This will probably be the only post I manage before Easter and so I would first and foremost like to wish everyone who celebrates this event a very Happy Easter. Easter is an occasion of culminating meaningfulness for Christian believers but has also come to be associated, in a cultural sense, with renewal and Spring and freshness. And fun too: all those Easter egg hunts and bunnies and bright colours.
This post is not about a recipe. It is about an issue I take to heart and that is proper and real extra virgin olive oil. As opposed to the stuff that is mostly sold in supermarkets and that is a misnomer. I try and make my posts mildly amusing, even jolly, but this one is not like that. Hence, if you think you’d rather not be saddled with anything remotely serious … you will find some delight in skipping the writing and just looking at the photos. Caveat Emptor.
Earlier this year, on a gorgeous sunny day, such as Rome so generously metes out even during the colder seasons of the year, I had lunch with a friend who works at an international establishment in Rome, called FAO. I hadn’t been there is a long long time and was held captive by a mood akin to that engendered by the opening line in Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca” … “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again ….” What would await me? What memories might resurface that I couldn’t tap into now?
FAO stands for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and is in fact one of its largest agencies. Mention the FAO in Rome and everyone knows. It’s famous. Mention it outside of the country, however, and I am unfailingly met with a head-tilted-to-one-side baffled look and a somewhat embarrassed entreaty on the part of the person with whom I am conversing to kindly elaborate. In the past, there might even be conjectures linking it to the legendary toyshop in New York, FAO Schwarz. People who work at FAO think that the entire planet must surely know of their existence and the contribution they are shouldering in order to make the world a better place. They deport themselves with a certain gravitas. I am reminded of the quip in Mel Brook’s 1983 film “To Be or Not to Be” where a Polish actor is amazed he is not known outside the country …”He is world-famous in Poland you know!” pronounces his wife, Ann Bancroft. Well … FAO is a bit like that … it is world-famous in Italy, especially in Rome.
I was an FAO staff member myself, on and off, for little over ten years and even wrote a short story about my experience there as a wet-behind-the-ears twenty-one year-old. Times were very different then … no computers, no mobile/cell phones, no iphones, no internet. And the pace was s-l-o-w, much more deliberate than today. And the mood was earnest. Sedulous. The people I worked with and for were not slackers, on the contrary, they worked quite hard — but two-hour lunch breaks were quite the norm. Punctuality was taken for granted. And on occasion there would even be quite a buzz or stir and a sense of the whole world being present in one small space, so close to the Circus Maximus of Ben Hur fame. I got to see some world figures and dignitaries in person, and attended a conference delivered by Indira Ghandi for instance. Any time an important figure was visiting, a pair of very tall and very smart Italian carabinieri would stand guard at the entrance in their smashing, brightly coloured full regalia, looking like toy soldiers (albeit on the big side) in a fairy tale.
The system was totally steeped in protocol and red tape, however, and made me bristle. It was rule-obsessed army-like: lots of paperwork, unexceptional due diligence and long lists of signatures and, save for the time I worked at the Medical Service, I was mostly bored out of my mind. I did a lot of typing of reports too and there is only so much satisfaction one can eke out of statistical surveys on banana plantations or drip irrigation in arid regions when your mind is besotted by a forlorn love affair and the blood stirs to the rhythm of youthful endeavours and preoccupations. It sorted of reminded me of boarding school and I didn’t enjoy having to spend a good part of the day with older people who were married and with children and who were… well … staid, unexciting and dull as ditchwater. I was easily bored in those days. To the point that I just had to get away from FAO for fear of turning into one of those poor foreign spinsters who hadn’t found their Italian Romeo but who considered it too late now to return ‘home’, wherever home might be. The concept of ‘single’ was not current then and the way I saw it, there seemed to be an alarming rate of spinsterhood attached to working at FAO. So much for my personal attitude at the time …
FAO does pay good salaries, it must be said. Well, that is what I used to say. “The only reason people stay on is because the pay is good.” People were seriously astonished to hear of my resignation and of my repugnance for this work place. One person who was into the spiritual side of things even proffered an explanation: she said it was because the buildings were in close proximity to the Colosseum and thus all the negative energies of thousands of animals and people slaughtered there were bound to upset sensitive souls like me. Mmm.
What I DID find at FAO was a cluster of very good friends, friends with whom I am in touch even today. My daughter’s godmother Sing Mei who hails from Hong Kong but now lives in Surrey near Vancouver was one such friend. Another friend is in France, in the UK, one in Australia and yet another in South Africa. I sometimes wonder what became of a former boss who was originally Romanian but managed to get a Spanish passport and lived in perennial fear of getting bumped off by a poisoned umbrella tip (that was the death meted out to one poor Romanian guy by the secret police) and who behaved very cagily every time another staff member entered the room; the latter was the mildest of mannered men but he was a Czech citizen and thus inextricably compromised by KGB spying habits according to my boss. Please don’t laugh … one FAO staff member, a certain Mr John Cairncross, was one of the chaps involved in the Cambridge Spy Ring http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Cairncross). I saw his medical file, so there, ne ne ne ne ne. Most of my friends have retired or gone now … only one remains and it was I who suggested we have lunch there, knowing full well how strapped for time FAO staff members are at present. Just like the Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland.
If you think that the security procedure at airports is a bind these days, I can tell you that getting cleared at FAO comes a second close. Dear oh dear, the pallaver. There is a part of me that thinks they are flattering themselves — “they” being the powers that be. I am all for security etc but who on earth would want to do damage there? Who is even important enough there? What fuels their self importance? In my days, all staff members had to show their ID to a guard as they entered the building, and guests had to go to a special desk and ask for a pass. These days, the staff member has to come all the way down to the desk and accompany the guest in too. The guest can’t be trusted on his or her own — and that’s after having had their bags screened in a machine like those we see at airports. I wouldn’t put it past them to frisk people. How very sad that an institute that purports to improve methods of alimentary and agricultural development in the world should stoop to such low, self-important and unfriendly behaviour.
Apart from the pleasure of spending some time with a friend, what I was really looking forward to was enjoying at the view from the building’s terrace. Truly one of the most breathtaking view of Rome. I wasn’t interested in eating anything fancy and was quite happy to go down the cafeteria route. Salads, various pastas, cheese and fruit plates, various cooked meat — your typical institutional food. The shocker came in the form of the olive oil I found there.
It was a very common brand, with an Italian name but since bought up by the Spanish who run the monopoly on bulk olive oil sales in the world anyway. I am not anti-Spanish. I am anti corporations. The olive oil in question … well, it is the kind I wouldn’t touch with a barge pole. And I certainly did not expect to see it being served in an establishment that says it is all about food and agriculture! One would think that the FAO would INSIST upon real olive oil being served on its premises, the kind we now have to call EVOO to distinguish it from the ersatz that is bandied about as healthy and what have you. I was really appalled. If you can’t go to the trouble of serving real and proper food, including proper salt and EVOO, in your own Headquarters, how can you be trusted to be maintaining standards elsewhere in your running of the organization. Rhetorical question.
I have no wish to be slanderous againt FAO nor unfair towards the indubitably countless decent people who work there and work very hard too. But I cannot refrain from commenting negatively on the use of sub standard olive oil, especially since so many olive oil farmers bend over backwards to produce beautiful, healthy and tasty EVOO and should be encouraged in their efforts and lauded for their risk-taking approach. Cheap olive oil is no olive oil, believe me. And if you don’t believe me, then believe Tom Mueller, author of “Extra Virginity”.
Our lunch finished, our arrivederci said, I made my way to the outhouse to retrieve my ID and carry on my day. I took a few photos of this outhouse and was sharply reprimanded by the guard there for doing so. “Whatever for?” I enquired. She looked at me, she of the shrill voice of officialdom, as though I were a berk, a complete and utter idiot. “For security, what else?” she shrieked, raising her hands to heaven. I offered to delete the photos in front of her from my camera, in a vain effort to assure her that I was not a terrorist, but no … there was no satisfying her. She just had to cluck and tsk tsk and shake her head in unbelieving consternation. Poor thing. She hasn’t heard of powerful camera lenses. All one has to do is cross the road and take excellent shots of what she was valiantly trying to defend from wanton visitors such as myself.
One last note that is truly sombre. Rome was racked by a scandal about a month ago involving various well heeled men of high social, financial and even political standing consorting with under aged girls (14 and 15 year-olds, if you can believe it) in a fancy part of town called the Parioli. The whole disgusting episode has come to be dubbed “Scandalo delle Baby Squillo”, i.e. baby prostitute scandal. One of these is the husband of Mussolini’s grand daughter, who is a politician and who has often voiced her fervent appeal for the use of chemical castration in the case of paedophilia. The newspaper had to mention his name because he went to ‘confess’ his implication to the police (hopefully his wife hit him over the head with a broom stick forcing him to do so) but kept quiet about the other men involved. It did say, later on, however, that there were also three ‘functionaries’ (i.e. top-level men) from FAO who were implicated in this scandal. This means that these men are protected by diplomatic status. All I can say is that I hope their diplomatic passports don’t save them from losing their face at least. I do hope the FAO sacks them. Yes, I do.
There it stands, the FAO … mighty like Ozymandias, a functional building whose only concession to prettiness are the flags of the world when they are raised on the masts. The blue United Nations flag is always raised … you can just about see it in this photo, above the Roman pine trees in the middle. FAO stands on this part of the Via Aventina.
If you walk over to the building and turn around, this is what meets the eye opposite … the Roman Forum and the Circus Maximus. The FAO is in the Aventine area of Rome, close to the Colosseum and standing on one of the famous Seven Hills.
Here is a security turnstyle. A complete turn-off …Inside Building C, which houses most of the large conference halls, marble abounds. These are the marble plaques, written out in the official UN languages, outlining the Preamble to the constitution of FAO. I think it goes back to the end of WWII.
Leftovers of statuaries … And here, instead, we are finally on the terrace of FAO. It’s a gorgeous sunny day, I am chatting with a dear friend and all is well with the world (but not with the olive oil that they serve here). There is the Arch of Constantine on the left in the distance, and the Colosseum on the right. The Roman Forum, the Capitoline in the background, and even the Victor Emmanuel II building, the one that Romans like to call the wedding cake or the typewriter. FAO staff members getting a lunch break. Aha … a view of the Circus Maximus on the left … More of the ancient Foman Forum in the middle and the Colosseum on the right looking very dark in the shade.
On the right we look towards the Baths of Caracalla at the end of this road (but not visible in this photo). Behind the trees, on the left, is the area of San Giovanni in Laterano. And here is a superb view of the Castelli Romani, the Alban Hills.
Later on, in the centre of Rome, on the Via del Babbuino, I came across a couple of carabinieri … not dressed in full regalia, but still … so very colourful. Gotta love the texting!