Author: philipgjones

Cooking with Nathan : Apricots

Well this one is super-easy…

Apricots are up there with the Best of Fruit. Or, at least, they should be. Too often, they flatter to deceive and they’re just a little bit crunchy or just a little bit tasteless and, ultimately, just a little bit disappointing.

Have no fear, because this recipe is guaranteed to make the most of even the saddest of apricots, it will get loads of fruit into you, and it only takes about 15 minutes.

Ingredients (for 2)

About 10 apricots

Some natural yoghurt

Some honey (doesn’t have to be the best. Just some honey.)

4 or 5 biscuits (cinnamon would be ideal, speculoos/spekulatius style. But if all you have is the humble Hob Nob, then by all means give them a go. Rich Tea are probably a bit too austere).

Method

This one is really quick. You’re not going to have time to listen to the Best of the Ramones, let alone Wagner, and, by the time it comes to cook this, the Spritz hour has passed. So maybe just have a small prosecco to hand.

1. Preheat oven to 200 degrees.

2. Whilst the oven is warming up, wash, halve and stone the apricots. Drizzle honey into the centre of each.

3. Put the apricots in the oven. They’re going to be in there for about 15 minutes.

4. In the meantime, take the biscuits and crush them. Don’t go mad…you don’t want them to be just a powder. Leave a few nice crunchy bits.

5. At this point you may drink the Prosecco.

6. By the time you’ve finished it, the apricots will probably be done. Tip them into a bowl and mash them to a puree with a fork.

7. Now this is the really cheffy bit! Take a Martini glass and build layers of apricot, yoghurt and biscuit; and then repeat. If you have over-enthusiastically crushed the biscuits, save the most powdery bits to sprinkle on top. You could try a mint or basil leaf on the top if you like, but I think we’re kind of getting into fusion cooking there. You don’t, strictly speaking, even have to have a Martini glass but, frankly, I think it’s worth investing in a set just to make this. And then you could have Martinis as well!

It should all look rather lovely and be intensely apricot-ey. And, given the amount of fruit, it’s possibly quite good for you as well! It’s a nice, easy dish that you can prep in advance for a dinner party or just throw together at the last minute. There is no better way of dealing with disappointing apricots!

Happy eating everyone!

Cooking with Nathan : Tuna with Gnocchi

Or, if you prefer, Gnocchi with Tuna.

I used to buy all my fresh fish at the Rialto Market but, since moving to Dorsoduro, I’ve changed to the fishmonger at Palanca on Giudecca. There are times that I miss the huge variety of choice at Rialto, but Palanca is a lot easier to get to and the guys there are a Great Bunch of Lads as well.

Inevitably, though, I always come back with more fish than I actually need. I once came back with ten red mullet instead of four, as they were about to close and said they’d do me a good deal if I took them all off their hands. Well, it would have been wasting money not to…

Similarly, I recently came back with a humungous piece of tuna that was way, way too much for a meal for two. Now fresh tuna is one of those things that – along with sardines – I think I could kind of just always eat. Nevertheless, it cost a bit and so I thought I should really try and get two meals out of it. So I trimmed away the leanest part of the steak, and griddled it as usual. The rest I put in the freezer for some occasion in the future.

Well, a couple of days ago Caroline arrived back from a day on the beach when I’d been hard at work upon the next book. Neither of us felt like going out, or pizza, and neither did I feel like Big Complicated Cooking. Fortunately, however, we had a packet of fresh gnocchi, the tuna (which I’d thought to take out earlier), and a few staples.

This, then, is a straightforward giovedì gnocchi dish which you can probably knock off in about thirty minutes.

Ingredients (serves two modestly hungry people)

250g fresh gnocchi (I’ve made my own in the past but, really, life is too short)

200g fresh tuna (or more, or less. This is not an exact science)

12 – 18 cherry tomatoes, halved (I started with 12 and decided that wasn’t enough halfway through)

2 tbsp capers, rinsed

12 black olives, stoned/sliced

Method

Oh, this one is easy.

  1. Put a healthy measure of olive oil in a deep pan, and fry the tomatoes for as long as you want. I like them nice and blackened and roasty-tasting. All of this adds plenty of extra flavour and helps to generate the sauce.
  2. Put a pasta pan of salted water on to boil.
  3. When you’re happy with the tomatoes, throw the gnocchi into the pasta pan. They’ll be done when they float to the surface (2-3 minutes)
  4. Add the tuna, olives and capers to the tomatoes and turn up the heat. Keep everything moving around in that nice, tomato-ey sauce.
  5. Drain the gnocchi, and add to the pan. Toss them around for a bit, just to make sure everything’s nicely coated in the sauce, and then dish up (I was going to say ‘plate up’ but, frankly, this isn’t a ‘plating up’ kind of dish). Some torn up basil leaves would have been good as well, but I’d forgotten we had any!
  6. This is, in all modesty, frankly delicious. A chilled, budget red wine is an ideal accompaniment.

    I think this might work equally well with swordfish. Indeed, I’m going to put it to the test tomorrow. You see, the last time I went to the fishmongers they had three nice chunky steaks remaining. I told them I only wanted two. They gave me a sad look and said surely I wasn’t going to leave one piece abbandonato…?

    And so, of course, there is a spare swordfish steak in the freezer….

    Happy eating everyone!

Listening with Nathan : The Venetian Legacy

So we made the Top 10!

I don’t think anyone expected this but – yes – “The Venetian Legacy” had its moment in the sun of the Times Top 10 Paperback Fiction. And thank you all so, so much for that.

So, by way of thanks, here’s the Spotify playlist that serves as the soundtrack to “The Venetian Legacy”. Some of these were songs I had in mind whilst writing. And some were ones that came to mind later. You can decide which are which…

We begin, then, with Mozart’s overture to The Marriage of Figaro. It’s fun, it’s happy, it’s got a belter of a tune and it’s about a wedding! Of course we were going to begin with this one.

Track 2 is √® Festa! by the great Italian prog band Premiata Forneria Marconi. We’ve moved on from the wedding itself to party time, and I can imagine Dario saying ‘hey, let’s play this one’. And Federica rolling her eyes…

Now we have a couple of gentle, summery tracks. The first is by Le Orme, Senti, L’estate che torna . Five years later, they’d be writing concept albums about binary planets, but they weren’t quite there in 1968. This is a very pretty little tune, and the accompanying video – bless them – is hilarious.

The laid-back mood continues with Hawkwind (no, seriously) – here in a mellow, almost jazzy mood – with the appropriately-titled City of Lagoons.

We then move on to what I think of as two character-driven pieces. The first – for “The Old Wolf” – is the partisan anthem Bella Ciao. This is my favourite version, and it’s by Italian folk-rockers Modena City Ramblers. The following number – and this one’s for Federica – is Dotti, Medici e Sapienti by the great Edoardo Bennato. If you’re wondering what this one’s doing here…it’s from a concept album about Pinocchio.

Back to more summery sounds, and Joe Satriani’s instrumental A Day at the Beach, followed by Pink Floyd at their gentlest and prettiest, with A Pillow of Winds. “Sleepy time, and I lie, with my love by my side, and she’s breathing low.” The music is by David Gilmour, and the lyrics – perhaps surprisingly – by Roger Waters…

Things start to get a bit more serious, and we have a funeral scene accompanied by Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus. And then things start to get properly grim, kicking off with Blue Oyster Cult’s acerbic This Ain’t the Summer of Love.

Then we’re joined by our old friend Stelvio Cipriani, and the suite from the tough 70s thriller La polizia ha le mani legate, and the Alabama 3’s Woke up this morning, the theme tune to “The Sopranos”.

Now when I was younger, and grumpier, the soundtrack – and even the book – might have ended there. But I’m in my fifties now, and – SPOILERS – I appreciate the value of a good happy ending. We don’t get many of those in real life, and so I think they’re ever more important in fiction. Jovanotti’s Baciami ancora is the sound of being on holiday, of wondering whether to have one or two Negronis before dinner, and, ultimately, of wanting nothing more than to be with the one you love under the stars on a warm summer’s night. Sentimental, perhaps, but why not? It’s a honeymoon novel after all, and it deserves a lovely song like this to finish on.

With my thanks to you all, once again, and wishing you, wherever you are, happy walks in the sun in the not-too-distant future.

Baci, and Buon Ascolto!

Philip

Venice in film : Anonimo Veneziano

I know it’s fondly remembered but – whisper it – Anonimo Veneziano really isn’t a very good film.

The plot, if you don’t know it, is simple enough. Enrico (Tony Musante) invites his ex-wife Valeria (Florinda Bolkan) to visit him in Venice. They walk around, have lunch, he tells her he’s dying of a brain tumour. They walk around some more, go back to his apartment on Giudecca, have sex, walk around a bit more. And then, finally, Enrico conducts Alessandro Marcello’s concerto for oboe and strings in the church of San Vidal. Valeria, possibly realising she still loves him, leaves for her train.

Musante had just finished The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and, indeed, had previously worked with Bolkan on Metti, una sera a cena. Bolkan herself had worked with Visconti, and would go on to work with directors as wildly diverse as Vittorio de Sica and Lucio Fulci. The actors are not the problem here : the trouble is that the characters they inhabit are not particularly likeable and endless scenes of them fighting and then reconciling in the damp Venetian streets become wearing.

Of course, it looks good. But it’s not difficult to use Venice in the winter as a metaphor for death and decay. Nicolas Roeg, in Don’t Look Now, used it as part of a profound meditation on loss. Here it just seems like window dressing. Very pretty window dressing, of course, but that’s not enough.

The real star here – and perhaps the reason it’s so fondly remembered – is Stelvio Cipriani’s score and, in particular, the main theme. It’s a lovely thing, and manages to carry more emotional weight than the film it accompanies.

Do you need to see it? Well, it’s just over 90 minutes, you see a lot of Venice (albeit in a fairly random order) and there’s Cipriani’s music. I’d say it’s worth a watch. Just don’t expect too much.

Cooking with Nathan : Scallops

It’s Saturday night, and I’ve got ten scallops from the fishmonger on Giudecca waiting to be cooked. But what am I going to do with them?

Now, the classic Scallops with Black Pudding is always a winner, but – unsurprisingly – I don’t have any of the latter and I find recipes that begin with ‘First make your black pudding’ a little depressing. However, I know that there’s half a pumpkin in the fridge that needs using up, so what could be better than scallops with a pumpkin puree? Then Caroline reminds me that she used the last of it up making soup for lunch…

Okay then. There must be something in the fridge that I can use to put a scallop on. Scallops with sprouts seem like a recipe for which the world is not yet ready but, fortunately, we have a small celeriac.

So here we are : scallops with bacon on a celeriac puree. It’s dead easy, doesn’t take a lot of time and it even looks a little bit cheffy!

Ingredients (for two)

Ten scallops
Small celeriac
100g bacon (or equivalent)
Butter
Cream
Parsley

Method

  1. Peel and dice the celeriac and put it on to steam until tender (20-25 minutes).
  2. In the meantime, dice the bacon (or equivalent) into small cubes and fry it until crisp. I used guanciale, as that’s what I had, but pancetta would have worked equally well. You need something suitably fatty though, as the fat is going to come in useful.
  3. Scallops aren’t that difficult to shuck and clean but they can take a bit of time if you’re not an expert (I’m not) so why risk a messy accident? The fishmongers did all that for me without me even asking and they did a better job than I’m likely to do. So just clean them gently (don’t run them under a tap as scallops soak up water) and pat them dry with kitchen towel. The drier they are, the more chance of them caramelising nicely in the pan.
  4. Once the bacon has fried to your satisfaction, take it out of the pan with a slotted spoon and keep it warm.
  5. Mash the celeriac. Now you could just use a fork or a potato masher, but celeriac has a fibrous quality that can make it a little difficult, so I took a hand blender to it. Then add butter and/or cream until the consistency seems right. Season, and let it join the bacon somewhere warm.
  6. Now you need to work quite quickly. Reheat the bacon fat until it’s sizzling, and add your scallops to the pan. For a good sized scallop, one minute a side is just about perfect. Much more than that and they’ll start to toughen up.
  7. Make five little mounds of celeriac puree on each plate. Put a scallop on top of each, and then scatter the bacon and some chopped parsley over the top.
  8. Serve with a glass of prosecco. Bask in the admiration of your loved one. Try and ignore the plaintive looks from your cat.

    I cooked this whilst listening to HP Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth” on audiobook. Howard, of course, was notoriously phobic about any kind of seafood, but I like to think even he might have enjoyed this…

    Buon Appetito



Venice in Film : Il Mostro di Venezia

1965 was a pretty good year in Italian cinema. Leone made For a Few Dollars More. Fellini made Juliet of the Spirits. And, erm, Dino Tavella made the cheapo black and white horror Il Mostro di Venezia, otherwise known as The Embalmer.

As you might expect from the title and the poster art, it would be wise not to expect anything too subtle. But if you want to see a skull-masked serial killer who dresses as a monk and preserves the bodies of his victims in a submerged monastery beneath the lagoon – well, you’ve come to the right place.

Sadly, however, it’s nowhere near as much fun as that might suggest. Yes, there are a number of nice location shots of Venice but the studio interiors are so obviously non-Venetian that the clash between the two is distracting. There’s also no getting away from the central problem of the film, namely that it shouldn’t be difficult to run away from a man in scuba-diving gear.

I don’t want to seem too harsh. This is a film made by an inexperienced cast and crew, evidently with very little money. And there are a few atmospheric shots of Venice by night which lift it a little. But I kept thinking that if they’d given Mario Bava the same money to make a film about an underground monastery in Venice he’d have made something fantastic and probably brought it in under budget as well.

None of the cast went on to much – indeed, for many of them, this is their only credit. As for poor Dino Tavella – well he directed just one other film, Una sporca guerra, and died a few years later. He was 49 years old.

So, do you need to see this? Well no, quite obviously not. The plot is ridiculous, the acting is nothing to write home about and the film feels a lot longer than its 83 minute running time. On the other hand, you do get to see a man in a wetsuit chasing a monk through St Mark’s Square and, for some, that might be enough. Caveat emptor!

Meet the New Year, same as the Old Year…

So that was 2020, and, safe to say, it wasn’t the year that anyone expected.

It was a year in which I spent an inordinate amount of time indoors. A year of cancelled events and festivals. And of “Venetian Gothic” coming out right in the middle of lockdown.

But, let’s be honest, I was one of the lucky ones. “Gothic” came out to very gratifying reviews (and even made the Literary Review’s list of crime novels of the year). I managed to do a few events online. And, if we had to be indoors all the time, I kept myself busy with writing and some Big Projects : I listened to every Hawkwind studio album in order, followed by every Bach cantata. Then later in the year, I listened to audio recordings of the complete HP Lovecraft, shortly followed by MR James. I don’t know why, but I had this urge – very Nathan-like perhaps – to obsessively complete things. Or perhaps it really was just having the extra time at home.

It was a good year, professionally, in spite of everything. “Das Venezianische Spiel” came out in Germany, and will be followed by “Venezianische Vergeltung” in June of this year, translated again by the wonderful Birgit Salzmann. “The Venetian Masquerade” came out in Bulgaria, retitled (pretty well, I think) as “The Lost Monteverdi”. And perhaps most importantly, my lovely publisher is really committing to the series with further Nathan novels confirmed for 2022, 2023 and 2024. I very much hope there’ll be more beyond that as well.

“The Venetian Legacy” is out on April 1st (and please let the bookshops be – safely – open this time). I hope you enjoy it – and if you want to read an almost spoiler-free prequel, my short story “Deep and Crisp and Even” can be found here (free, no less!) on the Waterstones website:

https://www.waterstones.com/blog/an-exclusive-short-story-by-philip-gwynne-jones

Thanks to all of you who’ve taken the time to write – it’s much appreciated : as I say every year – this wouldn’t be happening without you.

Finally, here’s a plea : there are many, many independent bookshops in the UK in need of support right now. And many debut authors are facing the truly wretched combination of closed shops and cancelled orders. That, I know, must be heartbreaking. Please try and support your local bookshop. And if you know a debut writer, try and give them a shout-out in whichever way you can.

2020, then, wasn’t the year I expected. It was also a lot better than it could have been. I am, I know, one of the lucky ones and I am grateful for that.

I hope 2021 is better for all of you, wherever you may be.

Venice in Film : Solamente Nero

This is another Venetian giallo, this time from 1978, which went under the (frankly rubbish) title of The Bloodstained Shadow in English-speaking countries. Spoiler : although there may be plenty of shadows in this film, none of them are bloodstained.

Nevertheless, this is actually a pretty stylish film and a fine example of the genre. The plot is a simple one : Stefano, a young college student, returns to Murano to visit his brother, Paolo, a local priest. Over lunch (a very Venetian meal of quails and polenta), Don Paolo tells him all about some of the more dubious members of his congregation. Members who soon start to die, in increasingly unpleasant ways. Stefano and Don Paolo work to uncover the mystery before they, too, become victims.

There are, as I said, plenty of shadows in this film, and one of them is the mighty shadow of Profondo Rosso, released to enormous commercial success three years earlier. Like Argento’s film, Solamente Nero uses a medium as a primary character, casts one of the grande signore of Italian cinema in something of a comeback role (Laura Nucci instead of Argento’s Clara Calamai), and plays very much with the concept of false memory.

Amongst the actors, Lino Capolicchio was apparently almost cast in Profondo Rosso but had to drop out following a car crash. Stefania Casini had recently appeared in Suspiria. Craig Hill, who had a long career in spaghetti westerns, makes a surprisingly convincing priest. The score, although composed by the great Stelvio Cipriani, also features contributions by Argento’s favourite collaborators Goblin (uncredited, due to a contractual dispute with their record company).

It isn’t the equal of Profondo Rosso, but that’s a very high bar. It’s very stylishly directed by Antonio Bido who makes good use of the Venetian locations, using a muted palette of pale greens, blues and greys. There are a number of effective jump scares and the murders are actually quite brilliantly filmed. Bido didn’t go on to have much of a career and, on this evidence, that’s a great shame.

If you feel inclined to seek it out, do try and get the Italian version – dubbing is always a problem with films of this genre as there would typically be an American/British actor involved in the hope of selling them abroad. This one isn’t particularly well dubbed and I found the accents distracting.

Should you see it? Well, yes, I think so, but with my usual caveat – it’s not a particularly violent film but the murders are pretty nasty so if that’s not your thing you may prefer to stay away. Otherwise, if giallo’s your game, I can highly recommend this.

And long-term giallo fans will be pleased to note the obligatory J&B whisky bottle in one scene…!

Cooking with Nathan : The Mushroom Diaries

It’s Monday morning, and Caroline arrives back from the market at Santa Marta with some mixed mushrooms – shiitake, pioppini, cornucopia, oyster – yes, it’s quite a selection!

There are also two kilos of them.

I’m not sure how we’re going to get through two kilos of mushrooms in a week. In fact we end up giving half a kilo away, but I still have no idea how we’re going to eat them all.

Nevertheless, we managed it. Here, then, are the details of our Week of Mushrooms, or, if you prefer, The Mushroom Diaries.

First, a few notes : I’ve experimented in the past with the best ways to store mushrooms and found that porcini, for example, will rarely last more than a day at room temperature. This time I stored them in the fridge, in paper bags, and they were still good six days later. Having said that, they didn’t leave mushroom for anything else…

<cough>…are you still here? I do apologise, I promise I won’t do anything like that again. Where was I?

Oh yes. Point two. Mushrooms need to be trimmed and cleaned, of course, but try and take it easy if washing them. Don’t just rinse them under the tap (I used to do this) because they’ll soak up water like a sponge.

As for cooking – well, for me, frying in butter is the only way. But whatever’s best for you…

So here we go (unless specified otherwise, ‘mushrooms’ equate to ‘mixed mushrooms’) :-

Monday : Mushroom and red wine risotto – and I really do recommend that you use red wine with this, it adds a greater depth of flavour. Intensely rich with that earthy flavour from the mushrooms. Very pleased with this one.

Tuesday : Mushroom omelette for lunch. Reminds me how nice an omelette can be. Then some friends take us out for dinner, where no mushrooms are involved.

Wednesday : Mushrooms with chicken livers on polenta. What really lifts this one is a soffritto of ginger and garlic. No, really, it does work. Here’s the recipe.

http://it.geniuscook.com/fegatini-di-pollo-trifolati-con-funghi-e-zenzero/

Thursday : For lunch I fry up the enormous oyster mushrooms and use them as a filling in a medium-sized ciabatta roll with some melted pecorino cheese (doesn’t have to be pecorino, it was just what I had in the fridge). A Prince Among Sandwiches. Some chips on the side would have made it perfect. We are taken out to dinner again (let me point out this does not happen as often as you might think) where, just for the hell of it, I have a prawn and mushroom pasticcio that was so good I think I should try making it at home.

Friday : We’re starting to see an end to it now, but there’s still enough left, together with a couple of sausages in the freezer, to make a sausage and mushroom pasta dish.

Saturday : I attempt to recreate the the prawn and mushroom pasticcio. I was pretty sure that no bechamel had been involved which simplifies things. I take the remaining shiitake mushrooms (perhaps 100g) and fry them up along with 200g of prawns (shelled weight). Then I build layers of lasagne sheets, a torn up mozzarella, and the prawn/mushroom mix. It goes in the oven for about thirty minutes at 200C (I cover it for the first twenty minutes to prevent to the top layer overcooking). Caroline says it’s her new favourite thing.

It’s Sunday night now, and there are no more mushrooms. It has to be said it was a pretty good week. I wonder what the next one has in store?

Venice in Film : The Venetian Affair

A friend of mine recently suggested “The Venetian Affair” as a future book title. I pointed out that Andrea de Robilant had got there before me with “A Venetian Affair” and I didn’t think simply changing the indefinite article to the definite would be sufficiently different. And then it turned out that there had also been a film of that name released in 1967.

I have to say that I’d never even heard of this before which – if you look at the talent involved – might seem strange. At any rate, it was a film I thought I needed to check out.

So, what’s it like? Well, there’s a pretty amazing cast of cult film actors but they’re all a bit underused. It’s always nice to see Elke Sommer but she doesn’t appear until halfway through and – spoiler alert for 50 year old film – doesn’t make it to the end credits. Boris Karloff is good value as a not-mad-for-once scientist, although I imagine his scenes must have been filmed in the US : the grand old man was in very fragile health at the time, and I doubt he’d have been up to location filming. Elsewhere, Karl Boehm from ‘Peeping Tom’ is suitably villainous, and there are cameos from Luciana ‘Thunderball’ Paluzzi, Ed ‘Lou Grant’ Asner and Roger ‘Harry Mudd’ Carmel. In the lead, we have Robert Vaughn, fresh from his huge success in The Man from UNCLE – and therein lies part of the problem with this film.

Given the title, Vaughn’s presence and, indeed, the poster art, audiences might have been given to expect an UNCLE style caper. Instead it aims for Ipcress File seriousness and ends up falling between two stools – the plot is too silly for a Cold War thriller, but neither is it very much fun. And Vaughn himself, obviously wanting to distance himself from Napoleon Solo, gives a low-key, downbeat performance that might suit the tone of the film but doesn’t really play to his strengths.

Do you need to see it? Well, it’s by no means essential viewing, but there are some compensations. The location filming is excellent, with some wonderful overhead shots of the marina at San Giorgio Maggiore, and the opening scene – where Boehm meets a contact in an otherwise completely empty Piazza San Marco – is so good it leads you to expect a better movie. There’s also a typically drop-dead cool score from Lalo Schifrin. But, at the end of the day, it’s all just a little bit dull. Worth watching, perhaps, but don’t expect too much.