Kiin Kiin

Before visiting Noma we had one other high level restaurant experience in Copenhagen, and this one actually managed to exceed my expectations. Just north of the centre of town, Kiin Kiin offers Michelin-starred Thai food, which was a first for me. In fact although I anticipated an enjoyable meal I made the mistake of leaving my camera at home, and our table in the basement was too dim for my iPhone, so I had to rely on my wife’s, which has a flash.

Like Noma they offer one fixed menu of a large number of small dishes so as to best show off their range and skill, which is considerable. We started with a trio of nibbles: at top right fried lotus root with sugar and lime, top left meringue with cashew and foreground prawn cracker with tomato and chili sauce. All three were beautiful and very moreish. A great start.

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A small crunchy cone containing miang kham, which is Thai for “small bite containing many things”. I wished for many bites.

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Hard to see in this photo, but the spoon has a tiny piece of white fish on it, and the two large blobs are balls of seeded prawn bread.

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Chicken skin, apple and satay. Can’t go wrong with satay in my book.

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Steamed bonito flan with miso and a crunchy garlic disc.

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Soyglazed ribs wrapped with tuna.

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Same again, but with meat. Tiny, tiny nuggets of meat.

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This dish came covered in a cloudy bell jar. The smoke inside was supposed to evoke the smells of street food. Once the smoke had cleared we were left with two small Chiang Mai  sausages made of chicken and duck.

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An amazingly sour, peppery and salty soup with chili, ginger and fish broth. In the little bowl next to it, langoustine, galanga foam and iced coriander. Very strong flavours, but all the better for it.

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This was, somewhat jokingly I think, presented as “pad thai without the noodles”.
Scallops and shrimp, pumpkin and carrot, tamarind sauce with green mango. Like the preceding soup the tamarind sauce was pretty powerful, and although I was initially unconvinced by the pumpkin puree, it did come in handy for cooling down the heat from the sauce.

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This was easily my favourite dish of the night. Marinated cod with beetroot, and on the right frozen green curry.

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Duck with puffed rice, mint and spicy yam. One of the spicier dishes that evening.

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Frozen coconut milk, galanga, chicken skin, mushroom.

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Egg, garlic cream, mushroom, basil.

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Veal and braised beef with cucumber and pineapple.

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Before dessert we were given a sugar cane stick to suck as a palate cleanser.

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Passion fruit, orange and kumquats.

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That’s how the dessert looked as we ate it, but when it arrived it looked more like candyfloss, and it dissolved as the waiter poured syrup over it:

And the final dessert: banana cake with roasted coconut and salted ice cream.

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By this stage we were pleasantly stuffed, and although a mouth-watering array of petits fours were on offer with the coffee we couldn’t really face any more, so we stopped there. But we had no regrets. This is easily the best Thai meal we’d had outside of Thailand, and perhaps even better than some of those. If we ever end up back in Copenhagen we’ll be making a return trip, no doubt.

noma

So, Noma. Ranked best restaurant in the world three years in a row. Currently ranked number 2. The reason for our trip to Copenhagen. We’d had to book three months in advance in order to secure a table. No expectations, then…

The restaurant sits just a few hundred metres from our hotel in Nyhavn. You can see the hotel there on the left: it’s the red brick building. And just in front of it is a half-finished foot bridge.  It was due to be completed last October but as the two sections on each side of the water came closer to one another the builders realised they’d miscalculated and that they’d made the two sides at different heights, so they wouldn’t meet in the middle. During their adjustments the company went bankrupt. Another company took over and it’s due for completion next year.
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A stylish rock and moss garden sets the tone as you approach the door.

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Inside the first thing you see is the kitchen; a hive of activity and bustle.

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And to the left, the dining room. It’s surprisingly small, with only a dozen or so tables of various sizes. Our table was the one by the window near the centre of the photo, where the man in the dark suit is standing. This gave us a nice view of Nyhavn and the half bridge.

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There’s no choice as to what you eat; everyone gets this menu:

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Off we go: gooseberry marinated  in elderflower oil on the right, and on the left the “Nordic coconut”, which is in fact a radish.

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The liquid inside was surprisingly warm.

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Fried reindeer moss dusted with cep mushroom powder.

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And a little juniper-flavoured crème fraîche on the side to dip it in. Very dry and crumbly, which made it a little difficult to eat, but lovely earthy flavours.

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In this bowl the only thing to eat was the little dark red ball in the foreground: a small, soft ball made of blackcurrant and roses.

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The pre-lunch nibbles were coming thick and fast, and sometimes I didn’t even have time to take a photo, note the ingredients and put it in my mouth before the next one arrived.

Biscuit tin:

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Containing just two cheese cookies topped with chopped rocket. Pleasant but unremarkable.

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A large egg.

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Containing two small eggs. Quail, to be precise, smoked in hay. Burst pleasantly in the mouth releasing a gush of creamy yolk.

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This one was weird: the white shavings are cod liver and the “leaf” underneath is caramelized milk. Thinking about it now, quite a lot of the amuse-bouches were kind of creamy, although they were still light.

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Another presentation where the container implied more food than you actually ended up with:

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This is a traditional kind of small puffed pancake called “aebleskiver”. Usually it contains apple but ours was filled with boiled spinach.

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Sliced raw chestnut with lamp fish roe and butter. Interesting. I’m not that into chestnut, raw or cooked, but this worked.

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This is more my kind of thing. Faroese sea urchin on toast topped with a slice of fried duck fat. I can imagine eating this for breakfast.

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Char-grilled leek. Pre-sliced to allow you to scoop out the insides. Perfectly edible, but at the end of the day it’s just burnt leek.

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At this stage we moved into the proper menu, and so we were allowed a little bread and butter. The butter was light and fluffy due to some complex preparation method which the waiter explained to us but which I didn’t follow because I was too busy salivating over the contents of the other pot: pork fat covered with an apple schnapps crumble. I didn’t need bread to spread this on; a spoon would have sufficed.

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A large bowl made of ice. We were encouraged to eat quickly, although this seemed redundant as a) a bowl this size and thickness won’t collapse into a puddle on the table within seconds, and b) the contents were only a few mouthfuls anyway. Very nice mouthfuls, though: squid, fennel, vinegar, broccoli stems, and green walnut.

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At this point a word about the wine. We took the wine accompaniment menu, which is a concept with which we’re familiar. However I was surprised by two things. Firstly the quantity. Rather than a glass every few courses, we got a new glass with almost every dish, which, when the meal consists of almost a dozen plates, is quite a lot. Secondly, most of the wine was of a very specific type, which is to say white, cloudy and quite acidic. A Nordic friend later suggested that this was to compensate for the lack of naturally acidic ingredients (like citrus fruit) in Danish cuisine. A couple in particular almost reminded me of scrumpy or cider.

Most of the wines were also organic and from very small-scale producers; one in particular came from a French vintner who only produced one barrel per year.

Speaking of adding acidity, that explanation also held for the inclusion of a key ingredient in the next dish. Grilled onion, salted pear, and wood ants.

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This was a beautifully light and balanced dish. The ants were barely visible: the odd black speck here and there, so it was in no way off-putting. If we hadn’t been told they were there we probably wouldn’t have guessed. “Hmmm, there’s something vaguely formic about the seasoning on these onions…”

Next: plum and roast beetroot, crushed nasturtium seeds, unripe blackcurrants, fennel and rose broth. Lovely, although at this point I started wondering about the combinations of sweet and salty. This could easily have been served as dessert. But then, is there any reason not to mix up the two tastes throughout the course of the meal? Why does sugar have to come at the end? Thai cuisine (as you’ll see in the next post) combines sweet, salty sour and spicy in almost every dish.

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Celeriac, kale, cabbage, nasturtium reduction, and horseradish cream.

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Now this one was interesting: potato, kelp oil, and löjrom roe. The potatoes were slow cooked and so had a fascinating feel: hard (al dente, as it were) and chewy with a slight bitterness. There was an nice nutty flavour from the oil. I asked if the oil were available in stores but was told that they made it themselves in house.

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The closest we came to a proper meat dish in the whole meal: tiny pieces of duck, almost raw, thin slices of pear, and pickled, caramelised beech leaves. The second pear dish of the meal, you’ll notice, and a very successful one at that.

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And so to dessert. Aronia berries and ice cream. An unusual, sharp flavour, and the ice cream inside left my mouth weirdly dry, but it worked as a palate cleanser.

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The best dessert. Right to left: plum compote, sweet potato, and cream with plum and aquavit. A larger portion next time, please. Fill the bowl.

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Coffee. Now many restaurants, even places like The Fat Duck, are happy to just turn on the Nespresso machine when it comes to coffee, but not Noma. Here we got high altitude (over 1000 metres) Ethiopian coffee which had then been roasted in Oslo. It was surprisingly weak but that was probably for the best. A heavy, aggressive espresso would have spoilt the effect of the preceding dishes.

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One final nibble, and one of the best. Caramelised yeast, Icelandic yoghurt, elderflower salt.

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The yoghurt is called skyr and this was another product I’d happily have eaten a bowl of on its own.

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And because we’re in Denmark, a Danish pastry.

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And that was it. In terms of comparisons to other places we’ve visited I’d say it’s most similar in style to In De Wulf. Both restaurants are privileging local, organic ingredients over far-flung, exotic ones, and offering them in sometimes surprising combinations yet rather simple presentations. When Noma was elected Best Restaurant in the World I think it was a conscious decision to move away from the weirder, more science fiction-style food found at places like El Bulli and the aforementioned Fat Duck (although they’re still ranked highly in the list). I agree that it’s good to reward and encourage this “locavore” approach, and the friendliness and relaxed atmosphere coincides nicely with its proximity to the hippy commune Christiania. Then again, the prices and prestige inevitably attract wealthy foodies, and the fact that Noma is surrounded by the feverish construction of luxury apartments show that the area is already being gentrified.

And who are the clients, who can all book 3 months in advance? Are they all foodies? You can’t just pop in casually for lunch at a place like this (although you can check owner René’s twitter feed for late cancellations). Maybe corporations make regular bookings and then take along whichever big client is visiting that month for a business dinner? Looking around at the other diners, we saw a table of half a dozen Flemish fashion industry types, all scrutinising their smartphones between courses. At the table behind us was a young woman dining alone, taking photos of each course with a large professional-looking camera. One lady at a nearby table had brought a very young baby with her. Good for her. We only heard a peep out of it towards then end of the meal, so she took it to the lounge for a bottle feed.

At the end of the day, I’m glad we went. There was some very interesting stuff going on and I was introduced to some fascinating ingredients I’d like to investigate further, although in terms of dishes I’d want to eat again there were probably only four or five (moss, seas urchin on toast, onions and pear, potato in kelp oil, plum and sweet potato). I respect what he’s doing and enjoyed it, but personally I’m more of the weird, science fiction-style foodie type.

Cornucopenhagen

Last weekend we went to Copenhagen for three days, without children. The reason for the trip was that we’d managed to book a table at Noma, but I’ll talk about that in a separate post later. Here I’m posting a selection of photos (the full set’s on flickr) of interesting or amusing things we noticed while wandering and floating around the city.

The day we arrived it was pretty cold. The canals were still full of ice. Our hotel was quite central; in the old harbour of Nyhavn. That’s the hotel on the right, and our room was on the 4th floor, facing that white boat.

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Nyhavn is one of the most photographed parts of Copenhagen, for obvious reasons:

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But once we’d dumped our bags in the hotel our immediate priority was lunch, and I’d decided in advance that our first culinary experience in Denmark should be a spread of their traditional open sandwiches, or smørrebrød. Restaurant Heering was just a few hundred metres along the road, and we enjoyed a selection of tasty and filling rye bread treats, topped with roast beef, herring and brie, among other things. The two tall glasses in the centre contain schnapps.

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Suitably fortified we headed along the main shopping street (Strøget) to check out the latest in Danish design in houseware shops like Illums Bolighus. Copenhagen is both a great and a terrible place to go shopping. They have many many sexy and desirable objects, and many many outrageous and extortionate price tags. I was quite taken by these wooden “Howdy Owl”s, but the smallest one cost €100.

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Realistic (well, apart from the colour) piggy banks.

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Foreign words which sound amusing in English! Apparently in Danish this means “Final sprint”.

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There are handy street signs directing you towards the coffee.

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Another very tempting item was this combined hat and face-warmer. The copy notes that it has a “high hipster factor”.

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Another almost-purchase.

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Tired of ice cubes melting and watering down your whiskey? Use drink stones instead!

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Once we’d wearied of looking at things we’d no intention of buying we headed for the Rundetaarn, or Round Tower. This is Europe’s oldest functioning observatory, and to get to the top you walk up a wide, gentle slope, constructed so as to make it easier to haul up wagons carrying the heavy astronomical equipment.

The official site’s promotional video also extolls the virtues of the slope as a playground for large pink space hoppers:

Here’s a view of the passage on the postcard I bought:

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Halfway up we stopped in the adjoining library, which has been converted into an exhibition space and which happened to be hosting some kind of event. We grabbed a free glass of wine and browsed a while.

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This was my favourite piece. I think it’s made from some kind of vertebra.

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At the top it was windy and raining, so I only had time for one rather dribbly and smeary shot of the cityscape.

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Outside the town hall we met a couple of horny guys.

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The next day we took a boat tour which allowed us to get a better idea of the layout of the city and see some of the main sights from the water. I’d like to specify that we took the Canal tour. Despite many similarities between the two towns this was Copenhagen, not Amsterdam.

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The new opera house.

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A statue of a half-fish woman drew a lot of attention, for some reason.

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Boats and churches. This spire was also visible from our hotel room.

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The spire is closed for the moment, but during the summer months you can walk up it. On the outside.

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The library, known as the “Black Diamond”.

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At left, a church whose spire is composed of the tails of four dragons, representing the four Scandinavian nations. At right, the Prime Minister’s offices. The main disappointment of the trip was that we didn’t run into any of the cast of the three Danish TV dramas (The Killing, The Bridge, Borgen) we’ve been watching recently.

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If boats aren’t your style, other kinds of guided sightseeing are available.

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On our way towards Noma we detoured through the famous hippie commune Christiania. They don’t allow photos inside, so all I can show you is the mural near the entrance:

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And the exit. The area itself is more or less as I expected it to be, except for the fact that it’s so full of cafés and sandwich shops. It’s not exactly gentrified, but it’s certainly learnt to cater to the tourists.

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In a nearby street we saw an example of the famous Nordic attitude to sleeping babies: wrap them up warm and leave them outside while you go indoors for a drink.

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And finally, Copenhagen is full of castles and royal residences. We didn’t have time to go inside any of them but we passed through the gardens of Rosenborg castle on our way to the train station.

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Curtains

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I hate curtains, but I don’t have much use for them. When I get up in the mornings I’m always keen to open them. I need natural light, and keeping the curtains closed when it’s daylight outside is profoundly irritating to me and just feels wrong. I’ve also been known to go around offices and meeting rooms at work turning off fluorescent lights and opening blinds.

My wife feels differently. She’s concerned about people looking in and so wants at least some kind of net curtain or shade in front of the window most of the time, if not the full exterior shutter lowered. We have these shutters on our front and back windows on the ground floor and I hadn’t really encountered them until we went to Italy. There apparently everyone has them, and for someone to have a ground floor dwelling without big heavy shutters is considered a ridiculous security risk.

So contrast this with the Netherlands. Every time we go there and walk past people’s houses we’re struck not only by the size of the street-facing ground floor windows, but the fact that they’re almost always un-curtained, allowing any passer-by to gaze in and get a good look at the interior. Received wisdom has it that this comes from a Calvinistic desire to show everyone that you have nothing to hide, although others believe it’s also a practical issue, having to do with letting as much light into the house as possible. This explains, on the other hand, why they’re so common in sun-drenched Italy where you want to keep the blazing heat and light of the midday sun at bay during your four-hour lunch and nap.

What about you: curtains, or not? And if so, do they match the carpet?

Bookalokal: Chilean wine tasting

Last night we did another bookalokal verification, but this one was a little different. Instead of a meal, we went for an evening of wine-tasting (although there was some cheese available).

We made our way to a spacious loft apartment in the centre of Brussels where we were welcomed by Marwan, a British-Lebanese banker who works four days a week in Belgium, staying with his friends Jerome and Olga.

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Marwan had prepared some information sheets and tasting guides for the evening’s selection of Chilean wines, so that we could be sure to make knowing references to “notes” and “mouthfeel”.

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He also had an interesting “olfactory interpretation” kit. The idea is that you sniff the wine, then sniff a selection of small pots containing essences of certain aromas (blackcurrant, cinammon, leather, pepper, etc) and try to decide which “notes” you can detect in the wine. If you get the “correct” combination you should be able to identify the grape.

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There were also a few “bad” odours in the kit, such as the smell of a bad cork, and…er…

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Slurp and sniff, slurp and sniff…

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And nibble.

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A piece of decanting kit, intended to remove residue and aerate red wine. The ball blocks the neck of the vessel but the wine flows down through the little grooves in the side.

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Later in the evening a large number of the host’s friends arrived and things got a little more chaotic. The wine flowed, and was good, but the educational/tasting aspect seemed to fall by the wayside. Not so much of a problem for someone getting free wine in exchange for a verification, but if I’d paid the full price I’d have been disappointed at not learning more about the wines and how to appreciate them.

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P.S. One of the evening’s wines was a Merlot. I am unable to hear the word “Merlot” now without immediately recalling this scene.

Cities Without Shops

Chatting with friends the other day about Christmas shopping and New Year sales, I started to have a thought. Extrapolate current trends (notably online shopping and 3D printing) to an extreme and try to picture the end result: what if in the future there were no such thing as shops? I mean, not in the physical sense. We’re already starting to see some towns, affected by the financial crisis, with half empty High Streets, and it feels a little weird.

My own attitude to online shopping is ambivalent. I love to browse in a real bookshop (no, I can’t browse properly on amazon), and it seems logical to buy clothes somewhere you can try them on first, but it also makes sense that many things can simply be ordered sight unseen.

But looking beyond the current economic situation and taking technological developments into account, if you could acquire anything you wanted either by ordering it online or by downloading and printing it yourself, what happens to those parts of town currently filled with brick and mortar retail establishments? Imagine that you remove commerce from the physical space, that leaves the centres of towns free to fulfil other functions, which seem to me to be primarily eating, drinking, meeting friends and entertainment. Town centres tend to be social spaces (manufacturing, agriculture etc. can happen on the edges), although I suppose religious and political buildings are usually in the centre too.

But if you don’t need to shop, when and why do you go into town? During the day I don’t think it’s likely you’d make the journey just for a coffee or a bite to eat; those kinds of cafés and bistros seem primarily to serve shoppers, and I can’t imagine they’d have much trade if all the other trade around them were to vanish. That leaves the possibility that the days are populated solely by tourists, with an influx of residents in the evenings looking for food, drink and entertainment, assuming they can’t get anything they need at home or at a friend’s house. Maybe people would start moving their residences back into the centres, rather than living out in the suburbs? Traffic congestion would probably decrease.

For centuries people came to town to go to the marketplace. If the marketplace comes to you, cities may lose their purpose, or at least have to find a new one.

 

Feast of the Seven Fishes

An American friend was recently asking my Italian wife what our plans for the holiday season were, and wondered if we’d be doing the Feast of the Seven Fishes. Blank looks all round. A little googling brought conflicting results. Some say it doesn’t exist in Italy and has only ever been done in America. Others say it was originally done in southern Italy for Christmas Eve (because Catholics weren’t allowed to eat meat on certain special days) but that it was popularised, codified (the number of dishes) and basically became a thing when adopted by Italian-Americans. And our friends do it on New Year’s Eve, not Christmas Eve.

Whatever. We were invited to dinner, so we weren’t about to quibble. On New Year’s Eve we took our kids over and left them downstairs with our friends’ kids to play and watch DVDs while we tucked in to the spread prepared by Ashley and her father, visiting from St. Louis.

Fish #1: salmon.
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Fish #2 in the bowl: salt cod and potato, and in the background Fish #3: pepper salad with an anchovy dressing.

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Fish #4: tuna on potato discs. This was probably my favourite, and I ate far more than my fair share of these.

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We moved to the table for Fish #5: marinated scallops. Delicious.

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Then came my wife’s contribution. Fish #6: squid ink and shrimp risotto. That whitish blur at top left is steam.

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Fish #7: sole stuffed with crab meat (bonus Fish #8!). Probably the tastiest dish of the evening.

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And for dessert, a defiantly non-fishy cinammon-flavoured crème brûlée prepared by my wife.

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I’d been concerned about the quantities involved, and that I might emerge feeling as stuffed as the sole, but the portions were perfectly judged and we were able to say goodbye to 2013 with a pleasantly full belly.

Thanks again to our hosts (and a tip of the hat to Ashley’s father for his wine selection) and maybe we can make this a regular event?

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