We all go a little mad at this time of year, don’t we?
I’ve had enough of being wet through, caught out in yet another deluge. I’ve had enough of getting splattered with mud and who knows what else when I venture out on my moto, I’ve had enough of claustrophobic tuk tuks, all zipped up with no air and only fumes inside. I’ve had enough of the street in front of my house turning into a canal each day after five minutes of rain –thanks to the builders on my corner, who put in a new pavement and gutter completely ignoring and blocking off the storm water drains. Ah the rainy season, can’t live with it, can’t live without it.
There is one aspect of the rainy season I am really enjoying though, with any break in the down pour I find myself dashing off to any one of the fresh produce stores that have recently sprung up in my neck of the Penh. I scour the offerings looking as much for inspiration as for quality, then I buy up some fresh ingredients, grab a bottle of wine, a mad dash back home and then off into the kitchen.
Its cool enough to actually get in there and cook, not just ‘smash up a dish and bail out before you have heat stroke’ kind of cooking; it’s a time of year for relaxing, enjoyable, forget all your troubles, time to play type cooking. Cooking for me, at this time of year, is no longer a chore but a charm, it’s a chance to cook lovingly instead of laboriously, preparing a meal is no longer a mission it’s a meditation!
Now, I may have a love for cooking but, I don’t necessarily have a flair for it, watching every available episode of master chef has taught me little in the way of cooking skills, but it has taught me much. Mostly, it has taught me how I start each new season optimistically looking at the new contestants and thinking yeah, that’s me: passionate home chef, creative, undiscovered. Then I see the newbies turn out their first dishes, usually something akin to a restaurant standard masterpiece and I am immediately forced, once again, to admit to myself that, were I to every actually try out for the show, the only stock I would be cooking with would be laughing stock and I’d probably be resigned to washing dishes instead of preparing them long before the first commercial break.
However, in my kitchen I still rule, I remain undeterred, I remain inspired. Not least of which, is because I enjoy the process as much, if not more, than the outcome, cooking for me is therapeutic, almost a performance piece and something to throw yourself into body and soul. Be well aware, that to pull this off, you definitely have to play it loud! Let me set the scene: firstly, apron on, sleeves rolled up, full surgical scrub then hit the play button and turn the volume way up near eleven! When cooking Italian food, for me, it has to be opera or classical, Rossini, Orff, Albinoni, Mahler do it for me. If it’s Asian food I’m cooking, then its more your Buddha Bar, Nirvana Lounge mix. However, in this cooler season I tend to take the opportunity to cook Italian or other western dishes and drink more elegant, understated wines. Now, theme music is on, pour mandatory glass of accompanying wine, this gives new meaning to cooking wine, it is the wine you choose to drink whilst you are cooking the meal.
Take out all ingredients -don’t hesitate to pause occasionally or to whirl around for no apparent reason other than the music suggests it. Then, chop, slice, dice, spice, sear, sauté and stir, always with a flourish, always with a nod to the soundtrack and always with your heart right there in it, always be in the moment, sing along to taste.
Writer, Jonah Lehrer in his treatise on art and neuroscience, ‘Proust was a Neuroscientist’, postulates that Marcel Proust had ‘an entire novel, or six of them’, hiding away in his brain, waiting for just the right moment of inspiration to unlock them. Proust found that initial inspiration upon tasting a humble madeleine cookie after it had been dipped into a cup of tea; a sensory experience that brought flooding into his consciousness long forgotten memories as a boy in his home town of Combray.
I can never again partake in the simple joy of eating a madeleine cookie, after it has been dunked into a cup of tea, without reflecting on the immense beauty of Proust’s fluid and crafted prose.
I like cooking up Italian dishes lately, partly because it is an indelible part of my childhood and partly because of its simplistic beauty. A truly great Italian chef once told me that the big secret to Italian cooking was to find the best produce then keep it simple and simply let the produce shine in the dish. This philosophy works for me, it also gives me the opportunity to listen to Italian opera and I like that very much.
“In Europe, we thought of wine as something as healthy and normal as food and also a great giver of happiness and well-being and delight. Drinking wine was not a snobbism, nor a sign of sophistication, nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary.”
When my parents were far too young to be married with children and I was about four years old and taking my first tentative steps off the small block and beyond the high fenced boundary that marked my home, I made my first friend. The Italian boy was about a year older than me he came from the house directly across the road, his parents were first generation Italian migrants to Australia and their house, once I entered inside, was very different to mine. The heartbeat of their household was the kitchen and my new friend’s mother seemed to be eternally cooking, their kitchen table seemed to have a constant buffet set upon it and always, there was wine, better still, we children were even encouraged to drink it, albeit heavily diluted in water. Every family gathering, celebration or even family crisis required settlement over a meal which, seemed less a meal and more of a continuous picnic to my bright, shiny, innocent eyes.
Till then, I had only been exposed to a sort of long distance English diet that was like all the worst aspects of one of the least attractive cuisines on earth.
This consisted mainly of taking a meat cut and ensuring that it was well over cooked; then, taking three vegetables of three different colours and boiling the crap out of them until there was definitely no flavour left in them at all; finally, smother with tomato sauce, gravy, salt and pepper -all in order to try and get some semblance of flavour onto the plate and there you go, lunch and dinner seven days a week. This would differ occasionally, when all of the above would be tossed into a boiling pot of gravy and served up as a stew or was roasted in the oven till dry and flavourless.
In defense of my young and in-over-her-head mother, this was the norm at the time and a time honored tradition where the final generation of Anglo Australians would cling desperately to their culinary roots as handed down from the first settlers.
Once I’d discovered Italy in East Brunswick there was no stopping me, I would often be set to bed when I would hear the familiar tell-tale noises of communion and partaking coming from the front balcony of the house just across the road; these people didn’t just eat, they celebrated life around food and wine and I wasn’t going to miss out. My first forays out of my sheltered family home where less like seeing how the other half of the street lived and more like going to a different planet!
On more than one occasion I would slip silently out of bed and resplendent in my flannel pajamas, inch along the hallway and out the back door, through the back gate and across to my Italian neighbor’s house where they would be taking in the cool evening breeze on the front porch, eating, drinking, laughing, loving and listening to their strange music in a language I could not understand. I would also tell them what were probably my first real lies, that my parents knew I was there and I had their blessing. This was my introduction to la dolce vita and for me these were moments I have never forgotten, moments that live with me still and for which I am grateful.
Whatever my Italian neighbors put into my memory they also put into my bloodstream, so that in the cool air of a Cambodian rainy season, I am able to be transported in my own kitchen to a place where the passions are fired with the meat, my pulse is boiling with the pasta and my heart is tossed with the salad. When the cooking is finished and the opera has been performed, what I present -to my family or my friends- on the plate, is hopefully edible, what has happened to me inside is definitely beautiful.
I’m also drinking a lot of Bava’s wines at the moment; they fit the mood I am in perfectly. Roberto Bava is so completely passionate and eccentric that his disposition borders on outright madness and sheer lunacy -I love that about him. Roberto loves wine and he makes extraordinarily good wines up in Piedmonte in Italy’s North East. He also loves chocolate so he decided to start making that too and he loves music. He loves music so much that one day he had an epiphany and came to the realization that certain wines tasted better when paired to certain concertos or instrumentals. To assist us, he has even helpfully put a sketch of the appropriate instrument on the labels of his wines.
The Wine: Gavi di Gavi, a dry white wine from the Gavi commune, made with the Cortesse grape. The Bava family has been tending vines in the Piedmonte area since the 1600s and their Gavi di Gavi is wine is one of the finest of its type. Crisp, flinty dry with a harmonious mid palate and a refreshing finish. There is subtle complexity and notes of white flowers, apple, honey blossom and citrus.
Roberto adds: We have made this wine for over 50 years and we continue to produce it because it balances the range of piedmontese wines with its diversity. An excellent white varietal that transcends the stereotypes of international whites. The English horn on the label is a fitting symbol for the nobility of its sound, elegant and persistent, and the fresh, lively tone that only wind instruments can produce.
The Dish: Pappardelle al dente, fresh basil pesto, pan fried pancetta, grated fresh parmigano, cracked Kampot black pepper, drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
The Music: Tomaso Albinoni Adagio in G minor, this is one of the most moving pieces of music I have ever heard and is today the most recognized piece of Albinoni’s prodigious repertoire. Yet Albinoni, (1671 – 1751) did not write the piece himself, it was written by 20th century musicologist Remo Giazotto, sometime immediately after WW2 and first published in 1958. Giazotto claimed that he had written the composition by reconstructing Albinoni’s style and based on a fragment of an unpublished piece of Albinoni’s work discovered amongst the ruins of a bombed building.
Perhaps, a bit like an Australian in Cambodia, cooking like an Italian, inspired by fragments of boyhood memory and imagination about his first real friend?
# Note: The wine is not to drink with the dish; it is to drink whilst you are cooking the dish. The music is not to listen to whilst eating the dish it is to listen to whilst you are preparing the dish. For wine to drink with this dish I hope, like Proust you will find your own inspiration but just in case; perhaps eat it whilst listening to a concerto for English horn. Perhaps try Michael Daugherty’s Spaghetti Western for English Horn & Orcehstra (1998).