Sunday, April 1, 2012

Flavors of Europe

From the Silk Road gateway of Tbilisi, Georgia, and the rolling plains of Portugal’s Alentejo to the volcanic islands of Sicily and the chill highlands of Scotland, the European continent is a complex patchwork of landscapes, cultures, and cuisines. The tale of its tables is a celebration of local products augmented by the spoils of empire, the fruits of trade, and the enthusiastic embrace of meats, vegetables, and cooking techniques from North Africa, Asia Minor, and the Americas.

Certain flavors pale when uprooted. The rich-tasting Greek fava bean becomes a plain-Jane legume in other soils. Shavings of Italian black truffles lend an earthy musk to pastas and risottos wherever they’re used, but never with such piquancy as in the dishes of Umbria. The exquisite Roman artichoke anywhere else is just another globe thistle, while the distinctive basil and olive oil of Genoa combine to make Ligurian pesto the green queen of pasta cuisines.
Warm water or cold, sweet or salt – the oceans, lakes, and rivers of Europe are the starting point for many iconic dishes, from steamed mussels in Brussels to fried fish on Whitby’s North Sea strand.

The crystalline Adriatic waters of Croatia teem with succulent scampi – all the better cooked with tomato,garlic, and white wine. In the Caspian Sea, armor-plated sturgeon produce delicious, rich caviar, while the pink-fleshed salmon from the mouths of icy Norwegian rivers are salt-cured to create the pungent delicacy called gravadlax.
Across Europe, cooks make fish stews that are virtual census counts of their harbors. Marseille bubbles with bouillabaisse spiked with a garlicky rouille, while Barcelona sings the light opera of fish known as zarzuela. Far to the north, the white fish of Belgian rivers form the toothy basis of Ghent’s creamy waterzooi. All three fish stews rely on the ethereal but haunting overtones of saffron,the crocus spice brought to Europe in the North African conquest of Iberia. The Moors left an even more indelible stamp on European cuisine by introducing the short-grained rices essential to Valencia’s seafood-studded paellas and Italy’s unctuous, saffronscented risotto milanese. Masters of metallurgy, the Moors also introduced the clamshell-shaped steaming vessel that became the Portuguese cataplana, though it took the Portuguese Christians to concoct the nation’s signature dish of pork and clams.

New World Ingredients

Iberian seafarers revolutionized European cuisine with their NewWorld culinary finds. Potatoes swiftly took hold in central Europe,forming the basis of the Swiss rösti, the Reiberknödel dumpling of Munich, and the patatnik pie of Bulgaria’s Rhodope mountains.
Seville’s refreshing cold salad soup, gazpacho, was born with the landing of New World peppers and sweet tomatoes. Few New World plants had the transformative impact of the tomato, so perfectly matched to mozzarella cheese, fragrant basil, and fulsome olive oil in Capri’s insalata caprese. Mount the same ingredients on a thin bread crust – but with the tomato strained and lightly cooked – and the combination becomes Naples’ pizza Margherita, a dish that now graces tables across the globe.

Changing Traditions

Many culinary traditions of Europe embrace the same informality as pizza. Spanish tapas are often eaten with the fingers or skewered with a toothpick. The bite-sized meze of Istanbul reprise the old Ottoman empire, from the stuffed vine leaves called dolmades (shared with the cuisine of Greece) to the eggplant salads, little meatballs, white cheese, and sliced melons of the far reaches of Asia Minor. The twin themes of bounty and hospitality underpin such a feast – concepts echoed far to the north with the Swedish smorgasbord buffet and its dishes of herring, eel, meatballs, potato casseroles, sliced meats, and fat sausages.
Traditionally, Europeans are the world’s great meat-eaters. Feasts can be as rustic as a Toulouse cassoulet of pork, sausages,and beans or Burgundy’s braised beef stew, or as ceremonial as the roast haunch of beef with all the trimmings that’s key to the identity of the English. Similarly, few Greeks would give up their roast Easter lamb – nor the Madrileños their mixed cocido hotpot, the Berliners their hearty braised pork knuckle, or the Alsatians the tangy pickled vegetables and rich sausages of their choucroute garnie. No German worth his or her salt would pass up the spicy pot roast known as sauerbraten, while any Scot worth a tartan feasts on haggis every Burns Night.

But Europeans also love to turn tradition on its head. English pub cooks have transformed the leaden repasts of yesteryear into the bright, fresh-ingredient cooking of the gastropubs. The master chefs of Spain’s San Sebastián married inventive genius with Basque traditions to revolutionize fine dining in Spain – and, by example, across Europe and the Americas.
Creative genius applies to European sweets as well, from pistachio and honey confections like Anatolian baklava to the elaborate torten of Salzburg, from the simple cream-filled pasteis de nata of Lisbon to the textural perfection and simple grace of a Parisian macaron delicately filled with a chocolate ganache. In Europe, the French say it best: Bon appétit!

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