Our Food Writer Sam Connects Glastonbury, Coldplay & Italian Cuisine
, July 29th, 2011 09:13
In this months' column, our food writer Sam Herlihy joins the dots between the Glastonbury Festival, Chris Martin as Incredible Hulk, and rural Italian cuisine
I just got back from Italy. This was no Gucci/Versace fashionista trip with the beautiful people to swoosh around in a linen suit sipping peach bellinis and air kissing. It was a 5am Easyjet flight from Gatwick. Veal crated up with depressed businessmen, irritated Italian women in expensive shoes and harassed Brit mothers in big shorts with wailing sprogs hipstuck and teething.
In the newspaper a week before there was a full page photograph of a column of festival goers with gritted teeth, striding miserably through a sea of muck. Ankle deep in rain slopped dung marching towards the promised land of tents, aerosol cans on bonfires and Two Door Cinema Club.
I was going to a small studio in the middle of nowhere outside Milan, to help a young singer/songwriter with his lyrics. Translating his mother tongue into English and working with a small vocabulary had left his lyrics sounding like Coldplay. Before the kids at the back of the bus start chucking stuff at the back of my head, I'm well aware of the lyrical howlers I've gobbed out in the past but next to Chris Martin, I am the human embodiment of the entire unfathomable beauty and glory of the English language. So pipe down.
I watched Coldplay at Glastonbury on the telly. For sure they've got some songs. One after another, crowd lapping it up in the rain. They looked like a sea of hungry baby birds, mouths gaping wide for another hit to be dropped, wormlike down their throats. Chris Martin is ripped these days too. The dude has obviously been hitting a gym like Macho Man Randy Savage sans steroids. It was weird. In my head he's a geeky beanpole student whining over a piano, but the new reality is this buff muscle man whining over a piano.
In Italy on my last night we went out for dinner. The restaurant was in a tiny village. We wound our way down narrow passages and cobbled corkscrew streets. There were no lights on anywhere until we turned the last corner and the restaurant lights came into view. The sous chef, Frederico, was a bloke I knew from an Italian band we had met through our old engineer. He didn't play music anymore. The dreams of musical stardom had blinked out, and now he was a chef. Food had always been his first passion. He had filled out. Tasting endless pasta dishes, slabs of cheese and rich sauces had plumped him like a cushion. He looked great. He came out to greet us. He was dressed in food-marked whites. His clogs were white, a towel hung from his apron and he wore a sweat soaked blue bandana. He looked badass and happy.
The guitarist from Coldplay looked nervous and unhappy. Their Civil War by Basquiat threads have moved on. Now they dress like Vietnam War soldiers by Basquiat. All their guitars have been defaced with dumb slogans and garish neon paint splatter. It looks like some sort of half thought out psychedelic revolution dream world by a nursery school class. I firmly got the impression that the guitarist just wanted to stand there in his silly clothes and play. He couldn't though. Everytime Chris Martin looked or bounded over to him, he seemed duty bound to perform an enthusiastic 'rockin' out' move. I imagined Chris Martin as some sort of comic book villain. His body superpowered by a nuclear accident, muscles bursting Hulk-style through his t-shirt and his fearsome rages turned upon his former friends.
SCENE: INT NIGHT
The band Coldplay are in their dressing room, backstage at the Glastonbury Festival. Their stage-time is fast approaching. They are discussing stagewear options. The band are dressed in military fatigues with a psychedelic twist. Their singer Hulk, towers above the other band members. His huge muscles glisten and pulsate and his eyes glow with a strange energy.
Hulk: [In a fearsome, low growl dripping with malice and implied threat] Wear the clothes.
Coldplay Guitarist: [In a meek and nervous whisper] Really? Do we have to wear them? Can't I just wear this Prada jacket?
Hulk: [Hissing] No. You will wear the clothes I designed.
Coldplay Guitarist: Yes Chris. The guitar too? I'm really not sure about the paint job you did on it.
Hulk: The guitar too, Eno told me it's a psychedelic dreamscape that Bono was too dumb to understand. Also, don't forget that when I rock up to you, you better be rocking out or I will crush you like a twig.
Coldplay Guitarist: [Sadly] Yes Chris.
Coldplay Drummer: [Even more meekly than the guitarist] Er Chris... about this big drum and my over-the-top backing vocal chanting. I was wondering...
Hulk: [Interrupting, furious and frothing with rage] SILENCE DRUMMER BOY! Do as you are told and everything will be OK. Jay-Z is coming, he loves the big drum.
Coldplay Guitarist: Is Gwyneth coming? I haven't seen her for a while.
Hulk: (Incandescent with the fury of a million exploding suns) HOW DARE YOU! For this impudence you must now don... this. [He thrusts a t-shirt with one foil covered shoulder at Coldplay Guitarist]
Coldplay Guitarist: [Whining] Aw Chris! This one? What's with the foil shoulder pad? I'm going to look ridiculous.
Hulk: SILENCE. Me and Eno made it this morning. It's futuristic. Brian says it's abstract. Kid A! Synth-wear! Radiohead don't have them! Be grateful.
Coldplay Guitarist: [Under his breath] For fuck's sake.
The food was awesome. I had a potato cake filled with octopus and capers, followed by sausage ragu and pasta. I still reckon the Italians could do with chucking in a bit more garlic in their sauces, but it was still lush. Frederico came and sat with us while we drank limoncello and espressos. He was dripping with sweat but beaming. He was proud and happy to be cooking for a living. The singer-songwriter I was working with never seemed to look that happy.
Coldplay's set finished. I felt a bit deflated. They had just been stood in front of a vast crowd, singing along to every dodgy obvious rhyme scheme and every single cliche. Laser beams, fireworks and thousands of coloured origami birds had created a huge encompassing spectacle. Even the guitarist looked happy as they waved and trooped off stage - Chris Martin to some weird yoga/healthfood/kryptonite lair, and the others for a beer, probably. It still felt off to me though. This huge band, this victory lap gig felt like a desperate attempt to matter, to mean something more than millionaires playing silly songs. It was a raging against the dying of the light. I couldn't tell if anyone gave a fuck about music anymore. As the roadies scuttled out to pack up the gear I thought that now would be the perfect time for a meteorite to howl from the sky and obliterate the world. One of - if not the - biggest band in the world, playing for thousands and it still felt like the sad, tiny, inevitable, end of something.
These small, half-empty villages in rural Italy. Every one of them slowly cracking in the sun, emptying of young people and bleaching away. Driving through them at night, it's ghost towns and howling dogs. In the day, nothing's open, there's no-one on the pavements. It's not just siestas and continental opening hours. It's a creeping disappearing act. There's the same raging against the dying of the light. They won't let this world go, these places are like ships in a storm straining at a futile anchor, refusing to slip and be flung away. Even the most desolately empty town or village has bakeries and coffee shops. The smallest, seemingly deserted café has a counter filled with hundreds of different perfectly made pastries and miniature sweets. The delis are overflowing with handmade cheeses, 50 types of prosciutto and a hundred different marinated olives. Who the fuck buys all this stuff? There's seemingly nobody here anymore. The odd ancient crone or sun wizened old boy shuffling in the sun can't be scoffing it all, surely? Maybe the bins overflow daily with towering piles of uneaten delicacies. But still, the next day someone brings in more hand pressed olive oil, more pots of half-submerged buffalo mozzarella and yet more tiny, perfect cakes.
On Glastonbury the next day the camera pans away from the darkened tent and rears up into the sky. A sea of drying mud, trash, scurrying groups of people and vans. Burger, falafel, noodles, roasts, these vans steaming grease into the air. All of it shit, all of it lowest common denominator abuses of culinary craft and history. Singapore noodles as interpreted by a world before air travel, before the internet, before even a flicker of cultural exchange. Actually, this implies that it was even worse in the even dimmer distant past. There was probably more knowledge when clipper ships carted spices from the New World and Mongol hordes rucked their way to Rome. A roast pork as a raised finger salute and spit in the face of heritage and experience. Reeking infested pig clumsily hacked apart and bapped in bread like balled toilet roll. The only taste anywhere is the same: oil and grease, carbon and polystyrene. That's not why we're here. We are here to listen to these girls banging away out of time. We don't give a stuff about food, it's just fuel so we can listen to this cool band and get drunk. These girls looking like my older brother's girlfriends in 1993. Doc Martins and Army Surplus shirts, tights under charity shop dresses and pubic areas like some woodland mammal crawled up there to sleep. Who could care less about what shit gets shoveled down our gullets for a fiver a go? These girls sing like their ears are full of mud, like cats being swung by their tails. The guitarist is an actress playing a role in a sitcom, pretending one plays the guitar with a single finger at all times. It doesn't sound like a dark side of the hippy dream band channeling a twisted take on Fleetwood Mac, it sounds like what it is: a miserable, out of tune, waste of everyone's time.
This band finishes and now there's some footage from the night before. It's still raining then. There's this man bellowing in a silky shirt. It's so Cro-Magnon this music. It's huffing like removal men with a piano up a flight of stairs. It's this physical effort for pith and cutting wit. This grinding toil, yet more raging against the dying of the light. This aging man, bellowing but hearing crooning, making bitter cracks and throwing weak jabs. A new shirt, the effort soaked the last one through, another song, 'There Is A Light That Never Goes Out'. This figure, raging still to an emptier field.
I'm trying to explain to this singer songwriter that the world is not waiting for another record that sounds like Parachutes. I'm trying to tell him that there is more music in the world than Radiohead and Sigur Ros. I'm trying to teach him about imagery and the mind's eye, about abstraction and visions. He's smiling sometimes and nodding in understanding, but I don't know that he does. Maybe I'm wrong anyway. Maybe I'm the one wasting everyone's time. There's every possibility that age hasn't handed me perception and intuition in exchange for my hair, my ability to weather a hangover or maintain an erection. Perhaps ageing has just stolen my ability to understand anything more than my own tiny world of my family, my few remaining friends, writing, watching TV and cooking dinner. I'm sat in this little studio at a piano with this enthusiastic songwriter and pissing on his parade. I'm listing reasons why his lyrics suck and my ideas are exactly what he needs to move forwards, and I'm remembering watching Glastonbury and starting to think that I'm the idiot. I'm the one with the problem.
It's my second night in Italy and we're in a packed pizzeria in Turin. We drove through genuinely biblical rainstorms to get here. Outside the window, forked lighting split the sky in the distance. We ran from the parked car to this restaurant, skin drenched in that ten second sprint. I'm eating deep fried sardines and squid. My vegetarian friend Ale is hoovering up a giant ball of fresh mozzarella and spurting pips in all directions as he bites into these tomatoes. These tomatoes are strange. I'm not entirely sure I've eaten a tomato before, if this is what they actually taste like. The restaurant is properly heaving. There are tables packed with entire families from content babies to sulky teenagers and up to silent but all-seeing grandparents so at peace to be surrounded by their entire family. The kids are eating anchovies and gnawing pizza crusts. The long table to my right is a stag party. The noise annoys me and they burst into Italian drinking songs to the tune of 'Seven Nation Army' every couple of minutes. The rain is palm slapping the tall windows like it's been locked outside. It smells of wine and basil and woodsmoke.
On the TV there's a woman talking about how family friendly Glastonbury is. She's talking about face painting and jugglers. She's so enthusiastic about Poppy and Finn's adventures in the Green Field. She keeps spilling obviously flat Prosecco down her Barbour jacketed sleeve, and her straw trilby is at a jaunty angle. Her kids are kicking welly toes through the mud. These kids look bored and tired. They wear these weary faces like affixed weights. I get a bit irrationally emotional looking at these grubby sad faces. I remember seeing this expression last August in a cold drizzled field in Reading. The Kid looking up at me, tired and homesick, not wanting to let me down, wanting to see it out, willing herself to enjoy the whole experience more than she was. She just wanted to be at home, warm and empty of the junk we had fed her for the whole day. Kids dig chips and burgers but not for an entire day, in the cold, in a field. If I couldn't get her home, the best I could do was at least to stop watching these preaching Canadians and tuck her up in her sleeping bag, in our tent, listening to the crowds starting fires, arguing and singing. I wanted to stand guard outside, keep watch until morning. Why had I brought her here? Why was this woman still dribbling on about teepees and 'mucking in'? Look at your kids. They're cold and homesick and you are drunk and stupid.
I'm on the plane home. I didn't eat at the airport. There was a sandwich shop with stacks of lush looking focaccia and fresh overflowing paninis. I thought I had to run to the gate, and I suddenly got this nervousness about ordering something in Italian, so I didn't get anything but a water bottle from a vending machine. I'm starving on the plane so I get a beer and a sandwich. The sandwich is an 'Italian Style' ham and cheese. The closest this sandwich ever got to Italy was 20 minutes ago when we took off. It's fucking horrible, plastic and chemical and pathetic. It's English and boring and I'm livid with myself for not getting something good at the airport. I eat it anyway because I'm hungry and I drink the beer and I glare at the back of this bloke's head a few rows in front of me who was rude to the cabin crew about his cup of tea and UHT milk. I pray that he chokes on it, but then withdraw my prayer because I just want to get home and a bloke dying on a plane would definitely delay my homecoming. I seethe in my seat and listen to music on my phone that I don't even really like anymore but there's nothing else on there.
In the car on the way home from the train station, the radio is playing the new Coldplay single. The girl from the Glastonbury broadcast is reliving her high points from the set. The crowd had loved it, it had been a momentous headlining performance. The atmosphere had been electric and amazing and there had been such a wide range of people in the audience. This girl saw gangs of blokes and groups of girls singing along and she'd seen families holding hands and dancing to 'Fix You' and 'In My Place'. I climb from the car as this girl cues up a live track from that wondrous saturday night at Glastonbury. I go inside and The Kid and The Mini-Kid are asleep. I give them each a goodnight kiss, go downstairs and cook dinner.