Saturday, 6 August 2011

Holy simplicity

It was only a matter of weeks ago - though it might as well be light years and a few thousand miles - when I was sitting in a hotel in Manchester, chatting with an acquaintance one evening after work.

Discussing culinary matters - he's considerably more optimistic than me about the food movement's potential wide scale impact in the UK - he was musing on how, if you took just three such basic things as beer, bread and cheese, it was a perfect illustration of just what we have done to our food culture.

It was an observation that stuck. Take the idea of a traditional ploughman's lunch with a pint on the side: with good ingredients, it's a thing to be relished.

But think of how we've ditched our brewing heritage for the ease of cooking lager; think of Chorleywood bread and think of the rows and rows of plastic-suffocated cheese in supermarkets that are terrified to sell the real stuff because they fear the bacteria that is involved.

After a few nights of the very simplest suppers here in Collioure, I went complex: thinly sliced tomatoes and red onion, with salt, a drizzle of olive oil and some basil.

Clean and fresh and utterly satisfying.

To accompany, excellent bread, bought that morning and freshly baked as dawn turned the sky apricot over a mercury sea and the church called out to the most faithful.

There was charcuterie bought at the market on Sunday: a campagne with peppercorns, and a saussicon with figs; both with real depth of flavour, moistened by generous fat that creates a beautiful marbling, and the latter with the added pleasure of the nutty sweetness of the figs.

And of course, a bottle of seriously chilled rosé from the region.

There is a holy simplicity about such eating: you don't want to rush, it demands your time - and that investment is rewarded with something deeply satisfying.

But it is a simplicity that relies utterly on the quality of the ingredients. And here, the ingredients are good; very good indeed.

And when you have that, you don't need to spend hours in the kitchen or submerge inferior ingredients in heavily-spiced sauces to disguise their inadequacies on the flavour front, or sit in front of the telly to distract yourself from food that is merely fuel.

You sit. You eat. You make it the centrepiece of your evening. You are sociable. And you take part, with joy and relish - even if you are dining alone - in something that is timeless and one of the deepest and most profound rituals of human existence.

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