Food

Pastaciutta, Chelmsford: first impressions count.

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…but not always in the way you might expect.

I suppose it’s a worldwide phenomenon, the dressing-up of ‘ethnic’ restaurants to conjure up the ambience of the homeland…. and yet I tend to be suspicious. Anywhere that needs to ‘theme’ itself strongly may be saying something about the inability of its food to do the job without help.

Pastaciutta is about as far away from that as possible. Started a couple of years ago by husband-and-wife Alessio and Laura Maugeri, it is tucked away under a multi-storey car park in the less attractive part of Chelmsford Market. Yes, Chelmsford, that well-known hot-spot of refined eating. Well, perhaps the ghost of Marconi lives on, for it was from here that he made the world’s first radio broadcasts.

Pastaciutta is not a restaurant; a working kitchen with a canteen tacked on, would be a better description. There is a glass display counter out front, full of the most wonderful home-made pasta, and a small eat-in area comprising folding wooden chairs and tables. There is a little attempt at homeliness, but it’s no more ‘themed’ than you would expect in the back streets of a small town in Sicily. When we visited, there was a good babble of Italian not only in the kitchen but amongst the clientele too, and Alessio and Laura seem gradually to be colonising several other nearby pitches in order to gain more seating space. Take-away trade that weekday lunchtime was booming, including service to a number of the other stall-holders.

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Whether you eat there, or take away, the food is served in disposable dishes with plastic cutlery. But who cares, when it is as good as this? There is a choice of sauces including daily specials, which you can mix and match with a pasta of your choice. I went for the acid test, namely a meat ragu with tagliatelle, and having eaten a good many of same in Bologna, I can attest that this is no pale imitation. My wife’s Norma was equally spot-on – in the best home-cooking sense. Pleasingly, they also offer less-known dishes too.

Espressi followed, possibly the best had in the U.K. for a long time. Only an inch deep and thick enough almost to be a savory. We left toting two slices of torta caprese, which did not last long when we got back home.

I think getting a license might be a good move – I’m sure they could source some equally good wines to match, though it might slow the throughput, I suppose. I do like a good Italian restaurant, but while at first sight this place can look rather basic, that is pretty much what small-town Italy is like. But just as there, it makes the food all the more of a delight.

https://www.pastasciuttashop.co.uk/

https://www.facebook.com/PastasciuttaChelmsfordMarket/

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Sartoria

Shop-keeping done well

 

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I’ve never accepted that, if you live outside a major city the local M&S should be the apex of your clothing options – so it was a great pleasure to discover, a few weeks ago a shop that is confirming the view that regional-town Britain can and should support great independent traders.

Ian Johnstone has established The Shopkeeper Store in the small Essex town of Great Dunmow. Ian has done an excellent job of creating an interior very redolent of traditional shops with wooden floors and a long serving counter.

The selection of goods on offer is what I suppose one would call Gentleman’s wares, ranging from clothing and shoes, through grooming accessories to a small selection of home wares, stationery and books. It is curated (which seems like the right word) with a mind to quality, craftsmanship and sustainability. Most pleasingly of all, the defining criterion for the stock is simply Ian’s own (very good) taste, and as a result he has achieved both a consistent ‘look’ and an extensive knowledge of his goods. It would be nice to see a growth in the more formal though still creative end of his clothing range as his enterprise grows.

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The very courteous personal service and genuine enthusiasm for what he is doing is the icing on the cake, and I sincerely hope that Ian makes a success of this relatively young venture.

It is possible to buy from The Shopkeeper Store online, though if you are close enough, I would recommend a visit just to experience the lovely ambience. Oh, and there is an excellent independent wine merchant next door…

The Shopkeeper Store,

9 Market Place, Great Dunmow, Essex CM6 1AX

www.theshopkeeperstore.com

(Usual disclaimer)

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Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Getting on with the in-laws

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Pont de l’Europe, Strasbourg. France on this side, Germany on t’other.

 

The marriage vows of the Christian church revolve around the notion of lifetime commitment. If there is a lack of commitment, or a failure to take those vows seriously, the chances of the marriage lasting are immediately weakened . So it has been with Britain and the rest of the E.U.

A few brave souls have recently been suggesting that there should be more rather than less European engagement in Britain, and it is perhaps instructive to consider what might have happened had British domestic power decided to encourage the nation fully to engage with the E.U.

I wonder how many people know that the southern counties of England and the northern regions of France technically constitute Trans-Manche Euro-Region. It is part of a policy called Interreg dating from the 1990s to foster cross-border co-operation in all parts of Europe.

Here is how the Daily Mail reported it in 2006:

New map of Britain that makes Kent part of France…and it’s a German idea

For centuries the people of Kent have called their county the Garden of England. So they might find it quite a surprise that – according to the European Union at least – they are actually part of France.

Along with next-door Sussex, Kent has been rolled in with the Calais area on a map drawn up for Brussels.

The Tories accused the EU of plotting to undermine nation states and even “wipe Britain off the map”.

Never failing to use the E.U. to make domestic capital, Eric Pickles claimed:

“Under the Labour Government, Britain has already been subdivided into regions as part of John Prescott’s empire building.

“I fear Eurocrats could literally wipe Britain off the map and hardworking families and pensioners should be concerned that Europe wants the authority to build a database of their homes – this threatens to lead to an EU-wide property tax.

The Daily Telegraph reported the same development thus:

New EU map makes Kent part of same ‘nation’ as France

They have tried to redraw the map of Europe before. Now a German-led “conspiracy of cartographers” stands accused of trying to use a new European Union directive to give Brussels the power to change national boundaries.

Under the changes, those living in Kent and East Sussex would find themselves not inhabitants of Britain, but the TransManche region, where their fellow citizens would not be their English-speaking neighbours but the French-speaking population of northern France.

North of the TransManche would be the North Sea region, taking in all of eastern England and vast areas of Scandinavia, Germany and the Low Countries.

Western Britain and Ireland would become the Atlantic region, a huge zone that also takes in parts of France, Spain and Portugal.

Perhaps most bizarre would be the Northern Periphery region, lumping together the population of north-west Scotland with their very distant cousins in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Greenland and Iceland.

The barely-disguised xenophobia made no attempt at balance, barely even at accuracy, beyond a footnote to the effect that the Euro-regions were largely intended to co-ordinate economic, environmental and transport planning, and that they were chaired by local authorities. There was no attempt whatsoever to consider why such co-operation might have been beneficial.

No matter that plenty of people in northern Scotland do not consider Scandinavians to be ‘very distant’ cousins, or that there is already a healthy cultural exchange going on between the ‘Celtic fringe’ nations of Europe.

The implications of such reporting for British perceptions of Europe hardly needs further explaining.

Our failure in Europe became a self-fulfilling prophesy. Had we joined Schengen and the Euro and –yes – shared the associated risk, the practical impact would have been significant. For example, the planned trains from the British regions to the continent would have remained viable because domestic passengers could have filled empty seats (as happens every day on the continent), rather than their being neurotically ‘sealed’ on departure. Without the deterrent of airline-style check-in at the Tunnel, it would become as easy to commute from say Ashford to Lille as it is across any continental border. The Channel would have become no greater barrier than the Alps. Had we joined the Euro, there would not even be the inconvenience of differing currencies.

I have a friend who lives in Basel; every day, his son used to travel to school in Germany and thought very little of it. Every day, thousands of people travel from Belgium into the Greater Lille area, from Kehl in Germany into Strasbourg, and from France into Basel and Geneva to work or shop. It is a non-event. But we British have never been allowed to find out what benefits this could bring. Our political classes have utterly failed to see that the world has moved on. Their every action still reeks of a colonial mindset where Britain’s supposed ‘sovereignty’ needs to be defended against hostile outsiders, no matter what cost to the nation. They cannot get their heads around the fact that Britain is now – and should be – just one amongst the many partner-nations in Europe. They never even got round to removing European Affairs from the Foreign Office. Which says it all.

In fact, the real issue here is the refusal of the British Establishment to relinquish power even when it is clearly in the nation’s interest. We see the same thing evident in their reluctance to move power down the scale to the regions as well. It is all about keeping maximum power in Whitehall.

I believe we would be in a very different place now, had British opinion-formers decided to commit to the European marriage rather than remaining the frigid, stand-offish partner who only ever wanted to remain single anyway.

It is true that as an island nation, we Brits probably had more work to do to get used to our new marriage: visiting the in-laws is rather more involved than walking across a bridge. But had those in government taken a different line, by now we would be seeing the benefits of a seamless relationship with our partners.

Instead of declining post-Tunnel, the channel ports might have connected and thrived – and the shameless Brexit-disdain that the residents of Dover have shown for their opposite numbers in Calais might never have happened.

Opinion & Thought, Sartoria

The God of Small Things

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It may seem rather pathetic that an established teacher, with many years’ experience and a professional blog to his name should be reduced to blogging about…. socks. But in the year since I stopped working, certain things have come into sharper perspective. Even though I worked hard to prevent it, I hadn’t realised the extent to which a regular sixty-hour week comes to dominate your life. Even while not at work, or travelling the thirty miles to and from school, much time was spent chewing over professional matters. Pretty much everything else was shoe-horned in around the edges, at least mentally, even when I was supposedly doing other things. It did me no good.

So it is remarkably pleasurable to be able to get up in the morning and have the time actually consider what clothes I want to wear, rather than just flinging on the usual work-compliant suit and tie. I have always enjoyed men’s style, and even tried to carry this through to the rough-and-tumble of the school environment. I felt it was part of setting a good example, and maintaining high personal standards.

But now I can appreciate such niceties for their own sake, along with the pleasures of fresh morning coffee or an autumn walk. For reasons unknown to me at the time, during my period of convalescence I had the urge to renew my wardrobe, and again I have had time to choose carefully. It was remarkably cathartic.

Bresciani socks are about as good as they get, being made from top-quality materials by a skilled manufacturer in Italy. There are few outlets that retail them in the U.K., but a good choice can be had from meschausettesrouges.com in Paris. Twenty pounds for a pair of socks may seem outrageous, but as with many beautiful things, it is only when you receive them that one can appreciate the craftsmanship, the excellent fit, and the superb materials. So the price perhaps becomes a small one to pay for a small taste of excellence, and the fact that the article itself is so mundane somehow adds to the pleasure.

It’s easy to sneer at such apparent vanity, but it occurred to me that there is a deeper and more significant point here. The key to appreciating fine things is a willingness to see rather than just look, to sense and savour the material qualities of the world around us rather than taking them for granted. To stop what one is doing and just appreciate our sensory surroundings is akin to the ‘living in the moment’ that Mindfulness promotes as an antidote to mental angst. It is a tendency that can be developed with practice. I think it works – it is not shamelessly materialistic to appreciate the sensory qualities of material things – and all it takes is the time and restraint to stop and do so. In fact, the appreciation of what one has, rather than envy at what one does not, is the antithesis of the status anxiety that afflicts so many lives.

But that, I fear, is the one thing hassled modern lives deprive us of: the time to stand and stare (or feel). I suspect it is also what we hurried north-Europeans yearn for in our envious perceptions of the South – the time for the leisurely savouring of life’s pleasures, in a way our cold-climate Protestant-ethic culture does not really encourage. And the more you do it, the more one learns to value superior quality, not in the envious sense, but simply for the extra pleasure it brings. I suspect that is the secret of southern European brio, and it is a cultural meme that we would do well to learn.

Much of modern life seems to me to thrive on dissatisfaction and anxiety; instead of devoting time to fire-fighting on mental health matters, maybe it would be better to dedicate good time to the appreciation of the small pleasures in life that might make emergency action less necessary.

Like an innocent appreciation of the simple, tactile pleasures of a small piece of beautiful fabric.

https://www.meschaussettesrouges.com/en/  (usual disclaimer)

 

 

Food, Travel

If dinner’s good, life is good.

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A wet Wednesday afternoon in Bournemouth. The day was being frustratingly spent almost failing to communicate with the elderly relative we were visiting in a nearby care home. (We eventually pinned the problem down to dead hearing-aid batteries, but it was hard work…) On top of two hours of rather tiresome cross-country travelling to make the visit, it was proving hard on my still-tender head.

We sought a breather in a local pizza restaurant which we knew, and just as we started to walk, the heavens opened. We reached the restaurant in its rather uninspiring side-street and sat there, the only people eating in, while the kitchen staff chatted away brightly in Italian; that was enough for things to start looking up. The guy doing the home-delivery runs was working on double, though. It’s a popular place.

A couple of glasses of decent red arrived, followed by a bowl of olives and eventually the excellent wood-oven pizzas we had been looking forward to. I’ve eaten enough pizzas in my life, including all over Italy, to know when I’m getting a good one; forget the chains (Pizza Express probably excepted) – there is nothing like a properly-made, wood-cooked pizza. You need a puffy, springy base, a well-judged topping, and that unmistakeable wood-charred flavour.

Just as we started to eat, the door opened and a dark-skinned man wearing a Ryan Air crew tabard entered. He spoke to the chefs in Italian and proceeded to check out the quality of their dough. He was a good way from the airport, so we assumed he has sought the place out deliberately while on an away shift. All seemed to meet his approval, and he eventually went away with his pizza in a box.

We followed the pizzas with a dollop of home-made tiramisu and espresso. The day was looking much better and we returned to the fray at the care home in much higher spirits. If you know that you are going to eat well, then most things are manageable. We have a collection of such hide-aways around this and other countries, and we like to return to them when we can. Nothing pretentious or expensive, just decent honest food that knocks spots off the ubiquitous chains. All just a matter of a little discrimination and detective-work.

I don’t know what Brexiteers find so abhorrent about having other nationals in our midst. The musical patter of Italian, and the serendipitous cameo of a culture that is still discriminating enough to check out the quality of the dough in a takeaway pizza brought a little Italian sun into an otherwise dank and difficult September afternoon. Diversity is fine by me – bring it on!

http://bournemouthpizza.co.uk/

(usual disclaimer)

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Arts, Architecture & Design, Opinion & Thought

What’s the use of design porn?

 

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John Pawson apartment, Tel Aviv

If you have ever looked at a piece of ‘design’ that has just blown you away – then you will know about Design Porn. For all the vestigial Puritan in us might niggle that the material world is immaterial, things do have the ability to affect us, sometimes deeply.  In fact, the media are now so skilled at exploiting this that almost anything can be presented as deeply desirable: objective clear.

But you might also have noticed, if you look at published interiors of this type, that they rarely if ever feature human beings. The minimal modern interior is at its best when there are no human forms to sully the perfection. Even in the odd instance where a body does appear, it is usually a fey someone dressed all in black or white and reduced to an impressionistic blur. I wonder if anyone really lives like that.

It’s not difficult to become cynical about this: the images presented are not so much habitable interiors as pure art, the interior as sculpture, the whole purpose of which is the perfect image, not a place in which to live.

It’s also worth remembering that most interior photo-shoots are arranged by architects and designers and take place before the space concerned has been occupied. It is therefore free of the detritus of everyday life, and indeed the scuffs and marks that its simply being inhabited will bring.

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Does this mean that it is all an illusion? Or perhaps even a delusion? I don’t think so. I find images of design perfection uplifting – because they can be, so long as you accept them for what they are: inspiration, glimpses of a life you might conceivably lead, if only the messiness of real life didn’t get in the way. It does no harm to dream. And as Elisabetta Risatto, owner of the blog Italian Bark[i] says, most people she encounters as a designer have not the first clue what they really like. Visualisations of perfection can help, as long as they don’t intimidate.

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Modernism was not conceived for a billionaire’s luxury show-piece; its origins lie in the Bauhaus and mid-century Scandinavian belief in functional, democratic design for all. Eero Saarinen designed sanatoria in the modernist style fully believing in the health benefits of clean, pared back, wholesome living in this case for ill people. The Bauhaus also revolved around a democratic mass-production ethic so it’s ironic that many of the best modernist pieces have become so sought-after that they have been priced out of the reach of most ordinary mortals. There are plenty of sources of more affordable items in the same mould; the bamboo bowl above, for example cost just a few pounds. And maybe the odd signature-piece is worth the lifetime-investment.

Our own home is inspired by the minimalist wonders one sees in the press and online; I say ‘inspired’ because I don’t have the means to acquire the super-models that are frequently featured – and we do live in it full-time. I sometimes wonder what those trophy homes look like once they are occupied by people who presumably can’t help but be as imperfectly human as the rest of us, whatever the size of their bank-balance; what kind of lives do the owners of those places lead? Or maybe the point is, they are never occupied, being merely investment items of those who have far more money than sense – again rather against the spirit of the original modernism.

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We have tried to make our modest space beautiful in our own eyes, and it is uplifting just to be in, on a sunny early-autumn morning like today’s. Except for the header, the pictures accompanying this piece were taken there, and you have my promise that other than a little lighting-balancing, no tricks have been played with them. I think we have proved, at least to our own satisfaction that minimal-ish modernism is a liveable, practicable style. Visitors to our home often tell us that they like it, but could somehow “never do that” themselves. But we do well enough for our own satisfaction, and come close enough to the ideal that our home is mostly a calm, relaxing and aesthetically-rich place to be. I will also add that our budget, while not tiny, is certainly not that of a trophy-home owner. That doesn’t matter: what is more important is not just to look but to see the aesthetic potential that is all around you. Pictures of perfection can help that process.

This style also has the practical benefit of being easy to clean. If only we could teach the cat to be tidy…

[i]  https://www.italianbark.com

Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

Notes from beyond 4: Are we all together in this?

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If Gaby Hinsliff is to be believed, it seems as I’m not so much on the scrap-heap as in the vanguard of a revolution against the long-hours culture. If she’s right, people are tiring of the amount of time they are being required to give to their employers. Of course, there’s more to it than that, particularly in a vocation like teaching – but it is possible that a combination of stagnant wages, the country’s ever-growing wealth disparity and the sense that those in charge really don’t care very much really is causing the blinkers to fall.

In my case, I put my all into my career for thirty years, to an extent to which that was so is really only apparent now I have stopped. It is what we were told we should do – by people whom, it turns out were offering illusory rewards, and who were interested…

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