AGRO/DOLCE

AGRO/DOLCE

Serving suggestions:

Mcdonald’s Quarter Pounder with Cheese ™

Caponata

Fried egg and maple syrup and ketchup and bacon and pancakes, or marmelade bacon and ketchup

Chicken roasted with dates and capers and green olives with shallots

Chicory roasted with butter and seasoned with lemon juice

A pickled egg in a bag of cheese and onion crisps

A sausage roll and ketchup

Battered sweet and sour chicken, chunks of pineapple pieces of green pepper.

Agrodolce is an effect of food that I love. There isn’t a word for it in English, but it translates as soursweet. It works in waves. The brain, or at least my brain, cannot hold the sour and the sweet in mind at precisely the same moment. I know they are both there in the spoon, in my mouth, but I don’t detect them both at once. A wave of sweetness might come first and transform into a sour twang that makes me drool slightly. The pleasure is in the darting and sliding between the two over the palate.

The graphic arrangement and annunciation of the word agrodolce represents how its effect functions. The mouthmovement of saying it, even in one’s head is instructive of how it feels as a taste. Agro is awkward and requires significant action from the mouth and tongue, whereas dolce rolls sensuously out with a tender touching of the roof of the mouth by the tongue and a relaxation of the lips to finish.

Agro and dolce are words that can exist independently. They have their own discrete meanings. Agro is sour, vinegary, acidic and dolce is sweet and also soft, tender, fresh, gentle. The two words suggest dramatic emotional extremes as much as contrasts of the flavour. They remind me of other words with semantically clashing components such as schadenfreude or lustmord, killjoyAgrodolce also reminds me of sheet music read as a child and an adolescent when I tooted along on a clarinet in orchestras when the instruction più dolce suggested that I control my breath and my embouchure to produce a sweeter, softer sound. More maturity and precise, steely physical control is needed to make a soft sound than is needed to make a loud noise in most instruments.

Caponata, the dish of fried aubergine and celery with some tomato, olives, capers, vinegar and sugar first introduced me to the concept of agrodolce. I’d recommend the recipe in Margot Henderson’s book You’re All Invited, where it’s called ‘Aubergine Stew’. Cooked and then left to cool with the frying oil pooled on the surface, the agro and the dolce of caponata become more comfortable alongside each other; they mature, developing depth. The two are still at war of course, but they become familiar adversaries.

However, while the word may have arrived in my life with caponata, I would be lying if I said that the exquisite pleasure of agrodolce had not been first felt, unnamed, in McDonald’s Quarter-Pounder with Cheese. Sweet-sharp wet gherkin, the roar of raw white onion, a sweet vinegary tang of ketchup and sweet bread and rich meat. It is a perfect form of taste that can barely be believed: How can it exist at such mass scale? And yet it is nearly always perfect with every bite. When the burger is finished I desperately try to recreate its sensation by getting through quantities of barbecue sauce with my fries.

Cook this recipe that Yotam Ottolenghi took from a 1980s cookbook for Marbella chicken with dates and green olives to eat a delicious agrodolce dinner. Hot tips: you don’t need date syrup or treacle, sugar is fine – dark brown if you have it. I used regular dried dates, rather than the more expensive Medjoul dates. I added some whole peeled shallots and two halved heads of chicory in the roasting pan for added bitter-sweetness and to bulk it up a little. It is very good. 

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