Osijek – Vukovar

I wake up to discover that snow is blanketing Zagreb. AAARGH! Yes, it’s white and fluffy and picturesque when covering the blue Zagreb trams, but NOT what I want when I have to drive 300 km! I set off in a hurry after breakfast but soon find myself in a total white-out. My route takes me on the main motorway towards Belgrade, there’s not much traffic, but all the cars and lorries are proceeding in single file behind a snowplough. No more than 50 km an hour for a good 100 km east of Zagreb. I resign myself to being late and phone ahead to warn my customer. No problem, so I settle back and concentrate on keeping my car wheels on the tracks in the snow. As I go along, I notice that the older motorway signs have had Beograd painted out and replaced with Slavonski Brod. The latter is only a mid-sized town along Tito’s old “Brotherhood and Unity Highway”. After the wars of the last decade there’s not much brotherhood and unity left around here, and Belgrade seems not a destination to be mentioned!

My visit today is in Osijek, not far from both Hungary and Serbia. The place was along the front line in the Croat-Serb war, and the town of Vukovar is close by. The Serbs saw fit to blast the place to smithereens in 1991 and the scars of war are still evident: burnt out houses, walls pockmarked with bullet holes, factory buildings with concrete walls blasted out. Reconstruction has been going on, but it’s still disconcerting to see a brand new glass and marble hotel surrounded by blackened building shells. And on opposite sides of the Danube, long lines of Serbian and Croatian flags defiantly face each other. Not pretty.

The road back to Zagreb is much better compared to the morning slog, with most of the snow cleared off the road. Still, it takes me until seven in the evening to get back, and by the time I’m in the hotel, I’m knackered and with no desire to explore the Upper Town as I had wanted to. I decide to try out a Slavonian restaurant nearby the hotel – note, not Slovenian, or even Slovakian, Slavonia is a region of Croatia that I had passed earlier in the day, supposedly famous for its good meat. I say supposedly, because the restaurant I entered is a Big Mistake: the starter of Slavonian salami is remarkably like a chorizo sausage without the spicy taste, the main course of “Slavonian steak” turns out not to be a juicy grilled meat as expected, but instead a fried pork cordon bleu affair, with more of the tasteless sausage, far too many breadcrumbs and a heavy cream sauce. Nah! Never again!

Roving Gastronaut in Croatia

It’s time to visit the countries next door: short trip this week to Slovenia and Croatia. Just over a couple of hours from Bassano I’m in Gorizia, the smallest province of Italy, bordering the twin town of Nova Gorica in Slovenia. Here I have a quick meeting and lunch with a customer. We are in Italy, but the influence of the former Austro-Hungarian empire is strong: bilingual population, austere architecture, even the gnocchi at lunch come with a gulasch sauce!

On to Slovenia. It is known as the “Switzerland of the Balkans” and rightly so: the road snakes through the hilly. heavily wooded Karst region with the snowy Kranjska Gora mountain range in the distance. The houses are neat and tidy. EU membership is evidently a benefit here: the entire road system is being upgraded, so the motorway towards Ljubljana is new, but still ends abruptly in the middle of nowhere, whilst linking sections are being built. Within an hour and a half I am at the Croatian border, and a real border it is! The frontier of the EU – ID card must be produced, customs scan the car and wave me on. Cars with Serb number plates are given a through going-over.

The Croatian motorway seems brand-new and within twenty minutes I’m on the Zagreb ring-road. Here I manage to get lost – it’s my first time here and night is falling. Signs indicate “Centar”, but the hotel guide map gives only the sparsest indications and the street names in the immediate vicinity. I drive around fruitlessly for an hour before being guided by mobile phone to my destination!

At the hotel I manage to get my bearings: central Zagreb is divided between an upper town with the old Citadel and a more modern lower town. My hotel is in the lower town near the railway station, with wide formal parks leading towards the upper town. It’s getting late and I have a long drive tomorrow – so I take a brisk walk in the cold evening to the main shopping drag, the Ilica and the main square of the lower town, the Trg Bana Jelacica. A statue of a Croatian governor on horseback brandishing a very pointy sword dominates the square. Supposedly defeated a Serb army. Not the proper attitude in Yugoslav days, so they put the statue away in a warehouse and only reinstated it in 1991, with the sword pointing towards Belgrade!

Dinner at an old beerhall: Stari Fijaker 900. A jovial waiter speaks a smattering of English. He waves the menu away and says he will “look after me” with the “daily special”! Ok, I put myself in his hands and await with trepidation. To drink, an excellent crno pivo, a black beer in the porter style, full-tasting and a perfect complement to the meal I am served, Srna a la vild, a rich venison stew with potato dumplings. The venison is tender and I suspect the creamy sauce was made with beer too. As a dessert, a Strudl, aka Apfelstrudel mit Schlagobers! More shades of Empire! A very good meal and excellent value at 130 kuna, about 17 Euro!

Veglione – New Year 2005

I hope y’all had a good run-up to 2005! We are at Albenga on the Italian Riviera with my brother-in-law. For our festivities we hired a beach cabana normally used in the summer as a beachside bar. About 12 families, 40 people in all, seated on beach chairs and tables, with plenty of space for the kids to run about when bored. We all had to take some food, with a central group being the catering organisers, but the final result was an overwhelming abundance of home-cooked delicacies!

A whole array of starters was lined up on the bar:

tortino di verdure (mini quiche with cheese, ham and artichokes)

panizza fritta (deep-fried chick-pea polenta, a dish so ancient you can imagine the roman legionaries eating it during their assaults on the Ingaunum tribe)

insalata di carciofi e gamberetti (salad of thinly sliced artichokes with shrimps)

Bagna Cauda (a delicious entrée from Piedmont, a warm anchovy, olive oil, garlic and milk sauce into which you dip fresh vegetable crudités)

crostini toscani (chopped liver on salt-free Tuscan bread), Lardo di Colonnata and other salamis, tiny pizza slices and much, much more.

As you may imagine, going through all these starters filled us up nicely, so not much space left over for the pasta course, but still I greatly enjoyed the penne alla puttanesca with tangy olive sauce, and al pesto with the locally made pesto, served plain with no potatoes or green beans.

By this time, we had rolled on towards midnight, so we suspended proceedings to open a dozen assorted bottles of spumanti and champagne. Obligatory round of greetings, then we continued with the ultra-traditional cotechino alle lenticchie (boiled pork sausage with lentils, supposedly to bring you loads of money in the New Year) and finished off with panettone and pandoro.

A great occasion! The only off note, as it were, was the music selection blaring from the ghetto blaster in the corner. The self-appointed DJ had stacks of CDs, but these were exclusively of 1970-80s disco music!! Yes, the main public was 40-something fogeys as myself, but at the umpteenth Barry Manilow and Bee Gees numbers and yet another conga-dance routine, I was yearning for something more modern!

Istanbul – Deniz Park

Full day at the show yesterday. Turkish exhibitions have unusual opening hours: from 10 am to 8 pm. Great to take things easy in the morning, but when the exhibition draws to a close in the evening I am rather tired! In fact the show does not really get going until 2 pm or so – it seems that the average Turkish businessman likes to go to the office in the morning and visit shows later.

I do not have much to do at the stand as my Man in Turkey and his colleagues take care of the punters. I smile and nod at appropriate moments, with a merhaba and tesekkürler to greet the people. Meanwhile I observe the visitors: Turkish businessmen are rather formally dressed, with dark suits and smartly pressed shirts and ties. None of the more informal wear in vogue in Italy. As for the women, well, here we come across the paradox of Turkish society: plenty of attractive girls with tight trousers and bare midriffs, but also conservative “Islamic” women with long dresses and headscarves. Not that there was a split between the two: curious to see both varieties of women chatting together on a stand and playing with their mobiles. Another unusual aspect of Turkish exhibitions is the presence of large flower wreaths on many stands. No, these are not funeral wreaths but are intended as celebratory gifts by business partners to wish a successful show!

After the show, we decide to go for dinner on the Bosphorus – a 40 km drive away from the exhibition in Yeniköy – “new village”, on the shores of the Bosphorus, overlooking Asia on the far side. The restaurant, called Deniz Park but known to locals as “Aleko”, by its former owner’s name, is set in an old 19th century wooden family house. Similar waterside houses, appropriately restored, are luxury mansions fetching $ 3-4 million! The main dining area at Aleko is set right over the water, with large picture windows open to envoy the stunning view. Large schools of fish jump in the clear waters a the diners throw scraps of bread. This being a balik lokantasi, fish we eat! Assortment of starters, amongst which delicious titbits of marinated sea bass, shrimps, puréed aubergines and tomato and cucumber salad. As a main course, an excellent grilled sea bass. Turkish coffee and baklava to follow.

Our party is a mixed one, featuring one Turkish Muslim, two Italian Catholics, one Israeli Jew, and another Israeli Jew of Turkish descent (there is a large Jewish community in Istanbul who arrived from Spain after their expulsion by the Reyes Catolicos in 1492). As the raki flows, our conversation turns to the role of religion in a modern state. Our Turkish host is decidedly on the secular end, strongly in favour of the banning of headscarves in public offices, à  la française, and warning that the mildly Islamist party in power has a hidden agenda to impose shariah in Turkey. Our Israelis shrug: Israel is a Jewish state, where politics and religion are inseparable. Strangely enough, I find myself in the middle, supporting a certain tolerance for religion without it being enshrined in the state. An interesting mix of views!

Back to the hotel via the scenic route: first through the well-to-do neighbourhood of Etiler, full of expensive shops, Mercedes, Porsches and Hummers on the streets, then to the central Taksim square, and down to the Galata Bridge with a splendid view over the Golden Horn towards the minarets and domes of Sultanahmet. On this moonlit night, Istanbul is one of the world’s most beautiful cities.

Istanbul – Tike

Travelling to Istanbul this week to visit a packaging show where my Man in Turkey is exhibiting. I speak little Turkish, so my presence will be a mainly a “moral support” job. I arrive at Atatürk International to find it has been expanded yet again. However the queues for the visa and passport control are still long… the sooner Turkey enters the EU, the better!

I am picked up by my Man’s driver who ferries me to the hotel to drop my bags and then to the exhibition halls that are 20 km out of town. Horrendous traffic: Istanbul is expanding massively, and houses, apartment blocks and industrial areas are sprouting as mushrooms. I hope that they are respecting the earthquake codes…

There is the usual confusion of pre-fair work in progress at the exhibition site: workmen hammering, sawing and screwing stands together. Lots of stand people watching. Some booths seem to be totally deserted with no work going on at all. Our stand is happily almost finished, and all I have to do is to get our products nicely organised in the display cases. We give instructions to the cleaning party, then we’re off to brush up at the hotel and on to dinner.

Our chosen restaurant is called Tike in Florya, a well-to-do suburb of Istanbul near the airport. It can be described as a “modern” kebapcisi (kebab restaurant), lots of wood, neatly arranged tables, subdued lighting, indeed the impression is almost Japanese, not Levantine. It is a warm late summer evening, so we sit at the balcony…overlooking the Galatasaray football team training ground! Apparently the restaurant is very popular on training days!

The fare is the standard kebap variety: starters of Lahmacun (“Turkish Pizza”), Pastirmali Humus (chickpea hummus, but served warm with slices of pastirma meat on top) and Gavurdagi, a tomato salad with pomegranate juice and basil. To follow, assorted kebabs of lamb and chicken, including my favourite spicy Adana Kebap and Fistikli Kebap, made with minced meat and pistachios. As a dessert the delicious künefe, best described as a Weetabix filled with cream cheese and covered with honey syrup. Yum!

nice in Nice

‘evening all! I am writing to you from the Côte d’Azur, where I am travelling this week. More precisely from the Sundeck restaurant on the roof of the Sofitel hotel in Nice. It’s a balmy evening, perfect for eating al fresco by the swimming pool, enjoying the view of the city roofs and cypress-covered hillsides with the red sky slowly turning to dark blue then deep black.

I spent the day with our big customer in Nice, who is reviewing their range of packaging. This being a pharmaceutical company, it is a long-term review as they need to apply for Health Ministry approval for every minor change in their products. Speak late 2005 before we see any results. My interlocutor is friendly, he likes our products and he will push for R&D and Marketing approval – this is the sort of meeting I need!

Back to the Sofitel and the Sundeck. Now I wouldn’t normally stay in this expensive ***** hotel, but it’s the off season, there are no fairs in the nearby exhibition centre, and they are running a special Internet offer, so pourquoi pas? We all like nice rooms and attentive service, non? The only drawback is that it is too far to walk to the old town and the Promenade des Anglais, but no matter, I am tired, so happy enough at the Sundeck!

I opt for the menu fixe at 24 Euro:

Amuse bouche of pureed aubergines, served chilled in a small glass.

Salmon marinated with lime juice, olive oil and coarse salt.

Grilled swordfish steak à la provencale, with olive oil, tomatoes and onions.

Soufflé glacé au Grand Marnier, a delightful cylinder of orange ice cream, garnished with strawberries and kumquats.

Half of AOC Cassis, Clos Val Bruyère Côtes de Provence and a bottle of Badoit.

café et friandises

nice in Nice, n’est-ce pas?

Gastronomy in Austria

The long-awaited holidays have arrived, and as usual, we are going to our mountain retreat in the Austrian Alps. To be precise, Leutasch, a high valley not far from the resort of Seefeld, between the Tyrolean capital Innsbruck and the Garmisch Partenkirchen in Germany. A great place for hiking, biking, relaxing and a few gastronomic excursions too!

It’s not a long drive from our home, and we arrive with time to spare for lunch. Why not kick off the holidays with a Tyrolean speciality, Kässpätzln – little dumplings with molten cheese and a sprinkling of fried onions, served with a cool Zipfer beer? Hearty mountain fare and just what I need to gear up for the long walks that will follow!

Smart Paris

Day out around Paris today. I’m taking advantage of a special lo-cost flight offer to fly in, meet a few new contacts and quickly out again. Flew with Volare Airlines yesterday evening, IMHO the most comfortable lo-cost airline, with a good seat-legroom. (What’s the technical term for this? The L-dimension??)

Arrival at Paris-Orly. Decidedly not as modern as Roissy-Charles de Gaulle airport. Long, loooong walkways to Terminal Sud, where a plaque proudly commemorates the opening by CDG himself in 1961.

I need a car. Before the flight, I checked out the offerings from Hertz, Avis, et. al. – what’s this?? EUR 120 to hire a Clio?? No way! A quick web search reveals that Sixt are offering a Smart Car “from EUR 5 a day”. With add-ons, it actually works out at EUR 33, but still a great offer! On arrival at Orly, I find that I’m assigned a SmartForTwo Cabrio. Even better – the weather is warm, the sun is shining and the idea of driving in view of the Tour Eiffel with the roof down and shades on is appealing!

I digress on this Smart – it’s the first car I’ve hired where I’ve had to consult the handbook before driving away! The ignition key hole is down by the gearstick, and has some kind of safety device built in so the engine will not start until you turn key to position 1, press a button, turn off again, and then turn key to on. Crazy! The gearbox itself is semi-automatic – no clutch, but you have to push the gearstick up and down to change gears, as directed by the “multifunction display” on the dashboard. Unless, of course the overrevving mechanism kicks in, which changes the gears automatically anyway. Takes some getting used to. The interior is roomy and comfortable (for two, of course!) and on the whole, I find the car good enough in city traffic, but it reminds me yet again why I hate automatic gearboxes: there is a stomach-lurching pause whilst the gears shift up and down. And I do wonder: where did they put the engine??

I regret there is nothing to report on the gastronomic front: time did not allow! A stop at midday at the Auchan Flunch for a salade verte with a Chaource and Buche de Chèvre cheese, and dinner at the gate area of Orly Airport: a bière pression with a sandwich jambon et crudités!!

Ukrainian rocket fuel

Last exhibition day in Moscow – it’s a slow one, enlivened by old babuschkas with string bags prowling the stands hoping for some give away or cheap merchandise. We have nothing to give away, but some Russian stands have queues of people snaffling the products, presumably for resale in the metro stations! The show is supposed to close at four, but dismantling is well under way at three pm.

We had a lot of interesting visitors over the show, and one of them in particular is a serious prospect. The buyer invites us to visit his company after the show and we jump at the opportunity. This is apparently a big detergent manufacturer privatised a few years ago, well known brand name, glossy brochure, sales all over Russia. Presumably then we will see a modern, efficient organisation? Reality is somewhat different…

As we arrive at the factory, we notice it is plonked in the middle of the housing complex. OK, detergent manufacture is not a petrochemicals plant, but not really the sort of thing you want cheek-by-jowl to your house! The main feature of the drab entrance is the guard and a massive steel turnstile gate. Is this maybe an ex-prison? The purchasing department is up six flights of stairs. No lift. As we go up, I can’t help but notice the electric wiring festooned along the ceiling. We then make some small talk with the purchasing manager but soon discover that the real decision maker is the MD who will meet us at dinner later. So we are taken on a factory tour, and here I have the feeling of stepping back 50 years in time. The factory is a series of buildings grouped around an unpaved courtyard: big lorries move back and forth churning up the melting snow into a muddy slush. We enter the raw materials store: piles of assorted powders on a concrete floor, pallets of carton boxes stored exposed to the elements with just a sheet of plastic to protect them, open barrels of solvents, with a guy smoking nearby??! We hurry on to the powder packaging department. Here things look better: two Italian-made filling lines whizz along, filling detergent powder in carton boxes. It could even be efficient, if only there were not a squad of ladies at the end, manually glueing the cartons closed, with a pot of glue and a brush! We move to the liquid filling area: oven cleaner flows from a spigot, one lady fills plastic bottles with her bare hands, three ladies stick on labels, still by hand!

This display of modern Russian industry leaves us somewhat dazed, so we decide to continue our discussions in the restaurant booked by our hosts. We drive in the company Lada to a local Ukrainian restaurant, part of a chain called Tarasbulba named after a Cossack medieval chieftain. The place is styled after a “traditional Ukrainian house” with farm implements hanging on the whitewashed walls and waiters in gaudy costumes. Whilst we wait for the MD to arrive, we begin our meal with a few starters: pickled vegetables, pickled garlic, pickles rolled up in lard, lard slices and pickled cucumbers. As you can imagine, Ukrainians seem to like lard and pickles!! Then a bowl of Borsch, the famous “Russian” beetroot soup that is actually an import from Ukraine. This was warming and hearty, especially as there was yet more lard within (!), and little yeast fritters.

At this point the MD hurries in. After the first greetings, he has the waiter bring our drinks, what else but Ukrainian vodka, known as gorilka! A toast is called for, we raise our glasses, I pour the liquid down my throat in the customary way, then… KABOOOOM! Now, I’ve had my share of strong drinks and can usually imbibe with a certain confidence… but this gorilka is enough to launch a Soyuz rocket into the stratosphere! For the stuff is not only alcoholic, but is steeped in red peppers and honey “for extra flavour”!!!

A pause of a couple of minutes whilst I regain my breath and wipe away the tears welling in my eyes, then we resume our business discussions. The debate centres not on the price of the product, but on the payment terms: the guy wants credit, but, despite the gorilka, my wits are still with me, and I want to see the colour of his money first. The argument rolls on for several minutes, but he is no position to argue – in the end he concedes on advance payment for first order and a vague promise on future credit for the following ones.

Unfortunately, the second course was served in the midst of the animated discussion, so my rabbit stew with garlic was rather congealed, but tasted nice! Another toast to future cooperation, this time with “standard” vodka (!) rounded off the meal.

Godunov

We’re getting a lot of information at the exhibition about Russian business practices – very useful for our future dealings:

* never quote your goods delivered to Moscow or other Russian destinations – there are 20 customs offices in Moscow alone, and which one will be responsible for clearing your particular shipment is anyone’s guess. Unwary sellers have had their cargo stuck in customs for months! Russian importers have people whose only task is to deal with the appropriate bureaucrat and smooth things along.

* Russian buyers in any case *want* to arrange their own transport. Somewhere along the road East, maybe in Belarus or Ukraine, the truck somehow “loses” the papers and new ones (with much lower declared values…) are “found”.

* The state refunds VAT to companies after *seven* years, if they’re lucky – so tax evasion becomes a business necessity!

Armed with this info, we revise our offers on the spot!

Play time after the show ends. We decide to travel by metro again. We take a different line today, the circular one which loops around the city centre, and change at Komsomolskaya station. This is a real jewel in the Moscow Metro crown: marble everywhere, chandeliers hanging from the ceilings, huge mosaics with revolutionary scenes: Lenin haranguing the masses, proletariat marching with red flags, muscular workers with hammers and sickles in hand. Russians may now be post-Communist, but it’s good that they aren’t reneging their past and destroying these former emblems of glory.

We meet up with our companions and stroll around Red Square again. It’s cold. An icy wind straight from Siberia cuts through our coats. A street seller discovers us and after some negotiation we buy five fur hats, and soon we are warm again!

On to tonight’s restaurant, Godunov, in Teatralnaya Square, on the opposite side to the Bolshoi theatre and next to the Metropol Hotel. This is decidedly an upmarket establishment: located in a former monastery, with thick, frescoed walls and large ceramic stoves in each room. The patrons are mostly tourists but also a few well-heeled Russians. The menu offers classic Russian food. After the obligatory shot of vodka, what better to start with than a mound of caviar accompanied by blinis (Russian pancakes) and smetana? Absolutely delicious! As a second course, my unadventurous companions order a steak, but I prefer the Beef Stroganoff, thinly sliced beef in a creamy sauce. This is served in a “bread pot”, a large round loaf cut in two and hollowed out. Nice to look at, but a bit dry when the meat is finished. I would have preferred a simple side of rice.

The meal is enlived half way through by a folk group with accordion, balalaika and dancing ladies in folk costumes. Not normally my taste, but they were good and the Japanese at the table next to ours loved it!

My dessert is a strawberry cake – excellent and beautifully decorated with spun caramel. The wine list at Godunov is extensive but pricey: we avoid the Georgian wine and go straight for the safer Italian offerings. A good meal, but expense accounts only!