City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

There was a quite wonderful piece of writing by the cook Nigel Slater in last week’s Observer. Read the following passage and you can infer any number of meaningful themes for life in general, never mind design, culture, economics etc. Slater is notoriously brilliant at understanding and communicating the sensual joy of food, and the lengthy excerpt below may well create a pleasurable yearning sense in your yawning stomach – but it can stimulate the grey matter too. His evocative description of an Italian grocer’s shop illustrates how the wondrously simple, honest, timeless values of quality, thought, well-understood process, humility, first-hand experience and even civic sense are endlessly more interesting and rewarding than an approach based around an over-provision to enable some kind of spurious and excessive ‘consumer choice’, or over-specification in general.

This isn’t a paean to what might have been, or a conservative throwback to when things were better – as there are companies, organisations or cultures invoking these principles even now, in the name of progression as well as conservation – but there is a sense in Slater’s writing of the value of living on a human scale, of the value of history and local culture, and of the value of craft and of making things yourself:

“I haven’t come in to buy, or to escape the hot, dry air (I am within a lemon’s throw of Vesuvius). I have come in to breathe in the still, dark air, the scent of prosciutto waiting on the slicer, the tang of lemon leaves. What I really want to experience is that sudden drop in temperature as you brush through the plastic-strip curtain into the near-dark of the store. An experience that never quite works in Britain. Where British shopkeepers are obsessed with giving us a vast range to choose from, there is something appealing about the spartan contents of the average provincial grocer’s in Italy. There are olives, but usually only two or three varieties; only one choice of ham, perhaps two; two breeds of tomato; a box of lemons; dusty oranges heavy with juice; the occasional lettuce; a round of ricotta with its basket-weave texture; and a whole majestic gorgonzola. The only herbs are a bunch of basil and flat-leaved parsley in a jar of water on the counter. Yes, there is pasta here, but only five or six varieties rather than the 20 or more you would find in a British deli.”

“Today, there are also the stars of the season proudly presented on a formica table near the open door: a wooden box of zucchini sold complete with their gaudy yellow flowers; a tray of perfect peaches; a wicker basket of dark red cherries and another of melons. There is something reassuring about this pared-back style of shopping. You know that the cherries are sweet, the ciabatta baked that morning and the melon so ripe that each slice will dissolve icily in your mouth. Neither do you have to worry about choosing from 16 different sorts of salami, because there are only two – one flavoured with peppercorns, the other with coarse grains of fat and whole fennel seeds.”

“The big difference here is that everything is of the highest quality. There are two fresh pastas, a floury wooden tray of fettucine and a metal one of ravioli sitting in a cold cabinet. Today it is ricotta and spinach, the little pillows touchingly displayed with pink blossom. Next to the jar of parsley sits a large, shallow tart the size of a tractor wheel, and I fall for the charms of its filling of sickly cream and wild strawberries.”

“There is probably little that I fancy for supper more than those zucchini, sliced and tossed in crackling olive oil, to share with some thin slices of ham. I would season them with parsley, mint and garlic. So simple. So fragrant. So Italy.”

“I came, I saw, I breathed in deeply.”

The Observer: Catholic Tastes


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