EDITORIAL | Not Just Food

Elizabeth David

A wind of change, like the Provençale mistral, is sweeping through European cookery. For the first time in five centuries the traditional food of the peripheries is ascending the high ground.

It shouldn’t be a surprise.

Ever since Elizabeth David produced her book of Mediterranean recipes and followed it with books on French and Italian provincial cooking in the 1950s, and food scientists began to study the health of southern European communities, traditional food has attracted the enquiring eyes of clever chefs who believed her when she claimed it was always about ‘local ingredients and traditional methods’ and separate from haute cuisine.

With its emphasis on fresh produce, primarily fish and fowl, vegetables, legumes, oil, salads, herbs, seeds, nuts, roots, grains, berries and fruit, on dried and cured meats, on fermented foods, on ancient methods of bread making, on old style confectionary and pastry concoctions, traditional food has become the new tourism.

From the dairy slopes of Iceland to the coastal streets of Turkey, from the wild cranberry forests of Latvia to the olive groves of Sicily, food is being used to attract travellers and visitors.

Traditional food is being celebrated by seasonal festivals, weekly markets and daily promotions, in the regular functions of cafes, kiosks and stalls, and by the growth of agritourism.

Chefs are winning Michelin stars for their interpretations of traditional dishes.

For Azerbaijan, Tabrizi Kufta, the domed meatloaf made from ground beef or lamb, rice, peas, potatoes, herbs and spices, with a core of dried fruit, nuts, fried onion and hard-boiled egg, is a traditional dish unique to the ancient city finding favour among Azeris who are still rediscovering their traditional foods. Even more so with the popular Plov, a rice pilaf that comes in countless versions.

For Denmark, the Stjerneskud, that classic from the Smørrebrød menu, is incomparable, an open-faced sandwich made with rye bread, battered plaice fillets, steamed white fish, fresh shrimps, mayonnaise, caviar, lemon slices, salmon, asparagus, cucumber, tomato slices, lettuce, halved boiled eggs and fresh dill.

For Iceland, the blood pudding known as Slátur compares well with the countless varieties across Europe, but Hangikjöt, smoked leg or shoulder of lamb, is the piece de resistance and, along with Skyr, a low-fat cheesy yoghurt available plain and with fruit, among the highlights of the Icelandic food industry.

For Lativa, like all the Baltic and northern European countries and regions, bread is associated with festive folklore and to eat communally-made Pīrāgi, a traditional roll filled with bacon and onion, is a treat, especially if various sweet and savoury fillings are also on offer.

For Russia and its origins in the Caucasus it is the far-famed Shashlyk, skewered marinated lamb, beef or pork (and even fish) spit-roasted over an open fire, served with various sauces heavy with a citrus flavour, flat bread (pita), gherkins and beer. Throughout the continent, from Berlin to Madrid, and especially in the lands that border Asia, Shashlyk and Shish products are now commonplace.

For Sicily it is likely to be Arancini, the big fat breadcrumb coated rice balls stuffed with ground meat and peas (or canestrato or gamberetti or porcini or prosciutto), that are sold in their thousands daily, not least on the ferry crossing at Messina. Along the coast there is open air fish frying in Palermo or pasta fresh from the artisans in Siracusa.

For Switzerland, where 45 million sausages a year are consumed, it is the distinctive curved white sausage made from veal, pork, milk and spices known as the St. Galler Olma-Brätwurst served with a small brown roll called a Bürli. Bought in the Swiss capital Berne, it comes with a choice of numerous Rösti (grated cold potato with bacon or with bacon and rosemary or with cheese and onions or plain).

For Turkey, Tarhana, the beneficial fermented yoghurt-based cereal, is the epitome of a popular traditional dish. When made into Tarhana Çorbasi, the easily digested thick creamy soup, it is consumed by all ages and desired by the poorly and sick, inevitably the clue to its longevity. Although it is produced commercially in huge quantities, Tarhana (pronounced tra hana) has never left the home. Fermented in the cool of the kitchen, it is dried in the heat of the sun, packed with love and sent out to family and friends.

For Europe, as a connected continent of rivers and lakes, mountains and hills, estuaries and valleys, it is about simplicity, like autumnal apple pie, Gruyère cheese, and roast chestnuts, that peculiar mountain delicacy of the Valais canton in southern Switzerland, rustic yet rewarding.

Such dishes are ubiquitous throughout Europe.

Traditional food filters into our subconscious because it brings together people and place, memory and time.

The farmer and fisher, the artisan and specialist, the baker and chef, the confectioner and pâtissier – each brings a flavour of their expertise and knowledge.

Fricot Europe is about the importance of authentic ingredients and those curious similarities when foods connect, and not always because there is a climatic, geographical or historical reason.

Sometimes people come to the same conclusions about the food that is available to them. Mediterranean food features heavily in this series.

This is because the Balkan countries, Italy and the Mediterranean Islands have taken their influences from the far-flung reaches of Europe, the Middle East and north Africa.

Their food is characterised by ancient relationships with Etruscans, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabians, Turks and countless others, with trading peoples of the Mediterranean and by its diverse climate – from the snows of the alps in the north to the grassy slopes of its central hills to the sands of the sun-splashed coasts in the south.

This has given Italy in particular its greatest strength, the regional variety that produces pork-meat and grain products in the north, citrus fruit, olive oil and tomato products in the south, and cheese and dairy products the length of the peninsula.

Look at baccalà. The food cultures of Veneto, Liguria, Campania, Calabria, Sicily, the Basque Country, Galicia and Provence are defined by this delicious dish made with air-dried cod from the Lofoten Islands in the far north of the European continent or with salt-cured cod from the Iberian peninsula in the south.

The marriage of cod and olive oil is, in the sentiments of the Dogale Confraternita del Baccalà Mantecato, not just food. ‘It is history, religion, adventure, secrets handed down from cook to cook, from mother to daughter: the pleasure of the palate, mind, heart.’

‘… questa è la cucina di Venezia: un crogiolo
sempre acceso che filtra, accoglie, unifica
e presenta in tavola piatti di straordinaria
bontà, nel segno inconfondibile della propria
antica cultura e d’una civiltà che si proietta
ancora giovane e viva nel nuovo millennio …’

Europe, like Venice, is a melting pot of food cultures, with traditional recipes that are always being filtered by memory, place and time.

Photo Elizabeth David courtesy © Derek Hill/Michael & Joseph