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A meal unlike any other

Imagine yourself, if you would, sitting on a terrace overlooking an amazing landscape. We will tentatively pin the place as a hamlet alongside Amalfi Coast, but it might as well be Albaicin in Granada, Amboise in Loire Valley, or any number of other places. The grand view is not a mandatory attribute – if all you can imagine is a cozy dining room that puts you in a romantic mood, you are fine. The sun slowly sinks into the sea or the fireplace gently crackles in the corner – these attributes are welcome but do not define the experience.

You are here to enjoy what will undoubtedly be the highlight of your overseas trip – a traditional local meal. Haute-cuisine establishments or anything that advertizes itself as having a menu turistico need not apply. We are talking a small bed-and-breakfast whose lovely owner offered to treat you to a dinner one night.

Since we decided to call it Italy, the meal is starting with a flute of Prosecco. Sipping the wine and enjoying the atmosphere, you greet the arrival of bruschetta with enthusiasm, as you do not yet suspect what is in store for you. The opening dish is as non-pretentious as it is delicious.

Then comes antipasto. A grand word to encompass slices of cheese and meat plus some olives and vegetables. You can’t make a dish simpler than that, but for a light eater it itself can constitute a whole meal.

Afterwards, pasta arrives. It could be penne or linguini or tagliatelli or more prosaic spaghetti, but it’s the home-made sauce that will taste as nothing you have tasted before. No point in asking for the name of the sauce – alla mia nonna Maria is the likely answer. You can ask for the recipe, of course, and the gracious host will oblige, but you will never be able to replicate the heavenly taste back home. Must be something to do with Italian air.

Looking at that bowl of pasta if front of you, you are starting to regret the eagerness with which you went after every last bite of the appetizers. You are also starting to consider whether there is any polite chance in hell to tell your host that you cannot finish her offering. However you’d think to express it, it smacks of lacking appreciation for the good woman’s efforts – and you are way too considerate to hurt her feelings that way.

You managed to finish the pasta, but of course, this is not the end of the meal. Next come costolette di agnello with polenta on the side. It does not look elaborate but it tastes out of this world. No way you’ll leave even a smidgen of it on the plate, even if it takes you all night!

Clever person that you are, you try to gauge the remainder of the meal by asking your host in your limited Italian, “And then, dessert?” She makes a face of unbearable sorrow and exclaims what sounds like “What?! You are not having the fish?!?!?!” Embarrassed that you insulted her, you hasten to convince her that you, in fact, cannot wait to taste the fish that she made for you.

After an hour or so you finally claim victory over the lamb chops. To your utter relief, the next course is actually the dessert. The smiling woman tells you something about fish but you are too addled by the amounts of food in your digestive tract to clearly discern whether she was making a joke about fish earlier or simply decided to take pity on you and removed the fish from the menu. The dessert is exquisitely-looking struffoli – the only item on the menu that may not have been made in the kitchen next door but instead bought at the local pasticceria.

Next comes espresso. And after that, five different varieties of limoncello to taste to your heart’s delight. Which you do for the next two hours because getting up from your table is certainly not a physical feat possible at present juncture.

Truly a meal that you will remember for years to come.

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As you can probably guess, this was not exactly a fantasy but rather a very fond memory. We did have more or less this exact experience of a meal during our stay on Amalfi Coast more than a decade ago. I find it singularly incredible that we only spent two nights at the coast and each night left us with one of our most cherished memories of all of our travels (the previous night’s experience was recounted in this entry that I posted almost 5 years ago).

It is no coincidence that both of these stories revolve around dining. I am a firm believer in experiencing as much local flavor as practical when in a foreign country. Yes, I do plenty of touristy things and check must-see sights off my list. But if I want to find an approximation of being a local, I head to a market – or seek a home-made meal (although, it should be confessed that I frequently seek popular restaurants offering local fare instead; then, the threat of cumulative expense and the relative anonymity of being a “stranger” who can leave food on his plate combine to safeguard me from inadvertent gluttony even when the food on offer is mind-blowing). Experiencing a foreign culture through food is the most accessible and enjoyable approach no matter where you are.

This post was prompted in part by my recent Amalfi coast World Heritage vignette but also in part by folks at Smartling who approached me to write about my dream dinner destination as part of a project they are working on. I moulded the topic into something that better suits the overall tone of my blog but probably veers too far away from their original intent. Since no promises of monetary or other gains were exchanged, I feel that this exercise of creative freedom is permissible.

They also asked me to cover my views on foreign language website translation. Beyond stating the fairly obvious notion that every respectable business with international clientele nowadays cannot operate without an English-language online presence, I do not know what I can offer. I am a competent reader in four European languages but I certainly prefer to do my research in English. When those English-version sites are bad-quality translations, it impedes my ability to achieve what I am looking for and oftentimes directs my custom elsewhere. Which, I suppose, means that Smartling has plenty of scope to apply their core expertise.

Posted in Memoirs