Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Savour Kilkenny 2015 (Part 3): Pulled Pork, Preserves and (Half) Pints

I fully believe I was the first person to 'do' pulled pork in Ireland.

This was before it was cool of course, and I don't mean it in any boastful way. You see for years I've been a major fan of pork shoulder, a cheap cut that my local butcher sells at a very reasonable price. I cook it low and slow and therefore it has a natural inclination to fall off the bone in tender shreds of piggy goodness. So I've always teased it apart and added back in the reduced juices if  it was cooked in the oven, or make up a separate gravy if done on the barbecue. I'd serve it with rice, or mustard mash and if I had people over I'd stuff it into soft rolls with coleslaw and mustard.

So there.
It was me.
I was the first ...
...
Probably.

Of course since then it has become the norm in every meat-driven joint and fast food franchise across the land and can even be bought pre-pulled in supermarkets. We now have pulled chicken and pulled beef amongst other pulled meat products. I became so sick of the pork-wagon-jumping I stopped pulling my own and just try to slice it into big chunks now, letting guests pull it themselves if the so wish!

But every now and again I do get a hankering.

Anyway, back to Savour ...

Having left the Beer vs Wine discussion I had a hunger and thirst that needed solving, and although I was initially going to solve the thirst issue first, my nose and then the rest of my body was drawn to an inconspicuous stand at the edge of the festival. The hankering had struck again!

We were in no panic to drink anyhow, as the day was flowing perfectly. There was a clarity and natural progression to our day so far, so as long as we were on time for our train back home we could do, see, drink and eat what we liked. These festivals have always had a therapeutic quality for me, as there is a sense of detachment from the reality of work, stress and 'The Real World' in general. You can get lost in food/drink-driven forgetfulness and just focus in a purely selfish way on your own needs and wants, with guilt trying in vain to force its way into your psyche.

So Nige - my vegetarian fellow therapy seeker - went in search of falafels and I headed towards the porky smell. I had came across The Goode Life Food Co. at other festivals so felt I was in safe hands and sure enough, their chalkboard had just one item - spit roasted pulled pork. Resisting the urge to shout out, 'You're just copying me!' I placed my order.

It was served in a fresh soft roll with mustard, fried onions and relish, and just as I sat on the wall to tuck into all that oozing glory, the sun went in and it started to rain. I'm sure I looked a sight trying to balance an umbrella, notebook, phone and bag as I devoured my lunch in record time.

And then it was time for a beer ... or maybe two.

The beer tent was getting full at this stage with a nice mob of locals and tourists, and youngish and oldish all smiling, relaxing and enjoying life in a way that only a mix of sated bellies and honest, decent beer can do. Although the marquee seemed larger than last year the number of breweries looked around the same, which disappointed the greedy beer ticker in me. But Irish microbreweries were well represented with O'Hara's, Costello's, Dungarvan, Trouble and Metalman all there, although Trouble had bottles only, which seemed a bit of a cheat!

First up was Equinox from Metalman, a refreshing wheat lager - a spicy yet mild palate cleanser that scraped away the last of the pulled pork and left a lingering citrus kick of lime and lemon.

Next was supposed to be Dungarvan's Black Rock but they had , er, tap issues so I went for their Copper Coast instead, which had its usual soft caramel flavour with a tiny touch of spiciness from the hops, but was probably the wrong choice after the wheat beer.

Carlow Brewing (O'Hara's) was my next stop where I had my first taste of their (then) new beer in the single Hop Adventure series. This time it was the Australian bred Galaxy hop, which turned out to be lemondrop and sour apple sweets combined, and was as well made and easy to drink as all of O'Hara's beers tend to be.

Time was pressing on and we decided to take another wander around the festival to look at some of the sellers who were plying their wares in the various tents, marquees and parked vans.

Some of the highlights for me were:

Wildabout from Wexford with their Nettle Pesto and Celtic Roots chutney.


Rebel Chilli from Cork with an amazing Jalapeno and Raspberry jelly.


The local Speltbakers with a fabulous array of bread and baked goods.


The Truffle Fairy, also localish, and their amazing goats cheese, thyme and lemon truffles.


We finished up back at the beer tent with a glass of Metalman Windjammer - a dry and sharp amber beer with lemon cardamom, tropical fruit and brown sugar. I combined this with an unbelievably tender Kangaroo skewer, cooked fresh with just rapeseed oil and a shake of salt. It was superb!

So that was it, it was time to head for the train, detouring on the way to the packed-to-the-rafters Shortis Wong deli and then a last drink in Billy Byrnes - a glass of 9 White Deer Black Lightning - all good milk chocolate and smoky, black cardamom.

On the train back to Carlow we talked about Kilkenny and the festival. It had been a long day with two excellent talks and buckets of atmosphere and a vibrancy I'd only previously experienced in markets and festivals abroad.

The weather helped, as did the location in the shadow of Kilkenny Castle but it was more than that ...
I wrote down the following words: Vibrant, Eclectic, Ethnic, Electric, Passion, Atmosphere, Buzz, Busy but perhaps I should let them stand alone rather than try to put them into sentences.

From a personal point of view the day was a success too. It was the comfort of familiar travelling clothes, my usual bag, my notebook, my companion and knowing the city and festival itself to a degree. But more than that it was the way the day flowed, like honey dripping from a spoon - unstoppable, clear and mesmerising and the lack of pressure and any real urgency. (Apart from the talks!) A day for forgetfulness and a way of leaving your worries behind temporarily.

It really showed me that great festivals like this are about more than just the food and drink. They're about how they positively impact on the people who attend and those that speak, demonstrate and sell their own products with such passion.

And from my experience that's a major selling point that's rarely promoted.

To food and drink - therapy through taste!

Liam

24th October 2015

(Savour Kilkenny 2015 (Part 1) is here and (Part2) here btw.)

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Recipe: Brewer's Banana Bread - with Spent Grain


I'm a bit of a hoarder.

Our shed and both attics are chock-full of all kinds of books, electronics and other items from our past because I hate the idea of throwing out anything just in case I might need it. This affliction has also had an affect on the food, drink and leftovers in the house too, as we try as much as possible to use, re-use, freeze or pickle anything that's hanging around in the darker recesses of the various food compartments.

This reached a new disturbing level a few months back when I started drying vacuum and packing some of the spent grains left over from my homebrew mash.

But what to do with them? My previous attempt at flapjacks turned out pretty good so I decided to press on to something more akin to proper baking, which I'm normally not too good at to be honest, but after a bit of trial and error (Mostly error to be honest!) I ended up with this recipe.

I'm pretty happy with it in general but feel free to tweak it to suit your taste. I used a porter grain that had a chocolatey character but you could add chocolate chips instead of the sultanas ... or perhaps some nuts either.

Enjoy!

Liam



Ingredients:

150g Softened Butter
75g Soft Dark Brown Sugar
75g White Sugar
175g Self-Raising Flour
100g Spent Grain
2 Eggs
2 Ripe Bananas
40g Sultanas

Method:
  • Preheat the oven to 175C
  • Butter the base and sides of a 22cm x 11cm x 6cm loaf tin
  • Beat the butter and sugars in a large bowl until well mixed
  • Blend in the flour, spent grain and eggs
  • Mash the bananas, add to the bowl and mix well
  • Finally fold in the sultanas
  • Bake for an hour or so but I'd advise checking after 50 mins by inserting  a skewer to see if it's baked - if it comes out clean the bread is done!
  • Leave to rest and cool before slicing. It can be served as is or sliced, toasted and buttered if you're up to it! (By the way, the texture is quite light and loose so take care when cutting it.)



Thursday, 19 November 2015

Savour Kilkenny 2015 (Part 2): Beer vs Wine II - Decanted Banter

As we sat watching Caroline, Colm and Pascal set up for their showdown, I wondered whether we were appearing too eager, like giddy kids fidgeting in the front row of a pop concert. No one else was seated even though the entertainment was due to start in fifteen minutes, which surprised me somewhat as I assumed the event would be well attended. I was also a little surprised that Savour didn't put an 'Up Next ...' chalkboard or poster on the stage to let those wandering through the large marquee - where it was being held - know what was about to happen.


But perhaps they were right, as with the stage literally set, the seats around us started to fill up and pretty soon it was standing room only as the latecomers squeezed in at the back of the seating area. Sláinte author (along with Kristin Jensen) Caroline Hennessy and sommelier Colm McCan took to the stage, with the  Pascal Rossignol of Le Caveau acting as an over qualified bottle opener and glass dispenser at the start. Caroline began proceedings by handing out malted barley for the audience to try, insisting that we all have a little taste. I presume that this was a clever ploy to attune people's palates to the beery side of the battle which she was of course pushing. Colm then started pushing for the grapes' side and soon the playful banter was in full flow as each extolled the virtues of their particular tipple, with Pascal giving his somewhat partisan opinions from the wings too when he could get a word in edgeways.

The basic idea of this 'discussion' was to pit beer or cider against wine to find out which was the best accompaniment for the samples of food provided by local producers. Caroline and Colm would tell us why their choice of drink went better with the food and at the end of the 'talk' we would all vote to see which was the best choice. Having attended the event the previous year I knew what to expect but I had enjoyed it so much last time I had decided to drag my mate Nige along and experience the fun again. It helped that Nige was a bit of a wine buff so it was something I thought he'd enjoy.

Obviously I was on the beer and cider side.


First up was Trout Pâté from Goatsbridge in Kilkenny on spelt bread from the also local Speltbaker, glorious in its own right but Caroline had paired it with Irish Cockagee Keeved Cider, while Colm had gone for a Spanish Bodegas Menade Rueda Verdejo. The wine - I must admit - had a lovely citrus-gooseberry, dry taste that went really well with the creamy pâté, cutting through its mild fishy flavour and cleansing the palate. The cider was a low carbonated medium style with a gorgeous sweet, golden raisin flavour. Both were excellent in their own way but I did feel that the wine had the edge in this pairing to my admittedly odd palate. Nige liked both of the drinks but did not commit one way or another as to which he preferred. Perhaps I forgot to ask ... or I wasn't paying attention!



Next up was Knockanore Oakwood Smoked Cheese from Waterford and Colm had chosen a French Santa Duc Côtes du Rhône Vieilles Vignes made with grenache and syrah. He sold it to us on its merits obviously but then added a spiel about a local large singing owl that gave its name to the wine - he was obviously going for the novelty value! Caroline had chosen the very local Costellos Red Ale and talked us through the subtle malt flavours we were tasting as we sampled it with the cheese. The cheese itself was mouth-melting and lightly smoked without being harsh, a tricky thing to achieve with such subtle base flavours. For me there was no contest, as although the wine was superb in its own right, with lovely big, bold berry flavours and an earthiness that I liked, it couldn't compete in a pairing with the smoked cheese. The perfect balance of the malt with the cheese won this one for me.

Nige disagreed.

Pascal was talking more now, explaining with the passion and panache that only those with Gallic blood can truly ooze about the origins of the wines, the people behind them and the ethos that drives their production. But Caroline wasn't letting Colm or Pascal schmooze the audience too much as she emphasised the localness of irish beer and cider, and how these products are more relevant and important to this country than imported wine. As our three hosts bantered back and forth I was struck by how much they love what they do. You could hear it in their voices, inflections and tone as well as their facial expressions and hand movements - and by their stances both literal and figurative. I was a little jealous to be honest that they were immersed in work that let them express themselves in such a passionate way about produce they clearly loved.



Anyhow, last up was the dessert round. I'm not really a dessert person and don't consider myself having a sweet tooth but as Caroline stretched for a tin on the couch behind her my interest piqued as I guessed what it contained. Caroline's brownies are talked about in not-so-hushed tones within the beer-food circles I occupy from time to time. I dare say that if Caroline and Kristin's book fell off of a bookshelf in many a kitchen it would land with this recipe facing up! This time, as well as stout and chocolate, she had added whole Oreo cookies to the tray - she wasn't pulling any punches during this battle! She paired the brownies with the 8 Degrees Knockmealdown Stout she had added to the cookies, while Colm had plumped for a sweet malbec from Cahors in France - Chateau du Cedre Malbec Vintage. This had a boozy sweet cherry quality - a 'Wow!' wine to say the least - which made it a fantastic dessert wine in its own right but again for me it was no contest as far as the pairing was concerned, the stout just complemented the uber chocolate brownies perfectly.

Again Nige disagreed.


And so it was time for the public vote:

Cider won the first round, then wine won the second (People fixating on the singing owl name - Pah!), and seemingly it was a draw for dessert (Harumph!) - a result that was designed to keep everyone happy perhaps. And so for the second year running the public vote was a draw.

But to my mind people weren't actually treating the contest as a proper pairing, they were just judging which drink they liked. Maybe that's just sour grapes (Hah!) from me but I did feel that once again beer and cider were jipped.

So after being truly and uniquely entertained by our hosts, who we thanked and chatted to at the end - Nige bending Pascal's ear about obscure regional French wines while I was my usual socially awkward, foot shuffling self, we set off in search of more than just small samples of beer.

Luckily we didn't have far to go ...

Liam

24th October 2015

(Savour Kilkenny 2015 (Part 1) is here btw.)



Friday, 13 November 2015

Savour Kilkenny 2015 (Part 1): Fermenting Facts in The Little Green Grocer

I felt a little nervous for Hayley as she perched herself on a set of steps, and looked down on the sea of expectant faces that gazed up at her. One of the store owners, Eleanor, stood beside her to give her moral, and I presume physical support if need be as the steps looked a little shaky! The shop was packed and I don't think she was expecting such a turnout for her talk on fermented foods, and her business - The Cultured Food Company.


Let's back up a little ...

We - myself and Nige, my long suffering vegetarian sidekick - had taken a break from the Savour Festival proper and made the journey up Parliament Street in Kilkenny to firstly visit one of my favourite bars in Kilkenny - Brewery Corner - and secondly to catch a talk on the fermentation of food stuffs such as sauerkraut and kimchi at The Little Green Grocer.

I must admit to knowing very little about fermented foods, although I did make my own sauerkraut a few years back. I had forgotten about it until I saw the line-up of talks for Savour and this one struck a cord, as it also jogged my memory to a podcast I had listened to about Sandor Katz, a fermentation guru from the US who gave a fascinating talk about fermented food on The Brewing Network.

Brewery Corner was a little quiet, which wasn't surprising given that the food festival was on and buzzing. They slyly tried to tempt me with chalkboard marketed scotch eggs (They must know my weaknesses!) but I resisted and went instead for just a glass of Rascal's Wunderbar, a German hopped IPA with an almost Märzen-like quality that could have been my imagination playing tricks on my palate based on the name. The hops were subtle-ish but gave the beer a certain tropical fruitiness combined with an almost white pepper spiciness that complemented the malt biscuit, er, malt taste. What a beautiful, balanced beer.


We chatted a little with the barman, talking whisky and whiskey among other topics. I was fascinated by a The Peat Monster, a blended malt Scotch from Compass Box. I was drawn by the graphics on the bottle (Forgot to take a photo!) but felt it a little early in the day to be trying anything more than a peaty sniff. Maybe next time ...

It was soon heading towards the time for the talk so we finished our drinks and scarpered up the street to TLGG. We were concerned about space, as it's a smallish narrow shop and wouldn't fit in too many food fermentation fans if the interest in the subject was as strong as I suspected it to be.

The Little Green Grocer is a perfect-looking, pretty shop painted in subtle, suitably greenish-blue colour that gives off an air of understated elegance. Their ethos seems to rotate around the words 'organic', 'artisan' and 'natural', and whatever your feelings about any of those words there is no doubt that from wine to cheese to their deli range, they are standing by their beliefs and succeeding in driving their business based on those concepts, which can only be admired and applauded in my opinion. A look at their Facebook page shows gorgeous, tasty-looking, mouth-watering food that underlines to me the above commitment and passion in what they buy, and then sell.

The shop was pretty packed when we arrived but we squeezed in the back, which turned out to be where Hayley would be giving her talk from anyhow, so our just-in-time arrival had paid off. And so with Hayley perched on her steps, inches away from hair-frizzling spotlights she began her talk.

I needn't have worried about Hayley by the way, as she spoke confidently and knowledgeably, and although I can't repeat all she said verbatim, her belief and passion in her products and in their health benefits shone through in her talk. She went through the probiotic benefits of fermented food, how to make your own, told us how ketchup started as a fermented food, how fermented food like sauerkraut kept scurvy at bay on Captain Cook's ships, how sauerkraut juice has been touted as a hangover cure and what exactly kimchi is, amongst other things. She has loads of information and links on her Facebook page that will give you a much better understanding and appreciation of this enigmatic food group than I could ever give here.

She finished up by offering a tasting of some of her products. The red sauerkraut was sour (Duh!) with an almost bitter-fruit quality that appealed to my not-so-sweet-tooth. But it was the kimchi that was a revelation, as it first seared one side of my mouth and then proceeded to stomp across my tongue leaving traces of chili spiciness and plethora of strong vegetal flavours in its wake. Wow it was hot, but once I was over the original palate jarring sour/heat, the flavours calmed a little and left a wonderful warming bitterness that had me hooked. This was something I needed to try to make myself.

Time was marching on and we had more to see and do at the festival, so buoyed by the excellent talk, great food-infused surrounding - and for once a positive sour taste in my mouth - we said our good byes and thanked Hayley before heading back to the festival.


(24th October 2015)

Addendum ...


Back at home I've attempted my own sauerkraut with red cabbage, mustard seed, juniper berry and caraway seed. I'll let you in on the method and recipe when I see how it turns out!

I might try the kimchi next ...

Liam K.

(Part 2 is here.)




Friday, 23 October 2015

Food: Scotch Duck Eggs with Chorizo, Bacon and Black Pudding


One of my all time favourite food combinations is bacon and eggs.

OK, not just bacon of course but any piggy food products - black pudding with a runny egg yolk is a thing to be revered in our home.

So the thoughts of wrapping a rich duck egg in a duvet of bacon, chorizo and black pudding seemed like a natural thing for me to do.

In fact I'm astounded I never did it before now!

So here we go ...


Ingredients:

Duck Eggs
200g Bacon - chopped
200g Black Pudding - chopped
200g Chorizo deskinned and chopped (I wanted to use cooking chorizo but settled on the cured one.)
Half a small Apple finely chopped
Half a small Onion finely chopped
2 Chicken Eggs for binding and dipping
50g finely crushed Crackers for mix
50g finely crushed Crackers for coating
1 big pinch of Black Pepper and a small one of Salt
1 tsp of Sesame Seed
Flour to coat




Method:


  • Boil the duck eggs for 9 mins then plunge into cold water and set aside.
  • Put the bacon in a food processor and pulse for a few seconds, add chorizo and pulse again. Add the black pudding, apple, onion and blend to a coarse paste.

  • Put mix into a bowl with 50 grm of crushed crackers and 1 egg, and mix with your hands into a gooey paste.
  • Flatten the mix with a rolling pin between two sheets of clingfilm.
  • Peel eggs and dip in flour, wrap the egg in a blanket of mix.

  • Dip the covered eggs in flour, then whisked egg and finally a mix of the remaining crushed crackers combined with the black pepper, salt and sesame seed.

  • Place on a baking tray and bake at 180C for 30 mins, turning once - very carefully. (I assume these can be deep fried too but I haven't attempted it yet!)
  • Leave to cool and then enjoy with mustard mayo and a pint of homebrew stout - or similar!


As usual, feel free to change ingredients to suit your palate!

Liam

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Travel: Duomo di Milano, Milan's Cathedral - Shock & Awe


Milan's great cathedral - Duomo di Milano - sits on its same named piazza, off centre in the city with numerous ring roads forming partial and wobbly concentric circles around it like a poorly drawn target. I'm not sure if the city realigned itself to the building or vice versa but to be honest, it's such a huge structure that it's possible that there are some kind of slight gravitational force at work - actual or perceived -  causing everything in Milan to orbit around it in some way. We - Nige, Pete and I - were certainly drawn towards it on our first visit to the city, just pausing to drop our bags at our hotel before jumping on a metro heading south into the city centre.

We emerged from our subterranean metro travels on the southwest corner of the square and immediately found ourselves surrounded by tourists, pigeons and hawkers. The tourists went around with their heads in the air or a camera super glued to their fingers, like a scene from zombie movie with people shuffling around brainlessly, the pigeons quick-stepping around their feet with very little grace and certainly no dignity as they pecked at crumbs discarded on the stone slabs. But the hawkers were the worst ... because they really had nothing to sell. There were two types; the first group would offer you a free bracelet of sorts, composed of some strands of twisted plastic, while saying 'Free-Free-Free' but of course once they tied them on your arm they would then ask for a 'donation' and becoming quite aggressive if you refused. The second group gave you 'free' birdseed to feed the pigeons (Why anyone would want to encourage the avian equivalent to the rat is beyond me ...) and then ask for some money to support their family, dog, cocaine habit or whatever.

Anyhow, one end of the square was taken up with the arresting site of the cathedral and although it looked large from a distance, it's only as you start walking towards it, brushing aside the hawkers and pigeons, that you realise just how enormous it is, with those entering and exiting through the doors and the sightseers on the roof pulling the whole edifice into perspective. We slowed to a shuffle looking at the building in awe - like the other tourists I had just disparaged -  then headed towards the entrance, still marvelling at the size of the structure.

The building was started in 1386 and took over 500 years to complete. It has 135 carved pinnacles and has over 3,000 statues, (or 2,000 or 4,000, depending on your source. I didn't count them myself you understand.) more than half of them on the roof. It is crowned with a gilded statue of the Madonna, put there in the 18th century by someone with a good head for heights, as it is 108 metres off the ground. The cathedral itself can hold up to 20,000 people at a push - literally.


The main doors are massive, detailed bronze masterpieces. They must stand, or hang, at least 10 meters high and seem to depict scenes from Christ's life in an almost Art Nouveau style. The hand polished calf of one of the figures - one of the soldiers scourging Christ - shone in the sun from too many tactile touches. The marble surround was equally impressive, depicting fruit, flowers and shells, with the odd cherub for good measure, all carved in exquisite detail.

But you enter by the side doors, past serious looking security personnel, and the contrast from the bright and dazzling exterior to the gloomy almost cavernous interior is disconcerting. It took many minutes for our eyes to grow accustomed to the darkness and the low lighting levels before we could start to look around without walking into something. The lack of internal lighting is obviously to help highlight the stained glass windows, which were vibrant, backlit panels in the murky gloom. Their light falling on the pillars and statues creating more pools of colour in the darkness. Everything from the exquisitely detailed floor tiles to the distant shadowed ceiling was a triumph of splendour and decoration. We wandered around separately from chapel to pulpit, statue to crypt, pointing each other in different directions to different features when we ran into each other.

I encountered poor old St. Bartholomew looking quite morose and serious, which was understandable considering he was wearing his own skin like a comfort blanket. He was allegedly flayed alive in Armenia and then crucified upside down. (There's somewhere I must mark it off my holiday destinations.) This statue by Marco d'Agrate dates from 1562 and seems to show a worrying degree of knowledge of what's under the human skin. One wonders was Marco often to be seen in graveyards with a spade, a scalpel and a sketchpad - digging, carving and drawing with equal enthusiasm.


Each of the separate chapels within the cathedral are masterpieces in themselves, housing paintings and statues of a quality to grace any art museum or exhibition. It is impossible to get your head around the magnitude of the task of creating this place, so I sat for a minute and took in the bigger picture of the whole space. The giant supporting pillars seemed like tree trunks in some petrified primordial forest, their canopies lost in the darkness overhead, or like the set of some Tolkienesque fantasy set in a mythical, troll ridden wood, as Nige put it. Looking up at the enormous entrance doors you could imagine the effect that opening these to let in the visiting bishop or cardinal would have had on an assembled crowd. The sunlight just seeping in through a tiny crack at first and then flooding the whole space with blinding brightness, as trumpets blared and psalms were sung ...

The poor peasants must have crapped themselves.


I left the others and decided to take the stairs rather than the lift up to the roof. After a brief interrogation by the two soldier standing guard at the entrance to the stairway who insisted on me emptying my pockets, I started to climb the well-worn stairs, which wound around the tower and up to the roof. I eventually got to the top, feeling dizzy and out of breath, leg muscles aching and cursing quietly at my lack of fitness for even the most basic of tasks. I leaned at the top of the stairs, wheezing and trying to catch my breath as sprightly 80 year old American ladies bounded past me and on to the roof, looking at me with a mixture of sympathy and disgust.

'Asthma,' I lied as one Italian lady took pity on me and gave me a drink of water and perhaps the last rites, as she seemed to be waving her hands over me in a religious fashion and speaking rapidly in Italian. Only then did I remember where I was perpetrating this deception and that the chances of a lightning strike were considerably higher up here regardless of any other outside influences.

She left me to it and I eventually regained my composure and started to take in my surroundings. The level of detail, even up here, was astonishing. Every nook, cranny and pinnacle had a carving of some description on it and I wondered had there always been access to the roof for the public. If not then this was all done for God to see - presumably. I remember seeing a documentary on early Irish Christian chalices once and the presenter asking some historian why a chalice would be so elaborately detailed underneath where no one could see it. 'Ah, but God would see it!' was his smiling reply, so maybe this was something similar. Or perhaps they were just showing off a bit, as only Italians can do.

I was also surprised that the carving varied so much - from saintly figures to gruesome, gurning faces, and evil looking gargoyles, this place had the lot. Then I caught sight of what looked to me like a stylised, almost Sheela na Gig-like relief on one of the archways I was about to pass under. It stopped me in my tracks - I was surprised that a carving of this type would be on this large cathedral in Italy.


Proper Sheela na Gigs are a figure of debate and conjecture as to what they represent. They are somewhat graphic carvings of a female figure that leaves little to the imagination. I had seen and read about them in various articles and books but thought of them as a mostly Irish phenomena. They are said to represent either; fertility symbols; a survival of pagan worship; a warning against lustful thoughts; protection against evil; or any number of other suggestions that have been thought up by historians over the years. The fact is, nobody seems to know for sure. What a similar figure was doing, flanked by two Pan-like characters with wings, on the roof of the Duomo I don't know. The figure was a little flowerier and less blatant than those I had seen back home but I still wondered what it represented and why it was here.

I suddenly became conscious of the fact that I was staring at a carving of a naked woman. This was reinforced by the tuts of a group of small, wizen English women who had to squeeze past me as I stood on the narrow walkway. I half expected a slap of an umbrella on the back of the head as they passed by but luckily it never happened and I moved on.

There were gargoyles to channel water on the side walls and plenty of other grotesque figures as I walked around. I wondered were these to ward off evil spirits, which seemed to me to be hedging your bets a little and tipping your hat towards paganism ... although maybe, like the Sheelas, we'll never know their real reason for being in such places. Or perhaps I need to read more about Gothic architecture.

The front section of the roof was quite crowded with people, many were strolling around carefully but there were plenty of sun bathers here too, lying on the large slabs of stone that made up the roof itself and taking in the rays. Maybe we hadn't travelled that far from our pagan, sun worshipping past after all? This probably explained the Ray Ban sign, not to mention the rest of the billboards, which could be seen from most vantage points of the roof. On a clear day you can supposedly see the Alps from here but today was a little hazy so the horizon just blended and blurred into a grey nothingness.
I stood and stared up at the Madonna statue that crowned the building, wondering once again how it was hoisted up. I was tens of metres above the ground and the statue seemed as high up again, its gold finish glinting in the hazy sunshine. You could see how it would be a beacon for the worshippers of Milan, visible and sparkling in the sunshine from most areas of the city, before it became the built up high-rise sprawl it was now.


The roof was becoming crowded now and after a final look around, I headed back towards the stairs to descend back down to street level. I was about to begin the easy, gravity-aided descent when I noticed that the walkway also wound around to the back of the church. All the visitors seemed to be heading to the front so I walked against the tide, past the elevator and around the back to the east side of the church.

It was quiet and empty here; no other souls seemed to venture in this direction, preferring the safety in numbers and Piazza view that the west end offered. This was a tranquil oasis right in the heart of the city. I looked out across the void to the balconies of the apartments on the other side of the street. They were almost touching distance from here, their pretty potted gardens had a wonderful view back across at the Duomo, which was as well decorated on this side as on the front. The only sound that could be heard was the occasional dentist-drill-sound of metal on stone, as the conservators worked overhead on scaffolding, and the barely-muted music from their radio, the sound of which seemed a little out of place here.


I spent ages on this side of the cathedral, by myself and lost in thought and admiring the scenery, from the carvings and detail on the building to the view over the rooftops. I turned a corner and caught sight of one of the building I hoped to visit - Torre Velasca. At 100 metres high this medieval looking building with its top storeys jutting out over the floors below, seemingly only support by diagonal props, towers above its neighbours. Built in the 1950s and resembling a siege tower or fortress, it didn't really blend in with its surroundings, as I looked at it over tiled rooftops. But as out of place as it looked I still liked how it stood there, perhaps defiantly shaking its fist in this direction. It could be quite an interesting place to live.


Time was marching on and I would soon have to find the others, so I headed once more to the stairs, on the way staring across at the beautiful people who occupied the balcony of the restaurant of  La Rinacente, one of the poshest department stores in Milan or Italy for that matter. No one looked back at me, they were in their own place of worship I guess.

Back at ground level I went looking for the others, my thoughts on pagan statues and sun-worshipers, wondering where we would eat and what to sacrifice to satisfy our hunger ...

A pigeon maybe ...


 (Visited 2009 - excerpt from a shelved project)