What does the last of the housewives do?

Month: January, 2014

The Last Supper, No, Not That One

I got to cook! I was a bit worried, as you can imagine, when I heard my dear husband breezily invite his newly discovered family over to our flat for dinner on our last night in Milan. What could I make them? Clearly not pasta, my usual holiday standby. It was going to have to be that classic Asian dish, chicken with cashew nuts. And for extra show off points, peanut brittle for dessert.

The local PAM supermarket doesn’t really cater for the international eater. Most of its aisles are devoted to flour in all its forms, bread, dried bread, pasta, biscuits, pasta, a tiny selection of breakfast cereals, pasta. There is rice, mostly for risotto, but I found some basmati. Also a tiny bottle of actual Kikkoman soy sauce. They sold fresh ginger in 200 gram lots, which was odd because ginger is not a flavour that features heavily in Italian cooking. Neither, it appears, is chilli, at least in the north. I also picked up a pack of baby spinach in lieu of bok choy and a pack of soup mix vegetables, for the onion and celery. And found some tiny packets of cashew nuts, a rather essential ingredient. Also got some sugar and peanuts, all one needs for peanut brittle.

I prepared the chicken in the morning, as in the afternoon we were fulfilling a dream of my husband’s to go see AC Milan play at San Siro. I hacked up the one and a half kilos of breast fillet with the tiny IKEA knife supplied by the apartment and placed it in a glass dish. Have a look at what I found in a box in the cupboard.

Dodgy knives, no toaster, no kettle, but this little beauty is an essential in the Italian kitchen for the preparation of Parmesan. We also had a little stovetop Bialetti for the mandatory morning coffee, the one you have before you leave your apartment for your cafe normale. Bung a few chunks of ginger in the Moulinex and it’s minced like nobody’s business, ditto a small onion. That goes on the chicken, along with olive oil and copious soy. Ideally I would also like some rice wine vinegar and plum sauce, but dream on. A lemon would have worked, but you could only buy them by the half dozen at the shop, so no. I have used plum jam in an emergency for this dish, but all I had was some rather terrific apricot jam made by Isabella’s mother. It was a very deep coloured rich jam, almost like quince, so a few tablespoons of that went in too. I squished all of that into the chicken, covered it with foil, then made some peanut brittle.

You know how to do that, it’s easy. It was a bit frustrating, I have all of my fabulous recipes with me on the iPad, but no oven! No oven, so no pie, no tart, no biscuits. Having had a fairly close look at the sweet selection in the PAM, I thought toffee would be a bit of a novelty. Take two coffee mugs of sugar, place them in a saucepan with half a mug of water. Bring to the boil, stirring to get all the sugar around the edge. Boil in a lively manner until the mixture starts to colour, then you starting doing the crack test. Drop a bit into water and if it goes crunchy after it cools down, it’s done. Bring off the heat, stir in about two tablespoons of delicious white Italian butter and a coffee mug full of salted peanuts. Fling onto a sheet of baking paper you’ve providentially put on the bench.

Leave to cool while you go to the soccer.

When you get back, put on the rice. I put three mugs of rice in a big pot with five mugs of water and the tops of the celery for a bit of flavour. Bring to the boil, simmer covered for ten minutes, then let it sit. Meanwhile I kind of stir fried the chicken in two frying pans, transferring it to the rice pot when it was done. Then I stir fried in a little olive oil a couple of handfuls of broccoli with some very poorly chopped carrot and celery and the cashews, then put them in the pot too. Then I got out another pot because that one was too full to stir about, transferred some to that, then put the baby spinach in at the top and stirred it in.

Strangely enough, it was fine. They loved it, hadn’t had anything like it before and all had seconds. I’d probably gone a bit heavy on the ginger, but whatever. I did have to explain that it was an all in one meal, we don’t have a pasta course then a meat course. The peanut brittle also went down a treat. The relief was stupendous. There would be sadness at parting, but I didn’t want it to be from sore tummies.



Another Day in Milan

I’m understanding a lot more Italian. I can even string a sentence together, but it usually takes me about ten minutes, so not great for conversation. Io ascolto ma non parlo. I actually managed to get that one out, I rather expected a round of applause, but let’s face it, every Italian’s English is better than that. What it does mean is that I can at least translate for the benefit of my family. “Why haven’t you put out enough chairs? How many are there? Seven! No, not seven, eight! Eight! I’ll count them, one two three four five six seven eight! See! Where’s another chair? Where should you sit? No, not there, over there, you’re not doing anything!”. There’s a lot of exclamation marks and a lot of hand waving and we get there in the end.

My husbands family have been very kind and escort us around their home town, a beautiful city chockers with churches and sculptures and beautiful apartment buildings. We walked past evidence today of the perils of trying to build anything here.

You can’t dig so much as a hole for a pot plant without turning up some Roman ruins. Apparently this turned out to be part of the Imperial compound back in the day when Milan was a big cheese in the Roman world, between the 200s and the 400s AD. Back in San Ambrogio’s time. Remember him? The dead guy in the glass case? Good times.

We start the day with a coffee. In Giorgio’s case, a fag and a coffee and a fag, everyone smokes here, but not inside, so that’s nicer than Austria.

The coffee shops are tiny and exquisite and just like all the tourist guides say, you stand up for your shot. I need to take a photo with a Travelling David Tennant for comparison. Next time. The kids have been loving the freshly squeezed orange juice that all the caf├ęs knock out. Our apartment even has an orange juicer. Not a toaster or a kettle, though.

And if you ask for a cappuccino after about ten o’clock in the morning, like my dear husband did, aspersions are cast on your sexuality. At least the coffee definitions are similar to Australia, I recognised the macchiato, unlike the giant mug of milk I got in Munich.

Then, as you do, you pop in for a squiz at The Last Supper. Actually, Isabella booked for us, they shuffle you through in groups of about thirty. You’re not supposed to take pictures, it’s famous enough to Google. Take note of the doorway the friars knocked through Jesus’s feet. The masterpiece is sadly faded, but incredibly impressive, especially compared to the picture by the poor sucker who got to paint the other end of the room. I did sneak a pic of that.

The Duke of Milan, who commissioned both works, got himself photo bombed into that painting, so he looks as though he was at The Crucifixion. Lucky he didn’t try to pull that one on Leonardo. The Horror got personally shushed twice, they didn’t want his piercing voice to shake the fragile plaster off the wall. He was making pertinent comments, I should add.

Later in the afternoon we had a demonstration of Italian driving, which apparently by national standards was very cautious. We were actually going to see the lake which, even in the rain, was very picturesque.

“Shouldn’t that guy have given way to you?” asked the husband. “In Italy the rules, they are more like approximations” Giorgio answered, swerving around a pedestrian who was foolishly trying to cross at a pedestrian crossing, as the Moose giggled nervously in the back seat. Later we saw some fine examples of double parking, parking on the median strip, leaving your car wherever you stop, really. Outside our apartment it is normal to park on the pavement, which means you have to get out by driving along the pavement.

Which means you have to look both ways before stepping out of your front door. I’m starting to have second thoughts about the advisability of driving around Tuscany.

The Italian Museum Experience

It’s a common solution to a common problem around Europe. Here we have this castle or palace lying around empty now that we have some semblance of democracy, and here’s all this detritus lying about the place because people have been living here for thousands of years, not to mention those over eager nineteenth century archaeologists bringing truckloads of the Middle East home to put back together. Let’s put the latter in the former.

And so it is in the Castello Sforzesca.

I think we were a bit spoilt in Germany. You can guess how their museums are laid out. Subject order, chronological order, huge amounts of information. They’re a little more laid back here, which for some aspects of life are terrific – the kids aren’t getting the death stares they were in German museums – but not so great for getting a picture of the grand sweep of history that the castle represents. In fact they hardly mention the castle at all. There are just bits of castle with, say, a collection of armour and assorted weapons in it. Or a dungeon with a couple of mummies and sarcophagi far from home lumped in with local Bronze Age finds, in which a glass case full of what looks a lot like neck rings and bracelets is just labelled “Metal Hoard”. Frustrating. The castle is in very good shape, but I’d love to know a great deal more about it, instead of passing random doors and not knowing what they were used for.

Or these heads, mounted just beside the top of the portcullis.

I think there was a sign below mentioning that they were Roman, but from where?

I know who this guy is.

Sant Ambrogio, he looms large in the history of Milan, having been a very busy bee around the end of the 300s AD. And what gets me, and freaks out the Muffet! is that you can go and visit him in his church just down the road.

I think that’s him in the red. Again, more information! Actually, the church did have a little sign in English with the history of the body, because of course all I wanted to know was “no way! Is that really him! His own dead body!!”. Yes it is, placed in its current casket in the 19th century. His body has been continuously venerated all these over sixteen hundred years. I can’t believe there wasn’t a line out the door for it, instead of a solitary weeping Orthodox woman begging for his intercession.

I’m also getting the impression that Leonardo da Vinci spent a fair bit of time in these parts. After passing through rooms in the castle with painted ceilings we came across one full of scaffolding with a sign saying it was under conservation to restore the work of Leonardo on the ceiling. He’d done a rather nifty leafy thing, giving the impression of a rainforest canopy. We’re going to see the Last Supper tomorrow. Just briefly though, Giorgio says museums give him the bores. I think we’ve just about had enough of them too.


Milano New Year’s Eve

There’s a familiarity about Italy that I blame on over twenty years living in Italian neighbourhoods. We went into a local supermarket yesterday, and the kids said it was just like Lamonica’s in our suburb, selling croccanti, crostoli, panettone, chinotto and a ton of Nutella. We’re here to meet my husband’s Italian family and last night we shared New Year’s Eve with them.

I think I’ve finally worked out the relationship. Here’s my husband with the woman who was married to his half-great uncle, Zia Nina.

Which makes her son Giorgio his half second cousin. I think. I’ve discovered that I can understand some of the conversations going on around me, and can sometimes answer a “come si dice?” question. For a brief period in May of 1984 I could actually speak Italian in whole sentences, sometimes even using correct tenses. There are echoes of this ancient skill still lingering and I hope I can drag some of it to the useful part of my brain in the next couple of weeks.

While my husband was discussing the family tree with cousin Giorgio and his fabulous wife Isabella, I was discussing the nature of colonials being obsessed with genealogy with a man who bore a striking resemblance to my father. Here he is with the Muffet.

Luciano is the godfather of Giorgio and Isabella’s daughter. He said that Italians are not interested in such things. The reason is that they know where they belong, and it is here. Giorgio has lived in his apartment for sessanto anni (sixty years). On a walk around Milan today he showed us the church where his parents were married.

It struck me for the first time what a wrench it must have been for all the Italians who live in my area to uproot themselves and travel half way around the world. No wonder they maintain such strong ties with their home village.

Anyway, the night was about the food. Mamma Mia, so much food. First some salumi, some carciofi, some Ligurian olives. Then some homemade lasagne Isabella’s friend Titi had made and brought. “You know lasagne?” she asked. Oh, how we laughed.

It was so good, and much lighter than the Southern version we were familiar with. I was wise to the ways of the Italian feast, so had left some room for the roast chicken that followed, but I was a bit worried my husband was going to burst at the seams. Especially as we must also have the fruit salad that Luciano had brought. It contained twelve fruits for the months of the year that had just been, and the Muffet and I managed to guess them all, though I’d argue that an almond is not really a fruit. I really liked it in the fruit salad, though, made a mental note. Then we had to eat a bunch of grapes naming the months as we ate each one (a good refresher). And then, of course, the panettone which is far nicer fresh than after it has spent months at sea to arrive at Lamonica’s. Also torrone, of which I’m very fond, especially the Venetian version brought by Titi that looked like the Alps. And chocolate. Very lucky. Then more champagne, which wasn’t champagne but a lovely light dry prosecco claimed by our hosts to be far superior to that French rubbish you spend so much money on. And then the fireworks lit by the local lads out on the street which were very entertaining, especially after one lot fell over and started randomly strafing them.

So now I know what it is like to have a food hangover on New Years Day rather than the conventional kind. But Isabella still has a fridge full of food for us to eat that she didn’t manage to serve last night, so we soldier on. I’m going to have to move in to the gym when we get home.

Thoughts on Germany

There’s a lot of things to like about Germany. It makes such a difference to your enjoyment of a city, Barry O’Farrell, to be able to get around it easily. In Germany the pavements are wide, there are dedicated cycle ways every where, the public transport is integrated and frequent and clean. Some of the bigger cities, and this is also true of Austria, seem to have been built for giants. The buildings and roads are just enormous, you could ride an elephant into your hostel. If you happened to have one. You can take your dogs anywhere, into the banks, into the shopping centres, into most hotels. I’ve never seen one poo, so I don’t know the protocol, but maybe they’re better trained than at home.

Embarrassingly, almost everyone can speak a little English. I feel I like a cultural imperialist. I have picked up a few words of German, and even downloaded a language tutor app, but got annoyed when I found out that the gender for the word “girl” is masculine. Like an English speaker should complain. I may continue with it, I’ve been told my pronunciation is very good (thank you Christopher Bowen), and I want to come back here. I’m pinching a couple of words. They call their phones a Handy, I like that. It does mean expunging the adjective from my vocabulary, but I can live with that. I’m also taking Schicksal for the word fate. Schicksal.

The place is full of history, but I guess that’s true of all of Europe. Even the little village of Wittmar, where we were so generously hosted, had a ruined Dark Ages castle and the Bismarck tower, a popular local suicide spot.


In Wittmar we were fairly close to the old border between East and West, so we got some modern history too.

We went on to an East German village, and that was pretty sad. Full of abandoned and dilapidated houses. Sabine told us that during the Cold War the East Germans hoarded everything they could get their hands on, including stones and bits of wood. They haven’t lost the habit.

Even the village castle was mostly ruined, but partially inhabited. We didn’t see anyone outside at all. It did mean that the kids could climb on it without anyone looking sternly at them.

Of course Berlin is still shuddering with the war, it’s everywhere. There’s bullet holes everywhere you look. Buildings are still being rebuilt. This is a church, the spire has been half bombed off.


Everywhere we went was the small footnote, “this building is a reconstruction, it was flattened during the war”. I wonder if they just kept all the bits of each building in a pile and used the bits to rebuild? I’ll have to get a book. It must cost a fortune. The Berlin Dome looks convincingly old, though the original was only sixty years old when it was bombed. There seemed to have been a history in the city of each ruler knocking down works of the previous ones and building bigger and better versions.

And there’s the history they’ve pinched from elsewhere. We lined up for two hours to get into the Pergamon museum, losing a chance to go to Checkpoint Charlie, but inside they had this.

The Ishtar gate of Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon. Oh yes indeed. Also this marketplace entranceway from ancient Pergamon, complete with a Greek inscription marking the spot of the barber.

Come on Frank Lowy, surely you could fancy up the entrance to Westfield Burwood a bit. There was a ton of other stuff that they’d hauled out of the Middle East in container loads, the Moose was taking notes for the future when he does Ancient History. It was amazing.

One could go on about the history forever, but I’m moving on. I’m not bowled over by the local cuisine. I’ll show you a summary.

Can I just say that the specialty of Berlin is curry wurst? You know what that is? It’s a frankfurter cut up with curry sauce squirted on it. And the curry sauce tastes like tomato sauce with a bit of curry powder mixed into it. I have had some delicious meals here, you can do a lot with cabbage, and anything with venison is very good. Also there’s a lot of berries around the place. I wouldn’t actually kill for a pad Thai or some bok choy with oyster sauce, but I’d really like some. There’s a lot of pizza joints around. The Horror spotted some sushi places. We peeked at the menu of one and it did have sushi, but also tomato soup and chop suey, so I wasn’t convinced. I do love the bread here. I wonder what they do to it? I may have mentioned the beer.

We’re here in a mild winter, but it still means a fair old rug up to go outside, and a de rug once you get inside. The sky is very low. We like it because we’re on holidays, but it would be a bit depressing to live through. On the other hand, the rain is unconvincing, so you can still tourist in it and pretend it’s not happening. Apparently the winter does make summer a celebration.

Speaking of which, they do Christmas in style. I’ve never seen so many giant, beautifully decorated Christmas trees, even inside churches. I’ve told you about the Christmas markets, and something else I’m taking home is lit candles everywhere. You have to remember to blow them out before leaving the house.


I’ve been very impressed by the environmental credentials of the country. There’s windmills all over the place, I think they look rather elegant, and depressed looking solar farms. I realise coal is cheap in Australia, but come on! We have so much more sunshine than here, it’s embarrassing that we don’t make more of an effort. A lot of takeaway places serve food and drinks in reusable cups and plates, you get a deposit back when you return them. That can’t be too hard either, can it?

So it has been terrific, and I want to come back. And next time, I want snow.