Saturday, 29 December 2007

Italian Rugger Buggers

On the late afternoon of Christmas Day I went to Mrs Combo's cousins, a house in the country where they still kill things to eat. The house is falling down but they have spent thousands on the outside cooking area which is lavish even by South Florida barbecue installation standards and can easily accommodate hundreds of family members. This is the fill-in bit between Christmas lunch and Christmas dinner. The dish on offer (cooked outside) was bagna cauda, a vicious local sauce made with garlic and anchovies into which are dipped raw vegetables of choice for general munching. It was bitterly cold (everything takes place outside) and all the better for that. There was some serious drinking. The main players were the former stars of the local rugby club, now defunct. Because I am English they all take the piss out of me. I can't imagine why. After this playful interlude I managed two other functions. The ever-patient Mrs Combo drove me home at around one o'clock on Boxing Day morning. Surfacing much later, I found that I had brought the bottle in the accompanying photograph home with me, which is the hard-to-get-hold-of house wine for said (extinct) rugby club. Gosh! Could I now be accepted? I have a horrible feeling 'though that I nicked it.

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Xmas Cross Dressing

The tempting little minx on the right is of course Giulio the Singer and the rather severe looking dominatrix on the left is Enrico the Guitarist. The occasion was an Eve of Christmas dinner in a local village hall with five courses and as much wine as you could drink, all for €15. We were roundly entertained by them afterwards, musically speaking of course.
The second shot shows Giulio in a more reflective mood at the end of the evening.
Giulio and Car Dealer Bruno will be performing live in Cardiff on the weekend of the Wales vs Italy international in February.

Monday, 24 December 2007

On the House

I think I can count the free drinks I have had in pubs in Blighty over 30 years of unequivocal and sustained boozing on the fingers of one hand. Just for example, in the second and third years of my period of academic excellence at the City of Leicester Polytechnic I managed to divide my student grant between William Hill and the Huntsman, possibly the least attractive pub in Western Europe. It is almost certainly now a pole dancing joint called Sexx!! with a lot of bedraggled plastic banners hanging outside offering a full Sunday roast for £2.99. I used to drink pints of M&B mild like it was going out of fashion (which it did, shortly afterwards). The poisoned, spavined dwarf who ran the place never once said "this one's on me, Christmas an' all that". The place pictured above is the Cavallino Bianco, the Little White Horse, a local bar. In one memorable evening, with the sainted Doctor Munro, we managed to drink €50 of gin and tonic between us. The problem was that the owner, Enrico, matched us round for round with a free one. And as a G&T (Italian-style, ginned up to the brim) cost €1.50, you can imagine the mayhem. I found the Doctor the next morning upside down in a holly bush. The Little White Horse closed about a year ago and is still up for sale.

Sunday, 23 December 2007

Christmas Fun at Genoa

Down to Genoa for the match and the ritual demolition of beer and panini filled with lovely Parma ham beforehand. One of the two good old boys (qv) cheesed up for the shot above. Afterwards it was trebles all round as Genoa won (hence all the flags) so we gave it a right caning in two bars in Genoa, then beer in the car and then rounded off with a marathon red wine session in a bar nearer home.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

An Old Bowser

This is the local town's bowser which is often on duty in the summer delivering water to thirsty plant pots and flower borders in the streets and squares. In winter it spends most of its time in the garage but this year there is an ice rink in one of the local car parks so it's there most of the time, helping local children break elbows and twist ankles. The driver doesn't know how old it is exactly but thinks it has about 50 years of service. The make is OM which ceased production in 1968 and was absorbed by Iveco. Bowser, along with beaker, is one of my favourite words.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

Never trust a shepherd

They say "red sky at night...", well this was the sunset two nights ago and the next day the temperature dropped about 20 degrees and it snowed. However, the siege mentality induced by inclement weather is always a welcome guest in this household. Consumption today therefore has centred around two bottles of wine and, bizarrely, a cherry liqueur concoction in a label-free Kilner-type jar with an indistinct provenance. I do hope it's not some sort of perfumed lavatory cleaner.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

The Fat Bull Festival

There has been the Festa del Bue Grasso for 370 years at Moncalvo near Asti and this is the second year on the trot (hoof?) that I've been. Essentially it's a day dedicated to the consumption of meat and then more meat. In the morning there's a show of prize bulls, when that's out of the way (I didn't see one bull; we were in the bar drinking Prosecco) it's time to make one's way to any of the several excellent restaurants in the village and the gloves come off.
The menu was: raw minced beef (with just a little lemon), then veal in a tuna sauce, then tripe with peppers and garlic, then agnolotti (huge mutant ravioli stuffed with meat and served with a roast meat gravy), then the main course which is seven different cuts of boiled beef, served with three garlic-based sauces. Then there was a pudding (no meat as far as I could taste), coffee and two bottles of grappa on the table amongst eleven of us. We were a little disappointed the cheese board didn't pop its head out. Needless to say we drank industrial quantities of Barbera d'Asti.
The chap in the photo getting the first of his three helpings of agnolotti from the not unattractive waitress is a Real Man. Obviously we swapped stories all afternoon. In the summer he lives in the Alps at 6,700 feet with his goats and cattle. No electricity. And he goes up on foot with the animals. His Mum, together with their supplies, goes up by helicopter (€200 + €22 a minute flight time). In the winter he works for the state electricity company, chopping down trees underneath high voltage power lines. Just before the tripe he started regaling us with his Great Chainsaw Accident stories. His favourite was his friend who had a kickback from a tree trunk (he was working without a helmet like they all do, too hot) and he managed to chainsaw off his right ear, half his cheek and most of his shoulder. The blood squirted out for more than three metres apparently.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

It's Christmas!

Christmas to the Italians is still essentially a religious festival. Representations of the Nativity, or Crib, are a fundamental part of the celebration and every church has a display of Nativity Scenes, mostly made by children. The thing is, they make them out of themed items. So you might get a Nativity made of bread, or stones, or washing-up bottles or fag packets. OK, so I made the last one up but you get the picture. The Crib pictured here was in the church where the concert took place on Saturday and is composed, remarkably, of baby pumpkins. I particularly like the cattle in the background with their horns made of pumpkin stalks. I think Jesus is a pumpkin seed, which seems absolutely appropriate. Almost restores one's faith in misguided, left-footing infants.

A Real Bar

Went to Genoa on Sunday for the football. Arrived late so I managed to get a shot of the bar (where we go prior to each match to get loaded up) empty. All the usual suspects were at the match which had already kicked off. Behind the little counter on the left where all the dead pig is lying in state, sit two old boys with their Berkel machine, hewing away at pork bits for rolls and sarnies. The walls of the bar are lined with bottles of wine, floor to ceiling. Marvellous. Terrible match, Genoa losing 3-1.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Boozing in Church

The choir in which I sing gave a concert at a local hilltop village the other night. Like trembling crack fiends, three of us hard core drinkers huddle in the apse, right behind the altar, as the local Mayor welcomes the choir and addresses the gently snoring audience with a lightning 45 minute speech. We hold our glasses out in gentle supplication as Emilio opens a bottle of his home-made grappa and dispenses what is known as the acqua del coro, the blessed choir water that warms the throat and braces the vocal chords. The suitably cobwebbed and crucifixed Romanish backdrop adds to the sense of delicious sin. And, of course, as an Anglican my sense of pleasure soars heavenwards.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Pre-dinner dilemma

Dinner at the beautiful country house of a young, successful, wealthy, fulfilled couple, with whom Mrs Combo and I have so much in common. Mrs Combo had spent all afternoon preparing a special pudding. We took two decent bottles of wine as well. The automatic gates slid back, we parked the car and I got out. I had the two bottles of wine in a small gift box in one hand and the precious pudding in the other. There was Max, their big guard dog, on his chain. Barking and wagging his tail as usual. I skirted him and was about at the door to the house when Max sank his not inconsiderable teeth into the calf of my right leg. I was in mid-stride and slightly off-balance. I tried to swing around and hit Max on the head with the wine. I could feel myself going over. Which should I drop? The pudding or the wine? One would have to go. Max was still tucking in to my leg and emitting a low constant growl. I was flailing around. Just as I was about to let go of the wine, Max decided enough was enough, relaxed his jaws and ambled off. Fortunately, I was wearing a stout pair of moleskin trousers from Cordings so no flesh was actually removed. Our hosts were especially solicitous but asked me not to identify the dog when I went to A&E, as this time the authorities would have to give Max The Final Injection. "What do you mean this time?" I spluttered. Big silence as young, successful, wealthy, fulfilled couple looked at each other. At least I didn't drop the wine.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

High Spirits

I don't know if it's possible to buy pure alcohol in Blighty. If it is available over the counter you probably have to apply firstly to the Home Office for a permit, undergo three months of psychometric testing and then supply the names of three character referees, one of whom must be a High Court judge. In Italy they virtually give it away because no one would dream of drinking it except washed-up expats on a budget. I imagine in the UK the label would scream out in 72pt type "DO NOT DRINK!!!!!". This one just has the fire hazard logo that means you shouldn't light a cigarette within three metres of the bottle as it may spontaneously combust. And no, I didn't have a sip. Well, not yet anyway.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Gin Heaven

A light 4 bottle supper at friends last night before choir practice. There was a big shout for grappa to accompany the coffee and along with three different grappas, Luciano pulled this museum piece out of his spirits cabinet. Bloody hell, I spluttered, how old is that? Well, he said, I think that's probably from the 1970s. I poured myself a decent belt and the fragrance was astonishing, all delicate violets and roses. It tasted wonderful. I mean, can gin mature? Blowed if I know. I tried to ask Diageo, the owners of Tanqueray, but you get a message from their Customer Center (sic) in Pigsknuckle, Arkansas saying have a nice day you Limey drunk.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Paying for it

At three o'clock yesterday afternoon I gave a lift to a prostitute with whom I have a nodding acquaintance. The sour tang of alcohol on her breath as she jumped into the car brought to mind what she may well have been necking* at lunchtime. Italy's answer to Buckie/Thunderbird/Diamond White is Tavernello, available in red or white versions costing about €1.20 per 1 litre container. It's the wine of choice for those people bumping along the bottom. I fill up on it every Friday evening when I eat at my mother-in-law's. The white is pretty foul but the red is OK once you get past the first glass. Of course the joy of the Tetrapak container is that one's dining companions/close family relatives can't see how fast it's going down.

*Cue vulgar observations. Over to you chaps.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Bandit Country

Up to the nearby village to post a letter. This was the view yesterday morning from the square. One of the few pictures you'll see in this self-indulgent nonsense that doesn't include a glass. After going to the post office I went to the bar to (yes, really) buy a newspaper. For the first three years I'd walk in and it would fall silent, and all the old boys playing cards would stop shouting at each other, turn and stare intently at me for a full five seconds like out of a John Ford film, and then resume their game, but with the volume right down. After seven years, one or two of them actually say good morning. The bar is festooned with dead animals, guns, pennants from hunting clubs and football teams, bottles carved out of wood, faded photographs and acres of real Formica. Paying for the paper, I felt a severe tug of envy when the octagenerian next to me ordered and necked in one go a glass of amaro (q.v.). At a quarter to nine in the morning. If I wasn't Anglican I'd have had a go too, but I've not only got a drink problem but also too much Protestant guilt.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

A quiet night out

Please come around for some supper they said. But it's Friday tomorrow, I replied weakly, and I'm teaching at eight o'clock and I don't finish until one. Oh, don't be such a poof, they said, we're only cooking a plate of Milanese (delicate slices of beef, coated in breadcrumbs, and then fried in good oil), there's a plate of tomato salad and that's it, you'll be home by ten o'clock. Needless to say, at half past midnight we were bellowing out "Canto, canto, canto" and "Rido, rido, rido" and I was begging Mrs Combo for just five essential minutes of grace so I could drink some more Marzemino (an obscure red from Trentino and, in my opinion, the more obscure it remains the better). The bloke in the dodgy glasses bailed out early, as you might imagine.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Sod off, Lady Luck

I've just had to shell out €340 to have something done to the transmission on the Panda (purchased of course from car-dealer Bruno), my Italian accountant says I'm staring down the barrel, there's a badger that has declared war on the fence around the orchard and it's slashing down outside and the bit that connects the camera to the laptop is in The Doghouse and I'm bolloxed if I'm going out in all that rain to get it. So the news about last night's run-in with Mr Booze will have to wait. Instead I would like to show you a picture of an extremely relaxed Giulio the Singer at table during THAT WEEKEND. The ten bottles of wine at a dinner when one of the party (Mrs Combo) wasn't drinking. The photograph is courtesy of T. Savage Esq. Remarkably it is in focus, which is more than can be said for the shots he took later in the evening. O tempo! O mores!

Friday, 2 November 2007

The Day of the Dead

Well, that was a tough one. November 1st is a holiday in Italy and the cemeteries are mobbed. Everyone goes to say hello to the dead. It's also (another) excuse to eat and drink to excess. There was a lunch at our local pro loco, (village hall, for want of a better translation), with a sort of stew of chick peas and glistening hunks of pig fat as the main course. Chick peas are de rigeur on November 1st. And of course, gallons of wine served by the carafe, and re-filled upon request. Five courses and all you can drink for €15. It all kicked off because the bloke who runs the place is a tight sod and he bought a job lot of foul, thin red wine. General mayhem ensued. The good ol' boys shown here said (loosely) "bugger it, we're not drinking this piss" and the one on the left got in his clapped-out Fiat Panda and went and got four 2 litre bottles of Barbera from his cellar. And very nice it was too. He distributed it freely to all and sundry. Italians are like that. The day ended for me sometime around 10.00pm, I'm told.

Monday, 29 October 2007

The Longest Weekend

It was just endless. Bottle after bottle after bottle. Raging, swirling torrents of wine. Little brooks bubbling with grappa. The odd puddle of a digestivo made, remarkably, from walnuts. And then still more wine, red, white, pink, sparkling, wonderful, OK and downright undrinkable (sorry Riccardo). Any visit by the Savages always necessitates hoisting the storm warning flag but this one took the word excess to new semantic depths. Which is why the only hope of staving off the onset of terminal cirrhosis lay in a swift Monday-morning draught of Sylibum Marianum, more commonly known as milk thistle, which is meant to be able to repair even the most horrific post-weekend liver damage. Oh! But what's that lurking in the background? 1.5 litres of that most pleasant of Veneto wines, Refosco? And my wife is cooking chick peas with pig fat bits this evening? Oh Lord...please someone, anyone...stop me before I drink again!

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Optic-free country

It still gives me a ridiculous, childish thrill when I order a gin and tonic here and it's placed on the bar. There's none of that nannying, Blair/Brown knows best how-many-units-a week-do-you-drink-you-hopeless-alky nonsense. The barman or barmaid just spins the top off the bottle of Gordon's or whatever and gives the glass a good glugging. Some bars are more generous than others of course, but it's all part of the learning process. The Haiti bar, for example, fills the glass up to the sodding rim, which even I find a bit hard going when there's a long wine-filled night ahead. Anway, this example is from Voglino in the centre of town and, yes I know, there are ice cubes in the glass and a slice of lemon, but that is still one mother of a (Tanqueray) gin. Note the bottle of tonic is untouched. Incidentally, should they put me up against the wall and if I were to be asked for a final beverage, I think the G&T would do the job nicely. But an Italian one of course.

Friday, 12 October 2007

Easy does it

What you north Europeans must realise (and this is pivotal to an understanding of the profound gulf that exists between inhabitants of the United Kingdom and those citizens of the Italian Republic) is that whereas we drink with the sole intention of getting completely trolleyed, bladdered, shitfaced, arseholed or hog-wimpering drunk, Italians don't. They drink because it's a fine accompaniment to food and it aids their digestion. When the intrepid explorer Savage of Africa comes on one of his bi-monthly visits, we go eye-to-eye with a bottle of grappa and the bottle loses. An Italian will take a digestivo (just the one) so that he has a sound night's sleep.
Which is why (I think) when we went for luncheon in Vigevano the other day with the Duchess of Kent we had a half bottle of Bonarda (an unusual but pleasing, slightly sparkling red wine from Piedmont). Because that's what the other people at the table were drinking. Am I turning into a booze poof? In Blighty I used to bray away ad nauseam that I had never had a half pint of ale in my life. A defining moment? Oh Lord, I hope not.

Sunday, 30 September 2007

State Visit

A brief visit to Albion to help fund Steve Jobs's retirement. I stayed in the Leicestershire countryside with the august Mr Ashley. There was significant consumption of some excellent ale and cider. Steaming Billy at the Bewicke Arms would probably come top of the list, principally because it is the only one I can remember. The visit concluded with an overnight stay in Essex where I took the Boozer's Communion as evidenced by the white tablecloth and pints of lager. For the record Chicken Jalfrezi, boiled rice and Tarka Dal which presumably has some otter in it. Ashley had King Prawn something. Excellent meal. Bizarrely, the pub/hotel in Braintree where we had our English aperitif (two pints of Greene King Abbot, no nibbles) before the Indian had their Christmas tree up and illuminated. We are all going to hell in a handcart.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Up in them thar hills

To the Alps on Sunday for an event where lots of faux-Germans walked around wearing funny hats. That out of the way, off to a ristoro nearly 3,000 feet up for a splendid lunch. First things first 'though and we stopped at a hideous bar at the bottom of a ski lift for an aperitif. I had a glass that comes from a quite confused grape called Traminer which may (or may not, dependent on who you talk to) be linked to the Sauvignon Blanc gene but is very definitely the poor cousin of the fragrant Gewurtztraminer (can't find the sodding umlaut*) but nice enough as a sharpener. Poor quality nibbles again and the specimen on the other side of the table is absolutely nothing to do with me.
*That's a Kraut u with two dots over it. Do I have to explain everything?

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Yours for €1,500!

I saw this pretty little tractor ages ago, so I stopped and asked the genetically criminal smallholder who was melting down stolen copper in his yard whether it was for sale. Hearing my foreign accent, he brightened up considerably, sucked one of his few remaining teeth for about 30 seconds whilst looking up at the sky and wondering how much he might be able to fleece me for. "We've 'ad 'er since new" he equivalented in Italian, "and 'er be one o' the family. But......she's yours for one thousand and a 'alf" Unsurprisingly, it's still there, by the road, lonelier than ever. Any takers?

Thursday, 13 September 2007

A First! And a Last!

It is the sensible Italian custom after a heavy dinner to take a digestivo - something alcoholic to help one digest all that lovely grub.

Standard issue is grappa, but more of that at another date. There is also amaro which is Italian for bitter and that's what it tastes like, being an infusion of alcohol and herbs.

I had been out for a six-courser with Giulio the Singer (above) the other night and we pitched up at a bar looking for a digestivo at about one in the morning. He uttered those words that invariably mean trouble is looming, but seem like a good idea at the time. "Don't you worry, leave this to me."

I did leave it to him and this is what we got. Two Mandarin Punches. Sweet. Sticky. Hot. And very alcoholic. I can honestly say that this is a drink that I will gladly refuse on an improbable second occasion.

Giulio rang me the next day. "Why did I order that? Why?"

Why indeed. Well might the bar owner laugh. That's the first time she's opened that bottle since she took over the bar six years ago.

Monday, 10 September 2007

Another aperitivo please, barman!

A bit of a gap as I have been involved in what has been (quite frankly) a risible attempt to lose some weight. Summer is the time here in Italy when the diet should be a little lighter (tomatoes) but some terrifying levels of wine consumption put the kibosh on that. Anyway, it has been a virtually booze-free two weeks with (predictably) very little to show for it. So, in an effort to make up for lost time and alcohol, I gave it a bit of a caning last night. It was the "Festa delle Feste" in the nearby town where all the local villages come in and sell their local speciality dish (lots of tripe, for example, they like their offal the Italians). Everything is served on plastic plates with plastic cutlery and plastic glasses. Glasses topped right up of excellent white (Cortese) or red (Barbera or Dolcetto) at 40 cents (60p) a go. Yeah, read it and weep, you beer-crazed northern European savages.

Anyway, that's enough of that. Before I got stuck in I went to a local bar for a Spritz which is a reasonably common aperitif here. Lots of ice in a tumbler, a slice of orange, a good glug of Prosecco and then it's topped off with a decent belt of Campari or Red Martini and maybe a splash of tonic, and bingo! down she goes. Fizzy, yet bitter and very refreshing with a decent kick. Again, this is the sort of drink which, should you order it in the United Kingdom, would probably result in at least two weeks in hospital, but this being Italy, blokes drink this as well as totty. And quite right too.
The poor quality picture above chimes perfectly with the rubbish nibbles that were served with my drink.

Monday, 20 August 2007

A whine about wine

Forget the belting women, forget the cars, forget the wonderful food and the glorious sunshine, the overriding joy of Italy is the price of wine. The stuff I buy for everyday drinking costs bugger all and it's good kit. Me and car-dealer Bruno make a weekend of it in the Veneto region and go and see our mate Tony who is a winemaker without too many frills; the wine matures in great big concrete cylinders in his farmyard, it's delivered in wicker-bound demijohns (56 litres each and I bought three this year) and we bottle it here. But...but. Last week included the Italian equivalent of the August Bank Holiday and we had loads of people up, eating and boozing over three days. Come Saturday evening and the thing I wanted more than anything was (a) a liver transplant and (b) anything but another bottle of wine. So I reached up to my special shelf and took down a precious bottle of St Peter's Old Style Stout, got out my favourite Peddy glass and necked it. Good, toasty English stout, absolutely delicious, and so drinkable. Unfortunately I only had one bottle so after that it was back to Tony's (excellent) Sauvignon Bianco. Thank you St Peter, nice ale, nice bottles too.

Tuesday, 7 August 2007

A Sunday not for the faint-hearted

Well, it all started innocently enough at around 11 o'clock on Sunday morning. Some friends rang and said they'd like to come up for some sunbathing, and would it be OK if they brought a roast chicken and a couple of bottles of wine? They left at just before 2 o'clock the next morning and although the sun had beaten down all day, there was no sunbathing done. The bottle count was:

1 litre Italian rose (decanted from a box)

1 btl Prosecco

2 btls Verdicchio

1 btl Claret

1 btl Barbera (150cl)

1 btl Moscato

1 btl Raboso

1 btl Sauvignon Bianco

1 btl Muller Thurgau

1 btl Merlot

The grappa bottle also made its customary appearance at around midnight.
Bottles are all 75cl except where stated.

The list above is not in order of consumption, but in bottle bank order.
And there were four of us in total.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

An Aperitivo

The aperitivo is extremely important in Italy. It's a drink you have before you eat, but breakfast is usually excluded. The range is vast and I hope to take your hand over the forthcoming months and daintily lead you through the minefield of booze that is on offer as a pre-luncheon/dinner kick-starter at bars in Italy. Today I had to go to the Big Town By The Sea. I found an old bar and piled in to a Campari Soda. It's a ready-made drink in a charming conical baby bottle. Order one in England and you'd get beaten to a pulp. Pleasantly sour and a good kick. Just the one (with company) and then off to lunch with a shedload of fish, a litre of house white and (because it's Italy) they brought a bottle of grappa to the table with the coffee. Gave that a bit of a caning. Fan-sodding-tastic. The picture shows my Campari on its way. Nice moustache, but he should be wearing a tie the bleeding scruff.

Tuesday, 31 July 2007

Heavy Drinking in Italy

Italy is a boozer's paradise really.

And I, Ron Combo, am a heavy drinker. I don't think I'm an alky, but I can't be far off. I just love boozing. It's in my genes, my father liked his pint and I'll have a go at virtually anything although I tend to draw the line at Creme de Menthe.

So this blog will detail life as a serious drinker in Italy, what Italians are like as boozers, and the culture of alcohol here. It will almost certainly be sporadic and inconsequential and may include stuff about tractors.

Set 'em up, Luigi!