LAPSANG SOUCHONG

Beijing, 5 March 2013

Whenever I stayed with my English grandmother in London, one of my tasks was to do the food shopping for her. She expected this service from all her visiting grandchildren, along with other services such as doing the washing-up and hoovering the floors. My grandmother was of a generation that expected grandchildren to serve her and not her to serve them. A lesson, I think, for the Chinese who to my British eye dote far too much on their little princeling children and grandchildren. In any event, my grandmother would write out a detailed shopping list and I would hurry down – no loitering, please – to the nearby high street to buy the necessary. And there they were, all lined up: the fishmonger, with his marble slabs on which were slapped the fish surrounded by ice, the butcher, with his pieces of meat hanging in the window, the baker, with his loaves neatly stacked up behind him, and the green grocer, with all manner of greens in boxes outside as well as in. I would join the polite throng of people, wait my turn – another lesson for the Chinese, many of whom seem not to have heard of the concept of queuing – and paid out in pounds, shillings, and pence.

I went back to that high street a few years ago – a walk down memory lane. All gone, I am sad to report, their place taken by “boutiques”. As I survey high streets around Europe, it seems to me that no-one eats any more, they just dress. What saddened me even more was the disappearance of the tea emporium of which my grandmother had been a faithful client. Buying tea was not a task that she delegated to her grandchildren. It was a job for Grown Ups. But I did accompany her once or twice on her tea-buying expeditions. It was certainly a very majestic place. First of all, it was not a tea shoppe; this was not a place where one came to drink tea and eat cakes and sit about nattering. It was a place to buy tea – and not, God forbid, tea bags, but loose tea. One wall was covered with shelves holding large copper caddies which contained the teas. There was a series of counters in front of this wall, each carrying a set of old-fashioned brass scales, and the employees – all wearing white coats – would bring the caddies to the counter and reverently ladle the teas onto the scales. It was all very hushed and murmury. These photos give a sense of what greeted us when we entered the shop, although these are really altogether too modern and smart.

tea store-3-hk-1

measuring out tea-4-hk-1

My grandmother bought only one tea – lapsang souchong. This is one of China’s few black teas, some say its first. It comes from the Wuyi region in the southeastern province of Fujian. It has a very distinctive smoky flavour – which is not surprising since the leaves have been smoked over a pinewood fire.

lapsang souchong

My grandmother took her tea twice a day: at breakfast, which she always took in bed, and at 4 o’clock, which she always took in the living room. She drank her tea in porcelain cups with proper saucers and little spoons – no mugs for her.  She had some rather handsome cups and saucers with a Chinese design, perhaps not quite as handsome as this example:

cup and saucer-3She taught me her ritual for making tea, which I have since discovered was a bastardization of the complicated rituals used in China. First, warm the teapot by swirling boiling water in it, then add the leaves to the teapot and pour in a small amount of boiling water, just enough to cover the leaves. Leave them to soak for three minutes, and then add the remaining boiling water. One thing she did, which would have had all the Chinese tut-tutting into their tea, was to add milk and sugar, a habit which I have gladly embraced.

My wife first met my grandmother over a cup of her lapsang souchong tea. She was flying into Gatwick from Milan the autumn after we started going out together; after a day or two in London, we were going up to Edinburgh University. The plan was for me to meet her at Gatwick. In what was to become a regular feature of our married lives, I missed her. Disconsolate, I came back up to London, only to find wife and grandmother happily ensconced in the living room drinking tea.  My wife took a shine to my grandmother and I believe the feeling was mutual. My wife also took a shine to my grandmother’s tea, and later on, when we finally had some money in our pockets, we started to buy lapsang souchong.  But we have never been as rigid as my grandmother was. We drink lapsang souchong but also quite happily drink Twinings tea bags. And we don’t heat up the teapot before adding the leaves.

twinings tea bag

In my very first visit to Beijing, back in 2002, I visited – as was expected of all foreigners – one of the markets. In my case, I visited the pearl market where I actually bought my wife a string of grey freshwater pearls, for the first and probably last time in my life. When I saw a stall selling teas, on a whim I approached them and tried buying lapsang souchong. I mean, what better place to buy Chinese tea than in China, right? But they all looked at me blankly, shook their heads, and muttered “meyo, meyo” [no, no]. So I gave up; it must have been my tone-less pronunciation, I thought. And I had made the cardinal mistake of not bringing with me a piece of paper with the name written on it in Chinese, to show to my interlocutors and thus solve these little problems of tones or lack thereof.

Seven years later, we moved to China. The Empire of Green Tea.

green-tea

In the face of an ocean of green tea, my wife courageously set about finding a local source of lapsang souchong. Her first step was to visit a street listed in our guidebook as a promising source of tea. She took a pinch of our precious lapsang souchong along with her and went door-to-door showing it. “Meyo, meyo”, was always the answer. But she didn’t come back empty-handed. She bought this lovely stoneware tea caddy.

stoneware caddy

After this rather discouraging start, my wife took a break in the lapsang souchong search. To keep us going, we bought a large stock in Milan during our next visit there, in a little shop we know around the corner, and then in London when we visited our daughter six months later. The next round in the lapsang souchong search started when I found the name written in Chinese on the web. Armed with a piece of paper on which I’d cut and pasted the Chinese name, my wife sallied forth again. Surely that would do the trick, we thought. “Meyo, meyo” was again the discouraging reply.

After yet another pause, we discovered Beijing’s tea market. This time we would succeed! Armed with a bag of lapsang souchong, a piece of paper with the name written in Chinese, and determined smiles, we marched through grand shops

beijing tea market-5

the supermarkets of tea

beijing tea market-3

and myriad poky little stalls

beijing tea market-1

showing everywhere our tea and our piece of paper. “Meyo, meyo” always came back the reply. But still we went on. Finally, a girl in a stall shook her head but made us understand that that shop down the hall there and to the right probably had it. With beating hearts, we made our way to the indicated shop and went through our little routine for the nth time. The two girls looked at us, looked at, felt, and smelled our  tea,  had a rapid-fire discussion, and then one of them went off. The other motioned us to sit down at the tasting table. The first came back with a package, shook some tea leaves out, and the second started the routine of preparing tea.

beijing tea market-6

After a little while, she offered my wife a small cup of the tea …

Meyo, meyo! It was, and yet it was not. We tasted it this way and that way, we gave some of ours to the girls so they could make tea with it. We compared. It was clearly of the same family, but it was not the same. Weaker it was, with less punch but also less sweetness.

Ah well, we can just keep stocking up whenever we go back to Europe and maybe, just maybe, before we leave, we’ll find a local source.

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Tea store: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-LrBKXYQoYaw/T557zpa75oI/AAAAAAAABNg/cjbSvJayuuw/s1600/twg-tea_hk-ifc_tea-boutique-01.jpg
Measuring out tea: http://sg.lifestyleasia.com/var/lifestyleasia/storage/images/media/images/import/article/33/image_339679-twg-tea-master-twg-tea/1837667-1-eng-GB/image_339679-twg-tea-master-twg-tea.jpg
Lapsang Souchong: http://www.chadotea.com/images/T-25-Lapsang-Souchong.jpg
Cup and saucer: http://p2.la-img.com/1870/37984/16159143_1_m.jpg
Twinings tea bag: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-btpdmHKOX9w/T7dGdhyLXgI/AAAAAAAABdw/OvNObW_-3ck/s1600/IMG_2335.jpg
Green tea: http://www.allaboutladies.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/green-tea1.jpg
Stoneware tea caddy: my photo
Beijing tea market-1: http://www.beijingtravelhotelinformation.com/uploads/2009/0706/beijinghighlifeblogMountainTeaintheBigCity.jpg
Beijing tea market-2: http://shinshinshingan.files.wordpress.com/2010/11/jun14_tea_market_interior1.jpg
Beijing tea market-3: http://photos.travelblog.org/Photos/168424/660393/t/6550014-Of-all-the-tea-shops-0.jpg
Beijing tea market-4: http://media-cdn.tripadvisor.com/media/photo-s/03/11/1c/e0/beijing-culture-exchange.jpg

HORSE AND DONKEY

Beijing, 1 March 2013

So The Europeans have their knickers in a twist about horsemeat in their beef, while the Kenyans are up in arms because donkey meat is being passed off there as beef. OK, it’s not correct to sell one thing under the guise of another, but horsemeat and donkey meat are actually really good. I first had donkey meat in a little restaurant along the Naviglio Grande, one of Milan’s canals

naviglio-grande

That night, the chef was serving what is a very typical Lombard dish, stracotto d’asino or donkey stew.

stracotto-dasino

And of course, as is de rigueur in a Lombard dish worthy of the name, it was served with polenta.

polenta-2

The combination is vital, because the firm flouriness of the polenta admirably counterbalances the sweet mushiness of the stracotto. Donkey meat, which is anyway sweeter-tasting than beef, becomes even sweeter in a stracotto.

Sweetness of taste is also a characteristic of horsemeat, which I first ate as a boy with my French grandmother. Boucheries chevalines, or butchers specializing in horsemeat, were very common in France when I was young; the French did not have the squeamishness of the English when it came to eating horse.

boucherie chevaline

Horse was also cheaper than beef, so the poorer classes ate horsemeat. My grandmother was poor but had not been so when she was young, so she tried to avoid horsemeat and its suggestion of poverty. But from time to time, when the bank balance was a little low, she deigned to buy it. When we were in the house in the country, the butcher – and the grocer – came to us rather than us having to go to them. One of my boyhood memories is the insistent sound of a horn on the road outside, at which point a great cry would go up “the butcher [or the grocer, depending on the day of the week] has arrived” and there would be a frenzied gathering up of money, shopping lists and shopping bags, as my grandmother [or mother during the summer] was anxious to get to the road before the butcher [or grocer] drove off. I tagged along, loving the noise and drama of it all. I also was fascinated by these mobile shops, which looked somewhat like this:

citroen_h_boucherie

It was a Citroen van, which had been kitted out to open up on the side. The butcher [or grocer] would stand inside exactly as he would behind his counter in the shop. The photo is actually of a miniature model, which has been set up in a very realistic scenery; it certainly comes close to my memory of what awaited us when we got out onto the road. This a photo of the real thing, although this particular example has been gussied up for modern urbanites:

citroen_h_boucherie-2

And when my grandmother did buy horsemeat, she would cook it up as a steak, with home-made frites, or French fries. Horsemeat is a much darker meat than beef, as this photo shows:

horse steak

Well, now that I have confessed – cheerfully, I would say – to the heinous crime of eating donkey and horse, let me come completely clean and also confess to having eaten dog. In South Korea. Very delicious, as the Chinese would say …

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Naviglio grande: http://farm4.staticflickr.com/3087/2312319399_2401d37b1f_z.jpg
Stracotto d’asino: http://www.piaceredelgusto.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Brasato-dasino.jpg
Polenta: http://www.italianfoodnet.com/uploads/img/news-polenta_taragna.jpg
Boucherie chevaline: http://www.lebouguen-lesbaraques.infini.fr/IMG/jpg/Boucherie_Lubin_au_Bouguen_Pepere_Mamie_Mr_Guyomard_et_Rosie_famille_Regine.jpg
Mobile butcher model: http://www.minitub43.com/IMG/jpg/2280.jpg
Mobile butcher: http://cmvmoto.free.fr/Salon%20Epoqu%27Auto%20Lyon%202011/Citroen%20Type%20H%20Boucherie_03.jpg
Horse steak: http://boucherie-cheval.fr/wp-content/themes/boucherie-chevaline/timthumb.php?src=http://boucherie-cheval.fr/photos-viande-cheval/Rond-de-tranche-de-cheval-viande-chevaline.png&w=600&h=180&zc=1&q=100

TOMATO

Beijing, 28 February 2013

Chinese food is great. No doubt about it. But tomatoes don’t figure very highly in Chinese cooking. In all those banquets I’ve been invited to, I’ve seen a few tomato slices swimming in soups and sauces, I’ve been offered a dish which seems to consist of scrambled eggs drowned in weak tomato sauce, and that’s it. Except for one more thing. Almost uniformly, at the end of the banquets, they insist on serving cherry tomatoes with the fruit! Of course, from a biological point of view they are correct, but everyone knows that tomatoes are a vegetable! I mean, the US Supreme Court decided so, in 1893, in the case Nix v. Hedden. And if the US Supreme Court has decided so, who are we to disagree?

Yet here I am again, faced with a plate of fruit on which sit a number of cherry tomatoes. As I moodily spear at the damned things, my thoughts float off to another place, to another country, where the tomato reigns supreme, cooking-wise.

I dream of pizza, the simplest kind, pizza margherita. Just tomato sauce and mozzarella, with a basil leaf or two, no more.

pizza-margherita

I will accept a few more toppings, in a pizza quattro stagioni for instance. But I quite disapprove of a certain tendency to pour on the toppings. Keep it simple! Because the beauty of pizza is the marriage of the tomato sauce

passata di pomodoro-1

with the mozzarella

And not just any mozzarella. Mozzarella di bufala, mozzarella from the Italian buffalo, found only in the south of Italy

mozzarella-di-bufala-1

I keep on spearing my cherry tomatoes …

I dream of spaghetti al pomodorospaghetti al pomodoro-1

Or of penne al ragù

penne al ragu-1

Or cavatappi

cavatappi

Or farfalle, or maccheroni, or tortiglioni, or conchiglie, or orecchiette

I begin to sweat.

I dream of meats and fish in tomato-based sauces. Ossobuco

ossobuco-1

Pollo alla cacciatora

pollo alla cacciatora-1

Brodetto

brodetto-1

I viciously stab the last cherry tomato on my plate.

It’s time for the final toast. We shake hands all around, we offer each other our gifts, and I head for the car.

Maybe I can persuade my wife to make me a small plate of spaghetti al pomodoro when I get home …

pomodori-1

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Pizza Margherita: http://www.epocaedesign.it/filealbum/349_1.jpg
Passata di pomodoro: http://static.multipino.pl/photoOffer/p/438910_p.jpg
Mozzarella di bufala: http://www.lucianopignataro.it/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/mozzarella-di-buafala.jpg
Spaghetti al pomodoro: http://www.pearlcafe.com.vn/menupic/SpaghettI%20chay.jpg
Penne al ragù: http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2765/4032992954_fd9232b230.jpg
Cavatappi: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-Fbwd__6dPZA/TsKuYMX5skI/AAAAAAAAAJM/rxVZS1br_XU/s1600/capatevvi1.jpg
Ossobucco: http://us.123rf.com/400wm/400/400/photohomepage/photohomepage1201/photohomepage120100141/12533926-ossobuco-in-umido-con-pomodoro-e-rosmarino-e-pure-di-patate-e-salsa-di-pomodoro.jpg
Pollo alla cacciatora: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-p_oIFRg7524/TkJE2h9eAjI/AAAAAAAAHPQ/ZdU5k1OMVl0/s1600/DSCN6153-.jpg
Brodetto: http://img1.2spaghi.it/ristoranti/img/big/al-metro-20091123-235147.jpg
Pomodori: http://www.assesempione.info/images/stories/gennaio2012/pomodori.jpg

PIZZA IN SAN GIMIGNANO

Luang Prabang, 18 February 2013

Some fifteen years ago, my wife and I decided to spend our summer holidays in Tuscany. We rented a house in a small village near Radicondoli (or “Radihondoli” as the locals pronounce it). The marvel of this village, which caps a hill, is that there is no through road so that there are few if any cars in the village’s streets. For the first – and last – time in their lives, the children could play outside in the road without constant anxious parental supervision.

The other wonder of this village is that it is situated in some of the loveliest countryside, and is close to some of the loveliest urban landscapes, that Tuscany has to offer. One of the latter, world-renowned and justly so, is San Gimignano.

San Gimignano-2

One day, we decided that it was time to visit San Gimignano. We thought we could leave our son, the older of our two children, alone in the village in the company of his summer friends, but we felt it would be prudent to take our daughter, who must have been seven at the time, along with us. To keep her company, we offered to take one of her friends along, an offer gratefully accepted by her parents. So off we went, swooping and looping over Tuscan hill and dale, seeing the towers of San Gimignano appear, disappear and reappear around every corner, slowly growing ever taller.

San Gimignano in distance-1

San Gimignano in distance-2

San Gimignano in distance-3

We finally arrived, found a parking not too far away – a minor miracle – and walked up the main street

via san giovanni-1

to the piazza where San Gimignano’s main church, the Collegiata di Santa Maria Assunta, is located. That was where we were starting our visit.

collegiata-san-gimignano-external-1

When you go into the church, you are immediately struck by the wonderful frescoes on either wall.

collegiata-san-gimignano-3

collegiata-san-gimignano-2

For anyone like me who has been brought up a Christian it is easy to understand the layout: one wall – the left wall, of course – has a series of scenes from the Old Testament, while the right wall has a series of scenes from the New Testament.  You can walk down one side, following the stories as you go along, appreciating the artist’s take on each story. Here, for instance, is the story of Moses crossing the Red Sea, frozen at the moment where the Pharaoh’s troops are drowned

old testament scene-1

Whereas here, on the right-hand wall, is the story of the dead Lazarus coming back to life

new testament scene-2

And the whole is teaching us the grand story of the Fall of Man and his redemption through the risen Christ.

As I walked along the frescoes, with my daughter and her friend tagging along, I realized that these pictures meant nothing to the two girls, neither of whom had been brought up a Christian. So I began to tell them the stories, using the painted scenes as the backdrop and giving the tales as dramatic a twist as possible. The other tourists must have thought I was a little nutty but the two girls seemed quite taken. I realized for the first time what these frescoes were really for: to tell the Bible’s story to a largely illiterate population. In effect, because they had never read the bible, my daughter and her friend were illiterate. I’ve since learned that there is a term for a cycle of frescoes like this: the Poor Man’s Bible. A well-chosen phrase.

When we left, I was highly pleased with myself and the somewhat theatrical show I had put on for the girls. I will skip the rest of the visit, although I will note that we had a rest at lunch where the two girls ate a Pizza Margherita and drank a coke. That evening, when we got home and we were gathered around the table for dinner, I prompted my daughter to tell her brother about the scene in the church. “Tell your brother the big thing about today,” I suggested. She looked at me a minute and then said, very carefully,“At lunch, we had a pizza and a coke.”

Which goes to show … what? That food for the stomach is more important than food for the mind? No, probably the lesson is, don’t think you’re such a smarty-pants.

By the way, the reason why I’m telling this story will become apparent in my next posting.

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San Gimignano from above: http://www.hotelilponte.com/writable/public/tbl_galleria/grande/v961b38120234375.jpg
San Gimignano in distance-1: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2097/5796974869_0245323ed1_z.jpg
San Gimignano in distance-2: http://farm1.staticflickr.com/109/270633269_1e347d3ea5_z.jpg?zz=1
San Gimignano in distance-3: http://www.ideaweekend.it/imgs/weekend/sangimignano.jpg
Via San Giovanni-1: http://imgc.allpostersimages.com/images/P-473-488-90/24/2425/C8JXD00Z/posters/fraser-hall-via-san-giovanni-san-gimignano-tuscany-italy.jpg
Collegiata San Gimignano external-1: http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_may8bh9sVs1qcwmkyo1_1280.jpg
Collegiata San Gimigano-interior-1: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-ySDga5CAd1Y/UBFg45AiSmI/AAAAAAAAEcg/vAGNRhz14zw/s1600/IMG_7815.JPG
Collegiata San Gimigano-interior-2: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2148/2241957275_58d27be89f_z.jpg?zz=1
Old testament scene-1: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/2/2b/SG_OT_304_Crossing_the_Red_Sea.JPG/800px-SG_OT_304_Crossing_the_Red_Sea.JPG
New testament scene-1: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/9/9c/SG_NT_Raising_of_Lazarus_Lippi_Memmo.JPG/744px-SG_NT_Raising_of_Lazarus_Lippi_Memmo.JPG

TULIPS AND MANDARINS

Beijing, 2 February 2013

The last week has been dreadful for air quality in Beijing. The brief break we had which I wrote about a few posts ago was but a temporary remission and we soon plunged back into the murk. My wife was a little more philosophical about it than I. She remarked that it reminded her of her childhood in Milan, when smog was frequent, and reminisced about having to cross the road to go to primary school and not being able to see if the light had changed. But still, we both suffered.

To cheer us up, my wife bought a bunch of tulips. They were still closed when she brought them home, but she placed them in a jar and we watched them slowly open over the following few days. Yesterday morning, we woke up to a gloriously bright and clear day. Thanking all the spirits I could think of, I stepped humming into the dining room, only to be greeted by the tulips which had fully opened over night. The sunlight pouring in through the windows was picking out their delicate pinks, whites and greens. I just had to memorialize the occasion.

   tulips 003

tulips 002

The mandarins which were also on the table kept nudging themselves into the frame, so eventually, I brought them in too.

tulips 005

Wonderful, wonderful fruit, those! They don’t look up to much, but aah the taste, my friends! First comes the delicate mandarin aroma which breaks out as you begin to peel the fruit and prepares you for what lies ahead. Then comes the citrically acidic taste with sharp mandarin overtones which hits your taste buds as you pop one segment in after the other. They are completely addictive; between my wife and I, that plate of mandarins lasted but one breakfast. She has found a greengrocers up the road which sells them. Sorry, the address will remain a secret.

LIGURIA, A CORNER OF PARADISE

New York, 4 January 2013

Like I said in an earlier posting it’s great to be with the kids, and Manhattan is certainly a fun place to ring in the new year, but it has meant that we haven’t followed our usual pattern of spending Christmas and New Year in Italy. Normally, we would all congregate in Milan, pass Christmas there, and then head for Liguria. Milan is quite depressing at year-end; it’s grey and cold and wet, and everyone’s left for somewhere else. But Liguria, especially our little bit of it just south of Genova, is lovely. The crowds of beach tourists have vanished, but the days are still mostly sunny, the temperature is mild, the sea is blue

coast and sky-1

the bougainvillea is still flowering

bougainvillea

the church’s campanile is awash in festive colours

campanile

… It’s a corner of paradise.

When we get off the bus, our routine is always the same. We walk up to the apartment, drop off the bags, and then head down to the village centre for dinner. There is a restaurant there that we always go to, where we order its specialty: focaccia al formaggio. For the uninitiated, this is a mass of melted soft cheese held very slightly between two very thin strips of flatbread.

Fotofocaccia01

The cheese is held so slightly by the flatbread that it is an art to pick up a piece and bring it to one’s mouth without half the cheese ending up on your lap. For the first couple of times, it’s safer to use a knife and fork.

Described like this, it doesn’t sound like much, but I can assure you that focaccia al formaggio is absolutely delicious, so famous now in Europe that the local authorities have applied for, and received, the EU certification of Protected Designation of Origin; in other words, no-one else, anywhere, can claim to make focaccia al formaggio.

The key to a good focaccia al formaggio is of course the cheese. Originally, the locals used a highly local cheese, prescinsêua (as it is known in Genoese dialect).

Unfortunately, high demand for the focaccia over the last several decades has outstripped the meagre supply of this cheese. Local restaurateurs have therefore switched to stracchino, a very similar cheese from Lombardy.

Luckily, it was generally agreed that stracchino makes an even better focaccia. However, its use is currently creating a bit of a crisis. The obtention of the EU certificate was seen as vital to protecting the brand; however, the certificate requires the use of local ingredients, and as any Italian will tell you a Lombard cheese is definitely not local to Liguria. So makers of focaccia al formaggio are now switching to crescenza, a cheese made in a valley behind Genova.

But aficionados are whispering that the resulting focaccia is not so good. We await the unfolding of this drama with baited breath.

Feeling a little homesick, we tried to make focaccia al formaggio for the first time ever over the weekend.  Our daughter did a massive search for stracchino and eventually tracked some down in a shop in the upper east seventies. We thought we were home and dry. That’s when we discovered that how you make the flatbread is equally important. It must be very thin; ours wasn’t thin enough and we ended up with a strange sandwich of two biscuits with clumps of unmelted stracchino in between. We are also still discussing if the oven wasn’t hot enough.

Hope springs eternal. We will try again, but not any time soon. Perhaps we will be back in Italy next year and can simply eat it as we always have, at our favourite restaurant in Liguria.

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Coast and sky: http://www.liguriawebtv.it/wp-content/uploads/portofino1.jpg
Bougainvillea: http://mw2.google.com/mw-panoramio/photos/medium/15661912.jpg
Campanile: http://www.google.it/imgres?hl=it&tbo=d&biw=1280&bih=658&tbm=isch&tbnid=flpKDAD7z-P6TM:&imgrefurl=http://www.panoramio.com/user/741959/tags/campanili&docid=iq3aXsUhbs36HM&imgurl=http://mw2.google.com/mw-panoramio/photos/small/7332810.jpg&w=180&h=240&ei=DyHmUIODCqXv0QHUo4DwCw&zoom=1&iact=hc&vpx=1079&vpy=127&dur=33&hovh=192&hovw=144&tx=130&ty=122&sig=104429032764427195966&page=1&tbnh=138&tbnw=107&start=0&ndsp=22&ved=1t:429,r:6,s:0,i:103
Focaccia col formaggio: http://www.ansa.it/webimages/foto_large/2012/3/15/1331830684301_Focacciadirecco.jpg
prescinsêua: https://www.facarospauls.com/apps/italian-food-decoder/11169/prescinseua
stracchino: http://www.carionifood.com/it/cat0_17049_16985/formaggi/formaggi-senza-lattosio/p530877-stracchino-senza-lattosio.php
crescenza: http://www.misya.info/ingrediente/crescenza
Edo Bar: https://www.tripadvisor.it/Restaurant_Review-g1807548-d1173493-Reviews-Edobar-Sori_Italian_Riviera_Liguria.html

A BLAST OF MY TRUMPET AGAINST THE MONSTROUS REGIMENT OF HOT SPICES

Beijing, 3 November 2012

Dedicated to my dearest daughter who, like me, dislikes hot spices

In 1558, John Knox, one of the founders of the Protestant faith in Scotland, wrote The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, a diatribe against women rulers. He wrote choice rants such as these:

“Wonder it is, that amongst so many pregnant wits as the isle of Great Britain has produced, so many godly and zealous preachers as England did sometime nourish, and amongst so many learned, and men of grave judgment, as this day by Jezebel are exiled, none is found so stout of courage, so faithful to God, nor loving to their native country, that they dare admonish the inhabitants of that isle, how abominable before God is the empire or rule of a wicked woman (yea, of a traitress and bastard) … We see our country set forth for a prey to foreign nations; we hear of the blood of our brethren, the members of Christ Jesus, most cruelly to be shed; and the monstrous empire of a cruel woman (the secret counsel of God excepted) we know to be the only occasion of all those miseries … And therefore, I say, that of necessity it is that this monstiferous empire of women (which amongst all enormities that this day do abound upon the face of the whole earth, is most detestable and damnable) be openly revealed and plainly declared to the world, to the end that some may repent and be saved … we are debtors to more than princes: to wit, to the multitude of our brethren, of whom, no doubt, a great number have heretofore offended by error and ignorance, giving their suffrages, consent, and help to establish women in their kingdoms and empires, not understanding how abominable, odious, and detestable is all such usurped authority in the presence of God.”

The book goes on in this vein for many pages. Boiling it down to its essentials, his thesis was that women should be in the kitchen and not running countries.

Knox was fond of diatribes and had a nasty habit of whipping people up into a frenzy of destruction with them. The picture below captures nicely what he must have been like when he was in full spate, beady-eyed, beetled brow, and frothing at the mouth.

He reminds me of another tribe of hirsute religious leaders who are currently whipping people into frenzies. I’m sure he would have got on with them like a house on fire – and then promptly burned them at the stake for heresy.

I would have disliked him intensely. I have an aversion to people who shout and scream and hate. And yet … when it comes to the use of hot spices in food I feel my beard growing, my eyes beading, my brow beetling, and froth forming in the corners of my mouth.

By hot spices, I mean those spices that numb your mouth, that put your tongue, palate, inner cheeks and throat on fire and have you groping for water, that make you cry, that make you choke, and generally that kill all enjoyment of the food you are eating.

What in the name of God got into the human species to add this stinking scum to their food??!! What did we do that we now have to punish ourselves for eternity in this way??!! And no-one can tell me that they add taste, because they DO NOT!!!! As for people who actually enjoy hot spices, they are like drug addicts, their enjoyment of this filth is a deviancy; they need to be locked up until they have cold turkeyed!!

I NAME – and SHAME – the Piper genus: 1,000 species! The genus has spread its evil tentacles far and wide. Asia has given the world black pepper, P. nigrum; may a curse fall on those who spread it around the world! But in Asia, deluded, lost souls also eat the Indian long pepper, P. longum, Balinese long pepper, P. retrofractum, Cubeb, P. cubeba, and Prik Nok, P. caninum. In Latin America, poor fools eat Mecaxochitl, P. amalgo, and Matico, P. aduncum. As for Africa, miserable inhabitants of that miserable continent eat West African pepper, P. guineense, and Voatsiperifery pepper, P. borbonense. And who knows how many of the other 1,000 species are eaten only locally by poor, benighted villagers who know no better.

I NAME – and SHAME – the Zanthoxylum genus: only (thank God) 250 species! But at least two of these, Z. simulans and Z. bungeanum, I curse again and again for producing Sichuan pepper, which makes my life a misery at every banquet I go to in Sichuan and other western provinces of China! I emerge from these with numbed mouth and lips, having enjoyed not a whit of the food on offer. The Chinese use other species for the same foul purpose: xiang-jiao-zi (“aromatic peppercorn”), Z. schinifolium, chun ye hua jiao (“Ailanthus-leaved pepper”), Z. ailanthoides, while the Japanese use sanshō (the Japanese pricklyash), Z. piperitum. I am horrified to see that the genus is also present in the Americas and Africa, where no doubt there are wretches who eat the fruits.

But my heaviest, longest, most profound curses of all fall on the Capsicum genus, home of the dreaded chili pepper. There is C. annuum, whose varieties include banana pepper, cayenne pepper, jalapeño pepper, and the ferocious chiltepin; C. frutescens, which contains malagueta pepper, tabasco pepper, and the African piri piri; C. sinense, which incorporates hideously hot peppers like the naga, habanero, Datil, and Scotch bonnet peppers; C. pubescens, whose most notorious variety is the rocoto; and finally C. baccatum, which includes the deceptively named but nastily hot Lemon drop pepper and the Aji Amarillo as varieties. May Diego Álvarez Chanca, a physician on Christopher Columbus’s second voyage who first brought chili peppers to Spain, reside in the deepest circles of Hell for eternity!! And may the Portuguese forever beat their breast for spreading chili peppers to the rest of the world through their rapacious traders!!! And may the idiots who boast of being able to eat the hottest of hot chili peppers have their mouths (and the other end of their alimentary canals) on fire forever and ever!!!!

Amen.

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pix:
http://revhelio.blogspot.com/2011/02/john-knox-o-reformador-da-escocia.html

http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/hans-memling/the-last-judgment-triptych-right-wing-casting-the-damned-into-hell-1470

IN PRAISE OF OFFAL

Beijing, 27 August 2012

I am currently reading a book on the Catholic Church’s campaigns against heresies in the Middle Ages, which culminated in the Albigensian Crusade against the peoples of Provence (1). I am at the point in this sorry tale where the heretics – whose only heresy seems to be not to have liked priests very much – were forced to furtively meet in the woods at the dead of night as the forces of the Church Universal raged and ravaged all around them.

I rather feel like one of these heretics when it comes to eating offal.  In the more developed countries, when I say that I love eating liver, or kidneys, my interlocutors normally look at me as if I have confessed to eating newborn babes in some hideous satanic rite.
heretic eating babies
Even my wife, who has followed me down many culinary paths, will not accompany me down these – with one or two notable exceptions as we shall see. So I am reduced to furtively scanning restaurant menus when I am on business trips, to see if I might strike lucky this time and find a dish of offal to feast on.

Liver is often on menus, as are kidneys. They are best sautéed quickly so that they are nice and brown on the outside but still pink inside, and the liver should come with fried onions on the side. Mmm, so good …


After that, the search becomes difficult. I come across tongue from time to time. Boiled and eaten with mustard, and with boiled potatoes on the side, it’s one of the few offal dishes I’ve got my wife to like.

After that, it’s almost always in France that I have found other offal dishes. For instance, I can still find tripe on menus there. I’ll find tripes à la provençale, which is tripe cooked with carrots, onions, tomatoes, white wine and a few spices.

Or there’s tripes à la mode de Caen, which differs from the provencal version only by the replacement of tomatoes with calves trotters and a glass of calvados. Still on tripe, there’s andouillette, which is a sausage made with pork tripe (sometimes mixed with veal tripe), seasoned with onions, pepper and other spices; it has to be eaten with a mustard sauce. This is another offal dish which I’ve got my wife to like! I made it a point to eat it whenever I went to visit my mother in France, because the andouillettes of Burgundy are extra good; now that she’s dead I’m not sure what I’ll do …

I also used to find ris de veau, veal sweetbreads, on French menus, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen them. Cooked in a creamy mushroom sauce, they are absolutely delicious.

Many, many years ago, my French grandmother served us grandchildren brains, deep-fried. That was a little difficult to eat, I must admit; brains are very rich and quite quickly become rather nauseating.

But another dish she made, which was absolutely exquisite, was pot au feu made with marrow bones. Digging out the marrow from the bone, spreading it on bread, adding a little salt, popping it into the mouth. Ahhh, s-o-o-o-o good!

France has sustained my love of offal, but even in the UK I’ve found some excellent dishes. Not in England, mind you, where they are prissy about the meat they eat, but in Scotland. When my wife and I were university students in Edinburgh we discovered haggis, which is a pudding containing a minced-up mixture of sheep’s heart, liver and lungs, onion, oatmeal, suet, and spices. It is imperative that it be eaten with “neaps and tatties”, turnip and potatoes; their sweetness and smoothness are the perfect counterpoint to the haggis’s sharpness.

I think haggis must be the only offal dish about which a poem has been written. In his Address to a Haggis, Robert Burns exclaimed:

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o’ the puddin’-race!
Aboon them a’ ye tak yer place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy o’ a grace
As lang’s my airm.

(The poem goes on for several more verses, but we can skip them)

Scotland also introduced me to blood pudding (but not my wife; she didn’t follow me on this one). Blood pudding is made by cooking blood with fillers and then letting the whole congeal; in Scotland, I think the fillers were oatmeal and fat. I know it doesn’t sound very appetizing, but it is really very good; it has a sweet taste that is very soothing.

And finally, once, in a restaurant in Slovakia, I noticed that they were serving beef testicles on the menu. I had a colleague in the office who raved about them, telling me that they were absolutely delicious. He also told me – one of those strange factoids that stick in one’s head unbidden – that they are called Rocky Mountain oysters in the American West. They are a common dish out there, the prevalence of ranching and thus castration of young bulls leading to a healthy supply of them. I understand they eat them deep-fried. Mine were cooked in some sort of heavy sauce. Good, but nothing special.

There’s lots of offal I haven’t eaten, but it’s not for want of trying. Out of curiosity, while writing this I checked to see if there are recipes for other types of offal – lungs, for instance, or intestines (chitterlings), or other bits and pieces – and it looks like human beings used to eat everything from any animal they killed. As they should have; apart from everything being good to eat, it’s a sign of disrespect to mother nature that we disdain what she offers. We have become ridiculously fastidious and picky about our food. So come on, follow me and become offal-eaters!

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1. R.I. Moore, The War on Heresy, Profile Books, 2012
Heretic eating babies: http://theyelessowl.net/2011/02/
Liver and onion: https://www.justapinch.com/recipes/main-course/beef/pan-seared-beef-liver-onions.html
Kidneys: https://greatperformersacademy.com/health/ketogenic-diet-grocery-list-21-keto-foods-you-need-to-have-on-it
Boiled tongue: https://www.enjoyyourcooking.com/cooking-tips/boiled-beef-tongue.html
Tripes provencales: http://www.recettes.net/recettes-et-idees/plat/tripes-a-la-provencale,,1026.html
Andouillette: http://www.lesfoodies.com/myma/recette/andouillette-troyes-moutarde-meaux-1
Ris de veau: http://www.marieclaire.fr/cuisine/ris-de-veau-croustifondants-aux-salsifis-parfum-tonka,1212284.asp
Fried brains: http://spaceamigos.com/2764605/que-voce-acharia-de-comer-um-cerebro-na-proxima-refeicao
Marrow bone: http://unmetiercasappend.hautetfort.com/archives/category/histoire_de_la_medecine/index-2.html/
Haggis: http://www.thepinsta.com/haggis-neeps-and-tatties_9RnBOfoMGJRG21fi*1CZ0jyyuXwXy7MWsPGUng7Ktrg/
Blood pudding: http://www.shawmeats.co.uk/product/gluten-free-black-pudding/
Testicles: http://chefdepaprika.com/2012/05/hungarian-veal-testicles-stew-paprikas-recipe/

ITALIAN FOOD

Beijing, 5 August 2012

My wife and I once compiled a list of the foods and recipes we each brought to our marriage as culinary dowry from our mothers’ kitchens: she is Italian and I am Franco-British. Without a possible shadow of doubt, her contribution has dwarfed mine. Through her, I entered a magical land of taste which I have never left nor ever wish to.

I had my first glimpse of it when I visited Italy as an impecunious student in the 1970s. In those days, simply by flashing a student card one could access University cafeterias, where for a ridiculously cheap price one got a three-course meal, a small bottle of wine, and a coffee. Mmm, even now, after all these years, I still remember with crystal clarity those few weeks of initial revelation. The pasta, just a little hard – al dente – with velvety tomato-based sauces and a sprinkling of parmesan cheese! The meat – veal, beef, pork, chicken, whatever was on the day’s menu – grilled to juicy, tender perfection! Accompanied by a simple tossed green salad, with perhaps a few slices of tomato, drizzled with a little wine vinegar, a generous portion of virgin olive oil, and a pinch of salt. Then just a piece of fresh, ripe fruit of the season to round it off. Washed down with a simple, robust wine, no fuss, no pretensions. And to cap it all, a strong expresso. After such a meal, I had been revitalized and was more than ready to endure another round of museums and churches.

This was just the start. My wife took me by the hand and led me through a fairytale land of food: pastas of all dimensions and geometric complexities accompanied by an astonishingly wide spectrum of sauces; dried and cured meats from every animal and every part of the animal; pizzas and foccaccias; cheeses, whose variety leaves my French cheeses in the dust (let’s not even mention British cheeses); fruits whose names even now I know only in Italian – nespole, cachi, fichi d’India; wines of a breathtaking range which all those fussy French wines can never hope to emulate. And the food always cooked with a minimum of artifice, allowing its essential goodness to come to the fore. Lord, may the cooks in Paradise be Italian!

I was reminded of this cornucopia – indeed, became quite homesick – when my wife served up bresaola for supper last night. From time to time, we feel the need for food from home, and last night was one of those times. For those of you who do not know bresaola it’s a dried beef meat from one of the Italian Alpine valleys, the Valtellina. It’s difficult to find in Beijing, and – even more important – to find of good quality. It has to have the right ratio of fat to lean, it has to be sliced very thin, it must not be too salty. Last night’s bresaola was of excellent quality. And we ate it with a drizzle of olive oil and lemon juice. That’s all. Nice and simple. And delicious.

plate of bresaola

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bresaola and lemon: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_KYIV6yDsmVc/TT8vBvfQjkI/AAAAAAAAAQw/CON9w_ZJAQs/s320/SDC12179.JPG