Italy. Oh, Italy.
My two experiences of actually being there were both awful, throbbing loudly in my memory as:
(1) Being flown out to a five star hotel near Rome for the launch of an incredibly tedious Volvo cabriolet of some description, missing the car-hack freebie outing to dinner at a vineyard (whence Jeremy Clarkson returned, braying, with a complimentary six-pack of vino) and being served tinned fruit in a cold and deserted dining room. Not even with custard. Next day we sweated a lump of crop-topped Swedish steel to the Coliseum, endlessly circling what is essentially, a large and very ruined roundabout. Give me the Whirlies in East Kilbride.
We drove out into the countryside where we lunched at a roadside caff on what I assumed was a local delicacy - blue bread. But no, it was just a mouldy loaf served by staff ingrained with laziness or malevolence. I did get a Volvo pen. Launching a Swedish car in Italy - presumably an attempt to absorb some Latin glamour - only resulted in my falling out with my TV crew, falling out with Italy, and falling out of bed while trying to get into it, drunk. A typical motoring press launch in other words.
(2) Going on holiday with wife and daughter to ‘Tuscany’. We were a day too late. It was October, and everything was shut. The holiday complex swimming pool was empty, which was probably wise as the weather was dreadful. It was plumb in the middle of stubbled fields and mad hunters with shotguns tried to annihilate sparrows in the fields below our windows. The supermarkets were hideously expensive, the restaurants were closed, closing or wished they were closed, and most of ‘Tuscany’ consisted of industrial estates connected by motorways which were, admittedly, lined with nice trees. And then there was Florence - The city of expensive queues; Pisa - the City of rip-off car parking and tippy tower tat, and Lucca. Lucca, walled town of surpassing quaintness where I almost had a nervous breakdown trying to escape its winding lanes in a rented VW Golf. A year after the event, I was pursued through the courts by the Lucca council which claimed I’d committed a traffic offence (driving in a Luccals-only area). And yes, to grind a cliché into the red Tuscan earth, the traffic was universally psychotic and the inhabitants ridiculously rude. The coffee was average and the cakes only bearable.
The thing is, I love Italian food. Or the kind you don't get in Italy. My favourite eating-out experiences are Glescatalian: La Lanterna, about as traditional a checked-tablecloth establishment as you could hope for, even if it doesn’t actually have checked tablecloths. Fast, careful, honest, generous food. My first pizza ever was in O Solo Mio. I lament the passing of super-rude, occasionally sloppy Dino’s, wish Fratelli Sarti had waiters who respected their customers, love late night espresso in Byres Road’s Little Italy.
Then I went to Big Italy and hated it.
Then I went to Big Italy and hated it.
At home, I cook basic Bolognese, and that’s it. Of late I’ve been avoiding Lerwick and shopping at our local community store, and consequently ingredients have been limited. Today, though, there was fresh beef mince, but I couldn’t be bothered cooking properly and bought a jar of what I thought was Dolmio creamy stove-top fakery sauce. Which I promptly smashed on the floor next to the counter. There was another one on the shelf, though, and I headed home, there to find that it was actually Dolmio cartoon pasta bake treatment splodge. And if there’s one thing I hate, it’s pasta bake, which is to Italian food what The Velvet Underground is to Good Rock.
So I thought: thin this out, add some red wine, maybe an Oxo cube, tin of carrots, chopped, bit of finger (human; I’ve grown clumsy of late. It’s the heart drugs I think) But it didn’t look right. What about lasagne, which is pasta bake only done properly? Except I’d never made it before, having gone off lasagne since destroying a tooth on something of that name served up superheated (by microwave) in Lerwick’s Islesburgh Centre. It was like biting Araldite, only more destructive. Molars splintered. Dentists rejoiced.
Back in the present, something had to be done to encase, or at least disguise this dull opaque brown mincey stuff bobbling stickily in a wok. I’m no pot bigot.
Quick net surf: Avoid Jamie - the site’s rubbish, stop this wide boy joking, matey, I’m in the middle of a food emergency. BBC - bechamel sauce. OK. Call it cheese. Flour, butter, milk, cheese (whatever’s handy) half a Knorr veggie cube. More cheese. No net recipe explains how you layer this stuff up. Whatever, I found a packet of old ‘oven ready’ lasagne sheets (somebody in this house has made lasagne in the past; not me), and then just tiled a dish, added the mince, more tiles, white stuff, tiles, white stuff on top.
Oven at 180, half an hour, waiting for Susan to come home, thinking: I have absolutely no idea how this will taste.
It was fantastic. Better than anything I ate in Italy. But then, that's no surprise. And according to Susan: “probably your best tea ever”. Huh. Bet she says that to all the cooks.