Thursday, April 29, 2010

Waiting for the cook ...

Our cook from Germany is still calling us with new excuses for his delayed departure each time. Last week the problem was his car; apparently he had started his journey but had a breakdown and had to turn back. He is now waiting for the part to arrive to fix it. All this was relayed in dialect in a 30 minute telephone conversation at our expense. We have skype! Bu no, we were on the kitchen phone. While the cook recounts his misadventures and reassures my husband that he is the man we have been waiting for and that he can do whatever we want him to do, I am wondering if my husbands has gone mad. But he assures us all that this is indeed our man. Even this week – luckily the cook called us, to say his son gets mid terms holidays from school in May 15 so can we please hold on for him till then – my husband still has faith in him. I hope so much he is right. Much rolling of eyes between myself and my mother-in law.

Canvassing in Milazzo

Back in Milazzo there’s a big screen in the piazza showing the inauguration of the teatro – which has been closed for twenty years. Part of the sindaco’s (mayor) final showdown for votes, the castle next to our house – which has been under restoration for the last two years – should be reopening this week too. Palm trees and flowerbeds are sprouting up everywhere. The historic Chiesa di San Francesco di Paolo – Milazzo’s adopted patron saint of seafarers – was opened a couple of Sundays ago with much civic and military aplomb and a fire and brimstone bishop giving hell to his sinful flock. Piazza Roma at last is opened, with its shining new slabs of concrete and indigenous (not) palm trees and strategically placed benches which a few pensioners have already laid claim to – and all because the sindaco is a partner in the soon to open bar of the piazza. This is also the motivation behind the newly paved pedestrian street in the centre and the cute shiny new bar with nice benches right outside. Guess what? The sindaco is a partner there too. Unfortunately, the dear sindaco has no partners in the borgo – the most beautiful and historic part of Milazzo, with the picturesque Spanish quarter, the Norman-Visigoth-Spanish-Bourbon castle and the plethora of bars and restaurants of which Pachamama is one. Not at all; instead, we have overflowing rubbish skips, broken glass on the streets because they are not cleaned regularly (ever?), and I counted THREE dead rats on the steps down from the borgo last week, and THREE dead rats on the steps that go from the borgo down to Vacarella.

There are also elections for the mayor-to-be's consigliere (council). But the candidates just make you laugh. THere are several female candidates - but rather than being pleased to see this, it only makes me despair - they are all Barbie dolls, freshly off the sunbed and out of the beautty salon and some no doubt from under the knife judging by certain dimensions given special attention in the photography - since here in Sicily you are judged locally on appearance - hence an aggressive sexual competition between women - with intellect lagging sadly behind. One of the local barmen has even candidated himself. Is there any hope for this place ...?

But this sindiaco is merely a puppet of the local MP, apparently, who is Berlusconi's henchman in north-east Sicily, and 'friend of the people' in the next big town, Barcellona. How does this affect us? Well.. now that the weather is better, the Barcellonese are starting to frequent the bars of the borgo again, flashing their money - since they are the rich and powerful cousins of Milazzese - smoking inside when they feel like it, and starting fights with whomever they choose as target fot the night. Last weekend our barman was a potential victim. Apparently he had put photos on Facebook of himself with the ex-wife of a Barcellonese, and this guy turned up with 15 supporters to teach him a lesson. Luckily for our barman, two of our regulars from Barcellona (usually drunk and under the influence I suspect of that white powder) were able to intervene and save the day. We don't tolerate this kind fo thing, especially not the smoking inside - and we have had a hassle-free winter on all counts, really - but now that these trouble makers are back on the scene we are depressed and fear that things could get out of control some day. Because these are the kind of people who laugh when you ask ('tell' gets you nowhere) them not to smoke, and carry on on smoking. Or start a fight because you have offended them by not allowing them to do exactly as they please. Because they are immune. Standing behind their right to flout the law and do whatever they please, is the figure of their 'friend of the people', the Berlusconi-representative in Sicily. Weekends are starting to take on a familiar pattern: We have nice diners until midnight; midnight to 2am the place is packed with music fans of the good bands we put on; from 2am to 4am (no, these people don't want to go home) the drunk (on two cocktails)start getting belligerent and problematic for us. In Ireland a burly bouncer would simply remove these undesirables. But in Sicily they are untouchable ... Hence our need to escape to the islands on our day off ...

Panarea island

We’ve just had a lovely two days on Panarea island. One of the best things about living here is having the Aeolian islands on our doorstep.Awkward enough to reach from abroad – the flight to Catania, the hire car or bus t Milazzo, then coordinating arrival times with the departure of the boats to the islands etc .. but we just drift down to the port and hop on the hydrofoil and we’re there in a matter of hours. I have left Panarea until last, because it is notorious for being extortionately pricey and full of rich posers, usually from Milan. Naomi Campbell shops in the boutiques here. Georgio Armani anchors his boat off shore. But at this time of year the island is deserted. There are only a few locals – aided by the Polish, Romanian and North African staff – fixing up their hotels, restaurants and bars for the onset of the season. Lots of whitewashing and painting going on. We are probably only about ten tourists stayingon the island in total. Since there has been plenty of rainfall in spring, the rugged slopes are quite green, revealing the reddish rock beneath. The windy streets are fragranced with gardenia and the first sprigs of jasmine. Sprays of bougainvillea are just beginning to bloom. Small trees are laden with nespole, or loquats – small yellow fruits similar to plums, which we have for breakfast. Lemon trees are everywhere, showing off their bright yellow fruits to nearby silvery olive trees.

Panarea is so tiny everywhere is within walking distance, so we head for Cala Junca, its most famous bay. We pass Cala Zimmari, a nice beach, but there are too many jellyfish freshly washed up on the shore to be tempted to paddle. Not warm enough to swim. Up along a stony path through the rock face to a ridge along the top of the cliff to find remains of a 15th century settlement overlooking two bays on either side of the ridge. Turquoise waters below. We go down the steps to Cala Juna and enjoy having the whole place to ourselves all afternoon, apart from the odd tourist boat which veers into the bay from behind the rocks, catching us by surprise (me with the bikini loosened trying to cream myself, mio marito indulging in a spot of naturista sunbathing since there is no one around – we certainly were not expecting to be assailed from the sea with these binocular-bearing tourists). The same megaphone nasal voice on each one describes Panarea and Cala Junca and its history while the German tourists scan all into their digital cameras, ourselves included.

Our hotel is stunning, but we have trouble finding decent places to eat. The first night we end up in the only place open, along with a t able of 6 Germans, an Australian family and 4 Spanish girls. We’re first to be served, and are quite dismayed with the miniature tartar di gamberi at a hefty price, and my heavily salted grilled vegetables. When you know aubergines and courgettes are grown in the back garden it’s hard to accept wild prices. At our restaurant they cost €3. here €10. My pasta, at €14 (none of our pasta dishes cost more than €9) is tasteless – linguine con gamberi di Nassa e zucchini. He hasn’t made enough of a sauce with the courgettes – some baby tomatoes were needed – and who knows if they really are prawns from Nassa – usually so tasty? We watch the Germans’ reaction to the starters. They have been heartily tucking into their wine and keep asking the harried (but rich) owner for more bread. But when the first dish arrives, a ripple of laughter goes over the table, and continues as the other dishes come along. I say to mio marito – I wonder if anyone will have asked for the tartar to gamberi, and sure enough the last person to be served – a robust man with a belly that needs looking after – is presented with this minute delicacy. His neighbour at table takes one looks at explodes into laughter. Too funny. They tuck in with, no doubt, the same comments we were making just minutes before. These examples of nouvelle cuisine might work in a fancy restaurant, but we are in a trattoria with old wooden tables and little décor or attention to detail. €3 for the coperto – but we don’t even have table cloths! Last week on Lipari island we ate in a chic restaurant with elegant minimal décor and exquisite table service from pristine-uniformed waiters – have three courses each and still paid a lot less. A couple of weeks ago a customer complained that his salad was small – at €7 our salads are usually abundant in the essential ingredients, on a bed of lattuga romana or rocket or whatever. Perhaps something happened to his; I didn’t see it go out, but of course, he got the discount he wanted. But here in this halfbaked trattoria did anyone complain? I don’t think so, not what you do on Panarea. But the following night we are eating at the pizzeria next door, whose owner turns out to be an old friend of my husband’s. I ask him what he thinks of his neighbour and he starts laughing, though he doesn’t want to say anything against him, he says. We tell him of our experience, and he laughs even more; yes, he says, he closed early on Saturday, Sunday and tonight he isn’t open – the locals don’t go there because they know his prices – and standards. He probably makes enough in one night to keep him going for the rest of the week. Our conversation is interrupted by the arrival of four suspicious-looking men – tow older with the pancia (protruding belly), and two in their thirties, with plenty of time to acquire one. From our host’s alacrity to look after them personally, we realise they are the carbinieri. In for their digestivo – a wholesome drop of grappa. Which they won’t have to pay for, of course. They were mincing round our lovely hotel owner too earlier in the day; when they left she rolled her eyes and told me one thing she couldn’t stand was being constantly touched when being spoken too – big belly had been particularly touchy feely. The carbinieri’s pad is a lovely chalet set in a shady grove right near the hotel. Their squad car is an electric-run golf mobile, like the few other cars on the island. Perfect for creeping up on any potential criminals, but offering little defence. With zero crime on the islands they have little else to do than slouch around visiting the locals. With all the free meals and drinks going round, they’ll have little cause to check up on taxes receipts (the scontrino) or fiscal matters at all.

We love Panarea though, and want to go back – especially to do a boat tour of the islands and swim in its crystal clear waters. Hopefully we’ll eat better though – I’m still digesting the pasta alla norma from the second night – with aubergines, tomato and oven-baked ricotta – but those aubergines were saturated in a deep frier.

But where, other than Sicily, could you be sitting at the end of April, sunbathing with your feet dipped in an open air jacuzzi and views over the sparkling Aeolian waters to Basiluzzo and Dattilo turning pink in the sunset, with majestic Stromboli smoking behind ...

Monday, April 12, 2010

Cook on trial trying us 10 April 2010

We decide we would like to give candidate B a trial contract for two weeks, but that we need to tell her about Candidate 3 coming back from Germany the following week. I leave my marito to talk terms and conditions with her, sensing she will prefer to talk to him alone, and also that I would not have the patience to deal with her pushiness. She initially aggress to the trial run, but the next day phones us to tell us she cannot accept because she does not like the fact that we will try out candidate three the following week, meaning that we might sack her after a couple of weeks if he turns out to be better.

My mother-in-law says we were far too honest and should never have told her about candidate no. 3. If he turned out to be better then we could just have let her go, without having to mention him. We need to be as ‘furbo’ –clever or sly – as they are, she says. But we didn’t want to be nasty. Anyway, mio marito calls her back to say we won’t try out candidate no. 3, because we have a birthday party of 60 people on Saturday night coming for an enriched aperitivo, and we need someone else in the kitchen. So she is happy with that and works well enough all weekend, helping with the preparations and dishing out the aperitivo platters and doing the ‘secondi’. But on Sunday night she ruins her good work by making a big scene with mio marito – in the presence of my sister and mother-in-law, about the contract and th terms and conditions she wants. We are offering her a contract whereby in a year she will go up from ‘aiuto cuoco’ to ‘cuoco’, which, along with the rest of the pay and conditions makes and attractive offer, and is substantially much better than what our previous cook was on. But she can’t see this and wants more pay and other certainties that we are nto really in a position to give. This went on for 20 minutes and my sister and mother-in-law the enxt day, give out heaps about her. I foresee endless problems if we take her on. She is too big for her boots really, she wants more than her experience merits. She even said that the arrangement was not suitable for ‘lo chef’. Who’s the chef? my husband asked!

Finally the cook has called from Germany to say he is setting out for Sicily tonight from Germany. I hear mio marito talking to someone on the phone and presume it is an old friend. His accent is even more Sicilian and every now and again he comes out with a word in dialect. ‘This is the effect the German Sicilian has,’ he says afterwards. His tone is really familiar and friendly; he’s so enthusiastic, that I have to reciprocate.’ This man has run his own Sicilian restaurant in a touristy area of Germany for the last 30 years, and now wants to return to Sicily with his wife, leaving the restaurant in the hands of his two older children. He can do anything Sicilian, Nouvelle Cuisine, German and French and international dishes, desserts, and wants to ‘give us a hand’ he says. He has a relaxed attitude to bureaucracy and the contract which is a relief after stressy candidate B, having run his own restaurant for years he knows how tricky it can be. He’s coming back to Sicily for us, he tells my husband. By car! He and his wife are longing to return and he really wanted to find a position in a family-run restaurant. We are going to be his new family in Sicily. He even says he will drive straight to our restaurant. In the end it will be we who have to cook for him, I say! And are we sure he has accommodation here? The next thing is we’ll be putting him up! Mio marito wants ot call and cancel the stressy candidate B immediately, though I would rather wait and see this man in the flesh. It all sounds like a farce. Waiting for the new cook to move back from Germany specifically for our restaurant while trying to keep the current cook on trial sweet with our accountant. He has completely advised us not to take her on, and her previous employer, the owner of the restaurant where she worked, passed by at the weekend and when we asked his opinion he scrunched up his face and said ‘hmmm, I don’t recommend her. Sure, she’s a good enough cook, but she’s a ‘stronza’ – a bitch.’ Confirming all our gut reactions then …

New cook wanted 9 April 2010

The time has come to find a new cook. Things had been running too smoothly for the last while – a quiet January and February were too good to be true. Our cook is leaving us to work in a supermarket because the hours suit her and her small children better. We are not terribly sorry; she has been ok but we have had to teach her a lot and always be alert to potential slip-ups and mistakes. She gave us two weeks’ notice, which wouldn’t have covered Easter, but luckily we managed to persuade her to stay until Easter Monday … She didn’t show up on Good Friday – a big night out in Italy, now pretty much laicised despite the Vatican at the heat of Italy … her husband called in to say she was immobilised in bed with a bad back. Since we know this was the day she was supposed to start her new job, it all seems a bit suspect. Having her husband call … on Holy Saturday she is back in action however which makes it eve more suspicious. Anyone who has ever suffered from a bad back will tell you it takes a few days to recover. Anyway, mia suocera, my amazing mother-in-law ran the kitchen with the help of an aiuto cuoco, an old friend of my sister-in-law. And we got through without any major hassle.

Meanwhile we have had the always interesting experience of recruiting a new cook. Candidate A presented himself with his CV in hand, but with little relevant experience. He had had several seasonal jobs ‘lavoro stagionale’ during the summer months, but worked more as a pasticciere … a pastry chef. In fact when I asked him what his speciality was, he couldn’t come up with one. He tried to avoid the issue by enthusing about his pastry expertise, so I came back to the question later and asked him what his best meat and fish dish were .. and I actually can’t even remember what he said something about tuna or swordfish – he wouldn’t be Sicilian if he couldn’t cook these fish … He has the biggest pancia ‘belly’ I’ve ever seen, so just as our little colloquio is closing I ask him, as mio marito and I had discussed, what his relationship with alcohol is like. He looks taken aback and then seeks the right words, ‘Well, you know, like anyone …’ ‘Because, I say, ‘we’re lucky here, no one touches a drop in the kitchen. Maybe a beer with dinner in the summer, but during working hours none of our staff is permitted to drink alcohol.’ He smiles uncertainly to see if I’m joking with my light hearted tone. So I keep a straight face and accompany him to the kitchen. He’s to prepare us garbugli con scampi from our menu, and another primo of his choice, but without meat since I don’t eat meat.
Watching him in operation unfortunately the pancia does get in the way. The spaces between the sideboards and the fridges, and the central working area and the oven and friers are limited and if there are two people working there passing each other, you need to have good special awareness – which this candidate unfortunately does not possess. But he is adept at chopping and slicing.

We have more interviews with a journalist in whose magazine we are putting a large advert, and once that is over, or two pasta dishes arrive. Error number one: the dish of his invention is penne with a bacon and pistachio sauce – our only specification being not to put meat in it. Hmmm. But apparently it’s tasty. Then we have our garbuglie – like linguine – and scampi. No points for presentation, it has just been slapped onto the plate. Also he hasn’t taken any of the scampi out of their shell – normally you unshell a few as it gives flavour and leave little chunks throughout and then place one complete scampi on top. But it has good flavour and the pasta is well cooked.

I’m not convinced by the overall performance and presentation, so hope our next candidates will be better. Mio marito is convinced that candidate number three will be the man; the only problem is he’s in Germany.

Candidate number two shows up well made-up, hair straightened, nails painted dark red. All business. No CV. Wants to know terms and conditions even before she has talked us through any relevant experience. It is typical here to show up without CV; in that way you avoid having to explain all the spaces or the number f jobs you left and the reason for leaving. She says, as usual, that she has had numerous seasonal jobs, and her most recent one, which lasted a year was in another Bar/restaurant not far from here. Reason for leaving? The new management brought in the mother to do the cooking. But later she says her reason for leaving was that she went to work in Germany. Suspicious. Her penultimate job was as a waiter and she has no qualifications to be a cook. She learned everything she know from her ex-husband who was a chef. She has the gift of the gab and spends ten minutes telling us how great she is and how impressed her ex used to be when she had him taste her dishes. When we ask her is she ready to go to the kitchen and prepare something for us she looks uncomfortable. ‘But people always just employ me directly after the interview,’ she says. ‘That’s strange, ‘ I say, ‘We haven’t even seen your CV. All our other candidates are doing a trial run in the kitchen, so it’s up to you, to be on an equal footing with everyone else.’ She goes on again about how other places have just taken her on immediately and that it is impossible to tell in one evening’s trial; but in the end agrees to come back two days later. She also produces menus from her previous job which she says she concocted, since they let her do whatever she wanted. Indeed, she looks dismayed at our menu, which she says she doesn’t know, and doesn’t look keen to try the tapas, even though we reassure that there are recipes and they are all really similar to Sicilian cooking just with Spanish names.

She is in a less recalcitrant mood on Saturday when she does her trial. She cooks up a nice dish of penne with baby tomatoes and fresh prawns which is very tasty, and then stays on to do some tuna steaks and beef fillets for a table of our friends, all of whom compliment the food, not knowing we have a new cook on trial. Once she completes the order, however, rather than ask what else she ca do to prove her skills, she whips off the apron and smokes on the steps outside the kitchen waiting for us t come and talk to her. Meanwhile she is glued to the mobile phone, nad glances round the kitchen . ‘Other job offers,’ she says with a self-satisfied smile. My mother-in-law reported that one. I can tell she doesn’t like her.