Tag Archives: Italy

The kick that changed Ireland’s outlook

Wes Hoolahan's cross

The cross

The greatest moment of one of Ireland’s greatest soccer performances wasn’t Robbie Brady’s goal, or the thousands of fans singing and crying in the Stade Pierre-Mauroy, or the sight of Irish president Michael D Higgins dancing for joy.

No. What mattered in Lille last Wednesday night took place seconds before Brady’s header hit the Italian net – a goal which settled a 26-year debt and put the Republic of Ireland through to the last 16 of the European Championship.

It was, instead, the millimetre-perfect cross delivered by Wes Hoolahan, a player who – seconds earlier – appeared to have scuffed a clear goal chance and, with it, a country’s hopes.

Running through with only the Italian ‘keeper to beat and all of Ireland on its feet, roaring him on, the 34-year-old misconnected with the ball, his timid effort coming off Salvatore Sirigu’s legs.

The horror of Hoolahan’s miss extended beyond the match, or even the tournament. This fluffed shot would haunt him down his years, an albatross around his neck of Ireland’s best player, his surname to be forever followed by the word ‘miss’. Even in the moment, it was hard not to feel sorry for him.

As Ireland collapsed to its knees the script appeared written. When it came to the big day the Irish had once more bottled it and, as soon as the final whistle sounded, we’d begin years of self-recrimination and rumination. Because the only thing that raises Irish blood more than a great victory is a sound defeat, a resounding fall.

Wes Hoolahan

Wes Hoolahan

Not this time. What happened next was a break from tradition, courtesy of the man who missed a minute before.

As the country, still open-mouthed, looked on Wes Hoolahan threw himself back into the game.

Extrapolating shifts in national consciousness from split-second events on a football pitch is an unsound practice. But given the once-in-an-era feel of the game, the way the Irish underdog triumphed, the feeling that history had – for once – turned in our favour, this time it’s forgivable.

In picking himself up after his miss, running forward, lifting his head for a pass, taking the ball and delivering to Brady, Hoolahan stepped out of the predictable narrative.

A commentator later remarked that the Irish team had “balls”, which accounted for their win. Courage was part of it, as was commitment and skill – and it was all summed up in the two minutes between Hoolahan’s miss and his cross.

Gone were the ‘what ifs’, the ‘not quite good enoughs’ and the ‘moral victories’. Getting knocked meant one thing – you had to get back up, nothing else.

This was the Irish spirit in Lille last Wednesday. Maybe it’s a new one.
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Venice – five ways

Her palaces are crumbling to the shore,
And music meets not always now the ear:
Those days are gone – but Beauty still is here;
States fall, arts fade – but Nature doth not die
Nor yet forget how Venice once was dear…

La Serenissima was already sinking when Byron wrote his famous verses about the city more than 200 years ago. Nowadays the city is subsiding into the surrounding lagoon at the rate of 2mm a year.

Not that it matters to most of us. The waves could be lapping at the altar of St Mark’s Basilica and it would still be crowded with visitors. I suspect that even in the depths of winter, amid fog, rain and blasts from the bora, the sidestreets around the Piazza San Marco and the market stalls of the Rialto are still full of sightseers.

But that’s no reason not to go, and so I found myself standing on the Viale Giardini Pubblici last week, as the April sun sank behind the Salute and the last light of day fell across the Grand Canal and onto the Riva degli Schiavoni.

The great landmarks of Venice – San Marco, the Canal, the Salute – are well known and well populated. But there’s another Venice to the one trodden by cruise-ship groups and tired families, of course. Here’s five ways to experience Venice that mix up the well-known with the less visited.

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Early evening libations in Harry’s Bar

This simple decor of this small room, where Giuseppe Cipriani opened a bar in a former rope warehouse 85 years ago, belies its reputation as one of the world’s most famous watering holes. The home of the carpaccio, the bellini and the ghost of Ernest Hemingway, it serves a fine Old Fashioned whiskey cocktail with a ‘doppio’ measure – Papa would hardly approve of anything less.

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A stroll around Peggy Guggenheim’s pad

After stints in London and Paris the bohemian art collector Guggenheim settled in Venice in 1949, setting up residence in a 18th century palazzo on the Grand Canal, which housed her collection of Cubist, Surrealist, Futurist and Abstract Expressionist paintings. Her house now serves as a gallery for the paintings. The view above is from her living room, through a window nestled between a couple of Kandinskys.

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burano

Crossing the lagoon to lunch in Burano

“A wide brackish waste surrounds it, exuding dankness…it is a muted scene…but in the middle of it there bursts a sudden splurge of rather childish colour…this is Burano”. So wrote Jan Morris of this small island, home in its heyday to fishermen and lacemakers. Forty-five minutes across the lagoon from Venice, it’s a million miles away in spirit. Small, house-proud, well-swept and very well-painted, Burano is a reminder that the people of the Venetian lagoon were – before the yachts, celebs and royalty – ordinary seafarers and merchants.

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Browsing the gondolas at Libreria Acqua Alta

This bookstore has a novel (sorry) way of keeping its stock dry from flooding – sticking the titles into gondolas. That’s not the only gimmick in this chaotically-shelved shop – a series of steps in the backyard are made of old encyclopedias, while canoes and other odd vessels can be found crammed with paperbacks.

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On the waterfront at the Viale Giardini Pubblici

We rented an apartment for our stay in the quiet Castello district, near to the Giardini Pubblici, the gardens created by Napolean Bonaparte when he took control of the city in the early 19th century. The quayside fronting the Giardini is remarkably quiet, used mainly by local strollers and joggers, yet affords beautiful views west along the Grand Canal, taking in the Salute, the Campanile di San Marco and the Doge’s Palace. ‘States fall, arts fade – but Nature doth not die’…anyone for an aperitif at the Danieli?

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Skipping the masterpieces in the Uffizi

In 20 or 30 years I might suddenly feel bad about it –
Stuck in traffic somewhere, or in a supermarket queue,
Assuming that cars and foodmarts haven’t gone the way of the Medicis by then.

But what person could stand in a gallery – even in the Uffizi – when they could sit
Above the Arno and the moving city on this April morning.

I can see it, stuck at the wrong party beside the wrong person,
Who’s just asked the wrong question.
“How could you visit the city and not see the Venus?”

And I’ll respond then – as I respond now –
“I saw Venus come out of the river, a badger with a fish in her mouth,
And Florence alive above her” .

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I Left My Heart In An Irish Chip Shop

Haddock and chips at The Saltee Chipper

Haddock and chips at The Saltee Chipper

It was the dish that won the First World War. George Orwell argued that it staved off revolution in Britain the 1930s. It was one of the few offerings that escaped rationing in London’s Blitz.

Yet fish and chips arrived in Ireland by accident – it’s reputed – when Italian immigrant Giuseppe Cervi stepped off a boat in Cork around 1880, mistaking Cobh for New York. Undeterred, Cervi walked to Dublin and wound up selling fish and chips from a handcart near Trinity College – the first person in Ireland to do so.

He may have got the idea from fellow emigrants who’d passed through London, where the first fish and chip shop opened in 1860.

Despite Cervi’s ingenuity it took 70 years for the dish to become a staple in Ireland. When it did, in the early 1950s, the advent of trawler fishing had reduced the cost of fresh fresh (finding potatoes was rarely a problem). The food carts of the nineteenth century were long gone at this point, replaced by the ‘chipper’ – the canteen-like aesthetic of which has remained standard to this day.

Like most Irish people I grew up with the dish. The first time I had fish and chips they were likely bought from the long-departed Grace’s on Bride Street in Wexford (a place also renowned for that local staple, the rissole).

In the intervening years I’ve had fish and chips on the terraces at the old St Mel’s Park soccer ground in Athlone, at MacCurtain Street in Cork after a long reporter shift, on ferries to Britain for summer holidays, and after nights out in my college days in Dublin. The offering remained unremarkably unchanged. Over the years the wrapping moved from yesterday’s newspaper to a generic paper sheet – but it was still handed over, soggy with vinegar and covered in salt, in a steaming brown paper bag.

Old school

Old school

Then, about five years ago, fish and chips changed. Blame the Celtic Tiger, or April Bloomfield, or whoever designed those ludicrous small steel buckets, but fish and chips slowly started to appear on plates in restaurants. I now found myself eating it sitting down, at a table, instead of standing at the back of a packed chipper, or while dodging drunks on a street at 1am.

Gone too was the stodgy yellow flour and water batter, replaced by a lighter beer variety. The chips were now cooked twice over, a time-consuming trick that no doubt had Guiseppe Cervi turning in his grave.

And it was great. As others argued over Beshoff’s or Burdock’s I sat in L Mulligan Grocer or the old WJ Kavanagh and hailed the revolution, one serving at a time.

Until a few weeks ago, when my father sent me a text message from Kilmore Quay, a small fishing village in the south east corner of Ireland, renowned for its seafood. ‘Come here for the fish and chips,’ he wrote, sending a picture of the meal as I remembered it – all angle-cut chips and heavy battered fish.

And so, last week, I travelled the 100 or so miles to the Saltee Chipper in Kilmore Quay. My concession to civilised dining was opting to eat at a table there, swapping the brown bag for a plate.

The haddock I had was caught and battered that morning. The steaming chips were just as fresh. Mushy peas – marrowfats ground into a thick green paste – were an added bonus. To top it off it there was a howling, rain-flinging gale outside – proper fish and chip-eating weather.

There isn’t a moral to this fishy tale. I’ll still order the gourmet fish chips when I’m in the mood, and I’ll try to convince myself it tastes better. But last week, for the umpteenth time, I left my heart in an Irish chip shop.

Kilmore Quay

Kilmore Quay

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Want to communicate? Then simplify, simplify

With Antonio Carluccio, Glasthule, April 2015.

With Antonio Carluccio, Glasthule, April 2015.

Antonio Carluccio knows it. So did Joey Ramone. So did Ernest Hemingway, and Leonardo da Vinci and Frederic Chopin.

Simple is best. As Henry David Thoreau put it: “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify”.

If only it were that easy. Confronted with vast amounts of information every day the task of refining, digging to the core or even finding it, is not an easy one.

Unlike Thoreau most of us don’t have the option of going off-grid to a hut in the woods. We have to engage with the information avalanche. And having sorted through it we then have to utilise the useful bits.

I do more of this than most. I work in the communication industry. As a journalist I process large amounts of information every day, filtering it down and then re-communicating the key elements to readers.

Books have been written, theses published and academic careers built upon analysing this process – how best to sort through the mound of content and find the ‘news hook’, the golden thread of the new or the interesting. It’s a constant process – as the news cycle changes day to day so must I.

Joey Ramone, 1980 Pic: Yves Lorson

Joey Ramone, 1980
Pic: Yves Lorson

After a day of such work I recently had the pleasure of attending an event and meeting Italian restaurateur Antonio Carluccio. I can’t cook like the 78-year-old but I can apply his method to the communication field.

In his autobiography Carluccio explains the culinary theory he formulated in the early 1980s. Finding that the nouvelle cuisine of the time amounted to much extravagant kitchen technique Carluccio argued that simple dishes were best.

He called his theory ‘mof mof’ – minimum of fuss, maximum of flavour.

In content terms this translates to ‘less noise, more nub’. It’s a practice those mentioned above applied to their own respective disciplines, like Ramone’s ‘Hey! Ho! Let’s go‘ or Hemingway’s “one true sentence“.

Like those declarations ‘mof mof’ is far simpler in theory than in practice. It requires distillation, refinement and constant revision to get to the purest message possible – to cut through the fuss and find the flavour.

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Back to the mountains

Slieve Donard, February 2014.

Slieve Donard, February 2014.

“Time and money – that’s the problem with this game.”

The game? Mountaineering. The sage? A sunburnt, rock-battered British climber.

We were sitting in the bar of a small hotel in Leysin, Switzerland. It was August 2010; I had just finished a week-long traverse of the Monte Rosa massif on the Swiss-Italian border.

My fellow climber had left his family behind in England to undertake two weeks of climbing in the Alps. He made the trip yearly despite, as he acknowledged, the financial and emotional difficulties of leaving home.

I didn’t have these challenges. I was working, single, with a severe dose of summit fever. His comments passed me by.

Getting to the mountains, and getting up and down them, was everything in these years. Nothing else would stand in my way – it was hard to think of an August that wouldn’t see me cleaning crampons and packing an ice axe before catching a flight to Geneva.

A group of us drank late that night at the Lynx Bar, planning new trips, checking diaries, before leaving for home early the following morning.

I haven’t been back to the Alps since.

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Looking at my diary for 2010 I see that I hiked and climbed in Ireland almost every weekend – for eight or nine months of the year at least.

Numerous days on Lugnaquilla, different routes in the Mournes, weekend raids on the Mweelrea mountains, a week spent around the MacGillycuddy’s Reeks. It was a year, like others before it, of days spent climbing or planning to climb.

And then time moved on. In 2011 I climbed Ben Nevis, made frequent trips to the Wicklow mountains, and summitted Carauntoohill by a couple of new-to-me routes..

Descending from Signalkuppe, Monte Rosa Massif, August 2010.

Descending from Signalkuppe, Monte Rosa Massif, August 2010.

The following year saw less trips. I moved house and got married. I had less weekend time to spend in the hills and less inclination to spend long days away from my wife. Nonetheless I got up when I could.

2013 started slowly but a spectacular snowy hike in Wicklow promised good mountaineering in the Spring.

Life then intervened. A loved one was seriously ill and I had no intention or desire to spend my free time away.

I managed a summer Saturday on Lugnaquilla but my heart wasn’t really in it.

I didn’t return to the mountains for the rest of the year.

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As the months passed it began to gnaw at me. Standing at the foot of Croagh Patrick a fortnight ago I made up my mind: I had to get back.

And so I found myself awake at 5am last Friday, after a fitful night’s sleep. Rushing my breakfast I departed at daybreak for Slieve Donard, the highest peak in the Mourne Mountains. Hours later I was standing on top, under a blue sky, facing down an icy northwesterly.

Sheltering behind the summit cairn I thought of the night in Leysin and the conversation with the English climber.

Yes, mountaineering costs time and money. But it takes more than these; it requires effort and energy. It often conflicts with home life. You’re often wet or cold or both. Injuries are commonplace.

Why do I go back?

At times I wonder, but never during the times I spend on the mountains. When I’m there I’m in the great immensity, part of The Whole Thing.

I imagine that British climber returns to Leysin. I might head back there myself one day, or not. But I’ll always keep going back to some mountains, somewhere.

Summit of Slieve Donard, February 2014.

Summit of Slieve Donard, February 2014.

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The quickest way to get to Italy

Have apron will travel

Have apron, will travel.

Why did you eat that last meal?

Hunger, boredom, routine?

I’ll bet your response is often linked to one of the above.

But since I met my wife (and made my own first tentative ventures into the kitchen) another answer has occurred to me.

I eat to travel somewhere else, or to be someone else, somewhere else. Most often I find myself opting for Italian, because cucina povera is one of our favourite cuisines and we love being in that country.

The sunshine of recent weeks in Ireland reminds me of visits we made to Italy last year. But the sun, even chased with Chianti, is not enough to transport me back there.

Enter cooking. A way to return, even for us infrequent fryers.

I figured the only way to get us to Italy while remaining in Dublin was to produce a meal as Italian as I could manage. Simple would help too.

One question then – what dish?

. . . . .

Chicken liver has been a poor man’s food for as long as poor men have eaten. Even in overpriced Ireland half a kilogram of livers will only cost you about €3.

One of my favourite chefs, Antonio Carluccio, has a recipe from the Piedmont region of northern Italy which, executed correctly, will put you in the foothills of the Alps in 30 minutes.

The dish is tajarin con fegatini, thin pasta ribbons in a chicken liver sauce, popular in the town of Alba. The specifics are here.

As a kitchen novice I seek out dishes that combine a maximum of authentic taste with a minimum of technical ability.

Luckily it doesn’t take a great degree of culinary skill to make tajarin, which are tagliolini – a variation on tagliatelle.

After making the pasta it’s simply a matter of getting down and dirty with the chicken livers. I’ve read that people are put off by the slimy texture and, er, unique, aroma of the offal.

Alba having some of that. Tajarin con fegatini - pasta with chicken liver sauce.

Alba having some of that. Tajarin con fegatini – pasta with chicken liver sauce.

My only problem with these organs is that they’re so small (or my technique’s so unrefined) that cleaning can reduce them to mush. Last weekend’s batch came from some mighty birds, though, and held their consistency nicely.

They cook in 4 minutes, in a pan with butter-browned onions and – another Italian taste ticket – porcini mushrooms. Add tomato puree and 50ml (a shot, for those who prefer to drink it) of Marsala. The latter balances out the nasal earthiness of the liver.

A couple of teaspoons of truffle oil finishes the sauce, which is mixed with the tajarin and garnished with grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

. . . . .

The aroma hits you first. Chicken liver, porcini, truffle. Then the taste, earthy, mineral, moist. We had left our Dublin dinner-table and were sitting down to eat, halfway across Europe, in a hillside courtyard in Alba.

It was proof that food is the quickest, more authentic way to travel, if don’t want to leave your apartment. Check it out.

The wine was a Sangiovese though. You can’t get every local detail right. We’ll just have to go there for that.

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The pasta fresca test

Rollling pasta.

On a roll.

You’re Irish? You like to eat pasta?

No you don’t. Not really.

Each Irish person eats a grand total of 1 kg of pasta every year.

That’s less than the hardly-well-known spaghetti-loving nations Guatamala (2kg) and Dominican Republic (4kg).

Needless to say it’s nowhere near the Italians’ incredible 26kg. In fact even the rice-renowned Japanese consume more of the carb than us (1.7kgs, for the record).

Irish consumption equates to about eight platefuls per annum. That’s one measly serving every six weeks.

Part of the reason for our lamentable take-up of one of the world’s most popular food staples may be the longstanding Irish obsession with potatoes. The most recent stat I can find sees us sucking down a staggering 143kg of spuds yearly.  (This is nothing compared to annual consumption of 766kg at the outbreak of the Great Famine in the 1840s, mind you).

It may also be because we prefer pizza. Or fried fast food. Who knows?

None of this occurred to me when I recently entered the kitchen, with An American In Ireland, to make some pasta.

Yes, that’s right – make. For many years pasta was something that, for me, had a five-step prep: snip, empty, boil, simmer, serve. But a successful dip a while back into the world of gnocchi-making convinced me to try making my own.

Cutting dough.

Cutting dough.

And, after three decades, I’ve also grown bored of the ‘boil, steam, bake or fry’ potato.

So pasta fresca it was. This was my first attempt too, but (as you might have read) I’m recently got hooked on the cucina povera recipes of Carluccio and Contaldo.

If I’m being honest it wasn’t the final taste I was going for (in the end I actually forgot one notable ingredient, a case of cucina idiota), nor the appearance.

What struck me as clever was the way you could mix the dough one-handed on a flat surface, by making a little crater in a mound of flour and dumping two eggs in. This was cuisine refined to a level so simple it didn’t require utensils. It was cooking, alpine style.

Pasta’s not something you should really need an individualised recipe for (at its simplest it’s all of two ingredients), but I used Contaldo’s one for tagliatelle, from his recent book.

This involved using my most versatile kitchen instrument, my right hand, to mix 300 grams of ‘00’ flour (best for pasta because of its high gluten content, food fact fans!) with 100 grams of semolina and two eggs. And pound, stretch, pound, stretch.

Tagliatelle fresca.

Tagliatelle fresca.

I took to all this with such gusto that I neglected to add the fourth ingredient, 125ml of white wine. Luckily Clare had stepped in to add some water to the mix instead, averting a dry dough disaster. Then it was a case of making a big ball of dough (like the mixing, more fun than it sounds written here), wrapping it in clingfilm and leaving it to one side for 30 minutes.

This is the point at which a sane person writes: ‘Then I took out my pasta maker’. In this case the pasta maker was me, and my wife. After some rolling and slicing we managed to cut our tagliatelle on the countertop. Foodies might call this ‘rustic’, I called it improvising.

From there it was simply a victory lap. We boiled the tangled little mounds for three minutes in salted water, and served with a mushroom and white wine we made on the side in that 30 minute window above.

So here it is. One of the eight plates of pasta that statisticians expect me to eat this year. They’ll be wrong.

Tagliatelle al vino bianco con funghi.

Tagliatelle al vino bianco con funghi.

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Antonio, Gennaro and me

Could I cook a rustic Italian meal for my wife’s birthday? Using a raft of ingredients, many of which I’d never encountered before? Using a recipe from two well-known Italian chefs?

There’s an answer to that. And it’s on her blog, over here.

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