Sunday, October 29, 2006

8 A Day in Torino

Piazza Castello at twilight

Six point four miles today on foot: that ought to walk off some of the cheese, meat, pasta, wine, pizza, grappa, bonet, and the like; and it’s sure as hell left memories in my knees.

Our hotel is a ten-minute walk to what I think of as the heart of Torino: the Piazza Carlo Felice, Happy Charles Plaza. Happy indeed am I there in general, and was today when we sat at a sidewalk table to take our breakfast — a croissant apiece, two cappuccinos for me, a latte macchiato for Lindsey — at the Caffè Roma già Talmone, before walking on up through the elegant Piazza San Carlo and on to the enormous Piazza Castello.

This succession of outdoor civic living rooms defines a sort of spinal column of the city, running due north from the main train station toward the sinuous river Dora Riparia which at one time formed the northern boundary of this ancient city. The buildings lining the piazzas, and the streets connecting them, were erected in the 19th century, and are all of the same height, furnished with the same sets of windows, and finished in the same stucco.

They also all project out over the wide sidewalks, leaving fine arcades underneath, with shops and cafés on one side, traffic on the other, separated from us pedestrians by the thick columns sustaining the storeys above — columns which like as not contain within them display windows for nearby shops.

At the Piazza Castello we turn left and walk another three quarters of a mile westward along the Via Garibaldi, a pedestrian street its entire length, similarly edged with uniform 19th-century architecture and furnished with shops and cafés, the occasional chapel punctuating the uniformity. Along the way there was a flutist in full 18th-century costume; a trumpet-and-guitar jazz duo, and a hopelessly inept player of the musical saw. (Or, better, unmusical saw.)

We were en route to the Diffuse Museum of the Resistance, the Deportation, War, Human Rights and Liberty. Diffuse it was not, today: it was incredibly focussed on an exhibition documenting Torino under bombardment in the second world war. We descended into a bomb shelter installed very deep in the ground under the museum, formerly a building housing offices and production facilities of a newspaper company which had built the shelter for its employees and their families.

We were fortunate to have our own guide who explained the entire setting to us, who led us into the long narrow barrel-vault chamber fitted with benches along one side, a tiny latrine at the end, air piped in somehow, and electricity furnished by a bicycle-rigged generator; and then we climbed back upstairs to take seats in a number of galleries where we sat face to face with life-size screens of people who spoke their memories of those terrible years. These were of course for the most part people our age. They described what daily life was like, the privations, the fears, the anxieties.

One woman told of finding a precious bit of butter somehow on the black market, being told by her mother to hide it in her room to save it for a special day, and looking for it to fry eggs for her father one morning, only to discover it missing; and seeing her mother weep for the first time when she discovered the butter had melted away.

Another told of the liberation, when she and others simply walked out of the prison camp in Bolzano, not knowing if this was a trick and they would all be shot, but the Germans had run away; and she got somehow back to Torino, and talked Fiat into giving her an ambulance so she could bring wounded Piemontese home from Bolzano, and finding her brother on her tenth and last trip, six feet tall and ninety pounds and recognizable only by his eyes. All the wounded she brought back died within days, and their deaths were meaningless, the woman said; we need not years but centuries to overcome the evils of those days, if we ever manage to overcome them at all.

Another man talked about the excitement and hard work of setting up the new government, when people of every political persuasion had to cooperate on drafting a new constitution. Every article, he said, required days of discussion; he was the one who took the minutes, and each article took hundreds of pages of them — except for one: an article which repudiated war.

It’s a hard word, he said, a “sculptural” one. It’s not We reject war, or we disapprove of war: we repudiate war. And it was unanimously agreed; there were six and a half pages of minutes. It was very quickly agreed. And you may say, well, you have to have a military for defensive purposes. But if you have a military you have soldiers and orders. What will you do if you are ordered to kill civilians, to drop bombs on their houses? What if you are ordered to use bacteriological or nuclear weapons? What if you are told to kill prisoners, or to torture them? We were all agreed: we repudiate this.

I was nearly in tears by the end of this, and wrote a note to add to the hundreds already posted by previous visitors in the exit lobby: Yes, and now it is all happening again, Amiericans are dropping bombs on civilians, people are being held without defense or trial, we can only hope that you Italians who remember so vividly that Second World War will be able to teach us something over the next generations, so that perhaps one day governments will all be truly civilized and will work not for death and destruction but for life and health.

And then we walked back along the Via Garibaldi — named for the uniter of Italy — to the Piazza Castello with its curious huge castle-building, dark and brick and Gothic behind, male and militant; and white and Baroque and stucco in front, feminine and beautiful. And then a pizza at a small restaurant, a good one; and then back to the Castello and its Biblioteca Reale for an exhibition of Dutch drawings from the time of Rembrandt.

What a library this is! Another barrel-vault of a room, but elegant, spacious, and well lit by natural light, and filled with books containing the history of Savoia, that wonderful mountain-and-piedmont kingdom now split between France and Italy, its fertile self-sustainability harnessed to two centrist governments which seem uninterested in the glorious culture that is here.

So once again a dialectic: bomb shelter and library. I read in the paper the other day something about the assumptions of the West concerning “developing nations,” that a kind of socio-political evolution will bring them inevitably (if slowly and at times against their wills) to the kind of culture and economy that obtains in Western Europe and North America.

It’s hard for us to believe, harder to understand, but there are places and peoples in the world who really don’t want to participate in this kind of engineered evolution. “We respect your position, but you must therefore respect ours.” And so it goes, on and on.

And tomorrow we break camp once again and go to I Mandorli in Monferrato, where the Internet may or may not connect. In the meantime there are more photos at dotmac.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

7 Antiche Sere

via Cenischia, Torino

AT THE CENTER OF THE PHOTO, there, behind the doorway under that bright circle of light, is a restaurant we’ve always wanted to try: Antiche Sere, whose name translates, I suppose, to “Evenings of Yesteryear,” except that such translations always sound forced, formal, old-fashioned in American English, though they are perfectly ordinary everyday expressions in French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish.

The guidebooks have always listed it as a perfect place to find the traditional cuisine of Piemonte, that interesting province in the northwest of Italy — an analogue, I suppose, geographically at least, of the Pacific Northwest in the United States. (Bearing in mind the huge difference between the areas of the United States and Italy, which is less than twice as big as California.)

Lindsey’s father was born in a mountain village in a remote valley in the northwestern corner of Piemonte, and we — Lindsey and I — have always felt an affinity for this province. We are in Torino, the capital city of the province, not sixty miles from Chiomonte, where her father was born. And I firmly believe a taste for certain foods is inherited in the genes. In this case, potatoes cooked a certain way; peas of a certain texture; bagna cauda, gnocchi, agnolotti, Castelmagno, bonnet... the list goes on and on.

So tonight, after a hard day (I explained that earlier), we took a taxi out to Anitche Sere for dinner with an old friend, Nancy from Hawaii; and a newer friend, a friend of hers, Ellen from San Francisco; and an older friend, Deborah from Galisteo, or let’s say Santa Fe. All of them are here for the same reason we are: to attend the biannual meeting of Slow Food, involving the Salone del Gusto which is a quasi-commercial (or much of the time even a quite commercial) exposition of Food Products, and Terra Madre, which is a meeting of producers, farmers, fishermen, herders, and chefs who intermediate between chthonic, Slow, authentic, minimally interfered-with food products and the city-dwelling, evolved, civilized, often unaware people who enjoy those food products.

And here is what I ate (I won’t try to list the other items at the table):
white wine as an aperitif
gnocchi in pomodori
nave e finocchia in salata
arrosto di vitello con patate
and with these,
a liter of red wine
a bottle of Grignolino 2005
a glass or two, tiny ones, of grappa di Moscato.

The others had things like agnolotti, coniglio, insalate miste, and so on; and other desserts.

The bill, if you want to know, was a total of 138 euros, for the five of us.

And how was it? Well, it was really quite good; indeed it was like eating at your grandmother’s house if your grandmother was or is Piemontese. Or Italian in general; or, probably, either European from south of the Rhine-Danube. The point of this food — the point of all true Slow Food — is that it is Clean, meaning that it avoids ingredients that are purely chemical and manufactured; Frugal, meaning that it uses all of everything available to its place, and very little brought in, and Good, meaning that, well, it tastes so good that whether you are hungry or not you use the bread to mop the plate before it’s gone. Pulito, giusto, e buono.

We took a cab which even though the ride seemed circuitous got us there in just a few minutes, so we took a walk in the neighborhood in order not to arrive before eight. No one dines before eight o’clock in Italy. We walked past cafés, furniture stores, one of those imported-gifts-from-third-world-country stores, a shop that cleans furs, a couple of clothing stores — that sort of thing. Clearly none of them were on the street in the photo: that’s a small side street.

Then we were in, to find Americans everywhere at table — Americans eat early here — and among them our friends, and we tucked in. And how was it? Well, it was really quite good. But as you may have gathered by now \p\pnostante how good it was, it was something like Lindsey’s cousin Rosa prepares on the rare visits we make to her in Chiomonte (and I take this opportunity to apologize for not visiting her this time; we’ll surely be there next time).

The gnocchi were tender little cubes of mashed potato in a nice tomato sauce with a dusting of grated Parmesan and a grinding of black pepper. The tunips and fennel continued the idea of eating in bianco, all white things; simply delicious turnips (which I usually find too strong) and fennel bulbs quartered, blanched in boiling water no doubt with lemon juice, then dressed with a light olive oil. The slice of veal was a modest one, off the bone, say three-quarters of an inch thick and about as big as my hand; it had been roasted with a bit of garlic and salt and came thinly covered with a thick reddish-brown gravy and a good supply of small quartered roasted potatoes. Again, oil, salt, and very discreet garlic were the flavors.

As for bonet — the word is Piemontino, the local dialect which is often closer to French than to italian — this is a difficult dessert to describe; I generally call it “chocolate pudding,” but that’s misleading. It came as a thick slice of a loaf of pudding, a sort of firm custard, like an Indian pudding, but with a layer composed of soaked ground-up almond macaroons, substantial and deeply flavored with chocolate and amaretto but somehow going beyond that, suggesting chestnuts and molasses somehow... it’s a dessert we like very much, but not, I think, for everyone.

We like Piemonte for its individuality; it is a state within a nation, with a distinct culture rooted in tradition and independence tempered by its cosmopolitanism. It reminds me of Savoy in France, and in fact Torino — Turin in France, and therefore England — was the capital city of the former kingdom of Savoia. I think Piemonte is also like northern California, with an economy that includes agriculture, manufacturing, commerce, and tourism; and gifted with a geography that could make it almost self-sufficient.

Like northern California, Piemonte is composed of separate regions each with its own mentality. Lindsey’s father was born in the Valsusa, fifty miles or so west of here; he didn’t learn Italian until he went to school, for the family spoke Chiomontino, the local dialect of the provincial dialect. Well to the south is the fine city of Cuneo, with its own surrounding valleys, orchards, vineyards, and pastures. To the southeast is the Langhe, famous for its red wines; to the northeast another area producing that fine arborio rice so necessary for Italian risotto dishes. And just north of the Langhe is Monferrato, which I think of as the Sonoma county of Piemonte except that it’s a bit more rumpled and much less given to that current agricultural fallacy Monoculture.

We go to Monferrato tomorrow and I’ll write more about it later. It’s time now to go out for breakfast...

6: Ancora in Italia

Outside our room, Ca’ Rossa, Bergamo

Not that long ago, not a week ago in fact, a fellow I hadn’t met before looked at me appraisingly and said, after some reflection, I think you’re Dutch.

I was pleased. I’d rather be Dutch than almost anything. He was sitting at the next table at Marius, when we had dinner there last Saturday; we’d struck up a conversation; then been introduced (by Kees, the chef, who’s known both of us for many years). In the course of the conversation I’m sure I’d revealed my enthusiasm for the Dutch at great and possibly boring length. I’d also revealed my insatiable curiosity about words and languages; and he was a little surprised at all this, and asked whether I was Dutch. No, I said, I’m from California.

I never identify myself as an American when traveling in Europe, especially not these days. I just don’t identify with that many aspects of American life that distinguish my country from European ones. Besides, there’s always the secret desire for California’s secession, for its reversion to a California Republic with room for Easterners, Mexicans, Native Californians, and the return of the original wild life. So I call myself a Californian, for that is what I think I am.

But though I am a sixth-generation Californian on my mother’s side, I am of unspecified origin on my father’s. My father’s father was adopted; his own father — whom I dimly recall having met when I was five or six years old — was a man by the name of Charles Smith, or so he said; and the family legend is that no one knew where he came from: he just showed up one day, a full-grown man with the surname Smith, and a manner that discouraged questions about his origin.

The family has always assumed he was Irish or English, but I don’t know that there’s any real reason for that. Clearly he wasn’t particularly Asian or African, and I doubt he was Mediterranean. One day perhaps I’ll have one of those DNA tests and find something out, but it doesn’t seem worth the trouble and expense.

Particularly now that I know on good authority that I am Dutch. The guy at the next table would have known: he knows the Dutch, and he looked pretty hard at me.

But yesterday we flew in a little over an hour from Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport across the dark Bavaria and Switzerland to land at Bergamo, in northern Italy; and when we got out of the plane and heard the Italian and saw the people and sensed the warm air and saw palms and olive trees and especially when we checked into our B&B and saw out our bedroom window the walled garden and beyond it the dark forested hillside climbing up north into a midnight blue sky I thought to myself: come siamo beati, essere qui in Italia; how blessed we are to be here in Italy.

What is it? Something in the air, I suppose, that I associate with Pleasure. Our landlady was there to greet us at the airport and drive us to our B&B, the Ca’ Rosso, a couple of kilometers outside Bergamo. We stopped to pick up some laundry and have a chat with a friend or two, then drove right through the old Città Alta, the fine old stone heart of the city perched on a hill; then down the other side and into the country.

The house was casalinga, as the Italians say; “homey.” A big sitting room, where we had breakfast the next morning — yesterday morning — featured an enormous fireplace and hearth occupying an entire end of the room; paintings on one long wall; a series of French doors giving onto a narrow balcony on the other, with a view of the Città Alta. Our bedroom with its large private bathroom was off to one side, its window looking toward the hills toward the north, black and mysterious when we went to bed, the many colors of autumn foliage when we got up yesterday morning, for the hills are covered with oaks and other deciduous trees; I can imagine the hunting is good in there.

Our landlord took us to the bus station next morning, where it was easy and convenient to get a bus back to the airport. From there another easy and convenient (and inexpensive!) shuttle-bus took us the 50 kilometers to the Milan train station; and there we bought tickets on a fast train to Torino, and a taxi got us easily to the next hotel.

So far, so good. I’d been able to give advice to a young English couple on the bus to Milan: there’s a nice hotel on such-and-such street; try to make lots of use of the trams; be careful of pickpockets around the train station. I’d been able to get by in Italian with our landlady, whose English was rudimentary. Transportation went easily and comfortably. I’d even hooked onto someone else’s wireless in our Bergamo bedroom.

But there is a dark side and a light side to everything, even Italy. I’ll get right to the point: this afternoon I made another of my infrequent unwilling contributions to the more just redistribution of property. We were riding the number 35 bus to the Salone, about noon on Saturday, standing on a terribly crowded bus, and when at one point I looked down at the canvas shoulder-bag in which I carry too much stuff I noticed it was unzipped, and my handheld computer was gone. This is very annoying and has put me in malumore, into a bad mood.

The thing was old and obsolescent anyway, a Palm Tungsten T that I bought a couple of years ago, on sale because it was being discontinued, to replace an earlier one that I’d similarly lost in Italy — through my own fault, when I left it on a seat in the Rome subway. I’ve been wanting to replace it. But I count on it daily for address book, journal, expense journal, dictionary, and any number of things.

Fortunately, as luck had it, I’d backed it up completely just this morning, so no information is lost to me. But for the next three weeks I’ll have to make due with pen and paper, and I’m long out of that habit. And I have that soiled and stupid feeling one has when one’s been robbed or violated: how could things have been different; why did we get on so crowded a bus; why wasn’t my hand on the bag (because one was on my wallet, and the other was hanging onto the bus-stanchion as we negotiated the bumpy streets and abrupt changes of speed and direction).

THIS MORNING ON THE TELEVSION that brash silly toothy Englishman on Saturday Morning CNN was interviewing some supercilious ranting art critic about the relevance of contemporary art, and then he had the uncommon decency to speak for a few minutes to someone with a different point of view, a practicing artist in fact, who struck me as calm and reasonable in his defense of abstraction and such.

I don’t mind, the artist said, if such establishmentarians think what we do is rubbish and has no right to exist, that’s their opinion and I respect it as such, but they have to give us our place and our right to a different point of view, and sometimes it takes a pretty accurate slingshot to deal with the Goliaths of the establishment.

Then I turn to a recent copy of The Nation and read Katha Pollitt’s “Single-Issue Solipsism,” arguing against “non-partisan” single-issue commentators who back Republican nominees who seem to favor that single issue against Democrats who perhaps don’t — even though, as Pollitt points out, that single issue will go nowhere as long as the Republicans maintain control of congress, because the exceptional candidates these commentators like are mavericks in their own party.

And here we are at the Salone del Gusto, which is good-humoredly excoriated in La Stampa for its commercial exhibits featuring walls of plastic facsimiles of wheels of Parmesan cheese and whole prosciutti. Not to mention the inclusion of more than one AutoGrill in the cavernous exhibit hall at Lingotto, for the AutoGrill is the perfect symbol of Fast Food: it’s the place you duck into when you pull off the freeway in Italy, intent on another quick espresso, or a ham-and-cheese panino to stave off hunger, or perhaps a teeny shot of grappa to soothe the highway nerves.

This is our fourth Salone del Gusto, I think, and perhaps our last. We are as enchanted as ever with the exhibits: oils and vinegars, honeys and marmalades; cheese of every description, ditto sausage, ditto bread and pastry; sweets; pastas; beer, cider, stout and perry; wines from every corner of the globe. But we’ve seen this all before, and the Salone is for the younger. It gets more crowded every year, for one thing: this time we made the mistake of coming for the last two days, not the first two; and the combination of press attention and weekend leisure has made the floor extraordinarily crowded, hard to move through, and of course noisy.

Nor did we choose this year to attend any of the wonderful “taste laboratories,” for in the last three incarnations of the Salone we’ve pretty well done them all, studying most of the categories listed above in considerable detail.

But we have enjoyed ourselves, and tasted some very wonderful things — a fine liquore from Croatia, flavored with hips of the dog-rose and wild plums and who knows what else; a magnificent Castelmagno cheese from a nearby alpine pasture; subtle lemon products from Sicily; exotic grains from the Andes; an exceptional ice-wine made from apples, of all things, in Quebec, of all places.

Best of all everyone at the Salone seems to be in a good mood. The producers are proud of their work, and rightly so; and pleased with the response they get, and little wonder. The man who made the apple ice-wine said, when I asked where I might find it, Oh, just about anywhere, Whole Foods, and Costco, and...

All those terrible places? I asked, with a smile, and then added Well why not, there’s no point making it if people can’t get it; and he said Well, I just sell it to my distributor, and he finds places for it; I have to sell it if I’m going to be able to go on making it.

I think the more cynical criticisms of the Salone and of Slow Food generally, that it is sleeping with the enemy, that it’s going too “commercial,” are misplaced criticisms. If you’re going to improve the world well then you have to work with the parts that need improving, that’s obvious enough.

And most of these guys seem to have accurate slingshots, and a lot of patience. My money’s on their side of the equation. I just wish my handheld computer hadn’t switched sides.

Friday, October 27, 2006

NL5: Museums

Bergamo, Oct. 26—

A DAY IN APELDOORN with our friends Hans and Anneke always involves bicycles; it can’t be helped, and to tell the truth we wouldn’t have it any other way. For seventy years that’s how they’ve made their daily rounds of their town and environs: op fiets. It’s one of the sweet peculiarities of the Dutch language that the usual word for bicycle is fiets. The “correct” word is, or was,rijwiel, and you still see that word occasoinally, but it sounds both formal and quaint, as “automobile” does to American ears. Everyone says fiets; and nearly everyone rides one.

So yesterday we set out about eleven in the morning, by auto at first, to the town of Otterloo, or was it Hoenderloo, I always get them confused even though the memory of ancient 78rpm Beethoven recordings conducted by Willem van Otterloo ought to serve as an aide-memoire, to spend a few hours at the Kröller-Müller Museum, one of my favorite in the world. The Museum, named for the married couple whose fortune collected its contents, is in the center of the national park of the Hoge Veluwe, a high heath-and-forest on ancient dunes in country that has been grazed, farmed, abandoned, hunted, and now cycled over the millennia.

It was a bracing day: the air soft but cold enough that we wished we’d brought gloves. We parked at the entrance and helped ourselves to free white bicycles for the few miles to the museum, riding an asphalt fietspad between forest and heath, admiring the colors, enjoying the air, amused by the frequent signs of rooting wild pigs, for the acorn crop is heavy this year. (The rooting of pigs, I decided, is The Invention of Agriculture: surely the first farmers got the idea of ploughing the soil from their observations of the results of rooting pigs.)

The Kröller-Müller is spectacular for four reasons: its architecture, which is modest but first-rate; its setting, which couldn’t be bettered; its collection, which features dozens of masterpieces and hardly a clinker; and the fact that the work was collected by and for a single pair of eyes. The only museum I know of that rivals it is the deMenil Foundation, but it has the disadvantage of being in Houston. Mrs. Müller (or was it Mrs. Kröller?) had better taste in husbands, or at least in the settings they can provide. And she had the advantage of living in a more exciting age, the first third of the Twentieth Century, when she could buy Braque and Picasso, Rysselbergh and Mondrian, Seurat and Monet; and when she was astute enough and quick enough to pick up the very best of Vincent van Gogh’s paintings.

I first visited this museum in the spring of 1973, when (as I mentioned earlier) I was on a press junket to cover the opening of the Vincent van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. We art critics and travel writers were herded through a number of Dutch museums, but the Kröller-Müller was not one of them, and I think I know why: its collection puts the Amsterdam van Gogh Museum quite in the shade. (I was lucky to have been taken to the Kröller-Müller by Scott Keech, a friend and former colleague then in The Hague on a journalism grant.)

We were here last December with another couple of friends, Richard and Marta: at that time the museum building was being re-roofed and many of the galleries were closed. (One benefit was the temporary hanging of the van Goghs in very close and crowded installations, double- and triple-hung at times; the pictures set up quite a noisy conversation among themselves. On this visit they were much more sedate, keeping their distance from one another; but there was still plenty of energy in that vast hall.)

Since we’d been here so recently there was no need to take a lot of time. This visit was like seeing a bunch of old friends at a big party; you’d talked to them recently; you knew you’d be seeing them again when there’d be a better chance of deep conversation; it was more a matter of nodding to them agreeably in passing, mentioning a familiar shared memory or two, reassuring yourself that there was no real change either in them or in yourself.

There are a couple of standouts, of course: Seurat’s La chahut, Cranach’s Venus and Adonis, the entire high cubism room, the pointillist masterpieces. But there is also “M. Jacques,” the café named for a charming life-size realistic bronze of a complacent Belgian man in an overcoat, holding his hat in his hands behind his back, gazing up appreciatively but a bit critically at the sky. I like both the sculpture and the café.

And then it was time for a walk in the sculpture garden, to the two pavilions, one by the cubist Gerrit Rietveld and one by Aldo van Eyck, a more recent architect whose structure nicely nestles a number of stone and bronze sculptures meant perhaps to be touched, since the pavilion is dedicated to the physically handicapped; and then we found four different bicycles for the ride back, for the point of these white bicycles is that you take them where you want and leave them there — though only in the park, of course; the famous white bicycle experiment failed in Amsterdam, back in the 1960s, perhaps because too many people were amused at the splashes they made in the canals.

Among the van Goghs at the Kröller-Müller was The Potato-Eaters, which I mentioned the other day. The painting’s as ugly as I remembered, and smaller; and I didn’t recall having seen it last December. It was one of four van Goghs stolen back in the early 1980s: they were held for ransom, rolled up in the trunk of a car out in the parking lot, though they didn’t turn up for a couple of years; I’m not sure why. Security’s a bit tighter at the Kröller-Müller these days: I wouldn’t advise trying that again.

TODAY WE WENT FOR A WALK in the garden of Het Loo, the royal summer palace, the Dutch equivalent of the palace of Versailles. (Or, I suppose, though it pains me to make the analogy, of the ranch at Crawford, Texas.) It’s an amazing garden, designed in the high French baroque style, drastically changed in the early 19th century (it was buried in several feet of sand), then rediscovered forty years ago and set back in order.

This is a perfect time to see it, as it has just received its semi-annual clipping. The box-hedges are crisp and even, and the cypress and yew, formed into bullets as tall as me alternating with spheres about three feet in diameter, guard the edges of the generous parterres like so many complacent chess-pieces. The purpose of such geometrical precision, I read many years ago in a landscape-architecture article (in that marvelous periodical Pacific Horticulture, if you want to know), is not to impress the viewer with the gardener’s virtuosity, but to quiet the viewer’s mind with abstract formality; and this is particularly the case in a setting like this, where the more natural groupings of huge elms, oaks, and beeches — some of them three hundred years old — is seen beyond the garden walls; and where the entire installation is an exercise of national, even governmental intent to instruct the citizenry, to offer to it an example of discipline, restraint, and co-operation.

It was odd, later today, to contrast that with a new museum-library-conference facility the municipality has erected near its commercial center. CODA — the name stands for cultuur onder dak something-or-other starting with “a,” culture united under [one] roof — is an exercise in civil generosity, I suppose; its heart is in the right place; it has a nice little café, a series of conference rooms for public use, a computer lab, and the town library; as well as the obligatory rather large gift shop offering engaging, attractive, and generally useless dinggetjes as the Duch say — “thingies.”

Well, you can see where this is headed. The substance of century-old groves, of formal gardens that work their way through generations of changing taste, of a plain but elegant and quite large palace, can’t help but contrast with the plate glass, plastic curves, computer screens and rows and rows of historical novels. I keep thinking something crested a few decades back and has in many ways — not all, I certainly grant you! — has declined a bit in the years since. But who knows, the pendulum may swing back: let’s preserve what’s left of the best for future generations to cherish and consider.

and now we are in Torino, in a nice hotel for the next three days, and off soon to the Salone del Gusto...

Thursday, October 26, 2006

NL 4: Brabant; Maastricht

Apeldoorn, Oct. 25 2006—

HOW TO DECIDE where to go next? That’s the recurring question when traveling as we do, with broad goals but details not quite filled in. Particularly true, for us, in The Netherlands. We have seen quite a bit of many of the Twelve Provinces, having walked the length of the country, bicycled other out-of-the-way corners, and toured by car and by train often enough over the years.

But we do not know the southernmost province, Noord-Brabant. We were cautioned many years ago — by a northern Dutch, to be sure — that we would not like it: it is dirty, or at least unkempt; it is licentious, or at least non-Protestant. It is to be sure in many ways un-Dutch: there are hills; canals are often lacking. I’m not sure why it didn’t go along with Belgium, when that country seceded from the Twelve Provinces in the 1830s, or whenever it was. But it didn’t, and there it is like a buffer zone between Belgium and the rest of the Netherlands, waiting for us to explore it.

In fact I first penetrated Noord-Brabant quite a while ago, in 1973, while on a press junket covering the opening, in Amsterdam, of a new museum wholly dedicated to the work of Vincent van Gogh. A side trip took us to Nuenen, where the hapless young van Gogh grew up in a miserable hovel of a house, near a water-mill, not far from the village church where his father was pastor. We visited that shack, now a shrine; it looked exactly like the setting of The Potato-Eaters.

(The same side trip took us to EIndhoven where a then-new building housed the Van Abbé Museum, dedicated to the latest painting and sculpture. Eindhoven is the home of one of the greatest Dutch industries, Philips Electronics, and being up-to-date was important, good for the corporate image. Potato-eaters are not the way to sell computers and video.)

In addition to further explorations of neglected terrain we have other, more idiosyncratic sieves for deciding where to go next. I have a penchant for enclaves, for example; those curious places which belong to one administration but are wholly surrounded by another. There’s one in Noord-Brabant: it’s called Baarle-Nassau, and it’s a gemeente or municipality completely administered by Belgium though entirely surrounded by the Netherlands — by Noord-Brabant, in fact.

We drove there many years ago, not having to go far out of our way since we’d landed in Brussels and were driving to Apeldoorn. We drove through the open fields that seem to lie far too high above sea level to be Dutch, through villages decorated with the omnipresent espaliered trees, on country roads smoothly paved and easy to drive, lined by pollarded willows; and then suddenly we were in a town whose architecture was all wrong — faux-French rather than Dutch — and whose streets were too wide — and, worst of all, disfigured by all sorts of commercial signs and billboards, many of them advertising some sort of lottery or gambling facility.

Cluttered, licentious, un-Dutch: Belgian, in fact.

(On another occasion, when we were very far south in Limburg but still in a very Dutch town, I asked the hotelkeeper what that smoke was across the river. Oh, she said, that’s Belgium. It’s terrible: The Belgians just burn all their garbage out in the open, in great fires; it stinks, the smoke fills the sky, it’s polluting. And what do you Dutch do with your garbage, I asked. Oh, she said, we send it across the border to the Belgians.)

Then there’s the desire to visit places with odd or memorable names. I like Bra, in Italy’s Piemonte; we’ll likely be there next week. I like Zutphen, not far from where I write this; and I’ve always wanted to walk from Alphen to Zutphen, it seems such an alphabetically satisfying thing to do. (Our walk the length of the Netherlands took us from Pieterburen to Pietersberg: that’s why it’s called the Pieterpad.)

And so it was on Monday night we found ourselves in Oss. I’d thought to find a hotel in Den Bosch, which is itself an odd name for a city — The Bush, I suppose, though the Dutch word is in fact “bosje,” “little forest.” (By way of South Africa that diminutive has given us “bush” in the sense of “back country.”) And Den Bosch is particularly odd for it’s the familiar form of “ ’s Hertegenbosch,” which I think means “the Duke’s bush,” or something of the sort.

(In the same way “Den Haag,” the usual spoken form of the nation’s capital — or one of its two capitals, for nothing is ever allowed to be too simple in this country — is really a simplification of “ ’s Gravenhage,” “the Count’s hedge.”)

But on driving through it Den Bosch seemed unpromising, full of buildings and cars and streets but not particularly ingratiating, and I thought a smaller town down near the river would be more, well, gezellig, that peculiarly Dutch combination of cozy, comfortable, snug, and accommodating, So we left the highway and took to a secondary road, still straight and fast, well marked and smoothly paved, through regimented forests of alders and lampposts, and drove for nearly an hour through roundabouts and traffic lights, soon quite within a new town of shopping districts separated by neat rows of newish detached houses and apartment blocks, and finally inside an older town lacking only a hotel to justify the amount of space it occupied.

We did find one, ultimately, but it cost two hundred dollars a night, I can’t imagine why. Then we were directed to another, the City Hotel, less than half the price but still expensive by our standards, but comfortable enough. And so we had dinner — guinea-hen and a salad for me — and slept soundly.

THE NEXT MORNING TOOK US to Nijmegen, a city that’s always attracted me, but remains to be fully explored. We were there to revisit its Valkhof Museum, seen only rather hurriedly a couple of years ago. Nijmegen is literally at the end of the world, from the point of view of the Roman empire: it stands at the northern limit of Mediterranean expansion into Europe (not counting the island colony of Anglia), high on a bluff overlooking the wide Waal river beyond which camped the undefeated and surly Batavians.

The Romans were in town quite a long while, and left a good many souvenirs behind, and the Valkhof is happy to let you have a look at many of them. Coins, armor, weapons, tools, hardware, sculpture, jewelry; all the things that were too durable to rot away, too lost in garbage dumps (or worse) to have been melted down for further use. (I wonder, sometimes, about the successive forms taken by metals as they’re cast and re-cast into hinges, safety pins, helmets, frying pans and the like. When I was a boy the iron fences in the neighborhood were given to the government to be melted down for the war effort; and now scrap metal, mostly in the form of abandoned automobiles, is one of America’s greatest exports, along with waste paper and, lamentably, topsoil.)

The Valkhof presents all these artifacts in a series of fine, spacious, open rooms, well labelled if you have the patience to work out the Dutch; there are particularly absorbing displays of jewelry, coins, ceramics, and glass. That Roman glass! Drinking vessels and bottles, for the most part, of course, much of it elegant in form and both luminous and fragile — the clear greenish cast having often taken on various milky qualities as various minerals have reacted to light and age. Glass is something like petrified flesh, I think; it is fragility made immortal though still frighteningly vulnerable.

You move from these contemplations into more recent times: the Middle Ages and the rise of mercantile modernity; the taking up of Art as a major preoccupation. Portraits and furnishings, the souvenirs of pride: like so much of history, and particularly the history revealed in museums devoted primarily to Art, the poor and the downtrodden are taken for granted; it is the wealth and the enterprise that is celebrated; mere survival — which is what most of human activity has been — is rarely to be seen.

(And so ugly as it is, van Gogh’s Potato Eaters is significant beyond itself, and though it cost him his life van Gogh’s tragic sympathy for the poor, in the face of the ironic dependency of much of Art on the charity of the idle rich and leisure-class, is among the noblest aspects of the beginnings of Modernism.)

And after the Middle Ages and the Baroque and the rise of colonial empire and the age of industrialism and the beginning of Modernism here, in the final rooms of the Valkhof, is the triumph of Twentieth Century art: Pop. Art began to celebrate mediocrity in the 1960s or so; and fifty years later has taken the next logical step and become, from my point of view as an aging resentful ex-critic, mediocre itself. We took in a survey of current production in this province (for we are now in Gelderland, having left Noord-Brabant behind us with Oss): conceptual and technological and committee-made visual art, mixed-media of course, the best of it ironic; and I thought again of the French poet Francis Ponge, who wisely remarked that irony is the earmark of a decadent age when rhetoric, dying, turns to itself for its subject.

And we had a cappuccino and a piece of “industrial-cake,” a very dense, heavy, surely healthful cake full of sunflower seeds and pine nuts and whole-grain meal baked in the form of a heavy gear; and went down into the parking garage for our car and drove through the familiar Hoge Veluwe, the forest and heath at the heart of the Netherlands, to Hans and Anneke and a day or two of relaxation with old friends.

later: And now we’re in another airport, waiting for another plane, this time to fly to Italy, whence more tomorrow...

Tuesday, October 24, 2006



MY MOTHER, WHO IN MANY WAYS I never really knew or understood, gave me among other things a copy of Desiderius Erasmus’s The Praise of Folly as a parting gift when I went off to college. I’m not sure why she chose that text; probably she hoped to inculcate a sort of liberal intelligence. I found it confusing, as was all of life, particularly when regarded in a context including family.

But it followed logically another book I’d already come to love, Henrik Willem van Loon’s fanciful history-biography anthology Van Loon’s Lives, which on recent re-reading reveals itself a fine production of propaganda in defense of European (and especially transalpine) values in the face of the brutalities of the Third Reich.

Van Loon’s megillah was his unexplained ability to invite someone from the past, often quite a remote past, to dinner every Saturday night. His first guest was Erasmus, and he was so helpful he became the constant mediator between van Loon and his romantic-historical project.

There were memorable evenings. Emily Dickenson hid in the attic, sliding slips of paper with short poems written on them between the cracks of the ceiling; they fluttered down to Chopin, who played the old spinet in the parlor. Mozart and Hans Christian Anderson came; Queen Elizabeth and the Empress Theodora came; Robespierre and Torquemada came. There were great explorers and scientists, writers and artists. One Saturday afternoon the town square was taken over by dozens of Bachs whose improvisations entertained an equal number of Breughels, all busy at their sketch-pads.

All this took place in the town of Veere on the island of Walcheren in the Dutch province of Zeeland, relatively safe from the early days of World War II. In fact, however, a couple of years later, the island’s chief city Middelburg was badly hit by German bombs. Van Loon wrote his book largely in New York, and it was published quickly and circulated by the Book-Of-The-Month Club as a part of America’s industrious patriotism in those days.

We were in Middelburg Sunday night returning Grace to her apartment; she’s studying at the Roosevelt Academy there, in a program attached to the University of Utrecht, Erasmus’s alma mater. The Roosevelt Academy, as I understand it, is a three-year college with an international student body; the classes are in English, and all students are required to be fluent in English, to learn Dutch, and to follow a course in the liberal arts.

The school’s main building is in the fine old city hall, where van Loon slipped his dinner invitations underneath one of the stone lions (but he never told which one) on the steps to the front door. That building is now known as Franklin; another school building, across the street, is called Eleanor. (I suppose there’s a third named Theodore.)

The Roosevelt family ascended, of course, in the Netherlands, and personified the liberal intelligence so keenly espoused by Erasmus, and so necessary to a civil society in difficult times; and I’m happy to think of these youngsters from scores of countries all coming together to study linguistics and statistics, language and literature (Grace’s subjects this semester), and particularly to study one another, and the forces that prevail in family and society, in history and the present day, that have made them what they are, and enabled them to become what they will. Grace has schoolmates from Iraq and China, England and Australia, Finland and France; from Pacific Island kingdoms and African states; dozens of languages are represented; and all these young people have to get along, and for the most part do.

WE WOKE UP MONDAY MORNING in our second-floor (in the European way of counting, which starts above the main floor) after a very quiet night. The carillon began playing the quarter-hours only at eight in the morning, I think; I hadn’t noticed it earlier. Our hotel, the Kaepstander, was across the street from the abbey, Lange Jan (is it named for the woolly underwear?), and the carillon was on Long John’s spire. So were the deep bells striking the hour. Other than that it was dead still; hardly anyone about — for most shops don’t open on Mondays until after noon. We had our breakfast in the jazz club that forms the Kaepstander’s morning-room, and set out to explore.

The abbey is astonishing, like so many Dutch religious buildings. No idea how old it is. The church roof is twenty-four meters off the ground, the length of two boxcars. It’s lit naturally through towering narrow windows composed of small panes of clear glass: Calvinism is not consistent with stained-glass. It dominates the small city of Middelburg, which is centered on it, and so forced to set its imposing city hall and market-square off to one side.

At the center of the abbey is a cloister, filled with a fine herb garden tended, the day we were there, by women volunteer gardeners who were giving it a last clipping and cleaning before leaving it to the winter. Yes, Middelburg used to be quiet, one agreed, but not now that all these students are here. But I like having them, it is fine to have youth and energy and optimism. We had a chance to have a university once before, in the sixteen-hundreds, but it would have meant higher taxes, and we chose not do do it. And now we have a second chance, and we don’t reject it.

We’d had dinner with Grace the evening before, at the Cafe-Restaurant de Vriendschap (Friendship), where I’d had an enormous bowl of mussels nicely cooked in white wine with carrot and onion and celery to give them crunch and aroma; and we had a coffee this Monday morning on the porch of the Brooklyn Cafe, overlooking the great Marktplein; and then she went to class and we drove to Veere. We had a haringbroodje — a raw herring with chopped onion, a slice of pickle and a leaf of lettuce in a soft roll, a Dutch delicacy we’re particularly fond of — at a stand in the parking lot and then ambled into town.

I hadn’t been there in years, and in the meantime it’s become quite the tourist town, its own small marktplein bordered with boutiques and cafe-restaurants; and here, finally, at the reception desk in the city hall now turned into a museum, was someone who’d heard of Henrik Willem van Loon, who seems otherwise to be not only neglected but quite unheard-of. (It’s time, I think, to republish that book, perhaps with an introduction explaining its historical context and perspective — for our own age, with its urge to political correctness, seems impatient with and therefore unresponsive to other points of view.)

Veere is small and compact, snug beside its tiny harbor: but on its outskirts, a five-minute walk from the marktplein, is one of the hugest churches you’ll ever hope to find, a true architectural folly begun in the 15th century as I recall, squat and ugly for all its enormity, clearly a defensive building looking remarkably like the concrete bunkers still to be seen in places along the Netherlands shoreline. And in fact the history of this building is more military than spiritual; Napoleon’s troops used it for stables and bunkhouses. Today it’s used for, what else, concerts of popular music — though I noticed a poster for a concert of ancient Chinese music, too, whatever that might be.

Veere was overrun with German tourists when we first saw it, in June 1974, and German’s much to be heard there today. But there are plenty of Dutch and Belgian tourists as well, and if it’s the tourist economy that’s to conserve such a lovely place, more power to it. We had a cup of tea and a nice appeltaartje and headed off across southern Netherlands to find another hotel.

More photos at dotmac

Monday, October 23, 2006

Netherlands 2: Slacker, sluggard, slakker.

Leaving Dublin

Oss, Oct. 23

I AM A BIT OF A SLACKER, not really that much of one, for having waited so long to post a few words about this trip. There are two reasons, one technological, the other personal. The technological one is of course the inconvenience of going online, which in my case means also the difficulty of going online without paying.

The personal reason is that second word up there: sluggard. We flew Thursday to JFK, waited over an hour for our baggage, then took a shuttle to our Day’s Inn. JFK is a poor excuse for an international airport. Those who use the word “airport” to describe some postmodern totally global erasure of all things nationally distinctive have only to contrast JFK with, say, Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands to throw serious doubt on their case. If you fly to JFK you arrive at a miserable third-world country lacking conveniences and character. Perhaps this is not true if you bring great quantities of money: I don’t know about that: I don’t.

We flew Thursday to JFK, checked into our Days Inn (a miserable third-world excuse for a hotel, but clean, I suppose), spent the next morning there having lost many hours of sleep, spent the next afternoon in the “food court” at the airport catching up with a dear friend who lives in New York, and then flew the next segment of our trip.

”Food Court.” I love the expression; it suggests that your food is on trial. We ate at the best possible place, I believe, Sbarro. Guilt not proven, as the Scots say. A big salad lacking e. coli and a bigger plastic platter of spaghetti and “meatballs.” I asked the server if they had any red wine. “No: they don’t let us drink on the job,” she responded. Ah, Noo Yawk.

We flew on to Shannon, where we sat on the tarmac for nearly an hour waiting for a place to dock our airplane. Because of that we were quite late getting to our next airport, Dublin — did you know Dublin has its own little airport? We raced across the terminal to our next gate, checking in and out and in again at the antiterrorism headquarters, doffing and donning our shoes, to find that our next flight was itself delayed by an hour because of some unspecified emergency at Manchester, where it had been most recently.

The trip took two days all told, of which perhaps four hours were spent in bed at the Days Inn. We landed nearly an hour late at Schiphol, met Grace, got our car, and drove to our hotel in Akersloot, just short of Alkmaar. Why there? Much cheaper than Amsterdam, that’s why.

Nap; cold water on face; change shirt; drive in to...

A FAVORITE BAR IN AMSTERDAM:, de Oude Dock (the old dock), across Kadkjiksplein from a recently trendy Italian restaurant called A Tavola. Amsterdam is famous for its bruincafes, bar-cafes which are brown partly for their varnished wood fittings, partly for the tobacco-tars accumulated over the years. You don’t smoke in them any more, and the noxious effects of the tobacco are quite gone, but the character remains.

It’s fashionable to lament the disappearance of these bruincafes, but I think nearly every quarter of Amsterdam retains at least one. We’ve been in a few. I particularly like this one, and I wanted to introduce Grace to it; it’s the kind of place she’ll take her grandchildren to, and perhaps mention us to them, fifty years from now.

The ceiling is covered with bar coasters, like close-set scales on a fish; the room is dim; the recorded music is cool jazz; the drinks were bessengenever for Grace, sherry for Lindsey, a Corenwijn for me — that delicious, slightly cut “old Genever” gin you can get only here, unless BevMo stocks it now; I never go there.

One began to revive. The actual flights, the five airports, the four ascents and landings, the endless baggage-waits and bumpy cumulus and disreputable snacks — they were all behind us. It was catchup time: Grace is in her first year of college, her first year of independent living in Europe; she’s nineteen, full of fun and intelligence, tired from a fall break four-day trip to Paris, a little apprehensive about the schoolwork awaiting her day-after-tomorrow, but living completely in the moment, which her grandfather has suggested is the proper way to live.

And I, of course, am ecstatic to be once more in the Netherlands.

AND THEN WE FOUND OUR WAY, not without difficulty, to Marius, one of the Five Great Restaurants in the world (Chez Panisse, the Café Chez Panisse, Marius, Your Favorite Place, My Other Favorite Place) (let’s make it JoJo just now), where we had a Fabulous Meal:
chicken, warm spinach salad, mushrooms
octopus stew with tomatoes and other things
venison with puree of potato, pumpkin and apple
chocolate nemesis
with the appropriate wines, of course.

I apologize, sluggard that I am, for not having recorded this any better: I can plead fatigue. But it was delicious. You can read about Marius to your heart’s content at; and you can look for it several months back on this blog. I will say further only that the chef, Kees Elfring, exemplifies to me a perfect balance of the four components of serious cooking: Truth to the soil; Generosity of sensual delight; Healthfulness; and Intelligence. He knows his food from the farm, through the eye and nose and palate, to the nourishment of the body, never forgetting awareness of history, tradition, innovation, culinary analysis, perfect synthesis.

He does not do all this merely instinctively, though he is in fact an instinctive cook. He studies and thinks about these things, and works at Getting Things Right. This reflects his Dutch Calvinist background, perhaps. But he also lets go of theory and doctrine; at the last minute he knows it’s a matter of Getting It On The Table. The restaurant was full; everyone was happy.

NEXT MORNING, YESTERDAY, we got up at ten, having slept eight hours, and drove a few miles to Alkmaar for breakfast. Ham-cheese tostis for the girls, a three-egg-and-roast-beef uitsmijter with a small beer for me. Then it was on across the straight severe Afsluitdijk, which keeps the North Sea way from the interior of the Netherlands, and into Friesland, to visit Kees and Irma at home, and drive on to Jorwerd.

I wrote about this town here a month or so ago. I read about it in the book of the same name by Geert Mak, a Dutch journalist-historian: an account of the changes wrought on this agrarian town, between 1955 and 1995, by the revisions in the agrarian economic plans encoded and enforced by the Dutch national government. It’s a touching story, rather sad and nostalgic to those of us who grew up in and live in the country; but it’s not sentimental, it’s simply The Way Things Are.

We found much to reassure us. The Pastor’s House has just been purchased; its new occupants will no doubt maintain it in a romantic, newly comfortable, utterly clean version of the major house it’s always been. I found the bronze military cap on the fence-post next the mailbox touching: I hope it is maintained.

The Jorwerd church was open to visitors — clean, spare, straightforward, forthright; with an organ nicely maintained (though we weren’t able to hear it) and a back room full of books spilled willy-nilly on a big table: a book sale, perhaps; or is it the town lending-library? Dubious.

The notary’s house still has its huge back garden where, Irma assures me, the annual village theatrical is still put on — the old Frisian customs are maintained in a number of these towns; she’s on the committee of the one her own town puts on, and puts in her time at the bar in the local Village House.

The Jorwerd bar-café, Het Wapen van Bardersdael (and I’m sure I have the name wrong: it refers to the coat-of-arms of the local sub-province, Bardersdael) is still functional: we had a hot chocolate or so there, seated at tables furnished with the old-fashioned pile table-carpets; the billiard-cues stood comfortably but attentively in their rack; the proprietor left us nicely to ourselves after bringing us what we wanted.

And then it was time to go. We drove for hours across the Dutch countryside: Friesland with its lakes and canals and sheep and sails; Overijssel with its glimpses of distant hills; Gelderland and its national foest and heath; Utrecht where the suburbs grow; Noord-Brabant where the air begins to think of Belgium; and finally Zeeland where the rain, which had developed somewhere in Gelderland, let up completley, and the skies began to clear, and the air took on the salt-and-herring smak as the Dutch say, and we dropped Grace off in her room, and checked into our own room, up two flights of improbably steep steps.

YOU CAN SEE PHOTOS of some of this stage of our trip on my dotmac page. I’ll try soon to post an account here of our day in Walcheren, a place full of resonance for me — I think a stray comment made by a fellow at the next table at Marius may explain this resonance; at least it begins to for me. Interesting, to learn these things after seven decades.

Oh. And the slakkers? That’s the Dutch word for “snails”, which I asked the girl to leave out of my green salad tonight. I like it that the Dutch refer to that slimy animal by its slow pace.

Netherlands, 1

I WROTE ABOUT JORWERD here about a month ago, and I’ll write about that enchanting town again in a few days, when I’ve had time to catch my breath. In the meantime, you can see photos from the last couple of days on my dotmac page.

And here is what woke me up this morning:

An acquaintance, I might almost call him a friend, formerly engaging and sympathetic, let’s call him Ehrhard, had a few months ago suddenly become increasingly morose, spending long moments in a moody kind of distraction, silent and withdrawn, though given to occasional outbursts of apparently irrelevant excitement you might even call wild; certainly uncontrolled.

This made his company increasingly unpleasant, and I saw him less often — particularly as he now rarely sought me. Or, as far as I could tell, anyone else; though to tell the truth he’d never been one to spend an hour with more than one other person at a time. One didn’t know how he supported himself: he was bookish, talked on a number of subjects, was well informed but not particularly opinionated, and pursued a few curious interests with enough expertise and dedication to make use of public and institutional libraries, which was where I first met him. His showed little desire to entertain himself, but did occasionally seem to need an hour or two in a cafe where we met as if by chance, sitting at a corner table over a bottle, spending time in quiet conversation about history or poetry, music or theater.

But it had been some time since one of those chance meetings, and even they had grown uncomfortable, beset by moody silences and odd interruptions; and for months I’d only caught glimpses of him on the street where he’d be walking faster than usual, his eyes on the sidewalk, purposeful.

One day though I found myself in his rooms. He was seated at a small round table, a white cloth spread on it, its edges hanging down revealing an embroidered figured border, the window behind his left shoulder throwing a soft light, filtered by gauze curtains, on a curious box or chest centered on the table. The room was otherwise dim, its features indistinct. I sensed the presence of another person seated on the second chair at the table, but did not actually see him: only the chair was there, a plain wooden chair with a thin cushion in broadly striped sateen. I stood as if unseen a little distance from the table, invited I think but somehow irrelevant to whatever scene it was involving my friend.

He was very melancholy, sighing occasionally, now and then resting his chin on his cupped hands, his elbows on the table in front of him; or leaning back in his chair, extending his arms and laying his hands palms down on the tablecloth, not quite reaching and certainly not touching the chest which remained the focal point of the tableau.

I’ll never know what the chest contained. Whatever it was it was clearly significant, the only thing that mattered to my friend, or had mattered for months past. It had nothing to do with the interests I’d come to associate with him, with literature or history or landscape or the arts. It was something of intense personal meaning, and we had never discussed such things. Perhaps they were incapable, whatever they were, of being put into words: but they were clearly of great importance to him: perhaps the more so by virtue of their never having been discussed.

At some point recently whatever they were had become intrusive. It was as if they’d been dormant, inactive, immaterial to one’s daily life and the pursuit of one’s interests; matters of only limited interest. But within them lay some mechanism which, once set in motion, would evolve with slow but inexorable force, involving my friend’s entire person in a process quite apart from his own normal life and activity, involving him in what I can only call a narrative, a relationshi, approaching a psychological theatrical plot. I had no idea what lay at the bottom of this turn of events, but clearly something in that chest was key to its force; his eyes were by now burning with a sullen, resentful kind of intensity as they stared at it, locked on it, you might say, as if something within it were similarly fixed on him.

I could see him growing desperate, potentially violent, and it became a matter of the greatest importance to convince him that I myself had nothing to do with whatever had so seized him. In only a minute or two, in fact, the situation was so intense that I cried out, quite involuntarily, subconsciously hoping I suppose to break the spell, to interrupt this terrible hold that chest, or whatever it contained, had on my friend; I could see he was about to something terrible, something irreversible, perhaps some terrible violence on me, for I saw no other person or thing, other than the chest, that might be the object of this passion.

I saw that my exclamation had no effect on him, however. But then I quickly saw that I myself had no interest for him at all; I might have been quite invisible. His attention had lifted above and beyond the chest; he was staring into the space beyond the table, between it and the doorway through which I had stepped only minutes before. There was no one there, at least not visibly: but I felt a presence there, perhaps only because his fixed and intense gaze suggested someone. And he was about to destroy that person, and I cried out again; and then the entire scene dissolved, and I slept quite peacefully.

Sunday, October 15, 2006


WE WERE DOWN AT FILOLI last weekend, there to do the annual judging.

Filoli Center, off Highway 280 down in Woodside, is many things — among them, one of the most beautiful large gardens I know. But it is also a demonstration orchard, and every year celebrates the harvest with an impressive show of fruit from its trees. As a part of this there’s an annual competition for amateur cooks and bakers, and Lindsey is often one of the judges.

This time I didn’t taste anything. Sixty-odd desserts were just too daunting, and anyway it wasn’t my job. There was one item I couldn’t resist, a ricotta lemon tart whose pastry was made with olive oil — too unusual, and too promising, to pass up: and in fact I found it delicious. But I wasn’t a judge, and the tart didn’t make the finals.

But after hanging out with a friend in the cafe, and after a fine stroll through the grounds, I was fascinated to discover a tastable demonstration of apples and pears. A number of volunteers sat at long tables, cutting sample apples and pears into slices for a sizable crowd to try. On other tables there were exhibits of grapes, quinces, and other fall fruits along with the pears and apples, all carrying identification badges.

Here was an opportunity, I thought, to identify some of our own trees. We have a row of eleven apple trees, all of them different. We know what they are, but not which is which — some idiot cut off all their identifying labels while pruning them years ago, thinking his wife had recorded not only the names but also the locations of the varieties. (He has not been allowed to prune fruit trees since.)

(Here’s a box of our apples: Arkansas Black on the left, Rosebrook Gravenstein on the right. Our little apple trees aren’t much taller than I am, and last spring was so cold and rainy several didn’t set blossoms; still, we picked several boxes like this, probably sixty pounds of crabapples alone from one little tree in the middle of the garden.)

Filoli’s orchard puts ours to shame; it boasts more than ten times as many varieties. There sliced and available for tasting were a good twenty-five varieties, from American Summer Pearmain to York Imperial; and on the side table, wearing their names on little pennants of paper flying from toothpick staffs, were another hundred or so, from Albemarle Pippin to Yellow Bellflower. And indeed some looked much like our own apples. Apples are apples, of course, one’s much like another to a certain point. But there’s a lot beyond that point, and that’s where life begins to be really enjoyable.

All good apples (this sentence will be an example of circular logic) are aromatic, with reminders on the palate of their fairly close relationship to roses. Beyond the flavor, of course — or perhaps before it — there are the important qualities of looks and feel. Like all primates, we respond most quickly to red fruit: this has hampered California’s orchardists for nearly two hundred years, as apples rarely redden “properly” in our warm climate. On the other hand the russeting that characterizes a number of varieties has become unfamiliar and for that reason undesirable among many supermarket shoppers as old-fashioned varieties have fallen by the wayside.

Feel presents a different set of values. An apple, not to mention a pile of them, is a lovely sight, but the sense of sight has always seemed a little abstracted to me; it’s a sense one can be objective about, it’s the expression of the existence of an object with its own separate qualities and characteristics quite unconcerned with one’s own. Mouth-feel, on the other hand, even considered apart from the almost inseparable qualities of taste and smell, is intensely personal. You can’t get much more intimate.

Apples are prone to unpleasant mouth-feels: no one is attracted to mealy, cottony, mush, or rocky apples. And to tell the truth a good many of the old varieties of apple fall short here: they weren’t really selected for the pleasure of their mouth-feel. (Lord, can’t we have a better word in English than “mouth-feel”?) But that’s for a simple reason: many of these apples were selected for their keepability or their usefulness in the production of cider.

And in fact outside the tasting rooms the Filoli staff were busy cranking a fine cider-mill, and cups of the stuff were available for quaffing. When I was a kid this was an annual routine. We were allowed the windfalls at an orchard across the road, and spent an afternoon every fall picking them up by the hundreds, dumping them into a hopper, and watching the cloudy juice run from the basket-press. I was aware, of course, of the bugs, the rot, the leaves, and the worms that entered the process, and of the danger of stings by yellowjackets as interested in the apples as we were; but the cider was still a very good thing, and the chemistry involved in Dad’s experiments with brown sugar and raisins, in Mason jars of cider placed on window-sills and covered with cheesecloth, provided diversion in the weeks following.

At Filoli last weekend three apples jumped out among the two dozen I tasted: Cox’s Orange Pippin, Ashmead’s Kernal, and Skinner’s Seedling. Cox and Ashmead seemed to have cider in mind, but Skinner, whose seedling was the only truly local apple on hand — having been found right next door in San Mateo, some decades ago — was a classic eating apple, and provoked such vocal enthusiasm from me that the very nice lady slicing them said You enjoy it so much I’m going to give you one. And she did, and I put it in my pocket, and it still stands on our dining table because it is such a beautiful thing.

I don’t know when I’ve seen an apple whose skin is so wonderfully white, and yellow, and red. The white is somewhere between milk and ivory and shows only in a few places, probably where the fruit had been shaded from the sun; the yellow suggests sunshine and hay; the red blushes faintly in direct light, but in one patch — where the afternoon sun was probably strongest through an opening in the tree’s foliage — streaks and slightly spreads with the bluish undertone I associate with “Chinese red,” a color you don’t see that often in edible fruit. And all over the apple there’s a pattern, neither random nor immediately meaningful, of darker freckles.

Skinner’s Seedling is crisp and juicy on the tongue, and floral and complex on the palate, with a perfume that seemed to combine all its other qualities and go right to whatever part of the brain it is that simultaneously is overcome with sensual pleasure but busily analyzes and records all that information. And I’m sure it’s as good for your health as it is enjoyable.

Skinner Seedling

LATER THIS WEEK we fly to Amsterdam, where we almost certainly trade today’s fog for some persistent rain. On the other hand we’ll dine chez Marius, and see friends and grandddaughter, and go on to the Salone del Gusto. I hope there’ll be reports here on a frequent schedule.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Mangiamo all’italiana

Divino, Ralston Avenue, Belmont California

TWO ITALIAN RESTAURANTS off the beaten track, both in shopping-mall locations, both perfectly fine.

Thursday night we were in Petaluma, there to see what turned out to be rather an impressive performance of Oscar Wilde’s fine play An Ideal Husband, about an idealistic and noble member of parliament who made his entry into politics via a particularly corrupt act. This was produced by Cinnabar Theater, and you should see it if you can. (Never mind. I see it’s closed already.)

We had dinner at Cucina Paradiso, whose menu and kitchenwork seem perfectly authentically Italian. I had a good salad follwed by a sole poach-braised with artichokes, and with this a bottle of one of my favorite wines, a Ceretto Arneis (shared, I hasten to point out, with three friends).

Tonight we’re in San Carlos, of all places, and Lindsey remembered, on scanning the restaurant listings in the Yellow Pages, that Divino was a place that had sounded good when we read about it.

It’s associated with a neighborhood Italian we've been to once or twice in San Francisco, Bacco — a place I always want to go back to.

Here again the menu was interesting, particularly the specials. Again a perfectly nice mixed salad, followed by well-made gnocchi in tomato sauce. Lindsey had fettucine with shrimp and mushrooms, and with these we tossed off glasses of a remarkable Sicilian white, Depranum bianco Inzolia e Grillo — complex and rich.

I particularly enjoyed Divino. Not only the menu and the kitchen, but an engaging waiter, efficient bussers, a pleasantly plain Italian-style room, and tables filled with families, kids at their parents’ elbows. This, to me, is what dining is about. We’ll be back.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Stars in our eyes

MUCH TALK ABOUT RESTAURANTS and eating these days, what with the new guides to San Francisco Bay Area restaurants from both Zagat and Michelin. We eat out a lot, though not so much in this area as when we’re traveling. We use both those guides, though of course we haven’t yet used Michelin’s San Francisco guide; it just appeared.

My attitude toward eating, I’m afraid, is signalled by the photo you see up there. It’s a misleading photo for it suggests plenty, both because of those hanging porcine pieces and because of the fetching butcher-lady herself, who clearly has not been starving. But the photo was not taken in a place of plenty: I took it on June 18, 1983, Saturday, in the market in Riga, Latvia. (I was there traveling with the ROVA Saxophone Quartet who were touring the then Soviet Union and Rumania.)

The market was given a large space, but there was little being sold. Quite a few enormous beets; a few tomatoes; some baskets of mushrooms, perhaps a few heads of lettuce. And, in a large covered area, a few stalls offering meat. This lady caught my eye as I went past: she was pretty and pleased to have a whole pig to sell, and when I lifted my camera and raised my eyebrows to ask if I might take her picture (for I know neither Russian nor Latvian, and knew it unlikely she knew English) she put her pretty hands together and tilted her head demurely and smiled.

I found the photo a couple of days ago while going through a few books. It was a 35 mm. slide originally, but I had two prints made a number of years ago, and misplaced this one. The other is at Chez Panisse, where I took it when a new butchering room was installed behind the kitchen, years ago. Like our Latvian lady’s stall, the room at Chez P. is tiled; but the carcasses hang in a walk-in cold room, and are brought out only when the actual butchering is being done.

(That last paragraph has just sent me to the dictionary. Butcher and slaughter, when I was a kid, meant two different things: you slaughtered a live animal (the word is cognate with “slay”); then you butchered the carcass, cutting it into manageable pieces. But though we were rustic enough to slaughter our own pigs, then butcher them out (for I think I recall the verb requiring its postposition), we were sophisticated enough even in those days to quibble over verbal precision: so maybe this distinction between slaughter/butcher was idiomatic to the Shere household.)

When you go through a period of butchering, not to mention slaughtering your own meat, you develop a pretty basic attitude toward eating. In fact you eat rather than dine. And that distinction is I think a significant one, and one addressed by those two guides, Zagat and Michelin. Zagat is a compendium of restaurant reviews — or, rather, a comparison of restaurants in terms of food, decor, service, and price — based on information sent in by large numbers of (usually) anonymous informants. The ratings run from 0 (or, more likely, 8 or so) to 30 in each of these categories.

The Michelin guide, on the other hand, is a list of restaurants grouped among only four levels of quality: three stars, two, one, or none. (True, there are qualifiers signalled by numbers of knives and forks, or the occasional red R rewarding a place offering unusual quality for the price. But these qualifers are far from the thrust of the ratings.)

Zagat is for eaters; Michelin is for devotees of fine dining. And, let me add, fine dining of a particular type: for Michelin takes the Zagat trinity of Food, Decor, and Service as a single item, and insists, I believe, on a certain kind of decor and service if it is to award anything beyond a single star.

Now I must point out that I’ve been associated with Chez Panisse since its opening, thirty-five years ago; and I do not pretend to any degree of objectivity when I write or talk about it — or, by extension, when I discuss any of the many establishments run by what you might call alumni of Chez Panisse.

On the other hand I do have decided opinions as to what constitutes not only Good Food (in the sense of Good Cooking), but also Good Eating — and even Good Dining. And as luck would have it just a day or two before the new Michelin appeared, scattering stars for the first time among Northern California restaurants, Lindsey and I ate for the first time at the one restaurant it rewarded with three of them: the French Laundry in Yountville.

I can well understand the Michelin rating, for the French Laundry reminded me of other three-star restaurants I’ve been to over the years — two in particular: the Auberge de l’Ill in Alsace and Girardet in Switzerland. Both those visits were years ago, of course; we no longer go to three-star restaurants — and that statement alone tells the story. We could go to them, I suppose; the only real reason we don’t is that we don’t enjoy them enough to pay the price.

We were taken to the French Laundry by a generous friend, and I hope he won’t find the rest of today’s blog ungrateful. We enjoyed the experience on several counts. We should know the place first-hand, of course; since we’re somewhat in the restaurant business we should experience every corner of it. Then too many of the dishes we had were quite delicious and all of them were technically absolutely first-rate (well, maybe one or two courses slipped just a bit).

And the wines we had — seven of them, to accompany the ten or so courses we managed — were really quite superb. Lindsey and I don’t drink this kind of wine; we can’t afford it. We discovered, though, that there are indeed California wines whose taste and finesse are at the top of their class: for example, Renard Roussanne from Santa Ynez, Selene Sauvignon blanc from the Carneros, and Martinelli Pinot Noir “Blue Slide Ridge” from a few miles out at the coast.

But — and you knew the “but” was coming — imposing and interesting and compelling as all this was, I didn’t leave thinking I’d had dinner. The French Laundry’s menu (you can see at example online) offers not a meal but a succession of events, each fascinating to see. (There are some splendid photos at the Bunrab blog — a fascinating blog to browse if you’re a foodie.) The events are wonderful and artistic, but to me it’s more like watching a gifted magician pulling rabbits out of hats than tucking into dishes prepared by a caring cook. It’s art, but art of a different order from the one I want at the table.

I wrote some time ago, in an introduction to my friend John Whiting’s Through Darkest Gaul, a friend’s guide to Paris bistros,
The art form of our time, the final thirty years of the twentieth century, has been the preparation of food. What the sonnet was to Elizabeth’s London, the Lied to Schubert’s Vienna, the easel painting to Impressionist Pontoise, the movie to the nineteen-thirties; that, to many of us, is the meal.

And I see that even this is out of date; it is no longer the meal but the individual course that is the art form. The hell with it, I say; let’s eat.