Monday, November 22, 2004

Facing Windows

(Ferzan Ozpetek, dir)

I saw Mr Ozpetek's Ignorant Fairies at the last Italian Film Festival, so was looking forward to his latest film. Of course, with a name like Facing Windows, Hitchcock comes to mind and this movie did borrow an element from the earlier movie - Giovanni takes a break from her marriage to loser-boy Filippo by ogling the hot young man who lives in the apartment across the way, Lorenzo. He, in turn, watches her every move: strange that neither is aware of the other's observation. So, one storyline tracks the developing relationship between these two, once they finally meet. Her story is simple: she's stuck, bored with her job, bored with her man, bored with the role of mother but feeling she's far too old (early 30's) to start again. Know the feeling.

Into this situation comes the old man that Filippo decides to help, Davide - he has apparently lost his memory and any kind of volition, so is simply stalled in the street. Fillippo takes him home but being slack, doesn't do anything more about him. Instead, it is left to Giovanni - just one more thing she doesn't need in her life.

One aspect of the story is simply trying to find out who he is. The audience does know something about him, as the movie starts with a killing in a bakery in 1941 or so: it is not a major jump to connect this lost fellow with that earlier event. He is then revealed to be a gay Jew, neither of which was a healthy thing to be in German occupied Rome in the 1940's. He, however, was strong: when the Germans invaded, he had the choice of saving his lover or warning the Jews so thay could escape. Despite the many years that have intervened, he is still mourning the loss of his lover.

Nonetheless, he is the central catalytic character. For example, it is when Davide wanders off from the car, to be found by Lorenzo, that Giovanni finally meets her neighbour. The main connection between Davide and Giovanni comes from their shared love of baking. He sits in her kitchen, watching her make the pies she sells as a sideline, offering commentary on her method. I thought she'd hit the roof, having this old guy interfering when he shouldn't have even been there, but instead it opens up the possibility of warmth between them. Its her passion and his therapy - he has no-one to feed but that doesn't stop him from cooking an enormous array of cakes - there is this glorious scene where Giovanni goes to Davide's house and he has really let go - the kitchen and dining room are both completely covered in outstanding cakes.

So, despite the title leading to the idea that the dominant story would be about Giovanni and Lorenzo (and there is something that happens between them), it is much more about her re-connecting with her own passion for making food. It isn't really clear where Davide ends up, whether he is finally able to put his past behind him.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Alpharhythm, Confucious and Lotus

(Arc Cafe, 12 November)

I was dubious about this gig. I knew of Lotus as the vocalist on a number of tracks produced by various producers of electonica - such as Rhian Sheehan's "Waiting" as well as others by the Nomad and Rhombus. She (Lotus Hartley) has now put out a CD of all her vocal efforts, and this was the CD release party (which is a little odd in that the CD was neither mentioned nor to be seen). I really didn't think it was going to work, didn't know of anyone going but when I heard that Confucious was doing support, that tipped the balance.

I can't actually say much about the Alpharythm/Confucious support, as it was pretty much two hours of undifferentiated beats and bleeps, quite pleasant but not enough to get me on the dance floor. I'm not even sure when one support act started and the other finished - every so often a fellow would come up on stage and play around with a laptop for a few seconds, and that was about it in terms of the visual aspect of the gig. There were a couple of turntables set up, but they were obscured by the speaker, so I was a little surprised when it was all over that a fellow emerged from behind the decks - I'm not aware of what contribution he made or even who he was. The joys of gigs by producers of electronic music.

By the time Lotus started, I was yearning for something human. She seemed to appreciate that, kicking of with her Rhian Sheehan-produced "Waiting" and then asking the extremely sparse audience if we were all OK. It was an interesting experience listening to this live, because not only did she have Rhian's music coming out through the house sound system but she also had a three piece band (with Confucious on bass, an un-named Hartley brother on guitar and a fellow with no name at all on drums). For each song, Lotus would pause and say who had produced it - I was surprised by the fact that I knew pretty much all the songs, even if I didn't recognise the names of all the producers (I've only vaguely heard of Freq and there was another fellow called, from memory, Slowcut).

I have to say that a Rhombus track (Distance) is so much better when its the vocalist without Rhombus than the reverse - the one and only Rhombus gig I've been to was missing the vocalists and was only saved by the fact that they had the guys from _sense_ to give some vocals.

By the time Slumber came round, a song she produced with her "nobody" other brother, I think we were all pretty much enchanted, feeling the joy, big idiotic grins on our faces. I know I looked around at the scenester chick dancing beside me, someone who normally gives no sign of any knowledge of my existence, and she was smiling at me so broadly I thought we were about to have sex. Alas, there was only one more song with the band in Lotus's bag of tricks, another she produced herself, and then it was pretty much all over. Sure, she did an encore, a slow, jazzy number she'd sung for Twinset, but that song came from a completely diffferent mood - as Lotus said as she started - it was the sort of song to grab a partner for. Not much good for loners.

Still, it was a beautiful set and Lotus seems like a really lovely person as well as being a great singer. As soon as I can actually find someone selling her CD, I'll buy one.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Hot Swiss Mistress with Pine

(Wunderbar, Lyttleton, 4 November)

In a bit of a disastrous trip, I went last week to Christchurch, partly to catch up with a friend, partly to check out the Christchurch A&P show and its associated Food Canterbury Pavillion and partly to go out to the Wunderbar for this gig. I've long heard about the Wunderbar, it is world famous in some circles and not just those centred on Lyttleton, but never actually been there before. The one other gig I've attended in Lyttleton was in the Harbour Light. The Wunderbar has a great setting - it clings to the back of the supermarket, with a verandah the length of the bar facing out over the Port. Inside, they have gone to town with the lampshades in particular: one was made out of doll's faces, cut out of their respective heads and glued together. Others featured the upper torsoes of mannequins, wearing billowing nightgowns. Still others were blocky toys - trucks and boats and the like. It was an immediately comforting place, the sort of bar I'd call my local if we had it in Dunedin.

This is about the fourth time I've seen Pine, they've been part of my life since their EP Speeding came out a few years ago. Then with Longplayer and in all their live gigs, they seemed to go for being a nice well-mannered band with a clean sound, but just a bit on the tame, even boring, side. Something seems to have happened to them since I last saw them, however. In this gig, there was plenty of energy, at least once Stephen started with proper drum sticks instead of the brushes which would be better employed by a pastry cook. Hannah's keyboard contributions were outstanding - I was captivated by the old school sounds she was making, thinking for some reason that this was music which should really be on vinyl. One consequence is that I am now convinced I need their latest CD, Akira Sunrise - maybe then I will be able to talk more coherently about the particular tracks they played.

Headlining the gig was a new band, Hot Swiss Mistress - they have been talked about a bit on, so I thought I'd check them out. It seems they provided a slightly more challenging listening experience than Pine for the audience, sionce quite a large part of it left. Another large part of it stood around talking loudly to each other: the main offender being one of the guys from Pine. So, actually hearing the gig provided a few challenges, but it was well worth it. The band basically has something for everyone, from the surf rock of Stink Magnetic to the beautiful ballad of the final song. They had to repeat Drowsy Woman, their only song to dance to. I had thoughts of the kind of multi-textured gigs that the Flaming Lips might do, and in the dark, singer Warner Emery even looked a little like Wayne. The strength was in the vocals, he seems to work hard at these to produce something of beauty, both in the lyrics and in the use of his voice. This makes Hot Swiss Mistress the kind of band you have to see more than once to fully assess, in order to get a proper handle on what is being sung.

As for the rest of my trip, well that was a disaster. I went to the showgrounds on Friday, to see a few fellows apparently cleaning up. Walking around town, it turned out that the show actyually runs from 10 - 12 November, making me a whole week early. Then my friend, who was a early childhood teacher last time I saw her (and claiming to be happily engaged but I won't go there), has morphed into someone who works all night shifts in hospitality. Furthermore, her new boi, a fellow she'd not seen for a while, was flying in within a matter of hours. It didn't seem a particularly good idea for me to hang around any longer.

I Am Emma

(Fransesco Falashci, dir)

I'm a little worried that this movie glamorises mental illness, but that reservation apart, this was a brilliant, sharp movie. Emma is a successful doctor and councillor. Unknown to her husband of three years, she is a manic-depressive, an illness she keeps under control with Lithium. Until, that is, she is away from home for the weekend, at her father's old castle, helping to prepare for her old friend Marta's wedding. Somehow, she is seperated from her supply of Lithium (this was a little confusing, as it seemed to be a hop skip and a jump between where she was spending the weekend and where she lived, so getting a new supply did not appear to be beyond the bounds of possibility).

Anyway, she has no lithium and this naturally shows up pretty quickly in her moods - we get to see her pretty much at manic speed, rather than depressive, with a compulsive need for truth telling - first demonstrated when she hijacks the eulogy for the town's respected doctor. She doesn't speak ill of the dead so much as accuse the townsfolk of not being deserving of such a man in their midst. Of course, this is Italian popular cinema, so she is pretty much guaranteed to be charming, even if she causes a little havoc along the way. The main victim is Daniele, Marta's intended - he is completely fixated on his E-Type jaguar, that's about the only thing we learn about him. Emma takes it for a spin, and in her impatience to get through a railway crossing, prangs it.

Another victim is her own husband, Roberto, who she learns is having an affair with Elisa, a rather nice young lady. Emma makes friends with Elisa, and pushes her to test her married boyfriend, Roberto, to see if there's any commitment there. This actually works out nicely for all concerned - it turns out that Roberto thought that Emma was dull as ditch water, not knowing that was caused by the lithium, and getting to know the real Emma, falls for her properly. The same goes for her dad - there are several touching moments involving these two - the night she explodes at everyone, he's pretty much in despair, but then they have some bonding moments, they re-connect and can have a real relationship. There's a great scene where her truth-telling comes in handy, as dad has been beating himself up over his wife's departure, thinking that Emma has been blaming him. When he learns that is not so, he is unblocked and can get on with his life, make a successful relationship finally.

Of course, the wedding hangs over everything and it becomes increasingly obvious that Daniele is a bit of a dork, that there isn't much real between him and Marta. But several years ago, thanks to some of the mis-communication that is meat and drink to a romantic comedy like this, it turns out that Marta and her boyfriend of the time, Carlo got their wires crossed and went off in pursuit of other partners. Carlo is another of Emma's old friends (and there are a couple of cute scenes involving his novels which are so bad they send everyone to sleep - even himself it seems - so dad can use one to calm Emma when she gets too hyper) so is around all the time. Emma finds a letter she was supposed to give to Carlo, from Marta, arranging to meet. Since Carlo never turned up, Marta has been angry with him ever since, and he's never known why. So, here's a situation calling for resolution, neatly achieved by Emma "forgetting" to collect them to go to Marta's wedding.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Heart Elsewhere

(Pupi Avati, dir)

Another film in the festival, this one not quite so great as yesterday's. The outstanding feature was the architecture - the film is set in Rome and Bologna in the 1920's so there are all these great old buildings lovingly shot. Some of the interiors were pretty spectacular and all - the bedroom of the main female character was entirely painted with this pastoral mural, and the restaurants they went to seemed to feature high vaulted ceilings and a great quantity of luxurious fabrics.

Essentially, Nello is a dweeb. His father is so exasperated with the fact that his 35 year old son has had no intimate contact with women, and worried that he might be gay like his uncle, that he sends him of to Bolonga, which has a certain reputation for looseness of morals (I guess having the Pope sitting in your back yard might lead to a certain amount of restraint). Nello soon establishes he's not gay: his room mate jacks him up with a manicure, she only has to put her hand on his leg and talk nicely and he's hooked. Luckily, she has the good sense to back off.

Not so Angela. Nello's room-mate's next big idea is to introduce Nello to his girl-friend's sister, saying she's beautiful, getting on in years and "pure". She turns out to be great at spitting and blind: she is in fact locked up in some sort of horrible sanitorium for the blind - there is this wierd scene where all the blind women are lined up on one side of the room, the visitors on the other. the music starts - they find their partner and dance. It is by retreating from this scene that Nello meets Angela, a total beauty, but even her father warns Nello off: he's a decent fellow (we see this in the way he charms the kids he teaches) and Angela's only hobby seems to be breaking guys' hearts. But there's no stopping our Nello: even though most of their dating revolves around her attempts to get revenge on an ex. One night, she relents, lets him sleep with her, softens to him and they're engaged. Ha! For how long?

Agata and the Storm

(Silvio Soldini, dir)

The Italian Film Festival started tonight in Dunedin, so I went along to the so-called "gala" opening, which meant I was given a bottle of Italian beer and had the privilege of hearing a message from the Italian ambassador to New Zealand, who could not attend as she's busy celebrating the return of the unknown New Zealand warrior to our shores. Somewhat OT, but I'm yet to understand how there can be so much certainty that he is indeed a New Zealander when his actual identity is completely unknown.

Anyway - what a boomer of a movie this was to start with, so enchanting, so funny, so warm, so full of its own quirky stylistic flourishes that give it plenty of colour. I loved it. The four main characters are the Agata of the title, her brother Gustavo, a fellow called Romeo and another fellow called Nico. There were also various subsidiary characters, and I think this may very well be the first movie I have ever seen where a hen has played such a prominent, yet gratuitous, part. The fact that several random elements were included is what made this movie so delicious. The "storm" of the title is Agata's own emotional or sexual energy, one result of which is that she can't be near a light bulb or computer without it blowing. It may be that this is started by the passion that is between her and Nico, 13 years her junior - one of the stories is his determined pursuit of her and Agata's near constant denial: she seems to take some delight in getting him to her door, he thinks he's about to finally get lucky but finds the door shut in his face. It isn't actually very clear whether they ever get it together.

Probably more important in terms of develpment of the film is the fact that Gustavo finds that he is not who he thought he was: his "father" took him on when a baby, paying off his birth-mother with 350,000 lire ("it was much more in those days") - I'm not actually clear on why this was done. His real mother was Romeo's mother, and one thing that Gustavo then needs to work out is who is father is. This knowledge causes a seismic shift in Gustavo's life - he basically retreats completely from his wife (ironically, a famous in Italy TV-psyciatrist) and his life as an architect of velodromes. Instead, he takes up with Romeo, and it was really heartening to see the way that familial lines were re-drawn, first between those two and then to include Agata, Gustavo's son and new girlfriend. Romeo is a very passionate man, full of wild schemes, love for his wife as well as having plenty of sexual energy left over to share with a number of other women. I think she knows about this - right at the end, she speaks of knowing of his faults - Romeo simply accepts himself for who he is.

I think it is part of Italian film-making to have a fair amount of tumult in the story lines and between the characters, but eventually things settle down into a fairly mad scheme: Romeo dreams of a trout farm, ball room and bowling alley. Agata wants a bookshop. Gustavo's very attractive former velodrome client (and now lover) wants a velodrome - so the idea is that Gustavo will design a concept including everyone's ideas, to be built on a plot of land that Romeo is trying to buy throughout the movie from an irascible old fellow who just might be Gustavo's dad. Unfortunately, not all turn out quite as expected - particularly for Romeo and Nico. The final scene was in an aeroplane: when I saw it was Agata who was a passenger, I was more than a little nervous, given the huge amount of electical havoc she could play, but obviously she has gained control of her powers by this point. As the Chinese mystic she consulted had told her would happen, she now has the power to turn lights off and on without actually breaking them.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Plots With a View

(Nick Hurran, dir & Alfred Molina (Boris Plots), Christopher Walkin (Frank Featherbed), Naomi Watts (Meredith) and Brenda Blethyn (Betty))

Another movie in which I have had the cinema all to myself, so could fully enagage in commenting on the goings on and talking with the characters to my hearts content. Mind you, the cinema was only a 7 seater.

The movie was a pretty average comedy, with a couple of crossed storylines focussing on Boris Plots. It starts with him as a young boy at the school dance, finally able to pluck up the courage to ask his sweetheart to dance just as some much bolder fellow gets in first. Cut to him 40 or so years later, he is the local undertaker, still single, still pining for his Betty. She has a funeral to arrange, that of her mother-in-law who has choked to death as a result of Betty changing her breakfast cereal. Of course, with the contact between Betty and Boris, sparks ignite and he works out a desperate scheme to get her away from her husband and off to Tahiti - essentially she's going to have a fake death in a gruesome fall from a cliff. Here's where the other story becomes important - Boris is facing competition from an American undertaker, Frank, with his fancy new ways: once Betty has plunged to her death, there's an undignified tussle over who will get to bury her.

Boris wins, but his task is made very difficult now as Frank is watching his every move. One consequence is that Boris has to play out his subterfuge much longer, to the point that Betty is just about buried alive. Then, before she is willing to leave, she decides she needs to get revenge on her husband, as she has learnt he's having an affair with Meredith. So - how does a dead person get revenge? By haunting her husband's house, of course: so effectively that Meredith is next seen on a Jerry Springer show and the husband is pretty much mad.

Nothing spectacular really - it is the first movie in which I've seen Alfred Molina, which was an interesting choice. The role was a classic Stephen Fry one, but he'd be too obvious to play it, it was a nice touch to have it played by a straight man. I see on IMDB, it runs from being "dire" to "terrific" - I'd say "meh".

Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle

(Danny Leiner, Dir & John Cho (Harold) and Kal Penn (Kumar))

I know that as films go, this one is a piece of nonsense (brought to us by the same guy who gave the world Dude Where's My Car?) but I was in the mood for some nonsense and, having made my own quest to White Castle, I thought this would fit the bill. My particular quest came about when I was staying with a friend in Dearborn Michigan who kept talking of local fast food joints I'd never heard of - such as Tim Hortons (for donuts) and White Castle, where you buy burgers by the half dozen and they're steamed, not grilled. They come about the size of those breadrolls from KFC. So, after several episodes in which conversation kept returning to White Castle we eventually made the big drive to get some - I really have no memory of them being anything at all.

For Harold and Kumar, however, they have acheived mystical properties. Both have important stuff to do - Harold is dealing with the immense amount of work his stereotyping workmates dump on him (those Asians, they love to work) and Kumar is being pressured by his Dad to go to medical school: he has an interview in the morning, so needs to be fresh. Instead they go on what turns out to be an all night mission for White Castle. They are both pretty straight up guys, Harold in particular, except that they both do drugs - and there is one really wierd scene where Kumar dreams he is married to this ever-increasing bag of weed. Many things intervene to delay their quest (I guess that's what makes it a quest) - some nice (drugs, girls, a preacher's wife offered to them for sex) but many not so nice (racist yahoos, racist cops, Doogie Howser, prison, an escaped Cheetah (which turns out to be surprisingly helpful in a scene I found funny, even if others did not), a stolen car...).

Of course, they succeed - that's the basic premise of a comedy - and in doing so, everything is put right - with Kumar's Dad and career, with Harold's co-workers, with the rednecks that have been hassling them. By the time they finally made it to White Castle, I could have done with some myself. Interesting that this movie should be made the same year as the anti-McDonalds movie, Upsize Me (the premise of which makes no sense to me).

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram

(Iain Banks, 2004)

After reading most of his Culture SF novels and enjoying them all (except Feersum Endjinn) as well as the dark psychological novels set in Scotland, I'd been looking forward to reading his first foray into non-fiction. It helped that this work was about single malt whisky, for which I am gradually acquiring a taste.

I have to say that it was something of a disappointment. The book is a combined reflection on his life, tour around Scotland, review of the products of the many distilleries to be found there and commentary on the developing war in Iraq. That commentary was hardly the most insightful and it trivialises the war somewhat to have these snippets interspersed with tales of various drinking exploits and jolly japes with his mates. He might have been better advised to leave them out, because I was not left convinced by the commentary. True, he did cut up his passport as an act of protest, so he is not without seriousness in his attitude to the war, but I'm not sure that a book of a life time of drinking tours of Scotland is the time and place to give the war due seriousness.

There was a lot of humour of the "you had to be there" kind, as he recounts his exploits with his mates - inventing drunken "words", telling tall tales of his younger days. There were some nice stories mixed in, of course: I liked the way that he met his wife, they way she contradicted his expectations as to what a woman should be like by being a fan of real ale and drinking him under the table. The multiple tales of driving around in flash cars, musing on Scottish roads and the natural speed at which to take them just got a bit much. Some travel writers inspire you to take the same journeys and meet them (most notably, the late Pete McCarthy) but I doubt that I'd get on with Mr Banks and little of what he wrote created any desire to visit Scotland.

As for the whisky, well he did drink a lot and was forthcoming in his comments, but it turns out that I already know of and like most of those he preferred: Talisker, Glenfiddich, Glenmorangie and Laphroig. I did learn of a couple of others I would like to try, such as Ardberg. Funnily enough, when was in Christchurch last week, I noticed that there is a whisky shop in Colombo Street, which had both Ardberg and Bruichladdich in the window. Peering into the interior, there was evidence that they do tastings, so I'll need to check them out next time I'm up there. I also see that the Islay Whisky Society runs an annual three day whisky school, for around $1000.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Neopolitan-American Pizza

2 lb flour, half all purpose unbleached, half bread flour.
1 1/8 teaspoon SAF instant yeast or 1 1/2 instant dry yeast
1 tblspn and 1 tspn salt
3 1/4 cups water
6 tblspn extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for oiling things
1/2 cup cornmeal or semolina
1 1/2 cups tomato sauce or crushed drained canned plum tomatoes
1/2 pound mozzarella, sliced
1 1/2 tspn salt or 3 tblspn grated parmesan

Stir all flour, salt yeast in mixer bowl. Pour in water, stir with wooden spoon until "shaggy dough" formed. Use normal beater, not dough hook, mix on slow speed a minute, then on high for 3.5 minutes, scraping down half way through. It should be stretchy, a walnut sized piece will form a 3" sheet. You need lots of flour laid down to handle this dough, its sticky! Pour onto a work surface, fold one end over to the other, rest it for 10 minutes. Make into four equal pieces - 3 go onto well oiled plates, are dusted and covered loosely with glad wrap. The fourth goes into an oiled 1 quart glass measuring cup/jug and tightly sealed with glad wrap. All rise at room temp for 3 - 4 hours, until doubled (the one in the measure is your control!). Then refrigerate for around 3 hours, maximum of 24.

Preheat oven to its maximum temp, with baking stone inside. Dust a peel with cornmeal. Make dough into 8" circle on floured surface, then drape over fist and stretch out to 12", by passing from fist to fist - and then onto peel. Take out to 13", spread tomato on to within 1 1/2 " of rim, black pepper, cheese, parmesan, olive oil and then bake. 10 - 15 minutes, rotating half way.

His tomato sauce is 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, 3" onion, 4 cans whole italian tomatoes, head of garlic cut crosswise in half, 2 tblspn coarse chop herbs or dried (basil, marjoram, oregano), 2 tspn salt and black pepper. Cook chopped onion in oil, crush the tomato in seive (retaining the water), add the tomato and 1 1/2 cups of tomato water to the onions, stir in all but the pepper. Bring to simmer, cook 20 minutes. Add 16 grindings of pepper and cool.

Pane Genzanes

The starter dough is .5 cup fresh (King Arthur) all purpose flour, 1 pinch (SAF) instant yeast, .25 teaspoon salt, .25 cup water. This gives around five ounces, to be made the day before the bread is needed. (Having half a cup of leavened bread dough to hand will work just as well.) The flour yeast and salt are stirred together in the bowl of a mixer (that can knead bread), then the water is added and stirred vigourously to form the dough. It is to be kneaded just until smooth, covered with plastic wrap and left at room temperature for 12 - 18 hours.

In the second step, the starter is made into a "biga". This needs 1 cup cold water and 2 cups flour. What happens here is that half the flour and all the water are beaten together, then bits of the starter are added, beating continuously until its all added. Then the rest of the flour is added and stirred in by hand a bit (no flour splashes, you know) and the job finished with the beater - takes 3 minutes or so, and gets the dough "smooth and stretchy". This biga is then sprinkled with flour in a bowl, covered and left to double in size (5 - 6 hours at room temperature).

The last step is pretty major! You want a biga, 3.333 cups/770 grammes of water, 7 cups/1036 grames of the flour, 1.25 teaspoon/3.5 g of the yeast, 1.5 tablespoons/22 g salt, 1 cup wheat bran flakes - milled down to 1/16" - and another couple of cups of flour for general sprinkling duties.

In two bowls, put half of the flour in each. Put the yeast in one, the salt in the other. Put the yeast-flour into the mixer bowl plus all the water. Stir with a wooden spoon, then get at it with the mixer. Add the biga, in bits. Stir in the other bowl of flour with the spoon, then get mixing again. When the dough is fully on the paddle, mix at full speed for 5 minutes, stopping half way to scrape the dough down. You want the dough to reach the point that its smooth and shiny, stretches for a foot, and (when you take a lemon sized piece and roll it in flour) spreads out to a translucent sheet when stretched between floured hands. Once its at that stage, let it sit for 10 minutes and a final bash of the mixer for 10 revolutions at high speed. Scrape down, sprinkle with flour, and let it rise (covered, in the mixer bowl) at room temp (apparently thats 80 degrees F) for 45 - 60 minutes - an increase of a 1/4 - 1/3.

You want a heavily floured countertop for the next phase: tipping the dough out gently so it is floured side down, and roughly circular. rest it for ten minutes, while you get the oven ready. A 14" minimum baking stone is needed - put that in the oven and heat to 500 deg F. The bread is to be raised in a square container 10 - 11" and 3 - 6" deep, lined with a cotton tea towel into which 1/2 a cup of flour has been rubbed. A couple of tablespoons of the bran flakes are sprinkled at the base. Form a circular loaf (gently!) by taking an edge and folding 2/3 of the way across the loaf and pressing to seal - continue until you have a "wonderfully puffy" circle of dough - flip it over, then lift it up and into the cooking container (it takes some manual dexterity, apparently). Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons bran and press down. Cover, and leave in warm place (85 degrees now!) to rise 40 - 45 minutes. Then sprinkle some bran flakes on the baking stone to create some smoke. Now comes the tricky bit - you want a "peel" to transfer the bread from its place of rising to the cooking stone - he suggests cardboard or timber at least 15" square. Sprinkle more bran onto that - you want the loaf bottom to be down on the peel - tip the dough gently out of the container into one hand, remove the towel, then use both hands to put on the peel. Put hands under it, so it can be stretched out to about 14". More bran, pressed in - you now apparently have a "fat pancake" of dough.

The bread is slid onto the baking stone, sprayed with water from a plant sprayer, then the oven interior is sprayed 20 times. Reduce the temperature to 450 deg and cook for 70 minutes. It will rise frantically - after 7 minutes, spray more water (20 times), then after 40 minutes, rotate the bread 180 degrees. If burning, drop the temperature another 25 degrees.

It Must've Been Something I Ate

(Jeffrey Steingarten, Knopf, 2002)

Maybe it was because this was his second collection, but it seemed to lack some of the zing of his first book. That one selected from things he had been writing for a few years, whereas there was only a 2 year gap between the two books, making it harder to get a collection of the same quality. Thats not to say there were not some great pieces, because there were. One of the funniest stories was Brain Storm, where in his normal fashion, he followed up a theory that his obsessiveness about food might be caused by a brain lesion. He finds the authors of the article and has them do elaborate scans of his brain: sure enought, there is a slight shrinkage of his brain away from the skull in one place. Not that Steingarten has a problem with this, he makes a virtue out of being a "passionate eater": "We transmute what animals do into what angels would do if angels ate food, which I don't think they do, at least not in their official capacity... Yes, Doctor, I plead guilty to an obsession with beauty, edible or otherwise." Of course, being Steingarten, he finds the finest restaurant in the district and takes his doctor along: they feast until 2:30 a.m., and he wonders "Would he [the doctor] now admit that his phrase, "excessive interest in fine food" was an oxymoron, a troubling symptom of his own reluctance to wallow in pleasure?"

Oh, and then there was his exploration of the world of trendy salts, some of which go for up to $25 a pound and one (Oshima Island Blue Label Salt) so exclusive you have to be a member of a club in order to get some. He's firmly addicted, with more than a dozen different salts scattered around his bench top and a little hand crafted walnut box in which to carry his salt around with him. It was a little bit sad that science and numerous blind tastings could not find a statistically sound difference in taste between any of the salts, at least when dissolved.

Two nice little stories were, respectively, his investigation into whether MSG really does cause headaches (no, apparently) and his consternation over the rigid rules established by the USA over carrying young unpasteurised cheeses into the country and the near complete disregard by officialdom of anyone breaking the rules.

I find I am getting more and more fascinated with making bread, proper old school bread, even had a long conversation today with someone about whether her mother might possibly make Irish soda bread. Steingarten is even more obsessed: when he goes to Paris, which seems to be frequently, he has a burning need to ruish round all the bread shops collecting a particular style of bread: on the occasion he recounts in the book, it is the baguette. Apparently, in the 1960's mechanisation and the trend to import high-gluten flours meant the disappearance of the traditional baguette in favour of "a tasteless, fluffy, plae and bleached imposter". Proper French flour is soft and creamy, and in the 1990's there was a huge resurgence of interest in using it and traditional methods, even the establishment of an annual competition - which by some "preposterous error", our author found himself judging. Nice that the winner refused to identify himself, saying that he cared only for his customers. Just in case I ever get to Paris (actually, I might well, since that's on the way to Tunisia), the prize was given to M Teixeira of the Aux Delices du Palais, 60 Bvd Brune, 75014 Paris (14th Arrondissement) for his "baguette a l'ancienne". Then there are branded baguettes - where the bakeries use the flour from Minoteries Viron in Chartres and call their baguettes Retrodors.

Then there is the rave about Italian flat breads - including the six foot pizza bianca (ex Antico Forno in Campo de Fiori in Rome) - it is folded onto a small wooden "peel" like an accordian, that peel is then pushed to the back of the oven and somehow the bread is unfolded into the oven. Pane Genzanese seems a little more achievable. This will have to be in a seperate post, as it gets very long.

On a voyage to a completely different part of the world, Mexico, I can have the perfect taco: they come from Tacos el Yaqui, Rosarito Beach, near Tijuana (south end of town, left at the lights just before Rosarito Beach Hotel, and then the first left). Nicely marinated beef cooked over a wood fire seems to be the trick, helped out by appropriate salsa (ranchero and roja).

Ooh, I have to make his hot chocolate: 2.25 cups whole milk, .25 cup bottled still water, .25 cup superfine granulated (castor?) sugar, 100 grammes dark bittersweet chocolate (Scarffen Berger, Valrohona or Lindt) finely sliced using a bread knife and finally .25 cup (28 grammes) cocoa powder - he says Valhrona. Get the water, milk and sugar to the boil, add the chocolate and cocoa, bring to the boil agin - whisking to dissolve the chocolate and to thicken the mixture. Then lower the heat, and finally either use an immersion mixer for 5 minutes or a blender for 30 seconds. Makes 4 cups. Apparently, in another of his blind tests, he found that Valhrona cocoa and Scarffen Berger chocolate produced the best results. In another article, he gleefully notes that eating chocolate (his favourite vegetable product) is good for you, with his scientific tests establishing that the secret chemical ingredient in chocolate is actually... chocolate, because of the "sensual and aesthetic pleasure" it brings.

I'm still to be convinced about caviar and turducken - a chicken stuffed into a duck stuffed into a turkey (with one variant then stuffed into a lamb) - apparently invented by Paul Prudhomme. More interesting was his hunt for dry-aged beef - and by aged, he means for ten weeks or more! Apparently, if its kept at the right sort of temperature, humidity and rate of fresh air, it won't go off - the outside will be a bit green but can be removed - the result is something both very tender and very flavourful. After an extensive telephone survey of US steak houses, he found two that might meet his needs! Peter Luger in Brroklyn and Bern's Steak house in Tampa - a monster of a place that can seat something like 600 people!