Awandering Through the Vineyards

“Wine is constant proof that God loves us and likes to see us happy.” Benjamin Franklin.

imageMcLaren Vale lies less than an hour’s drive south of Adelaide in South Australia. Originally a region of small farming communities, orchards and pink almond blossom, these days its fields are crowded with grape vines from which arise some of Australia’s best known wines such as Wirra Wirra, Leconfield, Coriole and Chapel Hill, to name just a few. Earlier this month I went awandering, like Toad of Toad Hall, along ‘the open road, [and] the dusty highway’ with my parents and a dear cousin from Sydney. We visited a couple of beautiful wineries and lunched in a well-known restaurant on a rise above Leconfield Estates.

Our first stop was Pertaringa, a small, boutique winery tucked down a bumpy lane amongst the gum trees. In the foothills of McLaren Vale, the name Petaringa actually means ‘belonging to the hills’ in the local indigenous language. It was founded in 1980 by winemaker Geoff Hardy, who left the family business, Thomas Hardy and Sons, to strike out on his own.

At a smidgen past eleven o’clock in the morning, it was probably a little early for wine tasting, but we didn’t let that stop us, happily sipping on a crisp Sauvignon Blanc and a fabulous Shiraz, proudly and unapologetically christened ‘Over the Top’ to reflect Hardy’s aim to make the best and finest of wines.

By now, well into the groove, we drove down the road to the home of the Black Sheep of McLaren Vale, Hugh Hamilton. Like the Hardys, the Hamiltons have had a special place in the region for six generations, having planted some of the first vines in South Australian in 1837.

imageHugh Hamilton is a winemaker with a quirky sense of humour that is reflected in the names he has chosen for his wines (otherwise known as ‘the flock’ ), and reflecting his rather obvious belief that he is the odd-one-out in the family. These include the Floozie, a Sangiovese Rose; the Rascal Shiraz; a Scallywag Chardonnay (a favourite word of my grandmothers to denote a mischievous soul), and the Oddball Saperavi, from a grape relatively new to Australia, but ancient history in Georgia, that makes a full-bodied red wine dripping with tannin.

The cellar door at Hugh Hamilton’s winery has the most amazing views, breath-takingly displayed by its theatre-in-the-round set, built atop an old water tank. We leant on the bar, chatting to the lovely sommelier and alternating between the delectable wines and the equally moreish, home-grown kalamata olives, or dipping bread into Hamilton’s own olive oil and dukkah.

At last we decided it was time for lunch. On the recommendation of an old imagefriend, we headed for the Salopian Inn, and wow! let me say, it would be well worth the effort of making a trip this deep into the southern hemisphere simply to dine at this little gem of a restaurant. Described by a reporter from The Australian as something between a restaurant and a pub, the Salopian Inn dwells in a beautiful stone homestead built in 1851, overlooking a vast expanse of vines stretching to the horizon. Chef Karena Armstrong offers an eclectic menu that changes more regularly than the seasons, to accompany the huge wine cellar and a lengthy list of exotic gins – who knew there were so many gins in the world?

Having snuggled into a bench seat under the window, we checked out the wine list and the menu. Service may not have been swift, but we knew we were in good hands. Our two waitresses, both Sarah, were welcoming, chatty and quietly confident, more hostesses than servers, making us as comfortable as if we were eating at home – without having to slave in the kitchen.

Mid-winter in South Australia made it a little too far on the cool side to contemplate G&Ts. Instead, we opted for wine by the glass, so we could all try something different: a locally made Heirloom Shiraz, a Coriole Fiano (a strongly flavoured grape variety from southern Italy, fairly new to McLaren Vale) and an herbaceous Adelaide Hills Sauvignon Blanc. The food menu reflected an array of international culinary influences from China to Europe, and Australia to the Middle East, so it was decided we must all choose something different.

After some discussion, my mother picked a light lunch of Asian style dumplingsimage filled with crab and prawns in a gently sweet sauce of ginger and soy dressing. Dad preferred to go Italian  and chose a bowl of fluffy potato gnocchi that conjoined with a surprisingly light and utterly mouth-watering gorgonzola, leek and chestnut sauce. My cousin decided that the wintry weather demanded a rump steak, which duly arrived accompanied by dauphine potatoes, mushrooms and a perfect truffle sauce. As I sat on the fence between the fish and lamb shanks, one of our Sarahs recommended that I try the snapper, lightly fried with crispy skin, and served with a generous salad of kabouli chick peas (otherwise known as garbanzo beans), almonds and pomegranate seeds and a large piece of grilled flat bread. And, as a final touch, we also ordered the roasted celeriac, fennel and pear salad with feta cheese. Sharing forks full of food across the table, conversation revolved solely around the subject of the food. By the time we had finished we were joyfully replete, and wandered, full to bursting, home through the vines.

 *Adapted from an article written for Inklings, July 2014.

With thanks to my gorgeous cousin Jennifer for her photography skills, and to Google Images for the picture of the Salopian Inn.

Posted in Australia, Food & Wine | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Of Beerenberg Jam & Bavarian Mustard

image
I had not even thought to bring my tiara to Adelaide (my ‘must-have’ accessory for afternoon tea ever since a trip to the Shangri-La with nine Travelling Tiaras), so I felt a bit wrong-footed when a young friend suggested an afternoon tea get-together just after we had arrived in town. In the end, we managed to have a lovely afternoon, despite my lack of glitter, and I got to revisit the Riverside Restaurant at the Intercontinental Hotel on the south bank of the Torrens River.

Probably the highest building in Adelaide, and boasting unhindered views acrossimage the city and up to the Mount Lofty ranges to the east, the Intercontinental started life as a Hyatt Hotel back in June 1988. Now the ‘I’ in the sky dominates the skyline along North Terrace, and as we walked in, we had a clear view of the newly sculpted Adelaide Oval, like a hooded space ship squatting below the more traditional spires of St. Peter’s Cathedral.

The Riverside Restaurant offers an unusual combination of high tea and lunch, traditional and indulgent, at 2.30pm from AUS$34-65.

So while the men tucked into hefty burgers to fill a gap, the ladies sipped on a welcome glass of sparkling wine and waited for the afternoon tea to arrive. Oddly, the cakes turned up first, on the ubiquitous three-tiered cake stand, but imagewe decided to sit and admire them until we had met the sandwiches. A plate of chunky cucumber sandwiches on white, crustless bread seasoned with chervil and sour cream were duly introduced, along with Tasmanian Smoked Salmon wraps, accessorized with watercress and horseradish. According to the menu we were short-changed a third plate of prosciutto with Bavarian mustard on sourdough, but the conversation had long since taken over, and no one even noticed until afterwards. To be honest, I’m not sure we could have eaten any more anyway, but I wouldn’t have turned down a second glass of bubbles, if anyone had offered, or at least a share of the glass my son had refused.

Everything we ate was beautifully fresh, although unfortunately the well-endowed cucumber sandwiches,  which had obviously been made earlier, quickly got a bit dry. The scones – a mix of plain, sultana and blueberry - looked elegantimage accompanied by a selection of three Beerenberg jams and a shot glass of thick whipped cream. And when we were eventually ready for something sweeter,the cake selection was divine: a mini slice of apricot crumble, thick with fresh apricots; a rich, fudgy, flourless chocolate cake; tiny slices of carrot cake with cream cheese icing; macaroons in a variety of Derwent pencil colours, and a mini lemon meringue pie that was rated highly by everyone. There was more than enough to go round, and upon request our waiter kindly packed up the few remaining pieces for us to take home – although these days in Australia you have to sign a disclaimer to do so.

I do have to add that the service wasn’t overwhelmingly brilliant. While the staff were intially warm and welcoming, once we were settled there were long gaps, and refills were rare – or do I mean non-existent? Then again, we were neither rushed nor fussed, but left to meander through tea at our own pace, and as we had lots to talk about, that was fine with us. We relaxed into comfortable, cosy chat and felt sad when we eventually had to break up the party and head home, filled to the brim with delectable nibbles.

[Bonus: a little background research has uncovered a High Tea Society and a list of the best high teas across Australia. I am making a bucket list.

Posted in Australia, Food & Wine | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

My Top Five Filipino Restaurants

Filipino cuisine often gets a bad rap from expats who feel the need to compare it with Thai or Vietnamese, and yet it has its own very individual character. The quality in local restaurants has improved enormously in the past few years, as talented Filipino chefs focus on fresh quality ingredients, leaner meat and more appealing presentation – not always an easy task when many dishes are variations of mum’s homemade stews. I have compiled a collection of my favorites, some mainstream, some a bit more off the beaten track. I was going to list them in order of preference, but felt that was not only too subjective, but they are all so different, it is hard to compare. I suggest you try them all and see what you think, and then explore further and compile your own list!

Abe, Serendra, Fort Bonifacio

I have so often wandered past Abe on the way to favorite Vietnamese or Persian imagerestaurants at Serendra, but after popping in for coffee one afternoon with a good friend, I realized it was one I must try. Wow, what a surprise! Something I had mistaken for a cheap and cheerful chain, it is in fact a great place to eat. Packed to the rafters with large tables at lunchtime, we were luckily only a party of two (very un-Filipino), so they managed to squeeze us in.

The waiters seemed remarkably calm in the storm of excited chatter, and while not proactively engaged with the customers, they came promptly to our table when summoned. We loved the squid in spices and oliveoil, and I already know the lamb adobo will be revisited again and again. I thought I wouldn’t find room for the lumpiang ubod (large spring rolls of palm heart wrapped in soft crepes with a sweet sesame sauce) but tried a mouthful, and couldn’t stop. I recommend going with a larger group and a big appetite.

No dish is more than PHP 650 (a whole leg of stewed pork), and average out at around PHP 350. And portion sizes are designed for sharing. There are also outlets in Quezon City, Mall of Asia and Alabang.

Abe (ah-beh) is owned by well-known local restaurateur Lorenzo Abe, and dedicated to his father, local artist, gourmand and journalist E. Aguilar “Abe” Cruz. The restaurant serves traditional Filipino food, mostly of Kapampangan origin, and gourmet dishes inspired by Abe’s travels around the world.

Aracama, The Strip, Fort Bonifacio

imageRecommended by a Filipina friend, my son and I visited Aracama one hot Saturday afternoon, and were delighted with this versatile restaurant with its tempting and tasty regional cuisine with a modern touch. Aracama’s opened two years ago, and is part-owned by Master Chef Judge Fernando Aracama, who has worked extensively overseas and has finally come home to cook for his fellow Filipinos. Originally from Negros Occidental, Chef Fernando has created a menu heavily influenced by the Visayas.

Initially ushered into an intimate dining room for twenty-five, we were later shown a much larger space upstairs that can seat 70 diners both inside and out on the broad balcony. Three small private dining rooms complete the picture, and apparently this becomes a popular venue with a DJ and dancing after 10:30 pm on Friday and Saturday nights. We were warmly welcomed and promptly armed with drinks and menus. The menu is largely filled with modern versions of classic Filipino dishes, but there is also a selection of indigenized favorites from beyond the Philippines. The chef’s signature dishes are marked clearly on the menu.

We over-ordered of course, but I was keen to try as many dishes as possible. We began with a Kapampangan (from Pampanga) lumpiang sisig and malunggay mozzarella dip. The lumpiang were no bite-sized snack, but like a large sausage roll, three of them per order. We rapidly realized we were eating Filipino food, Filipino-style: everything is designed for sharing. Realizing we should have brought a bundle of friends, we tucked into these crispy, crunchy filo pastry spring rolls filled with luscious pork sisig, sprinkled in a lightly acidic vinegar sawsawan with chilies that cut through the richness of the pork filling.

Malunggay is a local spinach, and this dish is a signature dish for a reason. Servedimage up with toasted French bread it was, simply put, a deconstructed spinach cannelloni without the pasta. I would have devoured the lot if I hadn’t known there was plenty more to come.

Inasal na manok, or chicken skewers Bacalod- style, barbecued beef ribs without the bone and sigarilyis (wing beans) cooked in coconut milk with ground pork and topped with green chilies for a little unexpected spice, were set down in rapid succession, and we waded our way through each dish with enthusiasm. The beef was particularly yummy, and we almost ate the plate.

My normally unfillable sixteen- year-old rejected the dessert list for lack of stomach room, but the staff very sweetly brought us a serving of chocnut icecream anyway, which slid down into unguessed-at spaces surprisingly easily.

Prices, on average, are PHP 300 for Firsts, PHP 650 for Feasts, PHP 200 for Foliage and the same for the Finale – that was the menu’s cute descriptors, not mine.

Café Juanita, Pasig & Burgos Circle, Fort Bonifacio

I first went to Café Juanita in Pasig a couple of years ago, and it is a great visual imageexperience as well as a culinary joy. Cluttered with ornaments, antiques, woven hangings and Christmas decorations, the old house redesigned as a restaurant is an amalgam of whimsical Victoriana and the Middle East with a twist of the Philippines–fussy but fun, and wonderfully cosy. The “more is more” theory of dining comes from Dr. Efren “Boy” Vasquez, and his restaurant certainly creates a memorable impression.

The Pasig restaurant is definitely worth a visit, but it is a bit of a trek from Makati, and you may need a compass. Luckily, we now have our own local version in Burgos Circle in BGC, so I generally go there. There are still plenty of frills and furbelows, but in rather less profusion and in a modern dining space. (Note the beautiful fabrics on the back of every chair – they kept my five-year-old niece occupied for hours.) The menu is not exactly the same, but there is still plenty to enjoy.

The eclectic décor is reflected in the menu: an interesting mix of Filipino, Vietnamese, Laotian and Thai, as well as a predictable selection of pasta, take your pick, but the many local offerings on the menu should not be overlooked. The crispy pata is a generous serving of crunchy pork crackling and roast pork that easily serves three, but may create fights for the crackling. The malunggay chicken (bite- sized boneless chicken cooked in coconut cream and served with that excessively healthy Filipino greenery) is one of my favorites, and the beef caldereta is a rich and filling serving of slow-cooked beef in tomatoes. Finally, the sans rival really is without rival if you like your desserts buttery and excessively sweet.

Prices are good ranging from around PHP 150 for appetizers to PHP 550 for the most expensive seafood main course. It’s great value and really good food in a theatrical setting.

Chef Tatung, Acacia Estates, Taguig City

imageChef Tatung opened his first restaurant Tatung’s Garden in his home in Quezon City. It became such a popular dining destination he was forced to expand and moved to Acacia Estates in Taguig early last year. Both involve wandering off the beaten track, but they have each proved worth the game of hide-and- seek. I visited the original Tatung’s Garden about three years ago, where the menu featured dishes from Cebu and Bicol, “all mixed up” with Indian, Thai and Chinese fusion. Chef Tatung’s new restaurant, tucked away off C5 in Taguig, is predominantly traditional Filipino (Chef has been heard to say that he’s a huge fan of Filipino food, and isn’t looking for ways to change it), and it is, without doubt, one of the best Filipino restaurants I have experienced.

The sinigang, that Filipino version of Thai tom yum, is made with tamarind broth, roast pork and a generous selection of vegetables, including sigarilyis (wing beans), labanos (white radish) and kangkong (spinach). Often we are inclined to say “mmm, not bad, but it’s not tom yum.” In this case there is no need to compare, it was fabulous in its own right. Kinilaw, like ceviche, is either raw tuna or tanigue (Spanish mackerel) marinated “cooked” – in native egar. I first tried this in Palawan and have been besotted ever since. Chef Tatung serves his version with a snappy salad of crunchy diced cucumber and tomatoes, cool and refreshing on a hot day.

The lumpiang obud here are bite-sized pieces of fried spring roll crammed with tofu and chicken, coconut and shrimp, and we ate as many as was humanlyimage possible from the generous serving. Unfortunately the chicken sisig served in lettuce cups and the rellenong manok (stuffed chicken) were tempting but unavailable; so we made do with the bangus (milk fish) in banana leaves which came highly recommended, but had been rather overcooked in tin foil rather than traditional banana leaves. The menu included some great classics, and I ordered way too much in my excitement. In true Filipino style, most of the dishes were big enough to share and would have fed three to four people.

Salads, vegetables and appetizers averaged PHP 300 per dish. Main courses were mostly around PHP 400, with a couple of notable exceptions like the whole deep-fried lapu lapu. All in all, good value, great food and your guests will not go hungry! But don’t be surprised if the young waitresses stare at you open- mouthed – Chef Tatung is a long way off the expat dining track, and they are obviously unused to foreign clientele. Luckily the two older waiters are good with both English and customer service, so don’t be afraid to engage with them if you have any questions.

Wooden Spoon at Rockwell

imageI have walked past this new Power Plant restaurant for months and loved the décor: a chandelier of wooden spoons and a country kitchen feel – it’s a fun concept to find in a shopping mall. The menu contains lots of Filipino classics with a personal twist from TV celebrity chef Sandy Daza who specializes in Filipino and Thai cuisines. He has hosted television cooking shows and has written books and articles on cooking and baking.

Sandy Daza’s first Wooden Spoon restaurant opened in Katipunan last year. Now he has a branch in Rockwell and it is always full. We love the food. No fancy fusion, just a little twist on classic Filipino dishes like kaldereta, kare kare, lechon Kawali, tostadong adobo, and crispy pata fish (I must try this – I had only heard of crispy pata pork before now). The best part for me is that Chef Daza makes a point of using lean meat and fresh oil. Unusual for the Philippines, the service is fast and efficient, perfect for a quick lunch. And the prices are great. The Bicol Express is my favorite: lean pork with coconut cream and chilies, it has a bit of punch for those who like something a little spicy, and I order it with the kangkong (spinach), which is crisp, clean and green in oyster sauce. Prices are incredibly low, but bear in mind, you have to pay in cash.

[NB PHP400 is approximately US$10].

* Adapted from an article written for Inklings Magazine, June 2014. With thanks to Son No. 2 and Google images for the photography.  

Posted in Food & Wine, Philippines | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Waterfront Dining

imageIt was a cold and blustery day in Canberra. The wind was trying to blow the branches off the trees and Piglet’s ears would have streamed behind him like banners if he had been there (The House at Pooh Corner), but we had promised ourselves a special lunch with my sister and her family and we were not about to be deterred by an unusually stiff breeze. The One & Only had come down with Man Flu, but the boys were game, so one team drove the car across town, while the other took bikes and we all arrived on Kingston Foreshore only to discover that the restaurant of choice was closed on Mondays.

Apparently, the ACT government envisions that this new development ‘will bring together the city and the lake, creating a waterfront haven and a vibrant, cosmopolitan environment.’ It has been planned as ‘a Mixed Use waterfront precinct with a strong arts, cultural, tourism and leisure theme. The overall visionimage for Kingston Foreshore is to rejuvenate … industrial area and to create a mix of retail, commercial, residential and recreational areas.’ Located on the south-eastern rim of Lake Burley Griffin,  the Kingston Foreshore has so far received mixed reviews.  Touted by one as the latest dining trend in Canberra, another writer claims the long-awaited development is an eyesore and a tragedy, and lives up to Canberra’s reputation as ‘a city without soul.’ I am inclined to agree, although I would add that it may yet be improved with some landscaping and tree planting. At the moment it is still stark and new and very chilly, and the buildings are modern and raw, but there is an attractive wedge of park at the end of the promenade, and the whole area may yet come into it’s own on a warm summer afternoon, amongst a crowd of happy diners, cyclists and walkers and, hopefully, some greenery.

On this particular June day the promenade was almost empty, but luckily for our rumbling tummies, Chong Co Thai was open. We initially received a surprisingly cool welcome, perhaps because we were a bit late for lunch, but the staff gradually thawed out as we started ordering ridiculous quantities of food. Our small niece, like a mini magpie, collected anything edible she could reach from her high chair and has us in stitches as most of it collected at the foot of her high chair. It was like watching Casper’s uncles in a feeding frenzy, when the feast just drops straight through their ghostly bodies.

imageThen we also went into an over-excited feeding frenzy as we explored the menu and ordered everything in sight. Our two waitresses made prompt delivery of all our dishes, while we enjoyed the view across the water.

The first thing to catch our eye was the stir-fried kangaroo with Thai spices, chillis and green peppercorns. While the boys pooh-poohed such an offering as hardly traditional Thai, my sister and I went ahead cheerily with the notion of indigenized Thai and I can only say it was the best dish we ate. Unfortunately the heat rather spoiled our taste buds for the subtler flavours of pad Thai and larb gai (minced chicken salad). We should have known – the menu graded it’s hotness with three chillis! Meanwhile, Little Casper was cheerfully sifting rice through her fingers.

imageAs the waitresses struggled to find room on the table for everything we had ordered – and still keep it out of reach of Little Casper’s eager hands – we cleared the appetizers (satays and fish cakes) like steam shovels. I am always a little dubious of fish cakes, as they have a tendency to be rubbery, but luckily these were pretty good, and any slight chewiness was disregarded once we bit into a a mouthful of  unusual zingy spiciness. Both the fishcakes and the satays vanished in a matter of moments. We then piled our plates high with rice and noodles, barramundi and a slow cooked mussaman beef that fell apart at a touch. The waitress had kindly left the rice bowl, lurching drunkenly to the left, so we could top up as we needed it.

The barramundi, another indigenized Thai specialty, was pan fried and topped with tamarind sauce and fried onions. This was quickly demolished by the pescetarians once we had worked out how to dodge the rather hefty bones. But the kangaroo still remained the favourite – well for those of us who weren’t gasping for water with tongues hanging out like Miley Cyrus!

It may not have been the longest lunch ever indulged in – it was certainly the messiest – but it was fun to find a new corner of Canberra, and to explore an Aussie take on Thai. We left, giggling our apologies for the lake of leftovers beneath the high chair. Well you never know, our Little Casper might just be a gourmand in the making!

With thanks to No.1 Son for his food photography and Google Images for the pic of Kingston Foreshore apartments. 

Posted in Australia, Food & Wine | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Climbing the Beanstalk

imageAnother country, another market. The EPIC market (Exhibition Park in Canberra) is a farmers market brimming with fresh, seasonal (mostly) produce just off Federal Highway, north of the Canberra City Centre. Open on Saturday mornings from 7.30 am till midday, it is set up in a giant tin shed, filled with over a hundred stallholders. The market showcases the many agri-business opportunities in the region and offers a wide range of seasonal and home made foods.

The sun is winter-warm and peeping shyly round the clouds, as we dodge a little mud and jump puddles to reach the shed…

…and I have landed at the top of the beanstalk. HUGE lemons, pumpkins, cabbages, and daikon (winter Asian radish) are piled high on the tables. A barrel of deep green broccoli could feed an army. Used to fist-sized cauliflower in Manila, I am staring wide-eyed at the ones here that have grown as big as my head. I am like a kid in a sweet shop, dashing from stall to stall, trying to juggle bags of produce and my iPad. Where is my One & Only photographer when I need him? My sister wanders behind, giggling at my over-enthusiasm and the hectic pace at which I flit back and forth.

We stalk past a stand of farm fresh eggs, accompanied by a banner introducing allimage the chooks (chickens) in the business of producing the ingredients for your Sunday morning fry-up. We joke with the stallholders about whether the chooks have names. Pointing to a small, dumpy figure in the photo, the owner claims Matilda lays the best and largest brown eggs.

Wandering on, we raise our nostrils to the mouth watering scent of a sausage sizzle. Organic, gluten free sausages have been cooked and quartered for tasting. We lick our lips and leap in, giving all three varieties the thumbs up and walking away with a packet of each for tomorrow’s barbecue.

Further along, Honey, home made jams, nuts, olive oils and vinegars are available to taste. We do.

I discover a table swamped in huge red capsicum and, continuing the red theme, crates of grape-shaped tomatoes. I collect a bagful for the One & Only, who has a bit of a fetish for tomatoes. They may not be in season but sprinkled liberally with imagesalt and pepper atop a thick layer of ripe, buttery avocado, they are great on toast for breakfast.

The meat isn’t the cheapest, but it’s come direct from the farm. Lamb chops and lamb chevapchichi catch my eye. Here’s more to throw on the barbie.

Giant white mushrooms that weigh heavily in my hand, like firm round breasts, will apparently last up to 2 weeks if kept airtight in paper bags in cool temp. I have a sneaking suspicion they won’t last that long. We buy a huge bag full, again with that bbq in mind.

It is obviously a great place for a weekend family outing, as couples usher their small kids on scooters down the track, shopping bags brimming, the children sporting lips coated liberally in cream, chocolate or froth from a baby cino. A little girl who has obviously decided to dress herself this morning, has also donned a pair of foam fairy wings and flits round her mother.

One stallholders has made up flower pots filled with snow peas, and there are plentiful bunches of home grown flowers: Sweet Williams, banksia, gerboras in glorious sunny colours, even a few select posies from traditional country gardens.

And as we leave, bags overflowing, we are tempted to taste some small, red applesimage with plenty of crunch and  a lightly sweet flavour. I can’t remember the last time I actually are an apple with taste.

I love my farmers market in Manila, but it’s usually hot and always crowded. Here in Canberra, in June (winter in Australia), everyone is rugged up in anoraks and coats, and boots are the foot attire of choice. And there is plenty of space for everyone. Tables are set up for shoppers to sit and contemplate a coffee or a freshly cooked crepe. And the kids have inevitably chosen one of the great flavours at the ice cream stall. My sister comes here quite often, and bumps into friends at every turn. I laugh to myself, remembering lengthy trips to the supermarket as a child, when the weekly shop was our mother’s big social event as she caught up with a million friends, stopping to chat in every aisle.

One stall holder with an olive grove has a Filipino neighbour who has planted grape vines in the hope of adding a wine list to his beer business in the Philippines. We have a long chat about life in the Philippines. Hey look, I have friends in the market too!

 

Posted in Australia, Food & Wine | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The Power of Pasta

 

“Life is a combination of magic and pasta.” ~ Federico Fellini, Italian film producer

pasta jigsaw2I love that quote. As an Anglo-Australian, pasta was never a significant part of my culinary upbringing – we were more of a meat and three veg family. Then I met my One & Only and Proper Pasta almost in the same week. Not the limp, overcooked spaghetti and grey Bolognese of my occasional childhood, but al dente spaghetti and simple tasty, red-rich sauces. I watched and learned from my father-in-law and eventually I would make it at least twice a week for the kids, my variations on traditional sauces the perfect disguise for any vegetable. My children grew up on it, and are all experts at twirling spaghetti on a fork, (a skill I still find as hit and miss as chopsticks). We even had a favourite holiday jigsaw of pasta!

Pasta is to Italy what rice is to Asia. It is the most well-known Italian food, and the most popular ingredient for any Italian dining experience. It is also the one unifying ingredient in a country long divided by regional culinary diversity. And it takes so many forms and has so many lilting names: sheets of lasagna and wide ribbons of papardelle; spaghetti shoelaces in different widths; the generic macaroni in a multitude of forms from rissoni to penne.  To paraphrase Jamie Oliver: how amazing that three everyday ingredients – flour, water and eggs – can be mixed and kneaded, rolled, cut and squashed, flavoured and coloured into countless shapes and sizes.

The origins of this popular ingredient are murky. Popular legend suggest that pasta was derived from the noodles Marco Polo brought back from the East, while others claim the Romans were eating a version of it hundreds of years before that illustrious, thirteenth century merchant went a-wandering. There are tales of merchant Arabs introducing wheat cultivation and dried pasta to Sicilian shores. The first written reference to pasta, however, came from Sicily in the Middle Ages, and the recipe gradually moved north.

Originally a dish only for the wealthy, by the late 18th century pasta had become a popular street food in Naples, eaten simply with cheese and pepper, and the Neapolitans had been nicknamed “mangiamaccheroni” or maccheroni eaters. Here the weather provided the perfect conditions for growing wheat and drying the pasta, and the streets were soon lined withspaghetti stalls.

Pasta took on a variety of forms, and its popularity spread across Italy as economics, modern agricultural practices and Garibaldi colluded to make it a cheap dish for the masses. Twentieth century Italian emigrants took the habit with them, so much so that, in whatever corner of the Mediterranean pasta was born, there is no doubt that it journeyed all over the globe with every Italian migrant since, until it became synonymous with Italian cuisine.

Pasta, as a staple, is enormously versatile. It can be served as a prima piatte or a mainpasta dish
course. It doubles as a cold salad for a barbecue, or it can be tossed into soup as pasta in brodo. It can even be baked into puddings and cakes or stuffed with sweet fillings for dessert. Pasta simply goes into wherever your imagination and ingredients can unite to invent.  Some cooks still choose to make their pasta from scratch (pasta fresca), and I have tried, but I have neither the patience nor the knack, and must resort to the shop-bought variety, pasta secca, which are perfectly good, although obviously some brands are better than others.

Also note that some pastas work better with particular dishes than others. While the rules are not set in stone, decades of experimentation have led to the following generalizations: fresh pasta is best suited to creamy sauces, as are pasta ribbons like fettucine or tagliatelle. Rigatoni, farfalle (butterflies), penne (quills) and fusilli with their ridges and edges, capture chunky meat sauces, while long, thin pasta like linguine or spaghetti (from ‘spago’ meaning cord) are best eaten with fine sauces like pestos or ragus. For broth, use the tiny pasta shapes such as orzo (‘barley’), alfabeti, and nelli. And stuffed pastas like ravioli or tortellini are best with simple sauces such as butter and sage or a plain tomato passata.

I have also discovered some stray orchietta of trivia I would like to share with you:

Apparently Parmesan is not traditionally sprinkled on a fresh tomato sauce, and is never added to a fish sauce. Oops! We, sacrilegious souls that we are, love to throw it on everything.

Sophia Loren famously stated of her curvaceous figure: “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.”

When Elizabeth David, British culinary expert, discovered Italian cuisine in the early fifties and introduced it to the ration-bound post-war England of powdered egg and grey bread, it was a revelation of simplicity and quality ingredients.

Those famous tomato based pasta sauces came into existence less than 200 year ago, only after the tomato arrived in Italy from South America.

Chef Giorgio Locatelli, of Locanda Locatelli in London, claims every Italian is two-thirds pasta.

Yet some Italians tried to quash the tradition: Mussolini planned to convert the Italians to rice, saying “A nation of spaghetti eaters cannot restore Roman civilization!”  And a  now infamous – and probably fascist – poet in the 1930s denounced pasta for making the nation sluggish, and called for its abolition. Tradition and popular opinion was outraged. Pasta remains undefeated on every Italian menu in the world.

spag on treesSo there you have it. Love it or hate it, pasta looks like it’s here to stay. But as a grande finale, do any of you remember the tale of that infamous BBC April Fool that convinced half the British nation (at least!) that spaghetti grows on trees in Switzerland, with its spoof documentary on the harvesting of pasta? We, in our internet wisdom, may feel supercilious, but in 1957 spaghetti was almost unheard of in Britain, and the hoax was a huge success. Apparently many even wrote in to the BBC to discover where to buy a spaghetti tree!

*Adapted from a piece written for Newsflash magazine, April 2014. With thanks to Google for the photos.

Posted in Cooking, Lifestyle | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Exquisite Pleasure of Afternoon Tea

unnamed (4)“Weary, after a dull day, with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised my lips to a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of cake… And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me.”     -  Marcel Proust, 1913

At this time of year, the round of farewells amongst the expat community can make a girl a little melancholy. But I am over-riding the sadness of endless send-offs with a number of inevitably cheerful, chatty afternoons of tea and scones and quite possibly champagne. Today, however, I am alone, sipping tea and nibbling on bite-sized mini burgers at 1837 TWG. And nothing could be nicer, except perhaps the unexpected appearance of a good friend….

You have probably noticed my penchant for afternoon tea by now, and ‘TWG’, with a list of teas more extensive than any wine list I have ever experienced, must surely be the tea connoisseur. With a current selection of more than 800 varieties, the choice would be daunting, except that they have been conveniently classified according to region, country, and time of day. And as if that were not enough there is even a separate tea book with vivid descriptions of the various teas.

Fancy a London High Tea to accompany your cakes? “A demure blend of nostalgic taste, this whole-leaf black tea pays tribute to a cosmopolitan city by showcasing the best of Chinese and Indian savoir-faire unnamed (2)in an enduring cup.”

Or a Literary Tea? “Aromatic, this blend of fruity green tea shields a strong and lingering taste of
moonlit nights and secret trysts. A tea of fairy tale endings.”

Emperor’s White Garden Tea perhaps? “To instill the palate with harmonizing fragrances, freshness and warmth, fine white tea, green tea and highly aromatic roses and jasmine blossoms are blended to evoke a sense of appeasing serenity after the day’s upheavals.”

And I thought the winemakers had cornered the market on evocative adjectives!

Despite an initial reluctance to be wooed by such pretentiousness, I have been converted. Who needs wine, coffee or chocolate when so much adventure can be found in a simple cup of tea? So I am working my way through the list, with a decided preference for the black teas. It is a lucky dip of poetic names likes Ace of Hearts, Royal Orchid, Smoky Russian and Chittagong Hill. And who knew there was more than one type of Earl Grey? TWG lists fourteen. Tea even makes its presence felt in the food menu, flavouring cocktail sauces, macaroons and ice creams and infused into vinaigrettes and jellies.

Whether you feel like breakfast, lunch or afternoon tea, tea is the star of the menu, blending everything together in a fanciful conceit.

So from whence came The Wellness Group and its expertise in tea? The story goes back to the founding of modern Singapore in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles. Established as a trading post of the British East India Company with the permission of the Johor Sultanate, it rapidly developed into a flourishing free port at the crossroads of the SE Asian sea routes, trading in tea and coffee, cotton, sugar and spices.  In 1837, the tea trade in Singapore was formalized with the creation of the Chamber of Commerce. In recognition of the role Singapore has played in the tea trade, The Wellness Group set up 1837 TWG Tea in 2007, continuing a tradition that it claims to have ‘spiced with a touch of sensuality and originality.’

unnamed (3)The history of tea itself begins hundreds of years ago in China, where it was first mentioned around 300AD. The Chinese came to consider it an exotic cure for almost everything and even believed it might be the key to eternal life.

Tea did not arrive in Britain until the mid-seventeenth century, when, thanks to its popularity with the wife of Charles II, Catherine of Braganza, , tea developed an image as a feminine drink, served with a plethora of silver and porcelain accoutrements, and the added bonus of numerous unproven health benefits.

Due to excessive taxes, the price of tea made it an upper class commodity, until prolific smuggling forced the government to lower the taxes, so much so that its connotations of affluence dropped accordingly and it became the drink of the masses.

Tea has even influenced the course of history. In 1773, it played a lead role in America’s fight for independence from Britain, when rebellious colonists emptied hundreds of tea chests into the sea, thus instigating the American Revolution at what came to be known as the Boston Tea Party.

In the nineteenth century, the British obsession with tea led to the Opium War with the Chinese, who resented Britain’s refusal to pay for their tea in silver, as requested, instead paying in that addictive drug, opium. The war, eventually won by the British, led to their acquisition of Hong Kong.

By the 1930s, tea had become a national institution in Britain, glorified by the Lyons Tea Houses, whose waitresses – or ‘nippys’ – were renowned as the most efficient service staff in the country.

Today, tea is the panacea of the nation and an integral part of British culture. Writer George Orwell described it as “one of the main stays of civilization in this country, as well as in Eire, Australia and New Zealand. “ And it has retained its reputation as a cure-all, in a country where every illness or family billy teatragedy is dealt with by immediately putting on the kettle for a cup of tea.

Early Australian settlers became some of the most prolific tea drinkers in the world.  ‘Billy tea,’ now a popular brand of teabags, also refers to the tin can used to make tea over a campfire; the bushman’s kettle, and stars in such national songs as Banjo Paterson’s Waltzing Matilda and in the writings of Henry Lawson’s and D’Arcy Niland.

And so this Australian upholds the habits of her countrymen and women in the Philippines by drinking two pots of tea quite happily in one sitting – although I would perhaps prefer a large Aussie mug to the dainty, shallow tea cups that can be emptied down a thirsty throat in a single gulp.

Posted in Food & Wine, Philippines | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Manila International Schools: part II

Continuing to explore international schools in Manila, I have met some truly inspiring educators in surprising corners of Manila…

AIS.logoThe Australian International School (AIS)

Like a seed, in every child lies the promise of a fruitful tomorrow’ ~ E.P. Esteban, Founder

The Australian International School, formerly Esteban School, is a non-denominational, family-run, private school, the only international school in the Philippines to offer the Western Australian Certificate of Education (WACE), recognized by both the Australian and Philippine Departments of Education. AIS even observes the Australian school year  in Grades 11 and 12 (February to November), in order to make transition to Australian universities easier.

The Australian school was originally a pre-school born in Dasmariñas in 1964. Founded by educator Eleanor Esteban, she initially ran it from her front porch.   As the Eleanor Esteban Learning Center, it was one of the first schools in the Philippines to focus on early years education and it ran exclusively as a preschool for over thirty years before opening its first Grade 1 class in the 1990s. In 2000 the school moved over to the current campus at 2332 Chino Roces Ave, Taguig in 2000 and since then has been growing up, one grade at a time.  Today there are 180 students from Kindergarten to Year 12, and the first Year 12 group graduated in 2012. The student cohort has strong representation from the Philippines, as well as an eclectic mix of Australians and Americans, Uzbeks and Koreans. There is even a family from Sierra Leone. Teachers are hired locally, so the staff is mostly Filipino.  Eleanor Esteban is still involved in the school as one of the Directors, but she leaves the day-to-day running of AIS in the capable hands of daughter Christine Norton (School Administrator), and sons David (coordinator of WACE), and Antonio (Business Manager).

For Australian expatriate Anastasia, AIS has been the best choice for her two daughters, Tyler and Sophia. The price was right, and they decided that following the Australian curriculum would be useful if they were to head home before the girls finished school. It also meant the sisters could stay together, while any available alternatives meant sending them to different schools.

Anastasia says she has a good relationship with Ms Norton, and always feels comfortable to approach her if they have any issues. “Tina listens to your concerns and addresses them well,” she acknowledges.

Anastasia is also pleased that this family team has a vested interest in the school. She has watched closely as the school has developed over the past five years, and while she admits the location is not ideal, and ‘the facilities are not at all impressive’ compared with many larger schools, she is delighted with the high academic expectations, and says the girls have been very happy. They love the tiny, tight-knit school community, and feel safe here. And the smaller class sizes means greater individual attention from the teachers. Sometimes, Anastasia confesses, she worries that the small cohort can be a bit limiting, but says it has been a really caring environment for the girls.

Tina Norton and David Esteban, a warm and welcoming team, are also keen to promote the advantages of a smaller school: the family feel; the sense of belonging, and the one-on-one attention the children get from their teachers is a great bonus, they tell me.

And of course, AIS students, parents and staff are involved with community development projects that not only  provide help to those in need, but teach students about being generous and involved citizens.

The recent acquisition of extra buildings and a potential sports field will give them a lot more space and allow them to increase student population to around 250, but the school has grown slowly over the years, and they say firmly that there is no sense of urgency to expand any faster, and risk losing the intimacy of the campus.

The Esteban focus on achieving international standard teaching methods at AIS has developed over the years. It began when  they were establishing MBA programs from Australia and the UK here in Manila. In 2011 the school took on the Australian curriculum as a way of ensuring quality education and a clear pathway to university for their students.

“Australia is widely recognized as having one of the best educational systems in the world… and the [Australian] government ensures that quality is maintained and that research is continuously conducted to develop curriculums and best practices for learning.”

david explains that the Perth link was an obvious choice,  as Perth is in the same time zone as Manila, and this allowed easy communication with curriculum moderators in WA, as well as allowing exams to run concurrently with high schools in Perth.

In 2014, AIS is not only celebrating fifty years of Esteban education, but has also received the AUSTRADE-Australia Business Alliance Award from ANZCHAM in recognition of its successful efforts to forge strong links with Australia.

beaconlogoThe Beacon

Veritas et lumen ~ truth and light

The Beacon is an independent, non-profit, co-educational school, for both local and international students from Kindergarten to 8th grade that opened in 2001 just next door to AIS on Chino Roces avenue.

The founding trustees were a group of parents who wanted something different: they designed a small school to provide an innovative, inquiry-based global education within a community that would foster a love for Filipino values and culture, and service to society.

Thus the student cohort of 280 is largely Filipino, with less than 10% transient families. Yet there are still severeal expatriate families who, for a number of reasons, chose to send their children here, and have been pleased with their decision.

I spoke with Linda, a New Zealander who has already spent four year in Manila, and has a daughter at Beacon, in Grade 3. Waiting list issues originally led her to Beacon with her four year old, and she has never looked back.

Thanks to the small class sizes (limited to sixteen in the lower years, and a maximum of twenty in grades 6-8) her daughter, Teuila, settled in quickly. Linda likes the strong foundation of Filipino culture, and the fact that all the children learn Tagalog from Kindergarten to Grade 8. “I didn’t want [Teulia] to grow up in bubble,” she says honestly.

“Some people will make a judgement on looks,” she admits, but she believes aesthetics is a Western hang-up and shouldn’t be the deciding factor when choosing a school. Beacon “has everything, except swimming,” she adds firmly, and she is happy to supplement when necessary with outside clubs.

The school is also very inclusive of parents, who were recently involved in a unit on migration, several parents coming to speak to the children about why they moved countries. In recognition of Manila’s first migrant population, this unit also included a trip to Chinatown, the Chinese-Filipino museum, and a Chinese temple, as well as an opportunity to taste Chinese food. Beacon consciously seeks out the wider community for its students, and takes a number of classes off campus.

The school is non-secular, so all students study either world religion or Christian Living Education. The school can also prepare children for first communion and confirmation.  Given that we  are living in a Catholic country, Linda likes the fact that religious education is part of the curriculum. While she says there is no pressure on her daughter to follow Catholic strictures, she thinks ‘it’s nice to say a prayer,’ and is happy that her daughter is learning different ways people celebrate Christianity ‘without any judgement call.’

The gently spoken School Dean, Ms Mary Catherine Chua, explains later that students are taught sensitivity and awareness of differences, but also explore an awareness of commonality.

As I follow Community Relations Coordinator, Amaya Aboitiz, through corridors filled with bright and cheerful student artwork, she laughingly tells me she cannot stay away from the school. Amaya has worked at Beacon as both a teacher and in administration, and keeps coming back, after several stints abroad. She takes me on a tour of the school that finishes in the auditorium, where the year sixes (11-12 year olds) are completing a research project  in which the children may choose to research anyone who has made an impact on the world. Tonight they will all be making a presentation to staff and parents entitled Night of the Notables.

Long-term American expatriate, Mary Chua, arrived at Beacon in January 2012 to work as Assistant to the Headmaster. Just over eighteen months later, in August 2013, she was made Dean. Mary explains that Beacon celebrates learning, and firmly believes in expanding the children’s capabilities. “Kids are more open to learning, and we cannot limit them by dictating what they can learn or telling them how much they will understand.”

The IB based Primary Years and Middle Years Programs originated in Geneva and Singapore, and provides a curriculum framework based on eight subject areas, enhanced by concepts of intercultural awareness, integrated learning and communication. The program is rigorous, but inclusive, she explains, and there is no ranking, to avoid competitiveness. Nor is the curriculum content-driven, but is, instead, a conceptual linking of cross-disciplinary skills and knowledge which help the children to retain more and stay more enthusiastic and engaged.

At the end of Year 8, many students choose to move on to the High School. Beacon Academy, forty five minutes away in Laguna, travelling down on school buses to this beautiful, purpose-built campus.

bsmlogoThe British School Manila (BSM)

The British School began its life in the old Union Church in 1976. It travelled to Merville in 1980, and finally settled in Taguig in 2002, on a new, purpose-built campus. Almost forty years since its humble beginnings, BSM has grown exponentially from a tiny primary school of thirty six students to a thriving school of 930 students, aged 3-18. While BSM has always given priority to British passport holders and families from Commonwealth embassies, there is also a strong local cohort.

In 2013-14 it is full to capacity and sporting a smart new logo. Headmaster, Simon Mann, assured me that there is no desire to expand either the population or the school building any further, and risk losing its sense of a close-knit, family community. The building of a new library with learning support and multi-purpose space is currently underway, but any further growth will simply enhance what already exists, and while there are plans afoot to develop the site over the next two or three years, there will be no building on the existing recreational land. He acknowledges that the school is well-equipped with classrooms, but he wants to see existing classrooms adapted to reflect a far more open environment, to enhance opportunities for a more collaborative education style. And he admits he would also like to add an auditorium.

Simon Mann had already spent a decade in South East Asia when he took on the role of headmaster at BSM in 2012, and has proceeded to broaden the horizons of the school with the aid of staff, parents and students, with a firm eye on redesigning the school for the future. Students and parents have always cherished the sense of family and community that is an inherent part of life at BSM, and Mr Mann is keen to make the education as inclusive as the environment.

“It’s not about facilities and it’s not about image,” Simon says, “it’s about learning, and taking the children on a journey.”

To this end, he has held forums with parents, including them in the process of developing the school, and has taken heed of the feedback. Already he has worked with staff and parents to broaden co-curricular opportunities, and integrate all the students into the various sports programs, previously considered a little exclusive.

Mr Mann believes the twenty first century will need to introduce a more skills-based curriculum, one that works at developing interpersonal skills, problem-solving and collaboration. “We need independent, problem solving, critical thinkers who have a breadth of opportunity previously unrealized.”

He has therefore started introducing these concepts, already inherent in the IB curriculum in years 11 and 12, to all year groups, ‘so that these things come naturally to the kids by the time they reach the top of the school.’

So why would parents choose BSM? I ask. “Why wouldn’t you?” is his simple, smiling response.

Diana moved her daughter Aurora to BSM in Year 3 (2nd Grade).  She felt that the British school would provide a good education for their daughter, even though she will eventually go to the USA.

“We had heard BSM had an excellent primary department,” she told me, and says they have been “pleasantly surprised and impressed by the quality of education, and continue to be impressed by quality of teachers and their credentials.”

She tells me that in past couple of years there have been several positive developments at BSM. Firstly, the career counselling with Paul Yap and his team is great and it seems that BSM is no longer predominantly focused on British universities but is also happy to facilitate applications to American colleges.

Secondly, BSM has started to set up procedures and mechanisms to facilitate communication between parents and school about syllabi, marking guides, assessments and homework. It has a long way to go, Diana says, as it’s still not consistent or updated regularly, but it is getting there.

She also praises the availability of teachers to discuss any issues, and the fact that they always respond immediately.

Her only real complaint is that parking continues to be a nightmare – “it is not getting better and it has yet to be properly addressed.” She says she has watched the sudden growth of the school in the last couple of years and does worry that the higgledy-piggledy campus seems to have grown beyond its capacity.

Yet fifteen year old Aurora still believes the smaller size of BSM compares favourably to larger high schools. She says she loves the fact that the teachers know all their students so well, they give really good feedback. And it cannot have grown so large, she feels, as she still knows every kid in the school.

 

 

 

 

Posted in Lifestyle, Philippines | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Mad about Malls

Bill Bryson once wrote “Where once we created civilizations, now we create shopping malls.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Metro Manila, where new shopping malls seem to pop up daily, and like the Once-ler they ‘are figuring on biggering and biggering’ (Dr. Zeus, The Lorax). Creating malls seems to have become a national passtime in the Philippines, and a global mania over the last century. Yes, I am exaggerating, but only a little.The old-fashioned high street with its individual butcher, baker and candlestick maker has been replaced with increasingly enormous enclosed malls full of franchised diners, cinemas, coffee shops, bookshops, skating rinks, department stores, designer shops and bowling alleys. Indeed the mall has become as much a social and entertainment venue as a shopping centre, shut off from the bother of weather, be it either too wet, too hot or too snowy for outdoor activities. In Manila, you might even find a chapel amongst the stores, at Greenbelt, for example, where the open-air dome sits quietly in the centre of the park, encircled by no less than five malls, both indoor and outdoor.

The first shopping mall in Metro Manila was Crystal Arcade, an art deco building designed by Andres Luna de San Pedro y Pardo de Tavera and opened in 1932 on Escolta Street in mall.crystalBinondo. The first modern shopping mall arrived in Quezon City in 1976, and since then Manila seems to have gone mad for malls.
I loathe shopping, so, despite sympathizing with Mr. Brown’s sense of irony and his underlying aversion to malls, I am not totally averse to having everything I need in a one-stop mall. Get it done and get out has always been my motto. And why walk yourself into a melting puddle of perspiration dashing between street front shops, with the added bonus of choking on black jeepney fumes when you can lose yourself for days down the walkways of the ever-expanding Glorietta in Makati, the SM Megamall in Ortigas or the vast acres of SM Mall of Asia at Manila Bay instead.

One of the latest additions to the local landscape is SM Aura sm aurain Bonifacio Global City, an upmarket mall overshadowing the older, more down-to-earth Market! Market! (so good we named it twice?), with its air-conditioned market and its outdoor, covered fruit and flower market. Described on its website as being ‘at the forefront of sustainable design and energy efficiency; actively taking bold steps towards a cleaner and better environment for the future’ SM Aura truly stands out with its futuristic design. Supermalls have become an addiction for SM – or Shoe Mart – who now has almost fifty shopping malls in the Philippines, and branches in China as well. Starting out in 1958 as a simple shoe store owned by businessman Henry See, it became a chain in the 60s. By the 1970s, Shoemart had changed its name to SM with a full-line department store. The first SM supermall opened in 1985 in Quezon City. SM Malls have since become an empire.

Our own Power Plant Mall at Rockwell is one of the cozier malls in Manila, which suits me down to the ground. While the endless, winding queues and the snail-like pace of the cashiers ppmalldrives me mad, I have learned to duck down early and get everything done before business really gets started. Well, early in Filipino terms, where malls don’t open till 11am and stay open till 10pm! I guess the shoppers amongst you think I am missing the point, but it works for me. That way, I maintain my equilibrium, and some poor defenseless shop assistant doesn’t have to tolerate me grumping because I can’t handle the crush. An added bonus if you live at Rockwell: the staff provide a door-to-door delivery service, by pushing your trolley all the way home.

Dashing over to Rustan’s supermarket on a frantic Sunday, I found the mall choc-a-block with families who meet for church in the fourth floor chapel, followed by a family lunch in one of the plethora of restaurants, and maybe a trip for the ladies to Dashing Divas for a manicure.  I had left it too late again! I finally arrived with my trolley in front of a sweetly smiling cashier. Swallowing my Scrooge-like ill-humour, I reminded myself that she was only doing her job, and it was hardly her fault I don’t like crowds. We had quite a chatty, friendly exchange as she slowly sorted through my shopping. Thank you so much, I said, for once sincerely, and leaned forward to read her name tag. “Dimple.” I couldn’t have said it out loud without giggling, but I smiled all the way home.

*With thanks to Google images

Posted in Lifestyle, Philippines | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Manila Interational Schools: part I

As the expatriate community in Metro Manila continues to expand, many of the better known International Schools are bursting at the seams, waiting lists are growing longer and parents are struggling to find places for their children. So I have been exploring beyond the obvious choices and have compiled a list of international schools available to expatriate  – and local – families, talking with staff and parents as to what makes their particular school a good choice.

MGIS.5My first stop was the Mahatma Gandhi International School (MGIS) in Pasig, just round the corner from Nomads Sports Club, where I was greeted in the entrance hall by this message from Gandhi’s own lips painted on the wall: ‘In a gentle way you can shake the world.’

Despite it’s name, MGIS is not specifically an Indian school, it has quite simply been named for a wise man, recognized by the world for his high ideals and his vision of peace and universal brotherhood.

The new Headmistress. Rebecca Warren is a vibrant, intelligent, committed young English woman, boundlessly enthusiastic about developing Mahatma Gandhi in every area: curriculum, structure, staffing and facilities, not to mention expanding the student population by thirty percent.

Soon after arriving at the school, Ms Warren made a detailed analysis of the schools strengths and areas for improvement. Having gained the support of the Board for further development, she is jumping into a hefty planning schedule with glee.

MGIS currently has 138 students with a maximum capacity of about 220, from kindergarten to year 12. Even with such small numbers, the school has a full range of specialist staff with which to provide a quality and a very personal education. The children learn Mandarin from kindergarten and there are the seeds of a Stephanie Alexander style kitchen garden in the grounds.

Rebecca knows all her students, introducing them confidently as we walk the corridors. The children I chat with all agree that the smaller class sizes are great and the school has a warm, family feel to it. No pack mentality here: staff and students all interact, and parents too: a flagging PTA was revived last year with Rebecca’s full support and encouragement.

“The kids here feel happy and safe,” Ms. Warren tells me. Many senior students run lunchtime clubs for the younger students and sports teams cross year groups to build numbers for full teams. There are also many individual sports, such as  fencing, tae kwon do and archery – the archery coach is a former Olympic silver medalist.

Four percent of students with special educational needs are in the full time Learning Support Program at MGIS, and there are several more in mainstream classes, who receive extra time for dyslexia or other learning challenges.

Gayle, Australian mother of three,  enrolled all her children at MGIS in 2010. Her older son Remy is fifteen and has Downs Syndrome, and although he is high functioning and used to mainstream schools in Australia, Gayle found other international schools in Manila did not have the teachers to support special education programs for him. Advice from home was that this move would be too hard and she shouldn’t come. Gayle ignored the advice, determined to keep her family together, and went to work to find an acceptable international school that would be happy to take Remy. Purely special needs schools were not an option as Gayle wanted her children to be at the same school. Mahatma Gandhi International School ticked the boxes.

MGIS.6It hasn’t always been easy, she admitted. Her daughter found the move difficult and Gayle and her husband have had to work hard with MGIS to create a program for Remy that she feels gets the best out of him. “It has been a learning process,” she explained, “for the staff to understand our expectations.” But she feels now that they were lucky to have found MGIS. Remy loves the school, and their younger son, Cassidy, aged 10, is blissful at MGIS, and has a starring role in the school’s sports program, which Gayle feels has been wonderful for his confidence. “It doesn’t have all the bells and whistles [of larger schools],” she told me, “but it does have the benefits of a small school with international level education.” And Gayle is obviously delighted with the new Headmistress, her leadership qualities and her vision for the school.

International School Manila (ISM) is one of the best known options for expatriates in Manila, but I wanted to take a look beyond the website.

bearcat-logo-300x2863High School Principle, Bill Brown, is a friendly, assured New Zealander. Prior to his appointment at ISM, Bill spent eleven years at Jakarta International School, where he watched ISM ‘rise from the ashes’ as the school relocated from downtown Makati to a purpose built campus in the Fort in 2001. David Toze was employed as the new Superintendent about the same time as the new school opened its gates, and Bill says he has been leading huge improvements in structure and discipline ever since.

Mr. Brown describes how ISM was once perceived as a private Filipino school, and there is still a strong core of local students. This has the benefit of providing a sense of continuity that many international schools lack, where the student turnover is more fluid. This also means the local culture has a strong presence, recognized by an annual Filipiniana Day. Bill is also very aware of the positive student culture at the school, which has a good reputation for diversity and tolerance.

ISM really broadens horizons, he says. Expatriate children acquire a wider vision of the world by default, but he feels ISM takes this global vision to new heights. With more than 70 nationalities amongst the students and faculty (with names I can’t even pronounce, like Kyrgyz Republic) he believes there is true international-mindedness amongst both staff and students.

His wife Rena O’Regan, parent and teacher at ISM for seven years, agrees.  “Our kids grow up as real international kids,” she says.  Also, as so many are used to moving home regularly, she has noticed that the students here recognize how hard it can be to resettle, and seem much more accepting of differences in each other.

But the thing she loves best about ISM is that it’s cool to be sporty and smart, which is a completely different cultural ethos to many schools in Australia and New Zealand. “One of the Varsity rugby players even plays the cello” she says.

‘At ISM there are opportunities and encouragement for the kids to excel in whatever interests them,’ Bill adds. And the list of extra-curricular activities are impressive: a full sports program, robotics, film, United Nations, dance and drama. There is even talk of developing an on-line chess tournament.

Mr. Brown says that initially he planned to stay at ISM for three to four years, but ‘we saw no reason to move.’ As a parent and Headmaster, Bill is very proud of the high quality of education at ISM, which he describes as outstanding, and ‘a world class facility.’

Suzi moved to the Philippines from Sydney at the beginning of the 2013-14 school year, and enrolled all her four daughters at ISM. She says she ‘couldn’t be happier’ with the school, and the girls have generally settled in well. ‘The school community has been so welcoming and informative,’ she enthuses, although she admits that the resulting numbers of emails with four children at the school can get a bit overwhelming. That aside, she is happy with all aspects of the school, especially the extensive extra curriculum options – although as the mother of four girls she has noticed that they need more dance classes. But they are also enjoying the opportunity to explore new things, she adds.

Suzi also likes the school’s community service program. A first visit to a local orphanage proved a little confronting, but she is pleased that the girls get exposed to poverty far more than would have been the case in Australia. There, schools raised money for various charities, but the kids never saw where that money ended up. here it is a real hands-on approach.

resizepic.phpThe King’s School, Manila is part of the British Schools Foundation, a network of international schools that promotes high quality British-style education from Brazil to Burma. It is the new kid on the block in Manila, but it already has a reputation for high quality, exclusive education, and they are so far filling the classrooms just by word-of-mouth.

Peter Lindsay has been Headmaster here for twelve months. A quietly spoken New Zealander, he has spent time teaching in the UK and is therefore familiar with the British system of education. I asked him what attracts families to Kings. “We are relaxed, and we have high expectations of the children’s behaviour,” he told me. When I query this apparent oxymoron, he explained that children need to know the boundaries, and then they are able to relax within the security of those boundaries.

Mr Lindsay doesn’t believe kids wake up intending to be badly behaved, they just get bored. He claims that between Kings discipline, interesting study programs and high expectations of the children, they have very few issues with bad behaviour as there is neither the time nor the inclination to be bored and misbehave.

Parents and children love the intimate class sizes and the ratio of teachers to students. Classes average fifteen children to two adults, and if the year groups grow much larger than this, the class is split in two. At the moment there are just over 90 kids from Kindergarten to year 7, and each year they will add a grade until the current year 7s make it through to A levels. And there is plenty of room for this expansion.

“We don’t try to compete with the larger international schools,” the Headmaster explained, “just with ourselves.”

I arrived on the last day of term to find Sports Day in full swing. Parents had gathered beneath a marquee on the side of the playing field, and the kids were having a 4-team tug of war. Excitement was high – and loud.

“Parents are always welcome here,” Peter tells me. The school even has an online portal where teachers can communicate with parents on a daily basis – a kind of class Facebook page. “There is lots of communication,” he says.

School events for the whole family are frequent, and always include food. Like our Filipino hosts, Mr Lindsay  firmly believes that eating together builds community. Watching the interaction between staff, parents and kids on Sports Day, it would seem Kings already has a strong sense of community.

British mum, Jo, is really pleased with the decision to send Rory and Esme to Kings. She feels that the kids settled much more easily into smaller classes – a serious consideration for one small four year old who was initially very distressed about moving from the UK.

Kings ‘has a lovely family feel’ she tells me ‘and it’s not overwhelming for the parents or the kids.’ She also believes that Kings provide a great quality education: ‘better than they would get at home.’ Any problems they anticipated were never realized, and they have found it a surprisingly easy transition. Even the journey from Makati has not proved too problematic, as they can travel to and from school in just 20-30 minutes. And ‘the school bus system seems really good too.’

Jo loves the benefits that come with smaller classes, and the interaction that occurs between the different ages in sport, in the classroom and in the canteen. ‘The whole school was involved in the school play,’ she says, ‘they loved it!’

*Adapted from an article written for ANZA News, March/April 2014. With thanks to Google for the images.

Posted in Local Culture, Philippines | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment