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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Lacking Spice

glasshouse (2)The stage was set for Tasting Australia’s first Glasshouse Kitchen dinner: Town Square in the centre of Adelaide’s Victoria Square; half a dozen double gabled glasshouses had been beautifully decorated with fairy lights and flowers, intimate as a private dining room, yet set in a public space; chefs had flown in from across Australia and as far afield as Chile. Prices were high, expectations were higher. The atmosphere was convivial, the staff welcoming, the mood enthusiastic. It was set to be a show stopper.

For opening night, the theme was spice. I’m not necessarily talking chilli hot, but piquant. Yet, as the dishes arrived, the menu seemed disparate and the wow factor of the food was distinctly lacking. And, of the four chefs to perform, only one seemed to have read the memo about spiciness.

Benjamin Cooper’s Pork Belly and Death Sauce was served with a glass of McLaren Vale Grenache. As the secondglasshouse2 offering on the menu, it was, without doubt, the star turn. Apparently, it is also a star turn in his restaurant, Chin Chin, in Sydney’s Surry Hills. And, as the only truly spicy offering, it did not suffer by comparison.

A melt-in-the mouth wedge of pork belly topped with perfectly crisped crackling had been laid on a bed of scud chilli Death Sauce. Beware dipping your finger. On its own, it’s like a punch in the mouth for heat content. Yet somehow, combined with the pork belly, it reduced the near-death experience to a satisfying flash of heat and flavour.  This Asian inspired dish was accompanied by a fennel and plum pickle for a splash of crunch and vinegar to cut through the cholesterol. The presentation was simple, but the taste hit the mark. And the SC Pannell Grenache was a great co-star.

Cooper was joined by three acclaimed chefs who, together, choreographed a four-course dinner that aimed for the Glasshouse1flavourful and exotic. Unfortunately, for me, their combined efforts fell far short of expectations.

Matt Breen, of Templo in Hobart, had cooked whole Ngeringa leeks in buttermilk over a fire pit and served it on a bed of creamy burrata. While the leeks were moreish and incredibly tender, the spiced salt, hazelnut and fennel mix provided texture but only made a tiny impact on the taste buds. The accompanying Unico Zelo Esoterico wine was unusual. A cloudy white wine blend of grapes that originated in Georgia, it is left on the skins, so the tannins are incredibly astringent and dry out the mouth in an instant. Best with food, it did little to enhance this delicious but modest vegetable dish.

Chilean celebrity chef Rudolfo Guzman from Borago restaurant in Vitacura, took the head of a Spencer gulf glasshouse3Hiramasa or yellowtail king fish to create a twist on a traditional Chilean dish. Instead of the obvious fish soup, he served the entire head in a casing of fig leaves and grey damper (cooked al rescoldo – in ash). Entirely unspiced, and containing only a teaspoon of flesh among a challenging web of cartilage, it was undercooked and uninviting. It was served with a side plate of thick-stemmed, rubbery mushroom and artichoke foam, strong on texture but light on flavour. For a modicum of lift, we were given a deeply satisfying Ashton Hills Pinot Noir.

 

glasshouse4

Finally, Greggory Hill, owner of Adelaide’s Hispanic Mechanic, created a dessert with an interesting concept that he didn’t quite pull off. Hill is fond of plantains, those fibrous, starchy bananas that are best cooked before eating. He used these to create an edible plantain and chocolate basket filled with a scoop of banana, pear and passionfruit sorbet, and a squirt of canned cream. Apparently, crushing the basket into the ice-cream would have improved the experience, but try as I might, I couldn’t crack it. There was a mildly spicy sting on the tongue from the sorbet, but the overall effect was bland. Fortunately, there was a rich, 21-year old Seppeltsfield Para port to accompany it.

As an expensive showcase for Tasting Australia, the mood and atmosphere were uplifting, and we had a thoroughly entertaining evening, but the food was underwhelming, despite some big names and some big wines.

*Thanks to Google for the photo of the glasshouse. The rest are mine own!

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Scoffed Goes Wild

scoffedScoffed culinary school partners, Nadine Silverberg and Mark Busse, believe in getting people into the kitchen and having fun with food. To this end, they regularly stage kids parties and adult cooking classes in French, Spanish, Italian cuisine, and now, for Tasting Australia, a native Australian cooking class, aimed at introducing curious cooks to native ingredients.

Adelaide Market stallholder Richard Gunner of Something Wild is a supplier of native greens, native herbs and native game. Its genesis was at Richard’s family farm in Meningie, where “a whole lot of stuff grew in the paddocks” that they regularly cleared as weeds, but chefs were learning to love. Something Wild is majority owned by indigenous families, including ex AFL players Daniel Motlop and Leon Davis, and these traditional aboriginal land managers have helped to overcome the fears of park rangers of over-harvesting, enabling them to set up a commercial business.

Standing before a crowded room, at Scoffed just off Magill Road, St Morris, Richard introduced us to the origins of several indigenous ingredients, how they are traditionally used among indigenous communities, and how they can be used in modern Australian cuisine.

We were invited to try acerbic quandongs, tiny bush tomatoes, the salty crunch of karkalla perfect in salads and stir fries, the Coorong’s delicate coastal rosemary and intense native thyme, succulent samphire, finger limes, muntries – look like capers, taste like sour apple – lemon myrtle and strawberry gum with its hidden flavours of berries and passionfruit (scratch and sniff for amazing results), all sourced from the South Australian coastline and outback scoofed2Australia. As we tasted, Richard talked of a new era in Australian culinary history, where chefs are now working with Australia, not fighting it, by using those ingredients best adapted to our climate.

As part of the introduction, Richard presented tasting platters, which sommelier Lisa paired with Amato Vino Bianco, a smoky, slightly peppery wine from the South Australian Riverland which blends the Southern Italian fiano grape and the Serbian slankamenka bela. It was a perfect match with the selection of strongly flavoured, open range meats: camel and spicy kangaroo salamis, lightly smoked crocodile, emu kabana.

Often medicinal, as well as edible for indigenous Australians, new Australians have invented fresh ways of bringing native ingredients into modern Australian cuisine, from ice-cream and desserts, to gin, pickles, chutneys and jams.

Moving into the kitchen, head chef Lachlan took us through his fusion menu, incorporating many ingredients Richard provided. Lisa selected local boutique wines to go with each dish.

Earlier, I watched Lachlan preparing sour dough bread rolls, flavoured with native pepper leaf. Later, he taught us the correct use of kitchen knives and how to shuck an oyster with a short, blunt knife, a sharp twist and a full body thrust. As some of us eagerly practised this new skill on a large heap of fresh Coffin Bay oysters, others prepared native finger limes to garnish them.

Each course began with clear instructions and a short demonstration from Lachlan and ended at the dinner table. As the cooks started work, unfamiliar but nose-twitching aromas rose into the air from hot frying pans, and salivary scoffed3glands went into overdrive.

Barramundi steaks were dipped in pepper leaf, seared and served on a bed of spicy Romesco sauce, a divinely tangy, nutty red sauce we made from scratch, brimming with almond and native thyme, red peppers and paprika.   A side salad of corn kernels and freekeh, dessert lime and samphire provided a clean, light balance to the rich sauce. Charlotte Dalton Wines 2017 ‘Love you, love me,’ a bright, Basket Range Semillon, proved a good companion.

After a pause and a deep breath, emu fillets were rubbed in wattle seeds which have the nutty taste of roasted coffee without the bitterness. Chef’s tip: don’t overcook the emu, as it gets too chewy, and don’t forget to let it rest for a good medium rare finish. It was served with a Davidson plum relish – not too sweet – and baby green asparagus sautéed in the emu jus. Fervent chewing killed the conversation among diners, as Lisa poured a hefty 2017 Adelaide Hills Shiraz from Altamont Wine Studio.

As the diners indulged, Lachlan made a start on dessert. First, a wattle seed pavlova briefly cooked in a large, shallow pan, slathered in whipped cream and rolled. The result was more sponge than meringue – light, but sickly sweet, as pavlova should be. To avoid waiting till next week for the ice cream to set, the crème anglaise – infused with lemon myrtle – was stirred into finely crushed dry ice and, abracadabra, the ice cream was ready in moments. And it was perfectly complimented by a dry and musky 2017 rosé from McLaren Vale’s Hither & Yon.

As every plate was returned to the kitchen empty and wiped clean, we reflected that fun, friends, and flavour is a great recipe for success.

This article was originally published on the Tasting Australia website: http://www.tastingaustralia.com.au/stories/le-cordon-bleu-digest

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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.’

This article was originally published on the Tasting Australia website: http://www.tastingaustralia.com.au/stories/le-cordon-bleu-digest

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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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