Thursday, December 18, 2008

Martha does Rome with a Little Help From a Friend Day 5

After many distractions, genuine reasons for procrastination (a vicious virus infection) some not so genuine (a bad case of the December blas) here, at long last, is Day 5 of my Roman Adventure.

Of Mysteries and Mushrooms

Our key destination today was the convent associated with the Chiesa di Trinità di Monti, which occupies a magnificent vantage point at the top of the Spanish Steps.
After Friday’s mix up with meeting places I was determined:

A. To be on time
B. To be in the right place at the right time.

Not willing to risk getting stuck in a traffic mishap or getting lost on the busses I EVEN took the underground to the Spagna stop. Thus, I was more than a half an hour early. I bought a newspaper and sat on a bench, watching a tidal wave of people, not unlike the earlier tsunami that had been emerging from Ottaviano on their way to see the Pope. This flood, washing out of the underground, carrying rolled up flags and banners, were on their way to Day 2 of the manifestazione against Berlusconi’s cuts in the education budget.

After about 20 minutes with no sign of N. it occurred to me that maybe I was in the wrong place - again, as she had mentioned something about taking the lift to the top of the stairs. ‘OK, let’s try it. It’s free; I can always come back down if I don’t see her there.’

HOWEVER!!! When I emerged onto the white marble balcony over looking Roma, there standing on the steps leading up to the Chiesa, was my N., accompanied by a attractive full size cynical teddy bear. This turned out to be, at long last, the incomparable Cesare. The tour of the Convent was not scheduled to start until eleven so we stood looking over a beautiful blue-skyed Roma, trying to identify landmarks. ‘Lemme tell ya, it’s not easy. From that height and distance, all church tops look more or less the same.’

We were finally allowed into an anti-room to await the start of the tour. The youngish nun who guided us spoke: French, very softly, and looked down at the ground the whole time. I did glean that the convent was started by the French King Louis XII in 1502 which explained the rather amazing series of frescoes around the inside of the arcade. Starting with Clovis or Pepin, images of ALL the French monarchs had been inscribed on opposing pairs around the ceiling of the cloister.

The tour needs to be booked in advance and lasts over an hour. It’s worth it. We saw many, many interesting things. For me, three images stood out:

An Astronomical Map, painted in 1637 which calculates the positions of all then known places using the measurements based on the movements of the stars and the constellations.

The trompe-l'œil dining room where the brothers were expected to eat in silence watched over by murals of life-like riotous carryings-on. That kind of dichotomy would have driven me insane.

And finally, I couldn’t take my eyes off of an American (had to be) woman wannabee Jane Fonda, who should seriously consider a career as an actress impersonator.

After the tour, emerging into bright sunshine, we descended the Spanish Steps into crowds of Saturday Romans and tourists. We strolled past the newly unveiled and controversial enclosure by Richard Meyer protecting the Ara Pacis, one of the artistically most important monuments of ancient Rome. We continued strolling, talking and strolling until we reached Gran Caffè Esperia, Lungotevere dei Mellini, an elegant deco-style café – where it was decided that an aperitivo was needed. I drank a ‘bitter rosso’, not unlike Campari, which came with a plate of warm mini-pizzas. YUMMY!!!

After finishing our drinks we continued our perambulations towards Campo de’ Fiori and one of N’s favourite restaurants, Trattoria da Francesco on the Piazza del Fico. There I had the second gustatory triumph of my visit - white pizza with fresh porcini, nothing more (HUH!) than fresh sliced mushrooms, cheese and olive oil – how can food this simple taste so good? I also had carciofi lot’s more carciofi, and zucchini and olives and ……ahhhh… for antipasti.

C. had trippa. He cleaned his plate so thoroughly, relishing every bite, that I vowed to myself - someday I’m going to find the courage to try THAT.

By now it was three-ish, so time for a gelato, from a shop just beside the Pantheon that N. & C. swear has the best gelatti in Roma. After vanquishing our cups of lemon, fruits of the forest and chocolate sitting on a wall beside the Pantheon, I believe them.
Then as all good things end sooner than bad, it was time to say good by.

Thanks to N. I’d had an amazing week – packed with event, adventure and amazing food.

Tomorrow I take the train for Milano.

As before all photographs are by the kind permission of N.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Martha does Rome with a Little Help From a Friend.

Day 4 – Mixed Connections

Perhaps it was fallout from the previous day’s bus adventure; it wasn’t down to drink as I had only taken one glass of a very nice white the night before, but whatever the cause, on Friday morning I was uncomfortably aware that all my little grey cells were not firing with anything resembling precision. To compensate I made up my mind to leave for our selected meeting point as early as possible and thereby minimise any need to make quick decisions caused by delayed trains or sundry other acts of God or the Italian parliament.

My instructions had been to take the Linea A (blue line) to Termini and change for the Linea B (red line) to Piramide Station. The mechanics of this seemed quite simple and as I had arrived at my destination with ten minutes to spare. I trudged up a urine-scented incline and emerged into a dusty traffic-haunted circle with no sign of a café to sit in or of anything resembling a pyramid. Perhaps this should have tipped me off to the possibility that something wasn’t quite tickety-boo, but in my damaged condition, it didn’t.

Half an hour later, and with no sign of N., I had become quite concerned and quite awake. It was then that I discovered that I had left my telefonino back at the B&B. ‘Now what the F! Do I do?’ Clearly the only answer to THAT question was – Hot foot it back to Prati and see if N. had been trying to reach me. Which she had. Guess what! There is another exit to that station – at the other end of the train platform. Telling her to find a café near that exit (Which is probably where she was already calling from. She’s French – not Italian, and pragmatic with it.) I dashed out; carefully first checking that this time I had everything with me that I could possible need – even my umbrella - just in case, and dashed back into the metro retracing my earlier two journeys. Finally, only two hours late, we connected in a very nice shady café just in front of the entrance to the Ostia Metro line. Dead ahead was the piramide just as it should have been. As I was almost prostrate with embarrassment and adrenaline, N. kindly allowed me to wolf down a tuna fish sandwich and a cinotto – she’d had the same earlier, and finally we were off on our journey into the past.

Boarding a sleek modern moulded plastic train car with only minimal graffiti scarring, we were soon zipping our way into the past. Twenty minutes later we reached Antica Ostia, headed over the roaring traffic below and were progressing down a tall pine lined avenue towards the entrance to the park. One of the most distinctive images I have of Rome is of those umbrella-like creatures hovering over the most ancient sites – hoary sentinels still standing guard, sheltering their charges from the elements.

Today, the sea is some five-silted up kilometres away, but in the time of Augustus, it was directly on the mouth of the Tiber, making it a major port for the reception of grain and other essential supplies from all over Mare Nostrum. The aristocratic ruling families who lived here built splendid mosaic-embellished houses. Every convenience and necessity: shops, taverns, customs houses, theatres, temples and later churches and even from the end of the 1st century AD, a synagogue was available for the favoured inhabitants.

After my misadventures of the morning, I was afraid that Ostia Antica would prove to be an anticlimax. It emphatically was not. The day was lovely, sunny, warm, with none of the oppressive heat of earlier. As we strolled along the smooth worn paving stones an awareness of the past life of those who had lived and built this ordinary place infused my senses and mind. That word is not a misprint. For this was not a famous town, just an essential one; a place where real people – not Gods or heroes - lived, gave birth, grew up, worshiped, went about their business, and died – and were buried.

Unlike the magnificent Rome whose history and monumental glories overwhelms any sense of the human, here in Ostia Antica it was possible to catch a glance, sniff a whiff of the life of ordinary Romans.

I loved it!!

Not only was there a cascade of ideas and references for ‘Kore Baby!’ pouring into my head, but, with dawning glee I realised that, as much of what we were looking at could be used as a simulacrum for 5th Sinope, I was looking at a template for my Good Bishop’s own world. Yippee – two projects advanced for the price of one!

We took a break for lunch on a sunny terrace, fed three sweet dogs and after our rest continued on our way, walking and talking. The shadows were growing long and the light was no longer sufficient for good photographs when we reluctantly turned our faces in the direction of the train station. It had been a splendid journey into the past.

As before, photos are the work of my long-suffering friend - Spacedlaw

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Martha does Rome with a Little Help From a Friend

Day 3 – Truly Roman Experiences

By now (Thursday) we had established a good working routine: meet at a pre-determined location at 11:00, walk all over the set area until about 01:30; then have a loooong break for lunch; after which the geriatric old bag (me)would head back to her B&B for a siesta.

Today we had planned to look at the area around the Piazza Sant’Ignazio, as the headquarters of the Roma Carabinieri Art Fraud Division is located in the square opposite. We arranged to meet on the steps surrounding the famous Egyptian obelisk in front of the Pantheon. When I wandered up, N. was sitting there contemplating the fake gladiators having their photos taken with the tourists. She is always early and had already been inside to take her pictures.

It was hot and I needed a restorative, so we slipped through an alley to the Sant’Eustachio Café, which is famous for the quality and depth of the foam on its coffee. We had barely finished our espressos, which were excellent, when the advance guard of a party of German–speaking tourists made their presence known. Bit by bit, indifferent to the concerns or feelings of the other patrons, this self-referenced group expanded, filching chairs and adding members, a malignant amoeba overwhelming the café forecourt with noise and bodies. It was time for us to make a move.

We slipped gratefully into the echoing quiet of the Chiesa Sant’Eustachio, said to have been founded by the Emperor Constantine, making it one of the older basilicas in Rome. It provided a welcome relief from the braying Germans.

Leaving the church, we paid our respects to the elephant fountain, a joyous bit of Bernini nonsense and then went quickly into Santa Maria sopra Minerva, which, as the name tells us, is a Christian basilica plopped on top of an older temple to the Roman virgin goddess of warriors & wisdom. Sometime between 1555 – 1559, Pope Paul IV ordered a bronze loincloth attached to the genitals on Michelangelo statue of Christ holding up his cross. What a hypocritical old prude he must have been.

Then it was off to Sant’Ignazio - the piazza and the chiesa. After a few minutes contemplation of the Carabinieri Headquarters we headed into the church, making this a three church day. It seemed to me stunningly appropriate that the police officers dedicated to chasing down art criminals should be watched over by Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Spanish founder of the Jesuits, one of the most superbly rational bodies of thinkers the Western church has ever thrown up. The interior of the church was awash in elaborately carved marble: draperies of polished stone, like frozen velvet, angel flesh so glossy and warm looking I wanted to reach out and caress it. After gorging our senses on this cornucopia of stone fantasies, we reluctantly returned to the glare and noise of midday Rome. It was time for lunch.

As we were not far away, N. suggested that we realise her promise to introduce me to carciofi alla giudea. A ten minute walk brought us to La Taverna del Ghetto, a fitting destination, as it was the egregious Paul IV who, when he wasn’t desecrating art masterpieces, busied himself with creating the Jewish ghetto in Rome. To say that the artichoke was wonderful, doesn’t begin to describe the tangy crunch of the whole plant, slightly flattened and then deep fried to perfection. N. said I was to eat all of it, which is good as I might have needed forcible restraint to keep from devouring it.

*N. has just given me a link to a recipe and the calorie count is a whooping 1155 k's - Ouch!

The day was warm, the wine was tasty, the conversation scintillating and it was soon pushing three o’clock. Time to head for home. We walked through the remnants of the now ended Campo de’ Fiori market to a piazza where we could get a bus to Termini. From there, I, now foolishly proud of my growing mastery of the Roman bus system, jumped on a #31 – headed towards Prati and strait into the start of the three day manifestatzione against Senor Berlusconi’s education policies.

As we crawled down via Nazionale, it began to seem as if this conflagration surrounding us was more than the usual Roman traffic. At last, unable to move further, the bus stopped, the driver got out to talk to a colleague and half the passengers got off. My feet were hurting; I had a front facing seat by the window; no one had told me the bus was terminated; so I remained in my seat. After little more than ten minutes the driver got back into his place and we moved forward, slowly, very slowly. Eventually we reached the Lungotevere, the major traffic artery the runs beside the Tiber and started to inch our way north. By now the bus was packed. Standees were jammed up against each other. Somehow a rumour started that ‘because of the mainifestazione’, the bus would not continue onto Pizza Claudio, its supposed destination. Panicked, about a third of the passengers fought their way off at the next stop. A particularly unattractive red head, who had been eagerly disseminating the rumour, claimed a seat with a smirk - not mine obviously. I had seen the police blocking the entrance to all streets heading back into old Rome and had guessed that there was no way such a story could be true.

Two hours after leaving Termini Station we reached the Ponte Cavour, turned left and sped across the Tiber. Like a greyhound released from a cage the bus roared into flight and in 10 minutes, we charging up via della Giuliana, when I noticed that we were approaching my street – Success – total success! I had found my way home and survived a Roman manifestatzione!

As before, all photos courtesy of Spacedlaw, except the scanned business card.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Weather report

I had intended to post more of my Roman experiences today but it seems the weather gods decided to conspire against me. I had just finished my morning tidying up and other assorted errands and had settled at my desk with a nice cup of strong coffee, when POOF!! - the power went out; and stayed out for over two hours.

It's been blowing like crazy since yesterday. The news said tonight that it's been 25 - 30 m/s all day. The ferries to the mainland are suspended as would are the flights to our local airport, Roomasaare which is reporting some of the strongest winds in Estonia.

Roofs have blown off and windows out from some older apartment buildings in Tallinn. This is not as surprising as it might seem as some of the soviet era buildings were so badly constructed that there's more sand than concrete in the walls. Still I feel sorry for the people affected.

I tried to find a picture of some of the damage, but Delfi , unlike the BBC is not great with pictures; so I found this of a swollen river in South East Estonia which is a part of the country almost as nice as Saaremaa.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Martha does Rome with a Little Help From a Friend.

Day 2 - Justifications

Way back in the foggy mists of last spring, when the ideas for this trip began to coalesce into a reality, the defining principle, the raison d’être was to look at and get a feel for the Roman locations in the new book I had started work on – ‘Kore Baby!’

Now N., despite her Sagittarian patrimony, is a stickler for meeting the terms of an agreement. Therefore the next two days were devoted to work’.We had agreed to meet in the bus plaza in from of the main train station. From there we went above ground to the Piazza Buenos Aries for a look at the Liberty Style buildings of the Coppedé Quartiere, as I had got it into my head that the villa of one of the main characters was situated in this area.

But first a visit to the Chiesa Santa Immacolato which had an antique and Byzantine feel but which had only been constructed in the early 20th century. Next we walked through the Porta Buenos Aries into an early 20th century fantasy world – villas weighted down with decoration of every conceivable genre, frequently repeated in succeeding buildings, as the same artist was responsible for their creation - architect Gino Coppedé.

After that maelstrom of images we retreated to the relative serenity of the Villa Borghese. So engrossed in our conversations were we, that by the time we emerged at the top of the Spanish Steps it was after 2:00 o’clock – almost restaurant mid-day closing time in Rome. N. quickly led us up a shady street where we were soon seated at an outside table. I ordered spaghetti carbonara, while N. who knew better had agnolotto stuffed with truffles in a cream sauce. She took pity on me and offered a taste – pure heaven. More talk - much more talk, over a very interesting bottle of 2006 Shiraz from the Lazio region. The wine was a little rough at first but with time mellowed into something quite drinkable, so we finished it all.

After the wine, all the mornings walking, discussing and the wonderful Mediterranean heat I was finished, so it was home for siesta.

As before photos courtesy of spacedlaw

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Lentil Soup from Trastevere

As mentioned in the earlier post, by the time our waitress served the soup, I was SO stuffed I barely managed to taste three or four bites. But, as it was delicious, I looked and tasted with particular attention in hopes of being able to re-create it at home.

It was a mixture of pulses: beans, green and brown lentil and barley, in a good strong slightly salty stock. It had been thickened by pureeing some of the pulses. N. thought it probably had been cooked with tomatoes. That would give me enough information to get started.
I confess I cheated – slightly. On my last minute assault on the Supermercato in Milano, I picked up package of ‘Zuppa Campagnola di Farro’ and also Fagioli Neri – the second was labelled ‘da Agricoltura Biologica. 2a*
The package directions said to let the grains soak for 6 hours, but I was in a hurry, so I employed the old trick of bringing them to boil in a pot of water, covering and letting them sit for an hour off the heat. I did the same with a handful of the fagioli neri.

Once the main ingredients were ready, I chopped a mix of garlic, sea salt & black pepper to a paste, sautéed that in some olive oil and added a medium onion, finely chopped. Letting that sweat slowly for 10 minutes, I finely diced a medium carrot and added that to the cooking vegetables. Last I added drained pulses, a small glass of tomato juice and two cups of the stock I had made from pork bones, a few dried porcini (Beans were not the only thing I bought in Milano) and the trimmings from the previous nights dinner preparation. Herbs were a dried Provencal mix. That was allowed to simmer for most of the afternoon. To finish I added a splash of Balsamico and a dash of soy sauce – not Italian I know, but it needed something.
The finished product pleased me so much that I wanted to eat the whole pot and it was with great difficulty and several reminders of my diet promises that I restrained myself. That, and I now have a basic recipe for creating a food that will instantly recall a sunny Roman afternoon with a good friend, good rough wine and good soup.

Credits: 1 - National Geographic; 2b – Scan of labels; 3 & 4 - spacedlaw

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Martha does Rome with a little help from a friend

Day 1:Old and New Friendships

As well as a much-needed vacation, this trip to Roma was important to me for a very special reason – I was finally going to meet my LJ Friend – spacedlaw – face-to-face.N. had suggested we meet at Castroni (, a delicatessen-food shop- café not far from the B&B which was my home base for this part of my trip.She was looking in the window as I walked up – N. is ALWAYS – early – and I recognised her immediately. We decided to have a coffee to get acquainted, which wasn’t strictly speaking necessary. Never in my life have I experienced such an instant sense of recognition.

We were shortly on our way; heading first through St Peter’s Square. The tides of people produced a distinct twinge of agoraphobia so we soon turned down Mussolini’s feeble attempt to match the glory of the popes, via della Conciliazione, which took us quickly to the river, passing the Ospedale Santo Spirito and the wooden barrel which had been used to receive unwanted babies.

Then further into Trastevere. We or N. found the perfect place in Ditta Trinchetti (Via della Lungharetta). Stuck in between two touristy looking places was a simple restaurant with it’s menu chalked onto a board, basically, it said: ‘Chose your wine and let us do the rest.’ – in Italian, of course. So we did. That brought us: bruschette made with rusks soaked with olive oil and topped with fresh tomatoes ands basil – lot’s of it; a plate of pickled vegetables and olive, a wooden board with several types of unusual charcuterie and cheeses. Oh, and N. also ordered ‘buratta’ the special fresh cheese that she has written about earlier in her journal. Just when I thought I couldn’t take another bite, the waitress brought the soup – a rich stew of pulses, lentils and diced vegetables. I really, really couldn’t take more than a few small tastes, so I have spent the afternoon trying to recreate it. THAT recipe will make part of my next post.

We finally collapsed in a café near the Palatine Hill for a cold neon yellow drink. Did I mention it was HOT – like high summer in Estonia.

As I lost my new camera just days before leaving for Italy, N. has given me permission to use a few of her photos to illustrate this adventure. You are the beneficiaries as she is a much better photographer than I.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Saakashvilli: 'Baltics will be next"

As I'm sure you can understand, from where I am sitting, literally, the news from Gruusia, as we call it here, is of great concern. This is why I have reposted this item from the Baltic Times.

from The Baltic Times

Aug 14, 2008 By Mike Collier

TBILISI - A day after the Presidents of Estonia, Lithuania and Poland joined Latvian prime minister Ivars Godmanis in a remarkable show of solidarity with Georgia, President Saakshvilli predicted that the Baltic states would be next on Russia's list of military targets.

Speaking at a press conference held on August 13th, Saakashvilli said: "It’s not about Georgia any more. You know, if Russia gets away with this, I can predict now that the Baltic countries will be next, Ukraine may be attacked.
"We’ve seen them – as ruthless, as lawless, as brutal, as arrogant as they can get. They go unchecked. The world community should speak with one voice. We need a big humanitarian relief operation, like the Berlin airlift, because the capital is blocked from all sides. It’s one and a half million people, it’s a modern European city, and it needs a lifeline. The main thing is that if the West fails, it will have tremendous consequences for the years to come."

"I’ve been talking to the West, asking 'Why don’t you do something?' They’ve been saying 'You’re exaggerating; Russia’s not going to do anything.' Now look what they’re doing. This has already exceeded my worst expectations," Saakashvilli said.

He also drew direct parallels between the actions of Russia in South Ossetia, western inaction, and the appeasement of Hitler prior to World War II, saying: "Appeasement in 1938 brought tens of millions of deaths to Europe. Georgia is first like Czechoslovakia was first in 1938, then Poland followed, then the rest of Europe followed, then there was the greatest humanitarian catastrophe the world has ever seen.

"People should wake up. It’s not about Georgia. The bombs they were dropping on us had “This is for NATO” written on the side... Russia did this because they thought that nobody would intervene. So far, that’s been confirmed."

The embattled President added that he was "sickened" by reports that Georgia had provoked the conflict by sending its forces into Tskhinvali and again referred to historical precedents that will have resonance in the Baltic. "You know, Finland also attacked the Soviet Union, according to Stalin. Poland also attacked Germany. Small countries always attack, and then get occupied. It’s high time for people to understand what’s going on," he said.

"For me, frankly, not giving us a MAP [NATO Membership Action Plan] was a signal to Russia. They got the signal. No matter what the justification was, publicly, the Russians got the message. They took it as a signal to attack. I’ve been waiting for the attack for months, warning Western leaders about this."

Saakshvilli also said that part of the reason for Russia's attack was jealousy about Georgia's rapid economic development and relative prosperity. If that is indeed the case, it's another cause for concern in the Baltics, which have streaked away from Russia in terms of their business environments.

"This is also because Georgia is so successful. We were the darling of the World Bank, number 16 or 17 in terms of business environment, leaders in terms of foreign direct investment in the region. We have the lowest corruption in the area, one of the lowest in Europe. We had 12% growth last year, and this year we were anticipating 11%. And of course the Russians were going nuts, because even with their oil and gas we were doing better economically," said the president.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Lucky Saaremaa Wedding

The recent triple-8 date prompted a whole regiment of otherwise rational and unsuperstitious people to schedule one of the few momentous events in the human life cycle over which we have any control – their wedding – for this day. Hey, don’t look at me like that – I chose to be married – way back then – on the Spring Equinox.

On Saaremaa alone, there were eleven of these optimistic couples. One of these, Pablo from Spain and Mai from Saaremaa had invited 80 of their friends and relatives to a traditional island celebration. To say that the location of this happy event was ‘in the back of the beyond’ doesn’t begin to describe the remoteness of their choice. ‘The middle of nowhere’ more closely locates the holiday camp tucked away down 4,6 km of gravel road, surrounded by ancient pines, near the end of the Sõrve Peninsula.

AND since no bride wants to be flipping burgers in her bridle gown, she hired Mahe Köök and its troop of multicultural jugglers and loonies to provide the wedding feast.

We began our preparations on Thursday with cutting and marinating the meats, 80 entrecotes, and cubes of lamb for skewering. Vegetables for the stir-fry were julienned and blanched, potatoes cooked for salad and fresh mayonnaise whizzed up.

On the day, as well as the steaks and kebabs, there would be burgers of lamb or veal and Denis, our budding ‘Grilli-meister’ from Bretagne, would be in charge of the fish. My section was vegetables and salads.

Mid-day Friday, under lowering but not spitting skies we loaded plates, glasses and cutlery for 80, every towel and piece of linen in the restaurant, as well as the gas grill and a wok into two cars and a trailer. The last problem was find places for four WWOOFER’S (We have a new addition – Manuel, originally from El Salvador but now a student at the University in Toulouse) and three nominal grownups: Karen, Alar and myself.

On arrival we found a charming holiday camp with a large wooden hall for the reception, an add-on space from which to serve; close by a white and green tent for the grill station and a lovely flower ringed clearing with a fire in the centre for the traditional wedding dances. The band arrived; two guys with a selection of instruments: accordion, guitar and wood pipes. Shortly after that came a bag-piper wearing Estonian costume. We were ready; the bridal party would be late – naturally.

Once they finally found us, the guests were seated and words of welcome were said; the party could begin. There is an Estonian tradition at weddings that I am especially fond of – ‘Identifying the Guests’. The wedding mistress, asks the members to stand according to different categories: those from Estonia, from Latvia, from Finland, Spain, Peru, Germany…. One by one their place of origin is recognised and noted; other categories are raised: married or single, teachers, doctors, artists, musicians, friends of the bride, of the groom, of both….

If you add in the homeports of our troop: France, El Salvador, Canada the USA, we had here a perfect example of the European Union doing what it does best – bringing people together.

‘Now that we all know each other, the eating can begin.’

And eat and drink they did. Salads and juices had to be replenished. I was as busy as the grill-team turning out stir-fried mushrooms. This is a super year for kukaseinid – in English – chanterelles. We had quartered these lovely golden trumpets and served them with the julienned carrots.

I’m going to make a separate post about the wine, the jambon’ and the dancing but for now – a recipe.

Stir-fried Chanterelles

Serves 2

300 g. fresh chanterelles, brushed clean and quartered
100 g. peeled, julienned and blanched carrots – preferably new organic
1 medium white onion sliced into strips
1 fat glove garlic chopped to a paste with salt & pepper
1 tbls. fresh thyme
small glass of dry white wine
2-3 tbls. sour cream
butter for frying

Heat the butter in a wok or similar pan. I use an Italian padella.
When the butter is foaming add the garlic and fry until fragrant, add the onions and continue frying.
Throw in the mushrooms and fry until they have given off most of their liquid.
Add the carrots, thyme and the white wine
Cook until there is just a small amount of syrupy liquid left
Add the sour cream and warm through, stirring
Taste for salt & pepper and serve

This can go on pasta, potatoes, rice or any other light coloured grain.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Fairy Tales & Frying Pans

The originator of this question is Poliphilio from my LJ-Flist. This morning he wrote:

My friend S.B. - who is a dedicated cook- used to say you should never wash a frying pan. The ancient grease, impregnated with the flavours of a thousand fry-ups, is a treasure, adding subtlety and depth to anything you cook in it. I sometimes let my pan go a day or two without washing- and acknowledge that it's a bit of a thrill when the flavour of yesterday's mushrooms turns up in today's bacon and eggs- but then I start to worry about health and safety and the pan goes into the sink and receives a good scrubbing. Am I being unduly cautious?

My Answer

Once upon a time, which is how all good fairy tales begin; there was a place where the food we raised and bought, cooked and ate was free of pesticides, strange chemicals and even stranger microbes. The animals whose remains were frequently transformed in these old frying pans spent their lives eating grass - as most of them were intended to do and were not asked to eat ground up parts of their cousins mixed with antibiotics and corn oil derivatives. Then a good wipe out was more often than not sufficient, although an occasional date with soapy water couldn't hurt.

What do you think?

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

12th Saaremaa Sea Days

The bumblebees are drunk
today, flitting, impotent, from leaf to leaf.
What strange nectar have they been drinking?

This is an annual event on the first weekend of August; it closes the official summer season. We still get visitors after this – especially on weekends - but the Finns have gone back to work and their schools are starting. Approximately 70% of our tourism business comes from Finland, so the departure of our Northern cousins is noticeable.

My participation in the event this year was minimal. I didn’t plan it that way. Usually it’s good fun with concerts, a sprawling market, competitions and food tents and a chance to catch up with friends who have been away during the summer. I missed all of that.

This year I helped out at Mahe Köök on Friday night. The town orchestra from Pärnu, a sea-side town on the mainland had been invited to participate in the opening ceremonies. Fifty-strong, they would come to us afterward for dinner.

I was very keen to get involved in this as we would be having another go at spit-roasting a whole lamb. Aivar had involved an old friend Urmas in this project and when I arrived at 08.00 the beastie was almost done and some lovely white Cabernet Franc was on offer.

The side vegetables (lisand in Estonian) still had to be prepped so I got straight onto that. As well as fresh salad with local tomatoes – so sweet they should have been dessert, in my opinion – I took roasted beets, cut them into cubes of about two centimetres and tossed them with olive oil, pepper, sea salt and thyme.

There were also new turnips cut onto thick julienne, blanched and mixed with olive oil, pepper, sea salt and rosemary.

After every one was seated, each table sent a delegate to Urmas and me in the courtyard with a plate which we piled high with chunks from the lamb.
They were delighted with the crispy ribs but often sent back the very pink meat from the legs. Most Estonians don’t like their meat rare and this was more than bloody.

Urmas had wired the creature with the legs outspread – a double crucifixion if you will. In my opinion this doesn’t bring the thicker leg into enough contact with the heat source – thus – undercooked leg meat.On the other hand, this meant more of my favourite parts to take home, so I guess I should be happy. However, the perfectionist in me………….

After the eating there was singing and much excellent conversation – don’t ask me to remember what we talked about. I was fine until about 1:30 when Aivar took a bottle of vodka out of the freezer. (next bit censored)

Estonia has very strict drinking and driving limits and they are enforced with vigour and passion – especially on major party weekends. We were fortunate that Aivar’s wife Monika had agreed to be the designated driver for the night and she drove me home about 2:00 in the morning.

Any questions as to why I didn’t make it to the rest of the Merepäevad events?

NB: Photos by Urmas Mägi

Monday, July 28, 2008

High Summer

There is a certain kind of summer morning when the air is sweet – digestible. Neri lifts her head and sniffs, squeezing her eyes with delight, breathing in the flavour. If cats could smile, that look would be it.

It’s high summer. Most of the grains, rye, wheat and barley are in; the hay is cut; spring lamb is coming into sale and the market teems with gorgeous vegetables.

The days are slowly growing shorter. Coming back from a party last night at midnight, the sky was milky blue and indigo – no longer flaunting the lilacs and roses of a few weeks ago. Like all humans, I don’t relish the coming of winter with its biting winds and treacherous ice under innocent looking snow, but as a member of a working agrarian community, I know that like all living things, the land must sleep.

So, like any frugal farmer-hunter-gatherer, I revel in these last months of golden light, storing the sun’s gift of Vitamin D in my cells, slowly filling my freezer with chanterelles and berries, and my larder with tomato sauce, chutneys, apple sauce and dried herbs.

In the meantime, we still have to eat. Last week I got my hands on some fresh-from-the-field organic* Swiss chard and new potatoes.

The baby potatoes, smaller than an egg, with such delicate purple skins, wanted only to be steamed with some mint and served with a drizzle of olive oil, fleur du sel and fresh cracked black pepper. The Swiss chard I stir-fried.

Stir-fried Swiss chard

Recipe for 2-3 servings **

** all amounts are approximate. When cooking for myself I never measure.

200 grams washed Swiss chard
1 white onion sliced into julienne strips
1 fat clove garlic, salt & pepper –chopped together to a paste.
4 – 5 cherry tomatoes cut in half
1 tbls. Aceto Balsamico
A nice splash of rosé wine
Olive oil, salt & pepper to taste

Wash the Swiss chard and separate the stems from the leaves.
Cut the stems into pieces about 3 cm long and shred the leaves into ribbons. Keep separate.
Heat the olive oil in a good sized skillet with a cover and add the garlic, salt &
pepper paste.
After a minute or two add the onion and stir fry for another minute
Add the chard stems and fry another minute of two, stirring regularly.
Repeat with the cherry tomatoes, squishing them down to release the pulp.
Add the shredded leaves, the Balsamico, and white wine. Cover and cook for 4-5 minutes until the leaves are wilted.
Remove cover and turn up the heat to let the juices reduce slightly.
Taste for seasoning
Serve immediately.

I reheated the leftovers with some chicken stock and a handle of tubetti the next day to make soup.

* As I am a member of the local Saare Mahe Organic Farmers Union, all vegetables and most meats that I cook with are local and organic.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Singing Sands of Saaremaa

We were supposed to be on the 08:45 boat for Abruka, an island off the coast of Saaremaa, a 45-minute trip from Roomasaare Port. Only we were a little late and the boat was already over full when we got there. It didn’t help that there were eight of us. A second crossing at 10.30 was also full so we had to make a quick adjustment in out plans for a days outing with our WWOOFERS.

World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms had supplied the Kuressaare Mahe Köök (Organic Kitchen Restaurant) with three brave and able young people to help out over the summer. Laura, originally from Iowa, had lived all over the states. This is her first time in Estonia; while Jean Baptiste and Deni were engineering students from France. J-B had worked in the Baltics the previous summer and liked it so much he came back and brought a friend.

BUT Abruka was out – at least for this week, so what now? My favourite part of Saaremaa is the peninsula known as Harilaid. It is officially part of Vilsandi National Park and a European Biosphere. So far this has kept the area safe from the depredations of property wolves that want to develop it for tourism and to line their pockets.

It is also bloody hard to find. We got lost – not lost, exactly, but onto a road that while leading in the direction of the sea was so rutted and overgrown that to call it a road bordered on perjury. Then J-B in the lead car went into a deep mud hole and stopped – less than 100 meters from the beach – in case you were wondering.

We did finally manage to get the car out backward - so off to the beach we went.

BUT this beach was not really part of Harilaid. We could see the Promised Land with its eternally tipsy lighthouse but we weren’t there. After lunch and a swim we set off determined to get where we had intended to be.

After 45 minutes of driving around in circles we reached the park entry gate, decided to postpone walking to the lighthouse for another time and headed – again – for the beach. It WAS worth it.

There were no clouds. The colours were… pastel doesn’t do them justice. Our entire world seemed to be made of melting ice cream; the sky was blueberry sorbet, the dune grasses pistachio and honey while the sand – luscious vanilla studded with seeds from the pod.

AND the sand really does sing. When you walk along it crinkles, squeaks and chirps under your feet.

Photos: 2, 3 & 4 by Alar Alas, #1 by M. Hubbard

Thursday, July 24, 2008

True Wealth

I've been to the library today. This is an event of singular importance in my life. For three weeks, I have had almost nothing to read except the daily newspaper. The last time I went into our town library I made the unhappy discovery that I had long since read all of the books in English there that interested me - some of them twice.

I suspect that there are other English speaking peripatetics out there who will agree that one of the most challenging aspects of adjusting to life in - still another bloody new country - is finding a source of books in English and conversation in English.

We instinctively adopt a whole range of strategies to deal with these issues: informal lending libraries, weekly dinners, an obsession with Amazon and begging letters to friends and family back in the old country.

I was absolutely delighted then when a few years ago the ambassadress herself came down to open a new American Corner in our local ramatukogu. Indeed this has provided immense amounts of ease during the long dark winter nights. BUT & ARGH by May of this year - there was nothing left - new - to read. I was desolate, to say the least.

However today, Hurrah and all hail - there is new stock. I have a new-ish Harlan Coben 'The Woods', a collection of short stories by Julian Barnes, 'The Lemon Table, and the biography of Willem de Kooning which won the Pulitzer. I feel like Croesus - and on that note I'm going to bed with my treasures. .

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Begin at the beginning

Since I have promised that this blog is to be about writing and food, and, since I have been persuaded that any serious aspiring writer MUST have a blog, I am starting off with a poem about the island that has given me shelter.

The Islander

Patches of fog, lifting heavily from the water into the warmer air; the planes didn’t fly last night because of it. Most of the stranded Tallinners took the earliest busses – homesick I guess for solid ground. The air is full of water; white dolomite churches rising steeply, snow-still

So many shades of grey: the sky, some trees, water in a drainage ditch, ice along the edges of a pond is silver pools of snow-melt reflected in a leaden sky, framed by dead grasses

Stonewalls are blue, lavender, yellow & green; however, moss is emerald – always, unless it’s velvet brown – the colour of a collar on a child’s Chesterfield coat.

Pines are a different green: murky and dusty – hidden

Scents of burnt brush and rotting leaves, mould turned over: ochre, damp, brown, muted steel, soggy mist, whispering around the roof tops hunkering down, a shaggy rumbling bear turning round and around, flattening the lair before sleep; twigs of pine, birch, ash and oak;

the oaks are making a come back I hear.

There is no point in describing the rest; the details are too well known by those who know, and those who don't know by now would never understand. It is enough to say that I did not return from the cold land. But sometimes, in that few moments between day and night, in that blue instant between death and life, I can see her and I remember home.

Its cold here always, very cold; bodies in the permafrost take a long time to decay. Perhaps that's why, even after all this time I can still hear their voices: my friends, neighbours, family, desk-mates, shop clerks, teachers, the gulls, fish, pines singing in the wind, the dead, the unborn and the living.

Published in an anthology on house / home / shelter / homelessness by University of Central Lancashire, August 2007