In Flight Istria Day 2: Tito’s Manservant

I’m writing a big article about Istrian food for Time Out: Croatia.

I sometimes feel like the only adult in the world. It’s an arrogant feeling, I’m aware, but it’s more a view of assumed maturity; seeing people making the same mistakes I’ve made before, the same clichéd patterns of behavior cropping up. So here I am in the back of a van driven by an admitted drunk, who’s arguing with the professor about the meaning of life. In the back, our cameraman is being unsubtly romantic to the only girl, an American TV presenter who’s trying to sleep. Occasionally, he pauses to shout directions, or condemn the music.

20130318-204018.jpg

Hi-resolution mental snap 1: the face of Miro, the owner of Tomas’ restaurant, as he slumps for a second mid-song, great wrinkled chops and soupsucker moustache sagging onto the pressed-white waiters’ uniform he’s worn since he was (former Yugoslavian dictator) Tito’s personal waiter. In the background, amidst memorabilia, pictures of him show him wearing the same outfit progressively younger, long grey-white locks then black, great truffled nose shrunken to youthful proportions. He waves an arm over the many plates of rare Bosphorin (Istrian Ox) dishes he’s prepared and tells us stories about Tito being a secret drunk.

(The drunk driver is claiming the road ahead is foggy. We point out the road is clear and his eyes are foggy. He tries to clean his glasses.)

20130318-203618.jpg

Hi-resolution mental snap 2: The Cave of Pazin. A normal town and Venetian castle, at the end of a normal street. Rounding the castle (small, more like an elaborate town hall), there’s a terrace and balcony. Walking closer to its edge, there appears a pit the area of Grand Central which just drops and drops. Buildings cluster on the rock right to the edge of the hole. Beneath the cliff face, there’s a ten-storey cavern that has whole fallen trees clustered in its maw, looking like twigs from up here. It’s deeper than St Paul’s is high, easily. My head spins looking through the camera zoom and I have to step back from the edge, sharply. To my right, an old building is slowly toppling, abandoned, into the depths; elsewhere a terrifying zipline crosses the shallowest part of the hole.

The driver stops the van suddenly. He’s concerned about the two bottles of wine rolling around his feet while driving, worried that the police will stop him. He talks to himself as he packs them in the boot. The TV presenter observes this, worried. The driver starts the van up and immediately takes a wrong turn into the police station parking lot. We all laugh, sadly, and go quiet as a police car goes slowly past. The romantic is quoting music lyrics as come-on lines.

20130318-203128.jpg

Hi-resolution mental snap 3: truffles, everywhere. Truffle prosciutto, truffle pasta, truffle cheese. Walking into the restaurant in Hum, the world’s official smallest walled town, your head is hit by the scent, swamping all other flavours and smells, like the fantastic musk of a bestiary. The mayor of the town brings two jars of truffles that are labelled at unreal prices, just to show, before sloping off for a soup by himself. I wander the streets and take photos of walls, corners, and bricks.

At 2.45am, we’re still driving, this time through Pazin in the mist. I’m terrified that we’ll fall into the Cave. I’m sure they said our farmhotel was close… But then the driver admits we’ve been driving the wrong way for 30 minutes. He starts swearing about Apple Maps in Croat before switching the radio to something like Madness and cranking the volume up.

20130318-204214.jpg

Hi-resolution mental snap 4: Miro is singing and has put his arm around my shoulders. It is a sad song so I, all six foot bearded 13 stone, start faking crying, which cracks him up. He tells us more about Tito, when he waited on him on Brione Island in Vanga. What was he like? “A real fucker… The First Lady was too posh… He had a secret room behind the library bookcases. No-one knew what was going on there. I think that was where he went to lie down! Tito was drunk all the time. Loved Martell brandy. Always he had a taster for the food and drink- except for Martell, he trusted Martell. I gave him the last Martell in his life, before he went to Ljubljana to die.” Then the singing and accordion-playing starts and our driver starts drinking…

In Flight Istria Day 1: Agrotourism

I’m writing a big article about Istrian food for Time Out: Croatia.

I barely have a ticket. I don’t really know where I’m going. I’m told it’s Croatia but I don’t know where. I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to do when I get there. I do know that it’ll probably be okay, so I’m not really panicking. The mountains beneath the plane loom like alien snowcones, the lake shores are edged with white. The fat Croat behind me snores again. He wakes, aggressive later, and elbows his way a few steps ahead as we line up to get off.

(Later) I got met at the airport by Vedran and his crew. All is fine. Vedran is a worldly Croat who’s doing a PHD in political science on the side. He’s easy to divert onto conversations about philosophy and politics, but his first love is local food. Gastronomy is why I’m here.

20130317-142714.jpg

(Later still). We drove for five hours. We drove through the snowy mountains. The houses mainly alternate between newish German-style villas and abandoned local wooden styles, though there’s a smattering of other architectures. As we get up into the mountains, the snow creeps up the walls of the houses, until some of them are simply buried and uninhabited. There’s hours of woods, cliffs, snow, dotted houses with shacks and wood stores. Then we go down, down, down, past a bay of houses, past great craggy mountains (“what’s that one called?” I ask, of a four-pronged peak. “Rocky”, is the rough translation. Similarly, the large town we pass is called “River”.), through tunnels and (I’m sagging now, conversation faded).

20130317-142925.jpg

We finally, finally, FINALLY, arrive at agrotourism Ogrone and are mobbed by dogs. The place is based entirely on local produce – everything made here uses only ingredients from the farm itself – chickens, salad, potatoes are all grown here. The lady running it speaks no English and has the charming guileless appearance of a homely, nice middle-aged lady who loves taking in visitors. Signs around the walls testify that she’s more than that; apparently, she won the best rural woman (peasant) prize, amongst many others. And, aside from the roaring fire of Ogrone, where she cooks up a thick luxurious minestrone and a fire-baked chicken stew, she also runs several other businesses around the area. Today, she was approached by one of the big political parties to be their electoral candidate; she turned them down.

20130317-143427.jpg

Bed is in a silent house. I’ve no idea where we are but I’m full and tired. Tomorrow, apparently, I’m going to be interviewed by Radio Pazin. God help us all.

Holidays in the Kaiber Kush

All dreams begin and end with an elipsis… …so I’m feeling a bit lonely right now. My friends have all bummed off and left me to entertain myself, except one who I’m just walking up to the top floor of the hotel to say goodbye to, before I go and find something to do. We get to the top floor, and it’s a bit like an modernist pub, with banquette seating and high windows that show arid, impossible old mountains scraping at the air. It turns out my friend is meeting a buncha people including Peter Kay, the northern comedian, so I do my balloon trick (something involving a highly-inflated balloon and pratfalls, as far as I can remember) and Peter Kay outdoes me, without even getting up, by punning about balloons, whilst doing a trick where the balloon cord is trapped under his buttocks.

To the tune of: Leadbelly – Ham An’ Eggs

All dreams begin and end with an elipsis… …so I’m feeling a bit lonely right now. My friends have all bummed off and left me to entertain myself, except one who I’m just walking up to the top floor of the hotel to say goodbye to, before I go and find something to do. We get to the top floor, and it’s a bit like an modernist pub, with banquette seating and high windows that show arid, impossible old mountains scraping at the air. It turns out my friend is meeting a buncha people including Peter Kay, the northern comedian, so I do my balloon trick (something involving a highly-inflated balloon and pratfalls, as far as I can remember) and Peter Kay outdoes me, without even getting up, by punning about balloons, whilst doing a trick where the balloon cord is trapped under his buttocks.

The landscape is like this, but more craggy.

Deflated, I say goodbye and head downstairs. I head out into the sunbathing area, which is a big crescent of white sand crammed with cheap loungers, that backs up against the brick walls of the hotel. The hotel looks awfully like a power plant converted into a villain’s lair; it isn’t, but it just looks like that. I sit on a lounge and, wondering what to do, stare at “the pool”. It’s a horrible oily dark colour and they’ve just poured water between the (obviously imported) sand bank and the hotel’s thick circle wall. I was thinking about a swim, but now I’m not; especially as a passer-by points out the ominously large outflow in the wall.

Poached egg dish
Good Eggs.

So I go for a walk instead, passing through a gap in the cyclopean wall. Outside, there’s a mountainous desert, with sand-riddled rocks pushing their red extremities up through a thin layer of grey sand. Looking back the hotel is totally alien to the landscape but also very much the focal point of it – how I always imagined Gormenghast to squat in its environs. I go a little off the track, and am just turning to empty some receipts out of my pocket. When I turn back, I’m on a precipice; thinking now, I realise it’s a flashback to climbing Mount Olympus mixed with crawling to the edge of Masada. I have bad vertigo – I can’t go near edges – and here I just collapse into a squat and wait for the feeling to go enough that I can move. There’s a hole worn in the red sandstone that has an excellent view of a desert floor far below. I’m completely concealed from the road here, and I hear lots of noise, shouting and clashes; the hotel’s been attacked! I stay hidden in my cubbyhole.

Abruptly, through another hole to my right, a square pan appears and an Arabic voice instructs me to cook some eggs for their leader. They’ve found me. Quickly, I poach some eggs, and a floating Wii-style icon starts moving them around, feeding them to an unseen face. He mops it all up, though it’s strange to see poached eggs slice themselves open; they’re perfectly cooked, thankfully. Next the rock fades and a strong, handsome woman’s face appears. Beneath it is a name in stone-cut Cyrillic – Katerin – as I realise my next challenge is Katherine the Great, my focus sort of zooms in on her, as her skin turns the colour of blue frost. I imagine there are more dictators waiting – and I get cooking…

Eleventy-One.

.
It was my eleventy-first birthday on Monday. Here’s what I did.

Timestamp: 12.30 a.m.
OH, what a night! A quiet drink with several friends ended with me dropping my switch card somewhere and Quintin dunking my phone in his Gulden Draak. The phone didn’t die immediately – but as the heady liquor permeated its innards it gradually flickered out of life before passing away sometime during the night – which meant my alarm didn’t go off, and hence I was late for my dental appointment, so there wasn’t time for a filling, so I have to book again, except I can’t access my diary on the dead iphone or access the address of my doctor. Amazing how totally dependant one can become on a single piece of technology; that’s something Ian Banks never addressed in his discussion of terminals in the Culture novels, the helplessness of those born into a technology.
.
Timestamp: 4.30 p.m.
Now, I’m sitting on the roof of the Royal Opera House, at the poshest event I’ve ever attended. It’s a wine-tasting, filled to the gunnels with Hooray Henrys and the idle rich; the aristocrats who get employed in these things are genuinely born into it – without tasting Chateau Y’quem and a fine Margaux every day for ten years, you’re simply not going to have the experience to taste properly. It’s held by L’Union Des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, in a giant glass palace in the Royal Opera House, overlooking Covent Garden. As far as I remember, the Royal Opera House receives regular government and lottery grants to support its function and pay for its more expensive productions; but with the clientele here, paying what they must for this tasting, I can’t believe that it needs that money.
There’s more French being spoken here than English and everyone seems to assume that you have spent your entire life drinking the finest wines known to mankind, and are able to separate them into their component parts. I refrained from drinking too many of the red Bordeauxs (though I tried a lot of Margauxs), but focussed on the desert wines; here’s my recommendation: Chateau La Tour Blanche – my drink of the day. I don’t have the wine-drinkers’ vocabulary, that allows you to associate particular scents with given words, so I’ll simply say it’s complex without resorting to the straightforward sweetness of the Coutet or Giraud.
.
I then left the Opera House, so I could sit in a cafe in Covent Garden and have a massive nosebleed that left blood all over my bag, mock-leather jacket, and both defunct phones.

Timestamp 11.30p.m.
Then I went off to Portcullis House in Parliament, to watch a panel of ex-Magdalen College luminaries, including Baron Kenneth Baker, Siôn Simon, John Redwood, Dominic Grieve, Matthew D’Ancona, Julia Hartley-Brewer, John Hemming and Stewart Wood answer questions from other Magdalen graduates from outside of politics. (Also a precocious and friendly 21-year old called Jamie Susskind who’d really done his research and sparred nicely with Redwood but unnecessarily dodged a question on the level of his student debt. I’m saying Labour Cabinet Minister for him, eventually.)
Once we got past the heavily-armed guards and through the Byzantine security, good discussions were had, but it’s under Chatham House rules, so I’ve got to refrain from attribution; I’ll just state majority opinions.
  • The panel was oddly unfriendly to all-women shortlists for political elections, even down to one expressing his support in principle, though distaste in practice. One female attendee was extremely critical of the quality of female politicians  selected through shortlists, relative to women elected purely on their own merits; there’s a touch of chicken and egg there, though, and surely something that’s reflective of problems with Britain’s ongoing gender imbalances.
  • The majority of the panel agreed that faith schools must be retained because of their results, though the left of the panel said they led to segregation and intolerance. The balance between good results and community integration was a hard one to strike, and all of the panel deplored the failure of Lord Baker’s attempt to make new faith schools take a minimum proportion of non-faith students. More importantly, I think, is to focus on diversity of background in all schools – certain comprehensives and private schools act as faith schools due to their selection criteria and catchment area; likewise, other comprehensives act as grammar schools if established in upper-middle class areas.
    Also, as a lone panellist pointed out, everyone was talking about this as if everyone had faith – and there was no provision for atheists in the faith school system, nor any restriction on market-saturation in given areas. This panellist was unable to find a non-faith primary school in the relevant catchment area, all of which required membership of certain local religious institutions, so the child was not allowed to attend any local school. In my opinion, close all the faith schools and those teachers would surely teach elsewhere; in that sense the faith element of a faith school is a red herring; if people want a religious education for their children, Sunday schools are available.
  • They think MPs are underpaid on £60,000 + expenses a year, which I think is madness.
  • They seemed to agree that an intervention in Iran over its nuclear programme is unfeasible, for Britain at least, but that Something Must Be Done, else Israel will get involved, violently.  (I actually spoke to someone high-up in Non-Profileration for the Foreign Office earlier in the evening; his views coincided with the panel’s to some degree, though he seemed less certain of Iran’s ability to enrich enough Uranium to generate a bomb quickly; he was oddly quiet during the whole discussion).
  • The best thinker, speaker and rationalist of the lot of them was, surprisingly, Kenneth Baker, followed by the ever-impressive and curiously funny John Redwood. Siôn Simon gave the impression of being a bruiser and party animal, and his language occasionally stumbled, but he made some good, original points.

And that was my birthday. Strange, bloody, boozy and pensive in turns.

Little Birds get crunchier every day

(This started out as a Facebook comment then I realised I could write about it for days…)

Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie… it’s not so long ago that starlings, pigeons and so forth were delicacies – think quails’ eggs, larks’ tongues in aspic, and that rare Ortolan bird that French Gourmands still eat illegally

Why did we stop eating fiddly things like these little birds? Firstly, cos we killed lots of them – small things go first in the delightful brutalism of man’s kingdom, especially small tasty things with lots of meat on their bones. The ones we’ve not hunted to extinction are the ones we didn’t domesticate so either we couldn’t or they weren’t worth it. The tasty, wholesome wild animals mostly got eaten to extinction (like the Roman’s favourite spice, Silphium they just couldn’t be cultivated) and the nasty stuff is what we’re left with.
Second, the ones that are left are ‘vermin’ – something we call them because we’ve turned the world into our plaything, there aren’t that many niches left that we haven’t bulldozed or filled, and anything that both manages to successfully buck our absent-minded attempts at extinction and make itself unappetizing or a carrier of disease needs a jolly good perjorative name!
Most importantly, we don’t eat them because we’re can’t be arsed – consumer culture means that we’ve bred loads of stupid things that won’t run away and taste much better, so it’s aristocrats, gourmands, the poor or the starving who’ll chase after something that’s become so damn difficult to catch. Even the toffs prefer to hunt things that are good and easy to kill – where’s the challenge in shooting the stupidest bird in these islands, the Pheasant, with a shotgun? Or a big deer? Hunting a bear with a sword, now that’s a good challenge.
I wouldn’t say it’s wrong to eat wild birds, except that there’ll be something tastier and cheaper you can get at your butchers. So what are the delicacies worth eating these days? I reckon the outré, the funny, or the challenging. So, for challenging, how about Live Octopus, like in the movie Oldboy?

For challenging, why not get an everyday food that could kill you, like Casava or Ackee, the former which is a good source of cyanide if prepared badly, the later hypoglycin (also poisonous)? If you want something more exotic, a good bet is the puffer fish sushi, Fugu, laden with lovely neurotoxins that paralyse and kill in a moment. And if you’re looking for something illegal, dangerous and probably horrible how about Bear Paw?

Don’t Eat The Rich – Bleed Them

Alistair Darling has announced a new top tax rate of 50% for those earning more than £150,000 from next April.

Things we value; a stable society that produces the most happiness (freedom from suffering) for the largest number. Agreed? If not, no point talking. If so, read on.

Equality of opportunity offers the most likely route for the greatest number to achieve freedom from suffering. Concentration of resources in few hands allows them to manipulate systems that affect us easily, aggregating yet more resources in their hands, disincentivising others to challenge them and closing off opportunities for those who have skills to raise themselves up. Redistribution counteracts these centralising tendencies of certain economic systems and increases equality of opportunity throughout our lives. We want systems to be as open as possible with information on those systems as free as possible to allow the largest number to enter and compete in those systems, to produce in turn the most efficient results – all moves against this, whether oligopolistic or monopolistic, are anti-equality and hence anti-happiness.

In the old days, the poor paid taxes to support the rich, who didn’t work. Now the middle class support the poor, and the rich dodge taxes. Moreover, the rich (and the middle class) do things that hardly constitute work (gambling with someone else’s money) and, at best, do work that is no harder than the work anyone else does. If you argue, as you’re likely to, that certain jobs are more _skilled_, I’d argue that it’s the luck of the individual involved that they either a) were brought up in a situation that allowed them better education and more schooling or b) they were _genetically_ lucky, in that they had genetic advantages allowing them to prosper better. Neither are virtuous qualities that should be rewarded, but luck. I do believe that mantra “from each according to his means, to each according to his needs.”

I don’t think we should eat the rich – I think we should bleed the endlessly burgeoning fat from them. They’ll still be incentivised to work to maintain their way of life, and just removing that money from them, even if it isn’t effectively redistributed, is a move towards equality. America doesn’t do that. The UK tries, but doesn’t. I hope this change is a helpful move towards equality of opportunity, if not by redistribution, by sapping the fat of the rich.

Why I am not a vegetarian (work in progress)

After a discussion with my brother as to why I still eat (free-range) meat, I came up with the following. Criticism and arguments welcome in the comments please!

Principles

  1. The most important thing in any life is to be free from pain
  2. The next most important thing in any life is to have your desires satisfied
  3. There is no life after death, for man, animals, plants, rocks or anything else
  4. All things die.
  5. As we must die, a death which the individual does not forsee and is free from pain is the best death. (From 1 & 2 3.)
  6. A life which is free from pain, involves the satisfaction of necessary desires and ends according to 5 is called humane. (From 1 & 2 & 3 & 5)
  7. The length of the life does not matter, as long as it fulfils all conditions of 6.
  8. If an animal or human is raised and dies in a humane condition, it is the best life. (From 7)
  9. Animals’ desires are simple and satisfiable.
  10. All things considered, animals desires in the wild are satisfied less and they suffer more pain than animals’ lives in humane captivity.
  11. Free range farming and the use of a regulated abattoir is more humane than a life in the wild.
  12. For an animal, a life on a free-range farm ended sharply in a professional abattoir is the best life.