go away.  When did throwing a few clothes into a suitcase become an exercise in transporting all the accoutrements of daily life with you half way round the world?  How much technology and attendant chargers do you really need anyway?

What I learned in those few days of travelling rather lighter than I wanted to was that it is perfectly possible to live life on a much more simple level than we tend to do – and that is also the lesson taught to me by Italians when it comes to food.  If you want to eat well, keep it simple.

I was staying in Venice, which is a city largely devoid of Michelin-starred restaurants, but instead home to many decent neighbourhood trattorias, as well as one of the finest food markets in the world.  Much as I am a fan of Norwich market, and I shop there pretty much every week, when I see the wonderful Rialto market, and in particular its vibrant and huge fish section, it brings joy to my foodie heart.

When you get chatting to the merchants, they are only too eager to offer advice on how to cook their glistening, fresh produce.  Just don’t make the mistake of asking what sauce you should put on the fish, or what complex cooking technique you should employ to make your final dish restaurant quality.

If you do, they will look at you strangely; why would you want to do anything which would mask the flavour of their top-quality produce?  Just cook it simply with a few herbs, and let the natural flavours sing.  Sure enough, the restaurants which are doing brisk business are those which keep it simple. 

No wonder Monsieur Michelin’s guide is largely untroubled by Venice.  This is a publication which celebrates the cheffy, the complicated, the technically-adept, the hard-to-reproduce-at-home.  I just don’t think the Venetians are interested in all that.

Many of the best dishes I ate in Venice had at most five ingredients – and that is often the sign of top quality produce and a chef who has the confidence not to mess around with them.  It’s a good rule of thumb (and it also rules out just about every convenience food – they always have a great long list of constituent parts, many of them alarmingly chemical-sounding).

Now, I’m a man who loves an avantgarde tasting menu as much as anyone; I admire the ability and dedication that top chefs bring to creating food theatre.  My kitchen at home is not entirely free of cheffy gadgets such as a sous-vide and a dehydrator. 

But the simple, delicious food of Italy is making me re-evaluate all of that.  I’m starting to think that perhaps I’ve been taken in by the Masterchef-style programmes which urge contestants on to ever-more complicated dishes.  Can you imagine what the preening food critics called in to judge such competitions would have to say if they were presented with a plate of simply grilled fish?  I suspect that phrases such as ‘lack of ambition’ might come to the fore, however delicious the final result.

But feeding ourselves is not a televised cookery competition.  It is one of the most basic things that we have to do, and whilst some of us love to spend time in the kitchen, for many it is either a chore or something they struggle to find the time for.

So let’s learn from the Italians.  Let’s spend that time shopping for the very best ingredients, making the effort to patronise market traders and independent food shops who make the effort to offer top quality produce.  And then let’s leave the complicated kitchen techniques to the professionals, and instead keep it simple.

This article was first published in the Norwich Evening News and the Eastern Daily Press.