Category Archives: Shopaholic abroad
Now that I’m an old, married woman, this is my idea of Serious Eye Candy:
A windowful of beautiful handbags that had me drooling on a recent visit to Paris. If I had a spare €3,000.00 I’d buy six. Oui, I have impeccable taste. They retail at €500 – €600 a piece. Alas, I have Champagne taste and Cava pockets.
Join me in dribbling over French leather goods here: Just Campagne.
Monsieur and I had enjoyed our time in the Funchal fish market, watching the workers carving, stripping and gutting fish of all sizes. We were now curious to see what Madeiran fruit and vegetables were like.
This image may look familiar:
My current header was taken from the above image. Look at the produce – the bright green avocadoes, the perfect artichokes, the rosy apples, fat grapes, stumpy bananas, happy orange mandarins.
Some of these things I’m not sure I can identify - like the squashy-looking green balls next to the courgettes at the bottom of the stall or that prickly green vegetable?/fruit? between the cabbages and the beans. Can you help me, anyone?
On the right hand side, the long green fruit are Banana-Ananaz, or Banana Pineapple. Also known as the Monstera Deliciosa, it has the tropical flavour of banana, pineapple and mango, and grows happily in Madeira’s sub-tropical climate.
This shot’s a bit blurry but the baskets. Oh, the baskets. I do so love wicker baskets. If I lived in Funchal I’d buy one of these and fill it up frequently with fat, red tomatoes, snow-white onions and some of those banana ananaz things. (Apparently they’re good in smoothies.)
The florist stands were dazzling – loaded up with anthuriums, birds of paradise and orchids. I swear I’d never before seen such massive anthuriums, not even in Hawaii - some flowers were the size of dinner plates!
I could have wandered about the market for a long, long time, but it was lunch time and the vendors looked hungry. The stall shutters started coming down, so Monsieur and I took this as a sign to leave in search of our own lunch. That’s the downside of being addicted to markets: they make you hungry.
I admit it: I have an OCD. Wherever in the world I am, I MUST visit a market, or at worst, food hall. I even like foreign supermarkets. And UK supermarkets. I can wax lyrical about my fascination with the way supermarkets adapt their merchandise to the ethnic mix of the local community. But I digress. Here is yet another Epicurienne take on a market. For this episode of ‘Market OCD’ we’ll travel to Funchal on the Atlantic island of Madeira.
Monsieur and I were fresh off the plane from Lisbon when we found Funchal Market. It was lunchtime so activity, which had started at daybreak, was starting to wind down, but the fish market was still quite busy. Most of the marble preparation areas were loaded up with long, black, headless fish that looked a bit like eels. I later found out their name: scabbard fish.
Known as Peixe Espada Preta, this is a popular fish in Portugal, known for a mild flavour which allows it to be prepared in hundreds of different ways. Their heads are the stuff of horror films, though:
On a different counter sat limpets. I’ve never eaten them before but they’re supposed to be delicious. Limpets make me nostalgic for childhood visits to the beach, sticking our fingers into anemones in rock pools, teasing hermit crabs and trying to pull limpets off the rocks. Now I just want to eat one!
The tuna counter was a reminder of how big tuna can grow. This is just a small part of one:
The tuna man’s biceps must get their work out from hulking huge hunks of tuna about and carving them with a knife that looks disturbingly like a machete.
Elsewhere, the scabbard fish are stripped down.
The sardine man removes tiny sardine entrails as he waits for a customer.
A buyer gets tips on how to prepare salt cod.
perhaps with some of the cod man’s homemade herb-alicious marinade?
Nothing this vendor says or does can make his buyers crack a smile. Poor chap. They look like hard work.
Before we leave, I’m tempted to weigh myself on the fish scales (not the shiny-on-the-skin fishy variety):
but Monsieur says “No.”
So we go next door to the fresh produce market, instead, and my market OCD is cured, for today.
I can’t say I really knew much about Normandy until recently. Admittedly, the closest I’d come to getting to know the place would be waving at it from moving vehicles or watching Band of Brothers. So how much Norman knowledge did my grey matter actually hold? Astonishingly little: Normandy is a place in France with English weather and lots and lots of apples. Has a coastline, ports and the Normandy Landing beaches. Can visit popular resort towns like Deauville and Trouville and Benerville-sur-Mer, only they’re not really on the sea at all; they’re on the English Channel. The Normans of the Norman Invasion came from Normandy. 1066. That’s why we have French words in the English language. Normans were originally ‘norsemen’ (as in vikings) who settled in the area of Normandy. I work with a guy called Norman, and Normans make good butter. So, you see? I knew a bit about Normandy but you could hardly call that knowledge encyclopaedic.
This, dear people, has thankfully changed. Thanks to Monsieur and his family I have been put on a crash course about Normandy. Result? There is so much more to Normandy than war stories and Calvados. Take, for instance, the little town of Honfleur. A picturesque port with pretty rows of slate-fronted houses, this is the sort of place that makes you wonder if the Pied Piper of Hamlin is piping his merry song just around the corner. So pretty that it inspired works by impressionist greats like Monet, and, going by appearances, little about the town has changed since.
(Rue de la Bavolle, Honfleur, by Claude Monet)
Monsieur and I visited Honfleur one Saturday in August, and as happens all over France on Saturdays, the market was in town. We crossed a little bridge made from ancient wooden planks and in doing so passed a strange pair – mother and son presumably, both with matted hair and wild eyes, she in big skirts an he in rumpled, falling-down jeans that looked in need of a good, long soak. They were walking in vague circles, staring at the pedestrian traffic across the bridge with dark eyes that seemed to say ‘interlopers! Leave our town.’
The market stalls soon appeared, some selling nougat and toffee-encrusted nuts, others fresh fish and seafood. Half-timbered and slate-fronted houses lined up before us, their straight lines now crooked with age. Down a small street we found more stalls purveying every conceivable market ware – nautical clothes in navy, red and yellow next to baby clothes in ice blue and the palest pink, striped tees and souvenir aprons, home accessories, food-stuffs, wallets and shoes. Elsewhere we found leather belts and gingham-lined baguette bags, hammers and hardware items. Is there anything you can’t find at a good French market?
Many of the shops had windows filled with bottles of cider and Calvados, pommeau (a cider-Calvados hybrid) and poiré (a pear liqueur). Souvenirs abounded, including little pottery bowls painted with popular French Christian names, tins of Norman biscuits and model lighthouse lamps. We pushed on, through Place Sainte Cathérine with the oldest wooden church in France, now barely visible thanks to the myriad market stalls and crush of Saturday shoppers, back to the inner port, where a flotilla of fine yachts rested in the Vieux Bassin. It will come as no surprise to some of you that Monsieur and I were now ready for lunch.
We took a table at a restaurant terrace overlooking the Bassin. Named Le Pêle Mêle, it had a number of different prix fixe options at different price points. We decided on the Menu Étape where for a mere €13.90 a head, Monsieur and I could enjoy two fabulous courses of true Norman food. Monsieur enjoyed his starter of avocado filled with creamy little prawns. Simple, yet fresh and attractive in presentation but gone in a flash of famished Frenchman with fork. I had chosen moules (mussels) with cream, and not just any cream – NORMAN cream, of course. “Normandy’s known for its cream,” mumbled Monsieur between mouthfuls of crevettes. I could see why. The mussels had been simmered with onion and something vaguely apple-ish (cider, perhaps?) before arriving with a generous dollop of cream atop their black shells. The cream melted into the mussel juice, making a delicious soup to slurp at the end of mussel-munching. When I was done, empty shells were all that remained.
Next round? Entrecôte (steak) and frites for Monsieur. Dos de Colin (Hake fillet) with a cider sauce for moi. The steak was served with a peppercorn and (you guessed it!) cream sauce. The cider sauce also contained a fair udder or two of rich Norman cream, so this lunch was fast becoming a delicious yet high-cholesterol affair.
Disappointingly, my hake looked quite anaemic on the plate, coated, as it was, with the pale cider sauce, yet on first bite I pronounced it one of the tastiest fish dishes I’d had the pleasure to eat in a long while. A lot of that was to do with the sauce - apple orchard and dairy farm blended on the palate. If only they’d do something to make the hake look a little less like hospital food, it’ll be flying out of Le Pêle Mêle faster than you can say BLOWFISH.
Monsieur and I circumnavigated the Vieux Bassin on our way back to the Frogmobile, pausing to photograph the fairy-tale town and to stock up on Norman treats for family (we may or may not have also stopped for a naughty gelato at Amorino…). Back by the bridge the disturbing pair were still turning circles like a couple of bored dogs chasing their tails, the stocky man now hunching his shoulders like cousin Quasimodo. On we walked, back across the ancient planks, away from the crazies and the boats and the slate-fronted houses to the car. We had a long journey ahead of us, but fuelled up on Norman dairy and apple products, we were recharged and raring to go. Next stop: Brittany.
When Monsieur and I travelled through Vietnam some time back, this fascinating country and its people had such a profound effect on me that I haven’t yet blogged about it. Every time I think of our journey, my mind fills with such a kaleidoscope of vistas and tastes and people and experiences that it overwhelms. But now, sixteen months later, I’m going to try to share our experiences.
To start with, here’s a synopsis of how we did it. We didn’t see everything that we wanted to see, because Vietnam is a big place with troublesome roads and slow trains and we only had two weeks within which to learn how to cross the roads and explore as much of the country as possible. The upshot of that is that there’s plenty to keep us busy when we go back one day. And we will go back one day. If I could wangle it, I’d go back right this minute.
GETTING THERE AND BACK:
Monsieur and I flew on Eva Air from London to Bangkok because direct flights from London to Vietnam are exorbitant and this way we’d both save money and see a little bit of Thailand. It’s significantly cheaper for UK residents to fly to Bangkok and then hop across to Vietnam on one of the region’s low cost airlines. In our case we flew Air Asia from Bangkok to Hanoi, and from Ho Chi Minh City back to Bangkok. Air Asia is cheap and efficient, but the baggage allowance is a meagre 15 kilos. Going out, this wasn’t a problem and my packed suitcase only weighed 10 kilos, which is somewhat of an achievement for this girl scout who likes to be prepared for all eventualities. Quite naturally, as we travelled about, Monsieur and I picked up more baggage weight in the form of clothes and gifts for family and friends, so that by the time we left Vietnam, our baggage excess was such that we had to pay a hefty $125 US dollars. The way we looked at it this was that once added to the cost of the flights themselves it just made the flights feel more regular in price as opposed to a real bargain. You have been warned.
Internally we flew Vietnam Airlines, which we found to be pretty good. We later found out that they have a terrible reputation but that wasn’t our experience at all. Had we had more time, we would have liked to try the train that travels up and down Vietnam, but unfortunately the journey times were too long to be practical for us.
So here’s what we got up to. It would be great if you pick out something that you’d like to hear about, leave it in the comments and I’ll write it up for you.
Day 1 – Arrive in Bangkok. Stay at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel. Swim off the travel grime and enjoy lovely buffet at the hotel.
Day 2 – Breakfast by the river. Hire a driver to take us around Bangkok for 5 hours for the equivalent of a 15 minute cab ride in London. We manage to take in the Golden Buddha, the Grand Palace and a vibrant weekend market before returning to the hotel. Cocktails at the Sirocco Bar with fantastic views over Bangkok and dinner at the Blue Elephant.
Day 3 – Fly to Hanoi. Have fun with immigration officials and ATMs at Hanoi airport. Stay at the beautiful Sofitel Metropole Hotel. Learn to cross streets without being mown down by a tidal wave of mopeds. Walk to old town via Hoan Kiem Lake. Visit Ngoc Son temple. Circle the lake. Dinner at the Spices Garden restaurant at the hotel.
Day 4 – Take tour to Halong Bay. Long day. Epic ingests an entire dish of MSG. By herself. And suffers the consequences.
Day 5 – Walk around Hanoi. Visit Temple of Literature, Hanoi Hilton. Just about evaporate in the heat and humidity.
Day 6 – Fly to Danang. Pass China Beach on way to Hoi An. Stay at Ha An Hotel. Lunch at Banana Leaf. Do walking tour of Old Town – temples, Japanese Bridge, a ‘real’ Vietnamese home etc. Visit Yaly tailors. Dinner at Mango Rooms.
Day 7 – Fitting at Yaly then a lazy day at nearby Cua Dai Beach. Lunch at the beach. Dinner at Brothers Café.
Day 8 – Fly to Nha Trang. Stay at Six Senses resort. Laze around at the beach and in the pool. Dinner and DVDs in our room. We need to slow down for a couple of days, and so we do just that.
Day 9 – All meals taken at the hotel. The much-needed chilling-out period after so much travelling helps a lot so we spend another day at the beach.
Day 10 – Travel by road to Dalat. Looks close on map. Takes hours each way. Visit our driver’s family shrine, rest stop in village, see Dalat train station, Prenn Falls. See coffee/ tapioca/sugar cane plantations. Afternoon at Dalat Palace Golf Club. Interesting drive back to Nha Trang with our fascinating driver. Much of our conversation is taken up by what Vietnamese eat, which is just about everything.
Day 11 – Another day chilling out. Vietnamese coffee rocks. We watch Vietnamese musicians at dinner. We also have a sunburn relief massage with fresh aloe vera. I’d never had a massage before. What total decadence!
Day 12 – Fly to Ho Chi Minh City. Stay at Majestic Hotel on Dong Khoi. It rains buckets. Visit the post office, haggle with street vendors, give thanks for safe travels at Notre Dame Cathedral. Walk to Reunification Palace. Dinner at M Bar with great views over river. That river is a floating highway, even at night.
Day 13 – take tour out of HCMC. Visit Cu Chi Tunnels and My Tho on the Mekong Delta. Boat ride to Ben Tre for lunch. Coconut candy factory, snakes and longboats. Cao Dai Temple. Lacquerware factory visit. Dinner with Adam from Vietnam Travel Notes – we go to Bin Thanh Market together. REALLY good night!
Day 14 – last day in Vietnam. Shopping in town. Lunch at Lemongrass. Dong Khoi. Back to the airport. Long delay because of riots in Bangkok. Stay at The Peninsula Hotel.
Day 15 – Fly home with a head full of wonderful, colourful memories of Vietnam.
+16 months – Epic finally gets around to blogging about it.
It’s that time of year again, when a weekend in New York looms in Big Apple style on the pre-Christmas horizon. I have long associations with this city; it was in New York that, as a foetus, I first kicked my mother from the inside out, thrilling her with the reality of impending motherhood. It was as a teenager in New York that I first rode in a stretch limo and played the piano with my feet at FAO Schwarz, just like Tom Hanks did in Big. It was in New York that my Stateside friends threw me a surprise birthday party, the only one I’ve ever had, when I’d tiptoed out of London in order to avoid another year older. And now, decades after launching that first little kick, the inspiration to skip, and jump my way up and down that little island known as Manhattan still ignites me from the moment I start to plan a visit.
Some people like to shop in New York City. There’s certainly plenty of opportunity to do that: from bargains to be found at Century 21, located somewhat eerily adjacent to 9-11’s Ground Zero and its ever-present conspiracy theorists, through to the air-kissing environs of Barney’s and Bergdorf’s at the other end of the spender’s spectrum.
However, shopping is not what gets my Big Apple Fires a-burning; it goes deeper than that for me. There’s a vibe about Manhattan which ripples invisibly through the air, up and down the grid of streets and avenues, and straight into my soul. It’s the small things, as much as the skyscrapers, that thrill me here: the excitement of buying Motrin at Duane Reade (SO much better and more cost-effective than Nurofen), Chinese being spoken in Chinatown in front of windows of crispy fried ducks hanging by their feet, a glimpse of hand cuffed to briefcase in the diamond district, meetings beneath the clock at Grand Central Station. A smile threatens to break every time I see a yellow cab with bent plastic fender or when I hear someone in a deli order “pastrami on rye!” or when I pass a man wearing a battered Yankees cap or when a debate starts over where to find the best bagels in the city. Even when struggling to decide whether to go to the MoMA, the Guggenheim, the Whitney or the Frick because, goshdarnit, there’s just too much choice, I feel a constant buzz buzzity buzz.
Plenty of people go to New York to make money and/or spend money and there’s plenty to do there for all tastes and ages. Shoppers ogle at the animated Christmas windows, romantics sigh at chestnuts roasting on street corners and in every crowd you will spot Big Brown Bloomingdale’s Bags. It’s a melting pot of art and culture and music and design and hippy and chic – all in a mere 23.7 square miles. As might sound familiar to those In The Epicurienne Know, it’s New York’s food that really gets me going. There’s such a wealth of variety to be had, just begging for the attention of food lovers like me. So where have I been so far?
- The Red Flame Diner with its bottomless cups of coffee and evil stacks of pancakes swimming in maple syrup and crispy bacon is a breakfast favourite. It’s so busy here at weekends that there’s no time for pleasantries. Order, eat, pay and move outta the way for the next in line. Please note: I’ve never seen the place without a line, but it does move fast and it gives you plenty of time to read the How To Help A Choke Victim poster, just in case.
- Les Halles, the restaurant called home by travelling chef Anthony Bourdain. With a mouthful of cassoulet you could close your eyes and think yourself in Paris, so authentic is the atmosphere. It would be easy to believe that a tornado had picked up a brasserie in France and plonked it down, intact, in the middle of New York.
- Nobu Next Door is the no-reservations little sister to Nobu, located just next door to the main restaurant in Tribeca. It serves delightful small plates, including Nobu’s signature black cod in miso but it’s a bit of a trek and to be assured of a table, you really need to get there after 10pm. Even then, there will be a queue. Your patience will be rewarded, if you can stay awake after a long day exploring New York.
- Mama Mexico’s on East 49th Street (and another located on Broadway) is a Mexican food-lover’s mecca. The guacamole is made at your table by one of the friendly wait-staff, tasting better than any other guac on earth, there’s plenty of choice and the portions are so humongous that we watched an entire table of eight leave smiling with doggy bags. Not one of them finished their main. Nor, as it happened, did I. Mama Mexico’s even offers take-out, a BIG reason for me NOT to move to New York. I’d probably never cook again.
- Union Square Cafe is a place I will always cherish because the grim-faced bouncer carded me there when I was a ripe old 27. I laughed as I pulled out my passport. “This is no laughing matter, ma’am.” he growled. Au contraire, mon frère! I took being asked for ID as a massive compliment, though, and told him so, bless his size thirteen cotton socks.
- Spring Street Natural was recommended by a former colleague who knows New York well. I had a divine tuna steak there, served rare to perfection. The food is as healthy and organic as it is possible to be, but not at the expense of taste or portion size.
- Brasserie Ruhlmann on Rockefeller Plaza is faithful to Art Deco style, as it takes its name from a great designer of that era – Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann. Another former colleague whisked me into this restaurant for lunch and a whirlwind catch-up session when I was in town a few years back and my, what a treat! The food was divine, the service infallible, and the atmosphere absolutely authentic. The disappointment was in having to squeeze as much out of it as we could within the one-hour lunch-break time-frame. I guess I’ll just have to return when we’re less hurried.
- Heartland Brewery is a chain with multiple locations. It’s ideal for a laid-back bite with a Heartland beer in hand. The menu is quintessentially American fare with old favourites like Classic Caesar Salad, Clam Chowder and St Louis Smoked Ribs. You can have Maine & Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes with a side of Idaho Mashed Potatoes or a burger of free-range South Dakota Bison with Hand Cut Idaho Fries, ‘cos ‘dem taters dere dey all do come from Idaho, ya know. Being a brewery I must also mention their beers. They have great names like Indiana Pale Ale, Farmer Jon’s Oatmeal Stout and Indian River Light. I tried Cornhusker Lager and very pleasant it was indeed. With more time on your hands, you might even be tempted to take a Voyage of Beer, enjoying a sampling of Heartland’s six classic beers.
Other New York experiences in the Epicurienne catalogue include eating very average Chinese in an ominously-empty Chinatown restaurant, (now I am furnished with foolproof tips for that area so hopefully history won’t repeat itself in that neck of the woods) where the biggest action took place in the fish tanks. I’ve lunched with the glitterati at Barney’s and twirled spaghetti in Little Italy and ordered pizza delivery at a friend’s Midtown apartment. I’ve hung out with the son of an Irish immigrant who made his fortune pouring beer for the folks of the Upper East Side and I’ve stood with dropped jaw as a woman ahead of me at Dean & Deluca ordered a “skinny decaf soy latte” which is very Sex and the City but defeats the purpose of drinking coffee in the first place. However, my finest hour when eating in New York? Sitting opposite the man I love in the Pomodoro Rosso and NOT getting dumped. You see, the Pomodoro Rosso is THE recommended break-up restaurant in the comedy series, Seinfeld. It also does a very good Sunday brunch menu, which is some consolation if you’ve only just realised that ‘he’s just not that into you’.
That’s all for today. In the next instalment I’m going to write about places on the Epicurienne Hit List, New York Edition. I may need some help choosing where next to dine…suggestions are welcomed because this is a case of so many eateries, so little time. And sadly, only one mouth.
Leaving Trapani proved a little more troublesome than we’d anticipated, mostly because of the downpour that drenched us minutes after leaving the wonderful little Cantina Siciliana, where we’d refuelled in anticipation of an afternoon packed with activity. Just before the deluge began, Monsieur and I had been happily photographing Trapani’s buildings. We dashed between dripping awnings all the way back to the car where we sat for some minutes dabbing at wet faces with inefficient paper napkins. No, we wouldn’t be going to Segesta today. Greek ruin complexes + rain = mega-uncomfortable.
“So what next?” asked Monsieur, somewhat unhelpfully. You see, Monsieur books the flights and I come up with full itineraries of where we go and what we do, including plan Bs in case of uncooperative weather like today’s. I didn’t really have a plan B. Yet. But in a place like Sicily, teeming with interest and culture (and gelato), how hard could it be to come up with one?
This wasn’t to be as easy as I thought. The nearby town of Erice, on cliffs overlooking coastal Trapani (where we now sat steaming up our car windows for all the wrong reasons), would have been an obvious alternative to Segesta. Our guidebooks raved about a couple of pasticcerie, and strange rituals of ‘sacred prostitution’ once practised in the Venusian temple now buried beneath the castle ruins, made us intrigued to visit. Alas, the best part of visiting Erice, which sits 750 metres above sea-level, is the view. Usually, you can see Erice from Trapani. With the current rainfall, the town was completely obscured by low, grey cloud. There wouldn’t be a lot to see in Erice today, besides which we’d eaten far too recently to take full advantage of the town’s renowned cannoli. In summary? Plan A – abort. Plan B – ditch. Plan C? Crikey. Whatever could we come up with now?
In the end we settled on a drive down the west coast to Marsala, home to the sweet Marsala wine. The drive was unexpectedly interesting, taking us along the SS115, which follows the line of the sea. It is here that the salt with the best reputation in Italy is produced, big, white piles of it lining the road, the salt pans lying flat to either side.
Around this point I started my own game of Count the Ape. An Ape (ah-pay) is a small three-wheeled workhorse of a vehicle much favoured by Italians, especially those in rural areas. The typical Ape is a flat-bed in miniature, with room for one person only at the wheel. En route to Marsala we spotted so many Apes that I had to stop counting. Piaggio, the Ape manufacturer, must really like Western Sicily, and I ‘m sure the local salesman does, too.
It was pouring in Marsala by the time we found our way into the town. Some local chaps at a stationery store kindly helped us do our scratchy parking card, before we set off in search of interest. We were only a stone’s throw from the Cathedral, yet getting there took a while in the rain. As we dashed along the side of the Cathedral towards its front entrance, a gush of water from the overloaded gutters above splashed directly onto our heads. Monsieur looked at me with that “Are you okay?” frown, but he needn’t have worried. I was completely sodden now, as was he. All we could do was laugh like a pair of bedraggled hyenas.
The Cathedral itself was a bit disappointing. It was so large and cold that it felt unwelcoming and empty. No, we wouldn’t stay here. Running past the twinkling Christmas tree in the piazza outside, we sheltered in the Caffeteria Grand Italia, in spite of its reputation as a magnet for octogenarians. Apparently all the octogenarians were wiser than we were, sat safely in comfy armchairs at home. A couple of espressi were now required, as was gelato, a small reward for braving the rain.
Once we’d dried ourselves with yet more malabsorbent table napkins, we set off to visit one of Marsala’s museums, but in spite of the posters stating that it would be open, it was firmly closed against us and we were wet once more. So we dashed from shop to shop in an attempt to stay dry. I bought a Tiziano Terzani book in a small libreria, where we were treated like unwanted foreigners until I asked the right question about the right author. Then the shop clerk couldn’t do enough to help me.
The next shop clerk we came across was even more unpredictable. We’d run into a Marsala wine specialty shop, disturbing the sole proprietor who had the malady of mobile phone permanently attached to ear, as shown by the fact that when we’d passed him earlier, he was chatting away and was still now in the state of permanent chat. It must have been a slow afternoon for him because when we entered, he cut the call short and focussed his full attention onto us. Bearing in mind that he looked strangely like Hutch from Starsky & Hutch, only with the deep orange skin of a fake-tan addict, it was difficult to take him seriously. First he tried to steer us away from the Marsala wines which are now owned by big liquor companies, thereby losing their seasonal variance in favour of the supermarket shelf-friendly reliability of mass production. Then he allowed us to taste three or four different breeds of Marsala, feeding us morsels of bread with some of his cupboard wares – tapenades heated in a terracotta bowl over a tealight and a creamy garlic sauce. Our new curly-haired friend was a little too attentive to me, however. He asked me how I knew Italian, so I explained that I’d lived in Venice for a while.
“Ah, Venice. Beautiful place. Have you been anywhere else in Italy?”
“Yes, all over,” I answered,
“So if you love Italy so much, then tell me, how come you are with this Frenchman?” he asked, grimacing unsubtly in Monsieur’s direction.
“Because I love France, too.” I replied, keen to get Monsieur away from perm-head as quickly as possible, in case he’d understood.
We left leery Mr Hutch with a bottle of Marsala, some tapenade and garlic sauce, which we’d started to assemble just before his studliness got out of hand. Paying up we wasted no time in getting out of there. The rain was now subsiding, but we dashed away from that shop and Mr BadFakeTan almost as if the rain were still torrential.
It was completely dark, the roads slick with wet. Now we just had to get back to Palermo. Our map looked straightforward enough, but the route was far from. With a combination of impossible signage, lousy back roads, windy ways and a lack of street lighting, the next couple of hours were to be the most stressful of our Sicilian adventure. When we finally found the way to a decent autostrada, the relief of being back on a well-lit road was truly something else. We wouldn’t be taking the Sicilian motorways for granted again.
Following our day spent visiting the islands of the lagoon, Monsieur and I returned to the Fondamenta Nuove and followed the signs to Rialto. Turning down a wide, vibrant street leading to the Ferrovia, or train station, we came across a particularly crowded souvenir shop window. Something in it caught Monsieur’s eye and drew him in like a magnet. It was a gaggle of black and gilt plastic gondolas. His interest surprised me.
“My grandfather had one just like that,” Monsieur explained, “It sat on his mantelpiece. Funny. They haven’t changed in fifty years!”
Crossing the street we walked through turnstiles into the brightly-lit Billa supermarket. Inside was a crowded mess of aisles, but ah, the ingredients in those aisles were worth the struggle. We wandered among the shelves of oils and balsamic vinegars, pastas and grissini, past jar upon jar of sundried, sun-blushed and regular tomatoes to the wall of tinned anchovies with retro labels and the bottles of olives in black or green, stuffed with pimento or garlic or lemon or feta. Had a Venetian genie been in a wish-granting mood, right then and there I would have dropped to my knees to beg him to transport the entire Billa and contents to our London neighbourhood. Monsieur and I ogled the fresh deli section with watering mouths. The array of cheeses and meats was begging to come home with us, but we were restricted to what we could realistically carry without it breaking, rotting or leaking en route.
In one refrigerator we found fresh handmade pasta in little twists, just like the type we’d so enjoyed at Algiubagio, so a couple of packs of that christened our wire supermarket basket. Bulbs of smoked provolone cheese joined the pasta, along with long slabs of Italian nougat for my parents and boxes of Cipster!, a moreish potato snack in bright red boxes. Monsieur marvelled at the wine selection while I stood mesmerised by the olive oils – virgin, extra virgin, infused with chilli, garlic, lemon and basil, in different sizes and shapes of bottle and tin, with labels from all over Italy and (quel sacrilege) Spain and Greece.
Following a last circuit of the aisles, we joined the check out queue, something that’s so universally mundane. As in all supermarkets around the world we stood and waited, shifting the heavy basket from arm to arm, listening to incomprehensible conversations ahead of and behind us. Then, as shoppers do all over the world, we stacked our goods for the teller and packed them into sunshiny yellow Billa plastic bags. Our predecessors in the line were now leaving with their loads of as much shopping as their taut tendons could take. We’d be next.
Out of Billa we went and into a delicatessen along the street. There I found cellophane packs of stuffed olives, Ascoli style, filled with a sausage mixture and coated with breadcrumbs. These are a local delicacy, turning up on platters at all the right Venetian events and normally they have to be ordered in advance so this was a real find. As I paid, the man behind the big glass counter full of yet more cuts of meat and rounds of cheese was incredibly brusque, causing me to wonder if he’d stepped out of his gondola on the wrong side that morning. I smiled at the thought of his big, grumpy self splashing into a dirty canal.
Back in the dark outdoors we turned a corner and I stopped in my tracks. “That’s the bar I dreamed of last night,” I told Monsieur. “You know, the one where we drank Campari, which I don’t even like?” Monsieur raised his eyebrows at me as if to say “you’re nuts,”. Perhaps I am, perhaps I’m not. All I know is that we hadn’t passed this bar until now and even when I was an intern so many years ago, I only visited this part of Venice on a very few occasions. I wasn’t a Campari drinker back then and I’d never set foot in this particular bar, so how on earth did it get into my dream?
Trying not to over-analyse the mysterious machinations of my mind, we walked up Canale Cannareggio in search of La Marisa, the restaurant at Tre Archi which had been so enthusiastically recommended to us by the Guggy interns. It was dark and cold next to the wter, with an icy breeze rushing towards us from the lagoon ahead. Flummoxed, with no discernible restaurant to be found, we trotted up the steps into a toasty hotel reception to ask directions.
“La Marisa? Aaaaah,” came the response. “e chiuso.” It’s closed, the receptionist said with a sympathetic nod, slapping his sides in a sort of Latin defeat. He pointed across the canal at the building which housed the hibernating eatery, its windows dark like a pair of napping eyes. So much for that plan.
As we waited at the TRE Archi vaporetto stop for a boat to chug us back to the hotel, we tried in vain not to watch the only other people in the shelter. The pair were not exactly hiding their raging hormones. With their youthful appearance and sporting the latest in leisure brands, I thought they were a teenage Romeo and Juliet until a flash of gold caught my eye. Wedding bands. The babes in arms were married. So far I’d had offers but I’d never actually taken the plunge myself. I could practically be the mother of this pair of kids now cavorting in the snow. It was a sobering moment.
Back at the hotel, Monsieur and I decided to spend our final night in Venice dining at Algiubagio. It was far too cold to venture further afield for a meal at some unknown quantity of a restaurant, an act we may later regret. No. The Algiubagio benchmark had proven hard to beat.
Now regular patrons we were met again with glasses of prosecco. More importantly, what would we eat tonight? I tried the starter of a creamy cheese called Burrata, garnished with juicy grapes from the lagoon. Each mouthful melted like a cool marshmallow against my tongue, contrasting beautifully with the tart bite of grape. This was the food of my paradise, sending me off into a cook’s own dreamworld. If only I could find this cheese in London, I’d devote a shelf of my fridge to it and it alone.
I moved onto a main course of those delicious fresh twirls of pasta with cherry tomatoes, warm mozzarella chunks, fresh parsley and Planeta olive oil. Monsieur’s enjoyment of the same pasta dish as his starter was evident. “There isn’t enough of it,” he complained with a grin. Having now tracked down some Planeta of our own for Epicurienne’s kitchen, all I can say is you should definitely try it. The taste is like olive syrup, bringing to mind images of olive groves in the height of summer as Mediterranean cicadas chirp in the shade of the trees.
Monsieur’s main was a laid-back pizza capricciosa drizzled with a liberal dose of chilli oil, and disappeared down his throat so quickly that he had plenty of time to spear my precious pasta twirls with his greedy fork, stealing them from my plate. The minute we’d finished, our waiter was back at our sides. “You must try the warm ice cream,” he urged, and we relented. After all, it was out last night in Venice. We could afford to be decadent and on this occasion, it was worth it. The ice cream was a smooth, vanilla semi-freddo, peppered with shards of spicy chocolate. It was sensational. Would we ever regret dining at Algiubagio on all three nights of our weekend in Venice? In a word: never.
Later we lay cocooned in our bed watching TV. News reports focussed on the inclement weather currently washing over the entire boot of Italy. Down in Tuscany the Arno was flooding and it had snowed that day in Milan. Thus, with images of snowflakes floating through my head, I drifted off to sleep that night, wondering if Monsieur and I might see snow on Venetian gondolas after all.
So dark was our room at the Vecellio that Monsieur and I found it difficult to predict the outside weather when we woke each morning. Today, our third together in Venice, saw the curtains draw back to reveal a glimpse of the lagoon and a blue (yes, blue!) sky. This was indeed fortunate as we wouldn’t spend precious hours squelching about in puddles, but it also meant that the air was even more icy than before.
Monsieur and I ducked out of the toasty hotel, into a very different Algiubagio – that of the day time, when the bar is stocked with snacks and locals stand about stylishly sipping on their first coffees of the weekend as they share local chit chat with their neighbours. I was dying for a tramezzino, or layered sandwich half in soft white crustless bread. The fillings are spread so thick that the sandwiches bulge inelegantly at their centre. The combinations are endless – tuna with baby onions, tuna with egg mayonnaise, cream cheese with grapes, ham and cheese, tomato and egg mayo… This morning’s choice would be tuna and onion, a savoury bite to start the day’s adventures. Monsieur, meanwhile, a creature of habit, remained unmoved from his desire for something more familiar, taking his staple breakfast of a croissant and coffee.
Now running on full tanks, so to speak, we took a vaporetto out across the lagoon to Burano. Being Sunday, there were lots of people dressed in their Sunday best, travelling to the islands to spend time with relatives and friends. This was a festive bunch, mingling alongside the tourists replete with signature baseball caps and gigantic cameras, or the likes of ourselves, relaxed to the point of nodding off at intervals on the long boat ride. As I took photos of San Michele and some abandoned islands, Monsieur dozed on my shoulder. Now and then, mist would descend on a patch of water, but mostly the weather and conditions were fine. In fact, our eyes ached with the brightness of light, having spent two days in the lifeless grey of winter and rain. We stopped twice at Murano to let people off and others on, and did the same at a place called Mazzorbo. From the vaporetto stop at the latter I noticed the houses, neatly lined up in colourful rows, the rainbow increasing as we pulled into Burano.
Although excited to be there and show Monsieur the fisherfolks’ houses, each painted a different hue to allow their owners to find their way home in heavy Venetian fog, it was a wrench to leave the warmth of the boat and be back outside in the bitter air. A path of Astroturf led away from the water, towards the centre of the island. Along the way we passed a house with ample front garden, boasting a couple of mature fruit trees and a resident cat on the prowl. Apparently, this house was for sale, or so said a sign hung on its gates. I wondered who would buy it. The commute into Venice proper would take a while, unless you ignored all the speed restrictions to zoom about in your own, private boat. Besides which, living in the relative isolation of Burano would drive most people slightly potty, no matter how picturesque it may be.
Monsieur and I wandered past the souvenir shops selling Burano lace table cloths and parasols, Murano beads and vases of glass, plates and goblets and more tacky tees. Following a twist of canals, we saw the houses for which this place is so renowned; red, blue and green of various depths, next to pastel pink, lemon yellow and terracotta. The fine day allowed us to take some wonderful photos. Here, with such bright subjects, it seems impossible to be a bad photographer. Considering this, we looked up at the wall of a green house overlooking a tiny communal square. There was a shrine to the Virgin Mary, fresh flowers laid at her feet by some reverent local. Returning to Burano’s main square, we were no longer alone. The islanders strolled around, going about their Sunday business, tourists seeking inspiration stared at menus outside restaurants and others fingered lace-trimmed tableware on display outside specialist shops. The proprietors must have been only too happy of the potential to make a few Euros in the off-season. In spite of the fine, blue sky, the air was still arctic, so we trudged back to the vaporetto stop, huddling in the shelter until our transport arrived.
Back on the boat, we traversed the lagoon, this time visiting Murano. A fellow passenger took advantage of the longish journey to apply a full face of make up without a single smudge. By the time Murano came into view, she was transformed from blank canvas to a blue eyeshadowed diva with fire engine-red lips. I wondered where she was going; hot date with a member of the Vigili del Fuoco, perhaps? Such saucy lips would certainly match his fire boat.
On the glass-making island, we shivered in the already-fading sunlight and walked briskly in search of a restaurant for lunch. Ai Frati had been recommended by one of our guides so once we found it, in we went. The dining room was large and somewhat Spartan, with a tiled floor and simple wood furniture. Our table looked into the open kitchen, with the ruddy chefs working at speed to create meals to satisfy the extended families seated around us. So far, it looked as if our tastebuds would be safe here. Wrong again. To start, we ordered gamberetti (tiny prawns) with polenta. Although tasty, it looked like fake plastic prawn babies on a big block of Styrofoam with vague grill marks. It could even have been toy food created to go into a toy oven on a pink plastic plate so I prayed that the main course would be more inspiring. My spaghetti alle vongole was a reliable choice, tasted exactly as I’d expected it to and disappeared down a satisfied throat, mind you, in Venice it’s hard to find a bad spag vongole. Monsieur’s meal, a plate of ravioli Bolognese, had the air of something bought off a supermarket shelf, added to which, it was depressingly small. Need I say here that the disappointment of the lunch had a direct effect on the mood of that afternoon? Shame on you, Ai Frati! You should know better than to cheat a Frenchman out of a decent lunch. You should know that this is capable of ruining his day. Frenchmen in Venice, be warned. The ravioli at this place will not make you glow with gastronomic pleasure. Head back to Algiubagio for a more reliable feast.
Forcing smiles as we braved the great Venetian outdoors, we walked to the nearby Glass Museum. The highlight of this was that Monsieur immediately homed in on a warm spot in the stairwell, so we basked there for a good few minutes before entering the much cooler exhibition areas. In one room to the rear of the building I stood at a window and gazed out at a cluster of gardens. They’re such a rare delight in Venice that I was curious to peep over the walls from an advantageous height, before continuing to learn about glass from its ancient beginnings through to pretty millefiori paperweights and elaborate chandeliers. It amazes me how sand and heat can create something so beautiful, that is, when you look at tasteful glass items. I coveted the crystal clear wine glasses with a curl of opaque white climbing up their stems like twists of DNA and feared for the contents of certain display cases as our footsteps caused them to rattle in an ominous fashion. There were glass table services causing me to imagine what damage could be done to such plates whilst dragging a knife through a cut of meat. Only the seriously wealthy could afford such risk.
Back outside in the late afternoon we took photos of the canal with its pretty row of houses and the nearby Romanesque church of Santo Donato. “Can you SMILE, please?” urged Monsieur as the camera pointed my way. I hadn’t realised that my face had frozen into a frown.
We were now too late for the glass-blowing demonstrations at the big furnaces on Murano, but that saved us the awkwardness of the hard-sell at the end. In a bead shop, we smiled at how the displays looked edible, more like buckets of hard-boiled sweets in a confectioner’s than glass accessories aimed at tourists, but we could tarry no longer. The sun was now sinking so it was back to Venice proper for us, for yet another culinary adventure, Venetian style.