Saturday 24 February 2024

Edinburgh: Makars Mash Bar

The Makar's Mash Bar entices on a cold Edinburgh evening with twinkling lights and the promise of plenty of comforting mashed potato.  I was not familiar with the term Makar but Wikipedia tells me it is someone who creates.  I love the idea of a creative maker of mashed potatoes.  Indeed it was a place of interesting food and an interest in literature.

We walked in rather than booking.  The waiter took our name and mobile phone number so he could text us when they were ready in 10 to 15 minutes.  So we went for a walk in the chilly evening while we waited.  The Makars Mash Bar is on Bank Street just off the Royal Mile.  At night this area is lit up and twinkles with the wisdom of an old town that has seen many centuries come and go!

Once a table was ready we returned into the bright warmth of the entrance and were shown down the stairs to our table.

I was very pleased that my seat overlooked the wall of writers.  I have enjoyed many of Ian Rankin's books and was happy for him to keep me company.  There were also pictures nearby of Muriel Spark, Conan Doyle and Irvine Welsh.  And lots of literary quotes to ponder.

We started with a drink.  Sylvia had apple juice and I had the Bon Accord Rhubarb Soda.  Mine was excellent and creamy, not too sweet and with pleasing rhubarb flavour.

Sylvia ordered that Leek and Potato soup with Potato scones and some Mature Scottish Cheddar Cheese mash.  She wanted something light because she had a cold on top of her jetlag.  The meal was just what she needed, though she wanted a few more of the tattie scones that came with her soup and found the cheese in her mash quite chewy.  No complaints about all the potato she had in her meal!  And the waitress brought her over more tattie scones when Sylvia asked.  However if the vegetarian Scotch Egg had been available, she would have tried it.

I chose to have Vegetarian Haggis with Whisky Peppercorn Cream Sauce.  This came with neeps and tatties as is the tradition.  I admired the way it was served as a stack in a pool of sauce (which looked huge but was just right).  It has always struck me how difficult it is to make haggis, neeps and tatties look attractive but I think restaurants are improving on this.  I was able to choose my mashed potato to have with the haggis and chose the Mild Smoked Applewood Cheese.  I was a little jealous of Sylvia's chunks of cheese in hers as I did not really detect the smoky cheese in mine.  I am still not sure if I got the right mash or not.

On the menu, the haggis described as "a mix of healthy fresh vegetables, pulses, oatmeal, mustard, seeds and spices".  I loved my haggis so much I asked the waitress how they made it and she came back with advice from the kitchen that it was made with barley, oats and pumpkin seeds.

It happened to be Burns Night on the day we chose.  I was delighted when our waitress brought everyone a little thistle charm and a print out of a poem by Rabbie Burns, whose writing is traditionally celebrated in Scotland on 25 January each year with haggis, whisky, poetry, song and dance.  I asked her why the writers that had large "portraits" on the walls were not represented in the literary quotes surrounding them.  She said no one had ever asked her that before and she would be asking about it.  She was so friendly and fun to chat with and had time for everyone.

Then it was time to leave and catch the bus back to our hotel.  I really loved the Makars Mash Bar.  It catered to vegan and gluten diets with ease and made us feel very welcome.  It was also lovely to have an opportunity to stroll down the High Street section of The Royal Mile and see the familiar sights of Edinburgh.

(NOTE: This was written on the plane and published when we got home to Melbourne.)

Makar's Mash Bar
9-12 Bank Street (The Mound)
Edinburgh EH1 2LN

Friday 23 February 2024

Rome: San Giovanni Lateran Basilica and Scala Sancta

According to Wikipedia, the title of this basilica is "Major Papal, Patriarchal and Roman Archbasilica Cathedral of the Most Holy Savior and Saints John the Baptist and the Evangelist in Lateran, Mother and Head of All Churches in Rome and in the World."  It must be important.  It is definitely an impressive building.  The above photo does not convey the awe that I felt outside the building looking at at how huge it is.

Even this photo of the portico does not give justice to how large it is.  (If you look out from this portico, you will look out to see busy traffic around the San Giovanni Porta.)

So here is a photo of me against the green door that you will glimpse in the previous photo.  That is one big door!  It looks like I have drunk the "shrink me" potion in Alice in Wonderland.

I took this photo of the chapel on my left as I walked in and later read that it was the resting place of someone significant.  I should have written notes because now I cannot find who it is.  Rome is like that.  So much history that what might be notable elsewhere is just a drop in the flood of significance.  It is hard to keep up.  

I was so overwhelmed by this basilica that I bought a guidebook in a chapel; something that I rarely do these days given the information online and the piles of tourist detritus in my house.  But even trying to read it is difficult because it condenses so much information.  

So many architectural changes to the building. 
So many beautiful and symbolic works of art. 
So many significant people involved as popes, artists and architects. 
So many significant moments related to world history and the Catholic Church.  

My blog post can only skim across the surface and express my awe because I would be here for years if I were to say everything that should be said about it.  

And to return to my uneasiness with the Vatican, so much wealth has been poured into this building, which might have been used to bring material comfort to those in need rather than focusing on spiritual needs.  One might argue that the wealth of the spirit is from attending to the material needs of others rather than creating grand buildings.  And yet I can't get over how amazing the building is so I am conflicted in seeing such beautiful creations!

So after my digression, I return to the astonishing size of the basilica.  If you look carefully towards the bottom right corner, you will see a guide sitting in a chair to give you some perspective.  This is the view towards the back of the church.

This is the view from the same place as the previous photo but it is looking towards the nave.  The opulent golden ceiling draws the eye.  I wish I had had more time to study the statues of the apostles in the alcoves.  I am fascinated by the lives of the saints and wish I knew more about them.  (Thanks for the start, Sister Mary at my Catholic school!)


Here is a statue of Bartholomew, one of the apostles.  He is depicted with his flayed skin and a knife to represent his death being skinned alive and beheaded.  Apparently this is one of the ways he is said to have died but I guess it is the most memorable.  This is immediately recognisable.

Also fascinating in Catholic iconography is that way that people are represented.  In the above scene I think the saints (or is that God the Father and God the Son?) look odd because their heads are out of proportion.  The pope is holding up a building to .  Show and tell?  

Did I mention that when I went in, Sylvia decided to wait outside.  At this point while I was walking through the basilica, I realised I was taking longer than I had expected and messaged Sylvia who was tired of waiting and decided to come in.  I was glad because there was so much to see that I needed quite a bit more time and she got to see the splendid building.

The nave is a great example of art covering every surface possible.  In the middle is the "papal cathedra" otherwise known as the chair of the pope which is the reason it is a cathedral.  I was quite confused by the Lateran Basilica being the Cathedral of the Diocese of Rome.  The Pope is the Bishop of Rome so this is his seat.  It shows me that I just don't understand how the Vatican is a separate nation to Italy and yet the Pope is Bishop of Rome.  Maybe it is a bit like Jesus being both God and the Son of God.

The Organ is as ornate as the rest of the basilica.  It would be amazing to come to a Mass here and here the music.

More artwork over the walls and long aisle of arches.

There are many lovely chapels for private prayer.

And of course there is the confessional.  I think confessing your sins in this one would be a bit challenging given the insouciance of the statue lying across the top.

The Basilica is but we had to pay to visit the Cloisters.  Who could resist!  The history of the building goes back so far that they had lots of old stones all the way around. 

The tomb slab of Elisabetta Orsini, Noblewoman from Rome, dated 1 December 1496.  I am not clear where it has been for over 500 years but it shows the ravages of time.

 The pillars in the archways are quite lovely.

This is the tomb of Ricardo Annibaldi, a subdeacon and papal notary who died on 28 August 1289.  He came from a notable family and had an impressive tomb and freize, which is partially preserved here.

This tomb slab of one of the Lateran canons from the first half of the 16th Century.  I love how tired he looks.  It is so relatable.

There was a lot to see around the cloisters.  Finally we cast one last admiring glance, returned to the basilica and walked down the last aisle to the exit. 

I went to see the Scala Santa but it was closed for the afternoon break.  So Sylvia came for some pizza for lunch with me and she headed home while I went in search of an English language novel (at the main station aka Termini).  I returned alone later in the afternoon when it was open.  This is quite an impressive structure to house the holy stairs. 

The marble stairs are said to be the ones that Jesus ascended to speak to Pontius Pilate during the Passion, and brought to Rome from Jerusalem by the Empress Helena in the 4th Century.  They have long been a site of pilgrimage for Catholics.  People are only able to climb the stairs on their knees.  They were covered in wood in the 1700s to prevent continued wearing of the marble.  Staircases have been built either side but I am so confused about who goes on which staircase.

I read about these holy stairs before going to Rome and was confused about if people still had to climb the stairs on their knees.  There is nothing like being there watching people actually climb stairs on their knees to know the tradition continues.

I was really pleased we got to visit the Lateran basilica and the holy stairs.  They were a wonder to see even if I could not get my head around how it all fits together.  The Catholic Church is a complicated institution.

Thursday 22 February 2024

Rome: Alfredo Alla Scrofa restaurant, birthplace of Fettucine Alfredo

Sylvia loves pasta.  She loves Fettuccine Alfredo.  So naturally in Rome she was keen to go to Alfredo Alla Scrofa, the birthplace of Fettuccine Alfredo.  We intended to go for lunch but were late and it closes between 3.30-6.30pm.  The above photo is from when we passed in late afternoon to check we couldn't eat earlier than 6.30pm.  We walked away with a business card and booked to return at 6.30pm.

When we returned and joined the queue of people who had booked, we walked in quickly.  We were given a choice between inside and outside.  I loved the photos inside but Sylvia wanted to eat outside.  She got her wish as this was her dream restaurant!

We were given a menu with a nice drawing of the restaurant dated 1914 when Alfredo di Lelio first made his famous fettuccine.

The first thing we were served was water.  I was not concentrating when the waiter asked and replied that I didn't speak Italian and was he able to speak English.  Sylvia was amused that I had not understood him asking in English if we wanted still or sparkling.  We then had a basket of fresh assorted bread (4 euros) because we were hungry.  It came with olive oil, balsamic and seasoning.

We ordered a mocktail of apple juice, elderflower syrup, lime and ginger beer (10 euros).  It was lovely but we had decided to share it.

Sylvia's order of Fettuccine  Alfredo was the star of the show.  The above photo looks like a penguin with pasta but behind them is a performance.  The waiter was tossing her pasta while telling us the story of Alfredo making a pasta dish for his sick wife with what was on hand: pasta, butter and parmigiano cheese.

Here is her pasta.  It was listed in the menu as "The Original Fettuccine Alfredo: Parmigiano Reggiano DOP 24 months and fresh butter from the Langhe" (23 euros).  She would have loved the optional extras of black "Uncinato" truffle or white truffle but it was hard to justify paying the prices of 30 euros for black and  80 euros for white.  She loved it.

I was happy to just taste Sylvia's Alfredo.  I ordered the mixed pasta with potatoes and smoked mozzarella cheese (16 euros).  It was delicious.  When it came it looked like a soup but I was surprised that there was no sauce left when I ate it with the fork I was given.  I really enjoyed the different pasta shapes, the slightly chewy chunks of mozzarella and the soft of potato, as well as just the right amount of smoky creamy sauce.

We ordered the deep-fried 'giudia' style artichokes (12 euros).  Sylvia had never had artichokes before and I was curious to have them in this Roman-Jewish style that was unlike anything I had had before.  The leaves were like artichoke crisps, shattering to pieces in our mouths.  The heart was cooked to soft melting goodness.  Sylvia was interested but not mad keen.  I am not sure it is a great way to try an artichoke as most do not taste like this but it was definitely a unique experience.

We ordered a green salad (7 euros) to share.  Like other salads we had in Rome, it came plain with oil, vinegar and seasoning on the side so we could dress it ourselves.  It was a great to eat with the pasta to alleviate that heavy texture.

Here is our whole meal.  It was very impressive.  Not surprisingly, it was one of the more expensive.  However the excellent service, the great flavours, the interesting textures, the performance of the story, the jazz music and the historic courtyard where we ate, all combined to make it one of the most memorable meals of our trip. 


It was a little sad to leave the lovely outdoor table on the square outside Alfredo's.  But we were out much later than we intended and were ready to catch the bus back to our apartment.

Alfredo All Scrofa
Via della Scrofa, 104/a
00186 Roma RM
Lunch: 12.30-3.30pm, Dinner 6.30-11.00pm

Wednesday 21 February 2024

Rome: Babington's Tea Rooms and the Spanish Steps


The day we went to the Spanish Steps, we expected to grab something for breakfast on the way but once we took the train to the site and did not find anywhere for a quick brunch on the go.  Babingtons Tea Rooms at the bottom of the steps looked good but had queues.  By the time we had walked up and down the Spanish Steps, the Babingtons queues had disappeared and we were able to get a seat and at 2.30pm finally have our "breakfast".  It was worth the wait!

I was unsure about climbing the iconic Spanish Steps but was glad I did.  It looked quite daunting from the bottom.

We had different views as we stopped at each level.  This view amazed me because we could see right along the Via dei Condotti and it was so busy.

At the very top of the steps was a wonderful view across the rooftops of Rome.  The dome of St Peters Basilica is the far one that is a blue colour from this distance.  I am not sure what the closer dome is.

At the top, it seemed silly not to visit the Renaissance church of Santissima Trinità dei Monti that is so visible from the foot of the steps with its white facade and two towers.  It was nice to look in and admire the artwork and arches.

On the way down the steps I made sure to have a good look at the Keats-Shelley Memorial House.  Romantic poet John Keats came here for his health when he was dying of tuberculosis in 1820 and died there the following year aged 25.  It is now houses a collection of memorabilia of the Romantic poets and other writers.

By the time we returned to the Piazza di Spagna at the foot of the steps, we were really in need of food.  It was a relief to find we could get a table straight away at Babingtons.  Apparently you have to book to eat  inside but can walk in for a seat outdoors in the piazza.  I had seen the tea rooms recommended on the web.  They have been serving tea at the foot of the steps since 1893.

We ordered drinks first.  Sylvia had sparkling water and I had one of the best hot chocolates I have ever had.  It was hot, dark, and rich.  Just my style.  I usually find hot chocolate leaves me gasping for water because it is so sweet and milky.  This was neither.  Although it came with cream, it was served on the side so I could just add a little.  As you can see in the above photo, the hot chocolate was poured from a jug.

We ordered breakfast or maybe brunch?  Or was 2.30pm too late for lunch?  We just wanted food! 

I had the Vegetarian Club Sandwich which came stuffed with cooked spinach which was mixed with confit tomatoes, parmesan and pesto.  I was surprised the filling was warm.  This was one of the moments when the sum was greater than its parts.  It was really good.  Sylvia loved it and ate over a quarter of the sandwich.  We were also impressed with the pile of crisps that came with it.

Sylvia had the French Toast with fresh fruit and maple syrup.  She was pleased that I didn't want much of my cream that came with my hot chocolate and had a little with her toast.  She loved the strawberries and pineapple but was not a fan of the melon.  I tasted it and found the toast to be a bit eggy for my liking but it was nicely toasted to golden brown.

It was very nice to sit in the square and watch the people.  The only drawback to sitting outside was that, unlike Australia, people smoke when eating outside in Rome.  We had a great view of the Spanish Steps and there was added entertainment from some people in dinosaur suits.  The above photo amused me because it looks like the dinosaur was eating the palm tree.

The dinosaurs were having play fights with each other and stopping for photos. 

Inside when we paid were some Babington's merchandise and also teas.  We admired the cakes and I really liked this sign that said "Not entirely British, not precisely Italian, truly Roman."  This was one of our favourite meals in Rome and we highly recommend it.

Babington's Tea Rooms
Piazza di Spagna, 23 - 25, 00187 Roma
Open 10am to 9pm Wednesday to Monday