Croatian Capers

I crossed the border. Several times in fact. After three weeks in Italia we decided to see if what everyone else tells us is true, that the Croatian coastline is simply beautiful. The rumours are true but the funny thing is, to get to Dubrovnik from Venice one must go through Slovenia followed by a brief interlude into Croatia, a quick sojourn through Bosnia and then back to our original destination of Croatia. The quickest way to see to see four countries in 12 hours of driving surely.

Some interesting culinary experiences presented themselves on the drive which alternated between the austere never ending autostrada, winding rural countryside and the azure of the glittering Adriatic Sea. My lasting memory of Slovenia is of little wooden huts dotted along the roadside, smoke puffing out of their chimneys with a whole little piggy roasting inside. Not sure whether the whole pig gets presented to the customer or pieces get sliced off as needed as we went past too early for lunch.  The parts of Bosnia that flashed past the window were very rural and it seemed that strawberries, cherries and oranges were the main crops, with many of the farmers selling their wares on the roadside. One of these stalls provided some unexpected relief from the hecklers in the backseat, who after being in the car for most of the day spent their time alternating between fighting each other, generally driving their parents mad and chanting ‘are we there yet?’  The farmer manning the stall was very happy to see us and offloaded some cherries, strawberries and what I thought was orange juice. Thankfully he offered us a taste of the ‘juice’ before we bought as it lit a fire on the way down my throat. A sensation that children should probably not experience with their breakfast cereal. The look on my face must have been encouraging as the farmer then produced another bottle, this time from under his table, called Prosec. I know what you are thinking, I went there too. If you have ever tried the liquer known as Marsala, Prosec was just like it without any prescription required, but the fact that we would have to make our way through one litre in a matter of weeks made it a no sale.

The move from Italy to Croatia meant a transition from a carbohydrate based diet to one that was centered around meat, meat, meat. The mixed meat platter is on every menu, generally always huge and consists of kebabs, sausages of several kinds, liver and pork or chicken steak. The other thing that I noticed after a few days is that EVERYTHING is salty. Salt does add flavor to food but frequent use can have a negative impact on blood pressure, especially for those with existing hypertension. Plus taste buds get used to it and then food without salt seems to have no flavor. Have you noticed that celebrity chefs are very liberal with adding salt to their dishes? So many everyday foods that we eat already have salt added, with cereal, bread and cheese being perfect examples and eliminating the need to sprinkle it ourselves.

Grilled vegetables are divine here and mostly consist of eggplant, zucchini, capsicum and onion, although my new favourite food is Swiss Chard mixed with boiled potato with this dark green vegetable being very similar to silver beet both in flavour and colour and is very delicious.

My withdrawal from salt begins now. The rolling countryside of the Umbrian hills will surely provide some inspiration.          

The not so happy pig

Gladiators on water

It’s difficult to go to Venice without experiencing a gondola ride isn’t it? I have actually been on one before but not with our three children (and with good reason). And so began the search up and down steps, and in and out of the rabbit warren of streets that makes this floating city unique. Finally we spy a very glossy black and gold number that frankly looked too good for the likes of us (and worth 35 000 Euros) but the gondolier was spruiking his goods nearby and happily his price was good, so off we sailed, or perhaps rowed with Rudi.  After ensuring that everyone was strapped down, I mean in, I couldn’t help but notice that Rudi was not like the other gondoliers I had seen around Venice. Rudi had rippling muscles. He also reminded me of a machine gun, speaking in fast, rapid bursts without seeming to breathe and after a mini-interrogation I discovered that this man had been rowing gondoliers since the age of four and was in fact an elite athlete. Naturally my curiosity was piqued and with further probing he explained that he trained for 90 minutes each day outside of his daily rowing and no, he didn’t eat anything out of the ordinary and just ate three meals each day.  I knew Rudi wasn’t telling me the whole story as language was no small barrier so as soon as I was able I did the Google.

The Vignottini. To me this name has the ring of mafia about it and why not as we are in the perfect place for it. But no, my new friend Rudi is one half of a fearsome duo with his cousin Igor that has been competing in gondola racing around the canals of Venice for the last 20 years. They are feared and revered and are firmly sewn into the fabric of the history surrounding professional gondolier racing. The most important Venetian race of the season is the Regatta Storica, through the Grand Canal and winning this event has been likened to winning the Ironman Triathlon or the Tour de France or both. Not sure whether this is possible but the Italians are very dramatic.  To win this regatta five years in a row is almost an impossible feat and a couple of years ago, the two arch rivals, The Vignottini and another famous rowing duo, Ivo Redolfi-Tezzat and Giampaulo D’Este were both competing for this honour. In a major upset The Vignottini triumphed and wrote themselves into the history books. Yep, that was our gondolier.

In his book, The Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world class expert – in anything. Sure, there needs to be talent and opportunity but this aside, the 10 000 hours still stands. Talent and genetics are clearly there for Rudi, rowing a gondola since the age of 4, living on the canals and rowing for a living all provide opportunity and way more than 10 000 hours, paving the way to becoming a world class expert and performer. What are you doing your 10 000 hours in?

Back to food. I often advise people to do a large food shopping trip to assist in time management, less impulse buying and organisation and I do the same thing when at home. Italy however is making me think. I love the fact that there are little fresh produce stores on every corner which allows me to buy whatever we feel like on the day and there is so much less wastage. How do you do your shopping?

Strange things sometimes turn up in menu’s and our lunch in Verona, home of Romeo and Juliet was no exception. There were many choices to make but two in particular caught my eye. ‘Flayed cavallo’ (horse) and Equina Pizza, with horse once again being the main ingredient. I think ‘flayed’ was meant to be ‘fryed” but maybe not, it could go both ways. Yes, I know that it’s just another source of meat and one that is quite popular here in Italy but I can’t get past Mr Ed.   

One half of the Vignottini

Rapallo, Rapallo let down your hair

The second week of my Italian insights trip finds me in Rapallo, a town on the Ligurian coast considered to be part of the Italian Riviera.  Given that we are not celebrities, there was no swanning around Riviera style but it has given me some time to reflect on the way of life in Italy and whether it enhances personal peak performance.

It is probably best to get the negative aspects out of the way first just so we can concentrate on the positive features. I am instinctively going to hold my breath while saying that there is an excellent chance I have second hand smoked my way through a packet of cigarettes since I have been here.  So many people smoke that it would be easier to count those who didn’t in a packed out San Marco Square in Venice ( a LOT of people can jam in there).  Italy is currently sitting at  fourth in the Top 10 countries with the highest rates of lung cancer and as countries number 2, 3 and 4 differ only by  a whisker, they are up there with the leaders.  Hungary is at the top of the ladder but I would say that this is not a game many would want to win.  It certainly makes one appreciate the anti-smoking laws that Australia has in place, particularly where food is involved.

In other areas, the Italians have got things sewn up.  What’s not to like about the daily siesta for example? Research has quite clearly found that adequate sleep and rest is essential to our wellbeing and longevity of life.  The dedication to the siesta is absolute and the shops here are literally shut down somewhere between 12 and 1pm and even if part of  a customers body happened to be over the threshold of the shopfront, it would be trapped in the roller door that comes down religiously, as they wait for no-one. Retailers don’t open again until 3.30-4.00pm allowing staff to go home and rest or do whatever they fancy. I like.

Exercise is an essential part of your peak daily performance and from what I have seen so far, lots of Italians walk or cycle as the main mode of transport. Even the Italian ladies perch themselves on their biciclette complete with skirt, stockings and heels.  And although it seemed a little inconvenient at the time, I know that walking up and down to our mill house in Rapallo like little mules did us the world of good.

And of course, the Italian food.  In many respects it seems like food from the god’s or is it for the god’s?  Whichever way it goes, the Mediterranean diet has a lot going for it.  Red wine, olive oil, tomatoes full of lycopene and lots of fresh fruit and vegetables do the trick. Eating too much bread can be an issue though as every time you sit down at a ristorante, a basket of bread and breadsticks appear magically. Add that to a pasta or pizza meal and we are talking carbo-loading on a daily basis without the 10 hours of exercise that should go with it. Carbohydrates seem to have an additive effect too, the more I eat, the more I eat.  Although bread is delicious here, I am yet to sight any that is not white and is therefore low in fibre.  However, carbohydrates do supply energy and your brain really doesn’t function without it, something you may notice at around 3pm when you feel like having a lie down.  And no, there is no truth in the fairytale that these foods shouldn’t be eaten after 3 or 5 or 8pm, or whatever time is plucked from the sky. Just make sure that you watch portion sizes and choose high fibre low glycemic carbohydrates.

Lets not forget the role of happiness in enhancing performance.  This can be found everywhere here in the form of gelato.  There is no doubt it is my responsibilty and my job to road test flavours and there are so many that I do need to try a new one each time.  The good news is that gelato contains slightly less fat (4-8%) than regular ice-cream (around 10%) but it does have a little more sugar.  Some of the fruit flavours like fragola (strawberry) and limone (lemon) are fat-free which further adds to my happiness.

And lastly, forget Italian leather and handbags as a girls best friend.  Everyone and I mean everyone, has a dog here.  They don’t sit at home and pine for their owners either, these pampered dogs go everywhere.  They travel by train in special doggy bags, get some wind through their fur sitting in baskets at the front of bikes, walk the streets, dine at the best restaurants and even become a handbag accessory.  So what  does this have to do with performance you ask?  Research has shown that pet owners benefit physically and psychologically from their furry friends.  Benefits shown include decreased rate of depression, lowered blood lipid and cholesterol levels, less social isolation and increased fitness. 

Lets see what Venice has to offer.

Super nonna bicicletta power