A few weeks ago in May 2011, I toddled down to the Café at 36 to grab myself a vanilla latté and a toasted panini as a bit of a treat. I was surprised to see that it looked a little different from the last time I had ventured in and was told that the previous owner, Jim, had left the café before Christmas 2010. This was sad news in one way as he was a very nice chap and his wife had provided the colourful artworks that once hung on the walls. These are now gone, having been replaced by more sedate, traditional works. What has been retained though is the menu with a few tweaks and additions as well as the same air of French café style. The menu is still fairly simple - paninis and soup - but dishes I hadn’t noticed before are American pancakes with maple syrup with or without bacon and Welsh rarebit with a fried egg. They may well have been there before, but I don’t remember seeing them!
With the abundance of high street coffee shops in Exeter, this is still one of the most inviting and characterful places to get your caffeine fix, catch up with friends or grab a bit of lunch. Cowick Street isn’t exactly convenient for those who are shopping in the centre of town, but if you fancy something a little different it’s definitely worth a visit. For locals, it is still a precious gem that I’m sure they are very grateful to have in their midst.
I was thinking the other day, as I was writing a film review (I’m exploring further writing avenues!) that I could quite easily combine two of my favourite pass-times - food and film - in my blog. There are plenty of wonderful, food themed cinematic gems out there and I’ve seen a number of them, so I hope you will find this blog entry legitimate. It won’t be the last of it’s type, so I hope you do enjoy it. This review is for the German film Mostly Martha (Bella Martha) which was released in UK cinemas in November 2001. I have to admit that I missed it back then, but scanning through the vaults of LoveFilm I came across it and cheerfully spent the next 105 minutes watching it online.
Food, love and family are the big trio of themes in this German romantic comedy and they’re dealt with in a respectable and gratifyingly adept manner. The US remake (there had to be one), No Reservations, was released in 2007 with Catherine Zeta-Jones & Aaron Eckhart so someone in Hollywood must have seen the potential to make some dosh at the box office.
At first contact, Martha (Martina Gedeck) is shown to be an uptight loner whose life is cooking, and cooking alone. She is head chef at the fashionable and upmarket Lido restaurant in Hamburg and leads an austere lifestyle, devoid of love, passion and excitement when out of the kitchen. Few film characters are ever as simple as they initially seem of course, and before too long Martha’s familiar routine is disturbed by the death of her sister and the sudden, inconvenient responsibility for her 8 year old niece, Lina. Martha’s emotional currency is food, but all around her, including her new neighbour Sam (Urlich Thomsen), her therapist and Lina, she meets with negative reactions to her culinary offerings.
Martha’s self-inflicted isolation is shattered firstly at home and shortly after in her beloved kitchen. It comes as no surprise that Martha is a bit of a control freak - most serious cooks seem to be - and she is less than pleased when a new sous-chef is recruited to ‘help’ during her periods of enforced absence from the restaurant. The polar personality of Italian chef Mario (Sergio Castellitto), who romps onto the scene complete with Dean Martin soundtrack, grates (excuse the food pun) against the cool, disciplined character of Martha and the two get off to a shaky beginning, which as you might expect, leads to a re-education in relationship management for Martha.
The remainder of the film revolves around the gradual softening of Martha to those around her. Lina is understandably confused and angry at being left by her mother and is keen to track down her Italian father who she only knows by the name of Giuseppe, whilst Mario endeavours to break through Martha’s frosty exterior using various food-related devices and in the process bringing niece and aunt closer together. The backdrop of the professional kitchen makes for an ocular banquet – for ‘ocular banquet’ read the overused and unavoidable ‘visual feast’ – as Martha and her team create spectacular dishes such as pigeon with truffles, foie gras and ravioli with boletus. Contrasted with the complexity and delicacy of Martha’s dishes, are the more rustic and breezy creations of Mario, who attempts to charm everybody he comes into contact with by force-feeding them pasta. It seems to work.
The opposites attract scenario is pushed almost a little too far at various points in the film, with constant reference to Martha’s cool, intense persona using such devices as her escape to the coolroom whenever things get too metaphorically hot in the kitchen or her boss Frida’s intention to put more fish on the menu because ‘nowadays people want light meals’. Martha is naturally drawn to all things heavy and fervent in life. Mario’s warm, stereotypically Italian character, is clearly what is needed to defrost poor Martha. Martha is sometimes difficult to like during the film as her chilly nature leads her to display less-than-appealing traits such as parental uselessness, stubborness and mild OCD – the scene where she hyperventilates after Mario cooks a meal in her kitchen leaving a hideous mess, portrays her as a bit of a crackpot. Mario is able to feed & entertain Lina, where Martha cannot, and it seems he has been sent to torment Martha into pacification.
Of course food is omnipresent and if you believe the consumption of such is not just about fuelling your physical existence, it will make it easier to enjoy the film from the very beginning. The scene where Mario pops over to cook dinner for Martha and Lina is intrinsic to the plot, as Mario begins to chisel away at Martha’s defensives with the aid of roasted aubergine, zucchini and red peppers, spaghetti, ciabatta and red wine. Martha doesn’t stand a chance. There are moments of cheesiness that upset the generally smooth flow of the film and of these, the 9 ½ Weeks style blindfolding of Martha in the kitchen was outstanding. Sometimes Martina Gedeck’s emotionless representation of the inhibited Martha is a little over-egged - she is occasionally unnecessarily frenzied in her portrayal - but not so that you lose interest in her.
Lina, as Martha’s orphaned niece is understandably sullen and awkward and young actress Maxime Foerste does a fine job in the role. Before you finally give up on Lina’s equally cool demeanour – it is acknowledged that she is very like her aunt – Mario, the tenderiser of the story, coaxes her back into your affections. Lina’s culinary education begins in the kitchen at Lido with some comical consequences such as the disposing of expensive black truffles with an expression of disdain. Food fans fear not – the truffles are retrieved. Equally, Sergio Castellitto, as Mario, is highly watchable, although the love scenes, of which there are few thank goodness, were uncomfortable not for their explicitness, but more for their awkwardness. Even the main supporting characters, Sam her neighbour, Frida (Sibylle Canonica) her boss, her therapist (August Zirner) and Lea (Katja Studt) are robust enough to care about, despite their relatively brief time on screen.
By no means a cult food classic in the vein of Babette’s Feast or Delicatessen, Mostly Martha still manages to hold your focus from start to finish with only a handful of shaky, sentimental moments. When a film starts with a decent sensual trigger you can anticipate a degree of enjoyment and the opening scenes of Martha describing her ideal menu, set the appropriate tone. The sooner you are comfortable with the premise of food as uinversal panacea the sooner you can sit back and enjoy the delights of Mostly Martha.
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