Vigevano. The Renaissance in Lombardy

I’ve been working on this post for more than a year. Like many other posts written about Lombardy, this one got left in my draft pile. We spent one day in Vigevano, but as most of our time was taken up touring the fabulous Castello Sforzesco, along with a very good lunch, I feel I was cheated. When I return to Vigevano, I’ll stay in centro in a little apartamento overlooking the most beautiful Piazza in Italy, if not the world, the Piazza Ducale. Dream on.

In a country brimming with Renaissance architecture, it would be hard to choose which town might be considered the most beautiful, the most ideal Renaissance city. Maybe we could just settle for a short list? What is the framework for making such a claim? Do we choose on the basis of architecture, famous art, sculpture, painting, churches, piazze, harmonious urban landscape, civic pride or all of the above? Tourists in search of the Italian Renaissance in situ might put Florence near the top of the list, given that city’s fame. I personally find Florence dark, uninviting and not so harmonious when it comes to all things Rinascimento. Florence is crowded and many tourists are happy to see the fake David and Donatello, wander over the Ponte Vecchio, traipse through the Uffizzi for hours, catch a Masaccio or Giotto in one of the smaller churches, get in the queue to wander through Duomo, swoon if your name is Stendhal,¹slurp a gelato in Piazza della Signoria, wolf down an overpriced panino or pasta, then claim to have ‘done’ Florence.

The perfect piazza alla Bramante.

The Humanist writers of the 14th and 15th centuries were part of the great advertising think tank of the Florentine Renaissance. This hype culminated in the writing of Giorgio Vasari, evident in his Le Vite de’ Più Eccellenti Pittori, Scultori, ed Architettori.  (Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, sculptors and Architects). Published in 1550, ‘Lives‘ was the first art history written, presenting a distinct Florentine bias. I often get the feeling that Vasari’s prejudice is alive and well, nearly 500 years later. Florence has a great deal to offer in terms of understanding many aspects of the Renaissance, but other less famous cities do so equally and are more pleasant to visit.

Piazza Ducale, Vigevano

Up until recently, the city of Urbino in the Marche region sat at the top of my “Best Renaissance city” list. Under the rule of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino from 1444 to 1482, the town of Urbino flourished. Federico da Montefeltro was a successful condottiere, a gifted diplomat and an enthusiastic patron of art and literature. Ruling for four decades, he set out to reorganise the state, making the city of Urbino ‘comfortable, efficient and beautiful’. Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano, the Book of the Courtier, published in 1528, which outlined the standards for the modern European gentleman, was founded on Federico’s court. It was the Renaissance place to be in terms of language and letters.

The famous portrait by Piero della Francesca, Dyptich of the Dukes of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza, 1465-1472 circa. And what an amazing match of the two most important Renaissance families of that era.
Piazza Ducale Vigevano

Vigevano is a small town in Lombardy that could also claim the same title of Città Ideale of the Renaissance. The central part of the town, the Piazza Ducale, leads the eye in every direction- along the arched colonnades, through the inviting side streets, upwards towards the apartments overlooking the piazza, and then back down towards the Cathedral and further along into the grand Castello Sforzesco.

Vigevano is located around 35 kms from Milano in the Lomellina district of Lombardy. I was seduced by the graceful Piazza Ducale. Designed by Bramante, this is one of Italy’s most beautiful piazzas. The building was instigated by Duke Ludovico Sforza (il Moro) and work began in 1492. It was intended to serve as a stately forecourt to the castle and did so for some time. It is shaped in an elongated rectangle measuring 134 metres by 48 metres and is enclosed with arched porticos supported by 84 columns. The porticos have carved capitals, each one carved differently.

Castello Sforzesco

The castle, which rises up at the town’s highest point, dates back to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The castle was built in two consecutive stages, one under the Visconti and the other under the Sforza. The Visconti era is marked by  paranoia in design, as seen in the strada coperta, a secret exit from the castle. The latter architectural additions under the Sforza are marked with grace and openness. The artistic contribution of Donato Bramante cannot be understated-  his arches seem to balance lightly on stiletto shoes. So light, so graceful. During this period, the castle became one of Europe’s richest Renaissance courts, not unlike that of Urbino. Both leaders, Montefeltro and Lodovica Sforza were allies and skillful diplomats.

Stables, Castello Sforzesco
Falconiera, Castello Sforzesco

There is much to see and experience in Vigevano. A castle covering more than 2 hectares, a fine cathedral, a museum dedicated to the history of shoes ( Vigevano is the shoe making centre of Italy) and much more. But my main reason for wanting to return is simple. It’s that beautiful piazza that takes the prize: it is the centre stage of Vigevano. Theatrical, seductive and yet restrained, it invites you to take a stroll, to cross over, or to take shelter under Bramante’s arches in inclement weather, to whisper, to meet up with your lover, to be incognito or conversely to parade and strut about in your new shoes. Like all the best Italian piazze, Vigevano’s Piazza Ducale gives meaning and depth to that little Italian word, Centro.

La strada coperto, Visconti paranoia in Castello sforzesco

¹ I also suffer from Stendhalismo  when visiting Duomo in Firenze.

 

Cooking Siciliano and the Oregano Festival

I can’t imagine a garden without herbs. Or cooking without herbs. Or life without herbs. If I were marooned on a desert island and had just one food request, I would choose fresh herbs. And if then forced to choose only one herb, the answer might well be oregano.

Dried oregano from last week’s pick.

Although a perennial herb, oregano has distinct seasons. It shoots up in Spring, producing tall hard stems with bracts of pale mauve flowers. It’s best to harvest these stems once in full flower and hang to dry. If you’ve ever bought a packet of dried wild Greek or Sicilian oregano, you’ll notice that the flowers are favoured. By harvesting the mature stems, the plant will reinvigorate for summer and beyond. It is alive in winter, but not so productive.

Today’s pick, ready to hang.

Every time I gather bunches of oregano and string them up, I can almost taste the savoury crunch, salty sea air, pizza, fish, pickled olives, capers and the Mediterranean all rolled into one little sensation. I first tasted this herb in 1968, the year I first ate pizza. A few years later, as a cash strapped student with two infant children, my favourite weekly treat was a bag of oregano laced olives from the little Greek grocery shop on the corner of Canning Street. I am still searching for that same taste, that excitement that transported me away from my childhood diet of bland British/Australian cuisine, and into the firm embrace of Cucina Mediterranea.

Dried oregano, bagged for the ‘export’ market and oregano salt,

When making a simple pizza sauce (with garlic, extra virgin olive oil, and tomatoes, fresh or canned) I invariably choose to add dried oregano. When cooking fish, a simple fillet of flathead, a snapper or a pesce spada alla siciliana ( swordfish), oregano usually stars in the sauce. Its earthy, slightly bitter flavour bonds well salt, garlic and oil. Fresh oregano, olive oil and vinegar is a perfect dressing for a warm potato salad or is the final blessing, along with a squeeze of lemon, on fried saganaki or halloumi.

Pan fried flathead, dusted in seasoned riceflour, cooked in EV olive oil, dressed in salmoriglio.

I often feel enslaved by my food memories, though it’s a pleasant kind of servitude. One other vivid recollection involving oregano is the day I first tasted Salmoriglio, that famous Sicilian sauce and marinade. We were sitting in a little restaurant in Palermo. It was late Spring in the year 2000. The decor spoke of that era- terracotta paving on the floor, Mediterranean tiles on the walls, and colourful Italian made platters and plates. We ordered Pesce Spada, grilled swordfish, dressed with Salmoriglio. It came with oven roasted potatoes and grilled red peppers on the side. To this day, it is the fish sauce of choice.

Flathead alla Siciliano.

Salmoriglio

There are a few variations on the theme of salmoriglio. Some recipes add capers or anchovies. I think the following recipe comes closest to that taste true of Palermo. It can be a sauce or a marinade for vegetables. The sauce is best used straight away or within 24 hours. I made it last night for a sauce to go with pan fried flathead fillets, and today I used the remainder to marinate some zucchini and tiger prawns, which were then grilled.

  • 6 tablespoons fresh oregano leaves, removed from woody stems
  • 2 large cloves garlic
  • course sea salt flakes to taste
  • juice of one large lemon
  • zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 6 tablespoons EV olive oil
  • 1-2 tablespoons hot water

Mash the leaves with a pinch of salt flakes and garlic in a mortar and pestle. Pound well to amalgamate into a rough paste. Add the lemon peel and oil. Continue to pound then add the lemon juice and a little hot water, mixing well to make the sauce creamy. You can gently warm this sauce if you wish. If you make it in a food processor, the sauce will have a dense consistency and will not be so rustic or tasty.

Gamberi e Zucchini alla Griglia con Salmoriglio.

Oregano Salt Recipe.

  • 1/4 cup of dried oregano leaves
  • 2 tablespoons sea salt crystals.

Grind in a coffee or spice grinder and store in a jar. Add to baked vegetables, fresh tomatoes, Greek potatoes.

So what food would you choose on your desert island dear reader? My choice of oregano assumes that I will also have a fishing rod.

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Melbourne for Kids. The Old Melbourne Gaol.

This story was written six months ago, and for some reason, sat idly in my draft folder. Although these activities took place last winter, the same or similar code breaking scavenger hunts take place every school holiday period in The Old Melbourne Gaol. The current summer holiday activity for kids, A Word from Ned , is similar to the  activity described in the winter programme below.

 It’s school holiday time in Melbourne, bitterly cold outside and the gang of three has arrived for a week. Keeping three youngsters aged 8, 9 and 11 busy AND away from their glowing devices is a challenge. I was warned by their parents that I would probably fail in my attempt to limit their iPad time to 30 minutes per day. ‘Good luck with that’, they laughed. An activity programme was called for, one written in consultation with Oliver, who wrote the timetable and costed the events. We decided to check out the Old Melbourne Gaol, a great spot for some morbid entertainment. During the school holidays, all young visitors receive an activity booklet, Escape the Gaol, which keeps them busy, frantically looking for clues on each floor of the gaol, in order to receive an official stamp and finally ‘escape’. Younger children may need a hand with some of the trickier questions and riddles: the constant walking up and down narrow metal staircases provides some physical exercise for the accompanying adults.

Inside the corridors of Old Melbourne Gaol.

After a mad search for clues on the floors and walls of cells, the children learnt to co-operate with each other and share their answers, a fine learning goal and one I encouraged. The activity took over an hour to complete. Many gruesome spectacles can then be enjoyed on each floor, especially the hanging rope area and trap door drop, the copies of death masks on display throughout many cells, and the Ned Kelly paraphernalia and other stories of woe. ‘Such is Life‘ to quote Ned’s last words.

Hanging platform, Old Melbourne Gaol
Hanging Scaffold

I had a particular interest in visiting the older part of the gaol, originally called the Eastern Gaol. My great- great- grandmother, Catherine, was locked up in this dungeonesque place for a brief time in 1857. She had been found wandering the streets of Melbourne and locked up for vagrancy and madness. I am still trying to piece together her story. As her seven children were eventually admitted to the Melbourne poor house for orphans, the Eastern gaol became her last refuge and place of demise. After a short stay, she managed to find the store containing a bottle of poisonous cleaning fluid and drank the contents. Her consequent death guaranteed an instant escape from gaol, and what must have been a tragic life.

Almost steam punk.

The Old Melbourne Gaol was erected in stages between 1851 and 1864 by the Public Works Department of the Colony of Victoria, the design is attributed to Henry Ginn, Chief Architect of the Department. The oldest remaining section ,the Second Cell Block (1851-1853), consists of a long block with three tiers of cells terminating in the central hall (1860), the site of the hanging scaffold. This is the site you will visit. Included in the total tour cost is a visit to the City Watch house, a more modern building next door, where actors dressed as police yell and intimidate you before you land in a darkened cell with your other fellow inmates. This building, although not as evocative as the older building, is well worth a visit for the 1960s lock up experience. The graffiti on the walls speak of sadness, racism, and poverty.

Graffiti etched walls of City Watch House
The Watch House has been left perfectly intact since it was vacated.

This is a great day out for kids over 8: they eagerly donned replicas of Ned’s armour and after the tour, we chatted about the Ned Kelly Legend, came home on the train and sang this song.

Daisy in Ned Kelly helmet.

Other free activities nearby include a visit to the State Library, an historical landmark and a grand building from the Melbourne Boom era. Kids are keen to climb the stairs to the top level and to see a busy library, full of readers and others playing board games. At present there’s a display of wonderful old manuscripts and books on Level 3.

View from above. Melbourne State Library.

The shot tower inside Melbourne Central is opposite the State library, which rounded out our short historical tour of colonial Melbourne.

Shot tower, Melbourne Central.

We travelled by tram and train to the city. Many kids who live in the outer suburbs spend most of their time being driven about in cars: public transport is a novelty in itself. The cost of $70 for a family of 5 for the tour of the gaol was quite reasonable. I can highly recommend this tour to Melbourne residents as well as tourists looking for something a little different in the centre of the city.

Trams are a novelty for many suburban kids.
Melbourne city views
Melbourne, always changing.
Melbourne central

One week in Pavia. Part 1, Ponte Coperto

Over the summer holidays, I plan to polish off a few of my unfinished posts from 2018. Some of these concern Pavia in Lombardy, Italy. Instead of finalising these posts months ago, I’ve found myself crawling back down that rabbit hole of historical research, one of the great side benefits of travel.

In hindsight, we should have stayed longer in Pavia: a week was not long enough to explore the historical centre of town as well as the nearby villages and surrounding countryside. Pavia is a university town, and like many others, we found the student population added vibrancy and life to the city. The city is small enough to explore on foot, with castles, towers and churches from the Longobardian era through to the late medieval Visconti and the Renaissance Sforza periods. The Lombardian countryside, especially the wine growing district of the Oltrepo, provided glorious hill-top views of vineyards and wineries, with nearby small village trattorie. The nearby villages of the Lomellina area, known for their famous rice fields dating back to the 13th century, border the Ticino and Po rivers and are a short drive from Pavia. Dotted along the way are yet more red bricked, austere Visconti castles and solid brick Romanesque churches, as well as inviting rural pasticcerie, each one famous for a particular biscotto. Other side trips included travelling along the Via Francigena, the ancient camino that in medieval times connected Canterbury to Rome. Another day was spent in Vigevano, the most beautiful Renaissance town in Italy, challenging Urbino (in the Marche region) for that title. The little water-mill, the Mulino di Mora Bassa, contains a permanent exhibition dedicated to beautiful replicas of Leonardo’s machines, for those who are interested in the technical genius of Leonardo and his contribution to agricultural and hydraulic equipment.

Ponte Coperto,  Pavia

The Ponte Coperto ( covered bridge) dominates the entrance to Pavia, spanning the Ticino river. The river divides the city in two- Centro Storico on one side, the historical centre of Pavia, and the more suburban Borgo on the other. Borgo was once inhabited by fishermen and washerwomen but is now gentrified and charming, and provides some convenient Airbnb apartments as well as parking.

The Borgo district, now gentrified.

Il Ponte Coperto has had a few incarnations throughout history. It was built in Roman times and then rebuilt during in 1354 during the Visconti era. This medieval bridge was bombed by the Allied forces ( American/British) during WW2 and replaced between 1949 to 1951. The bombing occurred on three occasions, making it impassable during the 1940s. The new bridge was meant to be a replica of the old medieval bridge, but with some modern necessities. Indeed the modern bridge appears quite ancient and ‘authentic’ on the surface. Many of the original features have been included, such as a chapel, arches and a covered roof. The footings of the two earlier bridges can still be seen in the river near the current bridge.

Old Covered Bridge, Pavia, built in 1370s, damaged by allied bombing in 1944.  Source, G. Chiolini.  G 
The old Covered bridge after the Allied bombing in 1944. courtesy G. Chiolini

Of course there’s a story about the rebuilding of the Ponte Coperto: things are never straight forward in Italy when it comes to restoration and bureaucracy, even more so when dealing with a 600 year old bridge, known and loved for its strength and medieval beauty. Several experts estimated that the damage caused to the bridge by the Allied bombing was not so severe as to prevent a complete restoration, “as it was and where it was”. A lively debate took place around Pavia, involving engineers, historians and architects, the city council and in the general population, between the supporters of the old bridge and its “executioners”. Over a period of three years, the debate continued to rage until the old bridge was finally demolished in 1948, and replaced by the current copy. The current bridge was built 30 metres downstream from the old bridge, and is perpendicular to the river, unlike the old bridge which was shorter and wider and on a diagonal. The new bridge is taller, the new arches are thinner, and are constructed in reinforced concrete and veneered in red brick, a building material utilised in many medieval buildings throughout Pavia. The two portals are completely different. Even today, some consider this bridge a caricature of its former self. But of course, in the eyes of the casual visitor, the bridge looks like it fits in well and even appears to be an ‘old’ bridge. The same questions will always arise about the pros and cons of Restoration versus Renovation or Remodelling. There’s always a Disneyland aspect when attempting to copy an ancient building. At dusk, when the foggy mist of November hovers over the Ticino, then glides through the bridge after dark, making the air wet and cold and eerie, the bridge feels ancient. There are moments when you feel those medieval spirits crossing over the Ticino on their way to midnight mass in centro, with whispered stories of goats, Archangel Michael and a pact made with the devil.

Remains of the Old Covered Bridge

A few links relating to questions in this post.

https://www.liutprand.it/articoliPavia.asp?id=67

http://www.pavialcentro.it/en/monumenti/dal-ponte-coperto-san-giorgio-montefalcone-leggende/ponte-coperto

Designer Clothing Outlet in Sanur, Bali.

This post is about a special clothing designer store in Sanur Bali, but it is also my tribute to Sarina, a modern Balinese woman, who is full of beans. She is humourous, intelligent, worldly and an assertive feminist. The real Bali reveals itself through continued conversation and friendships made over the years and I enjoy re-visiting Sarina annually.

A trip to Sanur, Bali would not be complete without a few visits to Sarina’s shop. Sarina is a qualified dressmaker, producing designer clothes, mostly in classic styles in good quality fabric. She is an exporter, but also keeps a range in her little shop. Her stock comes in a vast size range from size 8 to 22. Over the last 7 years I’ve bought a variety of plain coloured tops from Sarina. They wash well a never pill or shrink and wear so well. I’m still have pieces from five years ago.

The beautiful Sarina, designer and tailor.

This is a most un-Balinese shop. Sarina doesn’t really stock typical Balinese holiday wear, her clothes are not tropical. She doesn’t negotiate on the price, but nor does she haggle or insist that you buy anything. Her display is not very appealing, with huge bags stacked around the room; her shop doubles as her warehouse. She specialises in heavier cotton fabrics more suitable for Melbourne or Paris, useful classic casual clothing, mostly tops and bottoms rather than dresses. There are a few frivolous, blingy multi- coloured pieces but most people who know about this secret designer store will be hunting down her plain coloured classic skirts and tops. She doesn’t need to spruke or promote her wares, relying on repeat customers and word of mouth. I was introduced to Sarina by a good friend: last year I introduced some friends and family. This is how it works.

The prices in Sarina’s store are fixed and a good deal more expensive than what she calls ‘Bali shit,’ the cheap mass- produced little dresses that are commonly seen throughout Bali. A good sleeveless top might cost around AU$13 or so, a little more for skirts and cardigans. You can also buy Sarina’s tops in Williamstown ( a suburb in Melbourne) for over $50, so her prices are comparatively very reasonable. It’s a good opportunity to stock up on some useful layers.

Popular combo. I bought the sleeveless top and tend to stick to her very good black range.

Once you decide to try a few things on, you must submit yourself to Sarina who will fit and dress you before you get a chance to look in the mirror. A good tailor knows how things should sit: she will adjust the shoulders, and has a distaste for clothes that pull and stretch over the body. She will assess your size the moment you walk in the door. I usually ask her what’s new for the year, and she will begin dragging tops from big bags for me to try on. The experience is delightful and funny: you simply tell her what colours and styles you like and out they come. Accompanying males can sit on a chair inside and watch the show, or are seated outside in the market lane under a tree.

Aladdin’s cave.

Once the commerce is over, I like to return to see Sarina for an occasional chat. As a feminist, she has very strong views about work, and raising daughters in Bali. She is independent, having worked to buy her own house. It is customary for young Balinese married women to live with their in-laws. Sarina travelled the world accompanied by her (then) young daughter, and through her hard work, has paid for her daughter’s university education. She cuts fabric from 6 am, then travels by motorbike to her Sindhu shop by 12 pm to open the shop, and returns home in the evening. After dinner at 9 pm, she still has more work to complete. Midst all this, Sarina, like all Balinese, attends to Hindu ceremony and ritual. Sometimes she arrives in her boyish loose jeans and checked shirts: at other times she is sarong clad, and ready for ceremony. Now at 58 years old, she is beginning to feel the strain of a hard working life and I can certainly relate to this. She is a human dynamo, agile, talkative, energetic and hilariously funny. I admire her greatly.

Sarina arranging her striped ‘tummy sucky’ skirt with a very handy classic sleeveless top.

If you’re in Sanur, brave the walk down the narrow gang full of shops that make up Sindhu market, politely ignoring the many touts along the way, until you find shop number 19. Tell her I sent you. Ask for the latest designer sleeveless tops which come in black, teal and dark red, her cotton cardigans, striped long line tops and her ‘sucky tummy range’ of skirts and leggings. The title says it all.

Also see my earlier post on Sarina’s shop, written in 2015.

  • Sarina’s shop, No 19, Sindhu Beach Market, Sanur, Bali
  • Prices are fixed and are very reasonable for such good quality.
  • Don’t go too early as Sarina works at home all morning. After 12 is best.

Balinese Cuisine at the Warung.

Food, glorious food, glorious Balinese food. It’s one of the reasons I keep returning to this beautiful island. Good Balinese food is seductive yet quite subtle. Two famous Balinese sambals, sambal matah and sambal merah, add depth to a simple grilled fish or chicken, while the combination of white pepper and coriander seeds, turmeric and galangal, purple shallot, lemongrass, palm sugar, chilli, and terasi ( fish paste) are pounded together to make a rich tasting bumbu, or Balinese spice paste, the basis for a simple curry.

Warung in the Sindhu Night Market

There are many tiers of eating establishments, or rumah makan, in Bali: you can pay a fortune at an upmarket international hotel, continuing to eat the cuisine from your home country, or watered down versions of local cuisine in a Western style restaurant, or you can try a more authentic and economical meal at a simple warung. A warung is a small family owned eating place, often located on the street or beach. Some may look a little ramshackle and temporary, often with small benches and plastic stools, and will usually be patronised by locals.  Other modern warungs have sprung up in the beach suburbs around Sanur, but some bare no relationship to the real thing.

Many warungs are made from wooden, bamboo or thatched materials, perhaps with tin walls. In the past, the Warung tenda, a portable warung that looked like a tent, was more common, with roofing and walls made from Chinese blue and white plastic tarps. Other interesting warungs include kitchen carts on wheels, colourful bright blue Bakso stalls, motorbikes with gas cookers, and night market warungs set up with little tables and chairs. Warungs also tend to specialise in one or two dishes which are often based on a secret family recipe.

Morning bubur cart travels around the back suburban streets of Sanur, sounding a morning bell. Rice porridge comes with tasty toppings like ground peanuts.

I’ll admit It takes a brave heart to venture into the tasty world of the  street warung: you need to assess the cleanliness of these eateries and often that’s quite hard. Word of mouth, and popularity with locals- these are good indicators. Also check out the washing up facilities and water used. Good warungs are clean as hundreds of locals eat here every day. You may need to know a few food words, and simple phrases if you have special dietary preferences as often there’s no menu or price. Tanpa daging ( without meat) or tidak daging ( not meat) will suffice if you don’t eat meat. As food is often cooked to order, a warung cook is happy to adjust a recipe for you, leaving out ingredients that you don’t like.

Not all warungs are cheap: a few located around the Sanur beaches have become famous, rating highly on TA and frequented more by tourists than locals. One popular grilled fish restaurant, Amphibia, operates flat-out from midday till late. They work from a small tin shed, and grill the fish and seafood on a charcoal BBQ set up on raised platforms outside. Bench seating is nearby. You order your fish, lobster, prawns, octopus, squid and clams by weight, then they are barbecued and served with rice and vegetable urab and sambal. These boys never stop. They buy the fish early in the morning at Jimbaran, then store it under ice in large tanks: during lulls in business, you can watch them tenderising and peeling octopus, cleaning prawns and fish, running hoses around the place and stoking the BBQ with charcoal. A share plate of snapper, prawn, shrimp, a few calamari rings and razor clams is AU$20. Sit on a little stool on the beach and share the platter, washed down with a Bintang beer.

Hot work. Cooking at Amphibia. Sindhu Beach, Bali

Another Warung favoured by Westerners is Jackfish, a family run business right on the beach just past Semawang. Nyoman, the brains behind this warung, trained as a mechanical engineer but after working off shore for years, decided to open a fish themed Warung. His mother waits on tables and makes the Urab ( mild tasting Balinese salad made from bean shoots, green beans and coconut ). His father sorts cutlery and napkins and helps with the accounts. Nyoman does the grilling, waiting on tables and everything else. The family come from five generations of fishermen, and now source their daily deliveries from local sources. They often cater for large parties so check before hand as Jackfish closes when they do large groups. When I’m staying in the Semawang end of Sanur, I eat at Jackfish everyday, it’s that good.

Grilled snapper, rice, urab, and two sambals. IDR 60,000/AU $6. Jackfish is located right on the sand at the southern end of Sanur.
Energetic Nyoman of Jackfish, Semawang Beach, Sanur, Bali

When in the mood for snacks, I head for warungs specialising in deep-fried foods, called  Gorengun. At these little carts you’ll find feep fried springrolls, deep-fried tofu or Tahu Isi ( Tofu stuffed with bean shoots) and battered gado-gado and other things with tofu, as well as an array of sweets such as Onde-Onde. A bag of 8 snacks will cost around AU$1 and will come with a few green chillies and chilli sauce.

Tasty deep-fried vegetarian snacks from a Gorengan cart at the Sindhu Nightmarket, where a $1 goes a long way.

The Warung situated right in front of the Bunjar Pantai Semawang, has great ocean views and is well sheltered from the wind. They do the best spring rolls in the district. Three large vegetable lumpia ( AU$1.50) make a tasty lunchtime snack. Try with a mug of hot lemon tea ( AU.65c) a fresh juice ( AU$1.50)  or cut straight to the chase with a chilled Bintang to wash them down.

Satu Bintang besar, dua gelas, Terima Kasih.

Guide to Balinese Cuisine here

Bali, Offerings and Squirrels

Canang Sari offerings are well-known symbols of Bali, but alongside these daily Hindu offerings to the Gods, other older traditions remain in place. Ancestor worship and animist beliefs are sometimes separate from the cosmos of Hinduism, or are incorporated into it. Offerings of cigarettes, biscuits, coffee and alcohol are commonly seen on these shrines, things you might need in the afterlife. These offerings may also be strategically placed under trees to appease the mischievous underground and evil tree spirits who may play havoc with your business and lives. I’ve also seen some Balinese sprinkle cheap alcohol around the base of large trees to keep these naughty spirits at bay.

Early morning offering under a shady Banyan tree

While capturing the above offering, a cute looking squirrel arrived to take a sip of coffee. Perhaps a re-incarnation of Kak or Nini (grandfather and grandmother in Balinese).

Later that morning, the little tray had been engulfed by canang sari, the floral offerings bought to this spot by the young women who work here or live nearby.

Canang Sari, Rosetta’s restaurant, Sindhu Beach, Bali
Canang sari- by the sea.

“The plantain squirreloriental squirrel or tricoloured squirrel, is found in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand in a wide range of habitats: forests, mangroves, parks, gardens, and agricultural areas. Fruit farmers consider them to be pests. Its diet consists mostly of leaves and fruits, but it also eats insects and bird eggs. It is known to break open twigs that contain ant larvae to eat them. It can eat fruits much bigger than itself, such as mangoes, jackfruit or coconuts. It is very quick and agile in trees, able to jump a few metres between trees, and rarely wanders on the ground.”

Also partial to a sip of coffee.

 

Secret Osteria, Lake Como and a Special Risotto

Wander around the little lanes and back streets of the smaller and less touristy villages of Lake Como and you will find some real gems. One perfect but modest osteria can be found in Cernobbio, a village accessed easily by bus or ferry. I  prefer the ferry option, not only for the wonderful views of the Palazzi and gardens along the way, but just to hear the ferryman call out the names of the villages en route, “Torno, Moltrasio, Blevio, Cernobbio”, lazily trilling those ‘r’s and the nautical sounds of whistles, ropes and gangway planks landing.

Lake Como ferry on the way to another small village.

The day we went to Cernobbio, the wind was icy and the ferry was almost empty: we were well rugged up for the day. It was early November and most of the large gardens had closed for the season. Among our fellow travellers was a young chap, honey blond hair perfectly groomed, sporting a mustard coloured scarf carefully arranged over the shoulder of an expensive and conservative blue outfit, tanned ankles bare above sockless and effeminate boating shoes, with a newspaper tucked under one arm. Too affected to embody the insouciance of a Castiglione courtier, la bella figura gone awry. An aimless and idle palazzo owner perhaps? He was the only other passenger to leave the ferry at Cernobbio. The place looked deserted.

We wandered around Cernobbio: it had that empty, out of season look. Although not accustomed to taking coffee at 11 am, it seemed like a sensible thing to do, given the weather. And this decision led to a most wondrous find, the Osteria del Beuc, a small worker’s cooperative and restaurant up a back lane in Cernobbio. This is where all the locals were hiding on that cold November morning. At one large table, a group of older men in sensible jackets were grazing on morning snacks to go with their pre- lunch wines. A few tables away, couples were partaking of coffee but there was a sense of expectation in the air. More people were beginning to arrive. I glanced at the paper sheet listing the menu of the day. The gregarious waiter/front of house/barman advised that I should book immediately as there was only one table left for 12.30. Good advice. I ordered a Spritz and settled in for some more people watching, buoyed by the glowing euphoria that only a Prosecco laced with Campari can produce at such an ungodly but most welcome drinking hour.

By 12.40, the place was packed. The elderly gentlemen reluctantly vacated their morning table and wandered back to the safety of their separate homes, wives and a home cooked meal. The table was then replaced with a large group of hungry young office workers. Smaller tables were occupied by elegantly dressed couples, some accompanied by small, pampered dogs on leads: the place was alive as the enthusiastic waiter theatrically went about his business.

But then, dear reader, you didn’t come all the way with me to Cernobbio to simply ogle the locals, although if you’re a bit like me, you probably enjoy a bit of people watching as you travel through life, inventing scenarios and stories for each one. The food at Osteria del Beuc is well priced and seriously very good. Honest and simple food cooked perfectly. The lunch menu came with prices for one, two or three courses, 9€/ AU$14, 12€/AU18/ €14/AU22, which included a 250 ml carafe of wine per person. Of course I went for the three course option. 

For il primo, I had a composed salad of endive, spinach and soft white cheese, beautifully dressed while Mr T had a zucchini frittata. Then came a creamy risotto dish, perfectly cooked, nicely moistened, cooked in red wine, with rosemary and Taleggio cheese, the latter still visible and just beginning to melt. Sadly there is no photo, but if there were, it wouldn’t look great- just a pile of wet white rice on a plain plate. And yet it tasted sensational. The bread supply was generous. A fairly ordinary chocolate mousse followed. This didn’t detract from the overall delight of the meal and the venue: I have come to expect unimaginative desserts in Italy and should remember not to order them, unless there’s a visible nonna on site who may have just baked a homely torta of fruit or nuts.

I have worked on recreating that lovely risotto dish and will continue to refine it. The Cernobbio version retained a lovely creamy white appearance and perhaps used less red wine and a little less rosemary than my version. Every time I make this, my heart flies back to Lake Como. Below is a version but feel free to play with it to suit your palate.

Risotto, red wine, rosemary and taleggio. Large serving for two or three. Ugly but good.

Risotto al Vino Rosso, Rosmarino e Taleggio. Risotto with Vino Rosso, Rosemary and Taleggio.

Ingredients for two smallish serves. Adjust quantities to suit your appetite, bearing in mind that it’s a rich dish and best served with a simple salad before or afterwards.

  • 150 g Carnaroli rice
  • 1/2 red onion, very finely chopped
  • 150 ml good quality red wine ( the one you’ve opened for dinner is best)
  • 350 – 400 ml vegetable stock ( it’s always better to have extra on hand)
  • 20 gr butter
  • 40 gr or more of Taleggio ( substitute Stracchino if on a budget)
  • 40 gr grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano or more to taste
  • a teaspoon of very finely chopped fresh rosemary
  • salt and white pepper to season

Method

In a small saucepan, warm the vegetable stock and keep it on a low heat. In a separate cast iron casserole, choosing a suitable size for the measure of rice you are using, add the butter and saute the onion gently until soft and pale golden. Add the rice and toast for a minute or two. Then add the red wine and heat, stirring, until it is fully absorbed. From this point, begin to add a ladle of hot stock to the rice and stir through on low to medium heat. Don’t stir too vigorously: an occasional stir is enough. Once that stock is fully absorbed, continue to add more ladles, one at a time, for around 20 – 25 minutes, as per the usual method of risotto making. The only way to judge the readiness of the rice is by biting it. If the centre is still hard, continue cooking. Once ready, turn off the heat, and add the rosemary and Parmigiano and half the Taleggio chopped into smallish chinks. Stir through then cover with a lid and leave to steam for a few minutes. When ready to serve, add the remaining Taleggio to the dish.

For Helen Legg.

Osteria del Beuc, Via Felice Cavallotti, 1 – 22012 – Cernobbio, Como, Italia

 

 

All Time Favourites

The weekly photographic word prompt by WordPress has been one of the highlights of my blogging week. Released every Wednesday, (Thursday morning for Australians), it has enabled me to sort through my travel photos, forcing me to edit some and discard others along the way.  Sadly, this lovely distraction is about to disappear as WordPress has announced that today’s prompt, All-Time Favourites, will be the last. I wonder why?

Seasonal produce

If you are an avid photographer, try to imagine choosing your favourite image? Or your favourite 5 images? I am sure many would feature family snaps that capture a happy memory, photos that you’re not inclined to share generally. Others might include beautiful travel photos, memories kept alive by regularly sorting through the digital shoe box.

Hong Kong noodle maker and window cleaner, 2017

This little research project could take days, so I’m randomly choosing a few nice pics to share, some that appeal to me, not because they show any photographic skill but simply because I like them. My selection today includes a few portraits, some Chinese themes, a basket of apples and some native flora. I’ll miss this weekly challenge.

Principessa Carlotta, Winter, 16
Way out West. Native Australian plants in winter.
Girl with peach. Summer 17