Italy, summer 2000: up at 5 am, running bleary eyed to the beach – the sky and sea a silvery grey in the dawn light – to set out on the boat just off the Cilento coast. Tired and sunburnt, heading for the local pizzeria in the evening for a Marinara and a bottle of the hallucinogenic Italian white wine for all of a fiver…
Watching Rick Stein making a culinary tour of the Mediterranean is giving me itchy feet, a nostalgic heart and a mouth watering for those ripe, vibrant flavours I associate with Southern Europe. Mr Stein also reminds me (more than reminds me: they were practically separated at birth) of my father, which means that every Wednesday night spent on the sofa with Rick bemoaning the state of local British produce and waxing lyrical about the French inherent respect for food, feels slightly like I’ve just popped over the channel to chat to my Dad.
No wonder, then, that the weekend before last I went to an Italian restaurant, followed by a French restaurant the next night. Decadent, yes, but my sister-in-law tells her friends that I’m living the sex-and-the-city lifestyle, and who am I to damage an extravagant reputation?
‘Da Noi’ (by us) was the welcoming name of the Italian I’d recently discovered on the Haarlemmerdijk, recommended to me by my top-floor neighbour. We hadn’t booked, so we were pleased to find a table without waiting. We were offered a drink but there was no wine list, so the Boy (sorry, closest I could find to my guru’s ‘the Blonde’) jokingly pointed to one of the bottles of Chianti standing on the shelf next to us. It was promptly opened and poured, before we had time to think – let alone enquire – about how much it might set us back. The waitress (who, we later realised, was dressed as a chef – which could explain a lot) asked if we’d like the antipasti. From the other side of the room – over the heads of a few other diners – she described what it involved, at which point the Boy decided to pass. Feeling a little disconcerted by the apparent lack of menu, wine list or prices, I tentatively asked for an explanation of how the meal was going to work. ‘It’s ok,’ we were reassured patronisingly, ‘I’ve worked here for four years; I’m used to being patient with people.’ I instantly felt both stupid and outraged. I understand the Italian concept: mixed antipasti; primi, usually some form of pasta; secondi, meat or fish; I rarely make it through to the dolce. I’ve eaten food from set menus; I’ve eaten in restaurants with no menus and no idea of what’s coming next;
The shrimp pasta, when it came however, was fresh, tasty and well-proportioned. The bream was also fresh and well-cooked, served simply with salad and rosemary roast potatoes. By this time, the stroppy waitress had either walked out or been sent back to the kitchen for upsetting the customers, as the second half of the meal was made considerably more pleasant by the friendly and far less condescending waitress who replaced her. Her raven-haired Italian good looks may have also scored her a point or two with the Boy. The meal set us back the best part of €50 each, which felt like a lot of money to pay for something of which we didn’t know the cost before we signed up to it. Admittedly, we could’ve asked, but the service was scary enough as it was without admitting to financial weakness.
Boelen & Boelen
The following evening I introduced the Boy to my Spanish friend and her Dutch boyfriend. It was a meeting of cultures with common ground: football for the boys, food for the girls. You could say that alcohol is a common interest of us all, so we went to a wine bar-bistro and drank far too much of the stuff. Unsurprisingly, the wine list at Boelen & Boelen is extensive and interesting. Contrary to usual behaviour, we drank French red wine and, though I can’t remember the label, we were not disappointed. The menu was uncomplicated and well-balanced with a choice of just four starters and four mains. The menu and the wine list, however, were undeniably present, which made a welcome contrast from the night before. I ordered a plate of charcuterie, which was simple and unadorned and of high quality. I was slightly disappointed that the kitchen had not seen fit to include any terrine in the selection, but perhaps this is not strictly speaking ‘charcuterie’. Continuing in the red-wine-red-meat theme, I had the steak next, which was mercifully cooked (or rather uncooked) as ordered and served in its own jus. The meal lasted a few hours, but the languorous arrival of the dishes afforded a welcome opportunity to digest the food and debate the relative merits of our nations’ respective football teams. The bill came to roughly the same as the night before, but this time it came as no surprise.
A hundred euros later, and I realise there really is no substitute for that pizza in Punta Licosa, overlooking the Mediterranean and rambling in drunken Italian to the guy who owns the boat… someone remind me why I moved to Amsterdam?