Marines get serious when it’s time to celebrate.
This year it will be the 236th Anniversary from the birth of the Corps.
Chez Vincent has been ruled in the front line as a real Sergeant Major to guide a troop of hungry Marines through a path of Sicilian delights. The feast went on smooth. Everyone at the end of the night pushed him to a celestial state of gratitude by clapping him for some everlasting minutes.
What made these brave guys so happy?
Everything started out with a huge buffet of appetizers followed by two pasta courses. One of these was a Chef’s all-time favourite “country-style lasagna”, a tremendously thick lasagna cake filled with a least 10 different vegetables such as Sicilian eggplants, black zucchini, vine-riped tomatoes, winter squash, green bell peppers, purple sweet onions, Saint Alfio garlic, plus fresh mozzarella and Parmigiano. Seasonal, vegetarian and simply astonishing.
Second hit was the fresh casarecci (thick daily made maccheroni) with his signature pesto, a blend of sun-dried tomatoes, fresh ricotta cheese, sheep aged cheese, basil and olive oil. Wow. Can’t get enough of it.
It’s the turn of a mini-sized pork roll with spring onion and ratatouille, sided by a chunk of wonderfully cooked sweet and sour chicken in the Sicilian way (with black olives, almonds and vinegar caramel!).
Plane Tiramisù to clean your mouth and the ovation burts in.
I think simplicity and authenticity make things work great and Chez Vincent knows it.
We’re in Sicily! Let’s merge with the place and the culture we share in this moment!
I hope “Sicilianity” could lead to such union and happiness in any form it shows up.
Culinary is definitely playing a major role.
The next step for this charming Chef? Maybe he should manage the main canteen at the headquarters in the States with some Sicilian style, that might get any Marine work with a good smile.
If you live in a town by the sea, where 80% of the restaurants offer a fish based cuisine, it is very easy to encounter an ages-dead piscine bite on your plate rather than a still-moving marine delicacy.
For this reason, a peculiar approach, a training towards eating out is generated in the regular restaurant visitor, who needs to become able to understand which fish is fresh and wild and which one could be frozen or intensively bred at a glance.
Sight is most important, since a common characteristic of fish restaurants in Sicily, derived from the old market habits of exposing the goods on sale on an open counter, consists of exhibiting the daily catch on iced shelves for the eyes of the customers. Not only for the visual pleasure though; this system to chose the actual meal allows everyone to decide what to eat by looking exactly at the specimen that will be served at the table in its first form, before the cooking.
In almost all cases, while fish products needed for the starters and the first courses are arranged by the kitchen, the selection made in first person concerns the goods to prepare the main course.
Whether it is a sea bass winking at you, a crawling lobster, screaming for glory or a bunch of agitating prawns, you’ve got to catch them out front!
This definitely is a common phenomenon to more than one city in Italy and the mediterranean countries in general, but I’ve been through something even more significant of the complex relationship between man and food consumption.
A few days ago I had the opportunity to eat for the first time at a very small restaurant lying on a rocky sea port. The restaurant itself was built in rocks and dug into a cave-shaped tiny room, a place in which the way you make your mind up about what to eat is very interesting and unusual by these times.
The kitchen (which counts a couple of fridges, a wide charcoal grill station, stoves and fish counter) is not bigger than 3 by 4 metres, with 4 people working in!
When you are ready to sit down at your table you realize the server is running across inviting you inside for something you NEED to do before pulling the chair. You’ve got to fish your supper!
It’s the standard official procedure, not any more a choice of the picky customer who wants to be sure on what he or she is having that night.
The fish counter is quite small but totally overflowing with mollusks, fishes of diverse sizes and species, crustaceans, weeds.
“What do you eat tonight?” goes the owner, a small man in white apron.
“I’d love a starter of limpets and abalones salad, warm charcoal grilled octopus and fried squids; pasta with prawns and courgettes as a first course; salt-crusted saddled bream as a main..”
Here we go.
Spot your quarry, point your finger like a magic fishing stick, throw the line to catch the dinner, and your pick really jumps on the scale!
It’s a nice dumb-show.
This interaction between yourself, the owner and food itself is very engrossing. It produces a strong sense of participation to the meal through the act of “meeting” food in first person, which otherwise would be very excluded and would give a less enjoyable eating experience.
I think of the old food purchasing systems, which relied on fishermen as the intermediary party between the table and the sea products.
Since a few decades ago, usually, we were in the need to enter in contact with them personally, creating a very intense communication process that ended with the decision on if and what to buy. This decision was of course based on different factors.
One main element is that, in front of a fisherman who just jumped off the boat, influenced and trained by his talk, charmed by his commercial and theatrical attitude to interact with customers, we take part into the process of understanding what we eat, beginning from the initial raw stage.
It’s true that occasionally they could sell you the fish that they needed to, not the one you had in mind (smart arabic merchants!); their shouts, addressed to the passerby, stimulated to stop and get caught in the trap. Like a fish indeed.. This is part of the food buying game. You need to begin playing to get skilled.
A second most important point instead is that the wise buyer and the fair fisherman share a lot more about the octopus they’re handling than hunger and money.
From the eyes and the hands of a sailor we can understand that seafood is a gift from the sea, obtained with effort and deep knowledge. The roughest sea-wolf can tell you stories about his use of the net, he can teach you golden rules on how to disguise the best species and in which time of the year they are nicest. In a city context he can educate the urban. He can share the very preciously kept feeling of taming the sea, get what it can offer with respect in change of a sincere gratitude.
These are traits of real fishermen.
This is fisherman thinking! It is a classic but true imaginary, and it can be passed by to the eater, very simply.
The way to do so is to recreate a relationship between the two.
The restaurant works great as a ground. The dish you will eat after “fishing” with your beloved fisherman will make you feel, as Sicilians say, like if you’re tasting the sea itself.
Don’t be eaten by the octopus then.
Get a little help from a fisherman.
In the wildest Sicilian inlands, looking at the majesty of the volcano Etna, a Chef whose fame still hasn’t crossed the strait keeps up his pledge on the stove.
Chez Vincent, a name that might recall a French background that never existed, is the character, the poet, the advocate who is revitalizing traditional Sicilian cuisine and cooking techniques by maintaining them the way they are meant to be, with a twist of genius.
It’s quite a complex matter to define the peculiarity of his work.
If we take a quick look out the window to today’s Star-Chef world we are offered culinary journeys on a restaurant’s chair, blinks at science and chemicals, unusual flavours and fancy atmospheres.
What immediately stuns about Chez Vincent is his absolute repulsion for the glossy pages of magazines and the frenzy of TV programmes. He calls himself a real cook and the kitchen his reign. No need for anything else.
When he walked through the door that leads into his kitchen, passing through the citrus orchard right aside, the smell of garlic coming up was overwhelming but at the same time irreparably charming, able to convert any vampire into a please-let-me-taste-that!
Chez Vincent (aka Vincenzo, a very traditional Sicilian name) spins around. His chef-suit, with the multicolored spots on it calles in the relationship between the man and the material he handles. His hands are now full of chopped onions, now swinging a wooden spoon and a big fork, while he delivers the brightest smiles he can. Theatre and craftsmanship are one sole thing here.
The restaurant is hidden in remote fields and to be discovered it is necessary to go on a real hunt, because good cuisine has to be lived as a holistic experience, enjoying the place where it is created, the time in which it is offered, the environment, the people that are inextricable part of it and complete its value.
So, why is Chez Vincent such an acclaimed host and Chef?
His belief is that Sicilian traditional cuisine is a very vast knowledge kingdom. It represents the fruit of diverse cultures which dominated the Island during the centuries and Sicilians have been so great in keeping for them the best epicurean secrets. With academic rigour Chez Vincent explains the most tangled and deep path that led a caponata to our table the way it is.
Every culinary preparation has been learned, assimilated by the local communities, repeated infinite times, modified, reinvented, but at a certain point some standards had been defined. A caponata made in Catania will show differences from one made in Palermo, but every area has defined a standard. This is a very significant further internal richness of this Island, a massive diversity not just on a macro-area basis but something that happens from town to town.
You might get sad, but the perfect dish has already been invented.
In that case, where does the art of a Chef lie? In the way a dish is understood and replicated.
Cooking is very much about sensitivity. The knowledge of seasonal products, the use of some ingredients in delicate processes (let’s remember that the clotting process of a wheel of primo sale requires more knowledge on chemistry than adding a spoon of canned carrageenan to a jelly!), the skill to follow the creation of a flavour thanks to a very discerning sense of taste.
Chez Vincent has grown up on pasta al nero di seppia and cannoli di ricotta, the sea with its fauna is a holy well of wonders, the earth and the skies a hunting ground, source of precious gifts for the larder.
All told about classic hits new recipes are yet to come.
He has evolved his cooking techniques to an inimitable, matchless style. From the mixing of a béchamel sauce to the composing of the plate, his moves tell about the empathy for the act of cooking, the embodied ability to discourse with the material.
Is he now trying to create a new secret weapon for his guests? Yes, and its name comes out of his mouth along with a honest glance. He has just accomplished the dish that costed him a fortune on cooking tests and sleepless nights on copies of old manuscripts and history books. Our philologist Chef is about to realize what no one before has dared trying to make: smoked veal in prune sauce. What’s special? Just the feeling of taking back the tradition of the Northern European invaders who, some hundred years ago, gave us a taste of their smoked goods and the secrets of the uncanny process of fermenting our fresh fruits.
In the very early period human beings were hunters and gatherers. The whole food provision derived from such activities, the only ones to get enough energy to the population. A characteristic of the group strictly connected to the way of getting food was the permanent nomadic status, in a constant search of new forests for picking, new herds to hunt.
In a second stage human beings began to cultivate the soil and settled in specific more suitable areas for living, where all around could develop vegetable gardens, grow cereals and keep animals inside fences.
Making a considerable jump of about 1-2 million years, we find ourselves today totally depending on a new system for getting food: we are in the massive-shopping age. Well, it isn’t so strange we need to ask someone else than us to get what we need to eat. It’s worth to underline the barter has been way so important for building economic structures in history and represents a very best instrument to turn the labour-energies of a community into the most efficient exchange method to sustain it.
Nevertheless we are experiencing a deep dependency to buying food which otherwise we couldn’t get. We run out of some good, we’re hungry, we’ve got a desire, our brain generates the electric impulses that make us feel in the need of getting food. Immediately after that we analyse what is the best way to get it and most of the times we end up by recognizing the source of it in a shop or, in the best cases, a market stall or our mum’s pantry (which anyway involves a certain level of dependency on someone else). Very rarely we direct our thoughts to a personal sourcing for food, like going to the countryside or our garden to find what we’re looking for.
Let’s get back now on the first stages of humankind evolution.
Not many of us nowadays have the possibility to gather food autonomously. Very few people go hunting for feeding themselves and their families as a main purpose.
Hunting and gathering are very sustainable methods to obtain energies without leaving a massive footprint in the environment. They don’t imply waste of energy through carbon emission from vehicles; there’s no energy waste due to the transportation of the good from the cultivation or breeding place to the distribution; there are no processes of transformation, packaging etc. etc. involved.
It would be such an unrealistic vision the one that poses us able to live on hunting and gathering in the contemporary era, but I very much believe a few ways to balance our shopping-based food provision can be found or at least invented.
I am from Sicily, very gorgeous land food-wise. During the summer there is plenty of fruit in the country side and, in the eventuality of thinking about going to pick something in the countryside from a tree, I could get inspiration from a long list of species that grow spontaneously.
But I live in the city and food gathering isn’t that easy for the metropolis dweller..
Gardens and abandoned slots of uncultivated soil are quite easy to find around here and if you take a little tour of the city you’ll be amazed of how many edible plants live next to inhabited centres.
I demolished the latest frontier of urban picking a few days ago as I stepped out my house. I walked down a main street and noticed a tree bending out a fence from an abandoned garden, right in the centre of my neighbourhood. It was a black fig tree and it was literally exploding with fruit!
The day after that I passed by a street I usually run through without spending too much time looking around. I did so last time and there it came to my sight the most unexpected vegetable present: another fig tree, the white variety this time, again in full blooming, again in a central area of the city. I picked a fig and run away to my destination, but with the backup plan to top up a basket with that goodness. In this case I must admit it wasn’t really an abandoned plot but a private garden from which the tree jutted out; anyway if we want to talk “legal”, anything leaping out on the public soil owns to anyone who finds it. Law can play good sometimes..
I could go on by listing all the delicacies you could pick up by taking a tour around town. Apart from the figs which I believe to be the holy grail of fruit, I caught sight of prickly pears, olives, wild weeds, liquorice, lemons, oranges, peaches and grapes.
Right. We will never live on a few wild fruits hanging out from our neighbour’s garden. Furthermore the jealous neighbour could also try to poison his cherries once discovered we sneak around his yard during night-time.
More realistically, this practices extended to wider lands in the countryside, could help us regain a little sensitivity about what is seasonal at that time, learn a bit about how plants are made, their shape, their smell; we can learn tricks and methods on how to pick, gather, pull from the ground any fruit or vegetable we find in front of us.
We can become (well, we should add “again”) skilled gatherers and good wildlife experts by changing a bit of our habits. At the same time we could reach a better life status by eating wild foods, rich in energy and nutrients, propellers of knowledge, reconnecting to the life cycles of the earth.