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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Michelin Starred Magic

CB7At Le Château de Beaulieu in north-west France, local chef Marc Meurin is celebrating. It is the 20th anniversary of his restaurant’s second Michelin star. Meurin is largely self-taught, with almost fifty years of experience under his belt. In all that time he has stayed close to his birthplace.

Fourteen years ago, he moved his restaurant, Le Meurin, to Le Château de Beaulieu on the outskirts of rural village Busnes, just an hour from Le Touquet. With its turrets and moat, the chateau, now a boutique hotel, looks like a Disney castle. Standing graceful and sophisticated at the heart of a small park, it reminded me of a similarly moated castle in Kent, although the nineteenth century structure posed more gracefully than the squat mediaeval manor house tucked into a hidden valley in Ightham. From our bedroom window, we gazed over the moat to sweeping lawns, and broad leafy trees spreading their shadows across a swathe of lawn to a small lake edged with irises and belted with a Monet style bridge. Our room was reminiscent of Eloise’s Plaza Hotel with plenty of hot pink and gold.

Our first evening there, we dined at the bistro restaurant. Le Jardin d’Alice is contemporary and colourful, overlooking a pretty patio garden. The menu was both creative and delicious, and the menu changes regularly. Although dinner was terrific, I don’t want to be overly self-indulgent, or incite too much food envy, so I will move on to the pièce de résistance: Sunday lunch at Le Meurin.

CB3Le Meurin boasts two dining rooms and a lounge area. One dining room is more formal, curtained and carpeted, with upholstered chairs and a chandelier. The second is contained in an airy and gracious wrought iron conservatory, overhanging the moat. With a choice of four, six or eight courses, the six-course dégustation menu seemed elegant sufficiency for a Sunday lunch, but, as always with a dégustation menu, there were some unscripted extras that added several titillating mouthfuls to the proposed menu.

A small platter of amuse bouche arrived first to tantalize the taste buds: a quenelle of salmon bavarois, a parmesan cheese biscuit and a canape of smoked eel topped with beetroot, all intense flavours in dainty serving spoons.

Next, an egg shell, neatly decapitated, snuggling in a small nest of hay: an amusing ‘boiled egg’ of cream of lovage soup topped with caviar. Lovage is a leafy plant rather like celery, with leaves like large Italian flat-leaf parsley, but it’s also closely related to carrots and parsnips. The flavour is herbaceous – think parsley and celery combined – with a hint of aniseed and curry.

Digging deeper with our teaspoons, we uncovered the ‘yolk’ of butternut pumpkin puree. Light and delicately flavoured, this surprising, somewhat quirky offering set the mood for an afternoon’s gastronomic entertainment.

The bread trolley offered up many interesting options and returned frequently throughout the meal. I succumbed only once, to a moreish slice of fig bread, and a lemon bread that was particularly recommended by our waiter. Fresh from the oven, warm, soft and citrusy in the centre, satisfyingly crunchy on the outside, it was served with a choice of salted or unsalted butter whipped to a light mousse.

The first official dish on the menu was a cube of pink trout served on a cushion of buckwheat floating in a sea of green samphire sauce. Topped with a purple clover flower, the colours were disarmingly extravagant and bold, yet the taste was subtle and fleeting, each mouthful feather-light and delicately textured.

Next, a luscious spear of green asparagus arrived, tender as a courgette, cloaked in a thin slice of cheese, and bathedCB4 in a light, creamy sabayon. A bed of barley and walnuts, and two tiny triangles of fried bread added a dash of crunchy texture. The asparagus almost melted on the tongue and drifted down my throat as smoothly as a glass of warm milk.

A dish of firm, sweet scallops and grilled prawns was accompanied by a soft, off-white oyster juice marshmallow, full of briny flavour, cradled on an oyster leaf to prevent it melting on the hot plate.

The much-anticipated foie gras proved to be a generous and delectable wedge of rich and creamy luxury. Pan fried and drizzled in aged balsamic, it was sprinkled with a crumble of breadcrumbs fried in the goose fat. Beside it, an arrangement of candy striped, deep pink rhubarb fingers and a quenelle of ruby-red rose jam added eye-catching, flamboyant colour, accessorized with another purple clover flower.

For the main course, we had a choice: fish or lamb. The One & Only chose turbot, gently steamed and served on a sauce of juniper and onion juice, succulent and melt-in-the-mouth. I succumbed to the lamb, as I usually do. It was beautifully rare (not two words I usually like to string together in relation to lamb) and splashed with a tomato gravy. It was accompanied by piquillos farcis (sweet pepper stuffed with paella) and zucchini tian, a stack of yellow and green courgettes interspersed with slices of chorizo. The lamb was perfect, but it did play second fiddle to the vegetables, and the gravy, while it looked lovely, seemed an unnecessary addition to a dish already vibrant with strong flavours.

Before we chose dessert, we were presented with a super little palate cleanser: a palm-sized ceramic sea urchin cradling quenelles of ice cream in vibrant colours and surprising flavours: bright orange carrot, creamy white asparagus, and a claret coloured beetroot.

CB6The cheese trolley swept in, laden with a healthy array of local cheeses, pushed by a waiter armed with a generous hand. Of the two desserts on offer, we all opted for the morels and chocolate, an adventure in taste and texture, not to mention visual delight. The centrepiece was three ribbed morels, piped full of white caramel chocolate. These stood to attention like tiny tree stumps, the ‘forest floor’ scattered with chocolate ‘dirt’ and soft bread torn into pieces and coloured green to look like moss. Twigs of rolled milk chocolate and meringue mushrooms completed the woodland scene. The inevitable sauce was flavoured with orange and espelette pepper, a treasured chilli of the Basques.

As a grand finale, the Lolly Trolley arrived, bedecked in sweet treats to rival the Child Catcher’s van in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Many-coloured, handmade cubes of marshmallow, lollypops galore, toffee apples, macarons and coloured pieces of Lego chocolate. There was even barbe de Papa (fairy floss). Like a day at Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, even the adults couldn’t resist the temptation!

And I haven’t forgotten the wine, although given the drive home, we showed unusual restraint. Daunted by the encyclopediac leather-bound menu, we had a lengthy discussion about the wines available – all French – with the knowledgeable and chatty sommelier. We finally settled on a Saint Emilion Grand Cru, Chateau Dassault 2012, deep red and thick with tannin. And later, when we felt all was over, the sommelier sweetly poured me a glass of dessert wine that tasted as rich and raisiny as Muscat. A moment later, a dish of chunky but diaphanous chocolate honeycomb appeared like magic, that melted on the tongue before you could blink, leaving behind a satisfying whisper of chocolate bubbles.

Meurin believes, as do so many now, in using local and seasonal products. How local was only apparent when we wandered through the park and found the pretty purple clover freckling the lawn…

*With thanks to Google images for the photo of the chateau.

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Food & Wine & Wild Animals

kanga2Whenever I have been in South Australia lately, my feet seem to drift, inevitably, south to the Fleurieu Peninsula. A recent trip found me pottering through the Adelaide Hills to Clarendon and McLaren Flat at twilight, with Son Number Two, where we found paddocks teeming with grazing kangaroos, a pair of doe-eyed, silky-soft baby alpacas and a caravan of camels. Well, a herd really, but caravan sounds so much more romantic. There were flocks of rosellas and galahs and the usual array of sheep, cows and horses. All of which made us squeal like over-excited five-year-old’s at a birthday party.

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Another day, and I wandered west from Port Willunga with my parents. It was an exceptionally warm, dreamy, autumn afternoon. Lurking at the end of a country lane lined with grapevines, we came across the Currant Shed, a restaurant that spills out into an orchard on one side and overlooks a vineyard on the other. As its name suggests, it was once a shed for drying currants, which were then exported to Europe. Today it harbours far more elaborate fare: a small but exotic menu, offering modern Australian cuisine with a splash of Japan.

Our waitress was chatty and charming, as friendly and attentive as if we had popped into her own kitchen for a bite to eat. There was a soothing intimacy about the dining area, that drew hushed but happy conversations from the diners, unlike the echoing babble that is too often the case in busier, city restaurants. We sipped our Adelaide Hills rosé and perused the menu, nibbling on fresh sour dough rolls served with whipped butter. The butter had been sprinkled with chunky pink Grenache salt, ever so slightly smoky in flavour. Glorious.

With much deliberation, we managed to order three of the four entrées between us. There was salmon served with currant2plum and horseradish and accessorized with charcoal coloured crisps – think prawn crackers – made from salmon skin. The beef tartare was  an  artistic composition I know not how to describe – so for once I must rely on a photograph to do the talking for me. And finally, tuna sashimi served on a nest of Asian coleslaw and finger limes for a dash of indigenous Australia, garnished prettily with nasturtium petals and pink and white daikon curls. It was superb: a flavourful mélange of taste, texture and colour.

My mother was delighted with a bowl of plump pumpkin tortellini topped with crumbled feta, sage and crunchy pepitas, while Dad and I, completely carnivorous, devoured juicy kangaroo fillets served on sauerkraut, with kale crisps and smoked mash. Talk was limited to the satisfied noises one makes with a mouthful of food, glorious food.

And then, blissfully replete, we sat back peacefully over coffee and a wonderful view of blue skies, verdant green orchard and the dusty haze of the khaki green bush beyond, enjoying the lazy Sunday afternoon ambience in the middle of the week. It is, to date, one of my favourite South Australian dining experiences.

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Finally, as part of Tasting Australia, Number One Son & I boarded a bus from the City and travelled out on the southern expressway to McLaren Vale. We were off to Alpha Box & Dice, with aspirations to taste all twenty-one of their proffered wines.

It was a balmy evening of clear, star-speckled skies. Fairy lights were draped over the vines. Numerous braziers glowed and smoked on the lawn. Staff served a cheerful welcome with trays of tasty hors d’oeuvres and glasses of prosecco to help set the mood. The setting was beautiful.

AB&D is a young boutique winery born in 2008. It claims to ‘make wines without boundaries; a laboratory for viticultural exploration.’  Here, innovative, enthusiastic young winemakers randomly blend an assortment of grape varieties – ‘vinous bricolage’ they call it, most poetically –  with a strong lean towards lesser known Italian varietals such as Nebbiolo, Montepuliciano, Ripasso and Aglianco.  The resulting wine list abounds in creative blends and amusing names. Kit and Caboodle, for example, is an unlikely white blend of Chenin Blanc, Gewurtztraminer, Gruner Veltliner and Riesling.

The staff presented the wines with light-hearted humour, but obvious pride in their creations.  We chatted with them freely and came away with plenty of fascinating information and quirky descriptions. Here are some of my favourites.

Alpha-BoxDice_DWS_DolcettoFog, a red wine derived from black nebbiolo grapes from the Adelaide Hills. (Nebbiolo originates in Piedmont, north west Italy and nebula means ‘fog’ in Latin.) The winemakers describe it as looking like ‘a well-worn leather jacket’ and feeling like ‘a regal handshake’ with an aroma of ‘Turkish Delight, rose petals, sandalwood.’

Dead Winemakers Society is a spicy, cherry flavoured Dolcetto dedicated to old Piedmontese wine makers, ‘the wild-eyed wine poets that had a deep respect for both the land they farmed and the process of guiding the fruit to bottle in the most thoughtful and composed manner possible.

Siren is described as ‘rich berry and plum fruits are underscored with enough abundant exotic spice, burnt orange and lavender complexity to lure the canniest of wine drinkers to their fate.’ Made from grapes grown in McLaren Vale, Nero d’Avola originated in Sicily. And so it seems obvious to transplant it to another place of sunshine, sea and vines.

The Apostle is made with a blend of Durif and Shiraz grapes. ‘It’s inky, compact and earthy, with a solid core of slatey fruit that strike through the wine like an obelisk of vinous truth.’ Yet another thoroughly quirky description to accompany a wine with amazing flavour and texture.

So, we sat beside the fire and beneath the stars, sipping peacefully at sirens of the sea and making new friends among a gathering of like-minded wine lovers eager for adventure….

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twilight by the creek

a naked hillside burns to rusty red
in the last rays of the autumn sun
that is melting like apricot sorbet behind the hills
in a blanket-soft, blue sky
smudged with candyfloss cloud

the raucous shrieks of stocky cockatoos
tear the silent sky into ragged strips
while an idle koala hangs, unperturbed
and sloth-like, over a broad branch
another wedged in the crook between trunk and beam

the twisted arthritic limbs of ancient gums
stretch across the sludge brown creek
that turns to liquid mercury in the dying light
swirling and churning over rocks and roots,
waltzing down to the sea

fragrant eucalyptus permeates the still air
making nostrils flair
with its soothing, balmy scent
unearthing nostalgic childhood memories
as strong as a mere madeleine may do

a squat and solitary bandicoot snuffles anxiously
amongst the undergrowth
blending – almost – with the coarse grasses
eyes scrunched tight so she can’t be seen
burying her snout between sturdy claws

a little green road to fairyland
weaves up the river bank, between the trees
where a miniature world of fairies is revealed –
mossy cottages and hidden doorways –
to cries of glee from eager infants

a picnic rug left forelorn by the creek
where parents sat peacefully in the shade
as their children paddled small toes in the creek
and clambered, lithe as mountain goats over fallen branches
as the day drifted lazily away…

koala

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