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To ask me about Italian food is to unearth a store of memories, all of them delightful. Each one conveys a different taste, an almost visceral memory. The sensuality of Italy is there at every turn, its ability to make one feel alive and human.
My first memory is of dinner in the home of the bus driver who was driving me and a group of travellers around Italy in the 60’s. I was goggle-eyed at the generosity, the huge plate of antipasto and then the primo piatto, a giant dish of lasagne. Well, I Iove lasagne, and this was the first time I had eaten it in Italy. It was lushly, softly, tasty – a wholly new experience. My host’s wife, the proud and slightly nervous cook, urged me on with ‘mangia, mangia’. So I ate a vast second helping until I was full to overflowing. It is an old story of foreign ignorance: the next course was not the dessert but a chicken dish of enormous size. How I managed I cannot remember, but I was young, foolish and constitutionally stronger than now. I hardly slept, but felt I had begun a journey.
In Bologna I ate, in the main square, at an eye-wateringly smart restaurant that served a lasagne that has served to make every one since then a disappointment. I have lost the name of the place, but it showed me how simple things can be beautiful.
In the very early days of Special Places in Italy,I visited a house in Tuscany run by a South African. He served lunch at the bottom of the garden,nothing but pasta, salad and a glass of white wine. It was done with panache and confidence, every mouthful perfect. It needed no ornament. I wonder how long it takes for an outsider to
become irretrievably steeped in Italian pride in their local ingredients.
Reflecting on those memories, I can see that the Italians have the gift of combining simplicity and perfection. The finest
ingredients, a touch of panache and beauty – and ecco! Even the 5-course meal I had at the Frantoio in Puglia last year was simple in its way, but proud too, everything grown in their garden and altered only subtly by their skill. My notes reveal: panzerottini con ricotta e bietoline selvatiche (fried pasta with ricotta and wild Swiss chard), cicorielli selvatiche assise in cesto di pecorino (wild chicory in a basket of sheep’s cheese), morbido di caprino allo zafferano con pere e composta di pere (soft goat’s cheese with saffron, pears and pear compote), zuppa con funghi cardoncelli e fagioli ‘Nasieddu rosso’ di Sarconi (mushroom soup with Sarconi beans), agnello con patate in coccio (lamb and spuds).
On the Isola Tiberina in Rome I ate carciofi a la romana, stuffed with garlic, mint and parsley – a wholly new way of eating artichokes and their leaves. I can still taste that crunchy, nutty outer leaf. Simple but stunning.
Having said all that, there is a sense of humour about food in Italy, too. In the Crete Senesi, we were served 36 courses – most of them ‘tasters’. Sixteen would have filled us. One of our party collapsed, hysterically, into the final course, her face lost in cream.
But let not lasagne and pasta dominate these memories. In Torino last year, boiled meats and tongue reminded me that there is much, much more to Italian food than I knew. (I never eat pizza, anywhere. Too much pastry for me, but I suspect that I am being unfair on Naples.) From the great Torino Slow Food conferences and shows, one learns about the thousands of small-scale growers who battle to keep their products alive in the face of cynical competition from the big boys. Italians really do love their food, and are proud of their regional diversity; they can talk about it with a passion that most of us reserve for other things. I love them for it.
Last month I spent a week in Madrid, taking part in a session on sustainability in tourism at the vast, overwhelming, FITUR travel trade show. I gave a radio interview in Spanish, then a speech about sustainability and tourism. It was like hectoring passers-by at Paddington during the rush hour, with frequent announcements over the intercom and the buzz of humanity all around.
I sat on a panel with five formidable Spanish women and discussed how we can build on the great work done by the national parks system. Gosh – they can talk, the Spaniards. My Spanish is good, but embarrassingly not up to Spanish speed via sound systems.
Madrid is a tonic, more interesting by far than most of us imagine. I could spend hours in the Mercado San Miguel listening to the chatter and trying out new dishes. It is a handsome 19th-century market building, exquisitely ‘done’. I am struck by the conviviality; everyone is up for a chat, and sharing food comes naturally.
A night of flamenco is not to be missed, especially as Carlos, our Man in Spain, chose a tiny bar as a very special alternative to the more touristy places: La Quimera, close to the Madrid Plaza de Toros in Ventas. Weate ‘jamon’ and ‘tortilla’, drank red wine and plugged ourselves into the frenetic ‘zapateado’ of the five dancers. I was exhilarated, but needed moistened dough in my ears to reduce the noise.
One evening we welcomed a dozen of our Spanish owners to drinks in the hotel. This was memorable for the eclecticism of the group and the fantastical talk that ensued. Grand Spaniards and humble Spaniards, with wildly differing politics, mingled with similarly differing English owners. It was warm, funny and touching – and a reminder of the wonderful range of types Sawday’s embraces.
To Alcala de Henares for the Saturday night, to catch up with the Parador system. The Paradors are a feather in the Spanish cap. There are nearly 100 of them, most of them ancient buildings rescued from decline to create a network of state-run hotels. So the visitors are sleepingin buildings that are unique and magnificent. Alcala is a short train ride away from Madrid, a 16th-century town of almost perfect beauty, a collection of monasteries, convents and ecclesiastical buildings preserved now by the University of Alcala. This was the world’s first purpose-built University campus, we are told. The Parador is in a 17th-century convent, with vast rooms and the finest modern additions. We are hoping to include some Paradors in our collection, as they are all pretty special in their own way.
I will definitely be returning to Spain in the near future. My next visit may well be to the south-west, to Cadiz and Jerez – both over-ignored – and to the long and empty beaches nearby. We have some remarkable, and eccentric, places down there.
Planning a trip to the Spanish capital? We recommend:
Independence, clever design and lots of light make this handy hotel the perfect pad to whisk someone away on a spontaneous city break!