Stream of Consciousness

IMG_0089 (2)Earlier this year, back home in Manila, the Metropolitan Museum held a fascinating and unusual exhibition. “Tapas: Spanish Design for Food,” presented by Accion Cultural Espanola, the Instituto Cervantes Manila and the Spanish Embassy, was a display of food, kitchen implements and dining utensils used by some of the top Spanish restaurants specializing in degustation menus, where food is served up in small, bite-sized portions, like tapas. As pica pica are to the Philippines, so are tapas to the Spanish: small bar snacks or platters served with a glass of wine. Tapas come in all shapes and sizes and prices, from a dish of hot patatas bravas to sizzling slices of chorizo, croquettes to calamares, sardines to slices of jamón. Legends abound on the origin of tapa, but the most commonsensical one suggests that King Alfonso X, known as El Sabio or “The Wise One,” wanted to ensure that innkeepers were serving their customers both food and wine to soak up the alcohol and prevent drunk and disorderly behavior.

The Tapas exhibition was an elaborate feast of culinary design with a hearty sprinkle of imagination, quirky humour and whimsy: a foosball table cum dining table; a serving platter in the shape of a painter’s palette; some tongue-in-cheek graphic designs on regional wine labels; an aluminium plate that resembled a slice of toast; a fruit bowl made from a recycled net bag for oranges; a ceramic, scented ‘madeleine’ – the Parisian cake that evoked Proust’s childhood memories. I found myself wishing for a ‘library’ that would lend me an assortment of creative crockery for my next dinner party.

The curator had done a marvelous job of explaining the thought processes and the uses of the various items and implements, explaining that “top flight Spanish cuisine as practiced by elBuli, el Celler de Can Rocca  and Mugaritz… [is] experiencing an international boom in which design has become a constant ally in the quest for development and innovation.” I wandered back and forth for ages, each time round noting some fascinating piece I had missed before.

The exhibition went hand in hand with the 2016 edition of Madrid Fusion Manila (MFM). This international MFMgastronomy congress originated in Madrid, but last year the organizers were persuaded to relocate to Manila. I attended the inaugural event at SMX Convention Centre, and experienced an amazing and novel culinary collaboration between Spain and the Philippines. The conference featured ten Michelin star chefs from Spain and Asia, and ten of our best Filipino chefs in what became “an exhilarating gastronomic conversation between the Philippines and Spain,” in which traditional culinary techniques were reinvented and the latest innovations were explored. This year, to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the Galleon Trade that linked Asia with Europe and South America, the conference was entitled ‘The Manila Galleon: East Meets West’ and the conversation was expanded to include chefs from Peru and Mexico.

One of the guest speakers was Joan Roca who, with his two brothers, has earned 3 Michelin stars for their restaurant el Celler de Can Roca. The MFM website waxed lyrical about this ‘lord of the kitchen’ and his ‘bastion of contemporary cuisine par excellence,’ who perfectly combines ‘traditional classic cuisine, the food from his region, with the most advanced techniques’. The three brothers have worked together for thirty years, and Joan is quoted as saying We collaborate on everything.”  French-English chef Michael Roux OBE has described it as “one of the top restaurants in Europe” and renowned food critic A.A. Gill called it “an outstanding kitchen, and part of the great confident wave of ‘technically exhausting’ Spanish food.” The restaurant was awarded its first Michelin star in 1995, a second in 2002, and the third in 2009. Last year, el Celler de Can Roca was flagged as the world’s premier restaurant at the 2015 “World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards,” a list compiled by a panel of global industry experts.

Much to my disappointment I was not in Manila in April to attend this year’s MFM event, but I was lucky enough to be in Spain this summer, just in time to join some good friends from Manila on their annual pilgrimage to this exceptional restaurant in Girona, just north of Barcelona.

The Roca brothers are Joan, head chef; Josep, sommelier, and Jordi, patisserie chef in charge of desserts. The brothers first opened their restaurant, a joint venture, in 1986, not far from their family’s bar and restaurant. Their parents opened the original Can Roca in 1967, and growing up in the restaurant initially sparked the boys interest in cooking. Later, the three brothers would take a five-week trip to North and South America which inspired them to blend the Americas with the Mediterranean. And it was apparent that his trip to the Philippines has also influenced Joan’s menu, with glimpses of Filipino ingredients. In a recent interview with the UK’s Evening Standard, Joan is quoted as saying “I always take something from the places I visit back to our restaurant, sometimes in a conscious way, sometimes in an unconscious way among the memories.”

In 2007 el Celler de Can Roca made a hundred metre journey to its current, purpose built restaurant where modern and traditional concepts are reflected in both the building and the cooking. The kitchen is located on the ground floor of the original old building, the dining room is an alluring blend of space, simplicity and light with glass walls, uncluttered tables and a large, triangular atrium in the centre, filled with angular saplings. Three stones sit on each table to represent the three brothers.

Arriving early, I was able peek into the well-ordered kitchens before the lunch service got too busy. Thirty chefs were quietly working to plate up some of the seven to seventeen dishes on the two degustation menus: Classic or Feast. Joan has an open plan office by the entrance, well-stocked with cookery books, where he can keep a close eye on all the activity. Today, all three brothers were in attendance, so I was able to meet them all, albeit briefly, in the course of the afternoon.

As we settled at our table, our waiter presented us with two encyclopedia sized wine lists, one for red wines, one for white, which left me completely gobsmacked, and wishing I had done some weight lifting practice beforehand. Pages and of red wines, pages of white, primarily Spanish and French, with a slight nod to some of the best New World wines. So, sipping on a cold, crispy cava, we waited with baited breath for the first dish. We had chosen to indulge in the daunting fourteen course menu, ‘Feast’ although my teenage namesake wisely selected the Classic menu with only seven clourses. Both menus make much use of local ingredients from Catalonia, and Joan introduces some fascinating flavour combinations combined with a strong element of molecular gastronomy and some truly incredible and elegant presentations. I am not exaggerating to say that el Celler de Can Roca is on the cutting edge of scientific, culinary, and creative innovation. It was quite an extraordinary spectacle, in a way that made me think of Dorothy landing in Oz and suddenly her black and white world turned into a technicolour fantasy.

The performance began with a round paper lampshade encasing a miniature hat rack. Well, that’s what it looked like. Introduced as a bit of a game, this showstopper was called The World, and included five amuse bouche, each providing flavours from different countries. The game was to identify which five countries were represented. The countries can vary, apparently, but our version was Thailand, Peru, Korea, China and Japan and I am proud to say I got them all right.

Girona (1)The next course was literally a piece of theatre, in honour of the Rocas favourite bar in the suburbs of Girona. We were presented with a white cardboard stage set, decorated with photographs of the three brothers, with five more amuse bouche laid out on tiny cardboard tables, including a pomelo pink ball that melted on the tongue, and filled our mouths with Campari. It felt like something from Honeydukes, the magical sweet shop in Hogsmeade.

When I was wandering through the kitchens at El Celler, one of the things that caught my eye was a counter covered  in twisted, bonsai, olive trees. A single tree was now brought to the table and placed in the centre. From the knotted branches hung several small olives. Only they weren’t olives, but tiny balls of olive ice cream in a creamy green coating similar to that on a Magnum. For some reason it brought to mind song about the Partridge in a Pear Tree.

With every dish there was an unexpected twist, and I enjoyed the focus on eye-catchingGirona (3), creative presentation, especially in light of the exhibition in Manila. Three white asparagus tips sprinkled in tiny white elderflowers encircled a dollop of what appeared to be – and tasted like – ice cream but was described on the menu as a ginger and acacia honey hollandaise sauce. Another looked like a small, fat donut or bunt cake on a tactile, matt black plate, but tasted like apple Danish, with an unexpectedly lush base of duck liver. In fact an apple timbale, the apple and foie gras was an immensely satisfying flavour combination. And then, surprise, surprise, the slice of grey toast we had Girona (2)admired in the Metropolitan six weeks earlier appeared in front of us, on which sat four ping pong balls, each topped with a thin slice of mushroom, labelled St. George mushroom brioche and bonbons.

Seafood played a starring role in many of the courses. For example, a fat pink starfish, which turned out to be a delicate and dreamy prawn mousse, arrived on a seaweed wafer, arranged on a strip of fisherman’s net.

After a solid run of seafood, a welcome change of pace in the shape of a neat slice of Iberian suckling pig, complete Girona (7)with crackling, accompanied by a tropical salad of green papaya, pomelo, coriander, chilli and lime, a definitive nod to Joan’s recent visit to the Philippines. Ridiculously – I had only been away a few weeks –  the familiar flavours made me positively nostalgic. A couple more meat dishes followed, before the unexpected arrival of a platter of red sorbet noses – yes, really – as a palate cleanser before dessert, with a definite aroma and flavour of the Eastern Mediterranean.  Potpourri mixed with Turkish delight? More specifically, rosewater and pistachio. And apparently the model for these large noses is Jordi’s own.

Girona (8)The most interesting of the three desserts that followed was, without a doubt, “Orange colourology.” How to describe this is proving difficult, and I am getting no help from the menu which is remarkably lacking on description, so please excuse my somewhat awkward efforts, as I attempt to explain. It looked like a large, single orb of frog spawn, resting on a bed of grated carrot. (I would absolutely adore to know how this was created, but cannot begin to imagine.) The opaque golden globe seemed to be made of sugar, and we were told to crack it like a soft boiled egg, or a miniature piñata. When opened, a confetti of coloured petals – pansies – drifted out, and underneath sat a pile of light and refreshing orange flavoured sorbet balls, a little smaller than the polystyrene balls in a beanbag.

Some four or more hours later, we retired to the lovely outdoor courtyard, to relax under the trees with tiny caste iron pots of tea and dishes of petit fours or mignardises: macarons; almond-shaped financiers; and a glamorous, golden truffle, like a Ferrero Rocher chocolate in an edible gilded coat, all of which we had observed earlier on a dessert trolley that looked like something the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang would have loved. And our fantasy lunch was over, and we were back in Kansas.

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The Chequers, The Chasers and a Country Market

IMG_0678While everyone here has been complaining that the English summer has been grim, with endless pouring rain and much flooding, since I arrived two weeks ago, the weather has been sublime and, thanks to all that rain, the countryside is blooming and exuberantly, gloriously green.  I have wandered over heathland and through beechwoods, down country lanes and across wheat fields, up hills and down dales, and almost worn holes in my walking boots. Along the way I have passed many a country pub.  And let’s face it, England is bursting at the seams with them, for the British public house has long been an ubiquitous part of the landscape. I even went looking for a couple of old favourites.

Since the 1970s my family have often, if intermittently, driven down to the tiny Kentish hamlet of Heaverham (pronounced hee-ver-um), past sunshine-yellow rape  that fills broad fields with gay abandon, past prim rows of strawberries at Stonepitts Farm, dodging walkers who wander merrily down the narrow, twisting lanes thickly bordered with hawthorn hedges. A small oast house (a Kentish barn in which to dry the hops for making beer) stood crumbling at the crossroads for years and we would risk our necks to clamber up the rickety wooden staircase on the outer wall. Since then it has been salvaged from rack and ruin and converted into a pretty and somewhat unorthodox home with its roundel and conical roof like an inverted ice-cream cone.

Around the bend is a large meadow dotted with tiny white daisies and wooden picnic tables, some stray rose bushes, a murky pond, a large carpark, and a small,  squat, sixteenth century pub, its doorstep flush with the edge of the road, its outer walls covered thickly in Virginia creeper.   A black and white sign depicts two men, in jackets and ties, playingChequers (2) chequers. Inside, there is a small public bar to the left and a smaller bar overlooking a cosy dining room to the right. The ceilings are low and the thick wooden beams are decorated with copper pots and pans. Local artists bedeck the wattle and daub walls with paintings of country scenes and wildflowers, bronze oil lamps squat on the deep window sills and low beams clatter unwary heads. Little has changed since my childhood except the management, although the pond has been fenced off to save any small and adventurous paddlers from taking an unexpected swim. And the menu offers a solid selection of staunchly British pub fare such as steak and kidney pudding, haddock and chips, Eton Mess and bread and butter pudding, all of which we happily consume for a birthday lunch.

Heading five miles south, to Stumble Hill in Shipbourne – pronounced shih-bun – at the foot of a greensand ridge, I find another old favourite, bejewelled with brightly coloured hanging baskets. The Chasers Inn overlooks the road to Plaxtol and the broad village green. At the back of the beer garden  rises the square tower of the nineteenth century church of St Giles. Both church and pub were built by then owner of the local Fairlawne Estate, Edward Cazalet. I have been dropping in here since our oldest was tiny, so small that she could slip through the kissing gate and get lost amongst the corn in the field behind the churchyard. And it is good to see it is as popular as ever.

On a balmy summer evening, we find a table beneath a weeping willow in the beer garden, and watch small children potter round the lawn as we sip our G&Ts and nibble our way through two sharing platters, piled high with cheese and cornichons, garlic sausage and pastrami. The church clock behind us dongs dolefully on the hour, every hour and the sun sinks oh-so-slowly towards the ridge. Inside there are several eating areas, including a long dining room with a vaulted timber ceiling and a patio that once provided more open-air dining, but has now been elegantly roofed with frosted glass: a nod to England’s unpredictable climate. In winter we have cuddled up beside roaring log fires, surrounded by book shelves and a busy central bar.

Should you be passing through Shipbourne on a Thursday morning there is a great little market at the church, with a selection of stalls lining the path to the double lychgate, where the vicar once greeted the coffins heading for the shady cemetery beside the church. The lychgate, like the church, is Victorian and both are grade II listed, which means that it may not be demolished, extended or altered without special permission from the local planning authority.  Some of the Shipbourne3gravestones are much older, as the original church on this site was built in the 14th century, was completely rebuilt in 1722 and again  in 188o. Apparently one tomb, dated 1714, tells of the servant of a local parishioner who lost his life in a dismal manner to the grief of all his friends [said to have been shot]. 

Back at the market, we meander round the stalls. Boughton Alpaca sells hand knitted hats and jumpers, and the stall holder is still knitting as she chats to passers-by. Annabelle from Renhurst Farm sells my friend’s favourite ham, as well as sausages, pies and quiches, beef, pork and lamb. There are fresh fish, fresh vegetables and fresh flowers. Our wicker basket is soon a positive bouquet of colour: rosy tomatoes, deep red cherries, and a delicious bunch of electric blue cornflowers and bright orange Californian poppies.

Inside the church, more stalls have been set up on boards that straddle the pews, displaying local honey and cheeses, duck eggs and cupcakes, homemade breads and pickles, jams and cobnut oil. I am packing up and moving on tomorrow, but can’t resist carrying off a couple of pretty cupcakes sprinkled with edible glitter. We are heading home for a breakfast of scrambled eggs and Annabelle’s ham, but we could have popped back to the Chasers who provide a full English breakfast and friendly service on market day.

 

 

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Lyon, Gastronomic Capital of France

Lyon (8)Lyon,  a city of churches and bridges, “trompe l’œil” and Roman ruins, sits cosily on the confluence of the Rhone and the Saone rivers in central France. Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is also a city renowned for its cuisine and gastronomy.  Lyon was first pronounced the world capital of gastronomy in 1935, by a famous French food writer, Maurice Edmond Sailland (better known by his nom de plume ‘Curnonsky’) and the title has stuck.  But Lyon has long been connected with a love of quality food.

In the sixteenth century, the Florentine chefs of the new Italian Queen, Catherine de Medici, prepared dishes from fresh, regional produce, thus introducing many regional specialities to the Court. With its central location, Lyon soon became the culinary crossroads for food purveyors and regional cuisines. Working class cooks did not waste any part of the animals they butchered, and their fondness for offal is reflected in the local dishes that began to evolve. For a while, it also divided them from the more expensive tastes of the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, who could afford to be more finicky about their food.

Then, during the industrial revolution of the eighteenth century, a number of female cooks – les mères lyonnaises – started leaving the kitchens of the bourgeoisie to establish their own eating houses with an emphasis on simple home cooking – and of course, offal – where they provided meals for the growing working classes. Eventually, the bourgeoisie came to frequent these establishments too, and the reputation of les mères lyonnaises was spread further abroad.

Eugénie Brazier, the first female chef to earn three Michelin stars way back in 1933, and the first ever French chef to earn three Michelin stars for two restaurants simultaneously, was trained by one of the most renowned of these, MèreLyon (9) Filliou. She in her turn, would train local celebrity chef Paul Bocuse, currently considered the Ambassador of French cuisine thanks to his award winning development of nouvelle cuisine. Bocuse has several restaurants in and around Lyon: a chain of brasseries – Nord, Sud, Est and Ouest – and the prestigious L’Auberge du Pont de Collonges, which boasts three Michelin stars. L’Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon is recognized as one of the country’s top culinary and hospitality schools, and Bocuse also gave his name to the covered food market, Les Halles de Lyon, home to top quality, top priced gourmet food since 1971. The Bocuse d’Or has long been amongst the most prestigious culinary awards in the world.

The Lyonnaises, like the Filipinos, love to eat out and there are myriad restaurants across the city, including many bouchons that serve traditional Lyonnaise cuisine, and what I heard one food writer describe as ‘nose-to-tail dishes’.

I knew none of this, the day we jumped from the tram to lunch at Brasserie Georges, a restaurant that has stood the test of time – one hundred and eighty years’ worth – and is apparently one of the largest brasseries in Europe as well as the oldest. Originally located on the cross roads where the stage coaches passed, the Alsatian owner later persuaded town authorities to build the main railway station next door. Here, on a nineteenth century red leather banquette, we caught up on all the news over a carafe of Cote du Rhone and fois gras. Restyled in 1924 in Art Deco, with artwork using food related themes, Brasserie Georges it now a piece of Lyonnaise culinary and architectural heritage.

Lyon (3)The next day we wandered through the lovely tree-lined streets of Haussmann’s Presqu’île and along Rue de Marroniers or Road of the Chestnut Trees. Isn’t that poetic? This narrow cobbled street is lined, not only with  trees but with an endless string of quaint little cafes and restaurants. We eventually came to a halt at ‘Chabert and Fils,’ where the menu was overflowing with such local delicacies as tripe sausages (andouilettes), black pudding and lambs’ brains. I passed over a dish of veal head and tongue – tête de veau sauce gribiche – in favour of a set menu that included a dozen snails (escargots) heavily doused in garlic and parsley (persillage) and sizzling frogs’ legs (grenouilles) that looked – and tasted – like mini buffalo wings, and were also swimming laps around the plate in a sea of garlic.

Trying to break into the snail shells proved to be a skill I had to learn on the spot or starve. Armed with a two-pronged cocktail fork and a pair of tongs that looked suspiciously like an eyelash curler, apparently I had to grip the shell firmly in the tongs while digging the fork down into the mouth of the shell to hook the snail, before twisting and tugging it out like a reluctant booger. Slick with garlic butter, the shells kept sliding out of my grip until I was shown how to pinch the tongs tightly at the neck. Some of the snails had buried themselves so deeply in their shells that it proved more efficient, if less sophisticated, to crack a hole in the shell and smuggle the snail out through the back door. It was a lot of effort for a morsel of rather rubbery gastropod that tasted primarily of garlic, and was swallowed down like an oyster.  Arriving in a sizzling hot dish, the frogs’ legs proved equally as tricky I nibbled around tiny bones for a skerrick of meat while the butter cascaded down my fingers. While I was much amused by my own untidy efforts, I had overdosed on garlic long before I had finished eating the generous heap of Kermit’s limbs. Luckily a carafe of the local wine helped to wash away the dominant taste of garlic.

There was an interesting tale behind these carafes or ‘pots.’ Still used to serve wine in the traditional Lyonnaise
ecf-pots-lyonnais-001818restaurants or ‘bouchons,’ the ‘Pot Lyonnais’ holds only 460ml instead of the standard half litre. In past centuries, local silk weavers received half a litre of wine daily (or weekly, depending on who is telling the story) as part of their wages, decanted from a large barrel into individual bottles. However, corrupt employers decided to claim a glass for themselves out of every 50cl they gave away by serving it up in a bottle ‘trimmed’ to 46cl by a thick glass base. Very cheeky!

On day three we caught the metro across town and walked up the hill through the old silk weavers district on the steep, staircase-ridden slopes of Croix-Rousse, where we discovered the historic passageways or traboules. These narrow passageways are public short-cuts through the middle of buildings that link streets on either side. We also found a number of pretty plazas, broad and leafy, edged with restaurants. Eventually we paused for lunch and I had my last chance to try some traditional Lyonnaise dishes. The starter was a moreish and meaty terrine de campagne, served with cornichons (those tiny pickled gherkins).

At cookery school I learned to make quenelles with teaspoons spoons, usually bite-sized, like gnocchi tossed into a bisque as a garnish. This quenelle was huge and heavy, and shaped like a small rugby ball, or, more traditionally, tétons de Vénus (‘breasts of Venus’).  Quenelles are made from fish forcemeat, poached and paddling in a shallow bath of lightly flavoured lobster bisque.  With the consistency and texture of polenta, the quenelle makes a hearty lunch, the word is apparently derived from the German word for dumpling: knödel.

Lyon (2)Deciding we would need to share as the best way to taste as much as possible, my friend chose the quenelle, while I ordered the saucissons pistache. These are fat, pink, pork sausages studded with pistachios and served with boiled potatoes, in this case, a popular local variety known as amandine. Personally, I would have liked a pot of mustard, an apple sauce or fruit chutney to accompany this rather dry sausage, but it was, nonetheless, very tasty. In the meantime, my vertically challenged gourmands (aged seven and nine) were hoeing into their favourite steak tartare, emboldening the raw beef with lashings of Tabasco sauce. By the time they were done, their plates had been licked clean.

Dessert was a choice of crème caramel or fromage blanc faiselle, a soft, local, fresh cheese like a firm natural yoghurt, sweetened with a strawberry sauce, (or perhaps honey). I chose the cheese, and it was just what I like: a savoury, slightly sour cheese splashed with a sweet, fruity sauce. And a coffee. Not to mention the last of the summer wine – red white and rosé.  After our liberal doses of Lyonnaise cuisine, we retired, ironically, to a good old English pub on the banks of the Rhone, to drink Aperol Spritz and play card games till closing time. The Elephant & Castle is at the foot of the old town (la vieille ville), and British expatriates gather here daily. At least until the EU boot them back behind their own borders…

 

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La Piccola Cucina Italiana

la piccolacucina6It is lunchtime. Well, four o’clock actually, but this is Spain, where ‘time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so,’ to quote Einstein and Douglas Adams. The tiny garage restaurant at the crossroads is packed to the gunnels. The owner is apologetic but there is nowhere to squeeze us in, and dinner is fully booked too. He does have space outdoors for dinner, but the weather is not promising, he warns us, indicating the looming clouds. We wave off regrets and promise to try again another time.

The storm arrives early, and drenches us to the bone as we clamber frantically up endless steps and over the hill to our B&B. We arrive like the proverbial drowned rats, looking as if we have swum the last lap.  The supermercat is closed, the cupboard is bare, it has been a long day and we haven’t the energy to haul ourselves into the city. What to do?

Half an hour later, the sun emerges, victorious, and there is not a sign of a single cloud. The windows are open wide, a breeze wafts through the cumquat trees and the grape vines. We drape our sodden clothes over the washing line outside the kitchen window and wonder if our shoes will ever dry.By half past eight the snacks we grabbed from the tabac at four o’clock have vanished like the clouds and we are eager for dinner. The sun is still up, the air is warm, so we decide to try the little Italian place again.

Sant Cugat del Vallès is a small town in the hills above Barcelona. Only twenty minutes on the train to the top of La Rambla, it feels a million miles from the hustle and bustle of the city. Tattoos, dreadlocks and nose piercing seems to be the order of the day. Steep hillsides are thickly coated in trees and terracotta-tiled roof tops peek out through the foliage. Fruit trees, bees and kitchen gardens abound. We almost run into a wild boar and her scrappy pack of piglets. The air is clear and calm, the roads narrow and winding like tangled wool. We have only three days, but time drifts and it feels like we have been here for weeks, as we potter back down the hill to the crossroads.

Customers gather at the door of Restaurante Piccolo Cucina Italiana for a final puff on their cigarettes before dinner. la piccolacucina4There is room for perhaps sixteen inside, and the one outdoor table has already been reserved, huddling under a makeshift pergola, like a bus shelter on the edge of the pavement. The owner is apologetic but there is nowhere to squeeze us in. There is a sense of déjà vu. But wait a moment. He will arrange another table for us, if we can wait a few minutes. We all beam.

Sure enough, like magic a plastic trestle table appears next door in the owner’s front garden, decked out with cutlery, tumblers, an umbrella, two kerosene heaters (for which we will be immensely grateful when the sun finally sets), and a rescue dog called Troll, an excitable black Labrador who is delighted to have our company. We have shaken hands with Vittorio, who ‘once came from Naples,’ and we have agreed that a tasting menu is perfectly acceptable, especially at twenty euros per head (cash only). In fact, we are thrilled not to have to make any decisions, happy to sit back and relax and wait for whatever comes to the table. He even chooses our wine, and a waiter promptly arrives with short, squat tumblers and a bottle of sparkling red Lambrusco that tastes uncannily like bubbly Ribena, it is so fruity and full of blackcurrant. Life is looking good.

We wait in anticipation, admiring the graffiti on the outer wall of the garage, a myriad messages of appreciation for wonderful meals past. Troll entertains us with his eager antics, as we sit amongst pansies, plum trees, fairy lights and two huge motorbikes. A waiter arrives with a basket of Italian bread, the centre soft as featherdown, the crust gratifyingly crunchy.

la piccolacucina3Vittorio returns with two plates of antipasti: a satisfying display of texture, colour and taste. We gather up our forks and bread and dip into an orb of creamy burrata onto which we sprinkle – sparingly – a pinch of grey truffle salt. There is a serving of tiny gnocchi mixed with spinach, pecorino and fagoli (white kidney beans),  another of fagioli in a fresh tomato sauce, and melanzane (eggplant) that looks and tastes like mince pie mix, sweet and nutty, the melanzane still slightly firm to add texture. We have never tasted eggplant like this before – neither caponata nor the melanzane fritters that we favour at our place – but I must ask for the recipe. And finally a zesty serve of red peppers, anchovies and olives that we heap onto bread and garnish with buffalo mozzarella and rocket.

The temperature is dropping, but the heaters and the Lambrusco keep us warm, and the arrival of hot pasta is timely. Vittorio leaves us some space to digest the appetizers before arriving with a bowl of white bolognese with fresh fettucine. While I am familiar with the classic ragù alla bolognese, none of us have come across ragù bianco before, but it is an instant hit, and one I will certainly try to replicate at home. Lacking the usual and liberal dose of red tomatoes, the sauce requires just a smidgen of tomato paste, the whiteness created from a blend of ricotta and parmesan cheese. The flavor is still rich, yet somehow lighter than the traditional bolognese. We have barely finished competing to scrape the bowl clean with our last pieces of bread when the next pasta dish shows up. Rigatoni and melanzane, thick with melted cheese, it tastes like moussaka, the cheese trailing from bowl to plate like spider’s silk. Penultimately, a third bowl of pasta: short pasta tubes (ditalini? calamarata?) tossed together with fennel sausages in a spinach and tomato sauce. (The children may have got a mouthful.)

We aren’t convinced we have room for dessert, but Vittorio insists on bringing us one to share.  Too full to argue, la piccolacucina7we are soon sitting, spoons in hand, before an extra-large cannolo, – that popular Sicilian pastry – this one served hot and drizzled with hot chocolate sauce. Having had more than my fair share of the pasta dishes, I am happy to leave this one to the kids, while I sip on a tiny cup of espresso that I will regret at 3am, but keeps me warm for now.

Simple, small, and delightfully unassuming, Restaurante Piccola Cucina Italiana is a novel and quite delicious experience, literally and metaphorically, that lives up to the Italian reputation for quality food and generous hospitality. We come away replete and happy, feeling we have found a new friend and enjoyed una casa lontano da casa: a home away from home.

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An Old Casino and a Catalonian Thunderstorm

It is a Thursday night in Pals, a small town in Catalonia, just a few miles inland from the Costa Brava in northern Spain. The bar down the road is celebrating its 50th birthday with bunting and beer and cheerful carousing. The street is filled music and laughter, small children and happy people.

On the corner, twenty metres from the revellers and 100 metres up the road from our hotel, there is a corner house with a pretty cobbled courtyard, heavy metal gates, wrought iron railings and a huge magnolia tree. Inside is a cosy, ‘pub-ish’ restaurant, Antica Casino, cluttered with small tables and comfy chairs. Upstairs there is a series of private rooms with tall, shuttered windows and tiled floors in apricot and grey.  Off one of these rooms is a broad balcony, with room for perhaps a dozen people to sit amongst the rooftops on a balmy summer evening.

Tonight it is not so balmy, and there are huge black storm clouds looming over the Mediterranean. Lightening dives regularly, gleefully at the water. Apart from a very brief, very localized splash of rain, the storm doesn’t touch us, but the lightening scarring the sky on the horizon keeps us riveted to the view. We spend a few minutes out on the balcony, admiring the distant storm, before retiring to warmer climes within.

We are six to dinner, tucked into a small room with a large refectory table overlooking the balcony through shutteredPals04 French doors. Energy levels are low. We have just walked through the glorious medieval hilltop town of Pals with its beautiful butter-coloured, roughly hewn stone, fourth century towers and narrow cobbled alleys. In Spanish fashion, and despite the disarmingly bright sky above the town, it is getting late. We need food.

For our friends, summer-time locals, Antica Casino is a regular haunt they have chosen again, and we are happy to follow their lead, despite the visual temptations of some picturesque little cafés and restaurants in the old town. It turns out to be a wise concession.  We settle in with a terrific gin and tonic garnished liberally with juniper berries and lemon. (Tomorrow night, when I drop in for a drink with my daughter, the smiling bar maid will bring the ingredients to a small side table in the courtyard and concoct the G&T in front of us, pouring the tonic theatrically down a cinnamon stick into the glass, which she will then garnish with orange peel and ginger. We will sip it gently under the magnolia tree, decked out in paper lanterns and candle light.)

Now we are hungry and the G&T is put aside while we make some choices about la comida. There are some popular Spanish dishes, and a number of Catalan specialties. We duck and weave indecisively through the menu, only to decide that a selection of tapas dishes is the obvious starting point, and the staff are soon delivering tempting little Antica Casino5baskets and platters to share. We delve into a box full of fat, round, ham croquettes that are much favoured by our fourteen-year-old friend, and a terracotta dish of firm, plump prawns swimming in garlic butter. A plate of wafer thin tuna carpaccio is dressed with fingernail-sized red radish leaves, ginger and sesame seeds and served with wasabi ice-cream that proves a surprisingly effective combination of taste and texture. A tin lunch box brims with crispy, fried Mediterranean sand eels – sonsos in Catalan – that look and taste like whitebait, especially when liberally doused in lemon juice, and we eat them like shoelace fries. By the handful. My One & Only would have devoured them if he could have been here. Instead Number Two Son and I eat his share. And finally, a dish of crustaceans, baby langoustines, called cigalas: slim prawns with long, crab-like nippers provide little eating and much waste, but sucked out through our teeth, they prove well worth the effort of messy hands and dripping chins. In the blink of an eye all the plates are empty of everything but the detritus of the langoustines. I sit back, replete and satisfied. I would have – shouldAntica Casino6 have – happily stopped there, with perhaps just room to share one more dish of garlic prawns. Instead – will I never learn? –   I read through the menu again. Encouraged by our enthusiastic host, I sway between the turbot and the chicken cooked in Guinness. “All is good,” mine host insists, and our waiter agrees, but recommends the fish in particular. In the light of my fading appetite I decide una pequeña pieza fish would be perfect. I am subsequently served up with a fillet the size of a house brick, with al dente asparagus and local rice – ‘arroz de Pals’ – cooked to resemble polenta, but lighter. My neighbour chooses the polpo (octopus), my son a high rise burger with fois gras, and my namesake, her favourite macaroni cheese. All are greeted with delight and hearty appetites.

Our host chooses a local wine from Garriguella in the Empordà region, just forty five minutes north of pals.  The 2012 Finca Malaveina is a single vineyard wine from the Perelada winery, but not a single grape. It is a happy blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Syrah with a 12% splash of Garnatxa Negra, the Spanish name for Grenache. A deep, dark, cherry colour, with plenty of tannin, red fruit flavours and a whisper of balsamic and spice, it is well worth lingering over.

After all that, I had absolutely no room for dessert, but our host chooses to share with his wife what amounts to a deconstructed cheese cake: a squat jam jar two thirds full of whipped Philadelphia cream cheese topped with crushed chocolate chip cookies.

Saying farewell to our lovely friends and the affable, cordial restaurant staff, we wander the short distance home to bed. I would happily visit Pals again, if only for the simple joy of eating under the magnolia tree at Antica Casino. Buon provecho, as they say in Spain.

*Photos care of Google Images, #2 Son and Yours Truly.

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“I can see clearly now…”

lorenzo-mattotti-salute-aperol_i-G-26-2610-72SVD00ZLast weekend, in a bustling café on a boulevard in the south of France, I watched two trays of Aperol Spritz heading to neighbouring tables, where diners were keen to kick off with a little splash of sunshine before brunch. As the sun glittered on the sea, and justified the moniker Côte d’Azur, I was more than a little tempted to join them.

Aperol. It sounds like a headache tablet or something to settle a queasy stomach. The latter is closer to the truth than you might imagine. It is, in fact, an inviting, bright orange alcoholic beverage, whose name comes from the French word apero, a slang term for apéritif, that pre-dinner drink to enhance the appetite.  This particular apéritif is made from a recipe that includes both orange, gentian, rhubarb and cinchona. (Cinchona is a South American flowering plant that is a source for quinine, in case you were wondering. I was!)

Aperol is a twentieth century addition to the collection of largely Italian herbal apéritifs  created in the 18th and 19th centuries, such as vermouth, Fernet Branca and Dubonnet, as well as such celebrated brand names as Martini, Cinzano and Campari. While some might prefer to start with a brut champagne, the French and Italians have long enjoyed more astringent, herbal curtain raisers. And the taste for them is apparently growing.

In 2009, Aperol joined the Campari stable, but it was originally invented by wine company Villa Barbieri in Padua in 1919, and the name is still on the label. Barbieri marketed it as  drink for the party-mad, post-war youth of the 1920s, and as such it became immensely popular in Italy.

The 1950s saw its reinvention as a fun and colourful cocktail: the ‘Aperol Spritz.’ Lacking the cloying sweetness of Aperol1many cocktails, the Spritz is a joyous mix of sparkling wine and flamboyant orange Aperol: a bitter mimosa in fact, best served in a humongous wine glass with lots of ice. Just mix in three parts Prosecco, two parts Aperol, and one part soda water, trim it with a wedge of orange and you are away.

In the 1980s, Barbieri introduced the natural, spontaneous ‘Aperol Girl’  to its advertising, and in the 1990s Italian artist Lorenzo Mattotti painted a series of retro posters to highlight Aperol’s timelessness. Since 2009, in the hands of Campari, Aperol has gained international recognition as an alluring summer aperitif, perfect for inspiring a lively, carefree lifestyle, using the image of a series of vivacious, fun-loving, redheaded, Aperol girls. By the summer of 2014, the UKs Daily Mail considered it the flavour of the month in Europe, and word continues to spread.

I remember enrolling in Italian classes years ago – we were planning to visit my boyfriend’s family in Northern Italy, and I felt I ought to know a few words in the host language for the sake of courtesy – and the teacher brought along a bottle of Fernet Branca. We were all encouraged to have a sip, to get the class rolling. It was distressingly, intensely, aggressively bitter. I did not become an instant fan. It put me off vermouth, Martinis, even dry sherry, for years.  The closest I could get to any herbal liquor was Benedictine, which I now fine tongue-curlingly sweet. It seems as we age, our taste buds, and therefore our food preferences, change. White chocolate to dark. Sweet white wines to dry reds. Carrots to kale. Sound familiar?

I unwittingly tasted my first Aperol Spritz earlier this year, and surprisingly, this refreshingly icy, slightly bitter, very bubbly apéritif has quickly become a firm favourite. Given my (now) lack of sweet tooth, Aperol Spritz is well on the way to becoming my latest craze. And given that orange is my favourite colour – and it is also, apparently, the perfect drink for redheads –  perhaps it is even set to become my own signature drink!

It also accommodates my preferred grazing habit, as, as we have discovered that Aperol is perfect with tapas. In fact, this is where we were first introduced: at Rambla, our local Spanish bar in Manila. It also goes very well, it turns out, aperol1with a generous platter of antipasti at Zizzis, our favourite Italian chain in the UK. The same week, wandering along the Thames, we found a wonderful riverside pub in Kingston-on-Thames, the Boater’s Inn, which was introducing the punters to Aperol with a two-for-one deal and a history lesson on the journey of the Aperol Spritz. As the sun set, turning the sky the colour of peaches,  we looked out on the river and the boats and the swans with their fluffy cygnets, and sipped our Spritzes gleefully, enjoying that zesty, slightly woody, herbal bitterness, with a background taste of Jaffas (like orange Smarties, only spherical), while a jazz band chortled away in the background. Brunch, lunch, dinner,before, during, after, take your pick. Any time seems to work for me.

This evening, I am happily imbibing on the balcony in the depths of Languedoc, trading the traditional Prosecco for a local sparkling wine, the customary antipasti for a plate of French cheeses served on fresh baguette from the local patisserie. “Happy hour, happy Aperol” as the advertising once quipped, and here’s to “a bright, bright sunshiny day!” Life is good, especially in orange.

*With thanks to Google Images for Mattotti’s poster and the Aperol bottle, and my trusty camera for the view.

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A Tale of Steak and Ceviche

Smith1The Smith Butcher & Grill Room has been getting very good reviews by word-of-mouth and on the internet. So, as this month it celebrated its first birthday, we decided we were well overdue for a visit. Smith B&G is an unexpectedly  cavernous space on H.V. Dela Costa in Salcedo Village, Makati. Although I am no vegetarian, such altars to the tasty cow would not necessarily be my first choice, however, as a barbecue on the 37th floor is out of the question, Smith B&G turned out to be an excellent alternative. And the menu was by no means limited to steaks.

Our friends had arrived earlier than us, and were waiting at a large table complete with cow hide sofa. Industrial chic has become popular in Manila, and Smith B&G has followed the trend, with its large open dining room, huge wrought iron chandeliers and large, rustic wooden tables. This often means a lot of background noise, but much to my relief that is wondrously lacking at Smith B&G. So much so that we failed to notice how the restaurant had filled up as we chatted. Or perhaps the clientele was just more subdued than usual. The service was somewhat slow and piecemeal, but the staff were smiley when they showed up, although they would do well to get to know the menu.

On that first visit, we examined the menu in minute detail. For an appetizer, I spent some time trying to decide Smith8between the three way scallops – a ‘ménage a trois’ – and the kinilaw. Our waitress recommended the former, so I went with that. The scallops were served attractively on a piece of black slate:  the first one I tasted was apparently smoked and served with wasabi foam, but it had been just a tad overcooked and was uncomfortably rubbery. The ceviche was the best: melt-in-the-mouth delicious, please bring more, and the third was seared with a Parma ham crust which was a great combination of both taste and texture – but again, a lighter hand was needed in cooking the scallop. I returned for the kinilaw catch of the day the following week and it was perfection, served in a refreshing ginger and citrus marinade under a glass dome.

There are quite a number of raw selections on the menu. Apart from the ceviche and the kinilaw, there is steak tartare, beef carpaccio and sashimi, all of which have rated well with my fellow diners, although some diners may need a translation for the steak tartare accompaniments: calamansi aioli, pommes allumettes and biodynamic mesclun.

Smith3The steaks come from all over the world, although quite a number of them were missing when we visited mid-week. No Japanese or Irish or Aussie porterhouse or US 900g T-bone, which was a bit disappointing. Nevertheless we all found something to eat: the One & Only and I made do with the chateaubriand. This was beautifully cooked – medium rare, so tender in the middle with just slightly crisped edge – sand served on a large platter with a choice of four vegetable side dishes. We decided three was enough and chose a lovely combination of creamed spinach, pommes Lyonnaise, and a dish of grilled vegetables.  Please note, the selection seems to change regularly.

Red wine seemed the obvious way to go with steaks, and there is a range of choices and prices: from a couple of French and Californian reds at under Php 2000, a Languedoc-Roussillon Carignan, Grenache, Syra at Php 2500, An Argentinian Malbec at Php 4100 to a South Australian Shiraz at Php 8500. Don’t worry if you prefer white, there are a few of those too.

On the second visit I was the early one – unexpectedly, thanks to a very efficient taxi driver – but I was more thanSmith2 happy to sit with a Hendricks and soda, deftly accessorized with cucumber, while I waited for my friends, and enjoyed the easy listening background music that didn’t include Air Supply. My drink came promptly, and otherwise no one fussed me. I was peaceful and comfortable and I got extra time to study the menu. This time, I was keen to try the veal cheek ravioli with mushrooms, until my friends suggested sharing the chateaubriand and I couldn’t resist. The chef certainly gets points for consistency, it was perfectly cooked again, and we managed to share it three ways without a fight.

I also like the open plan kitchen at Smith B&G, as I was able to have a lovely chat to Canadian Chef Steven at the kitchen window.

When it came to dessert the cheese trolley was a bit tired and the crackers were cheap and nasty – and let’s face it, it’s never a good idea to slice the cheese in advance or leave it out in tropical climes – but the Manchego almost made up Smith9for the very aged (and not in a good way) Stilton. So on the next visit we dodged the cheese and chose instead to share a scrumptious white chocolate and macadamia nut cheesecake. And now I will have to go back again, because cheesecake is the favourite dessert of my One & Only, and he missed out that night as he was travelling to Georgia.

Smith B&G is not cheap, but it has been consistently good and the service is friendly and unobtrusive.  And most unexpectedly, there is a good sized car park out the front. Parking. Yes, really. I promise. In H.V. Dela Costa!

*With thanks to Google Images for the shots of the restaurant, and to my trusty new phone for the food snaps.

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“Fashion Fantasy”

“Every day is a fashion show and the world is your runway” ~ Chanel

ADBSA (2)Last night I was a super model.

OK, well maybe not quite a “super” model, but I didn’t fall off the catwalk, which I consider a major achievement, having had nightmares about tripping into the lap of the President as I wobbled down the runway.  As it turned out I had more to fear from a family friend who showed up unexpectedly and attempted to grab my attention – and my ankles – as I strolled past.

In case you are wondering, no, I have not actually had a mid-life crisis and a career change. I was, in fact, participating in a charity event at the Asian Development Bank here in Manila to raise funds for the various local charities supported by our ADB Spouses Association which include an orphanage; scholarships for underprivileged college students;  a home for street kids in Quezon City, and micro-financing for small businesses in the provinces.

The ADBSA Fashion Fusion Show had been in the pipe-line for months, instigated by an offer from Dianne Picture9
Andrysiak, an Australian expatriate and fashion designer, who was prepared to donate her time and talents to help raise funds for our charities. The Board then decided to add a second segment to the evening’s entertainment, to showcase the traditional dress of ADB member countries.

The result was a fashion spectacular into which all the efforts of the Board, Dianne and the wannabe models were
poured with boundless enthusiasm. Embellished with elegantly upswept hair and alluring make up, thanks to the talented efforts of students from  Wella and mp maquillage professionnel, we donned our gorgeous outfits and lined up, ready for the red carpet.

The first half of the show was presented by our in-house Master of Ceremonies, Shubhra Chatterjee, who spoke with flamboyant finesse about each model, her outfit and its cultural significance. From India, Sri Lanka and the People’s Republic of China, Cambodia, Malaysia, Korea, Indonesia and Japan, Bhutan, Nepal and Uzbekistan, the Philippines, Kiribati, Tonga and Samoa, our models came from all corners of Asia.

Picture8The show opened with a bang, as two lovely Filipina ladies made their way down the catwalk in eye-catching ternos, those formal Filipina dresses with the butterfly sleeves, made world famous by Imelda Marcos.  Leni’s very original, and surprisingly glamorous version was made from coffee sacks, while Elise was more traditionally attired in a terno made from lime green piña, a fabric made from the fiber from pineapple leaves combined with silk, with Swarovski crystal detailing.

From there we travelled through Asia to see sumptuous Sri Lankan Kandyan sarees that can be folded, draped or pleated in myriad variations like those from neighbouring India; the hanbok, which is traditional Korean dress for festivals and celebrations; the Bhutanese goh for men, and kira for women; exquisite silk kimonos from Japan, and from China, the sensuous silk cheong sam or qípáo from Shanghai and the historically significant hanfu of the Han dynasty. We admired a shimmering Cambodian sampot paired with a detailed white lace blouse, a colourful kebaya encim worn by the Pernakan Chinese women of Malaysia, elegant Indonesian variation of the kebaya, and a heavy black cotton saree with a red border known as hāku patāsi worn by Nepalese women for the Newari Festival and other important celebrations.

From Asia to the Pacific, where, Beta added a practiced wiggle to a full Kiribati skirt made from layers of dried coconut leaves with accessories made from sea shells and pandanus leaves. Victoria, also from the Pacific, showed off the traditional Tongan tupenu and ta’ovala – a family heirloom that had belonged to her great great grandmother, and was a hundred years old. And we also enjoyed the appearance of two brave young lads from Samoa, Henry and William, who modelled their traditional lavalava skirts accessorized with red ulafalla necklaces that looked like large red chilies but were made from the fruit of the pandanus tree .

Red also played a large role in a sumptuous, full-length gown from Uzbekistan, embroidered with large, vibrant flowers, enhanced by a Scarlett O’Hara style hooped skirt beneath. Suzani is a intricately embroidered tribal textile made in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries. Galiya, meanwhile, sported a dress and jacket made in a shorter, more casual style in a brightly coloured ikat, which would later play a significant role in the designs for the Fashion Fusion segment. Ikat is an ancient technique used to dye yarns before it is woven into patterned fabrics. It is a word of Indonesian origin, but it’s a weaving method commonly used across Asia, Africa and Picture7South America.

An interval was heralded by a raffle, in which prizes had been generously donated by restaurateur Paolo Nesi, Don Revy and Craggy Range wines, and a wonderful weekend in Vietnam thanks to GHM luxury resorts. And then it was time for part two: Fusion Fashion.

Dianne’s designs were enchanting, and, as Shubhra astutely observed, she had displayed a real knack for dressing not only the body but the temperament and tastes of the models, creatively blending modern design with traditional fabrics. And, as our MC also noted, ‘there is no better way to express yourself than through the clothes you wear.’

A Scandinavian nineteen fifties floral print, Japanese printed cottons, local linens, Laotian prints, hand painted Japanese kimonos, Indonesian batik, a glamorous sunflower-yellow, full-length satin and a heavy and sumptuous jacquard weave from Iran transformed into a wrap-around evening jacket worn over a silvery grey empire line silk gown with a metallic brocade neckline. As I watch the models sway along the catwalk, I start to understand Rosalie Ham’s fetish with fabrics in her novel “The Dressmaker.”

The ikat fabric we saw earlier reappeared again and again, displaying its variety and versatility in a number of stunning outfits, both casual and formal.  Mari began the parade in a simple biscuit and cream ikat print, perfect for the cool, calm ‘Lady Who Lunches.’ Later she re-appeared in a simple, elegant cocktail dress in which woven silk satin was overlaid with black chiffon. Another vibrant ikat fabric from Tajikistan was used to create a shimmering gold and ruby cocktail dress for Cindy, while Vida also wore an ikat print in black, red and beige, masterfully cut on the bias to create an asymmetrical, floor sweeping gown. The gown was accentuated with one, Philippine-style butterfly sleeve in silk organza. Elise, too, modelled a modern variation of those butterfly sleeves in a long gown of lilac satin and silk organza, belted with a silver, embroidered, obi-style Japanese fabric .

Picture6Not surprisingly, Thai silk also played a major role in the parade, appearing time and again in various styles of dress and in a rainbow of glorious colours. Cathrin’s ball gown was created from an emerald green Thai silk ball gown with a cowl neckline, the skirt cut away at the front to display yet another brightly coloured ikat print from Tajikistan. Runa’s gown combined a green and blue shot Thai silk overlaid with a stunning turquoise and midnight blue Jamdani  muslin from Bangladesh. My own ball gown was created from a blend of deep bottle green Thai silk overlaid with a gold and green Indian sari, in a design inspired by the Middle Ages. Heather’s frock was artfully simple: a dark Thai silk skirt overlaid with an Aussie cotton sporting an aboriginal motif, the bodice made from thick strips of woven Thai silk. Even the President’s wife, Mrs Nakao, took a stroll up the catwalk in a layered champagne-coloured Thai silk, cut away at the front to display a Japanese satin in a softly feminine cream, rose and green floral print.

Several more casual outfits included Sucheta’s pink and white floral capri pants teamed with a white silk blouse which had been hand-painted in pink to team with a matching, waist length pink jacket with mandarin collar.  Sucheta, and several other ladies, also carried matching handbags created by France-Anne Van Peteghem.

And so we reached the end of the show with a bow. Flowers were presented to our magical designer, Dianne, as she appeared on the catwalk in one of her own eye-catching creations with the luminous Mrs. Nakao and her husband, ADB President Mr. Nakao, before we were ushered out to celebrate with sparkling wine in the foyer. I think the audience enjoyed the show – we certainly had fun playing at being super models – and we were also able to raise considerable funds for our charities, which was highly satisfying. Now I am off to practise posing in the mirror for the next time I am seconded for a fashion parade!

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Dream Kitchen

Julia Child’s kitchen

“…But the kitchen will not come into its own again until it ceases to be a status symbol and becomes again a workshop… [and] you and I will know it chiefly by its fragrances and its clutter. It won’t be neat. It won’t even look efficient. but when you enter it you will feel the pulse of life throbbing from every corner. The heart of the home will have begun once again to beat.”  ― Phyllis McGinley, American poet and author

I grew up in just such a kitchen: the workshop kind. Cluttered. Chaotic. Cupboard doors hanging open. Littered surfaces. Leftovers turning into chemistry experiments at the back of the fridge. I recognize all the signs. A pot of soup, regularly topped up with last night’s vegetables, sat on the back of the stove all winter, socks and underpants drying in the warming drawer, the almost visible smell of orange cake wafting from the oven and down the passage.

Everyone congregated in our kitchen – friends, family, workmen, complete strangers sometimes – perching on low stools around the kitchen table or leaning against counter tops. And our mother was ever the centrepiece, chatting, laughing, always active: baking biscuits or cakes; topping up the soup or burning the saucepans dry; chopping, peeling, stirring, and making endless mugs of Nescafé; knitting a jumper or doing the daily crossword, surrounded by small mountains of reference books; exploring cookery books that had been liberally baptized in flour, butter or gravy.

A round table stood in in the middle of the room and would always be scattered with letters, car keys, mugs, ashtrays,50s kitchen spoons, elbows, sugar bowls and inevitably a raggle-taggle posy of flowers gathered from the garden and stuffed in a small, chipped vase. An old dresser stood by the door – it has stood there for almost fifty years – accumulating all the family detritus. The drawers were stuffed with loose photos, flat batteries, secateurs, screwdrivers, shoe polish. The cupboards were crammed with plastic containers, odd saucepans with mix and not-matching lids, bent and dented roasting trays and assortments of home-made jams and chutneys, some of which had lurked there for years. On top of the dresser cake and biscuit tins would be stacked, supposedly out of the reach of a hoard of vertically challenged, ravenous children, but we were like mountain goats and learned to scale that cupboard from an early age.  The heart of the home? Always. The pulse of life? Absolutely. This kitchen was never ‘designed’ by any stretch of the imagination, it just was, and it was always warm and welcoming.

As an adult, I have moved house uncountable times over the years, and each time I have to start house-hunting again, I write a hit list of everything I want and need in our next abode. Each time number one on the list is: ‘a decent kitchen.’  And yet, inevitably, it is the kitchen that doesn’t make the grade. In retrospect, I guess I have always been attempting to replicate the atmosphere of our childhood kitchen – maybe not the clutter, but at least the pulse. Often I blame the details: no hot water on tap; cheap and nasty electric ovens; negligible storage space. There have been kitchens where the counter-tops were so low that even hobbits would have to stoop uncomfortably to chop or wash up. And there have been those suffocatingly hot kitchens in the Tropics with no air-conditioning, because ma’am doesn’t belong in the kitchen anyway.  Occasionally we have even had smart, designer kitchens that are frightfully efficient, even pretty, and yet I never felt they exuded the warmth of my mother’s kitchen. And mostly,  I suspect, for want of a kitchen table.

our kitchenWhen we finally bought a house in England, the kitchen was awful. It was an 8’ x 10’ space hampered by three doorways. The cupboard space was severely limited by the unwelcome presence of a boiler, a dishwasher, a washing machine and a tumble dryer. Tiny bite-sized slices of counter space were scattered round the walls in the most ineffectual arrangement that was ever invented. We eventually gutted and redesigned it, and I absolutely loved what we created, but it never actually expanded to fit a table.

At the moment I have a pocket-sized kitchen in an open plan apartment (never again) with counter space that even the cockroaches find limiting.  What’s more, it has been designed – and I use the term loosely – by someone who has never stepped foot in a kitchen. Despite the minimalist space, I still have a tendency to clutter surfaces with  pots of utensils and boxes of tea and toasters and chopping boards, because I love having things to hand. Luckily, I have never been one for gadgets, because, seriously, there is barely room for the toaster. And the maid’s room has become my pantry, in which I store every over-sized saucepan or useless utensil I cannot bring myself to throw away, because I may need it at some undetermined point in the future.

Nonetheless, needs must, and I am learning how to cook without elbows and how to clear up as I go, although I would kill for a dishwasher in which to tuck all those mugs and plates and glasses out of sight.   Of course there are only two of us now, so I am downsizing my pots and pans and trying not to cook every meal for five. I am getting the hang of it, but I find I miss the neatly stacked ice cream tubs full of leftover pasta sauces and curry in the freezer, marked in marker pens as “soup” – or not marked and assumed to be ice-cream, until it isn’t. The good part is, my cook books are at hand, although much to my chagrin I have inherited the messy cook gene, so there are remnants of every recipe I have ever attempted decorating the pages.

In postwar America, the modern kitchen was designed to tempt women back into ‘the heart’ of the suburban family home and away from their war work in factories and offices. The modern kitchen was stocked with every possible labour-saving appliance. It was often merged into the family’s living space. The modern kitchen did indeed become a status symbol and there it has remained. Today, my modern, technology-friendly girlfriends boast of something called a Thermomix and invest in high tech juicers. Others have those glorious retro cake-mixers reigning over the counter tops. At least one friend has even invested in a Thermomix and the most amazing space age kitchen in which the meals seem to virtually cook themselves in moments. It’s like magic!

banner_jckitchen1Call me perverse, but I honestly prefer my muddled, mixed-up workshop kitchen with its awkward corners and it’s ridiculous, impractical design – although I admit, I do occasionally dream of something more in the vein of Julia Child’s simple, homely Massachusetts kitchen, its shelves choc-a-block with pots and pans and jugs and jars. And I do wish there was room for a kitchen table. Then, like Julia’s or my mother’s kitchens, it might just become “the most loved and most used room in the house.”

*With thanks to Google Images for the kitchen  pics.

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The Dinner Party

“Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.”  – Harriet Van Horne,  journalist

Since the genesis of shows like Master Chef and the rise of Jamie, Nigella, Gordon and Curtis, who amongst you has never felt the urge to unleash the inner chef and work in a real restaurant kitchen – and of course gain instant celebrity status for your efforts? Well, last week I had the opportunity to do the former, although the latter still continues to elude me.

Chef Philip at Brera

Chef Philip at Brera

Last year, my One & Only won the raffle at the ANZA Wine and Cheese night. This year we finally availed of the prize. ‘What did he win?’ you ask. A five course dinner prepared by a professional chef in our own home.  What could be more decadent?

Philip Golding is a British chef who has been based in the Philippines for twenty years, and has a finger in so many pies it’s impossible to keep count: teacher, chef, Breville ambassador, culinary consultant, President of the Disciples de Escoffier Philippines…

There was only one small problem. Last year we downsized to a great little duplex in Rockwell. We really love it, but the thought of anyone cooking a five course meal in our pint-sized kitchen is laughable. Luckily one dear friend  had already suggested he would like to be one of the guests, so we suggested in our turn that we might need to use his kitchen – somewhat larger than ours – for the event.

The Saturday before our dinner date, we held our first meeting with Chef Philip at Brera,  delicatessen and grill,  his latest venture, and a Taguig twin to his store in Yakal Street, Makati. Here we sat over coffee and concocted the bones of a five course menu which would, he promised, evolve over the week ahead. We then created a lengthy shopping list, so I could start to buy the ingredients. Also – and this we weren’t expecting – Chef Philip invited us, if we so desired, to get involved in the process of creating the meal.

I spent the next few days dashing around the city gathering a boatload of ingredients with which we could have fedIMG_4307 most of Metro Manila. We started by rummaging through the shelves at Brera, and then I went on to scour Rustan’s and Säntis . The stars had aligned nicely, as good friends from South Australia turned up in time join us for dinner, accompanied by some amazing Australian cheeses and wines, they had ransacked from the Adelaide market. On Thursday I took them to Yakal Street, where we would finalize the menu with Chef Philip and visit The Butchery next door to choose the meat for our main course. Here we discovered a veritable goldmine of cheese wheels the size of coffee tables, and some fabulous looking lamb racks.

Finally, on Friday afternoon, armed with our menu, our aprons and boxes full of food and wine, we descended on our friends home in Forbes Park. Chef Golding and his tool box of cooking kit arrived too, in the wake of a team of assistants. The team was joined by our friends’ two Helpers.

As food writers both, our Aussie mate and I were keen to add to the manpower in the kitchen. Now, I am generally the Head Cook at home. I have worked in Hospitality and even ventured into Hotel Management once upon a time. But this was the first time I had gone to work with a professional chef, and I instantly forgot everything I thought I knew and felt like a total novice. Luckily, as the chef assigned us our tasks, I found myself with a job I thought I could just about handle: I was put in charge of making the crepes for dessert. Chef Philip whipped up a batter, flavoured lightly with Grand Marnier, and then pointed me to the stove. As I slowly turned out a mountain of wafer thin pancakes, my confidence grew. Soon I was even feeling secure enough to help the trainees with some of their tasks.

It was a surprisingly long process to create this ‘simple’ dinner for six, particularly given the large team we had to pull it together. But once I got over my initial stage fright, it was great fun, and working on the team was a fascinating experience. Chef Philip went from one work station to the next, checking on progress, offering tips, encouragement and mild criticism when things weren’t up to scratch. Apart from the odd sarcastic note, however, it was nothing like the kitchen scenes in the movie ‘Burnt,’ or ‘Hell’s Kitchen’ with near-hysterical chefs throwing furniture and knives and entire dinners on the floor. Although, to be honest, I was still not tempted to test his patience!

IMG_4323Eventually our job was done and we sat down to dinner, already gently lubricated with champagne and gin, and eager to enjoy the banquet. Our minestrone came to the table – shallow bowls containing a neat mound of finely diced and blanched vegetables. Chef Philip then poured the soup from a jug around the vegetables, creating a small island in the centre of a ruby red lake. The broth was surprisingly rich, largely thanks to a tablespoon of pimento paste, balanced by the fresh, crisp vegetable cubes.

Next came the tuna salad. Fluffy lettuce, dollops of burrata cheese and cherry tomatoes were prettily arranged on an entrée plate – although it took me a while to realize the fish was secreted beneath the shrubbery. The seared yellow fin tuna and smoked wahoo – a local, white-fleshed fish that has become very popular with gourmet diners –  were both superb. Like Oliver Twist, I wanted more.

Back in the kitchen, I had basted the lamb racks in whole grain mustard before coating them in breadcrumbs seasoned with fresh tarragon. The racks were accompanied by lamb sausage, surprisingly German in style, a deliciously cheesy potato gratin (thanks to the best Watsonia Vintage Cheddar), broccoli with a hint of hollandaise sauce and my favourite purple cabbage cooked with cranberries and sultanas. We had been having trouble boosting the heat in the oven, probably due to the fact we were using every available burner, so for me, the chops were a little underdone, but the vegetable dishes were perfect, despite what I had feared would be overkill in the sauces department.

Finally, the crepes, which were, of course, spectacular. Lightly flavoured with Grand Marnier, they were filled withMain Course dried figs, orange segments and vanilla ice-cream, sprinkled with crushed macadamias, and topped with a fig and orange sauce. My only regret was that there just weren’t enough – I should have made at least a dozen more.

We finished off with a cheese board, courtesy of our Australian guests, including a divine Onkaparinga Triple Cream Brie.The food faded out, the wine faded in as we sat and chatted with Chef Philip. There were lots of laughs, lots of wine… and towards the end of the evening, lots of Air Supply. (I probably shouldn’t have mentioned that.)

So, I finally got my time in the kitchen, and while I enjoyed it, I now have even greater respect for the men and women who work daily under that level of stress and speed. It was like running a marathon, and I now remember why I veered sharply away from the challenge twenty-five years ago. It was fun for a night, but it totally validated my decision to stay out of the kitchen, and to choose a path whereby I could eat, admire and write about the amazing efforts of other more talented cooks from a sensible distance. So thanks to ANZA and whoever pulled out the winning ticket, to our dear friends in Forbes for providing a terrific venue, and especially to Chef Philip and his team, for a great night’s entertainment. All hail the Chef.

*Adapted from an article that appeared first in ANZA News, April 2016.

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