The Honesty of Gin

gin (1)David Danby, cocktail barman turned gin distiller, loves gin for its honesty.  Director of Imperial Measures, David can be found at the hub of Tasting Australia, where he is introducing a raft of local gins, from Adelaide’s Prohibition to Kangaroo Island’s KIS Wild Gin, Fig Gin from Mount Lofty to Budburst from the Barossa Valley.

Danby agrees that while the language of wine relies heavily on simile to describe taste and aroma, the flavours in gin are the real deal. Be it fig, lavender, almond blossom, or even the citrus flavoured green ant, the clean, base alcohol is infused with the actual flowers, fruits, herbs and spices described on the bottle.

Originally a cheap panacea for the masses, gin was once the sole domain of the huge distilleries who marketed classic ‘London’ dry gins. In 1999, Hendricks became the first to produce a small batch of hand-crafted, high quality gins. Since then, there has been a plethora of new gins on the market, and the list of botanicals in each bottle weaves a magic spell.

And these boutique gins are upstaging the venerable, vintage gins with complexity, sophistication, even poetry, that make each one distinctive and unexpectedly aromatic.

The rebirth of the juniper berry has struck a chord all over the world. Today, even South Australia is on the band wagon, and there is a widespread loyalty here, for local ingredients.

Danby says drinking gin with tonic water and the balance of bitter and sweet enhances the gin and makes it incredibly moreish. Try it with water, and the botanicals ‘shine through.’ And then there is the fun of playing with garnishes that goes way beyond the traditional slice of lemon.

Despite the large number of local gin producers and Australia’s heavy taxation on alcohol, which raises the cost significantly, Danby assures me he can barely keep up with the turnover of his own Adelaide based Ounce Gin.

Danby and his partners leapt into producing gins when they discovered that there was an inevitable shelf-life to working behind the bar until two in the morning. And while I am not fond of the over-used adjective ‘passionate’ it applies here, as Danby enthusiastically educates me on gin production, while the heavens open over our heads.

Imperial Measures will open its own cellar door in Thebarton very soon, and at the same time plan to introduce a second gin to its stable. In the meantime, I savour the elegant citrus and mid-palate cardamom flavours of their inaugural Ounce Gin, as we lean on the Spirit Bar at Town Square. These are, as Danby says, his eyes gleaming, ‘exciting times.’

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A Summer Picnic on the Loire

wind-in-willows-813x516Take the adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes! ‘Tis but a banging of the door behind you, a blithesome step forward, and you are out of the old life and into the new! Then some day, some day long hence, jog home here if you will, when the cup has been drained and the play has been played, and sit down by your quiet river with a store of goodly memories for company. ~ Kenneth Graham, Wind in the Willows

Stuck in bed with a hacking cough and a snotty nose, the temperatures consistently squatting below zero, there is only one way to leave the apartment this week, and that is through memories. I find myself drifting back to early adventures, when it was just the two of us…

The One & Only has always liked a project and a plan. So, one similarly chilly day in the winter of 1991, he concocted the idea of a cycling trip through France. With the aid of a mountain of maps and several guide books, he plotted a course from Cherbourg to the River Cher. We had put ourselves and our bikes to the test on a previous expedition through Ireland, we had our two-man tent shaped like an armadillo (a farewell gift from Aussie mates) and a gorilla I bought on the ferry as a mascot. We christened him Graham, and he was a grumpy sod, but his invariable churlishness made me laugh, even on the steepest hills. I squashed him into my bicycle basket and we set off.

Despite some initial reservations, it was an amazing journey. We pedaled south from Cherbourg, until the last of the Channel mist and mizzle melted away and we found ourselves cycling through hedgerows littered with wildflowers and on across fields of wheat and corn, that would later transform into poppies and sunflowers.

We drifted along the coast to Mont Saint Michel where the One & Only’s propensity for debilitating doses of hay fever hit an all-time high. Yet he still managed to drag himself across the causeway, a little groggy on anti-histamines, so we could gaze in awe upon this glorious tribute to God perched, somewhat foolishly, on a rocky outcrop in the middle of a tidal bay. We lunched on omelets and red wine in the lee of a stone wall overlooking the bay across to Tombelaine.

And then it was south again to towards Nantes and the Loire, along meandering country lanes, the verges thick with cow parsley and campions, dandelions and daisies, wild foxgloves and love-in-the-mist. Every village tempted us with patisseries or small markets where we loaded up with fromage, baguettes and tomates. Le Château de Vitré was our first taste of a French castle in what would soon become a daily serving: Saumur, Azay-le-Rideau, Chenonceaux, Chaumont, Chambord, Chateauneuf

I immersed myself in every splendid castle and loved every minute of it: swans and stained glass, tapestries and turrets. Living history. Yet the one memory that stands out now was not a chateau, but a meal by a river.

It was a warm day, towards the end of June, and we had been cycling beside the Loire all morning. I was feeling cranky about the number of hills, and the lack of food. One final push up the longest hill yet found us in Saint Saturnin.  It was a Sunday, and absolutely everything was closed.

Practicing my awkward schoolgirl French on the first person we came across – a middle aged lady wrapped in a crocheted shawl, a cane basket over her arm, full of food and red checked gingham, I asked where we might find somewhere to eat. Responding in perfect English that put me to shame, she invited us to set up camp in her garden, and then advised us to cycle down the hill, where a lovely restaurant awaited us by the river. She would meet us later, as she was on her way to an English class with her 85-year-old teacher.  So, we parked our bikes beneath the apple tree in her walled garden, unloaded the paniers, and erected the tent. Then we grabbed our bikes and rolled madly – and hungrily – down, down, down the steep lane to the river, and ‘Jojo’s’.

There, much to our surprise, we found about half a dozen trestle tables set up on the sand and dressed in fine linen. It Felt like the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, or a scene from Wind in the Willows. It was blissful, a summer ‘pop-up’ restaurant long before ‘pop-ups’ became de rigueur. Several large families were already hoeing into their Sunday lunch, served by waiters in penguin suits – really – while the chef went to work in a small caravan.  We were shown to a wobbly round table beneath the trees and settled into a pair of white plastic chairs.

Our waiter poured a sweet but icy cold white to start. Then we feasted on mountains of calamari and tiny fried whitebait, very lightly battered, almost like tempura, served with a simple, crisp green salad. It was the first time I had ever eaten whitebait, and I was smitten.

So there we sat on the riverbank, bare toes tickling the sand, in our less-than-glamorous cycling kit, yet being treated as honoured guests. Entrecôte and crispy pommes frites followed, washed down with a local red from Anjou that, according to my journal, tasted like caramel. We finished off with homemade ice-cream and the best coffees we’d had since landing in France.

The water glistened, wide and pearly, meandering gently around the sand banks near the shore, racing swiftly down the centre. Tall, slim trees shaded our table, leaning hungrily towards our plates, the sun twinkling through the leaves, and kissing our shoulders. Children chittered away like sparrows, alternately nibbling and dancing round the chairs, their elders too busy concentrating on each other and the food to notice or care. If anybody thought the interloping Australian cyclists seemed a strange addition to the scene, they politely kept it to themselves. When we had eaten more than our fair share, we removed to a shady spot on the sand and enjoyed a siesta to the sound of a violin player, before we had to face the uphill climb to our hostess’s glorious garden and our armadillo tent beneath an apple tree.

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Of White Port, Peacocks and Pimientos de Padrón…

‘If I were to write about the happiest days of my life, many of them would have to do with food and wine and a table full of friends.’ ~ Charles Simic, poet

Porto6

Luxembourg had eight hours of sunlight in December. Helsinki had zero. It’s hardly surprising, then, that by February many northern Europeans have the mid-winter jitters and feel the urge to gallop south for a quick fix of blue sky and sunshine.

Porto4We chose Porto for our February dash to the sun. It had been on our ‘to do’ list for some time, and it turned out to be a magical spot for a winter mini break, and a very appealing city in which to wander without dictate or agenda. We found a pocket-sized apartment in the old part of town that provided glorious views with our morning coffee: tall, narrow houses with terracotta-tiled roofs toppling down steeply cobbled streets like old tombstones or crooked teeth; a dark river glinting in the sunlight; a score of church towers rising high above the rooftops in every direction, gift-wrapped in scaffolding. Later we would peek inside to find them replete with gold and gore: acres of gilded plasterwork and saintly statues that spout blood from stigmata, scabby knees and sword wounds.

So how best to capture it? I could write an essay on the joys of Portuguese cuisine, or maybe an article on the local wine, its history, its variety, its taste. I could provide a collage of the wonderful sights we saw in this somewhat dishevelled, but charming city, or perchance some philosophical observations on its rapacious and bloodthirsty past versus its benevolent and affable present? I think that it would be best to create a potpourri of all these things, to reflect the myriad impressions, the enchanting, kaleidoscopic perspectives from one terrace, bridge or quay to the next…

Porto, a city devoured by the Moors in the 8th century, and again by tourists in the 21st century, but swallowing Porto8whole continents in its turn… a city that spawned a global empire, created by avaricious explorers sent far and wide to search for treasure… from South America to Macau, West Africa to Goa. Gold and glory, sugar, slaves and spices…

In the crease between the hills, the Douro River flows west from lush vineyards to the sea, spanned by five mighty bridges. The two-tiered Dom Luis I bridge, designed by Eiffel’s partner Teófilo Seyrig, was built in 1886, just months before the Eiffel Tower, and has become an iconic part of the Porto landscape. Even in February, teenagers were leaping over the railing into the water to amuse the tourists and earn a few coins. And tourists are plentiful here, even in winter, but not comparable to the deluge of the summer months. On the skyline, high above the river, a baroque bell tower pierces the heavens, standing head and shoulders taller than every other building.

Porto1 (2)We walk everywhere, discovering a bustling market flush with a technicolour cornucopia of fruits and a railway station whose lobby is wallpapered in blue and white tiles depicting the country’s complex history, and a church, Capela das Almas, where even the exterior walls are decorated with those ubiquitous blue and white tiles. We sit in a rooftop bar above the river, sipping white port and watching the seagulls swoop and glide over the Rabelo boats lying in flat-bottomed peace upon the limpid water. We catch the heritage tram to the coast and gaze upon the Atlantic, waves crashing, rough and rambunctious, over the rocks . We float above a treasure trove of warehouses housing hundreds of port barrels, in a cosy cable car that carried us down to the river bank at Gaia, where restaurants cluster along the water’s edge and a string of street musicians croon and quaver along the pavements. We drift through an airy, terraced park above the river where peacocks preen and roosters strut, flaunting their glimmering colours among the weathered statues and the dusty flower beds. All this under a soft blue sky that warm our cheeks, even in February.

Porto is a town overflowing with cafés, many touting the joys of the popular Porto7snack francesinha. This proved to be a heavy toasted cheese and ham sandwich doused in a white sauce flavoured with paprika and usually accompanied by a hearty serve of chips. A snack to induce indigestion, clogged arteries, heart burn, heart attacks. We prefer the lighter delights of the local petiscos, or Spanish tapas with a Portuguese twist.  Pimientos de Padrón, those spicy green peppers cooked on a charcoal grill, moreish and tongue-tingling; crispy, lightly battered polpo (octopus) or salada del polpo (grilled octopus doused in parsley and local olive oil); platters of chorizo and cheese; clams cooked in garlic and oil, a lighter version of moules marinière, and cod in oh-so-many different compositions. And every dish is all the better for a perfectly chilled white port, our favourite beverage for the week.

Porto5Porto has an awe-inspiring bookshop, Livraria Lello, opened in 1906 and boasting a luscious Neo-Gothic façade and glass-fronted bookshelves that soar to an ornately decorated ceiling and a 26-foot-long, stained-glass skylight. Art Deco designs decorate the walls and bronze busts of great writers watch over all who enter. The iconic red staircase curves sinuously, cello-like to the mezzanine level above. Here, JK Rowling was known to hang out in the world before Harry Potter, discovering names for her future characters such as Salazar and Mafalda. Who wouldn’t be inspired to perch in a corner of this temple to literature and write an irresistibly imaginative novel?

Now we know how to get there, I am certain we will find our way back, to enjoy the simplicity of living for the moment, to indulge in a little sunshine, and to peek and poke a little further into the hidden corners of this charming, friendly city. All to be accompanied by a plentiful supply of port and pimientos de Padrón, and, undoubtedly, a table full of friends.

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Under the Arches

Podenco6

At any time of year, my favourite slice of Luxembourg City is along the Alzette River: in autumn, as the trees drip leaves, the sky drips puddles and the river swells; in winter, when the water stampedes over the weir and crystallizes on the rocks; in spring, as the crocuses nudge through the grass and downy, newborn leaves emerge; in summer, when the apple trees on the riverbank are bent double like old women, under the crippling weight of ripening fruit.

On its journey through the city, the Alzette snakes through a deep gorge, far below the eastern ramparts of the old town of Luxembourg, passing swiftly through Grund, Clausen and Pfaffenthal. Beside the river, in the shadow of the magnificent stone arches of a lofty railway bridge, is a stout, red building, crouched against the cliff. ‘Hond Haus’ is painted in large letters on an outer wall, for it was originally the kennels for the hunting dogs of a 16th century governor of Luxembourg, Count Mansfeld. Today, the Hond Haus houses a terrific little Spanish restaurant. In keeping with the building’s origins, Bistro Podenco is named for a wiry Spanish hunting dog: the Podenco Ibicenco.

We discovered this lovely spot last summer with some good friends, and have found our feet wandering that way many times since. The service is fast, friendly and attentive: a rare combination in Luxembourg. The dining room is diminutive, so it’s best to book in advance, but it is perfect for an intimate, cosy tête-à-tête with the One & Only. And on a warm summer evening, there is plenty of room on the terrace outside.

Tonight, the temperature outside was set to freeze off every extremity, so we walked into the warmth with a sigh of relief. We were given a cheery welcome by Eduardo and Susanna, and directed to a table by the window, huddling against the radiator. The restaurant has a field to fork philosophy and the menu provides a delicious array of authentic Spanish dishes, including many tempting tapas. Eduardo pointed us to the specials board, and promptly Podenco1recommended at least two dishes not even listed there. He also suggested a red wine he thought we would enjoy, and was back in a blink, with a dish of large green olives and a full-bodied Tempranillo. It was perfect for warming the blood on such a frosty night. And such a beautiful label, with its traditional Castilian windmill. I have yet to see a wine list, but we have loved every bottle Eduardo has ever championed, and tonight was no exception, red white or bubbles.

Between Eduardo’s stilted English and my rusty French, we managed to chat through the menu. After a lengthy discussion, we began with the best jamón ibérico, served with smashed tomato on bread, so you can construct it yourselves.’  This Spanish style tomato on toast (pan con tomate) is a traditional Spanish snack made with slices of barra (like baguette), ripe tomatoes, quality olive oil, bread, garlic and a sprinkle of sea salt. It is a tasty base, but we prefer the naked bread, so we can savour the jamón.

Then, Susanna brought out the pulpo a la gallega: button-sized slices of cooked octopus served on boiled potato and sprinkled in paprika and olive oil, like a sort of bruschetta marinara, that we ate in our fingers with much finger licking and messy delight.

Podenco2There were none of my favourite aubergine croquettes tonight – much to my disappointment – but Eduardo advised us to taste the artichaux frites. These artichoke chips, fried in batter like a heavy tempura, are crispy and moreish, and proved to be an excellent alternative. They are even better dipped in the oil from the pulpo, or the red wine gravy that has been poured over the tender and tasty black Iberian pork fillets.

Meanwhile, the restaurant had filled to capacity, and we got chatting with our neighbour, a lone American who was very pleased to have been directed down to this buzzing riverside restaurant. We exchanged travellers tales and promised to look him up if we were ever in New York.

When, like Jack Spratt and his wife, we had all but licked the platters clean, we tidied up with a slate of salty Manchego cheese, the perfect accompaniment for the last of the wine. And, for the grand finale, a rich and mellow tawny port to keep us warm on our wintry walk home.

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Snapshots of Scotland

Scotland2It must be thirty years since I last visited Scotland, land of lochs, Highland cattle and kilts. It was a Christmas with friends on the Isle of Skye that ended in tears when we were unceremoniously evicted on New Year’s Eve, after some ridiculous misunderstanding with our landlords. We relocated at the last minute and at great expense, to celebrate Hogmanay, unexpectedly but enthusiastically, in Oban. Nonetheless, we were left feeling churlish and  hardly-done-by, about Scotland in general and the Isle of Skye in particular.

So, when we flew to Edinburgh in late January, I was hoping to rekindle my sense of romance for Scotland, sample some fresh flavours, and ensure a less melodramatic outcome. I had recently been devouring all things Scottish: a Kate Atkinson book of short stories set in Edinburgh; an intriguing play in the West End about Mary Queen of Scots, and a winter gorging on endless episodes of Outlander. I was happily anticipating a few days of ancient castles, cloak and dagger intrigue and legendary heroes in kilts. All went according to plan, including a happier ending…

First, a town to the north east of Edinburgh that had captured my imagination for a variety of reasons. Originally Scotland’s capital city, Stirling is strategically placed on the River Forth, with the last bridge to cross it before the river widens into the Firth of Forth, where several rivers gather in a race to the North Sea. A gateway to the Highlands, a University town, the centre of local government, a medieval castle…

Perched high on a rocky crag, Stirling Castle has held a commanding position above the Forth River for centuries. From the ramparts today, it is a peaceful view over water meadows and a pellucid, oxbow river. Almost impossible to imagine that this placid, winding river once ran with the bodies and blood of soldiers, Scots and English, entangled in generations of conflict, combat and civil war. Within the walls, enthusiastic tour guides depict the history of a fiercely guarded fortress and a royal palace, where princes were born, crowned, murdered and died.

On the walls of the Queen’s chambers, legends and love stories have been masterfully woven into huge tapestries, recreated by modern weavers, to illustrate the depth of colour and detail of those antiquated, sun-faded, originals that usually cower in shadowy corners to preserve what remains. A room-sized Lego model depicts Stirling in the Middle Ages. Below stairs, the basement kitchens have been mocked up for a royal banquet.

The Royal chapel, recently restored, contains a modern, mouth-watering altar cloth designed by one Malcolm Lochhead and lovingly stitched by the Stirling Embroiders Guild. Its nautical theme – ‘Stella Maris’ – is strangely at odds with its inland setting, but is nonetheless dazzling, and temptingly tactile. Apparently, it has been dedicated to the victims of the Dunblane massacre.

A twilight walk from our cosy B&B at the back end of town skirts around the base of the castle walls and winds through the trees, where a local sculptor displays a penchant for carving characters out of fallen tree trunks and stumps: dragons, deer, wolves, warriors…  and delivers us into the centre of town, and a sizeable crop of barber shops and hairdressers. An ancient talent for handling blades is resurrected in new guises, perhaps?

Across the river, a distinctive, Gothic tower soars above the summit of Abbey Crag, a mid-Victorian monument Scotlanddedicated to local hero William Wallace, who crushed the English army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. (Remember Braveheart? Not exactly gospel truth, but absolutely riveting.) It’s a steep climb through the woods to the foot of the 220-foot tower, and a breath-taking 246 steps to reach the crown, but we could pause for breath in any of the three exhibition galleries en route, before reaching the top of the world and spectacular panoramic views.

Then eastwards to the sea, meandering between the base of the Ochil Hills and the Devon River, through gently rolling farmland, until we land in time for a picnic tea and a bottle of wine in our room at the Greyfriars Inn in Saint Andrew’s.

Home to both the oldest golf course in the world and the oldest university in Scotland, Saint Andrew’s is a compact little town on the brink of the North Sea. Here Kate Middleton first met her Prince. Here, visitors love to pose on the small but iconic hump-backed bridge that arches stonily over the stream – sorry, burn – on the 18th green.

Majestic, medieval ruins of a long-lost cathedral and a fortified bishop’s palace cling to the cliffs at the south end of town, while in the north, we discover a long, broad sandy beach that we recognize from the opening scene of Chariots of Fire. It’s an ear-numbing walk across the sand dunes to where the sea has retreated towards the horizon, leaving behind acres of pock-marked, puddled white sand sprinkled in icing sugar snow. And still, my One & Only must remove his shoes and paddle in the chilly waves.

Scotland1A posse of lady golfers pose on the wind-swept golf course, shivering bravely in t-shirts, bringing me out in sympathetic goose bumps. To thaw out, we duck into a character-filled coffee shop where the knives and forks are propped in a Golden Syrup tin and the bench seats under the window are upholstered in old tweed jackets. Later, we find a kilt shop where I finally locate the family tartan.

We drove out of town, past a hill above the sea, ploughed with neat rows of blue-green caravans. We find a fishing village, of narrow lanes, rocky shores. I succumb to a light afternoon tea in a tiny white cottage on the edge of a cliff. Here spindly chairs threaten to tip backwards onto a stone floor that slopes steeply away to the sea, and the front door is made for Hobbits.

All to soon we are enjoying a final dinner at a popular Italian restaurant tucked away down a narrow alley off Market Street, and rising for an early breakfast, loaded with yummy cholesterol before we head back to the airport across fields lightly iced in snow. A dégustation menu of Scotland’s lowlands. I hope to get back soon to sample the full à la carte!

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Layers of London

London.jigsawI have been mooching around London this week, while the One & Only is fully occupied being busy and important in the City.  I have wandered for hours, past Monopoly board properties – Fenchurch Street Station, Fleet Street, Piccadilly and Leicester Square – and scenes from childhood movies. I meandered through Regent’s Park with Mary Poppins; popped down to visit Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens; ambled over to St Paul’s Cathedral to ‘feed the birds, tuppence a bag,’ and sauntered into Covent Garden for a dose of ‘wouldn’t it be luverly?’ I found neither the bird lady nor Eliza Doolittle – but I was one of very few who was not walking through London with my nose glued to my cellphone.

Covent Garden, in London’s West End, is a stone’s throw from London’s Theatreland.  It has featured in literature and film for centuries. Rumour has it that there was a market here as far back as the Saxons.

By strange coincidence, George Hammond, in the FT Weekend wrote about Covent Garden this week, too, saying that it has been, ‘at various times, the home of paupers, performers, prostitutes and the pious – it started life as a monks’ vegetable patch – Covent Garden’s identity has been haggled over and traded like produce at a hawker’s stall.’

These days, developers have been reinventing the area, again, as an upmarket residential district. Restaurants have suddenly become more Holly Golightly than Eliza Doolittle. Only the ‘Apple Market’ sign hanging above my head reminds us of the market’s more plebeian history. House prices have soared as the area has become increasingly gentrified. Today, Covent garden is all pristine, Victorian prettiness, bristling with expensive toy shops and kitschy tearooms: the Moomins, Sweetheart Cupcakes, Chanel and Clinique fill the once higgledy-piggledy old warehouses.   The Apple Market, once crammed with crates, baskets and haggling grocers is now lined with attractive stalls that display upmarket handicrafts. Old fruit barrows have been recreated to display tidy arrangements of potted plants at each entrance. A luxurious aroma of scented candles on the air and well-dressed tourists stroll around the elegant, pedestrianized Piazza, entertained by polished street performers, portraying none of its olden day earthiness. And yet, this is not the first makeover for Covent Garden. As in all things London, there is layer upon layer of history I find it irresistible to peel away.

Saint Paul’s church looms over one end of the piazza, while the Royal Opera House lingers at the other. Once upon a time, both looked incongruously stately, juxtaposed among the raucous hustle and bustle of ‘the greatest market in England for herbs, fruit and flowers’. Now they fit the bill much better. Covent Garden it is no longer the lowly fruit and flower market we knew in Pygmalion or, more famously, in its musical version, My Fair Lady. But it has worn so many different faces over the centuries.

The name, Covent Garden, is a medieval Anglo-French term for monastery or convent, reflecting its original IMG_3030existence as an allotment for the Benedictine monks of Westminster. Henry VIII, on dissolving the Catholic monasteries in the sixteenth century, cheerfully shared out the spoils amongst family and friends. The monks veggie patch was handed over to one of his courtiers, John Russell, Earl of Bedford, who eventually built a house on the Strand and an Italian style piazza in his back yard. Its architect, Inigo Jones, also designed the neighbouring Church of Saint Paul. Bedford’s plan was to gentrify this rural area on the outskirts of the City of London, and thus attract wealthy, aristocratic tenants. And his plan worked – for a time. Unfortunately for the Bedfords, the Great Plague of 1666 forced hundreds of poor refugees to flee from the diseased city. Many took root in Covent Garden, where an unofficial market soon sprouted up around the piazza. The Duke lay down two key rules: only fruit, flowers, roots and herbs could be sold there, and the market was not to extend beyond the Piazza.

Fruit and vegetable stalls quickly began to cluster around the edges of the square, and, despite Bedford’s proclamation, ‘bird-sellers, dealers in old iron, and large displays of crockery-ware’ settled in the centre. Residents were soon complaining about the filth, the noise and the stench. ~ For heaven’s sake! This uninvited rabble is seriously diminishing the value of local properties! ~ By the 18th century most of the aristocracy had been swept away and this fashionable suburb had become infamous as a dissolute and desperate area of drinking dens and gambling houses.

Peter Ackroyd wrote: ‘It became the most famous market in England, and its image was reproduced in a thousand drawings and paintings… colourful and chaotic … a true symbol of thriving trade. The flourishing life of the district attracted taverns and coffee shops, gambling houses and brothels. Turkish baths also became a feature of the neighbourhood. There were pick pockets, and street musicians, among the jostling costermongers.’

In 1828, the Duke of Bedford petitioned parliament for permission to clean up the piazza and its infamous debauchery. Within twenty-five years, the old buildings had been demolished, new structures erected, and the piazza had been transformed into an industrious, modern marketplace, designed by one Charles Fowler, in the Graeco-Roman style of the period. Elegant but practical, it was widely regarded as revolutionary. The market blossomed and thrived.

By the late nineteenth century, however, foreign trade had taken off, largely due to Britain’s East India Company. This introduced an even greater range of produce: ‘bananas, Tasmanian apples, Californian pears, and… vegetables from Madeira, the Canaries and the Channel Islands’ to name but a few. Covent Garden continued to expand, squeezing itself into every available nook and cranny, creating problems for, and hostility towards its overseers, as congestion grew worse.

At the turn of the century, the Bedfords began to sell off much of their land around the neighbourhood. Urging the council to take charge of the market had been a losing battle, so eventually, the family simply passed the buck and sold it on to another wealthy London family.

In World War II, London was heavily bombed. Yet, despite the shocking living conditions of residents, the market continued to burgeon. The congestion did too.

In 1974, after decades of debate, the market moved out to Battersea, and the Greater London Council, the developers and the urban planners moved in, with huge dreams of improving both the infrastructure and the residential area. Initially, this meant acres of demolition of buildings and businesses, memories and communities. Locals fought hard for their own survival and for that of the market buildings. There were marches and speeches and even squatting – tenants strenuously refusing to let their world to be wiped out. Architect Rob Middleton complained that the GLC plan would ‘destroy an area that is diverse and varied … and replace it with a monolithic environment unsympathetic to the nurturing of the rich complexity of life… Covent Garden is not tidy. It is a teeming and complex area. Everything seems to happen there’.

Thanks to the efforts of the community, but perhaps more significantly to Geoffrey Rippon, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Covent Garden was eventually saved from demolition. Rippon ensured many of the old buildings were heritage listed, and the GLC was forced to compromise over its plans.

IMG_3028Instead, since 1980, the area has been slowly converted into a major tourist destination, which has drawn a different crowd entirely.

In its latest transfiguration, Covent Garden is clean, opulent and gentrified – practically perfect in every way, just like Mary Poppins. The ‘barrow-makers and … makers of ballet shoes, pianos and scenery, their printers, book-binders, and literary agents’ have largely been replaced by high end stores. Its quirkiness and character seem to have vanished in a puff of smoke. At first glance, I find it sadly lacking in soul and authenticity, and wish I could turn back the clocks to wander through the earthy, Dickensian squalor with Eliza Doolittle. Wouldn’t it be luverly? And yet…

Covent garden is still a wonderful place to sit and people-watch. It may be tidy, but it is still teeming with life. Peter Ackroyd (again), comments that while ‘the spirit of the place has changed since the departure of the market… it is still a centre of hustle and bustle…the sounds of the basket-sellers and flower girls have turned into those of traveling musicians; the agile feats of the costermongers, piling crates of their wares upon their heads, have turned into the contortions of the acrobats and mime artists. The atmosphere of the place lingers in the air…’

Fortunately for layer upon layer of history, I think he has a point. As I sit here scribbling, perhaps the lack of total chaos and decaying vegetables is better suited to a modern city. And there is still plenty of life and laughter in the air –  and a host of opportunities for a decent cup of coffee!

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Tasting the Adelaide Hills

IMG_2956It was a long summer in South Autralia, during which there have been so many wonderful meals with family and friends , and so many fabulous winery visits, that I would undoubtedly sound like a glutton and an alcoholic were I to write about them all. There are some extraordinary places I would like to mention, however, that we came across in the Adelaide Hills…

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I have watched the Lobethal Bierhaus develop from its conception more than ten years ago, to the thriving microbrewery and restaurant it is today. It has been incredibly inspirational to see an erstwhile London banker wander so far off the beaten track. Starting out with a home brew kit in the kitchen, Alistair Turnbull has gone on to develop some terrific craft beers. He creates them in the vast space of what was once part of the Onkaparinga Woollen Company, on the main street in Lobethal. If you like beer – and presumably that’s why you are here –  there are twenty to choose from. Alistair and his wife Rosie produce eight staple beers and several seasonal beers, aiming to have at least twelve on tap at all times. Our sons had a brilliant time with the tasting plank. Armed with eight different beers a-piece, they were able to share and taste an extensive selection of what the Bierhaus has to offer. Admittedly there are some unusual flavours: lentil beer first put in appearance last year, and there is a Christmas ale, which sounds like mulled wine, flavoured with ginger, nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon.

I will leave you to make your own decision on that one, while I focus on the food. It was fabulous. I went for the Venison Mixed Grill, (a venison medallion, pan fried, a mini pasty and a venison rissole), while the rest of the team focussed on the specials board and some sophisticated burgers. The staff is friendly and efficient, the food arrived promptly and everyone at our table was pleased with their choices. You certainly won’t go hungry. On a cooler day, it might have been nice to sit in the beer garden, as excited chatter reverberates loudly around the vast, indoor space, but at least you know everyone is having a good time. And it is well worth the forty-minute scenic drive from the city, either up the freeway or along the corkscrew road through Basket Range.

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So many amazing wineries now inhabit the Adelaide Hills, it is hard to know where to start. Verdant green vines swathe countryside once bleached yellow and khaki by the summer sun. Here, wine makers can experiment with grape varieties that will not thrive on the plains or in the stultifying heat of the Riverland – varieties with which I have become more familiar, living in the cooler climes of northern Europe.  Originally brewers in Oakbank, the Pikes have long been renowned for their Clare Valley Rieslings. In 1998, the family joined forces with the Joyces, a fruit growing family from Lenswood. Together, they have established a 25-hectare vineyard to produce single vineyard grapes for some great cool climate wines such as Pinot Gris, Grüner Veltliner and Pinot Noir.

Pike & Joyce also produce beautiful lunches with a glorious view reminiscent of The Lane in Hahndorf. Hidden away down an unsealed and dusty road, my parents came across this light and breezy modern restaurant and cellar door quite by accident, and promptly decided it would be a great spot for a small family gathering. Sitting on the lip of a broad hillside, overlooking vineyards that stretch to the horizon, you can enjoy the view from a broad terrace outside the cellar door, or from the dining room’s deep, semi-shaded balcony. We popped into the cellar door first, to try some interesting P&J wines, before moving into the restaurant for lunch. The menu is short and sweet: modern Australian with an emphasis on local and seasonal ingredients. Every dish is delicious and beautifully presented. The friendly, youthful staff are polite and helpful, and more than happy to talk you through the menu. Sadly, they often seem to be run off their feet, but it’s not a bad place to sit and gaze out on the world while you wait. Or you can gawp at a selection of paintings from some talented local artists and imagine them on your own walls at home. Between five of us, we covered everything on the menu, and we were all thrilled with our meals and cheerfully swapped a few mouthfuls. As a grand finale, we shared a rather sophisticated ice cream dessert.

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It would not be a holiday in South Australia without at least one winery tour.  And what better excuse than a string of significant birthdays to celebrate? So, in early January, we filled a minibus with girlfriends old and new, chauffeured by one kind and willing husband, and headed up the Freeway in light-hearted anticipation, to explore some more Adelaide Hills Wineries. We had pinpointed a few wineries we had not encountered before, and a couple I hadn’t visited in years. Two of my new favourites are Deviation Road and Nepenthe.

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I had been given a preliminary tasting of Deviation Road’s wonderful wines back in November, when the winery sponsored a Matt Moran dinner in Stirling, so I was interested to see where these lovely wines had originated. Deviation Road has an attractive cellar door at Longwood, only a short drive from Stirling. We were delighted to start our tour with a glass of bubbles on the patio, overlooking dreamy gumtrees, lush, green vines and a wine garden dotted with interesting sculptures. It is an intimate, cosy setting, and visiting so early in the day meant we had the place to ourselves, which made it feel like we were relaxing in an old friend’s back garden. It is a glorious spot for any number of events: weddings; wine tastings; long lunches. Our host took us through a set tasting menu and was more than happy to let us try anything else we were interested in – which meant we were even happier to buy a few samples before we moved on, including my favourite, the NV Altair Sparkling Rosé, a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. As it turns out, it is also Tyson Stelzer’s fave, as he named it Sparkling Rosé of the Year 2017.

Nepenthe, I recently discovered, is a Latin word for a mythical drink that has the power to lighten grief or sadness and inspire serenity. Nepenthe winery in Balhannah, provides a similar experience, with its wines and its fabulous view of open hillsides dressed in acres of vines. We joined Darren for some informative, but admittedly very giggly wine tasting in a private tasting room. As the day heated up, we took our picnic lunch and our choice of Nepenthe wines across the lawn. Heaving a couple of picnic tables into the shade of a stately gum, we absorbed the peace, as the afternoon drifted on. Nepenthe produced its inaugural wine in 1997. Twenty years later it goes on getting better. And my secret wine stash in Adelaide just keeps on getting bigger…

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Surreal

At the flick of a boarding pass
I find myself touching down in midwinter,
after months of summer sunshine
on the flipside of the world…

No more rainbow lorikeets squabbling fiercely,
garrulously, in the dense and fertile treetops.
Instead a solitary kingfisher flashes past,
jewel-like, in sapphire and ruby,
along a stream engorged by murky floodwater.
The lazy golden koi of summer’s glassy water
invisible now in the rising, racing torrents.

No more galahs spotting the oval,
flashing pink breasts and white crests,
but a drift of ducks, dull brown,
paddling frantically against the current,
going nowhere,
while a tall and stately crane
balances, bedraggled, on one leg
in his winter evening dress.

The colour scheme this season is grey
when, only moments ago, it was
sunshine yellow, aquamarine, green
brightness and light, uplifting, bedazzling.
Shady trees, buxom with summer foliage,
suddenly become anorexic sticks
barren, bony, bleak,
entangled in early morning mist,

and menacing, leaden skies threaten constant rain
when, on a different day not long past,
all was sunshine and cerulean blue skies
blazing fiercely onto freckled skin
as the sand burnt the bare soles of our feet,
where now the cloying mud sucks at our boots
and the mizzling rain clings to our eyelashes
as we trudge through copper-carpeted woods.

No more shorts-and-tshirts and slip-slop-slap,
but quick-as-a-flash, I become Onion Girl
in layer upon layer of cloth to trap the heat
and keep the damp and drizzle at bay,
through days that are fleeting, dim, louring
whereas, with a snap of the fingers,
the southern cross emerges only after
forever days stretching to a candescent horizon.

And yet, I am glad to be home in my own bed,
forgetting where I keep the spoons,
Ug boots waiting to welcome chilled toes,
suitcase tucked behind the door…
where crocuses peek through the grass
with the promise of spring,
familiar routines are slowly re-established
and heavy, happy feet on the stairs
promise comfort and joy.

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A journey around my birthplace

“…the pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps more dependent on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to…” Alain de Botton

I am currently reading a book by Xavier de Maistre called ‘A Journey around My Room.’ First published in 1825,  Botton refers to it as the ‘proverbial shaggy dog.’ Under house arrest for duelling in 18th century Paris, de Maistre writes about this one room as if he were on some great world adventure. In examining every aspect of his personal space with new eyes, memory and creative imagination, he makes us look more closely at our own environs, the surroundings we take for granted and perhaps no longer appreciate. It is a fascinating study of perception.

Returning to Adelaide, a city I have visited frequently, but in which I have not lived for almost thirty years, I am tempted to apply the same rules: to look at my birthplace anew, as if from a traveller’s view point; to appreciate all those things with which I am long familiar but which I no longer see; or to look at them from a different angle and to see as I have never seen before.

In many ways, I do this automatically, whenever I am here. I immediately acknowledge the space, the wide tree-lined streets, the open skies, the attractive suburban architecture, the birds, the scent of eucalyptus – those things that are absent from the different cities and countries in which we have lived. Yet it is, perhaps, only a superficial reaction to all the things I miss while I am away, and in which I love to revel when I come home. How much do I really notice the details?

So, I shall wander forth with my mental notebook, into streets I don’t know so well, or upon which I have only glanced, to see what I can find. I will go travelling in my home town, as I have done in Rome, Bangkok, Norwich, Istanbul, Manila, to see what I can see. Differently. Afresh.

Kerryn Goldsworthy in her little memoir-cum history book paraphrases David Malouf by saying that ‘to be a citizen of Adelaide is to know some of its streets and parks and houses from your body outwards,’ and goes on to say that ‘life is not measured in time but in accretions of lived experience.’

While I may not have lived in Adelaide since I was twenty-three, I have visited many times over the intervening years. And there is a wealth of family history and experience beneath my feet. My parents are still living in the house they bought when I was nine months old, and that area of Adelaide is firmly imprinted on my memory and my heart, despite so long away. Usually, we stay in the family home when we come to South Australia, but occasionally we rent a house or apartment in a different suburb, and it is always interesting to view Adelaide from a different perspective. It’s like discovering new rooms in a house you thought you knew perfectly well. Suddenly the whole place takes on a different shape, a different atmosphere.

I had that feeling when I first met the One & Only, who grew up by the beach, on the rim of the western suburbs. Although only a fifteen-minute journey from my neighbourhood, it was an area I barely knew, and it felt like a different city. The sea provided a natural border to the suburban homes that, in our area, was provided by wide, river-like main roads, flowing fast into the city.  The houses near the beach were more modern, the blocks smaller: 1950s developments versus 19th century ones. Fences were lower, trees were fewer, fashions were informal. The sunlight dazzled, whereas it dappled through the trees in the eastern suburbs. I knew only one strip of beach from a handful of hot days spent perched on narrow towels, daring ourselves to make the dash across burning sands to dip briefly into freezing sea. The One & Only grew up, like a seahorse, in the waves, and always carries an innate longing for the smell and the sound of the sea. So many early mornings have been spent strolling along a beach, to revive that feeling of sand between the toes and waves lapping against our ankles.

This year, we spent New Year’s Eve at Brighton, with a pop-up party on my sister-in-law’s front lawn, before we straggled down to the beach to perch on the dunes just south of the jetty. As kids raced around the beach in shorts and t-shirts bejewelled in luminescent bracelets, we waited for the 9.30 fireworks – our midnight – to mark the beginning of 2018. Alcohol was outlawed, but still the air vibrated with light-hearted laughter, as we squeezed into ever-decreasing spaces and filled the beach with bodies and bonhomie.

It was a far cry from last year, perched on a balcony high above the Thames, cuddled in duvets and woollen scarves, watching a wintry London mark the end of our years in Manila with breath-taking fireworks that flared pompously along the river, self-consciously aware of their place in the history of a great city, while the Shard’s kaleidoscopic peak corkscrewed through the clouds. Brighton’s pyrotechnics may not have been as histrionic, nor as historic, but they were perfect for a gentle summer evening on a beach bubbling with children and picnic baskets. The immediacy of the experience created an intimate encounter with the sparkling sky. And the grand finale made us gasp, as everyone burst into spontaneous applause.

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Beaufort and Beyond

It was my last weekend in Luxembourg before flying south for the winter. I was leaving my One & Only to face alone all that bleak midwinter, at least until he joined me in Australia at Christmas, so we decided to have a last autumn walk together, through the woods north of the city. We headed for Mullerthal, where we also knew of a terrific little place for lunch…

IMG_0148The Mullerthal trail is composed of three distinctive walking paths, one hundred and twelve kilometres long,  through an area of Luxembourg known as Little Switzerland. It includes river valleys, fields and forests and leads past any amazing rock formations. We have walked small sections of it before, but today we got distracted by the beauty of the amber-leafed woods and kept driving until we reached the small town of Beaufort. We had noticed signs to Beaufort Castle on previous expeditions, but had always missed the turn-off or got distracted to somewhere else. Today, the road wound through the golden valleys and deposited us at its front door.

Unlike our previous experience of Luxembourg’s numerous castles, Beaufort is not perched high above the town, like an eagle on its eerie, but is tucked away, in a narrow valley, safely protected in the crook of the surrounding hills. The original castle is a medieval ruin, a small 11th century fortress with thick walls, tiny arrow slots and a deceased moat.  A Renaissance chateau was added in 1649 by the Governor of Luxembourg, Baron von Beck and completed by his son. The medieval fortress fell into disrepair in the 18th century and much of the stone was dragged away by local builders. Partially restored more than a hundred years later, it was opened to the public in 1928. Both the fortress and the chateau were eventually acquired by the State, but the chateau, still in pristine condition, remained a private dwelling until 2012. Unfortunately, we discovered that we had to book in advance to view the chateau, so we will save that for the spring, but in the meantime, there was plenty to explore in the fortress below. For a tiny entrance fee of five euros, we were also given useful notes to guide us through its history. We clambered up rugged, uneven staircases that led us to the top of the towers, or staggered down into the cells. We inspected the Great Hall and the remains of the chapel. But it was in the surprisingly well-lit torture chamber that I suddenly remembered a previous visit, forty years earlier, with my parents.

As I remember it, it was our first camping trip to Europe, in our Volkswagen camper van, Bella. Our first camp siteIMG_0206 had been on the outskirts of Nancy, and we were heading for the Black Forest, when Dad decided to camp just beyond Luxembourg City. My mother remembers a long trek across the hills with four grumpy children to reach the castle – she even found a photo taken at the beginning of the walk, when everyone was still smiling. Obviously, that didn’t last long.

As I was a keen writer even then (I must have been nine or ten), Dad had suggested I keep a journal of our travels. The only entry I remember making that summer, illustrated with a postcard and an entrance ticket, was about Beaufort Castle, my description focussing almost entirely on the chamber in the bowels of the castle, filled with some gruesome instruments of torture that obviously captured my blood-thirsty imagination. A thumb screw, a spiked rack, a gibbet… today, for those with less vivid imaginations than mine, there are posters hanging on the walls to illustrate the way they were used. Then, I remember, I even wrote a couple of chapters of my first (unfinished) novel based on a medieval castle deep in the forests of central Europe.

Out in the fresh air again, we comment that the castle courtyard could be a pretty setting for a coffee shop or picnic area, but little is offered here in autumn, except the opportunity to taste the castle’s homemade blackcurrant and raspberry liqueurs. In need of sustenance, I bought one large but rather dry muffin, wishing we could engage the help of The British National Trust to set up a proper tea room and gift shop. Then we headed off for a walk, following a path beyond the chateau.

There is a multitude of walking tracks in the area. We picked up a section of the Mullerthal trail that wandered along the edge of a small lake opposite the fortress and followed the stream downhill, through thick drifts of autumn leaves and the odd muddy puddle, lined with impressive rock formations. We were delighted by the tiny stream, skipping and chortling IMG_0268childishly down the valley, occasionally splashing over stone ledges into clear, shallow rock pools, or twirling and swirling under little wooden bridges. We discovered creative saplings, their tap roots buried deep into fissures in the rocks above our heads. From such precarious beginnings, they had woven their roots like fingers around whatever leverage they could find, clinging tenaciously, leaning forever at inebriated angles.

Eventually hunger drove us back up the valley to the car, and a short trip to the lovely restaurant I had in mind: Brasserie Heringer Millen on the Rue des Moulins in Mullerthal. Set in a broad meadow beside one of many small streams in the area, it is an excellent location for hikers passing through, and reviews are both plentiful and enthusiastic. While many converge on the old mill for a well-dressed Sunday lunch, staff seem quite happy to welcome booted hikers, and we have sat out on the terrace on warmer days for a coffee overlooking the meadow and the woods beyond. Sadly, our meanderings meant we had arrived too late to avail of the full  a la carte menu, something they didn’t bother to tell us till they had seated us and left us waiting for drinks and menus for twenty minutes. Meanwhile we watched, with mouths watering, as several dishes, looking and smelling quite superb, arrived at nearby tables. I was sorely tempted, in a fit of disappointed pique fuelled by near starvation, to walk out again after such lackluster service. But we decided to stay, and the ‘flammkuch’ with ham and bacon on an airy, crispy base (think sophisticated meat lovers pizza) proved an acceptable alternative to hungry hunters. So, we will definitely have to give it another try in the spring, when we head back to visit the Beaufort chateau. And next time I will be sure book in advance!

*Lovely photos care of the One & Only.

 

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