24 April 2014

English wild garlic pesto

This week I've been applying Italian principles to life in England. Principally, foraging for food. The woods in the West Country are full of wild garlic (ramsons, stinking Jenny, devil's garlic, allium ursinum). We walked past masses of it on an Easter walk. So I picked some leaves (it's the leaves you use, not the bulbs) and had a go at a couple of recipes.

Bluebells and wild garlic in the woods
First I used a few chopped leaves in a leek, wild garlic and Cheddar frittata (a version of this Riverford recipe). That worked well - a nice flavour, fairly subtle.

Next I tried a very English version of pesto. Wild garlic leaves and walnuts whizzed in a food processor, with olive oil (the only imported ingredient) and Twineham Grange vegetarian hard cheese stirred in. The pesto tasted pretty fiery during the preparation process, but once mixed into pasta the flavour is milder and very good. So now my fridge and freezer contain stores of an Italian-style English pesto.
Spaghetti with wild garlic pesto

23 April 2014

Renting a flat in Venice

This month I rediscovered the convenience of renting a flat in Venice. For any traveller planning a visit of several nights, this is almost certainly your best option for feeling at home and getting to know the city. With a high turnover of ultra-short-term guests, Venetian hotels can be busy and impersonal.

With your own rental apartment you can live to your own rhythms and get to know the city more like a resident. Apart from the convenience, privacy and 'Venetian experience' the cost can also be an advantage. For a solo traveller, you will probably pay more per night for a flat than you would for a hotel room, and for a couple there may be little difference in cost. But for three or more travellers, you are likely to pay less per person. And you can save significant amounts of money on meals and extras. I reckon that for four nights or more, the initial outlay on equipping a basic holiday rental with essentials is well worth the savings you'll make. Last week, having checked the equipment in my apartment, I spent five euros on household basics (dish-cleaning sponges, toiletries) and twenty on food (bread, pasta, cheese, fresh fruit and vegetables, wine etc.). It's fun shopping at the Rialto markets, and if you're new to Venice you'll find a bit of interest in discovering the town's tardis-like groceries and supermarkets. Once you've got your basics, you can make picnics for excursions and enjoy simple lunches like this instead of overpriced sandwiches or time-consuming restaurant meals twice daily.
That's wine in the beaker

Venice has some good restaurants (as recommended in my guidebook), but few of them are cheap, and the decent places are quite widely spread across the city. You'll probably find it convenient (as I did) to eat in sometimes, and plan your outings to selected restaurants to fit in with your sightseeing plans and your energy levels. With the money you save you can enjoy long relaxing drinks at picturesque cafe tables, or buy Venetian specialities to take home.

You know that great holiday feeling, when you think "If only I could live here, every day would be like this!"? You'll almost certainly think like that during an independent stay. (That is actually what prompted my move to Venice a few years ago). If it's an illusion, it's a pleasant one.

You can find good holiday-rental apartments on Booking.com and similar accommodation websites. These websites have the advantage of genuine guest reviews, which are very helpful when choosing a flat. I've found good flats this way, and have also rented twice (the same apartment) through Houses in Venice - I stayed in a flat which was comfortable, though not luxurious, and had this really cool kitchen-in-a-cupboard (well, it appealed to me anyway).
Kitchen cupboard
When I was a long-term resident I rented for years through Immobil Veneta, who let out flats for medium and long-term stays. If you are planning to visit Venice for a month or more, your best bet is a local agency like this one. Ideally, visit for a short trip first, go round some agencies (dotted around the city) and arrange a longer-term rental in person. It does really help if you speak some Italian.

If you're visiting for a short break in a holiday flat, my tip is to take some basic supplies with you, for example: salt, cleaning sponges, soap.  I take tea bags, a small packet of UHT milk and snacks for the first evening. Check if the flat includes towels, kettle, hair-drier etc. Kettles aren't widely used in Italy, so a small travel kettle can be handy. Make a list of questions to ask on arrival if you aren't given clear instructions: rubbish disposal, who to contact if you get locked out, arrangements for departure. One drawback of a holiday flat is you're unlikely to be offered anywhere to store your luggage on departure: there are left-luggage facilities at the railway station and Piazzale Roma.

Everyday life in Venice
And of course, if you are visiting Venice for a longer stay, the perfect way to get to know the city is through the Italy Heaven Guide to Venice.