Saturday, 6 September 2014

South Italian Feast @ The Park, Kolkata

"Do you know the land where the lemons are in flower?
In the green leaves golden oranges shine
a quiet wind blows from the blue sky
Quiet is the myrtle, serene the laurel
Do you know it well?
There, there
I would like with you, my love, to go!"  - JW Goethe

  A strange silence, almost heart rending, prevailed in the coach. Most of my fellow travelers had dozed off, exhausted from the taxing tour of the hoary ruins of Pompeii. They sat in their seats, heads bobbing robotically, in rhythm with the persistent joggling of the coach, as our driver, Mario, skillfully maneuvered the giant vehicle through the lush countryside of Campania, headed for Massa Lubrense, a charming town perched high up on the hills, just above Sorrento. Others sat mute, watching the beautiful Campanian landscape swish by. I was slipping in and out of sleep myself, my legs taut from all the walking, the blisters, deadly crimson.

The bus was winding up the steep cliffs of the Sorrentine peninsula, and on our right, stretching out into the horizon, were the turquoise waters of the Bay of Naples. The water shimmered and sparkled where the golden rays of the late afternoon sun flirted with the dancing waves. Far away, across the bay, the mighty Vesuvius, the only active Volcano in continental Europe, stood aloof, impersonal and beautiful. On its left, closer to the shores, was the Isle of Capri., only its outline visible from where we were. A lonely streamer, a spotless white, waded through the silken waters of the Bay of Naples, a trail of milky white surf at its tail. The rest of the journey up to Massa Lubrense meant similar views of the bay and as we climbed higher up views of the charming towns and cities of Campania flung across the hills, a canopy of red clay roofs. Although this was not exactly the fabled Amalfi coast yet, it was no less beautiful.

Yes, Southern Italy is beautiful. And so is its cuisine. I remember a particular Dinner at a chic restaurant in one of the lanes near Saint Antonio’s square in Sorrento, where we sat under the canopies on the terrace overlooking the Bay of Naples. The meal comprised a delectable platter of antipasti - bruschetta, an assortment of cold cuts and grilled vegetables and deep fried cheesy bites followed by fresh salad. Next came pizza and considering the fact that Naples was where pizza was born, the Neapolitan pizza was lip-smacking good, and one of the best I have had in Italy. Hand made pasta tossed in tomato sauce and another one in a cheese and cream sauce came next. For dolce there was a delicious lemon cake, soft and dripping juice, the kind that melted in your mouth. Of course the dinner would have been incomplete without a few shots of the Limoncello. The food was fresh, light and the flavours simple and distinct. My memories of South Italian flavours was refreshed recently by a lunch at The Bridge, The Park, Kolkata. The meal comprised authentic South Italian flavours brought all the way from the Calabria region of  Southern Italy, (South Italy comprises six regions Abruzzo, Apulia, Campania, Calabria, Basilicata and Molise) by chefs Surojit of The Bridge and Vikas Kumar of Flurys, who spent a few weeks in the region mulling over the nuances of Calabrian cuisine. 

Historically, the south of Italy has been economically backward. The economic divide between North and South Italy reflects upon the cuisine of the regions. South Italy has a high unemployment rate and some regions are still plagued by organised crime, it remains underdeveloped and poor. Hence, the regions cuisine is extremely simple, bordering on minimalist and banks heavily on local produce. However, that doesn't imply a compromise on taste.  The spread on offer at The Bridge's food festival Buon Cibo da Sud Italia underscores this refreshing simplicity of South Italian cuisine.

It had started out as a bright sunny day, but from where I sat I could see tufts of grey clouds claim the sky, gradually. The Bellini, a sweet, sparkling wine, was well a little too sweet for my taste. I mulled over the idea of fishing out the cherry swimming in the wine, and popping it in my mouth, then decided against it. Instead I continued chitchatting with friends at the table. My mind of course was wandering, I was restless. And then the food arrived.

I was a little surprised to see a Piadina, a thin Italia flat bread typical to the Romagna region of Northern Italy on the menu, our first dish of the day. I remembered enjoying a delightful Piadina stuffed with cheese, rocket leaves and ham, for lunch, at a tiny cafe in Ravenna. Nonetheless, the slice of piadina stuffed with Philadelphia cheese and Roma tomatoes looked scrumptious. But I quite liked the slightly crunchy piadina with its melt-in-the mouth insides, the cheese dripping from the sides and the tart roma tomato, the pool of olive oil to dip the piadina into, I was not complaining.

I am not a huge fan of European soups, so the zuppa alla cannavesse, a  tangy and light vegetable broth, was not of much consequence to me. I would have, perhaps, better enjoyed the zuppa di pesce or the seafood soup better, but I was not ready to take a chance, what if the allergies struck?

An assortment of bread rolls, Apple raisin cinnamon rolls and Honey-glazed Lemon Chicken Rolls, was brought to the table at around the same time. The rolls were served with bowls of a delightful pesto I couldn't have enough of, a deliciously tangy red pepper coulis, and four different kinds of olive oil, in test tubes. The serving platter, fitted with the test tubes, glass bowls et al, reminded me of a lab apparatus really!. I turned my attention towards the rolls. The Honey-glazed lemon chicken rolls could do with more chicken, P agreed too, but we dunked in the delightful pesto and was quite happy with what we chomped on. On P's recommendation I dipped my sweet apple raisin cinnamon rolls into the tangy peppery coulis. She has often goaded me to try these apparently weird combinations (I have a penchant for it myself) and they always hit the right spot. The sweet cinnamon-y rolls, the bursts of sweet tang from the raisins, the peppery sapidity of the coulis, together unfurled a flavour fest!

Next came a moist, subtly flavoured chunk of boneless chicken with a herb crust,  fried to a beautiful golden brown, served with a side of a simple, unadorned, lettuce and rocket salad and drizzle of pesto - a classic example of the minimalist bent of South Italian cuisine.

However, the dish I had been looking forward to ever since I glanced through the menu for the day was the Fornarina, egg yolk stuffed ravioli served in subtle, basil infused butter. The dish had a rather curious name though, I realised later. While I was looking up Fornarina later, to learn a little more about the dish, I realised La Fornarina is one of Renaissance master Raphael's famous portraits, and not a type of ravioli. I wonder what the story behind the dish's curious nomenclature is. As for the dish itself. it was definitely one of the highlights of the meal. I especially took delight in the way the egg yolk gushes out and blends into the sauce the moment you cut into soft ravioli.

The other highlight of the meal was the pa fried chicken risotto served with a piece of tempura chicken. I was a little disappointed with the tempura, but the creamy, slightly tangy and abundantly flavourful risotto, chockful with shredded chicken, made up for what was missing in the tempura. This was one dish I could have a second helping of. Diagonally across the table, a fellow diner was chomping on home-made pici pasta in a chunky tomato sauce. And my eyes wouldn't behave.

For the final course before dessert I had a choice between a roasted vegetable lasagna (I don't do vegetables!), Pesce alla Livornese with Salsima, a fish preparation from the Catanzaro region, (sounds promising, I thought) and Bollito Carne de Maiale, a pork ra....yes that one please. So there it was a chunk of fatty sparerib, in fact there was more fat than meat, no I am not complaining, in a herb infused jus. It was there in front of me one moment, it was gone the next.

Dessert was a traditional Italian pie made with ricotta and barley pearls. Slightly cinnamon-y and pretty rich, the slice of pie was served on a puddle of light, runny custard and topped with fresh fruits. The Pastiera Napolitana, was a good note to finish the meal on, but it didn't make to my list of desserts I would return for.

The Food festival began on September 5 and shall be on till September 29, 2014. An a la carte meal for two would come for Rs 3000 approximately. 

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