Florence

Memories from a trip last autumn. On beauty, sadism and steak

Florence is not a beautiful city, not by Italian standards at least. It doesn’t make you love sick or sweep you off your feet. It’s too brusque and businesslike, too solidly built for that.

It rained when I was there. The painted plaster-work of the buildings along the river Arno, all yellows and ochres, looked smudgy and dull in the half light. The cobblestones had an oily black sheen. But even when the sun shines, there’s something forbidding about the streets. They’re hemmed in by high walls, meters thick, that amplify the sound of voices, the whine of scooters and the rattle of bicycles. Many of them are studded with barred windows and iron rings that give the Tuscan capital a slightly sadistic feel. They’re the trappings of somewhere hard-edged and just a little twisted, of a city with a thing about power.  Read On…

Meeting AA Gill

He’s the UK’s most notorious restaurant critic and a venerated travel writer. He’s also one of my heroes. Or, at least, he was…

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People look at me strangely when I tell them I like AA Gill. My housemate brought me to account when she found a copy of Previous Convictions lying on the table and I instantly regretted bringing him up over a pint of mild with my uncle in a tired old pub in County Conwy. “AA Gill! No, he doesn’t have anything to say about the Welsh does he?” Actually he called them ‘loquacious, dissemblers, immoral liars, stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly, pugnacious little trolls’. Oh right, you were being sarcastic.

It’s not a rose tinted hero worship. I freely admit that he’s an obnoxious self-publicist. I know about the Press Complaints Commission investigations and the accusations of racism, misogyny and homophobia, but I can’t help myself. His prose is just too good.

I’m pretty sure it’s not just me. He’s reported to be the most highly paid columnist in the UK and the dust jackets of his books like to claim he’s one of the most widely read in Britain. But if you’re a fan, do yourself a favour: don’t meet him. I did, and part of me wishes I hadn’t.

It was at a talk at the Idler Academy in West London, a bookshop full of luvvy luvvy types with dishevelled hair and ill-fitting moleskin trousers. We drank Hendrick’s gin and tonics out of patterned teacups and then moved down the road to St Stephen’s Church to hear Gill in conversation with John Mitchinson, inventor of QI.

Gill offered various contradictory opinions about the nature and purpose of criticism, sidestepped a question about the moral implications of writing for Murdoch’s Sunday Times, and forgot things – an impressive number of things for someone who once claimed, in an article about Glastonbury, that he doesn’t make notes and that his memory has never let him down.

But as I joined the queue for the book signing, that wasn’t what was bothering me. It wasn’t his appearance (he’s as formidably well-dressed as everyone says he is) or the fact that he’s shorter and more vulnerable-looking than you’d expect. It’s not that he’s an ogre. Quite the opposite. When I asked him if he had any tips for young writers he looked at me with fatherly concern and he thanked me profusely when I recommended places for him to visit on a trip to Bogotá. It’s his manner and his voice that’s the problem. They just don’t fit.

On paper Gill is a voice of authority. He’s irreverent and dryly humorous, a master of the put down and the send up, of crude but ingenious innuendo and biting satire. He’s erudite and fiercely intelligent with his observations, yet he still sounds like a man of the people, as well versed in popular culture as he is in ancient history and contemporary art. He can be tender (read his pieces on fatherhood), but it’s rare for him to be excessively sentimental. More often than not he sounds worldly and at times a little jaded. His travel pieces read like the work of a man who’s seen it all and, every so often, like the internal monologue of a hatchet-wielding cynic.

But Gill in person is none of those things. He’s a chirpy, hyperactive caricature, full of “darling”s and theatrical bluster; a man fundamentally lacking in gravitas. He talks too much for someone whose job it is to watch and to listen and he does so in a reedy tenor that’s hammy and affectedly posh. It’s not the voice I had in my head as I read his withering attacks on the idiocy of golf or the trashy, eye-watering glitz and bariatric excess of Las Vegas. It’s a drastic mismatch.

None of this would matter if his writing still sounded the same, but it doesn’t. Now that I’ve met him there’s a new voice in my head, not the voice of a sharp tongued observer, a dealer in universal truths and shrewd insights, but that of a pantomime villain. It’s Gill’s real voice and it makes his prose sound kitsch and over the top. His judgements seem less weighty and the smutty innuendo reads less like a man dragging lofty, joyless subjects down into the mud and more like the work of a sniggering school boy. He’s still head and shoulders above most other journalists, but I think it might be time to find a new literary hero. To find one and to avoid meeting them at all costs.

– Thomas Rees

Postscript: Suffice to say I’ve changed my mind somewhat since writing this. Here’s my tribute to Gill, following his death in 2016.

La Venencia

Madrid has more bars per capita than any other city in Europe, but they aren’t all made equal. Find out what makes La Venencia, a historic drinking hole near Plaza Santa Ana, one of the very best.

La Venencia: The One Bar You Must Visit In Madrid

If you want to know what Madrid was like in the 1930s, there’s a bar on Calle Echegaray that you should visit. It isn’t somewhere you’re likely to stumble upon. It doesn’t have a prime location or a flash new website, and there’s nothing informing you that Hemingway once drank there, though he did. On the contrary, its owners shun publicity preferring to rely on the patronage of their regulars, word of mouth and the simple green and white sign that hangs above the lintel. But that’s all as it should be.

Step inside La Venencia and you’ll see that it’s more than just this marketing strategy that has remained unchanged over the years. The bar’s interior is much the same as it was in the days of the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) when republican soldiers and supporters of the anti-fascist cause met to exchange stories of battlefield heroism and to lament the advance of General Franco’s forces, passing snippets of information to sympathetic foreign journalists like ‘Don Ernesto’, as Hemingway came to be known.

A wooden bar runs the length of the room and at the far end, by an ancient till with a handle like a one armed bandit, is a stack of barrels stained the color of molasses. Motionless wooden fans hang from the ceiling and covering the walls are shelves of dust-smeared bottles and faded posters for sherry festivals that have long ceased to exist.

On the raised level at the back, reached by a short flight of steps and separated by a white silk screen, is an assortment of antique tables and chairs, a wooden luggage rail, a glass fronted cabinet filled with tattered books and a heavy mirror, curiously angled towards the floor. But, of all the antiques in La Venencia, the bar’s namesake – an elegant silver serving device used for extracting sherry from the barrel – is the most fitting. Don’t come here in search of a beer, because carefully sourced Spanish sherry (jerez) is the only thing that La Venencia serves.

On a faded sheet of paper near the barrels there’s a poem and it goes something like this: ‘Manzanilla, Fino, Oloroso, Amontillado, Palo cortado’. Five Spanish sherries all for €1.70/€2 a glass or €11/ €12 the bottle, ranging from crisp and refreshing (the Manzanilla) to something more rounded (the Fino), with nut brown Oloroso the darkest and richest of the five and Amontillado and Palo cortado somewhere in between. There’s nothing else to drink. Just sherry (jerez) and tap water, but with wines as good as these, from selected bodegas in Andalucia, that isn’t the slightest bit of a problem.

Then comes the tapas; crisp, emerald green olives in herb scented oil that arrive with your first drink; slices of pale manchego cheese; preserved meats and chorizo sausage marbled with ivory coloured fat; and leathery mojama – cured tuna the colour of red wine. Sufficiently saline to make you drink like a fish, all of it is delicious, not to mention cheap.

Manzanilla sherry and olives at La Venencia

You can watch the barmen write up your order in chalk on the surface of the bar, but don’t expect much in the way of conversation. Just as in many of the best places in Madrid, the staff at La Venencia are as brief and uncompromising as the menu, elderly Castilians who pride themselves on their surliness and work, as far as possible, in silence.

When they do say something it’s usually to cut you down to size. On this, my second visit, in the company of Gonzalo (a friend and La Venencia regular) we come to the aid of a group of American tourists looking for the sweetest sherry on the menu. “We don’t have sweet sherries,” comes the barman’s curt reply. Gonzalo smiles weakly and recommends the Oloroso. “Technically they wouldn’t consider any of them sweet,” he says.

The staff will speak up to enforce the rules of the house too, rules that have their origins in La Venencia’s Civil War days. There’s an outright ban on tipping, in line with the socialist principles of the Spanish republicans, and taking photographs is frowned upon because La Venencia’s clientele once had to be wary of fascist spies. Thankfully, the final rule, ‘no spitting on the floor’, now seems like common sense. Some things are best left in the Thirties.

If anything has changed over the years, aside from attitudes to hygiene, it’s the people who drink here. On a typical night, you’ll find elderly couples clutching slender glasses of Fino and groups of Spanish students gossiping over plates of salsichon. Socialites and flamboyant thespians prop up the bar and well-informed tourists snap furtive photos of the black cat, which stalks between the chair legs.

The quality of the air has improved a little too. “You used to be able to smoke in here,” says Gonzalo, motioning to the leathery, nicotine-stained walls. “It was like entering another world.” Though the fug of tobacco smoke and the republican soldiers may be gone, it still is.

– Thomas Rees

– Photos by Thomas Rees and Krista/Flickr

La Venencia, Calle de Echegaray 7, Madrid, Spain, +34 914 29 73 13 Open daily between 12.30 and 3.30pm and from 7.30pm until around midnight

Breakfast in Madrid: Pan con tomate

Homemade pan con tomate (Thomas Rees)

Catalan-style pan con tomate (Thomas Rees)

The madrileño breakfast par excellence, you’ll find pan con tomate (tomato bread) at cafes and bars all over the Spanish capital. Pick a good one and you’ll be presented with crisp slices of toasted baguette that glisten with olive oil and fragrant, fresh tomato.

It’s just as popular elsewhere in Spain and different regions have different ideas about how it should be done. At the risk of upsetting my host city, where common practice is to blend the tomatoes before spreading the resulting salsa onto the bread, I more often make the Catalan version at home and rub a cut tomato directly onto the toast. While this method saves on washing up it isn’t without its downsides. You need exceptionally flavourful tomatoes to make it work as the toast softens before it has had a chance to pick up more than a thin layer of the flesh.

At the risk of upsetting everyone, I sometimes add a few slices of avocado, while slivers of ruby-red jamón serrano are a common addition, especially at brunch. Then of course there’s the garlic, which at breakfast-time many restaurants choose to omit. Personally, I’d rather take my chances. It’s the garlicky punch that lifts a piece of pan con tomate from the ordinary to the sublime.

However you go about it, it’s hard to think of a simpler way to feel both immensely satisfied and disgustingly virtuous before nine o’clock in the morning. ¡Buen aprovecho!

– Thomas Rees

For the recipe, along with an edited version of this article, head over to wanderlust.co.uk

Review: Dice Factory And Will Rixon Quartet At Jazz Nursery

Gritty, urban and fiercely contemporary, Jazz Nursery is one of London’s most exciting new venues. Established in 2012 as a platform for the capital’s emerging talent and still something of a well-kept secret, gigs are held on the first Thursday of every month beneath the bare brickwork of a Southwark railway arch. The clientele are young, beautiful and disconcertingly hip but the atmosphere is friendly and the acoustic is surprisingly good given the cavernous space.

It was an appropriate setting for the sounds of Dice Factory, an up-and-coming quartet led by tenor saxophonist and Loop Collective veteran Tom Challenger, who delighted the assembled hipsters with a richly inventive set of originals. Anchored by mesmeric pedals and vamps that evoked the music of Steve Reich, tracks from their self-titled debut album, released in 2012, had an industrial edge that seemed right at home amongst the cracked tiles and the reclaimed furniture. In the opener, an off-kilter number entitled ‘Gooch’, Challenger’s stuttering staccato honks and broken melodies were counterpointed by the metallic scrape of cymbals and bare piano strings. ‘Eternal Sleep’ saw the pulsing, insistent grooves of Empirical bassist Tom Farmer set the pace before showcasing swirling motifs from pianist Dan Nicholls. Contributing a thoughtful solo, Challenger soared into the upper register, playing fast and loose with the time and fighting with the insidious rhythmic undertow.

Drummer Jon Scott (of Kairos 4tet) was excellent throughout, orchestrating sudden stops and changes of intensity and driving the band on as the trains rumbled overhead. A suite of new pieces drew things to a close and it was here that the group’s mathematical and highly structured approach to writing was most evident. ‘Coincidental Design’, its melody derived from a set of four pitches reordered and refracted by the ensemble, was among the highlights of the set, blending beauty and internal logic.

A quartet led by young trumpeter and Guildhall School of Music graduate Will Rixon were more conservative in their choice of repertoire. The band’s first half performance was dominated by classic standards including ‘September in the Rain’, ‘Song for My Father’ and ‘Change Partners’. Tom Farmer seemed less at home in a straight-ahead setting but there were some nice touches from the group, with latin breaks from drummer Josh Morrison and shimmering, impressionist solos from the in-demand Kit Downes on piano. Exploring and manipulating the melodies, Rixon’s sound was impressively varied: at times dark and smoky, at others strident. Despite the well-worn material, the band kept things edgy and fresh which, after all, is what the Jazz Nursery is all about.

– Thomas Rees 

For more info go to www.jazznursery.com

This article was originally published on jazzwisemagazine.com

Mexico City

Rivera Mural, Mexico City

I arrived late after a white-knuckle taxi ride in a battered white taxi. A hotel receptionist regarded me without interest, handed me a set of keys and gestured to a staircase in the corner of the entrance hall. Music drifted in from the bar next door where the tequila was flowing and two men in woollen ponchos stood serenading the clientele with strained voices and battered old guitars.

Dumping my bags, I went in search of food and stumbled upon a packed taco stand in an otherwise deserted street, a hole in the wall with a narrow wooden counter and red plastic stools set out on the pavement. In all my time in Mexico I never once saw the hard-shelled cases that pass for tacos back home, these are the soft variety; warm, supple, maize tortillas filled with flash-fried steak or salty, paprika spiked sausage, sprinkled with coriander, sharpened with lime juice and topped with fresh salsas. Breathtakingly delicious. The perfect welcome.

Street food is something of a religion in Mexico City, vying with Catholicism for a place in mens’ hearts. In homage to these twin faiths I spent the next few days nosing around colonial churches and eating at street stalls, wondering in equal measure at the great vaulted ceiling of the Metropolitan Cathedral with its ebony skinned christ and at crisp enchiladas with salsa verde or tortas thick with sliced avocado, washed down with a glass of hibiscus tea.

There are vast markets too, as fascinating and frenetic as the city itself. At the end of a road snarling with traffic and lined with preening prostitutes lies La Merced, the largest market in the city, crammed with colourful stalls heaving with fruit and vegetables, sacks brimming with brittle dried chillies, bowls thick with unctuous spice pastes, and baskets of cactus paddles scraped of their spines to reveal the emerald flesh beneath. In  places, the floor is a carpet of papery corn husks and torn banana leaves.

North of the Cathedral is the so-called thieves market, a warren of tents rife with pickpockets and stall holders frantically competing for your attention. The air is thick with hoarse voiced sales pitches. I ate tacos with cactus and a scorching hot salsa and wandered past stalls selling car parts, cds, clothing and miscellaneous tat. A child dragged his mother towards a cage full of mewling blonde puppies, their eyes barely open. In the meat section, a man trimmed chickens feet with a pair of pinking-shears and nearby, a pair of abuelitas (little grandmothers) sat knitting in a stall abundantly stocked with graphic pornography.

On my last day in the city I escaped the bustling centre and spent an afternoon drifting along the canals of Xochimilco. We slid past a wedding party and a boat full of mariachis in sombreros and black suits with sequined trousers, past summer houses and women in dugout canoes selling sweetcorn with chilli and lime. The suburb is a relic of the Aztec world, of Tenochtitlan, the city on the lake, sacked by the Spanish and buried beneath modern Mexico City, a past that is commemorated by Rivera’s vibrant murals in the Palacio Nacional and by countless exhibits in the fascinating Museum of Anthropology.

Mexico City is a place of contrasts and contradictions, of ancient canals, of ruins, of faded colonial architecture and hawkers with old family recipes, of high-rise buildings and congested streets where the scent of herbal remedies and smouldering incense mingles with the acrid smell of exhaust fumes and the cheap perfume of working girls.

I miss it, and I still dream about the food.

– Thomas Rees

Texas

Texas

The road from New Orleans to Houston snakes its way through moorland, forest and monochrome swamp. Pylons stride across vast tracts of grey water broken by the trunks and stumps of skeletal trees fleshed out by mud brown pelicans and slender white egrets with yellow bills. Beyond the water, the countryside is flat, wooded and otherwise featureless, a no–mans land before the onset of casinos and malls, neon signs, billboards and, at last, the glass and steel of the Houston skyline with its tangle of highways and flyovers.

Everything about Houston is vast; buildings, cars, people and portions. The city exudes an aura of brazen American confidence and is testament to a continual quest for comfort and convenience. Tower blocks are connected by tunnels to save you walking in the sun and there are even drive–through cash points and pharmacies so you can pick up your beta blockers and your insulin without leaving the air–conditioned cocoon of your 7 litre Dodge pickup.

I’m staying with Amy, an old school friend who lives in the historic heights, the only part of the city where the buildings look more than about 20 years old and don’t have a flat–pack aesthetic of ruthless symmetry or vast attendant parking lots. Even china town is brand new and scrupulously ordered. We drove there one day for noodles followed by a massage though I expect it’s probably more comfortable to do it the other way round.

I’d never had a massage before and I can’t say that I’m in hurry to do it again. My masseur, a fat, bald, chatty Chinese man prone to making unnerving little grunting noises, spent the majority of the session cracking jokes about the size of my feet and telling me how much I look like characters from movies I’d never heard of. After enduring a good hour of him digging his finger tips into various parts of my anatomy to no apparent end other than to provide Amy with the opportunity to take a series of photos of me lying stricken on a faux velvet chaise longue with my feet wedged in a bucket of lukewarm water, the ordeal was over and we emerged blinking into the sunlight with our complimentary lollipops and bottles of mineral water.

At least the noodles were good. Pretty much everything I ate in Houston was good in fact, but best of all was the barbecue.

As luck would have it my visit coincided with the Houston World Championship BBQ Cook-Off and, as a consequence of spending large amounts of time in bars looking glamorous and hamming up her British accent, Amy had managed to befriend a group of hard-drinking rednecks from east Texas who appointed themselves our guides. We picked up Grimsey on the way. He entered the car alligator skin boots first in a fog of aftershave, having prepared for an afternoon of beer and barbecue by dining on steak and washing it down with 4 margaritas. He handed me a beer and prized off the cap with a heavy gold ring emblazoned with the year of his graduation from Texas A and M, alma mater to all self-respecting rednecks of the past generation or two.

The cook–off takes place in the parking lot behind America’s first domed stadium, a badly aging lump of grey concrete that promoters once dubbed ‘the eighth wonder of the world’. We were greeted at the entrance by a little golf–cart train and a jovial Texan in a broad-brimmed hat who informed us that the last train back was at 11pm and that we should take care not to miss because, he paused for effect, ‘its a looooong walk back’. By long he meant 300 meters maximum. But then everyone knows that Americans don’t walk, especially after spending several hours drinking watery beer and gorging themselves on buttery étouffée, ribs and barbecue beans, not to mention the corn–dogs and deep–fried cheese cake sold from the stalls dotted among the fair ground rides.

The food, the brisket in particularly, sticky and charred on the edges and pink in the middle, was sob–inducingly good and impossibly moreish. I made up for my conspicuous lack of a drawl, a Stetson or cowboy boots by consuming it in preposterously large quantities.

While a lot of the teams were just there to drink, talk about rifles and country music and complain about the democrats, there were some serious contenders who stayed hunched over their barbecues while our redneck friends worked their way through another few cases of Miller Light and began shrieking whenever anything in a short skirt and a cowboy hat walked past. As the sun set and the clouds melted into pools of orange and pink light the serious teams were still there, perfecting their marinades and daubing slabs of meat with sauces and seasonings that clung to the bristles of thick painters brushes and the dull metal edges of well–worn tongs. In the half–light, the blackened steel barbecues, with their barrel-shaped bodies and long chimneys, looked like slumbering locomotives.

If you want a stereotypically Texan experience, you can’t do much better than the cook–off. It was everything I’d hoped it would be. But if you do go, be sure not to miss the 11 o’clock train, I’d hate for you to have to walk that 300 metres.

– Thomas Rees