(This post was originally published in January 2017)
An amuse-bouche is served gratis and according to the chef’s selection alone. These, often accompanied by a complementing wine, are served both to prepare the guest for the meal and to offer a glimpse into the chef’s approach to the art of cuisine.
I grew up in a small town in Alabama.
My grandparents had a farm where they grew tomatoes, green beans, butter beans, black-eyed peas, purple-hull peas, lady peas, field peas, okra, sweet potatoes, Irish potatoes, onions, peaches, watermelon, cantaloupe, and the best corn in the world. They had chickens, a couple of cows for milk and butter, and a horse for plowing the fields (and for me to ride).
When “sweet corn” was in season, my grandmother boiled water so that when we brought some ears of corn in from the field all we had to do was shuck them and drop them into the pot. (Sugar in corn starts to turn to starch immediately after it is picked so the sooner it is cooked, the better it will taste.) After boiling for a couple of minutes, we slathered the ears with home-churned butter, salt and pepper and bit into heaven on a corn cob. My sister and I even noisily sucked the juice out of the cobs when the kernels were all gone (yup, we got into a heap of trouble from my mother for that trick).
Summer days could easily top 100° with 90% humidity. On hot afternoons, I sat on the cool(er) concrete floor of the screened back porch and watched heat waves rise over the garden and the piney wood hills beyond. For a treat, my grandmother sometimes cooled us off with lemonade made from fresh lemons, sugar, water and ice. When cherries were ripe, she made a pie that I can still taste.
Growing up during the 1950’s, within a farm environment, I was lucky enough to develop an appreciation of how foods could and should taste. No other corn, lemonade, or cherry pie has ever been quite as satisfying.
In 1966, I joined the U.S. Navy and left Alabama. I had no idea that the move would steer me away from the traditional southern country table and toward foods and flavors found throughout the rest of the world. While in the Navy, I discovered carnitas and chorizo con huevos in San Diego, dim sum and steamed buns in Hong Kong, fried rice and yakitori in Yokosuka, and pork adobo and pancit in Manila.
From that time through today, I have been intrigued by new foods and flavors. Wherever I have traveled, I have researched the cuisine of any new destination. What foods are traditional to the region? What dishes should I look for? What is the best place to taste local dishes?
France and Italy are nations of food lovers – nations that consider eating a social moment and cooking an art form – the expression of a culture they are proud to share with the world. What makes their food so good? Is it the product itself which is grown with respect for the land and for local traditions? Is it the care that goes into the preparation of each individual dish or bottle of wine? Why are France and Italy generally thought of as representing the epitome of fine dining?
I will look into some of these questions and others in this blog. On a recent trip to regions of France and Italy that many people regard as the Holy Grail of fine food and wine, my quest was not to merely explore foods and wines in restaurants, but to also experience their source, to discover how some of the iconic products were made and why they taste the way that they do.
“For me to go to a restaurant and eat something that is not only good but totally new, is a double thrill. Double the enjoyment.” – Ferran Adria
Come along for the ride!