THE GREAT EUROPEAN FOOD ADVENTURE | Vincennes | Rendezvous with Rousseau-4 — Local Ingredients and Traditional Methods

Nuala Hickey outside Hickey’s Bakery in Clonmel, Ireland. Photo © John D. Kelly

The food artisans and master chefs who seek an avant garde food sensibility present an interesting scenario. We started working on this traditional food project in 1998, almost 50 years after English cookery writer Elizabeth David said it was always about ‘local ingredients and traditional methods’ separate from the projected illusion of haute cuisine.

The first part – local ingredients that are fresh and artisanal – has been a mantra since the Nordic countries decided something needed to be done about their diet. There has been no renaissance of the second part – traditional methods – despite the sensibilities of the modern master chef. Among them we like what the Nordic chefs have done, Poul Andrias Ziska at KOKS more than Magnus Nilsson at Fäviken, without criticism of the Swedish chef. We are not so sure about Paco Morales at Noor with his reinterpretations of the Arabic culture that still define the traditional food of Andalusia.

It is a theme, is it not – Fäviken, KOKS, Nar, Noma, Noor – one word names that are clever rather than original, that seem to suggest that the ambiance is more relevant than the essence?

The artisans and restaurants that impress us are few and far between. Nuala Hickey with her traditional bakery behind the west gate in Clonmel in the Suir valley in Ireland stands tall among all the bakeries of Europe.

The Bottega del Vino in the centre of Verona, a stone’s throw from Juliette’s balcony, boasts one of the best wine cellars in Europe but it serves a range of local traditional cuisine that is unsurpassed throughout Italy, and that is no mean feat.

Stefan Welschen, with his Cheminots restaurant in Brig under the Simplon, is among a growing number of chefs across Europe with a fidelity toward traditional food produce, artisanal food products and traditional food, a Swiss success story.

Because the only people who can afford to eat at avant garde restaurants are the modern aristocracy and the modern bourgeoisie – who wouldn’t know an organoleptic moment from an orgasmic shock, and do not care that while they eat in splendour half of the people in the world live on meagre scraps. The heroes and heroines of traditional food are the people who work long hours in bars, cafes and small restaurants, to produce a quality of food that is beyond the majority of chefs who cook only for the wealthy.

It is time traditional food came out of the shadows.

Fresh food is a myth we have come to accept without thinking about it. Ironically freshness is one of the reasons why supermarkets insist on packaging and on cold or frozen transportation. It is why producers of certain fruits also insist on packaging their produce before it is ripe. In reality nothing has changed. Fresh means ‘local’ and ‘seasonal’. It also means market produce not supermarket produce, simply because farmers who sell their own produce pick it in the early dawn of the day of the market. These days soil on a vegetable is an indication that it is fresh and local!

Mara Miele has an understanding of the position we are in vis a vis sustainable food production – the production of fresh local food. When she researched food production in Tuscany during the late 1990s and early 2000s she identified a culture that had not changed much for thousands of years. The history of food can be summed up in three words, cooked, cured and curdled, or in five if you add dried and preserved. Fresh, as Massimo Montanari had pointed out and Miele had reiterated, had been the preserve of the aristocracy and their entourage but the winds of change were evident.

When we started the Fricot Project in the late 1990s, following a quick-stop survey of the state of traditional food in England, France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland, the European Union had just launched its (DOOR) traditional food database, to record produce and products that qualified for Protected Geographical Indicator (PGI), Protected Designations of Origin (PDO) and Traditional Specialities Guaranteed (TSG) symbols and status, the Swiss had decided to record all their indigenous produce, value-added products, traditional recipes and food culture stories while the French had begun to produce a series of books on their regional produce, products and recipes. None of this activity was coincidental.

Some said it was a reaction to the globalisation of food, the expansion of fast-food chains, the import-export model and the purchasing power of the giant supermarkets. Mara Miele noted in 2002 that ‘knowledge about typical and traditional cuisines [was] being lost from diverse national contexts’. To support her assertion she quoted a comment from Adam Gopnik that appeared to suggest French people had abandoned their traditional dishes, such as blanquette de veau, gigot d’agneau and pot-au-feu.

The New Yorker correspondent in Paris between 1995 and 2000, Gopnik collected many of the essays written for the magazine into a book – Paris to the Moon. He picked out the foibles of French cuisine and, using the result of a survey as a tool, started what was probably the first reconstruction of a nation’s food habits.

Most amusing was his remark that ‘seven percent believed that Lucas Carton, the Paris restaurant that for a century has been one of the holiest of holies of haute cuisine, is a name for badly cooked meat’. Such sarcasm was not exclusive to the French. A decade later Danes claimed they only went to Noma, the best restaurant on the planet, ‘for the experience, you don’t go for the food.’

Gopnik revisited French food follies around that time when he interviewed Alexandre Cammas, co-founder with Emmanuel Rubin of restaurant guide The Fooding. Cammas and Rubin were two gastronomic journalists apparently ‘exasperated by the conformity and conservatism of French food culture’ and wanted the world to know why.

‘Fooding’ means to eat and drink with feeling – to recognize that one eats with the nose, the eyes, and the mouth, with everything that makes us human! At the time we began, French culinary journalism was narrowly focussed on the cooking of the kidneys, the tenderness of the poularde. What was on the plate was all that counted! But who lives that way? Who eats that way? We wanted cooks who cooked with the whole of their selves and souls, not technicians of the table. French cuisine was caught in a museum culture: the dictatorship of a fossilized idea of gastronomy. And this dictatorship has been enforced by tourism: you have tourists packing in to experience gastronomy in a kind of perpetual museum of edification. We wanted to be outside that, sur le pont, on the bridge, in front, defining everything that is new. We wanted to escape – foie gras, volaille de bresse, all the clichés.’

… continued in part 5.