It’s an itsy bitsy week for me, rushing around to get things organized for a week away with the Blondes. We are four friends (with varying degrees of blondness), with friendships that go back more years than I like to add up, to our days working together at Time Out. Three of us are still journalists, one now also a playwright and the fourth a dedicated film buff. We all have children (two are glamorous grannies) and we’ve been friends since any of us had any commitments, living on a shoestring in rented flats near down-town Kings Cross, then where Time Out’s offices were located in a ramshackle multi-floored building before we moved to Covent Garden and then Tottenham Court Road. We are off to Kotor, in Montenegro, for a week, leaving on Thursday.
Lucky me, I’m the gooseberry for lunch at the River Café with The Barrister and his mum. We are celebrating her ninety-second birthday but no-one would guess this spry, sharp, beautifully turned out lady had reached such an impressive age. The B and I decide to cycle, a lovely 15 minute riverside ride from my house. Foolishly I ignore the darkening sky and dress inappropriately, so we get soaked on the way back. But I’m getting a head of myself. We have an early table and already, by 12.30, the restaurant is half full, the place buzzing. Today’s lunch menu is as enticing as ever, written in that distinctive hand, the antipasti, primi, secondi on one side of the single sheet, gelati del River Café, dolci and formaggi, on the reverse. I think of Rose (Rose Gray, also an ex-Time Outer), partner to Ruthie Rogers, whose untimely death is still sadly missed here. The even more distinctive, instantly recognisable RC logo with its wavy blue underlining was probably first penned by Rose or sculptor husband David Macilwaine (www.davidmacilwaine.com). The B chooses calamari ai ferri, a dish so popular I doubt they can ever take it off the menu. The chargrilled squid is etched with a fine lattice and served with scraps of fresh red chilli in olive oil with wild rocket (now a staggering £23), and Liz and I both opt for granchio, freshly picked, mainly white crab tossed with crushed green beans and a lavish dusting of Sardinian bottarga. This turns out to be a sublime and stunningly generous mound of white and green soft food, the plate lavishly speckled with orange/yellow salty, fishy bottarga (cured cod roe). My it was good, so good, we had a doggy bag for leftovers. As rain lashed the windows and the outside tables were hurriedly tidied away, we three tucked into maltagliati, hand-cut pasta with pork slow-cooked in Calvarino (Soave) and herbs. Melt in the mouth pork, silky, tender pasta and rich gravy. Perfect.
Supper was the most perfect cauliflower cheese. The milky, cauli water flavoured sauce enriched with crème fraiche, the flavour piqued with Dijon mustard and a splash of white wine, adding hard-boiled eggs with par-boiled chunks of cauli. I follow my mum’s preference for including some of the stalk, the top turned into a thick, golden carapace with finely grated Parmesan and fine breadcrumbs. Yum, yum.
Up at the crack to welcome Wayne and Wayne from www.wheelersflowers.com to cut back my garden triffids and wave goodbye to The B, heading off to Trinidad on a case. I’m on granny duty later, but faff around all morning and treat myself to a bought carton of Waitrose mushroom soup (pepped up with a splash of sherry and squeeze of lemon) for lunch and Secret Smokehouse smoked salmon on toast for supper with cheese on toast to follow. Early bed and no booze.
No coffee this morning as I’m having a flu jab later and my blood pressure checked. The latter is high, so have a comfort lunch of flaked tuna and what turned out to be a double-yolker, soft-poached egg on toast. Start packing for Montenegro. I hate packing, so open a bottle of white to help me along. Shop for the pic-nic I’ll be taking when I head off with my suitcase tomorrow afternoon to meet one of the Blondes at Victoria Gatwick Express. I buy a chicken to cook a la wet chicken, a Blondes favourite when the bird is roasted with white wine and lemon juice, the cavity stuffed with thyme, garlic and lemon. Also, superior ‘supreme’ hummus (M&S), traditional coleslaw and tomatoes to halve and roast.
Make grouse stock from freezer carcasses, with thoughts of my favourite soup, when pheasant or grouse stock is seasoned with lemon juice and served with griddled ‘toast’ topped with grated Parmesan and soft poached egg. Supper is grilled lamb chops, frozen petits pois and mint sauce made with mint from the garden. Toast, specially Hedone brown toast (leftover loaves sliced and frozen, so I am never caught short), is still my default food. I could live on it and often do (along with soup).
Cook the chicken, roast the tomato halves and leave both to cool while I drive Red to stay with Wilbur, her best dog friend and family on the far side of Hampton Court. Before I go, I make my version of zuppa alla Pavese, an exquisite soup from Pavia for lunch. Apart from good stock, it requires very few ingredients – an egg and a slice of dense-textured sourdough-style bread per person, olive oil and freshly grated Parmesan. My version is made with fried bread (made on a griddle, smeared first with olive oil), the egg poached separately.
I’m back in good time and pack the pic-nic, tearing the chicken into bite size pieces and making a foil parcel. Tomato halves are packed in one of my favourite plastic boxes (from Del’s, one of those everything-you-need-hardware-shops on Askew Road). Add paper plates and my superior pic-nic cutlery, with a tray of mixed fruit for pud. Our rooms at Gatwick-handy Premier Inn, are in a row, so we gather in one room to pic-nic. Drink 2 bottles of Vina Sol, bottle of rose and masses of water and reminisce about Time Out, toasting our old boss, Tony Elliott, the brains behind TO (as we call it; and Tony is TE). Turn in early, as we need to be out of our rooms by 4am to catch 6.35am flight.
Buy smoked salmon and brown seeded bread sandwich for breakfast to eat on the plane. Good flight, good taxi connection, so we arrive at our house just outside Kotor relatively refreshed and relaxed. Dump bags and head off to a local restaurant we’d spied on our journey. It’s right on the waterside and the meal begins with a dollop of fish pate, a delicious mush, probably tuna with olive oil and a pretty flat leaf parsley garnish. We share a black cuttlefish risotto and Greek salad. I had similar inky black risottos down the road in Croatia, the rice stained with cuttlefish ink, scraps of white squid-like flesh flecked through the rice. I found it bland but in a very pleasant way. It’s prettily presented with a couple of slices of tomato and lemon wedge and worked perfectly for us as a light meal with the chunky salad. Stagger up the road to the supermarket, the one we will use every day and load up with everything we can think of that we might need for the next couple of days. There is no fresh meat or fish but I suggest buying a couple of roast chicken portions, thinking I’ll turn them into a creamy, lemony sauce with softened onion, garlic and sliced mushrooms to mix with pasta. I find mint behind our terrace. It was a great success. Early bed.
Make fruit salad with oranges, pink grapefruit, bananas and peaches with strange liquid yoghurt for breakfast then we all slump in the sun on the terrace, chatting and reading and occasionally stealing ourselves for a quick dip in the freezing cold, out of the sun, small swimming pool. I’m restless, not in the mood for reading but (as usual) thinking about the next meal. We have wonderful fat, dark red tomatoes and I’d snuck a jar of avjar – a rough puree of roasted red peppers and aubergine – in our shopping trolley and as we’d loaded up with tinned sardines and tuna, a recipe is formulating. Tomatoes are peeled, quartered, the seeds tipped into a sieve, the flesh diced and the seed juices whipped with olive oil and a dash of vinegar to make vinaigrette. The diced tomato is mixed with some vinaigrette, the rest stashed in the fridge for other salads. Filleted sardines are piled over avjar-spread toast, topped with diced tomato and rocket swiped through left behind tomato juices. Huge hit.
We’d been told to expect a fisherman to appear at some point. We assumed he’d be arriving in his fishing boat, but cries of ‘riba, riba…’ heralded the arrival of a clapped out estate car driven by a wiry, middle-aged man who jumped out of his car, the boot opened and polystyrene boxes opened to put his wares put on display as we clambered down our steep stairway (over 100 steps flanked by olive and fig trees). Mackerel, squid, anchovy, gkw (god know’s what) and perfectly plump small sea bass, their mouths wide open denoting line catching, caught our eye. We bought four bass, which ‘riba, riba ….’ (fish in Montenegrin), weighed before he climbed down a couple of steps at the water’s edge and proceeded to rub away the scales, gut the fish and fling the debris out to sea where it was deftly lifted and gobbled by a greedy seagull. He was a master; quite the best gutting I think I’ve ever seen. We stashed our spoils in the fridge and set off for a stroll and sea swim (gorgeous) then another visit to our eccentric supermarket, where we bought ginger, a recommended local white wine, nuts and tea. I picked wild fennel and rosemary to stuff the fish, which I oiled and chilled covered with clingfilm while the bbq achieved white ash stage. I’d also bagged 4 red peppers which I roasted til the skin was blackened and left on a plate with clingfilm to sweat and cool, so the skin was easy to lift off. The peppers were sliced into strips and laid overlapping on a platter then scattered with chopped garlic, cornichons and mint, the only available soft herb, over the top. The fish took about 8 minutes a side, until the skin turned crusty and scorched, making it easy to turn them without catastrophe. Fish, peppers and a mixed leaf salad with ready-made tomato vinaigrette was a triumph.
Our rented house is high up with unobstructed views directly across the fjord to a spectacular ridged mountain range with a narrow road like the one on our side flanked by a dense pattern of houses. The sun picks out an ever- changing sparkle and hidden surprises like a flat piece of rock with an arched brow that might well be a 007 hideaway. Boats of all sizes, from tiny fishing sloops to boy-racer motor boats, people and car ferries and mega big cruise liners, pass up and down the waters so the view changes from minute to minute. It didn’t take us long to think about planning a boat trip. At this time of the year, late in the season at the end of September and early October, the sun is over the hills behind us by 3.30. We decide to catch the bus that nips past our house at about fifteen minutes past the hour at 4.15. Our plan is to check out what boats go where and how much they cost, make a booking then wander round Kotor old town and find somewhere for supper. Needless to say, things didn’t work out exactly as planned.
First, though, lunch. I’d spied a can of sweetcorn in the food cupboard and decided to mix it with more diced tomato and mix it with lumps of not particularly eco-friendly dry, flaky tuna in thin olive oil, all dressed with more of our tomato vinaigrette. It looked stunning, edged, as it was with halved boiled eggs garnished with scoops of soft and creamy so-called feta. With garlic rubbed, olive oil splashed toast and our jar of ajvar, this was a lovely mix of textures and flavours.
We were lucky to find seats on the bus. It lurched down the narrow coastal road packed with locals, stopping and starting as customers hailed or wanted to leave, and we gasped as the long white bus almost skimmed oncoming cars. I dread to think what the road is like at high season but the scariest aspect is how little space there is to pass any vehicle let alone a lorry or another bus. 20 minutes later we are happy to climb out at the jetty where young men from boat companies vie for our attention but the day’s work on the water is over. We seek advice at the information kiosk but what we want – a boat that sails the fjord, so we can see the different settlements, lets us off to wander and have lunch then guaranteed passage back a couple of hours later – doesn’t seem to exist. We note a few web addresses and phone numbers and decide we need refreshment.
The food market that lines part of the walls of the old town is on the wane but we see interesting cheeses and cured meat, honey with nuts and coils of dried figs, making a note to build in time to check it out properly on our next Kotor visit. The old town is reached through an imposing archway. Look up and you see the remains of the city walls zig-zagging up an impossibly steep track with a steady trail of keen tourists making their way onwards and upwards. We grab a table in the first of many small squares and order our favourite white wine and a platter of local ham with thick, small pieces of very fatty and very meaty cured sausage, slivers of smoked cheese triangles and cherry tomatoes. Without asking, a basket stuffed with chunky pieces of pale brown very fresh bread is quickly on the table.
We ambled down the narrow alleyway opposite our bar/café, past one (closed) fake handbag shop (of which, more next week), several surprisingly expensive summer clothes shops and countless gifty-shoppe-shops, many with cat-related gift stuff, like Venetian-style masks and a so-called Cat Museum (a shop). Round every corner was an ever-narrower alley, leading into other alleys opening into small courtyards, some with bars and cafes, then into squares with beautiful buildings and small churches. We passed several jazz clubs/bars, one where we settled for supper. As the light faded and jazz filled the night air, we were served by an irritating old-style waiter who pushed us towards the most expensive dishes on his international menu; elaborate steak dishes and fish like salmon, so obviously not local. We opted for the most modest dishes on the menu: two of us chose chicken fillets rolled and stuffed, the others a similar dish with turkey. The latter was the better choice, wrapped, as it wask with smoked ham, stuffed with gorgonzola and salad on the side. Both came with a few wonderful chips with intense flavour and funny floppy texture. The potatoes reminded me of Irish potatoes, both waxy and floury. The wine was so delicious and the jazz so soothing, we had to have another bottle. Gas, gas, gas, more Blonde confession of past TO life.