A Long and Winding Road to Foodie Heaven

IMG_3011Adelaide, South Australia, where the Adelaide plains stretch like starched sheets north and south along the eastern edge of the Gulf of St Vincent. Fifteen kilometers inland they start to wrinkle into the foothills of the Mount Lofty Ranges, which rise up to their highest point at Mount Lofty, two and a half thousand feet above sea level. From this not-so-mighty peak, the ranges reach out across South Australia for almost two hundred miles, from the southern tip of the Fleurieu Peninsula all the way to Peterborough in the north. They also clamber east towards the Murray River where they are ironed out again to roll smoothly, unhindered by more than a mild bump, to the Victorian border.

Mount Lofty is encompassed by a bountiful, beautiful region commonly known as the Adelaide Hills, which has become renowned for its wineries, microbreweries, cheese makers and craftsmen. Apart from the freeway, which cuts a broad swathe, west to east, to touch down at Murray Bridge, the Hills region is an often perplexing maze of narrow, winding roads through valleys and hills, dipping and twisting round eucalypts and wattle trees, vineyards and orchards, through deep clefted gullies covered in thick bushland, round cow paddocks and conservation parks that are home to many native animals, including koalas, kangaroos and the blue tongued lizard.

It is also home to a rather gorgeous new restaurant.

The Mount Lofty Ranges Vineyard is a boutique winery in Lenswood, just five miles shy of Lobethal, a Hills town 2011MethodeTraditionelle-resized-200x300famous for its Christmas lights and cottage industries. Originally an apple orchard, this steep, rural 25-acre property was reborn as a vineyard in 1992. Too high in the hills to accommodate the more common South Australian Shiraz, the vineyard’s range of cool climate wines includes Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir Rose, Pinot Noir and a Methode Traditionelle sparkling wine – heaven and the French forbid we should call it champagne. In good hands, MLR Vineyards have recently begun to acquire a generous collection of awards, including a gold medal last year for the 2014 Riesling at the 2015 Australian & NZ Boutique Wine Awards and a number of James Halliday stars – accolades indeed from a highly respected source.

After a long and winding drive up through Uraidla and Forest Range, we finally pulled up on the side of a quiet back road, thickly lined with gum trees, uncertain whether we had hit the right spot. An unobtrusive sandwich board assured us we had arrived, and we wandered down the drive towards a modern, barn-like building of corrugated iron and recycled timber, attached to an old stone cottage.

Partners Sharon Pearson and Garry Sweeney discovered this hidden treasure of a winery half a dozen years ago, finally completing their own long and winding journey to find the perfect property on which to realize their dream of creating premium cool climate wines. It is a far cry from the media career in which Sharon immersed herself in Sydney for thirty years, but it is only a stone’s throw – in Australian terms – from her roots in Murray Bridge. Both owners welcomed us warmly to their new restaurant, and paused intermittently throughout the afternoon to chat with us about their experiences.

IMG_2955The bar and restaurant is light and airy, yet intimate. Local art graces the walls. An open fireplace – an unnecessary accoutrement on this first hot day of spring – squats cheerfully in the middle of the dining room. Glass doors are peeled back to reveal  layers of wooden decks, where wooden tables overlook steep hills, the foremost strung with row upon row of neat green grape vines like fairy lights. Centre stage looms an enormous silver gum tree, standing guard over the vineyard and the rolling, rumpled hills.

Until recently, the MLR Vineyard used to serve simple cheese platters and gourmet pies to wine tasting enthusiasts who had found their way to this secret little nook. One such visitor was so delighted with the winery and its glorious location that he asked to join the team. Local chef, Matt Fitton, until lately sous-chef at The Playford, felt the winery would be enhanced by a fine dining restaurant. He shared his ideas with Sharon and Garry, and within months they had succumbed to his enthusiasm and opened the restaurant.

Matt is a johnny-come-lately to the culinary world, but he followed his dream, and has already made a big impression. He won Restaurant and Catering’s Apprentice of the Year for 2013, and followed up as a finalist in the 2015 Electrolux Appetite for Excellence Young Chef Award. Not bad for a young man who used to work in the bottle shop of a busy pub in Kensington. Matt’s menu for the MLR Winery combines both artistic talent and culinary skill. Making elaborate use of seasonal, local produce, Matt creates eye-catching dishes full of flavour, texture and colour.

Seated out on a broad wooden deck that hangs precariously out over the crest of the hill, we soaked up the scenery and a first glass of wine before turning to the menu. The menu is short but sweet, and the limited choices meant we IMG_2963could order everything on offer. We divided the entrees and the main courses without any arguments, claiming one each, but agreeing to share.

My octopus, both braised and charred, was a delight: a fat, luscious tentacle, curled artistically across a bed of sprouted lentils and diced olives and perfectly cooked – al dente with not a whiff of rubber, and lightly blessed with delicate yellow flowers.

Our guide – and my oldest friend (OF) – chose a slow-cooked duck egg, which boasted a yolk like a golden orb to thrill the eye and the taste buds. It was served with tender diced asparagus and a smattering of nuts and grains to add a lovely touch of grittiness to each mouthful. It was garnished with ‘floss’ which I later discovered was not related to dental hygiene, but is a popular dried pork product – rousong – used in Chinese cuisine as both a topping and a filling, and is textured like coarse cotton candy (fairy floss).

Our older son (OS) and budding connoisseur of all things edible settled on the raw beef – carpaccio Australian style, the plate splashed with raindrops of green rocket purée and wild garlic that caused a wasabi-like gasp. Cured egg yolk was, oddly, crumbled over the top, looking like wattle blossom had fallen on the plate. I don’t know that it added to the flavour, but it certainly added glamour.

The One & Only gallantly took on the charcuterie board: a generous spread of his favourite salamis, a rich and delicious homemade pâté and a quenelle of seeded mustard, which we were more than happy to help him with.

The menu kindly provided recommendations for matching wines, but having discovered the winery’s 2013 Chardonnay, we looked no further, especially as it came highly recommended by both Sharon and her smiley assistant. With its light, but not lingering hint of wood and a delicate note of citrus, it was perfect on a warm, summery afternoon.

Our main courses proved equally satisfactory. Artfully presented, each dish was a joy to the eye even before the food reached our tastebuds, where it was also well received. And Matt, had amused himself – and us – playing around with some traditional dining options.

IMG_2967Roast pork was exchanged for a sous-vide pork loin. Sous-vide is a French term for steaming food in airtight bags, low and slow, so the meat is cooked evenly throughout, while remaining amazingly moist. It was served with fried sprouts and braised chard (that leafy green vegetable long popular in the Mediterranean), and enhanced by quandong, a small, uniquely Australian stone fruit with a rhubarb-like tartness, which usurped the more traditional pork-and-apple-sauce combination with glee. This dish was a firm favourite with the OF and the OS.

‘Tatiara’ proved to be the name of the meat purveyors rather than the name of the sacrificial lamb, and Australia’s largest exporter of meat. Luckily for us, some of it had found its way to lunch. Cooked to a tender, melt-in-the-mouth medium rare, this shoulder and back strap of lamb was embellished with wild garlic flowers and a scoop of leprechaun green peas and diced beetroot, fresh and dainty, scattered like confetti, with which the One & Only was particularly delighted.

Now, I don’t usually bother with chicken when dining out, as it’s one of those bog standard ingredients I often cook at home in various formats, but this time, unexpectedly, I was tempted to alter the habit of a life time. Somehow the description of moist chicken breast dressed simply in macadamia nuts and those small, squashy Swiss mushrooms (sautéed lightly to the colour of dark chocolate) and scented with a whisper of tarragon proved irresistible. And I wasn’t disappointed.

Finally, our son chose the goat’s cheese tortellini. It was served with a theatrical flourish, a white bean velouté poured over the bowl of pasta and spring veggies at the table. Yet somehow it failed to impress. The pasta was stodgy and heavy, and the goat’s cheese filling had been used too sparingly to lift this rather bland and flavourless vegetarian option , despite the colourful addition of  those amazing fresh peas.

Luckily, the side dishes made up for it. The blanched asparagus was sprinkled in toasted almonds and highlighted by a simple splash of lemon juice; an accompaniment to this favourite vegetable that I will use for ever more. The beetroot was a little undercooked, but it was accompanied by a soft, zesty feta and a bitter twinge of rocket that distracted and delighted.

At this point of the proceedings we would have felt guilty to ignore the desserts, so we didn’t. Two ice cream based IMG_2989desserts and a cheese platter were brought to the table with a clutch of spoons. The “Cake and Camomile” (tea flavoured ice cream) sounded interesting, but was not as inspiring as the “Textures of Chocolate” with its ball of brown butter ice cream atop a scoop of chocolate mousse and a thick, heavy chocolate ganache ’tile’, decorated with freeze dried mandarin that crunched – and tasted – like honeycomb.

The cheeses were all created in the Adelaide Hills, the olives and apples likewise, all espousing the excellence of the local produce. I particularly loved the dish of biscotti-sized croutons, crisp and crunchy, a perfect accompaniment for the soft and creamy triple brie and the blue cheeses. (The Mount Jagged cheddar didn’t mind them either.)

Finally, at the point of post-prandial collapse, we were offered a small scoop of claret-coloured sorbet made from the 2015 Shiraz and blackberries. It was a sophisticated finishing touch to a sublime afternoon.

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Train Tracks

imageLast night, over dinner, we were discussing past and potential train trips around Australia, which reminded me about a piece I wrote last year about a journey from Sydney to Canberra..

A train broods menacingly beside the platform swarming with perspiring humanity over-burdened with baggage, like camels, too busy boarding to pay attention to the pouts of an inanimate object. There is the usual scuffling panic as announcements indicate that departure is imminent. Early for once, and already arranged neatly in my space, I watch smugly.

As the train pulls out of the CBD, the skyline rapidly diminishes from high rise to lowland suburbia, and the railway line is now hemmed in by cyclone fencing and tarmacked roads. Rubbish, like magnetic particles, clings to the rim of the track, plastic bags, cans and chip packets blossoming amongst the ubiquitous weeds and parched grass. Concrete slabs span dribbling drains that were once brazen creeks, free and untrammeled. Grey walls and corrugated iron sheds squat resolutely by the tracks, embellished in graffiti that is neither artistic nor poetic.
Whisking through suburban stations too rapidly to read their names, we skim past school ovals, backyard fences, besser block warehouses, stations old and new, all bearing the same platforms and the same signs: Way Out; No Smoking; Smiths Crisps. Then miles of thick cables, gravel heaps, and napping carriages. On and on and on, suburbia seems to peter out, then scuttles back into view, an endless game of hide-and-seek.

And I am reminded, disturbingly, of Jeannie Baker’s beautiful picture-book Window, which depicts the insidious creep of suburbia and industrial estate across paddock and bushland.
And then suddenly, unexpectedly, we are free. The urban sprawl fades away. A final tarmacked road dissolves into dust. Now we are passing through open paddocks sown with spindly stands of grey gums and sprinkled with cows leaning rigidly towards the grass like the plastic toys we had as children.

Encased in our single-minded snake skin, we dart through raw channels of blasted ochre rock that disgorge themselves into unblemished bush. Dense green walls of trees and shrubs smother the landscape for miles, then melt away. Odd, isolated, scrawny white gums, their bleached, bone-like branches bent and twisted as if crippled with arthritis, cling to rocky outcrops.

A dab of floral colour, purple and yellow, flares up in the dappled light beneath the trees like the flicks of a paintbrush, as a kookaburra flits suddenly away, skittering off its wooden post, startled by our unexpected and sinuous arrival in his landscape, too large a snake to battle with alone.
A stretch of river spreads out behind a rocky dam, its waters sequined with sunlight and beaded with water weed, engulfing a shorn-off Stonehenge where no druid has ever sacrificed on that broad altar stone with curved sickle knife.

Lonely farmhouses peer at us glumly from beneath overhanging verandahs like heavy eyebrows. Telegraph poles salute stiffly, and we are chased down the track by a narrow dirt track that runs alongside for two or three miles until it staggers to a stop, like kids determined to give you that final farewell wave at the corner.

Yerrin-bool, Mitt-agong, Bow-ral, Burradoo, Bun-danoon, Bunga-dore, chanting a rhythm in time to the clacking of the steel wheels on the iron girders.

Buttercup yellow soursobs are scattered along the dry verges. Ferns, deep green and dusty, smother the banks. A five-bar gate, a rusty, corrugated iron shed, a shrinking waterhole, gaping like a wide-mouth frog, crying out for rain that won’t fall for weeks yet.

Another sandy track through the trees, like the Road Less Travelled, arrives at a remote weatherboard station with a hyphen of a platform, too short to contain even one carriage of our serpentine train. A flock of white birds twinkles across the stubble of a recently shorn heat field.
The outskirts of another country town: low cream brick bungalows stark and new inside their fenced and barren quarter-acre blocks, clustering together for warmth like refugees at the town limit, wanly watching the comfortable, established town below.

Diggers gouge through the dry, lumpy earth, stockpiling barricades of mallee roots that lie across the ground like so many carcasses. And meanwhile this glinting silver thread stitches its way south, under bridges, over roads, pulling the edges of the fabric together, zipping up the railway sleepers, ka-thunk… ka-thunk… ka-thunk….

Under a broad blue tablecloth of sky, stained by a streak of bleached white cloud. Sunshine strikes a wire fence so it glitters and sparkles like cobwebs full of dew.

A kangaroo breaks cover, disturbing a crabby cockatoo, who squawks and flaps, beating his vast wings in irritation, before swooping off over a row of dollhouse-sized weatherboard cottages, neat and sweet like maiden aunts that coo over a graveyard lazing serenely across the slope of a hill.

And I sit, glued to the window. Marking time. Heading home.

*With thanks to Google images for the kookaburra on a fence post.


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Lunching in North Melbourne

While Internet access has been intermittent these past couple of weeks, eating experiences have not. So where to start? Let’s begin at the beginning, in Melbourne…

imageAs a witty friend couldn’t resist commenting on Facebook, it’s amazing what you will find at auction rooms. Last week it was my long lost godson, at The Auction Rooms, a trendy new diner in North Melbourne. The front of the building, with its faded blue walls, was unprepossessing, but we discovered a hip new lunch destination within. The cafe inhabits the old WB Ellis auction house, an urban, industrial-chic interior and it is now a home for coffee aficionados and foodies alike.

You can’t reserve a table on the weekends at The Auction Rooms, but we had wandered in all the way from the south eastern suburbs via the Victoria markets to Erroll Street, North Melbourne, so we waited patiently on a bench for an available table and watched the bustling scene before us. It didn’t take too long before we were ushered to a lovely table in the window at the rear of the building.

We perused the drinks menu eagerly, and found our first decision easy. A reunion of such magnitude deserved bubbles, and we duly ordered an Airlie Bank, Coldstream Chardonnay Pinto Noir from the Yarra Valley. 85% Chardonnay  to 15% Pinot, it had lashings of citrus flavour and a subtle splash of apricot, and received rave reviews from us all.

It took longer to decide on lunch. No more will you find the Big British fry up, imageheavy in carbs and cholesterol, nor the more pedestrian breakfast of cornflakes, muesli, or toast and Vegemite. The closest we got to a familiar breakfast was “mixed grain and seed porridge with almond milk, macadamia crumble and poached fruit” or, with a nod to our British nursery heritage, a “soft boiled egg with rye soldiers.” Instead Persian, Cuban, Spanish and Japanese flavours fluttered across the menu, eclectic but enthusiastically healthy. And a few of the ingredients left us reeling, so we called our friendly waitress over for translations. Many dishes were topped with a poached egg, presumably to enhance the breakfast theme, and there were several vegetarian options, including a vegetable tagine and a pea and goats cheese frittata. And for the sweeter tooth: brûlée French toast with passionfruit labne, poached mandarin, macadamia crumble and white chocolate ganache!

The majority of offerings were included on the breakfast menu, but from 11am there was a small selection of lunch options. The Godson was tempted by a warm salad of confit duck, brussel sprouts, kipfler potatoes, and a 63° egg accompanied by Jerusalem artichoke crisps and a shiitake broth. A cosmopolitan combination indeed.

Our patient waitress, when asked about the 63° egg, explained that it is cooked at a lower temperature than normal, and the egg comes out glossy, cooked, but ever-so-slightly slightly sloppy. Such a description would have deterred me: I am not a fan of sloppy eggs, but The Godson was made of sterner stuff, and bravely made the call to try it. Fortunately he was not disappointed.

My One & Only chose a dish that sounded more like a bar snack or tapas, but was in fact quite a large and filling serve of chilaquiles (pronounced chee/lah/KEE/lehs according to the menu), which are described as toasted corn tortillas, topped with shredded pork, salsa roja, cheese curd, black beans and a fried egg. I helped out, as usual, and it proved to be a flavourful and crispy plate of glorified nachos.

imageI looked no further down the menu, once I discovered the seared ocean trout with potato and kale rösti, poached egg, salsa verde, horseradish cream and a ruby grapefruit & watercress salad. The trout was superbly cooked, the skin crispy, the flesh moist and firm. My egg, thankfully poached at a regular temperature, and therefore not a bit sloppy, was perfect. And I loved the salsa verde, which provided a fresh, tangy descant to the salmon.

When our plates were clean and the bottle of bubbles drained to the last drop, weimage started to murmur about checking out the cake counter. There we discovered a larger-than-life and irresistible – to me – marmalade friand and an even larger chocolate and walnut brownie that the Godson chose with alacrity, and we  gleefully succumbed to a little self-indulgence.

As we headed out we found atram stopped only moments away, to spirit us back to Franklin street station and the suburbs, totally satisfied with our jaunt into the city, and our family reunion. Next time, dear Godson, we won’t leave it so long!

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Pomelo, Prawns and Peppercorns

DSC_0796I have adored Thai food since we landed in Bangkok in the early 90s. Fresh, flirty and brimming with flavour, it has long been a favoured Asian cuisine globally.

People’s Palace has been our family’s favourite restaurant since we landed in the Philippines five years ago – and I am guessing it is probably many people’s favourite Thai restaurant in Makati. So there is a certain sense of preaching to the converted.  But why haven’t I written about it before? Well, it is hardly a new or secret dining destination. Also, I am generally too busy dwelling on every wonderful mouthful to take either notes or photographs. But I visited it again this week with a new friend, and was reminded why I still love it so much.

People’s Palace is located in Greenbelt 3, overlooking the park and chapel. There is a large, open modern dining room inside that can seat lots,  but – and it is my only complaint –  the acoustics or lack of soft furnishings mean noise levels can become deafening when the restaurant is full, which, let’s face it,  it usually is. So when the weather permits, we prefer to sit outside, on the lovely, leafy, quieter outdoor terrace amongst the exotic tropical plants and the warm breezes.

People’s Palace is the brainchild of Scottish restaurateur, Colin McKay, who has been whipping up a portfolio of top notch restaurants in Manila since 1996, and is obviously a bit of a magician when it comes to consistently serving up fabulous food. He also has a knack for training his staff to a wonderfully high standard – a rare trait in Metro Manila. I have never needed to complain about the quality of the food, and the waiters seem able to combine a light and friendly touch with efficiency, and will rarely keep you waiting.

My favourite dish is, and forever shall be, the prawn and pomelo salad, an iconic dish of subtle tastes and textures:PP4 perfectly cooked, large and luscious shelled prawns; pulled pomelo (allow for a dollop of writer’s license, OK?) fresh toasted coconut and fresh coriander or cilantro, which adds zest to any dish, whatever you care to call it. Pomelo is a citrus fruit native to SE Asia, something between a pink grapefruit and an orange, but of firmer, less juicy flesh.

We all have our favourites, but to be honest every dish we have eaten here is absolutely scrumptious which, oops, may not be a word generally used for serious restaurant reviews, but you get the gist. From the red curry with prawn and pumpkin to the Vietnamese spring rolls or the larb gai (that spicy minced chicken salad, perfumed with mint), every dish is fresh and beautifully presented, and so far People’s Palace has never let us down.

My companion and I opted to share, which strikes me as the best way to eat in a Thai restaurant, for then there is never any fear that someone else has chosen the better dish.  Apart from discovering a common passion for the PP1prawn and pomelo salad, we also picked green chicken curry with eggplant, kaffir lime and basil. While I am more than happy to make this dish at home, I struggle to improve on Chef Colin’s recipe. Green chicken curry originates from central Thailand, where coconut milk starts to infiltrate the kitchen, and becomes more and more popular the further south you travel. Gaeng keaw wan translates as “sweet green curry”, which totally neglects to mention that it can also be incredibly hot, depending on how liberal the chef has been with the green chillis.

Luckily, our kind waiter was happy to top up our rice from a big silver bowl whenever we needed it to dispel the heat of that innocuous-looking creamy green sauce. Likewise our water glasses.

And finally, we chose a pork and peppercorn stir fry with red curry sauce and long beans. Usually the dish is made PP3with fresh green peppercorns (they look like sea grapes), which is a traditional northern Thai recipe that was once made from wild boar, but is now just as popular with farmed pork. Unfortunately, the kitchen had run low on the fresh variety and we made do with the dried variety, having been assured it tasted almost exactly the same. We certainly found nothing to complain about. The pork was beautifully cooked, tender and spicy, and highlighted with those pungent peppercorns, and a rich, red curry sauce. A handful of al dente beans added a satisfying crunch.

But don’t feel obligated to follow my lead, feel free to make your own choices. You can’t really go wrong. And later, for the sweet of tooth, try the cardamom panacotta, or the mango and passionfruit pavlova – or for the more traditionally minded, there is a dish of sticky rice and mango or a Thai tapioca pudding.

And then sit back and relax, finish your wine and loosen your belt, and wonder why you always order far more food than even the hungriest teenager can devour in one sitting…

*With thanks to Sachiko for lending me her phone to take the pics, as this time I didn’t even bring my camera! Hopeless.

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Introducing Sicily

logoThis weekend we were invited to L’Opera, Paolo Nesi’s flagship restaurant in The Fort, to make a new acquaintance: Sicily. Now in its 21st year, L’Opera is a stalwart on the Manila restaurant scene, consistently serving up deliciously authentic Italian food and good service. This time, we were in for a special treat, at the Sicily Champions League.

Chef Paolo – Chef, Sommelier, Educator – lived up to all his titles for this event. He had created a menu with a matching wine list with which to introduce us to Sicily’s best wines and most popular dishes. We began with a long glass of Martini Prosecco and a short class on the history of wine-making on this, the largest island in the Mediterranean, perched on the tip of Italy’s boot-shaped mainland.

With the aid of an easy-to-follow Power Point presentation, Paolo raced through the history of the grape in Sicily. Sicily appears to have changed hands with almost every passing century. The Phoenicians, the Romans, the Byzantines and the Spanish all had a positive influence on the developing local wine industry. The Barbarians turned their backs on viticulture in favour of beer, and the Muslims halted its growth for a hundred years or so, after invading Sicily in the 6th century. Yet, despite all the comings and goings of invading armies and colonization, the wine industry in the 21st century is alive and thriving. And the food has not suffered, either, from this smorgasbord of culinary influences.

Wines in Sicily are an interesting and unusual bunch. Sicily seems to have its own line in grape varieties, uncommon
anywhere else in the world. Our first sample was a Fondo Filara Etna Bianco 2012 made from Carricante and Cataratto grapes, which are  quintessentially Sicilian. Catarratto vines grow mostly in the west of the island, while118 Carricante has been cultivated on the slopes of Mount Etna for centuries.  The volcano provides an almost melodramatic climate ranging from snow to hot sunshine, and a wonderful, mineral-rich terroir thanks to all that lava. Generally the vines lie about 1000m above sea level, the added elevation also heightening the acidity of the grapes. Carricante  is the dominant grape in Etna Bianco, and is popularly blended with Catarratto to create a light, bright citrusy wine with a dash of ‘apple and hawthorn,’ the acidity of the Carricante muted by the subtle gentility of the Catarrato to create a smooth, refreshing wine. It is a recommended accompaniment for ceviche or sashimi, so it was hardly surprising that Paolo had paired it with an assorted Sicilian appetizer that included a tasty swordfish carpaccio. This was accompanied by a  orange and fennel salad sprinkled with Parmesan, refreshing and light, and bite-sized arancini, that traditional Sicilian snack of fried rice balls. Here the size of ping pong balls, they nested in a flavourful home-made tomato sauce, moist and moreish.

I remember arancini well from a trip to Sicily three years ago. In the Palermo markets, arancini the size of cricket balls graced every food stall. And I clearly recollect a huge swordfish, sliced down the middle, standing head up, tail down in the local fish market, looking for all the world like it was diving through the counter.

The second wine was the Red Queen to the White Queen above: a Fondo Filara Etna Rosso 2010 made from Nerello Mascalesce and Nerello Cappuccio. Grown primarily in Sicily and Sardinia, Nerello Mascalese grapes are believed to have originated in the Mascali area in Catania on the east coast of Sicily, but have since migrated up to the slopes of Mount Etna. So these are tough vines too, for co-habiting with the largest active volcano in Europe means Etna is constantly blowing ash over them like a chain smoker at a party. Nerello Mascalese is often blended with Nerello Cappuccio, which adds both color and an increased alcohol level to the wine.

This happy red wine was chosen to accompany a casarrece con pesto alla siciliana.  Casarrece is a hand-rolled slim, scroll of pasta, slightly porous, and perfect for soaking up the sauce. Although it was a relatively light and delicate pesto sauce, the virile scent and taste of basil nonetheless stood up bravely to a wine described as ‘dry and robust’ with ‘elegant hints of wild red fruit, spices and liquorice’ and ‘a pleasant balsamic finish.’ I hope it is on their à la carte menu, this dish alone would be well worth a prompt return visit to l’Opera.

mount etnaRagusano is a hard cow’s milk cheese produced in Ragusa, Sicily that Paolo has used to coat a fresh tuna fillet before sautéeing it in white wine: tonno alla Palermitana, presumably a speciality from Palermo. Personally I prefer my tuna simply seared as it is too inclined to dryness if cooked much beyond rare. Served, however,  with an unusual black cous cous cooked with squid ink and seafood, the plate presentation was attractive, and the tastes blended well, neither dominating the other, the cous cous providing a riveting texture.

The wine to accompany it was also riveting. The Bianca di Valguanera, it was generally agreed around the table, looked and tasted like a golden yellow, wooded Chardonnay. In fact, it is made from Insolia grapes. These grow primarily in western Sicily, where they are also used to produce Marsala wine. Recognized for its nutty aroma, the Insolia grape has many pseudonyms, including ‘Ansonica’ in Tuscany, but is described as a modest, unassuming grape of little character.

And yet, this particular wine is quite distinctive. Perhaps it is due to oak fermentation, its intimacy with the yeast, or the bottle aging, but, like Chardonnay, Bianca di Valguanera has a complex intensity of both bouquet and flavour, and has been described as ‘aristocratic,’ with ‘good longevity.’ It is also quite difficult to come by, so sadly, it seemed, I wouldn’t  be acquiring a case on my way out. Anyway, it is supposed to be excellent with strongly flavoured fish like salmon and tuna, so Paolo had matched it well. However, it could have been colder: room temperature did not do it justice.

And onwards to the main dish: capretto al forno con patate e caponata.  Some people at our table look aghast at the notion of goat, while others swiftly offer to eat any neglected offerings. Slow roasted, the goat was tasty but decidedly dry. My One & Only assures me that there was a sauce, but I must have had a mere splash, as a little moisture would have gone a long way. However, the roast potatoes and caponata  – Sicilian ratatouille, as Paolo describes it – were a flavoursome mix. And the wines that arrived to pre-empt the goat were fabuloso.

We were spoilt with two wines for this course: a Morgante Don Antonio 2010 – a pure Nero d’Avola – and a Cos imagesSerasuolo di Vittoria Pithos 2012  – 60% Nero d’Avola, 40% Frappato – which is aged underground in open terracotta pots. Paolo described it poetically as a ‘beautiful woman without any make-up.’ I fell in love with the Nero d’Avola grape  quite recently, although it was a long way from its Sicilian origins, having migrated south of the equator to the Adelaide Hills. There, the Bird in Hand winemakers were concocting a glorious, aubergine-coloured  wine, full of plums and cherries and chocolate, and low in tannin. This Nero d’Avola is also full of dark flavours like sour cherry, espresso, cinnamon and blackberry, seasoned with pepper and a dash of oak. According to reviews it is best cellared until 2015. Looks like we caught it at its peak!

Cos Serasuolo di Vittoria Pithos 2012 liked its dark tones too: namely cherry and chocolate. I have to admit I got totally submerged in the wine, and took little notice of the unassuming roast goat.

Needing a breather from such a constant flow of food and wine, I wandered away to chat with a good friend at a neighbouring table – and nearly missed out on my Sicilian dessert medley. As it is now common knowledge that I do not have a sweet tooth, this may not have been an unmitigated disaster, but I was keen to try it out nonetheless.

There were three contestants on our medley platter: a sponge cake soaked liberally in rum known locally as baba, and incredibly popular with the Sicilians; a shot of iced espresso topped with a splash of fresh cream, and a cannolo alla Siciliana, filled with sweet ricotta and chocolate chips. Cannola has never been my favourite Italian dessert, and I have to say this did not alter my perception one jot: a non-event that I willingly traded with my neighbour for another espresso granita. I was also more than happy to trade my final wine for another glass of my favourite “chardonnay-that-wasn’t”. While I am sure it was an excellent Sicilian fortified wine, its tongue-twisting sweetness suited my One & Only much better. So in the end everyone was happy. Buon Appetito!

*With thanks to Google and my One & Only for their lovely snaps of Sicily. I sat beside my camera all night, at L’Opera, and totally failed to pick it up!

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A Modern Fairytale or Cycling Down Memory Lane

Once upon a time, in a country far, far away – a country as wet as the Philippines but colder – a tall, dark, handsome prince arrived with his fair princess in the land of the leprechauns in search of adventure. They had climbed mountains and crossed seas from an island as dusty and red as this one was mossy and green.

imagesTheir steeds were a couple of mountain bikes packed high with panniers, their castle was a two man tent shaped like an armadillo, and the knight in shining armour was actually in shiny black cycling shorts and a bright blue Gore-Tex raincoat, but he was very heroic about cooking in the rain and encouraging his fair lady to pedal the length and breadth of the Emerald Isle.

The idea for this particular adventure had been decidedly spontaneous for my Prince Charming, who usually likes to plan well in advance. But a fellow traveler in Kathmandu had told a tale of cycling around Ireland, and it had caught his fancy.  And abracadabra, there we were, dodging raindrops and pedalling furiously up the steepest hills outside the Himalayas  – well that’s what they felt like  –  along winding country roads hedged in by huge rhododendron bushes, over boggy peatlands and down into mossy valleys.

It was, in fact, a familiar way to travel. I had always had a bike. It was my only mode of transport through school and university. But Adelaide is flat. And dry. Ireland is not.

For this rocky outcrop in the far western reaches of Europe is called the Emerald Isle for a good reason. Some say o-so-poetically, that it is because of the sparkle of dew on the grass, but those of us who have spent any time there know mountainthat it is simply due to the copious amounts of rain it experiences. Rain? It barely drew breath. ‘Pouring, pouring, boring,’ as my father-in-law would say. OK, yes, I am exaggerating a tad, but it did feel like we rode through gallons of rain and over countless mountains. Fortunately, there was also a profusion of pubs and plenty of apple pie. Well, good heavens, I needed some incentive to get up all those hills!

Reading through my diary of impossibly steep roads (how is it we were always riding up?)  loose crank shafts, stiff knees and pulled muscles, it’s hard to imagine what there was to enjoy. The satisfaction of getting over those blasted mountains perhaps, heads down, bottoms up, pedaling furiously, employing the same method as the Little Engine that Could, panting ‘I-think-I-can-I-think-I-can-I-think-I-can’ over the Knockmealdown Mountains, the Wicklow Mountains and down around Sugar Loaf Mountain to the sea. (Please note the number of mountains I have mentioned in just one sentence.) I acquired overdeveloped calf-muscles and several pounds of extra weight – thanks to all the apple pie – along with the much touted Irish gift of the gab after snogging the Blarney Stone.

Unfortunately my plan to write the world’s best travel tale on cycling around Ireland was scuppered by two other writers who beat me to it. As it turned out, my fairytale adventure on a mountain bike had been published only five years earlier by Eric Newby, who rode and wrote ‘Round Ireland in Low Gear.’ Then Tony Hawks penned ‘Around Ireland with a Fridge’ while I was still contemplating my navel.

bridgeNonetheless, even without a publisher’s success story, it was a wonderful way to see Eire. Once out of the confines of Dublin we found the winding country lanes, scented hedgerows, castle ruins and white washed cottages that I had been anticipating. The verges were dotted with cow parsley – or the more poetically named Queen Anne’s Lace – and the fields with shiny yellow buttercups. And the Irish delighted us. They were friendly and garrulous and fascinated by our unusual adventure. As promised by a nineteenth century touring guide of Ireland ‘nothing can exceed their civility and courtesy.’ We chatted over fences, in bars and bakeries, at bus stops and under bridges.

We found lots of friends, but hardly any camp sites, which was hardly surprising given the climate. So we resorted to knocking on the doors of  B&Bs, which were much more prolific, and asking if we could pitch a tent in their back yard and pay them a fiver for a shower. Our hosts proved unbelievably accommodating. Several even brought cooked breakfasts to the tent door, worried about us cycling on our meager rations of warm milk and stale cornflakes. In the evenings, the local kids would gather round to watch us put up the tent, captivated by our mobile home, keen to peek inside. I still remember one little boy squatting down on the lawn to show us how his friend ate grass.

And it was not only the year of our first cycling trip, but also the year Ireland first made it into the FIFA world cup. I didn’t have a clue about soccer. I had grown up with Aussie Rules Football. But we were soon following the drama as fanatically as any Irishman, from pub to pub, through Arklow and Wicklow, Waterford and Wexford , Portlaoise and Bunclody, Cappoquin and Clough, basking in the warm euphoria of the Irish fans. It was in the days before smoking was banned in pubs and you couldn’t see the TV screen for the smoke haze, but the Irish patriotism was addictive, and we cheerfully joined in with the locals singing ‘Olé Olé Olé Olé’ as Ireland won game after game and made it to the quarter finals. If moral support and sheer volume could be measured in goals, the Irish team would surely have wond3e34997253d8caa22e543e1260a1914 that cup.

By the time we got back to Dublin, I felt that we had also earned some kind of commemorative prize. It had been a wonderful, if slightly damp adventure, full of lovely memories and picture post card moments, although Prince Charming learned that it was best not to bribe his reluctant Princess Fiona with apple pie to goad her over mountains, as it tends to stick, and she becomes the shape of an ogre faster than you can say “clotted cream”. We did find a four leaf clover and a rainbow, but sadly we didn’t find the pot of gold and we never did see a leprechaun. However, we did return to Ireland, where would find our own little Thumbelina under a gooseberry bush in Cork and live happily ever after.

*With thanks to Google Images for the pretty pics!

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imageThe City of Dreams, the latest casino in Manila’s growing Armada, had a soft opening in Paranaque last December, amongst all the usual pre-Christmas chaos, and is now up, up and away. Spend money to make money seems to be the mantra of most modern casinos, and the huge golden egg – the ‘Fortune Egg’ – at the entrance would suggest the City of Dreams subscribes cheerfully to this particular maxim. Three hotels and a casino, nightclubs and bars, high class retailers, free parking and a cornucopia of dining options are all doused in glamour and glitz.

One of those dining options is Prego, an unexpected little gem on the upper ground floor. While the floors may be marble and the wine list extensive, there is a more homely atmosphere at Prego, rarely found in a casino. The rustic wooden side tables and the wood fire pizza oven on the back wall of the dining room gently dilute a little of the pomp and pizazz without.

Owner Paolo Nesi is already well-known in Manila, as Managing Partner of the L’Opera Group of restaurants: L’Opera in the Fort, which opened in Makati in 1994 and moved to the Strip a decade later, serves traditional Tuscan cuisine; Trattoria di L’Opera in the Shangri-La Plaza in Ortigas, and Balducci in Serendra. His latest venture, Prego, is Paolo’s 26th restaurant, similarly focused on Italian food, but with a rather more casual, youthful approach. The menu contains all the favourite dishes from his other restaurants as well as introducing a wide selection of new ones.

imageWith my nineteen year old son riding shotgun, I met Paolo Nesi recently over a large plate of carpaccio and a bottle of Craggy Range Pinot Noir, courtesy of partner and old friend, David Peabody. A little craggy himself, with silver-grey hair, a big beam and crinkly eyes, he greeted us warmly and pulled up a chair. Having anticipated a half hour interview after the lunch rush, I was delighted when he settled in to join us for lunch, and, with minimum encouragement, launched into his life story. Garrulous and engaging, his stories made fascinating dinner table conversation.

While Nesi has had no formal training – he refuses to call himself a chef – he has been submerged in the culinary world since he was very young. He was born in the seaside town of Castiglione della Pescaia in Tuscany, which overflowed with tourist in the summer months. There he learned his culinary skills from his nonna in the family restaurant, developing an instinctive talent for cooking. At nineteen he left home and set himself up in Denmark. From there he moved to Bangkok – he now speaks Thai fluently – and opened the first L’Opera. At the second one, in Laos, he met his Finnish wife. When she was later posted to the Philippines, he followed, and opened a third L’Opera in Makati when decent Italian restaurants in Manila could be counted on one hand. Twenty one years later, L’Opera is still a firm favourite, but these days Nesi divides his time between Prego, the original L’Opera Group trio and teaching at Enderun Colleges.

“When you are a chef, you are a chef twenty four hours a day,” he said matter-of-factly, adding that he often wakes up with a new idea for his menu. “People are so obsessed with recipes,” he complains, “but the recipe is nothing!” Turning to my son, Callum, he advises “You must learn the fundamentals, but never be afraid to be creative.” His advice to any aspiring chefs is that you need to enjoy cooking for other people, not just for yourself, and the things you like, but to find pleasure in making other people happy with what you cook. He adds that you need to come out of you comfort zone and always push the boundaries. “If you don’t make mistakes,” he says, “you are not trying hard enough.”

imagePaolo is not only a talented cook, but a trained sommelier (AIS-WSA) and WSET Educator. He uses these skills to teach Beverage Management at Enderun Colleges. He also likes to keep up with all the latest trends, and is currently exploring molecular mixology with his students. What on earth is molecular mixology? I ask him. He explains. At length. Molecular gastronomy focuses on the deconstruction, or reconstruction of food. According to Nesi all cooking is about molecular changes, be it a mayonnaise, a cake or a vinaigrette. Molecular mixology involves drinks, and changing the molecules of a particular liquid to a new form or texture, using methods such as smoking with nitrogen, caramelization or foaming. He describes an innovative G&T where the tonic comes in a capsule and the gin is frozen in an ice cube. He invites me to join one of his classes, and I agree enthusiastically.

We talked a little of his experiences in the Philippines. He loves it here, and enjoys a lot of the local food, especially crispy pata served with champagne (his own speciality). He suggests Filipino chefs need to work on presentation to make local cuisine more tempting to the eye. “Presentation enhances the dining experience” he says firmly.

imageWhile Manila has been his home base for many years, Paolo could never be accused of resting on his laurels. He travels extensively, and has opened restaurants in countries as far flung as Fiji and Rome. He dreams of opening another in Sydney, preferably on Darling Harbour. He likes the Australian attitude to food, he says, and the way they have embraced both European and Asian culinary traditions. He even waxed lyrical about South Australian wines, which of course won him brownie points from me!

Somewhere in the middle of all this riveting dialogue, we order more lunch. Or rather, Paolo orders for us, so we are saved the difficulty of choosing between the wild boar spaghetti sauce, the duck-filled ravioli or the Maccheroni alla Calabrese. Instead we are presented with tender steaks topped with a generous sliver of seared foie gras and shrouded in a creamy truffle sauce. They are imageaccompanied by a collection of perfectly al dente vegetables: carrots, broccoli and asparagus, a spoonful of spinach and cubes of roasted potatoes. Paolo complains they have overdone the sauce – it should be just a little on the side – and is taken aback by the arrival of extra condiments. “What is this?” he asks querulously of the waiter. Mustard and horseradish is the apologetic response. A very English addition, I laugh, but perhaps a little unnecessary with the sauce. “I have never eaten horseradish,” Paolo states dismissively, and we proceed to devour our steaks, slighting the condiments in favour of the dreamy truffle sauce. Apparently the foie gras is usually inserted into the steak – a surprise gift like the silver coins in a Christmas pudding – but he wasn’t sure if we would like foie gras, so it came instead as a garnish.

Another generous break is needed before we can think about dessert. Callum and I agree to share the tira misu. “And you must try the pannacotta too” insists Paolo. So we do, with childish delight, passing the plates around between the three of us, murmuring with joy at the lightly frozen tira misu, and the lusciously creamy pannacotta, topping them off with tiny cups of strong espresso.
It was a real gem of a lunch in a somewhat unexpected location. Yet the restaurant is attractive, the service professional and the food fabulous. So it is hardly surprising to hear that Paolo Nesi won an award from the Italian Ministry for what he has done to promote Italian food, wine and culture abroad. Buon appetito!

*First published in ANZA News, July 2015. And with thanks to David Peabody for sharing the beautiful photos of New Zealand photographer Richard Brimer. (The pizza is courtesy of Google, the steak is my not-so-professional snap of our lunch!)

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A Gastronomic Road Trip

“If I just keep putting one foot in front of the other, it stands to reason that I’m going to get there. I’ve begun to think we sit far more than we’re supposed to.” He smiled. “Why else would we have feet?” ~ Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.
IMG_0465If you haven’t yet read “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry” by Rachel Joyce – a strangely compelling tale – it should go on your bucket list of books. Then follow up with the ‘companion’ book, “The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey.” It is about Harold Fry’s journey of discovery – both literal and metaphysical – in the style of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, although Harold Fry himself abstains from religion. In the course of this tale of penance and self-discovery, Harold walks over 600 miles from Kingsbridge in South Devon to Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumberland to see an old work colleague dying of cancer, in the hope that his pilgrimage will keep her alive.

We are on a trip through England, too, my younger son and I. Like Harold, we began in the South of Devon and headed north east through the Midlands to County Durham, but distinct from that unlikely pilgrim, we are not on foot. Instead, we are in a zippy red Ford Focus. And this is no pilgrimage, but a treasure hunt for universities. In the process we create a trail of quaint stone-clad villages and black-and-white Tudor towns, country lanes and frenetic motorways, quirky bed-and-breakfasts and soulless motels,  Tesco’s breakfasts and sublime dinners from Dartmouth to Exeter, Warwick to Leeds, and up, up, up to Durham, to climb 325 steps to the top of the tower of Durham Cathedral. Then we veer from the path of Harold Fry and head west through the Yorkshire Dales, falling in love with high green moorland, black faced Swaledale sheep, and Yorkshire’s distinctive dry stone walls, before dipping south past Manchester to Bristol and Bath.

Did we have a favourite town? A favourite meal? Despite a wide range of picturesque towns and gastronomic adventures up and down the country, there is no real competition. Our most favoured town was Thirsk, in North IMG_0457Yorkshire, whose odd name comes from an Old Norse, or Viking word meaning fen or lake. Here we found cobbled streets and a hump-backed stone bridge; a twelfth century church swamped in gravestones and a passel of ancient pubs; a mirror-like stream flush with ducks and their quite tiny, fluffy ducklings; a capacious market place sporting the kind of dislocated cobble-stones that whisper ‘death to high heels;’ a warm and chatty Yorkshire welcome from Mark at our B&B, and an old friend I hadn’t seen in a decade. Thirsk is also home to James Herriot, author of All Creatures Great & Small, and the birthplace – especially noted for my One and Only – of Thomas Lord, the Founder of Lord’s Cricket Ground.

Our most fabulous dinner was also in Thirsk, at the Black Lion, which crouches on the periphery of a mediaeval market place, and has been recently refurbished by owner Richard Bainbridge. On the evening we arrived, our host Mark recommended what we understood to be three local pubs. As it turns out, The Back Lion is more restaurant than pub: a smart and stylish bistro and wine bar, once a night club complete with pole dancer, now boasting elegant décor and a mouth-watering menu full of locally sourced ingredients.

67187eb5-58e0-4543-8dc8-73257dbd1dc5Our host greeted us cheerily with the offer of great food and terrible service. He provided plenty of the first and none of the latter. Both food and service were unexpectedly, joyfully, deliciously wonderful.

We started with an appetizer from the “Special” board: potato skins with sour cream and cheese, a long-missed treat that I suddenly hankered after. Sadly the crunch was created by al dente potato – more potatoes au gratin than potato skins, but we were hungry enough not to complain too loudly, and they were certainly tastily embellished with cheese. We were later rewarded for our courtesy with an amuse bouche between courses: a quite superb spoonful of fresh pea risotto.

The main menu offered, amongst other things, the strangely named ‘black sheep battered east coast catch with triple cooked chips and tartar sauce.’ Baa baa black sheep chops from the coastal fields of Whitby, fried in batter? Wrong. In fact it turns out to be beer battered fish – “black sheep” is a local ale as opposed to a local lamb!

One ravenous son went straight for the barbecue grilled flat iron steak, served with warm tomato relish and chunkyIMG_0460
chips, despite an anxious warning from our waiter that flat iron steak comes from the shoulder and can be tough. The caution proved unnecessary. Slow-cooked and medium rare, it was dreamily tender and tasty, almost dissolving on the tongue. (I was generously allowed one solitary mouthful.)

My choice? Luckily, just as wondrous as the steak: Yorkshire chicken supreme doused in pan juices, accompanied by parmesan risotto, tender long-stemmed broccoli, and delicate goats’ cheese bon bon (to avoid having to say “goats’ balls” I guess). The chicken was mouth-wateringly moist, the flavour enhanced by the jus. From an avid creator of risotto, this risotto got top marks and a gold star. I would willingly have gone back for seconds. Finally, I loved the light crunch of the crumbed cheese balls followed by the rich ooze of the cheese running over our tongues. There was little conversation at the table that night.

Against one replete son’s better judgement, I opted to order a dish of sticky toffee pudding. Despite His Lordship’s cries of ‘enough,’ I ended up in a spoon duel as we grappled for the last mouthful of the rock salt caramel sauce and vanilla pod ice cream.

Later I learned from our B&B host that Harrison Barraclough is one of the UK’s youngest chefs to have earned a coveted AA rosette. I am not surprised – every fork full was worth a rosette. It was well worth the pilgrimage.

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Lazy Days on the Riviera

mentonWe arrived at the far end of the French Riviera in the early evening, in a ruinously expensive taxi from the Airport Côte d’Azur, to discover Menton, la perle de la France a small, bustling tourist town once conjoined with Monaco, lying beside a Mediterranean that resembled molten mercury in the setting sun.
The next morning, after a night spent dining far too well and far too late in a pretty square below the Basilique Saint Michel, we followed the Rue Saint Michel (obviously St. Michael is a popular saint in Menton), an attractive pedestrian mall that meanders behind la Promenade du Soleil, past shops selling swimming costumes and sandals, past countless cafés and restaurants. We found a covered market, a fountain, a wisteria-draped pergola, a narrow lane that clambered up cobbled steps to the ornate basilica on the hill, an ancient sea wall, a marina, a sign to Italy and another to Cannes, a shady square in which to indulge in a lazy, lengthy lunch of Salade Niçoise and an icy bottle of the ever-popular rosé. (There is an entire wall dedicated to rosé in the local supermarché.)
Rugged, craggy, crusty mountains loom over the coast, smudged with mist. Tall, pencil-slim church towers point skywards, attempting to compete with nature’s greater height. Gentrified hotels line the broad boulevardes, or stand proudly-important on rocky outcrops above the town. In the heat of midday, mad, lobster-impersonating bathers lounge on thick mats on pebbled beaches or submerge their heavily tanned bodies chin-deep in the glassy sea. In the early evening, as we strolled along the seafront, people were waking from afternoon siestas, emerging languorously from the shadows as the heat receded with the tide, to indulge in moules marinières and more rosé in the open-air restaurants along la Promenade du Soleil.
On our last day, I sat on a railway platform opposite banks of oleander bushes in pale pink, white, blood red,  admiring pistachio-coloured shutters on apricot-coloured buildings embossed with black, finicky wrought iron balconies. The scent of eucalyptus invaded the air. A notice beside the low-lying platform reminded passengers not to cross the tracks, but to please use the stairs.
The railway line heads west to Monaco, east to Italy. I would go only as far as Ventimille just so I could say that I had been to Italy for lunch. My One & Only had already headed off westwards on the bus to see an antique car museum in Monte Carlo.
As the train pulled out, I looked up at the leggy, modern viaducts carrying Renaults, Citroens, and Fiats, Alpha Romeos, Porsches and Ferraris up the coast à toute vitesse, racing into long, dark tunnels or skimming precariously around the mountain rim.  The train, however, hugged the coast, nodding to bougainvillea and palm trees, to stone walls draped in morning glory, to orchards crammed with dusty olive trees.
We dived into yet another tunnel, and the world on the other side was almost the same, but subtly different. The pace of life slowed infinitesimally. There were more trees, less paint, more graffiti, less people. We left behind the sound of the sophisticated, lip-pursing, frisson de français, to emerge into the more rounded, robust, operatic, melodramatic italiano.
I strolled off il treno and down the Via Roma almost to the sea, where a long pedestrian bridge carried me across the broad, shallow, La Roya river, flowing limpidly, serenely to the Ligurian sea. Here placid ducks and giant, ungainly seagulls had gathered on the pebble-strewn sandbanks in the centre, while fishermen clustered on the left bank above still, deep, jade-coloured waters, and trout swam merrily into the current of the flowing stream along the right bank.
Feeling decidedly peckish, I found a tiny pavement café and lurched from French to Italian to English – fringlish? – until the poor waitress looked more confused than I. “Cannelloni, pomodoro, mozzarella, insalata, Milanese con patate,” I chanted the menu like a mantra as I tried to realign my brain. Squeezed into a Hobbit-sized space at a tiny round table, I dined on a rich melanzane lasagna and green salad dressed in oil and vinegar from spray cans. Later, when the plate was wiped clean with thick, crusty bread, I sipped on a fiercely strong, tonsil-tearing espresso and listened, fascinated, to a large group beside me converse in a dubious mixture of Dutch, English and Italian.
Afterwards, I found a gelateria around the corner and gazed, enraptured, for several minutes, upon a glorious bouquet of colours and flavours before choosing pistacchio and limone. “Delizioso.” Next door, one solitary market stall remained open, and I couldn’t resist picking up a large box of apricots for my One & Only, which the smiling grocer would not sell me until I have tasted one, which he tore in half for me.
And then it was a slow, lethargic potter home on a sleepy, double-decker train. Blocks of apartments, sunflower yellow and apricot, clung together in a united effort to balance on the steep, almost vertical hillside and prevent themselves sliding down into the river. The wide pebbled beach stretched out towards the horizon to dip its toes in the warm sea. The train chugged back along the rocky coast, while a slender strip of sandy beach sheltered in the shade of the railway line, the crystal water thick with basking bodies. A lone fishing boat rested out beyond the rocks. Further on, and I peered out at market gardens trimmed with olive trees and threaded with beans and grape vines.
When did we cross the border? The water looked the same, the sky was just as blue, the sun as bright. Was it the subtle signs of extra polish? The array of wealthier looking boats anchored off the beach? Accents, dialects, languages drift back and forth across the long-forsaken passport control. The grass always seems greener on the other side, n’est-ce pas?
Bigliettera, biletterie. Direzzione Milano, direction Marseille. Ventimille, Ventimiglia. I made it safely back to la belle France, trailing a lingering aroma of  il bello Italie in my wake.

*With thanks to Google Images for the photo, until I can get my hands on the ones taken by my One & Only.

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Down the Dart: from Dartmoor to Dartmouth via a vineyard

IMG_6385The Dart. A picturesque and tidal river that rises on Dartmoor and meanders down through voluptuous hills and green leafy valleys to Dartmouth on the South Devon coast. Here the estuary is guarded by a pair of stone forts, somewhat ostentatiously known as the Dartmouth and Kingswear castles. We have just spent a wonderful week exploring along this fecund river, from Dartmouth to Dittisham, up to Totnes and Dartington and north to Buckfastleigh. Walking paths skimmed the edge of the river through water meadows knee deep in wild grasses or clambered up over the steep hills that rise from the water’s edge, and weave through dense woodland.

We discovered a small troop of musicians playing Maroon Five on guitar and saxophone on a lonely river bank near Dartington. We tottered down miles of narrow, steeply cobbled steps into Dartmouth. We sat on a balcony overlooking the mud flats at Dittisham at low tide, eating tender, succulent moules marinières
while children went crabbing off the jetty below us. We clambered up onto the top deck of a passenger ferry from Kingswear that dodged and ducked its way across the river to Darmouth through a barrage of sailing boats, dinghies and motor boats. We stood on a railway bridge to watch the passing of the old but shiny steam train to Paignton. We wandered through wheat fields embroidered in red and apricot poppies. We conversed with wide-eyed cows who raised their heads to acknowledge our passing, while sleepy sheep dusted with red earth attempted to ignore our existence by shutting their eyes and pretending they hadn’t seen us. We trudged up steep, wooded slopes to find spectacular views from the top in which to soak ourselves, and took a short ferry ride in a little wooden boat from Greenway to Dittisham, IMG_6391which required us to ring a large brass bell for the ferryman.

One day, walking along the Dart from the ancient market town of Totnes, we found a lovely, lazy cycling path that took us over the hills and around sluggish river bends to Sharpham Winery. Beer and cider may be commonplace in England, but wineries can still raise eyebrows, especially from Aussies who think grapes could not possibly grow with any enthusiasm this far north of the equator.

Yet there has long been a tradition, albeit a small one, for making wine in Britain. The Romans introduced the Celts to wine back in the year dot, and Catholic monks were soon making their own communion wines, particularly in the south of England. Viticulture died out with the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century, but has unexpectedly been revived in the last fifty years. Apparently there are now over 400 small wineries in Britain.

As we arrived in the farm yard, the overcast skies that had provided gentle shade shaded since Totnes suddenly began to leak. So we were more than happy to find a table beneath a canvas canopy on a broad deck and trawl through the blackboard menu for something tasty for lunch. The restaurant is run as a concession by staff from Anchorstone, a renowned seafood restaurant a couple of miles downstream at Dittisham. (Anchorstone of the delectable moules marinieres.) An array of blackboards described the many local food producers they source on their menu. While the seafood dishes looked tempting, we had eaten crisply delicious fish and chips at the Floating Inn at Dartmouth only the day before, so we opted to share a steak sandwich and a cheese platter, the cheeses all products of the Sharpham Estate Dairy. We also indulged in a glass of bubbles each – one pink and tasting of strawberries and cream, the other, a sparkling blanc with light biscuity notes, both made with the champagne method of natural fermentation, not with CO2.IMG_6356

The steak sandwich was speedily devoured, dripping with caramelized onions and lettuce. The cheese platter proved a more than generous serving: five Sharpham cheeses served with a gratifying mix of biscuits, wafers and heavily seeded breads. We nibble through a wonderfully sharp and creamy washed goat’s cheese, a Brie like clotted cream, and a zippy ‘Rustic’ flavoured with chives and garlic. The plain Rustic was less favoured: we found it bland and rather lifeless of flavour and chalky in texture, with little to differentiate between that and the strangely named Cremet.

After lunch, and sadly unable to find the room to indulge in a gooseberry pavlova – quite tragic really, as it is years since I last tasted gooseberries – we headed down to the wine tasting arena to join about five other couples waiting eagerly for their first taste of English wines.

Sharpham’s wine making history goes back only thirty years, but it appears to be thriving. Leasing land from the Sharpham Trust, Sharpham vineyard consists of 10 acres of grapes and a further 90 acres for the beautiful Jersey cows who produce the milk for Sharpham’s unpasteurized cheeses. As the river loops around the steeply sloping estate, the breezes off the river keep insects and damp at bay.

Our hostess came down the ramp clutching six bottles, a carafe and a wine cooler. We would be introduced to all six, and permitted to choose three each to taste, she told us as she introduced herself as Yolanda. She explained that the cow’s milk for the Sharpham cheeses comes from their own cows, but the goat’s milk comes from Ashburton, and the ewe’s milk from Somerset, the closest supplier they could find, but as we started on the lighter white wines, she recommended we save the cheeses for the red wines, a beer match for the ‘runaway’ Brie and another semi-soft cheese flavoured with caraway seeds.IMG_6368

Sharpham uses grape varieties that are generally popular in Northern Europe and therefore more effective in the cooler English climate. Flavours are more subtle than I am used to, growing up in South Australia, where sunshine and gutsy reds are at a premium. But for a light, bright summer barbecue wine I like this fresh rose with hints of strawberries.

The two white wines we met were the Sharpham New Release and the Bacchus. The New Release takes only four weeks to travel from the vine to bottle, like Beaujolais Nouveau, and is made from 100% Madeleine Angevine. Those who tried it commented that it was smoother than expected for such a young wine.

I preferred to try the Bacchus. The Bacchus is a big, sugary grape often used for those sweet Alsace style wines. Sharpham’s version is a more subtle mouthful of tropical flavours: a hint of lychees and a strong dash of pineapple. Others suggested they could taste melon.

We finished up on red wine and cheese. The simply named Sharpham Estate Red or the Pinot Noir? There was no competition for me, I wanted to try the Pinot. Yolanda told us that their winemaker describes Pinot Noir as a difficult, fussy, grape, a bit of a moody teenager apparently, that grows in close clusters. The Sharpham Pinot had been aged in French oak and had a dry, musty aroma and an earthiness that went perfectly with the caraway cheese made from a third goat’s milk, two thirds Jersey.
IMG_6379It’s a fun tasting session, but expensive for what you get, even in English terms. And in the end, my favourite was still the glass of pink sparkling wine I had enjoyed with my lunch. And of course, as is always the problem with small,bespoke vineyards, the cost of the wine inevitably far exceeds its excellence. But it was interesting to see that good quality wines can emerge from this often cloudy corner of a rather damp and sunless little island.
We trudged home through the fine drizzle which hadn’t let up since lunchtime. No complaints though, it was perfect walking weather.

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