Umami: The Fifth Taste

umami (2)Salt, sweet, sour, bitter. I am assuming we have known about these four taste categories since Sesame Street was a dirt track through the woods. Each one tells our taste buds about what we are putting in our mouths, and whether it is safe to eat.  For example, a sour taste, or acidity can alert the brain that the fruit is not ripe, or the milk off, and may upset our stomach – or, alternatively that it is our favourite citrus-based lolly. Sweetness identifies energy-rich – and potentially fattening – foods. Bitterness may warn us of something poisonous, something addictive, like coffee, or something we love like arugula. Salt says… more beer with your fish and chips?

And then the Japanese invented umami. Which is what, exactly? It seems umami is difficult to translate. savoury? Tasty?  Delicious?  What it adds to our meals defies an easy descriptor. In technical terms it introduces our taste buds to glutamates, inosinates and guanylates. Simply, these three ingredients in our food combine to create that element of mouthwatering flavour lacking in, say, tapioca or rice. Umami enhances other flavours, making our food tastier and indicating protein-rich foods. Remarkably – as I discovered recently in Japan without understanding the significance – it also makes a little go a long way, by giving you a sense of being full much quicker.

A Japanese chemist first pinpointed and name the fifth taste in 1908, having discovered it in the depths of a bowl of seaweed soup (kombu dashi). Kombu dashi is an exceedingly simple broth made from kombu (seaweed) and katsuobushi  (dried bonito, a smaller cousin to the tuna).  Kombu has the highest glutamate score in the world. Katsuobushi is one of the wealthiest source of isonates. Together they packs a real punch on the umami scale. One to ten? Eleven.

Despite its undeniable x factor, scientists would debate its existence for decades, but finally, in 1985, the term umami was formally recognized, and the culinary world has followed hot on its heels. Although perhaps the chefs had recognized it all along, as that magical, nameless element that added the oomph to a watery soup, a mundaneumami3 bowl of pasta or an insipid stew. Umami is what adds mouth-watering words like piquant, pungent, spicy, scrumptious, luscious, sumptuous, appetizing, ambrosial, delectable and delicious to the menu, and drowns out the damning dullness of antonyms like banal, bland, boring, insipid, uninspiring, and pedestrian.

And here the lecture ends, and the fun begins. Last week I met umami in the flesh when the Japanese Team from our club of trailing spouses turned on a show in Dasmarinas to introduce us wayward westerners to “Umami: the fifth taste of Japanese Cuisine.” Which is not to say I haven’t met it before, but we had never been formally introduced,
although I did bump into it unwittingly on several occasions in Japan recently.

While our chefs bustled about in the kitchen, brewing up the ‘ones I prepared earlier,’ we, the audience, admired a pair of kimonos, or rather yukata, the summer version, on display in the entrance hall. Several ladies were persuaded to model some other ones, and we all cooed at the results and the glorious fabrics. Quite a crowd had gathered by the time we finally squeezed into seats around the demonstration kitchen that had been set up in the dining room.  The menu was simple and our teacher, Satomi Kondo, was efficient and informative – through her very able translator, Mio Ishida – providing us with half a dozen quick and easy meals. At the core of each meal was the umami rich dashi broth.

umami1Gyūdon means beef in a bowl. It is a popular Japanese dish of rice topped with onion and thinly sliced beef (sukiyaki style), simmered in dashi, and flavoured with soy sauce and mirin, that sticky, sweet rice wine.  It is traditionally served with pickled ginger. Beef only wandered onto Japanese tables in the late nineteenth century, when the Emperor Meiji opened the long-sealed doors to the west, transforming a feudal society into a modern civilization, and adopting many western customs. Not being one for boiled meat, I was happily surprised by the sweet and savoury flavour of this dish.

We were then shown how to cook the rice in a traditional clay pot, or donabe, learning to rinse the rice three times using the heel of our hand to grind the starch from the rice. This allowed the rice to better absorb the water, and soften as it cooked. By the time the rice has been rinsed and soaked in water for 30 minutes, abracadabra it had swollen to a considerably greater volume than we started with. The process of then cooking it in the clay pot over a gas flame had me reaching for my electric rice cooker: bring to boil for 7 minutes; turn heat to medium for another 7 minutes; and finally cook for yet another 7 minutes on a low flame. Then remove from the heat and allow to sit for 5 minutes. I’m sure it would taste better than mine, but I’m not sure if I have the patience. I would probably wander off and boil the pot dry. Nonetheless it was a lovely process to watch – something like making an English pot of tea.

And we learned to make dashi from scratch with konbu seaweed – paper thin strips or sheets the colour of licorice – katsuobushiand katsuobushi, or bonito flakes that soak in the stock like bay leaves. While the dried seaweed was rehydrating in a warm bath, we examined the katsuobushi, which looked like a lump of fossilized wood and felt surprisingly heavy in our hands. Smoked, fermented and dried, it is then shaved with a special tool: a katsuobushi kezuriki, like a carpenter’s plane, while the results appear identical to the curly wood shavings we would use to make beards on our collage portraits at school. Luckily they didn’t taste the same. The smoky, salty bonito curls almost melt on your tongue, and apparently make a moreish snack, as well as a vital seasoning for dashi. Laughing, most of the Japanese ladies admitted they usually resort to the ‘instant’ variety that comes in a stick, a bit like our chicken stock cubes.

Our instructor then followed up with sumashi and miso soups which both use dashi as a base stock, to which can be added a variety of ingredients such as tofu, spinach or shiitake mushrooms. Finally, the ubiquitous bonito broth was boiled with mirin and soy sauce to make a sauce to go with cold noodles or tempura.

The buffet lunch that followed was a splendid spread, which we loaded onto our black lacquered trays with glee. First, the gyudon put in an appearance, topped with red pickled ginger. I also collected a petit pot of Japanese pickled vegetables. Then there was a platter of crispy chicken karaage: bite sized pieces of chicken marinated in ginger, garlic and soy sauce, then coated in potato starch and fried – a sophisticated KFC. The tamagoyaki or rolled omlette was unexpectedly sweet and heavy on the tongue, but could be balanced by the green vegetables – okra and beans – marinated in a light sesame sauce, known as goma-ae in Japanese. A potato salad seemed strangely out of place at a Japanese lunch, but, adopted from America, the Japanese have made it their own, and I found it in many restaurants in Japan: chunky spuds with a sprinkle of ham and chives, and a much lighter, tangier mayonnaise than you will find in the west. A tiny container of green tea noodles and sauce looked like spaghetti in pesto, but had that unusual taste of tannin: slightly drying, slightly bitter. And of course, a melamine lidded bowl with miso soup, garnished with a fingernail-sized gluten flower.

umami5Dessert? Thick and almost savoury maccha pudding, like panacotta, flavoured with green tea, topped with a splash of sweet red bean paste and a dollop of whipped cream. Yum! Our hostesses finished off their performance with a short tea ceremony, giving us each a taster of both sencha and houjicha green teas Sencha, like most green teas, is simply infused in hot water. Houjicha is traditionally roasted in a porcelain pot over charcoal, which alters its colour from green to a reddish-brown and adds an appealing smoky layer to the tannin flavour.

The grand finale was a performance by an extremely talented young man, Mr. Yu Miyoshi, who had come along in hisumami6 lunch hour to introduce us to the traditional Japanese 13-stringed zither or Koto. A beautiful piece of highly polished striated kiri wood, it was topped with a complex fretwork of strings and bridges, which he plucked and swept skillfully with three fingers tipped with metal plectra. Having moved to Manila last year, Mr. Miyoshi uses his spare time to give recitals and introduce Japanese Koto music.

If there is an instrument that illustrates a musical version of umami, this is it.

*With thanks to my good friend June Vann for her photographs. My new camera, you ask? The battery was flat. Of course.

Posted in Food & Wine, Lifestyle | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Celebrating Life & Death: All Souls Day in Vigan

2014_11_01_2976It’s the week before All Hallows Eve, or Halloween. Vigan, a Unesco Heritage town in North West Luzon, is humming. It is Raniag, or the Twilight Festival, and the streets are overflowing with large family groups – locals and visitors, mostly Filipinos – eating, chatting, taking selfies, smiling, laughing, shopping for souvenirs, riding in kalesas pulled by anxious ponies skipping across the cobblestones, or squeezing into the not-so-roomy tricycles that burp and buzz around the city streets.

Every evening this week there have been special events all over town: a candle floating ceremony, (similar to the Thai festival of Loi Kratong) on the Mestizo River to cleanse the community of bad luck and negative vibes, and thanks God for his gifts from the river and the sea. Then there is the flight of the sky lanterns – I imagine that scene from ‘Tangled’ when hundreds of lanterns flood the night sky like a papery Milky Way. A parade, a costume party, a dance competition, a Zombie fun run: it’s party week and the city is thrumming with excitement. And it all culminates at the cemetery on All Souls Day.

All Souls Day is as important as Christmas for Filipino family gatherings, although the focus this time is not on a birth, but on the dead. The cemeteries on Saturday night are choc-a-block with families gathering around the tombs and graves of their loved ones. Traditionally a religious day of observance, even in the grave yards – perhaps especially in the grave yards – it seems more of a celebration, as Filipino families gather to visit their dead relations, clean and repaint family tombstones and cover them in candles, flowers and prayers. Plastic chairs and picnics abound. It is a family reunion that extends to all the deceased family members too, with all the traditional accoutrements of a feast day: food; community; party. The cemeteries are surrounded by stall holders cooking chicken and pork on sticks, corn on the cob, empanadas, ice creams, while the kids scuttle among the gravestones.

All week the restaurants are packed with tables for ten, twelve, twenty. Where ten or twelve are gathered together there will be merienda, lunch, dinner, food… but we are only two.  So when we wander in for lunch, a deux, we inevitably end up feeling like a Nigel-No-Friends, or looking like Baby, inevitably stuck in the corner. It is, nevertheless, fascinating to simply sit and watch the proceedings.

Vigan is a particularly pretty setting for all these festivities, with its broad squares, a towering church and numerous
Spanish colonial houses that are now protected by UNESCO World Heritage. One long, cobbled street, Calle 2014_11_01_2988Crisologo, is lined with houses over two hubdred years old, in various states of disrepair, but finally, miraculously on the mend. A few have been gutted and beautifully renovated, often into stylish hotels, like the glorious hotel Veneto de Vigan we discovered in the centre of town. It only opened this year, and it is a gorgeous renovation. Broad, highly polished wooden floorboards squeak chattily underfoot. Mosaic tiles swirl and twirl across the lower floor and courtyard. Bright green leafy vines scattered with purple flowers have been stenciled lovingly onto the ceilings. The staff is numerous and welcomes us joyfully every time we pass, as if they are really pleased to see us after a long journey, not just a half hour stroll to the antique shop at the end of the lane.

Around the corner, the Syquia Mansion, once the home of sixth Filipino President, Elpidio Rivera Quirino has been well maintained in its original form, and is now open to the public as a museum in remembrance of one of its first families. It is fascinating to wander amongst the wide, shady rooms filled with Venetian glass mirrors, enormous family portraits and antique furniture of centuries past. A family chapel in the centre of the house puzzles peering tourists with its reflective windows. A roof top garden welcomes the sun.

Similarly, the Crisologo home across town has been converted into a museum to the memory of assassinated local Congressman Floro S. Crisologo, shot in the head during a Sunday service at the local cathedral. Guides take you proudly through rooms full of memorabilia belonging to this famous politician and his equally renowned wife, Carmeling, once Governor of Vigan. A rather gruesome exhibit in Crisologo’s office shows photographs of the corpse, newspaper clippings about the attack, and the bloodied clothing of the late congressman. You may also wish to examine the family car in which his wife survived an earlier assassination attempt while she was pregnant with their fifth child. The little boy was consequently nicknamed Bullet in recognition of this prenatal flirtation with death. While there is some focus on the obvious family dramas and tragedies, the house is also a fascinating example of life in a Spanish colonial house: the Governor’s changing room containing many of her frocks and shoes; the pair of high chairs near the open window where the Congressman and his wife would sit and watch the passing street parades. The kitchen is rustic and simple, with a table so low, staff would have squatted on the floor beside it to eat. The walls are black from the smoke of the open cooking fire, and the lavatory consisted of a bench with three different sized holes that dropped through to buckets below.

IMG_0155 (2)Thanks to the prominent waterways and proximity to the sea, Vigan has a long history of trading with Japan, Malaya and China. Many foreign traders eventually settled here, and there is still a strong Chinese influence in the region. The Spaniards, arriving in the 16th century, transferred the archdiocese of Nueva Segovia from Lallo to Vigan in September 1758, at which time Vigan was also elevated to city status by royal decree.  At that time the immigrant Chinese were pushed to the outskirts of the city, but they continued to produce and trade in goods such as the pottery wine jars, indigo, tobacco and the local woven textile called abel. Their tenacity produced a class of wealthy, powerful Filipino Chinese families who would ensure the economic growth of Vigan into the twenty first century. That same wealth also helped to support General Emilio Aguinaldo and his band of revolutionaries, who would defeat the Spaniards at Vigan in 1896, and raise the Philippine flag above the Archbishop’s Palace, which, ironically, became the General’s headquarters after almost four hundred years of Spanish theocracy.

Back in the twenty first century, the streets of Vigan are still bustling, but the sun is beating down on our heads and we need to escape the midday sun and find some lunch. Café Leona, named for the local poetess Leona Florentino, is located by the fork in the Calle Crisologo road where a statue of  the poet presides in stately calm. The café has been recommended by our escort from the airport. Just a skip and a jump from our hotel, it will be our regular eatery over the weekend, with its menu that ranges from pizza and pasta, to crispy pata to Japanese cuisine.

Granpa’s Inn along Bonifacio Street is a two-in-one dining option: Uno Grillo is outdoor dining in a pretty courtyard IMG_0160opposite the Inn, while Café Uno is tucked away inside the inn. We choose the former, and sit quietly at a vast slab of wooden tabletop that could seat a dozen, while our waiters bring out an assortment of local specialties, including a large bowl of pinakbet teaming with okra, ampalaya and string beans, pork and bagoong. The bitterness of the ampalaya is unexpected and challenging, but fascinating. We taste and chew, sip, dip and drip sauce down our chins in a gluttonous feast of ribs and prawns, eggplant and

We spend three glorious, self-indulgent days roaming through this very walkable town, absorbing its history, its food and its inimitable atmosphere. We consider the plethora of potential tourism opportunities: the likes of Carlos Celdran could provide a fascinating historical walking tour; a foodie tour or cooking classes for learning about local dishes; a pottery class with one of the local potters.

Meanwhile, we clutch our maps, quiz our museum guides, sip iced tea, eat, chat, shop for souvenirs, squeeze into pigmy tricycles, smile, laugh, eat some more…

*With photos from the cameras of both my One & Only and me!

Posted in Philippines, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Culture Shock or “How’s the Serenity?”

CSCulture shock is a complicated, confusing, disorienting experience.  It is defined as the individual’s sense of dislocation when attempting to settle into a new environment. Moving cities can be hard enough. Moving countries requires you to adapt to foreign values, mannerisms, mind-sets and traditions while trying to find your balance and your sense of direction, while you are trying to create a new home. Some of the most common problems include information overload, communication barriers, homesickness and the lack of a cultural skill set to deal with the new environment.

For me, culture shock has always seemed a bit melodramatic, like ‘man flu.’ My instinctive reaction is to say ‘o, just buck up and get on with it!’  And that terribly-British-stiff-upper-lip I was raised on has generally stood me in good stead. We have moved countless times through several countries in the past twenty five years, and I have always loved the adventure of setting up in a new place. Sure, there are the usual stresses and strains of moving house with a pack of kids and a stack of furniture, but it always leads to a clean slate, a fresh start, new friends to meet, new places to see, and the opportunity to immerse myself in a whole new world.

So imagine my surprise to discover that, on our tenth major move, I had ‘caught’ culture shock.

According to Wikipedia, ‘culture shock is a subcategory of a more universal construct called transition shock.’ In case you are wondering, the symptoms include: feelings of helplessness and withdrawal; irritability; mood swings; physiological stress reactions, and physical exhaustion. In retrospect, I can’t understand why I didn’t diagnose it sooner, but I am convinced temporary brain dysfunction is one of the lesser known symptoms. Or maybe that was just due to the heat and humidity.

Now please understand that we came to the Philippines willingly, and with great enthusiasm. My One & Only and I have long since realized that, like Dory in Nemo, we both have a short attention span. It has extended a little as we have got older but nonetheless we inevitably reach a point – luckily for our marriage, at about the same time – when, like gypsies, we decide it is time to move on. Not necessarily because we don’t like the place we are in, but simply because our feet start to twitch and we know we need a change.

Also, we have had a lot of joy out of living in the Philippines. All of us have expanded our horizons, tried new things,
evolved, made wonderful friends, travelled liberally, eaten extensively and, if one Facebook friend is to be believed, hung precariously upon the lip of the abyss (or glass) gazing down into the depths of imminent alcoholism. I have really enjoyed making Filipino friends – not so easy in a posting where English is not in common use – and love them for their humour, their warmth and their joie de vivre: wherever two or more Filipinos are gathered together there will be a party that generally involves food, costumes and karaoke.

So why was I so unsettled? I made endless excuses for my ever-present sense of frustration – although, let’s face it, I have never been a woman of saintly temper –  as I tried and failed to come to grips with the Filipino perspective on life. Emotional? Well, obviously! For the first time we had not moved as a complete family unit, and I was missing our daughter, which easily explained my frequent, inexplicable bouts of weeping. Endless visits to the doctor for various physical ailments proved it was neither menopause nor depression, arthritis nor cancer. We had a good life, in fact we were living in the lap of luxury, the kids were at a great school and seemed happy, my husband’s job was going well, I was getting on with my writing, and that had given me a fascinating entrée into my new home. So why was I  feeling such a mess?cartoon

I have always considered myself to be – prided myself on being – adaptable and resilient. To paraphrase fellow blogger, Julnar Rizk, resilience involves having a strong belief in your abilities and in who you are. It means having the agility to adapt to change without losing sight of your core values. It requires a focus on the future, not the past, and it means an endless curiosity and desire for learning. I was all these things… once… and yet…

Of course the guilt made it worse. We did have a wonderful life. Every day I spent in the streets of Manila highlighted how lucky we were, living in a country where, despite the endless construction and signs of increasing development, poverty is a daily grind for the majority. What on earth did I have to complain about? I made concerted efforts to be positive and upbeat. We entertained, I joined everything, life became increasingly decadent. I had done this all plenty of times before without batting an eyelid. Now it was exhausting. My mood swings, frustration, hyperactive self-criticism, grief – it made no sense, my own illogical over-reactions were frightening. I was used to being in control. What was happening to me?

And then I began to realize I wasn’t the only one. I have now seen and spoken to so many trailing spouses, many my age, who struggle to take back control of their lives and their emotions. Maybe I was giving out a new empathetic vibe, but suddenly total strangers were downloading about the struggle they were having settling in.  That may not have made me feel a whole lot better but at least I didn’t feel so isolated.

culture-shock-chartYet despite all the clues, the diagnosis did not fall into place until I read an article recently about culture shock. Apparently it can affect anyone, even the most seasoned traveller. It is a crisis of confidence for which we shouldn’t judge ourselves harshly, yet we inevitably do. It can seem like a mild dose of homesickness or a terrifying Jekyll and Hyde personality change. And it is largely underestimated in the Philippines, which has at least a veneer of the familiar. Yes, there are McDonalds and Toyotas, ATMs and English. But the cultural values can sometimes feel a million miles from our own.

So what changed? Unexpectedly, unaccountably, the storm passed. Almost overnight – although I cannot pinpoint the when or the why – the wind went out of my sails. I realized I had developed a bucket load of coping strategies, including humour. Now I can – eventually – make a funny story about every awkward situation I get myself into, and every pointless battle I fight. Inexplicably I found myself accepting the cultural mores of the Filipinos; swallowing, if not accepting, the social imbalances; keeping my eyes sensibly averted from the traffic;  no longer over-reacting to everything. I still swear too much, but I accept that this can be a good pressure valve and just try not to let too many people overhear me.

There is a prayer I learnt at school: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I finally understand it. I’m not perfect. There are still days when physical violence might be the only option, but I am learning to avoid those situations or walk away – not a bad response to this passive/aggressive city. And there are still some things I would like the courage to change – although I think I will eventually accept that I cannot single-handedly retrain every waiter in Manila to bring out all our meals together. That is just not the Filipino way.

That article I read explained that the best way to handle culture shock is to recognize it, accept it, focus on moving though it: a paraphrasing of my favouite prayer indeed, and it is  good advice I am now ready to accept.

I don’t know how much longer we will be here, but it probably won’t be forever, so I am glad I am in a head space to enjoy whatever time we have left here, and that the lump of frustration that was stuck in my throat for over two years has finally dissolved. It is a fascinating country, and I have loved learning to understand the way it ticks. It may not be my way, but we live comfortably side by side now, and I am not constantly at loggerheads with that which I do not understand or wish to emulate. And hopefully I have learnt new skills to prevent being crushed by culture shock next time.

* With thanks to Google images for the graphics.

Posted in Lifestyle | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Trendy Mediocrity with a Side Order of Inconsistency

Rambla.6I love Rockwell. There is always some new restaurant to try amongst the plethora to be found both inside and outside Power Plant Mall. My latest, belated discovery is Rambla. Apparently it has actually been there for almost twelve months, but I have been away a lot this year and only came across it in September. I may have been delinquent, but I have been dropping in at every opportunity since.

Rambla is described as a Spanish Open Kitchen and cocktail bar. It is, more accurately, an innovative tapas bar, a platform for modern Iberian cuisine where the concept of tapas takes priority over the concept of Spain. Of course there are all the standard Spanish favourites: Jamon Iberico and Manchego cheese; a stunning Spanish omlette of prawns and potato, served in a baby cast iron frying pan; and a salmon paella, to name just a handful. But there is also a heavy emphasis on tapas with a twist: veal cheek won tons (my favourites); lechon croquettes of great crunch and richness; shiitake arancinis (rice balls filled with those east Asian musty mushrooms) and the quite extraordinary foie gras mousse with caramelized apple and coffee Baileys foam, which sounds more like dessert than an appetizer, and I am yet to be brave enough to taste. But the chef is obviously having fun trying out different flavour combinations, and even if some seem a little far-fetched or slightly dubious, good on him for experimenting – although I would suggest he encourages customer feedback on some of his more outrageous creations. I would also politely suggest he consider the maxim ‘less is more’, as the quality of some dishes is sometimes lost amongst the surfeit of trendy ingredients and too-clever flavour combinations.

So, that was last month. This month the menu changed – apparently that will happen quarterly – and we were confronted with a range of new dishes to try. With a glass of Sangria in hand, we were perfectly content to start afresh.

Actually, a quick word on the Sangria. Offered red or white, I usually choose red, as I have always loved this wine punch served with a cinnamon stick, that tastes like mulled wine, only chilled. Today, however, I tried the white wine Sangria, and I may never look back. On a muggy Manila afternoon, this is really refreshing, and more closely resembles Pimms, particularly as the glass is filled with slices of citrus fruits, apple and grapes.

Tucked underneath Joya apartments, Rambla has redesigned the restaurant space to incorporate Rambla.4an open kitchen and a broad, wrap around bar. If you fancy clambering onto the bar stools, there’s a great view from up there. I have visited Rambla as a couple, with a friend and with a large group of ladies. Today I pottered in by myself and decided to sit at the bar and see what happened, which proved entertaining.

The problem with dining at a tapas bar alone is that you can’t try a range of dishes without looking atrociously
greedy, particularly as many of the dishes seem to be designed for two. So by the time I had dipped the crunchy-on-the-outside, doughy-in-the-middle imported Spanish bread in oil and vinegar, and  eaten my enormous salad – more of that later – I was full, and struggled to eat all three lechon empanadas. It would be good if they could add a mixed tasting platter for the solo diner. Or even for a couple. I would certainly welcome the option of smaller serves at smaller prices. (Although I have to say the new menu is not as tempting as the last, and the dishes have got even sillier when it comes to odd flavour combinations. And they took away my wontons!).

However, you don’t have to order to share. There are burgers, sandwiches, seafood and rice dishes aimed more at the individual diner, and less on grazing as a group.

Rambla is named for a famously bustling, tree-lined, promenade in central Barcelona. Rambla the restaurant certainly lives up to the reputation of its predecessor, as it’s always thrumming with the enthusiastic chatter and activity of its trendy clientele. Sometimes this can prove detrimental to communicating with the waiting staff, as they struggle to hear your order, but the atmosphere is lively and happy, and the staff are sweet, so I am not complaining. I will just have to  try the foie gras empanadas with pineapple jam next week – the lechon version with grape jelly was perfectly acceptable this time.

And my salad? O yes. Crispy fresh Romaine lettuce, crunchy bacon, marinated tawilis (that exclusively Filipino Ramblafreshwater sardine) and Parmesan, perfectly dressed in just a drizzle of vinaigrette – not the usual dousing so popular here – creating a wondrously light combination of textures and subtle flavours.

OK. this is now my third installment on Rambla, and I have had a change of heart. I was sorely disappointed today, and that makes me sad. After last week’s slight glitch with the empanadas, I was hoping to rediscover my initial enthusiasm, but today found me totally underwhelmed by the food’s embarrassing mediocrity.  I thought I would pop over for a lazy lunch with my note pad and take some pics with my new camera. Dodging the tapas foronce, I decided to splurge on their Ramblas Burger – presumably a signature dish to be named for the restaurant. I ordered it medium, as I am averse to undercooked mince, be it ever so posh and ever so wagyu, and I was served a red, raw hamburger lined with 2 small pieces of bruised lettuce (had somebody trodden on them?), a Rambla.3slice of white, flavourless tomato and a pile of baby gherkins heaped in the centre. At least they had the grace not to charge me when I filed a complaint with the chef.

I am not writing this to condemn, rather I am hoping it will be recognized as constructive criticism. I was delighted to discover Rambla, and was hoping to make it a regular lunch spot, but until the chef recognizes that simplicity and flavour are the essence of Mediterranean cooking, I will be foregoing the cold octopus carpaccio with hummus, the salad of heirloom cherry tomatoes with orange and quails egg, or the pork with caramelized onions, pear chutney, red apple baked jam and smoky cinnamon as too many clashing flavours screaming to be noticed.

In the meantime, I may still pop back for that great salad and the Sangria, and I would definitely be tempted to try the chicken and prawn risotto. And while I don’t usually eat dessert, the xoxos, (it is written with hugs and kisses for a reason) salvaged my lunch today from the ruins of an undercooked hamburger. This Spanish version of the Italian cannoli is a deliciously crispy deep fried pastry tube filled with gloriously gooey  ganache chocolate or vanilla custard with just a whisper of lemon.

Like the nursery rhyme about the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead, when Ramblas is good it is very, very good, but when it is bad it is horrid. Some consistent quality would be much appreciated, and might ensure a solid core of regular customers after the trendy crowd has passed on.

Posted in Food & Wine, Philippines | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Snapshots of Japan

Mode Gakuen Cocoon TowerA clean and helpful clockwork world where a pair of missing glasses are located and returned before panic sets in….

A lavatory with a heated seat, an in-built bidet, a video screen and a sound system that provides the noisy gush of a waterfall as you pee…

A colony of commuters, twenty deep, waiting patiently by the kerb, camouflaged in grey and black and beige – and one dazzling, lemon yellow cardigan like a sunburst.

A hotel room the size of a bento box, neatly arranged for maximum efficiency in minimum space, with slippers…

A gentle soul at the airport information booth, who, with no English, takes my hand to guide me through the process of introducing the ticket machine, buying a bus ticket and showing me to the right bus stop. Thank you for your kindness.

Kochi (30)A sushi counter in a Kochi mall, chock-a-block with mathematical arrangements of colour and shape I have never before seen in sushi form. And the petrifyinging effect of so much choice…

A car park built like a Ferris wheel: as you drive your car onto the platform, it swings up and around to make room for the next one…

Konnichiwa, oishee, Suntory, arigatō gozaimasu and domo arigatō, itadakimasu, katsuo no tataki, sake, and

My mother, primped and powdered, swathed in a silk brocade kimono of spring green and cream flowers,
wreathed about the waist with a broad, cherry blossom pink sash or obi and garnished with a matching pink Kochi (56)chrysanthemum hairpiece. A truly magnificent bouquet…

A glimpse from a bridge of a broad, gravelly river bed sliding down between the mountains, strung with fishing lines that guide the crystal-clear waters of the Niyodo River to the Pacific Ocean…

An elusive mountain view swallowed up by hungry mist…

One group of choristers draped in red satin or cream chiffon, another formally attired in black, bridging the gap between East & West with a common love of music…

A solemn couple converting the traditional tea ceremony into a ritual coffee-making in an alpine village, where beans from Yemen and Ecuador, Indonesia and Tanzania seem curiously out-of-place…

A smooth, round island baby giggling in surprised delight as I blow raspberries on her tummy, while her great-grandfather, an ancient Japanese gentleman smiles softly upon his approaching centenary, bowing under the weight of his wrinkles….

A backyard barbecue stuffed with straw, a torpedo bonito, a grill and leaping flames… a dish made in heaven…Kochi (85)

A kitchen full of Japanese chefs with a penchant for pasta, flirt and sing behind a hefty leg of prosciutto crudo, while my father sighs with relief at the absence of raw fish…

Sliding up a bannister of clotted-cream-clouds, in the wake of an autumn typhoon…

The extraordinary Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower, nurturing the students within a latticed framework over two hundred meters high…

…and the Asahi Brewery, its buildings designed to resemble a golden, froth-topped beer glass and a squat, black hall crowned by a 60 ton golden flame that appears to have toppled sideways…

Yoyogi Park (7)An unexpected and peaceful retreat by a spiritual spring in the depths of a forest in the midst of urban sprawl and the caterwauling of commuter trains…

A sushi bar, and the ultimate party food revolving past us, lacking only disco lights: a pretty blue and green plate piled with sunset-coloured salmon sashimi garnished with baubles of salmon roe and ribbons of mayonnaise…

The Victoria and Albert Museum, that nineteenth century edifice of British culture, airlifted into central Tokyo to be reborn as a twenty first century train station…

A panoramic view across a vast metropolis from the heights of a nearby government building. This once small fishing village of Edo transformed into a city that drifts to the horizon, ringed by white towers flashing white lights of welcome…

A tour guide with a passion for the Tokyo transport system. Trains, taxis, car parks and buses.  To snore or not to snore…

A boat, beer and a double-decker bridge around the bay, with new friends from northern climes…

Japanese cuisine (20)

A final lunch on a tray in a silent café. A dozen dainty dishes exhibiting an exceptional miso soup; steamed rice with a
red nose of salted plum; a tiny bowl of tangy soy sauce; a skerrick of white pickled cabbage; broccoli and okra sprinkled in umami-dense katsuobushi flakes; a slab crispy fried fish impossible to manage with chopsticks; knobbly potato salad; thick slices of carpaccio-coloured katsuo sashimi with seared edges; a small heap of beige daikon mash; a wart-sized green blob of wasabe; bottomless green tea in a handle-less blue cup. A feast of taste and texture, colour and aroma, our hearing the only sense left unengaged. So I slurp my soup and bid a happy “gochisosama deshita”


*With thanks to my mother, my One & Only and, this time, even ME, for the photos!

Posted in Food & Wine, Japan, Travel | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

“Selamat Datang!”

“I loved the heat. Hot, hot and then all the rain. It rains, you know, nearly every day in Malaya… It comes down in sheets, in buckets, nearly every day around the same time for an hour or two. And then it’s gone again as quickly as it came  and the sun is out, blazing,  blazing, blazing…”  ~ Fergus Linehan, Under the Durian Tree

twin towersWe used to live in Kuala Lumpur. And I remember that heat, and those torrential, monsoonal rains. And the smoke haze. I loved the storms, but not the heat. And definitely not the smoke. It was our last year in this almost-equatorial city and Malaysia was making headlines. The Petronas Towers were almost finished, while Aquaria KLCC and the Suria Shopping Mall, at the base of the Towers, had just been officially opened. Malaysia was hosting the first Commonwealth Games to be held in Asia, and the new Kuala Lumpur International Airport was finally completed, which had us driving almost to Singapore to find the runway, but at least it was air conditioned. And while the dreadful South East Asian smog of late 1997 had finally cleared, the region was still suffering the economic consequences.

Today, Kuala Lumpur has evolved almost beyond recognition, and certainly beyond navigating without a SatNav. Rife with spaghetti junctions, superhighways, building sites and air pollution, the centre is still compact and vibrant and eminently walkable. And again, 2014 has been a year for Malaysia to hit the headlines, as the Malaysian government has had to deal with the inexplicable disappearance of a Malaysia Airline flight in March over the Indian Ocean. Four months later there was further disaster for Malaysia Airlines when another plane was destroyed by a missile over the Ukraine. On a happier note, the 16th Petronas Malaysian Grand Prix was won by Lewis Hamilton for Mercedes, and coincidentally for us, Malaysia opened a second terminal at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. And the city was again shrouded in smoke from forest fires.

So. We arrived back in Malaysia sixteen years later and just in time for dinner. I had a craving for curry. We debatedBombay palace 1
whether or not our favourite Indian restaurant from the 1990s would still be there. Google said yes, and the concierge at our hotel agreed, and booked us a table. The taxi driver seemed a little confused by our directions, but ‘maybe I am forgetting?’ he said apologetically.

The fact that the Bombay Palace appeared to have been air lifted across about eight lanes of heavy traffic and a substantial medium strip to land on the far side of Tun Razak threw us into confusion, and we started to feel a little silly, apologizing profusely to the driver for our senility.

Yet it turns out we were all right. The restaurant actually had moved across the road some years before, into a very similar, spacious old house on a large lot. Now it’s moving again, to Sultan Ismail, as yet another elegant but rather faded colonial building makes way for yet another suave high rise.

We were ushered upstairs to a large formal dining room, surprisingly empty of all but a group of silent army hot shots in full uniform. We felt a little awkward, but not for long. It was soon humming upstairs as loudly as it was downstairs.

Our waiters were charming, advising us cautiously not to order too much. Well, who doesn’t when confronted with a ten page menu? You don’t want to miss anything significant, do you? One young waiter was so friendly, I thought he was going to pull up a chair and join us. You would have been proud of the polite and ever-so-regal nod of the head that indicated we were perfectly happy now, and thanks for his warm welcome. He left reluctantly, checking back over his shoulder, unconvinced that we would be OK on our own.
kingfisherThe Bombay Palace has a great wine list according to one fellow blogger, but we chose a Kingfisher beer to accompany our meal, having long felt that beer goes much better than wine with Indian cuisine. Of course we had ordered way too much, but we could hardly complain. And the only dish that was faintly disappointing was the Malai Kofta, a favourite discovery of mine back in the early days, which did not live up to my expectations.  The rest, mostly spicy vegetarian dishes apart from one prawn vindaloo,  were as tasty as we remembered and we eventually waddled out, filled to the gunwales.

Indian cuisine in Malaysia is largely based on the hot, vegetarian Tamil cuisine of South India, and is very popular with its host country. The Indian Muslims mixed north and south to create dishes with less spice and more meat, and many of these have developed a distinctly Malaysian flavor.

Indians make up 7% of the population on the Malaysian Peninsula, the third largest ethnic group after the Muslim Malays and the Chinese. They have had a presence in the region since the 11th century, but the main influx, largely Tamils, arrived with the british during the years of British colonization – from around the mid-18th century until 1957 – to provide labour for the tin mines, and the rubber and palm oil plantations.

Flying in, all we saw are palm plantations to the horizon, which is hardly surprising when Malaysia is one of the world’s largest exporters of palm oil. The other type of oil popular here comes from Petronas, Malaysia’s leading oil and gas company, which has its headquarters in the Petronas Twin Towers in KLCC When we first arrived in Malaysia, the twin towers were growing up at a rate of knots from the grounds of the former Selangor Turf Club. Now they are 88 storeys high, with a sky bridge about half way up, straddling the space between them. Renowned for their starring role in the 1999 movie Entrapment, with Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta Jones, the Twin Towers also have a starring role on the Kuala Lumpur skyline, especially at night, when the towers reflect an almost ethereal lustre due to the shimmering stainless steel façade.

Friday night drinks, and we found a perfectly acceptable spot at a bar overlooking the 50 acre park at the heart of thesymphony lake KLCC development. Well, almost perfect. My romantic plan to escort my One & Only to Marini’s on 57, the rooftop bar on the top of Carigali Tower (commonly known as Tower 3) had been scuppered by his most unacceptable attire. “No shorts and sandals allowed here, Sir.”  It was a shame, as the view of the Twin Towers from there is magnificent, and you sit so close you could almost touch them. But the price of drinks soar nearly as high as the building, and it was happy hour at Limoncello, so we were not too disappointed. And from this lowly terrace we could glimpse the Lake Symphony, a lovely display of colored lights, fountains and music in the centre of the man-made lake. A fitting way to kick start our weekend. And next time, perhaps he’ll remember to pack trousers.

*With thanks to Google Images for the pics as we can’t locate ours!

Posted in Food & Wine, Malaysia, Travel | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Blackbird: a Tranformation

BB2One of the first snippets of local history I was handed when I arrived in the Philippines:

Ayala Triangle, now the focal point of the Makati business district,  was once an airport among rice fields, its original runway the stretch of Ayala Avenue past the Stock Exchange, and Paseo de Roxas . Built in 1937, the Nielson Airport was destroyed only four years later during the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. It was briefly restored after the war, but the runways were permanently converted to roadways in 1949. The only remaining structure was the Nielson Tower, the original control tower shaped like an airplane. Since then this unusual slice of Makati history has housed a property management company, a private club and the Filipinas Heritage Library. This year, the historic seventy-five year old building was transformed into Blackbird, Colin McKay’s latest and most sophisticated restaurant venture in Makati.

The metamorphosis is fabulous. Last time I visited the FHL it was looking faded and shabby. Blackbird, however, looks like a decadent 1930s art deco inspired movie set. It is both classy and glamorous, and has been touted as Makati’s hottest new dining destination.

The garden has also had a makeover. It has been beautifully landscaped to accommodate an outdoor bar and al fresco dining area beneath the trees that is particularly charming by lamp light. We began the evening here with a pre-dinner drink, my husband and I happily perusing the cocktail menu for some fascinating and imaginative concoctions.

Later, as we walked inside, we were immediately gathered up by a smiling waiter and ushered to our table. As usual, Chef Colin has staffed his restaurant with professional, efficient and courteous waiters, who achieved the perfect balance of being on the spot whenever needed, but never invading our space with over-zealous enquiries. And all our meals showed up at the same time, which many will know is a rare occurrence in the Philippines.

The food was, as always with Chef Colin’s cooking, top notch. I have dined there more than once and have yet to be disappointed by my choices.

Yet I will have a little grizzle. Manila blogger Anton Diaz suggests that Blackbird is a themed restaurant. Well, I am BB7pleased to say that, apart from a couple of subtle inferences to its origins as an airport – apparently Blackbird is the name of an innovative reconnaissance plane, and there is a private upstairs dining room called the Cockpit – Chef Mckay has tastefully refrained from turning his new venture into a theme park. On the other hand, the menu has no theme at all. While I have loved every dish I have eaten here, the menu itself goes beyond eclectic to confused. Is it Italian or International, Fine Dining or Family? It seems to be trying too hard to be all things to all men and falls short of being anything definable at all. Perhaps that is the point, but I found it distracting. Pizza and pasta does no justice to the excellent fine dining dishes, while the attempt to include the kids detracts from the beautifully sophisticated and very grown up setting.

Nonetheless, the food is worthy of attention. Never one to resist a Carpaccio option, I was more than happy with the mix of tart lemon, savoury beef and artichoke, peppery rucola and bitter radicchio. My husband chose a strangely earthy combination of lentils, goat’s cheese and pickled beetroot, topped with a dash of pomegranate molasses, while our guest went for a tangy orange and grilled chicken salad with fennel, pistachio and honey, yet another dish that sympathetically blended contrasting flavours: sweet, savoury and bitter.

The gentlemen then agreed on a preference for the fish pie, an English nursery dish of mashed potato atop a bowl of salmon, smoked trout, prawns and leek. Our judges decided it was good, but a little banal. Despite the mix of strongly flavoured fish, it had been too heavily doused in mash.  I, on the other hand, preferred something with more buzz, and opted for a lamb rendang. Served in a deep bowl, it was of only medium heat, the slow cooked meat succulent and sumptuously spicy. And it was served with a novel aside: a soft boiled Scotch egg.

BB3Determined – unusually for me – to avail of dessert, we took our time to order. Eventually our guest continued on his comfort-food way with apple pie, or rather, the more elegant version: apple nougatine tart served with burnt butter ice cream. My One & Only can never resist cheese cake, and Chef McKay has created an irresistible tribute: a baked cheesecake with macadamia praline, banana brûlée and dulce de leche, a Filipino specialty (via South America) like a soft fudge sauce. I discovered my perfect ‘halo halo’ sundae of vanilla seed and passionfruit ice creams, petite almond meringues, fresh mango slices and cream, and was blissfully and silently absorbed for some time.

Did I forget to mention the wine? How remiss, when it was such a divine offering from South Australia’s McLaren Vale. We chose a rich and exuberant Geoff Merrill Shiraz that was probably a better accompaniment to my flavourful curry than fish pie, but it was enjoyed by us all nonetheless.

After all this sheer over-indulgence we quietly returned to the garden for post-dinner drinks and coffee, and a mellower atmosphere to wind up the evening.

Posted in Food & Wine, Philippines | Leave a comment

An Inn of Distinction

victoria-gastropubThe Victoria is a glorious little boutique hotel tucked away down the narrow suburban streets of West Temple Sheen, just the other side of Richmond Park in London. Obediently, we followed our GPS off the motorway and onto the not-so-beaten-track. I was beginning to think we must have typed in the wrong address, when sure enough, after rounding a tight bend, squeezing between parked cars like Harry Potter’s night bus, and reversing out of the way of a large, on-coming van, we finally spotted this jewel hiding down a leafy lane.

Having just flown in from the Philippines on a direct, fifteen hour flight, we arrived with relief, bleary-eyed and feeling a little claggy, to an enthusiastic welcome from both the reception staff and old friends who were meeting us for dinner.

And what a dinner it proved to be! I had discovered this red brick Victorian inn at the last minute on, and it fitted the bill for price and convenience. It was only later I realized that The Victoria is a top-notch gastro pub, owned and managed by restaurateur Greg Bellamy and British media chef Paul Merrett, who has been adorned with a Michelin star twice for his fine efforts in the kitchen. Together, these creative gentlemen have earned their restaurant an illustrious reputation in the Hardens London Restaurant Guide 2013, where it was voted second best modern British restaurant under £50. And we were unexpectedly delighted to find such excellent food at such a reasonable price.

The Victoria was built sometime around 1845 and registered as a public house a decade later. At that time the neighbourhood apparently consisted of three large estates, and the pub was mostly frequented by the butlers, footmen and coachmen from those landed houses.

Today, the Victoria has been almost submerged in suburbia, the ‘local’ half way down the street. There is a cosy bar filled with an eclectic collection of sofas and armchairs and rustic tables, a pretty shady courtyard and a large conservatory dining room, as well as seven bedrooms tucked quietly away behind the bar and kitchens.

The current owners discovered the pub in 2007, and restored the bar area to its original glory. It is delightfully16-The-Victoria-Garden traditional with snug nooks and crannies, and a warm and friendly staff. And for a relaxed family meal, we gathered in the comfortable conservatory dappled in green by the leafy, overhanging trees outside.

Then we shrugged off jetlag, and settled down to catch up on years of news with the aid of a bottle of wine and a delicious dinner. Unfortunately we had missed out on the special Sunday slow roasted belly of Dingley Dell pork, Bramley apple sauce, but I have read rave reviews about it, so I will need to go back. I was more than happy with my chargrilled lemon and thyme chicken, however, served with heirloom tomatoes (real tomatoes with real flavour) and buffalo mozzarella which was served on a wooden chopping board. It’s been done before, but somehow it didn’t seem self-consciously trendy, just rustic and homely.

A child’s serve of fish and chips for our young twelve year old was a great success, and our wine was so good we forgot to stop at one glass each. My teenager loved his rib eye steak and his first experience of ‘thrice-cooked chips.

The buffet breakfast next morning in the conservatory was beautifully laid out and really tasty. I do like the notion of cutting your own bread from a hearty, freshly baked loaf, and the fruit, ripe and juicy, the designer yogurts, meats, cheeses and fresh pastries were delicious. (A cooked breakfast was an optional extra, if you fancied a ‘very full English breakfast’.)  I particularly liked the freedom to carry my coffee, hot and strong, out into the garden, to sit beneath the trees in the morning sun.

A few things to bear in mind. It was lucky we had a car, as the hotel is quite a walk from public transport, especially when lugging a suitcase. We got a special deal on Sunday night accommodation, but we felt the rest of the week was considerably more expensive. Many reviews say how quiet it is, and the hotel itself has a very calming atmosphere, however, on a hot summer night, with the window open, the Heathrow air traffic can be surprisingly invasive. And why do English hotels all have heavy duvets on the beds even in the middle of summer? Otherwise the room was clean and comfortable, and we were sad to leave so soon. I hope we’ll be back.

*With thanks to Google images for the photographs.

Posted in England, Food & Wine, Travel | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Ducks are A-Dabbling

A Thames Valley Journal: Part 3

“In it’s unbroken loveliness this is, perhaps, the sweetest stretch of all the river…” ~ Jerome K. Jerome

Day 6: Marlow to Maidenhead

2014_08_31_2784 (3)Before we left the Vicarage, we popped into the Church-next-door, All Saints at Bisham, thinking we might swell our lungs with some hymn singing. Sadly, the service had been postponed, but we chatted to the Lady Vicar and some members of her congregation eager to share the history of this ancient church. We found many splendid and well-garnished tombs dedicated to various local lords and ladies from the Hoby and Vansittart families, but the one we loved best was a memorial plaque to young Eliza who had ‘most unfortunately drowned’ during a riverbank picnic in 1810. This young lady of ‘virtuous and amiable disposition’ and ‘graced with every refinement of feminine attraction,’ sank before the eyes of her friends ‘in the midst of gaiety and mirth’. It continues at some length about hearts being ‘rent with anguish,’ at that ‘awful calamity, ‘ and is a splendid epitaph for a girl who chose to ‘exchange this uncertain life for a glorious state of immortality.’

On that uplifting note, we bade farewell to our kind hosts and headed on down the river. We had divided the final lap in two, as blisters were beginning to burst forth ostentatiously upon our heels and toes, making the thought of an extra long day’s hike decidedly daunting. Instead, we quickly inserted a last-minute layover in Maidenhead.

Feeling less anguished and lighter of heart, we trotted back to Marlowe to rejoin the Thames Path at the cemetery. For about half an hour private houses with ostentatiously exclusive front gates kept the river at bay, but eventually we were passing vast playing fields on the left, and the Thames had reappeared on the right. It was Sunday morning, and the river was churning with keen young rowers, their coaches and their parents shrieking encouragement from the banks.

We arrived at Bourne End, hot and thirsty, but sadly the Upper Thames Sailing Club was not offering refreshments
to plebeian passers-by, although they kindly allowed us to cut across the club lawn. Beyond the sailing club and theIMG_1486 (2) marina, we ducked down a narrow lane that cut between ample, handsome homes and their riverside gardens, with motor boats and canal boats snoozing against the bank. Crossing the railway bridge, where there is a special pedestrian footbridge adjoining the train part, we found a plaque for a bloke with a splendid record for counting the rivets. We then strolled back upriver to ‘The Bounty,’ a café we had seen from the marina. A sign above the door announced that this was “The People’s Republic of Cockmarsh, where the laws of common sense apply,” which amused us, along with a second sign announcing that it is twinned with Chernobyl. We rehydrated and headed on…

…through marshland and common grazing land that has existed since 1272. Wandering into our third church yard for the day, we followed the path that wound through gravestones bent with age, their memories blurred by centuries of rainy weather, or disguised behind long grass. Past the church, along the lane of obligatory yew trees. There are many theories on the ubiquitous presence of yews in British churchyards. I have been offered several suggestions: the evergreen yew was a symbol of eternal life; the poisonous foliage discouraged animals from wandering through the burial grounds; Ancient Greeks & Romans used yew branches to mark a house in mourning; it wards off the winter winds as parishioners enter the church…

… and out through the lych-gate into Cobham town centre. Now which of four pubs will have us for lunch? We ended IMG_1488up in the garden of The Old Lion, gratefully kicking off our boots, sipping on cider and pumpkin soup and nibbling on sandwiches on a sunny, Sunday afternoon….

…then, refreshed and revitalized, we set off on  the last leg to Maidenhead, and wandered along a shady riverside path, past warning signs about fierce dogs that would chase us off the premises were we to inadvertently decide to clamber over the wrought iron fence onto private property. Canal boats drifted amiably by, charming us with dreams of Ratty’s life on the river where ‘there is nothing, absolutely nothing half so much worth doing simply messing about in boats.’

Eventually fields and woodland gave way to grandiose houses trimmed with topiary and flower beds, whispering of a faded past of elegant garden parties, broad brimmed hats and fine bone china. The Sunday walkers gathered force as we got closer to town, until we were suddenly thrust out into bustle and busy-ness, and our leave-strewn and peaceful woodland was replaced with tarred roads and the growl of traffic.

JKJ states that Maidenhead is ‘too snobby to be pleasant…the haunt of the river swell and his overdressed female companion.’ A swanky restaurant beside Boulter’s Lock would suggest the same is true 125 years later. We certainly felt under-dressed to join the diners on the terrace for a beer, but this also meant the aesthetic delight of well-dressed diners in suits and high heels, glorious, colourful hanging baskets and pretty river boats. And if you happen to be walking the path in high heels and a short skirt (or long trousers and a tie), pop in. The Riverside Brasserie rates a mention in both the Michelin Guide and the Good Food Guide. We cheekily used the facilities, recognized our inappropriate attire, and wandered on…

… and at last crossed the bridge to our B&B, where we received a lovely welcome from our hosts. This particular B&B was the most business-like accommodation we had seen on our travels, and the clash of patterns and colours on carpet and wallpaper, curtain and quilt was truly a sight to behold. But despite a certain lack of homeliness, my feet were grateful to go no further today – or at least only as far as dinner.

Day 7: Maidenhead to Windsor through Rain

The next morning we took a short stroll through a light shower of rain into Windsor, where we were celebrating with
the swans at the bridge – I have never seen such a swarm of swans – by lunchtime. We had booked a night at The2014_09_02_2808 Christopher on Eton High Street, where once I had sat, surrounded by Eton mums delivering their sons to school. It is a charming hotel, a former coaching inn, dating back to 1711, and situated half way down the High Street.

Eton is a quiet little town, especially this week before school goes back. Windsor, on the other hand, was heaving with tourists, who crowded the pavements, and formed lengthy queues to see the castle.  We walked a scant two hundred metres of the Royal mile, then duck back into town, past allotments and houses muffled in shrubbery and trees…

And it’s time to soak my blistered feet in a hot bath and lather up my aching muscles with Deep Heat. I was definitely out of practise for long-distance walking, but it was worth every step, for the joy of those glorious English villages, the delicious pub meals and the delights of dreaming along the riverbank. We may explore this romantic path further into London in a day or two, but in the meantime, as I relax over a chilled Rosé at the Waterman’s Arms with an eclectic collection of locals and their canine companions, I leave the final words to Kenneth Graham:

“The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.”

*Thank you to my One & Only for yet again generously sharing his photos with me for all three parts of this story.

Posted in England, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ducks are A-Dabbling

A Thames Valley Journal: Part 2

“Here today, up and off to somewhere else tomorrow…”  ~ Kenneth Graham

Day 4: Pangbourne via Bus and Sonning to Shiplake

2014_08_29_2723Day four of our walking adventure found us wandering through peaceful water meadows, talking to the ducks and laughing at the dogs, over-excited and exhuberant about their early morning freedom. In Purley, we clambered aboard a double-decker bus to ride to the far side of Reading, having decided that the stretch of Thames path along the railway line did not look overly inviting. Once out of Reading, however, we loped happily through riverside parks and woodland and past the amusingly named ‘Reading Blue Coat School’. This 17th century school was originally located near the Church of St. Mary’s Minster in Reading, where it ‘provided education and bringing upp of twenty poore male children’ whose original uniform was a ‘Blue Coate and Cappe’. The school was relocated to the Park Holme estate on the outskirts of Sonning-on-Thames just after WWII, where its students now pay almost 5000 pounds per term.

Sonning itself is ‘the most fairy-like little nook on the whole river’ according to writer Jerome K. Jerome, who made a close study of the Thames and its towns in his 1889 journal, ‘Three Men and A Boat.’ This impression still stands today and likewise his description of the lovely old pub, The Bull, behind the churchyard – ‘a veritable picture of an old country inn’. Here I indulged in a completely justifiable and totally delicious steak-and-kidney pie with a perfect crust. I just wish it hadn’t made me somewhat soporific to face the last few miles to Shiplake, past banks of wild orchids with their heady scent.

Shiplake is a quiet, tree-lined village three miles upriver from Henley-on-Thames, with a quaint, old-fashioned station that is merely a platform just off the road. Shiplake also possesses a traditional English pub, The Baskerville.  Situated right on the Thames Path, it is also very much the local watering hole, its walls entertainingly decorated with local memorabilia, and the Friday night crowd spilling out into the garden. Although the town is only a few miles from Reading, it felt as if we were lost in the depths of the English countryside.

Thankfully, pub menus have 2014_08_30_2739become much more sophisticated since we walked the Coast to Coast path across Yorkshire and the Lake District over twenty years ago. We no longer had to resort to a Shirley Valentine diet of steak and chips or egg and chips every night, but indulged merrily in a variety of gourmet offerings, tapas style and a very pleasant bottle of wine, before retiring gratefully to a comfortable bed. Also, much to my joy, the staff very kindly organized to have my washing done. (Don’t laugh, our quaint little riverside villages are visually delightful but very few would – or should – spoil the landscape with a laundromat.)

Our most genial of hosts, Kevin, could barely wait to get us in the door, blister-bound and muddy though we were, to tell us that breakfast would be spectacular. The pub had just won another tourism award for its excellent breakfasts, and Hannah and Emma would be on hand in the morning to prove why.  When the time came, we decided to skip the traditional English breakfast. A week of those and we are gaining rather than losing inches. Instead, I opted for perfectly scrambled eggs served with Scotch salmon on a brioche, with lightly fried mushrooms on the side, while the One & Only chose an omelette garnished with every possible filling. All quite delicious, as promised – and calorie free of course – which we washed down with hot coffee and a fresh banana sliced into a bowl of beautifully creamy yoghurt, Greek style. Nectar of the gods.

Day 5: Shiplake to Marlowe via Henley-on-Thames & Hurley

We left Shiplake with clean clothes and full stomachs, and wandered on to an old and favoured haunt, Henley-on-Thames. It was Saturday morning, and the river was churning with keen young rowers, their coaches and their parents shrieking encouragement from the banks. The route into Henley travels down a long wooden bridge, or causeway, past the weir and the Marsh Lock situated in the middle of the river.  A second bridge delivered us into Mill Meadows where we found the path – rather to our annoyance, this was now, indisputably, our path – teeming with tourists, dog-walkers, young families with strollers and elderly couples, ambling along cautiously. There were also multitudes of waterfowl, encouraged by children armed with bags of bread.

I tried not to be judgmental about this avian junk food but sadly, it seems a fun, childhood memory for many of us leads to a lot of problems for the birds and the environment. The bread itself can create malnourished, overweight ducks. It can spread disease to the birds, kill the fish and clog the waterways. Leftovers will attract rats, mice and unwanted insects. And as the birds become accustomed to this abundant charity, they lose their natural foraging instincts and they may even become aggressive in order to get more food. So perhaps to keep our wildlife safe and happy, we must throw bread on the compost and not at the birds!

2014_08_30_2747We paused for breath and a cold drink at  the Angel, that much photographed pub beside the elegant 18th century Henley Bridge. Perched at a picnic table by the water’s edge we peered through the arches to the long stretch of river that hosts the Henley Royal Regatta each year. This was also the original location for the renowned rowing race between the Oxford and Cambridge. The tradition began in 1829 as a challenge by a Cambridge student to his childhood friend at Oxford. The race, held annually since 1856, barring the years of the two world wars, will continue as long as the annual loser challenges the winner to a rematch. The course still covers a four mile (7 km) stretch of the Thames, but it moved long ago from Henley to West London, where the two teams row from Putney to Mortlake. As a useless piece of trivia, you might like to know that British actor, Hugh Laurie, was a keen oarsman, and  also achieved a Blue while rowing for Cambridge University in the  1980 Oxford & Cambridge Boat Race – despite the fact that Cambridge lost the race by five feet that year. Laurie has been quoted as saying ” it was a very bitter defeat.”

The Royal Regatta, meanwhile, begins downstream at Temple Island, a miniature, midstream islet on which stands an elegant 18th century folly. On this particular Saturday afternoon it was being decorated for a wedding, and we stood aside to let a stream of walkers and cyclists go by, and to watch proceedings for a little. Unfortunately we were2014_08_30_2754 (2) too early to spot the wedding party who would presumably arrive later by boat.

We eventually dropped into a quaint Edwardian pub called ‘The Flowerpot’ for lunch, one that was obviously immensely popular with weekend walkers. The large garden was full of picnic tables crammed with hungry kids, while the interior was crammed with box-framed fish. Perhaps ‘The Anglers’ would have been a better name. My One & Only christened it ‘The Pub of Death.’ We ate our quiche and salad rather nervously beneath the fierce glares of stuffed fish, foxes, weasels, wild boar and antlered deer. Some modern day wit had even framed a tin of sardines.

The next stretch to Hurley was across the deer park of Culham Court and through numerous kissing gates. Once we go back down on the river, we passed through acres of on-site vans and small summer cottages. We presumed, wrongly as it turned out, that these were holiday homes for the working classes. Then we spied the owners Jaguars, Mercedes and other equally illustrious vehicles lined up along the grass verges. Further down, large family groups were picnicking all along the riverbank, kids shrieking as they braved a dip in the chilly shallows of the Thames. At last we reached Hurley, where we discovered yet another summer wedding being set up in a large medieval tithe barn with its acres of red tiled roof. We stood to chat with the florist who was making up the most beautifully creative flower arrangements in old wire colanders, jam jars and jugs.

Our penultimate night on the Thames Path was an extra-special treat. We left the Thames path at Hurley after peeking into the ancient and charming ‘Olde Bell’ (reputedly 12th century), with its low, beamed ceilings and crooked stairs. A public footpath slipped down the side of the pub and its extensive garden to greet a field of chatty alpacas, 2014_08_30_2775and on into Temple, past a row of charming little cottages that all contained ‘Temple’ on their name plaques. Our road then wound on through banks of blackberry bushes and stubbly fields, and past the once stately Bisham Abbey that is now a Sports complex.

The village of Bisham stretches along the Thames on the opposite side of the river from Marlow, and here we stayed in the lap of luxury at The Old Vicarage, a large Victorian house whose lawns run down to the river, and whose neighbour is, unsurprisingly, the Bisham parish church. I felt I was rather letting the side down in my hiking boots and trousers, as I tiptoed into the daintily creamy, dreamy sitting room, but our hostess was forgiving, and presented a substantial afternoon tea with homemade fruit cake despite my lack of sophistication.

To complete the day’s march we walked the extra mile into Marlow for dinner, across the stunning suspension bridge, ‘The Compleat Angler’ pub standing guard at one end, the pinnacled spire of All Saints Anglican Church proudly welcoming us into Marlow on the other side.

‘The River itself is at its best here’ says JKJ and he is right. I also agree with him that while Marlow may not be one of the most picturesque towns on the river, it is nonetheless attractively, cheerfully bustling, with many ‘quaint nooks.’ It is also full of pubs. After circumnavigating the town, we chose one for our end-of-the-day-pint, and then filled our grumbling stomachs at Zizzi’s, our family’s favourite Italian restaurant chain, which we have loved for well over a decade. Their mozzarella is like the nectar of the gods. Despite weary feet, I drifted blissfully home to bed…

Posted in England, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment