Moving to a new country opens up experiences of new and exciting gastronomic traditions. I think that food defines a country as much as its art, language and music: think of Italy, and pasta springs immediately to mind, think of Britain, and a Sunday Roast materializes in your head, think of Australia, and, we have absorbed the gastronomic traditions of at least twenty countries, but many people would say: “meat pies!” Pies have achieved the status of a pseudo-religious icon in Australia. You name it, and we’ll shove it in a pastry case with gravy.
Think of Spain, and those not in-the-know will immediately wax lyrical about paella, pronouncing it painfully. And that gets up my nose! The cocina of my adopted land, Galicia, is so very different from the cocina of the south. We have versions of paella, sure, but there is so much more to food here in the north.
It doesn’t resemble the food of my peripatetic youth. I have lived, respectively, in the UK, Australia, the USA and Belgium, and I have always lapped up all the national, regional and local dishes that I could find. It was not a surprise to anyone who knew me well that I became a chef and restaurateur, with a degree in History and English by way of a detour around my true vocation!
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Friends hate to cook for friends who are chefs. They feel that they are under pressure to perform and compete a bit. But I appreciate anything that is set in front of me, simply because I haven’t had to cook it myself!
I insist on only four things when I eat: that the food is seasonal, local, fresh and well-prepared. No fuss. No bearded hipsters hunching over my dinner with tweezers, balancing micro-herbs on the tucker. When I eat, I don’t want to be subjected to gastro-porn, and I don’t want a simple dish to be “deconstructed” all over a slate tile, splashed with some kind of weird tasteless, unnecessary foam, or buried in chocolate “soil.”
What a joy it is, here in my new home, to sit down in a café and eat food that has not travelled great distances to reach my plate, nor been “revived” in order to make some fatuous, ironic culinary point.
Last week, a French friend dropped over with a few kilos of fresh jabali meat (wild boar). Her freezer, and that of her hunter neighbour, was over-flowing with the stuff. The last time I ate wild boar was in 1984, in rural Poland, but that is another story, and you will have to buy the book if you want to hear it!
It was a thrill to receive such a treat, so I invited my friend, her Workaway volunteer from the USA, and two local pals, to Sunday lunch. I treated the meat with all due respect. The animal who donated it had lived a free life in the nearby woods, rootling around as nature intended, before ending up in my pot.
I slow-cooked it for four hours in Mencia wine, with a few bay leaves, some thyme and rosemary from my garden, a tablespoon of the ubiquitous pimiento dulce, and a whole fat bulb of locally-grown garlic. It was pretty special. Served up with seasonal greens and some roasted spuds from the field up the road, it pleased the crowd. I resisted the urge to hunch over it with some tweezers and micro-herbs. But I did tear up hunks of warm bread from one of our two excellent village bakeries, and chuck it in a basket, so we could suck up the sauce.
For breakfast the next morning I ate eggs, fried in a little olive oil (hard to find Galician olive oil, but it’s great stuff and worth hunting it down) flavoured with some butter. My neighbour’s chickens gave me the eggs. These local girls peck around their small garden, safe from the foxes, but free as…well, free as birds. They enjoy life here, as much as I. Like them, I am fenced in a bit, but happy to peck around my patch, eating what I can find.
Do I miss the eclectic variety of food that I enjoyed in Australia? Sometimes. That’s when I rake through my recipes and jump the fence. I’ll use some local beef to make a Rendang, maybe flash some pulpo in a pan with cumin and lemon, or fire up the barbi with some castana wood, split and flatten a fat chicken and go Portuguese with the pili-pili.
As we become more conscious of how we are treating our world, seasonal, local eating habits will have to become a feature of life again. It’s neither logical nor reasonable to expect to eat decent strawberries in December. The childish delight that I experience every time I pick and eat an apple from one of my own trees will never get old. A bag of windfall pears from my neighbour’s trees can produce a tarte tatin, sweet pear and almond bread, or a fruit compote to eat with yoghurt made from the milk of local goats.
I don’t look back to my recent years in Sydney through a pink fuzzy nostalgia filter, when “lunch” was dashing out of my office to buy an over-priced sandwich and a coffee, then dashing back to eat between meetings. Now lunch takes two hours, at least. Not counting the nap-time after. I don’t long for my dinner to be delivered to my door by taxi, sweaty, limp and tepid, in a plastic box, because I am too exhausted after a two-hour commute home to cook.
The joy of bagging an armful of greens or a string of chorizo from the village market is a pretty special feeling, and I think my relationship with food has changed; food’s not something to show off with or to “experience”. Sometimes, some people don’t have enough of it, nor do they have the luxury of choices.
I am close to my food; where it is raised, where it is grown, so I naturally care more about it. I care that the cows in the field who give me my milk are well fed, and happy. I care that my bacon hasn’t travelled a thousand miles by road, stressed and terrified, in a filthy truck before it is slaughtered.
I care that my jabali had a chance to run through the woods doing its thing before I ate it. I care that my chicken, and her eggs, had fresh air, decent food, and a life worth living. I also waste far less.
I appreciate food so much more because I see the hard work that goes into producing it. That makes me grateful, which I don’t think I was before. I took food for granted. I’m grateful to eat the exceptional produce that Galicia is justly famous for, and I’m very grateful that I live in Galicia.
1 large heavy iron pan
1 1 litre saucepan (for reducing the wine)
1 3-5 litre casserole dish with a well-fitting lid
2-3 kilos of boar meat – shoulder is best for slow-cooking
1 bottle Mencia (or any decent Spanish red)
2 Tbsps good olive oil
1 whole bulb garlic
1 large sprig fresh thyme
1 sprig rosemary
Diced “Holy Trinity”
1 stick celery
1 litre good beef stock
Tbsp plain flour
Large knob of good butter
Salt and pepper
1 tbsp pimiento dulce
1 tsp pimiento picante
1 smoked chorizo sausage cut into very small pieces
2 bay leaves
Cut the meat into fairly large chunks and toss in seasoned flour.
Reduce the wine in a pan by boiling for ten minutes, to cook off the alcohol.
Peel and grate the garlic. Sweat the “Holy Trinity” in the casserole dish in half of the olive oil until just soft. Add the chorizo, garlic and the butter. Add the sweet and picante pimiento, give it a stir to release the flavours. Turn off the heat. Set aside.
In the large heavy flat pan, brown the floured meat until a good crust has formed on all sides. Lift out. De-glaze the pan with the wine, turn off and pour this into the casserole dish with the sweated vegetables and garlic. Then add the hot stock. Bring to the boil, then turn off. Add the meat and torn bay leaves.
Put the casserole into a pre-heated oven (hot for twenty minutes, then turn it right down to a very low setting)
Cook for four hours. Check it periodically. If it needs thickening, add a little roux made with flour, butter and some of the hot stock, or just mix some cornflour with a little water and stir it in.
I serve this with roasted rosemary and garlic potatoes, and a red or white cabbage ragout flavoured with caraway seeds, topped with lots of sour cream. You will want a robust red wine to drink with this. I like Mencia, of course, but if you are feeling very flash, a bottle of (Italian) Barolo is superb with this.
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