Monthly Archives: May 2011
If there’s one thing destined to fill me with frissons of gastronomic excitement, it’s the way the French present their food. It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s in a market or a supermarket or a bakery window, the presentation of food is creative and often so decorative that you might think twice about ruining the artistry by eating it.
To exemplify what I’ve said above, here’s a very special Salmon en Croute that my Belle-Mère (mother-in-law) served to us at Christmas:
Now let’s compare it to the version we get at Mark’s and Spencer:
Both versions taste great, but the pastry fish wins it in the presentation stakes for me. So on this occasion the score is France 1 – England 0.
Picture the scene: it’s late morning at Sardinia’s Cagliari Elmas airport. Monsieur and I have been awake since dawn but haven’t had time for breakfast. The low-cost airline has high-cost sandwiches which we avoid, mostly because they already look curled and cardboardy, and the coffee looks like something that might spurt out of a long-disused farmhouse tap. Monsieur and I are not the types to eat for the sake of it so we wave the snacks trolley past. Besides, we figure that abstinence now will soon enough be rewarded when we lunch on some fine Italian food.
As the aircraft doors opened to a rush of warm, Sardinian air, Monsieur and I were raring to go. That morning, we’d left the spring morning chill of Luton to fly into the deep blue hanging above this craggy isle. We decided to forget hotels for now; they’re for sleeping. Our feet had different priorities: they were itching to reach sand and saltwater.
First, we picked up the hire car, which wasn’t the convertible Monsieur had booked - the previous renter had decided to abscond with it for an extra day and there weren’t any others available. We might have been miffed, but for two things: 1. only the most unreasonable of folk wouldn’t get the temptation to Just Stay One More Day - Sardinian weather in May is glorious; and 2. the alternative on offer was a brand new Fiat 500. Personally, I preferred it to the convertible; it had iconic value and would protect me from being flattened by wind and bugs as Monsieur zoomed along the autostrade.
We sped away from the airport, past mud flats studded with the pale pink of flamingo, to the southern Sardinian coast. There, the road led us to a small town near the beach – formed of clusters of small, stuccoed buildings radiating out from a modern piazza. Everything testified to sensitive yet sensible town-planning, the shops and eateries all freshly painted in the sort of ice cream pastels that made me long for a gelato to drip down my hand. For that, however, I would have to wait a little longer.
On opening the doors of our little ‘bambino’, the heat rushed at us like a blast from the oven. It was more than just warm – you could easily have fried a couple of eggs in less than a minute on the scorching asphalt street. Feeling the sting of the sun on our winter-bleached skin, we sought out somewhere shady to lunch, settling on a buffet restaurant called Su Nuraghe. The restaurant is named after the strange megalithic buildings (nuraghe) that look like stone beehives, marking the Sardinian landscape and now quite the unofficial symbol of Sardinia itself. We found a table in the shade, then ventured inside to order. The interior was cool and practical -sparkling laminate floor, glass and chrome counters, simple tables and chairs. There were no grubby fingernails here.
We ordered lots of good, sparkling Sardinian water and plates of seafood salad to start.
Mussels and crabsticks made an appearance in this simple dish, but fortunately for this lover of octopodes, there was a surfeit of eight-legged sea creature before me. I do so relish the cool, fresh flesh of an octopus, served in the merest drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice.
Next came plates of one of Italy’s simplest seaside pasta dishes – spaghetti tossed with olive oil and fresh sea urchin. The precious orange roe had a delightfully slippery texture and tasted like Neptune’s version of marshmallow – capturing all at once the taste of sea air on the tongue and combining it with a unique, briney sweetness. This was exactly the sort of food Monsieur and I had anticipated. Our morning’s patience had certainly been rewarded.
Before heading off to the beach, we stopped at a gelateria for a refreshing treat. I was interested to note the existence of soya milk-based gelato on their menu, which is a boon for anyone with lactose intolerance! Tempted though I was to taste-test it, today I stuck to my favourite flavours: cocco, stracciatella e banana. I’ll never be size zero at this rate and, in this world of superficiality, I admit that such a thing doesn’t even approach making it onto my bucket list. Truth be told, I’m probably not the norm in this respect. I’d much rather meet my Maker with a stomachful of flavour and the memory of a good old slap-up lunch than arrive at the Pearly Gates regretting the fact that diet coke and a lettuce leaf (hold the dressing) had been my death row meal. As Fellini once put it: “Life is a combination of magic and pasta,” and if you could add the freshest seafood salad and quality gelato to that combination, you’d have a lunch that I’d be happy to enjoy as my last.
If UK citizens are honest, they’ll ‘fess up to the fact that although the recent Royal Wedding provided some necessary uplift of spirits in the land, the best part of it was not Pippa Middleton’s derrière (no matter how pert), but the national Royal Wedding holiday that was bestowed on we lowly subjects of HM the Queen.
It meant that between Easter and the first May Bank Holiday, if said subjects took just three days of annual leave, we could enjoy a whopping break of 11 days away from work. Monsieur and I took full advantage of this, having had a pretty rough year to date, enjoying family time, a brief Staycation and a few days in Rome.
One evening, whilst visiting the Italian capital, we ventured across The Tiber to the district of Trastevere, to visit the ancient church of Santa Maria di Trastevere. This delightful area has formed its own distinct character within greater Rome, incorporating tiny winding and cobbled streets, chi-chi boutiques and the all-important business of bars and restaurants abounding in all directions.
As we wandered about, exploring this wonderful microcosm of Italian-ness, we spotted stalls selling juicy Tarocco oranges from Sicily; known for their blood-red flesh, they are popular for being sweet, seedless and having the highest content of Vitamin C of any orange variety.
Around another corner, we came upon florists oozing an abundance of Spring colour, the heady scent of freesias wafting across our path:
We also found purveyors of enough varieties of fresh herbs to keep any local cook happy:
Monsieur and I laughed out loud at the overt gluttony of this image, posted outside a restaurant on one of Trastevere’s busiest restaurant streets. What was his purpose, we wondered, to encourage eating or dieting?
This dog lay outside the church of Santa Maria, gnawing with purpose at the label on a discarded plastic water bottle, until it came away, at which point she panted with satisfaction, stood up and trotted off.
And this canine darling, with diamante-studded collar, sat proudly guarding HER grocery shop. “Hello, dog!” I said by way of greeting, only to be snubbed as one wet nose sniffed the air with a marked disinterest in human interlopers. “Darling, the dogs here don’t speak English. They’re Italian,” Monsieur laughed.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time in Trastevere – just long enough to explore a little and dine before returning to our hotel, but it is a unique place filled with character and, with a little help from the latest coin tossed into the Trevi Fountain, I’d love to return to discover more of its secrets.
Among my vices various, those who know me will tell you that I am a self-confessed, bona fide bag lady. It would be perfectly accurate to call me a bagophile or loverrrrr of all things bag. Ever since I was given my first small cane handbag with chocolate leather closure and handles and chocolate cotton lining at the grand old age of four, I’ve been hooked on handbags, mainly because of an irrational fear that I might get bored without some portable entertainment in my possession at all times. So my handbags generally have to be large enough to accommodate 1 x book to read, 1 x Moleskine journal, digital camera and pens plural (in case one runs out), on top of the regular paraphernalia of phone, keys, money, lip gloss and travel pass.
To be absolutely clear, I love bags of all shapes and sizes – suitcases, duffel bags, totes, evening purses, shoppers, and I even admit to having a vague interest in airline sick bags of the empty and never-used variety. (Please do note, however, that I draw the line at squeaky vinyl or Judith Leiber.) Much to the annoyance of crowded-out golf bags, shoes and evening dresses, the majority of one large cupboard at home is given over to this particular passion for bags, the collection of which was recently augmented by the addition of one large example from a London-based company called ‘Clippy’.
Monsieur will tell you that when I’m not growing my bag family, I love collecting bits and pieces from our trips – ready to stick into my journal, which is always with me (in a bag). He’s so accustomed to this now that before he bins detritus from his pockets, he’ll turn to me and say “do you want to keep this ticket/ card/ receipt/ brochure?” (delete where applicable); rolling his eyes with amused indulgence when I reply “yes, please.” (At least I’m predictable). What doesn’t find its way into my Moleskine will end up in albums various or treasure boxes filled with souvenirs. I’m a proper little squirrel with sentimentality issues; that much is certain.
So when you take one bag-lover-stroke-memento-hoarder and offer her the opportunity to review a clear plastic Clippy bag covered in clear plastic pockets just begging to be filled with bespoke decoration, including souvenirs, you are single-handedly responsible for making the Universe a much happier place for one particular bag lady.
The new bag was not a done deal. Yet. I had to order it online for starters. Here’s how it went:
First, I visited the Clippy site and found that there are two ways to order a Clippy bag:
- You can order the bag with empty pockets and fill them yourself at home, or
- You can upload your own photos and/or use the Clippy site’s stock images to fill the virtual pockets of your chosen bag, so that you can see how the finished bag will look and leave the hard graft to all those clever Clippy folk.
***Either way, you’ll be faced with a dilemma: pink handles or black handles? Now, THAT is the question.
I followed the instructions for option 2, doing everything possible online, and was quite unprepared for how much fun this would be.
The first part of the process is registering your details on the site (easy peasy) before choosing your bag. There are various styles – from pencil cases and washbags to totes and shoppers. Was this part difficult? Only for the bag-o-phile who has a hard time making decisions. In the end I tore myself away from the darling metallic ringbinders which would be oh-so-perfect for random travel jottings, to choose an eighteen pocket shopper (nine pockets on each side) just begging to be stuffed with excesses of sentimentality.
Bag chosen, I moved on to the next stage: uploading photos to the site. This was the hardest part of the process, only because I am that abovementioned indecisive bagophile. Which to choose? Should there be a theme? What about balancing colours? Should I go garish and clashing or keep it sleek in black and white?
In the end I uploaded a selection of photos (colour, in case you were wondering) representing two of my other passions: travel and food. The site allows you to move the photos around from pocket to pocket so you can see how they’ll look once inserted in the bag. Once you’re happy with the overall effect, you save and send your finished virtual bag via the Clippy site links to the Clippy people (who, for some reason, I imagine are adorable little pink oompa loompas – apologies if that’s not the case.).
This was the only time I had a problem. I’d save and send my bag, as per the on-site instructions, but the shopper repeatedly disappeared somewhere between my computer and the other end. Luckily, the brainchild behind Clippy, an accidental entrepreneur called Calypso, was there to talk me through the process. Neither of us could see why my bag design hadn’t reached her, but with some perseverance the system finally worked and my bag was despatched the following day. Hooray! NB I have to say that it would seem I’m the exception to the rule here. Everyone else’s online bag creations were behaving; just not mine.
And so, it was with calorie-busting excitement that I opened the grey plastic packaging to find my first Clippy bag. There were my images, all staring out at me from their designated pockets. A pretty gingham bow was tied around one handle and a Clippy badge sat in one of the central pockets – encouraging more multi-media insertions of my own. I took the bag for a spin around the office. The feedback from the girls was favourable, although progress was slow thanks to everyone wanting to know the story behind each photo.
Then it was time to get serious. How did my first Clippy stack up on the bagophilia barometer? Firstly, I checked out the quality of the photos in the pockets. Sadly, it wasn’t great. The whole concept is so eye-catching that quality photographic paper would definitely help make the images stand out more. As it is, the photos are on heavy stock paper such as I might use for a presentation document at work, with the result that they’re a bit flatter than they might be. In future, I’d probably opt for getting the photos printed myself and doing the DIY bag decoration at home. That way you have more control over paper weights and finishes.
Other than the image quality, I’m very happy with my Clippy. It’s sturdy, waterproof and versatile – equally suited for the likes of trips to the deli at the weekend or to the swimming pool after work. It would also be a clever carry-on bag for any holiday involving airports and uptight security guards, simply because it’s clear plastic. There are no secrets with a Clippy bag.
Having said that, on further exploring the Clippy site I found that there are optional bag-liners in case you’re a bit more private about the contents of your bag. If you really want to push out the bespoke boat, there are Clippy sticker packs and pocket liners to get you started, although personally, I wasn’t tempted. I’m good to go with a handful of metro tickets, postcards and restaurant cards, tokens, a good luck charm and a beer mat or two. And the best thing about my Clippy bag is that whenever someone notices it, there are automatically eighteen stories to tell. So, if an image is worth a thousand words, then I estimate that my eighteen Clippy bag photos and a couple of handfuls of mementos would fill a book.
Here’s what my bag looks like:
If you would like to try Clippy’s products for yourself, log onto the Clippy site here.
This is a review post. I was provided with the product free of charge for the purpose of honestly reviewing it. I have not been instructed what to write and my opinions are honest and my own.