Summer Days in Shoreham

There is a rather pretty little path between the villages of Otford and Shoreham in north-west Kent that cuts across the golf course and is largely shaded by overhanging trees. On a 30-degree day in August, this is a blessing, as I ramble the long-familiar footpath with old friends. Even the fear of flying golf balls has been removed, as the usual proliferation of golfers has either retreated to the shade or, presumably, to the pub.

Shoreham village is an old favourite. The pub is strung with hanging baskets and the tables are brimming with beers and baskets of crisps, consumed energetically by families who have been out walking their dogs up in the hills or along the river. We wander past picturesque cottages draped in roses and wisteria, a church steeple rising above the yews, to discover an unsealed driveway off Church Street. Meandering along the track, we pass an elegant Victorian country house (accommodation available) hemmed in vineyards and sprinkled with sunshine, before reaching the cellar door.

The Mount opened for business in 2008, four years after planting eight grape varieties in the surrounding acres. Maybe it is a sign of the growing passion for wine all around the globe; maybe it is a sign that Trump is wrong and global warming is a reality, but I would never have expected to find vineyards in Kent. Hops, apples, strawberries, yes, but not grapes. And yet the Romans were here planting villas and vineyards that survived for centuries to reappear in the Domesday Book, where vineyards were recorded as far north as Suffolk. So, perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised to find a thriving vineyard in the Darent Valley, a mere sixty minute stroll from Lullingstone Villa.

The vineyard has expanded its attractions considerably since I was last here, to include secluded areas for outdoor weddings and a new patio dining area with a retractable roof. But  first, accompany me to the tasting room, to lean on the long slate bar and sip a selection of the Mount’s award-winning still and sparkling wines, designed to brighten up a lazy summer afternoon. You may choose to do this at a more formal, informative wine tasting accompanied by matching cheeses, but in the meantime,  let me introduce you to Ramon, the helpful and knowledgeable barman, and to a couple of my favourite wines…

Probably the most well-known wine at The Mount is the sparkling rosé. Created in the traditional méthode champenoise, from Seyval, Phoenix and Pinot Noir grapes, it is pretty in pink and full of the scent of strawberries. There is also a terrific sparkling brut. Unfortunately, they had run out of supplies when we were there, but the alternative choices were perfectly acceptable.

The Flint Key 2013 has a definite aroma and taste of elderflower, with a whisper of honeysuckle and peach, and a splash of citrus. Made from Bacchus and Siegerrebe grapes to create a fun, flavourful white wine, it was a chilled and chatty accompaniment to a light lunch on this hot and sticky summer afternoon. To the winery’s delight, it has already managed to win a couple of awards.

Since I first visited in spring last year, The Mount’s dining experience has become considerably more sophisticated. As always, passing walkers are welcome to sit on the lawn or at the picnic tables for a quick glass of wine and a snack. However, if you prefer to drift through the day, indulging in more filling fare and some quirky conversation, then perhaps book a table on the patio with good friends, and enjoy both the company and the extended menu. There is a variety of tasty, stone baked pizzas with thin, crunchy crusts and extravagant toppings, imaginative tasting platters of cheese and charcuterie, and ‘light bites’ that include some heavyweight, home-made pasties served with piccalilli. We threw a selection of everything into the centre of the table and all but licked the platters clean. Obviously, The Mount’s wines are the star attractions on the wine list, but there is also a choice of several extra-curricular wines, beers or spirits, if you prefer.

Having eaten and sipped my fill, I strolled back along the Darent Valley towards Otford with my friends, clutching a bottle of the Mount’s best 2015 Pinot Noir to share later with the One & Only, when we both returned to Luxembourg.

*With thanks to Google Images for all photos except the last one, as mine weren’t nearly so good!

 

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Soaking up the Sweden Sunshine

Its been an exceptionally hot, dry summer in Europe this year. Fabulous for us and our tent, but not so fabulous for the farmers.

I was born in one of the driest states in the world, where we grew up with summer hose-pipe bans, water shortages and droughts, as a matter of course. We had two-minute showers and recycled the washing-up water to save the lawn from burning to a crisp. Bushfires were a constant threat throughout the summer, but on the other hand, you could rely on good weather for a picnic or a party.

I never expected to visit Scandinavia and find a similar scenario.

Two weeks camping in Norway, and the nights were cold, but the days were hot. With the temperature gauge stuck at about 30 degrees centigrade, we headed south to Skåne, and a friend’s farm near Ystad. There, we were gobsmacked to see a landscape that reminded us so clearly of a South Australian summer: parched and yellow, dry as dust under wide blue skies. We were warned that a typical Scandinavian summer might be damp and dreary in a tent. Luckily for us, the only rain we saw was a ten-minute shower in Oslo, from our hotel window.

I Googled Top 10 things to do in Skåne, and I can only suggest you do the same. We did none of them. We were well off the beaten track, where the scenery was rural, the villages cosy and pretty, and tourists were rare. Here, we were closer to Copenhagen than Stockholm, in a landscape surprisingly flat, after Norway’s dramatic and rugged terrain. Here wide sheets of blue sky lay before us, stretched tightly over a mattress of yellow corn and wheat. Instead of the tall, lean French poplars, farmhouses were announced by lines of pollarded willows that looked like green lollipops.

Closer to the coast, a thick band of forest separated the shore line from the farm land, and once we reached the beach, we found squeaky white sand and dunes decorated in a spiky, spinifex-style grass. It was pure South Australia. The beach is regularly bludgeoned by wind and sea, so, perhaps not surprisingly, we were dodging scattered driftwood and gnarly old tree trunks, roots attached, like petrified octopi. The sand was also thickly coated with bathers, some clad, some not. Yet barely two hundred metres from the car park the beach is empty of any bodies but ours.

During this mild and gentle summer, the coast was calm and peaceful. Children danced among the waves, or built castles in the sand. But don’t be fooled by its benign appearance: it is a pernicious sea, that hides rip tides, dangerous currents, and shipwrecks galore. In many places, the beach had been torn away to reappear further down the coast, and cliffs had collapsed under the barrage of raging wintry waves, leaving houses perched precariously close to the edge.

Ancient standing stones overlooked the sea, a mini Stonehenge, while other signs of pagan times included a summer solstice maypole, or midsommarstången. As a pagan symbol of fertility, its tall central pole with two round hoops at the top certainly send the right message.

We explored several small seaside villages, looking almost English with their homely, white-washed or brightly coloured cottages, but the cobbled streets are wider here, the red roofs lower. Then, getting peckish, we indulged in a mixed seafood platter by the port, sampling local specialities such as smoked eel and smoked mussels, gravadlax, pickled herring and smoked mackerel accompanied by cold beer.

Back inland, attractive village churches stood out on the skyline, their steeples or stepped roofs rising high above the crops. Mostly whitewashed, they showed off a variety of architectural eras, from the Romans to the nineteenth century. We wandered among gravestones kept beautifully neat and trim, admired the simple decor within.

As we drove down empty country lanes, wildflowers ran amok through the wheat and barley, and along the verges: poppies, red and orange; dainty white daisies; splashes of purple and yellow; feathery grasses. As a rainbow put in a brief appearance, I stood in the middle of the road, imbibed with the still calm of the late afternoon. From here, fields of grain stretched as far as the eye could see, the evening light something I cannot begin to describe, but Monet would have adored, in this Provence of the north.

We drove past thatched cottages trimmed in blue paint and hollyhocks in a mad swirl of colours. Half-timbered red brick houses leaned at odd angles, fighting gravity more picturesquely than I ever will. Old windmills, their blades removed, had been converted into houses shaped like bee hives. In a huge, red brick barn behind the house dwelt antiquated farm equipment and nesting swallows.

Gathering with friends in the garden, we sipped on local beer, Luxembourg crémant, chilled Chardonnay – a perfect accompaniment to boiled potatoes and salmon with a mustard and dill sauce – as the evening light drifted on and on… until, at last, an awe-inspiring sunset painted the clouds in dusky pink and wisteria purple. Beside the driveway, half a dozen cherry trees are thick with fruit and flocks of revelling birds. The lawn, burnt to a straw-yellow, prickled the soles of our feet, as we finally headed to bed.

Sadly, since we left, bushfires have been raging in Swedish forests. Seriously, were we in southern Sweden or South Australia?

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Ibsen’s Norway

‘The pillars of truth and the pillars of freedom – they are the pillars of society.’ ~ Henrik Ibsen

Oslo in July. Boats and blue skies. A mad modern opera house, designed to look like it was rising from the sea, but looking, to me, like it had just struck an iceberg and is in the process of sinking. Copious Italian restaurants and clocks everywhere. Naked statues all over the park by prominent Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland. Numerous art galleries into which the One & Only disappears for hours. Endless museums of Viking ships and traditional wooden houses, and a military museum in a medieval castle above the harbour. And the Ibsenmuseet.

I clearly remember studying Ibsen at high school, and productions by the South Australian State Theatre Company. The Doll’s House and The Lady from the Sea. There have been several movies, too, not least an intensely beautiful Australian adaptation of The Wild Duck: The Daughter, with Sam Neill and Geoffrey Rush.

So, I was quite excited to rediscover Ibsen in Oslo in the flesh, so to speak. And where else would he be? Henrik Ibsen is, after all, Norwegian. Playwright, theatre director, poet, he is known as “the father of realism” and has become the most frequently performed dramatist in the world after Shakespeare.

Yet it was not always so.

(If you don’t like, don’t remember or don’t know Ibsen’s work, stop here, as the following is my own self-indulgent research of this fascinating Norwegian.)

Ibsen was born in 1828 into a wealthy shipping family, but in 1835 Ibsen’s father was declared bankrupt. Young Henrik found the resulting loss of wealth and status immensely distressing. At fifteen, he had to leave school, and became an apprentice pharmacist in Grimstad, over 130km from his family. Here he began writing plays, and for many years he worked in theatre in Bergen and Christiana (later renamed Oslo). By 1864, defeated by his lack of success as both a writer and a manager, he fled to Italy with his wife Suzannah and their small son. He would not return to live in Norway for almost thirty years.

At last, in 1895, aged sixty seven, and at the height of his success as a playwright, Ibsen brought his family back to Christiana. In a large and elegant apartment just below the Royal Palace in Stottenpark, he spent the final decade of his life, and completed his last four plays: ‘The Master Builder’ and ‘Little Eyolf,’ ‘John Gabriel Borkman’ and ‘When We Dead Awaken.’ That apartment, now the centrepiece of the Ibsen museum, has been authentically recreated to look as it did at the turn of the last century, right down to the floor coverings and the colour of the paint. The Ibsen family has donated or loaned much of the original furniture to the museum.

In the apartment next door there is a fascinating exhibition, containing many of Ibsen’s personal possessions, paintings, and many facts about the man and his works. However, it was thanks to the more personal touch of our guide that I came away with such a clear picture of the man behind the theatrical façade.

Ragnhild – a very traditional, very old Norwegian name, she told us – described a man shaped by the long years of poverty and failure as a playwright. A man prone to bouts of depression. A man of contrast: vulnerable but egotistical; obstinate and opinionated, yet anxious and insecure. Naturally introverted, he nonetheless craved recognition and adored the limelight. Yet he needed alcohol and an adopted persona to cope socially, hiding behind enormous mutton chop moustaches and a tall top hat. As his star rose, a Bohemian youth gave way to a groomed and polished image of a social and professional success. An honorary degree gave him the title doctor, of which he was inordinately proud.

While other writers at the time were conservative, idealistic and moralistic, much of Ibsen’s writing was considered scandalous. When European theatre was expected to take the moral high ground on family life and society, Ibsen preferred to expose the hypocrisies he saw among the middle class. Critical of social and religious conventions, Ibsen was a progressive, even radical writer. He saw no grand design and claimed that man must forge his own path and make his own choices. Unfortunately, this was not the world he was living in, and these forthright opinions did not win him friends or influence in provincial Christiana. And yet, another anomaly, he still wished to find a place as close to the top of the social ladder as possible. (Ironic, considering Ragnhild described a classless society in Norway, apart from the Royal family.)

Evntually, his work at last found success in Italy and Germany.  Although still decidedly controversial, he was soon to become a renowned and respected playwright. His plays often exposed the hypocritical morality of the middle classes. His characters were often rebels, conflicted with the accepted social conventions of the day.

At last, strengthened by his success abroad, he returned to Norway, eager to make his mark in his own country. And here the tour began.

The first room we see in his apartment reflects his egoism: an enormous portrait of Ibsen himself  hangs above his desk. By comparison, his wife’s cameo portrait hangs in a shadow, on a side wall, among many others. The three front rooms of the apartment are elegantly, even ostentatiously decorated. His office is heavily Germanic in its furnishings, while his two reception rooms, the Red and Blue Salons, are decorated with elaborate French and Italian furniture. He owned a Bechstein piano, but apparently it was there only for effect: Ibsen never allowed anyone to play it, and nor did he play himself.

Those three front rooms were almost like a stage set. Behind the scenes, the family rooms were much more Scandinavian, simple, almost austere. It was a fascinating reflection of the paradoxical writer: his extravagant public persona and his modest private life.

Ragnhild noted that Ibsen was a very disciplined writer and a creature of habit. He would write every morning for two hours, then walk down to the Grand Café for a beer before luncheon, and the route he took was well-known to his neighbours. (Ibsen quotes are now scattered along the path he once took.) He would then return to write in the afternoon in a small seat by the window in the drawing room, where passers-by could observe his backview at work.

Suzannah Ibsen, on the other hand, preferred to keep a low profile. She suffered from rheumatism, so she stayed in her own cosy sitting room, where she would read all day. She was, nonetheless, highly political and would gather her feminist activist friends around her to discuss the current issues of women’s suffrage.

I was fascinated to know if Dr. Ibsen was as radical in his own marriage as in the one’s he wrote about. Ragnhild explained that as far as anyone can tell, the Ibsens had a warm and equal marriage, and Henrik allowed his wife all the independence of speech and behaviour he allowed his female characters.

It has been said that Suzannah nannied her husband, occasionally having to force the pen into his hand. Despite her own reticence to be seen in public, she was a strong character and, Ibsen admitted more than once, his greatest support. She was also the inspiration for many of Ibsen’s famous characters and was so like Mother Åse from Peer Gynt that, when Ibsen read the play to his family, his son Sigurd apparently cried out “that’s Mama!”’

Only a two-minute walk from Ibsen’s apartment is The National Theatre. Opened in September 1899, statues of Ibsen and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson – another popular Norwegian writer, whose daughter would later marry Ibsen’s son – stand proudly before the front entrance. Their names are also engraved in stone on the theatre’s facade, in the company of Danish-Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg. There were three official opening performances, productions of the works of each of these three renowned writers. The theatre has staged Ibsen’s plays almost every year since then, and also hosts the biennial International Ibsen Festival.

Now there’s a thought for our next trip to Norway!

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Of Fjords and Waterfalls, Salmon and Seagulls

Norway in mid-summer, and those never-ending Scandinavian days, when the sun sets in the north-west for a mere blink of the eye, before rising again in the north-east. Birds chatter and chirp for as long as the sky is bright, as over-excited as spectators at the World Cup.

And we are camping.

It’s a long time since we’ve been camping, and I am a little anxious. But we are better equipped than we were thirty years ago, armed only with our sleeping bags and a two-man tent, strapped to mountain bikes. This time, while it isn’t exactly glamping, it is infinitely more comfortable than it was in the olden days. This time, we have a family-sized tent – the McMansion – with room to stand, air mattresses to sleep on, and a two-burner gas stove. The car boot is a portable wardrobe and thus overstocked with clothes and accoutrements: coffee pots, family sized frying pans and a huge wicker picnic basket. (Next time we will purge the contents of our travelling kitchen, if only to avoid playing Tetris in the boot with all the bags and boxes every time we pack up!)

As a bonus, we are blessed with three weeks of the most superb camping weather: not a drop of rain, clear blue skies, warm days, cool nights. My only complaint is the ridiculous class system that pervades every camp ground, giving priority to motor homes – mostly equipped with bathrooms anyway – and dumping the tents at the far reaches of the campsite, ensuring many a desperate midnight dash of several hundred metres to the nearest loo. In that respect, at least, I am now thoroughly appreciating my motel room near Bremen with its ensuite bathroom.

So, how to describe the majestic beauty that is Norway?

I could, like Bill Bryson, flaunt some impressive statistics: the longest, deepest fjord (205km x 1,300m); the highest waterfall (850m); the longest tunnel (24.5km).  We never found the highest waterfall, but we drove through the longest tunnel and caught a ferry across the deepest fjord.

Here, let me show you…

An overnight ferry from Denmark to Stavanger in a proper, grown-up cabin with a huge, round porthole, North Sea winds nearly blowing us off the deck…

A green and leafy campsite beside a lake brimming with ducks and geese and swans and children and joggers, where our tent squats on the windiest spot for miles, a busy road roaring right behind us, day and night…

A harbour lined with sailing boats and motor boats and tourist boats; bustling pubs and restaurants decked out in bunting for the soccer; pop-up stalls selling those traditional Nordic jumpers in complicated, geometric designs that last a lifetime…

An old, white-weatherboard town clambering up cobbled hills on either side of the harbour, one side trapped out for the tourists with boutiques and cafés, the other side filled with picturesque cottages trimmed with colourful summer gardens…

Heading south to wild, windy beaches and white sand dunes, where Oyster catchers clamber over the rocks and ours are the only footprints in the sand, the scent of salt and seaweed heavy on the air; hunting for light houses, in all shapes and sizes, with marble-mouth names like Obrestad, Kjeungskjær, Ytterøyane and Ytre Møkkalasset. We haven’t time for them all –  there are multitudes in Norway – but we find a few…

A pilgrimage to Pulpit Rock (Preikestolen) 600 metres above the Lysefjorden, where hundreds of walkers, red-faced and breathless, clamber up the steep, rocky steps, through fairy glens of moss and marsh and around glassy mountain tarns to reach the famous look out after a ‘moderately demanding’ trek…

A picnic, far from the madding crowd, beside a tiny pebbled beach on a lonely stretch of water, then a nap beneath the trees, and a ferry ride home, dodging through the cluster of islands between Tau and Stavanger …

Driving north-east through Tolkien-tunnels underneath the mountains, over sky-high bridges spanning bottomless green fjords, narrow roads tightly cork-screwing over mountains dimpled with snow…

… past Tiffany-blue-and-turquoise rivers, mirror-like mountain tarns reflecting the mountains, the deafening sound of splashing, crashing cascades and waterfalls dropping like white streamers over the rocks and into the fjords below. Troll-like rock formations that bring to mind Obelix and his menhirs, lush alpine meadows polka-dotted with wildflowers, squat stone cottages with low-browed turf-covered roofs sprouting miniature roof gardens…

A medieval stave church, leaning drunkenly amid the tidy gravestones; weatherboard houses in white and red, in a sea of cherry orchards and toffee-coloured cows; lambs and goats, and stray seagulls swooping inland from the sea…

A courageous dip in a glacier-fed lake, temptingly clear on a hot afternoon, terrifyingly icy as we plunge in…

A helicopter drops to the surface of the fjord, scooping water into a bucket to douse a fire in the hills, another delivers rocks to the Sherpas repairing a footpath beside a waterfall, and yet another is sent in to rescue accident-prone summer skiers…

A peaceful campsite on a farm above a dappled dam, overlooked by mountains holding up hectares and hectares of ancient glacier, where we are woken by a scolding rooster and his harem of friendly hens…

Bergen, a port town filled with cruise ships and sunshine. A plethora of fish stalls and cafés and coloured wooden houses prone to fire that have been recreated time and again over the centuries; a cosy coffee shop in a cobbled lane, a haven from the swarming crowds and the fierce sun. Giant crabs and infant oysters, salmon and eel and reindeer salami…

Flåm, a tiny town at the top of a fjord, its minuscule population bloated to bursting point by hikers and campers and cruise ships. A train chugging up the valley filled with sight-seers and selfie sticks. A wall of motor homes turning the valley into a vast car park…

And yet there are still a few quiet and solitary spots to be found: out on the fjord in a kayak, buffeted by a passing ferry, dive-bombed by nesting seagulls; on a sandy island in the middle of a fast-flowing, pebble-bottomed, glacier-mint river; on a calm, soft evening beside the marina, sipping Chardonnay; in an obscure little coffee shop overlooking the harbour for my best Scandinavian coffee yet…

An almost spontaneous meeting with old friends from Sydney, in the next valley, dining on salmon and chips and reindeer meatballs as the sun refuses to set…

And early mornings in the campsite, with a mug of tea, bird-watching, people-watching, the wildflowers thick and bright on the bank behind us, small children turning somersaults or sword-fighting with sticks…

Norway: an endless, ocular feast of natural beauty and hot, blue skies; a land of fresh air and pink, woolly sunsets; a land of fjords and waterfalls, salmon and seagulls and endless sunshine. This summer at least!

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Wild Asparagus, Wild Strawberries

‘England represented the safety and comfort of familiarity but France dared me with challenges and rewarded me with the thrill of new discoveries within myself.’ ~ Barbara Santich

Remember what it is like to be a footloose student or a young, newly married couple? When life was simpler and cheaper, but it was often a struggle to make ends meet? Remember that time, and then remove yourself from the security of your home town to a foreign country, where job prospects are few and far between and anything you can earn is mere pocket money.

Many books have been written about living abroad, and the literal and personal odysseys such experiences become. There’s Peter Mayle’s ‘A Year in Provence,’ Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Eat, Pray, Love’, and my own favourite, ‘The Bottlebrush Tree: A Village in Andalusia’ by Hugh Seymour-Davies. Not one of these has rung as many bells and reawakened so many memories of those impulsive, intrepid years when no daydream seemed impossible, as ‘Wild Asparagus and Wild Strawberries,’ by Australian writer and food historian Barbara Santich.

Published in South Australia by Wakefield Press, this memoir is not just a travel log but a journey back in time to the days when having two pennies to rub together was a rare luxury.  It is an autobiographical account of two years in France, in the late 1970s, with tiny twins in tow; a nostalgic reminiscence of the adventures and anxieties of one family who dared to make the leap from a well-established and comfortable  lifestyle into the never never, with all that youthful optimism for making dreams come true. A dream to live in France? Une, deux, trois, c’est accompli!

Knowing the north of France a little, and Le Midi a little better, I find Santich’s descriptions endearingly familiar: the rural villages in the Languedoc; the quirky characters; an aging population where ‘children are as rare as diamonds,’ and centuries of history are writ large on every stone. Then, reluctantly, the move to Compiègne, of the sombre and shuttered north, where she finds a different but equally enticing world of foie gras and dark forests, pommes de terre and Paris.

I loved reading about her joy at returning to France, and her gentle observations of the characters she meets there. The ancient shepherd who has names for every sheep in his flock, the nanny-cum-cook with crooked teeth, the landlady with ‘scarecrow hair,’ and the old men gathering in la place every day to watch the world go by. And the endless attraction for les jumeaux faux (the ‘false’ or fraternal twins).

Santich and her family moved regularly during their sojourn in France, keen to know different regions: from the Languedoc to Provence; a brief summer in Spain, then onto ‘the cold, dark north.’ I became thoroughly engrossed in the many contrasts between north and south, most notably the culture and the food. Together, we discovered the way each season was marked by the appearance of wild leeks or wild raspberries, partridges or grape pickers. And the intermittent inclusion of a favourite recipe adds a tasty aside de temps en temps. Even as I read about lapin à la provençale or soupe de poissons à la marseillaise, my mouth was watering, and my feet itched to race to the butcher for a rabbit or dash to the sea for poissons de roche.

As always, Santich is in her element when it comes to food. And it was intriguing to see where her fascination with food history began, as her French adventures led her deeper and deeper into the traditions of rural life in France and the simple, wholesome cuisines of the various regions. Without this two-year interlude, she confesses, I might never have realised the fascination of old cookbooks, never envisaged a career as a food writer and culinary historian.’

Santich has written many books about food history, both Australian and French, but none has been as personal as this one. We are introduced to a younger version of this eminent academic, absorbing her glee at revisiting her beloved France with her family, her joy in gleaning wild herbs and vegetables from the verges, castoff clothes for the children and discarded fruits from orchards laden with cherries. We, too, hear the siren call of the local markets and merrily join the treasure hunt for local wine. And we find ourselves equally enamoured of her new friends, overawed by the unexpected strength of the mistral, or frustrated by inscrutable banks and bureaucracy.

Santich faces each new chapter with the overt enthusiasm of a true gourmand, keen to try un petit peu of everything on offer, from bullfights to la vendange (the grape harvest), from Spanish omelette to ‘pot-au-feu.’ And I am reminded that there is an innocent joy to experiencing the world even – or perhaps especially – when you are living on the smell of an oily rag.

In many ways, it’s a nostalgic period piece, a cameo of a world that has sadly vanished. And yet, to a certain extent, we recognize little has changed. How quickly a new world becomes home, the unfamiliar growing familiar and reassuring as we become familiar with the daily routines and rituals of the neighbourhood. How an interest in local dialects, politics and food helps to immerse us in the local community. How children will inevitably attract new friends.  That Santich writes in the present tense gives her tale an alluring immediacy – if only the epilogue didn’t dash our hopes that a remnant of this old-world France might still survive!

By the end of her tale, I am as reluctant to leave France as Barbara herself. Her epilogue is a sad nod to progress, but at the same time I am incredibly grateful to have been introduced to ‘a time when the 19th century almost touched hands with the 21st.’ And after all, to travel in the south of France today is still to see a glimmer of this antediluvian, yet alluring way of life.

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Travelling North

Kitchen Totem with Blue Funnel by Rose Eken

It was simply an overnight stop en route to the ferry port at Hertshals. We had spent the previous night at a Holiday Inn near Bremen Airport. The location, opposite a runway and a building site, was hardly salubrious, but it was just a one night stand after all. So, I had no expectations of Aarhus, and as we drove through the busy port area, I had already started teasing the One & Only about his odd accommodation choices. I spoke too soon.

Our modern hotel, the Cabinn (quite literally – we had bunks) overlooked a leafy city square hemmed with cafés and bars. The centrepiece was a beautiful red brick cathedral. Saint Clement’s – as in ‘oranges and lemons say the bells of Saint Clements’ –  was dedicated to the bishop of Rome, a Christian martyr who was drowned in the Black Sea with an anchor tied to his neck. Thus, he became the patron saint of sailors.

Much enlarged over the centuries, the cathedral has a magnificent altarpiece and simple frescoes from the 14th – 16th centuries that have recently been restored. There is also a beautiful model of a war ship hanging in the nave. It was constructed by the Dutch for the Russian Tsar, but apparently got lost in a storm on the voyage to Saint Petersburg and ended up on a beach in Northern Denmark. And thus, to Aarhus.

On a more secular note, Aarhus also had a pedestrianized mall just around the corner, full of great shopping, if that’s your tonic of choice, intersected by a canal lined with copious restaurants, including, rather ambiguously, an Australian Bar.

We wandered down cobbled lanes, past half-timbered houses to the harbour, where a huge open air screen had been erected for the Soccer World Cup inn a modern plaza full of wooden benches and an artificial lawn. Mobile food and drink stalls (Mad og Drikke), were in place selling hot dogs and beers, while the plaza teemed with youth and young families, making themselves comfortable on the Astro Turf and the wooden seating. We stayed for a while to watch Columbia beat Poland with colourful enthusiasm.

There had been a city marathon in Aarhus the morning we arrived, so we had to dodge barricades, bunting and copious apple cores to reach the city’s spectacular modern art gallery. The ARoS art museum is topped with a circular platform rimmed in coloured glass, providing a kaleidoscopic panorama of the city. From here we could see the sea, and several elegant bronze spires. Opposite the museum, an early 20th century building – originally the state library – sported a row of owls along the eaves, symbolizing wisdom and erudition.  Hogwarts comes to Denmark?

One exhibition, ‘No Man is an Island,’ was fascinating, if somewhat challenging. It opened with the words of Salman Rushdie: A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep. Representing national and international artists, the exhibition included Australian, Tracey Moffatt, with her emotive film ‘Revolution,’ a pastiche of black and white movies about political upheaval that she created in 2008. It is a subtle dig at humanity and its seeming inability to change or learn from the mistakes of its predecessors.

Later, looking for a snack, we came across the Aarhus Street Food arket near the bus station. On this warm Sunday afternoon, it was full of young families sitting in the sun, cheerfully munching on Vietnamese bahn-mis, Mexican tacos or licking some sophisticated and scrumdiddlyumptious ice-creams. The One and Only opted for a local beer, while I found a dark, Languedoc rosé to accompany my Ugandan salad.

By 9pm we were hungry again, so we drifted down to the canal where we found a terrific little tapas bar and nibbled on some delectable salmon ceviche and octopus carpaccio beside the water.

The next morning, we wandered out for coffee and ended up walking across town to ‘Den Gamle By,’ an open-air ‘living’ museum. Here old, timber houses from all over Denmark, dating as far back as the sixteenth century, have been rebuilt to create a town that takes you travelling through time. Heavily cobbled streets weave past shops and houses with tiny front doors through which even I had to duck. Here, we came across characters dressed in period costume who were happy to explain how people lived and worked in the olden days. Others stayed in character and talked as if you were neighbours from a bygone age.

There was a watchmaker, a milliner, a shoemaker and an apothecary, a tailor, a miller, a goldsmith a the book binder, a brewer, a baker and a coffin maker, all displaying their wares. Above the watchmakers, there was a clock museum: stately and intricately designed grandfather clocks; modern watches, and a 1970s travel clock just like one I was given for my 10th birthday. We visited the alms houses at one end of the town and the mayor’s rather grander establishment at the other. An old man snored from his truckle bed in a one roomed workman’s cottage and the apothecary’s garden was blooming with an assortment of medicinal plants and flowers. A horse drawn cart clattered through town bearing a handful of excited kids and we even tried our hand at bowling down wooden skittles in the local fairground.

Eventually, we passed from medieval to more modern times, as cars and electricity began to change the streetscape. And towards the end we found a display of elegant evening gowns worn by Denmark’s Queen Margarethe for significant events over the past fifty years.

Hungry again, we left the village in search of food, and eventually came across a street full of small and quirky cafés and coffee shops, where Annette made us tasty fresh rolls full of salad and tuna. Sated and foot sore, we wished we could stay longer, but it was time to pack up and head north. We had a ferry to catch that night for Norway, so it was time to get on the road…

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Happiness is Eating Together

Mere moments after we landed in the Philippines, I was invited to join the Antipodean team for the International Food Fair held annually at the boys school. For several years we churned out pies and pasties, Vegemite sandwiches and lamingtons for the Australia/New Zealand stall. It always seemed a bit lame, but Australia is such a mixed bag of races and cultures, we must inevitably stepped on toes if we stray from the traditional CWA (Country Women’s Association) recipes in favour of our modern Australian cuisine, with its eclectic culinary influences from every corner of the globe. And each year we invariably shocked the youngsters who mistook our Vegemite sandwiches – a black, salty spread that bears more than a passing resemblance to car oil – for Nutella. As soon as the doors opened, everyone would grab a paper plate and plastic cutlery and dash from stall to stall, filling their plates to collapsing point from a mouth-watering array of home-cooked dishes from a myriad countries.

Last month, at Luxexpo, we visited Le Festival des migrations, des cultures et de la citoyennet: the Festival of Migration, Cultures and Citizenship. Luxexpo is a conference and exhibition centre in Luxembourg that hosts a wide variety of events throughout the year. In the vast spaces of the Box, at the top end of Kirchberg, we came upon a grown-up version of our ISM International Food Festival. Here, some 400 stalls, representing 135 countries and associations were set up for the weekend. Yet, while there were plenty of eating opportunities, it wasn’t all about food.  Artists, writers and dancers, charities, craftspeople and cooks, religions, banks and family planning were all on show. There was representation from every corner of Europe, and from many corners of Africa, South America and the Middle East, too. BRILL served biscuits and advice about Brexit to affected Brits currently living and working in Luxembourg. Foreign language radio stations, the firemen of Luxembourg and Women in Need each had a stall, as did every national club in town, and every political party. Human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, Médecins du Monde (Doctors of the World), and Intersex and Transgender Luxembourg were there. There was an awe-inspiring diversity of citizenship, culture and cuisine. The one thing they had in common? Every association is based in Luxembourg.

The capital of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, despite its tiny size and a population of less than half a million, is surprisingly cosmopolitan. 42% of the country’s population is foreign and in Luxembourg City itself, that percentage soars to 69%. Thus, it can offer a generous assortment of flavours and cultures, and its events calendar includes numerous fêtes, fairs and customs that often date back to the Middle Ages (see my previous blog on the hopping parade in Echternach).

Le Festival des migrations, des cultures et de la citoyenneté is about friendship and uniting hands around the world. It is a geography lesson and a culinary experience combined. We talked to the ladies at Dante Alighieri while nibbling on Turkish and Bosnian snacks. We drooled over dishes from countries in South America and North Africa of which we had never heard, while admiring the work of Dutch and Argentinian artists.

At the opening, Franco Barilozzi, president of the liaison committee of foreign associations said that the Festival has become an institution, a “space for citizenship and a Dialogue…in a spirit of brotherhood, friendship and solidarity.” Our IS Manila Food Fair has become a school tradition with a similar brief. Simply put, as American author Barbara Coloroso once said, ‘There is something profoundly satisfying about sharing a meal. Eating together… is one of the oldest and most fundamentally unifying of human experiences.’ So in the languages of Luxembourg, bon appétit, gudde appetit, und guter appetit!

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Strolling Through Ghent

We first visited Ghent in March this year. The temperature dropped overnight from 17’C to -2’C, and we lay in bed watching the snow outside our window drift down onto the canal. Unprepared and under-dressed for such late winter weather, every foray outside was done at a fast march. It was most decidedly not the weather for contemplative maundering. I spent much of the weekend holed up in our lovely Airbnb apartment in Patershol.

Last weekend was much warmer, and we sauntered happily through the city, pausing frequently to admire the beautiful buildings or leaning on the arched bridges to watch a variety of small boats chugging along the canals. In fact, aimlessly meandering through this eye-catching city is one of the best ways to spend your time here.

Ghent, or Gent, is a busy port and university city in Flemish Belgium, built won the confluence of the Rivers Scheldt and Leie. It is also absolutely charming. In the late Middle Ages, it was one of the wealthiest cities in northern Europe, based largely on its wool and textile trades, and the proof is in its many glorious medieval buildings. The skyline of the old town is an endless delight of spires and turrets and stepped gables, the façades of its 15th century buildings decorated with Baroque and Gothic sculptures and carvings.

The River Leie is lined with eclectic, elegant architecture such as the Fish Market, built in 1689, and topped with a statue of Neptune. Toreken, the oldest building on Friday Market Square, was built in the 15th century, and features a distinctive tower with a clock and a wind vane of the mermaid Melusine. The Old Post Office of Gent stands in the centre of the city. Now a department store, it was built barely a hundred years ago in the neo-Gothic style, and fits in beautifully with the rest of the older façades on the square.

There are many churches in Ghent, but Saint Bavo’s Cathedral is undoubtedly the highlight – and it was only a stone’s throw from our spacious Airbnb apartment just off Brabantdam. The cathedral is enormous, and filled with  fascinating sculptures, triptychs and paintings, some going back as far as the 8th century. I was gobsmacked anew by the ornate 18th century pulpit by Flemish sculptor, Laurent Delvaux, with its enormous apple tree spreading its branches over the pulpit like a vast umbrella. Then there’s the inexplicable presence of the skeleton of a whale behind the altar. Jonah’s? And we loved all the richly coloured stained-glass by Jan-Baptiste de Bethune, designed in the 19th century. The Cathedral’s prime attraction, however, is The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. This is an altarpiece painted by Flemish artists, Hubert and Jan Van Eyck. It is a wonderfully detailed allegorical portrayal of the death of Christ, who is represented by a lamb on the altar at the centre of the painting. In March, it was also the only warm place in the city. In June, we were blessed with a free performance from a brass band visiting from the north of England.

The city has a plethora of cafes and restaurants, which made it awfully hard to decide where to eat. A quiet backstreet for Thai or Persian, a busy restaurant on one of the main squares with a view of all the prettiest buildings, the stylish Pakhuis with its industrial-chic décor and delicious seafood, or an authentic Italian meal with great coffee overlooking the canal? Apparently, it is also a bit of a mecca for vegetarians. So, toss a coin or go to Trip Advisor for recommendations.

The flower market at Kouter Square has been exhibiting and selling flowers and plants here since the 18th century, and it is a wonderful place to wander on a sunny Sunday morning. Awash with spring colours, the square also boasts a large bandstand, and we arrived just as a local band began to play a number of hits from popular musicals. Everyone was toe-tapping to Disney’s Under the Sea and Tequila, and one homeless gentleman was clapping his hands in delight. In March, most of the exotic and delicate plants like orchids were protected from the cold in large tents warmed by giant heaters. In June they were soaking up the sunshine with the rest of us.

Sadly, we couldn’t get a table at the English bookshop for coffee, but not far away, we discovered a second-hand book market along the river, where we paused to browse and sip proper Italian coffee. (As an aside to book lovers, there are eleven independent book stores in Ghent. And the university library is housed in a tower, a modernist masterpiece by Belgian architect Henry van de Velde and contains more than 3 million books on 24 floors. Unfortunately, it is currently being renovated, but I will return!)

Ghent also has a couple of castles and cobbled lanes full of tempting fashions, a design museum and the UNESCO World Heritage belfry with great views from the top and a dragon that has been guarding the city since 1377. There are markets galore including a food hall in an old church, known as The Holy Food Market, and of course there is beer.

And there are numerous boat trips on offer, which was my prime motivation for getting up on Saturday morning. Our tour guide showed off his expertise in four languages, as we puttered through the canals, although I would warn against sitting too close to the engine, or you won’t hear a thing, even when its in English! We loved this behind-the-scenes view of the city, and undoubtedly, the best view of Gravensteen Castle is from the moat, in a boat. We also got to cheer on two young women abseiling off a building beside the canal. I guess if they slipped, they were less likely to break their necks, and would only get an unplanned swim!

There is plenty more that I will leave you to discover on your own, but the best part, for us, was that we were able to spend the whole weekend on foot – apart from our boat tour. Much of the old town centre has been pedestrianized, just beware the myriad bikes and trams. As the Lonely Planet guide says, Ghent is ‘small enough to feel cosy but big enough to stay vibrant.’ Final tip. Don’t forget to take your appetite and your camera – and remember to bring some chocolate home for your friends!

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Eating Peaches

I grow old … I grow old …
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
                                         ~ from The Love Song of  J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot

It’s early May, and we are en route to a literary festival in Chiddingstone, Kent. This three year old literary festival is held in the grounds of Chiddingstone Castle, an old Tudor house that was rebuilt in the 19th Century to resemble a medieval castle. Beyond the estate walls is Chiddingstone Village, ‘the most perfect surviving example of a Tudor village in the county,’ now owned by the National Trust.

The setting is gorgeous on this warm spring weekend – thank the lord, says one car park attendant, last weekend the fields were all flooded! The lawns are lush and people have brought deck chairs and picnic rugs. Several mobile food and drink vendors are selling coffees, cakes and prosecco. Two marquees stand to one side of the house, where we will gather with our favourite authors and listen to them talk about their latest books.

Cook books, historical fiction, biography, poetry, crime, children’s books… there was a broad variety of topics on offer this year, and some eminent authors, like Kate Mosse, Lauren Child and popular crime writer Ian Rankine. There were also craft and theatre events for the kids and a life drawing workshop for my One & Only.

One of the writers I was really looking forward to meeting was Northern Irish celebrity cook, Diana Henry. On day one, she talked with British food writer Bee Wilson, about her new cook book and her fascination with menus.

After her first trip to France at sixteen, Henry had an epiphany, she tells us. She discovered that a meal can be an art form that takes both the cook and the guests on a journey. She began to collect menus in a note book, to keep a record of all the meals she would like to cook one day.

‘Menus are like poetry or short stories,’ she says, and ‘meals can create very different moods [and] …can take you places, from an afternoon at the seaside in Brittany to a sultry evening eating mezze in Istanbul. They are a way of visiting places you’ve never seen [and] revisiting places you love.’

Henry’s latest book is called “How to Eat a Peach: menus, stories and places,” and its cover is textured like the soft, furry skin of a ripe peach. Henry introduces each of the twenty-four menus – and in fact each of the one hundred recipes – with a personal memory or note about why she selected it for her book. Henry has written many cook books, but she tells me as she signs my copy that this latest one is her favourite, the most personal, the one closest to her heart. I am glad. I, too, love the combination of travel tales, menus and recipes, and have already tried out a few of her ideas.

‘I invite people round because I love to cook… [where] all the senses are engaged in the preparation,’ she says, adding that she always thinks of a menu first and then wonders who would most like to eat it. ‘It’s all about relishing life at the table,’ she adds, and ‘dinner can provide a whole evening’s entertainment.’

Years later she was thrilled to discover Alice Water’s ‘Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook.’ Now, her own menu cook book provides twenty-four dinner menus from South East Asia, Spain, Southern Italy and San Francisco, just to mention a few. Of course, you can mix them up, but it’s actually fun to follow her suggestions for a full meal, as she has balanced them so beautifully. Long gone are the extravagantly rich dinner parties of our youth, she explains, now it’s about simplicity and having the energy to enjoy our guests after the work is done, and not just want to reach for our pajamas and a good book. And I absolutely get that, even if I still like to spend time making the table look pretty.

The title of the book came about, Henry explained, after watching a group of Italians at an outdoor restaurant end a meal with a bowl of peaches and a bottle of chilled Moscato. The diners halved, pitted and sliced the fruit, dropped the slices into their glasses and added the wine. Leaving it to macerate for a while, they then ate the peach, now flavoured with wine, and sipped the wine, now imbued with peach. So simple. So good.

How to Eat a Peach is a working cook book, but it is also a beautiful one to leave on the coffee table, so I will do my best not to drip cake mix or olive oil on its pristine pages, as happens to most of my favourite cook books. Then I can always sit with a coffee to read her recipes and her little asides, which sound as if she were sharing the sofa with me. In describing her perfect lunch menu, she adds the proviso that ‘the title of this menu is a bit cruel, because a perfect menu is the stuff of dreams.’ And yet, as I read through this menu for early summer, it comes pretty close to perfection. At least in Henry’s capable hands!

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Echternach Spring Parade

Echternach.5After an exceptionally long winter that dragged on into April, May burst forth with enough vigour to drench the countryside with a top coat of pollen that looked like a layer of golden muslin. Now, the countryside is lush and fecund: the woods are dense with vivid green leaves, the fields are abloom with wheat and wildflowers. Today, I caught the bus north-east to Echternach, to watch the annual Sprangpressessioun or Spring Procession with a group of girlfriends. It was an extraordinary, enchanting experience.

Echternach is a pretty, medieval town that sits beside the River Sauer. Across the river is Germany. In the centre of town is the Echternach Abbey, founded in 698 A.D. by an English monk, Willibrord. Although the town was badly damaged in World War II, it was largely restored by 1953 and some sections of the medieval walls and towers remain intact.

The Echternach Sprangpressessioun takes place on Whit Tuesday, a religious holiday in Catholic Luxembourg, seven weeks after Easter. The Spring Procession, or Hopping Parade as it is commonly known, has its origins in the 8th century. Its meaning is lost in legend, and may well have evolved from pagan traditions, but in the eighth century, a few years after Saint Willibrord’s death in 739 A.D., pilgrims began to visit his tomb, where it was rumoured many miracles of healing had taken place. Today, hundreds of Luxembourgers parade through the town to honour the local saint, buried in the crypt of the Basilica.  The event now attracts so many spectators it was listed in 2010 as Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO.

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I arrive early with friends, and we set up camp on the steps of the monument in the Market Square. From here we are assured a bird’s eye view of the aptly named Hopping Parade. As the crowds straggle into town, the sick and elderly line the route in their wheelchairs, people lean from upper windows, others make themselves comfortable at the many pavement cafés.

The celebrations began last night with a service at the Basilica. Pilgrims arrive from Germany in time for high mass Echternach.3at 8 a.m., having set out on foot at noon on Whit Sunday. The Archbishop of Luxembourg makes a speech outside the Abbey at 9.15 a.m.

The procession quietly gets underway at 9.30 am, led by a group of church dignitaries, policemen and firemen. Church servers carry banners and the cross. Singers chant the litany. Pilgrims recite the rosary. Then come the first hoppers. The program lists thirty-eight groups from churches, Scout groups and schools in Luxembourg, Germany and even Ireland.

The bands – mostly brass and wind – march through the streets, top and tailed by rows of ‘hoppers’. In lines of five or six, each hopper grasps the corner of a triangular white bandana. As the band begins to play the traditional marching tune ‘Sprangprëssessioun,’ the hoppers perform what looks like a slow polka, hopping two steps to the left and two to the right, gradually moving across the square.

All the hoppers are wearing white tops and dark skirts or trousers. Bandanas around the neck are mostly white, but are occasionally interspersed with green, blue or yellow. Ages range from five to eighty-five. A note on the program reminds spectators that this is a religious procession, not a folk festival, so please refrain from clapping. And so, we watch solemnly as the parade weaves slowly through the town to the song that never ends. Eventually, however, it does end – four hours later, when every one of those thirty-eight groups has processed around the town, through the Basilica and down into the crypt, past Saint Willibrord’s grave. And at last we are free to run from the sun, dodge down a back street and find a table at one of the many restaurants, joining hundreds of white-topped hoppers gasping for food and beer.

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I have visited Echternach several times before, and while the crowds are never quite as large as they are today, sunny summer weekends will usually find the cafés and restaurants packed tight for leisurely Sunday lunches. On the outskirts of town, down by the man-made lake, picnickers sprawl on the lawns, play ball games, ride bikes, pedal on paddle boats.

Echternach.1Earlier this month, however, I found myself meandering around the lake in the middle of the week, one of only a handful of nature lovers to be seen. For once, humans were outnumbered by bird life: numerous ducks, a crane, three swans and a pair of Mandarin ducks. The day was warm and peaceful. I sat quietly under a tree and watched the world go by.

Heading home, I decided to veer off the main road  – an otherwise straight line to our front door – and go cross-country, following my nose down rural lanes that corkscrew and curl like a roller coaster. These winding roads pass through rural villages cluttered with boxy houses in a rainbow assortment of lilac and ochre, rose pink and denim blue. Small churches point narrow spires to the airplane tracks across the sky. Swooping over a rise, I looked down on a village nestled into the crook of thickly wooded hills.

I drove past a grizzled farmer riding his burly tractor through a field of freshly mown hay, and meadows spotted with yolk-yellow buttercups and dandelion clocks. The road wound up and over the curvaceous contours of Rubenesque hills. There were so many shades of green I would need the skills of an artist to describe them in paint. Cinnabar, cadmium, viridian, emerald and olive: names of oil paints that weave a cloying spell you can almost taste.

Speckled cows had gleefully escaped their winter barns to gorge on thick grass among the pastel-pink blossom of Dupre_The-Milkmaidsquat apple trees, and sturdy donkeys leaned over the fence, happy to chat with passers-by. The highland cattle that, in winter, had posed by the road buried knee deep in muddy hay, had now drifted up the slopes, dipping their long horns like Dupre milk-maids. Raptors soar and swoop in search of prey, or simply for the fun of riding the air currents.  I am smitten with the landscape and the clear blue skies. Its enough to make you want to hop and skip through the buttercups…

*The photos were borrowed from Google images (Dupre’s milkmaid), postcards by Peuky Barone-Wagener and my own view of the lake at Echternach.

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