24 October 2011

Food twitches


Say what you like about English or British grub, but it is my firm belief that the Brits have probably the most outward-looking and open-minded approach to food in general.

While it is common to spot people in other countries poking fun or sneering at what is deemed "inferior foreign food", you won't find the same attitude in the UK, especially amongst newer generations (the old days of nans slagging off "that foreign muck" are hopefully over, hopefully...).

Of course, no-one's arguing that British cuisine is as varied, inviting and world-renowned as many others, but it is a fact that people outside the UK are often guilty of spectacular bias whenever their brain attempts to process the notion of cuisine north of the channel.

"Fish & chips", I hear you say...
Yes, fish & chips. But also cottage pie, cumberland pie, sausage & mash, cornish pasties, bubble and squeak, welsh rarebit, fry-ups (which are addictive -as well as hear attack inducing, and I love them), steak & ale pie, gammon & eggs, egg & chips, beans on toast, shepherd's pie, ploughmans' lunch...the list is quite a long one and you can click on this link to get a better and more informative idea.

And that's without mentioning the extensive list of puddings and cakes, as well as the amazing variety of local cheeses (how many people know that Britain produces more cheeses than France?).

It is true, however, that British food is perhaps on average a little bit too stodgy and a little (or sometimes a lot) too dull, but that is where the Brits' enviable open-mindedness to culinary cultures comes in.

With the possible exception of Germany (and maybe the Netherlands), you won't find another place on earth that has managed to open up so much towards foreign food - to the point that a lot of it has been adopted as ordinary part of the local diet.

Witness the fantastic appreciation of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi dishes, but also Egyptian and Lebanese, Greek and Cypriot, Chinese and Thai, Italian and Spanish, American and Mexican and the list goes on to cover literally every corner of the globe. And I'm not just talking about the extensive range of restaurants and take aways that you find anywhere (including, more often than not, small towns). This is also true of supermarkets, where the last thirty years have seen an exponential increase in "international food" made available to shoppers.

Which is why you will rarely hear British people (especially those under 50) throwing parochial tantrums at food, or moaning and whining that it's not "proper enough" and that "the mozzarella here is better than the one you find in the neighbouring town" or similar pedantic nonsense as it's far too common amongst, say, Mediterranean countries.

Of course people will still have their own preferences, so you will find some that, for instance, find Mexican food "too spicy" or "not to their taste", as well as others who adore it, but either way it has nothing to do with looking down at inferior (read "foreign") cuisines.

Equally praiseworthy is the respect generally garnered to vegetarians. The last two generations have known astonishing steps forward when it comes to anything meat-free and non meat eaters and one only has to look at menus anywhere in the UK to understand how easy life is for vegetarians as opposed to most other European countries.

So top marks to the Brits' approach to food. Almost anywhere in the UK, if you can afford it (which is the major problem) you can choose to have something different, or exotic, or new, or foreign (or none of the above) any day of the week and it's your loss, mate, if you've never ever wanted to try tomato sauce in a way that isn't exactly "like mamma makes it".


Which, you may have suspected, takes us to Italy.

There is no disputing that Italian food is one of the most popular and best-renowned in the world. The only debate that can be had is whether it figures amongst your top five, or your top three, or whether it's the best of all. Whatever, it's a matter of personal taste.

What's so endearing about Italian cuisine is the sheer amount of regional varieties. You literally drive 40 km from one place to the other and you already find a consistently different range of local specialities and recipes.

Every single corner of Italy has its own specific typical pasta dishes or pasta sauces, ways to cook meat, fish or whatever under the sun. And so you go to Italy and you marvel at how, say, lasagne is typical of Emilia Romagna, pesto from Genoa, carbonara from Rome and ragu' from Bologna. Each region has its own specific pasta shape (try orecchiete from Puglia, gnocchi from Lazio, or casoncelli from Lombardy), but also a myriad other dishes, anything you could imagine cooked in a million different ways.

Then, of course, there's the dozens of pizza types - one of my favourite dishes in the world (incidentally, English people often marvel at how different pizza in Italy is, and rightly so, I guess there's only the word 'pizza' in common).

And, last but not least, wine, which is also a major source of national (if not regional, provincial, or local) pride.

It's equally amazing how Italians value things that are cooked from scratch or the importance they place upon real extra virgin olive oil, local produce and so on, and how eating out is generally an experience that routinely includes polite and attentive service to a level that in most other countries would only be expected in Michelin-star restaurants.

However, there is a major other side of the coin. Barring few exceptions (which no doubt exist), Italians are definitely the most parochial, pedantic and insular eaters you will ever meet.

Anything deemed as "improper" (which mostly means unfamiliar), whether a non-local ingredient or an overly experimental concoction, will be the potential cause of a philosophical/pedantic debate (about, say the most suited soil to olive trees) at best, and the trigger of a full-blown row at worst.

Tell an Italian that you add non extra-virgin olive oil to your pasta sauce and you'll be treated like the equivalent of a kiddiefiddler. Reveal that you don't make tomato sauce from scratch and that you buy ready-made jars and you'll be laughed at as if you were a true idiot.

Then there's the issue, particularly in the southern part of the country, of your patronising local co-eaters practically co-opting you into what you should order. This is to do with the particular brand of "machismo" that you also encounter in countries like Greece or Cyprus. Forget aggression or similar Northern European twitches: a true southern Italian man will, let's say, "strongly recommend" what you should eat while also making a big fuss out of being on first-name terms with the waiter. Disagree or resist and you'll be made to feel the equivalent of  someone caught red-handed while desecrating a holy shrine.

And this is before we even start mentioning issues of parochialism. You won't believe how, for instance, someone from Naples may dismiss outright an entire meal out in Milan ("che schifo!", "yuk!" ), just because they are not made exactly in the same way they would be made back home.

You'd have to see it to believe how defensive and confrontational Italian people get when it comes to sticking up for their local ham, mozzarella, (extra virgin or be damned) olive oil, wine, etc when compared to those hailing from another part of Italy.

Which is why you can only imagine what the attitude towards foreign food is. You will not experience true "food fascism" until you set foot in Italy and have a chat about it with the Italians. Aside from the staggering succession of knee-jerk "eurgh", "yuk" and "bleurgh", you will be blown away by the limited availability of non-Italian food establishments anywhere in the country (Chinese restaurants being the partial exception, although I dare you to find many Italians ready to own up to ever eating there).

Of course this is not so true of big cities, but still compare the number and range of non-Italian restaurants in Milan with those you will find in London, Berlin and Barcelona and there is just no contest.

I won't forget a flight from Barcelona to Milan only a couple of years ago where the Italian people behind spent the entire time sneering at Spanish food and, just generally, displaying such olympic levels of ignorance and narrow-mindedness that I was one step away from turning round and telling them to fuck off.

Or I could tell you about a job I had around a decade ago which consisted of guiding Erasmus students around Birmingham. The Italian contingent spend three quarters of their time doing everybody's head in as they whined non-stop like stroppy little kids at how "vile" and "shit" food in England was.

Which begs the final point. Vegetarianism, a concept so totally alien to so many in the country, young and old, northern and southern, that you just wonder whether the word "narrow" and "minded" would actually be enough to decribe your average Italian.

Cue one of the many times in which I was offered a local delicacy. This specific one was in Lombardy, near the city of Bergamo, and it was based on blood, guts and entrails. Except that it didn't quite tickle my fancy so, "no, grazie mille, but I don't eat meat", I said with the most polite smile possible.

Well, I wish I'd had camera at hand to film the reaction. The pace of gesticulation increased tenfold and the facial contortions started defying the laws of physics until the man told me amiably to "vaffanculo!" ("fuck off", of course) and turned away from me - his ratio of course being that I was probably just being picky and fussy and this was preventing me from trying an absolutely great delicacy which, to make matters worse, was also unique to that particular area.

An interesting example of one-way generosity turning into spectacular rudeness.


Spanish people too are very proud of their food, but they don't take it to the same quasi-fascistic extremes as the Italians.

Most Spaniards would champion their regional cuisine rather than Spain's as a whole, which is typical of a country where so many people see themselves as hailing from their own region, first, and Spain, second.

Also, most would be unlikely to engage in never-ending pedantic arguments over the total purity of an ingredient and would rather relax and enjoy their meal than go on about a long-winded philippic about whether olive oil from Valencia is better than that from Tarragona and so on. Quite simply, they probably just wouldn't give a shit.

Personally, I would place Spanish food on the top of my culinary table. I love everything about Spain's eating culture, the way they cook things and the staggering regional variety (which is on a par, if not more, with Italy).

In fact, I don't think the international market garners Spanish food the reputation that it's due. To put it bluntly, the Spaniards haven't been as cunning or as effective as the Italians (or the Chinese, or the Mexicans, or the French) in marketing their food to the world.

Most people would just associate Spanish cuisine with the stereotypical paella - and maybe gazpacho and tortilla if you're lucky, yet living in Spain taught me that those dishes are just a fraction within an astonishingly wide selection of delicacies. If only they were more popular abroad.

As for what is popular, it really depends where you live. The common trait, however, is that the Spaniards tend to eat ginormous lunches and smaller dinners. Eating out at lunch time is also bafflingly cheap. Everywhere in the country restaurants offer a so-called "menu", which is a choice of three (or even four) courses of often amazing (and always home-made) dishes served in gut-busting portions. The starters alone would often be enough to knock a northern European diner out for the rest of the day.

At dinner time, the Spaniards would rather a few montaditos (or pintxos, or even tapas portions) to be had with a drink or two than a sit-down meal. Or if a sit-down meal it is, they would often order a ración or media ración to be shared amongst people - the sharing here being crucial as sit down meals at dinner time are often incredibly expensive, especially outside Catalonia.

So here's the unusual thing: incredibly cheap and generous lunch-time menus and incredibly expensive dinner-time ones. Seriously, it is not uncommon for the price of a single dish ordered at dinner time to totally dwarf the cost of an entire menu available for lunch.

Spanish restaurants are also usually less frilly than Italian ones. Unless you go for super expensive ones, you find that even mid-range Spanish restaurants are more spartan and informal - cue paper table cloths everywhere, something you'd only find in the most rustic and cheapest pizzerie in Italy. Also typical is the sight of empty beer or coca cola trays stacked up right by entrance or anywhere totally visible.

However, mark my words. The best and most authentic meals in Spain are best enjoyed in as cheap and rustic and downmarket a place as you can find. It'll make you fall in love.

Not, however, if you're a vegetarian. 99 Spaniards out of 100 would still offer you something containing ham even after you warned them that you don't eat meat. The general grasp is that anything that doesn't look like a plain steak is acceptable to vegetarians. And forget labelling or anything like that. I personally bought a "bocadillo vegetariano" (a vegetarian sandwich basically) on two occasions, only to find out there was a fat ham slice in it. Except that the label made no mention of it.

Back to the regional variety, my personal preference goes for the entire Atlantic coast of Spain, all the way from Galicia (in the west) to the Basque Country (bordering with France). Just for the record, Galicia got me into what they call pulpo (octopus), Asturias was the one place in my life where cheese ceased to be something to be looked at with suspicion (try the amazing cabrales), and Bilbao and San Sebastian make me feel hungry just thinking of their amazing pintxo tabernas. If you love fish and seafood in general, just book a holiday anywhere in the north of Spain and do so now.

Catalonia too offers some spectacular dishes (fideua', pan amb tomaquet, and esparragos amb salsa romesco being my absolute favourites). You'll find that food on the Mediterranean side of Spain tend to consist of less elaborate meals and more raw vegetables and salads than on the Atlantic coast, while Andalucia and the south will show you unprecedented levels of garlic usage in a load of dishes.

However, a word of warning about Spanish restaurants and tapas bars in general concerns a cavalier approach to the levels of hygiene you may be used to. Especially in the cities of Barcelona, Bilbao and Valencia, I have personally witnessed hair-raising hygiene standards - i.e. entire trays of food left uncovered on bar counters for hours on end and right in front of smoking customers (often inches away, literally).

In Bilbao, in particular, the floor in too many tapas bars and restaurants gets swept or cleaned once only, meaning that, after the lunch-time rush hour, the floor will be literally covered in filth, used-up tissues and various leftovers (see this picture I took) until cleaning takes place around closing time at night, suggesting that health & safety/environmental inspections in certain parts of Spain are not as rigorous as elsewhere (and that's diplomatically put).

Yet, that's part of the charm, if you like, and I must also add that many years and tons of meals out up and down the Iberic Peninsula never made me ill - whereas the land of Health & Safety (the UK) and the country of the bella figura (Italy) were both the theatre of a food poisoning or two. By that, I mean that tough practices are not necessarily a guarantee against the shits.


Deutschland turned out to be a welcome surprise in terms of food. Many Germans are often surprised to hear but, in common with the English, they too endure an appalling international reputation when it comes to their cuisine.

A typical vignette is that of hearing Germans slagging off English food for a good half hour until you tell them that most European countries look down on German food too. Cue a look of astonishment and the question "really?"...

And yet the Germans love their food and know exactly how to enjoy it. The variety is incredible, including at  regional level. The North has a lot in common with Denmark, with herring being the local institution (try the variety known as Matjes, or -better- the fried one going by the name of Brathering), as well as fish in general (I dare you to find another place like the fish market area in Hamburg), while Bavaria and the South share similar traits with Austria and Switzerland.

Again in common with the UK, Germany has also opened up to international cuisine in a way that would be alien to the Italians, but also the Spanish and the French. Big cities are packed with restaurants and take aways from all around the world and, for the record, one of the best curries of my life was actually enjoyed just off Senefelderplatz in Berlin.

Supermarkets too are neatly arranged according to geographical location. Shelves after shelves are packed with dishes as well as spices and pickles and the rest with Italian, Spanish and Greek as the most popular choices on display.

But, back to local food, Germans love their Bratwurst (sausage) which can also be available in the Currywurst variety (served with curry sauce or powder).

More in common with Mediterranean countries and less with the UK or Holland, bread is also extremely important. From rye ("Roggenbrot") to onion-flavoured bread ("Zwiebelbrot") to more orthodox, if you like, rustic bread rolls, bread is absolutely essential every time you go for a German meal. Try the so-called Laugenbrötchen, which is basically a bread roll-sized pretzel and it's absolutely amazing.

Jacket potatoes are also very popular, and so are sauces. UK readers may think that their extensive use of ketchup, mayo and mustard outdoes any of their counterparts in Europe, but you won't have witnessed a true sauce or dip lover until you set foot in Germany. Anything from the Spanish alioli to the local version of tartar sauce (remoulade), or from knoblauchsauce (garlic) to oliventapenade, will be a staple part of the Germans' unrivalled admiration for dressings and condiments.

A particular mention goes to cakes and pies. Even if you don't initially warm up to German cuisine, you are bound to fall in love with their wide range of Stücke, with cherry pies (Kirschekuchen) and the peculiar cinnamon-flavoured pastry known as Franzbrötchen my top-two personal obsessions.

As for vegetarianism, if you don't fancy eating dead animals you won't be made to feel like a freak (as it is the case in Mediterranean countries) and especially big cities will shock you with the sheer amount of choice on display - even for the most hardcore vegans known to man. However, watch out for veggie-friendly labelling as the latte ris not as thorough as in the UK or the US.

A possible fly in the ointment if you're about to eat out on German soil regards the time. Germans tend to dine quite early, on average probably even earlier than the English and certainly hours ahead of the Spaniards. 

Also, the price of eating out. Restaurants are almost invariably very cosy and inviting and full of candles and cushions and wooden panels but, to put it bluntly, unless it's a take away we're talking, they are on average very expensive.

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