Tuesday, April 05, 2011

A Little Piece Of Italy In Cambodia

I’ve been staying at this guesthouse in Sihanoukville run by an Italian chef called Marco, who serves the best grub I’ve eaten in Cambodia.

I know it’s Italian food, and therefore has a distinct advantage over the rather characterless, ill-defined, easily overlooked local Khmer cuisine (in fact, it’s about as fair a pairing as AC Milan playing a Sunday league football team that stop for a fag and a can at half-time) but the tagliere misto he served me the other night was out of this world – even by Tuscan standards.

The slices of Parma ham and Mortadella, and cubes of, as I know now, Fontina and Provolone cheeses were fantastic, but the thick slices of fresh salami were incredible (below). He’d brought the salami back in a box from his home in Bergamo, Lombardy, where it had been freshly made by his neighbour.

I’d never had one that “green”. It tasted like a very ripe camembert and danced on the roof of my mouth, crackling with savoury bubbles on my tongue and gums, and then left an incredibly deep flavour of moist tartare meat.

As I tucked in, Marco chatted away about Khmer food, and how it was impossible to get flavours like that in Cambodia - a country where they have no idea what to do with pork, and just eat it fresh, missing out on all those magical cuts you get with the simple addition of salt, spices, air and time. I think he may have been on to something when he said it was down to Cambodia’s poverty-induced ‘eat for today, forget tomorrow’ mentality (that and decent cold-storage facilities anyway).

“That’s why they eat mangoes when they’re green! And pick the grapes before they’re ready! They eat food when they see food.”

I thought it best not to mention how some Italian families had eaten cats during food shortages in the Second World War.

After the meal, Marco showed me the pizza oven (above) he had finished building in his outside kitchen about three months ago. It was still in the testing stage. He was having trouble maintaining a strong heat flow.

“Anyone can throw a pizza in an oven, but the oven has to be right. The pizza must be cooked in three minutes.”

He said he gets the fire going with dried vines and bristles from an old brush, and then puts big logs on and lets it burn down for two hours. Then he sweeps the embers to the far side of the oven and places the pizzas straight on to the fire bricks near the opening.

Marco said the dome was made of fire bricks that he had laid without cement. When the special mix of imported cement, sand and lime – again an old, secret Italian recipe – is sculpted on the outside it holds the structure together. He showed me the sloping chimney mechanism and how it is designed so the wood smoke sits 6 inches above the pizza.

The next day he organised a boat trip for his guests. There were four others there – an old Italian man who looked like Picasso, a strange, little Italian hippy who kept giggling to himself all day, a Canadian who’d gone travelling after losing his job as a financial consultant, and a French woman backpacking her way around SE Asia.

The weather looked good for the boat ride, and the early sun shone on our faces as the skipper (below) navigated the pristine mangrove forests and unspoilt islands dotting the waters off Sihanoukville.

And then the Canadian sat next to me. He wouldn’t stop talking. I couldn’t believe my beautiful view and the quiet lapping of the mill pond sea were being ruined by someone blabbing on about earnings per share and P/E ratios.

Luckily, I got a break from the fiscal tedium when we stopped to fish. The trouble was getting your hook down before the hordes of small fish near the surface stripped it clean. But when I did get the prawn bait to the bottom, I got a bite each time, and pulled in a blue-toothed grouper and some kind of parrot fish, and two smaller specimens that I threw back.

The grouper had enormous bite. It felt like the line was caught on the bottom. But when I finally snagged it from its hole, it was easy to pull in, even with a fishing line wound round an old plastic water bottle. The skipper threw my fish into the bowels of his boat. That was obviously his supper sorted out, I thought.

We got to Koh Ta Kiev (above), a gorgeous island with a blissfully empty beach. It looked deserted apart from four fishermen holding a net in the water. At one point, a soldier appeared from the jungle and stood a few feet from our camp.

Our skipper had disappeared, and Marco said the soldier wanted his “parking fee” for the boat. Apparently we couldn’t just hand him the dollar because there was some sort of paper work required. He stood there for 30 minutes, and then questioned Marco about what we had with us.

“Just some food, some drink to make barbecue,” he said.

The soldier was back again an hour later. Marco lit the barbecue and made some bruschetta with diced tomato, olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

He cooked some mullet-like fish and served them with dressed salad and cold rice. And then the Canadian guy, who’d been going on about my fish in the hull for the past hour, saying he felt sorry for them, asked why I didn’t barbecue them as well.

I had a bad feeling about it for some reason. I don’t know what was wrong with me. But I just couldn’t bring myself to kill them. They were too pretty. Alright, it was the sharp blue teeth and vicious spines that put me off as well. But mostly it was that although I hadn’t let anyone else think otherwise, I couldn’t really swear what types of fish they were. And with their bright yellow spots and aquamarine iridescence, they looked too exotic, and too potentially poisonous.

After ten minutes, the Canadian was still going on about the fish despite my protestations that I was going to give them to the skipper. Then Marco said we should at least see what they tasted like, so I found myself back on the boat, trying to recatch the fish from under the stern with a plastic container that had been cut into a dustpan shape. It wasn’t easy.

The fish had landed in puddles of sea water in the hull and were very much still alive. I knew very well what getting pricked by a sea bass spine can do to you, so I was taking no chances.

Every time I put my hand near the grouper, if it was a grouper, he was at me with his vicious jaws. In the end I scooped them into a plastic bag and bashed them to death in the shadows of the hull. Or at least I thought I had. The grouper, and it probably was a grouper, just wouldn’t die. Normally you only have to hit a pollack or a cod once.

But this thing was like the Rasputin of the marine world. Every time I thought I had the measure of him, he was suddenly back lunging at me with his frightening blue teeth. I was about to gut him with a knife that was as blunt as a spoon, when he came alive again in a flurry of horrible-looking spikes.

I was getting quite embarrassed by my cack-handed killing skills and wasn’t being helped by the Canadian leering over me giving me advice. I tell you if he was on Mastermind, his specialised subject would be everything. He continued to poke his nose in as I scaled them in the sea.

“You don’t need to do that, you don’t need to scale them,” he kept saying.

What the hell did he know, even if he had picked me up on my lack of knowledge about, as I know now, Fontina and Provolone cheeses the night before? He was only saying it because Marco hadn’t bothered to scale his fish, and although they were delicious, I like the taste of crunchy, charred skin, not a mouthful of fish armour.

I sprinkled the two fish with salt, olive oil and black pepper and grilled them over hot coals. They were soon crispy black around the gills and spines, and then the Canadian reappeared.

“That’s definitely cooked,” he said, prodding the grouper, and it definitely was a grouper.

I was really beginning to regret telling him how I’d just finished writing a book about my failure to make it as a professional chef. He was continually trying to pick me up on holes in my cooking knowledge.

Then Picasso came and stood by the barbecue. “Do you know fugu?” he asked the Canadian. There was a discussion about puffer fish and the dangers of eating them, and the inference that only highly-trained chefs were trusted to serve them. He pointed at the exotic fish I was turning.

“Are you sure not same?” he chuckled.

It wasn’t just the sun that made me sore that day as I basted in the heat of that supposedly unspoilt island, it was the fact they hardly ate any of my fish (see above). Was it the blue bones? I’d experienced the same in Cornwall when I made what I thought was a magnificent meal of garfish. The customers had been put off by the green bones. But I wasn’t in Padstow, I was among Italians. Surely they bathed in carnality and gastronomic adventure?

It soon became a scene out of Lord of the Flies. Not, unfortunately, with me nicking the Canadian’s glasses to make fire and forming my own tribe on one half of the island, but in a feast of flies. We packed up, buried the charcoal embers in the sand and took the fish back for Marco’s menagerie of cats and kittens at the guesthouse.

They soon got stuck in, and for five minutes there was no mewing as they chomped away, concentrating on their food. One of the kittens was trying to gulp down a huge tail end of grouper. It was like a human being eating a 3ft-wide salami. I sat there listening to the crunch of bones and the licking of fur. I was glad someone liked my fish.