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Sunday, 26 May 2013



Gjirokastër,  Albania in May 1984

"That evening after dinner, a number of us sat with Aferdita and Eduart in the hotel’s night club. Each of the hotels in which we stayed had one of these. With the exception of our two guides and the musicians who performed in them, these clubs were out-of-bounds for Albanians. This evening we were entertained by a small band that played western pop music, mainly tunes originally performed by the Beatles. The noisy background of these clubs provided our two young guides with opportunities to ask us about life beyond their country’s tightly sealed borders. However, it was clear that Aferdita was trying to eavesdrop on Eduart and vice-versa. As the musicians strummed away in the semi-gloom of the club in Gjirokastër, Aferdita turned to me, rolled her lower lip away from her teeth, and asked my opinion of her gums. She wanted to know if they had been treated properly. I told her that I was unable to give her an opinion in such poor light.

The following morning, I spotted some tubes of Albanian toothpaste on display in a locked glass display case near the hotel’s main entrance. I tried to communicate to the receptionist (who did not understand English) that I wished to purchase a tube. I used to collect toothpastes from wherever I travelled, and was curious to taste its contents. Whilst I was doing this, Aferdita appeared, and asked me what I wanted. I told her. She explained my desire to the receptionist, and moments later I had become the proud owner of a tube of Albanian dentifrice."

This is a brief excerpt from my book "ALBANIA ON MY MIND" (Click HERE for more detail), published in 2012. Until two days ago, I had believed that I had lost or thrown away the Albanian toothpaste  bought in Gjirokastër,to which I referred in the excerpt.  Well, I found it amongst some goods that we had kept in storage for almost 20 years. The illustration below shows 2 of the tubes in greater detail:

These were not the only dental souvenirs that I discovered in our family storage locker. Here is an extract from the draft of my forthcoming book "SRABBLE WITH SLIVOVITZ - Once Upon a Time in Yugoslavia" about Yugoslavia before 1991:

"Between Niš and the dull, nearby Niška Banja, we encountered a large number of Russian and Bulgarian cars parked by the side of the main road. Each car had a stall - usually a folding table - set up beside it. Their owners were selling a wide variety of odds and ends. I bought tubes of toothpaste manufactured in the USSR and the People’s Republic of China. For a long time these, and the dentifrice that I had bought in the Albanian town of Gjirokastër a few years earlier, shared pride of place in my large collection of toothpastes from all around the world. Sadly, this collection no longer exists, and I have also lost the Russian toothbrush, which I bought there."

This section is now going to need re-writing, as I have found the missing toothpastes...

Sadly, the Russian  toothbrush remains missing!

For more information about my forthcoming book about Yugoslavia as it was,
please click HERE

Also, do pay a visit to 

Friday, 3 May 2013

La Grande Illusion

"A French lesson well learned at this reasonably priced Soho brasserie.... you will eat better here than in comparable establishments in Paris."
[Fay Maschler, restaurant critic writing about Brasserie Zedel.]

Ever since we first heard about it, we wanted to pay a visit to Brasserie Zedel, which is located in a small street near to London's Piccadilly Circus. We read good reviews of it in the press and friends reccommended it highly, warning us that it was necessary to book a table well in advance. We did as advised, and reserved the table at which we dined this evening.

From the moment that you step through its doors you are transported into the world of Art Deco. Though recently created, the decor cannot be faulted. The lively dining room was a tastefully glitzy marvel. The menu was full of promise: not too many items, but sufficient variety. We were served with good bread and glasses of water whilst we made up our minds about our choices. The waitress, who took our order, seemed to have difficulty understanding what we wanted. Perhaps, the background noise affected her hearing, or maybe her English was poor.

Things got off to a poor start when instead of the Parfait de Foie de Volaile that we had ordered, we were served a plate of Pate de Campagne de Maison, and were warned that it may contain pork. This was quickly rectified when we pointed out what had happened. My Soupe de Poisson et sa Rouille arrived as ordered. But what arrived was not quite what I expected. The soup that tasted no better than cheap fish soup from a can was lukewarm. There was no pot of rouille accompanying it. There were two tiny slices of toast next to the soup bowl. Each of these bore squidges of something resembling soft chewing gum to which was attached a few thin strands of cheese. Dutifully, I added these unappetising looking morsels to the soup. The chewing gum-like material dissolved in the soup, but did not improve its flavour in the slightest. My wife and daughter received their parfait, which was far from perfect.

The main courses arrived somewhat ominously covered by the kind of plastic lids used in NHS hospitals to keep patient's food warm. 

My daughter had ordered the promising sounding Poulet au Champagne. This had the appearance of something that had been cooked long ago and had then been left under a hot lamp to keep it warm. I tried a bit of the chicken; it was almost completely desiccated. My wife tried the dish of the day: Panaché de Poisson, Sauce Safran. Sounds promising, doesn't it?What arrived was a plate of rice on top of which there was an assortment of seafood fragments, a few pieces of chopped-up raw tomato, and a dried up stain, which might have once been a sauce. This dish, like the chicken, had a tired look about it. My Vol-au-Vent au Fruits de Mer looked less appetising than British Airways food in World Traveller Class (i.e. Economy Class), and tasted no better. The pastry case housing the slimy mixture of melancholic marine morsels and some ill-definable tasting sauce was far from being crumbly; it almost resisted being cut by a knife and was as tough as biltong. As for the overpriced and boring Salade Verte and the Pommes Frites that might well have been fried yesterday, the less said the better. Nothing that we were served tasted fresh.

I summoned the floor manager, and expressed our disappointment with the food, but said that as we had eaten much of it because we were hungry, we would settle what we owed. She apologised gracefully, and reduced our bill substantially. We left the establishment feeling let down. 

It is a shame that we cannot agree with the usually reliable Fay Maschler, whose words, which I quoted above, were published on Zedel's website.

To cheer ourselves after the meal, we repaired to Bar Italia in nearby Frith Street. This is a place where the décor is as much fun as at Zedel but is completely authentic. It has been a landmark in Soho since 1949, and the products, which it offers, are of the highest quality. Unlike Brasserie Zedel, it is more than simply a grande illusion.

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