Posts Tagged ‘food’

Stage Blood and Jetlag, or an Ex Urbe Visit to London

The 1984 stage play, one of this year's London highlights
The 1984 stage play, one of this year’s London highlights

The British Library often brings me here to London, to use the mass of early Italian books which were transported to the UK by the book collecting mania which was endemic in the wealthy classes in last two centuries, but this year the library has teamed up with Loncon (the London-hosted World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon) to bring many of my friends as well.  So while I travel (and don’t have enough reference books or tranquility to do justice to another post on skepticism) this seems a good moment to share what is half a reflection on my enjoyment of London, with something of a guide recommending activities, and half a series of of some of the more distinctive plays I’ve seen here.

My approach to enjoying London is very much a hybrid of my approaches to Venice and Disneyland, and has never failed to work out delightfully.

The gorgeous central book stack of the British Library
The gorgeous central stacks of the British Library

The Venice half of the strategy is to do everything I can to avoid having a plan.  I simply arrange cheap accommodations as close as possible to an exciting walkable center that’s easy to find again, and then wander at random.  Unpredictable intersections of twisting streets reveal layers of exciting architecture, monuments, vistas, fun people with creative fashions speaking many languages, and in the case of London (though not Venice!) excellent food.  When I stumble upon a museum I go in it; a church I have a look; concert I have a listen, and by avoiding having anything to do or anywhere to be I can just look and walk and look and walk until the long summer days stretch on into suppertime sunsets.

Don't forget the "Treasure Room" of the British library: in, up the stairs on the left, no card or payment, and within seconds you're looking at the Beowulf manuscript, the Magna Carta, Wilfred Owen's poetry notebook, the manuscript of Alice in Wonderland, Scott's diary... one of Lond's most overlooked highlights.
Don’t forget the “Treasure Room” of the British library: in, up the stairs on the left, no card or payment, and within seconds you’re looking at the Beowulf manuscript, the Magna Carta, Wilfred Owen’s poetry notebook, the manuscript of Alice in Wonderland, Scott’s diary… one of London’s most overlooked highlights.

My usual Venice hotel is behind St. Mark’s Square because it’s the only thing in Venice one can reliably find, while my favorite London stop is the youth hostel directly across from the British Library. Being right by King’s Cross St. Pancras, the hosel is a short tube ride from everything, and a comfortable long walk southwest takes me past many of my favorite spots.  First are the specialty bookshops that cluster around the British Library like offshoots of a cypress tree (Judd Books and Gay’s The Word).  Next, the open park at Russell Square which is always packed with picnicers.  Next I pass the British Museum, where I might pop in to visit some Mesopotamian or Greek treasures, or just visit the strip of shops out front, to gaze at the lovely but staggeringly overpriced replica antiquities in It’s All Greek, or the real antiquities in the windows of the less-coin-specific of the two Coincraft shops, where I occasionally buy something small (I got a remarkably affordable 400 BC Attic little jug there, and a 1,000 BC Persian spearhead; they also have a bin of 1st to 4th century Roman Empire oil lamps for 45 pounds a pop, less if you get two and haggle, which for the sparkle of awe they bring to someone who’s never touched an artifact over 1,000 years old is definitely worth the price).

A few blocks further south I enter the theater district, stop off at the nerd mecca Forbidden Planet, and enter the warren of zigzagging streets surrounding Leicester Square and Covent Garden where I can spend a whole afternoon just walking.  The whole area is full of London’s signature layered architecture, crumbling stone and decorated brick and sparkling steel all in a pile together, with colorful woodwork and hidden alleys. I would swear that once I went down an alley and wound up in some kind of Chinatown, where I ate lotus buns and steamed bao, but I’ve never managed to find it again, and it’s just possible it might have been a dream.  Unable to find that again this trip, I contented myself with falafel, tapas, a Jamaican curried goat pie, and photoa hearty Egyptian street food called Koshari, which is a mixture of pasta, rice and lentils with chickpeas, spicy tomato, caramelized onions and spices, vegetarian but with that mix of heavy complex carbs and partial proteins that make it as filling and long-term sustaining as any meat—the shop is called Koshari Street (and they deliver!).  Oh, and gelato; two good gelato places in the area, La Gelateria (27 New Row) and a branch of the Italian chain Amorino.  If my path takes me southward far enough, I might stumble by accident on Trafalgar Square, and visit the National Gallery or Portrait Gallery, or stray as far as the river if my evening plan wants me to cross.  And if at any time I’m too tired to want to walk back, a saturation of underground stations will bring me back to King’s Cross.  (One detail relevant to this strategy: I seem to have the magic power that whenever I come to London the weather is beautiful and sunny the whole time, but the ‘wander outside’ plan may not work so well for those who don’t share this inexplicable blessing).

You can't take photos at the Globe (or other theaters) so I must rely on borrowed ones.
You can’t take photos at the Globe (or other theaters) so I must rely on borrowed ones.

The Disneyland half of my strategy involves tailoring this peaceful meander around maximizing the one unique activity which is so brilliant and unique that it’s worth tailoring everything else to get to do it as many times as possible.  At Disneyland this is Space Mountain.  In London it is going to the theater.  I count it a successful London visit if I’ve been to the theater more times than I spent nights, making intelligent use of matinees and how the proximity of many theaters makes it possible to catch one show in the afternoon and another the same evening, most days at least (Sunday and Monday present challenges since most of the shows are closed).  What makes this work so well is that all the plays are good in London, even the ones that aren’t.  What I mean by this is that the acting, direction and general production standards are so high that even when it’s a show which I might be skeptical about elsewhere I can rely on it being so well done that I’ll enjoy them anyway.  Over separate visits I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the brilliant writing and acting of The Tempest and The Importance of Being Earnest, the daring and precarious experiments of stage adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and 1984, the stagecraft spectacles of War Horse and The Lion King, even the formulaic nostalgia of Lady in Black and The Mousetrap.  And I always go to the Globe, consistently, unquestioningly, sometimes without even checking to see what show is on, I just know there’s a magical spot on the Earth where you can show up at 7 pm, give them 5 pounds and they’ll let you see Shakespeare, and it’s always good.  And it is always good.  Even The Taming of the Shrew and Love’s Labors Lost were thoroughly enjoyable, even though their combinations of unpalatable period sexism and general vacuousness make them hard to take in anything but an extraordinary performance.

Theater contributes especially to my jetlag strategy.  Going from West to East (US to Europe) I have found it most effective to take an overnight flight, get 2 or 3 hours’ sleep on the plane, and arrive in London early in the morning.  The essential step is to make sure I don’t nap that first day, exhausted as I am; if I can force myself to stay up until a good solid bedtime, 10 or 11 pm, then I can go to bed, get up at a normal time, and my clock is solidly reset onto London time thereafter with no further trouble.  But how to keep myself awake during that long draggy first day?  All I want to do is nap, but even a quick nap will doom me to sleepless nights and draggy days for close to a week.  Solution: theater.  I walk around the West End all morning, acquiring tickets for a double dose—matinee and evening shows—of theater, and thus can rely on writing, acting, sound and spectacle to keep me thrilled and awake until well after dark.  Depending on the day of the week the Globe can supply one or both, but this time I was saving the Globe shows (King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra) until friends joined me a couple days later, so I booked the stage blood double-whammy: 1984 followed by Richard III.

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The first was a new stage adaptation of 1984 by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan, in London for a short run, and excellent.  Powerful.  Vivid.  When I close my eyes now I can still see Winston in the chair with OBrien looming over, against the stark glowing white walls of Room 101.  And the agony on Winston’s face.  I was sufficiently impressed that I bought tickets to see it again with friends, and returned the next day to deliver a letter to the cast expressing my enthusiasm, though the playwright deserves it too.  The script and structure made great use of the fact that we in the audience all know the story already, know what’s coming, know that striking girl in the red sash has to be Julia before anyone speaks, and know where it has to end.

2minutesThe adaptation blurs time, using repeated actions and phrases and glimpses of thing out of order.  Winston hears O’Brien’s voice already interrogating him in his head long before he is taken to the Ministy of Love, a blur which creates a metatextual framing: is this the real, live Winston experiencing these events, or are we already in Room 101 and these are his memories breaking down under the pain?  And the play also incorporates Orwell’s own framing story, the final section of the novel which is written as if by someone from a later period after the 1984 regime has fallen, who is examining Winston’s account as an historical document; by presenting this early in the play, the adaptation further blurs time: are we seeing live events, Winston’s decaying memory’s, a later period’s ideas of Winston’s account, or both being read by us, the real live reader?  The mixture lets us experience all of these layers at once, while all of them are trapped in the same inevitable story. As we watch the events march inevitably forward we are all—Winston, Julia, O’Brien, Orwell, the actors, the viewer—equally aware what room we will soon enter, or in a sense have always already entered.  Reuse of actors, most of whom play numerous characters over the course of the performance, highlights in a literal physical sense how the whole populace of Orwell’s dystopia is complicit in the horror that enslaves them, a dystopia made of its people, even Winston as he turns up to work each day to delete the records of people who have been erased, as he will be erased in turn.  The play has no intermission, no break or escape, which I think was a wonderful choice, and gave it a powerful momentum.  The live enactment of the Two Minutes’ Hate left one deeply terrified of human beings (it had rather the same effect as the room full of Otto Dix I once saw in a Dada exhibition), and Room 101 itself was… well, one of these rare cases where something has infinite buildup and then lives up to that buildup completely, by being precisely what it always had to be.  And they have made such great advances with stage blood.

MF-Rich-III-posterTen times as much stage blood, sloshed in all directions and over all characters, gave the evening show of Richard III all the crowd-thrilling power Shakespeare intended.  I hadn’t bought a ticket in advance and tickets were almost unachievable, because it was both very good by a very good director (Jamie Lloyd) and starred Martin Freeman (Watson in Sherlock; Bilbo in the Hobbit movies), which added to the general population of Shakespeare and Theater lovers a 40% additional attendance by bouncy Sherlock fangirls.  Seats were scarce, but arriving two hours in advance made me first in line for the last-minute returned tickets, providing a fascinating opportunity for polyglot as I and a Sweedish actress and two French Sherlock fans cooperated to manage taking turns running off for sandwiches with our mixture of imperfect languages.  Ten minutes before the show my patience was rewarded.  I rarely enjoy Shakespeare re-set in modern costume, but this was a delightful exception, set almost in the round with a stage crammed with 1950s-ish office furniture—desks with huge brown typewriters and avocado green rolling chairs—recasting the historical setting so that the aftermath of war was not a distant civil war but the wake of WWII.  This gave a visceral immediacy how terrible it is to see the hard-earned peace turned into war again by Richard’s selfish schemes.  The violence too felt very modern and therefore real, and the production succeeded in something I have seen several attempt: using contemporary violence tropes from Hollywood to recreate the feeling a richard-iii-martin-freeman-and-lauren-oneil-photo-marc-brennerperiod play would have had of showing the audience violence that feels like the violence we see in real life instead of something gilded and distanced by antiquity (a production of Webster’s White Devil which I will shortly see in Stratford is trying the same).  In some of the murders the audience could tell from the stage setup and general knowledge of Hollywood how the murder had to end, and I felt myself almost silently cheering for the murders to come as expectation’s tension ripened inside me.  Martin Freeman proved an amazing Richard, perfectly balancing his endearing and repugnant facets to woo the crowd enough but not too much, playing with audience complicity.  Also remarkable was the fact that, instead of cutting Margaret’s curse (as so many productions do when you haven’t just sat through Henry VI so don’t really care about her), this production expanded it into a centerpiece which dominated the story and balanced against Richard like a second real human power at work in the story instead of events being Richard vs. Fate, as it often feels, or Richard vs. the-trope-that-villains-aren’t-allowe- to- win.  I didn’t have one of the seats where you actually got spattered with stage blood, but I was offered one, and I was tempted.  Needless to stay, it kept me awake and delighted until a healthy bedtime, and I promptly bought tickets to see it again with friends as well.

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Falstaff and Pistol, in Henry IV pt. 2

Despite all this, I fully expect the best theater I see in London this trip to still be coming up: Shakespeare at the Globe. I always unquestioningly see everything that’s on at Shakespeare’s Globe, no matter what it is.  Standing tickets are only five pounds (and have the best view by far).  Recent productions have concentrated on the comedy, even in tragedies and historical plays, since there are always humorous scenes or scenes with clowns and comic characters.  Modern directors tend to try to play these scenes for pathos, seriously or as social commentary, but the Globe is instead doing what my studies of period theater confirm is more likely to have been the original style: playing up the humor to the maximum, with the addition of lots of physical improvisation in the style of Commedia dell’Arte.  The result turns what are often the boring (or excluded) scenes into refreshing and hilarious windows on period humor, lively and intense and incredibly entertaining. For those curious, I cannot recommend enough the DVD of their Henry IV, which has such a stunningly entertaining Falstaff that many sections which had never made much sense in any other production suddenly come together as rollicking and wonderful centerpiece scenes.

lordrings_450x304And since I’ve mentioned it, I should finish by sating your curiosity: Yes, there was is a The Lord of the Rings stage musical; no, it was not a particularly good plan.  I recently learned it’s going to come back and have a world tour starting in 2015, but the version I saw in London previews in 2007 was—much like the achievements of Voldemort—terrible, but great.  I saw it on a ten pound discounted last-minute ticket, and morbid curiosity has never been better rewarded.  Some parts were brilliant.  Hobbiton and Bilbo’s birthday party could never have a better setting than a lively, colorful stage full of cheerful, dancing hobbits and raucous music.  The sets and costumes spared no expense.  Gollum was magnificent, incredible physical acting and great writing too; every time Frodo had a song Gollum would repeat it in an eerie minor key, to great effect, and the actor received a well-deserved standing ovation.  The stage itself was complicatedly segmented so they could raise and lower bits of turrain to create mountains and hills and towers, and the long march across the mountains looked every bit as exhausting as it should be.  Shelob was also incredible: they blacked out the house completely except for a tiny spotlight on Frodo, and had an enormous puppet but all you could see were the vague shadows of the legs just moving in the edge of the light, with the body always invisible, far more terrifying than anything CG has produced.  Orcs came out during intermission to terrorize the audience, which was fun, using weird stilts, which was… weird.  And the horseback Nazgul were excellent, great horse frames and billowy black cloaks which were genuinely awesome… almost as awesome as the gazelles from The Lion King musical… but then again a Nazgul inherently is about fifty jillion times as interesting as a gazelle, so perhaps that isn’t saying much, or perhaps it says more about Julie Taymor’s skill than about the play.

lordwolf460You may have sensed that I’ve rather run out of the brilliant facets of the musical and am approaching the more… well…  I applaud the decision not to have Gandalf sing at all.  I do not applaud the decision to have Gimli sing, and speak, in a weird high squeaky voice all the time.  Nor the decision to have Legolas make bizarre hyperstylized grand gestures every time he spoke, as if he was constantly doing sign language in an incomprehensible elven gesture code.  Nor other things.  For example, some people like the costume Galadriel wears in the films, or in this piece of art, or that piece of art, and some people hate them, but no matter what factions we usually fall into regarding Galadriel costuming I think we can all agree that Gold Sparkly Boustier is not really anywhere near anything one could ever possibly… I mean… how?  Why?  Help…? Galadriel was, in fact, a lot of the centerpiece of what made the show… odd.  You see, the trilogy has a lot of great characters, but it doesn’t actually have a lot of female characters, and those it has don’t have a lot of page count.  But musicals like to have lots of singing, and like to have a flashy female lead people care about to put on posters and promote.  So they wanted lots of singing parts for a woman, one woman, consistently throughout the story, even during the long stretches where there aren’t any.  So they picked Galadriel, and had her have songs.  Lots of songs.  Lots of songs all the time for no reason.  Frodo and Sam would be trudging along through Mordor dum-de-dum-de-dum and Sam would say, “Hey, Frodo, remember that time we met Galadriel?” and Galadriel would pop up *BWOOSH* from behind a rock and suddenly have a song, and then vanish again, leaving the audience (and the hobbits) in a state of bewildered shock, at least until Gollum came along to reassure us that we were back to our regularly scheduled one-ring-mindgames.

lotrclose460In case you were wondering, they couldn’t use Eowyn because there was no Rohan.  They cut Rohan.  They went straight from elves & co. to Minas Tirith and spidertime with nothing in between.  I understand why: you may have noticed that the Lord of the Rings is very long, and difficult to reduce to the length of a two-ish-hour stage musical.  But if you cut Rohan the whole thing becomes remarkably more efficiant, and you can turn the audience out on time while still having arguably done at least the beginning and end of the whole epic.  It was rather surreal but fascinating from a perspective of how it made me re-analyze the structure of the whole thing. That is, when sudden, inexplicable Galadriel wasn’t there to give me mental whiplash. Or Legolas making incomprehensible hand gestures. In fact, the elves in general were problematic. There were some we saw strolling around in long dignified robes, while others in the same place (Lothlorian I think) were dressed like Peter Pan and Tinkerbell hanging from vines swinging around like tarzan, which is, in the abstract outside of Tolkien, acceptable elf presentation, and I could even see someone thinking it was a good idea to make the musical’s elves like that, but not to have BOTH those AND dignified long-robed Tolkein elves together, it was like having an anime character walk into a Pixar film.  In the end I was very glad I saw it becuase it was an undeniably entertaining evening, and it’s certainly been fun describing it to people for the last seven years, but if someone asked me “Was it good?” I would definitely answer: “No.  But it was great!”  (And a great remedy for jetlag).

(A final note: thank you all for being patient this summer. I know my posts have been infrequent, but in addition to extensive travels and preparation to move from Texas to Chicago, this patch of silence has resulted from my intensive work finishing up 50 pages of carefully researched liner notes about Viking culture and mythology which will be printed in the libretto of my Norse myth a cappella song cycle (which you can pre-order here if you want to read them), and I’ve also been working hard finishing up the CD and DVD, preparing for my book launch next month (Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance), and doing many other sorts of work and writing. So the silence has served the greater good, but I will do my best to pick up the pace in fall after my move. And if you want to read something else right now, I have a new post up on Tor.com about whether or not female Thor should count as a Disney Princess. Enjoy!  And, for all those who will be at Worldcon, do drop me a line – I’d love to see you.)

How to Spot Good Gelato from 15 Feet Away

GelatoZ
Luscious, fresh, enticing… bad gelato.

Friends traveling with me are often perplexed to see me stick my head in a gelateria’s door and instantly proclaim it good or bad, despite not having approached close enough to smell, let alone taste, the contents of the brilliant, alluring bins of swirling color. It can be done. There are visible signs of good and bad gelato, so today I am sharing my gelato-assessment method, applicable in Italy and around the world, and hopefully of service to you (especially to several specific friends who are going to Italy soon).

First I want to clarify that pretty much all gelato is delicious, even what I term “bad gelato.”  The very humblest kind of gelato is made from pre-packaged powdered mix, consisting of sugar and (usually artificial) flavors and colors, which can be mixed with milk and popped straight into the gelato machine.  The sweet, cold, creamy dessert this produces is still quite yummy, the way cheap candies or grocery store cookies are yummy despite their mundane provenance.  One is certainly happier eating this gelato than no gelato, but in an area saturated with Great Cuisine, like Florence, or Rome, or Montreal, it is seldom worthwhile to settle for the adequate when the sublime lurks around the next corner.

I also stand by my conviction that the quality of gelato is far more variable than that of ice cream, and far harder to predict from flavor options alone.  Ice cream depends on the fat of the cream to help it coagulate, and also on salt as well as sugar, giving it an inherent mix of flavors which are capable of sustaining very complex mixes of flavors (triple fudge marshmallow peanut butter banana chocolate chunk blackberry swirl) and also of concealing it if the ingredients (especially the cream itself) are of middling quality. Gelato is fundamentally just sugar and milk, or sugar and fruit in the case of a sorbeto, and the flavors are usually simple (hazelnut) or extremely simple (fior di late, pure milk).  Thus, you can taste it very easily if gelato contains poor milk, poor fruit, or artificial chemicals (many respectable places still use chemicals to help the gelato coagulate and remain the correct degree of softness in the frezer), far more easily than you can taste the same chemicals supplementing the more full-bodied base flavors of ice cream.

“But I can’t have gelato, I’m vegan and/or lactose intolerant.”

In Florence, Perche no...! has an entire case of dairy-free, vegan gelati, including both amazing sorbets and soy-based creamy flavors.
In Florence, Perche no…! has an entire case of dairy-free, vegan gelati, including both amazing sorbets and soy-based creamy flavors.

I want to briefly combat this assumption.  At its heart gelato is indeed milk-based, but good gelato places also make fruit-based sorbetti, which at their best are pure fruit with sugar, and no dairy at all, while some lower quality ones are mixes of water and fruit extracts, like frozen limeade.  These are perfectly safe for vegan and lactose intolerant people, and many dairy-lovers also love, or even prefer, sorbetti to dairy flavors.  Occasionally the fruit flavors contain egg whites to help them stay solid, but this is uncommon in my experience. If this is a concern it is usually easy to find out by asking.  In addition, more and more serious gelato places have started offering a few flavors based on soy milk or almond milk, to open up gelato more to people who can’t have dairy, and to make use of new exciting flavor possibilities offered by new bases. When I attended the 2012 International Gelato Festival in Florence, I think about a quarter of the competing flavors were dairy-free, possibly more, including both exotic fruits and creamy flavors based on non-dairy milks.  And all were delicious.

Now, the test:

#1) Look at the color of the fruit flavors.  Banana, apple/pear, or berry flavors (frutti di bosco) are the easiest tell.  If the fruit gelati are made of pure, real fruit then they will be the color that fruit would be if you crushed it: berry flavors a deep dark off-black purple/red, apple white or brownish or yellowish sometimes with flecks of peel, and banana a rather unappealing shade of gray.  If, on the other hand, banana is a cheery yellow, apple a perky spring green and berry flavors are the light-ish color of blueberry yogurt, then the gelato before you is a mix of milk with food coloring plus fruit extracts or artificial fruit flavor.  Pistachio similarly should be the color of crushed nuts, not bright green.  The artificial fruit gelati can still be delicious, but only pure fruit sorbetti will give you the overwhelming flavor of top quality fruit gelato which tastes more like fruit than the fruit does, hyperconcentrating the fruit’s flavors and bringing them out with sugar.  This matters even if fruit isn’t your thing: making the gelato out of pure fruit is more laborious and expensive than using flavor extracts, so a gelateria with a brilliant dark frutti di bosco is one that is definitely trying to produce the best, and thus also likely to produce a superior chocolate, crema, etc.  Now, sometimes mixes of fruit with dairy can be good, so a blueberry-yogurt-colored frutti di bosco isn’t always a bad thing, but the pure fruit ones are more difficult and more expensive, so they are always a good sign, even if the opposite is not necessarily a bad sign.  Looking for fruit colors is generally my first test, and if a place passes that’s often enough to say “Yes!” without worrying about other elements of the test.  But if still in doubt:

 

GelatoD
Poor quality fruit gelati. In the foreground left is strawberry and the right mixed berry (frutti di bosco), both in very creamy colors betraying the presence of dairy.
GelatoH
Good berry sorbets. Bottom right blueberry, bottom middle blackberry, bottom left sour cherry, top center strawberry, to its left raspberry, left of that an intentional dairy-mixed creamy frutti di bosco.

#2) Is the gelato mounded up in huge tall piles?  Gelato is soft and fluid, and over time it will naturally flow down, like pudding.  The only way to get it to stably stay in a big tall mound is either to freeze it solid (no longer yummy), or to add chemicals that help it remain solid (which can usually be tasted since there is no salt and little fat to conceal them).  Thus big, tall, enticing mounds of gelato can be a warning sign.  The best gelato will usually not stick above the rim of the bin, unless it has just been brought out.  Many very good gelato places don’t even have an open bin, but keep the gelato in round metal containers with lids deep inside the counter.  This means you can’t see the color of the gelato, but is generally a good sign, since anywhere that doesn’t show off the visuals of its gelato is usually good enough that it knows it doesn’t have to, and cares more about protecting the gelato than about showing it off.  You do need to watch out, though, since some places that serve cheap gelato delivered by vans from warehouses receive it in flat bins with plastic wrap over the top, which is then unwrapped and served.  So while tall mounts of gelato are a bad sign, flat bins aren’t a guarantee of quality.  Metal lids pretty much always mean good quality.

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Tall, eye-catching mounds of colorful gelato, not a good sign. The green in the middle is either pistachio or mint – either way, that’s food coloring we see.
GelatoF
Flat bins of good gelato, in a range of natural colors. Soft and served with flat paddles, not curved scoops.
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Round metal lids protecting top quality all-natural gelato, in Rivareno (Florence).

#3) Look at the flavors of fruit offered: are there seasonal fruits?  Once again this is a sign relevant to both fruit lovers and those indifferent to fruit.  All gelato places will produce lemon, strawberry, and other popular flavors year round, but a gelato place which pays careful attention to the seasons, producing watermelon, apricot, and peach in summer, fig, apple, and pear in autumn, citrus in winter, and diverse berries in spring is another sign that the people in charge care about quality, and are therefore willing to put in extra effort to master a fleeting seasonal fruit which will only be profitable for about a month a year.  This too bodes well for the quality of all the flavors.  Similarly if you see a bright orange apricot flavor offered in December, safe money says that is a 100% artificial flavor, and many of the others probably are as well.

GelatoB
July in Florence. Perche no…! serves blackberry (nearly black), fig (green and speckly since summer figs are young and not red yet), and vivid cantelope. If I saw blackberry in January or mandarin in July, I would worry.

#4) Look at the translucency of the lemon.  A small gelato place may not have any of the more telltale fruits, but lemon is pretty much always in stock.  Is the lemon an opaque, creamy white that looks rather like the white cream-based flavors?  If so, it is milk mixed with lemon extract.  If, on the other hand, the lemon is translucent white or subtly yellowish off-white, so the edges of it are almost transparent like the transparent outer edge of an ice cube that’s in the process of melting, then it is just water and fruit extract.  This again is a bit more difficult and expensive, because it requires better lemon juice to taste good, and is harder to make stay firm, so again it means the gelato makers have put in more effort.

Gelato8
The difference with the lemon is very subtle and hard to photograph. This image may be useful: this is not lemon. The cone on the left is pear and persimmon, while the cone on the right is fior di latte and mango yogurt. Notice how the fruits, on the left, are a little bit more translucent, while the dairy flavors on the right have a milk opacity all the way to their melty edges. Persimmon and mango are both vivid colors naturally, so vivid here, while the pear is subtle and almost white.
GelatoG
The pistachio on the right here is clearly very artificial. The lemon on the left, though, is translucent, and you can see where it’s melting at the bottom of hte bin that it is becoming clear, rather than milky, when liquid. This place (in Venice, where fresh ingredients are extra expensive) is using artificial flavors and additives, but still doing its best to make a passable lemon sorbet.

#5) Do they offer fior di latte, or fior di panna?  These flavors, made from pure milk and pure cream respectively, are the basic form of gelato.  It means they are the flavors that most clearly expose the quality of the milk, and most clearly betray the presence of artificial additives.  In Italy, virtually all gelato places will offer fior di latte, and any one that doesn’t is conspicuous.  Abroad, especially in the US, it is much more rare, because it exposes inferior ingredients, and few non-Italians know what this flavor is (Americans, for example, always ask for vanilla instead, because we’re not used to the idea that the pure white version of a frozen desert could be so good as to require no flavor, not even vanilla).  If a non-Italian gelato place offers fior di latte, it’s often a good sign.  If an Italian one offers fior di panna, that is a sign that they have put in extra serious effort into maximizing the flavor of their dairy (and cream is more expensive than milk) so also good.  But if they only offer fior di latte with chocolate chips, or with flavored syrup drizzled all over it, they could be showing off their syrups, or they could be covering inferior milk.

GelatoA
Center: fior di latte gelato drowned in flavored syrup. The syrups all over these (and the vivid color of the mint in the top left) are warning signs of lower basic quality underneath the sugary drizzle.

#6) Do they offer hazelnut (nocciola)?  This flavor is, gram for gram, usually the most expensive to produce, and to make genuinely powerful.  For that reason, many gelato places save funds by offering chocolate-hazelnut flavors, bacio or Nutella, but not pure hazelnut.  Others compensate with artificial or weak hazelnut.

Gelato13
An interesting case of what is obviously middle-quality gelato. To the left, “pear and Nutella” has used the supplemental flavors of chocolate and hazelnut to boost a pear which is obviously dairy-based. To the right, the vivid green flavor of the fig shows there are artificial colors but there are also flecks of peel, so this is real fig bolstered with additives. Not the best gelato, but far from the worst, and doing the best with what they have.

#7) Still in doubt?  Now you’re ready to ask to taste something to see if the place is good, but what?  Usually you’re going to order two or more flavors, so asking to taste them all in advance is often a bit much.  Traditionally people recommend tasting the hazelnut, since if it has a powerful, good flavor it means they are sparing no expense.  Tasting fior di latte can also work well, since it is the core of all the other cream-based flavors, so if it is strong and pure the rest will be. Another good choice can be to taste a fruit to see if it’s good quality, or anything unusual or subtle, like basil.

Gelato14What do I do if the gelato place is “bad” but it’s the only one around and I want a gelato?

Despair not!  You can still have a delicious experience at a mediocre gelato place, you just need to choose your flavors appropriately.  Usually if a gelato place is mediocre, it is working with inferior milk, and may have to put additives in the gelato to make it stay soft overnight because they can’t afford to make a new batch every day.  These problems can be tasted easily in pure, simple flavors like fior di latte or the fruit sorbets, but you can choose flavors that conceal them, and thus still have a good experience.  Chocolate is a reliable fallback in almost all circumstances.  Another thing to look out for in mediocre gelato places is a complicated flavor mixing two or more flavors, like tiramisu.  A place local to me here has very disappointing sorbets, but respectable chocolate, tiramisu, and pistachio, and remarkably good creative original flavors like root beer or “Elvis” (chocolate, banana, peanut butter) which are well balanced and conceal the mediocre undertones nicely.  Lemon is also a good fallback.  Whenever I have a rough travel day in Italy, I go to the train station gelato place and get a nice cold lemon, and even the terrible gelato they have in a train station is still miraculously curative after a rough day.

For more on gelato, see also my earlier post: Relax.  Have a gelato.

My next gelato-related project is to assemble an International Gelato Atlas listing gelato places around the world, to help everyone who has worked up an appetite find good gelato wherever you travel.  So far it has lots of listings for the USA and Italy but a few for a whole lot of other countries too.  If you know of a good gelato place, please post about it in the comments here, and I will add it to the list.  Please specify (A) location, (B) how much of the above test it passes, (C) if its gelato is all natural, (D) recommended flavors, (C) other attributes you consider worth mentioning, and (D) website if there is one.  Hopefully together we can make a world wide gelato map capable of combatting the symptoms of dreaded gelato withdrawal no matter where we roam!

Florence: Overview of Churches and Monuments

A quick review of the architectural centerpieces of Florence.  Prices and hours may change arbitrarily (this is Italy, after all).

Palazzo Vecchio (Palazzo della Signoria):

  • The old seat of government of the Florentine Republic, later taken over as the seat of the Medici Dukes.  The different parts of the building are a micro-history of Renaissance Florence right before your eyes.  Going to see the outside is a must.  You can pay to go inside, to see the ducal decorations, the offices where all the great humanists used to work, and Dante’s death mask, which is kept there because why not.  Among the decorations are some beautiful intarsia (inlaid wood) doors with portraits of Dante and Petrarch, plus the original of Donatello’s Judith.  You can also see the enormous Hall of the 500, which Savonarola had built, and its over-the-top decorations.  You can’t go up the tall tower where the prison was.
  • Cost: Seeing it from the outside, and entering the lower story, is free.
  • Time required: 20 minutes to just look at, 2 hours for the museum.
  • Hours:  Changing all the time, but usually 9 am to 7 pm, but sometimes 2 pm to 7 pm, and sometimes open super late, often on Thurs or Tues.
  • Website:  http://www.museicivicifiorentini.it/en/palazzovecchio/ 
  • Notes:  See my discussion of it: http://exurbe.com/?p=37

Baptistery:

  • The old heart and symbol of the city, sacred to its patron saint John the Baptist.  The baptistery is right in front of the cathedral, and the oldest of the grand buildings erected to show off Florence’s affluence.  The outside features the Gates of Paradise, with Ghiberti’s gilded bronze relief sculptures, one of the greatest moments in Renaissance sculpture.  Seeing the outside is free, but it is worth paying to go in, because the entire interior is covered with gorgeous gold mosaics in stunning condition, including a fabulous depiction of Hell.  Also Florence’s antipope is buried inside (closest thing they had to a pope before the Medici), and outside keep an eye out for the Column of St. Zenobius nearby.
  • Cost: 4 or 5 euros to go inside.
  • Time required: half an hour
  • Hours: 12 pm to 7 pm weekdays, open 8:30 am to 2 pm on the first Saturday of the month.
  • Notes:  The tickets are sometimes sold at the entrance of the baptistery, but sometimes in a confusing archway to the right of it (if you stand facing the gates of paradise).  People will usually point you the right way.  You get a slight discount if you get the baptistery ticket along with a ticket to climb the Duomo and go to the Museo del Opera del Duomo.

Duomo (cathedral) and Belltower:

  • The grandest church in Christendom when it was built, and still so beautiful that, when you’re standing in front of it, it’s hard to believe it’s real.  The outside is a must-see.  The dome was the greatest engineering marvel of its day, and still astoundingly humongous.  The inside is also worth seeing, with colored marble floors, high clean vaults, and the dome frescoed with a particularly excellent last judgment, with a great Hell-scape.  On the right hand wall look for the tomb of Marsilio Ficino (who restored Plato the the world) and on the left the painting of Dante standing in front of Florence, Purgatory, Heaven and the gates of Hell.
  • You can, separately, pay to climb the dome.  It is taaaaaaaaaaaaall.  Climbing it lets you see the inside between the two layers of the double dome (which is how a dome that big stays up), and lets you see the fresco on the inside of the dome up close.  The view on top is spectacular but a lot of people get major height fear and vertigo up there, even people who don’t usually, due to the dome’s dizzying slant.  Also the cramped area between the domes is rather claustrophobic, giving you the world-class claustrophobia-acraphobia combo!
  • You can also pay to climb the belltower but it’s not hugely worth-it, unless you want to see the bells bells bells bells bells bells bells bells.  In general, though, if you want to climb something, go for the Duomo.
  • Cost: Free to enter the cathedral.  You have to pay to climb the dome.
  • Time required: Half an hour for seeing the cathedral, a couple hours for climbing the dome.
  • Hours: 10:00 am to 5:00 pm, with some complicated exceptions. Check the website with an Italian friend.
  • Website: http://www.operaduomo.firenze.it/monumenti/duomo.asp
  • Notes:  Climbing the dome has a long line a lot of the year, as does the cathedral itself even though you don’t pay; they only let a certain number of people in at a time. (Ex Urbe’s humble assistant Athan can confirm that the line is long and the climb cramped even in January.)
I stole this photo, but there is no other way to show you. Mea culpa.

San Marco:

  • No photography allowed in the monastery, so I can’t offer decent photos.  This is the major Dominican monastery and church (in contrast with the Franciscans at Santa Croce).  The church itself is free, while you have to pay to go to the monastery museum, but it’s only 5 euros and very worth-it.
  • The church is mostly baroque at this point, but contains the tombs of the Renaissance scholars Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Poliziano.  Also a byzantine mosaic Madonna, a nice annunciation, the tomb of St. Antoninus, and an angry bronze statue of Savonarola.
  • The monastery section is the real centerpiece.  Every cell in the monks’ living area was frescoed by Fra Angelico, as were the refectory and other important spaces.  This rare chance to see Renaissance paintings still in their original context lets you understand how they were used and interacted with in daily life.  While almost every room has a crucifixion scene, each one is unique, highlighting some different emotional or theological aspect of the crucifixion, in a perfect example of how Renaissance artists moved on from the repetition of icon making to make each piece offer the viewer a unique new angle on the subject.  You can also see Savonarola’s room and relics, and the room Cosimo de Medici had made for himself when he paid for the renovation of the monastery, so he could come there to have a break from public life sometimes.
  • Cost: Free for the church, 4 euros for the monastery section.  It is on the Friends of the Uffizi pass.
  • Time required: 2+ hours
  • Hours: 8:15 to 1:20 pm weekdays, 6:15 to 4:50 weekends.  Closed odd numbered Sundays and even numbered Mondays.
  • Website: http://www.uffizi.firenze.it/musei/?m=sanmarco
  • Notes:  The priest will usually glare at anyone who comes into the church and makes straight for Pico’s tomb.

Santa Croce:

  • On the East end of town, Florence’s major Franciscan monastery church came to be the major burial place for famous Florentines.  Includes the tombs of Machiavelli, Galileo, Michelangelo, Fermi, Marconi (who invented the radio), Bruni (who invented the Middle Ages), the cenotaph of Dante, and dozens and dozens of other tombs crammed into every surface.  Also excellent Giotto and Giotesque frescoes, and other exciting art.  The orphanage it used to house taught orphans leather working, and it still contains a leather working school.  Also contains one of the surviving tunics of St. Francis of Assisi.
  • Cost: 5 euros!  Expensive!
  • Time required: 2 hours
  • Hours: 9:30 AM to 5 PM except Sundays, when it opens at 2
  • Website: http://www.operadisantacroce.it/
  • Notes:  It tends to be quite cold inside.

Ponte Vecchio:

  • The old bridge, covered with tiny jewelry shops.  This has been the heart of Florence’s gold trade for a long time, and is incidentally one of the most valuable shopping strips on Earth.  At night the tiny little shops lock themselves up in wooden shutters and look like giant treasure chests, which is really what they are.  The view of this bridge from the next bridge down (Ponte Santa Trinita) is also worth seeing.  Be sure, while on the bridge, to greet the statue monument of the incomparable Benvenuto Cellini, Florence’s great master goldsmith/ sculptor/ duelist/ engineer/ necromancer/ multiple-murderer, who wrote one of humanity’s truly great autobiographies.
  • Cost: Free.
  • Time required: half an hour, more if you want to shop
  • Hours:  Shops shut around sunset.

San Lorenzo:

  • My photos do not do this church justice, but they don’t let you take pictures inside.  San Lorenzo is a little complicated because you have to pay separately to go in the different areas:
  • The main part of the church (which costs 3.5o euros) is a mathematically-harmonious, high Renaissance neoclassical church full of geometry and hints of neoPlatonism.  I recommend going in it after Santa Croce and Orsanmichele, since the contrast of its lofty, light-filled spaces and rounded arches gives you a vivid sense of how much architecture has changed in so little time.  Here you can see the excellent tomb of Cosimo de Medici (il vecchio), and some other early Medici tombs, as well as some Donatello reliefs and the remains of Saint Caesonius (no one knows who he is or how he got there, but he’s clearly labeled as a saint, so no one’s willing to move him).  This ticket also gets you into the crypt below the church, where you can see the bottom of Cosimo’s tomb, and a collection of really gaudy reliquaries.
  • Separately, the library attached to the cloister courtyard at the left of the church (which also costs 3.50 euros, but you can get a combined ticket to it and the church for 6) contains the reading room with the desks where the great Laurenziana library was housed.  It is very much a scholarly pilgrimage spot to see one of the first great houses of the return of ancient learning.  The old reading desks are still there where the books were chained, and still labeled with the individual manuscripts.  To get in you also get to (or rather have to) go up Michelangelo’s scary scary staircase.  The library periodically has small exhibits of exciting manuscripts, most recently on surgery, and on the oldest surviving copy of Virgil.  The library is only open in the morning!  Its gift shop sells some fun things including a lenscloth decorated with a reproduction of the illuminated frontispiece of the Medici dedication copy of Ficino’s translation of Plato – ultimate history/philosophy nerd collectable.
  • Separately, the Medici Chapels in the back of San Lorenzo (under its big dome; costs 5 euros, but is on the Friends of the Uffizi card, unlike the other two [why?!]) contain the later Medici tombs, those of Lorenzo de Medici, his brother, the next generation of Medici, and the Medici dukes.  The earlier Medici tombs here have some Michelangelo sculptures on them, while the later ones are in a ridiculously over-the-top baroque colored marble chapel which knocks you breathless with its unbridled and rather tasteless opulence.  One friend I visited with subtitled the chapel: “Baroque: UR doin’ it WRONG!”  An excellent excercise in trying to grapple with the evolution of taste, and why certain eras’ taste matches our own while others don’t.  Also you get to see more over-the-top sparkly reliquaries.
  • Hours:  Different for each bit.

Orsanmichele:

  • The former grain market and grain storage building at the heart of the city was turned into a church when an icon of the Madonna there started working miracles.  Because it was the official church of the merchant guilds of Florence, the different guilds competed to supply the most expensive decoration for it, so the outside is covered with fabulous statues, each with the symbols of its guild above and below.  Seeing the outside is quick and easy.  Seeing the inside is trickier and not always worth cramming into your schedule, but the inside is also beautiful, a very medieval feeling, with saints painted on every surface.  A museum above (open rarely, mainly Mondays) holds the original sculptures, which have been replaced on the outside with copies for their own safety.  But since the sculptures were designed to be seen in their niches, the copies in situ look better than the displaced originals in my opinion.
  • Cost: Free
  • Time required: half an hour
  • Hours: 10 am to 5 pm. Closed on Monday.
  • Notes:  Occasionally hosts concerts.  On the outside is a booth where you can get tickets to the Uffizi without waiting in the Uffizi line.

Mercato Centrale & Mercato San Ambrosio:

  • Not historic, but the two great farmer’s markets of the city are definitely worth visiting, and great for both lunch and souvenir shopping.  Cheese, salumi, spices, sauces, fruits, veggies, oil, vinegar, truffle products…  The Mercato Centrale (near San Lorenzo) has more touristy things and things to take home, while San Ambrosio has more things to eat right now or cook at home, but both have both.  At the Mercato Centrale I particularly recommend eating fresh pasta at Pork’s (order tagliatelle with asparagus, or all’ Amatriciana (with tomato, onion and bacon) or tortellini with cream and ham (prosciutto e panna)), and/or having a porchetta sandwich.  You can also try tripe or lampredotto if you’re brave.
  • Cost: Free
  • Time required: 1+ hours
  • Hours: Morning through early afternoon.