I remember visiting Tuscany, Italy, almost a decade ago and taking back with me memories of how meticulously the Italians ate: the food was always hearty, the produce farm-fresh, the cooking technique simple, so that one could spend more time conversing and also really taste the produce in it’s most basic form.
There was always a glass of wine from this cellar or that and the landlords of the local inns always saw to it that after a giant plate of homemade pasta, I got a shot of homemade Limoncello or Amari (digestives) on the house. I remember careening down the streets of the little medieval town of San Gimignano in the afternoon sun, high on life and the odd glass of Chianti.
The next time Tuscany figured in my scheme of things was when I read about two American chefs who had taken a sabbatical for a year from their urban day-jobs and had begun what could only be the equivalent of a Fine Dining Secret Society. People could log into a temp site from any part of the world and, on a first-come-first-served basis, the two chefs would send out the address of a Tuscan farm where they would just set up a Communal Table and rustle up hearty local fare for food connoisseurs.
The Communal Table isn’t just restricted to the south of Europe. In Hong Kong, there are year-long queues for expensive and meticulously cooked meals in the secret salons of the homes of some famous chefs. Strangers come face to face, all for the love of good food and the promise of great conversation.
I have always loved the romantic connotations of a Communal Table, especially in the South of Europe — The rough-hewn long tables, the casual ambience, the pot luck, team cooking and an assortment of adults, children and animals that appear and disappear at the table.
More recently, I have been spending summers at my sister Meghana’s island home of Anti Paros, just off Paros/ Naxos, in the Greek Cyclades Islands. The days are long and lazy, the air fresh with the scent of herbs like juniper and thyme that grow wild on the estate. The daily swims in the fresh Mediterranean waters do build up an appetite, but lunch happens on island time — which means whenever it happens! There will always be something simple and fresh on the table almost always made with locally procured organic olive oil, olives, herbs, chicken, fish and wild vegetables.
Organic honey comes to the table from the bee boxes on the edge of the estate, each batch flavoured by whichever herb was flowering at that point of time. There are boutique wines from tiny vineyards scattered across the length and breadth of Greece and its adjacent islands.
Kids will bake, someone will lay the table, someone will cook, someone will wash, pets will fight below the table or beg for morsels and invariably there will be friends who will just show up with others in tow! There will be conversation, laughter, gossip, catching up and some kicking and screaming from the juniors. There is never a dress code — everyone just shows up in beach gear!
Closer home, I brought in 2013 at a friend’s house in Lonavala, outside Mumbai. She is a huge fan of Tuscany and has a Communal Table in her big kitchen. The recent New Year’s eve was a heroic attempt to bring Italy to Lonavala — a small group of us cooked, ate and drank our way into 2013 around a long, simple table. If I am a fan of the Communal Table, it is for what it signifies — the simplicity of fresh food and simple techniques to enhance that food, and above all, the promise of friends, laughter and merry chaos!