Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Cookery lessons and deciding on the menu 30/4/09

With the May 5 deadline less than a week away, I have decided to give our two cooks lessons in making tapas... My husband and I spent hours working out the menu. Not a simple task at all. Tapas, fundamental to the social life in Spain and now becoming a lively part of Irish socialising, are not so famous in Italy it turns out. I had somehow expected culinary practices in Sicily (southern Italy)to be similar to those in Andalusia (southern Spain), given that Sicily was under Spanish domination (the Aragons)from the early 1400s to the early 1700s. I also expected there to be a North African flavour to Sicilian cooking,due to its proximity to Tunisia, just as Andalusia's proximity to Morocco is felt in lots of the soups and stews and tapas found in Southern Spain.

But endless menu discussions with my husband and the cooks revealed that Italians feel that the Spanish are their poor cousins and so their food could never be considered as good as Italian food, and especially not Sicilian food. Sicilians are very proud of their culinary tradition, and rightly so, but the whole idea was to bring new twists to Sicilian dishes on the main menu, and also introduce tapas as part of the antipasti. My husband is convinced that the locals will never sample tapas in the traditional Spanish way ordering them at the bar to accompany your drink, and his family, with all their years of experience of running the restaurant as a 'trattoria familiare' reckon that locals will be reluctant to try anything new. So with this in mind we decided to offer 'tapas mistas', a mixed antipasto, as a way of getting to know what is available.

Some things don't sound so exciting once translated. We have to have tortilla on the menu - but as the cook said, once we had gone through the whole effort of frying the potatoes and chopped onion in loads of oil ... 'Oh ... so it's just like a frittata, with fried onions and potatoes'. I also discovered that a lot of tapas dishes are basically what Sicilians consider as 'what you get at home' and therefore not worthy of restaurant cuisine. I really want boquerones on the menu but it turns out sardines in Sicily are thought of as 'poor man's food' being cheap and widely available at the fish market - what you might eat on weekdays at home with your family. I got them on though, as anchovies marinated in fresh orange juice and wild fennel,a more interesting twist to the traditional preparation. Also, I felt strongly that 'albondigas' should be on the menu, but it turns out that meatballs are what your granny might make you for lunch. We used a wonderful variation of ths classic tapa with white wine and almonds, since almonds are so plentful here, and when my husband and the cooks tasted them at the end they were surprised at how good they are. But they still reckon that few customers will be tempted by 'polpettini di carne'.

Everyone tells me that 'soup of day' will not go down well since again, this is what Sicilians might have for lunch at home, but would never dream of having in a restaurant. It seems strange to me since soup is a classic starter in Ireland, and I didn't want to give up on the wonderful Morcoccon harira soup to warm up winter months and gazpacho to chill hot summer nights. Making the harira soup was a surreal experience. I never imagined I would have to give Italians cookery lessons! It was already strange to have to instruct the cooks in Italian (my Italian is good, but my culinary vocabulary is somewhat lacking. So between looking up the words for 'slotted spoons' and 'chopping board' and keeping the two cooks calm and focussed (the cuoca kept getting annoyed with the aiuto-cuoco saying he cut the celery too big and the onions not neat enough and calling into question his training in general) it was quite a job.

It also became apparent that the cuoca was not keen on cleaninng or sharing the workload when necessary. She said years of doing heavier work in the kitchen had done in her back muscles, and she also had prblems with er shoulders and arms - she kept stopping and groaning and pointing to where it might be likely to hurt if she ever had to do anything like sweep the floor. 39 going on 70. I didn't much like her attitude to the tapas - she kept referring to them as 'these tabas things' and when it came to the main menu, she wanted to substitute all our suggestions with her own dishes. Of course we would welcome having some of her specials, we explained, but we also wanted to include dishes we had sampled on our travels. Her lip trembled, whether in rage or sadness I couldn't tell, but she was having none of it. It had been hard enough for her to adapt to the idea of cooking tabas in her kitchen, but now such international dishes as couscous and Greek salad and paella. To placate her we spent ages on choosing pasta dishes she was happy to prepare, and then copied thier flowery names from her sample 'portfolio' menu which she only allowed to us to briefly peruse it before whipping it away incase we might nick any of her flowery ideas. She was also happy to consider standards such as swordfish roulades and stuffed calamari and grilled tuna steak, although she was most perturbed by the fact that we wanted to cook the tuna with a sesame crust and dress it with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and honey, since she did it with soya sauce normally (soya is very exotic in Sicily). I had to insist on that one because it was based on a wonderful dish we tried in Praia de Pipa in Brazil in another tapas restaurant run by a lovely couple.

But the cuoca clung tenaciously to some of her other recipes, refused to consider suggestions from the aiuto-cuoco (grilled palamita fish with breadcrumbs: she frowned and folded her arms and again the lower lip trembled ...) and I began to wonder who was really running the show here and how we would deal with this primadonna in the future...

Dolores

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