Sunday, September 04, 2016

Eating to Live.

So it's high time I got down here some of my travel experiences. And the best place to start, is food, and the best place to start talking about food is from when I got back to Melbourne.

After 3 months, I'd more or less figured out a new diet, the local staples, where was good, where I liked best. Then suddenly I had to adjust again. Which you think would be easy, given that I had ten years experience of where to eat pretty much everywhere in M-town. I knew the good spots, I have 20 places in the bank for impressing ladies on the first date out, without having to double down on anywhere.

That's right, I had spots to burn. But my tastebuds had something else to say. I recall in the early weeks of being in Italy, I was missing the realy rich meaty flavors I was use to in Melbourne. Animal fats just aren't celebrated really. Nor are they big fans of American excess, like I was.

That's right, Eurotrash infection number one, pronounced rejection of American fastfood. Or is it? I still think the only thing in New York that isn't over-rated is the eating. Yanks are the best pizza makers and they know how to make a burger still without having to write home about it.

What I mean is that I just find physiologically I can't stomach rich food any more, salty, juicy, cheesy food. The one thing I had left. I made my bolognese sauce that I cooked and improved obsessively for a year and found I couldn't handle it no more. The only thing that was easy to resume really was Chinese food, which they have in Italy but really, 3 months is not long enough to feel a call for it. Chinese food or Cucina Cinise and McDonalds are the only two cuisines to make any real headway into Liguria. Other regions have Burger King...

Also, back in Melbs after 3 months without a single ailment or complaint, I contracted gastro from my welcoming family. Then last week I got some form of food poisoning that may or may not have been salmonella. Fasting is pretty easy when you are having stomach cramps, it's not really appetizing, but the first bout of gastro, after 24 hours I just dove back into food with no regard.

The second time though, I actually did find plain toast all I wanted to eat. It could be that Musashi's proscription no. 13 "Do not pursue the taste of good food" has now worked into my mind deep enough to effect my perception of food, but surprisingly after 3 months in Italy, I look at food more as a source of fuel and nutrition than a source of pleasure.

Which is crazy, I really enjoyed eating in Genova, so I'm back in Genova now, not literally of course - I'm just talking about it now. And it was by staying in Genova that I learned that Italian food or Italian cuisine if you fucking insist, does not exist. I'm not the first to learn this lesson so please take it as a statement of my ignorance or at best, naivete. I did very little research and planning for this trip.

Hence I was alarmed when I kept ordering foccacia with 'tomato and wurst' and the (inevitable) lady serving me would confirm my request with 'pizza'. My brain stopped me from saying in a pitying way 'that's not pizza, if it is, you can grab a pizza from a perspex cupboard in woolworths' that's a foccacia with some pizza-esque toppings on it. I'd travelled enough of Italy in the past to know that Naples was home of the pizza where white tourists, did the very white thing of having to go to the very most authentic place to get the original pizza ever, and I heard it was pretty good. I would probably do that shit just that Naples is waaaaaayyy south of Liguria. But I had experienced that Rome sell pizza 'by the slice' in the square form, and Florence makes shitty pizza's that are wood fired but pretty flavorless (Tuscan cuisine was the least endeared to me) then there's the calzone and what not. So I was scared that so obsessed with foccacia were the Genovese that this was their take on pizza.

Turns out that there were some places that made actual pizza's in the historic center, to varying degrees of crapiness through to quite good, and if you got outside the historic center - there was some real gold. My favorite wound up being the Maxi-sized Dolce Mary that had italian sausage and two kinds of cheese from the place near my local bus stop. It was so good I became pretty loyal pretty fucken quick.

So, yeah, you can get bolognese outside of Bolagna, and Pizza outside of Naples. But it's not like Japan, and Japan is for me a far more interesting yardstick for comparison to Italy than Australia. In Japan every fucking town and city has some speciality, Nagoya my home-town Japan (specifically Handa in Aichi-Ken) is known for miso-katsu, some delicious chicken wings, vinegar and I can't remember what else. Osaka my favorite holiday destination in Japan is known for all the good fried shit, tako-yaki, yaki-soba etc. The thing is you can get takoyaki, and good takoyaki anywhere in Japan, and you can presumably get the Nagoya specials anywhere else to good quality.

Just about anywhere anybody is preparing food in Japan, any kitchen, someone is taking pride in it. Some masochist is working a 20 hour day making sure it is perfect. Not so in Italy, people take pride in their regional dishes, and the regional dishes are more about regional-seasonal produce and everything is cooked with pride but very little fuss. Just love, like agape love. And if something isn't regional, it just becomes something to stuff in your mouth. Something to snack on while you are drinking.

Which is a key piece of a puzzle to a riddle posed to me by some of Genova's famous historic center graffiti. Right near the architecture faculty of the university, I saw a message saying 'anti-hipster zone' not much of a riddle you say? well here's the thing - there are no hipsters in Genova. Or not none, but like 1 or 2. It is incredibly rare to see a group of hipsters and even then, I didn't see anyone who had assembled a complete look such as they could pass another hipster on the streets of Fitzroy and hate each other.

So the riddle became - why are there no hipsters here? Why is Italy of all places, immune to this embarassing mirror the youth (including the 40 year olds the hipster phenomenon has allowed to be part of youth culture) hold up a mirror to the anxieties of the adult culture and express so obnoxiously what we hate about ourselves and eachother?

One implausible theory was that the graffiti message worked. Hipsters saw it and left town. Later I devised my favorite theory - there are no food trends here.

Sure there's Eataly, and the aforementioned McDonalds has successfully tethered itself to Italian soil. But if I had to say what the biggest food trend in Italy was while I was there, it was the hamburger. Which when I say it like that, makes it sound like it is on pace with Melbourne, and from what Jamie Oliver has said - apparantly the UK. You know Gourmet burgers and shit. Grill'd lead waves of Huxtaburger, Rockwell and Sons I fucken assume Melbourne has a hamburger eating guide by now- but that's not what I'm talking about - it's like they are just discovering the hamburger for the first time.

It was nigh impossible to get Cheddar in Italy, and the spongey sesame seed buns you could get in supermarkets but basically, probably driven by expats returning from the UK and experiencing 'gourmet-burgers' it appeared to me like Italy was basically finally having a go at the hamburger, because now it occured to some entreprenuers that burgers had finally reached the quality of the produce and ingredients Italian's have to work with.

The local hamburgers took me some getting used to because the bread was too good. The burgers tasted like steak, and the cheese was like a cream sauce, it added no bite. Eventually I figured out which other toppings worked well and I got into them. But in the early days I was like 'you don't get it guys, they are supposed to just by greasy salty crap that you cram in your mouth'

Even so, I'd almost say that Italian hamburgers aren't hamburgers. They are more akin to some kind of hot-panini sandwich than even the gourmet burgers here, but this isn't a burger review.

It's to say that there was no food trends. Genova is 1/8th the size of Melbourne but there were only 3 places on this 'trend' and only 1 was a franchise and 2 of those three were really taking it seriously. This was not the summer of Boost-Juice everywhere, this was not Ramen is the new Tacos, this was not fuck queing up I want to eat now. This was not Melbourne.

I hadn't even realised that this was part of Melbourne culture. But back walking the streets of Melbourne it seared my retinas. A slight aside, back in my first year in Magic Johnstone studio's MJ's proprietor took all the artists in residence to lunch one day at his 3rd business venture - the smith st restaurant Sugar Prawn. Sugar Prawn was great, it had good food, served and prepared well. The decor was thought out and they'd even set up a DJ booth in the front window. We were served by an unhealthily skinny hipster chick with torn stockings displaying her ironic tattoos and it ticked every box for an exciting new food destination in the changing face of Smith St. It was New Fitzroy.

The lunch was delightful and I love MJ studios everything about it. I can't wait to get back there. But the next week I went into the city to have lunch with my law-talking friends from highschool, both now working in govt. depts. The place of our lunch was Pellegrini's on Bourke, up near Parliament house. A place that hasn't changed at all since it pretty much opened. The menu hasn't changed, the venue has never expanded and business has never taken a misstep. Here I thought 'Sugar Prawn has done everything right. It's thumb is on the pulse and they've run over every detail with a fine tooth comb. But you don't want to be Sugar Prawn, you don't want to own Sugar Prawn, you want to own Pellegrini's they don't have to care about any of that shit, they are an institution.'

I want to make clear, that Melbourne does have great food. Great food is being made, it's just being fucked up by so much bullshit. Here is the impression I have of Melbourne's food scene - it is driven by Graphic Design and Interior Designers and Design period. In the 1 month I have been back I've noticed an alarming amount of change (excluding that Sugar Prawn is closed, that was not alarming, MJ's proprietor told me that was going down and he noted quite validly that the exercise was still cheaper than an education) but I went to a social gathering on High St where I first noticed how sleek and shiny every fucking shops design was. Graphic logos, polished timber fittings, stainless steel trimmings, bespoke chairs. I presume some philosophy of complete dining experience. The shitty old places were all but disappeared.

The same has happened in Chinatown, though thankfully Nam-Loongs and other institutions remain impervious, but most distressingly for me was cycling up Sydney Road last friday night. I was literally about to have a heart attack walking past Ramen store after decked out ramen store and Burger Bar trying to determine whether my former staple Tandoori Nights had been renovated out of the picture - people used to think Greens was Brunswick gentrified, how little we knew, Greens feels rustic now by comparison. Thankfully, Tandoori Nights still exists, albeit they've removed a lot of the kitsch lighting and they don't seem to lay butcher's paper over the table cloth anymore or provide crayons on every table, which is sad - to me. Also Sydney Road is going to take a fucking long time to gentrify end to end.

But this is it, it is madness, lunacy. I appreciate living in a country with no real domestic cuisine, being able to eat and take on whatever from wherever is great and Melbourne's a good cold wintry city for that globalised shit to go down in, but it's obsessed currently with novelty, and I wonder how much of our food is being prepped with a mindfulness to instagram. The kind of people that decide the workers of New Fitzroy need Vegan Ramen or worse a Ramen Burger during their lunch break from designing yoga mats, are the kind that engage social media "experts" who tend to "add" "value" to a business by informing their chefs that customers are going to post a photo to social media of their food before they even eat it and that appearance and presentation is everything.

And that's what it seems. All the eating world of Melbourne is now a food court, a snazzy new renovated foodcourt, but with higher overheads and less certain foot traffic. The average lifespan of these businesses has to be akin to Sugar Prawns, and to (probably misquote) NNT that's what makes a restaurant fragile but restaurants anti-fragile. Except crappy time-worn facades that soak up the character of a neighborhood are being destroyed and replaced with shiny new commercial shit that could be straight out of Dubai airport.

The first time I travelled through Italy, I was struck by all the UNESCO heritage listed signs I saw and 'protected' signs. These were a rare site in Aus, being so young, and although Italy has perhaps one of the richest cultural heritages of anywhere in the world, it felt stifling to the young. Where was a young architect to realize his life's work in Italy if every place of note was built in the Renaissance or the Roman Empire and forbidden from being scratched or even dented? (Turns out Milan, Milan is the place for Modern shit, outside of it's key Heritage site, it could be pretty much anywhere in the modern world)

In a city like Genova though, it kind of became the thing that saves Italian youth from a relentless pursuit of novelty (not that that doesn't necessarily pain the youth) because the Historic Center leaves you with these small medieval interiors to work with, it suits a lifestyle that has been naturally selected over hundreds of years and it can accomodate immigrants coming in and cooking Halal, but not the instagram crowd, not the yelp crowd. You can't adapt your business model and say 'I want them to feel like they are dining simultaneously in the future and in an Edo period Ramen stall' the interiors and decors have to be largely left alone, the sense of space and the soundproofing is done, you can't knock through a wall and expand because you are the 'it' spot of the moment.

What you get is a bunch of kitchens that lean on the charm of the rustic heritage to build atmosphere and let the chefs just focus on making good food.

And so it is good. Italian food is what you've heard about it, it's just not something you can come back and reproduce here. You can come here and make great pasta and a great restaurant for sure. It just wont be the low-key good that the Genovese have (but perhaps don't appreciate) or can you?

It's been pointed out to me that Lygon St Carlton really hasn't gone anywhere since the 80s. It's been largely overtaken. There's some slow attrition to more Asian restaurants in places, but a bunch of those restaurants haven't changed in 20 years. I've heard organisers of the Lygon St Festival go on Radio and talk about the need to make it relevant again, but I really predict the next aesthetic people will embrace will be old and shitty. Nam Loong's will be where the cool kids eat precisely because you can't open up 14 new Nam Loong's in 3 months. Watch any Vice 'Munchies' thing on Youtube and you generally see this already happening - fat white dudes hitting up the institutions of the places they visit. Currently I assume that's the driver of 40 ramen joints in one Melbourne st, like the Summer of Boost Juice - people watching Munchies and thinking 'Melbourne needs that' but sooner or later people clue in and cut out the middle man.

Though the '3 hour work week' based on outsourcing your job to an Indian MBA has been around for a decade and wall st hasn't figured out to cut out the middle men yet. So I'm probably wrong.

Basically, I just like cooking some pasta and then stirring in some crushed tomato and sprinkling parmesan on it now. Also I'm eating parsley again.

It's late.

No comments: