Monday, 31 October 2011

A passion for food, good taste, gardens and people

I have always been fascinated by nobility. It conjures up for me a world long gone of things done well, of dedication to the arts, of manners unsurpassed, all washed in tasteful delicacy. All this and all done with brio, pizzazz and commitment. I always thought this was part of a dream that today has faded and become an anachronistic icon of days gone by. Then I entered the world of Palazzo Parisio in Naxxar and realised that nobility in its pure form is still alive and possible.

I met Mme Christiane Ramsay Scicluna, Baroness of Tabria, to discuss the Palazzo, the reason for its re-emergence and her passion for food, gardens and people. I,uncouth and far from noble by birth, was daunted by all this. I was worried about how to address her, how to refer to her daughter and how to ask inquisitive questions to get some insightful comments about Malta and its hospitality business.

I made my way to my meeting with plebeian trepidation. The place is aflush with taste and everything around you is spotless and perfectly done. What if I banged the door and made a scene? Or dropped my archaic pencils which, I use to take notes, unlike the new, modern and devil-may-care young journalists who seem to be ever so confident and seemingly competent? I willed myself to silence and awaited the arrival of the Baroness …

What a complete revelation the meeting was. The Baroness is un- mistakably noble in her ways, in her way of talking and in her taste: but my worries about it being a daunting affair quickly disappeared and I realised I could relax, feel at home and hone in to my inquisitive questions. The Baroness Ramsay Scicluna hardly bites. She was daunted herself by my presence and how she was expected to answer my questions. Her comment at the end of the interview, surely one of the most interesting I have ever conducted, was “I do hope I didn’t sound like a dense blonde”. Actually she said all rather engagingly and I fear I cannot ever really convey its proper essence. But then come to think of it, all we spoke about was reflected in the opulence of the place and the impeccable service and food that is served in one of the most beautiful, and beautifully kept, cafes, gardens and palazzos in Malta. I could easily venture to say that it is one of my favourite places in Malta,if not the world.

The Baroness had a dream of turning this piece of family heritage into a place where people congregate to admire the art, the architecture and eat, drink and enjoy good company. And this has become a reality; so far from being a dense blonde the lady is someone who should be heard, admired and her advice followed.

One of the questions I ask her is why she came back to Malta after living it up grandly in Paris, Rome and London, besides other even more far-flung and exotic places. “Oh”, she says “I always loved Malta, and always felt I belong here. Malta is a real attraction and everyone feels welcome. While living in Rome my Italian husband came to Malta to look after my business concerns. He came and was struck by Malta’s essence which mesmerised him and still does to this day. He loves Malta and would not change it for anything. I wanted to give back to the people the gem my grandfather built. It was sad that such a place built with such meticulous care and adorned with such art was lying there hardly visited or known. Then I came to Malta too and driven by love of heritage, art and food turned it into what it is today. We cater for the morning and afternoon crowd, the lunch and evening crowd and we also have banquets, idyllic weddings and visitors coming from all over the world to see and admire the garden and its beauty."

The Baroness is passion personified. But while other passionate ladies sometimes frighten you, this one makes you want to hear more. We talk about her life and how it imbued her with a passion for food, living well and an undying love to share with as many people as possible all the good things she has and knows. Nobles of olde might
have been aloof while loving the populace and doing good deeds, but the Baroness has managed, together with her daughter Justine, to create something of inestimable charm.

I ask the Baroness if she fears competition, especially if more places of heritage like Palazzo Parisio are opened to the public and also offer good fare. She laughs her ever-so-infectious-laugh and says in her flamboyant English peppered with just a hint of Italian: “But of course not. I love competition. It would be a great step if historical places are turned into a visitor’s dream with good food and impeccable service. Malta is a real treasure trove and we have a lot to offer but I hate it when we turn our beautiful places into just more unattractive places which meet just the com- mon denominator of what attracts people. Food and service have to be a passion and without passion there is just blandness. For blandness there are lots of destinations available; we need to hone in on our offering and make our land and our heritage and food memorable. At first it might seem an impossible dream but in the
end visitors and locals will prefer the place that offers that special some- thing, that little extra that will make an unforgettable experience. Yes,”she says,“please let’s open up the palaces, the palazzos, the gardens and let’s attract an ever-growing number of people to our shores who have a love for anything that is beautiful and has taste."

When the Baroness decided to open the palazzo she thought it would be a great idea to get people to visit the place and give them some coffee and cake and some soup and delicious ftira. At first it was just she and a friend: she’d bake the cakes herself and either she or her friend would conduct the tour of the palace. Quite a far cry from what is happening now when she employs an average of twelve in the kitchen, although she proudly says she is still very much hands-on and is seen serving herself if the need arises and is also known to give a hand in the kitchen if demand is overwhelming.

To start with, the coffee shop was called the Marquis’s Coffee Shop. But Justine hit on a most intelligent name for branding the whole enterprise: the Luna brand was suggested and loved by all. Luna, moon in Italian, is the end part of the family name, Scicluna, and sounds ever so sophisticated.

It has a beautifully sonorous sound and evokes lush gardens, lazy evenings and glorious days waiting for the moon to add its soft sparkle. The Luna café, the Luna collection and the Luna di Sera make up the three main branches available at
the palazzo: the café is open every day till late afternoon serving coffees, drinks, cakes and other good food and snacks; the shop is open most days and has a varied collection of beautiful clothes and bijoux and other classy gift items; while the Luna di Sera is the restaurant which feeds people in a way to satisfy their imagination with moonlit sensations.

Mentioning Justine, the Baroness’s main partner in the enterprise, fills her with even more passion and a loving and doting sparkle. She says “We do everything in tandem. We have unbelievably similar tastes and ideas and we truly hit it off beautifully. We think similarly and love everything like twins except that I’m so much older than her. But she never feels the age difference, or at least she
never tells me. We love going away together and looking at new ideas for the shop and for the café and restaurant. In fact our big problem is that as we both are so hands-on and involved in the daily running of the Luna enterprise, we cannot go away as often as we wish. But we still manage to regularly attend fairs and see what is happening beyond our shores to get inspired and to get different things for our Luna collection. We have a very capable team looking after the various parts of the enterprise, so when we are away all goes on like clockwork.”

To the two women who run the Palazzo, impeccable service is of the essence and both will do everything possible to look after each client. Both are too passion- ate about their enterprise and will not stop to think that if a certain napkin is too expensive they should forgo it; to them if they think the client deserves that napkin he/she should have it. Maybe they lack the cunning business acumen that people who care only about the bottom line have. Without insist- ing on that napkin and by bowing to the dictates of the bottom line, the Palazzo Parisio would be just another place where one can have a decent cake and good coffee but which would lack that special ingredient that makes it that much more special and personal.

Besides the special care for even such a tiny detail as a napkin and its colour (“if it needs to be pink let it be pink at whatever cost” could be the motto of the baroness) the palazzo has a renowned adherence to standards. High standards are not easy to attain; but they are even harder to maintain. This is what has driven the Baroness and her daughter to such heights. They do not just train their staff and practise standards themselves:they make sure everyone is of a like mind when handling clients. This is where the Baroness loses a bit of her twinkly smile: she really hates saying anything critical of anything Maltese. So only after my pushing does she relent and admit that in Malta we have lost a bit of our verve for putting passion in our waiting. According to the Baroness being a waitress or a waiter is a real art and can be ever so fulfilling. “Unfortunately” she says, “we now think that serving people is rather an insult to our being. I beg to differ and feel that the real waiters can make a grand life out of it. There are various waiters who did just that and are proud to have done just waiting all their life. But one needs to have passion and love; one can be not servile but of service to people who love waiters, who have a commanding presence and find fulfillment in their job."

After she tells me this I look out for grumpy waiters at the Palazzo and find none and look even harder for some sour waitress. Again my search is futile. I am surrounded by beautifully groomed waitresses and very personable waiters dressed in comfortable and impeccable clothes. And the feeling is far from starched formality. It is of a colonial tropical land, of a place where time stood still a few years back, say 1930, where every- thing was just right and life wasn’t rushed at all.
When I quiz the Baroness further about the waiters and waitresses, she admits she is blessed with good ones who love being trained and of service. “It’s true what I have here is the pick and they follow our regimen beau- tifully. But all around in various other places out there, the level of service is not too inviting.” She is dying to say more but stops short in case she offends anyone with her admonishing words.

I ask the Baroness what influ- ences her most in her taste for anything which is to be shared at the palazzo and also in her food. Of course the main influence is Italian, but anything Mediterranean is a great influence. She says that “after all the world has, at last, realised that the Mediterranean diet is the healthiest. I always loved Italian food – this came from my mother – and because I lived
so long in Rome where I started a “scuola di cucina” back when such ideas were hardly fashionable.”

She taught many non-Italians who were living in Italy with their new-found husbands or partners. Obviously this was a grand test; everyone knows how exigent Italians are when it comes to their food and if the food is not as “la mamma” cooks it there could be trouble brewing. But the Baroness saw to that and must have helped keep the peace for quite a few couples with her love of food which she imparted to these foreigners.
Food for the Baroness is also a grand love affair with what is traditional. She does accept all the new ways and waves. But to her, simple traditional Maltese food is important to remain being served just as it was presented by our mothers and grandmothers. Giving new flings to Maltese fare could kill what we created back in the olden days. Her idea is that we do not need to revisit Maltese food: dish it out purely and simply as we always loved it and let us not feel awkward or inferior because of our food. It was and remains good so let’s be proud of it.

After all the new, the innovative, is already turning into the old and unwanted. The return to basics, the love of anything done just as it has been done for years is returning and taking over. “And thank God for that,” says a bemused but resolute Baroness.

All the passion the Baroness instills in her staff and people around her can be seen and felt. There is a lovely buzz at the palazzo; everything is beautifully set and in place but everyone enjoys the food and atmosphere. Smiles and happy people are bywords for the Luna experience. I ask her one last tantalising question about the guests who have visited the palazzo in days gone by. Her eyes glint merrily at this question: she smiles. “Back in time when this place was the residence of my ancestors, people like Marconi came and visited. Today we also have great personalities visiting. Brad Pitt was a real gentleman and had no airs at all. Others
who visited were Rex, the dog hero in an Italian TV series, who was loved and truly loveable, and Tom Jones was another welcome guest. Other stars who came and were hooked include Dominic Cooper who starred in Mamma Mia, the charming James Blunt, and William Hurt.” But the real highlight these last few years for the Baroness was Oprah Winfrey. The two hit it off tremendously and hugged and kissed and waved to each other when they parted. Oprah in fact told the baroness “you have done real wonders here and for us.”

These visitors were treated like royalty maybe because they are special. But I observed all the guests who were there while I was being treated grandly. The baroness had a dream and made it a reality.It would be grand if more people like her are let loose in the hospitality field, where all men and women wish to be treated as grandly as they are at the Palazzo Parisio.

It takes two to tandem

They are two inseparable and successful women tied, it would seem, at the hip. They exude charm, elegance and wonderful Italianate garrulousness and joie de vivre. They act as if a few months of age separate them and nothing can come between them. But just like the cats that populate the gardens they are unbelievably individual, clear-headed and can also be just a tad catty to each other.

The main story tells it all about the Baroness Scicluna Ramsay and her fondness for anything which is even remotely connected to style. It also delves into the Palazzo
and how it has been restored for everyone to appreciate what it was meant to do—live and have people live by it and live appreciating its ornate, maybe (to some) overdone, glory. Here we meet the less effu- sive, more rational, more reflective daughter of the duo. Justine, Juju to her mummy, is less dramatic than her mother but just like her mother is simply fascinating. And her story and the way she raves about Malta and its heritage would melt even the coldest person on earth.

What strikes me most is that she calls her mother, “mummy”; I was sure it would be mama or maman. It’s true that both mummy and Juju were educated in just-so English boarding schools but their attitude and their style is definitely conti- nental, if not exactly Italian. But mummy it is: must be the way the mother, and her Italian husband, decided to bring up Justine.

This is Justine in her own words: “My parents were very strict. I had an impossible curfew and because I was always a goody two-shoes I simply followed whatever I was told. Even when I grew up I was the sensible one and would always be the one to drive all my friends home. I obeyed dutifully and it’s only now that I have moved out of the house and I am working in tandem with my mother that I’ve come out of my shell and make my own decisions. In fact today mummy asks for my advice and leans on me more and more; I hardly feel dependent on her. It does feel liberating and both my parents enjoy the relationship as it has developed. I still don’t stamp my feet as many youngsters seem to do nowadays but I do have a mind of my own and a very clear vision of what I am and what I want to achieve.”

But how strict could a doting father and mother be I ask. “Oh they were strict,” she assures me. “In fact when I was young all I wanted to do was follow in my father’s footsteps and become a singer, a dancer or an actress. But my father would have none of it. Or rather he expected me to go into something less dramatic and traumatic. He thought—still thinks in fact—that I am a softie and with the way show business has become today he really thought I’d suffer.” Her father was a renowned dancer and choreographer who regularly appeared in top RAI TV and other television channel shows.

He worked with all the leading directors, amongst them Antonello Falqui, maybe Italy’s most successful producers of TV. That was the golden time of Italian show business and her father partnered such household names as Mina, Ornella Vanoni and the Gemelle Kessler, the statuesque twins who were most probably every Maltese and Italian male’s dream. But those were different times and most of the people involved then were gentlemen of the old hide.

Thanks to her father guiding her in the right direction, she went into hospitality and luckily for Malta created this chic place with her mother. She went to a Swiss hotel school and then moved to the Cavalieri Hilton, a leading hotel in Rome where she met, according to her, one of the best GMs in the world. Hans Fritz is still a dear friend, and also a mentor of the mother-and-daughter tandem, and hardly a day passes when he isn’t mentioned. From there, after absorbing a lot of interesting ways and means in hospitality and style, Justine moved to the Bulgari hotel in Milan, a small but important hotel which saw most celebrities in its rooms. Then she went into fashion retail, still in Milan.

She loved visiting Malta and knew she would always be connected to this island which she loved dearly and which offered her her roots. But at the time she never dreamt of coming here for good: Milan, Rome, London or Paris sounded rather more compelling.
“When mummy opened her café I used to come on holiday to Malta and end up helping with the sandwiches and the salads in the kitchen,” she admits with that gorgeous twinkle in her eye.

Then the place seemed to have conquered her: why not go and turn the place, together with her mother, into a real success story? So Justine packed her bags, came here and started a partnership with her mother that has definitely set standards. She explains it all as “it felt like magic actually. The place, the ambience, the country just envelope you. I was won over and realised this is what I have always wanted to do, what I was born to do. I love it and I love being with people and assisting when we are short-staffed or inundated.”

Justine’s enthusiasm is electrifying, but in a subtle, enticing way. She
is like her mother: very precise, effusive about detail, but not stuffy at all. Her style is relaxed, soft and flirty in a good-natured, loving way—not vampy at all. And I ask just before leaving: what is the main difference between her and her mother?

“Oh I am like my father: calm, reflective and can tolerate nearly anything. I am a bit like a sponge that absorbs any negativity that arises. I adore my mother and get on with her tremendously but we are very different. We complement each other really well. If there is one thing I feel a bit bad about it is that all my life I have been very responsible, too responsible, and maybe I need to learn how to let
my hair down a bit.”

I have always loved the Palazzo but after going there to meet mummy and Justine I am now even more mesmerised. When Justine finally lets her hair down I imagine all that will happen is that the brilliantly-attired in-white personnel might also sport a little luna (moon) on their uniforms.

This article first appeared in MHRA magazine October 2011

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