Italy Comes to Town

Monday 17 December 2018 18:57

Not all of Italy came to town exactly. In fact hardly any of Italy came - just a dozen or so from a village in the province of Liguria. The town they came to here in France is little more than a large village itself, Fleurville, located on the RN6 not far from Mâcon in the region of the Saône-et-Loire. These two places are twinned and someone, at some time, had the good idea that once a year they should have a little Christmas market to celebrate both group’s local food. It is held in an unprepossessing modern building which stands alone beside the main road. Somewhere you would hardly notice as you go speeding by on the way to somewhere else. By chance we had seen a little piece about the market in the local paper and thought we would go along. That was three years ago. It has been a firm date ever since and where we stock up with wine from this region of Italy and wonderful olive oil.

The French set up their stalls of delicious Mâconnais wine, hand-made gauffres, snails, beer and pickled veg. The Italians arrive with their own local wines and olive oil, home-made pannetone, jars of preserved artichokes, tomatoes, peppers, olive paste and small sweet-sharp olives. The people selling are also the producers and they are generous in their desire for you to try everything. The couple in the kitchen are kept endlessly busy spreading thin slices of ciabatta with the contents of the jars; no sooner does one plate load of samples hit the counter then numerous hands reach out for them and soon clear the lot.

Out in the kitchen they are making fresh pesto which tastes absolutely wonderful. I don’t understand - how come it tastes so much better than mine? I watch them making it. The ingredients are exactly the same as mine: garlic, pine nuts, basil leaves, Parmesan, Pecorino, olive oil. So why don’t they taste the same? 

Three reasons I think. 

The first, and I suspect the most important, is that they are using a pestle and mortar. I always make fairly large quantities in my Magimix. I have always told myself I’m far too busy to be faffing about mixing it by hand, but pesto means ‘to pound’ and for it to be perfect that’s what you must do. Although I suspect the age or design of the pestle and mortar probably has no effect on what is being made in it, nevertheless the ones they have brought with them from Italy were clearly ancient and well-used. Carved from the very stones of their region they are objects of such simplicity and beauty. The making of the pesto in the mortar has an utterly timeless quality to it. The action of breaking down each ingredient is smooth, fluid and something so familiar to the maker that he pounds with barely a glance at the contents. 

The second reason that it is so good is that although the ingredients we use are the same the balance is very different as is the way that he makes it.

First he chucks in a couple of large fresh cloves of garlic and a little salt and pounds them to a paste. He follows this by pounding a few young basil leaves into the garlic, then throws in some pine nuts with just enough oil to moisten and pounds again. Now it is time for a sprinkle of Parmesan, a sprinkle of Pecorino. He continues in this way adding and alternating between the ingredients, grinding them down, then adding a little more. The pesto never becomes slushy with oil and remains a bright, bright vibrant green.

The third reason - it is used immediately - no waiting around for guests to arrive, no storing in the fridge, no sealing away in jars. This is what draws out the life, dulls the vibrancy and freshness. 

I resolve never to use my Magimix ever again to make pesto. Henceforth I shall make it the way I have just been shown. I shall make it in honour of the pestle and mortar which is, after all, probably the first kitchen tool ever invented by man. It is so old yet is still, demonstrably, used today just as it has been for thousands of years; to pound food in one is to participate in a ritual which has obtained throughout the history of mankind. Makes you think!

I happily buy the olive oil while Tam tastes and chooses the wine (A Granaccia Colline Savonesi and a Sancio Rossese - Granache we know, particularly as the grape in Vacqueyras, and a quick search informs: “Rossese remains something of an obscurity, planted only in a tiny fraction of the world's vineyards, and yet it still commands a great deal of respect from those who understand it”).

These are good quality products but not so refined and commercialised that they have lost their connection with the land and the people who made them. And they will remind me every time I taste them of the pestle and mortar and the pesto I saw being made with it; my direct link to the beginning of time.    





  Pub. Prospect Books, Aug. 2017


  ISBN -13 978-1-909248-51-9  

  240pp, paperback with flaps

  Size: 216 x 138mm

  Price: £12.50 Black & white

Where to find some of my writings:

Petits Propos Culinaire (PPC) is a journal of food studies and food history published by Prospect Books three times a year since 1980. Now edited by Tom Jaine it is a mix of academic study, food history written with a light touch, and slightly quirky essays written by people like me. Amongst its contributors over the years are some of the best food and cookery writers of our time. Such a special publication continues to deserve our support.

PPC 96 August 2012:

      Food on the Move

PPC 99 November 2013:

      Hospital Food - à la française

PPC 101 October 2014:

      The Limejuice Run

PPC 104 December 2015:

      Cabbage Rules

PPC 110 February 2018:

      Une Mauvaise Herbe; Purslane