Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Italy - the food (the meals)

Our daily breakfast

I had the pasta aglio olio e peperoncino, which was fantastic. Other dishes included the best gnocchi I've ever had and a nice fish soup/stew. The restaurant was one of Paolo's recommendations and it was just around the corner from our B&B. We were a bit surprised at the 2 euro cover charge per head but it turns out that this is standard across restaurants - it can make a cheap meal very expensive but for a moderately priced meal this built-in tip works out to be about right.

Another one of Paolo's recommendations. We came here twice and both meals were excellent. This time around I had the baccalau (salted cod) and polenta cooked in the traditional style. The second time I had a delicious artichoke ravioli.

The final late lunch meal was enjoyed at Caffe Falconi. Finally, some good bread was served in the bread basket along with olive oil and vinegar for drizzling.

- A special mention goes to Sandrella: Cucina Indiana, a somewhat dodgy looking Indian take-out and kebab joint that was our saviour when we went out looking for a place to eat only to found that Bergamo pretty much shuts down on Monday evenings. We had three keema, mutter rolls that had been fried in a polenta type flour, a serving of paneer palak, a bowl of daal, a roti, two naans, drinks, and my sister and mother also had gulab jamun for desert (which was too sweet). It all came to less than 15 euros and is quite possibly the best indian take out food I have ever eaten.

- Elsewhere on the food front, I saw two shops that comprised of nothing more than rooms filled with several vending machines that spat out hot food. In Italy of all places!

- The biggest lesson I learned from eating in Italy is that you only need a few simple, good quality ingredients to make a great tasting dish. My fish and polenta, spaghetti and ravioli were exceeding simple main courses and they were superb. As someone who pretends to cook by throwing every spice in sight on my creations, it is a lesson that less can be more.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Italy - the food (a cafe culture)

Not a Starbucks in sight.

A coffee in Bergamo is an espresso and it's also the cheapest item on the drinks menu. What is more, when you order it with a small jug of cold milk you pretty much get two drinks for the price of one ... nice.

A peculiar quirk of the cafe's in Bergamo is that tea always costed way more than coffee despite have a much lower cost of production and taking less time to prepare.

Cafe del Tasso is a great cafe on the main square (Piazza Vecchia) in the old upper town of Bergamo. It ain't cheap but it isn't a rip-off, unlike the cafe's on St Mark's square in Venice, and the square is beautiful.

The cafe also has a rich 500 year history.

A yesteryear photo of Cafe del Tasso

On our last day, we thought we had better visit lower Bergamo. Afterall, it was the region where we were staying! It was here that we found Caffe Falconi, a cafe where there were no tourists except for our goodselves. Falconi has character and charm in spades. The walls are dotted with books, old photos, bottles, etc, and the workers are always busy either serving drinks or clearing tables, or switching the tables and counters around for the different services (drinks, lunches etc) of the day.

We popped in to have a coffee and then came back for lunch. Service was first class, everything tasted great, portion sizes were generous, and the prices were perfectly pitched.

There is no question, Caffe Falconi is my favourite cafe of all time.

The chap above was great. When we asked for the menu he said 'I am the menu' and went through everything on offer for the day.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Italy - the food (snacks)

Oh, the food.

First the snacks.

A typical window in Bergamo's Alta Citta (the ancient, walled upper city)

The day we left for Bergamo we went to a Pizza Express in the UK so we could compare pizzas. Alas, of the three times we had pizza in Bergamo, twice it was a thick crust fast food slice and once it was made in the turkish style. Good quality, fresh, thin crust pizza was available in the restaurants but there was just too much other food to enjoy at meal times. Maybe next time.

Even the drinks cans in Italy are more stylish - they hold the same volume as a standard can but they are tall and slender.

The little yellow sweet is a miniature version of a Bergamo speciality. It's called Polenta e Osei and was very sweet and marzipanny - not my cup of tea, but nice if you like marzipan.

The cannoli alla crema was okay but nothing special. I was expecting a soft crust but it was crisp and crunchy. Still, it worked as a sugar fix.

These breads were something special. Filled with raisins of different varieties these were made for ideal carry around food. I also bought a salty, olive oil, foccacia bread dotted with olives which was delicious as a savoury. Along with some fruit bought at the supermarket, this it made for a nice little picnic along the waters edge in a fishing village in Lecco, about an hour from Bergamo.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Italy - the people

- I loved observing the people in Italy. Benches in the parks and piazzas were filled with older Italians discussing the issues of the day, and tables at restaurants provided the typical scene of the large families enjoying long, hearty meals.

- The people of Italy are definitely more stylish than the British and this is true across every age group. The main photo above was taken on a boat trip, with the two guys dressing and posing as if they have stepped right out of a Tommy Hilfiger advertisement. In the UK, our culture is one of modesty and not drawing attention to ourselves, and such a look just would likely attract sneers of derision, shock, and laughter, in equal measures. However, why our clothes have to be so ill-fitting remains a mystery.

- White is the new black. In a three minute walk back to our b&b we spotted five people wearing white trousers.

Of course, you can take anything too far:

Italy - random pics

My luggage, or 'bagagli', for a six day trip. It's just one shoulder bag worth of gear. I returned home with an unworn pair of trousers and a spare t-shirt.

The public water is perfectly drinkable and is readily available around Bergamo.

One of the alley paths in the beautiful town of Varenna, on the edge of Lake Como. We went to Bellagio from here and I wasn't too impressed. It was too glitzy and way too busy, like a Varenna gone wrong.

Time rusts everything to gold. Things just don't weather as beautifully in the UK.

A wonderful poster from a film festival that was being held in the Alta Citta (Upper city).

Bergamo is a most beautiful city but it is absolutely plastered with graffiti. That said, there was no sense of danger or vandalism beyond this 'street art' - it's almost as if the police have agreed not to prosecute the graffiti offenders in exchange for an elimination of serious crime. The level of tolerance seems very strange indeed.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Italy - Tea without milk

Thankfully our B&B had tea and coffee facilities. However, because there was no milk when we arrived late in the night, we ended up lightly brewing up a couple of cups sin latte - after all, an Englishman must have his tea! The tea was quite the revelation and I imagine it could make for a great drink on those hotter days when you want something light and refreshing.

Tea without milk doesn't work so well with the standard UK blends (e.g. PG Tips) but we've bought a whole bunch of different teas and will experiment to find which ones work best. Variables to adjust include tea type, water type, and brew time.

PS - The first tea-bag I experimented with is an old dark fruity tea from Mauritius, which was about ten years old and had been lying at the back of our tea cupboard like an old tumbleweed. Tasted great.

Italy - Tiger mosquitoes

These bad boys were feeding on us during our stay in Bergamo, and it looks like they may be coming to the UK.
On the upside this was the first holiday where I diligently applied a quality 24 hour sunblock and didn't suffer any prickly heat. Nice.

Italy - general scenes (40 pics)

Friday, July 24, 2009

Recipe - 'That's what I'm talking about' smoked kippers

The term 'that's what I'm talking about' turns up in popular culture in the 1929 Fats Waller song 'The Joint is Jumping'. More recently I understand it was used extensively by Lee Mcqueen in The Apprentice. Here, I am using it for a smoked kipper recipe, first introduced to me in an episode of Red Dwarf ('Smoke me a kipper skipper, I'll be back for breakfast') and again as a recipe idea in Gentleman's Relish.

I was in two minds about trying this fish because I know the kipper is very bony and I am averse to all matter of bones, even vegetable bones (i.e. seeds). However, when I learned that kipper bones are of the edible variety and not the type that get lodged in your throat I thought I'd give them a try.

We used 'Taste the Difference' kippers from Sainsbury's as they were on offer, and I figured that if I didn't like these then economy kippers would offer no joy. It paid off big time. Some of the bones were flaked off with a fork but I ate most of them without any mouth-feel whatsoever. I'll be eating these again, most definitely.


Grill a kipper for 10 minutes, turning occasionally. Serve with a wedge of hot buttered wholegrain toast and a mug of tea.

That's what I'm talking about.

'There is evidence to show that herring (kippers) formed part of the prehistoric diet from as early as 3000 BC.' - Gentlemen's Relish

Italy - B&B review : L'Angolo del Poeta

We stayed at an ace B&B called L'Angolo del Poeta in lower Bergamo. Paolo the proprietor provided a convenient shuttle service to and from the airport, weather updates, travel advice, and excellent itineraries and eating recommendations. His 'collaborator' cooked up a good portion of scrambled eggs for a relaxed breakfast in the mornings. Also, because the collaborator is a strict muslim we didn't need to worry about the breakfast being halaal, which made for a nice added bonus.

The only negative of the stay is no fault of the b&b but of the weather - the first night was baking hot and the lack of air conditioning took some getting used to. That said, we were accommodated with another electric fan the following day and all was well as the weather stepped down a notch following a storm - it's a good thing too, as we had to close the window to stop mosquito's getting in and feasting on us with abandon during the night.

The B&B itself is beautiful and even if it isn't located in the best part of town the proximity to all amenities, restaurants, etc makes the trade-off worthwhile. The building also has secure access, a supermarket a few doors down, and it is very well designed, in an old, rustic style with a pleasant communal area (which has a laptop connected to the internet for all to use).

If I returned to Bergamo I'd happily stay at Paulo's B&B again, although given my weak constitution for hot conditions I may look for a place with AC if it was really hot.

Overall, it was a fantastic stay made even better by a great host.

4.5 / 5

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Back from Italy

Had a great time in Bergamo (near Milan), with many feasts for the eyes and the stomach.

Photos and commentary to follow over the next few days.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Off to Italy

For a week, so all will be quiet on the blogging front. Ciao.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


I just achieved a personal best score of 396 in Scrabble, a most curious game that is plenty intellectual but still with a good element of luck. The game can also feel terribly awkwardly tortuous at times, particularly when you know you have lost and there is still much to run, a position I know too well ... not this time though!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Film review - Public Enemies

Public Enemies is your typical Michael Mann fare. On the one hand you have first class shoot-outs and half decent acting (although I'm not sure about Christian Bale as Dillinger's nemesis), but on the other hand you have an undefinable blandness that comes with all of Mann's films, terrible sound (apart from the gunfire), and a pretty weak script.

In terms of the sets, costume design, props, etc the film is stylistically brilliant, with beautiful attention to the details of the time, but a film needs more than that to make it worthwhile.

London July 2009

Just had another nice day trip in London today.

We found free parking right outside Euston station, where we met my sister who has come down from Dubai for the summer. In around seven hours, we visited:

- The Wellcome Collection galleries - a personal pet favourite
- Regent's Park - had a small picnic in my favourite of London's major parks
- Marble Arch - coffee and sandwich enjoyed at a side street cafe
- Hyde Park - much of a muchness
- St James Park -treated to free live orchestra playing the James Bond theme
- Trafalgar Square - saw Anthony Gormley's live installation piece
- Leicester Square - had a slice of pizza
- Chinatown - fantastic Dim Sum meal

The triangular walk covered approx 14 km (8.7 miles), taking over 20,000 steps and burning around 500 calories along the way according to my pedometer.

A few pics from along the way:

This area just outside Euston used to be a barren concrete wasteland. It's now filled with tables and benches and many food stalls.

Le picnic at Regent's Park
Anthony Gormley's live piece at Trafalgar Square:

Pizza at Leicester Square. No way near as good as last time but it did the job and provided vital sustenance for the three minute trek to Chinatown!

Funky street art

The Chinatown dim sum feast at the ever reliable Lido's, an old haunt from my university days. It was largely a sea-food bonanza with squid, prawns and some other business, and it was all delicious. The custard buns were an added bonus. We thought they had gone cold by the end of the meal but the gooey insides were still nice and warm - these little buns taste as if they are made from the clouds in the heavens! To make matters better, the bill tallied to a mere £6.30, each including the jasmine tea and service (i.e equal to the money saved on buying Travelcards).