I have always thought the restaurants of Italy in France did it right. A couple weeks of closed doors in August comes at a time when precisely no one wants to be inside behind a hot oven. Allowing the full staff, from dishwasher to owner, to retreat from the stress and hustle of the restaurant industry for an entire two weeks seems not only generous, but … humane. In the US, people pride themselves for working hard, for only taking two weeks of vacation per year. In particularly in the food industry, which just never stops (or cannot stop, for purely economic reasons), vacation of more than two days is a rare luxury.
But this is not an advocacy post for more vacation in the United States (maybe later). It is rather to tell you about the dining possibilities that can ensue when restaurants DO decide to just go ahead and hang that ‘gone swimming’ sign for a couple weeks.
Last week I had the pleasure of attending a casual Italian feast in the countryside about an hour outside of Berlin, at Wehrmühle Biesenthal, a renovated landmark property dating back more than 750 years, which in recent times has been home of ART Biesenthal, a privately organized exhibition for contemporary art. Friends Federico, Wibke and Francesco of restaurant Da Baffi organized the dinner for a group of about 40 in collaboration with musicians The Group. Da Baffi is a cozy restaurant in Berlin Wedding and one of my favorites in the city, specializing in traditional and seasonal dishes from Emilia Romagna. The sourcing of their ingredients is an example of perfection-bordering-on-obsession, so I was anxiously starving myself all day in anticipation of what the trio would prepare in an outdoor environment. One far away from the safety of their own kitchen.
When our five-person posse from Berlin arrived, hair still wet from a quick stop at a nearby lake (and run-in with a rain shower), we walked into the half-renovated barn to find the band and a makeshift bar, hip-looking people lounging about on sofas with Aperol spritz in hand, the brook of the mill babbling out the windows. Paul commented that this is the kind of thing you usually only read about in the New York Times Style section. I had to agree: the laid-back air, melodic music and smell of the grill just beginning to be fired up, all in superb countryside surroundings renovated with an urban taste for minimalist architecture.
After a short walk around the property, we headed over to the buffet and grill area, where Federico and Francesco (“Cisco”), along with a couple of assistants, were busy with last minute preparations. Superb cold dishes included a salad of buckwheat groats and oven vegetables, light dorade-stuffed bell peppers, panzanella salad from self-baked bread, and the restaurant’s signature, ultra-rich burrata over rucola. Cisco was manning a teepee-shaped barbecue, whose grill swung gently over top of the coals. He said he hadn’t used such a barbecue before, but the improvisation proved successful when we tasted the second course of grilled crayfish. I passed on the mango sauce, opting instead for a bit of olive oil and black sea salt as seasoning. At that point in the dinner I was already more than satiated, but I had spied a few steaks, as well as a large stash of octopus marinating beside the grill. Thus, I set off for another walk through the landscape to digest, the weather having cleared enough to see an oil-painted sunset in the distance.
The kilo-sized octopuses greeted me back at the grill with a smell that was at once repulsive and enticing. It half reminded me of a city sewer, and having smelled such a thing in an urban environment, I would have run the other way. But knowing the origins were emanating from fresh sea creatures, fire-grilling, I swallowed the slight gag reflex and stuck around for a first taste. Really my only experience with octopus prior to this one had been in salads at restaurants, or ‘pulpo’ dishes in Spain, and always with that distinct gummy-worm texture. Grilled octopus was somewhat of a revelation since, if prepared well as it was here by Da Baffi, it has a soft, gentle texture, crisping at the ends of the tentacles where the grilling does its real magic. The flavor was definitely of the sea, but mild and more tenderly meaty and substantial in texture. Similar to, dare I say, chicken?
I won’t even attempt to give you an expert recipe here, since I need to first experiment myself with grilling octopus. But there are a few tricks to the preparation that seem to be universal. The octopus is made up mostly of water, so the key to tenderness is to drive as much water out of the creature as possible before placing it on the grill. In Greece, this consists of the fisherman actually beating the freshly-caught beast against a rock, as many as 100 times. If you buy one from a fishmonger or grocery store, you can defrost it in the refrigerator for about a day, then braise it in some vegetable broth (you probably won’t need much broth as the octopus’s own liquid will be released in the process) and a wine cork. Many chefs say that the enzymes present in the cork aid in the release of water from the octopus. You will need to simmer it for about 45 minutes to 1.5 hours, depending on its size (check for done-ness with the tip of a sharp knife). Once this is finished, you can pull them out of the water and leave in the fridge overnight either alone or in a marinade of wine and some spices (recipes vary). Then, when you are ready to grill, just pull them out and set them over the flame until seared on both sides, the ends of the tentacles brown and crispy. Remove the head and cut the pieces of meat roughly, serving with a drizzle of olive oil and salt.
As far as I know, grilled octopus never appeared on the daily menu at Da Baffi. Though they weekly feature new dishes, there is a certain degree of experimentation and fun with cooking that can only happen outside the confines of the daily restaurant grind. Had they not opted for a few weeks’ summer closure, Federico, Wibke and Cisco most likely wouldn’t have endeavored to host such a decadent meal for their friends and fans. The constraints of time and schedule could not have allowed for the days of preparation that such a meal involves. The three owners of Da Baffi are among the best examples of good restaurant owners because they are truly generous, holding the pleasure of their customers –many of whom also happen to be their friends– in the highest regard. But there is one other essential ingredient that enables this generosity: the satisfaction of the cook as a creative individual, with the ability to function as an artist outside of the confines of the day-to-day. The occupation of the restaurateur and chef can be a thankless and grueling one, but giving it a little air and time can allow the big goblet of creativity to be re-filled.