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The government of Victoria is going through a hand-wringing exercise about the devastation of the bush fires, particularly Black Saturday.  Thirty-four people died in the town of Marysville following the delivery of a report (prepared for Victoria’s Emergency Services Commissioner) declaring that everyone in the town was safe.

That the intensity of the bush fires took everyone by surprise is not at issue; the real questions are about the wisdom of the “stay or flee ” policy that is currently in favor and the CFA (Country Fire Authority) warnings that seem to have been seriously negligent in giving  residents at risk  timely warnings of the dangerous inferno.

A national review of disaster preparedness done three years ago found the states’ ability to warn its citizens inadequate to the task.  Most people here simply call 000 in the case of emergencies.  When the lines get overloaded, the calls get farmed out to centers that do not necessarily have adequate information to assess a risky situation for the caller.  In the case of the bush fires, neither the telephone or the internet was up to the task of saving citizens.

Even though the adjacent town of Narbethong was under ember attack hours before the blaze approached Marysville, there was no idication of that on the CFA website.  A map indicating that Marysville was in the path of an inferno was faxed to a nearby incident control center just one hour before the town was engulfed in flames.  The nearby town of Srathewen was not even mentioned in the warning. Twenty-seven people died there on February 7, the infamous day now known as “Black Saturday.”

Kinglake fire devastation - Reuters/ Mike Tsikas

Kinglake fire devastation - Reuters/ Mike Tsikas

Ironically, a team of American fire fighters from California has been here recently studying the Australian example. They seem to have concluded that the spirit of volunteerism which makes the Australian policy of ‘fight or flee’ an option  is missing in the U.S.  The policy in California is based on a more authoritarian approach:  get people out whether they like it or not; worry about houses and property later.

I lived in L.A. for seven years, through bush fires, earthquakes and mudslides.  In terms of fatalities, nothing came close to the horror of Black Saturday.  I am not suggesting that my native land does these things better than Australia.  The response to the hurricanes in New Orleans gives the lie to that.  But in this particular case, reliance on peoples’ instincts for survival, mateship, rugged individualism and the myth of the brave Australian battler may have been carried just a little too far.  Fire doesn’t respect rugged individualism or mateship.

In terms of warnings, the most troubling example of late may have been the one that was blatantly ignored right before the devastating earthquake in Italy just a month ago.  The seismologist, Giampaolo Giuliani, drove through the town of L’Aquila in a van with a loudspeaker warning the public about an impending earthquake in March. He was accused of inciting panic and threatened with charges of public mischief.

The city government shut him down and Italy’s Major Risks Committee met in the town on March 31, playing down his disaster prediction, saying it was impossible to predict earthquakes with any accuracy.  The quake hit at 3:32 AM, six kilometers northeast of L’Aquila.  Over 200 people died.  Seismologists from around the world have dismissed the prediction as a fluke, insisting that such detailed predictions are impossible with current data.

But the fact is, he did offer fair warning to the good people of the town and he was roundly rebuked for his efforts.  Did anybody say I’m sorry?

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I was amused to read in the International Herald Tribune that Mario Resca (who has recently taken on the task of ‘adding value to the nation’s museums’) claims to have helped promote the slow food movement.  His notoriety comes from having turned around the McDonald’s franchise in Italy, overseeing a spectacular expansion from 10 restaurants to 378.

Not one to shun the spotlight, he cites the success of McDonald’s as the impetus for Italian pride in local cuisine.  “I take credit for that,” he says.  “Slow food became relevant because McDonald’s became relevant.”  He may have a point, however convoluted.

In her remarkably popular book, “Eat Pray Love,”  Elizabeth Gilbert writes about choosing Italy because of the food and the language.  I read the book long before it made the best-seller lists.  If memory serves, she gained 35 lbs (16 kilos) in four months!  Fortunately, she was heading for an ashram in India on the next jaunt of her odyssey and the weight just dropped away.

I’m not sure why the Italians are not all as heavy as heifers, but I suspect it has to do with walking.    Every evening, the citizens of Turin are out on the streets, walking, talking, shopping, generally ignoring the inane programs on T.V.  You don’t see that in North America or Australia.

Oddly enough, my wife and I haven’t dined out very often here despite the temptation.  It is partly an attempt to to save money, and partly a question of habit.  I usually have dinner on the table by 7.   Restaurants here don’t open until 7:30, and no self-respecting Italian would be caught dead in one before 8.  If we were in Rome it would be 9.  Eating habits die hard, but we are eating Italian food, even “at home.”  It’s a wonder I still fit in the Brioni suit.

We decided awhile back that we would celebrate my 64th birthday with a long lunch at a restaurant rated among the top 50 in the world– Combal.Zero.  It just got its second star from Michelin.  It is situated alongside the stunning Art Museum at Castello Rivoli.  Check out my post called Art Attack.

The chef is Davide Scabin.  He is considered a true innovator, exploring the very essence of what food represents.  He has been known to present food in books, glass jars and “cyber-eggs,” cellophane enclosed surprises filled with caviar, vodka, egg yolk, shallots and pepper.  His utensils include Xacto knives, mallets and even plastic cutlery.

Our degustation menu was more subdued, but still delightful.  It began with a deconstructed pizza, a “zuppizza,”  in which the tomato topping forms a soup, with mozzarella in the middle and toasted bread chips on top.  It is delicious.

A little champagne or sparkling wine always gets things off to a fine start.  For the next two hours we indulged our taste buds at the hands of a master.  If I could write about food like Ruth Reichl, who actually used to feed me every so often at the University of Michigan, then this post would be as long as our lunch.  While she has gone on to become editor-in chief at Gourmet magazine, I have ignored whatever talents I may harbor in that area.  Pictures will simply have to do.

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The restaurant is a long, luminous architectural echo of the “long sleeve” in the adjacent castle,  a room that was designed to house the Savoy art collection.  The space  has an air of meditation, an atmosphere of studied grace. Our black T-shirt clad waiters and waitresses seemed as if they were floating from the kitchen to our table, engaging in Tai Chi as they brought our dishes.  For the first half hour, we were the only guests.

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My wife and I and our friends from Toronto allowed ourselves to be as pampered as people can possibly be, enjoying the peace and quiet and the gastronomic delights of a long afternoon.

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For readers who are foodies, we had:  trout in green pea sauce with sour cream; codfish croquette with violet potato chips; thinly sliced veal with hazelnut and anchovy sauce; ‘acquerello’ rice with foie gras and artichokes; pumpkin soup with ‘soncino’ root and ‘quenelle’ of fresh cream cheese; pork shank with puree; and chocolate cake with double milk cream.

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Not to mention the chocolates and coffee.  I guess this answers the question posed in the title of this post.  The two of us will still feed each other and Davide will do what he does best at Combal.Zero.  Here’s to the wonderful markets and Italian cuisine.  Thanks to Pam and Marianna, I won’t forget this birthday anytime soon.

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