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.

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