Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Chilling out in Dublin

Greetings from Ireland !!

I’m currently crashed at my friend’s place (thanks Anne), in the lovely seaside suburb of Sutton, near Howth.

Now...I could go on about all the wonderful sights there are to see in Dublin (like the Book of Kells; Trinity College; Kilmannon Jail; the Guinness Brewery; etc...) but to be honest, apart from the bookstores in town (yep...spending waaaaay too much time & money there), I haven’t done any of that.

I’ve been doing some serious “chill out” time by the seaside, catching my breath after the adventure-packed six weeks on the continent.

That’s not to say that I’ve been a total sloth the last week. I’ve done a couple of day trips out to the countryside, which included:

Newgrange burial chamber

Situated on a bend in the Boyne River, this 5,500 yr old burial chamber (yep….older than the Pyramids) commands the views across the Boyne Valley. This area has over 40 such burial cairns scattered around the place. What makes Newgrange so special (apart from being the largest) is that the entrance way is perfectly aligned with the rising sun during the winter solstice (December 17 – 23). At this time, light will pierce the inner chamber & cause it to glow with the most amazing colour (so the guides tell us). The tomb is also decorated with some of the most intricate & amazing spiral artwork that no-one really knows the meaning of.

There is another, more thoroughly researched cairn called Knowth nearby (with even more amazing & intricate spiral designs) but it’s closed during the winter months.

Newgrange holds a special place in my heart so I make an effort to come back here whenever I’m in Ireland.

Trim Castle & surrounds

The next time you watch “Braveheart” (& don’t get me started on the historical inaccuracies in that film !!!), pay attention to the castles...because, more than likely, it’ll be Trim. Apparently the execution scene at the end of the film, was filmed inside the castles walls, with the town folks of Trim playing the part of the peasants.

Trim Castle was to be used as one of the major strategic castles in Ireland & that shows in its construction & fortifications. If you get a chance, take the tour of the castle keep.

Around Trim, there are a number of ye-olde monastic sights such as the Cathedral of Sts Peter & Paul; Newton Abbey; Crutched Friary & Bective Friary. I didn’t get a chance to look at Bective Friary as the grounds were locked & it started to piss down rain at that point !!

Loughcrew Burial Cairns

To the west of Trim & about an hour out from Dublin are the Loughcrew Burial Cairns. They sit atop three hills that provide outstanding views to the surrounding countryside. They’re about 5,000 yrs old.

To get to them takes a bit of a walk up hills & through sheep paddocks (kinda like Wales really !!!) but the view from the tops of the hills (alone) is worth the effort. I wonder what this site would’ve looked like all those years ago ??


Anne & I went down to Wexford for the day to catch up with friends of hers. The day was the worst for travelling: howling winds & rain. By the time we actually got to Wexford, the weather had turned really nasty !! You were having to walk at a 45 degree angle !! Catching up with Tim & Olivia was great: we had a lovely chin-wag & great dinner. By the time we drove back to Dublin (at midnight), the sky was clear & no hint of wind.

The weather

How could I talk about Ireland & not talk about the weather. In two words: $%*@ing windy & cold (OK...that’s three words). It rains every couple of days which I don’t mind but the wind is incredible !! I nearly got blown off the carins at Loughcrew a number of times !!

The advantage of travelling in Ireland at this time of year is that there aren’t as many tourists, which means sites such as Newgrange aren’t crowded. The down-side (apart from the weather) is that some sites won’t be open.

Well...that’s it for this post.

The next post will be about my adventures up in Donegal & Sligo.

Until then…take care


Monday, November 20, 2006

The Three Sacred Rivers

During the First World War, Italy sided with the Allies against the German/Austro-Hungarian Alliance. The majority of the fighting occurred through the Friuli & Veneto regions. It was the scene of savage & bloody fighting for over 3yrs running from the lower plains (near Gorizia), up into the Dolomites.

The battles left a physical scar on the landscape (as will be described in this blog) & a psychological scar on the Italian people. The total cost of Italian war dead: 600,000.

The most famous battle on this front is the Battle of Capporetto. In 1917, after years of stagnant trench-warfare, German & Austro-Hungarian forces (including one unit led by a young officer by the name of Rommel) launched a surprise attack on the Italian forces located near Capporetto (now in Slovenia).

In a tactical retreat (some would say rout), Italian forces withdrew, firstly, to defensive lines on the River Isonzo; then defensive lines on the River Tagliamento & finally defensive lines on the River Piave. It was at the Piave that the Italians made their stand. Their defensive positions held until French & British reinforcements could be brought in. These reinforcements then helped with the offensive launched in mid-1918 to retake the ground lost.

So much blood was split over these three rivers, they have now become the three sacred rivers.

Why the history lesson ?? Well...the front line ran through close to where my relatives live. There are many stark reminders of the blood spilt all over the region (in trenches, in fortified positions). The most sobering examples are three sites in particular (two of which I visited this time around):

Redipuglia: just outside Trieste, it is a massive, terraced monument, containing the remains (& names) of over 40,000 known dead & the remains of over 60,000 unknown dead of the Italian 3rd Army. The remains originally rested on the hill across the road, but Mussolini had the new monument built & the remains moved. It is also here, that the remains of the unknown soldiers from the Russian Front (of the Second World War) are sent for processing;

Sacriso di Oslavia: overlooking the city of Gorizia & the border with Slovenia, this stark, white monument contains the remains (& names) of over 20,000 Italian soldiers. Over four floors, you are presented with a wall of names. The monument also has three smaller side-towers, each containing the names of 12,000 unknown dead. My cousin & I arrived late in the afternoon at this monument. We were busy exploring the lower level when the lights suddenly went off & we heard the door close. I thought...Oh Crap !! We’ve been locked inside the monument !!! It took me awhile to find my cousin as the echoes down in the lower ground level made it hard to pin-point where he was. We eventually caught up & made our way to the front door…it was locked. Luckily, we could open it from the inside so we made our way out. There, waiting for us, was the caretaker. From the look on his face, I got the feeling this wasn’t the first time this had happened !! That would’ve been an interesting night if we couldn’t get out…locked in a tomb !!

Monte San Michele: is to the south of Gorizia (itself the front line) & was the scene of savage fighting as the two sides fought, for over 14 months, to gain control of the heights. The mountain was won & lost many times during that period. It wasn’t until 1916, that the Italian forces regained control. The total cost of Italian dead on this mountain: over 100,000. Today, the battlefield has been left pretty much as it was. Some areas have been restored but a lot of it is overgrown with tree so it’s hard to get a real sense of what it could have been like. My cousin & I spent over two hours exploring the area: wandering through Italian & Austrian command bunkers, traced trench lines around the mountain, followed trench lines down the mountain for about 700m, explored gun positions, etc...

That’s enough of the history lesson for now. Sorry that this has been a bit of a serious post but visiting these places left quite an impression on me. On a happier note, my next series of posts will be from the Emerald Island.

Until then...take care


Quality time with the relos

My family come the region of Italy known as Friuli-Veneza-Giulia. It borders Austria & Slovenia. It's mainly an agricultural area, growing wine & fruits. The region has its own language (Frulan).

A lot of my extended family are still there so I take the opportunity to visit them as often as I can. I was looking forward to this visit as it would give me an opportunity to put my feet up & take it easy for a little while. So that was the plan. My relative, however, had other plans !!

In the short 1½ weeks I was there, I ended up travelling the length & breath of the region (so much for the quiet time I was looking forward to !!). The highlights included:

A degustation of Prosciutto di San Danielle, in the town of San Danielle del Friuli, complete with grissini & a glass of the local red – simple but so very tasty !!

A drive around Friuli, following the Prosciutto trail to the castles of the region (including Rive de Cannon, Fagana, Ville Alta, Mazurro, Susans & the Austro-Hungarian/WWI era fortress at the strategic point of Osoppo: over looking the Tagliamento river & the mountain pass, at Gemona, to Austria)

A day trip to Venice to go shopping for Carnevale masks, hand-crafted diaries & a piece of a Veneto dessert called “Pinza”. We took the car into the city. In trying to get to a car park, we ended up on the road heading out again...which then resulted in us taking the autostrada heading to Padova, taking the Mestre turn off & then back to Venice. We didn’t make the mistake the 2nd time !! I have to say that St. Mark’s Cathedral is looking slightly worse for wear than what I remember from the last time. Thankfully, there wasn’t any of the high water this time

A visit to the town of Aquileia: once, one the most important sea ports of the Roman Empire; sacked by Attila the Hun & then left for ruin. Today, you can wander through what is left of the port & the canal leading to the sea (the river has long since silted over); parts of the Forum & some of the old Roman road leading out of the city. The highlight is the Cathedral, housing an amazing & wonderfully beautiful mosaic floor (dated around 500AD). The scenes depicted are mainly of food (as far as this trip goes, surprise surprise !!!).

A day trip up through the Alps to Austria; to the town of Klagenfurt

A trip to the border town of Gorizia, to explore the old town & the imposing castle overlooking it

A trip to the Grotta Gigante (near Trieste): an underground cave so big, the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome would comfortably fit inside (& still have space left over). What I found interesting at the Grotta, is that is construction work going on (right above the Grotta) to build housing. I’m not sure how they got permission to do that but it’s going on. I don’t know about you but I’d be a little concerned about constructing anything above a giant cavern !!

Visits to numerous relatives, catching up from the last time I was here

Food experiences

Can I just say that I ate very well in this last week & a bit in Italy. There is nothing like home cooking especially a plate of Frico (kinda like a cheese melt with potatoes, maybe some prosciutto); a Gubbana (Friulan dessert from Civedale di Friuli) with a topping of Grappa…all finished off with a café corretto (with a shot of grappa).

The next post will be the last to cover Italy & is a bit of a history lesson of the region.

Until then...take care.


Something so very Italian...

I forgot to mention something that is so very Italian: the Passigiatta !!

On Sunday afternoons (mainly) & on public holiday afternoons, families & friends will dress up in their Sunday best & head to the local Piazza. There, they will meet at the local café for a coffee, a drop of the local, a shot of grappa; they will meet to discuss what’s been happening at home; they will meet to discuss how much they hate the Prodi government; they will meet for a general chin-wag...and...they will meet to check out everyone else doing exactly the same thing.

After the coffee, they will wander the streets together (gelato in hand) to window shop & browse the latest fashions, games, books, CDs...all the while, checking out everyone else doing the same thing.

If you thought being under-dressed in Milan was bad enough, try being under-dressed in Turin during the Passigiatta !!

It’s just one of those things that makes me laugh everytime I see it (& make me feel very under-dressed at the same time).

Thursday, November 16, 2006

A taste made in heaven – Balsamic Vinegar from Modena

There’s the Balsamic vinegar that you buy from Woollies (at $5 a bottle)...then there’s the real stuff. I’d come ½ way around the world, to Modena, in search of the real stuff.

I’m taking about Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena. It’s a taste that, quite simply, is divine !!

According to the website http://whatscookingamerica.net/balsamic.htm, Balsamic Vinegar is “an aged reduction of white sweet grapes (Trebbiano for red and Spergola for white sauvignon) that are boiled to a syrup. The grapes are cooked very slowly in copper cauldrons over an open flame until the water content is reduced by over 50%. The resulting "must" is placed into wooden barrels and an older balsamic vinegar is added to assist in the acetification. Each year the vinegar is transferred to different wood barrels so that the vinegar can obtain some of the flavors of the different woods. The only approved woods are oak, cherry, chestnut, mulberry, a cacia, juniper, and ash. The age of the vinegar is divided into young – from 3 to 5 years maturation; middle aged 6 to 12 years and the highly prized very old which is at least 12 years and up to 150 years old.

The casks that the vinegar is stored in, are left in attics to experience all extremes of temperatures throughout the years.

I chatted to some of the producers & they explained to me the ground rules. As with all protected foods & wine of Italy, they must follow strict guidelines as to their production methods. In the case of the vinegar:

To be called “tradizionale”, it must be aged at least 12 yrs;

To be called “stravecchio” (extra old), it must be aged at least 25 yrs,

The vinegar will be bottled in 100ml bottles with either a red or gold top. The gold top signifies that it’s been aged at least 25 yrs, and

Producers cannot state exactly how long their vinegars have aged, they can only state that it’s “tradizonale” or “tradizonale” and “stravecchio” – if you see a bottled labelled 100 yr old vinegar...it’s bullsh** (according to the producers !!).

Here are some guidelines for when you do decide to take the plunge & buy a bottle of the real stuff:

The younger the vinegar is, the cheaper it will cost;

The younger the PRODUCER is the cheaper it will cost;

Special, limited & numbered production runs will push up the price of a bottle

So what do you do with the real stuff, I hear you ask ??

Well...I’ve put drop of vinegar over chunks of Parmiggiano; I’ve served drops of it over polenta; I’ve served drops of it over vanilla ice-cream or fresh strawberries. Yes…it’s always served in drops…never poured. Yes…it tastes great with strawberries & over ice-cream. Trust me !!

So...how much does one pay for a bottle of the real stuff ?? Let’s just say the bottle I bought was under 100 Euros. Trust me...it is a taste worth every dollar.

Food Experiences

While staying in Modena, the restaurant I kept frequenting was one right next door to the hotel. I had lovely meals there every night including:

Gnocchi with a Gorgonzola sauce
Tortellini in a chicken broth
Pork steak served with a lemon sauce
Veal steak served with a Balsamic Vinegar sauce

All very yum !!

Well...that’s the Modena part of the shopping trip over. The next posting will be what happens when I stay with the relatives for just over a week. See if I get on with the relatives.

Until the next posting...take care.


Sampling the local drop or three - Asti

I had the good fortune a few years ago to study at I.C.I.F (Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners) at a little town called Costigliole d’Asti. This where my passion for Italian cooking really developed & where my tastes for expensive ingredients sprung from. The school is smack, bang in the middle of the most important food & wine region of Piedmont; surrounded by vineyards.

Being in the area, I decided to drop by to say hi & to see how everyone was going. I seemed to have caught them at a bad time with multiple groups of students needing to be processed so I couldn’t chat for too long.

So…to kill a bit of time, it was down to the local wine bar that we, as students, used to hang out at. The place is called “Bar Roma” & many a night was spent there drinking & sampling the local drops. What better way to spend the afternoon that with a selection of local dishes: capsicum rolls with a tuna mayonnaise; a plate of tortellini in a sage butter sauce (one of my favourite dishes) & a slice of the local apple cake washed down with a glass of Barbera d’Asti; a glass of Barolo (we are in the Barolo region after all) & a glass of Moscato d’Asti (again, we are in the region). Finish that off with an espresso coffee & you have the perfect meal.

Turin Day 3 – Salone del Gusto

The “Salone del Gusto” is a five day food festival presented by the Slow Food Movement & held every two years at the old Fiat Factory. According to an article I found on the BBC website: approved Slow Food producers set up stalls and sell their foods to the general public, give talks, hold workshops, attend seminars and meet with like-minded producers from around the world, regardless of whether they make English Single Gloucester cheese or pick wild vanilla pods in Mexico.

The Slow Food Movement was created by Carlo Pertrini in 1986, initially to protest the opening of a McDonalds store in Rome (at the Spanish Steps). From those humble beginnings the movement has grown into a worldwide organisation with over 80,000 members. It promotes traditional foods, recipes & promotes the producers of those products. Its aim is to "protect the pleasures of the table from the homogenisation of modern fast food and life". In the last few years, it opened a University of the Science of Gastronomy in Pollenzo, Italy.

A ticket to the Salone is not cheap: a one day ticket costs 20 Euros & any additional tasting you may want to try will set you back between 1 – 5 Euros each.

I was lucky to have been given a ticket (a five day ticket) by an American family I met at the hotel who couldn’t stay for the whole festival as they had to leave for Milan. This particular pass allowed me to jump the queue (an hour long just to purchase a one-day ticket) & pretty much wander straight in. I met these two lovely Italian ladies while queuing to see which queue we were supposed to be in so we spent the next 3½ hrs wandering through the Salone.

We saw pretty much everything that there was to see: stand after stand of producers from all over the world, showing off their products; be they Jamon Iberico from Spain; Welsh/Scottish beef; Traditional English Beers; sushi; wines; grappa; jams & conserves; coffees; chocolate (as if I didn’t get enough chocolate already); Prosciutto di San Danielle & so on. Just about every country in Europe was represented.

The main emphasis seemed to be cheeses…there were an inordinate amount of cheeses on display.

There was one hall that is dedicated to “endangered” foods from all over the world. Again the emphasis seemed to be on cheeses.

It was quite an experience to be there but after 3½ hrs of pushing your way through an increasing number of people as the day wore on, I’d had enough (especially of all cheeses !!).

Well...with our time in Turin over, the next post will be from the town of Asti (famous for Asti Spumante & Moscato d'Asti).

Until then...take care.


Turin Day 2 – A stroll through the Truffle Market at Alba

Truffles !!

In this instance we’re not talking about chocolates. We’re talking about those gnarly lumps (of what looks like dried-up dog turd) dug up from the ground & which fetch quite extraordinary prices.

Truffles are in the same league as Balsamic Vinegar & Beluga Caviar. They are incredibly expensive, you may only get to try them once in your life but they are an experience that never leaves you.

Now...I have said that I find truffles over-rated & I stand by that statement but there is something about the whole culture built up around the truffles that fascinates me & draws me back every time.

Truffles come in two varieties: black & white. They can be found in two regions of Italy: Umbria & Piedmont during the Autumn months (Sept – Nov). The Italians use dogs to find them as pigs tend to eat the finds.

The white truffles are the rarer of the two & hence, the most expensive. This year, white truffles sold for between 2,500 – 3,000 Euros a kilo. Black truffles where selling for between 700 – 800 Euros a kilo.

How do you cook with truffles I hear you ask ??

You don't cook the white truffles...you add them to a meal at the last minute (ie: shaved over the top of a risotto or over fried eggs). Black Truffles are far more hardy & can be cooked in things like omlettes.

Every year, they hold a Truffle Market on the weekends from late Sept to early Nov.

So...on this Saturday, I found myself in Alba, looking for the Truffle Market. You don’t need a map to find the market. You can smell it a mile away…white truffles have quite a pungent, earthy, garlicky smell that you never forget.

You pay your ticket to enter the market (5 Euro gets you a degaustation ticket with complimentary glass & free tasting at the Enoteca) & away you go.

You come into a corridor leading up, where producers from around the region encourage you to taste salamis, cheeses (some infused with truffles, others not), breads & wines. I managed to find the Moscato stand where I got to sample several of the local Moscato blends in the space of 10 min (Moscato is my favourite wine & I got addicted to the stuff while studying here).

At the end of the corridor, is the Enoteca where you can have your ONE complimentary glass of wine. How could I not go past a glass of Barolo (the most famous wines from this region) ?? It was a 2001 & definitely needed some more cellaring !!

Continuing past the Enoteca, you are lead past more producers selling Piemontese cakes, sweets (including nougat), pasta (infused with truffles), preserved fresh porcini mushrooms, truffle pastes, more cheeses & salamis, etc….

We are now at the business end of the market, where the truffle gathers are displaying (& selling) their finds for the season. They will encourage you to come & smell the truffles, will explain a bit about how to cook with them, how to store them (some might even let you hold one).

It is here that you will see deep discussions going on, truffles being weighed, calculators working overtime calculating costs & the exchange of wads of 100 Euro notes for the most expensive lump of dried dog turd (it really does look like that !!) you have ever seen.

The markets had their own little restaurant. I decided to go for the tortellini served in a sage-infused butter sauce while the three old French ladies beside me decided on the fried egg with white truffle shavings complete with a glass of Barolo (for the cost of 25 Euros a plate !!). They seemed to be enjoying it.

So what did I end up buying ?? Some truffle-infused olive oil, some truffle-infused polenta & some piemontese noughart with hazelnuts. It took a lot of self-control not to go crazy in the Enoteca with the credit card !!

Turin Day 1 – A Chocolate Fiend’s Delight

With the accommodation worries sorted, it was time to explore a bit of the city. I only had the afternoon to explore as I already had plans for the Saturday & Sunday (more about that in upcoming posts).

So...what does one do in Turin ??

Do you go to the Egyptian museum, to check out the 3rd largest collection of Egyptian artefacts outside of Cairo & London (let’s not get into a philosophical discussion about how the artefacts actually wound up in Turin !!) ??

Do you check out the Museum of the Risorgimento (museum about the unification of Italy)& the place where the first Italian parliament sat ??

Do you go to the main Cathedral to see the Shroud of Turin ?? Well...it’s not the actual shroud but a life-sized photo. The actual shroud is stored away in an environmentally-controlled unit, until such times as the Pope & Bishop of Turin decide to exhibit it again.

For me...it was none of the above !! I headed straight to the tourist office to get myself a Turin Chocopass.

The Chocopass is available in 24, 48 & 72hr groups & allows you free samples (from a variety of establishments) of hot chocolates, chocolate cakes, pralines & chocolates. In my case, I had 24hrs to use as many of the vouchers as possible. Now…some of the vouchers have two establishments on them so you have to choose.

I managed to get through ¾ of the vouchers in the space of four hours (& my accumulation of chocolates increased twofold).

The highlight was a visit to a coffee shop called “La Bicerin” (to try one of their cakes). It is one of the more famous cafés in Turin & has been frequented by such greats as Cavour, Dumas & Nitzche.

While shopping in the chocolate shop next door (thus increasing my hoard of chocolate yet again), I got into a lively “discussion” with the owner about what constitutes good chocolate. She seemed offended when I mentioned how I loved the Caffarel Gianduiotto at Eurochocolate.

She was very quick to point out that Perugian chocolate is not Piemontese chocolate & that the Gianduiotto that Caffarel make uses an industrial process & is nowhere near as good as the Gianduiotto that the artisans (like “La Bicerin”) make. Their Gianduiotto certainly tastes different (yes….I did buy a bag !!).

So...if you happen to be in Turin & you find yourself in either the café of the shop of “La Bicerin”, be sure not to mention Gianduiotto made by Caffarel...or Perugian chocolate for that matter.

Until the next post...take care.

Accomodation Woes in Turin

Turin is one of my favourite cities in Italy. I love visiting...it’s unlike any other Italian city & I highly recommend a visit. If you ever do go there, take the time to wander the streets, sample the great coffee (it’s the home of Lavazza coffee) & taste the chocolates (it’s home of Gianduja chocolate...my favourite) that make this city famous.

So...imagine my surprise when I had all sorts of difficulties trying to sort out accommodation for the three nights I wanted to stay. Even the hostel was full !! The penny dropped a few phone calls & so I enquired if there was any sort of festival happening at that time. Sure enough…the “Salone del Gusto” was in town (more about that in an upcoming post).

I persisted & managed to find a hotel near the train station (& at a greatly inflated price).

I rock up to the hotel on the Friday & stumble into the reception area (loaded with all my packs). I state that I have a booking...the receptionists checks his computer & proceeds to inform me that they have me arriving on Sunday for three nights.

You can imagine the thoughts running through my mind at this point: I’m in Turin over the weekend; there’s a food festival on & there’s no accommodation !! *@#% !! What the *@#% am I going to do now ??

The receptionist was quick to point out that they did have one room, but that it was a “small, small” room. Would I like to have a look at it ?? Yeah !! Sure !! Why not ??

Well...this “small, small” room turned out to be bigger than the combined size of the rooms in Perugia & Milan (with some space to spare). After thinking about it for a total of 100 nanoseconds, I said that this room would be fine. You want to know the other thing ?? It turned out to be nearly 30 Euro less (a night) than the room I’d already booked !!

Now that we have that little story out the way, the next series of posts will be about the food & wine things I got up in & around Turin.

Until then...take care.


Friday, November 03, 2006

Under-dressed in Milan

In all my travels through Italy (& there have been quite a few), I’ve never spent anytime in Milan (apart from hopping on a train to go somewhere other than Milan).

I sorta wished it stayed that way !! Milan didn’t impress me at all. It has no soul or an obvious history behind it...we are talking about the business & fashion capital of Italy & that shows. Also...the hotel I stayed at was less than memorable (or very memorable depending on which way you look at it) & deserves a blog itself but that’s for another time.

Sure it has some painting by a guy called Leonardo about some “dinner party” & it has it famous Duomo but they weren’t why I came here.

In keeping with the food theme, my reason for coming here was to visit the “Pek” food court. It started life as a deli back in the 1880’s: a place where everyone & anyone was welcome to browse or buy. Since that time, it has expanded to a tea room/bar upstairs; an enoteca downstairs & a top-class restaurant across the road.

It’s smaller than I imagined it to be but it didn’t disappoint. What did disappont me was that wouldn’t let me take photos so that did piss me off. I'll try to give you a description of what it's like to be in there.

As you walk in to the right, you a greeted by an exquisite display of chocolates, pralines & pastries that simply cry out for you to buy them. Following that counter around the corner, you hit the gelato stand with its display of fresh made gelato; continue on a bit further & you get to the cheese stand (with different varieties of Parmigiano-Reggiano; Provolone; Gorgonzola; goat’s cheese, etc...).

Walking across from the cheese stand, the next counter you are greeted by is the collection of seafood products, caviar, pates, followed by yet more cheeses. Continuing along the from yet more cheeses, you then come to the stand selling the pre-made foods that you take-away. We’re not talking your burgers & chips here: we’re talking grilled veges; crumbed veal & turkey breast; stuffed veges; rice balls, lasagne, etc...

To the left of this counter is the fruit & vege stand. They also sell truffle products, olive oils & balsamic vinegar (but not the real stuff).

The actual deli & butcher’s part of “Pek” is located on the other side (near the chocolates & pastries).

I said earlier that the whole philosophy of the place was that everyone would be made to feel welcome. Being dressed as the backpacker that I am, a place like Milan can make you feel like you don’t belong. How refreshing it was then, to be treated with professional courtesy, as I ordered my simple meal of rice balls, stuffed olives & meatballs. You have to pay for your items before they give them to you...so by the time I’d paid for them & gone back to the couter, they had been re-heated in the microwave, placed it a lined bag to retain the heat THEN gift-wrapped (with a bow) for you to take away.

It really seemed a shame to break open the gift-wrapping to actually eat my lunch but what are you going to do ?? Did I tell you that buying anything from “Pek” is not cheap ?? Well...the gelato was pretty much the same price as anywhere else.

The Enoteca downstairs had quite an impressive collection of wines, grappa & scotches. I was very careful to make sure that my backpack was in front of me at all times so as not to “take out” any of the collections !!

A surprise find in Milan was the “La Scala” Opera house. They have a museum containing all sorts of opera-related items including posters advertising the first performance of “Aida” (or any of the other great shows) & the death mask & hand cast of Verdi.

The best bit was you got to peek into the theatre itself. It is truly breath-taking & I can only imagine what it must be like to see a performance (any performance) here.

"Pek" & "La Scala" were the highlights of a very ordinary stay in Milan.

The next series of postings will be from one of my favourite cities in Italy: Turin. The home of Giandujiotto chocolate & Lavazza coffee. Mmmmmmm.....chocolate & coffee !! My two favourite food groups !!

Until then...take care.


Thursday, November 02, 2006

A Pilgrim's Journey to Assisi

After the intense three days that was the chocolate festival, I still had one day in Perugia. What to do ??

Well....Assisi is only 20 minutes down the train line so I decided to pop down to check it out.

Assisi is another typical Umbrian hillside town, with the older part of the city dominating the hillside & the urban sprawl on the plains. In the case of Assisi, the hill is dominated by the the Bascillica of St. Francis.

The Bascillica is actually two churches...a lower & upper church. Entering from the lower church, you are greeted by a rather stern looking Franciscan monk, who looks you up & down to make sure you're dressed appropriately. He will also tell you, via sign language, to keep quiet in the church & no photos.

As I watched our 'friendly' Franciscan goosestep down the Piazza (singing 'Deutchland, Deutchland uber Alles'.......kidding !!!!), I entered the church.

As with alot of the churches here in Italy, it is a dark, imposing place with frescos covering every spare wall space: depicting scenes from the bible & scences about the life of St. Francis. Down a set of stairs to the left, is the tomb of St. Francis & that of five of his closest followers. The tomb seems to be the focal point of the poeple coming here. They crowd in the small area to pray & reflect.

Back up in the lower church & down a set of stairs to the right is the relics hall....containing items of St. Francis. Unlike other churches I've been to that display 'bits' of the Saint (like the tongue of St. Anthony in the Cathedral of Padova), here, all you could see are things like his clothes, a letter signed by him, leather used to cover his stigmatas, etc...

The Upper Church is much bigger & a lot lighter. The walls are covered by frescoes by the great Giotto. It was this church that suffered the most damage during a devestating earthquake in 1997. Part of the roof collapsed & some of the frescoes were lost....they are still trying to restore them.

In both churches, you have these guys in uniform, wandering around with microphones. Every five or so minutes, they will talk into the microphone to say "Silenzio !!" or "No Photos !!". People who have been to the Sistine Chapel will know what I mean.

In-between the lower & upper churches, you have a gift shop doing a roaring trade in all sorts of tacky St. Francis memorabilia.

Well...that's Assisi. Not much, I know, but at least I can say I've been there now.

The next posting will be about my adventures in Milan.

Until then...take care.