Ugly But Delicious
Digging in an old laptop bag the other day, I found a blurry photograph of an ordinary, even slightly ugly looking plate of food.
It was a curious dish I had made in the wake of a nasty break up, nasty at least for me who hadn’t seen it coming. I recall a fair bit of ugly crying amongst fynbos in Kirstenbosch Gardens. I still wince a bit if I see a vygie. Breakups shouldn’t be staged in beautiful places. They should always take place in abandoned parking lots, or in the cleaning products aisle at Checkers Hyper. That way, at least the surroundings would fit the scene.
At first I wouldn’t accept it. I had never been flat-out dumped before and instead of acknowledging that she was right, I pleaded for a stay of execution and she reluctantly agreed to a break rather than a break up. Six months later, in a posh cafe in central London, we reprised our Kirstenbosch roles. She was the resolute executioner, I the hapless victim. This time, I didn’t try to stitch my head back on.
Instead, I saved up some money and booked a tiny cottage in the mountains in a small Italian village called Pieve di Monti di Villa. This town was a 20-minute bus ride from the hot springs at Bagni di Lucca, itself an hour from any town of notable size. Here, I was to recover in isolation, walking, writing and eating my way back to health like the 19th century poet I had always secretly hoped I was, going as far as to wear a big shirt most of the time. In the month I spent there I might have seen a dozen other people. I didn’t actually see all of them as much as hear evidence of their presence; they existed in coughs and sneezes, distant arguments, the shooing of pets. One person I did lay eyes on was an old monolinguistic gentleman who sold me pomodoro sauce and drew illegible maps marking out hiking routes in the area. Another was his wife, who made the sauce, and whom I would have married on the spot if she wasn’t nearing a natural end (and married already).
The trip was a retreat but also an experiment. I wanted to see what I got up to when nobody was watching. I had called myself a writer and a food–lover for years but had begun to wonder if it was just something I liked saying at parties. When left to my own devices, and with nobody to tell (no parties), would I actually sit down and write? Would I make food lovingly with nobody around to impress? Or would I watch TV and eat bread and humus for a month? After a couple of days of doing mostly nothing, a surprising and foreign routine began to form. Days began with coffee and a simple breakfast before a morning walk, during which ideas for stories would come to me and I’d find myself hurrying back to write them all down before they drifted out of my head. I walked most days, on some rare occasions all day. At the summit of Ponte Fiorito, about a three-hour walk from my cottage, I could see right across Tuscany and, on a clear day, a smudge of turquoise to the west that described the Ligurian Sea.
I’d write most of the morning, stop for lunch and return to work until early evening. Evenings were passed reading whatever books the house had on its shelves, drinking half a bottle of wine and smoking on the patio while cats darted up and down the narrow stone streets. I had purposefully left my laptop at home, but there was one of those old TVs with a built-in VHS and a small stack of videos, which seemed to be a filmography of Denzel Washington’s lesser-known titles.
As the days became weeks I discovered, with a creeping thrill, that I was actually more or less the person I had said I was at those parties. Left alone, I still did the things I wanted to do most in my normal life. What seemed a simple fact felt like a profound revelation. I remembered why I’d first started writing, in my garage-slash-bedroom as a teenager. It was more than a skill to practice; it was a companion. Up here in the middle of nowhere, writing was my friend. Because I had no guests in my mountain retreat, the preparation of meals became a joyous ritual. I realised I liked preparing food at least as much as eating it, which felt equal parts important and reassuring.
Rejection is a strange poison. If the reasons for the dosage are sound, that poison can turn into medicine, but it takes time. There were times when the intense isolation threatened to turn on me. Occasionally I’d feel as though I’d fallen entirely off the map. I wasn’t expecting any calls; nobody was expecting a call from me. There were pangs of loneliness, but, mercifully, not many. I did get into town here and there, and took a few days to see Florence and the Cinque Terre, but was never happier than in the cottage, alone, excitedly writing stories for nobody in particular.
One afternoon, after a long walk in the surrounding hills, I opened the fridge to see what I could rustle up for lunch. A day earlier, I’d bought a small yellow cookbook that some charitable local had put together using classic recipes from each of the many tiny villages in the vicinity. One page detailed what looked like a warm salad of baby potatoes, tomatoes, basil, anchovies and hard boiled egg that, on paper, seemed somehow wrong. I probably wouldn’t have made it had I not had exactly – and only – those ingredients to play with. The waxy baby potatoes were peeled, boiled and sliced thick, the tomatoes briefly poached, then skinned and deseeded before being added to the bowl with the anchovies, boiled eggs and basil. This was dressed with lemon juice and olive oil. I took time to make sure each ingredient was cooked perfectly, poured a glass of water and sat down to eat on the tiny marble table on the patio. I remember it was a clear, cool day, a day when you felt the altitude. There was nobody around, as usual.
I couldn’t quite believe the flavour of the first bite, possibly because it had all looked so unlikely to thrill. There was the comforting, still slightly warm egg and potato against the acidity of the tomatoes and the dressing, the peppery basil and the punch of the anchovies. I have never done it before or since over a plate of food but after that bite I remember punching the air like a victorious sportsman. It remains the most memorable mouthful of food I’ve ever had.
There was more in that mouthful than flavour. I felt happy alone, happy that I was alone, and happy that, alone, I had chosen to live well, spending my time doing the things I had always hoped I really loved.
Of course, the Italians have a name for this kind of dish. Or, more accurately, they have a dish named Brutti ma Buoni, or ‘Ugly but delicious’, a brownish cowpat-looking dessert that is actually a chocolate hazelnut meringue. This is one of many such things. Even in the age of images, the best food is often the ugliest. Here are some others.
When you think of these three ingredients, one immediately – and sensibly – jumps to baked melanzane, but this dish, named in honour of my brother, who gave me the recipe, is a mess of the same flavours made in pots and pans to marvellous effect. The heat from the pomodoro melts the cheese as you break it into the pot, stretching it everywhere and working everything into a gooey mush that tastes like heaven. First, slice aubergines, salt them to release bitterness, pat them dry and fry them in a dry pan until browned and a bit crispy. Add the aubergine to the spicy pomodoro – basically, make an arrabiata – and stir in your pasta before immediately adding the torn up bits of buffalo mozzarella or fior di latte. Mix as the cheese melts and eat it as soon as it drops a degree below palate-scorching.
Visually, hummus fails on every level. A beige paste made from chickpeas doesn’t sound like a good thing to eat either. Sadly, hummus is often made so badly as to taste like it looks. It’s baffling, because delicious hummus is easy to make and, once mastered, becomes an essential fridge resident. It really winds me up that something so simple is made so badly so often. We are talking about chickpeas, lemon, garlic, tahini, a toss of salt and a splash of ice cold water. The secret is in following the steps and not settling until you’ve got a perfect texture. I learnt my recipe from an Israeli man who scribbled his grandmother’s method on the back of a coaster in a bar once. All you have to do, which is just as good, is google “Yotam Ottolenghi hummus”.
The idea of salted or corned beef conjures images of a tube of nondescript meat oozing out of a can to be served with overcooked, watery vegetables to a family who has stopped speaking to each other. Indeed, pickling a cheap cut of meat in a salt brine for ages sounds like the sort of thing we used to have to do before fridges. But salt beef cooked properly is a revelation, as we’ve discovered at our bagel shop in Cape Town, Max Bagels. After trying almost every method with our cuts of pickled brisket – boiling, braising, roasting – the sweet spot turned out to be a combination of all three. The brisket is placed fat side up in a roasting tray with carrots, onions, celery, fennel bulbs, a bay leaf or two, some peppercorns and a couple of quartered tomatoes, before water is added until the meat is half submerged. Then we add a splash of vinegar over the meat before wrapping the dish in foil for 4-6 hours of oven time at 160 degrees. With half an hour to go, take off the foil, crank the heat and grill the fat on top of the meat to add flavour.
Matthew Freemantle is a writer who took the advice to make his bread and butter outside of writing very literally by opening a bagel shop in Cape Town.