Manila Schools: part III

Parents have many different priorities when choosing schools for their children, and it becomes a particular concern when resettling families in a foreign country. Some want to find exactly what they feel their kids lost on leaving home, others want to broaden horizons and make sure their children get to know their local community. Some want space and state-of-the-art facilities. Others, I discovered, find the larger schools prohibitively expensive, preferring the smaller schools, which may not have the extensive facilities, but are cozier and more cost effective. So here is the final selection of schools from the wide variety available in Metro Manila, and hopefully one will meet your criteria.

 brent.3Brent International School

“Opportunities for excellence”

The original Brent School was founded in Baguio in 1909 by the eponymous Charles Henry Brent, then Episcopalian Bishop of the Philippines. Today, there are three Brent schools at Baguio, Binãn, and Subic. All three are under the guidance of Mr Dick Robbins, who became Headmaster at the Binãn campus in 1994. These days he spends much of his time travelling between the three schools.

Recently, I spoke with deputy head, Jeffrey Hammett, who has taught in the Philippines for thirty four years, twenty years at the International School Manila at their Makati campus, the last fourteen at Brent, where he was involved in its construction.

Designed by the same team of architects who created ISM, Brent has three libraries, an auditorium, a dedicated chapel, landscaped gardens for quiet meditation, and even a dormitory, once used for students commuting from the city, now used to house visiting teams. An Early Learning Centre was opened on the opposite side of the campus in August 2001, and a recently completed roof-top pavilion will house a fitness centre and a covered Physical Education space.

Mr Hammett talks about the school demographic, which is made up of 28% Filipinos, 24% Korean, 17% American and a sprinkling of other nationalities including Aussies, New Zealanders, Brits, and Japanese. 1,050 kids in total.  Class sizes, therefore, need never exceed 18-20 students.

Raymond and Atcha Azurin are parents of three past and current Brent students. They agree that a smaller school community is great, because “everyone knows everyone else,” and this makes the kids feel really secure.

Raymond and Atcha migrated to Australia in 1988. Posted back to Manila in 2002, they stayed three years, then returned again to the Philippines in 2008. This time they needed to find a school for their growing family. Brent came highly recommended from Aussie friends, and when they went to check it out, the Azurins liked what they saw. Brent is Presbyterian, and the religious aspect of the school was a definite plus: the couple appreciated the Christian values and the balanced discipline: both, they felt, was a good foundation on which to build a solid school community.

Mr Hammett points out that Brent is religious but not evangelical. “We just ask that the students be respectful of others religions,” he explains. Religious studies, which includes both Comparative Religions and Bible Studies, are part of the curriculum. Both feed into Theory of Knowledge, in the IB program.

Atcha has been heavily involved in the PTA, and praises the strong parental presence in the school. Various inclusive school events help to build the community, she says. She then describes the annual International Food Festival that provides the opportunity for the Juniors to raise funds for their school Prom, and brings the entire school community together for a day of games and international food booths, culminating in a student talent show and fireworks.

Located just off the South Luzon Expressway, in the middle of a gated community, Brent is less than half an hour from Makati, and provides a really safe and clean environment for the kids, Raymond said. Brent owns a fleet of buses for transporting the students to and from school from various parts of Metro Manila, including Pasig and Makati. The Azurins agree this is an excellent service, which also makes allowances for after-school activities by having three separate runs in the afternoons.

Mr. Hammett describes the broad range of extra-curricular activities available. Firstly, there is a strong music programme that works each year towards a week-long music festival showcasing the numerous bands, orchestras, dance groups and choirs.  Atcha and Raymond tell me proudly they virtually have their own band, their children play so many instruments between them, all thanks to the encouragement of the music program at Brent.

Sports also plays a large role at Brent, and Mr. Hammett was keen to show me over the state-of-the-art facilities, which include two full grass football pitch, a baseballs triangle, three full sized gyms, a brand new multi-purpose pavilion, and a covered, heated swimming pool. Brent is also a member of the Asia Pacific Activities Conference (APAC), which unites twelve regional schools for regular competitions in various sports, dance and music, model United Nations, forensics, mathematics and theatre.

Academically, Hammett boasts, the IB results at Brent are amongst the best in world, and many students end up in top universities, with as many as  65% going to the US. Raymond points out that the school has also developed ‘a strong culture of critical thinking’ of which he thoroughly approves, although he adds that this approach to education can seem strange to Asian families who may be more used to a system based on rote learning.

The Azurins say they will see their youngest daughter through Brent. Apparently, she will not have it any other way. If her siblings got to graduate from here, so will she!

everest.1Everest Academy

Semper altius: always higher

Opened in 2007, Everest Academy is tucked away off College Road in the Fort, the only Catholic International School in Manila. Everest is the first Asian campus in a network of 237 schools across Europe and America directed by the international Catholic movement Regnum Christi Movement and the Legionaries of Christ. I spoke with the Mexican Executive Director, Beatriz Rivera, who talked in clear, measured English about the school’s mission to create caring, responsible members of the community, lifelong learners and critical thinkers and strong, self-disciplined leaders. The school website states that at Everest, teaching “focuses on the complete development of all dimensions of the person: intellectual, human, spiritual and apostolic,” and these values form a cross-disciplinary theme.

Currently the school starts at Kindergarten level and goes up to the end of Grade 8, but is adding an extra grade each year. The student population of 284 is set to grow to 350 next year, and the school administration will shortly start work on building extra high school classrooms to accommodate its growing population. The additional High School building should be completed by the middle of next year. At that point construction can then begin on a final building to house the gymnasium, an auditorium and a cafeteria.

That final building will fill every available square foot on the property, which will then allow for a maximum student capacity of 650. A property in Nuvali has been earmarked as the future site of a second Everest Academy in the Philippines. While open space is limited, Everest has adapted to accommodate the need for sports facilities. The campus has one full-sized undercover basketball court, and uses the Polo Club on McKinley road for football training.

The curriculum is designed by National Consultants for Education (NCE) in the United States with a couple of local variations: students learn conversational Tagalog, as well as Spanish and Mandarin; and social studies classes focus more on an Asian perspective than their American and European counterparts, to give the students an appreciation of the regional environment. Smaller classes, Ms Rivera says, allows teachers to provide personalized attention and develop each child to his or her full potential.

Everest Academy’s elementary course was recognized by the Philippine Department of Education in 2011 and in 2013, it was granted AdvancED accreditation. AdvancED is the world’s largest education community, providing education for more than 16 million students.

In the earlier years, classrooms are mixed, but it is school policy to separate the children for academic classes at Grade 4, to allow for the different pace of development between the sexes. Each child has a mentor for one-on-one discussions of their progress through their personal development plans. Everest also has a highly visible, pro-active, no bullying policy in place.

Today the school is 50% Filipino, around 30% Balikbayan (dual passport holders or returning Filipinos) and 20% international, mostly from America and Korea. The staff is predominantly Filipino, with a handful of internationals.

Maya is American, her husband Filipino and her oldest daughter started at Everest last year. Previously home schooled, eleven year old Sahel ‘campaigned for a year to be allowed to go to formal school.’ When her parents eventually succumbed, they visited every school in Metro Manila, and Maya is delighted with their choice.

Sahel is really active at school and participates in everything, her mother tells me. Sahel loves her friends, but she especially loves her teachers. The younger girls, seven year old Miel and Selma (9) will start next year, but the school has already adopted them into the community, inviting them to join all the school activities such as the Christmas pageant and the barrio fiesta.

Maya has no reservations about their decision, although she says for them it’s sometimes hard adjusting to school routines. They chose the school because they felt it focused on character formation and solid values, and most reflected their home environment. Each month the teachers introduce a specific virtue, which involves inter-disciplinary discussions. Maya also likes the fact that the kids are taught to be good citizens, and she says the teachers really engage with the kids.

Maya feels strongly that she, too, has a place in the community and has become increasingly involved in school. Settled far from her own family, she appreciates her ‘surrogate family,’ describing how other school families provided support for all the children for their first communion. “Friends are always leaving in the expat environment,’ she says, but “here there are more local kids, so the community is less transient.” After six years in the Philippines, Maya says “it is the first time she has felt truly anchored.”


logo5Chinese International School, Manila (CISM)

Ignore the inference in the name: this is not an international school for Chinese students. Rather it is an international school for English speakers with an interest in building understanding between China and the west, as China’s role in the world expands. Classes are taught in English, but there are daily Mandarin classes for all ages. Ironically, there are few Chinese students at the school.

CISM is non-sectarian. It accepts students from aged four (pre-kindergarten) to eighteen (year 12). Currently there are 220 kids, which will grow to 250 in the next year, with a maximum capacity of 500. Classes are capped at twenty, and then split, although most classes have no more than fifteen students. Headmaster, Mr Wycherley, says this allows the teachers the time and space to develop a real awareness and knowledge of individual students.

Mark Wycherley came to CISM eighteen months ago and loves working here. After four years at BSM, he and his wife Wendy moved to the Gulf, with plans to return to the Philippines to retire. Two years later they were back in the roles of Headmaster and Lower School Director at CISM. They are delighted to be back so much earlier than anticipated, although their busy days at CISM seems a far cry from the plans of a gentle retirement.

CISM is located at McKinley Hill. Like many of the smaller schools here, the academic results are excellent, but sporting facilities are hampered by lack of space. However, like many smaller schools, this makes them innovative. Swimming classes are held at the Polo Club, there is a covered basketball court on the roof, and the school has links with a number of local sports clubs. In-house, the school teaches badminton and volleyball, fencing and taekwondo. The school also has a dance studio and a modern dance instructor, and there are plans to introduce ballet next year.

And despite the lack of outdoor space – or perhaps because of it – CISM is very creative about its extra-curricular activities and after school clubs which include not only orchestra and singing, but typing, taekwondo, gymnastics and Chinese cooking!

Academically, the school is thriving. Mr Wycherley makes no apologies for the fact that the school is selective, and all new students sit an aptitude or IQ test. There is no ESL program at CISM, so fluent English is vital.  However, teachers are available every afternoon between 2.30 and 3.30pm for extra coaching in all subjects, and Mr Wycherley even has a list of preferred external tutors if parents wish, with whom he works closely to ensure they are closely following the school curriculum and keeping the kids on track.

The current year 12 has had such excellent university offers in the US, Canada and the UK that it has generated a surge of interest in the school, and Mark says he is meeting prospective parents daily.

Demographically, Mark says his staff come from everywhere. He doesn’t notice nationality, he simply wants the best, and he is obviously proud of his talented faculty. The parents also play an important role in the school, through a highly involved and active PTA.

One particularly interesting aspect of the school was the charity work in which it is involved. An annual regional seminar for students – the Global Issues Network – inspires a student lead initiative to look at various community issues, choose one, and work on that for a year, with great results.

Kellie and her family moved from Singapore to Manila late last year.  Her daughters Ivy (4) and Scarlett (6) started at CISM in January. Coming from a tiny nursery school in Singapore, many of the larger international schools seemed huge to the little girls, so a smaller school provided an easier transition for them.

Kellie says the smaller cohort means they not only have the security of smaller classes, but there are more opportunities for the kids to take part in community events.  A school-wide talent show is now being organized, for example, in which all students are encouraged to participate, be it to sing, dance, play an instrument or tell a joke. Normally quite shy, even Scarlett is excited at the prospect, and is planning to sing her favourite song from the new Disney hit Frozen – in Mandarin!  Kellie says that ‘Chinese was key for us, as they were learning Chinese in Singapore and we wanted them to continue that.’  The girls also have a tutor from the school to teach them more conversational Chinese.

Kellie finds that the demographic of the student body is broadly international, although her blond blue-eyes daughters stand out in a predominantly Asian or dual-passport community, but then they are used to that from Singapore, and barely notice the difference. And the benefit of having a large local population in the school is that it provides a stability that is often less achievable given the transient nature of many international schools. It also gives the students direct exposure to the local culture, not to mention the culture of many other nationalities.

Although obviously happy with the school, I ask Kellie if she has any reservations. Only one, she says, and it is simply that she would like to see better – as in more up-to-date – communication between teachers and parents. In these days of modern technology, they are still using notebooks for homework, and she says she would find it much easier if feedback and notes from teachers were sent by email or perhaps through a class Facebook page.

However, Kellie thoroughly approves of one particular communication tool: the entrance lobby is filled with posters proudly exhibiting the individual successes of the students, and she thinks it is really cool that these kids get recognized. She also thinks it is awesome that the school corridors are lined with all the kids’ artwork. And her girls are happy.

To be published in the ANZA News, July/August 2014.

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Walking to Coogee

bondi walk 1Bondi. That iconic beach on the south east coast of Australia. In the summer, it swarms with surfers, sunseekers and swimmers. Today the sand is clear of bathers, but tents are being erected for the City to Surf fun run next weekend. It is mid-winter in Sydney. It is 25′C.

Bondi Beach. A couple of surf boards wait in the calm water, before their riders paddle furiously through the surf to snatch at white-tipped waves. Red-faced joggers crash past pedestrians, breath rasping, oblivious in earphones. Cyclists stand up on spiked pedals, pushing furiously, neck muscles straining, up the steep hill away from the beach.  Truculent skaters whip and switch, slash and grind around the skate park. As always, at Bondi, everyone seems fit and almost embarrassingly energetic.

As always, when I drop in to visit my cousin in Bondi, we head out for a walk along the cliffs. From Bondi to Coogee, this rollercoaster walking path winds for 6kms along the coast, up and down some fairly step and rocky stairways, always overlooking the sea, and passing several beautiful little coves, parks and beaches, such as Clovelly and Tamarama. Sometimes we stop at Bronte for coffee or lunch, but this time we trek all the way to Coogee, overtaken by reams of more athletic pilgrims, jogging enthusiastically, plugged into their favourite music.

We prefer the music of our own voices, and chat non-stop all the way there and back, deterred only by the odd extra-steep slope or staircase that reduces me to a geriatric gasping wheeze. It is the most beautiful winter’s day, unexpectedly warm, and my jeans are glued to the backs of my knees. Who would have thought I would need shorts in July? The sea is a luxuriously deep navy blue, stretching lazily to the horizon, to touch  a sky dabbed with wispy, cotton wool clouds. Rolling waves are tumbling gently onto the beach, lapping at the sand like hungry kittens. The whales have been and gone, but we keep a close eye out for dolphins. On such a glorious day, the path is crowded with walkers, runners, models doing photo shoots, dogs, tourists.

Starting at the Bondi pavilion, the guide books allow two hours for the walk to Coogee, but we accomplish it in under an hour and a half, although I have to skip a bit to keep up with my cousin, who, despite her lesser height, has much fitter legs than mine.

In October, there is an opportunity to meander a little more gently from Bondi to Tamarama to admire the bondi walk 2Sculpture by the Sea. This is an annual outdoor exhibition of more than one hundred, mostly tactile sculptures by Australian and International artists, set up on grass, sand and rocks
along the coastal pathway.

Today we can only reminisce, as I take a breather on the edge of the cemetery at Waverley, beyond which the concrete pathway becomes a wooden boardwalk. It might not be so bad to be dead, if blessed with a view like this one!

coogeeWe finally make it round to Coogee, and decide to stop for coffee at the very cool new Coogee Pavilion, before marching back to Bondi for lunch.

Feeling a little nostalgic for Asian cusine, we end up in a cute little pavement restaurant called misschu, where you can make a ‘tuckshop order’ by ticking your choices on a printed menu form. At the top of which you are warned: “no queue jumping, no real estate talk, no chopstick fights.”

Owner, Nga Chu, or Miss Chu is the self-designated Queen of Rice Paper Rolls. Born in Luang Prahbang, Laos,
Nga Chu and her family fled to Thailand in 1975 to escape the Pathet Laos communist Regime. They lived in Thai refugee camps for four years before the Australian government invited them to settle in Australia.

The original misschu tuckshop was founded in Darlinghurst in 2009, and there are now four Sydney, two in Melbourne, and this year one opened in London. The misschu website describes them as ‘modern day hawker takeaway with high end food at a low price tag.’ Compared with Manila, the Aus$90 bill for three was not so cheap, but it’s certainly not bad for Sydney. And we definitely ate our fill of  the famous rice paper rolls (tiger prawn and green mango, and roast duck and banana flower, yum). The serve of salt and pepper squid was perfectly cooked and huge, so much so that I was forced to share. My cousin’s seared salmon was a delight, and my teenage son inhaled the large bowl of beef and oxtail pho in seconds. A satisfying end to a strenuous walk.

*With thanks to Google Images for the pretty pictures!

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Talking to the Birds

cockatoo_head_shotAfter almost two months in Australia, one of the things I realize I really miss in Manila is the wildlife. From our living room window I occasionally see a  team of racing pigeons, looping around and around the apartment building opposite. That is all. At street level, there is not even a sparrow with whom to pass the time of day. Forays into the country often find me waving to a carabou, neck deep in water, but that is all. And at the beach, we sometimes discover those stolid, studded starfish. They are hardly chatty. In Australia, living on the edge of a national park, we conversed daily with a range of sociable, garulous parrots. The memory inspired the following piece…

There is a colour that is neither blue nor purple: indigo-violet-lilac-lavender? It is the colour of bluebells that spread like wildfire through English woodland in April. It is the colour of jacaranda flowers, small, five-lobed flowers like tiny trumpets heralding in the antipodean Spring. It is the colour of nostalgia and memory.

I stand high above this concrete city with a cup of coffee and reminisce about a place north of Sydney harbour, the bridge and the iconic Opera House, a home-among-the-gum-trees, kookaburrawhere I sat one still November morning, sipping my coffee on our broad balcony, conversing with the loquacious lorikeets, who bitch and bicker over birdseed. My eyes wander down over the manicured lawn past a dispirited magnolia tree, ravaged by delinquent possums, to the wire fence at the bottom of our property, the boundary between smugly groomed garden and harum scarum, devil-may-care bushland. There, at the fence line, our  jacaranda stands guard, back to the encroaching bush, branches spread out protectively. Outlined against a thundery, leaden sky, it smudges the clouds with a hazy halo of purple like a fresh water-colour.

On a low branch squats a kookaburra, moody and motionless,  until suddenly he throws back his head withhis mocking, gunfire laugh that echoes through the trees.

As if in response, the sulphur-crested cockatoos sweep in. lorikeetsStrangely shy, despite their superior size, they kow-tow awkwardly to the bullying antics of the eastern lorikeets, who flaunt their beautiful, bright feathers with unmelodic, ear-piercing shrieks. Refusing to share their feeding trough, they strut and stamp, argumentative, aggressive, amusingly determined to have their own way. Meanwhile, the meek cockatoos, with wingspans that would knock their tormentors into tomorrow if they chose to retaliate, wait their turn patiently on the side-lines.

I love this airy space on the very rim of suburbia, the drop-off from urbane north shore homes to raw, untrammelled national park. Clear air, expansive skies, nature dressed in every shade of green from deeply glossy sub-tropical shrubbery to the dry, flaky, khaki eucalyptus, a flummery of wildlife ignoring human boundaries and taking their freedom for granted. This world is soothing and challenging at the same time, and it makes my heart clench with joy and gratitude that, if only for a moment I got to share this secret garden, a temporary haven in a transient life. As I run my finger around the edge of my coffee mug, the scent of lemon myrtle wafts up through the still air, I take a deep, deep breath, and smile.

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The Retro Vibe

imageAs I wander through the streets of my hometown, I am constantly amazed at the ever expanding Adelaide cafe culture. Chains, franchises and independent coffee shops abound. It seems everyone is drinking coffee these days, and I have certainly been drinking more than my fair share while I have been in town. Some people prefer the chains like Cibos or Cocolat (Coffee Bean or Starbucks in Manila), as they know what they are getting anywhere in the city. Personally I prefer the quirky little independent coffee shops: Pave Alfresco on Norwood Parade, squeezed into a courtyard space between Trak Cycles and Yanni’s Yiros; Queenies opposite the Largs Pier Hotel, a stone’s throw from the jetty, its walls filled with the work of local artists; Pantry on Egmont on a suburban street in Hawthorn overlooking the railway line, or the Loose Caboose in the old Bowden Railway Station just off Port Road.

My new favourite is the Retro Vibe at Port Elliot.

Last time we were staying in Port Elliot, this building with its bull-nosed verandah and a small, sunny deck housed one of those over-indulgent, over-priced gift shops that abound in seaside towns to attract the swarms of holiday clientele. Today, as I wandered down the hill, it had morphed into a spacious, quirky cafe, full of vintage 50s posters, formica tables and square, red leather armchairs. Red glass water bottles stood to attention on top of the cake cabinet – filled with scrumptious looking cakes, mostly locally made, I am told. There is a back corner filled with gift options: a selection of bags and numerous crocheted hats, slippers and scarves, created by local residents, including one crocheted in video cassette tape – very Bruno Mars. A glass display counter offers a selection of 50s nick-nacks – like the Japanese barbecue condiment set in that garish 50s green. How have I lived so long without one?


Owner Michael moved here from the mid north 18 months ago and opened the cafe in December last year. His new project has rapidly become the most popular watering hole in town, with both the locals and the holiday crowd. Just across the railway line and past the war memorial, it looks out over Norfolk pines and the fine old blue stone buildings that line the Strand.

After all the noisy, jam-packed coffee shops of Manila – understandable when the population is 20 million not 20 plus – the elbow room and the peace are self-indulgent luxuries I revel in. The first time I popped in with my daughter, our host was on the verge of closing up on a slow (dead) afternoon, but he welcomed us in and was happy to stay open as long as we were comfortable.

Chatting about the whys and wherefores of his arrival in this small seaside town, once a thriving whaling station, now a prime destination for South Australian retirees, he began with ‘well, to cut a long story short…’ I have always loved that as an opening gambit. It inevitably leads to a good, long story. I settled in, and was not disappointed. Meanwhile my girl had found us a corner filled with large sofas and deep armchairs from where we eventually proceeded to put the world to rights over an iced coffee and a big mug of caffe latte – at last, someone else who doesn’t follow the annoying trend of coffee in a glass.

Today the morning crowd is being blown through the door like Mary Poppins, as the wind continues to torment and tease the coastline as it has been doing all night. My One & Only disappeared earlier to clamber around the rocks to take photos of a windblown sea, so he’s probably half way to Kangaroo Island by now.

imageI order my mug of latte and ponder the best place to sit: by the window at the pink formica table? Or in the back corner on the large brown leather sofa facing kiddy corner and a seven foot bookshelf? I pick the lighter spot by the window, to sit and reminisce.

Remember those kitchen chairs with the legs sloping out that grab your ankles and trip you as you squeeze past? And record players? The one in the corner actually works, although the records are sometimes a bit scratched and lurch through old favourite hits of my parents era. I throw on a Doris Day album that has never sounded as good as it does in this perfect 50s setting. There is even a mini, back-lit juke box, and old vinyls have been glued to the wall at one end.

Michael is chatty and friendly, and we stand talking with him for a few minutes before we head home, laughing together about some of the odder pieces of memorabilia he has unearthed.

According to the various reviews on trip Advisor, the cafe is a firm favourite with both locals and visitors, labelled “Port Elliot’s finest” with a “great atmosphere” and “the best coffee on the coast” . In my humble opinion, it is the best coffee I have had since landing in Australia. And not just because it arrived in a mug!

Should you feel the urge, you can even pop in for a Devonshire tea or high tea. Somehow we didn’t find the time for nibbles this time, but we will undoubtedly be back…

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Awandering Through the Vineyards

“Wine is constant proof that God loves us and likes to see us happy.” Benjamin Franklin.

imageMcLaren Vale lies less than an hour’s drive south of Adelaide in South Australia. Originally a region of small farming communities, orchards and pink almond blossom, these days its fields are crowded with grape vines from which arise some of Australia’s best known wines such as Wirra Wirra, Leconfield, Coriole and Chapel Hill, to name just a few. Earlier this month I went awandering, like Toad of Toad Hall, along ‘the open road, [and] the dusty highway’ with my parents and a dear cousin from Sydney. We visited a couple of beautiful wineries and lunched in a well-known restaurant on a rise above Leconfield Estates.

Our first stop was Pertaringa, a small, boutique winery tucked down a bumpy lane amongst the gum trees. In the foothills of McLaren Vale, the name Petaringa actually means ‘belonging to the hills’ in the local indigenous language. It was founded in 1980 by winemaker Geoff Hardy, who left the family business, Thomas Hardy and Sons, to strike out on his own.

At a smidgen past eleven o’clock in the morning, it was probably a little early for wine tasting, but we didn’t let that stop us, happily sipping on a crisp Sauvignon Blanc and a fabulous Shiraz, proudly and unapologetically christened ‘Over the Top’ to reflect Hardy’s aim to make the best and finest of wines.

By now, well into the groove, we drove down the road to the home of the Black Sheep of McLaren Vale, Hugh Hamilton. Like the Hardys, the Hamiltons have had a special place in the region for six generations, having planted some of the first vines in South Australian in 1837.

imageHugh Hamilton is a winemaker with a quirky sense of humour that is reflected in the names he has chosen for his wines (otherwise known as ‘the flock’ ), and reflecting his rather obvious belief that he is the odd-one-out in the family. These include the Floozie, a Sangiovese Rose; the Rascal Shiraz; a Scallywag Chardonnay (a favourite word of my grandmothers to denote a mischievous soul), and the Oddball Saperavi, from a grape relatively new to Australia, but ancient history in Georgia, that makes a full-bodied red wine dripping with tannin.

The cellar door at Hugh Hamilton’s winery has the most amazing views, breath-takingly displayed by its theatre-in-the-round set, built atop an old water tank. We leant on the bar, chatting to the lovely sommelier and alternating between the delectable wines and the equally moreish, home-grown kalamata olives, or dipping bread into Hamilton’s own olive oil and dukkah.

At last we decided it was time for lunch. On the recommendation of an old imagefriend, we headed for the Salopian Inn, and wow! let me say, it would be well worth the effort of making a trip this deep into the southern hemisphere simply to dine at this little gem of a restaurant. Described by a reporter from The Australian as something between a restaurant and a pub, the Salopian Inn dwells in a beautiful stone homestead built in 1851, overlooking a vast expanse of vines stretching to the horizon. Chef Karena Armstrong offers an eclectic menu that changes more regularly than the seasons, to accompany the huge wine cellar and a lengthy list of exotic gins – who knew there were so many gins in the world?

Having snuggled into a bench seat under the window, we checked out the wine list and the menu. Service may not have been swift, but we knew we were in good hands. Our two waitresses, both Sarah, were welcoming, chatty and quietly confident, more hostesses than servers, making us as comfortable as if we were eating at home – without having to slave in the kitchen.

Mid-winter in South Australia made it a little too far on the cool side to contemplate G&Ts. Instead, we opted for wine by the glass, so we could all try something different: a locally made Heirloom Shiraz, a Coriole Fiano (a strongly flavoured grape variety from southern Italy, fairly new to McLaren Vale) and an herbaceous Adelaide Hills Sauvignon Blanc. The food menu reflected an array of international culinary influences from China to Europe, and Australia to the Middle East, so it was decided we must all choose something different.

After some discussion, my mother picked a light lunch of Asian style dumplingsimage filled with crab and prawns in a gently sweet sauce of ginger and soy dressing. Dad preferred to go Italian  and chose a bowl of fluffy potato gnocchi that conjoined with a surprisingly light and utterly mouth-watering gorgonzola, leek and chestnut sauce. My cousin decided that the wintry weather demanded a rump steak, which duly arrived accompanied by dauphine potatoes, mushrooms and a perfect truffle sauce. As I sat on the fence between the fish and lamb shanks, one of our Sarahs recommended that I try the snapper, lightly fried with crispy skin, and served with a generous salad of kabouli chick peas (otherwise known as garbanzo beans), almonds and pomegranate seeds and a large piece of grilled flat bread. And, as a final touch, we also ordered the roasted celeriac, fennel and pear salad with feta cheese. Sharing forks full of food across the table, conversation revolved solely around the subject of the food. By the time we had finished we were joyfully replete, and wandered, full to bursting, home through the vines.

 *Adapted from an article written for Inklings, July 2014.

With thanks to my gorgeous cousin Jennifer for her photography skills, and to Google Images for the picture of the Salopian Inn.

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Of Beerenberg Jam & Bavarian Mustard

I had not even thought to bring my tiara to Adelaide (my ‘must-have’ accessory for afternoon tea ever since a trip to the Shangri-La with nine Travelling Tiaras), so I felt a bit wrong-footed when a young friend suggested an afternoon tea get-together just after we had arrived in town. In the end, we managed to have a lovely afternoon, despite my lack of glitter, and I got to revisit the Riverside Restaurant at the Intercontinental Hotel on the south bank of the Torrens River.

Probably the highest building in Adelaide, and boasting unhindered views acrossimage the city and up to the Mount Lofty ranges to the east, the Intercontinental started life as a Hyatt Hotel back in June 1988. Now the ‘I’ in the sky dominates the skyline along North Terrace, and as we walked in, we had a clear view of the newly sculpted Adelaide Oval, like a hooded space ship squatting below the more traditional spires of St. Peter’s Cathedral.

The Riverside Restaurant offers an unusual combination of high tea and lunch, traditional and indulgent, at 2.30pm from AUS$34-65.

So while the men tucked into hefty burgers to fill a gap, the ladies sipped on a welcome glass of sparkling wine and waited for the afternoon tea to arrive. Oddly, the cakes turned up first, on the ubiquitous three-tiered cake stand, but imagewe decided to sit and admire them until we had met the sandwiches. A plate of chunky cucumber sandwiches on white, crustless bread seasoned with chervil and sour cream were duly introduced, along with Tasmanian Smoked Salmon wraps, accessorized with watercress and horseradish. According to the menu we were short-changed a third plate of prosciutto with Bavarian mustard on sourdough, but the conversation had long since taken over, and no one even noticed until afterwards. To be honest, I’m not sure we could have eaten any more anyway, but I wouldn’t have turned down a second glass of bubbles, if anyone had offered, or at least a share of the glass my son had refused.

Everything we ate was beautifully fresh, although unfortunately the well-endowed cucumber sandwiches,  which had obviously been made earlier, quickly got a bit dry. The scones – a mix of plain, sultana and blueberry - looked elegantimage accompanied by a selection of three Beerenberg jams and a shot glass of thick whipped cream. And when we were eventually ready for something sweeter,the cake selection was divine: a mini slice of apricot crumble, thick with fresh apricots; a rich, fudgy, flourless chocolate cake; tiny slices of carrot cake with cream cheese icing; macaroons in a variety of Derwent pencil colours, and a mini lemon meringue pie that was rated highly by everyone. There was more than enough to go round, and upon request our waiter kindly packed up the few remaining pieces for us to take home – although these days in Australia you have to sign a disclaimer to do so.

I do have to add that the service wasn’t overwhelmingly brilliant. While the staff were intially warm and welcoming, once we were settled there were long gaps, and refills were rare – or do I mean non-existent? Then again, we were neither rushed nor fussed, but left to meander through tea at our own pace, and as we had lots to talk about, that was fine with us. We relaxed into comfortable, cosy chat and felt sad when we eventually had to break up the party and head home, filled to the brim with delectable nibbles.

[Bonus: a little background research has uncovered a High Tea Society and a list of the best high teas across Australia. I am making a bucket list.

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My Top Five Filipino Restaurants

Filipino cuisine often gets a bad rap from expats who feel the need to compare it with Thai or Vietnamese, and yet it has its own very individual character. The quality in local restaurants has improved enormously in the past few years, as talented Filipino chefs focus on fresh quality ingredients, leaner meat and more appealing presentation – not always an easy task when many dishes are variations of mum’s homemade stews. I have compiled a collection of my favorites, some mainstream, some a bit more off the beaten track. I was going to list them in order of preference, but felt that was not only too subjective, but they are all so different, it is hard to compare. I suggest you try them all and see what you think, and then explore further and compile your own list!

Abe, Serendra, Fort Bonifacio

I have so often wandered past Abe on the way to favorite Vietnamese or Persian imagerestaurants at Serendra, but after popping in for coffee one afternoon with a good friend, I realized it was one I must try. Wow, what a surprise! Something I had mistaken for a cheap and cheerful chain, it is in fact a great place to eat. Packed to the rafters with large tables at lunchtime, we were luckily only a party of two (very un-Filipino), so they managed to squeeze us in.

The waiters seemed remarkably calm in the storm of excited chatter, and while not proactively engaged with the customers, they came promptly to our table when summoned. We loved the squid in spices and oliveoil, and I already know the lamb adobo will be revisited again and again. I thought I wouldn’t find room for the lumpiang ubod (large spring rolls of palm heart wrapped in soft crepes with a sweet sesame sauce) but tried a mouthful, and couldn’t stop. I recommend going with a larger group and a big appetite.

No dish is more than PHP 650 (a whole leg of stewed pork), and average out at around PHP 350. And portion sizes are designed for sharing. There are also outlets in Quezon City, Mall of Asia and Alabang.

Abe (ah-beh) is owned by well-known local restaurateur Lorenzo Abe, and dedicated to his father, local artist, gourmand and journalist E. Aguilar “Abe” Cruz. The restaurant serves traditional Filipino food, mostly of Kapampangan origin, and gourmet dishes inspired by Abe’s travels around the world.

Aracama, The Strip, Fort Bonifacio

imageRecommended by a Filipina friend, my son and I visited Aracama one hot Saturday afternoon, and were delighted with this versatile restaurant with its tempting and tasty regional cuisine with a modern touch. Aracama’s opened two years ago, and is part-owned by Master Chef Judge Fernando Aracama, who has worked extensively overseas and has finally come home to cook for his fellow Filipinos. Originally from Negros Occidental, Chef Fernando has created a menu heavily influenced by the Visayas.

Initially ushered into an intimate dining room for twenty-five, we were later shown a much larger space upstairs that can seat 70 diners both inside and out on the broad balcony. Three small private dining rooms complete the picture, and apparently this becomes a popular venue with a DJ and dancing after 10:30 pm on Friday and Saturday nights. We were warmly welcomed and promptly armed with drinks and menus. The menu is largely filled with modern versions of classic Filipino dishes, but there is also a selection of indigenized favorites from beyond the Philippines. The chef’s signature dishes are marked clearly on the menu.

We over-ordered of course, but I was keen to try as many dishes as possible. We began with a Kapampangan (from Pampanga) lumpiang sisig and malunggay mozzarella dip. The lumpiang were no bite-sized snack, but like a large sausage roll, three of them per order. We rapidly realized we were eating Filipino food, Filipino-style: everything is designed for sharing. Realizing we should have brought a bundle of friends, we tucked into these crispy, crunchy filo pastry spring rolls filled with luscious pork sisig, sprinkled in a lightly acidic vinegar sawsawan with chilies that cut through the richness of the pork filling.

Malunggay is a local spinach, and this dish is a signature dish for a reason. Servedimage up with toasted French bread it was, simply put, a deconstructed spinach cannelloni without the pasta. I would have devoured the lot if I hadn’t known there was plenty more to come.

Inasal na manok, or chicken skewers Bacalod- style, barbecued beef ribs without the bone and sigarilyis (wing beans) cooked in coconut milk with ground pork and topped with green chilies for a little unexpected spice, were set down in rapid succession, and we waded our way through each dish with enthusiasm. The beef was particularly yummy, and we almost ate the plate.

My normally unfillable sixteen- year-old rejected the dessert list for lack of stomach room, but the staff very sweetly brought us a serving of chocnut icecream anyway, which slid down into unguessed-at spaces surprisingly easily.

Prices, on average, are PHP 300 for Firsts, PHP 650 for Feasts, PHP 200 for Foliage and the same for the Finale – that was the menu’s cute descriptors, not mine.

Café Juanita, Pasig & Burgos Circle, Fort Bonifacio

I first went to Café Juanita in Pasig a couple of years ago, and it is a great visual imageexperience as well as a culinary joy. Cluttered with ornaments, antiques, woven hangings and Christmas decorations, the old house redesigned as a restaurant is an amalgam of whimsical Victoriana and the Middle East with a twist of the Philippines–fussy but fun, and wonderfully cosy. The “more is more” theory of dining comes from Dr. Efren “Boy” Vasquez, and his restaurant certainly creates a memorable impression.

The Pasig restaurant is definitely worth a visit, but it is a bit of a trek from Makati, and you may need a compass. Luckily, we now have our own local version in Burgos Circle in BGC, so I generally go there. There are still plenty of frills and furbelows, but in rather less profusion and in a modern dining space. (Note the beautiful fabrics on the back of every chair – they kept my five-year-old niece occupied for hours.) The menu is not exactly the same, but there is still plenty to enjoy.

The eclectic décor is reflected in the menu: an interesting mix of Filipino, Vietnamese, Laotian and Thai, as well as a predictable selection of pasta, take your pick, but the many local offerings on the menu should not be overlooked. The crispy pata is a generous serving of crunchy pork crackling and roast pork that easily serves three, but may create fights for the crackling. The malunggay chicken (bite- sized boneless chicken cooked in coconut cream and served with that excessively healthy Filipino greenery) is one of my favorites, and the beef caldereta is a rich and filling serving of slow-cooked beef in tomatoes. Finally, the sans rival really is without rival if you like your desserts buttery and excessively sweet.

Prices are good ranging from around PHP 150 for appetizers to PHP 550 for the most expensive seafood main course. It’s great value and really good food in a theatrical setting.

Chef Tatung, Acacia Estates, Taguig City

imageChef Tatung opened his first restaurant Tatung’s Garden in his home in Quezon City. It became such a popular dining destination he was forced to expand and moved to Acacia Estates in Taguig early last year. Both involve wandering off the beaten track, but they have each proved worth the game of hide-and- seek. I visited the original Tatung’s Garden about three years ago, where the menu featured dishes from Cebu and Bicol, “all mixed up” with Indian, Thai and Chinese fusion. Chef Tatung’s new restaurant, tucked away off C5 in Taguig, is predominantly traditional Filipino (Chef has been heard to say that he’s a huge fan of Filipino food, and isn’t looking for ways to change it), and it is, without doubt, one of the best Filipino restaurants I have experienced.

The sinigang, that Filipino version of Thai tom yum, is made with tamarind broth, roast pork and a generous selection of vegetables, including sigarilyis (wing beans), labanos (white radish) and kangkong (spinach). Often we are inclined to say “mmm, not bad, but it’s not tom yum.” In this case there is no need to compare, it was fabulous in its own right. Kinilaw, like ceviche, is either raw tuna or tanigue (Spanish mackerel) marinated “cooked” – in native egar. I first tried this in Palawan and have been besotted ever since. Chef Tatung serves his version with a snappy salad of crunchy diced cucumber and tomatoes, cool and refreshing on a hot day.

The lumpiang obud here are bite-sized pieces of fried spring roll crammed with tofu and chicken, coconut and shrimp, and we ate as many as was humanlyimage possible from the generous serving. Unfortunately the chicken sisig served in lettuce cups and the rellenong manok (stuffed chicken) were tempting but unavailable; so we made do with the bangus (milk fish) in banana leaves which came highly recommended, but had been rather overcooked in tin foil rather than traditional banana leaves. The menu included some great classics, and I ordered way too much in my excitement. In true Filipino style, most of the dishes were big enough to share and would have fed three to four people.

Salads, vegetables and appetizers averaged PHP 300 per dish. Main courses were mostly around PHP 400, with a couple of notable exceptions like the whole deep-fried lapu lapu. All in all, good value, great food and your guests will not go hungry! But don’t be surprised if the young waitresses stare at you open- mouthed – Chef Tatung is a long way off the expat dining track, and they are obviously unused to foreign clientele. Luckily the two older waiters are good with both English and customer service, so don’t be afraid to engage with them if you have any questions.

Wooden Spoon at Rockwell

imageI have walked past this new Power Plant restaurant for months and loved the décor: a chandelier of wooden spoons and a country kitchen feel – it’s a fun concept to find in a shopping mall. The menu contains lots of Filipino classics with a personal twist from TV celebrity chef Sandy Daza who specializes in Filipino and Thai cuisines. He has hosted television cooking shows and has written books and articles on cooking and baking.

Sandy Daza’s first Wooden Spoon restaurant opened in Katipunan last year. Now he has a branch in Rockwell and it is always full. We love the food. No fancy fusion, just a little twist on classic Filipino dishes like kaldereta, kare kare, lechon Kawali, tostadong adobo, and crispy pata fish (I must try this – I had only heard of crispy pata pork before now). The best part for me is that Chef Daza makes a point of using lean meat and fresh oil. Unusual for the Philippines, the service is fast and efficient, perfect for a quick lunch. And the prices are great. The Bicol Express is my favorite: lean pork with coconut cream and chilies, it has a bit of punch for those who like something a little spicy, and I order it with the kangkong (spinach), which is crisp, clean and green in oyster sauce. Prices are incredibly low, but bear in mind, you have to pay in cash.

[NB PHP400 is approximately US$10].

* Adapted from an article written for Inklings Magazine, June 2014. With thanks to Son No. 2 and Google images for the photography.  

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Waterfront Dining

imageIt was a cold and blustery day in Canberra. The wind was trying to blow the branches off the trees and Piglet’s ears would have streamed behind him like banners if he had been there (The House at Pooh Corner), but we had promised ourselves a special lunch with my sister and her family and we were not about to be deterred by an unusually stiff breeze. The One & Only had come down with Man Flu, but the boys were game, so one team drove the car across town, while the other took bikes and we all arrived on Kingston Foreshore only to discover that the restaurant of choice was closed on Mondays.

Apparently, the ACT government envisions that this new development ‘will bring together the city and the lake, creating a waterfront haven and a vibrant, cosmopolitan environment.’ It has been planned as ‘a Mixed Use waterfront precinct with a strong arts, cultural, tourism and leisure theme. The overall visionimage for Kingston Foreshore is to rejuvenate … industrial area and to create a mix of retail, commercial, residential and recreational areas.’ Located on the south-eastern rim of Lake Burley Griffin,  the Kingston Foreshore has so far received mixed reviews.  Touted by one as the latest dining trend in Canberra, another writer claims the long-awaited development is an eyesore and a tragedy, and lives up to Canberra’s reputation as ‘a city without soul.’ I am inclined to agree, although I would add that it may yet be improved with some landscaping and tree planting. At the moment it is still stark and new and very chilly, and the buildings are modern and raw, but there is an attractive wedge of park at the end of the promenade, and the whole area may yet come into it’s own on a warm summer afternoon, amongst a crowd of happy diners, cyclists and walkers and, hopefully, some greenery.

On this particular June day the promenade was almost empty, but luckily for our rumbling tummies, Chong Co Thai was open. We initially received a surprisingly cool welcome, perhaps because we were a bit late for lunch, but the staff gradually thawed out as we started ordering ridiculous quantities of food. Our small niece, like a mini magpie, collected anything edible she could reach from her high chair and has us in stitches as most of it collected at the foot of her high chair. It was like watching Casper’s uncles in a feeding frenzy, when the feast just drops straight through their ghostly bodies.

imageThen we also went into an over-excited feeding frenzy as we explored the menu and ordered everything in sight. Our two waitresses made prompt delivery of all our dishes, while we enjoyed the view across the water.

The first thing to catch our eye was the stir-fried kangaroo with Thai spices, chillis and green peppercorns. While the boys pooh-poohed such an offering as hardly traditional Thai, my sister and I went ahead cheerily with the notion of indigenized Thai and I can only say it was the best dish we ate. Unfortunately the heat rather spoiled our taste buds for the subtler flavours of pad Thai and larb gai (minced chicken salad). We should have known – the menu graded it’s hotness with three chillis! Meanwhile, Little Casper was cheerfully sifting rice through her fingers.

imageAs the waitresses struggled to find room on the table for everything we had ordered – and still keep it out of reach of Little Casper’s eager hands – we cleared the appetizers (satays and fish cakes) like steam shovels. I am always a little dubious of fish cakes, as they have a tendency to be rubbery, but luckily these were pretty good, and any slight chewiness was disregarded once we bit into a a mouthful of  unusual zingy spiciness. Both the fishcakes and the satays vanished in a matter of moments. We then piled our plates high with rice and noodles, barramundi and a slow cooked mussaman beef that fell apart at a touch. The waitress had kindly left the rice bowl, lurching drunkenly to the left, so we could top up as we needed it.

The barramundi, another indigenized Thai specialty, was pan fried and topped with tamarind sauce and fried onions. This was quickly demolished by the pescetarians once we had worked out how to dodge the rather hefty bones. But the kangaroo still remained the favourite – well for those of us who weren’t gasping for water with tongues hanging out like Miley Cyrus!

It may not have been the longest lunch ever indulged in – it was certainly the messiest – but it was fun to find a new corner of Canberra, and to explore an Aussie take on Thai. We left, giggling our apologies for the lake of leftovers beneath the high chair. Well you never know, our Little Casper might just be a gourmand in the making!

With thanks to No.1 Son for his food photography and Google Images for the pic of Kingston Foreshore apartments. 

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Climbing the Beanstalk

imageAnother country, another market. The EPIC market (Exhibition Park in Canberra) is a farmers market brimming with fresh, seasonal (mostly) produce just off Federal Highway, north of the Canberra City Centre. Open on Saturday mornings from 7.30 am till midday, it is set up in a giant tin shed, filled with over a hundred stallholders. The market showcases the many agri-business opportunities in the region and offers a wide range of seasonal and home made foods.

The sun is winter-warm and peeping shyly round the clouds, as we dodge a little mud and jump puddles to reach the shed…

…and I have landed at the top of the beanstalk. HUGE lemons, pumpkins, cabbages, and daikon (winter Asian radish) are piled high on the tables. A barrel of deep green broccoli could feed an army. Used to fist-sized cauliflower in Manila, I am staring wide-eyed at the ones here that have grown as big as my head. I am like a kid in a sweet shop, dashing from stall to stall, trying to juggle bags of produce and my iPad. Where is my One & Only photographer when I need him? My sister wanders behind, giggling at my over-enthusiasm and the hectic pace at which I flit back and forth.

We stalk past a stand of farm fresh eggs, accompanied by a banner introducing allimage the chooks (chickens) in the business of producing the ingredients for your Sunday morning fry-up. We joke with the stallholders about whether the chooks have names. Pointing to a small, dumpy figure in the photo, the owner claims Matilda lays the best and largest brown eggs.

Wandering on, we raise our nostrils to the mouth watering scent of a sausage sizzle. Organic, gluten free sausages have been cooked and quartered for tasting. We lick our lips and leap in, giving all three varieties the thumbs up and walking away with a packet of each for tomorrow’s barbecue.

Further along, Honey, home made jams, nuts, olive oils and vinegars are available to taste. We do.

I discover a table swamped in huge red capsicum and, continuing the red theme, crates of grape-shaped tomatoes. I collect a bagful for the One & Only, who has a bit of a fetish for tomatoes. They may not be in season but sprinkled liberally with imagesalt and pepper atop a thick layer of ripe, buttery avocado, they are great on toast for breakfast.

The meat isn’t the cheapest, but it’s come direct from the farm. Lamb chops and lamb chevapchichi catch my eye. Here’s more to throw on the barbie.

Giant white mushrooms that weigh heavily in my hand, like firm round breasts, will apparently last up to 2 weeks if kept airtight in paper bags in cool temp. I have a sneaking suspicion they won’t last that long. We buy a huge bag full, again with that bbq in mind.

It is obviously a great place for a weekend family outing, as couples usher their small kids on scooters down the track, shopping bags brimming, the children sporting lips coated liberally in cream, chocolate or froth from a baby cino. A little girl who has obviously decided to dress herself this morning, has also donned a pair of foam fairy wings and flits round her mother.

One stallholders has made up flower pots filled with snow peas, and there are plentiful bunches of home grown flowers: Sweet Williams, banksia, gerboras in glorious sunny colours, even a few select posies from traditional country gardens.

And as we leave, bags overflowing, we are tempted to taste some small, red applesimage with plenty of crunch and  a lightly sweet flavour. I can’t remember the last time I actually are an apple with taste.

I love my farmers market in Manila, but it’s usually hot and always crowded. Here in Canberra, in June (winter in Australia), everyone is rugged up in anoraks and coats, and boots are the foot attire of choice. And there is plenty of space for everyone. Tables are set up for shoppers to sit and contemplate a coffee or a freshly cooked crepe. And the kids have inevitably chosen one of the great flavours at the ice cream stall. My sister comes here quite often, and bumps into friends at every turn. I laugh to myself, remembering lengthy trips to the supermarket as a child, when the weekly shop was our mother’s big social event as she caught up with a million friends, stopping to chat in every aisle.

One stall holder with an olive grove has a Filipino neighbour who has planted grape vines in the hope of adding a wine list to his beer business in the Philippines. We have a long chat about life in the Philippines. Hey look, I have friends in the market too!


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The Power of Pasta


“Life is a combination of magic and pasta.” ~ Federico Fellini, Italian film producer

pasta jigsaw2I love that quote. As an Anglo-Australian, pasta was never a significant part of my culinary upbringing – we were more of a meat and three veg family. Then I met my One & Only and Proper Pasta almost in the same week. Not the limp, overcooked spaghetti and grey Bolognese of my occasional childhood, but al dente spaghetti and simple tasty, red-rich sauces. I watched and learned from my father-in-law and eventually I would make it at least twice a week for the kids, my variations on traditional sauces the perfect disguise for any vegetable. My children grew up on it, and are all experts at twirling spaghetti on a fork, (a skill I still find as hit and miss as chopsticks). We even had a favourite holiday jigsaw of pasta!

Pasta is to Italy what rice is to Asia. It is the most well-known Italian food, and the most popular ingredient for any Italian dining experience. It is also the one unifying ingredient in a country long divided by regional culinary diversity. And it takes so many forms and has so many lilting names: sheets of lasagna and wide ribbons of papardelle; spaghetti shoelaces in different widths; the generic macaroni in a multitude of forms from rissoni to penne.  To paraphrase Jamie Oliver: how amazing that three everyday ingredients – flour, water and eggs – can be mixed and kneaded, rolled, cut and squashed, flavoured and coloured into countless shapes and sizes.

The origins of this popular ingredient are murky. Popular legend suggest that pasta was derived from the noodles Marco Polo brought back from the East, while others claim the Romans were eating a version of it hundreds of years before that illustrious, thirteenth century merchant went a-wandering. There are tales of merchant Arabs introducing wheat cultivation and dried pasta to Sicilian shores. The first written reference to pasta, however, came from Sicily in the Middle Ages, and the recipe gradually moved north.

Originally a dish only for the wealthy, by the late 18th century pasta had become a popular street food in Naples, eaten simply with cheese and pepper, and the Neapolitans had been nicknamed “mangiamaccheroni” or maccheroni eaters. Here the weather provided the perfect conditions for growing wheat and drying the pasta, and the streets were soon lined withspaghetti stalls.

Pasta took on a variety of forms, and its popularity spread across Italy as economics, modern agricultural practices and Garibaldi colluded to make it a cheap dish for the masses. Twentieth century Italian emigrants took the habit with them, so much so that, in whatever corner of the Mediterranean pasta was born, there is no doubt that it journeyed all over the globe with every Italian migrant since, until it became synonymous with Italian cuisine.

Pasta, as a staple, is enormously versatile. It can be served as a prima piatte or a mainpasta dish
course. It doubles as a cold salad for a barbecue, or it can be tossed into soup as pasta in brodo. It can even be baked into puddings and cakes or stuffed with sweet fillings for dessert. Pasta simply goes into wherever your imagination and ingredients can unite to invent.  Some cooks still choose to make their pasta from scratch (pasta fresca), and I have tried, but I have neither the patience nor the knack, and must resort to the shop-bought variety, pasta secca, which are perfectly good, although obviously some brands are better than others.

Also note that some pastas work better with particular dishes than others. While the rules are not set in stone, decades of experimentation have led to the following generalizations: fresh pasta is best suited to creamy sauces, as are pasta ribbons like fettucine or tagliatelle. Rigatoni, farfalle (butterflies), penne (quills) and fusilli with their ridges and edges, capture chunky meat sauces, while long, thin pasta like linguine or spaghetti (from ‘spago’ meaning cord) are best eaten with fine sauces like pestos or ragus. For broth, use the tiny pasta shapes such as orzo (‘barley’), alfabeti, and nelli. And stuffed pastas like ravioli or tortellini are best with simple sauces such as butter and sage or a plain tomato passata.

I have also discovered some stray orchietta of trivia I would like to share with you:

Apparently Parmesan is not traditionally sprinkled on a fresh tomato sauce, and is never added to a fish sauce. Oops! We, sacrilegious souls that we are, love to throw it on everything.

Sophia Loren famously stated of her curvaceous figure: “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.”

When Elizabeth David, British culinary expert, discovered Italian cuisine in the early fifties and introduced it to the ration-bound post-war England of powdered egg and grey bread, it was a revelation of simplicity and quality ingredients.

Those famous tomato based pasta sauces came into existence less than 200 year ago, only after the tomato arrived in Italy from South America.

Chef Giorgio Locatelli, of Locanda Locatelli in London, claims every Italian is two-thirds pasta.

Yet some Italians tried to quash the tradition: Mussolini planned to convert the Italians to rice, saying “A nation of spaghetti eaters cannot restore Roman civilization!”  And a  now infamous – and probably fascist – poet in the 1930s denounced pasta for making the nation sluggish, and called for its abolition. Tradition and popular opinion was outraged. Pasta remains undefeated on every Italian menu in the world.

spag on treesSo there you have it. Love it or hate it, pasta looks like it’s here to stay. But as a grande finale, do any of you remember the tale of that infamous BBC April Fool that convinced half the British nation (at least!) that spaghetti grows on trees in Switzerland, with its spoof documentary on the harvesting of pasta? We, in our internet wisdom, may feel supercilious, but in 1957 spaghetti was almost unheard of in Britain, and the hoax was a huge success. Apparently many even wrote in to the BBC to discover where to buy a spaghetti tree!

*Adapted from a piece written for Newsflash magazine, April 2014. With thanks to Google for the photos.

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