Thursday, 26 November 2009

Lovely Time Out Review of The Draft House Northcote, our new pub in SW11

 
 
Lovely review in Time Out today of Draft House:
http://www.timeout.com/london/bars/reviews/22395.html 
 
Our website is pretty basic at the moment (full site up next week) but the review gives a good flavour of what we're all about.
 
Our official launch is in January but we are taking preview bookings until then.
 
Let us know if you want to pop in northcote@drafthouse.co.uk

All the best,
Charlie
PS - WE STILL HAVE A FEW SLOTS LEFT FOR LAST MINUTE CHRISTMAS PARTIES AT THE WESTBRIDGE PARTY ROOMS
 
There are three fantastic spaces to celebrate in - we can do anything from a table for two to a seated dinner for 50 (not to mention a full-on rave for 100 people). And all at pub prices.
 
 
 
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Westbridge Bar Ltd | 74-76 Battersea Bridge Road | London | SW11 3AG | United Kingdom

Friday, 30 October 2009

The Draft House - Open for Business. Some thanks...



So, after a collossal amount of thought, stress, dust, money, great ideas, dreadful ideas (all of which might better be summarised as Sturm und Drang or in reality just so much  Smoke and Light), The Draft House Northcote Road is open.

I hope the end result matches our ambition at the beginning. I think it does. That ambition was to make a place that did for draft beer (our national drink after all - in spite of the horrors visited upon it) what our culture has done for food and wine over the past twenty years. Namely to take the quality, provenance and serving of it seriously - and to celebrate choice. With 17 beers on tap and more than fifty in bottle I think we have certainly achieved the latter. No less important we wanted to provide good, honest food and warm service with heart. This last is the hardest to achieve but I think we will get there, no doubt with a few stumbles along the way. We hope you will come and take a look, try a pint of thirds and an ox-tongue fritter and (PLEASE) let us know what you think.



As we won't be having an opening party until January I wanted to get some thank-yous in.

We have a lot of people to thank, none more than those who haven't shown up yet - our beloved customers, or guests as we must now call you. Well, actually, you have shown up - in spite of the lack of signage, in spite of the pile of builder's rubble outside (yes, only the inside is finished - we hope that by tonight the rest will be more or less done) and we love you for it.


But I must also thank:

  • Our stalwart architect, Richard Blandy - an island of calm in an uncertain, floating world
  • Wayne Barrell - our builder. Yes, we still are on speaking terms (but then, I haven't had the final bill yet). Wayne has been very tolerant and cheerful of a project wherein the specification has been pretty much made up as we went along.
  • the stupendously cool and stylish Frith Kerr of Studio Frith for her relentlessness in preventing me from being naff 
  • Justin Anderson for the work of art which will adorn the currently blank sign on the exterior. And for being my early sounding board ref the Draft House - he was surprisingly tolerant for a teetotaller. Noone I have met is more creative.
  • our chef, Simon Noumar for riding to the rescue after Chef #1 walked out after a week (legals prevent me from fully expressing myself on that subject). Simon, what a top man you are.
  • Matt Jacomb, for introducing me to Simon.
  • Greig Middleton, for stewarding us so calmly and gracefully through the brand development process.
  • To the blaggers and bloggers who agreed to be Guinea Pigs - you know who you are
  • To Mathilde for letting me use her photos from this week. 
  • Leigh Milner, for giving up all conjugal rights over her fiance Adam Simmons during this process
  • Le Cafe Anglais for tolerating my complete lack of focus over the past two weeks (actually, I imagine you were thrilled)
  • The whole team at The Westbridge (see Le Cafe Anglais) but also for tolerating being a dumping ground for endless Draft House detritus
  • To the new team at Northcote Road - good luck!
  • Theo Fordham of Twenty Retail for finding the site (and looking at 100 others we didn't take)
  • Alex Mole (now GM at Westbridge). Again, ports in storms and all that.
  • Juan (pronounced Jewan) Christian - our Manx man who we knew was a star from the first moment he walked in the door at Westbridge three years ago and who will now be running The Draft House 
  • Charlie Moul for fixing everything (and for his gasp of pleasure when he first sipped a Draft House Light Lager yesterday)
  • To Sof (the lovely Mrs McVeigh) for tolerating an almost terminal state of distraction and general work-related solipsism (thanks babe)
  • Adam Simmons (the main man at Westbridge and Draft House) for quite simply keeping the whole goddamn show on the road. Only yesterday did he finally lose it, and sent himself home for a rest. An hour later he was back smiling. Adam, your determination to get the job done and the general leadership shown has been extraordinary. Thanks, pal.
There is of course a lot more to say but I'll save that for a future post. Onwards and upwards...




The Draft House Northcote Road
94 Northcote Road
London SW11 6QW
020 7924 1814
northcote@drafthouse.co.uk

Friday, 9 October 2009

So, what did my sister's show look like?



This is how it looked. Without the celebrities. The demi-monde. The critics. I am told she almost sold it out the night before anyway. I wonder if she can lend me a dime?

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Two Thrilling Wine Dinners at Le Cafe Anglais Up-Coming



We are very pleased to announce – at rather short notice, I know – the return of Paolo de Marchi to Le Cafe Anglais. Maker of sublime Chianti (Gordon Brown won’t be coming then), the legendary Cepparello and now forging ahead with wines from his family estate in Piedmont, Paolo is an old friend whose wines are very dear to our hearts. After last year’s brilliant dinner, it would have been criminal not to get him back. Expect an evening of wonderful wine, some gutsy autumnal food and an opportunity to meet one of the wine world’s most modest but engaging personalities. Priced at £70.00 (plus service), this is a date not to be missed. Please check your diaries for Tuesday October 13th and book without delay.


DINNER I



DINNER II


Our next dinner promises to be a rare treat. Giles MacDonogh is a man of many talents. A great expert on German and Austrian food and wine, he has written extensively on the subject (especially in that great paper of record, The Financial Times) and was chairman of the German and Austrian panels of this year’s Decanter Wine Awards Giles may be better known as a historian, specialising in twentieth century German history. His most recent book, 1938: Hitler’s Gamble was extremely well reviewed on its publication in June. Giles has a third string to his bow, being a painter of striking architectural images(go to www.macdonogh.co.uk  to learn more). Ostensibly an evening of Austrian food and wine (think Tafelsptitz, Kracher and Brundlmayer), this should be a highly stimulating and enjoyable dinner on Monday October 19th. Priced at £70.00 plus service.


To book call 020 7221 1415 or e-mail us at info@lecafeanglais.co.uk. 

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Noted Critic JJ Charlesworth on my Sister's Work


Ahead of Whitney's new show, which opens 9th October at the A Foundation, here is an essay by JJ Charlesworth. It is extraordinary to see reference points such as Jackson Pollock, Max Ernst and Yves Klein. For more information go here.

Whitney McVeigh: Between Bodies and Images

Looking at Whitney McVeigh’s new work, the big monochromes and the fragile collages and monoprints on aging paper, provokes some surprising questions about what makes art contemporary, and how contemporary art deals with its own history. Because McVeigh ploughs a very different furrow from a great many artists working today. She doesn’t work with video, and she doesn’t make ‘conceptual’ art or installation art or performance. She doesn’t make ironic work about how weird it is to be an artist, or art that is to do with pop culture or fashion or politics. Her work is not high-tech, or obsessed with mimicking the high finish of design objects or luxury goods. She works with paint and ink and paper and brushes – traditional, basic materials and techniques – and her constant theme has a classical dimension to it, as if returning to first principles – making a mark in which the human figure often appears to emerge, from little more than the visible shift from black to white.

This isn’t what you tend to expect from artists working today, and McVeigh’s work seems to ask of us that we should stop to consider what it is we have grown used to in contemporary art, and how her work differs from this. Mostly, what it asks is for us to wonder whether some important ideas, that once focused the energies and arguments of artists, have been forgotten or put aside in much of the art of the moment. But given that McVeigh’s works are not a simple return to past attitudes and ideas, but cut across different ways of thinking about and making art, what might these questions be?

McVeigh’s monoprint works combine an openness to the spontaneity of fluid materials with an acute sense of attention to what they might yield, producing surfaces on which physical matter becomes image. She might say that she is not making images so much as trying to discover them, and when she talks about working with the materials she uses, she suggests that they might have a ‘life of their own’. Unlike a more conventional painter, whose mark-making is defined by the intermediary of brushes she uses, McVeigh works with a more unstable and unpredictable set of procedures, in which paint is poured onto or applied to paper, and in which a process of folding over of the paper, and the transferring of the paint between sheets, allows it to be configured in multiple layers. While McVeigh’s way of working is highly tactile, it is also distanced by the layers of paper she uses to impress the paint – she’s often pressing through the paper to the paint, rather than applying paint onto the paper with a brush. It’s a way of working that stops us from being too preoccupied with the ‘touch’ of the artist - of the sense that what one is looking at is a form of ‘writing’, in which the movement of the brush is the equivalent of the gesture of the artist’s hand; and, by implication, a sort of extension and expression of their emotional state or their personality.

Most famously, it was Jackson Pollock who did away with the touch of the brush in painting, allowing drips and pours into painting’s range of technical possibilities. Other artists come to mind: the Surrealist Max Ernst developed ways of pressing oil paint under glass to produce unpredictable, organic patterns and forms; and Yves Klein notoriously used the direct impression of naked human models onto canvas in his series of Anthropometries. Such a range of examples points to an important development in western art in the latter half of the last century – the shift of interest from painting as a carrier of images or representations, towards the painted mark as a material presence in its own right, or as the direct index of another physical presence or object.

What these earlier examples share is a fascination for how a material such as paint might be released from the codes, habits and traditions that tend to dictate how it has been used by artists in the past. They explore the potential of chance and accident in the making of a painted surface, and they partially relinquish the painter’s authority over his or her materials. In so doing, they tend to foreground the matter of the medium – the physical substance of the paint itself – emphasising its own identity and particular qualities. With artists like Klein, painting was rolled back to its most basic conditions - that of the recorded imprint of a physical body onto a surface, in which the paint acts as both image of, and one-to-one impression of, the original subject.

All of these examples reflect some aspects of what goes on in McVeigh’s monochromes, even though they are only partial affinities and handy approximations. Nevertheless, thinking about artists like Pollock and Klein allows us to think about the nature of a body and its relationship to a painting, and to us. Jackson Pollock’s body might not be ‘represented’ in his drip paintings, but they are full of the implied movement of his body. At the opposite extreme, when Klein pressed living bodies against canvas, these were not paintings of bodies, but paintings made by bodies. In the former, the need for an image has been replaced by an interest in the paint’s material presence. In the latter the image is the direct record of the object, not translated via the eye and the hand of the artists.

McVeigh’s work, by contrast, is still interested in the possibility of the painted image. Her monochromes are full of bodies; bodies made of heads, necks, torsos. They’re not ‘studies’, however. McVeigh hasn’t looked at someone and made an image of them. Instead, the bodies in her paintings ‘emerge’ in and among the formations of paint that are shaped and organised.

But perhaps the bodies in McVeigh’s works should really be called ‘figures’. What, then, is the difference between an image of a body and an image of a ‘figure’? If nothing else, this has something to do with what we understand a human being to be, as distinct from a human body. With McVeigh’s work, I’m preoccupied with the distinction between a body and somebody; between the mass of flesh and bones that makes up each of us, and the presence of thinking, living, communicating beings that are this thing we call human, which can’t simply be reduced to just a heap of dumb matter. In her monochrome works, it’s as if this distinction is the only thing that matters in the world.

Out of the formless matter of the paint emerge forms which remind us of human beings, forms which suggest the gestures of bodies that are alive with feeling and consciousness. They’re not painted as if they were at a distance – seen within the space of some visual surrounding, an image of a subject in a setting. Instead, they seem up close, almost as imprints of bodies, but still just far enough away to appear as images. This slight shift, between the bare, physical presence of the paint and the intuition of a human figure, could be seen as analogous to that slight shift that exists between the human body and the human being. McVeigh’s studio is full of portrait photographs culled from magazines. they are always of people whose faces are full of shape and incident, which are undeniably solid, flesh and bone, and yet looking at the camera with the intensity of attention one accords another human being. The question at stake in McVeigh’s images is presence; the possibility that we might recognise a presence that corresponds to our own in the matter that is in front of us.

This is undeniably a way of thinking about images of people that finds its roots in the modern art of the last century – it is this period that most vividly produced images of human beings caught between the materiality of existence and the experience of being. In more recent decades, the philosophical tendency has been to reject such metaphysics, and reduce human beings to mere matter, biological machines that have neither soul (if you are what used to be called ‘religious’) nor free will (if you are what used to be called a ‘Humanist’). But maybe what it means to be human might still add up to more than the sum of its material parts, in the way that McVeigh’s minimal, reduced forms of paint still add up to more than just paint smeared on paper. In McVeigh’s small drawings, made on the pages of second hand technical books, there is little more than a kind of black smudge – a vertical body or a whorl of knotted black energy - which nevertheless manages to say something like ‘I am here’, beyond the mechanical and lifeless information that is printed on the page beneath. One particular drawing stands out, when thinking of McVeigh’s attitude towards presence. On one side is a reproduction of a Portrait of a Young Woman, by the sixteenth-century German painter Jorg Breu. But over her face has been traced another face, of an old crone. It makes little sense, until one discovers that the origin of the tracing is to be found on the reverse of the page, in another reproduction, of a portrait of an old woman. The face of one woman is traced into the face of the other, as ‘lines in her face’. What was an image of the human body has become physical, once again, inscribed not as a reproduction or re-presentation, but as a physical inscription of a body, inscribed into another body. More than an image of a thing, it is the mark of human presence, and of the artist who makes it.

© JJ Charlesworth 2009

Monday, 14 September 2009

Chateau Batailley Dinner at Le Cafe Anglais


Dinner with Chateau Batailley

Monday 14th September

Aperitif

Saint-PĂ©ray Brut NV Thiers

Tasting

Chateau Batailley 2001, 2004, 2006

Ceps on Brioche

Chateau Batailley 1996, 1990

Roast Sirloin of Beef with Bone Marrow, Shallots and Red Wine

Chateau Batailley 1986, 1982

Kirkham’s Lancashire, Montgomery Cheddar and Reblochon

Chateau Batailley 1975, 1966

Tarte Tatin

Chateau du Levant 2005

Monday, 7 September 2009

Nick Cave For Dummies (but Dummies with taste)



If, like me, you increasingly find modern novels an effort but you have a mostly non-gay crush on Nick Cave then please check out my dear friend Peter Collingridge's multi-media audiobook of
The Death of Bunny Munro.

It can be downloaded from the I-Tunes Store for your IPhone and features Nick Cave reading the book, a specially written soundtrack, video of Nick Cave reading the book and, as they say, much much more. Preview here.


I suspect we are glimpsing the future of publishing, light-years ahead of the ghastly Kindle.



[My other friend Sarah Churchwell was preparing herself to slate the book on Newsnight Late Review when I saw her last week (apparently it made her feel physically sick, the first ever book to do so). What greater recommendation could there be?]




Friday, 28 August 2009

Bar Snacks Pas Deux: This Time It's Facebook

I am, frankly, a Facebook whore. I log on every few days and if it's late and - ho hum - I have been 'out', I tend to push the Friend Suggestions button repeatedly until I fall asleep. This, people, is how I have reached 1,212 Friends. That said, it adds a Twitter-like frisson to the Facebook experience not knowing at least half of the people who read one's ramblings. It also leads to embarrassing moments in restaurants when some lovely, gregarious soul interrupts a dinner with your wife to announce loudly: "I AM YOUR FACEBOOK FRIEND". To say that Mrs McVeigh, who is not on Facebook, assumes a look of irritated bemusement at this juncture would be to underplay the drama of the moment.

Anyway, enough pre-amble - who gives a Tuscan Fried Bat (of which, more later) about social networking anyway.

So when I enquired politely for Bar Snacks suggestions (see post below for more deep background), I was really gratified by the response:

Nick Kearns
Nick Kearns
Calamari
Yesterday at 11:58 · Delete
Lizzie Mabbott
Lizzie Mabbott
Scotch eggs, sausage rolls, pork scratchings (home-made are delicious)... so basically any pork product.
Yesterday at 12:26 · Delete
Ossian Shine
Ossian Shine
Yes, scratchings... Ooh, and pickled eggs...
Yesterday at 12:28 · Delete
Giovanna Cantone
Giovanna Cantone
bite size cod parcels with a sweet chillie dip. yummm.

lobster bits, with a butter lemon dip..to die for....
Yesterday at 12:54 · Delete
Julian Lloyd
Julian Lloyd
a small pot of hot crabmeat with parmesan and breadcrumb crust. There was a pub on Galway Bay that used to do this.
Yesterday at 13:03 · Delete
Jay Rayner
Jay Rayner
Use rind on bacon in the kitchen and then serve bowls of fried off rinds.
Yesterday at 13:04 · Delete
Giovanna Cantone
Giovanna Cantone
parmesan and crab meat! I would never put parmesan with any fish...yuk
Yesterday at 13:05 · Delete
Annabel Haldane Nash
Annabel Haldane Nash
sticky cocktail sausages with wholegrain mustard
Yesterday at 13:06 · Delete
Silvy Weatherall
Silvy Weatherall
Deep fried crispy pigs ears
Yesterday at 13:08 · Delete
Giovanna Cantone
Giovanna Cantone
deep fried pancheta served on a stick with parmesan and cherry tomatoes, warm chillie olive oil dip.
Yesterday at 13:13 · Delete
Giovanna Cantone
Giovanna Cantone
or serve with sweet onion.
Yesterday at 13:20 · Delete
Annabel Haldane Nash
Annabel Haldane Nash
Larks' tongues. Wrens' livers....& some Tuscany fried bats.
Yesterday at 13:38 · Delete
Matthew Doull
Matthew Doull
Pigs in a blanket, sliders, short ribs, onion rings
Yesterday at 14:01 · Delete
Laura Campbell
Laura Campbell
Grilled halloumi; mini prawn cocktails; antipasti platters for 2/4/6; homemade tarmasalata or hummous on hot pitta; chips & dips...
Yesterday at 14:23 · Delete
Toby Duckett
Toby Duckett
mini yorkshire pud with beef and horseradish/mini toad in the holes w spicy sausage, chargrilled veg kebabs, mixed satay, bbq lamb cutlet, rabbitburger in bun, crispy fries, summer fruit eggedosis.
Yesterday at 18:19 · Delete
Christina Macmillan
Christina Macmillan
Chanterelles on toasted bread or something with black truffles
7 hours ago · Delete

So: thanks Friends, Acquaintances and particularly those whose private world I have invaded uninvited. And you're all cordially invited to a tasting at The Draft House when we eventually get the place open in October.

Watch this Space.

Bar Snacks and the Power of Twitter


Today, after a quiet spell (the post-Ibiza mood is not really conducive to open source communication), I asked the Twitter community for their thoughts on bar snacks. You see, we are preparing to launch our new place, The Draft House, on Northcote Road (sexy logo above) and I have been stuck in a bar food black hole. The very phrase bar food for me conjures up awful images of deep-fried frozen spring rolls with an over-sweet chilli dip. And yet we all know that at its best it can make your entire evening.

So thank you to (in no particular order and without your @s) exromana, aforkful, eatlikeagirl, stefanchomka, tiffanymurray, circeplum, shar13, antimega, smokeynlentils, msquaredcomms, mathildecuisine, piebot, luce28, jamesbackhouse, summerlp and last but not least lulupho. Some of your suggestions were downright odd (stewed cheese? I mean STEWED CHEESE?? - ok, ok you know who you are...are we talking fondue here?) but most were inspirational and I look forward to inviting all of you to a pre-opening tasting of these with thirds of fine ales, lagers, stouts, wheats etc etc.

So here we have the complete list which preserves anonymity and - sic - I give the spelling as I received it:

  • chargrilled chorizo with olives and lemon
  • Crab/chilli/lime in filo or Moroccan brique pastry. Or spicy, minced lamb w/ mint on mini flatbreads
  • something fishy like posh fish fingers or whitebait. Mini sized meatballs with a little spicy kick
  • pakoras (partclrly good w ale), bite-size samosas, coxinha de galinha w spicy sauce. good ol' chips w paprika&chili pwdr
  • husband: liver and onions, venison/wild boar sausage and mash. Are these snacks? Pakora. Prawns+Garlic. Off for lunch now
  • Good fishcakes -Thai or otherwise- not rubbery ones or ones made with too much potato at 17 quid. Squid, baby or grown.
  • anything that involves decent, hot chorizo. So you can get drunk and ruin perfectly good clothes with bright red grease
  • triple-cooked chips with romesco. Just invented it and WANT SOME! (Fee to usual address)
  • am I right in thinking draft house is a new venture in northcote road? sardines;duck egg;anchovies on toast, welsh rarebit.
  • hello! chorizo croquetas, scotch quail eggs, really good crackling, plates of jamon or similar
  • Mussels, Scotch Eggs, Fish Sandwich (bajan flying fish sandwich style), good chips
  • Croque monsieur, any kind of 'Quiches' and savoury tarts
  • A good lentils soup in winter
  • Deep fried artichoke hearts are classic American bar food.
  • chorizo, whitebait, boquorones (hot?), little cheesy things of any variety
  • Chilli and salt crusted calamari
  • a decent bowl of salty chips, pork pie. Rarebit and scotch eggs a must i reckon
  • Scotch eggs, rarebit, fresh sratchings, sausage rolls: just your basic cuisine minceur, really...
  • Buffalo wings. I'm addicted to the spicy little buggers.
Oh dear, I can't find the STEWED CHEESE post. Maybe it was just a dream...

See you at the Draft House in October.

Charlie

ps If you're on Twitter I heartily recommend that you follow the above-mentioned contributors...




Sunday, 16 August 2009

A "Funeral Repast"


...he acquired the reputation of an eccentric, which he enhanced by wearing costumes of white velvet, and gold-embroidered waistcoats, by inserting, in place of a cravat, a Parma bouquet in the opening of his shirt, by giving famous dinners to men of letters, one of which, a revival of the eighteenth century, celebrating the most futile of his misadventures, was a funeral repast.

In the dining room, hung in black and opening on the transformed garden with its ash-powdered walks, its little pool now bordered with basalt and filled with ink, its clumps of cypresses and pines, the dinner had been served on a table draped in black, adorned with baskets of violets and scabiouses, lit by candelabra from which green flames blazed, and by chandeliers from which wax tapers flared.

To the sound of funeral marches played by a concealed orchestra, nude negresses, wearing slippers and stockings of silver cloth with patterns of tears, served the guests.

Out of black-edged plates they had drunk turtle soup and eaten Russian rye bread, ripe Turkish olives, caviar, smoked Frankfort black pudding, game with sauces that were the color of licorice and blacking, truffle gravy, chocolate cream, puddings, nectarines, grape preserves, mulberries and black-heart cherries; they had sipped, out of dark glasses, wines fromLimagne, Roussillon, Tenedos, Val de Penas and Porto, and after the coffee and walnut brandy had partaken of kvas and porter and stout.

The farewell dinner to a temporarily dead virility—this was what he had written on invitation cards designed like bereavement notices.


from Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

A Fortnight in South East Sicily

Six times thirty days of sun sheer down upon our heads; this summer of ours which is as long and glum as a Russian winter and which we struggle against with less success. If a Sicilian worked hard in any of those months he would expend energy enough for three. Then water is either lacking altogether or has to be carried from so far that every drop is paid for by a drop of sweat… This violence of landscape, this cruelty of climate, this continual tension is everything...

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa


Life, said Hobbes, is "poor, nasty, brutish, and short". It has remained so in Sicily. In 1951 a survey revealed that 15 out 31 cities had no running water. Visitors then could have an authentic medieval experience, complete with residual feudalism and open sewers. For the visitor now, there is little evidence of abject poverty, but this has been replaced by evidence of what appears a determination to defile both town and countryside.

Guidebooks make little reference to the extreme ugliness of the outskirts of the great Sicilian cities. We were based for the past two weeks just outside Modica, one of many towns in the South East of the island to have been completely rebuilt following a devastating earthquake in 1693 in a late flowering of the Baroque style.

Thus, this (San Pietro in Modica):

...contrasts with this (one of many dispiriting views as you struggle into the Modica city centre):

Not to mention this:

In short, one of the most beautiful, flamboyant, confident periods of architecture was applied to the design of entire cities. And then they were - more or less - left to rot. And rot beautifully. The aristocrats who built them refused to visit their estates, preferring the high life in Palermo and Monte Carlo before a confluence of regrettable circumstances sparked the great defilement.

The arrival of democracy in Italy co-incided post-war with the growth of anti-Communist black ops by the Americans. The CIA-backed Christian Democrat party formed an unholy alliance with the Mafia to ensure that the Southern Italian vote kept out the Communists, who by rights should probably have governed Italy for significant periods after the war.

The result was that Sicily became a mafia playground where anything went. The Italian state's so-called Mezzogiorno fund - ostensibly designed to bring Southern Italy up to the levels of prosperity in the North - was spent by Mafia politicians, Mafia planners and Mafia builders on often unfinished construction projects which now blight the island - with money sticking to the sides at each stage of the process.

The battle for control of this and the international narcotics business claimed the lives of hundreds of mafiosi not to mention the brave new generation of Sicilian prosecutors who returned to the island in the 1980s to bring order to the chaos.

Thus brutal heat, brutalist architecture and a reputation for ultra-violence appears to have kept the tourist at bay, more or less. Yes the tour buses visit Palermo, Etna and Syracusa (and rightly so) but we only saw a handful of foreigners in Modica over two weeks. One Sunday morning, to my bourgeois horror, a tour bus drew up as I was subsuming a favoured breakfast - Caffe Granita.
Fifty or so overweight Italians were decanted into the main square and spent no more than 10 minutes being lectured on il stilo barocco modicano before being rushed off to the next treasure-trove. Then what passes for peace in Modica returned (namely loud arguments in dialect, crockery being smashed and the occasional car crash).

Everything here is light and shade against a backdrop of seedy grandeur. The shuttered palazzo above stands next to the Modica Cathedral (below)

It is derelict, with weeds growing out of its steps, doubtless owned by a latter day Lampedusa living in one room of another palazzo in Palermo, embroiled in arguments over a will dating back to perhaps 1890. I stayed in such a place in Naples twenty years ago having driven there to look around after a wedding in Rome. Our accommodation - a B&B managed by the ancient principe - was one of three new rooms jerry-built with plasterboard out of a single grand camera. The other occupants of the rest of what was still a beautiful and impressive edifice were a nursery, a brothel and a driving school. I have rarely been anywhere more romantic.

Religion appears to follow the pattern. The heady frivolity of the
barocco is underpinned by a literal and gloomy Catholicism. Churches are chock-full of saints' body parts, tattered theatrical red curtains, Madonnas in the Snow and heart-rending statues of the Christ, as below. Those knees make me weep.


We did not make it on this trip to the Capuccin Catacombs in Palermo. Here the intersection of intense social rivalry and religious superstition made it fashionable to be interned publicly in the vaulted cellars of the Oratorio di San Lorenzo. But you had to pay an annual rent - if your family stopped paying, your body was turfed out.
Then there is the food (my supposed topic). Firstly the produce, extraordinary vegetables some of which I hadn't seen before: Zucchini leaves? Wild celery? Aubergines and tomatoes which bear no resemblance to their sub-standard English equivalents. The fish, especially the gambero rosso (pink raw prawns) were quite simply revelatory. We decided that we couldn't afford the creature below (that's the stunted pre-historic looking lobster known locally as a Zocallo and in Australia as a Moreton Bay Bug).


The pictures above was taken in my new all-time favourite restaurant, Antica Marina in Catania, pipping Murmeli in Lech and whisper it Zum See in Zermatt. "Can we see the menu?" I asked as we sat down. "Menu?" came the just slightly scornful response, "this is the menu," pointing at the display above. The sheer diversity and freshness of the seafood, the generosity and informality, the glamour of the setting in the black-lava courtyard of the fishmarket behind the Duomo. And the clincher: no choice for pudding - only Lemon Sorbetto with Wild Srawberries. I very nearly wept.

It's worth a trip to Catania on its own, a city which felt like Buenos Aires (not that I've been), hot and dusty with long belle epoque boulevards, pickpockets and heroin addicts, buildings made of Etna's black lava (below). It had what my fellow-traveller Johnny calls "an atomosphere" - a genuine, beautiful Sicilian darkness.