Mediterranean Summer by David Shalleck

February6

As I have explained in this space before, I love both fiction and non-fiction with food themes and I especially enjoy when the book is placed in a setting that I am familiar with, in most cases a place that I have visited (because very few books are set in Winnipeg or Manitoba).  Having said this though, if you have not read The Republic of Love by Carol Shields you must as it is not only set in Winnipeg, it writes about many familiar Winnipeg landmarks.  In addition, it is just a fabulous read.  But I digress.  When reading food-themed books, I particularly appreciate when a special meal is being prepared perhaps to mark an occasion or a to celebrate with a certain group of friends.  I often ear-mark these locations while I am digesting a book, in order to go back and savour them later.  Sometimes, recipes are even included-my favourite reads.

Naples

Well I hit the jackpot with Mediterranean Summer, not only is almost the entire book written about the preparation of meals on a private yacht by a chef but many of their ports of call, are places in the world that I have visited and quite literally fallen in love with: Naples, Monaco, Cinque Terre, Positano and the Amalfi Coast.  I really enjoyed the writer’s transparency about his cooking career, especially his frankness about places that he was dismissed from and his insecurity in pleasing the owners of the private yacht, la Signora in particular.  One of the reasons that he is so tentative around the matron of the ship is that he instinctively understands that she knows her way away a menu and a kitchen.  In this excerpt, she is in the galley.

Monaco

La Signora started to cook., placing a little of each oil in the pan while contemplating if she should add more of either.  The onions and the garlic went into the pan to heat with the oil, then simmered slowly to soften and release their aromatics.  She slowly tossed them with a wooden spoon, giving this initial step a lot of concentration to seemingly find the place where a cook becomes focused on the pace of cookery.  She added some of the drained tomato water to the oil to braise and soften the onions.  After tossing them around for a couple of minutes, she scraped out the pulp of each piece of onion and remained the remaining outer layers from the pan, voicing her theory that onions should not be visible in a dish since the solids are hard to digest.  I had never seen anybody do this before.  No wonder she cooked with low heat and asked me to cut them into large pieces.

Riomagiore, Cinque Terre

Then she added the tomatoes and chilies to the pan.  As the tomatoes heated up, the liquid around them came back to a simmer, she carefully crushed them to release more juice.  At the same time, the tomato pulp began to blend with the oil in the pan.  Then she added the lobster-claws, knuckles, and bodies first with any of the water that had fallen to the bottom of the bowl.  After four or five minutes, while she tossed the pieces in the oil, she added the tails, all the time keeping the heat at an even simmer.

Prairiano, Amalfi Coast

I had no idea if I should be making conversation, and I certainly didn’t want to correct any of her cooking, so I found it easier to just sit at the edge of the mess table bench and watch.  In fact, she didn’t need any help.  She cooked with a confidence that impressed me, not only her handling of the ingredients but with her eyes and hands were telling her.  But even better than how she cooked was the way she looked-calm always in perfect posture, every movement and task methodical and precise.  It was clear she’d done this before.

Ravello, Amalfi Coast

Finally the silence got to me, and out of left field I asked her a questions: “Juts curious signora, how come there are no women in the crew?”

She chuckled and made a gesture toward the fo’c’sle,  “With these conditions, do you think a woman could stand it?  There’d be too many problems.

She checked for seasoning, added another chile, and pulled the pan from the stove when the lobster meat in the tails turned opaque.  She kept the bodies in the sauce for a short while longer, gently crushing them with a wooden spoon to get as much flavour out of them as possible before discarding them.  It was hot and humid in the galley, the air thick with the smell of cooked lobster and simmering tomato sauce.  I noticed a light mist of perspiration had formed across the back of la Signora’s neck and shoulders.

‘”Bene,” she said smiling at the results as if just completing a painting, “now I leave the rest to you.”

And so their Mediterranean Summer continues, as I yearn for another one for us.

 Our amuse bouche at Ristotante La Strada, Praiano, Amalfi Coast

Love-that is all.

 


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