La Piccola Cucina Italiana

la piccolacucina6It is lunchtime. Well, four o’clock actually, but this is Spain, where ‘time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so,’ to quote Einstein and Douglas Adams. The tiny garage restaurant at the crossroads is packed to the gunnels. The owner is apologetic but there is nowhere to squeeze us in, and dinner is fully booked too. He does have space outdoors for dinner, but the weather is not promising, he warns us, indicating the looming clouds. We wave off regrets and promise to try again another time.

The storm arrives early, and drenches us on the bone as we clamber frantically up endless steps and over the hill to our B&B. We arrive like the proverbial drowned rats, looking as if we have swum the last lap.  The supermercat is closed, the cupboard is bare, it has been a long day and we haven’t the energy to haul ourselves into the city. What to do?

Half an hour later, the sun has emerged, victorious, and there is not a sign of a single cloud. The windows are open wide, a breeze wafts through the cumquat trees and the grape vines. We drape our sodden clothes over the washing line outside the kitchen window and wonder if our shoes will ever dry.By half past eight the snacks we grabbed from the tabac at four o’clock have vanished like the clouds and we are eager for dinner. The sun is still up, the air is warm, so we decide to try the little Italian place again.

Sant Cugat del Vallès is a small town in the hills above Barcelona. Only twenty minutes on the train to the top of La Rambla, it feels a million miles from the hustle and bustle of the city. Tattoos, dreadlocks and nose piercing seems to be the order of the day. Steep hillsides are thickly coated in trees and terracotta-tiled roof tops peek out through the foliage. Fruit trees, bees and kitchen gardens abound. We almost run into a wild boar and her scrappy pack of piglets. The air is clear and calm, the roads narrow and winding like tangled wool. We have only three days, but time drifts and it feels like we have been here for weeks, as we potter back down the hill to the crossroads.

Customers gather at the door of Restaurante Piccolo Cucina Italiana for a final puff on their cigarettes before dinner. la piccolacucina4
There is room for perhaps sixteen inside, and the one outdoor table has already been reserved, huddling under a makeshift pergola, like a bus shelter on the edge of the pavement. The owner is apologetic but there is nowhere to squeeze us in. There is a sense of déjà vu. But wait a moment. He will arrange another table for us, if we can wait a few minutes. We all beam.

Sure enough, within minutes a plastic trestle table has been set up next door in the owner’s front garden. We have an umbrella, two kerosene heaters (for which we will be immensely grateful when the sun finally sets), and a rescue dog called Troll, an excitable black Labrador who is delighted to have our company. We have shaken hands with Vittorio, who ‘once came from Naples,’ and we have agreed that a tasting menu is perfectly acceptable, especially at twenty euros per head (cash only). In fact, we are thrilled not to have to make any decisions, happy to sit back and relax and wait for whatever comes to the table. He even chooses our wine, and a waiter promptly arrives with short, squat tumblers and a bottle of sparkling red Lambrusco that tastes uncannily like bubbly Ribena, it is so fruity and full of blackcurrant. Life is looking good.

We wait in anticipation, admiring the graffiti on the outer wall of the garage, a myriad messages of appreciation for wonderful meals past. Troll entertains us with his eager antics, as we sit amongst pansies, plum trees, fairy lights and two huge motorbikes. A waiter arrives with a basket of Italian bread, the centre soft as featherdown, the crust gratifyingly crunchy.

la piccolacucina3Vittorio returns with two plates of antipasti: a colourful display of texture, colour and mouthwatering taste. We gather up our forks and bread and dip into an orb of creamy burrata onto which we sprinkle – sparingly – a pinch of grey truffle salt. There is a mound of fagoli (white kidney beans) and bean-sized gnocchi mixed with spinach and pecorino, another of fagioli in a fresh tomato sauce, and a mound of melanzane (eggplant) that looks and tastes like mince pie mix, sweet and nutty, the melanzane still slightly firm to add texture. We have never tasted eggplant like this before – neither caponata nor the melanzane fritters that we favour at our place – but I must ask for the recipe. And finally a zesty serve of red peppers, anchovies and olives that we heap onto bread and garnish with buffalo mozzarella and rocket.

The temperature is dropping, but the Lambrusco helps, and the arrival of hot pasta is timely. Vittorio leaves us some space to digest the appetizers, before arriving with a bowl of white Bolognese with fresh fettucine. While we are all familiar with the classic ragù alla Bolognese, none of us have come across ragù bianco before, but it is an instant hit, and one I will certainly try to replicate at home. Made without the usual, liberal dose of red tomatoes, the sauce requires just a smidgen of tomato paste, the whiteness created from a blend of ricotta and parmesan cheese. The flavor is still rich, yet somehow lighter than the traditional Bolognese.

We have barely finished competing to scrape the bowl clean with our last pieces of bread when the next pasta dish shows up. This is rigatoni and melanzane, thick with melted cheese, like a moussaka, the cheese trailing from bowl to plate like spider’s silk. Pasta is obviously the order of the day, as we indulge in a third shared bowl of short pasta tubes (ditalini? calamarata?) tossed together with fennel sausages in a spinach and tomato sauce. I think the children got a mouthful.

We aren’t convinced we have room for dessert, but Vittorio insists on bringing us one to share.  Too full to argue, la piccolacucina7we are soon sitting, spoons in hand, before an extra-large cannolo, – that popular Sicilian pastry – this one served hot and drizzled with hot chocolate sauce. Having had more than my fair share of the pasta dishes, I am happy to leave this one to the kids, while I sip on a tiny cup of espresso that I will regret at 3am, but keeps me warm for now.

Simple, small, and delightfully unassuming, Restaurante Piccola Cucina Italiana is a novel and quite delicious experience, our host more than living up to the Italian reputation for quality food and generous hospitality, and we come away feeling we have found a new friend and enjoyed una casa lontano da casa: a home away from home.

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An Old Casino and a Catalonian Thunderstorm

It is a Thursday night in Pals, a small town in Catalonia, just a few miles inland from the Costa Brava in northern Spain. The bar down the road is celebrating its 50th birthday with bunting and beer and cheerful carousing. The street is filled music and laughter, small children and happy people.

On the corner, twenty metres from the revellers and 100 metres up the road from our hotel, there is a corner house with a pretty cobbled courtyard, heavy metal gates, wrought iron railings and a huge magnolia tree. Inside is a cosy, ‘pub-ish’ restaurant, Antica Casino, cluttered with small tables and comfy chairs. Upstairs there is a series of private rooms with tall, shuttered windows and tiled floors in apricot and grey.  Off one of these rooms is a broad balcony, with room for perhaps a dozen people to sit amongst the rooftops on a balmy summer evening.

Tonight it is not so balmy, and there are huge black storm clouds looming over the Mediterranean. Lightening dives regularly, gleefully at the water. Apart from a very brief, very localized splash of rain, the storm doesn’t touch us, but the lightening scarring the sky on the horizon keeps us riveted to the view. We spend a few minutes out on the balcony, admiring the distant storm, before retiring to warmer climes within.

We are six to dinner, tucked into a small room with a large refectory table overlooking the balcony through shutteredPals04 French doors. Energy levels are low. We have just walked through the glorious medieval hilltop town of Pals with its beautiful butter-coloured, roughly hewn stone, fourth century towers and narrow cobbled alleys. In Spanish fashion, and despite the disarmingly bright sky above the town, it is getting late. We need food.

For our friends, summer-time locals, Antica Casino is a regular haunt they have chosen again, and we are happy to follow their lead, despite the visual temptations of some picturesque little cafés and restaurants in the old town. It turns out to be a wise concession.  We settle in with a terrific gin and tonic garnished liberally with juniper berries and lemon. (Tomorrow night, when I drop in for a drink with my daughter, the smiling bar maid will bring the ingredients to a small side table in the courtyard and concoct the G&T in front of us, pouring the tonic theatrically down a cinnamon stick into the glass, which she will then garnish with orange peel and ginger. We will sip it gently under the magnolia tree, decked out in paper lanterns and candle light.)

Now we are hungry and the G&T is put aside while we make some choices about la comida. There are some popular Spanish dishes, and a number of Catalan specialties. We duck and weave indecisively through the menu, only to decide that a selection of tapas dishes is the obvious starting point, and the staff are soon delivering tempting little Antica Casino5baskets and platters to share. We delve into a box full of fat, round, ham croquettes that are much favoured by our fourteen-year-old friend, and a terracotta dish of firm, plump prawns swimming in garlic butter. A plate of wafer thin tuna carpaccio is dressed with fingernail-sized red radish leaves, ginger and sesame seeds and served with wasabi ice-cream that proves a surprisingly effective combination of taste and texture. A tin lunch box brims with crispy, fried Mediterranean sand eels – sonsos in Catalan – that look and taste like whitebait, especially when liberally doused in lemon juice, and we eat them like shoelace fries. By the handful. My One & Only would have devoured them if he could have been here. Instead Number Two Son and I eat his share. And finally, a dish of crustaceans, baby langoustines, called cigalas: slim prawns with long, crab-like nippers provide little eating and much waste, but sucked out through our teeth, they prove well worth the effort of messy hands and dripping chins. In the blink of an eye all the plates are empty of everything but the detritus of the langoustines. I sit back, replete and satisfied. I would have – shouldAntica Casino6 have – happily stopped there, with perhaps just room to share one more dish of garlic prawns. Instead – will I never learn? –   I read through the menu again. Encouraged by our enthusiastic host, I sway between the turbot and the chicken cooked in Guinness. “All is good,” mine host insists, and our waiter agrees, but recommends the fish in particular. In the light of my fading appetite I decide una pequeña pieza fish would be perfect. I am subsequently served up with a fillet the size of a house brick, with al dente asparagus and local rice – ‘arroz de Pals’ – cooked to resemble polenta, but lighter. My neighbour chooses the polpo (octopus), my son a high rise burger with fois gras, and my namesake, her favourite macaroni cheese. All are greeted with delight and hearty appetites.

Our host chooses a local wine from Garriguella in the Empordà region, just forty five minutes north of pals.  The 2012 Finca Malaveina is a single vineyard wine from the Perelada winery, but not a single grape. It is a happy blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah with a 12% splash of Garnatxa Negra, the Spanish name for Grenache. A deep, dark, cherry colour, with plenty of tannin, red fruit flavours and a whisper of balsamic and spice, it is well worth lingering over.

After all that, I had absolutely no room for dessert, but our host chooses to share with his wife what amounts to a deconstructed cheese cake: a squat jam jar two thirds full of whipped Philadelphia cream cheese topped with crushed chocolate chip cookies.

Saying farewell to our lovely friends and the affable, cordial restaurant staff, we wander the short distance home to bed. I would happily visit Pals again, if only for the simple joy of eating under the magnolia tree at Antica Casino. Buon provecho, as they say in Spain.

*Photos care of Google Images, #2 Son and Yours Truly.

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“I can see clearly now…”

lorenzo-mattotti-salute-aperol_i-G-26-2610-72SVD00ZLast weekend, in a bustling café on a boulevard in the south of France, I watched two trays of Aperol Spritz heading to neighbouring tables, where diners were keen to kick off with a little splash of sunshine before brunch. As the sun glittered on the sea, and justified the moniker Côte d’Azur, I was more than a little tempted to join them.

Aperol. It sounds like a headache tablet or something to settle a queasy stomach. The latter is closer to the truth than you might imagine. It is, in fact, an inviting, bright orange alcoholic beverage, whose name comes from the French word apero, a slang term for apéritif, that pre-dinner drink to enhance the appetite.  This particular apéritif is made from a recipe that includes both orange, gentian, rhubarb and cinchona. (Cinchona is a South American flowering plant that is a source for quinine, in case you were wondering. I was!)

Aperol is a twentieth century addition to the collection of largely Italian herbal apéritifs  created in the 18th and 19th centuries, such as vermouth, Fernet Branca and Dubonnet, as well as such celebrated brand names as Martini, Cinzano and Campari. While some might prefer to start with a brut champagne, the French and Italians have long enjoyed more astringent, herbal curtain raisers. And the taste for them is apparently growing.

In 2009, Aperol joined the Campari stable, but it was originally invented by wine company Villa Barbieri in Padua in 1919, and the name is still on the label. Barbieri marketed it as  drink for the party-mad, post-war youth of the 1920s, and as such it became immensely popular in Italy.

The 1950s saw its reinvention as a fun and colourful cocktail: the ‘Aperol Spritz.’ Lacking the cloying sweetness of Aperol1many cocktails, the Spritz is a joyous mix of sparkling wine and flamboyant orange Aperol: a bitter mimosa in fact, best served in a humongous wine glass with lots of ice. Just mix in three parts Prosecco, two parts Aperol, and one part soda water, trim it with a wedge of orange and you are away.

In the 1980s, Barbieri introduced the natural, spontaneous ‘Aperol Girl’  to its advertising, and in the 1990s Italian artist Lorenzo Mattotti painted a series of retro posters to highlight Aperol’s timelessness. Since 2009, in the hands of Campari, Aperol has gained international recognition as an alluring summer aperitif, perfect for inspiring a lively, carefree lifestyle, using the image of a series of vivacious, fun-loving, redheaded, Aperol girls. By the summer of 2014, the UKs Daily Mail considered it the flavour of the month in Europe, and word continues to spread.

I remember enrolling in Italian classes years ago – we were planning to visit my boyfriend’s family in Northern Italy, and I felt I ought to know a few words in the host language for the sake of courtesy – and the teacher brought along a bottle of Fernet Branca. We were all encouraged to have a sip, to get the class rolling. It was distressingly, intensely, aggressively bitter. I did not become an instant fan. It put me off vermouth, Martinis, even dry sherry, for years.  The closest I could get to any herbal liquor was Benedictine, which I now fine tongue-curlingly sweet. It seems as we age, our taste buds, and therefore our food preferences, change. White chocolate to dark. Sweet white wines to dry reds. Carrots to kale. Sound familiar?

I unwittingly tasted my first Aperol Spritz earlier this year, and surprisingly, this refreshingly icy, slightly bitter, very bubbly apéritif has quickly become a firm favourite. Given my (now) lack of sweet tooth, Aperol Spritz is well on the way to becoming my latest craze. And given that orange is my favourite colour – and it is also, apparently, the perfect drink for redheads –  perhaps it is even set to become my own signature drink!

It also accommodates my preferred grazing habit, as, as we have discovered that Aperol is perfect with tapas. In fact, this is where we were first introduced: at Rambla, our local Spanish bar in Manila. It also goes very well, it turns out, aperol1with a generous platter of antipasti at Zizzis, our favourite Italian chain in the UK. The same week, wandering along the Thames, we found a wonderful riverside pub in Kingston-on-Thames, the Boater’s Inn, which was introducing the punters to Aperol with a two-for-one deal and a history lesson on the journey of the Aperol Spritz. As the sun set, turning the sky the colour of peaches,  we looked out on the river and the boats and the swans with their fluffy cygnets, and sipped our Spritzes gleefully, enjoying that zesty, slightly woody, herbal bitterness, with a background taste of Jaffas (like orange Smarties, only spherical), while a jazz band chortled away in the background. Brunch, lunch, dinner,before, during, after, take your pick. Any time seems to work for me.

This evening, I am happily imbibing on the balcony in the depths of Languedoc, trading the traditional Prosecco for a local sparkling wine, the customary antipasti for a plate of French cheeses served on fresh baguette from the local patisserie. “Happy hour, happy Aperol” as the advertising once quipped, and here’s to “a bright, bright sunshiny day!” Life is good, especially in orange.

*With thanks to Google Images for Mattotti’s poster and the Aperol bottle, and my trusty camera for the view.

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A Tale of Steak and Ceviche

Smith1The Smith Butcher & Grill Room has been getting very good reviews by word-of-mouth and on the internet. So, as this month it celebrated its first birthday, we decided we were well overdue for a visit. Smith B&G is an unexpectedly  cavernous space on H.V. Dela Costa in Salcedo Village, Makati. Although I am no vegetarian, such altars to the tasty cow would not necessarily be my first choice, however, as a barbecue on the 37th floor is out of the question, Smith B&G turned out to be an excellent alternative. And the menu was by no means limited to steaks.

Our friends had arrived earlier than us, and were waiting at a large table complete with cow hide sofa. Industrial chic has become popular in Manila, and Smith B&G has followed the trend, with its large open dining room, huge wrought iron chandeliers and large, rustic wooden tables. This often means a lot of background noise, but much to my relief that is wondrously lacking at Smith B&G. So much so that we failed to notice how the restaurant had filled up as we chatted. Or perhaps the clientele was just more subdued than usual. The service was somewhat slow and piecemeal, but the staff were smiley when they showed up, although they would do well to get to know the menu.

On that first visit, we examined the menu in minute detail. For an appetizer, I spent some time trying to decide Smith8between the three way scallops – a ‘ménage a trois’ – and the kinilaw. Our waitress recommended the former, so I went with that. The scallops were served attractively on a piece of black slate:  the first one I tasted was apparently smoked and served with wasabi foam, but it had been just a tad overcooked and was uncomfortably rubbery. The ceviche was the best: melt-in-the-mouth delicious, please bring more, and the third was seared with a Parma ham crust which was a great combination of both taste and texture – but again, a lighter hand was needed in cooking the scallop. I returned for the kinilaw catch of the day the following week and it was perfection, served in a refreshing ginger and citrus marinade under a glass dome.

There are quite a number of raw selections on the menu. Apart from the ceviche and the kinilaw, there is steak tartare, beef carpaccio and sashimi, all of which have rated well with my fellow diners, although some diners may need a translation for the steak tartare accompaniments: calamansi aioli, pommes allumettes and biodynamic mesclun.

Smith3The steaks come from all over the world, although quite a number of them were missing when we visited mid-week. No Japanese or Irish or Aussie porterhouse or US 900g T-bone, which was a bit disappointing. Nevertheless we all found something to eat: the One & Only and I made do with the chateaubriand. This was beautifully cooked – medium rare, so tender in the middle with just slightly crisped edge – sand served on a large platter with a choice of four vegetable side dishes. We decided three was enough and chose a lovely combination of creamed spinach, pommes Lyonnaise, and a dish of grilled vegetables.  Please note, the selection seems to change regularly.

Red wine seemed the obvious way to go with steaks, and there is a range of choices and prices: from a couple of French and Californian reds at under Php 2000, a Languedoc-Roussillon Carignan, Grenache, Syra at Php 2500, An Argentinian Malbec at Php 4100 to a South Australian Shiraz at Php 8500. Don’t worry if you prefer white, there are a few of those too.

On the second visit I was the early one – unexpectedly, thanks to a very efficient taxi driver – but I was more thanSmith2 happy to sit with a Hendricks and soda, deftly accessorized with cucumber, while I waited for my friends, and enjoyed the easy listening background music that didn’t include Air Supply. My drink came promptly, and otherwise no one fussed me. I was peaceful and comfortable and I got extra time to study the menu. This time, I was keen to try the veal cheek ravioli with mushrooms, until my friends suggested sharing the chateaubriand and I couldn’t resist. The chef certainly gets points for consistency, it was perfectly cooked again, and we managed to share it three ways without a fight.

I also like the open plan kitchen at Smith B&G, as I was able to have a lovely chat to Canadian Chef Steven at the kitchen window.

When it came to dessert the cheese trolley was a bit tired and the crackers were cheap and nasty – and let’s face it, it’s never a good idea to slice the cheese in advance or leave it out in tropical climes – but the Manchego almost made up Smith9for the very aged (and not in a good way) Stilton. So on the next visit we dodged the cheese and chose instead to share a scrumptious white chocolate and macadamia nut cheesecake. And now I will have to go back again, because cheesecake is the favourite dessert of my One & Only, and he missed out that night as he was travelling to Georgia.

Smith B&G is not cheap, but it has been consistently good and the service is friendly and unobtrusive.  And most unexpectedly, there is a good sized car park out the front. Parking. Yes, really. I promise. In H.V. Dela Costa!

*With thanks to Google Images for the shots of the restaurant, and to my trusty new phone for the food snaps.

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“Fashion Fantasy”

“Every day is a fashion show and the world is your runway” ~ Chanel

ADBSA (2)Last night I was a super model.

OK, well maybe not quite a “super” model, but I didn’t fall off the catwalk, which I consider a major achievement, having had nightmares about tripping into the lap of the President as I wobbled down the runway.  As it turned out I had more to fear from a family friend who showed up unexpectedly and attempted to grab my attention – and my ankles – as I strolled past.

In case you are wondering, no, I have not actually had a mid-life crisis and a career change. I was, in fact, participating in a charity event at the Asian Development Bank here in Manila to raise funds for the various local charities supported by our ADB Spouses Association which include an orphanage; scholarships for underprivileged college students;  a home for street kids in Quezon City, and micro-financing for small businesses in the provinces.

The ADBSA Fashion Fusion Show had been in the pipe-line for months, instigated by an offer from Dianne Picture9
Andrysiak, an Australian expatriate and fashion designer, who was prepared to donate her time and talents to help raise funds for our charities. The Board then decided to add a second segment to the evening’s entertainment, to showcase the traditional dress of ADB member countries.

The result was a fashion spectacular into which all the efforts of the Board, Dianne and the wannabe models were
poured with boundless enthusiasm. Embellished with elegantly upswept hair and alluring make up, thanks to the talented efforts of students from  Wella and mp maquillage professionnel, we donned our gorgeous outfits and lined up, ready for the red carpet.

The first half of the show was presented by our in-house Master of Ceremonies, Shubhra Chatterjee, who spoke with flamboyant finesse about each model, her outfit and its cultural significance. From India, Sri Lanka and the People’s Republic of China, Cambodia, Malaysia, Korea, Indonesia and Japan, Bhutan, Nepal and Uzbekistan, the Philippines, Kiribati, Tonga and Samoa, our models came from all corners of Asia.

Picture8The show opened with a bang, as two lovely Filipina ladies made their way down the catwalk in eye-catching ternos, those formal Filipina dresses with the butterfly sleeves, made world famous by Imelda Marcos.  Leni’s very original, and surprisingly glamorous version was made from coffee sacks, while Elise was more traditionally attired in a terno made from lime green piña, a fabric made from the fiber from pineapple leaves combined with silk, with Swarovski crystal detailing.

From there we travelled through Asia to see sumptuous Sri Lankan Kandyan sarees that can be folded, draped or pleated in myriad variations like those from neighbouring India; the hanbok, which is traditional Korean dress for festivals and celebrations; the Bhutanese goh for men, and kira for women; exquisite silk kimonos from Japan, and from China, the sensuous silk cheong sam or qípáo from Shanghai and the historically significant hanfu of the Han dynasty. We admired a shimmering Cambodian sampot paired with a detailed white lace blouse, a colourful kebaya encim worn by the Pernakan Chinese women of Malaysia, elegant Indonesian variation of the kebaya, and a heavy black cotton saree with a red border known as hāku patāsi worn by Nepalese women for the Newari Festival and other important celebrations.

From Asia to the Pacific, where, Beta added a practiced wiggle to a full Kiribati skirt made from layers of dried coconut leaves with accessories made from sea shells and pandanus leaves. Victoria, also from the Pacific, showed off the traditional Tongan tupenu and ta’ovala – a family heirloom that had belonged to her great great grandmother, and was a hundred years old. And we also enjoyed the appearance of two brave young lads from Samoa, Henry and William, who modelled their traditional lavalava skirts accessorized with red ulafalla necklaces that looked like large red chilies but were made from the fruit of the pandanus tree .

Red also played a large role in a sumptuous, full-length gown from Uzbekistan, embroidered with large, vibrant flowers, enhanced by a Scarlett O’Hara style hooped skirt beneath. Suzani is a intricately embroidered tribal textile made in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries. Galiya, meanwhile, sported a dress and jacket made in a shorter, more casual style in a brightly coloured ikat, which would later play a significant role in the designs for the Fashion Fusion segment. Ikat is an ancient technique used to dye yarns before it is woven into patterned fabrics. It is a word of Indonesian origin, but it’s a weaving method commonly used across Asia, Africa and Picture7South America.

An interval was heralded by a raffle, in which prizes had been generously donated by restaurateur Paolo Nesi, Don Revy and Craggy Range wines, and a wonderful weekend in Vietnam thanks to GHM luxury resorts. And then it was time for part two: Fusion Fashion.

Dianne’s designs were enchanting, and, as Shubhra astutely observed, she had displayed a real knack for dressing not only the body but the temperament and tastes of the models, creatively blending modern design with traditional fabrics. And, as our MC also noted, ‘there is no better way to express yourself than through the clothes you wear.’

A Scandinavian nineteen fifties floral print, Japanese printed cottons, local linens, Laotian prints, hand painted Japanese kimonos, Indonesian batik, a glamorous sunflower-yellow, full-length satin and a heavy and sumptuous jacquard weave from Iran transformed into a wrap-around evening jacket worn over a silvery grey empire line silk gown with a metallic brocade neckline. As I watch the models sway along the catwalk, I start to understand Rosalie Ham’s fetish with fabrics in her novel “The Dressmaker.”

The ikat fabric we saw earlier reappeared again and again, displaying its variety and versatility in a number of stunning outfits, both casual and formal.  Mari began the parade in a simple biscuit and cream ikat print, perfect for the cool, calm ‘Lady Who Lunches.’ Later she re-appeared in a simple, elegant cocktail dress in which woven silk satin was overlaid with black chiffon. Another vibrant ikat fabric from Tajikistan was used to create a shimmering gold and ruby cocktail dress for Cindy, while Vida also wore an ikat print in black, red and beige, masterfully cut on the bias to create an asymmetrical, floor sweeping gown. The gown was accentuated with one, Philippine-style butterfly sleeve in silk organza. Elise, too, modelled a modern variation of those butterfly sleeves in a long gown of lilac satin and silk organza, belted with a silver, embroidered, obi-style Japanese fabric .

Picture6Not surprisingly, Thai silk also played a major role in the parade, appearing time and again in various styles of dress and in a rainbow of glorious colours. Cathrin’s ball gown was created from an emerald green Thai silk ball gown with a cowl neckline, the skirt cut away at the front to display yet another brightly coloured ikat print from Tajikistan. Runa’s gown combined a green and blue shot Thai silk overlaid with a stunning turquoise and midnight blue Jamdani  muslin from Bangladesh. My own ball gown was created from a blend of deep bottle green Thai silk overlaid with a gold and green Indian sari, in a design inspired by the Middle Ages. Heather’s frock was artfully simple: a dark Thai silk skirt overlaid with an Aussie cotton sporting an aboriginal motif, the bodice made from thick strips of woven Thai silk. Even the President’s wife, Mrs Nakao, took a stroll up the catwalk in a layered champagne-coloured Thai silk, cut away at the front to display a Japanese satin in a softly feminine cream, rose and green floral print.

Several more casual outfits included Sucheta’s pink and white floral capri pants teamed with a white silk blouse which had been hand-painted in pink to team with a matching, waist length pink jacket with mandarin collar.  Sucheta, and several other ladies, also carried matching handbags created by France-Anne Van Peteghem.

And so we reached the end of the show with a bow. Flowers were presented to our magical designer, Dianne, as she appeared on the catwalk in one of her own eye-catching creations with the luminous Mrs. Nakao and her husband, ADB President Mr. Nakao, before we were ushered out to celebrate with sparkling wine in the foyer. I think the audience enjoyed the show – we certainly had fun playing at being super models – and we were also able to raise considerable funds for our charities, which was highly satisfying. Now I am off to practise posing in the mirror for the next time I am seconded for a fashion parade!

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Dream Kitchen

Julia Child’s kitchen

“…But the kitchen will not come into its own again until it ceases to be a status symbol and becomes again a workshop… [and] you and I will know it chiefly by its fragrances and its clutter. It won’t be neat. It won’t even look efficient. but when you enter it you will feel the pulse of life throbbing from every corner. The heart of the home will have begun once again to beat.”  ― Phyllis McGinley, American poet and author

I grew up in just such a kitchen: the workshop kind. Cluttered. Chaotic. Cupboard doors hanging open. Littered surfaces. Leftovers turning into chemistry experiments at the back of the fridge. I recognize all the signs. A pot of soup, regularly topped up with last night’s vegetables, sat on the back of the stove all winter, socks and underpants drying in the warming drawer, the almost visible smell of orange cake wafting from the oven and down the passage.

Everyone congregated in our kitchen – friends, family, workmen, complete strangers sometimes – perching on low stools around the kitchen table or leaning against counter tops. And our mother was ever the centrepiece, chatting, laughing, always active: baking biscuits or cakes; topping up the soup or burning the saucepans dry; chopping, peeling, stirring, and making endless mugs of Nescafé; knitting a jumper or doing the daily crossword, surrounded by small mountains of reference books; exploring cookery books that had been liberally baptized in flour, butter or gravy.

A round table stood in in the middle of the room and would always be scattered with letters, car keys, mugs, ashtrays,50s kitchen spoons, elbows, sugar bowls and inevitably a raggle-taggle posy of flowers gathered from the garden and stuffed in a small, chipped vase. An old dresser stood by the door – it has stood there for almost fifty years – accumulating all the family detritus. The drawers were stuffed with loose photos, flat batteries, secateurs, screwdrivers, shoe polish. The cupboards were crammed with plastic containers, odd saucepans with mix and not-matching lids, bent and dented roasting trays and assortments of home-made jams and chutneys, some of which had lurked there for years. On top of the dresser cake and biscuit tins would be stacked, supposedly out of the reach of a hoard of vertically challenged, ravenous children, but we were like mountain goats and learned to scale that cupboard from an early age.  The heart of the home? Always. The pulse of life? Absolutely. This kitchen was never ‘designed’ by any stretch of the imagination, it just was, and it was always warm and welcoming.

As an adult, I have moved house uncountable times over the years, and each time I have to start house-hunting again, I write a hit list of everything I want and need in our next abode. Each time number one on the list is: ‘a decent kitchen.’  And yet, inevitably, it is the kitchen that doesn’t make the grade. In retrospect, I guess I have always been attempting to replicate the atmosphere of our childhood kitchen – maybe not the clutter, but at least the pulse. Often I blame the details: no hot water on tap; cheap and nasty electric ovens; negligible storage space. There have been kitchens where the counter-tops were so low that even hobbits would have to stoop uncomfortably to chop or wash up. And there have been those suffocatingly hot kitchens in the Tropics with no air-conditioning, because ma’am doesn’t belong in the kitchen anyway.  Occasionally we have even had smart, designer kitchens that are frightfully efficient, even pretty, and yet I never felt they exuded the warmth of my mother’s kitchen. And mostly,  I suspect, for want of a kitchen table.

our kitchenWhen we finally bought a house in England, the kitchen was awful. It was an 8’ x 10’ space hampered by three doorways. The cupboard space was severely limited by the unwelcome presence of a boiler, a dishwasher, a washing machine and a tumble dryer. Tiny bite-sized slices of counter space were scattered round the walls in the most ineffectual arrangement that was ever invented. We eventually gutted and redesigned it, and I absolutely loved what we created, but it never actually expanded to fit a table.

At the moment I have a pocket-sized kitchen in an open plan apartment (never again) with counter space that even the cockroaches find limiting.  What’s more, it has been designed – and I use the term loosely – by someone who has never stepped foot in a kitchen. Despite the minimalist space, I still have a tendency to clutter surfaces with  pots of utensils and boxes of tea and toasters and chopping boards, because I love having things to hand. Luckily, I have never been one for gadgets, because, seriously, there is barely room for the toaster. And the maid’s room has become my pantry, in which I store every over-sized saucepan or useless utensil I cannot bring myself to throw away, because I may need it at some undetermined point in the future.

Nonetheless, needs must, and I am learning how to cook without elbows and how to clear up as I go, although I would kill for a dishwasher in which to tuck all those mugs and plates and glasses out of sight.   Of course there are only two of us now, so I am downsizing my pots and pans and trying not to cook every meal for five. I am getting the hang of it, but I find I miss the neatly stacked ice cream tubs full of leftover pasta sauces and curry in the freezer, marked in marker pens as “soup” – or not marked and assumed to be ice-cream, until it isn’t. The good part is, my cook books are at hand, although much to my chagrin I have inherited the messy cook gene, so there are remnants of every recipe I have ever attempted decorating the pages.

In postwar America, the modern kitchen was designed to tempt women back into ‘the heart’ of the suburban family home and away from their war work in factories and offices. The modern kitchen was stocked with every possible labour-saving appliance. It was often merged into the family’s living space. The modern kitchen did indeed become a status symbol and there it has remained. Today, my modern, technology-friendly girlfriends boast of something called a Thermomix and invest in high tech juicers. Others have those glorious retro cake-mixers reigning over the counter tops. At least one friend has even invested in a Thermomix and the most amazing space age kitchen in which the meals seem to virtually cook themselves in moments. It’s like magic!

banner_jckitchen1Call me perverse, but I honestly prefer my muddled, mixed-up workshop kitchen with its awkward corners and it’s ridiculous, impractical design – although I admit, I do occasionally dream of something more in the vein of Julia Child’s simple, homely Massachusetts kitchen, its shelves choc-a-block with pots and pans and jugs and jars. And I do wish there was room for a kitchen table. Then, like Julia’s or my mother’s kitchens, it might just become “the most loved and most used room in the house.”

*With thanks to Google Images for the kitchen  pics.

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The Dinner Party

“Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.”  – Harriet Van Horne,  journalist

Since the genesis of shows like Master Chef and the rise of Jamie, Nigella, Gordon and Curtis, who amongst you has never felt the urge to unleash the inner chef and work in a real restaurant kitchen – and of course gain instant celebrity status for your efforts? Well, last week I had the opportunity to do the former, although the latter still continues to elude me.

Chef Philip at Brera

Chef Philip at Brera

Last year, my One & Only won the raffle at the ANZA Wine and Cheese night. This year we finally availed of the prize. ‘What did he win?’ you ask. A five course dinner prepared by a professional chef in our own home.  What could be more decadent?

Philip Golding is a British chef who has been based in the Philippines for twenty years, and has a finger in so many pies it’s impossible to keep count: teacher, chef, Breville ambassador, culinary consultant, President of the Disciples de Escoffier Philippines…

There was only one small problem. Last year we downsized to a great little duplex in Rockwell. We really love it, but the thought of anyone cooking a five course meal in our pint-sized kitchen is laughable. Luckily one dear friend  had already suggested he would like to be one of the guests, so we suggested in our turn that we might need to use his kitchen – somewhat larger than ours – for the event.

The Saturday before our dinner date, we held our first meeting with Chef Philip at Brera,  delicatessen and grill,  his latest venture, and a Taguig twin to his store in Yakal Street, Makati. Here we sat over coffee and concocted the bones of a five course menu which would, he promised, evolve over the week ahead. We then created a lengthy shopping list, so I could start to buy the ingredients. Also – and this we weren’t expecting – Chef Philip invited us, if we so desired, to get involved in the process of creating the meal.

I spent the next few days dashing around the city gathering a boatload of ingredients with which we could have fedIMG_4307 most of Metro Manila. We started by rummaging through the shelves at Brera, and then I went on to scour Rustan’s and Säntis . The stars had aligned nicely, as good friends from South Australia turned up in time join us for dinner, accompanied by some amazing Australian cheeses and wines, they had ransacked from the Adelaide market. On Thursday I took them to Yakal Street, where we would finalize the menu with Chef Philip and visit The Butchery next door to choose the meat for our main course. Here we discovered a veritable goldmine of cheese wheels the size of coffee tables, and some fabulous looking lamb racks.

Finally, on Friday afternoon, armed with our menu, our aprons and boxes full of food and wine, we descended on our friends home in Forbes Park. Chef Golding and his tool box of cooking kit arrived too, in the wake of a team of assistants. The team was joined by our friends’ two Helpers.

As food writers both, our Aussie mate and I were keen to add to the manpower in the kitchen. Now, I am generally the Head Cook at home. I have worked in Hospitality and even ventured into Hotel Management once upon a time. But this was the first time I had gone to work with a professional chef, and I instantly forgot everything I thought I knew and felt like a total novice. Luckily, as the chef assigned us our tasks, I found myself with a job I thought I could just about handle: I was put in charge of making the crepes for dessert. Chef Philip whipped up a batter, flavoured lightly with Grand Marnier, and then pointed me to the stove. As I slowly turned out a mountain of wafer thin pancakes, my confidence grew. Soon I was even feeling secure enough to help the trainees with some of their tasks.

It was a surprisingly long process to create this ‘simple’ dinner for six, particularly given the large team we had to pull it together. But once I got over my initial stage fright, it was great fun, and working on the team was a fascinating experience. Chef Philip went from one work station to the next, checking on progress, offering tips, encouragement and mild criticism when things weren’t up to scratch. Apart from the odd sarcastic note, however, it was nothing like the kitchen scenes in the movie ‘Burnt,’ or ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ with near-hysterical chefs throwing furniture and knives and entire dinners on the floor. Although, to be honest, I was still not tempted to test his patience!

IMG_4323Eventually our job was done and we sat down to dinner, already gently lubricated with champagne and gin, and eager to enjoy the banquet. Our minestrone came to the table – shallow bowls containing a neat mound of finely diced and blanched vegetables. Chef Philip then poured the soup from a jug around the vegetables, creating a small island in the centre of a ruby red lake. The broth was surprisingly rich, largely thanks to a tablespoon of pimento paste, balanced by the fresh, crisp vegetable cubes.

Next came the tuna salad. Fluffy lettuce, dollops of burrata cheese and cherry tomatoes were prettily arranged on an entrée plate – although it took me a while to realize the fish was secreted beneath the shrubbery. The seared yellow fin tuna and smoked wahoo – a local, white-fleshed fish that has become very popular with gourmet diners –  were both superb. Like Oliver Twist, I wanted more.

Back in the kitchen, I had basted the lamb racks in whole grain mustard before coating them in breadcrumbs seasoned with fresh tarragon. The racks were accompanied by lamb sausage, surprisingly German in style, a deliciously cheesy potato gratin (thanks to the best Watsonia Vintage Cheddar), broccoli with a hint of hollandaise sauce and my favourite purple cabbage cooked with cranberries and sultanas. We had been having trouble boosting the heat in the oven, probably due to the fact we were using every available burner, so for me, the chops were a little underdone, but the vegetable dishes were perfect, despite what I had feared would be overkill in the sauces department.

Finally, the crepes, which were, of course, spectacular. Lightly flavoured with Grand Marnier, they were filled withMain Course dried figs, orange segments and vanilla ice-cream, sprinkled with crushed macadamias, and topped with a fig and orange sauce. My only regret was that there just weren’t enough – I should have made at least a dozen more.

We finished off with a cheese board, courtesy of our Australian guests, including a divine Onkaparinga Triple Cream Brie.The food faded out, the wine faded in as we sat and chatted with Chef Philip. There were lots of laughs, lots of wine… and towards the end of the evening, lots of Air Supply. (I probably shouldn’t have mentioned that.)

So, I finally got my time in the kitchen, and while I enjoyed it, I now have even greater respect for the men and women who work daily under that level of stress and speed. It was like running a marathon, and I now remember why I veered sharply away from the challenge twenty-five years ago. It was fun for a night, but it totally validated my decision to stay out of the kitchen, and to choose a path whereby I could eat, admire and write about the amazing efforts of other more talented cooks from a sensible distance. So thanks to ANZA and whoever pulled out the winning ticket, to our dear friends in Forbes for providing a terrific venue, and especially to Chef Philip and his team, for a great night’s entertainment. All hail the Chef.

*Adapted from an article that appeared first in ANZA News, April 2016.

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Highlights of Cebu City

A weekend in Cebu City. A friend’s birthday. A room at The Henry. A table  at Anzani . A Sunday recovery barbecue by the pool in the friend’s garden. A recipe for a super weekend.

Henry1Our hotel may be a good place to start. Walking distance to our friend’s lovely home in a nearby gated community, it is a complete contrast to its elegant, colonial-style sister hotel in Manila. Built in the style of an old warehouse, The Henry in Cebu City on the outside is all black paint and big windows. Inside, the hotel is brimming with an eclectic collection of modern art, quirky furnishings and eye-catching sculptures scattered around large, airy spaces. This included a rather unnerving plastic statue of a red man in the lobby. A welcome drink, a quick and easy check in, and we are escorted to the sixth floor and a vast bedroom, with two huge windows overlooking the garden and pool. We step back to admire the polished concrete floor, a super-king sized bed, a generous bathroom separated only by a curtain (not so good for the more reserved amongst us), a lovely hip bath (but no hot water) and more than enough room to swing the proverbial cat.

Two minor complaints: a kettle and tea making facilities in our room would have been most welcome. And when Henry3drinking the tap water is not an option, I figure it might be kind of the hotel to provide bottomless drinking water, or at least a small water cooler, not just two small plastic bottles per day. That said, the room was incredibly comfortable, the staff were friendly, and the restaurant was really very good – the One & Only took a particular fancy to their carafes of lemongrass tea. And of course the artwork and furnishings were fascinating. I particularly liked a framed violin above the dressing table. Its bow, also framed, hung on the opposite wall. There was also a brightly coloured, Andy Warhol-style mural onto the wall above the bed. And I loved the various stacks of old trunks piled around the lobby – and two 1950s cream suitcases we initially thought someone had left behind beside the elevators!

And so onto dinner at the very beautiful Anzani, set high in the Nivel hills above the city, with stunning views and a range of attractive indoor and outdoor spaces for dining. We were ushered downstairs to a table for eight in the wine cellar, overlooked by two large sketches of Sophia Lauren.

It calls itself ‘New Mediterranean,’ but Anzani is more a wondrous fusion of Mediterranean recipes and Filipino Anzani5ingredients.  The menu was handed to us on a tablet, which novel, but a bit problematic, until we came to grips with the screen, which kept vanishing. Eventually we sorted it out and began to unravel the extensive menu (pages and pages) of Mediterranean-inspired dishes. I am always a little nervous about large menus – I find it hard to believe the chefs can possibly do justice to so many dishes – but tonight my doubts proved unfounded. Every dish, even the complimentary ones, came to the table in style, artistically presented and tasting sumptuous. There was a ‘chipotle three-cheese fondue’ and a platter of Italian meats, both generous enough to share; carpaccio of beef, swordfish or ostrich or a smoked tomato soup; numerous pizzas, pastas and risottos, and a selection of mains that included French duck breasts, Wagyu short ribs and pan-seared crocodile tail. And I am not kidding when I say I am just scratching the surface, as there were also numerous dishes that wove local ingredients (yellow fin tuna, bangus and grouper) into the mix.

We were swiftly presented with a very pretty selection of dips and nibbles to get the ball rolling, while we devoured the menu and chose the wines – wonderful fun when you can just lean behind you and grab whatever catches your eye!  Grant Burge put in a star turn, in both red and white, but the wine cellar offers all sorts of nationalities: New World wines from Australia and Argentina, Chile and New Zealand, South Africa and the States; Old World wines from France, Italy and Spain. I chose, with no apologies, a lightly wooded Grant Burge Chardonnay

I was particularly delighted with my dinner tonight. Normally I am one of those annoying people who decides too lateAnzani3 that everyone else has made better choices than me. But tonight I decided to experiment with the ostrich carpaccio, which is apparently sourced from an ostrich farm in the Philippines. Paper thin – as it should be – it was topped with crumbled goat cheese and roasted wild mushrooms.  Much to my delighted surprise, the ostrich proved to be a dark meat with gallons more flavour than the Angas beef carpaccio, and quite beautifully partnered with the goat’s cheese and mushrooms. I would greedily have ordered a second serve, it was so good.

For my main course I ordered from the grill: a steak of yellow fin tuna, also a local specialty. It had been lightly marinated with a really tasty and ever-so-slightly crunchy marinade of olive oil, sugar, turmeric powder, sea salt, a glove of garlic (I assume this was a typo, but loved it anyway), freshly ground black pepper and chopped shallot. I have only ever eaten such beautiful tuna once before, and that was almost thirty years
ago. Fresh from the sea, meaty and perfectly cooked, it quite simply melted in the mouth. It was very simply accompanied by a handful of chunky chips, a small side salad and a bowl of dipping sauce that I have to admit I totally ignored, as the tuna was perfect sans sauce.

Anzani6 (2)Having had some issues with the air conditioning – a more serious problem for the resident wines than for me – we adjourned upstairs for dessert and coffee. Although we all blanched at the thought of dessert, when we were presented with a platter of gelati (nine different flavoured scoops on a pretty green glass serving platter) quite a number of us were more than happy to dip in. From memory, flavours included green tea and choco mint, raspberry and mango. The rest completely escape me, but I do remember they were all delicious, and a lovely finishing touch.

And then, just in case there hadn’t been enough food and drink already, our night at Anzani was followed a lovely, gentle, Aussie-style afternoon round the pool with strawberry cocktails and prawns on the barbie.

Life doesn’t get much better, really…


*With thanks to Google Images and my One & Only for the photos.

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Mother’s Milk or Mother’s Ruin?

“Red meat and gin.” – Julia Child, on the ingredients for a long life.

gin4Ten years ago micro-breweries hit the market with ‘craft’ or ‘boutique’ beers, providing the world with interesting alternatives to the mass-produced European style lagers.  Today, word on the street is that gin is now having a similar renaissance in ‘boutique’ distilleries.  Visiting England recently, I discovered a myriad small gin distilleries have been springing up all over the country. And it is not limited to the UK – the resurgence of the juniper berry has struck a chord all over the world. I even met a bloke recently who is planning to make gin at that altar of winemaking, the Barossa Valley. So move over craft beer, designer gin is here.

Two years ago, a friend I was visiting in Kent eagerly handed me a gin and tonic. The tonic? Probably Scwheppes. The gin? He was reluctant to share the secret, but eventually told me that it came from the lovely Suffolk seaside town of Southwold. Adnams, originally established as a brewery in 1872, decided to diversify, and in 2010 a distillery was born. Adnams now makes not only beer, but gin, vodka and whisky as well.

This new gin was quite different from the usual gins I drink: the Gilbeys-and-Gordons, Beefeater-and-Bombay Sapphire brigade which have little to recommend them beyond alcoholic content and a neat and unobtrusive match with tonic and lime. Adnans – and the many more boutique gins attempting to upstage the old stalwarts – tastes quite different: more complex, more sophisticated, even poetic flavours that make it distinctive, unusual, unexpected and aromatic.

tonicLast Christmas my daughter took me along to ‘The Howling Owl,’ a quaint little bar in Adelaide with a not-so-secret stash of boutique gins – more than forty different brands in fact, from all over the world. A tasting tray provided four shot glasses and a selection of garnishes: slices of lemon and lime and cucumber were no surprise, but the sprigs of rosemary, dried juniper berries and peppercorns were a whole new experience. It was great fun – a little like creating a mini cocktail.  And the results were fascinating, quite upstaging those old stalwarts above the bar. It was a real eye opener. There were even, it turns out, some new, lighter ‘artisan’ tonics on the market, like Fever Tree and Fentimans.

Simply put, gin is flavoured vodka. The base spirit for both spirits is derived from grain, (rye, corn or wheat) or potato and in the case of gin, sometimes even grapes. The base spirit is then infused with juniper berries. Called berries, these are actually berry-shaped seed cones, and give gin a flavour that is often described as ‘piney’ or ‘tasting like Christmas.’ Other ‘aromatics’ or ‘botanicals’ add complexity. These botanicals may include such things as cassia and chamomile, coriander and cardomom, cinnamon, citrus and cubeb berries (Indonesian pepper) – which sounds like the recipe for a magic spell. Typically, a fine gin contains six to ten botanicals.

Gin first appeared in Holland in the seventeenth century. Like many spirits and liqueurs, it was created by the monks, who used it to treat any number of ailments from gout to gallstones, and even the Plague.   Its name comes from the Dutch word for juniper – genever –  and it became popular with Dutch and British soldiers fighting together during the Thirty Years War (1618-48), where it was praised for its moral boosting and warming effects in the damp and chilly Lowlands of Europe, and nicknamed “Dutch Courage.”


“The Drunkard’s Children” by Cruikshank

Its popularity – and the recipe – spread from the battlefields to England. Unlicensed production meant anyone could set up a gin still very cheaply, and British gin was a rough-and-ready concoction, fit only for the poor, who drank it liberally, often by the pint, and just as often enhanced with turpentine –  highly toxic when ingested. Hardly surprisingly, this led to horrific displays of disorderly drunkenness, ill-health, and death. Gin was even blamed for a negative population growth in London.

Over the next century, the “Gin Craze” grew. Eventually, however, its adverse effects on society caused panic amongst the elite, and the British Parliament introduced a series of laws and taxes to curb gin consumption by raising prices beyond the reach of the poor. This lead, predictably perhaps, to street riots and a flood of illegal gin stills, and the laws were repealed, and eventually replaced by more reasonable ones.

As these milder reforms gradually took effect, gin production became more refined, and gin gradually climbed out of the gutter.  In the nineteenth century, the ‘column still’ was invented, which allowed gin distillers to improve the quality of the base spirit. They also started to play around with different flavours. London dry gin was born; a specific style of gin, not necessarily made in London, but involving a double distillation of the grain to which the botanicals are added only during the second distillation. The upper classes were entranced. Ornate and luxurious gin palaces were established to provide sophisticated settings for this now sophisticated panacea.

Tonic water was first introduced to gin in Colonial India in the nineteenth century.  Gin and soda was already a popular drink amongst the British military stationed there, quinine a necessary evil in a malaria-ridden country. And then some clever chap devised a cocktail of carbonated water, gin and quinine that made the latter so much more palatable. As Winston Churchill is quoted as saying: “the gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives and minds than all the doctors in the Empire.”secret-gin-club-gin-martini

Then, in the twentieth century, gin became a popular base for flamboyant cocktails, but I am not going to dwell on that here.

Instead, let’s leave history for now and drop into a small High Street wine shop in Surrey, where Alistair, my guide to the New World of Gin is waiting to introduce me to a selection of English craft gins. Arranged on an old wine barrel at the back of the store are at least a dozen bottles of gin, a carafe of water and two sherry glasses.

Some tips, though, before we start:

  • Although reminiscent of a wine tasting, we are only using a small sherry glass (a shot glass will do, too). Gin is a spirit and therefore much stronger than wine, and you may need to get home afterwards.
  • There is no tonic in sight – we will taste the gin straight and possibly with a splash of water, which apparently releases the botanical flavours.
  • It is best served at room temperature (approximately 15°C).
  • Swish it gently around your mouth, like wine, and note the effects.
  • “Generally speaking, a nice aroma and a smoothness of taste are good starters. If it tastes thin and has a burn to it, avoid it.” ~ Tanqueray’s master distiller Tom Nichol.
  • Explore the flavours. All gins contain juniper, but each gin will have its own unique combination of botanicals.

So explore we do, my guide happily joining me to compare aromas and flavours. Initially, I bow to his superior knowledge, but surprisingly quickly I find myself interjecting with my own discoveries.

Silent Pool is an English gin named for a spring-fed lake at the foot of the North Downs, near Guildford. This gin3delicate but complex gin is captured in a beautiful turquoise glass bottle and claims to contain some twenty-four ‘unique’ botanicals.  Cory Mason, the Head Distiller at Silent Pool, describes their signature product as “full-bodied and fresh, with depth, clarity, and above all else flavour.“ His flavour descriptors include “clean juniper-driven spirit with floral layers of lavender and chamomile. Fresh notes of citrus and kafir lime… [and] local honey.”

An online reviewer attempted to identify all 24 botanicals, and his check list included “juniper, [obviously] coriander, cassia, chamomile, orris, kaffir lime, elderflower, pear, star anise, coriander, lavender, bergamot, honey, linden, hawthorn, angelica, possibly rosehip,” which sounds like a cross between potpourri and an Indian curry. Rest assured this is not what it tastes like. (And I should know, I have tested two bottles already.)

Beckett’s is another new English gin. Produced in Kingston-upon-Thames, it is made from Box Hill juniper berries – the only British gin, apparently, to use berries grown in the UK. Box Hill is maintained by the National Trust, that blessed English charity that looks after some of Britain’s most beautiful coastline, countryside and heritage houses. Beckett’s management work with the Trust to pick “a strictly controlled number” of berries, at the same time cultivating new juniper plants on Juniper Top where, ironically, they no longer grew. Beckett’s is surprisingly delicate and smooth. Alistair advises me not to drown it in tonic because the flavours are so subtle, and suggests soda water instead, with perhaps a sprinkle of mint and citrus rind. Given that I don’t have malaria, why not?

We also sip a Dorset gin, Conker, which, like Beckett’s, was only born two years ago. (Note that gin can be produced much faster than whiskey, without all that barrel time.) Labelled as another ‘unique’ gin, Conker is created in the back streets of Bournemouth and contains ten ‘select’ botanicals. The producers use Macedonian juniper berries, to which they add local elderberries, samphire and ‘handpicked New Forest gorse flowers’. (How else would one pick gorse flowers, I wonder?) The website claims that Conker is ‘brazenly refreshing and deftly smooth… crafted to stand up on its own, poured and adored over ice.’  (I am really enjoying all these gins, but finding the marketing spiels harder to swallow.)

gin1Next we travel from the New Forest to the Black Forest in Germany. Monkey 47 is incredibly complex, its name referring to both the number of botanicals used and the fact it’s bottled at a healthy 47%. ‘Good on your cornflakes,’ jokes Alistair. Ha! It just about knocks my socks off to drink neat. I would highly recommend at least a dash of soda and maybe a curl of lime zest. If you have ever tasted that other monk-made drink Benedictine, it has similar overtones of the floral and the heartily medicinal. It even looks like an old-fashioned medicine bottle.

I guess the next gin to be Slavic, partly from the name (Makar is a Russian boy’s name), partly from its potency. But Makar also means ‘poet’ in Scotland, and the gin proves to be a robust little Glaswegian number: hot, musky and high octane.  Think Turkish Delight infused with pepper. Makar contains ‘seven internationally sourced botanicals,’ including rosemary and black pepper. This one too arrived on the scene in 2014 – obviously an excellent year for the rebirth of gin – from a new distillery built in the heart of Glasgow.

So go forth and drink gin – there are plenty more to choose from.  I have even tried a pink one flavoured with rhubarb! (Way too sweet for me, though.) And it turns out I am in the right place to share the news: figures say that there is more gin drunk in the Philippines than anywhere else in the world; that the annual global sale of gin is nearly 60 million cases, and almost half of this is consumed in the Philippines. So it looks like I am in good company. In the meantime, though, before I join you at the bar,  I am off to find a dose of Mother’s Milk to cure my cold, or maybe I will make one of those gin and tonic popsicles I saw on Facebook this week…

*with thanks to Google Images for the pics.

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A Host of Golden Daffodils

Manila is the natural habitat of the small dog, given the proliferation of high rise apartments and limited green space. In our own area of Manila, I often pass herds of tiny dogs, sometimes dressed in slippers and jackets, occasionally even riding in a pushchair. Owners of these pocket-sized pooches, somewhat surprisingly, usually have the kind of cars in which they could fit a small elephant.

London is the opposite. The Mini Cooper is king and the dogs must ride on the roof, I guess, as I have no more idea of how you would squeeze an Irish wolf hound into a mini than how you would wedge in that that elephant. It brings to mind the genie in the lamp. (“Phenomenal cosmic powers! Itty bitty living space!”)

Luckily London, as I may have mentioned before, is full of parks where dogs of all shapes and sizes can stretch their legs. And in South West London, where we have settled for the Easter holidays, there are acres and acres of public parks, something Manila is desperately lacking, even for its pint-sized puppies. In London, I have found woodland, common land, riverside walking paths, public parks and private gardens, so much so that in the past week, my feet have rarely hit the pavement. And wherever I wander, I find an abundance of wildlife, flora and fauna.

Almost as soon as I landed, I headed across town to my current obsession, Hampton Court Palace, with its amazing walled gardens: a medieval IMG_4585veggie patch; a rose garden (sadly not blooming in March); and the Hampton Court Wilderness, once a structured garden of high hedges and coppices within which lovers could canoodle unseen, now a spring meadow simply awash with daffodils and a sprinkling of grape hyacinths. Even Wordsworth, so familiar with golden daffodils that flutter and dance in the breeze would have been gob-smacked. I had never before realized there were so many varieties of narcissi, baptized with glorious names like ‘February Gold,’ ‘Merlin,’ ‘Spellbinder’ and ‘Rip Van Winkle.’

Should you have done your dash with Hampton Court, then the vast and sprawling Bushy park is only a stone’s throw away, and stretches over 1,100 acres from Kingston-upon-Thames to Hampton Court and from to Hampton Hill to Thames Ditton. Here I wandered through a broad, open landscape, past bare trees whose only foliage was flocks of squawking, screeching green parakeets that appear to have migrated from Australia. Beneath them, herds of hefty deer gathered in their now somewhat tatty winter coats. I passed horses trotting though the Royal Paddocks, their riders sensibly dressed in bright orange safety jackets.

And of course there were myriad dog walkers. My favourite sighting was two somewhat rotund, corgis looking like prosperous, bushy-tailed foxes – it no longer being permissible to dock their tails anywhere but New Zealand – or those stocky Thelwell ponies, beer-barrel bellies scraping the ground. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASomewhere in the middle of Bushy Park I discovered a fenced area I hadn’t noticed before. Walking through the gate was a little like going through the mirror into Wonderland, as I stepped from open, uncluttered deer park into lush woodland, festooned with ponds and streams and winding paths. The Waterhouse Woodland Garden is a woodland walk created in 1925, and further developed in 1948. Ducks and geese honked and quacked across the water, squirrels bounded up the trees, daffodils stretched their swan-like necks towards the sun, and a few tiny trees blossomed like brides with pink and white confetti. It was like a child’s painting of Eden. I was enchanted.

And in between these swathes of public space I have found pretty little villages and cosy towns whose main streets are full of antique shops, art galleries, coffee shops and restaurants –  British history captured in a streetscape of picturesque imagebuildings with Tudor beams and gables, or flibbertigibbet Victorian fretwork, or Georgian pomp and soaring columns. In East Molesey, across the river from that grandiose and grandiloquent Tudor palace of Hampton Court with its wealth of elegant chimneys, we found a coffee shop full of sofas, rustic tables, built-in books shelves and eclectic artwork: a home away from home. There were even deep baskets full of organic vegetables, such as Christmas-coloured capsicums and knobbly, gnarly ginger.

I found myself wondering why the last century has added so little to the glory of English architecture, until I remembered a handful of interesting modern structures encircling the City of London. And on a trip to St Paul’s, I suddenly saw and enjoyed the juxtaposition of an elegant Victorian church steeple aligned with the sharp-edged Shard piercing the clouds; a glimpse of the fairy tale outline of the Big Ben tower through the pupil of the London Eye; the stark industrial lines of the Millennium Bridge against the backdrop of Wren’s curvaceous cathedral. (No sign of a single swooping Death Eater, thank goodness.) No daffodils or woolly dogs here either, but the architectural variety had me spellbound as I wandered along the riverbank from Waterloo.

* With thanks to Google Images for the pup in slippers and the Woodland Garden. The daffodils are courtesy of my One & Only, and I actually took the lop-sided view of St. Paul’s cathedral and the Millennium Bridge with my new phone!

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