Monday 23 December 2013

Act of (Man of) God!

We got back from London on Wednesday evening, to the appalling discovery that in our absence a gang of chainsaw-wielding thugs had laid waste to everything growing in the lane, and along the south boundary between our entrance pergola and the adjoining field. And I do mean everything! Poplars, tulip trees, catalpas - all varying in height between thirty and sixty feet - as well as an entire row of enormous and venerably-aged bay trees, which had formed the backdrop to the view from the house and barn, across the water garden. And, just to make the point that this had been done with a generous dose of focused malice, they had also destroyed all of the climbing plants which have made the walls of the lane look so pretty over the past few years: clematis, roses, wisteria, hardinbergia, solanum, campsis, trailing capers....the lot. And, they've ripped down the creeper that we had painstakingly trained across the lane, to form a beautiful archway, green in spring and summer, and a glorious red in the autumn. All that now remains is bare electricity wires, and bleak, stripped walls. And the view from the house looking south is no longer of an idyllic,  giardino secreto, with the water garden enclosed within dense greenery, but of an urban landscape of houses, with a forest of windows and balconies all looking straight back at us. They've always been there, of course, hidden behind the dense foliage - but we've never actually seen them before; or been seen by them. Suddenly, from living in what seemed to be the middle of woodland, we find we're living in the middle of a city.

All this is the work of Monsignor G, who used to be Rettore of the seminary, until he retired fifteen years ago, but who just won't go away, and in fact now lives in a building on the Piazza, the rear of which overlooks the lane. He has caused us nothing but trouble since we arrived at Santa Caterina - it was he who sent in a bloke with a tractor, to plough up what we subsequently turned into the North Garden, in order to indicate his displeasure when we first arrived, and he again who was responsible for two oafs with chainsaws who vandalised a huge cypress tree behind the church - within our garden - about three years ago.  He gets away with a lot on the basis that he is elderly, and infirm,  and apparently well-intentioned, and that if he occasionally gets things wrong, it should be understood in the context that he's basically a harmless, sometimes confused old soul. Whereas, in fact, he's a deeply unpleasant old man with an agenda. And we now know what it is. He was born in this house, when his father was manager of the farm attached to Santa Caterina, and whilst Monsignor G climbed the ecclesiastical ladder to the dizzy height of becoming Rettore, his family continued to live in the old house. Until the last of them of his generation - a brother - died, about eight years ago. At which point, Monsignor G, we now understand, suggested to the seminary that the house should be passed to other members of his family for them to use rent-free for as long as they liked. Monsignor F, the current Rettore, thought this idea less than optimal, and decided otherwise, and after some years of faffing and general incompetent management by the seminary, we got our hands on the place, four years ago. Unbeknown to us, with Monsignor G still fulminating to himself in the background. Hence the various acts of destruction over the years, which have culminated in this most recent orgy of vandalism.

I doubt he'll do it, or anything like it, again - after the event, it seems that the seminary generally takes whatever steps are appropriate to rein him in. It's only a shame they don't act on occasion with foresight rather than merely vaguely-apologetic hindsight (anything too overtly apologetic might be interpreted as them accepting responsibility for what had happened.......and culpability isn't something they readily do).

We're going to re-plant. We had somebody come this afternoon to agree what should go where in order to achieve the best effect most quickly, and they will be coming to plant shortly after the New Year. A whole collection of poplars and catalpas, and quite a few golden bamboos. Being in this part of the world is very useful for large-scale giardino pronto,   and it's quite straightforward to get trees that are already five metres in height, without anybody thinking it unusual. It might take a couple of summers for us to get back exactly to where we were before, but at least it will be only a couple of summers...

In the meantime, if there are any sword-wielding knights within earshot looking to keep their hand-in with regard to turbulent priests, then they should try the brown door on the Piazza with the horse's head knocker. He's home most days. Fulminating.

Tonight's dinner:

Fennel Sformatini, with gorgonzola sauce.

Involtini, stuffed with lemon cous-cous; salsify, in cream.

Walnut Tart.

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Savoury Zabaglione

A revelation. A lighter - and entirely foolproof - version of hollandaise, this sauce is made in only a couple of minutes. The recipe comes from the pages  of Luigi Carnacina's encyclopaedic tome on italian cooking, which I suspect has now largely sunk without trace. Technical Dept found references recently to Signor Carnacina in a list of italian 'greats', where he nestled alongside Artusi and Ada Boni... and a subsequent search on abe books led to the arrival several weeks later of this telephone directory of a book, its pages musty from decades of neglect, with the occasional illustration jumping out with all the forceful day-glo 'cheerfulness' of food photography of half a century ago.

Carnacina was a pupil of Escoffier himself, and was sufficiently well-regarded by him subsequently to become chef at Escoffier's hotel in Ostende, before also being head chef for the Italian Pavilion at a number of World Trade Fairs - including that in New York in  1939, when Pierre Franey was cooking across the way in the French Pavilion. Relative political positioning would have placed them on opposite sides in what was then happening in Europe, though, and whilst Carnacina could readily return home at the end of the event, Franey didn't have quite the same option, and chose instead, force majeur,  to remain in the States.

Currently, Carnacina represents half of the pile of 'food books' which take up the left side of my desk (the other half of the pile is Paul Bocuse's equally encyclopaedic masterwork, from the mid-seventies, which is also full of gems hitherto unknown), and I leaf through their pages at random when in retreat from the relentlessness of the computer screen.

Last night, we started dinner with Carnacina's completely delicious risotto verde,  where the base consists of a deep green purée of sautéed spinach, onion and celery, and a spoonful of ragu is mixed in at the end, along with the grated parmesan, in order to give an extra dimension to the finished dish. Excellent.

Anyway.....savoury zabaglione. It doesn't really merit being set out in recipe form, as simple and straightforward as it is - merely omit the sugar from classic zabaglione, replace marsala with white wine (or vermouth, for slightly more heft), and mix in a few tablespoons of softened butter at the end, along with a discreet amount of whatever additional flavouring ingredient you might wish to use (grated lemon or orange zest, for instance, or truffle, or finely chopped and sautéed porcini, or chopped herbs....). For a generous amount of sauce for two servings (to go with asparagus, or over chicken liver parfait) place two egg yolks in a simmertopf or double boiler and whisk over medium heat until frothy and significantly increased in volume, then add the wine (quarter cup, if using two egg yolks) and continue whisking over heat until the mixture has visibly emulsified, and the whisk leaves a distinct trail when drawn across the surface; mix in a couple of tablespoons of softened butter, and test for seasoning; add whatever flavouring you wish (or none) and serve.

Tonight's Dinner:

Parsley Ravioli, with melted butter and cheese.

Sea Bream, with Star Anise; braised cucumber.

Crepes Suzettes, filled with Creme Patissiere.

Thursday 21 November 2013

To Houghton, for the day see Catherine the Great's pictures. Or, such of them as she'd bought from Robert Walpole's impecunious grandson sometime around 1790, at any rate. Back for the summer, while they did some redecorating in The Hermitage, it was a chance to see Walpole's collection hanging in exactly the places where he had chosen to put each of them, and exactly as he had enjoyed them when he lived in the house. It seemed a good idea to take a look while we could - although, unfortunate that the World and his wife, along with quite a few of their friends and relations appeared to have had the same idea.

Walpole junior had sold the pictures for the princely sum of £40,000. And Gary, our voluble taxi driver on a journey from the station at King's Lynn, the price of which threatened to rival the value of the pictures, opined that she'd got them cheap at the price. I'm not sure what Gary's bone fides are as a player in the Art Market, but I suspect he'd do well to stick to the day job. There are some excellent Van Dycks, a good Velasquez, a Lely, a Franz Hals....and after that, it starts to run out of steam. The Rembrandt is good, but not major; a beautiful, if slightly knocked-about del Sarto; a Murillo, good if you like that sort of thing (I don't; I find him mawkish); and a claimed 'Veronese' about which they ought to feel deeply embarrassed - it doesn't even come close to 'school of', and the fact that one can see it referred to in Walpole's own hand as Veronese speaks volumes for how much he actually knew about the subject.

It was thrilling to see them in situ from Walpole's time - knowing that it was a once in a lifetime chance to do so, at any rate. If they were there all the time and always hanging in those places, though,  I suspect the 'Walpole had them hanging exactly like this' element would become relatively uninteresting.

The house is a gem. English palladianism at its most complete. I've known it from pictures practically forever, but never before made the trek to go and see it in the flesh.  Campbell's harmonious proportions sing perfectly, and are impaired in no way by the leaden hand of William Kent as it blunders heavily across various ceiling treatments and decorative schemes within the house. The views through the windows are of avenues stretching off through parkland flecked with Gainsborough trees, and in the distance, glimpses of his Lordship's herd of white deer. Presumably, also unchanged pretty much since Walpole looked upon them. Personally, I decided after we'd been there for an hour or so, I would go stir-crazy if I actually had to live there (possibly, an entire weekend would be chancing it, even) as the lone and level landscape which stretches emptily away into the distance in all directions does so with so little drama of any kind that one could easily lose the will to live if one had to look upon it for too long.  It has been remarked before, and with good reason, that it is ''very flat, Norfolk". And I suspect not just topographically.

We traipsed the park, even as far as a rather pleasing garden pavilion that looked like the temple of the four winds, and was unsurprisingly firmly locked; admired the haha; considered the new-ish shrubberies (fortunately, not realising until I google-earthed it subsequently that part of the planting can be seen from above to be a facsimile of the present Lord Cholmondely's grandmother's signature); gave the once-over, with varying degrees of scepticism, to his Lordship's embryonic collection of garden sculpture; ...and we visited the walled garden. Which would have been worth the journey from London all on its own. Five acres (apparently) of no-holds-barred garden creation that would gladden the eye and quicken the pulse of any aspiring gardener. Oh, there are some things to criticise - the vistas don't draw the eye to their end points; the overall plan resembles a hotel corridor with a series of rooms  opening off it, rather than tantalising and leading you on, and round corners,  tempting the visitor endlessly on to something only half-viewed; there is an absence of an overall concept to give coherence to the entire design - but all of that is mere perfectionist nit-picking. The roses... the yew hedges...the greeenhouses...the fountains... the pergolas... the  borders...the scale...we only saw about half of it, before we realised Gary would already be waiting for us up by the stables, to return us to King's Lynn and all points South.

Partly in an attempt to forestall Gary's views on the Walpole artwork, which I suspected might be extensive, I praised the garden enthusiastically as we climbed back into the car. As a tactic, it couldn't have been bettered, as Gary responded merely with a grunt, before he lapsed into silence. Gary, it seems, didn't have any opinions about the gardens. Which, although surprising, was not unwelcome.

And we made the entire journey back to the station in companionable, tired-but-happy, end-of-a-day-well-spent silence.

Tonight's Dinner:

Savoury Clafoutis (with gorgonzola and prosciutto)

Young lamb, pot roast over leeks and tomatoes.

Apple and Vanilla Tarts.

Saturday 16 November 2013

The lights are going out..

..if not all over Europe, at least at the western end of the house. Davide, plus sidekick, turned up on Thursday to get started on a whole raft of jobs which had been briefed in before the summer, but then he fell off his motorbike and broke something, and then he had flu, and now we're in the middle of November, and it seems like a good time to get on with it.

They make a lot of noise, cheerfully shouting to each other as they work in different rooms...or on opposite sides of the same room....or, indeed, working right next to each other. The four-footed, a cautious animal at the best of times, stuck close while they were around, and occasionally shot me a quizzical look as if to say that he thought perhaps they weren't entirely a good thing.

And, as it started to get dark, around 4.30, they headed off, leaving behind little piles of debris...not unlike cat litter... which had been carefully collected wherever they'd had a task to do. It is an improvement - when Davide first started doing stuff for us, many years ago, he would happily just scatter rubbish in his wake as he went along. The neat little piles represent progress. Although, actually removing the debris to a rubbish bin is probably too much to ask, either now or at any time in the future...

And, half an hour after they'd gone, I discovered that there was no light in either the pantry or the laundry room. In and of itself, not a disaster, except that I then checked and found that fridges and freezers in those rooms weren't functioning, either

Since their last words as they headed out had been a cheery "Back on Tuesday", and since we were heading off to London for the weekend, this seemed like not a good idea.

I switched things on and off....checked the main fuse box....Technical Dept went and checked the uber-main fuse box, out in the change. Except, that he then also discovered that the light in the upstairs bathroom didn't work either.
I unplugged the light from the new socket that had just been installed in the kitchen. Nope - nothing changed. And then, apparently for no reason, we noticed that we had light again and power in general in both the pantry and the laundry room. Working out what the hell they'd done was like a deeply infuriating parlour game. And, in carefully retracing my steps concerning anything which had been switched on or off since they'd left, we got there! The entire electrical system in pantry and laundry room was now controlled from the light switch in the Pranzo (three rooms away) which has just been installed to work the lights in the display cabinets in that room. Go figure...

So, as long as the cabinets are happily blazing away, then we also have fully-functioning freezers.

And, by much the same token, we subsequently worked out that the upstairs bathroom light is now wired into the system for illuminating the south facade of the church. Which means that if anybody wants to have the light on when they go to have a pee, then about a quarter of an acre of thirteenth century brickwork also has to be lit up like Oxford Street at the same time, to entertain the entire neighbourhood.
If only they knew!

Wednesday 13 November 2013

Garden Update

Glorious weather. Back to planting, again, after a two week hiatus, firstly from being poleaxed with a lousy cold - which Paola seems confident was actually flu...but then isn't every sore throat categorised as 'flu', these days? - and then because of the visit to Venice.
Still much to do, following the great plant raid from Pistoia, several weeks ago. The arborescens are all planted in the old orchard, as are all the new roses, a solanum has been positioned to grow over the roof of the well-house, a new magnolia stellata beside the romitorio, and a vanille-fraise paniculata, to replace the quercifolias which I rather ruthlessly transplanted about a month ago, to a sunnier spot beyond the pine trees. The latter spent some time considering their options, but have now decided that they are happy after all in their new position, and have settled down perfectly well. Yesterday, I moved a philadelphus, which was too close to where I have to extend the south-east pergola bed, in order to plant a cistus florentinus, and after that, the south-west pergola bed also has to be extended, for a serrata santiago, as well as a couple of other things I want to move there from beside the entrance walkway. If I get my act together, I hope to plant another 100 narcissus bulbs, this afternoon, as well as a couple of petiolaris, to go on the back of the church, and possibly also make a start on the 36 dwarf bamboo (of various kinds) which we're putting in as underplanting in the wooded parts of the garden. 
The first camellia bloom has appeared: "Destiny". It was the first to flower last winter, too, and then continued in flower right through until April. The other camellias are all heavy with buds, and promise well, but with most of them unlikely to bloom this side of Christmas. Other than that, there are a few roses flowering in a desultory fashion around the place - Parole; Anna Livia; Iceberg; Anna Pavlova; Westerland - but I can already feel my fingers itching to reach for the seccateurs, to give the roses their annual heavy pruning.
And the strawberry trees, which have had a major growth spurt over the summer, are covered in white blossom - I hope, as a precursor to a decent display of 'fruit'.
The four-footed is delighted that gardening is back on the agenda - he was very understanding and sympathetic when I was suffering, but has been noticeably suffering himself from cabin-fever, more recently, especially when we came back from Venice, and then had two days of solid rain.

In fact, I can sense he thinks it's time to get on with it, right now!

Tonight's Dinner:

Salmon Soufflé

Moussaka (leftover roast lamb, rather than beef)

Lemon Verbena Crème Brulée

Friday 8 November 2013

Venice - leaving the best until last

Unintentionally. We'd had in mind spending the morning re-visiting the Correr, where the Technical Dept wanted to look at the full-length senatorial portraits in order to compare them with the Lazzarini picture of Carlo Ruzzini which is still in  the loggia at Via Fucini. The one which we informally call 'Crazy Ern', after the  
 inscription that appears behind him on the representation of a bit of decorative terracing. And I think TD had also tracked down that the Correr has a terracotta bust of Carlo, as well, which was exciting news, given that Ruzzini portraits of any kind are few and far between. That was the intention at any rate - until the moment when the lizard-like ticket seller on the door casually mentioned an entry price of 32 euros for two.

"How much?!?"  We'd been thinking merely of coming in for a look, not buying the contents.

"32 euros",he repeated, "and you also get free entry to the Doge's Palace"
"Not interesting", we told him, "we've already seen the Doge's Palace". 
"Oh, well, in that case, you can get in here for free if you show me your tickets from the Palace."
"From 2006? I doubt I could lay my hands on them, after all this time..."

He shrugged, to indicate we had no choice, and we turned and walked out, to demonstrate that we did.

Which left us standing in the sunshine in the Piazza, with time on our hands. TD suggested we strike out, yet again, for Madonna dell'Orto (which, in our repeated failure to get there, was starting to assume the character of Mrs Ramsay's lighthouse), and so, not particularly concentrating, we did. And found ourselves ten minutes later completely off course, and in Campo San Stefano, close to the Accademia Bridge. Which prompted another on-the-hoof change of plan, and a decision instead to pass by the Scuola di San Giovanni Evangelista, which I knew I knew how to get to, and which I also knew was open - relatively unusually - that morning. Little did we know quite what a gem the place is!

A fine entrance screen, which leads into the small piazza behind, with the church to the left and the Scuola to the right.The lower hall of the Scuola is pleasant enough, but largely unremarkable, and then, a right turn and another, and before you opens the most perfect staircase in the World. Designed in 1498 by Codussi, it plays astonishing tricks with perspective, with a barely discernible horizontal entasis on the treads, and a gentle and imperceptible tapering outwards of the staircase walls - the top tread is apparently 70 centimetres wider than the lowest one - and the effect is of a grand staircase stretching effortlessy way off into the distance. While, in fact, it occupies only the space of a moderately sized room,  it somehow achieves the grandeur of the most splendid neo-classical baroque staircases to be found in palaces the length and breadth of Europe. Quite, quite remarkable.

The Scuola was empty, apart from us - not even a lumpy custodian in sight, and we sat for ages in the upper Sala, taking in the pictures and the proportions and the atmosphere. Thick layers of silence. Dust motes playing in the rays of sunlight which penetrated the curtains pulled imperfectly across the bulls-eye windows above the large canvases which lined the north and south walls. We stayed for hours, footsteps echoing heavily across the richly polished marble; and nobody to object as we sat in the governors' chairs in the Sala d'Albergho, and explored the intricate and intriguing carvings on the chapter stalls - the result of some febrile sixteenth century imagination.

The church also, we had to ourselves. It was unlocked especially for us to enter, and we locked it behind us again as we left. A charming combination of early gothic, merged with some later neo-classical....some parts of it in perfect condition, and recently restored, and in other places, damp plaster peeling horribly from the walls, and in serious need of attention. The repairs seemed to be a work in progress, but it was unclear whether the restoration would prevail before the structure gave way entirely.

We'd spent so long at the Scuola that we risked being too late for lunch anywhere - and certainly, when we tried at La Zucca we were smilingly turned away, on the basis that the kitchen was already closed. Which, frankly, given the style of the place, seemed a little precious.  Rejecting two further hostelries which we passed en route towards the station, we dived into a third and hit paydirt. Full of large and loud italians, only a minute after we sat down, a couple of gondolieri came in and occupied a table together in the inner room; this was clearly the venetian equivalent of white-van-man territory, which, as any fule no, is always where the best food is to be found. And the rule held good, as we feasted on perfect gnocchi al salmone, washed down with a half litre of a slightly frizzante Soave.

And, after that, we did indeed finally make it to Madonna dell'Orto. Famous for its Tintorettos, in fact the gems there are a beautiful panel by Cima da Castignione, and a Titian (in need of a good clean) on the apocryphal Book of Tobit. (Note to self, concerning Tintoretto: it is not possible for anybody to have covered in one lifetime the acres - and acres - of dreary canvas which are confidently attributed to Tintoretto, all over Venice, and beyond. Has nobody every counted it up, and done the maths? If they have, I think we should be told, and if they haven't, they should...)

And thence, thoroughly satisfied, back to San Julian, and a well-earned evening at rest.


Venice, Day 3...

And the morning acqua was even more alta both than previously and, presumably, than expected by the powers that be, as we discovered when turning a corner en route to the vaporetto stop at San Zaccaria, and found the piazza ahead of us a sheet of water, knee-deep, and not a raised duckboard walkway in sight. No choice but to do a u-turn, and we made our way instead back to the Rialto, from where we went by  boat down to San Marco, and got back on track there.

Another beautiful morning. The sun glinted gorgeously off  the one or two facades along the Grand Canal which have been recently restored to their renaissance 'bling' splendour...all garish fresco, and glittering mosaic. Wonderfully vulgar. To see the entire length of the Grand Canal decked out unashamedly like that must truly have been a sight to behold. Possibly more impressive than beautiful.

To San Giorgio Maggiore for the morning. Visually iconic, from a distance, but I'm not sure that many people actually make the hike out to see it. The pregnant armless woman from Trafalgar Square is indeed installed just to the left of the main church, gazing implacably out across the water. Not the marble original, but a much larger inflatable version, in pale lilac fabric. On the plinth was a whole load of guff about it being the sort of art which, if not looked at and forming the basis for people's thoughtful consideration, disappears into nothingness. "I wish...", I muttered grumpily, considering that there was nobody there to pay any attention to the thing.  If only I'd had a pin. Then, we'd see about disappearing into nothingness.
 The church is sublime. Perfect. Although, viewed through eyes trained to Vanbrugh and Hawskmoor, it has a curiously secular feel. If the altar were to be quietly removed, and a few battle-scarred colours to be hung from the architraves, you could readily imagine yourself in the entrance hall at Blenheim, or beneath the dome at Castle Howard.

The Venice yacht club has its quarters on the island, and we strolled the length of the sunlit quay past moored yachts rolling gently on the water. A glass of wine and a plate of pasta at the cafe, largely deserted, with a view across the channel towards San Marco and the facades along the Riva degli Schiavoni, while the car ferry chugged resolutely back and forth before us, going between piazzale Roma and the Lido. At one point, the Technical Department took a call on his phone, and mentioned, as he checked the number afterwards, that it had come from Wembley. We seemed an awfully long way away from Wembley.

And then, on to the Giudecca, which had been our original goal on setting out. Only ever viewed from a distance, we had a suspicion that there were things there to be found and possibly an undiscovered gem, for future visits. Sadly, not so. Striking inland from the quayside, we discovered what appeared to be blocks of social housing units, all rather grim and prison-like, and a depressingly dead atmosphere that would have made even 'dour' seem like a positive in comparison with the drab dreariness all around us. The only high spot was a pilgrimage to the front gate of the Garden of Eden, with tantalising views beyond of trees and statuary...but no way of putting a foot inside -

and even the Redentore I found rather flat and uninspiring. Definitely, IMHO the Redentore comes a distinct second to the majesty of San Giorgio Maggiore. After half an hour or so, and stopping short of the Molino Stucky, we fled the Guidecca on the first available vaporetto, which took us round the bum end of the now-deserted docks (a view of unlovely industrial charmlessness), in the direction of the station. Right past the place where, years ago now, we'd once seen from a passing water taxi a police operation as part of which a low-flying carabiniere helicoptor had mistakenly sent thousands of banknotes in a swirling cloud to rain down upon the canal and the surrounding area, providing untold largesse for the local citizenry.

From the station, we set out on foot for Madonna dell'Orto, and made a complete hash of the route. Once we'd realised we were already at entirely the wrong end of Strada Nuova, and thus within striking distance of home, conscious of sore feet and a mild sense of church-fatigue, we called it a day.


Ravioli of Mortadella and Ricotta

Salsiccie Veneziana; gratinata of zuccini.

Apple pithiviers. 

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Venice, Day 2...

Glorious weather. Everything washed clean by the rain of the night before, and additionally by an acqua alta, which had the gondolieri bending awkwardly to negotiate the lower bridges, and which led to raised duckboarding in places where the streets were actually full of water (Robert Benchley, take note!) and pedestrians were invited to carry on as normal, but just three feet higher. In a side street near San Julian, the newspaper kiosk had become a little island in the middle of a lagoon all its own, and the proprietor watched balefully as all her potential customers made their way along the street, separated from her by more than the arm's length necessary for the exchange of goods and money.

The venetians seem to be a remarkably good-natured lot - they must be, I decided, as the result of my supermarket incident of the morning, when an entirely unassuming packet of minced veal flashed up a price of 1,900 euros as it was passed across the scanner. Which then resolutely refused to change its mind, as the check-out girl tried repeatedly to reverse the transaction. Maurizio was called...but the machine remained obstinate, as the queue behind me grew ever longer...then Massimo was summoned....but he initially failed to make any difference. I was starting to get impatient, but the smiles on the faces of the people behind me seemed completely unfazed. Eventually, the machine was made to see reason, and the Italian national debt was put back in its box. Smiles and good humour all round, as I paid and left, thinking that if that had taken place in London or New York, then blood would probably have been spilt by an enraged mob of impatient shoppers, wreaking carnage with their wheelie bags!

Palazzo Grimani - the one just behind Santa Maria Formosa - for several hours before lunch. Tranquil, majestic and a glorious discovery. Apart from a party of italian schoolkids, who arrived noisily, but then departed practically at the same time - not unlike a crowd of starlings, en route for Africa - we had the place to ourselves. Sun flooded the rooms, empty of all but a few paintings dotted here and there (a Titian, last seen at The Quirinale, in May, and greeted now as an old friend; a Vasari panel, which was arguably of a better standard than most of his stuff; although that isn't saying much;  two or three Tintoretto portraits; and a Roman Ganymede suspended from the ceiling of what had been the Grimani wunderkammer ). Beautiful renaissance frescoes, some in perfect condition, others merely the beaux restes (but what restes there were, were extremely beaux indeed); carved fireplaces, inlaid wall could all have been one rhinestone too many, but in fact was quite perfect.

Early afternoon found us at the top of the Campanile at San Marco - a trip that has been tried before, without success..I think our timing has always been off. Clear views out over the city, the lagoon, the islands, and all the way practically to Treviso in the North and Ravenna in the South. San Giorgio Maggiore gleamed brilliantly, and beside it, rather improbably, could be seen that statue of the armless pregnant woman, which at one time occupied the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square (only, I think, this version is a great deal larger). Perhaps this is outreach by the British presence at the Biennale, which I think is still on for another few weeks.

Down to ground level, once more, and we wound our way through the Piazza....surprisingly lightly populated, as is much of Venice at the moment...and thence to the Accademia bridge, in order to negotiate the tortuous route up to the Frari. It used to be on our journey from the Zattere up to Cannaregio, and so we'd walked past the Frari many times before, but never actually set foot inside. The volume is wonderful, and, behind the high altar, the tiered fenestration is striking. Canova's tomb, like the pup of some fantasy design of Boullée, gives pause for thought, with its unremitting neo-classical presence installed rather brutally in the middle of the Frari's soft gothic charm; water damage is evident up to the knees of the attendant, oversized marble mourners, however, so perhaps nature will eventually take its course. The art in the place is not wonderful - everybody raves about the Titian altarpiece, but I've seen it before, up close, and I don't actually like it much. There are some good-ish Vivarini's, and a good Bellini altarpiece in the sacristy; in the chapter house, with its pitted red and white checkerboard floor and the smell of many generations of beeswax, is a lovely Veneziano, which alone would justify the visit. A glance at the heap of long-dead roses tossed through the bars onto Monteverdi's tomb, a sideways glance (in astonishment, largely) at the Pesaro mausoleum, and we were back out once more in the square outside, the late afternoon sun disappearing behind the rooflines, and the thought of tea and biscotti at home putting paid to any idea I might have had of also fitting in a visit to Madonna dell'Orto before the end of the day.

Tonight's Dinner

Gnocchi alla Romana

Grilled Salmon, braised Cucumber.

Plum Tarts.

Tuesday 5 November 2013


We arrived in the rain - a persistent drizzle, but not so bad that we were put off walking to the Rialto vaporetto stop (where we had an assignation with somebody who was to lead us to our home for the next few days), rather than shell out the fourteen euros for two one-way tickets to ride the waves for the eight minute journey down the Grand Canal. I don't remember the vaporetto charges being so exorbitant on previous visits. Maybe they were, and we just didn't tend to use them. That would at least explain why it is that we know the walking routes through Venice well enough to be able to rely on shanks pony. From the station at Santa Lucia, it was a leftward swing towards Cannaregio, then the full length of the Strada Nuova, and a rightish trajectory thereafter.  And eccolo!...the steps of the Rialto bridge, populated with a dense array of opened and dripping umbrellas that was more reminiscent of Renoir than of Canaletto.

The apartment is large and light, and nestled deep in that area midway between Rialto and San Marco which is dense with a patchwork of small courtyards, twisting alleyways, and obscure canals. From the kitchen and bedroom windows, the Campanile of the Basilica can be seen, softly illuminated after nightfall, and the various windows in the living room look down to a small courtyard and entrance to a sotoportego and out across a roofscape of mottled tiles, altanas, and the oddly complicated shapes of venetian chimnypots.

 Having raided the local stores and stocked the kitchen, we headed out in a damp dusk to track down  the renowned Libreria Acqua Alta, just the other side of Santa Maria Formosa. The Libreria is a place about which many people have raved, enthusing that it claims truthfully to be 'the most beautiful bookshop in the world'. It isn't. By a long way. As advertised, the warren of rooms was filled to overflowing with books, piled high in beached gondolas and bathtubs, and stacked precariously to left and right of the small amount of floor left navigable to those browsing. But, the books were tired and dog-eared and unloved. Everything was dirty and damp, and the covers of the books left one searching (in vain) for somewhere to wipe one's fingers afterwards. In two small courtyards, bales of books were piled forlornly, gently rotting in the rain, and the interior of the place smelt mildly of mould and neglected decay. The whole place is decadent in the extreme, and in the worst possible way - and I speak as somebody who has no problem whatsoever with the idea of decadance, having even been known to indulge, myself, on a good day. The Libreria, rather than being the treasure house that we'd been led to expect, was more like an elephants' graveyard, in a very advanced stage of decomposition. Fortunately, I did find one volume that was still worth rescuing - Emilia Valli's 'La Cucina di mare dell'Abruzzo e del Molise' - and so, book underarm and heading for resurrection, we headed out into the rain and the night, to return home to a welcoming glass or two of Prosecco, and dinner.

And awoke, this morning, to a Venice of clear blue skies and  bright sunlight, and streets gleaming and freshly washed by last night's downpour.

Onward and upward!

Thursday 10 October 2013

This Year's Booker Shortlist...

has been excellent. The best in years! At one point, I surprised the Technical Department by saying that of the five I had read at that point, any one of them would be a worthy winner.  Of them all, the one I read last 'We Need New Names' was probably the weakest of the bunch, although I think even that was only by comparison with the others, rather than on an absolute standard.

 'The Testament of Mary' is a remarkable piece of writing - but I'm not sure I would describe it as a novel, fact, I'm not quite sure in which department on the library shelves it belongs... on that basis alone, I don't think I would choose it as the winner.

''The Luminaries', I loved - I heard one of the judging panel on the radio describe beginning to read this book as like sinking into a lovely, warm bath....and it is! Exactly! Tremendous fun, and completely engrossing. Although, I suspected at the end that I'd entirely missed the author's point in all of her astronomical references, the relevance of which passed me by completely.

Jhumpa Lahiri, with 'The Lowland'  was a tremendous new discovery for me; I so enjoyed the style of this book...wise and four-square and gently fatalistic. And beautifully written. I see she already has several other books to her name, which I will be consuming at my leisure over the winter months.

'A Tale for the Time Being' was charming, and lyrical, and a complete pleasure - I'm not entirely sure about the Schrodinger's Cat concept which evolves at the end, though, as it was unpleasantly reminiscent of some aspects of that appallingly arch, mannered effort 'Sophie's World', which was (incomprehensibly) a great hit about twenty five years ago. In the days before Amazon, now I come to think of it....

And then there was 'Harvest'. About which I have no reservations whatsoever, and so probably, if only by process of elimination, that must be my choice for this year's winner. Or is it 'The Lowland'..?.I don't know. The choice is not easy...
It remains to be seen whether the judges agree with me, at least about it being one of those two - it would pretty much be a first, if they do, and if my past second-guessing performance is anything to go by, then it will be Ms Noviolet Bulawayo who walks off with the cheque!

It was a shame that 'Transatlantic' didn't make it to the shortlist - it certainly deserved to, and I expect we'll see Colum McCann there at some point in the future. I wouldn't have been surprised had Donal Ryan made it also, with 'The Spinning Heart'. But, I do confess to throwing my hat in the air when 'Unexploded' didn't make the final cut, as it must be one of the most irritating, silly, superficial, vapid, witless and uninformed pieces of writing I've ever had to plough through; shame on them for having it let even get as far as the Longlist!

In any event, it has been such a pleasure to work my through them, over the past six weeks or so. Complete congratulations to this year's judges for having done such a splendid job - of the final six, not a duffer amongst them!

I have to run. The Pauli are coming to dinner, in about ten minutes, for a vertical tasting of Foie Gras cooked two ways - one cured in salt, and the other gently poached.

Onward and upward!


Sunday 15 September 2013

Sea bass fillets with porcini 'en papillote'

Very straightforward, and perfectly delicious. This recipe comes from the River Cafe - not a resource I would often quote (having dined there a couple of times when it first opened, many years ago, I wasn't sufficiently inspired at the time to bother with a third visit....and their cheerfully-coloured volumes of recipes which have appeared over the years have seemed to me to be pretty much of a piece with the restaurant...ok, but basically unexciting); I was sent copies of a whole raft of their books, a couple of months ago, though, and have been picking at them ever since, to see if there's actually anything there. On the Nico Ladenis system that the purchase of a recipe book (or the space it takes up on your shelves, if a gift) is justifed by one recipe from it creeping into your repertoire, then this is the one which does it for me. The flavours here are rich and intense, and since the method allows all the work to be done hours in advance, it lends itself perfectly to entertaining (or to a long soak in the bath after an afternoon's work in the garden,  prior to an effortless segue into dinner).

For two.

Ingredients: Sea Bass fillets, skin left in place (either two fillets from one large fish, or else four fillets from two smaller beasts - depending on what you can get; recently, I've more often found smaller fish at the fish counter, which are much cheaper than one large beast, and work equally well presentationally for a dish like this); 30g butter; 2 medium garlic cloves; 20g dried porcini; dried thyme; salt.


1. Put the dried porcini in a small bowl and cover generously with boiling water; leave to soak for half an hour or so, then filter the soaking liquid through a sieve lined with kitchen paper (and retain the liquid), and rinse the porcini pieces to remove any remaining grit. Chop the porcini into small pieces.

2. Put the garlic cloves through a press, and, in a small pan, sauté the garlic in the melted butter until soft - a couple of minutes at most. To this, add the chopped porcini, and continue to cook for a minute or so, and then add all of the reserved soaking liquid. Bring the liquid to a boil, and then simmer until reduced to a thickish sauce (a couple of minutes, or so).

3. On a square of greaseproof paper or foil, large enough subsequently to be closed entirely over the fish fillet(s), lay one fillet per serving, and sprinkle this with salt and a little dried thyme, and then spoon  over it some of the porcini sauce; if using two smaller fillets per person, then lay the second fillet on top of the first one and repeat the process with salt, thyme, and porcini sauce.

4. Close the paper or foil, to seal the fish properly inside. Lay the packets on a baking sheet or dish and bake for 15 minutes in an oven pre-heated to 200 degrees C.

To serve, open the packets, and use a fish slice to transfer the contents to heated plates. Goes well with cucumber batons, which have been blanched and then braised in butter.

Saturday 7 September 2013

I spoke too soon.

Summer returned. With a vengeance. Although with the difference that the sun rises later and sets earlier than it did in August, so we no longer have the glorious early mornings and the extension of the day long into the evening. It is baking in the middle of the day, however, and so the afternoon siesta routine continues, and the large fan, which had been removed from the Salone and placed ready to go into winter storage, has been re-installed behond the sofa, and the doors and windows to the courtyard all remain resolutely wide open  24/7. I suspect we're on borrowed time, though, and at least one of the weather forecasts is promising several days of thunderstorms and cloudbursts, shortly.

Which won't be entirely unwelcome.

Tonight's dinner:

Crespelle, filled with ragu and spinach, baked with a coating of bechamel and parmesan.

Pork chops, braised, and sauced with white wine and sage; french beans, cooked with diced tomato.

Caramel ice cream, with fresh figs (macerated in brandy) and praline.

Wednesday 28 August 2013

Summer's over

Coming downstairs, early yesterday morning, for the first time in months there was a chill to the air, and I was prompted to close the doors into the courtyard, which have been standing open since June. It rained last night, leaving pools of water on the entrance walkway, and a freshness which, although envigorating, speaks more of early autumn than of the depths of summer. The sun is warm, but no longer baking.

It's been blissful. Endless days ...weeks...of unbroken sunshine...a rhythm of siestas, and candlelit dinners, al fresco and late...early mornings working in the garden, the lawns washed with clear, strong  sun, and again in the evening, as the shadows lengthen and the sprinklers drench everything with hundreds of gallons of water. Individual days dissolved into a lazy refrain of sleeping, and working, and eating, and sleeping....waking, occasionally to wonder whether it was six in the morning or six in the evening, and it being not particularly important, in either event.

We have a last burst of summer social activity - three dinner parties and two different sets of houseguests, all to host within the next week - and can then subside, I hope, into a gloriously mellow autumn.

Tonight's dinner:

Parma Ham and Melon (the melons smell so irresistible at the moment, that I have an immediate menu-readjustment as soon as I get near them!)

Pork loin, pot roast with vinegar & peppercorns, in a cream sauce; braised mushrooms.

Plum and almond tart.

Tuesday 13 August 2013

Striped Pasta

My starter offering in this year's Masterchef weekend - which was about a month ago...but which hasn't been blogged before now due to general levels of inertia as the result of stultifying heat over the past few weeks!

Striped pasta is an idea which came (for me, at any rate) from the Simili Sisters, a couple of leathery old bats from Bologna, whose lives are devoted to pasta and to sharing their devotion with the rest of the World. Their aesthetic sense looks to have stuck somewhere around 1967, and their version of striped pasta is a 'cheerful' evocation of the flag of Italy, with stripes of green, orange (ish), and white (ish); I decided to adopt their method, but took a more post-modern approach, and went instead for good old Black and White. Once you know how to achieve the various different colours available in fresh pasta, then the World is your oyster. For obvious reasons, there's little point in using the sheets of pasta for anything which involves them being cut into narrow strips (fettucine, or smaller) or where the pasta disappears under a blanket of sauce (lasagne, for instance). For large 'stuffed' (tortelloni, agnolotti, ravioli) or for dishes where the pasta is cooked and served as large squares (which seems to have as many different names as there are regions across the whole of Italy), then this works perfectly. For masterchef, I made large triangular ravioli, with a stuffing of salmon and tarragon, and served them with melted butter and a sprinkling of bottarga.

Ingredients: 'White' Pasta: 1 cup 00 flour, 1 cup semola flour, 3 medium eggs, 1 tsp salt, 1 generous tsp olive oil; 'Black' Pasta: 1 cup 00 flour, 1 cup semola flour, 3 medium eggs, 1 tsp salt, 1 generous tsp olive oil, 1 sachet squid ink.(This will make a much larger quantity of pasta dough than you will probably require in one go....but the remainder keeps in the fridge for up to a week, if not longer, and can be used up at will over that period)


1. Make the 'white' pasta, by combining all ingredients in the food processor and working it for the thirty seconds it takes to consolidate into a ball; knead the dough briefly on the work surface, and then put in the fridge for about an hour.

2. Ditto with the black pasta ingredients.  

3. For generous servings for three people, use only half of the white pasta dough, and a quarter of the black pasta dough.

4. As per normal practice, roll each of the two doughs ten times at the broadest setting on your pasta machine, then put each one through the machine decreasing the settings as you go, until you have reached the mid-setting on the machine (different machines vary on the number of different thickness-settings they machine in Italy has nine, and the one in London has seven). For me, this means rolling the dough until setting number four. You will probably need to divide the dough as you proceed in order to keep the lengths manageable for putting through the roller.

5. Once both doughs are rolled to mid-thickness, lay the strip(s) of white pasta on a floured surface or flat cloth. Cut the black strip of dough into thin strips (either by hand or using the fettucine cutter on the pasta machine), and then carefully lay the black strips, spaced evenly apart, on top of the white pasta. Using a rolling pin, once the strips are in place, gently press down along the length of the strip and pass the rolling pin lightly, a couple of times, over the dough, to ensure that the black and white doughs are properly attached to each other.

6. Pass the amalgamated pasta through the roller on the machine, and continue as normal, decreasing the thickness with each roll, until the pasta has gone thriugh the thinnest setting.

And that's it. Therafter, use as you would any other pasta. The theatrical effect is excellent - and even the italians are impressed!

Tuesday 16 July 2013

Brioche for Breakfast

Most recipes I've come across for baking brioche appear to ignore the fact that the reader of the recipe does actually have a life to lead, and the complicated cascade of risings, and warm restings, and cold restings, and punchings-down, and more of the same, repeated in a complicated and practically alchemical choreography is entirely inconsistent with a normal routine of eating, sleeping, and generally getting on with the day. I usually want brioche warm and  baked freshly for breakfast, and to be able to produce it without having had to get up at 4.30 in the morning to do so! This version, adapted from Michel Roux, is a godsend. He appears to have stripped away  many of the various stages which he - clearly correctly - considers unnecessary, and the remaining slimmed-down process is entirely practical and user-friendly...and consistent with only being ejected from bed along with 'Thought for the Day' (as who isn't...? If you're still lingering between the sheets at that point, TFTD is enough to make anybody take flight) and still having brioche on the table for 9.00!

This quantity is sufficient for six individual brioches, as well as a medium brioche loaf. Start the day before, with steps 1 through 7; then the final rising and baking can be done just in time for breakfast, next day.

Ingredients: 500g flour (I use Italian 00 Gran Tenero, which has only little gluten; the more glutenous your flour, the chewier and less cake-like your finished brioche will be - a question of personal preference); 2 tsp salt; 15g fresh yeast; 3 fl oz milk; 6 medium eggs; 350g butter; 30g sugar; egg glaze (1 egg, beaten with 1 tbs milk)


1. Heat the milk to blood temperature, place in a small bowl, and crumble the yeast into it , to 'prove'.

2. Combine flour and salt in a mixing bowl (make sure the two are well mixed, and the salt dispersed throughout the flour - the yeast will react badly if it comes into contact with 'undiluted' salt in any significant quantity. Make a well in the centre of the flour, and into this pour the yeast-milk mixture, first stirred with a fork. Flick flour lightly over the liquid and leave aside for fifteen or twenty minutes.

3. Add all of the eggs to the bowl, and then mix the contents of the bowl to make a homogeneous mass (I do this with the mixer paddle) and then knead for ten minutes or so, using the dough hook). Roux says you can also do this by hand, using a wooden spoon, but that it will take twice as long. Haven't tried, can't comment - but it sounds tiring!

4. During the ten-minute kneading, place the butter and sugar together in another bowl, and leave to soften at room temperature.

5. Towards the end of ten minutes, whisk the butter and sugar together with a hand-beater, and add this gradually to the dough being kneaded. Once the butter-sugar mixture has all been amalgamated, continue to knead for another five minutes or so.

6. At this point, cover the bowl with a damp cloth, and put in a warm place - I use a cold oven, in the bottom of which is a roasting pan full of boiling water - to rise, and leave for two hours or so. The dough will rise quite dramatically during this period.

7. Once risen, transfer the dough (or, in fact, the consistency is really more like a batter, at this stage) into a bowl which has room enough for the mixture to double in size, then cover the bowl with cling film and put into the fridge. (The process of transferring acts as 'punching down', and I have to do it anyway, as my mixer bowl is too large to go easily into the fridge). Leave in the fridge for at least eight hours, and up to twenty four hours.

8. Take the dough from the fridge. It will by now be quite firm, and can be placed on a floured surface for shaping. With this quantity, I can make six individual brioches, and the remaining dough goes into a medium sized loaf tin. Brush the centre of the surface of the brioches with egg glaze, then leave to rise, uncovered, in a warm place, until doubled in size - this takes about half an hour.

9. Once risen, brush again with egg glaze and then bake in an oven pre-heated to 220 degrees C. The  smaller brioches will be read after about fifteen minutes, and the larger one might take another ten minutes after that.

Tuesday 9 July 2013

Chicken Liver Risotto

Rich and unctuous, with a satisfyingly complex mix of flavours. This comes from the Harry's Bar recipe book - a widely unknown treasure trove (perhaps unwisely 'introduced' by Michael Winner, in its most recent incarnation), which for the past few years has been an entirely reliable resource in my kitchen.
We had this as our 'primi' last night, as we dined by candlelight in the courtyard, while the glorious sound washed over us of the Kreutzer Sonata being expertly played next door in the garden of the Teatro Lux. Perfection!

For two:

Ingredients: risotto al bianco for two (2/3 cup of carnaroli rice; quarter of a medium onion; butter; oil; glass of white wine; approx 500 ml stock - something light; I used the broth leftover from poaching a chicken the day before; half a cup of grated parmesan): 125g chicken livers; butter; oil; half a cup of dark stock (mine was a combination of stock from pheasant and rabbit carcasses); half a cup of Marsala (or substitute medium sherry); 1 tbs plain flour; 1 tsp dried thyme; 1 tbs freshly chopped parsley; seasoning.


1. Make the risotto in the normal way: sautée finely chopped onion in half oz butter plus 2 tbs oil; add the rice, and stir; add the wine, and reduce; gradually add the stock, to cook the risotto over 20-25 minutes; when the rice is cooked, turn off the heat and stir in another half oz butter and all the parmesan; add seasoning, to taste.

2. Meanwhile: sautée the livers briefly in 2 tbs oil, then add the marsala and flambé the whole thing;  remove the livers to a small bowl, and add the dark stock to the pan juices; in a simmertopf, melt 1 oz butter, then stir in the flour, to make a roux; into this stir the pan juices and stock, along with the thyme; stir constantly for a few minutes, while the sauce thickens to a velvety texture; cut the livers into small pieces, then add these to the sauce, and keep warm while finishing preparation of the risotto. Check and adjust seasoning as necessary.

3. Plate the risotto (heated plates!), and divide the chicken liver sauce over the plated risotto. Garnish with parsley.


Friday 5 July 2013

Old Bricks...

are  the theme of the moment. I've spent two mornings this week - from seven to nine, since it is too hot now to do anything later in the day than that - clearing out the weeds from what we poetically call the 'rhyll', which runs along two sides of the North Lawn, before it disappears into the confusion of undergrowth beneath the pine trees. In fact, it's a brick-lined channel, almost a foot deep, and half as wide, which starts out at the huge old well in the NW corner of the garden, and then runs gently downhill for its entire course. We think it was probably intended to replenish the level in the well beside the house, as necessary, from the water supply in the older and larger well - which is so plentiful that it appears in its own right on some old maps of Pisa, and which hardly shows any drop in level even at the end of a long, hot, rainless summer, when we've daily been throwing hundreds of gallons of water from it over all parts of the garden. The system was probably multi-functional, since there are slots in the rhyll, in places, for little sluice gates - which suggest that it was used also as a watering system, during the period when the garden here was still monastery farmland. I suppose it could be seventeeth century - going by the date of the house and of the smaller well - although I doubt that style of brickwork changed much over many hundreds of years, so it's quite hard to date with any accuracy. The Technical Dept is keen to use it in anger as some kind of water feature (we've tested it, and it holds water perfectly efficiently), and I can see it could be quite dramatic if we filled it with water and had half a dozen small fountains placed periodically along its length. Watch this space...

And the other bricks are the ones I've been dealing with as part of the process of reclaiming our cantina, which the previous generation of neighbours 'borrowed' (without asking) about a dozen years ago from our predecessor here, and which - since the current neighbours appear somewhat shamefacedly to have abandoned - we have decided to re-annexe. Having identified where (logic suggested)  the old doorway must have been, from the back of the laundry room, conveniently positioned between the boiler and the autoclave, I set to, with great enthusiasm and a large hammer, about a week ago - and was encouraged almost immediately to discover the vertical edge of an old doorway, which meant I was exactly on-track. It was only with the gradual discovery that the wall I was removing was not the sort of neat bricklaying of the late twentieth century, however, but that it also included large (and I mean 'large') chunks of dressed stone, that I realised that the infill I was removing was from several hundred years earlier than I'd thought. And then, I discovered the start of a graceful arch at the top of my vertical door edge - and immediately recognised it as part of the run of arches which are so perfectly preserved further along in the house, incorporated into the dining-room wall. And which also
appear as a second run of arches on the floor above, where three of them can be seen, forming part of the back wall to the courtyard terrace. The arches are part of the original thirteenth century church, which were incorporated into the structure of this house after the fire in 1650, when this section of the church wasn't re-built but was instead re-cycled to make a farmhouse for the factor of the monastery farm. The same explanation lies behind the ruined and truncated vaulted ceilings which now form alcoves in the courtyard - but which must once have been side-chapels in the church - and the great arched doorway which can be seen partly in the courtyard and partly in the dining room - with the top half concealed behind the plaster in the bedroom above - and which must originally have given access to the church interior, via the Martyrs' Chapel, which is still on the other side of the dining-room wall.

I imagine that before the fire, the arches were part of a two-storey loggia, or open corridor, which looked over the south side of the church, and probably, during the time when Thomas Aquinas would have been here, gave access to monks' cells and administrative offices where we now have the kitchen and salone. What a relief that I didn't start wielding my hammer six inches further to the right!

Tonight's Dinner:

Courgettes stuffed with tomato, garlic and mozzarella.

Tuscan Sausages, with braised lettuce.

Peach Tart - made with white peaches from the tree which Sarah gave us from Wisley.

Friday 14 June 2013

This year's tea pavilion at The Serpentine Gallery a triumph! All the more surprising given my degree of underwhelmedness on reading the reviews of it several weeks ago when the design was first unveiled in the National Press - by Sou Fujimoto, it seemed a pale imitation of the last japanese design, from several years ago, and the accompanying blurb about Fujimoto's thoughts on good design had me reaching for the 'delete' button on the computer keyboard, even before the end of the second paragraph. So, it was with no high expectation that I suggested we go and take a look at it, when an airing in the Park seemed a good idea, once summer had unexpectedly hit SW7 this afternoon, and bright sunshine and clear, blue skies beckoned. And, in fact, the place is a complete pleasure!

Like the unplanned result of the lid having been left off the biggest and best box of meccano in the World,  it rises ziggurat-like, with layer upon layer of spindly white framework, inviting exploration. Which is what people were doing, climbing up the outside and perching in the afternoon sun. And inside, it was the same, too - to the side of a central atrium,  plexi-glass levels rose above us and people, having clambered up, looked down and around, as though sitting in mid-air...with the view through the walls of the lawns and the Park beyond, and of trees swaying dramatically in the summer breeze. "This", said the Technical Department (happiness etched on his face) "is what it looks like when you've got the top-of-the-range version....the one that you always lust after, but in fact you've always had to make do with the intermediate model instead, because the best-of-the-best is always out of reach, and the shop only uses it as a way of getting punters in who'll end up (regretfully) settling for something less. This is the acme!"

And so, we celebrated. With tea. Provided by Fortnums, in a natty little carry-all. And acccompanied with sandwiches (egg, salmon, cucumber, and tongue) as well as scones, with cream and strawberry jam, and sacher-torte, and raspberry macaroons, and pistaccio macaroons....and all in all, it was perfect. 

Buy now, while stocks last!

Tonight's dinner (once we've recovered from tea):

Omelette Arnold Bennet.

Lamb Cutlets (in celebration of a few days in London); petits pois with pancetta

Marsala posset, over prunes poached in cinnamon and red wine.

Thursday 30 May 2013

In Rome...

for a few days of cultural R&R. We're staying in a rooftop apartment in one of the narrrow cobbled streets just to the west of the Imperial Forums, with a view from one window across the ruins of the forums of Nerva and Vespasian, and from the next window over the forum of Augustus and across to the magnificent profile of the Wedding Cake - dramatically illuminated at night - and the rear of Santa Maria in Aracoeli alongside the campanile and profile of the Palazzo Senatorio on the Capitoline. The stairs to the apartment are something of a challenge (I make it 62 going up, and 56 going down - go figure), but are worth it for the light and the view once at the top.

Tuesday's highlight was the Titian exhibition at The Quirinale, much of which was simply glorious....his John the Baptist, the early Madonnas, the Farnese portraits - splendid! Some of the later stuff suggests the start of the decline into chocolate-box messiness that characterised most italian art in the seventeenth century, although Titian's penultimate self-portrait is still wonderful. My choice for pocketing would probably have been the Farnese Danae, where the expression on the face of the subsidiary cupid is masterful in every way.

Thereafter, a look at the Palazzo Corsini - which has adequate ceilings and a terrible collection of pictures (save one excellent Caravaggio, and a goodish portrait of Queen Christina....TD also pointed out a couple of things by Teniers, which I suppose are good of their kind, but they don't do it for me) - via a flypast at Santa Maria in Trastevere, where the mosiacs are impressive, although clearly heavily restored. It's striking how many tourists in Rome appear to succumb to (presumably) long-suppressed childhood influences, and become clumsily translated into semi-pilgrims - awkward genuflections and bending of the knee popping up all over the place, which don't sit well with backpacks, water bottles and sneakers. Many of them also have a rabbit-in-the-headlights expression at the same time, as though themselves slightly startled to find that they're doing it...

Yesterday, to the Pantheon in the morning, before a memorable visit to the Domus Romane, in the cellars beneath the Palazzo Valentini. Although we'd been warned that the former would be crawling with tourists (which it was...absolutely heaving), it didn't seem to matter, as the scale of the place is such that the ants massing beneath the dome are merely that....ants! Technical Dept was in awe at the technical aspects of the construction, and it was easy to transform the t-shirt clad crowd of tourists into the same figures but with tricorn hats and knee-breeches who would have been equally thronging the place three hundred years ago - which makes them distinctly  more acceptable. The Domus Romane was a theatrical triumph! Looking through glass floors suspended several metres above the floors of the original roman house, we were subjected to a mesmerising son-et-lumiere, which elevated what is, after all, only another excavated roman house to something quite spectacular. Some of the 'son' was a bit crass, but the fact that it was in Italian helped...and it couldn't anyway detract from the overall impression of the place. The visit ended with a detailed presentation of Trajan's Column, before we were led down a subtaerranean corridor to a barred gate, and there before us, about ten feet away, was the base of the column itself.

Restaurants have been mostly unmemorable...although lunch yesterday at the Enoteca Corsi in Via del Gesu was good, and worth repeating: honest food, a good ambience, and excellent service. Unlike most other Roman restaurants, which come across as transient and baldly commercial enterprises, the Enoteca Corsi presents as a true family business, with years of experience behind it, and the promise (hopefully) of much more to come.

Just off to the Villa Farnesina, before we have to head to Termini, for the afternoon train back to Pisa.