Arriving in Rome

Pines of the Jainiculum, Rome.

We arrived from the airport by cab and checked in to the Hearth Hotel, on Via Santamaura, right next to the Vatican museum gate. A good spot and very handy by foot and Metro to the rest of the city.

A walk about took us to Saint Peter’s Square, and then up to the nearby Jainiculum (Gianicolo) in order to unlock the first of many Respighi achievements, Pini di Roma: III. I pini del Gianicolo. It is one of several hills around Rome, and mostly a public park, with many sculptures and busts of historical Italian figures dotted about.

Later in the afternoon we wandered into Trastevere district, which has lots of art shops and restaurants on either side of old cobbled Roman streets. Along the way we entered Santa Maria in Trastevere, a Roman basilica dating back to the fourth century A.D. Its beautiful gilded ceilings and Cavallini mosaics are a stunning sight.

The next day we went on a guided tour around the Colosseum and Roman Forum, and another around the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain (Respighi achievement unlocked, Fontane di Roma: III. La fontana di Trevi al meriggio) and the Pantheon. A big full day, but thoroughly worth it.

The ancient Romans had figured out how to make strong concrete (opus cæmenticium) using volcanic ash. Unlike the modern technique of using gravel aggregate and pouring it into place, they used it more like a mortar, to lay bigger bits of baked clay bricks or rubble together. The Colosseum was built using brick and concrete around 110 A.D. and must have been a beautiful spectacle in brilliant white travertine, and festooned with many marble sculptures and reliefs.

Whilst it did fall into disuse after the fall of the Roman Empire, its current dilapidated state is mostly due to its deliberate dismantling over the following thousand years by builders, who raided its marble statues and outer cladding blocks in order to build other Roman buildings, including much of what is now Vatican City.

The Pantheon is the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world, built in 120 A.D. with a diameter of 43 metres. It was built using pumice as the aggregate towards the top, to reduce the load on the lower structure.

It is truly remarkable that, despite the Italian peninsula being prone to large earthquakes similar to New Zealand, these buildings are still standing after two thousand years.

Lombardi “Propileo” Cesanese, a good Lazio red.

Along the way we observed that in Rome at least, road rules are mostly optional, and most cars seem to be fitted with broken indicator bulbs. Drivers do stop for pedestrians though, which was a relief. Just around the corner from the hotel was a great restaurant where we could use our colourful Euro beer vouchers to buy great Italian food and local wine, including an IGT red wine from the Lazio region, a Cesanese called Propileo, which has been somewhat hard to track down since. Inevitably, I tried a local dish called Cacio e pepe.

Cacio e pepe

Like many Italian dishes, cacio e pepe (literally “cheese and pepper”) is a fantastic yet deceptively simple dish: pasta served hot straight from the pot with a generous handful of finely grated cheese and black pepper. This restaurant added a squeeze of lemon juice, which makes it exquisite.

Ingredients:

  • 450 g (1 lb) of fresh pasta (spaghetti, tagliatelle)
  • 180 g (6 oz) Pecorino Romano*
  • 40 g (1½ oz) butter
  • about 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • lemon juice to taste (optional)

Bring plenty of salted water to a boil in a big pot and cook the pasta for 2-3 minutes until just tender. Grate the cheese with a fine grater. Melt the butter in a frying pan and fry the pepper for a minute or so. Using tongs drop the cooked pasta into the frying pan with about 100 ml (½ cup) of the hot pasta water,  stir to coat well, then dump the cheese on top, and stir until melted. Serve immediately in bowls, garnish with a squeeze of lemon juice and a little more ground black pepper. Match with a good red wine with a food-friendly acidity.

Note: Pecorino Romano is a local Italian cheese made from sheep milk. If required, substitute any good hard salty cheese instead, e.g. Parmesan or a good aged cheddar.

British Museum

After a quick squizz in the Liberty and Schott Music shops, we ended up spending the rest of the day in the British Museum. The Rosetta Stone is the first thing you are presented with in the Egypt halls, yet we didn’t see it because it was surrounded by people which we mistook for simply a group of tourists. We wandered around admiring huge granite Babylonian lions, Assyrian friezes, marble chunks of the Parthenon and the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, vaguely wondering where it was. Luckily there was a guided tour at 5pm that led us right to it. There was also red figure Greek pottery, bits of a marae, bronze age jewellery, coins from the Thames, cuneiform tablets, mediæval clocks and mechanisms, and Roman mosaics. So much history!

Salisbury Cathedral

Today we went to Andover to visit a special music shop, and then on to Salisbury Cathedral, via a quick rubber-neck at Stonehenge off the A303. We arrived in time for Evensong to hear the Leighton Magdalen service. The cathedral is huge, nearly 800 years old and beautiful, and the history of its construction inspired Follett’s novel, Pillars of the Earth. The Magna Carta document (or at least, one of the surviving four) hangs out the back on display in the 13th century chapter house, behind the cloister.

Then we went to a nearby pub, called The Chapter House, for tea, then back to London.

Changing of the guard

IMG_5216
Is this not a quintessentially London image?

An hour on the No. 3 bus takes us to Westminster, alighting outside Parliament Buildings. From here we can have a look at Westminster Abbey, the new Supreme Court and then hang around until 11am for Big Ben to go “bong”.

IMG_5298
The gilded statue atop the Victoria Memorial, outside Buckingham Palace.

Then we leg it down Birdcage Walk to Buckingham Palace to join the ten thousand other tourists massed around the beautiful gilded Victoria Memorial, to watch the changing of the guard. One of the Royal Army bands played (among other things) arrangements of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and the theme from Game of Thrones. It’s also always a treat to hear cornet players wailing Birdland Maynard Ferguson style.

From there we had lunch at the Lodge Café by the Queen Elizabeth gates to Hyde Park, and strolled around Hyde Park for the afternoon. There are deck chairs out on the grass by Serpentine Lake, and they’re £2 an hour to sit in, which is… an odd thing to charge money for. I’d also forgotten that it’s 20p to use the loo!

A weeping elm in Hyde Park.
A weeping elm in Hyde Park.

We found a massive weeping elm that doubles as a house.

After that we went to Marble Arch and along Oxford Street to sort out SIM cards and suit fits for Hamish & Louise’s wedding, a bit of shopping and then to the pub on Kingly Street round the corner from Steve’s work, and catching up with some of the usual London suspects for curry.

Sunny London welcomes all passengers

After 30 hours of flying in sealed metal tubes breathing other people’s coughs and farts, we’ve finally arrived in London.

Thermokarst lakes in West Siberia
Thermokarst lakes and gas rigs in West Siberia (Google Maps)

The flight from Shanghai to London flies a great circle over Mongolia and northern Russia, Finland, Denmark, across the North Sea, and then along the Thames River estuary. The West Siberian taiga is dotted with remote oil and gas rigs, and pocked with a zillion circular lakes that look like ancient impact craters. They’re not craters; they’re thermokarst lakes, formed from the melting of permafrost.

Circling Heathrow we got a nice aerial overview of some important landmarks. Heathrow Terminal 3 itself however is a cramped Soviet-era concrete affair, replete with peeling vinyl wallpaper, worn-out door latches, leaking refrigerant and blown fluorescent lights; but bright burned-in plasma screens with cheery signs intrude on the squalor, promising to ease your immigration check with speedy e-passport stations. They weren’t working however, which meant that it took 70 minutes to queue and get our passports rubber-stamped.

Sunrise from the air, East China Sea
Sunrise from the air, 12 kilometres above somewhere in the East China Sea.

Steve picked us up and we went home via Hammersmith and Earl’s Court, past where he used to work; it was nice to see bits of London I haven’t seen for nearly 15 years, and try and (mostly fail to) regain my bearings. Much of the way was noticeably leafy, and being summer, all the trees are in full greenery; elms, alders, oaks, planes, sycamores and chestnuts, deciduous trees that immediately invoke “English countryside” for me. I haven’t actually seen a conifer yet.

Today we went for a walk around Dulwich where we’re staying to figure out where the shops are and buy some bread. Otherwise a quiet day in to recover, ring the bank, get UK SIM cards sorted out so we don’t get charged $10 a megabyte, and maybe have a nap. More soon.

Allergy-free Carrot Cake

Bake this for friends with small persons allergic to nuts, eggs, and dairy.

Ingredients:

  • 4 oz (125 g) dairy-free margarine
  • 6 oz (¾ cup) sugar
  • 4 tsp egg-substitute starch (2 eggs’ worth)
  • 2 carrots
  • 1 inch of ginger
  • ½ cup soy or rice milk
  • ½ tsp baking soda
  • 8 oz (225 g) flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder

Soften the butter, whisk the sugar into it until fluffy and nearly white. Shove the carrot and ginger through a juicer (or fine grater) and add the juice and pulp to the mix with the egg powder, and beat. Add the baking soda to the milk and microwave (30-60 seconds) until frothy, and fold in. Sift the flour and baking powder in and fold gently until just combined. Turn into a greased (with margarine) and floured cake tin and bake at 180°C for 30-40 minutes until done.

Note: I used Orgran egg-replacer, but have a look at the Allergy NZ site for other egg substitution ideas.

Feijoa Jam

Here’s the recipe for 10 kg of feijoa jam.

  • 6 kg feijoas
  • 500 g stewed apple
  • 300 ml lime juice
  • extra hot water
  • 4 kg sugar
  • Lots of jam jars

Halve or quarter (depending how keen you’re feeling) the feijoas into a very large pot. Don’t peel them or scoop them – use the whole fruit. The skin contains the distinctive, beautiful feijoa fragrance, and it should be present in the jam.

Tip the stewed apple and lime juice in, and cook it on moderate heat until the fruit starts to soften. Keep stirring to prevent it caramelising (or burning) on the bottom.

Stick-blend it once the fruit has heated through and has softened, and bring it up to a gentle rolling boil. You may need to add hot water to thin it (if it gloops and spatters big gobs at you, it’s too thick). Simmer it like this for a good 10-15 minutes. Keep stirring.

Tip in all the sugar. Dissolving sugar is endothermic and will cool the mix, and take several minutes on high heat to get back up to a rolling boil. Once boiling, it will take a further 10-15 minutes to get to setting temperature. Keep stirring.

When the jam has reached setting temperature, pour while still hot into preheated glass jam jars, and put the lids on immediately. As the jam cools, it will create a vacuum seal under the lid.

Testing for setting: you can do this with a jam thermometer, and wait until the mix gets up to 104°C. Or, watch for the way it drips off the spoon. If it runs off the bottom edge in one stream, it’s not ready yet; it’s at setting temperature when you get multiple, thicker drips from the spoon. Or, put a knife in the freezer. Drip some small drops from the spoon onto the cold knife and wait for them to cool. If the surface of the drops wrinkle when you prod them with your finger, it’s set.

 

A note on jars: use only glass jars with quarter-turn metal lids. Save them in a box in the garage for just this sort of occasion! Plastic jars will usually warp when you drop hot jam into them, and also probably contain Bisphenol A. Screw-turn metal and plastic lids won’t seal anywhere as well as quarter-turn metal lids.