History Tastes Good

Kunal Tej Bir Lama

It had been just a couple of months since I had joined Royal Caribbean Cruise Line as its very first Nepali waiter. The summer months were cooling and the ship was diverted from the chilling Baltic region to the warmer waters of the Mediterranean.

One fine morning, we docked at Venice. Home of Marco Polo, famous for Piazza San Marco, bellinis at Harry’s Bar, Rialto Bridge straddling the Grand Canal, Carnevale di Venezia… And how could we forget Death in Venice, Thomas Mann’s lingering novel, published in 1912? If the book aroused furtive imaginations of the city, then the 1972 movie dwelling on the story of an ageing and dying composer’s obsession for a young Polish boy supplied the unforgettably romantic imagery of Venice.

Venice turned out to be older and a little run down. The late summer day was still balmy, the sky blue. The ferry pier rang with urgent shouts of Murano! Burano!! Torcello!!! But the buzz had gone, along with the hordes of tourists. Still, stubbornly, souvenir shops flaunted their wares: colourful blown glass, marble busts, masks, theatrical clothes and “antiques”, etc. As expected, gondolas were bobbing about the canals, with gondoliers in their black pants, striped jerseys and red-ribboned straw hats, though not quite warbling O Sole Mio aloud! St Marks Square looked listless, strewn with pigeons being fed by some straggling tourists. Musicians had set up stands, but their entertainment was pretty shambolic. Scattered wooden ramps were reminders of low-lying Venice’s constant battle with acqua alta, or tidal floods from the rising Adriatic Sea.

I decided to explore. I marvelled at the intricately adorned Doge’s Palace, the seat of the leader of the once Serene Republic of Venice, an independent state that existed from 7th century AD till 1797. It was once a prosperous trade centre between Europe and especially Byzantine and the Islamic worlds. Venice also became the printing capital of the world, being quick to adopt the newly invented German printing press that spread rapidly throughout Europe by 1482. In fact it’s leading printer, Aldus Manutius, is credited with the concept of paperback books that could be carried in a saddlebag. I curiously slipped into many alleys lined with ageing canal-side villas, still erect somewhat timorously, but stunning nevertheless. Think Sophia Loren. Sometimes, one ended up abruptly at mysterious cul de sacs, or crossed over gorgeous bridges with intricate, gilded decorations. But I’m digressing. This is about the meal in Venice!

After wandering around, and getting lost now and again, I finally found my way back to St Mark’s Square. It was way past lunch time and, so far, the restaurants I had seen were pretty commercial, okay for tourists, but I wasn’t one. I was under the covered walkway around the square, trying to avoid yet another grim quartet murdering Vivaldi’s Summer, when I saw this florid doorway. I ducked in, tired and a little hungry. The interiors were very Rococo: girandole mirrors, carved furniture, wood panellings, various objets d’art and chandeliers, in a collection of small rooms. I was shown to a huge table smothered with layers of gloriously thick damask. A heavy menu was presented and, flustered at thinking I was at the wrong place, I chose the only item I quickly recognised: Salade Niçoise. On top of my unforgiveable choice of a French dish in Italy, I ordered a bottle of Ramlösa, the Swedish mineral water when I should have really asked for the local San Pellegrino.

My meal arrived, and it was only then I had the first inkling that I just might have stumbled into a rather grand establishment. My waiter, a portly gentleman, was ceremoniously leading a younger server bearing a huge silver platter. On it stood a huge and fabulously decorated silver bowl. The waiter very theatrically lifted the bowl and, with a flourish, put it down in front of me, wishing me “Buon appetito!” while, somehow, simultaneously shooing away his assistant imperiously. Hmmm, I thought, interesting, what a lot of ceremony for a Salade Niçoise!

The salad was delicious. It had all kinds of seafood, including whole baby octopus, and topped with artichoke. The endives were crunchy; the potatoes firm; the beans al dente; the vinaigrette warm, slippery and tart. It was an expensive meal and as I dug into it, my curiosity started to quicken. The restaurant had that lingering atmosphere which does not come easily, quickly or by contrivance. Even the weighty silver cutlery was heaving with history! So where was I? On my way out, I found the answer in a book open on a stand at the entrance; I had missed it on my way in. I peered at the pages and realized I had just lunched in Venice’s venerable Caffè Florian! Open since 1720, with a history of illustrious and famous clientele such as Lord Byron, Charles Dickens and Stravinsky. Casanova was supposed to have used it as his hunting ground since it was the only restaurant allowed to entertain female guests! Over time, it had become the centre of art, culture, music, politics and business.

I left Venice proud and happy. After all, I had inadvertently stepped into history. And tasted it.

PS. Caffè Florian still exists, is flourishing, and now has a branch in Florence.

Recipes


Salade Niçoise (or Insalata Nizzarda), Serves 8
A specialty of Côte D’Azur and named after the city of Nice, made famous in USA by Julia Child, the “French Chef”.

Vinaigrette
3 tablespoons best quality wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard
250ml plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 medium new white onion, sliced paper-thin
2 cloves garlic, minced
120g flat-leaf parsley leaves, loosely packed
180g mixture of tarragon and fresh shallot greens, loosely packed
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Salad
900g tinned tuna chunks (Ayam Brand Tuna Chunks in Oil)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
Rock salt and freshly ground black pepper
20 tinned anchovy fillets (John West is best)
450g green beans, trimmed
450g butter beans (ghuin simi), trimmed
900g tiny new potatoes, scrubbed
1/2 each red and yellow bell peppers, cut in thin (1/4-inch) strips
6 medium red and yellow tomatoes, stemmed and quartered
5 fresh eggs, hard-cooked and peeled
180g black olives
Sprigs of parsley & garlic greens, for garnish

Vinaigrette
In a large bowl whisk together the vinegar and the mustard. Slowly whisk in the oil in a thin stream to emulsify the mixture. Stir in the garlic and the onions. Mince the parsley and add it, with the tarragon and shallot greens, to the dressing, mixing well. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Salad
Season the tuna lightly with pepper (it is already salted). Drizzle it with about 3 tablespoons of the vinaigrette, then reserve at room temperature.

Drain the anchovies of oil. (Throw the oil later into the salad, it’s full of flavour!)

Bring 4 cups water to a boil in the bottom of a steamer. Add half the beans, cover, and steam until they are tender firm, about 6 minutes. Remove from the steamer, drain and let cool covered with a cotton tea towel. Repeat with the remaining beans.

Transfer one-third of the dressing to a medium-sized bowl.

Bring a medium-sized pot of salted water to a boil, and add the potatoes. Cook just until they are tender through, about 15 minutes. Drain. If you want to peel them, do so as soon as they are cool enough to handle. Add them, still warm, to the one-third of the vinaigrette. Toss, and reserve.

To assemble the salad, just before serving, toss the beans and the peppers with enough vinaigrette to fully moisten them, and arrange them in the centre of a serving platter. Top them with the anchovy fillets. Quarter the eggs, and place them, with the tomatoes, around the beans and peppers. Drizzle them with 2 to 3 tablespoons of the vinaigrette.

Place the potatoes on another platter. Arrange the tuna pieces atop the potatoes. Sprinkle with the olives. Drizzle with any remaining vinaigrette, and garnish with several sprigs of parsley and garlic greens. Serve immediately.

Wine To Go
A chilled white wine such as a Chardonnay, Semillon chardonnay, Sauvignon blanc or even a Riesling. The wine need not be super dry. And there is no rule to say you cannot eat the salad accompanied by a medium red wine. Or have it with a glass, or glasses, of Bellini (recipe below).

Bellini
Said to be invented by Giuseppe Cipriani of Harry’s Bar in Venice, sometime between the late 1930s to 1948.

90ml peach juice
90ml Champagne or sparkling white wine
Slice of fresh peach

Pour the peach juice into a chilled champagne flute (not a saucer). Fill the glass with Champagne or sparkling white wine. Garnish with a slice of fresh peach.

Lessons In Heidi-land

Kunal Tej Bir Lama

When I landed one early October morning at Zürich’s Kloten airport many years ago, the winter was already flexing its muscles. My local guardian, Gian Pepi Saratz, was waiting with a 1st class train ticket in hand to take me straight to his hometown, Pontresina, up in the Swiss Alps. I was a still a little dazed from my long flight from Kathmandu via Bangkok. I had travelled far away from the familiar madness of Asia straight into the clinical efficiency of one of Europe’s richest nations.

Gian’s ancestors were the actual founders of the resort town of Pontresina, their roots going back to the Saracens, an Arab people who came from North Africa as early as 932 BC travelling via Spain, over the Alps, and into this region of modern day Switzerland. Gian had once been the mayor of the town, and so had his forefathers. The family also owned a hotel there though they were no longer running it. (Since 1996, renovated and with a modern wing, Hotel Saratz has reverted to the ownership of the 5th generation of the family to reclaim its former class.) Within minutes, ensconced in the warmth of the 1st class carriage, we silently sped away. We passed by many fairy tale villages and towns, including Zizers where Zita, the last Empress of Austria, Queen of Hungary and Bohemia, eventually took up residence after the death of her husband, Emperor Charles, in 1922. A widow for 67 years, the couple was poignantly reunited when Zita died in 1989 and her heart, following an ancient custom, was rested in an urn in the same church where her husband’s heart had been placed since his death. This story has always captured my imagination, one of loyalty and love unto death – and forever after.

An hour later, we stopped at Chür (destined to play a big part in my 2 years in Switzerland as my hotel-school was just above this town in Passugg). We changed from our modern train to the famous narrow-gauged Rhätischer Bahn, which would climb even higher to take us to Samedan, where we would leave the train and drive up to Pontresina, a short distance away. If I had thought the journey from Zürich was beautiful, the stretch from Chür to Samedan – where one also jumps off to take a short drive into St. Moritz – was spectacular. As the train chugged its way up and away clinging to the ever-climbing track, the beauty of the Alps revealed itself in all its storied glory: mountain meadows spotted with late-blooming flowers; deep valleys misty with freefalling waterfalls; and fields of early snow which, with every revealing twist, got wider and whiter.

Samedan had arrived. We got out. Gian called out “Grüzi!” – a common greeting always delivered politely but seldom with a smile to one and all in the local Romansch language of this proud Graubünden region. We climbed into his trusty Subaru station wagon, crunched some snow and ice along the way, and were soon in front of his manorial house Chesa Melna, the Yellow House. Nora, Gian’s wife, who was a little hard of hearing, finally appeared and graciously welcomed me. After exchanging pleasantries, I was shown to a warm room on the 3rd floor with a high bed covered with the fluffiest, lightest and shortest duvet.

That first evening, we dined à la maison. The meal was simple: a hearty potage of chunks of meat and vegetables. The stock – enough to last an entire winter – for the potage was in the cold room, in a huge metal pot, a gelatinous, reduced product of many hours of slow boiling of marrow bones, onions, celery stalks, carrots, parsley and black peppercorns. Whenever soup was on the menu, the required amount of stock was brought back to life on a low fire, the heat gently releasing all its nutritious secrets. Then, if you wanted potato soup, you would throw in chunks of potatoes and, after half an hour so of simmering, voila, potato soup! However, this simple meal was accompanied by the pièce de resistance of the evening: an exceptional bottle of Bordeaux from the year of my birth retrieved from Chesa Melna’s bountiful wine cellar deep down under!

The next day, the Saratzs’ proposed we lunch out. The restaurant was in Corviglia, a skiing area above St. Moritz – the famous snowy playground of the rich and famous – run by the renowned chef, Reto Mathis, in a funicular station. This didn’t sound at all good; neither was the restaurant, basic as it was in both structure and décor. Though the ski season was almost over, it seemed busy enough. Slightly disappointed, and out of my elements, I sat down, meekly expecting the worse.

Nora and Gian were greeted familiarly almost immediately by a bespectacled waitress in her 40s wearing a ruffled apron à la Heidi. The moment we were seated, the order was given: a bottle of white wine and pâté de foie gras, for which Chez Mathis was famous. The menu was, obviously, not necessary.

The waitress arrived with 3 wine glasses in her left hand, the bottle her right. She pulled out a corkscrew from her left pocket and deftly uncorked the wine. She offered some to Gian. He peered into the glass through his thick spectacles, swirled it a bit, slurped and spluttering, spat it out with a look of slight disgust. After one more look at the glass, he shook his head. No good. The waitress poured some wine and drank it. She nodded her head in agreement, and off she went muttering about a fresh bottle. No one seemed surprised, or unhappy. Another bottle appeared, tasted, pronounced drinkable, and it was “Zum wohl, mittenander!”

What had just taken place fascinated and horrified me. As far as I had been taught, a corked wine was a disgrace to the establishment, and to have brought it to the table casually with the glasses in one hand sans tray and the bottle in the other was simply wrong. Then for the server to have the gumption to drink the dubious wine right at the table and, with no sign of abject contrition, march off and produce a second bottle insouciantly was absolutely insulting. The puzzling fact was Nora and Gian were not the least bothered.

The wine, Dézaley, was deep yellow–gold, nutty, mellow and delicious, and one of Switzerland’s best. Made from Chasselas grape, it became my favourite wine, along with Aigle, St. Saphorin and Yvorne (all white, which I preferred over the Swiss reds). The foie gras soon appeared on individual plates, one big lump in the middle accompanied by plump figs stewed in curry (!) sauce. It should have been a marriage made in hell but was heaven. With baskets of hot and crisp Melba toasts to spoon the foie gras into our hungry mouths, bottles of Dézaley washing it all down, ending with a wickedly luscious mousse au chocolat, I was lulled into a benevolent state from which even a shot of espresso could not awaken me, so much so the trespasses of Ms Heidi, the waitress, were duly forgiven.

Unknowingly, my hotel management education had already begun. In Europe, the distinction between the guest and the server was not one of social hierarchy or status, merely a distinction of profession. One followed certain rules, but just because you were serving a customer didn’t mean you needed to grovel, bent over, hands forever clasped and mutter “Yes, Sir”; “No, Madame”. All you had to be was neat and clean, polite, professional and knowledgeable.

Lessons are learnt in different ways and places, and not always from a teacher in a classroom. In a funicular station, halfway up a ski slope, in the company of two 70-plus-year-olds? Unorthodox, yes, but priceless!

Recipes


Chicken Liver Pâté, Serves 6
Duck or goose liver, known as foie gras, is not readily available locally. The best substitute is chicken liver. Foie gras – translates as ‘fattened liver’ – is made from made of the liver of a duck or goose that has been specially fattened through ‘gavage,’ or force-feeding corn, viewed as cruel by many. Some countries have laws against force-feeding or the sale of foie gras.

225g chicken livers, rinsed and trimmed
2 tablespoons Cognac or brandy
225g butter
¼ level teaspoon ground mace (nutmeg shell)
1 level teaspoon chopped fresh thyme, plus 6 sprigs to garnish
2 cloves garlic, crushed
Salt and freshly milled black pepper

You need six 1¼ inch (3 cm) deep ramekins with a base diameter of 2¼ inches (5.5 cm).

Take a medium-sized, heavy-based frying pan, melt about 25g butter in it until hot but not smoking, and fry the chicken livers over a medium heat for about 5 minutes. Keep them on the move, turning them over quite frequently. Remove them from the pan using a draining spoon and transfer them to a blender or food processor. In the same pan, gently melt 150g of the remaining butter and add this to the blender or food processor. Then pour the cognac, or brandy, on to the juices left in the frying pan (to capture all the lovely flavours), and pour that over the livers. Add the mustard, mace, thyme and garlic, season well with salt and freshly milled pepper, and blend until you have a smooth, velvety purée. Next, divide this purée between the ramekins (heat resistant ceramic or glass pots). Then melt the remaining 50g butter, pour a little over each one to seal, press in a spring of thyme, and leave them to get quite cold. Cover with cling film and leave them in the fridge till needed (will easily keep up to a week). Remove from the fridge about an hour before eating as the pâté needs to be served at room temperature.

Melba Toast
Preferably day-old whole loaf of white bread sliced thinly, without crusts, toasted slightly brown but crisp (be careful, don’t burn!). Serve hot.

Wine To Go
Since I’ve been chardonnay-ed out to the gills, I would go for a bottle of Drostdy Hof sauvignon blanc or Penfolds Rawson Retreat riesling. If in an extravagant mood, a glass of champagne, or a super-chilled sparkling white wine such as Lindemans Bin 25 Brut Cuvée would never go amiss.

If red wine is more to your taste, a merlot or pinot noir would do nicely. I would recommend Hardy’s Varietal Range or Rosemount Estate Diamond Label Vintage.

As you can see, I’m rather partial to New World wines in Nepal as they, in my opinion, are better value for money. Though usually young, they seem to travel well and, in most cases, are cheaper. The resulting quicker turnover helps as wines, most often – and even bigger department stores are guilty of this crime – are still stored or displayed upright, sometimes in windows facing the full glare of the sun. More and more New World wine bottles now have screw caps. Unromantic but practical; goodbye corked bottles! I have also come across rather dubiously labelled European wines and, regardless of the origins, found the more expensive the bottle is, the more likely it is to be either disappointing or undrinkable.

Café Mitra Re-Opens on July 15th, 2011

After a hiatus of 6 months, following the demolition of its beloved 'home', Café Mitra is delighted to announce it's re-opening! What gives us even more joy is that we will be located in the same address in Thamel, albeit in the back courtyard garden and beyond.

AND we are proud to welcome Chef Mohit Rana. Educated and trained in culinary arts in London and New York, he has worked in Washington DC. He guest-cheffed with us last year in June and December. Chef Mohit actively sources locally grown organic ingredients and has already identified a few reliable suppliers who share his untiring quest for quality. You have been warned: 'More hits' from Chef Mohit coming soon!

Please contact us for further details