The Flying Fish Café

IMG_0462 (2)The Flying Fish Café at Port Elliot on the south eastern lip of the Fleurieu Peninsula. A 42 degree day in February. A jetty. Scalding sand. Basking children. A lapis lazuli sky reflected in a glittering sea. Norfolk pines march in single file along the shoreline. Swimmers shriek with glee as they get tossed about by an obstreperous surf. Heat haze off a carpark crammed with perspiring station wagons. Small kids dashing bare foot across the melting tarmac desperate to reach the grass. Picnics on the lawn by the playground. Huge tubs of sunscreen lying on toasting towels. Naked toddlers basted in sand, like schnitzels.

We watch, relaxed and just a little smug, from our air conditioned eerie above the beach. A foodie friend has often raved about this little gem of a restaurant on the foreshore overlooking the glorious Horseshoe Bay. At the beach for fish and chips, it no longer comes in butchers paper with the ubiquitous chicken salt and brown vinegar, the chips IMG_0455 (2)already slightly soggy, the heavy batter flaking off as you wrap it in a strip of paper to protect your fingers, then douse it in mayonnaise. And there is no risk here of sand getting kicked over your chips.

The name Flying Fish has lead us to believe it was seafood restaurant, but the fish choices were surprisingly limited. Apparently it is more about showcasing South Australian produce, and having made our decisions, there were no complaints about the quality. (Although pricewise, $36 for fish and chips seems a little intense.)

Flying Fish is a small but sunny venue, with barely half a dozen tables and maybe thirty diners. The wooden floors make it seem like twice that many, to the detriment of the older members of our group – those over forty – who struggle to hear. Still, our waitresses are charming: warm, friendly and happy to oblige. Once everyone has gathered, I order a bottle of my favourite Rockford’s Alicante Bouchet rosé, and a couple of appetizers to share: a delicate, freshly made salmon dip bedecked in cucumber ribbons and triangles of crunchy lavosh and a salt and pepper squid with mango IMG_0457 (2)salad. We descend like a flock of seagulls.

For main course, Ben and I decide on King George Whiting from Streaky Bay, lightly dipped in a batter of Cooper’s Ale, crispy and moist, served with a small, fresh salad and a solid serve of reasonably crispy chips. With the Alicante, it is utter perfection. Having given up on chips and chocolate for Lent, my daughter chooses the Wakefield lamb (rare) served with roasted Mediterranean vegetables, a fetta and rocket pesto and quinoa (well, if it was cous cous, as the menu suggested, it has serious obesity issues). Mum and The Aunt both go for a smoked chicken salad with paw paw and toasted almonds, and conversation is negligible until their plates are scraped clean. Dad decides more calamari is called for, so as the salt and pepper squid puts in a second appearance, I surmise it is good.

Dessert anyone? Well, I absolutely have to taste the honey and lavender parfait, accessorized in honeycomb sprinkles and something delicately designed in chocolate that would be fitting on a Melbourne cup hat. The lavender flavour is impressive, the parfait luxuriously creamy. With help from my neighbours, it doesn’t last long enough to melt evenIMG_0464 slightly.

My daughter delights in the strawberry tart, and pronounces the quenelle of strawberry ice cream especially delicious. We help her out on the honeycomb sprinkles. The Aunt chooses a rather sophisticated affogato (espresso coffee poured over ice cream) laced with Cointreau and garnished with whole coffee beans. The teaspoons fly across the table like hummingbirds for quick, surreptitious dips.

We finish our late lunch with a quick dip in the sea to cool off before driving back to the city. The sea is tousled and nippy, but we are flushed and overheated, after prancing like Lipizzaner stallions across the molten tarmac and fiery sand, and find the cold water wonderfully refreshing. Only briefly, however –  we have no desire to melt messily like parfait in the sun or end up like pork scratchings on this sizzling summer afternoon.

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In the course of a once-in-a-lifetime family reunion for our parents Golden Wedding Anniversary, many well-known and oft-repeated tales,  some gospel, many apocryphal, came out of the closet for yet another airing. In light of the fact that many of those present at the celebrations have enjoyed the warmth and hospitality of the ‘Bride & Groom’ over the past fifty years, this seems the right time to air this particular tale – with apologies to my mother, and allowing for a good dose of poetic license…

garfield1 The first time I invited my One & Only home for Sunday lunch, my mother made lasagna. It was coated in all the right sense of occasion: a family gathering to welcome the latest addition; sharing, caring and hospitality, and a welcoming hand across the cultures. L’Italiano meets the Skippys.

Only, I guess Mum had never made lasagna before, not even a practice run. It was brought proudly out to the table in the garden, that large baking tray smelling quite wonderful. Our mouths moistened in anticipation. The cheese on top had melted perfectly and was just tinged a light golden brown from the grill. And there the fantasy ended.

In those halcyon days of grey bolognaise and over-cooked spaghetti, culinary expertise in foreign cuisine was rare in Anglo-Australian suburbia. Who knew that one was supposed to soaked the dried pasta sheets before laying them on top of the sauce? Not my mother, certainly. The serving spoon rose ceremoniously, and we all waited with baited breath, salivating… and watched it crack through the pasta like a rock through a glass window. We flinched. “Oops, a little dry round the edges,” Mum exclaimed cheerfully, wading bravely on. She lifted a large shard of pasta topped with cheese onto the nearest plate, exposing the sauce beneath. We all peered in, ever optimistic.

While none of us – except my One & Only – was familiar with how a lasagna should look, I think we all knew this garfield5wasn’t quite right. Beneath the crust lay a pond of pink juice. In the pond, whole plum tomatoes bobbed gently. It felt suddenly like Halloween. And among the bobbing ‘apples’, tiny kernels of yellow corn ducked and wove across the lake. “Corn?” asked some brave soul cautiously. “O I had half a tin left over in the back of the fridge,” our innovative mother explained brightly. “And the mince?” I hear you wondering. Yes, well. Grey and lumpy, it had sunk in complete ignominy to the bottom of the lake.

Yes, she had followed a recipe, but like too many cookbooks it hadn’t really explained the process clearly. So there was no advice to ‘smash, dice or puree the whole tomatoes,’ or ‘cook the sauce down for a couple of hours till it thickens;’ no useful tips for those of us who didn’t learn to cook by helping our grandmothers in the kitchen, or who grew up in the centuries before Nigella, Jamie and Julia Childs. Like Sleeping Beauty’s fairy godmothers trying to make a birthday cake without magic, my darling mum took each step quite literally. The One & Only was sweet, polite, forgiving, her four children not so much, and Mum’s corn lasagna has gone into the annals of family history as one of her most outstanding efforts.

Yet, while neither Food of the Gods, nor aphrodisiac, it perfectly illustrated the kindness and innate courtesy of both my mother and my future husband. So perhaps a culinary gem – of sorts!

*Adapted from an article written for Chop Soey, Januray 2015, and with thanks to Google Images for the perfect Garfield cartoons!

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“The Air is Full of Spices”

spices1Where would the world be without spice? That pinch of fairy dust that transforms the simplest dish into something other, heightening our senses with their exotic aromas, and adding a glorious depth of colour and flavour to our cooking. From seed and bark and bud and berry, spices are wisps of volatile oils that were once craved by kings, endowed with the glamour of opulence and blessed with the belief in their powers to ensure good health and enhance virility.

The history of exploration and colonization in the modern world is written in the kitchen spice rack: from black pepper, saffron and salt, to cinnamon, cloves and coriander. Traders and explorers were sent scuttling round the globe to claim not only these fragrant exotica but, on behalf of their rulers, the countries from whence they came. Rare and expensive, spices wove an alluring tale of privilege, power, romance and adventure, and often became a currency as precious as gold or silver. The Chinese even believed that cinnamon conferred immortality. With such a reputation, is it any wonder that the lust for spice became insatiable? Arabs, Romans, Vikings, Venetians, Turks, Spaniards, Dutch and English – every major civilization supported and spread its dominions through the Spice Trade, which drove the world economy from the end of the Middle Ages until the end of the nineteenth century.

The Arabs, strategically placed beside the sea link between east and west, monopolized trading for centuries. The Romans, with a keen appetite for spices and other outlandish ingredients, briefly elbowed their way into the business and sailed down to Malabar, while the Silk Road gave them access to central Asia and China.  Aromatic herbs  such as coriander, cumin, laurel and lovage, rue, mint and mustard became the culinary flavours of the day while the Roman spice rack focussed on pepper, saffron, cardamom and ginger. After the collapse of Rome, international trade died down, only to be resurrected from the 11th century onward by the reopening of the Silk Road, returning Crusaders, and the writings of Italian merchant Marco Polo.

In the early fifteenth century European explorers Vasco de Gama and Columbus introduced the Europeans to India andcastlekitchenlg South America respectively, opening up maritime trade routes around the globe that would make hundreds of new flavours accessible to European kitchens.

Arabia and China, Malabar, Madagascar and Malaya, the names of their origins are as exotic, aromatic and mellifluous as the spices themselves, which appear to have been scattered round the globe like confetti by a thoughtful god with culinary aspirations. James Joyce once wrote, however, that God created food, but the Devil invented spices, which is a legitimate assumption when you consider how many wars have been waged on their account. Spices were both highly prized and highly priced, their sources often shrouded in mystery, as traders wove complex fantasies to confuse their competitors. It was a fierce and risky business, and bloodshed was often at the end of the treasure hunt.

As the Spice Trade burgeoned, mediaeval cuisine was soon characterized by a passion for spice, each region selecting its favourites.  Spices were still only available to the wealthy, however, as the peasantry could never have afforded the exorbitant prices. This was to change. With European expansion into Asia and South America, the modern era of food globalization had begun. With growing demand came cultivation, and eventually prices dropped until spices were no longer luxury items on a shopping list. By the twentieth century, modern transport and refrigeration had spread the net of globalization ever wider for new markets, new spices. One source of new spices, however, was almost overlooked.

Lemon_myrtleAustralian Aborigines used indigenous herbs and spices to flavour their food for thousands of years before British colonists arrived in the eighteenth century. The new settlers barely acknowledged the native flora and fauna, finding them strange and unfamiliar. They preferred to cultivate plants and animals they knew from home. Over the last thirty years, however, from Sydney to Outback Australia, new Australians have finally begun to recognize the potential of Australian native spices, thus adding another element to this fusion cuisine. Wattleseed and lilly pilly, lemon myrtle and mountain pepper are the trendy new tastes of modern Australian cuisine. As chefs experiment with an expanded spice rack, food writers experiment with the language of taste to describe them.

Spices have also played a part in the language of romantic poetry, their intoxicating aromas inspiring the imaginations and passions of the poets in much the same way their flavours had piqued the taste buds of aristocratic circles.

One spice, a little shy and unassuming, that has sat at the back of the spice rack for centuries, is allspice. Native to Jamaica and Central America, it was originally  – and unimaginatively – baptized pimento by sixteenth century Spanish explorers (a derivation of the Spanish word for pepper) because they decided that the dried berries looked like peppercorns. The British, equally unimaginative, christened it allspice, because they thought its aroma had tones of several other spices, namely cloves, pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg.

In fact, the modest allspice has a broad range of uses. The Mayans used it as an embalming agent in the first millennium AD. Believed to have medicinal qualities, it was a traditional remedy for indigestion and colds. While mediaeval logic may have been a bit skewed in regards to natural cures and tonics, modern scientific research has actually qualified some of their suppositions. Today scientists suggest allspice may also contain antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, sedative, antiseptic, antiviral and antifungal properties. A recent study also uncovered the fact thatallspice allspice contains a compound called ericifolin, which could help to fight prostate cancer.

In the kitchen, allspice has a wide variety of uses too, from flavouring chocolate, cakes and pies, to stews and sausages. Indians season their curries with it, Scandinavians use the berries in pickled herring and sauerkraut.  Allspice makes its way into pates and smoked meats. Common in Caribbean cuisine, it is essential for jerked meat, seasoning and pickling, moles and marinades.  It is also used to flavour liqueurs such as Benedictine and Chartreuse.

For me, allspice is the heady fragrance of Christmases past, present and future.  Scooped up once a year from the depths of the spice cupboard, the little jar is dusted off and shaken up to help rejoice in the dusky richness of flaming Christmas puddings, to lift a thick and cloying pumpkin pie, to give a piquant hint of nostalgia to the mulled wine.   Allspice is a must for baking the gingerbread men to hang on the tree, and it is an essential oil that mingles decadently, sentimentally with bergamot oil to weave a spell of Christmas joy around your home. It is truly the taste and scent of Christmas.

First published in Chop Soy, Issue 1, January 2015, and with thanks to Google Images for the pictures.

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The Scottish Bard

“Fair and full is your honest, jolly face, great chieftain of the sausage race!                                                                          Above them all you take your place, stomach, tripe, or intestines:                                                                                                Well are you worthy of a grace as long as my arm.”                                                                                                                                 ~To a Haggis (translation), by Robbie Burns

o-ROBERTBURNS-facebookBurns Night. An evening in mid-winter dedicated to drinking, toasting and honoring a much loved and respected 18th century Scottish poet. A supper and a celebration in commemoration of  the man who wrote the remix of “Auld Lang Syne” that popular ballad with which to bid adieu to the past year on New Year’s Eve – or Hogmanay in the local lingo.  Burns was a prolific writer of poetry and songs, such as: Address to the Haggis and another to the Toothache; to Scotch Drink, ‘gud ale’ and ‘a peck o maut (malt whisky); a plethora of poems about women, such as The Red, Red, Rose and Kissing My Katie; To a Mouse, To a Louse, and To a Mountain Daisy. Then there is the oddly titled “Complimentary Versicles to Jessie Lewars.”

Burns had a wicked sense of humour and an irreverent strain that has kept him popular for more than two hundred years. His poetry is both satirical and sentimental, and has been called ‘a poet for all seasons’ with a broad understanding of humanity, its imperfections and its virtues. He is highly regarded as a disciple of the eighteenth century Romantic Movement, which emphasized intense emotion and the beauty of nature. Burns was also a strong political proponent of both liberalism and socialism.

Burns Night, introduced after his death, was, and is, a night dedicated to drinking, toasting and honoring this much loved and respected poet.

Our evening’s formalities began with a cheery welcome from the Chieftain, followed by a 17th century prayer, the Selkirk Grace, and the presentation of the haggis. For those unfamiliar with it, haggis is a savoury pudding containing lamb offal minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, and salt, mixed with stock, and stuffed into a sausage casing, then simmered in boiling water for three hours. Larousse Gastronomique claims that “although its description is not immediately appealing, haggis has an excellent nutty texture and delicious savoury flavour”.

The haggis duly appeared on a large silver platter, carried by the Chieftain’s son and accompanied by a kilted piper. Itcastle.3 looked suspiciously like a super-sized Christmas pudding. As I watched and listened, I was amused to realize that the ceremony bore a startling resemblance to the Holy Communion service, as the speaker presented the haggis and the whisky, like bread and wine, before sharing it with his off-siders. The haggis was then ceremoniously hacked in twain with a large dagger, toasted with the whisky, and the banquet officially began.

Tonight, the tent on the rooftop at the Dusit Thani was a far cry from the lochs and mountains of Bonny Scotland, but it seems that Manila has quite a contingent of patriotic expatriate Scots prepared to celebrate the talents of their favoured son. Kilts abound, and accents are thick. The Scottish flag hangs aloft and the banquet table is heavy with traditional Scottish fare for the hungry supporters of Robbie Burns. Of course there was the haggis, and ours had been imported from a Scottish company called Macsween, which was given three gold stars at the Great Taste Awards in 2013, the only haggis, apparently, ever to have received this award.  Neeps and tatties (swedes and potatoes), bannock (a heavy, flat griddle bread) and cranachan, a Scottish dessert a little like trifle, made with whipped cream, toasted oatmeal, whisky, honey and fresh raspberries also put in an appearance.   Then there were Scotch Eggs: an egg wrapped in sausage meat, rolled in breadcrumbs and deep-fried. Our Chieftain tells me the Dusit Chef nailed it. Firstly…lastly… Cullen Skink is a traditional soup made from smoked haddock (tanigue locally), milk, potato and onion. It takes its strange name from a tiny village with the same strange name in Moray, on the north east coast of Scotland.

After we had eaten our fill, there was the traditional round-up of speeches. David Morrison began with the traditional speech to Robbie Burns’ immortal memory. Originally from Banff and looking every inch the Scot in kilt and sporran with a glimpse of red hair, he spoke at length in a heavy accent – despite decades in Hong Kong –  that must have left the Filipinos reeling.

castle.2Traditionally, the Burns Supper was a purely masculine affair, full of heavy drinking, carousing and ribaldry, and the next toast to the Lassies was originally intended as a toast of thanks to the women responsible for the cooking. These days room has been made for the women to speak too, and has primarily become an opportunity to poke fun – albeit with great wit and ever-so-affectionately – at the flaws and frailties of the ladies, followed by a robust rebuttal from the Lassies for the final say on the shortcomings of the men. Often a husband and wife team, this can lead to highly entertaining banter – or marital abuse! This year Matthew and Janelle Squires took up the baton and ably mocked their counterparts before making a toast.

This year it was my privilege as a once-upon-a-Scot to stand up and toast our host country. And it was with the deepest gratitude that I was able to say thank you to a country that has so generously, warmly, and whole heartedly given so many of us a home away from home. You can talk of any country’s accomplishments and inspirational efforts on the world stage, but for me the most inspirational thing about the Philippines is the Filipino attitude to newcomers, the kindness and the unjudgmental affection I have found here.

Many of us here tonight are Scots – or, like me, Scots-once-removed. Officially a sixth generation Aussie, I do have a Scottish maiden name and, apparently, a family tartan. I guess a few others were just as distantly related, but nonetheless hold a torch for their Scottish ancestry. Yet, despite a strong sense of patriotism that unites us under the Scottish flag for Burns Night and the St Andrews Day Ball, we find ourselves gathering together half a world away from Burns beloved homeland. No slate grey skies and icy winds here, but the deep blue skies and warm breezes of the tropics.

While there are some obvious physical differences between the Scots and the Filipinos – weather, a propensity for redheads – there are also, much to my surprise, many common threads, which may explain why so many Scots feel at home here. For example, and on this night in particular, we see a mutual delight in the written word. Look at the national heroes: Robbie Burns and Rizal!

There is also a common love of music, dancing, singing and story-telling, as we can see at every karaoke evening orSPiper-568x375 ceilidh. Then, looking into their respective cooking pots, it becomes obvious that both countries enjoy their comfort food, with a preference for red meat, sugar, and of course, offal. Sisig and haggis are surely kissing cousins?

And in the melting pot of history, both Filipinos and Scots have shown a similar acceptance of the different races and cultures that have landed on their shores during centuries of trade and colonization. The proof of the pudding? I actually have a Filipina friend with a red headed daughter. Finally, perhaps the best thing about living here is getting to know the people, their friendliness and their lack of pretension.

So I proposed a toast to our host country and its people, “for their ready smiles, their generosity of heart, and their party spirit…. thank you for having us.” Filipino, David Guerrero, who I believe, is credited with the slogan “it’s more fun in the Philippines” then responded on behalf of the host nation.

The evening then took on a lighter note, with musical entertainment from Australian Piper Ben Casey, and fiddler Emma Swinnerton who hails from Uig, a Hebridean parish on the Isle of Skye, currently teaching year 3 at the British School Manila . Two long established St Andrews members, Diane Ross and Heather Price stood to share the glories of Burns poetry, by reading aloud an edited version of the excessively lengthy “Scotch Drink” and “To  a Louse”, a witty piece he wrote in church after watching a louse crawling over a lady’s bonnet. They kindly alternated the original Scottish verses with an English translation for those of use less fluent in that hearty tongue. The night was wrapped up, as is right and proper, with a rollicking round of Auld Lang Syne.

*With thanks to Google Images

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Inside Out in Akaroa

IMG_0221Gardening is not usually my bag. My mother has the green fingers, and the tendency to arrive home with clippings from friend’s gardens, Botanic Gardens, woodland or verges. But I do appreciate other people’s efforts, and I can name a handful of English wild flowers and trees thanks to a primary school nature program and my sister’s Flower Fairy Books. So, in late November, when I was lucky enough to make a spur-of-the-moment trip to New Zealand,  I was delighted to land in Christchurch in time for the Open Gardens weekend on the glorious Banks Peninsula.

The Banks Peninsula, lying south east of Christchurch, was created by the eruption of two volcanoes. Shaped like a piece of fan coral, it is lace-edged with coves, bays and beaches. Inland, the peninsula consists of two deep sea harbours, hilly farmland and native bush criss-crossed with walking paths. It is also home to some rare and endemic flora and fauna, such as the tiny white Lyttleton forget-me-not, ironically in serious danger of being lost and forgotten due to grazing sheep and wild goats.

First settled by the Maoris, it was later named by Captain James Cook after the ship’s botanist, Joseph Banks, as they circumnavigated New Zealand aboard the Endeavour. Observing it to be a barren and uninviting island, Cook sailed on without further ado. Other explorers, however, saw more potential in this remote region. In 1838 a French whaler, Langlois, provisionally bought land  from the Maoris, with plans to establish a whaling station. Unfortunately for the Frenchman, he was upstaged by the British who rushed in to claim sovereignty for Britain as he headed home to gather settlers from Europe.. Nonetheless, Langlois was still able to  establish a small settlement on the banks of Akaroa Harbour, which has left its mark. Street signs read Rue Benoit and Rue Balguerie, Rue Jolie and Rue Lavaud; older buildings are built in ‘the French style,’ and there appears to be a lasting local penchant for French wines. The gardens, however, speak of a more Anglo-Saxon heritage.

Initially, it is the proliferation of roses that catches my eye:  red, pink, apricot and white, thick as clotted cream, the
IMG_0229fecund blooms top heavy on drooping stems, like busty matrons. Yet they are, surprisingly, lightly scented, as if all their energy has gone into the visual. Chubby peonies have collapsed onto the ground in drunken, overblown splendor. Lupins and lavender, pansies and espaliered pears, delphiniums and daisies fill the flowerbeds, reminiscent of an English country garden. Meanwhile a bustling stream, rimmed with buttercups and arum lilies, rushes towards the sea, overlooked by a stand of silvery eucalypts. Delicately curling ferns, like babies fingers, snuggle in the shade of leafy walnut trees. A pohutukawa, resplendent in scarlet baubles, heralds Christmas. The spiky orange blades of the libertia line a gravel path. Acres of perfectly manicured green lawns stretch down to a Monet pond coated in lily pads. Contrasting floral cultures intertwine like the honeysuckle and the bindweed.

We drive out to the Valley Road Vineyard, which lies on gently rolling hillsides across the Bay from the township. We park the car outside the cellar door (an old timber barn complete with loft-style accommodation) and wander up a leafy track. Around the bend, a couple of muddy ponds are tucked into the elbow of neat green hills, while a mulberry-coloured maple snags the eye among the long green leaves of iris and agapanthus. On a plateau at the top of the drive stands the original straw-bale home. It is obviously a house well versed in entertaining, with an outdoor pizza oven gracing the back patio, and spectacular views across vineyards and harbour. A flower bed of lavender and lemon trees buzzes with the sound of satiated bees.

Back down the hill we drift through the cell door… and behold the New Zealander with his Filipino family! We  happily compare notes on our experiences of Manila and New Zealand as I sip on the wine: a pair of Pinot Noir, a much-medalled Pinot Gris and a rosé of the palest pink perfect for an afternoon picnic. Feeling ever-so-slightly fuzzy-headed, we move on to a neighbouring orchard, where we picnic among the fruit trees, lolling on the sun-speckled lawn, our esky – sorry, chilly bin – spilling cheeses, dips, fruit and biscuits onto the grass.

IMG_0245Replete and re-energized, we drive east to the coast, skimming past Akaroa and getting ourselves ever-so-slightly mislaid on steep, gritty farm tracks before finding our way to Fisherman’s Bay. This glorious garden is undoubtedly the jewel in the crown of the New Zealand Garden Trust, and is looking absolutely glorious on this effervescent afternoon. Perched high above a stretch of weathered and dramatic coastline above the Pacific Ocean, this private garden boasts breath-taking views and appealingly unexpected nooks and crannies. Corrugated iron sculptures of Herbina the Cow and Marcus the Goat guard the windswept cliffs, while the rainbow colours of spring climb joyfully up the steep hillside towards the house. Behind the house stretches a feminine, textured,  pink and purple border. Our hosts are serving afternoon tea on the terrace: tea, coffee and an impressive selection of home-made cakes and slices, including the indigenous Afghan biscuit. We sit peacefully in the shade, sipping and nibbling and chatting to other visitors, garnering tips on their favourite gardens.

We drive into Akaroa, and unload the car into our bach (a New Zealandish weekend cottage) before heading out to eat. Again. Dinner is booked at a pretty Italian restaurant by the waterfront. On the back veranda, overlooking a graveled courtyard neatly trimmed with olive trees and climbing red roses, we laze in the cheerful glare of the evening sunshine. It isn’t long before we are replete on goat’s cheese and beetroot chutney, a hefty steak with salad for me, and a couple of glasses of local Pinot Noir, also for me. Afterwards, in need of a walk, I stroll home through the fading light, admiring one voluptuous garden after another, all accessorizing the prettiest little weatherboard cottages, while the scent of lavender drifted sensuously through the air. And tomorrow we have more to explore. In the meantime, I pause at a picket fence to smell the roses…

 *Adapted from an article first published in Inklings, January 2015.

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Purging Dr Zeuss

AreyoumymotherRemember that children’s book, ‘Are You My Mother’ by P.D. Eastman? It’s that one where the baby bird hatches only to find he is all alone, so he bravely leaps out of the nest, and sets off to find his mum. Published by Random House in 1960, it sat on our bookshelf with the ‘Cat in the Hat’ and ‘Yertle the Turtle’. Well, these days the shoe is firmly on the other foot, and the kids have left us, and I am booking flights to find them. And I have images of King Lear haunting my dreams…

Yet isn’t it perfectly normal for our kids to grow up and leave home? Isn’t that what they are suppose to do? It may have been a bit sooner than I was prepared for, but we had joked from Day One that we would be kicking them out at eighteen. As Third Culture Kids, leaving home probably means relocating to a different continent, which makes it a little more challenging – but at least they won’t be bringing their washing home at weekends. At a time when I am constantly reading about the “Boomerang Generation”— those young adults who keep coming home to live with their parents, or who simply never pack their bags –  we are now busily, sadly, and a little reluctantly, adjusting our lives to the lack of teenagers in the house. Although they all staggered home for Christmas, which was fabulous, they all have their own lives now, scattered around the globe. And we are facing a new chapter, without struggling for possession of the car keys, fighting over who’s washing up, turning up our noses at smelly football kit, communicating in grunts, or demanding a toll of hugs and kisses as they pass through.

Yes, it’s true, both boys leaving at once was a little confronting. Emotional? Me? Well, OK, I did get a bit weepy. Strangely enough, it was worse in the anticipation of departure than after the event. Maybe I am shallow, but once the flight has departed, I tend to move forwards, admittedly limping a little, but nonetheless “onwards and upwards!”

The psychologists warn us that there is an ‘Empty Nest Syndrome:’ a feeling of grief and loneliness at the sight of a teenager’s empty bedroom that can lead to a loss of purpose for parents, even depression. And apparently I am in the ‘particularly prone’ category. Looking back over the past six months, there may be a smidgen of truth in that diagnosis. For a while I struggled to make decisions, to plan, to organize myself. I retreated into computer games and lived  on Facebook. And yes, those empty rooms made me want to cry more often than I would have expected.

On the other hand, I am used to change. Eighteen moves in twenty five years, good grief, I am an expert. Aren’t I? And as I keep telling my friends, the boys are communicating more on Facebook than they ever did when they lived down the corridor – so don’t anyone criticize Facebook to me, husband dearest.

Yes, of course I miss them, but they have gone. And we are lurching about in an apartment that is way too big for us. So I have reached a decision. I am selling off the furniture, dumping a load of excess ‘stuff,’ and we are downsizing. It’s good for the soul, all this purging. It clears the detritus that has gathered over years, forces us to re-think our priorities, and makes us plan for a new era. Spring cleaning, past, present, future. The mad woman in me would like to reduce it down to the two backpacks we set out with in 1990, but that is probably unreasonable. And I find I am rather attached to some of the stuff, despite my best intentions. But emotionally I am now recharged, eager to move on and re-arrange. I am still on the internet at odd hours of the night – well, you try keeping three kids in three different time zones! – trying to sort out minor issues, book half term holidays, give advice about computers… but at least, as one friend remarked, there is always someone to talk to.

So I will not be a Bill Bryson, expecting those kids to come back a lot. They have flown. We will see them again and again, of course, but it is time for them all to test their wings, and go in search of their own dreams. It is quiet. And echoingly empty. And I can’t stop cooking for five. So we will continue to live on left-overs until I get the hang of it. But I am clearing out the book shelves and purging the picture books.

And let’s face it, we knew from the day they were born that we couldn’t keep them forever. ‘Better to have loved and lost’ and all that – although I suspect that Lord Tennyson wasn’t talking about our children.

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Villa Escudero

IMG_0419It was our daughter’s birthday last week, and with our men folk off about their own business, we decided a Mother/Daughter road trip might be fun. We packed the car and headed south for her favourite spot: Stilts, in Calatagan, where we celebrated her twenty-first last year. On the way we decided to check out Villa Escudero, which has been on my ‘to do’ list for ages, and would make the perfect overnight stay.

Villa Escuadero was originally a hacienda (estate) belonging to agriculture industrialist, Don Arsenio Escudero. Here, in 1929, he built the Labasin Dam to power his hydro-electric plant and supply electricity to his coconut factory and the large Escudero family home. The estate was opened to the public in 1981 and established as a tourist attraction. Villa Escudero now provides accommodation, sporting activities, a cultural show and a museum of family memorabilia and holy relics housed in a reproduction of an Intramuros church. And of course the restaurant below the waterfall.

Villa Escudero is a two hour drive south of Makati, on the far side of San Pablo. The resort is well sign-posted and only minutes off the main road. The drive was not as long as I had expected, but once off the Expressway, it is the usual game of dodgem cars with the tricycles, jeepneys and trucks past endless sari sari stores and kamikaze pedestrians, which can be quite draining. We arrived just before lunch, hot and dusty. A carabao (domestic water buffalo) pulling a large, heavy cart collected us from the car park and then trudged sedately round to the resort, its dark skin surprisingly glossy, almost hippo-like, while a guitar player and singer performed on the back of the cart.  Popping back to collect something I had forgotten from the car, I got a chance to ride in the somewhat swifter kalesa, that petite, eighteenth-century, horse-drawn carriage.

Our cottage was a lovely bamboo and thatch construction right on the riverfront, with a broad lanai or veranda overhanging the water, and brimming with fresh air and bird noises, a far cry from the polluted, bird-free skies of Metro Manila. While it was not five star glamour, the appeal for me was its utter rustic simplicity. With just one double room, there was also space on a mezzanine for a bunch of kids on mattresses. While these riverside rooms had no air-conditioning, this was hardly an issue in mid-January: high ceilings and fans were perfectly adequate, and there was a full mosquito net draped over the bed if we had wanted to sleep with the windows open.

The setting is simply beautiful. Lazing in deep wicker arm chairs, we looked across the river to the thick jungle on the IMG_0421opposite bank, while tiny birds ducked and danced out from under the eaves and over the rippled water. Chatty geckoes clucked at us contentedly from under the thatch. (Later we would have to deflect a pair of tiny, over-excited bats dodging through pools of lamp light to hang above our front door like a bell-pull.) Meanwhile, we dragged ourselves from our perfect view and made our way downriver, through pretty gardens and around the cool, landscaped swimming pool to the waterfall restaurant.

Not a natural waterfall – actually a man-made dam wall – it is nonetheless a clever construction, the water gushing over the dam wall and rushing under the feet of the diners, who must clamber down a steep staircase and out through clear, calf deep water to the dining tables that are set up midstream. Take note, maxi dresses may be a fashion statement, but here they are a nuisance: it is very tricky to tuck your skirt up out of reach of the water while balancing a plate and a fresh coconut in your hands. On the other hand, as a ten-year-old on a hot day, I imagine I would have loved paddling over to the dam wall to lie under that deliciously cold deluge of water.

The buffet is also set up in the water, with a generous display of local dishes to choose from. Served on paper plates, it is a far cry from cordon bleu cooking, but the location is all. We chose a table further downstream, away from the conversation-drowning avalanche of water. Beneath the overhanging vines and leafy branches of the riverside jungle, we watched from a distance as the river hurtled over the falls and rushed beneath our seats heading off to who-knows-where, while we nibbled lunch and cooled our feet in the stream.

Dinner was another buffet in the vast pavilion above the waterfall. Apparently this is where the cultural shows are held, but only on weekends. Again, the food was mediocre, and we struggled with frozen beers (why would you keep beer in an ice chest with the ice cream?) but eventually the barman from next door brought us more temperate ones that did not erupt like frozen volcano upon opening.

IMG_0428With less than 24 hours at the resort, we were happy to drift about gently, taking walks through the garden or a ride on the kalesa, or simple wandering across to the bar for coffee or a G&T on the balcony. Several braver souls than we explored the quieter end of the river on rather precarious-looking, home-made rafts, trying to get the hang of paddling in a straight line while going round and round in circles to shrieks of laughter and loud instructions. It was highly entertaining to watch their efforts.

In conclusion, don’t go to Villa Escudero for the dining experience, unless you are happy with basic Philippine cooking, nor in the expectation of a five star tourist attraction, which it really isn’t. However, for a peaceful, rural retreat, I would happily visit again. And I would willingly set up house in one of those lovely riverside cottages, to enjoy the wildlife and the water.

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Hiding Out at The Henry

The behemoth that is December in the Philippines had descended on Makati like a tidal wave. Cars rolled doggedly down EDSA and Ayala Avenue, bumper-to-tailgate, like an insuperable lava flow. Every shopping mall was seething with excited shoppers walking four abreast and laden like ships of the desert with bags and parcels. Christmas muzak was emanating with exuberant enthusiasm from every sound system in the city, that left my nerves a-frazzle and a–flutter. We needed to escape from the mayhem to refresh and re-energize before the family descended for the holidays.

HH4 (2)But where to go? We didn’t want a long journey or a large hotel, just a small oasis of calm for a momentary breather. And we found it, quite by chance on Facebook: the soft opening of the new Henry Hotel in Pasay. And would you believe it? It was only eleven minutes away from home according to Google Maps. Although I suspect that estimated travel time was not taking the Christmas season traffic into account!

The Henry opened its large iron gate in mid December, just a hop, skip and a jump from Manila Bay. The first Henry Hotel in Cebu is an eye catching mix of ‘European, vintage, industrial and rustic’ elements; a slightly bizarre, definitely eclectic and doubtless unique combination. The Manila version is in a totally different style. Originally a compound of four houses on about half an acre, these houses have been restored with understated elegance and decorated with 1930s furniture. As the website says, The Henry is “a delightful surprise” hidden behind a high wall,  a real refuge from the fumes and the frantic bustle of jeepneys, taxis, trucks and tricycles.

We were ushered in by smiling staff, and checked in efficiently before being escorted up the polished wooden staircase to our room. Our bedroom was spacious, the bathroom capacious, and separate (not always the case), and the little touches of individuality were attractive. I especially liked the ‘made in the Philippines’ woven recycled
paper tissue-box and matching waste paper basket. Our balcony overlooked the broad lawn scattered with leafy trees, and the small, but prettily landscaped swimming pool. It would have been lovely to have a comfortable deck chair, or HH6wrought iron table and chairs on which to sit out and enjoy the peaceful ambiance.

The soft opening included a discount price while they took the time to iron out any glitches. Not that we suffered
from many such glitches, apart from the lack of outdoor furniture and an operating  bar. With such a lovely broad veranda overlooking the pretty gardens and the generous expanse of lawn, a G&T under the stars would have been a welcome addition. Luckily it was an easy taxi ride – mere minutes – to Mall of Asia, Malate or one of the plethora of new casinos in the area, in order to track down a good meal and a beer.

When we first arrived, mid-afternoon, we were keen to stretch our legs, so we took a walk down to the bay and along the broad pedestrian footpath beside Roxas Boulevard, past the Cultural Centre of the Philippines and the Metropolitan Museum,to the Diamond Hotel. There we watched a number of wedding parties gather in the lobby in all the bright and vibrant colours of tropical birds. It is not the most salubrious stroll amongst the heavy traffic fumes on the Boulevarde, past cheap bars and beggars, building sites and road works, but the breeze was welcome, the sun was shining on the sea, and the G&T at the end was well worth the effort.

HH2Meanwhile, back at The Henry, the staff was helpful, friendly and amusingly decked out in matching pairs of large black glasses – frames only – apparently a quirk of the owner. The pool area, at the top of the lawn is attractive but lacked sunbeds, chairs or tables the weekend we were there, which will hopefully be rectified by the time the hotel opens officially. The rooms apparently have free WiFi access, but we had left technology behind on purpose, the better to switch off from the outside world. The hotel website also says they can provide a complimentary shuttle service to SM Mall of Asia and Glorietta Mall, but I am guessing that this was not yet in place for the soft opening, as we had to wait almost half an hour for a taxi. No problem, the veranda was cool, quiet and relaxing, and gave us a chance to chat with fellow guests about their impressions of Manila. O and by the way, there is also free parking at the front of the property, so there is no need to wait for transport at all, and next time we will take our car.

So we had a great evening at the Solaire Casino, listening to a group of beautifully turned out carol singers by the waterfall, as we sipped our cocktails, before dining at the Italian restaurant Finstra  with its stunning chandeliers and its astoundingly extensive – and expensive – wine list. (The food was fabulous too and the chefs in the open kitchen just lovely).

Our room was really comfortable and we emerged mid-morning for breakfast in the cosy little dining room off reception after enjoying an early morning cup of tea in our room.  Breakfast was tasty and well presented, with plenty of choices, including a beautiful cooked omelette. The staff was cheery and efficient, and we were delighted to discover at the end of the meal that my beloved Apartment 1B has the restaurant concession and the waiting staff recognized us from the Rockwell outlet. Truly a home away from home. We returned to Makati much calmer and ready for the onslaught of Christmas with renewed energy. Thanks to The Henry for providing such a timely escape.

* Photos courtesy of my One & Only, with thanks.

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A Manila Christmas Carol

IMG_0415 (2)









Lechon roasting on an open fire,
spinning slowly over glowing coals
until glossy copper skin snaps and cracks like toffee,
promising juicy, fragrant flesh beneath.
The traffic churns, thick and smoky like molasses,
the klaxon call of urgent horns ring like sleigh bells through the humid air.
Fairy lights bewitch and beguile, in every colour of the rainbow,
draping trees like so much tinsel,
flashing stars dancing in the night to Christmas music.
Fireworks splash the sky in glorious, Hollywood technicolor,
the hollow thud and spit like a distant war zone.
Carols from a country where folk dress like eskimos
welcome a white Christmas to Manila,
decking malls with boughs of holly and eight tiny reindeer,
from choirs in butterfly sleeves
singing to the glory of God at the casino.
Boxes and ribbons and paper and scissors
create a mountain of endless surprises and joy to the world.
A front garden and a crib: Mary, Joseph, Jesus, Santa.
Airports overflowing as families gather from around the globe
sharing kisses, kin, fun and laughter,
while lost and lonely Olaf, dreaming of the winter’s rage and icy cold,
melts silently, sadly into the gentle warmth of a tropical Christmas.

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Tea & Tranquility

IMG_0405“When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things.”   ~  Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

It is almost Christmas and the streets and shopping malls of Makati are awash with shoppers and Santas, fumes and fairy lights, Christmas songs and klaxons, and I am in need of respite.  What better way to gain some perspective on the madness of the Christmas season than to tip-toe away from the madding crowd into a tiny haven of peace and tranquillity, and restore normality over scones and a pot of tea?

The ritual of afternoon tea has had a renaissance in recent years. Once the domain of the British aristocracy, it has become a feature of many a restaurant and hotel from Claridges in Mayfair to the Plaza on Central Park; from the Shangri-la in Singapore to Sir Stamford at Circular Quay. Even here in Manila, there are a multitude of choice locations to take time out of a busy day and put the world to rights over tea and scones. Blackbird is the latest local restaurant to join the craze.

Black Bird in Ayala Triangle already seems to have won a large fan club as the hot spot for brunch, lunch and dinner, but I recently noticed that there is also an option for afternoon tea. So I booked a table as a pre-Christmas treat with a girlfriend.

‘Not another afternoon tea?’ I hear you groan. Yes, another afternoon tea indeed – and well worth a mention, so I am going to ignore your response and tell you all about it.

Unfortunately I forgot my tiara, but after a general inspection of the dining room and patio areas, we arranged ourselves comfortably in a little nook in the Cabin, the aptly named upper floor overlooking the park. Here we could watched the ebb and flow of people in the park and the traffic nudging its way down Makati Avenue from above, and thoroughly enjoy the respite from the pre-Christmas craziness below.

Originally part of the Makati airport, the Nielsen Tower – almost an octogenarian – has had a make-over
IMG_0402extraordinaire. Dowdy, dishevelled and worn-out, it has emerged, after months cocooned under canvas, as a beautiful butterfly, the captivating creation of Colin McKay, chef and owner of all our favourite Makati restaurants: People’s Palace, Sala Bistro and Sala Dining. While I have expressed my slight reservation about the eclectic concoction that is Blackbird’s dinner menu, the afternoon tea is, like Mary Poppins, practically perfect.

So we sat and chatted in stately splendour amongst the treetops, waiting with subdued excitement for the scones and sandwiches, while sipping joyfully on a lively Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand. And we weren’t disappointed. The ubiquitious three-tiered cake stand duly appeared, and we tucked in with alacrity, warding off the teapot till we had finished our wine.

As you know, I have tried and tested many a fine English afternoon tea, but this one has proved the jewel in the crown. On the middle tier lay the sandwiches, prim and dainty: crustless white bread fingers of cucumber with cream cheese, and another of cream cheese delicately flavoured with truffle. Snuggled up beside them, was a disk-shaped morsel of pumpernickel garnished with smoked salmon and dill. I would like to say we ate them with ladylike equanimity, but unfortunately I would be lying. They were devoured.

IMG_0403On the top shelf sat four perfect scones. Petite and moist, featherlight and fresh, they were a thoroughly classy little mouthful. I tried to make some similar ones recently when I hosted an afternoon tea at home. While the size was right, the taste was not. I attempted a new recipe made with lemonade, designed to make them lighter and brighter. My mother has an excellent recipe, but she was away and I relied, foolishly, on an untested recipe from the internet. They were horrid. Without naming names, don’t ever use Sprite to make scones.  These ones from the chefs at Blackbird were a different breed altogether, served with a dense, oozing strawberry jam and a heavy dollop of thick cream. Not quite Cornish clotted, but good enough.  And gone. So was the wine.

The teapots arrived. I had ordered that Fujian favourite lapsang suchong, partly because I can say it, but also because I was like the smoky, almost whisky-ness of its flavour, and its glowing, golden colour in a shallow teacup.

Normally, I reach the third tier of cakes feeling overly embellished and can easily resist indulging in the closing act of sugar and spice. This time, however, unhindered by super-sized scones and too many sandwiches, I was tempted, and we left little but crumbs.

The violet macaroons were a melt-in-the-mouth delight. The delicate, unexpectedly floral flavour of violets was lined with a smidgeon of cream, dispersing the usual sugary sweetness of macaroons to a light tang on the tip of the IMG_0404tongue. The chunky but diminutive chocolate brownies were just a shiver of richness to fill the mouth without burdening the taste buds, especially when we had topped them with cream:

~ ‘Sorry, I took the rest of the cream.’

~ ‘That’s ok, we will just order more.’

And still there was more. More cream and more cake. A thin sliver of fruit cake, a doll’s house snippet of lemon
meringue pie and a dish of crème brûlé to share that was probably one step too far.  Yet, until that final note, each offering was just a morsel, a mouthful, a soupçon of sweetness that did not engulf the taste buds, nor leave us feeling bloated and hardly-done-by. The afternoon was a success; ‘an elegant sufficiency, and anymore would have been a superfluous indulgence.’ There is indeed greatness in small things.

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