Sunday, September 03, 2006

Why can't we do it like the Swiss?

We have got food all wrong in this country. We have available to us the best and worst food from all over the world, yet no matter; it is all fucked at the point of delivery. Take my three days in Geneva. First up was a steak near the airport, in l’aviation. It looks like little more than a large cafĂ© overlooking the runway from across the road, and it hadn’t changed a bit in the 6 years since I was last in it, barely able to talk to my sober dinner partners and future wife owing to the Bombay Saphire frenzy I’d had at home that afternoon. The place was rammed, brightly lit, noisy and smelling comfortingly of cigarette smoke – something you forget about in this handicapped and deeply impoverished land. And it was a Wednesday night.

Our party of four hungry blokes waited between two tables as the waiter, the same waiter, worked out the previous guests’ bill on the white paper table cloth before tearing it and his scribbles up and clearing it in a couple of sweeps. We were seated, without reservation nor the feeling of being pains in the arse, within a few minutes and asked which of the house wines we would be having with our meat. It had to be Gamay, as it always was, made from the grapes a few hundred metres away and always lightly chilled to help you get through the salty, fatty feast. No menus nor ordering are required other than how well you want your meat cooked. And unlike back home, rare really does mean rare and well-done means slightly pink.

Then the familiar formula kicked into action: four plates of salad vert with a thick and purple garlic dressing, immediately followed by a basket of fresh sliced bread with thick brown floury crusts. And then the killer – a thick strip of Argentinian steak hard and crispy on the outside and soft on the in, a pile of thin French fries doused in so much salt it looked like Christmas, and a yellow blanket of slightly foamy sauce the recipe for which is one of the few to have completely stumped me. It can only be a garlic-powder base and lots of butter or oil whisked in. And salt.

It is an outrageous assault of the senses and as unrefined as it gets, but it fucking works. Half-way through and your mouth feels as is it is shrinking from dehydration, your brain telling you quite clearly that this is killer food. And then it gets worse: the second round of chips and sauce, never forgotten no matter how busy they are. The contents of a platter of hot crisp fries only just tossed in salt and a dirty oven-proof dish of that thick garlic sauce being mercilessly spooned onto your plate, none of which you want but which you are powerless over yet again. A coffee to finish, a brandy for some, and all for £20 a head.

The next night was a Lebanese kebab, an assiette of highly seasoned chicken and beef with salad, falafel, lamb kebab, garlic & chilli sauce and plenty of warm round pitas that were replenished automatically. A cold can of Heineken for some. Service so good that the previous occupiers of the table were asked to leave to make way for us, seeing as they had been finished for some time. And, being Swiss, they got it. Smiles and winks from the waiter and swift, bullshit-free, precision service. THIS WAS A KEBAB.

And finally the other great Genevan institution: le trattoria. Like l’aviation, this Italian place does have a menu which many people do indeed refer to. But again, it is irrelevant. The order is never any different. It always has to be the same thing: penne silciliana, an outrageous pasta bake that comes once again with its own second helpings. This is a winner, and it surprised me how tasty it actually was in the cold light of day. They basically get some good quality precooked penne, mix it with a concentrated tomato sauce loaded with garlic, oil and soggy aubergine, and fill a cast iron dish with the stuff. Great handfuls of creamy proper buffalo mozzarella are shaken over the top and in it is fired into the pizza oven for ten minutes. It comes out steaming and golden, and is immediately spooned out to fill large white oval plates. A heavenly concoction that I spent several occasions trying unsuccessfully to replicate.

And it was with us in no time, as we sat there as a party of ten in the smoky bustle of prime-time Friday night with the vino rosso flowing and bread baskets keeping our hands occupied. The place was functioning like a well-oiled machine; nothing was going wrong. The sweaty waiters were tireless in their attention to orders and gestures, responding quickly and happily despite being rushed off their feet. These people are professionals who would appear to love their jobs.

I sat there after the generous second helpings had also been put away, enjoying the best coffee I have tasted since I last left these shores, thinking about the UK equivalent we went to a few weeks back -- the Kenco espresso and lack of any option other than pizza owing to their inability to serve properly cooked pasta. It was depressing to compare the two. It all made sense there. It was 11 by the time we left and the place was still going. Some had tiramisu, some calvados coffees. But all were delivered as desired and at the end of the evening with what looked like plenty of carafes we were each just £20 lighter, again.

Why wouldn’t this formula translate here? The lard arses would jump at it surely? And it wasn’t just the evening meals. Short bursts of good espresso broke the days up in to manageable pieces, with a proper meal eaten over the course of an hour’s lunch break followed by a round of coffees and some good conversation. It’s not as if people there work any less, they just realise the importance of such relaxation and interaction.

It is so much more civilised than the solitary desk-crouching we call lunch here, a tuna sandwich from the shop around the corner or a salad from upstairs being privately sucked up as if by a small disabled rodent. The whole sorry affair being over in a matter of minutes. A worthless exercise but one that is hard to break.

Tonight it felt good to cook again, although it was done mostly with a phone wedged against one ear. Lamb chops with a garlic and caper crust and a pile of roasted root vegetables. I stuffed the salty paste into scores in the fat and fried them fat-side down on the griddle pan before turning them over. The veg, parsnip, carrot, leeks, mushroom and garlic were roasted with rosemary and the pan deglazed with red wine - which went on to make a dressing for the autumn veg spruced up with some spinach, watercress and rocket.

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