Highlights of Cebu City

A weekend in Cebu City. A friend’s birthday. A room at The Henry. A table  at Anzani . A Sunday recovery barbecue by the pool in the friend’s garden. A recipe for a super weekend.

Henry1Our hotel may be a good place to start. Walking distance to our friend’s lovely home in a nearby gated community, it is a complete contrast to its elegant, colonial-style sister hotel in Manila. Built in the style of an old warehouse, The Henry in Cebu City on the outside is all black paint and big windows. Inside, the hotel is brimming with an eclectic collection of modern art, quirky furnishings and eye-catching sculptures scattered around large, airy spaces. This included a rather unnerving plastic statue of a red man in the lobby. A welcome drink, a quick and easy check in, and we are escorted to the sixth floor and a vast bedroom, with two huge windows overlooking the garden and pool. We step back to admire the polished concrete floor, a super-king sized bed, a generous bathroom separated only by a curtain (not so good for the more reserved amongst us), a lovely hip bath (but no hot water) and more than enough room to swing the proverbial cat.

Two minor complaints: a kettle and tea making facilities in our room would have been most welcome. And when Henry3drinking the tap water is not an option, I figure it might be kind of the hotel to provide bottomless drinking water, or at least a small water cooler, not just two small plastic bottles per day. That said, the room was incredibly comfortable, the staff were friendly, and the restaurant was really very good – the One & Only took a particular fancy to their carafes of lemongrass tea. And of course the artwork and furnishings were fascinating. I particularly liked a framed violin above the dressing table. Its bow, also framed, hung on the opposite wall. There was also a brightly coloured, Andy Warhol-style mural onto the wall above the bed. And I loved the various stacks of old trunks piled around the lobby – and two 1950s cream suitcases we initially thought someone had left behind beside the elevators!

And so onto dinner at the very beautiful Anzani, set high in the Nivel hills above the city, with stunning views and a range of attractive indoor and outdoor spaces for dining. We were ushered downstairs to a table for eight in the wine cellar, overlooked by two large sketches of Sophia Lauren.

It calls itself ‘New Mediterranean,’ but Anzani is more a wondrous fusion of Mediterranean recipes and Filipino Anzani5ingredients.  The menu was handed to us on a tablet, which novel, but a bit problematic, until we came to grips with the screen, which kept vanishing. Eventually we sorted it out and began to unravel the extensive menu (pages and pages) of Mediterranean-inspired dishes. I am always a little nervous about large menus – I find it hard to believe the chefs can possibly do justice to so many dishes – but tonight my doubts proved unfounded. Every dish, even the complimentary ones, came to the table in style, artistically presented and tasting sumptuous. There was a ‘chipotle three-cheese fondue’ and a platter of Italian meats, both generous enough to share; carpaccio of beef, swordfish or ostrich or a smoked tomato soup; numerous pizzas, pastas and risottos, and a selection of mains that included French duck breasts, Wagyu short ribs and pan-seared crocodile tail. And I am not kidding when I say I am just scratching the surface, as there were also numerous dishes that wove local ingredients (yellow fin tuna, bangus and grouper) into the mix.

We were swiftly presented with a very pretty selection of dips and nibbles to get the ball rolling, while we devoured the menu and chose the wines – wonderful fun when you can just lean behind you and grab whatever catches your eye!  Grant Burge put in a star turn, in both red and white, but the wine cellar offers all sorts of nationalities: New World wines from Australia and Argentina, Chile and New Zealand, South Africa and the States; Old World wines from France, Italy and Spain. I chose, with no apologies, a lightly wooded Grant Burge Chardonnay

I was particularly delighted with my dinner tonight. Normally I am one of those annoying people who decides too lateAnzani3 that everyone else has made better choices than me. But tonight I decided to experiment with the ostrich carpaccio, which is apparently sourced from an ostrich farm in the Philippines. Paper thin – as it should be – it was topped with crumbled goat cheese and roasted wild mushrooms.  Much to my delighted surprise, the ostrich proved to be a dark meat with gallons more flavour than the Angas beef carpaccio, and quite beautifully partnered with the goat’s cheese and mushrooms. I would greedily have ordered a second serve, it was so good.

For my main course I ordered from the grill: a steak of yellow fin tuna, also a local specialty. It had been lightly marinated with a really tasty and ever-so-slightly crunchy marinade of olive oil, sugar, turmeric powder, sea salt, a glove of garlic (I assume this was a typo, but loved it anyway), freshly ground black pepper and chopped shallot. I have only ever eaten such beautiful tuna once before, and that was almost thirty years
ago. Fresh from the sea, meaty and perfectly cooked, it quite simply melted in the mouth. It was very simply accompanied by a handful of chunky chips, a small side salad and a bowl of dipping sauce that I have to admit I totally ignored, as the tuna was perfect sans sauce.

Anzani6 (2)Having had some issues with the air conditioning – a more serious problem for the resident wines than for me – we adjourned upstairs for dessert and coffee. Although we all blanched at the thought of dessert, when we were presented with a platter of gelati (nine different flavoured scoops on a pretty green glass serving platter) quite a number of us were more than happy to dip in. From memory, flavours included green tea and choco mint, raspberry and mango. The rest completely escape me, but I do remember they were all delicious, and a lovely finishing touch.

And then, just in case there hadn’t been enough food and drink already, our night at Anzani was followed a lovely, gentle, Aussie-style afternoon round the pool with strawberry cocktails and prawns on the barbie.

Life doesn’t get much better, really…


*With thanks to Google Images and my One & Only for the photos.

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Mother’s Milk or Mother’s Ruin?

“Red meat and gin.” – Julia Child, on the ingredients for a long life.

gin4Ten years ago micro-breweries hit the market with ‘craft’ or ‘boutique’ beers, providing the world with interesting alternatives to the mass-produced European style lagers.  Today, word on the street is that gin is now having a similar renaissance in ‘boutique’ distilleries.  Visiting England recently, I discovered a myriad small gin distilleries have been springing up all over the country. And it is not limited to the UK – the resurgence of the juniper berry has struck a chord all over the world. I even met a bloke recently who is planning to make gin at that altar of winemaking, the Barossa Valley. So move over craft beer, designer gin is here.

Two years ago, a friend I was visiting in Kent eagerly handed me a gin and tonic. The tonic? Probably Scwheppes. The gin? He was reluctant to share the secret, but eventually told me that it came from the lovely Suffolk seaside town of Southwold. Adnams, originally established as a brewery in 1872, decided to diversify, and in 2010 a distillery was born. Adnams now makes not only beer, but gin, vodka and whisky as well.

This new gin was quite different from the usual gins I drink: the Gilbeys-and-Gordons, Beefeater-and-Bombay Sapphire brigade which have little to recommend them beyond alcoholic content and a neat and unobtrusive match with tonic and lime. Adnans – and the many more boutique gins attempting to upstage the old stalwarts – tastes quite different: more complex, more sophisticated, even poetic flavours that make it distinctive, unusual, unexpected and aromatic.

tonicLast Christmas my daughter took me along to ‘The Howling Owl,’ a quaint little bar in Adelaide with a not-so-secret stash of boutique gins – more than forty different brands in fact, from all over the world. A tasting tray provided four shot glasses and a selection of garnishes: slices of lemon and lime and cucumber were no surprise, but the sprigs of rosemary, dried juniper berries and peppercorns were a whole new experience. It was great fun – a little like creating a mini cocktail.  And the results were fascinating, quite upstaging those old stalwarts above the bar. It was a real eye opener. There were even, it turns out, some new, lighter ‘artisan’ tonics on the market, like Fever Tree and Fentimans.

Simply put, gin is flavoured vodka. The base spirit for both spirits is derived from grain, (rye, corn or wheat) or potato and in the case of gin, sometimes even grapes. The base spirit is then infused with juniper berries. Called berries, these are actually berry-shaped seed cones, and give gin a flavour that is often described as ‘piney’ or ‘tasting like Christmas.’ Other ‘aromatics’ or ‘botanicals’ add complexity. These botanicals may include such things as cassia and chamomile, coriander and cardomom, cinnamon, citrus and cubeb berries (Indonesian pepper) – which sounds like the recipe for a magic spell. Typically, a fine gin contains six to ten botanicals.

Gin first appeared in Holland in the seventeenth century. Like many spirits and liqueurs, it was created by the monks, who used it to treat any number of ailments from gout to gallstones, and even the Plague.   Its name comes from the Dutch word for juniper – genever –  and it became popular with Dutch and British soldiers fighting together during the Thirty Years War (1618-48), where it was praised for its moral boosting and warming effects in the damp and chilly Lowlands of Europe, and nicknamed “Dutch Courage.”


“The Drunkard’s Children” by Cruikshank

Its popularity – and the recipe – spread from the battlefields to England. Unlicensed production meant anyone could set up a gin still very cheaply, and British gin was a rough-and-ready concoction, fit only for the poor, who drank it liberally, often by the pint, and just as often enhanced with turpentine –  highly toxic when ingested. Hardly surprisingly, this led to horrific displays of disorderly drunkenness, ill-health, and death. Gin was even blamed for a negative population growth in London.

Over the next century, the “Gin Craze” grew. Eventually, however, its adverse effects on society caused panic amongst the elite, and the British Parliament introduced a series of laws and taxes to curb gin consumption by raising prices beyond the reach of the poor. This lead, predictably perhaps, to street riots and a flood of illegal gin stills, and the laws were repealed, and eventually replaced by more reasonable ones.

As these milder reforms gradually took effect, gin production became more refined, and gin gradually climbed out of the gutter.  In the nineteenth century, the ‘column still’ was invented, which allowed gin distillers to improve the quality of the base spirit. They also started to play around with different flavours. London dry gin was born; a specific style of gin, not necessarily made in London, but involving a double distillation of the grain to which the botanicals are added only during the second distillation. The upper classes were entranced. Ornate and luxurious gin palaces were established to provide sophisticated settings for this now sophisticated panacea.

Tonic water was first introduced to gin in Colonial India in the nineteenth century.  Gin and soda was already a popular drink amongst the British military stationed there, quinine a necessary evil in a malaria-ridden country. And then some clever chap devised a cocktail of carbonated water, gin and quinine that made the latter so much more palatable. As Winston Churchill is quoted as saying: “the gin and tonic has saved more Englishmen’s lives and minds than all the doctors in the Empire.”secret-gin-club-gin-martini

Then, in the twentieth century, gin became a popular base for flamboyant cocktails, but I am not going to dwell on that here.

Instead, let’s leave history for now and drop into a small High Street wine shop in Surrey, where Alistair, my guide to the New World of Gin is waiting to introduce me to a selection of English craft gins. Arranged on an old wine barrel at the back of the store are at least a dozen bottles of gin, a carafe of water and two sherry glasses.

Some tips, though, before we start:

  • Although reminiscent of a wine tasting, we are only using a small sherry glass (a shot glass will do, too). Gin is a spirit and therefore much stronger than wine, and you may need to get home afterwards.
  • There is no tonic in sight – we will taste the gin straight and possibly with a splash of water, which apparently releases the botanical flavours.
  • It is best served at room temperature (approximately 15°C).
  • Swish it gently around your mouth, like wine, and note the effects.
  • Explore the flavours. All gins contain juniper, but each gin will have its own unique combination of botanicals.
  • “Generally speaking, a nice aroma and a smoothness of taste are good starters. If it tastes thin and has a burn to it, avoid it.” ~ Tanqueray’s master distiller Tom Nichol.

So explore we do, my guide happily joining me to compare aromas and flavours. Initially, I bow to his superior knowledge, but surprisingly quickly I find myself interjecting with my own discoveries.

Silent Pool is an English gin named for a spring-fed lake at the foot of the North Downs, near Guildford. This gin3delicate but complex gin is captured in a beautiful turquoise glass bottle and claims to contain some twenty-four ‘unique’ botanicals.  Cory Mason, the Head Distiller at Silent Pool, describes their signature product as “full-bodied and fresh, with depth, clarity, and above all else flavour.“ His flavour descriptors include “clean juniper-driven spirit with floral layers of lavender and chamomile. Fresh notes of citrus and kafir lime… [and] local honey.”

An online reviewer attempted to identify all 24 botanicals, and his check list included “juniper, [obviously] coriander, cassia, chamomile, orris, kaffir lime, elderflower, pear, star anise, coriander, lavender, bergamot, honey, linden, hawthorn, angelica, possibly rosehip,” which sounds like a cross between potpourri and an Indian curry. Rest assured this is not what it tastes like. (And I should know, I have tested two bottles already.)

Beckett’s is another new English gin. Produced in Kingston-upon-Thames, it is made from Box Hill juniper berries – the only British gin, apparently, to use berries grown in the UK. Box Hill is maintained by the National Trust, that blessed English charity that looks after some of Britain’s most beautiful coastline, countryside and heritage houses. Beckett’s management work with the Trust to pick “a strictly controlled number” of berries, at the same time cultivating new juniper plants on Juniper Top where, ironically, they no longer grew. Beckett’s is surprisingly delicate and smooth. Alistair advises me not to drown it in tonic because the flavours are so subtle, and suggests soda water instead, with perhaps a sprinkle of mint and citrus rind. Given that I don’t have malaria, why not?

We also sip a Dorset gin, Conker, which, like Beckett’s, was only born two years ago. (Note that gin can be produced much faster than whiskey, without all that barrel time.) Labelled as another ‘unique’ gin, Conker is created in the back streets of Bournemouth and contains ten ‘select’ botanicals. The producers use Macedonian juniper berries, to which they add local elderberries, samphire and ‘handpicked New Forest gorse flowers’. (How else would one pick gorse flowers, I wonder?) The website claims that Conker is ‘brazenly refreshing and deftly smooth… crafted to stand up on its own, poured and adored over ice.’  (I am really enjoying all these gins, but finding the marketing spiels harder to swallow.)

gin1Next we travel from the New Forest to the Black Forest in Germany. Monkey 47 is incredibly complex, its name referring to both the number of botanicals used and the fact it’s bottled at a healthy 47%. ‘Good on your cornflakes,’ jokes Alistair. Ha! It just about knocks my socks off to drink neat. I would highly recommend at least a dash of soda and maybe a curl of lime zest. If you have ever tasted that other monk-made drink Benedictine, it has similar overtones of the floral and the heartily medicinal. It even looks like an old-fashioned medicine bottle.

I guess the next gin to be Slavic, partly from the name (Makar is a Russian boy’s name), partly from its potency. But Makar also means ‘poet’ in Scotland, and the gin proves to be a robust little Glaswegian number: hot, musky and high octane.  Think Turkish Delight infused with pepper. Makar contains ‘seven internationally sourced botanicals,’ including rosemary and black pepper. This one too arrived on the scene in 2014 – obviously an excellent year for the rebirth of gin – from a new distillery built in the heart of Glasgow.

So go forth and drink gin – there are plenty more to choose from.  I have even tried a pink one flavoured with rhubarb! (Way too sweet for me, though.) And it turns out I am in the right place to share the news: figures say that there is more gin drunk in the Philippines than anywhere else in the world; that the annual global sale of gin is nearly 60 million cases, and almost half of this is consumed in the Philippines. So it looks like I am in good company. In the meantime, though, before I join you at the bar,  I am off to find a dose of Mother’s Milk to cure my cold, or maybe I will make one of those gin and tonic popsicles I saw on Facebook this week…

*with thanks to Google Images for the pics.

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A Host of Golden Daffodils

Manila is the natural habitat of the small dog, given the proliferation of high rise apartments and limited green space. In our own area of Manila, I often pass herds of tiny dogs, sometimes dressed in slippers and jackets, occasionally even riding in a pushchair. Owners of these pocket-sized pooches, somewhat surprisingly, usually have the kind of cars in which they could fit a small elephant.

London is the opposite. The Mini Cooper is king and the dogs must ride on the roof, I guess, as I have no more idea of how you would squeeze an Irish wolf hound into a mini than how you would wedge in that that elephant. It brings to mind the genie in the lamp. (“Phenomenal cosmic powers! Itty bitty living space!”)

Luckily London, as I may have mentioned before, is full of parks where dogs of all shapes and sizes can stretch their legs. And in South West London, where we have settled for the Easter holidays, there are acres and acres of public parks, something Manila is desperately lacking, even for its pint-sized puppies. In London, I have found woodland, common land, riverside walking paths, public parks and private gardens, so much so that in the past week, my feet have rarely hit the pavement. And wherever I wander, I find an abundance of wildlife, flora and fauna.

Almost as soon as I landed, I headed across town to my current obsession, Hampton Court Palace, with its amazing walled gardens: a medieval IMG_4585veggie patch; a rose garden (sadly not blooming in March); and the Hampton Court Wilderness, once a structured garden of high hedges and coppices within which lovers could canoodle unseen, now a spring meadow simply awash with daffodils and a sprinkling of grape hyacinths. Even Wordsworth, so familiar with golden daffodils that flutter and dance in the breeze would have been gob-smacked. I had never before realized there were so many varieties of narcissi, baptized with glorious names like ‘February Gold,’ ‘Merlin,’ ‘Spellbinder’ and ‘Rip Van Winkle.’

Should you have done your dash with Hampton Court, then the vast and sprawling Bushy park is only a stone’s throw away, and stretches over 1,100 acres from Kingston-upon-Thames to Hampton Court and from to Hampton Hill to Thames Ditton. Here I wandered through a broad, open landscape, past bare trees whose only foliage was flocks of squawking, screeching green parakeets that appear to have migrated from Australia. Beneath them, herds of hefty deer gathered in their now somewhat tatty winter coats. I passed horses trotting though the Royal Paddocks, their riders sensibly dressed in bright orange safety jackets.

And of course there were myriad dog walkers. My favourite sighting was two somewhat rotund, corgis looking like prosperous, bushy-tailed foxes – it no longer being permissible to dock their tails anywhere but New Zealand – or those stocky Thelwell ponies, beer-barrel bellies scraping the ground. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASomewhere in the middle of Bushy Park I discovered a fenced area I hadn’t noticed before. Walking through the gate was a little like going through the mirror into Wonderland, as I stepped from open, uncluttered deer park into lush woodland, festooned with ponds and streams and winding paths. The Waterhouse Woodland Garden is a woodland walk created in 1925, and further developed in 1948. Ducks and geese honked and quacked across the water, squirrels bounded up the trees, daffodils stretched their swan-like necks towards the sun, and a few tiny trees blossomed like brides with pink and white confetti. It was like a child’s painting of Eden. I was enchanted.

And in between these swathes of public space I have found pretty little villages and cosy towns whose main streets are full of antique shops, art galleries, coffee shops and restaurants –  British history captured in a streetscape of picturesque imagebuildings with Tudor beams and gables, or flibbertigibbet Victorian fretwork, or Georgian pomp and soaring columns. In East Molesey, across the river from that grandiose and grandiloquent Tudor palace of Hampton Court with its wealth of elegant chimneys, we found a coffee shop full of sofas, rustic tables, built-in books shelves and eclectic artwork: a home away from home. There were even deep baskets full of organic vegetables, such as Christmas-coloured capsicums and knobbly, gnarly ginger.

I found myself wondering why the last century has added so little to the glory of English architecture, until I remembered a handful of interesting modern structures encircling the City of London. And on a trip to St Paul’s, I suddenly saw and enjoyed the juxtaposition of an elegant Victorian church steeple aligned with the sharp-edged Shard piercing the clouds; a glimpse of the fairy tale outline of the Big Ben tower through the pupil of the London Eye; the stark industrial lines of the Millennium Bridge against the backdrop of Wren’s curvaceous cathedral. (No sign of a single swooping Death Eater, thank goodness.) No daffodils or woolly dogs here either, but the architectural variety had me spellbound as I wandered along the riverbank from Waterloo.

* With thanks to Google Images for the pup in slippers and the Woodland Garden. The daffodils are courtesy of my One & Only, and I actually took the lop-sided view of St. Paul’s cathedral and the Millennium Bridge with my new phone!

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Dancing with Dolphins



Another March, another birthday, and finding I had no great inclination to party, we headed north to Subic instead, where rumour had it there were dolphins to be met. It’s a three-hour drive from Makati – about 120 km north-west of the CBD – so we decided not to rush, but went for the weekend, and spent a lazy afternoon lounging by the pool, wandering along the seafront and, of course, eating.

The website for ‘It’s More Fun in the Philippines’ says Subic is a ‘sublime’ place to visit, full of ancient rainforests, restaurants and boats. It also clearly says ‘Don’t confuse [Subic Bay Freeport Zone] with Subic [town]… although an equally exciting trip, the town [Subic} is about 10 kilometers from the area.’ Unfortunately, I didn’t read that page before I booked our hotel, and thanks to this pathetic lack of research, we found ourselves on the far side of the bay from the Freeport Zone and even further removed from Ocean Adventure, where we were due to swim with the dolphins on Sunday morning. And it was quite a long drive: Subic Bay is a much bigger area than we had realized.

With its deep harbour, Subic Bay was used by the Spanish as a port. After the Spanish-American war of 1898, ownership was transferred to the United States, who held it from 1899-1991 (apart from three years of Japanese occupation in WWII), and created America’s largest naval base outside the United States, giving America a firm footing in SE Asia. Today it belongs once again to the Philippines and Subic Bay has been transformed into an industrial centre and a duty-free commercial precinct. Yet signs of its former incarnation remain: the coastline is dotted with abandoned barracks, while the bay is dotted with shipwrecks from both the Spanish-American war and World War II, which attract many divers.

I just came for the dolphins.

Before our date with the dolphins, though, we had time to watch the Wild World show, where we were introduced to a fascinating selection of Indigenous birds, reptiles and mammals: a beautiful but top-heavy horn bill; a sleek and scaly python; a large but rather shy fruit bat who kept flitting off-stage. (Later that day we would pass a whole colony of fruit bats in the wild, swarming like bees on two or three huge trees at the side of the road. I haven’t seen them in such numbers since we lived in Sydney.)

As we waited for the next exhibit, a shadow passed over our heads. On a thick vine that stretched across the audiencedownload
from the front to the rear of the auditorium, a bear cat paced like a tight-rope walker, using its tail to help it balance. The bear cat is the emblem of our sons’ school, so I have seen cartoon images reproduced on t-shirts and sports kit and posters. But I had never seen a live bear cat. We were quite entranced. He looked, quite literally, as he sounds: a blend of bear and cat, heavy-set and ponderous with a long fluffy, prehensile tail, sharp teeth and thick, bear-like fur. And he certainly didn’t look as fierce as the logo. (Although bear cats can be found all across Asia, loss of habitat and hunting have severely depleted their numbers.)

When the show finished, we wandered across the park to prepare for our session with the dolphins. On Filipino time, we pottered through a promotional video as staff fitted us with life jackets and warned us to remove any accessories that might scratch the dolphins. (It is hardly surprising that dolphins are renowned for their friendliness when their wide mouths seem permanently stretched into a broad smile, and it is hard not to respond with delight. Yet I fear that it is a misconception to assume happiness where there seems to be a smiling face.)

Eventually we headed to the beach, where two dolphins were waiting for us in the shallows. Summer had suddenly struck, and Subic was steaming, so we had no reservations at all about stepping into the sea, well doused in sun screen and hoping we would survive sunstroke without our hats. In two groups of five, we were escorted down into the water to cluster around one dolphin each. There, our guide introduced us in great detail to our new friend, Nahla, whose name means “first drink of water” in Arabic and “gift” in Swahili.

Nahla is a bottle-nosed dolphin, but unusually, this nose is not for breathing. Instead, she breathes through the blow-hole on back of her head. This is also how she speaks, using signature whistles to communicate, and a clicking sound as an echolocation device. (Echolocation is a means of receiving information by sending out sound waves and then gauging the proximity of other objects from the responding echoes.)

Nahla was happy to show off her ability to hold her breath underwater (for up to seven minutes, we were told), and blow water at us out of the air hole when she re-surfaced. I am always a little anxious in zoos and wildlife parks about how animals respond to captivity and doing tricks, but while obviously a little bored with our interest and enthusiasm, it seems that Nahla at least is a born show-off, and happy to go through her paces for pieces of fish that her trainer kept secreted in a bum bag around her waist. Initially we stroked her smooth, satin skin carefully, but very quickly we had all relaxed, and were posing happily for hugs and kisses.

Information varies on the effects of captivity. One website I read assured me that, if properly cared for, dolphins can live up to twenty-five years in captivity – about twice the time they will survive in the wild. But others made my heart sink as they talked of unnatural behavior and the detrimental effects of captivity on such a free-spirited animal. And yet, for some of the rescue dolphins at Ocean Adventure, who have lost their hearing as a result of dynamite fishing, survival in the wild would have been impossible. (This violent method of fishing is also causing irreparable damage to Philippine reefs.)

In the meantime, despite my anxieties, it was an utter joy to have the opportunity to come so close to this beautiful, gentle and fun-loving mammal. We all examined Nahla’s physical attributes – from her almost human teeth and tongue to her strong tail, or fluke, which she uses to propel herself through the water at speeds of up to 20km an hour. We could feel the force of which that tail is capable when she  used it to carry each of us across the bay, first on her back with her “rider” holding her flippers like hands; then back again, when we rode on her back, clutching her dorsal fin and attempting to keep our legs out of the way of the strong thrusts of her tail, apparently oblivious to the weight of two less-than-petite Australians.

Swim with dolphin (13)And then there were the balletic, mid-air leaps and spins. Apparently in the wild this is a movement with multiple purposes: to orient themselves and see what or who is around; as a social display; in fighting, or just for fun. It is even used as a method of dislodging parasites. They can also spin on their tails in the water – as we observed first hand when Nahla invited us to dance with her, and, wrapping our legs around her body, we were spun about in dizzyingly tight circles. And I am reminded of that pithy conversation at the beginning of Gallipoli, the movie:

Jack: What are your legs?

Archy: Springs. Steel springs.

Jack: What are they going to do?

Archy: Hurl me down the track.

Nahla, too, hurled herself around the pool, as if she had steel springs in her tail.

We were also able to observe the dolphins speeding through the water without human cargo, and they set a cracking pace. Later we would watch the trainers water-skiing across the pool, somehow balanced on the dolphins’ backs, looking for all the world like Dash in The Incredibles, as their turbo-charged steeds whipped through the water.

All in all, this opportunity to interact with Nahla and her friends was an amazing experience. And putting a positive slant on it, it has given us a far greater appreciation and understanding of the dolphin, and made us all more aware of the need to preserve these beautiful creatures, as they struggle to survive the dangers of a sea dominated and damaged by human mismanagement and interference. I hope so, but I wonder…

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“My Precious”

Hiding in the shadows of dense Filipino forest
– the Aeta of the animal kingdom –
a petite, palm-sized primate
clings to a branch with padded fingers.
The platypus of the Philippines,
– shy, elusive, unassuming –
with a halo halo of body parts:
Gollum-like googly eyes
fixed miner’s lamps
in bronze;
a neck that swivels, owl-like,
– before, beside, behind –
to check for danger;
outsized, bilby-ears that pivot too,
like small satellite dishes,
listening for food or family;
an ultrasonic bat-voice
that less subtle ears
will never hear;
a long, thin, rat’s tail
for grip and balance
high above the forest floor;
elongated ankle bones
and furry frogs-legs
that spring from tree to tree.
This endangered, pygmy predator
with spiky-Gremlin-teeth
and soft-wallaby-fur
is no pack animal, but a lone traveller
who seeks space and solitude to thrive,
sleeping by day, hunting by night
for pica pica insects…

But be warned!
Do not distress this timid bush-baby,
for if disturbed,
perturbed, unnerved
by heavy feet and thunderous whispers,
He dies.


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Down on the Farm

Graco4The sky was clear, with no hint of rain, and a beautiful breeze across the paddocks all day – perfect weather for a picnic…

Last weekend, a small group from the Social Welfare Committee of the Asian Development Bank Spouses Association paid a long overdue return visit to Graco Farm, in Pila, Laguna, with thirty-one children from Tulay Ng Kabataan (TNK) – boys and girls this time –and a clutch of TNK staff and families.

Our planned starting time went a little askew when Teacher Neil forgot to set his alarm, but our convoy eventually got underway and was hurtling south along the SLEX towards Calambra. Road works obliged us to re-route from the National Highway onto a convoluted and narrow road skirting the edge of the lake. It turned out to be a fascinating detour, as we wove through small, lakeside villages, dodging tricycles and children and chooks and trucks. We still managed to arrive in Pila in time for merienda in the welcome hut: puto, fried bananas wrapped in pandan leaves and fresh pandan juice.

The kids were initially a little subdued, but we quickly put that down to an early start and a long car trip, because half an hour later it was full steam ahead as they all tore around the field, stretching their legs and their lungs! When they had settled down, owner Grace and her side-kick Eric talked to them about the plans for their day, and then led them down to meet the animals.

They were instantly absorbed, goggle-eyed at the shy ostrich, Karra, and the showy peacocks. I demonstarted how Gracos4the peacocks tail worked, using my fan, and they were gobsmacked and giggling when I explained how he used his tail feathers to show off to the girls. When the ostrich had been fed, and the peacocks thoroughly admired, the children were rounded up and marched off to the raised goat shed in single file, where the excitement levels shot through the roof.

Staff provided leafy mango branches for the children to feed them with, and they fought hard as the hungry goats played tug-of-war with them. They noticed that some of the goats had long, soft ears like Jaja Binks, (Anglo-Nubian) while others had no ears, (Lamancha), but all looked glossy and soft.

The Anglo-Nubian goat is a cross-breed that originated in England: a blend of Old English milch goats and bucks from the Middle East and North Africa. The Anglo-Nubian adapts well to hot climates – hence its popularity in the Philippines, and also in Australia and South Africa. Its milk is high in butterfat content and the male makes good eating.

The Lamancha goat originated in Spain, but has been developed in America. It has distinctively small or nonexistent ears, known as ‘elf’ ears or ‘gopher’ ears. Grace does not cross-breed the Anglo-Nubian and the Lamancha, but they both feed on Napier grass, indigofera, madre de agua, madre de cacao, centosema, malunggay and mango leaves and they are also regularly provided with probiotics, calcium phosphate, and molasses with salt.

A few of the goats were shy of handling, but several came out of the pens to mix with their visitors. Most of the children took this in their stride, but some were frightened by their proximity, and there was a bit of squealing!

cc2The staff then led the children to the back of the six-hectare property, where the ducks, geese, hens, roosters and turkeys wander around the edge of the tilapia pond. The pace picked up, however, when the children realized the hens, at least, could be taken captive and cuddled. At that point, I suddenly became very popular with my friend Colin’s little four-year-old, John, who promptly decided he would far rather be up in my arms than at risk from vicious chickens! From a safe height, he was then happy to admire the beautiful breeding roosters and pose with the older children for photos.

A three wheeler tractor put in an appearance for ferrying the more geriatric amongst us across the paddocks, and we trundled in comfort to the tilapia lake before returning to base camp to fire up the pizza oven for lunch. As the children waited patiently to choose their toppings, Hema and I encouraged them to learn some new songs – old favourites we have used with the kids for several years, but ones this new batch didn’t know. So we brought them out for an airing and had relative success with “Skinnamarinky dinky dink” and “Galumph said the little green frog.”

After a delicious feast of home-made pizzas, the kids ran about playing Chasey before collapsing in the shade for a little time out. That was when Hema and I found the new green house, choc-a-block with herbs: lemon balm and graco2spearmint, curly kale and basil, rosemary, tarragon and oregano, as well as a couple of tomato plants and some chives.  Returning with scented fingers and a bag each of kale and basil, we discovered that Grace had arranged some party games.

To delighted and noisy encouragement from the girls, the boys competed for the coloured flags at the top of a ten-foot slippery pole, skinning up it like professional coconut pickers. Then the girls had a go at donning blindfolds and busting open the piñata with bamboo sticks while the rest yelled instructions and directions.  Some of us had to head home after that, but TNK staff and children stayed on for a couple more hours to make the most of their day out in the country. And Grace told me later that she was almost in tears when the kids told her that they wanted to stay and live at the farm to care for the animals. Maybe we have inspired some future farmers. Certainly, my One & Only was making plans for his future chicken farm… on the 38th floor?

*With thanks to Colin Campbell, and Gracos for the photos.

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A World of Fruit

3ba9f8a53b72417cdcb3bd4d7d83cd41‘It is not only the taste, or the freshness, but especially the memories, the beliefs, the associations – the whole cultural package – that makes the fruit more than food.”  

So says the late, great Doreen Fernandez,  food writer and food historian extraordinaire and one of my favorite Filipina writers. The quote is taken from her book Fruits of the Philippines, a fascinating mix of fact, fiction and memory. As she tells us in her introduction:

“Each fruit would be identified first by its local names, then by its English name, and by its leaves and flowers, but especially its fruit, how it is eaten, how it tastes and how it figures in the culture,” from fairy tale to folk medicine.

Her tales of tropical fruit were written to record a childhood world full of taste and texture, at a time when many native species were being threatened with extinction. The pages are interspersed with photos and illustrations that enhance her lively descriptions. And I was particularly struck by the line that I quoted at the beginning, on how fruit features in so many memories, for I, too, find the fruits of my childhood have many memories associated with them, although my frame of reference is several degrees further south….

I grew up in a temperate zone: our fruit baskets were full of apples and pears, citrus and stone fruit. We clambered up our grandmother’s tree to hunt loquats and scrambled down the side of the house, to capture passionfruit that grew thick on the vine along the fence, tearing open the leathery casing and sucking the juice through our teeth.

Every garden in South Australia had a lemon tree that was never out of season, always heavy with sunshine-coloured fruit eager to be included in the lemon meringue pie or my aunt’s homemade lemon cordial. My grandfather also had an orchard of orange trees, where bumble bees buzzed about the pretty white flowers in spring. My mother had a huge tin cauldron for making marmalade, chunky style, bubbling away for hours on the back of the stove, filling the house with the oily scent of orange zest.

Many gardens also boasted an almond tree, usually embroidered with tin foil to scare off the rainbow lorikeets, who tore the nuts of the branches with hooked beak and raucous shrieks of delight, and left us with a confetti of husks beneath the tree. We would pick them too early to beat the rosellas, the soft, pale-skinned, unripe almonds punishing our keen-as-mustard greed with crippling stomach aches.

Then there were sunset-tinted apricots, the fruit of princes, the apricot tree’s fecund branches heavy with fruit, leaning like a weeping willow to the ground. Another back yard favourite that swamped our kitchens for a too-short season with glabrous fruit that dripped juice down our chins, filled jars and jars and jars with thick, oozy jam. Quilts of apricot halves would be laid out on chicken wire trellises to dry in the sun, or, stewed and syrupy, could be hoarded in the cellar and served with icecream.

Pineapples occasionally found their way down south from Queensland, but generally they had been picked too early and were as sour as kamias, in marked contrast to the sickly-sweet canned variety, leaving your tongue feeling uncomfortably furry. Bananas travelled more successfully, and were great for school lunches, even better for cakes once they had become too brown and sleepy to eat straight from the skin and could be miraculously converted into warm slices of fresh, moist buttered banana loaf.

Avocados were all oily, creamy smoothness, rare and expensive and a real luxury. Dad would bring a single avocado home from work as a Friday night treat. It was as serious a moment as Holy Communion, as he sliced it in half, carefully removed the fat, round pip, filled the empty well in the centre with homemade vinaigrette, and spooned it sparingly into our mouths, eager as baby birds. These days, avocados are no longer seasonal, but evergreen at Woolworths, and it is possible to find a number of more exotic tropical fruit in the supermarkets, but forty years ago they were few and far between, we knew not what they were, and generally avoided their strange aromas and highly inflated prices.

Years in England added berries to my basket: raspberries and strawberries and blackberries and gooseberries (pronounced goozbry). Raspberries only appeared for Christmas, to accompany the plum pudding, slathered in brandy cream. The strawberry season was the chance to head out to the local strawberry farm and pick our own until our lips and teeth were vampire-red and our backs ached. Our mums would earn a few extra pennies in the summer term by picking for the farmer while the kids were at school, stripping down to shorts and bras, and coming home more scarlet than the fruit, from sunburn.

Blackberries grew like weeds in the local gravel pits, and we risked fierce scratches in early autumn to gather ice cream containers full of wicked black berries – free fare at a price – which we ate tentatively, alert to the risk of fat white worms dwelling at the core, wary of the mushy putrescent over-ripe ones that you would spit straight out, or those that pretended ripeness but were still wincingly sour. Seamus Heaney described it perfectly in his poem Blackberry-Picking, where he talks of being sent out in late August, “with milk cans, pea tins, jam-pots. Where briars scratched and wet grass bleached our boots… [and] our hands were peppered with thorn pricks, our palms sticky as Bluebeard’s.”  We did the same. Then we would gather in a friend’s kitchen to make dense, bubbling blackberry jam, which we sold at our back garden fêtes. I don’t remember eating it though. The fun was in the hunting. None of us really approved of homemade blackberry jam when there was shop-bought strawberry jam to be had.

Gooseberries – the Eurasian variety – are also a little dangerous to pick, the bushes bearing sharp thorns that seem hardly worth the fight for those marble-like, acerbic, furry green berries… until you taste the tart, but creamy gooseberry fool, and suddenly it is worth all the effort. I learned to make this delectable dessert during my nineteenth summer, in England. I have dreamed of it intermittently since. And I wish I had written this too, Amy Clampitt: “an inkling of the mingling into one experience of suave and sharp, whose supremely improbable and far-fetched culinary embodiment is a gooseberry fool.”

Although just imagine those poor babies born beneath the gooseberry bushes, soft new flesh torn to smithereens by those vicious thorns. What terrifying and twisted midwife invented such a tale?

Since moving to the tropics, I have created more fruit-filled memories, as I discover an astounding number of fruits I have never tasted before. For example, all those unfamiliar citrus fruit with names that roll off the tongue: dayap, dalandan, kalamansi and sagada. Fruits that range in flavour and appearance from the tiny, multi-seeded, and terribly sour kalamansi to the juicy, citrus-sweet dalandan; from the thick skinned, high-fibre pink pomelo (suha) to the lumpy, bumpy kaffir lime.

Then there are those incomparable fruits like the red, rubbery-haired rambutan with its juicy, lychee-like flesh, or the deep purple, palm-sized mangosteens hiding succulent orbs of soft white flesh to be sucked off thick seeds. What about the startling and colourful pitaya or dragon fruit that puts all its efforts into appearance and virtually none into flavour?  Its skin, like soft leather, is a deep pink with green horns, its flesh a black and white version of the seedy green kiwi fruit with less taste. There are the clusters of tiny, legendary lanzones and the giant langka (jack fruit) with its spiky skin that bears a family resemblance to the durian of the rank aroma and ambrosial flavour, but is actually not related at all.

I first came across banana hearts in the market mere moments after landing in the Philippines. I found them absolutely beautiful, but discovered I had neither the skill nor the knowledge for preparing them properly – any advice welcome. Yet I have used the brown-skinned, gritty-fleshed chico to create an interesting variation on the long-suffering banana loaf.

And kamias, an onomatopoeic fruit that makes you purse your lips just to say it. Chef Sau del Rosario tossed one at me many moons ago. I am still squinting.

It has also been an opportunity to discover the taste of a properly ripened pineapple and those fabulous Filipino mangoes. The One & Only has always maligned mangoes, after his childhood experiences of huge, over-ripe, overpowering Fijian mangoes. The Filipino mango is of a completely different caliber. An eighteenth century friar describes it as ‘the most sensuous fruit there is,’ and Fernandez quotes a nineteenth century Jesuit, who claimed that the mango found in Manila was ‘one of the most delicate…in the world, both because of its sweetness and its aromatic smell.’ It is also smaller and thinner than other varieties, its stone almost flat, its skin a pale yellow, its flavour heavenly. Green or yellow, ripe or sour, it is a joyful addition to both salads and smoothies. Although it is an import to the Philippines, it has settled so comfortably and vigorously here that it is has become totally ensconced in Filipino culture.

Originating in Brazil, the piña, or pineapple immigrated to the Philippines long ago on the Spanish galleons, and has since made itself quite at home amongst the hills around Tagatay, luxuriously sweet and firm, unexpectedly ground-dwelling (who else assumed they grew on trees?). The pineapple is a cone-shaped fruit, hence its name (piña is Spanish for pine cone), and the fibrous pineapple leaves can be woven into a fabric also known as piña that is used to make traditional Filipino formal wear.

With a world of fruits to choose from, I could go on for pages, but I will leave the last word to my favourite Australian food writer, Marion Halligan, who says, in her book The Taste of Memory, that ‘tastes and smells transport us, they carry our minds back, we do not so much remember their moments as relive them.’ And so it is with fruit.

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A World of Wine Bars

foodibnw-440x300“A tasty beverage is an adult experience

It’s a clear punctuation mark in life’s daily round
Be it a full stop to a day’s work done
A question mark on what’s to come
Or an exclamation mark as the game’s begun.”

~ Patrick White, Sommelier
South Australia has long been renowned for its premium wines, and its wide variety of wine regions. Today, the Festival State boasts a grand total of eighteen wine regions – I know, because I bought the tea towel! Over the years, I have spent many wonderful, slightly inebriated days roaming though the vineyards of McLaren Vale and the Clare Valley, the Adelaide Hills and the Coonawarra. This summer I got to check out some great wines from a slightly different perspective, as I joined Foodi Tours to explore Adelaide’s burgeoning world of wine bars behind which many of South Australia’s best vintages are lurking.

Foodi provides walking tours through a number of Australian capital cities. If you have a fetish for foreign cuisines, or an infatuation with all things sweet, there is a tour for you. Do chocolate, ice-cream or cupcakes make you salivate? Or do you lust after exotic street food? Or do you simply have an urge to explore a new city from a different angle?

Each destination on the tour was a closely guarded secret, which I should probably not divulge, but that would make treasury-on-king-william-adelaide-restaurants-a1dd-938x704this a very short piece, so with apologies to Anna, off we go. (Despite my lack of conscience at spoiling the surprise, I highly recommend taking the tour anyway, as the guide provides a glass and a half of history with every glass of wine, which definitely adds interest to the afternoon. And how can you go wrong, joining a tour full of people who like to drink wine?)

Our starting point, then, was a wine bar and restaurant on Victoria Square, the epicenter of Adelaide. This handsome old building was once the Treasury, and one of Adelaide’s most significant historical sites. It was here that the government stored the gold that came from the Victorian goldfields, escorted from Mount Alexander, Bendigo, and Ballarat by mounted Police. The Treasury was also the centre of South Australia’s administrative and government affairs for over 130 years.  Now restored and redeveloped as the Medina Grand Hotel, it still houses the former Cabinet Room of the South Australian Government.

Unfortunately, I was running a bit late, so I missed the tour, but I was in time for the first glass of bubbles, a fresh sparkling white wine from a Fleurieu winery, Bay of Stones. (Obviously you will need to be over eighteen to get the most from this tour.)

As we stood in the lovely courtyard garden behind The Treasury,  Anna – our tour guide and a childhood friend – showed off an amazing memory for names, as she introduced me to the entire group without a second’s hesitation. Most of whom, it turned out, were local Adelaideans, keen to uncover secrets about their own city.

Our bubbles having evaporated rather quickly, we wandered on, up Franklin Street, to a tall stone building opposite the bus station. Once the home of the South Australian Stock & Station Journal, it has since been converted into a beautiful bar and restaurant – and the perfect setting for some wedding photos. As we watched the glamorous bridal publisher1party gather round a long refectory table, we were offered some lovely platters of antipasti – olives, prosciutto, grilled bread – and sat back comfortably to watch the wedding show and sip the wines.

The Publishers Hotel boasts an extensive selection of boutique wines. The official wine list is international, but the wines we were offered were mostly South Australian barring one New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. From a choice of four, I willingly paid for a meal in a glass: a rich, fruity, delightfully full-bodied Dolcetto from Heartland at Langhorne Creek.

Dolcetto is a dark-skinned wine grape from Piedmont in northwest Italy, where it is apparently considered of lesser consequence than the more popular Nebbiolo and Barbera. However, it has travelled well to Australia, where it is popular for making into wines that are intensely flavoured and oaky, high in alcohol and low in acidity. For me, it was a top choice.

I then wandered, glass in hand, past the long bar, past the bride and her clutch of bridesmaids, and up some steps at the back, to peek into the restaurant and sneak a look at a menu brimming with hearty, mouthwatering dishes, predominantly seafood and game (spatchcock and quail, venison and kangaroo). The whole place was rather quiet so early in the evening, despite a large bunch of wine tourists and a bridal party (no points for guessing who was louder), but I suspect it has a great atmosphere late in the day.

We eventually left the bride and groom to their somewhat subdued celebrations and headed onwards, ducking downPOS-130936 a side street filled with sleek bridal cars to Waymouth Street, where Anna turned right and led us down a narrow alleyway opposite the Adelaide Advertiser. Press* food & wine is a tall, thin building, with a wooden staircase leading up to a glorious little roof top patio, where I sat peacefully and sipped upon a rather perky rosé. Before we were allowed upstairs, however, the barman gathered us around a corner of his cozy little bar to talk us through a Cabernet Franc from the rather off-puttingly named Dead Mouse Shed – a special little number from a Yarra Valley winery called Denton View Hill.

Cabernet Franc is a black-skinned, cool climate French grape variety grown in many wine producing nations, and most commonly used in blended red wines, where it adds accents of tobacco and dark spice. Alone, this Victorian red it is a light to medium bodied wine, full of blueberries and lots of tannin, a fresh drink-me-now wine that someone described as ‘a really short trip.’ It has been reviewed favourably, and indeed was resoundingly approved by our group, despite its strange name. And apparently it is even better chilled.

We would happily have taken root on the rooftop on that warm summer evening, but Anna had other plans: we had one more bar to visit, and – apparently – it was one I would know. Despite the tip-off, my brain was now feeling pleasantly fuzzy, so it was not until we were standing outside the door of The Apothecary that the penny dropped. Anna and I had visited this unexpectedly classy bar at the bottom end of Hindley Street (literally and figuratively: Hindley Street has been notoriously insalubrious fro decades) on a previous visit.

The Apothecary 1878 Wine Bar & Restaurant opened in December 2002 in a heritage listed building and describes itself as “a true incarnation of a European-style wine bar.” Unlike The Publishers, it has never actually housed an apothecary business, but has been named for the antique pharmacist’s dispensary that graces the front bar of this elegant venue. The story goes that it was discovered at the back of an Adelaide antique shop, buried in dust. Originally imported from London, it is made from mahogany, with crystal drawer handles and gold leaf inscriptions. The whole venue has been recreated as something of a period piece, with marble floor tiles, solid marble and brass tables, antique chaise longues… and, in a cellar with arched ceilings and open brickwork reminiscent of the underground restaurants of Prague, there are hundreds of wines stored behind beautifully intricate wrought iron doors.

downloadWe gathered in an intimate little room above the bar for our last glass of wine together, no one keen to be the first to leave. I chose a Barossa version of my favourite red blend: a 2014 Grenache Shiraz Mourvedre from Sons of Eden. The KENNEDY is a classic blend of old vine Barossa Grenache, Shiraz and Mourvedre varieties, and is named in honour of the family who tended those old vines for decades. Its colour and aroma is black cherry with a hint of plum, spice and apparently even licorice (I didn’t pick that one). The taste was more blackberry and spices, and soft tannins.

Anna and I had planned to join her husband for dinner, and we were delighted when three of our walking companions wanted to join us. So we hot-footed it down Hindley Street, armed with a couple of bottles of Rockford’s delectable Alicante Bouchet Rosé (whose good idea was that?), to the Jerusalem, an old favourite from University days and  still there after all these years.  There we ate too much, while attempting to engage the very dry, very dour waiter, who may have seemed a little morose, but kept us happily eating for hours, and told me, sourly, not to leave it another thirty years to return.

All in all, it was a terrific afternoon’s entertainment, and a great chance to discover new places in Adelaide. Anna’s friendly, casual but knowledgeable approach – and her amazing memory for names – made this a really cohesive tour group. We all got to know each other, and had a fabulous evening. I could only wish the tour had been twice as long. But maybe, now I have spilled the beans, there will be plans afoot for a new secret tour I can try next time..?

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Valentine Wines

20150852-Ripe-grapes-wine-glass-and-bottle-of-wine-isolated-on-white-Stock-PhotoDay-colored wine,
night-colored wine,
wine with purple feet
or wine with topaz blood,
wine, starry child of earth,
wine, smooth as a golden sword,
soft as lascivious velvet,
wine, spiral-seashelled and full of wonder,
amorous, marine;
never has one goblet contained you,
one song, one man,
you are choral, gregarious,
at the least, you must be shared. ~ Pablo Naruda

Valentine’s Day in the Philippines is never going to be an understated affair. In the land of endless occasions, events and celebrations, Valentine’s day is always going to be a Big Deal – after all, it’s more fun in the Philippines – and the malls abound with flowers, cards, chocolates, ribbon, L.O.V.E…

But before we go shopping for love hearts and poetic verses, a little research. Hallmark may think it invented Valentine’s Day in the last century, but in fact, it has been celebrated for much longer than that, and legends and folklore abound. First, 7739019some say, there was Lupercalia, the pagan festival of fertility that was celebrated in mid-February, and some will state that our modern St Valentine’s Day was a Christian attempt to claim/clean up/Christianize a dubious pagan festival, by creating a feast day honoring one or more early – often martyred – catholic Saint Valentines. This tradition was refined in the 14th century, when courtly love flourished, and Chaucer wrote a poem ‘A Parlement of Foules’ that claimed Valentine’s Day for lovers. Romantic Victorians added fuel to the flames with the notion of giving gifts of flowers, confectionary and cards to The Beloved.

No such gifts here, but in true Bacchanalian style we celebrated with the noble grape, and a wine workshop for lovers in Ortigas. The Study is an imaginative little space on Level 4 at the Podium, where Enderun Colleges has recently set up a satellite school for languages, short courses and workshops. To be honest, we have never really availed of Valentine’s Day. The One & Only doesn’t like to be told when to buy me flowers, apparently and I concur that I prefer spontaneity over prescribed bursts of affection. This year, however, after receiving an invitation to a Valentine’s Day wine tasting, we decided to make an exception.

Eight couples gathered together with our guide, Enderun’s Assistant Dean for the College of Hospitality Management, Bel Castro, who provided an hour’s seminar on theimages vocabulary of wine tasting followed by a tasting workshop. I remember my first wine tasting class back in the Middle Ages (the 1980s) when I was given my first tasting wheel. I was riveted. Amusingly this wheel probably wouldn’t work too well in the Philippines because there are too many flavours unfamiliar to Filipino taste buds. Grapes are not grown in the tropics, so most of the taste comparisons are to fruit grown in more temperate climes. And who, here, would know a gooseberry or a plum?

So, with hundreds of wines to choose from, and only three hours to cover it all, Bel wisely decided to introduce us to only seven major wine styles: Chardonnay, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. For each she listed the most common aromas and flavours to recognize, and then provided the relevant fruits for us to try, such as apples, (both green and red), asparagus, beans, cucumber, plum and dried apricot. This way, we were all prepared with a memory of certain tastes and smells, when swirling our first wines.

Our group was an interesting mix: some were first timers at wine tasting, others had tasted plenty, but claimed they knew little about what they were actually drinking. A few, like us, thought we knew plenty. Bel proved we still had a lot to learn. Wines were mostly New World wines from New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, with one rather nice Bordeaux dessert wine putting in an appearance to great acclaim.

With the first three glasses of wine sitting before us, Bel taught us how to taste with the tips of our tongues for sugar,IMG_4271 (2) and with the salivary glands at the back of our mouths for acidity.  Then we began to work on our ability to pick the flavours we had discussed previously: could we taste the typical green apples, lemon and herbaceousness in a glass of Sauvignon Blanc from Marlborough, New Zealand? Did we notice the fresh pineapple and gooseberries of the Chardonnay from Hawkes Bay, with its touch of buttermilk? And was it really car oil and tennis balls in the glass of the Riesling from the Clare Valley?

We compared the barely-there colour of the Sauvignon Blanc to the pale honey colour of the lightly oaked Chardonnay and the in-between, palest yellow of the Riesling. And then we started to experiment with wine and food matches. What went best with the smoked salmon, and why? Why did the Chardonnay and the blue cheese pair up so happily? Didn’t the Sauvignon Blanc make a good palate cleanser, with its short, snappy, zesty flavor?

Then we threw in a late harvest Riesling from the Riverina winemakers at Beelgara estate. (NB: late picked, therefore greater natural sugar development, therefore sweeter wine. In theory.) It didn’t do so well with the smoked salmon, but I could imagine it pairing up beautifully with some creamy salmon sashimi.

Arriving a little prematurely for a standard food menu, Bel nonetheless nudged us towards a deep yellow Bordeaux Sauternes, as it was a good chance to compare relative sweetness. Sauternes is often made from Sauvignon Blanc grapes that have been affected by botrytis cinerea – a fungus known more enticingly as noble rot that enormously increases sugar content in affected grapes and creates highly concentrated dessert wines. It was therefore particularly interesting to taste the difference between this and the young, unaffected, highly acidic Sauvignon Blanc table wine. We threw a lot of lovely descriptors around the table for this one: musty, damp wool, raisins on the vine, lolly water, apricot conserve, oily orange zest, marmalade. With a small caramel cookie to accompany it, it was easy to see how such a wine would pair happily with a wide range of desserts.

Feeling more confident, we then launched into the reds and pinks. Beginning with a South African rosé, aptly named Lazy Days, we observed red apples, lemon curd and cranberry – a comfortable, summer-afternoon half way mark between the zingier whites and the fruitier reds, that we all felt would be perfect with shellfish.

Then we played around with some deeper red wines. Pinot Noir is a cool climate wine associated with the Burgundy region of France, that has done particularly well in New Zealand. This particular Pinot came from Marlborough, on the north eastern tip of the South Island. Bel pointed out that it is a medium intensity red: that is, translucent enough to read our notes through the wine. As the Sauvignon Blanc of red wines, it also has a short memory on the tongue, its colour more reminiscent of red fruit than the purple-blackness of Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon. And it is definitely a drink-me-now wine, rather than one to cellar and revisit later.

PirramimmaStocksHillCabernetMerlotOur last two examples were both intense, full-bodied South Australian reds, from McLaren Vale, brimming with tannin and fruit, and heavy doses of hot sunshine. McLaren Vale has a Mediterranean climate of warm, dry summers, mild winters and sea breezes. Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz grapes thrive here. The One & Only has long been a fan of Cabernet Sauvignon, whereas I have previously tipped in favour of Shiraz, but I swapped allegiances today, much preferring the Pirramimma 2011 Stocks Hill Cabernet Sauvignon to the Mitolo Wines 2011 Jester Shiraz. The Pirramimma Winery was founded in 1892 and is still in the hands of the original family. Its, lovely, lilting name is an Aboriginal phrase meaning “the moon and the stars.” In contrast, Mitolo’s is a relative newcomer, the brain child of Frank Mitolo, a grandson of Italian migrants with a long heritage of farming and wine making, who only made his first wine in 2000. It is a hearty Shiraz, a good one to drink immediately with an equally hearty steak, but today I preferred the surprisingly fruity, but earthier tones of the Cabernet, with its spicy finish.

We compared notes on acidity and tannin, mineral tones and oakiness. We discussed which went better with the meek-and-mild salami, which with the hot, peppery one. We contemplated which wine we preferred with dark chocolate. We emptied our glasses and poured some more. At the end of this friendly, funny, informative session, we were each awarded a certificate of attendance and a pretty heart-shaped lollypop. A thoroughly satisfactory way to celebrate St. Valentine’s Day. He would have been proud.

*With heart-shaped thanks to my One & Only for his photos, and also to Google Images for theirs.

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Wine, Cheese and Charity

ADBSAcheese2So I was about to head home to Manila after a long, hot summer in Australia when I suddenly remembered an unfulfilled promise and the need to raise some funds for the children at Tulay Ng Kabataan (please refer to previous blogs about these great kids). A last minute email or three leads to a plan… to throw together a last-minute wine and cheese party we will hold as soon as I step off the plane. With just enough time to trawl the Adelaide Central Market for interesting cheeses we won’t find in Manila, I spent a fun morning with my mother, collecting as many cheeses and condiments as my bag could hold.

“Say Cheese” is a cheese shop located right in the centre of the market, back to back with “The Smelly Cheese Shop,” so I was spoilt for choice. And I found a friendly and enthusiastic staff member happy to introduce me to some amazing local cheeses, and some not-so-local. I had originally planned to stick with South Australian cheeses, but ended up with a range from different states, simply because I can never walk past Tasmanian Heritage’s luscious ‘Red Square’. I quickly acquired a small mountain of cheese, dried fruits, pâtés and relishes, and prayed they would survive the trip.

I won’t bore you with the dramas of their travel arrangements and the losses we incurred en route, but it was suitably operatic. Luckily we still had enough left to sustain the party, and on Friday afternoon I arrived at a friend’s house in Valle Verde – our venue for the evening – with a shopping bag full of platters and cheese boards and the box of cheeses I had bought in Adelaide only three days before.

The table, once everything arranged, looked fabulous, if I do say so myself, and the Wine Depot team had created an equally tempting arrangement on the balcony with the selection of wines we had chosen the day before. Glasses in hand, we talked through the cheeses on display before everyone arrived, and checked out a video of the kids at TNK to introduce the punters to the little bodies they had come to support.

First, Red Square: a slab of soft brie-like cheese (ever-so-slightly squished) described as a ‘sumptuous, traditionalTNK1 washed rind cheese with a mild earthy aroma and a lingering creamy taste,’ and looking thoroughly decadent in its tangerine-coloured rind. Its soft centre melted rapidly in Manila humidity to a thick, gooey, glossy, custard-like state of euphoria that we scooped up with fresh baguette and topped with a dash of quince paste.  There was only a morsel left by the end of the evening. According to their website, Red Square is best complemented by an ‘earthy red.’ So the Grant Burge 5th Generation Cabernet Merlot 2013 from the Barossa that we had acquired from the Wine Depot was a good match.

Our friendly assistant at the cheese shop had recommended a fresh goat’s cheese,  from Woodside Cheese Wrights. This award winning chèvre is known as the Monet and was looking positively bridal, beautifully  bedecked in edible flower petals. We agreed that the fresh flowers wouldn’t last the distance, so I took a clean one home, where I experimented with a small tub of pink peppercorns, as edible flower petals were nowhere to be found. This variation on a theme proved to be a magical combination with the De Bortoli Deen Vat 1 Durif 2013, the other red on our wine list.  Durif, or Petite Sirah, is a black grape variety that was created by a French botanist in the nineteenth century. No longer much used in France, it became popular with New World winemakers in the 1990s. It creates a plummy, peppery, inky black wine, full-flavoured and full of tannin.
Back at the cheese shop, I was told I must also try La Vera’s ‘AdelBlue.’  La Vera is a cheese company set up by Italian cheese-makers in 1984 in the Adelaide foothills. Well known for its soft cheeses – ricotta, mascarpone, bocconcini – their new “blue butter” is a fabulously creamy blue that melts on your tongue, and was quite superb when spread on the dried peaches I had discovered across the arcade at the ‘Adelaide Nut.’ The One & Only has been a lifelong fan of South Australian dried apricots, but admits the peaches might be even better.

12346507_1136375346374366_7870135238228819126_n‘Watsonia Old Vintage Cheddar’ has apparently been an iconic Western Australian cheese for decades, the sight of which delighted our friend from Perth. Watsonia is a large, solid wheel of textured cow’s milk cheese wrapped in yellow wax that saved it from being squished at the bottom of my suitcase. Sharp and crumbly and surprisingly creamy, it was further enhanced by a touch of a yummy balsamic beetroot relish from ‘Beerenberg’, one of the Adelaide Hills renowned producers of jams and condiments. And it also cosied up comfortably with a St. Hallett’s Eden Valley Riesling 2014, that offered all the citrusy zestiness of a good Riesling, but delivered with a touch more oomph than most.
One cheese that I didn’t bring from Australia but found at the Wine Depot, when I was choosing the wines with Hazel Tolhurst, was an interesting Tasmanian cheddar from Ashgrove, flavoured with Tasmanian-grown wasabi for an added sparkle.  It certainly went down extremely well with our Japanese guests! And it brought along a friend: Ashgrove’s ‘Mr. Bennett’s Blue': a strong, bitey, heavily veined blue cheese in stark contrast to the soft, creamy, lightly veined ‘Adelblue.’ Mr. B.’s Blue went down very smoothly with a green tomato relish or topped with a couple of dried-on-the-vine raisins. And the wasabi matched up nicely with a De Bortoli Deen Vat 2 Sauvignon Blanc 2014 from the Riverina in South Australia. Thanks to the generous servings of sun in that part of the world, this Sauvignon Blanc had an aroma a little more floral than grassy, and flavours a bit more tropical than citrus: generally a softer sip than the usual cooler climate SBs.

Are you watering at the mouth or feeling all cheesed out? I am almost done, but I can’t go before I mention the Onkaparinga Triple Cream Brie. Onkaparinga was a household name formerly associated with blankets. Today, a range of cheeses is handmade in the heritage listed building that was once the home to the Onkaparinga WoollenTNK3es Mills in the Adelaide Hills. I could find  very little about this latest addition to the growing nursery of Triple Creams, but regardless of its mysterious identity it is divinely creamy and seems to be finding its way onto the cheese boards of discerning restaurants around Australia. Well worth a nibble, and all the better for a sip of St Hallett’s Riesling.

So there. Done. A highly satisfactory, high-cholesterol evening passed to great effect for both the cheese-loving community of Manila, and TNK, who will benefit handsomely from our obsession with dairy. Self-indulgence for a good cause.  “Smile! Say cheese!”

* With thanks to a positive plethora of photographers for allowing me to use their photographs: my One & Only; Colin Campbell, and Emily Silverman.

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