Welcome!!one!

Hallo, Grüß Gott, bongiorno, bonjour and “g’day”.


It’s your old pal Kit (Christof) Fennessy here, just returned from a month long tour of the Alps. I hope (plan) to give each city we visited a review, and pass on any eating tips or associated recipes I gleaned over the coming weeks, as we work our way through winter here.


I've been writing this blog with your help for nine years, and there's over a hundred recipes, restaurant reviews of Australia and around the world, and general gourmet articles in these pages for you to fritter away your idle hours. I hope you enjoy it, and please send me any feedback or suggestions about what you'd like to see herein through the feedback link at the bottom of posts.

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Now, what's on the bill of fare today?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Eau d’Arles? Oh, Darls!


In our last installment, we were in Alghero, in the north of Sardinia. From that Mediterranean island jewel we travel now, on Ryan Air bizness class (innit? – five knicker extra!), to Francaise, the home of “haute”, “nouvelle”, and “lean” cuisine. We landed in the famous port of Marseilles, drug importation capital of France… and then quickly clicked up the train line a few kilometers to the west to find ourselves in Arles.


“Bonjour! Ca va? C’est bon! Et moi? Tres bien, merci!”

At last we’d arrived, en Francaise. Did I ever tell you I’m a Francophile, particularly when it comes to food? Mais non? Bien sur, certainment!

France. Home of “viva” and “la”. Birthplace of Asterix and Gerard Depardiou. Repository of baguettes, and inspiration for great songs like “Fou de Fa Fa”. I was rapt.

Unfortunately, my year ten French was indecipherable to most native French people. I’d say “Bonjour” and nearly everyone would reply “How can I help you, M’sieur?” or just do the traditional lip spurt while holding their hands up, elbows “akimbo” (def: touching their hips - take note Age journalists).

Arles
Our first stop was Arles, en Provence. Picasso was a fan of Arles, probably because of the strong Catalan influence (an influence we spotted in Sardinia). There are Catalan colours in the Provence shield. They also have a strong bull fighting culture with bull fighting bars - showing bull fights on screen – and in the old town the ancient forum is used today for bull fighting.

Arles bullfighting is different from the Spanish style; they don’t kill the bull in the arena but pluck rosettes from its shoulders with pitchforks instead. After THAT they go out the back, kill it and have a steak dinner.

Speaking of famous artists and Arles, there’s a museum to Van Gogh in a former lunatic asylum where he was locked up. I’m not sure how much a mental sanatorium contributed to the career of a painter who ate lead based paints, but years after he was dead and famous, they built a temple to him (just like Jesus and the Romans!).

As a centre for famous artists, there’s a strong arts tradition in Arles, with art shops, art museums and a stack of arty graffiti that would make Banksy proud. But a strong art history also means something else. Retired Americans!

Flocks and flocks of people in their retirement years are lead around ancient sites by people waving hankies in the air, a daytime tourist crowd that disappears at night. There’s a reason older people are drawn to these destinations. They’re sick of doing it tough and just want the highlights. Well, if that’s your taste, you’ll love Arles as it has it all; luxury, taste and ease.


Our Hotel – Le Calandal

Jane did an excellent job as tour guide operator, and booked us into Le Calandal, un hotel connected to a day spa which was based on an ancient Roman bath with modern facilities (wet sauna, massages, giant spa pool, etc.). It was located smack dab in the centre of the old town, and the giant spa looks out on the forum. The pool is just like a James Bond set.

The hotel itself was old with incredibly thick walls; we had a three-foot deep windowsill. It’s a real rabbit warren, a kind of amalgam of different buildings. The corridors are windy, and we had to go up two flights of stairs, round a corner, and down another flight to get to our room, a bit like the University of Melbourne Club (hello Melbs!).

Like the rest of Arles old town, the clientele were predominantly in their seventies, and there for the lymphatic drainage and some wine.

I sat making these notes in our yellow room, the Provencal style window open, listening to children play at a local school (it sounded like a riot going on at the zoo), replaced by somebody very competently busking with a saxophone.

The Calandal has a good restaurant which serves lunch. The menu positioned itself as a macro-biotic-organic restaurant. In the courtyard garden I had the lamb salad (meat too tough, but tasty), a bottle of red, finished with a coffee, Calvados, and a “gourmet café” dessert which included a coffee ice cream, and some various other cakes including a macaroon (a dessert which is WAY to trendy these days by half, a treatise for another entry).

The lunch? A five and a half tentacles out of eight.

Want to see more? Visit:

http://www.lecalendal.com/


Food
There are hundreds of restaurants in Arles. But not THAT many good ones; I recall seeing the word Pizzeria a few too many times for comfort.

Arles is famous for its salt; it’s in close proximity to giant salt farms on marshy land to the west where French cowboys roam (assumedly rustling salt). Gourmet salts are sold profligately everywhere. I wanted some as gifts, but decided to wait till I got to Lyon or Paris. Don’t make the same mistake. It’s most easily found at the source.

So, where else did we eat?


L’Andaluz
A matador themed restaurant, so I chose the steak. The meat was too tough (again); it had been machined, not enough, but was still wonderfully tasty. It came with potato gratin (fantastic), mediterranean veg, and a simple green salad. Jane had a creamy chicken dish, and commented:
‘I should start my own journal and write: “Today I finally got to eat chicken”.’ (…which was all she wrote in her journal on our back packing trip in our twenties).

I couldn’t eat it all, but insisted on a coffee, a pastis (Ricard), and some lovely mini desserts that came as a selection.

Five tentacles out of eight.

http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g187211-d1325866-Reviews-L_Andaluz-Arles_Bouches_du_Rhone_Provence.html



Lou Caleu
We had dinner at Lou Caleau, the most authentic restaurant among a clutch of bistros in an old town back street near a convent, where we talked to two retired Edinburgh teachers for an hour who lolly gagged around after they’d finished dinner to have someone else to talk to.

You get a bit fatigued only having the same person to talk to in your own language, so it must have come as a relief for them to have someone else to talk to (I, of course, always had you, dear reader). They were a nice couple, but again this demonstrates the kind of feel of the whole place.

I had the tourist menu, choosing the bouillabaisse style soup (blended, i.e. without any “chunks” of fish), into which you immersed small pieces of toast with an orange sauce and cheese. This was followed by the best rabbit I ever ate, the usual gratin and mediterranean veg, chased down by a bottle of white wine, then a “Baba” desert swimming in a pool of Grand Marnier with coffee.

A strong six and a half tentacles out of eight.

http://www.provence-hideaway.com/602.html



Petite Dejeuner?
A last note. We went to a creperie as we had a while till the train came to take us to Lyon. The guy behind the counter, when I asked him “ca va?”, shrugged and pointed around him, as if to say, “well, I’m still here”.

I asked him for petite dejeneur.
He was sorry, they didn’t have any croissants.
I asked him if they did crepes?
He asked his wife, who was having a conversation beside the counter to another woman, and she snapped “non”. He replied “in about fifteen minutes”.
How about some coffees then?
He thought about that for a while, and then decided that should be OK.

Phew! They managed to turn away another four tourists while we were there - they have a creperie that doesn’t make crepes opposite the forum. Basille Faughlty? One tentacle out of eight… with a view of the forum.

But hang up your hassles with you hair, my friends, we were heading off to the gastronomic capital of France, if not the planet.

Next episode: Lyon… Maintenant nous parlons, baby!

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Monday, November 21, 2011

Alghero – Something Fishy in the Air! (Hooray!!)
















Alghero! Seat of Catalonian culture in Sardinia, ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ themed lolly shops and an old town for pedestrians only. It’s also home to a massive marina loaded with millionaires’ toys, and features old men gathered in huddles on the broad boardwalks under palm trees doing absolutely nothing but talking.

The Costa Smerelda (Emerald Coast) on the north east coast is the place for the rich and famous (obviously we didn’t go there since we weren’t qualified), whereas Alghero is more the main port historically you needed to invade to take over the entire island.

Located in the north west corner of Sardinia, Alghero is the gateway port to fabulous islands and beaches, and is famed for the seafood which feeds off the constant ring of seaweed that grows outside the town (P-ew!) and may be the basis of the town’s name (Alghero, “the place of algae or seaweed”, don’t ask me what languages, like everywhere in Sardinia, everyone’s been here…).

Shall we take a dip?

I went for a swim on the local city beach a fifteen minute stroll down the road, nice but a bit too sea weedy and loaded with people with dark, tanned skins that looked a bit like handbags. Further up the coast beckon crystal clear waters, while tour boats offer day-long adventures to isolated beaches where you can escape the volleyball and on beach cafes with hire recliners.

The further you go from the old town, the more you run into our old friends “the abandoned properties of Sardinia” – this is a place looking for canny and far sighted investors.

Alghero was also where we found Jane’s much looked for iconic Sardinian chicken crockery and where I bought one of their famous handmade knives which is an absolute demon at slicing salami. Ask me for a demonstration!

The Old Town
A word of warning to those driving to Alghero: if you stay in the old town (recommended), you can’t drive your car in. We got as close to the walking district as we could, and found ourselves driving around in circles down little lanes through wandering herds of tourists with cameras, and driving multiple times past the same old man standing on a corner. With no map of the town, or an address of where we were staying, we parked near the sea and did a wiggly walk into the old town, where I heard the magic words:

“I know this square, I’ve seen it on Google Maps!”

God bless the internet (I never thought I’d write those words)! Then we found the building, and rang the bell!

Our Hotel
No answer. That was a low point. You know when you’re really tired? Like getting off an international plane when you expect there to be a driver to pick you up and they’re not there? It was one of those moments. We had about ten Euros between us, the car was miles away, no phone card, no phone, and no pen to write down the number to have someone come and let us in to our room. If I’d been twenty years younger, I would have collapsed, drunk heavily and then found the nearest backpackers and booked in there.

However, with some basic compass orientation we worked out where the car was, got a parking spot outside the battlement walls (about twenty metres) from where we were staying (despite there being double parked cars everywhere), bought a ticket from a ticket officer to leave the car there all night, got a pen, got the number, found a phone booth, and called “the guy” Giovanni. Giovanni was very slick, with white teeth and brilliantined doormat hair which made me immediately suspicious of Don-Lane-like extra-curricular activities. Ten minutes later we were in, showered and enjoying a glass of wine in what I’d have to say was one of the most excellent B&B’s I’ve ever been to. You can visit it at:

http://www.bblaterrazzasulportoalghero.it/home-en.html

Note: The next morning moving the car I was approached by a suit wearing Italian-speaking Jehovah’s Witness, so it was nice to know we’d finally arrived at an international locale: even the JW’s have got it on the map.


Alghero Cuisine – Seafood Specialities Ahoy!
As a Catalan influenced fishing port - distinct from wider Sardinia with its goats, cheeses, and kidnapping midgets - there are a number of fish dishes specialised to the town. These include:

  • Allada de peix: a red sauce made from tomatoes, garlic, and chilies, cooled and poured over small fried fish.
  • Capunada: a fisherman’s lunch featuring a potato and cucumber salad with softened salted fish and fresh tuna.
  • Cassola de Peix: a local fish soup with fried octopus, dried tomatoes, ground garlic and parsley base to which fish, crabs and whatever else they’ve caught is added. Served with toasted or day old bread soaked in the sauce.
  • Bogamari: local sea urchins, raw with bread and wine or served with pasta.
  • General grilled fish: whole or in steaks.

A Quick Word on Bread at Table with Olive Oil
I like bread. I like Italian and French breads. I like bread on the table while I’m waiting for the waiter (how aptly named) to bring me my food. And I love it with olive oil and some fancy salt on the side to wiggle it in. May I make a note here, if you are similarly inclined, that nowhere in France or Italy, at the high or low-end restaurants we visited, did I have one place serve olive oil with the bread. How disappointing, and a big tick to Melbourne!


Dining
We were in town for only a couple of days, but visited the restaurants recommended to us by Giovanni (always get a local’s advice then follow your nose), who recommended we avoid the port and stick to the old town for food.

Osteria Machiavello
Our first stop was to plunder (“Arrrrrr”) a seafood dinner at ‘Osteria Machiavello’. It was one of the first places I spotted on our walks along the battlement walls next to the sea and I was delighted to hear it recommended to us.

The staff were old school pros, but not chatty and bright – we had a grumpy old guy and a girl who wouldn’t know a joke if it bit her on the bum – but the seafood was excellent with an antipasto misto di mare, featuring most of the dishes listed above, followed by a whole grilled catch of the day which I cleaned myself having watched one of the waiters do it for some Germans at the next table. This was all washed down with a bottle of Sardinian white and coffee and liqueurs – I think Jane had a mirto.

Top marks for food and views, a deduction for stuffy waiters, I give it six and a half tentacles out of eight. There was even a wandering accordionist!

http://www.osteriamacchiavello.it/


Martini con olive?
The next night before dinner we tried to hold off going to a restaurant until a normal time (locals tend not to eat until after nine), so had an aperitif at a small café and read the Italian newspapers: Italy qualified for the European Cup by beating Northern Ireland 3-0 (who said “mi non parla Italiano, e tempo de vai, e questo con trove?”).

I ordered a vodka martini, reminiscing about the excellent one I had in Cagliari. When I asked the man at the bar if he made them, he smiled and said “si, una vodkatini!’ I asked for it “con olive” and it promptly arrived with a peel of lemon in it, with a side order of olives (!), but was excellent in every way.

Posada del Mar
In spite of the time wasting, we were still too early for tea (the worms were biting), so went to eat shortly after eight regardless, ahead of even the German tourists. The shame!

On the Via Roma, the Posada del Mar is, compared to Machiavello, a simple restaurant that still covers the local specialities (e.g. octopus in ink, squid in tomato sauce, etc.) and has a nice local feel inside. I had the pasta with scallops and eggplant, and would have taken the tourist menu, but we would have been there all night.

We found out the name of the home made semolina pasta as made by Angela at the farm stay – Malloreddus (a bit like a semolina gnocchi usually served in a tomato and sausage sauce); which Jane commented was very close to malodorous. At the time I thought she meant it was similar to another Italian word, but it transpired she was referring to an English one, which is often used in relation to yours truly!

Tasty, friendly, not too shabby, I give it a five and a half tentacle squidzy review. Visit it at:
http://www.posadadelmar.it/


Like to find out more?
It’s easy! Literally. They’ve got a magazine guide to Alghero called “easy alghero”. You can check it out online (the English is not as good as in the hard copy) at:

http://www.easyalghero.it/en


Next Stop: Francaise et Arles! May the Francophilia Commence!

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Monday, November 14, 2011

Agriturismi: or How to Get My Goat!


You May recall in our last adventure, we were in Cagliari. This article takes us for a drive up through Sardinia to the mountains and the sea for a stay with goats and farmers while scoffing the local produce.

Before going to Sardinia, Jane did thorough research and wanted a true Sardinian holiday; to stay in the mountains and to look at goats.

Who was I to argue? She was booking the trip and you do get to eat authentic local cuisine, so I was all ears (or should I say “all tongue?”… and enough with the rude comments).

The Italian government has been encouraging farmers to engage in agritourism to develop their tourism industry, and farm stay holidays have become highly popular for those travelling to Italy. My friend Owen (“Hi Owen!”) was staying in Tuscany at a farm two weeks before we left, so if we’ve both been doing it, you know it’s dead-set trendy.

But first we had to get there… cue car hire and several near-death experiences.

Nuraghe Su Nuraxi
On the drive north, we took a detour to see Sardinia’s largest existing Nuragic structure, Nuraghe “Su Nuraxi” – or “Nuraghe of the Nuraghe” (a mix of Italian and Sardinian languages here). I am convinced these ancient monuments are in such terrible repair because farmers and builders in surrounding fields have simply pinched the stone to make walls to hold in goats or to build their terrazzos overlooking the valleys.

Still, you could feel the spirit of the ancient Nuraghic people as we walked around the site: huddled in their giant stone conical tower, defending their well, praying the grain store would hold out until the pillagers grew bored, and picking lice out of their clothes (it wasn’t much of a spirit).

The tour was in Italian, so thank heavens we had our guidebook as well as having previously visited the archaeological museum. I could follow the talk, and I really can’t sprekken Italian (much)!

What You’d Typically Eat…
We had lunch near Su Nuraxi at a restaurant that was full of locals out on a Sunday drive. The building had “pizzeria” written on the roof and a whole page of pizzas listed in the menu, so Jane asked for a pizza. Apparently no pizza was available. Our waitress told us what you’d “typically have”, which is more common in Sardinia than you’d think.

Which leads me to this observation: Instead of a menu being a list of what’s for sale, it’s more a list of what a ristorante can make, or the staff know how to make, some of which may be available – depending on whether they can be bothered, or have the ingredients.

I asked for the tourist menu, which simplified things extraordinarily, but did mean you didn’t get much in the way of trimmings; a salad made of shredded iceberg lettuce only with your osso bucco, and an entrée of fraggole - a simple Sardinian pasta with mushrooms and cheese. Peasant food that was filling, tasty and swelled in your stomach when you drank liquids.

DRIVING AND ARRIVAL
The drive to our agriturismo was breath-taking. “Honestly, Kit?” I hear you think. “Breath taking?” Well, yes. In a number of ways.

First, the hair-pin turns and huge drops over the edge as you drive into the mountains make you gasp. We passed an abandoned silver mine near Montevecchio, with smashed windows and its concrete structures tumbling down the mountain sides, having to drive under its crumbling frame. Breath-taking!

To get to our farm, we also had to drive on narrow roads with Italian drivers coming the other way, then dirt tracks with goats on them, coming over the hills. Breath-taking!

Finally, on arrival, there was a large group of locals leaving a huge Sunday lunch (or collazione Domenica), and our hosts were kind enough to offer us a drink on arrival. I had the aqua vita. Breath-taking!

THE FARM
About a quarter of the way up Sardinia near the west coast, we stayed at Oasi del Cervo (Oasis of the Deer), which is located in the Medio Campidano region. It’s located near the Sardinian town of Montevecchio (the Old Mountain).

Montevecchio, once quite prosperous when the mine was running, has little mining carts and memorabilia out on the street. Now there’s little business, few people, and plenty of abandoned buildings, some of which have the roofs missing. It reminded me of Christchurch (though one twentieth the size); i.e. you can see there was a time when money was pouring in, and then one day the bottom dropped out and people just started leaving buildings empty behind them.

We were the only guests staying at the farm, and had a choice of rooms. We chose one with an authentically “Mediterranean” floral bed spread and amazing views out the window over mountains, rolling valleys, and the sea. We woke to the sound of goat bells going to be milked and the calls of birds, the sunsets fell over the sea, and the air positively smacked of bucolic tranquility.

The farm is home to numerous dogs of all shapes and colours, who are very friendly and accompanied us on walks to look outs. Our hosts, Angela and Giuseppe, were a couple with grown up children. Giuseppe works on the farm while Angela looks after the agristurismo side of things, cooking and cleaning, etc. They were both very welcoming and Angela was the life of the party.

CUCINA DELLA FATTORIA
Angela had done a qualification in baking (or “bake-ology”, I forget which) meaning there were custard doughnuts, tarts, and various other baked goods packing out breakfast and dinner menus.

Dinners were slightly more challenging than breakfasts: with the two of us sitting up at the table with Giuseppe, while Angela cooked in her massive kitchen and came and went with dishes, occasionally popping her head in to watch TV. We struggled through conversation, using Jane’s Italian, mime, and a phone dictionary, which was effective but exhausting.

For dinners we started with an antipasto of vegetables in a light tomato sauce (carrots, peppers, celery), as well as olives, salami, crusty bread and fried eggplant in breadcrumbs that was simply delicious and the winner of the whole meal.

I will be including a recipe for crumbed eggplant with my newspaper article, but the secret is to slice the eggplant very thinly (Angela used a motorised deli slicer), crumb it with egg and bread crumbs (mixed with polenta, pepper and herbs) and fry in olive oil.

The main courses on the first night were a home made semolina pasta with chunks of meat from a wild boar Giuseppe had shot with his 22 calibre rifle, followed by roast piglet with a simple green salad. All washed down with a jug of rough red wine.

The second night’s dinner featured the same entrees, followed by freggola with mushrooms and meat (there is a variant with fish), and finally roast goat, washed down with aqua vita at the end. We were spared a long conversation with Giuseppe as it was action night on television and we sat up and watched Texas Ranger followed by a Steven Segal movie with Italian overdub. Much hilarity ensued after every kiss when I would declaim ‘Non che credo!’ (I don’t believe it). Who says “non habla Italiano”?

BEACHES AND GHOST TOWNS
We drove to the nearby coast while staying at the farm, passing cycling groups and driving across creeks, before arriving at a beach with little cabanas and a hotel built right on the sand called ‘the Dunes’. This is the area where they shot the ‘Black Stallion’, and the coast is very nice – but, coming from Australia, it’s hard to compete. We walked a fair way looking for somewhere safe to swim, since the sand dropped and the waves were closing out where they’d set up the snack shacks and umbrellas. It was extremely hairy; on the west coast there’s nothing between you and Spain, so there was a bit of a swell, but there was an uneven bottom.

Speaking of extremely hairy and uneven bottoms, we walked past a blonde and tanned couple in the nude who smiled at us. We’d accidentally ventured onto the naturists’ beach, and they looked like Adam and Eve on a Metamucil ad. I could just imagine them saying (in German) “I can’t believe I had to go all the way to Sardinia just to be myself” while they enjoyed natural yoghurt and wheat germ for breakfast.

Further down the coast we ran into ghost tourist towns, collections of beautiful buildings that were completely abandoned. We were there on the shoulder season, and it was a Monday, but there was nobody around.

Feeling peckish we headed inland towards larger towns for lunch, but guess what? Everything shuts between 13.30 and 16:30. We drove from town to town, finding shutter after shutter down– restaurants, supermarkets, everything – though the streets still featured mad drivers in small cars and giant busses. On return we told Angela, our host, that everything was shut and she was appalled. Apparently, during the high tourist season, everything is open - but come September, the shutters bang down everywhere but the beach shacks.

The Cucina Score!
So my score on the Oasi del Cervo? For a couple of nights it’s pretty good. Not high food, but authentic, and accompanied by delightful hosts and stunning surrounds. Your diet might become a bit repetitive after a week, and the facilities are pretty basic, but I give it six tentacles out of eight!

To Book Your Holiday

Check out numerous agriturismi at:
http://www.agriturismo.it

Or look up the Oasis of the Deer at:
http://www.agriturismo.it/en/farmhouse/sardinia/medio_campidano/OasidelCervo-1120219/index.html

They also have their own website, but since they’re farmers it’s totally amateur hour and doesn’t tell you anything (and is in Italian)
http://www.oasidelcervo.com


Next episode: Alghero – Coast of the Millionaires!


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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

SARDINIA PART 1 - Cagliari













Sardinia. The cradle of civilization, located at a historical path of intersecting ways. The holiday retreat of Silvio Berlussconi and Johnny Depp, Sardinia is a popular European travel destination. But in Australia the first thing most people ask is “Where is it? Near Sicily?”

Kind of. Take a look at a map of the Mediterranean. Go up and to the left. See the biggest island, right in the middle of the Sea? That’s Sardinia. Once you’ve seen it, you can’t not see it.

Slap dab in the middle of the Mediterranean, close to Africa and most of Western Europe, accessible to the Middle East, Sardinia has an archaeological history that predates the Bronze Age and has the fingerprints of every major culture from the surrounding regions all over it. Civilisations have spanned through the Nuragic people and their stone fortresses (with between 6,500 – 8,000 “nuragi” ruins around the island, depending on who you talk to), up to the Phoenicians, then the Romans (Sardinia was the wheat bowl for ancient Rome), and finally Christian cultures coming through – including a dose of Catalan culture, the Aragons, and let’s not forget the modern Italian twist.

With its location and constant invasion, with locals retreating to the tops of hills and inland, traditional Sardinian food does not feature sardines, despite the name. Sardinia is more known for its goat meat, cheeses, salamis and hard breads (and goat stealing and the occasional kidnapping). The knives of Sardinia are famous: hand made, curved, and folding down into horn handles, they are perfect for slicing salami or killing someone. But that’s all in the past now.




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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Rome... If You Want To!

When it comes to coffee, it seems that Melbourne has overtaken Rome. Kit Fennessy meets RRR’s Johnny Topper in Tridente, where they discuss the finer points of civilization.

Rome!
That eternal city, home to the Trevi fountain, infants suckling at distended wolverine nipples and of course, that most European of all aromas… collapsed sewerage tunnels.

Our room was on the fifth floor overlooking Via Gulius Caesar, and there were plane trees along the wide avenue outside that reminded me of home.

Let’s face it, Melbourne is like Rome in many ways – we both have Italians, coffee, gelati, Catholic churches, plane tress and parks, though Rome might just pip us at the post for archaeological diggings.


I had an appointment to meet our friend Johnny Topper for lunch; a radio announcer from Melbourne who works at Northside Records in Fitzroy. Famous for his significant pauses on ‘New and Groovy’, he’s done the hard yards of the Australian music scene and has played in numerous bands, including the Pete Best Beatles. But when we met him on the Ponte Regina Margherita, he was a changed man, squinting, fumbling in front of him and bumping into things. He’d lost his glasses!

We went for lunch at the Ristorante Enzo, which felt like eating in someone’s lounge room with a lot of men in waist coats topping up your Bisleri. If not the height of culinary excellence, it was at the very least authentically Italian. I had the pasta marinara misto, and as usual it proved the litmus test for all restaurants, which in this case was average. Jane had a pasta with cheese, quite plain and her fantasy food, Topper the risotto con artichokes. The culinary revelation of the meal was the dessert which was a cake dripping in honey, alternate portions stuffed with custard and cherry.

As we reclined over coffees, thoughts turned to our observations of Rome and how it is, and is not, like good old Melbourne town.

CULTURE
Cardinal Sins

When Jane and I arrived at St Peter’s square, or la Piazza de Basillico Pietro, there were queues and police everywhere. Going in the back way, we found they were set up for a Papal mass, and so scored an unexpected audience with the Pope.

Johnny: “Oh man, back in 1983 I was living in Sydney. I couldn’t believe it, I saw the Pope mobile driving through the streets of Sydney after John Paul II’s appearances at Randwick. It was surreal. I’d be coming out of a pub, and there was the pope mobile, driving through the red light district! Two nights in a row!”


For the first time in my life I felt sorry for Cardinals. OK! I know they’re career politicians pushing a conservative agenda, BUT they did have to sit out in the sun, wearing black, waiting for the Pope to come out. Those cardinals had to sit there and bake for around two hours, then watch their boss being cheered as he rolled around the crowd in the Pope-mobile. As the Pope’s head drifted above the crowd, he reminded me of the nun in ‘the Blue Brothers’, the penguin who never seems to walk but just rolls everywhere. The Pope was dressed in white and got to sit in the shade.

Australian politicians take note! Trouble with the back benchers? Time for a public rally. Somewhere really hot.


Public Monumental Phallicism
What is it with the Italians and… enormous columns and obelisks? Everywhere we went there were massive stone erections shooting up into the sky, phallocentrism in its purest form and simpatico with Italian consciousness.

Lift your game Melbourne! With the exception of the Cheese Stick, I cannot think of a single massive pillar erected anywhere in the public forum.


Toilets
Surprisingly, there aren’t enough toilets in Rome, but more than enough churches. I wonder if it’s anything to do with the denial of the physical form and an embrace of the spiritual life that’s lead to this situation? Probably not. Still, you never see any paintings of toilets in heaven at churches… though baptismal fonts are very high profile.

Footpath traders

African men are all over the place standing around with knock off YSL leather handbags at their feet. Elsewhere, people walk around tourist districts trying to flog bubble guns, or flying saucer toys that glow in the dark and shoot up into the air.

Another area we need to improve! We might have the occasional Vietnamese woman sitting on the footpath selling her home made confectionary, but the border line begging that these sales amount to is rarely in evidence. If we just have straight begging, how can we be considered a truly international city?

I didn’t see any gypsies, despite premonitions of babies being thrown at me around the train station, a la circa 1997.

Johnny: “Berlusconi had a real campaign over here. Picked them all up and shipped them out to Romania. That’s why they used to call them Romani gypsies. I think the same thing has happened in France.”


FOOD
The Cost of Food

True of Rome, true of all Italy, and indeed France, I was surprised just how affordable food is there compared to Australia. The most expensive meal we ate on the trip came to 95 Euros, which equates to roughly $150 for a four course dinner for two, including wine in the heart of the tourist district.

In stores the cost of fresh produce was astoundingly cheap, and fresh. Alcohol? Try 17 Euros for a 700 ml bottle of Tanqueray Gin, or should I say around $23 Australian? Your taxes at work.

Crudo vs Caldo
A short note on the lingua franca. I went to a deli where we ordered prosciutto, and caused some confusion. What did we want? Prosciutto crudo or prosciutto caldo? It transpires the Italians call all hams prosciutto, the difference being the crudo (crude or salt cured ham) and caldo, or cooked, which is your more traditional “ham”. We bought both, and with cheese, olives, some bread and the remains of the bottle of chianti it made a stunning lunch.

Drinking in Parks

We walked all over the Villa Borghese, seeing (variously) the old Villa, which is now a museo with a beautiful and productive vegetable garden, caribinari on horse back, the Italian Globe Theatre, and people riding around on four seater bikes and Segues, which was highly reminiscent of ‘Arrested Development’.

We stopped and had a couple of beers in the park at a small garden shed, not as good as the Austrians do it, but pretty good. It occurs to me that there are not many drinking and dining establishments in Melbourne’s park lands, the exceptions being the café beside the Fairy Tree in the Fitzroy Gardens, the Kent Hotel next to a median strip in Carlton, and at a pinch the Sky High Restaurant in Dandenong. Take note Parks Victoria!


Dinner
An excellent dinner near la Plaza Popolo at a small ristorante where I had the grilled fish, a bottle of wine, profilterols and a coffee, and an ameretto. Jane had the pasta matriciana and a salata verde misto. Six tentacles!


Coffee:

‘You know, I’ve been here for three days, and I’ve yet to have a really good coffee,’ Johnny opined as we replaced our cups to their saucers.

And indeed the coffee culture in Europe is a million miles from that of Melbourne. Order a latte, and you’re either corrected into having a cappuccino or presented with a Viennesse style coffee. There’s no such thing as a long black (unless you go to a tourist savvy purveyor of coffee and order a “café Americano”, which is anathema to me). And the espressos can be disappointing.
But like everywhere, quality varies from store to store.

We ambled back towards the Vatican precinct, and found Johnny a coffee shop Jane was fascinated by because of the produti Italiano (little tins of sweets with paintings on them) and signage. The coffee there was heaven, and we left Johnny to find his way back across the river.

But we couldn’t help him, glasses or no. We had a flight to catch…


Next episode: Cagliari!

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