In recent years notions of locality, seasonality and traceability have come to the forefront of much foody thinking. These days hardly a cookery programme goes by without a chef exhorting us to cook only the best produce, sourced from somewhere nearby if possible and only when that produce is in season. If you can shop and cook like that it makes sense as we contemplate healthy eating, climate change, carbon emissions and footprints, and the practices of a few in the processed food industry.
In many parts of Europe, the notion of eating ‘local’ is entrenched and natural, so seasonality follows as a given. A visit to any street market in and around the Med, for instance, will attest to the local origins of most of the produce piled high there. The shoppers are regulars at the market, knowledgeable and appraising, keen to get the best they can for their money, with a willingness to engage with the sellers forcefully and, often, volubly.
I well remember the street market in the Sicilian city of Syracuse, where the usual array of spankingly fresh fish and seafood (including seemingly impish clams that squirted water at us as we passed), glistening and vibrant fruit and vegetables, tubs of olives and capers, and everywhere the vivid green of locally produced oils to sample, thronged in a lively hubbub of market trader and shoppers. Among the stalls were Syracusans offering the fruits of their smallholdings, sometimes laid out on a plastic sheet, sometimes on a trestle table, including a very old lady with a pile of snails almost as tall as her, gastropods gathered by her family in the hinterland of that very ancient city and sold by the bucketload. It was sensory overload that made us wish we’d opted to self cater. The wines we enjoyed in restaurants there only reinforced that thought.
These noisy and exciting markets, now somewhat challenged but not yet overwhelmed by the creeping presence of the supermarkets, are like an ingredients list for the recipes of the region or town in which you find yourself browsing. When you sit down at a restaurant nearby you will often find the market amply represented in the dishes, the cooking usually unfancy and traditional and often all featuring the same kinds of dish. The chef knows what his customers like, and when you have ingredients of such sun-blessed quality to choose from it pays not to over-elaborate or smother them. Indeed, notwithstanding the recent arrival of some new cuisines brought by incomers from around the world, much of what you scoff in local restaurants represents the food that you would eat in many a home there to, sometimes cooked with greater skill, but by no means certainly.
In the south of Europe, there will always be local wines to enjoy with the food too. That wine is virtually a natural part of the local diet, commonly coming from close by and as much part of a meal as any other ingredient. We’ve all heard of the Mediterranean diet and the paradox of regular wine consumption within it. Most of the dishes widely eaten have emanated from the home and the family table, probably more than, from restaurants and professional cooks and the wine may be homemade too, since the tradition of the smallholding is strong. Indeed, some of these ancient un-mucked-about-with vineyards managed, or often now abandoned, by grandmothers and fathers, have become a wonderful resource for dedicated professional winemakers seeking old vines and rare grape varieties. Gnarled vines are given a new lease of life, while unforgiving stony soils reveal hidden depths. They prove time and time again that something utterly delicious can come from the little known or humble. Grape varieties will often be local too, sometimes ancient and as rooted in the place as the people. As with more exotic cuisines, internationally recognised grape varieties are to be found planted these days, but there is still plenty for the explorer to find, even if the wine names don’t reveal it. Mencia, godello, graciano and bobal in Spain, albana, passerina, lagrein or frappato around Italy, or encruzado, arinto, touriga nacional and baga in Portugal, to name just a handful. All native grape varieties, all delicious, all too little known.
Portugal, Spain and Italy, though obviously different in many ways, share the essence of making the most of what you have on your doorstep, cooking (and winemaking) with increasing panache but, ultimately, simplicity, and letting the ingredients speak for themselves. A lot of these dishes fit into the mantra of, ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ approach to tradition. The Spanish method of taking a sweet tomato and effectively crushing it into some toasted country bread rubbed with a clove of garlic (or not for the vampires amongst you), seasoning and drizzling with olive oil is the simplest treat in the world. So too a silvery sardine straight from the 500-miles of Portugal’s Atlantic coastline, flashed over hot coals and served with lemon wedges and sea salt and something chilled and crisp or juicily red and all points in between. In Puglia, Italy, little thumb-made pasta ears called orrechiette with foraged bitter greens, garlic and chilli with a jug of primitivo, negroamaro or one of their much-loved rosatos. Native wines with local ingredients; what could be more natural and delicious.
In the Sicilian north-coast town of Cefalu I remember fondly, almost romantically, our first lunch on the island, sitting on a balcony overlooking a tiny harbour. My spaghetti with seafood was washed down with a spritely local grillo, a native grape I had hitherto never tried. Symbiosis, and amazing value. In the gorgeous Spanish city of Seville, it was a pearly fillet of battered hake with a bottle of dry wine made from the palomino grape I had only previously associated with sherry-making that was citrusy, crisp and cold-shower refreshing. I took a punt on something local (and inexpensive) and it paid off in spades. It nearly always does. My list could go on; falanghina with grilled fish in Sorrento; Dão with pork belly in Portugal; you get the picture. None of these dishes was a complicated chef-y creation and the wines were all local, wallet friendly and deliciously moreish.
But here’s the thing – they stick in my memory, deep down and immovable. Why is that? What made these and other simple pairings hang around in my slowly dissipating grey cells just as much as the ‘great’ bottles I have opened and very much enjoyed on the big occasions that I imagine deserve them? It wasn’t the sun on my back alone, because we’ve recreated many an Italian, Spanish or Portuguese dish in the depths of an English winter and served them with anyday, great value wines to suit, and with memorable success even if I do say so myself, from pizza to porco Alentejano. It is more than that. There was something about each that appealed to more than my parsimony or simplicity.
I think, in part, that it was that I didn’t have to give everything on my plate or in my glass any great concentration, only my appetite. The pairings were natural and unforced. We hadn’t eaten food that needed a maître d’ to explain the concept or the technique, and the wines needed no flexing of intellectual muscles to consider the virtues of, say, the vintage, vineyard and winemaker. The meal was just very good and very satisfying. It was all about conviviality, ease and relaxation, and occasionally discoveries that are easy to make when a pile of cash isn’t at stake in the choosing of them. Delicious food and wine, without breaking the bank and without sacrificing flavour, character and enjoyment. Even better when surrounded by friends with an appetite for it all.
Whether it is Italy, Spain or Portugal, the food and wine culture represents history, geography and climate in delicious form. It all comes through loud and clear. It is social history. Local grape varieties and approaches to making wine can define a region and reflect the geography and climate as clearly as a map and barometer. The food is the same.
Italy, perhaps best of all, represents a blueprint of what local is all about. Until the late 19th century the country was a jigsaw of city states and small nations, each with its own passionately held way of doing things and palette of ingredients and grapes. For centuries these states had been fiercely independent, and that independence expressed itself in the food and wine as much as in political posturing. That independence of spirit remains. It is wrong to talk about ‘Italian cuisine’ since it is so regional, and the denizens of towns up and down the country are proud of their local dishes, even as pizza parlours, Sicilian restaurants, and the occasional kebab shop or Chinese restaurant, pop up among them. Apparently, there is a joke in Piedmont along the lines of ‘there is nowhere better to eat in the world, but you always eat the same things’. How wonderful.
Their influences may be many, sometimes introduced through historic occupation, sometimes from necessity. From the Arab-infused food of Sicily, to the cucina povera of Puglia, to the Germanic-swayed north-east. Wines follow suit. If de Gaulle thought governing a country of 300 cheeses was a tricky proposition, he must have genuflected to the governors of an Italy with more than 800 grape varieties. They can tell you where you are, or where you could be, in a glass. The Italian wine grower in Piedmont was and is as unlikely to plant the aglianico grape of the south on his hillside sites as his counterpart in Basilicata would want to point proudly at a new vineyard of the local volcanic soils staked out with nebbiolo vines. Spain and Portugal have similarities here. Geographically and climatically speaking, a monastrell cutting will find itself all at sea in the comparatively damp, Atlantic-influenced Galician climate while an albariño vine might well fail to make such thrilling whites if planted in the arid heat of Murcia. Vinho Verde could never have defined its thirst-quenching, tingling and seafood-friendly style if made in the heat of the Alentejo region. And around them all have developed ingredients and ways of cooking them that reflect the place rather beautifully, with honesty and simplicity.
So, what I think I’ve tried to say here, in a longwinded and clumsy way, is that there is much joy to be found in the relationship between the good-value wines of Italy, Spain and Portugal and the everyday cooking of those countries, whether you look to match them region by region or not. Sun-ripened, hearty flavours and wines of character and fruit to match that these days represent some of the best value for money in the world. Forgive me if I got carried away, but they meld so well, and they can make memories just as effectively as the great bottles and cutting-edge gastronomy when it all comes together. Do give them a try. Get around a table with family and friends where possible, pop open a few easy, anyday wines, pile food into the middle of the table and let the good times roll.
And now I am off to the kitchen.