Thursday, December 15, 2005

The Jewel in the Junkheap

‘Tis the season to cook rarely. Once again, have been supplementing the gluttony, with some delicious home made salads on the rare nights in my kitchen. Or sometimes on the evenings after big lunches – a simple wrap of marinated tofu, tomato chutney, crispy lettuce and anything else that looks edible in the veggie crisper.

Out in the world I have had some good and some so-so curries, more curries, finger food (thank god sushi has knocked party pies off the top of the Christmas gathering snack tree) and one of the best pizzas I have had in years. It was in a tiny, very ordinary Italian joint in downtown Oakleigh – eggplant, artichokes, fetta and fresh tomato (maybe olives too, but I eschewed the usual dollop of stringy cheese that came standard with the order). If it was at some moderne pizzaria, such as Ladro, I would have expected nothing less but from the depth of suburbia it was an unexpected pleasure.

Great food in not so exciting places got me thinking of one of the best dishes I have consumed in my life so far. I was backpacking as you do, a sweet young thing, almost 20 years ago. Sete is a small Mediterraneum port in the south of France. It sounded like an ideal place for a detour and am sure it is worthy of it these days. However back then it was seedy and had a sinister undertow. The first cause for alarm was as we climbed the hill to the hostel, a handwritten sign in English was stuck to the wall of the police station informing us that if you have experienced a crime and cannot communicate in French then don’t bother reporting it. The hostel was not a typical backpackers place, despite it being in the guidebook. It appeared full of itinerant workers and those maybe a notch above totally destitute. The bathroom was unisex with no lock on the door. Some suspicious chinks in the wall suggested that the occupants maybe being secretly viewed. To cap it off there was a strange teenager with a pet mouse on his shoulder who took to shadowing us wherever we went. By this point our minds were made up to spend only one night and head towards Spain the next day.

Another atypical aspect of the hostel was that dinner was included in the price of the bed, so we took our places at the rough picnic table on the porch and accepted the one dish wonder that was put before us.

Bouillabaisse. The saffron tinged stew with seafood fresh off the boats. I would swear that the fish had been swimming only hours before and the mussels had clung onto the rocks thinking they were safe for yet another day. A big rich bowl of the stuff, complete with a large dollop of rouille on top of a slice of toasted baguette. This Provencal delicacy, made by a woman who certainly knew her way around a kitchen, in one of the worst hostels, in one of the most inhospitable towns that my wandering soul had led me too. In that moment the shower peepers, the arrogant police, mouse boy and the bedbugs were forgotten. Even before the first spoonful entered my mouth, I knew I had struck gold.

I have had fish soupy-stews since that have claimed to be Bouillabaisse. All sad imitations, dressed up in pricey restaurants. I accept that where ever I travel I will never experience a dish like it, enhanced as it was by the atmosphere.

Sometimes its worth zigging when you should have zagged. So even dinner in Oakleigh is worth it, once in a while.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is a great story. Hang onto that memory for all time. You are very lucky to have eaten that meal.

4:41 pm  

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