Travel with perfect companions: a chef and an art historian in Italy Unpacked

By Diane de Beer

Cartoons by Fatman

They bowled me over, right from the start. I was already familiar with Andrew Graham-Dixon’s art programmes which we see occasionally on BBC World (DStv) and had the Sicily cookbook by Giorgio Locatelli, Made in Sicily, but didn’t quite expect the fireworks to come.

I binged through four seasons and just couldn’t resist going on this Italian trip with these two delightful connoisseurs.

I knew I would like the art and the food is a no-brainer. What knocked me off my feet was the bromance between these two. It’s so charming and reminds one how people should be. When one lets the other into a secret (an insider’s ingredient or hidden artwork), the expectation from both and how they enjoy giving and receiving is simply spectacular to witness.

It seems that what must have caught them by surprise as well, is their similar passions. While they have different fields of expertise, the two dovetail and they could recognise where and how the other derived pleasure because their’s was the same.

Art cartoon

But back to the basics first. Italy Unpacked is four seasons with each one consisting of three hour-long episodes, and individual seasons focusing on a specific area in Italy with the last one traveling to Sicily. The different episodes mix art and food with the two men sharing their expertise, something extraordinary in their field in a particular region (like hunting for truffles) as they travel from one town to the next, sometimes a city (or the return of some lost art to the area it originated from) and at others, a tiny village.

It’s like escaping into another world and because Graham-Dixon’s art knowledge is so superior and specialist, he takes us to see very unusual works of art and often, while tourists are standing in long lines to see the leaning tower of Pisa for example, what this art historian regards as one of the best museums in the world in a particular field is just around the corner and completely empty because people just don’t know about it. But he does and he shares it lovingly with his friend Locatelli.

Market cartoon

The chef then, in turn, is inspired to cook a specific dish from that area which might have originated in the time of the painting. Or something in a work of art reminds him of a particular dish. But what moves him the most in his cooking is produce. He is driven by the particularities of the area and loves food of the region which he then shows his friend.

So apart from going on your own extraordinary tour through Italy, this is one to take before you actually go, because it’s the perfect guide book to plan a trip. Not only will you learn what to eat, you will also find the best places to find a particular food. Or if you want to make it yourself, where to buy the produce and how to prepare it.

Italian-born Locatelli who has restaurants in London and Graham-Dixon who is extremely knowledgeable on Italian art, swap their expertise in a way that takes us into a whole new way of traveling. I have always wanted some kind of wise bird sitting on my shoulder and whispering things in my ear as I walk through museums or try new food.

That’s exactly what these two do. They have insider info, they know the right people to speak to, and doors open for them so that they can capture the best of each place they visit.

Once I had finished the full series, I dipped into Locatelli’s cookbook and was charmed because I felt I knew the author so much better. Similarly with Graham-Dixon. Because he has made many art-related programmes (mostly for the BBC), it’s not cold turkey following this series. You will find many more examples of his work on the internet. Granted to double up on the firepower of the two presenters is simply the best, but individually they also have more than enough to keep you watching and reading.

It’s as easy as searching on YouTube for Italy Unpacked to start your viewing. The DVD’s are also available through Amazon or BBC sites. But do yourself a favour. As unusual as their mode of transport – from Maserati to moped – as unusual is their friendship as well as their conversation. And they throw the window open as widely as possible and embrace you.

I am obviously a huge fan. But believe me, watch them and join the club!


Television Telling it Like it Is in the Real World

Diane de Beer

Benito Martinez in American Crime

If you aren’t watching American Crime, the latest series which started about two weeks ago, try to get to see it.

Proving the relevance of current television, the series – now in its third season – has dealt with racism and the other in some shape or form. But the present season has tapped right into the centre of The Donald’s heart. And if this vision of illegal Mexican immigrants in the US is just part of the truth, they are already living the nightmare the American president is planning for them if all his immigration laws are passed and the wall comes to fruition.

Most countries, I suspect, have their own version of illegal immigrants and we all know how that goes. As workers these poor people are exploited and because they are already on the wrong side of the law, they have no legal resource whatsoever which means they are being trampled on by everybody.

And who would want to be in a country illegally? I’m sure this is not a choice but simply survival. If your own country’s economy goes into the doldrums like it did in Zimbabwe’s case, where are you going to go? You need to work to survive and usually a large family is looking at you to make things happen. It’s like a new kind of slavery with no way out – that’s if you make it across the border where usually further exploitation is also perched just waiting to pounce on those already down and out.

But back to the US, let’s tap into family values, such a strong motivator in America. It’s often used to justify most everything. In this TV version, everyone’s preferred option, denial, is again at play. For centuries, landowners have abused their worker and because it was passed on from father to son, no questions are asked. “It’s always been like this,” says a son with an awakening awareness as his sister-in-law is driven to do something about life-threatening living conditions.

Getting things right and shipshape from the start would perhaps result in similar costs, but the longer you wait, the tougher it becomes to create better conditions.

Felicity Huffman in American Crime

In the first two seasons Regina King, Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, Richard Cabral and Lili Taylor formed part of the cast and have again been included in this latest harrowing tale which adds to the magnificence of the viewing. To watch Huffman for example morph into the different women she is expected to portray and inhabit is jaw-dropping. And Regina King is unrecognisable just because of a hairstyle. Grey’s Anatomy’s Sandra Oh and Cherry Jones (24) have joined the cast with extraordinary performances by Benito Martinez (How to Get Away With Murder, The Blacklist) and Ana Mulvoy-Ten who drive two of the three storylines.

It’s not easy to watch because of the nastiness of the story but it is important in the context of today’s world and so well produced that while it is tough to bear, it is riveting and impossible to turn away from once you’re hooked.

Catch up with the missed episode (there are three of them) on Google and if you have DStv, the fourth episode will be broadcast on Thursday on MNet (101) at 9.00pm with repeats following.

This is the real world, no matter what others tell you. We might think we have it rough but for too many it is just about survival and trying not to do anything that will further deteriorate your already miserable life.

Look around you.

Changing Life through the Arts


I was watching a documentary on the DStv’s Sundance Channel titled The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble (check for screenings on Channel 108, Wednesday, 17.30 pm) and Thursday (10.40 am).

I have always loved the cello but I had heard some of their amazing music before and wanted to investigate the origin and how it has evolved. I didn’t expect such a profound effect – with huge impact on what is happening in the world today and how each individual could make a difference.

We meet the young Yo-Yo Ma prodigy as he performs music way beyond his years and watch how, now with children of his own, he takes his music into different spheres – one the Silk Road Ensemble which is an attempt to bring different cultures and their traditional music together so that it could blend and not clash with one another as might be the case if you listen only to Western classical music and then hear Indian or Chinese classical music for the first time.

Music of Strangers

Made up of performers and composers from more than 20 countries, the Silk Road Ensemble was formed by Yo-Yo Ma in 2000. Since then, these artists have been embraced for their passion for cross-cultural understanding and innovation. The group has recorded six albums. Their latest album, Sing Me Home, was released in April 2016. This documentary about the Silkroad musicians was directed by Academy Award-winner Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom), was released in June 2016.

When Yo-Yo Ma started with this ensemble in 2000 he probably didn’t envision the magnitude and the unexpected results. What he ends up with is a mini United Nations of extraordinary musicians, many who play their cultural music on traditional instruments.

You see Yo-Yo for example being shown a string technique by an Iranian musician Kayhan Kalhor who plays a string instrument called a Kamanchen that might be lost to the world, if these enthusiasts are not determined to take it up, become a master and pass the skills on to a new generation. Or the vivacious Galacian Cristina Pato who is a piano graduate but plays Galacian bagpipes  called gaita.

There’s also the sadness of a Syrian clarinetist Kiman Azmah whose haunting sounds reminds us of the healing powers of the arts in general. Few people don’t succumb but perhaps we don’t use it enough.

While listening to the evocative music, half classical, half folk, and watching these artists from all over the world communicate through music and seemingly having the best time while breaking the boundaries and ignoring the restrictions that might come from elsewhere, I was again affected by the strength of diversity. These are people from different corners of the world, playing music that comes from their roots (and hearts) and yet managing to blend it with sounds that might sound foreign to them.

In the end, the result is spellbinding. And one is charmed as much by the performers as the performance. It seems so obvious. It might be tougher to reach out, to work out the differences and to harmonise those disparate sounds into some kind of cohesive musical miracle, but the results are magnificent – and do-able!

Check it out, it’s a heartwarming documentary about the richness of cultural diversity. It concludes with Yo-Yo Ma listening to a young Chinese piano player perform – way beyond her years – as he clutches his heart in admiration.

The cycle is renewed and starts all over again.