Friday, 7 January 2011

Goats Do Rome

There are three things you need to take with you on a trip to Rome:

1)    Sunglasses
2)    Flat shoes
3)    Expandable trousers

Sadly, I only remembered the second one.

Remember Asterix in Rome? Or just as colourful, The Twelve Tasks of Asterix? One of those tasks included finishing a meal by Mannenkenpix, the Belgian. Wikipedia sums it up nicely: ‘Mannenkenpix is famous for cooking gigantic meals for the Titans - the task was to eat one of his massive three-course meals "down to the last crumb". Obelix devours a boar with fries, a flock of geese, several sheep, an omelette made with eight dozen eggs, a whole school of fish, an ox, a cow and calf ("because to separate ze family...zat would not be right!"), a huge mound of caviar (with a single piece of toast), a camel, ("and before we start on the main course") an elephant stuffed with olives. Later on, the chef leaves the kitchen crying as everything in his kitchen was eaten, but a slightly disappointed Obelix believes that the huge meals were only appetisers.’

That, more or less, is how it feels to me to eat a good Italian meal. Even the antipasti or primi piatti are enough to finish me off. I wonder how Italians do it. What sort of training do they have to do to enable them to swallow and keep down those lavish feasts? Just one look down a central Corsi in Rome will show you that most Romans are not portly or of generous stature. Think cohorts of Donatella Versaces in drainpipe jeans.

The first thing you notice in Rome is the smell. Not an unpleasant one at all, just the aroma of a sunblushed city, a mix of burnished leather, sandalwood and ancient stone, mingled with wafts of designer perfume. In London, you can sense the smell of frenetic industry and daily commerce; in Rome your nostrils are bathed in an indolent and enticing, sensual warmth. 

Spot the four different birds!

This two-day trip was a mixture of business and pleasure. Not being sure who might read this; that’s all I should say. The idea was we could do a bit of sightseeing the six of us together in the day, or on our own. But each evening we would meet and go for a meal.

We arrived late-ish on a Friday night at Fiumcino airport. A man bearing our name on a plaque ushered us into his Merc and into the burnished  city, just as dusk was falling. The car glided so smoothly, it was as though its innards were powered by the finest olive oil.

Hugs in the foyer with our friends and then we clipped along the cobbles down the hill towards the Spanish steps.

Early evening on a Friday night in the capital: in London there’d be a squeal of raucous girls on a hen night, a little bit of jostling for space with strangers on Oxford Street, the pinstriped flash of a City Boy’s trouser leg as he strides through the melee to hail a taxi. Here on the Spanish steps, it was as though someone had stopped the clock. The Beautiful Things draped their olive flesh nonchalantly on cubes of smooth travertine and marble. I haven’t sensed so much indolence since I deconstructed Velazquez’ Rokeby Venus at University

Whereas in England, there’d be ‘yoofs’ ogling the windows of Ann Summers, here in Rome I saw school parties, together with their teachers, discussing the aesthetic merits of the La Perla lingerie display on Via dei Condutti. Even the Chanel window even had something quintessentially Italian about it.

You lookin' at me?

We had a beautiful meal at Babette on Via Margutta. I can’t remember a great deal, other than we had a wonderful time and I apparently laughed too much. Too loudly. Oh dear.

The next day, we joined the ‘gang’ for a spot of sightseeing:

Gladiators.... READY!
The Pantheon: Roman temple of all the gods

And then we slipped away; and using our foodie iPhone apps, found our way to La Rosetta which was typically, quietly tucked away on a side street off a touristy square. The descriptive was ‘solo pesce’ and as an ardent pescetarian, this was right up my errr… corsa.

La Rosetta: named after one of my favourite goats. Of course
The place was chirping with locals, their ‘pico-poco’ Italian consonants and animated tones peppered the warm air. The first thing that impressed was the restaurant’s cleanliness and simple style. The next was the chic steel handbag hook I was offered to hang my Prada bag (well, when in Rome, darling!) out of harm’s way. It’s the little things….

I glanced over at the table of locals. Some had plates of oysters and were mid-suckle, others dipped ladles into vast buckets of soup bristling with lobster and crustacea. When in doubt, have a little taste of everything, so we convinced ourselves into the menu pranza a kind of tasting menu.

As expected, the wine list was superb. I love my reds, but a red in the day always turns me into Wee Willy Winkie so we opted for a bottle of 2008 Voglar Sauvignon Blanc from the Alto Adige.

Which turned out to be a superb choice. I’m no wine expert but I sure appreciate a good bicchere di vino. One sip of this straw-coloured elixir took me right back to my year in and around Lake Constance and in particular the great wines I tried in Austria and Southern Germany. This Sauv Blanc by winemaker Peter Dipoli  in Cortaccia had the tropical high, full notes of a southern German white, perfectly balanced by an artful blend of body and acidity. So it had complexity - a hint of orange peel and white flowers - kept in check by a steely, ‘classical’ structure. If this wine were a lover, it would be sharp-witted, artfully experienced, generous in his favours, fatally attractive but sadly, always in control.

Oh yes, the food! First, some oysters and then Fritturina di Delizie di Mare e fili di zucchine con riduzione al Merlot. The zucchine and polpetti were masterfully seasoned. A savoury version of petits-fours.

Then a delicate portion of spaghetti vongole, the like of which could only have been prepared by an Italian, in Italy. The clams themselves were bonsai style: tiny replicas of their sometimes flabby counterparts. Yes, more like cute vongolette really.

Look! With free finger!

Next (and my sides were feeling a bit tense by now) a fillet of Rombo glassato allo zafferano e rosmarino; a surprisingly endearing fish dish to the ears and on paper but a little lacking in pizzazz. Basically this was a slim fillet of turbot glazed in a carbonara-esque sauce with a hint of Marigold Bouillon and a sweet langoustine tail in tempura batter resting on top. After enjoying the Sauvignon Blanc on a largely empty stomach, this marine arrangement reminded me of a scene from Bikini Bottom.

Not being a dessert person, I scanned the menu for cheeses but there were none on this menu pranza. Without further ado, before I could utter an objection, a cheeky tiramisu was placed before me. Naah, I won’t eat this, I said to myself. I never eat desserts. Such a waste of calories when I could imbibe them instead. But then I looked again. It was dowsed with bitter black chocolate sprinkles. I like bitter but I don’t like sweet. It looked so small yet inviting. I tried a smidgeon on my spoon… It looked like an angel’s breast; so soft and tempting.

And before I knew it, I’d polished off the whole thing.

We finally left, replete and happy after some complimentary glasses of homemade limoncello.

All was fine until we had to do the same again later that evening. This time our host had found an even more special restaurant, a cult hideaway off the Piazza del Popolo, Osteria Sant’Ana. It was like a gastronomic crypt where guests were preserved and fortified by wine and heartily authentic food; the dense walls plastered with photos of celebs enjoying fine food and Roman hospitality. Once again we found waiters who ‘waited’ in the form of professionally attending our table. They walked with purpose; nothing escaped their gaze and nothing was too much trouble. These ones were just as efficient but more friendly than the ones at La Rosetta.

Oh, the food, the food! Our host had organised a veritable banquet! Even Obelix would have felt mildly sated by the piles of food that were placed on our table. I, however, had fallen even before the antipasti. That angel’s breast tiramisu had finished me off. I felt sick as a dog. My co-diners said I looked very pale and asked why I was so quiet. In my head I’d worked out the fastest route to the toilet. I’d already planned to take a serviette in case I didn’t make it. Putting anything else in my stomach was out of the question.

But I knew these lovely people well enough. There was no one to impress in our party. So I asked the friendly waiter for some grappa. He obliged.  And with every sip of this wondrous, health-giving liquor, the nausea ebbed away. By the end of the gargantuan meal, I was back to my old self. I hadn’t eaten a morsel but that didn’t matter. Before we left, I made the acquaintance of a pretty Swiss female undertaker; I nattered in German about my love of goats, Rhodesian Ridgeback dogs and Der Bodensee. We promised mutual visits. The grappa had triumphed. You get the picture.

We traipsed upstairs into the open and I suggested a wander around the city. By chance, we caught the end of a pop concert in one of the city’s beautiful piazzi and before everyone could slink off to bed I dragged them all to a late night jazz bar where I celebrated my convalescence with yet more fine grappa.

The next day was a Sunday. The grappa saw to it that I hadn’t even a trace of a hangover but missing out on a meal last night made the hunger pangs more rapid and violent. We packed our bags, left them in reception and wandered down to the city to enjoy a last bout of sightseeing and dining. We did plenty of the former. And by the time the old tummy really began to rumble, we tried, in vain, to find a decent restaurant that was open on a Sunday.

We traipsed and wandered and rambled and tramped.

My,  how we traipsed....

Tourists spilled out of restaurants at every turn. I looked longingly at diners’ plates as we weaved along the pavements. I scrutinised the plates of these fortunate souls. But to me, every dish showed signs of being nothing more than a hideous stir-through sauce; a vile, hastily added Dolmio creation from a jar. Or, shudder, deep crust pizzas! Even the pasta looked mass-made. In desperation we found our way to La Rosetta but it was closed on a Sunday. Darn it! This was our final hour or so in Rome and I wanted special food, something authentic and handcrafted.

The longer we walked, the more I daydreamed about Roman armies marching on their stomachs. Who could starve in Rome, I wondered? It seemed absurd but it seemed to be happening to me. The hunger made me feel so mad and angry that I wanted to punch the man’s accordeon as he squeezed out his jolly ditty. I wanted to slash the old man’s gas balloons as he stood and smiled at the children. Oh yes, I could have just kicked that lady’s dachsund into touch…

Eventually, we found our way to Babette, the first restaurant we’d dined in on Friday night and thank heavens, we took the last table available. Divine! Homemade pasta, imaginative use of fennel and courgette in a salad and a robust wine list.

Food at last and rather pretty at that

Anatole Broyard described Rome as ‘a poem pressed into service as a city.’ So, as we left the fragrant city of marble, only good and fine memories of this poem remained: the unexpected blaze of late October sun glancing off burnished travertine, the smiles of Roman waiting staff, a sip of healing grappa, the heady sights, sounds and flavours of such a historically and culturally rich city. My senses were stimulated, intoxicated and yet contented. And with it, my imagination.

To me, Rome is the closest I’ve come to a city of poetry. And as Pulitzer prizewinner Carl Sandburg put it, ‘poetry is a packsack of invisible keepsakes.’

Friday, 10 September 2010

Fishy In A Little Dishy

We weren't going on a summer holiday. We weren't off for a week or two. There was not much fun and laughter (thanks to roadworks and accidents) And we wouldn't be hanging out of a jolly bus, warbling through impossibly white teeth.

BUT we were taking 'Gandma' (my mother-in-law) and our two littlies for a long weekend in Dartmouth.
Yo, we have sushi, courtesy of Waitrose, Gordano Services

Finally the bitumen grey gave way to pebble-shaped fields of lush grass and tunnels of scarily high, scratchy hedges. The topography of South Devon; with its pastureland rolling down to the coast and spritz of ozone in the air, all create a sense of excitement and anticipation. No matter how old you are. 'The sea! The sea! Surely we must be close?'

Errr, no. Why are we going slower and slower? Why is everyone pulling a U-ey (sic) up in front? Oh great, an accident!  We too turned around and chose a local-looking car to follow down what increasingly resembled 'White Rabbit's bolthole. We're late, we're late! The need for a stiff G&T was becoming pathological. We held our breath and clenched our knuckles through slender lanes that might fit three Friesians abreast at the most, easing the car through the jagged tube of road. The sight of splatty-patties and a grassy Mohican running down the middle of it only rubbed the point home. This road is not suitable for anything but ramblers and livestock.

Finally, we arrived at the hotel, smiled through gritted teeth at the obsequious porter and slumped in the tasteful lobby. The longed-for G&T was not offered (whatever happened to a free welcome drink of choice in hotels?) so we politely sipped at our complimentary thimbles of plum vodka. We bundled Gandma into her room, dumped our bags in our own room and all made off along the quay, in the direction of town.

It was Friday night and peak noshing time. We knew we'd be lucky to get a table at The Rockfish especially as they don't operate a reservations policy. You walks through the door and you takes yer chance. No. The place was heaving. An efficient but flustered Tracy took our name and mobile number and said she'd call us as soon as a table became free. Still, it was no hardship. We just went round the corner for a drink.

Just as we were getting to the bottom of our glasses, we got the call from Tracy. It could have been the Man From DelMonte - we were overjoyed. (S)he say 'yessss!' We raced back round the corner, almost dragging Gandma along the strip of pavement and took our seats in the lower part of Rockfish, close to all the cooking action. We chose a crisp bottle of Sancerre a bottle of my favourite still water (Aqua Panna) a few seafood specialities and then some fresh fish.

My husband (R) had some cockles and whelks, both served in little glass dishes. Wow, the freshness! Not being a mollosc-ophile, I pinched a few cockles to try: the zinc-y goodness in those little bundles was awesome. Who needs kelp supplements when you could eat these? 

For the main course, I chose halibut fillet, R plumped for haddock and Gandma had cod fillet. The children had local burger and the other a mini portion of fish and chips. We'd had good fish and chips before at the Start Bay Inn in Torcross but we thought elbowing our way through hordes of coach travellers and ill-behaved children while waiting for a table was not the ideal end to a frazzled afternoon. In hindsight, it was exactly the right decision. Rockfish Devon had set the bar for eating fresh, native fish in a relaxed, casual setting. And to be truthful, we really weren't prepared for the sheer quality and freshness of what was to come.

My halibut fillet was uber-fresh, with a miraculous blend of firmness and juiciness. Its batter was exquisitely thin and uniform; a crisp tempura-like coat that any Japanese chef would have been proud of. This showed both a mastery of batter making and of deep frying. Impressive on any night - let alone a busy Friday night.

Exquisite halibut fillet with homemade Tartare Sauce

R's haddock fillet was a Behemoth of a fish but equally as good as my halibut. I had a taste and it was amazing. None of us had ever tasted better and thought it impossible that we would ever find better. Anywhere. 

The Captain of all haddocks: left unrotated to keep you on your toes...

So the fish was juicy, vibrant and the freshest you could hope for. Even the traditional accompaniments of mushy peas were just as impressive. With their sweet, buttery lusciousness, they were the Cat Deeley of spring peas, not the out-to-pasture harridans (Janet Street-Porter) you'd fill your blow pipe with.

Miracle of miracles! The children finished every scrap of their meals and then set to work decorating the paper tablecloths with the pencils provided:

The service was warm, friendly and real, as befitted the relaxed setting. Many of the waiters and waitresses were young, local people who truly seemed to care that we were having a good time. Business was brisk but we didn't feel rushed. And the bill at the end of it was excellent value for simple fare of such quality.

Feeling Crabby

The next day we took the ferry to Dittisham and did a spot of crabbing off the jetty. The crabs were game or maybe they just liked the taste of Co-Op back bacon. Anyway, they nibbled at the little bacon-filled nets we dangled into the water and duly came aboard. The midday air was full of our children shouting: 'Leggo mate!' as the crabs dangled tantalisingly over the buckets of water. Once in, the water in their buckets would 'click' as they scrabbled over and around each other in crabby circles. One of our children gave the crabs a few morsels of bacon 'to keep them happy' and the largest one would nab it and stuff it into its mouth with both pincers, Augustus-Gloop style.

Mmm, Krusty Krabs galore
We then enjoyed a great meal at the Anchorstone Cafe, just beside the Ferry Boat Inn. R had mussels and I a juicy monkfish tail (bone in). 

That night we ate at the hotel. Yes, we were given proper porcelain plates (as opposed to paper tray-cum-dishes at Rockfish), linen tablecloths and a long winelist but the food was a little lacklustre. My pave of black bream was laced with an unremitting sweet oiliness; it needed some citrus or tomato to lift it. The butterbean 'quenelle' splodged atop was cold and flavourless. What was the point?

Wot no lemon lift?
All in all, the food that night was overly sweet and creamy with little freshness or vibrancy. Or maybe we're just being crabby? It always says a lot when the best dish that night was the cheeseboard. By far.

Anti-clockwise from bottom: Robin Congdon's brilliant Devon Blue, Danegeld, Ticklemore, Sharpham Brie and Quicke's Raw Milk

All Aboard
The next day, we made a quick trip to Bigbury-On-Sea, had a mediocre pint at the 14th Century Pilchard Inn and an equally mediocre reception from the barmaid. In the early afternoon, we returned to Dartmouth where we hired a small, banana-coloured boat and took Gandma up and down the Dart. At first she was petrified, one thin hand clinging to the side of the boat, the other fingering the life-jacket's 'deploy' string. By the end of our two-hour jaunt, she sat with eyes closed, as though drinking in the September sunshine, breathing in the pure Devon air and wore a distinct, relaxed smile.

Where would we eat that night? It was a no-brainer. The lure of such a relaxed and friendly atmosphere, food that pleased every generation was impossible to resist. We easily found a table and enjoyed superb, fresh fish of equally high calibre as our first night.

If you want stuffy waiting staff, a refined atmosphere, starched linen and waiters who interrupt at every turn to pour a capful of wine, then Rockfish Devon is not for you. If you don't mind eating from paper trays, wearing jeans at mealtimes or you enjoy the sensation of being in someone's private beach hut, with pastel coloured tongue and groove walls and family photos on the wall, then you know where to go.

Rockfish, Rockfish. So good we went there twice.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

The Ins and Outs of Goat Mating

Autumn. Mists. Mellow fruitfulness. Kicking through piles of brown leaves, coldness on the tip of your nose, the sensation that here in the countryside, everything is quietening down and getting ready for the Big Sleep.

Everything but dairy goats, that is. From September through till March, every 21 days, these normally placid and gentle animals transform into lust-driven Jezebels. They spurn the parlour, with its tasty treats and trot off in search of a male, bleating loudly, tails wagging. They have only one thing on their mind and for once, it's not food.

So, while human thoughts turn to quiet, cosy fireside nights, Guy Fawkes and then Christmas, caprine brains focus on procreation, pure and simple. They fill the air with their longing cries, thwack the barn walls with their semaphore tails, their eyes imploring to go and see 'The Chosen One'.

Luckily, if you're born as a male goat in our herd, it's not such a bad thing. Sure, you might end up castrated at birth and sold as a pet later on (well, it beats instant euthanasia) but if your credentials are good, you're allowed to evolve into a fully-fledged goaty Don Juan. This is where all the hype about 'smelly goats' comes from. Goats, as a rule, do not smell in the slightest. Female goats are as 'smelly' as you keep them.

The male goat, on the other hand, should come with an olfactory health warning. If you want to get to the front of a queue in a crowded shop, rub yourself up to a male goat in the rutting season. The smell is hard to describe; it's fragrant and floral, sweet but not immediately offensive. It reminds me of a wedding guest who's overdone the Lynx. But Nature is clever: the smell of male goat can spread on the air for about 2 miles and once on your clothes or skin, it stays with you for days. It's no coincidence that many people who keep goats also make soap. And they keep experimenting with soap recipes for removing the heady aroma of males. Maybe that's where the phrase 'Billy No Mates' comes from?
'You jump first.' 'No you jump first!'
So what turns a cute little kid into a raging Lothario? Put it this way; at one day old, a male kid is as sweet as pie. At three days they're nibbling hay and bouncing off bales. At four days they're mounting their brothers, sisters and even trying it on with their mothers. At just five months, their beards grow long and they love nothing more than peeing on their heads, beards and front legs to intensify the smell. 'Hello honey, I'm hooooome!!' The hormones have kicked in. The Force in Them is Strong.

But we don't just let anyone mate with anyone in the herd. As a pedigree herd of Pure Saanens, these are special goats, all registered with the British Goat Society whose lineage goes back to the import of Swiss goats in 1926. Most of our most promising females are milk recorded (I measure the quantity and quality of their milk every month for a year) and many are descendants of Show Champions. Before selecting which 'Romeo' will woo which 'Juliette' I have to think about the following:

  • Yield and length of lactation - can we improve the amount of milk we'll get
  • Udder shape and attachment - Jordan udders are all very well but they won't last and have a habit on getting scratched in the long summer grass. Hoisting them up at milking time is also not much fun
  • Topline - a back flat and smooth like a coffee table normally means the rest of the goat will 'hang well'
  • Foot quality - healthy strong hooves are the equivalent of a good ticker. If a goat goes lame, their milking days are over.
 Normally the female is taken to the male's 'lair' - if she hasn't found her way there already.

Justin: powerful and ready for action
The foreplay is impressive: he licks her face, he snorts, he bays. He licks her 'target zone'. He stamps his foot restlessly like a testosterone-fuelled bull. He climbs aboard and it's over in about three seconds. Whether it's 'a good one' or not is indicated by the way he throws his head back at the crucial moment. They do it several times. Sometimes, if the male gets tired and his performance lacklustre, the female will mount him to show him the score. At other times, the licking and petting turn to rearing up at each other and banging heads. Whatever floats your boat. But if all done at the right time of her cycle, the female will revert to her normal, laid-back self tomorrow. She'll be calm, cute and biddable. Like a doleful teenager who broke curfew the night before.

The mating date, time and liaison are duly noted and the goat watched carefully over the next 42 days (two cycles) to see if she 'returns'. With luck, there'll be healthy kids taking their first suckle 150 days or five months later. There's a lot more to getting goats in kid than meets the eye (and nose). It's not a case of letting the male run with the females in autumn or live with them in their pen. That results in a chaos of unplanned, ill-prepared kiddings and - horror! - incestuous pairings. In terms of the quality of the herd, it could end up in a hall of mirrors, with each goat repeating and reinforcing the same genetic deficiencies. And from the point of view of cheese, it'll mean your milk has a strong, goaty tang, and the complexities of your cheese flavour will be drowned out.

Smooth, creamy, nutty: a young Brockette cheese

You see? I could go on about goats for a long time. Goats came first and then the cheese. I think if you want to make good cheese, naturally and without too much chemical intervention, then you have to have good, healthy, happy goats in the first place. And you have to care about where your milk comes from.

So, this autumn, when you're out in the field, foraging for shrooms, picking damsons, plucking nuts off branches, we'll be focusing on nuts of a different kind.