Saturday, 8 November 2008

Food - Italy v Bohemia

One of the greastest compliments I ever received was that my 'melanzane Parmegiano' would make an Italian mother in law jealous - this in Italy from an Italian who wasn't trying to chat me up. So speaking as an Italophile who spends time in the Czech Republic I have to admit to having a bit of an attitude problem to Czech food. It's the absense of fresh veg in the restaurants which suprises me because the countryside bulges with fresh produce. Every back garden has fruit trees, soft fruit and a vegetable patch; the small side roads are lined with apple trees dropping their crop into the verges; the forests are full of people foraging for fresh, free food. However, order a salad in a restaurant and more often than not it will be the ubiquitous combination of iceberg lettuce, watery tomatoes and bland cucumber. (We asked a restaurant friend why he never had any of the wild funghi on his menu in autumn. He shrugged and said well, he wouldn't be able to get them all year - try that excuse in Italy! Perhaps it's the menu printing costs, perhaps there are laws regulating what can be offered in restaurants. Does anyone know?)

There are certain dishes which give a glimpse of the potential of this fertile land. There's a garlic soup on the menu of many of the local restaurants, best served in a bowl made from an excavated loaf of sourdough bread. It's a thin broth, probably chicken stock with grated raw garlic added and then immediately taken off the boil, put into the bowl with a generous amount of stringy mozzarella type cheese and a sprinkle of parsley. This is a desert island dish or a last meal for the condemmed, so satisfying you feel you'll never need to eat again - until you get hungry of course.

If you are lucky you'll get with your fire-grilled meat a freshly grated heap of horseradish root and this will satisfy a full weeks worth of fresh veg cravings, and thoroughly clear any sinus problems. There's nothing subtle about this combination, it's a challenge to vindaloo fanatics, and the only solution to the burning sensation from eating too much in one mouthful is to breath deeply through a slice of the sourdough bread (mad but it works and you won't care if anyone is watching). The horseradish cuts through any fatty richness in the meat and seems to aid its digestion. This type of dish usually comes with a small garnish of undressed salad and on this plate it works, no oily dressing to add to the meat fats, just clean, fresh and crisp salad to clear the palate. I've had this more than once at U Baby in Cesky Krumlov, a pile of fire grilled smoked pork ribs, a heap of fresh horseradish (dug up that day from the cemetary according to the waitress, was she smiling?) and bit of plain mixed salad all washed down with a glass of beer. It was one of the most nourishing and balanced meals I've ever had from a restaurant.

I suppose there are many variables at play here, one of them being my own expectations of what constitutes a good, balanced meal and another being the ability to override ones expectations. One person's meat and two veg is another persons zapecene vepřova žebirka

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