Generally, as a culture, we're getting to grips pretty well with the idea of street food. It's been the 'next big thing' in gastronomy for a while now, with nomadic vendors of everything from ice cream to burgers, particularly those in London, drawing huge crowds mainly through that potent combination of word of mouth advertising and a half-decent product to sell. I've heard countless stories of an obscure street trader suddenly faced with queues snaking round several streets, packed with people eager to sample his wares, simply because word got out on twitter. Such places are deeply trendy, especially if they start changing location and requiring you to be 'in the know' to actually be able to locate your dinner.
While this is, of course, great news for us travellers-cum-foodlovers, many would argue - correctly I think - that street food away from its street of origin is never quite the same. For starters, a lot of ingredients that are found in abundance in foreign climes just don't exist over here, and those that do are usually exported and inferior in quality and flavour. Fruit and vegetables, for example. Not only are food miles bad for the environment; they're also not great for the taste of the produce either. Fruits and vegetables are picked underripe for easier transportation, and consequently arrive on our home shores barely edible.
The next big issue is cost. Recently I came home from a month in Vietnam, having indulged in gorgeous steaming bowls of beef or chicken noodle soup on an almost daily basis for under £1 a time, to find that the same thing would cost me around £10 to order in a restaurant. And I'd have to go to London to get it, rather than simply turn out of my hotel and be guaranteed to find a pho vendor on the next corner. While I understand that our economy is very different to that of Vietnam, and everything is generally cheaper in South East Asia, it still hurts me and seems against the free, gluttonous, instant-gratification-led spirit of street food to charge prices for it that wouldn't look amiss on a restaurant menu.
Then, of course, there's the fact that it simply isn't the same. Many street food sellers in foreign countries have been making those burritos, noodles or dumplings their entire lives. Their recipes were probably passed on from generation to generation. They have their dish down to a wonderful, delicious art. In Vietnam, I watched women speedily ladling rice batter onto steamers covered with muslin, then deftly rolling the resulting banh cuon pancakes around pork and mushrooms, scattering over fresh herbs and piling them onto a plate. The process took about twenty seconds from start to finish, and was repeated over and over again. They must have made thousands of those pancakes in a single day. Try as you might, you'll never be able to replicate that skill and tradition on the other side of the world.
Plus, while you can list the obvious ingredients for a street food recipe, down to the last pinch of salt or scattering of spices, there are those hidden ingredients to be considered. The ones that I would argue are equally important. The baking heat of the midday sun. The humidity of the rainy season clinging to the air like a wet teatowel. The dust from the daily onslaught of mopeds speeding past the stall, throwing up fragments of earth. The bustle of the nearby markets, the sheer vibrance of life as it goes on around. Culture is an ingredient one simply can't buy or export, and it changes the flavour of a dish entirely.
I could order a bowl of pho somewhere in the UK, I'm sure. But eating it on a proper chair, on a proper table, rather than a tiny plastic stool perched in a dingy alleyway corner, without a constant cascade of sweat beading its way down my face and the back of my neck, would just be wrong. It wouldn't taste the same. The whole point of street food is its sheer evocativeness. It is inextricably linked to romanticised, nostalgic holiday memories. Translating it into the harsh, often cold, reality of England is perhaps not such a good idea after all. (That said, given our climate, perhaps a hot bowl of pho is exactly what we should be eating more of...)
However, in this current climate of street-food mania, there's nothing more depressing than spending hedonistic holiday days gorging oneself on cheap and plentiful street food, only to find that your staple of choice is completely untraceable once you get home. While you may be able to find restaurants for every cuisine imaginable in our country nowadays, certain types of street food just don't seem to be able to translate across borders.
One of the best things I have ever eaten in Italy (and I have eaten a lot in Italy) is a piadina. I first tried this in Turin, where it was basically a tortilla wrap filled with cheese and vegetables and grilled so the cheese melted. It was nice. But then I went to Ravenna, a beautiful city in the Emilia-Romagna region and home to some incredible UNESCO-listed mosaics. Here I found the piadina to be a rather different creature: this was a big flatbread, much thicker and squidgier than a tortilla; in fact, almost like a naan bread. Its soft, supple texture and fluffy crumb is due to the inclusion of pig fat (strutto) in the dough. This is stuffed with a variety of fillings, grilled to melt the filling and toast the outside of the bread, then served in a sleeve of foil.
This is a photo of me in Ravenna. My smile is entirely due to a diet of piadina, not the fact that I was riding the most ridiculous hire bike in the world.
Oh, if I could only go back and eat one thing from my travels to Italy, it would probably be that. The combination of toasty yet squidgy bread with its molten filling is beyond tasty. A favourite combination for the piadina is that classic Italian triumvirate of prosciutto, mozzarella and rocket, but there were other delightful fillings too, mostly based around a cheese-meat-rocket combination (gorgonzola and bresaola, for instance, which is salty salty heaven).
My favourite, and something I still dream about a little bit, was a mixture of squacquerone cheese and caramelised figs. The cheese - pronounced s-quack-er-oh-nay - is a soft, spreadable cheese with a slightly lumpy texture. It has a very mild, creamy flavour with a bit of a tang to it. The taste is actually reminiscent of Dairylea cheese, those awful processed triangles I used to love as a kid, but this is a million miles from that. The figs are a big thing in the Emilia-Romagna region. They appear in huge, dark vats in delis, flecked with their nutty seeds and all clumped and tangled together into one delicious, sugary mass. I imagine they're cooked for hours in some kind of sugar syrup, possibly with some balsamic vinegar to add that acidity. Their flavour is so strong it tastes almost alcoholic. Coupled with the mild cheese, they are gorgeous. Add some Parma ham, and you may as well never eat anything else again.
I can't understand why piadina hasn't travelled over here. It's the perfect street food - quick to make, filling, involving pig fat, and with all sorts of potential for different delicious combinations of flavours. To this day I lament the fact that I can't find it here. So when Crosta & Mollica, makers of authentic Italian breads, announced a new addition to their range - packs of piadana breads (also known as piada) made in Emilia Romagna - memories of that cheese/fig combo flooded my mind and I just had to have a go at recreating it.
I should point out straight away that this is definitely not the same as the piadina in Ravenna. This is much closer to the type I tried in Turin. It's thicker than a tortilla wrap, and more pliable, but definitely not the squidgy, lard-enriched beast of Ravenna. Because of this, it's ideal for warming and filling with whatever you like. I shouldn't really have teased you with that enticing description of the fluffy pork-fat bread, only to tell you that it's still a maddeningly distant prospect, but this is the next best thing.
Although I do have a jar of fichi caramellati from Emilia-Romagna, I had some baked figs left over in my fridge (as you do - recipe coming shortly). I went to the wonderful cheese shop in York on the off chance that they'd have squacquerone, but was (predictably) disappointed - I've never managed to find it in the UK; I imagine because it's soft and mild it doesn't travel well, like fresh ricotta. However, I did find some smoked mozzarella which was a bit exciting, and decided to use that. Most cheeses work well with figs, though - you could go strong, with a nice gorgonzola, cheddar, pecorino or stilton, or mild, with some ricotta, buffalo mozzarella or taleggio. I put the piada bread in a dry, hot frying pan and scattered half of it with sliced cheese, sliced figs, some pea shoots for crunch (rocket would also have worked0, and some lemon thyme (works so well with cheese and figs).
As I'd hoped, the cheese started to melt. Once the bread had softened, I folded the unfigged half over the filling and flipped it over, to toast the other side. The result was a deeply satisfying combination of toasty, crunchy flatbread with gooey, smokey cheese and sweet crunchy figs. It was very reminiscent of a quesadilla, that Mexican toasted tortilla sandwich.
It's been too long since I had melted cheese between pieces of bread. I feel this needs to become a regular fixture in my life.
I'm not going to give a recipe for this, because it's so straightforward. Get yourself a pack of Crosta & Mollica piada flatbreads (they stock them in Waitrose and Ocado). Put one in a hot, dry frying pan. Scatter your choice of filling over half the bread. Some suggestions for fillings:
Goat's cheese and roasted red peppers with a scattering of basil
Rare roast beef and stilton or gorgonzola
Parma ham, mozzarella and basil, with some sliced tomatoes
Smoked salmon and cream cheese
Smoked cheddar and caramelised apples
Turkey, brie and cranberry
Once the cheese starts to melt a bit, fold the bare half of bread over the filling. Flip the whole thing over and toast the other side. Remove, cut in half, and eat with your hands. Relish the contrast in textures and temperatures.
Then start saving up for a plane ticket to Ravenna, so you can try the real thing. Because, as with all street food, it's just not the same otherwise.