Having a good palate is essentially the ability to take apart whatever dish is in your mouth by recognizing the individual ingredients. It’s harder than anyone might think as the visual component plays a large part in how we perceive taste. Just do a blind tasting of fairly common ingredients and you will know what I am talking about.
I have been blessed with a decent palate which I try to keep in shape by not smoking and by curtailing the amount of alcohol and sugar I ingest as they both dull our taste buds.
Sitting on the patio of Ristorante Diana, one of the oldest and most traditional restaurants in Bologna, which specializes in local cuisine, I forced my father to order the “Tagliatelle alla Bolognese” (hand made noodles with meat sauce) and “Fritto Misto”.
The tagliatelle come fairly thick, with a slightly rough surface they way they should be to better hold the sauce (noodles rolled with a pasta machine are too smooth and slippery as opposed to the ones rolled with a wooden pin), barely coated with a chunky meat ragout – no runny tomato sauce or olive oil anywhere at the bottom of the plate. Most Americans would probably comment on a lack of sauce but we Italians see the ragout as an accompaniment to the uniqueness of the pasta and not as a food category in itself.
The fritto misto Bologna style does not involve seafood, rather it comes on an oval plate lined with butcher paper and it includes matchstick zucchini, a slice of lamb rack, meat filled olives, potato croquette and what we call “crema fritta”, dusted with a quick snow storm of powder sugar.
Every Sunday, as a child, our father would take us for lunch at Diana’s – it was more of a religion than attending mass and, every Sunday, I would religiously order tortellini followed by a whole plate of crema fritta. I still haven’t replicated it at the restaurant where I work but now that my taste buds have been titillated once again, I am determined to.
To illuminate you unbelievers, crema fritta are cubes of thick pastry cream, coated in a light batter and deep fried. When eaten next to the saltiness of olives or meat they are a perfect counterpoint. My dad had to agree as I stole the precious cubes from his plate and kept on popping them in my mouth.
It all came back to me and I could actually deconstruct the ingredients fairly easily: eggs, milk, sugar, a tinge of lemon and flour to thicken it (not corn starch!) but something else was playing at the back of my tongue which I couldn’t decipher, the secret ingredient or, rather, the unexpected one that makes a dish memorable.
I called Eros, the maitre d’ and now owner of the restaurant who has known me since my skinny childhood days and, as a showoff, I rattled off the ingredients and said, a bit hesitantly “I know there is a liquor, right? I just can’t place it…” He smiled seraphically and, for a moment, I thought he wouldn’t give up their secret but, generously, under his moustache, muttered “Anise”. Yes, a touch of anise, of course! I claimed my childhood right to replicate the dish without asking permission that was promptly granted anyway.
It was worth the whole day to know that I will bring back home a slice of my youth and one of my very favourite ones.