Give me a fire and I will cook! My mantra for the summer is going to be something like this. I’ve never put it into words, but I am fanatical about cooking over a fire, ideally outdoors, even better in the wilderness. There’s something primal about taming the wild fire and coaxing a culinary concoction and the more challenging the environment, the more satisfying the results.
That said, I’m starting a short series on the subject. Upcoming posts will be about backyard grilling, followed by car camping and then backpacking. In each case, I will share some recipes, techniques, tools and tidbits on how to maximize each experience to the fullest.
But for now, I want to share a story about one of my favorite dishes to cook over fire and how I learned it…
I was working on an archaeological excavation in Israel in the early 90′s at a place called Caesarea Maritima. The location couldn’t have been more idyllic, perched on a flour-white sand beach on the Mediterranean Sea. The Israeli Olympic team had headquarters that provided us accommodations and there was a welcoming town nearby. The volunteers on the excavation were college students from across the country and you couldn’t imagine a more exciting and alluring environment to spend a summer. I often recall it as summer camp for adults.
Throughout the summer I had the good fortune of working in a trench that turned out to be one of the top archaeological finds of the year. A wonderous Byzantine mosaic floor of a marketplace scene was identified in our trench and we spent weeks carefully removing the dirt and then chipping away a layers of oxidization to reveal the art beneath.
Our average day was as follows: Wake at 4:30am and have first breakfast. Dig at sunrise and return for second breakfast around 9am. By noon the sun was so hot that we’d head to lunch and call it a day. The afternoons were spent poking through the shards and tidbits we uncovered or just hanging out on the beach, surfing or napping. Early evening was time to classify our finds and we’d spend hours underneath tents of mesh netting picking through pottery bits. In the evening we’d have classes with the professors and usually wind up at the bar to get piss-drunk. Wake up – start over.
When it was determined that our mosaic floor was of significant importance, a team of Italian preservationists were called in to take over. The site was too delicate to leave in the hands of students any longer. Because the Israelis didn’t speak Italian and the Italians barely spoke English, let alone Hebrew, I was asked to stick around and translate as necessary between the crews. It was a wonderful opportunity. And mostly because I got to hang out with the Italians!
Which brings me to the relevance of my tale. Despite having lived a year in Italy, I had never had proper bruschetta (and let’s clear this up again people – it’s pronounced Bru-Schket-Tah or Bru-Sket-Tah, depending on where you’re from – please stop with the Bru-Shet-Tah!) The Italians showed up and immediately adapted their lifestyle. It wasn’t hard for them to track down the right tomatoes, the right cheeses, the right pasta. It just seemed to magically appear, as if we were in Tuscany. And it was often cooked over fire.
When Bruschetta is done properly, it has a balance of flavors that combine to create a treat for the ages. Many cultures mimic the form, like Pa amb tomàquet, the Catalan bread where they rub tomato on toast and season with olive oil and salt. Or, Lathovrekhto, the greek style bruschetta that may include vegetable spreads or just oil and salt. But, it is the Italian variety that reins supreme.
The origin comes from the word bruscare, which means to roast over coals. In it’s purest form the bread retains the smokiness and char from the grill, which is then rubbed with garlic and coated in olive oil and salt. By rubbing the garlic you get the essence without any bitterness. The play between the smoke and the sweetness of the oil, drawn out by the salt is just perfection.
But where it really gets interesting for me is when you top the bruschetta with some Roma tomatoes, cut to a brunoise size, tossed with olive oil and salt and heaped on top. Add some basil if that’s your thing (I like it chiffonade if so…) Of course a shot of fresh-cracked pepper is essential. The cool-sweet tomatoes add a another layer to the experience and it all just comes together. Something so simple, yet so perfectly right.
The Italians would end their day and set up their grill on a nearby golf course as we watched the sunset – drinking, singing, dancing, joking and eating. And eating. And drinking! I learned bruschetta here. It didn’t take much. It will last a lifetime.