x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Football food fight

If there were a Food World Cup, though, which of the four semi-finalists might come out on top?

Tourists watch two traditionally dressed man carry a tray of cheese in Edam.
Tourists watch two traditionally dressed man carry a tray of cheese in Edam.

As the national teams of Spain, Germany, Uruguay and Holland prepare to battle it out in the World Cup semi-finals this week, the national pride of these countries will hinge on a series of fleeting moments: a Torres break into the box, a Klose right-foot drive. It's important to remember, though, that long after the bunting's been put away and the vuvuzelas have fallen silent, people will need to eat. Football matches come and go, but food is forever. Too often, this fact tends to be overlooked. You'd be pressed to find, in World Cup season or otherwise, a German waving a banner with a schnitzel on it, or a Spaniard with a fried-squid platter painted on his face. Uruguayans may be partial to a bit of grass-fed beef, but they're not generally given to chanting about this fact. The Dutch very rarely name their first-born sons Edam. It is a nation's cuisine, though, that tells its people who they are - more than the flags and the songs and the silly hats, and certainly more than the football. Food is family, history and national identity rolled into one. Even so, you won't read too many headlines this week regarding the relative merits of a juicy sausage versus a crispy squid. There will be no triumphant cheese lovers, no despondent carnivores. If there were a Food World Cup, though, which of the four semi-finalists might come out on top? Would it be the Germans, with their no-nonsense, down-the-middle approach? The Dutch, with their smooth, apparently effortless technique? The Spanish, with their elaborate, multi-course passing? Or would it be the Uruguayans, who are a bit of an unknown entity but who, we are told, can cook. There's only one way to find out.

Hear the word "Holland", and a few things immediately spring to mind: tulips, windmills, clogs, canals and a good navy. As far as food goes, though, we tend to skip over this northern European country and head straight down into France, Italy and Spain, where the real cooking gets done. At best, we think of Holland as a land of culinary sequels, putting a slightly different spin on stuff like bratwurst and moules-frites. The Dutch don't do any single thing brilliantly, the argument goes, but they do lots of different things passably well. This is unfair. If you've ever tried a plate of pannekoeken, you'll know. The Dutch eat their pancakes for breakfast lunch and dinner, with meat and veg, fruit or powdered sugar. They're lighter than Yorkshire pudding and more substantial than crêpes. Unassailable. Similarly, if you've ever enjoyed rijsttafel (or "rice table", which consists of a bewildering number of delicious dishes, you'll know that Dutch cooks are on to something). As the summer months kick in, the Dutch can often be found with their heads tilted back and their mouths agape, a raw herring dangling above. Generally consumed with an uncooked onion chaser, so-called Hollandse Nieuwe is both a testament to the intestinal fortitude of these people, but to the freshness of their fish. No mention of Dutch cuisine, of course, is complete without a look at its cheeses. The most famous of these, Gouda and Edam, are moderate in texture and flavour - and as such are seen as being very much like the people who create them. The Dutch are also inclined to be a little more adventurous than most with their bread, which often comes mixed with all manner of seeds, citrus bits and lumps of sugar. On top of this they spread stroop, a delicious treacly concoction that makes talking in any meaningful way an impossibility. Main courses in Holland, admittedly, tend toward the uninspired, and their names often have a kind of inelegance to them. But don't let this put you off: hutspot, a slow-cooked stew, is perfect comfort food for the rain-lashed Friesian flatlands. Zuurkoolstamppot, too, is a lot better than it sounds (it's basically meat, pickled veg and potatoes). If it's elegance you want, there's always tulip petals in a cheese sauce, topped with fried tulip-bulb. This dish might not be everyone's idea of a slap-up meal, but there's no doubting that it's uniquely, unequivocally Dutch.

Good job Paraguay and Argentina didn't get through to the semis as well, or it would have been barbecues at dawn for the South American countries. With similar Spanish, Portuguese and Mediterranean influences, as well as a fine line in coal-chargrilled beef, the Latin continent is constantly in dispute over possession of the great dishes, from the asado, or barbecued strips of beef, to dulce de leche, the sweet goo that acts as the focus of yearning to the South American diaspora, in much the same way that Brits crave McVitie's HobNobs and the Americans long for Hershey's chocolate. While it's pretty hard to argue ownership of the barbecue - Australia and South Africa might have something to say about that, were they still in the competition - Uruguay does have a fairly good claim to dulce de leche - though Argentina would disagree, and the two countries are as passionate in their rivalry over this as over their football. Rather like the great hummus debate of the Middle East, the "milk jam" is loved by most countries of the region, but in 2003 Argentina lobbied Unesco to declare it a national product, preventing Uruguay and other countries from exporting under the name. So far, they have been unsuccessful, with Uruguay suggesting it be labelled as originating in the River Plate region, which encompasses both nations. So what is this nectar that so rouses those Latin temperaments? Well, it's pretty simple: milk and sugar, simmered for hours into an unctuous glop, ready to be spread on toast, used in cakes, poured on ice cream, baked in a pie or simply wolfed down with a spoon. Some people make it fresh, while others risk their lives for dulce de leche, using the highly dangerous condensed milk method, in which they boil a tin of condensed milk in a bain-marie. (Don't try this at home: an exploding can of boiling milk is not a pleasant experience.) But the most popular approach, in these days of quick fixes and definitive versions, is to pick up a jar of the stuff. Nestlé makes it under the name of La Lechera, as does La Serenisma and countless other South American dairy brands, while Häagen-Dazs makes a dulce de leche ice cream. But the brand that seems to inspire spoon-lickin' nostalgia among the Uruguayans is undisputed: Conaprole. Let's hope the team have packed plenty of jars to keep their energy up during the game.

It is unfortunate for some that their only foray into Spanish food will be a sweaty paella while sunning themselves on a week's jolly somewhere on the Costa Del Sol. Unfortunate not only because the dodgy squid will possibly result in a holiday bout of food poisoning, but because Spain has infinitely more to offer in the culinary department. Mealtimes are taken seriously in the country. You do not rush a lunch in Spain; you meander languorously but determinedly through it. There are regional variations of course; what you find in Catalonia (home to the restaurant El Bulli) may differ to that in Andalucia. But they often stem from the same idea. Proceedings might kick off with a handful of tapas. Plump green olives stuffed with white anchovies, perhaps, along with a few thick flakes of Manchego cheese. That should set you up nicely for a few patatas bravas spiked on a cocktail stick. Small cubes of fried potato, they come liberally smothered in tomato and chilli sauce - literally "fierce potatoes". From there to a thick slab of tortilla, or Spanish omelette to the ignorant. Croquetas are another staple. Croquettes to the Brits, they're basically deep-fried parcels of bechamel. Calamares, or little nuggets of fried squid, are another favourite. Undo your belt a notch and brace yourself for the rest of lunch. Have a bowl of gazpacho; there are few things in this world more delicious or refreshing than a large bowlful of the cool tomato soup. Paella could then follow. But proper, gloriously sticky paella that tastes of saffron and the sea, with fat prawns nestled between mussel shells. Or arroz negro, which is essentially the same thing only coloured black with squid ink. Rabbit is also something that you may come across often in Spain, frequently served "escabeche" which means marinated in a sauce loaded with vinegar and various herbs. Maybe loosen that belt once more and push on with pudding. Crema Catalana is a kind of deliciously creamy crème brulée. Arroz con leche is the Spaniards' version of rice pudding. Churros, a tube-shaped cousin to the doughnut, are often eaten as breakfast or a mid-morning snack but would also do here too. They're generally dunked in a gloopy chocolate sauce. And why ever not? You may not be able to struggle out on to the football pitch afterwards, but you can perhaps manage a siesta instead.

German cuisine may be many things - warming, substantial, a risk factor in cardiac illness - but it isn't sexy. One can talk about sloshing olive oil about the place or whipping up an aioli and it announces to the world that you exist in a sun-dappled, carefree Mediterranean of the soul with magical consequences for your figure, complexion and suitability as a date. Say you're a fan of German food, on the other hand, and people will will wonder why you didn't just come right out and say you like sausage and cake. Germany's is a cuisine of home comforts and infantile gratifications, which perhaps explains why the hamburger, frankfurter and pretzel came to form the foundations of the junk food industry. The animator Chuck Jones once remarked: "Bugs Bunny is who we want to be. Daffy is who we are." It might also be true to say that Mediterranean food is what we want to want but another slice of stollen is what we are actually reaching out for. Suspicious indeed is the person who isn't, in some secret cranny of their labouring heart, German As a manifestation of the national weltanschauung, German cuisine reflects the history and climate of the region, which is to say, its early and enthusiastic urbanisation and its rotten winters. As with the British, these two factors forced the Germans to embrace such primitive technologies for food preservation as were available at the start of the 19th century: namely pickles, smoked meats and stuff in jars and tins, perhaps enlivened by a dash of some proprietary sauce (and no prizes for guessing where the greatest names in this field of branded condiments - Heinz and Hellmann's - hail from). Typical of this squirreling tendency is the way Germans like to eat spargel, otherwise known as asparagus: they have it white and flaccid, wet with brine from the jar, with a dollop of salad cream for piquancy. Asparagus! The prince of vegetables. And the most iconic German dish of all, of course, is sauerkraut, the fermented preparation of shredded cabbage whose faintly bilious flavour is a choking hazard for less hardy races. And what is the defining characteristic of sauerkraut? Its imperishability. Draw your own footballing inferences according to taste.