Now that both my proof-eaters approved I can self-confidently announce I mastered the ketmer in the first go. Big thanks to Honey & Co. for their easy-to-follow recipe and demonstrative instagram tutorial. The only downside of this recipe is it wasn’t published in the printed version of the FT Weekend as its recipes have always been. Hopefully not everything is moving online. Shoot me, I’m an obvious dinosaur, but I still prefer my newspaper on, well, yes, paper. Continue reading “Ketmer by Honey & Co. Recipe”
72 hours of sheer joy it was, wasn’t it, our London break last week. London has always represented the top of the world for me, so yes, I’m biased. Guilty as charged. First time post Brexit, so far all is still good, buzzing, polished and polishing, metropolitan, cosmopolitan, huge, diverse, expensive, welcoming. However, it’s gonna be choppy ahead. For the United Kingdom, for London, for the rest of Europe, for everyone.
The reason, the cause, the motivator for this last trip to London was this magnificent David Hockney exhibition at Tate Britain that I just couldn’t allow us to miss. Continue reading “London, United Kingdom”
According to popular notion asparagus has some kind of cleansing effect on the human body, as is the case with many a springtime produce: dandelion, radicchio, artichokes – to name only the most obvious suspects. In terms of taste, the cultivated (garden) asparagus is not on the bitter side as opposed to wild asparagus, which is also thinner, but has a distinguished, typical flavour. And a particular smell too, which is manifested afterwards in the loo.
Somehow, I have always perceived asparagus as an exclusively Mediterranean vegetable possibly stretching a bit beyond but not too much. It struck me by surprise then to have stumbled upon a recipe Continue reading “Asparagus the Middle-Eastern Way”
I’d like to say that Corvara in Badia (1568 m) is a lovely little village but I’d be lying. Not that I’m saying it’s ugly but the magnificent part of it is its surroundings. Huge Alpine-style houses, almost all of them dedicated, to some extent at least, to the tourists and their needs, and numerous hotels line the main road and narrow service lanes. Everything is very tidy, no unruly parking anywhere, no mess, no chaos. It’s almost as if it wasn’t Italy.
Corvara is one of six little places that form Alta Badia in the majestic Dolomites. The mountains in fact are the biggest draw here, winter or summer. What used to be a giant coral reef up until some 250 million years ago when the prehistoric sea subsided is now the exceptional mountain range that we know today for its unusually shaped formations and colour, so very different from the encircling Alpine classics. It’s the mountains and the views of them and from them that take your breath away. It’s Unesco heritage for a reason. Continue reading “Corvara in Badia, Italy”
This has got to be the most photogenic salad I’ve prepared myself. It’s just as good as it’s pretty too. The roasted cabbage “steaks” on the other hand turned out delicious despite resembling something very much anaemic and lifeless.
I’m always in awe when I discover a straightforward recipe using a staple ingredient Continue reading “The Blooming Season”
Whenever I return home from Sarajevo my head is so filled with encounters and happenings it pushes me into a strange state of void (if there is such a thing). I cannot describe it any other way. Somehow, for a day at least, I feel kind of lost in utter nothingness. Perhaps it’s just exhaustion. There’s only so much partying one can handle after all. And trust me, they certainly know about partying.
Every time I’m there I’m soaked in goings-on, events, good time, meeting people, food, drink yet at the same time everything around somehow loses its edge and significance. Continue reading “Sarajevo Revisited”
When I find myself hungry while at work I’m consequently, more often than not, disappointed by the limited food options on hand. It happens that I simply can’t figure out what I feel like eating anyway. Desperately enough, I’m drawn to reminisce about the outstanding dishes that would’ve been just the thing at that very moment save for the fact they’re unavailable completely.
Say a simple plate of trippa alla fiorentina. It’s considered a redneck dish where I come from and I’ve loved it ever since I was a little girl. Continue reading “Lunch”
Not a cloud in sight for two consecutive days. Jeez, the skiing was just perfect! The pistes were only occasionally punctuated by a skier or a small group of them that all of a sudden emerged out of nowhere and once they flew past us the white course was left to us alone again. That’s what January feels like these days. Herrlich!
Skiing in January in the Alps can mean a lot of things. It can mean masses of snow, every other day a new consignment of powder. It can mean blue skies and strong wind. Or, grey clouds, heavy with precipitation, that don’t seem to move anywhere. In the olden days, January skiing meant guaranteed snow conditions but not the friendliest weather conditions with the lowest temperatures. That inconveniences could on the other hand be mitigated by lower, so-called off-season prices to lure the most eager skiers out in the open. Nowadays, January generally still means no crowds but at the same time no (natural) snow. Thankfully, the technology of snowmaking is in place everywhere now so we can smoothly indulge in the winter delight of skiing.
When I’m in the mountains I seem to notice the weather more. It’s got to do with exposure I guess. This January is rather on the cold side, which I don’t mind at all, and the weather has been picture perfect throughout. Sunny and cold – the best winter arrangement. As if by order. As far as I’m concerned we could do with more snow though. Down below in the hometown the last snowing brought in more snow than in the mountains. Shame, really.
Another thing typically perceived is the days are getting longer. Today, for example, when we were preparing our late lunch after returning back from skiing the sun was still up and it was past 4 pm (a few weeks ago it had already been dark at that time). Once the sun sets behind the mountains the night gets all black, much darker than in the cities, and dotted with millions of golden stars.
For lunch I planned to use up the celery that was lying around for a week together with a packet of cherry tomatoes. The first recipe I found online was interesting enough to stop searching. At first, I was a bit suspicious about the whole thing. I was afraid I wouldn’t like the taste of it too much since it’s quite particular. I love it raw, it’s essential as a spice for a soup or used finely chopped in a soffrito but as a main character? Well, I was afraid. But it turned out quite silky and delicious. I served it with bulghur but you could use couscous or pasta.
Not a cloud in sight for two consecutive days. Our cheeks are red and our lungs are filled with fresh Zirben scented air. We’re ready to head back to everyday.
It’s a little town, so little that it can easily be missed. Nevertheless, Tarvisio is a town not a village. It’s nestled within a very narrow Alpine valley and it’s where, figuratively, at the end of the road Italy ends. Before the EU and its Schengen Agreement it was rather notoriously known in the neighbouring Austria and Slovenia (or Yugoslavia) as a shopping Mecca where one could stock on cheap textiles and leather goods of dubious provenance at its numerous market stalls. The memory attributes to it much more romance than it actually ever offered even to those who were the buying customers and not mere passersby. The market is still there although moderately gentrified.
Roughly, it could be said, the town is divided on lower and upper part, which means it runs the length of two parallel roads. The lower part is the old, medieval centre with the narrow winding main road on which traffic runs the regular two-way as if there was enough room. In truth, there’s hardly enough room for two pedestrians to meet let alone the motor vehicles. Sadly, nowadays it is mostly lined with closed businesses and empty (and dirty) shop windows, but the more the road ascends the more lively the town seems to be becoming. Luckily, for my grandmother at least, Preschern, an old school hardware store, is still in business at its ancient premises: it’s where my brother and my son though decades apart got their first bicycles from.
When the road somewhat snakily turns the steep way up under the disused railway underpass it widens substantially. There’s a decent if not surprising selection of shops for a town of such a small scale: mostly fashion and sports equipment but also unmissable alimenti, enotece, edicola, quite a number of coffee bars and restaurants. The tourism is probably what keeps the things stirring. Lately, the town has been into skiing seriously. Quite a step from trading and border guarding.
Men used to come to work in Tarvisio from other more pleasant (and warmer) parts of Italy. It was where the Italian state had sent them to fortify and protect its border. It’s easy to imagine the resentment of their wives and families who had to oblige and follow. Consequently, people from elsewhere were brave and stubborn enough to have brought with them their own traditions. And so, on the bare banchetto at first, the feisty Signora Emma, coming from a coastal town and unaccustomed to the cold and snow but unwilling to give in, started out her idea of feeding fish to the locals. (I should remind myself to ask my grandmother about it: she might remember it.) The unpretentious Ristorante Adriatico (link below) was born. It’s a homely place with dated decor but a nice view over to the ski slopes and the mountains. Fish is fresh and delicious. It’s been a while since we’ve had such a satisfying meal of spaghetti alle vongole so heartily prepared. Tiramisu was just as good.
They have certainly used their winter wisely, the Tarvisiani. For as long as I can remember the winters in Tarvisio have been real, solid winters with loads of snow and freezing cold. Well, truth be told, the snow doesn’t come in abundance these days but the cold of winter is nevertheless very actual and harsh. Never forget to bring a hat, a shawl and a pair of sturdy shoes.
And we haven’t started discussing the summer yet. Hiking the majestic mountains, breathing deeply on green pastures, wandering through the endless forests, biking along the bike lanes or uphill, or meditating in this lovely mountainous recluse. It seems tempting enough especially, but not only, under the thick blanket of snow. It’s so pretty it’s almost kitschy, don’t you think?
Here we are, in the coldest time of the year, and I ran for the first time this year yesterday. The morning was quite chilly with -13 Centigrade and the temperature didn’t rise significantly by the afternoon. Still, I chose running instead of skiing as day’s main activity. For a seasoned runner I consider myself to be the cold isn’t believed a hindrance. And one warms up running much more than skiing.
It’s one thing to be running and listening to music, but it’s entirely something else to be running and listening to spoken word in podcasts. I find that way, to simplify, the whole body is employed: the limbs and the mind. Sometimes I find myself so absorbed in the listening that I either run too fast or too slow. A human mind is a fantastic space. Especially the aspect of telling and listening to stories, which in a broader sense of all beings only humans are capable of, and I mean not only pure (fictional) stories but the act of being able to transform the heard word, the text listened to, to images in one’s mind is fantastic, isn’t it? It’s a complex activity of our brain: making up stories, storytelling, listening to stories and visualising them simultaneously. It is magic. I find it truly overwhelming.
So, where did this ability take me to yesterday on the coolest of afternoons? Sicily. There I was among the heaps of immense heads of green cauliflower in the Palermo’s market. I attended the lavish banquets together with the noblemen of the 19th century Sicily. I watched Garibaldi’s ships land at Marsala. I entered the not-so-secret-anymore chocolate making shops of Modica. Quite a journey. Just before arriving back home I noticed nasty cool wind picked up sometime during my run and if it hadn’t been for somewhat numb fingers I wouldn’t have noticed it at all. I wondered if and how these polar winter conditions are manifested in Sicily. From the warmth of our home it seems quite romantic. Deceitfully so, I know.
Ever wondered what else to use cauliflower for?
We watched Love Actually last night for the first time this festive season and it breaks my heart Alan Rickman left for good. One of my favourite actors if I ever had one, his super responsive face made all the impact. And his voice, deep and warm, man, what a voice. And his English, well, to a person feeling shivers down her spine by spoken British English, it was just perfect. He needn’t speak anyway.
I promise I’ll keep paying attention, reasoning and questioning, reading books and columns throughout the New Year. I can’t do otherwise anyway. I hope to get absorbed in exciting stories, travels and food. Speaking of food, just recently my man and I hosted two dinners at home. We approached the planning and preparations with lots of care, good will and joy and were working hand in hand throughout. We seem to have had everything going for us: great guests and truly smartly selected courses. Everyone was delighted. Bravo for us!
On both occasions I was asked for the recipes and voilà, my darlings, here they are, all included in the links below.
Christmas Dinner Menu
The Leftoverist’s Thai Carrot Soup, a fantastic warm-up dish (minus broccoli and rice, plus tomatoes)
Sabrina Ghayour’s Citrus Spiced Salmon from her lovely book Persiana (minus rose petals and lime powder; used a 1,5 kg side of salmon, one piece not filets)
Nigel Slater’s Green Olive Pastries as a side dish – it’s the last recipe and shares a photo with the third one (I used a mix of Ligurian olives not the green ones)
Puy Lentil Salad as a side dish no. 2 from this helpful book (minus goat cheese and peppers plus feta and double on soaked dried tomatoes)
The Delicious Days’ Chocolate Heaven served with whipped cream, the safest, the most delicious and certainly the most popular chocolate cake in our household.
Post Christmas Dinner-for-friends Menu
Nigel Slater’s Brussels and Butternut Custards It’s the fourth recipe, you’ll have to scroll almost to the bottom (I used hokkaido instead of butternut – no peeling needed).
Rachel Roddy’s Spaghetti with Lemon, Parsley, Garlic and Chilli It might seem too vegetarian a selection especially for the main course but it was supposed to be a bit more relaxed after the Christmas binging for everybody.
Quince and Marzipan Tarte Fine An exquisit dessert. I poached and preserved the quince slices some two months beforehand to save them for this dessert.
Some additional points regarding the menus: every course was planned as to require minimum involvement away from the guests. Most of the food could be prepared in advance, some of it at least up to a certain point. It was completely no-fuss doable and non-exhausting. Several amuse-bouches can be served (and are not listed) and a variety of petit-fours or other sweat treats to accompany the main thing. In my opinion it’s very well worth it to serve one-bites, think cookies, kumquats, dates for instance, as they add even more vibrancy to the festive table.
Nevertheless, the rest of the holiday is for resting and enjoying it.
Happy New Year everybody!
As soon as we stepped out of the parking garage at MuseumsQuartier we bumped (literally) into a group of acquaintances we were kind of planning to meet for a drink after dinner. Talk of coincidences! Away from home, in a huge city that Vienna undoubtedly is, you get to stumble across the people the minute you step out in the open.
I must confess, although I know I’m stirring, meeting my fellow citizens abroad isn’t normally welcomed but this act of chance added a whole new dimension to our trip.
Vienna again proved to be a more or less indulging destination for us. We were eating and eating and eating.
Advent time is proverbially a perfect time to visit any German-speaking place: they certainly know about the Christmas decorations and their traditions serve them right. Here’s an explanation from the Albertina leaflet of how a Christmas tree came to be in Vienna:
“The history of the Christmas tree in Austria began on a day in December, in snow-covered Vienna in 1823. Archduchess Henrietta of Weilburg-Nassau, the wife of Archduke Carl, was busy planning the first Christmas celebration in the audience hall of her family’s stately palace, today’s Albertina. For the sake of her six children, she had decided to continue the Protestant custom practiced in Hessen of putting up a “grass tree” (conifer) […] opulently decorated with sweetmeat, apples, and candles instead of a Catholic crèche. Emperor Francis I. took delight in the “grass tree” and had a festively decorated fir tree put up in the Imperial Palace from 1824 on.
Thus, the Christmas tree had become presentable at court and was ready to take off on its triumphal course through the Austrian Christmas season.”
Where best to warm up to Christmas than in Vienna then? In our household we plan to spend a weekend there each December and it’s a tradition I’m sticking to obligingly and without objections.
Vienna is probably one of the grandest capitals even to the pickiest of visitors. There are magnificent palaces lining (and not only) the famous Ringstrasse, there are beautiful parks and elegant pedestrian streets, countless shops, numerous extravagant events, fantastic concerts and exhibitons. Come December she turns into a real imperial princess.
At Albertina we saw another splendid, well curated exhibition, this time on pointillism which is a very luminous and brilliant technique per se, so it made perfect sense to consume it at advent. From Seurat and Signac to Van Gogh and Picasso the paintings and drawings were marvellous, of course, but we were nevertheless expecting to see A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte but it was regretfully not on show.
Although the streets of Innere Stadt are packed throughout the day, one can surprisingly escape the noise simply by venturing into a hidden passage with tranquil antiquity shops.
This is probably what Martin Luther had in mind when he reportedly erected a fir tree for his family sometime in the 16th century to replicate the stars he saw shining through the branches during a walk through the woods.
Anyway, we also had a delicious dinner at Shiki, a fabulous Japanese restaurant cum brasserie just off Kaerntnerstrasse. Apart from food (freshly grated (at the table no less) wasabi anyone? superb sushi! wonderful soup! to highlight only the pre-mains) the service was nice and the ladies’ loo is fantastic. I can’t believe I’m mentioning the food and the loo in the same sentence. It’s the first time I experienced the legendary Japanese lavatory, which self cleans (saw it in action with my own eyes – freakingly unbelievable) and warms the seat for you. If you read this, you should go for the food, please, not the loo.
Unexpectedly, especially for Austria with its rigorous working hours regime, we transformed ourselves to night owls. Remember the little group of people we bumped in upon arrival? Well, we started our Bruderschaft rounds of drinks in the Grand Hotel’s bar, then we walked the deserted streets to Cafe Hawelka for Buchteln and were glad to have had a chance to get the last 8. It was a night of fun and laughter! Great company!
On our way back to the hotel we finished off a plate of wurst at Bitzinger’s kiosk just for the sake of it. It was something we always wanted to do.
Autumn may righteously be the season of harvest and filling up the granaries. It may be a synonym for plenty but just as much it is foreplay to an unfruitfulness of winter. Besides, it’s an overture to the bleak season of cold and also, more and more, a playground on which the Mad Men are planting the seedlings of spending, climaxing in the actual end-of-the-year festive craze. Practically, if you pay attention to detail, the so-called Christmas season starts in September (the glossies start their jewellery editorials back then and home&garden sections of supermarkets start to display rather casually the first shiny decorations for sale). Do you comply?
I don’t. I prefer to stick to the bright colours reminiscent of summer albeit in autumn the sun doesn’t shine often enough and when it does it’s regretfully for a couple of hours only. So, when it does come out you better grab the opportunity and plan something nice outdoors. A simple walk does the trick. It lifts up the spirits like a charm.
Reinventing summer colours when knee-deep in autumn can be easy even if you don’t feel like going out and just want to stay at home (like one of my dearest friends who can’t have enough of staying at home with the crazy work schedule of hers) and watch the sunset from the cosiness of your residence. It’s absolutely fine. Tune in!
First, you can start with a glass of something cold and sparkling.
Start cooking! The peppers are still on offer at the farmers’ market (however, less and less, it’s getting too cold for them at our latitude) and they’re the ultimate summer vegetable (or is it fruit?). Their opulent shades of orange and red are invigorating.
What you see in the photo above is a bed of peppers (when exactly did the word bed get to be involved in food vocabulary?) that was in the next step topped with a few cuts of chicken and roasted in the oven. It’s based on Thomasina Miers’ lovely last summer’s recipe for Marseille-style roast chicken. What made me save that recipe were the peppers because I usually roast my chicken with lemon halves and potatoes but every household needs a diversion now and then from one fail-safe dish to another. I did add the lemon halves to this one too.
Do not let the title of this post mislead you. Actually, I don’t mind autumn at all. Not at all, when it’s this gorgeous.
Soon, the bricks and mortar of Florence were replaced by gentle hills of rural southern Tuscany. The weather, the food, the wine, the mood – everything mixed and moulded into perfect getaway.
People were picking olives on sunny slopes of olive groves with nets carefully laid under the trees. Every frantoio we passed was busy, the tractors parked at the entrance waiting to unload the crates of precious fruit. Continue reading “Tuscany Revisited, Autumn Continues”
Early on Saturday morning we left for Florence for a short break. We were eagerly anticipating that trip for we didn’t stop in Florence this last summer en route further south for the summer holiday. We thought we better leave it out so we have a relevant reason to return to Tuscany again later in the year. Not that one actually needs a relevant reason; there are plenty more or less simple and basic ones. Delightfully, we stuck to that plan.
Florence is a magnificent city as anyone who ever visited will tell you. I haven’t met a soul who’d complain about it or think ill about it (although the hordes of tourists are in fact quite overwhelming and at times very much suffocating).
Anyone heading to Florence (or further south) from the east please note that the new route between Bologna and Florence is now finally open (we gladly found that out back in July already), so a traveller can choose between Panoramica (the pre-existent motorway) and Direttissima (new and faster way, lots of tunnels). The two meet at the top of the hills near Barberino di Mugello. This part of the way between Bologna and Florence used to be the most tiresome because the lanes were dramatically narrow for all the heavy traffic (trucks! trucks!), continuing ups and downs and endless curves. Now, if you’re lucky, you’ll be jammed only for a (relatively) short period of time (of course the never-ending road works are on-going) before descending downhill to Florence.
Which reminds me of my childhood, when driving in our parents’ car towards the Adriatic coast for the summer holiday my brother and I competed impatiently who was going to be the first to glimpse the sea. Cheerful exclamations of “The sea! The sea!” were the proof the holiday had commenced. Even now, as a grown-up, when approaching that last curve before the descent, I usually feel the excitement of a child: the sea is still a vast blue breadth holding a promise of good times and jolly. This same captivating feeling upon descent down the Apennines onto the plain where Florence spreads out all elegant and classy moves me dearly, and the restless eye looks out for the tremendous cupola of the Duomo. The child in me shyly exclaims “Duomo! Duomo!” thus confirming the good time is here.
We had the best possible time in Tuscany this autumn. Two days in Florence and two in the country. The four days were sunny and warm (no socks! short sleeves! sunglasses!) and we could enjoy the impressive colours and fruits of autumn without limits.
The flavours of autumn were persistent too: marroni (glazed and roasted), freshly pressed olive oil, ribollita on day one, trippa alla fiorentina on the last. And many other delicious meals in-between.
Despite the leading motifs of autumn and the cool nights, we simply couldn’t skip the best Florentine ice cream. We walked to Carabe after dinner (every additional trip up Via Ricasoli makes the walk seem shorter) and I (of course) had a cup of Sicilian agrumi and crema. So good! As I remarked to the master how delicious his ice cream is every time we have it (for we have been returning customers for years now), he smiled and humbly said it was the quality of the ingredients that made the end product reliably superb.
Two days are scarcely enough to explore Florence if one is to do it justice. But to take it all in it’s enough to submerse into its elegant streets, turning the head more often upwards at the marvellous Tuscan facades and peeking past the ajar doors into craftsmen’s workshops or brick paved courtyards with cisterns. Notice the Duomo looming large above and behind the narrow streets. Carelessly sip the coffee or Negroni which is what Bellini is for Venice. Watch the people and scan the exquisite shops.
See some of the obvious sights en route: Piazza della Signoria, Ponte Vecchio, Davide, Uffizi, Palazzo Pitti, Basilica di Santa Maria Novella – there is more art, beauty and history than you can imagine. Breathtaking.
Shop for fantastic designer goods (many of the great Italian designers originate in Florence) or for refined Florentine prints in countless tiny shops or for medicinal herbal tonics and fragrant soap.
By all means, plan to return. Florence like Venice is pure magic.
Our favourite eatery in Florence is Sostanza in Via del Porcellana but it’s open weekdays only. So we chose this one instead and it was very good. EDIT: We ate at Trattoria Sostanza again in summer 2018. It was delicious as ever.
Ai Weiwei exhibition in Pallazzo Strozzi till January 2017
Ignore the silly fashion industry photos lining the walls if you please but do take your coffee at Caffe Giacosa because it really is excellent. The interior itself has been painstakingly renovated so it retains the same old school charm – a must-see – and the service is attentive. Alternatively, Gilli is another Florentine institution (for more info in Italian only see Italian wikipedia).
A few weeks ago saw a launch of a much anticipated TV series on the Medicis, the most famous of Florentine dynasties. As it turns out, it’s so far been aired in Italy only but pay attention to when it comes to your country. According to the frenzy it seems to be a good one.
It’s fascinating to be European. With so many tribes and rulers and nations and states interchanging, mixing, succeeding one another, one is sure to not know the whole history of one’s own let alone the one of the others. The history of Gorizia and Nova Gorica, two neighbouring towns, one in Italy and the other in Slovenia, is figuratively and actually an interesting one. Both have been relatively unknown beyond their geographic region but this might be changing soon. Enter France.
My first time ever to visit both towns purposefully was last June. True, I happened to pass them by many times before especially on our way to Collio and Goriška Brda. I was told that both of the towns are fairly uninteresting so I never really felt like I was missing much by not seeing yet another Austria-Hungarian merchant town and yet another bleak communist settlement.
The region surrounding them (on both sides of the Italian-Slovenian border) on the other hand is well known among wine connoisseurs. The soil and climate conditions and hard-working people give some spectacular wines that can be found in restaurants’ wine lists worldwide. And where there’s good wine there’s good food, right?
Plenty good options for either lunch or dinner around here. The countryside is wonderful for a daytrip alone: meandering roads, manicured hilly vineyards, many lovely villages, a castle or two (Spessa, Dobrovo), lots of wineries, different options of bicycle tours or horse riding (La Subida), or just plain good old lunching time in the country.
The two towns are rather dull but Gorizia’s charms are good food (it’s Italy after all), rose lined corsi (and come spring every other house’s wall is transformed into curtain of jasmine so the wonderful perfume follows you around like a faithful dog) and some grand palazzi. Nova Gorica (meaning New Gorizia) as an alternative is a town of no big secrets lest the last resting place of the penultimate king of France.
The Franciscan monastery Kostanjevica on the hill above Nova Gorica is a lovely spot. Tranquility and serenity are at home there and the views especially are nice. It’s where locals come for some peace and quiet. The summer’s day at the end of June was hot, the light was harsh, the colours stark. The man showed us in and accompanied us to the crypt where the tombs are. He was very busy so we were offered to do a little tour on our own which was marvellous. The whole place was solely at our own disposal.
The last (Bourbon) King of France (next one (and truly the last one) cleverly denoted himself as the King of the French) Charles X is buried here along his entourage. Don’t know why this fantastic information was kept from us growing up under Yugoslavian communist rule. It wasn’t because the king had to flee France as a result of the revolution. Communists praised the revolution. Possibly the venue was not to be promoted since religion was a no-no. As I said, I don’t know. I’ve known about the Bourbon tomb in Slovenia only for a few years now which is a disgrace but ever since I found out I’d wanted to go and see.
The monastery also houses the perfect (and second largest in Europe) collection of Bourbon (surprise!) roses within its walled garden. We’ll return next May when it’s in full bloom. It is another thing I long to see.
As for the French, suddenly they want him back. Apparently, he’s the only king buried outside France. R.I.P.
When we decided to visit Southern Dalmatia a couple of weekends ago we expected it to mean a prolonged summer break. As it turned out, the weather wasn’t quite as fabulous as we’d hoped for. It was a good thing we didn’t need it to be A+ for what we were after: some good fish-based meals, the lovely plavac (a.k.a. zinfandel’s child) and a leisurely rediscovering of the area. A simple break from the norm.
(Almost) Everything was just as we remembered from our last stay some five or so years ago. The scenery is mostly unchanged which is great, the sea is very much blue and the beaches almost deserted. Low season indeed.
Despite its misleading shape and form Peljesac is in fact a peninsula, which means it’s accessible by road. This is a helpful bit of information if one plans a short break as it means no waiting in lines for dull, somewhat expensive and long(ish) ferry rides. Its landscape is also beautifully rough, very much karst and Dalmatian and it’s dotted with cosy little villages and towns. No resorts here.
A definite must-visit on the peninsula are the lovely little coastal towns of Mali Ston and Ston each located on the opposite shores of the peninsula and connected with ancient fortified walls running up and down along the slopes that divide the two towns. For the fit and ready there’s the annual wall marathon where the walls are actually a running field. The experience (not to mention incredible views) must be unforgettable.
Turn left at the crossing were Peljesac meets the mainland and you’re headed in the direction of Bosnia (its coast is only about 20 kilometres long) and further up to the northern part of Croatian coast. Turn right and you’re less than an hour drive to Dubrovnik, the gem town of ancient age and glorious history. So, there’s plenty of day-trip options in all directions.
The views from the road on the way to Dubrovnik reminded me a bit of Amalfi coast. This also is a land where lemons grow (and pomegranates and quinces and the lot). Along the way one can stop by the road and enjoy the views over the sea to the near-by islands like Mljet or Lopud. The traveller should by all means make a stop at Trsteno, a village perched on both sides of the main road. There are several reasons for that. The locals are proud of their 16th century plane trees that are possibly the largest in Europe. What’s not to miss is the arboretum. It’s the only Mediterranean garden of its kind along the Croatian coast, which is quite surprising considering its length.
Its villa (regretfully in a poor shape) and the pavilion have the most fantastic location: amidst the lush greenery and with unbeatable views over the Adriatic. There are many pleasant alcoves in the garden where you can rest and enjoy the peace and quiet or the songbird or the sounds of the wind caught high up in slender palm trees. Or you can meander around its cultivated terraces. There’s also a gorgeous baroque Neptune fountain with its own private aqueduct built to supply it with water.
When we were there there was a stall, well, it was more a folding table, outside the entrance where a grey-haired man was selling homemade delicacies: jams, liqueurs, dried fruit and herbs. During our brief encounter we learned about his strict wife forbidding him to offer the customers tastings but he nevertheless insisted we try the refreshing arancini (so good!), the tenderest dried figs I’ve ever eaten and the various kinds of liqueurs. We left with a bag full of good stuff, the most medicinal being the sage liqueur. Quite exquisite.
Which reminds me: it’s the fig season! Or rather, it is still the fig season. The fantastic smell winding magically around the fig trees and from behind stonewalls in the coastal regions of Mediterranean has compressed into sensual fruit. Grab it while you still can.
I think fondly of those happy moments, lacing our summer trips, when we notice we pass a fig tree only after its head-swirling perfume fills our noses. For me, it represents hot syrupy days under scorching sun, quasi fresh early mornings of bright yellow, smells of macchia and distant sea, stains of red soil on the white rocks, and all the nuances of a clear, never-ending sky.
When you have a bunch of figs, small or not so small, violet or green, that are sadly not as sweet and tasty as you’d want them to be, despair not. Make the best of them by roasting them.
It’s a simple and delicious dessert (or a sweetspoon if you happen to eat it directly out of the roasting dish). This is how I make it:
– Preheat the oven to 200°C
– Cut the figs in half from top to bottom
– Place on a roasting dish cut side up
– Add 1-2 dcl of red wine depending on the size of the dish
– Add some freshly grated ginger
– Add lemon zest strips
– Add ground coriander or cardamom
– Add a little bit of brown sugar or (even better) a drizzle of honey (make sure all of the spices reach the wine as well not only the fruit)
– Squeeze half a lemon over everything
– Roast for 30 minutes.
I like to eat them when they’re still warm but they are very good when cool as well. Summer in the bowl.
Did we make it to Dubrovnik? Certainly, for the umpteenth time. How was it? If you haven’t been go. If you’d seen it before, keep the happy memories and go some place else. I believe there are other beautiful places to discover. This one’s gotten too polished and superficial. It’s cat friendly though.
Kinookus – very interesting film festival in Ston on food production accompanied by Cinelokus, an organic food open-air market
Grgić winery, Trstenik, Pelješac The Napa Valley wine-maker’s estate in Croatia
Restaurant Orsan, Dubrovnik A proper Dalmatian restaurant, real food, good service, away from the crowds
Not so long ago I was asked what my favourite food was and I surprised myself by replying swiftly it was tomatoes. I never considered food as rating material: I either like it or I don’t. True, there are things I prefer but I don’t think I could make a list of, say, Top Ten Foods without obvious bias towards the current season. The palate is in my case a matter of season: asparagus = spring, cherries = early summer, sauerkraut = winter to just name a few typical examples.
Tomatoes on the other hand I consume throughout the year in various forms and textures. Guilty as charged. They’re beautiful, red and curvy; they certainly look good, don’t they? I like them raw, cooked or roasted, on their own or in combination. They’re versatile and they taste and smell like summer. Arguably, tomatoes have changed a great deal in the past two or three decades due to intensive cultivation and high demand. I believe they mostly taste like nothing and consider myself lucky being of generation that grew up on seasonable only tomatoes. I can clearly recall the taste of my childhood tomatoes and none of them now are quite the same. Still, when carefully and timely selected one can enjoy them nearly as much.
I love tomatoes just sliced and salted with a drizzle of olive oil. As a child I was used to eating tomato salad dressed with pumpkin seed oil, as it is a customary dressing choice in the East where my mother comes from. Now, I choose a good olive oil any time of the day for my tomatoes. I love a simple tomato sauce for pasta dishes. Actually, if I look closely I can’t imagine my life without tomatoes. Ergo, it’s quite stressful to read about this.
I admit to indulge in the first spring variety known by the pretty name of Marinda and soon other kinds, summery, follow.
I like canned tomatoes as well, they serve us well through winter. I use them to dress pasta (peeled San Marzano is best) or to enhance a legume vegetable stew (passata or polpa brighten the dull fagioli immediately). They’re indispensable in autumn Indian curry or when I crave a plain, good old tomato soup. I add a squeeze of lemon and plenty of chilli to it.
Now, what I look forward to as the summer comes to a close is roasting them (cherry tomatoes or any other variety) in the oven. Roasting deepens their flavour, it somehow intensifies their taste and concentrates them. To make them I roughly follow David Lebovitz’s recipe, which is simple and delightful, but after they’re roasted and still very hot from the oven I spoon them carefully into a meticulously clean glass jar to preserve them. I add some additional olive oil on top and close it up immediately. When it cools, I store it in the refrigerator – it keeps well for several weeks. If you do it sporadically as the tomatoes occur even later in the season (sometimes I get my hands on good tomatoes as late as October), the jars prepared this way may last till Christmas. I find this way of preserving tomatoes to be a smart move this time of year when the prices are more reasonable and one is somehow fed up with eating yet another tomato salad albeit 1001st version of it.
They can be added by spoonfuls to bought canned tomatoes or passata to give a dish an extra homey feel or to any other dish calling for tomatoes. Meatballs for instance. They enhance the flavour of any dish. Plus, you can brag about them being homemade.
Whenever I flip through the photographs I took, a warm feeling comes over me. Mostly, I remember the mood not only of the place but the one I was in at that moment.
Different occasions provoke different responses: these days it is a regretful sense that the holiday season is over. I know, I know, the whole world is back to work again (myself included) so stop moaning and groaning, right? Right. Let me take you on a trip to Lecce then, as promised. This way please.
There was this store we were passing every day for it was just around the corner of the garage where we parked. Its shelves were full of wine and champagne bottles and other liquor from all over the world. The loaded pallets were stacked outside on the pavement in front of the store waiting for lorries and vans to collect them. On our second evening in Lecce we decided to stop by and ask if one or two bottles can be bought since it gave the impression more of a wholesale. Well, we could’ve bought the entire pallet had we known how good the wine was going to be and spent the holiday happily surrounded by emptying bottles. We’d end up lying under the table soon enough though because the Apulian reds are intoxicatingly strong. So, instead of doing that we healthily opted for two bottles to drink on our terraces (yes, we had four at our disposal) before going out or after we’d return or for no reason at all – just to enjoy them. Not only did the signore serving us suggest two lovely wines, Primitivo di Manduria and Negroamaro, when asked he would happily recommend a place for dinner.
“Fish?” he asked. Upon our confirmation he stepped outside and we obligingly followed because, well, of course, you have to be outdoors to give directions properly, and murmuring to himself and counting using his fingers directed us, verbally and manually alla italiana: “Seconda left, porta grande, prima right, corner e li ristorante Blu notte.”
To be honest, the restaurant didn’t look very convincing upon our inspection (it resembled a regular tourist trap). But we were shown the day’s fish and decided to dine. The restaurant filled up completely by nine (mostly locals; lady from the kitchen came out to greet them that’s how we knew) and was bursting with muted voices of diners’ satisfaction. It was soooo good. I’d like to say that it was then and there I had the best octopus and the best fritto misto of my life but I’d be lying. I had the best octopus and the best fritto misto a few days later when we chose Blu Notte to be the venue of our last Apulian dinner. There may be better ones but haven’t been discovered yet.
No surprise then that the next evening when we were passing the wine store I asked: “Another place?” Signore was genuinely happy and gleamed with pride when he heard we liked his previous recommendation. This time the directions were in higher numbers but nevertheless quite straightforward: “Quattro left, sette, no, otto right, venti metri, right: Degli spiriti.”
There, we entered the oasis of calm and elegance that this restaurant is. It was exactly what we needed after the hustle and bustle of the whole day around town. The food was to die for. The antipasto of melanzane was too good to be true as were the orecchiette with clams and chickpeas – what a wonderful combination. Mind you, the dish was filled with full halves of the clams only – where else do you get that?
The wine we had was superb as was the passito that rounded off the meal nicely. We returned to the apartment hypnotised by the deliciousness of it all.
By all means, there’s more to Lecce than food and wine. There had been the Messapians, the Greek, the Romans, the Normans, and the Ottomans. The rich mixture of cultures and their clashes caused the town to have developed a distinctive charm. There are countless impressive churches, terrific villas, monuments of astounding proportions, colourful roof tiling, extravagant baroque facades that blow your mind, not one but two Roman theatres, infinite number of ornate balconies with bearded plants hanging over them, huge pedestrian area for passeggiata and numerous picturesque streets of the golden centro storico. Proximity to the coast adds appeal and the climate is fantastic. I’ve said it before, Lecce is overwhelming. Breathtaking. Astonishing.
We were very lucky to have had selected a fantastic accommodation and I highly recommend a rooftop place to stay: the views over town’s landmarks, terraces, flat roofs, aerials and church bells are unforgettable. Plus, the gentle movements of the evening air are priceless in the summer heat because the only place to feel the gentle breeze is on top.
Last but not least, beginning another new day with a delicious breakfast under the shade surrounded by blue skies and lush Med greenery is a rare luxury several floors above the dried up stone pavements.
As for the signore from the wine store, we never met him again although we passed the store almost every evening, carrying our helmets at the near ending of yet another joyful day. I regret we couldn’t fire the sparks in his eyes with praise of his recommendations again.
The title is a bit of a stretch, I admit. Firstly, Robert De Niro was visiting Sarajevo overnight only. Secondly, I never met him. Thirdly, I admire his acting and his films very much, really, truly, but let’s be honest, I’m whispering now, he’s of a certain age.
Coincidentally, Robert De Niro, one of the world’s greatest actors, and I happened to be at the same event last Friday. He was a guest of honour, of course, whereas I was a mere spectator. I’m talking about 22nd Sarajevo Film Festival, a festival that started during dreadful times of war and evolved into the most influential and eminent film festival in the region.
Robert De Niro was there to open the festival and promote the restored Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and most importantly was awarded the Heart of Sarajevo (what a brilliant name for a prize, don’t you think?) for lifetime achievement. His presence in that city was powerful and meaningful and his thank-you speech at the opening ceremony was nice too. So was the audience at the open-air cinema Metalac. It’s an incredible venue, a courtyard amidst the townhouses (in fact, a high school sports ground), huge, roughly 2000 to 3000 viewers were present, the screen is of king-size XXXL, it felt almost as the Rome’s Colosseum.
“I will treasure this award — my Heart of Sarajevo — because I don’t think there is another city in the world that has shown such heart in the face of so much tragedy,” De Niro said at the ceremony.
Do read the Washington Post’s article on the festival (the above quote is excerpted from it) – it’s filled with all the vital information.
Of his countless performances, the one line I remember most is “I know a thing or two about a thing or two” from … wait, I have to check the title of this movie co-starring young Leonardo Di Caprio …here it is: This Boy’s Life. If you have the stomach for abuse take a look.
Not only was De Niro there, in Sarajevo, the festival is packed with celebrity material: on the second evening Stephen Frears of Dangerous Liaisons, The Queen and Philomena (among others) came to greet the public on stage before the screening of his magnificent Florence Foster Jenkins. He is a regular but he was all the same overcome with the large auditorium.
Sarajevo is the European capital that appeared regularly in the headlines in the 90’s. Unfortunately, this was due to the so-called Balkans’ war following the break-up of Yugoslavia, which led to this city and its inhabitants being tragically under siege for several years (1425 days actually). The reminders of this brutal war are visible throughout the city still. Today, two decades after the conflict ended, the city is as pleasant and welcoming as ever before. That’s at least what I’m told because my first visit to Sarajevo took place only about 10 years ago. So, I’m not in a position to judge the before and after effect. Not that I’d want to anyway. From what I hear I would’ve liked it before the war for sure and I certainly like it now.
What’s not to like?!
Friendly people? Check
For those of you awaiting more on Apulia please be patient. It’s coming up as promised.