Monthly Archives: December 2008
It’s now a couple of days after Christmas, that day that so many of us dread because of the pressure to buy, to wrap, to send (on time), to give, to receive, to avoid our bank balances and to steel ourselves for potential familial undoing. I am happy to report that, apart from the uphill time I experienced leading up to Christmas, this year the presents seemed to work nicely and all family members were happy. That’s a lot to ask, given that Monsieur and I have three families to visit in total, so thank you to all the Christmas angels for seeing us through.
Until this year, I had always spent Christmas with my family, whilst Monsieur visited his in France, and we’d all get together before and after, but this year Monsieur and I saw everyone as a united front, and while I was explaining New Zealand customs and English traditions to the French in-laws, I thought it might be timely to explain some of my Christmas experiences here in a seasonal post. I know it’s late, but actually, that’s quite typical of me, so we’ll call it part of the 12 days of Christmas, meaning I’m in time for once.
I was born and raised in New Zealand, where it’s midsummer at Christmas. That means lots of greeting cards bearing Santa Claus in fur-trimmed scarlet-red board shorts, riding the surf, and the native pohutukawa, which blossoms red in summer, becoming the national Christmas tree. As a family, we’d try to observe tradition, with turkey or roast chicken and all the accoutrements on the table for a festive lunch, but this was particularly hard work when it was hot outside. That sort of food was intended to warm the frozen on a snowy day, not warm the already sweaty chefs when it was sunbathing weather outside. By the time I was a teenager, we’d dispensed with tradition, choosing instead to pack the sort of picnic that you could feast on all afternoon, taking it to a nearby island and enjoying it with friends between swims and plastic flutes of local bubbly from the chilly bin (a.k.a. cooler) . Now THAT’s what I call Christmas.
When I moved to Australia for a year, I worked on Christmas Day because I thought triple-time was a worthwhile pay-back. My parents came to visit, so we all enjoyed a feet-up Christmas buffet at a stunning hotel. Some people don’t understand this sort of fest, but if you could see the seafood spread, you definitely wouldn’t complain. There were no dishes to worry about and we could wander about Circular Quay in a stomach-satisfied stupour before chilling out for the rest of the holiday. This was yet another good Christmas.
In England, we’ve been restrained by the chilly weather but have also enjoyed many interesting Christmases, especially those with an Armenian family friend who celebrates Christmas Eve with us. Usually, we go to her place, where Christmas crackers are pulled and the cuisine is East-meets-West; layered, creamy salads, beetroot and marinaded fish all feature, and vodka gets us all off to a flying start before moving on to drink the grape and devour the turkey. At least in England, all the Christmas Carols make sense. They talk about the holly and the ivy? Well, there’s holly growing in a hedge just about everywhere.
This year, Monsieur and I celebrated Christmas with my family before the big day, moving across The Channel to France for Christmas Eve. Here, we enjoyed blinis and foie gras, courtesy of Monsieur, with a Magnum of champagne that a certain someone had given me for helping him out with HR advice when he was in the process of losing his job. We dined at a local gastro-pub, where the food paled into insignificance as we laughed from the belly about silly stories from the year now past. Then, in France, Monsieur and I exchanged gifts and enjoyed a multi-course dinner at home with his mother, beneath a Christmas tree and German four-candle display for a familial Christmas Eve, before moving on to visit yet more family on Christmas Day for another feast and more gift-giving. There were no crackers; apparently that’s an Anglo-Saxon tradition. Mind you, I probably wouldn’t have understood the corny jokes had they been in French; they’re bad enough in English. Meanwhile, Jingle Bells played in French on the stereo – the words of which made me smile:
Vive le vent, vive le vent, vive le vent d’hiver… otherwise translated as
Long live the wind, live the wind, live the wind of winter…
(On a cold day, some may disagree with that sentiment, including this Kiwi bird!)
There have been other festive adventures, such as waking up on Christmas Day in Munich, ready to tickle my teenage tastebuds with a Continental breakfast which, although second-nature to me now, was then an exotic treat. All those cheeses and cured meats sliced wafer thin, with some black bread and soupy hot chocolate? I had died and gone to Heaven. Or going to Midnight Mass in Bethlehem, presided over by Archbishop Desmond Tutu? only for my brother and me to be parted from our parents by the crowds, giving Mum and Dad panic attacks on the way back to Jerusalem. Luckily, our buses passed each other en route to the hotel, so we waved at them, calming their fears that they’d lost their kids in the Holy Land.
I hope to spend Christmas in more foreign lands as time goes by because it enriches the experience to learn about how other people spend their holiday.
However, when one supplier called me during the Silly Season, he asked if our Christmas tree was up at work.
But of course! I replied. We may have been busy with moving offices and all that, but we’ve still found time to put up a Christmas tree. What about you? I asked.
We’re not allowed a Christmas tree, he replied. Why on earth not? I asked, only to be told that Christmas trees in his company were seen as potentially offensive to other faiths.
Sadly, it isn’t the first time I’ve heard such rubbish. I embrace other cultures and their holidays as much as my multi-cultural friends and associates do. All I can say to those who might live in a Christian country and who expect us to forget our roots is: how about living and let live? We were Christian before your faiths came here and to many other Christian countries. I wouldn’t expect you to change your ways if I lived in your homeland. How about letting the locals enjoy their own religious festivities, as we allow you to enjoy yours? There are mosques and temples everywhere you look in the UK. It’s such a multi-cultural society that I find it amazing that the religious basis of this country is being severely undermined by the people from other faiths who are welcomed into it. I know that not everyone believes in being P.C. to a fault, but I personally am sick to death of hearing that Christian children should not have a nativity play because they might offend their playmates. Honestly. And we call this season the season of goodwill. How about the goodwill of the incessantly politically correct towards us? End of rant and MERRY CHRISTMAS.
Splendid Becca did the unexpected: this afternoon she sent me a bottle of José Cuervo’s Margaritas with a stunning glass from which to consume this Christmas cocktail. Now, that’s what I call the incentive to drag me out of my pre-Christmas illness wallow-hollow and back into the festive spirit (no pun intended). Then, with superb timing, The Epic Brother called to say he’d be popping by tonight, so I’ll have a Margarita Partner-in-Crime for the tasting session.
The back of the bottle informs me that:
The Margarita Cocktail was created in 1938 in honour of a beautiful Mexican showgirl named Rita de la Rosa. A bartender, inspired by her electrifying performance, improvised a cocktail to capture her heart with Cuervo and the flavour of Mexican limones. Ever since then the Cuervo Margarita continues to capture the hearts of so many around the world.
Well, then. I know what they say about the effects of tequila, and I admit to having had some interesting experiences with it myself, but the question in my head now is whether said bartender succeeded in capturing Rita de la Rosa’s heart with a little help from Señor Cuervo? Intrigued by the tale and being a true Google-r, I visited Wikipedia to find that there are various theories on how the Margarita came about. No news on Rita de la Rosa’s cocktail shaking suitor, but in the end it doesn’t really matter who was first to create this tequila-lover’s staple; thanks to Becca, I have a bottle of Margaritas that’s begging to be opened and poured over ice in a Splendid-ly salt-rimmed glass. That’s far more important.
While I’m waiting for the Epic Brother to arrive, here’s another sort of Margarita to keep you entertained – Margarita Pracatan. In case you weren’t a fan of Clive James’ TV show in nineties’ Britain, Ms Pracatan is a Cuban singer with a boa wardrobe to beat that of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and a delivery that can only be called unique.
PS José Cuervo Margaritas contains José Cuervo Gold Tequila, natural triple sec and lime-flavoured spirit. Heaven help me!
PPS Epic Brother and I have thoroughly enjoyed the Margaritas. Thank you José Cuervo and Merry Christmas!
I’m afraid I have to take a short break from posting. We’re moving offices and I’m one of the team in charge, so that means I’ll be at work all through the weekend and then some. Forgive me. If I had my way, I would be posting every day. In the meantime I have to go to bed because the alarm is set for early tomorrow. Meanwhile, Monsieur is out on the razz with his best mates. I only hope they don’t have TOO much fun!
A comment from Grassroots Gourmet really got me thinking this morning. She wrote that Anthony Bourdain once stated that if he were on Death Row and had to choose his last meal, it would be Osso Bucco. That made me wonder: what would I choose as the last meal of my life? I’m still struggling to find the answer. Fresh sashimi and creamy Veneto cheese clash a bit. I’ll have to come up with a last-meal-menu from one cuisine type and one only.
While I’m pondering what that will comprise, how about telling me what YOU would feast on as your last meal on the planet? I’m intrigued to hear what you all love to eat.
(Photo from Politicook.com. I’m afraid I didn’t have any of my own photos to use and this one shows the bones very well.)
Pat of Singleforareason sent me a link to a poem today. It relates to my Rome-ing in the Rain post, where Monsieur warms up with a hearty Ossobucco (which can be spelled in a number of ways, including Collins’ Osso Buco).
If you enjoy eating, then this poem will bring some beauty and reflection to the everyday things that go on during mealtime.
I love the sound of the bone against the plate
and the fortress-like look of it
lying before me in a moat of risotto,
the meat soft as the leg of an angel
who has lived a purely airborne existence.
And best of all, the secret marrow,
the invaded privacy of the animal
prized out with a knife and swallowed down
with cold, exhilarating wine.
I am swaying now in the hour after dinner,
a citizen tilted back on his chair,
a creature with a full stomach–
something you don’t hear much about in poetry,
that sanctuary of hunger and deprivation.
you know: the driving rain, the boots by the door,
small birds searching for berries in winter.
But tonight, the lion of contentment
has placed a warm heavy paw on my chest,
and I can only close my eyes and listen
to the drums of woe throbbing in the distance
and the sound of my wife’s laughter
on the telephone in the next room,
the woman who cooked the savory osso buco,
who pointed to show the butcher the ones she wanted.
She who talks to her faraway friend
while I linger here at the table
with a hot, companionable cup of tea,
feeling like one of the friendly natives,
a reliable guide, maybe even the chief’s favorite son.
Somewhere, a man is crawling up a rocky hillside
on bleeding knees and palms, an Irish penitent
carrying the stone of the world in his stomach;
and elsewhere people of all nations stare
at one another across a long, empty table.
But here, the candles give off their warm glow,
the same light that Shakespeare and Izaac Walton wrote by,
the light that lit and shadowed the faces of history.
Only now it plays on the blue plates,
the crumpled napkins, the crossed knife and fork.
In a while, one of us will go up to bed
and the other will follow.
Then we will slip below the surface of the night
into miles of water, drifting down and down
to the dark, soundless bottom
until the weight of dreams pulls us lower still,
below the shale and layered rock,
beneath the strata of hunger and pleasure,
into the broken bones of the earth itself,
into the marrow of the only place we know.
The Art of Drowning
**Thank you again to Single for a Reason, for introducing us to this poem, which was found on Break out of the Box.
For the previous post, From Gladiators to Gondolas… click here.
Marcus Agrippa’s Pantheon is a remarkable, cylindrical structure that never dates. Its pediment proudly states: ‘Agrippa me fecit’, or ‘Agrippa made me’, and it’s little wonder that this Roman General had his name emblazoned across this building. Initially constructed in 27AD and rebuilt by Hadrian in the year 120, its bold and innovative design holds an architectural fascination for all who pay homage here.
Inside, the Pantheon’s dome hypnotises with its central eye open to the changing sky. However, when we visited, angry rainclouds were gathering so it was gloomy as we wandered around the interior, visiting the various altars and trying to dodge our fellow tourists with heads thrown back, gazing upward at the floating dome.
It started to pour as we walked away from the Piazza della Rotunda, where the Pantheon stands. This was the perfect time to kill two Roman birds with one stone and shelter in a ristorante over some overdue lunch. Scuttling through a terrace of tables with closed umbrellas, into a room with a rainbow of antipasti displayed in earthenware dishes, we shrugged off our coats and shook the raindrops from our hair. Showing no concern for our dishevelled state, the waiter ushered us to a table in a whitewashed dining room, its walls hung with paintings in all sizes, styles and frames.
At an adjacent table, and American family chatted with their guest, a priest in traditional dog collar. At another, two middle-aged Italian gentlement enjoyed their meals whilst talking animatedly with shrugs and elaborate gestures. When they left, their coats perched on their shoulders in true Godfather fashion, and I smiled at how Italian men can get away with wearing their clothes in ways that would make anyone else in the world look effeminate.
Grissini and aqua minerale con gaz appeared before us as we savoured the menu. Every plate sounded delicious, but in the end we shared a starter plate piled with mixed antipasti: breaded garlic mushrooms, marinated peppers, perfectly deep-fried batons of zucchini and a selection of cured meats. I followed this with a bowl of spaghetti alle vongole, my all-time favourite Italian pasta. To date it has never tasted the same to me outside of Italy. The simplicity of clams in their shells, tossed in white wine, oil and garlic, with a sprinkling of freshly chopped parsley is unbeatable in the opinion of this seafood-lover’s palate. Monsieur tried ossobucco, the literal translation of which is ‘hollow bones’. In spite of its unappetising name, it’s a warming dish of braised veal shanks, served with a gremolata, or parsley, garlic and lemon zest salsa. Most importantly, with the weather fast closing in on us, this meal provided necessary respite and sustenance; prior to this late lunch, all we’d eaten all day was an in-flight snack of heavy brioches stuffed with slabs of cheddar.
Monsieur and I tore ourselves away from the bright restaurant, braving the charcoal afternoon once more. It was now raining heavily and we splashed our way along the cobbles to the Trevi Fountain. This time I didn’t find it necessary to throw a coin over my shoulder into the water to ensure my return to Rome. I’m sure I’ll be back, regardless. Monsieur and I managed some photos of the fountain before scurrying on.
The next stop on the list was the Spanish Steps, but by the time we got there we were soaked and squelching. All we wanted to do was get back to the airport, so we found a cab. So wet were we that when I got our of the taxi at Termini, I left a large puddle of rain on the vinyl seat.
Once back on the train we managed to warm up and catnap and were soon walking through a livelier Fiumicino airport than we’d left behind. “Isn’t it strange how things work out?” I asked Monsieur, “We may have missed an afternoon in Venice, but we gained one in Rome!”
Following the short flight, the plane touched down at Marco Polo Airport. As it was late and the Alilaguna shuttle into Venice proper had ceased operating for the day, we looked for alternative transport. It appeared in the form of the orange number 5 bendy bus, taking visitors via terra firma to Piazzale Roma, the terminus at the edge of Venice where road transport stops and gondolas begin.
It was bitterly cold as we motored along the dark streets and it was thrilling to see snow on the ground. We later learned that snow had even left the mainland to venture into Venice that day. As snowfall is a rare occurrence in la Serenissima, it was a shame to have missed it.
At Piazzale Roma, Monsieur and I walked off the bus and straight onto a departing vaporetto which chugged us a little way along the Grand Canal before turning left onto the Canareggio Canal. We then continued along the dark waterway to the Fondamenta Nuove, the embankment opening onto the lagoon, and our home for the next few days.
En route to the hotel, Monsieur asked me more than once if I was sure that we were headed in the right direction. I understood why, because Venice is a confusion of islands and roads of water, alleys and bridges, so it’s daunting for any first-time visitor, especially in the dark. As the minutes passed and we were still navigating the dark canals, only able to see a blur of lights and outlines of palazzi through the misted up windows, I was almost convinced that we were destined never to reach our destination. It was now late and the effects of a challenging day were beginning to show. I felt like a piece on a giant chess board, watched by mischievous Roman gods who thought nothing of playing with us and laughing at each obstacle placed in our way. This particular piece was about to crack from fatigue, cold and hunger. It was definitely not the manner in which I’d dreamed of introducing Monsieur to my beloved Venice.
As if at a click of the deities’ fingers, our luck changed. We found the right stop, walked off the vaporetto without a splash and found Hotel Vecellio immediately before us. The receptionist commiserated with us about the inconvenience of the transport workers’ strike and mentioned that in Venice, all the vaporetti had stopped between the hours of 12 and 4pm. However, we had a much more important issue on our minds, such as where to eat. The response to our enquiry was somewhat nonchalant. Perhaps we could try the place next door where they might be able to make us a pizza. Then again, it’s quite late so we shouldn’t hold out too much hope. If we found ourselves unlucky next door, there was a pub just over the bridge that should be able to serve us bar snacks. (In case you’re wondering, Hotel Vecellio was a delightful little two star hotel in which to stay, but apart from breakfast, it doesn’t serve food.)
We dumped our bags and walked all of about four metres to the restaurant called Algiubagio. Inside, we were led from an informal bar looking out onto the lagoon into a converted boathouse or barchessa. Wooden floors, red brick and the beamed ceiling all added to the warmth of the space. Combined with simple glass tables and an open kitchen with all the modern fittings, we were pleasantly surprised to find ourselves somewhere a little smarter than the typical red-and-white-checked-tablecloth-with-chianti-bottle-candlestick variety of Italian restaurant. The menu was pure gastro-heaven so in the course of the evening I asked to see it again and again in order to jot down ingredients and recipe ideas in my notebook. Poor Monsieur. He finds these habits of mine rather annoying, but at least I hadn’t started photographing our meals back then!
That night we slip into a deep sleep and I dream. Monsieur and I stand together on the steps of Santa Maria della Salute. It’s 9am. A sign tells us that the doors won’t open until ten. I haven’t yet taken Monsieur to see the Basilica of San Marco, or the Palazzo Ducale. We’ve now run out of time and must leave Venice. Back in London Monsieur’s friends berate him (and me) for not having visited San Marco. I wake up determined to get him there.
I couldn’t believe it when Monsieur confessed he’d never been to Venice. I just about fell out of my (imaginary) gondola, before formulating an emergency itinerary and agreeing travel dates to introduce him to this dreamy city without delay. He needed little persuading. The only problem was that we’d be visiting Venice in winter, so there’d be a lot of fog and bone-chilling damp to deal with. Thankfully, that didn’t deter either one of us.
My love affair with Venice began as a teenager, although my first visit did little to win me over. It was a few days before Christmas and Venice was hiding in that mysterious mist that floats off the lagoon. I wasn’t well, was unimpressed by the glass-pushers of Murano, freezing trips on vaporetti and the desperate waiters hauling us off the embankments to eat bad food in their empty and overpriced establishments. I did, however, love the warming gold mosaic of St Mark’s basilica, and the glass cabinets of wellington boots in our hotel lobby. If only the piazzetta had flooded while we were there! The teenage me thought it would have been huge fun to slosh around in the hotel’s wet weather gear. How times change.
Many years later, I returned to Venice, this time as a museum intern. In those summer months it was hot, I was ravaged by mosquitoes and the canals had a certain whiffiness about them, but still I fell in love with la Serenissima and I’ve never quite recovered.
So it was that on a dark November’s morning, when Monsieur and I uncharacteristically rose BEFORE the sun, we took off for Venice. Or so we thought. This was to be one of those trips where nothing goes to plan.
Firstly, at Heathrow, a massive snake of people and their luggage were waiting to check in. We barely moved in the few minutes we stood in line, so we did the Italian thing and took our bags to the front of the queue, persuading a reluctant check-in clerk to process us so we wouldn’t miss our flight. She didn’t really want to help us, huffing heavily as she tried to turn us away, but the departures board clearly showed that we only had 15 minutes left to complete check in and that wasn’t going to happen if we returned to the queue.
Perhaps because Huffy Clerk hadn’t wanted to deal with queue-jumpers or perhaps because she just wasn’t an early morning person, she seated us separately on the flight. She also checked our bags through to our stopover destination of Rome instead of all the way through to Venice, something we only noticed once we read our boarding passes at the gate, so when we arrived in Rome we had to collect and check in our bags once more. This time, the departures hall was practically empty, so we walked straight up to the check-in counter, only to be informed that there was a nationwide transportation strike that day and our onward flight had been delayed until 6.30 that evening. Our plan to enjoy a leisurely lunch in Venice was history now. We’d have to deposit our bags at left-luggage and find a Plan B.
For some reason, the trains weren’t affected by the strike so Monsieur and I decided to venture into Rome for some afternoon sightseeing. Even this journey, which should have been straightforward, was to prove a challenge. The timetables were constructed of practically indecipherable rows of numbers and the instructions on the ticket machines had been worn away by the many hands before ours. Somehow, we managed, so tickets in hand we boarded the train on the designated platform, heading for Trastevere station near the Vatican.
We weren’t the only people on our train, but the departure time came and went and still we sat there. Knowing that Italian trains are pretty punctual, I started to fret. Ten minutes later, we thought we should go and find out what was going on, but we couldn’t open the doors. We were firmly locked into a train going nowhere. We banged on the doors, trying to raise the attention of the station staff. No response. “I’m going to try the emergency door handle.” Monsieur said, cranking the door open inch by inch until we could squeeze out. We skulked along the platform to check the board again, only to see that our train to Trastevere had departed. There must have been another train ahead of the one we’d boarded. Silly us.
There was another train about to leave for Termini, so we ran to catch it, somewhat concerned that our tickets were for a different station; fines for incorrect tickets in Italy can be steep. Soon we were slumped in a moving carriage, gazing out the windows at the changing scenery, happy to be going somewhere instead of stuck in an airport for the afternoon.
For some minutes the view was uninspiring: boring apartment blocks, dusty roads, giant weeds flourishing in abundance beside the tracks… But how I loved the Italian trees we were passing. They seem to grow the longest trunks before sprouting green in a floret at the top. They look old. Even the inverted cone of a cypress imbues one with a sense of the ancient Mediterranean. Here and there at the backs of crumbling little buildings were vegetable patches with rows of mammoth red cabbages and green leaves sprouting out of the earth indicating something buried beneath. Potatoes, perhaps, for hearty homemade gnocchi? My mind quickly filled with thoughts of Italian food.
At long last, we made it to Termini and made our way to the lively Via Cavour, passing a pizzeria where the tantalising scent of fresh dough, basil and garlic wafted in our direction. All around us, the buildings and their dirt, peeling paint and crumbling corners surprised Monsieur, just as they always surprise me; somehow, these old cities inspire thoughts of perfection, not decay.
We passed the white edifice of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the four Roman cathedrals, before spying a man in a gladiator’s costume walking along the other side of the street. Then Monsieur pointed out a place called Bar Venezia “We can always go there if we don’t make it to Venice,” he quipped. How to explain that to our friends? “We thought we were going to Venice but ended up stranded in Rome, eating tiramisu in a bar called Venice which was just as exciting but without the gondolas.” At the rate we were going it was certainly an option.
At the end of the Via Cavour we saw the first signs of the ruins of the Roman Forum. It’s incredible to walk through a functioning city, surrounded by cars and electric signs and traffic lights and other moden amenities, only to be confronted by a building that has stood on that exact spot for many hundreds of years. It’s quite wonderful how the Romans have preserved their past by incorporating it into the present and even more interesting from the point of view of a New Zealander; in my young homeland, the landmarks that have stood in situ for more than a couple of hundred years are invariably natural.
Monsieur had never been to Rome before, so he naturally wanted to see the Colosseum. I knew we were nearby, but wasn’t sure which direction to take. Then I spotted a group of policemen standing yacking in the middle of the traffic, and was just about to go and ask them the way when I turned my head to find it staring me right in the face. “Thank heavens, ” I muttered, ” can you imagine how stupid it would have looked for me to ask directions when the Colosseum is standing right behind me?” I was relieved to have saved myself from merciless Italian teasing.
We walked towards the world’s most famous gladiator ring, pausing to photograph a street performer dressed entirely in gold with a turban and gold-painted skin, before attempting to cross the Roman traffic. Luckily, we were still in practice from a recent visit to Naples, so we walked boldly into the road, trusting the speeding Fiats and mopeds to swerve around us. It worked. We made it to the other side.
The Colosseum was surrounded by hordes of tourists waiting to enter the site, kitsch souvenir stalls weighed down with reproductions of Michelangelo’s David (somewhat out of place as he’s Florentine), ponies and carts ready to trot willing visitors around town and several men dressed as gladiators, commanding €5.00 for the privilege of posing for a photo with you. I was slightly underwhelmed by the state of their costumes, which were faded and tatty-looking, but may have considered having my photo taken with one of these Romans if they’d looked more convincing or resembled Russell Crowe. One ‘gladiator’ stood in his helmet and robe, puffing away on a cigarette, somewhat ruining the effect, and my interest turned back to the arched structure which had been the venue for the sport of persecuting Christians by throwing them to starving lions. It’s hard to imagine such atrocities, especially as the feline representatives seen lurking in the Colosseum nowadays amount to mangy feral cats, and Christian worship has been legal in Italy for so many centuries that the seat of the Roman Catholic Church is just across the Tiber in the Vatican.
There wasn’t enough time to wait for a ticket to enter the world-famous site if we were to see more of Rome, so we walked past a straight Roman road leading into the Forum to try and find a taxi. I couldn’t remember whether a vacant taxi had its light on or off, so we simply waved hopefully at every cab until one stopped. This time we were off to see the Pantheon.
Next in series…click here.
It isn’t often that I find a book that makes me want to read it twice in three months, but I should have known from the review that I’d want to immediately re-read Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl:
“GARLIC AND SAPPHIRES is Ruth Reichl’s delicious and mischievous account of her time spent as an undercover restaurant critic. Reichl knows that to be a good critic you have to be anonymous. When she lands the much coveted job of the NEW YORK TIMES restaurant critic, she resorts to disguise in order to avoid the inevitable red carpet treatment.”
Have you ever heard of anything so unusual? A restaurant critic dining in disguise, then writing about her experiences as various alter egos? I love reading about food; that’s a given. But what makes this book really special is how Reichl’s disguises take her on an unexpected journey to discover aspects of herself that she hadn’t been aware of previously. We’re not talking big hat and dark glasses here; Reichl (pronounced ‘Rye-shul’)develops astoundingly three-dimensional characters, adjusting hair, make-up, style and personality to suit each. In the course of the book we meet a frumpy old lady, a come-hither siren, an elegant hippy whom everyone adores and the invisible woman. A huge amount of effort goes into pulling off each of these new personae, but it works, and Reichl successfully avoids being spotted as she gets around the Manhattan dining scene. Sometimes, in the course of her research, Reichl visits a single restaurant multiple times, as both herself and as one of her other selves (not at the same time!), allowing insightful comparisons between how she is treated depending on which of her personalities dines there. Needless to say, the resulting reviews were the subject of some controversy, especially when revered establishments lost a New York Times star or two because they treated the alter ego badly. This is a veritable rollick through gastronomic Manhattan – so much fun!
As a result of so thoroughly enjoying Garlic and Sapphires, I’ve now placed Reichl’s other culinary memoirs, Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me with Apples on my New Year’s reading list. These follow Reichl’s evolution from a New York childhood, through college at Berkeley and on to her career as a food critic. I’m also having fun devouring the odd copy of the magazine food-fest that Reichl edits, Gourmet, which is always crammed with fantastic recipes and inspiration. Check out Reichl’s pumpkin fondue recipe for some truly warming kitchen inspiration. (This said as it approaches 3pm in London, with the light fast disappearing and a particularly chilly office because the boilers failed – again - this morning.)