Notes from Berlin, Zagreb and Bologna: What the Band Oneida Ate on their Last European Tour

In our current issue we profiled the Bushwick fridge of Kid Millions–aka musician John Colpitts—the drummer for and co-founder of Oneida, a loud, weird, brainy Brooklyn band that has produced more than a dozen albums since 1997, and whose psychedelic/ electronic noise-rock is now a linchpin of the country’s underground music scene. (Their new album Absolute II is out now on Jagjaguwar.) The band are also road foodies par excellence, making sure to eat well whereever and whenever they travel. This past summer, in fact, they toured Europe, and the following dining diary was kept by Millions’ fellow bandmate, Bobby Matador. As Millions tells us, “Bobby Matador is Oneida’s woodie player, vocalist and resident Leo. He currently lives in Boston with his wife and two children and has recently contributed original sequences to Karl LaRocca’s Emergencynth.”

I play in the band Oneida.  We’ve been touring for nearly 15 years, and we work hard to treat ourselves as well as we can on the road–in particular, we care deeply about what we eat, what we drink, and how we go about the business of dining.  We’re not fancy guys, and we don’t usually have much money to burn, but we’ll happily put our tour in the red for the right meal at the right place and time.  Touring Europe is a highlight for us, musically and gastronomically, and in August we had the opportunity to return to some favorite locales and explore new ones.  Here’s how we ate:

8/4/11

The tour begins on my birthday, August 4.  I’ve got a history of flying on my birthday – often to begin just such an expedition, as it fits easily into our band’s complicated scheduling parameters – and it’s no way to procure a decent birthday dinner.  I sit in a half-full 737 winging to Paris, alone in my row (a blessing for comfort, depressing for companionship on my birthday), and grudgingly sift through bland, rubbery tortellini and chilled, pale salad greens.  I pay $7 for a poor Chilean Carmenere.  Not an auspicious start to tour, but I’m confident there will be rewards yet to come.  In Paris on Friday morning I hop a short-haul flight to Berlin, where our first show will be this evening.

8/5

What a change in only a day!  The backstage spread at this modest Berlin festival is amazing, a true welcome to Europe and its prioritization of food.  Vegetarian abundance: legume-based dips and spreads – including something amazing with a turmeric theme that I can’t otherwise parse, and a beet puree that resets my internal clock to European time on its own – and add nuts, plums, currants, five cheeses, crudite, different fresh breads, wine, mineral water: nothing here is about “fine dining,” it’s just great food, presented thoughtfully and continually all night long.  I feel cared for, welcomed, and ready for anything.  There’s also a mate soda that’s intriguingly bitter, and clears my head nicely after a drenchingly hot, humid set in the Festaal Kreuzberg.

8/6

In the morning, our first of the inevitable procession of continental breakfasts.  These do vary throughout the trip in terms of both quality and selection, often keyed to a quietly regional theme.  Here in Berlin, I make the most of a variety of wursts, the ever-present yogurt, and a cup of coffee.

In the evening, we pull into Sommerfest, an idiosyncratic DIY festival set in a bucolic lakeside tent community in Biesenthal – a country destination outside Berlin.  The mood is unrepentantly hippie, German-style: nakedness and a utopian feel resound, but tempered by an ambition, energy, and precision that feel otherworldly to an American accustomed to a hippedom that too frequently equates to laziness and squalor.  There is no outpouring of punk-rock wrath from Oneida, only mild, amused wonder and respect for the efforts and accomplishments of our amiable hosts.

Amidst the homemade lakeside sauna, the minimal-techno dance meadows, the trampolines and makeshift theatres, we are guided to a permanent structure – a somewhat dilapidated cottage at the edge of the woods – where we are served more beets, wursts, and cheese, along with a piquant pesto that’s perfect for mopping up with fresh, crusty bread.   Later that night we will also tuck into plates of handmade meatballs with potato puree; platters of stewed beans with bacon, green beans and potatoes right off a giant campfire; and some in the band will sit at low trestle tables assembled in a meadow and eat sparklingly fresh sushi in a temporary al fresco restaurant assembled during the evening.  The entire festival must cover a square mile or more of lakefront, meadows, and woods, and dotted everywhere are jury-rigged bars serving an Augustiner helles (light) beer – brewed in Munich, not locally, but the hosts tell us that this is the best summer beer in Germany, and so they’ve brought it specifically for Sommerfest.  An excellent choice, it is yeasty and supple, proving delicious and drinkable from afternoon to the deepest hours of the morning.

8/7

We set out from Berlin for Katowice, in the south of Poland, where we will be performing at the OFF Festival, a vast conglomeration of popular bands, professional catering, port-a-johns, and modular backstage units; a potent contrast to the laissez-faire experience of Sommerfest.  Still, it turns out to be a total delight (despite gusty rainstorms): smoothly organized, enthusiastic audience and festival staff, and great food in the catering tent.  I move through a cafeteria-style buffet line, pointing at things that look good and trying to fill my plate with as many different items as I can.  At the end of the line, I turn in the meal ticket I’ve been issued, and retreat to a table to assess my bounty: Mushroom pie, stewed cabbage, chopped beets, sliced cucumbers, a pale-green herbed rice with mint, some sort of crepes, a bowl of thick vegetable soup, and a massive slab of plum cake dusted with powdered sugar.  All of the food is excellent – freshly prepared from local, seasonal ingredients – and for me, the highlight is the tangy, crumbly plum cake that rings notes of familiarity in its resemblance to a typical American cobbler or crumble, but is executed just differently enough to remind me that I’m truly elsewhere.  The crumb is pungent in a way I’ll quickly come to identify as Central European – this is a land of pickling and souring, as will become quite clear the next morning, at the finest breakfast I’ll enjoy on the tour.

8/8

It’s usually a good sign when the breakfast in a hotel is offered on the top floor, rather than adjacent to the ground floor lobby.  Here in Katowice, Oneida is treated to a remarkable spread that echoes our location perfectly: hard-boiled eggs, pate, pickled gherkins, pickled red peppers, sliced oranges and blood oranges, slabs of mild white curd cheese, dense and sweet drop scones, sliced tomatoes and cucumber.  All of this is complemented perfectly by a hot black coffee that is probably the best filter/drip coffee that we’ll enjoy on the continent (the great espresso will come tomorrow, in Vienna!).

We dine, meet at the van, and pile in for the trip south to Vienna.  We make a few planned and unplanned stops along the way, and roll into the club as a gentle evening rain coats the streets and sidewalks of the Prater.  The club has been built in an unused pedestrian walkway beneath a traffic circle in downtown Vienna – all is concrete, underground, dark and enigmatic.  We love it, although we’re also aware that our extreme volume is likely to be magnified beyond endurance in such a harsh acoustic atmosphere…..but who cares, check out the local cheeses, mustard, bread and wine backstage!  I’ve enjoyed plenty of Austrian white wine (particularly the inescapable Gruner Veltliner), but I’m unfamiliar with the dry, robust red called Zweigelt that has appeared on our table backstage.  When we express thanks and delight to Peter, the promoter of the show, he disappears into a cellar and returns with another bottle of Zweigelt from a different producer and an earlier vintage – where the previous bottles have been young and easily drinkable, this a more robust, complex wine.  We are very happy.

After setting up our equipment and finishing a soundcheck, we set out into the evening for dinner…..which is a major disappointment.  The traffic circle under which the club is situated is a commuter transit hub, and culinary offerings are geared strictly to fast food.  We eat sushi takeout from an Asian chain that features an unfortunate racist caricature on its takeout boxes, depicting a cartoon sumo wrestler holding the corners of his eyes up in a classically offensive Asian stereotype.  A low point of our tour – and while the food isn’t as bad as the packaging, it offers nothing worth defending.  It will take a concerted effort of collective will in the morning for Oneida to triumph and get what we need from Vienna – but victory will be ours…

8/9 – AM – Vienna

…or will it?  We spend the night in a vast urban hostel that is a remarkably fine work of contemporary architecture containing a remarkably awful breakfast.  Undrinkable coffee…in Vienna!  And to think that the night before, when two of us ventured out after our unsatisfying dinner, the only establishment serving coffee was McDonald’s!  We’re veterans of tour, and we know that we must assert ourselves.  We are in Vienna, and we WILL find the coffee, pastries, and gilded-age delights that are the gastronomical reminders of this legendary city’s glory.

We turn to the internet – where are the classic cafes of Vienna?  What can we do to right the wrongs of the past 12 hours?  The answer lies at the Café Central, in the heart of the city.  Gilded mirrors, massive chandeliers, tuxedoed waiters, impeccable, hushed conversational tones, and for all of the relic quality of this tourist-supported legacy of the imperial era, the food and coffee are outstanding.  Our (second) breakfast includes: brioche with duck liver cream and gingered apples; sommerkuss pastry; smoked trout with salmon roe and crème fraiche; house-made muesli; scrambled eggs with chives and smoked char; coffee both with and without apricot liqueur, whipped cream and other assorted toppings; in other words, we nail it.  Or rather, Vienna nails it, and we are the grateful recipients.  But we are satisfied by more than food at this point – we know that we earned this meal, and there’s a bit of (possibly misplaced) pride in our ability to focus on what we need as a band to stay positive on the road.

The final act in Vienna, the cherry on top of our victory, is a sunlit stroll through this gorgeous European cultural capital, topped off by a half-litre of a perfect beer – called Ottakringer, a crisp “helles” still brewed in the city of Vienna – sipped unhurriedly in a palatial square with two of my bandmates.  A quick trip to one more café for an iced coffee to go, and it’s back on the road, headed for Zagreb in Croatia.

8/9 – PM – Zagreb

We’ve got the evening off in Zagreb tonight.  This isn’t an ideal situation from a financial or musical perspective, but for enjoying ourselves and relaxing in a completely new atmosphere, it’s a pleasant diversion from the typical tour schedule.  After checking into our hotel in a sleepy backstreet corner of the city, we ask the desk host where she would recommend that we eat dinner.  My Croatian is fairly rusty, so I’m pleased that she speaks excellent enough English that we can have a meaningful conversation about food.  Once I explain that we’re looking for excellent local food, and we are not particularly hung up on how fancy it seems, she brightens and says she knows exactly the place we should go.  Four points in its favor right away: we can sit outdoors, it’s cheap, they brew their own beer, and it’s a five-minute walk from the hotel.  As a crisp, late-summer dusk falls, we stroll a few city blocks, into and then across a small, leafy park. Some local guys are playing ping pong at a concrete table in the park, and then we can see and hear the murmur of a few tables of people under the trees across the street, at the Pivnica Medvedgrad – a low-key, charismatic beer garden under a grove of old trees edging the park.  The streets are mostly empty, the beer garden fills up as we sit and drink half-litre glasses of the house beer, a clear golden ale, and a welcoming, gray-haired server/proprietor brings us platters of grilled meats (assorted coiled sausages, marinated chicken, pork chops), baskets of housemade crusty breads, a plank of tangy local cheeses, grilled squid, marinated mushrooms, pots of spicy mustard, and plates of chewy knodel – irregularly rag-shaped housemade pasta that blends perfectly with the savory spread before us.

We eat, we drink, we wander back through the darkened park to the hotel, and before turning in for an early night, convince the bartender at the hotel bar to set up several rounds of Pelinkovac, a bitter wormwood and herbal extract liqueur typical of the region.  It is much enjoyed by Oneida on this fine evening, and our party eventually totters off to our rooms.

8/10

A sunny breezy drive south along the Dalmatian coast is on the agenda today.  Coming through the mountain passes toward the coast as we make our way south, the wind off the Adriatic picks up speed and gives our overloaded van a bit of a sway as we descend eventually into the city of Sibenik, where we’re playing at the debut of the Terraneo Festival, an ambitious festival sited in the rubble of an abandoned army base a kilometer from the ocean.  We’re greeted by festival staff who show us around, offer us a kind of Croatian shandy-in-a-can (Ožujsko Limun) that’s pretty refreshing, which seems to be its goal – so well done, brewers of Ožujsko.  Our guide for the festival gets details sorted out, and we’re off to our hotel for dinner and swimming in the mesmerizingly blue Adriatic Sea of the Dalmatian Coast.

The hotel turns out to be part of a huge resort, complete with swimming pool, water slides, and amusements for little kids.  The relentless pulse of Eurotrance beats floats muffled on the sea breeze at all times.  We are seated in the hilarious “Dalmatian Village” – an outdoor replica of an ancient village, replete with circular open hearths, split-log seats and tables, and stone-and-timber huts.  We’re perplexed and amused, and if I were at Epcot Center I would run screaming for another dining option.  But as the proverbs say, when in Dalmatia…

…and the food is excellent, against all jaundiced expectation. Seafood is the staple here, and advised by our lovely festival hostess Jelena, we load a groaning table with platters of grilled squid (local) and grilled tuna steaks (clearly not local); more platters of sausage and other grilled meats; a massive round squid-ink and cuttlefish risotto; and an array of smaller bowls containing such enticements as polenta, steamed local chard, anchovies, and the mellow, robust red pepper spread known as ajvar – a staple of the region, and a perfect complement to the grilled meats.  There also baskets of bread, plates of cheese, and regional wines: a white Zlahtina (fine to drink, but lacking depth), and a smooth red Babic which turns out to complement both the meats and fish nicely – possibly enhanced by the sun setting over the azure sea, but who’s keeping score, really?

8/11

After a fine but unremarkable hotel breakfast, we set our sights on the project of the day: a six-hour ferry ride across the Adriatic to Ancona, Italy, the site of our next show.  Italy is easily Oneida’s favorite locale to tour – as might be expected from our delight in food – but we also love the audiences, the venues, the people, and the land.  It is with light hearts that we set out on the gently-rippling Mediterranean waters, thinking about what lies ahead.

But first, an obstacle!  After several cold, crisp Ožujskos on the upper deck of the ferry, watching the Dalmatian coastal islands recede into the fresh noon sun, several of us decide that a meal would be a sensible way to enjoy some of our time on the boat.  This decision may have been an error in judgment, as we found ourselves face to face with a dining room completely devoid of patrons – never an auspicious omen for a fine meal.  Sure enough, the salad, fries, burger, and meat/cheese plate that we plunked down at our table was a failure.  No more should be said about the food; let’s instead close our eyes and remember the placid, ancient sea unspooling next to our window.  Italy is only a few hours away…

…and what a welcome in Ancona! We pull into the venue – an outdoor stage on a city pier, abutting a massive, stone quarantine warehouse from the 18th-century.  Next to the stage are platters of simple sandwiches on chewy, fresh bread: fresh mozzarella and tomato, prosciutto and cheese.  There’s also a bowl of plum-sized green grapes, whose skins snap at the touch of your teeth and whose seeds are tiny, buried deep inside the tart flesh.  These are foods are the simple themes of our times in Italy, and they represent the exquisite triumphs of ingredient sourcing and the Italian love of food.  Dinner is yet to come, of course, and following our soundcheck we amble, along with several old Italian friends and our hosts for the show, through a maze of waterfront passageways that open into a tiny courtyard.  There is a seafood restaurant here – totally hidden, no sign in sight – with harbor waves lapping the centuries-old stone wharf, and small private watercraft bobbing in berths along an adjacent pier.

Welcome to Italy: perfect, crisp white wine; a spaghetti alle vonghole that features the tiniest, firmest, most perfect clams I’ve ever had in this personal favorite dish; and then for the next course platters of stuffed squid of an unusual variety, with fist-sized, barrel-shaped bodies and stubby tentacles. The squid are accompanied by peas in a salty, complex tomato broth, studded with chunks of diced squid.  All of us, led by our hosts and Italian friends, are requesting basket after basket of the plain, sober white bread offered by the restaurant, and mopping every platter clean.  Double espressos all around, and somehow we’ve killed two hours here – we have to be on stage in 5 minutes.  We whisk back through the passageways, onto the stage, and the second half of the night begins.

8/12

Tonight’s show is outside of Ravenna, only a couple of hours from Ancona, and so a beach trip is planned: we drive the winding local roads over some coastal hills (mountains?) to Portonovo, a perfect Mediterranean beach.  It’s remote, but hardly a secret – thousands of Italian sun-worshippers pack the sand near a cluster of restaurants and snack bars, but a short walk of less about a kilometer on sun-smoothed, quarter-sized  white rocks yields a relatively clear claim of beach for Oneida.  We bask, we swim, we float, and then it’s on to the climax: gelato. At the beach. In Italy.  The flavors are traditional, and they’re outlandish, and occasionally they’re impossible.  We go for pistachio, dark chocolate, a kind of biscotti-and-cream, strawberry, raspberry, panna cotta, and a half-dozen more; we avoid the Smurf flavor, without regret.  It’s beach heaven, daytime version, and we know that the evening version is yet to come: tonight we’re playing at Hana-Bi, a beachside restaurant and nightclub outside of Ravenna that features the most beautiful people, the greatest food, and the most powerful setting for music that I know.

The stage at Hana-Bi is wood, and low.  It’s just a step up from the sand at the edge of the mostly outdoor restaurant, tucked under a wood and thatch roof, and dunes rise around the stage and audience area.  We load our equipment in, wrangle some parking, and pry loose some mojitos from the bar as we wait for dinner.  When it comes, we’re seated, all together, friends, hosts, band, at one long table readied with wine bottles, glasses, and cutlery.  The meal arrives all in one course – the restaurant, confident in its cosmopolitan singularity, departs from the prim-secondo pattern that many of our Italian meals have followed – and it’s remarkable (as the food here always has been when we visit).  There are thick slabs of a kind of quiche, or a baked custard (too hearty and dense to class as a soufflé) studded with fresh seasonal vegetables, next to boat-shaped patties of sushi rice drizzled with tamari and a pumpkin reduction. Alongside, on each plate lies a grilled whole fish – I’m too swept up in the meal to ask the species, but it’s a slender, flaky white fish with a heady aroma, and the bones slip so easily out that mine is filleted and devoured within minutes, accompanied by a crackling Trebbiano di Romagna white wine that seems to light the room.

Following this outstanding meal, we are served small portions of a sweet café granita – a perfectly tiny portion of intense coffee-milkshake, topped with three roasted espresso beans.  Gone in seconds.  The final chapter, before we pry ourselves from table to stage, is a round of café corretto (alla grappa): potent espresso intertwined with fiery grappa, a sun-moon-and-stars concoction that “corrects” the axis of consciousness, among other things.

The show is tremendous, thrilling and draining, and in the wee hours of the morning we drag ourselves to our hotel, where our friend Fabio – who has traveled from Sardinia to join us for these Italian shows – unveils a gift for us: two massive hunks of incredibly potent Sardinian sheep’s milk cheese, to be broken by hand and devoured in these dark hours of the early morning along with a bottle of Canayli vermentino di Gallura, a rich, vibrant Sardinian DOCG wine that probably deserves better than a hotel room at 4:00 in the morning – but this is Italy, and must be celebrated as such.  In the morning we will be flying to London, a fact which must be ignored until tomorrow. Or today, as the clock would have it.

8/13

The Bologna airport is a hilarious testament to incompetent planning.  Nothing makes sense, and we confuse ourselves repeatedly.  Still, espresso and panini Caprese at the Autogrill, Italy’s temple of on-the-road, on-the-run fast food, are satisfying enough, and a perfectly bittersweet way to say goodbye.  Next stop, London.

In the evening, we arrive at The Lexington, a modest pub and performance space in Islington, London, and load our backbreakingly heavy gear up narrow wooden stairs to the second floor.  In the club, we find that the promoters have prepared a thoughtful vegan spread backstage for us.  None of us is vegan, but this is a perfectly welcome departure from our norm, and it fits perfectly with England’s long, rich heritage of careful attention to vegetarian needs and diets.  This is a culture with a highly-developed (if occasionally baffling) strategy of non-animal eating, and we enjoy the assortment of seeds, nuts, fruits, and a selection of products made with quorn – a mycoprotein food source that is a fascinating, if weirdly Malthusian substance.  I personally see to it that about a pound of raspberries, blackberries and blueberries disappear within minutes.  I tentatively taste a few quorn nuggets, or flakes, or something.  Judgment pending.

After soundcheck and a few other necessary duties, we retire downstairs to eat a proper dinner, where London’s nouveau-pub menu strategy is in full flower.  I order fried cod encrusted with black sesame panko, and served with wasabi Mayo.  And yes, there are chips.  This contemporary whack at a classic is certainly tasty.  It’s a piquant update of the outmoded stereotype of British blandness, and I enjoy it – but my heart is still in Italy.  A few pints later, and it’s time to hit the stage for the final show of our tour, and we do wring the last drops from ourselves with the effort.  I’m aware, as I drift off to sleep in the wee hours, that another airplane meal awaits me tomorrow – I’ve got one crack at an English breakfast, and then I’ll be dumped into the uncaring arms of American Airlines.

8/14

And the breakfast is a success!  We wander down the road from our friend’s spacious flat in Islington to find an organic Filipino restaurant with a luscious, nearly untended back garden.  We end our culinary European dash with spiced lamb sausages, caramelized red onions, poached eggs, potatoes, mushrooms, beans and toast.  This is a perfect, unpretentious execution of the English breakfast, and I feel as though we’ve succeeded in everything we meant to do: the music, the people, the food, the drink, have all worked a kind of alchemy over the past nine days that I can carry home with me, that will defend me against the rigors of airline dining, and that I can (figuratively) chew on for weeks and months to come.

 

 

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