So near, yet so far

THE FLIGHT FROM BANGALORE to Chennai (Madras) is short: about forty minutes flying time. Some friends collected us from the airport in Chennai, and plied us with a tasty lunch. They recommended hiring an Uber taxi to ferry us from Chennai to Pondicherry (now ‘Puducherry’), a distance of about 100 miles. After three abortive attempts, a fourth driver pitched up and we set off for Pondicherry.

Our Uber driver was excellent and drove carefully. After just over two hour’s journey southwards along the luxuriant, verdant, well cultivated coastal plain, we reached a Pondicherry check post.

From 1674 until 1954, Pondicherry and its environs was a French colony. Occasionally, it was taken over by the British, but most of the time it was part of France. In 1954, a large majority of city elders voted in favour of ceding drom France. That year it became, and remain, an Indian Union Territory, independent of its hige neighbour Tamil Nadu. Old Pondicherry still contains many fine French colonial buildings and the policemen wear képis. Many of the road names are bilingual: Tamil and French. In addition, the town has no shortage of restaurants offering what is described as ‘French cuisine’. Although well populated with both Indian and foreign tourists, Pondicherry is a delightful place to relax and enjoy warm sea breezes.

To enter the Union Territory of Pondicherry, drivers of cars with registration plates from outside Pondicherry have to buy a permit to drive there. Our Uber driver’s car had Tamil Nadu plates. He stopped at the check post, which is about ten minutes drive from the heart of Pondicherry, and told us it would take about five minutes to get the permit. He gathered up his relevant documents and headed inside the checkpost. While we were waiting for our driver, we were parked next to an unpretentious stall serving Bengali food. It bore signs in three scripts: Bangla, English, and Tamil.

Instead of taking five minutes, we sat waiting for him for forty five minutes. This was because he had set out with one document missing. I sat waiting in the car thinking that without the entry permit, we were so near yet so far from our destination.

After some time and several telephone calls, our driver re-entered the checkpost, and emerged with the desired permit. He explained that he had bern sent a photo of the missing document by WhatsApp. This image of the document, rather than the original, satisfied those who issued the entry permit. We continued our journey. Just beyond the checkpost, I saw an obelisc, which looked old enough to have been put up by the French colonial authorities.

After settling into our accommodation, which I will describe at a later date, we took a pre-prandial stroll along the lovely seaside promenade. I was very pleased to discover that a place that had opened on the promenade a few months before our last visit to Pondicherry five years ago was still flourishing.

The Gelateria Montecatini Terme is a superb ice cream shop. It was set up just over five years ago by an Italian who has a business making luxury boats, anything from canoes to millionaires’ yachts. The gelateria is fully equipped with Italian equipment and refrigerated ice cream display counters. Stepping into this popular ice cream parlour in Pondicherry is just like stepping into a gelateria in Italy, and the ice cream is top class. The queues of customers attest that I am not alone in saying that.

The so-called ‘French food’ in Pondicherry is popular, but in no way matches up to the high standards often encountered in France. In contrast, the ice cream served at the Gelateria Montecatini Terme easily rivals the best in Italy. India never fails to be surprising!

Marine Ices

Whenever I am in a restaurant and presented with the dessert menu, I often order ice-cream, especially if there are fruit sorbets available. Ever since I can remember I have loved ice-cream, and I continue to do so. Let me tell you about three places where I have enjoyed eating this chilled delicacy. Two are in Italy and one is in London.

Marine 2

During my childhood, we visited Florence (in Italy) every year except 1967, the year the after city was badly damaged by a terrible flood in November 1966. Annually, my late mother used to visit a brassiere maker called Busti Biondi. The owner of this shop was unable to speak English, and my parents were not sufficiently confident of their Italian to communicate with him effectively. Near the shop in the same street, there was a textile merchant called Giorgio, who spoke good English having learnt it from British soldiers during WW2. He helped interpret during the often-lengthy proceedings at Busti Biondi. He also introduced us to one of the best ice-cream shops I have ever visited. This shop or ‘gelateria’ was called ‘Perché No’, which means ‘why not?’ I have not visited Florence since the late 1960s. The gelateria, Perché No, in Via Dei Tavolini still functions, selling ice creams as it has been doing when it opened in 1939.

Bar Cucciolo was a gelateria that stood next to the Pensione La Calcina on the Zattere waterfront (Fondamente del Zattere) of Venice’s Dorsoduro island. It was at the Calcina that our family stayed. Many years before we patronised the place, the Victorian artist and writer John Ruskin stayed there (in 1877). Although the accommodation and food at the Calcina was not great, my parents chose to satay there because it overlooked the wide Giudecca Canal and the lovely waterfront of the Giudecca Island across it.

The Cucciolo made and sold ice creams and sorbets at least as good as those that we enjoyed in Florence at Perché No? Their banana flavoured ices were my favourite. I particularly enjoyed having a cone that contained a scoop of banana and one of lemon sorbet. Writing these words makes my mouth water.

The Cucciolo was run by two men and was always very busy on summer afternoons when the sun shone brightly on the south-west facing Fondamente del Zattere. On one such afternoon we were sitting on the Calcina’s deck that projected over the water when we heard a woman beginning to scream. Her small child had fallen into the canal. Quick as a flash the plumper of the two fellows who ran the Cucciolo dived into the canal fully clothed, and then rescued the small boy. His parents hurried away with their child, barely thanking their soaking rescuer. On the next day when we were buying ice creams, he told us that his watch had been wrecked when he jumped into the canal. Also, the victim’s parents, who were not Italian, had not been in the slightest concerned that he had risked his life, limbs, and clothes, for their child whom they had not been watching carefully enough. My mother was most upset on his behalf. Sadly, the Cucciolo closed many years ago. It had already disappeared when we last visited Venice in 2007.

Marine 1

Very recently, I visited Chalk Farm. There opposite the Underground Station, to my horror, I saw a building site where once Marine Ices used to stand. In the 1960s, when I was a child this was one of the only places in London, where good quality ice-creams and sorbets were on sale. One could sit down in the parlour and eat them, or you could take them home in boxes. As I savoured their ices, I could imagine I was back in Italy either at Perché No or the Cucciolo.  

According to its website, Marine Ices was established in London in 1931. When I returned from my trip to Chalk Farm, I looked on the internet to find out what had happened to Marine Ices, and I discovered that it still exists but at a new address, which is closer to Camden Market.

Today, London is littered with great gelateria’s serving ice cream as good as I remember eating when I was a child. There are already three high quality gelaterias where I live and a fourth (a branch of a firm from Florence) is opening soon.