Somewhere to eat in the middle of nowhere

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The Independent Online
My theory about an eating culture worth living in is that one should be able to eat decently in almost any place that provides food, that such places should be plentiful and relatively cheap, and that eating there should be a pleasure.

There are many reasons why not many food cultures live up to these requirements. If the eating is to be anything more than just satisfactory, obviously the necessary ingredients must be widely available. Labour must be plentiful and cheap; customers sufficient to maintain a small family enterprise. And the cuisine must be homogenous - the casual passer-by is rarely enamoured of surprises.

Throughout most of Asia, for instance, these conditions are met. More surprisingly, if you are willing to put up with an excess of sameness, they are also true for the United States - at least in daylight hours.

But America, like Spain, is a country of vast empty spaces, territory in which you can easily travel an hour by car and spot not a single oasis. In France, likewise, restaurants are largely limited to towns and villages; so you can get left stranded.

On a fine day this week, Number One daughter, Number Five son, son-in-law, wife and grandchildren went on an outing to the Etruscan ruins at Veii, just outside Rome. Whatever you may think of the Etruscans - in some ways, a forbidding people - they certainly knew how to pick the emplacements of their towns: hill and gorge, water and wood. We tramped about happily, avoiding deep wells and oubliettes, picking flowers and herbs and, of course, building up an appetite. When we walked back via the cut-stone waterfall, there lay the local trattoria: gate closed and padlocked.

No problem, said my daughter, there will be plenty of other places to eat in the nearest village. Note: plenty of places. Not just one. Proving at least one of my points.

In fact, we were lucky. We were merely a bit early, for in Rome one lunches when the children get out of school, towards 2pm. True, the cook was a bit grumpy to see us at 12.30pm, but other turisti were right behind us as he duly opened up. I really do not know how these one-man-and-a-girl trattorias manage to do it, but in very little time - by then I had counted 22 customers - they were fully operational. They had their antipasti ready, their wonderful crusty bread. What would we drink? I asked for a litre of red. That, he said, he had only in bottles: would we like to try his own white? We did and delicious, light and tart it was.

The antipasti consisted of various sausages, of smoked ham (home-cured, I suspect), of peppers, aubergine and courgettes. I will dwell only on the latter because, as is so often the case, I learnt something new. The courgettes, finely sliced, had been marinating in oil mixed with mentuccia.

Now mentuccia is a sort of generic name for herbs, but also the proper word for wild mint, the very mint that grew among the ruins and which my son-in-law had picked. Properly speaking it is Satureia nepeta. Its aroma is both pungent and light, it is less strong than our own mint and therefore more subtle. With good, strongly-flavoured oil and fresh courgettes, it was so good that we re-ordered it twice before getting on to our first course.

Needless to say, our tagliatelle, our lasagne and our agnolotti were all home-made. Mine was flavoured with mushrooms from the adjoining woods. Most of us followed this with abbacchio, or suckling lamb. I had mine alla cacciatora, my wife had hers al forno, or roasted, saying that cacciatora would undo the delicate flavour of the baby lamb. We were both right. For me, the lamb was set off by the acidity of the sauce; for her, the thing in itself was all that was needed.

The point of this story is that we were literally in the middle of nowhere. The trattoria presumably existed to serve visitors to the ruins. (any good places to eat next to Stonehenge?), and a few locals who might walk or drive from the nearest village a few kilometres away.

Had it been closed, we might have been nearly as well served in a dozen other trattorias within a few kilometres. In all cases, we would have known more or less what to expect: a good, simple meal with a tolerable local wine. Our total bill for seven people (no children related to me will fail to do justice to a full meal) came to about pounds 90, including two litres of wine and four bottles of mineral water, not to speak of double helpings of the courgettes.

I claim that a meal of this quality, served so well - with proper tablecloths, plates etc - and cheerfully by two people and in such a spot is simply not reproducible in most countries. It is the sign of a nation's genuine pleasure in food.