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Archive for November 2013

Venice Carnival Balls For Music Lovers

Venice Carnival Balls For Music Lovers

A cavalcade of costumes, music and lights. The most grandiose celebrations on the arrival of spring anywhere. It takes palace  in  beautiful Venice  during the Carnival period from February to March starting two Saturdays before Ash Wednesday. The origin of the festival goes back to the 15th century. There are parades, masquerades, costume competition and musical performances all over the city.

Feel free and liberated! Conceal your identity under the disguise of your mask and period costume! Experience the flamboyant extravagance of aristocracy of by-gone eras by attending one of the grandiose balls

This year’s highlights are the different theme balls dedicated to certain periods. There is the Baroque ball, the Verdi Ball, the Renaissance Ball, the Carmen ball or the Bel Canto ball, just to name a few. All grand balls take place in 14th century palaces where guest can enjoy live music with top singers, dancers, musicians and other performers. To attend the balls you have to wear authentic costumes and mask and if your suitcase size is limited, we can arrange for costume rentals if booked in advance.

Venice Carnival

Rotten stew, prostitute´s spaghetti, old clothes, English soup and maggotty cheese…..

 

Italy and Spain have one major thing in common, great food. However, in a lighthearted way, let’s take a look at five food dishes with strange or rather unsavoury names.

 

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From Italy, the ‘puttanesca’ sauce, usually made from tomatoes, olive oil, anchovies, capers, chilli, garlic and black olives is known throughout the world, but puttanesca? The translation is literally ‘in the style of the prostitute’….. There are many and varied opinions as to the origin of the name. One is that a Signor Petti, the owner of a restaurant on the island of Ischia was, late at night, just about out of ingredients. Some friends were still waiting to dine and, realising his predicament, shouted out “Facci una puttanata qualsiasi” (Chuck in any old rubbish). My own favourite, and probably correct, version is that it was a cheap, quick and easy meal for the Neapolitan prostitutes to prepare between clients. The added benefit being that the lovely smell would waft out to the street and attract even more business.

 

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Ollia podrida (literally rotten stew) originates from the Burgos area of Spain, A hearty dish of beans, lentils, meat, vegetables, quail, lamb, beef, sausage etc., the name is probably a corruption of olla poderida (casserole for the powerful), which, because of its varied and expensive ingredients, only the rich could afford.

 

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Ropa vieja, again from Spain, means ‘old clothes’, a dish of shredded beef in a tomato sauce, is popular in the Cadiz area but now more well known in Latin America. The really rather charming origin of this dish´s name is that a poor Spaniard returned home to his family one night with no money and no food. In despair he took some old clothes out of the wardrobe, kissed them and cooked them with a prayer of love for his starving children. Miraculously the old clothes changed into a delicious beef stew….

 

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Many of the most popular dishes enjoyed in England have Italian origins partly due the the large numbers of Italian immigrants over the past couple of centuries. However, it wasn’t only a one-way street. Zuppa Inglese, translating as ‘English soup‘, is actually a version of sherry trifle and very popular in Italy, although Marsala wine is used instead of sherry (the Brits didn´t have the same relationship with Sicily as they had with Jerez de la Frontera in Spain which like Oporto, became a ‘little England’). Again, there are multiple explanations as to the origin of the name. My own theory was that most rich British families sent their children on the ‘Grand Tour of Europe’. These rich kids, missing home comforts and cuisine, surely persuaded obliging Sicilian hoteliers to whip up a rough copy of a beloved dessert..

 

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Staying with Italy, or more precisely Sardinia, we come to the truly awful (although I have Italian friends who swear by its viagra like properties), Casu Marzu, maggot cheese…. This is like something out of a horror film. Flies are encourages to lay their eggs in the cheese-making process, they then hatch making a truly original stink bomb which tastes worse than decomposing meat. If trying this cheese, remember to wear spectacles as, if you can stop the cheese from running around the plate, the nasty little things can jump up to six inches!Thankfully illegal now, it is still obtainable. Try it if you must but purchase a good supply of toilet paper for the next day.

 

 

Fideua, the ‘accidental’ alternative to the ubiquitous paella….

Everyone who has visited Spain will have tried ‘paella’, the blend of rice (and whatever is available/in season), served in every tourist restaurant around the country. Me, I live in Valencia, and, while I’m not a great fan of rice, I do appreciate that a true paella is a very different beast to the mass-produced, even microwaved, dishes served to many unfortunates who think they have tried authentic Spanish cooking.fid2

Anyway, enough about paella. I live in the town of Gandia, south of Valencia, the ‘home’ of Spanish rice dishes. Gandia, with its fantastic beach, is the main tourist destination for the residents of Madrid and is jokingly known as ‘Madrid beach’. However, fid6Gandia is also famous, on a world level, as the spiritual temple´of fideua, a true taste of Spain.

Let the story begin, there are several versions but I like this one best.

fid1Being lovers of rice, as are all Valencianos, the fishermen from Gandia would take their paella to sea (the paella is also the name of the wide, shallow dish used to cook the paella). Using some of their catch of the day, they would make a daily seafood paella at sea. Story has it that three brothers Paco, Jesus and Pepe, or it could have been just as easily, Pablo, Diego and Antonio, had a problem; they liked to demolish a few garrafas of wine every night before setting out to sea. Easily enough, someone forgot to bring the rice one day!

”Hijo de puta! que hacemos ahora….?” Delving deep into the boat´s cupboards, Gonzalez finds a packet of noodles. ”Vamos a probar!” And, so a legend was born. ‘Such is the stuff that dreams are made on….’fid4

Today, top chefs, from as far away as Japan, flock annually to Gandia to partake in an annual fideua cooking competition.

Fideua is pretty easy to prepare. If you haven’t got a paella, a wide frying pan will suffice. Give it a try:

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Ingredients:

  • 1 kg. fish
  • 6 cups of good fish stock
  • quarter kg. Shrimps or prawns
  • quarter kg. clams
  • 10 mussels
  • 2 tomatoes
  • 1 onion
  • red pepper
  • quarter kilo cuttlefish
  • 1/2 large red pepper
  • ½ kg. thick Vermicelli style pasta
  • saffron
  • a little olive oil
  • salt

Heat the stock and keep for use later. Clean the seafood and fish and cut into 5cm cubes. Clean the cuttlefish and cut into small ‘bite-size’ portions. Seed and slice the red pepper into thin strips. Skin and chop the tomato. Place the paella or pan on a medium heat and, when the oil is hot, sautée the onion, shrimp and cuttlefish. When cooked, remove from the pan and set aside, leaving the oil in the pan. Add the tomato and red pepper and sautée for two minutes. Add the fish stock and saffron, stir and bring to the boil. When boiling, add the pasta, cuttlefish and fish and stir. Arrange and decorate the clams, mussels and shrimp in the pan above the pasta. Cook for about 15 minutes until the pasta is still slightly firm. Remove the fideua from the heat and cover with foil to “rest” for 5 minutes. Serve with lemon slices.fid5

Murano, the city of glass.

Only a mile or so from Venice, Murano is not one island but a cluster of five little isles. While not as famous as it once was, Murano still historically symbolizes the best of Venetian glass and production continues today.

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For over one thousand years, glass has been produced in Venice but, with the high risk of fire from the open glass furnaces, the Doge (ruler of Venice, something akin to a duke) ordered the workshops to be moved to Murano in 1292. At the time most of the buildings were of wooden construction, not a ideal combination with fires below. The Venetian rich realized the value of their unique export and so made it illegal for glass makers ever to leave the island, on pain of death or amputation, as a way of safeguarding the secret. The positive side of the coin for these artisans was that, being the source of such revenue, they were flattered and bribed with such rights as being able to wear swords and even marry into the aristocracy.

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This canny group of workers kept their glass-making techniques a closely guarded secret for centuries and had virtually a world monopoly in the manufacture of fine mirrors. Interestingly there is some evidence that the first spectacles originally came from Murano!

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Some of the techniques developed were: types of enamelled glass (smalto), fake gemstones, glass with flakes of pure of gold (aventurine), glass in many colours (millefiori), opaque glass and imitation gemstones.

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At its peak, the ísland had some 30,000 inhabitants, many of them involved in a trade supplying fine glass to most of the great palaces´and noble houses of Europe. As history always shows, there is no such thing as an everlasting secret. Eventually other countries learnt the secret processes and the fame of Murano glass slipped into partial obscurity.

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With the rise in tourism over the last couple of centuries. The Venetians (never a race to miss a way of relieving the itinerant traveller of his buck, pound or yen), revived the industry. Your Italy escorted tour representative will no doubt give you some good advice on this subject.

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To be honest, it is worthwhile accepting the ´free´invitation to look inside a workshop but do be prepared for the hard sell which will duly follow….. It is also fair to say, looking at the quality of work in the excellent museum, the standards now are somewhat lacking. That, said, there are still some beautiful pieces to be bought, particularly the less gaudy wine glasses, and some beautiful contemporary work is being produced by some of the younger designers, many of whom were not born here.