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6 WEEKEND TRAVEL & FOOD JOURNAL

Saturday-Sunday, August 23-24 2008

THE WEEKENDER

Enjoying lunch in Mandela JOHN YOUNG meanders through Mandela and

f inds somewhere not closed for lunch

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ITH Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday celebrations still echoing around the country, it occurs to me that many people have had lunch with Mandela; many more have had lunch for Mandela (for his charities). There has even been a book about lunch and Mandela (Hunger for Freedom: The Story of Food in the Life of Nelson Mandela by Anna Trapido), but there are probably very few people who know that it is possible to have lunch in Mandela. Mandela is a gorgeous little town on a hill surrounded by vineyards and olive orchards about 40km east of Rome. There are two restaurants in the town, but the restaurant on the main square, the grandly named but very modest Piazza Nazionale, is only open until lunch, so beers and aperitifs can safely be quaffed until about noon. Then the friendly waitress at

the square’s Caffe Cantalupo’s announces they are closing for lunch. This ranks as one of the most startling things I have ever heard in an eating establishment, alongside the restaurant manager in Antigua in the West Indies who greeted my arrival with a cheerful “Good night!” The welcome at the second La Laconda, is restaurant, charming and the dining experience there is as good as anything to be had in Italy. It should be very easy to find because Mandela is a small place, but in my experience it is best not to try to find it. When my Italian friend and I tried, we got thoroughly lost in the high-walled, narrow alleys that spill out onto a series of beautifully appointed town squares. When we gave up and just wandered around, we walked right into the place. (For the record, La Laconda is on La Largo Piazzetta off Vicolo Del Sambuco.) The street sign announcing

FAMOUS NAME: Above, the square in Mandela, no relation to Madiba; below, welcome to Mandela; bottom left, the castle Tora Giulia. Pictures: JOHN YOUNG Vicolo Del Sambuco is quite interesting in itself. Below the name are words to the effect that the street was formerly named after someone else, an official from the bad old days when Mussolini was being so strict about train arrivals. The thought occurred to me that if we adopted that method of naming streets in SA, we would have to have very large street signs. The cool and dark interior of La Laconda was a perfect contrast to the bright heat beating down on the stone and cobbles outside. Only one other table was occupied and we were seated directly under a striking painting of Mandela (the town, that is, not Nelson Rolihlahla). I am no art critic, and perhaps the holiday spirit was with me, but I thought the painting beautifully captured the red-roofed houses clinging to the top of the steep hill with the San Nicola church presiding over it all. SA’s former president, incidentally, has no connection with the town of Mandela, unless his ancestors were among the Sabine people who used to live in these parts. Any ideas I might have had that the town had been named for SA’s favourite son were quickly quashed by a flat-capped gent, who quietly mentioned that the place had been visited and mentioned in a journal by the Roman poet Horace, no less. The word Mandela is from the Sabines’ now-forgotten language and no one knows what it means. Using it in its Nelson context did help a lot, though, when trying to explain to the locals where I was from. The four men who occupied the other table were agricultural workers. Still in their overalls, they seemed determined to boost local production as copious amounts of olive oil soaked up baskets of bread and accompanied every dish they were served. They had obviously built up quite an appetite in the course of the morning’s work, because they must have had seven courses in all.

“The friendly waitress at the square’s Caffe Cantalupo’s announces they are closing for lunch. This ranks as one of the most startling things I have ever heard in an eating establishment”

Maurizio and I made a modest contribution to the area’s wine sales, eventually getting through two small carafes of fruity white wine. We also received our share of olive oil and joked that we were helping the fellows next to us make a living. Actually, the wine and olive farms are mostly owned by the descendants of an aristocrat who married a Bonaparte. The Marquis Del Gallo married the daughter of Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother. She turned the little town into a popular literary salon in her time and the imposing castle halfway up the hill to Mandela is the Tora Giulia. The history buff in me wanted to know more but I had already had Horace, Mussolini and Napoleon — and there was a lunch to be eaten. The first course of ricotta and spinach ravioli in a meat sauce was superbly subtle and tasty. The main course was a triumph, consisting of juicy turkey wrapped in bacon. This was accompanied by a few bright green peppers fried in olive oil. Served separately on white plates, they had just the right amount of bite to offset the richness of the meats.

There was no room for dessert but we squeezed in a Limoncello, a liqueur digestif that was light enough for lunch and bright enough for summer. Having walked all around Mandela and seen the wonderfully ornate interior of the San Nicola church before lunch, we decided to head a little further down the A24, the main road east out of Rome, and came upon Anticoli Corrado. This is a town with the priceless reputation of having once been home to Italy’s most beautiful women. There was a time when most of the beauties painted by travelling artists on the Spanish Steps in Rome were from Anticoli Corrado. I am sorry I did not see many of their descendants but the paintings in the art gallery gave a hint of what once was. And the town’s water fountain gave a quite startling reminder that Rome’s empire had once lorded it over a part of Africa: there were crocodiles and hippos all over it. So travelling South Africans can have two reminders of home on Italy’s A24 highway: chiselled wildlife in Anticoli Corrado and lunch in Mandela.

BOOK ± FOOD

Great book potential, pity about the publishers BO N APPETIT, MR PRES IDENT! Hilton Little Human & Rosseau

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LL our lives have in them times when we have miscalculated situations and done ourselves a disservice through poor or misguided presentation of our hard work. Sometimes it’s not entirely our fault. We have a talent we have to “hand over” to others who have another talent, one necessary to showcase ours. Then our only fault may be in the misjudgment of the people to whom we hand over our work. Here is an example of this sorry state of affairs. Hilton Little’s publishers, Human & Rousseau, should be shot — this book is a mass of missed opportunity and poor presentation, despite some great recipes and some interesting interior (and exterior) shots of the official Cape Town residence, Genadendal. Here’s a man who’s presented

wonderful and diverse dishes as official chef to two very different men — former president Nelson Mandela and soon-to-be former president Thabo Mbeki — and little or no advantage is taken of it. Little is a great chef; his publishers should have helped him produce a book people would want to read and use. It could have been fun. It’s not. Why is there a bad photograph of him on the front cover? For goodness’ sake, the man’s head is chopped off at the top and there is a massive expanse of white chef’s coat at the bottom. Why does the book look like a 1970s hardcover that has lost its dust jacket? Don’t these Human & Rosseau people peruse the shelves at their local bookshops to see what others are offering? Cookbooks have moved on. SA is nothing if not vibrant and while our latest offering on the presidential side is a bit staid, our first returned all the respect to the African print shirt that Mobutu Sese Seko had stripped from the

garment; surely some of this could have been conveyed? If life at Genadendal is really still locked in the previous century then perhaps it is time — dare I say it — for SA to allow our not-so-new rulers to redecorate the official residence? Surely somebody talented could gently relegate some of the valuable but achingly formal and European furniture to a museum and get on with giving the place some African vibe? Dash out to Greenmarket Square and snap up some beaded animals or masks, but let’s not stick with the voorkamer look. Just changing the curtains from beige and some truly ghastly examples of oversized floral patterns would be a start, and I know someone who does killer things with lampshades. While Mandela and Mbeki are chalk and cheese, they are both African, but this book really does look like some of the cookery books that lined my mother’s shelves 30 years ago. But let’s put decor and the

book’s boring and old-fashioned presentation aside and turn attention to the food. Little grew up in a family of eight children, was named after an uncle who was a chef and obviously has wonderful skills. Some of his recipes are fabulous. They rise from the mundane in chicken pies and umngqusho (samp and beans, apparently a big winner for both presidents) to the sublime in roasted springbok fillet with glazed onions and sweet potato on a rich red wine jus. There are some great South African recipes to try, whether or not they are familiar to you, from intloko yegussha kunye namanqina (sheep’s head and trotters) to koeksisters — and some from other African countries, such as a Kenyan recipe for steak and irio (a mixture of canned peas, whole kernel corn and mashed potato) and a Tunisian one for stuffed artichokes. Producing a book about the food presidents eat at home and when entertaining officially is a

wonderful opportunity to present each president’s personality and offer a glimpse into what the “big man” is like at home. There’s a half-hearted attempt at that here, but much more could have been made of it without overstepping the mark of respect for privacy. Also, there are hints at what goes into producing an official banquet — which takes three days to put together — but more could have been made of this too. How about some “kitchen staff at work” photographs and a bit more detail on the hard work and nervous energy that goes into this type of thing? It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it and Little appears to do it well, but much more time, effort and creative insight could (and should) have gone into detailing who he is, how he works and how he has dealt with the contrasting personalities of the two men he has worked for during the past 13 or so years. SUE BLAINE

Profile for Young and Enterprising

Enjoying lunch in Mandela  

JOHN YOUNG meanders through Mandela and f inds somewhere not closed for lunch.

Enjoying lunch in Mandela  

JOHN YOUNG meanders through Mandela and f inds somewhere not closed for lunch.

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