Places! Tables! No way to avoid ‘em.
FRANCE, MAY 2002 — Now what was I doing without an umbrella outside a forlorn car-rental shack across a rain-pelted parking lot from an architectural prize-winner of a TGV station handsome indeed but so untouched by human bag-toting beings except for my sister and I that we seemed at the lonely SORTIE to be leaving a brilliant film auteur’s idea of outer space, designer-outer-space.
But a famous vineyard-lined river was just over there somewhere, and we would cross it, mais oui, at Valence, heading for the delights of the Ardèche which I hadn’t imbibed for eighteen years.
“Tout droit, tout droit, c’est facile,” the rental clerk expounded in a rapid fire of a mellifluous lingo somewhat better understood by himself than us, and off we chugged, down a peripheral raceway to…where? A wrong turn had us heading for the Alps not the Cévennes, not Robert Louis Stevenson territory at all, but Lady Luck eventually kicked into action, she was better than a skimpy map, and there we were, crossing the Rhône and heading toward a fondly remembered table in sight of mountain ridges looking like ocean waves painted on a first-class artist’s canvas.
Madame LaPorte at the Cévennes Hotel in Les Vans had gained a little weight in her journey from, I’d guess, the age of 44 to 62, but in spirit if not the avoirdupoisal letter she was exactly the same ideal patronne, friendly, knowledgeable, fun, and her excellent chef of a husband was in the kitchen, his spectacles doubtless clouded with the steam of perfumy ragouts cueing Sam Chamberlain and Joe Liebling to turn pleasurably in their post-prandial graves.
And the rooms upstairs, reached by a curving staircase with hand-painted floral patterns worthy of a junior Miró, were as funkily pleasant as ever. Yes, the loo quite a way down the hall, but the distant barking dogs that set the lyric tone of upcountry nights in France or Italy were on hand to accompany any moonlit visits thereto.
Time, in short, had stood as still as a guardsman in his box. At dinner the terrines were still being passed from table to table, the trinity of urns holding root vegetables appeared as eighteen years before, the fish soup with its croutons and rouille, and a tureen left on the table for second helpings, was a winner again, and oh yes, that puffy crêpe with ham, potato and cheese – “La Fameuse Farinade” – reappeared as if its absence would score it an unspeakable flunking grade. And there was as before watermelon rind jam, unctuous as can be, at the breakfast table. Merci, M. et Mme. LaPorte.
AND THEN I was back in San Francisco via London eating heaps of puffy petrale and rice pudding at faithful Sam’s, fried stuffed dates at the trendy new Baraka up on Potrero Hill, steak with marrow herb butter and a pile of perfect frites and cress at the Universal Café, this combo zooming me in a gastronomical time machine to Paris 1950s.
Also, in my new situation as widower I was analyzing the deeply harmonious eye contact I’d had with a lovely wait-person in a Fulham Road bistro (featuring California cuisine!) when I asked this brunette pixie for the heretofore unoffered sugar for my impatient iced tea. The fact is, S. G. in her initial failure to provide my desired sweetening had set in motion a transoceanic pen-pal friendship, platonic but deep, that shows after five years no signs of ceasing.
And meanwhile those pleasant demons, culinary second thoughts, were pursuing me as I surveyed this volume – why, you could bolster the Poulet Basquaise with a handful of pitted prunes, you could add sautéed portobellos to the Pesto Soufflé, for that matter you could weave sun-dried tomatoes through pesto (an idea picked up in Amesbury, Mass.), and why not currants, warmed peas and baby tomatoes red and yellow in a Pasta Aglio e Olio? Tick tick tick, my mind proceeded to work overtime on meatloaf, I could hide strips of fontina cheese therein, to ooze a bit upon serving, in fact I could put everything but the in-sink-erator in a meatloaf, raisins, currants, sherry, vermouth, ground veal, beef, pork and lamb . . . . .
TIME FOR ITALY, November 2003. — I team up with Chris (bow ties and pinstripe) and Patricia (wonderful hats), and we’re off, Chris driving, me navigating – but oh, don’t these glasses need a new prescription, does that sign say Firenze or Focaccia? – and Patricia is in the back seat from which she does not drive. Our goal is the Big Sky of Greek-like Puglia, houses whitewashed and low, the elegant old cathedral at Trani sitting by the water like a Sts. Peter and Paul in San Francisco carted down to Fishermans Wharf. Trani has a wharf, near the cathedral, but for all its earthy zest, things of the sea beautiful and odd being hawked well after sundown, it doesn’t seem tourist-ravaged at all.
On the way to Puglia we stopped at the Conchiglia Verde in Sirolo, a sleepy hilltown south of Ancona (hilltowns, of course, are usually sleepy) and while the prospects at dinner didn’t seem too good – an affable hunk of a waiter in pressed jeans bearing no bills of fare simply asked us, “you like fish, meat?” – that was before we tucked into a multi-course meal of smoked fishes, pasta with crab sauce, ricotta ravioli with sage, roasted branzino, scallopini, gratin of seafood, lemon ice cream – whew!
Well, this meal had competition at the Grand Hotel in L’Aquila – we were motoring north through the Abruzzi, thinking of Berlioz’ symphonic Harold In Italy and those pilgrims who in the second movement of a particular Toscanini recording sound as if they’ve drunk too much Montepulciano – at which hotel we followed closely the commands of a black-tied headwaiter and dug into pizza fritta, which is like eating puffy round donuts, and a peppery soup containing seven (!) different beans.
Perugia beckoned next, the Rosetta Hotel where time had scarcely budged. Well, the dining room looked as if it had undergone remodeling, but to judge from photos I found from Anne’s and my stay in ’78 it was truly the same. And the food? Superb as ever. The headwaiter sneered slightly but our cheerful waiter was amused when the vegetarian Patricia at my suggestion ordered salsa verde for her mushroom omelette. Would you believe it, still on the menu in this anti-cholesterolic year was that gorgeous dinosaur, the stuffed tortellini in patty shells.
And this time after leaving Umbria’s capital we didn’t drive down the Steps of Gualdo, bumpity-bumpity-BUMP.
No. 1 on our little hit parade of vignettes: we’re at an open market in the engaging hilltown of San Marco on the Gargano peninsula and we buy from a stand a lovely branch of sundried tomatoes, electric red as a fire engine, and carry it down the street in triumph . . . only we’ve made a sizeable mistake, it gradually dawns on us from the heady fumes of this prize that what we’re toting about the town is a branch of red hot peppers, the mad chiles of the region, and finger food this isn’t; so we head back to the delightful bar where a few minutes earlier we’d been hobnobbing over coffee with a jolly padrone with a cousin in “Boofalo – is near California, yes?”– and we dangle the peppers in front of the assembled locals and ask, in our fractured Italian, would anyone like to take these home and put ‘em in a stew? Alas, no takers – and who could blame them?
Well, we tossed the peppers in the trunk of our crazy rented Citroen, a car in the habit of dropping parts of its body along the road here and there, wherein they were gradually smashed by piles of luggage; and then one day we unceremoniously 86’d our poor orphan branch, child of our marketplace stupidity.
A COUPLE WEEKS after this Garganan adventure I was back home again and yes, of course, once I got into the kitchen I was embroidering recipes, as much out of laziness as creativity because this way you don’t have to look back at the original recipe, you just work from an imperfect memory and trust to luck.
Well, I had mayonnaise on my mind and decided to go a few steps beyond remoulade — that meant Salade Russe, a built-up mayonnaise with cold vegetables woven through. Our friend the conductor János Ferencsik used to bemoan the ubiquitousness of this mellifluous confection in Mittel Europa, salade “cosmetique” he called it as we dined with him in Budapest one night after he’d conducted a performance of Tannhaeuser, in Hungarian it was except that the tenor from East Germany sang in his own language.
My, what it must feel like to dine, on salade russe or meatballs, right after conducting Tannhaeuser, that means keeping artistically in line a bunch of defiant pilgrims, an increasingly demented heroine, an Evening Star addressed by the baritone that could make one go all balmy . . . At all events, I constructed a cosmetic salad as follows: mix about three parts store-bought mayo with one part Dijon mustard, adding a little lemon juice and a dash of dryish sherry and two or three little puffs of Chinese five spice powder (Safeway has it near me!), then weave through this base some boiled baby potatoes, similarly miniature tomatoes, a good scattering of chopped scallions, a handful of thawed frozen peas, a few cooked asparagus bits if you have them left over, a slight dotting of currants, and some hard boiled egg, cut up.
Eat this and you’ll be ready to conduct Parsifal.
I also came up with a “Mac and Cheese” with chicken livers, only to see some weeks later when perusing my ancient Joy of Cooking that Mrs. Rombauer had beat me to it – except that she wrote of boiling the livers which sounds a trifle paleolithic, and she didn’t add vermouth, raisins and cream to the white sauce. Aha!
Then my dear friend Don Frediani returned from the Dolomites bearing his usual sheaf of recipes from assorted home kitchens and wayside bistros and I pounced on a Wild Mushroom Soup made as follows: brown several tablespoons of flour in a healthy puddle of olive oil, then add a good can’s-worth of vegetable broth to bring on a great Transformation Scene in your pot in the form of a thick brown sauce, to which sauce you add mushrooms sautéed with chopped onions, garlic and parsley; serve this very full-bodied soup with grated cheese. It will cure the flu, basic hunger and maybe the blues.
I would also offer you what I call Chicken Sam Arturo, this being a variation on an old recipe Samuel Chamberlain called Pollo alla California because it had been brought, by Italians, to California. Warm four to six tablespoons of olive oil in a roasting pan, add chicken pieces for two or three people along with some partly boiled potatoes, sliced thick, and bake in a moderate oven for about 15 minutes, turning once; then take the chicken out and roll it in most of the following mix, two thirds of a cup of bread crumbs, three tablespoons or more of grated pecorino, a tablespoon or more of minced parsley, a finely minced garlic clove and a small handful of currants; now return the well-crumbed chicken to the pan and bake for another 35 minutes, basting occasionally and topping the pieces with more oil and the rest of the crumb mixture; serve with watercress or arugula.
Meanwhile Chris and Patricia introduced me to farro and gradually I fell in love with that austere grain: love doesn’t always happen at first sight. I use it frequently these days boiled, cooled and swabbed with vinaigrette, or as a substitute for rice in risotto. Now what would the name for that dish be? Then one evening I planned good old Pasta Aglio e Olio but I was out of garlic and there was no time to shop. No problem: I threw peas, shallots and parsley in the oil and that took care of the situation very nicely. Next challenge; Pilaf was scheduled but a vegetarian came to dinner. Never fear, just drop the lamb and fry up mushrooms. Eggplant too!
THE NEXT TRIP was to – Switzerland! Alison was living in Zurich, climbing the ropes of German grammar so she could buy chocolates fluently as well as audition her mezzo soprano for musicals. Naturally we studied the chocolate situation in depth, and consumed lots of hash brown potatoes, crunchy-crunchy good, and cheeses with and without holes; but that doesn’t include an extraordinary dinner, East Indian and Mediterranean in flavor, at the beautiful vegetarian restaurant named Hiltl: any city would be proud to have such a culinary asset.
Now the lake was postcard-perfect, the tinkly trams that run so frequently every-which-way were crossing each other’s bows in front of the big main station like so much benevolent ack-ack, Lucia di Lammermoor at the Opera was wonderfully sung by Miss Gruber and Signor Alvarez (and the heroine seemed to walk on water thanks to some very odd scenery), the happily endless Bonnard exhibition at nearby Winterthur made us feel extraordinarily good (and we had croissants in the spiffy diner of the Munich express on the way up), yes sir, we had a lovely time. You can do a lot worse than spend a week in that country squeezed between France and Italy.
FRANCE AGAIN, 2005: Madame LaPorte at Les Vans told us she and her husband were about to retire, a devastating state of affairs rather akin to the end of the world, but up the road at Aubenas we found a cozy cottage of a restaurant called The Fishing Cat, and this was the place to enjoy 1) molded chestnut soufflé on a bed of tomatoes in balsamic dressing, 2) a gigot coated with local honey and basil, 3) a crisp potato cake onomatopoeially known as a “crique,” 4) curly strips of chocolate fudge with chestnut cream!
Then at the sort of spiffy Hotel Central in Castelnaudary, key location on the Canal du Midi, a waiter resembling a young Leonid Massine served us a confit de canard sitting in a perfect constellation of petit pois and pommes. A soupe de fruits rouges at the jolly Brasserie Beaux Arts in Toulouse (Berkeley East, this hip university town) was extraordinary: a dish of currants and small blackberries happily at play in red wine and cinnamon. Shall we write a term paper on that?
AND back home . . . My friend Suzanne Klotz and I decided to stir an eggless mayonnaise through those leeks and fennels (steam ‘em, of course) which are often neighbors in the produce bins. The sauce goes like this: combine five tablespoons of Dijon mustard, a tablespoon of lemon juice and half a tablespoon of red wine vinegar, then, whisking all the while, slowly add half a cup of olive oil. Pepper to taste.
2006, NO EUROPE this year, am busy hopping up and down California highways, find Basque Cake alive and well at the authentic Café Fandango in San Luis Obispo, locate an addictive white gazpacho at Iberia across from the train station in Menlo Park, reconnect with roadside Berkeley nouvelle at Mustards in Napa Valley. Places! Tables! Indeed.
SURPRISE, 2007 found this Franco-Italo-phile in Holland and Germany; I only brushed against the side of dear old France riding the London-Brussels Eurostar past the outskirts of Lille.
Belgium as seen this time from a train rumbling in and out of every North, Middle and South station available, and breaking down for good measure somewhere near Antwerp, was an exasperating experience, not as much fun as being victims of an ’86 rail strike that sent us through delicious backs of branch-line beyond.
Holland, though, where I have delightful cousins, mom, pop and five kids, one of them conductor of the Netherlands Symphony, was a haven of peace, order, you-can-touch-‘em Ruysdael-type landscapes, and, I do not lie, good restaurant food as well as Marijke’s home cooking. I must do twenty pushups to make amends for having made fun of Dutch food in the past; no country does better with cream soups, and on brisk winter days one can spoon into such fare every day, twice every day. And there’s Indonesian food, of course.
But Holland I will treasure most of all for a pilgrimage to the greatest symphony hall in the world, the Concertgebouw, that dowdy, awesome box of a room with those warm, generously reverberant acoustics: you can always hear the air around the sound, on recordings “live” and “studio” as well as in the great hall itself. We sat in the terrace section, the bleachers so to speak, just next to the long staircase conductor and soloists must descend, lithely, breezily, to reach their appointed places on stage. Lang Lang and Esa Pekka Salonen were so close I could have tripped them if I chose . . .
Over to the Rhineland we went to visit my Russian cousin Viktor Blumenfeld, greatgrandson of the Blumenfeld who shacked up with Tchaikovsky’s niece and produced a son, Georges Tchaikovsky, who was, I’m almost certain, the grandfather of Andre Tchaikovsky, that eccentric and wonderful pianist who died a few years ago much too young but not before making an excellent recording of the Goldberg Variations – and annoying the conductor Fritz Reiner for not practicing enough before one of their concerts. Viktor is a jolly retired geologist from Petersburg, his wife an excellent cook; and we spent the afternoon with pierogi, zakuski, borscht, pelmeni and sweets.
Was Viktor aware of his greatgrandfather’s indiscretion? Oh yes, he said, “I was bad boy too.”
THEN HOME again, here I am, sitting under a Japanese maple, waiting for the great credit card reckoning, but toying of course with another finger on the bear claw of a gastronomical tourist’s appetite.