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Mona's Meals | Sunday, 18 January 2009

Chiconomics

A friend has just broken up with her boyfriend because he was a whinger and a whiner. Well, some people cannot take wife-beating, or infidelity; this one just could not keep up with the amount of complaints her supposed paramour kept coming up with.
“It’s not just one bad day Mona,” she told me, reassuring me (and, in the process, herself) lest I think that she was being facetious. “It’s not a coming-home-from-work rant about colleagues, structures, super-structures, holes in the road, office politics and traffic. It’s not an end-of-the-month or am-I-paid-crap-or-what situation. It’s just every bloody little thing: it’s the fact that he did not get a ‘chance’ to go study or work abroad - although nothing, least of all me, is stopping him , that everybody else has done it, that he’s not that good looking - which made me feel like crap - I mean, I chose him, did I not? -, that he’s put on too much weight during Christmas. Every time I said something nice, or positive, or even felt secretly happy for some odd reason, I had to quash it lest it impinged on his qrid.”
I’m glad my friend has got rid of these shackles. We’ll call them John. Sadly, the rest of the country is in exactly the same state. For some odd reason, we seem to be hell bent on complaining more than anybody else, and our new hobby horse - the recession, the credit-crunch, the everything financial - is such a fabulous big boys’ toy. I notice that it is male columnists, male economists, male everything that are leading the way. Thank goodness that Lino Spiteri, who is slightly more erudite in terms economic than I am, dissents.
What they seem to have failed to notice is that their gender, with its bravado, investments schemes and hedge funding (Jeremy Clarkson once tried to understand the concept in a hilarious column: basically it’s funding of imagination) brought it about to begin with. Possibly not the entire global crunch, but if you look at the leaders of this modern-day crash, the names are all of men: Bernard Maddoff (apt surname), the CEO of M&S Stuart Rose, who continued to pay himself handsomely even when the business started going awry last year, several bank CEO’s, Gordon Brown in the UK, male boards of directors, including those of Woolworths. The list is practically endless.
Of course, men are never to blame for anything, but we could, as Maltese, at this point, stop whining and start living. When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade, even if at the time it seems like the overwhelming sourness and blaze of yellow is just a little bit too much.
Our dependency on Brits as tourists has been a case of putting most of our fragile eggs in one basket for a very long time. Now that they have cut down on non-essential travel because the Sterling is worth as much as the Zimbabwean dollar, we should position our country to give them a better, safer deal than Turkey, Greece and Spain.
It’s not nuclear physics, but I wonder how much an advert with a half-naked woman in a lift/beach is going to work to point basic stuff like this out. It’s on You Tube and beyond words. Maybe we’ll end up with a bunch of beer-guzzling, male Sun readers. Then we should take a long, very harsh look at the seaside towns we are trying to sell these people, raze them to the ground conceptually and start over.
I suggested this about Bugibba years ago, and some (summer) residents took umbrage and threatened to stop reading me. This must have worked since readership on the website went up by 70 per cent since then and Bugibba is just peachy. Even people who live in the north of the island and who were active participants in its horrification have given up on it. “It’s crap - I never go there any more,” a huge contractor told me last week with his tongue nowhere near his cheek.
Then there’s the south, in which I have a vested interest, especially if I feel like a quick meal out. I defy you to go to Marsascala on a Friday evening, any time in the next few weeks. It’s worse than a ghost town: it’s practically haunted. Yet, when I predicted this years ago, a council member, again, took umbrage and sent me a huge, defensive e-mail which I quickly consigned to the trash bin. I hope he now finds the time to eat his own words.
Huge garages which were unwisely converted into restaurants and clubs are now locked and barred with ‘To Let’ signs emblazoned all over. The cinema, which was much better than anything in Valletta or St Julians (I pine for those amazing love seats), is like a haunted house. The ‘Chinese’ outlets, of which there are more than you can shake a factory won-ton at, are devoid of customers. The place is struggling to continue living, yet Tal-Familja and Favorita were packed.
In other words, somebody is doing something right. They do not spend their time complaining: they buy fresh stocks of food, ensure that waiters treat customers well, that their chefs actually know how to cook - a rarer fact than one thinks - that they provide value for the punters’ money, and they sell. That is how it works. Is that so freaking difficult?
The restaurant I tried to review had closed down, for the second time in a year. The first time ‘round the three multi-culti owners had a huge clash and gave up. I wonder what the problem is now. So we got back in the car and drove across to Marsaxlokk. The seafront was dark, the restaurants practically all empty. The Writer and I both got a huge dose of ennui. “Xi dwejjaq hawn!”
In London, nobody stopped eating out because it’s cold, or because it’s the post-Christmas and New Year month. The customers are now more judicious. They, like us, want more value for their ailing pound, and the owners who are sharp enough - and that is a huge chunk of them - are providing. Joel Robuchon’s in Paris still has its waiting list, The River Café in London still struggled to fit in my booking, not to mention elBulli in Spain, the waiting list of which (for its almost €300 per person menu) stretches into the next decade.
We ended up at Il-Bukkett. It was 70 per cent occupied, which, considering the general scheme of things, is not bad at all. Most of the diners knew the owner by name, and he theirs, but I’m positive they did not go there because they wanted to do him a favour. He obviously has return clients.
We seem to have got the place on a bad day - the owner was about to close for a couple of weeks and had reduced supply of produce. I’m not so chuffed with stuff like this, because diners get charged exactly the same price anyway, but I begged TW to forgive and eat. “I don’t care,” he told me, “this is just ridiculous.”
He was looking at his unofficially-named ‘shrimp paupiettes’. They were three slices of parma, each wrapped around a pile of frozen, defrosted shrimps, drenched in marie-rose sauce and piled on some lettuce leaves. “That’s just bog-standard shrimp cocktail with parma,” I opined. We were charged over the odds for them.
Now take that ‘shrimp cocktail’ and place it in the general village environment. The lack of choice at Il-Bukkett was due to his selling most of the fresh stuff for lunch. Lunch at Marsaxlokk is wholly dependent on bus-loads of tourists who are brought over to see, not the fishing village mind you, but the tat weekday-market opposite with its fake made-in-China Maltese lace and bus figurines.
Take the bus-loads out of the equation - short-term tourism predictions dictate it - and what do you get? An even more horrific situation of course. The outlets which do not cater, and decently, for the local, especially Southern, population, will be empty. They will close. Does that remind you of a once tourist town, with its own supposedly five-star hotel, called Marsascala? I’m sure they had fabulous shrimp cocktails there too.
I had the fish cakes, made with neonati. I can’t complain unduly, but maybe I should. The neonati could have come out of a freezer bag, rather than the sea. They had the texture of cardboard. The tartare sauce could have lifted them, but it had run out (in other words, they have no idea how to make some from scratch, or did not have the ingredients, and were referring to a ready jar) so I was brought a squeezy bottle of mayo instead.
For mains, they insisted the spnotta was not farmed. The lack of flavour in the meat whispered otherwise, but on a texture-level, and considering the joyous grilling, and how lovely it looked when fresh, it did not offend. The ‘roast’ potatoes had been reheated so many times, we could not be enticed to touch more than a couple of centimetres. TW’s king prawns were, at least, real and fresh primi. They were under-herbed but otherwise acceptable, even quite nice. The owner was very chuffed with a ‘posh’ circle of rice topped with sliced, tasteless tomatoes which he presented to my poor, ever-suffering TW.
I loved the waitress though, I have to say. She was so enthusiastic, lovely, homely and sweet, even apologising for having to cross us when placing cutlery, that I forgive her terrible English pronunciation. She brought over a pile of laminated menus for dessert. They looked absolutely horrific.
Across from us, a family of six (one of the mums looked like Alba Parietti, only without needing to resort to plastic - I couldn’t stop staring at her) were enthusing about the coconut low-fat this, and the chocolate-peanut no-gluten that on the glossy cardboard. We did without.
On the way home, we were both quiet, but thoughts were raging in my head. This is the time for a sharp, probably young, entrepreneur or two to set up. This is the time to buy, to take out a low-interest loan. This is the time for those who know how to be positive, for the leaders in life to shine. This is the time to break my diet for a left-over chocolate truffle. Positive, moi? Always.


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