Gourmets regard western Mediterranean countries (France, Italy, Spain) as the cradle of gastronomy. Here, the climate is conducive to growing all kinds of vegetables, fruits, and olive trees. The land is fertile and sunny enough to grow deeply flavored cereals, green enough to sustain cows, and sheep, and rugged enough to support goats. The sea is full of small-, medium- and large sized fish. The Mediterranean teems with red snapper, langouste (crayfish), halibut, tuna and swordfish. Hopefully, greedy commercial fishermen will not have a chance to fish this enormous sea to extinction. Poultry abounds everywhere. Once you experience France’s poulet de Bresse you will never want to eat a so-called “manufactured” chicken.
Given this favorable conditions, cooks have been inspired to experiment and discover cooking techniques their northern European counterparts never considered. They were more inclined and partially forced by geography to make use of whatever was available to them namely rye, butter, root vegetables, meat, fish and poultry. Spices were rare and expensive; certain herbs available only in
season and lacking the vivacity of flavor of their Mediterranean counterparts.
Food has always been expensive in Europe and cooks used every part of a carcass. They invented sausages, pates and terrines. Offals (variety meats) were never discarded or mixed into sausage mixtures. Livers were either fried or used in pates, sweet breads first poached then sliced and fried, brains in salads or in scrambled eggs, or marinated and veal or beef or pork cheeks in pressed meat.
Olive oil is the preferred fat of Mediterranean cooks, and there is a wide range of quality. (Spanish, French, Italian, Greek and Portuguese producers have recently displayed their impressive product lines in Toronto. They were impressive to say the least.
Some producers are now marketing varietal and/or organic olive oils, which are worth trying on your salads.
When it some to preserved meat (proscuitto, jamon, salami, etc), Italians, Spanish, French excel. Proscuitto from Parma, jamon from Extramadura in Spain, and jambon from Bayonne in France are inimitable because of the way pigs mature.
Spanish ham manufacturers have been able to convince the health and welfare department in Ottawa that their products meet all requirements. Soon high-end grocery stores will be offering Spanish ham along with Prosciutto from Italy. Local, small, quality-oriented salami, ham and sausage manufacturers do produce and market fine examples but have either limited distributing or due to demand just cater to their neighborhood. Whenever you encounter small local artisanal producers with a good product make a point to support them.
When it comes to cheese French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese manufacturers offer a huge variety of tastes.
In Normandy, Madame Harel had the ingenuity to invent Camembert, in the Lorie Valley they have Crottin de Chavignol, in Roquefort their blue-veined cheese ages in caves and this only a miniscule list. France produces more than 365 cheeses. All are lovingly packaged and shipped all over Europe and many other countries including Canada and the U S A. No serious meal in France is complete without a selection of superbly mature cheeses.
Italians have their Parmegiano-Reggiano that must come from Parma. They also have Asiago, Pecorino, Montasio, Bel Paese, Torta di Mascarpone, Mozzarella di Buffala, and Aurichio just to name a few.
Spanish cheeses were barely known in Canada until a few years ago, but now a few stores offer, Manchego, and Tettilla. Some Toronto cheese mongers carry a larger inventory of Spanish cheeses.
When it comes to pasta, Italy has the edge over all other producers. Manufacturers import Canadian durum wheat and produce a variety of shapes then export them to a number of countries including Canada.
De Cecco, Del Verde, and Barilla are only some of the better-known Italian producers that ship to Canada. Stuffed fresh egg pasta varieties should be purchased from local producers. Frozen stuffed pasta is either tough or tasteless, except if you manage to concoct a flavorful enough sauce to compensate for the lack of flavor.
Once you taste French jams, herb-infused olive oils, flavored wine vinegars, stuffed green olives, mustard preserves, and sea salt from Provence, you will never want to use any other.
The crème de la crème of delicate olive oils, balsamic vinegar, nougat and confections originate in Italy or France. They are expensive but worthwhile to find and experience. The Internet is a good venue to locate importers specializing in delicacies of this nature.
Here are a few stores that carry exclusive European gourmet foods: Pasquale Brothers Downtown, now located in Etobicocke, Cheese Boutique, Denninger’s, Vienna Meat Market, Pusateri’s, Bruno’s, Colangelo Brothers, and All the Best Foods.