Food only for the thought

With this horrendous pandemic, there are books I should avoid. By mistake I opened an absolute page turner with a description of a meal in almost every chapter. Just the kind of book which makes you want to jump into a passing ship and make your way to Sicily. Unfortunately, there is no way I’ll be able to do that in the near future. So, please eat a cannoli or torroncini for me if you are in Sicily or nearby. If you are not, you can read the quotes below.

Next to his right hand was a bottle of Corvo white, still corked and sealed.

For the main course, I’ve prepared alalonga all’agrodolce, and hake in a sauce of anchovies.

‘Bring me a generous serving of the hake. Ah, and, while I’m waiting, make me a nice plate of seafood antipasto.’ … One whiff was enough to convey the dish’s perfection, achieved by the right amount of breadcrumbs and the delicate balance between the anchovies and the whisked egg.

[He] returned with a platter on which there was a bread roll, a sizable slice of caciocavallo cheese, five slices of salami, and a glass of wine.

‘For today she’s made pasta alla Norma, you know, with fried aubergine and ricotta salata.’ … ‘And braised beed for the second course.’

[The] old woman immediately ate two cannoli as an appetizer. [He] wasn’t too thrilled with the kubba, but the kebabs had a tart, herbal flavour that made them a little more sprightly, or so, at least, he defined them according to his imperfect use of adjectives.

He sat back down at his table, where a pound of mullet awaited him, fried to a delicate crisp.

Inside were some ham sandwiches, bananas, cookies and two cans of Coca-Cola.

On the desk was a parcel wrapped in the paper of the Pipitone pastry shop. He opened it: cannoli, cream puffs, torroncini.

‘Excellent, this brusciulini.’

‘Got fresh-roasted peanuts here, nice and hot,’ the shopkeeper informed him. [He] had him add twenty or so to his coppo, the paper cornet already half-full of chickpeas and pumpkin seeds.

He drew up a rapid, unhappy inventory: as a first course, he could make a little pasta with garlic and oil; as a second course, he could throw something together using sardines in brine, olives, caciocavallo cheese and canned tuna. … The pasta came out overcooked, practically inedible.

While waiting for them to bring him a digestivo of anisette (the double helping of bass was beginning to weight on his stomach) …

In the oven he found a casserole of mullet and potatoes that smelled inviting. He sat down and tasted his first bite: exquisite.

… saute of clams in breadcrumbs, a heaped dish of spaghetti with white clam sauce, a roast turbot with oregano and caramelized lemon, and he topped it all off with a bitter chocolate timbale in orange sauce.

‘So, exactly how do you prepare your striped mullet?’

[He] took a good half hour to eat his mullets. … [Afterwards, he] downed a demi-tasse of espresso. … [He] returned with a plate on which was a huge, hard piece of Sicilian cassata ice cream.

The pasta with crab was as graceful as a first-rate ballerina, but the stuffed bass in saffron sauce left him breathless, almost frightened.

So: fish, and, no question, onion, hot pepper, whisked eggs, salt, pepper, breadcrumbs. But two other flavours, hiding under the taste of the butter used in the frying, hadn’t yet answered the call. At the second mouthful, he recognized what had escaped him in the first: cumin and coriander. ‘Koftas!’ he shouted in amazement.

In the fridge he found ten or so olives, three sardines and a bit of Lampsedusan tuna in a small glass jar. On the kitchen table there was some bread wrapped in paper …

They are all quotes from a single small mystery novel: The Snack Thief (Il ladro di merendine in Italian) by Andrea Camilleri (1925-2017), the third book in his Inspector Montalbano series. I hope I haven’t missed any of the meals in this book.

Grass flowers

I was looking for birds, and I found grass flowering. I’ve never seen this before. But then I’ve never been to wastelands inside the city immediately after the monsoon. I just wish I’d slipped a macro lens into my backpack.

This is the first time I’ve seen grass with what I would think of as a petal. Except that grass has no petals. The orange bits which protect the sexual organs are scales called lemma and palea. I learnt this today while, unsuccessfully, trying to identify the species of grass that I saw.

We’d started at 5 in the morning and reached Bhandup minutes before sunrise. The early morning stroll was our first attempt at bird watching outside our house in eight months. It felt good to be coming to terms with the epidemic while carrying on with life as usual.

There were at least three different kinds of grass I photographed. The one pictured above is probably Guinea grass (Megathyrsus maximus). Still have to figure out what the others were.

I found a nicely written introduction to grasses. Some parts of it are specific to the UK, but most of it is quite general, and useful no matter which country you live in.

Along the Grand Canal

I exhumed a set of photos from almost fifteeen years back and began to remember that trip to Venice. I was at a loose end for a day, and I took a train down to the Santa Lucia station in Venice. I had a restaurant in mind for lunch near the Arsenale, and a nice way to get there would be to take a water bus, vaporetto, to Piazza San Marco, and then walk. I like this ride down the Grand Canal for the things that you see on the way, like the elegant facade of a palazzo that you see in the featured photo.

Its not unusual to pass tourists laden down with prints that they have just bought from a museum shop. I was happy to get this shot of the pair of tourists ignoring the graffiti that they were walking past. I guess all of us do that most of the time; just that there’s no one to take our photos.

Look at that grand door leading down to the canal. I like the general air of decrepitude that envelops Venice. It’s almost as if it wears its magnificent past on its sleeve, daring tourists to snigger at its present. I won’t do that, I like its attitude just as much as all the others who come back to it again and again.

The bus reached its destination soon enough. I liked the view of the Basilica of San Marco from the terminus jetty. You get a much grander view of the Basilica from the Piazza that Napoleon called “a jewel box”, but I liked this quieter view. The sky was overcast, and the light was dead, but good enough to show off the domes of this Chiesa d’Oro, the Church of Gold.

Let me close off this little tour down memory lane with the last tourist photo I took here, before walking past the Basilica into the little streets to look (successfully) for the restaurant I remembered. This is a view that many visitors take: of the church of San Giorgio Maggiore from behind the jetty for gondolas.

Walking through Trento

Looking at some of my earliest digital photos, I dredged up memories of a week in a part of the world I’d known very little about. This was the South Tyrol, where Austria shades into Italy. A night train had taken me to Innsbruck, where I changed to a local which crossed from Austria to Italy, and deposited me in the charming town of Trento. A short walk through the town can tell you much about its history. My walks would start at the piazza in front of the cathedral (featured photo) with its fountain of Neptune. The photo includes the statue of Nepture, the 16th century CE frescoes on the facade of Casa Balduini, and the dome on top of the bell tower of the church of Santa Maria Maggiore.

That was the church where the counter-reformation solidified with the Council of Trent in the middle of the 16th century. The importance of the resurgent catholic church is visible through much of the center of the town. Somewhere in one of the lanes around the square I passed this rococo sculpture of the Annunciation outside a second floor window. The deep colour of the painted wood emphasizes the beautiful pastel shades of the sculptural group.

Walking through that maze of streets I stopped to take a photo of this typical South Tyrol wall. The wooden protective casements over windows are typically Alpine, and the colours of the walls are a mix of Alpine and the southern hues which are visible all the way from here to nearby Venice. After the Imperial Recess of 1803, which ended the Holy Roman Empire, and with it, the rule of the Bishops of Trento, the district passed to Austria.

The first door I ever photographed with a digital camera belonged to the house of the local patriot Enrico Conci, who supported Trentino autonomy while a member of the Vienna House of Deputies, and was jailed and put on trial during the First World War. After the war, when Trento became a province of Italy, he was elected to the Imperial Senate. His daughter, Elsa Conci, was a member of the Constituent Assembly of Italy after the war. The plaque above the door memorializes both of them.

The Alps around Trento are beautiful, full of the high sunny meadows of the Tyrol, and wonderful mountain paths to walk along. It drew me out of the town very quickly. But that is another story.

Milan in May?

“What about Milan during your holidays?” I asked The Family. It took some time to argue her around to this. She preferred the Himalayas. I don’t mind the Himalayas either, but my main argument was different. I had to get a visa for some work in any case, and the process of getting a visa is so tedious that I might as well plan several things together to make it worthwhile. The Family caught an important point instantly, “So you aren’t going to be here in May?” I told her I could be back after just a short business trip if she wanted.

I’ve spent only a couple of hours in Milan. That was just enough time to take a look at the cathedral, climb to its roof (featured photo), and walk around nearby. Now The Family and I took at look at what one can do in Milan if one has a few days. As always in Italy, there are Roman remains and impressive palaces, wonderful art collections and food. And then in Milan one has design and fashion. The Family was convinced. Now I have to make a plan for a four day trip. My first impression is that this is really short. What does one leave out and still get the essence of Milan?

I hope it is not too late to book a visit to Santa Maria delle Grazie to look at Leonardo’s Last Supper. If one goes to see the cathedral then La Scala and Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II is nearby. Pinacoteca di Brera, Biblioteca Ambrosiana and Sforza Castle seem to be unmissable. Shouldn’t one also see the mosaics in Basilica di San Lorenzo? It is beginning to get complicated. Please wish me luck.

Wind inside a letter box

I think of myself as rooted in one place: but with tap-roots, like a banyan tree’s, spreading out in different continents. When I came back to India, a late spring and early summer in Europe was for a long time an annual affair. Lately, it has been less frequent, as another root samples eastern Asia.

It was still dark as I checked in for my flight to Munich in the chaotic airport in Rome. After passing through the usual barriers to travel that you meet inside an airport, I found a last cup of espresso. This helped to shut out the commotion of early departures, and reach a quietness inside. I find it useful to reach a balance before very long flights. Once you are cocooned inside the zones which envelope a passenger, all you have is yourself. Restlessness will magnify as you cross continents; just as quietness can deepen.

Midsummer snow, alpine meadows and clouds from the air

Leaving Europe, I recall conversations with a grand-aunt in the last years of her life, as her world became smaller and smaller: from continents to a widely spread out family, eventually to a single town, and then just a house with a garden, before shrinking to a hospital bed. The first time The Family met her, she’d laid out a silver tea service for us. Eventually our talk veered to a trip from Oxford up to Sweden where she found the tea service and her life in design. As she spoke of ferries and the cold air of the Baltic on the deck, I was reminded of my own trips across the Baltic: the first view of Helsinki, as I sailed past Suomenlinna on a summer morning, and, another time, pulling slowly out of Stockholm’s harbour and its islands in the long sunset of another summer. When I showed my mother the photos from that voyage, she talked about a Swedish movie made before I was born. Now, as the sun rose over the Tyrolean Alps (featured photo, and the one just above), I remembered the joy in my grand-aunt’s voice.

Sunlight and clouds over a river in the Tyrolean Alps

This spring was wet, and early summer had been less than warm around the Alps. The news had been full of the danger of the Seine flooding the Louvre. The aerial view of the Alps was not as crisp as it can be. The snow had retreated to the highest peaks, leaving meadows green, as always. But a haze hung over everything. A bank of clouds flowed down a river valley at one place. Elsewhere the sun glinted off the braided channels of water. Could it be the river Inn? My mind was like a paper cup; memories tumbled blindly from me. Tiramisu in Pizzeria Due Furiosi in FrascatiThis year while travelling, I decided to be in constant contact with all my nieces. The youngest responded to my postings of odd locations around Portugal and Italy with complaints. Why no photos of the Coliseum? Not graffiti again! Is that collection of cubes really art? The only thing I ate that met with her approval was Tiramisu. I remembered this as I had my bland airlines breakfast.

In two hours I was in Munich. There was enough time to linger over a hefeweizen and a plate of weisswurst, before the long flight home, where the monsoon had set in.

MACRO: art in a brewery

In 1901 the Birra Peroni company started building an enormous brewery in a part of Rome just outside the Aurelian walls. Gustavo Giovannoni was the architect who designed the first part of what would eventually become a two-hectare complex of buildings making up the Peroni Brewery. In 1922 Peroni hired Alfredo Palopoli to design the stores and stables which would become the contemporary art museum called MACRO which I walked into in June this year. I’ve been meaning to write about it, but kept putting it off. Partly because I did not know how to talk about the experience.

I found the gallery exactly where it was supposed to be, but had a little problem figuring out where to enter. I came down Via Cagliari and turned into Via Nizza. There was a space at the corner where some people were hanging around before eleven in the morning of a Saturday. There was no entrance visible. I walked around to Via Reggio Emilia and saw a large gate which was closed. I walked back to the corner of Via Cagliari and Via Nizza, and asked the people who I saw there about the entrance. It is at the corner, but not visible from the road. You have to take a path through a little garden to enter the huge vestibule of what turns out to be the new block of the museum. It is very nice, once you find it.

The toilet at the MACRO in Nomentano, Rome

The price of entry is the same as for most museums in Rome, but it seems a little steep once you find that the amount of art on display is not very large. I took it as a visit to an interesting house of mystery. The first part of the puzzle was to find out how to enter the galleries from the central atrium. I found the most exciting toilet in Rome (photo above) quite easily, between the cloak room and the museum shop. The constantly changing colour of lights in the toilet makes it a little hard to register the layout.

Odile Decq designed this, the new part of the museum. The entrance area is dominated by a red polyhedron, which was not in use. A ramp leads into it from near the ticket counter, and seems to be an obvious place to enter. It is not, and entry was forbidden. Eventually I took the lift from near the museum shop. This leads to three floors of interesting, but severely limited selection of, contemporary art. The one exhibit that remains in my mind after a few months was a series of photographs of an artist (whose name I did not note) of himself over the years. Viewed together, it is a stunning work which documents aging: the essence of the human condition. In my mind I put it next to a mental collection of Rembrandt’s self portraits over his own lifetime. The effect is similar.

Zaha Hadid's Bvlgari pavilion in MACRO Nomentano, Rome

I found that I’d walked through this space too soon, and entered the old part of the museum. This contains two wings around a courtyard. The courtyard holds Zaha Hadid’s design for Bvlgari’s stall at a trade exhibition. The courtyard connects through a ramp back to the new section. This segment is devoted to the Museum’s collection of Italian modern art. This is again a very small exhibition space, with well-chosen pieces. There was a small special exhibition on, and I sat through a couple of videos. In spite of this I found myself walking back through the contemporary art exhibits soon. I dawdled at the coffee shop, but was back on the street less than two hours from when I’d entered.

In the months between visiting MACRO and getting to write about it, I found an interesting master’s thesis by an architect. Interestingly, it articulated some of the concerns I had, but could not quite put my finger on. The architect has created beautiful spaces which could be used in innovative ways, but the lack of signage and communication makes it hard to use. As a result, you walk through the space without completely experiencing it, and come out feeling unsatisfied.

A little Roman market

Market at Piazza Alessandria viewed from Via AlessandriaA market inside a nice Art Deco brick building in the Piazza Alessandria in the Nomentano district of Rome was an unexpected find. I’d wanted to write about it from the time I stumbled on it in June, but with one thing or another, never got round to it. The Nomentano district is just outside the touristy centre of the city. As a result you hear only Italian in its cafes and restaurants, and see casually dressed families with children comfortably ambling along the streets next to you, very pointedly ignoring your camera.

Walking through a small road, busy at 10 in the morning on a Saturday, I came across a brick building with iron gates sporting the wolf symbol of the city.The market at Piazza Alessandria viewed from Via Ancona I’d not researched this walk at all. But an open gate topped with a frieze of a wolf suckling Romus and Romulus is an invitation to enter. I looked at the building behind it, possibly a renaissance structure, and decided that the invitation in front of me was stronger.

Inside was a busy municipal market. I love markets. Walking through one in Italy is a special treat because the freshness of the produce is a constant reminder of how flavourful the local cuisine is. The Family and I have often joked that we would like to bring back two kilos of tomatoes instead of a bottle of wine from our travels in Italy. I loved the vegetable stalls with their golden pumpkins, the bright leafy greens, cucumbers and carrots (see the featured photo for all of this and more). The sight of Zucchini flowers in a market always remind me of boyhood lunches at my grandmother’s place where an occasional treat was batter-fried pumpkin flowers. This is probably unknown in many parts of India; certainly The Family has never eaten pumpkin flowers, and says she is not brave enough to eat flowers.

Many of the aisles were empty. I did not see any stall selling meats or fishes. Was I too early or too late? I looked longingly at the mushrooms: the yellow trumpets which the French call the Chanterelle stood next to dark brown mushrooms which could have been porcini, and a heap of the common white funghi. Mushrooms and cheese are always special treats for us when we visit Europe because these are two things which India does not have.

Fruits in the market at Piazza Alessandria

The next aisle had a stall which had huge cauliflowers and broccoli. I don’t think I’ve seen broccoli which is so large and bright green. I was tempted to buy some. Unfortunately my time in Italy was almost done, and, as a result, I had plans to eat out with friends on every remaining evening. I could still support farmers by buying fresh fruits. Spring had not yet yielded to summer in this market. I could pick up strawberries and cherries, so I did. The apricots smelt wonderful, so I picked up some. European spring and summer fruits are also special treats for me. Although they are available in India, they play second fiddle to local fruits. As a result, the variety and quality is much superior throughout Europe.

I walked out towards Via Alessandria, where some vendors had set up little kiosks selling clothes and bags. I passed by them and went on to look for some coffee.

Frascati

Before I saw the little town perched on top of a dormant volcano, I always thought that Frascati was only a good wine. Make that a wine region, it is a DOC wine after all. So it is kind of silly not to think of Frascati in terms of a place. The first time I went there, and had dinner in a square overlooking Rome, I thought to myself, “How charming. I must spend some time here.” I did, and it was.

Little street in Frascati

The town has long been a refuge for well-heeled Romans looking for a quiet place when Rome becomes too hot. England’s Bonnie Prince Charlie, a pretender to the throne, is buried in the cathedral here. A lovely and always breezy square, Piazza di Rocca, has a wonderful view of Rome, and is lined with restaurants. It is named after the palace of the bishop, locally called the Rocca. There are lovely villas that you can visit, or you can just walk around the town, eat in its wonderful pizzerias, ristorantes, and sample the local wine. I wandered around the streets and occasionally stopped to admire cars (photo above).

Notte di Musica at Piazza Roma in Frascati
Notte di Musica at the Piazzale Olmo, Frascati

Frascati takes its leisure very seriously. There was a night of music the weekend before midsummer’s night. I’d skipped lunch and wandered out to look for some porchetta and olives late in the afternoon. Amateur groups were already setting up in various squares. I found a cart with porchetta and stuffed tomatos, and sat down on a bench to enjoy the sun. The roads are steep, so you get enough exercise to keep the wonderful food from sticking to your ribs.

I met friends in Piazza Roma, where a large band was going through its repertoire of hits from the 70s and 80s. The band was good and loud. I enjoyed the sight of one of the apartment windows opening and a man leaning down to enjoy the music (photo above). As the evening’s light faded, we walked over to the tiny Piazzale Olmo where a little enoteca gives you the fresh white wine it makes, to have with food you bring along. We got some pizzas, and sat down with a couple of litres of wine to enjoy the classic rock being played pretty competently in this square.

Frascati is only half an hour from Rome by train, but its a very relaxed place.

Gelati

Call me fussy. There is one thing I eat only in Italy, and that is ice cream. Not that it cannot be done well elsewhere, but because I do not want to waste my daily calorie count on a dessert that may not make me feel like I’m walking on clouds. But in Italy this caution is not needed. I will savour the gelati even if I eat it in a small cafe in a little village (as in the featured image).

Gelateria La Romana on Via XX Settembre

Whenever I walked past this gelateria on Via Venti Settembre in Rome, I looked at the board outside which said “Founded in 1947”, and reminded myself to come back for a taste. Eventually I managed to do it in the last week before leaving Italy. Unlike many gelaterias, the selection was not on show. I had to read through a long menu to make my choices. I take a long time to choose flavours even when I look at the stuff. Here I kept going back and forth over the menu and then decided on a really straightforward combination of sour lime and dark chocolate. Then, as the girl behind the counter was teasing this out into spectacular filaments, I suddenly asked her to add biscotti to the mix. As she combed and teased the mixture into a fantastic shape, I thought I should take a photo when she finished.

But when she did I just took it from her, sat down at a table and ate it all up without thinking of taking a photo. I also skipped lunch after that. I could do the same thing again. No wonder the place has lasted 73 years.