Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow

Back in the days when I first began dining out with any regularity there were only three choices in most locations; a curry (referred to as an Indian, though most establishments were run by Bangladeshis), a Chinese, or an Italian (usually pizza). Aside from that stereotyping that rendered the extensive cuisines of each country down to a single word, there were other expectations about the people who worked there. The “Indians” would tend to be very formal but keen to share a joke, the Chinese would be ultra efficient with little time wasted between courses, and the Italians would be slow.  

These are sweeping generalisations I know, but that was the typical experience of the time, and in some places I would guess it still holds true. I’ve no idea why the Chinese might work as they did, but of course there was a long history of British control on the Indian subcontinent which still left traces of “master and servant” in the relationships between the two peoples.

As for the Italian approach this is much easier to explain. Eating is such a social event in Italy, and the enjoyment of good food and good wine is further enhanced by good conversation. We Brits may have looked at all the courses on an Italian menu and balked at the volume of food to be eaten if you opted for antipasti, primi piatti, secondi piatti, contorni and dolci (not forgetting the pane too!) but spread out over an entire evening this isn’t so unreasonable. When you’re eating alone as I usually am, it’s a bit harder to justify!

When my children were young we were in Tuscany and drove a few miles to a place that had been recommended to us. Our reservation was early and I think we were the first to arrive, sitting outside in beautiful sunshine. When we left it was pitch black, but the time had flown by, aided by the food, the proprietor’s singing and accordion playing, and conversation boosted by the presence at the next table of the author John Mortimer and his family.

So I was surprised when I had lunch at a newly opened gourmet snack bar in Turin (Lumen) and was told that their goal was to deliver “espresso everything”. Coffee of course, but food and drink delivered on the double too.

What made this all the more surprising is that Turin is the home of Slow Food, a movement that sprang from a protest against opening a MacDonalds at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome, and grew into a network across 150 countries that amongst other things promotes local and artisanal foods where the emphasis is on care over speed.  Turin is also the home of Eataly, a restaurant and grocery business that espouses Slow Food and is also developing an international presence.

So what were Lumen thinking about?  For me as a solo eater they nailed it.  The service was flawless and food delicious, but then the wine and the prosciutto had spent some time developing their flavours before they were sliced and poured so swiftly.  Best of both worlds.

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Three Out of Four Ain’t Bad

In its original definition the word “quarter” refers to a fourth part of a whole, though I’m not sure of the origins of phrases such as “servants’ quarters” where the term refers to rooms allocated to a specific group.  Surely this was never so rigidly allocated as to refer to 25% of the original property?

When it comes to defining areas of a town I’d always assumed that quarter (as in New Orleans’ French Quarter) did derive from being roughly of that proportion, though this is belied by the fact that Birmingham apparently has seven!  In my Italian lessons, the word is  quartiere and simply means neighbourhood, so Rome has a Jewish quarter, and Naples a Spanish quarter, but in Palermo at least, the term is refreshingly accurate.

The intersection of Via Maqueda and Corso Vittorio Emanuele creates a square in the city, called Piazza Vigliena, though it is more widely known as Quattro Canti (Four Corners).  The streets that create it embody Sicilian history in themselves (Maqueda is a Spanish name, but with Arab origins, and Vittorio Emanuele was of course the first king of a united Italy), but the four buildings between those streets add more.  The largely identical structures feature fountains of the four seasons, statues of the four Spanish Kings of Sicily, and the four patron saints of the city.  Of the latter, two have connections to Tunisia.  Behind each lies a defined “quarter” of the city, and though formally known as Albergheria, Seralcadio, La Loggia and Mandamento Tribunali, many visitors to Palermo know them by different names.  The first three are defined for many by the markets within them; Ballarò, Capo, Vucciria and the last is now called Kalsa, from its original Arab name  Al-Khalesa.

It may seem strange that the Arab quarter lacks a market, and historically it had several, but this was the area of Palermo that suffered most from Allied bombs in WWII.  Left derelict for decades it is only now seeing regeneration.

Of the three markets that remain, La Vucciria (possibly a corruption of butchery or voices; either would work) was once the pearl, and given greater prominence by the famous painting of that name by Renato Guttuso, though most agree that it no longer lives up to that billing.  Here I’d expected to be steeling myself to try a Sicilian street food staple called Pani ca’ Meusa (effectively a spleen sandwich) but disappointingly didn’t find a vendor (not too disappointingly if I’m honest!).

Capo was all that I’d expect from an Italian market; an abundance of the freshest produce with huge variety and colourful presentation.   Whether due to seasonality or local taste I’m not sure, but there was a greater emphasis on artichokes than I’d noticed elsewhere.  All the same it was very the sort of place I’d happily shop.

It’s not a Sicilian market without artichokes

And so to Ballarò.  Here the spirit of Al-Khalesa survives.  Alongside the expected fruit, vegetables, meat and fish you find spice stalls whose aroma signposts their presence before your eyes, freshly boiled potatoes steaming in huge pots, and around the fringes many of the city’s immigrants spread their wares on the pavement reminding me of scenes from my time in Africa.

Welcome to Ballarò, Palermo’s souk.

 

 

S.P.Q.R.

Four letters that bring to mind the Roman Empire and which are equally commonplace around the modern city, but how many of those familiar with the abbreviation know what it represents? Even forty years after my school years I remember Senatus Populus Que Romanus, which simply means The Senate and People of Rome, and for once is a good literal representation of my topic.  (Ironically it was a statement about democracy in a city that was ruled over by despots in various guises for centuries thereafter)

Like the UK, the Italian Parliament consists of two houses; one of which, the senate, is located in a 16th century former Medici palace; Palazzo Madama, though in these times of heightened terror threats you notice the security measures before you take in the 17th Century facade. Besides which, this post isn’t about the Senate.

Nor is it about the nearby Pantheon, arguably the most impressive Roman building in the city. Completed in the 2nd century it has been in continuous use as temple and now church, and boast what is still the world’s largest roof made from unreinforced concrete.

Between these two grand edifices is a more modest enterprise (especially on my visit when much of the exterior was boarded up).  A caffé in what is little more than a back alley of the Senate building that when opened in the 1930’s was probably very modern, but which is now very not.  But you’re not there for the decor.

You might be there for the location; for if you’re a reporter its a good spot to buttonhole a politician on his or her way for lunch, and if you’re a people watcher much of the flow of human traffic between Pantheon and that other great tourist magnet the Piazza Navona will pass this way.

But really you should be there for the coffee.  Caffé Sant’Eustachio (named after the nearby church) treats its coffee differently.  They are passionate advocates of ethical trading and source their coffee carefully in South America, predominantly Brazil, but then there is a secret to how they make it.  I should stress at this point that I’m talking espresso at this point, for though you can purchase all the usual suspects there, it is the espresso that is something special.

Clearly displayed on the walls are warnings that if you don’t want sugar you need to say so.  I don’t usually add sugar to my drinks, but espresso is the exception as I believe that the rich black intensity needs to be sweet too.  Here in Sant’Eustachio it is intrinsic to how they make it, and though the process is shielded by the positioning of the coffee machines, somehow they beat the sugar into the coffee to produce not only a delicious caffé, but one which has a thick foam at the top.  Not just a crema, but something more akin to a cappuccino foam; thick and firm enough to survive the consumption of the coffee and needing the intervention of a spoon!

A great place for people watching, and perhaps the caffé is the real reason there are so many here.

Cibo di Strada (Genoan sustenance!)

In the UK it’s often seen as a sign of someone’s lack of class if they are seen leaving a branch of Gregg’s the bakers munching into a freshly bought pasty straight out of its bag. It’s “chavvy” or common to do so in many people’s eyes, possibly because it is an impossible task to achieve with dignity.

In Genoa a similar act is commonplace, and seemingly not seen as common.

Wherever I go on my Italian travels I try to eat some of the local specialities like cicchetti in Venice, or tortelloni in Bologna.  In Genoa the obvious first choice is trofiette pasta with fresh pesto (so much more vibrant than the jars that sit in supermarkets), but you can hardly snack on that as you walk the Genovan strade.

Luckily there is another Ligurian speciality to fill the gap (and your stomach).  Focaccia.  Now to be fair, this is hardly exotic fare; it’s fairly ubiquitous outside of Italy; I even make it myself on occasion.  In Genoa however you can’t walk more than a few metres in any direction without encountering a focacceria, ensuring that the bread is always at its freshest.  It’s also topped with cheese, tomato, or olives, as well as combinations of these staples.  There is even black focaccia, made with charcoal flour to aid digestion.  I stuck with the traditional ingredients.

Yet neither focaccia nor trofiette al pesto formed the most memorable food experience of my trip.  Again there are plenty of supplier to choose from, but all my research suggested that the place to try farinata was from an old hole in the wall establishment called Antica Sciamadda.  (Sciamadda is a local dialect word meaning “flamed”).

I couldn’t wait to try this chickpea pancake, and so made it one of the fixed points of my first day’s itinerary.  As midday approached I headed down towards the port with my mouth watering.

It was closed.

To be fair it was Sunday.

The following day I was in the vicinity again, and as the day was much colder and wetter than before seeing the yellow light emerging from windows that had been firmly shuttered before was a life saver.  I rushed in and asked for farinata.

They had none… but luckily only because it wasn’t yet ready. I spent the time wisely and ordered a selection of the other deep-fried snacks that they make there and a slice of quiche (torta salata).  This might be street food, but I was glad of the shelter so grabbed one of the few stools at a counter inside which gave me the perfect chance to view the farinata being made.

A thin batter made from chickpea flour, olive oil and seasoning is poured into a huge flat pan which is then manoeuvred into a fierce oven in a compartment alongside the burning wood, so that the heat is conducted along the roof of the oven to cook the pancake.  The pan itself has no handles and so the baker(?) rotates it using long steel poles to ensure an even distribution of heat.  Such a thin flatbread cooks very quickly and the pan is soon withdrawn, but must cool a little before serving.

I was asked how many pieces I wanted.  Having no idea how large they would be I opted for two, which proved the right decision given what I had already consumed.  There was no carefully measured wedge however.  Using what appeared to be a wallpaper scraper the large disc was rapidly carved into smaller pieces and unceremoniously dumped onto a polystyrene plate for me.

No frills, no fuss, but no quibbles from me.  It was just what I needed, even if I didn’t eat it on the street.  I wasn’t the only one!

A Very Different Houghton

A few years ago I posted about a visit to an annual fair in Houghton-le-Spring, a former mining town in the North East of England, so as I drove through the village of Houghton in Cambridgeshire I couldn’t help but contrast the two.  Strangely enough this village too has an annual “feast” though in the summer rather than the autumn, but there the similarities end.  The Houghton of my childhood, like much of the North East has seen a great deal of deprivation, whereas this was a chocolate box village of thatched and timber-framed cottages.  I didn’t photograph any of them.

This wasn’t from any sense of bitterness, merely a reflection of the fact that I was here only for a short lunch break on my way further south, and so I continued to my objective on the far side of the village, an objective that has historically caused problems for the villagers.  It is a water-mill.

There has been a mill here for over a thousand years and for much of that time it was owned by a monastery of Benedictines.  When the abbot sought to increase the power to the mill in 1500 he did so by diverting the river (The Great Ouse) which resulted in Houghton being flooded.  Naturally the villagers weren’t happy and some sort of riot/protest ensued.   They were certainly upset enough to be persistent because it was another 15 years before they were granted permission to channel the river themselves in case of any future emergency.

That building reverted to the Crown when Henry dissolved the monasteries (I sometimes feel I write that in every other post on here) and in the 17th century a new building was constructed; the one we see today, which continued to produce flour until the 1930’s when industrialisation finally took its toll.

That might have spelled the end for Houghton Mill, but the local residents were clearly better disposed to it by now. They bought the structure and maintained it in partnership with the National Trust, although for forty years or so it was run as a Youth Hostel, presumably to generate some income for its upkeep.

Now it is run purely as a visitor attraction and the Trust went so far as to install new millstones so that they could produce flour once again, though they are only allowed to do so once a week due to the impact they have on the river levels when they do so.  The Great Ouse is one of our longer waterways and many barges and longboats still navigate its waters.  All the same bags of flour are available for sale at the onsite shop.

As I ducked around looking for angles to view the machinery it occurred to me how many cobwebs and beetle holes pointed to other visitors beyond those encouraged by the Trust.  I suspect that flour might be fortified with additional protein.

 

A Tale of Two Coffees

 

Like any Italian city, Genoa has a plethora of options when you need caffeine and Italia has some great institutions who have made it an art form; Florian in Venezia, Gilli in Firenze for example, and so when my guide to the essentials for 48 hours in Genoa included a stop at the city’s oldest caffè, I had high expectations.  Though I wasn’t relying on Lonely Planet at the time, they offer this description:

Pre-dating cappuccinos, Klainguti opened in 1828 and its Mittel European charms, and presumably its strudel and pastries, had Verdi and Garibaldi coming back for more. Waiters in bow ties toil under an impressive chandelier and the decor is a fabulous, if tatty, mid-century historical pastiche.

I was expecting something ostentatious then; perhaps polished fittings and woodwork seasoned by the thousands of hands that had rested on the counter in the nearly 200 years of service.  I walked past it three times before I recognised it, and when I did enter I was so underwhelmed that I failed to notice the chandelier.  The waiters wore matching burgundy waistcoats and aprons but no bow ties, and whilst I might agree with “tatty”, I wouldn’t have stretched to “fabulous”.

 

I probably wasn’t seeing it at its best. It was a cold grey morning and if might borrow from Python’s Cheese Shop, it was largely uncontaminated by customers.  Nor was my colazione particularly impressive.  The place felt like a stage set, designed to create an impression of age so long as you didn’t apply too much scrutiny.  I didn’t even bother photographing the counter, though a less jaundiced blogger has done so here  if you’re interested.

Maybe my problem lies with its heritage.  It just didn’t feel Italian, and of course the name, and it’s founding date point back to a period when Austria had been an occupying force here.  Still the Viennese have a reputation in the field of cafe und kuchen so that’s no excuse.

Klainguti was full of mirrors which bounced around a strange yellow light (correcting this in my pictures was a bit of a challenge) which is ironic since my favourite caffè in Genoa was Caffè degli Specchi (Cafe of the Mirrors), or as the sign outside quotes from Italian poet Dino Campana:

In my pidgin Italian, I understood this as meaning “Within the porcelain grotto I watched the proprietor grind coffee while the crowd grew” – please feel free to correct me Stacy di Anna Pollard!

It certainly seemed fitting for two reasons:

  • despite the reference to mirrors in the establishment’s name, it was the tiled ceiling that really drew my attention, and
  • there was no shortage of customer contamination here! 

Now you’re talking Italian Caffè culture, and it being nearly Christmas at the time, they even brought a touch of the festive season to the experience.

Litoral-Leigh Underwhelmed?

Given my love for all things coastal; you’d think I’d be delighted by a place with four pubs each of which boasts a maritime name; a place with an award-winning beach; and a place with a reputation for the quality of its seafood (no, not plaice!)

A place where sailboats rest between tides as they do in Norfolk or Northumberland.   A place with charming seaside dwellings old and new.

What’s not to like?

Well, in truth nothing, yet I need to be careful where I tread here, for lovely as this location is I had my reservations when I visited , and it is the birthplace of my friend and follower of this blog, Bee. 

The Saxons loved it enough to establish a settlement here (though if you’re arriving from the continent it’s an easy option) and the Normans seemed to like it too as the Domesday Book records.  There may even have been people here before the Romans arrived so Leigh has a long history.  Somehow I was still unmoved.  Even writing this piece has proved a struggle, and for a long time I couldn’t understand quite why.

And then it hit me.  It was no single thing.  It was the cumulative toll of a number of “close but no cigar” moments.

I didn’t try all of those pubs, but opted for the Peterboat, named after a small vessel once common on the Thames and originally designed for ferrying passengers across the river, most notably to Westminster Abbey.  I’ve no idea how many such a boat could hold, but the pub that bears the name might have sunk from overcrowding.  Seeking to capitalise on a prime location on the prom it had even converted the car park into an outside dining area.  Quantity took precedence over quantity, and the extensive menu featured only one fish dish.

Then there was the “award-winning beach”.  I know I’ve been spoilt by growing up with the sandy beaches of my home town, and the beautiful coastline of Northumberland at hand.  Consequently this didn’t look like an award winner to me…

So how about the famous seafood.  Both of my daughters worked in a seafood deli so of course I had high expectations.  The old High Street, a narrow lane squeezed between railway and shore, is lined with cockle sheds, an Essex characteristic according to Bee.  This is a major industry for the town, producing mountains of shells in the process.

They are served in small pots seasoned with vinegar; a far cry from the spaghetti alle vongole I enjoyed on my first day in Venice so once again I was disappointed.

I started to take issue even with the name; Leigh on Sea.  This isn’t the sea.  At least not as I know it, a place of ever-changing moods, textures, colours and sounds.  This is an estuary.  The River Thames… and a healthy supply of mud.

Leigh is apparently the happiest place to live in the UK, so they were probably glad to see me leave before I brought their scores down, but then I got it.  I should stop griping about what it wasn’t, and capture the opportunity of what it is…