Sunday 16 January 2022 - Monocle Minute | Monocle

Sunday. 16/1/2022

Monocle Weekend
Edition: Sunday

Bed down

Allow us to sate your early-year wanderlust with dispatches from a vibrant 19th-century hotel in Catania, Sicily, a tasteful new bolthole in Ghent and guestrooms in a renovated post office on Paris’s rue du Louvre. Plus: Catalan chef Angel Zapata Martin on his larder must-haves. Tyler Brûlé sets the tone from the slopes of the Matterhorn.


East of the senses

Let’s start this Sunday with a dateline: Zermatt, Switzerland / The Omnia Hotel / Corner Suite. The sun is shining, the Matterhorn is looking majestic and fully in command of all the lands it can see from its jagged crown, and on the streets below the Alpine village is coming to life. Long before e-vehicles and pedestrian zones became the fashion for progressive urbanists, Zermatt had already banned car traffic from its narrow streets and deployed a fleet of boxy electric tuk-tuks. Today, they carry visitors, residents and supplies up and down the compressed stretch of valley that makes Zermatt a hub for skiers, hikers and a growing list of year-round residents, who have been seduced by the unique sense of scale that makes it unique compared to Gstaad, Klosters, St Moritz and Davos.

For the past 20 years, as long as I’ve been resident in Switzerland, Zermatt has been on my list for a weekend escape but somehow other destinations have always barged into the frame and left the resort on a short-shortlist of places that never quite make it to the booking stage. Thanks to prodding and planning by my friend Marc, all of this changed a few weeks ago when he suggested that a group of us make our way down to Valais to enjoy a couple of days of dining, sunning and perhaps a bit of skiing. Was this really going to happen? Would staff shortages and classroom virus outbreaks thwart our well-tuned itinerary? And would the weather deliver cloudless skies or would heavy snowfalls block our journey? Come Friday morning, all seemed to be falling into place. The official Swiss federal weather forecast was delivering on the sunshine and everyone was making their way to Zermatt – some by road, some by rail. We opted to go all-in for the full experience, starting our journey up in St Moritz and taking the Glacier Express across the top of Europe for a full eight hours of tasty bites, good wines and mind-boggling civil engineering.

On our walk to dinner the small restaurants and bars full of ski instructors and residents felt refreshingly far away from the scenes in more well-heeled resorts elsewhere in Switzerland.

When we rolled into Zermatt we were immediately thrown as we looked for our driver and took in the surroundings. The retail, big-brand and bank signs all said Switzerland (Migros, UBS, Rolex, Patek et al) but there was something else in the urban mix that made it feel as though we’d been transported further than the country’s southern reaches. As we placed our bags in the back of one of the alpine e-tuk-tuks, I spotted a branch of the Japanese outdoor brand Montbell across the square and, in a flash, it all fell into place. Zermatt had the strange feeling of a Japanese spa town more than a Swiss resort.

As we spun around in front of the station and started the journey through the tiny streets I was reminded of trips to Kyushu, small villages on the east coast of Honshu and ryokans in and around Nagano. Was it the sunburnt wooden buildings that made it feel Japanese? Or more the scale of the place? Maybe it was the low lighting. At the Omnia we were greeted by Christian, the general manager who definitely felt as though he’d done a stint at a grand hotel in Tokyo, and on our walk to dinner the small restaurants and bars full of ski instructors and residents felt refreshingly far away from the scenes in more well-heeled resorts elsewhere in Switzerland. We dined at Carina (which could have easily passed as an Italian take on an izakaya) and when we wandered back to the hotel, the town centre was packed with young crowds darting between cavernous bars and cosy restaurants. The density, the buzz and friendly mood all recalled countless wonderful nights spent in various corners of Japan.

It will soon be two years since I last boarded a flight from Tokyo Narita, knowing that the pandemic was spreading but confident I’d be back in Japan within a few months, not years. Zermatt has taken on the role of the surprising understudy while Japan contemplates its reopening to the world. While it might not have the deep, fluffy powder of Niseko, its human scale and intimacy is as good as any well-preserved Japanese hamlet and it’s no hardship to swap a tonkotsu for a schnitzel.

Eating out / Sem, Lisbon

Mindful menu

Launched last summer in Lisbon’s Alfama district, restaurant and wine bar Sem prioritises ethical food production and waste reduction without compromising on flavour.

Image: Rodrigo Cardoso
Image: Rodrigo Cardoso

The dishes on offer, by Kiwi George McLeod and Rio native Lara Espírito Santo (pictured), change daily and have included pork neck, elderflower and berries with grilled carrot purée, and corvina, a line-caught fish from Portuguese waters that is served raw or grilled. At the bar, snacking options include ceviche and the wine includes selections from natural producers.

Next stop / Catania, Sicily

New life

Catania, Sicily’s second city, is home to the island’s oldest university, which dates back to 1434, and education still influences the rhythms of life here. The population of 330,000 swells with the presence of 40,000 students in term-time, meaning that nights out have a tendency to be rather spirited too. Once a stopover for travellers on the way to Taormina and Syracuse, Catania has increasingly become a destination in its own right. “After years in the dark, Catania is alive again and the nights here have been repopulated,” says Marianna Nociforo, an architect who founded the Scandinavian-inspired Habitat Hotel with her husband.

Image: Daniel Faro

The 17-room hotel sits along an avenue near the 19th-century Teatro Massimo Bellini. A wide pedestrian walkway now winds through the area, after a revamp 15 years ago that came complete with benches and potted trees. This project and others like it symbolise a growing pride and investment in the city, though talk to any resident and you’ll hear that more could be done about rubbish collection and flood protection. Habitat launched a new restaurant in its neighbouring 19th-century residence last month, with chef Bianca Celano in the kitchen and a menu of Sicilian ingredients, long-lost recipes and homemade fare. “After this lockdown period, we wanted to work on a project oriented towards the human experience,” says Nociforo.

That joyful interaction is back in full swing in Catania, where formerly shuttered streets – via Gemmellaro, via Santa Filomena, via Penninello – have a carnival feel on weekends. The Uzeta Bistrò Siciliano, which opened in 2016, is headed by Francesco Distefano, a self-trained chef who travelled the world teaching his island’s cuisine. He returned home to help others to “appreciate a Sicilian kitchen but seen from a younger point of view”.

For the full write-up and more sunny outposts of opportunity, pick up a copy of ‘The Forecast’, which is on newsstands (or available here).

Sunday roast / Angel Zapata Martin

Homage to Catalonia

Following stints in a three-star kitchen in Barcelona and seafood restaurant Ossiano in Dubai, Martin relocated to London to head up the city’s beloved Barrafina restaurants in 2017 (writes Carolina Abbott Galvão). Known for his versatility, he has played an increasingly active role in introducing tapas and the flavours of his native Catalonia to the city’s competitive food scene. Here he tells us about his favourite new artist, his larder essentials and Catalan wine.

Image: Greg Funnel

Any plans for the weekend?
I’m watching a documentary about Basque punk rock called Bury Us! A Punk Rock Uprising.

What’s your ideal start to a Sunday – a gentle start or a jolt?
Gentle. I like going to the farmers’ market.

Soundtrack of choice?
I tend to go for 1990s hip-hop and punk rock. But I also love discovering new bands and artists.

What’s for breakfast?
Avocado toasties, scrambled eggs with a lot of butter and some nice, crispy bacon.

Any larder essentials that you can’t do without?
Olive oil, garlic and toast – quite Spanish, I would say. I’m also a big fan of olives and anchovies. Recently I’ve been playing around with colatura di alici, a fermented anchovy juice.

A Sunday culture must?
Listening to records on vinyl. I recently bought one called Muggs Presents... The Soul Assassins: Chapter I.

A glass of something you would recommend?
A nice priorat [Catalan wine from Tarragona province].

What will we not find on your Sunday table?
Salmon. I’m really not a fan.

What’s your Sunday-evening routine?
I usually watch a film or do some reading.

Recipe / Ralph Schelling

Leche frita

Literally translated as “fried milk”, this traditional Spanish dessert is usually eaten cold. Swiss chef Ralph Schelling normally uses birch sugar as it’s healthier and slightly fresher-tasting than regular sugar but either works. His recipe requires a dimpled mould at least 1.5cm deep to help shape the creamy mixture while it sets. Serve with preserved berries, fresh fruit, compote or cream.

Illustration: Xihanation

Serves 4

500ml whole milk
150g caster sugar
2 or 3 slivers of orange peel
1 vanilla pod, halved
2 cinnamon sticks
Pinch of salt
80g cornflour
2 egg yolks
1 tbsp butter
1 tbsp flour
2 eggs, beaten
Oil for frying
3 tbsps caster sugar
1 tbsps of ground cinnamon

Place the milk in a pan on a medium heat and dissolve the sugar in it, allowing it to bubble but not boil. Add orange peel, vanilla pod, cinnamon sticks and salt and leave to stand on a low heat for 2 to 3 hours (or overnight) to flavour the milk*.

Mix the cornflour with the egg yolks in a bowl with a whisk until there are no lumps. Pour in the warm milk through a sieve. Discard the peel, pod and sticks.

Bring the creamy mixture to a boil in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring constantly, until it bubbles and thickens, and reaches its full binding capacity.

Spread mixture about 1.5cm high in an oiled mould, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least three and a half hours.

Cut out nuggets from the mixture with a knife and dredge them first in flour, then in egg. Fry in oil in a hot pan on both sides until golden brown (about 3 minutes).

Lastly, toss the leche fritas in a mixture of sugar and cinnamon. Leave them to cool a little before serving.

*Ralph’s tip: If you’re tight for time you can flavour the milk more quickly using cinnamon powder in place of cinnamon sticks, orange zest instead of peel and vanilla essence instead of the pod.

Weekend plans? / Hôtel Madame Rêve, Paris

Living the dream

After nine years of painstaking renovation, the landmark post office building on Paris’s rue du Louvre has finally completed its transformation into a luxury hotel. Designed by architect Dominique Perrault, Hôtel Madame Rêve – named after a popular song by chansonnier Alain Bashung – offers a unique, elevated view of the city, looking out towards the church of St Eustache, Forum des Halles and the Bourse de Commerce. The halls of the building, which was erected in 1888, have been given a modern update and subtle Japanese influences are visible throughout. The deceptively small entrance belies the hotel’s grandeur; the brasserie alone is more than 300 sq m, with ceilings that are 8 metres high.

Image: Alex Crétey
Image: Alex Crétey

“With Madame Rêve, I wanted to tell a contemporary Parisian tale,” says Laurent Taïeb, the hotel’s founder and art director. The storytelling starts with sofas inspired by French designer Louis Majorelle and vases by Emile Gallé; attentive guests will notice smartly chosen international additions too, such as chandeliers by Josef Hoffmann. The historical pieces have been tastefully renovated or reinterpreted for the 21st century. On the 82-key hotel’s roof terrace is a vast glass roof and 49 of the rooms overlook the city. La Plume, Madame Rêve’s third-floor restaurant, offers fabulous views and an exciting menu of Japanese-inspired dishes. The hotel only opened in late November but it already feels like a destination.

Weekend plans? / Yalo Urban Boutique Hotel, Ghent

Staying power

It’s common for decent hotels in big cities to attract just as many diners and drop-ins as they do overnight guests but that’s not the case everywhere. “In Belgium we don’t have that [culture] yet,” says Nicolas Block, creative director of the Sint-Niklaas-based agency King George, which is behind the newly opened Yalo Urban Boutique Hotel in Ghent. “We have very nice hotels but none welcomes a nice mix of locals, tourists and businesspeople.”

Image: Alexandre Van Battel

The biggest pull beyond the 92 tastefully put-together guest rooms is the glass-roofed restaurant, headed up by Ghent chef Sam D’Huyvetter. Along with the rooftop view of the city, this is the real reason to visit. After all, a great hotel is much more than just a bed for the night.

Parting shot / ‘The Monocle Book of Entrepreneurs’

Time is money

To celebrate the launch of ‘The Monocle Book of Entrepreneurs’, we’ve selected a smattering of inspiring advice, ideas and bright businessfolk to spotlight. This week some straight-to-the-point advice on forbearance, failure and success from Yoshiharu Hoshino, CEO of Japan-based hotel chain Hoshino Resorts.

“Remember that there are many more failures than successes when it comes to start-ups. But those who fail aren’t always getting something wrong; they may have good ideas and a solid vision, they may just need more time. Too often, people want a quick return – investors might expect a profit in three years. To build something that truly lasts, you have to invest in time and have a long-term commitment.”

For more inspiring start-ups, tips, advice and provocations about making your passion your vocation, pick up a copy of ‘The Monocle Book of Entrepreneurs’. Have a super Sunday.


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