A Weekend of Food & Waterfalls

My One & Only and I have always loved wandering through the woods on a fine day, and this weekend was no exception. With guests in town and the rain holding off, we headed for the wild woods of Luxembourg,.

Always a popular place for walkers and cyclists, Mullerthal – or Mellerdall in Luxembourish – is located in eastern Luxembourg, south west of the Ardennes. It is known affectionately to the locals as Little Switzerland. Despite the somewhat romanticized nomenclature, there is no doubt that Mullerthal is a gorgeous area. With myriad walking paths, thickly wooded hillsides, clear, sparkling streams and boisterous waterfalls, pretty bridges in wood and stone, caves and craggy rock formations, Mullerthal is enchanting at any time of the year. Walking up through the quiet, green beech woods along the river, the only sound we could hear was the gurgling and plashing of waterfalls below us, and the odd bird call.

Our path eventually dipped back down to the valley floor, and into the tiny hamlet of Mullerthal, which houses both a vast population of 146 and one of my favourite restaurants in Luxembourg. Heringer Millen sits in the centre of the valley, an old water mill converted into a bright, modern restaurant with an outdoor terrace for sunny days. Usually, it is necessary to book weeks in advance, but in August, with the entire Luxembourg population denuded to about 146 (everyone has run away for the summer), we have been able to book a last-minute table most weekends.

Service here can get a little curt and distracted as soon as there are more than a handful of diners, and it seems I’m not the only one to have noticed this. Yet, despite the frantic flurry of staff, we were soon sipping cold beer on the terrace, and only moved inside when this summer’s plague of wasps scuppered our plans to eat outdoors.  However, a table by the window meant we could still watch the beautiful day through walls of glass.

Heringer Millen has a seasonal menu, and this one is melting gently into autumn, with the appearance of rhubarb, apples and chanterelle mushrooms. Beautifully presented and carefully prepared, there is something to suit everyone’s tastes, be it a glass of crémant with designer lamb burgers, a Pinot Gris served with a tagliatelle topped with prawns and chanterelles, or a cold beer and flammkuchen. There is a casual menu for muddy-booted hikers, if they can find a table on the terrace. And the surrounding meadows provide plenty of space for the kids to play when they get restless. Worth noting: the homemade bread is especially good, and generously served with a light, creamy fish paste. And luckily for our waist lines, there was a short hike back to the car when we were done.

Later in the day, surprisingly hungry despite that hearty lunch, we walked down into Clausen, dodging the crowds heading to the Schueberfouer, the annual fair at the top of the town. Founded in 1340 by John the Blind, Count of Luxembourg and King of Bohemia, the Schueberfouer visits Luxembourg for three weeks towards the end of August. The carnies park their huge mobile homes in a road at the top of our hill, which is always a good reminder to avoid Glacis Plaza at all costs. Of course it’s great fun for the kids, but surprise, surprise, I am not a crowd person, and no longer enjoy the wild rides that used to be such a thrill in my teens. So, instead of joining the throngs heading up to the fair, we headed for a calmer corner of town.

Beside the Alzette river backing onto the old Mousel brewery, is La Biblioteca, a Mexican restaurant offering tacos, burritos, quesadillas and tequilas – not to mention margaritas and mohitos! The weather had cooled noticeably after weeks and weeks of an unusually hot summer and unadulterated blue skies, but the evening was still. Again, the prominent sound was the rushing water, but here the wine was Argentinian, not German.

Reviews have been mixed – some will never go again and complain of bland food and bad service. Others loved it. We were in the latter category. The food may not be cordon bleu, but it is extremely tasty. The setting is relaxing, with a lovely view over the river, and it has a cosy atmosphere. The staff wasn’t wildly enthusiastic to see us – perhaps this is simply a Luxembourg trait? – but perfectly polite, and the food hit the spot. I am no expert on Mexican food – to me it always suggests fast food drowned in American cheese – but I found this menu surprisingly appetizing and nicely presented. And it was undoubtedly the perfect accompaniment to mohitos and beer. We strolled home full of guacamole and good cheer.

 

 

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“Really Traffic” or “Jurassic Prawns”

i could not find the ballads
or read the books dedicated to writing the grief
we fall into when friends leave
it is the type of heartache that
does not hit you like a tsunami
it is a slow cancer
~ rupi kaur

‘the sun and her flowers’ is a wonderful little book about loss and grief by Indian/Canadian poet Rupi Kaur. And yes, I have transcribed it correctly. Rupi Kaur uses neither punctuation nor capitalization, but occasionally throws in a phrase in itallics, for emphasis. I won’t attempt to mimic it in prose, it would just confuse both of us, but the sentiment is all too familiar.

As serial expatriates, our friendships – when we know our time together may be short – become very strong, very fast. And we are used to the notion that we must frequently say goodbye to friends packing up to leave, or as we move on ourselves. And for that reason, much to the chagrin of my One & Only, I love social media. It keeps me in touch with friends and family all over the world. It has even reunited me with a couple of mates I thought I would never see again. Friends, like us, who have moved so many times that we lost touch somewhere down the track, and I had come to believe only a miracle would allow us to cross paths again. My One & Only may groan, but the life of a trailing spouse would be far lonelier without the likes of email and Facebook, What’s Ap and Twitter.

From time to time, I read whimsical little quotes that remind me how lucky I am to have such friends: where neither time nor distance matter, because we always pick up where we left off, however long the time between meetings, and I am grateful for them.

Setting up home in yet another new country, without the kids to provide an entrée to the PTA or rugby clubs, social media has proved invaluable. It has also given me the chance to reunite unexpectedly with friends on the road. ‘You’re in Norway? So are we. Dinner on Friday?’ or ‘What are you doing in Bali? We’ll be there next week. Lunch at the beach?’ or ‘Hey, I’m in London too! Got time for coffee at Borough Market?’ OK, don’t mock, these are first world privileges I know, but such mobile communities are a pure blessing when you don’t have a constant base.

A year or so after leaving the Philippines, I found myself, somewhat to my surprise, feeling deeply homesick for Manila. I was really keen to return, to good friends, favourite places, favourite food. Thus, after a family reunion in South Australia, I took a detour from Hong Kong, to spend ten days back in Luzon.

The anticipation was enormous, and let’s face it, that can be the best recipe for disaster. Yet, it was all I could have hoped for. The weather was mild. The sky was blue. Our driver of five years put himself at my disposal, which alleviated all the hassle of finding taxis and kept a good friend at my side for my time in town.

For several days I stayed with a girlfriend in Rockwell, admiring the latest developments, revisiting my regular haunts (The Refinery, Rambla) and discovering some new ones (Wildflower, a new Japanese restaurant at One Rockwell), meeting friends for coffee, Aperol Spritz and Matcha ice-cream. The only disappointment was the lack of Christmas decorations. By October, I had thought the usual ‘Ber months’ syndrome would have kicked in and at least the orange fairy lights would already have been strung around the buildings and the palm trees. I did, however, find a small stall with a selection of grumpy Christmas angels I couldn’t resist acquiring for my Christmas tree.

Then I decamped to Dasmarinas, to another close friend, for Craggy Range wine by the pool and regular trips to Greenbelt for Colin McKay’s specialties: pork and pink peppercorns at People’s Palace and salt and pepper squid at Blackbird in the much-diminished Ayala Triangle. (I do so wish the Filipinos would appreciate the benefits of city parks as the Brits do. It is my greatest sadness about Manila.) I caught up on all the  news of children have also moved away and grown up in the blink of an eye. We shared dreams and aspirations for the future, laughed over past idiocies, reminisced over past adventures. We drank too much wine, ate too much rich food, hugged and giggled and loved each other’s company.

At the weekend, I headed out of Manila to the south west coast of Luzon, beyond Nasugbu. Here, far from the madding crowd, is a peaceful little coastal estate where I have stayed with my friends a number of times, and was delighted to return to their warm and generous hospitality, to wander beneath the native trees, smell the frangipani, dip my toes in the sea, take naps, read books, write, build a rockery, and of course catch up on all the news. Then it was back through the achingly beautiful scenery north of Nasugbu, where the mountains meet the sea drenched in jungle, and the earth is chocolate-brown-rich with nutrients. A tunnel, a national park, a sprawling town, and then we were plunging back into the city along a new motorway that has arisen on reclaimed land in Manila Bay, providing a view of all those stark contrasts that remind me so clearly of our life here: a gently lapping sea on the left; fishermen’s huts built from reclaimed corrugated iron and other unwanted rubbish on the right, balancing precariously on stork-like legs, knee-deep in the lagoon; an horizon of soaring high-rises and shimmering casinos and endless knots of concrete overpasses before us.

No, Manila traffic has not improved, and the high rises continue to breed with unbelievable speed, particularly in BGC. Everyone I spoke to commented on how bad the traffic has become (when was it ever other than ‘very traffic’ or ‘really traffic’?) Yet the people still smile a welcome, the food is fabulous (did I mention the Jurassic prawns of spectacular proportions?), and after two return trips to The Refinery for my morning coffee, everyone knew ‘my usual.’ I felt, in the best ways possible, that I had never been away.

I was sad to say goodbye but at the same time happy to know it would not be difficult to return. And it was good to get back to my own apartment and my One & Only. Life has moved on. People have moved on. As in all expat communities, existence, like a sunflower, is a transient thing. Nonetheless, it was both heart-warming and uplifting to go back ‘home’ for a while and find that everyone still knew my name…

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A Taste of Memory

Ten years ago, I was writing a thesis on rural Food and Wine Festivals. It gave me the excuse to spend a lot of time in several lovely wine regions, like Orange in New South Wales and the Clare and Barossa Valleys in South Australia, in the name of research. Yesterday I revisited Clare with Son Number Two. It’s a bit of a long haul from Adelaide for a day trip – two hours in each direction – but it was all the time we had to spare. Next time, I plan to set aside at least a week to explore the copious number of wineries that have sprouted up since I last visited in 2008.

Our prime destination, however, was an old favourite. Tim Adams Wines is a family owned winery on the edge of Clare, 130km north of Adelaide, South Australia. It is perched above the Warenda Road and adjacent to the Riesling Trail, a popular cycling track along a disused railway line between Auburn and Barinia. I had first popped in with my parents, an English guest and two small children, heavily pregnant with the third, in the winter of 1997. Expecting a boy, we had chosen the name Fergus, and were delighted to discover that Tim Adams had just released a red wine in his honour. We bought a dozen in anticipation of 21st celebrations.

Tim Adams Wines was born in 1984, a partnership between winemakers Tim and Pam Adams and local coopers, Bill and Jill Wray. Although the partnership was dissolved within three years, the Adams have gone on to make some great wines.

Arriving on the dot of noon, we began – of course – with the latest Fergus, a 2014 Tempranillo Grenache Malbec blend. The Fergus is, like our son of the same name, in its 21st year of production. It was not actually named for Number Two Son, surprisingly enough, but for an Adams neighbour. Fergus Mahon sold Tim some Grenache grapes in 1993, when there was a desperate shortage of Shiraz and Cabernet. A softer style than either of these traditional varieties, The Fergus has Tempranillo’s red berry and cherry flavours that meld beautifully with Grenache’s earthy spiciness. And Malbec, we are told, is the perfect additive for filling out the mid palate. Unfortunately, The Fergus only has a ten-year shelf life, so the dozen bottles we bought the year of its birth have long gone, but on this trip, we have been indulging in a few of the 2014 vintage, as the Spring weather turned unexpectedly cold, and curries and roast lamb have been making a late reappearance.

Another one for which our Fergus discovered a liking was the TA tawny port. Initially uncertain, he eventually tried a sip, after I had regaled him with boozy university tales of cheap port served in Vegemite jars. It took only a sip for him to change his tune entirely. Modelled along the same lines as some of Portugal’s best tawny ports, this 20-year-old fine tawny is a lighter colour than many other Australian tawnies, and not as sweet, as, TA do not add caramel to their recipe, as many others do. Its extra maturity also adds a complexity that others fail to deliver. We were swooning with joy, as we imagined nights round a camp fire, guitars, Vegemite jars..

A 2015 Cabernet Malbec also made its way into our box. Cabernet Sauvignon is a good, consistent variety that performs well in the Clare Valley. As with the Fergus, the addition of Malbec adds to the texture and richness of the mid-palate, resulting in a full-bodied wine with expansive, chalky tanins. Twenty-four months in French oak adds complexity, and it is possible to cellar this one for at least ten years. As always, this Cabernet pairs beautifully with lamb and other red meat dishes.

And finally, for my One & Only, we tossed in a bottle of the 2011 Reserve Riesling. This complex Riesling is made from the best grapes from premium Clare Valley Riesling vineyards, which has resulted in a bright, aromatic wine with intense citrus flavours. Tim Adams has aged this particular Riesling in the bottle for five years which has added light hints of blossom and honey on toast. This wine will cellar for twenty years, and can then be enjoyed as an aperitif or with seafood. The website advises it is ‘best with oysters fresh from the sea.’

Tips for lunch included Mr. Mick’s Cellar Door & Kitchen, where Tim Adams and his partner Brett Schutz have established a tapas restaurant and a cellar door to exhibit a range of inexpensive, unpretentious wines in the old Stanley Leasingham winery. Here is where Tim began his winemakers apprenticeship with ‘Mick’ Knappstein, so keeping it in the family, we headed into town.

Unfortunately, the long drive back excluded me from mixing wine with lunch, but we had tasted enough at Tim Adams to feel relaxed and happy. We chose two dishes each and thoroughly enjoyed our choices. Sharing everything, of course!

First, our waitress arrived with fresh, home-made bread, soft and warm from the oven, with terrific crustiness. This was served with local Emu Rock olive oil and Mr Mick’s spicy dukkha. To say we inhaled it, would not be overstating the case, and Fergus claimed another three plates full would not have gone astray.

Next, a standard pub favourite that was done to perfection: salt and pepper squid, so tender and light that we barely needed to chew, was served with an interesting orange and chilli dipping sauce.

Then, traditional albondigas, or four, fat veal and pork meatballs, which were served with braised fennel and topped with a creamy béchamel sauce. I only managed one, but SN2 was happy to clear the bowl.

Finally, the sweetest of sweet potato, roasted, and sprinkled with bacon cubes and crispy shallots, that came so hot from the oven I almost burnt my tongue. A siesta would not have been unwelcome at this stage, but unfortunately it was time to turn south if we were to have time for any further detours.

Now, surely, it’s time to light the fire and pour the Tempranillo…?

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Shakespeare in the Rain

An English castle. A late summer evening. A production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. A handful of talented actors. An outdoor stage. A picnic tea. An eager audience. A night to remember.

Illyria is a group of touring players, created over twenty-five years ago, that performs open-air theatre for both adults and children. Every summer since 1991, the group has travelled through the UK, Europe and North America, with a wide selection of plays. The actors have changed over the years, but director Oliver Gray has led the troop since the beginning.

Years ago, we used to take the kids to watch Illyra productions at Ightham Mote, a medieval moated manor house and National Trust property on the outskirts of Sevenoaks in Kent. I particularly remember a fine performance of Alice in Wonderland. It was a magical spot: the manor house an integral part of the backdrop; a hill for the children to roll down when they needed to let off steam; a picnic tea on the lawn beside the moat.

This time, we are at Tonbridge Castle, which looms behind the stage in the twilight. After a remarkably reliable summer of endless blue skies and not a drop of rain, the clouds are gathering over Tonbridge tonight. Fortunately, the rain holds off, as we delve enthusiastically into our picnic baskets and chat with wandering cast members.

The troop’s website warns audiences that they will take the mickey out of anyone wandering in late but it appears everyone got the memo, arriving promptly with picnic rugs, tables and chairs. We have also noted the tip to bring wine and cake, but I think most of us left the candelabras at home!

We have wisely brought umbrellas and raincoats, too, although the poor cast, on the roofless stage, is not so well protected, as the thunder rumbles overhead and intermittent rain douses them from head to foot. At one point, the thunder and lightening, timed to perfection, takes its cue from the script: ‘Why, look how you storm’ I think, or perhaps ‘it droppeth as from the gentle rain from heaven’? It might have been both.

The five actors are appealingly animated and amusing. It is a polished, high octane, performance, with the cast taking on four or five roles apiece, using different costumes and different accents to signify the changes. We are struck by how well they keep track of their various parts, making it remarkably easy to follow the plot. As the website says, The Merchant of Venice is a comedy that deals with serious issues, so it is ‘by turns, gripping, funny, romantic and thought-provoking.’ The audience responds with delight.

The performers remain undaunted by the weather, never veering from the script, regardless of the rain, although, by the final scene, we can barely hear them, as the rain pounds down heavily on our umbrellas, and torrents of water pour off the stage. The final lines are delivered in a roar to compete with the storm, an yet, somehow, the cast finishes the play without any appearance of being drenched in the downpour, apart from the occasional need to swipe dripping locks out of their eyes.

I particularly loved the fact that the actors obviously enjoyed performing as much as we enjoyed watching them. And it was great to see so many families, with kids of all ages, engaged in the show. Having sat through several slow, dull theatre and film productions of this Shakespearean classic, I wam thrilled that the Illyria team didn’t take themselves too seriously and the humour was paramount. It verged on Gilbert & Sullivan for light-hearted, easy-going entertainment.

It was such an outstanding performance, I was tempted to follow them around the country, like a groupie or camp follower,  to see their other performances this season: Doctor Dolittle, the Pirates of Penzance and The Hound of the Baskervilles. Sadly, it wasn’t an option, but if you get the chance, I highly recommend tracking them down. You won’t regret it, even in the rain!

*Photos care of Illyria and me!

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Don’t Count Your Chickens or Cooking Your Chook

The first time I watched a hen’s demise for culinary purposes was in Nepal. We were staying in a remote rural village, being treated like royalty, when our hosts offered us chicken for dinner. At the time, we didn’t recognize the signified of this generous offer. We simply found ourselves in a front row pew for the beheading of an aged chook, who squawked once and then ran headless around the yard for several minutes, gushing blood from her headless corpse. So, not surprisingly, we were hardly inspired to eat the leathery offering that landed on our plates a couple of hours later.

Recently, in the UK with friends, there was much discussion about one of the family hens that had taken to eating its own eggs. Not to be encouraged, their first thought was to send it to heaven care of the neighbourhood fox, no one quite having the stomach for a mercy killing.

A timely visit from an expert friend saw the chook dispatched with professional alacrity, and we were left wondering what to do with the corpse. I remembered a fellow Gastronomy graduate assuring me that we should all experience killing the food we eat, so as not to take its death for granted. Eventually, consensus was reached. We would not bury it, or feed it to the foxes, but prepare and cook it.

Unfortunately, none of us was certain how to achieve this. How did one gut and de-feather a hen? Google – an awesome modern resource – showed us how best this operation could be performed. Placing the dead hen in boiling water would loosen the feathers. A swift attack with a sharp knife would remove its head and feet. Donning rubber gloves would ensure a relatively tidy removal of its innards.

I promptly christened our sacrificial hen Betsy, much to my friend’s horror, who claimed you should never name what you plan to eat. Nevertheless, it was done. Poor Betsy was carried to the laundry and removed from her shroud (a large sack.)

Poised at the side of the sink, as the Holder of the iPhone and Supervisor Extraordinaire, I guided the proceedings. Lacking a large enough pot, we doused poor Betsy in boiling water and discovered that the feathers, thus soaked, came off in our hands. It is an efficient method, although it doesn’t smell particularly pleasant. A not-so-sharp knife saw to Betsy’s decapitation (think Nearly Headless Nick) and the removal of a pair of large, crusty feet. No rubber gloves could be found, so a pair of plastic bags stood in as understudy, and Betsy was gutted forthwith.

Once every surplus feather, face, limb and liver had been removed, Betsy looked just like a Tescoe’s chook, bar the cling film. Unlike Tescoe’s, who truss chickens neatly, I had to lie Betsy sideways on a plate to fit her in the fridge, to await cremation in the Aga. She looked like she had just curled up for a nap.

Needless to say, I didn’t stay for dinner. Well, how could I eat a chicken with a name? But reports were less than admiring: poor Betsy was as tough as the proverbial shoe leather and the fox doubtless feasted on her remains anyway.

*chook: Aussie word for chicken

*photo care of Google.

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Summer Days in Shoreham

There is a rather pretty little path between the villages of Otford and Shoreham in north-west Kent that cuts across the golf course and is largely shaded by overhanging trees. On a 30-degree day in August, this is a blessing, as I ramble the long-familiar footpath with old friends. Even the fear of flying golf balls has been removed, as the usual proliferation of golfers has either retreated to the shade or, presumably, to the pub.

Shoreham village is an old favourite. The pub is strung with hanging baskets and the tables are brimming with beers and baskets of crisps, consumed energetically by families who have been out walking their dogs up in the hills or along the river. We wander past picturesque cottages draped in roses and wisteria, a church steeple rising above the yews, to discover an unsealed driveway off Church Street. Meandering along the track, we pass an elegant Victorian country house (accommodation available) hemmed in vineyards and sprinkled with sunshine, before reaching the cellar door.

The Mount opened for business in 2008, four years after planting eight grape varieties in the surrounding acres. Maybe it is a sign of the growing passion for wine all around the globe; maybe it is a sign that Trump is wrong and global warming is a reality, but I would never have expected to find vineyards in Kent. Hops, apples, strawberries, yes, but not grapes. And yet the Romans were here planting villas and vineyards that survived for centuries to reappear in the Domesday Book, where vineyards were recorded as far north as Suffolk. So, perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised to find a thriving vineyard in the Darent Valley, a mere sixty minute stroll from Lullingstone Villa.

The vineyard has expanded its attractions considerably since I was last here, to include secluded areas for outdoor weddings and a new patio dining area with a retractable roof. But  first, accompany me to the tasting room, to lean on the long slate bar and sip a selection of the Mount’s award-winning still and sparkling wines, designed to brighten up a lazy summer afternoon. You may choose to do this at a more formal, informative wine tasting accompanied by matching cheeses, but in the meantime,  let me introduce you to Ramon, the helpful and knowledgeable barman, and to a couple of my favourite wines…

Probably the most well-known wine at The Mount is the sparkling rosé. Created in the traditional méthode champenoise, from Seyval, Phoenix and Pinot Noir grapes, it is pretty in pink and full of the scent of strawberries. There is also a terrific sparkling brut. Unfortunately, they had run out of supplies when we were there, but the alternative choices were perfectly acceptable.

The Flint Key 2013 has a definite aroma and taste of elderflower, with a whisper of honeysuckle and peach, and a splash of citrus. Made from Bacchus and Siegerrebe grapes to create a fun, flavourful white wine, it was a chilled and chatty accompaniment to a light lunch on this hot and sticky summer afternoon. To the winery’s delight, it has already managed to win a couple of awards.

Since I first visited in spring last year, The Mount’s dining experience has become considerably more sophisticated. As always, passing walkers are welcome to sit on the lawn or at the picnic tables for a quick glass of wine and a snack. However, if you prefer to drift through the day, indulging in more filling fare and some quirky conversation, then perhaps book a table on the patio with good friends, and enjoy both the company and the extended menu. There is a variety of tasty, stone baked pizzas with thin, crunchy crusts and extravagant toppings, imaginative tasting platters of cheese and charcuterie, and ‘light bites’ that include some heavyweight, home-made pasties served with piccalilli. We threw a selection of everything into the centre of the table and all but licked the platters clean. Obviously, The Mount’s wines are the star attractions on the wine list, but there is also a choice of several extra-curricular wines, beers or spirits, if you prefer.

Having eaten and sipped my fill, I strolled back along the Darent Valley towards Otford with my friends, clutching a bottle of the Mount’s best 2015 Pinot Noir to share later with the One & Only, when we both returned to Luxembourg.

*With thanks to Google Images for all photos except the last one, as mine weren’t nearly so good!

 

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Soaking up the Sweden Sunshine

Its been an exceptionally hot, dry summer in Europe this year. Fabulous for us and our tent, but not so fabulous for the farmers.

I was born in one of the driest states in the world, where we grew up with summer hose-pipe bans, water shortages and droughts, as a matter of course. We had two-minute showers and recycled the washing-up water to save the lawn from burning to a crisp. Bushfires were a constant threat throughout the summer, but on the other hand, you could rely on good weather for a picnic or a party.

I never expected to visit Scandinavia and find a similar scenario.

Two weeks camping in Norway, and the nights were cold, but the days were hot. With the temperature gauge stuck at about 30 degrees centigrade, we headed south to Skåne, and a friend’s farm near Ystad. There, we were gobsmacked to see a landscape that reminded us so clearly of a South Australian summer: parched and yellow, dry as dust under wide blue skies. We were warned that a typical Scandinavian summer might be damp and dreary in a tent. Luckily for us, the only rain we saw was a ten-minute shower in Oslo, from our hotel window.

I Googled Top 10 things to do in Skåne, and I can only suggest you do the same. We did none of them. We were well off the beaten track, where the scenery was rural, the villages cosy and pretty, and tourists were rare. Here, we were closer to Copenhagen than Stockholm, in a landscape surprisingly flat, after Norway’s dramatic and rugged terrain. Here wide sheets of blue sky lay before us, stretched tightly over a mattress of yellow corn and wheat. Instead of the tall, lean French poplars, farmhouses were announced by lines of pollarded willows that looked like green lollipops.

Closer to the coast, a thick band of forest separated the shore line from the farm land, and once we reached the beach, we found squeaky white sand and dunes decorated in a spiky, spinifex-style grass. It was pure South Australia. The beach is regularly bludgeoned by wind and sea, so, perhaps not surprisingly, we were dodging scattered driftwood and gnarly old tree trunks, roots attached, like petrified octopi. The sand was also thickly coated with bathers, some clad, some not. Yet barely two hundred metres from the car park the beach is empty of any bodies but ours.

During this mild and gentle summer, the coast was calm and peaceful. Children danced among the waves, or built castles in the sand. But don’t be fooled by its benign appearance: it is a pernicious sea, that hides rip tides, dangerous currents, and shipwrecks galore. In many places, the beach had been torn away to reappear further down the coast, and cliffs had collapsed under the barrage of raging wintry waves, leaving houses perched precariously close to the edge.

Ancient standing stones overlooked the sea, a mini Stonehenge, while other signs of pagan times included a summer solstice maypole, or midsommarstången. As a pagan symbol of fertility, its tall central pole with two round hoops at the top certainly send the right message.

We explored several small seaside villages, looking almost English with their homely, white-washed or brightly coloured cottages, but the cobbled streets are wider here, the red roofs lower. Then, getting peckish, we indulged in a mixed seafood platter by the port, sampling local specialities such as smoked eel and smoked mussels, gravadlax, pickled herring and smoked mackerel accompanied by cold beer.

Back inland, attractive village churches stood out on the skyline, their steeples or stepped roofs rising high above the crops. Mostly whitewashed, they showed off a variety of architectural eras, from the Romans to the nineteenth century. We wandered among gravestones kept beautifully neat and trim, admired the simple decor within.

As we drove down empty country lanes, wildflowers ran amok through the wheat and barley, and along the verges: poppies, red and orange; dainty white daisies; splashes of purple and yellow; feathery grasses. As a rainbow put in a brief appearance, I stood in the middle of the road, imbibed with the still calm of the late afternoon. From here, fields of grain stretched as far as the eye could see, the evening light something I cannot begin to describe, but Monet would have adored, in this Provence of the north.

We drove past thatched cottages trimmed in blue paint and hollyhocks in a mad swirl of colours. Half-timbered red brick houses leaned at odd angles, fighting gravity more picturesquely than I ever will. Old windmills, their blades removed, had been converted into houses shaped like bee hives. In a huge, red brick barn behind the house dwelt antiquated farm equipment and nesting swallows.

Gathering with friends in the garden, we sipped on local beer, Luxembourg crémant, chilled Chardonnay – a perfect accompaniment to boiled potatoes and salmon with a mustard and dill sauce – as the evening light drifted on and on… until, at last, an awe-inspiring sunset painted the clouds in dusky pink and wisteria purple. Beside the driveway, half a dozen cherry trees are thick with fruit and flocks of revelling birds. The lawn, burnt to a straw-yellow, prickled the soles of our feet, as we finally headed to bed.

Sadly, since we left, bushfires have been raging in Swedish forests. Seriously, were we in southern Sweden or South Australia?

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Ibsen’s Norway

‘The pillars of truth and the pillars of freedom – they are the pillars of society.’ ~ Henrik Ibsen

Oslo in July. Boats and blue skies. A mad modern opera house, designed to look like it was rising from the sea, but looking, to me, like it had just struck an iceberg and is in the process of sinking. Copious Italian restaurants and clocks everywhere. Naked statues all over the park by prominent Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland. Numerous art galleries into which the One & Only disappears for hours. Endless museums of Viking ships and traditional wooden houses, and a military museum in a medieval castle above the harbour. And the Ibsenmuseet.

I clearly remember studying Ibsen at high school, and productions by the South Australian State Theatre Company. The Doll’s House and The Lady from the Sea. There have been several movies, too, not least an intensely beautiful Australian adaptation of The Wild Duck: The Daughter, with Sam Neill and Geoffrey Rush.

So, I was quite excited to rediscover Ibsen in Oslo in the flesh, so to speak. And where else would he be? Henrik Ibsen is, after all, Norwegian. Playwright, theatre director, poet, he is known as “the father of realism” and has become the most frequently performed dramatist in the world after Shakespeare.

Yet it was not always so.

(If you don’t like, don’t remember or don’t know Ibsen’s work, stop here, as the following is my own self-indulgent research of this fascinating Norwegian.)

Ibsen was born in 1828 into a wealthy shipping family, but in 1835 Ibsen’s father was declared bankrupt. Young Henrik found the resulting loss of wealth and status immensely distressing. At fifteen, he had to leave school, and became an apprentice pharmacist in Grimstad, over 130km from his family. Here he began writing plays, and for many years he worked in theatre in Bergen and Christiana (later renamed Oslo). By 1864, defeated by his lack of success as both a writer and a manager, he fled to Italy with his wife Suzannah and their small son. He would not return to live in Norway for almost thirty years.

At last, in 1895, aged sixty seven, and at the height of his success as a playwright, Ibsen brought his family back to Christiana. In a large and elegant apartment just below the Royal Palace in Stottenpark, he spent the final decade of his life, and completed his last four plays: ‘The Master Builder’ and ‘Little Eyolf,’ ‘John Gabriel Borkman’ and ‘When We Dead Awaken.’ That apartment, now the centrepiece of the Ibsen museum, has been authentically recreated to look as it did at the turn of the last century, right down to the floor coverings and the colour of the paint. The Ibsen family has donated or loaned much of the original furniture to the museum.

In the apartment next door there is a fascinating exhibition, containing many of Ibsen’s personal possessions, paintings, and many facts about the man and his works. However, it was thanks to the more personal touch of our guide that I came away with such a clear picture of the man behind the theatrical façade.

Ragnhild – a very traditional, very old Norwegian name, she told us – described a man shaped by the long years of poverty and failure as a playwright. A man prone to bouts of depression. A man of contrast: vulnerable but egotistical; obstinate and opinionated, yet anxious and insecure. Naturally introverted, he nonetheless craved recognition and adored the limelight. Yet he needed alcohol and an adopted persona to cope socially, hiding behind enormous mutton chop moustaches and a tall top hat. As his star rose, a Bohemian youth gave way to a groomed and polished image of a social and professional success. An honorary degree gave him the title doctor, of which he was inordinately proud.

While other writers at the time were conservative, idealistic and moralistic, much of Ibsen’s writing was considered scandalous. When European theatre was expected to take the moral high ground on family life and society, Ibsen preferred to expose the hypocrisies he saw among the middle class. Critical of social and religious conventions, Ibsen was a progressive, even radical writer. He saw no grand design and claimed that man must forge his own path and make his own choices. Unfortunately, this was not the world he was living in, and these forthright opinions did not win him friends or influence in provincial Christiana. And yet, another anomaly, he still wished to find a place as close to the top of the social ladder as possible. (Ironic, considering Ragnhild described a classless society in Norway, apart from the Royal family.)

Evntually, his work at last found success in Italy and Germany.  Although still decidedly controversial, he was soon to become a renowned and respected playwright. His plays often exposed the hypocritical morality of the middle classes. His characters were often rebels, conflicted with the accepted social conventions of the day.

At last, strengthened by his success abroad, he returned to Norway, eager to make his mark in his own country. And here the tour began.

The first room we see in his apartment reflects his egoism: an enormous portrait of Ibsen himself  hangs above his desk. By comparison, his wife’s cameo portrait hangs in a shadow, on a side wall, among many others. The three front rooms of the apartment are elegantly, even ostentatiously decorated. His office is heavily Germanic in its furnishings, while his two reception rooms, the Red and Blue Salons, are decorated with elaborate French and Italian furniture. He owned a Bechstein piano, but apparently it was there only for effect: Ibsen never allowed anyone to play it, and nor did he play himself.

Those three front rooms were almost like a stage set. Behind the scenes, the family rooms were much more Scandinavian, simple, almost austere. It was a fascinating reflection of the paradoxical writer: his extravagant public persona and his modest private life.

Ragnhild noted that Ibsen was a very disciplined writer and a creature of habit. He would write every morning for two hours, then walk down to the Grand Café for a beer before luncheon, and the route he took was well-known to his neighbours. (Ibsen quotes are now scattered along the path he once took.) He would then return to write in the afternoon in a small seat by the window in the drawing room, where passers-by could observe his backview at work.

Suzannah Ibsen, on the other hand, preferred to keep a low profile. She suffered from rheumatism, so she stayed in her own cosy sitting room, where she would read all day. She was, nonetheless, highly political and would gather her feminist activist friends around her to discuss the current issues of women’s suffrage.

I was fascinated to know if Dr. Ibsen was as radical in his own marriage as in the one’s he wrote about. Ragnhild explained that as far as anyone can tell, the Ibsens had a warm and equal marriage, and Henrik allowed his wife all the independence of speech and behaviour he allowed his female characters.

It has been said that Suzannah nannied her husband, occasionally having to force the pen into his hand. Despite her own reticence to be seen in public, she was a strong character and, Ibsen admitted more than once, his greatest support. She was also the inspiration for many of Ibsen’s famous characters and was so like Mother Åse from Peer Gynt that, when Ibsen read the play to his family, his son Sigurd apparently cried out “that’s Mama!”’

Only a two-minute walk from Ibsen’s apartment is The National Theatre. Opened in September 1899, statues of Ibsen and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson – another popular Norwegian writer, whose daughter would later marry Ibsen’s son – stand proudly before the front entrance. Their names are also engraved in stone on the theatre’s facade, in the company of Danish-Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg. There were three official opening performances, productions of the works of each of these three renowned writers. The theatre has staged Ibsen’s plays almost every year since then, and also hosts the biennial International Ibsen Festival.

Now there’s a thought for our next trip to Norway!

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Of Fjords and Waterfalls, Salmon and Seagulls

Norway in mid-summer, and those never-ending Scandinavian days, when the sun sets in the north-west for a mere blink of the eye, before rising again in the north-east. Birds chatter and chirp for as long as the sky is bright, as over-excited as spectators at the World Cup.

And we are camping.

It’s a long time since we’ve been camping, and I am a little anxious. But we are better equipped than we were thirty years ago, armed only with our sleeping bags and a two-man tent, strapped to mountain bikes. This time, while it isn’t exactly glamping, it is infinitely more comfortable than it was in the olden days. This time, we have a family-sized tent – the McMansion – with room to stand, air mattresses to sleep on, and a two-burner gas stove. The car boot is a portable wardrobe and thus overstocked with clothes and accoutrements: coffee pots, family sized frying pans and a huge wicker picnic basket. (Next time we will purge the contents of our travelling kitchen, if only to avoid playing Tetris in the boot with all the bags and boxes every time we pack up!)

As a bonus, we are blessed with three weeks of the most superb camping weather: not a drop of rain, clear blue skies, warm days, cool nights. My only complaint is the ridiculous class system that pervades every camp ground, giving priority to motor homes – mostly equipped with bathrooms anyway – and dumping the tents at the far reaches of the campsite, ensuring many a desperate midnight dash of several hundred metres to the nearest loo. In that respect, at least, I am now thoroughly appreciating my motel room near Bremen with its ensuite bathroom.

So, how to describe the majestic beauty that is Norway?

I could, like Bill Bryson, flaunt some impressive statistics: the longest, deepest fjord (205km x 1,300m); the highest waterfall (850m); the longest tunnel (24.5km).  We never found the highest waterfall, but we drove through the longest tunnel and caught a ferry across the deepest fjord.

Here, let me show you…

An overnight ferry from Denmark to Stavanger in a proper, grown-up cabin with a huge, round porthole, North Sea winds nearly blowing us off the deck…

A green and leafy campsite beside a lake brimming with ducks and geese and swans and children and joggers, where our tent squats on the windiest spot for miles, a busy road roaring right behind us, day and night…

A harbour lined with sailing boats and motor boats and tourist boats; bustling pubs and restaurants decked out in bunting for the soccer; pop-up stalls selling those traditional Nordic jumpers in complicated, geometric designs that last a lifetime…

An old, white-weatherboard town clambering up cobbled hills on either side of the harbour, one side trapped out for the tourists with boutiques and cafés, the other side filled with picturesque cottages trimmed with colourful summer gardens…

Heading south to wild, windy beaches and white sand dunes, where Oyster catchers clamber over the rocks and ours are the only footprints in the sand, the scent of salt and seaweed heavy on the air; hunting for light houses, in all shapes and sizes, with marble-mouth names like Obrestad, Kjeungskjær, Ytterøyane and Ytre Møkkalasset. We haven’t time for them all –  there are multitudes in Norway – but we find a few…

A pilgrimage to Pulpit Rock (Preikestolen) 600 metres above the Lysefjorden, where hundreds of walkers, red-faced and breathless, clamber up the steep, rocky steps, through fairy glens of moss and marsh and around glassy mountain tarns to reach the famous look out after a ‘moderately demanding’ trek…

A picnic, far from the madding crowd, beside a tiny pebbled beach on a lonely stretch of water, then a nap beneath the trees, and a ferry ride home, dodging through the cluster of islands between Tau and Stavanger …

Driving north-east through Tolkien-tunnels underneath the mountains, over sky-high bridges spanning bottomless green fjords, narrow roads tightly cork-screwing over mountains dimpled with snow…

… past Tiffany-blue-and-turquoise rivers, mirror-like mountain tarns reflecting the mountains, the deafening sound of splashing, crashing cascades and waterfalls dropping like white streamers over the rocks and into the fjords below. Troll-like rock formations that bring to mind Obelix and his menhirs, lush alpine meadows polka-dotted with wildflowers, squat stone cottages with low-browed turf-covered roofs sprouting miniature roof gardens…

A medieval stave church, leaning drunkenly amid the tidy gravestones; weatherboard houses in white and red, in a sea of cherry orchards and toffee-coloured cows; lambs and goats, and stray seagulls swooping inland from the sea…

A courageous dip in a glacier-fed lake, temptingly clear on a hot afternoon, terrifyingly icy as we plunge in…

A helicopter drops to the surface of the fjord, scooping water into a bucket to douse a fire in the hills, another delivers rocks to the Sherpas repairing a footpath beside a waterfall, and yet another is sent in to rescue accident-prone summer skiers…

A peaceful campsite on a farm above a dappled dam, overlooked by mountains holding up hectares and hectares of ancient glacier, where we are woken by a scolding rooster and his harem of friendly hens…

Bergen, a port town filled with cruise ships and sunshine. A plethora of fish stalls and cafés and coloured wooden houses prone to fire that have been recreated time and again over the centuries; a cosy coffee shop in a cobbled lane, a haven from the swarming crowds and the fierce sun. Giant crabs and infant oysters, salmon and eel and reindeer salami…

Flåm, a tiny town at the top of a fjord, its minuscule population bloated to bursting point by hikers and campers and cruise ships. A train chugging up the valley filled with sight-seers and selfie sticks. A wall of motor homes turning the valley into a vast car park…

And yet there are still a few quiet and solitary spots to be found: out on the fjord in a kayak, buffeted by a passing ferry, dive-bombed by nesting seagulls; on a sandy island in the middle of a fast-flowing, pebble-bottomed, glacier-mint river; on a calm, soft evening beside the marina, sipping Chardonnay; in an obscure little coffee shop overlooking the harbour for my best Scandinavian coffee yet…

An almost spontaneous meeting with old friends from Sydney, in the next valley, dining on salmon and chips and reindeer meatballs as the sun refuses to set…

And early mornings in the campsite, with a mug of tea, bird-watching, people-watching, the wildflowers thick and bright on the bank behind us, small children turning somersaults or sword-fighting with sticks…

Norway: an endless, ocular feast of natural beauty and hot, blue skies; a land of fresh air and pink, woolly sunsets; a land of fjords and waterfalls, salmon and seagulls and endless sunshine. This summer at least!

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Wild Asparagus, Wild Strawberries

‘England represented the safety and comfort of familiarity but France dared me with challenges and rewarded me with the thrill of new discoveries within myself.’ ~ Barbara Santich

Remember what it is like to be a footloose student or a young, newly married couple? When life was simpler and cheaper, but it was often a struggle to make ends meet? Remember that time, and then remove yourself from the security of your home town to a foreign country, where job prospects are few and far between and anything you can earn is mere pocket money.

Many books have been written about living abroad, and the literal and personal odysseys such experiences become. There’s Peter Mayle’s ‘A Year in Provence,’ Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘Eat, Pray, Love’, and my own favourite, ‘The Bottlebrush Tree: A Village in Andalusia’ by Hugh Seymour-Davies. Not one of these has rung as many bells and reawakened so many memories of those impulsive, intrepid years when no daydream seemed impossible, as ‘Wild Asparagus and Wild Strawberries,’ by Australian writer and food historian Barbara Santich.

Published in South Australia by Wakefield Press, this memoir is not just a travel log but a journey back in time to the days when having two pennies to rub together was a rare luxury.  It is an autobiographical account of two years in France, in the late 1970s, with tiny twins in tow; a nostalgic reminiscence of the adventures and anxieties of one family who dared to make the leap from a well-established and comfortable  lifestyle into the never never, with all that youthful optimism for making dreams come true. A dream to live in France? Une, deux, trois, c’est accompli!

Knowing the north of France a little, and Le Midi a little better, I find Santich’s descriptions endearingly familiar: the rural villages in the Languedoc; the quirky characters; an aging population where ‘children are as rare as diamonds,’ and centuries of history are writ large on every stone. Then, reluctantly, the move to Compiègne, of the sombre and shuttered north, where she finds a different but equally enticing world of foie gras and dark forests, pommes de terre and Paris.

I loved reading about her joy at returning to France, and her gentle observations of the characters she meets there. The ancient shepherd who has names for every sheep in his flock, the nanny-cum-cook with crooked teeth, the landlady with ‘scarecrow hair,’ and the old men gathering in la place every day to watch the world go by. And the endless attraction for les jumeaux faux (the ‘false’ or fraternal twins).

Santich and her family moved regularly during their sojourn in France, keen to know different regions: from the Languedoc to Provence; a brief summer in Spain, then onto ‘the cold, dark north.’ I became thoroughly engrossed in the many contrasts between north and south, most notably the culture and the food. Together, we discovered the way each season was marked by the appearance of wild leeks or wild raspberries, partridges or grape pickers. And the intermittent inclusion of a favourite recipe adds a tasty aside de temps en temps. Even as I read about lapin à la provençale or soupe de poissons à la marseillaise, my mouth was watering, and my feet itched to race to the butcher for a rabbit or dash to the sea for poissons de roche.

As always, Santich is in her element when it comes to food. And it was intriguing to see where her fascination with food history began, as her French adventures led her deeper and deeper into the traditions of rural life in France and the simple, wholesome cuisines of the various regions. Without this two-year interlude, she confesses, I might never have realised the fascination of old cookbooks, never envisaged a career as a food writer and culinary historian.’

Santich has written many books about food history, both Australian and French, but none has been as personal as this one. We are introduced to a younger version of this eminent academic, absorbing her glee at revisiting her beloved France with her family, her joy in gleaning wild herbs and vegetables from the verges, castoff clothes for the children and discarded fruits from orchards laden with cherries. We, too, hear the siren call of the local markets and merrily join the treasure hunt for local wine. And we find ourselves equally enamoured of her new friends, overawed by the unexpected strength of the mistral, or frustrated by inscrutable banks and bureaucracy.

Santich faces each new chapter with the overt enthusiasm of a true gourmand, keen to try un petit peu of everything on offer, from bullfights to la vendange (the grape harvest), from Spanish omelette to ‘pot-au-feu.’ And I am reminded that there is an innocent joy to experiencing the world even – or perhaps especially – when you are living on the smell of an oily rag.

In many ways, it’s a nostalgic period piece, a cameo of a world that has sadly vanished. And yet, to a certain extent, we recognize little has changed. How quickly a new world becomes home, the unfamiliar growing familiar and reassuring as we become familiar with the daily routines and rituals of the neighbourhood. How an interest in local dialects, politics and food helps to immerse us in the local community. How children will inevitably attract new friends.  That Santich writes in the present tense gives her tale an alluring immediacy – if only the epilogue didn’t dash our hopes that a remnant of this old-world France might still survive!

By the end of her tale, I am as reluctant to leave France as Barbara herself. Her epilogue is a sad nod to progress, but at the same time I am incredibly grateful to have been introduced to ‘a time when the 19th century almost touched hands with the 21st.’ And after all, to travel in the south of France today is still to see a glimmer of this antediluvian, yet alluring way of life.

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