Suomi Summer Buddies

finn-movieCine Europa is a ten-day feast of European movies being shown FOR FREE  at Shang Cineplex in Ortigas. I have almost decided to move into the Shangri-La Hotel for the week to take full advantage of this amazing smorgasbord of movies. Yes, I know, we have a movie theatre within walking distance of our apartment, but invariably it is packed with American bang-crash-car-chase movies, of which I can only see so many before I start to go deaf and cross-eyed.

So what better way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon than camping out at the cinema? And we landed a gem of a 2014 Finnish movie called ‘Kesäkaverit’ (Summertime). It was a chick flick about friendship and being twenty five, an A grade one to entertain the One & Only as well.  And, of course, having finally made it to Finland this summer, it meant so much more. I expect we would have loved the film anyway, but the scenery, the language and the humour was, thanks to our recent trip, both familiar and already nostalgic; a quick fix of space and subtlety without the long flight.

Finland (or Suomi) has been on my list of Top 10 places to visit for years.  (I refuse to call it a bucket list – I am just not old enough to be counting down already!) My sister first ignited my interest when she described hitch hiking through Finland and up through Lapland to the Arctic Circle in the early nineties, walking with moose and swimming in midge-infested lakes.

A couple of years later, we met a young Finnish family in Thailand whose small daughter shared a birthday with ours. helsinki10The same thing happened in Malaysia – or maybe she was Swedish, the memories blur. Over the years, we have met Finns in SE Asia, in the UK and even in  the Philippines, and each of them taught us something about their homeland: the Finnish love of vodka and a traditional Finnish toast; the short, dark winters that would drive anyone to drink and the long summer nights when the sun barely sets; the Northern Lights with their hallucinogenic effect on the sky; an ice hotel and the secret home of Santa; the heart-stopping thrill of leaping from steaming saunas into freezing lakes; gravadlax, herring, and smoked reindeer meatballs; summer cherries and summer houses by the sea; lakes, lakes and more lakes.

So, at last, we had the opportunity to experience some of these Finnish legends.  Despite the lack of snow and ice, the vodka still flowed freely, and we did leap from a steamy sauna into a chilly lake. Finland has a lot of water. Not only is it an archipelago on the Baltic Sea, sprinkled with armloads of islands (like the Philippines, only granite not volcanic) but it has a vast expanse of inland lakes north of Helsinki, in much the same way South Australia doesn’t. We ate ridiculous amounts of fish: baked salmon and pickled herring, ceviche and smoked fish, served with new potatoes and dill, fried chanterelles and rye bread.

helsinki9We arrived in Helsinki by air, but the view of the city is far lovelier from the sea, as we discovered when we made a couple of forays out into the Bay. As a capital city, Helsinki is only young – about the same age as my home town of Adelaide, with which I found more than a few parallels: broad streets and plenty of parks; a population of around a million; a plentiful supply of churches of all denominations; a sense of isolation from the rest of the pack but a subsequent self-sufficiency.

Finland has spent many centuries playing Piggy in the Middle with Russia and Sweden. For more than 600 years, it was a province of the Kingdom of Sweden. In 1809, Sweden hand-balled it across to Russia. Czar Alexander I named it the Grand Duchy of Finland and generously granted it autonomy. At the same time, he relocated the western capital of Turku to the more centrally located Helsinki, in an attempt to cut ties with Sweden and bring it closer to St. Petersburg. Just over a century later, Russia became embroiled in a civil skirmish, otherwise known as the October Revolution, during which an autocratic Tsar was executed and replaced by a didactic Bolshevik revolutionary. While Russia was distracted, Finland cheekily took the opportunity to declare its independence. And so it has remained.

Finland is a country of intense colours spread with broad brush strokes: a red brick eastern orthodox cathedral withhelsinki8 conical, verdigris roofs topped with golden cupolas  and a sparkling white neoclassical Lutheran  Cathedral overlook cerulean seas; endless miles of bottle green pine and deciduous birch forests; equally endless miles of glittering silver lakes; a penchant for painting their timber houses ‘falu’ or oxblood (a dark, terracotta red); pink salmon on every menu; tin pails filled with deep magenta cherries, bright green peas-in-the-pod or huge, scarlet strawberries; vast, snow white landscapes stretching to the horizon.

We took a ferry to the tiny island of Lonna for an exquisitely simple meal in a converted warehouse restaurant, waiting on the end of the jetty in a brisk and chilly summer ‘breeze.’ On a sunny Sunday, we rode another ferry to the naval fortress known as Suomenlinna, now a prime tourist destination full of buggies and brides. We drove out to one of the oldest medieval towns in Finland.  Porvoo is about 50 kilometres east of Helsinki and sits above the river Porvoonjoki. Threaded with steep, cobbled streets and brimming with art galleries, cafes and craft shops, the town is overlooked by an attractive mediaeval church (Lutheran) with wooden roof tiles. Beside the church stands a square, stone clock tower, where the men would leave their weapons during services. And we celebrated a 100th birthday (2 x 50) in Finnish, Swedish and English.
helinki11And, like the women in the movie, we drifted about a beautiful white, weatherboard home above the sea, as well as ‘glamping’ in a traditional log cabin by a clear, tea-coloured lake; picking tiny wild raspberries and chanterelles in the woods and building a camp fire on a tiny island in the middle of the lake. The unsophisticated simplicity of these too-short side trips was both utterly relaxing and wonderfully rejuvenating.

To return at last to the movie. ‘Kesäkaverit’ captures the carefree summers of young adulthood as three girls meet up for a working holiday in a coffee shop at the beach, and find themselves lurching awkwardly into the world of grown ups where there are tough choices to make. We sat there exclaiming (quietly) at the scenery: the coastline, the woods and the weatherboard house by the sea near Hanko, so similar to where we had stayed in Barösund. We smiled at the Finnish flavour of the screenplay: short, pithy conversations, where less is more and the silences are as telling as the words, in stark contrast to Australians and Filipinos who tend to rattle away like high speed trains.   We nudged each other when we noticed a Finnish tiled ceramic stove, which, like a pot-belly stove, burns wood and slowly radiates the heat throughout the freezing winter days. And we longed to wander along the shady woodland paths thick with pine needles. Both the memories and the movie were food for the soul.

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Rock Paper Scissors

“Wouldn’t you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came…”
~ Lyrics to Cheers TV show by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo

Singapore2On the spur of the moment, we decided to take a weekend break in Singapore, just because we can.  I love SE Asia for that easy ability to flit about on cheap flights, and spend a weekend exploring a new city. Friday night flights can be a bit of a hassle, as the traffic gums up on EDSA after 4pm and you risk high stress levels and missed flights, but we scooted out early, and somehow it didn’t matter that an electrical storm kept us on the tarmac for an hour or two.

Late, but suitably relaxed, after drinking our body weight in gin, we arrived at last, on Singapore’s East Coast Road, at a row of traditional old Singaporean shop houses which have recently undergone a makeover. The results are really eye-catching. On the corner of Ceylon street is a pretty little restaurant with awnings and seating on the pavement. Next door, its partner-in-crime, The Trenchard Arms, is gently buzzing with late night drinkers.

We met Richard and Tricia Huggins in Cebu last year, and have since been promising ourselves that we would pop by and check out their pub on East Coast Road as soon as we could. So at last, with a free weekend, we booked a flight, booked a room, warned our hosts we were heading their way, and packed our overnight bags.

Remember the game ‘Rock-paper-scissors?’ We used to play it in the school yard, and apparently it originated in China. A game for two, each player simultaneously forms one of three shapes with an outstretched hand: “rock” (a simple fist), “paper” (a flat hand), and “scissors” (a fist with index and middle fingers forming a V). Rock beats scissors (“rock crushes scissors”) but loses to paper (“paper covers rock”) and paper loses to scissors (“scissors cut paper”). If both players choose the same shape, the game is tied. Now there’s a new variation: rabbit-carrot-gun. I will leave you to figure it out.

You are doubtless wondering what tangent I am drifting off on, but then you obviously didn’t notice the sign over theRCG
door of the restaurant. The image is apparently a blend of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit meets the White Rabbit in ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ but it also reminds me of the Wild Huntsman rabbit in the German book of fairy tales, ‘Struwwelpeter.’

“Rabbit-Carrot-Gun” is an English bistro-style restaurant serving hearty British dishes and scrumptious brunches. Despite the tropical climate, the braised beef cheek, beef wellington or sausages and mash go down a treat. And, if you have a nostalgic craving for Scotch eggs pork pies or sticky toffee pudding, your wish will be granted,  all served up with a generous dose of good, old fashioned hospitality, where strangers and friends alike are made to feel like honoured guests.

A cool morning breeze on Saturday invited us to settle under the canopy on the pavement for fresh juices, coffee and poached eggs. If you brought small kids or you are British, with a dose of homesickness, you might prefer a nostalgic nursery breakfast of soft boiled eggs with Marmite and toast soldiers to dip into the yolk. Or make it brunch, and enjoy a mimosa or two with a Gamekeeper’s Shooting Breakfast or a homemade quiche. I think we tried almost everything on the menu over the weekend, and I didn’t find anything lacking – and of course I had to taste everyone’s dishes, not just my own. All’s fair in love and research! Anything I missed, I may have to head back another day soon…

Above the bar and restaurant there is also a terrific place to stay. The Huggins offer five rooms, available on AirBnB, each one distinctive and full of character, and beautifully cushioned from the hubbub below. The One & Only had booked the Terrace Room, and it was a delight, full of quirky art and antique furniture. With access from a secret door next to The Trenchard Arms, we climbed a steep, dark staircase to find a high double bed draped in dusky pink Laura Ashley style curtains. The black and white tiled, al fresco bathroom is through the double doors and opens onto the terrace – perhaps a little awkward for the neighbours if you choose to take a bath directly in their line of vision, but there is a Roman blind to lower as needed, although that rather spoils the bather’s view!

Given our penchant for walking, we were very pleased to find a park along the waterfront, only a ten minute walk from our room, although it did involve climbing up and over a couple of busy main roads. Once we were there, however, it was worth the (minor) trek: wide lawns, huge shady trees, bike tracks and picnic tables, barbecues and beach on a broad strip that runs almost 10km along the coast.

singapore1Many of the sights of Singapore are only a short taxi ride away, too. The highlight for us was the National Gallery or Museum of Singapore & South East Asian Arts housed in two restored national monuments, formerly the Supreme Court and City Hall, linked by an outstanding contemporary atrium of glass and metal that includes two foot bridges. From the beautiful roof garden, with its chic bar area, there are simply stunning views over the city with its fascinating mix of creative modern architecture and colonial grace. And we even found some Filipino art done by our own Mr. Luna and Mr. Hidalgo.

So if you are wondering what to do this weekend, head south to East Coast Road, and I bet Richard and Tricia will feel like old friends in just a few, happy hours!

*With thanks, yet again, to the One & Only for his camera work.

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“Go For Launch!”

bannerLast night was a very special night, and I am still feeling somewhat euphoric. Euphoric and ecstatic, exhilarated and enchanted, thrilled and giddy and elated. I know I probably sound slightly hysterical, and usually my One & Only saves me from my worst excesses of adjective and metaphor, but today I just want to whoop and wiggle in bold, italics and highlighter pen, and quite possibly burst into song.

Last night, at the Manila Polo Club, before a group of friends, fellow writers and educators, I launched my first book.

It was an event I don’t think I truly believed would happen. But when I walked in, there was a banner with my name on it – and a book with my name on it too. Actually, lots of them! There was a microphone and a table where I could sign copies if anyone wanted my signature.  The Lounge at the Polo Club looked elegant and professional and bookish. The publishers (The Bookmark Inc.) had turned on a generous spread of cheeses, dips and cold meat platters, as well as some great wines, and the room gradually filled with people who had braved rain and Manila traffic jams for a 6pm start.

I began writing this book in earnest almost six years ago. I had just arrived in the Philippines, fresh from completing a Masters in Gastronomy in Australia. I decided the best way to get to know my new home was to explore its culture through cuisine and culinary history, and then record my impressions in a blog. This rapidly grew to incorporate our travel experiences, both here and abroad, as well as my observations on our expatriate lifestyle. And even, on a whim, a little poetry. So it seems only fitting that a seed I planted when I first landed in Manila, should also have come to fruition here.  is, in case you hadn’t guessed, based on this blog.

I have always loved writing. It has been a daily adventure with language and imagination. But more importantly, it has helped me to join all the disconnected dots in my head; to frame or shape the memories of a decidedly spur-of-the-moment, nomadic life, where the definition of ‘home’ has long been a moveable feast.

Writing an actual book is something I have wanted to do since I was about six years old, when I used to create little stories for grandparents and babysitters, with coloured paper, scissors and a stapler. So, it has been a long time coming, but today Songs on the Wind is officially a book with a proper cover and no need of staples; an eclectic collection of essays, articles, reviews and poems on eating and drinking, travel, local culture and expatriate life.

I named the original blog She Gathers No Moss after the age-old proverb ‘a rolling stone gathers no moss,’ as I felt it perfectly described my years of meandering around the world. But the publisher felt this may not ring bells with a Filipino audience. Somewhat belatedly, that got me thinking, and I went to Google to check the meaning.

According to Wikipedia, this popular adage is credited, not to Mick Jagger, but to Publilius Syrus, a Latin writer from Syria who was brought to Italy as a slave. He was later freed and educated by his master, and subsequently renowned for penning Sententiae.  (These are maxims, proverbs or adages – and yes, I went directly to Google search too – three times, in fact, just to translate that short paragraph.) Anyway, this particular proverb refers to people who are always moving; rootless individuals who like to avoid the normal round of responsibilities and cares –  sadly, rather negative connotations I hadn’t anticipated at all. However, the dictionary hurriedly reassured me that another interpretation makes a synonym of “moss” and “stagnation,” and therefore suggests that we gypsies are at least not stagnating, but burgeoning with fresh ideas or creativity. Not surprisingly, I like the second explanation rather better than the first.

Nonetheless, we decided to christen the book ‘Songs on The Wind,’ which sounded much more poetic. And I liked the way it depicted my life as a sort of wandering minstrel blown around the world by the winds of chance and opportunity, with no insinuations of irresponsibility, homelessness or flakiness.

The insinuation has stuck in my head, and niggles from time to time. Am I, in fact, flakey and uncommitted? Careless and slipshod? Certainly, I have dodged the bullet of picket fences and weekly lawn mowing for almost thirty years. Yet, thanks to Facebook, Skype and Gmail, not to mention Frequent Flyer Miles, I manage to keep in touch with family and friends. I may not be good at settling in one spot for too long, but whenever we unpack our suitcases, I swiftly set up home, find myself manning committees, joining social groups, building communities – not always easy in a world of expatriates, where friendships and contact lists can alter almost monthly as people come and go.

Returning to Manila in late July, after two years of regular absenteeism, I assumed the landscape would have changed considerably. Many of our original friends here had departed over the summer. Even our kids had gone for good. Was anyone left, or would I have to start all over again?

Last night proved otherwise. As I gazed about the room, about to start my readings, and as nervous as a mouse in a room full of street cats,  I realized the place was literally packed with familiar faces, beaming and nodding at me to take courage. A room full of friends I have known six years, six months – in one case barely six days – but kind, caring supportive friends nonetheless. And even a handful I had never met before, but hope to call friends too, very soon. Perhaps I’m not so flakey after all.

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Imelda:The People’s Princess

Imelda3“Filipinos want beauty. I have to look beautiful so that the poor Filipinos will have a star to look at from their slums.”  ~Imelda Marcos

Imelda Marcos, the iconic First Lady of the Philippines for twenty years, with her infamous penchant for shoes, handbags and butterfly sleeves. Imelda Marcos, renowned for ostentation and extravagant shopping, not to mention the misappropriation of government funds to support her habit.

‘Living La Vida Imelda’ is a a “gleefully gossipy” (New York Times), wickedly satirical perspective on the life and times of Imelda Marcos that goes well beyond these hackneyed clichés, created by performance artist Carlos Celdran and delivered with his inimitable slick humour and incorrigible irreverence.

I have been fortunate enough to see Celdran’s production in its various incarnations. First, as a lengthy three-hour tour of the Cultural Centre of the Philippines. Then as a one man show with human props at Silverlens Galleries in Makati. Finally, earlier this year,  a well-oiled solo performance edited to an hour and a half of non-stop banter and brouhaha in the quaint and quirky Pineapple Lab in Poblacion. Exclusive to ANZA (the Australia New Zealand Association), the performance proved to be a highly successful charity fundraiser.


As always, Celdran’s show was oversubscribed for the space, so we found ourselves pinned to the back wall and craning our necks for a view of the diminutive performer on the low stage at the front of the room. All was not lost, however. Celdran knows how to make his rich, expressive voice carry to every corner, so while we could only catch glimpses of his face, we could hear him perfectly clearly, and we could still see the hat rack bedecked in his ‘costume changes,’ the large historical and architectural images projected on the wall behind him, and the Vintage Peacock wicker chair.

Celdran weaves the myths of popular culture into a synopsis of Imelda’s role in the Marcos regime: her use of Hollywood glamour to win the hearts of world leaders and the people of the Philippines, despite the infamy of her Imelda1 (2)husband’s dictatorship, her own incredible extravagances and their joint reputations as kleptocrats.

Celdran’s wit is sharp, but it goes hand-in-hand with many unexpectedly poignant moments as we hear about her sad childhood, that notorious beauty pageant, her whirlwind romance with President-to-be, Ferdinand Marcos, and her increasing popularity with the masses, if not with the Establishment. ‘Living La Vida Imelda’ has become a much tighter show than it used to be, although I have a sneaking suspicion that Celdran reduces much of the time by simply talking faster.  But the cuts are effective, and the show has become much more polished.

And to kick-start the show, ANZA provided a generous bar and very tasty pica pica. It was a great – if noisy –  way to get the evening rolling. As a bonus, ticket prices included a donation to #vivamanila, a charity aimed at reviving arts and culture, community projects and collaborations in Intramuros, a project close to Celdran’s heart. From start to finish, it was a highly entertaining evening.

*Adapted from an article written for ANZA News, May 2016, and with thanks to the One & Only for his photos.




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Childhood Holidays

VWMy father found her hanging around outside the Australian Embassy on the Strand in London, just after Christmas 1975. She was already quite elderly, and ran out of puff at the mere mention of a hill. We called her Bella. I have no idea why Bella, or why we decided she was female. She was, in truth, an unfashionable VW campervan, or Kombi, white, weary and somewhat woebegone. We took her to Europe for a month every summer for four years, and somehow she lasted the distance, although I have memories of having to get out and walk when she chugged through the Italian Alps in second gear. I probably made that up.

Bella had a pop up roof: a triangular structure of red and white striped canvas. She had rough yellow and orange striped fabric seats that scratched the back of our bare legs just like the old British Rail seats did. The front passenger seat secreted a gas stove which meant tipping the seat up and cooking through the front door, whether or not it was raining. In the back, two dicky seats faced the rear, and a bench seat faced forward, and transformed into our parents double bed at night. Two canvas hammocks folded out from the roof, which meant that getting into bed involved clambering up over our parents bed and onto the sink. When the hammocks were out, Mum and Dad couldn’t sit up in bed without banging their heads on the metal support bars.

As there were four kids, we couldn’t all sleep in the van unless there was an emergency. Then the older two would have the hammocks, my younger sister would sleep across the front seats with a roll of foam filling the gap in the middle, and our smallest brother slept under the laminated table. For normal nights my father bought an upright green canvas annex that clipped – or rather clung – to the van’s sliding side door like the leaning tower of Pisa. It could stand alone, but perilously, as even the slightest breeze threatened to upturn it or send it flying like a kite across the campsite. All the tent pegs were permanently bent double, as every campsite in which we ever pitched that tent had rock-solid ground, which caused my father to grumble loudly, as the pegs bent and buckled, and he would frequently batter his thumb with the mallet trying to bash them into the not-so-good-earth. Also, the annex had no floor, which allowed rivers to flow through it when it rained. For a little security, Dad laid a ground sheet under the blue foam we used as a mattress. The foam got thinner and thinner with the passing years, and it was hardly thick to start with. Like the Princess and the Pea we could feel the tiniest pebble or root between our shoulder blades. Our cheap, blue nylon sleeping bags had different coloured linings and we would fight for the colour we preferred. Every night. And there we would sleep, lying in a neat row like electric blue sardines.

For entertainment we took books, a cricket bat for French cricket, a pack of Happy Family cards and a huge ream of img108computer paper on which my sister and I drew endless, identical, onion-headed beauty queens with felt tip pens, the only variation being the colour of their hair (brown, yellow or red) and eyes (blue, green or brown). And I guess their dresses were different colours, but probably identical styles, as neither of us had an ounce of artistic talent. Nevertheless, we would entertain our brothers for hours on long trips, making them the official judging panel of our glorious beauty queens.

Our trips to Europe inevitably included Italy and at least one flood. I remember one when I nearly got washed into Lago Maggiore, the sole remaining camper in our tortured tent.

On long trips, Mum would sit in the front trying to inspire us to admire the view. “Look kids! A castle!” Or “a river!” Or “a cow!” Anything, to tempt us to look up from our drawing/reading/card games. “Mmmmm,” we would mumble with no interest whatsoever. “Have you got Mr. Butcher?” “No. Go fish.” Sometimes she would instigate a singalong and we would all kneel up on the dicky seats and bellow into Dad’s ear, working our way through every tune we knew. Dad always requested ‘Lord of the Dance,’ so that years later I would use it in our wedding ceremony in his honour, an old friend playing it on the flute – all the verses – while we signed the register.

I sat up with Dad one night, not long before I would wend my own way back to Europe as a young adult, trying to see how much we could remember of those trips. Mostly, I had only snapshot memories: long forgotten images of a waterfall or a castle (surprisingly), a burning hot beach or a stomach churning boat trip.  I did recall, however, one restaurant on Lago di Como where Dad bravely ordered goat, and was served up a tureen with the entire skull complete with eyeballs, much to our unanimous disgust. And we still laugh at him for insisting that he loved Turkish coffee, only to be handed an undrinkable thimble of black silt.

Already designated the only keen writer in the family, I remember one year Dad encouraged me to keep a journal. I bought a giant notebook into which I stuck a tram ticket and a post card of a castle on the Rhine, a description of a torture chamber and some tedious details of our camp dinners, before I lost interest.  Mum struggled, with only two gas rings and a griller, to feed six people on plastic plates with tinny cutlery, squeezed around a wobbly folding table, so perhaps the less said about meals the better. Somehow we always managed to buy the last baguette in the boulangerie, which would be stale, dry and rock hard by dinner time, like the camp grounds. And I remember hating the saltless European butter and the gloopy margarine. Wasps invaded the strawberry jam and the UHT milk, always heavy, sweet and tepid, poured over stale cornflakes made me want to puke. Bella had no mini fridge, just a cold box, which always smelled damp and mildewed, for we rarely managed to keep it full of ice. Usually there was only a puddle of water in the bottom, in which the margarine and milk could paddle.  And there was a permanent, battered tin of Spam in the cupboard in case of emergencies. It sat there for four years, untouched, and it was rusty and probably poisonous by the time we sold the van.

img104Yet I remember those summers as unusually happy, family times, despite mum’s despair at trying to get all the clothes washed and dried in heavy rain. Our usually quarrelsome pack seemed to have an unspoken truce during that month away. We played together all day with barely a squabble, and I was allowed to read the bedtime story as we were all packed tightly into our sagging, drunken tent at 7.30pm, while the European kids played on through the long summer evenings, until eleven o’clock or midnight.

Bella was our summer holiday recreational vehicle, but also the family car. She came on picnics and family outings and weekend trips, and very occasionally she would do the school run – under duress – when it was too wet or snowy to walk. We could squeeze ridiculous numbers of children into the back, in an era when seatbelts were not yet obligatory, lounging across the bench seat, kneeling up on the dicky seats or sprawling over the bed at the back. When we returned to Australia four years later and we had to sell her on, it felt worse than leaving the family pet behind.

My parents have had a series of campervans since then, mostly boxy Nissans, and none as memorable, inefficiently designed, un-chic or beloved as Bella.

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Food for Thought

Delvoye5One of my favourite British TV shows is ‘Lost in Austen,’ a miniseries based on the premise that a 21st century anti-heroine suddenly finds herself in the middle of the plot of ‘Pride & Prejudice,’ filling in for a missing Elizabeth Bennett. And one of my favourite lines is when Mr. Wickham describes Lady Catherine de Bourgh as ‘the cloaca through which all society passes.’ I admit I had to go to the dictionary to find out what it meant, so in case you are equally at sea, a cloaca is ‘the common chamber into which the intestinal and urogenital tracts discharge especially in monotreme mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and elasmobranch fishes’ or simply, the anus or ‘posterior hole through which waste passes from the body.’

OK, before I lose you, there is a reason I am drawing your attention to such base matter. As a food writer, I have studied the correct table settings for an 18th century banquet, the contents of a mediaeval kitchen garden, the recipe books of the early twentieth century.  And I continuously indulge in many poetic and philosophical tales of dining, both past and present. But let’s face it, the inevitable result of a meal, however spectacular, delicious and Michelin starred is a trip to the comfort room, lavatory, loo or toilet. Yet it is an outcome to eating we generally prefer to ignore.

Not so Wim Delvoye, a Belgian artist based in Britain, who is renowned for his love of challenging our perspective on ‘life, the universe and everything.’  Or as Robert Enright wrote, “Delvoye is involved in a way of making art that reorients our understanding of how beauty can be created”.

Last month I got a good look at his offbeat interpretation of the world when I visited the Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean (Mudam) Luxembourg, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary with a retrospective on Wim Delvoye, Delvoye1the artist who contributed to its opening in 2006. The Mudam Gallery perches on the edge of Kirchenberg, the business park on the plateau above the mediaeval town of Luxembourg. Surrounded on three sides by woodland, and built on the remains of Fort Thüngen, it is described as ‘a marvellous dialogue between the natural and historical environment.’ And it is light and bright and spacious, made with a honey coloured limestone called Magny Doré, and plenty of glass. It is a great setting for Delvoye’s strange creations.

‘Basically, Wim Delvoye makes oxymorons’ says Michel Onfray in the gallery’s official gallery guide, his artwork
defined thus as contradictory, or incongruous. I disagree about contradictory, but incongruous I will allow. And Mr. Delvoye’s art is, without question, provocative.

Delvoye likes to make art out of the starkly industrial: carving floral motifs into huge, rubber tractor tyres that remind me of Indian soapstone carvings; a cement mixer carved from highly polished teak; another made of filigreed Delvoye4steelwork that resembles a Gothic cathedral; sawblades enameled in blue and white images like Dutch tiles and displayed in glass cabinets. Then there are others that mock the modern notion that bigger is better: the vast photographs of cliff faces inscribed with the mundane words of a Post-it note or toilet door. ‘SWEETHEART, OUT FOR PIZZA, BACK IN 10 MINS. GIANNI,’ or ‘RUDE BUT CUTE 18 YEAR OLD BABE 018 83 87 480.’ And then there are his live pigs tattooed in skulls and flowers and religious images.

‘I want to make fearless art’ he is reported as saying last year in the magazine Robb Report.

Perhaps his most fearless – certainly his most abrasive and bothersome pieces – are the many versions of his cloaca construction. Fusing art and science, Delvoye recreated the human digestive system,  after eight years of consultation with experts in plumbing and gastroenterology. He even installed a permanent, custom-built cloaca for MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania. The first one we came across in the Mudam looked a bit like a stationary steam engine. Using tanks and tubes, which he feeds with sugars and acids, gastric juices and real food, he examines in intriguing detail the journey from mouth to lavatory bowl, a daily bodily function that we publicly prefer to ignore, and yet cannot disconnect from the equally mundane, but less disturbing need to eat. Each cloaca is a digestive machine that processes what goes in, and passes out the waste product from a sausage machine at the end, like a dollop of human poo. Apparently, you can even buy jars of this fecal by-product suspended in resin in his store. Useless art? Totally. I guess that’s his point. And yet as a representation of a necessary human function, why is it less attractive than all those paintings we love of family gatherings around the dining table or a still life of food and fruit bowls? Beautiful porcelain crockery? Waterford crystal glasses?Delvoye6

Poo may not be pretty, but Delvoye will not allow it to hide from public view. It is on display in the centre of the floor
like the metaphorical elephant in the room. Like the King’s commode. An obvious, unalterable, uncomfortable truth that we prefer to ignore.

I came away enlightened and impressed. But if I am honest, I would still prefer a reproduction of P.S. Krøyer’s oil painting of a 19th century luncheon party, Renoir’s ‘Luncheon of the Boating Party,’ or even Da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ in my living room to one of Delvoye’s jars of faeces in amber!

*With thanks to Google Images for providing the pics after a glitch in modern technology swallowed all our photos!

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Stream of Consciousness

IMG_0089 (2)Earlier this year, back home in Manila, the Metropolitan Museum held a fascinating and unusual exhibition. “Tapas: Spanish Design for Food,” presented by Accion Cultural Espanola, the Instituto Cervantes Manila and the Spanish Embassy, was a display of food, kitchen implements and dining utensils used by some of the top Spanish restaurants specializing in degustation menus, where food is served up in small, bite-sized portions, like tapas. As pica pica are to the Philippines, so are tapas to the Spanish: small bar snacks or platters served with a glass of wine. Tapas come in all shapes and sizes and prices, from a dish of hot patatas bravas to sizzling slices of chorizo, croquettes to calamares, sardines to slices of jamón. Legends abound on the origin of tapa, but the most commonsensical one suggests that King Alfonso X, known as El Sabio or “The Wise One,” wanted to ensure that innkeepers were serving their customers both food and wine to soak up the alcohol and prevent drunk and disorderly behavior.

The Tapas exhibition was an elaborate feast of culinary design with a hearty sprinkle of imagination, quirky humour and whimsy: a foosball table cum dining table; a serving platter in the shape of a painter’s palette; some tongue-in-cheek graphic designs on regional wine labels; an aluminium plate that resembled a slice of toast; a fruit bowl made from a recycled net bag for oranges; a ceramic, scented ‘madeleine’ – the Parisian cake that evoked Proust’s childhood memories. I found myself wishing for a ‘library’ that would lend me an assortment of creative crockery for my next dinner party.

The curator had done a marvelous job of explaining the thought processes and the uses of the various items and implements, explaining that “top flight Spanish cuisine as practiced by elBuli, el Celler de Can Rocca  and Mugaritz… [is] experiencing an international boom in which design has become a constant ally in the quest for development and innovation.” I wandered back and forth for ages, each time round noting some fascinating piece I had missed before.

The exhibition went hand in hand with the 2016 edition of Madrid Fusion Manila (MFM). This international MFMgastronomy congress originated in Madrid, but last year the organizers were persuaded to relocate to Manila. I attended the inaugural event at SMX Convention Centre, and experienced an amazing and novel culinary collaboration between Spain and the Philippines. The conference featured ten Michelin star chefs from Spain and Asia, and ten of our best Filipino chefs in what became “an exhilarating gastronomic conversation between the Philippines and Spain,” in which traditional culinary techniques were reinvented and the latest innovations were explored. This year, to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the Galleon Trade that linked Asia with Europe and South America, the conference was entitled ‘The Manila Galleon: East Meets West’ and the conversation was expanded to include chefs from Peru and Mexico.

One of the guest speakers was Joan Roca who, with his two brothers, has earned 3 Michelin stars for their restaurant el Celler de Can Roca. The MFM website waxed lyrical about this ‘lord of the kitchen’ and his ‘bastion of contemporary cuisine par excellence,’ who perfectly combines ‘traditional classic cuisine, the food from his region, with the most advanced techniques’. The three brothers have worked together for thirty years, and Joan is quoted as saying We collaborate on everything.”  French-English chef Michael Roux OBE has described it as “one of the top restaurants in Europe” and renowned food critic A.A. Gill called it “an outstanding kitchen, and part of the great confident wave of ‘technically exhausting’ Spanish food.” The restaurant was awarded its first Michelin star in 1995, a second in 2002, and the third in 2009. Last year, el Celler de Can Roca was flagged as the world’s premier restaurant at the 2015 “World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards,” a list compiled by a panel of global industry experts.

Much to my disappointment I was not in Manila in April to attend this year’s MFM event, but I was lucky enough to be in Spain this summer, just in time to join some good friends from Manila on their annual pilgrimage to this exceptional restaurant in Girona, just north of Barcelona.

The Roca brothers are Joan, head chef; Josep, sommelier, and Jordi, patisserie chef in charge of desserts. The brothers first opened their restaurant, a joint venture, in 1986, not far from their family’s bar and restaurant. Their parents opened the original Can Roca in 1967, and growing up in the restaurant initially sparked the boys interest in cooking. Later, the three brothers would take a five-week trip to North and South America which inspired them to blend the Americas with the Mediterranean. And it was apparent that his trip to the Philippines has also influenced Joan’s menu, with glimpses of Filipino ingredients. In a recent interview with the UK’s Evening Standard, Joan is quoted as saying “I always take something from the places I visit back to our restaurant, sometimes in a conscious way, sometimes in an unconscious way among the memories.”

In 2007 el Celler de Can Roca made a hundred metre journey to its current, purpose built restaurant where modern and traditional concepts are reflected in both the building and the cooking. The kitchen is located on the ground floor of the original old building, the dining room is an alluring blend of space, simplicity and light with glass walls, uncluttered tables and a large, triangular atrium in the centre, filled with angular saplings. Three stones sit on each table to represent the three brothers.

Arriving early, I was able peek into the well-ordered kitchens before the lunch service got too busy. Thirty chefs were quietly working to plate up some of the seven to seventeen dishes on the two degustation menus: Classic or Feast. Joan has an open plan office by the entrance, well-stocked with cookery books, where he can keep a close eye on all the activity. Today, all three brothers were in attendance, so I was able to meet them all, albeit briefly, in the course of the afternoon.

As we settled at our table, our waiter presented us with two encyclopedia sized wine lists, one for red wines, one for white, which left me completely gobsmacked, and wishing I had done some weight lifting practice beforehand. Pages and of red wines, pages of white, primarily Spanish and French, with a slight nod to some of the best New World wines. So, sipping on a cold, crispy cava, we waited with baited breath for the first dish. We had chosen to indulge in the daunting fourteen course menu, ‘Feast’ although my teenage namesake wisely selected the Classic menu with only seven clourses. Both menus make much use of local ingredients from Catalonia, and Joan introduces some fascinating flavour combinations combined with a strong element of molecular gastronomy and some truly incredible and elegant presentations. I am not exaggerating to say that el Celler de Can Roca is on the cutting edge of scientific, culinary, and creative innovation. It was quite an extraordinary spectacle, in a way that made me think of Dorothy landing in Oz and suddenly her black and white world turned into a technicolour fantasy.

The performance began with a round paper lampshade encasing a miniature hat rack. Well, that’s what it looked like. Introduced as a bit of a game, this showstopper was called The World, and included five amuse bouche, each providing flavours from different countries. The game was to identify which five countries were represented. The countries can vary, apparently, but our version was Thailand, Peru, Korea, China and Japan and I am proud to say I got them all right.

Girona (1)The next course was literally a piece of theatre, in honour of the Rocas favourite bar in the suburbs of Girona. We were presented with a white cardboard stage set, decorated with photographs of the three brothers, with five more amuse bouche laid out on tiny cardboard tables, including a pomelo pink ball that melted on the tongue, and filled our mouths with Campari. It felt like something from Honeydukes, the magical sweet shop in Hogsmeade.

When I was wandering through the kitchens at El Celler, one of the things that caught my eye was a counter covered  in twisted, bonsai, olive trees. A single tree was now brought to the table and placed in the centre. From the knotted branches hung several small olives. Only they weren’t olives, but tiny balls of olive ice cream in a creamy green coating similar to that on a Magnum. For some reason it brought to mind song about the Partridge in a Pear Tree.

With every dish there was an unexpected twist, and I enjoyed the focus on eye-catchingGirona (3), creative presentation, especially in light of the exhibition in Manila. Three white asparagus tips sprinkled in tiny white elderflowers encircled a dollop of what appeared to be – and tasted like – ice cream but was described on the menu as a ginger and acacia honey hollandaise sauce. Another looked like a small, fat donut or bunt cake on a tactile, matt black plate, but tasted like apple Danish, with an unexpectedly lush base of duck liver. In fact an apple timbale, the apple and foie gras was an immensely satisfying flavour combination. And then, surprise, surprise, the slice of grey toast we had Girona (2)admired in the Metropolitan six weeks earlier appeared in front of us, on which sat four ping pong balls, each topped with a thin slice of mushroom, labelled St. George mushroom brioche and bonbons.

Seafood played a starring role in many of the courses. For example, a fat pink starfish, which turned out to be a delicate and dreamy prawn mousse, arrived on a seaweed wafer, arranged on a strip of fisherman’s net.

After a solid run of seafood, a welcome change of pace in the shape of a neat slice of Iberian suckling pig, complete Girona (7)with crackling, accompanied by a tropical salad of green papaya, pomelo, coriander, chilli and lime, a definitive nod to Joan’s recent visit to the Philippines. Ridiculously – I had only been away a few weeks –  the familiar flavours made me positively nostalgic. A couple more meat dishes followed, before the unexpected arrival of a platter of red sorbet noses – yes, really – as a palate cleanser before dessert, with a definite aroma and flavour of the Eastern Mediterranean.  Potpourri mixed with Turkish delight? More specifically, rosewater and pistachio. And apparently the model for these large noses is Jordi’s own.

Girona (8)The most interesting of the three desserts that followed was, without a doubt, “Orange colourology.” How to describe this is proving difficult, and I am getting no help from the menu which is remarkably lacking on description, so please excuse my somewhat awkward efforts, as I attempt to explain. It looked like a large, single orb of frog spawn, resting on a bed of grated carrot. (I would absolutely adore to know how this was created, but cannot begin to imagine.) The opaque golden globe seemed to be made of sugar, and we were told to crack it like a soft boiled egg, or a miniature piñata. When opened, a confetti of coloured petals – pansies – drifted out, and underneath sat a pile of light and refreshing orange flavoured sorbet balls, a little smaller than the polystyrene balls in a beanbag.

Some four or more hours later, we retired to the lovely outdoor courtyard, to relax under the trees with tiny caste iron pots of tea and dishes of petit fours or mignardises: macarons; almond-shaped financiers; and a glamorous, golden truffle, like a Ferrero Rocher chocolate in an edible gilded coat, all of which we had observed earlier on a dessert trolley that looked like something the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang would have loved. And our fantasy lunch was over, and we were back in Kansas.

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The Chequers, The Chasers and a Country Market

IMG_0678While everyone here has been complaining that the English summer has been grim, with endless pouring rain and much flooding, since I arrived two weeks ago, the weather has been sublime and, thanks to all that rain, the countryside is blooming and exuberantly, gloriously green.  I have wandered over heathland and through beechwoods, down country lanes and across wheat fields, up hills and down dales, and almost worn holes in my walking boots. Along the way I have passed many a country pub.  And let’s face it, England is bursting at the seams with them, for the British public house has long been an ubiquitous part of the landscape. I even went looking for a couple of old favourites.

Since the 1970s my family have often, if intermittently, driven down to the tiny Kentish hamlet of Heaverham (pronounced hee-ver-um), past sunshine-yellow rape  that fills broad fields with gay abandon, past prim rows of strawberries at Stonepitts Farm, dodging walkers who wander merrily down the narrow, twisting lanes thickly bordered with hawthorn hedges. A small oast house (a Kentish barn in which to dry the hops for making beer) stood crumbling at the crossroads for years and we would risk our necks to clamber up the rickety wooden staircase on the outer wall. Since then it has been salvaged from rack and ruin and converted into a pretty and somewhat unorthodox home with its roundel and conical roof like an inverted ice-cream cone.

Around the bend is a large meadow dotted with tiny white daisies and wooden picnic tables, some stray rose bushes, a murky pond, a large carpark, and a small,  squat, sixteenth century pub, its doorstep flush with the edge of the road, its outer walls covered thickly in Virginia creeper.   A black and white sign depicts two men, in jackets and ties, playingChequers (2) chequers. Inside, there is a small public bar to the left and a smaller bar overlooking a cosy dining room to the right. The ceilings are low and the thick wooden beams are decorated with copper pots and pans. Local artists bedeck the wattle and daub walls with paintings of country scenes and wildflowers, bronze oil lamps squat on the deep window sills and low beams clatter unwary heads. Little has changed since my childhood except the management, although the pond has been fenced off to save any small and adventurous paddlers from taking an unexpected swim. And the menu offers a solid selection of staunchly British pub fare such as steak and kidney pudding, haddock and chips, Eton Mess and bread and butter pudding, all of which we happily consume for a birthday lunch.

Heading five miles south, to Stumble Hill in Shipbourne – pronounced shih-bun – at the foot of a greensand ridge, I find another old favourite, bejewelled with brightly coloured hanging baskets. The Chasers Inn overlooks the road to Plaxtol and the broad village green. At the back of the beer garden  rises the square tower of the nineteenth century church of St Giles. Both church and pub were built by then owner of the local Fairlawne Estate, Edward Cazalet. I have been dropping in here since our oldest was tiny, so small that she could slip through the kissing gate and get lost amongst the corn in the field behind the churchyard. And it is good to see it is as popular as ever.

On a balmy summer evening, we find a table beneath a weeping willow in the beer garden, and watch small children potter round the lawn as we sip our G&Ts and nibble our way through two sharing platters, piled high with cheese and cornichons, garlic sausage and pastrami. The church clock behind us dongs dolefully on the hour, every hour and the sun sinks oh-so-slowly towards the ridge. Inside there are several eating areas, including a long dining room with a vaulted timber ceiling and a patio that once provided more open-air dining, but has now been elegantly roofed with frosted glass: a nod to England’s unpredictable climate. In winter we have cuddled up beside roaring log fires, surrounded by book shelves and a busy central bar.

Should you be passing through Shipbourne on a Thursday morning there is a great little market at the church, with a selection of stalls lining the path to the double lychgate, where the vicar once greeted the coffins heading for the shady cemetery beside the church. The lychgate, like the church, is Victorian and both are grade II listed, which means that it may not be demolished, extended or altered without special permission from the local planning authority.  Some of the Shipbourne3gravestones are much older, as the original church on this site was built in the 14th century, was completely rebuilt in 1722 and again  in 188o. Apparently one tomb, dated 1714, tells of the servant of a local parishioner who lost his life in a dismal manner to the grief of all his friends [said to have been shot]. 

Back at the market, we meander round the stalls. Boughton Alpaca sells hand knitted hats and jumpers, and the stall holder is still knitting as she chats to passers-by. Annabelle from Renhurst Farm sells my friend’s favourite ham, as well as sausages, pies and quiches, beef, pork and lamb. There are fresh fish, fresh vegetables and fresh flowers. Our wicker basket is soon a positive bouquet of colour: rosy tomatoes, deep red cherries, and a delicious bunch of electric blue cornflowers and bright orange Californian poppies.

Inside the church, more stalls have been set up on boards that straddle the pews, displaying local honey and cheeses, duck eggs and cupcakes, homemade breads and pickles, jams and cobnut oil. I am packing up and moving on tomorrow, but can’t resist carrying off a couple of pretty cupcakes sprinkled with edible glitter. We are heading home for a breakfast of scrambled eggs and Annabelle’s ham, but we could have popped back to the Chasers who provide a full English breakfast and friendly service on market day.



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Lyon, Gastronomic Capital of France

Lyon (8)Lyon,  a city of churches and bridges, “trompe l’œil” and Roman ruins, sits cosily on the confluence of the Rhone and the Saone rivers in central France. Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is also a city renowned for its cuisine and gastronomy.  Lyon was first pronounced the world capital of gastronomy in 1935, by a famous French food writer, Maurice Edmond Sailland (better known by his nom de plume ‘Curnonsky’) and the title has stuck.  But Lyon has long been connected with a love of quality food.

In the sixteenth century, the Florentine chefs of the new Italian Queen, Catherine de Medici, prepared dishes from fresh, regional produce, thus introducing many regional specialities to the Court. With its central location, Lyon soon became the culinary crossroads for food purveyors and regional cuisines. Working class cooks did not waste any part of the animals they butchered, and their fondness for offal is reflected in the local dishes that began to evolve. For a while, it also divided them from the more expensive tastes of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, who could afford to be more finicky about their food.

Then, during the industrial revolution of the eighteenth century, a number of female cooks – les mères lyonnaises – started leaving the kitchens of the bourgeoisie to establish their own eating houses with an emphasis on simple home cooking – and of course, offal – where they provided meals for the growing working classes. Eventually, the bourgeoisie came to frequent these establishments too, and the reputation of les mères lyonnaises was spread further abroad.

Eugénie Brazier, the first female chef to earn three Michelin stars way back in 1933, and the first ever French chef to earn three Michelin stars for two restaurants simultaneously, was trained by one of the most renowned of these, MèreLyon (9) Filliou. She in her turn, would train local celebrity chef Paul Bocuse, currently considered the Ambassador of French cuisine thanks to his award winning development of nouvelle cuisine. Bocuse has several restaurants in and around Lyon: a chain of brasseries – Nord, Sud, Est and Ouest – and the prestigious L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, which boasts three Michelin stars. L’Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon is recognized as one of the country’s top culinary and hospitality schools, and Bocuse also gave his name to the covered food market, Les Halles de Lyon, home to top quality, top priced gourmet food since 1971. The Bocuse d’Or has long been amongst the most prestigious culinary awards in the world.

The Lyonnaises, like the Filipinos, love to eat out and there are myriad restaurants across the city, including many bouchons that serve traditional Lyonnaise cuisine, and what I heard one food writer describe as ‘nose-to-tail dishes’.

I knew none of this, the day we jumped from the tram to lunch at Brasserie Georges, a restaurant that has stood the test of time – one hundred and eighty years’ worth – and is apparently one of the largest brasseries in Europe as well as the oldest. Originally located on the cross roads where the stage coaches passed, the Alsatian owner later persuaded town authorities to build the main railway station next door. Here, on a nineteenth century red leather banquette, we caught up on all the news over a carafe of Cote du Rhone and fois gras. Restyled in 1924 in Art Deco, with artwork using food related themes, Brasserie Georges it now a piece of Lyonnaise culinary and architectural heritage.

Lyon (3)The next day we wandered through the lovely tree-lined streets of Haussmann’s Presqu’île and along Rue de Marroniers or Road of the Chestnut Trees. Isn’t that poetic? This narrow cobbled street is lined, not only with  trees but with an endless string of quaint little cafes and restaurants. We eventually came to a halt at ‘Chabert and Fils,’ where the menu was overflowing with such local delicacies as tripe sausages (andouilettes), black pudding and lambs’ brains. I passed over a dish of veal head and tongue – tête de veau sauce gribiche – in favour of a set menu that included a dozen snails (escargots) heavily doused in garlic and parsley (persillage) and sizzling frogs’ legs (grenouilles) that looked – and tasted – like mini buffalo wings, and were also swimming laps around the plate in a sea of garlic.

Trying to break into the snail shells proved to be a skill I had to learn on the spot or starve. Armed with a two-pronged cocktail fork and a pair of tongs that looked suspiciously like an eyelash curler, apparently I had to grip the shell firmly in the tongs while digging the fork down into the mouth of the shell to hook the snail, before twisting and tugging it out like a reluctant booger. Slick with garlic butter, the shells kept sliding out of my grip until I was shown how to pinch the tongs tightly at the neck. Some of the snails had buried themselves so deeply in their shells that it proved more efficient, if less sophisticated, to crack a hole in the shell and smuggle the snail out through the back door. It was a lot of effort for a morsel of rather rubbery gastropod that tasted primarily of garlic, and was swallowed down like an oyster.  Arriving in a sizzling hot dish, the frogs’ legs proved equally as tricky I nibbled around tiny bones for a skerrick of meat while the butter cascaded down my fingers. While I was much amused by my own untidy efforts, I had overdosed on garlic long before I had finished eating the generous heap of Kermit’s limbs. Luckily a carafe of the local wine helped to wash away the dominant taste of garlic.

There was an interesting tale behind these carafes or ‘pots.’ Still used to serve wine in the traditional Lyonnaise
ecf-pots-lyonnais-001818restaurants or ‘bouchons,’ the ‘Pot Lyonnais’ holds only 460ml instead of the standard half litre. In past centuries, local silk weavers received half a litre of wine daily (or weekly, depending on who is telling the story) as part of their wages, decanted from a large barrel into individual bottles. However, corrupt employers decided to claim a glass for themselves out of every 50cl they gave away by serving it up in a bottle ‘trimmed’ to 46cl by a thick glass base. Very cheeky!

On day three we caught the metro across town and walked up the hill through the old silk weavers district on the steep, staircase-ridden slopes of Croix-Rousse, where we discovered the historic passageways or traboules. These narrow passageways are public short-cuts through the middle of buildings that link streets on either side. We also found a number of pretty plazas, broad and leafy, edged with restaurants. Eventually we paused for lunch and I had my last chance to try some traditional Lyonnaise dishes. The starter was a moreish and meaty terrine de campagne, served with cornichons (those tiny pickled gherkins).

At cookery school I learned to make quenelles with teaspoons spoons, usually bite-sized, like gnocchi tossed into a bisque as a garnish. This quenelle was huge and heavy, and shaped like a small rugby ball, or, more traditionally, tétons de Vénus (‘breasts of Venus’).  Quenelles are made from fish forcemeat, poached and paddling in a shallow bath of lightly flavoured lobster bisque.  With the consistency and texture of polenta, the quenelle makes a hearty lunch, the word is apparently derived from the German word for dumpling: knödel.

Lyon (2)Deciding we would need to share as the best way to taste as much as possible, my friend chose the quenelle, while I ordered the saucissons pistache. These are fat, pink, pork sausages studded with pistachios and served with boiled potatoes, in this case, a popular local variety known as amandine. Personally, I would have liked a pot of mustard, an apple sauce or fruit chutney to accompany this rather dry sausage, but it was, nonetheless, very tasty. In the meantime, my vertically challenged gourmands (aged seven and nine) were hoeing into their favourite steak tartare, emboldening the raw beef with lashings of Tabasco sauce. By the time they were done, their plates had been licked clean.

Dessert was a choice of crème caramel or fromage blanc faiselle, a soft, local, fresh cheese like a firm natural yoghurt, sweetened with a strawberry sauce, (or perhaps honey). I chose the cheese, and it was just what I like: a savoury, slightly sour cheese splashed with a sweet, fruity sauce. And a coffee. Not to mention the last of the summer wine – red white and rosé.  After our liberal doses of Lyonnaise cuisine, we retired, ironically, to a good old English pub on the banks of the Rhone, to drink Aperol Spritz and play card games till closing time. The Elephant & Castle is at the foot of the old town (la vieille ville), and British expatriates gather here daily. At least until the EU boot them back behind their own borders…


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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 to 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 emerges, 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 piccolacucina4There 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, like magic a plastic trestle table appears next door in the owner’s front garden, decked out with cutlery, tumblers, 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 satisfying display of texture, colour and 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 serving of tiny gnocchi mixed with spinach, pecorino and fagoli (white kidney beans),  another of fagioli in a fresh tomato sauce, and 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 heaters and the Lambrusco keep us warm, 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 I am 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. Lacking the usual and 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. Rigatoni and melanzane, thick with melted cheese, it tastes like moussaka, the cheese trailing from bowl to plate like spider’s silk. Penultimately, a third bowl of pasta: short pasta tubes (ditalini? calamarata?) tossed together with fennel sausages in a spinach and tomato sauce. (The children may have 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, literally and metaphorically, that lives up to the Italian reputation for quality food and generous hospitality. We come away replete and happy, feeling we have found a new friend and enjoyed una casa lontano da casa: a home away from home.

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