Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Italian Women

We are noticing on the beaches – and elsewhere though you notice it more when people have little on by way of clothes – how fat many Italians are. This may be a new thing, the diet has not changed but the levels of exercise have. Italians seldom walk anywhere. That’s not entirely true, some walk in the hills and some, predominantly men, cycle enthusiastically complete with all the fancy gear, but many on the beaches are overweight. Yet the diet is essentially quite good, apart from all that salt, it is probably just that they eat too much of everything. Hilary also comments on how big the boobs of many of the women are and wonders whether this is an Italian characteristic. Before she mentioned it I hadn’t noticed.
For the most part I do not find Italian women very attractive. Brits, Germans, Dutch and Nordic women – and Poles certainly – appeal to me enormously more. Maybe I just like the natural look. Less pose. And maybe I am not alone in that predilection, the birthrate in Italy, excepting immigrants, is low and falling, though there is also the abortion pill, which seems to be widely available if the periodic reports calling for its tighter control are to be believed, though countering that argument are the frequent ads on the television and in the newspapers for pills that are supposed to help with erectile dysfunction, which if the reports are half true is especially a problem in Italy.
And there is another thing that might help in putting me off Italian woman. We were sitting on one of our favourite beaches on Friday afternoon and I looked around. There were Italians, Dutch and Brits, one British group very rough-and-ready, a man and three women, London accents and with the man’s arms covered in tattoos and they had arrived in an rather battered old orange Ford van, but they, like all the Brits and the Dutch and unlike every Italian woman that I was able to see and detect were not doing something that all the Italians were: smoking. Every single one of them.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

For Someone who Finds Variety of Diet a Bit Disconcerting

For someone who finds variety of diet a bit disconcerting, travelling in Europe may lose some of its appeal. France is probably little problem, we find that we are eating steak frites in France unless we take care not to – not that we have anything against steak frites, nothing whatsoever at all, it just can get a little boring. And to be fair a French restaurant will always have something other than steak frites, it’s just that for those who want it, it’s usually there, and sometimes you need to search the menu for the alternatives.
Germany is more varied, though you can almost always get a piece of meat and some potatoes, often bratkartoffeln, which I am rather partial to, that is potatoes fried with onions and bacon fat, though in Swabia, in south-west Germany, you are more like to get spƤtzle, which are pasta noodles. Quite why spätzle should be a speciality of that area, a kind of joke speciality like Welshmen eating leeks, I have no idea. 
Meat or fish can sometimes be drowned in sauces in Germany, sometimes grossly so.
Italy is more particular. Pizza and pasta are available everywhere, though pizza often not at lunchtime. And fish restaurants tend to serve mostly just fish. As with everything, Italy does need a bit of expertise or luck.
Our local taverna here in Santa Vittoria does typical, ordinary, non-fancy food typical of this area. For antipasto there is slices of prosciutto crudo, that is cured uncooked ham, sometimes in Britain called Parma ham, even if it doesn’t come from Parma, which you can have with melon as an option; slices of different types of cured meat, called an affetato or sliced; bruschette, little bits of toast with something spread on them, my favourite is very simple, you can do it at home, it is butter and a couple of small fillets of tinned anchovy, surprisingly tasty yet so simple. And also, very local I’ve never seen it anywhere but this area, corata, which is lamb’s heart and possibly liver chopped small in scrambled egg.Not everyone likes that but I do. At the taverna you choose what you want, each item is priced separately, eg one piece of bruschetta, one euro.
Then there’s pasta, different types of pasta with different flavours of sauce. My favourite is what the older folk all say they were fed on as children, when there was little money around, spaghetti with olive oil flavoured with garlic, with a few flecks of peperoncino, dried chilli. Very simple.
Then there is meat, which in Italy tends to be served by itself on the plate, and you order a side plate of vegetable or salad separately. The meat might be some lamb chops, or, my favourite if they have it at the Taverna which they don’t always: grilled pigs liver. In Italy there will never in my experience be a sauce with the meat.
Red meat – i.e. not chicken or rabbit – is always served with a wedge of lemon, and it’s amazing how nice that is. Squeezed over the grilled meat – I don’t know why you never see that in Britain. Though actually I do: in Britain the tradition is to serve meat hot in thin slices. In a restaurant this is practically impossible without a gravy as the meat would cool before it got to the table and then the customers would complain it was cold, so meat served in that way will always have a gravy on it, which being water-based retains the heat. You wouldn’t want lemon with gravy. In Italy it’s more likely to be a chunk of meat, which therefore stays hot, or if it isn’t then it’ll be acceptable to serve it cool. 

Salad in Italy is often too salty for our tastes (and in Germany it is too much covered with some slimy dressing, though you tend to get a big portion which mitigates the gloopy substance a bit), in fact eating in restaurants in Italy always sees us glugging gallons of water during the night. The Italians eat too much salt.

Vegetables are whatever you ask for.  Thin green beans, fagiolini, are in season at the moment. Then there’s cicoria, which looks a little bit like rocket when on the shelf but is cooked and has a bitter greens taste. Italians tend to love it because they were fed it as children. Brits find it a bit too like bitter greens, but I quite like it. You normally order vegetables individually, none of this rubbish of a half-moon dish with a bit of carrot, a bit of cauliflower, a few East African-grown sugar snap peas. If you think you have problems with food overseas, imagine what it’s like for an Italian coming to Britain.
And of course for the children and the Brits, there are patatine, chips.

There is, probably, something for everyone – in Italian restaurants there’s little formality, if you want just a main course you can have just a main course. But finding that something can be, as I suggested, a little experimental.

Friday, 5 July 2013

A Birthday Dinner with Rabbit

It was my birthday so we decided to go to our local restaurant – not the Taverna, the hotel restaurant. Unbeknown to me Hilary had been in earlier and ordered and paid for a bottle of prosecco from Valdobbiadene – the best – and Giampiero the owner brought it to the table with a ‘tanti augurai a te’ (happy birthday to you). All a bit embarrassing, bit I gave Hilary a kiss and Giampiero said, ‘eh che moglie’, which means either ‘what a wife!’ or ‘that wife!’, the distinction in English is a subtle one.
Giampiero speaks no English, though he gets lots of English-speaking customers who speak no Italian, because his restaurant, Hotel Farfense, is well known among the Brits and he has had a write-up in The Guardian. He has been handling the language difference perfectly well for a decade or more. Giampiero married into the hotel trade, his parents-in-law opened the hotel restaurant in 1969 and when they retired Giampiero and his wife, Daniela, took it over. They have two children, the older one, Frederico, now seems to work there full-time, since we’ve been going there he has been the pizza chef, originally as a teenager and now as a young adult, for Farfense does proper pizza, where Frederico rolls out the dough, chucks it in the air spinning it round a few times (proper pizza chefs seem to have to do that) and puts it on a shovel into the wood oven, that is to say an oven where the heat is supplied by burning logs at one side of the open-fronted oven. If Frederico is not there there are no pizzas and we can see from our house when he is, by smoke rising up from the oven chimney at about 6.30pm, then we sometimes say, let’s go and get a pizza.
But though the pizzas taste wonderful, there is salt in the dough, possibly a little too much salt for our liking. And the last pizza we had there I asked for one with pancetta on, which turned out to be speck – German salty bacon – I think Frederico might have muddled the orders a bit – and while it was very, very, tasty, I had yet another night getting up several times for a glass of water.
And of course you know you are eating freshly-cooked ingredients, for you can see Frederico kneading and rolling the dough.
Work in the restaurant trade is relentless, as we know from experience, and we wonder how much longer Giampiero can keep it up, he’ll be around sixty and has been complaining of a painful knee for at least five years. Possibly Frederico will take on the business though before he can do that he’ll probably need to find a wife. He’s quite a good-looking chap.
Anyway, on my birthday both Hilary and I chose the same dishes, which is maybe a bit worrying, though we were in agreement without feeling the need to make a point one way or the other. We both started with ravioli stuffed with dried figs, and covered in a sauce of melted sheep-milk cheese with pieces of sundried tomato. This sounds rather odd, and we have never tried it before, and it is a surprisingly wonderful dish. It helps that the ravioli are handmade by Daniela, and are so very light, we suppose it is the years of experience that do that.
To follow, rabbit alla marchigiana. ‘Alla marchigiana’  in this context means cooked in white wine, garlic and rosemary; on each plate was half a roast rabbit cut into three with a light gravy or ‘jus’ as it is sometimes posily called. We have had rabbit in Hotel Farfense before and sometimes found it too salty, but we took a risk and it did not taste too salty, though it probably was as yet again a night of regular water breaks.
To do roast rabbit to order means that you must have pieces of rabbit ready-roasted that you heat before serving, it would take too long to cook from chilled or frozen, even with time to eat a starter. At least I think that’s right, I am ever ready to be surprised. Whether Giampiro buys in the rabbit ready-roasted I don’t know – he might do. It was extremely tender though, so possibly not. In the UK now all rabbit comes from China, unless you breed them yourself or know someone who does. Is that true of Italy too?  It might be, though rabbit is often on the menu in restaurants in Italy so maybe there are rabbit farms. Yet something else to try and find out. 
Giampiero suggested what vegetables we might have with the rabbit, he more or less told us what we should have, which was a plate of roasted potatoes, chopped small before roasting and not oily, quite dry, if I roast potatoes in that way, which I do sometimes, I have difficulty in preventing them from sticking to the dish unless I put enough oil, so I don’t know how Daniela does these, they were very good, and on a separate dish what Giampiero called a ‘meex’, made that day by Daniela. He seemed to be proud of having learned the word, ‘meex’. It was a plate of diced courgette, aubergine and capsicum pepper cooked in a thin sauce that we could not quite identify, it might have been meat-based (vegetarian in Italy means: you’d better stick with pizza) and we thought with rosemary. But tasted very good however Daniela had done it.
That plus a bottle of mineral water and two ridiculously tiny Italian coffees, forty-eight euros. Can’t complain at that, in a decent restaurant.