Territorial imperatives

BRAINFOOD I suspect there is a mystical connection between food and place. One may, out of a kind of nostalgia, reproduce one's 'home' cooking somewhere away from home. But all of us, the cook especially, have a sense that something essential is missing
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What is a cliche of the wine world - that there are wines that travel well and others that don't at all - is not so well recognised about food. Yet it should be self-evident that food is linked to its origins, that it is best where the ingredients are freshest, the experience longest and the consumers most demanding.

A protracted bout of eating Chinese food in China, however, revealed that it was greatly preferable to eat Chinese food outside the republic. This could, I grant, be the result of poverty in China, of political pressures on cooks, on the levelling of consumers (eliminating the discriminating) or simply poor distribution.

All the same, it is my belief that China is the exception. As proof, I ask that you question yourselves: have you ever had a cup of espresso outside of Italy that was as good as one within? Why is it the French baguette is simply not reproducible outside of France, if not only from certain bakers in Paris? Is it the water? Is it the flour? The technique? And even the very best cooks find it difficult to create meals of equal quality away from their own kitchens.

The whole concept of what the French call the terroir, that is, the place from which one draws one's ingredients and one's inspiration, is somewhat mystical, and yet it can be experienced and measured even by the most casual diner.

That there is something unique about the experience of eating in a particular place exercised my mind last week. It so happens that Sete, the French town in which I live, though it has a vast number of restaurants, is no paradise of gastronomy. The Setois are people of simple tastes and not unlimited income. None the less, every year when I return, I find two or three new restaurants, and all of them seek to single themselves out by proclaiming their "specialities", Spanish, Italian, Moroccan, and so on. And they all fail. The next year they have simply ceased to exist.

Last week we betook ourselves to one of these: a Gascon restaurant. The menu looked good. Foie gras de canard and so on. A nice young man explained that he'd been open about a month, business was fair, but he thought he could make it. His family had a farm which supplied him once a week; his cook had been with him in a similar restaurant in Spain. (I should have asked him why he'd moved, if his business had worked in Spain.)

All the conditions were, you might think, right. But the meal was far from what it should have been. He may have grown his own ducks and his family enlarged their livers, but his pate had no taste, his magret no texture, his foie gras no richness. Just an aberration? Or a confirmation that food doesn't travel?

The following week we drove over to Cordes-sur-Ciel, a Cathar citadel between Albi and Cahors, and had the good fortune to lunch at Le Grand Ecuyer, the proud bearer of a single Michelin star, and managed by Yves Thouries, a chef who was a star in his day (1971). His medieval house is a small, elegant hotel; his restaurant looks out over a splendid valley; the price, with a superb local wine (700 francs - about pounds 90 for three), was perfectly reasonable; and the meal was, in all regards, excellent.

And why not? We were in the terroir, the ingredients, from fish to dessert, from foie gras to wine, were strictly local, and had been handled, in the local manner, by people who knew how to deal with them. The terrine of baby leeks and marinated salmon was a beautifully concocted amalgam of sharpish and sweetish tastes, as was my own starter, a pressee of fresh river fish and baby vegetables. The supreme of foie gras, almost unadorned, was as good, simple and succulent as it deserved to be and the pudding (for which Thouries won his prize), a gratin of wild strawberries with lemon in a coulis of fresh apricots, fully deserved its fame - and I am no admirer of sweets.

So what does it come down to, this notion of place? I think in large part it has to do with custom and familiarity. If different regions (and indeed, neighbouring towns) develop different dishes, this must be because they were originally found good, and the tradition has been a) refined over a long time and b) maintained without compromise, without seeking to beguile the foreigner - who might, say, like his food less clamourous, less frank, less spicy or whatever. And then, there is the element of pride. One is proud of being a Sicilian in Sicily or a Gascon in Gascony, but less so when one is elsewhere and wishes to hide one's spots. This applies to cooking, which is a way of saying "This is the food I eat. No one asks that you like it, but we do; and if you do, so much the better." In this sense, Le Grand Ecuyer is an advertisement for a very particular place. Thouries is a gifted chef; he could open elsewhere and do well. But he would not do the same thing.

I suspect there is a mystical connection between food and place. One may, out of a kind of nostalgia, reproduce one's "home" cooking somewhere away from home. Guests will come to the house from remote parts of the earth and offer to cook, for instance, a "real" feijoada for us. From their bags come black beans and dried beef and farofa; everything that we might have enjoyed in Brazil is there. The meal is enjoyed by all; but all of us, the cook especially, have a sense that something essential is missing.

Cooking what one loves in an alien place is not unlike adultery. There is much excitement in the idea; there may be pleasure in the act; one's experience may be enlarged thereby; but ultimately home things belong in the home. No more than love is just sex is food just ingredients, or skill in preparing them. Food is full of gestures, climates, exchanges, looks. It requires a kind of complicity. It is the essence of oneself, and why should one offer that up to strange gods?