All 11 entries tagged Food

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September 24, 2012

Portuguese hopes

AlfamaWhen I went to Lisbon in May 2011, just after the country was forced to ask for financial rescue, I had found a depressed mood and people would have voted the conservatives into power a month later, out of lack of alternatives. My 3-week stay this month found a different situation. On Friday the 7th, just before the Portugal World Cup qualifier and at the peak of audience, the prime minister Passos Coelho spoke on TV to announce the latest and most draconian measure: a 7% increase in social security contributions equal to nearly one month of salary per year. Moreover, revealing the distributional effect of austerity policy, employer contribution were cut by 5.75%, as a measure to create jobs – as if employers would then start recruiting, with internal demand collapsing and no sign of a industrial policy.

The day after all bars and local restaurants in Lisbon (those where you can still eat for 5 Euros) had the TV on live economic news and people were watching in silence. But this time something clicked. The following Saturday mass protest demonstration occurred in the whole country (we witnessed those in medieval Evora): between 600,000 and 1m people on the street, which means nearly 10% of the population (think of 4-6m in a country the size of the UK, France or Italy). This Saturday, the government had to withdraw the measure: it is the first clear people’s victory against austerity.


Passos Coelho had been trying to be ‘more troikist than the troika’, in his excess of zeal to show that ‘Portugal is no Greece’. At the same time as Spain was trying to show that it is no Portugal, and Italy that it is no Spain. Southern European solidarity, regrettably, does not exist, and leaves individual countries with no negotiation power with financial institutions. But this government failure may be a turning point: resistance is possible. Let’s see if the national demonstration in the UK next 20th of October will imitate the exploit - although the British government so far has been skillful at picking its targets and fragment resistance, contrary to the Portuguese measure of social contributions increase for all, which angered the whole population at the same time.

And how does Portugal look like in the middle of this? After a lively conference in Lisbon and a few days rest in the Sagres area (the only unspoilt area of Algarve), we crossed the whole country from South to North, using the back roads, to finish in stunning Porto. Despite losing our way a couple of times, or maybe thanks to that, we encountered so many beautiful spots off the beaten track, without tourists but under uninterrupted sunshine, in agriculture Alentejo as well as in the mountains of the Serra Da Estrela and the Douro Valley. Emigration (a longstanding limit to Portuguese development since the time of colonialism) is up again. Easy to understand, with unemployment at 15%, falling wages and fast rising costs. The country is much more expensive than just a couple of years ago: the VAT on restaurants has gone up from 10 to 23%, and all tariffs (public transport, motorways, petrol) have gone up massively.


It is still a wonderful country, though, and wine and food quality have not been affected. You can still find a lot of good wine for less than 3€/bottle (is cheap alcohol an intentional troika policy as in Belorus?) More upmarket, we tasted the 2009 Vintage Port and it is really promising... let’s hope that when it comes to its best in fifteen years it, austerity will be a distant memory to drink at. Portuguese food is a well-kept secret. Not as varied as the Spanish one for geographic reasons, but extremely well crafted, starting from the unsurpassable sweets but including cheese, offal & pulses, and varied, rich fish soups (even if not as fine as bouillabaisse and brodetto, I must say).

Taylor 2009 Vintage Port, effects of

In contrast to Spain, Portugal is only timidly starting to experiment with ambitious modern cuisine. We tried 100 Maineras in Lisbon, where the chef imitates the Rocas brothers in Cataluña in proposing a nine-course menu of nostalgic gastronomic deconstruction: sardines, bacalhau, suckling pig, Asian colonial inspiration, and even crisps in the shape of washing lines. Although all good and sometimes spectacular, and relatively humbly priced at 47 Euros (5.22 Euros per dish, that is), it did not really convince, and the puddings were particular boring. I don’t think it is because the chef Ljubomir Stanisic is actually from former Yugoslavia and the nostalgia is therefore artificial: it is not me who will underestimate immigrants! Nor because of the ingredients, after all not so different from the Catalan. It made me wonder why conceptual deconstructing cuisine works so well in Spain, France, UK, Austria, but not in Portugal – nor in Poland, where at Tamka 43 recently my Polish friend could only laugh. Maybe it is because ambition looks fine in imperial countries, while in peripheral ones it looks misplaced (I know, Portugal was actually the last European countries to let its colonies go, but its empire was so poor that it hardly counts). Or maybe because Portuguese and Polish traditional cooking is actually very skilled and, unlike the Austrian, British and Spanish ones, it does not need to be revamped?

March 27, 2012

"Lean production" in Stockholm City Hall (and lean cuisine in Scandinavia)

Thin ice, from the Oslo-Stockholm trainAfter a few days in Oslo, and a 6-hour train journey, I am in Stockholm since last Saturday. The train journey was a beautiful calm crossing of forests and thawing lakes, and it was unbelievably cheap: 95 Swedish korons, half the price of the airport train from Oslo centre to Oslo airport...

In Stockholm, among other King's Speech in the Golden Hallthings, I am attending the International Labour Process Conference, a loosely Marxist congregation of people doing excellent critical research on work, inspired by Paul Thompson's writings. One of the main topics today was 'lean production', something the Japanese of Toyota invented a few decades ago and became a management mantra, although there is dubious evidence about its effectiveness and some evidence of negative effects on employees.

Tonight's conference reception was held in nothing less than the City Hall, the majestic building where, every year, a dinner and ball is held for the winners of the Nobel Prizes. I am sick and tired of waiting for that prize that never arrives, so I thought that I would settle for seeing the place now. We were welcome, in the Golden Hall, by the City Council president. Surelywith a polite intent, she said that she was happy to notice 'lean organisation' among the themes of our conference, because Stockholm City Council is an enthusiastic implementer of 'lean organisation' systems!... This is a constant irony: the more we do research to criticise something, the more we end up legitimising that same thing. But never mind: the reception was nice, and Paul Thompson had the well-deserved satisfaction of addressing us in such a prestigeous setting.

PS. In my ten days in Scandinavia I have eaten fantastically. Long are past the times when these remote lands offered only smoked herrings and vodka. "Nordic cuisine" has its golden moment right now, and if Copenhagen gets most of the highlights, Oslo is no worse (Stockholm is a bit behind). The focus on seasonal products and simplicity produces splendid results, especially with cured or raw fish and meat. It is also very "lean" and healthy, unlike what many Scandinavians eat normally. Of course, prices are very high, but like with the rest of the Nordic model, this at least has the positive effect of directing competition to quality rather than price. And (thinking of labour process) I like the fact that the waiters and kitchen staff earn no less than me, speak many languages fluently, and don't need to beg for tips. Interestingly, they are mostly local: immigrants from low-wage countries remain in ethnic restaurants (but on one evening, when I addressed the waitress saying "sorry, I don't speak Norwegian", she smiled back "neither do I!"... she was from Brisbane). The most expensive item is alcohol (bottles of wine in Norwegian restaurants start at around 50 Euros), but again this removes from the market cheap & bad wines. Moreover, the nature of wine as near luxury has led to the commendable practice of offering also good wines by the glass at proportionate prices (1/5 of the bottle). It perfectly fits my "drink less, but better" principle - I'll always prefer spending €10 on a good glass than on a mediocre bottle.

ÖstermalmstorgJust to mention the best experiences: in Oslo, the Håndsverkeren ("craftworkers") on Kristian IV's Gate, for revised traditional norwegian food (excellent dessert of pickled apples) and microbrewery beer; Oro Baron Tordenskioldsgate (fish and deer); Tjuvholmen Sjømagasin(spectacular fish on the new fancy waterfront). In Stockholm, Rolfs Kökon Tegnérgatan (French-Nordic fusion - you can eat at the counter and watch what happens in the kitchen, which I love - whether in a little bar or at the Atelier de Joël Robuchon) and the traditional working-class beer hall Pelikan in the middle of Södermalm.

But the weirdest culinary experience was in Stockholm: a pizza with reindeer and lingonberries. If they knew it in Naples, they would laugh. But Nordic cuisine is no longer a laughing stock.

February 20, 2012

Bruxelles: l’union fait–elle la force?

Grand-PlaceI spent last week, just another ‘crucial’ week for the Greek issue, in Brussels. It is not a city I particularly like. I have visited it often, but always for short, and always with the same grey indistinct weather, worse even than English weather, where it may rain more, but there is some variation on the theme at least. Maybe it's just because most times I just visit its two most soulless and immoral bits: the surroundings of Gare du Nord, with its 1970s World Trade Centre, the red-light district and the European Trade Union House (the reason of my visit is the last), and the European institutions – in whose corridors, last week, the default of Greece was taken as granted, with much shoulder shrugging.

The city centre is pretty, but not as much as other Belgian towns. Since Belgian independence, art is mostly restricted to concept rather than beauty, from art nouveau to surrealism and BD, the cartoons – the new Hergé museum in Louvain-La-Neuve is architectonically impressive but I didn’t have the time to see it and check what they made of Tintin’s reactionary and colonialist tendencies.

Herge MuseumNeither am I a fan of Belgian cuisine. Its large portions and generous fat-intake are comforting, sure, but I think it is largely overrated, overcooked (including the mussels), oversweetened (including the chocolate), and, of course, overpriced. Belgium has just been found to be the most expensive country in the Eurozone, after Luxembourg (I am not sure how Finland can be behind – mystery of European statistics). Of course, there are exceptions, the trappist beer and Pierre Marcolini’s chocolates, but even there, I prefer the less fussy British ales and the bitterer French chocolates (Christian Constant...).

Overpriced, I was saying. This is the headlines in Belgium, which is going through its own little sovereign debt crisis thanks to its debt at around 100% of GDP and a fresh downgrading by the visible dirty hand of the market, the rating agencies. The kingdom has been forced by external pressure to find itself a government after a year and a half of surrealist anarchy. Fortunately, it is a centre-left government, and not a technocratic one, but the pressure is here too on public expenditure, privatisation, and especially wage indexation, on which high prices are blamed.Chocolat

One thing I would in theory like of Bruxelles is bilingualism (or even more than bi-, given the penetration of English and 30% foreign population). I am fascinated by bilingual places, whether Montreal, Südtirol, North Wales or Catalunya. But apart from the cacophonic nature of Dutch (but Catalan is not much better), here bilingualism is more divisive then enriching. The new Prime Minister Di Rupo (who speaks Italian and English) is now taking Dutch lessons, but his faux-pas (like saying ‘recreation’ instead of ‘recession’) confirm Flemish perception of the Walloons treating Dutch as a second-class language, and thereby their refusal to answer in French. Similar fights occur in all bilingual countries and regions (Latvians just voted on Sunday to refuse Russian an official status), but here the division is deepest, with clear geographic borders between linguistic groups. One Dutch word I know is "apartheid"... and without making silly comparisons with South Africa, I am afraid the state of Belgium resembles right now the state of Europe as a whole: dialogue between deaf and façade agreements to satisfy external demands. The Belgian motto is l’union fait la force, unity is strength – which does not sound convincing whether in Belgium or in the EU.

February 07, 2012

Italian cuisine – between slow food and slow hybridisation

Italian food is a tricky topic for me. I don’t share the gastronomic chauvinism of the majority of my compatriots (as attenuation, it is one of the least harmful forms of chauvinism, although no more clever than the others). The risk of being stripped of my passport for admitting that Italian food and wine are not the best in the world does not scare me at all. However, I am not immune to the ‘Proustian’ turn of world gastronomy, where the ambition is to reproduce granny dishes with extreme faith to taste, but new techniques (the most genial realisation is by the Roca brothers in Girona). So when I go to Italy I do instinctively look for the Italian equivalent of madelaines.

Fortunately in this regard, Italian gastronomy has been extremely successful in sticking to the tradition. So successful that it is even a unique case of economic success in a country approaching bankruptcy: Italian food exports keep increasing by 10% a year, as if they were German machinery. But this comes at the cost of innovation, and Italian cuisine, in the last twenty years, has fallen well behind the Spanish one.

artichokesThe good side of traditionalism is best expressed by the ‘slow food’ movement. Its protection of endangered produce through "garrisons" is laudable – and has successfully moved from the local to the global. Yet if I look at La Cucina Italiana and Gambero Rosso, the two serious food Italian magazines, I am struck by a process of commodification of tradition: if on one side I would be charmed if a restaurant reproduced the dishes of my granny (without any chauvinism, the best cook ever – fact), I am not so sure that I want to see a price on it. The Gambero Rosso’s trajectory is particularly telling. It was born in 1986 as the food supplement of the leftist newspaper il Manifesto, in close connection with ARCIgola, the association that gave birth to the slow food movement. I remember, at that time, ideological disputes on whether it is acceptable for communists to spend more than 20,000 Lira (about 20 Euros at today’s prices) on a meal (Rossana Rossanda argued that it isn’t). 25 years on, it is as commercial as any food magazine, with even a TV Channel that shows international chef series. Yet while the TV Channel is indeed a dumbing down function (a dubbed Jamie Oliver showing Italians how to cook pasta!), the magazine has kept all its seriousness, contrasting with the humour, but also superficiality, of Anglosaxon gastronomic publications, but to the point of stiffness. Even new techniques like sous-vide are presented to defend the orthodoxy in terms of ingredients and flavours, a bit like the Catholic Church was fast to embrace new communication technologies to disseminate its dogmas.

Conservatorism is most visible in the refusal to embrace ideas and ingredients from abroad. While this avoids some monstrosities of (con-)‘fusion’ cuisine, it is a historical nonsense for a country that owes its culinary achievements not to the gluttony of its aristocracy, but to the discoveries of its explorers and even more the influences of its innumerable invaders, from the Arabs to the Spaniards and the Austrians. Yet chauvinism now blocks external influences. Until a few years ago, there were strikingly for ethnic restaurants in Italy. As a student in Florence in the mid-1990s I remember finding only one non-Italian restaurant in town (Chinese). More recently, politicians, especially the xenophobic Northern League but occasionally also leftwing administrators, have contributed to this state of affairs forbidding non-traditional restaurants in historical city centres (while the only thing which was needed is a ban of fast-food chains).

During the last two months in Italy I noticed the walls of the Italian cuisine’s fortezza starting to crumble. Numbers of ethnic restaurants keep increasing. This is mostly concentrated in the most cosmopolitan place, Milan, not only in terms of numbers (ethnic restaurants are 12% of the total in Milan, as against 4% in Turin and 8% in Rome), but in terms of significance: outside Milan, the majority of ethnic eateries are nothing more than cheap kebab outlets, but under the Duomo you can find fantastic Japanese, African and Latin American cuisine. In addition, foreigners penetrate the fortezza from within. In Milan, already in the 1990s Egyptians made up the large majority of pizzaioli. In the 2000s, they started owning the pizzerias. Now they are starting changing the menu.

The process of culinary cross-fertilisation is still in its infancy and prone to In the Same Pizzeria-Restaurant near Porta Romana I tried the Pizza Egiziana, and I received a good pizza with falafel on the top. I like falafel more than pizza, but their texture, look and taste could not combine at all with pizza, remaining like alien asteroids on a fertile planet's surface - I was tempted to wrap it all up to pretend it was a falafel sandwich. In the old suburb of Rogoredo, the local Osteria de Rogored is kept its dialect name, old decor and strictly Milanese menu – but it is now Chinese-run, just like the old bar on the other side of the road. The restaurant is, with its good portions, warm and quick service, and unbelievably low prices, very popular with locals – but the risotto is made with Chinese rice instead of Arborio, resulting in disastrous texture...

The most successful cases of hybridisation are then on safe and well-beaten paths of the border regions: couscous in Sicily, Austrian-Italian combinations in South Tyrol, and French-Italian ones in Piedmont. Turin, with its Francophone royal family and its Napoleonic alliances, makes the most of French influences, for instance in chocolate. Piedmont is not by chance the place of birth of slow food, and the region with best Italian reds. The best meal of my stay (caused by the events at Fiat) was probably at Scannabue in a pretty but unassuming old square off the city centre, where the young chefs combine French influences with the best traditional recipes of the Kingdom of Piedmont (including Liguria and Sardinia). Their bravery was evident in the wine list, where, in contrast to the defensive protectionism of many Italian restaurants, both Piedmontese and French wines were very well represented (and very honestly priced). So I could drink a lyrically profound Barbaresco out of choice, and not of duty. At Scannabue, after a deliciously humble tonno di coniglio (rabbit turned into canned tuna) and masterly agnolotti, I tried for a test the same dish (veal cheek on potato mash) I had had a couple of weeks earlier in Meran at the Michelin-starred Sissi of Fenoglio, himself a master of Piedmont-Tyrol hybridisation. And with great surprise Scannabue won the ‘veal cheek contest’ over Sissi: the potatoes had better texture and the meat was even softer while with more flavour – as a counter-surprise, though, Fenoglio’s wine sauce of Lagrein was much more robust than the classic one of Nebbiolo at Scannabue.

And what about the orthodox Italian cuisine that is still so successful? In some cases it bores me – especially in Rome where it is restricted to very few recipes (but I love the artichokes). In many others it is a fake. But in Milan there are a handful of authentic places really honouring genuine ingredients from slow food “garrisons”, like l’Osteria del Treno near Central Station and Gloria near the Navigli. And, even rarer, there are places full of history which honour traditional recipes. Some have become slightly stiff in their orthodoxy, but remember that old Milanese are meant to be a bit grumpy (it is the case, notably, of the Osteria Meneghina). Others still recreate popular memories with their poor dishes of offal and vegetables. It is the case of La Bottiglieria hidden in Via Cerva, open only for lunch (and favourite destination for academics and lawyers from the nearby University and Court). And then there is, incredibly surviving after three decades of Berlusconism in city, the most unbelievable garrison of Milanese proletarian gastronomy: the Albero Fiorito restaurant, very well hidden away from the city centre, not far from the Polytechnic. The cuisine is from Friuli, not Milanese, but this is a real social institution surviving unchanged for something like 50 years. The genuine home-cooked food, served at communal tables only before 12:30 for lunch and before 8pm for dinner, is prepared by mother, son and daughter, all now in age of retirement but still charging only 2.50 Euros for primi piatti, 4 Euros for mains and 3.50 Euros for a bottle (genuine) wine. It goes where the Italian welfare state does not arrive: healthy nourishment, human warmth, socialisation. And honesty: they don’t accept tips and, in a country of tax evaders, they regularly issue tax receipts.

By the way, the veal ethics issue. I don’t particularly like veal meat, but it is a core ingredient of so many Italian recipes. In some cases it can be replaced with little loss: by pork in costoletta milanese and by beef in ragù alla bolognese. But other dishes – saltimbocca, veal cheek, veal liver alla veneta and especially ossobuco there is no replacement. The big wthical problem is that most veal farms use cruel crates to keep veal meat tender and white. However, veal farming is not necessarily unethical, and is in some situations even the right thing to do. First, many dishes (and especially veal cheek) are even better with pink veal meat, that does not require crates nor any other cruelty. But also, the alternative of not eating veal can be worse: male calves are a by-product of the diary industry and in the UK, where they are not raised for veal meat (and very few are suitable to be raised for beef), they are killed at birth, which is, to me, more upsetting. So while I admire vegans, I fail to understand who objects to veal, but pours milk in their tea (and maybe even eats chicken, talking of cruelly farmed baby animals).

December 27, 2011

The fantastic world of South Tyrol

Clouds on the Etsch/AdigeIt is a proof of my weak national identity that my favourite Italian province – the one I visit most often just for pleasure, for no ulterior motives like family or work reasons – is the least Italian of all: Alto Adige, which I call with its original German name, Südtirol.

South Tyrol has, to name just three things, the most beautiful mountains (the province itself is a geological museum, with the Dolomites as masterpiece), the best apples and the best white wine in the world: Gewürtztraminer comes from here (from Tramin, as the name says), while Riesling achieves here very distinctive results, and the Sauvignon from Terlan is just about the only wine to go with asparagus. It is not that the red are worse (especially the local Lagrein grape), they just have stronger competitors elsewhere. This is the Italian region with the highest percentage of quality wine on the total production: the usable surface is so narrow that there is no point focusing on quantity over quality, so that, here, you run little risk of finding bland or bad wines, unlike in the rest of Italy (not a scary risk anyway, when prices start at 1€/bottle).

The famous Vinschgauer ÄpfelIt also has some of the best ski slopes in the world (the mythical ones in Gröden/Val Gardena), but this year so little snow has fallen to make them hardly skiable. A strong foehnkept all the clouds and snow just on the other side of the mountains, in the Austrian North Tyrol, keeping the Italian side sunny but dry. No big deal. We still spent a splendid weak in the Mutöfen – high mountain alms – overhanging 1,000 meters above Meran, the largest majority-German speaking town in the region (South Tyrol’s capital, Bozen, is now majority Italian-speaking), hosting marvellous thermal spas. Alpine pastures and farms are so high-cost today to be economically viable, and are among those activities that fully deserve European subsidies on the grounds of their positive environmental and cultural externalities (it is the implementation, not the idea of Common Agriculture Policy that is wrong). Most alms, to survive, combine agriculture with tourism, like our Muthof, dating back from the early XIX Century, when Tyrol, under the leadership of Andreas Hofer from the neighbouring Pustertal, rebelled against Bavaria, Napoleon and the Enlightenment. I guess that the let of our cosy apartment, with its breathtaking view, produces as much added value in a day as the fourteen cows put together.

Schloss TirolHere, it is as German as it can get. Pustertal is still tied to Hofer’s anti-Enlightenment views: men on important occasions still carry their huts with feathers indicating their marital status, and are the most opposed to any accommodation with Italian rule. Here in the Muthöfen, children speak only German: they do have some Italian at school, but with whom can they practice up here? On TV, a wide range of Austrian, German and Swiss-German channels, but the reception of Italian channels is too bad. And one can live in South Tyrol without speaking Italian: like the octogenarian landlady of the Meran’s B&B where we stayed a couple of years ago, who, with no hint of irony, moaned that Italians coming to live in Meran learned no German.

Nowadays, South Tyrol’s autonomy is often advertised as a model for minority rights and inter-ethnic relations, for instance in Northern Ireland. But the path to the current situation had its nasty moments and the reality is not as glamorous as the Alpine views and the current economic wealth. The four parts of Tyrol (East with Lienz, North with Innsbruck, South, with Bozen, and the Italian-speaking Welschtirol or Trentino with Trento), whose unity dates back to the middle ages under the castle of Tirol just below our Muthof, were split after the First World War. Austria had come to accept the idea to cede to Italy Trentino already before the war, as a concession to avoid Italy changing sides, but Italy profited of Austrian collapse to move the border till the Alpine dividing range, the Brennerpass, which made geographicbut no cultural sense: South Tyrol was then 90% German-speaking. Italy did not comply with Wilson’s criterion of self-determination, and instead started a program of forced Italianisation, building in South Tyrol industrial zones for Italian immigrants and forbidding German-language education. Soon, Mussolini pursued Italianisation with an even heavier hand. It is to some extent understandable, then, that the South Tyroleans made their own historical mistake in 1939, when 86% of them, under Goebbels propaganda, opted to relocate to the Third Reich within the framework of the Hitler-Mussollini pact. The war interrupted the relocation plans and after it the Italian Prime Minister De Gasperi, himself from Trentino, exploited this pro-Nazi episode to delegitimize the South Tyroleans and create a united Trentino-Alto Adige region where the German speakers would be a minority. This situation led to an international dispute in the UN between Italy and Austria and to the rise of South Tyrolean resistance. Under the leadership of Silvius Magnago, the Südtiroler Volkspartei (SVP) became the assembly party of all German speakers. In 1957, a historic demonstration took place in the Sigmundskron castle under the ‘Los von Trient’ (Away from Trento) slogan. After waves of bombings by South Tyrolean extremists, negotiations led to the ‘Paket’ agreement on autonomy was reached in 1969, narrowly accepted by the South Tyroleans and implemented with characteristic slow pace by the Italian state: only in 1992 it was fully implemented and the Austrian-Italian dispute ended. With autonomy, South Tyrol has achieved the ‘Los von Trient’ goal, and only marginal minorities nowadays want the further step of ‘Los von Rom’. Last week, the Northern League’s leader Bossi was in Bozen try to tempt the SVP into an anti-Rome alliance, but he was coldly rebuffed: for the SVP, Milan is no better than Rome.

Today, also thanks to wealth coming from hydroelectricity and tourism, Südtirol is a peaceful and happy place. The Austrian access into the EU also opens the perspective of a united Tyrol, if not as a country, as a ‘Euroregion’, although Trentino is still to be convinced.

Is this a model, though? The German-speaking majority and the Italian minority (alongside a smaller Ladin minority) live peacefully, but separated by sectarian education and employment systems. Politically, on the German side the SVP, supported by the Athesia media empire and the only German-language newspaper Dolomiten, maintains its hegemony and is still to lose its absolute majority (only recently threatened by the extreme-Right Freiheitlichen, spillover of the FPÖ), while the Italians have often supported the neofascist Right. Lack of alternative and vote along ethnic-linguistic lines do not make a good polity. While the meeting of two cultures and languages has produced interesting results, especially gastronomically (try the Sissi restaurant in Meran by Langhe-born but Tyrol-adopted Fenoglio), this is arguably the least multi-cultural part of a non multi-cultural country. For most German-speakers, any multiculturalism is tantamount to surrender: in many ways, out of reaction and survival instinct, the South Tyroleans are more Tyrolean than their counterparts North of the border (but no more Austrian: as they say here, if anything South Tyrol can be above Austria, because its Ortler, at 3,905m, is heads and shoulders above any Austrian mountain).


Schloss Tirol

The force that has done most to turn South Tyrolean protectionism (embodied by the Schützen) from what is no longer to defend (a unified mono-cultural Tyrol) to what is to be defended (a unique natural environment) are the Greens, who in this region reach the best results of the whole of Italy (2nd party with 17% in Meran last year). The leading figure of the South Tyrolean Greens was, until his shocking death in Fiesole in 1995, Alex Langer, a leader of the 1968 movement and an active pacifist. The best-known one, is the most famous of all South Tyroleans: the climber Reinhold Messner, first man to climb all world’s 8,000 meters, founder of the Mountain Wilderness movement and of the Messner Mountain Museum, and an MEP in 1999-2004. Among is numerous books, many translated into Italian and some also into English, there is Gebrauchsanweisung für Südtirol (2nd ed. 2010), for the non-touristic and no-nonsense German-language series Gebrauchsanweisung. A great climber unfortunately does not make a good writer, and Messner views are often contradictory, but the book express well his frustration for the SVP-Dolomiten power monopoly that has effectively defended the region from Italian intrusion, but unfortunately also from new ideas.Meran at night

December 04, 2011

A bientôt Paris

I owe to say something about Paris – not easy, given the tons of ink that the city attracts, and the fact that Paris, unlike Berlin and Warsaw, does not change too quickly. The time of the grands projets is gone, due to shorter presidential terms (from seven to five years: not enough to leave an inprint on time to be re-elected) and to budget restrictions. De Gaulle, Pompidou, Mitterrand left important marks; Chirac less, but still he managed to leave the Musée du Quai Branly (the ‘arts primitives’ rebaptised ‘arts primaires’) and the quite unique Citée de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine. Sarkozy – luckily – has left near-nothing besides anger in the banlieues.

To add to the feeling of immobility, these weeks, Paris was uncharacteristically mild, climatically and politically: paradoxically for the city of revolutions, it was just about the only capital where nobody was occupying anything (a timid attempt at La Défence failed, demonstrators were so few that they got lost in the huge Esplanade). Maybe because the French would never imitate what Americans do. Or more because after the traumatic experience of 1968-69, the French have chosen to always keep quiet before the elections (the next are in April-May 2012), to explode thereafter in what they call troisième tour social.

Quartier LatinEspecially little changes in the area I was staying, the Quartier Latin. Adieu imagination au pouvoir. Of course, it has changed socio-demographically since the times of Sartre or even Foucault, but much less so since the times of Meardi (the influential social theorist of mid-1990s Paris). The Quartier Latin, especially on the 6th arrondissement side towards Saint-Germain, is extremely gentrified now. It is according to the thought-and-foot provoking Paris: Quinze promenades sociologiques by Michel Pinçon and Monique Pinçon-Charlot, the area with the highest number of professionals, and the lowest number of manual workers. High-fashion shops have long replaced bars and artisans. Fortunately, bookshops resist, but there have been some painful disappearances since the times I was studying here in 1994-95.

This is arguably the place in the world with the highest concentration of books, great food, and art. In comparison to my student years I can afford, at least for three weeks, the extortionate prices of local shops. This is now the most expensive area in Paris except a few streets near the Champs-Elisées, at over 12,000€/m2 to buy and over €25/m2 to rent. Shops cater for people who can afford living here and for tourists. But at least the quality is exceptional. Round the corner, I had one of the best bakeries in the world, Gérard Mulot (Rue de Seines Quatres Vents), and a few steps further, the best in the world, Kayser (rue de l’Ancienne Comédie, or rue Monge) and of course Poilâne (rue de Cherche-Midi). Some produce is extremely expensive, but remember that the price of baguettes is politically regulated in France (like espresso's in Italy), so do buy them in the very best places, and you'll get much more for the same money. Also very close, the covered market of Saint-Germain with fantastic fish, meat and cheese, and just a bit further, even better produce at the little market and shops of Maubert-Mutualité. And on Sunday morning, the mother of all posh organic markets, on Bd Raspail. In the middle, my favourite chocolatier, the leftist-for-millionaires (a bit like the trotckist patissier of Moretti’s movies) Christian Constant (rue Assas): he spends half of the year exploring Latin America in search of the best beans, but if he is in the shop, he will be happy to engage in conversations about all aspects of cocoa, including the socio-economic ones.

With such fantastic food on sale, you can eat well at home even if you can't cook (c'est pas mon cas, bien entendu). But if you want to eat out? I was staying in front of the Palais du Luxembourg, hosting the Senate (which just swung to the Left, for the first time ever). Given that law makers, unluckily for the tax-payers, like to eat well, this has the effect of providing some very good and reliable places, not necessarily at extreme high prices. Actually, two years ago, when the government had reduced the VAT on restaurants, on condition that the owners would reduce prices, this was about the only place where they complied, advertising the lower prices clearly: the effect of being watched closely. In particular, I love the bistrot La Ferrandaise (rue de Vaugirard), according to many the best in the city, appreciate the traditional and quiet Au Bon Saint-Pourçain (rue Servandoni), and when missing the Med on a grey day, of course, there’s nothing better than La Méditerranée (place de l’Odéon), a bit old-fashion but with excellent seafood in a historical setting.

Walking a bit further, this is an area with an extreme concentration of Michelin stars, and with inflated prices. But there are a handful of honest places (L'Epigramme, rue de l'Eperon, or Le lutin dans le jardin, rue Gît-le-Coeur), and it is possible to try famous chefs’ dishes at much lower prices, especially at lunch time, by going to their second restaurants or brasseries, such as La rotisserie d’en face (rue Christine) of Jacques Cagna (his main restaurant has actually just closed) or Les bouquinistes (Quai des Grands Augustins) of Guy Savoy. And if you like them and want more, only a bit further, already in the 7th arrondissement, there is L’atelier de Joël Robuchon, where you wait and pay not so much for the food eaten at the counter, but for the privilege of having a view of the kitchen and of a new generation of chefs learning from the most precise master in the world (for instance, the Roca brothers went through here).

Plenty of places where to drink a glass too, of course, like the alternative-looking Bar Dix on Rue de l’Odeon, or the intimate La crémerie (Rue Quatre Vents), with its very idiosyncratic, but interesting, owner.

And the famous cafés? I do not like Parisian cafés particularly, unless they come with intellectually stimulating encounters. Bad coffee, limited food choice, appaling service, exaggerated prices, cramped tables - and you meet more Italian tourists than philosophers. Also, since the crisis and quality collapse of Libération, there is hardly any newspaper worth reading in the morning in Paris and therefore little reason to stop in a café (Le monde, also in crisis but still oustanding, comes out in the afternoon: better read in a brasserie). For cafés, not only central Europe, but even Madrid and Lisbon are better than Paris. Although nowhere matches Italy on this front. Time to go to Milan!

October 30, 2011

Do zobaczenia Warszawo

Polish autumnAt the end of a month in Warsaw, it’s time for putting down some impressions as I had done for Berlin and more fragmentarily for Madrid and Barcelona. Unlike those previous stops of my investigation, Warsaw is not, and probably will never be, a prime tourist destination. Which alone makes it an interesting and exciting place to my eyes. University library - best contemporary building in town

Warsaw is a very young city – architecturally and demographically. Levelled to the ground by German dynamite after the 1944 insurrection, it was rebuilt (including the Old Town) in a hurry and cheaply, but at least with some good ideas and a lot of green space by the communist regimes. The transition to capitalism was the opportunity for another wave of hurried and cheap wave of construction – this time of skyscrapers, shopping malls and pretentious villas for the rich. The urban tissue has suffered for it, as described on the Za Żelazną Bramą estate, but now, with increasing wealth, also some interesting, more ambitious architecture makes its mark. Warsaw will probably have the highest European skyscraper soon, the University library, with its façade with different alphabets and its roof gardens is one of the most beautiful library buildings I have ever seen, the High Court is extremely elegant... and Warsaw keeps growing and surprising.Supreme Court & Krasinskich Palace Public transport is also improving, but slowly: the first line of the tube was completed a few years ago - after a few decades works. The second line, which connects to the new national stadium on the other side of the river, will spectacularly miss the planned opening date of next year: Euro 2012 fans should expect inconvenient transport, and residents a month of extra traffic jams.

Demographically, first the loss of over a third of the population during the war, then high birth rate and the huge baby boom of the early 1980s (martial law: a year of curfew, nothing interesting on TV and shortage of contraceptives), and finally strong internal migration (Warsaw’s unemployment is three times lower, and pay level twice as high as in the rest of the country) and some good universities give Warsaw a much younger look than most western capitals. The result is a fast changing place where things happen and nightlife is as vibrant as anywhere.

Even if the cultural capital of Poland is still considered to be Kraków, Warsaw has a much more cutting-edge scene. Warsaw is now full of klubokawiarnie, intellectual cafés for the most disparate tastes where young people discuss books, politics, travel, try new tunes on the guitar.... I have already written a blog on the leftist ‘New Brave World’ café, but there are plenty more, especially near the University, but also hidden in the various neighbourhoods. Concerts (very strong jazz and classic traditions, open to innovation) and especially theatres are first-class. Polish stages are marked by experimental and absurd streams (Kantor, Lupa, Grotowski, Mrożek, Gombrowicz) and thanks to a tradition of generous subventions are particularly popular. The most famous Polish cinema actors who appeared in Wajda and Kieslowski’s films are above all theatre actors, and give their best live – actually, if they can be criticised, it is for being too theatrical on film. Among the recent novelties there is Teatr Polonia, a new independent theatre set up by the most famous Polish actress, Krystyna Janda, who has played 700 times her pièce de résistancemonologue, Shirley Valentine. A live transmission of a comedy from Polonia had some 3million viewers last Monday, more than most Polish national team matches (and deservedly so).

During my stay I sadly did not find the time or the tickets to go to her theatre, nor to see the best plays in town (Mrożek’s Tango at the neoclassic National Theatre and the Dostoyevsky-adapted Idiot at the Studio Theatre in Stalin’s Palace of Culture and Science). I went instead to some more cutting edge shows. Wyzwolenie (Liberation), at the Teatr na Woli, is a re-adaptation of the neoromantic play by Stanisław Wyspiański, who already one-hundred years ago offered a smart sardonic view of Polish nationalism (my favourite Wyspianski poem/play is Wesele, the Wedding, a satire of the unconsummated marriage between peasantry and revolutionary intellectuals – you can see the film transposition by Wajda if you can’t go to theatre in Poland). In this adaptation, director Piotr Jędrzejas brings the action to our days, and the satire is of current rightwing nationalism, including the use of the Cross, in an absurd set reminding of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author: actors repeat Wyspiański’s verses but don’t know what to do with them. Besides the provocative aim (some rightwing journalists asked to stop the show and incriminate the director) and the good (but short) performance of Jerzy Trela, the play was a bit unconvincing, to most of the audience and especially to somebody like me who has not read the original Wyspiański’s text. For this reason I was in a position to enjoy more fully, at the Teatr Powszechny,“jesteś piękne... mówię życiu’ (You are bueatiful... I say to life), based on the poems by Wisława Szymborska, Nobel Prize 2006 and one of my favourite poets. Unlike Wyspiański and much of the Polish literature, Szymborska does not deal with big historical issues, but with intimate everyday experiences – which are not necessarily less political. The play, in which three women around a table tell each other their life impressions through Szymborska’s words, is a triumph for both the fragmented, ironic short poems, and the art of reading of them.

Warsaw is also a city of cinema. The setting of Kieslowski's masterpiece Dekalog, and host of an incredible varieties of cinemas for the most cosmopolitan programming. Besides the new multiscreen, 3-D complexes, a handful of splendid or intimate vintage cinemas, like Muranow. I went to a new cinema, KC Kino, opened in the projection room of the monumental building that used to host the communist party's Central Committee (KC stands for Komitet Centralny), and in a sign of the times in 1990 was turned into the stock exchange. I watched there Czerwony Czwartek (Black Thursday) by Krauze, a film on the December 1970 worker rebellion in the Polish costal cities, which was brutally repressed by the army killing 41 demostrators. The movie is clearly inspired to 'Bloody Sunday' by Greengrass, and it avoids the heavy nationalist rhetoric of most Polish historical movies, although the whole second half is filled by typically Polish martirology, i.e. the portrait of families' grief and victims' funerals - which are not historically irrelevant though: to avoid demonstrations, the funerals took place in the middle of the night, with families given only 30 minutes advance notice. Anyway, the interesting experience was that the movie presents many scenes of Gomulka deciding the repression in the Central Committee, exactly one floor above where I was watching the film...

With so much food for the soul, what about food for the body? When I spent a few years here in the mid Nineties, there were just a handful of acceptable restaurants: the pseudo-Jewish Pod Sansonem in the old town, the pseudo-Japanese Tokyo, the new creative Kuchnia Artystyczna in the Ujazdowski castle, and a couple of communist-era places with extremely slow and bureaucratic service (Lotos, Mozajka – happily for gastronomic archaeologists they still exist and they have not changed). Now, Warsaw’s wealth and curiosity for the world have filled the city with all kinds of restaurants, from revisits of Polish traditions to all corners of the world. The restaurant critic of the main newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza (still one of the best newspapers in the world, and the best for information on the eastern part of Europe), Macjej Nowak, for many years wrote nearly exclusively caustic reviews: eating out in Warsaw looked more like a masochistic adventure than a pleasure. But recently, he asked in a column if Warsaw has become the food capital of Europe. The answer is no, but just the fact that the question can be raised tells about the progress made: and in terms of value for money ratio, there are really not many places in Europe where eating out is so enjoyable. Try for instance Przy Trakcie or Papu for smart Polish cuisine, Zgoda for unpretentious traditional Polish food, Izumi Sushi for spectacular Japanese, R20 for very good French, and, especially for desserts, the very feminine Słodki i słony of Magda Gessler. From next week, while in Paris, I will miss Warsaw prices and friendly service.

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.

July 10, 2011

The changing nature of Spanish markets and cuisine

I am strongly pro-market. Not in the political sense, of course: I mean food street markets. I grew up above the largest (bi-weekly) market in Milan, Viale Papiniano, at the shouting soundtrack of ‘belle le pere mille lire, signora, le pere!’. Despite the obvious downsides in terms of noise, traffic and occasionally smell (the fish stalls were at the other end of the street, fortunately), the market institution became something very familiar to me. I also learnt from my father’s advice, although it wasn't always logics-proof: ‘before buying from a vendor, you must become familiar with him’ – but how on earth can I socialise with a vendor without buying from him... Later on, Milanese street markets became for me the ‘battlefield’ of political campaigning. Their replacement through private shopping malls and supermarkets, where campaigning as well as begging are forbidden, is not just a defeat for good food: it is a defeat for democracy and the social texture of urban places.

My interest in markets, however, increases proportionally to the distance from Milan. Far away, it is, unlike supermarkets, a way to practice language (I learnt to count in Mandarin in Xi’an and Beijing night markets), learn about new food and its preparation (the fish market in Sandakan, Borneo, beats any maritime life museum), and experience local customs, such as bartering in Morocco. Generally the quality, choice, price and freshness (especially for fish) are better than in supermarkets – even in a rather ugly and impoverished Coventry, the retail market is excellent.

San MiguelSpanish markets are particularly interesting, but also undergoing deep changes that are at least ambiguous. In Madrid, the historical central San Miguel market, round the corner from the flat were I was staying, has been elegantly restructured and turned into a ‘market + tapas bar + gastronomic fancy boutiques’. The opening time (10am-2am) reveal that the ‘market’ component is just ornamental and reduced basically to one fruits and veggies stall. The gastronomic stalls are very touristy, and the variegated tapas bars a place for tourists during the day and a ‘place to be seen in’ for Madrid’s middle-class youth at night. All pretty and enjoyable, but not what a market is supposed to be.

San AntonThe same fate has been followed by the San Anton market in Chueca, the gay village. This is not a heritage building and it has just been reopened in a stylish setting, with excellent, if pricy, food stalls on the ground floor, a supermarket in the basement, tapas bars on the first floor, and a restaurant/bar with terrasse, open all night, at the top. In the restaurant you can ask them to cook what you bought in the market, for just a 4 Euros extra per person – an excellent custom I had first enjoyed in Morocco. It may be because of the novelty, but the place is packed with people at all hours. It might be an effective recipe for ‘reborn’ markets.

The same cannot be said for markets turned into posh shopping malls. This has happened to the Puerta de Toledo market, now a cold and deserted agglomerate of soulless posh shops. The same is going to happen to the Barceló market, subject to a current expensive rebuilding project.

La CebadaFortunately, there are ‘real markets’ that survive as such. In the posh Salamanca district, there is the excellent Mercado de la Paz, the only XIX Century surviving one, apart from the San Miguel. But I prefer the more popular ones, of which in the centre survive Anton Martin and especially the largest, La Cebada. The great thing of Spanish markets, compared to the rest of western Europe, is the amount of spectacular ‘real’ food you can see on display. Not for the fainthearted: entire tunas and swordfish being chopped, live shellfish and crabs, whole suckling pigs and quarters of muttons and beefs. And a special place is reserved to offal: brains, livers, hearts, oxtail, bull’s testicles, tripe... Rabo de toro, criadillas and callos a la madrileña have all important roles on Madrid’s tables. Offal is the most socialist food I can think of: cheap, nutritious, good, and achieves great value through labour. In some western countries it is strangely despised, although it is routinely eaten, unawarely, in the shape of hamburgers and sausages. The fish stalls are also great. Unfortunately, in the huge Cebada restaurant half of the stalls are shut: crisis is looming and I dread it might be turned into a shopping mall too (too big for a tapa bar). In Spain, as already in the UK, popular markets are largely kept alive by immigrants. For a broader appeal, I can only think of two developments: a major increase in fuel prices that might discourage trips to retail parks and hypermarkets, or proper culinary education – not through TV chefs, but through visits to the market.

Last mention in Madrid, even though it is not technically a market but one large, 100-year old pavilion, is the Pescaderias Coruñesas, the best, if pricy, place to buy fish in a city that despite its distance from the sea is considered as ‘the best port of Spain’. Their website includes interesting information on any sort of seafood, and an exceptional variety of cooking suggestions: a few ways of cooking octopus that I did not know of, for instance.

In Barcelona, the market story is similar. The Boquería market off the Rambla is a major tourist attraction, the food is still great (Ferran Adriá declares that he shops there, which is quite a strong endorsement), and in some bars you can eat fish straight from the counter. Also in the old town, the Santa Caterina has been completely restructured with the addition of a futuristic roof, but it is still ‘a market’. In the stylish Exaimple, the Mercat de la Concepció is quieter and excellent quality, while the huge, historical Mercat del Ninot is undergoing complete restructuring – the fact that the stalls have been moved to a temporary market make me hope that it will reopen as market. In the outskirts, the picture is more mixed and supermarkets are more aggressive. The Sant Cugat’s market is a little gem with fantastic fish, but the Vallvidrera one is shut and its future is still unknown.

Once you have bought Spanish ingredients, there is the issue of what to do with them. And here I have a theory on the evolution of Spanish gastronomy.

Spain has exceptionally good produce. It shares with only France and Morocco the privilege of access to both Atlantic and Mediterranean, with the result of a double variety of fish and seafood – for instance, percebes are one of the great discoveries of my Spanish stay. The land extension means that most agriculture, at least before the greenhouses of Almería, has been much less intensive then elsewhere, resulting in greater variety, more taste, and more care. From tomatoes to ham, from eggs to fruits, the quality is generally outstanding – they do not have anything to envy the more famous French and Italian produce.

However, such great produce combined, until recently, with delayed social progress, and notably an obscurantist aristocracy, relative isolation and extreme land poverty. Central Spain is also far from any port and from any other countries, and therefore, from the XVIII Century to Franco, less open to circulation of ideas and gastronomic fashions than most of Europe. Neither aristocracy nor bourgeoisie nor merchants engaged in status-symbol cuisine as they did in France, but to some extent also in Portugal and Italy; while the poor peasantry and emerging proletariat, given the quality of row materials, did not need to elaborate sophisticated techniques to make up for shortages in the way, for instance, the Moroccan or Chinese did.

Therefore, the traditional Spanish cuisine is, if varied in terms of ingredients, extremely basic if compared to the rest of the region, not just to France and Italy, but also Portugal and Morocco. I have learnt to cook a few Spanish dishes, and they are stonishingly simple. Nothing requires the same skills as a French sauce or Italian handmade pasta. Paella can be spectacular, but extremely straightforward to prepare in comparison to risotto, which involves more careful cooking and the tricky step of mantecatura. The cocido madrileño and the potaje de garbanzos y bacalao are tasty and nutritious, but the only skill they require is the capacity of reading a watch and check the cooking times of the various ingredients. No Spanish soup, and even less pudding, can compete with the Portuguese or French ones in terms of elaboration. The only gastronomic field on which I admit the Spanish have traditional talent is eggs, from tortillas to revueltos. For the rest, the theory goes, excellent produce combined with remoteness, oscurantism and poverty do not provide incentives for great cuisine. Pan

To test my research hypothesis, I have also tried a number of traditional Madrid and Castillan restaurants. The ones with the best reputation are the related Casa Lucio and El Landó, in the old town. And they both confirmed mSant Cugaty theory exactly. The service and the atmosphere are very old-fashion, and so is the food. Outstanding ingredients and produce, from the bread with tomato, to the cured anchovies, to the tartar steak, but the dishes are extremely simple: the roasted lamb shoulder was the best I have ever eaten, but thanks more to the animal than to the chef, who, actually, had massively overindulged with olive oil (and I love olive oil). All this for substantial bills of 70+ Euros, so that at the end I only wanted to plead the chefs to just tell me where they bought those tomatoes and that lamb – so to never need to come again.

There are of course many cheaper places to eat good Castillan food, for instance Casa Perico in c/Ballesta, or a couple of places around and within the above-mentioned Mercado de La Paz. The lunch menus tend to be excellent value, but again, good real food but little sophistication.

There is an important corollary to my theory. More recently, as in general with Spanish society (e.g. gender), as a reaction to such traditionalism, a boom of revolutionary innovation has exploded. While Italian food remains identical to itself, Spain has become the forefront of innovation, with strong spill-overs from pioneers of new techniques. Of course, normal eateries do not engage in molecular food nor cook everything sous-vide, but a lot of new trendy restaurants and tapas bars in Madrid present innovative, sophisticated dishes. For instance, the recently opened Treze in c/San Bernardino.

And as another major recent development in Spain is immigration, ethnic food is great. In the Spanish case, this means essentially Latin American food, which in turn means largely Peruvian or Mexican, the two great cuisines of the New World. Apart from a number of honest cheap Latinos places (for instance the historic Cuban Zara in Chueca), the Entre Suspiro y Suspiro is a nice arty Mexican off Plaza Isabel II, and with regard to Peru, Madrid has the only European restaurant by Astrid and Gastón. Gastón’s story has been told by none the less than Nobel prize Vargas Llosa: a Peruvian law student at Complutense who got into food at the time of the transition, learnt the newest French techniques and now recreates the most authentic Peruvian tastes (the first spoonful of cebiche sent my mind straight to Lima) with the smartest, neatest texture and presentation.

Final acknowledgment: my comments on cuisine refer to Madrid and Castilla: of course, Galicia, the Basque country and Catalunya are different stories and will deserve more research.

December 22, 2010

Tschüß Berlin!

lamp post

Airports are open, so my three-month stay in Berlin ends today. Time for some summary reflections on this city, starting from the obvious: 3 months is not nearly enough to experience a city as large, varied and complex as Berlin.

Arm aber sexy

“Poor but sexy” is Berliners’ self-portrayal, starting from mayor Wowereit who, as a gay, can avoid the charge of sexism the use of the S word would involve in more PC countries. It’s an honest self-portrayal. Berlin is by far the cheapest capital of western Europe, and cheaper even than some eastern European capitals – after all, it still is a half-Eastern European city, and the other half wasn’t even a capital until quite recently. A near-20% unemployment rate does moderate prices. In all other European capitals the majority tends to be money-rich but time-poor, with an effect of hurry, selfishness, arrogance. Berlin is different: people have time rather than money, good taste rather than expensive cloths, bikes rather than SUV, spend the week-end in the parks and lakes rather than on foreign breaks.

It may change. The completely redeveloped Mitte may have some great new architecture, but is already undistinguishable from any downtown in Europe or USA. And in 2009 Berlin has overtaken Rome as third most-visited city in Europe (after Paris and London): demand is bound to increase prices and distort habits. But Berlin, while continuously changing, also develops forms of resistance. Gradual gentrification in once-popular neighbourhoods (first Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte, then Kreuzberg, now North Neukölln…) meets opposition, and so does tourism. The radical Left’s magazine Interim has launched, for 2011, an anti-tourism campaign with sabotage and disruption of hotels and tourist sights. Even if this materialises, if you visit Berlin in 2011 you have two solutions: first, do what is logic anyway, throw the Lonely Planet into the bin and stay off the beaten track, thereby avoiding the protests; alternatively, accept that the radical Left is itself a Berlin attraction, and join in, maybe asking passer-byes to take souvenir pictures of you throwing eggs at the sightseeing bus under the Brandenburger Tor.

Not only Currywurst

Germans share with Brits a dubious record: nations that spend the smallest share of their income on food. So none comes to Germany expecting gastronomic revelations. As an advantage over the Brits, Germans at least have their practical, efficient functionality: so food at least is real, not junk. I like the markets with, in Autumn, the central European wild mushrooms, root vegetables, apples & pears, smoked freshwater fish (eel!), cooked meat (Blutwurst!). And bakeries, despite the expansion of chains, are mostly still real bakeries making a large variety of excellent bread (alongside less inspired cakes): my street has seven bakers, more than the whole of Coventry. Imbiss kiosks, with their shared standing tables, offer more reasonable food in a more social setting than fast food chains or British fish & chips – even if I believe the Berlin’s pride “currywurst” should have remained what it originally was: a mistake, not a recipe.

Restaurants and bars tend to offer reasonable, reliable, comfortable fare for very reasonable prices – from the traditional potato soup, Eisbein (pork hock) and calve liver, to, increasingly, healthier things. Execution and service tend to be very skilled, thanks to the German vocational training system, and waiters strike the right mid-way between Italian overfriendliness and French stuffyness. In the huge surrounding parks you can also have idyllic near-wilderness experiences in outposts such as the Alte Fischerhütte or the Forsthaus Paulsborn. Italian restaurants are very popular, also thanks to the large Italian ex-Gastarbeiter population, but having tried a few I was just confirmed in my belief that yes, you can eat fantastic Italian food outside Italy, but only if you pay for it more than the price of a ticket to Italy. A newer and more interesting fashion is Austrian food, with cafes, patisseries, delicatessen shops and restaurants: try Sebastian Frank’s Horváth in Kreuzberg before it is deluged with Michelin stars. For more ambitious German food, in minimalistic settings, “N°45” on the new-posh Kollowitzplatz (with its organic Bio-market for VIPs, equivalent of London’s Borough Market or Paris’ organic Sunday market on Bd Raspail) cooks with local, Brandenburg ingredients, extremely sophisticated techniques, but none of the obsession with presentation and concept that overburdens the nouvelle cuisine of France or Britain. So Berlin’s food is, too, “arm aber sexy”.

White multiculturalism

Angela Merkel may repeat that multiculturalism – whatever she means by it - has failed, but in Berlin, in an important aspect of European culture, it is alive and well: you can find bars to watch, with the corresponding community, food and beer, just any European football league: Italian, Turkish, English, Spanish… And when the time comes for Germany-Turkey in the Olympiastadium, the 80,000 public is evenly split between Germans and Turks, Özil scores a fine goal for Germany, and after the game the injury and arrest count is three times lower than for the average second-league Hertha game.

On the other side, while eastern Europeans and southern Europeans (including many Turks) blend in a rather lively way, in comparison with other large western European cities Berlin is still remarkably white, especially in the eastern part, except for some residual ex-DDR Vietnamese (who cook well, by the way). I hear repeatedly that blacks don’t feel welcome, also in comparison to the rest of (western) Europe. Recent research (from Bielefeld’s sociologists, as well as from Münster’s) points that Germans are more hostile to non-Europeans, Muslims and Jews (!) than the neighbouring nations – although, at least, not in an “aggressive” way: fear of the unknown more than hatred of something real. Germany‘s enviable record of not having a significant rightwing-populist party may not last for long – so far, the populist Right had little space because the Linke covered social discontent, and the FDP covered the middle classes’ – but now the FDP tax populism has imploded (in the opinion polls the party is down to 3%, from 15% last year, good omen for the British Lib-Dems), while the Linke is deeply split.

Public transport

The best mean of transport in spacious, green and flat Berlin is the bicycle, but the round-the-clock public transport (also considering the large investment that was needed to link the eastern and western networks) is not bad. Or so I thought until, in November, I was informed that my monthly pass was extended for two more weeks, as a compensation for the poor level of service offered – which I hadn’t even noticed: used to Italian, Polish and British standards, I don’t have high expectations. Actually, does this extension-compensation principle apply to the rest of the EU? I should be entitled to a few years free transport in Milan and in the West Midlands…

In fact the disservice (again over the last few weeks due to snow) was limited to the S-Bahn, the bit which has been privatised (to Deutsche Bahn), while municipal buses, tramways and U-Bahn are perfect. Just another lesson on privatisation and efficiency…


German newspapers are as thick and heavy as the British ones, but have much less advertising and much more to read. They are also more old-fashion: mostly broadsheet, with a focus on main news rather than investigative journalism or comment, and rather similar titles to each others and to the previous night TV news. I wonder if they can survive for long in this way in the internet era. For a three-month stay, I came to enjoy their rather old style, especially when reading them in the already old-style decadent setting of Berlin’s cafés, and their international coverage is impressive (for British newspapers, foreign news mostly means “US+Commonwealth+British tourists abroad”, and for Italian newspapers, it mostly means “what the world says of Italy”). Serious national papers are also more numerous than in any other EU country (stricter antitrust laws than in UK or Italy), which must be good for democracy.

While the main German papers are from West Germany, Berlin has its good share of serious papers: Tagesspiegel, Berliner Morgenpost, Berliner Zeitung. Good local news pages across Germany may partly explain a new wave of local-issues collective action across the country. I became affectionate to the Berliner Zeitung, originally from East Berlin, left-of-centre, similar look to the serious Zürcher Zeitung but lighter, proving that you can write short but non-nonsense articles, and devote much space to culture (it collaborates with the Frankfurter Rundschau). But the best Berlin’s paper is Tageszeitung, or taz, originally from the New Left and Kreuzberg’s occupied houses, now a bit too close to the Greens but still with excellent writing. And Berlin even has two other newspapers more to the Left: the former-SED Neues Deutschland and the former FDJ (DDR Youth) Junge Welt. Both a bit too propaganda-like to my taste, but with interesting information on union issues.


The problem is the excess of choice, source of dilemmas and regrets as you will miss 99.9% of the 3 thick pages of events published in the newspapers everyday. Cabaret in French, opera in Italian, talks in English, songs in Russian… Large choice of international, original language films, even if the Hollywood blockbusters are (deservedly) dubbed. The best concert hall and the best philharmonic orchestra in the world (with a new director from Birmingham, how little the world is).

And the museums. I have an ambivalent attitude to the museums. When I first visit places, they are never a priority (I confess to have seen no New York museum after three stays there): I have so many art books at home that the added value of seeing the original after the reproduction is marginal, in comparison to the irrepleceable and irreproduceable value of experiencing new quarters, views, foods; and most museums are just too big and crowded to provide a pleasant experience when visited in a hurry. But if I stay in a place for longer, and I can find the right time (Monday 9am, Tuesday 9pm…) to go, I love them and can’t understand how the locals can ignore their offerings, maybe because they have already seen them 20 years ago. Berlin is phenomenal in this regard. The Museumsinsel is being modernised and the ‘new’ Neues Museum and Bodemuseum are spectacular, with the right light for each individual work. The Zeughaus and the Judisches Museum are as instructive and absorbing as the best history books. On the Freie Universität campus, just out of the office for my lunch breaks, there are the Dahlem ethnographic and Asian museums, excellent compensations for an otherwise Eurocentric city. The Hamburger Bahnhof hosts amazing contemporary exhibitions in an exceptionally spacious setting. But my old favourite is still the Berggruen Sammlung – now, after his death, Berggruen Museum. A relatively small museum in a homely setting, with only masterpieces from Picasso, Matisse, Klee, Giacometti, individually chosen with a strong personal touch by Berggruen himself while he was helping Picasso & Co to sell (what a difficult job): I leave it as happy as after having seen old friends, not museum pieces.

Brandenburger Tor

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