Herb Oil And Amontillado

Mexico fascinates me. I’ve never been there, but apparently every single foodstuff it is possible to purchase can come loaded with chilli, and spicy on a scale I would find unrecognisable. This may, of course, be lies. Even sweets for children are fiery little bullets of red peril, albeit very sweetened.

I want to have grown up in a country with a palette so acclimatised to the heat of spice that I can appreciate the nuance in a dish of chillis. I understand that the flavour notes are many and varied, but I can only process heat. I know that my persistence would be rewarded, but it is a daunting task.

I want to have grown up in a country with a unique and recognisable food culture. I don’t know about you, but I cannot recognise the food culture I grew up in as some exciting and unique thing. It’s not that I don’t like British food; I love it. It’s just that I don’t think I would be able to write down a list of core ideas which are uniquely, culinarily British. And no, persistent rain doesn’t count.

With Mexico I would put that palette down as including chilli, coriander and lime. Those would be my starting points; the fixed positions from which everything else could be improvised at will.

Spain has none of that: not to my knowledge, at least. That said, I could be as wrong about that as I undoubtedly am about Mexico. While I don’t identify Spain with any fixed points of flavour, I could be told that olive oil, saffron and Pimentón were the identifying features of Spanish flavour, and that I am massively over-simplifying Mexican cuisine. I need to get some mole in my life, apparently.

I use Spain as a reference point here, because there are such strong regional differences: from the colder north to the achingly arid centre; from meat to shellfish; from cider to wine. I find it hard to square the circle of such regional differences, yet I find it very easy to assume an absence of it in a country I have never visited. There is something oddly patronising about my narrow world view.

I cannot be the only person guilty of such misunderstanding. I have written a series of blog posts on my “Love Of The Idea Of” places. Not the places, but the idea of the places: France, Canada, most of Central Asia. I have been to some of these places, but I would rather speculate and sound as if I am uniquely authoritative about all of them. I am not, it has to be said: I am stating that here as fact.

Sambal is such a generic term, but it needs to be. It means different things in different situations, to different people. And most of those people are wrong. That is a generalisation. We map our passing whims of perception on to the world, and we cannot help that they set like concrete. What to one person is an oil, thick with chilli, is to another person a soup with some okra sticking out of it. To a third person it is a paste, pungent with the flesh of decaying anchovies. They all seem good to me.

I like food with a good bit of punch to it: the food eaten by the British across the Christmas period is amongst the least flavourful set of ritualistic concoctions any of us have ever experienced, and we all seem to look forward to it. It’s why some bright spark invented chutney, I suppose. The same applies to tomato ketchup, brown sauce and piccalilli. Every Christmas I long for a decent Chinese takeaway curry, or a bowl of fiery noodles. My taste buds reject the bland potatoeness and breadiness of it all.

Those are my opinions: they may or may not be welcome; those are where my thoughts have led me: they may or may not ring true with someone reading this. I’m not sure if that really matters.

A lightbulb illuminates a stark table; a wheel of cheese, as wide as a barrel and as heavy as a grown man, is being cut open in a ceremonial manner. Small daggers open up a crack around the surface. There is a precision and a delicacy in the practice; a sensation that this is a form of reverence for the cheese. There is no such thing: this is pure artifice; it has as much meaning as a matador teasing a bull with a brightly coloured cape. This is but a facet of what I feel about Italy. It is a reconstruction.

I can see the image clearly in my head; it is taken from a documentary, which may have been, on some level, a pastiche. The collective view of Italy is a conflicted one: on one hand it is a venerated space, of history and art and food; it was formerly the centre of the known universe. On the other hand it is a tourist destination and a living museum; it makes fun of itself to earn a decent living.

Stereotypes can never be an accurate portrait of a people struggling to live their lives now. Italian people do not simply exist for our entertainment; they work hard at their jobs, they raise their families and they live in the worlds we pass through, long after we have departed and gone home.

Starfish cannot survive in fresh water. This is an image which has stuck with me all day, and it shows.

I see saline water as inherently dirty, possibly because I cannot drink it. (For what is the point of any liquid if I cannot drink it?) I see it as the dirty river which flows past me and the opaque sea which sits at the bottom of the street. I do not have this attitude towards the seasoning broth of the water in an oyster shell, so why do I feel such contempt for the open water? Do I feel fear or just rejection?

Some cultures will eat anything which moves; anything which may give them the sustenance to make it through another pitiful day. That means that, just as some brave soul cracked open an oyster and found a meal, someone will have eaten a starfish, at least in desperation. I wonder what it was like for them. I very much doubt it killed them, but I cannot imagine that it was pleasant for them.

I need to stop focussing on what my mind tells me people are like, and actually find out. Or at least stop commenting on them as if it were fact. The fact of the matter is that I have been to Spain, but I have never eaten a starfish. What I know about Mexico, however, is something far more opaque.

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