Friday, 7 June 2013

Mantua, mouthfuls and a lesson about vinegar

So Mantua is a charming, funny little part of the world. Shakespeare banished Romeo to Mantua in the late 16th century so I’m not sure what it was like then, but today there’s definitely worse places you could send a lovesick teenager I’m sure.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful, quiet, medieval town surrounded by miles of farm land that’s only punctuated by other quiet, medieval towns, but the eating is good, the cocktails are pretty sensational, there’s a stunning theatre built entirely of wood and it’s easy driving distance to a whole number of other great spots, like Lake Garda to the north and Modena to the south, where you can do things like learn about balsamic vinegar and eat at the number three restaurant in the world.

At the risk of sounding repetitive, or worse, smug, it’s been, yes, another good couple of days

Getting to Mantua though was a bit of a dull schlep - four hours of intense driving on the motorway with conveys of trucks screaming past at indecent speeds, where the chief highlight was a surprisingly good sandwich at an otherwise ordinary roadside petrol station. But having left Nice early to make the most of the day (with a detour to the hilltop village of Eze - overhyped and overrun with tourists so I’d suggest saving your parking ticket money for ice cream…) we got to Mantua in mid-afternoon.

Heading in to the ancient city centre after dumping bags (we were staying a five minute drive out of town), we spent the rest of the day wandering and drinking cocktails the colour of summer before an early dinner before then retreating to bed. Civilised personified.  

Yesterday, Wednesday, we headed back into Mantua where we ambled pointlessly but genially for a couple of hours after first making a brief but highly memorable visit to the beautiful Bibiena Theatre. Built in 1770, it is just a gem of a place – intimate, beautiful, theatrical – but still a functioning venue for classical music and other such things. Mozart was in fact one of the first people to grace the small stage here in the days after it opened, aged all of 13.

Inside the Bibiena Theatre, Mantua
The afternoon involved all of a nap before a late-in-the-day decision to hop in the car and “drive somewhere”. After a cursory look at a map, the ancient, fortified town of Sirmione was punched into the GPS and we off we went.

Sirmione juts out into epic Lake Garda, the largest lake in Italy. George’s Lake Como is arguably the most famous, but Garda, and Sirmione, don’t do too badly.

It was hazy but warm (perfect gin and tonic weather) and after a waters-edge walk we ended up at dinner where a tourist-hedged bet turned out to be a total win. And the view wasn’t bad either.

There’s a lot to be said for not over-planning holidays and I’m officially a big fan of the Wing It, the Fuck It, the Why Not and the Let’s Just Do It. Otherwise you just risk coming home from one holiday exhausted and in need of another.

Lake Garda, Italy
Which is why you should just say fuck it, Sirmione here we come and thanks for the gelato.

And speaking of gelato, and eating more generally, today we went to Modena for the day. On a whim several months ago, when it was looking like Mum and Max might not even make it to Europe, I decided to book us lunch at Osteria Francescana, recently re-crowned number 3 on the Pellegrino World’s Fifty Best Restaurant List. Because, you know, fuck it.

The view from dinner, staring off into the hazy evening.

And then, when it turned out Mum and Max were still coming, we thought, well, it’s already booked…..

There’s something (I can’t decide whether to say “fabulous” or “outrageous”…) about having, over the course of the last near-five years, eaten variously at the top three best restaurants in the world – El Bulli with Tor back in 2009 (#1 in 2002, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009), Fat Duck with Lovely Boy in 2011 (#5 then but #2 in 2008, #3 in 2010… you get the gist) and now Osteria Francescana (current #3 and on the upward.)

The beautiful colours of Modena
I have none of the eloquence (never mind the vocabulary) to do justice to any of these encounters in a “what it tastes like in your mouth” capacity, but as far as theatre, elegance, a carefully moderated palate, wonder and five ways with cheese goes, Osteria Francescana needs a dictionary thrown at it. And then a thesaurus.

Cheese, five ways...
Two hours, an eight-course tasting menu, efficient, friendly staff and some sensational food that was by turns inspiring and surprising but never too much, well, until the foie gras ice cream which was just freaking intense and way too much of a good thing dressed, strangely, as a Golden Gaytime.

But honestly, not even the spoilt chubby rich kid sitting with his parents at the table next to us could sully how special the meal was or how appreciative and dazzled we felt to be there.  

The "oops broken lemon tart"
Funnily enough we haven’t needed dinner, but we didn’t come home empty handed. On the way in to lunch, we stopped at one of the places (I want to say villa, because it’s definitely not a factory) where traditional balsamic vinegar is produced. It was extraordinary to see how they make and distil the real deal, how long it takes, how seriously it’s taken and to discover how vinegar that’s been aged 12 years tastes when compared to vinegars that have been aged for 25.

It was incredible to learn about the importance of heritage and family and tradition when it comes to making balsamic vinegar, and the rigour with which Modena’s officials monitor production. It is the city, not the individual makers, who issue the authentic, literal seal of approval that goes on the bottles.  

Barrels of balsamic vinegar, set aside for Oliver, born in 2009.
And families give barrels of the mother-source to children as christening presents so the lineage and tradition continues. It’s kind of extraordinary. And amazing what you don’t learn in Tesco.

Anyway, stuffed to the gills and tomorrow we’re off to Venice. 

No comments: