Fun or Funny?

No, I don’t think there’s anything inherently amusing about a diet free of animal products, and to be fair I don’t think the publishers of this Italian magazine do either. This is a common translation error I’ve experienced when teaching and translating both in Italy and Belgium, where people often don’t grasp the subtle distinction between “fun” and “funny”; between something which is enjoyable and something which makes you laugh. It’s not that they don’t understand the difference, and they do have words in their own languages to describe the two separate concepts, but when it comes to saying it in English they’ll often use “funny” when they should say “fun” (although, interestingly, not the other way around: jokes aren’t described as “fun”).

Have you seen this mistake in any languages you speak?

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Bookalokal: Friulian-Ligurian

Our bookalokal experiences so far have been limited to the town where it was born and where we live: Brussels. But over Easter we had an opportunity to attend a verification meal just outside the town we were visiting in Italy: Genova. It was too good to pass up, so last Friday evening we drove 30 minutes north of Genova to the small town of Ronco Scrivia, where we were met by Stefano who led us to a house perched atop a hill just above town. There Olivia was waiting for us in their warm and cosy little farmhouse where she had prepared us a Friulian-Ligurian feast.

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“Spritz”s were served as we settled in and got to know each other. Olivia is originally from Friuli-Venezia-Giulia and moved to Liguria a few years back to be with her husband Stefano who’s a local. They got the idea to try bookalokal from a friend who lives in Brussels.

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Stefano is about to start a new hobby: apiculture, and will be making his own honey. But this night Olivia was responsible for the food, including her own homemade bread.

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We chatted about our backgrounds and experiences with different areas of Italy and Brussels and their respective cuisines and cultures. Our hosts were chatty and friendly and the conversation flowed smoothly. Then the starter arrived: a small potato and leek souffle with melted cheese. The cheese was a Friulian speciality called Montasio, and the thyme had been picked outside on the mountain that day. Lovely. Light but tasty.

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The “primo” was fresh homemade pasta of a shape called “maltagliati” (literally “badly cut”) with local and freshly picked rosemary, fried pancetta and a grating of smoked ricotta. Great comfort food, but the icing on the cake, as it were, was the amazing smoked ricotta whose perfume lifted the whole dish to another level.

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The pasta had been pretty filling but we managed to fit in a large piece of meat for “secondo”: veal cutlets wrapped in San Daniele ham and topped with sauteed Ligurian porcini mushrooms. The meat was meltingly tender and beautifully set off by the smoky tang of the funghi.

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The main meal had been accompanied by a very nice Refosco red wine, but for the dessert we were treated to another Friulian speciality: a sweet wine called Ramandolo.

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Pre-dessert was little coconut cakes.

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But the main attraction was an amazing lemon cream cake. Perfection. Crusty on the outside, moist and creamy on the inside. I couldn’t fit in a second slice but I was sorely tempted.

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Initially Olivia had suggested that we come earlier in the day, have lunch, and then they’d take us for a guided walk through the mountains. Unfortunately that didn’t work with our schedule but it’s a shame as that would have been a great way to get to know the area a little better and spend a little more time relaxing with our hosts. Next time…

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?

Flying down to Genova

Top Travel Tip! When arriving in Genova by air, make sure you’re sitting on the right-hand side of the plane, so as to ensure the best view of the Italian riviera and the Ligurian capital as you come in to land.

After crossing the mountains in the Ligurian hinterland you’ll hit the coast (not literally, I hope) near Rapallo. It’s the town with the marina at the bottom of the photo. The tiny town and headland at top centre of the photo is Portofino. The port in between is Santa Margherita Ligure, where I got married.

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A closer view of Rapallo.

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Approaching Genova from the suburbs to the east.

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The port and old town. We can (kind of ) see our apartment from here!

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If at all possible, try to make sure that your view through the window is not partially obscured by the head of a four-year-old boy.

Seen in Sardinia

Here I am, back from two and a half weeks in Italy, with a random selection of non-traditional holiday snaps.

I developed an alarming skin condition in Sardinia:
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Did you guess? I sat on the sofa for a while with my back pressed against a small cushion with a traditional relief design on it. Which I now have on me.

During a brief stop in Muravera I spotted this mural, which seems keen to tell us how technologically with-it and socially progressive (note the flag on the cottage roof) local farmers are.

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A ramshackle corner of Cagliari.

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Some over-decorated church.

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Italian cows just love to be sliced up and eaten.

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As do horses, especially when they’re used as pizza toppings (see “Sa Schironada”).

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The toilets in Cagliari airport are so complicated to navigate you need to consult a map.

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A local gelateria, which offered two new flavours every day.

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This was my favourite: pecorino cheese and honey.

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Fancy some of the local “mirto” liqueur, but don’t feel able to finish off a whole bottle? Then just buy this handy single serving sachet, complete with straw!

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The main reason we went to Sardinia, of course, was the sea. Here’s the water on the beach less than a hundred metres from where we were staying.

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Here’s a video version, complete with rippling motion and wave-lapping sounds.

The lamp in our garden attracted various species of wildlife.

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And two Seen In Genova: a handy map on a t-shirt. Note that the map is upside-down, to make it easier for the wearer to consult it on his/her wanderings.

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As our ferry arrived in Genova we passed by one of the large Mediterranean cruise ships. Note the curling swimming pool tube, with a transparent section where it shoots out over the edge of the ship.

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Osteria Francescana

The same day we had lunch in Ermes, we dined in 3-Michelin-starred Osteria Francescana. Perhaps as different as two restaurants can be in terms of style and presentation, and yet still both reflecting certain aspects of traditional Italian, and specifically Modenese cuisine.

In a little side street just off one of the main roads in the centre of town, a simple sign and unadorned metal door are all you see from the outside. Once inside the usual flock of besuited staff waited with smiles and “Buonasera”s to take our coats and guide us to our table.

The setting is fairly sober, albeit with the occasional startling and incongrous piece of modern art. There’s nothing like three pigeons and a bin bag to put you in the mood for haute cuisine, right?

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There were three tasting menus available, of differing lengths. We chose the one in the middle: “Classics”.

The first starter: freshwater fish (“aula“) tempura topped with fish (“carpione“) ice cream. The coldness and crunch combined perfectly to make a confident and surprising amuse-bouche.

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Next, what looked like a simple, even uninspiring piece of white fish. Baccalà, in a tomato and caper broth, topped with thyme-infused breadcrumbs. Beautiful, delicate flavours and firm yet yielding flesh. Definitely more than meets the eye.

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The next dish was presented as a journey along three different canals into Modena. Adriatic eel with some kind of strong teriyaki-style lacquer, polenta on the right and apple jelly on the left. The black dust in the foreground is burnt onion.

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The next dish was listed on the menu as simply “Think Green”. What this meant on the plate was a selection of mushrooms, truffle, radish and chlorophyll, all raw, and presented in such a way as to suggest (according to the waiter) the hills around Modena. The subtly earthy flavours were a nice contrast after the previous dish.

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Now this was perhaps an unusual moment for the cheese course to appear, but it wasn’t really your conventional array of slices and nuggets. It consisted entirely of Parmigiano Reggiano, all of different ages and strengths, and all prepared in a different way: liquid, soufflé, mousse, foam and cracker. A lovely, tasty idea, although it’s probably just as well it was a small portion.

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Another strange presentation next: a glass containing (bottom up) veal, pancetta, parmigiana, beans and rosemary. It supposedly represents, via its ingredients, a journey through France, Spain and Italy.

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For the main meat course we were back to something more recognisable, but no less tasty for that. Slow-cooked guinea fowl, truffle potatoes, chlorophyll, balsamic vinegar. And just before we tucked in the waiter gave it a shot from an aerosol spray made from the bird’s bones, which was intended to give it that “roasted” flavour. It worked.

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What was even better was the little mouthful served as a side dish: a crunchy slice of the bird’s skin, with white chocolate with garlic, dark chocolate with liver, and toast flavoured ice cream. This may have been the most interesting and stimulating mouthful of the whole evening.

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Pre-dessert, and another break with traditional menu formats: foie gras. On a stick. Covered in caramelised almonds and containing a large blob of balsamic vinegar in the centre. I wish I could persuade Magnum to market a large version of these.

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After the foie gras the dessert proper was a very mild disappointment. “Broken” lemon tart, capers, zabaglione, chili pepper. Not the best end to meal but a better use of the smashed plate idea than we’d seen in ‘t Zilte last year.

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Finally, a word about the wine, most of which was exceptional and some of which was quite strange. As usual we asked for a selection of wines to accompany the various stages of the tasting menu. Perhaps most notable was the Zibibbo Serragghia, a naturally cloudy, unfiltered white which to the nose gave the impression of being a sickly sweet dessert wine, yet in the mouth was dry and acidic.

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At the end of the meal we asked for a list of the wines we’d tasted and the next day they emailed us this PDF with the full menu:

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Let’s put it this way: I found Modena as a town to be of limited interest, but the five-hour round trip from Genoa to visit Osteria Francescana was worth it.

Trattoria Ermes, Modena

We’d arrived in Modena (a two and a half hour drive from Genoa) just before lunchtime. We’d read in the guidebook about a couple of traditional trattorie which sounded appealing, and when we asked at the hotel they recommended “Ermes”, and phoned on our behalf to make a reservation, as this was the kind of place which sold out fast, and where people queued outside for the chance of a table.

Our place secured, we set off immediately and five minutes later made our way into a tiny, packed room off a nondescript street. Our eponymous host placed us on a table next to another young couple (her: Tuscan, him: Modenese) and quickly and rather brusquely informed us of the dishes available. This being a home cooking kind of place the options were few and simple. You pay a flat fee of 20 Euro regardless of what you eat, but you have the right to three courses, water, bread, wine and coffee.

I didn’t want to interrupt the experience too much (and was maybe a little intimidated by the close quarters and proximity of the other diners) so I only took a few iPhone photos of the dishes. A longer post (in Italian) with more pictures of the room and Ermes himself can be found here. My wife chose the cavatelli in brodo as a starter:

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I went for the maccheroni; oven baked pasta with a very crunchy dark crust on top. Good, moreish comfort food for a cold February lunch time.

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For the main course I had rabbit with boiled potatoes. Nothing groundbreaking, and rather starkly presented, but the meat was tender and well seasoned and tasty.

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We finished with a kind of light, sweet pastry which is traditional at Carnival time and goes variously by the name of bugie, frappe, or chiacchere among other regional variants.

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So, the food was simple, honest, tasty fare. Nothing spectacular, but popular with those who like traditional regional specialities prepared in the same way their grandmothers used to do it. But perhaps what made it a more memorable experience was Ermes himself. He’s quite the local celebrity and he probably exaggerates his moods swings and outsized personality at least a little in order to keep his clientele entertained. A few examples: at one point his elderly aunt stopped by for a bite to eat. He dumped her at the end of a large table full of strangers and they bickered with each other sporadically throughout the meal. During our main course someone on the table behind ours wanted to know what a particular dish was like, so Ermes picked up my wife’s plate, as she was in the middle of raising a forkful to her mouth, held it out in front of the other diners for them to glance at, then plonked it back on our table.

On the wall there’s a chart indicating his mood that day. The text at top left says “For those of you who drink to forget, please pay in advance”.

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This was undoubtedly good for a few laughs, and the warm atmosphere and conversation we shared with the other couple on our table meant that the social aspect of the meal was at least as important and enjoyable as the actual food. There are a lot of press clippings on the walls and I wondered whether Ermes’ celebrity was overshadowing the restaurant itself. Had it turned into a magnet for the tourist horde (of which, of course, we ourselves were a part) who wanted a caricatured Italian shouting and gesturing and flinging plates of hot pasta around?

But on the other hand we were the only non-locals there that day, so I don’t think his popularity can be put down to catering to foreigners’ expectations. The “character” of the place is certainly a little self-conscious, maybe even a little exaggerated and theatrical, but no less genuine for that. And I did enjoy the food. Of the reviews on sites like Trip Advisor the negative ones expressed mainly disappointment with the food itself, which they felt didn’t match the restaurant’s reputation, and the flat 20 Euro fee which applied even if all they ate was a plate of pasta. But if you’re in the mood for something simple and tasty and filling, and don’t mind a bit of noise and bustle and shouting, it’s a bargain.

And by the time we left a queue was starting to form outside…

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