Trendy Mediocrity with a Side Order of Inconsistency

Rambla.6I love Rockwell. There is always some new restaurant to try amongst the plethora to be found both inside and outside Power Plant Mall. My latest, belated discovery is Rambla. Apparently it has actually been there for almost twelve months, but I have been away a lot this year and only came across it in September. I may have been delinquent, but I have been dropping in at every opportunity since.

Rambla is described as a Spanish Open Kitchen and cocktail bar. It is, more accurately, an innovative tapas bar, a platform for modern Iberian cuisine where the concept of tapas takes priority over the concept of Spain. Of course there are all the standard Spanish favourites: Jamon Iberico and Manchego cheese; a stunning Spanish omlette of prawns and potato, served in a baby cast iron frying pan; and a salmon paella, to name just a handful. But there is also a heavy emphasis on tapas with a twist: veal cheek won tons (my favourites); lechon croquettes of great crunch and richness; shiitake arancinis (rice balls filled with those east Asian musty mushrooms) and the quite extraordinary foie gras mousse with caramelized apple and coffee Baileys foam, which sounds more like dessert than an appetizer, and I am yet to be brave enough to taste. But the chef is obviously having fun trying out different flavour combinations, and even if some seem a little far-fetched or slightly dubious, good on him for experimenting – although I would suggest he encourages customer feedback on some of his more outrageous creations. I would also politely suggest he consider the maxim ‘less is more’, as the quality of some dishes is sometimes lost amongst the surfeit of trendy ingredients and too-clever flavour combinations.

So, that was last month. This month the menu changed – apparently that will happen quarterly – and we were confronted with a range of new dishes to try. With a glass of Sangria in hand, we were perfectly content to start afresh.

Actually, a quick word on the Sangria. Offered red or white, I usually choose red, as I have always loved this wine punch served with a cinnamon stick, that tastes like mulled wine, only chilled. Today, however, I tried the white wine Sangria, and I may never look back. On a muggy Manila afternoon, this is really refreshing, and more closely resembles Pimms, particularly as the glass is filled with slices of citrus fruits, apple and grapes.

Tucked underneath Joya apartments, Rambla has redesigned the restaurant space to incorporate Rambla.4an open kitchen and a broad, wrap around bar. If you fancy clambering onto the bar stools, there’s a great view from up there. I have visited Rambla as a couple, with a friend and with a large group of ladies. Today I pottered in by myself and decided to sit at the bar and see what happened, which proved entertaining.

The problem with dining at a tapas bar alone is that you can’t try a range of dishes without looking atrociously
greedy, particularly as many of the dishes seem to be designed for two. So by the time I had dipped the crunchy-on-the-outside, doughy-in-the-middle imported Spanish bread in oil and vinegar, and  eaten my enormous salad – more of that later – I was full, and struggled to eat all three lechon empanadas. It would be good if they could add a mixed tasting platter for the solo diner. Or even for a couple. I would certainly welcome the option of smaller serves at smaller prices. (Although I have to say the new menu is not as tempting as the last, and the dishes have got even sillier when it comes to odd flavour combinations. And they took away my wontons!).

However, you don’t have to order to share. There are burgers, sandwiches, seafood and rice dishes aimed more at the individual diner, and less on grazing as a group.

Rambla is named for a famously bustling, tree-lined, promenade in central Barcelona. Rambla the restaurant certainly lives up to the reputation of its predecessor, as it’s always thrumming with the enthusiastic chatter and activity of its trendy clientele. Sometimes this can prove detrimental to communicating with the waiting staff, as they struggle to hear your order, but the atmosphere is lively and happy, and the staff are sweet, so I am not complaining. I will just have to  try the foie gras empanadas with pineapple jam next week – the lechon version with grape jelly was perfectly acceptable this time.

And my salad? O yes. Crispy fresh Romaine lettuce, crunchy bacon, marinated tawilis (that exclusively Filipino Ramblafreshwater sardine) and Parmesan, perfectly dressed in just a drizzle of vinaigrette – not the usual dousing so popular here – creating a wondrously light combination of textures and subtle flavours.

OK. this is now my third installment on Rambla, and I have had a change of heart. I was sorely disappointed today, and that makes me sad. After last week’s slight glitch with the empanadas, I was hoping to rediscover my initial enthusiasm, but today found me totally underwhelmed by the food’s embarrassing mediocrity.  I thought I would pop over for a lazy lunch with my note pad and take some pics with my new camera. Dodging the tapas foronce, I decided to splurge on their Ramblas Burger – presumably a signature dish to be named for the restaurant. I ordered it medium, as I am averse to undercooked mince, be it ever so posh and ever so wagyu, and I was served a red, raw hamburger lined with 2 small pieces of bruised lettuce (had somebody trodden on them?), a Rambla.3slice of white, flavourless tomato and a pile of baby gherkins heaped in the centre. At least they had the grace not to charge me when I filed a complaint with the chef.

I am not writing this to condemn, rather I am hoping it will be recognized as constructive criticism. I was delighted to discover Rambla, and was hoping to make it a regular lunch spot, but until the chef recognizes that simplicity and flavour are the essence of Mediterranean cooking, I will be foregoing the cold octopus carpaccio with hummus, the salad of heirloom cherry tomatoes with orange and quails egg, or the pork with caramelized onions, pear chutney, red apple baked jam and smoky cinnamon as too many clashing flavours screaming to be noticed.

In the meantime, I may still pop back for that great salad and the Sangria, and I would definitely be tempted to try the chicken and prawn risotto. And while I don’t usually eat dessert, the xoxos, (it is written with hugs and kisses for a reason) salvaged my lunch today from the ruins of an undercooked hamburger. This Spanish version of the Italian cannoli is a deliciously crispy deep fried pastry tube filled with gloriously gooey  ganache chocolate or vanilla custard with just a whisper of lemon.

Like the nursery rhyme about the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead, when Ramblas is good it is very, very good, but when it is bad it is horrid. Some consistent quality would be much appreciated, and might ensure a solid core of regular customers after the trendy crowd has passed on.

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Snapshots of Japan

Mode Gakuen Cocoon TowerA clean and helpful clockwork world where a pair of missing glasses are located and returned before panic sets in….

A lavatory with a heated seat, an in-built bidet, a video screen and a sound system that provides the noisy gush of a waterfall as you pee…

A colony of commuters, twenty deep, waiting patiently by the kerb, camouflaged in grey and black and beige – and one dazzling, lemon yellow cardigan like a sunburst.

A hotel room the size of a bento box, neatly arranged for maximum efficiency in minimum space, with slippers…

A gentle soul at the airport information booth, who, with no English, takes my hand to guide me through the process of introducing the ticket machine, buying a bus ticket and showing me to the right bus stop. Thank you for your kindness.

Kochi (30)A sushi counter in a Kochi mall, chock-a-block with mathematical arrangements of colour and shape I have never before seen in sushi form. And the petrifyinging effect of so much choice…

A car park built like a Ferris wheel: as you drive your car onto the platform, it swings up and around to make room for the next one…

Konnichiwa, oishee, Suntory, arigatō gozaimasu and domo arigatō, itadakimasu, katsuo no tataki, sake, and
sayonara! 

My mother, primped and powdered, swathed in a silk brocade kimono of spring green and cream flowers,
wreathed about the waist with a broad, cherry blossom pink sash or obi and garnished with a matching pink Kochi (56)chrysanthemum hairpiece. A truly magnificent bouquet…

A glimpse from a bridge of a broad, gravelly river bed sliding down between the mountains, strung with fishing lines that guide the crystal-clear waters of the Niyodo River to the Pacific Ocean…

An elusive mountain view swallowed up by hungry mist…

One group of choristers draped in red satin or cream chiffon, another formally attired in black, bridging the gap between East & West with a common love of music…

A solemn couple converting the traditional tea ceremony into a ritual coffee-making in an alpine village, where beans from Yemen and Ecuador, Indonesia and Tanzania seem curiously out-of-place…

A smooth, round island baby giggling in surprised delight as I blow raspberries on her tummy, while her great-grandfather, an ancient Japanese gentleman smiles softly upon his approaching centenary, bowing under the weight of his wrinkles….

A backyard barbecue stuffed with straw, a torpedo bonito, a grill and leaping flames… a dish made in heaven…Kochi (85)

A kitchen full of Japanese chefs with a penchant for pasta, flirt and sing behind a hefty leg of prosciutto crudo, while my father sighs with relief at the absence of raw fish…

Sliding up a bannister of clotted-cream-clouds, in the wake of an autumn typhoon…

The extraordinary Mode Gakuen Cocoon Tower, nurturing the students within a latticed framework over two hundred meters high…

…and the Asahi Brewery, its buildings designed to resemble a golden, froth-topped beer glass and a squat, black hall crowned by a 60 ton golden flame that appears to have toppled sideways…

Yoyogi Park (7)An unexpected and peaceful retreat by a spiritual spring in the depths of a forest in the midst of urban sprawl and the caterwauling of commuter trains…

A sushi bar, and the ultimate party food revolving past us, lacking only disco lights: a pretty blue and green plate piled with sunset-coloured salmon sashimi garnished with baubles of salmon roe and ribbons of mayonnaise…

The Victoria and Albert Museum, that nineteenth century edifice of British culture, airlifted into central Tokyo to be reborn as a twenty first century train station…

A panoramic view across a vast metropolis from the heights of a nearby government building. This once small fishing village of Edo transformed into a city that drifts to the horizon, ringed by white towers flashing white lights of welcome…

A tour guide with a passion for the Tokyo transport system. Trains, taxis, car parks and buses.  To snore or not to snore…

A boat, beer and a double-decker bridge around the bay, with new friends from northern climes…

Japanese cuisine (20)

A final lunch on a tray in a silent café. A dozen dainty dishes exhibiting an exceptional miso soup; steamed rice with a
red nose of salted plum; a tiny bowl of tangy soy sauce; a skerrick of white pickled cabbage; broccoli and okra sprinkled in umami-dense katsuobushi flakes; a slab crispy fried fish impossible to manage with chopsticks; knobbly potato salad; thick slices of carpaccio-coloured katsuo sashimi with seared edges; a small heap of beige daikon mash; a wart-sized green blob of wasabe; bottomless green tea in a handle-less blue cup. A feast of taste and texture, colour and aroma, our hearing the only sense left unengaged. So I slurp my soup and bid a happy “gochisosama deshita”

 

*With thanks to my mother, my One & Only and, this time, even ME, for the photos!

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“Selamat Datang!”

“I loved the heat. Hot, hot and then all the rain. It rains, you know, nearly every day in Malaya… It comes down in sheets, in buckets, nearly every day around the same time for an hour or two. And then it’s gone again as quickly as it came  and the sun is out, blazing,  blazing, blazing…”  ~ Fergus Linehan, Under the Durian Tree

twin towersWe used to live in Kuala Lumpur. And I remember that heat, and those torrential, monsoonal rains. And the smoke haze. I loved the storms, but not the heat. And definitely not the smoke. It was our last year in this almost-equatorial city and Malaysia was making headlines. The Petronas Towers were almost finished, while Aquaria KLCC and the Suria Shopping Mall, at the base of the Towers, had just been officially opened. Malaysia was hosting the first Commonwealth Games to be held in Asia, and the new Kuala Lumpur International Airport was finally completed, which had us driving almost to Singapore to find the runway, but at least it was air conditioned. And while the dreadful South East Asian smog of late 1997 had finally cleared, the region was still suffering the economic consequences.

Today, Kuala Lumpur has evolved almost beyond recognition, and certainly beyond navigating without a SatNav. Rife with spaghetti junctions, superhighways, building sites and air pollution, the centre is still compact and vibrant and eminently walkable. And again, 2014 has been a year for Malaysia to hit the headlines, as the Malaysian government has had to deal with the inexplicable disappearance of a Malaysia Airline flight in March over the Indian Ocean. Four months later there was further disaster for Malaysia Airlines when another plane was destroyed by a missile over the Ukraine. On a happier note, the 16th Petronas Malaysian Grand Prix was won by Lewis Hamilton for Mercedes, and coincidentally for us, Malaysia opened a second terminal at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. And the city was again shrouded in smoke from forest fires.

So. We arrived back in Malaysia sixteen years later and just in time for dinner. I had a craving for curry. We debatedBombay palace 1
whether or not our favourite Indian restaurant from the 1990s would still be there. Google said yes, and the concierge at our hotel agreed, and booked us a table. The taxi driver seemed a little confused by our directions, but ‘maybe I am forgetting?’ he said apologetically.

The fact that the Bombay Palace appeared to have been air lifted across about eight lanes of heavy traffic and a substantial medium strip to land on the far side of Tun Razak threw us into confusion, and we started to feel a little silly, apologizing profusely to the driver for our senility.

Yet it turns out we were all right. The restaurant actually had moved across the road some years before, into a very similar, spacious old house on a large lot. Now it’s moving again, to Sultan Ismail, as yet another elegant but rather faded colonial building makes way for yet another suave high rise.

We were ushered upstairs to a large formal dining room, surprisingly empty of all but a group of silent army hot shots in full uniform. We felt a little awkward, but not for long. It was soon humming upstairs as loudly as it was downstairs.

Our waiters were charming, advising us cautiously not to order too much. Well, who doesn’t when confronted with a ten page menu? You don’t want to miss anything significant, do you? One young waiter was so friendly, I thought he was going to pull up a chair and join us. You would have been proud of the polite and ever-so-regal nod of the head that indicated we were perfectly happy now, and thanks for his warm welcome. He left reluctantly, checking back over his shoulder, unconvinced that we would be OK on our own.
kingfisherThe Bombay Palace has a great wine list according to one fellow blogger, but we chose a Kingfisher beer to accompany our meal, having long felt that beer goes much better than wine with Indian cuisine. Of course we had ordered way too much, but we could hardly complain. And the only dish that was faintly disappointing was the Malai Kofta, a favourite discovery of mine back in the early days, which did not live up to my expectations.  The rest, mostly spicy vegetarian dishes apart from one prawn vindaloo,  were as tasty as we remembered and we eventually waddled out, filled to the gunwales.

Indian cuisine in Malaysia is largely based on the hot, vegetarian Tamil cuisine of South India, and is very popular with its host country. The Indian Muslims mixed north and south to create dishes with less spice and more meat, and many of these have developed a distinctly Malaysian flavor.

Indians make up 7% of the population on the Malaysian Peninsula, the third largest ethnic group after the Muslim Malays and the Chinese. They have had a presence in the region since the 11th century, but the main influx, largely Tamils, arrived with the british during the years of British colonization – from around the mid-18th century until 1957 – to provide labour for the tin mines, and the rubber and palm oil plantations.

Flying in, all we saw are palm plantations to the horizon, which is hardly surprising when Malaysia is one of the world’s largest exporters of palm oil. The other type of oil popular here comes from Petronas, Malaysia’s leading oil and gas company, which has its headquarters in the Petronas Twin Towers in KLCC When we first arrived in Malaysia, the twin towers were growing up at a rate of knots from the grounds of the former Selangor Turf Club. Now they are 88 storeys high, with a sky bridge about half way up, straddling the space between them. Renowned for their starring role in the 1999 movie Entrapment, with Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta Jones, the Twin Towers also have a starring role on the Kuala Lumpur skyline, especially at night, when the towers reflect an almost ethereal lustre due to the shimmering stainless steel façade.

Friday night drinks, and we found a perfectly acceptable spot at a bar overlooking the 50 acre park at the heart of thesymphony lake KLCC development. Well, almost perfect. My romantic plan to escort my One & Only to Marini’s on 57, the rooftop bar on the top of Carigali Tower (commonly known as Tower 3) had been scuppered by his most unacceptable attire. “No shorts and sandals allowed here, Sir.”  It was a shame, as the view of the Twin Towers from there is magnificent, and you sit so close you could almost touch them. But the price of drinks soar nearly as high as the building, and it was happy hour at Limoncello, so we were not too disappointed. And from this lowly terrace we could glimpse the Lake Symphony, a lovely display of colored lights, fountains and music in the centre of the man-made lake. A fitting way to kick start our weekend. And next time, perhaps he’ll remember to pack trousers.

*With thanks to Google Images for the pics as we can’t locate ours!

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Blackbird: a Tranformation

BB2One of the first snippets of local history I was handed when I arrived in the Philippines:

Ayala Triangle, now the focal point of the Makati business district,  was once an airport among rice fields, its original runway the stretch of Ayala Avenue past the Stock Exchange, and Paseo de Roxas . Built in 1937, the Nielson Airport was destroyed only four years later during the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. It was briefly restored after the war, but the runways were permanently converted to roadways in 1949. The only remaining structure was the Nielson Tower, the original control tower shaped like an airplane. Since then this unusual slice of Makati history has housed a property management company, a private club and the Filipinas Heritage Library. This year, the historic seventy-five year old building was transformed into Blackbird, Colin McKay’s latest and most sophisticated restaurant venture in Makati.

The metamorphosis is fabulous. Last time I visited the FHL it was looking faded and shabby. Blackbird, however, looks like a decadent 1930s art deco inspired movie set. It is both classy and glamorous, and has been touted as Makati’s hottest new dining destination.

The garden has also had a makeover. It has been beautifully landscaped to accommodate an outdoor bar and al fresco dining area beneath the trees that is particularly charming by lamp light. We began the evening here with a pre-dinner drink, my husband and I happily perusing the cocktail menu for some fascinating and imaginative concoctions.

Later, as we walked inside, we were immediately gathered up by a smiling waiter and ushered to our table. As usual, Chef Colin has staffed his restaurant with professional, efficient and courteous waiters, who achieved the perfect balance of being on the spot whenever needed, but never invading our space with over-zealous enquiries. And all our meals showed up at the same time, which many will know is a rare occurrence in the Philippines.

The food was, as always with Chef Colin’s cooking, top notch. I have dined there more than once and have yet to be disappointed by my choices.

Yet I will have a little grizzle. Manila blogger Anton Diaz suggests that Blackbird is a themed restaurant. Well, I am BB7pleased to say that, apart from a couple of subtle inferences to its origins as an airport – apparently Blackbird is the name of an innovative reconnaissance plane, and there is a private upstairs dining room called the Cockpit – Chef Mckay has tastefully refrained from turning his new venture into a theme park. On the other hand, the menu has no theme at all. While I have loved every dish I have eaten here, the menu itself goes beyond eclectic to confused. Is it Italian or International, Fine Dining or Family? It seems to be trying too hard to be all things to all men and falls short of being anything definable at all. Perhaps that is the point, but I found it distracting. Pizza and pasta does no justice to the excellent fine dining dishes, while the attempt to include the kids detracts from the beautifully sophisticated and very grown up setting.

Nonetheless, the food is worthy of attention. Never one to resist a Carpaccio option, I was more than happy with the mix of tart lemon, savoury beef and artichoke, peppery rucola and bitter radicchio. My husband chose a strangely earthy combination of lentils, goat’s cheese and pickled beetroot, topped with a dash of pomegranate molasses, while our guest went for a tangy orange and grilled chicken salad with fennel, pistachio and honey, yet another dish that sympathetically blended contrasting flavours: sweet, savoury and bitter.

The gentlemen then agreed on a preference for the fish pie, an English nursery dish of mashed potato atop a bowl of salmon, smoked trout, prawns and leek. Our judges decided it was good, but a little banal. Despite the mix of strongly flavoured fish, it had been too heavily doused in mash.  I, on the other hand, preferred something with more buzz, and opted for a lamb rendang. Served in a deep bowl, it was of only medium heat, the slow cooked meat succulent and sumptuously spicy. And it was served with a novel aside: a soft boiled Scotch egg.

BB3Determined – unusually for me – to avail of dessert, we took our time to order. Eventually our guest continued on his comfort-food way with apple pie, or rather, the more elegant version: apple nougatine tart served with burnt butter ice cream. My One & Only can never resist cheese cake, and Chef McKay has created an irresistible tribute: a baked cheesecake with macadamia praline, banana brûlée and dulce de leche, a Filipino specialty (via South America) like a soft fudge sauce. I discovered my perfect ‘halo halo’ sundae of vanilla seed and passionfruit ice creams, petite almond meringues, fresh mango slices and cream, and was blissfully and silently absorbed for some time.

Did I forget to mention the wine? How remiss, when it was such a divine offering from South Australia’s McLaren Vale. We chose a rich and exuberant Geoff Merrill Shiraz that was probably a better accompaniment to my flavourful curry than fish pie, but it was enjoyed by us all nonetheless.

After all this sheer over-indulgence we quietly returned to the garden for post-dinner drinks and coffee, and a mellower atmosphere to wind up the evening.

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An Inn of Distinction

victoria-gastropubThe Victoria is a glorious little boutique hotel tucked away down the narrow suburban streets of West Temple Sheen, just the other side of Richmond Park in London. Obediently, we followed our GPS off the motorway and onto the not-so-beaten-track. I was beginning to think we must have typed in the wrong address, when sure enough, after rounding a tight bend, squeezing between parked cars like Harry Potter’s night bus, and reversing out of the way of a large, on-coming van, we finally spotted this jewel hiding down a leafy lane.

Having just flown in from the Philippines on a direct, fifteen hour flight, we arrived with relief, bleary-eyed and feeling a little claggy, to an enthusiastic welcome from both the reception staff and old friends who were meeting us for dinner.

And what a dinner it proved to be! I had discovered this red brick Victorian inn at the last minute on booking.com, and it fitted the bill for price and convenience. It was only later I realized that The Victoria is a top-notch gastro pub, owned and managed by restaurateur Greg Bellamy and British media chef Paul Merrett, who has been adorned with a Michelin star twice for his fine efforts in the kitchen. Together, these creative gentlemen have earned their restaurant an illustrious reputation in the Hardens London Restaurant Guide 2013, where it was voted second best modern British restaurant under £50. And we were unexpectedly delighted to find such excellent food at such a reasonable price.

The Victoria was built sometime around 1845 and registered as a public house a decade later. At that time the neighbourhood apparently consisted of three large estates, and the pub was mostly frequented by the butlers, footmen and coachmen from those landed houses.

Today, the Victoria has been almost submerged in suburbia, the ‘local’ half way down the street. There is a cosy bar filled with an eclectic collection of sofas and armchairs and rustic tables, a pretty shady courtyard and a large conservatory dining room, as well as seven bedrooms tucked quietly away behind the bar and kitchens.

The current owners discovered the pub in 2007, and restored the bar area to its original glory. It is delightfully16-The-Victoria-Garden traditional with snug nooks and crannies, and a warm and friendly staff. And for a relaxed family meal, we gathered in the comfortable conservatory dappled in green by the leafy, overhanging trees outside.

Then we shrugged off jetlag, and settled down to catch up on years of news with the aid of a bottle of wine and a delicious dinner. Unfortunately we had missed out on the special Sunday slow roasted belly of Dingley Dell pork, Bramley apple sauce, but I have read rave reviews about it, so I will need to go back. I was more than happy with my chargrilled lemon and thyme chicken, however, served with heirloom tomatoes (real tomatoes with real flavour) and buffalo mozzarella which was served on a wooden chopping board. It’s been done before, but somehow it didn’t seem self-consciously trendy, just rustic and homely.

A child’s serve of fish and chips for our young twelve year old was a great success, and our wine was so good we forgot to stop at one glass each. My teenager loved his rib eye steak and his first experience of ‘thrice-cooked chips.

The buffet breakfast next morning in the conservatory was beautifully laid out and really tasty. I do like the notion of cutting your own bread from a hearty, freshly baked loaf, and the fruit, ripe and juicy, the designer yogurts, meats, cheeses and fresh pastries were delicious. (A cooked breakfast was an optional extra, if you fancied a ‘very full English breakfast’.)  I particularly liked the freedom to carry my coffee, hot and strong, out into the garden, to sit beneath the trees in the morning sun.

A few things to bear in mind. It was lucky we had a car, as the hotel is quite a walk from public transport, especially when lugging a suitcase. We got a special deal on Sunday night accommodation, but we felt the rest of the week was considerably more expensive. Many reviews say how quiet it is, and the hotel itself has a very calming atmosphere, however, on a hot summer night, with the window open, the Heathrow air traffic can be surprisingly invasive. And why do English hotels all have heavy duvets on the beds even in the middle of summer? Otherwise the room was clean and comfortable, and we were sad to leave so soon. I hope we’ll be back.

*With thanks to Google images for the photographs.

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Ducks are A-Dabbling

A Thames Valley Journal: Part 3

“In it’s unbroken loveliness this is, perhaps, the sweetest stretch of all the river…” ~ Jerome K. Jerome

Day 6: Marlow to Maidenhead

2014_08_31_2784 (3)Before we left the Vicarage, we popped into the Church-next-door, All Saints at Bisham, thinking we might swell our lungs with some hymn singing. Sadly, the service had been postponed, but we chatted to the Lady Vicar and some members of her congregation eager to share the history of this ancient church. We found many splendid and well-garnished tombs dedicated to various local lords and ladies from the Hoby and Vansittart families, but the one we loved best was a memorial plaque to young Eliza who had ‘most unfortunately drowned’ during a riverbank picnic in 1810. This young lady of ‘virtuous and amiable disposition’ and ‘graced with every refinement of feminine attraction,’ sank before the eyes of her friends ‘in the midst of gaiety and mirth’. It continues at some length about hearts being ‘rent with anguish,’ at that ‘awful calamity, ‘ and is a splendid epitaph for a girl who chose to ‘exchange this uncertain life for a glorious state of immortality.’

On that uplifting note, we bade farewell to our kind hosts and headed on down the river. We had divided the final lap in two, as blisters were beginning to burst forth ostentatiously upon our heels and toes, making the thought of an extra long day’s hike decidedly daunting. Instead, we quickly inserted a last-minute layover in Maidenhead.

Feeling less anguished and lighter of heart, we trotted back to Marlowe to rejoin the Thames Path at the cemetery. For about half an hour private houses with ostentatiously exclusive front gates kept the river at bay, but eventually we were passing vast playing fields on the left, and the Thames had reappeared on the right. It was Sunday morning, and the river was churning with keen young rowers, their coaches and their parents shrieking encouragement from the banks.

We arrived at Bourne End, hot and thirsty, but sadly the Upper Thames Sailing Club was not offering refreshments
to plebeian passers-by, although they kindly allowed us to cut across the club lawn. Beyond the sailing club and theIMG_1486 (2) marina, we ducked down a narrow lane that cut between ample, handsome homes and their riverside gardens, with motor boats and canal boats snoozing against the bank. Crossing the railway bridge, where there is a special pedestrian footbridge adjoining the train part, we found a plaque for a bloke with a splendid record for counting the rivets. We then strolled back upriver to ‘The Bounty,’ a café we had seen from the marina. A sign above the door announced that this was “The People’s Republic of Cockmarsh, where the laws of common sense apply,” which amused us, along with a second sign announcing that it is twinned with Chernobyl. We rehydrated and headed on…

…through marshland and common grazing land that has existed since 1272. Wandering into our third church yard for the day, we followed the path that wound through gravestones bent with age, their memories blurred by centuries of rainy weather, or disguised behind long grass. Past the church, along the lane of obligatory yew trees. There are many theories on the ubiquitous presence of yews in British churchyards. I have been offered several suggestions: the evergreen yew was a symbol of eternal life; the poisonous foliage discouraged animals from wandering through the burial grounds; Ancient Greeks & Romans used yew branches to mark a house in mourning; it wards off the winter winds as parishioners enter the church…

… and out through the lych-gate into Cobham town centre. Now which of four pubs will have us for lunch? We ended IMG_1488up in the garden of The Old Lion, gratefully kicking off our boots, sipping on cider and pumpkin soup and nibbling on sandwiches on a sunny, Sunday afternoon….

…then, refreshed and revitalized, we set off on  the last leg to Maidenhead, and wandered along a shady riverside path, past warning signs about fierce dogs that would chase us off the premises were we to inadvertently decide to clamber over the wrought iron fence onto private property. Canal boats drifted amiably by, charming us with dreams of Ratty’s life on the river where ‘there is nothing, absolutely nothing half so much worth doing simply messing about in boats.’

Eventually fields and woodland gave way to grandiose houses trimmed with topiary and flower beds, whispering of a faded past of elegant garden parties, broad brimmed hats and fine bone china. The Sunday walkers gathered force as we got closer to town, until we were suddenly thrust out into bustle and busy-ness, and our leave-strewn and peaceful woodland was replaced with tarred roads and the growl of traffic.

JKJ states that Maidenhead is ‘too snobby to be pleasant…the haunt of the river swell and his overdressed female companion.’ A swanky restaurant beside Boulter’s Lock would suggest the same is true 125 years later. We certainly felt under-dressed to join the diners on the terrace for a beer, but this also meant the aesthetic delight of well-dressed diners in suits and high heels, glorious, colourful hanging baskets and pretty river boats. And if you happen to be walking the path in high heels and a short skirt (or long trousers and a tie), pop in. The Riverside Brasserie rates a mention in both the Michelin Guide and the Good Food Guide. We cheekily used the facilities, recognized our inappropriate attire, and wandered on…

… and at last crossed the bridge to our B&B, where we received a lovely welcome from our hosts. This particular B&B was the most business-like accommodation we had seen on our travels, and the clash of patterns and colours on carpet and wallpaper, curtain and quilt was truly a sight to behold. But despite a certain lack of homeliness, my feet were grateful to go no further today – or at least only as far as dinner.

Day 7: Maidenhead to Windsor through Rain

The next morning we took a short stroll through a light shower of rain into Windsor, where we were celebrating with
the swans at the bridge – I have never seen such a swarm of swans – by lunchtime. We had booked a night at The2014_09_02_2808 Christopher on Eton High Street, where once I had sat, surrounded by Eton mums delivering their sons to school. It is a charming hotel, a former coaching inn, dating back to 1711, and situated half way down the High Street.

Eton is a quiet little town, especially this week before school goes back. Windsor, on the other hand, was heaving with tourists, who crowded the pavements, and formed lengthy queues to see the castle.  We walked a scant two hundred metres of the Royal mile, then duck back into town, past allotments and houses muffled in shrubbery and trees…

And it’s time to soak my blistered feet in a hot bath and lather up my aching muscles with Deep Heat. I was definitely out of practise for long-distance walking, but it was worth every step, for the joy of those glorious English villages, the delicious pub meals and the delights of dreaming along the riverbank. We may explore this romantic path further into London in a day or two, but in the meantime, as I relax over a chilled Rosé at the Waterman’s Arms with an eclectic collection of locals and their canine companions, I leave the final words to Kenneth Graham:

“The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.”

*Thank you to my One & Only for yet again generously sharing his photos with me for all three parts of this story.

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Ducks are A-Dabbling

A Thames Valley Journal: Part 2

“Here today, up and off to somewhere else tomorrow…”  ~ Kenneth Graham

Day 4: Pangbourne via Bus and Sonning to Shiplake

2014_08_29_2723Day four of our walking adventure found us wandering through peaceful water meadows, talking to the ducks and laughing at the dogs, over-excited and exhuberant about their early morning freedom. In Purley, we clambered aboard a double-decker bus to ride to the far side of Reading, having decided that the stretch of Thames path along the railway line did not look overly inviting. Once out of Reading, however, we loped happily through riverside parks and woodland and past the amusingly named ‘Reading Blue Coat School’. This 17th century school was originally located near the Church of St. Mary’s Minster in Reading, where it ‘provided education and bringing upp of twenty poore male children’ whose original uniform was a ‘Blue Coate and Cappe’. The school was relocated to the Park Holme estate on the outskirts of Sonning-on-Thames just after WWII, where its students now pay almost 5000 pounds per term.

Sonning itself is ‘the most fairy-like little nook on the whole river’ according to writer Jerome K. Jerome, who made a close study of the Thames and its towns in his 1889 journal, ‘Three Men and A Boat.’ This impression still stands today and likewise his description of the lovely old pub, The Bull, behind the churchyard – ‘a veritable picture of an old country inn’. Here I indulged in a completely justifiable and totally delicious steak-and-kidney pie with a perfect crust. I just wish it hadn’t made me somewhat soporific to face the last few miles to Shiplake, past banks of wild orchids with their heady scent.

Shiplake is a quiet, tree-lined village three miles upriver from Henley-on-Thames, with a quaint, old-fashioned station that is merely a platform just off the road. Shiplake also possesses a traditional English pub, The Baskerville.  Situated right on the Thames Path, it is also very much the local watering hole, its walls entertainingly decorated with local memorabilia, and the Friday night crowd spilling out into the garden. Although the town is only a few miles from Reading, it felt as if we were lost in the depths of the English countryside.

Thankfully, pub menus have 2014_08_30_2739become much more sophisticated since we walked the Coast to Coast path across Yorkshire and the Lake District over twenty years ago. We no longer had to resort to a Shirley Valentine diet of steak and chips or egg and chips every night, but indulged merrily in a variety of gourmet offerings, tapas style and a very pleasant bottle of wine, before retiring gratefully to a comfortable bed. Also, much to my joy, the staff very kindly organized to have my washing done. (Don’t laugh, our quaint little riverside villages are visually delightful but very few would – or should – spoil the landscape with a laundromat.)

Our most genial of hosts, Kevin, could barely wait to get us in the door, blister-bound and muddy though we were, to tell us that breakfast would be spectacular. The pub had just won another tourism award for its excellent breakfasts, and Hannah and Emma would be on hand in the morning to prove why.  When the time came, we decided to skip the traditional English breakfast. A week of those and we are gaining rather than losing inches. Instead, I opted for perfectly scrambled eggs served with Scotch salmon on a brioche, with lightly fried mushrooms on the side, while the One & Only chose an omelette garnished with every possible filling. All quite delicious, as promised – and calorie free of course – which we washed down with hot coffee and a fresh banana sliced into a bowl of beautifully creamy yoghurt, Greek style. Nectar of the gods.

Day 5: Shiplake to Marlowe via Henley-on-Thames & Hurley

We left Shiplake with clean clothes and full stomachs, and wandered on to an old and favoured haunt, Henley-on-Thames. It was Saturday morning, and the river was churning with keen young rowers, their coaches and their parents shrieking encouragement from the banks. The route into Henley travels down a long wooden bridge, or causeway, past the weir and the Marsh Lock situated in the middle of the river.  A second bridge delivered us into Mill Meadows where we found the path – rather to our annoyance, this was now, indisputably, our path – teeming with tourists, dog-walkers, young families with strollers and elderly couples, ambling along cautiously. There were also multitudes of waterfowl, encouraged by children armed with bags of bread.

I tried not to be judgmental about this avian junk food but sadly, it seems a fun, childhood memory for many of us leads to a lot of problems for the birds and the environment. The bread itself can create malnourished, overweight ducks. It can spread disease to the birds, kill the fish and clog the waterways. Leftovers will attract rats, mice and unwanted insects. And as the birds become accustomed to this abundant charity, they lose their natural foraging instincts and they may even become aggressive in order to get more food. So perhaps to keep our wildlife safe and happy, we must throw bread on the compost and not at the birds!

2014_08_30_2747We paused for breath and a cold drink at  the Angel, that much photographed pub beside the elegant 18th century Henley Bridge. Perched at a picnic table by the water’s edge we peered through the arches to the long stretch of river that hosts the Henley Royal Regatta each year. This was also the original location for the renowned rowing race between the Oxford and Cambridge. The tradition began in 1829 as a challenge by a Cambridge student to his childhood friend at Oxford. The race, held annually since 1856, barring the years of the two world wars, will continue as long as the annual loser challenges the winner to a rematch. The course still covers a four mile (7 km) stretch of the Thames, but it moved long ago from Henley to West London, where the two teams row from Putney to Mortlake. As a useless piece of trivia, you might like to know that British actor, Hugh Laurie, was a keen oarsman, and  also achieved a Blue while rowing for Cambridge University in the  1980 Oxford & Cambridge Boat Race – despite the fact that Cambridge lost the race by five feet that year. Laurie has been quoted as saying ” it was a very bitter defeat.”

The Royal Regatta, meanwhile, begins downstream at Temple Island, a miniature, midstream islet on which stands an elegant 18th century folly. On this particular Saturday afternoon it was being decorated for a wedding, and we stood aside to let a stream of walkers and cyclists go by, and to watch proceedings for a little. Unfortunately we were2014_08_30_2754 (2) too early to spot the wedding party who would presumably arrive later by boat.

We eventually dropped into a quaint Edwardian pub called ‘The Flowerpot’ for lunch, one that was obviously immensely popular with weekend walkers. The large garden was full of picnic tables crammed with hungry kids, while the interior was crammed with box-framed fish. Perhaps ‘The Anglers’ would have been a better name. My One & Only christened it ‘The Pub of Death.’ We ate our quiche and salad rather nervously beneath the fierce glares of stuffed fish, foxes, weasels, wild boar and antlered deer. Some modern day wit had even framed a tin of sardines.

The next stretch to Hurley was across the deer park of Culham Court and through numerous kissing gates. Once we go back down on the river, we passed through acres of on-site vans and small summer cottages. We presumed, wrongly as it turned out, that these were holiday homes for the working classes. Then we spied the owners Jaguars, Mercedes and other equally illustrious vehicles lined up along the grass verges. Further down, large family groups were picnicking all along the riverbank, kids shrieking as they braved a dip in the chilly shallows of the Thames. At last we reached Hurley, where we discovered yet another summer wedding being set up in a large medieval tithe barn with its acres of red tiled roof. We stood to chat with the florist who was making up the most beautifully creative flower arrangements in old wire colanders, jam jars and jugs.

Our penultimate night on the Thames Path was an extra-special treat. We left the Thames path at Hurley after peeking into the ancient and charming ‘Olde Bell’ (reputedly 12th century), with its low, beamed ceilings and crooked stairs. A public footpath slipped down the side of the pub and its extensive garden to greet a field of chatty alpacas, 2014_08_30_2775and on into Temple, past a row of charming little cottages that all contained ‘Temple’ on their name plaques. Our road then wound on through banks of blackberry bushes and stubbly fields, and past the once stately Bisham Abbey that is now a Sports complex.

The village of Bisham stretches along the Thames on the opposite side of the river from Marlow, and here we stayed in the lap of luxury at The Old Vicarage, a large Victorian house whose lawns run down to the river, and whose neighbour is, unsurprisingly, the Bisham parish church. I felt I was rather letting the side down in my hiking boots and trousers, as I tiptoed into the daintily creamy, dreamy sitting room, but our hostess was forgiving, and presented a substantial afternoon tea with homemade fruit cake despite my lack of sophistication.

To complete the day’s march we walked the extra mile into Marlow for dinner, across the stunning suspension bridge, ‘The Compleat Angler’ pub standing guard at one end, the pinnacled spire of All Saints Anglican Church proudly welcoming us into Marlow on the other side.

‘The River itself is at its best here’ says JKJ and he is right. I also agree with him that while Marlow may not be one of the most picturesque towns on the river, it is nonetheless attractively, cheerfully bustling, with many ‘quaint nooks.’ It is also full of pubs. After circumnavigating the town, we chose one for our end-of-the-day-pint, and then filled our grumbling stomachs at Zizzi’s, our family’s favourite Italian restaurant chain, which we have loved for well over a decade. Their mozzarella is like the nectar of the gods. Despite weary feet, I drifted blissfully home to bed…

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Ducks are a-Dabbling

A Thames Valley Journal: Part 1

`DUCKS’ DITTY’ 
All along the backwater, wind in the willows.1
Through the rushes tall, 
Ducks are a-dabbling, 
Up tails all!

Ducks’ tails, drakes’ tails, 
Yellow feet a-quiver, 
Yellow bills all out of sight 
Busy in the river!       

~ Kenneth Graham, Wind in the Willows

Hedgerows, brimful of nettles and hawthorn and blackberries and cow parsley. A lazy river laden with canal boats and motor boats and barges and kayaks. Riverbanks hemmed with rushes, and overflowing with geese and cormorants and terns and ducks a-dabbling. Arching bridges and deep locks and flint-studded churches and tiled farmhouses appear like magic around every bend. Baskets of brightly coloured petunias hang from the eaves of ancient pubs. Skipping through water meadows wreathed in the scent of wild orchids and dotted with buttercups. Trudging muddy paths through gentle, mizzling rain…

Last week we went on an adventure in Kenneth Graham country. If you haven’t read Wind in the Willows, I am talking about the Thames Path, which runs west to east from its source at Cricklade in the Cotswolds, through the Thames Valley, on into London and out to the North Sea. We only had a week, so we mapped out about a hundred kilometres from Oxford to Windsor, and will save the rest for later.

It’s a long time since we last did a long walk like this, and I was soon feeling my age (about a hundred and three), due more to the unexpected weight of my pack than the actual walking, which was relatively smooth going. However, we made it a little easier on our elderly selves by adopting the luxury of a Bed & Breakfast every night. This way, we could look forward to a hot shower, a pub meal, a decent sleep, and a big breakfast to give us the ‘oomph’ we needed to get moving again in the morning.

When you are hiking, breakfast rapidly becomes the most important meal of the day, one we would discuss with all the attention of connoisseurs. Suddenly a quick coffee and a bowl of cornflakes was not enough to keep us going till lunchtime, and we became dedicated to the Full English Breakfast.

I have to admit, it’s not usually on my list of food cravings. I am not an enthusiast of eggs or fried food for breakfast; such generosity of calories generally gives me a stomach ache. When you are about to walk 7 ½  miles (12kms) before lunch, however,  there is nothing worse than blood sugar levels dropping too low for you to see straight, as you stagger the last 3 miles to the next food supply. So for once in my life I was prepared. Mostly. My One & Only was already carrying half the contents of my backpack, he did not need the threat of having to carry me as well.

Day 1: Oxford to Sutton Courtenay via Sandford Lock and Abingdon

We began our walk at the Osney Bridge, on the northern skirts of Oxford, passing a lock, a row of Victorian terraced houses and two 2014_08_29_2727 (2)pubs in the first two hundred meters. The sky was dripping like a rusty tap as we finally left the canal behind and reached the main river and the Folly Bridge, where we stood to admire the view of the famous Christ Church gate-tower, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and encasing its equally renowned bell, Great Tom. It is pretty much all we saw of Oxford as we wandered off along the river path opposite Christ Church Meadow, and past the numerous college rowing sheds and clubhouses.

The steady drizzle that had accompanied us all morning finally receded, and the sun emerged, as we paused at the very pretty Iffley Lock to watch a couple of canal boats passing through, the owners chatting happily with us as the water rose in the lock and the boats floated out and onwards to Oxford.

For those of you unfamiliar with locks, this system, devised during the industrial revolution, allows boats to pass up and down river between stretches of water on different levels. After the boat has entered the high-walled, water-tight chamber between two sets of lock gates, the lock keeper will shut the gates and turn the windlass or lock key. This will open the valve to either fill or empty the chamber of water depending in which direction the boat is heading. When the water level equals the external water level, the gates will open and the boat will pass out of the chamber and back onto the canal or river. In the UK there are a number of lock ‘flights:’ stairways of locks that actually allow a boat to climb a hill.

IMG_1415In the past, a lock keeper and his assistant had a full time job maintaining the lock and its surroundings, and would inherit a small house to accompany the job. Today these cottages – many over 200 years old – are still beautifully maintained by the lock keeper, but the assistants are mostly volunteers now, usually retirees with an afternoon or two a week to spare. They are often more than happy to pass the time of day with walkers.

Recently the future of lock keepers’ cottages was at stake, as it was suggested that up to a third should be sold off or rented out to reduce costs. The idea was scrapped after lock keepers and riverboat captains raised concerns about river safety.

In Sandford-on-Thames we found another pretty lock cottage, beside an old watermill transformed into housing, and a low-ceilinged pub on the edge of the millstream, where we indulged in pints of lime-and-soda and large baked potatoes heaped with salad and Coronation chicken, peeking through the floor-level mullioned windows, eye to eye with a pair of swans gossiping on the millstream.

The afternoon delivered a steady drizzle as we dodged and weaved (wove?) along a narrow, muddy channel moonlighting as the Thames Path. The backs of our legs were splashed with mud, but our raincoats proved their worth, and we were mostly oblivious to the sodden sky, simply enjoying the abundance of wildflowers, ducks and geese along the riverbank, kestrels swooping and wheeling about the stubbly fields.

The sky was gun-metal-grey in Abingdon, but we enjoyed the stretch
of broad, firm towpath under the Abingdon Bridge-of-many-arches, past St Helen’s Church and the 15th century alms-houses across the water. A string of canal boats were lined up, bumper-to-bumper on the riverbank, jealously guarding their prime views of this glorious medieval town.

Our path then disappeared back into the fields, the river hidden by tall hedges, and it was not until we had detoured around the back of Culham and across the bridge, that we spied it again. A nasty accident on the narrow stone bridge delayed us, as we lent our mobile phones to those involved, but eventually we arrived, decidedly footsore, inIMG_1423 Sutton Courtney. Here, we stayed at a sweet little B&B on All Saints Lane, which, not surprisingly, we found behind the cemetery. Here lies the tomb of Herbert Henry Asquith, Prime Minster of England during the First World War. George Orwell is also buried here, though you will look fruitlessly for his grave, until you learn that his real name is Eric Arthur Blair. We dined at the first of many ‘Swan’ pubs we would discover along the Thames, and next morning we ate breakfast in Susan’s sunny kitchen overlooking a pretty walled courtyard, afterwards sharing the leftovers with her elderly, deaf-as-a-doorpost Highland terrier.

Day 2: Sutton Courtenay to Moulesford via Wallingford and a Taxi

Our second day was much brighter and sunnier, as we trekked through a variety of attractive Thames villages to Wallingford, a lovely old medieval market town at the foot of the Chilterns.

We paused for a coffee at The Barley Mow at Clifton Hambden, which is, according to writer Jerome K. Jerome (more of him later) ‘the quaintest, most old world inn up the river….its low-pitched gables and thatched roof and latticed windows giving it quite a story-book appearance.’ Indubitably.

The path pottered on and eventually introduced us to the tiny hamlet of Little Wittenham and St Peter’s, the parish church with its 14th century bell tower. Here we sat peacefully on a bench beneath the lime trees, looking out at the Iron Age fort on Castle Hill, and chatting with a lovely couple who had just traded in a sedentary retirement for life on a barge with a dog. We would discuss this alluring fantasy at length as we continued walking.

After skirting Dorchester-on-Thames, the path suddenly swung us up onto a busy, noisy main road, and we grumbled nearly as loudly as the trucks, as we dodged empty drink cans that had been bounced off the hedge by passing motorists. Ducking back across the main road, past a dark, rather dingy little pub, we found the path again, pottering down Wharf Road past Wisteria Cottage and others of similar floral ilk, before squeezing its way between garden fences and out onto the driveway of the stately Shillingford Court. We crossed the bridge at the end of the lane, by now on a single-minded mission for lunch. The unimaginatively named Shillingford Bridge Hotel made up in welcomes for what it lacked in character – at least from reception staff. And we were more than happy with our baked potatoes, which set us up for the last five miles into Wallingford.

Arriving in Wallingford in the late afternoon, we crossed the broad stone bridge, bedecked in huge baskets of pink and purple petunias.  Narrow, cobbled streets and alleyways eventually wended their way out into a wide market square bordered with shops and an impressive, 17th century arcaded Town Hall, where we gratefully stopped for coffee. Once seated, we rapidly decided the last three miles were beyond our weary feet and aching shoulders. As I went searching for information about local buses, I found, instead, a string of taxis lining up around the square… OK, a little lame, but as our driver careered through the hedge-rowed lanes, chewing up the miles we might have been walking, we sat smugly in the back, smirking at the rain.

2014_08_28_2707 (2)Our destination, The Beetle & Wedge, was a boathouse restaurant and
old ferry house accommodation tucked in beside the river at Moulsford. It is a stunning setting, and we were given a luxurious bedroom complete with deep, claw-footed bath perfect for sheer indulgent soaking, before dining magnificently with friends we hadn’t seen in about eight years.

All the more disappointing then, that our riverside breakfast was utterly mediocre. A platter of berries and melon looked really colourful and inviting, but every piece of fruit was sour. Our full English breakfast was a travesty of barely-red tomatoes, raw fried potatoes and cold toast. The poached eggs had been hard-boiled in brown malt vinegar because they had run out of the white wine variety – a totally unappetizing look. I sent it back with a request to leave out the vinegar and the plate returned with undercooked malted eggs. I gave up. The tea, at least, was hot. Still stomping crossly, but armed with a pint-sized copy of ‘Three Men in A Boat’, our ears ringing with apologies for breakfast, we set off.

Day 3: Moulesford to Pangbourne via Goring & Streatley

Our morning was a gentle meander through water meadows and into the Goring Gap, a geological feature where the river cut a narrow cleft between the chalky Chiltern Hills and the Berkshire Downs in the last ice age.

We paused for morning tea and browse through a divine little art gallery on the High Street of the twinned villages of2014_08_28_2715 (2) Goring and Streatley. I wandered down memory lane with glee, having worked here, briefly, way back in the eighties. Clutching hands across the river, over a weir and a lock, both villages boast a collection of lovely pubs, thatched cottages and old churches. That day the river was teeming with boats queuing for the lock, and we joined the locals at Pierrepont’s delightful little café with its delicious selection of homemade cakes, scones and cookies, its walls papered in menus from well-known English restaurants.  I was loathe to pick up my backpack and move on.

However, the path, ducking beneath shady trees, past the 12th century church, a large old house that once – maybe still? – belonged to George Michael from Wham, several country estates and under the vast iron railway bridge (one of Brunel’s apparently), was a joy. Fishermen were lying fishing lines from niches between blackberry bushes. Boats drifted by. Buttercups tossed their heads at the sun. We took advantage of several kissing gates – or did they take advantage of us? – to catch a few kisses, before clambering up through beech woods to a long ridge above the river, where the beech nuts crunched satisfactorily beneath our feet.

Eventually the path dipped down to a road that swung steeply down into Whitchurch, past a seemingly endless array of heavenly old stone houses and cottages, pulling up beside a truly old-fashioned pub full of solitary old men quietly sipping a pint of the best bitter and talking about sport. A ham and cheese sandwich sent us on over the ‘weak bridge’ into Pangbourne, where our little loft room was Polly Pocket-sized with a deeply sloping roof, but kitted out IKEA-style, with everything we needed. The next morning there was no full breakfast, just a self-serve tea and coffee, juice and a variety pack of Prince Charles’ own muesli beneath the steep eaves. I was rather off eggs after that morning’s experience at the Hedgehog & Hammer (o sorry, the Beetle & Wedge), so I was perfectly happy with such regal simplicity. Pangbourne has a history that goes back to the 9th century. More recently, it was the retirement home of Kenneth Grahame, author of ‘The Wind in the Willows’ who died here in 1932. Illustrator E.H. Shepherd was reputedly inspired by the local landscape to draw his now famous pictures for the book. And there was another ‘Swan’ pub on the river for dinner…

*In recognition of E.H. Shepherd’s beautiful illustrations and my One & Only’s beautiful photography.

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It’s Not Easy Being Green

echomarket-b“It’s not easy being green.
It seems you blend in with so many other ordinary things.
And people tend to pass you over ’cause you’re not standing out
Like flashy sparkles in the water, or stars in the sky.”

So sang Kermit the Frog, but Chit Juan of EchoStore seems to find it as easy as breathing to be both green and to stand out in a crowd.

To anyone who has discovered ECHOStore in Serendra, I am probably preaching to the converted, but the story behind ECHOstore is inspiring. ECHOstore Sustainable Lifestyle is the first concept store of its kind in the Philippines. ECHO is the acronym for Environment – Community – Hope – Organization. And store owners Pacita Juan, Jeannie Javelosa and Reena Francisco, have recently opened another store in Salcedo, to join those in Serendra, Quezon City, Mandaluyong, and Baguio.

ECHOstore consists of a café and a mini market selling organic produce and healthy snacks, as well as a gift store filled with environmentally friendly products that are sourced from small rural communities all over the Philippines. And ‘people are looking for the products we are selling,’ says Chit Juan, when I spoke with her recently.

While this is a profit-making company, ECHOstore also claims to have the “heart to see the social issues and the gaps that need to be filled.”  Thus the directors identify marginalized and often physically isolated small business people and connect them with customers, helping to build sustainability for those businesses and a pride in Philippine products.

This entrepreneurial attitude extends to many of the producers, who have been inspired to develop new initiatives. One tomato farmer, for example, was encouraged to invest in a solar drier to save excess tomatoes from rotting, and she now provides ECHOstore with a regular supply of sundried tomatoes.

Chit Juan believes that small producers are shaping the future with the aid of entrepreneurs like her. ‘It is not a trend, but a growing consciousness,’ she affirms. ‘People are getting behind the cause, and word of mouth is very strong in the Philippines’.

Since 2008, these three inspirational women have been promoting not only their producers, but the benefits of living a sustainable lifestyle based on conscious and caring consumerism, healthy, seasonal and local eating, social entrepreneurship and planet stewardship. And they have given talks on these issues at more than 100 corporations, universities and NGOs nationwide.

The store in Salcedo is part of a new business development to encourage licensees to help expand the business. Chit tells me firmly that interested licensees may not join the business purely for financial gain, they must also live the lifestyle. Sitting in her little upstairs cubbyhole, I listen while she expounds on past, present and hopefully future successes, while we sip on freshly squeezed juice. Ginger Boost is an invigorating blend of ginger, apple, cucumber, carrots, orange, tomato and celery. Just be sure and ask for extra ginger!

While only pocket sized compared to the store and café in Serendra, the Salcedo store squeezes in a remarkable number of products from snacks and coffee to ready-made meals, from body scrubs to Messy Bessy’s range of environmentally friendly cleaning products.

At the ECHODeli you can sit down to a healthy and wonderfully tasty Pinoy breakfast with longganisa or perhaps homemade tapa, an omelette or poached eggs with spinach. A range of delicious burgers and sandwiches are available for lunch, and I can highly recommend the mushroom burger –  whether or not you are vegetarian – and there are always the delicious fresh shakes and juices if you are simply passing through.

Also, there is an ever-expanding selection of locally grown, fresh produce such as greens, eggs and a variety of excellent cheeses, providing an everyday organic market so that you don’t have to wait all week for Salcedo’s Saturday market!

Visit the website to read in more detail about the work of these enthusiastic, unstoppable entrepreneurs: http://www.echostore.ph/

*Adapted from an article written for the ANZA News, August 2014.

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Vask: Theatrical Fine Dining

VaskOn a half-constructed street in the north-west corner of Bonifacio Global City, above a carpark filled with designer cars, perches Vask. Usually providing a delicious array of modern Tapas and degustation dining, this week the chefs at Vask have taken a turn at creating a special menu – and a special performance – to showcase Filipino cuisine.

Kulinarya was inspired by the travels of Chef Juan Luis Gonzalez and Chef Julieta Caruso, who spent a month wandering through the Philippines ‘to source and experiment with everyday local flavours… and native produce.’

The results were truly inspirational. A degustation menu filled with magic and mystery: how to foil the diner into believing his tuna is a slice of veal; making a dumpling filled with egg yolk and floating it in duck broth to create the flavour of balut without the traditional challenge of being eye-balled by a tiny duckling.

As we watched from the front of the stalls, these wizard-like Chefs spun their magic spells in the open-plan kitchen to produce the essence of Filipino cuisine and its flavours in an entirely new format. The results took our expectations of Filipino food to new heights.

“Everything in the hotels is imported,” Gonzalez tells us. “Filipinos don’t value their own products.”

Obviously, these chefs do. The menu was lengthy, and the Spanish wine was excellent, but I still remember every glorious mouthful. There were thirteen courses, and I cannot keep you here all day, so I will describe only a small selection, a soupçon.

So let’s skip the rather lackluster shrimp balls and move on to the sea urchin. I have to be honest, I Sea Urchincringed as a dollop of sea urchin, the colour of baby poo, arrived in the concave centre of a pale grey plate shaped like a mushroom. Happily, though, it tasted much better than it looked. As the waiter poured kinilaw (a local vinaigrette) over the top, I anxiously lifted my spoon… and quickly stopped scrunching my nose. Sea urchin has a very strong flavor of the sea, and a silky texture. Its richness was further enhanced by pork fat,  then balanced by the sharp snap of the vinaigrette poured over at the last moment by our waiter. The combination slid smoothly, effortlessly down my throat. Like chilli, the flavor, instead of receding, expands after each spoonful. I was still tasting it on the top of my tongue minutes later, and loving it.

Next up was a sinigang, that Filipino version of Thai tom yum, and undoubtedly the best sinigang I have ever tasted. The crockery and cutlery being just as much part of the show as the food, the soup was poured over the pulled pork in a dainty cylindrical jug with a narrow spout, while the waiter explained that sinigang is the only Filipino dish unaltered by any foreign influence. The light, sour broth cut, but did not disguise, the richness of the pulled pork. YUM, seconds please!

Crab ChowderMy husband christened the next dish a deconstructed corn chowder: fresh crab meat, a corn-flavoured
custard and cilantro. I had to close my eyes while I was eating this one, to focus on the flavours and textures of such an exquisite offering. As is often the case with any good degustation menu, one mouthful was not nearly enough.

Have you had enough yet? I hope not. We are only half way through! So…

Entitled ‘malunggay’ (my favourite local spinach, thick with vitamins and fabulous as a pesto) this was actually a stew of malunggay, smoked maya maya (the local sunset-coloured snapper) and boiled spring onions that tasted like celeriac with a creamy, lingering smoothness and a tiny explosion ofMaya maya the bulb, all afloat in a light lemongrass broth. May I say “YUM” again?

Steak was the misleading title for the next dish. The subtitle: talinumkangkong – native basil only
described the foliage. It was obviously some kind of trick, as we were asked to guess. Well, if you were reading closely, you will have noticed I gave the game away earlier – but the waiters were keen to keep the secret, and my irritation was palpable before the Chef put me out of my misery. Apparently it was specially designed to taste like red meat when in fact it was tuna. (Other guesses included pigeon, veal and pork.) Whatever it was, it tasted perfectly nice, but I was too cranky to care, and slugged back a substantial Spanish red in retaliation.
sungkaHowever, the wagyu steak totally restored my humour and my sense of well-being. Grilled to perfection, with a dash of crispiness aound the edges that I adore, it was served with a spoonful of tiny chícharos, or Mexican peas that practically popped against the roof of your mouth, and local mustasa or mustard greens.

And that was the end of the savoury courses, to be followed by not one but three desserts. All were amazing, but I will just share my favourite here: an espresso cup of Arabica Kape (coffee), which was a glorified tiramisu in three textures: crunchy, creamy and smooth.

The final act was a play on the game sungka, that Filipino game played with cowrie shells or seeds distributed across a number of shallow bowls or pods cut into a thick wooden platter. But instead of shells or seeds, Chef had filled the pods with an assortment of different amuse bouche – like Filipino Quality Streets without the guide – an amusing finale as the curtain descended.

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