Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Thanks for the memories

I don't want to holiday in countries where the people aren’t passionate about their food. It's not a statement that I'm particularly proud of.  I feel it makes me sound a little shallow, dare I say greedy, but a large part of the enjoyment of any holiday for me is eating. I know you could argue that every country has its culinary gems and sometimes as a tourist you just have to work a little harder to seek out, say, the best pork knuckles in a country like the Czech Republic, slowly sinking under the weight of its national cuisine.

Boiled pork knee with mustard in Prague

When holidays are as few, short and precious as mine, I want a sure thing. Easy wins. A gastronomic guarantee. 

Ciao Sicily. The Italians’ obsession with food and seasonal produce hits you at every turn.

The thing that strikes me most about Italy, particularly after living in London for a few years, is how proudly untrendy Italian food is.  The London food scene is an ephemeral creature, constantly changing as it embraces the latest food trend. 

Honest Burger in Soho

I can barely keep count of the rash of burger joints and southern BBQ diners opening across London. Last year London dining was all about small plates, sliders and Argentinian steak. In complete contrast, the Italians have a national cuisine and restaurant culture which is determinedly oblivious to fads and food trends. Their cuisine is deeply entrenched, regional, seasonal and seemingly unchanging. Even in Sicily, a part of Italy that has been repeatedly invaded, the culinary influences of the Greeks, Spanish and Arabs, while present, never overshadow the strong Italian backbone of the cuisine.

Just because Italian cuisine is unchanging, it is by no means unexciting. Ironically, Italian chefs appear even more creative when they are able to breathe fresh life into the dishes and combination of ingredients that have been cooked and eaten for generations.

Nowhere was this more poetically demonstrated than at La Madia; an unassuming restaurant, hidden in a small industrial town in Southern Sicily, that's deservedly attained Michelin status. Every dish was unique, inventive and indescribably delicious, yet firmly underpinned by Sicilian classic dishes and ingredients. 

Mozzarella, basil and tomato
Octopus salad
Spaghetti with tomato and aubergine
Red mullet arancini
The chef, Pino Cuttaia, in explaining his approach to cooking in the introduction to his menu, sums up the Italian food philosophy:
"I am always asked if there is a food product in my kitchen I couldn’t live without or an ingredient that best represents my way of cooking. Actually there is one ingredient that more than any other defines my idea of cooking. My secret ingredient is my memory. Each one of my dishes has a sprinkle of memory in it."

Thanks for the memories Pino.