Mezze & First Courses

A chapter about mezze and starters begs the questions why and what is the difference? When asked about their impressions of what is typical Eastern Mediterranean food, most people will invariably identify mezze as a key determinant - a defining factor, if you like, which says this is something different from what you will find anywhere else. It is food that reflects a way of life and a culture of hospitality. When you pause for liquid refreshment you are offered something to eat with your drink. This can be so small it is almost symbolic, or it can be a grande bouffe, the sort of elegant overload that shouts out ‘party time, eat until you drop’. Much more, it describes a food style and one that has an ancient heritage but is also, on consideration, about as modern as you can get. For better or worse, we live today in a food culture where people eat as whim or hunger dictates. Restaurants, increasingly, are no longer formal centres for ritual dining, but places to use when the customer dictates. It is a world where we - and not the restaurateurs - decide when and what to eat. Two first courses and no pudding? A plate of oysters and a glass of wine? Why not? The French have done it for years in the brasserie, and in the Mediterranean it is an eating style so taken for granted that to comment on it is frankly bizarre.
This section does not try to be all-embracing. Entire books have been written on the subject of mezze and there are people who would say that if you do not include them all then you are only scratching the surface. Our selection of dishes is small, but within it are all the keys you need to unlock a treasure-house of entertaining ideas - for mezze are building blocks in conception and ingredients, rarely in technical skill. You are the architect: make of them what you will.
The lessons of the past are not exclusively defined in terms of cuisine grandmère, the farmhouse of our imagination where dishes bubble gently all day long and the cooking is the product of constant and loving attention. We should be able to step back from such images and see them for what they are, essentially folk memories not absolute or objective truths. In mezze, by comparison, we have snacks or starters: a mouthful or a feast; food for every mood and any occasion. Here you will find dishes that can be turned into main courses by simply changing the proportion or amount of ingredients, for many mezze can be dishes in their own right. Conversely, as you go through this book you will start seeing how many things can be redefined in mezze terms. Then mezze becomes an attitude and a framework of opportunity, a place free from convention. It is an exciting point of departure and a fine place to begin our Mediterranean journey around the foods of the sun.

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