When in Rome… eat pizza!

Pizza is probably the world’s favourite fastfood. You literally find pizza places everywhere, on every continent. A truly global food! Ironically, you may have a hard time finding pizza in Italy. There, it’s considered a regional dish from Naples. So if you happen to be in Venice or Milan or Rome, you really need to search hard for proper pizza, since the locals there prefer their own regional snack food.

Now, I don’t mind pizza every once in a while. I am not wild about it, months can go by without eating one, and when I do, it’s usually a deep-frozen one (always one of those expensive ones though) that I eat at home. Eating out in a pizzeria is something for kids, I think. Nice for a first date when you have barely outgrown McDonalds. But as a discerning adult… no. You also won’t find me ordering a pizza at Domino’s or any other fastfood factory. I really dislike those pizza’s: they are too cheesy, too sweet, too generic, too bready, too everything. Horrible.

Like a fondue on top of cardboard... no, this is NOT a pizza.

Like a fondue on top of cardboard… no, this is NOT a pizza.

The best pizza’s in my life I ate in Naples and in Rome. In Naples, there was a pizzeria on the campsite near Pompeii, and their pizza’s were just heavenly. Thin, crispy, wood-fire-flavoured… and with just the right amount of tomato, cheese and basil leaves to make it perfect. This is as far removed from the American-style calorie-attacks as is humanly possible. A real Neapolitan pizza resembles an American one only in name. But you will never find an Italian who injects cheese, thinks of stuffed crusts, adds bacon to everything or smothers a pizza in half a kilo of molten cheese. Compared to your average American pizza, a Neapolitan pizza is just a snack. And that’s exactly what a pizza is supposed to be!

A proper Napoletan pizza Margherita. Simple, light, tasty.

A proper Neapoletan pizza Margherita. Simple, light, tasty.

The absolute best, most delicious, heavenly pizza I ever had was not in Naples however, but in Rome! In Rome, you can get ‘pizza al taglio’ in little shops, especially near the Campo de Fiori market. Big rectangular slabs of pizza, straight from the oven. You simply point to the one you want, say how much you want to spend, and the chef cuts off a piece (tagliare means to cut) and puts it on greaseproof paper. And then you just find a nearby fountain where you can sit on the edge of the basin, and enjoy your pizza. My favourite was called ‘capricciosa’, it had a generous topping with rocket leaves and artichoke and Parma ham, and it was simply divine.

Take your pick! Pizza al taglio in Rome.

Take your pick! Pizza al taglio in Rome.

I often wish the Roman ‘pizza al taglio’ had become a worldwide snack sensation instead of the Americanized cheesy greasy pizza we have to deal with. Oh well, all the more reason to visit Rome every few years.

Yours truly back in 1996 with two fresh pizza slices at Campo de Fiori.

Yours truly back in 1996 with two fresh pizza slices at Campo de Fiori.

It started with Blue Nun…

Children as a rule don’t like alcohol. I know I didn’t: like everyone I too had one of those ‘funny’ uncles who thought nothing was more fun than tricking me into taking a sip from his beer, sherry, wine or whisky. Which always ended in the same result: I’d pull a face, start crying, and swore I would never ever touch alcohol in my life. And yet, here I am, almost 50 years old, surrounded by empty bottles and glasses… Well… no, not really. Although I do like a tipple every once in a while, I have never moved into fullblown alcoholism. Days, even weeks go by without any booze touching my lips. No problem. But just as easily I’ll drink two bottles of wine in one session…

So exactly how does an alcohol-hating child turn into a prolific drinker by the time he hits college? In my case, I started trying to drink with the usual suspects. Nemely: Lambrusco and Liebfraumilch. The latter is a sweet Riesling from Germany, always sold in screwtop bottles (long before that became fashionable and called ‘stelvin’) and generally well known in the English-speaking world as Blue Nun. And Lambrusco is of course the fruity fizzy low-alcoholic wine from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. Actually quite a decent wine, but horribly mistreated and demonized as cheap plonk for sixteen-year olds. 175422

I am not ashamed to admit that it was during an Easter break in Rome with my school class, that I got drunk for the very first time, on Lambrusco. I remember we were playing bridge (I was a bit of a posh kid, I admit it) and tipping down beakers full of cheap supermarket Lambrusco while playing. Somehow, alcohol does not affect my thinking ability, so the bridge game went rather well. But when I got up to walk to my room, everything started spinning around me and my legs seemed to have minds of their own. I practically dragged myself up the stairs and into the room, where my room mate was standing with a big paper bag full of sausage rolls. His mom had bought forty sausage rolls, for him to hand out during the 24 hour train journey in a vain attempt to make her son a bit more popular with the class. But as things go, he had completely forgotten to hand them out… and a week locked in a suitcase hadn’t done them any good. ‘What do you think I should do with these?’ he asked me, while I was busy wondering why the floor wouldn’t stop moving. ‘Just give them to me’, I said, and I took the whole bag out onto the little balcony, and started tossing the sausage rolls out into the street, from five stories up.

Behind the Pensione was a chic discotheque, and a crowd was waiting to be let in. To their surprise, suddenly it started raining claggy pastry and rancid pork from the skies, but since there was a streetlight right over their heads, they could not see where the sausage rolls were coming from. As Italians do, they screamed and shouted and shook their fist at this dubious manna from the skies, while my roommate and I dispensed of all forty sausage rolls. After that I passed out. The next morning I was wondering if it had all been a dream, but one look out of the window told me otherwise. The street behind the Pensione was covered in flattened pastry and meat and all the cats of the neighbourhood were having a feast. From that moment on, suddenly I had a bad reputation.

A few years later, I was on vacation with my cousins, and we had decided to go to the Ardennes in Belgium and to Luxembourg. The Ardennes must be the most depressing place on earth: it literally always rains there and the people are among the unfriendliest you will ever meet. Small wonder we fled to the comfort of alcohol after a day or so, and so we discovered a little known local tipple called ‘Maitrank’. May-drink. A concotion of young -sour- white wine, with aromatic herbs added, most notably woodruff (Galium Odorata for you Latin-loving garden freaks). It was light, refresjing, with a perfumed honey-like aftertaste, and it was served in tumbler glasses with a slice of orange in it. Utterly delicious, nectar of the Gods! So we got quite, quite drunk on the stuff (resulting in a spectacular display of Esther William’s most iconic moments in the ornamental lake of the campsite) and even brought a few bottles home. feller

Not so long ago, I came across Maitrank again, traveling through Belgium. For nostalgia’s sake, I ordered a glass… It tasted like alcoholic cough mixture. Absolutely awful. Revisiting childhood memories is usually not such a great idea. Especially when it comes to booze.

Why manners matter

I just read an article in The Guardian (it can also have been The Independent, or another of those snooty self-acclaimed newspapers for the discerning few) about table manners for our current era. And basically, how old table manners (all manner, for that matter) had either become obsolete or were on their way out. New table manners have come into place. But all they seem to do is focus on when and how to use your smartphone during dinner.

You're not that important, nor is that message. Drop that phone!

You’re not that important, nor is that message. Drop that phone!

My short answer would be: not at all. Unless you are waiting for a transplant organ, have a wife in labor or are expecting news about a dying relative, you really should be able to turn your phone off and leave it in your pocket or handbag. I even question whether you should be dining out at all if such a scenario loomed. I know I wouldn’t be.

In the new table manners guide, it no longer matters whether you use your left hand or right hand to carve your meat, just as it is no offense to pour salt on your food before tasting it, or drink wine from a water glass. Even an elbow on the table is no longer a big no-no, nor is it to go to the toilet during eating instead of waiting until a course is over.

I pity the future generation, I really do. I wonder how long it will be before restaurants open where you just sit in front of a television with your plate in your lap. Because that seems to be where we are heading to.

What we need to focus on here is why table manners were invented in the first place. People who have little or no knowledge ot traditional table manners and etiquette may be forgiven for thinking these weird rituals only exist to make them feel uncomfortable or out of place. Why else would there be three glasses next to your plate (top right), and what is that little saucer doing to your left? And: if you happen to be left-handed then why is it wrong to carve your meat with the knife in your left hand. What’s wrong with carving up everything first and then shoveling it all into your mouth just using one hand anyway?

To all those people who say that being left-handed is a perfect excuse for using a knife in the left hand, or to just use one hand while eating, I have just one word to say. Car. If you can drive a car using both hands, and if you can do so without mixing up left and right, you can do it with a knife and fork as well. Apply yourself. It can be done. And there’s lots of other things we need both hands for. Playing the piano. Typing. Opening anything with a child-safe lock. You name it: you do it all the time.

Why is it wrong to carve with the left hand? Because your elbow will most likely be in the way of your neighbour who ís using his or her right arm. Simple. All those silly rules have been put into place for one thing and one thing only: to avoid embarrassment, in yourself and in others. Why have we all agreed glasses are to the right and bread plates to the left of our plates? Because if everyone does that, nobody will be in someone else’s way when he wants to drink something or butter a slice of toast. It’s all so very simple.

I am so annoyed when I see indulgent parents leave their kids to run wild at the table, and not teaching them proper manners. These kids will grow up feeling awkward in many social situations. If you can teach a child to multiply 6 times 8, a Hail Mary, or a Pledge of Allegiance, you can teach it to use a knife and fork, to not speak with a full mouth, to sit still and to eat properly. Why are Chinese children able to handle chopsticks already as toddlers, while spoilt European kids sometimes never even learn how to use a fork? 9781432966386

Manners matter, because they instill confidence in kids. Kids don’t get confident because their parents applaud everything they do. They need structure and boundaries. Knowing manners means that they know how they are expected to behave, and that is a great source of security. Nobody likes to feel awkward, or to be conspicuous for negative reasons.

Masterchef’s guilty pleasures

Nearly choking...

Nearly choking…

Once again, the Masterchef season is upon us. John Torode and Greg Wallace preside over a crowd of aspiring chefs, who battle eachother in the brutal arena of a converted warehouse somewhere in Islington. It’s like the Game of Thrones of cuisine… An hour of clanging metal, of knives cutting through gristle and bone, of charred meat and pouring sweat… and at the end of the hour, four out of six main characters are eliminated.

‘Cooking does not get tougher than this’, Greg growls, and every few minutes or so we hear another rousing oneliner -probably from the same bunch of writers- from either John or Greg. The message behind it all: cooking is not for pussies. It’s a blood sport.

The contestants do their best to fit in, and say tough things like: ‘I am hugely competitive’ or ‘I’ll be gutted if I don’t make the next round’. If an alien from a distant planet visited Earth and watched tv for a week, he’d be forgiven if he thought Masterchef is a spectator sport.

What always saddens me, is how Masterchef tries to squeeze all these individual amateur chefs into pretty much the same mold. Good presentation, for instance, in Masterchef-world, invariably means placing items of food (with tweezers preferably) on a vast expanse of slate or white porcelain, accompanied by a rustic smear of a reduction of some kind, and one or two types of baby-food. (Those English and their mashes, purees and emulsions!). Preferably with a bit of height added, and a few random leaves chucked in for good measure. Oh, and make sure to add something sweet, because Greg has a childish palate and will give you extra points for that. And do, by all means, overcook your steak.

Of course, lots of candidates make mistakes of the ‘what were they thinking’-type. Like a chef who made a Vietnamese pho-soup, completely disregarding the fact that the thing that makes pho so delicious and unforgettable is a really strong stock, that has simmered for days. Not minutes. The resulting dish had all the exciting flavour of hot water, so consequently the guy got the boot.

But sometimes Masterchef has its moments of true genius. And it’s those moments, however rare and fleeting, that make me watch it every year. Yesterday, a candidate went out on not one, but two heroic failures. A main course that consisted of beans and bangers on soggy toast, covered under a mound of greasy onions. And a dessert that involved potato-dough and plums that looked utterly grotesque. Judging from the faces of the jury, it tasted even worse than it looked. Maybe it was mean of me but I really enjoyed watching John and Greg chew through those two absolutely vile dishes.

 

In defense of the food selfie

We are all gripped by the selfie: the pointless, egotistical guilty pleasure of photographing ourselves with our smartphone, to not only document the mad and wonderful life we live, but to rub other people’s noses in it. Selfies may be taken for oneself, of oneself and by oneself, but they are almost never kept to oneself. Instead, the selfies almost immediately find their way onto Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and all those other wonderful soapboxes of the internet, where we stand and scream and shout to announce and validate our existence.

Best suckling pork in the world at Lvi Dvur in Prague!

Wonderful Estonian starter at Kaerajaan, Prague.

I am not so big on taking selfies, perhaps because I just don’t find myself all that interesting or photogenic. I do, however, take lots and lots of phtotos of food and drink, and of myself eating and drinking. Recently, I have been reading articles about snooty restaurant chefs taking offense of this harmless habit. They declare war on guests who take photos of their carefully constructed culinary creations. Apparently, they are quite willing to sell you these edible works of art, but they want to maintain intellectual ownership. So you may destroy the food with your knife, put it in your mouth, dissolve it in gastric acid and send it to its demise in a porcelain toilet bowl, but you are NOT allowed to take a photo of what you just paid 50 euro’s for to keep as a memento.

These chefs have no idea about food and about what it does to emotions and memories. Let me explain how it works for me. Great, memorable meals are always more than just that. They are also great, memorable times spent with great, memorable people. A terrific meal by oneself is really quite a depressing affair. A great meal in great company is the best thing imagineable. Life just does not get any better. So, when I take a photo of a lovely plate of food, I also place a marker in my memory of a truly great moment. What chef would not be proud, to be part of someone’s dearest memories?

Yours truly having a wonderful lunch at Pillnitz Palace in Dresden.

Yours truly having a wonderful lunch at Pillnitz Palace in Dresden.

Apparently, the chefs who protest against food selfies, and who in some cases have gone so far as to explicitly forbid photography in their restaurants, are afraid that their intellectual property gets infringed upon. Yeah right. As if a crappy iPhone photo of some exquisite food is suddenly going to make you able to replicate that same food in your own kitchen. I have phtographed lots of food, but never once in order to copy a dish at home. Simply put: if a restaurant serves the kind of food I can cook at home, I am not going to eat there. The beauty of a home cooked meal is just that: that you or a loved one made it, and that you eat it at home. In a restaurant, I want to be stunned and amazed by ingredients I cannot get my hands on, by cooking skills that require years of training, by beautiful presentation I could never pull off on my cheap plates. And I want to remember that, so I want to take that photo.

Deal with it, snooty chefs, and allow me the pleasure of hanging on to what should be a wonderful memory. If you see me taking a food selfie in your restaurant, the you can be damn sure I am having a wonderful time, that I want to remember long after the food has been digested. So please… indulge me, or better still, pose with me! And you can be sure I’ll be back.

Superb starter at Villa Richter in Prague

Superb starter at Villa Richter in Prague

Why I hate Masterchef

Suddenly, Masterchef is everywhere. In Holland we have the original Masterchef on the BBC, plus Junior Masterchef, Celebrity Masterchef and Professional Masterchef. Basically, hardly a week goes by without some sort of Masterchef, and that’s just the Beeb. Then there is obviously Dutch Masterchef, and our Dutch commercial tv channels have scoured the globe to bring us Australian Masterchef as well, plus reruns of the UK Masterchef, USA Masterchef… bloody Papua New Guinea Masterchef! In short: it’s all too much and I am not even sure if it’s a good thing in the first place.

I love cooking, and I could probably do quite well on Masterchef because I have a good palate and I have the weird ability to know what something will taste like before actually tasting it. And most of all, because to me food and love and inextricably mixed. I love to cook and I love to cook for people I love. I express my love through my cooking. And some of the most precious memories of my life -anyone’s life!- involve sharing food with loved ones. It’s a spiritual, emotional thing for me. And so much more than just some shrill competition.

To then have to watch Masterchef, and see how such an act of loving is turned into yet another competition and another means for annoying egotistical immature people to self-inflate and assert themselves is absolute torture. I hate competitive people and I love to see them fail. They always do on Masterchef because good food is never about trying to be better than others. But tell that to those smug sociopaths.

The worst is Australian Masterchef, with three presenters/judges/divas that are incredibly annoying. Especially a little stubbly Greek who apparently secretly thinks cooking is for women and sissies, so who as compensation tries to be this huge overstated testosterone clump all the time. I would smash his skull in with a Le Creuset skillet if he talked like that to me. Cooking is not the same as racing a Ferrari, George Kalombaris! Even the -far better- BBC version is guilty of souping things up to a ridiculous level. John and Gregg excel in stupid oneliners like ‘Cooking does not get tougher than this’. I could just slap them. Whenever a contestant is stressed out and clearly struggling to serve his food on time, they just stand on the side and yell at him or her, as if that makes the work go any faster or better. Intensely annoying. Get out of the way, or help. But don’t stand there stating the obvious.

I also hate the way every chef is pushed into some sort of cookie cutter, and taught to produce fashionable pretty looking food. The obsession with pureeing everything into some sort of baby-food on the BBC version is simply ridiculous. The same goes for the reductions that end up as a nasty smear, and the obsession with using snobbish jargon. Crème Anglaise instead of custard? May we charge you 5 pounds extra?

My biggest hate is the insane trend of deconstructing tried and tested dishes. There is a reason why a tarte tatin works the way it does. There is an age old method behind a perfect Boeuf Stroganoff. Any other combination leads to something that takes hours more work to produce and yet never quite reaches the same quality and flavour as the original dish did. So why so it? Showing off skill is great, but the purpose should always be to improve the favour of the dish. Yesterday I witnessed how a three-star chef devised a menu where basically 80% of all ingredients was reduced to the point of irrecognizability. The wastage, in a time of austerity, was simply staggering. Turning rhubarb into snow, by juicing two kilos and then whisking it through liquid nitrogen, so a mere handful was left of it? Whoever thinks this is the way cooking should go needs his head examined.

So there you have it, the reason why I will never succumb to Masterchef. I will not allow anyone -least of all judges from a tv show- to stand between me and my love for food, and my need to share that with people that matter to me.231450

The last scurvy victims

Canned sausage, source of infinite delicacies

Canned sausage, source of infinite delicacies

My father was to take my brother and me on a camping trip in the Ardennes, in Belgium. Just us boys: my mother would be in Indonesia with my grandma to celebrate some distant relatives’ wedding. Of course my dad had a secret objective: finally he would be able to indulge his passion for all things war-related without my mom spoiling his fun.
So off we drove in the (t)rusty old Volvo, for a boys adventure in the wild, wild lands of Belgium. Where wild boar roamed among ruined castles and limestone caves. And where, as we would soon find out, every town, village or hamlet had at least one burnt out Sherman tank proudly standing in the village square. I have dozens and dozens of photographs of me and my brother posing in front of tanks, on top of tanks and obscured by tanks. Not to mention concrete bunkers and Howitzer guns.
Anyway, on our many manly excursions past battlefields and war museums, we of course only ate manly food. My father, who was challenged in the kitchen, had brought two big cardboard boxes from the Army with assorted field rations. A collection of tins and cardboard boxes, all in the same attractive shade of murky green. Some of the tins held meatballs, mash and greens. Others macaroni and beef. And yet others were entirely filled with sausage, I guess Spam comes closest to it.
Alas! Already on our first night we found out why my dad had been able to pick these rations up for a bargain. The labels were all wrong. Instead of a lovely meal of meatballs, potatoes and spinach, the tin was filled with the solid pink mass of sausage. And, as we soon found out, that’s all we had for food. Sixteen tins of canned sausage.
My father was nothing if not a great improviser. He cut thick slices off the sausage and fried them in our camping skillet. ‘Gelderse Schijven’, he proudly called his creation. ‘Guelders Disks’: a weirdly addictive greasy clump with lots of salt, burnt edges and chewy bits of gristle. The perfect accompaniment to ‘frites’, as the Belgians call fries (or chips, for the English readers). Nothing French about fries, by the way. They’re Belgian more than anything. (But the nicest fries are the Dutch ones).
And so our holiday went… tank-hopping and cave-exploring by day, sitting around campfires by night. And eating Gelderse Schijven three times a day.
The first thing our mother noticed when we came to collect her from the airport after her month in Indonesia were our bleeding gums. Our manly diet of processed meat and fried potatoes had wreaked havoc on our health. I am certain we were on the brink of scurvy, a disease that more belonged in the 18th century. Only by forcefeeding us oranges for a week was my mother able to nurse us back to health.
I have never eaten friend tinned sausage since that trip in 1976, nor do I wish to renew the acquaintance. But I do miss my dad… just not for his cooking.