Friday, July 26, 2013

Three words I love in the French language

What I love about French, is that there are certain words and phrases that simply don't translate squarely and adequately into English. Here are three of my favourites:

1. Bon appetit

When I'm dining in the company of French people, we will always say to each other "Bon app!", before eating. Sometimes they will ask me what the equivalent words are in Australia. Perhaps "Enjoy!", "Dig in!" or "Let's eat some bloody fuckin' tucker!" could be considered as similar, but I'm always disappointed to admit that no single expression is widely used to start a meal in Australian culture.

This is one of my favourite phrases because when you wish somebody "Bon appetit", you are saying to that person "I hope you have a good appetite", or to put it more simply, "I hope that you are hungry." And it seems a fairly odd thing to want for somebody, doesn't it? As if you are wishing somebody ill, for them to suffer, almost. Because in my personal opinion, to be hungry (particularly when your fridge is empty and the supermarket is closed) is to endure unbearable suffering.

But this little expression holds the secret to enjoying food. You cannot enjoy eating if you are already full. You cannot experience the satisfaction of feeding your hunger if you had none to begin with. You are wishing that person a good appetite so that they will enjoy their experience of eating all the more.

And in a similar way, life is nothing unless you are empty in some way. It is the emptiness, the hungriness, that makes us search for what we lack, that makes us move and grow and discover what we've been missing. And when you find what it is you've been searching for, it tastes a thousand times sweeter, because you were hungry for it.

2. Tu vas me manquer

It makes me cringe to think about how many times I intended to say, "I will miss you!" to a French-speaking person, but actually said to them: "You will miss me!" in my first few years of learning the language. In English, the verb "to miss" is comes before the object of the verb. For example:

"I miss you."

However, in French, the order is reversed. This is because the verb "manquer" translates into "to be missing", like the way a jigsaw piece is missing from a puzzle, or a man with a missing leg. You have something that is complete, and the component that you take away is missing. So, the above phrase in French would be:

"Tu me manques."

Which directly translates into: 

"You are missing from me."

In a week's time, I will be leaving France, and I won't be coming back for a while. I actually thought I had left for good three weeks ago, when I left for Italy. I spent two weeks there, and had intended to continue on from Pisa towards the capital, when I met someone who was going in the opposite direction to me, towards Spain, passing through the south of France. And just like that, I scrapped my plans to see Siena, Rome and Naples and took a 12-hour long train journey with him, back to Toulon.

Even though I was loving Italy, even though I was meeting amazing people, having a blast, even though I was eating pizza, pasta and gelato daily, something was missing. I didn't just miss France. France was missing from me. It had become a part of me - the culture and the people and the food and the language, all of it. Everything about France had gotten under my skin, and because I wasn't there, I felt hollow. And it will stay that way when I return to Australia and struggle to find a good baguette, cry over the price of cheese and realise that I am very, very far away from all the lovely French people I've met this year.

This is where the third expression comes in.

3. Au revoir

If you look up this word in a dictionary, it will show up with the English meaning: "Goodbye". However, a direct translation would be more like: "Until the next time that we see each other."

I like this. I like the thought that even though it might be the last time two people see each other, the words that they are uttering imply that some time in the future, they will meet again. The English word "Goodbye" seems so abrupt, so final, so sad.

So next week, when I cross over the border between Italy and France near Ventimiglia, I'll look out the window of my train carriage, but I won't be saying "goodbye". I will look back as the train continues on and say "Au revoir", because I know that one day soon, I'll be back.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Real Foodies: Vinaino di Parte Guelfa

Vinaino di Parte Guelfa
Via Val di Lamona, 6
501000 Florence

+33 055 287876

Figure 1: The Duomo

Just over a week ago, I arrived in Florence, Italy with a heavy backpack, an emerging sunburn and an empty belly. I checked into my hostel and met my new roommate Madison, who also had the munchies. Two minutes later we were headed to a panini shop he had been recommended.

Figure 2: Street view

For some reason it took us about 10 minutes to find the place, despite the fact that it was directly in front of our hostel. To be fair it was a little hidden from the main square in a small alleyway, like all good places in Europe are. You walk in and there's sausages and cured legs and garlic hanging from the ceiling, the display cabinet is stacked with huge wheels and wedges of cheese, and there's a little shelf which holds little dishes of pesto, sundried tomatoes in oil and other condiments.

Figure 3: Leonardo and Luca

Figure 4: Hung

Madison and I got a panini each - a prosciutto panini for him, and a freshly sliced porchetta panini for me. And after my first bite of that sumptuous, tasty roast pork, I decided I would come back in the next few days to interview them. Never in my life have I enjoyed a sandwich that much.

Photos of Vinaino di Parte Guelfa, Florence
This photo of Vinaino di Parte Guelfa is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Figure 5: Paradise in a panini (taken from

I showed up at their shop around 5pm on my last day in Florence, with a list of questions and all the zeal of an excitable food blogger. I had forgotten, however, in my enthusiasm that I don't speak Italian and they don't speak English. So we spent a tedious but delightful twenty minutes on the interview, slowly but surely making our way through each question, switching between English, French, charades and even a little Spanish thrown in for luck.

Figure 6: I want one of these for my birthday

So here's what I managed to get, with the language barrier working against me: Luca and Leonardo are brothers-in-law (and not "brothers in love" as I originally understood). They've had their sandwich shop for 5 years. Both of them have lived in Italy all their lives, and are originally from Florence. Before they opened their shop, they were both chefs in Italian restaurants. When I asked them why they decided to open a Panini shop, Leonardo said: "Dreaming for a long, long time." 

Luca and Leonardo say that the best thing about their job is their contact with the public. Perhaps this is why they decided to leave their busy restaurants to open a small eatery - as soon as a customer walks into their panini shop, they get to talk to them directly about what they want. The customer watches them make their food, and will usually eat their panini on the little stools just in front of the counter. Most chefs will never see the faces of the people who eat their food. I imagine that this closeness with their clients brings Luca and Leonardo much pleasure. 

Figure 7: Me and Leonardo (Luca's taking the picture)

The question that we spent the most time on was Question 7: What do you hate about your job? Luca and Leonardo looked at each other and spent a good five whole minutes shrugging, scratching their chins, frowning, and saying things like "Ah..." and "Hmmm..." while I waited patiently. Finally, I offered: "Niente?", and they threw their hands in the air with delight and said: "Niente! Ah, si, si, niente! Niente, niente, niente, niente..." 

And here's a tip: their favourite panini is made from the three following ingredients: porchetta (moist Italian roast pork), caprino (a type of goat's cheese) and pomodori secchi (dried tomato). You know what to do. 

Figure 8: Sunset over Florence from Ponto Vecchio

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Real Foodies: Chez Gringo

Every once in a while, I will find myself at a restaurant or café that really stands out from the crowd. And while I'm sitting there eating my meal, I always have the urge to burst into the back kitchen, brandishing my fork, to ask: "Hey there. I just ate those ribs you cooked. So who are you? Why are you here? And how on earth did you make that meat so damn freaking tasty?"

Last semester in Dijon I took a couple of entrepreneurship units alongside food and wine studies, which only compounded my curiosity in how food establishments come into existence. So this little piece is the first of my "Real Foodies" series - articles about the people behind the food you eat. Because food is nothing, absolutely nothing, unless you've got an insanely passionate (or passionately insane) foodie cooking it.

Chez Gringo
25 Rue de la Comédie
8300 Toulon

+33 (0) 4 94 63 13 35

Figure 1: Brendan and his dog, Levi

This is Brendan. The first time I met Brendan was when I was in my hostel, playing piano with Charles. Brendan walks in with two helpers and gave us some flyers for his new Cali-Mex restaurant not far away. He chatted with us a little, told us a bit about his restaurant, then mentioned that he makes, amongst other things... guacamole. I die, for guacamole. And at that point in time, it had been six months, since I had had, guacamole. Naturally, I showed up at 8pm that night with six people I'd dragged along for some tucker.

And since that first meal at Chez Gringo, I've never looked back. In fact, I've tried everything on the menu.

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Figure 2: Guacamole and tortilla chips

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Figure 3: Shrimp quesadillas

Figure 4: Chez Gringo terrace

I got to sit down with Brendan and chat about his food after lunch service one day. Basic Brendan info is as follows: he moved to Toulon recently from California, where he had several jobs. His life basically consisted of doing a variety of awesome things according to the season. He worked for a fly fishing guide service called "Dipper Fly Fishing", worked at a ski resort and also worked at Woah Nellie Deli (the most famous gas station in America).

Speaking about his life back in the States, it seemed to me like Brendan had it going pretty good for him: a life of fishing, skiing and cooking. When I asked him why he would want to leave such a comfortable life, he said to me: "When a bum lays down on a cardboard box and goes to sleep at night, he's comfortable. I don't want to be comfortable."

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Figure 5: Levi chilling out

When you come to Brendan's restaurant, you can expect a relaxed, completely unpretentious atmosphere and good, home-cooked food (he makes his food the way he'd like to eat it, he says). You'll also see a group of people enjoying his food on the terrace outside, many of them regulars who are locals in Toulon. When there aren't so many customers around, maybe you might even find Brendan's dog Levi plodding around the restaurant, lying on the tiles to cool off, looking adorable (he loves it when you rub his belly). Above all you will feel like you're just hanging out at Brendan's place, which is why the name of his restaurant Chez Gringo is so fitting. He's just gotten a piano too, which customers can play.

Brendan's worked hard for all he has achieved. "I kicked myself every day when I got here, for giving up everything I had back in America. I didn't speak a word of French. I hated the paperwork. I did the dishes, I did the groceries, I struggled with the accounting... But this is a new adventure for me. It's win-win. If I'm successful here, all the better. But if I fail, at least I can say that I had a restaurant here in the South of France for a period of time, and I loved it." 

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Figure 6: Cote à l'os

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Figure 7: Chocolate mousse made with a secret ingredient

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Figure 8: Traditional slider

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Figure 9: Team Chicag' at Chez Gringo

I've always had a little dream to one day open my own foodie haven. So to be able to sit down and talk to someone who's gone ahead and done that is nothing short of an inspiring experience. So if you're in Toulon any time soon and are craving tacos, sliders, or guacamole like me, drop in to see Brendan and say hi to him for me. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A Fairytale: Sirmione

Figure 1: The exact same VHS cover that I have at home

When I was six years old, my favourite movie in the world was The Swan Princess, based on Tchaikovsky's ballet, Swan Lake. It tells the story of Prince Derek and Princess Odette who are forced by their parents to spend every summer together, in hopes that they will fall in love. But the evil Rothbart casts a spell upon Odette: until someone makes her a vow of everlasting love, Odette will remain a swan during the day, only returning to human form at night. And of course, Derek comes galloping in on his horse, slays Rothbart, pledges his love to Odette, and they live happily ever after in a magnificent castle.

I couldn't tell you exactly how many times I watched it. But let's just say I watched it so many times that, to this day, I still know every single word to this song:

Figure 2: This Is My Idea, the first song of the Swan Princess soundtrack 

So when I got to Sirmione, I couldn't help but feel like I was walking around inside a fairytale. At twilight, I sat at the foot of the castle and watched white swans glide over the lake, with the Alps in the distance that turn a powdery-blue when the sun sets.

Figure 3: Lake Garda 

Figure 4: Sirmione Ccastle

Figure 5: Sunbaking, European style

Not only did I have the fairytale surroundings, but I also had a fairy godmother: the lovely Elisabetta, who invited me to stay at her place during my stay in Sirmione. When I arrived on Saturday afternoon,  I discovered that not only does she have a gorgeous apartment overlooking the lake - her family also owns an Italian restaurant in Sirmione, as well as three gelaterias (Italian ice cream shops). Our conversation wens something like this:

"Holy shit are you freakin' kidding me?!" 
"No, I'm serious! Go unpack your things, then come and try some ice cream."
"Which flavours should I try?"
"You can just try all of them."

And I cannot think of another moment in my life when it has felt so, so good to be alive. 

The Bounty 
Ristorante Pizzeria and Gelateria
Piazza Costello 30/32
Sirmione, Brescia
+33 30 916009

Figure 6: Not a bad location

Dinnertime came, and I took a table outside Elisabetta's gelateria so we could chat when the shop wasn't too busy. Without opening the menu, I asked her which pasta I should order, and she told me to get either the Tortelli di zucca al burro e salvia (pumpkin tortelli with butter and sage) or Tagliatelle ai fungi porcini (tagliatelle with porcini mushrooms). When I told her I couldn't choose, she said she would just ask the chef to put a little bit of both on my plate. 

Figure 6: Just for me!

I was shortly presented with a beautiful plate of golden, fragrant pasta garnished with fresh herbs. The tagliatelle was excellent, but that tortelli was somethin' else. Elisabetta was worried I might not like it, apparently not many tourists do. But I loved it. I loved everything about it, from the sweet, aromatic pumpkin filling to the perfectly cooked al dente pasta surrounding it. It was a perfect balance of sweet and savoury flavours. I never wanted those five pieces of tortelli to end.

Figure 8: Freshly cooked seafood pasta

The next day I also got to try the Maccheroncini ai gamberi, pomodoro fresco e basilico (maccheroncini with prawns, fresh tomatoes and basil). A classic Italian recipe, fairly light and perfect for summer. The natural sweetness of the prawns were brought out by the tomato sauce, and freshly chopped basil scattered on top sealed the deal. 

Figure 9: Mine, all mine!

Figure 10: Happiness in a cone

In the two days I spent in Sirmione, I probably ate enough ice cream to fill a small fish tank. On my first day, after tasting more flavours than I could count, Elisabetta bestowed unto me a waffle cone with one scoop of Dark Chocolate and one scoop of Mandarin Choc Chip. And I sat outside the gelateria with this monster dessert, eating the ice cream slowly with my little plastic spoon, then demolishing the cone until there was nothing left. If you ever go to Sirmione, find her shop and make sure you try the Amaretto, Peppermint and a couple of fruit flavours too. All of her ice cream is artisanal, and they use real fruit in everything.

Figure 11: Grazie mille, bella! 

On my last night in Sirmione, Elisabetta, her friends and I sat outside the restaurant having drinks. Time was passed talking and laughing while I tried to understand their language and they tried to understand my accent. As well as educating me on Italian food, language and what Italians think of the French (don't ask), they also taught me how to say "posso avere un spritz per favore", which I'm sure will serve me well during my travels over the next couple of weeks. 

Grazie mille, Elisabetta! For sharing your home with me, and for spoiling me rotten. See you in Australia!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

24 hours in: Verona

Figure 1: Summer sunlight over Verona and the Adige River

I have been in Verona, Italy for just over 24 hours. And yet, I have still managed to eat gelato, prosciutto, pancetta, mozzarella, spaghetti and some Italian wine. I also managed to get lost en route to my friend's place, and had to stop at a local fruit and vegetable store to ask (mostly using sign language) to use the landline. In a true gesture of Italian hospitality, the jolly greengrocer actually made the call on my behalf and gave my friend directions (in passionate, animated Italian) on how to find the street we were on. To return the favour, I grabbed a little wicker basket and filled it with fresh fruit - peaches, strawberries, apples, watermelon. When I got to the counter, the greengrocer smiled and said: "Niente, Belinda!", and wouldn't take my money no matter how hard I tried. He then proceeded to top up my bag with cherries from the large wooden box sitting next to the counter. 

Figure 2: Piazza dell'Erbe 

Figure 3: Piazza Bra

Woke up around midday after an epic sleep-in (I was exhausted, it took 4 trains and 12 hours to get here from Toulon) and in the afternoon I set out to explore the old city of Verona. It's beautiful, especially the view from the northern side of the Adige River up on the hill. While walking through Piazza dell'Erbe today I got my first "Ciao, Bella!" and got kinda excited about it. But by the 15th one I was a bit fed up, I'll admit. 

I just had to go see the Casa di Giulietta, even if it is supposed to be a phoney tourist-trap. It was a little hard to feel the romantic vibes, surrounded by not one, not two, but three different Chinese tour groups, each guide armed with a megaphone and a colourful stuffed toys on a sticks (for visibility, naturally). It was nice to visualise the Shakespeare scene taking place though.

"But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliette is the sun." 

Figure 4: Casa di Giulietta 

Figure 5: Juliette's statue, with all the tourists cropped out

Figure 6: Now that's what I call true love

My Italian friend here in Verona is Alessio: engineer by day, sky-diver-kick-boxer-snake-fanatic-skate-boarder by night. There is never a dull moment around this guy, and even better, he hasn't stopped cooking for me since I arrived. I keep making feeble attempts to offer to cook him a meal, but to be honest, I'd be quite happy if he just kept going. 

And if this is the treatment I get after just one day in Italy, then gee, I'm pretty excited to find out what else is waiting for me for the next four weeks in this country!

Figure 7: First dinner in Italy - Spaghetti aglio olio e peperoncino and a glass of Ripasso

Figure 8: Second dinner - meat, glorious meat!

Figure 9: Pan fried thick-cut prosciutto, Italian sausage and cheese

Figure 10: Steak from heaven

Piadina (Alessio's way)
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Serves 2

Alessio tells me that Piadina comes from the Romagna region of Northern Italy, and wealthy people back in the day used to eat the filling but not the bread - only peasants ate the bread. Fillings vary, but this is how Alessio likes it. 

  • 2 pieces of piadina (Italian flatbread)
  • 10 thin slices of pancetta arrotolata (rolled pancetta)
  • 2 large handfuls of tatsoi (the small, round-leafed lettuce)
  • 2 small balls of mozzarella 
  • Olive oil, salt and pepper
  1. Slice the mozzarella into half centimeter slices. 
  2. Toss the mozzarella with the tatsoi, some olive oil, salt and pepper in a bowl. 
  3. Heat up a stove-top grill pan or a saucepan large enough to fit the piadini.
  4. Place a piadini on the grill. In one half of the piadini, lay down pieces of the mozzarella, cover with the tatsoi leaves, the top with pieces of pancetta. Fold it over to make a sandwich. 
  5. When the bottom is toasted, flip it and toast the other side. Serve hot. 

Figure 11: Cured meat? Check. 

Figure 12: Fuck napkins

Figure 13: Beautiful colour 

Figure 14: Simple, delicious lunch

Figure 15: Leisurely evening stroll with Nietzsche