EN VOYAGE – The Ethics of Seasonal Restaurants

In just a few years Rovinji (or Rovigno) has become a popular destination for Italian tourists, especially those from the north-east. This delightful promontory, on which the town of Istria stands, is only a few hours from Trieste by car. Tourist restaurants have opened everywhere; for ease of reference let’s call them TTs (Tourist Traps). Here the TTs are literally lined up along the promenade overlooking the port.

I arrived quite late one mid-August day, starving and exhausted, with no bookings, and rushed into the first TT I saw, “Brancin (sea bass) da Nino”, trusting in beginner’s luck instead of checking out the menu and prices. I had no information to guide me through the menu, so I decided to trust in the restaurateur’s recommendations, and choose from the “seasonal dishes”. When they explained that not all of these were available, I put this down to the variable nature of supplies of fresh ingredients and took heart – stupidly, as it turns out.

On the carbohydrate front, the risotto and tagliolini had been reheated repeatedly, and the dressings of mushrooms and scampi for the rice and “seasonal” seafood for the pasta, overflowing with cream, were all straight from a tin. You can imagine the results.

To serve a dish like this at all in a seafront restaurant, which by definition should have plenty of fresh fish, is a disgrace. To include it among the “seasonal” dishes is tantamount to treachery. When a restaurant includes a “seasonal” section in the menu, it makes a specific promise to the customer—a kind of gentlemen’s agreement it is bound to respect should the customer accept the offer. It is outrageously shameful to welsh on the deal. It’s a little like reading a murder mystery and discovering that the murderer is the detective. It’s as if the author has broken a pact with the reader and, in an excess of confiance, abused his trust by failing to comply with the rules he implicitly agreed to respect. The restaurateur who advertises seasonal ingredients and then deliberately and ignominiously fails to use them in practice is guilty of the same arrogance. He demands our trust, knowing himself to be untrustworthy. The bitter recognition of this kind of swindle in Rovigno was much harder to swallow than the creamy concoction I was served.

As fate would have it my chosen reading for the holiday I was beginning was Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler, an enjoyable American family saga revolving around a mother and her three sons. The second son, Ezra, loves cooking and buys a restaurant all of his own, which lends its title to the book. At one point he fantasizes about the business before it opens:

If the restaurant was all mine” said Ezra now, “I wouldn’t serve tomatoes in winter. People would ask for tomatoes and I’d say, ‘What do you mean? They’re out of season’. I’d give them something better instead.”

“And they’d leave straight away”, said Mr. Purdy.

“No, don’t you believe it. I’d put up a blackboard and write up two or three good dishes every day, that’s all. Sure! That’s what they do in France. Or I wouldn’t give the customers any choice at all; I’d look at people and say: ‘you look a bit tired. I’ll bring you some oxtail soup.

Now it’s a bit excessive to hope, as Ezra does, that whoever takes the order will analyze us at a glance like a homeopathic doctor and “prescribe” the best dish for our condition. But at the same time it was something of a mockery to see the philosophy of a restaurateur who would disappoint a customer rather than serve food out of season so clearly and simply praised, with the weight of that unfortunate first meal in my stomach.

After a few days in town I discovered the more authentic places to eat, with the help of people more familiar with the place, as is always the way; I thus avoided stumbling into any more TTs after the first day. I also discovered that these more noteworthy restaurants are eager to nurture this distinction from the others: they clearly want nothing to do with the TTs.

One of these chose to make this distinction clear in an unusual way. It is worth pausing a moment to talk about this because it involves the Slow Food Snail – in a rather unorthodox way.

As you enter the Driovier, the main street through the old town of Rovigno, which leads from the west to the east coast of the little promontory, you come across a large blackboard (like the one Ezra dreamed of in Homesick Restaurant) showing the menu of the day (“fish, shellfish, gnocchi, pasta meat and truffles”) at Toni’s, one of the best gostionici, or inns, in this part of Istria. But at the bottom of the board, just under the list of desserts, a large snail has been drawn in chalk, and alongside it, written in capital letters, are the words “Slow Food”.

Now as far as I knew the Movement had no convivia in this part of Croatia so that symbol was unlikely to be an advertisement. And nor is Slow Food a franchise for typical trattorie (like a kind of Starbucks for gourmets), contrary to what the gullible more than a few still believe. So what was the explanation for that clearly displayed snail?

Misappropriation? Unlawful use of a trademark? The hallucination of a traveler in need of something familiar? I had to investigate …

The nature of the investigation required the detective to make a stop at the restaurant, of course, and the huge sacrifice of eating dinner as a cover (delicious tagliolini with ganzipoveri, a local shellfish of a size between mussels and clams). After dinner, it was time for the interrogation.

“Tell me madam,” fired the serious detective, “why is Slow Food written on the blackboard? Do you know what Slow Food is? Are you a member?”

“I know very well what Slow Food is,” replied Mrs Cetinski, Toni’s wife. “Unfortunately we’re not members”.

The inquisitor frowned even more as he asked, “So? What have you got to say for yourself?”

“You see, we are literally besieged with tourists here, demanding unreasonable quantities of food unreasonably quickly. My husband works alone in the kitchen and everything is cooked on the spot. It takes the time it takes and that’s the only way it can be done if you want good quality. So that ‘Slow Food’ is there to show straightaway that here you have to wait as long as it takes, because this is healthy home cooking”.

The detective was perplexed, perhaps because he had let his stomach think for him, or maybe because he could no longer say for sure whether this was misappropriation or not…In his heart of hearts, he wanted to turn a blind eye, because he sympathized with the trattoria’s philosophy; on the other hand, he didn’t want to be responsible for anyone’s disappointment. So with the shabby zeal of an informer he wrote about it, leaving others to make up their own minds. With the faint hope that, perhaps, it might trigger a little debate.

Stefano Sardo, a novelist and screenwriter, is the director of the Slow Food on Film festival

Adapted by Ailsa Wood

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