Year of Grace, Day 53. The call of the sea

Physically I may be in Bonn, but emotionally and mentally and all-other-wise, I am still by the sea – smelling its briney and slightly iodiney scent, hearing its waves soothingly rolling, ever rolling, and feasting my eyes on the colours reflected on the waves and the clouds and the slick, moist sand. It is strange that I feel as if I’d been away for longer — much longer than a mere two weeks. Perhaps my yearning for the sea stems from childhood summers spent by the sea – a northern Philippine sea — on my grandmother Lilang Pacia’s beach.

The Mediterranean viewed from Zichron Yaacov, near Haifa

The Mediterranean viewed from Zichron Yaacov (Jacob’s Memory), near Haifa

My first memory of the sea is indelible. I must’ve been two or just a tiny bit more, at any rate I was walking fairly well on my own. I was with a band of cousins and my sister, all of them babbling excitedly of going to the baybay. I had no idea what this baybay was, nor did anyone bother telling me what it would be. I had yet to understand Ilocano fully. I also hadn’t asked. What was to ask – we were going somewhere, somewhere nice from the sound of it. I was the youngest of them all, of this generation — the nearest to my age was a girl cousin a year or so older. Other than my sister, another cousin, and me, all my cousins lived near each other close to the town center (ili) of Santiago, in adjoining plots of land that belonged to Lilang Pacia. In later years some of us would talk about her or think of her as Lola Boni, in essence converting her name to Tagalog, though we never called her that directly. We always called her Lilang or, often imitating a more endearing and more affectionate northern Ilocano intonation and accent — that of the capital Vigan — Lelang, deliberately prolonging the “e.” My grandmother’s name was Bonifacia.

Each of the extended family’s houses was identified by its location within that enclosure – compound might be too grand a name for it but I shall use it anyway for convenience. For instance my Aunt Maria’s house was to the north, and thus it was called Amianan. My Aunt Anita’s was called South, Abagatan, and if we were headed for it, we gave our destination not as Aunt Anita’s house but “diay abagatan.” It was understood among the family that it was not the general geographical south that was referred to, but the house on the south side of the compound. My parents used to have a house between these two. I do not recall having ever seen that house, but my sister, 7 years older than me, remembers it. By the time I was born, my parents had been living and working in Manila for some time.

All I remember from that piece of land where my parents’ house once stood is a stand of silag, the buri palm (Corypha elata). Its young fronds are woven into pagaspas, traditional ornaments for Palm Sunday, carried to church by Catholics to be blessed and then placed by the family altar. I remember eating its small round fruits – the size of marbles — as a child. When immature, the flesh is translucent and tender – we sucked it straight from the hard green shell; once mature it became hard and chewy, but we relished it anyway. There were always reports of tuko — monitor lizards — being seen near the silag and although I’d never seen one, I’d often heard their calls deep in the night – tuk-oooo, tuk-oooo! Walking from the Abagatan to the Amianan or vice versa through my parent’s plot of land was always  a bit of an adventure for fear of coming upon a tuko. The other tree near there that I can recall is a tall duhat (Syzygium cumini) or lomboy as it is called in Ilocano. It had oval fruits, bigger than the usual, slightly astringent near the large central pip, but that didn’t detract from the purple sweet-sour flesh that stained our lips and tongues for hours afterwards.

So on to the baybay we set off, my three male cousins, about 3, 4, or 5 years older – I’m not quite sure of the gap in our ages – had gone ahead as they’d cleverly built themselves scooters out of wood. It was a terribly long walk for my tiny legs. I might’ve made a nuisance of myself, asking where is this baybay repeatedly. I recall the feeling of being unable to walk any further when a rise in the road came up, and there as I got to the top of it, I beheld a slice of piercing blue in the distance between stands of coconut trees.

There it is — the baybay! My cousins and sister yelled and everyone raced towards it. Even exhausted, complaining little me. The first sight of that immense expanse of intense blue made such an impact on me. I can still bring up in my mind’s eye being on that rise and feeling that rush of wonder and surprise at my first glimpse of this amazing baybay. It was nothing like anything I had ever seen. I must’ve seen the sea in Manila, but it was nothing compared to this. This to me was a true, proper sea with a beach of powdery white fine sand, set within the crescent of a lagoon – on one side, the left as you approached, the village of Sabangan. On the right as far as I could see, my grandmother’s land by the beach shaded with countless coconut palms. And along it, a stretch of sand, blindingly white in the sun and that incredible, amazing blue – a pale turquoise close to the sand and in the shallow parts,  deepening with intensity in the distance.

There was a thatched hut somewhere underneath the coconuts – the caretaker’s house, from whose well each of us took turns lowering the little pail to bring up sweet water to rinse our bodies. I had to be helped with this, as it was heavy, and there was also the risk of falling in. I have a vague memory of falling into a well, if not this one, then another. The water from the well was not pleasant to drink – it tasted strange, not quite salty, but it had a murky taste. But we drank it anyway, from polished coconut shells. From the kitchen’s unroofed verandah with a bamboo floor – a bangsal — came fish gutted and scaled, ready for grilling, and maritangtang (sea urchin) too, to be cooked gently over charcoal and stones. There were gaps between those bamboos, and as a child, I often painfully caught a toe in between them and always navigated very gingerly while walking on them.

Of course we feasted on young coconuts, just at that moment plucked from above us by someone agile and surefooted, sent to grasp the towering trunks between their feet, hopping up to the next foothold, up and up dizzily to the clustered green orbs of fruit, and then throwing a few down, making sure no one below was going to be hit. The green coconuts were quickly split in half with the same bolo used to cut them from the cluster above — their soft, translucent flesh silky sweet and tender, slipping down into our throats if they were not quite gelled – marabuteg (the English equivalent doesn’t sound so palatable – “snot-like”) and their sweet water refreshing after a few hours of our fun in the sea.

I am perhaps conflating several separate incidents that took place over the years of my childhood, there on Lilang Pacia’s beach – my mind playing its usual idiosyncratic tricks and my failing memory too. Sea urchins were my mother’s favourite, and when she came to the beach with us, then the offerings were more plentiful — there would be a huge pile of sea urchins to grill over the coals, as well as tinilnak (sea urchin “roe” scooped out of their shells). And an assortment of coral fish too – a parrotfish with its delightful colouring of turquoise and bright green and white meaty flesh is one that I have never forgotten. There would also be a salad of tomatoes and seaweeds – in particular ar-arosep with their dark jade mini-grapelike forms being the one that my mother loved best or fat green spaghetti-like poppôlo (the ^ denotes a glottal stop as spoken in Santiago, but some Ilocano dialects pronounce this word as pokpoklo). There was another type of seaweed that was more common and, like the ungelled young coconut, it was given an infelicitously rude name – or-ormot (“pubic-hair-like”). On these seaside picnics, my Aunt Anita would send a basket with a heavy iron pot — its exterior blackened with soot from years of use – filled to the brim with hot, just cooked rice – only the fish and seafood and coconuts were from the sea and the beach.

Is it any wonder then that I have always longed for the sea? Even storm and rain cannot dim the attractions the sea holds for me. Once, taken by my Japanese family to Atami during my first months in Japan, I was in raptures, despite being unable to see more than a few meters away as the sea and the sky were indistinguishable in monochromes of grey and grey-green and all colours in between. The waves and surf were driven madly by blustery winds and I felt energized by all the power surging around me and refreshed by the cold mist and rain’s needle-like sting on my face.

Last night my birthday was celebrated at Sapore, an Italian restaurant on Poppelsdorf. We’ve enjoyed eating there a few times and have also had their seafood. Having passed by it a few days ago, I thought they’d closed down for the winter. Most Italian-owned food places – in particular ice cream shops – are only open from Easter, and close when its owners return to their homeland like winter birds to spend the cold grey months in sunnier and warm surroundings. I was glad they hadn’t, yet.

For starters, I had a risotto of mushrooms; M had a fish and seafood soup. Both were excellent. The rice was al dente, thus avoiding the convalescent texture of a congee, and it was heady with wine and cheese and the rich, deep essences of fungi. I was half hoping though not really expecting to have some seasonal wild porcini mushrooms (penny buns or Steinpilze) in it, just like a memorable one enjoyed in a tiny eatery in the old Jewish ghetto in Rome. M’s soup was full of delightful prawns and salmon, flavoured with saffron. For mains, M chose an entrecote with a wine sauce – that was brilliant too – it came just as he wanted, medium rare. He likes his meat to almost moo. I chose grilled swordfish. And although it was good, I believe I learned a very good lesson from it.

There is such a thing as the spirit of a place, or spirits if you will – an indescribable and intangible je ne sais quoi that imparts its or their blessing on anything partaken there. The seafood and fish that I relished recently while I was within sight of the sea all tasted divine. Last night’s fish was eaten in a small restaurant — elegant for sure, the service impeccable and engaging — but not the most ideal for recreating the magic of being by the sea.

Instead of waves rolling and crashing against the sea wall, there were sounds of American and other types of English from an international group and ebullient German from a party of businessmen. At one point in that small confined space, the noise was rather strident, and it was such a relief to be out. It took a while for me later to settle into sleep – something had upset my stomach so: I was in excruciating pain. It couldn’t have been the panna cotta, as I had taken lactase to counteract lactose intolerance. I don’t know what triggered it. But I am — for the moment at least until my sensitive stomach fully recovers — (slightly) cured of wanting to eat as I had eaten by the sea not so very long ago. I believe I should stick to something local next time – something blessed by the resident spirits of this place — these fields, these mountains, these forests, these swift running rivers.

It reminds me of lamb we had eaten in Wales years back, while on holiday near the poet Dylan Thomas’ blue and white cottage by the sea. The lamb was so wonderful that we bought a similar piece from the same butcher to take back with us in a cooler as we drove back to Leamington. Roasted in the same way, it did not however taste the same as it did in our cottage by the sea. My dear neighbour, a lovely Welsh lady, who had once done the same thing, confirmed what I had suspected: that there is something about a place that imparts its unique quality to anything eaten there.

There is in Japanese an expression of the bounty of nature: umi no sachi, yama no sachi — the joys of the seas, the joys of the mountains. For a few weeks I have enjoyed the enchantments of the sea, and last night’s swordfish has broken the spell. Now I have a hunch I should be devoting my attention to the pleasures of the mountains and its forests. It is where I am after all, where I live.

For all of these things and the lessons I have learned about the spirits of place. For the blessing of the start of a new year in my life – my 64th year, in good health, in good spirits, showered with an abundance of well wishes and love and affection. And for the appreciation of my journal of grace from family and friends, I am truly and deeply grateful.

Year of Grace, Day 50. The sea for lunch, and love too

There are people who just cannot get enough of seafood, and I have to admit I am one of them. I could happily live the rest of my life as a piscivore. Occasionally I know I might have an irresistible atavistic craving for meat, triggered by the smokey aroma of a lamb cutlet or thick steak on the grill, or the sight of roast pork with its blistered crackling, especially Philippine roast suckling pig known as lechon in its mahogany-lacquered gorgeousness. I have friends — vegetarians for decades — who waiver, whimpering helplessly, at the whiff of bacon cooking to a crisp. All things considered I would be more than content on a diet of deliciousness from the sea. There is so much variety that I don’t believe I would ever tire of prawns, calamari, octopus, shellfish of all kinds from mussels to oysters and razor clams, crabs, lobsters, and of course uni. And I haven’t even mentioned seaweeds, of which there is also an overwhelmingly diverse variety. One of the attractions of Chile as one of my dream destinations is that its coasts have such a rich stock of seafood that is rarely seen or eaten elsewhere. And, equally important, it has brilliant wines to partner with them.

I met a very dear friend for lunch recently and it was a joy to know that we both share an almost insatiable appetite for these delights from the sea. With a glass of wine – white for me, red for her – we rolled back the decades that we hadn’t seen each other as we talked and reminisced of this and that, as we savoured a bite of crisp calamari and a bite of a sweetly succulent mussel. And at the end, we couldn’t resist sopping up the remaining briney, winey essences — slightly peppery from red chili — with some hearty crusty bread.

A sunny day, the sea in sight, a lovely leisurely lunch, great company, and the joy of rekindling an affectionate friendship – these are things to be enormously grateful for.

It is truly a blessing to have loving friendships that endure over time and distance, and to pick up where you’d left off, even though it was decades ago. I shall repeat some sage advice that Hemingway is alleged to have said: Keep your friends, hold on to your friends. Don’t lose your friends. Advice worth repeating several times over, and I most definitely and heartily agree.

And now, a question — why do friendships endure, but romantic relationships not?  Or do they?  There’s a puzzle for you.

Year of Grace, Day 47. The Old Man and the Sea

Anyone who has read Hemingway’s book of the same title would be likely to agree with me that “The Old Man and the Sea” is a lovely name for a fish restaurant. Ideally set facing a marina, it was where we had an exquisite seafood lunch the other day. I have rarely had seafood prepared to such perfection in a restaurant (outside of Japan, that is). And this was by no means an haute cuisine establishment. The children did the ordering: grilled prawns, fried calamari, grilled dorade, steamed crabs. I was hesitant about the crabs – more than a few times I have had them overcooked to a dry stringyness, or if not then they are hardly the best representatives of crabhood. But I was overruled and I graciously acquiesced.

In no time at all a huge array of “little, little things” was laid on the table with a pitcher of freshly squeezed lemon juice. Little, little things are what my family calls the varied salads and preserves and dips that constitute a meze. They come in small bowls and are replenished on request – which reminds me that in Korea they have a similar tradition. Almost half a century ago in Kyongju, I was given fresh shucked oysters in one of these dishes. No sooner had I emptied the dish than another came. And I, being the greedy oyster eater that I am, swiftly scoffed that up and the next one as well. I must have had over a dozen oysters altogether. I was to ruefully repent having been so greedy. I remembered passing by the street behind the restaurant earlier that day, and saw a woman cleaning the oysters outside right on the street in, shall we say, not the most salubrious of conditions.

But back to meze — every eating place has its own particular combination of these amuse bouche. They are a constellation of the stars of Middle Eastern home cooking. Over the past week I have not had the same appetizer repeated in any of the places we’ve been. Or if the ingredients were the same, the taste definitely was not. My favourite of the month is finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley and mint spiked with garlic in olive oil and lemon juice – tabouleh without the bulgur. I know that sounds so plain and unexciting. But absolute freshness is key. And that is perhaps the secret to all of these tiny salads. Put any kind of green herby leafy dish on the table and the Southeast Asian in me — or to be more precise, the Ilocano in me — will be unable to resist. A green leafy dish is to a Southeast Asian what a red flag is to a bull. No else was as interested as me in this emerald green delight.

At another unprepossessing place we called The Garage, being as it was annexed to a petrol station, we got to sample some unusual little, little things. Most extraordinary were pickled baby aubergines, slit in half, like huge red-purple grapes; perfectly ripe tomatoes, peeled (unusually!) so that their pink flesh showed off the tracery of their delicate veins as they glistened in their dressing of olive oil and lemon juice with parsley. One companion’s favourite were sweet carrot coins in lemon juice – so simple and plain, yet so more-ish in their crisp texture that complimented the soft and unctuous texture of the other salad dishes. And the natural sweetness and acidity of the dish was a refreshing contrast as well.  We praised that one so much we got the second helping in a larger bowl.

I had to remind myself not to fill up on these supporting stars to leave room for the main attractions. And when they came, they did not disappoint. The calamari were tender inside their light coat of pale batter, almost tempura-like though not as crisp. The prawns were grilled to perfection – they had retained their sweet moistness. The dorade had been split in half and brushed with olive oil before grilling, and it was also prepared with due care to leave its meaty white flesh tenderly succulent. And the crabs? They were exquisiteness itself – juicy and tender and oh so sweet. I’m glad the children insisted. I used the skewer that came with the grilled prawns to fish out (pardon the pun) every last bit of succulence. The only special seafood cutlery provided was a cracker – one’s own fingers are meant to suffice. Nothing but nothing can compare with a perfectly prepared fish and seafood feast. Tiny crisp-fried pastries drenched in honey and rosewater came with cardamom-scented coffee to end this splendid repast. The only thing I can cavil about is that the coffee came in tiny paper cups. Coffee needs a ceramic surface of just the right thickness for the lips and tongue to savour it properly. Paper just doesn’t do it justice. A walk around the marina and the old town and market to expend some of those calories was followed by “proper” dessert — artisanal passionfruit sorbet and an extraordinary caramelized olive ice cream.

A splendidly memorable day filled with a great many blessings — the utmost of which was having family together and being able to breathe in that seaweedy, salty scent of the sea.  It is a scent that reminds me of my grandmother’s beach and which always takes me back to childhood summers by the sea. For all of these I am deeply grateful. Oh, and for the praying mantis – strangely beige — that hitched a ride with us too.


Year of Grace, Day 6. Simple food

One of my favourite foods is spaghetti with a seafood sauce, and although Bonn has many fine Italian restaurants, it was not until this year that I finally found love at first bite (sorry, I just couldn’t resist). Tuscolo is more noted for its pizza, but it’s their spaghetti al frutti di mare that I  look forward to and always order. It was so good the first time I had it that for the first time in my life, I surprised myself by finishing it all. And the helpings here are enormous. What I love about Tuscolo is that I can rely on them to make this dish unfailingly satisfying each time. The taste is not always the same, probably because they have different cooks, but it is unwaveringly superb. The seafood is absolutely fresh and the sauce, made from fresh tomatoes, light enough not to overpower the prawns and squid. The squid includes the tentacles as well, so squeamish diners might be put off. But I relish squid, tentacles and all. Just a mere suspicion of rosemary, a few sprigs of rucola, a sprinkling of parsley and garlic, plus the enticing smoky scent of grilled prawns on al dente pasta. Simple and honest perfection. And yet, in all these six years of searching for the definitive seafood pasta in Bonn, it is only recently that I have come across it.

Spaghetti al frutti di mare at Tuscolos, Bonn Zentrum

Spaghetti al frutti di mare at Tuscolo, Bonn Zentrum

It isn’t really that complicated to make, and were I to make it, this is the way that I would want my seafood sauce to taste like, though without the rosemary. It is not an herb that I would have thought of including with seafood, but the one or two almost imperceptible snippets of it do give just the right kind of lift in Tuscolo’s sauce.  I do appreciate being surprised by what seem to me as improbable combinations. It surprises me how such a simple dish as pasta partnered with a good seafood sauce has eluded many Italian restaurants here. I found that most often the tomato or cream sauce they use is a stock sauce that they use for everything, and a stodgy one at that. I am really thankful to have found one perfect pasta dish at last! Long may Tuscolo continue to excel in making one of my favourite dishes.

While I am quite adventurous where food is concerned, what satisfies me most is honest food — made from fresh ingredients, simply prepared, and cheerfully and graciously served. Yesterday, Tuscolo delivered as expected, and the waiter was charming and not at all obsequious, speaking mostly in Italian. “Prego, signora!” he said as soon as he presented the menu. Although Saturday is their busiest day, he never lost his smile or good humour. I am also thankful that I didn’t have to wait long. Within a few minutes, a lady brought my rosé wine and then, even before I’d had two sips, my steaming pasta, cautioning me that the plate was extremely hot. It was most delectable and went very well with the Italian rosé. When the waiter came to take away the plates, I didn’t even have to ask; he seemed to have read my mind: “Espresso, signorina?”(I wonder what made him change from the initial ‘signora.’) It was the perfect meal for a lovely, warm not-quite-autumn day. I thank everyone who’s had a hand in making my wonderful meal: from the fishermen to the farmers and vintners, the olive oil and balsamico producers, bakers (there was wonderfully chewy bread for sopping up the wonderful sauce, greedy me 🙂 ), the cooks, and last but not least, the lady server and my engaging Italian waiter.

I am enormously grateful that a simple, well-prepared meal can bring me such a feeling of well-being and contentment. And I didn’t have to  wash the dishes :-). Thank goodness for that!