New ways of turning over an old leaf

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
IN Silvio D'Arzo's exquisite story, House of Others, a 63-year-old mountain woman describes herself as living the life of a goat. She eats a piece of bread and oil at noon, the same at night, with perhaps a few greens. The only difference between herself and the goat, she says, is that she eats bread. And some day she will not be able to do that.

That is minimal eating. It is good in a world of satiety - which is what these pages represent - to be reminded that a world exists where people eat next to nothing.

But notice, too, that of the three things she eats, two are products of civilisation. Bread and oil make her human. If you did not know she was Italian, you could deduce it from her diet, so she is human in that, too. She belongs to a community.

But her cucina poverissima, the salad, is, as its etymology (from the Latin sal, for salt) shows, one of the earliest of all foods. There are few cuisines (most notably the Chinese) in which the basic salad does not have its place. To this day, Mediterranean peoples still dress their salads, and indeed their greens, in the simplest of ways - with oil and salt.

We eat salad, not because we are poor but because we wish to resemble the poor: by being minimal and lithe, so that our bodies do not show the excess by which we live. As a result, we have little contact with the basic greens in their simplest form; we dress to kill. It requires living on a farm or having a garden to wash a fresh lettuce and just dip the leaves in a little salt, or add just a touch of oil, which is the only way to know what a lettuce really tastes like.

The evolution of salads in this century is a good clue to the development of modern taste in food. When I was a boy, the dining table was laid with kidney- shaped glass plates holding a few leaves of lettuce, and two cruets containing oil and (white) vinegar, and salt and pepper. If we fancied something green, we dressed our own salads. In many Italian restaurants that tradition survives, and the waiter will ask whether you wish to dress your own salad.

This simplicity was altered after the war, I think by two developments: the importation of red wine vinegar and the development of the pepper mill, now common but in my youth a talisman of sophistication. Thence it was but a step to garlic - previously associated only with smelly Frenchmen and artist types.

Today, of course, dressing the salad has come a long way from that original cucina poverissima. From a simple French or Italian dressing (the latter is stronger on oil, for French oil does not taste of much) prepared at table, we progressed to the vinaigrette. And having discovered its delights, we were inundated with bottled dressings of the most exotic kind. I had barely got used to American waitresses shouting in my ear 'Whadyawannonyersalad, we got thousanislan, Russian, French, Italian creamygarlic' when smoother voices began murmuring the enticements of tarragon and Mexican chillies, and herbs sprouted in salads, along with croutons, lardons and God knows what else.

I have just two things to say about that. The salad does not exist just for the dressing; and a dressing should not kill a salad. Or, to put it at its most basic, a dressing should, like any sauce, enhance the qualities of the ingredients. One dressing will not do for all salads. On a cooked salad, spinach for instance, simple is best: a touch of garlic, lots of very good oil, and the barest soupcon of a white vinegar; on sprouts or cabbage, a little sweetness. But on green leaf salads - lettuces, rocket and the rest - simplicity is all.

Like all cooks I know, my own dressings vary from day to day. While its basic ingredients tend to remain the same, the proportions of each vary: according to the freshness of the produce and what I have put in the salad.

Although fine dressings can be made with other oils (but not, in my opinion, with vegetable oils), first-rate olive oil is the heart of a proper dressing. All dressings should be mixed in the salad bowl, with the salad ingredients added only when it is to be served. Salt and pepper should be added while mixing, so that they remain fresh and adhere to the leaves.

I like my dressings tart and fresh, and frequently use more than one vinegar. I make mine with three parts of oil to one of vinegar(s), including usually half a teaspoon of real balsamic vinegar. I sometimes rub the bowl with a clove of garlic, but no more.

I then stir in half a tablespoon of mustard (the simplest I can find, for one should beware of strongly flavoured mustards - especially the German sort). I pound two cloves (for sweetness), shred in some fresh thyme when I have it and a tiny bit of rosemary, stir vigorously and allow it all to sit for a half-hour before adding the salad.

I like to think this is discreet enough to remind me of the goat- life but civilised enough to set off what is wild and very basic to our sense of food: that is, the raw, the state of nature.

Comments