Food, Opinion & Thought, Politics and current affairs

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One perhaps might have expected Sprezzatura to be mourning the loss of Patisserie Valerie – but I can’t. It occurred to me that the company’s recent difficulties are symptomatic of the bigger issues swilling around in British civil life at present.

What started out in 1926 as a single, much-loved cafe founded by the eponymous Belgian émigrée spawned several other branches in London without losing too much of its historic character. I only visited once, but it was like walking off a London street straight into a small corner of northern France. But then it was taken over by an ‘entrepreneur’. Eventually a large share was sold to venture capitalists, and it was rolled out as a chain of some 200 outlets. It became a shadow of what it had been, little more than a themed pastiche of the original. As David Mitchell wrote in The Observer, like all chains, the original cafe’s identity became little more than a watered-down ‘front’ for yet another cash-conveyer for big business.

As I have bemoaned before, the same fate befell Costa Coffee a couple of decades ago. What had been characterful, family-run Italian coffee bars beamed down in London was acquired by Whitbread, and turned into the clone empire that we see today. To be fair, in both cases the quality of the product has not suffered too much, though I have always bemoaned the lack of alcohol in some of Valerie’s offerings: Black Forest gateau is just not the same without (expensive) kirsch. Costa’s coffee remains markedly better than its competitors, despite its susceptibility for the usual marketing-led seasonal gimmicks. (Drive-through Costa, on the other hand, is just too far removed from the real culture of coffee not to be an abomination).

The intangible character of both institutions, which played an essential if indefinable part in making them what they were, has been utterly obliterated beneath the disposable stage-dressing of the corporate shop-fit. As Mitchell says, the identity of chain outlets is essentially interchangeable; in aesthetic terms, there is nothing to stop a Valerie becoming a Pizza Hut next week and a McDonald’s the week after. It is all just window-dressing; the honest, unique character has gone forever, as have the eccentricities that corporate-land just doesn’t understand and can’t tolerate. With what’s left, Established 1926 is now close to being just another corporate lie.

It is perhaps no surprise, too, that with the growth of the organisation far beyond the original family business, it took on corporate individuals who turned out to be fully prepared to bankrupt it in pursuit of their own wealth. Large conglomerates rarely command the loyalty that begets the integrity needed to cultivate such business in the long term.

But how is this representative of the nation’s wider woes? It seems pretty generally accepted that Brexit was motivated by the disaffection of the ‘left-behind’ classes in their hollowed-out out provincial towns. The spread of Patisserie Valerie may have brought a little panache to such places, a shallow semblance of national cohesion and democratisation – but its likely and equally summary departure will leave behind yet more empty premises.

The real problem runs deeper than that, though: by their presence in such places, chains contributed to the siphoning-off of local wealth and its transfer to large corporations. And as with Starbucks before them, they may well have killed off local businesses which, while possibly not as glossy, at least had local roots, and ploughed their income back into their communities. Being small, they also often had the character and quirkiness that no mass-produced chain can ever replicate. And by being so, they also contributed to a local sense of place. In their stead, one senses lost local autonomy – these ‘outlets’ are run by and for people a long way away, with no local knowledge or concern, each place they land on just another ‘retail opportunity’ to add to the corporate bottom line.

It has to be admitted that small businesses in France are also retreating – but the Italians seem largely to be holding out. One might also ponder the amount of employment that hundreds of small, local cafes and restaurants create – I suspect rather more, and for different people, than the chains that ousted them.

One might have welcomed the arrival of cafe culture in this country – and with it the glories of the traditional French patisserie. But in typical British style, what we actually got was large conglomerates selling watered-down facsimiles of the real thing on an industrial scale. Not at all the same thing as the multitude of such places that still give towns in France and Italy their appeal. How do they get away with it? Why will the British populace accept this, in a way which their peers in France or Italy just would not? (And come to think of it why, as Mitchell also observes, is the British mainstay not the millefeuille but the iced bun? Maybe that explains a lot…)

The emergence of these chains is explained solely by a political culture in this country that embraces big corporations with little thought for their impact on communities or local economies. That they suck wealth out of provincial centres and into metropolitan corporations is no problem for governments in thrall to The City. But it feels very different from the other end of the line: the turning of our regional centres into clone towns, dominated by large extractive businesses, feels wrong. And while even a Starbucks may be preferable to an empty building, the blighting effect of large chains on local businesses is not imaginary.

It has contributed to a very immediate, local sense that the whole country is being run by, and for the exclusive benefit of, big business – absorbing and bastardising any good concept from which it can make a buck, sweeping all before its own selfish interests, be that the quality of the Black Forest gateau or the proper employment and training of local staff. One only has to enter an independent cafe or restaurant to notice that the whole character and ethos of such places is different: somehow more authentic, more distinctive, closer to those on the continent.

To be fair, Luke Johnson (still the majority owner of Valerie) has tried to do the honourable thing, ploughing in his own wealth to save the company and its employees. But big business simply does not work in the same way as small – investors are anonymous and impersonal, and care about little other than their dividends. And with a staff of thousands, there is simply no way one can retain the personal touch.

I can’t help but feel that this corporatisation of Britain and the sterilisation of the social function of places like cafes, bars and restaurants, have contributed to the wider disaffection. Unlike the pride that a good, proprietor-owned cafe often takes in its products and its relationship with customers, chains are impersonal, transient and lacking in any real character. They could, by definition, be anywhere. People are served mass-produced, dumbed-down ‘product’ whose main purpose is to minimise corporate overheads, in bland surroundings whose main purpose is to be cheaply replicable anywhere – and easily disposable when the time comes for a corporate re-brand.

People have been given the choice between no services and corporate giants, and to anyone concerned about local distinctiveness – let alone the quality of the cake – it does all feel very wrong. It’s not surprising that people feel alienated. But we can’t absolve the wider population either: for all that the choices may have been limited, these chains have only flourished because of the indiscriminate willingness of the population to be served cheap, conveyor-belt food and drink in cardboard cut-out surroundings, when they could have been supporting authentic local alternatives.

To that extent, the nation has once again got what it deserves: a whole country that is little more than a dumbed-down clone of itself, largely run for the benefit of a few shareholders.  A rootless Anywheresville of non-communities which makes life itself feel fake – and only now, when it may be too late, is it realising the cost of its obsession with cheapness, gimmickry and its acceptance of bland uniformity.

Like the Brexit decision which resulted, it could all have been so different.

Arts, Architecture & Design, Food, Opinion & Thought, Sartoria, Travel

Anti-sprezzatura

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Anhedonia is a word that does not seem to be widely known. This is perhaps not surprising as it is a medical term, relating to the inability to feel pleasure: a kind of anti-sprezzatura.

It is a symptom widely reported in people suffering from depression, and they often describe it as feeling ‘flat’, when none of the things that normally give pleasure any longer does so. It goes hand-in-hand with a loss of motivation, and an ability to find life worth living, which is perhaps not surprising either when one thinks about what does motivate people in more normal circumstances.

It is extremely difficult to describe such experiences to those who have not had them. With anhedonia, one simply has no feelings for anything. One is left just staring at the music, food, places, possessions, experiences – and people – that one loves without any feeling of warmth, or indeed any feeling at all. But it is not the detachment of the critical thinker, more a sense that a handful of sand has been chucked into the gears of one’s mind. It is deeply unpleasant.

And at that point, one easily starts to wonder whether life is even worth living: it is bad enough not being able to feel those normal emotions, but it is compounded both by a sense of loss, and an utter inability to do anything about it. There is no point in trying to ‘jolly along’ someone in this condition, let alone telling them to ‘snap out of it’. It just can’t be done, and forced merriment is only likely to make matters worse.

I started Sprezzatura during just such an episode, which has lasted formally (i.e. diagnosed) for over two years, but which I think was incipient for a good while before that. It may seem strange to have started a blog dedicated to living well at such a time – but while the basic appreciation has always been there, amongst all the irrational things that happened during my illness, I developed a renewed appetite for all of the good things discussed in this blog. I was largely not able to derive much pleasure from them at that time, but that somehow made it all the more important to focus on them, to remind myself that they were still there – and starting this blog helped to do that.

I made significant efforts to overhaul my wardrobe (not necessarily a wise thing at a time when one is susceptible to splurging), to revisit certain recipes that I had not used in a long time, and to remind myself about the places (such as Italy) that were normally a source of great pleasure for me.

I’m pleased to say that matters have improved greatly in the last few months: I’m back playing music, making models, and enjoying most of the things I used to, though I feel the path has still not been fully travelled yet. What’s more, finally biting the bullet and making myself travel to Italy again in September proved to be a great tonic. I started to realise that forcing myself to immerse in those things may have been hard work, but it was also part of the recovery process – perhaps a form of re-wiring all of the disrupted mental circuitry.

Indeed, in some ways my appreciation is all the greater for now knowing what life is like without these things. But I also started to wonder whether there is a bigger pattern here. For all that one can catch Stendhal’s Syndrome in Italy, statistics suggest that reported incidence of chronic depression is significantly lower in Italy than in Britain. (There may of course be all sorts of cultural, as opposed to medical reasons why this is so). But listening to a group of British men a few days ago trying to out-bid each other in the bargain-basement stakes, I wondered again what it is about our national mentality that does this.

The active avoidance of anything with refinement or quality – of consciously ‘living well’ – seems to be almost a badge of honour. I suspect it has something to do with inverted snobbery and the social order in Britain, where any form of apparent ‘show’ can seem pretentious.

But eschewing things that can genuinely lift the spirit doesn’t seem like a particularly good idea to me. Ultimately, life is what you make it, and I can’t see much benefit in rejecting an honest appreciation of the better things in life, however they are defined. It need not be a matter of money: one does not have to own things in order to appreciate them, and an appreciation of quality is more a matter of how you approach things than the size of your wallet. In any case, it is quite possible to find ways around budgetary constraints – and remember, sprezzatura is as much about what you do as what you have. I am deeply puzzled by a country that sets such store by working hard and earning money, but which generally seems to have little time for appreciating the fruits of its labour.

While ironing a pair of trousers earlier today, no less, I found myself appreciating anew the fineness and craftsmanship of the Italian fabric I had chosen. It is nothing to do with show: it was (until now) an entirely private moment, a minor epiphany and reminder that the good things in life are still there, if only we can remember how to see them.

For people suffering from anhedonia, I would suggest that refocusing on your personal sprezzatura is as good a therapy as it is possible to find, even though it is hard work. And all the more reason to discover in the first place.

 

Food, Opinion & Thought, Travel

Whatever happened to the Great British food revolution?

 

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Great architecture; food less so…

 

Not so long ago, this country spent much time congratulating itself on how it had transformed itself from the culinary dunce of the modern world into its finest destination. New eateries seemed to be popping up on a weekly basis, and the quality and choice on offer was always improving. So what happened?

I have no doubt there are now many more good places to eat in Britain than used to be the case, some of which I have mentioned previously in this blog – but as always, we seem to have fallen victim to faddism, of which veganism is probably just the latest manifestation. This, in my mind, is not the transformation that was being claimed, and given the disparities I see between the foodie culture being purveyed in the media (much of which I suspect is consumed vicariously) and what trundles down the average supermarket checkout conveyor, I wonder whether anything has really changed.

For the increased niceties of the top end do not a revolution make. Far more important in my view are the daily habits of the population at large. Here at Sprezz. H.Q. I can claim with pride, but more importantly honesty, that food is prepared from scratch on a daily basis, wherever possible using fresh ingredients from the unassuming local farm shop. It is not posh food, more often than not a bowl of pasta or a salad with a few comfortable old favourites regularly thrown in for good measure. But even this may be unusual – who knows?

A recent visit to Lincoln reinforced my doubts. I hadn’t been to that city since childhood, and it was indeed a pleasant place to spend a couple of days. The cathedral and its close are very fine, and even the more mundane parts have benefitted from a seemingly-attentive local council and the arrival of one of the country’s more successful new universities.

The place clearly has some wealth (which I mention inasmuch as it may indicate the existence of foodie types), but it is by no means all gentrified. We enjoyed our couple of days there – but the one disappointment was the food. This is not a ‘pop’ at Lincoln, for I suspect the issue is equally true of most British towns; we certainly found the same to be true in Newark, where we called en route, and our local towns don’t seem to be very different either. In fact, things seem to have gone downhill in recent years. The vast majority of eateries that we found were either the usual clone-chains (which have colonised Lincoln’s pleasant waterfront as predictably as they have in Poole, Ipswich and most other places) – and those independents that we did find seemed largely intent on pretending they were chains too.

There was a preponderance of burgers (sometimes posh, sometimes not), steak, chips, and various things covered in melted cheese. Even the several eateries in our hotel were pretty much the same. To the annoyance of my wife, many of such salads as were on offer contained meat, and nothing to suggest one might ask for anything different. We tried what was reputedly the best Italian restaurant in town – which was also noisily trying to pretend it was actually a fast food joint; the food was passable but nothing special, and the service abrupt, though definitely not in the French way…. Much of the menu still came with chips, sad lettuce leaves and slices of under-ripe tomato – and if that was acclaimed at the best….

Compare this to the average French, German or Italian town, where in our experience, one has a fighting chance of finding decent, basic food even at the most average pavement cafe. The produce is fresh, the variety wide and the willingness to accommodate individual needs normally present. I know climate plays a part in this – but it is not as though imported produce is not available. And in any case, the real trick is to use local produce, of which Lincolnshire is hardly short. To be fair, there were a number of decent independent butchers and more selling local produce; it just didn’t seem to be making it into the restaurants.

On the second night, we repaired to Carluccio’s – which while a chain has at least stuck to its founder’s vision, and reliably offers good food in pleasant surroundings; in our opinion it exceeded the previous night’s experience.

Despite the nation’s crowing about its food, I suspect there is now a general decline going on. The ‘casual dining’ chains are losing customers and closing branches. I’m not surprised given the uninspiring offerings they too often have – but I’m not confident they are falling from grace in favour of superior offerings. Unfortunately, even Carluccio’s is suffering – though I was pleased to ascertain that the Lincoln branch will remain. The place needs it.

And just to conclude (partly for the benefits of the Lincolnites who may read this) this piece is not a slur on that city; we very much enjoyed our visit. It is a fine place that warrants attention, even if a little tatty round the edges. It just a happened to function as a semi-random test of the current state of public dining in the U.K. – and it would seem that other than trophy-dining at the upper end of the market, not as much has changed as we seemed to believe.

Food

Polignano from Puglia

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Chelmsford in Essex is not the most obvious place to have connections with Italy – until, perhaps, one remembers that it was here in 1898 that Guiliemo Marconi set up the world’s first radio factory and in 1910 made the world’s first public broadcast. So the precedent is good.

It is rather more of a mystery why there are Italians in the town today, for despite its recent achievement of city status, this is still – ahem! – a rather optimistic moniker for a place that is hardly Bath or York, let alone London or Los Angeles.

And yet it is using its new-found status to make the best of its fairly modest lot. When I lived there in the early 1990s, the talk was mostly of how soon one would be able to escape the boring, declining dump of a place. But today, it is lively, with a good selection of retail outlets, a busy market and the recent addition of some higher-end stores, anchored by John Lewis, that has been made possible by the easterly exodus from London of a number of financial companies and the high-earners they bring.

While John Lewis is a bonus anywhere, personally I prefer the smaller independent stores which give a place individuality – and it was by pure fluke that last weekend, while waiting for some friends, we chanced upon Polignano, tucked away in a side-street. I have already mentioned Pastaciutta, the market-place Italian kitchen – and now Chelmsford has a very genuine Italian delicatessen/eatery at the other end of its town centre too.

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Polignano seems to be a real labour of love – formed to echo the Pugliese owners’ home life – though how they came to find themselves in Essex is not explained. The place is modest in size, though with a small outdoor terrace and more tables upstairs. It has apparently been there since late 2014, yet I had never noticed. Despite this, it is one of those places that draws the attention from fifty paces – and it did not take long, peering through the windows for us to ascertain that this was no fake. Enthusiastic gestures invited us inside – where the unaffected display of cured meats, home-baked breads, marinaded aubergine slices, out-of –the-ordinary wines and less-known southern specialities on the menu led to a swift change of lunch plans.

Service was leisurely, so it was just as well we were not in a hurry, but the place was well-filled, and the quality of the food, when it appeared fully explained why. Likewise, my glass of Negroamaro was so good that I just had to buy a bottle on the way out. On his equally modest website, Marino Polignano explains that a pallet of specialities is sent fortnightly from his father in Puglia – and it shows. I wonder how many other places in Britain have cactus fruit jam on the menu. Another point of interest is that Polignano is in Italy too, where other members of the family run a restaurant and hotel.

One can only wish such a place great but limited success: it deserves much – but I hope that Marino’s ambitions are modest enough that he will not yield to the temptation to expand, as so many other ventures have over the years at the expense of the character that made them in the first place. In this case, small should definitely remain beautiful.

 

 

Food

Easter Lamb for one

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Cooking larger cuts of meat is not often a viable proposition in a two-person, half-vegetarian household. Even where there are suitable cuts, the need to produce two separate meals can be off-putting when time is short. In the last couple of years, though, I have started marking Easter with the cooking of a lamb shank. I became aware of the possibilities of what was once considered an inferior cut after a glorious meal of Welsh lamb shank braised in red wine at Yr Hen Fecws, a small restaurant-with-rooms in Portmadog, Gwynnedd.

I do like preparing casseroles, and this is very easy: just the usual base of onion, celery and carrot coarsely chopped, leeks if available (which they weren’t here due to a memory slip) and a couple or three crushed cloves of garlic. The meat is browned in oil before being removed while the vegetables are softened. The meat is then replaced, thyme and rosemary added, as is about 1/3 bottle of red wine and a little more than that by volume of meat stock. The pot is left to cook in a low oven (about 150C) for around 2 ½ hours.

Lamb has a lovely flavour, and this cut is just about right for one, served with Jersey Royal potatoes and spring vegetables.

 

Arts, Architecture & Design, Food, Travel

The High Life

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After my previous complaints about the state of Britain’s town centres it was a pleasure, a few days ago, to visit somewhere that it still getting it right. Norwich (in Eastern England) has always been a law unto itself; I lived there for a year in the mid 1980s, when it was still a haven for as many alternative and offbeat scenes as you can imagine. Being rather out-on-a-limb geographically speaking has helped: only recently has it received the mixed blessings of a dual-carriageway road to the outside world, and while a modest 200,000 in population, its position as the centre of a large and quite remote rural hinterland lends it a big-city feel.

The building of the University of East Anglia in the 1960s added to its instinctively liberal character, especially after the construction of the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, an early work of Normal Foster, put it on the map forty years ago.

Even today, while it has ‘normalised’ somewhat, Norwich is still a city of great character, of course helped by a fine medieval, Georgian and Victorian architectural legacy and a network of narrow lanes still crammed with independent shops. As was the case everywhere, the sixties and seventies were generally less kind, with the usual bland corporate construction on the margins of the city centre. However, it was to one such building that my visit took me.

I was there for a professional rendezvous, and Chris had suggested meeting at The Rooftop Gardens, a restaurant atop a six storey office block not far from the station. This really is a case of making the best of the available opportunities in a way that provincial Britain rarely manages.

There is something appealing about getting high up in a city: it’s as though one has found an eyrie, tucked away yet simultaneously with a commanding view. Even for one who struggles with heights, the reason why penthouse apartments command a premium is immediately clear: an enviable 360 degree view taking in one of the city’s two cathedrals, its many medieval churches, the castle, the handsome railway station and the whole sweep of the city on its rise in the centre of a meander of the River Wensum. It’s a pity that so many such places are resolutely private.

The restaurant itself is smooth, exuding the kind of lounge-bar appeal I have seen in similar places on the continent, even if it doesn’t quite achieve the cool of somewhere like Bar Rouge, on the 20th floor of Basel’s Messeturm. But then, it doesn’t come with the vertigo either… The food is modern British in style, attractively produced if not especially generous of portion, and the staff attentive,  even a little eager.

There are two outside seating areas, with clear screens and a large awning to mitigate the climatic extremes in what is quite an exposed position; I can imagine it is an excellent spot on summer nights. There is also the advantage that it is the one place in that part of the city from where one cannot see the rest of the host building…

While Norwich is clearly a city of some means, the essential ingredient for remaining a “fine city” (as Norwich bills itself) is making the most of one’s assets. In that, imagination and vision are as important as hard cash. This is the city that, when its library burned down some years ago, built itself a fine contemporary mediathèque in the middle of the old town. In many British towns, the missing factor seems to be any kind of vision, which can work wonders even when money is short. As I have found more locally, there is a kind of dull, downtrodden provincialism about many smaller towns, a lack of any sense of urbanisme – civic pride or sophistication that is the necessary spark for places like Rooftop Gardens. I barely need to say that one gets a far wider sense of this on much of the continent.

Norwich is one example of how a place can have the best of both worlds: a city small enough to remain personable and eminently walkable, yet big enough to achieve some sophistication.  The Rooftop Gardens an excellent example of how to capitalise on an otherwise rather doubtful 1970s ‘asset’, and as such could easily be replicated elsewhere.

 

Food

Espresso international

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The British may still (just) be a nation of tea-drinkers but trends are a-changing. In fact, there is evidence that we now drink more coffee than tea – and the generational shift has quite a lot to do with it. Britain is one of the few countries in the world where coffee consumption is still rising, whereas there has been a slow but steady decline in tea since the 1970s.

Personally, I don’t see this as zero-sum matter – but as usual the reward is not so much in what you do as how you do it. Neither plonking a cheap teabag (procedurally guilty – but at least I stick to Twinings!) nor a spoonful of equally cheap instant coffee in a mug really hits the mark. Both drinks have elaborate rituals attached to them, and while I suspect that the aforementioned procedures are the dominant ones the length and breadth of the nation, at least the growth in coffee shops means that nowhere in the land is probably more than a kilometre from a proper espresso machine now, where said rituals do exist.

The making of proper coffee repays the eye, ear and nose as well as the taste buds – (who remembers the 1980/90s adverts (for Nescafe I think) where a guy entertaining a new date goes into the kitchen and makes all the necessary noises orally, while popping instant in the cafetière?), and it is a most satisfying punctuation point on the morning, even for one who needs to restrict his caffeine intake.

Well, we do own a decent little Gaggia, and there is no instant in the house, so anyone asking for coffee here is in for a wait. It’s always worth it. I’m encouraged to have visited several other households recently where the same situation seemed to obtain. We have owned a couple such machines over the years, prior to which we used the much-loved Lavazza Principessa stove-top shown in the header photo – though the rubber seal has rather perished in the meantime meaning we get a lot of leaking steam but not much pressure.

All of which is by means of introducing a rather pleasing emporium which we found while looking to add a couple of plain Illy cappuccino cups to the roster.

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                                            https://www.espresso-international.co.uk/

The store is actually in Germany but delivery was quick and the products arrived very well-wrapped. In fact, this is a gold-mine for all things coffee-related and a little delving can be  rather bad for the wallet. Not only did we find said Illy cups (not easily available in the U.K.), but we also ended up with a couple of Lavazza ones that I had been hunting for some time. There is also a huge selection of coffee types and configurations, equipment there that you never even knew you needed, a very tempting array of coffee-related biscotti and more.

I shall be paying a return visit in due course.

(Independent review – no interest except as a satisfied customer).