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.