After eating my way across some of Europe’s most culinary countries, I began to reflect on my time spent at tables. Had anything actually changed? Or had I just spent a lot of time and money to just eat more food; food that I pretty much could get back home? The answer was, most definitely, things changed.
It was actually subtle things which changed. But they were subtle things which can add up and completely change a dining experience.
MY CHANGES - LET ME LIST THEM FOR YOU
The birth of the aperitif/aperitivo. To be honest, I previously used ‘aperitif’ as a wanky term to describe a style of drink. But in Italy and France I was completely won over by the aperitif. Maybe it was because I was relaxed and I was on holiday (and I didn’t have much of a budget), but I hit the aperitifs. I hit them hard. A cool glass of champagne and something to nibble on is an absolutely spectacular way to start a meal (or prepare for an impending one) when you’re sitting down for a leisurely eating session. If you’re in a rush, obviously there is little point (apart from the normal thrill of champagne).
Oddly, the changing perception of the aperitif also totally changed my perception of .est, one of only three Sydney restaurants to hold three hats in the Good Food Guide (along with Quay and Marque). When I visited it, I really disliked it. One of the main reasons for the dislike was the champagne cart offering when you arrived. Get fucked, I don’t want you to rape me with a glass of Krug. Europe told me that, yes, I do want to be fucked by your glass of Krug. I’m in a good restaurant, why not go nuts. If I’m paying $300 for a dinner with wine, then what’s another $30? I should be treating it as a special occasion, not a regular dinner. That said, the food still isn’t that great for that level of fine dining.
Cheese. Cheese how I loved thee. And how I love thee. Still, with a love of cheese already, Europe totally transformed my view of cheese and, more specifically, the cheese course. What could be better than a few perfectly ripened pieces of cheese before dessert? Nothing, really (ed: plenty of things). But the cheese in Europe was actually ripe. It was incredible. Utter perfection. If only everyone in Sydney wanted a cheese course, then restaurants would actually be able to perfectly ripen cheese. At the moment, I think it has to be impossible to serve perfectly ripe cheese and make money from it, with so few people actually opting for a cheese course. But they fucking well should. A good glass of red and a selection of cheeses at their absolute peak is a thing of beauty. And Australia makes good damn cheese, so let’s do this shit. Australians: get the cheese course.
Mushrooms. I used to hate mushrooms as a child. In the last few years I tried more and I realised that I wasn’t sure. Before hitting Europe I realised that I only hated badly cooked mushrooms. After hitting Europe—in the middle of mushroom season—I realised that I LOVED mushrooms. They are now my wife and husband. A perfectly cooked mushroom is a thing of utter beauty. Like the refreshing sweetness of a watermelon tastes like summer, a dish of well-cooked mushrooms tastes like Autumn. I want more.
Sparkling water. This got me bad. So freakin’ bad. Because of their hideous tap water, it appeared that the Europeans didn’t drink a lot of the stuff at restaurants. In fact, it was so horrible I struggled to drink it anywhere. It became one of the first words I’d memorise when we entered a new country. Yes, no, please, thank you, sparkling water. The bare essentials. Arriving home, I got the horn for it. The itch. I can’t get enough of it. San Pellegrino was the best, but I can take nearly anything just to satisfy the craving. Before coming home I realised that I was addicted. But I was worried. I spent a good 30 minutes in the hotel room in (I think) Zaragoza, researching if there were any negative health impacts of drinking sparkling water. I couldn’t find any, so when I got home I hit up Norton St Grocers for a shitload of the stuff. Since then, it hasn’t left the fridge (or cooler—backup).
Sadness over produce. This made me feel pretty bad, really. The cheeses over there are in another world to here. The retailers actually know how to mature a cheese. Even the cheap supermarket cheeses could compare with the best things we have here. Salumi/cured meats? Forget about it. Italy was a mindfuck of great salumi. Good lardo. Where is that around here? The fruit in Italy and France? Wow! Ripe, seasonal and packed with flavour. And you can actually get decent stuff in a normal supermarket. Incredible.
So, yes, things have changed. Not only have my dining habits changed, but my attitudes towards produce have changed (that sounds so damn wanky) as a result of this trip. It was edutainment at it’s finest!