Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Boy Done Good: Italian Adventure

Time to set the scene for my latest, greatest (and, if I’m honest with you, probably last for a while, for reasons which shall be revealed in upcoming posts) Food Epic.

Last weekend, in a romantic move to top all other romantic moves, il huomo whisked me off to a mystery destination. I had had three days’ warning, and only the following clue to go by: ‘you will need your passport’. I didn’t know where I was going, and I didn’t know why, but I sure hoped they'd have some decent nosh to keep me going...

What I particularly enjoyed in the brief run-up to said jolly jaunt, was the consistency of reactions by both female and male audiences. The boys: ‘blimey, he’s got style’. The girls: ‘but what on earth are you going to PACK?!’ Quite.

And so it was, that packed with a sufficiently multi-purpose miniature wardrobe, I was duly swept off to the airport, while il huomo deflected a relentless stream of my furious guesswork: could it be Prague, Amsterdam, Paris, Rome? Brighton, Blackpool, Timbuktu? Men, listen well, for here I shall let you in on a secret for free. It is pretty much guaranteed that if you tell a woman she’s being taken somewhere ‘secret’, she will do her darndest to figure out where. Of course, I'd been clever, and before we'd left home, I scribbled a sly note, and slipped it on top of the microwave as future evidence of my budding genius....(but did I get it right?)*.

I was convinced that by the time we had checked on to the plane I would have foiled the whole delicious plot, but there I was quite, quite wrong. Where the heck was Trieste?! Raise your hands if you knew, because I have to confess, I was stumped. No clue. The in-flight magazine soon helped me out, and a few more pointed questions about certain purchases il huomo had made (seriously, what grown man needs a plastic elephant blowing bubbles??) meant that, much to my surprise, by the end of the flight he had caved and told me everything. At least, so I thought.

We were to do a mini-tour of the northeastern-most part of Italy, a melting pot of history and culture, starting in Trieste, and driving north and finally south to end at Venice Carnival (this, should you have been completely flummoxed, was where the bubble-elephant came in). More surprises followed throughout, however.

Of course, the very first thing which flashed into my greedy little brain wasn't culture, or history, or how exciting carnival would be. No no. I'm not ashamed to admit it went along these lines: 'oohhh paaasstaaaa!!' . Now, as you may have read from my previous travel blog, Italy has never disappointed in the food department, and yet on this particular trip I learnt one very important rule. Bend in closely now, and I’ll tell you. Travel round Italy with an Italian....

But enough of the story, I know you’re on the edge of your seats to find out what a blow-by-blow account of the fabulous feasting. Here we go. You may pause for indigestion tablets halfway through reading if necessary:

Post-travel, low blood sugar, an eagerly received Pizza Pugliese – a heavenly topping of olives, capers, anchovies and onions. And real, Italian Pizza. None of that leaden, tastless dough here, this was thin, ever so slightly chewy with a slight crispiness. Molten mozzarella, perfect tomatoe topping. This was Pizza Heaven.

Yet another surprise - first class seats at the opera (an experience which would merit an entire posting in itself, for the people-watching alone!). Three hours later, and at half midnight, we were enjoying a post-opera midnight feast with the leading soprano herself. What an experience. Only in Italy could you imagine breezily entering a restaurant at half midnight and demanding a three course meal with wine. Imagine the same in the UK?! We settled in, and were regaled with stories of heaving bosoms and uncomfortable costumes by the diva herself, as we supped on the most heavenly spaghetti con le alice – pasta perfection, laced with an extraordinary, tastebud-tantalising fresh anchovy sauce. Salty and very, very satisfying.

Linguine con gamberettti e rucola (shrimp and rocket pasta) – a soothing, creamy seafood sauce threaded with the rocket giving it a little peppery kick.

San Daniele prosciutto– Parma, make way. San Daniele is the hidden ham secret of Italy, where velvety folds of the salty-sweet, delicate and tender prosciutto ham are piled high onto plates for your delectation. We each ate an obscenely large plateful of the meat, with the salt quota rendering it almost alarmingly moreish. I fell into bed having eaten my body weight in ham, and dreamt of flying pigs(‘ legs)…

Saccotini con pere e formaggio (little sacks with pears and cheese) – this was a new one on me, an intriguing pasta shaped like little bunched up purses, their little pockets filled with a sweet treasure of pears and cheese, the sweet buttery sauce spooned on top.

Followed by…Stewed venison with grilled polenta – a hearty, filling dish, ideal mountain fare. Juniper berries, thyme, bay leaves and red wine played alongside tender meat, with the polenta calming and subduing what might otherwise have been a bit of a boisterous dish. Thank goodness for espresso!

Squid ink spaghetti – I know I repeat myself here, but goodness me the pasta’s good in this country! I may just have to insert a video at some stage, as often the only way I seem capable of describing these is with facial expressions, hand gestures, and general smacking of lips!

Monkfish steamed in prosecco - this was an enigma, so tasty, and such a meaty fish, but what the heck was ‘coda di rospo’ in English?! Well folks, google has lovingly informed me that it is none other than the infamous monkfish. But of course! Yet another mystery solved.

Pizza with Radicchio – absurdly, this dark red cousin of the chicory cooks down so that it is luscious, and almost meaty, its peppery, slightly bitter flavour making an excellent seasonal pizza topping. Different, and oh so good.

Deep breath, and digest.

But wait, there is more! It may seem hard to believe, but we did in fact manage to cram all of these eats into five days. And I've not yet mentioned the extreme over-indulgence of Venice Carnival, where we seemed to be eating and drinking every 10 minutes – stopping for frittole, delicious tiny balls of chocolate-filled fried dough specific to the Venetian region and carnival, candy floss, sugared nuts, as well as savoury treats, and all of the different particular alcoholic drinks of the region. Obviously, we were just making absolutely 100% sure that we'd make it through the upcoming Lent.

It was, without a shadow of a doubt, one of my tastebuds most relentless holidays. Taking their tips from the operatic diva, they got a little big for their boots - a touch spoilt, and slightly demanding. So in order to break them back gently down to earth, and to end the adventure on an excess high, on our flight back home we stopped over in Rome. Unexpectedly dealt a few extra hours in the city, rather than mope around the airport, we zoomed into the city, and ate an ice cream in front of the Fonte di Treve.

What do we think, does the boy get brownie points??

*I guessed Venice, so...nearly...!

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