Summer Season

Twelve weeks have slipped by since I last added to this blog and I apologise for neglecting it. I’d like to say it’s because I’ve been too busy with work, however that’d only be a half truth as I’ve also been busy eating out and enjoying the summer.

It’s eating out during the tourist season that I’m writing about today. Out of season the restaurants are very happy for the local population to patronise their establishments and are often more attentive. However as soon as the tourists arrive the attitude as well as the food changes.

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I was having a conversation with a friend about this a month or so back after we had visited a restaurant we’d visited many times before and had a terrible experience. The season was winding down and when we entered the almost empty dining room we noticed that parts of the bar were already being packed away, meaning the small eatery will probably close over the autumn and winter months. Fair enough, if there’s not the custom to make it worthwhile opening then it makes sense, but surely if they remain open to diners they can pack up later. The waitress (eventually) strolled over to take our order and everything we asked for off their menu was no longer available. Sorry no pizza, sorry no fries, sorry no vongole, sorry no white wine, sorry red wine either only rosé. We all decided that as there was nothing available that we wanted we’d leave. The final insult after many weeks of eating there was to hear the waitress moan to the owner about us being miserable English tourists. Suffice to say, despite your usually friendly staff and great food, we’ll not be back again.

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One thing we as stranieri, ex-pats, immigrants, or however we label ourselves have noticed is that when the area is full of tourists the food quality in some not all establishments drops from excellent to average and portion sizes shrink faster than a slimmer at Weightwatchers. Service becomes rushed and the waiters that out of season are pleased to see you become less attentive; I put that down to increased trade, but regular patrons and locals do seem to get a rum deal when the tourists are in town.

I’m sure this isn’t indicative of just our area, I’m sure it must go on all over the world where bars and restaurants cater to tourists – it’s just a shame that it can make you reconsider where you’ll be spending your euro the following summer.

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Fishy Friday’s

Growing up in England and miles away from the coast meant that I didn’t eat much fish: in fact I was once given a fish finger as a child and recoiled in horror. Apart from tinned tuna, mussels and the occasional fish supper I didn’t eat very much fish. But now living just 18 minutes from the sea means it’s a different story. Whereas I’d probably eat fish 2 or 3 times a year now it’s 2 or 3 times a week. I’ve discovered that I like octopus and calamari, I still don’t really like prawns and people I cannot be trusted with an unopened jar of anchovies.

Friday at an Italian restaurant definitely means there’ll be fish on the menu and whenever I can I like to drop into our local, aptly named, Il Bucaniere, (the Buccaneer). The reason being I can always guarantee to get frittura di pesce. Last week we dropped in for lunch which costs just €10 a head, and for this you get wine, water and 2 courses.

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Lunchtimes are always busy with Friday’s being the busiest. To help out the menu for the day is written up on a chalk board beneath the TV, (Italian’s and TV’s in restaurants, that’s a whole post of its own). To guarantee a table we arrive early and already the seating area at the back of the restaurant is full. We settle into our seats out at the front and the service is swift. We decide to try something we’ve not seen on the menu before and within minutes the most comforting dish of polenta with a rich fish flavoured sauce and mussels arrives. Wow, this is a taste surprise.

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The second course I have ordered is the frittura di pesce, deep fried calamari and small fish. It’s a fiddly dish to eat but if you go native and use your fingers then it’s easy to strip the fish from the bones, and no one is looking at you because they’re all too engrossed in their own plate of superbly cooked fish. I save a few of the calamari tentacles until last as they’re my favourite part of the dish.

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Our table is cleared and as we pour the last of the wine into glasses we make appreciative noises about how good it feels to be full of Friday’s fish.

An Italian Day

A friend once mentioned to me that her neighbour went to the market or local shop everyday to buy provisions for that day’s lunch or dinner. She told me that if she did a weekly shop then she’d save herself a daily trip to the shops. I thought about this and spoke with an Italian friend about it and her reply was, “Of course we shop everyday, that way we know we have, cibo più fresco.” PING! on went the ‘of course’ light. In a society where seasonal is important, women have shopped daily for years to make certain they purchase the best and freshest produce.

Often people comment that Italian’s appear to be chaotic and disorganised, but that’s far from the truth. Italian’s are very organised in their day to day lives and as I think back to how my day has been today I realise I’ve adapted to some of these daily rituals easily and without actually thinking about it. So here’s a typical Britalian day for me and how it mirrors that of my Italian colleagues and friends.

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My day starts with strong black coffee and after breakfast I set off for work. Today I drive up into the mountains as I’m visiting the town of Torricella Peligna to take photos of an apartment that is being put up for sale. I have a pleasant morning with the owner and get the shots required to market her apartment. The sky is as clear and blue as a Ceylon sapphire as we leave the town and below us the road twists and turns through the countryside, with its patchwork of fields and olive groves. The car’s windows are open and the scent of jasmine is drawn inside making this journey a feast for the senses. We pass through the town of Roccascalegna and decide to drop in to check all is well with some new clients who purchased a house a few months back. I find that Sue, Keith and their beautiful daughter Sophie are settling in to their house well and are becoming happily embroiled into their Italian community.

It’s now one o’clock and time for that important of daily Italian customs, lunch.

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We drop into our local restaurant which is already filled with diners and after a ten minute wait we’re seated and ordering. Italian lunch is the most important meal of the day, it’s not to be rushed, it’s meant to be eaten in a relaxed manner to aid digestion. In complete contrast to the meagre Italian breakfast lunch is substantial. I order my primo;  chitarrina allo scoglio, a pasta dish made with the local Abruzzese square shaped spaghetti. The mussels and clams are sweet and the broth that lurks under the pasta has the fragrance of the sea. Around us the other diners are eating, drinking and chatting at a leisurely pace. Lunch isn’t something that should be rushed in Italy. More white wine: ice cold and fizzing in the carafe is delivered to our table and our dishes are cleared away in readiness for the secondo.

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Being an Italian restaurant there’s a television mounted on the wall and muted news reports are playing as the waiters clear tables and redress them in around 40 seconds for more waiting diners. My secondo arrives, a plump piece of salmon dressed simply with olive oil and a slice of lemon. My contorno (side dish) is slices of fresh tomato and wafer thin rings of red onion.

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Workers look at their watches in a relaxed manner, no one is rushing to get back to work yet; after all the standard time given over for lunch is two hours. I check the time and order coffee and stretch my arms above my head feeling happily full.

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After my two hour repast and having paid my €10  we leave and I go back to work. My afternoon is taken up with admin until it’s time to pack away the office for a few minutes and head off to the cantina. A short drive later, I’m loading boxes of wine into the boot of the car and I’m almost ready to leave when the assistant calls me over and gives me two free bottles of wine and tells me to have a good evening.

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Generosity seems to be an intrinsic part of the Italian psyche as is their cordiality, it’s customary to be told to have a good day, a pleasant evening, buon pranzo (have a good lunch) and all other manner of well wishes throughout your day. These salutations are never forced and they’re always received and reciprocated in a genuine way. I’m happy to say that there’s none of that dictated corporate bonhomie in Italy.

Back home, it’s time to sample the wine and a glass of excellent red is poured as I check the last of the emails for the day before setting off for the evening stroll in readiness for dinner. Passeggiata, the Italian custom of a stroll before dinner is a perfect way to catch up with gossip, and as soon as you get into the habit you realise it’s a perfect way to integrate with your community, it’s a sort of walking adhesive.

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It’s now around 8pm and the cars have started to arrive at the local restaurant, the tables outside are populated by people drinking aperitivi as the waiters finish setting up for the evening service. And all over Italy people are preparing for dinner, the same way it’s been done throughout generations.

Tranquillo, come domenica mattina

When Lionel Richie was with the Commodores one of their first big UK hits was a song called, Easy, a soulful ballad with the lyric, ‘Easy, like Sunday morning’. Now the translation into Italian may not be literal, and my using tranquillo rather than facile (easy) keeps the sentence within the original meaning.

Why am I referencing Mr Richie and his co-musicians, well because it’s a lyric that perfectly sums up a sunny Sunday here in La Bella Italia.

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This week, Sunday starts with avid activity in the olive groves as farmers finish the last of their pruning. Compressors hiss and odd shaped pruning tools buzz like contented honey bees. In the midst of this activity there’s no real sense of urgency, unlike on weekdays when they work at full pelt before disappearing at lunchtime, today they prune a little and chat a lot.

People arrive in cars and park up and stroll along the lane, two men arrive, their animated conversation a contradiction to their ambling gait, they’re walking their dogs that have large bells attached to their harnesses meaning as they pass through the groves it sounds like farmers moving their goats.

By midday all of this activity ceases and the land around falls quiet again, I’m potting up some pumpkins from a seed tray when Antonio drives past, he waves as he passes the house and calls out, ‘Buona Domenica.’ (have a nice Sunday). A few minutes later, I take my time shaving and making sure my hair is pointing up and to the left; a throw back from my 70’s punk music inspired youth and why the locals affectionately call me, Sonic; a future post maybe. Now I’m ready to go to lunch.

We drive to our favourite restaurant and luckily as we’ve forgotten to book for Sunday lunch they have a couple of spare tables. Jimmy ushers us to a table while Luca fetches wine and water. Despite the restaurant being full there’s no  sense of urgency;  unlike weekdays when they can turn a table around in 40 seconds so as to accommodate the waiting workers that arrive in their droves.

It’s Sunday so the menu of the day contains a lot of fish dishes, from salmon to sea bass and trout. We order and quickly the primi arrive, I have chitarrina alle vongole and O.H has orecchiette broccoli e gorgonzola. At first I’m wishing I’d chosen the creamy blue cheese sauce, but after shelling the clams I’m soon digging into my garlic and parsley infused shellfish pasta. We eat  at a leisurely pace, after all,  è domenica and there’s no rush.

BB16Seconda for the both of us is stinco, or rather to use the plural stinchi. Stinco is a pork shin similar to a lamb shank in the UK that is roasted in the oven. We also have potatoes and green vegetables and again take our time. We finish with coffee then pay the €20 bill – honestly two courses, with coffee, water and a litre of wine for the same price as a Big Mac meal in
the UK. So if you’re in the area drop into… actually maybe I’ll not give you the name and address of the restaurant, just in case one Sunday you take the last table and I’ll have to eat elsewhere.

We arrive home and chill out in the sun with a bottle of Peroni as the dogs laze at our feet as we’re being, ‘easy, like Sunday morning’ regardless of it being past 14.30.

 

Fish Food

I have never been a big fish eater, in fact back in the UK, I probably only ate fish three or four times per year, and I have never had, and have no desire to sample a fish finger sandwich. However we live just eighteen minutes from the coast and the plethora of fish restaurants that line the Adriatic. So, a few weeks ago our friends, Mark and Graham introduced us to a fish restaurant in San Vito Chietino on Strada Statale 84, 66038 Marina di San Vito CH, Italy and called, Gastropescheria Blu Mare.

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Since we’ve lived in Italy, I have been more adventurous regarding my consumption of all things fishy. I’ve tried octopus, discovered I like fried calamari, and even given prawns another go. I’ve been lucky enough at our favourite local restaurant to have superb baccalà (dried, salted cod) and I’ve always liked mussels, which they serve up with clams in a sauce and fresh pasta.

But despite this new approach to fish I still arrived at San Vito with trepidation: What if I don’t like anything on offer? I guess they’ll have mussels, I like those, so I can go for the easy option,  Parking the car I decided to man up and try something different, at least one new fish dish,

Everything in the restaurant is just €5 and there’s two service areas, outside you buy a mixed fried platter of calamari, prawns etc and inside is a veritable feast for the eyes, with everything from the sea laid out. Seafood salads rub fins with thin slivers of carpaccio, there’s fillets of every kind of fish local to the area and seafood pasta galore.

We opt for a plate of stuffed mussels, a portion of battered cod, some prawns with fried coins of courgette and swordfish carpaccio. The swordfish is cooked by the lemon juice and tastes divine, as does the rest of our selection. We sit in the sunshine and with great gusto tuck into our fishy feast. The afternoon is warm and after lunch what else is there to do in San Vito but go to the beach.

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The following day, we are telling friends about the fish restaurant and they ask if we can take them. We don’t need an excuse to visit again so a few days later we are back, this time I have a starter of anchovies marinated in vinegar and white wine, the swordfish carpaccio and some mussels. Viv has a large butterflied portion of salmon, Margaret has the anchovies and some prawns and Seppe tries the seafood pasta and a large portion of crab. We all enjoy the dinner, before sloping off for a gelato and pass the afternoon away strolling along the marina. The day ends with a beer at a seafront bar, who said life in Italy has hard?

A couple of days later, I’m on my way to Ikea and this gives me the excuse to have lunch out, and surprise, surprise, Gastropescheria Blu Mare isn’t too far away. We park the car and grab a table100_7472 as the lunchtime crowd are arriving and the restaurant is shrouded by workmen in overalls and office workers in suits. The queue stretches out of the door and along the road, it must be at least thirty-five people deep, and the girls behind the counter are serving fish like dervishes. My turn for service comes and the girl smiles, recognising me. Today we have a whole monkfish tail with a  breadcrumb topping and a portion of mixed fried fish, all washed down with a beer and all for the princely sum of just €12 per person.

If you ever find yourself passing by, I’d recommend you drop in and sample the fare.

Pasta Festa in Fara

August is festa time in Italy and every town celebrates something, Altino celebrates peppers, on the road down from Castle Frentano it’s fish and chips: Invented by the ancient Romans of course, and obviously in Fara San Martino it’s pasta. A few evenings ago it was the time for the pasta giant, De Cecco to host the celebrations and myself being a pasta snob, I had to go and see what all the fuss was about.

We arrived early and took a leisurely stroll up to the school where the evening’s festivities were going to take place. We paid our €10, received a yellow ticket and joined the queue waiting for the food that was ready to be dished up. Our ticket entitled us to a first course of pasta, a second course including side dish and bread and a drink. The first course pasta options were, tagliatelle three meat pasta of lamb, veal and pork, seafood linguine or chicken and asparagus penne. I opted for the former three meat option and had a second course of sausages with chopped fresh salad, bread and a glass of red wine.

The school playground had lots of benches set up at long tables and easily could accommodate 500 people, at the far end was a stage and there was a man on a keyboard accompanied by a lady singing. We took our seats and over good food we chatted as the air cooled to a pleasant short-sleeves and sandals temperature. As the venue filled up with diners the evening became full of shouts and waving as neighbours acknowledged each other and families welcomed friends old and new. The tables were attended by teenagers in de Cecco T-shirts and the transition from food to festivities flowed well.

I went to fetch a couple of bottles of wine for our table and my friend, Vivienne, introduced me to a man with no bottom teeth; he turned out to be the local dentist, we exchanged pleasantries and when the bill came for the two bottles of wine and one of water, the dentist nodded knowingly and we received a discount of €3.50. Other friends from the neighbouring town of Palombaro had joined us and as the wine flowed the urge to dance grew. We watched the locals doing some elaborate group dance and fuelled by bravado we decided to give it a go. Needless to say we failed miserably. I whirled Vivienne around the dance floor in a mish-mash of ballroom, tarantella/improvisation style of dancing. But we didn’t care as we were here to have fun, not be scored on our technique.

More wine was consumed, more jollity at the table was shared and the toothless dentist joined us at our table and handed me a De Cecco T-shirt, apparently Seppe had asked him if he could get one for me. That made my night, could it get any better? Yes, the music changed from traditional to pop and nothing could stop our tableful of Brits from rising from their seats and moving across the playground with haste to join the throng of Italians dancing to the Village People hit, YMCA. Well what did you expect it was a party after all, and a splendid one it was too.

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My De Cecco T-shirt.

Storm Chasing

Today’s title may evoke images of being inside a jeep hurtling towards a raging tornado or the eye of a hurricane, maybe even being trapped inside a Kansas farmhouse as it rides a twister to, The Merry Old Land of Oz., but actually, the title is misleading, as it’s not so much storm chasing as being chased by a storm.

We were having a pleasant mid-morning in Lanciano, when we decided to have lunch at Il Chiostro. It’s a an informal yet pleasant restaurant a few paces from the church of St. Francis, that houses the Eucharist miracle. The interior has a rustic feel to it with big wooden seating bays that easily accommodate up to eight people per table. The menu options change daily and for a mere twelve euro per person, you can have a substantial lunch. We collected our cutlery and tray, heaved a great slab of bread onto it and stopped at the options for primo piatto. I opted for an unusual yet tasty bacon and cauliflower pasta while the OH had a pasta bake laced with enough garlic to keep the entire inhabitants of Transylvania at bay. Secondo Piatto was either roast pork or stuffed veal, we both opted for the veal, which was served in a rich tomato sauce, with grilled vegetables and potatoes. We decided two courses was sufficient and declined the sweet course before grabbing a bottle of aqua frizzante and becoming ensconced behind the huge wooden table.

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Stuffed and satiated we decided to walk off lunch and took a leisurely stroll through the medieval part of the town. We meandered through narrow alleyways taking refuge from the afternoon heat. Windows were open and the lives of the inhabitants spilled out. A conversation motored down a narrow vinco, an argument burst through closed shutters and babies squealed with joy from within the dark recesses of a skinny house. We took some time out sitting on a bench near the park before heading back to the bank to do some business there.

Our business concluded we walked back to the car, as we set off on our journey home, the sky suddenly changed; the blue became grey and an ominous black cloud sailed overhead. Now I have before alluded to Italian thunderstorms being epic, and was once sat in stationary traffic on the motorway outside Rimini as great threads of lightning bounced around the cars. So I was apprehensive about being up so high and away from the relative safety of our valley. As we reached the edge of Castle Frentano I stopped the car and looked back, the skies were filled by an angry cancerous cloud, giving the illusion of us being trapped inside a Hollywood action movie.

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I climb back into the car and start the descent down the winding, serpent like road, I look in the rear view mirror and the black cloud seems to be following me. I slow as I navigate a hairpin bend and the cloud sends out spikes of yellow, flashing behind me. I can accelerate through a relatively straight piece of road and the cloud moves sideways. This time it’s almost peering in the side window, mocking me. It grumbles and more flashes follow. Eventually we reach the bottom and the rain starts, great gobs of water splatter the windscreen. We wind our way up our little lane just as a huge snap fills the air, I stop the car and make the fifty yard dash to the front door. Sods law takes over, I drop the keys, giving me those few extra seconds of drenching. With the door now closed I look outside and the cloud moves away towards Archi, up on the mountain top. I’m changing into dry clothes as it laughs  at me with a final electricity charged crackle and the sun bathes my house once more. I’m then reminded of the song by Sparks, Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth.

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Eating Out

Monday 14 January 2013 – Last week I had three different meals out and all turned out to be an experience in themselves. Obviously I can’t name them here, and I’d be a fool to do so – law suits are not the in thing for 2013.

First meal of the week was a trip to a national ‘all you can eat’ restaurant. The chain boast over 34 metres of food counters displaying tasty and freshly prepared fare. They have everything from traditional roasts, to Italian and Chinese and even British fish and chips. Sadly this concept of serving so many cuisines meant that they failed to become the master of any. I tasted nothing there that would warrant a return visit, the food was basically, sub-standard school dinner quality.

The Italian food was unlike any Italian food I have ever seen before, paper thin dough with tomato sauce and grated cheese does not make it a pizza. The BBQ section had burgers that would be best suited to shoe soles and the salad bar was quite frankly the scene of a vegetarian massacre. Lettuce was browning as tomatoes softened and grated carrot seemed to invade every section of the serving area. Not to mention spoons lazily shared between the jugs of salad dressings.

The seating area was packed with diners stuffing food into their mouths like Armageddon was about to happen. I had an instant vision of what hell must be like. People walked over to the serving bays and piled food onto plates and returned to their tables and to begin devouring the over-laden dinner plate. It really was gluttony on a massive scale.

Two women sat at a table nearby, and during my stay I observed them eat four plates of food, and finish off with two puddings. At one point, one of the women was wrapping chicken wings and sausages in paper napkins and secreting them in her handbag.

Another table close by had two young couples sat at it, the table groaned under the weight of food the young men had brought with them and one of the girls took advantage of the free soft drinks by bringing over eight large glasses of cola. I was intrigued by the other girl as she ate a plate of food which contained a burger, a battered fish, some sliced gammon and roast potatoes and some Chinese noodles: Truly international cuisine? She followed this with chocolate sponge and custard. I thought to myself, she’s had her fill, just a dinner and a sweet, but no – she then washed it down with cola before adding a curry to the contents of her stomach.

Now I’m not a bleeding heart liberal, and I’m not going to bang on about poverty, but I did find the experience obscene. Needless to say, I shan’t be returning.

My second experience was a return trip to a well-known high street pub-cum-restaurant. You know the one, where they don’t play music and the name is made up from the two words that describe climate and cutlery. Usually I’ve had good quality grub here, okay it’s not a la carte , it’s not even remotely posh but it has always been filling and satisfying. Sadly this day it was not. I ordered an Italian chicken burger, basically a piece of chicken on a bun with pesto served with onion rings and fat chips. The problem this visit was it took an age to arrive at our table and when it did it wasn’t very hot, in fact tepid is the word I’d use to describe the meal, but the final insult was the burned toasted bun. All I can say is, it’s a good job I don’t usually eat the bread bun.

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The final experience was at a small shabby looking Chinese restaurant. I didn’t expect much, just standard commercially cooked food. What a surprise it was to eat, excellent well prepared plates of food and all for just £15 for two people. Made up for the two disappointing meals earlier in the week.

View my original blog at: http://intheflatfieldidogetbored.blogspot.co.uk