Mantova – hotel and food; My “meat” place near Carrara will close :'(

Change. It’s what happens. Some people welcome change, some put up with it and some hate change but, in any event, it’s inevitable.

People change, places change and restaurants change.

I mention this because one of the highlights of my trips to Mantova for the Festivaletteratura is a visit to Grifone Bianco, right in the centre of Mantova. The service has always been perfect, the food “to die for” and they always remember me even if I only go once a year!

So, I’m in Mantova for the Festival and I go to see M, who is the manager of the festival, to ask the usual questions – i.e. what events should I go and see and the booking of restaurants.

I was there for almost 2 days this year, staying overnight in the Albergo Bianchi Stazione. A decent hotel with rather good, helpful staff. My room was clean and tidy and as it is right opposite the station, it was very convenient. A 10 minute or so walk to the centre of Mantova.

So, my plan was one dinner and one lunch. I thought that a Saturday night dinner would be nice and then Sunday lunch – as I wasn’t driving, drinking wasn’t a problem :-)

Obviously, I just had to go to my favourite restaurant and thought Sunday lunch, in the sun (hopefully) would be rather nice. As it turned out there wasn’t to be sun and, even a smattering of rain. But that didn’t really matter for M told me that it had changed hands. Massimo, the owner, still owned the building but, so the story goes, a guy walked in last year and offered to rent the whole thing, as it was, for what must have been a ridiculous sum of money. M told me that one person who had gone there during the festival had said he’s waited over 3 hours to be served the food after ordering! So we decided on two different restaurants. Sunday was booked no problem but the one we chose for Saturday night was already fully booked. So, we booked Grifone Bianco anyway with the promise that I would tell her how it was.

In the past, the waiting staff were rather good. They seemed to have all been there for years, they knew what they were doing and it was rather splendid. As was the food. This time, however, the waiting staff were all quite young and, it seemed, they had been taken on for the festival as they didn’t seem to really know what they were doing. Having said that, it wasn’t bad service – it just seemed a bit “hectic” whereas the old staff made it seem effortless.

As for the food, well, I had the same as usual – affettato misto (a mix of local salami and cold cuts with parmesan cheese), tortelli di zucca (like ravioli with a pumpkin filling – a speciality of Mantova) and stracotto d’asino (a stew made with donkey meat – another speciality of Mantova and really more of a winter dish – it comes with polenta).

But, I’m sorry to say that, although my choice of food was, more or less, the same as last year, the food was definitely NOT the same. The thing that I like about the affettato misto is that it come with mostarda a kind of pickled fruit with a slight mustard taste. Mostarda is another speciality of Mantova. Except now, at Grifone, there is no mostarda – plus the coppa looked a bit dry, to be honest.

Then the tortelli – beautifully rich yellow squares of deliciousness – but not in this case. The taste was OK but the look was not quite so nice. The stracotto was OK and, more or less, the same as always.

But it definitely wasn’t the same restaurant which is a shame. Will it still have a good enough reputation in three years time when it goes back to Massimo? We shall see.

And, on the change note, this may be the last time that La Brace, near Carrara will be open. This is my “meat” place for Carrara and something I always look forward to – a little like Grifone in Mantova. We went there in the summer, as usual, to learn that the couple who run it are thinking of retiring by Christmas and, rather than sell it as a going concern, they’re going to convert the place back to a house and then sell up! It was a bit of a shock and now I wonder if I can survive for a whole holiday without my “meat fix”. We shall have to find somewhere else, for sure.

Back in Mantova – I took Saturday lunch in the enormous “canteen” they run at the festival for volunteers, staff and guests. With my ticket, I was permitted to go into the guest room. The food is rather good. It’s quite full but there’s a table partly free near the door in that there are two people sitting there but 3 spare places. I ask if I can sit there and am told yes. I hear that they are speaking English (although one of them is Italian). The Italian lady (realising I’m English because of my English pronunciation of Italian) asks me, in English, if I would like some water, which I take. The English lady asks if I am an author. I say that I am not – just a friend of the festival. I ask her if she is an author and yes she is. She is, in fact, Margaret Drabble! I am embarrassed. I feel I should have recognised her but, you know, authors aren’t generally like other celebrities – their photos are not splashed all over the newspapers in the way that showbiz people photos are! Still, I feel embarrassed and, as usual when I’m that embarrassed, I come out with something so annoyingly asinine which, thank goodness, I only realised was so trite and terrible some hours later. However, we chat for a little while about Mantova and Milan and where she lives, etc. Bless her, she ignored my opening lines.

Sunday lunch, on the other hand was truly delightful. The place was L’Ochina Bianca (little white goose), M’s favourite restaurant at the moment. It’s cosy atmosphere fuelled by seeming to be sitting in someone’s front parlour, was made more so by the slight informality of the place. As if I had been invited over for a Sunday lunch with Italian friends. Of course, it was a restaurant and not someone’s house. But, still, it was lovely. I chose to have the Salame mantovano to start. Now this was more like it. A delightful selection of Mantovan salami, ciccioli (which would best be described as pork scratching – absolutely wonderful), mostarda (properly “home made”), grana (like parmesan cheese) and gras pistà (I’ve no idea what this was – it was like soft polenta with something similar to creamed gorgonzola). I skipped the pasta dish although, in hindsight, it would have been worth trying their tortelli. I chose the Guanciale di manzo stufato con verdure – beef cheek stew with vegetables and polenta. Incredible! Luckily, they also do fish so should F ever come with me (I’m still hoping), it’s perfect for both of us. I will be going back there, for certain.

So, although disappointed with the change at Grifone, I’m quite happy to have found the little white goose thanks to M.

I am, now, of course, very fat!

Through the looking glass. Or not.

Alice. She went through it didn’t she?

Except that was a fairy story and not real.

And the reason it’s not real is that you simply can’t go through a mirror.

In the same way that if you walk inside a wardrobe and step past the clothes, you won’t enter into a wonderland which has a talking lion and a wicked witch. Instead, you will hit the back of the wardrobe. If you don’t even open the doors, you will just hit the doors.

If the door has a mirror, you can combine the two by both NOT going through the mirror and NOT entering that wonderland.

And, more than likely, you can cut your lip in the process.

Of course, we were in Carrara and I was so very tired that I thought I was at home and going straight on was the way to the bathroom.

And it was VERY dark. Although maybe I didn’t have my eyes open since I was so tired.

However, it didn’t really wake me up and I was back asleep as soon as I hit the bed. The scab on my lip has now almost gone.

So that’s OK then. But just to assure you, the Alice thing is made up and not real. As my lip testified.

Wild all-nighters

As I mentioned in my previous post, Saturday night was the Notte Bianca in Marina di Massa.

Effectively this is an “all-nighter” but rather than a single club, in the whole town. There are stalls (selling trinkets and hand-made stuff (i.e. crap), food and, in the case of the one on Saturday, beer (which, of course, we had to try)).

And what I forgot to mention in the last post was something I thought of whilst we were watching the concert.

The street were FULL! Absolutely packed with families, couples, children and ……. YOUTHS.

And, what struck me was that, in the UK, such a thing would have been a night for DRINKING. And by drinking I mean alcohol and lots of it. So, there would have been young people who, almost certainly, would have had a little (read A LOT) too much to drink – by about 11 p.m., if not before – and would be staggering around, possibly vomiting, possibly lying in the street and probably fighting. The weather was warm and very pleasant.

There were indeed “gangs of youths” – but they were walking around in groups, talking, laughing and, although they had possibly (even probably) been drinking, there was no staggering that I saw, certainly no vomiting or lying in the street and definitely no fighting. Italians don’t tend to drink alcohol until they can hardly stand up. They seem to know when enough is enough. And, even if they do get drunk, their pleasant side seems to come out.

Italy makes me feel safe. I can walk the street of a city (although I’m sure there are areas of any city where walking around could be a little hazardous) and not feel I have to keep an eye out for drunk people who just want to fight.

Maybe, after we left (about 1.30 a.m. – so quite early, I suppose) it got more like a British all-nighter – but I doubt it.

I know that there are stories about kids getting drunk more often. But I don’t really see it much (and I live in an area of Milan with many popular bars for the yoof of Milan). And, certainly, there’s not the aggressiveness between people that there is in the UK (especially when mixed with a bit of alcohol). So, one can enjoy it. If I had kids, I wouldn’t be worried about them being with me at these events. It would be OK. And there are many young children and babies around.

I wonder if this aggressive streak in something in our genes?

Anyway, for me, it’s one of the beautiful things about Italy. Thank goodness it’s too expensive for hordes of Brits to descend upon and create a more dangerous and unpleasant place.

Fig sandwich

Last weekend was “at the beach”. And a long weekend too as we took Monday off.

When I say “at the beach”, that wasn’t really all. The weekend was also about partying till very, very late – which we really hadn’t done all summer. Partying till late meant getting up later and, therefore, getting to the beach later – but now, as most people have already gone back to work after the 3 or 4 week summer holidays, the place was quieter and we could find parking, etc.

Friday night was a surprise party given for a mother who has recently had a kidney transplant by her son. It included all the nurses who had been looking after her during her 4 years or so of dialysis. It was lovely and included a sit-down dinner/supper. We got home at about 2.30 a.m.

Saturday night was dinner (although we all had pizza) at a restaurant in Marina di Massa (the next beach town down from Marina di Carrara), on the terrace of a restaurant which overlooked the main square. The point wasn’t dinner at all but watching a concert in the main square. It was also Notte Bianca (White Night) in Marina di Massa. Notte Bianca is when everything (more or less) stays open late into the night (or early the next morning) – it’s a little like an all-night street party. I’ve never stayed until the end so I’ve no idea if it is really “all night” or not. Anyway, there were also fireworks on the beach and the place was heaving! We had such a great position above it all. Loredana Bertè was the headlining act and she sang for almost two and a half hours! For those of you who haven’t heard of her, she was a very popular and famous Italian singer in the late 70s and 80s and was once the girlfriend of Bjorn Borg. Since then drugs and stuff have taken their toll and she’s supposed to be a little bit wacko and unpredictable but …… she gave a good concert even if I didn’t know the songs.

Anyway, here she is:

But, here again, I’m going to talk about food. Italian food, of course, but mixed with a little bit of English retrospective.

I remember, when we were kids and used to go to my grandmother and grandfather’s for Sunday lunch, that, sometimes, sweet would be fruit cocktail. Not, in those days, made by hand but out of a tin. And, in some throwback from the second World War, there was always bread and butter. Now, I also hated having fruit with bread and butter. I just didn’t get it at all. The taste and textures just did not mix.

Moving on and I remember things like chip butties (sandwiches) which many people used to love and I just couldn’t stomach. The idea of carbohydrates with a filling of carbohydrates just didn’t really mix well and the couple of times I was persuaded to try them I found myself gagging at the mix of bread and potato I was trying to force down my throat.

There were also, at one time, banana sandwiches. I had the same problem with them as fruit cocktail and bread and butter – they didn’t really compliment each other in my mind.

The only thing I could go for was jam sandwiches. Jam was, somehow, different.

Since coming to Italy I have been made aware of Nutella and, with it being a kind of spread, it is often used on bread. I’m not a big fan. It’s OK but I could live without it (although many people can’t, it seems).

When we arrived at the beach on the Saturday morning, one of the ladies at the café was proudly showing us the figs that she had picked from her garden that morning and gave us one each to try. They were lovely.

Although we don’t usually have lunch at the beach, F decided that he wanted a sandwich and so he went to buy one.

Now, I’m sure most of you will know of the Italian dish Melon and Parma Ham. Well, here, they also do Parma ham with figs which is just as nice and a great option if you can get really sweet figs (peel them and then drape Parma ham over them – as you would do the the melon dish).

What he came back with was focaccia with figs. He shared half with me. My initial reaction was that it didn’t taste right. I mean to say, fruit with bread (although focaccia is really a leavened pizza base)! Apparently, he had asked for fig and prosciutto – but only if the prosciutto was without fat and, quite obviously, it wasn’t.

Then I got to thinking about jam sandwiches and this was, after all, a little like a fig jam sandwich. So, after laughing about it, I had to concede that it was very nice.

Of course, these figs were very fresh, very sweet and not from a supermarket.

I think I would have preferred to have the ham as well, even with some fat, but it was very nice after all.