Sunday, 18 October 2015

Overthinking Food

"They're just apples."
Lately I've been having a lot of light bulb moments. Not big life changing ones, mind you, just little ones that cause me to think and make small course corrections like a captain sailing a ship on calm waters.  I had one of these this morning while I was visiting the Ventimiglia market in Italy.  It happened like this...

The Ventimiglia market is a large, vibrant, covered market made up of six long rows of vendors selling every type of Italian food you can imagine. 

The middle three rows are piled high with fruit and vegetables imported from everywhere in Italy, France and Spain. Rows one and six span the length of the sides like culinary bookends for the fruits and vegetables.  This is where the bakeries, pastry shops, cheese specialists, delicatessens, butchers, dry goods and fresh pasta sellers are set up.  Bunched up at the back there's a fish monger, a few florists, and a stall that sells luggage, hats, and aprons. 

When I visit, I tend to shop everywhere but the fifth row is by far my favourite. It's reserved for a dozen or so local producers, many of whom are older Italian women from the surrounding countryside. Their tables are overflowing with a seasonal mishmash of fruits and vegetables made up of, it seems, whatever they happened to gather from their garden that morning or the day before. 

I was strolling down row five, buying up this and that, when I spotted one of the women selling pretty little apples. I almost missed them altogether because they were partially hidden by some bitter greens that she'd piled haphazardly around them. 

I'd never seen little apples like these before so I wanted to know all about them. What breed were they?  Was the tree native to here?  Are they always this small? Where was her farm?

I started my food interrogation with "what were they called?" but instead of answering, she shrugged, put a handful or two of them into a little white bag and replied, "they're just apples." 

I laughed out loud.  "They're just apples." I repeated. This was my lightbulb moment which was:  perhaps that's all I needed to know.

Over the years, I've developed a habit of asking growers a lot of questions about the food I'm buying. Sometimes they share interesting information about their products, perhaps a recipe. I love hearing their stories and look forward to repeating them when I serve meals made with the ingredients.  

This insatiable need to know the story behind the food we eat has become a trend lately. We crave accountability and provenance and we love a good food story and I confess I'm as guilty as the next person.  Just ask my friend Colin who sells his products at the Lansdowne Farmers' Market in Ottawa.  He jokingly calls me a "food spy" because when we first met, I asked him so many questions about what he was selling he grew suspicious.   
To my Italian apple vendor in row five, her apples were just apples.  Simple.  There was no story.  Her apples were delicious, pretty, and a only a few Euro per kilo. 

So this is my story about having no story about the apples.  Old habits die hard.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Caste Dining in Monaco

Sorry, you're just not fancy enough
While I was having my hair done at my favourite salon in Monaco recently, I was chirping away to my long-time hairdresser Jean-Louis about the fabulous lunch I'd just had at a newish Lebanese restaurant in Monaco called Oliban.

It was the third time I'd dined there in 6 months.  The first time was with good friends from Canada, the second was with two fab American friends, and again a week ago with five of my foodie girlfriends for a Vegetarian Supper Club lunch.  They hit it out of the park each time.

Oliban is perched atop Monaco's oldest traditional food market, Le Marché de la Condamine.  It's easy to get to on foot, there's ample parking if you're driving, and four of Monaco's six bus routes stop nearby. All of that convenience aside, I keep going back because the staff are gracious and accommodating, the dining room is beautifully decorated, and they use linen table cloths and napkins, catering to a little ideé fixe of mine that all restaurants should have linens. But above all, the food is outstanding.  To find all of these qualities in one restaurant  in Monaco is truly a miracle to be celebrated, tweeted and shared.

I thought, therefore, that Oliban had a winning formula but apparently not.  Joe, a long time Monaco resident and go-to guy for what's-what and who's-who in the Principality, burst my bubble.

"Jennie," he said with his hypnotic French accent.  I love that he calls me Jennie. "How was the food?" he asked, frowning.

"Excellent" I said.  "It was fresh, delicious, they did a great job on presentation. It was some of the best Lebanese food I've ever eaten." I showed him photos of some of the dishes I'd taken on my phone. While he took a look I added, "The service was great too and it wasn't that expensive."

Oliban's delivery.  Your fresh vegetables have arrived
"Well," he said, looking at me in the mirror, scissors in one hand, chin in the other. "I don't think it will last."

What?  How could he think it wouldn't last? I presented my case.

"The food is amazing, the staff's great, they use real linen, and I saw crates of fresh vegetables and melons being delivered there this morning."  That to me was the best part - I counted six cases of fresh parsley alone.

"Mais, no," he said, "but that's not how it works here. You should know that," he scolded me with a "tsk tsk" noise for effect.

He continued... "You know the nouveau riche, and (he turns up his nose) you know, les snobs would never go there because there's no voiturier, (guy to park your car) it's above the Marché and les snobs would never be seen at any restaurant on top of the market.  It's not chic.  Not the place to see and be seen.  They don't care about the food."

His declaration crashed down on my newly coiffed head and for the rest of the day it slowly dawned on me that he'd made an important point. In Monaco, and probably elsewhere, whether we admit it or not, there's a caste system for most things and dining is one of them.

Excellent Tabouli, good friends and linen
I'd always thought I was more or less an egalitarian diner but in the same way that some restaurants in Monaco aren't my scene because they cater to perfumed Pucci posers, places like Oliban was not theirs.

After my conversation with Jean-Louis I've been thinking about my own food caste system. For example, in Monaco I'd never go to the tourist restaurants, (lower caste) because the food is mediocre and you feel as though you're being processed and taken advantage of.  

Then again, I've dined at roadside chip wagons and food trucks but only if the food is excellent.  In Hong Kong I've sat at a cracked plastic stool at one of the most dodgy looking street food joints you could imagine simply because they served some of the best tofu pudding in Kowloon.  Both definitively lower caste.

Probably the highest caste restaurant I've dined in is Monaco's über-luxe, three Michelin-starred Le Louis XV now "Alain Ducasse at the Hotel de Paris." At first glance, paying €230 for their Menu Jardin, a 4-course Tasting Menu may seem expensive but if you add in all the extra goodies like the amuse bouche, the herbal infusion tea cart, grand finale marshmallow and ice cream course, flawless service and the sumptuous room, it's a steal. I've always left there feeling as though I were floating on a cloud and it had been well worth the price.

I think to be a true food lover is to abandon pretension and a caste system of dining altogether and just eat.  I think the goal of authenticity, good food and service should be what makes a worthwhile dining experience - not if there's a voiturier or if you'll be seen.  We have enough of those.