All entries for September 2011

September 25, 2011

Geneva, Mt Blanc and European borders

Chamonix Valley

The European Sociological Conference took me to Geneva, on the week the Swiss central bank, to stop the over-valuation of the Franc, committed itself to a minimum exchange rate of 1.20 CHF per Euro. This made my stay some 8% cheaper, or, better, 8% less horribly dear. Let’s see if the Swiss Central bank has the power to do what nobody apart from the Chinese seem able to: commit to fixed exchange rates in a time of wild international speculative flows.

The price of my stay was slightly moderated by other two things. First, Switzerland entered Schengen two years ago, and the public transport is largely integrated with surrounding France, so one can just take the bus to escape to the Eurozone – the problem is that there isn’t much on the French sides. Secondly, I was staying in the Paquis, the multi-ethnic inner-city cum-red light district stacked in between rail station, UN & international district, and lake. As with many of such inner cities in Central and Northern Europe, it is livelier than the other aseptic neighbourhoods, very practical logistically, and cheaper. Switzerland has the highest share of immigrants in Europe, and it in quite a schizophrenic combination of openness and withdrawal. In successive referenda the Swiss have voted to open the labour market to the Poles (not sure the Brits would have done it, even before the crisis), and to ban minarets (notoriously dangerous weapons of mass destruction). We Italians tend to be hypersensitive of how Italian immigrants used to be treated, but Geneva at least looks to me rather welcoming. As long as you are not too poor: if you dare sleep rough or beg on the streets, Schengen or not Schengen, you are immediately arrested or repatriated.

A side-reflection for the UK: the populist press argues that it cannot enter Schengen or it will be flooded with immigrants from the rest of Europe. Well, look at Switzerland, which is much more attractive to immigrants: higher wages, more jobs (unemployment around 3%), large immigrant communities, and well, just prettier views. No flood has occurred since entering Schengen.

After the conference I was free to flee Geneva for the Mt Blanc. It’s just two hours by French train, which you catch in the extra-territorial SNCF (French railways) station of Genève Eaux Vives. There is no ticket office, nor ticket machine, nor nothing in the boarded station: it was vandalised last year and the French and Swiss cannot agree on who has to pay up, or even on how payments should be treated from a French ticket machine on Swiss soil... oh, financial globalisation can’t cope with such complex issues even in its own cradle.

Mid-September, weekdays, is the best, and nearly only window of opportunity to enjoy the famous high walks of Chamonix Valley. Until early-July there is too much snow, then too many people; and later, it will be too cold and days will be too short. In September weather can be as changeable as ever, and I was very lucky. One big storm the first night, which the my Northern Face tent, with declining waterproofness after surviving mountain storms on three continents, struggled to survive – but four glorious days to follow, with just the condensation clouds from the valley making views more interesting.

Glacier BossonsLac BlancThe Mt Blanc is at the intersection of three countries. I have walked and skied the Italian side many times, but only rarely ventures on the others. There is no doubt that the views are best from the Chamonix side. The summits are closer, and the North side has fourteen glaciers – even if some of them now reduced to little more than ice bucket. The best walks in the Chamonix Valley are those on its North side, i.e. not on the Mt Blanc itself, but in front of it. However, I realised, the French side is also much less natural: too many ski lifts and cableways, too many woods vandalised by ski slopes, water cannons looking at you from all corners. And now, even the little footpaths that avoided the ski slopes are taken over by Mountain bike tracks. In terms of wilderness, then, the Italian side is still a bit better: civilisation is concentrated in Courmayeur, and the ski slopes are bit further away. Under the mountain, the two valleys of Veny and Ferret are still very sparcely populated, and left to walkers and crosscountry skiers. And also, as I am at it, there is more wildlife than on the North side, and the mountain architecture is prettier. Mind you: I like skiing and I appreciate mountain bikes, but there is a limit to everything. In particular, I do not like summits to be violated by cableways. It is always a bit depressing walking and climbing up a mountain (like Mt Brevent, which also involves a small bit of Via Ferrata), just to find a cableway arrival station and a restaurant.

Rampons and axe needed!This is also the case of Aiguille de Midi (3842m) and its spectacular cableway. It originally arrived to the avant-cime (lower summit), but recently an internal lift allows to reach the real summit, just some 30mt above. A good way to make money, sure (the lift cost 3 Euro per person, and on the top there is a restaurant), but the views are exactly the same as from the lower balconies. And more, major building works are ongoing at all cable stations... I refused to take that lift, but for the first time, profiting of a cloud-free day, I splashed out (98€!) for the whole cableway crossing from Chamonix to Italy, and returned by bus. It is the most spectacular cableway in the world, made of three main segments: Chamonix-Aiguille de Midi; crossing over the glaciers to Punta Helbronner (Italian border); and on the Italian side Punta Helbronner – La Palud, with intermediate stops at two refugi. It was build just after the war, by an Italian-French consortium. No use of helicopter at that time: the cables were carried and unrolled by climbers. Which is striking not only physically but also politically: only few years earlier, winter 1944-45, the Mt Blanc was the site of the highest-level battle of World War II (a small one, but with its life toll nonetheless). The most interesting part is the middle one, the only way you will be on a glacier without needing rampons, while if (unlike me) have no reason to over to Italy for a couple of years, the descent on the Italian side is not that interesting: it is cheaper and nicer to just return from Punta Helbronner to Chamonix with a cableway return ticket.

TFlowers under the Mt Blanche Mt Blanc summit has been long disputed between French and Italians (compare Italian and French maps and the border is not in the same place!) but the whole cableway remains an interesting case of Italian-French collaboration. Nonetheless I could not miss that instructions and exhibition information are bilingual (Italian and French) on the Italian side, but in French only on the other... which is only partly justified by the fact that the Valle d’Aosta region on the Italian side is an autonomous, bilingual one. The Savoy region on the French side is also historically peculiar, annexed to France only in 1860 and with a more Catholic presence (in Chamonix even a huge statue of Christ King – the least républicain monument you can imagine), but it does not enjoy any administrative autonomy.

cableway allowed going from Chamonix to Courmayeur at a time when the road tunnel still did not yet exist. Although there have been accident at the cableway, the 11km tunnel built in 1965 has a worse history. In 1999, a lorry took fire causing the death of 39 people: the temperature reached 1000C and cars melt into the asphalt. The tunnel was then closed for three years for works. I remember visiting Courmayeur at that time and finding the whole valley magical: it was silent. The continuous river of lorries on the motorway, filling the valley with smog that can’t blow away, wasn’t there. Locals hoped the tunnel would never open again... The transport issue on the Alps is a very sensitive one, with currently mass violent protest against the high-speed train through Val Susa between Turin and Lyon. But surely road transport is the worse one, even if trains could well slow down over here.

Mt Blanc at sunset


September 23, 2011

El Celler de Can Roca and Catalan cuisine

A couple of weeks ago, working-class outskirt of Girona. We are early. It’s half past midday, much too early to speak of lunch in Spain, but it’s already terribly hot. We notice down the road the Restaurante Can Roca, the original, unpretentious family eatery of the Rocas’ father. We find a bar to drink something in the shade while lazily read the newspaper, while listening to locals arguing over which newspaper is least objective, Marca (Madrid, and especially Real) or Mundo Deportivo (Barcelona). In a sea of Catalan, in this neighbourhood of immigrants, we hear more Castellano.

At 1:30 we move to the restaurant: still rather early, but this lunch will last more than three hours. We push the heavy door, leave behind the heat and, temporarily, the working class estate, and we enter the new, beautiful premises of the Celler de Can Roca. Even for one who despises league tables, whether of universities or of restaurants, the idea of second-best restaurant in the world (according to the San Pelligrino’s list) makes some impression.

Fine restaurants fascinate me – even though I dislike luxury. I don’t think there is a contrast there. Really good restaurants celebrate nature, art, skills and labour. Not that fine restaurants are the best places to eat: my best idea of eating is authenticity, either street food in non-western countries, where fresh produce is skilfully assembled under your eyes, or the food I cook myself everyday drawing on memories of my granny or travel experiences. Yet there is a link between the two. Great cuisine is actually a celebration of that food, elevating it to its essence, liberating it from technical and practical constraints. It requires skill and creativity, and it is inspiring. Like art, really.

This summer Ferran Adrià’s El Bulli, Catalunya and world’s best restaurant until last year, closed down, causing much comment in the press. Many of those comments could not help criticising that level of cuisine as over the top, that after all it is just food. In Zoe Williams’ trenchant words for the Guardian, ‘art and fashion last, whereas food is evanescent (...) You'll eat it. You'll digest it. You'll expel it. And that will be that’. But leaving apart that Zoe Williams has actually never eaten at El Bulli (neither have I), it is off the point. It is not necessary for art to ‘last’: do the notes of a fantastic live concert ‘last’? the records maybe, but then so do recipes. And the reference to bodily functions is even weirder: cuisine is to feeding what erotic poetry is to sex, or Michelangelo’s David to the shape of a naked man. In fact, I find eating at a really good restaurant the opposite of a transient experience. First, there is a lot of expectation involved. When two years ago in Paris I ate at Ambroisie in Paris, I had been waiting for fourteen years, since my cash-stripped student year in the French capital, and for the Celler, I needed two months advance to find a table for lunch (no idea for dinner). And if it is really as good as it should, the memories will last. Of course, this is valid only if such dining remains a rare experience, and is not trivialised in a snobbish habit – but on academic salaries there is little risk for it.

While in the same region as Bulli, the Celler follows a very different philosophy. The place is not science fiction, but it is well grounded to earth, and each table has three little stones on it – referring to the three ‘Roca’ (rock) brothers, but also to the simplicity of where they come. While El Bulli was extremely conceptual and universal, regardless of where produce or techniques came from, the Rocas are very local, still in the same neighbourhood where they were born, at a short walk from their father’s simple local restaurant. They are firmly and proudly Catalan – although, as Cataluña itself, in a way that is open to the world. This is visible from the wine, which, in a place called Celler, is very important, and is looked after by Josep (the savoury food by Joan, the desserts by Jordi). The ones from Catalunya, both South and North (i.e. French Roussillon) are prominent, but also those from Andalusia, where many of their neighbours immigrants came from (in addition, good classic French can’t be missing, and Josep has a fascination for German Rieslings, which are sufficiently flavoured to match his brother’s dishes). Overall, this is very much nostalgic food, as with many chefs of the recent wave concerned with disappearing environment. It’s a sort of Proustian effort, which of course struggles to get to the same universal level that Proust could reach with literature. How can we tell if the Rocas actually manage to de- and reconstruct the exact flavours of their granny’s cuisine, given that we have never met their granny? I am quite lucky to at least come from a country (and granny) from the same sea, sharing the same ingredients and row flavours, but I did wonder what the nice Irishmen at the next table could guess (they had to ask the waiter what a bergamot was).

We both went for the festival menu, which in a way is excellent value: 155 Euros for something like twenty-one courses (nine starters, nine mains and three desserts). For an extra 75 Euros, a fine wine chosen by Jordi for each of the main dishes (for a total of fourteenglasses – which, unlike the small and light dishes, do leave a bit of a mark when you have to leave the table). Do your maths and it is, by the dish or glass, as cheap as your local pub... In fact, these restaurants generally run at a loss, the income coming from somewhere else (books, commercial endorsements...).

The first to arrive at the table is a small olive tree – a real one. It also has four olives, and these are less real. It was Adrià who made olives famous as a chef speciality: his are liquid, and the object of spherification. Joan Roca replies with the opposite, all-texture caramelised olives with anchovy, visually and physically attached to their roots. Of the other starters, the one that follows best is the joint serving of mushrooms bombons (you can’t avoid spheres in these restaurants) and of anchovy bones: an interpretation of mar i muntanya, see and mountains, the combination of food from the two contrasting landscapes of Catalunya. This is so typically Catalan in matter and in spirit, and so contrasting from the Mediterranean food I am used to: the hyper-analytical, nearly chauvinistic in its separatism, Italian cuisine, where sea and mountains are forbidden to meet in the same plate. Fortunately, over the previous months I had the possibility to acquire the catalan taste for these combinations, such as, a few evenings earlier in the Pyrenees, a dish of cockles where the valves without mollusc held small pieces of butifarra negra (catalan black pudding).

Each following dish was a new conceptual adventure and feast for the senses. The salted cod brandade referred to old times of scarcity. Where Roca seemed to stray a bit off Catalunya was the cherry soup, which sent my mind off to Hungary instead: there is no trace of cherry soups at all in Catalan traditions, but then, this one also had smoked eel, and almonds, and ginger ice cream - and the masterpiece was managing to combine all these catalan ingredients without ending up into something sweet. The steak tartare with mustard ice cream was an adventure in itself, with an escalation of four very different flavours in one little stripe of raw meat. But the most memorable dish was for me the whole king prawn. In line with the traditional frugality of Spanish cooking, which I admire so much, all of the prawn is used, included the head and the ink, and the caramelised legs achieve a rare intensity of flavour and crunchiness.

The puddings by the youngest brother Jordi are much more abstract and less earthy – if there is a reference to Catalunya, is rather to Miró's art. The postre lattico (milk dessert – a cloud of sheep milk) is the most ambitious, but maybe because it is so famous, it was a bit lost, so to speak, in its own milk cloud – or maybe because the previous, deliciously but complexly refreshing lemon cloud had already spoilt the wow effect of Jordi’s clouds.

Going through the above took three hours, and the service was a perfect symphony, dishes arriving always at the right time with the wines, and waiters answering all questions we could think of. But it was not the end of it. After leaving the table we had a long chat, in French as a good compromise between his poor English and our poor Spanish or inexistent Catalan. This as such was not so surprising – I have seen other great chefs suspiciously spending more time with the customers than in the kitchen. But Josep Roca also invited us to a tour of the kitchen, with what he called the pianos where they play their gastronomic symphonies, and to the cellar, explaining his six preferred kinds of wines and the associations to their dishes. He finished summarising their experience: the whole team still eat traditional meals together every day at the family restaurant up the road, because that is life, where they come from – their restaurant is not life, it is a dream. Indeed, what a dream having a kitchen, or a cellar, like that.

So cheers for catalan cuisine. Were it for the wealth of the region or for the fortunate position at the intersection of Iberian and French gastronomic traditions (as very visible in the wide range of breads), it is spectacular, equally in the forms of fine restaurants or local traditional spots. In fact, we had equally enjoyed ourselves a few days earlier not far from Girona, at the Can Berris, an off the road popular restaurant that specialises in snails: you just say how many you want, in multiples of 50 (we went for just 100) and you receive a large tin of the little things, baked in the most exquisite sauce... the opposite of a twenty-one course tasting menu, but equally Catalan.

The night after the Celler, in Barcelona, we paid tribute to Ferran Adriá, the one who made Catalunya the centre of the culinary world. After closing El Bulli, which had to turn down something like 99% of booking requests, to democratise his foodhe opened two attached places on the Paral-lel, the tapa bar Tickets and the cocktail bar 41º (referring to Barcelona's latitude and the alcohol content of most cocktail ingredients). We could get a table, oops, bar seats with just a few weeks advance, and now we could try the famous spherical liquid olives and a few other creations. All, indeed, very good, and in the bar you can see the food being prepared in front of you, and the prices are extremely democratic (most food items cost just a couple of Euros each, and the cocktails 12-15 Euros, the same as the horrible ones served on the Ramblas). The cocktails also have a degree of deconstruction: in the Margarita, the salt rim is replaced by salt foam. The bar is in a cool science-fiction setting, but I personally prefer staying down to earth – on the rocks.


September 18, 2011

Catalan pride

While in my recent three months of study in Spain I did not have one single day of holiday, I now finally had almost two weeks of free browsing, with H, through Catalan natural, cultural and gastronomic heritage. All while the deepening economic crisis forced Spain to a rushed constitutional reform, in a few days and without any real debate, to appease the European Central Bank and the market: the Spanish Constitution of 1978 had only been amended once before, in 1992 to implement the Maastricht Treaty, and whenever Catalans asked for amendments it was replied that it was too important to be touched without years of deliberations...

Drawing on a pinch of ancient Roman and even ancient Greek legacies, Romanesque art, now so well displayed in the re-opened wing of the MNAC, is the first ground of pride for Cataluña. In the booming first Century Catalunya was arguably the most advanced place in Europe. I like Romanesque even more than Gothic, as it actually combined with classic architectural heritage well before the Renaissance, and it merged Eastern and Western influences: it is less pretentious, but more universal and certainly more spiritually Christian than Gothic. And so is the Romanesque heritage of Catalunya, dispersed from the coast to the green Pyrenees valleys. Catalan tourist promotions tend to say that Catalan medieval villages and towns are like Tuscany, but I’d even say that this is an understatement. Many of them are even better, and while equally well-kept and somehow exclusive, they are not as posh, nor as flooded with tourists as their Tuscan counterparts, whose heyday, by the way, came a little later. The setting is also more spectacular in Catalunya, whether on the coast (the St Pere de Rodes monastery on Cap de Creu) or in the mountains. Besalu

Cataluña was also strong in Gothic times, and the churches of Girona and Barcelona are impressive. But by then the centred of European art had moved north and east. This is particularly evident in the fresco painting by Ferrer Bassa in the St Michael Chapel of the Pedralbes Monastery in Barcelona: fascinating, but a long shot from the Giotto’s ones they wanted to imitate.Sant Pere de Rodes

Then Catalan power declined, with Aragon and Castilla taking over, and Columbus’ discovery of America, together with many other disgraces, brought about the decline of Barcelona, relegated into the backwaters of trade. But I’d say that the dark periods of Catalan history help highlighting the glorious periods. Industrialisation in the XIX Century is the other one, with economic, social and political turmoil, modernist architecture and an orgy of artistic experiments. The rest is too well-known: civil war, Franco’s oppression, revival.

The economic success of Catalunya is very visible along the Costa Brava and inlands, but it becomes clearest when you cross the border into France – or what the Catalans call ‘Catalunya Norte’. While we are used to consider France richer than Spain, the French side of Catalunya (for the French, Roussillon) is actually poorer: while the Spanish side was the driving region of industrialisation, and produced a very rich bourgeoisie, the French one is just a rural peripheral region. Add to this the EU cohesion funds for Spain, but not for France, and possibly a better self-government in Catalunya (Sur) than the centralised French administration of Roussillom, and it becomes clear why as soon as you cross the border northwards the roads are worse, more houses are empty or run down, there is less economic activity and overall you feel going back in time. Take Prats de Melló, a pretty medieval village once linked to Melló on the South Catalan side: there are Catalan flags here too, but there is no press in Catalan language, and despite good wine and local produce, there is little of the pulsating innovation of (South) Catalan cuisine (I will get back to this in another blog). In a way, Prats is more atmospheric, exactly because not as neat and revamped as the (South) Catalan villages. But when you drive back South, admiration strikes you again.Prats de Mello

Maybe the best proof of Catalan civilisation is not even the heritage itself. It is how accessible the heritage is made. All is explained in at least three, often four languages. Even more, nearly all of the many Barcelona’s museums are accessible to disabled, including the blind, and in many cases those with learning disability. Having spent some time, long ago, accompanying learning disabled through Milan’s museums, I remember how great experiences they may be, but how little support there was – now this is starting to be available, for the benefit also of an emerging category of visitors, people with Alzheimer.

Then there’s the language. For me, fighting to get my Spanish to acceptable standards, Catalan is a bit of a turn off: written, it is perfectly intelligible, but the sound is not to my liking, although it makes a good ingredient to chansons, also thanks to its similarity to French. Still, I admire its centenary resilience and its respectable production: Jaume Cabré’s Jo Confesso is the book event of the year in Spain. His previous Les Veus de Panamo got eleven translations and sold millions across the globe, this one should also get an English one and reach the depressingly insular British bookshops.

The Catalan language, right in the days I was there, was however the target of a ruling by the Catalan High Court, deciding that Castellano should also be offered as medium language in Catalan schools. Imagine a Belgian court imposing French in Flemish schools or a Canadian one imposing English in the ones of Québec, and you can guess the uproar. All Catalan parties protested, with only the rightwing Partido Popular welcoming the ruling, which in turns threatens the Catalan ruling coalition between them and the Catalan nationalists (CiU). The Catalan government has appealed the decision and refuses to move an inch, saying that there already three hours of Castellano per week, and that anyway Catalan children already get better exam results in that language than those of many Spanish-only regions. Not only: education in Catalan is indispensible for social cohesion and to avoid the segregation of immigrants in second-class Castellano ghettoes. Castellano defenders reply that it is actually Catalan teaching that marginalises Castellan speakers, whose educational attainment in Catalunya is much lower than for Catalan native speakers. I’d say that social cohesion is more important than attainment, and long live linguistic variety. Even when it means defending the language I don’t speak.


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