Chocolate House by Nathalie Bonn

IMG_1437In the centre of the oldest part of city sits the picturesque, almost fairy tale palace of the Grand Dukes of Luxembourg. A stern, armed guard stands in the sentry box, upright and expressionless, occasionally stamping his feet loudly – to retrieve his circulation? – and taking a short, stomping walk down the street, below the two stone angels that guard the skies from the rooftop, before returning to his sentry box. I look around for Alice and Christopher Robin…

Opposite the Palace and the guard with his inscrutable gaze, there is a tall white building. The pavement in front of it is covered with closely packed picnic tables, the chairs scattered with red rugs and cushions.  Inside, the shop displays layer upon layer of chocolate in every imaginable shape and form. And there are more in pretty beribboned boxes, not to mention a plethora of beautifully decorated cakes, novelty chocolate gifts, ice cream…

I am in the Chocolate House, one of the oldest aristocratic houses in the city and my new hideaway. It is the place where I go to restore my wounded dignity after French classes and reward my exhausted tongue with a small, joyful, self-indulgent treat.

The menu at the Chocolate House includes some healthy juices, teas galore, a simple lunch of quiche, soup and salad, but not surprisingly, the real draw card – the real reason I have walked across town – is , of course, the hot chocolate. Or more accurately, the ‘hot chocospoon,’ a novel way of serving this time honoured beverage that adds sparkle and decadence.

Imagine an elegant white mug, with pretty frilly edges, embossed butterflies and a curly handle shaped like a butterfly wing. It comes to the table filled with hot milk, accompanied by a pot of whipped cream, a homemade marshmallow and a small packet containing a chunk of chocolate – like a giant chocolate ice cube – fixed onto a wooden spoon, in the flavour of your choice. Dip and twirl, and the chocolate melts into the hot milk in a seductive swirl.

The first time I tried this, I was tempted to suck the melting chocolate off the spoon. For true chocoholics, I am sure this would be both wondrous and quite irresistible. For me, the strong blast of sweetness and flavour was overwhelming, and my taste buds cringed. So I sucked in my cheeks, and waited patiently for the chocolate to evanesce slowly into the milk.

The result is a dream. Not the saccharine sweetness of those chocolate drinks of childhood, but a dreamy, gentle waft of dark chocolate through warm milk, that laps around your mouth and drifts down your throat, as soft and smooth as satin. And of course the Dairy Queen adds whipped cream liberally, and was even pushed to steal a spoonful from her son. Bad mother badge. So worth it.

The first time I came here, I had the One & Only and our younger son in tow. It was a chilly Saturday afternoon and the café was seething, so we squeezed ourselves onto a tiny outdoor table designed for two hobbits, edged as close to the heater as we could get, and wrapped the rugs over our knees. Eventually, between the rugs, the heater and the hot chocolates, we no longer noticed the cold.

Today, I have climbed the staircase to a room with tall windows overlooking the palace and a vaulted ceiling decorated with the coat of arms of the original owner. On the walls are several giant and somewhat garish paintings of Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, possibly Bob Marley and a couple of others I don’t recognize. The space is filled with an eclectic collection of old schoolroom desks and heavy wooden benches. On the tables, red and white teacups have been accessorized with checked ribbon and charms and filled with pots of tiny red flowers. There is an enormous chandelier hanging from the ceiling, and the wooden chairs and benches are softened with white and bright orange cushions. It is all very cosy and inviting.

Now back to the chocolate. I need to tell you about the fabulous flavours. And there are lots. I am on a mission to try them all. The temptation is to wait till I have been through the entire list to write about them, but unfortunately, by then I will be the size of a house with sausage fingers too fat to type, so I must start now.

Chilli Chocolate is something I discovered in the Philippines in solid chocolate form, and it was just perfect on that first, freezing day, oozing a three-dimensional warmth into every corner of my temporarily frostbitten body.

Lavender was an unusual choice, a little like chewing on one of those dry and dusty lavender bags my grandmother tucked in amongst her clothes. That doesn’t sound terribly appetizing, I know, and yet the flavour was beautifully floral and up-lifting. It whispered to me of the purple, lavender fields of Kent, humming with bees, creating a lovely atmosphere of sunny days and soft, scented skin. Somehow nostalgic, soothing, and utterly beguiling.

Honey and Guérande Salt was a twist on the popular salted caramel. There were those bees again. And the salt with the odd name is due to the area in southern Brittany from whence it came. This blend of sweet and salty is something that I thoroughly enjoy. Bliss.

I opted next for Raspberry Almond enveloped in dark chocolate. It tasted like those delicious freeze-dried raspberries dipped in chocolate. Moreish and mmmmmmmm. Too intoxicated to talk…

And finally, before I turn into a chocolate coated heffalump, I choose the dark chocolate infused with pear and cinnamon, a delicate combination reminiscent of the poached pears and chocolate sauce my mother used to make for dinner parties. Scrumdiddlyumptious, Mr. Wonka. I will, without a doubt, be waddling home.

There are many other flavours to choose from, if the ones I chose don’t take your fancy. And they are changed regularly. They are mostly self-explanatory, but I did have to Google some names, and check with the waitress on others. So if you plan to drop by, and you are feeling adventurous, you might want to consider some very Willy-Wonka-like flavours, such as matcha (stone ground green tea powder), apfelstrudel or spekuloos. The last is apparently a traditional Christmas cookie in this neck of the woods, and a popular breakfast spread. Or perhaps the really brave amongst you will dare to try the wasabi. If you do, let me know what you think…

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Un Petit Peu de Paris

IMG_1485Paris is only two hours from Luxembourg on the rocket-fuelled TGV. And as our apartment in Luxembourg is 5 minutes walk to the station, we planned to take the train to Paris last weekend. I just really fancied walking out the door and across the street to the Gare Centrale and two hours later strolling out into Paris for lunch. The ticket prices, however, proved to be prohibitive, unless you are organized (and I’m not) and book six months in advance. So we drove to Paris instead. It took a little longer, but it was fun.

As we drove west, he views across the vast, scalped fields and hills of north-eastern France were largely shrouded under heavy mist, but we spotted several birds of prey – quite likely, the common buzzard – perched on the fence like milestones, watching the traffic with intense concentration, presumably hoping for a ready-made meal.

We were going to Paris with no particular goal other than to catch up with some old friends from Prague days for dinner. A weekend in Paris. Just for the adventure of it. Just because we could. So we did. To drive into Paris was almost magical. Along the Seine and up the Boulevard de la Bastille, around the Place de la Republique – even the names felt like stepping into a story book. I found myself reading every road sign like Rainman.

I had booked a room in a great little hotel in the 9th arrondisement, a stone’s throw from the Palais Garnier – or the Paris Opera – and a short walk from our friend’s apartment. We had discovered we could book a carpark in advance, and our trusty Google maps took us straight there. We emerged from the bowels of the earth to see L’Opera right in front of us, that sumptuous, elaborately decorated Academy of Music like an exotic island in the centre of a sea of traffic.

Tucked down a nearby side street, we found our hotel. and climbed to our attic room. Where we stood, awestruck, IMG_1464and huddling like stuffed pigeons, on the tiny balcony, looking out over the rooftops of Paris, a few stray snowflakes kissing our noses. A glimpse of a golden statue atop the Palais Garnier, another of the gilded domes on Printemps, that 19th century temple to shopping.

We soon discovered that we were within walking distance of the Louvre, the Musee d’Orsay, the Orangerie and the Eiffel Tower. And that is mostly what we did, we walked. We both have the blisters to prove it! Anyway, even in winter the queues to the art galleries were drearily long, toe-numbingly cold, and we, of course, had not had the foresight to book tickets in advance. O yes, I said that already…

Jolly cold as it was, standing still was not an option, so we strolled. Briskly. Through the Tuileries gardens with its handful of scantily clad trees, no lawn, and not a solitary flower bed. Hmph. At least that allowed for uninterrupted views, as we stood by the Obelisk and gazed about at a veritable Who’s Who of Paris: Le Louvre at the foot of Les Jardins Tuileries; the Paris Eye at the other end, glaring down the Champs Elysées, to the Arc de Triomphe; the Eiffel Tower and the Petit Palais; St Marie-Madeline  and the National Assembly building.

L’église Sainte-Marie-Madeleine – or La Madeleine to her friends – was originally built in honour of Napoleon’s ‘Great Army’ intentionally designed in the shape of a Roman temple with its fifty two Corinthian columns. After Napoleon’s downfall, it would be converted into a Roman Catholic church, the site of Chopin’s funeral in 1849.

IMG_1482Across the river, the home of the French National Assembly – Le Palais Bourbon – was originally the country house of Louise-Françoise de Bourbon, daughter of Louis XIV. The palace was nationalised during the French Revolution, and Napoleon had Roman columns added to mirror the Madeline. In fact everywhere we turned that weekend, we found elegant spires, gilded domes, and a multitude of stunning 19th century façades on the elegant Hausmannian buildings that line the streets of Paris.

On the left bank, as promised, we walked past a myriad art galleries interspersed with restaurants and antique furniture stores. These were all decidedly more up-market than they were historically, but we loved the window shopping. And then, unexpectedly, a narrow, cobbled laneway between two elaborate antique shops that led to a tiny roofed courtyard and ‘Treize,’ subtitled ‘Thirteen – a baker’s dozen.’

Uncertain whether we had inadvertently discovered a secret and wildly expensive Parisian restaurant of Michelin proportions, we snuck our noses around the door to be greeted by a rousing welcome from three waitresses. In a flash we found ourselves squeezing into a petit café, crowded with an eclectic collection of tables and chairs, knick-knacks, jars, cakes and customers. Using a shoe horn, one friendly hostess levered us onto a bench at the back, tucked between a crate of champagne and a basket of madeleines. There would be no speedy escape,but we were happy enough to sit there and enjoy the atmosphere: hectic but homely. And eventually we were served our tea and a generous wedge cream filled orange cake topped with the best icing ever, and decorated with an orange sauce that tasted like homemade marmalade. I don’t often eat cake, but this was special: as full of flavour and nostalgia as any madeleine ever nibbled by Monsieur Marcel Proust. And the café itself was a delight as long as you did not need to move anywhere in a hurry.IMG_0045

And then home to the hotel to rest our weary feet for a moment before setting out to meet our friends for dinner. And another gourmet dining experience across town.

‘Le Clown Bar’ is a quaint and historic little spot near Cirque d’Hiver. Again, we were a little lacking in elbow room (a common occurrence in Paris it seems) but we had a comfy nook behind the bar area. This was decorated with hand-painted tiles of those eponymous clowns and topped with an ornate domed glass ceiling. The menu is fascinating: an unusual take on modern French cuisine with a splash of Japanese – a nod to Japanese born chef Sota Atsumi. The menu read so strangely that one friend could make neither head nor tale of the ex
traordinary taste combinations, but in fact Atsumi’s menu is unexpectedly magical, weaving a spell that made me temporarily oblivious to the conversation, even over the hunks of soft, oven-warm bread.

And for once, I made all the good choices, and didn’t find myself gazing regretfully at someone else’s plate. My steak tartare was a generous mountain of minced beef mixed with burrata, pine nuts, pickle and dried tuna heart. I’m not sure I can claim that my taste buds were sophisticated enough to pick out that final ingredient, but the whole was absolutely mouth watering. Enzo’s cured pork belly was nice but a bit bland. More charcuterie than barbecue. I kindly shared my more exciting and flavourful dish. Luckily there was plenty to go around.

With only three main courses to choose from, we managed to bring all of them to the table. A bowl of whole smoked pigeons, reminiscent of a big dish of mussels (ie more mess than meat); sole and Brussel sprouts with miso (delicately tasty) and a duck and foie gras pie that was rich, succulent and absolutely mouth-watering. I wish I could feel guilty about eating foie gras, but I just can’t. And this evening it tasted particularly superb. If it makes you feel any better Monsieur Oie, you died for a good cause and were enormously appreciated for your sacrifice to my stomach. Thank you, with all my heart.

There was dessert, I believe. I may even have stolen a soupçon of orange and honey ice cream, but I was far too replete to go any further. Luckily we had a good long walk home to bed. I think we may even have got momentarily lost. But I am sure it had nothing to do with the Becherovka nightcap…

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A Month in the Country

So we have been four weeks in Luxembourg and already the city is feeling familiar. And we have found a house. Now we just need our furniture to arrive from the Philippines, and we can start feeling properly settled.

IMG_1390My twice-weekly French classes continue to stretch my brain and test my memory to the hilt. It is like peeling back layers of wallpaper – I see glimpses of words and phrases I remember, but struggle to grasp the big picture. I read and remember long forgotten vocabulary, but to speak fluently I need a Brillo pad to scour the rust from my brain. And I am enormously envious of our teacher, who speaks something like ten languages fluently, while I struggle with one.  And she is certainly not the only one with multi-lingual skills in this neighbourhood. It is all a little demoralizing. But I have bought Harry Potter in French – La Chambre des Secrets – and I am learning wonderful new words like l’hululument sonore de la chouette, la cicatrice and scarabee bousiers, though how I will ever weave these into a conversation over dinner is anyone’s guess. I am determined to persist however, and perhaps one day the shop assistants, hearing me stagger through my questions in questionable French, will not pat my head kindly and reassure me that “it’s ok Madame we speak English.” One day, I pray, I will be fluent. In the meantime, everyone has been incredibly friendly and encouraging, albeit ever-so-slightly patronizing!

Nonetheless, this is a perfect place to learn languages. In Luxembourg alone, a city of barely 100,000, I daily come across people who speak every possible combination of French and German, Luxembourgish, Dutch and English, Portuguese and Italian. And geographically Germany, France and Belgium are all a mere half hour drive from our front door, as our youngest was delighted to discover when he visited last weekend.

IMG_1399On Sunday, we drove to Bernkastel-Kues, a twin town on the Moselle River, in the heart of the wine region. Arriving late in the morning, we parked on the western bank, and wandered down to the water’s edge, snow crunching underfoot, to see the frozen river. We could hear the eerie sound of the ice plates creaking and squeaking as they shifted in the current. Later, we would watch a huge, broad-bottomed barge ploughing through the ice like one of those ice-breakers in the Antarctic.

Too chilly to stand still for long, we walked up into the town. Once we had escaped the clutches of the local cemetery and a very dull building site, where we posed, giggling at our exceptional navigation skills, in front of a huge skip that warned us not to climb in, we made our way rapidly back to the river. There we discovered a lovely arched bridge, built across the river in 1874, linking the two towns, Bernkastel and Kues, that officially merged to become a pigeon pair on April 1st, 1905.

Walking across the bridge, we found ourselves on the decidedly more attractive side of town, where the medieval buildings of Bernkastel snuggle up against steep hills that are threaded with almost vertical vineyards. Perched high above the town, on top of the hill, squat the ruins of Castle Landshut, burnt out towards the end of the 17th century and never rebuilt. The dark stone clock tower lours, imposing and self-important, over the parish church of St. Michael, a landmark from almost any vantage point in the town.

IMG_1392Bernkastel is a truly charming little town, with its medieval market square, cobbled lanes and quaint, timber-framed and gabled houses. It seems to have stepped straight out of the pages of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, or from  a Walt Disney cartoon –  ‘Beauty & the Beast’ perhaps? By now, feeling as frozen as the river, and decidedly peckish, we
wended our way through the narrow streets, past the Platz am Bärenbrunnen, with its lovely fountain depicting the town’s eponymous bears. Eventually we came to a bright, cosy little restaurant in the old railway station – die alter moselbahnhof  – where they served up an excellent schnitzel with pepper sauce and crispy chips, and some local pizza-like creations known as flammkuchen , a dish from the sometimes French, sometimes German region of Alsace. Flammkuchen, like pizza, is made from a thin, bread dough base covered with white cheese or crème fraîche, thinly sliced onions and lardons. And of course the men had to finish off with the hand made apple strudel. It was a delightful lunch, after which we felt too soporific and replete to continue sightseeing. Instead, we marched briskly back to the car, through the diminishing afternoon, and home, vowing to explore further in the spring!

Inspired by our Germanic Adventure, on Monday we decided to lunch in France. Unfortunately, not so well prepared, we drove through less salubrious country side, discovering a no-man’s-land of industrial smoke stacks, silos and truck yards in the wasteland that lies along the borders of Luxembourg, France & Belgium. Even the smattering of snow did little to improve the scenery. We tried to pretend the silos looked like castle turrets through the smoky air, but it was hardly convincing.

Longwy, historically, was the industrial centre of Lorraine’s iron mining district. And that’s probably all we need to say on the subject. Being a Monday, everything was closed, and we searched in vain for a welcoming , character-filled French restaurant. Eventually, starving hungry, we tossed up between driving on to Belgium or resorting to a double cheeseburger at Mackers. I won’t dwell on the results. However, we later found a lovely spot for coffee in the town square at Arlon, where we also discovered a rather splendid church, St Martin’s, whose Gothic spire stands out above the small town like a beacon. Followed by a half hour drive home.

Not the most glorious afternoon’s entertainment, but we did, after all, achieve our goal to visit four countries in two days. Mission accomplished!

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Landing in Luxembourg

IMG_8366As we flew over Luxembourg last week, we were thrilled to observe that the countryside had been lightly dusted with snow.  I was reminded, inconsequentially, of that classic Aussie film ‘The Castle’ and Sal’s dab hand with the icing sugar. As we pulled up to the terminal in our tiny prop plane, a few snowflakes skittered, teasing, past the windows, but refused to settle. We dragged on layers – woollen jumpers, coats, hats, gloves that have not seen the light of day in years – and scampered across the icy tarmac to the warm arrivals hall. “Wëllkomm, willkommen and bienvenue!”

What a very different landscape from the hot, humid concrete world of Manila. Here there are no madcap buses or jam-packed jeepneys honking furiously. No barefoot kids are begging on street corners, nor are there touts selling snacks to passing motorists. No forests of high-rise buildings stretch to the clouds like Jack’s beanstalk. There are no street stalls selling balut on the cracked pavements, nor swarms of motorbikes dodging and weaving through the traffic. Brightly colours billboards, huge shopping malls or shanty towns there are none.

When we left Manila in early December, we headed for London, to catch up with friends and family and to celebrate our first cold Christmas in years. It was a strange buffer-state month of long brisk walks and boozy lunches amidst endless administrative emails, as we continued to wrap up one life and reinvent a new one, not to mention the logistics of choreographing a family of five again. So what with all the activity, and a sickly computer, this is actually the first time I have sat down to write anything longer than a shopping list in weeks. The lack of writing tools has made me feel incredibly flustered and discombobulated, as I seem to need to write about my impressions of the world around me to keep my head in order.

So here we are, in Luxembourg at last, and I have already signed up for French classes in an attempt to polish up language skills that have grown rusty and dusty from neglect. (“Mon cerreau est rouillé”). I fear I will need gallons of boot polish and elbow grease to get back to any useful standard. Thankfully the locals seem to speak reasonable English, as well as French, German and their native Luxembourgish, for which I am grateful, although, it does make me feel most inadequate!

Luxembourg, in case you have never been introduced, is a small, neat, mediaeval city, at the southern end of a small,IMG_8362 neat country of the same name. Covering an area of only 999 square miles, it is a pocket-sized land of fairy tales castles, fortresses and deep dark woods, wedged snuggly between the borders of Belgium, France and Germany. Like piggy-in-the-middle, Luxembourg has been frequently invaded, squabbled over and swapped like the properties on the Monopoly board. Its original perimeters have shrunk considerably, too, as its neighbours played snatch and grab at its borders. Over the centuries, Luxembourg has been ruled by all and sundry: Kings of France and the Netherlands, Burgundy, Bohemia and Spain, not to mention the Hapsburgs and three Holy Roman Emperors. It finally gained its independence in 1839, only to be occupied by Germany during both World Wars.

This role as a lowly pawn on the political chessboard of continental Europe obviously wore thin centuries ago, reflected in its motto ‘we want to remain what we are.’ Luxembourg has therefore chosen to take a lead role in modern politics, as a founding member of NATO and the European Economic Community, the United Nations and the EU. Financially, too, it has become a heavyweight, and is now almost the richest country in the world, second only to Qatar. Today, this Lilliputian realm that would fit twenty five times into Tasmania, is the last Grand Duchy in the world, with a constitutional monarchy, currently headed by the Grand Duke Henri, and a democratically elected Prime Minister, Xavier Bittel.

As you can see, I have learned a bit about my new home already, largely thanks to a visit to the Luxembourg City History Museum and a fascinating walking tour of the old town. Despite freezing fingers and toes, our group of five (four nurses and me) cheerfully followed our informative guide through the cobbled streets, soaking up the history of this charming city with its medieval fortifications balanced upon sheer cliffs, its broad,
IMG_8368pedestrianised boulevards reminiscent of Paris, and its generous collection of Baroque and Gothic churches. And the city centre is wrapped about in a thick scarf of parks and woodland that will undoubtedly look even better when the trees are properly dressed. By the end of the tour, damp and cold, I wandered into a cheese shop to thaw out and taste a local Riesling – a worthy restorative! – from the Moselle Valley, the Luxembourg stretch.

So for two weeks I have walked the length and breadth of the city, testing my new winter coat and my stamina for chilly winds. One weekend we discovered an ice rink on Le Place Guillaume II, where we watched small kids learning to skate with the aid of plastic chairs, while their elders  huddled round the braziers and cuddled cups of mulled wine for warmth. By midweek this winter wonderland had been replaced by a twice-weekly produce market, where rugged souls braved the cold for fresh vegetables and French cheeses. We found a hot chocolate shop opposite the Palace, and sat outside with rugs on our knees, sipping luxuriously and somewhat guiltily as we watched the poor guard stomping cold feet back and forth past the tables. The cold temperatures have been challenging, but I love the ability to walk everywhere without dripping with sweat. Yet I find am already missing the Filipino smiles. The locals are perfectly friendly but they don’t smile much – although, to give them the benefit of the doubt, temperatures have been consistently below zero since we arrived, so smiling isn’t easy with frozen cheeks and lips! I have made a point of smiling a lot, but they stare back at me in horror, obviously thinking I am quite crazy. Ah well, perhaps I am!

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First Impressions

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Icy air bites at fingertips and ears
with teeth as sharp as a kitten’s
Talcum-soft snowflakes drift down through the lamplight
to kiss naked branches, car bonnets, tongues
Church spires and clock towers
sketch a fairy tale silhouette on a bleached sky
Audacious stone bridges
leap like gazelles over deep gorges
Skeletal trees  grimly shiver
preoccupied with dreams of spring weddings
A frozen weekend market
clutters the grand designs of a cobbled city square
Stained glass of claret-red, cobalt-blue and shamrock-green,
throbs in the narrow arched windows of Baroque cathedrals.

Soldes” signs march crisply across every shop window
Walking eiderdowns march crisply down broad boulevards
Bundles of feathers squat disconsolately on the frozen pond, craving skates?
Bundles of fabric squat disconsolately on glacial pavements, craving ciggies
Lonely tables cower under windswept awnings, craving the summer crowds
Lone men pace and puff like steam trains on the pavements outside the bars.

And we stroll on, hands deep in our pockets,
regarding this strange new world with awe:
A world where all senses seem muted,
like a silent, black and white movie,
bar the sound of winter boots clipping the cobblestones.

 

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Reviewing ‘Songs on the Wind’

bannerMy first official review for ‘Songs on the Wind,’ was published in ANZA News, November 2016. What a thrill!

‘Songs on the Wind: Essays from a life with no borders, only horizons’ by Alexandra Gregori
Reviewed by Diana Guild

If you are a quilter, which I am, this book would be a sampler quilt. Alexandra Gregori gives us glimpses of her life, and her family through Songs on the Wind. Like a sampler quilt, there is at least one theme, and in Songs, it is most definitely food. Food recurs throughout the book and holds the reader captive not just with the tastes and experiences (balut!!), but provides a consistent underpinning to the stories of Gregori’s life.

Songs is vibrant with colourful descriptions – food, starry skies, rattletrap vehicles – but where Gregori shines is the way in which she weaves descriptions of her family into the book. Her descriptions and perceptions of her husband and children flow so clearly from her heart. Her gift in Songs is that of stitching aspects of each member of her family together. By the end of the book of separate essays we see the compilation, the complete person and get a feel for the family.

Gregori’s writing reflects her generosity of spirit and personal philosophy. Difficult or strange experiences and situations are peppered throughout Songs. Gregori does not brush these aside. Instead she is brilliant at using these situations to give the reader insight into the way she is, the way she views the world, and what is important. If you are a quilter, this would be the fine hand-quilted patterns stitched over the top that subtly shine and provide a ‘wholeness’ or consistency to the quilt.

The patchwork of essays that is Songs gives us a view of Gregori’s whole – her life, her loves, her world. It is an exceptionally delightful read.

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Fig: bursting with flavour


download“A great source of fibre and full of vitamins and minerals, dried and fresh figs have a long and illustrious history. Known for being a healthy and versatile ingredient they can add a burst of sweetness to all kinds of dishes…”      ~ ‘The health benefits of figs’ by Jo Lewin.

I sit at the window and watch the dense river of red brake lights along EDSA and on the overpass to the Fort. Its Friday night. What to do? Where to go? Living in Manila, where traffic is invariably challenging, and often beggars belief on a Friday night, finding a good restaurant close to home is a real bonus. To actually be able to walk there wins a vote in my book every time. Add a fabulous frozen margarita or two and a plate of spicy kebabs and it’s Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds!

Fig, just a skip and a jump past the Howzat! Sports Bar, opened two years ago. Like Stuart Little’s house, it is squeezed between the Steps Dance Studio and the SJG building in a narrow two-storey building with a French style canopy over the entrance. The door swings open and you walk in, escaping instantly from the cloying humidity and the madness of motorbikes and tricycles on Kalayaan. The atmosphere is cool and cosy, the welcome friendly and warm.

“Figs are native to the Middle East and Mediterranean and were held in such high regard by the Greeks that laws were once created to prevent their export. ” ~ Jo Lewin

fig-10On ground level you will find seating for about twenty and a well-stocked bar that includes Aperol, a whole row of Angostura bitters in a variety of flavours, and a green bottle of Becherovka, that notoriously harsh, rocket fuel spirit from the Czech Republic, which makes me nostalgic for our years in Prague. At the rear is an open kitchen, and, happily, the tables have been allowed a little breathing space. A broad wooden staircase climbs to the next level, and it is only after multiple Margaritas that I remember there is no railing. I worry every time that I will end up descending like a toddler, on my bottom, or bump, bump, bump, like Winnie the Pooh, on my head.

“Figs are quickly perishable and delicate, and … when choosing figs, select those that are plump and tender, have a rich, deep colour and are free from bruising. Ripe figs have a sweet fragrance.” ~Jo Lewin

The second level is equally spacious, with big windows, and some private nooks for a romantic dinner. Then venture up a second flight of stairs, and you will find yourself on a lovely rooftop terrace overlooking the church spire opposite, juxtaposed with the neon signs of Burgos and  the brightly lit high rises of Makati. Will you spread out on the broad outdoor sofas? Or grab a table near the balcony railing to catch the evening breezes while you sip on a dry, Spanish rosé?  The wine list is a bit limited, solely European and not wildly inspiring, but the rosé is excellent, and there is a good syrah.

fig-2The menu is Mediterranean, with a hint of Filipino: from Moroccan tagines to Turkish flat bread pizzas, Andalusian fish stew to Greek mezze platters, and of course the ubiquitous pasta. The ingredients are largely locally sourced, pesticide free and reasonably priced. Certainly, everything I have tasted here has been fabulous, with the single exception of the fish platter which was far too heavily battered. Favourites? So far, the braised lamb shank which melts off the bone, served with a citrusy cous cous, the spicy chicken shashlik, and the vegetable tagine, a lightly spiced and slightly sweet vegetable stew thick with  zucchinis, chickpeas, peppers and beans, sweet potatoes, apricots and tomatoes.

“I am sure that in the story of Adam and Eve, the forbidden fruit was a fig and not an apple, pear or anything else.” ~ Yotam Ottolenghi

The original French chef, Patrice Martelly, moved earlier this year to Lulus and has been replaced by Sri Lankan Chef, Ranuka Hettiarachchi, with a huge and engaging smile, who moved here from the Maldives, presumably as it started sinking! The food continues to be excellent, and I always like the wicker tray of freshly baked bread (walnut, brioche, sourdough, deep purple camote) with olive oil and balsamic, dukkah, that arrives while you are salivating through the menu.

I met a friend in the bar one evening and we decided to try the oysters to accompany our wine. We were served upfig-1
a dozen enormous oysters, so large that we almost needed a knife and fork to tackle them. I prefer mine simple with a pinch of sea salt and a splash of lemon juice, but they came with a rather tempting spicy dressing, and given that the oysters were so big, the flavour wasn’t drowned by the sauce.

“Nothing great is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig. I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.” ~ Epictetus

Fig is a great place to catch up with friends: the food is made to be shared and the atmosphere is relaxed and comfortable. The staff are alert and welcoming, and I am never disappointed. It has become such a firm favourite, we even threw our despedida or farewell party there on Saturday night, and the set menu provided was such a ‘superb’ one, as one friend remarked, that ‘it was hard to make a decision.’ To my firm favourites of lamb shanks braised in Moroccan spices and the fruity vegetable tagine, Chef Ranuka added one of my new favourites: the delectable and meaty mahi mahi (a local fish) crusted with chia seeds and served with fennel, olives and slow roasted tomatoes.

We talked excessively, ate divinely, drank wantonly of Australian wines we had brought ourselves, and were superbly well looked after throughout the evening, by a team of smiling and indulgent waiters. Even the early evening downpour cleared away the clouds, so we could wander up to the rooftop terrace between courses. It was a thoroughly enchanting evening, brimming with fun, friendship and fine food. A fitting farewell to the Philippines!

 

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A Stitch in Time

wheelchair2-2Daniel Radcliffe reputedly stated that he is not clumsy, just accident prone, but it sounds to me like he is simply quibbling with semantics. Call it what you will, I too am klutzy, clumsy, uncoordinated and monumentally accident prone, often butterfingered or all thumbs, and generally covered in bruises. It’s a family thing, and sadly, something I never seem to grow out of.

Last week, for example, there I was, comfortably ensconced in my favourite new coffee shop with my laptop. The internet at home was sulking, and I urgently needed to get some work done. Immersed in something doubtless quite riveting, I was perched at the bench along the window, with my trusty laptop propped open in front of me. Not so trusty, as it transpired.

As I slid my computer back to make room for a bowl of pumpkin soup, there was an almighty crash. I looked first for my glass of wine, but it was still sitting innocently by my elbow. Beneath the countertop I saw a glass vase at my feet, its shattered remains lying in a puddle of crimson water. Aghast – I hadn’t noticed that my laptop was concealing a vase – I was about to call a waiter to apologize when I realized that the water was collecting its fiery colour from a gash across the top of my foot. By now I had attracted plenty of attention. The café was – of course – jam packed with people and I was suddenly the centre of attention, the elephant in the room at whom everyone was staring. One couple leapt up to help me wrap my foot in a napkin, and several staff members came at the run to my rescue.  Ambulances were offered and a flotilla of wheelchairs came galloping through the door. I have rarely felt quite so conspicuous or quite so stupid. A paper bag to throw over my head would have been most welcome.

After much discussion, it was decided that as I had not actually severed my foot right off at the ankle, it might be quicker and safer to take me across the road to the Rockwell Clinic, rather than wait for an ambulance while I quietly bled to death. (I was hardly bleeding at all, in fact, but everyone else seemed to be enjoying the drama). Much to my embarrassment, and rapidly turning the same colour as my gently bleeding foot, I found myself being perambulated out of the café and across the road, with a cast of thousands following in my wake – or so it felt, to my heightened self-consciousness. I soon discovered that, even in Rockwell, the pavements are not designed for wheelchairs, and we careered wildly around trees and bumped up and over the kerb. Like Rosie the Hen, we went across the yard, around the pond, over the haystack, past the mill, through the fence and under the beehives, followed by a swarm of able-bodied spectators.  Having somehow survived the obstacle course relatively intact, I arrived at the clinic feeling like the Pied Piper of Hamlin.

And there I sat, in the middle of the clinic – a room 12 feet x 12 feet –  surrounded by my flock. Actually, I am not sure they were all there for me, but they seemed more than happy to join in the fun. A nurse emptied a bucket of water over my foot to clean it off and called the doctor. Three ambulance men arrived to make me sign my life away on some form renouncing their services, although I have no recollection of having called them in the first place. The sweet doctor, dragged from her dinner to rescue this awkward antipodean, duly arrived with her four-year-old daughter in tow, and the damage was swiftly repaired. I managed to retain my equilibrium through all but the anesthetic injected into the wound. Then, numb of foot and sewn neatly back together, I was advised, severely, to stay off my foot so it could heal. I was then ushered out the door with a wad of prescriptions and instructions to gather up bandages and antibiotics, painkillers and a tetanus booster. The wheelchair had been returned from whence it had so mysteriously come, so, with no other means of transportation, I hobbled back to the restaurant to pay my bill and finish my soup, apologize for the mess and thank the lovely staff for their help. Fed and watered, I then braved the mall for a welter of medical supplies before returning to the clinic for the nurse to administer the requisite tetanus shot. At this point, my arm was feeling hardly done by, but as my foot was still encased in blissful, anaesthetized oblivion, I limped bravely home.

To this day, I cannot understand why it never occurred to me to retain the services of the wheelchair, or at least procure the aid of an assistant to run errands to Mercury Drug – and my foot would later be most unsympathetic and swell up to twice its normal size in retaliation for my thoughtless attitude – but there it is, the price of fame. From a fan base of thousands, I suddenly found myself alone, and shambling sadly home without even a stick or shopping trolley for support. Unlike the Pied Piper, there was no magical flute with which to wreak vengeance on my fickle fans, but to be honest, I am just grateful to the staff at Single Origin who gathered me up and saw me safely to the clinic, and who, in their generosity and kindness, have even welcomed me back to the coffee shop – although in the meantime, they have wisely removed all the vases from my cack-handed reach. Here’s to Filipino hospitality!

*With thanks to Google Images for the perfect cartoon. Where do I get the goggles, please?

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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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