Too many P’s to post…an Italian food odyssey

It was the trip I’ve been waiting for all year. Ten days in Italy. People had been asking what I’d been looking forward to, was it the historical richness of Rome, the Amalfi coast, one of the top ten must drive roads in the world, the extremely pleasant weather, the people? Well yes, all of the above. But mainly, if I’m being perfectly honest, it was the food. And the drink. I’ve been a huge fan of pasta since I discovered Dolmio stir in sauces and microwaveable pasta at uni, and a huge fan of pizza since, well, more than likely uni. The opportunity to eat actual versions of these dishes whilst observing and enjoying all the other listed bonuses of Italy was proving too exciting to take.

Future blog posts will no doubt go into detail about the cultural stuff, for now, I want to talk about the P’s of Italy. Pizza, pasta, Peroni, Prosecco, pannacotta, pancetta, pesto, prosciutto…

Our first food experience epitomised everything that I now adore about Italy. We’d arrived at our hotel in 30+C heat, the hotel looked like something out of a period drama, it was opulent, air conditioned, and 4 star. Unfortunately our rooms weren’t ready, but the garden terrace bar was open so did we want to wait there? Now a country that has Peroni on draught instead of Carling is already scoring points with me, but a country that then brings you a bowl of crisps and a bowl of peanuts as a free accompaniment to your beer? I mean we were in Rome, so free crisps goes hand in hand with paying a fiver for less than a pint, so technically, not that free, but the principal is there.

After enjoying the garden terrace, a snooze and a leisurely stroll round the Spanish steps and the Trevi fountain, we found a little side street restaurant for dinner and enjoyed more P’s. Pasta carbonara complete with pancetta, Prosecco, Pinot Grigio, pannacotta. I am in love with Italy.

Rome was beautiful. I hadn’t given much thought to what to expect, and whilst I had some ideas about what I’d see it was still a pretty big shock to be walking down a main road and then just happen upon a huge ancient fighting pit. It’s out of this world. The Vatican was an experience, but two and a half hours walking round after big American tour groups in heat so intense that an old lady fainted was enough. The gallery of maps was a massive highlight though, (maps in general always a winner) and buying Pope memorabilia for Lorna whilst likening him to my balding Dad were all rather enjoyable.

That night we asked at the hotel for a recommendation and ended up down another side street at a really busy little restaurant, that even to the untrained eye looked pretty traditional. Our table wasn’t quite ready so we spent a pleasant twenty minutes sat out on the street drinking free Prosecco whilst we waited. Again, this attention to detail, especially after the free prosciutto bruschettas we had been served with our Prosecco that afternoon in Pantheon Square was making me love the Italian hospitality even more.

Now I’m a pretty fussy eater. I don’t like seafood, prawns make me feel queasy, and I’m pretty scared of fish in general. I don’t like tomatoes, mushrooms, rhubarb, peaches, apricots, and many other things I hear are very good for me. But for some reason when we arrived in Italy, I forgot all the stuff I didn’t like. Except the fish. They still scare the bejesus out of me. But I don’t think I had a meal in ten days that I didn’t enjoy. Admittedly I didn’t venture too far out of my comfort zone by actually trying seafood, but I did eat a lot of tomatoes which are my new favourite thing.

After three hot, tiring and culturally mind blowing days in Rome, during which time the only downsides were an exploding hairdryer and sticking my finger to a boiling teapot, we made our way to Sant’agata for a weeks’ relaxation in a beautiful villa overlooking the Mediterranean. Our taxi driver Nello (as in Agnello, or lambie pie as he was dubbed) was hilarious. More preoccupied with our car comfort than watching the road, as well as an interesting journey this meant that we had several comfort breaks along the way. This may sound like the start of an irrelevant detail, but at a service station we had the best sandwich I’ve ever had. At a service station! It was basically a ham and cheese butty. But parma ham, mozzarella, pesto, tomatoes…oh my god. Think about paying £5 for a soggy piece of plastic ham on wet stale bread with limp lettuce at Keele services on the M6 and suddenly we all want to move to Italy. My enthusiasm kicked Chris into overdrive, if this is what the service stations are like he says, just think how much fun we could have driving to Italy as part of a road trip next summer? I knew I’d made a mistake agreeing to France…

So after my sandwich euphoria we arrived at the villa, and it was exactly as it looked online – stunning. After complaining via email prior to arrival (yes that was you Dad) that there was no welcome pack, the owner brought us a bottle of home-made wine and a bag of produce from his father’s garden. The smell opening the bag was like stepping back in time 20 years and being in my granddads greenhouse, being shown his tomatoes and cucumbers every season, and pretending to be really impressed with them. Now he’s not here it was nice to remember that, especially with my new found love for tomatoes I think I should have given him more praise. They were brill Grandad :).

The compulsory trip to the supermarket followed, though we thought we’d fare better after a couple of beers to celebrate arriving. We then thought it’d only be fair to behave as non touristy as possible and go and buy our goods from the specialist shops, and only use the supermarket for essentials. Like beer. So we visited the butchers, the dairy shop, the greengrocers, the bakery, with me tipsily speaking Spanish in each (because its all my brain could compute) whilst trying to order produce that we could only assume was mozzarella. We did pretty well, and made it back to the villa laden down with backpacks and crates of Peroni…and then barely left for a week.

This would be the longest post ever if I detailed everything that happened that week, let’s just say that there was lots of eating (all), lots of coughing (Dad), lots of gin (Carol), lots of photography (Chris), lots of new foods adventure (me), and some fairly competitive game playing. I now know that I didn’t imagine Dad cheating at Monopoly as a child, after watching him pull the sticker off his forehead labelling him the Incredible Hulk, because he just couldn’t guess who he was, I understood that he likes winning.

I’ll also say, that having been on a leadership type college course all this week, you can do all the personality testing you want, find out what your leadership styles are, your emotional intelligence levels, but if you want the answers to why you are like you are, just spend ten solid days with one of your parents. It will solve a lot of mysteries. I also realised that no matter how old I get, my parents will still think of me as a domestic failure – this became clear when my Dad appeared impressed that I knew how to fry onions.

We discovered that you can spend £40 for a round of drinks in one of Rome’s main squares, then head a few streets back and have a meal for 4 for the same price.

I learnt that Italian taxi drivers are all obsessed with football, but strangely none of them have heard of Burnley – despite them playing Napoli in the 1960’s…

And finally, I learnt that Italian toilet attendants at Vesuvius are a bit pervy, though I guess it can’t be bad being called beautiful by an Italian, even if it is when he hands you a wet wipe as you emerge from a portaloo.

I don’t want it to be too long before we venture back (to Italy, not the portaloo), for many reasons. Everyone in our villa got a cold apart from me, I get home, and I’m struck down with lergy. Clearly the Med agreed with me. However Mum’s very recent departure for Cyprus will ensure cheap Med holidays for the foreseeable future, so this is a comfort.

The food is the best I’ve ever eaten on any holiday, and during the trip I felt somewhat inspired by it. I even had thoughts about going on a Mediterranean cookery course at some point. Now we’re home, common sense tells me that this is unlikely to occur, but I am more likely to use my Le Creuset bakeware after the success of my onion frying. And I’ve not quite followed through with my bold statement that we were going to go organic on return home, in fact I don’t even know if I’ve eaten a vegetable since we got back, but there is a packet of parma ham and a bottle of Prosecco in the fridge to remind me of all that I loved about the country.

I think we’ll very much enjoy raising a glass to the safe arrival of Joseph Benjamin Thomas with it tomorrow.

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