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

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