Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Vendemmia time - the wine harvest

Vendemmia time is here. The wine harvest. I remember the first time I saw vineyards in winter in Tuscany. “What are those rows of sticks?” I asked my Tuscan friend. From the road we were driving along they looked just like that; it was January and the leaves were gone, the grapes all plucked from the vines in late October. My students then brought me a bottle of vino novella from their family vineyard for Christmas. In Sicily, however, the wine harvest starts as early as August for white grapes such as Chardonnay and Insolia, and early September for Nero d’Avola and Syrah grapes. Last weekend there was a wine-tasting event at the castle with samples of local products such as cheeses and “sott’olio” foodstuffs like pesto and sundried tomatoes. I tried a delicious wine from the slopes of Etna and when I went back to sample some more I asked to see the bottle: “Nerello mascalese” I read, pleased by the sound, the way it rolls off the tongue. “It’s the name of the grape,” explained the producer. “I know,” I smiled. I’ve learnt a few things in my time here, and the name of grapes is certainly one of them! “This is the best wine here,” I said, (like I really knew). Some of our suppliers were there, and I knew quite a few of the wines on display, but none of them impress me overmuch. “I know, shhh!” said the producer, winking. Mio marito and I were very taken with the Nerello mascalese and might go to the Azienda to buy some. It was very drinkable and didn’t have that blast between the forehead effect that Nero D’Avola has (on me). A lovely bouquet (as they say), fragrant of blackberries, “like drinking Etna” according to the Azienda website.

Friday, September 6, 2013

September at Pachamama (3) Basketball players

As if that wasn’t enough, just when things were getting under control, a table of 14 rocks up: seven huge basketballers and their glamorous lady friends. Plus a 5 year old that our bambino started swatting with the menu. He was very good that night, playing by himself and not getting in the way. My husband got the table together into an L-shape, but then had to get back to the bar. The waitress was still flying out of the kitchen with courses and clearing tables, so it was up to me to take the order. This crowd were from Tuscany, France, Spain/South America and well-used to fine dining – I’d seen them chatting with my husband and thought they might have been fun. I detected the Tuscan accents and the Hispanic Italian. But they were only interested in ordering their food – after all it was going on for 11pm. Don’t these people book? Apparently they called half an hour before but it was so busy that by husband didn’t have time to set the table up for them. What an order. Anti-pasti and primi to come out together, and then primi and secondi to come out together because some wanted a starters and first while others just wanted a second course or starter and second. “You don’t love us,” wailed the cook when I came in waving the order, “This is the order you really didn’t want at this time of the night.” The kitchen had done really well that night, I thought. I had to go back and tell the basketball table there were only two tuna steaks left. “But the guy told us there were three,” protested the basketballer. “Her husband,” corrected another. “The cook’s only got two now.” My brain was too tired by this stage to make suggestions, but one of the girls went for the seafood couscous instead, a good choice. I heard another whisper that the wineglasses and the wine had yet to be brought. Groan. The wineglasses were upstairs and I knew it would take two trips. If you had booked, I wanted to say, we’d have had the table ready and waiting. It is a pain to set an L-shaped table. Sliding placemats and serviettes across the table, sticking knives and forks through people’s conversations, it’s not comfortable for anybody. In the end a gorgeous black basketballer took pity on me and took the cutlery off me and passed it around. As I opened the wine bottles and had them taste the wine, one of the glamorous girls said, “What about the wine coolers?” I smiled sweetly and pointed to the bar counter, where they were waiting. I have only two hands, one thing at a time, I may not be a waitress but I have picked up a few things in my time running this place…My son was upstairs playing DJ and summoned me at this point with his authoritative, “Mummeeee”! We left, holding hands, shortly after, and I still heard a “Scusa!” One of the guys wanted to know if they were going to have to wait much longer. They hadn’t been waiting long at all, I thought to myself. “They are just putting out the food now, I said, “won’t be long.” I smiled, and the guy calmed down, perhaps realizing he was pushing it. It was past my and bambino’s bedtime.

September at Pachamama (2) Chaotic Tuesday

I enjoyed chatting to the customers: out front, there were two girls from near Rome, one of whom ordered a Guinness. But I told her it was bottled and didn’t recommend it. It tuned out she had spent a week in Ireland in August. She loved it and wanted to relive the ‘taste’ of Ireland with the Guinness. The next couple had had an aperitivo – ours is abundant, consisting of three different plates of antipasti bites. They saw the dishes arrive at the girls’ table and asked me if it was also a restaurant. Also? They had thought we only did aperitivi, and were most impressed with the menu – and the chocolate brownie and almond semifreddo which they had for dessert. Upstairs it was chaotic. The covered terrace was full and the room upstairs was getting busy, with a couple sitting on the balcony. As I went to take their order, the waitress muttered that aperitivo could no longer be served as the restaurant was too busy and the three-plate aperitivo blocks the kitchen. The lady on the balcony insisted on having the aperitivo. “This is why we come here, we always have it, and the mna below told us we could have it.” That will be my inconsistent husband, I thought, as the waitress will have been passing on his decision. I recognised the lady and she was somewhat placated by this, and wanted to know who I was. She thought I was just the foreign waitress, I could tell by her indignation. I sent up my sister-in-law to tell her we had a wonderful selection of anti-pasti, seafood-based, and vegetarian. People were arriving by the minute and of course, none of them had booked. We decided I would take the orders (which meant setting tables and bringing water and wine too), while the waitress brought dishes out from the kitchen. My husband had our bambino downstairs at the bar and looked after cocktails and drinks and meeting people. We had no one to babysit as he had to call his mother and ask her to help in the busy kitchen! There was a lovely Chinese couple, Pachamama’s first who have been living in Germany for almost a year. It was nice to meet them as I’m reading Jamie Ford’s “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” about a Chinese boy in Seattle. They looked the book up immediately on their Smart Phones. There was a lively international table on the terrace too, all students of Italian on a two week course. An Austrian woman had booked the table. They wanted to speak in Italian to me until we realised that most of them were English speaking. Their enthusiasm when the pepata di cozze (peppered clams) arrived was rewarding. They even took pictures of it. I didn’t get to see them again until dessert, when they were so curious about Grappa that they all wanted to try some. I recommended the Malvasia and Passito, sweet after dinner wines, as I think the Grappa is too strong, but they were in high spirits and wanted to go for it. Lots of fun. My mistake was that I took a couple’s order on the terrace before an inside table for 4. They glared at me and I knew immediately that they weren’t laid back foreigners who would forgive my gaffe. “You’re from Milazzo”? I said, to warm them up. “Nooooo,” they said, “Barcellona”. It’s not a million miles away, just 10, but I indulged their desire for difference. “I teach in a secondary school there,” I said. “I’m a much better teacher than waitress.” I got a few reluctant giggles, as I apologised for their wait. When I went to check on them after their meal they were much more relaxed and even complimented the cuisine. My sister-in-law’s mistake was to pocket an order I gave her to take down to the kitchen and cash desk so that I could get on with taking orders upstairs. She forgot about it and half an hour later asked me where the order was, that no one had a copy of table 5 terrace. My mind went blank. I couldn’t even remember what they had ordered, but I knew they were the nice Umbrian couple whose order I had taken before the Barcellona table. Their food should have been on the table by now, but they still didn’t even have their drinks. Mea culpa? I was sweating by this stage. My husband and sister-in-law were giving me the dirties until I remembered that she had the order. Didn’t take a fizz out of her, she just stuck it on the cook’s order hooks and told him to get it out pronto.

September at Pachamama (1) funghi porcini

Monday night was pleasant. A lovely group from Ligura were waiting outside in the rain, under the awning, lamenting the weather before we opened. I brought them up to the terrace and they were delighted to be able to sit outside, protected from the rain. One lady said, “We’ve read such wonderful things about this place on internet,” while another admired the d├ęcor. It is so nice to see the expectation and anticipation on their faces when customers arrive via tripadvisor. So different to the circumspection and suspicion I’d come to expect in the early days, when we were not yet “established”. Tuesday was mayhem. One of those nights when customers just keep coming and coming. Even before 8pm a couple arrived. I’d gone over early to do some Siae forms, which never got done in the end. The waitress was still setting up things, stacking glasses at the bar. In came “the man from Torino” as I call him, with a ladyfriend. He comes each year in summertime to visit relatives. Tall and tanned, he teaches judo in Torino. He was discussing tables with the waitress when he spotted me. Effusive as ever, he regaled me with compliments, as I hadn’t seen him in a couple of years. He’s always delighted to see me, ever since the early days when no one liked me at PM. He was always “my” customer, even though it turned out that he was a distant relative of my husband. That was a lovely beginning to the night, but it just hot hotter and more hectic from then on. The waitress asked me to make a couple of Aperol Spritz cocktails as she doesn’t like making cocktails, while I asked her to get some draught beers as I haven’t had any practice on the new system we have, and I don’t to let the side down. A guy arrived claiming to be an old schoolfriend of my husband, thought he looked much older. He had some funghi porcini he wanted to give him, he said. From the smell of him across the bar counter, I didn’t think it a good idea to buy anything off him, but my husband said he was a well-known mushroom gatherer. Next thing, they’re weighing the porcini mushrooms in the kitchen. I’ve never seen anything like it – they are beasts of mushrooms, the biggest and most I’ve ever seen. Fair play to them for finding them. Ours second cook, and resident mushroom expert, said he took his hat off to them, as he’d been looking for them all week and not found any. It must be the heat, together with the heavy rains that produces such magnificent shrooms.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Seamus Heaney, RIP

Back to Sicily after August in Ireland. Back to stuffed aubergines, sweet tomatoes and - torrential rain and mosquitoes galore. Also, Seamus Heaney, our Nobel Laureate, died on Friday, aged 74. On Saturday night we had a Swedish couple in Pachamama. I went to take their order, but instead of the order notebook, I pulled 'The Spirit Level' (my favourite Heaney volume) out of my little waiter bag (they are equally slim). I told the Swedes about Heaney winning the Nobel in 1995 and the man said he had seen it on the news on Friday in Stockholm. So I left them the book of poems to peruse until their food arrived. “You are neither here nor there,/ A hurry through which known and strange things pass/ As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways/ And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.” Seamus Heaney, 'Postscript', from The Spirit Level