Story Board…my favorite impasse
The Feast of the Seven Fishes
Five friends had been up from the very early hours for on this day the feast was prepared, the table laid for the guests and the cooks, to partake in the delicacy of this wondrous event, which had been part of a long tradition in Southern Italy, on Christmas Eve, Vigilia di Natale, the banquet named Il Cenone di Vigilia.
We had been invited out of the blue, almost by accident and had not imagined what awaited us, somewhere in the darker streets of the East…of London. In front of us, a bay of greens, Plants have grown to the ceiling; exuberant flora has expanded, creating a nimbus of chlorophyll. The windows advance towards what one could only imagine as the ocean or more so, a Mediterranean port, but far below us, as we look out beyond the cliff and partially distinguish the shapes of cargos, perhaps the white sails of a ship. We are so far now from the urban hysteria of London, in this chrono-capsule where high tech fuses with retro paraphernalia. Vapour gleams on the panes, vapours rise from the stove. Never once did I think of peering into the secret heart of the kitchen. Events take on the lure of Commedia dell Arte as one chair collapses then another leaving our hosts floating in disbelief. Later a guest battles with a ladder and vegetal construct tilting over him as he brushes passed. I think of Buster Keaton’ s facial expression as a house façade falls around him, his body fitting into the doorway like a needle in a pin hole. The space gives this impression of ephemera, having been filled with treasures from the past and filtering into the precariousness of the future through the technological mod cons of modern living. A young restless pit bull greets us, the colour of his coat so similar to that of the carpet they, from a distance, would look indistinguishable had it not been for the fact that the dog has a bright lustre the carpet no longer possesses. Once every one has arrived, the meal begins.
The first course, the entrée is placed in our midst. Crab meat mixed with mayonnaise and dill served in the shell, anchovy stuffed muscles and prawns fried in garlic garnished with coriander. A set of delicacies defined by the substantiality of their textures and fragrance, their taste echoing the wake of the small fishing boats and their tail of seagulls. I feel like one of them, anointed with the luxury of fresh fruit from the bountifulness of the deep, thrown by the hand of the catcher. Then arrives the famous Italian fruiti della mare stew, Cioppino. Our senses merge with the succulent emanations. The palate is submerged with a slow motion explosion of distinct gustative notes, for this is a primordial soup, where each element, each object has retained its peculiar identity, its inherent tonality, its history. Not only the content of salty effluvia, the contents of a culture where the sun meets the earth at an angle, not head on so much as obliquely, surrounding vegetation and waters with a glow strong enough to let the flora and fauna grow to full maturity without losing detail or nuance. The pulp is soft and moist enough to imbibe the entirety of these bouchées we could also call entremets, the objects of our desire impregnated with the savour of sweet wine, the languorous richness of virgin oil, the velvety sap of marinated flesh. The grand medieval feasts featuring grandiose inventions, illusion foods, carrying the seal of the monarch are almost invoked. The castle of Love described by le Duke of Savoy’s cook in the fifteenth century “Du fait de Cuisine”, emerges transformed, its new humility only equalled by its delicacy and grace. Something more natural is at play. The sea, a life in constant flux, a mystery we humans may yet find our roots in with more certainty although our forgetfulness separates us from its archetypal wisdom. We search in vain for solutions to inexistent secrets, attempting in the experience of ecstatic consumption, the delight of a perverse communion with nature, to unravel the hidden trail of our origin. It is as if, to remember we eat, as we eat, remembrance fades; the circus of our earthly life contained herein. Traces fall before us, they shine in the dark, they attract the attention of the hunter. We throw the net, we throw the javelin, the arrow, then the bullet, the ray…our gaze extends thus far from the limitations of our frame, our armature, our prison of muscle and bone, through the will to interrupt the progress of another form in order to access the space it embodies, to elucidate the solution incubated therein. We cook what we cannot know in any other way, consciousness in motion, the world seen though another creature’s eyes. This was the soup of revelations, the foundation of primitive thought, for the annunciation of an order we have mastered in a conscious thrust towards Autodafé of the mind. This is far from the decadence of royal French cuisine or Papal dégustation. It summarises Italy itself; the love of art, and above all, the love of joy reaching the four corners of the self. This supreme multi dish was followed by pasta made with squid ink, rolled and cut in front of us, Tagliolini al nero di sepia. This was mixed with muscles, garlic and plenty of extra virgin oil. A wonder of contradiction owing to the unison of simplicity and complexity, hence releasing the true meaning of unctuousness, our taste buds overwhelmed by the disarming beauty of food understood to the very core, instinctually and emotionally. Food macerated, pre-digested and distributed to the young by the mothers whose love inhabits every morsel is in a sense sacred. This food is imbued with the senses and the soul of the chef that bore it, down to the pores of the skin, the finger tips dipped in the secret sauce, the lips filled with the condensing accumulation of their work in progress, the mist rising from the cauldrons enveloping them as if an ectoplasmic tongue had whirled out and tasted he or she who dares jump in the mouth of the volcano; the eater eaten in mortal union. Our philosophal stone awaits in the moment of discovery, of apprehension and loss. It is contained in the instant in which the product of culinary creation having entered our mouth, the gateway of multifarious expressions is abruptly interrupted, ruptured from the world. Our teeth brake the perfection of its apparel, our tongue becomes alerted to the release from the wound inflicted. Synchronic legions of illumination awake, and a glimpse of paradise surfaces to fall once more below the sediments of the past. We pursue this meaningful coincidence and the greater the passion in the pursuit, the more intense the sensation of despair as it escapes us. The table becomes the seat of silence as we all begin to immerse ourselves in the unfathomable experience of this common yet absolutely private pleasure. Without touching one another we have reached a form of communal nirvana praised by the uncommon mortals of this world. Soon an infinitely delicate salmon is put before us, Cured Salmon or salmone curato accompanied by firm roasted potatoes, an intriguing combination I find complementary although this may have been unforeseen. Nevertheless, the fish is not of this earth.
It is almost ethereal. A bear might have just caught it and left it to fry lightly in the mid day sun on the flank of a rock polished by the relentless currents of the torrent beside it .His claws would have lacerated its body, gutted the entrails and plunged it to wash it, then thrown it, each piece, a long fine fillet rolled upon itself, suckling the mineral salts from the stone. We each would bare witness to this possibility, this common destiny, for in the scheme of terrestrial existence, we share this with the bear, our position; that of the most privileged predator. Far above the bear, and supreme gods above the fate of our fish…yet in the waters, alone, we tremble, we succumb to the higher bidder, the forces still untamed; we slide down the slippery slope of complacency and temerity, we fall head first, entranced by our invincibility, and in a split fraction of a second seal our fate in the split of the atom, the blade slicing our life apart, as blind as we are. Finally, so we believe, the squid is placed on the table. It is Stuffed calamari, calamari ripieni .exotic and surprising, the rings are tuff, elastic, demanding to be torn by the jaws of the company at work in the completion of the feast. No meat had been served, but this last entry compensates some of us with the grinding and the chewing we lacked in the ulterior episodes. An instinct particular to our omnivorous nature, especially the carnivorous side of it, must be met. It gives us the opportunity to exercise a form of the will our ancestors began to adopt confronted with extreme meteorological conditions…although the main perpetrator of the diet change was apparently non other than the brain, so hungry was it for a free limitless market where its expansion would become unstoppable. Despite this, the development of the mind is not associated with meat intake. It may be some of us did not descend from this strand and therefore no longer seek sanguine appetizers having been baptized with carnal ablutions. In spite of denial of flesh, we must all without exception eat and thus arrest the life of another being in order to survive, be it animal, vegetal, mineral…or genetically engineered.
Having finished this last savoury dish, we are led to contemplate the unexpected: The desert, a lemon meringue tart with caramelised topping. As it had not been baked on the premises, this cannot feature on the menu related here. To crown the meal, the real cherry is the coffee. Strong, earth black, concentrated, rich, sweet and tonic, the aroma of southern lands, the perfect cachet on the back of a master piece. We had reached the land. As we turn to face it, we must think of the adventure in the past tense. It has happened, we have completed the circle. The belly of the galleon was now filled with the treasures of mythical islands, spices, herbs, roots, condiments of varied improbable provenances glittering like jewels in our memory. For in effect, having overlooked the sea in more ways than one, we had also crossed it. I mentioned, when questioned about the experience, a movie, Babette’s Feast, not only because of the exotic, the luxurious, the unpredictable nature of the meal, but also because of the generosity of the hosts in inviting friends and strangers to share their table for an unforgettable meal. Were I to count this witness out, there would have been seven dinning. Indeed, beside the dog and this story teller, we may have seen only seven fishes sitting at the table, in the momentary aquarium of gourmet contemplation.
In honour of a dinner that took place on the 24th of December 2011.
Copyright © Pascal Ancel Bartholdi 2011