Well, we are back. After two and a half weeks roaming France and Italy, we returned with tired feet, dazzled eyes, full minds, and happy stomachs. And since there’s no way, since our flight landed on Friday and we’ve barely unpacked yet (though I’ve made a pretty good start catching up on the TV I’ve recorded – the Colosseum out of gingerbread? Did you see it? I WAS IN THE REAL ONE A WEEK AGO! – ahem), that I’m going to have a recipe for you today, I thought instead I’d share a few food-based reflections and revelations from our trip.
In no particular order:
Prosciutto and butter sandwiches are really, really good. Especially when they are on fresh, high-quality bread. I know, prosciutto is already fatty. But that fat, combined with the saltiness of the meat and the sweet, creamy butter, is perfection. I thought briefly about the merits of adding something fresh, like arugula or sliced cucumber, but it wouldn’t be right to tangle with perfection. If you must, have a side salad instead.
French and Italian croissants are quite different. Both are delicious and rich and buttery, but they are clearly distinct. French croissants are devastatingly flaky and crisp on the outside, with delicate, soft-but-separate layers inside. Sometimes they contain chocolate, but those are a different shape – the classic crescent croissant wrap is just for the plain and original. Italian croissants, on the other hand, often have fillings. Apricot is pretty common, and I had one with pistachio cream inside that I’m still thinking about. The lurid green oozing out was a bit of a shock at first, but it was a stellar flavor. To that end, Italian croissants tend to run a bit sweeter than their French counterparts, and they are breadier inside – more like brioche or challah. The layers are still there, but they aren’t as distinct. Sometimes the exterior is swept with a sweet glaze, which renders a less shattering bite.
Rosé is just the best. I already knew this, but when you can sit down at any French café, say “rosé, s’il vous plait,” and wind up with a moderate-to-great glass of wine, often for less than 5 euros, it gets even greater.
Though my go-to remains rosé, my new favorite summer cocktail is an Aperol spritz. Everywhere we went in Italy, from lunchtime on I saw people sipping on large, bright, almost salmon-colored cocktails with half-slices of orange sunk inside. I finally figured out this was an Aperol spritz, a combination of Aperol, an herb-infused Italian aperitif, prosecco, and soda water. Sometimes the spritz is made with Campari instead, which is a bit more bitter than Aperol. It’s intensely refreshing, not terribly alcoholic, and pairs well with every savory snack I can think of.
This is really N.’s revelation more than mine, but tarte aux citron is an amazing dessert. More specifically, the tarte aux citron with passionfruit sorbet and lemon gel he allowed me to share at a bistro in Arles is an amazing dessert. I read about this spot, a more affordable kind of sister to the playground restaurant of one of France’s very well known chefs. Since we were staying in Arles, I knew I wanted that to be our splurge dinner, and when the chef himself very kindly talked the seating manager into giving us a table (what? Get a reservation? It didn’t even occur to us), we were in for a lovely dining experience. N. concluded his meal with this tarte, which arrived as a wide slice of lemon curd and piped, perfectly toasted meringue atop a crumbly just-sweet crust, accompanied by a perfect quenelle of intensely flavored sorbet and mouth-puckering dots of lemon gel. I’m now charged with recreating at least the pastry portion. More on that as developments arise, I suspect…
In summertime in Italy, “grilled vegetables” on anything, from sandwich to pasta, means you are going to get zucchini and eggplant.
Italian food is just really… simple. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s just good, fresh ingredients, cooked well, and that’s that. With a few exceptions for aesthetic appeal, there isn’t a tremendous amount of manipulation to the ingredients, and at least in what we wound up ordering, there aren’t that many of them in any one dish. This results in pure flavors: you can taste almost everything the cook used.
Polpo. Or poulpe, depending on which country you’re in. This is my new favorite seafood. It might be my new favorite food. I’ve eaten octopus before – in fact, it’s one of the foods that made me realize even as a child that I was not a picky eater. But I haven’t had it very often, and where it is served in the U.S. it tends to be out of our typical restaurant price range. It’s a difficult protein to cook, since it can take on the texture of rubber bands if it isn’t cooked correctly. We were fortunate enough to have octopus cooked perfectly in two meals. Once was at that French bistro I mentioned above, when lovely chunks of the stuff were included in my squid ink pasta. The other, and the one that really converted me, was an appetizer we shared on our last night in Venice. The menu description was so spare we didn’t know what to expect: “octopus, potato, tomato, onion.” What we got was a gorgeous plate of food including potato puree well doctored with lemon, fresh, bright tomato sauce, just-burst cherry tomatoes, lightly pickled slips of onion, and two perfect, tender, meaty fingers of octopus that, to me, were reminiscent of nothing more than roast chicken. And I mean that in a good way. So now I’m determined to learn how to cook octopus. Perhaps not for an exact restaurant recreation, but because this heretofore underappreciated meat needs to cross our table much, much more often.