Friday, December 4, 2009

The End, Thanks and a Final Recipe!

Stage has come to an end. Gail has come to Italy to spend a few days with me, and we have enjoyed Venezia together (and have the designer ‘high water boots’, at €20 a pair) to prove it. We have toured the Doge’s Palace, various churches, celebrated her birthday with fantastic food, and generally enjoyed getting to know each other again.

It has been a long and very satisfying ride, all this time.

My last shift in the delightful kitchens of Relaisfranciacorta wound up with the preparation of frog's legs ... about 250 of them ... for a dinner on the evening of Nov. 27 for one of our larger groups of guests. I worked on the legs, thinking "This is my last effort for Chef and this wonderful brigade ... enjoy it!" And I did.

That evening the Director of the Relais told Gail and me that I was not to work in the kitchen, and enjoy the gift of a truly delicious evening in the gastronomical dining room of the Relais. What a change of positions! Previously I had been in the back of the house, working with all my pals in the brigade to make outstanding food for our clients. Tonight I dined on that food, with my dear wife, and it was lovingly made for us by friends just through the wall. (After each of the six courses was served to us, a friendly face, with a huge grin, would peek around the corner and catch my eye and wink. This was the cook who had prepared that dish ... six cooks in the kitchen, six courses. The result was absolutely delicious, and at the end of the secondo (main course) Chef Fabrizio Albini came out himself to say thanks, in public, and chat for a moment. I have been very honoured to be able to work with, and for, him.)

Then, the next day, it was time to leave the Relais for the last time, and take the bus to Brescia and the train to Venice for a few days of enjoyable 'together time' for Gail and me.

Enclosed photos show us in Venice … you can see the water level is climbing up the restaurant chair-legs in Piazza San Marco! What you can’t see is on the other side of the square … another restaurant (the CafĂ© Quadra) has their chairs set up in front of the restaurant out in the Piazza, as they always do, and there are customers sitting in them, wearing their fashionable hip-waders or tourist waders, and they’re sipping coffee and eating colazione and chatting! The waiters (wearing fancy designer boots) pass amongst them, taking orders and sloshing off to the kitchens! If you are passing too quickly through this maze of chairs the water tends to start to move around, and the sitting folk will suddenly find their boots filling up!

There’s the final photo … Pearson airport yesterday … pushing the luggage cart.

It is good to be home, but I ache and miss the madness of Italy, the wonderful smiles on so many faces, the smells and the passion for food. I wish every one of my friends there well, and every personal and professional happiness and success. A special thanks to Chef Albini for all his generous support, his welcome, his teaching and big grins!

My final little recipe for everyone … so simple, so fresh, so Italian...

Caprese Salad.

Go to your favourite grocer and buy three or four of their best tomatoes. Not the huge ones … get tomatoes with dangerous levels of flavor, intense colour, firm (but not tough) flesh. Tomatoes you will love! If you can, tomatoes that have never been refrigerated, fresh from the vine.

Then get some fresh basil leaves. Bright green, not yellow at all, or turning splotchy. Not too large (because they will be a little thick), and not too tiny. I look for leaves about 5 to 7 cm long (without the stem). You will need about 6 to 8 of these.

Now … the challenge … the best mozzarella you can find. If you can buy bufala (made from water buffalo milk, not cow milk), get it! The best! If you have a choice of cow milk products, try for the most fresh ‘Fior de Latte’, not the stuff in a plastic tub, which will be tougher. About 400 gm.

Now, take the plates you will serve this classic on and place them on the counter near your work station.

Wash the tomatoes quickly under running cold water and dry them. Use a small melon baller to remove the tough area of the tomato where the fruit attached to the vine. Turn the tomatoes sideways and cut them into significant slices … about ¾ of a cm thick each … don’t use the absolute ends. Reserve.

Use a VERY sharp knife to cut the cheese into similar slices. Reserve, without the accompanying brine.

On the plates arrange your pieces as you choose … they may be sandwiched, artfully scattered, built into a shape of some sort; do what pleases your eye. (If you go to Google Images and type in ‘Caprese Salad’ you will find a startling number of ideas. Play around with the presentation!)

Leave a generous rim free of anything.

Gently sprinkle with a good salt.

When this is done, tear the basil leaves into rather small bits (say 5 pieces per leaf) and scatter them on the salad.

Drizzle with your absolutely very best olive oil, and put the bottle on the table for those guests who like more.

Serve with crusty bread and seasonal wine of your choice. A few delicious olives may be added to the plate(s) if you choose.

The colours and the flavours ARE Italy.

Eat, friends, in good health.

Thanks for all the encouragement and ideas! Take time for each other at the table. Be brave in the kitchen, be safe, plan and enjoy quality ingredients. Support your local producers if they are good. Shop locally if you can.

Special mention of thanks for this whole experience must go to Chef Dario Tomaselli of George Brown Chef School in Toronto, and Candida d’Elia of ALMA in Colorno, Italy. Grazie mille! And, of course, to all the Chefs and cooks I have worked for and with, who have been unstintingly generous with their time, their teaching, their equipment and their Italian lessons! It has been a delight, all of it ... one of the highlights of my life.

David, thanks for the delightful surprise in Bologna.

And to Gail, my generous, supportive and loving wife, all my thanks, mio caro. You are a true champion. Dinner, any time, any day, is on me. I could not have done this without your enormous kindness, patience, willingness to be a gustatory tester and your unwavering support and constant encouragement.

This is the end of the blog. Feedback is encouraged … please use the comments section below.

My best regards to you all, my dear Fellow Travellers.

Martin, home from Italy.