There are two types of people in this world: those that eat to live, and those that live to eat. I am without a doubt the latter. As a self titled bon vivant, it saddens me when I see an attitude towards food as merely subsistence. In 1825 Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote a book called the Physiology of Taste. One of its sentences profoundly summed up the importance I place upon food: “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” Although we may need food to survive I believe our emotions and our personalities have far more of a significant impact over our appetites than our physical needs.
The ever growing population of television chefs in Britain do remind us of the excitement behind cooking and the respect we should have for the ingredients we use, urging us to use fresh produce, experiment with natural flavours rather than overuse salt or sugar and to go organic. Despite our obsession with cookery programmes, I don’t think many are aware of the sentiment behind meals that I believe there is – real food is a means of expression rather than survival. No matter how fast, convenient, fancy or expensive it is, if a meal is not cooked with passion, in my opinion it is not worth eating. Food is more than just fuel or a demonstration of wealth or skill, it’s emotional.
The Mediterranean attitude towards food is still sacred – they take three hours off in the middle of the day to enjoy lunch and you would never catch them eating on the move. I recently took out a yoghurt on the Madrid metro, and judging by the looks I got, I may as well have been wearing nothing but an FC Barcelona shirt.
The beauty behind cooking, the reason in my opinion, is to please others. We read all the recipe books and watch all the cookery programmes to cook for others, not for ourselves. We throw dinner parties for our friends and we slave away in the kitchen all day beforehand to impress their taste buds. But have you ever asked why we choose food as the medium for social interaction? Nicki Pellegrino’s book, ‘Recipe for Life’ said that food is “how we speak to each other, express gratitude, show we care, sometimes even say we are sorry.” The best way to show affection for someone is to cook for them. When someone is sick, bring them soup; when a child has a grazed knee, bring them something sweet; when there’s a birthday, cook their favourite meal.
Another great mind said that “the discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of the human race than the discovery of a star.” I recently discovered Iberian ham, quince and rocket leaves wrapped in a slab (yes a slab) of mozzarella. The exquisiteness of such a simple dish was euphoric. I didn’t even feel the guilt urge me to go to the gym after such indulgence, the experience of new flavours was worth whatever consequences there were to be had on my hips.
This discovery was made as I walked around my utopia, more commonly known as San Miguel Market in Madrid. In between a conservatory roof and a simple concrete floor were hundreds of wooden stalls selling everything from paper cones of calamaris and shredded jamón to roasted vegetable and pork kebabs. The sweet section was of course my favourite with enticing trays of whole mandarins soaked in chocolate; kaleidoscopic displays of macaroons and even marzipan “potatoes”.
A simple pancake with two love hearts painted on it – one in chocolate, the other in jam – summed up the atmosphere perfectly. Everywhere you looked you could see the love of food passionately made with simple ingredients. The happiness it was generating was infectious. Everywhere chefs worked fervently over pinchos of fresh fish and meat on toast no bigger than the length of my thumb. Couples in woolly hats perched at bar stools chatted as they sipped wine and nibbled smoked sardine tostadas and mini churrizos. Even the wildlife was in appreciation as a little bird hopped about on the concrete floor pecking up all the crumbs.
There was nothing pretentious about this place; people were not there to be seen in a classy restaurant or to impress their partners with an expensive bill (most of the food on offer cost just 1 Euro) and they were certainly not grabbing a quick bite on the go. They were there to savour the food and nothing else. J. R. R. Tolkien said that if more of us valued food above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world. Our obsession with technology, social status and above all money eclipses the significance of much simpler routes to contentment. What I saw at San Miguel market was genuine happiness and all it took was some good meat and cheese.