No wonder people keep going back to London - every time I return, I find something completely different from the last visit. This is not just because the city is dynamic - which it is - but because with each visit, I have changed, so I see it through different eyes. And not just different but - according to the last visit to the ophthalmologist, who slapped my head against a face-eating machine and made me whiz through the same letters he’s been hearing for thirty years - slightly more myopic ones too.
There is one thing you cannot miss in the British capital, and elsewhere around the country too: the Brits have grown fat. Not just a tiny bit plump and soft around the edges for the ladies, or a litre more beer in the belly for the men, but hit-me-with-a-rhythm-stick (I won’t feel it) obese. On the tube, in the streets, and especially in the supermarkets stacked high with ready foods (are they all so busy that they don’t have time to string a three-ingredient dinner together?), it is as in your face as a slap.
Moreover, the new C word is the O word: ministers have banned the word ‘obese’ on letters to the parents of fat children because focus groups did not like it, England’s chief medical officer has said. Professor Liam Donaldson revealed that the term was replaced on letters to parents by ‘very overweight’ over fears it would upset and stigmatise fat children. Harrumph! This is the very essence of the problem: children no longer feel stigmatised, and thereby, do not feel any kind of social pressure to lose what will eventually land them in hospital. The parents don’t either - they justify it.
We Maltese, of course, are right there, side by side, finally equal to our former colonisers. I used to sit with The Writer at one of the City Gate cafeterias before we both went to earn our daily bread, and while we sipped our cappuccinos and listened to the waitresses talk of their hot weekends, we marvelled at the amount of muffin tops wobbling their way into the capital.
You see, it’s not just the fatness that’s wrong or worrying, it’s the way we - they - have stopped viewing it as such. We spend hours talking about dieting, reading about it and arguing loudly over which one is best. We eat our way through reams of books, articles and low-fat everything. In fact, we have come to the point where we talk about dieting a lot more than we actually do it. We have convinced ourselves that by talking about it, we are doing it.
So these Valletta-bound girls squeeze themselves into low-slung jeans which are very obviously three sizes too small for them because, for some odd reason, their bodies have not grown in a Gina Lollobrigida way, but in that unforgiving flat-ass, muffin-top belly, small-pointy-tits way that only a vengeful god and bags of crisps could concoct. Eating disorder? More like a visual and sartorial one at this point.
I thought it was just the slothful girls in dead-end jobs that were afflicted, until we went to the panto at the MFCC. Girls, come on! What is it with the (admittedly) soft, very well-fed and squeezable bellies jutting above your costumes? You are living examples of the fact that exercise does not make you lose weight because you must have been dancing daily for the past three months. I dread to think of the size you’re going to be by June when your days of chasing the Dame are well and truly over and you need to squeeze into those bikinis. Come to think of it, maybe a couple of you could take a look at that gorgeous Dame and figure out how to get a figure like hers (his, whatever).
January is payback time. Personally, I have eaten enough chocolate truffles, rum babas, torroncini, Christmas cake, mince pies and cookies to not only send my blood sugar levels soaring dangerously, but to also rot my teeth so fast that they hurt. The difference between me and the muffin toppers is this: my layer is temporary and I am completely aware of it.
This means that as you read, I will be fully putting into practice the stuff I preach on Mona’s Meals: The Foodbook (available at your nearest Agenda at slimmed-down, January prices): I cut out carbohydrates, I stop indulging in nutrient-free pasta and I ditch sugar. If I want a treat, I eat a dark slab of Valhrona. Of course, this being a low-carb regime, I can practically have all the gorgeous meats and cheeses I like and still lose the kilo I put on. And keep it off.
Which is why our visit to Da Pippo was like a last-minute guilt-dash without the guilt. Oh how we indulged. Let me rephrase that: Oh how I indulged. TW went low-carb three months ago and can now pour himself into size 30 jeans. He managed to keep it up throughout the festivities.
At Da Pippo we were greeted like old friends. When TW and I first met, we used to have shopping jaunts every Saturday and these would be crowned by a visit to Da Pippo. The food has not changed one bit - if anything, it has improved. The conviviality is so strong a newcomer might feel a little left out. Yet they shouldn’t.
This being the festive season, we were the only couple there. Every other table shape came in groups. ‘How did you manage to get a table?’ squealed the Heart Surgeon’s Assistant, ‘We’ve been trying for weeks and they’re always packed’. Well, we tried the oldest trick in the book: we turned up without a reservation. If you go late, someone will always be on the verge of leaving.
The lunchers were raucous, mad, loud and so happy and inebriated that we ended up in all their Facebook pics. ‘Sorry!’ they screamed. We didn’t mind. We minded even less when the food turned up. At Da Pippo, the tradition is that you get a peppered cheeselet, some olives and some beautiful, crusty Valletta baker bread to kick off with. There’s nothing razzmatazz about the whole thing: it’s just mind-bogglingly simple and, consumed in such trattoria-style ambience, it carries you away on a Proustian wave.
Anybody who orders pasta will get a frying pan placed on a wooden slab on the table. ‘They must have a kitchen full of them’ I told TW. The tagliatelle were drenched in the clam sauce, salty and suffused with flavour as if somebody had skimmed the essence off a rock. Considering their only adornment was the clams in their shells, they were a lesson in how less is more.
We (or rather, I, since TW only ate some of the clams) accompanied them with a half bottle of Chablis. Da Pippo have a decent selection of wines which includes many halves. There’s no list: if you can, you just get off your ass and go check out the bottles in the cooler.
The absolute winner of the day was a huge slab of t-bone Charolais veal which had absolutely nothing done to it except for a savage searing with some metal on each side and a damn good rest. ‘Isn’t it really lovely?’ the owner asked me enthusiastically. ‘I import it myself, directly from Italy’. The Charolais is a big fat white breed of a cow and my favourite. I wonder if she knows.
It wasn’t just lovely. It was superb, soft and actually tasted of mild meat - juxtaposed against a year of tough, chewy ‘veal’, it was a real triumph. Da Pippo serve it accompanied with a wedge of lemon. I asked for a salad on the side but they brought the real patata l-forn along too, and thank goodness they did. The crust was crunchy, the rest of the potato fluffy and it reminded me instantly of the patata l-forn we used to collect from the baker every Sunday when I was a child. It is so much more than ‘roast potatoes’.
TW had his favourite involtini - veal wrapped around parma and parmesan. Again, the sauce was simple, a boiled down wine which poshly would be called a ‘reduction’ and loads of pepper. Fantastic.
We gave in to some crème caramel which they must buy ready since they come in little plastic containers. They were simple and fun and nothing out of the ordinary but certainly not offensive either. The service throughout is crazy, off its feet and always attentive no matter how packed the place is.
For a pre-diet place, Da Pippo was perfect. When I cut down on carbs, they still have enough choice to keep everybody happy. Happy and slim. Now where’s my yogi’s phone number?