The hills are alive with the sound of…………………

I’d like to be able to tell you that the hills are alive with the sound of music, or at least birdsong, but I can’t. Instead they’re primarily alive with the sound of chain saws and mowers. Several of our trees toppled over in the recent bad weather, plus the plot immediately to the rear of the Domaine is being cleared. Whether this is ahead of further construction or just a tidy up, I know not.

In addition to which, today the men from SNADEC have been clearing the building’s drains. I suppose they do this on a regular basis to prevent the build up of fatbergs. I suspect the contents of our smaller bergs are far less interesting and certainly not, like those in London, worthy of their own television programme.

large blackbirds

This hive of activity from 08:00 in the morning is tending to drown out the lovely birdsong at this time of year when the birds are building nests and laying eggs. A few years back, a large number of rooks/ravens/crows aka very large blackbirds, sinister enough for a starring role in Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” made their home in the Domaine. They make the most awful racket and generally boss all the other birds about. They like to sit on our terrace railings and, if you encourage them to move off, tend to regard you quite belligerently.

One landed on the railings yesterday with a branch in his mouth. It was far too large to call a twig. I was surprised he or she could fly with it, but it swooped off no trouble. The rooks/ravens/crows whatever have tended to colonise the woods to the rear of the Domaine leaving the trees in the more formal and informal gardens to the front for the smaller birds who wisely steer well clear of the larger ones.

Let’s not forget the ducks from our lake who are often given to wandering around the gardens at this time of year, evidently up to no good. They generally don’t stray too far away and particularly not after the unfortunate duck crushing incident  a few years back. However, you do have to keep an eye out for them as they’re given to waddling, or worse stopping, on the access road and regarding you with their heads to one side.

The Domaine sits above the A8 motorway and main railway line, neither of which are audible unless you strain your ears. Of course, the trains are only running for three days out of every five at the moment in protest at changes proposed by M Macron for new railway employees. Those currently employed have jobs for life and the ability to retire at a ridiculously low age. My money’s on M Macron as the railway workers have little or no support from the general public.

The recent mix of sunshine and showers means the grass has grown alarmingly quickly and the gardeners are out on their ride around mower. It looks great fun and I’d love to have a go. The bits the mower can’t reach are tackled with a mighty big strimmer. As if that wasn’t enough noise, loads of my neighbours are availing themselves of tax breaks and upgrading their windows to double-glazing. Such are the sounds of spring!

Things I’ve done: London marathon

I always enjoy watching the London Marathon. It brings back fond memories of when I took part in 1994. You have to remember when I say “fond memories” I think it’s a bit like giving birth, I have selective memory loss about the painful bits.

I had decided to take part off the back of a number of successful 10km runs around London. It typically took me an hour to run 10km, twice as slow as a top runner. On this basis I naively supposed that I would complete the London marathon within 5 hours. This time is important because, if you’re slower, you’re behind the marathon equivalent of the broom wagon which used to be and may still be a BA bus. So, as you pass through each of the markers, they’re packing everything up, the road is re-opened forcing you to run on the pavement and forage for water supplies among the piles of roadside rubbish. You see I speak from (bitter) experience. I was way slower than 5 hours.

While training for the marathon, I never managed more than a half-marathon. I wasn’t overly concerned as I knew I could just walk the rest of the way. I even used to joke about it because when you tell people you’re taking part, they always ask about your time. “Just the one day” I’d say. “I’m not envisaging an overnight stop!” Cue laughter. It may have been a joke but many a true word is spoken in jest.

My beloved and I stayed overnight on the Saturday in a hotel near Tower Bridge. I even shared a lift with the eventual winner, a Mexican runner the size and weight of my left leg who kindly advised me to run the second half faster than the first. Thank you for those pearls of wisdom, clearly this was where my strategy fell down.

Unlike last week-end’s marathon, it was a bitterly cold day. I wore my running kit and over the top an old track suit that I planned to shed on my round – I never did – plus a hat and gloves. Of course, the cold at the start meant I was constantly queuing for the portaloos. When I finally got underway, almost 45 minutes after the first fun-runner had crossed the start line, I started with what might politely be called a gentle trot. It was okay for the first seven miles or so. I found comfort in familiar sights that I’d passed when doing some of my 10km runs. I knew I was in trouble when runners dressed in rhino costumes – how do they run in those? – a Direct Line telephone and a chap running with a ladder easily went past me.

My beloved based himself at the hotel given that he would have great views of the race going over the bridge and past the hotel twice. An old friend of mine joined him and wondered whether I might pop in and join them for coffee on my way round. Fortunately, the thought never crossed my mind because if I’d stopped for coffee, I’d never have started again. My beloved also bumped into Sue Barker who, on learning I was taking part, said she’d be sure to interview me. In the end she just ran out of time, and I never got my 15 secs of fame.

The best part of the marathon is the crowds and their unwavering support. I must have high-fived every kid I passed. I had to keep washing my sticky hands. The worst part of the run IMHO is when you head out to Canary Wharf and when you look right you can see thousands of runners streaming back the other way. One very enterprising kid offered to lend me his anorak for a tenner so I could cheat by nipping through the adjoining road and slipping back into the herd going the other way. I declined but gathered from his tone he’d had plenty of takers.

By 16 miles I was doing what might generously be called a brisk walk and had blisters on the inside of my heels. I’d been joined by another similarly afflicted runner and we kept one another going the rest of the way. Some wonderful lady around the 18 miles mark gave us carrot cake and hot tea – best cake ever! At this stage we were playing hunt the empty water bottle, there were NO snacks unless we popped into a shop and bought them and we had to use pub loos as the mobile ones had gone!

By the time we’d painfully hobbled over the cobbles at the Tower – yes the carpet had gone too – we had what might be termed a second wind. The end was in sight. We picked up the pace and finally crossed the finish line, I even managed to sprint across, just before the cut-off, accompanied by six Roman Legions carrying a non-runner on a bed. Now that’s the way to do a marathon!

I headed back to the hotel on the tube with my beloved and straight into a hot bath. My blisters were gi-normous. Just as well I’d not taken my trainers off to have them dressed. Again, I’d never have restarted. I had a couple of days hobbling around work in some comfortable shoes and no, not slippers, but otherwise was fine. My fellow runner said she’d never do another one but I said I would, though I never have.

(Header image: Huffington Post)

 

The Musette: vegan lentil ragu

I asked my two sisters what they’d miss most if they became vegan. Totally unprompted, they both said “Spag Bol” to which I replied “You know you can make a delicious ragu sauce with lentils don’t you?” They weren’t convinced so I just had to make it for them.

Ingredients (enough for 6 hungry cyclists)

  • 3 tbsp olive oil 
  • 2 medium-sized onions, finely chopped
  • 3 carrots, finely chopped
  • 3 sticks celery, finely chopped
  • 3 fat garlic cloves, crushed
  • 500g (1lb) dried green lentils, preferably Puy
  • 2 x 400g (14oz) cans chopped tomatoes 
  • 2 tbsp tomato purée
  • 2 tbsp red wine or balsamic vinegar
  • 2 tsp each dried oregano and thyme
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1 star anise
  • 1ltr (4 cups) vegetable stock
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 750g (26oz) pasta

Method

1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan and add the onions, carrots, celery, herbs, garlic and tsp salt. Cook gently for 20-30 mins until everything softens and the onion becomes translucent.

Stir in the lentils, bay leaves and star anise and then the stock, bring to a simmer and cook until the lentils are tender, generally around 45 minutes. By then, the lentils will have absorbed most of the stock.

2. Add the vinegar and tomato purée, cook for a couple of minutes before adding the tomatoes. Bring back to a simmer, then cook for a further 45 minutes until the sauce is thick and rich. Season to taste.

3. If eating straight away, remove bay leaves and star anise and keep on a low heat while you cook the pasta, according to the instructions on the pack. I would typically use tagliatelle but other pastas work just as well. Cook the pasta al dente only.

4. Drain pasta well, saving a cup of pasta cooking water. Add pasta water and pasta to saucepan containing lentil ragu and toss to distribute sauce.

5. Divide the dish between pasta bowls or plates and grate over some vegan parmesan.

6. Alternatively, cool the sauce and chill for up to 3 days in the fridge or freeze for up to 3 months. Simply defrost portions overnight at room temperature, then reheat gently to serve.

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. You can of course make the sauce in less time but it benefits from further cooking. For example, I would typically cook a meat ragu for at least 2 hours. I recommend using Puy lentils because they will stay whole but feel free to use others which will work equally well.

2. There’s nothing worse that overcooked pasta. Only cook it until al dente as it’ll continue to cook in the sauce.

3. When cooking pasta, always add the pasta to the sauce and not the other way round.

4. Equally you should always add some of the pasta water to the sauce, it makes it much silkier and helps it to adhere to the pasta.

5. NEVER, EVER add olive oil to the water in which you cook the pasta. It prevents the sauce properly adhering to and being absorbed by the pasta.

6. You can use the sauce as the basis for other meals. Here I’ve used it in a sort of shepherds/cottage pie, topped with mashed sweet potato.

You may be wondering why there’s no photos of my delicious lentil ragu tagliatelle. I was too slow with the camera, my sisters ate it pronto! They agreed it was as good as the real thing.

Summer’s almost here!

After our wet and windy start to spring we’ve seemingly rushed headlong into summer. Daytime temperatures this week have finally gone over 20°C. We’ve been enjoying cocktails, mixed by my beloved – see, he does have some uses –  on the terrace, and have also started to eat our meals outside. Having a large wrap around terrace means we can choose to eat in either the sunshine or the shade.

On Wednesday, I shed my 3/4 bib-shorts and long-sleeved jersey a couple of weeks ahead of schedule for summer kit. Riding in these temperatures is such a joy, it’s a glorious time of year. Of course, when you cruise along at my speed, you have time to note nature’s changes. The recent mix of sunshine and rain means the grass is a long, lush, Kelly green, the new leaves are a vibrant lime green and the heady scent, and vibrant dash of colour, provided by cherry blossom and purple wisteria is omnipresent.

The other day I rode back home via Vence, an inland town I typically and regularly ride past on my way to elsewhere without stopping to check out its charming Old Town. This time I decided to stop, grab a drink, enjoy the weather and see what changes had taken place since I was last there in early November. When I’d been there in early March for Paris-Nice, I hadn’t ventured further than the race finish on the outskirts of town.

Aside from being a very popular current day tourist spot, many artists and writers have also enjoyed Vence’s charms in times gone by: Matisse – famous for the Rosarie Chapel on the outskirts of Vence – Chagall and DH Laurence but to name a few.

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Vence’s Old Town, like many of the old and perched villages in the area has some history and some great views of the surrounding countryside. It was the former ancient Roman settlement of Vintium, before it became the bishopric and seigneury of the Villeneuve family. The Old Town has fortunately conserved much of its historical heritage including the Marsellais Columns, the remnants of a Roman triumphal arch and later additions, such as the 13th century Signadour tower-gate and Levis portal, the Peyra gate (15th century) and the Breche gate (18th century).

Once you enter the Old Town, it’s lovely to wander around its maze of cobbled alleyways, stopping to admire the Renaissance Place du Peyra and its much photographed fountain. Not forgetting the wonderful ash tree on Place Thiers planted in memory of François 1st’s 1538 visit, and  the Chateau des Villeneuve, now a contemporary art museum.

Vence’s small but picturesque 11th century Romanesque Cathedral, adjoining the Saint Lambert Tower (12th century), contains 15th century stalls sculpted by Jacotin Bellot, a beautiful 16th century altar piece, a unique set of 17th century polychrome wooden statues, a mosaic by Marc Chagall (“Moses saved from the waters”) and a Saint-Veran sarcophagus dating back to the 5th century!

Aside from the Old Town’s historic charms, there are plenty of cafes, bars and restaurants scattered around pretty squares, where you can just sit on their terraces and soak up the atmosphere over a meal or just a refreshment. I made for one of my favourite patisseries which also serves coffee and light refreshments and was pleased to note that a number of new restaurants had opened which were animating the main street.

As I headed back home I passed the Chapelle des Penitents blancs, which boasts a cupola covered with colourful varnished tiles and a Renaissance bell tower. Thereafter, it’s a swift downhill descent whereby I swoop past St Paul du Vence and La Colle sur Loup, both worthy of a visit if you’re over this way.

40 years of Memorable Moments: my beloved’s Grandma

It was while I was writing about one (in)famous party-giver that I recalled there was one in my beloved’s family. I know, it’s hard to believe, but actually she wasn’t related to any of them. It was my beloved’s step-grandmother, who never married his grandfather. She had merely changed her name by deed poll, though that never seemed to bother anyone, apart from the Outlaw (mother-in-law).

Grandma and I bonded early on, not just because of our shared love of my beloved, but because I recognised a kindred spirit – one who enjoyed the finer things in life. She had lived a pretty glamorous lifestyle with my beloved’s grandfather who died in the mid-sixties owing the taxman money. He left her just £1,000.

It wasn’t a significant sum and Grandma wisely invested it in a round-the-world cruise, stopping off in Australia to see her brother. Thereafter, she continued to work for the family business in a clerical capacity until it was dissolved in the early 1980s at which point she was in her 70s, an age when most are happily retired – but not Grandma.

She became a dental nurse! She worked full-time for her dentist and much enjoyed meeting lots of patients. When the dentist decided to work from home, Grandma would make the daily two-hour journey on bus, tube and train out to Buckinghamshire. His patients duly followed. Probably feeling they couldn’t complain given Grandma’s circumstances, some kindly gave her a lift. She and the dentist retired at the same time, she was now in her early eighties.

We both loved spending time with her and enjoyed taking her out, particularly to tennis events. We took her to both Wimbledon and Queens tennis tournaments. She was a huge John McEnroe fan and I managed to secure her a personally signed, photograph which had pride of place on the mantlepiece.

During Wimbledon fortnight, she would unplug the telephone to watch the entire day’s transmission, treating herself to smoked salmon sandwiches, strawberries and cream and the odd glass of champers. Grandma believed, as do I, that there’s no event that cannot be improved by a glass of champagne.

As a child, my beloved had spent many a happy hour being spoilt by his paternal grandparents and we were now happy to return the favour, though it was difficult as Grandma was such a generous soul. She was always top of the list for any of our parties and, despite being many years older than most of our guests, she was younger in heart than many. And, although we didn’t refer to it much, we knew she had a much younger toy boy who lived next-door.

Aside from her legendary ability to drink anybody under the table – whisky was her favoured tipple – and her reputation as a great party giver, she was a very kind person, exceptionally good listener, always upbeat, positive and forward thinking. As she headed towards her 90th birthday, we noted she’d become a bit absent-minded and easily confused. She’d always steered well clear of doctors, so I had to register her with a nearby surgery who offered to send round an elderly female doctor to check her over. I suggested a younger, good-looking male one would get a much better reception. They obliged, but it only confirmed my suspicions, Grandma had early stage dementia.

She asked me what it meant and what would happen to her. I explained and she said she’d like to stay independent for as long as possible and I promised that would happen. I organised help for her from social services and she stayed in her apartment for a further 18 months. She went into hospital for a small infection and broke her hip falling out of bed. I then managed to get her into a lovely rehabilitation centre, it was more like a hotel than a home, and from there into a retirement/nursing home as she could no longer live on her own.

Initially, the home my beloved’s cousin and I had selected was reluctant to take some one with dementia. But Grandma was a very calm and happy patient, so they agreed to accept her. She had a lovely sunny, single room, overlooking the gardens. She thought she was on holiday, and staying in a hotel, and we didn’t dissuade her otherwise when we went to visit. She passed away in her early 90s from lung cancer after a long life, well-lived. She’d had a 20 a day habit until she forgot she smoked, but the damage had obviously been done.

Her funeral was a lovely celebration of her life attended by family and friends with Il Divo singing “I Did it My Way” – very apt. I’ve no doubt she’s now on high, charming the birds from the trees, still giving great parties with her toy-boy in tow!

 

The Musette: roasted carrot and chickpea salad

Last week while suffering from cabin fever, I couldn’t be bothered to go out shopping. So meals were made from whatever was lurking in the fridge, freezer or pantry. Luckily, I always have a few staples including chickpeas and a bag of organic carrots, the latter being my go-to backup vegetable because they last forever. Is it just me who does this?

This salad is going to forever change the way you look at those carrots. They’re tossed with a sprinkle of ground coriander (cilantro) and roasted until lightly charred, then paired with warm chickpeas that have been rendered sticky with a mix of citrus juice, chilli flakes and garlic. A nutty, herb-packed dressing brings it all together over a bed of peppery rocket (arugula). In a couple of simple steps, carrots go from standby side dish to the star turn in a (vegan) dinner-worthy salad. I should add that my beloved was away on a business trip so no need to worry about him though I know he’d have been happy with this as a side dish

Ingredients (serves 4 hungry cyclists)

  • 1 kg (2 lbs) organic carrots, peeled and sliced on a diagonal into thick discs
  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil, preferably olive oil
  • 2 tsp ground coriander, divided into two
  • sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
  • 660 g (23 oz) cooked chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 120 ml (1/2 cup) juice from medium orange/several tangerines
  • 2 fat cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 tsp dried chilli pepper flakes
  • 2 big handfuls rocket (arugula)
  • 120 ml herb dressing (see below)
  • handful (1/2 cup) chopped, toasted, skin-on almonds

Herb Dressing

  • 8 tbsp (1/2 cup) freshly chopped fresh herbs, I used parsley and (cilantro)
  • 4 tbsp (1/4 cup) tahini
  • Juice and zest of organic lemon
  •  1 tbsp filtered water
  • 1/4 tsp sea salt

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 200ºC/(400ºF)/180ºC fan/Gas mark 6 and line a rimmed baking tray with aluminium foil.

2. Put the carrots on the baking tray. Drizzle with the oil, sprinkle with 1 tsp ground coriander, pinch of salt and pepper, and toss to evenly coat. Spread into an even layer. Roast, stirring once halfway through, until tender and lightly browned, about 30 minutes total.

3. While the carrots are roasting, make your herb sauce. Put all the ingredients in the small bowl of a food processor and process until the herbs are finely minced and the sauce is well-blended, 1 to 3 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, put the chickpeas, orange juice, garlic, remaining 1 tsp coriander, pinch of salt and red pepper flakes in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the juice is reduced by half and the chickpeas sticky, about 5 to 8 minutes. Remove from the heat.

5. Divide the rocket between 4 bowls. Top each bowl with the chickpeas and a spoonful of remaining juice, add the roasted carrots.

6. Drizzle with the dressing, sprinkle with chopped almonds and a handful of remaining fresh herbs used for the sauce.

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. The carrots, chickpeas, and dressing can be prepared up to a day in advance and stored separately in airtight containers in the refrigerator. Reheat the carrots and chickpeas before serving.

2. Leftovers will keep for a day stored in an airtight container in the fridge. Leftovers without the rocket and sauce can be happily stored for several days.

3. Use whatever fresh herbs you happen to have handy, a single herb or a combination of several. If you’ve fresh carrots, don’t forget you can use the carrot tops as well.

4. This is a handy dandy sauce that pairs well with loads of dishes. Use it to top grain bowls or spoon it over grilled meat, fish, or veggies. The coolness of the herbs also makes this sauce a good fit for spicy foods. It’ll keep in an airtight container for several days in the fridge.

5. If you’ve used chickpeas from a can or jar, don’t forget to retain the aquafaba – it’s a substitute for egg white in vegan dishes.

6. If you don’t have any tahini, don’t despair. Just make a typical French vinaigrette dressing using lemon (or orange) juice in place of vinegar.

Three-day quote challenge: day three

Thanks to H.P. Hakin of Feel Purple for nominating me for this challenge which I gladly accepted. However, you’ll be unsurprised to learn that I’ve interpreted the rules(below) in my own inimitable fashion.

The rules are as follows:

  • Thank the person who nominated you.
  • Post a quote for three consecutive days (a quote a day).
  • Share why this quote appeals so much to you.
  • Nominate three different bloggers each day.

I’ve posted on three alternate days and my challenge is now done. However, if you feel like picking up the gauntlet and running with it, be my guest!

I’m a huge fan of poet, writer critic and satirist Dorothy Parker, I admire her sharp wit and eye for 20th century urban quirks and love (most of) her sassy and irreverent quotations. Most need no further explanation.

Here’s another favourite because it reminds of something similar my late grandmother, never one to mince her words, used to say. Although we never discussed it, I think she would’ve been an admirer of Parker.

Reasons why we love visiting Alassio in Italy

We often spend a day or even a couple of days away in Italy, in Alassio. My youngest sister asked me why we go there so often. Fair point, why travel 90 minutes around the coast  – although it’s a lovely drive – to spend a few days enjoying the same weather as at home? You have to understand that for both of my sisters it is all about the weather and specifically whether it’s hot enough to sun bathe, their favourite leisure activity. Those two have farniente (doing nothing) down to a fine art.

On the other hand, my beloved and I are pretty much always on the go, particularly when we’re at home. There’s always something to do either in the apartment, or work-wise in the office. A few days away allows us to better relax and chill out. But why choose Alassio?

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 1. We have found a charming hotel, with a thalassotherapy spa, which does great out-of-season offers. Of course, that generally means the town is OAP central. But we don’t mind even though, of course, we don’t think of ourselves as OAPs. The deal includes a splendid breakfast, and sometimes dinner, with plenty of options for me. If we deduct the daily cost of entry to the spa and breakfast, the hotel room is under Euros 60,00 per night, not bad for a spot 5 star luxury.
 2. Alassio is very familiar territory. It’s next door to where, aged eight, I spent my first Italian holiday. We returned firstly in 2009 with the cycling club and stayed in what is quite possibly one of the worst hotels in town. I hasten to add I was not responsible for booking it. We’ve since stayed in a number of much better and nicer hotels in the town for a similar price. And, although we know the place well, each year there are changes. A favourite restaurant or bar closes, but another great one opens. There’s plenty of choice all within walking distance either in the pedestrianised old town and/or overlooking the beach.
 3. Alassio has a sandy beach. Where we live, it’s stony. In my book, to qualify as a holiday resort, you have to have a sandy beach. This one is bordered by hotels and restaurants, rather than a road, giving it a real holiday feel. You won’t find me sunbathing on the beach but I do enjoy wandering barefoot along the wet sand or just sitting in a bar, in the sunshine, listening to the waves caress the shoreline. I find it a very relaxing sound.
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4. The town is small enough to stroll around and the neighbouring towns are also within walking distance. As you know, there’s nothing I love more than a spot of window shopping. The town has an interesting mix of retail. A heady cocktail of Italian designer labels – so ruinous for the budget but great for window shopping – plenty of long-established quirky shops, all with that unmistakable splash of Italian design and flair, and very few chains. Now, I don’t come to the place to shop but I’d be lying if I didn’t own up to a few purchases over the years. However, you are far more likely to find me buying wine, vegetables and olive oil than shoes and handbags.
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5. It’s a lovely area to cycle around and makes a welcome change from our usual routes. That said, we don’t always bring the bikes as we do like to profit from the spa, though it’s very welcome after several hours in the saddle. The main urban routes are busy with traffic but it doesn’t take long to be up, up and away, far from the madding crowd in the hills.
6. Aside from the shops, it’s an interesting town to wander around with plenty of architectural treats and some amazingly old doors and lights, which I’m sure could tell a few interesting tales. Property prices are on a par with parts of the Cote d’Azur and anything with a view of the sea has a high price tag. We’ve noted that the number of estate agents has mushroomed over the years. The town is constantly being updated and renovated. Some of the less well located hotels have been converted into apartments. My favourite places are the pretty pastel coloured former fishermen’s houses along the shoreline which are well-maintained and highly prized.
7. Despite its popularity with foreign visitors, particularly those that speak German, it’s largely an Italian town with a large local population which swells at the week-ends and holiday periods with smart Milanese and Torinese families. Out of season, you’ll find plenty, like us, who pop over from France for a change of air. It’s only a 90 minute drive away from the Cote d’Azur but its vibe is very different and from say Saint Tropez or Aix-en-Provence, both a similar driving time from home. Plus it’s way cheaper!
8. My final point is less about Alessio and more about Italy in general. Who doesn’t love Italian food? I can always find something to eat on an Italian menu and some of the restaurants cater well for both vegetarians and vegans. And let’s not forget about those Aperol Spritzs, enjoyed with a plateful of nibbles as the sun goes down. Of course, we drink them in many places but they taste so much better in Italy. Must be the all-important accompanying nibbles!