MY MOTHER WOULD ONLY drive Fiat cars. Because they were made in Italy, a country with many hills and mountains, she believed that they must have been built with powerful engines. So, we owned first a Fiat 600, then an 1100, and lastly a 1200. These memories were stimulated by seeing a Fiat 600 on the heart of Panjim in Goa.
Fiat began licencing car making factories outside Italy long ago. In 1964, the Premier Company began manufacturing an Indian version of the Fiat 1100, which was marketed as the ‘Fiat 1100 Delight’, which was renamed the ‘Premier Padmini’ from 1974. These cars looked almost identical to our old family Fiat 1100. Padmini means ‘she who sits on the lotus’.
The Padmini remained a popular purchase until the mid-1980s when the more modern Suzuki Maruthi came on to the market. Decline in Padmini sales was accelerated by liberalisation of the Indian economy in the 1990s, which allowed other foreign car manufacturers to enter the Indian Market. By the late 1990s, the Padmini was manufactured no more.
The owner of the Fiat 600, which we spotted in central Panjim, told us that his vehicle had been imported from abroad by a relative some years ago. Although it looked in immaculate condition, we noticed that after it had been driven a few yards, it had stopped and its owner was tinkering about in the car’s rear engine compartment.
Original Fiat 600s are rarely seen in the UK. After more than 50 trips to India, this 600 in Goa is the first I have seen in the subcontinent.
THE BIENNALE IN Venice was first held in 1895. The original international bi-annual art exhibition was contained in public gardens at the Eastern end of the city of Venice in the Castello district.
Initially, there was a Central Pavilion, opened in 1894. Later, various participating countries built national pavilions, the first being Belgium in 1907. The latest is the Australian pavilion, built only a few years ago.
The national pavilions reflect both the politics and architectural styles prevailing at the time they were built. Therefore, they are at least as interesting as the artworks that take up temporary residence within them at each exhibition.
I will discuss two of the pavilions in this short essay, and hope to write about some of the others at a later date.
The Russian pavilion bears the date 1914 and several double-headed eagles. It was constructed before the 1917 Revolution, and has some traditional Russian architectural features.
Next to the Belgian pavilion, stands the Spanish one. First constructed in 1933, its facade was replaced by a modern brick one in 1952.
Both the Spanish and the Russian pavilions appear to be empty, but for quite different reasons. For the 2022 Biennale, the artist Ignasi Aballi (born 1958 in Barcelona) has left the pavilion empty but shifted its internal walls in an attempt to correct a discrepancy between its original architectural plan and what ended up being constructed. The result is an empty pavilion with a strange internal layout. It was at first disconcerting to discover a pavilion empty of artworks, but soon it became pleasurable to see the strange vistas and connections between neighbouring rooms.
The Russian pavilion, unlike the Spanish, is closed. But it is also devoid of exhibits. Russia was not invited to the Biennale this year. The reason for this was Mr Putin’s unwise decision to invade his neibour, Ukraine.
IN WARWICK, I chanced upon a fascinating book in a charity shop. It is Part 2 of “Stanley Gibbons Priced Catalogue of Stamps of Foreign Countries 1912”. When it was published, it could be purchased for as little as half a crown (2/6, which is 12.5 pence). I paid a lot more for it, but not an excessive amount.
I felt compelled to buy it because of its date and my interest in Albania. For, on the 28th of November 1912, the independence of Albania was proclaimed in the seaside town of Vlorë. Albania’s independence was formally recognised when the Treaty of London was signed in July 1913. The catalogue I bought in Warwick was published some time in 1912 and most likely before independence was proclaimed. As far as the publishers and the compilers were concerned, what is now Albania was still part of the Ottoman Empire.
The index of the catalogue contains an entry for “Albania (Italian P.O.)”. This needs some explanation. Throughout the Ottoman Empire, there were postal services operated by foreign (i.e., not Ottoman) countries. A website (www.levantineheritage.com/foreign-post-offices.html) reveals:
“In the 18th century, foreign countries maintained courier services through their official missions in the Empire, to permit transportation of mail between those countries and Constantinople [sic] the Empire capital. Nine countries had negotiated Capitulations or treaties with the Ottomans, which granted various extraterritorial rights in exchange for trade opportunities. Such agreements permitted Russia (1720 & 1783), Austria (1739), France (1812), Great Britain (1832) and Greece (1834), as well as Germany, Italy, Poland, and Romania, to maintain post offices in the Ottoman Empire. Some of these developed into public mail services, used to transmit mail to Europe. The Ottoman Empire itself did not maintain a regular public mail service until 1840, when a service was established between Constantinople and other major cities in the country and this was slow to develop and expand. The gap in this capacity was very much filled with the various foreign post offices which continued functioning right till the beginning of WWI in 1914 …”
Hence, the entry in the catalogue’s table of contents. I turned to the page listed and found the section on Albania. The Italian Post Offices in the Turkish (Ottoman) Empire issued stamps, to quote the catalogue, which:
“…surcharged or over-printed for use in Italian post offices abroad.”
These stamps were the regular issues but, to quote the catalogue:
“… distinguished by the removal of some details of the design, over-printed with Type…”
Different Italian stamps were overprinted with names of places and a Type number. For example, Italian stamps were over-printed with: “ALBANIA. 10 Para 10. 201” (where ‘10 Para’ is a monetary denomination and ‘201’ is the Type number), or “Durazzo. 4 PIASTRE 4. 205”, or “Valona, or other place names. 10 Para 10. 208”. Durazzo and Valona being the Italian for the Albanian names Durres and Vlore.
Within the Albanian section of the catalogue there is also an illustration of the over-printing “JANINA. 4 Piastre 4. 205”. Janina is the name of a town now in Greece, Ioannina (Ιωάννινα). In 1912, this town was not in what was then Greece, but in the Pashalik of Janina, part of the Turkish Empire. In February 1913, following the battle of Bizani in the First Balkan War, the town was absorbed into Greece. Many Albanians still consider that by rights Ioannina should be a part of a Greater Albania. The large Albanian population in the town was forcibly reduced by population exchanges in the early 1920s and also the pre-WW2 Greek government’s policy of strongly encouraging people of Albanian ethnicity to regard themselves as Greeks. When I visited Ioannina in the 1970s, there were the remains of Turkish buildings but many of them were in a sad condition. I do not know whether they have been restored since then.
My purchase in Warwick has proved to be of interest. It records the state of postage stamps on the eve of great changes that were about to happen in the Balkan peninsular as well as illustrating aspects of European colonialism, both political and economic.
THE ITALIAN WRITER and patriot, Ugo Foscolo (1778-1827) was born on Zakynthos when it was part of the Venetian Republic. He became a political activist in what is now Italy and came to London in 1816. In London, he was regarded as a literary celebrity, but this did not always keep him out of trouble. For example, in about 1813 he faced Mr Graham, the editor of the “Literary Museum” in a duel at Primrose Hill. The dispute that led to this was about his ‘Three Graces’. These three ladies were sisters working in Foscolo’s home near Regents Park. Two of them turned out to be prostitutes, and one of them ran off with his former translator. This led to a duel, whether in Regent’s Park or Primrose Hill is not clear; fortunately, no blood was shed.
Foscolo lived another few years until 1817, when he died in Turnham Green in west London. He was buried in the lovely churchyard next to the Chiswick church of St Nicholas, where the artist William Hogarth was also interred. The cemetery contains Foscolo’s elegant, well-maintained grave, which is surrounded by a cast-iron railing.
However, Foscolo’s remains are no longer in the old cemetery at Chiswick.
In June 1871, ten years after the Unification of Italy, Foscolo’s remains were dug up and transported to Florence (Firenze). There, they were reburied but within the church of Santa Croce. This is all recorded by words carved on the monument in the Old Chiswick Cemetery.
DURING A SHORT VISIT to Chelmsford in Essex, we noticed an old hotel The Saracens Head. Situated in the centre of the city – yes, Chelmsford is a city; it has a fine cathedral – it bears a commemorative plaque which states that the inventor of radio Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937), founder of the Wireless Telegraph Company, stayed at the hotel between 1912 and 1928, when he made visits to his New Street factory in Chelmsford. Marconi made the city a place that was to change the world. It is hard to imagine how our world would be today without radio signals.
I wondered why he had chosen Chelmsford to site his factory. The only explanation I can find is that Marconi needed electricity for his factory and that Chelmsford had a good supply of it. In any case, his factory provided work for many (up to 6000) people in the city.
As for The Saracens Head hotel, I have not yet stayed there, which might be a good thing as it receives many poor reviews on Tripadvisor.
Prior to establishing his factory in Chelmsford, he lived in a terraced house near London’s Westbourne Grove, at number 71. He lived there between 1896 and 1897. That was 2 years after he had made the world’s first demonstration of radio transmission. He arrived in London from Italy in 1896 because few in his native land could see much of a future in what he had demonstrated.
I HAVE JUST finished reading a book about an incident that made a great impression on me and my close family many years ago. The slender volume, “Florence. Ordeal by Water” was written by Kathrine Kressman Taylor (1903-1996), who was an eye-witness to the event that troubled our family so much. The book was first published in 1967.
During my childhood, my parents, who were keen on the art of the Italian renaissance and Italy in general, took my sister and me to the city of Florence every year (until about 1969), except 1967. Visiting churches, museums, and art galleries was not exactly my ‘cup of tea’ when I was a child, especially when I knew that my best friend was enjoying what sounded to me like a far more exciting holiday than mine. Now with the benefit of hindsight, I realise that the experiences that my parents gave me were actually far more valuable than anything I could have gained from annual holidays at a seaside resort in North Wales, where my friend went every summer.
I mentioned that in 1967, we did not make our annual visit to the city on the River Arno, Florence (Firenze). This was because the city was severely affected by a flood in November 1966. This inundation was caused by heavy storms and ill-advised opening of a dam on the River Arno upstream from Florence. The water caused much damage. I remember that when my parents heard that it had happened, they appeared to be as devastated as if a close, much-loved friend or relative had died suddenly. They decided that visiting the stricken city in 1967 was inadvisable, so we returned in 1968. What we found in 1968 was distressing. The flood water, which had become mixed up with central heating fuel oil, had stained the walls of the city’s buildings, leaving a tide line at the often-high levels that it had reached. These marks remained for several years. In low-lying parts of the city, the water had reached the upper floors of buildings. In addition to damaging the buildings, the water also destroyed many irreplaceable works of art. Dad was particularly upset about the heavy damage suffered by a crucifix painted in about 1265 by Cimabue, which hung in the Church of Santa Croce. He used to mention this often. I felt that this affected him more than the damage to the rest of the city.
Miraculously, the surging waters of the Arno in spate and laden with tree trunks and other heavy debris did not significantly damage any of the many lovely bridges that cross the river. This is unlike what happened at the end of WW2 when the retreating Germans destroyed all the bridges except the Ponte Vecchio.
Kathrine Kressman Taylor, whose book I have just read, was living in a palazzo in Florence when the great flood hit the city. Her book is a diary of what she and the Florentines experienced when the waters of the Arno almost destroyed the city, and the aftermath. It is a compelling account of the tragedy, filled with vignettes and anecdotes that illustrate the true horror of what happened. What shines out in her account was that despite overwhelming odds, the Florentines refused to be defeated by the events that rendered many homeless and caused an even greater number to lose all their worldly possessions and their livelihoods. As soon as the oil-filled, filthy waters began to subside, the citizens of Florence as well as foreigners who had become trapped there began to work on restoring the city.
Reading Kressman Taylor’s account has given me a much clearer idea of the extent of the disaster than I had as a youngster just after it had happened.
By the way, I must mention how I ‘stumbled’ across this marvellous book about Florence. A friend had given me a copy of the recently republished novella, “Address Unknown”, by Kressman Taylor. First published in 1938, this book subtly drew her readers’ attention to the plight of Jewish people in Nazi Germany. Having read and enjoyed it, I looked to see what else the author had written. When I saw that she had written about the flood that had upset us so much in 1966, I had to read it, and I am pleased that I did.
IN THE EARLY 1990s, I was invited to a wedding in central Italy. Although I could have flown or driven to Italy, I decided to travel by train and ferry (the Channel Tunnel had not yet been opened for use). In my bachelor days, I was not a careful packer. I used to stuff my clothes and other belongings into a rucksack in a disorderly way. I was puzzled about what to do with my smart suit that I planned to wear at the marriage ceremony. I was concerned that it would become badly creased whilst stuffed in my rucksack. I consulted one of my female colleagues at the dental practice in Kent, where I was working at the time. She gave me some useful advice that did not include asking the hotel to iron it for me.
On my way to Italy I stopped for a few days to visit some good friends who lived in Basel in Switzerland. They lived near to the terminus of a tram line that ran from the French Border, close to my friends’ flat, across the Swiss city to the German border. Although they no longer live in Basel, we now have other friends who live at the end of the same tram line, but close to the German border. Getting back to the early 1990s, I spent an enjoyable time in Basel. Before leaving, I bought an immoderate number of large bars of Swiss chocolate. My rather unhealthy plan was to take this chocolate to Italy and then after the wedding festivities were over, I would spend many happy hours eating obscene amounts of Swiss chocolate on the train while travelling back to the French coast. It seemed like a splendid plan at the time.
I arrived at the hotel in the Italian city where the wedding was to take place. As I was not yet trained to hang my clothes in wardrobes, I left my full rucksack on the floor for the duration of my stay. Following my colleague’s advice, I extracted my creased jacket and trousers from my ruck sack, put them on hangers, and hung them in the room’s attached bathroom. Following the instructions I had been given in Kent, I turned on the hot water and closed the bathroom door so that the bathroom filled with steam from the hot water, and then I went out for some hours. On my return, the suit looked respectable enough to wear after its steaming.
The wedding festivities stretched enjoyably over three days. On each day, I attended meals in restaurants and the marriage ceremony in a municipal office. We all ate well and drunk fine Italian wines. As the saying goes, ‘a good time was had by all’.
At the end of my stay, I crammed everything into the rucksack lying on the floor of the hotel room, and then made my way to the city’s station. I boarded a train heading north through Italy towards Switzerland and then Paris, where I had to travel between the Gare de l’Est and the Gare du Nord, from where trains to Calais departed.
As my train headed across the plain of the River Po south of Milan, I began to feel the urge to make inroads into my stash of Swiss chocolate bars, which at that moment I treasured as if they were bars of gold. I opened my rucksack in which they had been stored while I was staying in the hotel in Italy, my heart sunk, and I was filled with gloom. No, they had not been stolen. Far worse, they were still there but completely and utterly inedible. Each bar of chocolate had melted and then re-solidified. However, when they had been in a molten state, they had been distorted in such a way that the silver foil in which they had been wrapped by the manufacturers had become intimately intermingled with the chocolate. After it had cooled down and solidified, all of my chocolates were welded to the silver foil in such a way that it was impossible to separate what was potentially edible from the inedible distorted strata of foil running through the chocolate. What had happened, you might well wonder. Well, there had not been a heatwave during my stay in the Italian city. What I had not realised when I was staying in the hotel was that my hotel room had under floor heating and it was this that had been warming my rucksack filled with chocolate that had been lying on the warm floor for several days.
Looking back on this after so many years, it was probably a good thing that I had not been able to consume a huge amount of chocolate all in one binge, but this is not what went through my mind at the time.
I WISH THAT I had taken a photograph of it when I was visiting Tirana, the capital of Albania, in 1984, the last year of the life of its long term dictator and admirer of Josef Stalin, Enver Hoxha (1908-1965). I managed to get at least one photograph of a statue of Stalin in Albania, the only European country that still displayed monuments to this by then mostly discredited Soviet dictator. However, in May 1984, I failed to take a picture of something I have never seen outside Albania or in Albania when I revisited it in 2016. What I failed to record on film was the sight of men walking along the streets with heads of flowers whose stems they were holding between their teeth. Their lips were hidden behind the blooms. I mentioned seeing this to several people who have visited Albania, and none recall seeing flowers being carried that way. So, I was beginning to wonder whether my memory was playing tricks as time passed.
A few days ago, I was browsing the bookshelves in an Oxfam charity shop when I noticed a travelogue that contained a few pages about the author’s experience of Albania, which he visited several decades before my first encounter with the country. I was thrilled and relieved that my memory had not failed me when I read the following words he wrote:
“The inhabitants of Tirana love music and flowers. You can see men going around with roses in their mouths. They seem to use them as an extra buttonhole.”
These words, translated from German, were published in the “Frankfurter Zeitung”, a German newspaper, on the 29th of June 1927. They were written by its journalist, the Austrian novelist Moses Joseph Roth (1894-1939), better known as ‘Joseph Roth’. The book in which I found his articles on Albania is “The Hotel Years”, edited and translated by Michael Hoffmann and published in 2015. The anthology of Roth’s writings covers countries, to mention a few of them, including Austria, Hungary the USSR, Germany, Yugoslavia, and Albania.
Roth visited Albania in 1927 and published six articles about it between May and July that year. He mentioned the love of music in Tirana. This observation relates to both the mandolins played mainly by Albanians who had unaccountably, in his opinion, returned to their country after having lived abroad, mainly in the USA, and to military bands. During his sojourn in the capital, he notes the seemingly endless army exercises and parades that are carried out throughout the day.
With regard to the Albanian army, it was his impression that they were poorly equipped:
“Now the army has Austrian rifles and Italian ammunition, bullets that jam, magazines that can’t be clicked in, British knapsacks that can’t be secured with Italian straps, covers for field-shovels and no field-shovels with which to dig trenches, Italian officers who don’t know commands in Albanian, …”
And, he asks:
“For whom do they exercise? Surely not for their country? Because half the country is unhappy with their government – for reasons of idealism.”
Reading this, made me wonder why Roth was sending reports from Albania between the end of May and the end of July in 1927. Near the end of his largely unflattering description of the country and its people, he wrote:
“Albania is beautiful, unhappy, and for all its current topicality, boring.”
Although Albania is anything but boring for me, I was curious about its “current topicality” during those months in 1927. Roth’s readers probably knew, but that was long ago.
I looked at various issues of the “Times” newspaper of London and other sources to discover what might have interested the world’s press in Albania at the time that Roth wrote his articles. On Monday, the 6th of June, the Times noted that diplomatic relations between Albania and its neighbour Yugoslavia had broken down. On the 27th of May, Mr Juraskovitch, an interpreter at the Yugoslav legation in Tirana, was arrested and his house was burnt down (www.jstor.org/stable/25638310?seq=1). Naturally, the Yugoslav government objected. On the 31st, Tzena Beg, an Albanian representative in Belgrade, explained to the Yugoslavs that Juraskovitch was an Albanian citizen and that compromising documents had been found in his possession. Mr Sakovitch, the Yugoslav chargé d’affaires, disclaimed all knowledge of this and demanded the release of Juraskovitch. Hussein Beg Vrioni, the Albanian Minister for Foreign Affairs, said that his case was purely an internal matter. On the 4th of June, the Yugoslav legation was withdrawn from Tirana. The following day, the Albanian government declared that it was taking the case to the League of Nations.
On the 5th of June, the “Times” noted that many Albanians feared that this diplomatic incident would create anxiety and unrest in the country, and many felt that the flames were being fanned by a third party with a great interest in Albania, Italy. According to “The Annual Register, Vol. 169- for 1927” Italy had:
“…sent to Berlin, Paris, and London a Note calling attention to alleged preparations on the part of Yugoslavia for an immediate invasion of Albanian territory. The crisis had arisen as the result of the arrest by the Albanian police of a certain Jurascovich, charged with espionage on behalf of the Yugoslav Government. Refusal to release the alleged spy led to the withdrawal of the Yugoslav Minister from Tirana, and to the Italian Note. The matter was, however, satisfactorily settled between Italy and Yugoslavia.”
Eventually in November 1927 after much Italian antagonism to the French and their cordial relations with Yugoslavia:
“ … the Italian Government published the text of an Italo -Albanian Treaty of defensive alliance.”
This was not the first attempt to forge an alliance between Italy and Albania as is illustrated from the following quote from “The Annual Register”:
“Relations with Italy and Albania were disturbed at the end of 1926 by the first Tirana Treaty and became more strained in March, 1927, when the Italian Government addressed a Note to the Great Powers (Germany, Great Britain, and France) accusing Yugoslavia of military preparations against Albania.”
Thus, Albania was being dragged gradually into the strong influence that Italy held on it until the Second World War had begun.
Roth travelled to Albania around about, or just after the Juraskovitch affair had begun. This might have been one reason for his visit. Another thing that might have attracted his attention, which was reported in the “Times” of the 10th of June 1927, was the growing unrest of many Albanians, particularly in the north, resulting from dissatisfaction with the government of Ahmed Zogu. However, by mid-July, a couple of weeks before Roth’s last article about Albania, the two countries, Albania and Yugoslavia, had come to a more or less satisfactory settlement of the Juraskovitch affair.
My surmise is that Roth came to Albania not out of curiosity but in connection with the diplomatic incident and the strained relationship between Albania and its Slav neighbour. My impression is that the urbane Roth cared little for what he observed during his time in Albania. His description of his arrival sets the tone for much that appears in the anthology of his Albanian travel writings:
“ … the hut, like so many attractions these days, has a guest book; sitting over the book is a man in a black uniform, rolling himself a cigarette, and this is the Albanian border police. A master of the alphabet, but unused to writing, he sits there whiling away the time of new arrivals by painstaking scrutiny of their passports … I cut short his study by offering to set down my name for him … Workmen are repairing the road. There are always two hunched over together … they collect little scoops of sand on their tiny shovels or in their bare hands, pour it into scars and potholes, sprinkle a few stones on top … and stamp it down with their bare feet …”
Roth also remarks on the telegraph wires linking Durres with Tirana. They were:
“… strung not on masts, but on crooked trees, which have been lopped and cropped. They used to stand by the wayside, a home to birds … now they are redesignated as telegraph poles … equipped to transmit journalistic reports – the twitterings of political sparrows – to Europe…”
Whereas Roth’s descriptions of Albania in 1927 are hardly flattering to the country, some other travellers, who visited it that year, published a far more flattering account in the same year. The travellers were Jan Gordon (1882-1944) and Cora C Gordon (née Turner;1879-1950), who wrote and illustrated a book called “Two Vagabonds in Albania”. It is amongst the best books I have read about the country. Unlike the critical and disapproving Roth, they take a delight in what they observed and convey that beautifully in their text and the illustrations they created.
Roth would be amazed by the changes that have occurred in Albania since his visit in 1927. I was also staggered by the changes I saw between my first visit in 1984, when I saw men with flowers in their mouths and motorised vehicles were few and far between, and 2016 when Tirana had become a modern city with traffic congestion and tall buildings to rival those found in any of the world’s large cities.
I WAS A VERY FUSSY eater when I was a child. Because the first few weeks of my life were fraught with medical problems and then later I was a poor eater, my mother was extremely anxious about me, She allowed me to eat only what I liked and not what might have been good for me, but which I did not even want to try. In short, I was a spoilt child when it came to being fed. As I grew, I remained unadventurous gastronomically. We travelled to places like France and Italy where food is exciting and varied, but instead of exploring the wonderful foods that my parents ate in those places, I stuck to a boring diet of steak or ham (or, occasionally, Dover sole) and chips. Looking back, I regret turning down the undoubtedly delicious alternatives to these mundane foods.
My parents were not keen on pizza. At least, I never saw them eat it even though we had holidays in Italy every year. They ate pasta and many other delicious Italian dishes. Naturally, given my unadventurous approach to food, I never ate it, at least not until I was about 17 years old. When I reached that age, I decided to spend a few days travelling alone in Italy whilst my parents stayed elsewhere. I used local transport to visit Volterra, Grossetto, and then reached the city of Orvieto. Believe it or not, I was extremely shy at that time and minimised speaking to anyone. Consequently, by the time I arrived in Orvieto, I was feeling miserably lonely. I felt to shy to enter restaurants and wandered around Orvieto from one eatery to the next, becoming ever hungrier. Finally, I reached a shop that sold squares of hot pizza at a counter. The aroma coming from the pizza ovens was irresistible. I bought a square, took a bite of it, and … it was love at first bite.
Although she died forty years ago, people still fondly remember my mother’s cold rice salad, which was cooked white rice mixed with small specks of red and green peppers. Whether it was in my mother’s much praised salad or in the school rice pudding, I refused to eat rice when I was a child. This situation changed just before my 19th birthday. I was travelling around France with a friend who was studying at Cambridge University and four of his friends. One of these was Matthew Parris, who would later become a Member of Parliament and is now a frequently read columnist in the London “Times” newspaper. He was our driver. He drove us around France in an old car, which he had driven from Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) across Africa and Europe to England. One day we camped near Cerbère on the Mediterranean. As we were close to the Franco-Spanish border, we crossed it one evening to eat a meal in Port Bou (in Catalonia). Everyone wanted paella, which is a rice dish. For some inexplicable reason, I decided to try some. It was the first time that I ate rice. It was love at first bite.
During that trip around France, we used to eat our midday meals ‘al fresco’ at scenic spots. The money we saved by having picnics was spent eating more lavish meals at restaurants. Usually, everyone ordered meat (often beefsteak). One evening at a restaurant in Provence, I decided, unusually for me given my history of conservative eating tastes, to order something different. Without knowing what would arrive, I ordered an andouillette. I regretted my choice as soon as I cut what looked like a sausage. As I incised the skin covering the andouillette, little bits of what looked like rubbery material leapt out on to my plate. The thing was filled with chopped-up innards, and I was filled with disgust. Winding the clock forward a few decades, I now enjoy various kinds of innards (e.g. liver, sweetbreads, and tripe, but not kidneys) if they are prepared tastily.
My parents favoured Mediterranean cuisine. My mother was a keen follower of Elizabeth David, whose recipe books help bring the dishes of France and Italy onto British dinner tables. There were often bowls of olives available, especially on the many occasions that my parents entertained guests at our home. Having smelled these olives a few times, I decided that I was not even going to taste them. In 1975, I travelled across Europe to northern Greece with my friends Robert and Margaret. Every summer, they spent about six weeks camping by the seaside just south of the village of Platamon. Every evening while camping, as the sun began setting, we used to sit outdoors on folding camping chairs around a rickety table. Robert mixed himself gin and tonic and I joined Margaret with a glass of red (sweet) Martini. There was always a bowl of Greek olives on the table. On the first evening that I enjoyed an aperitif with my two friends, something inside me made me lean forward and pick up an olive. I popped it into my mouth … it was love at first bite. Since then, I cannot resist eating what I had avoided for a quarter of a century. My favourite olives are, just in case you are interested, the black Amfissa variety. They are plumper and juicier than Kalamatas, and at least as tasty.
In 1976, I began studying dentistry at University College London. My year had 50 students. We were a friendly bunch. One year, Jayne S, invited us all to her home in north London to celebrate her birthday. It was an afternoon event. The only food on offer was fried chicken from KFC (then, known as ‘Kentucky Fried Chicken’). There were large buckets of it, filled with legs, breast pieces, and wings: an ‘embarass de richesse’ of fried poultry. As with so many foods, I had fought shy of trying this popular product. By then I was about 27 years old. I had eaten chicken, but never the crumb coated deep-fried variety. That afternoon at Jayne’s party, I do not know what over came me, but as soon as I saw the buckets, I seized a piece of chicken, bit into it, and …it was love at first bite. I would not go as far to say that KFC is my favourite chicken dish, but every few months I yearn for it.
Time passed, and my enthusiasm for trying new dishes and ingredients has grown exponentially. So much so, that once I was in a Chinese restaurant in London’s Chinatown when I spotted duck’s feet on the menu. I felt that I had to try them. I ordered a portion, and the Chinese waiter snapped:
“You won’t like them”
Defiantly, I responded:
“Bring me a plate of duck’s feet, please.”
“You will not like them.”
“Never mind,” I answered, “I want to try them.”
“You won’t like them”
“Look,” I said, “I want to try them. Even if I don’t like them, I promise to pay for them.”
The webbed feet arrived. They tasted quite nice, but I did not like their slimy texture.”
The waiter was right. I am glad I tried them, but was not … love at first bite.