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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Reconnecting with Nature

Ruby RedThe best thing I have discovered this week about the people of Devonshire is their huge pride in their beautiful, largely rural county. It has been a week of delightful discoveries. At the risk of sounding like a tourist brochure, it is a wonderful place to visit if you like the outdoors: pretty coves or long stretches of red sandy beaches; cliff walks and woodland walks; narrow country lanes corralled by high stone walls or dense hedgerows, and armfuls of National Trust and English Heritage properties to visit.

It was while I was drifting down one of those lanes, looking for an alternative route into town to avoid rush hour traffic and too many traffic lights that I came across Occombe Organic Farm. A big red sign jumped out at me, announcing the Occombe Farm Shop and Café. Fancying a mug of coffee, and with time to spare, I popped in for a quick visit. It immediately became a regular haunt, as I dropped my son to work in Paignton, and then paused to read the paper and drink a latte on the broad deck overlooking the voluptuously rolling green hills of Devon.

Occombe (14)Occombe Farm is in the care of the Torbay Coast & Country Trust, an independent local charity that maintains over 1750 acres of woodland, cliffs, coves and coastal walks, nature reserves and farmland in the area. I soon discovered that the farm extended beyond a café and a shop to a community garden, an educational facility, a clutch of working animals (not pets) and a nature trail, as well a large barn used to host fund-raising events such as comedy and choirs, or most recently, a barn dance. At the end of the week, on a perfect summer’s day, I was finally encouraged to stretch myself beyond the world’s best and fluffiest scrambled eggs (laid 200m from the kitchen) to pay a proper visit to the rest of the farm.

My first stop was at the community garden, where Chris, with blonde dreadlocks and apricot blond beard, was picking bags of peas to sell in the café. I bought a bag there and then – and you can’t get much fresher than that.  A large poster by the gate stated that the community garden is part of a One Planet Project to promote local food. Volunteers are welcome to join the team, while school kids often visit to learn about growing their own food and then have the opportunity to cook it in the community kitchen. Located on the side of a hill, with raised beds wrapped around a central canvas yurt (for conferences and educational get-togethers), this glorious garden was in full bloom.  Several sweet pea tripods, beds of bright orange and yellow marigolds and clumps of borage are used to attract bees, slugs and snails (as a preferable alternative to them gnawing on the vegetables), or to be dug into the earth at the end of the summer to improve the soil’s nitrogen content. To the uninitiated observer they simply add glorious technicolour to an otherwise green landscape.

Occombe (5)A series of herb beds were filled to overflowing with the usual array of parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, but I also found herbs I have never seen on the supermarket shelves like chocolate and apple mint, as well as effusive chamomile bushes – the first time I have ever seen chamomile in the flesh. Above the veggie patches, a small orchard was filled with apples, pears and plums, as well as red, white and black currents. There was also a special educational garden imitating land use during the war. Boards described how Hyde Park, Windsor Great Park and even Buckingham Palace gardens were dug up for crops and allotments in a government promoted Dig for Victory Campaign. Beside this historic re-enactment I dodged quickly past a fenced apiary of busy black honey bees.

Beyond the orchard was a fallow field, in which a corner had been fenced off to house a pair of friendly Berkshire piglets. Traditionally black, these two little boys had spent hours rolling in the red mud that had given their bristles a titian tint. Being ‘working’ pigs, they will eventually land up on a table as someone’s Sunday roast, but for now, they are very sweet and chatty, fervently denying the warning, with welcoming grunts, not to stick fingers through the fence, as they can apparently bite quite firmly.

IMG_0772 (2)I had read about the herd of local Ruby Red cattle. This is an ancient breed of cattle known formally as The Devon, but nicknamed Ruby Red on account of their rich russet colour, a similar colour to the local red sandstone. However, they had apparently wandered off over the hills and far away as they are nowhere to be seen. Likewise the lambs and pygmy goats,. However I did stop to converse with Malcolm the Khaki Campbell Duck and his harem of eight lady ducks, some of the brown chooks who provided my breakfast, and one of a pair of alpacas called Captain Kid, employed to keep the foxes at bay.

Opposite the animal enclosures is the beginning – or the end – of the nature trail, depending which way you choose to travel. Ambling across sun-struck fields and through shaded, gloomy woodland, I also passed a pond with a nearby hide from whence to study the local birdlife.

As I meandered out into open fields, the air was bejewelled with bees and butterflies. The nature trail is a relatively short walk – presumably designed to accommodate the short legs of its smaller visitors – but is nonetheless charming for its brevity. I sat on the grass to enjoy the view across green paddocks splodged with marshmallow trees to the white houses on the steep hills of Torquay. Around me, the fields was hedged with thick and prickly bramble bushes, confetti-covered in pale pink, five-petalled flowers,  heralding the autumn arrival of jam jars full to the brim with blackberries.

IMG_0773A spectrum of greens may dominate the landscape at this time of year, but here on the hillside it was also sprinkled with the deep purple of wild thistles and the smiling yellow faces of buttercups, marsh marigolds and tall, slim daisies. Onto the boardwalk and into the woods, I followed a tiny, tinkling stream to that distinctive, slightly damp scent of English woodland, and the sound of small, squeaky birds. In a clearing just off the main path some local little Indians had been building wigwams.

Looping back up to the farm buildings, I watched a sparrow hawk drop unceremoniously from the sky and squat in deep grass, hoping no one had noticed his picnic plans. The smaller birds near the hide kept an even lower profile, as I had caught not a glimpse of a single blue tit or green finch, but could hear plenty of carolling nthe dense shrubbery.

Back at the café, I sat out on the deck with a cold Sicilian lemonade, straight from Devon producers, Luscombe’s. According to the farm’s website, the café is ‘all about delicious, fresh and local food,’ and as many of the menu’s ingredients as possible come from the farm itself. They also source ingredients from other local producers, in order to offer diners some of the best flavours of Devon.

Downstairs, in the farm shop, I rounded up some steak from Gribbles Butchers. Gribbles is a family-run business with basically a paddock to plate arrangement with local farmers and producers to sell their goods at the Farm Shop. I spent some time exploring the shelves and fridges, including the produce of half a dozen local cheesemakers and local wines and juices. My basket surreptitiously filled itself with a large, but unplanned assortment of goodies including an excellent tomato sauce to accompany my Gribbles pasties for lunch, as well as a jam, a chutney and a couple of homemade apricot slices, at the end of a thoroughly satisfying return to nature.

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Just My Cup of Tea

R-Brendon-blue-scalloped-saucerLondon isn’t everybody’s cup of tea
Often you hear visitors complain
Noisy, smoky city but it seems to me
There’s a magic in the fog and rain

Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner
That I love London so
Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner
That I think of her wherever I go
I get a funny feeling inside of me
Just walking up and down
Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner
That I love London so.  

~Written and composed by Hubert Gregg, 1947

London in July, where a heatwave lasts a whole day, peaking at 36.7C. No fog and rain here! Trains are delayed amid fears of buckling rails. The wrong kind of heat? Or perhaps because the rails are made of chocolate, as one radio presenter suggested sardonically. Passengers  on the Underground are cooking. The plethora of city parks are teeming till twilight with picnickers, cyclists, joggers, dogs and toddlers. Yet despite the unusual warmth, London still dazzles.

London changed dramatically after the Great Fire of 1666. Wooden houses overhanging narrow lanes were suddenly IMG_0631seen for the fire traps they undoubtedly created. Plague-ridden drains and pollution-ridden air would all be overhauled in the following centuries, ensuring cleaner water, slum clearance and efficient infrastructure. In the 19th century London’s population exploded, rocketing seven-fold to over 6.5 million, while Prince Albert, the Prince Regent and his architect, John Nash, created a new realm west of Buckingham Palace, full of quality modern housing, museums and colleges. Once rural, the arable and dairy farms of North Kensington, Nottinghill and Earls Court were sold off to developers from the mid nineteenth century. At the same time, railways spread through the city andbeyond like ivy, allowing for the creation of new middle and working class suburbs beyond the previous city boundaries.

I walk everywhere: across the length and breadth of Kensington Gardens, to reintroduce myself to the Serpentine and Sir George Frampton’s bronze Peter Pan and his whispering fairies; around the splendid and stately, gleamingly golden Prince Albert whose inspiration made such a huge impact on this corner of London, beginning with his ‘crystal palace’ Grand Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851 and ending with Queen Victoria laying the foundation stone for the Royal Albert Hall. I stroll through  Hyde Park, admiring a a skyline of leafy trees, a giant ferris wheel and a sharp shard of glass scraping the sky, along wide streets lined with lush green trees and a plethora of opulent Victorian terraces. Up the mall to visit the queen and wave to the red-coated guards, resplendent in their bearskin busbies; past the deckchairs in Green Park on  hire for £1.60. I watch the ubiquitous double decker buses trawl through the streets, in a never ending convoy with the traditional London taxis, no longer simply dressed in uniform, funereal black, but still distinctively shaped.  I saunter along Kensington High Street to Holland Park, which is blossoming with overblown roses, squirrels and small children.

And of course, on every corner,  I pass  the perennial British pub. There are enough in our neighbourhood alone to make a pub crawl extremely short and messy. The Churchill Arms in Kensington is gloriously decked out in a veritable rainbow of flowering hanging baskets, while inside the ceiling seethes with hanging chamber pots. The English pub has been a tradition since the Romans wandered across the channel in about 55BC. Taverns were established for travellers to pause for refreshment – the original motorway services – and later evolved into the Anglo-Saxon alehouse, where villagers would gather to catch up on the local gossip and guzzle the local brew.

IMG_0659Our current local is located in Bayswater, a mere whisper from our temporary lodgings, so we can just pop down for dinner whenever it feels too hot to cook.  The Porchester is a modern take on the old English pub, with modern furnishings, eclectic seating and friendly bar staff. The ‘beer garden’ – a generous term for this tiny courtyard squeezed into a back corner of the property – is not ideal on a hot night, where the air con units blow hot air upon a handful of smokers, but inside it is cool, clean and bright. Last night the Williams sisters were dominating at Wimbledon, and if we had felt like it, we could have shared the experience with 15,000 centre court spectators by nibbling on strawberries and cream and sipping champagne in Bayswater. Instead, we opted for a platter of dips, olives, moreish sweet potato chips and a game of canasta. (Seriously bad decision. I got thrashed. Again.) The couple at the next table pulled out the Jenga blocks. A guitarist played gently in the corner. Every Tuesday, if you fancy it, there is a trivia night. It has the feel of a really relaxed, old-fashioned ‘local.’

Had we been in the mood on this record-breaking summer day, the menu was full of hale and hearty English pub food with modern culinary nomenclature: fish and chips became ‘Haddock fillet in Young’s ale batter served with minted pea puree, hand cut chips and tartar sauce,’ or there was a ‘British braised lamb shepherd’s pie,’  ‘Cumberland sausages with mash, ale gravy and caramelized onions’ or ‘gnocchi with wild mushrooms, brie and white wine sauce, shaved parmesan, rocket and truffle oil.’ The Porchester boasts that all their produce is fresh, seasonal and locally sourced and there is a good selection of boutique beers with temptingly poetic names.

Fed and watered, we decide to stretch our legs and wander through the streets of Bayswater and Westbourne Park in theIMG_0666 fading light. Twenty five years ago Queensway shops reflected its largely central Asian population. Today, it is full of Middle Eastern restaurants, shisha cafes and souvenir shops. And up over the railway line, past Royal Oak Tube Station, under the overpass, and down a narrow street, we discover the Regents Canal, a short cul-de-sac canal that runs through the northern suburbs from Paddington Basin to the Grand Union Canal that links Birmingham and London. Now lined with beautiful old barges and canal boats, some converted into coffee stops, we join the locals who have escaped their overheated houses to stroll along the cool canal path with eager dogs, or settled on park benches with jugs of beer.

London in the summer is a sheer delight: lushly green, boasting acres of park lands, gardens, rivers and ponds; unexpected architectural surprises around every corner; literally endless options for eating, drinking and entertainment. I am in seventh heaven. Expensive yes, often over-crowded, very occasionally over-heated, it nonetheless hums and thrives with good will and eccentric bus drivers. I am addicted.

*All my own photos apart from Richard Brendon’s beautiful cup and scalloped saucer care of Google Images.


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Marble Splendour in Abu Dhabi

“Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun…” ~ Noel Coward

As I sit in London, in Holland Park under scattered clouds and mere wisps of blue sky, amidst all the lush flamboyance of summer foliage, it seems unlikely that barely a week ago I was wilting in 47’C in downtown Abu Dhabi.

IMG_0601There the rabid sun struck the sand with the intensity of strobe lighting, extrovert and forceful, determined to make an impression on innocent eyeballs that cowered behind tinted sunglasses. Here in England the sun is more demure, almost shy, tucking itself modestly behind cotton wool clouds, reticent about shrugging off a slight chill in the air, or making its presence felt with too much enthusiasm. Am I really on the same planet?

Last week I was barrelling down broad boulevards with an old friend in a shiny new car, past stately high rise office blocks, the sunlight reflected ostentatiously in acres of glass or glittering prettily off the sea, as we followed the beckoning minarets to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. The tour started at 11am, the thermometer was rising by the minute, and there was no shade anywhere.

Ahead of us we could see this enormous marble structure glowing white as a beacon on the skyline, but the roads ducked and wove like knotted wool, one entrance wass blocked by road works, and the GPS was proving fractious in the heat. Eventually, like those childhood mazes, we found our way to the visitors carpark, and sat for one last, self-indulgent minute in the icy air-conditioning, gazing with awe upon the breath-taking splendour of the largest mosque in the United Arab Emirates.

As we bravely ventured into the extreme heat of the day, we wrapped ourselves in cardigans and scarves, to avoid censure from the security guards. Abayahs were available for hire, but we had luckily remembered our own, lighter fabrics. Nonetheless, I had to scrabble to keep my headscarf in place, wishing fervently that I had thought to bring an elastic, as my hair fought to stay under the confines of a light wool wrap. Eventually my friend swaddled my head as best she could and pinned the scarf in place with my sunglasses. I walked tentatively, partly in fear of the scarf unravelling and falling to the floor, partly in fear of breaking a sweat.

Conceived by the late president of the United Arab Emirates, His Highness Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the IMG_0595mosque named in his honour also contains his tomb, as he died in 2004, three years before the completion of his masterpiece.  Construction began in 1996 and would not finish until 2007, nonetheless a monumental achievement for such a vast complex that covers an area of thirty-odd acres and can accommodate up to 40,000 people.

Apparently Sheikh Zayed’s dream was to establish a structure that would combine the cultural diversity of the Islamic world with the best of historical and modern art and architecture, and his mosque is the realization of that dream: a fusion of Arab, Persian, Mughal and Moorish architecture. The domes, milky, Rubenesque, flawless are inspired by the Mughal architecture of the Taj Mahal, the keyhole archways are Moorish, the slim and graceful minarets pointing to the moon are Arabic.

The architects have borrowed some of the world’s best architectural designs and imported some of the world’s best products to create this ethereal mosque and monument to Islam.

Wandering through the airy colonnades, we admired the sleek pillars inlaid with semi- precious jewels such as mother-of-pearl, agate, lapis lazuli, jasper and amethyst, cut into simple but exquisite designs of long-stemmed, individual flowers. Gilded date palms blossomed at the top of the pillars, and were reflected in the pools around the perimeter.

We walked towards Sheikh Zayed’s tomb, where we could hear the prayers that continue to be said for his soul, eleven years after his death, twenty four hours a day. The memory of Sheikh Zayed is obviously still much loved in the UAE. Headshots have been mounted on huge billboards all over the city and it seems as if every building and street is named after him.

This brilliant and liberal Muslim prince, raised amongst Bedouin tribesmen, was responsible for forming the United IMG_0596Arab Emirates in 1971 from the seven Trucial States, a collection of sheikhdoms on Persian Gulf. He then stood as its first President for 33 years, until his death at the age of eighty four. With the new country sitting on huge oil reserves, Sheikh Zayid had enormous wealth at his disposable with which to raise the cities of the UAE out of desert sands. He also used the country’s enormous oil revenues to build hospitals, schools and universities and, of course, this sumptuous mosque, the third largest mosque in the world, only belittled by Mecca, and Madina in Saudi Arabia.

Crossing the vast marble square, we shed our shoes obediently in front of the mile high doors to the mosque. Revered as a symbol of purity and piety by the Sheikh, much of this mountain of white marble was sourced from Italy and Greece. Somehow the white marble remained cool underfoot, despite the molten sun beating down on it – but beware the darker marble flowers which can burn through the soles of your feet. these had us leaping awkwardly from foot to foot, as if on hot coals.

Inside, the air was cool, and we all breathed out audibly with relief.  Wandering through the foyer into the main prayer hall, our eyes were drawn upwards to the concave roof beneath the largest of 82 domes. There swung a gobsmackingly grandiose chandelier made in Germany from Swarovski crystal, plated gold and garish Venetian glass from Murano, particularly surprising amongt the subtle and elegant simplicity of the rest of the architecture and artistry that embellishes this imposing, rather patrician structure.

The main hall can accommodate over 7,000 worshippers, while two smaller prayer halls accommodate 1,500 women and 1,500 elderly respectively. Literally acres of carpet (over 60,000 square feet) cover the floor of the main prayer hall. The carpet was designed by Iranian artist Ali Khaliqi and handwoven in Iran by a team of 1200 artisans, who took two years to complete it. The finished piece weighs thirty five tons, and had to be delivered in several pieces, arriving on two airplanes, and accompanied by five hundred workers who travelled with it, to sew it back together.

Our guide explained that once inside the mosque there is no hierarchy beyond ‘first come first serve.’ Thus, whoever arrives early earns himself a IMG_0615front row position, close to the Imam and the carved sandalwood menbar, or pulpit, inlaid with mother-of-pearl. On the wall behind the menbar, the ninety nine qualities or attributes of God (Allah) are featured on the Qibla or direction wall in traditional Kufic calligraphy.

Our cultural tour guide was a friendly, cheerful young man, very open and happy to impart general information about Islamic beliefs. He responded particularly patiently to the avid young English schoolboy who questioned him closely about Islam, and Muslim beliefs.

Our guide explained that Ramadan – due to begin the following day – is a time of spiritual reflection, self-improvement, self-denial through fasting, and the opportunity to focus on Allah – which sounded surprisingly similar to the Christian observance of Lent. Our young interrogator promptly asked if they shouldn’t be doing that every day, anyway and completely floored our genial guide, who eventually smiled and agreed, but added that this was a special time in the year to really concentrate on God and goodness.

As we returned back to the dazzling white light of the forecourt, we reflected quietly on everything we had learned. I would definitely go back for another visit, especially as our tour guide proudly provided so many amazing details that it is embarrassing to admit how many I have already forgotten. But next time I will go at twilight, rather than in the middle of the day, at the hottest time of the year. Mad dogs and Englishmen indeed!


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Kitchen Table

rotate1_rubberwood_treesTwenty years ago we bought a kitchen table. We bought it in Kuala Lumpur, as our family expanded to five, and it is made from the local rubberwood. Rubberwood is, according to Wikipedia, high quality, hardwood timber with a tight grain and a soft, honey colour. Despite its name, rubberwood does not bounce, but it is durable, strong, and smooth, and unlikely to warp or crack. It is also ecologically sustainable, as the timber is only recycled after a long career producing latex, when it will be felled for furniture and a new tree replanted in its place. It is not fancy, but it has a warmth of character that always makes me want to stroke it as I walk past.

Our kitchen table has travelled all over the world with us. It has been repainted, revarnished, battered and bruised, even chewed by one small teething puppy, and the scars are there for all to see. It has lived in dining rooms and kitchens, studies and bedrooms; the most versatile piece of furniture we have ever owned. Sadly, we have broken or mislaid all the original chairs, but while other tables have come and gone – larger, longer, rounder – this original family table is still with us, and it seems we cannot let it go. We are emotionally attached to it. It symbolizes family. It symbolizes home.

For some, home is the town where they were born, a house they have lived in all their lives, somewhere they feel they belong.  As gypsies, we cannot rely on bricks and mortar to define a home, so home is wherever two or more are gathered together around the table, be it in Prague or Peru, Kuala Lumpur or Kathmandu, Townsville or Timbuktu. It may be a moveable feast, but it is on a steady, reliable table with tough roots.

Sharing a table, sharing food, is a human instinct. My one constant role as an adult has been providing meals for our family and friends. I like to cook, but I love to gather people around our table to eat. It is a trait I inherited from my mother, who, even with four children to feed, was incorrigibly hospitable and always happy to squeeze in a few extras for dinner.

Sociologists worry that the concept of the family meal is dying out thanks to a number of modern alterations to the social fabric of our lives: the pace of life; working mums; TV dinners; divorce, or the dispersion of the extended family that has create familial Diasporas across continents and time zones. Fifteen years ago, one food writer whined that “the family meal is dying on its sofas. All those end-of-day catch-ups; all that witty banter, gone… Between them, television and convenience foods seem to have brought the family to its knees.”

In recent years, computers and mobile phones have replaced the TV as the devil incarnate, but the inference is that younger generations have been set adrift, no longer anchored to traditional family values, but shaped by social media, microwave meals and fast food. Conservatives, nostalgic for a past era – or a Victorian ideal – of Sunday roasts and family feasts bemoan the dwindling cooking skills and kitchen-less homes that are eating away at the heart of our society. Remember Roald Dahl’s ‘Matilda’ and those grim family encounters around the TV with separate tables, microwave meals, dim lighting and no conversation? Apparently that joyless little scenario is today’s stereotype. While there is little evidence to support these speculations, writers continue to raise the spectre of a hemorrhaging family unit; to idolize the family mealtime as a cornerstone of family viability.

I agree, times have changed. What we eat, where we eat it, when we eat and with whom we eat it may have altered over the last half century, but the reasons we like to eat together have never actually disappeared. To paraphrase food historian Bob Ashley, good food and good conversation still matter. Solitary grazing is depressing. People enjoy eating together. It is a basic human instinct, a cultural tradition, and a symbol of friendship and family life. “Two, four, six, eight, dig in don’t wait. And first one finished helps his neighbor!”

At the core of human relationships is the concept of connecting people to each other and to their culture and community. And the kitchen table can still provide that medium for social interaction, social renewal and spiritual growth; that place to teach our children social values such as sharing, respect, etiquette and familial responsibility; that lectern from whence to promote stability, security and solidarity, cementing the family unit and teaching our kids how to look after themselves.

Living in the Philippines has made me acutely aware of these concepts. Wherever two or more are gathered together, there is food and community. If it is not time for a specific meal, there is merienda, the Filipino version of afternoon tea or morning coffee that simply fills a gap between breakfast and lunch or lunch and dinner. The Spaniards introduced the term to the Philippines four hundred years ago, and it was the perfect gift to a nation who loves to graze.

renoirAt lunchtime in the city, group gatherings at local cafés and restaurants are the norm, be it a flock of friends, a whoop of work mates or a gaggle of giggling students. Many of my Filipino friends are still be expected to spend Sundays with parents and grandparents, siblings and cousins, uncles and aunts. And while many of us will recognize the modern mall dining scenario where an extended family lunch means everyone, from lolo (grandfather) to toddler to yaya (nursery maid), seems to be glued to a screen, the point is, they have made the time to be together. Eating alone is a totally foreign concept in the Philippines, where it seems every meal looks like this Renoir painting.

For me, too, family meals are important. My One & Only grew up in a Mediterranean culture very similar to the Philippines, full of food and family, and we have always tried to maintain the tradition of eating dinner together at the end of the day. One of my favourite movies is My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which perfectly illustrates those cultures who seem to be forever focused on the next meal, and Toula describes how “Greeks marry Greeks to breed more Greeks, to be loud breeding Greek eaters.” And let’s face it, eating is so much more entertaining with the clan, at a table laden with all those lovely concepts like conviviality, community, conversation and sharing, not to mention lashings of good food. It is the best of all possible worlds.

Since the kids left home, we have stored our Camelotian round table in the spare room and we are back at the old kitchen table. It’s a bit scuffed, and the chairs don’t match, but we can squeeze six adults around it if you don’t mind knocking elbows occasionally, and it can be used for writing or painting or ironing when it is not required for eating: a Jack of all trades, and the bones of family life. Hardwearing and homely, I hope it sustains its reputation as the focal point of family meals for many years to come.

* With thanks to Google Images for the pictures.

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Stop and Smell the Flowers

“You’re only here for a short visit. Don’t hurry, don’t worry. And be sure to smell the flowers along the way.”  ~ Walter Hagen

Maya Maya (1)It has been unbelievably hot in Manila this past month or more. Every day for weeks all we can talk about is the heat, and Facebook has been choc-a-block with weather reports about record breaking temperatures. Tempers are fraying and it is obvious that the whole population is wilting. So we were delighted to get out of the city last weekend and trek down to the coast to stay with friends in their lovely little corner of Nasugbu, Batangas amongst the hardwood narra trees and the flirty, fitful sea breezes.

We left early on Saturday morning to maximize the weekend and drove up to Tagaytay and down the other side. All along the way we exclaimed at the glorious Flame trees that have acquired nicknames around the globe like ‘Phoenix Tale,’ ‘Flamboyant’ or ‘Peacock’ with their deep orange, sunset-coloured flowers and feather-like leaves that brighten the lush, tropical landscape and provide a parasol shade.

But beneath their branches, the hilltops were crying out for rain, the earth bare and dry, reminiscent of my own home state in summer, and dotted with grazing goats and their soft, sweet, hazel-coloured kids jumping up and down off the low stone walls.

As we descended to the sea, lush, vibrant colour returned to the landscape.

The road through Maya Maya winds down steeply to the water, somewhere between Tali beach and Terrazas de Punto Fuego. (Mayamaya is a Filipino fish, known elsewhere as snapper; a rare gem even here in a similar shade of sunset blood-orange to the flame trees.)

As we drove down the almost perpendicular road, we passed many houses clinging tenaciously to an often vertical Maya Maya (7)hillside, or balancing precariously on wooden or concrete stilts, and boasting breath-taking views from roof top terraces.  We were staying in a pretty, old-fashioned wooden beach house with a wide balcony and a newly created roof deck, in the middle of a green and shady garden, with glimpses of the sea through a curtain of leaves.

I love this time of year. Despite the suffocating heat and humidity, April and May are the most colourful months in the Philippines, and Maya Maya was boasting a veritable bouquet of bright and beautiful flowers. White frangipani with their egg-yolk yellow centres lay thick amongst the deep green leaves bursting forth from those awkward, knobbly branches, their dense, cloying scent drifting sluggishly past our noses. Around the corner, we found dark pink frangipani flowers with that now fashionably discordant orange core. The bougainvillea was flourishing, scrambling over every fence and garden wall like a paint palette: hot pink and pastel pink, orange and peach, red, pale yellow and white, magenta and even lilac  flowers. The brazen hibiscus poked out its long triffid-tongue, showing off its variety like a peacock: scarlet, apricot, pink and purple, its centre touched with a contrasting colour that spread like water colours up the almost transparent trumpet of papery petals, calling seductively to bees and birds and butterflies.

The air was heavy with humidity but unblemished by pollution, and full of the chirps and chirrups of nature: birds, lizards, crickets, bats blending harmoniously into the background or suddenly soaring into a deafening crescendo.

At the base of the hill was an old and rather jaded resort consisting of a handful of thatched cottages, a small pool, an Maya Maya (11)open-air restaurant, deserted and decaying gently around a run-down marina, yet obviously maintained by an invisible hand that swept up the leaves from the pool and placed flower arrangements on the centre of the tables. A large billboard announced that  soon it will all be demolished and replaced by a new, more polished holiday spot, with a gentrified marina, a landscaped garden and a small sandy cove. And yet, despite its faded glory and slowly deteriorating facade, the locals, who have visited here every holiday and long-weekend for decades, mourn the passing of this private wilderness beside the sea.

We meandered aimlessly up and up the fractured road to the lookout, or wandered drowsily across the dry and dusty park to clamber down to the rocky cove and wallow and bob in heavily salted waves. Or we lounged listlessly beneath the trees with beer and chips and chatter, as the clouds lit up with fierce and feisty splashes of lightening. Pushing the pause button on a busy life to relax; taking time out to appreciate the beauty of life; stopping to smell and enjoy the flowers.

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