Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Campanilismo at Dan’s

Something about Dan’s shower curtain bothered me.

I had a sense of déjà vu as soon as I entered the bathroom. I remembered feeling the same last time I was here, some months ago. But I couldn’t quite put my finger on why, which was perplexing, because at first glance it’s a fun and completely inoffensive affair from Target: a world map of cartoon-like cartography, hand-written text and brighter primary colours than a traditional Rand McNally. So what was it? I conducted a quick global geographical survey.

It wasn’t because it represented the typically US-centric view of the world you get here, from the TV news (and some maps); it was a standard projection, centred on the Greenwich Meridian. No geo-political bloopers stood out. The myriad former Soviet republics appeared to be accounted for, although there could have been a nasty dispute over what the freehand drawing style meant for the India-Pakistan border.

I did notice a slapdash application of the colour scheme. As most cartographers know, the four colour theorem states that the regions of any map can be shaded using at most four colours, in such a way that bordering regions, other than those connected at a single point, do not share the same colour. Five colours give you wiggle room; six, chosen for a more aesthetically pleasing look, should be plain sailing. So my design-minded self was disappointed to see Italy and Austria were both orange, Russia and Belarus the same shade of blue.

But it wasn’t that either. It was something closer to home. I turned my gaze to the UK.

Sunderland! That was it! London and – inexplicably – Sunderland were the only two cities in the UK to be labeled. What about Edinburgh… Cardiff… Belfast? Manchester? Even Birmingham would have been better.

Target, nonspecifically, says the product is “Made in the USA or Imported”, which does nothing to rule out the possibility of a Chinglish-like cartographical error made by a graphic designer in a Guangdong province shower curtain factory. But I think it must have been designed by a native of Sunderland – a Mackem. I could think of no other reason the erstwhile self proclaimed Largest Shipbuilding Town in the World, whose biggest claim to fame these days is as the site of the UK’s biggest car factory, a rare dose of economic development injected into the depressed North East by the Thatcher government after the coal mines and ship yards closed, would be elevated to the status of world cities like Paris, Rome or Tokyo.

Sunderland bloody Sunderland. I grew up a few miles away, but in the catchment area – geographically and culturally – of the larger, neighbouring city of Newcastle. This makes me a Geordie. Geordies and Mackems enjoy a fierce local rivalry, these days mainly on the football pitch (but not this season – Newcastle were relegated while Sunderland stayed in the Premier League, a bitter pill for us Geordies to swallow), but previously in the shipyards, and even as far back as the English Civil War. Due to the irksome Sunderland-centrism displayed in Dan’s bathroom, this rivalry now extends, improbably, to world map shower curtain design.

Thankfully, and in keeping with the recognition of the Prime Meridian on the map projection, it was a belief in Euro-centrism, rather than Sunderland-centrism, that was suggested by Dan’s Italian menu. (I don’t know what the local specialty in Sunderland is – puppies, probably – but I wouldn’t recommend it.) But just like Geordies and Mackems, cats and dogs, rivalry – campanilismo – has always been an integral part of Italian regional identity, and by extension, Italian food. So by way of an appetizer from Venice and the Veneto, a fish course from the often disregarded coastline, and a Tuscan entrée, Dan took us on a short tour of Italian cuisine, with regional bragging rights at stake.

The antipasto (admittedly not unique to particular region) drew first blood with the grace of an Olympic fencer. A simple green leaf salad was deftly dressed with a delicate honey and sherry vinaigrette, and served with goat cheese, lightly fried in breadcrumbs. The wine pairing of Hess Chardonnay, with its bright fruit, complemented to the goat’s cheese well.

The Rollino Veneto con Tomato-Basilico – pizza roll with wonderful smoked mozzarella and sweet, caramelized onion, served on a bed of intensely fresh tomato, basil and garlic salad – was the kind of simple, rustic taste sensation that makes Italian cuisine so popular with cooks and diners alike. Although Dan expressed a little dissatisfaction at the density of the pizza dough, it wasn’t so heavy that I couldn’t finish what J Boogie left when he said “basta!” A pretty even fight so far, but that was all about to change.

It’s rather surprising that, despite its 5,700 mile coastline, pesce plays a relatively minor role in Italian cuisine when compared to meats, cheeses and pastas. While not technically a region, the Coppette di Pesce alla San Pietro represented the coastal areas. The ceviche, served in a martini glass in the style of California’s Trattoria Grappolo, featured halibut, salmon, melon, cucumber, lemon, coriander, champagne and, with a little tropical license, mango and papaya. It was, Teddy said, simply the best he’d ever had. Bravo. With this course we drank an Italian white, appropriately enough from the seaside of Campania. The Sibilla Falanghina’s mineral acidity was a perfect match for the fish.

It wasn’t over yet, however. The fat lady hadn’t sung. A fantastic aroma announced the challenge of Tuscany. Pollo al Diavolo – Devil’s Chicken – was mustard and black pepper rubbed roast chicken, basted in jalapeno pimento oil served with fried goat’s cheese. And very tasty it was too. More by coincidence than design I’d brought a Tuscan red – San Polo Rubio – which worked well as an accompaniment. The devil usually has all the best tunes, but when the fat lady did sing, she was still singing the praises of the ceviche. Nice try, Tuscany, but the coast was still out in front.

It was hard to believe Dan didn’t have an ice cream maker when he produced the gelato, a peppermint and custard-based Mint Chocolate Chunk Ice Cream alla San Daniele. But maybe he’s just some kind of ice cream saint. It was a revelation, but ruled out of the competition on a technicality: like the antipasto, gelato is omnipresent in Italy.

After finishing the meal, and with the Coppette di Pesce alla San Pietro, representing the coast, the campanilismo victor, I revisited the bathroom. The two Italian cities on the world map shower curtain, Rome and Naples, are both on the coast. (Well, Rome is 20 miles inland, but as I said at the top, the map is kind of freestyle.) Was that a coincidence? Why not Milan, Italy’s second city, and almost 100 miles from the sea? Maybe there was more to this map than I first thought. Maybe it wasn’t drawn by a Mackem. Maybe this Chinese graphic designer knows more about regional rivalries than I gave him credit for. After all, unlike Newcastle and the Geordies, Sunderland and the Mackems are still in the Premier League.


Damien Mooney said...

Loved reading this post Clearly that Geography degree has come in very useful. Evidently, I am living in the wrong city. DM

Julie Kelly said...

Great story and lovely post. All the dishes you mentioned are incredible and they have a unique taste. Keep updating.

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