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

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Lechon roasting on an open fire,
Parum-papum-pum,
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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Flirting with Chocolate

 “All you need is love. but a little chocolate now and again doesn’t hurt”  – Charles M. Schulz
IMG_0200A coquettish breeze. Turquoise skies smudged with wispy clouds. A broad deck overlooking bare, craggy hills and milky blue bays, sailboats, sunshine and… chocolate?

For chocolate worshippers everywhere, I have found your Mecca. Head south to New Zealand, then south east to Christchurch and the curvaceous Banks Peninsula. Here, at Governor’s Bay, you will discover the decadence of ‘She Universe,’ the ultimate chocolate café destination.

The menu sets the tone as soon as you are seated, inviting you to “lead an extraordinary life,” by dining on delicious dishes laced with chocolate and choc-a-block (pardon the pun, it really was unintentional) with ‘superfoods’ supposedly thick with vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. While the cynic in me denies this marketing tool has any scientific basis, the descriptions are nonetheless tantalizing.

The menu, pages long, offers brunch, lunch, snacks, drinks, desserts and truffles, all containing at least a pinch of chocolate. “She” even holds classes to ‘learn about, taste and create with chocolate.’ If you have even the mildest obsession with chocolate, the dessert menu will have you dribbling and doubtless camping on the doorstep for days in order to work your way through every offering. There is a tiramisu ice cream cake – Tiramisu to Tango – served on a base of chocolate brownie drenched in coffee, and garnished with almond flakes and cream. Or you may want to indulge in “She’s Infamous Brownie” packed with walnuts, dripping with chocky sauce and accompanied by raspberry coulis and vanilla ice cream.  For something a little different, slaver over an avocado and chocolate torte on a base of almond and cashew. This weighty cake has been lightened with the sharp zing of berries and a spoonful of yoghurt. Or you may like to explore the history of chocolate by sharing a Chocolate Lover’s platter that takes you on a journey from the bean to the truffle via a chocolate fondue. Is your mouth watering yet?

The latest craze is for the cacao elixir. In the language of fine wine, stone ground single estate beans from Peru and IMG_0350
Samoa are used to create hot chocolate ‘the Ancient Way.’ After seeking advice from our lovely waitress, I chose one made with Samoan beans. Apparently it is made with water, not milk, as the thick chocolate paste does not blend well with dairy. I am dubious. I always hated watery chocolate. Remember that ‘cheap’ version when we were kids? I don’t know about your mother, but mine would rarely waste money on Nesquik or Milo. So it was a teaspoon of  cocoa powder, hot water and a spoonful of sugar? It resulted in something barely drinkable, the sugar never quite dissolving, but sinking crunchily to the bottom of the mug, the cocoa never quite dissolving and floating, dry and dusty, to the surface. So lame.

This cacao elixir, Single-Origin-66%-Peruvian-sweetened-with-organic-fair-trade-can-sugar was quite different. Yes, really! I know the marketing hyperbole is a little distracting, but it truly tastes much better than it sounds. The thick chocolate paste actually does blend comfortably with hot water, and makes a surprisingly filling, pure and tasty drink. The consistency fills your mouth and lingers on tongue and teeth, the texture is smooth as silk. The chocolate is distinctively more bitter than the average commercial chocolate drink, but the sugar syrup takes the edge off it beautifully. It is awfully rich  though, so you will only need a small cup – or maybe that’s just me! Suddenly the Belgian Hot Chocolate made with milk and whipped cream and ‘hand rolled chocolate flakes’ looks and sounds thoroughly ostentatious, overly sweet and unappealing.

If chocolate is not really your bag – and it isn’t mine particularly – there are a selection of dishes that only give
IMG_0199chocolate a passing glance. Rather than a full-on starring role it’s just a cameo performance. But it is good. Several of the savoury dishes have been spiced up with chilli chocolate jam, cacao nibs, chocolate balsamic dressing or a chocolate mole over chicken. We ordered a sample, sitting out on the balcony overlooking Lyttleton Bay and the surrounding hills. An overly boisterous breeze forced us to move back into a more sheltered nook, where we indulged in fish cakes and salad. Oh OK, more detail required? So. “Akaroa salmon, dill and wholegrain mustard fishcakes with orange, pomegranate and fennel salad and chilli chocolate jam.” There, is that better? Our additional superfood salad included more pomegranate seeds, broccoli, avocado, kumara chips and a bowl of trail mix (a hiking snack of nuts and chocolate). We shared everything happily, including a moreish Lotus Heart Shake, with banana and dates, cashews and almond milk, cacao and coconut oil.

And yes, before we left, I handpicked a selection of truffles to take home, all with extra-ordinary fillings: a zesty lime and black pepper; the more earthy beetroot and balsamic; a white chocolate heart filled with vanilla and rosemary; an El Mariachi of salted lemon, caramel and tequila and Hot Lips, a dark chocolate mouth filled with chilli and Indian spices. It was worth the expense, and I may never let a mass produced milk chocolate bar pass my lips again!

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Amuse Bouche


IMG_0339‘New Zealand’ suggests sheep and hobbits and rugby. It whispers of kiwis – birds and fruit – and an on-going feud with Australia as to who invented the pavlova. It rumbles about earthquakes and volcanoes.  It mumbles Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, and friendly locals with strange vowels. It roars the haka and murmurs moko (tattoos). It tramps through bush and snow, over mountains and around sheep. It purrs about jade and paua shell. It bubbles mud pools and thermal springs. It swims in the Pacific Ocean or the Tasman Sea and cruises through Milford Sound. It coos over the tiny Maui dolphin and the little blue penguin. It builds weatherboard houses and baches (to rhyme with matches) by the beach. It idolizes the iconic VW campervan and its rugby team. It invented bungy jumping, the jet boat and the ski plane. It boasts of Sir Edmund Hillary, votes for women (a world first) and Apirana Ngata, campaigner for Maori rights. It munches on Afghan biscuits and cooks in a hangi (Maori earth oven) or on a sausage sizzling barbecue. It protects native birds, bats and the ancient kauri. It is a land of great natural beauty and greater natural disasters…

I first read the Hobbit in 1980, before it was set in New Zealand. Then I discovered ‘The Bone People’ at university. Author, Keri Hulme, only ever wrote the one book, but she won the Booker Prize in 1985. I loved it. The dancing, poetic language enticed and enveloped me, and I have dreamed of visiting New Zealand ever since. We just never seemed to be travelling in that direction. Last month I unexpectedly found myself on a flight to Christchurch to visit my best friend from primary school. It was the chance to re-ignite a long-neglected friendship, and to realize a long-held dream.

The weather forecast looked dismal – two days of sunshine followed by a week of rain, hail and cloudy skies – so I had packed my trusty and ancient Gortex raincoat (a garish shade of red) and my umbrella. Luckily the forecast proved totally unreliable: I needed the raincoat only once, the umbrella not at all…

Christchurch is New Zealand’s second-largest city, situated half way down the east coast of the South Island. The city lies at the northern end of the Canterbury Plains, bordered by the Southern Alps to the west and the Pacific Ocean, and is mostly as flat as a freshly ironed tablecloth. Christchurch was carefully planned in a grid pattern with a central square and lots of parks, just like its twin city – my home town – in South Australia, and nothing at all like Manila.

Unfortunately, like Manila, Christchurch was also lying on a fault line, but the only other recorded quakes to cause a majorchristchurch cathedral impact were in 1869 and 1870, so no one really worried about it. Then, in September 2010, there was an earthquake in Canterbury of 7.1 magnitude that caused widespread damage, but no fatalities. Everyone breathed with relief. Then, less than six months later, another quake struck the region, which tore the city apart. Almost 200 people were killed and large tracts of the city collapsed or have subsequently had to be demolished. Liquefaction buried many suburbs in sludge and silt. Repairs and rebuilding are ongoing. Empty blocks look like gappy teeth on the cityscape, and many buildings are boarded up as they crumble down. Sadly, the eponymous Christchurch Cathedral may meet the same fate.

restart mallOn the positive side, a strong sense of community has evolved out of the disaster. Shipping containers are now a feature of the landscape: decorated and redesigned as cafés and shops to help restart the city centre, or planted as barriers along the roadsides to protect drivers and pedestrians from the ongoing fear of rock falls. It gives the city a youthful, quirky and somewhat eccentric feel that is rather endearing.  And the creativity and humour in the face of such a catastrophe is really heart-warming.

I emerge from the airport into blue skies and sunshine and the wide, straight roads of the western suburbs, lined with neat weatherboard houses. We throw my bags into the boot and head east for the satellite town of Lyttleton, the epicenter of the 2011 earthquake, and a sharp geographical contrast to the Canterbury Plains.

The first British settlers sailed into Lyttleton Harbour in the 1850s, and established the small town of the same name, which clambers up the precipitous sides of the Port Hills from the quay. These steep, rugged hills presented a challenging barrier between the harbour and the new city. For many years the only way into the city was over the hills on the precipitous Bridle Path. Today, the Bridle Path is mostly used by energetic recreational walkers, while road traffic flows underneath, through a 2km tunnel built back in 1964, currently celebrating its 50th anniversary. On the top of the Port Hills, at Mount Cavendish, a scenic lookout perches like a giant eagle’s eerie, housing the Christchurch cable car that drops sharply down the western side of the hill,  frightening sheep.  The lookout provides a stunning panoramic view across Christchurch, the hills and Lyttleton Harbour, which makes it a great place to catch your breath and grab a bite to eat after the strenuous climb – or the gentle cable car ride. It also proved to be a great place for a little Christmas shopping!

My temporary abode also has the most glorious views from the kitchen window and the broad deck, north and east IMG_0178across the harbor’s glacier mint waters and west to the bare and craggy hills behind. (On the first of December – the first day of summer in the antipodes – we woke to see snow dusting the top of Mount Herbert like icing sugar.) The garden is full of temperate climate plants, including a prolific little lemon tree, a wisteria and a luxurious veggie patch. The front path weaves through a tunnel of trees like the road to fairyland. A midnight black cat sleeps in my suitcase. And there are wildflowers on my window sill.

The roads in Diamond Harbour twist and turn through the trees, dip and dive into bays, and scramble up the rocky hillsides. Houses seem to cling precariously, like birds’ nests, to the steep slopes. We lurch down a narrow grassy path to the black sandy beach at Pile Bay, crammed with shuttered baches, and watch as a small brown duck paddles into shore and waddles over to inspect these presumptuous human beings who have invaded his realm. He is nicknamed Robert, and he follows us around the headland, trying to pretend it is a coincidence, and he has forgotten all about us, but just happened to be passing the same way. I am the Duck Whisperer. Two days later, I am accosted by Deirdre and George as I lie on the grass by the Heathcote River, who choose to settle near my feet like devoted dogs, tucking their heads under their feathers and snoozing peacefully in the sun.

IMG_0282We make a trip to Akaroa to admire beautiful gardens on fertile, volcanic soil. It is late Spring and the roses are lush and heavy on their stems, although surprisingly lightly scented. All their energy has gone into the visual: chubby blooms, like Anne Gedes babies, that drag the branches of the exhausted mother bush towards the earth. Lupins and lavender, peonies and pansies, espaliered pears and arum lilies: it is all the pastel colours of an English country garden. Until your eyes are caught by the stately stand of silvery eucalypts, a shady nook enveloped in bottle green, delicately curling ferns, a flamboyant pohutukawa – the native New Zealand Christmas tree – with its scarlet baubles, or the spiky orange blades of the libertia trimming a gravel path. Contrasting floral cultures intertwined.

Akaroa was claimed by the British in 1840, snatching it from under the noses of French whalers who had earlier made a deal with local Maoris. The French stayed on anyway, and there are still traces of French heritage in the architecture and on the street signs: Rue Benoit and Rue Balguerie, Rue Jolie and Rue Lavaud. And, apparently, in a local penchant for French wines. Today there is an opportunity to swim with the petite Hector’s dolphin, spot seals and whales, and search for Pohatu penguins. The town is blessed with a broad selection of good cafés and IMG_0317restaurants, and picturesque weatherboard cottages. And there is a Polish jeweler at the end of the jetty who designs beautifully delicate pieces from paua shell pearls that meld traditional Maori shapes and modernity. Walking tracks will guide you up the creeks and into the hills behind the town. Akaroa Harbour is also a haven for the occasional cruise ships that dwarf the flotilla of sailing boats nestling at the head of the harbor. And the piece de resistance? The Giants Garden, whose terraced lawns and paths and flowerbeds are bejeweled and embedded with bright mosaics: statues, staircases and garden seats that provide a startling contrast to the natural beauty of flowers, trees and the surrounding hills. There is even a grand piano standing proudly on the front lawn of this historic French style house built with New Zealand timber way back in 1880. It is… breath-taking.

New Zealand is, quite simply, a feast for the senses. I am smitten, just by the little corner I got to explore. I could warble on for pages, but I have to start planning the next trip, so I will leave the rest to your imaginations, or the next installment…

 

 

 

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Baa Baa Black Sheep

Black Sheep.7Black Sheep is the newest Single-Malt-Whisky-Bar-and-Modern-Gastronomy-Restaurant in town. Try saying that after a couple of drinks! Situated in the penthouse atop that eye-catching black, white and blue checkered building West Fifth in Bonifacio Global City, the kitchen is in the capable hands of Chef Jordy Navarra who has come to Manila via Bo Innovation in Hong Kong, and the Fat Duck in Bray. Both restaurants have been endowed with Michelin stars. This snippet of information sets expectations high.

Like all good restaurants in Manila, no expense has been spared on the décor. It has touches of a converted warehouse, with huge plate glass windows overlooking the city to north and west. Seating is eclectic. You can perch up in the sky room – tonight set for a romantic anniversary tete-a-tete, the walkway strewn in rose petals – a private dining area with 360’C outlook. Yet it’s quite close to the roof and all the commotion below rises swiftly to the ceiling. There are booths for six opposite the windows, looking north to Ortigas or west to Rockwell. The views are terrific, but the banquette seating was a little awkward for clambering in and out. Around the central bar is the option of high tables and lanky bar w5thstools, possibly for a younger, lither crowd than us. The prime spot is a round table in the corner window, looking both north and west, hugged by deep leather armchairs. Sadly, it was already booked, but the booths were cozy, we survived a little clambering, and combined with carpets underfoot – a rare experience in restaurants these days – we discovered happily that we were sheltered from the intrusive noise of the kitchen and the chatter of other diners. Oddly the lighting is really poor, perhaps to ensure the perfect night view, but it does mean struggling to see the menu and the food.

Our waiters bent over backwards to make us welcome, turning down the music at our request and giving us informative explanations and, later, instructions on how to eat the food.  We were handed a short bar menu, or a choice of two set menus, either five or seven courses. The whisky list, on the other hand, contained over 100 choices of single malts, so it took some lengthy discussion for the gentlemen to make a decision about their drinks. In the meantime, the ladies perused the food menu, but it was giving away no secrets. There were no poetically detailed descriptions of the ingredients in every dish I have come to expect, but plain and simple: catch of the day, bahay kubo and, bizzarely, cigars under the desserts list. I found myself feeling skeptical, hungry and just a wee bit cranky. The message from Virginia Woolf on the table mat seemed to be directed straight at me: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” I was getting querulous and needed good, mood-altering food, but I had no idea what to expect. Nor, as it turned out, could I have imagined what was in store for us.

The waiter, with a wave of his magic wand, suddenly appeared at my side with a bowl of bread rolls that looked like muffins and tasted like bacon flavoured soufflés, soft and spongy and infinitely moreish. “Please sir, I want some more.”  I breathed out happily. It was a good start.

Dinner was a set menu of artistry and innovative creativity. While I was not enamoured of everything we ate that night, that was, I think, immaterial. I don’t believe the Chef was looking for our approbation. He just wanted to defy our expectations, alter our perceptions and watch our reactions.

Black Sheep 1First up, a dish entitled ‘Chicken-n-egg. Free range chicken. Mandarin. Beer.’  A ridiculous, amusing tease; a quirky take on the infamous Filipino street food, balut. Half an egg shell nestled in a bed of straw. A cube of lightly fried chicken. A dash of citrus. A beer broth. I chewed tentatively, but it was happily lacking a beak. And it was surprisingly tasty, the mandarin adding a pert zing as we tipped the shell and sipped the broth. Definitely, for me, better than the original!

The second dish was ‘today’s catch.’ Prawns. One wrapped in a cocoon of batter, another in a ravioli or wonton casing, on a bed of spicy peanut sauce. We were advised to eat the wonton first, then dip the prawn in the sauce. I preferred to eat it with a spoon, childishly, enjoying the flavour of a hot, crunchy peanut paste. My only complaint is one I did not expect to make in such a quality establishment. The battered prawn had been fried in over-used palm oil, that tired, dirty flavour of shopping mall food stalls and street food, which sadly spoiled the effect of the fresh, meaty prawn.

Bahay kubo, for any non-Filipino readers, is a popular Filipino children’s song. The English translation of the Tagalog reads as follows:

My Humble Nipa HutBlack Sheep 3

My humble nipa hut
may look tiny,
but the veggies around
it, sure are many.
Yam beans and eggplants,
wing’d beans and peanuts,
string, hyacinth and lima beans.
Winter melon and loofah,
bottl’ gourd, squash, et cetera.
There is more, amiga,
radish, mustard, yeah!
Onions, tomatoes
garlic and ginger.
If you look all around,
sesame seeds abound!

On this note, the next dish arrived: a singular tribute to the nursery rhyme above. Apparently all sixteen vegetables listed in the song are incorporated into the scene on the plate of hut and garden. The loam consisted of crushed peanuts and minced eggplant, which tasted unexpectedly like haggis, earthy and rich. The little hut was made from strips of sweet ginger. Beneath the earth we dug out slices of bottle gourd and winter melon, a fruit that looks like a bloated zucchini. Loofah is not only for scrubbing backs, it seems, but is also a fibrous vegetable, second cousin to the cucumber. And there were several different beans: my favourite sygarilyas or winged bean; string beans and lima beans, and the pretty, purple-coated hyacinth bean, known more prosaically in Australia as Poor Man’s bean. My One & Only was besotted, and was still raving about it at bedtime.

Black Sheep 4Our main course was a simple but immensely rich serving of slow-cooked pork and free-range chicken served on a bed of ‘truffle sand’ that looked like burghul wheat but tasted like… umm… sand. The chicken was wrapped in its skin, moist and perfectly cooked. The pork had the most divine flavour, a little too fatty for our leaner fancy, but rich and comforting.

And the desserts? Mine was a bit of flummery: mango in three different ways, layered on filo pastry, with cubes of honeycomb, like soft Violet Crumble, and wafer thin ginger slices. Like fairy floss it dissolved on the tongue and disappeared as quickly. My fellow diners chose more bravely – well, I had assumed they were ordering real cigars, but instead they were presented with the most extraordinary arrangement of breast shaped panacotta infused with cigar smoke and served on a bed of chocolate and whisky jelly. All a man’s pleasures rolled into one? It tasted to me – who doesn’t like whisky or Black Sheep 6cigarettes – like licking out an ashtray, but the challenge to mind and taste buds was fascinating, and the textures were strangely alluring. Apparently eating it with a matching whisky makes all the difference.

The grand finale, after a coffee-making performance that rivalled any Japanese tea ceremony, was a letter to our host in a black envelope with a sheep’s head seal, thanking us for visiting. A nice touch. Which reminds me, I must write back and thank them for having us.

PS The black sheep, I always understood to mean one who stands out, the troublesome one, the one that doesn’t fit in. Although traditionally the expression had negative connotations, modern times have seen it turn around to mean the sheep – or person – who stands out in the flock, as one special and apart from the mob; the unique, exceptional one.

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Just Sushi

As I may have mentioned, I recently made my first trip to Japan, landing in sushi and beyondTokyo with a clean slate, eager for new impressions. I must admit, I knew embarrassingly little about the country at that point, and I was feeling ridiculously unprepared. But I had a book, lent to me by a friend, and the book became my guide to Japan. “Sushi and Beyond,” is Michael Booth’s travel journal of four months eating though Japan. It was a godsend.

I began to read about Japan’s most famous fish market, Tsukiji. I got tips on making dashi, a base stock and the cornerstone of Japanese cooking. I read about seaweed and bonito and wasabe and miso soup. It was all fascinating. It was mostly about fish. Then I realized I would have to put the book down, or miss out on having my own adventure.

So I flew down to Kochi, a small town on the island of Shikoku, just south of Osaka. Shikoku is dominated by a large mountain range, and the rest is predominantly rural. Until 1988, when a bridge was built from Honshu, Shikoku was quietly isolated from the rest of the country. There is still a sense of separation from the modern world of Tokyo and Osaka; a time lapse that is very endearing.

Shikoku is renowned for its 88-temple pilgrimage, a 760 mile circuit that skirts the island. Walking through four provinces, the pilgrim’s journey is a symbolic path to enlightenment. These many tourists follow in the footsteps of the ascetics. Unfortunately I wouldn’t have time this trip. I was in Kochi to meet my parents, attend a concert, and discover more about Japanese cuisine.

Our first meal together was at a sushi and sashimi bar in a narrow back lane in Kochi. For those unfamiliar with Japanese cuisine (18)Japanese culinary terms, sashimi and sushi are not quite the same. Sashimi is raw, unadorned fish, simply sliced, simply presented, with soya sauce and wasabe seasonings. Sushi may use raw fish too, but it can also be cooked fish or even fish-less, but it is always served on vinegared rice.

Our dinner that night was a set menu, much to the relief of those of us unable to read Japanese characters, and somewhat daunted by the extensive menu painted on a wooden palette on the wall. One plate followed another in rapid succession: lightly seared bonito shashimi; crunchy prawn tempura; bream sushi and and miso soup; tiny abalone that made me think of the baby oysters in ‘The Walrus & the Carpenter.’ I am drooling even now at the mere memory of that meal.

The etiquette of eating is quite simple. A hot or cold towel allows you to start with clean hands. While sashimi should be eaten with chopsticks, no one seems to have a problem if you need to use your fingers for the sushi, as some of the larger sushi can become a bit unwieldy when pinched between the tips of two knitting needles! (So speaks the expert at flinging fat, squelchy sushi to the floor.) And then afterwards, you can dab your fingers clean on the damp towel.

Sushi is traditionally served with a dab of wasabi and soy sauce, often already applied by the chef. If you want extra, just remember to dip sushi sparingly in the soy sauce, and remember to turn it fish side down or the rice will absorb the sauce and promptly collapse in a huff. Pickled ginger may be served in a side dish as a palate cleanser. In theory, the fish, even the cooked variety, should be so fresh it almost swims into your mouth.

We feasted well that night, gobbling up every offering with huge enthusiasm and finishing off with a chawanmushi miso soup topped with a savoury egg custard that is considered a good digestive at the end of the meal. At the bottom, as an added bonus, we found three minute cockles, the size of a baby’s thumb nail. I was hooked.

Kochi (29)Wandering the streets of Kochi over the next few days, I found elaborate sushi stalls to fuel my new obsession. While sushi has existed in Japan in some shape or form for centuries, it only reached the west in the 20th century. In the 1960s, Japanese sushi chefs arrived in California. At the Tokyo Kaikan restaurant  in Los Angeles the first sushi bar was established, where one innovative chef, Ichiro Mashita, acknowledging the different tastes of his American clients, experimented with local ingredients and created the first California roll.  The California roll is sushi inside-out  filled with cucumber, crab meat and avocado. In Australia we prefer salmon or tuna and avocado, and I have even eaten them with chicken schnitzel. In the Philippines they are mostly made with mango and crabmeat. This fusion sushi has become popular world wide but it is very different to the sushi I found in Japan.

Back in Tokyo, where I met my husband, I wanted to share the experience with him. So that evening, we delved into the back streets of Shinjuku.

Shinjuku initially seems all about size and volume: broad, tree-lined streets framing stolid government buildings; huge department stores; a vast railway station; pavements seething with people. Then suddenly, you will come across an unexpected cluster of narrow side streets; a rabbit warren of restaurants and cafes. After dark, these areas are colonized by hungry workers all hunting for their favourite food.

It was here that we found a nifty little sushi bar, the sort where the plated sushi revolves around the counter on a conveyor belt, known in Australia as a sushi train. The conveyor belt was chock-a-block with beautifully presented, plated sushi. It was like a fashion show, and we dithered about where to start, there were just too many choices.

The most popular styles of sushi include Nigri sushi, a single piece of fish on a pillow of rice, Gunkan-maki: the rice Japanese cuisine (8)pillow has a seaweed sleeve (nori) to hold a looser topping in place, like salmon roe or sea urchin, and maki-zushi, or sushi rolls, that rice bolster stuffed with multiple fillings and tied in place with seaweed strips (nori again). Hosomaki are skinny maki-sushi cut into bite-sized pieces. Temaki sushi  are cones made of nori  filled with sushi rice, seafood and vegetables.

We watched the plates revolve for a bit before taking the plunge. Then we endeavoured to try them all – well, as many as we could swallow before our stomachs could notice they were filled to overflowing. Every mouthful of freshness, quality, flavour and texture, was bliss. When we were uncertain, our waiter would try to advise us, although often, he could only give us the Japanese name. But I copied them down assiduously to check later. A cooked piece of ‘white fish’ on its cushion of rice (bream I think) was melt-in-the-mouth “oishii” (delicious), but sadly I never caught another one – it was obviously popular with everybody.

Some fillets were simply and elegantly presented, reclining in naked glory on a cushion of rice, with maybe a thin slice of lemon to cover their modesty. Others were dressed for a party, bedecked in baubles of salmon roe and ribbons of mayonnaise. I thought the latter looked a little overdone (mutton dressed as lamb?), but in fact this was two or three magnificent mouthfuls of creamy salmon, a delicate, citrusy mayonnaise and the salty pop of orange roe.

In between, we nibbled on wafers of pickled ginger, and piled our empty plates neatly at the end of the counter, where our waiter could count up the cost of our feast. I wielded my chopsticks – mostly – with surprising efficiency. And we certainly did not go hungry, as any gaps we made in the display were quickly filled by the sushi chefs, surveying their realm haughtily from their dais in the middle. My only remaining question: when can I go back?

*Adapted from an article written for Inklings magazine, November 2014 issue.

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