I am sure that many of you have already guessed who the winner of the prize is and for those of you worried that it might be Scotland or Wales I am very happy to announce that the winner in my quest to find the world's best food country is.....Italy! In all fairness how could it ever have been anywhere else, it was pretty much a no contest apart from their neighbours the French who only lost by a short head with their defeat having more to do with their arrogance than culinary matters. Oh Italy, where do I start? If I had to be any nationality apart from Irish it would probably be Italian and in some respects having spent a lot of time amoungst them we are very similar in our love for the craic, the only difference being they like their craic over an expresso with an amoretti biscuit whereas we wash our own brand of craic down with 10 pints of Guinness and 20 John Player Blue.
Instead of talking about all the wonderful dishes they have in Italy or their choice of sensational ingredients or huge choice of outsanding restaurants and chefs I'd rather just tell you one story that for me sums up the whole country......
I was working for a billionaire and we had just pulled the yacht into Syracuse in southern sicily for an overnight stopover on the way to Greece. Up at 6am I found the owner on the aft deck fully dressed and ready to step off the boat, "come on Niall we are off to the market" he said. Now this billionaire was more known for partying until 6am but we headed off at a brisk pace as the sun rose over Sicily. The market was a hive of activity and I found myself surrounded by lobsters literally just out of the water, marinated vegetables, whole swordfish, sweet baby tomaotes and all sorts of culinary treats that made what we call a farmer's market in our cities look quite frankly pathetic! These people do this every day of their lives and you could see the passion in their eyes, they lived for the food.
Eventually the billionaire led me down an alley way and into a little vegetable shop which had hams hanging from the roof and barrels of wine dotted arounb the room. We were warmly embraced and offered seats that were hastily gathered. What followed was food that was so remarkably simple that it couldn't be called a specific dish but rather a tasting menu of simple ingredients. We had thin slices of the best ham I have ever eaten, crusty bread, Parmigiano Reggiano with aged balsamic, marinated artichokes, simple sardines and griled aubergine. When they brought small glasses of wine I at first thought they were mad seeing as it was only approaching 7am but after some persuasion I had a glass and it formed the perfect partner to the never ending selection of treats coming our way. The mama of the family was making our feast in a small open kitchen within our view and as the son brought the food to our table the husband and daughter helped other customers. We laughed and joked in our pigeon Italian with our hosts and I have never felt as content in my entire life. This is only one story of my food experiences in Italy but like many other people I have had 100s of similar experiences over the years all over Italy. I know you are probably thinking that we were treated like kings because I was with a billioanie and that the normal Joe would never recieve such lavish service and to a certain extend I was thinking the same thing during the meal. It was only when we were leaving and our hosts managed to pry who we were and what we did from a slighty tipsy chef that I realised they had no idea beforehand, this was their standard service and I guarentee if you went to that place tomorrow you would be treated exactly the same way.
As I sauterned up the street slightly tipsy at 8 in the morning with the billioanire I thought to myself that I really was a useless asshole! Here I am trying to marry fancy fois gras with reductions and over the top desserts with garnishes that take hours to make when the real food heroes are down that alley making real food everyday of the week for a handful of euros and serving it with wine in plastic cups. They didn't need a 200 million Euro yacht or fine silver, or ingredients flown in from all over the world to produce their magic, they were smart enough to use the ingredients they have at hand and keep it incredibly simple to create a feast that would grace any table in the world.
If I die tomorrow I am demanding that I come back as an Italian!
Wednesday, February 20, 2008