Tuesday, 29 April 2014

The Trip To Italy

For some reason (most likely it being on past my bedtime) I missed the first series of The Trip. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon drove around between various fancy restaurants in “the north” (mostly the Lake District), supposedly to review them for the Observer food magazine. Coogan and Brydon themselves subsequently got great reviews for their performances (though I only read the reviews in Cumbria Life, for which my husband’s grandfather buys us a subscription every Christmas), so I was keen to watch its follow-up. This time the same two actors and comedians (or comedians and actors) have been sent by an equally fake Observer food magazine on a gastronomic trip to Italy to write about six more restaurants.

It’s the sort of holiday that most of us would die to go on, but Steve Coogan only very grudgingly accepts his mission in the opening credits. And I can’t say either of them properly exude enthusiasm for the task at hand at any point. But off they go, in a black Mini Cooper whose leather seats make them sweat like the middle-aged men that they are. They are trying to follow in the footsteps of Romantic English poets Byron, Keats and Shelley, but are far from natural poets (or romantic) themselves. At least when it comes to the food. I can’t imagine what they are going to write in their reviews given that the only adjectives they come up with while eating it are “good”, “very good”, and “nice”. At least we get a quick flash of the food’s creation by its chefs in the kitchen and a brief glimpse of the finished product on their plates as the waiter or waitress serves them. But Brydon and Coogan hardly dwell on it. They almost ignore it. They spend more time looking at the bill. And they never, ever order pudding. Not even a little gelato. For heavens’ sake! Come on, guys, there’s at least one salivating lady in your audience, and it’s the sight of something sugary that she craves.

What she certainly doesn’t crave is the noise the two of them are making. Not undignified pasta slurping, lip-smacking sighs of satisfaction, or big fat belches, all of which would be perfectly forgivable given the circumstances. But the non-stop banter. It’s apparently all improvised, some of it is indeed quite funny when it’s not blatantly misogynistic (just how do you pronounce Jake Gyllenhaal’s surname?), and the impressions are, well, impressive. But after a while it all becomes very hard work to listen to. I don’t need Hugh Grant/ Michael Caine/ Roger Moore/ Frank Spencer or even Saddam Hussein doing Frank Spencer being thrust down my throat when there is all that fabulous food to be talking about. And if not the food then the incredible views they should be enjoying – sunlit beach coves, tumbling Tuscan hill towns, rainbow coloured Mediterranean ports, Roman marble. At one point they briefly acknowledge that “sea on pebbles” is one of the most beautiful sounds you can hear, before the tirade starts up again, with both of them cawing like crows.

I don’t mind the in-car banter, especially when accompanied to them bobbing up and down to Alanis Morisette, which makes them look faintly ridiculous. We can all relate to them getting lost in the middle of Rome traffic, or yelling at the sat nav. The car is generally a good place for shouting people down. But not a restaurant where in reality everybody else is sitting quietly, breathing, eating, drinking, relaxing. Ahhhhhhh...

Coogan and Brydon are allegedly being themselves, and yet they cannot be, since their personal backgrounds (partners, children etc) are made up, and things (such as infidelities) happen that you would like to think might not in real life. Some of their teasing has a basis in what we know as fact (too many panel show appearances, too much time in LA), but there’s not a lot that you can actually trust. Much of the repartee is presumably an “I’m a celebrity in public” defence mechanism, lest they should accidentally have a proper conversation and reveal too much of themselves. The pair need to show us their trade and do, constantly. As does Michael Winterbottom, a prolific film maker whose beautiful cinematography at least does the backdrop justice.

I have been to Italy many times, and would go many more if I could. I learned Italian at school and my basic knowledge still serves me well in most situations. It was a country we had been desperate to take our daughter for a long time, and – like Coogan and Brydon - precisely because of the food. Italy was the one country on the planet where we knew we could feed her without having to take a suitcase full of baked beans. Her average toddler fussy eating is generally restrictive, but as she will invariably eat pasta, pizza and ice cream, Italy had to be a sure-fire winner. But we didn’t think we could afford it. Plus to access so many of the more scenic parts of the country you need to hire a car, and driving in Italy is not that appealing when you lack Steve Coogan’s enthusiasm for cars.

But then a friend of mine told me she had booked a trip to Lake Garda with Eurocamp, and after some quick research into prices and what was on offer, a couple of days later we had done the same. I don’t think she minded too much that we had shamelessly copied her holiday. We found that for £250 in late September we could have a week’s accommodation in a mobile home on a campsite in walking distance of Peschiera del Garda. Even after booking flights to Verona, we still had paid out less than you do for a lot of holiday cottages in the UK summer season. We could have done the transfer from Verona to the campsite on public transport, but with a young child, a push chair and two suitcases in tow, the 100 Euro return taxi transfer was well worth it. And still a lot cheaper than hiring a car.

We had a wonderful and genuinely relaxing holiday, blessed with unusually hot and sunny weather for the time of year. The campsite pools should have already closed for the season, but had been kept open indefinitely. The lake itself was much warmer to swim in than the pools, however. It just came with swans. We had originally had grand visions of exploring the length of the lake and doing a day trip to Venice to mark our wedding anniversary. But when it came to it, all our daughter wanted to do was sit on the lake shore throwing pebbles into the water, and we were quite happy to sit and watch her. For a while at least. Peschiera del Garda is perfectly pleasant, but not the nicest place in the area, which meant we still wanted to explore a little further afield. So we downsized our planned excursions to places within half an hour’s travelling time, by boat, bus or train. These did not include Gardaland (may our daughter never learn about Gardaland...), but did include Desenzano, Lazise, Verona and Valeggio.

Throwing pebbles
The latter was as close as we got to a gourmet experience in Italy. No Michelin starred establishments for us. Generally around Lake Garda the food is very aimed at tourists, and German tourists at that. Most restaurants have photos of each dish on the menu, which I never take as a particularly promising sign. They are also quite expensive, so we usually opted for a basic pasta dish and never a main course, apart from on our aforementioned anniversary, when I had a dish of lake perch to celebrate. Wine was inevitably a half-litre carafe of house white or prosecco for five euros. And dessert was always a visit to a gelateria, where for some reason our daughter, when presented with an array of at least twenty different flavours, always opted for strawberry. A bit like if she was in Bod.
But Valeggio is a town famous for its tortellini production and has dozens of pasta shops lining its streets and piazzas. On the recommendation of a friend, we walked down the hill to neighbouring Borghetto, a village of medieval watermills and restaurants built on a weir across the Mincio river. The lunch we had here was superb, its upmarket nature evident from the wine only being available by the glass or bottle rather than the carafe. The tortellini – meat for my husband, pumpkin for me, just melted in your mouth. 

Our lunchtime restaurant in Borghetto

View from the Giardino Sigurto towards Borghetto
After a stroll around the magnificent Giardino Sigurta back up the hill in Valeggio, we bought some more tortellini to cook in the caravan for tea. But I made the mistake of not noticing anchovy (acciuga) next to aubergine (melanzana) on the list of ingredients. There are only two things in this world that I don't eat - Brussel sprouts and anchovies. Anchovies are Nasty with a capital N. Thankfully we had bought some more pumpkin tortellini as well.

Tortellini di Valeggio

I wonder if I will be allowed to get away with cooking pasta in pesto sauce every night when we return with Eurocamp to Holland very soon? Somehow, if no longer in situ, I doubt it.

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