Oodles of Noodles at Ogawa

img_0966“I wouldn’t exactly call it ‘cooking’ but I can make noodles. That means I can boil water, put the pasta in and wait until it’s done.” ~
 Devon Werkheiser, American actor.

It is two years to the day since I posted a piece about my first trip to Japan, so it seems fitting that I should be writing this week about a Japanese restaurant here in Manila. Ogawa , an authentic, traditional Japanese restaurant, is located at the Fort Strip, on the corner of 5th and 28th  that opened almost a year ago to the day. The downstairs entrance to Ogawa is not terribly prepossessing, but make the effort to climb the stairs, and you will be greeted by a smiling hostess in Japanese kimono, and a very cute entrance: stepping stones leading over a small arched bridge to an antique wooden front door. (Serious tip, don’t wear high heels, or if you do, walk around the bridge, not over it.) Once you have navigated the stepping stones, the bridge and the flapping curtains at the inner entrance, don’t be startled by the loud welcome of every waiter in the vicinity, as I was on my first visit. Distracted by the roar, I tripped inelegantly up the steps before lurching awkwardly through the curtains and into the middle of the dining room.

Thus announcing my arrival to the entire restaurant with less-than-impressive aplomb, I didn’t take in the décor that first time as, head down, I made a surreptitious dash to the booth on the back wall. On my next visit, I arrived early, prepared for the effusive greeting with a calm smile, and armed with my notebook.

Less flustered this time, I was able to take in the open kitchen, the wall of sake barrels, and the amazing wallpaper ogawa-2depicting branches, birds and pine trees. Seated comfortably in ‘our’ booth, I scanned through the menu, jotting down every name I didn’t understand. I decided long ago that a menu is a great way to start learning a new language, as somehow the words for food, especially when you are hungry, stick better to your brain than incomprehensible verb conjugations.

While in Japan, I focused rather heavily on sushi and sashimi, but as one of the national staples, I felt I should also be fluent in the various types of Japanese noodle. With my glasses perched on my nose, and my trusty list, I quizzed Sachiko remorselessly, eager to see if she could explain the differences.

We talked noodles extensively, but also ‘chirasi’ and jyu jyu beef. The Chirasi Box was another menu mystery to me. Chirasi, Sachiko explained, means ‘scattered,’ and the dish consists of a bowl of rice topped with pieces of vegetables and fish: what basically translates as a bowl of ‘scattered’ or deconstructed sushi. The name jyu jyu, which made my friend giggle, apparently comes from the sound the beef makes in a sizzling hot cast iron dish .

Eventually I had sufficient, if somewhat convoluted notes and we could actually concentrate on ordering lunch. I have to say, though, that while the quote I found (see top of page) makes it sound easy, our discussion left me feeling I had a lot to learn about the art of cooking noodles.

In summary – and for my own reference as I am guessing you are probably fluent in Japanese noodles –  ramen are made from similar ingredients to pasta (wheat flour and eggs) and compare to angel hair pasta but with a certain wiggle. Some further research led to the discovery that Ramen is a noodle soup that originated in China but has been adopted by Japan. Ramen can be served with a variety of toppings, each associated with a particular region.

img_0850Soba are buckwheat noodles that look just like wholemeal pasta, and are about the circumference of your average spaghetti. A bowl of soba noodles can be served hot in noodle soup or cold with dipping sauce. Soba is popular all over Japan, and – just like pasta – can be bought fresh or dried. Soba noodles have terrific nutritional qualities too: high in proteins, minerals, dietary fibre, and micro-nutrients that aid liver function, blood pressure and cardiovascular health. As a bonus, they are low in fat and high in complex carbohydrates.

Udon noodles are the thickest of the trio, and made from white wheat flour, like ramen. Apparently simplicity is the key word for udon noodles, as they are generally served in a broth with a sprinkling of sliced onions. Or perhaps topped with tempura or tofu. Again, each region has its own take on toppings and serving suggestions, but it can also be served as a soup or a curry, making it particularly popular in winter, perfect for cold weather and illness.

The final word goes to Yakisoba. These noodles are made of buckwheat, and also originated in China, but has become popular throughout Japan. These are curly, like ramen However, they are never served in soup, but grilled or fried mixed with meat and vegetables, and garnished with red ginger. This noodle is particularly popular at Japanese festivals.

Despite all this chat about noodles, I left my friend to order a bowl of soba with its soy based dipping sauce, a tiny raw quail’s egg and a dish of scallions to accessorize. Meanwhile, I chose a Bento Box – of which there were several – which has long been a favourite with my One & Only. This beautifully arranged assortment of popular, bite-sized snacks is like a mini picnic basket or an antipasti platter: sashimi, sushi, fried chicken, tempura, tepinyaki, pickledimg_0964 vegetables and of course the ubiquitous serving of rice, displayed in a layered, black lacquered box on a black tray, and accompanied by various tiny side dishes of daikon, dips and soy sauce.

Soy is as ubiquitous as rice in Japanese cooking. It appears in almost every dish in some shape or form. I thought I knew all I needed to know about this black liquid Vegemite. But it seems I was wrong. Soy sauce is a condiment made from a fermented paste of boiled soybeans, roasted grain, brine, and something called Aspergillus oryzae or Aspergillus sojae:  mould cultures used in a similar way to yeast or yoghurt cultures. It originated in ancient China in around 200 AD and spread through East and Southeast Asia, where it was used both in cooking and as a condiment at a time when salt was ruinously expensive.

Anyway…. before I run away with my research, and leave you stranded, I will call it quits, and merely suggest you go and take a look at Ogawa yourself. Check out the sake bar, the sushi bar, the open grill and the traditional décor. The food is traditional, it is fresh and it is superbly presented. And there is enough variety to keep you going back again and again and again.

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Of Ghosts and Ghouls and Clotted Cream

img_0913I was hardly dressed for afternoon tea in a smart country house hotel. We had been on the road since 10am and I had dressed for comfort, not style, en route to the Midlands, to deliver our younger son to university. However, we were passing close by, we had skipped lunch, and afternoon tea in salubrious surroundings sounded more than a little tempting.

Ettington Park is a sumptuous neo-Gothic country house only six miles from Stratford upon Avon. Once the seat of the Anglo-Irish Shirley family, it has also masqueraded as a nursing home and a prisoner of war camp during WWII.  Today it is part of the Hand Picked Hotel chain. It has been altered and amended many times over the centuries, but its current appearance owes much to the Gothic Revival, an architectural movement also known as Neo Gothic that began in England in the late 1740s and became enormously popular throughout the nineteenth century. Adopting features from the original Gothic style, the Neo-Gothic style loves ornamentation, particularly around the windows, gables and roof line. The house is set in 40 acres of lush Warwickshire countryside on the River Stour, all that is left of the original 1,700 acre estate. According to a recent history of ‘The Buildings of England,’ (Pickford & Pevsner), it is considered “the most important and impressive High Victorian house in the county.” It is also, apparently, the most haunted.

As we drove up the sweeping, tree-lined driveway, Ettington Park, with its grey/blue and honey coloured façade, arched windows and turrets, appeared around the bend like a small, fairy tale castle hidden in the woods.

Our son knew the manager, so despite the lack of tiara and twin sets, we were greeted like family and ushered into the glorious Great Drawing Room with its ornate rococo ceiling and elegantly arched windows overlooking sweeping lawns.

One of the staff members, Daimon, came over to offer us a short but enthusiastic tour before he clocked off, and we followed him willingly up to the gallery, down to the library and dining room and out into the garden for a whirlwind tour of the hotel’s highlights. Above the dining room window is a balcony he claims was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” And the carving of a frog on an outside wall commemorates the discovery of the Toad of Ettington, that appeared to have lived in a hidden wall cavity for almost 120 years.  We also learned about the various ghosts believed to inhabit the house, amongst them a governess, a gamekeeper, a servant girl and two children who drowned in the river at the turn of the nineteenth century.

While Daimon knows a lot about the history of the house and its many ghosts, he is also an expert on the origins of old English sayings, and regaled us with many funny tales relating to the cat-of-nine-tales, after which we wandered back to the drawing room, where our afternoon was waiting: a three-tiered cake stand brimming with sandwiches and scones, brownies and macaroons. With several different teas to choose from, we had opted for the Midsummer afternoon tea.

As always, I dived amongst the sandwiches with delight: delicately flavoured cucumber and cream cheese fingers with that satisfying crunch; salmon and cream cheese bagels, a hefty coronation chicken wrap, and a roast beef and img_0911beetroot sandwich in need of salt. The scones were perfect – soft on the inside, with a crusty surface, accompanied by an espresso cup of strawberry jam and real clotted cream. The top layer was piled high with sweet things. There were rich moist chocolate brownies and extraordinary pink macaroons with a creamy, cloying peanut butter filling (we were not altogether convinced about the wisdom of that combination.) Then an odd layered cake of strawberry mousse and chocolate cake topped with jelly. Finally a lemon tart, the filling a satisfying blend of creaminess and zestiness, but the pastry a tad doughy.

Unfortunately, it was only later that I noticed a summer savoury picnic, which we could even have had packed into a basket to eat on the lawn – but it has given me the perfect excuse to go back!

Afterwards, full of clotted cream and cucumber sandwiches, we strolled through the parkland that surrounds the house, under spreading cedar trees and around the ruins of the original 12th century village church that was demolished – along with the mill and the entire village that lay adjacent to the manor house – when Sir George Shirley MP decided to move the village two miles upstream at the end of the eighteenth century. All that remains is the tower, the walls of the nave and a side chapel containing the family graves. The formal garden near the house is highlighted by a pretty loggia, and the house itself has been the setting for two films: “The Haunting” (1963) and “Watchers in the Wood.’ The perfect setting indeed, we thought, after hearing about all the resident spooks, concealed doorways and a number of underground passages secreted beneath the house and grounds.

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A Suomi Summer

finn-movieCine Europa is a ten-day feast of European movies being shown FOR FREE  at Shang Cineplex in Ortigas. I have almost decided to move into the Shangri-La Hotel for the week to take full advantage of this amazing smorgasbord of movies. Yes, I know, we have a movie theatre within walking distance of our apartment, but invariably it is packed with American bang-crash-car-chase movies, of which I can only see so many before I start to go deaf and cross-eyed.

So what better way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon than camping out at the cinema? And we landed a gem of a 2014 Finnish movie called ‘Kesäkaverit’ (Summertime). It was a chick flick about friendship and being twenty five, an A grade one to entertain the One & Only as well.  And, of course, having finally made it to Finland this summer, it meant so much more. I expect we would have loved the film anyway, but the scenery, the language and the humour was, thanks to our recent trip, both familiar and already nostalgic; a quick fix of space and subtlety without the long flight.

Finland (or Suomi) has been on my list of Top 10 places to visit for years.  (I refuse to call it a bucket list – I am just not old enough to be counting down already!) My sister first ignited my interest when she described hitch hiking through Finland and up through Lapland to the Arctic Circle in the early nineties, walking with moose and swimming in midge-infested lakes.

A couple of years later, we met a young Finnish family in Thailand whose small daughter shared a birthday with ours. helsinki10The same thing happened in Malaysia – or maybe she was Swedish, the memories blur. Over the years, we have met Finns in SE Asia, in the UK and even in  the Philippines, and each of them taught us something about their homeland: the Finnish love of vodka and a traditional Finnish toast; the short, dark winters that would drive anyone to drink and the long summer nights when the sun barely sets; the Northern Lights with their hallucinogenic effect on the sky; an ice hotel and the secret home of Santa; the heart-stopping thrill of leaping from steaming saunas into freezing lakes; gravadlax, herring, and smoked reindeer meatballs; summer cherries and summer houses by the sea; lakes, lakes and more lakes.

So, at last, we had the opportunity to experience some of these Finnish legends.  Despite the lack of snow and ice, the vodka still flowed freely, and we did leap from a steamy sauna into a chilly lake. Finland has a lot of water. Not only is it an archipelago on the Baltic Sea, sprinkled with armloads of islands (like the Philippines, only granite not volcanic) but it has a vast expanse of inland lakes north of Helsinki, in much the same way South Australia doesn’t. We ate ridiculous amounts of fish: baked salmon and pickled herring, ceviche and smoked fish, served with new potatoes and dill, fried chanterelles and rye bread.

helsinki9We arrived in Helsinki by air, but the view of the city is far lovelier from the sea, as we discovered when we made a couple of forays out into the Bay. As a capital city, Helsinki is only young – about the same age as my home town of Adelaide, with which I found more than a few parallels: broad streets and plenty of parks; a population of around a million; a plentiful supply of churches of all denominations; a sense of isolation from the rest of the pack but a subsequent self-sufficiency.

Finland has spent many centuries playing Piggy in the Middle with Russia and Sweden. For more than 600 years, it was a province of the Kingdom of Sweden. In 1809, Sweden hand-balled it across to Russia. Czar Alexander I named it the Grand Duchy of Finland and generously granted it autonomy. At the same time, he relocated the western capital of Turku to the more centrally located Helsinki, in an attempt to cut ties with Sweden and bring it closer to St. Petersburg. Just over a century later, Russia became embroiled in a civil skirmish, otherwise known as the October Revolution, during which an autocratic Tsar was executed and replaced by a didactic Bolshevik revolutionary. While Russia was distracted, Finland cheekily took the opportunity to declare its independence. And so it has remained.

Finland is a country of intense colours spread with broad brush strokes: a red brick eastern orthodox cathedral withhelsinki8 conical, verdigris roofs topped with golden cupolas  and a sparkling white neoclassical Lutheran  Cathedral overlook cerulean seas; endless miles of bottle green pine and deciduous birch forests; equally endless miles of glittering silver lakes; a penchant for painting their timber houses ‘falu’ or oxblood (a dark, terracotta red); pink salmon on every menu; tin pails filled with deep magenta cherries, bright green peas-in-the-pod or huge, scarlet strawberries; vast, snow white landscapes stretching to the horizon.

We took a ferry to the tiny island of Lonna for an exquisitely simple meal in a converted warehouse restaurant, waiting on the end of the jetty in a brisk and chilly summer ‘breeze.’ On a sunny Sunday, we rode another ferry to the naval fortress known as Suomenlinna, now a prime tourist destination full of buggies and brides. We drove out to one of the oldest medieval towns in Finland.  Porvoo is about 50 kilometres east of Helsinki and sits above the river Porvoonjoki. Threaded with steep, cobbled streets and brimming with art galleries, cafes and craft shops, the town is overlooked by an attractive mediaeval church (Lutheran) with wooden roof tiles. Beside the church stands a square, stone clock tower, where the men would leave their weapons during services. And we celebrated a 100th birthday (2 x 50) in Finnish, Swedish and English.
helinki11And, like the women in the movie, we drifted about a beautiful white, weatherboard home above the sea, as well as ‘glamping’ in a traditional log cabin by a clear, tea-coloured lake; picking tiny wild raspberries and chanterelles in the woods and building a camp fire on a tiny island in the middle of the lake. The unsophisticated simplicity of these too-short side trips was both utterly relaxing and wonderfully rejuvenating.

To return at last to the movie. ‘Kesäkaverit’ captures the carefree summers of young adulthood as three girls meet up for a working holiday in a coffee shop at the beach, and find themselves lurching awkwardly into the world of grown ups where there are tough choices to make. We sat there exclaiming (quietly) at the scenery: the coastline, the woods and the weatherboard house by the sea near Hanko, so similar to where we had stayed in Barösund. We smiled at the Finnish flavour of the screenplay: short, pithy conversations, where less is more and the silences are as telling as the words, in stark contrast to Australians and Filipinos who tend to rattle away like high speed trains.   We nudged each other when we noticed a Finnish tiled ceramic stove, which, like a pot-belly stove, burns wood and slowly radiates the heat throughout the freezing winter days. And we longed to wander along the shady woodland paths thick with pine needles. Both the memories and the movie were food for the soul.

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Rock Paper Scissors

“Wouldn’t you like to get away?
Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came…”
~ Lyrics to Cheers TV show by Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo

Singapore2On the spur of the moment, we decided to take a weekend break in Singapore, just because we can.  I love SE Asia for that easy ability to flit about on cheap flights, and spend a weekend exploring a new city. Friday night flights can be a bit of a hassle, as the traffic gums up on EDSA after 4pm and you risk high stress levels and missed flights, but we scooted out early, and somehow it didn’t matter that an electrical storm kept us on the tarmac for an hour or two.

Late, but suitably relaxed, after drinking our body weight in gin, we arrived at last, on Singapore’s East Coast Road, at a row of traditional old Singaporean shop houses which have recently undergone a makeover. The results are really eye-catching. On the corner of Ceylon street is a pretty little restaurant with awnings and seating on the pavement. Next door, its partner-in-crime, The Trenchard Arms, is gently buzzing with late night drinkers.

We met Richard and Tricia Huggins in Cebu last year, and have since been promising ourselves that we would pop by and check out their pub on East Coast Road as soon as we could. So at last, with a free weekend, we booked a flight, booked a room, warned our hosts we were heading their way, and packed our overnight bags.

Remember the game ‘Rock-paper-scissors?’ We used to play it in the school yard, and apparently it originated in China. A game for two, each player simultaneously forms one of three shapes with an outstretched hand: “rock” (a simple fist), “paper” (a flat hand), and “scissors” (a fist with index and middle fingers forming a V). Rock beats scissors (“rock crushes scissors”) but loses to paper (“paper covers rock”) and paper loses to scissors (“scissors cut paper”). If both players choose the same shape, the game is tied. Now there’s a new variation: rabbit-carrot-gun. I will leave you to figure it out.

You are doubtless wondering what tangent I am drifting off on, but then you obviously didn’t notice the sign over theRCG
door of the restaurant. The image is apparently a blend of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit meets the White Rabbit in ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ but it also reminds me of the Wild Huntsman rabbit in the German book of fairy tales, ‘Struwwelpeter.’

“Rabbit-Carrot-Gun” is an English bistro-style restaurant serving hearty British dishes and scrumptious brunches. Despite the tropical climate, the braised beef cheek, beef wellington or sausages and mash go down a treat. And, if you have a nostalgic craving for Scotch eggs pork pies or sticky toffee pudding, your wish will be granted,  all served up with a generous dose of good, old fashioned hospitality, where strangers and friends alike are made to feel like honoured guests.

A cool morning breeze on Saturday invited us to settle under the canopy on the pavement for fresh juices, coffee and poached eggs. If you brought small kids or you are British, with a dose of homesickness, you might prefer a nostalgic nursery breakfast of soft boiled eggs with Marmite and toast soldiers to dip into the yolk. Or make it brunch, and enjoy a mimosa or two with a Gamekeeper’s Shooting Breakfast or a homemade quiche. I think we tried almost everything on the menu over the weekend, and I didn’t find anything lacking – and of course I had to taste everyone’s dishes, not just my own. All’s fair in love and research! Anything I missed, I may have to head back another day soon…

Above the bar and restaurant there is also a terrific place to stay. The Huggins offer five rooms, available on AirBnB, each one distinctive and full of character, and beautifully cushioned from the hubbub below. The One & Only had booked the Terrace Room, and it was a delight, full of quirky art and antique furniture. With access from a secret door next to The Trenchard Arms, we climbed a steep, dark staircase to find a high double bed draped in dusky pink Laura Ashley style curtains. The black and white tiled, al fresco bathroom is through the double doors and opens onto the terrace – perhaps a little awkward for the neighbours if you choose to take a bath directly in their line of vision, but there is a Roman blind to lower as needed, although that rather spoils the bather’s view!

Given our penchant for walking, we were very pleased to find a park along the waterfront, only a ten minute walk from our room, although it did involve climbing up and over a couple of busy main roads. Once we were there, however, it was worth the (minor) trek: wide lawns, huge shady trees, bike tracks and picnic tables, barbecues and beach on a broad strip that runs almost 10km along the coast.

singapore1Many of the sights of Singapore are only a short taxi ride away, too. The highlight for us was the National Gallery or Museum of Singapore & South East Asian Arts housed in two restored national monuments, formerly the Supreme Court and City Hall, linked by an outstanding contemporary atrium of glass and metal that includes two foot bridges. From the beautiful roof garden, with its chic bar area, there are simply stunning views over the city with its fascinating mix of creative modern architecture and colonial grace. And we even found some Filipino art done by our own Mr. Luna and Mr. Hidalgo.

So if you are wondering what to do this weekend, head south to East Coast Road, and I bet Richard and Tricia will feel like old friends in just a few, happy hours!

*With thanks, yet again, to the One & Only for his camera work.

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“Go For Launch!”

bannerLast night was a very special night, and I am still feeling somewhat euphoric. Euphoric and ecstatic, exhilarated and enchanted, thrilled and giddy and elated. I know I probably sound slightly hysterical, and usually my One & Only saves me from my worst excesses of adjective and metaphor, but today I just want to whoop and wiggle in bold, italics and highlighter pen, and quite possibly burst into song.

Last night, at the Manila Polo Club, before a group of friends, fellow writers and educators, I launched my first book.

It was an event I don’t think I truly believed would happen. But when I walked in, there was a banner with my name on it – and a book with my name on it too. Actually, lots of them! There was a microphone and a table where I could sign copies if anyone wanted my signature.  The Lounge at the Polo Club looked elegant and professional and bookish. The publishers (The Bookmark Inc.) had turned on a generous spread of cheeses, dips and cold meat platters, as well as some great wines, and the room gradually filled with people who had braved rain and Manila traffic jams for a 6pm start.

I began writing this book in earnest almost six years ago. I had just arrived in the Philippines, fresh from completing a Masters in Gastronomy in Australia. I decided the best way to get to know my new home was to explore its culture through cuisine and culinary history, and then record my impressions in a blog. This rapidly grew to incorporate our travel experiences, both here and abroad, as well as my observations on our expatriate lifestyle. And even, on a whim, a little poetry. So it seems only fitting that a seed I planted when I first landed in Manila, should also have come to fruition here.  is, in case you hadn’t guessed, based on this blog.

I have always loved writing. It has been a daily adventure with language and imagination. But more importantly, it has helped me to join all the disconnected dots in my head; to frame or shape the memories of a decidedly spur-of-the-moment, nomadic life, where the definition of ‘home’ has long been a moveable feast.

Writing an actual book is something I have wanted to do since I was about six years old, when I used to create little stories for grandparents and babysitters, with coloured paper, scissors and a stapler. So, it has been a long time coming, but today Songs on the Wind is officially a book with a proper cover and no need of staples; an eclectic collection of essays, articles, reviews and poems on eating and drinking, travel, local culture and expatriate life.

I named the original blog She Gathers No Moss after the age-old proverb ‘a rolling stone gathers no moss,’ as I felt it perfectly described my years of meandering around the world. But the publisher felt this may not ring bells with a Filipino audience. Somewhat belatedly, that got me thinking, and I went to Google to check the meaning.

According to Wikipedia, this popular adage is credited, not to Mick Jagger, but to Publilius Syrus, a Latin writer from Syria who was brought to Italy as a slave. He was later freed and educated by his master, and subsequently renowned for penning Sententiae.  (These are maxims, proverbs or adages – and yes, I went directly to Google search too – three times, in fact, just to translate that short paragraph.) Anyway, this particular proverb refers to people who are always moving; rootless individuals who like to avoid the normal round of responsibilities and cares –  sadly, rather negative connotations I hadn’t anticipated at all. However, the dictionary hurriedly reassured me that another interpretation makes a synonym of “moss” and “stagnation,” and therefore suggests that we gypsies are at least not stagnating, but burgeoning with fresh ideas or creativity. Not surprisingly, I like the second explanation rather better than the first.

Nonetheless, we decided to christen the book ‘Songs on The Wind,’ which sounded much more poetic. And I liked the way it depicted my life as a sort of wandering minstrel blown around the world by the winds of chance and opportunity, with no insinuations of irresponsibility, homelessness or flakiness.

The insinuation has stuck in my head, and niggles from time to time. Am I, in fact, flakey and uncommitted? Careless and slipshod? Certainly, I have dodged the bullet of picket fences and weekly lawn mowing for almost thirty years. Yet, thanks to Facebook, Skype and Gmail, not to mention Frequent Flyer Miles, I manage to keep in touch with family and friends. I may not be good at settling in one spot for too long, but whenever we unpack our suitcases, I swiftly set up home, find myself manning committees, joining social groups, building communities – not always easy in a world of expatriates, where friendships and contact lists can alter almost monthly as people come and go.

Returning to Manila in late July, after two years of regular absenteeism, I assumed the landscape would have changed considerably. Many of our original friends here had departed over the summer. Even our kids had gone for good. Was anyone left, or would I have to start all over again?

Last night proved otherwise. As I gazed about the room, about to start my readings, and as nervous as a mouse in a room full of street cats,  I realized the place was literally packed with familiar faces, beaming and nodding at me to take courage. A room full of friends I have known six years, six months – in one case barely six days – but kind, caring supportive friends nonetheless. And even a handful I had never met before, but hope to call friends too, very soon. Perhaps I’m not so flakey after all.

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Imelda:The People’s Princess

Imelda3“Filipinos want beauty. I have to look beautiful so that the poor Filipinos will have a star to look at from their slums.”  ~Imelda Marcos

Imelda Marcos, the iconic First Lady of the Philippines for twenty years, with her infamous penchant for shoes, handbags and butterfly sleeves. Imelda Marcos, renowned for ostentation and extravagant shopping, not to mention the misappropriation of government funds to support her habit.

‘Living La Vida Imelda’ is a a “gleefully gossipy” (New York Times), wickedly satirical perspective on the life and times of Imelda Marcos that goes well beyond these hackneyed clichés, created by performance artist Carlos Celdran and delivered with his inimitable slick humour and incorrigible irreverence.

I have been fortunate enough to see Celdran’s production in its various incarnations. First, as a lengthy three-hour tour of the Cultural Centre of the Philippines. Then as a one man show with human props at Silverlens Galleries in Makati. Finally, earlier this year,  a well-oiled solo performance edited to an hour and a half of non-stop banter and brouhaha in the quaint and quirky Pineapple Lab in Poblacion. Exclusive to ANZA (the Australia New Zealand Association), the performance proved to be a highly successful charity fundraiser.


As always, Celdran’s show was oversubscribed for the space, so we found ourselves pinned to the back wall and craning our necks for a view of the diminutive performer on the low stage at the front of the room. All was not lost, however. Celdran knows how to make his rich, expressive voice carry to every corner, so while we could only catch glimpses of his face, we could hear him perfectly clearly, and we could still see the hat rack bedecked in his ‘costume changes,’ the large historical and architectural images projected on the wall behind him, and the Vintage Peacock wicker chair.

Celdran weaves the myths of popular culture into a synopsis of Imelda’s role in the Marcos regime: her use of Hollywood glamour to win the hearts of world leaders and the people of the Philippines, despite the infamy of her Imelda1 (2)husband’s dictatorship, her own incredible extravagances and their joint reputations as kleptocrats.

Celdran’s wit is sharp, but it goes hand-in-hand with many unexpectedly poignant moments as we hear about her sad childhood, that notorious beauty pageant, her whirlwind romance with President-to-be, Ferdinand Marcos, and her increasing popularity with the masses, if not with the Establishment. ‘Living La Vida Imelda’ has become a much tighter show than it used to be, although I have a sneaking suspicion that Celdran reduces much of the time by simply talking faster.  But the cuts are effective, and the show has become much more polished.

And to kick-start the show, ANZA provided a generous bar and very tasty pica pica. It was a great – if noisy –  way to get the evening rolling. As a bonus, ticket prices included a donation to #vivamanila, a charity aimed at reviving arts and culture, community projects and collaborations in Intramuros, a project close to Celdran’s heart. From start to finish, it was a highly entertaining evening.

*Adapted from an article written for ANZA News, May 2016, and with thanks to the One & Only for his photos.




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Childhood Holidays

VWMy father found her hanging around outside the Australian Embassy on the Strand in London, just after Christmas 1975. She was already quite elderly, and ran out of puff at the mere mention of a hill. We called her Bella. I have no idea why Bella, or why we decided she was female. She was, in truth, an unfashionable VW campervan, or Kombi, white, weary and somewhat woebegone. We took her to Europe for a month every summer for four years, and somehow she lasted the distance, although I have memories of having to get out and walk when she chugged through the Italian Alps in second gear. I probably made that up.

Bella had a pop up roof: a triangular structure of red and white striped canvas. She had rough yellow and orange striped fabric seats that scratched the back of our bare legs just like the old British Rail seats did. The front passenger seat secreted a gas stove which meant tipping the seat up and cooking through the front door, whether or not it was raining. In the back, two dicky seats faced the rear, and a bench seat faced forward, and transformed into our parents double bed at night. Two canvas hammocks folded out from the roof, which meant that getting into bed involved clambering up over our parents bed and onto the sink. When the hammocks were out, Mum and Dad couldn’t sit up in bed without banging their heads on the metal support bars.

As there were four kids, we couldn’t all sleep in the van unless there was an emergency. Then the older two would have the hammocks, my younger sister would sleep across the front seats with a roll of foam filling the gap in the middle, and our smallest brother slept under the laminated table. For normal nights my father bought an upright green canvas annex that clipped – or rather clung – to the van’s sliding side door like the leaning tower of Pisa. It could stand alone, but perilously, as even the slightest breeze threatened to upturn it or send it flying like a kite across the campsite. All the tent pegs were permanently bent double, as every campsite in which we ever pitched that tent had rock-solid ground, which caused my father to grumble loudly, as the pegs bent and buckled, and he would frequently batter his thumb with the mallet trying to bash them into the not-so-good-earth. Also, the annex had no floor, which allowed rivers to flow through it when it rained. For a little security, Dad laid a ground sheet under the blue foam we used as a mattress. The foam got thinner and thinner with the passing years, and it was hardly thick to start with. Like the Princess and the Pea we could feel the tiniest pebble or root between our shoulder blades. Our cheap, blue nylon sleeping bags had different coloured linings and we would fight for the colour we preferred. Every night. And there we would sleep, lying in a neat row like electric blue sardines.

For entertainment we took books, a cricket bat for French cricket, a pack of Happy Family cards and a huge ream of img108computer paper on which my sister and I drew endless, identical, onion-headed beauty queens with felt tip pens, the only variation being the colour of their hair (brown, yellow or red) and eyes (blue, green or brown). And I guess their dresses were different colours, but probably identical styles, as neither of us had an ounce of artistic talent. Nevertheless, we would entertain our brothers for hours on long trips, making them the official judging panel of our glorious beauty queens.

Our trips to Europe inevitably included Italy and at least one flood. I remember one when I nearly got washed into Lago Maggiore, the sole remaining camper in our tortured tent.

On long trips, Mum would sit in the front trying to inspire us to admire the view. “Look kids! A castle!” Or “a river!” Or “a cow!” Anything, to tempt us to look up from our drawing/reading/card games. “Mmmmm,” we would mumble with no interest whatsoever. “Have you got Mr. Butcher?” “No. Go fish.” Sometimes she would instigate a singalong and we would all kneel up on the dicky seats and bellow into Dad’s ear, working our way through every tune we knew. Dad always requested ‘Lord of the Dance,’ so that years later I would use it in our wedding ceremony in his honour, an old friend playing it on the flute – all the verses – while we signed the register.

I sat up with Dad one night, not long before I would wend my own way back to Europe as a young adult, trying to see how much we could remember of those trips. Mostly, I had only snapshot memories: long forgotten images of a waterfall or a castle (surprisingly), a burning hot beach or a stomach churning boat trip.  I did recall, however, one restaurant on Lago di Como where Dad bravely ordered goat, and was served up a tureen with the entire skull complete with eyeballs, much to our unanimous disgust. And we still laugh at him for insisting that he loved Turkish coffee, only to be handed an undrinkable thimble of black silt.

Already designated the only keen writer in the family, I remember one year Dad encouraged me to keep a journal. I bought a giant notebook into which I stuck a tram ticket and a post card of a castle on the Rhine, a description of a torture chamber and some tedious details of our camp dinners, before I lost interest.  Mum struggled, with only two gas rings and a griller, to feed six people on plastic plates with tinny cutlery, squeezed around a wobbly folding table, so perhaps the less said about meals the better. Somehow we always managed to buy the last baguette in the boulangerie, which would be stale, dry and rock hard by dinner time, like the camp grounds. And I remember hating the saltless European butter and the gloopy margarine. Wasps invaded the strawberry jam and the UHT milk, always heavy, sweet and tepid, poured over stale cornflakes made me want to puke. Bella had no mini fridge, just a cold box, which always smelled damp and mildewed, for we rarely managed to keep it full of ice. Usually there was only a puddle of water in the bottom, in which the margarine and milk could paddle.  And there was a permanent, battered tin of Spam in the cupboard in case of emergencies. It sat there for four years, untouched, and it was rusty and probably poisonous by the time we sold the van.

img104Yet I remember those summers as unusually happy, family times, despite mum’s despair at trying to get all the clothes washed and dried in heavy rain. Our usually quarrelsome pack seemed to have an unspoken truce during that month away. We played together all day with barely a squabble, and I was allowed to read the bedtime story as we were all packed tightly into our sagging, drunken tent at 7.30pm, while the European kids played on through the long summer evenings, until eleven o’clock or midnight.

Bella was our summer holiday recreational vehicle, but also the family car. She came on picnics and family outings and weekend trips, and very occasionally she would do the school run – under duress – when it was too wet or snowy to walk. We could squeeze ridiculous numbers of children into the back, in an era when seatbelts were not yet obligatory, lounging across the bench seat, kneeling up on the dicky seats or sprawling over the bed at the back. When we returned to Australia four years later and we had to sell her on, it felt worse than leaving the family pet behind.

My parents have had a series of campervans since then, mostly boxy Nissans, and none as memorable, inefficiently designed, un-chic or beloved as Bella.

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Food for Thought

Delvoye5One of my favourite British TV shows is ‘Lost in Austen,’ a miniseries based on the premise that a 21st century anti-heroine suddenly finds herself in the middle of the plot of ‘Pride & Prejudice,’ filling in for a missing Elizabeth Bennett. And one of my favourite lines is when Mr. Wickham describes Lady Catherine de Bourgh as ‘the cloaca through which all society passes.’ I admit I had to go to the dictionary to find out what it meant, so in case you are equally at sea, a cloaca is ‘the common chamber into which the intestinal and urogenital tracts discharge especially in monotreme mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and elasmobranch fishes’ or simply, the anus or ‘posterior hole through which waste passes from the body.’

OK, before I lose you, there is a reason I am drawing your attention to such base matter. As a food writer, I have studied the correct table settings for an 18th century banquet, the contents of a mediaeval kitchen garden, the recipe books of the early twentieth century.  And I continuously indulge in many poetic and philosophical tales of dining, both past and present. But let’s face it, the inevitable result of a meal, however spectacular, delicious and Michelin starred is a trip to the comfort room, lavatory, loo or toilet. Yet it is an outcome to eating we generally prefer to ignore.

Not so Wim Delvoye, a Belgian artist based in Britain, who is renowned for his love of challenging our perspective on ‘life, the universe and everything.’  Or as Robert Enright wrote, “Delvoye is involved in a way of making art that reorients our understanding of how beauty can be created”.

Last month I got a good look at his offbeat interpretation of the world when I visited the Musée d’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean (Mudam) Luxembourg, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary with a retrospective on Wim Delvoye, Delvoye1the artist who contributed to its opening in 2006. The Mudam Gallery perches on the edge of Kirchenberg, the business park on the plateau above the mediaeval town of Luxembourg. Surrounded on three sides by woodland, and built on the remains of Fort Thüngen, it is described as ‘a marvellous dialogue between the natural and historical environment.’ And it is light and bright and spacious, made with a honey coloured limestone called Magny Doré, and plenty of glass. It is a great setting for Delvoye’s strange creations.

‘Basically, Wim Delvoye makes oxymorons’ says Michel Onfray in the gallery’s official gallery guide, his artwork
defined thus as contradictory, or incongruous. I disagree about contradictory, but incongruous I will allow. And Mr. Delvoye’s art is, without question, provocative.

Delvoye likes to make art out of the starkly industrial: carving floral motifs into huge, rubber tractor tyres that remind me of Indian soapstone carvings; a cement mixer carved from highly polished teak; another made of filigreed Delvoye4steelwork that resembles a Gothic cathedral; sawblades enameled in blue and white images like Dutch tiles and displayed in glass cabinets. Then there are others that mock the modern notion that bigger is better: the vast photographs of cliff faces inscribed with the mundane words of a Post-it note or toilet door. ‘SWEETHEART, OUT FOR PIZZA, BACK IN 10 MINS. GIANNI,’ or ‘RUDE BUT CUTE 18 YEAR OLD BABE 018 83 87 480.’ And then there are his live pigs tattooed in skulls and flowers and religious images.

‘I want to make fearless art’ he is reported as saying last year in the magazine Robb Report.

Perhaps his most fearless – certainly his most abrasive and bothersome pieces – are the many versions of his cloaca construction. Fusing art and science, Delvoye recreated the human digestive system,  after eight years of consultation with experts in plumbing and gastroenterology. He even installed a permanent, custom-built cloaca for MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart, Tasmania. The first one we came across in the Mudam looked a bit like a stationary steam engine. Using tanks and tubes, which he feeds with sugars and acids, gastric juices and real food, he examines in intriguing detail the journey from mouth to lavatory bowl, a daily bodily function that we publicly prefer to ignore, and yet cannot disconnect from the equally mundane, but less disturbing need to eat. Each cloaca is a digestive machine that processes what goes in, and passes out the waste product from a sausage machine at the end, like a dollop of human poo. Apparently, you can even buy jars of this fecal by-product suspended in resin in his store. Useless art? Totally. I guess that’s his point. And yet as a representation of a necessary human function, why is it less attractive than all those paintings we love of family gatherings around the dining table or a still life of food and fruit bowls? Beautiful porcelain crockery? Waterford crystal glasses?Delvoye6

Poo may not be pretty, but Delvoye will not allow it to hide from public view. It is on display in the centre of the floor
like the metaphorical elephant in the room. Like the King’s commode. An obvious, unalterable, uncomfortable truth that we prefer to ignore.

I came away enlightened and impressed. But if I am honest, I would still prefer a reproduction of P.S. Krøyer’s oil painting of a 19th century luncheon party, Renoir’s ‘Luncheon of the Boating Party,’ or even Da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ in my living room to one of Delvoye’s jars of faeces in amber!

*With thanks to Google Images for providing the pics after a glitch in modern technology swallowed all our photos!

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Stream of Consciousness

IMG_0089 (2)Earlier this year, back home in Manila, the Metropolitan Museum held a fascinating and unusual exhibition. “Tapas: Spanish Design for Food,” presented by Accion Cultural Espanola, the Instituto Cervantes Manila and the Spanish Embassy, was a display of food, kitchen implements and dining utensils used by some of the top Spanish restaurants specializing in degustation menus, where food is served up in small, bite-sized portions, like tapas. As pica pica are to the Philippines, so are tapas to the Spanish: small bar snacks or platters served with a glass of wine. Tapas come in all shapes and sizes and prices, from a dish of hot patatas bravas to sizzling slices of chorizo, croquettes to calamares, sardines to slices of jamón. Legends abound on the origin of tapa, but the most commonsensical one suggests that King Alfonso X, known as El Sabio or “The Wise One,” wanted to ensure that innkeepers were serving their customers both food and wine to soak up the alcohol and prevent drunk and disorderly behavior.

The Tapas exhibition was an elaborate feast of culinary design with a hearty sprinkle of imagination, quirky humour and whimsy: a foosball table cum dining table; a serving platter in the shape of a painter’s palette; some tongue-in-cheek graphic designs on regional wine labels; an aluminium plate that resembled a slice of toast; a fruit bowl made from a recycled net bag for oranges; a ceramic, scented ‘madeleine’ – the Parisian cake that evoked Proust’s childhood memories. I found myself wishing for a ‘library’ that would lend me an assortment of creative crockery for my next dinner party.

The curator had done a marvelous job of explaining the thought processes and the uses of the various items and implements, explaining that “top flight Spanish cuisine as practiced by elBuli, el Celler de Can Rocca  and Mugaritz… [is] experiencing an international boom in which design has become a constant ally in the quest for development and innovation.” I wandered back and forth for ages, each time round noting some fascinating piece I had missed before.

The exhibition went hand in hand with the 2016 edition of Madrid Fusion Manila (MFM). This international MFMgastronomy congress originated in Madrid, but last year the organizers were persuaded to relocate to Manila. I attended the inaugural event at SMX Convention Centre, and experienced an amazing and novel culinary collaboration between Spain and the Philippines. The conference featured ten Michelin star chefs from Spain and Asia, and ten of our best Filipino chefs in what became “an exhilarating gastronomic conversation between the Philippines and Spain,” in which traditional culinary techniques were reinvented and the latest innovations were explored. This year, to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the Galleon Trade that linked Asia with Europe and South America, the conference was entitled ‘The Manila Galleon: East Meets West’ and the conversation was expanded to include chefs from Peru and Mexico.

One of the guest speakers was Joan Roca who, with his two brothers, has earned 3 Michelin stars for their restaurant el Celler de Can Roca. The MFM website waxed lyrical about this ‘lord of the kitchen’ and his ‘bastion of contemporary cuisine par excellence,’ who perfectly combines ‘traditional classic cuisine, the food from his region, with the most advanced techniques’. The three brothers have worked together for thirty years, and Joan is quoted as saying We collaborate on everything.”  French-English chef Michael Roux OBE has described it as “one of the top restaurants in Europe” and renowned food critic A.A. Gill called it “an outstanding kitchen, and part of the great confident wave of ‘technically exhausting’ Spanish food.” The restaurant was awarded its first Michelin star in 1995, a second in 2002, and the third in 2009. Last year, el Celler de Can Roca was flagged as the world’s premier restaurant at the 2015 “World’s 50 Best Restaurants Awards,” a list compiled by a panel of global industry experts.

Much to my disappointment I was not in Manila in April to attend this year’s MFM event, but I was lucky enough to be in Spain this summer, just in time to join some good friends from Manila on their annual pilgrimage to this exceptional restaurant in Girona, just north of Barcelona.

The Roca brothers are Joan, head chef; Josep, sommelier, and Jordi, patisserie chef in charge of desserts. The brothers first opened their restaurant, a joint venture, in 1986, not far from their family’s bar and restaurant. Their parents opened the original Can Roca in 1967, and growing up in the restaurant initially sparked the boys interest in cooking. Later, the three brothers would take a five-week trip to North and South America which inspired them to blend the Americas with the Mediterranean. And it was apparent that his trip to the Philippines has also influenced Joan’s menu, with glimpses of Filipino ingredients. In a recent interview with the UK’s Evening Standard, Joan is quoted as saying “I always take something from the places I visit back to our restaurant, sometimes in a conscious way, sometimes in an unconscious way among the memories.”

In 2007 el Celler de Can Roca made a hundred metre journey to its current, purpose built restaurant where modern and traditional concepts are reflected in both the building and the cooking. The kitchen is located on the ground floor of the original old building, the dining room is an alluring blend of space, simplicity and light with glass walls, uncluttered tables and a large, triangular atrium in the centre, filled with angular saplings. Three stones sit on each table to represent the three brothers.

Arriving early, I was able peek into the well-ordered kitchens before the lunch service got too busy. Thirty chefs were quietly working to plate up some of the seven to seventeen dishes on the two degustation menus: Classic or Feast. Joan has an open plan office by the entrance, well-stocked with cookery books, where he can keep a close eye on all the activity. Today, all three brothers were in attendance, so I was able to meet them all, albeit briefly, in the course of the afternoon.

As we settled at our table, our waiter presented us with two encyclopedia sized wine lists, one for red wines, one for white, which left me completely gobsmacked, and wishing I had done some weight lifting practice beforehand. Pages and of red wines, pages of white, primarily Spanish and French, with a slight nod to some of the best New World wines. So, sipping on a cold, crispy cava, we waited with baited breath for the first dish. We had chosen to indulge in the daunting fourteen course menu, ‘Feast’ although my teenage namesake wisely selected the Classic menu with only seven clourses. Both menus make much use of local ingredients from Catalonia, and Joan introduces some fascinating flavour combinations combined with a strong element of molecular gastronomy and some truly incredible and elegant presentations. I am not exaggerating to say that el Celler de Can Roca is on the cutting edge of scientific, culinary, and creative innovation. It was quite an extraordinary spectacle, in a way that made me think of Dorothy landing in Oz and suddenly her black and white world turned into a technicolour fantasy.

The performance began with a round paper lampshade encasing a miniature hat rack. Well, that’s what it looked like. Introduced as a bit of a game, this showstopper was called The World, and included five amuse bouche, each providing flavours from different countries. The game was to identify which five countries were represented. The countries can vary, apparently, but our version was Thailand, Peru, Korea, China and Japan and I am proud to say I got them all right.

Girona (1)The next course was literally a piece of theatre, in honour of the Rocas favourite bar in the suburbs of Girona. We were presented with a white cardboard stage set, decorated with photographs of the three brothers, with five more amuse bouche laid out on tiny cardboard tables, including a pomelo pink ball that melted on the tongue, and filled our mouths with Campari. It felt like something from Honeydukes, the magical sweet shop in Hogsmeade.

When I was wandering through the kitchens at El Celler, one of the things that caught my eye was a counter covered  in twisted, bonsai, olive trees. A single tree was now brought to the table and placed in the centre. From the knotted branches hung several small olives. Only they weren’t olives, but tiny balls of olive ice cream in a creamy green coating similar to that on a Magnum. For some reason it brought to mind song about the Partridge in a Pear Tree.

With every dish there was an unexpected twist, and I enjoyed the focus on eye-catchingGirona (3), creative presentation, especially in light of the exhibition in Manila. Three white asparagus tips sprinkled in tiny white elderflowers encircled a dollop of what appeared to be – and tasted like – ice cream but was described on the menu as a ginger and acacia honey hollandaise sauce. Another looked like a small, fat donut or bunt cake on a tactile, matt black plate, but tasted like apple Danish, with an unexpectedly lush base of duck liver. In fact an apple timbale, the apple and foie gras was an immensely satisfying flavour combination. And then, surprise, surprise, the slice of grey toast we had Girona (2)admired in the Metropolitan six weeks earlier appeared in front of us, on which sat four ping pong balls, each topped with a thin slice of mushroom, labelled St. George mushroom brioche and bonbons.

Seafood played a starring role in many of the courses. For example, a fat pink starfish, which turned out to be a delicate and dreamy prawn mousse, arrived on a seaweed wafer, arranged on a strip of fisherman’s net.

After a solid run of seafood, a welcome change of pace in the shape of a neat slice of Iberian suckling pig, complete Girona (7)with crackling, accompanied by a tropical salad of green papaya, pomelo, coriander, chilli and lime, a definitive nod to Joan’s recent visit to the Philippines. Ridiculously – I had only been away a few weeks –  the familiar flavours made me positively nostalgic. A couple more meat dishes followed, before the unexpected arrival of a platter of red sorbet noses – yes, really – as a palate cleanser before dessert, with a definite aroma and flavour of the Eastern Mediterranean.  Potpourri mixed with Turkish delight? More specifically, rosewater and pistachio. And apparently the model for these large noses is Jordi’s own.

Girona (8)The most interesting of the three desserts that followed was, without a doubt, “Orange colourology.” How to describe this is proving difficult, and I am getting no help from the menu which is remarkably lacking on description, so please excuse my somewhat awkward efforts, as I attempt to explain. It looked like a large, single orb of frog spawn, resting on a bed of grated carrot. (I would absolutely adore to know how this was created, but cannot begin to imagine.) The opaque golden globe seemed to be made of sugar, and we were told to crack it like a soft boiled egg, or a miniature piñata. When opened, a confetti of coloured petals – pansies – drifted out, and underneath sat a pile of light and refreshing orange flavoured sorbet balls, a little smaller than the polystyrene balls in a beanbag.

Some four or more hours later, we retired to the lovely outdoor courtyard, to relax under the trees with tiny caste iron pots of tea and dishes of petit fours or mignardises: macarons; almond-shaped financiers; and a glamorous, golden truffle, like a Ferrero Rocher chocolate in an edible gilded coat, all of which we had observed earlier on a dessert trolley that looked like something the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang would have loved. And our fantasy lunch was over, and we were back in Kansas.

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The Chequers, The Chasers and a Country Market

IMG_0678While everyone here has been complaining that the English summer has been grim, with endless pouring rain and much flooding, since I arrived two weeks ago, the weather has been sublime and, thanks to all that rain, the countryside is blooming and exuberantly, gloriously green.  I have wandered over heathland and through beechwoods, down country lanes and across wheat fields, up hills and down dales, and almost worn holes in my walking boots. Along the way I have passed many a country pub.  And let’s face it, England is bursting at the seams with them, for the British public house has long been an ubiquitous part of the landscape. I even went looking for a couple of old favourites.

Since the 1970s my family have often, if intermittently, driven down to the tiny Kentish hamlet of Heaverham (pronounced hee-ver-um), past sunshine-yellow rape  that fills broad fields with gay abandon, past prim rows of strawberries at Stonepitts Farm, dodging walkers who wander merrily down the narrow, twisting lanes thickly bordered with hawthorn hedges. A small oast house (a Kentish barn in which to dry the hops for making beer) stood crumbling at the crossroads for years and we would risk our necks to clamber up the rickety wooden staircase on the outer wall. Since then it has been salvaged from rack and ruin and converted into a pretty and somewhat unorthodox home with its roundel and conical roof like an inverted ice-cream cone.

Around the bend is a large meadow dotted with tiny white daisies and wooden picnic tables, some stray rose bushes, a murky pond, a large carpark, and a small,  squat, sixteenth century pub, its doorstep flush with the edge of the road, its outer walls covered thickly in Virginia creeper.   A black and white sign depicts two men, in jackets and ties, playingChequers (2) chequers. Inside, there is a small public bar to the left and a smaller bar overlooking a cosy dining room to the right. The ceilings are low and the thick wooden beams are decorated with copper pots and pans. Local artists bedeck the wattle and daub walls with paintings of country scenes and wildflowers, bronze oil lamps squat on the deep window sills and low beams clatter unwary heads. Little has changed since my childhood except the management, although the pond has been fenced off to save any small and adventurous paddlers from taking an unexpected swim. And the menu offers a solid selection of staunchly British pub fare such as steak and kidney pudding, haddock and chips, Eton Mess and bread and butter pudding, all of which we happily consume for a birthday lunch.

Heading five miles south, to Stumble Hill in Shipbourne – pronounced shih-bun – at the foot of a greensand ridge, I find another old favourite, bejewelled with brightly coloured hanging baskets. The Chasers Inn overlooks the road to Plaxtol and the broad village green. At the back of the beer garden  rises the square tower of the nineteenth century church of St Giles. Both church and pub were built by then owner of the local Fairlawne Estate, Edward Cazalet. I have been dropping in here since our oldest was tiny, so small that she could slip through the kissing gate and get lost amongst the corn in the field behind the churchyard. And it is good to see it is as popular as ever.

On a balmy summer evening, we find a table beneath a weeping willow in the beer garden, and watch small children potter round the lawn as we sip our G&Ts and nibble our way through two sharing platters, piled high with cheese and cornichons, garlic sausage and pastrami. The church clock behind us dongs dolefully on the hour, every hour and the sun sinks oh-so-slowly towards the ridge. Inside there are several eating areas, including a long dining room with a vaulted timber ceiling and a patio that once provided more open-air dining, but has now been elegantly roofed with frosted glass: a nod to England’s unpredictable climate. In winter we have cuddled up beside roaring log fires, surrounded by book shelves and a busy central bar.

Should you be passing through Shipbourne on a Thursday morning there is a great little market at the church, with a selection of stalls lining the path to the double lychgate, where the vicar once greeted the coffins heading for the shady cemetery beside the church. The lychgate, like the church, is Victorian and both are grade II listed, which means that it may not be demolished, extended or altered without special permission from the local planning authority.  Some of the Shipbourne3gravestones are much older, as the original church on this site was built in the 14th century, was completely rebuilt in 1722 and again  in 188o. Apparently one tomb, dated 1714, tells of the servant of a local parishioner who lost his life in a dismal manner to the grief of all his friends [said to have been shot]. 

Back at the market, we meander round the stalls. Boughton Alpaca sells hand knitted hats and jumpers, and the stall holder is still knitting as she chats to passers-by. Annabelle from Renhurst Farm sells my friend’s favourite ham, as well as sausages, pies and quiches, beef, pork and lamb. There are fresh fish, fresh vegetables and fresh flowers. Our wicker basket is soon a positive bouquet of colour: rosy tomatoes, deep red cherries, and a delicious bunch of electric blue cornflowers and bright orange Californian poppies.

Inside the church, more stalls have been set up on boards that straddle the pews, displaying local honey and cheeses, duck eggs and cupcakes, homemade breads and pickles, jams and cobnut oil. I am packing up and moving on tomorrow, but can’t resist carrying off a couple of pretty cupcakes sprinkled with edible glitter. We are heading home for a breakfast of scrambled eggs and Annabelle’s ham, but we could have popped back to the Chasers who provide a full English breakfast and friendly service on market day.



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