Michelin Starred Magic

CB7At Le Château de Beaulieu in north-west France, local chef Marc Meurin is celebrating. It is the 20th anniversary of his restaurant’s second Michelin star. Meurin is largely self-taught, with almost fifty years of experience under his belt. In all that time he has stayed close to his birthplace.

Fourteen years ago, he moved his restaurant, Le Meurin, to Le Château de Beaulieu on the outskirts of rural village Busnes, just an hour from Le Touquet. With its turrets and moat, the chateau, now a boutique hotel, looks like a Disney castle. Standing graceful and sophisticated at the heart of a small park, it reminded me of a similarly moated castle in Kent, although the nineteenth century structure posed more gracefully than the squat mediaeval manor house tucked into a hidden valley in Ightham. From our bedroom window, we gazed over the moat to sweeping lawns, and broad leafy trees spreading their shadows across a swathe of lawn to a small lake edged with irises and belted with a Monet style bridge. Our room was reminiscent of Eloise’s Plaza Hotel with plenty of hot pink and gold.

Our first evening there, we dined at the bistro restaurant. Le Jardin d’Alice is contemporary and colourful, overlooking a pretty patio garden. The menu was both creative and delicious, and the menu changes regularly. Although dinner was terrific, I don’t want to be overly self-indulgent, or incite too much food envy, so I will move on to the pièce de résistance: Sunday lunch at Le Meurin.

CB3Le Meurin boasts two dining rooms and a lounge area. One dining room is more formal, curtained and carpeted, with upholstered chairs and a chandelier. The second is contained in an airy and gracious wrought iron conservatory, overhanging the moat. With a choice of four, six or eight courses, the six-course dégustation menu seemed elegant sufficiency for a Sunday lunch, but, as always with a dégustation menu, there were some unscripted extras that added several titillating mouthfuls to the proposed menu.

A small platter of amuse bouche arrived first to tantalize the taste buds: a quenelle of salmon bavarois, a parmesan cheese biscuit and a canape of smoked eel topped with beetroot, all intense flavours in dainty serving spoons.

Next, an egg shell, neatly decapitated, snuggling in a small nest of hay: an amusing ‘boiled egg’ of cream of lovage soup topped with caviar. Lovage is a leafy plant rather like celery, with leaves like large Italian flat-leaf parsley, but it’s also closely related to carrots and parsnips. The flavour is herbaceous – think parsley and celery combined – with a hint of aniseed and curry.

Digging deeper with our teaspoons, we uncovered the ‘yolk’ of butternut pumpkin puree. Light and delicately flavoured, this surprising, somewhat quirky offering set the mood for an afternoon’s gastronomic entertainment.

The bread trolley offered up many interesting options and returned frequently throughout the meal. I succumbed only once, to a moreish slice of fig bread, and a lemon bread that was particularly recommended by our waiter. Fresh from the oven, warm, soft and citrusy in the centre, satisfyingly crunchy on the outside, it was served with a choice of salted or unsalted butter whipped to a light mousse.

The first official dish on the menu was a cube of pink trout served on a cushion of buckwheat floating in a sea of green samphire sauce. Topped with a purple clover flower, the colours were disarmingly extravagant and bold, yet the taste was subtle and fleeting, each mouthful feather-light and delicately textured.

Next, a luscious spear of green asparagus arrived, tender as a courgette, cloaked in a thin slice of cheese, and bathedCB4 in a light, creamy sabayon. A bed of barley and walnuts, and two tiny triangles of fried bread added a dash of crunchy texture. The asparagus almost melted on the tongue and drifted down my throat as smoothly as a glass of warm milk.

A dish of firm, sweet scallops and grilled prawns was accompanied by a soft, off-white oyster juice marshmallow, full of briny flavour, cradled on an oyster leaf to prevent it melting on the hot plate.

The much-anticipated foie gras proved to be a generous and delectable wedge of rich and creamy luxury. Pan fried and drizzled in aged balsamic, it was sprinkled with a crumble of breadcrumbs fried in the goose fat. Beside it, an arrangement of candy striped, deep pink rhubarb fingers and a quenelle of ruby-red rose jam added eye-catching, flamboyant colour, accessorized with another purple clover flower.

For the main course, we had a choice: fish or lamb. The One & Only chose turbot, gently steamed and served on a sauce of juniper and onion juice, succulent and melt-in-the-mouth. I succumbed to the lamb, as I usually do. It was beautifully rare (not two words I usually like to string together in relation to lamb) and splashed with a tomato gravy. It was accompanied by piquillos farcis (sweet pepper stuffed with paella) and zucchini tian, a stack of yellow and green courgettes interspersed with slices of chorizo. The lamb was perfect, but it did play second fiddle to the vegetables, and the gravy, while it looked lovely, seemed an unnecessary addition to a dish already vibrant with strong flavours.

Before we chose dessert, we were presented with a super little palate cleanser: a palm-sized ceramic sea urchin cradling quenelles of ice cream in vibrant colours and surprising flavours: bright orange carrot, creamy white asparagus, and a claret coloured beetroot.

CB6The cheese trolley swept in, laden with a healthy array of local cheeses, pushed by a waiter armed with a generous hand. Of the two desserts on offer, we all opted for the morels and chocolate, an adventure in taste and texture, not to mention visual delight. The centrepiece was three ribbed morels, piped full of white caramel chocolate. These stood to attention like tiny tree stumps, the ‘forest floor’ scattered with chocolate ‘dirt’ and soft bread torn into pieces and coloured green to look like moss. Twigs of rolled milk chocolate and meringue mushrooms completed the woodland scene. The inevitable sauce was flavoured with orange and espelette pepper, a treasured chilli of the Basques.

As a grand finale, the Lolly Trolley arrived, bedecked in sweet treats to rival the Child Catcher’s van in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Many-coloured, handmade cubes of marshmallow, lollypops galore, toffee apples, macarons and coloured pieces of Lego chocolate. There was even barbe de Papa (fairy floss). Like a day at Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, even the adults couldn’t resist the temptation!

And I haven’t forgotten the wine, although given the drive home, we showed unusual restraint. Daunted by the encyclopediac leather-bound menu, we had a lengthy discussion about the wines available – all French – with the knowledgeable and chatty sommelier. We finally settled on a Saint Emilion Grand Cru, Chateau Dassault 2012, deep red and thick with tannin. And later, when we felt all was over, the sommelier sweetly poured me a glass of dessert wine that tasted as rich and raisiny as Muscat. A moment later, a dish of chunky but diaphanous chocolate honeycomb appeared like magic, that melted on the tongue before you could blink, leaving behind a satisfying whisper of chocolate bubbles.

Meurin believes, as do so many now, in using local and seasonal products. How local was only apparent when we wandered through the park and found the pretty purple clover freckling the lawn…

*With thanks to Google images for the photo of the chateau.

Posted in Food & Wine, France | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Food & Wine & Wild Animals

kanga2Whenever I have been in South Australia lately, my feet seem to drift, inevitably, south to the Fleurieu Peninsula. A recent trip found me pottering through the Adelaide Hills to Clarendon and McLaren Flat at twilight, with Son Number Two, where we found paddocks teeming with grazing kangaroos, a pair of doe-eyed, silky-soft baby alpacas and a caravan of camels. Well, a herd really, but caravan sounds so much more romantic. There were flocks of rosellas and galahs and the usual array of sheep, cows and horses. All of which made us squeal like over-excited five-year-old’s at a birthday party.

*

Another day, and I wandered west from Port Willunga with my parents. It was an exceptionally warm, dreamy, autumn afternoon. Lurking at the end of a country lane lined with grapevines, we came across the Currant Shed, a restaurant that spills out into an orchard on one side and overlooks a vineyard on the other. As its name suggests, it was once a shed for drying currants, which were then exported to Europe. Today it harbours far more elaborate fare: a small but exotic menu, offering modern Australian cuisine with a splash of Japan.

Our waitress was chatty and charming, as friendly and attentive as if we had popped into her own kitchen for a bite to eat. There was a soothing intimacy about the dining area, that drew hushed but happy conversations from the diners, unlike the echoing babble that is too often the case in busier, city restaurants. We sipped our Adelaide Hills rosé and perused the menu, nibbling on fresh sour dough rolls served with whipped butter. The butter had been sprinkled with chunky pink Grenache salt, ever so slightly smoky in flavour. Glorious.

With much deliberation, we managed to order three of the four entrées between us. There was salmon served with currant2plum and horseradish and accessorized with charcoal coloured crisps – think prawn crackers – made from salmon skin. The beef tartare was  an  artistic composition I know not how to describe – so for once I must rely on a photograph to do the talking for me. And finally, tuna sashimi served on a nest of Asian coleslaw and finger limes for a dash of indigenous Australia, garnished prettily with nasturtium petals and pink and white daikon curls. It was superb: a flavourful mélange of taste, texture and colour.

My mother was delighted with a bowl of plump pumpkin tortellini topped with crumbled feta, sage and crunchy pepitas, while Dad and I, completely carnivorous, devoured juicy kangaroo fillets served on sauerkraut, with kale crisps and smoked mash. Talk was limited to the satisfied noises one makes with a mouthful of food, glorious food.

And then, blissfully replete, we sat back peacefully over coffee and a wonderful view of blue skies, verdant green orchard and the dusty haze of the khaki green bush beyond, enjoying the lazy Sunday afternoon ambience in the middle of the week. It is, to date, one of my favourite South Australian dining experiences.

*

Finally, as part of Tasting Australia, Number One Son & I boarded a bus from the City and travelled out on the southern expressway to McLaren Vale. We were off to Alpha Box & Dice, with aspirations to taste all twenty-one of their proffered wines.

It was a balmy evening of clear, star-speckled skies. Fairy lights were draped over the vines. Numerous braziers glowed and smoked on the lawn. Staff served a cheerful welcome with trays of tasty hors d’oeuvres and glasses of prosecco to help set the mood. The setting was beautiful.

AB&D is a young boutique winery born in 2008. It claims to ‘make wines without boundaries; a laboratory for viticultural exploration.’  Here, innovative, enthusiastic young winemakers randomly blend an assortment of grape varieties – ‘vinous bricolage’ they call it, most poetically –  with a strong lean towards lesser known Italian varietals such as Nebbiolo, Montepuliciano, Ripasso and Aglianco.  The resulting wine list abounds in creative blends and amusing names. Kit and Caboodle, for example, is an unlikely white blend of Chenin Blanc, Gewurtztraminer, Gruner Veltliner and Riesling.

The staff presented the wines with light-hearted humour, but obvious pride in their creations.  We chatted with them freely and came away with plenty of fascinating information and quirky descriptions. Here are some of my favourites.

Alpha-BoxDice_DWS_DolcettoFog, a red wine derived from black nebbiolo grapes from the Adelaide Hills. (Nebbiolo originates in Piedmont, north west Italy and nebula means ‘fog’ in Latin.) The winemakers describe it as looking like ‘a well-worn leather jacket’ and feeling like ‘a regal handshake’ with an aroma of ‘Turkish Delight, rose petals, sandalwood.’

Dead Winemakers Society is a spicy, cherry flavoured Dolcetto dedicated to old Piedmontese wine makers, ‘the wild-eyed wine poets that had a deep respect for both the land they farmed and the process of guiding the fruit to bottle in the most thoughtful and composed manner possible.

Siren is described as ‘rich berry and plum fruits are underscored with enough abundant exotic spice, burnt orange and lavender complexity to lure the canniest of wine drinkers to their fate.’ Made from grapes grown in McLaren Vale, Nero d’Avola originated in Sicily. And so it seems obvious to transplant it to another place of sunshine, sea and vines.

The Apostle is made with a blend of Durif and Shiraz grapes. ‘It’s inky, compact and earthy, with a solid core of slatey fruit that strike through the wine like an obelisk of vinous truth.’ Yet another thoroughly quirky description to accompany a wine with amazing flavour and texture.

So, we sat beside the fire and beneath the stars, sipping peacefully at sirens of the sea and making new friends among a gathering of like-minded wine lovers eager for adventure….

Posted in Australia, Food & Wine | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

twilight by the creek

a naked hillside burns to rusty red
in the last rays of the autumn sun
that is melting like apricot sorbet behind the hills
in a blanket-soft, blue sky
smudged with candyfloss cloud

the raucous shrieks of stocky cockatoos
tear the silent sky into ragged strips
while an idle koala hangs, unperturbed
and sloth-like, over a broad branch
another wedged in the crook between trunk and beam

the twisted arthritic limbs of ancient gums
stretch across the sludge brown creek
that turns to liquid mercury in the dying light
swirling and churning over rocks and roots,
waltzing down to the sea

fragrant eucalyptus permeates the still air
making nostrils flair
with its soothing, balmy scent
unearthing nostalgic childhood memories
as strong as a mere madeleine may do

a squat and solitary bandicoot snuffles anxiously
amongst the undergrowth
blending – almost – with the coarse grasses
eyes scrunched tight so she can’t be seen
burying her snout between sturdy claws

a little green road to fairyland
weaves up the river bank, between the trees
where a miniature world of fairies is revealed –
mossy cottages and hidden doorways –
to cries of glee from eager infants

a picnic rug left forelorn by the creek
where parents sat peacefully in the shade
as their children paddled small toes in the creek
and clambered, lithe as mountain goats over fallen branches
as the day drifted lazily away…

koala

Posted in Australia, Poem | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lacking Spice

glasshouse (2)The stage was set for Tasting Australia’s first Glasshouse Kitchen dinner: Town Square in the centre of Adelaide’s Victoria Square; half a dozen double gabled glasshouses had been beautifully decorated with fairy lights and flowers, intimate as a private dining room, yet set in a public space; chefs had flown in from across Australia and as far afield as Chile. Prices were high, expectations were higher. The atmosphere was convivial, the staff welcoming, the mood enthusiastic. It was set to be a show stopper.

For opening night, the theme was spice. I’m not necessarily talking chilli hot, but piquant. Yet, as the dishes arrived, the menu seemed disparate and the wow factor of the food was distinctly lacking. And, of the four chefs to perform, only one seemed to have read the memo about spiciness.

Benjamin Cooper’s Pork Belly and Death Sauce was served with a glass of McLaren Vale Grenache. As the secondglasshouse2 offering on the menu, it was, without doubt, the star turn. Apparently, it is also a star turn in his restaurant, Chin Chin, in Sydney’s Surry Hills. And, as the only truly spicy offering, it did not suffer by comparison.

A melt-in-the mouth wedge of pork belly topped with perfectly crisped crackling had been laid on a bed of scud chilli Death Sauce. Beware dipping your finger. On its own, it’s like a punch in the mouth for heat content. Yet somehow, combined with the pork belly, it reduced the near-death experience to a satisfying flash of heat and flavour.  This Asian inspired dish was accompanied by a fennel and plum pickle for a splash of crunch and vinegar to cut through the cholesterol. The presentation was simple, but the taste hit the mark. And the SC Pannell Grenache was a great co-star.

Cooper was joined by three acclaimed chefs who, together, choreographed a four-course dinner that aimed for the Glasshouse1flavourful and exotic. Unfortunately, for me, their combined efforts fell far short of expectations.

Matt Breen, of Templo in Hobart, had cooked whole Ngeringa leeks in buttermilk over a fire pit and served it on a bed of creamy burrata. While the leeks were moreish and incredibly tender, the spiced salt, hazelnut and fennel mix provided texture but only made a tiny impact on the taste buds. The accompanying Unico Zelo Esoterico wine was unusual. A cloudy white wine blend of grapes that originated in Georgia, it is left on the skins, so the tannins are incredibly astringent and dry out the mouth in an instant. Best with food, it did little to enhance this delicious but modest vegetable dish.

Chilean celebrity chef Rudolfo Guzman from Borago restaurant in Vitacura, took the head of a Spencer gulf glasshouse3Hiramasa or yellowtail king fish to create a twist on a traditional Chilean dish. Instead of the obvious fish soup, he served the entire head in a casing of fig leaves and grey damper (cooked al rescoldo – in ash). Entirely unspiced, and containing only a teaspoon of flesh among a challenging web of cartilage, it was undercooked and uninviting. It was served with a side plate of thick-stemmed, rubbery mushroom and artichoke foam, strong on texture but light on flavour. For a modicum of lift, we were given a deeply satisfying Ashton Hills Pinot Noir.

 

glasshouse4

Finally, Greggory Hill, owner of Adelaide’s Hispanic Mechanic, created a dessert with an interesting concept that he didn’t quite pull off. Hill is fond of plantains, those fibrous, starchy bananas that are best cooked before eating. He used these to create an edible plantain and chocolate basket filled with a scoop of banana, pear and passionfruit sorbet, and a squirt of canned cream. Apparently, crushing the basket into the ice-cream would have improved the experience, but try as I might, I couldn’t crack it. There was a mildly spicy sting on the tongue from the sorbet, but the overall effect was bland. Fortunately, there was a rich, 21-year old Seppeltsfield Para port to accompany it.

As an expensive showcase for Tasting Australia, the mood and atmosphere were uplifting, and we had a thoroughly entertaining evening, but the food was underwhelming, despite some big names and some big wines.

*Thanks to Google for the photo of the glasshouse. The rest are mine own!

Posted in Australia, Food & Wine | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Scoffed Goes Wild

scoffedScoffed culinary school partners, Nadine Silverberg and Mark Busse, believe in getting people into the kitchen and having fun with food. To this end, they regularly stage kids parties and adult cooking classes in French, Spanish, Italian cuisine, and now, for Tasting Australia, a native Australian cooking class, aimed at introducing curious cooks to native ingredients.

Adelaide Market stallholder Richard Gunner of Something Wild is a supplier of native greens, native herbs and native game. Its genesis was at Richard’s family farm in Meningie, where “a whole lot of stuff grew in the paddocks” that they regularly cleared as weeds, but chefs were learning to love. Something Wild is majority owned by indigenous families, including ex AFL players Daniel Motlop and Leon Davis, and these traditional aboriginal land managers have helped to overcome the fears of park rangers of over-harvesting, enabling them to set up a commercial business.

Standing before a crowded room, at Scoffed just off Magill Road, St Morris, Richard introduced us to the origins of several indigenous ingredients, how they are traditionally used among indigenous communities, and how they can be used in modern Australian cuisine.

We were invited to try acerbic quandongs, tiny bush tomatoes, the salty crunch of karkalla perfect in salads and stir fries, the Coorong’s delicate coastal rosemary and intense native thyme, succulent samphire, finger limes, muntries – look like capers, taste like sour apple – lemon myrtle and strawberry gum with its hidden flavours of berries and passionfruit (scratch and sniff for amazing results), all sourced from the South Australian coastline and outback scoofed2Australia. As we tasted, Richard talked of a new era in Australian culinary history, where chefs are now working with Australia, not fighting it, by using those ingredients best adapted to our climate.

As part of the introduction, Richard presented tasting platters, which sommelier Lisa paired with Amato Vino Bianco, a smoky, slightly peppery wine from the South Australian Riverland which blends the Southern Italian fiano grape and the Serbian slankamenka bela. It was a perfect match with the selection of strongly flavoured, open range meats: camel and spicy kangaroo salamis, lightly smoked crocodile, emu kabana.

Often medicinal, as well as edible for indigenous Australians, new Australians have invented fresh ways of bringing native ingredients into modern Australian cuisine, from ice-cream and desserts, to gin, pickles, chutneys and jams.

Moving into the kitchen, head chef Lachlan took us through his fusion menu, incorporating many ingredients Richard provided. Lisa selected local boutique wines to go with each dish.

Earlier, I watched Lachlan preparing sour dough bread rolls, flavoured with native pepper leaf. Later, he taught us the correct use of kitchen knives and how to shuck an oyster with a short, blunt knife, a sharp twist and a full body thrust. As some of us eagerly practised this new skill on a large heap of fresh Coffin Bay oysters, others prepared native finger limes to garnish them.

Each course began with clear instructions and a short demonstration from Lachlan and ended at the dinner table. As the cooks started work, unfamiliar but nose-twitching aromas rose into the air from hot frying pans, and salivary scoffed3glands went into overdrive.

Barramundi steaks were dipped in pepper leaf, seared and served on a bed of spicy Romesco sauce, a divinely tangy, nutty red sauce we made from scratch, brimming with almond and native thyme, red peppers and paprika.   A side salad of corn kernels and freekeh, dessert lime and samphire provided a clean, light balance to the rich sauce. Charlotte Dalton Wines 2017 ‘Love you, love me,’ a bright, Basket Range Semillon, proved a good companion.

After a pause and a deep breath, emu fillets were rubbed in wattle seeds which have the nutty taste of roasted coffee without the bitterness. Chef’s tip: don’t overcook the emu, as it gets too chewy, and don’t forget to let it rest for a good medium rare finish. It was served with a Davidson plum relish – not too sweet – and baby green asparagus sautéed in the emu jus. Fervent chewing killed the conversation among diners, as Lisa poured a hefty 2017 Adelaide Hills Shiraz from Altamont Wine Studio.

As the diners indulged, Lachlan made a start on dessert. First, a wattle seed pavlova briefly cooked in a large, shallow pan, slathered in whipped cream and rolled. The result was more sponge than meringue – light, but sickly sweet, as pavlova should be. To avoid waiting till next week for the ice cream to set, the crème anglaise – infused with lemon myrtle – was stirred into finely crushed dry ice and, abracadabra, the ice cream was ready in moments. And it was perfectly complimented by a dry and musky 2017 rosé from McLaren Vale’s Hither & Yon.

As every plate was returned to the kitchen empty and wiped clean, we reflected that fun, friends, and flavour is a great recipe for success.

This article was originally published on the Tasting Australia website: http://www.tastingaustralia.com.au/stories/le-cordon-bleu-digest

Posted in Australia, Food & Wine | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Honesty of Gin

gin (1)David Danby, cocktail barman turned gin distiller, loves gin for its honesty.  Director of Imperial Measures, David can be found at the hub of Tasting Australia, where he is introducing a raft of local gins, from Adelaide’s Prohibition to Kangaroo Island’s KIS Wild Gin, Fig Gin from Mount Lofty to Budburst from the Barossa Valley.

Danby agrees that while the language of wine relies heavily on simile to describe taste and aroma, the flavours in gin are the real deal. Be it fig, lavender, almond blossom, or even the citrus flavoured green ant, the clean, base alcohol is infused with the actual flowers, fruits, herbs and spices described on the bottle.

Originally a cheap panacea for the masses, gin was once the sole domain of the huge distilleries who marketed classic ‘London’ dry gins. In 1999, Hendricks became the first to produce a small batch of hand-crafted, high quality gins. Since then, there has been a plethora of new gins on the market, and the list of botanicals in each bottle weaves a magic spell.

And these boutique gins are upstaging the venerable, vintage gins with complexity, sophistication, even poetry, that make each one distinctive and unexpectedly aromatic.

The rebirth of the juniper berry has struck a chord all over the world. Today, even South Australia is on the band wagon, and there is a widespread loyalty here, for local ingredients.

Danby says drinking gin with tonic water and the balance of bitter and sweet enhances the gin and makes it incredibly moreish. Try it with water, and the botanicals ‘shine through.’ And then there is the fun of playing with garnishes that goes way beyond the traditional slice of lemon.

Despite the large number of local gin producers and Australia’s heavy taxation on alcohol, which raises the cost significantly, Danby assures me he can barely keep up with the turnover of his own Adelaide based Ounce Gin.

Danby and his partners leapt into producing gins when they discovered that there was an inevitable shelf-life to working behind the bar until two in the morning. And while I am not fond of the over-used adjective ‘passionate’ it applies here, as Danby enthusiastically educates me on gin production, while the heavens open over our heads.

Imperial Measures will open its own cellar door in Thebarton very soon, and at the same time plan to introduce a second gin to its stable. In the meantime, I savour the elegant citrus and mid-palate cardamom flavours of their inaugural Ounce Gin, as we lean on the Spirit Bar at Town Square. These are, as Danby says, his eyes gleaming, ‘exciting times.’

This article was originally published on the Tasting Australia website: http://www.tastingaustralia.com.au/stories/le-cordon-bleu-digest

Posted in Australia, Food & Wine | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Summer Picnic on the Loire

wind-in-willows-813x516Take the adventure, heed the call, now ere the irrevocable moment passes! ‘Tis but a banging of the door behind you, a blithesome step forward, and you are out of the old life and into the new! Then some day, some day long hence, jog home here if you will, when the cup has been drained and the play has been played, and sit down by your quiet river with a store of goodly memories for company. ~ Kenneth Graham, Wind in the Willows

Stuck in bed with a hacking cough and a snotty nose, the temperatures consistently squatting below zero, there is only one way to leave the apartment this week, and that is through memories. I find myself drifting back to early adventures, when it was just the two of us…

The One & Only has always liked a project and a plan. So, one similarly chilly day in the winter of 1991, he concocted the idea of a cycling trip through France. With the aid of a mountain of maps and several guide books, he plotted a course from Cherbourg to the River Cher. We had put ourselves and our bikes to the test on a previous expedition through Ireland, we had our two-man tent shaped like an armadillo (a farewell gift from Aussie mates) and a gorilla I bought on the ferry as a mascot. We christened him Graham, and he was a grumpy sod, but his invariable churlishness made me laugh, even on the steepest hills. I squashed him into my bicycle basket and we set off.

Despite some initial reservations, it was an amazing journey. We pedaled south from Cherbourg, until the last of the Channel mist and mizzle melted away and we found ourselves cycling through hedgerows littered with wildflowers and on across fields of wheat and corn, that would later transform into poppies and sunflowers.

We drifted along the coast to Mont Saint Michel where the One & Only’s propensity for debilitating doses of hay fever hit an all-time high. Yet he still managed to drag himself across the causeway, a little groggy on anti-histamines, so we could gaze in awe upon this glorious tribute to God perched, somewhat foolishly, on a rocky outcrop in the middle of a tidal bay. We lunched on omelets and red wine in the lee of a stone wall overlooking the bay across to Tombelaine.

And then it was south again to towards Nantes and the Loire, along meandering country lanes, the verges thick with cow parsley and campions, dandelions and daisies, wild foxgloves and love-in-the-mist. Every village tempted us with patisseries or small markets where we loaded up with fromage, baguettes and tomates. Le Château de Vitré was our first taste of a French castle in what would soon become a daily serving: Saumur, Azay-le-Rideau, Chenonceaux, Chaumont, Chambord, Chateauneuf

I immersed myself in every splendid castle and loved every minute of it: swans and stained glass, tapestries and turrets. Living history. Yet the one memory that stands out now was not a chateau, but a meal by a river.

It was a warm day, towards the end of June, and we had been cycling beside the Loire all morning. I was feeling cranky about the number of hills, and the lack of food. One final push up the longest hill yet found us in Saint Saturnin.  It was a Sunday, and absolutely everything was closed.

Practicing my awkward schoolgirl French on the first person we came across – a middle aged lady wrapped in a crocheted shawl, a cane basket over her arm, full of food and red checked gingham, I asked where we might find somewhere to eat. Responding in perfect English that put me to shame, she invited us to set up camp in her garden, and then advised us to cycle down the hill, where a lovely restaurant awaited us by the river. She would meet us later, as she was on her way to an English class with her 85-year-old teacher.  So, we parked our bikes beneath the apple tree in her walled garden, unloaded the paniers, and erected the tent. Then we grabbed our bikes and rolled madly – and hungrily – down, down, down the steep lane to the river, and ‘Jojo’s’.

There, much to our surprise, we found about half a dozen trestle tables set up on the sand and dressed in fine linen. It Felt like the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, or a scene from Wind in the Willows. It was blissful, a summer ‘pop-up’ restaurant long before ‘pop-ups’ became de rigueur. Several large families were already hoeing into their Sunday lunch, served by waiters in penguin suits – really – while the chef went to work in a small caravan.  We were shown to a wobbly round table beneath the trees and settled into a pair of white plastic chairs.

Our waiter poured a sweet but icy cold white to start. Then we feasted on mountains of calamari and tiny fried whitebait, very lightly battered, almost like tempura, served with a simple, crisp green salad. It was the first time I had ever eaten whitebait, and I was smitten.

So there we sat on the riverbank, bare toes tickling the sand, in our less-than-glamorous cycling kit, yet being treated as honoured guests. Entrecôte and crispy pommes frites followed, washed down with a local red from Anjou that, according to my journal, tasted like caramel. We finished off with homemade ice-cream and the best coffees we’d had since landing in France.

The water glistened, wide and pearly, meandering gently around the sand banks near the shore, racing swiftly down the centre. Tall, slim trees shaded our table, leaning hungrily towards our plates, the sun twinkling through the leaves, and kissing our shoulders. Children chittered away like sparrows, alternately nibbling and dancing round the chairs, their elders too busy concentrating on each other and the food to notice or care. If anybody thought the interloping Australian cyclists seemed a strange addition to the scene, they politely kept it to themselves. When we had eaten more than our fair share, we removed to a shady spot on the sand and enjoyed a siesta to the sound of a violin player, before we had to face the uphill climb to our hostess’s glorious garden and our armadillo tent beneath an apple tree.

Posted in Food & Wine, France, Travel | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Of White Port, Peacocks and Pimientos de Padrón…

‘If I were to write about the happiest days of my life, many of them would have to do with food and wine and a table full of friends.’ ~ Charles Simic, poet

Porto6

Luxembourg had eight hours of sunlight in December. Helsinki had zero. It’s hardly surprising, then, that by February many northern Europeans have the mid-winter jitters and feel the urge to gallop south for a quick fix of blue sky and sunshine.

Porto4We chose Porto for our February dash to the sun. It had been on our ‘to do’ list for some time, and it turned out to be a magical spot for a winter mini break, and a very appealing city in which to wander without dictate or agenda. We found a pocket-sized apartment in the old part of town that provided glorious views with our morning coffee: tall, narrow houses with terracotta-tiled roofs toppling down steeply cobbled streets like old tombstones or crooked teeth; a dark river glinting in the sunlight; a score of church towers rising high above the rooftops in every direction, gift-wrapped in scaffolding. Later we would peek inside to find them replete with gold and gore: acres of gilded plasterwork and saintly statues that spout blood from stigmata, scabby knees and sword wounds.

So how best to capture it? I could write an essay on the joys of Portuguese cuisine, or maybe an article on the local wine, its history, its variety, its taste. I could provide a collage of the wonderful sights we saw in this somewhat dishevelled, but charming city, or perchance some philosophical observations on its rapacious and bloodthirsty past versus its benevolent and affable present? I think that it would be best to create a potpourri of all these things, to reflect the myriad impressions, the enchanting, kaleidoscopic perspectives from one terrace, bridge or quay to the next…

Porto, a city devoured by the Moors in the 8th century, and again by tourists in the 21st century, but swallowing Porto8whole continents in its turn… a city that spawned a global empire, created by avaricious explorers sent far and wide to search for treasure… from South America to Macau, West Africa to Goa. Gold and glory, sugar, slaves and spices…

In the crease between the hills, the Douro River flows west from lush vineyards to the sea, spanned by five mighty bridges. The two-tiered Dom Luis I bridge, designed by Eiffel’s partner Teófilo Seyrig, was built in 1886, just months before the Eiffel Tower, and has become an iconic part of the Porto landscape. Even in February, teenagers were leaping over the railing into the water to amuse the tourists and earn a few coins. And tourists are plentiful here, even in winter, but not comparable to the deluge of the summer months. On the skyline, high above the river, a baroque bell tower pierces the heavens, standing head and shoulders taller than every other building.

Porto1 (2)We walk everywhere, discovering a bustling market flush with a technicolour cornucopia of fruits and a railway station whose lobby is wallpapered in blue and white tiles depicting the country’s complex history, and a church, Capela das Almas, where even the exterior walls are decorated with those ubiquitous blue and white tiles. We sit in a rooftop bar above the river, sipping white port and watching the seagulls swoop and glide over the Rabelo boats lying in flat-bottomed peace upon the limpid water. We catch the heritage tram to the coast and gaze upon the Atlantic, waves crashing, rough and rambunctious, over the rocks . We float above a treasure trove of warehouses housing hundreds of port barrels, in a cosy cable car that carried us down to the river bank at Gaia, where restaurants cluster along the water’s edge and a string of street musicians croon and quaver along the pavements. We drift through an airy, terraced park above the river where peacocks preen and roosters strut, flaunting their glimmering colours among the weathered statues and the dusty flower beds. All this under a soft blue sky that warm our cheeks, even in February.

Porto is a town overflowing with cafés, many touting the joys of the popular Porto7snack francesinha. This proved to be a heavy toasted cheese and ham sandwich doused in a white sauce flavoured with paprika and usually accompanied by a hearty serve of chips. A snack to induce indigestion, clogged arteries, heart burn, heart attacks. We prefer the lighter delights of the local petiscos, or Spanish tapas with a Portuguese twist.  Pimientos de Padrón, those spicy green peppers cooked on a charcoal grill, moreish and tongue-tingling; crispy, lightly battered polpo (octopus) or salada del polpo (grilled octopus doused in parsley and local olive oil); platters of chorizo and cheese; clams cooked in garlic and oil, a lighter version of moules marinière, and cod in oh-so-many different compositions. And every dish is all the better for a perfectly chilled white port, our favourite beverage for the week.

Porto5Porto has an awe-inspiring bookshop, Livraria Lello, opened in 1906 and boasting a luscious Neo-Gothic façade and glass-fronted bookshelves that soar to an ornately decorated ceiling and a 26-foot-long, stained-glass skylight. Art Deco designs decorate the walls and bronze busts of great writers watch over all who enter. The iconic red staircase curves sinuously, cello-like to the mezzanine level above. Here, JK Rowling was known to hang out in the world before Harry Potter, discovering names for her future characters such as Salazar and Mafalda. Who wouldn’t be inspired to perch in a corner of this temple to literature and write an irresistibly imaginative novel?

Now we know how to get there, I am certain we will find our way back, to enjoy the simplicity of living for the moment, to indulge in a little sunshine, and to peek and poke a little further into the hidden corners of this charming, friendly city. All to be accompanied by a plentiful supply of port and pimientos de Padrón, and, undoubtedly, a table full of friends.

Posted in Food & Wine, Portugal, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Under the Arches

Podenco6

At any time of year, my favourite slice of Luxembourg City is along the Alzette River: in autumn, as the trees drip leaves, the sky drips puddles and the river swells; in winter, when the water stampedes over the weir and crystallizes on the rocks; in spring, as the crocuses nudge through the grass and downy, newborn leaves emerge; in summer, when the apple trees on the riverbank are bent double like old women, under the crippling weight of ripening fruit.

On its journey through the city, the Alzette snakes through a deep gorge, far below the eastern ramparts of the old town of Luxembourg, passing swiftly through Grund, Clausen and Pfaffenthal. Beside the river, in the shadow of the magnificent stone arches of a lofty railway bridge, is a stout, red building, crouched against the cliff. ‘Hond Haus’ is painted in large letters on an outer wall, for it was originally the kennels for the hunting dogs of a 16th century governor of Luxembourg, Count Mansfeld. Today, the Hond Haus houses a terrific little Spanish restaurant. In keeping with the building’s origins, Bistro Podenco is named for a wiry Spanish hunting dog: the Podenco Ibicenco.

We discovered this lovely spot last summer with some good friends, and have found our feet wandering that way many times since. The service is fast, friendly and attentive: a rare combination in Luxembourg. The dining room is diminutive, so it’s best to book in advance, but it is perfect for an intimate, cosy tête-à-tête with the One & Only. And on a warm summer evening, there is plenty of room on the terrace outside.

Tonight, the temperature outside was set to freeze off every extremity, so we walked into the warmth with a sigh of relief. We were given a cheery welcome by Eduardo and Susanna, and directed to a table by the window, huddling against the radiator. The restaurant has a field to fork philosophy and the menu provides a delicious array of authentic Spanish dishes, including many tempting tapas. Eduardo pointed us to the specials board, and promptly Podenco1recommended at least two dishes not even listed there. He also suggested a red wine he thought we would enjoy, and was back in a blink, with a dish of large green olives and a full-bodied Tempranillo. It was perfect for warming the blood on such a frosty night. And such a beautiful label, with its traditional Castilian windmill. I have yet to see a wine list, but we have loved every bottle Eduardo has ever championed, and tonight was no exception, red white or bubbles.

Between Eduardo’s stilted English and my rusty French, we managed to chat through the menu. After a lengthy discussion, we began with the best jamón ibérico, served with smashed tomato on bread, so you can construct it yourselves.’  This Spanish style tomato on toast (pan con tomate) is a traditional Spanish snack made with slices of barra (like baguette), ripe tomatoes, quality olive oil, bread, garlic and a sprinkle of sea salt. It is a tasty base, but we prefer the naked bread, so we can savour the jamón.

Then, Susanna brought out the pulpo a la gallega: button-sized slices of cooked octopus served on boiled potato and sprinkled in paprika and olive oil, like a sort of bruschetta marinara, that we ate in our fingers with much finger licking and messy delight.

Podenco2There were none of my favourite aubergine croquettes tonight – much to my disappointment – but Eduardo advised us to taste the artichaux frites. These artichoke chips, fried in batter like a heavy tempura, are crispy and moreish, and proved to be an excellent alternative. They are even better dipped in the oil from the pulpo, or the red wine gravy that has been poured over the tender and tasty black Iberian pork fillets.

Meanwhile, the restaurant had filled to capacity, and we got chatting with our neighbour, a lone American who was very pleased to have been directed down to this buzzing riverside restaurant. We exchanged travellers tales and promised to look him up if we were ever in New York.

When, like Jack Spratt and his wife, we had all but licked the platters clean, we tidied up with a slate of salty Manchego cheese, the perfect accompaniment for the last of the wine. And, for the grand finale, a rich and mellow tawny port to keep us warm on our wintry walk home.

Posted in Food & Wine, Luxembourg | Leave a comment

Snapshots of Scotland

Scotland2It must be thirty years since I last visited Scotland, land of lochs, Highland cattle and kilts. It was a Christmas with friends on the Isle of Skye that ended in tears when we were unceremoniously evicted on New Year’s Eve, after some ridiculous misunderstanding with our landlords. We relocated at the last minute and at great expense, to celebrate Hogmanay, unexpectedly but enthusiastically, in Oban. Nonetheless, we were left feeling churlish and  hardly-done-by, about Scotland in general and the Isle of Skye in particular.

So, when we flew to Edinburgh in late January, I was hoping to rekindle my sense of romance for Scotland, sample some fresh flavours, and ensure a less melodramatic outcome. I had recently been devouring all things Scottish: a Kate Atkinson book of short stories set in Edinburgh; an intriguing play in the West End about Mary Queen of Scots, and a winter gorging on endless episodes of Outlander. I was happily anticipating a few days of ancient castles, cloak and dagger intrigue and legendary heroes in kilts. All went according to plan, including a happier ending…

First, a town to the north east of Edinburgh that had captured my imagination for a variety of reasons. Originally Scotland’s capital city, Stirling is strategically placed on the River Forth, with the last bridge to cross it before the river widens into the Firth of Forth, where several rivers gather in a race to the North Sea. A gateway to the Highlands, a University town, the centre of local government, a medieval castle…

Perched high on a rocky crag, Stirling Castle has held a commanding position above the Forth River for centuries. From the ramparts today, it is a peaceful view over water meadows and a pellucid, oxbow river. Almost impossible to imagine that this placid, winding river once ran with the bodies and blood of soldiers, Scots and English, entangled in generations of conflict, combat and civil war. Within the walls, enthusiastic tour guides depict the history of a fiercely guarded fortress and a royal palace, where princes were born, crowned, murdered and died.

On the walls of the Queen’s chambers, legends and love stories have been masterfully woven into huge tapestries, recreated by modern weavers, to illustrate the depth of colour and detail of those antiquated, sun-faded, originals that usually cower in shadowy corners to preserve what remains. A room-sized Lego model depicts Stirling in the Middle Ages. Below stairs, the basement kitchens have been mocked up for a royal banquet.

The Royal chapel, recently restored, contains a modern, mouth-watering altar cloth designed by one Malcolm Lochhead and lovingly stitched by the Stirling Embroiders Guild. Its nautical theme – ‘Stella Maris’ – is strangely at odds with its inland setting, but is nonetheless dazzling, and temptingly tactile. Apparently, it has been dedicated to the victims of the Dunblane massacre.

A twilight walk from our cosy B&B at the back end of town skirts around the base of the castle walls and winds through the trees, where a local sculptor displays a penchant for carving characters out of fallen tree trunks and stumps: dragons, deer, wolves, warriors…  and delivers us into the centre of town, and a sizeable crop of barber shops and hairdressers. An ancient talent for handling blades is resurrected in new guises, perhaps?

Across the river, a distinctive, Gothic tower soars above the summit of Abbey Crag, a mid-Victorian monument Scotlanddedicated to local hero William Wallace, who crushed the English army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. (Remember Braveheart? Not exactly gospel truth, but absolutely riveting.) It’s a steep climb through the woods to the foot of the 220-foot tower, and a breath-taking 246 steps to reach the crown, but we could pause for breath in any of the three exhibition galleries en route, before reaching the top of the world and spectacular panoramic views.

Then eastwards to the sea, meandering between the base of the Ochil Hills and the Devon River, through gently rolling farmland, until we land in time for a picnic tea and a bottle of wine in our room at the Greyfriars Inn in Saint Andrew’s.

Home to both the oldest golf course in the world and the oldest university in Scotland, Saint Andrew’s is a compact little town on the brink of the North Sea. Here Kate Middleton first met her Prince. Here, visitors love to pose on the small but iconic hump-backed bridge that arches stonily over the stream – sorry, burn – on the 18th green.

Majestic, medieval ruins of a long-lost cathedral and a fortified bishop’s palace cling to the cliffs at the south end of town, while in the north, we discover a long, broad sandy beach that we recognize from the opening scene of Chariots of Fire. It’s an ear-numbing walk across the sand dunes to where the sea has retreated towards the horizon, leaving behind acres of pock-marked, puddled white sand sprinkled in icing sugar snow. And still, my One & Only must remove his shoes and paddle in the chilly waves.

Scotland1A posse of lady golfers pose on the wind-swept golf course, shivering bravely in t-shirts, bringing me out in sympathetic goose bumps. To thaw out, we duck into a character-filled coffee shop where the knives and forks are propped in a Golden Syrup tin and the bench seats under the window are upholstered in old tweed jackets. Later, we find a kilt shop where I finally locate the family tartan.

We drove out of town, past a hill above the sea, ploughed with neat rows of blue-green caravans. We find a fishing village, of narrow lanes, rocky shores. I succumb to a light afternoon tea in a tiny white cottage on the edge of a cliff. Here spindly chairs threaten to tip backwards onto a stone floor that slopes steeply away to the sea, and the front door is made for Hobbits.

All to soon we are enjoying a final dinner at a popular Italian restaurant tucked away down a narrow alley off Market Street, and rising for an early breakfast, loaded with yummy cholesterol before we head back to the airport across fields lightly iced in snow. A dégustation menu of Scotland’s lowlands. I hope to get back soon to sample the full à la carte!

Posted in Food & Wine, Scotland, Travel | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment