Monthly Archives: May 2009
Landing at Palermo airport is not for those who’ve failed a fear of flying course. The runway is bordered by the sea, and the final descent goes something like this: fly along a bit, drop a bit, along a bit, PLUMMET, bump, bump, reverse thrust and breeeeeeathe. It’s the PLUMMET part which feels truly life-threatening, especially as the passenger’s eye view makes you think that you’re going to miss the runway and fall splat into the water below. Even I, who’ve been flying since I was five, found myself white-knuckled and promising all sorts of good acts to the Virgin Mary and Archangel Michael when Monsieur and I flew to Sicily for a New Year’s break.
The adventures which taunt us on every trip commenced immediately. Monsieur goes to fetch rental car. I wait for our bags at the caroussel. Monsieur’s bag appears immediately. Mine does not. After watching an empty caroussel go around and around and around for some time, I finally snap out of denial and go to find out if my suitcase is lost. Luckily, it just ended up on another caroussel from somewhere else in mainland Europe (I think it was Munich, OBviously). Then, all bags retrieved, Monsieur collects me in a cappuccino-coloured Lancia with a temperamental gearbox that switches between automatic and manual at will. And so, stop-start, we set off for Palermo.
Following our Michelin instructions from the airport to the hotel seemed straightforward enough at the start of the drive into Palermo proper, but once we’d left the autostrada, the instructions malfunctioned. Italian traffic can be unpredictable. Sicilian traffic is a bit worse again, added to which the one-way systems and bus lanes and squares and a general lack of geometry to the town planning meant that we were soon lost. Even when we found ourselves NEAR the hotel, we couldn’t reach it because we’d invariably be at the wrong end of one street after another marked Senso Unico (one way). So close and yet so far and very, very hungry.
Having snailed around in circles for a Sicilian age we finally found a successful approach to the Grand Hotel et des Palmes, one of Palermo’s historic hotels, parking in a bay at the front with a tandem sigh of relief. But this is Italy, remember; things are never straightforward.
“You cannot leave your car there,” said the Adonis-like check-in clerk with a frown. Farts. We’d been afraid of that.
“Does the hotel have parking, then?” we asked,
“Oh, yes. The hotel have parking but eet eez not open now. Eet open at 4pm and close at 8pm so eef you want leave car all night, hotel parking eez fine.”
“So where can we park now?” It was barely 2pm. “Can’t we just leave the car at the front until 4pm?”
“Unfortunately, no.” this Adonis could win an Oscar in regretful eye-batting.
“You can leave thee car on thee street, and you pay for thee teeket at thee Tabacchi.” Adonis pulled out a map of the area and started marking tabacconist shops for us. “and for later, here eez thee parking.” A nice, big cross marked the location of the parking building a good 15 minutes walk away. And it had a curfew. If the car wasn’t parked up by 8pm, we were on the street.
The mere theory of arranging parking worked up our already large appetites, but first we had to drop off our things at the room. We followed a greying porter bedecked in a braid-laden uniform, into a lift that was fine for two people but a little cramped with three of us and two suitcases, and up to the second floor. There, my heart sank. The carpet was tatty, the walls were peeling, the naked ends of cables hung in knots in dark ceiling corners. We’d read on Tripadvisor that the hotel was in the process of being refurbished, so I just hoped they hadn’t stuck us in one of the older rooms which had inspired unfavourable reports. Then we rounded a corner and the wallpaper was fresh, the door finishes smooth and creamy, the light fittings bright with polish and the walls hung with attractive antique prints of Sicilian scenes. Relief. Now we could eat.
It was well past 2pm, the time when most Italian eateries stop serving lunch. Meanwhile, from 4am to now Monsieur and I had existed on no more than a small in-flight snack sandwich each and a small pack of crackers. Famished only begins to describe it. Back in the cappuccino-wagon, our first task was to find somewhere to park it until the parcheggio opened at 4pm. Eventually we found a spot near the Teatro Politeama Garibaldi, dangerously close to McDonald’s. In fact, we were so incredibly hungry that Monsieur tried to insist that we grab a burger because all the restaurants had already closed. May I add that the whole time I’ve known Monsieur I’ve never yet seen him eat McDonald’s, so this might indicate just how desperate we were for food. Luckily, instead of chowing down on a universal burger in Italy, home to such incredible food, we found a pasticceria that was open and serving snacks. There we inhaled squares of doughy pizza, mine with potato and pancetta; Monsieur’s with pepperoni, and at long last we felt human again.
There was still space in our stomachs for a cheeky treat on the way out, so we bought two cannoli from the sweet pastry counter. May I admit here with red face that I’d never, ever had one before? I’d seen them, heard people compare them, read about them but I’d never yet tried one. Out came the camera to document this historic occasion, as poor Monsieur groaned with embarrassment and moved away from the mad food photographer, but this is one photo I’m thrilled to have taken. The cannoli shell was crisp and sweet, lined with chocolate and filled with creamy, sweet ricotta. The first mouthful was one hundred per cent Heaven. There and then I began to understand why so many people love that Godfather quote: “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” Only we’d left the car, instead.
It’s always a relief to me when Christmas is over. Following all the over-eating, excitable families, pressure to spend, emotional blackmail to eat more, stay longer and be energetic, happy beings, in spite of any work-related year-end exhaustion, I find myself in desperate need of escape. Forget peace on earth and goodwill to men. Few people seem to remember the true meaning of Christmas. Take last Christmas, for instance, when Israel was wreaking havoc in Gaza. There was nothing peaceful about that. Extremist factions around the world favour Christmas as a great time to try to blow things up, and on Boxing Day 2004, a tsunami swept through southern Asia, killing over 200,000 people in 13 countries, so forgive me if peace is the last thing I relate with Christmas these days.
On reflection, 2008 was turbulent. A memorable year for all the wrong reasons, it had been a rollercoaster ride from start to finish and not in a good way; it was more akin to Expedition Ge Force than It’s a Small World. So, to recharge, Monsieur and I booked an end-of-year trip to Sicily (once we’d fulfilled all family obligations and celebrated Christmas not once, not twice, but three times over).
I hadn’t set foot on the island off ‘The Boot’ since I was a student in quite a different life. On that first trip, many of our group had been suffering from a nasty virus and I therefore coughed and sniffed my way around Sicily in a somewhat depleted state. This time I was determined to squeeze the most into and out of our New Year’s adventure, especially as Sicily was unbroken ground for my compadre, Monsieur.
The departure routine was the same as for most of our travels: washing and packing like laundry obsessives, to bed later than hoped, waking in the dark, groaning our way into readiness and repeatedly checking our bags for passport and ticket reference numbers in Frequent Traveller’s O.C.D.
For these and other travel prep reasons, I find it’s a blessed relief to reach the air-side part of any airport terminal, especially as you never know whether security will ask you to remove boots, shoes, belt, jacket or hat (I always wear a little Phillip Treacy fascinator for travel, daaahling), or whether they’ll confiscate your perfume or evian from carry-on luggage, lest you turn it into an incendiary device and blow up the plane. (It would seem the instructions for making such things are on the internet somewhere – God bless Google.) Whilst we’re on the subject of confiscated items, have you ever wondered where those clear plastic bags of illegal on-board items end up? I imagine the guards split the take at the end of the day “there you go, Bob, you said you needed a new deodorant. Eileen, you like Number 5, right? Who needs toothpaste? Full tube, whitening… Old Spice anyone?”
On the particular morning that we set off for Sicily, Monsieur and I were both in need of books, so we found a bookshop, stood in front of shelves of what’s deemed as good holiday reading and yawned. Chick lit… murder mystery… murder mystery… Danielle Steele… more chick lit… footballer ‘auto’-biography. It seemed we’d read all the decent titles and neither of us was in the mood for tales of unrequited office crushes or dismembered bodies floating in the Thames. Dismembered bodies in Sicily, however, were another matter entirely.
And so, with that in mind I walked towards the plane with the sort of book I never, ever buy, wondering if I’d just thrown a handful of (devaluing) pounds down the Drain of Mistaken Purchases. As I burned my mouth on too-hot coffee in the departures lounge, out of the hand-luggage it came: The Last Godfathers, by John Follain. At the very least, the book had pictures. That was a start. Turning to the black and white collection of images, I looked hard into the faces of the men who’ve tortured, maimed, murdered and terrorised so many good Sicilian folk. They could have been anyone; there was nothing remarkable or particularly violent-looking about any of them. Food for thought. In the name of better understanding our destination, it was time to find out what this whole Sicilian Mafia thing was about, so I started to read. By the time we reached Sicily, via Milan, I was hooked. Little did Monsieur know that his one-time peace-loving fiancée would soon be recounting tales of disappearances and body disposal, peppered with details of why you have to be strong to garrotte someone and what sort of acid is best for dissolving human bodies. Needless to say, many of these revelations took place at mealtimes for maximum effect.
Wherever we went in Sicily, we saw people and situations that smacked of a Sopranos-on-location episode: grey-haired men with cashmere coats slung across their shoulders, flanked by ginormous muscle-men in suits with mirrored glasses as they ambled about in the New Year sun… there were plenty of such stereotypes about, looking like they’d just walked off the set for The Godfather Part 7, but perhaps Monsieur and I possess over-active imaginations and we were just observing double-glazing magnates enjoying a stroll with their beloved nephews. I leave it to you to decide.
One thing did take my breath away, however. As I sat watching Italian breakfast news one morning, I learned that one of the most notorious of Corleone’s godfathers, a man named Salvatore Riina, had not one but several Facebook sites in his name and other godfathers were being ‘honoured’ (if you can call it that) in the same social networking fashion. The pages were apparently set up by fans (Fans? These people have fans?) eliciting support for the release of Riina and his cohorts from prison where they’re serving life sentences for inconceivable crimes in both method and number. The Italian outcry had begun and soon spread to Facebook’s headquarters, where it caused great argument because Facebook says it doesn’t want to be responsible for censorship. The victims of such men do not agree. They view this stance as support of evil in our midst. Will we next see the godfathers blogging from their cells? Or should such rights be denied prisoners? The questions, the questions. Out of interest, if you stumbled across a Mafioso blog, would you dare post a comment? If so, what ever would you say? Well, I don’t know about you, but suddenly, I find myself in the grip of blogger’s block, quite, quite at a loss for words.
As for visiting Mafiosi on Facebook, well, what do you do to get a godfather’s attention, exactly? Poke him? Somehow that seems wrong. What are my chances of making it to the next birthday if I throw a sheep, instead? Or send tropical fish for the Don’s aquarium, or a round of pangalactic gargleblasters? Pass to all. I think I’ll just play the Facebook app called Mafia Wars, where I’m known as Don Epicurienne. Far safer.
When I was about eleven, I started home ec classes at school. My classmates and I then spent the next two years fighting over ingredients in these core classes as we perfected the mangling of simple dishes such as scrambled eggs and kedgeree. The worst part of these classes, however, was post-cooking when we had to sit and EAT what we’d just burned, undercooked or over-salted. At this key time in my culinary development I learned precisely how not to cook in class; conversely I learned how better to cook at home, where I’d help in the kitchen and sit with my mother in front of afternoon TV shows of Julia Child slamming food around her studio kitchen amidst what could only be described as a slightly awkward, inelegant presentation. Part of me loved watching her infectious passion for food and admired the results, wishing she could visit our dated home ec kitchen to inspire our prematurely-jaded attempts at food preparation; another part of me sat glued to the set in awe of the hulking woman who obviously knew her onions when it came to food, but whose booming voice and giant stature were more than a little intimidating. In case you need reminding, here’s a clip of La Child in action:
Cue a bout of Julia Child amnesia, until last year, when I bought Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France, written in conjunction with her great nephew, Alex Prud’homme. I’m embarrassed to say that it sat in my ‘to read’ pile for some time until recently, when I quite literally devoured it. Once more, I was mesmerised by this towering doyenne of cuisine as I learned that there was so much more to her own personal history than is first apparent when you think of an acclaimed author of cookbooks. For a start, she wasn’t born with a wooden spoon in her hand, nor could she bake soufflés before she could walk. Au contraire; Julia Child didn’t start cooking until she was 37 years old, when she moved to post-war France with her adored husband Paul. Once there, her love of eating and a fascination with French food led her to the Cordon Bleu school, where she studied food and its preparation. Julia also spent time getting to know the local market vendors, finding the best produce, learning French and experimenting in her own kitchen in an odd apartment on the ‘rue de Loo’, as she called the rue de l’Université. On top of all of the above, the tireless Julia somehow found the time to socialise with Paris-based foodies. She taught, gave dinner parties, helped a couple of new friends with their attempt at ‘cookbookery’, and it is this latter activity that eventually developed into Child’s weighty mega-oeuvre, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961), which brought truly French methods and cuisine into the American kitchen and subsequently revolutionised many kitchens all around the world.
This new-found passion for French cuisine changed Julia’s life, but not without hard graft did she become a published household name with her own TV show. I dare not give too much away, as this book is filled with such characters and surprises and inside knowledge of famous restaurants, critics and foods (I yelped with delight at the part where she visits the original Poilâne bakery in the name of breadmaking research) that it demands a reader’s first-hand attention, rather than a second-hand account. However, to whet your appetite, I will say that the complex politics of the time does not escape mention and honest accounts of strain on a workaholic’s interpersonal relationships, a quite unexpected picture of Julia in the bath with her husband and the down-to-earth description of universal frustrations and disappointments can only add to the admiration which Julia fans will feel on reading what she referred to as ‘The French Book’.
My Life in France was the sort of book that pained me to finish. There was only one thing to be done: I’d been bitten by the bug and now simply had to read more Julia. So, as you do, I popped onto Amazon, where Julie and Julia – My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell came to my attention. I’d heard of it; in fact, one of my grub-loving friends had recommended it to me; I just hadn’t bought it yet. One click later and the book was delivered to me at the end of last week, just in time for the May Bank Holiday weekend – a blissful three days of Nothing Planned. Julie and Julia arrived with impeccable timing because on commencing to read this book I experienced the startling result of waking up well before I would normally have roused myself on a long weekend. Why? To read The Book, of course, and for once I’m not complaining about waking early. Not at all.
So, every morning for the past three days, as Monsieur slumbered on next to me, my first waking thought was “I wonder what Julie does next?” as I grabbed the book and read as quietly as possible so that Monsieur wouldn’t wake up and disturb this precious reading time. You see, this Julie Powell person had decided on a whim to cook every single one of the 524 recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a mere 365 days. AND she had a full-time job, AND a tiny kitchen AND lived in Long Island City, which isn’t the best place to find some of the more unusual ingredients commanded by such recipes. To call this book entertaining is quite the culinary understatement. Refreshingly, there’s zero pretension. If the aspic doesn’t set or if murdering lobsters keeps Powell awake at night, we hear about it. Some recipes work, others don’t, and at times Powell enlists a search party to track down some strange foodstuff or other. Oh my Heavens, how I am loving this book, right down to the plumbing issues and day job and the strain that an obsession with cooking can place on a relationship.
As veteran Googlers tend to do, I’ve also spent some time reading the Julie and Julia Project blog, which is the unwitting inspiration for the book. There’s also the current Julie Powell blog to salivate over and on You Tube, there’s a trailer for THE FILM (see end of post), starring none other than Meryl Streep as Julia Child and Amy Adams as frustrated cooking-by-night-to-save-own-sanity government agency temp, Julie Powell. Now we just have to wait until it’s released on 7 August (I’m counting the days and if you know someone who can donate preview tickets to this particularly enthusiastic fan, then please please pretty please would you let me know?).
Believe it or not, you can also follow @Julia_Child on Twitter, only it’s not REALLY Julia (unless there’s a new app allowing us to tweet from beyond the grave), because she passed away in 2004, aged an astonishing 91. Following this sad date on the Child fan’s calenday, The Smithsonian was lucky enough to be given her kitchen, copper pans, units, books ‘n’ all and it’s now a crowd-drawing exhibit. (The Smithsonian has been added to my Bucket List. )
So, to sum up, unless I’m mistaken, it would seem that we’re in a mid-Julia Child revival and we just might have former government drone, Julie Powell to thank for that. Personally, I love the fact that courtesy of Powell I’ve now learned what a gimlet is and have added kattywhompus to my vocabulary.
In the meantime, here’s the trailer for the film of Julie and Julia:
On Tuesday night there was another of our Bloggers’ Meetups, this time at the Silk Route-inspired Shish bar and restaurant in trendy Hoxton. This meant quite a trek from one side of London to the other following a hard day’s work, but it helped that the sun was shining and the tubes were all working. For once. Hallelujah to The God of Small Things.
Before long Epic Brother and I were downstairs at Shish, being greeted by Fashion Targets Breast Cancer reps who gave us smart little target badges, a couple of little target drinks vouchers and credit card-sized USB cards. PR Krista, who later made a presentation about the launch of the charity’s first online campaign, encouraged us to enter the evening’s raffle for target tee shirts. In case you’re wondering why it’s target this and target that, the target is the FTBC charity emblem so we saw quite a few of them in the course of the evening.
It was great to catch up with Splendid Chris and Formerly-of-Splendid Rax, who’s now enjoying a solo venture in PR, in between bites of gherkins and marmite on toast. Lolly and I ranted about the high cost of utilities mid-Credit Crunch and we chatted with Florentine Barbara about wine tastings and Italy, Photographer Peter who was quintuply booked up so had to leave early to attend his other four engagements of the evening, but not before enjoying the fruits of his drink vouchers. We even discussed creativity with newer meetup member, Creativity Consultant, Gregg Fraley. You can buy his book on creativity here.
Perched on a poof in the dim bar with North African-style lanterns swaying from the ceiling, I nagged Post It Note Politico Chris into writing a new book; so much so that the next time he sees me he’ll probably hide under a bus, moving or otherwise. Chris’s girlfriend, Nina, is working on a website promoting tourism in Mozambique, adding yet more diverse flavour to the evening’s conversation. Checking out one of the many charity fliers dotted about the place, Nina and I decided we liked the target tee shirts. They don’t look like the sort of tops you’d buy in the knowledge that 30% of the sale revenue is headed directly for a charity. Made by fashion retailers such as Top Shop, Warehouse, Marks & Sparks and River Island, the styles are current and perfectly wearable. Little did I realise how important that was to be later.
PR Krista took to the floor with great aplomb, explaining the story behind Fashion Targets Breast Cancer. It was established in 1994 by Ralph Lauren, who had lost his friend, Washington Post columnist, Nina Hyde to the dreaded disease. Hyde’s dying wish had been that Lauren should use his influence in the world of fashion to raise money for breast cancer research, campaigning and education. He kept his promise and the charity reached the UK’s shores in 1996. We heard about the importance of online outreach for charities such as FTBC, and interactive attention-grabbers, such as FTBC’s Million Model Catwalk, a site where you can put yourself on a catwalk with your favourite model/s and check out the latest in FTBC’s fashionable merchandise.
Following further discussion on how the blogging community can raise charity awareness, PR Krista presented a prize to a blogger called Derry who’d stated in 100 words or less the answer to:
Why should charities use online communications to support their cause?
His winning reply employed a quote by cultural anthropologist, Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Krista and the FTBC team, who’d deliberated over which entrant should win, says that this statement “can be applied to both charities and to online groups such as bloggers.”
Derry took home the prize of a £100.00 shopping voucher kindly donated by FTBC partner, Marks & Spencer. Hopefully he’ll spend it on target merchandise for all his friends!
Next, the raffle was drawn (cue drum roll) and much to Andy Bargery’s dismay, my name was the tenth and final one out of the hat so I subsequently went home with a snazzy FTBC target tee from Top Shop. Later, when Andy told me he couldn’t believe my luck with meetup competitions, I said “I don’t know what’s going on. I never used to win anything before I joined this meetup group. Now it seems like I’m on a winning streak!” Long may that last.
A press release from Fashion Targets Breast Cancer states the following:
- Nearly 46,000 women and around 300 men are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the UK.
- Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the UK and 1 in 9 women in the UK will develop breast cancer at some point in their lifetime.
- More women than ever in the UK are surviving breast cancer thanks to better awareness, better screening and better treatments.
The last statement is particularly pertinent to me as I know two breast cancer survivors, one of whom has lovelier hair now than before she lost it through chemo, and for whom a subsequent breast reconstruction has been so successful that she is known to grab a hand and say “feel”, because she’s so proud of how natural she feels and looks following such a long and painful ordeal. I take my hat off to her, and to all such brave fighters of cancer, be it breast or otherwise. Their inner steel is awesome in the truest sense of the word.
For further information on how to support the Fashion Targets Breast Cancer cause, check out the relevant links below.
Ralph Lauren – this is one seriously gorgeous site. Even if you’re not a clothes horse, take a peek!
Million Model Catwalk - this is where you can buy FTBC merchandise and put yourself on the catwalk with your favourite models.