As a one-time cook it’s always a pleasure to sit down and share a few tall tales and a glass or two of something tasty in the good company and camaraderie of kitchen veterans. This sub cultural population have seen all of life’s rich tapestry through the kitchen door or from behind sheets of leaping flames of burning oils and alcohol. Once in a while this knife-wielding rabble, bent on feeding anyone who’ll sit long enough to order, sends forth a special envoy; someone who has taken the time to carefully consider what the contents of the pantry really mean, where did they originate, their history, how they were prepared in the past, a guardian and distiller of essential cultural knowledge about one of the basic needs in life – food.
Clifford A. Wright is one such sentinel, an internationally celebrated chef, acclaimed food writer, prize winning author of some of the very finest cook books to be found anywhere, an educator, a master of philosophy and learned historian of the foods and rise of what is now described as the Mediterranean Diet.
While travelling in Spain recently, our paths crossed at a dinner party of a mutual friend I’d been invited to cook for. After the dinner, which thankfully went very well, I asked Cliff if he’d care to sample one of Barcelona’s finest Italian restaurants a few days later. Also I was hoping to invite him to write for Tomato+Health. He kindly accepted and during a fine lunch of spicy, rich tomato putanesca and risotto parmigiano, we got around to talking about life in the kitchens, great food and his own passion for the cooking and cuisine from the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. I had to ask were it all started for him:
>> “It probably started with the sea itself. My father was stationed in France with the US Air Force in the mid -1950s. So when I was between the ages of 3 and 8 we vacationed on the French Riviera and from that time on this place was for me. Subsequently, I went back many, many times and my connection to the Mediterranean was sealed”.
As one of the World’s foremost experts on the history surrounding foods common to Mediterranean cooking - obviously a huge subject as it is simultaneously the history of the movements of peoples, the history of agriculture, politics, trade and economics - I asked him to cite perhaps just a few of the most significant historical issues that have influenced or helped to shape the diet in the past that still reverberate today?
>> “Life is not static, everything changes, but when we look at historical phenomena we can identify seminal moments in how Mediterranean life has changed. We must look for broad trends and the slow progression of ineffable movements, which brush a wide swath through the life of the Mediterranean. Arguably, I would say the four most important historical phenomena that created the Mediterranean world of today are the Arab agricultural revolution of the eighth to twelfth centuries, the transition from feudalism to capitalism, the Age of Discovery which resulted in the opening of a New World and the introduction of a host of plants to the Old – including the humble tomato, and the Renaissance which provided the wealth and incentive for humankind to live better”.
We then moved onto the current focus on healthy aspects of the so called “Med’ Diet” which seem almost to overshadow the great flavours, textures, culinary traditions and feasting occasions from these sea bordering countries – I asked him to describe the appeal to the senses of the cooking from this region.
>> “No matter how complex a recipe might be from our Mediterranean cuisines, cooks often answer—and I do too—that it’s the simplicity of the food and its raw freshness that so many find appealing. In the Mediterranean, food is not fuel but is a part of not only diet but material culture as well and the connection Mediterranean peoples have to “their” food is deep and abiding. It’s culturally rooted and deeply familial. I remember once in Sardinia watching a cook make the little pasta called malloreddus which I quickly recognized as being identical to the Sicilian cavatieddi, a cowry shell-shaped pasta. When I mentioned this to the Sardinian cook, she couldn’t care less: their own food was the only food that mattered. I did not find this lack of curiosity off-putting but rather an indicator of how personal was their cuisine”.
I told him that in Spain I’ve heard it said “if olive oil is the Queen of ingredients, then tomato is the King”– I wanted his top 3 recipes/or favourite cooked dishes that include tomato.
>> “If olive oil is Queen and tomato is King then cooking the two together becomes simply the Crown itself, creating a foundation to the greatest of tastes simply by harmonising; the tomato cooked over high heat in olive oil; the crowning glory on millions of plates every day”.
>> “No hesitation here: give me a pizza margherita, spaghetti with tomato sauce, and gazpacho any day. Well, a Capri salad with ripe tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil, I guess shouldn’t be overlooked”.
For more information about Clifford A. Wright please visit his website
You can find a few of Clifford’s favourite tomato recipes on the recipe pages of this site