Thursday, 22 October 2009

The Land of La Dolce Vita

Autumn has always been a time of new beginnings for me - ironic, perhaps, as everything fades and loses life around us, shutting down for the winter months ahead. But Autumn is when the new school year starts and, in my own life, many new experiences. One of those was going to Italy to live for the first time. N's job was taking him over there for a six month secondment (which turned into two years) and, with nothing to lose (we weren't married and I was working freelance at the time), I decided to go with him. Having studied French and Spanish at university, my justification was going to learn Italian and to get to know a country which I had previously visited just fleetingly.

So, one late September day in 1990, after the wild farewell party where too much Pimms was drunk and my darling brother 'came out' for the first time, we set off, two cars packed to the gunnels, reeling slightly from what had gone before and what lay ahead. The UK was in the grip of a deep recession which had taken the life-blood out of London and we were, to a certain extent, relieved to be escaping to the land of La Dolce Vita.

I really had no idea what to expect. N had gone on a fleeting visit some months earlier and had come back with a few photos. I'd asked him what he thought and his answer was not the fullest. I was no further enlightened. I didn't press him.

So we put the cars on the ferry and headed south to our new life. We passed through Berne to say hello to the bears and our friend who was working there. Then on again, stopping next on the Sustenpass from Switzerland into Italy. We found a hotel right at the top where we dined that night and fell to talking with a local guy who'd hitched up from the valley and was planning to skateboard down that night in the dark. All the way. I often wonder if he ever made it in one piece. Quite a guy.

The following day we journeyed on past the Northern Lakes and then on the autostrada which dissects the northern plain from West to East. We passed Milan, Verona, Vicenza - our ultimate destination, Padova (Padua) inching inexorably closer. I remember stopping for a sandwich on the motorway and being completely fazed by not being able to speak or understand a word. We ate a dried up old panini and I sipped my attempt at getting a shandy which ended up being a mix of beer and lemon cordial. I wouldn't recommend it.

We turned off the motorway at Padova Est. The excitement was mounting - in equal measure with apprehension. It didn't look too promising. We didn't know where we were going - just the vaguest of instructions. We muddled our way through to the inner ring road and popped through a large stone 'porta' (gateway) - one of many around this small city – into a whole new world. We went from brash, wide, open and modern to small, narrow, atmospheric and ancient with one flick of the indicator. It was totally magical, totally unexpected and it took my breath away. N pulled up his new dark green Volkswagen Golf and came over to my old white Fiat Panda to inform me he was lost. I didn’t care. I wound down the window and simply said ‘Why didn’t you tell me it was like this?’ It was utterly wonderful and I fell in love with it in an instant. Big heavy wooden doors with shiny brass plates hid behind the low stone arches of the porticoes that lined the sides of this labyrinthine network of little cobbled streets. Wooden shutters in brown or green, geraniums in window boxes. There was an indescribable peace and calm about the place. None of the hectic horror we so often associate with Italians. Here is was all quiet sophistication, stone, wood and glass. And then suddenly you burst out onto a set of ancient piazzas, onto which all these little streets converge – and here it is all movement and bustle, a cacophony of animated voices, a vision of all things stylish and Italian against this fabulously ancient, silent, backdrop.

We arrived in early October, and this is a period of extended ‘re-entra’ for the Italians after the long summer break. Everyone is gathering and catching up with eachother – swopping stories and travellers’ tales over pizzas and prosecco in the piazzas. You look around and you see nothing but greens and browns and golden tans. Everyone dressed up and looking their best in their autumn colours.

We stood and joined the throng, sipping our drink, staring at the animated scene before our eyes and were filled with an overwhelming sense of well-being. This was going to be fun. Grey London was far behind us, the colour and verve of Italy all in front.

I have posted a recipe for the perfect mushroom risotto over on my Fridge Food blog. Such things I learnt in Padua, the place where I really learned about Italian food and started to cook properly myself. Everytime I cook risotto, I am transported back to these wonderful days in the north-east corner of Italy, a stone's throw from such historical and architectural gems as Venice, Verona and Vicenza. It was a privilege to live there and the experiences and memories I have of these times will stay with me forever.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Chatsworth - Beyond Limits

For the last few years, Chatsworth has been hosting a sculptural display for Sotheby's called 'Beyond Limits'. This is a display of contemporary and modern monumental sculpture set in the beautiful grounds of the Duke of Devonshire's magnificent country house in Derbyshire. It closes on 1st November 2009, so there is still time to visit. I went with my camera on a beautiful sunny day last autumn. Here are the photos I took - click on the link below and then hit the slideshow button (top left). [I'm sure there is a more sophisticated way to do this - but I don't know it yet!!] I hope they might inspire you to go. It really is worth it.

Beyond Limits 2008 Slideshow

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Man versus Woman

Dear Man

I am not just meat to pummel and knead;
I am flesh that wakens to a gentle touch,
A flower opening to the soft caress of morning sun,
Petals unfolding, gently, as the growing warmth draws moisture from a dewy lawn.

I am not your friend if you hear not what I say,
If you close your ears to things that do not fit with your desires.
And if I dare speak and yet still feel alone
Then, as petals fold in fading light, I shall close my beauty to all who watch in silence.

Slowly, slowly, I shall wilt and die.
The peace and trust that lies within all cherished things will shrink
Like leaves on autumn trees, as cold creeps close around us.
The flame that warms our souls will wither where love once was and touch was soft.

I am a flower whose petals bruise.
Remember that when next you come to me.

Love Woman.

Watch Criminal Justice, BBC 1, 9pm.
It's a powerful story.

Friday, 2 October 2009

'Cooking Doesn't Get Better Than This!' (shouted)

Well, it does, actually. Some of the stuff these contestants in 'Masterchef: the Professionals' serve up to the boggle-eyed Roux I wouldn't give my granny. He has every right to flare his malteser eyes, lift his designer stubbled chin and grimace. Raw poultry, venison that's practically walking off the plate...the catalogue of basic errors is endless.

But come, come, I mustn't be too harsh, or I'll sound like one of the puffed up, pudgy faced restaurant critics that these hapless souls have to cook for to win a semi-final place. (And what, exactly, I would like to know, equips you to be a restaurant critic? A large stomach, a huge ego and a penchant for a glass of red? I certainly think I am quite capable of eating my way round the best restaurants of the world and knowing the difference between a tasteless, unimaginative, poorly seasoned, poorly conceived dish and one that really tastes rather good. But call me old-fashioned. It is obviously a black art and I'm not in the magic circle.) And I certainly would find my concentration shot to pieces with Greg and Michel hovering like vultures in the background offering up helpful comments like 'You've got 30 seconds left, are you going to do it?' as the poor contestant's sweat drips relentlessly into the Masterchef saucepans. (If the food's too salty - you know why...). Followed with the equally unhelpful 'Well done, now go on, GO!! and don't drop it!'. No, Greg, I'll try not to. And they could at least hold the swing doors open for them - or is that the one final test? Mis-timing your exit and having one of the bastard things swing back and send the plates of food shimmying off your already shaking forearms and skidding across the floor to the feet of the fat THAT would be good telly.

Actually, it is good telly anyway and I usually try and watch it. The one thing I could REALLY do without though (aside from the shouting - oh, and the tasting mannerisms: food-laden fork hovering in front of close-up of lips then poised, as if time has stood still, in the damp cavity of their mouths, tastebuds sizzling or screaming the while) is the equally nerve-rattling, excessively irritating breathiness and tonal trippery of the girl doing the voice-over. My God. I could hit her.

Anyway, the other day they had to do a Boeuf Bourguignon in the 'Classic Test' which put me in mind of the beef chunks I had in the freezer and the casserole that I've been meaning to cook for the last week or two. I finally got round to it last night and have just enjoyed the left-overs re-heated for my lunch. I posted it over on my 'Fridge Food' blog. It's not Masterchef (even they struggled to make a casserole look pretty and refined on the plate) but my mash didn't have lumps in it and it tasted pretty good too, if I say so myself. So, pop over and take a look. Just don't shout at me, please.
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