It’s 3pm and the BF (ahem; fiance I mean) is sleeping, struck down by jetlag. We returned yesterday from a 3 1/2 week European sojourn. I don’t know if posting about it is the modern version of a slide night, but what the hell- a blog is self-indulgent by its very existence. BTW, I will post pics next week- right now I’m operating on a weeny 1/2 gb stick while my new internet provider gets me set up. Sigh.
Our trip started off in Rome. We arrived as the fruit and flower sellers were packing up their stalls at Campo dei Fiori. Hungry and very tired we sat at a restaurant on the square and had an unmemorable late lunch. It’s amazing how in Rome all you need to do is get a street or two away from a major tourist attraction to come across a decent place to eat, but we just didn’t have the strength that day.
Things improved substantially on day two. Our apartment just off the Campo was practically next door to Il Forno, a typical and well-known Roman bakery, where we’d get a breakfast of ‘bianco’ (pizza with just salt and oil) or ‘rosso’ (with a smear of tomato sauce). We also discovered one of what I think could be the best gelato in Rome, at Ponte, on the small street that leads to the Ponte Sisto. In addition to all the regular flavours, they did single origin chocolate from different countries; dark and rich, each slightly different. Costanza, just off the Campo was a good example of getting just a little away from the tourist traps to find something special. Lovely staff, an amazing setting and great inexpensive food.
Proving my theory wrong, Palatium was something altogether different. Right in the middle of tourist central, ie the Spanish steps, it is very modern and serves only food from the Lazio region and has a terrific and very comprehensive all-Lazio wine list too. Italian wine can be a bit hit and miss in my experience so it was great to have someone to hand to guide us through the pages and pages of choices. Another good meal was had at Antica Osteria di Pietro not far from the Pantheon, with memorable dishes of rigatoni coda (with oxtail) and the other famous Roman dish ‘cacio e pepper’, pasta with cheese and pepper; more delicious than it sounds.
From Rome, we caught a train to Lecce in Puglia, where our morning ‘bianco’ o ‘rosso’ was replaced with a basket of still warm ‘cornetti’ filled with custard or chocolate and our huge vaulted ceiling room overlooked a Moorish garden filled with orange trees.
Our first meal out was at the delightful Nonna Tetti. A simple decor, it looked like someone’s living room. Indeed there were steps leading up which may or may not have been living quarters. The waitress had to translate some of the dishes from the local dialect into Italian for me- ’Sagne ncanulate’ for example, derives from ‘lasagne’ while ‘ciciri e tria’ is pasta with chickpeas in which bits of the fettucini have been fried to a gold crispness while others are soft. Orechiette with cime di rape (sort of like broccoli tops) and orchchiette with a tomato sauce and ‘ricotta forte’ (an aged, spicy ricotta-divine) were other winners. Lunch for the three of us was 30 euro including wine. Actually, everything we ate in Lecce was spot on. Osteria della Divina Provvidenza was indeed divine. Built over Roman ruins, the men’s toilet has a glass floor for your (well if you’re male or cheeky like me) viewing pleasure. Arte di Sapori, it’s outside tables set under the trees in a quiet little square beside the church was also lovely, with a sweet waitress who begged us to practise English with her. Fiance’s birthday was spent in Antica Borgo where the owner tried to tempt us with live lobster and we over-ordered horribly. We also loved Rifugio della buona Stelle; simple, authentic and very cheap.
From Lecce, it was on to Seville, where it seemed it was impossible to eat badly anywhere.
We snacked on jamon in Seville’s oldest bar and tried tapas at midnight at the unromantically named but utterly deliciously and very modern Cuna 2.
We watched Spain defeat Portugal at soccer in bar Bacalao, grazing on croquettas and cod cheek with mid match entertainment provided by a massive and very colourful gay mardi gras coming down the street. We sat under misters (it was still blazing hot at night) in bars overlooking the cathedral from where the sound of singing and handclapping emanated. We dunked hot churros into thick chocolate in a bar in Seville’s shopping district.
From Seville to Athens and the search for lamb, resulting in much disappointment with thebony, fatty offering we were served. I know there are good restaurants in Athens, but 1) they are hard to find and 2) they are expensive. The poshest we went to was Orizontes, on Athens highest hill, Lycabettus. Incredibly romantic, the outdoor eating area, planted with young olive trees has an incredible view over the acropolis, lit at night. Food just didn’t hit the high notes however, with slightly odd pairings, like grouper cheeks covered in sunflower seeds. But the view was worth it. Definitely though, Athens didn’t set our culinary juices watering.
From Athens, to Skyros, an island in the Sporades. It was here we were thankful we’d bought our own coffee. Food was basic but good and fresh and very cheap. We left tips that seemed ridiculously small to us but were almost half the price of the meal and without fail had owners running after us trying to give us our ‘change’. We had our own kitchen in the beach house we’d rented but food was so cheap, we ate out for every meal.
The island is not very touristed, with not many people speaking much English and the menus generally written in Greek (or very funny idiosyncratic English), so much of the time it was guesswork as to what we’d get. Always though, it was a lot. Excellent, olive oil based bread and dips, small tender fish fried whole, served simply with lemon. The ubiquitous Greek salad, with generous amounts of feta, sweet tomatoes and dried oregano; calamari, slightly floured and fried, pasta, chockers with local seafood in a tomato sauce. Ridiculously cheap local wine (faintly pink) was served in copper coloured aluminium jugs. (Wouldn’t it be nice to have the option here of ordering by the 1/4, 1/2 or litre?) Thick yoghurt with local thyme honey was a particular favourite as were the apricots-the juiciest I have ever eaten, nothing like the furry fleshed versions we get here.
From Greece, it was on to London. We were staying with friends in the Essex countryside, where our friends took us to a local Turkish restaurant, (bizarrely located in a very old pub) where we finally got the lamb we’d been craving. It was good, but noisy, full of over made up Essex girls with their fake tans and ironed hair and there was very loud music playing (pop, not Turkish). It was sad to see that not much had changed in the British supermarkets with fruit and veg still looking rather sad and everything wrapped in plastic; even a sol0 capsicum. The price of bottled water was a shock too-the last bottle we’d bought in Greece was 17 centimes, here it was 3 pounds fifty. Australian wine is still dire with labels I’ve never heard of being flogged off in the supermarket for next to nothing. We ate at a couple of local pubs, one in my friend’s village; (great ambience, possibly the worst steak I’ve ever had) an another old mariners pub near Tower Bridge (a pretty reasonable sausage, mash and peas with onion gravy). We weren’t in the UK for a food journey, but we had booked to go to Dinner by Heston.
It’s a great space, overlooking Hyde Park and I was surprised at how friendly the staff were. We consulted with the waiter about by the glass wine choices, (27 pounds a glass was his choice!) and settled in. The 13year old had the meat fruit, a ‘mandarin’ complete with stalk and leaves, but filled with chicken liver parfait; while I had the nettle porridge with a gelatinous cod cheek and the fiance had “rice and flesh’ a saffron risotto with calf tail and red wine. I loved mine; it was fresh and original and spring like. The meat fruit was velvety and perfect, the richness cut through by the mandarin jelly. The fiance thought his risotto had too much saffron. All of the dishes on the menu have a date and a reference to the cook book from which they originate. For main, I chose the black foot pork chop with Hispi cabbage, lardo, ham hock & Robert sauce.
Our waiter, who was Spanish agreed it was a good choice and told us that in fact his family were breeders of these black footed, acorn eating pigs that are also turned into the most delicious jamon in Spain. It was nice- the pork tender and flavoursome, the accompaniments good; but it felt very modern and like something I could get in most European restaurants. The fiance chose the Aberdeen Angus, mainly because he has been cooking steak (and the triple cooked chips) from Heston’s programme since he saw it and wanted to compare. Unfortunately the chips were off. Out of season. Really. The potatoes that Heston uses were out of season, and last year’s, our waiter said had too much starch. So it was plain old French fries for the fiance. He thought the steak was among the best he’d eaten. The 13 year old’s `Powdered Duck Breast with smoked confit fennel & umbles (offal) was perfectly fine sous vide duck (although one of the two portions was chewy) that had been brined (‘powdered’ in old English) but again, it felt very modern and not too different from duck dishes I’d had elsewhere. However, portions of everything were very generous. Which didn’t stop us ordering dessert. We could see the pineapple roasting on a spit in front of the fire, but there was a 20 minute wait for the ‘Tipsy Cake’ and we were eager to be out walking in the park while the sun briefly peeked out from the clouds. Taffety Tart was my choice, a pretty and reasonably light concoction of pastry with apple, rose, fennel & vanilla ice cream. Even better was the fiance’s brown bread ice cream with salted butter caramel, pear & malted yeast syrup, while the 13year old’s ‘chocolate bar’ a glossy, soft, ’bar’ of bitter chocolate with passion fruit jam & ginger ice cream was declared ‘delicious’. In all, good value for money, wonderful service (they gave us a kitchen tour afterwards) and a great space, but food not as different as I’d expected.
After London, it was back home and diet time. It’d been 3 years since I was last in Europe and not much has changed. Spain, Greece and Italy certainly offer way better value for money than the UK, which seems to dish up little by badly cooked ‘tourist fare’ at the bottom to middle end of the price range, with fabulous meals for those who can afford it at the other. My trip has certainly made me aware of what we don’t have (enough bakeries, speciality food shops, regional cuisine, good everyday cheap wine) but also appreciate what we do.