Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Spare a thought ...

Today is International Workers Memorial Day: a time for remembering all the men and women who have died at or as a direct result of their work.

The figures make sobering reading.

According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), across the world:

  • each year, more than 2 million women and men die as a result of work-related accidents and diseases;

  • workers suffer approximately 270 million occupational accidents each year and fall victim to some 160 million incidents of work-related illnesses;

  • hazardous substances kill 440,000 workers annually – asbestos alone claims 100,000 lives;

  • one worker dies every 15 seconds worldwide; 6,000 workers die every day. More people die at work than die fighting in wars.

  • So today is partly about raising awareness of that hidden toll.

    In the UK, there is a belief among some people that health and safety is bad – usually because it's used as an excuse by organisations that don't want to or cannot afford to do something, or are terrified of potential litigation: there is no ban on children playing conkers, for instance.

    But some companies still try to claim that health and safety costs too much – as if pounds, shillings and pence, and a perceived inconvenience of implementation) are more important than human lives – and some companies are simply sloppy in their implementation of health and safety.

    An acquaintance of mine was injured at work three years ago. Sent to clean a wall, he was given the wrong ladder for the job. It slipped. He went with it, crashing down onto his back and head. There was no trained first aider on site: a manager gave his back a rub and told him to go home – driving himself, after hitting his head.

    His back gives him almost constant pain. He's fighting for compensation – but it won't actually take away the pain or the prospect of major spinal surgery that doctors are discussing.

    And all because some small, basic precautions were not taken. This was not a small company either, but one of the biggest in the UK.

    I was on a construction site, photographing today's ceremony – the first year in which it has been an officially recognised day in the UK. Kitted out in proper safety boots, visibility jacket and hard hat, I was escorted up several floors by one of the site managers. He explained that, not only is smoking not allowed on site (they have a special area set aside), but neither are mobile phones. If that sounds petty, then think about how concentrating on a phone call could quite easily make you lose concentration on what you were doing, where you were walking etc. And on a construction site, that has the potential for serious problems – not just for the individual on the phone, but for their colleagues too.

    Health and safety exists for a reason.

    So today, wear your purple ribbon with pride: remember the dead – and fight for the living.

    Tuesday, 27 April 2010

    Drowsy kittens and a fresh risotto

    Last night was dominated by the kittens slowly but surely overcoming post-anaesthetic drowsiness – both of them leapt straight out of the cat basket, pushing the half-opened gate aside, Otto racing to the litter tray and Loki straight to the food bowls before checking out that their toys were all still in the right place.

    Then the former sat down, just outside the bathroom, and simply went to sleep, clearly unable to keep her eyes open or even think much.

    After a while, she tottered into the kitchen slowly – and then proceeded to sit in front of a food bowl and fall asleep all over again.

    Eventually, when she sort of slumped down, stage by stage, until her nose was on the carpet, I picked her up gently and placed her on the sofa.

    Loki, having pottered and clambered around, had also decided that a rest was in order, and opted for a more deliberate sit down and doze.

    But this state of affairs didn’t last very late into the evening, and gradually things became a little livelier.

    Boudicca, has seemed to be in a particularly tetchy mood in recent weeks. But the discovery that the kittens are girls may cast a little light on this.

    The Other Half has apparently spotted her flehming in recent days – that’s when a cat opens its mouth and has their tongue slightly out, as if they’re sniffing. Which is what they’re doing – except that, in effect, they’re tasting smells.

    So with the kittens starting puberty, and flitting in and out of phases of being in season, she’ll almost certainly have been able to smell this. And knowing that her feline flatmates were fellow females, and were on heat, does not seem to have best pleased her.

    The Queen B herself though, has changed her behaviour in the 24 hours since they arrived home, returning to her bouncy routines with The Other Half this morning, and jumping up onto a bookcase in the bedroom, which now I think about it, she hasn’t done for some weeks.

    Otto and Loki go back to the vet for a post-operation check on Thursday and then have their stitches out in about another 10 days. They are not going to pleased, though, by not being allowed out for another nine days. Boudi will be delighted to have the garden to herself again for a while.

    But in the midst of all this, I managed to concoct a seasonal risotto that I thought I’d share with you.

    Start heating your stock.

    Finely chop some shallots and the stalks of some asparagus, then soften in olive oil.

    Add your risotto rice and stir until the rice has taken on the oils in the pan. Then add a good glug of Noilly Prat (or Vermouth or white wine). The smell will be wonderful. Let that absorb, then start adding your stock, one ladle at a time, until you’ve reached maximum absorbtion. On average, this is around 20 minutes.

    Now, pop your asparagus heads and some drained artichoke hearts from the deli into the rice mix, plus some torn mint leaves. Stir very gently, pop a lid on the pan, lower the heat to the minimum and leave for 10 minutes.

    Take the pan off the heat and add a good tablespoon of crème frâiche. Warm it back up gently.

    Take a heavy frying pan and get it hot. Drop in some wafer think slices of a salami (I had a cracking one with fennel seeds) and just let the frizzle up a little.

    Dish out your rice mix, top with the salami and garnish with a bit more mint and some grated lemon zest for a really fresh spring risotto.

    Monday, 26 April 2010

    Sex change

    It was that special, one-off trip to the vet today for Otto and Loki, so that they could be 'chopped and chipped'.

    I hate these sort of days anytime: I know it's the responsible thing to do; I know it'd best for their health – and for a peaceful life for us too: none of that spraying, less straying and less fighting. But I hate leaving them, knowing that they're actually about to undergo surgery.

    With all this in mind, I'd booked the day off: the plan was to drop them off at the vet at 8.30am and then come back to do some much-needed spring cleaning while the house was rather quieter.

    And so it went. Having not previously been in a cat basket, they were intrigued at first, but after being in it for a few minutes, less than impressed. And the cab ride had them both mewling. As I waited in the reception room at the vet, they had quietened completely: probably scared and confused.

    I walked back via London Fields and Broadway Market, stopping off to pick up fresh bread and assorted cleaning items. And shortly after I'd got home, I realised that someone had tried to call me – the vet. This was enough to set off a mild (to say the least) panic and I called back straight away.

    To hear some astonishing news.

    The boys are not boys.

    The boys are girls!

    On the basis of what we'd been told when we got the furry duo, before and then on the day they arrived in our lives, we have happily assumed that the declaration of maleness was correct. After all, who distrusts someone who says they're a vet's assistant? And it's not easy to see obvious genitals at that age anyway.

    Now admittedly, the thought had passed fleetingly through our minds that there didn't appear to be much for the vet to chop off, but then again, I wasn't actually tipping them upside down and poking around down there with a magnifying glass and torch.

    Given that there is no need to worry about whether you clothe them in pink of blue, or whether they have to have dolls or toy cars, it doesn't actually make a blind bit of difference. But that still didn't stop it taking a very long time to sink in – followed by a panic over whether we should change their names. That, of course, would be far more confusing for them than any gender issues. Were there a feline Freud, he'd be hopping up and down right now at the thought of just what my confusion and apparent need to foist human ideas of gender (in the form of naming conventions) onto them would do to their little heads.

    As it happens, according to at least one naming site on the interwebby, Loki can be used for girls. And there is Ota for girls. Which isn't that far removed from Otto. But Otto he – she – will remain. That's who he – she – is.

    The point is, they just are. And it does rather make you realise how much of an artificial construct gender is and just how fussed humans get about it.

    But I admit to feeling a bit daft that I hadn't spotted it before the vet found out.

    Not, I'm relieved to say, that this is a unique situation. My pub landlady has a cat called Charlie who is female – pretty much the same thing happened, as I recall. There is a British musical called Charlie Girl and I have been known to croon the title song to Charlie while dancing with her on my shoulder. Perhaps that's why, for some years, I was one of the very few people who could pick her up without being scratched?

    Now, if you'll excuse me, it's off to the vet to collect the girls.

    Sunday, 25 April 2010

    Making the most of a cloudy day

    Saturday might not have been quite as clear-skied as the forecasts had suggested, but it was still hot and sunny enough to sit out for most of the day, and enjoy a spot of Man Cooking in the evening – a whole week earlier than the first braai of last year.

    The weather – which I seem to becoming obsessed with, in a typically English way – has certainly been a boon to my efforts to stick with a much more Mediterranean/Italian style of eating: and to boost my early tan.

    Apparently, the British Isles enjoy more cloud than any other part of Europe. So it could hardly be considered a shock when today, unfortunately, the cloud returned. Desperately trying to get outside for the intermittent patches of sun has proved futile – and the chatter of a large group enjoying a BBQ in the carpark just beyond our tiny garden has rendered it well nigh impossible to concentrate on Gore Vidal's writings on sex. A loud and lengthy discussion about car insurance is not making it easy to concentrate on an essay about W Somerset Maugham.

    So I've given up and returned inside.

    Food will just have to compensate – and it's not doing badly thus far.

    The first broad beans of the season were available on Broadway Market yesterday – cause for celebration and a late breakfast of these little emerald gems with some feta.

    That was followed by a Collioure salad – I'd found good anchovies at Waitrose last week and combined these with some roasted pepper, a few black olives and a half each of hard-boiled egg, plus a large sprig of lamb's lettuce on the side.

    Dinner was simply some boerewors that had been in the freezer since last summer, small steaks and a lamb chop each, plus a salad of orange segments and beetroot, and a nice bottle of a chilled Languedoc white.

    Today, with The Other Half in sunny Yorkshire for the Rugby League, I prepared a simple tomato and basil sauce, served with penne, for lunch (the rest will be reheated for him tonight). And later, I'm going to try a vegetable dish of asparagus, broad beans, peas and potatoes, 'stewed' in olive oil – a Roman dish from one of my River Café books – followed by simply grilled Dover sole and courgettes.

    I've made some more chocolates (double cream, infused with vanilla, heated and then poured on chocolate to melt it, before being dolloped onto greaseproof paper and popped into the fridge to set) and even processed a load of pictures I took on Thursday for an organisation, and which will inevitably end up as my second photographic charitable donation in eight days.

    I've even managed to order some clothes to pep up my summer wardrobe, which is, to be perfectly honest, in need of a serious overhaul.

    Because I've slowly been losing weight for a few years now, I didn't get anything new last summer. My collection of linen trousers were already descending of their own free will then – and it's not different now. And further up, tops that once seemed quite smart are beginning to look decidedly the worse for wear. The next thing will come tomorrow – when I actually take a binbag to the wardrobe and actually strip out all the things I won't wear again or which, bought at The Wrong Time of the Month, were mistakes in the first place. Shopping might be a form of therapy, but there are periods when that therapy is more expensive than ever: and that's particularly true of periods. Shopping trips undertaken in such an hormonal state leave you with stuff that your rational self would never touch with the proverbial bargepole.

    But back to today: depending on how energised I feel, I may actually get the camera out in a while and see if I can't manage some more indoor still life shots – I have a couple of ideas and it's enjoyably creative stuff to try.

    The sun may have disappeared at present, but there's no shortage of things to occupy my time.

    Tuesday, 20 April 2010

    Sun and a sole sole

    The sun has been out in style again today: after what seems to have been a really long, cold winter, we seem to have barely got ourselves into the spring before something more akin to summer has arrived.

    I love, love, love the sun.

    When it's like it has been since Saturday, all I want to do is soak it up. Crystal clear skies over Manchester, making me have to don sunglasses to watch Saturday's derby game against the unmentionables, even managed to make dying-seconds defeat less difficult to take.

    For Otto and Loki, of course, this is their first experience of the sun. It might only be small, but they love the garden. Otto adores rolling around in what passes for soil in our little plot, while there are moments when his brother simply springs around the place with utterly infectious pleasure.

    For me, it's as though the sun soothes and relaxes me.

    I spent most of Tuesday in the sun, and then followed it with the simplest food: asparagus, boiled and then dressed in virgin oil and lemon juice, seasoned with Maldon Sea Salt, followed by a lemon sole, brushed with a little olive oil and then grilled, then served with lemon and seasoning. Nothing else – and utterly blissful. It left me feeling sublimely satisfied.

    I don't know whether it was because I had particularly good ingredients that the meal was so good. But then again, as far as I know, the ingredients were no better than those that I usually buy.

    We're so used to cramming a single plate full of food that perhaps we don't even really taste one or two simple things properly. It's that simplicity thing again – but I'm beginning (yes, I know I'm rather slow at this) to understand that the best way to do this is two or three courses, done this way.

    It's also remarkable just how much cultural baggage I find I'm carry with regard food. When we were away, I was talking with The Other Half about fish and how he doesn't appear to like having a whole fish on his plate – even when, like plaice or sole, they're really easy to take off the bone.

    It emerged that what he doesn't like is having such a fish whole – when his plate is crammed with loads of other things, that makes dealing with the fish more difficult. It also emerged that I give him far too bigger portions of potatoes – he thinks this is another cultural thing, whereby Woman of House gives Man of House more of everything (and particularly the stodge) because Him Man and Needs More Food for His Hard Work. Okay – he didn't actually make the last bit of analysis. But he's right.

    And similarly, I have that cultural baggage of 'meat and two veg' (one of which is potatoes) to contend with. Actually, I don't think I'm doing badly on all food fronts – but it's an interesting indication of how difficult it is to really, at foundation level, alter food habits. And of course, once you recognise such things, it's easier again to move forward.

    Monday, 19 April 2010

    The first asparagus of the season

    Asparagus. When you see the first English asparagus, you know that nobody can turn the clock back – winter really is behind us.

    I saw the first English asparagus of the season in Waitrose on Friday.

    I ate my first English asparagus of the season yesterday. It was gorgeous – and what better an argument for seasonality than the delight of tasting something again for the first time in almost a year?

    There are plenty of reasons to eat seasonally – and this is just one: the mass production of food for the developed world by the developing world is costing the latter its water resources.

    And it's not just food, but also flowers, as in Kenya, where that industry is feeling the effects of the flight ban due to Icelandic volcanic ash particularly badly.

    There is, quite simply, no need for asparagus all year round, imported from Peru. Or flowers – and fine (French) beans – from Kenya all year round.

    But it gets dafter yet, with the things that we ourselves can grow – all year round: parsley and watercress, for instance, frequently imported from Israel and the US respectively.

    I happened to spot an interesting point in Jamie Oliver's Italy while reading some of it earlier: he believes that one of the reasons that Italians are so healthy (they have, if memory serves, one of the best rates of longevity in the world) is that many of them they do not have the sort of food choices that some of the rest of us do.

    Last year, on our last day of our holiday in Collioure, the elderly lady who looked after the house for its owner between paying guests, arrived to run a practised eye over everything before we departed. She'd told us on our arrival that we didn't need to worry about emptying the fridge: she would take anything left and give it to The Poor. Which seemed eminently sensible.

    And so there she was, looking in the fridge to see what was left. And not being remotely impressed at seeing strawberries there. "They're out of season," she said, in a voice that made it quite clear that this was not good. "Spanish."

    She had more than a point.

    I shall binge on asparagus now for the six to eight weeks that British asparagus is available. This year, I'm going to try to be more inventive than ever in the ways I use it.

    And then I shall, with a sigh, wave it goodbye until next year. The same will go for strawberries and fresh garden peas and broad beans.

    The alternative is insanity – and the taste isn't even as good when something has been airfreighted half way around the globe. How could it be?

    Sunday, 18 April 2010

    Another utterly stupid waste of life

    You probably haven't heard of Agnes Sina-Inakoju. To be fair, very few, outside her immediate family and friends and acquaintances had. But last Wednesday night, the 16-year-old was standing in a chicken and pizza takeaway in Hoxton, Hackney, with a friend, when two young men cycled past and one shot her in the neck.

    According to various reports, a passing doctor gave first aid. When the ambulance arrived, the medical team had to try to operate on the floor of the takeaway. They gave her 30 pints of blood – which simply flowed out of her body again, spreading across the floor where she lay.

    On Friday morning, Agnes died in hospital.

    The takeaway in question is near where I live; probably no more than a mile away – possibly less; nearer than that to where I used to live. With the road no longer cordoned off, the local bus went past it yesterday. A mountain of flowers was growing against the metal shutters. The school she attended is a five-minute walk from my home.

    According to further reports, local people have said that a gang turf war has been getting increasingly tense in recent weeks. In mid-March, we got home one evening to find our own road cordoned off after there had been a multiple stabbing – an incident that had started between a group of young men in a flat and spilled out into the street. You won't find many people around who wouldn't have thought that that was probably gang-related, so it seems quite possible that the situation has been worsening.

    Police say that they have no indication at all that Agnes herself was in any way connected to gangs – or that she was the intended target. If possible, that simply heightens the awfulness of this tragedy.

    Stupid, stupid, stupid.

    Such a awful waste. Not just of Agnes's life. But also of those who, for whatever reason, murdered her. In the insane seconds that it took one of them to pull the trigger and shoot a young woman whose back was turned to him, he wrote off his own life (or much of it).

    Because it's so 'my patch', if you will, I've been thinking about it since hearing the news for the first time on Thursday morning. The Other Half and I had passed the end of the road where it happened, around two hours after she was shot. There were police and emergency vehicles everywhere and the road was taped off. We said to each other then that it looked bad. Thinking about it now, it's quite possible she was still lying there as they fought to save her.

    We've got a general election coming up in the UK on 6 May. So all the politicians are at their posturing best at present. Their jobs are on the line, after all.

    And of course, crime comes up time and time again. This case even got a mention from an audience member on a programme about the election last night.

    And people, inevitably and understandably, seek solutions. But what are the solutions? There's no evidence that even if anyone is convicted and sent down for this, it would dissuade others. Looking at the experience of states in the US that have re-introduced capital punishment, they seem to have subsequently seen increases in murder.

    The culture in the UK is that politicians talk tough (they need to keep the tabloids happy) and promise ever 'stronger' remedies – 'boot camps' for young offenders were promised by the previous Conservative government. If they ever actually got underway, they seem to have been dropped pretty quickly and very quietly – which doesn't actually suggest a great deal for their success rate.

    It seems that, in this sort of case, the real root of the issue is why people get involved with gangs. It equally seems logical that we – not just the politicians or the police, but society as a whole – need to think about that question and then work out how to deal with it: ultimately, how to create a situation where young (primarily but not exclusively) men do not feel any need to join gangs.

    Personally, I also believe that that we need to discuss what 'justice' means: to realise that an effective justice system isn't just about revenge, but has to involve restitution, the protection of the public and rehabilitation.

    All we seem to do at present – and all the politicians seem to offer – is to imprison more and more people; to levels that are already way and above most of the rest of Europe. And yet still so many talk as if punishment is all that the judicial system is about – and as if it were the solution.

    If that sounds like a particularly bleak picture, I actually believe that the reality is far less so. In my lifetime, we as a society – including but far from limited to the police – have actually started to take seriously a number of issues: bullying, domestic violence and child abuse.

    Bullying used to be a situation of telling the victim that they should deal with it – not the perpetrator.

    With domestic violence, there was a culture of 'you've made your bed', combined with police ignoring 'a domestic'.

    With child abuse, it was swept under the carpet. Children were not believed – there was nowhere for them to go.

    And we – society as a whole and the judicial system – take rape more seriously now too (it might not be perfect, but it's not the way it was 30 years ago).

    So there are many things that are better – and many things that prove that the people who claim that we care more about criminals than about victims are deluded.

    But technology perhaps hinders all that in some ways. Thirty, 40 years ago, would we have heard much about what happened in a village 500 miles away? Never mind half way around the globe?

    Indeed, would most of you have heard of Agnes Sina-Inakoju were it not for this, your perhaps rather quirky link to life in an east London borough, via the interwebby?

    I love technology – but I suspect you can see where I'm coming from: it's not all positives. Does it help us all to know all these things – or does it subvert our picture of the world into an unhelpful negative?

    Look at it from another angle: 24-hour news media means that there's an awful lot of airtime and internet pages to be filled. Mobile phones mean that people can submit stories and pictures from remote areas. This is The Global Village. And good news rarely makes for sensational copy.

    Does all this help us – or hinder us?

    I don't know. And do I know the solutions? Not remotely.

    Personally, for what it's worth, I hope that the police find Agnes Sina-Inakoju's killers. And I hope that they have a fair trial and, if found guilty, are sentenced according to our laws.

    But more than that, I'd like to think – but I'm perhaps being overly optimistic here – that we might actually learn something from this dreadful, dreadful waste; and find something out of it to help stop such an awful thing happening again.

    And again.

    And again.

    * A few hours before writing, police announced that two young men have been arrested in connection with the crime.

    Tuesday, 13 April 2010

    How to win friends ...

    Make chocolate and then share it around at work. Simples. As that bloody meerkat on the advert says.

    During the Easter weekend, having failed (for reasons beyond our control) to bring some nibbles back from Venice for our colleagues, as is office tradition, I made chocolate bark: half with salt and half with candied Italian orange peel and stem ginger.

    This went down a storm. And by the end of the week, I almost had colleagues begging for more – well, there were serious big hints, combined with questions about what flavours I'd ever considered and why didn't I try such-and-such, all of which I think pretty much translates into begging.

    So on Sunday, I made more. And went a little bit further. I had a load of stuff in the cupboard that I'd bought for baking before Christmas – and then never used. I didn't want it to go to waste.

    I took glacé cherries and wrapped them in marzipan – it's really easy stuff to roll into a little ball. Then, when my chocolate had melted in a bowl over a pan, I dipped these little balls into it and then popped them on tin foil to set, sprinkling them with a little cocoa powder first. The remaining melted chocolate was simply spread on more foil as plain bark.

    It really was as simple as that. Not that you'd have thought so today – I've had colleagues going completely bonkers with delight, amid suggestions that I could have an alternative career.

    Not that everyone understands.

    Chatting on the phone to my mother yesterday evening, she asked what I'd been up to at the weekend and one of things I mentioned was that I'd made chocolates.

    "Why?" she asked, apparently at a loss to imagine why I would do such a thing.

    "Well," I started. "Because I like finding out how to do things," and I explained, adding that I've made my own taramasalata, tapenade and humous before now for just that reason. In reality, I actually preferred the very pink (ie dyed) taramasalata you can buy in the shops and thought there was nothing to make my humous special (ie worth doing again), while the tapenade has been repeated a number of times since.

    She didn't really seem to grasp this much either.

    Then suddenly I added, almost as an afterthought: "Oh, and it's fun."

    She didn't really seem to get that either, but it's true. It is fun.

    Fun – and then good to taste afterwards. And as if that wasn't enough, I now have loads of very happy colleagues.

    Monday, 12 April 2010

    Taking it home

    Finally, after what seems to have been an endless series of false dawns, we had a weekend that really felt like spring – not just the first hints of spring, you understand, but the full-blown thing.

    The weather permitted not only some much-needed gardening, but also the welcome opportunity to lounge around in the sun with a book for hours on both days – already there are the first signs of my tan reviving.

    The park behind our flats was echoing with the sound of leather on willow on Saturday, and a stroll to and from the local picture framers revealed the sight of a full-blown cricket match; both teams in whites and even a proper boundary marked out. There have been plenty of knock-abouts over the years, but neither of us could recall being aware of such a proper game and, if anything screams that summer is on the way, it’s cricket.

    The framed pictures were a batch from our trip, plus a poster I’d bought after visiting an exhibition of Irving Penn’s portrait photography at the National Portrait Gallery a few weeks ago. We’d managed to find some really excellent prints for diddly squat just around the corner from San Marco, right amidst the predictable souvenir dross.

    Nino, the son of artist Baldan Fabio, sold them to us – one lithograph and three mixed media – explaining that his father used to be able to sell etchings for something like €350 in the same spot, but the increase in tourism (and tourist tat) had meant that that was no longer viable, so he’d changed the nature of his work and was charging less. A lot less. The pictures were absolute bargains.

    Looking in gallery windows as we strolled, it was clear that he was at least as good as many of the other artists whose work was hung in more salubrious environments and was marked with concomitantly far higher prices. It seemed that he was in a sort of no man’s land between being able to afford a gallery space and having to stick with his little stand on the Fondamenta.

    Nino seemed to decide that we were the sort of visitors who were worth talking to and, as he wrapped up our lithograph with enormous care (impressed that we had chosen a backstreet picture of a canal rather than the ‘obvious’ gondolas), explained to us that the indigenous population of Venice had shrunk, in recent decades, to around 59,000.

    He said that there was a real danger of the city becoming simply a glorified theme park, and that politicians were more interested in the Venetian buildings than the Venetian people.

    With a local election the day after, Nino told us that he would be voting for a party that backed the local people. He didn’t actually say which, but returned to the stall the next day to buy the mixed media, and he said he was just off to vote.

    Most people who visit Venice apparently do so via coach tours – and they stay for, at most, a day. At one point, you could almost feel the city’s population swell as a massive (and I mean “massive”) cruise liner moored in the nearby port – and decrease when it sailed out of port.

    For those who actually spend time in Venice, the average stay is apparently 2.5 nights. So at five nights, we were in some sort of quite serious category.

    I’ll say at this point that I was quite ready to come home when we did – but that was primarily because I was in danger of some sort of overdose otherwise: I needed time to deal with all my thoughts and impressions. And because I wanted to see my cats again, of course.

    But I found myself, quite quickly (if not earlier) wanting to bring home and utilise some (at least) of the lessons I’d learned.

    It’s one thing to enjoy a cuisine in the country itself – but it’s quite another to take what you’ve discovered home and start using it in your own kitchen.

    In a way, the most obvious thing about the food in Venice was the simplicity – which was a reminder of something I’ve understood for some time.

    But the other thing that really struck me was seasoning – not least with lemon and herbs.

    So how have I dealt with that?

    Actually, it’s felt (thus far) ridiculously easy.

    Tonight, for instance, I grilled lamb chops and served them with soft polenta and courgette. And, of course, lemon.

    It was only the second time I’d attempted polenta – and was way better than the first. But perhaps that’s obvious? Now, I’ve had the experience of eating it in a country in which it is a standard part of the cuisine.

    I infused the milk and water (500ml for two people) with bay leaves, sliced garlic and some parsley) before straining the liquid and then adding 100g of polenta (the quick cook stuff) to it. Some faint sticking occurred, but that was easily dealt with. I added a little butter and some olive oil and seasoning. And – a new lesson – I actually kept tasting.

    The more I think about it, the more I come to understand that good cooking is not difficult. It IS an art – or at least, cook cooking reflects an appreciation of life that goes far beyond anything puritanical.

    I wonder, sometimes, just how much those tourists who visit Venice (or Barcelona or Paris or Berlin or London) on buses, and spend a meagre few hours being told what to look at and how to look at it, actually ever get from their trips.

    I am not a snob. The experiences of the Orient Express taught me (if I’d not realised it before) that money has little to do with appreciation. So I want everyone who can really gain from travel to be able to do so. But I think of what Nino said and I do wonder how much of all this tourism is worth it.

    It’s a subject that crops up in Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti novels.

    Back in the UK, I was surfing Amazon – so often the source of unexpected information, if only indirectly. And I found this set of crime novels – 19 to date – set in Venice.

    Leon is a US-born academic, who has lived and worked in Iran, China, Saudi Arabi and, subsequently, for 20 years, Venice.

    Given a rather good Amazon offer, I ordered the first three books – and am already more than half way through the second. Which should tell you something about the first. I’ve now ordered the fourth to sixth.

    It’s really not that difficult to take something of a city home with you after all.

    Thursday, 8 April 2010

    Eating my way around Venice

    So what of the food in Venice? Well, as I mentioned previously the fact that pasta is not a northern Italian dish had led me to believe that I wouldn't see it on many menus. But that was most certainly not to be the case.

    On our second day, we wandered up into Cannaregio, dipping into the Ghetto (Venice gave the world the word – it originally comes from the word 'getto' or 'gheto', which means slag in Venetian, and referred to a foundry that was located in the same the area that Jews were confined to on the islands) and then on to catch the vaparetto that took us, via the cemetary island of San Michele, to Murano, where the famous Venetian glass is produced.

    The weather, which had been forecast to be cold, wet and even snowy during our trip, was glorious, so al fresco lunching was in order again for a simple cheese omelette. But food got a bit fancier later that afternoon, after we'd arrived back at Piazza San Marco via a vaparetto once more.

    of the things we’d promised ourselves was a visit to Caffé Florian. Legend is the sort of word that tends to get rather over used, but Florian certainly qualifies. It first opened its doors in 1720 and is probably the world’s oldest coffee house in continuous operation – and in Casanova’s day, it was the only coffee house in the city that admitted women.

    It’s sumptuous inside – but sitting outside is even more of an event. There (for a cover charge of €6 per person) you can enjoy a five-piece orchestra as you relax and enjoy the food and drink.

    It also has a reputation for seasonality in all things – and they take this rather serious, as we found when we attempted to order Bellini’s (Prosecco and peach purée), to hear that, since peaches were not in season, it wasn’t available. We were not totally out of luck, though, as strawberries were available and make a Rossini.

    One sip and it was quite clear that the strawberry taste was not artificial, but really was freshly puréed fruit.

    And as for the dreamy little chocolate cake that I ordered …

    There was something quite gloriously surreal and camp about the whole thing, with silver service and uniformed waiters, and the orchestra playing selections of Abba and then My Fair Lady. I can say without fear of contradiction that I had never entertained the idea that I would find myself sitting in the square that Napoleon described as “the drawing room of Europe”, drinking (in effect) a Champagne cocktail, eating a divine cake – and singing along, in my best Cockney, to Wouldn’t it be luverley, and with a grin on my face that would have done the Cheshire Cat proud.

    That night, we tried another trattoria near the hotel and opted for a sort of full works Italian meal: anti-pasti, primo and secundo.

    That meant some very nice prosciutto, that was not fully dry, with pears, which had been sliced in circles and was quite dry. My primo was a ravioli with buttermilk, so the menu said. I’m not sure what exactly the filling was – it was a pistachio green – but it was lovely. My secundo was sole – but when it arrived, it was four tiny fish, which was really rather fiddly and I couldn’t work out why you use such small fish when you can get far larger ones that actually have more to eat on them. So that was a bit of a let down.

    The next day, we lunched again at the Fondamenta, where we’d eaten pasta on our first day. The Other Half had exactly the same again, while I opted for the spaghetti alla carbonara. It wasn’t the very best one I’ve had – that honour goes to Le Grande Café de la Bourse in Perpignan, where they serve it with a half egg shell holding a yolk on top, so that you can pour the egg onto your own pasta – making it the silkiest carbonara ever. But it was jolly decent anyway.

    And after an afternoon when we got a vaparetto to The Lido (so that I could do my Death in Venice bit), we explored some of the narrow streets near the Ponte dell’Accademia and found yet another fascinating looking trattoria.

    Fascinating it looked, but it was also quite clearly used by local people. And it wasn’t difficult to work out why.

    I had calf liver with onions and figs, served with fried polenta. It was superb – wonderful, gutsy, simple food; quality ingredients prepared perfectly.

    And it wasn’t the only such meal. The next day, lunching after wanders that had included a most enjoyable trip around the famous fish market just near the Rialto Bridge, we found a Sardinian trattoria. I ordered grilled lamb chops – hardly expecting a plate with five on it! But the real surprise was lemon to dress the meat – it worked beautifully and gave it a real freshness. And the polenta ‘crisps’, dressed with virgin oil and chopped rosemary, that we were served after we’d ordered were wonderfully moreish.

    That night, for our last meal in Venice and as the weather finally fulfilled the forecasts, we had taken the vaparetto to Piazza San Marco, partly with the aim of visiting the legendary Harry’s Bar before eating. But as that was crowded, we changed our plans and went to look for food instead. What we found was a restaurant that was clearly aimed much more at tourists, but which had an interesting a simple menu. And here I enjoyed cuttlefish in ink with spaghetti – a veritable mountain of sweetness.

    I might have headed to Italy with any expectation of eating much pasta, but what I learned was that, by and large, I’ve been undercooking the stuff at home.

    And the overarching theme of the week’s food was that simple really is best.

    Otherwise, I’m afraid that Italian coffee didn't seem to take much of a fancy to me – a couple of cups in a morning and I'd spend the next few hours desperately having to find toilets. Boy – I'd thought that French coffee was strong ...

    And I didn’t get around to eating risotto or any Italian ice cream while we were there. But then again, there’s bound to be a next time.

    Wednesday, 7 April 2010

    Behind the mask

    It might be difficult to escape from churches in Venice, but religion doesn’t dominate any sense of the city. In some ways, the churches are merely the masks for the real Serenissima.

    Although I’ve read a massively abridged version of the memoirs of Giacomo Casanova, his name hadn’t actually crossed my mind in all the pre-trip preparations, research and excitement.

    But once there, his connection with the city sprang readily to mind.

    The winding streets and narrow passageways seem to reek of illicit assignations and whispered seductions. Half-seen stairways that invite and suggest. Liquid thoroughfares on which to glide in sleek, black gondolas.

    Inhale and you can smell it. Open your mouth like a cat and you can taste it. Look out of the very corner of your eye and you can almost see it.

    It seeps from stones as smooth as silk, buffed by centuries of lovers travelling between trysts.

    Divine decadence and sultry sin: this extraordinary, exotic city; ejaculated out of the mud like a condensed evolution of primordial ooze straight into sophisticated humanity. There is nowhere else like it on Earth.

    But it was not just thoughts of Casanova that prompted my mind to such thoughts. Thomas Mann conceived Death in Venice while staying on the Lido, but seeing the city, experiencing it and opening yourself up to it, adds a whole new layer of understanding to that masterpiece of a novella.

    Mann knew that Venice was different, and that its exoticism was full of temptation – particularly for anyone of puritanical northern stock. He paints so much of the story in terms of the Greek gods – a world of pleasure; the antithesis of the discipline that art demands of Aschenbach and demanded of Mann himself.

    For all the churches, there is something pagan about Venice – and an aura of licence pervades. It’s not just for the fortnight in February when Carnevale takes place, when the poseurs dress up for photographers to immortalise; it’s something more permanent than that – and far darker.

    Dangerous, dark and very sexy indeed.

    Countless shops sell the famous Carnevale masks – cheap ones with flirty feathers, hanging from the rows of souvenir stalls on the Fundamenta, a few metres from the Doge’s Palace and the twin columns that framed the city’s site of execution.

    Other outlets sell fancier and more complex masks. And then there are the specialists – where you can see craftsmen creating masterful recreations of these facilitators of anonymity.

    Full-face masks and half-face masks. And then the Medico Della Peste – the ‘plague doctor’s mask’ – so-called because 16th-century French physician Charles de Lorme adopted it as one of a range of sanitary precautions while treating plague victims.

    A disguise in which to crush convention and trash taboos. A memento mori – life and voluptuous gratification, eternally ephemeral.

    I brought one home – molded leather; a rich red brown with black detail. Forget the churches and the saints and the martyrs: this then is my Venice – a place of transgression and velvet black pleasure.

    Saturday, 3 April 2010

    Churches, churches everywhere

    It's possible in Venice to escape from a number of things – MacDonalds and other fast-food outlets for starters. There's apparently only one of the former in the city – which seems like a laudable achievement to me.

    But one thing that you cannot hope to escape from in Venice is religion. There are churches everywhere – every famous vista of Serenissima has some religious note or other in it. The piazza in San Marco? Will that be 'San Marco' as in 'Saint Mark', with the Basilica di San Marco and the Campanile di San Marco? Even the Doge's Palace is covered in ornately carved religious references (left, Adam and Eve).

    And if you want to see art, well the best places to go are the churches – apart from Gallerie dell' Accademia; but then that turns out to be dominated by religious art, much of which was hauled out of assorted religious establishments by Napoleon, who set up the Gallerie and filled it with the works from the establishments he'd just disbanded. I knew Boney must have had his good points.

    Our church visits were limited to three – Palladio's Il Redentore (left, but not the same architect's Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore, due to the timing of Venetian lunch), plus a church on Murano, Chiesa di San Pietro Martire, and then another in, I think, Dorsoduro on the main islands, and which dated from the 9th century.

    There were Bellinis to be seen and Tintorettos and Tiepolos. In short, you could easily risk a religious art overload. And that's before you start spotting the little shrines in the streets themselves (see picture below).

    And of course, we’d also contrived to be in Venice for the first half of Holy Week, as the sight of people walking along the narrow streets, carrying olive branches, was a constant reminder.

    But if it’s impossible to avoid the signs of religion in Venice, it’s difficult too not to find oneself contemplating what brought into being those buildings and displays of artistic brilliance. In other words, to consider religion.

    My own religiosity died a remarkably painless death, unnoticed, around 10 years ago. “Why?” asked my friend George one evening, several pints into a post-work Friday drink, when I had insisted that, for all my disavowal of organised religion, I still believed in God.

    I couldn’t answer that simple question and the subject dropped. But when the next census landed on our doormat and I was filling it in, I realised with some surprise that I was going to answer the religion question as ‘none’. Subconsciously, it seemed, that ‘why?’ had done its work.

    After decades spent under a burden of guilt and fear, it was no loss. Although then began a new process – partly of trying to logically work out why I’d arrived at my new state of unbelief and also one of anger with the institution that had held such sway over my life.

    It was a few years before I would willingly enter a church again – the Westerkerk in Amsterdam, as it happened, for a recital of organ music – without my mind grinding a metaphorical axe as I entered.

    But not only was this Venice, with its myriad (mainly) Catholic churches, this was also a time when the Catholic church itself is desperately trying to deal with the scandals around child abuse by clergy and the subsequent cover-ups of that abuse.

    More than one person has asked whether the Catholic church can surivive. Well, of course it will.

    But aside from the survival of the organisation in question, it has also been asked as to how religious belief can survive in the face of such a scandal.

    My first reaction was that it is entirely legitimate to point out that God is not the same as the abusive clergy.

    But that, as I wondered around Venice, struck me as too easy.

    The Christian god has always been represented as omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent – and indeed, if he wasn’t, he wouldn’t, for instance, be able to see your sin. Which might be something of a disadvantage come Judgment Day.

    So for all that ‘free will’ can be used to explain the actions of abusers – and the influence of Lucifer too – that still leaves a little problem: that of the abused. Surely an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful god, who – as the Bible has us believe, gets upset when even a sparrow falls – could have protected those children? It wouldn’t have had to be overly dramatic – nothing to interfere with the challenge of faith: just a heart attack here, a fall there, and the abusers would have stopped their abuse.

    But it’s more complex even than that.

    Because if an all-powerful God created everything and, in being all-seeing and all-knowing, knows not only everything that has ever existed but everything that will ever exist, then that God actually created the situations that would cause the abuse, knowing that it would happen.

    He might, to offer another explanation, have created a situation whereby everyone had a couple of choices available to them on any action. Or more – because the number is irrelevant. The all-seeing, all-knowing God has always known what would be the outcomes of his actions and his creations and his decisions: and in the case of child abuse by his own servants, he has apparently lifted not one, divine finger to stop the suffering.

    “Suffer the little children”, means, it would seem, exactly what it says on the tin.

    So even if this God existed, it rather belies the idea of a loving God, as sold to people down the millennia since the advent of Christianity.

    And why – other than for entirely dishonest reasons of self-preservation (Pascal’s Wager, in other words) – would one wish to worship such an entity, even if that entity wouldn’t actually know perfectly well that one’s worship was not genuine?

    This is the ultimate mindfuck. And the deeper you let yourself contemplate this quite labyrinthine matter, the more paths you find that lead you back to this same conclusion.

    If he exists, the Christian god is either not omnipotent, omnipresent and omniscient – or he is not the ‘loving’ god of Christian tradition; quite the opposite.

    But then again, perhaps the children really should suffer? Perhaps, indeed, they should have suffered in (bought-off) silence – a sort of religious character-building exercise?

    I lost track some time ago of how many pictures of the martyrdom of St Sebastian we saw, each one seemingly feyer than the previous one.

    ‘Oh look – I’ve been shot full of arrows, but I’m not the least bit distressed because I’m a good boy, I am, and I’m going to Heaven.

    ‘Oh my – I’ve pulled one of the arrows clean out … now just as long as they don’t muss my golden locks at all I’ll be able to endure anything.’

    St Bartholomew was managing a similar expression as he was being flayed. And never mind all the artistic representations of the crucifixion.

    Suffering: it’s good for the soul.

    And never let it be said that Christianity in general and the Catholic church in particular hasn’t relished a bit of sado-masochism – and they have the nerve to call kinky people perverts!

    For some reason or other, one night when we were in Venice I dreamt that I met and had a debate with the Pope. Perhaps it’s a good thing that, by the time I’d woken, I could remember only that, and no details of the dreamt conversation.

    But if Venice leaves one with an idea about religion, it’s surely the impression that more humans have created more beauty for the Christian God than that god deserves on the basis of his cruelty and barbarity.

    The creations of a Palladio or a Bellini or even a Vivaldi (another son of Venice) are ‘holier’ (if you will) and purer and more deserving of reverence than the god that many of their works were intended to praise.

    And I hope, therefore, that whatever happens to the Catholic church (and other religious groups, Christian and non-Christian), the buildings and the art of Venice will surivive. And for that reason, I happily handed over €10 for a pass to the so-called Chorus churches (including Palladio’s Il Redentore), on the basis that their preservation is well worth a donation.

    Friday, 2 April 2010

    Palladio and pasta

    Every city you visit is in its own time zone – to some degree at least. So if you visit Barcelona, for instance, you have to adapt to the fact that the residents of that magnificent place eat late: 'Barcelona time' can mean sitting down for dinner as late as 10pm.

    In Venice, dinner is much earlier – and rather logically, lunch is taken early too.

    Our first full day saw us get up late after a much-needed rest, and only just make breakfast at the hotel. The next thing to do on such breaks is get transport sorted out: we picked up three-day passes for the water bus (vaparetto) and boarded one to take us, in round-about fashion, via the lagoon and then the Giudecca Canal, to the tiny island of San Giorgio Maggiore, where the Benedictine basilica, designed by architectural legend, Andrea Palladio, and built between 1566 and 1610 and a monastery are pretty much the only buildings on this tiny patch of land.

    It was a delightful journey, followed by the first realisation that we still had some adjusting to 'Venice time' to do: the church was shut for lunch. After a stroll as far as one can stroll, and a stop at the island's tiny cafe for a bottle of water under azure skies, we caught another vaparetto and headed the short distance to the rather larger island of Giudecca, dropping off right outside another of Palladio's creations, Il Redentore, which was built to thank God for deliverance from a major outbreak of the plague.

    Consecrated in 1592, it got the architect in a spot of bother, since it was apparently considered to have been a bit overly fussy in design. Which leaves you wondering just what the church rulers thought was simple – it's a magnificent example of light and space and perfect proportion that leaves you in no doubt as to why Palladio himself was such a hugely important figure.

    And here too – since lunch had not seen it closed – we encountered something else for the first time: the presence of amazing works of art, in the context for which they were intended. In Il Redentore, there hang works by, amongst others, Francesco Bassano, Leandro Bassano, Jacopo Bassano, Palma the Younger and the workshop of Tintoretto.

    Setting aside any real thoughts of lunch – not least because we simply were not ready for it – we ambled off to the other side of the island, strolling through quiet residential streets with washing hung high between the blocks of colourful buildings.

    There was an almost secret (to tourists, at least) public garden (thank you, Time Out) overlooking the lagoon beyond; hazy islands visible in the near distance, most of them clearly containing institutional buildings.

    It was beautifully peaceful, with little more to disturb the early afternoon than the sound as cormorants dived for food.

    And thus, by the time we took the five-minute stroll back to the side of the Giudecca Canal, the main local eatery had finished serving.

    We had a coffee and a fag and put our minds to this conundrum. Much as we would normally strive to avoid the main tourist areas for food, there seemed little choice but to get the vaparetto back across to San Marco and eat there. At least places catering specifically for the huge influx of visitors would not be running to traditional Venetian times.

    We easily found a place, a matter of three minutes walk from San Marco itself, looking out on the lagoon and over to San Giorgio Maggiore. After weeks of dismal weather forecasts for Venice - up to and including snow – it was glorious; blue skies and real warmth. We sat out and ordered simple pasta: spaghetti with a plain tomato sauce for The Other Half, penne with Arrabbiata (a tomato sauce with red chili) for me, together with a demi of house red.

    Pasta isn't really a northern Italian dish – it's more a southern thing. But while I might have expected, after pre-trip research, to find considerably more polenta, an absence of pasta would, in retrospect, have been a little like assuming that, because fish and chips is a speciality of northern England, it's limited to that part of the country.

    We night have expected little – but in the event, were utterly delighted. Simple as you can get, gutsy and full of flavour. And the wine was lovely a light too.

    Our first real meal in Venice (breakfast apart) and it was the perfect antidote to the constipation-inducing richness of the journey.

    Whatever I'd expected; whatever I'd wanted, here was the start of a massive culinary lesson.

    We sat for quite a while after; relishing the feeling of being pleasantly sated (rather than completely stuffed) together with the surroundings: even the general hubbub seemed natural and right.

    When we walked back toward Piazza San Marco itself, it offered a first real opportunity to take in the extraordinary architecture and decoration of the Doge's Palace; covered in carvings and detail. And the next-door basilica of San Marco is no slouch on those fronts either – also boasting columns of many different marbles, 'rescued' by myriad Venetian merchants on their travels. They might have preferred trade to military endeavour, but the Venetians were certainly not averse to a spot of looting on the back of someone else's military adventuring.

    The piazza also includes the San Marco campanile – the bell tower that collapsed in 1902 and was subsequently rebuilt as it had been. And on both the long sides of the piazza are loggia, which include, on the south side, Caffe Florian, one of the city's more modern legends. Although not really that modern – since it was established in 1720 and could well hold the title of the oldest coffee house in continuous operation.

    The evening brought with it another food opportunity, and we headed to Nico’s, a small trattoria that we'd spotted on Friday night's introductory ramble through the city.

    It was the sort of place that catered for a local clientele as well as visitors, and at least three generations of the family that owned it were on duty that night.

    Again, this was simple food: a very fresh little salad of tiny octopus and celery formed an excellent starter. My main course was slightly disappointing – as much because I assumed that, when ordering “Sole alla Nico” it wouldn’t mean anything that I couldn’t eat. In the event, it was a sole alright (filleted before reaching the table by the restaurant’s patriarch, who carried out this task immaculately, with a fork and spoon), but unfortunately, as well as the lovely tomato salsa, it also had four mussels, and after two incidents some years ago, I cannot risk those lovely things.

    It was a shame – but there was compensation ahead in my first taste of a tiramisu in Italy. Now coincidentally, in the weeks before our trip, the Good Food Channel had been showing several different series about Italian food, including Gary Rhodes’s Rhodes Across Italy. Shortly before we left, I’d managed to record the one that he’d filmed about food in Venice and the Veneto.

    Watching that, I’d learned that a traditional tiramisu doesn’t actually have any booze in it. And sure enough, my first Italian tiramisu didn’t have any booze – but was utterly delightful.

    So together with the sights and sounds of this extraordinary city, our first full day had been marked with excellent food – and food that gave an excellent demonstration of the fact that culinary simplicity is a wonderful thing.

    Thursday, 1 April 2010

    The start of a 21st-century 'Grand Tour'

    It as been raining in London since the afternoon. Grey – and very cold, although nowhere near as bad as much of the rest of the country, which has been 'enjoying' a sharp reminder of winter.

    After a four-hour flight from Venice yesterday (with 40-minute stop in Geneva), followed by battling through the 'enhanced' passport controls at London City Airport (it would be fascinating to know just how many millions of 'undesirables' are actually refused entry at UK airports – but then again, the probably small figures wouldn't appease the knee-jerking, hysterical tabloids and their terrified, little-Englander readers), we finally made it home.

    As I tried to sort various things out, The Other Half popped up the road and picked up fish, chips and mushy peas, on the grounds that he felt that: "You don't want to start cooking now".

    It was hardly the best grub I've eaten – but then again, we simply needed fodder by that stage. The in-flight food hadn't been up to much – and only very tiny snacks at that. With long queues at Marco Polo to get through woefully understaffed security, we'd had no time to get food there either.

    So this morning, having taken today off as a bridge between our holiday and Easter, I sat in bed with camomile tea, paper and pen and Antonio Carluccio's Complete Italian Food, which has been on the shelf for years after I'd found it in a discount bookshop and which continues to floor me.

    It was no clearer today. So I set off shopping, in bright (if cold) sunshine, with no list at all and even less idea of what I would cook for today and tomorrow. All I knew was that the one place that might guarantee me some form of support in my characteristic state of post-Continent pissed offness was a visit to Borough Market; and the hope that, regardless of the weather, like last year, the first Jersey Royals would be available there – even at a price.

    I wasn't wrong on the potato front. But after approaching the situation in a totally novel (for me) way – wandering right around the market to get an idea of what was available, but not buying at that juncture – I went and sat down for a coffee and fag outside a café alongside Southwark Cathedral, pulling out paper and pen to compile menus and list. And then it started to dawn that the last few days have been a leap forward in my culinary education, and potatoes, potatoes, potatoes – even if those potatoes happen to be Jerseys, those early-spring jewels of the soil – was not really what I wanted.


    The British Pullman pulled gracefully out of Victoria Station at 10.45am on Thursday 25 March, carrying the first passengers of the new season to Folkstone, where they would transfer to a coach to be taken, via the Eurostar, to Calais, to join the famous Wagon Lits of the Orient Express.

    The Other Half and I were particularly delighted to discover that we'd been allocated a private compartment to ourselves – no having to mix with the rest of the passengers on this rather posh package tour. Was this a treat – or a form of quarantine?

    We giggled like children as brunch was served: Bellinis followed by a "fresh fruit cocktail", "scrambled eggs with chives, Inverawe smoked salmon, served on a potato and herb rosti and pan fried mushrooms". What the menu didn't mention was that our cheeky Cockney waiter would also bring around caviar. Now I love lumpfish roe, but have never had the real stuff. This was too good an opportunity to miss and, when The Other Half declined his portion, I dived in to make sure it didn't go to waste.

    There was bread and butter and preserves, and then a slice of pear and rosemary tart with fresh cream, plus coffee, as we chugged elegantly through the rain-sodden Kent countryside, past oast houses and orchards – and all designed by "executive head chef" Matthew Smith.

    A train. With an "executive head chef". This was a different planet.

    And that different planet continued at Folkstone, where the train was met by a four-piece Old Orleans band that played us off the train and onto coaches that are, apparently, more usually used to transport football teams to and from matches.

    After faffing around at Ashford for a tedious, wet half hour, the coach was allowed to board the shuttle for the 35-minute trip under the sea to France.

    Amazingly, the weather had already changed to welcome us, as the coaches disembarked and drove us through Calais to the railway station. There, after our baggage – which had been delayed in transit – had been stowed, we were finally allowed to get off the coach and stroll to our carriages as the train's staff stood alongside.

    It also offered an opportunity for a mass use of cameras to record this first sighting of the train – plus desperate last fags before boarding.

    The steward for our carriage was Davide, who assured us that he had come from Mauritius just to buttle for us. And finally, off we set into the French countryside at a sedate pace, passing through stations where people stood on the platform and gazed at the train in disbelief or delight, grinning or snapping away with their mobile phones, and waving at us.

    The compartments are small, but that only remotely becomes an issue when the time arrives to dress for dinner, requiring a certain amount of organisation. Which we managed rather well, before heading for the bar car and pre-dinner cocktails, accompanied by the Italian pianist on a baby grand, playing a selection that ranged from Piaf to Dean Martin to Abba to Jethro Tull to songs from the shows to popular classics.

    As if that wasn't surreal enough, things soon took an even camper turn. Halted in the middle of nowhere for some time, an announcement was eventually made to inform us that we were being held up because, further down the line, a train and a car had had an altercation.

    It was around this time that the pianist struck up a selection from The Sound of Music. Sitting around in evening dress, a number of the travelers joined in – the campest communal sing-along ever witnessed.

    But so to dinner.

    We started with an "open ravioli of Brittany lobster on a bed of slow-simmered, shredded Belgian endives with orange peels", followed by "roast fillet of beef with its marrow with a red onion chutney and a red wine and shallots sauce", accompanied by a "mille-feuilles" of vegetables and "potatoe cake" (God, they need a sub-editor).

    Cheese and biscuits came next, followed by "chocolate and pear cake with Reims lady fingers flavoured ice cream", "small pastry delicacies" and coffee.

    In this case, the "chef de cuisine" was Christian Bodiguel.

    Stuffed after the cheese and biscuits, I forewent the rest of the courses. Two such big meals in one day was really pushing things for me.

    But here was lesson number one: the "open ravioli" was nice – but it was, to my mind, rather too sweet. I'd have added a touch of red chili to cut right through the sweetness.

    The Other Half asked whether I really felt like taking such a matter up with the chef. I suggested that Monsieur Bodiguel was far too busy to be bothered. But daring as it might seem to believe that one could add something to the art of a French chef, I stand by the idea.

    The compartment had been transformed by the time of our return. But if it had been a matter of organisation to get dressed for dinner, it was utter chaos to undress for bed. It could so easily have resulted in a case of murder on the Orient Express.

    Yet once that was achieved, amazingly, we slept comfortably and with no disturbance from the sound of the train as it plodded away through the French night, having finally got moving again after a delay of some two hours and to the sounds of cheering from the bar and restaurant cars.

    I had already had a discussion with Davide, who, on discovering my desire to try to photograph the scenery, had suggested that he would knock on our door at 6am for the start of the best stuff. As it happened, I woke at 6.30am and, carefully lifting the blind, found that we were stationary in Basel station – he had thankfully decided that since we were behind time, it was best to let me continue sleeping.

    By the time we'd dressed, we were heading into a vast tunnel beneath Zurich, and Davide knocked on the door shortly after that to alert me to the first lake. It was just the start of a stunningly beautiful journey into and through the Alps; blue skies and green water; snow-capped peaks and picturesque villages. Gorgeous – and I snapped away madly, helped by the fact that the compartment windows can be wound down very low and, whatever a small plaque said to the contrary, it was very easy to lean at least a little way out of the window.

    The results – given that we were moving, and often bending round at quite substantial angles, are surprisingly good, including this shot of a rather austere castle, which was snared just before we crossed from Switzerland to Austria.

    There are no showers on the train, although each compartment has a little closet with washbasin. Hot water is provided by a stove in each carriage – all of which are kept burning by the stewards. The faint smell of the stoves became one of the familiar accompaniments on the trip. The stewards also bring you breakfast – fruit cocktail, fruit juice, tea or coffee, bread rolls, butter and preserves.

    There was no chance that anyone was going to starve on this expedition – and as though we'd all actually climbed every mountain on the way, step by step, lunch proved to be yet another epic occasion that I have – perhaps thankfully – lost the full menu for. Suffice it to say that it included duck and later, a tart of apples, with Fourme d'Ambert cheese caramelised on top, accompanied by black pepper ice cream and topped by a nasturtium.

    Now I love cheese – and I like Fourme d'Ambert – but this seemed to me to be a case of over-egging (so to speak) the pudding. Apple tart – with ice cream: there's nothing wrong with that that requires correction by adding extra, and frankly superfluous, ingredients.

    Later – stuffed for what felt like the umpteenth time in a meagre two days – we flopped in easy chairs in the bar car, nursing Becks beers and watching as the train trundled through the rain, down from the Brenner Pass and into Italy.

    We had caught up some time, but not a great deal. As we headed across the Ponte della Libertà to Venice itself, through the mist and with no hope of seeing the Queen of the Adriatic rise magically out of the water before us, I felt so tired that the only idea in my mind was to get to our hotel and go to bed.

    Perhaps it was no great shock that Serenissima should change that.

    Finally leaving the train behind, together with the package tour groups who were transferring en masse to hotels, we hauled our bags down the station steps and out alongside the Grand Canal. A water taxi dropped us just beyond the Rialto Bridge, and we were at our hotel itself in mere moments.

    A rapid unpack followed. And then we faced the knowledge that we had the rest of the night to ourselves. Food might not be on our menu, but a beer and a walk and smoke all were.

    The concierge asked if we wanted directions – but we were already in the mood simply to wander and, if it happened, get lost, as it is said visitors should do in the city.

    We headed in what we hoped was the direction of Piazza San Marco, rapidly betwitched by the architecture, the tiny side canals disappearing into velvet blackness, the shops trading in glass (was this the real Murano or Chinese imports?) and Carnevale masks, the paintings and the pasta.

    In San Marco itself – the one piazza in Venice (all the other public spaces, irrespective of size, are campi), the Doge's Palace was lit up brightly. St Mark's Basilica, St Mark's Campanile and the Loggetta added to the ocular feast. But unlike the rich diet of the preceding 36 hours, this didn't leave one feeling constipated, but eagerly anticipating more.

    We wended our way back and sat at a table just below the Rialto Bridge, nursing welcome beers and watching the lights play on the waters of the Grand Canal.

    We had arrived.

    PS: there are no pictures of both myself and The Other Half together in evening dress. But since some of you asked, here are the next best things – The Other Half in his best bib and tucker, and a quickly taken self-portrait.