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Snapshots of a village life

The outer world is changing with Limca, Gold Flakes and gyms; there are “modern” male aspirations… but what about the world within with its silent women?

Anoothi Vishal

The thing about India is that you can be, and often are, a tourist in your own country. I feel somewhat like a voyeuristic Pooja Batra in that 1997 film Virasat, wielding a camera—or at least a smartphone in my case—taking pictures of unfamiliar, “exotic” India. I hate such stereotyping but as a tourist you do see things from quite another lens.

Haryana is quite a prosperous state in India. One of the granaries of the country and that is quite evident as I find my way through mofussil towns and roads with no names to a semi-town called Khedi in the Kaithal district of the state. From there, we drive into villages, past stunningly green fields and fruit orchards spilling over with their produce, canals and pools, all full, this time of the monsoon. There are fertilizer shops, grocers’ stores, village schools, even an engineering college and as I see gangs of boys in their full pants and white shirts and lazily slung school bags, I wonder at what it is they are learning.
Does a poem by Milton, part of the curriculum in many Indian schools, make any sense to them? Does history have any relevance in this land, so close to where the Mahabharat was ostensibly fought? Does geography bother them beyond the obsession with Canada or the US, where so many families from here have settled, living in such different conditions, enjoying benefits of systems that don’t seem to exist in India at all, speaking an accented different language and yet inhabiting the same rural, feudal, small world that is Khedi? In their minds.

It could be idyllic, this part of India. For someone from the big city, it is such a refreshing change to finally breathe in fresh air, enjoy the sense of space and the slow rhythm of life closer to nature. I see farmers on their string cots enjoying the wet monsoon breeze, poorer ones are resting under big trees, enjoying their late morning meal after working hard in the early hours, there is a sense of quiet that you never have in a bustling metro. But be careful, this is not the idyllic world of a Romantic.
The farmer, who is showing us around comes to meet us by a farm in a Tata Indigo car with a large plastic bottle of Limca. It’s a welcome drink, a sign of hospitality and warmth, so evident in smaller-town India, that will bowl us over more than once through the afternoon as we are given fruit and sweets, offered tea and lunch in the homes of people we do not know, just because we are guests on their farms. Through the entire visit, we will pause at least thrice and drink more sickly sweet soda out of plastic glasses; never any lassi or even water. This is modernisation, along with tractors and banks, electricity and water, modern retail that is taking over, changing lives subtly through smart packaging that requires very little thought.

In other ways, mindsets have not changed at all. As a woman reporter, I am entirely a curiosity in this deeply feudal world. As much as a poster of Katrina Kaif in ghagra-choli churning buttermilk that is popular décor in homes here. I see it at a farmer’s house and admire it and he tells me, apologetically that since milk is scarce this time of the year, I could try a similar pose when I visit in winter for a photo op!

There is no woman to be seen in the male outer world, except for ageing matriarchs who sit in public squares, unscared and proud. You need to have left all your feminity behind, become a quasi-masculine figure, given birth to powerful sons, to enjoy such liberties. In another farmer’s house, I see a young wife; she is paraded out to meet me—the visiting dignitary.

Shy, not meeting my eye but touchingly thrilled when I do not say a Namaste to her as I have to her mother in law but a cheerful “bye” with a wave as I leave. With that unthinking gesture, I have endowed her with a special stature—of an equal, not the other, as a woman similar to me who perhaps can understand English and the “English” way of life here! And that pleases her. It may be a common aspiration in these parts of India, where they marry so early and live so cloistered in a world entirely domestic to be us city girls, working, supposedly independent and worldly wise— just as it may be an aspiration for others in the cities to be Hollywood stars or at least models!

In this feudal world, if opportunities and liberties for women have remained painfully slow to come, for men, they have been fast-tracked. The farmers that I meet are very enterprising. They are not content to till the fields unquestioningly. They are negotiating prices aggressively, innovating, and expanding their “businesses”. One of the vegetable farmers owns a mithai-making workshop. Over more Limca and (some Gold Flakes cigarettes), he takes us to the unit where scores of halwais and labourers are handmaking pheni and ghewar, two sweets favoured in the monsoons in northern India. He will load them up in a truck, take them to the big cities, and grow his business.

Others have taken to growing organic veggies and fruit; at least partly because these command a premium in the urban, elite market. Surprisingly there is a big demand for these in the Great Indian Weddings biz—in towns like Ludhiana, not just the gatherings of Delhi. Still others have opened gyms, another modern fascination of the younger Indian men—who may or may not want to work outdoors!
More prosperous homes have gates painted with Om and auspicious signs, a line up of cars inside, and dish TVs on the terrace. It is thanks to the latter that Indian television is booming and serial writers are writing content to sate the hearts and minds of a people who are aspirational only as far the outer badges of “modernity” are concerned: More cars, flashier clothes, English speaking, Limca instead of lassi, restaurants, clubs, five-star weddings, organic food and multi-cuisine feasts… But where inner worlds remains unchanged. And, yes, there is always going to be garbage just outside the homes because no one—not the civic agencies nor the householders think it is any of their business!

French Suprise

From fragrance factories to arty villages and bouchons, expect the unexpected in France this season

By Anoothi Vishal

Past art galleries and shops, past homes where colourful creepers spill over boundary walls and big, barred gates protect the privacy of its rich, sometimes famous, owners, past quaint al fresco cafes smelling of fresh croissants, as I wind my way up a medieval street set in hard stone, I gasp in surprise. St Paul de Vence is one of the oldest, most celebrated villages in the French Riviera. Its understated charm seduces select artsy visitors and celeb residents every summer. Some of the most stunning views of both the Alps and the Mediterranean come easy here. And then there is the quiet, unhurried Riviera lifestyle that seems to shimmer and take shape almost as if you were in the midst of a midsummer’s dream.

But the reason for my surprise is somewhat more tangible. As I turn a blind corner on one of those narrow uphill paths that snake their way through the village, I am suddenly accosted by a stunning stone sculpture. A “man”, with a perfectly taut torso, lies suspended between the stone wall and the cliff on the other side. It is a work of public art that you don’t quite expect wandering around. But a fitting tribute nevertheless to the laidback artistic village whose inhabitants through history have included the most famous names in European art and literature. Even now, Marc Chagall, who produced quite a bit of his art here, lays at eternal rest in this village.

St Paul de Vence is not on your usual touristy itineraries. But this summer if you are planning a trip across Europe, more specifically the high-powered Riviera, make sure to stop by and imbibe
its unique spirit. There are, of course, various reasons why we travel. For some of us, it may be to tick off a bucketlist. The Eiffel, check. Moulin rouge, check. The yachts and parties of Monaco, double check. For others, travel becomes a quest. Not just to discover lesserknown places on the outside, but those darker crevasses and dirt streets that make up our inside. At St Paul’s, in the quiet you may just find a sudden burst of creativity, or a passion you didn’t know existed.

It’s the same sense of being one with the world, you may discover within yourself on a contended night in Lyon, another beautiful but not-so-frequented city in France. I am on a tour from Paris
to Milan put together by Trafalgar, an agency that promises unique local experiences to all those who like to go off the beaten track, and Lyon, once the focus of silk trade in this region of the world, now a modern gastronomy centre, is definitely on my agenda. Instead of hurtling from the north to the sunny south in our coach, we are pausing and savouring the lesser known France.

There has been a visit to a local family where we have feasted on their food and wine in an authentic countryside home. And now Hamish, our guide, has turned our attention to a street with ‘a thousand restaurants’. Lyon has a fair number of Michelin-starred restaurants. And traditionally, its privileged geography in the centre of a region with good produce, has meant that Lyonnaise cuisine has always been celebrated. But for a quality meal, you don’t really need to
go into a white-tableclothed space.

With the five friends I have made on this trip, I venture into the medieval heart of the city where tiny little bouchons serving hearty home-style food and the local, very drinkable wine (Côtes du Rhône) abound. To discover the bouchons, you need to go off the main roads and brace yourself for a night of hearty eating. Bouchons, literally meaning cork or a jam, are family run places with simple menus. These were traditionally coach stops (much like our dhabas were truck stops) and had the woman of the family cooking while the man managed the place. Even today, these are not fancy – with paper mats and napkins and the owners serving you. Hunting for the best Lyonnaise Bouchon can be a competitive sport these days in this gourmet community, but the dishes served inside are mostly the same.

I have a hugely satisfying bowl of onion soup at the place we finally pick, and take a bite from the most brilliant dish of poached eggs in red wine sauce (a local delicacy) that a friend has ordered. For mains we try the fish soufflé (that assumes the shape and texture of a dumpling in cheese sauce) and a special sausage made from tripe in a wonderful mustard sauce. If Nice, Monaco and, well, Cannes are the most popular spots on the French Riviera, you can make day-long excursions to some other hidden spots. Hamish has organised a tour of Eze as a surprise for us; a tiny village perched high on cliffs en route to Monaco. While Grasse may be the birth
place of modern perfume and the fragrance capital of the world – more
than 60 companies here generate over 50 per cent of the French turnover and nearly 6 per cent of the world’s turnover – for all perfume lovers, Eze is a much more intimate stopover.

Dating back to 2000 BC and often called the ‘Eagle’s Nest’ because of its height that overlooks the Mediterranean, it is a beautiful village with flowers and the Fragonard perfume factory. Here you can not only see your favourite fragrances being distilled but also buy genuine French perfume. “It’s the place where women go crazy and grown men weep for their credit cards,” Hamish, always cheerful, has warned us. But if you are in the mood to splurge, you could even rent a Ferrari and drive quickly uphill to Monaco from the Fragonard factory. I refrain from ordering a chariot for the ride but do land up buying the precious Belle de Nuit, with its notes of rose, musk and spices, hoping some of the magic rubs off when I do wear it in the night
(The piece appeared in Marie Claire magazine, June 2013)

‘Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall’

“Men get to be a mixture of the charming mannerisms of the women they have known.” — F Scott Fitzgerald

By Anoothi Vishal

It’s amazing that a man who died at just 44 should have had such insight into life; and should have been able to sum it up so poignantly that we should remain hooked to his words more than 70 years after his death.

Reading The Great Gatsby on the flight from Bangalore to New Delhi, I sob silently into the piece of tissue I am holding because there is so much here that pulls at my heart: The sense of self that we are ceaselessly trying to create, the filling up of spaces that we didn’t quite know existed within with songs and parties, Champagne, chatter, love, lust and yes, writing… the sense of living, the sense of yearning, imagining the future as the past, dreams, almost but never quite, caught… If you were gentle, you would call it just artistic discontent. Some of us have it — are blessed and cursed. Others don’t and lead simpler, surer lives. Perhaps.

But really it is his success at capturing this state of being, this inner life that makes Fitzgerald so readable even now. And so worthy of envy. But how does this voice, the wise, wearied writer/narrator’s, translate cinematically? That is the question I want answered when I go to see Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby.

It’s one of those films that have stuck pretty studiously to the text. And that’s perhaps one of the reasons why the film does become a tad ponderous. That is just a minor carp though. Gatsby is a tough book to adapt. Its best bits, after all, are not in the character or the plot— but in observations of inner life. How do you translate that on screen?

And how does a restless cinematic audience react to a narrator’s voice telling it: “Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eludes us then, but that’s no matter— to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther….And one fine morning————— So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”? Would anyone sob into their handkerchief on hearing these? Or just yawn at the wordiness? Without having read the book, I would suspect it would be the latter. Which is perhaps why Luhrmann is getting skewered. Really, it is not his fault.

Gatsby, the film, reminds me a bit of Harry Potter. The images and sets are fantastic in all senses of the word, the costumes period, the action has that kind of phantasmagoric quality that drugs or alcohol or fantasy fiction bring about and the plot is… well, we all know how that goes.

As I stream out of the theatre with dozens of popcorn-smelling others, I am privy to the kind of post-film analysis that frequently happens on escalators. Boy 1 to Boy 2: “So that’s what I should have done, built a house opposite her’s”. Boy 2, who is obviously the wise confidant: “But boss, you saw what she did in the end!”

Daisy betrays Jay in the end. She does not even send a flower to his funeral. He dies, a man consumed by his passion. Their love story was always star-crossed. Like that of Romeo or Juliet or that of countless Bollywood lovers unable to break class/caste/religious walls till, of course, now when common multiplex aspirations have rendered all these obsolete. Like those who followed the Great American Dream, followers of the Great Indian Dream no longer subscribe to Devdas worldviews. Heroes are ingenious, not tragic. And steadfast devotion to the object of your love/lust is definitely out in the serial-dating world we live in. So if you just followed the action onscreen (natural in a visual medium) instead of paying attention to the words spoken by the narrator, you would be disappointed in Gatsby. But that is just how the book is.

Di Caprio makes for a wonderful Gatsby. The linen suits are fetching, yes, even the pink one. And he, as the golden-haired, golden-hearted, newly-minted millionaire, has the kind of Mills & Boons appeal that few of us can resist. There’s also a kind of (very fashionable at the moment) bromance between him and Nick, the narrator (Toby McGuire) brought out much more clearly than ever felt in the book. Everyone is wonderfully cast and performs faultlessly. But yes, the characters never quite come to life. This is no Heathcliff-Catherine intense romance. It’s never like that, even in the book.

Fitzgerald’s characters are never compelling. He is. His insight into our lives – even 21st century Indian ones—is. It was never going to be easy to put that on screen. But Gatsby, the film’s success, is that it keeps the words and keeps us interested. I like it. Pay closer attention to that authorial voice, and you will like it better.

(I know it’s a food and travel blog; but what the heck, I like films too and books even better!)

Fantastic 4

Here is my pick of the most innovative dishes I’ve had in the last two months
By Anoothi Vishal

1. Ker Sangri beef pickle @ Monkey Bar, Bangalore: I love ker sangri, the dried desert berries and beans, usually to be found in “pure-veg” Marwari thalis. At Monkey Bar, the buzzing Bangalore gastro pub, chef Manu Chandra turns the “pure veg” bit on its head. Here, ker sangri goes into a beef pickle; the tanginess remains intact, there is less oil than you would normally have had in the Marwari preparation and the starter gets served in a baby martaban, reminiscent of those old days when these were used to store homemade achars in. A wonderful, innovvatie starter.

2. Veg haleem @ Dilli 32, Kempinski Hotel, Karkardoma, Delhi: Who would think that any veg imitation of the haleem could even be a passable dish. Well this one is more than that. Dilli 32 has an excellent Lucknowi-Rampuri menu, and a large chunk of it is devoted to vegetarian versions of those hearty meat dishes (because of the local clientel). The vegetarian kebabs are excellent but my standout dish was the veg haleem (actually khichda because that’s what it is called in Lucknow) made with dalia, seasoned with spices, garlic and onions. An absolute star dish.

3. Crème brulee with a shot of Old Monk @ Le Cirque, Leela Palace, New Delhi: Crème brulee is an original Le Cirque creation, claims Marco Maccioni, from the family that owns of the world’s most famous restaurants, “except in those days no one thought of trademarking it”. The inspiration (of the version that is most popular in restaurants today) was a Spanish custard, crème catalane —typically caramalised on top (a custom from the old days when caramalisation would preserve dairy items). Marco’s mother decided to try it out at home and asked the cook to put it in the oven. The result, a perfectly caramalised hard crust. The Le Cirque version uses granulated sugar and the custard is put in the top shelf of the oven. When I dined with Marco Maccioni, he suggested another innovation to the dish—pair it with a shot of Old Monk, the dark Indian rum. Perfect.

4. Jasmine rice @ Royal Vega, ITC Grand Chola, Chennai: No, it’s not the Thai Jasmine rice. Instead, at the Grand Chola, you get to sniff at some real aromatic dining. Jasmine scented water (made from soaking and boiling jasmine flowers in it and straining) is used to boil the rice. It is a simple but powerful idea!

Pasta-parantha resonance

Despite the diplomatic tension between the two countries, there’s so much in common between Italy and India—especially in the kitchen

By Anoothi Vishal

One of the most interesting things a researcher on cuisines does is to
trace patterns. Cooking can be an art: An expression of each
civilisation’s, each community’s, each person’s unique creative urges. But however distinctive a cuisine is, it never flourishes in isolation. There are always parallels and resonances that make for gratifying cultural study.

Italy and India are, of course, two ancient cultures, disparate, a continent apart. And yet they can be dizzyingly similar— loud families, bad traffic, laissez faire attitudes, adult men who continue to be taken care of by their mothers and, of course, mamma’s cooking! More astonishing than these cultural parallels are the culinary ones. Pasta and parantha may not have much in common. But delve a little deeper and you’ll be surprised.

There is no one Italian cuisine just as there is no one Indian cuisine. Regional cuisines that play upon seasonal, local ingredients are the basis of both. In fact, the world’s oldest cookbook by Marcus Gavius Apicius (we get the term “epicure” from him) in the 1st century A.D, De re coquinaria (On Cookery), has specific directions on how to treat each ingredient.

Today, we all recognise the quality of “Parma” ham, cheese from Cremona, olives from Puglia, white truffles from Piedmont et al but even ancient times had their famous regional produce—much like in India: the wild boar of Tuscany, onions of Pompeii, asparagus of Ravenna… The cuisines of Rome, Sicily, Naples, Venice, Umbria etc centred around these products are completely different from one another — just as in India, where regional cooking is varied.

In the era of the globalisation of the palate, however, certain ingredients become national stereotypes. We have tomatoes and garlic dominating the ubiquitous Italian kitchen today —
much in the same way that tomato-onion-garlic masala does the pan-Indian kitchen. It is not really hard to see the similarity between a tomato-butter-cream makhni gravy and tomato-cream-cheese pasta toppers! But tomato as an ingredient began to be used in Italian kitchens so prominently with pasta only by the 19th century. It came to India around the same time via colonial connections.

Much before the colonisation of the East, trade meant that even ancient and medieval cuisines never flourished in isolation. Venice was a rich and powerful merchant-state
controlling the spice trade and its evidence is still found in the saffron-flavoured Milanese (Milan is part of the Veneto region) risottos we still have. Pepper, nutmeg (used as both a
sweet and savoury spice in ravioli) and even coriander seeds, intrinsic to Indian cooking, are commonly used in Italian cuisines. And there are other East-West connections.

In Spoleto, in Umbria, I was surprised to come across a soup made of what we in India know as masoor dal — pink lentils. Masoor is one of the oldest Aryan grains. It has also been found in early excavations in Iran and Turkey. The Italian lentichhie-with-spinach soup could well be our dal. Did the grain travel from India/the Middle East via Egypt during the Roman empire?

Basil most certainly did. Native to India, it turned into the sweet basil of Italian cooking by strange twists and turns of history and geography. But perhaps another Indian import to ancient Italy is the water buffalo!

The soft, fresh buffalo-milk cheese Mozzarella became popular in southern Italy only in the 18th century but the water buffalo has been in Italy for much longer. There are many theories as to how it got here, including a likely one that suggests the Arabs introduced the Asian buffalo to Sicily after their 8th century invasion.

In a reverse connection, dairy farmers from the Punjab are today helping make a lot of Italian cheese. In Cremona, a small town in the Po Valley, I came across burly, Italian-speaking Punjabi farmers who make grana padano, parmesan and other cheese. A recently built Gurduwara, the largest in Europe, bears testimony to how this is home for the community — just a couple of hundred kilometres outside Rome but so different from it.

The 8th century Arab invasion of southern Italy changed its cuisine and culture– just as the 10th century invasion in India did. Both countries have Arab- inspired dishes. Pasta being one. The theory that Marco Polo brought it from China has been discredited. Dried pasta undoubtedly has Arab connections in the same way vermicelli/seviyan do. But even in Roman times, there is mention of lagane (origin for lasagne), a flour-water dough that could be rolled and baked. Much like the tandoori rotis. Pasta and parantha do have cultural resonance the end.
(The article appeared in the Financial Express on Sunday in my Column)

Pardon my French!

A foodie journey through Lyon, not on usual touristy maps, courtsey Trafalgar, a company promoting experiential travel, lets me discover some “real” French food…

By Anoothi Vishal

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We’ve crossed the Pont Bonaparte, beautiful in the night, hanging low on the Saone river, into the Rennaisance heart of old Lyon. Hamish, our travel guide, pauses and says dramatically: “And now I will let you lose on a street with a hundred restaurants!”

It’s a foodie dream come true. But I have been expecting no less: Lyon, after all, has become the modern centre of French gastronomy in a way touristy Paris and even vibrant, bustling Marseilles are not. At the very centre of its formidable reputation are not some Michelin-star restaurants (though there is a fair sprinkling of these too here), or modern bars but bouchons, those sans-frills, traditional Lyonnaise insitutions that have suddenly become foodie chic these days.

Despite that Lyon is hardly a popular stop on travel itineraries. Certainly not on Indian ones, preoccupied with speed-touring Paris, Cot d’Azur, Monaco and possibly some of the more popular wine countries. It is still in many ways one of those “hidden” towns — that despite its size and economic stature remains not so obvious to the touristy eye.

Of course, I am very much a tourist—but determined to find the elusive and the local that Trafalgar, a new-to-India company into experiential travel, has promised to help me unearth as I take its tour from Paris to Milan, through much of central and southern France. As a result, Lyon is very much on our map—and not just because this is the birthplace of cinematography and the karma-bhoomi of Lumiere brothers (who attended La Martiniere, I am chuffed to know, considering I attended the sister school in Lucknow). Instead, it is those 100-plus buchons that lie on the inner streets of the old town with their shabby-chic air, paper mats, limited menus and homecooked food that have drawn us here.

In many ways, bouchons (meaning “cork”, Hamish, a storehouse of trivia informs us) are like our dhabas. They came up ostensibly as stops for coaches carrying silk (Lyon was known for its silk trade) and were family run—the women cooking, men of the house manning front of the house. As such, food in these involves humbler ingredients—local fruits, veggies, meats, innards, feet and even the wine is non-fancy, served out of thick-bottomed flasks. (I bond over an eminently drinkable but humble Cot du Rhone with five of my Trafalgar travelmates-turned friends.)

In Lyon, some bouchons have acquired a formidable reputation. Chefs from all over the world go scouting for them; and then there are those apparently started by kitchen gods who went back to basics after giving up their culinary stars and stripes in Paris. Chef Sanjeev Kapoor, our very own affable celebrity chef, was in Lyon recently with the world renowned chef Paul Bocuse and mentions Chez Paul and Chez Hugon as the bouchons he checked out with typical Lyonnaise dishes such as Saussisons de Lyon (sausages), foie gras and quenelle (creamed fish or chicken combined with breadcrumbs and poached).

Then there are those that other foodie travellers mention like Au Petit Buchon, Cafe des Federations, La Meuniere and Les Bouchon des Halles that enjoys a reputation for clams in butter sauce. My own choice is none of these—it’s just one of those hole in the wall places whose names you may or may not remember post the holiday. But the food is superb. And that’s really the point. Because all bouchons have the same staples usually. Craig, our Aussie friend, tries one of them—sausage made with tripe in a delicious mustard sauce that wipes away all misgivings.

The best food is often made of waste; or at least non-fancy ingredients: I mean, foie gras and oysters, sure, but look at stuff like bouillabaisse, from Marseilles, a couple of hundred kilometres away from here—where bony local fish and shellfish are bunged into a typical Provencal soup base of garlic, onions, tomatoes, fennel, olive oil, saffron, and most importantly orange peel. What high-end dish can match the flavour and potency? And so it is with the simple sausage and mustard.

I also try an excellent fish (pike) souffle in a cheese sauce—but it is chicken surprisingly (chicken feet) and, well, eggs poached in red wine sauce that are house specials. Even if you are not an egg fan, you must dig in—they are well worth it.

You can’t help but pile on calories in France. I have saved the bouillabaisse for the last—when I do visit Nice on the Riviera because Marseille, unfortunately, is not going to be a destination this time round. And I intend to at least have a lovely, genuine hot chocolate somewhere in those arty, expensive villages— say, St Paul’s-de Vence, home to Hollywood celebrities and boho-chic authors, artists, designers (you can dine beneath a genuine Picasso or two at the terribly expensive Colombe D’or). But right now in Lyon, there’s one other staple to be tried: the gratinated onion soup.

It’s been snowing in Paris when I land there a few days before the Lyon sojourn and I have really been meaning to have a steaming bowl of onion soup. At all the touristy Left Bank cafes—popular in the 1920s with Hemingway, Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Picasso, Matisse and whoever else you can think of—food comes laced with nostalgia. We try crepes and quiches with copious amounts of red table wine and sigh over the fact that we live in the wrong century. But I have missed the onion soup.

Why do such few places do a competent onion soup? The trick lies in good stock— traditionally made from beef (but, of course, you can use chicken if making it at home). Then comes the proper caramelizing of the onions — a process requiring some amount of patience. (Sweat the onions on medium high heat for around 30 minutes.) A recipe I find (for eight) involves using 6 large red onions, thinly sliced. About ¼ tsp of sugar, 2 cloves garlic, minced, 8 cups of stock, ½ cup of dry white wine, 1 bay leaf, ¼ tsp dry thyme, salt and pepper, 8 slices toasted French bread and 1 ½ cup of grated Gruyere with a little grated parmesan.

In a saucepan, sauté the onions in olive oil until well browned (for 30 minutes). Add sugar about 10 minutes into the process. Once the onions are browned, add garlic and sauté and then add stock, wine, bay leaf and thyme. Cover and simmer until the flavours are blended. Season with salt and pepper. Now ladle out the soup into a common casserole or individual bowls. Put the bread on top and sprinkle cheese. Grill till the cheese bubbles and is slightly browned. Serve hot.

In general French food frightens the average home cook. Chef Mickey Bhoite, chef de cuisine at Le Cirque, shares a doable recipe for this weekend with some precise instructions (do follow them, please): The chicken and sage fricassee. For 4-5 servings, take 1 kg of chicken on the bone, skin removed, 400 ml of chicken stock, 1 medium carrot, thinly sliced, 400 g button mushrooms, quartered, salt and pepper, 30 g all-purpose flour, 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, 2 white onions, finely chopped, 250 ml dry white wine, 4 tbsp chopped fresh sage, 15 g cornstarch mixed in 1 tbsp water, 60 ml sour cream and 10 g Dijon mustard.

Season chicken with salt and pepper. Dredge in flour, shake off the excess. Heat oil in a large deep pan. Add chicken, sear until browned. Transfer to a plate. Add onions to the pan. Sauté until fragrant, for about 30 seconds. Add wine and scrape up any browned bits. Simmer until reduced slightly. Add broth and bring to simmer. Return the chicken to the pan, add carrot, mushrooms and reduce heat, cover and simmer gently until the chicken is tender and cooked (about 15 minutes). Increase heat to medium. Simmer the cooking liquid for 2 to 3 minutes to intensify flavour. Add cornstarch and cook, until slightly thickened, (for about 2 minutes). Whisk in sour cream, mustard and chopped sage. Serve immediately. Happy weekend cooking!

———————-
 Chef Sanjeev Kapoor was also in Lyon recently and gave me two of my favourite recipes that can be done in the Indian kitchen:

FISH SOUFFLE
200 grams boneless fish fillet, boiled and pureed
4 tablespoons butter for greasing
6 garlic cloves, chopped
4 tablespoons refined flour (maida)
200 ml milk
¼ cup grated parmesan cheese for dusting
1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
6 egg whites
Salt to taste
Method
1. Preheat the oven to 200° C.
2. Melt the butter in a non-stick pan, add the garlic and sauté. Add the refined flour and sauté on low heat for a minute.
3. Add the milk gradually, stirring continuously, so that there are no lumps.
4. Add the fish puree and cook for two minutes. Add the parmesan cheese and mix. Add olive oil and mix well and turn off the heat.
5. Grease ramekin moulds with butter and dust with parmesan cheese. Chill the ramekin moulds in a refrigerator.
6. Transfer the prepared custard into a bowl. Whip egg whites in another bowl till stiff. Add the salt and mix. Slowly add the whipped egg whites to soufflé base and mix well.
7. Remove the moulds from the refrigerator. Pour the mixture into these moulds and bake in the preheated oven for ten minutes.
8. Remove from oven and serve in the moulds.
EGGS IN RED WINE SAUCE
4 eggs
1½ cups red wine
2 tbsp butter
2 medium onions, sliced
1 medium carrot, sliced
1 inch celery, chopped
1 inch leek, chopped
2 bay leaves
6-8 black peppercorns
Salt to taste
2 tbsp refined flour (maida)
1 tbsp white vinegar
1. Heat one tablespoon of butter in a non-stick pan. Add the onions, carrot, celery, leek, bay leaves and peppercorns. Sauté for two to three minutes.
2. Add the red wine and salt, lower the heat and cook for five to six minutes.
3. Heat the remaining butter in another non-stick pan. Add the refined flour and sauté for a minute. Add this flour mixture to the red wine mixture and whisk thoroughly so that there are no lumps.
4. Heat water in non-stick pan. Keep a ring in the centre and add vinegar. Break two eggs into a bowl and slowly slide them into the water and cook on low heat.
5. Gently separate the eggs from the ring with a knife and remove the ring carefully. Carefully lift the eggs with a slotted spoon and place on the serving plate.
6. Pour the prepared red wine sauce over and serve hot.

Culture ,cultivars and travelling with olio…

On the olive oil trail in Italy, soaking up art, architecture,
gastronomy and culture in a bottle!

Anoothi Vishal

What is it about this place that has drawn me into its fold yet again,
so serendipitously? As we wind our way uphill from Rome into the upper Tiber valley and to that small but unutterably charming town called Spoleto, it’s a refrain in my head that refuses to go away. Spoleto and I seem to have some connection, if you believe in those things. It was here exactly a year ago, almost to date, that I had woken up from a metaphoric slumber of sorts, found an alternate calling and finally made my way to the centrestage of a life that I had once dreamt of.

But through the whirlwind 12 months that followed, I had scarcely given this pretty Umbrian town much thought. Until now.

Faced with the blinding glamour of Rome and the mythic Tuscany that is its neighbor, it is inevitable that the landlocked Umbria, the green heart of Italy, find fewer takers. Yet, if you wander off touristy maps and make an attempt to drive up this region, you’ll find almost all that you may have been looking from Italy right here. Spoleto, the small, medieval town in the region, for instance, has it all: geography, history, architecture, Rennaisance art, Roman amphitheatre, those narrow stone streets, a gorgeous, peaceful dumo, a 13th century bridge that gives you a bird’s eye view of the green landscape far and  beyond and a rather intimidating 14th century hill fortress, which, despite its historic frescos, can be pretty spooky in the night when you look up at the chambers where a queen is supposed to have poisoned all her lovers…

On the night we go up to the hilltop fortress, the sky has clouded up so much that it reminds me of stormy seas and ghostly galleons and ballads from another time. And yet, Spoleto, when you do come to thetown centre is a much lived-in space. Old homes, modern retail and a surprising number of restaurants serving traditional Umbrian food
clutter up the town. The best known of the later is perhaps the Osteria Filippo di Matto, run by an entertaining mother-son duo (this is Italy, after all, and nothing is better than mama’s cooking); the premises full of quirky memorabilia, including a collection of Pinocchios.

But it is really my stay at Frantoio del Poggiolo that will be my abiding memory from this part of the world—if I don’t land up here once again next year! Surrounded by an incredible, ancient grove of olive trees, this is a “home” away from home cum olive oil press-and-research centre of the Monini family, one of Italy’s biggest
olive oil bottling companies, 100 per cent family owned. With its own resident cat, a fireplace and an attic in the tower, this is much more than a by-invitation-only “guest house”.

By some quirk of fate, I was precisely here in this home last year as well, almost at the same time. And have now returned as the guest of the Monini family. Fourth-generation owner Zefferino Monini still sits in his office everyday, personally tasting hundreds o olive oils that come to his company, selecting and blending these. That’s what we taste when we meet him for dinner at Frantoio del Poggiolo, and even more incredibly, taste the unfiltered oil — straight from the press the next morning. Bitter, strong, grassy, this is EVOO as I like it, giving a kick to just about any food: bread, hummus, salads, grills…

October to March-April is the olive harvest season in Italy. That’s when the best, freshest of oils is pressed—“just like fruit juice”, natural, bursting with polyphenols and flavour, and without any adulteration or chemicals to take away from its freshness. Nothing can be better than going from region to region, maker to maker, press to press and tasting all the different oils being made that year. It’s as good a way as any other of sampling and savouring Italy, because, after all, the olio here is so much more than a commodity. It is culture in a bottle. A way of life.

Umbria, of course, is known as much for its olive oils as it is for St Francis of Assisi, the university (chocolates and studenty partying) of Perugia, light red wines (we had a very drinkable one called Rosso Bustardo, and you don’t really need google translator for that!) and opera, music and dance (Spoleto hosts an annual summer festival for
these, very well known the world over).

Olive oil is equally the art form from here and we begin to appreciate that as we smell, sip, roll around in our mouths, and taste the different oils extracted from different olive varieties. Like wine, each of the monovarietals taste different. Some are young and taste like grass, others of green tomatoes and still others are fruity and well rounded. The only taste to avoid, we learn, is buttery, greasy and well, plain rancid. That’s oil gone bad. Quality olive oil, you can, well, always taste and easily discern. At the Farchioni mill and premises we do just that, dousing our beautiful meal with generous quantities of the produce from this top Umbrian maker that traces its history back to the 17th century.

In India, of course, we only get EVOO blends riding on the back of a huge interest in health-promoting products —- not the monovarietals prized for their flavour. Like the best of old world wine, these can be quite the connoisseur’s items. Indeed, in Italy, this time of the year, it is possible to stumble upon competitions where the oils are to be judged and rated for their distinctive flavours in blind tastings. Bitterness, pungency and fruitiness are good attributes.

Robust ones go well with seafood, in marinades and paired with pepper and garlic. Medium intensity ones for dipping bread and pouring on your tomato-mozzarella. While mild ones often go into breads and cakes. As we go from pizza to hand-rolled pasta, from deep fried patties to crostini, veggies to spelt, fresh EVOO is the god that is evoked everywhere.

The thing about doing an olive oil trail in Italy is that it will take you to some of the prettiest, most unlikely towns you could ever stumble upon. The countryside of Puglia is an example too. In the sunny south, the “heel” of Italy’s boot produces 40 per cent of the country’s olive oil and has over 60 million trees. Naturally, gastronomy here in this beautiful region bordering the Adriatic and Greece, is all oil-rich. You can drive down from Brindisi, soak in the Mediterranean, pause and gorge on those fabulous olive-infused breads, fritattas and fish, and taste hundreds of different oils.

We see the harvest , and visit the fascinating, humungous packing facility at Pantaleo, a big company with a tie up with Dalmia Continental, the biggest distributors of olive oil in India. And the next day, we hit the road again. From Brindisi to Bari, to the Conte Spagnoletti Zeuli farm. The erstwhile count of Andria and his family have been people of the earth for long – producing both grapes and olives, the two main products of Italian countryside. And while their DOC wines are quite well known (Montepulciano, Bombino, Nero di Troia), the EVOO is top-quality DOP too (Terra di Bari).

From there to Trani is just a couple of kilometers—the prettiest port in southern Italy. Just a boatride away from Greece, Trani is a town that dates back to the 9th century even though it ostensibly played a role in the crusades too. The sea is an incredible blue, the architecture quintessentially white, the 13th century fort distant and imposing. We have a flight to catch and leave the town just as it is beginning to come to life. Quite suddenly at 5 pm. It’s going to be a long night—café, wine, oil and all.
———–ends———–

Be the extra virgin olive oil connoisseur: How to buy and taste

>EVOO is expensive. It is meant to be because it is expensive to produce. So be suspicious of anything where the price looks too good to be true. There have been cases of some labeling fraud abroad, where oil that wasn’t EVOO—sometimes not even olive oil—has been retailed as such. India, as yet, needs to come up with a much firmer policy framework to prevent such duping.

>Look at the year of making (not bottling): Since EVOO is freshly and mechanically extracted “juice of olives”, it is best consumed fresh—like any fruit juice. That’s when you get the best polyphenols and antioxidants, linked with all those health benefits. Quality makers will often put the date of pressing on the bottles (since old oil can be bottled too). Consume it within two years of that date. In case you have been travelling around Italy and are lucky to pick up a bottle or two of unfiltered oil, straight from the press (you can get this at many olive oil mills around the time of the harvest), do consume it within one year.

>Keep your olive oil bottles away from heat and light to store them well.

>The taste of EVOO depends on the variety of olives used and their ripeness (oil from young green olives is bitter and full of polyphenols; from very ripe ones, loses its antioxidants and potency).

> If you want to be a discerning gourmand, taste the monovarietals (EVOO made from single varieties of olives) and determine what is your taste. Or taste the blends and then determine which suits your palate best. It is pretty much like wine or coffee. In general, oil from the Italian coratina olives (my favourite) is potent, bitter and grassy, from the Spanish arbequina fruitier and good for grilled meats; while from the Greek koroneiki, is well rounded and can be drizzled on salads and fish.

(The article appeared in Exotica magazine, Jan 2013)

To Rome, with Love

From dusk to dawn in the Eternal City…

By Anoothi Vishal

Italy is a culturally rich country that attracts many visitors who want to visit Europe. You can now fly from India to Italy and book a hotel in Milan for an affordable price. From India, the flight to Rome is only 7 hours long and is definitely worth the trip.

I have been watching the Woody Allen film on the flight from New Delhi. And counting all the clichés it portrays under my breath all through. But at the end of it, I can’t scoff it off. We know how it’s going to end all right but there’s still a certain charm, a certain romance to the Eternal City that comes through, stays on, lingers and curls up around my head even as the plane circles to make its descent…

Will Rome live up to its reputation— propagated in part by Hollywood films, and gushing American memoirs; Eat, Pray, Love only the latest in the line of its image-builders? Of course, this is the city of amore and more than that, food. It’s a city where history comes alive, where you can’t help but feel a thrill of recognition each time you see yet another masterpiece by one of the gods of Arts. A city where time has stood still and moved simultaneously; where ancient architecture and modern retail happily coexist — stylishly. Where each ruin is a camera frame… But the problem is always one of expectations. I am a trifle scared to expect much from Rome. And as for history, the problem with coming from India is that yes, it is all over our doorsteps too!

I have one evening to take it all in and make my judgement: touristy trap or a city I could love? And one evening it all it takes…

St Peter’s Basilica is all aglow with the setting sun, as I stand in a queue inching into this holiest church in Christiandom. Something shifts in my heart; a flock of tiny birds descends just then in the open space outside where on Christmas and other days, we have seen those AFP pictures with thousands of devotees waiting to be blessed by the Pope. They circle over our heads and fly away. Is it a sign? The Papal windows are all aglow. Quietly inside, I stand staring at the Pieta, Michaelangelo’s only signed work. The Virgin surprisingly calm, stunningly youthful, holding the body of the Son. Something shifts in my heart again… At the altar, I pause, reflect, and have a quiet cry. Whether it is art or just the sense of atmosphere that surrounds such places on the planet, I can’t say. Or, perhaps, it’s just hormones!

My hotel is right in the heart of the historic centro; so I dump the bags and head out straight away. The Corso is a steady stream; couples, families, hawkers, shoppers, musicians, gawkers… it’s only slightly less busy than Chandni Chwok in Old Delhi. And infinitely better dressed.

The thing about Europe that I love the best though is that it is so walkable. There are maps and then there are the piazza that you suddenly come upon, unexpectedly, winding your way through the narrow lanes and via. It helps that Rome is particularly salubrious that evening; it always is, I suppose. And that’s its gift too. Piazza Navona is where I am headed, of course. I have seen the Trevi, chucked a coin and more; carefully sitting at the edge of the fountain with my back to it, left hand over right shoulder, making my wish… I have walked up to the Pantheon. No, not Greek, but massive alright—everything in Rome dwarfs you with its scale and beauty. And now, it is to Navona, the most famous of Rome’s squares, beautifully baroque, that I am headed.

Bernini’s Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, the fountain of four rivers (1651) occupies pride of place. You may have seen it on posters and in films but you are still reverent when you see it. I silently do a historic comparision— the Mughals were at the height of their imperial, artistic genius in India then; this one’s built before the Taj Mahal—and am awed at the temporality of human life, as well as the abiding nature of enterprise and perhaps beauty. The Ganga is one of the four great rivers of the world depicted here, the Indian in me is gratified…

You can’t come to Rome and not have artichokes. I have some fabulous ones at a tratorria but also those lovely zucchini blossom fritters that seem to be on all menus. These are like our pakoras, just as soul satiating, with a glass of wine here. And the pizzas. The Roman pizzas are thin and crisp, slightly different from those celebrated thicker Napoleatan ones, but pliable enough to be folded over and eaten. Bliss, bliss, bliss.

I don’t know how we find our way to a gelato place some time later. I have no recollection of turning those corners, walking those streets, stopping to admire impossibly-heeled shoes in show-windows; there’s just the memory of being in Rome. Breathing, alive, excitable. I choose my gelato in unlikely flavours—a setting-your-teeth-on-edge lemon balanced by rich, dark chocolate. But the eating (and drinking) is hardly over.

The best way in Rome, Romans say, is to drive around on a scooter. Just find a friend with one and hop on. There is a scooter sure. But just one helmet. So we walk on, across the bridge, over the Tiber to its west bank: Trastevere.

As a neighbourhood, it is fairly celebrated—Julia Roberts traverses it in the film, for one. It has its fair share of tourists and the international crowd too. But it is a non-touristy place alright; often described as a “village within the city”, the last surviving quintessentially “Roman” place, perhaps. When I see it, I am reminded of Hauz Khas Village, my favourite place in Delhi. It has the same narrow medieval streets (here, they are cobbled), the same lived-in air, where domesticity coexists with creative talent. There are local artists, jewelers, tailors, designers all jostling for space and creativity. There are the cafes and the bars and bands playing music and no one really bothers you even late in the night. This is boho-chic, as I love it.

We stop yet again for food. This time for pasta in the typical Roman cheese and pepper sauce. It’s simple and elegant and my accompanying glass of Amarone is superb. Luckily no one insists on all that offal and intestines, regarded as delicacies in Roman cuisine but that I am too chicken to try. It’s possible to lose yourself here. The square in front of Basilica di Santa Maria, one of the oldest churches in Rome, never really sleeps. We wander around for a while, stop at the Ponte Sisto, and then find ourselves at Campo de Fiori, back in the old city centre.

Literally the “field of flowers”, this has transformed into a noisy al fresco bar late in the night from the bustling market place of the day. It’s party time at all the dozen odd bars dotting the place. The night has got chilly, so we warm our backs and souls once more… A glass of Shiraz has been bought for me and a toast of sorts is made: “…young wine for a young girl…” I raise my brow. But perhaps everything is young in the Eternal City. Has to be. By comparision!

Czech food magic

Food (and beer) from this part of Eastern Europe can be soul satiating this Christmas

Anoothi Vishal

If you are looking for a magical Christmas experience this time of the year, try the mystical Bohemia, with its castles and churches, solemn music, beautiful countryside, boisterous bars and captivating nights in the smallest of towns. Or simply book yourself a holiday and visit Prague, one of my favorite cities on this planet– literary, stunning, haunting and romantic all at the same time. Not for nothing has it been called the most emotional city in the world.

But you can’t feed off atmosphere only, can you? Bodily nourishment is needed and holidayers everywhere are right when they want to choose their intended destinations based on the quality of food and drink available. In Prague and other towns of Bohemia and Moravia, you will not be stuck for choice. There’s plenty of modern European food going and then there’s Czech pub grub plus those authentic warming stews and breads.

But first the beers. The country is a haven for beer lovers; it has the highest beer consumption in the world and was one of the first to start brewing the brew.
You may be already acquainted with all the famous brands like Budweiser, Budvar, Kozel, Pilsner,Bernand, and Staropramen. They are all Czech and loved the world over even if people don’t actually know the provenance. Interestingly, what many people also don’t know is the fact that Pilsner, the popular pale lager takes its name from the Czech city of Pilsen in Bohemia, where it was first produced in 1842, and from where it spread around the world.

In all the pubs that I visited during my charming but ah-too-short vvsit to the region, I sampled some fabulous beers. The white wheat beers and also the dark, slightly chocolaty “lady’s beers” as they are populary callled in Czech bars.

Czech food on the other hand is simple breaded deepfried fish,beef croquets,sausages,sour cabbage and boiled potato salads .The most distinctive feature are dumplings made from flour or potatoes that are served up with stews and meats,with a little cream and pureed fruit sauce for garnish. Plus, there’s goulash.

Recently,I came across a young chef from the country,Michal Jerabek,who was cooking at the Eros in Delhi,and he taught me a couple of simple recipes you can replicate at home.

Chef Michal , currently a Sous-Chef in Hotel Hilton Prague, had been especially flown in to New Delhi to create traditional Czech dishes and culinary specialties at Blooms, the cofffeeshop at the hotel.

Th recipe that he gave me for the stew is as follows: For a kilo of meat (a mix of chicken and pork),you would need a kilo of onion,plus garlic,salt and pepper,caraway seeds,paprika,tomato puree and marjoram.Fry the onions and the meat brown and season these.Then add the puree and paprika,and add water to boil.Cook on a low flame for an hour or so till the meats are tender and the flavours well blended
.
The Czech chicken broth also uses the technique of slow cooking.But it is as simple as putting pieces of chicken,celery,onion,carrots,bay leaf and all spice in water and letting it all simmer for two hours.You can add home-made noodles for a one-pot lunch or dinner.
Finally, let me leave you with a little bit of Christmas magic. There are certain ingrediients that have always been held to possess special powers this time of the year in Czech cuisine. Add them to your life and who knows your Christmas may be as magical as anything in Prague!

Garlic: is an essential part of Christmas that should not be missing
at any Christmas dinner. It is believed to provide strength and
protection. A bowl of garlic can be placed under the dinner table.

Honey: is believed to guard against evil. A pot of honey can be placed
on the dinner table.

Mushrooms: health and strength. Mushroom soup can be
served before dinner.

Grain: A bundle of grain dipped in holy water can be used to sprinkle the
house to prevent it from burning down in the next year.

Váno?ka (Christmas bread): Feeding a piece of váno?ka to the cows on Christmas Eve will ensurethat there will be lots of milk all year.

‘Milkshakes and limousine eyelashes’…

And why it can be as liberating as a Masque

By Anoothi Vishal

“So, did you get Bohemian crystal?”, “… the hand-crafted silver jewellery?”, “Did you check out the Selfridges sale….” “Did you shop?” Period. Asked with obvious glee.

I dread the interrogation each time I come trudging back from one of those meandering trips. These are questions that I look upon with such obvious disdain that it is a wonder that the askers do not just shrivel up and shut up. They never do.

The great Indian middle-class is relentless in its quest for acquisition—and for comparing whether it is better off than the neighbour. So when I say “no, no, no…”, it just becomes the perfect launchpad to stories about how, where, when did X, Y, Z acquire that perfect bottle of whisky, coat or LBD, or even the biggest, most flaunt-worthy piece of “art”.

Travel is somewhat new to the argumentative Indian. Despite our prodigal Railway network and enterprising communities that have set up bread stores, taxi empires and restaurants in the remotest corners of the world, middle India is still taking baby steps as global travelers. It is natural to want to show-off; tell your neighbours, family, Facebook friends that you checked out the Eiffel or Masai Mara and, yes, bought six months’ wardrobe from Harrods on sale. (Though, of course, stick to monogrammed bags to keep up society image!)

I don’t really mind the Facebook pictures so much. They help you keep in touch with other people’s lives, even if it’s only the airbrushed versions. Heck, I am guilty of the same self indulgence. And on days that I am awfully bored, stuck with a story in my head that won’t just write or with a long list of must-dos, I go back to these and escape into memories of more exciting moments … perhaps people who bring back souveniers and fridge magnets from each of their trips do it for the same reason: It is a validation of their lives. Our lives; that all has not been lost in the unutterable mundaneness of being. That we Did. That we Lived.

My fear though is that most of us today don’t think so much. Perhaps we don’t even feel too much. Travel, like shopping, is merely a badge of acquisition. We have, so we must possess, and tell others about it too. Because, what’s the point of travelling or buying if you do not have a group of people you could narrate it to?

I am not sure whether the same logic applies to all those people who make firm itineraries and tick off every must-do monument/museum/activity on it. This type of frenetic travel may only be a function of the desire to experience all that you have read or heard about. To maximize life’s little moments…

India’s post-liberalisation travelers though may have other reasons to seek out newer lands and experiences. Partying in Ibiza or doing Turkey with friends from the university come invested with undeniable charm, as do road (or backpacking) trips of self discovery, common now with students, arty types or restless execs questioning the rat race.

Two of Bollywood’s most successful films capturing a young, urban lifestyle use this as a trope: The path-breaking Dil Chahta Hai and its sibling Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara both focus on life-altering road trips and indeed the idea that travel, even if it’s just one trip, can alter the course of your life. This is a hugely seductive idea. We find it increasingly in pop literature, in those chick-lit Metro reads, where young women fleeing from bad bosses or/and bad boyfriends/husbands take to the road to find destiny waiting round the corner. In any case, it isn’t quite a bad idea to check out that corner—at the very least, you may just find summer romance!

Travel, of course, does change you. Perhaps not in the drastic ways of fiction but subtly, gently. It does something to your own perception of your being when you find yourself in an alien country, where no one quite comprehends what you ask, managing to find your way back to the hotel despite an inability to read maps. It empowers you in strange ways when you, the small-town girl, perches on a high bar stool downing your nth drink, talking to a stranger. You can almost feel that skin of fear and insecurity that encapsulates you as the disadvantaged sex in a still-feudal world order peel off.

Travel is liberating too. You let go of your prejudices; you discover that the bum on the street can actually write poetry—“…limousine eyelashes and milkshakes…” as it goes in the film—and offer that up in return for a coin.
You discover that people are inherently the same and that it’s possible to have an instant connect with someone separated not just by miles but by thousands of years of culture as well. You discover that there is something to national stereotypes – Frenchmen will talk about wine and foie gras and wear pointy shoes, the Spanish will be routinely charming, Indians will be noisy, with badly behaved children and will always want to jump queues… But that quite frequently there will be those who will flummox you like an always-hugging Finn! And that women mostly all agonise like Bridget Jones….

When I was much younger, Enid Blytons were still very popular in my school run by the good Irish sisters. But I never could appreciate the antics of Amelia Jane, the naughtiest girl in school. I did not thought much about the politics of golliwogs either. What I did love was the Magic Faraway Tree—where a new land came on top of an ancient, magic tree in a wood in rural England. It was the most marvelous idea as three children and an assortment of pre-Potter magical beings traversed through various lands—of surprises and soups, giants, spells, upside down things and so on. I wanted to live that life. Now, when I physically travel, I do exactly that.

The thing about travel– at least if you are travelling solo– is that it is like a masque. It allows you to be who you want to be. It is as good as landing a role in a film of your choice. You may have the most boring desk job on the planet but when you are footloose, you are literally fancy free to reinvent yourself in whatever image you like. A backpacking White man in India can try his hand at anything from vipasana to playing Bollywood extra… A responsible Indian journalist can become a totally ridiculous, creature, betting with a burly stranger that she could lift him if he paid for her drinks. (The friend in question, who had run out of money on this particular trip, won the bet incidentally.)

You can pretend to be literary in Paris, a foodie in Italy, a musician in Vienna, forget the drudgery of buying bread or paying the dhobi as you walk the sea in Maldives and escape your life as you take a break, walking barefeet in a mournful, shadowy city. It’s a really an alternate life that you’ve been presented. A chance to exist simultaneously in many realties.

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