A gastronomic event entitled ‘Kemia, Tapas and Mezzé’, dedicated to the Mediterranean tradition of antipasti, hors d’oeuvres and appetizers, was held in Hammamet Yasmine, Tunisia, last week. It was attended by delegations of chefs from both the east of the Mediterranean region (Greece, Turkey and Lebanon) and from the west (Italy, Provence and Catalonia). The initiative, sponsored by the Tunisian Tourist Board and organized in conjunction with the local branch of the Conservatoire des Cuisines Méditerranéennes, staged a comparison between the many ways adopted to prepare start-of-meal petits plats from Marseilles to the Balkans. The delegation headed by Nikos Psilakis of the Greek Academy of Taste laid on a delicious repertoire of Cretan mezzé. People used to now overworked classics such as taramosalata and dolmades would be amazed by this incredible array of delicacies, from cheese and kalitsunia spice parcels to sea snails with typical island herbs and octopus krasato, stewed in red wine. Leading the Turskish delegation was a member of the staff at Istanbul’s prestigious Diwan Hotel. He delighted visitors with a series of specialties from the rich and refined Ottoman tradition – the delights sultans used to savor in the Topkapi Place – revisited with a modern touch. The very best mezzé of all, however, were the 15 refined amuse-bouches served by the Lebanese delegation led by Wajih Y.Karam of the Larissa group. This first round of eastern Mediterranean tastings revealed how the appetizer tradition has common roots from Greece to Syria and Lebanon. The names of individual dishes are often similar and small local variants are the result of the differing tastes and produce available in each single country. The very term mezzé is shared by many countries in the area. It is hard to understand whether the word mezzé is a phonetic transcription of the Arab word maza deriving from the root of the verb tamazzaza (to nibble), or whether it is related to the Turkish word for table, meze, mesa in Spanish and mensa in Latin. What these delicacies have in common is the fact that they are prepared in bite-sized morsels, but just small enough to avoid the extra effort that would take the smile off the sultan’s face. The texture of the dishes too – often creams, sauces and purées – is designed to reduce the ‘fatigue’ of mastication to a minimum – hence offering immediate pleasure for the palate.
The host country, Tunisia, asked the chef and radio reporter Rafik Tlatli of the Les Jasmins restaurant in Nabeul to present its traditional, relatively unknown specialty, kemia. Kemia is made up of many cold and hot snacks, served with a glass of boukha, the traditional fig spirit: Mechouia, grilled vegetable salad, Slata Hhaia, salad of tiny cubes of tomato, pepper, cucumber and onion, Torchis, cauliflower with anchovies, and Mzoura, carrot salad, all flavored with spicy, peppery Harissa. These recipes are the result of culinary crossovers with other North African countries, especially Algeria, but also nearby Sicily. It is also possible to detect the influence of Turkish domination of the past and Jewish cuisine.
Crossing the Straits of Gibraltar, Catalonia laid on a lesson of style with the tapas of Albert Cogul i Urrea and his staff at the El Cuiner Català restaurant in Lleida. Here we had the chance to admire the quintessentially Catalonian combination of the revival of tradition and quality cuisine.
France was represented by two chefs, one from the Camarguais and one from the Var. In particular, Sébastien Esposito of the Restaurant Le Tempo of Port Saint Louis du Rhône showed off all his savoir faire in his deft use of the Provencal herbs which he grows himself.
Last but not least, Italy. The region chosen to represent Italy was Romagna, arguably not the best one to present antipasti. Nonetheless, our delegation Roberto Della Pasqua of Ristorante Il Delfino in Cesena managed to cut a fine figure with his typical piadine and crescioni.
Chef Kumalé is thenom de plume of Vittorio Castellani, an expert on ethnic food
Adapted by John Irving