The Spanish Home Kitchen

The Spanish Home Kitchen

By Jose Pizarro

Hardie Grant Books – £27.00

Memories are essential ingredients in my cooking.

(Jose Pizarro)

The memory of happiness is perhaps also happiness.

(Agnes Varda)

Memories of life in old rural worlds live on in the cooking like ghosts hovering in saucepans.

(Claudia Roden)

There really is something about looking at the photo of a Deep-Fried Calamari Sandwich on page 88 of this splendid, if not altogether wonderful cookbook, that makes one wonder why such a simple, yet tasty delicacy cannot be found upon the shelves of Sainsbury’s or Morrisons. Hey, even the author Jose Pizarro is clearly excited: ‘’For me, this is best sandwich in the world, and (top tip) it’s the most incredible hangover food!’’

Might it be just such enthusiasm – that runs through the entirety of this book – which accounts for The Spanish Home Kitchen being such a joyous and mighty fine addition to the shelf of one’s kitchen library?

Albeit, this is a cookbook with a twist, which one comes to realise a mere few pages and photos in – candid photos, presumably of the author’s family; a mixture of small and seemingly random chosen photographs, that spill over the initial few pages. A quality, which for some reason or another, lends a certain delicacy, anchored in, yes, memory: ‘’In this book I want to convey how important memories are in my cooking, how we are recreating and creating each time we cook a dish and add the ingredient of a certain memory […]. The most precious memories stay with us throughout our lives – this brings immense happiness.’’

Moreover, all the colour photographs herein also convey a certain zest and inspiration, including, naturally, those of the menus themselves.

To take just one example, ‘Potatoes With Rice and Salted Cod’ on page 120 – where even the plates on which this dish is served, look terrific: ‘’At the end of summer, when the seasons are changing, my mum makes her impressive chilli pepper ristra (a bundle of vegetables hung up to dry) which will last for the whole year. I’ve always loved to see them drying on the terrace: to me, they represent proper rural Spain. We start using the chillies as early as the autumn. The picture of this dish was taken on a gorgeous autumnal afternoon on my brother and sister-in-law’s land, and it was a beautiful day. My mum cooked the dish, and it was the first time she’d used her peppers that year: it was spectacular. I’ve been cooking this dish next to her for many years, and in this recipe I’ve tried to capture her method exactly. I think it’s almost the same, but you know – I’m sure she adds something when I’m not looking to take it to that (M)other dimension. I don’t know what it is: I really don’t.’’

Beneath this personal explanation (which accompanies every menu herein) to the left in slightly smaller print, is the list of ingredients, whilst to the right, in slightly bigger print, are the cooking instructions. Again, this is the format throughout, that I found assists readers of The Spanish Home Kitchen navigate their way around – both simply and quickly.

Covering five prime areas: Vegetables, Fish & Seafood, Meat and Sweet, this hardback cookbook enables one to dabble in Spanish cuisine without feeling the need to overtly impress.; which all told, is something of a recipe in itself.

David Marx

Romania & Bulgaria

Romania & Bulgaria

Lonely Planet – £14.99

When I travel, I’m attracted to contrasts. In Romania, that means scenes of overloaded hay and horse-carts, sharing highway space with speeding Audis, or in cities, rows of regal ruins of former palaces standing side-by-side with gleaming new office buildings. There’s never a dull moment. Bucharest has an unearned poor reputation, but through the cracks in the old facades, I see green shoots of creativity. It’s a city of hidden gardens and quirky cafes. Further afield, the mountains and the rural areas are quiet, unexplored and still highly authentic. There’s a stillness and freshness in the air here that allows the mind freedom to roam.

(‘Why I love Romania’ by Mark Baker).

Somewhere between the panoramas of the Pirin Mountains and the cobbled nooks of old Plovdiv, Bulgaria grabbed my imagination – and it still hasn’t let go. Bulgaria is a mysterious, multilayered country, with ski fields as fantastic as its beaches. But what keeps me in thrall is Bulgaria’s mash-up of ancient and cutting-edge culture. What could be more alluring than heavy metal concerts in a Roman stadium, light shows over a medieval fortress, or crumbling mansions reborn as bars? Archaeological discoveries are made all the time, so there’s something new and compelling each time I visit: the perfect excuse to keep coming back.

(‘Why I love Bulgaria’ by Anita Isalska).

Divided into two distinct parts, Lonely Planet’s Romania & Bulgaria is as informative as it is inviting as it is oddly idiosyncratic in an overtly, yet mildly entertaining sort of way. Knowing very little about both nations, I do have to say these 493 pages (excluding Behind the Scenes and Index) offer the nigh perfect introduction.

For instance: ‘’Bulgaria’s pleasantly laid-back capital is often overlooked by visitors heading straight to the coast or the ski resorts, but they’re missing something special. Sofia is no grand metropolis, but it’s a largely modern, youthful city, with a scattering of onion-domed churches, Ottoman mosques and stubborn Red Army monuments that lend an eclectic, exotic feel. Recent excavation work carried out during construction of the city’s metro unveiled a treasure trove of Roman ruins from nearly 2000 years ago, when the city was called ‘Serdica.’ Away from the buildings and boulevards, vast parks and manicured gardens offer a welcome respite, and the ski slopes and hiking trails of mighty Mt Vitosha are just a short bus ride from the centre (‘Sofia’).

Now I for one, wasn’t even aware of the fact that there were ski slopes and beaches in Bulgaria!

Whilst with regards to Bucharest: ‘’Romania’s capital gets a bad rap, but in fact it’s dynamic, energetic and fun. It’s where still-unreconstructed communism meets unbridled capitalism; where the soporific forces of the EU meet the passions of the Balkans. Many travellers give the city just a night or two before heading off to Transylvania, but that’s clearly not enough. Allow at least a few days to take in the good museums, stroll the parks and hang out at trendy cafes. While much of the centre is modern and garish, you’ll find splendid 17th and 18th -century Orthodox churches and graceful art nouveau villas tucked away in quiet corners. Communism changed the face of the city forever, and nowhere is this more evident than at the gargantuan Palace of Parliament, the craziest and crassest tribute to dictatorial megalomania you’ll probably ever see (‘Bucharest’).

With less colour photographs than usual – but more maps it would seem – this mighty handy travel guide from Lonely Planet will open all the unknown doors (and then some), should you be heading off to either country in the foreseeable future.

I’m already more in the know.

David Marx

Becoming George Orwell

Becoming George Orwell –

Life and Letters, Legend and Legacy

By John Rodden

Princeton University Press – £18.99

Although both Camus and Orwell remained ‘’men of the Left’’ to the end of their days, they were always most critical of their own side. Thy had good reason to be so: socialists of the Left (in Stalin’s Union of Socialist Republics) as well as of the Right (in Hitler’s National Socialist Germany) had proven time and again to the ruthless exploiters of the common man once they rose to power.

(‘French Connection, Part 2’).

The writer George Orwell became within a few short years after his death, the behemoth ‘’Orwell,’’ a bogeyman figure recognizable on every continent of the globe and form-fitted, as it were, for ‘’thanatology studies’’ of all kinds, ranging from intellectual inheritance disputes and ideologically motivated accusations of parricide to psychological autopsies and ceaseless partisan reports of resurrection followed by descent into hell or ascension into heaven.

(‘Conclusion- Whither Orwell – and ‘’Orwell’’?’).

To this day, there is always something to glean out of almost every book written about George Orwell.

And Becoming George Orwell – Life and Letters, Legend and Legacy is no exception, of which the chapter ‘Orwell’s Twin Masterpieces’ focuses on the degree to which both Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four catapulted the writer (along with his work and more than substantial legacy) unto the stratosphere of literature:

‘’As Harold Rosenberg states: ‘’The tone of the post-war imagination was set by Orwell’s 1984: since the appearance of that work [the theme of] the ‘dehumanized collective’ haunts our thoughts.’’

Like Animal Farm, Nineteen Eighty-Four derived from Orwell’s personal experience. Always sensitive to linguistic subterfuge and manipulation of history, Orwell had seen how the events of the Spanish Civil War and Russia’s role in World War II had been distorted, or ‘’rectified,’’ for ideological purposes. In 1984, Orwell showed insight into the future superior to that of most of his contemporaries. Hitler had burned books, but henceforth totalitarian regimes would simply rewrite them, Orwell predicted – a process already under way in Russia’’ (‘Orwell’s Twin Masterpieces’).

There is absolutely no doubting Orwell’s twin masterpieces.

The elongated extent to which they are oft quoted, even if just sometimes subliminally referenced, has ensured their mainstay popularity to this day.

This being just one facet as to why John Rodden’s excellent book is so very readable within a sustained context of fact, nuance and originality.

There again, as Dennis Glover of The Sydney Morning Herald has since written: ‘’Rodden is arguably the world’s leading scholar on George Orwell… [He claims] that Orwell ‘is the most important writer since Shakespeare and the most influential writer who ever lived.’ As he admits, it’s a big claim, but he provides enough evidence to keep literature departments arguing for years. I think he’s right.’’

Divided into two parts (Life and Letters and then Legend and Legacy), these twelve chapters, along with a Prologue, Introduction and afore-quoted Conclusion, really are something of a literary force to be reckoned with, especially given the subject matter, especially given both scope and the context of the subject matter’s range of hard hitting, political prowess: ‘’Blair came to abhor the life of a sahib, with its racism, its sadism, and its smugness. Above all, Blair loathed the sahib ethos of white privilege. He never forgot the cruelties that he witnessed in the Far East. When his outbound ship stopped over in Ceylon, he watched a sergeant violently kick a coolie for not unloading cargo properly. For Blair, that image summed up the relations between the ruler and the ruled. The sight of rickshaws drawn by men loaded down like donkeys sickened him’’ (‘The Quixotic, Adamantly Unsainted Life He Lived’).

Given that Britain has in recent years, evolved unto the pedestal of (quite possibly) being the most racist nation on earth, one cannot help but morosely ponder the extent to which Orwell would be spinning in his grave. Simply beset and besieged in the knowledge that the beauty and the power of his work had finally hit the brick wall of his fellow countrymen’s ignorance.

Although I do have to say, were even a smidgen of the country’s populace to read and fully embrace this mighty hi-octane dissertation of a read, perhaps some of said ignorance would surely disappear beneath depraved contours of apology and acknowledgement.

A terrific book.

An absolute must for fans of George Orwell.

David Marx

Austria

Austria

Lonely Planet – £14.99

Austria looks small on the map, but most of it is vertical, so there’s always another mountain pass, alpine view or hamlet to discover. I’m never happier than when nearing a 2000m precipice on a trail in Tyrol or Salzburgerland, as the last light makes the summits blush. Alpenglühen, they call it. Then there are Vienna’s coffee houses and phenomenal art, romantic, vine-laced Wachau, the crystal-clear lakes of Salzkamnergut and Carinthia’s medieval villages, plus the castles, abbeys and cakes everywhere. What’s not to love?

(‘Welcome to Austria’)

Apart from Midge Ure having sung about Vienna in a confusingly long rain-coat all those years ago, there really is something altogether alluring and mesmerising about Vienna.

Apart from the fact that it’s a captivating capital city right in the middle of Europe, it encompasses chic, music and elegance, along with a certain trajectorial history: ‘’[…] the Hapsburg monarchy ruled a mighty empire that spanned continents and was once at the very pinnacle of politics and high culture. Reverberations of this are still felt to this day in the country’s grand palaces, monasteries and cathedrals. Austria’s history is a story of conflated empires and powerful monarchs, war and revolution, cultural explosion, Austro-fascism, occupation by foreign powers and stable democracy’’ (‘History’).

But history aside: ‘’Not only is this a city that holds on to its traditions, it also incorporates them in everything from high-fashion Dirndls (women’s traditional dress) through to sweets made from resurrected recipes, third-wave coffee served at inspired neo-retro cafes, and a thriving contemporary music scene. Vienna’s past is alive in its present, and, by extension, its future (’Vienna’).

Moreover, to really be able to delve unto the city within the parameters if suave and significant detail, Lonely Planet’s Austria dedicates all of sixty-three pages to Vienna, replete with maps, explanations of the many sights, and a number of wonderful colour photographs.

That said, said information and delightful photographs continues unabated with regards the other regions of the country, including (in order): Lower Austria and Burgenland, Upper Austria, Styria, The Salzkammergut, Salzburg & Salzburgerland, Carinthia and of course, Tyrol & Voralberg: ‘’There’s no place like Tyrol for the ‘wow, I’m in Austria feeling. Nowhere else in th country is the downhill skiing as exhilarating, the apres-ski as pumping, the wooden chalets as chocolate box, the food as hearty. Whether you’re schussing down the legendary slopes of Kitzbühel, cycling the Zillertal or hiking in the Alps with a big, blue sky overhead, the scenery here makes you glad to be alive. Welcome to a place where snowboarders brag under the beams of a medieval tavern about awesome descents; where Dirndls and Lederhosen have street cred; and where Volksmusik (folk music) features on club playlists’’ (‘Tyrol & Voralberg’).

With a pull-out map of Vienna, this travel guide covers all the usual terrain one as come to expect from Lonely Planet (Need to Know, First Time Austria, What’s New, Itineraries, Eat & Drink Like a Local, Regions at a Glance), which, given the prime subject matter, makes for mighty inviting reading.

David Marx

France

France

Lonely Planet – £17.99

Stylish, sexy, charming, arrogant, rude, bureaucratic, chauvinistic… France is a country whose people attract more stubborn myths and stereotypes than any other. Over the centuries dozens of tags, true or otherwise, have been pinned on the garlic-eating, beret-wearing, sacrebleu-swearing French. (The French, by the way, don’t wear berets or use old chestnuts like scarebleu anymore). So what precisely does it mean to be French?

(‘The French’)

Suckers for tradition, the French are slow to embrace new ideas and technologies: it took the country an age to embrace the internet, clinging on to its own at-the-time-advanced Minitel system. Yet the French innovate. They came up with microchipped credit cards long before anyone else. The lead pencil, refrigerator, tinned foods, calculator, spirit level and little black dress (merci, Chanel) are all French inventions.

(‘Tradition v Innovation’)

I’ve reviewed a number of Lonely Planet Travel Guides throughout the year and this particular one will be my last for 2022. What’s more, where and how better to conclude the year than with a review of Lonely Planet’s France?

As I write, France and Argentina are no doubt psyching themselves (and each other) up for the World Cup Final; which, not long after this review is published, the result will be known and telecast throughout the planet.

So France, the country that supposedly has it all.

Everything from the best cuisine to love and romance, high-octane culture to technological know how – not to mention an elongated history that is simply riddled with revolutionary zeal – the trendiest of fashionistas and of course, terrific football to boot. And then of course, there’s the beautiful capital city of Paris: ‘’Falling in love, romancing, call it what you will: a visit to the seductive French capital is a timeless experience and one that never tires. Be it sipping Champagne atop the iconic Eiffel Tower, lunching cheek by jowl in a neighbourhood bistro, or people-watching on a buzzing cafe pavement terrace, the art de vivre (art of living) in the City of Light is utterly irresistible’’ (‘Paris’ Art De Vivre’).

Be that as it may, it really doesn’t take a lot for French pride to filter through, as the writers of this mighty hefty travel guide, know all too well: ‘Most French people are proud to be French and are staunchly nationalistic, a result of the country’s republican stance that places nationality rather than religion, for example – atop the self-identity list. This has created an overwhelmingly self-confident nation, culturally and intellectually, that can appear as a French superiority complex.

[…].

Such natural confidence is the backbone to being French. Never was this demonstrated more passionately or fervently than during the terrorist attacks that rocked the French capital in November 2015 and Nice during Bastille Day celebrations in 2016. Far from cowering in a corner, the shock attacks prompted the French to get out there and defiantly brandish their culture and national pride as their greatest weapon against terrorism: the hashtag slogan #JeSuisEnTerrasse spread like wildfire on the internet, while Parisians took to cafe pavement terraces and public spaces in typical quiet and elegant defiance.

With 138 pages dedicated to Paris alone, France comes replete with (several) maps and assorted colour photographs; while said section traverses everything one would expect (from Arc de Triomphe to the Opera to the Eiffel Tower – all in exquisite detail). Also included are the city’s surrounds such as Disneyland Resort Paris, Versailles, Giverny, Fontainebleau, Vaux-le-Vicomte, Chantilly and Chartres.

As for the travel guide as a whole: it’s informative, enjoyable to read, easy to understand and includes all Lonely Planet’s usual features such as Need To Know, First Time France, What’s New, Accommodation, Month By Month, Family Travel, Activities and Regions at a Glance (along with a pull-out map of Paris).

Although in this particular instance, it is the History and France Today sections that really do make for the most interesting reading, especially as it’s told as it essentially needs to be told: ‘’Many French speak a foreign language fairly well, travel and are happy to use their language skills should the need arise. Of course, if monolingual English-speakers don’t try to speak French, there is no way proud French people will reveal they speak English!’’

Whether or not you speak the language, France, Paris in particular (it being the most visited city in the world) is most definitely and most unquestionably worth a visit.

And this is the only book you’ll need to take with you.

David Marx

Machiavelli’s Broken World

Machiavelli’s Broken World

By John M. Najemy

Oxford University Press – £30.00

Italy’s misfortunes at the hands of its very own elites were always foremost in his thinking. It will be useful to recall some of the famous passages in which the scars left by the deep anguish Machiavelli felt over Italy’s suffering are plainly visible.

Why was Italy so ‘’broken’’?

What a mighty coherent, explicit and what’s more, highly pertinent, if not profound book this is.

The leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer, would be well advised to take acute note. In fact, right now, the United Kingdom as a whole would be exceedingly well advised to fully comprehend and act upon much of what is written herein: ‘’From his earliest writings during the chancery years through all his major works, Machiavelli displayed an unsparing critique of Italy’s leaders and elites – a critique that ranged between searching analysis and emotional condemnation. He perceived Italy as victimized as much by its own princess, governments, Church, and military leaders as by foreign armies, and, consequently, as mired in a crisis from which there was no escape without a radical rethinking of the structures of politics and social organization (‘The Travails of Italy Viewed from the Chancery’).

Sound devastatingly familiar?

Machiavelli’s Broken World lays testament to not only Machiavelli himself – an extraordinary, unique and brave individual if ever there was one – but that of the importance and longevity of his thought and his writing(s).

As the author, John M. Najemy, makes clear very early on: ‘’Chancery custom did not permit Machiavelli to comment directly or extensively on the republic’s dominion or foreign policies, and certainly not on its domestic politics. He was a civil servant who held his posts at the pleasure of the committees and councils of Florentine government. As such […] Machiavelli was not to express judgements or critique the views of the public’s governors. But he found it difficult to adhere to these restrictions and occasionally expressed opinions in his dispatches that irritated members of the political leadership. On one occasion that we know of – no doubt there were others – he had to be warned to adhere to the discretion expected of chancery officials.’’

In today’s British government, one could only hope that such similar persuasion might rear its head amid the foul and complicit cowardliness as shown by the likes of say, that most loathsome of toads, Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Albeit the twain betwixt the political panache shown by Machiavelli and the utter contempt shown by Mogg, shall indeed, never meet.

There again, why would it?

The likes of Mogg after all, cares not a jot about anything or anyone; other than himself. Whereas – say what you will about – Machiavelli, if there’s perhaps one thing among many that he both espoused and embraced, it was a high regard for fairness and political humility.

As much is brought to bear throughout the 457 pages of Machiavelli’s Broken World, perhaps none more so than in the chapter ‘Momentous and Natural Enmities,’ where Najemy writes: ‘’Machiavelli was acutely aware that those most responsible for ‘’breaking’’ the Italian world came from, or were raised to power by, the elite classes: Italy’s princes and leaders of republics; mercenaries; and the Church’s hierarchy, both popes and cardinals. He saw the chief aim of all three groups – the broad, interconnected (and to a considerable extent intermarried) network of princely, ecclesiastical, and military families – as that of advancing the ambitions and defending the interests of their families and their class.’’

Sound devastatingly familiar?

To say this is a brilliant and most timely book, would be an understatement.

To say it needs to be understood and fully acted upon, would also be an understatement.

Ignore at your own peril.

David Marx

Spain

Spain

Lonely Planet – £17.99

The passions of Spain’s people are the fabric of daily life here: this is a country with music in its soul, a love of fine food, wonderfully wild landscapes and a unique talent for celebrating all that’s good in life.

Having spent time in Barcelona, Cadiz and more recently, Santander in the northern Cantabria region of Spain, I can one hundred percent vouch for the above most definitely being the case. There’s something understated about a lunch time stroll through the city’s streets, where people partake in a spot of lunch and a stroll along the market square or quayside. While once the sun sets, another array of sprinkling lights make themselves known, as a cluster of bars, cafes and restaurants open for the night.

Open, not just for tourists might I add, but entire families, replete with children and grandparents. This is something itself that lends the all-round atmosphere with a different type of buzz that is normally associated with (say) Great Britain.

There’s a certain prevalent friendliness, which isn’t drenched in alcohol (nor intimidation).

That said, said buzz is partially underlined by the country’s many great cities, such as Madrid, Barcelona, Seville, Granada and the aforementioned Santander, which, according to Lonely Planet’s Spain, really isn’t anything to write home about: ‘’The belle-epoque elegance of El Sardinero aside, modern Santander is not the most beautiful of cities. A huge fire raged through the centre back in 1941, leaving little that’s old or quaint. Still, Cantabria’s capital is an engaging place, making the most of a superb setting along the northern side of the handsome Bahia de Santander. It’s a lively spot to spend a night or two, with fine urban beaches, busy shopping streets, a heaving bar and restaurant scene, plenty of surf, and some intriguing cultural attractions’’ (‘Cantabria & Asturias’).

Just one of the intriguing cultural attractions being the truly terrific Centro Botin: ‘’Santander’s newest and splashiest landmark, this ambitious waterfront arts and cultural centre opened to great fanfare in 2017. The futuristic two-block building, designed by Italian Renzo Piano (architect of Paris’ Centre Pompidou and London’s Shard), is covered in 280,000 ceramic discs. It encompasses 2500 sq metres of gallery space for exhibitions of international contemporary art along with open-air stairways, a rooftop viewing platform and a bright cafe.’’

Having not long visited the Centro Botin, I can again clarify that Lonely Planet have got the above spot on – which is wholly encouraging. But don’t just take my word for it. If you’re thinking of taking a holiday, you really can’t go far wrong with Spain.

It’s not too far, it’s affordable and it really does have everything!

I found one of the more interesting and different aspects of this book to be the Itineraries section, especially ‘Off the Beaten Track,’ which includes a number of regions you may want to consider, including: Cantabria’s Eastern Valleys, Janovas, Camino To Atienza, Garrovilla De Alconetar and Eastern Alpujarras – all of which appear not only essentially unique in their very own way, but also contain a menagerie of (sought after) secrets.

Once again, this is another top notch, colourful and highly informative travel guide.

David Marx