The Sound of Music

Now we are back in South Australia and in the depths of a damp winter, it is hard to believe that only a few weeks ago we were wandering through Rome, immersed in spring. Early in the tourist season, the crowds were already building around the more famous sites, but we happily meandered through deserted back streets lined with blossom, soaking up the atmosphere, and coming across a few surprising secrets.

One such secret was the National Museum of Musical Instruments. This fabulous museum is not widely advertised, but it does rate a mention in the Lonely Planet Guide to Rome. When we realized it was only a ten minute walk from our B&B, we thought it might be worth a visit. After a coffee in the park, overlooking the old city walls, we went in search of this hidden gem. And hidden it certainly was: tucked behind the Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, in what was once the Palazzina Samoggia. The Museum was established in 1974 and filled with the substantial remnants of a private collection belonging to Evangelista Gennaro Gorga, an Italian lyric tenor born in 1865. He gave up a successful career at the age of thirty four, presumably to focus on his collecting habit. Intent on creating an encyclopaedical collection of musical instruments from archaic to the present day, Gorga would collect
more than 150,000 antiques, that included not only musical instruments but toys, pottery, and ancient weapons. Although he came from a wealthy Italian family, he would spend an entire fortune on this vast collection. Eventually, up to his ears in debt, he was forced to sell many pieces during the Depression, and eventually, he gifted the rest – mostly musical instruments – to the government, to allay his debts. These pieces were eventually collected from various storage facilities across Rome and now make up a large portion of the current Museum collection. There are also some wonderful paintings that feature musicians through the ages.

So, what did I learn about the history of musical instruments? Or more to the point, what do I now remember? (If you already know all there is to know on the subject, feel free to skip the rest of the story. For those of you prepared to read on, I will try not to waffle for too long.

The museum holds a fascinating collection of more than 800 rare and ancient instruments from Italy and Europe, from the sacred Egyptian sistrum, used in dances and religious ceremonies (it sounds like one of those wooden rattles used at football matches) to the 19th century zither. The zither probably originated in Persia, and has appeared in many cultures in various forms, particularly in the Far East. The earliest known surviving instrument of the zither family dates from 433 B.C. It is a Chinese guqin, found in the tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng.

Signposting around the museum explains that bowed string instruments evolved from the hunting bows of central Asia, their popularity spreading westwards, finally arriving in Italy and Spain in the 10th century. By the end of the 15th century, the invention of the arched bridge to support the strings, and a casing made from separate pieces of wood helped to produce a much more sophisticated sound, and eventually led to the invention of the violin. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the violin would evolve further, as orchestras playing in large concert halls required a bigger sound.

Percussion instruments were first used in Persia and Turkey. As the instruments of the Muslim Menace, they were banned in Europe for centuries. Then, when finally deemed acceptable, these instruments (drums, cymbals, tambourines) were used by military bands. By the end of the eighteenth century, they had also begun to appear in western orchestral music.

Instruments can be divided into three categories based on how they produce sounds: string, wind, and percussion. The piano is a string instrument (think of all those vibrating wires under the lid) and it’s ancestry can be traced back to the clavichord, harpsichord, spinet, virginal and dulcimer. Aren’t they lovely, musical words? The museum has a beautiful assortment of early pianos in many different shapes and sizes, as their creators experimented with shape and sound and volume.

The dulcimer dates back to circa 500BCE, and was used in the Middle East, Southwest Asia, and China. It reached Europe in the 11th century. A simple resonating box with strings stretched on top of it, there is a small hammer to hit the strings, just like the piano. Then, around 1500, the harpsichord was created in Italy. and would travel north to France, Germany, and Great Britain. Its system of strings and soundboard, and the overall structure of the instrument resemble those that can be found in a modern piano.

The piano is also part of the keyboard family. Keyboards originated in Ancient Greece, where the organ was invented, sending bursts of air through hollow pipes to make sound. Fourteenth century craftsmen improved upon the organ to develop the clavichord.

The first piano was invented by an Italian, Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655-1731) in Florence, for the Medici Family, who were great patrons of the arts and music. Cristofori, unhappy with the lack of control over the volume level of the harpsichord, swapped the plucking mechanism with a hammer to create the piano as we know it today. Originally, it was known as the “clavicembalo col piano e forte“. Literally, this means a harpsichord that can play soft and loud noises. A complicated name even for Italians to say, it was soon shortened ‘piano.’ The museum owns one such piano. Built by Cristofori in 1722, it is one of only three to survive, and apparently the best preserved of the three.

We also came across the oldest German harpsichord in the world, and the famous ‘Harp Barberini.’ What was especially nice at the museum, was that audio-visual displays allowed you to listen to the sound these instruments would make when played. Many of these instruments have been beautifully decorated and painted, and would look equally splendid in an art gallery. Next time, we will try and time our visit for one of the musical reviews or concerts that take place at the museum.

*Photos care of the One & Only

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Coronation Day

I am a little behind with this review on a momentous day for the UK, as sad news from home had us dashing back to Australia before the last string of flags had been removed from park railings across London. Nonetheless, it was a day worth recording…

My head is still trying to catch up with my body as I wander through English woods awash with bluebells. Can it really be three and a half years since I was last here? We landed at Heathrow in March, in sleet and snow, only to fly south the next morning. Two months on, and Spring has sprung. Pink blossom, golden daffodils and polychromatic tulips fill flowerbeds, tubs and verges. The skies are blue, and by midday I am basking in warm sunshine. Yet, before I know it, we will be shooting back to chilly days and chillier nights in the wintry southern hemisphere. It all seems surreal. But I have more on my mind than the weather and bluebells. It is part of a grand plan to be in England for the Coronation…

Unfortunately, on the day that Charles III is to be crowned, the sun has chosen to take the day off, and the sky is weeping upon London and all the crowds lining the streets to watch the parade. Oh well, never mind. After all, every one of the last five coronations was blessed by showers. Rain. It’s what England does best.

Bunting has been strung up through the streets of London, flags are flying, and Royal memorabilia is flooding the shops. Surprisingly, much of that memorabilia depicts the late Queen, as manufacturers try to clear their over-stocked shelves. Apparently, Australia is talking more about Republics than Royalty, but today I’m not listening. While inherited power may be a thing of the past and tradition has become a dirty word, there are good things to be said about it that are being swept aside in the stream of negativity about all the terrible, unforgiveable things done by our predecessors, for which we must be endlessly contrite and apologetic. Tradition does not have to be all about negative connotations, overbearing empires or historical blunders, to be dismissed as shameful or embarrassing. Tradition can also be about gathering people together and creating unity. Ironically, current ‘woke’ beliefs often seem to be more divisive than unifying. ‘This is the right way, therefore the rest of you are wrong!’ A modern slant on a sense of self-righteousness that is as old as the hills.

Tradition can provide us with a sense of continuity, which in this era of fast and constant change, may bring some of us a sense of comfort, and a connection with our past. It can also provide us with a sense of belonging. And although most of us might agree that inherited positions of power should not be indulged, let’s briefly contemplate some of the positive things about this particular Royal Family’s inheritance. It’s celebrated faces sell a zillion magazines and memorabilia galore, and its beautiful palaces and ancient castles attract many millions of tourists each year, for which the British economy and the Treasury vaults must surely be a little thankful. Not to mention all the work that this philanthropic family does for the welfare of others. OK, there have been mistakes, some of them beyond embarrassing. But perhaps people in glass houses shouldn’t through stones, for after all, is there any family in the world that can claim to be perfect? And the mistakes undoubtedly sell more magazines…

Meanwhile, while I may not be pressed against the barriers along The Mall, my hair dripping damply into my eyes in the unquenchable mizzle, I have found my own sense of belonging. Sitting before a fire, surrounded by friends old and new, we toast the new King with lashings of champagne and Coronation Spirit, avidly watching the parade on a large TV screen and wearing almost-real diamond tiaras from Clare’s Accessories.

The crowning of King Charles (not ‘coronating’ America!) is the first Coronation this century. Part of an ancient tradition, the glorious spectacle that accompanies this historic event is something the British have earned a reputation for doing extremely well. Kings and queens have been crowned in Westminster Abbey since 1066 – almost a thousand years. And each piece of Royal regalia we see today has had a role in Coronations past and present for generations. That includes the 17th Century Jewelled Sword of Offering which is being carried by the first woman ever to do so: Penny Mordaunt, Leader of the House of Commons.

As the Diamond Jubilee State Coach – which was built in Australia for the late Queen – makes its way down the Mall towards Admiralty Arch, the Coronation Quiz lies disregarded on the kitchen table. At breakfast time we could answer a mere handful of the 100 questions. By dinner time, after listening carefully to the TV commentary, we will be experts about all manner of Royal trivia. (Although I still can’t find an answer to why those beautiful Windsor Greys have bright blue braids.)

Now, we watch as invited guests enter Westminster Abbey, attempting to name every member of the Royal Family, major and minor, the odd foreign dignitary, our favourite celebrities. Who wouldn’t love to be among them, in a front row pew? Yet, they have been pouring into the Abbey since breakfast time, and will have to wait for hours until the King and Queen arrive and the service begins. And thanks to the expertise and superior position of TV camera crews, we actually have a better view of the proceedings than most of those enviable and well-dressed guests, who are trapped on hard seats that are likely to be a million miles from the nearest loo or a glass of champagne. And, unlike those standing in Hyde Park, watching it all on giant screens, we are warm and dry.

In my youth, I was happy to venture into London with a milk crate, and stand shoulder to shoulder with thousands of strangers lining the streets for the wedding of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson. These days, I am not so fond of crowds, and definitely prefer a few home comforts to standing in the rain. I might wish later that I had braved the crowds and taken my place in the Mall, as I did in 1986. Certainly, the atmosphere at such close proximity to the parade is electric with excitement. But after all, from our front seats by the fire, it is much easier to reach the champagne. And the loo. So, here’s to Chaz and Cami. And ‘God Save the King!’

*The man on the right was providing commentary in sign language for the deaf.

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Savouring Sardinia

As we drive through the Sardinian countryside, we are greeted by a glorious array of wildflowers: coastal daisies and succulent, hot pink karkalla (ignominiously known as ‘pigface’) are draped in profusion over rocks and stone walls; buttercups and poppies dance among the tall meadow grasses; wild lavender and gorse litter the verges; pompoms of bright yellow wattle, oleander, fig trees, prickly pear and unusually lush eucalypti merge into thick hedgerows along the roadside, occasionally nudging one another aside to allow a glimpse of the crystal clear ocean, the colour of lapis lazuli or peacock feathers. Huge granite rock formations, dome shaped nuraghi, round coastal defence towers, a hillside village painted in pistachio, saffron, terracotta and pink… there is something colourful to catch the eye around every twist in the road.

Yet the Sardinians (or Sardines as our friend David has nicknamed them) seem disinterested in views. It is rare to find a strategically placed coffee shop or restaurant. Outside every café, tables litter the pavements, but these more often face out onto a carpark, a wall or a main road rather than a beach, lagoon or pretty garden.


Castelsardo, for example, is a beautiful mediaeval town on the north coast, high above the sea and fortified by thick walls and seventeen towers, its higgledy-piggledy houses secreted behind high sandstone walls that loom over the modern town below. From the castle walls, the views are breath-taking, looking out over the bay or across the sea towards Corsica.

As we wander the cobbled lanes, a plethora of cafés and restaurants tempt us to perch at their pocket-sized tables, balanced precariously on the cobbles, on stone staircases, or in the doorways of hobbit-sized bars. Yet most of these watering holes are halfway up a narrow, shaded alley, or squeezed into a miniscule plaza in a tight nook between a twenty foot wall and a church. Only a handful take advantage of the sea views. However, as we stand on a paved terrace looking out to sea, a chilly, boisterous breeze whips up and threatens to dislodge us. Suddenly, it is easy to see why locals prefer to duck down a side street, to avoid being blown away like Mary Poppins by an exuberant squall from the Dolomites… the Alps… the Artic?

Isola Tavolara

Our dinner in Porto San Paulo proves a rare exception to the rule. On the east coast, just south of Olbia, Ristorante Il Porto Lano is perfectly positioned out of the wind and above the sand, looking directly across to Isola Tavolara. This huge granite island rises out of the sea like a Spinosaurus, a giant sea turtle, or a marine version of Ayers Rock, depending on the angle.

Il Porto Lano has been around for over 20 years, and it has rated more than one mention in the Michelin Guide. We soon learn why. It is owned by local restaurateur Roberto Chelo Schletti and his Swiss wife, Claudia, who welcomes us warmly and ushers us out to the terrace for a glass of wine. The sommelier is more than happy to spend time explaining the pivotal wine varieties of the region: white Vermentino and red Cannonau di Sardegna. We start with “Sienda”, a Vermentino di Gallura from Mura, a winery literally just down the road. Gallura is the region; this north-eastern end of Sardinia, where grapes have been cultivated since the fourteenth century. “Sienda” means treasure. And it is.

The vineyards in Sardinia, lying between the sea and the hills, remind us of our own McLaren Vale. It is hardly surprising, then, that South Australian wineries such as Mitolo’s, Fox Creek and Challk Hill, have picked up the option to grow Vermentino there. However, our sommelier is not best pleased to learn we are stealing away with traditional Gallura grapes that, he is proud to inform us, make some of the best Vermentinos in the world. In fact, we have been tasting a lot of them since we arrived in Sardinia, and I am convinced. Vermentino has proved to be the perfect compromise between my favourite – Chardonnay – and the One and Only’s penchant for dry, crisp Rieslings.

The sea laps gently at the sand as we sip our wine and nibble on enormous green olives, and a variety of breads dipped in a heavenly olive oil. Slowly, the sun sets over the hills, turning the magnificent grey Tavolara rock a stunning shade of salmon pink. It is our final treat after a relaxing week on the east coast.

But, without further delay or ado, let’s move inside and order some food.

Of course, we are here on an island, and right beside the sea, so fish takes pride of place on the menu. But Sardinia is also renowned for its lamb – there are more sheep than people on this Mediterranean isle, apparently. Sardinia also has some unique pastas that we have been exploring over the past ten days. Fregola, for example, which means breadcrumbs, but is actually a typical Sardinian pasta made of semolina and rolled into small balls, perfect with seafood. Then there is Malloreddus alla Campidanese, Gnocchetti and my favourite, Culurgiones. This last is a cross between ravioli and gnocchi – a pasta shaped like an ear of wheat and stuffed with potato, cheese and mint, then topped with fresh tomato sauce. Of course, every region has its own variation, so we have had to try a lot of it. Other popular ingredients in Sardinia include saffron, artichokes, bottarga (a fish roe) and octopus, but not necessarily in the same dish.

However, the One and Only chooses an appetizer that manages to include most of them: an octopus salad with artichokes and bottarga. Very fishy and delicious! My choice is tuna tartar with green chicory and strawberry coulis. It is a colourful selection, perhaps due more to availability than an ideal taste combination, as the strawberry coulis somewhat defeats the fresh but mild flavour of the tuna, and the coulis might, perhaps, have received a better response from a bowl of ice-cream. But the highlight of this round is definitely the prawns in crosta de pane carasau – a crispy flatbread crepe wrapped around a giant prawn and deep fried, forming an Italian variation on the spring roll. It is perfection.

We all succumb to the primi piatti. Our only problem is having to choose from multiple variations of delectable pasta dishes. I bow out of another round of seafood by choosing maccarrones de punzu with a lamb Bolognese. Simple and tasty, I am fascinated by the shape of these unusual macaroni that look like small witchetty grubs. The One & Only selects spaghetti with red prawns, asparagus and crispy taralli crumbs. Taralli, we discover, are kind-of-crackers, similar in texture to a breadstick, but twisted into a loose ring, sort of like half a pretzel, or a careless donut. Then crunched. Taste and texture combine to make an irresistible mouthful. Our friend chooses a local speciality: a bowl of simple but delicious cod fish ravioli, served with mussels and a pea velouté.

For the main course, Claudia suggests we share the crusted sea bass. Subsequently, a huge fish arrives in a thick coffin of sea salt. Our waiter ceremoniously cracks open the casing and debones the sea bass, before serving it up with roast potatoes and grilled zucchini. We have also ordered a side serving of steamed artichokes with celery purée and lentils. Well, who can say no to carciofi in season? Each mouthful sings, the salt somehow highlighting the flavour of the fish like a choirboy’s descant. I cannot speak for joy.

The lads somehow find room for dessert, but I am done… although, as it turns out, there is just enough space to steal a mouthful or two of the One & Only’s Orange sorbet laced with Campari. And perhaps a teaspoon of the Amaretto bavarese with raspberry sauce and crumble? This resembles an almond flavoured panna cotta and is so light and smooth, well, who could resist? Luckily my companions are kind and generous, and prepared to share. Then there is just enough energy between us to stagger to the car and drive home through the moonlight…

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Bella Sardegna

My head for history always gets vertigo when going back in time more than three or four hundred years. So, imagine how dizzy I am feeling today, standing before the ruins of a Nuragic village in the middle of Sardinia, dating back to the Bronze Age.

Please excuse my ignorance, but I had never even heard of the Nuragic Era till about five minutes ago. Probably because it hasn’t existed for about 4000 years, and then, only on the island of Sardinia. Or to be more precise: it lasted from somewhere in the vicinity of 2000 years before Christ, right up to the Roman colonization of Sardinia in 238 BC. Or possibly five hundred years later. So, very loosely speaking in fact, as no one is quite sure. And nothing was put in writing at the time, so now, it’s all down to guesswork.

‘Nuragic’ derives from the name of the era’s most characteristic monument, the Nuraghe, a megalithic tower, and seemingly the cornerstone of the Nuragic culture. To this day, more than 7,000 nuraghes are scattered across the Sardinian landscape about 3 square km apart. Archaeological excavations only began in the 1930s, and there is an ongoing debate among archaeologists about the purpose of these structures: are they religious edifices, military fortresses, tombs, furnaces, or simply protected villages?  Recent opinion suggests they were built as defensible dwellings that included barns, wells and grain silos, but there is still much to be determined.

Santu Antine, just outside Touralba, is one of the better known Nuragic sites and one of the most important on the island. Indeed, several coach loads of tourists and school kids arrived before us, and poured into the small café-cum-ticket office that has been set up on the side of a narrow country road. Opposite the carpark, a dirt track lined with stone walls of volcanic rock leads us into the middle of a field and the remains of this ancient village.

It’s an amazing construction, not unlike Dr Who’s Tardis, in its capacity to contain a lot in a seemingly small space. In the shape of an equilateral triangle, the Nuraghe Santu Antine has three corner towers, and a taller central tower which originally rose over 25 metres high. Curving corridors have been created between huge rock walls and run between each tower. We climb steep spiral stone staircases to the upper levels, and wander along the upper terraces to look over the countryside. A central chamber in the main tower curves into a domed ceiling, like a beehive. Another smaller chamber with a similar domed ceiling, sits on top. Suddenly, Christopher Wren’s double dome at St Paul’s Cathedral seems rather less ground-breaking.

The island of Sardinia was once rich in copper and lead mines, the products of which were traded across the Mediterranean. Nuragic people became skilled metal workers, creating a wide variety of bronze figurines, jewellery and weapons such as swords, daggers and axes. There have also been more recent findings of Nuragic sandstone statues up to 2.5 metres high.

Lying in Mediterranean waters to the west of Italy, Sardinia is steeped in layer upon layer of history; or rather strings of spaghetti, in which I have become thoroughly entangled. There are tales from every age: from Neolithic arrow tips of obsidian (black volcanic stone) to Nuragic towers, tombs and small dwellings used more recently as shepherds huts; from Phoenician mariners and Carthaginian warriors to Byzantines and Arabs, who all took turns at invading this small, mountainous island. The Romans sent farmers who planted crops so efficiently, they made Sardinia the grain silo for the entire Roman Empire. In the last few centuries, the Spanish, the Savoys and the Austrians have batted Sardinia back and forth like a shuttlecock, eager to get their hands on the island’s wealth of natural resources. Malaria, massacre and migration have all taken a heavy toll on the indigenous population over the centuries. It wasn’t until 1947 that Sardinia gained a modicum of independence such as they had not enjoyed since the Phoenicians built their first inland fortress in 650 BC. Today, tourism has replaced the mining industry, largely thanks to the Aga Khan’s development of the Costa Smeralda (now the most expensive real estate in Europe)  which has helped the island step into the 21st century.  Recently, thanks to the huge annual invasion of tourists, Covid has caused as much disruption here as anywhere that attracts international travellers. And in 2021, bush fires destroyed some 50,000 acres of farms and livestock, vineyards and olive groves. One step forward, three steps back…

Enough history? How about some geography? Sardinia is renowned for its glorious beaches and scalloped bays, and wild, rocky coastline. Tourism brochures, websites and my own gospel – the Lonely Planet Guide to Sardinia – wax lyrical about Tahitian style sand, sapphire blue waters and amazing marine life. Inland, it’s a different story. Steep, scrub covered, granite mountains with jagged silhouettes stretch along the skyline. The drive from Cagliari (on the south coast) to Olbia on the east includes a plethora of tunnels that charge across the rugged landscape. Further inland, roads twist and turn through the mountains and forests, and I am glad not to be on a bicycle, while the One & Only longs for his hiking boots.

I have been wanting to visit Sardinia for years. Surprisingly, it has a similar feel to our own Fleurieu Peninsula with slightly higher hills. Vineyards, olive trees, sheep and scrub cover the landscape at lower levels. The climate is almost identical. And, with a current population of just over 1,500,000, it has only a few thousand less people than South Australia, although the geographical size difference is huge: almost one million km² versus 24,100 km².  So far, we have avoided Costa Smeralda, its wealthy tourists and its astronomical prices. The seaside towns further south are perfectly lovely, and low key, which we prefer, although I am sure they will get swamped with visitors in the summer. The colour of the water is breath-taking wherever you go, and our little cottage overlooks fields full of wildflowers that stretch across to the San Teodoro lagoon. The gorse spreads the scent of Piña Coladas on the warm breeze. A variety of raptors wheel overhead. And who knew Sardinia was a popular playground for pink flamingos?

Spotting wildlife has become a bit of a thing, every time we leave the cottage. Flamingo babies, tall and lanky but still white – their plumage will take a few years to turn pink – are plentiful in the estuaries and coastal lagoons. Wild goats with enormous horns dwell merrily on Isola Caprera, where Garibaldi lived for 24 years. The Tyrrhenian wall lizard is everywhere, clothed in bright green, almost psychedelic in the sunshine, and darts away like the Roadrunner as soon as it sees me. We even saw a tortoise yesterday, about as big as my hand, mumbling along in leisurely fashion through the scrub. Unaccountably, we haven’t spotted a single kangaroo, but I am on the look out for wild horses and wild boar.

I have bravely taken a quick dip in the sea and almost died of hypothermia – perhaps it is a bit early in the season for swimming. The cold winds sweeping along the beach haven’t helped. But there’s always a coffee or a glass of vermentino to reignite the life force once we emerge from the waves.

And so, it is time for a siesta and the anticipation of uncorking another bottle of Vermentino on the veranda in the late afternoon, and a plate of prosciutto and pecorino. Happy days…

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Cooking in Morocco

Have you ever tried cooking Moroccan food? Perhaps you have that beautiful cookbook by Claudia Roden, Arabesque: Sumptuous Food from Morocco that I am just about to add to my cookbook collection? In the meantime, I do have an interesting alternative that covers all the Mediterranean countries, and from which I have made the odd tagine. But I knew little about the specific history and habits of Moroccan cuisine until I came across the Moroccan Culinary Arts Museum in Marrakech, next door to the Bahia Palace. Once the palace of a Grand Vizier, this museum not only gives a terrific lesson in the whys and wherefores of Moroccan cuisine but also offers cooking classes in its very professional, purpose built training kitchen. I took them up on that kind offer – but more of that later.

In brief, Moroccan cooking has been influenced by many different cultures over the centuries: Berber, Jewish, Sub Saharan, and Arab cuisines, with a soupçon of French and a pizca of Spanish. Although situated in the northwest corner of Africa, Morocco has more in common with Middle Eastern cuisine than with the rest of Africa, thanks to the Arabic and Muslim influences here.

As an Islamic country, the Moroccans have a no-alcohol, no-pork policy, particularly during Ramadan. But they drink gallons of mint tea in tiny glasses with both fresh and dried mint leaves and plenty of sugar. And while they don’t eat pork, they eat all sorts of other meat, fish and fowl. As well as the more familiar beef, lamb and chicken, we have passed stalls selling goat, pigeon and camel. (Did you know that some believe melted fat from a camel’s hump apparently works like Viagra if rubbed on the penis?) I have eaten goat, but have yet to taste camel. And last night, the pigeon pastilla (like a filo pastry pasty) served at our hotel was absolutely delicious. It is a sweet and savoury pastry full of spices and sprinkled with cinnamon and icing sugar. It was an unusual and surprising combination, but wonderfully tasty, although I first had to smother the One & Only’s cry of ‘flying rodents!’

Bread is an essential part of every meal and comes in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. (Oddly, we have eaten the best baguettes we have ever tasted, from a street stall in Fez. With an extra crunchy crust and the softest centre, it barely needed the local fresh cheese – Jben – to make a satisfying snack.) Khobz is the ubiquitous bread roll made from durum wheat semolina and served with anything and everything. A tafarnout is a traditional clay oven which gives its name to a pock-marked, slow-cooked flat Berber bread, best served with goats cheese and honey, but also great with a tagine. The beghrir looks like a large, thin crumpet and, like a crumpet, is best served hot soaked in butter and honey. Apparently, it’s a Ramadan specialty, so they have been piled high in the markets this week. Then there is medfouna, or Berber pizza, a flat round bread stuffed with onions and meat, and cooked in a special traditional clay and rocks oven. But my favourite is the msemen, a crepe folded several times and cooked on a cast iron plate, like an Indian paratha. I have joyfully eaten one for breakfast every day, slathered in honey or marmalade. And the savoury version, stuffed with spices, onion and parsley, has been a cheap and delicious snack for lunch.

Dinner typically begins with soup or chorba. Harira is one of the most popular: a heavy, winter soup based on chickpeas and lentils, and dosed with a thousand spices. Well, maybe not a thousand, but a lot. It is real comfort food, and popular during Ramadan for breaking the day’s fast at sunset. Fingers crossed, I will uncover the recipe while we are here.

Salads are unlike those we are used to, without a sign of a lettuce leaf, a raw tomato or a slice of avocado. Instead, there is a penchant for pickled vegetables such as carrots and cauliflower, and a couple of cooked vegetable ‘salads’ perfect for spreading on bread. Tektouka is like an Italian pepperonata, composed of red and green peppers and tomatoes, seasoned with paprika and cumin. Zaâlouk is a blend of eggplant and tomato, and often a touch of red pepper. Both of these make terrific accompaniments to meat dishes.

Following the information trail through the culinary museum, we came to the Spice Room, where a plethora of spices were displayed in sacks, along with a number of herbs used medicinally or in tea, such as pennyroyal, pomegranate flowers and verbena. Apparently, at least a dozen spices are combined to create the Moroccan ras el hanout. This exotic spice blend is popular across north Africa. It’s ingredients will vary, according to the region, the spice seller’s selection, or the family recipe. One traditional Moroccan version claims to contain some twenty seven different spices. Ras el hanout is used in many savoury dishes, rubbed on meat or fish, or stirred into couscous, pasta or rice.

Moroccans also love using dried fruit in their cooking, such as prunes, apricots, figs and sultanas, while dates are a favourite snack. And of course, preserved lemon is a big favourite. The recipe for preserved lemon has been around since the 13th century. It effectively sharpens the spices and offsets the richness of Moroccan tagines. I discovered preserved lemons more than a decade ago, and even started making my own, to the point when the One & Only eventually cried ‘Enough!’ and they had to be tucked away at the back of the pantry for a while. But I suspect they are about to make a comeback. And I have learned a few new ways to use them during cooking classes this week.

My first cooking class in Morocco was a formal affair at the Culinary Museum. We gathered in the shiny new teaching kitchen, where there is room for about twenty students. We were only five that day, and each of us had our own counter space with sink, gas burners and small pots of spices. Our teacher demonstrated what to do from her own kitchen at the front of the room. With no recipes provided, we were expected to remember each ingredient and every step. I took surreptitious notes on my phone. As someone had forgotten to tell me that the class would be conducted in French, I also had to get a little help from the mute sous-chef, or demand an often extraordinary translation from my neighbour with a smattering of English. So, I was quite proud of being able to follow most of the instructions and end up with something edible. Step by step, we each created our own lunch: a green pepper, garlic and preserved lemon ‘salad’ that tasted like a sharp Indian chutney; a chicken and vegetable couscous dish, and a plate of orange slices sprinkled in cinnamon. Fruit regularly appears at the end of a meal but desserts, as we know them, are few and far between.

The second class was a more casual event, conducted in the ‘Clock Kitchen’ at Café Clock, down an easily overlooked and very narrow lane at the top end of the Fez medina. And this time, thank goodness, the class was conducted in English! Here, we worked together as a team, sharing out the tasks between us – peeling, chopping, marinading, stirring, chatting – around a large, marble topped table. Souad, our madcap instructor, asked us to select three courses from the café’s menu. After much discussion, we chose harira soup, vegetable couscous with marinated lamb, and m’hanncha, an almond pastry. Then we followed Souad into the market to buy the ingredients, engaging in many a lively discussion with her favourite stall holders.

As soon as we got back to the kitchen, the eggplants were placed directly over a gas flame and left there, turning them occasionally, until the skins were charred, and the insides had become soft. Meanwhile, we whipped up a marinade for the lamb and peeled the vegetables to go with the couscous. Souad had chosen a seasonal array of vegetables: the usual carrot, turnip and zucchini; then fava beans and snap peas. Some made it into the dish, many got mislaid en route! Then we made up bowls of herbs and spices for the harira soup and the couscous.

Unlike the soak-in-boiling-water variety of couscous I use at home, this couscous was tossed in olive oil and salt, then steamed for twenty minutes. In Marrakech, we kept it steaming while we prepared the rest of the meal, occasionally emptying it into a dish to toss and aerate it, adding additional water and oil, before spooning it back into the steamer.

The m’hanncha (serpent cake) was made from almond paste flavoured with orange water and cinnamon and rolled in fresh filo pastry. I was given the marzipan to knead, blending in the orange blossom water and cinnamon. Then we all rolled out a lump of marzipan into a snake, before rolling it up like a carpet in a sheet of filo pastry. It was then twisted into a scroll and baked in the oven for about 40 minutes until golden. Unlike baklava, another nut and filo pastry treat, the m’hanncha was not terribly sweet or particularly moist. I would add a scoop of ice cream or a spoon of clotted cream, but dairy has a limited presence in Moroccan cuisine.

Two very different mornings spent in the kitchen, followed by two delicious and enormous lunches. Both required a post-prandial siesta. Did it stop us eating dinner? Actually no, but that was only partially due to gluttony and mostly due to the fact that our chef at Dar El Galia was so brilliant, we were on a mission to work through her fabulous menu before we left. And I think we succeeded… almost!

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Watch Out for Donkeys!

Fez. A scrabble score of forty five on a triple word score. A city in Morocco. Or a red cap with a black tassel worn in Turkey, named for the crimson dye that is made in the city of Fez. Or Fès.

Fez. Known as the spiritual capital of Morocco, where you get three cities in one: the ancient medina on the river, founded in the 8th century; the royal administrative district of Fes Jdid, where you will find the Royal Palace (Dar al-Makhzen) and the Mellah (Jewish quarter); and the urban Nouvelle Ville, built during the French colonial era in the early 20th century, with its wide boulevards lined with Plane trees. This northern Moroccan city has a very different feel from Marrakech, where the medina seems to have been set up solely with tourists in mind. Here is a living, breathing city continuing its daily routine regardless of the tourists, and not because of them.

We arrive by train in La Ville Nouvelle, but we are staying – as do most visitors – in the medina. Our home for the week, Dar El Ghalia, is an 18th century riad, a traditional Moroccan house or palace with its enclosed courtyard, built within the old city walls for wealthy merchants and traders. Nowadays, many such homes have been converted into guest houses. Ours also has a terrific, but understated restaurant.
Facing inwards to a central courtyard that is generally open to the sky, the thick, windowless outer walls provide privacy, and keep out both the weather and street noise. High ceilings dispel the heat and fountains cool the air. Dar El Ghalia is decorated with the ubiquitous coloured tiles (zellij), stucco (carved fretwork of Arabic script providing quotes from the Koran) and painted wooden doors and shutters. In the centre of the courtyard is a large, star-shaped pond, decorated with blue and white tiles, with a fountain in the middle. Unlike many we have seen, this riad has a covered roof, so the courtyard has become a vast living space, the tiled floor scattered with Berber rugs, sofas, tiled dining tables, inlaid chests, and potted plants.

The bedrooms are located on the second floor overlooking the courtyard, with twenty foot ceilings and stained glass windows facing inwards. On the top floor, a large rooftop terrace provides panoramic views over the medina, and a cool breeze at sunset. It’s just a shame about the lack of Chardonnay!

The architectural origin of the riad is Ancient Greece, the garden design, Iran or the Middle East. Such a blend of two or more cultures is common in Morocco. And on the Iberian Peninsula too, where, for almost 800 years (from the 8th – 15th century ) Moorish sultans ruled, and their craftsmen introduced many of their building and interior design skills to Spain.

(FYI: the term ‘Moor’ – remember Othello? – was originally used to describe Berbers from the Ancient Roman province of Mauretania in North Africa. Later, it was applied more generally to Muslims living in Europe, particularly on the Iberian Peninsula).

The riad is the perfect design for a dry, hot country, and I can’t help feeling we should have adopted this design in many parts of Australia. Can I persuade the One and Only to replace our sloping roof with a flat roof garden? Or furnish the courtyard with coloured tiles and fountains?

In the meantime, we set out early with our tour guide Muhammad, to see what we can see. (N.B.: it’s actually 10am, but this is still early in Morocco. Most shops haven’t opened yet, and the myriad traders are barely there.) Yesterday, a similar exploration on our own got us severely entangled with numerous coach tours, forced to duck into quieter back streets to avoid the crowds, and inevitably lost among the maze of twisting lanes. There is a mad logic to these sinuous streets, hemmed in by the high walls of shop houses and riads, which insulate against the cold and shade from the sun, the curves dispelling any fierce winds. Also, there are no cars allowed – a brilliant notion after the mayhem of Marrakech – only people and donkeys. We soon spot the ‘kamikaze mules’ carrying gas cylinders on their backs, their hoofs encased in leather shoes so they don’t slip on the cobbles. ‘Beware the open flame, little donkey!’ And, if you have seen those snazzy stroller-wagons for carrying your kids and all their gear onto the beach, you can imagine the small trolleys used by traders bringing their goods into the market. Or perhaps they are chefs carrying their purchases back to their restaurant kitchen. Either way, we soon get pretty quick on our feet, listening out for the cry of ‘ahtaras!’ (“watch out!”), dodging and weaving through the jam-packed streets. Also, thanks to the ongoing renovations, we are also forced to dance out of the way of small three-wheeler trucks full of rubble or building materials.

Today, with Muhammad in charge, we go more willingly into the fray. Down into the rabbit warren of narrow alleys lined with market stalls, the owners are slowly setting up their wares: fruit and vegetables (it is the season for tomatoes and artichokes); baskets of orange blossom and a wide variety of olives from the orchards on the hillside outside the city walls; meat, fish, bread and Moroccan pastries. After gazing at a glass case full of sweet brioutes, fekkas and ghoribas, I am startled to turn around and find myself staring into the glazed eyes of three calves heads on a table, tongues lolling. On our return, these have been replaced by four black-haired goats heads. Beneath one fish stall, lies the head of a shark, while street cats are munching on the heads of small fish, thrown aside by the traders. One stall holder is butchering a side of meat that we are told is camel. Further on, we find ourselves in a marketplace full of caged pigeons (a local delicacy, and one we will try tonight) while chickens and turkeys are tied together in pairs, on the ground. You may buy them, dead or alive, for today’s Ramadan breakfast at sunset.

With some relief, we pass into lanes where shoemakers and knife grinders, dress makers, jewellers and metal workers are opening their doors and beginning their day. A whole lane is made over to those dying yarn, skeins hanging from high racks in rainbow colours. On a doorstep, a man arranges an assortment of herbs: rosemary, peppermint, spearmint and sage.

We pass many beautiful front doors, some intricately decorated, some plain and undistinguished, often heavily studded. We admire the detailed designs, the carved stone archways, the decorative brass door handles. Some doors are surprisingly short, while in others a smaller door is set into a larger one. For children or Hobbits perhaps? In fact, they are designed thus, so that visitors must enter with heads bowed, in an attitude of respect towards their hosts. Our guide explains that the larger door can be opened to allow a donkey and its rider to pass through – presumably with both heads bent!
We pass the two largest mosques in Fez (there are apparently 350 mosques in the medina alone), supposedly built by Fatima al-Fihriya and her sister, Meryem, in the 9th century. Al-Qarawiyyin and Al-Andalus are two of the oldest mosques in North Africa. These two women originally came from Tunisia. On inheriting a fortune from their merchant father, the sisters decided to invest their inheritance in building mosques to promote Islamic teaching. (Major mosques in the early Islamic era were typically used for both religion and teaching.)

Al Qarawiyyin, within the walls of the old medina, is the larger of the two, and will host some 2,500 people tomorrow, for the final day of Ramadan. Thought to be one of the oldest universities in the world, it was also one of the leading spiritual and educational centres of the Islamic Golden Age. (The 8th – 13th centuries.)

The Al-Andalus Mosque takes its name from the Andalusian refugees who fled Cordoba at the beginning of the 8th century and settled on the eastern bank of the river, Oued Fez. Five hundred years later, the mosque became a part of the Al-Qarawiyyin University. The clay roof tiles of the mosques all over Fez are glazed green, symbolizing paradise and peace. Blue, too, is a favourite colour, walls and doors painted in turquoise to represent the sky, water and heaven.

Although, as Christians, we cannot enter the mosques, we are permitted to visit the building beside Al Qarawiyyin. The Al-Attarine Madrasa gets its name from the Souk al-Attarine, the surrounding spice and perfume market. This lavish madras or boarding house was built for poorer students who came from all over Morocco to study.

We climb steep stone steps to see the students’ sleeping quarters. Expecting to find large dormitories, instead, we discover a maze of thirty small rooms. Some are blessed with tiny windows at ground level, others are more like cupboards, but each room boasts its own letter box and pretty tiled floor.

Our guide whips us into a carpet shop, where we get hijacked by a lovely carpet salesman who is determined we will not leave empty-handed. We do, but I am sorely disappointed to leave behind two rather divine carpets. Our host, nonetheless, gives us a tour to the rooftop and a tray of Moroccan tea, along with a wonderful education in Berber rugs.

Fez is also famous for its leatherworks. And the tanneries here, in the centre of the medina, have been in operation for centuries. We clamber up and down staircases to a balcony overlooking an acre of round, stone vats, each filled with different coloured natural dyes. Mostly shades of brown, there are also green (made from mint), blue (indigo), yellow (saffron) and red (poppies). Although the tannery was recently renovated, I feel as if I have stepped back in time, as I watch men climb fully clothed into the vats to tread on the skins (goat, cow, lamb and camel) or drag them from the vats and wring them out by hand, before tossing them over walls to dry. Hard to believe that the satin-soft leather we can feel in the shop behind us has emerged from such rough treatment – or that it starts out smelling so bad that we are given a handful of mint to clutch to our noses as we watch. The tannery is apparently run as a cooperative, and many of the workmen’s relatives run the leather shops overlooking the tannery.

Fez was designated a UNESCO world heritage site back in the 1980s, and over the last decade, the push to revamp the crumbling medina has been going strong, as well as apparent attempts to clean up the river, which had become a dump for rubbish, not to mention the used dyes from the tannery.

Wandering on, the crowds thicken – local shoppers, tourists, school kids – and we pause to peer through the archway into the tomb of Idriss II. As non-Muslims, we cannot enter, but we manage a glimpse of the tomb from the doorway. We pass through the Place As Seffarine, where metal workers are polishing up copper pots, or beating out a much-practised tune on the bottom of a large cauldron. Our guide casually points out wooden windows ‘from the 12th century’, and opposite, the door to one of the country’s oldest public libraries, founded in the 14th century. The books and manuscripts within are so valuable that the heavy copper door has four locks, and four librarians are responsible for one key each.

And so we wind back up the hill to our safe haven in Dar El Ghalia, and a glass of Moroccan tea. Time out, before we have to consider what delicacies we would like for dinner…

Photos mostly from the One & Only, with thanks!

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Marrakech Madness

We arrived in Morocco almost a week ago. Imagining a place of exotic difference, we have found, in fact, many similarities to other places we have lived or visited. Of course the culture of coloured tiles and arched windows has followed us across the Straits of Gibraltar from Portugal, and we remember – from living in Malaysia – the Imam call to prayers over loud speakers five or six times a day. (Well, we remembered when that first pre-dawn call woke us suddenly and abrasively the first morning here.) There is a pleasant sense of familiarity at being back in a Muslim country, although it is some years since we even passed through Dubai.

Landing in Marrakech, we were gathered up by a local driver and taken to our cosy hotel, with its shady courtyard gardens (riyadhs) and spacious roof terraces. (Why don’t we have roof terraces in Australia? It’s the perfect place to catch an evening breeze after a hot day.) ‘Hotel Gallia’ is a calming haven from the storm of tourists and traders beyond the end of the alley, only minutes from Jemaa el-Fnaa, the main town square.

There, in that vast public space, we dodge taxis and motorbikes, donkey carts and tired, bony horses pulling carriages laden with visitors keen for an authentic experience in this vibrant city. A myriad stalls sell fruit juices or nuts, t-shirts and sneakers, breakfast, lunch, dinner and pot plants. Ladies on low stools offer henna hand tattoos or corn-row plaits. Wandering musicians add to the clamour, as traders bombard you with offers of tours, sunglasses, places to eat, Berber belts, charmed snakes, or dancing monkeys. The One & Only, head and shoulders above the mob, can turn a blind eye from his greater height, and walk on, apparently oblivious. Not so easy for me, at eye level with every determined salesman. Yet I find them happy enough to engage if I smile, and most won’t pester if greeted with a firm ‘no thank you.’ Or rather ‘non, merci,’ as French is still the official language, until next year.

As the day heats up, the open plaza is soon scorchingly hot. So, we head for the shaded alleys of the Medina. In the coolth of the early morning, these alleys are blissfully empty of anything but the odd cat. But it’s not long before these narrow, twisting lanes are swarming with motorbikes and bicycles, traders and tourists and three-wheeled trucks, and even the odd donkey. Then, you need to be on high alert and on your toes, dodging and swerving, aware of danger from both in front and behind. I decide I need a rear-vision mirror attached to my hat. And I feel like the character in the Dr Seuss book about getting to Solla Sollew. Only “by aiming my eyeballs in different directions” can I ever hope to avoid trouble coming at me from every angle.

Needing a respite from the intense levels of noise, visual mayhem and dense humanity, we retreat to our Riyadh for a little peace and quiet. At a tiled table beneath a palm tree and an umbrella of bougainvillea, we watch the puppies scamper and frolic, while lithe young cats tease Steve the tortoise, baptised thus by the One & Only. Steve stubbornly refuses to engage and retreats into his shell, although I did once have to rescue him, struggling to right himself after one determined kitten had toppled him onto his side. Dangling helplessly, he was waving an arm at me as I passed, to let me know he’d appreciate it if I could set him right side up, and then tore off, with surprising speed, to a pile of limp lettuce leaves he had been neglecting. From the safety of a shady corner behind a flowerpot, he then watched with interest as the cats dashed up the tree or played at sword fighting with paws and claws, atop an urn.

Venturing out again, we head for the Bahia Palace, through the maze of streets and lanes and alleyways. Built in the mid nineteenth century by a Grand Vizier to the Sultan, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Rahman. It was later extended by his son Ba Ahmed, also a Grand Vizier, to Sultan Abdelaziz. Ba Ahmed bought up most of the surrounding neighbourhood to include gardens, huge courtyards and smaller riyadhs and lots more rooms within the exterior walls. This ever-expanding palace housed Ba Ahmed’s servants and slaves, his private hammam (wash house) and of course his harem. The name al-Bahia means “brilliance,” and was supposedly the name of the Vizier’s favourite wife. Since his death, Ba Ahmed’s Palace has housed royalty, foreign guests, even the French Resident Minister – a slightly lesser personage than an Ambassador or Governor – when Morocco became a French Protectorate.

As seems to be common in many of the Mediterranean countries, this palace is hidden behind high walls and huge wooden gates. Entering beneath a large archway, we find a palace full of patterns and colours. Not an inch seems to have been left bare. Even in the servants quarters, the floors are tiled in simple geometric patterns like those popular on early twentieth century verandas in Australia. There is a plethora of carved stucco, zellij (elaborately patterned tiles) on walls and floors, Carrera marble, painted cedarwood ceilings and shutters, muqarnas (ornamental vaulting) stained glass, arabesques (latticed stonework), painted friezes and rooms with thirty foot ceilings. All these  decorations were acquired from all over Morocco and beyond. While Islam does not allow for figurative images, there is plenty of room for a multitude of geometric patterns in a thousand different designs. It can be quite overwhelming. I find myself needing to sit quietly in a corner to observe such busy-ness at a distance. Oddly, there is virtually no furniture, but I find a step or garden bench will do.

Beyond the Grand Courtyard (50m x 30m), I discover the Grand Riyadh and one such bench, rare as hens teeth, hiding in the shadows, where I can hear the birds tweeting louder than the chattering tourists and enjoy the scent of orange blossom, or magnolias, or perhaps simply perfumes and aftershaves mingling in the warm air. Pathways between garden beds of palms, loquats, oranges, fountains and ferns are filled with tour groups. As tourists, we really are a plague upon the face of the earth, taking up air and space but contributing little but the odd entrance fee. I am constantly in the way of some eager photographer, not looking or absorbing, but simply clicking, or posing for selfies to prove they were here, checking their photos as soon as they are taken, oblivious of anyone trying to pass through.  Everyone is a supermodel these days! I, too, can be many of these things, even as I watch and judge. Although I will leave the modelling to the younger, more attractive clientele.

Is it worth it, this touristic tsunami? Perhaps not for other visitors or rich residents, who get caught in the crush, but for the poor who can find a way to survive by selling shoddy, mass produced merchandise, meals and snacks, local tours, or photo opportunities with a hooded snake, I suppose it is all in a day’s work. I do find it largely depressing if I’m honest. The cross-cultural influences are diminishing the authenticity of the local experience. The traders are pushy, eager for business amongst a throng of other traders desperately selling identical products. Yesterday, two taxi drivers got in a brawl as to who would drive us home. We tried to walk away but were almost manhandled into the back of someone’s taxi. Outside the main tourist centres, prices more reasonable, people less invasive, but who could deny them a living? Especially those of us who will return to wealthier countries.


Meanwhile, I sit watching Stephen the Tortoise careering round the courtyard, apparently doing laps, presumably training for that race with the hare. And surely it must be time for lunch? I will go in search of a traditional Berber tagine perhaps, with beef and eggplant, or chicken and preserved lemon. Or maybe couscous and vegetables, with kebabs served on long, lethal looking skewers. Time to go. My mouth is watering. But I better find Steve before I go, who has dashed away on a tour of inspection…

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Of Tarts & Tiles, Tuk-Tuks & Trams

Three wonderful weeks in Portugal, and a common theme or two has begun to emerge. We have spent our time very merrily in Porto and Lisbon. Both towns are densely populated with people and churches, and incredibly steep. There are more level parts, but generally, a walk through either city involves an awful lot of hill climbing and steep descents. Thus, with my limited fitness for mountaineering, we quickly came to recognize the benefits of public transport. One of my favourite occupations was picking out the almost endless variety of patterned tiles or azulejos that have been used to decorate paths and plazas, walls and floors, on churches, monasteries, palaces, houses – inside and out – and even railway stations all over both cities. And of course, there were coffees and Portuguese tarts available whenever a particularly strenuous uphill climb required a breather…

The famous tiles of the Iberian Peninsula have been influenced by artistic styles from several different countries, and ‘indigenized’ by the Portuguese and Spanish artists. ‘Azulejos’ first appeared in Portugal in the 15th Century, courtesy of the Moors from North Africa. The word azulejos is Arabic in origin and comes from az-zulayj and I’ll leave it to you to imagine how that should be pronounced. It roughly translates as “polished stone” and I have fantasized about using them to decorate the kitchen, the patio, and the bathroom at home, but fear they would not travel well in my suitcase. Much to the One & Only’s relief. Nonetheless, we have had a wonderful time noting the different colours and patterns as we wander through the cobbled streets of Porto and Lisbon. We even found a museum in Lisbon to give us some background to their history.

The National Tile Museum (Museu Nacional do Azulejo) was established in 1965, in the former convent of Madre Deus. It was a long walk from our apartment, but worth every step. The museum collection features decorative ceramic tiles from 1450 to the present-day. Prominent across the Iberian peninsula since the Moorish invasion in the 13th century, such tiles soon became an integral part of Portuguese and Spanish culture. During the 16th century, the Portuguese developed their own motifs to add to the Arabic ones, often taking their ideas from nature. In the 17th century, a Spanish artist introduced the blue-and-white tiles from the Netherlands. Large tiles painted with historical or biblical scenes in blue and white were adopted by Portuguese artists. The Portuguese nobility particularly liked hunting scenes and satirical scenes from mythology.

In the Monastery of São Vicente de Fora, during the early 18th century, King João V commissioned tile paintings from ‘Grand Master‘ Manuel dos Santos, who covered the walls and staircases all over the monastery with blue and white tiled pictures of biblical and historical scenes. One exhibition even contains a unique collection of Jean de la Fontaine’s fables depicted in Portuguese tiles. The room that most appealed, however, was not decorated with tiles, but with polychromatic inlaid marble. The sacristy, a glorified changing room for the priests, is still used today and is totally enveloped in wondrous marble designs, with inlaid jacaranda wood chests to hold the vestments, and a beautiful painted ceiling.

“More is more” appears to have been the order of the day, particularly remarkable in the incredibly ornate Monastery of St. Jerónimo in Belém, one of the first monuments in Europe to be listed as a World Heritage Site. Built in the 1500s with profits from the spice trade, it was home to the monks of the Order of Saint Jerome, and is described as a ‘masterpiece of Manueline architecture… [that] glorifies the Age of Discovery, Portugal’s power at sea, and its contact with distant lands.’

Legend has it that the original Portuguese tarts, or pastéis de nata (literally cream pastries) were created by those same Jerónimo monks in Belém just west of Lisbon. Apparently, the monks would use vast quantities of egg white to starch their religious habits and vestments. They would then use the leftover egg yolks to make cakes and pastries. The monks original pastel de nata recipe is supposedly around three hundred years old.

When the monastery was shut down after the Liberal Revolution of 1820, the recipe for pastel de nata was sold to Pastéis de Belém, a local, family-owned bakery that has continued baking them to the original recipe ever since. A recipe which is known to only a select few, a trade secret.

These days, variations of Portugal’s iconic custard tarts, once a local speciality, can be found all over the world. I have eaten Portuguese tarts in Geelong, in Luxembourg, in Prague, by the Torrens in Adelaide, in Macau. Recently, I have munched on several (not all at once) in Porto, served with a jar of cinnamon to sprinkle on top, which is apparently a traditional flourish I had not encountered elsewhere. I’m not sure whether the one in front of me is authentic, but I am sitting outside the Monastery as I write, so it stands a better chance than most. Whatever it’s origins, this flaky nest of golden pastry filled with blistered, caramelized custard is a morsel of sweetness and light, crispness and creaminess that goes beautifully with a strong black coffee.


For the past three weeks in Portugal, we have mostly got about on foot. But when the going gets tough, which it frequently does in both Porto and Lisbon, there are alternative options. Porto has a cable car on the south side of the river that drops gently down from Santa Marinha to Vila Nova de Gaia, and a funicular on the north side, opposite the lower end of Dom Luis I Bridge. But both these options still require a significant climb at one end. So, for me, the better option was a tuk-tuk or a tram, when my legs were feeling feeble. The tuk-tuk drivers generally prefer to take you on an (expensive) private tour of the city, so they are not always the best way to get from A to B. On the other hand, they appear on every corner, particularly in Lisbon.

Tuk-tuks are usually associated with the densely packed and congested cities of Asia, Bangkok in particular. The name certainly came from the Thais, who named these three-wheeler, motorized taxis ‘tuk-tuk’ for the onomatopoeic sound of its two-stroke lawnmower engine. However, there are claims that these three wheeler taxis emerged first in Japan, or perhaps Italy, just before, or just after WWII. Since then, whoever invented them first, they have spread like a plague all over the globe. Now they in any busy city where there are tourists.

I have used tuk-tuks in India, Nepal, the Philippines and Thailand, but am yet to board the Portuguese variety, but we have admired them cruising round Lisbon, often decorated with plastic flowers and greenery. While they are inclined to sneak up behind pedestrians with their whispering new electric engines, we have so far avoided being bowled over, thank goodness.

We have, however, used the appealing and elderly trams, in both cities. In particular, we have loved boarding the 28E which sails past the end of our street in Lisbon every few minutes. Like Harry Potter’s night bus, it lurches up the almost horizontal hills, and barrels down the other side like a runaway train, screeching to a halt for passengers to board and disembark, and somehow skimming past the cars that park dangerously close to the tramlines, despite the risk to life and limb and wing mirrors. The Lisbon tramlines have been in operation since 1873. Originally, the wooden carriages were pulled by horses along the lower, flatter levels of the city. In 1901, the trams were electrified, which meant they could manage the hills too. Buses and metros may have usurped the tram network in the 21st century, but the six remaining tramlines in Lisbon are still a popular tourist attraction. Much of the rolling stock has been modernized, but the heritage yellow trams can still be found on some routes.

And so we say farewell to Portugal, and board a plane heading south for Marrakesh. And finally, some really warm weather…

*Thanks to Google images for the pic of the Portuguese tarts, as I was too busy munching to take photos! The rest were taken either by me or the One & Only!

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Tasting Port in Porto

Port Lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia

On the banks of the Douro River, a stone’s throw from the sea, snuggles a city of terracotta roof tiles atop narrow houses, their facades decorated in coloured tiles. Clustered tightly together, they stagger unsteadily up winding cobbled lanes that wriggle, almost vertically, to the top of the surrounding hills, where huge churches perch in splendid sobriety, their interiors, in stark contrast, ornately decorated and garishly gilded. Several miles upstream, a plethora of ancient vineyards – now a UNESCO world heritage site – mark the source of Portugal’s Port wine industry.

The Douro River flows east to west for almost nine hundred kilometres, from the Spanish province of Soria, down through northern Portugal to the Atlantic Ocean, which smashes and swirls over the sea wall at Foz. The Douro Valley is one of the oldest demarcated wine region in the world, protected by an official appellation with which it was blessed in 1756. Here, grapes grow on walled terraces along the steep sides of the valley, still harvested by hand. Here, the Portuguese have been making wines for two thousand years. And here, the English have been producing ports for almost four hundred years, a fortified wine named for the nearby city of Porto (Oporto), where it must be aged in warehouses, or ‘lodges’ before being exported to Britain and beyond.

Over a hundred grape varieties have been identified in the Douro Valley for Port production, but only five now dominate the industry: Tinta Barroca, Tinto Cão, Tinta Roriz (or Tempranillo), Touriga Francesa, and Touriga Nacional. While a few winemakers have experimented with single variety Ports, it is, generally speaking, a blended, fortified wine. 

Although Port is now made in other countries around the world, including Australia, the name ‘Port’ legally belongs only to those fortified wines produced here in Portugal, specifically in the Douro Valley. Ruby, Tawny, Vintage and, more recently, White Port fill the local wine shops and bars, but in fact Port has gained far less traction with the Portuguese than one might expect. Most of it will be exported abroad. I have learned an awful lot about the process of Port making this week, but the details could distract us for days. Let’s just say, that the final result is very much appreciated by hundreds and hundreds of tourists to Porto. And me.

Until trucks took over the transport business, rabelos – curiously curved wooden boats shaped like the paper boats we used to make as kids – carried the wine barrels down the Douro from the wine estates – quintas – into Porto. On the south bank, at Vila Nova de Gaia, the barrels were unloaded and stored in lodges, to be blended and aged, away from the intense heat of the Douro Valley to the north. Now, the river – far safer to navigate since it was tamed by five huge dams constructed through the 1970s and 80s –  is used largely for pleasure boats. Last weekend we, too, joined the flotilla sailing upriver from the marina and beneath the six bridges that span the Douro, including the iconic Dom Luís I Bridge.


This beautiful, double-decker, arched iron bridge crosses the river between Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia. Over 170 metres wide and 145 metres high, the views, particularly from the upper level, are magnificent – as long as you don’t mind heights. Although it is often credited to Gustav Eiffel, his original plan for a single span bridge was apparently rejected. It was actually designed by one of Eiffel’s colleagues, German engineer François Gustave Théophile Seyrig, with whom he had co-founded Eiffel and Company. This company had run an earlier project in Porto to build the similar Maria Pia railway bridge, a mile upstream. In the 1880s, now working for a Belgian engineering firm, Seyrig won the competition to build the Dom Luís I Bridge, beating his former colleague to the punch.

But I digress. Back to the business of Port wine.

Last weekend, after our river trip, we were given a private tour of the British Factory House, an impressive 18th-century Neo-Palladian building on the north side of the river. This grand old granite house is a symbol of the relationship between the Portuguese and the British Port wine merchants, or factors. Hence Factory House. It was effectively a private gentleman’s club (now mixed membership) where foreign merchants could talk business and strengthen the Port Wine trade. To this day, it remains a gathering place for the families that still make Port in the Douro.

Our tour guides, Jamie Graham and his American brother-in-law, Ben, come from one of those families. The Grahams, English to the core, have been making Ports in Portugal for two hundred years. Although Jamie’s grandfather sold Graham’s Port business to Symington’s in 1970, his father John started a new family business in 1981 with his two brothers, naming the company after his wife, Caroline Churchill. Today, Churchill’s Estates make some very special vintage port from the Quinto do Rio in the Torro valley, as well as 10 and 20-year old Tawnies, and some delicious white port, which, by coincidence, we had already been drinking enthusiastically during our boat trip up the Douro earlier in the day.

Every Wednesday, members meet for lunch in the long, elegant dining room. Vintage ports are selected from the Factory’s own wine cellar, where some 15,000 bottles are stored. Apparently, a good vintage can be stored for at least fifty years, but winemakers aim for a hundred years, as a gift to the future Port drinkers of the world. In the entrance hall, wooden plaques list the names of all the Treasurers (Presidents of the club) since 1811. Many of those early British names are still associated with the great Port Houses, such as Cockburn, Forrester, Graham, Sandeman, Symington and Taylor.

Chatting with our tour guides about all things Portish, clutching a glass of Churchill’s golden, oaked Dry White Port, we wander down through the cellars and up the granite staircase to the entertaining rooms above. A large ballroom boasts at least half a dozen crystal chandeliers and a minstrel’s gallery. Fabulous old maps are on display in the official Map Room. Other walls are decorated with signed photographs of a plethora of royal couples who have been to visit, including, in 1982, the newly wed Charles and Diana. The library, several rooms filled with floor to ceiling bookshelves, is generously stocked with old, leather bound books that I long to explore. And on the top floor, to limit the damage of fire, is a vast Victorian kitchen, the highly polished, black cast-iron ranges once cooking to perfection those roast beasts to be fed to hungry members. Eventually emerging into the tasting room, we examine a copy of The Times, dated 100 years ago to the day, on display beside a table laden with glasses, Port bottles and handsome ships decanters.

Relatively small production allows the Graham’s to continue using traditional methods of production, even crushing the grapes manually – or should that be ‘footily?’ – which avoids bitterness from the pips. Using natural fermentation and minimal amounts of brandy provides wonderful structure and balance. So the Ports that are so generously poured into our glasses are a delight.

First, we get to try a Churchill’s 2007 Crusted Port. I have never heard of crusted post before, and if you haven’t either, it’s a high quality Ruby Port, younger and lighter than Vintage Port. Blended and aged in oak casks for three or four years, it is not filtered when bottled, leaving a sediment or ‘crust’ to form in the bottle, and should be decanted when poured.

Next up was a complex, richly flavoured 2003 Quinta da Gricha Vintage port made from Graham’s own grapes. It has a lush, fruity character, which promises to be even better in fifteen to twenty years. There are gasps of admiration around the table.

Until we get to the classic 1985 Vintage Port, a drink of spectacular depth and smoothness, from the early years of Churchill’s Estates. Deep purple with aromas of plum, prune and chocolate, it tastes of sweet dark jam – black cherry or plums? – and dried fruit, such as prunes and figs. Not to be rushed but sipped slowly and thoughtfully.

And finally, Ben pours us each a glass from the forty year old Vintage Port, a doyenne of luscious maturity. Its deep, glossy amber colour glows in the glass, and the nutty toffee flavours, beautifully blended, flow sweetly across the tongue. Rich and delicious, it makes a great dessert wine, and a perfect finish for our decadent afternoon.

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Designer Dining

On the flight to London, I watched a movie starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult, and Ralph Fiennes reprising his role as Voldemort but in chef’s attire. Touted as a sinister dark comedy, The Menu explores the philosophies of top-tier chefs and challenges the pretensions of pompous diners. Chef Sowek (Fiennes) has a stygian and fuliginous plan to punish his superficial, self-absorbed, disdainful and decadent clients for years of gluttonous elitism, and for destroying his passion for cooking.

So, it felt somewhat ironic that we spent Saturday night at The Yeatman, in Porto, indulging in the most amazing haute cuisine; a degustation menu created by Chef Ricardo Costa as ‘a journey through Portuguese gastronomy and wine’.

Showcasing local produce and traditional flavours, and Costa’s superlative cooking skills of course, the menu was inevitably reliant on fish and seafood, each mouthful a fusion of intense flavour, glorious aromas and fascinating, often unexpected textures, ‘designed to create an immersive sensory experience, to awaken sensations, evoke nostalgia… and to provide lasting memories.’

It did.

The Yeatman, overlooking the Douro and the historic Port lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia, not only has a prime position on the Porto landscape, but also secretes an award-winning wine cellar beneath the hill. In the kitchen, those regional ingredients are whipped together with fervent imaginations, top notch cooking techniques and the magic of molecular gastronomy to redesign or reinterpret traditional Portuguese recipes. Such creative cooking earned the restaurant two Michelin stars in 2017.

As we settled into a private dining room, at a large, oval table set for six, we explored the menu eagerly. It wasn’t giving much away.

‘An Evolution of Aromas’ started with langoustine, chicken skin and nori and ended, eighteen courses later, with coffee and mignardises. Yes, I had to look up that word, too. It means ‘bite-sized desserts.’ Of course. It is a tasting menu after all.

The only problem with such an immense tasting menu is retaining the high level of concentration required to focus on each mouthful, while also maintaining one’s place in the dinner table conversation. I sadly lapsed on the latter, as I delved eagerly into each beautifully presented morsel. Everything becomes a character in the operatic theatre of such a dinner. Not just the ingredients themselves, but the cutlery, the crockery, the matching wines, the waiters, even the lighting. It is hard to keep any sense of self amongst such a star-studded cast. And it is hard to recall the taste of each ephemeral flavour as the next one steps into the spotlight to take its place.

So, I’m not going to describe every dish that passed before my eager eyes. Firstly, because I would soon run out of convincing adjectives. And secondly, despite having the menu by my side, covered in copious notes, I am struggling to recall everything that passed my lips, and could not do them justice if I could. I will say, quite simply, it was a truly awesome gastronomic experience.

I do recall the aroma of the smoked cauliflower being surprisingly strong, and the velvety texture of the custard-creamy sea urchin, whose subtle taste I have learned to appreciate but will never long for. And I remember the bizarre combination of tuna (in tiny cubes), pomegranate gel and foie gras in a most unexpected colour and form (rose pink ball bearings, or crumbs) that literally melted in the mouth, giving off an intensity of flavour that created an ecstatic response from my taste buds. Even the hot Douro bread, with its satisfyingly crunchy crust giving way to a satin-soft and spongy inner sanctum was a joy to chew upon, dipped in a pungent olive oil. (As a quick aside, apparently the pros taste olive oil like wine, swirling it in a glass to help release the aromas, then slurp it noisily into their mouths to emulsify the oil and spread it over their tastebuds, to bring every flavour to the surface. We didn’t do this, but I feel we got equal satisfaction by dipping into it heartily with that divine bread.) And there was that national tapa pastéis de bacalhau –somewhat heavy, dry, fried codfish balls – that had been reformatted into a light, soft, moist meringue, that slid down my throat almost as soon as it touched my tongue.

And, of course I noted every fork and each tactile, unusually shaped and often warmed bowl or plate that arrived at the table, even before my eyes and nose started dissecting the much heralded arrangement upon it. I do wish I had remembered to take a photo of everything – but multi-tasking has never been my strong suit, and anyway, I was too busy tasting!

Our waiter, Sara, did a marvellous job of introducing each dish, although her heavy Portuguese accent meant I often had to waylay her for a personalized repeat performance. Oh! to be able to speak Portuguese. To date, I have only mastered ‘Obrigada’, which is useful, but pretty feeble for a lengthy conversation. Nonetheless, Sara and I had lots of long chats on the way through the menu, to clarify as many details as possible. It became a master class in Portuguese flavours and Asian fusion, and I loved every moment. But I do regret the ephemeral nature of any meal, that leaves me struggling to recreate more than a tiny impression of each dish.

Chef Sowek (aka Lord Voldemort) in the movie was very put out when a client who had come often to his restaurant could not recall a single dish he had eaten there over the years. To be fair, it is actually hard to do, even when one thinks one is utterly focussed. It is the nature of the beast. But I think I will remember, forever, the surprised delight of those soft pink foie gras crumbs. And there were so many of these extraordinary experiences during the meal – those moments when what my eyes looked upon did not equate to the texture and taste on my tongue. It was pure magic.

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