>Went to the damndest eating place the other day.

Down in South Tirol (the bit of Austria that Italy got promised for switching sides early-ish on in WW1). The border might have moved north, but it didn’t make a darn bit of difference to the people who live here – 70% still speak German (which is the prime language taught in schools) and the cuisine is Austrian with a bit of olive oil and aceto balsamico thrown in for good measure. Not the worst place for a vacation, anyway.

So my mate xxxxx (actually, Baron xxxxx von xxxxx) who has a vineyard here in xxxxxx (or xxxx, for the Italians) and a real castle on 3000 m2 smack in the middle of the village, filled with various countesses and baronesses, reckoned that we had to go to a place called “Carletto” for dinner. A bit bizarre, he said, and you can’t actually order anything, but it’s not to be missed. So I call up, drop xxxx’s name and we get a reservation – “Come along whenever you like, doesn’t matter when, just follow the bikes chained to the fence.”

So we find the bikes chained to the fence (most of them with sodden newspapers and magazines on the carrier and one with a basket full of Easter eggs. Up the stairs with the banister covered with fake tiger skin ( this is all outside….) onto the porch, the wall of which is covered with 45s and into the whatever it was – lobby, foyer, I don’t know. What I do know is that there were 3 Vespas parked on the right and 3 very elegantly dressed shop window dummies seated on the left and at the end of the passageway (semi-open to the elements) was a green plastic curtain and behind that was more strange stuff. Including the chappy who runs it and is as queer as a five bob note, but who cares.

Through another hallway which looks like a Gauguin painting of the palaces of pleasure in Paris in the 19th C and then through another door, past a stove with kettles and pots bubbling away with some perfumed stuff and a HUGE wood-burning stove and into – what? A restaurant? A fortune-tellers tent? No tables to be seen (apart from 2 place settings at the bar and a long unset table with parsley plants growing out of sections of roof-guttering, but an excess of Easter crap, including 100 or so chocolate bunnies of shelves along the wall and another 10 or so stuffed bunnies hanging from the ceiling. Plus 50 or so white porcelain sauciers in a shelf along the ceiing and rows of mugs over there and 100s of bottles of perfume above the washbasin in the loos and just weird stuff all over the place. We have our best “what the fuck” looks on our faces during all this and I’m thinking “xxxxx, you prick, this was your idea”.

Glass of prosecco? Yes please and he’ll have one too and we start chatting away about this that and the other and how many people he caters for on an evening – around 20, maybe 30, depends and tonight isn’t very busy because he’s not doing fish and it’s being Good Friday etc some people don’t go along with that but it doesn’t really matter. Another glass of prosecco? Why not and he’ll have one as well and this goes on for half an hour or so and would we like to sit down? Yes? Then over here and at a table that’s almost hidden behind what looks like a waterfall of kangaroo vine (this place has no windows, by the way).
The concept, he says, is that he brings food and if we don’t like it, no worries, something else will turn up that we’ll like and don’t feel you have to finish everything, just eat what you feel like eating.

First course
A plate of vitello tonnato (thinly sliced veal with a puree of tuna fish, capers and mayonnaise dolloped on top)
A plate of thinly sliced pork, sprinkled with toasted breadcrumbs with sea salt
A plate of grilled radiccio, zucchini, chicory leaves
A plate of carpaccio of air-dried beef drizzled with olive oil
A plate of air-dried ham topped with chopped rucola

Wine. Perhaps a red. Local or Italian. Local. Good. Vernatsch? Perhaps a Pinot Noir might be nice. Oh, you’ve tried xxxx’s and didn’t care for it? Reinhold Messner has a castle just down the road and his Pinot’s are very nice. Castel Juval. I’ll just have a glass to make sure it’s OK. 14%, quite nice. What we should also try is this Pinot from the next valley – I’ll leave both bottles here and you can decide which you prefer. xxxxx’s 2003 Vernatsch wasn’t the best – couldn’t get anyone to drink it and I made vinegar with the last 20 bottles I had. Don’t tell him, though…

At this stage, we’re still the only guests and you start noticing all the weird crap flying around the place and the music. The music is James Last playing instrumental versions of “Morning has broken” on those funny pan-flute thingies and worse. And he has a tape that repeats every 45 minures of so. Move the poor sods from solitary confinement in Guantanamo to here and they’d crack within days.

Now this is a wine you should also try – local vineyard, can’t actually buy the stuff apart from at the vineyard and it’s a blend of heritage grapes. Hardly anyone grows them any more. I’ll just have a glass to make sure it’s OK. I’ll leave it here – just help yourselves.
2 other people turn up and sit at the bar and they get into the prosecco with him until the bell rings and he shoots off to get the

Second course
A stack of grilled aubergine, mozzarella and zucchini

And so it goes – the folks at the bar are joined by some other folk with BYO bottles and they have fish soup to start with while we get the

Third course
Roesti stuffed with ham and cheese
Stuffed tomatoes

It’s now 10-ish and 2 other tables have filled – total of 6 guests. Folks at the bar have their 2nd course which is spaghetti vongole which the owner digs into as well, in between talking to the new arrivals and us, zipping backwards and forwards to the kitchen like Pavlov’s dog and making sure that every bottle of wine that he opens is safe for consumption. We’ve focused on the Castel Duval by this stage, so he tops up my other two glasses and disappears the bottles in the direction of another table for them to try.

And the music gets worse and worse. Would we like some water? Still or sparkling? Still. Good choice. Comes straight out of the mountain into his kitchen. (We’re at 600m, the mountain in question is 3000m and goes up at an angle of between 30 and 45 degrees from right behind the house. Which is right on top of the structure we’re sitting it.

Fourth course
Cheese gnocchi with butter and roasted breadcrumbs.

3rd course at the bar is a whole fish for one couple and the other couple appear to be restricting themselves to the BYOs

5th course
2 spears of white asparagus wrapped in ham and topped with a bantam egg

6th course (and you still haven’t got a clue what’s coming or when) And by the way – should we switch to white? Driving’s not a problem around here – just take care crossing the interstate and you’ll be OK

Veal filet with aceto balsamico on a slice of apple browned in butter and this is about our limit. But you will have this won’t you, it’s really too good not to.

7th course
Homemade sorbets of fresh strawberries and – this you have to guess. No it’s not pear, lots of people think that, prosecco.

Now can I get you anything else. Coffee? Sorry. Don’t do coffee.

But talking of pears, you must try this. Made it myself from the pears in the orchard. Last bottle in fact. Not the usual Williams, old varieties you can’t get anymore.

And we get talking about how people get around EU rules for approved vegetables. (There’s an outfit called Manufactum in Germany that sells packets of 12 potatoes – 2 of each unusual variety) purely for display purposes – don’t eat them, for goodness sake, that would be illegal and whatever you do, don’t dream of cutting them between the eyes and letting them fall into a well-prepared bed, because then they would grow, and that would be highly illegal too)

Pushing midnight at this stage so we get the bill – 80 Euros and we paid 60 the night before at a v. flash restaurant further down the valley and of course he knows the waitress who served us – her brother owns the place and cooks very well and his daughter works there too. Blond. Oh, you saw her as well. We all get on very well together.

Look, I’d love for you to come back – when you call, just say you’ve been here before and – wait a minute – here’s a bottle of prosecco to take. Enjoy it.

And I’m saying what a cool place and how do I describe a restaurant where you can’t order anything…….

No, it’s not a restaurant, it’s dining with friends. Lovely that you could come. See you soon.

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