Lakes, fascists, roast beef, and the meaning of life. Sorta. (This post got a little out of control. Blame Italy.)

Posted: June 17, 2013 in Popular Culture et al
Tags: , , , , , , ,

My apologies, Dear Reader, for the break in transmission. This has been occasioned by a multiplicity of factors, including a French train strike, a French air traffic controllers’ strike, and the ingestion of vast quantities of exceptionally good cognac to relieve the tension caused by said exposition of the inalienable rights of the working class to withdraw their labour in pursuit of a just outcome.

Only once, I assure you, was yours truly heard to mutter “The working class can kiss my arse, I’ve got the foreman’s job at last.” Other than that, international solidarity was not breached. But please don’t tempt me to get started on the quality of mercy demonstrated by platform comptroleurs at Toulouse station. Just don’t, OK?

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Still, all’s well that ends well, and God bless travel insurance. Which is how you find your faithful correspondent the day before his [expletive mumble deleted] birthday seated at a delightful dining table in front of an open window blessed with a Juliet balcony, through which wafts not only a cooling breeze (the weather is spectacularly warm, suddenly) but also the myriad sounds of arriving ferries, chirruping swallows by the thousand, and an endless stream of Italian boys on motorbikes revving their sewing machine engines louder and louder until the local girls (or even better, the non-Catholic visitors from Germany and points north) notice and bestow a curious look upon them. Ah, the joys of youth.

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But I am getting ahead of myself. First let me tell of you of my only confrontation thus far with fascist architecture. Because confrontation is the word.

Milan station is widely lauded as a marvel of a building: big doesn’t begin to cover it, nor yet massive.

As one of the main train hubs of Europe it can be excused sheer scale, perhaps, but the style and tone of the place is a horrible reminder of the worst of times past. The Italians started building it back in 1908, but didn’t get very far, thanks to the intervention of WW1 and a few economic crises. That was, of course, until the arrival of Mussolini, who, with the benefit of diktat and threatening to shoot any workers who disagreed with him, managed to turn the original plans into a giant, monolithic celebration of national (read: Roman) identity, complete with stylised ancient warriors, eagles, and the rest of the nonsense paraphernalia of the era.

It is a horrible building, a cathedral of nationalistic hysteria, and like the medieval cathedrals in their day it served but one purpose – to be greater than the individual human spirit, to be a statement of state power, overwhelming and crushing the spirit of the one into the purpose of the many. “The state is everything” boasted Mussolini, and he meant it.

What makes it so horrible is that one can feel the siren call of its ridiculous posturing. Its vast ceilings cry out to be photographed, its vaulted arches and endless vistas are mesmeric, they entice the eye and the heart despite yourself.

Standing in Statzione Centrale, Milan, it is all too easy to understand how the tens of thousands packed into the Piazza Venezia could believe the silly man crammed into an ill-fitting uniform to be their saviour, and also how, when his posturing proved hollow and deadly, they could turn on him so utterly and execute the fleeing dictator in Dongo, just up the lake from where I sit now.

We called in on the ferry a couple of days ago, and the Italian crew still gleefully pointed out that this was where their ultimate home-grown rogue was captured and executed along with his mistress and members of his puppet Nazi-supported regime. They paid the price, ultimately, of all those charlatans who propose deceptively simple solutions to complex problems, but not before they had inflicted terrible suffering on those around them, which was then visited, with the invariable justice of God or history, on themselves; as it must surely be, lest the universe spin off its axis with the tragic madness of it all.

Beginning and end, in the space of a couple of days. Sadly, it had taken Italy, and Europe, much longer to see through his lies and conceits.

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To happier matters. It is axiomatic, of course, that Benito made the trains run on time, unlike his benighted French counterparts, which is how we had found ourselves by and by in the tiny hamlet of Varenna on Lake Como, part of the “golden triangle” of villages about equidistant between Como at one end of the lake and Colico at the other, surrounded by spectacular Alpine peaks, and delighted to be at ground level, and not clambering around incautiously upon them.

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Determined to get as close to real mountains as I am ever going to get – being convinced beyond reason that embarking on any incline greater than 5% invites a hideous death, cast from some rocky outcrop by a momentary mistake to smash, alert and awake, into the blessed ground we should never have left in the first place – let’s be frank, if God had intended us to leave sea level he would have given us crampons on our feet – we headed wide-eyed for the far north of the lake.

Colico is not famous for much, except, perhaps, for the best ice cream I have ever eaten, or maybe it was merely the location, nestled as the gelateria was in patch of shade and towered o’er by yet another peak. At this juncture the lake itself was home to innumerable para-sailers in a regatta – my apologies for the shaky boat-deck photo – and on occasions it seemed, too, as if they were somehow in awe of the snow-clad peaks that surrounded them, and were urging their kites to fly them higher and higher, to the pinnacles themselves, and beyond. It must be something to do with grandeur: it just seduces us as moths to a light. Perhaps this is why in cities all over the world we can now be encouraged to pay good money to tour sports stadiums even when no sport is happening. “Wow, look at all those seats, Dad!” “Yes, son, and so many.” Curious.

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No exposition of a few days in Italy would be complete without a delerious discussion of food. Cognisant of my upcoming never-to-be revealed birthday, we decided to splurge on a visit to the famous Cava Turacciolo, which in any other world would be merely an interesting little wine bar, but which, arriving by ferry in Bellaggio on a picture perfect evening, offered itself to us as a mysterious Aladdin’s Cave, packed to the gunwales with rare local wines collected lovingly, and dispensed expertly, by Mario and Norberto and their crew.

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We had been alerted to the Cava by other travellers, and it did not disappoint. A mere two rooms, plus a connecting corridor, seemingly tunnelled out of the hillside and blessedly cool, to nurture the hundreds of precious bottles of vino rosso and bianco that were crammed onto its walls, which girdled us like a cocoon.

We had arrived early, still not au fait with the Italian preference for doing nothing significant until at least 10pm, which meant we were blessed with Norberto’s close attention, as he described each wine he suggested to us in minute detail, taught us what to search for in the nose and taste – disagreeing gently when we argued for caramel as opposed to what he announced firmly was liquorice – and holding forth wisely on the various ancient methods that had gone into each bottle.

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With one, apparently – the Sfursat, 100% Nebbiolo with the grapes allowed to dry for three months before pressing – the story, and the experience, amounted to an insight into the whole of the surrounding society. Wine had been made this way, Norberto explained, in luxuriously tiny amounts, for over 500 years, by artisan producers working in their own homes. All the wine made thus, which demonstrated an incredible alcohol content and a clear aroma and taste of cherries – you will pick it up most clearly on your gums, he patiently intoned – is drunk locally, and unknown in the outside world. Pity: it was entrancing.

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A dedicated red wine drinker, I surprised myself by preferring – of everything we tasted, and there was plenty – a discrete gently oaken Chardonnay from the Lake Garda area, called Bellavista Alma Terra.

It offered itself politely, blushingly, and pacifically, like a Victorian miss in a crinoline dress taken at the flood by a rampant Lieutenant … pale straw in colour, perfectly balanced, fresh and inviting and completely more-ish. I wanted to buy a bottle of what we had tasted by the glass, and settle in contentedly for the evening, but Norberto clucked disapprovingly. “Buy some to take home” he muttered, remarking that it was “fruity and refreshing” almost as if those words were criticisms. “Here you have a chance to taste something … Special.”

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So we did. We invested in the cheapest edition of a range – Amarone – that runs to bottles costing hundreds of Euros. It had been teased and coaxed from grape varieties we had never heard of, and presented a deep, mysterious burgundy in colour – almost black – with huge pepper and plum flavours, and a head-numbing 16% alcohol. From Verona it was – Romeo and Juliet country – and it immediately made one want to stand on the table and sing Nessun Dorma, or take on the the whole world to right wrongs and slay dragons. Little wonder poor old Tybalt ended up run through by a rapier. If the locals were getting shit-faced on this stuff it’s surprising any of them were left alive by the end to tell the tale.

So the wine flowed – a little too fast for Norberto’s taste, but we explained with equal patience that we were Australian, and he simply nodded sadly and politely – and then, in this temple of grapes, the real surprise.

Food.

Lovingly prepared compliments to the wine – bitingly bitter and huge green olives, a plate of achingly sweet ham so thinly sliced as to be almost ethereal and dressed with twin breasts of buffalo mozarella so fresh they were still molten in the centre, twinned with a spread of blissfully rare, sliced roast beef dressed with Parmesan and Balsamic vinegar, followed by a buckwheat tagliatelle drowning in cheese and dotted with potatoes – who knew? – and finally a selection of cheeses selected for their capacity to lift the roof off your mouth, and your preconceptions.

Not a crew to shy from strong cheese, one concoction nevertheless defeated us: in the way that one is first defeated by, say, a fiery Thai salad, one is bruised but fascinated, and determined to return to fight another day. A seemingly innocuous mixture of goats’ and ewe’s milk, it was simply too pungent to be approachable. Next time.

As one contemplated the last few days, one was struck forcibly by how Norberto and his team were the very antithesis of the statism so glorified by Mussolini and his ilk. Hard-working individuals, modest, unprepossessing even, and dedicated to principles of excellence and courtesy, with a passion bordering on the obsessional to create experiences – the marriage of the perfect wine with the perfect sliver of rare roast beef – that are utterly ephemeral in their nature, and yet are what, in reality, make life worth living. That make enduring “society” worthwhile. There was nothing of the showy arm-waving fairground balderdash of Mussolini in Norberto’s quiet certainty. His was a world that mistrusts big and celebrates miniature, a world which knows that in honest precision, and care, and dedication and sheer hard work, mortal man can sometimes touch the face of God.

I asked him if he bought in his beef ready cooked, and he looked horrified. “No, no!” He almost wailed. “Oh,” I said, abashed, “do you have your own cows?” He snorted, “I would have no time to look after the wine.” Ah.

He explained that he chose the beef from a local he knew well, but always cooked it himself. No-one else could cook it the way he did. I pondered how he had. It was somehow gently pink all through, with no signs of caramelisation on the outer, yet it was clearly roasted and not slow-cooked in water. No high-faulting modern cooking methods here. I asked him how he created the flavour, and yet kept the beef so ineffably moist, so that it literally fell to pieces on the tongue.

He smiled gently. “Magic.”

Just so. Ciao.

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Comments
  1. You’re a cruel, cruel man, Stephen Yolland, shamelessly posting all those photos of mouth-watering (flooding!) food. Now I must go and prepare my morning repast of Scottish porridge oats and sliced banana. I can smell the bloody delicious-looking food, you scoundrel!

    Wonderful post and a most happy birthday to you, whatever ageless age you happen to be. 🙂

    Like

  2. Bill O says:

    Happy Birthday, Yolly! My cholesterol rose with every food pic. Sigh.

    Like

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