Sunday, 17 September 2017

Figs and Sunshine.

It only took being back at work for two days after my summer holiday and the same old feelings of stress kicked in – it’s not the work, but some people that do it for me. Well, at least the holiday was very enjoyable! Roll on the next one!

I was so exited when I finished up work four weeks ago that I was convinced something would go wrong – it felt so unreal that I was actually going to be off for two and a half weeks (that really sounds like I don’t get enough holidays) – I was so elated. As it was, travelling from Edinburgh to Milan was pretty trouble-free – the only issue at the airport was the number of people trying to take cases bigger than the back-pack I had in the hold on to the plane as their hand-luggage! There was too much, so a few people found they were having to get cases tagged and put in the hold as they were about to board with them – it just meant a slight delay in take-off. Once at Milan, we were through passport control and picking up our luggage before we knew it, then our driver was waiting in the arrivals hall to take us to Cadenabbia on Lake Como. Perfect!

The weather was glorious, just so warm and sunny, I really could get used to that a bit more often. I liked the fact that we both lost track of what day it was and didn’t feel tied to doing anything at any particular time. I quite enjoyed my early morning runs – I think the thought of a lovely, relaxing breakfast afterwards helped me along. We both managed to walk for miles most days, even where we didn’t set out to do that, it just seemed to happen. On the first full day we set off along the new “Greenway” from Cadenabbia to Colonno. Stuart had come across something about this before we went away, working out it was just over 10K so, as two people nursing injuries – Stuart with a fractured foot, me with a dodgy knee – we thought it was a good idea to set off after breakfast towards Lenno, nearly three miles south of Cadenabbia. The greenway goes along part of the lake, then heads away and upwards for a bit (nice church or two en route), then there is a steep path down towards the lakeside at Lenno, which makes you think in wet or icy weather it would be madness to go anywhere near it! There was a market on the lakeside, which was a nice diversion, then we carried on. It got warmer as the sun got higher up in the sky and we carried on walking. The Greenway route took us upwards again from the lake and started to feel as if it could go on for ever – later it transpired that Stuart had never intended to walk the full route, he thought I wanted to and I thought he wanted to…..Anyway, we eventually reached Colonno…….then turned round and walked back! As it was, we decided to walk back along the lakeside (marginly shorter) as we were looking for somewhere to have coffee, which we didn’t find until Lenno! Relief to have coffee and cake, particularly as a lot of places close from 2 – 4pm, and also as we both needed sustenance. After that, our walks were a bit shorter, but we still covered a lot of miles. We got ferries to Bellagio, Varenna and Menaggio - the day ticket for the middle of the lake is 15 euros each and quite a bargain compared with return tickets to a particular destination. We had bus journies to Como town, Gravedona and Argegno – we got a cable-car ride from the latter to Pigra, which gave the most amazing views of the lake. We walked back to Cadenabbia from Argegno, 2km south of Colonno, with a couple of stops along the way. I was amazed at the number of figs growing along the roadside – there seemed to be a lot of figs growing very randomly about the place on a few of our walks – maybe to the locals they are as commonplace as brambles are here, but it did feel such a waste. I didn’t take up Stuart’s idea of buying sugar, jars, a jam pan etc. to make fig jam! A little extreme when on holiday.

One of the many villas along the lakeside.

From the Greenway

Bellagio - the point where the two "legs" of the lake merge.

Villa Carlotta....

...and it's gardens.


Lakeside Walk in Menaggio.

Villa Monastero, Varenna

Wondering if I could shape my holly tree like this.

Stuart found a handy stick walking through the grounds of Villa Balbianello at Lenno - the villa was used in filming Casino Royale.
View from a cable car. Not for those suffering from vertigo!

What goes up, must come down - Pigra

Villa at San Siro - also used in Casino Royale

A Bond villain's boat?


It was funny that a previous bus trip to Como town five years ago had seemed long and uncomfortable, with both of us finding little in the town that was appealing. Maybe neither of us were in the mood that day, possibly reflecting on the over-long journey we had had from Malpensa airport to the hotel on arrival that year, the last part of the journey being a slow bus taking forever to get to our destination. Anyway, this time round the bus was relatively quick and the town seemed like a different place altogether. There were works along the lakeside previously, which was surrounded by hoardings as the work progressed, so hiding much of the lake. It also disorientated us – I had an entirely different impression as to where Como sits on the lake – seeing it properly this time I realised that it sits much further east along the bottom of the west “leg” of the lake. The lakeside walkway was interesting to walk along with it’s sculpture in homage to Alessandro Volta, the pioneer of electricity, the beautiful Villa Olmo, seaplanes taking off and landing on the lake – as well as some interesting streets and the old city walls. Oh, and some great coffee and biscuits at a street cafe near the centre of the town.

Hand on heart, I loved all the food I ate, all the coffee I drank, the wine, the beer – nothing was disappointing. One of my great loves as a starter is Insalata Caprese – that simple salad of tomato, mozzarella and basil. I had one or two of those – OK, maybe three or four – one in a restaurant in Bellagio came with three balls of mozzarella! The fresh pasta with pesto that followed that nearly finished me off. Another memorable starter was at La Grolla in Tremezzo, not far from where we were staying - a vegetable strudel with beetroot puree which was followed by spaghetti aglio e olio. The strudel was glorious; flaky pastry rather than filo with a nice array of vegetables inside, and the flavoursome puree completing it. La Grolla sits alongside Helvetia and Red and White, all of which are good, making it difficult walking through the arches past one to another. I felt a little guilty when the staff were out, ready to show you to a table, and we were just passing by on the way to one of the other eateries. I had asparagus crepes at Helvetia one night - a toss up between that and the spinach and ricotta cannelloni also on the menu. The crepes were very good, as was the cannelloni when we went back another night. Helvetia had the best grilled vegetables, a generous amount which arrived with a warning from the waiter that the top plate was hot (which always makes you want to touch it to see….). I’d missed the cheese balls on the menu at Red and White but was curious as to what was on the plate that arrived at a nearby table so looked again at the menu and guessed what I’d seen must be the cheese balls. I couldn’t identify what was in the batter the mozzarella was fried in, maybe a beer batter, but they were delicious as was the mushroom risotto I had to follow.

Vegetable strudel.

In the nice café in the grounds of Villa Carlotts.

Lots of spaghetti!

A truly dark chocolate cake.

Another "don't touch the dish" warning - spinach and ricotta cannelloni.

Stuart had a rather good gnocchi.
What we also loved was the fruit – we bought huge peaches and apples at a local shop – the peaches were especially good when we had popped them in the mini-bar in the room for a little while – a great treat in the heat. Kiwi fruits in the fruit bowl in the breakfast room were nearly twice the size of the ones I usually buy at home and just seemed to taste better (maybe that was the effect of the odd little glass of prosecco that preceded it). So, coming home was tinged with the sadness of leaving it all behind – the sun, the beautiful surroundings and the food – but I was looking forward to getting back to doing some of my own cooking again.

Before we went away I was cooking dishes I knew I wouldn’t be eating on holiday, just because I like a bit of variety (and a lot of spice), so Indian and Mexican dishes were featuring just a wee bit. Now, of course, the weather has turned more autumnal so what I cook will change a bit. One thing that does tend to herald the end of summer is when I’m picking brambles and making jam – done on the very last day before going back to work. The next picking will be for making bramble gin – can’t wait!
Spiced paneer

Mixed vegetable koftas with tomato and coconut sauce.

A variation on an Ottolemghi dish - brown and puy lentils rather than red, with halloumi substituted for the paneer.

Sultana, apricot, date and fig loaf.

Jam in the making.

A bakers dozen!

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