THE JUDGEMENT OF PARIS

 

Only stockbrokers or the people who lived in Downton Abbey drank wine when I was growing up in England in the 1950s; our family meals would have been accompanied by water or beer. Mother had her annual glass of Dubonnet at Christmas while my father couldn’t taste anything less than 40 degree proof. His loyalties seemed to lie with the Navy as I can only remember him drinking Cutty Sark whisky, occasionally with a beer chaser, and smoking Capstan Full Strength or Senior Service. ‘Your father’s three sheets to the wind again’ my mother would say, continuing the maritime theme when he was a little unsteady on his feet. Stronger language was employed for those occasions when he was, as PG Wodehouse described it, ‘oiled, boiled, fried, plastered, whiffled, sizzled and blotto’. Mother claimed he would live forever because his insides were pickled in alcohol; sadly this turned out not to be true. It was only when I moved to France that I finally came to grips with wine. 

Paris in the 1970s was bristling with British and American expatriates, mainly accountants and lawyers, and we tended to stick together.

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On Sundays we met for lunch at La Brasserie de L’Isle Saint-Louis or at Chartier and on Saturdays the more sporting kicked a ball about at the Standard Athletic Club in the forest of Meudon. Like many clubs around the world it was created by British ex-pats in the back-room of a bar, this time the Horseshoe Bar in the rue Copernic. That was in 1890; four years later the Club won the first ever French Football Championship; the Frogs sometimes forget where their soccer history lies. During a state visit to France in May 1972 Queen Elizabeth toured the Club’s playing fields in an open car. She had left a little too late an important part of her visit, a last meeting with the Duke of Windsor, for the Duke was too sick to leave his bed and died a month later.  Paris was full of Brits struggling with the perfect subjunctive. img_0033-2

A very dapper David Hockney was designing sets for Roland Petit’s ballet, Shirley Bassey was appearing at Le Theatre des Champs Elysees, Mick occasionally held court at Castels and we all danced at Le Palace.

 Everyone read the Herald Tribune, in those days graced with the wit of Art Buchwald, as well as the Paris Metro, a weekly English language paper where we scanned the classifieds for baby sitters and second-hand appliances, read reviews of new films and in-vogue cafes and attempted the world’s first bi-lingual crossword.

It was in the Paris Metro that I saw an advert for a newly-opened wine shop that dealt in img_0028New World wines as well as French and where a customer could taste the product before buying; these were not just innovations they were revolutionary ideas in France at the time. Only in retrospect do we understand what times we lived in.

Les Caves de la Madeleine was in La Cite Berryer, a narrow thoroughfare linking rue Boissy-d’Anglas  and rue Royale and its proprietor was Steven Spurrier, a young English Master of Wine with the effrontery to sell the French their own wine.

 

Three years later he purchased the locksmiths next door and turned it into a wine school, which many of us soon found more interesting than the sports club on Saturday mornings. img_0020Courses at L’Academie du Vin were conducted in English because it was designed to attract the expatriate community, but soon the natives were clamouring to get in and Francophone experts were added. Spurrier was now actually teaching the French about wine; the sheer cheek of it! But it didn’t end there.

Spurrier was convinced that great wines could be produced outside of France, but there was little enthusiasm for foreign wines in a country where Burgundians didn’t drink Bordeaux. His answer was to organize, together with Patricia Gallagher, an American journalist at the Herald Tribune, a blind tasting of wines from France and the USA. The tasting took place in the Intercontinental Hotel on 24th May 1976; it was to be a fitting bicentennial nod to the American Revolution.  The judges were all French and all wine connoisseurs (including Raymond Oliver of Le Grand Vefour, and Christian Vanneque, somellier at Le Tour D’Argent), leaving a general assumption of a French victory.

Four white Burgundies were matched with six Californian Chardonnays and four red wines from Bordeaux with six Cabernet Sauvignon wines from California. The French were fielding some big guns, Mouton-Rothschild and Haut-Brion among the reds, Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet amongst the whites, while none of the American wines were well known. Each judge assessed each wine, presented in neutral bottles, by giving a score out of twenty. The result was a bigger upset than Waterloo. Californian Chardonnays took first, third and fourth places; not one judge placed a Burgundy in first spot. Stags Leap, a Californian winery, took top honours in the reds. Jurist Odette Khan, Editor of La Revue du Vin de France, asked to change her vote while a more generous Aubert de Villaine of Romanee Conti merely said ‘On a pris un coup de pied dans le derriere.’

In the mythological version of the Judgement, Paris’ choice of Aphrodite, or the sensual life over the contemplative and active, resulted in a ten year war and the destruction of Troy. The wine ‘Judgement of Paris’, a term coined by George Taber of Time magazine, produced happier results. Californian wines boomed, Chateau Montelena, the winning white, became a star and in 2007 Stags Leap, created only four years before the tasting, was sold for US$185 million. No, French wine shops did not suddenly start stocking USA wines, but the point had been made, if great wines can evidently be produced in California, why not South America, South Africa and Australia?  One important result was that French producers began joining the competition instead of fighting it. In the latest ‘Eldorado’ of wine, the high country of Oregon, there were 65 vineyards thirty years ago, now there are 676. Among the growers is none other than the Drouhin family from Burgundy, makers of the Beaune Clos des Mouches that lost out in the Judgement.

A film of the event ‘Bottle Shock’, made in 2008, left Spurrier unimpressed even though he was portrayed by that gentle artist, Alan Rickman.

Footnote 1

With Spurrier’s financial backing, an ex-employee, Chuck Scupham, opened a restaurant next to the Academie. It was called Le Moulin du Village and its faux rustic air and ‘cuisine du marche’ made it a novelty at first, but Chuck is an unfortunate name for a chef.  In 1980 another ex-employee of Spurrier, Mark Williamson, opened perhaps the first real wine bar in Paris. When the choice in most French cafes was between a basic red and white varietal, Willi had an extensive selection of fine, especially Rhone wines; he was known as the ‘Rhone Ranger’. Willi’s is still there, where it first opened, in rue des Petits Champs. L’Academie du Vin was sold to Baron Rothschild’s Chateau Clarke in 1988. 

Footnote 2

An Australian expatriate, Barbara Harvey, spotting some 1978 Coonawarra Cabernet Sauvignon at the Caves de la Madeleine, and mindful of Spurrier’s good taste, bought a case of the same as soon as she returned home to Sydney in 1981. Thirty five years later we drank her last bottle at Tetsuya’s, or rather most of it, because due to a decanting mishap some of it was lost. A week later Barb received a call from Tetsuya himself, asking for details of the lost wine. Two weeks later a bottle of 1978 Coonawarra Cab Sav arrived on Barb’s doorstep. That, mes amis, is class!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE GOD OF WINE

If I am lucky enough to be in Vienna in the autumn then Theo will take me to the leafy suburb of Grinzing and we will settle into a heuriger to share a carafe or two of Gruner Veltliner, the local wine that’s as tart and green as a Granny Smith. A heuriger, or tavern, will indicate that it is open for business by displaying a bush (buschen) of pine twigs over the door, a practice once common in England (where the bush was of ivy) and now only remembered on the occasional pub-sign, but not however that of The Bull and Bush, which refers to Henry VII’s siege of Boulogne in 1492 and is a corruption of Boulogne bouche (blockaded). It was the Romans that introduced this most ancient device of the wine-seller into the far parts of its empire which is enshrined in the proverb, still current, that a good wine needs no bush. In Rome it was vine branches rather than pine twigs or ivy that were pinned over the tavern lintel in honour of the grape and in reverence to the God of Wine.

Wine’s origins are only conjecture but it seems likely that someone, perhaps somewhere in the Caucasus and several millennia BC, took a sip of the juice of a bunch of rotten grapes and experienced a brief moment of euphoria or perhaps a longer period of drowsiness. It was this mind-changing quality of the fermented grape, interpreted as divine, that made wine originally part of ancient religious ritual; it continues today in the Eucharist. As viticulture spread West people began to celebrate wine’s heavenly qualities and its blood association with libations and religious orgies, either creating a specific wine divinity or extending the responsibilities of an existing deity to include the grape vine. Robert Graves in The White Goddess tells us that the vine was sacred to Osiris and that the golden vine was one of the principal ornaments of the temple of Jerusalem.

When the vine cult reached Greece during the last period of the Bronze Age (1600 and 1100 BC), it came complete with its own God, Dionysus, his mystic history linked to the spread of the vine-cult. Dionysus had no contemporary apostles to record his past life and arrival in Greece but by all accounts he was a foreigner, almost certainly from Thrace (an area now comprising south eastern Bulgaria, Northern Greece and European Turkey).

The Greeks took to wine like ducks to water, excited by the fact that it superseded all previous intoxicants. Possibly on account of climate and certainly because of their skill in producing totally airtight amphorae, they became master winemakers with the vintages of Lesbos and Chios the most highly prized. The Pramnian from Lesbos, mentioned by Homer in The Iliad, became the most famous wine of antiquity and, like most other Greek wines, it was sweet, thick and tangy (from the resin smeared on the inside of the vats) and drunk diluted with water. Dionysus has long departed and no great wines are produced in Greece today, but if you can force down a glass of the omnipresent Retsina it will provide a clue to the taste of those ancient wines.

There were life-style adjustments to accommodate the new cult of the vine, for wine is a civilising agent and set the Greeks apart from the beer drinking barbarians, a thought endorsed thousands of years later by Martin Luther when he said ‘Beer is made by man, wine by God’. Symposia, (cheese and wine parties) became common while everyone, in a gruesome fore-runner of the ‘Trivia Night’, played Kottabos, a game where reposing diners flicked the lees in their wine cups at a target (a small statue on top of a bronze standard) while uttering the name of their lover.

As the importance of wine grew, not least because of its value as an export, so grew the profile and following of the Wine God. Hesiod, writing between 750 and 650 BC provided much needed details of the God’s origins, claiming Dionysus to be the son of Zeus and Semele, the daughter of Cadmus, King of Thebes, making him the only Olympian with a mortal mother. Semele’s death was quite spectacular; persuaded by Hera, the jealous wife of Zeus, to demand the true identity of her lover, she was allowed a brief glimpse of the God before being consumed in his divine fire while, in the same instance, Dionysus was snatched to safety by his father. As a son of Zeus he became the half-brother of Hermes, the God of silk scarves and expensive costume jewellery. Not destined to remain in Olympus Dionysus roamed Earth teaching oenology and good humour for his other name was Charidotes, Giver of Charm.

Eternally youthful, dressed in panther skin, crowned with vine leaves and grape bunches Dionysus carries the thyrsus, a wand bound with ivy and grape vines and topped with a pine cone, which he wields like a bandmaster’s baton as he leads his thiasus, his inebriated, dancing retinue, lead by goat-footed Satyrs under the leadership of purple-faced Silenus, his mentor and the model for every drunken lecher from Gargantua to Falstaff and followed by a rabble of dancing, intoxicated Maenads. Wine is best enjoyed in company.

The worship of Dionysus followed the classic theme of seasonal death and rebirth, the God most active in springtime when the trees and vines burst into life and the whole world is intoxicated by desire. The Dionysian Mysteries used wine, dance and music to liberate the participants from the prison of everyday pre-occupation. Not much has changed in three thousand years except that the celebrations are now continuous and secular. The Wine God was popular because his religion embraced those marginalised by Greek society – slaves, foreigners and women. The dances and ceremonies performed by masked Maenads are believed to be the first birth signs of drama as an art form.

Dionysus was the God of Wine and Wine-making, of Religious Ecstasy, of Fertility (Priapus was a son), of Pleasure and, latterly of the Theatre; but he was not the God of Drunkenness, which was the lot of Silenus. The Greeks were well aware that the dangers of denial were equalled by the dangers of excess. In this piece of dialogue from ‘Semele or Dionysus’, a 375 BC play by Eubulus, , Dionysus says:

Three bowls do I mix for the temperate: one to health, which they empty first; the second to love and pleasure; the third to sleep. When this bowl is drunk up, wise guests go home. The fourth bowl is ours no longer, but belongs to violence; the fifth to uproar; the sixth to drunken revel; the seventh to black eyes; the eighth is the policeman’s; the ninth belongs to biliousness; and the tenth to madness and the hurling of furniture.[17]

 

It was only a matter of time before the wine cult spread North from the Greek settlements among the coastal towns of Southern Italy and eventually Dionysus moved to Rome and changed his name to Bacchus. The Romans proved even better wine-makers than the Greeks whose wine soon went out of fashion after the first of the great Italian vintages, the Opimian which appeared in 121 BC, followed shortly after by the Falernian. By the time Augustus began ruling the Empire in 27BC vines were growing in the North of Italy and Rhaetic, the ancestor of Soave, became the Emperor’s favourite wine. In Rome the Dionysian orgies became the Bacchanalia, which unfortunately got out of hand because they are known from measures taken by the Roman senate to repress them in the third century BC.

There are no longer any temples dedicated to Bacchus, no statues to touch in the Forum, although he is still visible in the World’s major art museums in the form of paintings by Titian, Velazquez, Delacroix, Poussin and Caravaggio. Most representations of Bacchus record the moment he came upon Ariadne, abandoned by Theseus on Naxos, made her his wife and set her among the stars.

I can understand the economy of having a God of Everything but He is far too serious, much too busy to assist in those minor, instinctive, every day issues which seem important to us at the time. And so it is Bacchus that we turn to when opening a bottle of 86 Sassicaia, praying that the cork stays firm, that the wine has not lost its freshness and that it cements the conviviality of good company.

Although he may have briefly pointed the tip of his thyrsus in the direction of Bordeaux and the Cote D’Or, The God of Wine is the God of Italian wine. I feel he is at home in the organised pandemonium of his adoptive home, more comfortable among its trailing vines than between the clipped and manicured rows of French vines or in the soulless wineries of the New World.

When pleasantly astounded by the unexpected we say ‘O My God!’; the Italians still say what they have always said, ‘Per Bacco!’

 

VOULEZ VOUS UN POPPADOM

 

I still tend to think a lot about food even though I’m an occasional and indifferent cook and my teeth and gums can now only cope with Baby Porridge and Heinz Teething Rusks. Memories of Duck number 512,948 (depuis 1890) at Le Tour D’Argent, my mother’s bread pudding, an andouillette at La Courte Paille, a plate of grilled red mullet in a Sicilian port – they’re always popping up in meditative moments or pleasant dreams. These cuisine memories are constantly jogged by a collection of culinary ephemera – menus, bills, wine labels and tasting notes, all from favourite restaurants and wineries collected over the last 40 years. They are supplemented by Michelin and Gault et Millau restaurant guides from the 70s and 80s, Larousse Gastronomique, The Penguin Companion to Food, all of Jane Grigson’s books and Mediterranean Seafood, a unique and creative mix of biology and seafood cuisine, written when the author, Alan Davidson, was British Consul in Tunis. All of these books are food for thought as well as thought for food.

When it comes to actual cookbooks, Fergus Henderson’s Nose to Tail Eating is popular in our kitchen and Gerard Depardieu’s Ma Cuisine (Paris 2005) is a great hymn to classic French Provincial cuisine, which, sadly, is not what he serves in his restaurant, La Fontaine Gaillon in la rue de la Michodiere. Many of the recipes in these, and in other foreign food cookbooks, are unworkable in Australia. Coq au Vin? Try asking a Sydney butcher for a rooster or a capon for that matter. And no, it doesn’t taste the same using the drumsticks of a pale, cling-wrapped battery hen, now sold sans skin in a bid to eliminate any vestige of taste. Similarly don’t bother with quenelles de brochet, jugged hare, or anything with pigeon, offal or Roblochon. Alas, speed and health are the new drivers of cook books. Here are five elegant books about food and wine as enjoyment and kept solely on my shelves for the pleasure of their company.

Les Hors D’Oeuvre  Sont Un Jeu D’Enfants
Michel Oliver
Paris, 1969

img_3708I like this book for its Quarto format (ring-bound for easy reference while cooking), its charming, hand-painted illustrations, the fact that it deals only with classic French dishes and its historical importance.

In the early 60s, after a brief spell selling Jazz records in Bordeaux, Michel Oliver went to work for his father, Raymond, at that time proprietor and chef of Le Grand Vefour, an ancient Mecca of French haute cuisine. In existence since 1784, the restaurant has fed, among others, Napoleon and Josephine, Victor Hugo, Jean Paul Sartre, Colette and Jean Cocteau, who became a regular and designed the menu. Some of the restaurant’s best years came after Raymond Oliver acquired it in 1954 and in the next decade when it earned its third Michelin star while Michel worked his way through the kitchen to become Maitre d’Hotel. In 1970 Michel left Le Grand Vefour, and with the royalties from ‘La Cuisine est un Jeu D’Enfants’(1963), which sold three million copies, and subsequent additions to the series, opened four restaurants – Bistrot de Paris, Bistrot Romain, L’Assiette au Boeuf and the Bistrot de La Gare, all of them offering the complete opposite  of the cuisine classique of Escoffier served at his father’s tables. The food was lighter, simpler, with more emphasis on presentation, and much, much cheaper. In the early seventies at the Bistrot de La Gare on Le Boulevard Montparnasse, with its ravishing Art Nouveau interior, you could eat for as little as US$11 (no credit cards accepted) including wine. Championed by Henri Gault and Christian Millau, who had begun a popular food guide in 1965, the restaurants were a huge success. This was Nouvelle Cuisine before it became confused by ‘fusion’, decorated with camel snot, skid marks and rare fungi grown only on the West flank of Mount Fuji and presented in tiny stacks in the middle of plates the size of hubcaps. Michel did not invent Nouvelle Cuisine; the term was first used in the 20th century by Henri Gault to describe the food prepared by Paul Bocuse for the maiden flight of Concorde on March 2nd 1969, but he certainly popularised a new form of French dining. Except perhaps for the Salade de Pissenlits au Lard I have never found any of Monsieur Oliver’s hors d’oeuvres on a Sydney restaurant menu; probably too simple for our sophisticated tastes. Unless you make one of his recipes yourself, you will have to go to France to try them. Don’t waste time looking for L’Assiette au Boeuf or Bistrot de la Gare next time you are in Paris; they still exist but the magic has gone. Le Grand Vefour, still there in the Palais Royale, has now only two stars, but is still worth a visit.

Aromas & Flavours of Past & Present
Alice B Toklas
London 1959

img_3710I like this book because it is as ‘much for the mind as for the kitchen’, because it is full of rococo recipes and because it goes right against the present wave of books demanding we eat faster, cheaper, healthier food. There are whole chapters on Cooking with Champagne, Cooking with Cognac and Ratafias (fruits, berries and flowers soaked in brandy or gin). I’m surprised it’s not banned.

Many of the recipes are steeped in history and their ingredients lavishly soaked in wine, sherry or cognac. We have Pike in half-mourning, Truite en Chemise, Perfumed Goose, Sweetbread and Artichoke stew, Queen of Sheba Cake, The Ribbons of Sarah Bernhardt and Vespetro, requiring 2 pounds of sugar and 2 quarts of brandy, anjelica root, a pinch of powdered orris root and coriander seeds. Then there is Ducks Mademoiselle where we are instructed to inject, using a hypodermic syringe, the bird’s breast and legs with 20 or 30 doses of burgundy wine. Hmmm.

Alice was the life companion of Gertrude Stein, a writer whose only quotable sentence is ‘a rose is a rose is a rose’. Each Saturday, in their shared Paris apartment at 27 Rue Fleurus, the couple hosted a salon frequented, among others, by Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemmingway, Matisse, Picasso and Braque.

‘Gertude wrote and talked and Alice cooked and talked’ and when Alice did speak, people listened for she had, according to one witness, a voice ‘like a viola at dusk’. After Gertrude’s death in 1946 Alice looked comfortable as she had inherited much of Stein’s estate as well as their shared art collection, which included works by Cezanne, Bonnard, Renoir, Matisse, Picasso and Lautrec. Alas, Gertrude’s greedy relatives claimed and removed the choicer paintings while Alice was on holiday. It was almost certainly to relieve the ensuing pecuniary hardship that in 1954 she published the Alice B Toklas Cookbook, famous for its inclusion (excluded of course from the American edition) of a recipe for Haschich Fudge, the ingredients of which included canibus sativa. Aromas & Flavours followed in 1959. Nevertheless poor Alice died in poverty. She rests alongside Gertrude in Pere Lachaise cemetery: They were one of the very first couples to be openly gay.

This is not a book of a television show presented by a matey Jamie Oliver or the X rated Nigella; it is a mature cookbook written by an intellectual. Alice’s advice has a very personal ring to it in contrast to the very impersonal instructions to be found on the internet. She would find incongruous a typical Sydney dinner that included a Thai starter, Italian main and German dessert. She disliked refrigeration, believing it took the life out of food; cream, she insisted, should not be frozen but unctuous. Her recipes never indicate how many a dish would serve, that would depend on the appetites of the diners and their enthusiasm for the dish. If the waiter is harrying you to choose a side of fries, rice or baby carrots to go with your crispy, soy-roasted pork belly, remember Alice’s advice – an entree does not necessarily have to be served with something or on something; don’t be frightened to enjoy things on their own.

 

Receipts and Relishes, being a Vade Mecum for the Epicure in the British Isles
Bernard Darwin
London, 1950

img_3709Some might say ‘Epicure in the British Isles’ is an oxymoron, like ‘Fun Run’ or ‘Australian Fashion Week’, but I’m here to praise a book, not a country’s cuisine. Books are more than their content. There’s the feel, the right combination of format, typeset and paper, the quality of decoration and illustration, the provenance and the added ephemera – those little press cuttings and handwritten recipes that previous owners have tucked inside. This charming little book ticks all those boxes. Inside my copy you will find a yellowing press cutting with instructions on how to make Bedfordshire Clangers for Bonfire Night, a letter from Norah McQueen from Grangemouth recalling how her Grandmother made Sheeps Head Broth and the annual dinner menu of the Devonshire Branch of the Food and Wine Society with its entre of Brixham lobster and mussel pie. It is easy to see from the recipes, which are arranged geographically, why Britain is known as the land of a thousand cakes and four cheeses. I think you must be English and elderly to fully appreciate this book because it is the names of the dishes and places that resonate: Tiverton Chudleighs from Devon, Plum Shuttles from Rutland (buns for Valentine’s Day) and Fidget Pie from Shropshire. There are Potted Lamperns, Solomon Grundys, Parkins, Lardy Johns, Singin’ Hinnies and Kattern cakes, made by the people of Ampthill, Bedfordshire, sold on St Catherine’s Day and named after Catherine of Aragon who was once imprisoned in the local castle and remembered for her kindly interest in the local lace-makers. These are the peculiar dishes of a peculiar people handed down from one generation of housewives to another.

The Wines of Gala
Salvador Domenich Felipe Jacinto Dali
Paris 1977

img_3721Salvador Dali, Spanish Surrealist painter and eccentric, was also a gourmet, wine lover and Romantic. In 1929 the 25 year old Dali met and fell instanter in love with Russian immigrant, Elena Diakonova, and in that same year bought a small fisherman’s cottage at Portlligat where they began living together. Elena was ten years older than Dali and comfortable in the company of artists and writers, for she had been the lover of Max Ernst and was, at that time, still married to Surrealist poet Paul Eluard. After their marriage in 1934 Dali wrote:  ‘I name my wife Gala, Galushka, Gradiva; Oliva for her oval face and the colour of her skin…’ and Gala she became, remaining his Muse for the next 50 years. There have been many famous Muses, Man Ray’s Kiki de Montparnasse, Jeanne Duval, Charles Beaudelaire’s ‘Black Venus’ and Francis Bacon’s George Dyer come to mind. Georgia O’Keeffe was the Muse of photographer Alfred Stieglitz and Victorine Meurent is said to have inspired Manet to see the world in an entirely new way. But for longevity and intensity of passion, for the volume and quality of the works she inspired, none can match Gala. Many of Dali’s works are signed with both their names. ‘It is with your blood, Gala, that I paint my pictures’.

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Gala

In 1968 Dali bought his wife a castle in Pubol (near Gerona), where she would go for weeks at a time and sometimes for the entire summer with the agreement that Dali could only visit with her written permission. It was in these periods of loneliness, frustration and depression when deprived of her company that Dali produced two books devoted to important elements of their life together: The Dinners of Gala (1973) and The Wines of Gala (1977).img_3736

The Wines of Gala begins with ten Dali wines, including the Wine of Ay (Champagne), Lacrima Cristi, Chateau d’Yquem and, of course, Jerez de la Frontera. They are followed by Gala’s wines, grouped under the ten emotions or characteristics they evoke and display, so we have wines of Joy, wines of Sensuality, wines of Dawn, Generosity and Light. Do not expect tasting notes, great vintages and advice on food pairing; this is a book on wine as art, life and history and as a bond between lovers. Dali’s illustrations are a combination of ‘doctored’ old masters, impudent cartoons and paintings full of saucy symbolism, at the same time, both beautiful and unsettling. After Gala’s death in 1982 Dali lost much of the will to live, hanging by a thread until he drifted off on 23rd January 1989 to the music of Tristan and Isolde.

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The Art of Cuisine
Toulouse-Lautrec, Maurice Joyant
London, 1966

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Another cookbook from an artist, although Lautrec did not actually write this elegant book; that was the work of Maurice Joyant. The friendship between Lautrec and Joyant, or ‘Momo’ as his friend called him, began when they met at school in 1872 and lasted until Lautrec’s death in 1901. The friendship endured because they were both bon vivants and because they were both involved in art. While Lautrec painted Maurice managed Boussod, Valadon et Cie., art dealers, the same company (then called Goupil et Cie.) that had fired Vincent Van Gogh and where his brother Theo had worked as Manager of the Boulevard Montmartre branch. It was Maurice who gave Lautrec his first retrospective in 1893, organised his exhibition in London in 1898 and published the first biography of the painter in 1926. It was also Maurice who persuaded Lautrec’s mother, La Comtesse Adele, to donate her collection of her son’s art to the Lautrec Museum in Albi. Finally, it was Maurice that compiled and privately published the first copies of this book. But do not think that Lautrec had no hand in it.img_3718 He and Maurice both came from families where food was not just a matter of survival. They ate in the best restaurants and kept note of the dishes and their preparation; they hunted, fished, cooked and entertained together and kept records of what they served. They both saw the planning, cooking and presentation of food as art, art that would be reflected on the menus designed by Lautrec.

It is the menu covers, examples of Lautrec’s art not seen in the usual monographs, that make this book so charming. Today many of the dishes are totally impractical, especially outside of France. They were written at a time when cookbooks were exciting and imprecise and when the Cancan was danced sans culottes; Oui Madame, sans culottes!

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v

GLORIA

Gloria’s collection of men
Began with a builder called Ben,
A twenty year old with manner quite bold;
But his nasty habits with ferrets and rabbits
Left Gloria’s libido quite cold.
After Ben came a hairy Greek waiter
Determined to woo her and mate her.
Full of Ouzo and crazed with lust
He cornered Gloria one day at dusk,
And creeping quietly up behind her
Goosed her with his pepper grinder.
Gloria went through men at a furious rate
There was a chef, a clerk and a Bosun’s Mate,
A Polish librarian, an octogenarian
And bankers galore, who were often Aryan.
What left these men bemused and in fits
Was the glorious sight of Gloria’s tits.
Her bra was a pair of baseball mitts
And men with cameras liked to take pix
Of Gloria wearing just a pair of pink knicks.
Now expert on male organs large and small
Girls listened aghast as Gloria told all.
This subject, she said, is very complex
And of intense interest to all of our sex.
Who can tell just what a girl may discover
In a pair of pink boxers or under a cover.
There’s no clue at all from an owner’s size
To the proportions of what he keeps in his flies.
It might be so small as to fit on a Hobbit
Or nothing at all if the man’s name is Bobbit.
Some take a Republican swing to the right,
Others, exposed, just shrink out of sight.
Some, quite boldly, stand to attention,
Others are just too small to mention.
Bald ones are cute, but I’m not a great fan,
A girl likes to un-wrap a gift from a man.
Some males require extreme titillation
In order to remain upright and stay on station;
One miserable member remained in repose
Until I emerged in a pair of black hose.
But best of them all is one made of plastic,
On maximum volts the sensation’s fantastic.
This member will never shrink, flop or bend
And there’s no panting male attached to the end.

BALI

Dirty, dusty, teeming Kuta
Overrun with motorskuta
Steamy, luscious, emerald Ubud
Paddies full of tasty ricepud.
For every type of coloured niknak
The place to go is Seminyak
With shops of see-thru, pink sarongs
Assorted, coloured, rubber thongs
And bargain clothes that don’t quite fit you
And some that look quite odd ex-situ.
The God of airplanes is great Garuda
(Shiva’s statues are much ruder).
It all began when Top God, Brahma
Infused all Bali with his Karma.
Now the offerings at every candi
Are made by VISA (which comes in handi).
Sukarnaputri Megawati,
Slightly owlish, somewat potti;
Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono,
Molto furbo, molto buono.
Monsoon rain falls pit-a-pat,
Don’t forget to pak a mak.
Hottest sun’s at 12 o’clock;
You’re dead by 5 without sunblock.
Every daytang, every nitetang,
Open up an ice-cold Bintang.
Niknak paddiwak
Yum yum, Big Mak Snak.
Nasi Goring, Mee Goring,
Boring, Boring,
Boring, Boring.
Order up a Krispi Duk;
Taste’s the same, Oh, what the fuk!
Kamar Ganti
Nylon Panti
Salamat Pagi
Onion Baji
Wam bam thanku Mam
None today, it’s Ramadam.

MY WEEK

Mundaneday
Gymday
Cleanersday
Binsday
Stephen Fryday
Footyday
Glumday

September 19th

Monday is always a bad day for me as I suffer from post-natal depression, or rather, I have been subject to mild and occasional attacks of what I prefer to call accidie for as long as I can remember. Depression is a clinical condition treatable with medication and psychotherapy; accidie (or acedia) is the debilitating effect of ennui, treatable by exposure to excitement or a cold shower. Accidie is transitory, temporal; depression can be lasting, sometimes permanent. Depression sufferers are often unaware of the cause of their misery; those afflicted with accidie know exactly what drives their mental lethargy – boredom, melancholia induced by reflection on the human condition, nostalgia for a real or imagined past and lovesickness.

It was at school while studying the perennially lovesick Elizabethan lyricists that I first heard the term mentioned, a master using it to describe the despair over unrequited love included in the verse and drama of John Lyly, Sir Thomas Wyatt, John Ford, Thomas Nashe, William Shakespeare and others. From the mid 16th century and well into the 17th melancholia was a full-blown epidemic. Some scholars point to the war with Spain and an uncertain political and religious climate but, more likely, melancholy, along with a lean and pale demeanour, was a fashion of the time and helped set off a well-cut ensemble of cloak, tights and doublet in lamp black. Much of its popularity can be attributed to the tradition that Aristotle claimed melancholy to be the most desirable human condition, providing intellectual powers. This lasting concept was largely based on Cicero’s writing  ‘Aristotle says that all geniuses are melancholic’ and reinforced by Plutarch’s  ‘Aristotle, declaring that the great natures are melancholic, such as Socrates, Plato and Hercules, records that Lysander too…..was afflicted with melancholy’.

The term, accidie, originally from the Greek akedia – lack of care (for life and one’s self), has long been out of fashion as doctors invent new terms for the endless varieties of mental illness they identify. It first arose in the 4th century CE when early Christian monks, hermits and ascetics followed the example of Anthony the Great and set up cenobitic communities in Egypt’s Nitrian desert.  Among the Desert Fathers, as they are known, some failed to adhere to the stringent asceticism and solitary life, neglecting their religious duties, generally ‘letting themselves go’ and becoming the first sufferers of accidie, a sin listed   among Evagrius Ponticus’ 8 patterns of evil thought compiled in 275CE. Two centuries later Pope Gregory I combined Evragius’ sins of sorrow (depression) and accidie (sloth) to give us our standard list of Seven Deadly Sins. Knowingly or not, he had, rightly, eliminated depression as a sin.

Whereas depression, aka the Black Dog (an expression associated with Winston Churchill but already in use in the 18th century), is a most dreadful illness, accidie has its supporters. ‘Melancholy’, wrote Victor Hugo, ‘is the pleasure of being sad’. ‘Depression’ added Susan Sontag ‘is melancholy minus its charm’. Beaudelaire, an accidie sufferer if ever there was one, tells us that he ‘can barley conceive of a type of beauty in which there is no melancholy’. Hamlet suffered from accidie. Some say Sherlock Holmes was bi-polar, but he definitely suffered from boredom, as did Graham Greene. The English author has been labelled as manic-depressive, but Paul Theroux, who knew Greene, describes him as ‘an authentic melancholic’ in his article for the New York Times, ‘Damned Old Graham Greene’. Greene’s ennui was such that he rarely spent more than a few weeks in one place, constantly moving between his properties in Antibes, Capri and Paris. Sex as well as travel, rescued him from the old ennui, and he maintained a wife, a stable of mistresses as well as paying the odd visit to a prostitute, a habit likened by a friend to ‘paying someone to let you beat them at tennis’.

The actor George Sanders was another victim. Famous for Shere Khan’s patrician drawl in The Jungle Book, George ended it all by swallowing 5 bottles of Nembutal in a hotel on the Costa Brava. He was 65 and world-weary in spite of marrying BOTH Zsa Zsa AND Magda, two thirds of the notoriously glamorous Gabor sisters. ‘Dear World’, he wrote in a suicide note, ‘I am leaving you because I am bored. I feel I have lived long enough. I am leaving you with your worries in this sweet cesspool. Good luck!’

September 20th

It must have been sometime between 8 and 8.15 when I woke up. I always have a good stretch on waking but this time I was startled when my left hand encountered another body in the bed, which was a surprise because Honeybee is usually well gone by 8 am. Imagine my shock when I found the body belonged to none other than Scarlett Johansson, wearing nothing but diamond studs in each earlobe and a dash of Mitsouko behind each ear; not even a small residue of polish on a toe-nail. Shock gave way to puzzlement as I began wondering how she had got in; I‘m fairly sure I never gave her a key. ‘How?’ I asked. ‘Under the flower pot’ she replied. Of course, she would have known that’s where keys are kept from her considerable film experience. Most people only know the public Scarlett, the Hollywood Star twice voted ‘Sexiest Woman Alive’ by Esquire magazine. Here with me she can do what she enjoys best, curling up on the couch in one of my old sweaters, watching the footy with a Tim Tam and cup of tea. I next remember waking up again around 11. Scarlett had gone, leaving not so much as a faint whiff of Mitsouko on the pillow. Lying there I realised I had narrowly escaped a very unpleasant scene. If Honeybee had decided to go in late to the office there would have been hell to pay. I spent an hour cleaning up, searching for dyed blonde hairs and stray items of La Perla underwear, but all was clean. Then I moved the spare house key from under the flower pot and hid it under the watering can. That should put a stop to Scarlett’s dangerous games!

September 21sti

Have just finished reading ‘Good Sense vs Doom and Gloom’ a review in the Financial Review of Johan Norberg’s book ’10 Reasons to Look Forward to the Future’. Being occasionally despondent as I contemplate the inevitability of decay, I am always interested in some hopeful news.  So what is Mr Norberg offering to cheer us up? Life, he says, is getting better, a fact not generally understood because journalists find calamities more sensational reporting than good news. Poverty, worldwide, he says, is diminishing with only 10% of humanity subsisting on less than $2 per day; 68% of the world’s population now has modern sanitation; better nutrition and the spread of education has raised the IQ level in America to an average of 118. So why, I ask, are so many Americans trying to elect Donald Trump to the White House? Violence, it seems, is down, the homicide rate among hunter-gatherer societies being 500 times what it is in Europe today, probably thanks to the CCTV camera. This is a mathematician’s view of the world. Norberg ignores the rise of greed and selfishness that came hand in hand with increased prosperity; the proliferation of retirement villages for abandoned parents; the decline in human contact as the virtual eclipses the real world. In her book ‘Acedia & Me’, Kathleen Norris sums up pretty well why many do not believe in a better future. Advertising ploys, she says, engender dissatisfaction with our highly structured, multi-tasking lives. We are oversaturated with data but receive little real information. ‘In this hyped-up world, broadcast and internet news media have emerged as acedia’s (indifference’s) perfect vehicles, demanding that we care, all at once, about a suicide bombing, a celebrity divorce and the latest advance in nanotechnology.’

The future’s not what it used to be.

September 22nd

Saw such a good film on TCM, ‘This Time for Keeps’, made in 1947 and starring Jimmy Durante and Esther Williams, the ‘Million Dollar Mermaid’.  Esther carved gracefully through the water without the aid of the oxen shoulders developed by today’s aquatic stars and still managed to look ravishing in a bathing costume that covered only slightly less than a burkini. There are stories that she and Johnny Weissmuller once dated – what swimming champions they might have produced! Once his career as Tarzan and Jungle Jim was over, Johnny, winner of 5 Olympic gold medals, could be found greeting punters at the door of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in the company of that great boxing champion, Joe Louis. How are the mighty fallen in the midst of battle!

Now, back to the film and a word on its very impressive location. I’d never heard of Mackinac and had to resort to Google to learn that it was an island in Lake Huron, a beautiful holiday resort, its centrepiece a stunning Victorian Hotel with a veranda like the keyboard of a giant grand piano. It’s also in Michigan, a state which doesn’t normally get a good press, being often depicted in permanent winter, the natives in caps with flaps, speaking slowly with Swedish accents while shovelling snow from their shop fronts; solitary men sitting on camp stools fishing through holes in the ice. It sounds like the sort of climate that would produce a hefty number of accidie sufferers. But no, in her book ‘The Geography of Melancholy, Tara Isabel Burton tells us that it’s not nature but cities that evoke melancholy. The countryside may alter its complexion as seasons change but it remains basically in situ. Nature attracts Romantic poets like Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron and Coleridge whereas the melancholia sufferers are urban writers like Beaudelaire, Graham Greene and the late, lamented Jeffrey Bernard who wrote the Low Life column in The Spectator. After his death in 1997, a collection of his articles was published under the splendid title ‘Reach for the Ground – The Downhill Struggle of Jeffrey Bernard’, a catalogue of the writer’s drunken but insightful meanderings in that one time capital of melancholia – London’s Soho. Cities alter permanently each day; what you loved about your neighbourhood in your youth almost certainly will not be there in fifty years’ time, not even if it’s a 12th century monastery if you live in Aleppo. I’m not sure about this argument, I’m pretty sure I could find some writers who felt aliens in the bush. I would agree that there are certain cities that induce melancholy. I can think of Perth (Australia), Eboli (Italy) and Ashford (England). Lille (France) used to be sad but has cheered up recently. Burton cites Lisbon, a city that even has a word, ‘saudade’, to describe nostalgia for its past, a sadness that apparently finds expression in fado. Istanbul, the author claims, is depressed over losing its former greatness and, like Portugal, has a name (huzun) for this sense of loss. Big mistake of course, changing the name; Constantinople had a much more solid ring to it. I cannot say I found Trieste depressing although I admit the name does sound a bit like the French word for sad. We are off to Tasmania next week; must remember to pack the Prozac.

September 23rd

A ferry ride into the city aboard the good ship Sirius. Broad of beam, she bustles around Sydney harbour in her cream and olive livery. It’s not a lively crowd she ferries from Neutral Bay to Circular Quay, mostly people quietly on their way to work; men and women in dark suits concerned with interest rates and the unexpected downturn in sales, talking only into cell-phones.  Sirius’s workmates join her as we nose into her No 4 berth; Golden Grove, Lady Northcote, Friendship, all names of ships of the First Fleet, names that won’t be forgotten in 100 years (unlike those of Olympic swimmers) their origins lost in time, but still powerful enough to form part of the great litany of ships whose names alone are a history lesson. Argos, Nina and Pinta, Lusitania, The Pelican, Kon Tiki. Once a famous name like Cutty Sark would help sell a brand of whiskey; now ships are named after products, forcing sailors to winch up spinnakers bearing the names of radio stations or software companies. Damn shame.

September 24th

A bottle of really heavy Australian wine last night has left me very slightly hungover this morning. Ah, the wrath of grapes! My suffering, however, was nothing like the hangover described by Sir William Connor writing under the pseudonym ‘Cassandra’ for the London Daily Mirror between 1935 and 1967, the Golden Age of the Press, the days before Dirty Digger Murdoch replaced bona fide journalists with hacks and hackers.

 A hangover is when your tongue tastes like a tram driver’s glove. Your boots seem to be steaming and your eyes burn in their sockets like gooseberries. Your stomach spins slowly on its axis and your head gently swells and contracts like a jelly in a tideway. Voices sound far off and your hands tremble like those of a centenarian condemned to death. Slight movements make you sweat, even as you shiver from the deadly cold that is within you. Bright lights hurt your eyes, and jeering, gibbering people from the night before seem to whisper in your ears, and then fade with mocking, horrible laughter into silence. The finger-nails are brittle and your skin hangs on you like an old second-hand suit. Your feet appear to be swollen, and walking is like wading through a swamp of lumpy, thick custard. Your throat is cracked and parched like the bottom of an old saucepan that has boiled dry. The next moment the symptoms change, and your mouth is stuffed with warm cotton wool. When you brush your hair you are certain that there is no top to your skull, and your brain stands naked and throbbing in the stabbing air. Your back aches and feels as though someone is nailing a placard to your shoulder blades. Knee joints have turned to dish water and eyelids are made of sheets of lead lined with sandpaper. When you lean on a table it sways gently and you know for certain that you are at sea. Should you step off a kerb you stumble, for it is a yard deep and the gutter yawns like a wide, quaking trench. You have no sense of touch and your fingertips feel with all the acuteness of decayed firewood smeared with putty. The nostrils dilate and smell the evil air. You believe that you are in a horrible dream but when you wake up you know that it will all be true. Your teeth have been filed to stumps and are about to be unscrewed one by one from your aching jaw. You want to sleep, but when you close your eyes you are dizzy, and you heel over like a water-logged barrel crammed with old, sodden cabbage stalks in the Grand Junction Canal. When you read your eyes follow each letter to try to spell the words, but in vain – no message reaches you empty, sullen brain. Should you look at a simple thing like a tree, it will appear that the bark is gradually crawling upwards. Lights flash and crackle before you and innumerable little brown dwarfs start tapping just below the base of your skull with tiny, dainty hammers made of compressed rubber.

O Death, where is thy sting?

September 25th

And Lo, it was the Sabbath, and I was sent forth unto the laundry to fetch a bottle of wine for it was the Feast of the Father and our firstborn was coming to lunch. And he came not alone, saying ‘Behold, this is my new companion and her name is Dizzi, which meaneth she that causeth men’s heads to turn’. Verily I say unto you she was a peach, but I was silent on the matter lest I be named cad. And our firstborn laid a gift at my feet and it was a set of Philips Screwdrivers from Bunnings and the price-tag showed they had cost $2.85. I waxed wrathful, saying ‘Is it not written “Honour thy Father and thy Mother”? Are you not clothed by Armani? Do you not drive a Series 3 BMW?’ And our firstborn wept with remorse and my wife comforted him, cursing me and saying ‘Verily, thou art an abomination among men, you know not of the financial burdens that beset our son.’ What man can compete with a woman who serveth up the honey and when she handeth out the vinegar, who can equal her? And we sat at the table and it was laden with the good things of Mosman, with corn and bread and meat in abundance. And I said ‘Is this not a standing rib roast which costeth an arm and a leg? I would have been pleased with a shoulder of lamb from Coles.’ And my wife answered ‘Go thy way, O Simple One! Know ye not by now that of all manner of mannah a standing rib roast is our son’s favourite?’ And I replied saying ‘Is this not MY day? Are we not celebrating the Day of the Father?’ And then the Heavens erupted and there was much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. And afterwards there was silence for seven days and seven nights.

MAY IN SICILY

Pleasant town, Modica; less touristy than the provincial capital, Ragusa, while still containing an adequate quota of fashionable Baroque churches. Once the capital of a corn-rich province that stretched as far as Palermo, it was the Modican corn merchants that fingered the corrupt Roman governor, Gaius Verres, causing Cicero to sharpen his stylus and begin one of the most famous cases in legal history. The town, mostly built in the early 18th century following an earthquake in 1693, spreads up the steep sides of a valley. Our apartment, near the floor of the valley, is in one of the narrow alleys, surrounded by balconies, roof-tops and washing drying in the sun. Pigeons coo and homeless cats roam the passageways and stone staircases.

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Modica and Franca’s shoes by night

The town comes alive at 9 am, traffic humming, bells ringing, roller shutters rattling up to reveal butchers and bakers and pasta makers. One o’clock and the town is silent as everyone except us disappears indoors for lunch and siesta. Life returns in the late afternoon when the shops reopen. Later, at dusk, the cafes and gelaterias become busy while swallows dart about reducing the mosquito population.

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We are sitting having the traditional summer Sicilian breakfast of granita di mandorle and brioche. An illegally parked car attracts the attention of a smartly dressed policewoman who gives three sharp blasts on her whistle to warn the driver, who is having a hurried cappuccino and cornetto con crema before work, that he has ten minutes to move his car or be fined. I believe this civilized attitude contributes much to the calm and laissez faire attitude of the Modicani drivers, for here you may close your eyes and cross the road anywhere in the middle of rush hour without injury and without causing anyone the slightest irritation.

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The Police keep a low profile

 

Outside the town they are harvesting hay in fields surrounded by olive and citrus. Sirocco gusts disturb the tops of bulrushes clogging the ditches; bougainvillea and prickly pear cactus hang over dry-stone walls. The walls are everywhere, criss-crossing the hillsides, delineating property and propping up ancient terraces, some perfect, some crumbling and neglected.  Wall building in this region began in the 15th century when the land-rich Cabrera family allotted plots of land to local farmers in exchange for a portion of their produce. The stones, dug from the fields to improve cultivation, were used as property boundaries and to separate animals from fruit and cereals. Ragusan dry-stone walls are particular in as much as the top of the two parallel walls are crowned with a row of semi-circular stones.

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On the road to Scicli

 

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On the road to Ragusa

At Al Molo, a five-star fish restaurant in the coastal town of Donnalucata, I look up from my plate of grilled red mullet to see a poem inscribed on the wall by Claudio, the restaurant’s genial proprietor. It’s called ‘U Muru a-siccu’ and it’s in Sicilian dialect and I can’t understand a word. Honeybee tells me it’s a dialogue between the poet and the walls, as if they are possessed of souls. Well of course they are; each stone is chosen, placed and shaped by an artisan; they are individual, beautiful and, yes, soulful. By contrast, your i.phone, your microwave oven and your black SUV with its darkened windows and six airbags have no soul. Nor does the internet. I’m not sure whether Henry Ford and Tim Berners-Lee  have really done planet Earth any favours. Am I a Luddite? Well I’m not going to smash my i.phone, I need it to call up an Uber.

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At the Castello di Donnafugata

Incidentally, those prickly pear cactus that seem so Sicilian, were actually imported from Mexico by the Spanish in the 16th century, presumably as pot-plants and decoration as the peeled fruit is only mildly interesting in a melonish sort of way.

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The beauty of the prickly pear

 

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Impossible to imagine the landscape without the prickly pear

TANTI SANTI

Sunday morning and I’m awoken by a salvo of cannon fire and a peal of bells. Is it Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture? No, it’s the festival of Santa Maria delle Grazie, the nearest of Modica’s hundred or so churches to our apartment. We hurry to the church to find the priest beginning the first of a day-long series of al fresco masses in the piazza.

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Al fresco Mass

 

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In the evening the Madonna is shown to the people

 

 

The Catholic religion is never far away in Sicily; there are shrines everywhere and rare is the home, shop or office that does not display a crucifix, a picture of a past or present Pope, a local Saint and the odd plaster statue of Christ or the Virgin Mary.

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Holy section of local supermarket

There’s bound to be a few Saintly ceremonies when you consider that, over time, the Catholic Church has made Saints of approximately 10,000 of its followers. 2013 was an exceptional year for recruitment with Pope Francis canonizing no less than 813 former citizens of the Southern Italian town of Otranto, beheaded by Ottoman invaders in 1480 for refusing to convert to Islam. No surprises then, when, a week later in the town of Adrano , we witness the single celebration of three Saints.

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A trifecta of Saints – Filadelfo, Alfio & Firino

I do love all this ceremony but I can’t help thinking that the world would have had a more peaceful history if Constantine had persevered with the Roman Gods and not made Christianity the state religion. I may be wrong, but I don’t think the Greeks or Romans went to war to force foreigners to worship Apollo or Mars or Athena, but for purely political, defensive or territorial reasons. Anyway, I’m not sure the Romans took their religion all that seriously; how could you when you learn that your chief deity, Zeus, had seduced Leda, wife of the king of Sparta, in the guise of a swan? On the other hand look at the wonderful art and architecture this so-called pagan religion has inspired. Having a series of specialist Gods who are experienced in the area in which you are seeking help seems very logical and in keeping with modern consulting practice and I really like the idea of having a God of Wine.

MAFIUSU

‘The expression mafia and derivatives such as mafiusu, mafiuseddu denoted outstanding beauty, grace and excellence. A beautiful woman, a fine fruit were mafiuse.’
Francis Guercio, ‘Sicily, the Garden of the Mediterranean’ Faber & Faber, 1938

It is well over a century and half ago that the mafia took root in the Borgo suburb of Palermo with the admirable objective of providing redress for the oppressed in exchange for money or favours. As we all know, it quickly developed into a uniquely criminal organization dealing in illegal drugs and extortion. And yet Francis Guercio concludes that, as a result of a campaign by the Mussolini government in the mid 1930s, the mafia ‘had ceased to be anything but a terrible anachronism.’ This is not so. You cannot come to Sicily today and ignore the mafia, even if, as is likely, you will never have any direct dealings with its members. While Toto Riina remains incarcerated for the murders of those heroic Magistrates, Falcone and Borsellino, one cannot help being reminded that the piovra still winds its tentacles around Southern Italy and in particular Sicily, both the best and the worst of Italy.

  • In the Nebrodi National Park in Catania province the Mafia set fire to petrol-soaked rags they have tied to the tails of cats. The cats, fleeing in terror into forest, set fire to the undergrowth. The objective? To replace the burned trees through a Mafia controlled re-forestation company. An attempt is made to assassinate Signor Antoci, the Park’s director, when he tries to stop the Mafia renting grazing land in the Park, a long-standing practice used to skim off millions in EU farming subsidies.
  • During a religious procession in the Calabrian town of Oppido Mamertina the statue of the Virgin is diverted and taken in front of the house belonging to the local mob boss, where the statue is made to bow as a mark of respect to the resident ‘man of honour’.
  • In Palermo, police trap four criminals following a robbery and car chase but are prevented from arresting the culprits by local residents and onlookers.
  • Public and official outrage follows the televised interview between journalist Bruno Vespa and Salvo Riina, son of the assassin of magistrates Falcone and Borsellino and author of a book extolling the paternal qualities of his father, where the interviewer is accused of providing a marketing coup for the mafia. Many independent bookstores refuse to sell the book.

 AL MARE

Here, on the coast of Ragusa province, we are at the most Southerly point of Europe, where the Ionian Sea meets the Mediterranean. The nicest beaches are between Pozzallo and Santa Croce. At Donnalucata in May we have the beach to ourselves. We arrive early when the fishermen display last night’s catch

Although over 5,000 refugees have arrived in the nearby port of Pozzallo since the new year began, I hear and see only signs of welcome among the Sicilians. Scores of the North African fishing boats that succeed in making the dangerous crossing are piled on the beaches awaiting incineration.

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Refugee boats dumped on the beach near Pozzallo

L’AMORE

In spite of the chaotic politics, the graft and the refugees, what graffiti there is tends to be uniquely concerned with l’amore: 

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‘I want to hold you in my arms, protect you from everything and everybody and never let you go!’

 

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‘Let my white soul become inky black to give to you.’          Quite dark, that one.

 

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‘Love is….’ a whimsical question on a wall near my mother-in-law’s apartment. I’m pretty sure it’s not her handwriting.

 

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‘Either I love you or I kill you’!!! Andrea. Hmmm…

 

UNDER THE VOLCANO

We are staying in an agritourism hotel in Schettino, a small town on the slopes of Etna. Our dinner order, chosen from a menu dominated by frozen products, is taken by the sour-faced proprietor and served by a waiter from the cast of The Munsters. The pillows in the bedroom are fashioned from railway sleepers and a gurgling water system keeps us awake all night. But all this is forgotten in the morning when we open the blinds, look up and see Etna, cloud-free in a brilliant blue sky.

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Cloud-free Etna

We drive clockwise around the volcano, through Adrano, Bronte and the medieval town of Randazzo. Broom and wild flowers blossom among the lava deposits and small vineyards border the road, separated by dry-stone lava walls.

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Broom grows where the lava deposits are more recent. Those are minor extinct volcanos in the distance

Until recently the wine produced here was for local consumption only; now it is to be found in the best restaurants from California to Tokyo. Near the little village of Passopisciaro, Franco and Gianni show us around their immaculate vineyard and let us taste their wines made from 90 year old Nerello Mascalese vines. Their red Calcagno wines are so good that I have to exercise all of my feeble willpower to spit out rather than swallow these splendid wines, but we do have a long road back to Modica.

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Calcagno vineyard at Passopisciaro

We are on the sea-front in Giardini Naxos, the sun is sparkling on the Ionian Sea and it is time for lunch. Honeybee inquires after a good fish restaurant from the proprietor of a sports goods shop who is watching the passing traffic from his doorway.

Shopowner : Buon giorno, Signora! You have come to the right person for I can direct you to a trattoria where you will eat well and pay little.

Honeybee : We are looking to enjoy some seafood.

Shopowner : Beppe has the freshest seafood in all Naxos and his Spaghetti ai Ricci (pasta with sea-urchin) is a culinary miracolo.

Voice from within : There will be no ricci today because your cousin was playing cards all night and failed to take his boat out.

Shopowner : Don’t listen; Beppe always has ricci. He mixes the urchin-meat with a little cream and parsley, adds a whiff of peperoncino and a pinch of salt and ecco, un piatto da morire!!

The speaker joins the tips of his forefinger and thumb, purses his lips and rolls his eyes to heaven in an expression of ecstasy before giving directions to the Trattoria del Marinaio

Honeybee : Are there any vegetarian dishes, my sister is a vegan?

Shopowner : (Glumly) Ah, I have heard about such people; Beppe receives guests to his table from many different countries.

Honeybee : I expect there will be an insalata of some kind…

Shopowner : (shrugging unhopefully) Perhaps, Signora. Now don’t forget to ask for Beppe and tell him Carlo sends you.

Voice from within : Beppe will not be there; his mother finally got a bed in the hospital in Messina and is having her legs treated this very afternoon by Professore Bontempo. Beppe will be taking her the flowers he bought yesterday from that ladro’s stall in front of the Comune.

Shopowner: In that case Carmina will be doing the cooking!

Voice from within : Carmina cannot boil water; in any case I saw la troia disappearing on the back of Franco’s Vespa the moment Beppe was out of sight.

Shopowner: Ahhh.. so.. perhaps the restaurant will be closed….. mi dispiace, Signora. Buon pranzo e buon proseguimento. 

Overlooking Giardini Naxos is the once charming town of Taormina, already, in early May, awash with souvenir shops and crowds of tourists. The best time to visit Taormina would have been in 100 BC, although I remember it being still relatively unspoilt in 1972. It certainly made an impression on a neighbour of mine because he named his daughter Taormina after she was conceived there sometime in the early ‘60s. Fortunately the honeymoon wasn’t in Broadstairs or Tossa.

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Giardini-Naxos from Taormina

We are in the delightful hill-town of Chiaramonte Gulfi, which went to sleep in the 17th century and has never woken up. At least not until tonight, because in huge letters in the main Piazza we see AVE MARIA’ in neon lights announcing some religious festivities in the Duomo. It is also guest chef night at ‘Da Maiore’, a restaurant with a menu designed entirely around the insides and outsides of the Nero dei Nebrodi, a breed of Sicilian pig noted for its sausage-filling qualities.

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Gianni choosing a sausage necklace

Glasses of Frappato and Grillo and sumptuous antipasti of arancini, gelatina (pig), coppa (pig), salami (pig) and proscuito (pig) are served in the well-stocked wine cellar before we sit down to dine. The guest chef is Emanuele Fanitza of the Ristorante Letizia in Nuxis (Southern Sardinia), and he demonstrates how he makes tonight’s primo of fregola con ragu di salsiccia (pig), finocchietto selvatico, basilico e zafferano and secondo of maialino al forno (pig) while Honeybee takes notes. Enthusiastic wine growers get up to tell us about the wines we are drinking (Cerasuolo and Nero D’Avola), followed by a producer who elevates his olive oil into the culinary stratosphere -‘L’olio e il direttore d’orchestra d’un piatto: puo’ esaltare un cibo o puo’ distruggerlo.’ Quite. After a waitress tells us how she won a scholarship to a Hospitality College based on her thesis on salame, the chef of Da Maiore, splendid in foot-high toque, grabs the mike. Next to a lover’s lips there is nothing an Italian likes more against his or hers than a microphone. Unless you are Jamie Oliver, I guess a chef doesn’t get much opportunity to sound off, being stuck in the kitchen, and this was his moment. Anyway, his topic was the dessert, nougat ice cream on a bed of melted Modica chocolate, which gradually expanded into a discourse on world gastronomy until someone yelled out that the ice cream was melting, and everyone laughed and it was as convivial an evening as you are ever likely to enjoy.

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Differing fashions in Sardinian and Sicilian tocques

OPERA DEI PUPI

In the souvenir shops of Sicily, amongst the fridge magnets and ceramic pots and tiles from Caltagirone, a visitor cannot help but notice the displays of brightly plumed and armour-clad marionettes.

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Gift shop in Donnalucata with souvenir Orlando

Their story begins back in the 12th century with The Song of Roland, an epic poem recounting Charlemagne’s campaign in Spain against the Moors, the defeat, in 778, of his rearguard and the death of its Captain, Roland, during the army’s retreat through the pass of Roncevaux in the Pyrenees. History tells us that it was the Basques who destroyed Charlemagne’s rearguard, but such was the fear of Islam at the time, for propaganda purposes the defeat was attributed to the Moors. The fear dates back to the Arab and Berber invasion of Aquitaine and France in 732, which advanced as far as Tours before being stopped by a Frankish army under Charles Martel. It was a decisive victory but a half century later, his grandson, Charlemagne, was still defending Christian Europe from Moslem armies and, when he died in 814, Spain was still firmly in the hands of the Saracens.

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Theatre quality Orlando

Seven hundred years later Moslems from the East were on the march. In quick order, the Turks defeated the Venetian fleet at Lepanto, conquered Serbia, Bosnia and the Crimea, marched into Hungary and Germany and captured, as mentioned earlier, the Southern Italian town of Otranto, decapitating 813 future Saints. These events reignited public interest in the story of Charlemagne and his Paladins – the twelve Peers of his Court – and their struggle against Islam producing three great Chansons de Geste:  Matteo Boiardo’s ‘Orlando Inammorato’, Torquato Tasso’s ‘Gerusalemme Liberata’ and Ariosto’s ‘Orlando Furioso’.  All of these poems employ the same characters, most notably Charlemagne and Roland, although the latter’s name has been Italianised as Orlando while his sword (Durendal in The Song of Roland), has become Durindana, a name once given by Sicilian barbers to their razors before the arrival of the electric shaver.

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Orlando Furioso, the most important of these three epic poems (and the longest at 22,000 words) tells how Orlando, a military hero in the service of Charlemagne, falls in love with Angelica, Queen of Cathay, becoming mad with jealousy when he is rejected in favour of Medoro, an African Prince. This heroic tale of fantasy, love, war, magic, bloodshed and chivalry, derived from Carolingan, Celtic and Classical sources, has been mined by Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Lord Byron, Virginia Woolf and Stephen King. Ingres painted Ruggiero rescuing Angelica, Handel turned the story into an opera and Harry Potter rides a Hippogriff. Chivalry unfortunately disappeared when the horse, from which it took its name, ceased to be a means of transport. Now, even those minor, chivalric manners, such as holding a door open for a lady, are almost extinct, condemned as benevolent sexism. Sad, really really sad.

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You can overdo these things

Sicily, under Spanish rule at the time Ariosto was writing, was also prey to Moslem aggression, especially from Khair-ed-Din, better known as Barbarossa, and his Barbary pirates and it was probably in this era that Paladin stories became popular and people began decorating their carts with scenes from Frankish romantic poems depicting the fight against  i mori, i turchi, i infedeli, i saraceni, e i pagani.

‘Childish pastime or serious art form?’ questions Francis Guercio. Either way, the practice continues today and the latest fashion collection of Dolce and Gabbana, both Sicilians, is based firmly upon cart-art.

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Childish pastime or serious art form?

 

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Dolce e Gabbana handbag

 

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Cart-art fashion for the well-heeled

While Ariosto was writing Orlando Furioso, a new form of street theatre began to appear in Renaissance Italy, based upon the impromptu interaction between a number of stock, masked characters, which included Arlecchino, Pantalone, Colombina, Scaramouche and Pulcinella, the Lord of Misrule, who can still be seen on English beaches in summer under his Anglicised name of Punch. First called commedia all’improvviso and later commedia dell’arte, it flourished in the North of Italy where the weather is cooler and they welcome a bit of comedy, whereas in the South, especially in hot and sultry Sicily, the people’s preference was for Baroque melodrama, occasionally enlivened with aspects of commedia dell’arte.

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Agramante on display in Marzamemi

In was in the middle of the 19th century, after writers Andrea da Barbarino and Don Giusto Lodico produced popular versions of stories from Orlando Furioso (never previously accessible to the common man), that l’opera dei pupi took the form that we still see today – marionettes performing from a repertoire of Paladin stories that concentrate on duels, battles and jousts between the Knights of Charlemagne and the warriors of Islam. More popular in the regions of Palermo and Catania and more frequently shown in the cooler seasons, l’opera dei pupi represents a living link to actual and legendary medieval events. If you do catch a show you may find that Orlando, aka Roland, is also called Anglante or the Count Rinaldo or… Montalbano! I knew the good Inspector came from noble stock.

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Saints day festival in Adrano

CODA

Time to go home. My mother-in-law’s postman neighbor, Matteo, grasps me in a bear-like hug, squeezing the life out of me, and plants a kiss on both cheeks. Is this what it’s like to be a woman? But isn’t this what RLS was on about in his foreword to ‘Travels with a Donkey’- friends. So I’ll take Matteo back home with me, even though he drives me crackers with his Facebook posts. We will also be taking Adriano with us, a new friend, a Modican and a man with the rare gift of being able to communicate with both the young and the old.

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Perbacco!! did we really spend all that money? Can’t be! Well, you did buy all those shoes. No other option; back to work.

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Brother, can you spare me a dime?

 

 

 

THREE DAYS IN ALSACE

A quick trip to Versailles to see my friend PJ. To fly directly from the heat of Southern Sicily to cool, green France is to emerge from the caldarium and plunge straight into the frigidarium. Versailles has changed little in the two years since I was last here although I see less people that look as if they might be able to trace their blood-line back to Asterix, or Joan of Arc, or a sergeant in Napoleon’s Grande Armee. France, like England, is becoming more and more a multi-cultural society. Retail is changing too, moving to the Commercial Centre at Parly 2, and leaving the streets in Versailles to cafes, restaurants, hairdressers, Yoga Classes and real-estate agents. Some types of shop that were once present in every French high street have disappeared altogether; let us mourn the departure of la quincaillerie, la mercerie, le cordonier and la droguerie.

Much to PJ’s pleasure, a falcon has nested on the tower of the Cathedral and has been busy reducing the pigeon population, while four charming squares that once housed Louis XV’s extensive collection of courtesans, popularly known as Le Parc des Biches, are slowly being restored, making pleasant little apartments for young couples and offices for software designers. It was good to be the King!

 

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Le Parc des Biches

 

There is one shop that has been around for a long time and still thrives in many French towns and that is Nicolas, the wine sellers, established in 1822. The shops are managed and staffed by wine experts and the wines are displayed by region, which makes sense when one considers there are over 50 wine producing grape varieties in France. Before the dubious gifts of the internet and the website, Nicolas published an annual price catalogue of its wines, collected now for their illustrations and for the frustrating knowledge that in 1963 I could have bought an 1868 Chateau Lafite for 70 Francs instead of wasting my money on cigarettes.

 

Nicolas 1963 Catalogue with illustrations by Dubuffet

We visit an exhibition of paintings by Impressionist painter, Gustave Caillebotte, at Monet’s house in Giverny. It’s an overcast Tuesday in mid-May and the place is swamped with tourists. The last time I came here thirty years ago I had to ask a museum official to turn the lights on. I’m told that the house and gardens receive over seven hundred thousand visitors annually; odd that they all turned up today. We decide that Caillebotte’s paintings are, at best, deuzieme rang impressionism and the painter only a talented amateur whose Paris city scenes work best. I’m not too upset at not being able to get into the house; I don’t have to queue to get into Gayle and Jim’s splendid replica of Monet’s yellow dining room in their house in New Hope, Pennsylvania. The gardens are in full swing, full of irises and azaleas, although it is too early in the year for the water lilies.

 

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The garden at Giverny

 

PJ and I are taking a three day excursion into the East to see how the cuisine of Alsace is standing up to the invasion of the pizza, which is spreading across Europe quicker than the cane toad. We shall also be checking on the wines, always at the mercy of the politically correct, the depressed and unhappy, watchful members of watch committees and the League Against Dancing on Tables. Alsace, as I remember it, is grande bouffe country, plates with small mountains of champagne-soaked choucroute studded with various parts of the pig, substantial cheeses, wedges of Black Forest cake with lashings of whipped cream and decorated beer mugs with little lids. If there’s a fruit or berry grown locally the Alsatians will turn them into pure alcohol – plums, cherries, bilberries, pears and even the fruit of the holly. Copper alembics bubble away in every village. White alcohol has been around for centuries; the French have been writing poems and singing songs about it since the Middle Ages; it’s a sacred part of their culture; it’s part of a happy life; that’s why it’s called Eau de Vie.

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Eau de Vie distillery in Val d’Ajol

 

Our route takes us South East, through Troyes. We follow the Seine past Mussy (where they produce the very thin sheets of wood used for the round containers of REAL Camembert cheese), passing through endless green fields and forests as thick and lush and uniform as Axminster carpets, until we reach Chatillon sur Seine and its museum. The tourist hordes are still stuck in the car park in Giverny and we have the place to ourselves to inspect the extraordinary cache of Bronze Age and Classical Greek jewellery and artifacts found in a nearby Celtic settlement and necropolis at Vix. The prize piece is a 1.6 metre high bronze Krater, the largest known metal vessel from Classical Antiquity. It was found in the tomb of the so-called Lady of Vix, a Celtic Princess living around 500 BC.  Kraters were used by the Greeks for mixing wine and water, as presumably the wine was undrinkable by itself. We must give the French the credit for changing all that.

From Chatillon we continue in a South Easterly direction. We pass Colombey Les Deux Eglises, once home to General de Gaulle, and the Abbey of Clairvaux. I read that its founder, Saint Bernard, would not sit in a chair if it had previously been occupied by a woman; no wonder he gave Peter Abelard such a hard time. North of Dijon we turn due East until, just South of Besancon, we reach Ornans, a postcard town astride the river Doubs, famous as the birthplace of Gustave Courbet.

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In 1849 the painter, after attending the burial of his stepfather, produced the massive painting ‘Burial at Ornans’. In complete contrast to the artistic conventions of the day, Courbet paints the scene as it was, no heroic posing, no classical landscapes and allusions. The critics, accustomed to the great Romantic works of Gericault and Delacroix, were appalled. The painting, said Courbet, ‘was the burial of Romanticism’. I must say, I do prefer the exuberant romance of Delacroix’s ‘The Death of Sardanapulus’ to the grim realism of Courbet’s funeral of his stepfather. But never mind, the Impressionists will soon be along to cheer things up again.

From Ornans we drive due North, crossing the Combeaute river and passing through Fougerolles, famous for the quality of its Kirsch and griottines (cherries soaked in eau de vie), until we reach Val d’Ajol and La Residence, a 19th century mansion on the outskirts of town. I do enjoy these hotels, so particular to France, where the dining is more important than the accommodation. Cuisine regionale, genereuse et soignée, alternant simplicite gourmande et gastronomique… says the brochure and we are not disappointed. Not only are the products locally grown, the menu even supplies the name of the farmer, fisherman or cheesemaker responsible:

Asperges Blanches, oeuf fermier de Monsieur Mangel en caisson parfait;
Millefeuille au chevre de Madame Galmiche;
Filet de truite de Monsieur Parrain farci aux ecrivisses;

A Givry 1er Cru and a glass of kirsch to water the parched throats of the weary travelers….. and so to bed.

The next morning we set out across le Massif des Vosges the thickly wooded, elevated spine of the mountain range. In the foothills we make a brief stop in Plombieres Les Bains, where all is quiet. The sickly inhabitants of the hotels and boarding-houses are toying with their dietary lunches before soaking their gout in spa water. In a small, neglected courtyard we finally locate the plaque   commemorating the meeting in1858 between Napoleon III and Cavour during which the French Government promised its support for Italian unification.

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Historic plaque in Plombieres les Bains

 

Near the summit we lunch in Gerardmer by the lake with tarte au myrtilles for dessert. The myrtilles (bilberries) are the small, wild type soon to be eclipsed, says our host, by the plumper variety from shrubs being imported from Canada. I’m not sure whether this is progress; I doubt, from a taste point of view, that fat is better than small and wild; are not fraises du bois so much tastier than their bigger, cultivated sisters? The pillagers in Thomas Love Peacock’s poem, ‘The War Song of Dinas Vawr’ disagree:

The mountain sheep are sweeter,
But the valley sheep are fatter;
We therefor deemed it meeter
To carry off the latter.

Down from the mountain and travelling East, the village names begin to sound more Teutonic. Every town and village has its own particular activity or product, meriting at least a week of annual celebration. We pass announcements for a Fete du Chevre, a Fete des Cerises, a Fete des Asperges. In Munster, which produces the world’s smelliest cheese, there is la fete du fromage. How bad does the cheese smell? Comme les pieds du facteur, says PJ.

At the entrance to Colmar, the birthplace of Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, stands the second replica of the sculptor’s ‘Liberty Enlightening the World’, aka the ‘Statue of Liberty’, the first being in mid-Seine on the Ile aux Cygnes. But we have come to visit ‘Unterlinden’, a former 13th century Dominican convent tastefully converted into one of the most amazing museums in the world. There are works by Picasso, Dubuffet and Manet, but most come to see the Isenheim Altarpiece that was installed in the early 16th century in the Monastery of Isenheim, located on the outskirts of Colmar. The altarpiece, which combines paintings by Matthias Grunewald and bronze sculptures by Niclaus of Haguenau leaves one breathless.  Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of Grunewald’s art to see; many of his works were lost in the Baltic Sea when they were being shipped to Sweden as booty, looted by the army of Gustavus Adolphus during the Thirty Years’ War.

In the little village of Osthouse, some 40 kms from Strasbourg and perhaps 20kms from the banks of the Rhine, we stop at the charming Hotel ‘A La Ferme’.

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Hotel A La Ferme in Osthouse

 

The hotel’s restaurant, L’Aigle D’Or, is a five minute walk away. It’s asparagus season, the fat, white variety with the purple tips that we eat plainly with melted butter. My entrée of cabillaud is superb, easily the best cod I’ve tasted since the beginning of the Cod Wars in 1958. We drink well; a glass of cremant to settle us in, then a chilled Pinot Noir from local producer Jean Sipp, a glass of late harvest Gewurztraminer with desert and, finally, a glass of Vieille Prune, a digestif of such transparent purity I’m almost reduced to tears. After dinner we walk back to the hotel through the dark, deserted streets singing, quietly, so as not to wake the good villagers.

‘Chevaliers de la Table Ronde goutons voir si le vin est bon…. ‘

Next morning we visit Haut Konigsberg, a pink, sandstone castle on top of a lonely spur of the Vosges Mountains. Interest in the castle, beautifully restored in the first decade of the 20th century, is eclipsed by the amazing view across the Upper Rhine plain to the dark band of the Black Forest on the horizon. Somehow the 700,000 visitors at Giverny have managed to follow us. Here they are in the gift shop, buying plastic helmets, daggers and crossbows, postcards, snow-globes and tea-towels with recipes for choucroute garni. And, of course, the ever popular fridge magnets. I buy one for my mother-in-law even though, combined, her present collection could lift a small, family saloon.

We descend the other side of the mountain to visit Kaysersberg, yet another pretty village of painted, timbered buildings and cobbled streets.

 

Rural Alsace has grown rich from its wines, its agriculture and the pretty villages and now from tourism. Imagine the economic benefit to a town from a 2 hour visit by a single coach load of tourists. The Alsatians are canny too. In an old folk-tale a stranger appears while a local innkeeper is cooking a chicken. The innkeeper insists the stranger pay him for taking pleasure from the smell of his roasting bird. The stranger agrees and tosses a coin in the air, letting it fall to earth. ‘There’, he says, ‘the sound of my coin hitting the ground is the correct fee for smelling your roast’. Touche!

Last stop, Franco-German Strasbourg, a most elegant town and astride yet another lovely river, the Ill, which flows into the nearby Rhine.

I think her rivers are one of the things I like most about France and we have crossed so many on this trip – the Seine, the Marne, the Doubs, the Meuse, the Saone, the Ognan, the Ill, the Rhine. There’s a long queue to get into the Cathedral so we hitch a ride back to the car.

 

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Strasbourg transport with Bubble & Squeak driver

 

We are on the autoroute now on the long sweep West towards Paris and home. Every sign we pass conjures visions of French history: Verdun, bloody fortress of WWI, Varennes, where Louis XVI’s flight ended and then Valmy, where a windmill marks the scene of Kellerman’s victory over the Prussians, France’s first victory in the Revolutionary Wars. On 21st September 1792, the day after the battle, the First Republic was born. The legacy of 1789 lives on. France’s present generation of sans culottes, the CGT, are forming up at the barricades again, closing the oil refineries, calling for airport and railway employees to strike. I slip out of the country, back to Sicily, before the final blockades are in place.

 

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‘La Bete’; 35 years old, V8 and 5 litre engine under the bonnet

 

Why do we travel? To cross rivers and mountains, to feel the sense of adventure? To experience strange cultures, to lie in the sun? ‘We are all travellers’ says Robert Louis Stevenson in a foreword to ‘Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes’, ‘all too, travellers with a donkey: and the best that we find in our travels is an honest friend. He is a fortunate traveller who finds many. We travel, indeed, to find them. They are the end and the reward of life. They keep us worthy of ourselves; and when we are alone, we are only nearer to the absent. …Of what shall a man be proud if he is not proud of his friends’.

BEACH LIT

There’s always a mountain of advice on what books to take with you on holiday although many of those recommended seem to have been written to be read in a deck chair and requiring minimal concentration, the theory being that if you are on holiday you will not be in the mood for serious thought. As I’m on permanent vacation I thought I would take along some of the books that have been sitting on my shelves for years, waiting for me to mature into a reader of grown-ups’ literature, as opposed to adult literature which I have been reading since the age of 14.

Sentimental Education
Gustave Flaubert, 1869
Penguin Classics 1964
Translation by Robert Baldick

When living as a student in London I formed a durable romantic attachment to a lady nearly twice my age, so I was unsurprised to learn of 14 year old Flaubert’s enduring love for Elisa Schlesinger, a married woman of 26. In ‘Sentimental Education’ Flaubert draws on his experience to tell the story of 18 year old Frederic Moreau’s passion for Madame Arnoux, a married mother of two.

While the theme is similar to Balzac’s ‘Lily of the Valley’, Flaubert’s work is much grander in scope, being set in Paris during the 1848 uprisings against Louis-Philippe and Louis-Napoleon’s coup d’etat that ended French monarchy, confirming the 1789 Revolution’s ideals of France as a Republic.

Frederic is on his way home to Nogent sur Seine by riverboat, when he meets Jacques Arnoux and falls instantly for his wife, feeling his world suddenly grow bigger. To pursue Madame Arnoux he leaves his widowed mother in Nogent, takes rooms in Paris and befriends her art dealer husband. The death of an uncle provides him with a small fortune, a large portion of which he squanders on a carriage, servants and fine clothes in an effort to impress her. But as for declaring himself, he does nothing, ‘paralysed by the fear of losing her forever’. ‘He envied pianists their talents, soldiers their scars. He longed for a dangerous illness, hoping that he might arouse her interest’. After learning of her husband’s infidelity and Frederic’s passion for her, Madame Arnoux finally agrees to a rendezvous. But on this special night, with Paris ‘bristling with bayonets’ as the February Revolution unfolds, her child is sick and she fails to appear. Believing he had been deliberately stood up, Frederic turns his attention to two women, Madame Dambreuse, the widow of a rich banker and Roseannette, a coquettish courtesan, the former for her wealth and influence, the latter for her beauty and accessibility. Frederic loses interest in Madame Dambreuse when she reveals her true, unpleasant character and abandons Roseannette after the death of their lovechild and her return to her former metier of demi-mondaine. There is one final meeting between Frederic and Madame Arnoux. ‘We have loved each other well’, she says. ‘But without belonging to one another’, he replies. ‘Perhaps it is better so’ says Madame Arnoux and Frederic returns home to Nogent, poorer and wiser, crushed with the understanding of the futility of his hopes.

There is a splendid cast of characters, including Mademoiselle Vatnez ‘who longed for riches simply in order to crush her rivals under her carriage wheels’, the arch-socialist Senecal, ‘who wanted to reduce mankind to the level of the barrack-room, send it to the brothel for amusement, and tie it to the counter or the bench’ and Pellerin the bitter artist, rejected by every Salon for twenty years.

A wonderful book. Madame Bovary, here I come.

The Leopard
Giuseppe di Lampedusa, 1958
Fontana 1969
Translation by Archibald Colquhoun

It is 1860 and Garibaldi and his Thousand Redshirts are about to invade Sicily in an attempt to add the island to a unified Italy. Sicilians, secretly, are already taking sides, preparing to resist or assist il Risorgimento. Fabrizio, Prince of Salina, ‘bound by chains of decency if not of affection’ to the ancient Bourbon regime, is ‘unsettled by the new world as well as the old’. Reflecting, in his country estate of Donnafugata, on the decline of his prestige and how the wealth of centuries has been transmuted into nothing more than ‘ornament, luxury, pleasure,’ the Prince decides in favour of unification. ‘If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change’. Among those willingly embracing change are his impoverished nephew Tancredi Falconeri and Don Calogero Sedara, the new man, clever, manipulative, but ignoble. Tancredi spurns the advances of the Prince’s daughter Concetta and marries Angelica, the daughter of Don Calogero. The Prince is resigned; Concetta’s heart, ’under her pale blue bodice, is torn to shreds’.  A splendid ball, at which Don Calogero presents his daughter (‘a rat escorting a rose’), celebrates the changing order.

In a sort of ‘aside’, the Prince’s Jesuit chaplain, Father Pirrone, pays a visit to his widowed mother where he finds his sister, Sarina, in tears on account of her unmarried daughter’s pregnancy and the prospect of facing her brutal husband, a man of honour, ‘one of those violent cretins capable of any havoc’.  Learning that the pregnancy was a deliberate act of revenge by the son of a neighbour cheated long ago out of his share of an almond grove by the Priest’s father, Father Pirrone successfully arranges a marriage in exchange for a portion of the disputed land. A classic tale of lex talionis, of revenge served cold, of the endless vendettas that smoulder among the families of pastoral Sicily.

Twenty-three years after unification and on his return from an exhausting trip to Naples, the Prince lies dying. His death is not described by those around him – Tancredi, Concetta, the doctor and the Priest administering the last rites – but through the dimming senses of the Prince himself as he draws up a balance sheet of his whole life. At the end it is the same handsome young woman that had attracted his attention on his recent arrival at the station in Palermo, ’the creature for ever yearned for’, who comes for him.

The events of the final chapter take place in 1910 when only the spinster Concetta and the widow Angelica are left living among the dusty portraits in their crumbling palazzos. In a last, cruel episode, much of Concetta’s vast collection of relics is declared unauthentic by the Vicar General and removed from her chapel for destruction.

The story is based upon the life of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s great grandfather, Prince Giulio. Donnafugata is the author’s name for the Palazzo Filangeri-Cuto, in Santa Margherita di Belice, which belonged to his mother’s family and in which he spent his holidays as a child. ‘a kind of Vatican; a paradise of parched scents’. The family palazzo in Palermo was destroyed by allied bombs in 1943.

In 1963 Luchino Visconti made a memorable film of the book with Burt Lancaster (an inspired choice) as the Prince, Alain Delon as Tancredi (‘for whom women fell like ripe pears’) and Claudia Cardinale as Angelica, ‘whose sheets smelt like paradise.’

Jude the Obscure
Thomas Hardy, 1895

In the last years of the 19th century, Jude Fawley, an orphan and dreamer, is living with his maiden aunt in rural England. Inspired by a local schoolteacher, Phillotsen, to read serious literature, he becomes withdrawn and introspective, obsessed with self-education, explaining to the bemused villagers that he intends to follow in the footsteps of Phillotsen, who has left to graduate from one of the colleges in the nearby University town of Christminster. While working as a stonemason and saving money for his education, Jude is seduced and tricked into marriage by Arabella, the coarse daughter of a pig farmer who soon deserts him. On moving to Christminster, Jude’s intention to enter the priesthood is forgotten in his lust for his manipulative and depressive cousin, Sue, who also deserts him to marry Phillotsen, now devoid of any ambition for tertiary education. It gets worse.  Divorcing Phillotsen, who disgusts her, Sue returns to Jude, bears him two children and for a few years they live happily together until Arabella sends Jude the son she claims is his. The child, a half wit, ends his own life after terminating that of his two step-siblings. Sue, unsurprisingly unbalanced by these events, returns to live miserably with Phillotsen, leaving Jude to ‘the hell of his conscious failure’, the bottle, Arabella and an early death.

An epic story of the battle between flesh and spirit in which there are no winners. It was Hardy’s last and least appreciated novel. I couldn’t put it down; but if you are someone who requires a diet of feel-good literature with happy endings, this is not the book for you.

Tex
Italian ‘Fumetto’ (strip cartoon) containing: Fort Apache, The Scout from Fort Huachuca and Blood in the Rio Bravo.

Not exactly serious literature, but I’ve become addicted to Tex and it helps me with my Italian, especially lines like: ‘I visi pallidi parlono sempre con lingua doppia’. The first comic strips containing the adventures of Tex Willer, Texas Ranger and his three ‘pards’, Kit Carson, Tiger Jack (his Navaho blood brother) and Kit, his son, appeared in 1948 and at one point reached 700,000 copies per month; they are still selling over 200,000 monthly. The format, four friends dispensing official and unofficial justice, is inspired by Dumas Senior’s ‘D’Artagnan and the three Musketeers’. There is very little feminine presence in the stories; Tex prefers a good, strong mug of coffee on the prairie under the stars to a night with Kitty at the Long Branch. I’m still trying to figure out why I (and millions of Italians) like these stories. The Italians have always loved a Western; and didn’t Sergio Leone at least prolong its cinematic life even if he didn’t save it? I guess some Italians regret they were never represented; you never hear of Buffalo Bill Spadolini or Wild Bill Rossi, do you?

 

 

APRIL IN ITALY

I love Italy. Whatever one may say about the odd retail hours, the museums closing on Mondays and the general traffic chaos, the people are confident of their Italianness. And why shouldn’t they be, seeing that they can trace their very beginnings back to Aeneas, son of the Trojan Prince, Anchises, and the Goddess Venus? After escaping the Greeks, years of travel and a lengthy and tragic affair with Dido, Queen of Carthage, Aeneas and his fellow Trojans settled in Latium where his descendants Romulus and Remus founded Rome. Aeneas was later recognized as a God (Jupiter Indiges) an honour unlikely to be bestowed upon Kevin Rudd or Tony Abbott. No need to apologise to the Latin tribes who were (sometimes forcefully) Romanised; no need for a referendum to redesign a flag that they feel no longer projects their current image, no need (since Il Risorgimento) to change the country’s name. No need to constantly rewrite history to adjust to political climate change; what could possibly be better than Virgil’s version?

I love Milan; the world capital of style is bright, efficient and beautiful. Retail thrives and the Milanesi, rich or poor, dress as smartly as their purse can spare. The people are thongless and grunge-less and I see no instances of gym-wear being worn as street-wear. Everyone over the age of 20  sports a proper pair of shoes. Speaking of clothes, isn’t it strange how a young woman’s first romantic feelings are often accompanied by a desire to knit? In the first flush of love, Honeybee chose to make me a cable stitch pullover, which was pleasing to look at with its naïve, artisanal appearance, but un-wearable on account of the sleeves, which were only suitable for someone whose knuckles scraped the floor when he walked upright. Worried that I might die from exposure before reaching the altar, Honeybee abandoned her knitting needles and patterns and presented me with a rugged pullover made from the mooring ropes of Norwegian trawlers. Too heavy to be worn by a puny accountant, it lay, impregnating my undies with the smell of tar and smoked herrings, at the bottom of my tallboy for several years until I was allowed to buy my own knitwear.

We are staying in a delightful penthouse apartment just off via Torino, some 200 metres from the Piazza Duomo. In addition to the essential rooms we have a shrub-filled terrace, a tastefully furnished conservatory and a good selection of books on Renaissance art. The owners, who occupy the rest of the roof, are charming and spend a good deal of their spare time sewing coloured beads onto baskets, which they sell through a network of immigrant hawkers (vu’cumpra’) sending the proceeds to a village hospital in Ghana. Bravi!

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Honeybee in the conservatory

A stroll with Franca through the charming quarter of Brera to the Pinacoteca. Art students throng the courtyard and stairs but inside we have the place to ourselves or rather us and ten thousand Madonnas and Child. There must have been a law in the 15th century limiting artists to this one subject. Only occasionally does a dazzling Raffaello or distinctive El Greco stand out. The early Christian martyrs are also well represented – pale Sebastians studded with arrows, Catherines on a variety of wheels. Thankfully, a civic-minded Milanese has left the museum his collection of more recent works and we can forget divine motherhood and bloody martyrdom for the peace and order of Giorgio Morandi and the metaphysics of Giorgio De Chirico. What did grab my attention in the Renaissance department was the painting of St John the Baptist by Francesco del Cossa, together with this piece of prose by British writer Ali Smith from her novel ‘How to be Both’:

“It is a feeling thing, to be a painter of things: cause every thing, even an imagined or gone thing or creature or person has essence: paint a rose or a coin or a duck or a brick and you’ll feel it as sure as if a coin had a mouth and told you what it was like to be a coin, as if a rose told you first-hand what petals are, their softness and wetness held in a pellicle of colour thinner and more feeling than an eyelid, as if a duck told you about the combined wet and underdry of its feathers, a brick about the rough kiss of its skin.”

The display of apt quotations on art by contemporary writers was the idea of Pinacoteca Director, James Bradburne, former curator of the Palazzo Strozzi, brought in to spruce up the gallery as part of Prime Minister Renzi’s campaign to modernize Italy’s museums in general. Ali Smith’s novel deals in part with the imagined life of Francesco del Cossa and his allegorical frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara.

Although some cannot move 200 metres without the help of Trip Advisor, it should be avoided at all costs, depriving as it does the tourist of the pleasure of discovery; you are also unlikely to find someone with the same tastes and priorities as yourself among all those anonymous reviewers. I’m an off-season sort of chap really; always have been. So nice travelling to an out-of-season destination: February in Venice, April in Sicily, August in Paris, December in Verona; marvelous! Not all that keen on the presence of other tourists when I’m sightseeing, especially groups and the earnest ones wearing sandals made out of military webbing and bits of rubber tyres. There’s much pleasure going in the opposite direction to the heavy traffic as there is in being an hourly rather than a seconds and minutes person. No need for a second hand on your watch; you can always use your i.phone to time an egg.

We have shifted to Southern Sicily and to the charming city of Modica. Our rental car is a Citroen Picasso. It’s roomy and comfortable and drives nicely; it has a clunky, boxy design, presumably from the artist’s Cubist period. Modica is only a short drive to the sea and we make for Marzamemi, an old fishing village of Arab origins. In the 19th century the village was the site of a functioning tonnara, where great quantities of tuna were caught and processed. The deserted, crumbling slaughterhouses and the black, rotting tuna boats are a little unsettling but not enough to put us off enjoying a fritto misto mare and a chilled bottle of Grillo on the sea-front terrace of La Cialoma.

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Ristorante La Cialoma, Marzamemi

Further along the coast we stop at the Isola delle due Correnti, where the Ionian Sea meets the Mediterranean and then a little further on at Portopalo. Here, near the harbor, lies a graveyard of wooden fishing boats, some burnt hulks, others, stripped and paint-faded, awaiting incineration. On the ground, among the rocks and under the hulls, are the flotsam and jetsam of their passengers – a plastic bottle, a shoe, a torn and grubby headscarf. These are the boats that have survived the journey from North Africa with their cargo of refugees. The nearest Italian landfall to Libya is the island of Lampedusa, but for those boats that miss it, Portopalo is where they end up. At the immigration centre near the port some of the latest arrivals are playing football in the sun; you can see why they call it ‘the world game’.

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Refugee boats awaiting destruction at Portopalo

While Sydney continues to congratulate itself on its fine dining and gourmet food shops it still cannot produce a crunchy baguette, a tasty tomato, a punnet of ripe, unblemished strawberries or a decent salame. Try asking a butcher for a corn-fed cockerel or a capon and he will merely point to his row of uniform, trussed and glad-wrapped hens. If you are planning trippa alla Livornese and ask for tripe the odds are he will throw his hands up in horror. Honeybee has found an excellent salame di suino nero.

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Note the essential high fat to lean ratio

The salumista also sells a tasty salame d’asino or donkey meat sausage. Like its pork brother, it is suspended for a several months in a cool cellar to mature, hence the expression ‘hung like a donkey’.

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Sausage for donkey lovers

‘I know nothing more noble than the contemplation of the world’ said Flaubert and there is no activity more conducive to rumination than the shelling of 2 kilos of peas.

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Meditation time

Occasionally available in Sydney, ready shelled and at scandalous prices, fresh peas in Italy are a cheap and popular delicacy served with pasta or as a piatto unico and occasionally, in Sicily, popping up in the sticky centre of an arancino.

Mind you, I’m not all that partial to some Sicilian dishes. Pasta col macco (overcooked pasta in a soup of dried broad beans) and the little pastries filled with a mixture of ground meat and chocolate called ‘npanatiddi I can live without. Not that I’m opposed to the addition of chocolate to meat dishes, after all lepre in dolceforte (jugged hare) can be tasty, but the appeal of ‘npanatiddi has its roots in ancient efforts by the monks to conceal the consumption of meat during Lent, and old customs die hard on this island.

A morning stroll through the quartiere of Santa Teresa in Modica Alta. This is a charming area of quiet, narrow streets and tree-shaded piazzas. Nespoli, bougainvillea and rose hang over garden walls; old men the size and colour of walnuts sit talking and not talking outside cafes. It’s warm and peaceful and it beckons like the waters of Lethe. Many houses are for sale and I’m tempted but I’m not ready just yet and we start walking down to Modica Bassa.

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Modica Bassa

On the balcony of an apartment just below the Duomo they are filming an episode of the detective series ‘Inspector Montalbano’. The Inspector’s (actor Luca Zingarotti) appearance on the balcony is received with the same degree of enthusiasm as Giuseppe Garibaldi’s. There is a rattle of applause and cries of ‘Bravo Luca‘, while Honeybee melts into a damp spot on the pavement.

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Honeybee asking Montalbano if he wants her phone number

One thing that England and Modica have in common is the same patron Saint, St George, a Syrian-born soldier in the Roman army, executed on Emperor Diocletian’s orders for refusing to recant his Christian faith. England’s most visible association with the Saint is the sign ‘The George and Dragon’ attached to various pubs sprinkled across the country; it’s a very different story in Modica. We are here on St George’s Day, April 23rd, for Modicani the most important feast day of the year. Marching bands parade along Corso Umberto I, families clog the gelaterias and there is an antiques fair in the Piazza Corrado Rizzone displaying, inter alia, old car radios, 45rpm records, rusting keys, coins, second hand books and ceramic jelly moulds from Caltagirone. At 5 pm a crowd gathers outside the massive doors of the Baroque Duomo of San Giorgio in Modica Alta. With cannons booming and the bells of every church in Modica ringing out, the doors open and through the red and white smoke of Roman Candles, an equestrian Saint George is borne out into the sun by his red-coated disciples. Preceded by a band, San Giorgio is then paraded through the town until, near midnight, he is carried back to the Duomo and tucked away for another year.

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Saint George’s Day in Modica