Mountains

Right, so preoccupations aside about matters more dire, much more dire, about which nothing more will be said later, the view from the narrow wooden balcony is of a massif snow covered and now, as we approach early evening, nearly shrouded in clouds as masking as the many black burkhas I saw today.

It was a first day, a get acquainted day, and perfect weather for long walks, a fact apparent to droves of people, so we walked from Muerren to Lauterbrunnen to a cable car station and then up to Gimmelwald and then by foot back to Muerren. All in all, about four hours in motion plus the picnic of Bundnerfleisch and Gruyere and then, back in Muerren, cold drafts and soup.

It’s about as remote as one can be in this part of the world, and no wonder that people have been coming here for centuries when frazzled.  Puts things in perspective.  The mountains have a natural architectural grandeur and so tied to them the petty frailties can briefly appear microscopic.

 

Home Cooking

After a week of delicious, high fat food in restaurants, washed down with beer, it is a pleasure to step off a flight, three trains, a cable car, and a funicular to find myself in Muerren, fogged in, across a valley from Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau.  The flat is on the second floor of a lovely house outside the “no cars” village with the flat below occupied by a retired firefighter and his wife.

Italian tuna, lentil soup, curried chicken, oven roasted potatoes, and lettuce from a garden in town with good local, red wine?  Now there’s an antidote.

The air is clear, rain is pouring, the sky is turning white, and a collection of Jan Neruda stories is in the cards.

That cooking tonight?  Salve.

East to West

It’s my final day in Prague for now and if I see another piece of pork,  I will run for the hills.  No disrespect, but can we mix it up a smidge?  I’ve managed to keep the pigs away: Last night it was back to Cotto Crudo for penne and some duck foie, and today it was veal at Savoy.  I rather like the food, but I need to move on because otherwise I’m going Sumo.

Thank goodness I run every day.  Today was another three sweat drenched miles.

I love this city, it has depth and mystery and lots of fear.  So much is implicit.

I didn’t do much cooking here, unfortunately, but the food was plentiful and inexpensive.

It’s a sad place with very beautiful women, some of the best walking in the world, and buildings designed by Italian architects that evoke a different time when loss was more apparent.

Rich Past, Rich Future

Mind you, the three candy bar sized golden colored stones with the names of three Jews deported from Prague and who were murdered in 1942, one of whom was an 11 year old girl, hardly set things straight in terms of observing accurately.  The tiny memorial with etched names of the presumed parents and child was in front of a gaily colored apartment building now housing, on its first floor, some luxury outfit, and was also around the corner from the famous  synagogues, now museums, of the city.

Those museums attract visitors from all over the world who want to see the five synagogues and heaped graveyard  to recreate in their thoughts and imagination the lives of people whose lives are now defined by the murders noted.  Oh, that and the illustrious career of Kafka.

Anyhow, the city is now enjoying a revival.  Last night I strolled to an open market and later enjoyed good Neapolitan pizza.  Today I took a funicular up the hills of Mala Strana to a monastery where delicious micro-brew beer, including an IPA is being served.  The city has yet to open a restaurant with an array of drafts and great Czech food; it’s great Czech food and Urquell or great beer and OK food.

So it’s back to Italian tonight.

The future is bright, and I suspect that there won’t be any more candy sized stones in the future.

Just great Czech food and great beer on draft in the same place.

The Central European Diet

Basically, throwing caution to the wind, it’s a delicious series of plates that have a lot to do with pork and potatoes.

Yesterday it started with bacon and eggs and yoghurt; veered to veal schnitzel and fries preceded by chicken soup and liver dumplings served with cold and terrific Moravian white wine from a local varietal at the wonderful SAVOY; took a spin with three kinds of grilled sausages at the splendid LOKAL; and, wound up at CESTYR with Czech beef.  Followed and preceded and joined by lots of good, cold beer.

Today it was some of the same and then there was turkey schnitzel and goulash.

Oh, and sure, lots more beer.

Good thing the walking here is first rate.

Keep Walking

It’s been a few days now since arriving in Prague and mostly it’s been a marvelous opportunity to walk throughout the city.  It must be one of the world’s greatest walking cities, and no place other than Venice has a more beautiful urban, medieval landscape.  Maybe Amsterdam comes close.

The Old Town has become petrified: Stones, monuments, and one luxury shop after the next on the ground floors of Jugendstil apartment buildings.  The famous synagogues and the graveyard have become the museums that the Germans had intended during the war.

The New Town has an array of long walking streets and a square rising up a hill to a museum.  Side streets have hotels and ordinary shops.

Where I’m staying, Mala Strana, cobblestones and three or four story buildings give a small town feel of proximity to other passersby: You have to look people in the face.

In terms of food, since you asked, Cotto Crudo was first rate Italian with a Czech flair in terms of ingredients and presentation.  Then last night at Lokal: Why aren’t more places like this?  A wonderful beer hall that offered cask Pilsner and sausages and pork schnitzel and freshly grated horseradish.

It’s a city with great physicality, and yet, as Kafka noted: “Prague never lets you go… this dear little mother has sharp claws.”  Not meant as praise, but rather testimony to a sense of being suffocated or even terrorized by a past embodied in a city.

 

“OK, Time To Fly!”

That was the slogan of Czech Airlines a long time ago when I first visited Prague–by train, through No Man’s Land–and it was set in a cartoon  balloon as if the words were spoken by a cheery gal in a Robin’s egg blue skirt and jacket and little cap.

The city back then, and on two subsequent visits, had a self-contained and aimless charm: Very much the museum, preserved and punished by the Reds and the locals who fed at the trough or really believed in the universality of mankind.  I was especially taken in by the architecture, of course, and the emotional proximity to my hero at the time, Kafka, and to the affordability for a student. The shops were empty then and so were the restaurant larders; mostly it was cold beer, sausages, and eggs.

One night, arriving without a reservation, I was put in a homeless shelter as the police required all outsiders to have an address.

Returning here last night was pleasant: The city is cleaner and more vigorous and prosperous, and if people are depressed it’s most likely for personal rather than the political reasons long ago.  The food is plentiful, the beer situation is unchanged: $1.50 gets you a pint, and dinner can be had for as little as $10.

I’m enjoying the Mala Strana or lower town on this visit; staying at a lovely place, a residence hotel, where I have two floors of rooms and a kitchen beside the river: Alchymyst. Last night I enjoyed a tasting menu at the city’s best restaurant: La Degustation Bohême Bourgeoise.  No choices, blissfully, one less thing to think about, so it was the six course tasting menu rather than the longer version.  Delicious vegetables, lovely wines, wonderful and precise portions.

Tonight it’ll be Cotta Crudo. Meanwhile, cooking Hungarian white asparagus and eating cheeses sold at a store around the corner and facing the river where many products come from farms in the area: Real sauerkraut and sausages, too.

The chief drawback to the city are the nearly inescapable crowds and the Disney-fication of the streets, from Kafka coffee mugs to t-shirts that say, “Prague Drinking Team.”

 

Summer: Day One

And so we bid a fond farewell to asparagus, which we’ve been eating here almost nightly for the past eight weeks or so: Steamed, pan seared, oven roasted, poached in butter.  We’ll continue with the red cherries, white cherries, nectarines, and shelled peas, and head into tomatoes.

Cooking is easier than ever this time of year: Last night it was grilled swordfish served with tiny pasta in a tomato sauce and black pepper and grated parmigiano alongside pan seared asparagus (the last of the bunch), radishes, and peas.

The only drawback to summer is the heat: The dogs cave in, and I’m left indoors.

 

 

It Goes On and On and On

Very sad news reported yesterday of James Gandolfini’s death: No actor conveyed better the turmoil existing between the richness and vulnerability of inner life and the public persona.  I met him once, outside a theatre, where he had performed in, “God of Carnage,” in which I’d seen him a few weeks before.  I loved his glare.

The final scene of The Sopranos with the family in a diner and then blackness was a marvel of restraint and suggestion and dark humor.

One must wonder (or must one) how the literal has come to shove the implied in acting, performance, and so much else on display.  It’s never a good idea to mistake how one acts or what one says for the inner reality.

 

 

The Next Big Thing in Dining: Not Text Message Dining

I don’t know if you’re already aware of this, but if you are please spread the news: We can weather the storm of restaurants serving up guts and high fat, the in-your-face cuisine of kids raised by health conscious parents who stuffed them with carrots and celery at Little League and kept that sausage pizza away from them while growing up, who refused trips to fast food places because it was bad for the environment, employment, and puppies and kittens.  That will pass: As people tire of the pork and the hearts, tongues, hooves on the plate, and as their blood pressure goes up and their cholesterol goes up, things deeply flavorful that don’t involve the egregious use of animal fat will be of greater interest.

Here’s the thing: Not only is the gutsy, high fat food a terrific ancillary outcome of a business plan that relies upon cheap cuts of meat, it’s also very satisfying immediately.  It’s Text Message Cuisine.  You taste, you feel good, you forget about it.

In today’s NY Times there was a lovely, well-written review of one of my favorite restaurants on the planet: Kajitsu.  This is shojin ryori cuisine: All vegetarian, deeply seasonal to the point where some of the ingredients are available for only a few days, and so soothing and flavorful you eat with vigor.  It’s memorable food that requires great skill and restraint.

And that, of course, is what we’re going to see more of in the future: Pan-Asian vegetarian dishes inspired by centuries of Buddhism that forbid the killing of animals to eat.  The food has profound depth, looks beautiful on the plate, and is deeply satisfying.  Sort of a relationship rather than a text…