Saturday 1 March 2008

A Week in Dusseldorf... not a phrase to make the soul sing. And for good reason, too. I've just done it, and really there's very little to recommend the experience. The City Fathers have done their best in light of the mess we left them to deal with in 1944.....but the end result of their endeavours is a vague and unfocused urban sprawl, which veers between Harlow New Town and a muted version of the set for Bladerunner. Having checked the place out on Wikipedia, it appears to have a long and venerable history - including Frederick Barbarossa, Anne of Cleves, and Maria-Luisa de Medici - and an architectural genealogy of about three and a half weeks! The highspot of my time there was the walk back to my hotel from the Conference Centre every evening, along the banks of the Rhine. At that point in their journey, the waters are limpid and well-behaved, with no suggestion of Wagnerian Rhine-Maidens or Valkyrie, and the scene of cargo barges gliding silently by in the reflection of the setting sun was positively idyllic.

Not so, the gastronomic environment.

Germany: the food desert of Europe. I make no apology for the statement. The choices for dinner each evening were either going the whole hog and plunging uncompromisingly into Bratwurst mit Rösti - or similar - or else opting for a germanised variety of some other national cuisine, which has been adapted to meet a teutonic gastro-profile. One evening, it was german-chinese, and the taiwanese waitress explained prettily that for German tastes the dishes were made 'more substantial' than they would have been at home. I'll say! The egg-fried-rice could have been used as landfill, and the theatrical aspect of the flambéed bananas was definitely more Widow Twanky than Alana Ghiorgiu....

In the circumstances, it's not surprising that I can think of no German restaurants anywhere in London - apart from a rather kitsch little cake and coffee shop in Old Brompton Road, which has now disappeared, anyway - or indeed in any other major city in the western World. But, then again, the same can be said for a whole clutch of northern european cuisines. When was the last time outside Holland that you set eyes on a Dutch Restaurant - and I don't include in that the pancake place that was in The King's Road for many years - or a Finnish or a Norwegian one, or anywhere proudly specialising in Danish or Swiss delicacies? I heard tell at one point of a Swedish restaurant somewhere in Hampstead, renowned for its deep-fried camembert, served with cloudberry jam - but the rumours were insufficiently interesting to prompt me to make the trek there to check it out in person.

And for many, many years, of course, there was D'Aquise, the polish restaurant in South Kensington - with pre-war prices, a clientele of elderly and be-whiskered polish ex-pats, and an incomprehensible menu that left you picking unidentifiable seeds from your teeth for hours afterwards. D'Aquise, though, was less a gastronomic experience than a beached cultural whale - a relic of pre-war Poland that had washed up somehow at the bum-end of Exhibition Road and continued to survive against all odds as the years passed it by.

But why is that? Why is it that London is so heavily populated with Spanish and Italian and Chinese and Indian restaurants, and yet these other countries don't even get a look-in? Is it associational - people chasing memories of Tuscany and the Costa del Sol, as they pile into Paella and glasses of Lambrusco, while cars outside the windows deal with the traffic jams and driving rain on the South Circular - or is the international restaurant diaspora simply a reflection of economic migration, and movement away from the poverty of Southern Europe.?While the Dutch and German chefs have remained comfortably and resolutely on their native soil? If so, let's hear it for the forces of economic migration, is all I can say.....long may they remain there!

But, enough of this.....Even ploughing into a prosciutto and Mozzarella panino as I waited in Fiumicino for my flight to Pisa felt like coming home! A feeling that has strengthened since then, with every mouthful of Petto di Pollo, and Fegato alla Veneziana, and Bistechie di Maiale...not to mention Onion Risotto, and Beef & Porcini Strudel, and Torta di Melanzane....

I'd better enjoy it while I can, though. Tomorrow I leave for Belgrade - and if the recent news reports are to be believed, then Molotov Cocktails are currently probably the most high profile items of local fare in that part of the World!

Tonight's dinner:


Coniglio in Agrodolce

Limoncello Panna Cotta