SOCKS AND THE CITY
Only those who follow the vicissitudes of male fashion can understand the drastic fall in hosiery sales which occurs each summer in Milan, that elegant, business-like city of incalculable possibilities. For several years now it has been common among Milanese gentlemen to eschew socks in the summer months. The best way to get a peep at these naked pedal extremities is to watch the cyclists. Between the cuff of a Brioni suit trouser and the soft leather of a Ferragamo loafer you may catch a glimpse of a well-turned ankle, perhaps even the hint of a tasteful tattoo. Of course, Milanese gentlemen are not alone in spurning hosiery in the city; Australians can be seen striding, summer and winter, thonged and sockless, through Sydney; but theirs is not a fashion statement only a desire for convenience and comfort.
Rinascente, situated near the Duomo, is a good place to buy socks. The department store is currently celebrating the centenary of its name, devised by the decadent poet and war hero, Gabriele D’Annunzio who, at the same time, was devising the entire ritual of Fascism, including the Blackshirts and Roman salute that Mussolini adopted. This embarrassing information is prudently omitted from the Exhibition in the Palazzo Reale marking the centennial of the store’s name. It does however emphasise its title of World’s Best Department Store awarded at the Global Department Store Summit in 2016, won by Selfridges of London in the three previous years, although one suspects that Bergdorf Goodman, Libertys and Harrods were either not competing or facing drug bans.
We are not at Rinascente for the socks but for lunch as our favourite restaurant, La Bagutta, has closed its doors for good. Having frequented it for forty years it felt like a death in the family. Another favourite restaurant, Boeucc, which claims to have been here since 1696, is also closed, but only for the holidays. There you will find the best porcini mushrooms, grilled like steak and a genuine escalope Milanese or orecchio di elefante, which means it has the bone attached and is beaten thin to cover the entire plate.
I love the south of France, the sky is clear and blue and there’s a healthy atmosphere of gluttony. Many of the local dishes are difficult to find in an acceptable quality elsewhere – aligot (a blend of mashed potato and tomme), foie gras mi cuit, omelette aux girolles and aigo bouido, a white garlic soup. It’s just the coffee that lets the French down, tasting, as Tom Wolfe says, of ‘incinerated PVC cables’. Pierre-Jacques and I are making the 600 kilometre motorised pilgrimage from Paris to Laguiolle in the Aveyron to pay homage to the culinary arts of Michel Bras, who has hung on to his three Michelin stars for eighteen straight years.
The house special is gargouillou, a brilliant fireworks display of edible flowers, vegetables, shoots, leaves, stalks and roots that almost turns me into a vegetarian.
The service, the cuisine, even the place itself, perched on the lip of an escarpment, is outstanding. How was it? asks Honeybee; I tell her the dishes were mouth watering, the prices eye watering.
Apart from Michel Bras, Laguiolle is famous for its table knives. But if it came to a design knife fight the winner is clearly the Opinel, a peasant’s knife, an artisan’s instrument, ideal for whittling driftwood, peeling an orange or pruning a rose; Picasso used one as a sculpting tool. Apart from being inexpensive and useful it is also a work of art in itself and it was an
Opinel, not a Laguiolle, that was included, alongside a Rolex watch and a Porsche 911, in the Victoria & Albert Museum’s 1985 exhibition of the 100 most beautiful products in the world.
The next day we drive west and south, past fields of placid Aubrac cows, through Espalion, Estaing, and Entraygues. At Conques we lunch with pilgrims resting on their 750 kilometre journey from Le Puy to Santiago de Compostela. The pilgrimage becomes more popular each year; 2,491 made the journey in 1986, 277,915 in 2016. Are we becoming more religious, or has El Camino just become another item on a bucket list? We pass many pilgrims on the footpaths and lanes, all bearing the scallop shell or coquille Saint Jacques on their back-packs.
Albi, La Ville Rose, when we reach it in the evening, looks almost Tuscan with its buildings of pink brick. We are here to visit the Toulouse –Lautrec Museum. Why do we like this painter? Because he was born rich and privileged yet worked for his living, because he overcame severe physical handicap to succeed as an artist, because he lived his whole life as he wanted and understood just what had brought him that rare gift. ‘J’ai acheté ma liberté avec mes dessins.’ (I bought my freedom with my drawings’).
THE LAND OF LOST CONTENT
The Gare du Nord hasn’t changed much since the 1970s except that now there’s the Eurostar instead of the romantic Golden Arrow boat-train with its individually named Pullman cars and crossed Union and French flags on the engine. Along with faster travel Europeans have become accustomed to bomb scares and when we are herded off the platform while the Gendarmerie check out a suspicious looking suitcase, no one looks surprised let alone alarmed.
Having spent the first twenty six years of my life in London, I feel I’m going home but soon realise I’m not. ‘It’s all over; all rinsed out’, says my cousin, resident since birth in the great city. ‘Town’s nothing but a collection of empty investment properties and Air BnB apartments full of tourists. The clubs are all closing because landlords find it more lucrative to convert them to flats for rich Asians; even Annabels has been forced out of Berkley Square’. My cousin feels the city, perhaps the world, has reached its nadir. But inevitably this age, with its adult videos, tattoos, cage fighting and celebrity worship, will be lamented in its turn, just like the last.
It’s the ‘summer of love’ at the Globe theatre where the Royal Shakespeare Company is presenting Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night, the latter a splendid production full of add-libs, dancing, music and audience participation that makes you think, yes, this must have been what it was like in Shakespeare’s day. After, we take the Millennium footbridge across the Thames and wander up Fleet Street, now lifeless without its newspapers, their journalists banished long ago to Wapping to hack phones. We have a drink in what was once one of the newsmens’ favourite watering holes, The Cheshire Cheese, now full of Asian tourists using its gloomy 17th century interiors as a backdrop for self-portraits.
In Gough Square we pass the home of Samuel Johnson once also the home of his manservant and friend, Francis Barber. Born Quashey, a slave on a Jamaican sugar plantation, he was brought at the age of seven to London in 1750 by his English owner. After spending five years at school in Yorkshire he was freed, given a small bequest and went to work for Johnson as his valet. Johnson, an eccentric himself, commanded a strange household in which only ‘tolerable concord’ existed. The disharmony between the housekeeper, blind poet Anna Williams, Poll Carmichael, a former prostitute, Dr Levet, a destitute Quack and the cat Hodge was such that Francis ran away and joined the Navy returning to Gough Square in 1760 where he remained until Johnson’s death in 1784. During those last twenty four years he looked after his employer’s affairs, became his loyal and trusted friend and inherited the bulk of his estate. After Johnson’s death he moved to Lichfield in Staffordshire, where Johnson had been born and where he sadly lost most of his inheritance through unwise investments. Barber’s descendants apparently still farm in the area.
The next day we take the train to Norwich, the sort of city, with its 11th century cathedral and cobbled alleys, that the English travel to France to admire. I have a special feeling about Norfolk; I believe it’s the home of my ancestors. Once part of Danelaw, an area of eastern England where Viking law and the 3 Rs – rowing, raping and raiding – prevailed, it’s now a quiet refuge for ancient Britons, green, lush, dripping with willow. At Blickling Hall, where Anne Boleyn was born, there are giant, sculptured yew hedges and at Blakeney, among flocks of sea birds, people mess about in boats in the muddy tidal inlets. If it’s a sunny day and if you are near Thorpe Market then you should lunch at the Gunton Arms, part of art dealer, Ivor Braka’s beautifully restored 18th century estate, complete with herds of deer and cattle. Nowhere else will you find a Damien Hirst painting in the Ladies’ Loo or a Magritte above the residents’ lounge fire-place. The food’s good too; try the spicy wild boar sausage with chilli jam or the slow roast shoulder of lamb with summer bubble and squeak.
While, unlike London, the countryside remains largely unchanged – the thrush, the newt, the bumble-bee, the oak, the oast-house are all still there – it’s not the countryside I remember. Only AE Houseman can express that sense of a long gone, deeply English (and perhaps imaginary), golden age:
Into my heart on air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
WHAT DOES THE SINEW COME WITH?
Years ago, on a menu in a restaurant in the port of Piraeus, I came across two local dishes the English translations of which had me in stitches – ‘Tender bowels, stewed’ was one, ‘Lambs Dong’ the other. Regrettably, I did not try either; I suspect the first would have been some kind of tripe and the other, tongue. Since then I’ve been on the look-out for other mirth inducing dishes; so it was a pleasant surprise to find ‘Mixed pig organ congee’ on my breakfast menu at Singapore Airport. This dish I am familiar with and it can be very tasty; it’s just the translation that needs to sound more appetizing. And incidentally, how amazing is the city of Singapore. I was expecting a dry cluster of glass towers full of accountants and hedge-fund managers, endless malls of phone shops and dim sum eateries. Instead there is an inspired blend of outrageous modern architecture and beautifully restored colonial buildings. Plus, I’m told it’s the only place on Earth with a Michelin starred street food stall.
In Chefchaouen, in the Street of Outstretched Hands, my English language version of a lunch menu offers a tantalizing selection of beef leg, giblets, sinew and brains. Checking the French version I found beef leg to be a more understandable ‘Pied de Veau’, while sinew (in French?), turned out to be ‘ox penis’. The latter can be a bit heavy for lunch and so I opted for the beef leg, or more properly the calf’s foot, which turned out to be a bowl of tasty fat surrounded by chickpeas in broth. Delicious! I regret not trying Khlie – lamb, seasoned, sun-dried, cooked in fat, preserved in jars (rather like duck confit) and traditionally served with scrambled egg; a sort of Babel el Squeak.
In Meknes I have my boots polished while lunching al fresco on kofta and chicken brochettes and a cumin-spiced salad of pepper, cucumber, tomato and sweet onion. In the back of the café our guide, Youssef, touches the floor with the seven parts of his body in prayer. Later, after we have finished eating, he carries our leftovers into the streets for the poor and hungry, making me feel, unintentionally, like a cad.
In Essaouira Le Chalet de la Plage had been heavily recommended and first appearances look encouraging. There is a seasoned bar of warm, dark, varnished wood and a view of the sea and the islands in the bay. Over the bar hang photographs of Nicholas Cage, Orson Welles, Ron Dennis and other notables, smiling with the proprietor. Frankly, the meal was disappointing and expensive (by local standards), made bearable by a bottle of the local (Meknes) Château Roslane. The only really bad meal I had in Morocco was the lamb tagine I prepared myself at cooking school. I did complain to the chef.
Freshness, variety, seasonality and hospitality are the keynotes of Moroccan lunching and dining. Much of the food, including sheep, grown or fattened in the field, is on sale at the side of the road. A sale occurs after bargaining and bargaining brings people together. In the narrow alleys of the Fez market there are spices in coloured mountains, camel meat, small fish, eels, oranges, figs and chickens so fresh they are still alive.
It’s Tuesday and market day in Azrou and the roads are filled with slow-moving pick-ups, crammed with a mixture of sheep, goats and family members. Bedouin, whose black tents are visible on the surrounding plain, have brought their scrawny sheep to town to sell to local farmers who will fatten them up for the feast of Eid al-Adha.
They will be eaten as mechoui when the whole sheep is roasted in a clay oven for a few hours. There is no better way to eat lamb. Later, we pass rows of fossil supermarkets selling everything from tiny trilobites to great polished slabs of fossil-filled marble destined for the walls of Joan Collins’ bathroom.
On the road again we are protected from accident and injury by the hand of Fatima dangling from Youssef’s rear-view mirror and reach Tafilalt safely to look down into the great palm oasis, a broad, green ribbon stretching for miles along the bed of the Ziz river. I am reminded of the importance of the palm to desert people and of these opening lines of Roy Campbell’s eponymous poem:
Blistered and dry was the desert I trod
When out of the sky with the step of a god
Victory-vanned, with her feathers out-fanned,
The palm tree alighting my journey delayed
And spread me, inviting, her carpet of shade
In his book ‘Iron John’ another poet, Robert Bly, said that white stands for semen, saliva, water, milk, lakes, rivers, the sea and priesthood, health, strength and all good things and good company and the purity of children and brides. For the Moroccans, green is the sacred colour of Islam and the colour of the doors of those who have made the haj to Mecca; it stands for life, nature and renewal and here, in the oasis, it blazes in contrast to the sun-blasted hills and dun-coloured Ksars.
Among the perfect dunes of the Sahara we will sleep in a black Bedouin tent, complete with en-suite bathroom and air-conditioning. After dark, when the encampment lights are turned off, we look up into the night sky to see what Joyce, in Ulysses, called ‘The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit.’ Then straight to bed as we are on the 7.30 camel in the morning.