Archive Page 2


I’m pretty sure you can’t do that


Tamarind = new school
Rita-Hayworth-looking pin-up = old school
Don’t cross the streams!


close encounters with a food culture: coffee

Steve tweets: Coffee today with friends just back from Italy. They were partly relieved to be back in SF where we have good coffee. #theworldhaschanged

It’s true. Italy (and Switzerland) was happy to provide all the espresso I might want to drink, and I drank plenty. More than I have since I was an affected teenager. But getting my morning cups was a challenge. It was a clash of two coffee cultures, both valid, but in which the other mightily inconvenienced the expectations of mine.

Our first morning in Lugano, we wandered down to a breakfast room equipped with a food buffet, two thermal coffee carafes, and two or three large, round tables, all partially occupied by elderly, German-speaking tourists. Both J-P and I figured that it was communal seating all around, so we gathered our food, pumped our coffee (maybe drip, maybe Americano, regardless a bit weak), and took our seats among the oldsters. Awkward to eat surrounded by strangers we couldn’t understand, but such are the ways of travel. We punctuated the experience with trips to the carafes; it was one of only two mornings either of us would get to refill our half-size cups more than once while at the breakfast table.

The next morning, the buffet was there but the urns were not. There was no one at the communal tables, but a few people seated singly or in pairs out on the patio. We gestured and grunted to the waiter about this possibility, and he showed us to a table. We already had inklings, I don’t remember how, that the day might be a holiday. (This was the day we would hike from Monte San Salvatore to Monte Arbostora and down into Morcote in a rainstorm, to find that the last ferry back to Lugano had left half an hour before, on its holiday schedule due to the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul.) We chalked this otherwise inexplicable change of breakfast arrangements up to the suspected holiday.

Coffee came to the table in a small-ish silver urn, which yielded about eight ounces of coffee each. We drained our cups with hangdog expressions and stopped for espresso on our way out of town.

The next morning, both the carafes and the communal tables were back, but it was clear this time that there was seating on the patio. We sat outside again, and this time the coffee urn was a little bigger than before. Call it a 20-ouncer. (Our French press at home makes about a quart, and we still sometimes give each other dirty looks over it.) I broke and headed over to the communal carafes for a refill, but the waiter caught me. He inquired about my need for “un caffe di bon giorno,” and his colleague seemed to find this such a bon mot that they both caught the giggles. One of them did bring us another urn—a small one.

That was the most coffee we ever got in one sitting. I hoped that the waiters’ teasing would extend to them bringing us a yet larger urn the next day, but the staff changed with the weekend, and the new waiters neither joked about nor humored our American ways. Each subsequent morning brought one—and only one—little urn.

The Caffe Motta at Linate Airport was the final place we enacted this drama, drinking two six-ounce, two-Euro Americanos each. We were well resigned to the dearth of morning coffee by then, and instead we noticed how differently such a place used its space than it would if it were in an American airport. First, it was more than a kiosk or a counter; it occupied its own large room, part of which was roped off for table service later in the day. That said, the food displayed in the extensive display cases would hardly have filled those of a coffee kiosk in an American airport; the norm of display was sparse, where ours is heaping. The people behind the counter also seemed calmer than their American counterparts; in a similarly busy place here, there would have been a lot more bustle and yelling. Beyond the counter, partly visible, was a kitchen. Most of what we could see happening was assembly: taking pastries from a bag, arranging them on a tray, and dusting them with powdered sugar, for example. But it was clear from the lack of disposable plates, cups, and utensils (we saw very few during our stay) that the sink, at least, saw use.


cheap food switzerland

Really there’s not any cheap food in Switzerland. But I’ve exhausted our fancy-meal experiences, and what kind of vacation in a new place would it be if we didn’t sample the local junk food? Lunch was easy on hiking days: we either took it with us or ordered something simple in the restaurant at the top of the mountain. (It’s not quite true that there’s a good one at the top of each Alp, but close enough.) Nectarines, butter cookies, beef jerky (aka American snack); unremarkable pasta pomodoro and ridiculously priced orange Fanta.

Packed in

Candy bar at an Alp-top restaurant

On the first day we lunched before we hiked, having walked through the town in the morning and visited the farmer’s market on our way back. We took a roast chicken, a pint of blackberries, and a couple of rolls back to the hotel room. We had no plates or utensils or napkins, but we did try to bundle the bones up neatly before throwing them in the trash. We figured the maids would decide we were barbaric, probably Albanians.

We spent a couple of days mainly in Lugano, recovering from hikes, relaxing, and doing a bit of work. These necessitated finding lunch. One of those days we wandered over to the university, so that J-P could scope it out pre-conference. Bar Lando introduced us to two novelties. The first was the Swiss panini. (I should note that a few lunch places advertised themselves as paninotecas, a word I hope to adopt into my vocabulary.) It seems that the kebab stands’ flatbread (referred to as durum) has caught on, because that’s what our grilled sandwiches came clothed in. They were folded into roughly triangular shapes, so I christened them Switalian quesadillas. Mine was filled with brie, salami, and a kind of cole slaw, which made me consider a wider world of fillings to put between flour tortillas back home.

The second novelty at Bar Lando was Rivella. J-P ordered one for each of us, and when I asked him what it was, he said, “I don’t know. Some sort of aperitif thing, not sure if it’s alcoholic…it’s all over the signs and umbrellas.” Rivella turns out to be a kind of soda, made mostly of whey, besides the usual fizzy water and sugar. How very Swiss. It’s not bad, at least in its red and green versions. The low-cal blue kind was kind of cloying, and we never did try the yellow.


Another downmarket lunch, this one at Mercato Migros (the supermarket nearest our hotel), yielded some mediocre pizza notable mostly for its sprinkling of capers and the nifty slice-shaped plates it came on. Dessert was a package of what we can only refer to as Kinder things. The wrapper (around the five-pack; we’re not big on caution) depicted things that looked like ice cream sandwiches…but were merely refrigerated. We could just make out something about “milk solids.” How could we resist?

Inside were five facsimiles of ice cream sandwiches. We had no way to identify the filling (even the internet doesn’t discuss these things, at least not in English), but it definitely involved milk solids. Imagine an unnaturally white substance with a texture like a shelf-stable whipped cream. The “cookies” were basically stale, brown sheets of sponge cake. The whole thing tasted vaguely of bubble gum. I made J-P take the fifth one, and we figured the debris only further confirmed our barbarity to the maids.


slow dinners, part 5

So in Milan a week after the Lanchetta debacle, we didn’t dare try to occupy space at a restaurant right after our gelato. Instead, we found a small park to sit in, sunning ourselves, commenting on how dreary Milanese shutters are, and watching children play. Once we judged that we might go find a table without earning too many nasty looks, we hauled ourselves off our bench and began circling the blocks around our hotel. The first promising place was closed on Tuesdays. Things got seedier as we approached the station. After that first disappointment, we passed bar after bar that held out no hope of food.

Finally, across from the southeast corner of the station, we found Ristorante Giglio Rosso. It was a quarter til, and the waiter informed us that they didn’t start serving until seven. We claimed jet lag, and J-P put the wine knowledge he gleaned the night before to good use, ordering a red d’Abruzzo to tide us over. This combination, along with sitting with more patience than the Brits behind us, seemed to score us some points. So did ordering primi and secondi, rather than trying to do with just one course, or get everything at once. We also ingratiated ourselves by apologizing for our pitiful Italian and asking the waiter questions about the language. In all, we were rushed less and treated with less contempt that any of the other parties we watched while we were there. We lingered for not quite three hours over risotto milanese, pasta with clams, grilled fish, and veal cutlets. We finally felt like we were doing it right.

For dessert we chose fruit: berries for me and melon for J-P. The waiter surprised us by bringing out two glasses of a dessert wine (as best I can guess from what he said, it was Zaccagnini Passito Bianco) along with a plate of little sugar cookies, which he promised were delicious dipped in the wine. They were. We finished the meal with espressos, of course, accompanied by little chocolate candies.


post-half-marathon rooftop waffles

Courtney and I ran a half marathon in Seattle on Sunday. The next morning, we treated ourselves to waffles on her rooftop.

rooftop waffle table
Rooftop waffle table: Courtney is the larger one, Eva the smaller.

rooftop waffle kitchen
Rooftop waffle kitchen: Pulling up the cart to hold the batter was Eva’s idea.

Rooftop waffle: Yum.


close encounters with a food culture: mealtimes

We got our Grom gelato probably a bit after 5, and though we were tired and facing an early flight the next morning, our first night in Lugano had taught us some important things about meal times in Italian cultures. Namely, that you don’t mess with them.

After our first hike, we thought that a moderately-priced (as though such a thing exists in Switzerland) sit-down meal would be a nice reward and a good way to continue fending off jet lag into the evening. We didn’t go far, just a few steps down the waterfront path to La Lanchetta. Its patio was full, so we figured it must be all right. Good food, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

Lanchetta ended up being a false cognate with the Spanish lancha, for a canoe or other small boat—a launch. This, with my ignorance of Italian pronunciation rules, led me to ask a waterfront waiter in Morcote the next night, roughly, “Where is the wHoorf for Lugano?” He confirmed that I was looking for the boat, and I understood just enough of his answer to get that it was right down the street. It took looking at the ferry’s timetable to figure out that the rest of his disquisition must have been about how it was a holiday and so we’d missed the last one by half an hour.

Back at La Lanchetta that first night, we took a table just inside the open door to the patio and waited a while for a waiter to come over to us. (In general, we both find the European custom of paying waiters as staff, not independent contractors striving for tips, to be a good thing. It’s more humane, and it usually makes the service less obsequious. The consequences of those different incentives more than pushed the limits this time, though.) The wait was long enough for us to see that no one else seemed to be eating yet, so we ordered two beers, which thankfully came to us with a plate of snacks.

Those stale bread things and characterless beers were all we ever got. We watched the first party of diners come in and order, and it was clearly a bit of a scramble for the waitstaff and kitchen. It was also clear from lip-reading that the couple were speaking English, not Italian. The next two parties to order dinner, the same. Still no Ticinese diners, but by the time the third English-speaking party had ordered food, it seemed like the ice might be broken enough for us to follow suit. If only we could get our waiter to come back to the table…

He resisted all attempts at eye contact. We were right by the door to the very busy patio, right in his flight path. As he came through the door, he always turned his back. After a while of this—the first diners were gone by now—we decided just to pay the tab and get food at the kebab stand a bit farther down. Each of us managed to catch the waiter’s eye once and make check-signing gestures. He nodded at each of us, but never came by. I was beginning to think that we should just leave ten franchi (surely that would be enough) on the table and walk out. J-P asked for the check one more time, this time with results. It turns out I would have shorted the place four franchi.

Whenever we were on our own on this trip, we butted up against this inflexibility around what is to be eaten when. The waiter who wouldn’t serve us, the cafe-bars mysteriously empty at what we felt was lunchtime, the woman in the osteria who was clearly put out that we wanted a snack while waiting for a post-hike bus out of Mergocia, the limited morning coffee and inevitable late night, post-dinner espresso. It is true both that American food customs are practically non-existent, especially in comparison, and that our hodgepodge of tv-dinner, drive-thru, and fast-food options wreaks havoc on our health, the quality of our food, and the time we spend together. But I couldn’t help feeling that I’ve established good habits and constraints for myself within my food culture’s chaos, and that it’s easier to do that than to conform to the strictures of a real food culture. Especially as a traveler, when your lack of a kitchen means that all of your dining–and your attempts to flout the rules you don’t even know–are performed in public.


Milan wanderings: finally fluent in gelato

In Milan our final evening, it was just me and J-P again. We arrived at Milano Centrale mid-afternoon on a poorly air-conditioned, overbooked Trenitalia and took a room at the first hotel we found with a vacancy. It had no air conditioning at all, so we left our bags and hit the streets again. First stop, the bookstore around the corner, which had a small English-language section that yielded me twelve pretty good short stories by a Nigerian writer named Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Walking southeast we stumbled on the neighborhood’s shopping street, the Corso Buenos Aires. We walked its length from Porta Venezia to Piazzale Loreto and back to the middle, sidetracking for cold Tuborg, paprika chips, and stale bread snacks at a bar along Via Lazzaro Spallanzani.

Corso Buenos Aires also introduced us to Grom, with its organic, fair trade, etc gelato. By day 8, I was linguistically ready. I told the clerk, “Vorrei un cono mediano con due gusti: caramello al sale e limone.” That’s exactly what he gave me, and it was exactly what I wanted. It was exactly what J-P wanted, too, leaving him nothing to say but “Due.”

Tex-Mix's Photostream