Monday 20 April 2015

The Grand Tour part 1 - Italy and Switzerland

Some awful administration on my part meant we lost a holiday last autumn. I left things too late which meant that there was no van for hire. Things are slightly complicated hire-wise because the van has to be automatic. Belinda won't and I can't - having only, for tedious reasons, an automatic licence. Yes, I can hear you sniggering in the back. The plan had been to hire a motor home (the 'van') and pootle off down the West coast of France - somewhere I've wanted to revisit since hitch hiking to St Palais sur Mer when I was 16.  

I rang the hire company in February to ask about an Easter break, only to learn they had no more automatic vans - they'd been sold, explained Catherine. That seemed to be the end of it. JustGo were the only company I'd found that held automatic vehicles. I put down the phone, dejected. But Catherine quickly called me back with a proposition. Every year they send out a team of drivers to a factory to pick up a new fleet of vehicles and drive them back to the UK. They paid for flights and ferries and discounted the hire fee. Sounded perfect. Oh, hang on.

"Where was the factory?" I asked, fearing some Belgian tractor manufacturer in the grim cross-hatching of oily roads and industry that encrusts the north coast of Europe. 

Tuscany. Just outside Florence. These were Fiat vans.

We booked it. 

We (Belinda, Etien and me - Fabian stayed at home) could take any route we wanted over ten days. The one I planned was certain to include the foodie highway out of Florence - literally. A road that connects Firenze with Bologna, then on to Modena and Parma. Pasta, vinegar, ham, cheese. And like almost all the plans I made involving motorhome and cities, that didn't happen. There was also the prospect of being able to fill the van with Continental goodies; a wine lake, a cheese mountain, a whole Parma ham. Sadly, this didn't happen.

Some Alps

I'm wondering how much non-food detail to go into here. This is a supper club blog after all. I'm going to skip all the Motorhome details, in no small part because I don't want to to come over as a Caravan Club bore. I have plenty of interests to be tedious about already. My attitude to caravan owners veers between outright contempt and sneaking regard. Maybe they have it sussed, sat on nylon chairs outside their Mistral 85 at 7am. But then they are eating local produce, simply prepared and they are sat in a weepingly beautiful landscape... and some mornings do look like this.

That last par made me stop and 'check my cynicism'. Am I guilty of some Top Gear style, lazy stereotyping? Probably. What's true of caravans and motor homes is that you see parts of the world you might not otherwise; towns beyond the reach of the budget airline hubs. I've always been nervous of what my father would call 'super organised' camp sites: serried ranks of white, windowed fridges, full of men pulling sandals over socks at 6am and insisting their family didn't miss 'the best part of the day'. But there is a certain thrill to be had for a middle aged man, confronted by the cold concrete of an outdoor Italian shower block. Holidays, I believe, should be about moments... differences. Trust me, driving 1200 miles in a motor home, there are plenty.

This was the view from the Motorhome. It's campsite 'Paradiso' in Melano on Lake Lugano Switzerland
I've never driven anything bigger than a family saloon and I hadn't thought about the actuality of controlling something 7m long, with right hand drive on left hand roads... and no rear view mirror. The first 24 hours barrelling along narrow Italian dual carriageways, on mountain passes, with long tunnels, roadworks and heavy goods vehicles with a developed sense of nihilism was... enriching. Italian slip roads are far too short for something weighing 3.5 tonnes and blessed with the acceleration of an eighty-a-day bingo caller, especially when you rely on your passenger to lean out of the window and shout 'OK... yeah, fine. No! STOP! Sorry. Yeah, now you're fine. I said you're fine. Why are you crying?"


This was our final route home. 'Final' because It changed almost every day. The major cause was realising that motorhome and cities don't mix. There's simply nowhere to park. Added to this, anyone who's been to Italy will know how difficult it is simply driving a normal car around their often medieval centres.

Bologna was the first proper stop. There's a Citicamp with a regular bus service into town. We had one afternoon to wander and one meal to eat before pressing north the next morning.

Bologna. Palazzo Re Enzo.
This made me smile; expressing the Italian obsession with food. Plastic milk bottles on an 800 year old building.

Bologna. Massive milk advert.
Bologna. Lost.
Inside the town hall. There's an art gallery hidden up here. We were alone in there.

One of the things I wanted to horde was Italian butter. I don't know what they do but it's better butter. I've looked into it and I still don't know how they get that distinct flavour. You can keep your Lescure and your fancy Beurre d'Isigny with its bits of Brittany salt. I adore Italian butter. What's foxing is that it only has one ingredient: milk. Italian milk tastes just like ours, so whence the distinction? Sadly our fridge needed to also contain our daily provisions so I arrived back in the UK with just this one pack of Beppino Occelli. They used to sell it in Sainsburys. I wish they would again.

We were only one night in Bologna so it had to be done: Bolognese. We ate out at the bizarrely named, double punning, Eataly. It's a restaurant in a bookshop. The shop is still open while you're served so you eat among the browsers. Oil, condiments and sauces share shelf space with Dante, Eco and Levi. I chose it simply, because it was close and we'd walked a lot and partly because it was mentioned in the Michelin Route guide. But I don't trust that anymore. I'll tell you why in part 2.

I'm sure I've read that true, original Bolognese didn't/doesn't include tomatoes. Mine did.

Tagliatelle alla Bolognese (maybe)
So many Italian desserts seem to be a simple dairy derivative coupled with an intense sweet or sweet/sour flavouring agent. Think of semi-freddo, panna cotta, gelato, cannoli, zucotto and of course, tiramisu.

Belinda's dessert was called 'Spuma di ricotta' - a mousse of ricotta cheese. It came in a sinister looking, almost black sauce: delicious, syrupy, sweet and piquant but one that I couldn't identify. Turned out to be mosto cotto - cooked grape must. We bought a bottle and I'll try and use it in a restaurant dish.

Spuma di Ricotta with mosto cotto. Tastes better than it looks.
Mosto cotto segues me neatly into the next day, the next stop and one of the highlights of the trip; Mosto cotto being the only ingredient of Balsamic vinegar, or to give it its proper title: Aceto Balsamico di Modena. Modena was our first stop after Bologna. My mate Jacob had suggested a tasting of D.O.P balsamic vinegar, made the traditional way. He also warned me that the trip was wallet emptying. He was right.

That's about £400 worth of vinegar. Seriously.

Giovanna Barbieri had emailed me to suggest we turn up at their house for a 1pm tasting. Even better, they had parking outside their house for our van. Two days into the holiday and the limitations of camper van life was becoming apparent. Like panda bears, the vans like to be kept in the wild, they are unhappy urban dwellers. 

We arrived far too early so used the time to resupply with Italian bread, milk, butter and cheese at a local supermarket - unbelievably cheap. There's something of a childish delight in making a cup of tea on a busy road; the passing traffic buffeting the van. It's a mobile, adult den.

Giovanna Barbieri 
Giovanna came out to welcome us. I presumed she'd take us to some shed thing in their garden but she sent us upstairs. Traditionally, balsamic is made in the attic. But what an attic.

The name, by the way, is derived from 'balm'. Originally the vinegar was believed to have medicinal properties - they were probably right.

She showed us the 'mama' barrel named Maria that has been in constant use by her husband's family for 120 years. Called the mother barrel because it gives 'birth' to all the subsequent smaller barrels - all named - different woods for a variety of finishes. More than just a wooden container, the barrel is a microbiotic marvel - the wood impregnanted with the cultures needed to create a fine vinegar. The Barberis have their own vineyard just outside the city where the Lambrusco and Trebbiano grapes are brewed to make the must.

The old barrels are so valuable that when they start leaking, the wood is re-cased inside a new vessel.

After a tour of the attic came the tasting. We tried a variety of ages and woods, culminating with the 36 year old. Balsamic doesn't improve after 40 years. Even served on plastic spoons, it was exquisite stuff. Etien was with us and I was concerned he might balk at spooning down vinegar but Giovanna spoke with such eloquence and passion about a product she clearly loved that he tasted and enjoyed - although did complain of a 'strange throat' some time later.

The mother barrel

And her children

This was the 36 year old that I couldn't afford

Etien tastes - happily

Belinda asks for a considered opinion

Giorgio outside the house
I couldn't afford the extra vechhio - gold capped and over 25 years so instead bought two bottles of the affinito, white capped and averaging 15 years old. One made in cherry barrels and one, my preference, in juniper.

Onwards: north west along the motorway that ends in the shit-tip that is Milan but stopping of course, OF COURSE, in Parma. Ham and cheese of world repute. Some of the finest wine of Emilia Romagna. But first... first... to find a parking space. God, that was frustrating. The only places we could find were in despondent lots in ring road land. Too far to commute given our schedule. We failed in the end and had to drive on past the mocking hunks of parmesan. Me sobbing quietly at the wheel.

The plan was for a campsite on the shores of Lake Como but when we arrived it was shut. Etien did some deft detective work and found 'camp Paradiso' an hour away. It was only when I was angrily scrolling through the sat nav that we realised it was in Switzerland. Bye bye Italy. It was all too brief. We didn't eat a single slice of pizza. This is a good thing. Pizzerias are creeping over Italy like bind weed. Please don't lose your regionality.

Lake Lugano

The view from the top. See, no litter.
I've always railed against the Swiss (they have some deeply dodgy political and social policies and there's the state run money laundering - but hell, I'm not bringing that up on holiday) so of course, I loved the place. Easily the cleanest country I've driven through. Friends tell me civic pride is so high that families clean their own streets on a Sunday. Certainly the difference in road quality from Italy is marked.

Ah, yes, road quality. This is a big deal in a camper van. When we left the factory we sounded like a massive, early morning, milk float, all pinted up with the clatter setting dialled to molto. Every bump meant a comedy class crash of glass and metal as pots, pans, a concert of crockery and oven trays bounced together. Kitchen roll is your friend here. After a couple of days, we were almost running silent.

Admittedly it looks better without that van in shot.

Camp Paradiso lived up to its name too. I mean, when does that ever happen? We were parked on the lakeside and being April they place was not even quarter full. The gleaming shower block looked just plumbed.

Switzerland should have meant quality milk chocolate, zopf bread, emmental fondue and rösti potatoes but this far south there was none of that. This part is like posh Italy in language and food. The van was full of Italian produce too, so that did for breakfast and lunch. We did two nights on the lakeside, the day spent mainly in the mountains of Lugano, a short (and spotless) train ride away.

A day of no driving meant we had some miles to make up. I'd planned a stop in Basel but we couldn't find any nearby campsites that were open so we diverted into the Black Forest of Germany. And no, we didn't get the gateaux. No Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte. Funny that it's called gateaux and not kuchen, or the more prosaic, cake.

I should have taken more pictures of food, certainly of meals eaten... but I don't want to be that guy. I probably am already but I get self conscious in restaurants. It's too much... technological intrusion. You're declaring a belief that someone else will care what you're eating. And no, that's not what this is all about. Do you know how many cups of coffee are pictured on Instagram? One billion! Ok, that's not true. Yet. It will be one day. And then I think we should all smash our computers against a wall and go and live in caves. Preferably on the shores of Swiss lakes. Who doesn't love a clean lake?

Next: Germany and France and too much pork.

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