Secondi

Here it is. Your second course of the Romalogue. I’m just going to wing it this time, since there’s no gentling into Roman food; you can only hope to dive in and do. Do as the Romans do.

I’ve also made a list of places for kids in Rome, as recommended by Chotto-ma, our keen little traveller. It’s a city where you might be prone to dragging children from one historical ruin to another, from one Bernini painting to another, but really, but after a while, it can become white noise. Spread it out, breathe and make sure to be a bad tourist every now and then. That’s when Rome gets good.

What else do I have? Ah, yes – the lovely apartment we stayed in. The ins and outs of it. And the caged, old lift that took us up to it.

Enjoy your Roman tryst. Tell me what you think of it. I’ll meet you on the other side.

What we ate:
We went to Rome with a long, and sure, list of places we wanted to eat in. Food that we wanted to try. And we did. We also wanted to cook a couple of meals at home so that we got a chance to pick fresh ingredients from the market, which we wouldn’t find in England.

Here are some of the best of what we tried.

First: the pizzas, the pizzas. Rome doesn’t know how to make a bad pizza, so you’re safe almost anywhere, but here are some of the places we loved:

– Pizza al Taglio, or pizza-by-the-slice, from Ai Marmi on Viale de Trastevere (open evenings only), and from Il Forno Roscioli (for their Pizza Bianca).
– A sit-down pizza lunch at Bir & Fud (For thin crusts and craft beers. And their bruschettas. Beautiful.)
– A pizza dinner at Ivo A Trastevere (Busy, bustling, filled with locals. Open kitchen churning out pizza after pizza)

Suppli from:
I Suppli (one of the best in Rome)
Pizzarium (Although they’re known for their pizza, the thick, puffy crusts were not for me. But the suppli was fantastic.)

Typical Roman trattoria food, like mamma makes it:
La Boticella (Try the Fiori di Zucca, the chicory with garlic and chilli, the oxtail, the tiramisu.)
Da Enzo (the carbonara, the carbonara)
Cesare al casaletto – recommended to me by the lovely Rachel of Rachel Eats, who’s a Testaccio local. More food links on her blog.

Italian cooking with a Kosher influence in Rome’s gorgeous Jewish Ghetto:
Sora Margherita (The Carciofi alla giudìa, the Fettucine Cacio e Pepe and the meatballs) 

Coffee at:
Caffe Sant’Eustachio (A Roman institution. Caffeine-ing the city since 1938.)
Bar Gianicolo (one of our favourite finds, after a leafy uphill walk from Trastevere)
Baylon (modern mismatched cool, old books and chrome lamps, great coffee and fresh juice in recycled jars)

Gelato from:
Fiori di Luna (The gelateria that every guidebook will lead you to)
Albeto Pica (Another on-the-map gelateria. Of old fame.)
Old Bridge (The one no guidebook tells you about. It has an unfortunately English name, but one of the best gelatos we had in Rome.)

And finally, an absolute must-do:
Sunday brunch at Open Colonna (Modern Roman cooking in superchef Antonello Colonna’s glass-roofed restaurant. Don’t leave the city without doing this, don’t.)

Food shopping (the only kind of shopping I did in Rome):
– Head to the local butcher and stock up on hand-minced local sausages. Especially the Luganica, which are so, so very good.We even flew them back to the UK.
– Pick up freshly made (not dried) pasta, especially the ravioli, from any local pasta maker.
– Biscuits from Artigiano Innocenti (Hard to find, but worth the hunt)
– Get a bottle of extra-virgin olive oil and some Mozzarella di Bufala from Roscioli or Volpetti (legends, both)
– From the market – fish, courgette flowers, artichokes and chicory leaves.

And here’s what you do with the cicoria. Pluck the chicory leaves from the stem, boil them in salt water for 5 minutes, drain. Heat olive oil, crush a few whole garlics still in their peel. Throw them into the oil with some chilli flakes. Toss in the leaves. (We first had this in La Botticella, then cooked it at the apartment the next day. Probably the best thing I’ve had in Rome.)

For more on Rome and its food, check out Katie Parla‘s inexhaustible blog.

Where we stayed – the apartment:
After months of hunting, we found this charming apartment located in the heart of Trastevere, walking distance to most things (we walked to Centro Storico, as well as Testaccio), but away from everything touristy. It has a fish and vegetable market around the corner, along with a gelateria and speciality cheese shop. There’s a bakery below, opposite a little shop that makes fresh pasta in small batches. And right opposite the apartment sits a cool rock-and-roll bar called Big Star with great coffee, beer on tap and darn good music. In Rome, bars are about coffee first, alcohol later.


The apartment has everything you could think of. And Silvana, who owns it, was the loveliest host who handed us the keys, with a big smile and box of good advice, and then left us to it.

You can contact Silvana, or find out more about the apartment here.

Rome for little legs:
Chotto-ma could move to Rome. Where else would you find all her favourites in one place? Pizzas, pastas, gelatos, fountains and dogs. At every turn. That such a place even existed…!
Here’s her list of must-dos. A fool-proof list, I thought, if you’re doing Rome with kids.

Explora il Museo dei Bambini di Roma (because you owe them one museum that’s all about them)
I Burattini del Gianicolo (a old-world puppet theatre on a lovely hill)
Mouth of Truth or La Boca della Verita in the Church of Santa Monica. Of Roman Holiday fame. And one for which Chotto-ma was ready to walk miles. She’d read all about it in her book, and couldn’t wait to put her hand into the big gaping mouth. Her next favourite bit was lighting a candle in the church.
The Planeterium (because she’s into all things space)
Largo di Torre Argentina – a cat sanctuary
Piramide di Caio Cestio (Because she’s also into all things Egyptian. And because there’s the beautiful, quiet Protestant Cemetery behind it where Keats and Shelley lie. A piece of peace in the midst of the city, which Chotto-ma loved.)
– A visit to the seaside (It’s a beautiful break from the busy-ness, and all a fun train ride away. We took a train from Pyramide and got off at C. Colombo, to visit friends who lived in a house filled with lemon and pomegranate trees. There’s a beautiful beach right opposite the station, stretching for miles. Not to mentioned, a glass-walled ristorante looking out to sea.)
Cinema dei Piccoli – the smallest movie theatre in the world, and it’s for kids! English films are dubbed in Italian, without English subtitles. But what fun!)
– A meeting with La Befana, Rome’s favourite witch. She’s flies down on her broomstick every January 6, bringing treats for children. You can meet her at Piazza Navona on the day of the Epiphany. Chotto-ma met La Befana, who ran up to her with a big bar of chocolate, in Orvieto, a village in Umbria.
Trevi Fountain or Fontana di Trevi – Oh, the thrill of throwing that coin in! You have to face away from the fountain and throw the coin over your shoulder. It’s apparently the way to wish your way back to Rome some day. And Chotto-ma did. She also wished to see a rainbow.

 

A day away from Rome – Orvieto
I think I’d better say ciao! now, and leave you with photographs of this little Umbrian village. If you want to visit Orvieto for a day-trip, you can read more about it on this lovely blog.

Half man half woman

That is what Chotto-ma drew when I asked her to draw Rome. After ten days in the city, that was how she saw it: a half-man-half-woman with many dogs.

And she couldn’t have sensed it better.

Rome is a cacophony of opposites. Its piazzas sit pretty like women in diamonds, while its cobblestoned alleys hurtle past like stubbled men on scooters. It greets you like an old friend, then wags a haughty finger in your face. It gives you the loud frenzy of a morning market, and then the sudden silence of an afternoon siesta. It stuns you with its old baroque beauty, then walks you into its new laidback grunge. It smiles, it scowls. Temperamental Roma; the city where we watched 2000-year-old ruins welcome in 2014.

Rome sits astride seven hills, spilling down into the Tiber, stroking you and slapping you, pulling you and pushing you. A relentless human theatre; only now without the gladiators and lions. The gladiators still lurk under the surface though; you can see it in the jaunty stride of Roman men, the shrug of their shoulders, the flick of their eyebrows, the arrogance of their hips. You can see it in the women too: in the cigarettes held at a slant between red lips, in the dismissive brush of their hands, in their raucous fights in crowded buses, in the ultimatums they throw down like ancient gauntlets. Goaded by past glory and old blood.

It’s a city like no other, and one that you must walk in at some point. Walk through its bylanes when you do, because it’s where Rome lives. We’d rented an apartment in Trastevere, a neighbourhood that packs as much character as a shot of dark, creamy espresso; un caffè, drunk standing up. It’s a tumble of crumbling houses in shades of ochres and oranges next to marbled apartments with old money. And bars and trattorias that spill out onto the street. And little neighbourhood bakeries that we would walk to in our pyjamas for warm loafs in the morning. And markets from where I brought back bags full of artichokes and chicory leaves and fresh ravioli. It’s also where I walked past Jhumpa Lahiri, more than once. Yes, we shared a neighbourhood, and I did say hello, but only in my head. No matter how well I know her work and the world she writes about, it felt far too intrusive, too personal, to stop her in her world; walking her son to school.

I did wonder though, if Rome ever reminded her of Calcutta. It did me. So much of it – the people, the narrow lanes and bumpy rides, the way the city heaved and the traffic screeched, the dusty windows and mosaic floors, the clotheslines, the way people stood in clustered conversations, the way their dogs barked. Everyone seemed to have a dog, or two or three; and they weren’t quiet, well-mannered English dogs either. They too had opinions like their masters.

There is nothing subdued about Rome. Apart from the first rays of mellow golden sunlight that touch its rooftops at dawn, the insides of its churches and the stone pines that stand in graceful lines. D said they looked like ‘puffs of green cloud’. They did. Puffs of green clouds hanging over the city like condensed thoughts, collected over thousands of years. From its mad emperors and great artists and the people who live and breathe and fill Rome today.

They’re the people who give the city it’s beautiful cacophony. So that when you walk out of its silent, dark churches, life screams from the streets and sings and hugs and honks and nearly runs you over.

That’s Rome. Half this and half that, half man and half woman, but not a thing halfhearted. Hell no.

 ***

Notes on Rome, for next week.
No, I’m not going to tell you anything about the Colosseum, the Pantheon, or the coin that you’ll inevitably throw into the Trevi. I’ll leave that to Lonely Planet.
But come back next week, and I’ll tell you all about Rome’s food – the best of what we ate, and where. I’ll also tell you about the perfect apartment we found after months of hunting. And the places that Chotto-ma recommends – Rome for little legs.
Arrivederci.

The art of an omelette

A couple of weeks ago, we drove to the mountains. Remember our winding drive through Wales last year? We went back there with Ma and Baba. This time, Chotto-ma was their glib little tour-guide, having sucked up Snowdonia through a straw on her last visit.

The mountains had been a brownish-grey in September; they’d stood like whittled warhorses against masculine skies. This time, everything was different; the same road now winds through mellow mountains; it’s summertime. Green has grown over slatey grey ridges and covered them in coyness. Their jagged edges gentled, the mountains hugged our car like lush, matronly ladies.

We went back to the lovely whitewashed B&B we had stayed in the last time. Surrounded by conifers, Glenwood House, sits opposite a rocky stream which hums past in steady song. The B&B is run by Marie and Said, a charming couple, with a little boy, warm smiles and seven chickens. They’re easy to return to.

Chotto-ma helped Said collect just-laid eggs in the morning, still warm to the touch. The chickens pecked at our shoes, ate some toast and cleared their throats. They had a lovely home at the edge of the garden next to a busy little brook. Before we left, Said packed up the eggs Chotto-ma had collected and gave them to us to carry back home. Fresh eggs from happy chickens who live by a mountain stream.

They were meant to be omelettes.

Courgette & Gruyere Omelette

Now, there’s an art to an omelette. It’s one of the easiest foods to rustle up, but very few make it well. A good omelette is soft, but not soggy. It’s golden-brown on the outside, pale on the inside. It’s fluffy, but full. It’s seasoned, it’s seasoned, it’s seasoned. I belabour the point for a good cause.

Thanks to Ma, I grew up on artful omelettes, folded off the heat at the right sliver of a second. Her omelettes had a secret. Not a secret ingredient, no. But a secret sleight of hand. A secret rule: Don’t let the egg rest. As you pour the egg into a hot pan, with whatever you’ve whisked into it, take a fork and give the middle a stir. It should scramble up, and parts of the pan should show through. Pat the top of the omelette to fill up those bits. Then, scramble it up again. And pat it again to patch up the top. Let is rest now for a few seconds. Move off the heat, and fold.

For this omelette, here’s what I whisked in:
Courgette, grated.
Gruyere, grated (use any cheese you like)
Coarsely ground pepper
Salt
Oil

Eating Kolkata

Here it is, you lovely bunch – the food, the food. Oh hell, the food.

It’s everywhere in Kolkata. On Ma’s table (she’s one of the finest, most casual cooks I know), on the streets, in conversations, on wooden carts, in smart restaurants and ramshackle ones. It’s a city where gluttony is a pastime. And while we were there, it didn’t feel like no sin.

So here are the spoils of the war we waged over three weeks. Most of the places where we ate were worth their weight in pure nostalgia. A few were uncharted territories. And some were just grabbed off the street, on the way, without a plan.

And thrown in there are the bazaars, the wicker baskets full of fresh produce, the fish market, the local butcher Baba swears by, the street food, the sweet shops. Sweet sin!

Tell me what you think, which ones you like – for this plate is as much mine as it is yours. The list here is by no means complete; just scratching the surface, my friends.

So. If you go to Kolkata for one reason, and no other, let it be fu-hood.

….

First the sweets. It had to be the sweets.
Here are some of my favourite picks.
From Balaram Mullick & Radharaman Mullick: Baked rossogolla, baked mihidana, patishapta (as close as it gets to the homemade version)
From Banchharam: Kanchagolla, aabar khabo, notun-gurer shondesh, pantua (gulab jamun)
From Jadab Chandra Das: Mishti doi (sweet yogurt)

Something to try: A combination that D and I absolutely love, and which was passed down by my father-in-law, is ‘tok doi aar bondey’ (plain yogurt topped with sweet boondi).

S. Sharma & Sons, opposite Saturday Club – a friend took us to this hole-in-the-wall on Wood Street for the most amazing rabri. Rabri would be best described as sweet, thickened milk with a creamy-cheesy consistency. Wonderful.

And you know you’ve got to have jalebis, right? Just after they’ve been fried and dipped in that sweet sticky syrup. That’s right, you’ve got to.

Kulfi, or Indian ice-cream, from this man, here.
Where: Shakespeare Sarani-Wood Street crossing.
My top flavours: Nolen gur, chikoo, santra, sitaphal.

A few must-dos on Park Street, the street where Kolkata eats out:
1. Chelo Kebab in Peter Cat
2. Chinese food (I really should say Indo-Chinese) at Bar-B-Q
3. Breakfast or tea at Flury’s (overpriced though it is).

For Indo-Chinese, outside of Park Street, you can’t leave the city without:
The weekend buffet at Mainland China
And a meal in Tangra (Tangra is Kolkata’s Chinatown, and Kim Fa is the restaurant where People In The Know go now)

Now street food! What can I say. For me, Kolkata is the Street Food City of India. You could have something different every day, and still not run out of options. Start with puchkas, end with chicken rolls, squeeze in some momos in between. Have a chai. Run wild.

Years and years ago, Kookie Jar redefined baking. I’ve eaten cakes in many different cities in the world, but their Black Forest still can’t be beaten. It was D’s birthday cake this year.

The first time we ate in Benjarong was in Chennai. They now have a restaurant in Kolkata, and it’s as good. Go there for beautiful Thai food.

When dinner’s done, start all over with breakfast. Radhabollobi and Alu-r Dom (puris stuffed with lentils that come with a spicy potato curry) from Ganguram in Golpark, or Maharani-Maharaja in Lansdowne, or Tasty Corner in Mandeville Gardens.

Kolkata’s Chilli Sauce is unlike any chilli sauce you get in stores here; maybe the only sauce that can look Sriracha in the eye. Pick up a few bottles of it from this shop – Sing Cheung – in Tiriti Market. They accounted for much of our luggage weight. But so worth it.

For the thirsty: Daab-er Jol, or tender coconut water. And sugarcane juice. Sweet salvation.

Dacres Lane. Now this is a street in Kolkata that stands for decades of good food. They’ve been feeding office-goers for years, and are known for their Chicken Stew. And their Bengali-style Chilli Chicken and Chowmein. And their egg curry. Really, it’s all good.

These bottles of little black salty-tangy balls are a Kolkata thing. Thye’re called Jaina Shipa Mandir, and apparently, they help you digest all the food you shouldn’t have overeaten in the first place. But I eat them because they’re lovely.

Here comes the fish. Fresh from Gariahat Market. Hilsa, prawns, bhekti. Or pabda, tengra and chitol. Fishmongers with their day’s catch.

And then the alleys of vegetables, an absolute mayhem of colours.

I know. Some of you’re going: “Enough with the vegetable already. Where’s the bloody Biryani?”
So what is it about Kolkata’s biryani that makes everyone go a little bit mad? It’s the saffrony rice layered with the tenderest meat and the softest, seasoned potatoes. It’s the subtle smell of spices. It’s something that no one can quite put a finger on.
There are two contenders for the city’s biryani-throne: Arsalan and Shiraz. I’ve tried both, and for me, there really is no competition at all. Shiraz wins by a mile.
This is what I would have: chicken or mutton biryani, mutton chaap, mutton shammi tikka, firni.




























I love big vegetarian thalis, especially Rajasthani or Gujarati. We tried a new place this time called Khandani Rajdhani. They were very good.

And then there’s your pick of fresh fruit and street bazaars. They’re everywhere. In wicker baskets and roadside stalls. On your walk, in every colour.

This is the butcher my father swears by.

This is the best place for tea, in a city which knows it tea better than any other. Dolly’s Tea in Dakshinapan Market. I always have their Mint Julep, or the Darjeeling 2nd flush. Dolly’s used to be a regular haunt during my days in Jadavpur University.

There’s the puchka again. Really, it keeps creeping in. I’ve tried the one in front of Dakshinapan, the one in Vivekananda Park, but I’d still vouch for the puchka-wala opposite New Market, in the lane that heads to Treasure Island. 

These are fresh pumpkin flowers (kumro-phool). Just before they dunked themselves in batter and leapt into the frying pan.

And here endeth the food trail; with mishti doi (sweet curd) from a Kolkata institution – Mother Dairy.
Sweet mother!

Was it worth the wait?

Strangers straightened their clothes

We’re back. In a way.

Not wholly back.

Bits of Kolkata came back in our suitcases, and bits of of us stayed back there. Our three weeks wasn’t enough. But then, six wouldn’t have sufficed either. No matter how long you stay, in the end, you feel like you’re cutting the cord all over again.

Four years ago, we’d flown to Kolkata with a four-month old baby tucked into a bassinet. This time, it was with a four-year old who sat in her own seat sipping apple juice, peering into clouds and watching Mary Poppins.

From the minute we landed, Chotto-Ma loved everything. She loved the cabs with seats like trampolines; no seatbelts, no rules. The colours, the sun, the stray dogs. Hours of playtime with Mamma, scratchy kisses from Dada. She ate shondesh in every shape, and puchkas from street corners. She rode an auto, a mini bus, a cycle-rickshaw. She made new friends. Met family she hadn’t met before. She threw herself right in there, and forgot we had to leave.

My photographs can never do the city justice, but here they are as promised. I’m splitting them over two posts – this one diaries the city as I saw it, from dawn to dark. The next, of course, will have to be about the food.

This was the first time I’d ever walked around Kolkata with a camera. The most wonderful thing about taking photographs in India is how much people want to be photographed. Strangers straightened their clothes, smoothed their hair and asked me to take a picture before I could ask them. I had no use for my Anglicised sense of camera-manners, permissions and privacy.

So this is Kolkata. The city, and its people.

I hope the photographs give you a sense of the place, the pace, the people. It’s where I grew up, where D grew up. It’s where we fell in love. It’s where the people closest to us live. And where we’ll always go back.
 


Araf, araf, araf

That’s ‘slow’ in Welsh. Slow, slow, slow.

Slow, like the old train that trundled up Snowdon. Slow like the smoke that wafted out of the chimney of our bed-&-breakfast. Slow like a sheep’s chew.

Araf.

Because you want the time to last. Even as your car speeds through mountain roads, and curves around coastlines, you slow down. You melt a little bit, your shoulders lose their angles, and you breathe in-in-in. It’s atrocious, the sheer beauty of Wales. Fierce, sharp and gentle, all at the same time.

D, Chotto-ma and I spent a week winding through North Wales. The first half in the mountains, and the second along the coast.

I’ve been waiting to share the week with you, so hop on, strap yourself in, and slow down.

The mountains
From Betws-y-coed, to Llanberis, up to the summit of Mount Snowdon. And down past mountain streams that giggled like a child and waterfalls that fell downdowndown. Faeries floated past I think.




The coast

We started with Portmerion – Wales’ unashamed ‘riviera’ – which makes you walk around with a silly smile on your face.

Then on to the tiny fishing village of Aberdaron. From Aberdaron to Porthdinllaen, where a pub called the Ty Coch Inn stood like an old weathered boat on a small smuggler’s cove. Tucked away from all the world. Offering warm, baked pots of food to only those who ventured far enough to find it.

Our Welsh week ended at Llandudno – the lively Victorian seaside town that leaned against the mountains and stretched its feet into the sand.

Araf. Araf. Araf.

 


















A house in a bowl of sea soup

When Chotto-ma was just 6 months old, we bundled her up one night, boarded a very rickety plane and flew to a bowl of sea soup. It’s also called a caldera – the Greeks pronounce it with a soft ‘d’, a long purred ‘r’, and a voice drizzled with olive oil. The caldera had once been a thirsty volcano. It had greedily sucked in some of sea, and now had boats and fish swimming in its mouth. Our little whitewashed house was in this caldera; stuck inside the belly of the bowl with magic Aegean glue. There was a thin strand of old windblown steps to take us up to the bowl’s rim. A little blue-white town flapped around this ancient rim, held in place by giant, invisible clothes pegs. The town was called Oia. Perched on the island of Santorini.

Nothing prepares you for the absurd beauty of the Greek islands. Not the movies. Not Lonely Planet. Nor the glossy posters behind the glass of hungry travel agencies.

In April, the islands are as quiet as a secret. The locals go about their business; their walk unhurried, their smiles as uncomplicated as the white light bouncing off the rough white walls. A few Japanese hold hands with their tripods. And donkeys clip-clop up and down the winding steps.

You walk into a restaurant that is full, only to realise that it’s full of the family that runs it. Sisters, brothers-in-law, uncles, cousins, pet dogs, they all sit at the tables, eating and drinking and laughing loudly with their heads thrown back. Then we’d walk in, and they would take a break to serve us what they had in their kitchen – fresh fish caught that morning and grilled in the wood-fired clay oven, creamy mushrooms, tomatoes smothered in olive oil, little parcels of feta and bowls of lemony, green olives.

When you take a boat, float away from Santorini and wash up on one of the other islands, life looks even more unhurried. In Ios, the streets were empty, except for a handful of people who hadn’t given in to the afternoon siesta. Amongst them was a village girl who led us through an armful of alleys to a taverna where we had one of the best meals we have ever eaten. Everything was cooked by the owner’s old mother, and served on family crockery. George, the owner, sat with us at our table, ladling food on our plates. Talking to us about the Lamb Kleftiko while it fell off the bone, about the pan-seared cheese, and the secret recipes that his mother guarded like gold.

On the islands in Greece, the sun melts one day into another. And you forget how long you’ve spent floating from one island to another; or walking down long, empty country roads. The sun shines into your eyes, then warms your back, and finally sets into the sea in an immodest show of colour. Like a carnival dancer in long, loud feathers.

The salty taste of the Greek islands stays on your tongue for a long, long time. They follow you back, and start living in your kitchen. And sometimes, when you’re missing the house that hangs precariously above the Aegean soup, you cook yourself something that takes you back a little.







Peppers stuffed with spicy feta

Ingredients

12 small peppers
150 gms feta, crumbled
A small bunch of parsley, chopped
1-2 green chillies, deseeded and chopped
A pinch of cumin
2 slices of brown bread

Mix the feta with parseley, chillies and cumin.
Cut the tops off the peppers, empty out the insides, and stuff them with the feta, leaving a little space on top.
Tear off a bit of bread, and stuff it into that little space on top of each feta-filled pepper. This stops the cheese from melting out.
Put the heads back on each pepper, and put a cocktail stick through each to keep them from opening up.
Put then into a pre-heated oven at 200°C for 15-20 minutes.
Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and serve.