bordeaux revisited …

In 1994, in the days before children and saggy tummies, I was lucky enough to visit Bordeaux et environs and returned to the UK with a rucksack full of grand cru classe 1990s (including a Chateau Margaux) which I thoroughly enjoyed sharing with some good friends at the turn of the millennium.

Two weeks ago, a return visit to the area resulted in a modest bounty of 4.5 bottles of Sauternes, over 1200 photographs (combined) and 3 additional kilos in bodily weight!

Laziness … or perhaps a dwindling interest in Bordeaux that provided the fiery baptism into a lifelong interest in wines all those years ago. Or maybe it’s just down to pure economics: the unfavourable exchange rate and the silly prices that the top chateaux believe they can command today.

What is abundantly clear is that we still do not skimp on fine dining. I know this because as the self-appointed budget analyst, I was able to track in real-time (thanks to my trusty iPad) our shared expenses, which also show a worrying increase in the category of accommodation. I guess the extra tummies now require bigger, more comfortable beds 😉

David (our francophile host) asked us at the end of the trip for our Top 5 highlights of the trip. So here they are, abridged using true 21st century efficiency and this time supported by better (digital) photographs.

1. Chateau d’Yquem (Sauternes)

2. Michel Forgeron (Cognac)

3. Chateau Latour

4. Printemps Dome

5. La Salamandre

a very cheesy affair …

When the opportunity for an English cheese & wine tasting came up at Harvey-Nichols, my palate did a somersault at the thought of having to endure a number of less than satisfactory English wines … but I’m glad J & I put aside any pre-conceptions to attend, because if we hadn’t, we might still be living in ignorance of the range and quality of cheeses that hail from these western isles.

The venue was the Second Floor restaurant in Bristol, with Head Chef Louise McCrimmon kicking off proceedings by introducing Todd and Ben from the acclaimed Trethowan Dairy team, and Ivan from the London branch who had the unenviable task of marrying the wines to the proposed cheeses.

The programme was as follows:

1. Gorwydd Caerphilly (Wales) – matched with Verdejo 2008 from the Naia vineyard in Rueda, Spain.

This is Todd’s own cheese, hand-made using animal rennet and unpasteurised milk – apparently, the three tenets of artisanal cheese making. While the cheese was delicately delicious, I felt the Verdejo made a fair attempt at balancing the saltiness of the cheese with a healthy crisp acidity, while at the same time developing a grassy-ness very similar to a Sauvignon Blanc to complement the mushroom flavours from the rind.

2. St Gall (Irish) – matched with a Rasteau 2003 from Domaine Soumade in Southern Rhone.

St Gall is a mountain-style cheese, similar to a Comté, Gruyère etc. Now this was a brave match, and one that surprisingly worked proabably because the 2003 vintage (being an extremely hot year) delivered secondary flavours, such as nuttiness, that would be difficult to obtain from a predominantly Grenache wine.

3. Tunworth (English) – matched with Gewurtztramminer 2008, Seresin Marlborough N.Z.

Judy Cheney’s camembert style cheese has wonderful vegetal aromas that you will find around the farmyards in Basingstoke, where it is made. While the cheese was excellent (I challange anyone to find a better English camembert), the wine match was disappointing – the Gewurtz did not impart any floral smells and left a distinct bitter aftertaste in the mouth. Perhaps, a red Burgunday might have made a better pairing.

4. Ardrahan (Irish) – matched with an Austrian Berenauslese 2006 from Alois Kracher.

Remember the three rules of artisan cheese? This one is an exception (it uses vegetable rennet and pasteurised milk) but one which is particularly interesting as it develops from caramel to nuts, and finally that unique hit of burnt steak fat at the finish. The Berenauslese compliments this to perfection with the fresh orange pekoe flavours eventually giving way to caramelised onions, enabling the whole ensemble to deliver what felt like a small meal. I guess this is what all cheese & wine tastings should aspire too: the sum of the already good parts should be greater than the whole. Sublime!

5. Stichelton (English) – matched with Churchills 20yo Tawny Port.

The name of Stichelton came about to circumvent one of the few Protected Designation of Origin or PDO regulations (equivalent to the French AOC) in England. It is a Stilton-like cheese but made from unpasteurised milk, thus falling foul of the rule. Personally, I find Stichelton a bit of a girlie cheese, with a long and soft butteriness that fondles rather than attacks the palate, and simply doesn’t taste as mean as the blue mould suggests … which is why the Tawny provided such a great match to this cheese. Unlike LBV or vintage ports, Tawnys (especially served slightly chilled) are rounder and more elegant but still packs a hefty punch of alcoholic fruity freshness with every sip. Nevertheless, a great pairing.

half-term happiness …

Prompted by several news articles of a 20% slump in champagne sales and promises of lower prices in the run up to Christmas, J and I felt obliged to take advantage of this very French misfortune (not in a shardenfreuder way, ok well maybe a little) by making a trip to the Champagne region … via Disneyland. Methinks the days of having to bribe the kids with visits to theme parks so that the groan-ups can take in liquid culture are coming to an end. Not that J1 & J2 did not enjoy themselves hurtling around the dark on the Space Mountain ride, but both boys now seem to be actively interested in the tastings at the various producers we visited. In fact, we may even have a placomusophile in the making in J2 – and no, that’s not someone who has a sexual interest in bottom-sucking tropical fish but someone who collects the round metal plates, notably on the end of champagne corks!

Anyway, the trip to Champagne would not have been possible without the patience and collective planning of the group, which was made up of the Ong clan, David and our Belgian friends, Anne & Stephaan. No detail was overlooked in the preparation for our long week-end in the area, right down to the precise timing of our rendez-vous at Jérôme Viard’s tonnellerie in Cauroy-les-Hermonville. Cooperage is a dying art, and so this visit was so much more special because we were taken around by a man whose passion for making artisan (read: very labour-intensive) oak barrels for his discerning clients was clearly demonstrated in speech and skill. And the free champagne tasting afterwards wasn’t too bad either 😉

camille saves

Although our travels took us from Boulard (in Cauroy) to Launois (in Mesnil-sur-Oger), the discovery of the trip was unanimously voted as Camille Sav̬s (pictured above). Every once in a while, you get lucky and stumble upon R̩coltant-Manipulants (Grower Producers) whose products sit at the top-end of the price/quality ratio Рbut the delicious champagnes (and his still red wine) are no result of accident, but a divine marriage between a talented winemaker (Herv̩) and the Grand Cru Pinot Noir terroir that surrounds Bouzy.

Oh, and just in case any of you out there fancy planning a similar trip, I’m enclosing David’s detailed itinerary below for reference:

FRIDAY 30 OCTOBER

РONG/DG: 12h00: Meet Ongs at Marne la Vall̩e RER at 12h00
– ONG/DG: Follow A4 & Marne (quick lunch, e.g. at Relais du Tardenois at km 96 of A4)
– ONG/DG: 13h30/14h00: Marx-Coutelas (03 26 58 63 64)
– ONG/DG: 14h30: Leave Marx-Coutelas to go to Aÿ.
РONG/DG: 15h00: Collect keys from La Mongeardi̬re.
– ONG/DG: 16h00: Meet Anne & Stephaan at Jérôme Viard’s Tonnellerie.
– ALL: 17h00: Raymond Boulard (03 26 61 50 54)
РALL: 19h30: Dinner at Le Jardin Brasserie (Ch. des Cray̬res). 03 26 24 90 90. Brasserie opens at 19h15.
РReturn to La Mongeardi̬re

SATURDAY 31 OCTOBER

– 08h00: Breakfast at chambre d’hôtes. Wander around Aÿ after breakfast (maybe buy some food for a picnic at the mini-supermarket in Aÿ), or else we could choose to have a later breakfast if you prefer a lie-in.
– 10h00: Tasting at Henri Giraud, Aÿ (booked). Allow one hour for tasting.
– 11h00: Drive to Saves (Bouzy). N.B. There are roadworks in the middle of Bouzy, we might want to arrive via Ambonnay.
Р11h30: Tasting at Camille Sav̬s (03 26 57 00 33).
– 12h30-13h30: Lunch (as a restaurant might take up too much time, we could have a picnic in the vines if it’s nice weather, or get some things to eat at Leclerc Champfleury if it’s not). Most producers are closed from 12h00 – 14h00, so let’s use this time for driving & eating.
– 14h00: ??? [this was the Vilmart slot… suggestions on how we fill it welcome].
– 15h00: “Free-format” depending on our mood – we can call ahead to Gonet-Sulcova, Launois, Veuve Fourny depending on what we feel like.
– 18h00: Either return to chambre d’hôte to relax, or go to “C. Comme” in Epernay for an aperitif.
– 19h30/20h00: Dinner at Le Lys du Roy. 03 26 97 66 11.
РReturn to La Mongeardi̬re

SUNDAY 1 NOVEMBER

– 08h30: Breakfast at chambre d’hôtes.
– 09h30: Check out of chambre d’hôtes.
– 10h00: Short walk around water gardens in Chouilly.
Р11h00: Visit Hautvillers, including the church with the tomb of Dom P̩rignon.
– 12h00: Go somewhere for lunch (maybe at a café/bistrot/brasserie in Epernay or Reims… not many restaurants are open on Sundays outside of the larger towns).
– 13h30/14h00: Possibly go to the Faux de Verzy, or walk around Epernay/Reims.
– 14h45/15h00: Drop David at Reims
– DG: 16h15-17h00: TGV to Paris
– ONG: 17h50: Chunnel to England

a sign of the wines …

When the last blog entry dates back to some 7 months ago, one has to come up with an appropriately cunning plan to deliver a backlog of informative (and hopefully interesting) content with the greatest economy of words. I suppose the quickest and least painful way would be to point readers at a couple of picasa web albums, surrendering to the old adage of a picture painting a plethora of words etc etc … but that would be far too convenient, and besides, this is a serious blog, where serious subject matters are discussed 😉

So, I have decided instead to use wine (including a number of decent alcoholic beverages) as reference points, providing the contextual setting for great encounters between friends and family – a sort of nostalgic buoy if you like, anchoring fragmented memories of good times shared with people in places which I would have undoubtedly forgotten had it not been for some specific sensual trigger which a particular tipple aroused.

Let’s begin with the our most recent w/e excursion to Paris where our host David shared what is strictly an ‘illegal’ wine, at least by French AOC rules: Le Rêve de Pennautier is the only sweet Chardonnay I have ever come across, made more rare by the fact that it is only produced by the Lorgeril family in years when the weather is favourable to do so. For me, the 2004 tasted similar to a late-harvest Rielsing or Sylvaner, or perhaps it was purposely put in a 50cl long-necked Alsace style bottle to deceive your casual wine enthusiast … nevertheless, an experience worthy of the mystery that surrounds it!

And speaking of Sylvaners, there was that exquisite bottle J and I lingered over recently at Harvey Nics restaurant in Bristol on my birthday dinner: Bruno Sorg is perhaps better known for his Grand Cru Rieslings but the 2006 Vieilles Vignes tasted decadently mineral-like, and quite unexpected considering the usual leanness you get from the humble Sylvaner grape.

Or another time when J and I were chilling in the bar of the T-Hotel last summer after long, lazy days lying on the sandy beaches on the Southern coast of Sardinia … on that occasion, a Buio Buio from a progressive wine maker called Mesa, teased and totally confused my taste buds into thinking big Bordeaux, when in truth it was made with 100% Carignano, a local grape variety but had spent a good few months in French oak. Impressed with the wine, I bought a bottle at Cagliari airport on the way home with every intention to dazzle our tame connoisseur David at our next meeting, but alas it did not travel well and we both agreed it might just have easily been made by a couple of miners from the Valleys and called ‘Boy-o Boy-o’ 😉

However, there can be no questioning the consistency of the good vintage champagne: David’s generosity of serving bubbly (and on this occasion, a Drappier Brut 1990) after our usual drive through the night to arrive at his Parisian pad at the crack of dawn, is becoming a customary ritual and one that I would like to see continued. Ah, if only you can age with such elegance without being confined to a bottle with 90 PSI of pressure upon you 😉

Staying with white wines, I’ve recently acquired a curious affinity to Chenin Blanc. Actually, I would even venture to predict the rise in popularity of this variety to challenge and finally extinguish the ‘has beens’ of the old world e.g. the Vouvrays and Saumurs with their wishy-washy apple and cinnamon combo. In particular the varietals coming from Stellenbosch not only provide great value for money, there can be no ambiguity about the intense fruit experience of pineapple, papaya and the citrus crispness of kumquat – all in one mouthful of joy that takes me back to my childhood days of rummaging around orchards in Malaysia. I attribute this latest discovery to the bottle of Dornier’s Cocoa Hills Chenin Blanc, shared in great company with our Belgian friends Anne & Stephaan on our visit to the Ghent Festival in late July. Served as part of the ‘menu deal’ in a great little resto called L’Homard Bizzare, I had my reservations, not least because we were drinking a South African wine … in a French restaurant … in Belgium … and this was at the end of a rather alcoholic week-end of sampling an exhaustive list of Belgian beers in Dulle Griet, exotic jenevers in Pol Reysenaer’s Dreupelkot bar by the river and meeting Bob Mineerkeer himself (and his moustache!) at the Glengarry Whisky Club where he attempted to convince us of the heavenly pairing of a 12 year old Clynelish to baked lobster!

And so, many adventures later and with our livers appropriately abused, I bring this post to a close. For me, drink does not just have that meta-physical convenience of uniting like-minded people in happy surroundings, it also triggers emotional connections at a spiritual level in a way that cannot and must not be explained by science. Therefore I bid y’all (to bastardise a famous Vulcan saying), “Drink long til you’re a cropper” … or to put it in more civilised French, La vie est trop courte pour boire du mauvais vin 😉

ooh la loire …

rillette

If you like rillette, you will love Hardouin. Whether it is worth a special trip to Vouvray to purchase it sur place is debatable, but as we were already in the Loire area visiting chateaux and wineries, it seemed the most natural thing to do.

What is unquestionable however is the beauty of Chenonceau – I doubt any of the photographs taken on my Canon EOS will do the place justice so you will have to click to the link to see the aerial shots, or better still, go in person! The Loire is driveable from Paris, but for a day trip I strongly suggest that you venture no farther west than Amboise to get the greatest bang per kilometer driven. We, however, decided to go as far as Chinon to track down the producer of Clos de l’Echo 1997 (Couly-Dutheil) which David was kind enough to share with us the night before, only to discover they are closed during the winter months!

chambord
 
Chambord looked nice from the outside – somewhat eerie for the time of day when we visited, with a low mist almost touching that highly recognisable, decorated roofline of Francois I’s royal pad.

And when we were not in the Loire, we loitered around La Défense, admiring the variety of office towers that line the cours leading down to a small but curious vineyard, overlooking the Arc de Triomphe in the distance.

Wandering around the 3e and 4e, we stopped for the best cup of hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted at Jacques Genin. His atelier on rue de Turenne looks more like a jewellery boutique than a place to buy chocolates – see below. Ummm, methinks this will now be a regular haunt whenever we visit Paris. Go easy on the Tonka bean ones as these contain coumarin which is lethal in large doses – why is it that the nice things in life are never good for your health 😉 Dinner afterwards at Les Enfants Rouges (Rue de Beauce) was made more pleasant when washed down with a lovely bottle of Cornas 1993 (Domain Courbis).

genin

Of course, no visit to Paris has ever escaped the generosity of our host David. This time, we were treated to Jaboulet Aine’s La Chapelle 1995 (Hermitage) which left our palates tinging with tobacco and leather, nor will we ever forget the youthful crispness of Pfaffenheim’s Sylvaner (a varietal from Alsace, but not from a noble grape family) despite having spent 24 years in the bottle! That’s what I love about David’s tastings – your taste buds are always challenged, from the sublime to the ridiculous.

a very bubbly affair …

champagne08.JPG

Lily Bollinger once said about champagne:

“I drink it when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I’m not hungry and I drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it, unless I’m thirsty.”

Such is the ambivalence created by this pale tipple that packs nearly 50 million bubbles in every bottle … and so humble too when you consider that its external appearance says so little about the labour and passion that has gone into its production.

So, we were in the Champagne region again – a holiday triggered partly by an invitation to accompany our good friend’s family on their first visit to the area, but mainly because our wine ‘cellar’ was bereft of white wines. Those of you who know me well will know that I only drink French wines – red Bordeaux to be precise … and the only white wines I tolerate are ones with bubbles … naturally 😉

Anyway, we were installed in a modern and comfortable Chambres D’Hotes in Reuil with a sporty itinerary devised by our good friend David that will have taken us from Châtillon (to visit the commanding papal satue of Urbane II) to the south-east extreme of the Cote des Blanc to gorge ourselves on foie-gras and other duck by-products, punctuated by degustations at various producers such as Marx Coutelas (Venteuil), Guy Charlemagne & Launois (Mesnil s/ Oger) and Vilmart (Rilly-la-Montagne) to name a few. But the visit of the trip (and the one that scores the highest points for hospitality) must surely go to Philipponnat, and in particuar to Nicoletta who gave us treats that I doubt we will ever encouter again, treats such as:

  • sampling the reserve wine directly from an oak barrel (upto 19% of this wine is used to blend with current wines to give you that reliable consistency that Philipponnat champagnes are known for)
  • tasting the vintage rosé from the cuve (steel vat) after the 1st fermentation (there are only 2000 bottles of this made so we made a note to find a bottle sometime around 2013 when it will be availabl in the market, errr assuming we can buy one!)
  • witnessing and drinking a vintage Grand Blanc from 1988 that Nicolletta disgorged using the traditional method (i.e. using the bubble in the bottle to aggregate and expel the sediments requiring expert hand-eye coordination and a big, strong thumb – kids, don’t try this at home!), having located it in a corner during our cellar visit. The wine smelled and tasted magnificent, especially considering that it was in its pre-dosage form.
  • … but our real thanks go to David who organinsed this vist through Charles Philipponnat himself … which just goes to prove, it’s not what you kow but who you know that gets you nice things in life.

    A couple of discoveries worth mentioning include the red ‘illegal champagne’ that our B&B host produced one evening (actually, it wasn’t a particularly great experience but nevertheless it needed to be done) and the rare rosé from Edouard Barnaut (Bouzy), one of the few still wines carrying the Coteaux Champenois AOC that stand out in the middle of what is afterall bubbles country.

    So we are back home now, and our ‘cellar’ is looking a little less pathetic … but all the excess of the past few days have caught up with me in the form of abdominal cramps, so I’m on the wagon again … until such time when I feel lonely, hungry or thirsty 😉

    tapastastic …

    Copy of TAPAS.jpg

    It is 9.30 a.m. in the morning. Under a blue and cloudless sky, a low Catalan sun easily melts away any remnant frost on the awnings of the stalls at La Bouqueria market on Las Ramblas. Inside, we wrestled with the crowd for a seat at a tapas bar, and once armed with a couple of cold cervezas (see pic), we begin to devise a cunning plan to punctuate our short week-end in Barcelona with as many eateries and wine bars as our stomachs and bladders can withstand. The list would be modest, but distinguished … for example, for dinner, we should try to eat at Santa Maria (Carrer del Comerq) where a number of chefs had trained under Ferran Adria  of el Bulli fame, or les 7 Portes (Pg. Isabel II), one of the city’s oldest and most reputable restaurants or visit Can Paixano (Carrer de la Reina Cristina), a rowdy bar serving cheap (but sometimes awful!) cava.

    And as always, we were prepared to be led by our noses and so chance also brought us to La Vinya del Senyor (Placa de Santa Maria) which stocked some 300 fine wines by the glass, Cuines (located in the new Santa-Caterina market with the amazing roof) – a foodie paradise with themed areas and a great tapas bar at the entrance, and Vascelum (also on Placa de Santa Maria) – I don’t think I will ever forget the taste and texture of my perfectly grilled cuttlefish.

    But the gastronomic highlight must go to Santa Maria. We had been told this place gets busy and as booking wasn’t viable, we arrived early and loitered aimlessly until we were invited in shortly before the opening time of 20:30, and 15 minutes later, every table in the restaurant was occupied! The wine list seemed very personal as if chef had made the selection from his own cellar, but as we had ordered the Menu Degustation, there seemed little point in attempting to match wine to food so I selected an Altun, a surprisingly elegant Rioja made 100% from Tempranillo. And so our dining adventure began …

    To say that our taste buds were raped that evening is an understatement, but I cannot remember another meal quite like this where the diner is taken on a journey from classic French cuisine to the far east, then whisked suddenly to Celtic delicacies, back to Mediterranean seafood before finishing with three desserts, one of which contained space dust (yes, space dust – I kid you not), which had the roof of our mouths crackling and popping with joy! Then there is the value for money aspect. For just under 32 EURO (plus taxes), we were treated to the following:

    – a refreshing home made lemonade with mint (to cleanse our palates before the meal)
    – delicious olives seasoned in cloves
    – tasty bowl of fresh cassava chips
    – an unusual pomegranate salad with toasted almonds
    – fried frogs legs, coated in sesame seeds
    – local giant mussels with a cheesy tomato topping
    – chicken sushi with a devilishly hot chilli sauce (and that’s before the wasabi was added!)
    – rib of rabbit, served with a pumpkin dip
    – pan seared fresh foie gras, served with a caramel pastry
    – delicate black pudding on an orange baked biscuit
    – savoury croquette with white chocolate drops
    – piping hot local salted cod with mash

    Ummmmmmmm, I so want to go back there …

    la dolce vita …

    trolley.jpg

    Apparently, if you toss a coin over your shoulder into the Trevi fountain, you will return to the Eternal City one day … actually we somehow managed to miss this spectacular place the last time we visited in 2003 but the matter is now rectified … but who needs legend as an excuse to re-visit this enchanting city 😉

    We are now installed at our wellness B&B after a day’s travelling which pretty much included planes, trains and automobiles … well, not necessarily in that order. And at one point in the taxi from Fiumicino airport, I was beginning to think we might actually arrive at St Peter’s pearly gates before seeing Rome – such was the ferocity of driving of our chauffeur, an aged disco queen with a particular passion for Barry White ballads. Or perhaps, he imagined himself on track at the Brazilian Grand Prix rather than the autostrada. But I digress …

    Last night, after strolling from Spagna, to the Fora Traiano (Imperial Forum just outside the Colosseum), we ate at a decent enough restaurant in Trastevere, away from the tourist honey traps of other more famous piazzas. Note to self: the next time Franco (the hotel manager) suggests an area of nice restaurants, be sure to extract an exact address for the GPS! After an hour or so of walking (Trastevere is a pretty sizeable area!), we eventually found several nice eateries that had already seated the locals and could accommodate no more diners that evening. We also found a lonely supermarket trolley by our bus stop (see pic) which provided some light entertainment to round up a long day …

    toulouse, or not toulouse …

    capitole.jpg

    Business trips are usually nothing to write home about – unless of course you find yourself installed in a flea-pit of a hotel for 3 long nights, or that the hours spent during the day toiling over design principles and other riveting technical topics are compensated by evenings on the terrasse in the main square Capitole (see pic) sipping wine/beer, or tucking into great regional specialities that use just about every part of a duck, not least of which the liver (foie gras) is pretty ubiquitous everywhere you go. What has the humble duck done to deserve this?!

    Toulouse is great place to work – and the 20,000 or so employees at the Airbus complex outside Blagnac enjoy a campus lifestyle that I can get quite accustomed to – for example, wine is more than tolerated in the staff canteen at lunchtimes (it’s a disciplinary offence to consume alcohol in workplaces in the US and most companies in UK), the buildings are set amidst lush greenery and nice open spaces to allow workers to profiter from the famous Toulousaine weather of heat without the humidity – which is ostensibly why Airbus picked this location as a manufacturing base for aircraft fuselage.

    Now, a couple of bonne addresses to note: Le Bon Vivre on Place President Wilson (my brochette of ducks hearts was proficiently grilled), Le Frog & Rosbif on Rue de l’Industrie (a brewery pub serving delicious beer and sporting big TVs for those Brits who can’t live without Premiership football), La Couleur de la Culotte on Place St Pierre (funny name, but also offers great views of the Hotel Dieu across the Garonne) and finally Les Mangevins (which unfortunately I ran out of time to visit) where the food is charged by weight and you can gorge yourselves with unhealthy amounts of said foie gras and beef (at least as much as you wallet can withstand!), whilst the owner – a garcon boucher – recounts witty stories of the riots in 1968 etc …

    The next of of these workshops is in Washington DC. Perhaps, I’ll blog from there, but then again … perhaps not!

    viva espana …

    passion.JPG

    So I’m in Barcelona. Actually I was booked to go to Prague but a last minute cancellation and some frantic google-ing brought me to this wonderful city where I am happily installed in 4-star luxury at the Hotel Catalonia Ramblas. As I write, the sun is shinning outside and warming all and sundry to a nice oven-ready 20 degrees C …

    My father-in-law Stuart once told me that he had always avoided visiting Barcelona because the only attraction worth visiting is unfinished. That was nearly 10 years ago, and he has since passed on, and today the Segrada Familia is still only 50% complete, and the foundation has the cheek to charge 8 EURO for the privilege of visiting what is essentially a building site! Still, it was an awesome experience and in my view a ‘must see’. Pic above is from the Passion facade which has been sympathetically integrated into Gaudi’s more organic original design (Nativity facade and bell towers) – does anybody know what these numbers mean???

    From one talented spaniard to another crazy one … Joan Miro announced to the world his intention to ‘assassinate’ painting in his work and if you visit his museum high up on the Montjuic hill, you can see for yourselves just how far he went with this idea. I mean, there must be a finite number of scenes one can ‘paint’ involving women, birds, the night sky and planetary bodies 😉 Does anyone else think he might be an alien abductee? This could just explain the abstractness in many of his contrived illustrations …

    Some travel tips: the best way to see this city is by bus – the Tourist Bus now includes 3 routes (South, North and Forum) and a one-day ticket costing 19 EURO will taken you to pretty much all the tourist spots. Alternatively, if you prefer traveling sub-terra a T10 ticket costing just under 7 EURO will get you 10 rides on the Metro within Zone 1.

    And if you fly into Gerona via Ryan Air, be prepared for an additional 70 minute bus ride into Barcelona – the transfer is pretty painless (but will cost you 21 EURO for a return ticket) and the bus terminates at the Central Bus Station, near the Arc De Triomf Metro.

    Tourist guides are plentiful on the net, so go knock yourself out when planning to visit this great city. My own itinerary has included:

      – multiple visits to La Bouqueria (food market off Las Ramblas) where I
      breakfast on fresh fruit and smoothies every morning
      – multiple walks down Las Ramblas (look out for the amazing living statues)
      – Santa Caterina Market (great architecture but lacks the buzz of La
      Bouqueria)
      – Catalonia Cathedral – take the lift up to get a great view of the city
      – walk from Port Vell to the Olympic Village (some great fish restaurants on
      the way)
      – lunch at Cuina Creativa in c/ Dagueria (excellent food, even better prices)
      – Segrada Familia (what more can I say, wow!)
      – Parc Guell (the closest Metro station is Vallcarca, then walk down to
      Lesseps afterwards)
      – dinner at Merendero de la Mari, Placa Pau Vila (advisable to book – I had a
      divine Esqueixada (salted cod) and Fideus Negres amd Cloisses (squid ink
      noodles)
      – Fundacion Miro (en route on the Blue Tourist Bus route)
      – Vildsvin (Ferran) for interesting tappas and beers/cava

    Barcelona is a great place to visit with family, and I plan to come back soon with mine …

    toujours gastronomique …

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    Ok, so how many 9 year olds do you know who have had the privilege of tasting a Grand Cru Classé, nevermind a Haut-Brion 1981?! Such was the generosity of our host David, thus setting the mood for our long gastronomic week-end in Paris that will take us to Chateau Chantilly for a delicious hot chocolate with an unhealthy dollop of Chantilly cream, 3C (formerly Chateau Cash & Carry) to buy some good drinking wine, L’Oxyd cocktail bar and restaurant serving great North African grub, Nation market, Melac’s bistro, Bastille market, L’As du Falafel in the Rue des Rosiers in the Marais, Le Palais des Thés and finally to the Salon les Vins de Terroir in the Parc Floral. Phew … now that I’ve listed the foodie venues, I should also add that we managed to punctuate periods of non-eating with visits to Senlis, the Dali museum in Montmartre and Victor Hugo’s house on the Place des Vosges.

    Now, back to the Haut-Brion … well, David would not let us off with anything less than a blind tasting, and against a bottle of Clos Forquet that was unfortunately bouchoné. Nevertheless, my first guess was a cru classé from St Estèphe … based on the paler colour and that unmistakable old earthiness that for me typifies the area. The nose developed from black fruits, then to prunes and then orange flowers, then vanilla and in the final draw of air, a sulphurous hint of that smell a match makes when it has just been struck. I guessed again: “It’s not a Graves, is it”? “Is it not?”, came the reply. My heart started pounding … the long cedar finish on the palate, after that initial explosion of chocolate covered fruit was indeed typical but … where is that characteristic flintiness? I guessed again, “Well, there aren’t that many Grand Cru Classés in Graves [Ed: suicidal statement for a wine bluffer] … so it’s got to be …” “Chateau Haut-Brion!”, David interjected as he ran into the kitchen to return with the empty bottle … the rest of the afternoon was spent in sensual nostalgia as we recounted stories from our previous adventures in the wine regions of France. David is right: when wines get that good, you can only describe them in terms of emotions such as happiness and euphoria … and that afternoon in David’s flat, we were truly ecstatic! I should also mention that when our appetites finally returned (even with great food on the table, none of us felt hungry whilst there was a beautiful glass of Haut-Brion in our hands!), we also enjoyed some tasty comestibles from the market in Nation – the porcelet (roast suckling pig), Picholine and Lucques olives (only from Minervois), AOC Roquefort from Baragnaudes, an unusual Maroiles (from Lille) affiné au cafe instead of beer and a rather rare bottle of Passion de Closiot 1996 Sauternes (there are only 900 bottles made, and it is actually from Barsac) to accompany the lovely foie gras and fig bread.

    Ok, I hadn’t meant for this post to read like an advertisement for food and wine producers, but such is the norm when one visits David. I will however add a few plugs for blogs that I regularly visit … for his sake … as a gesture of mutual appreciation of the finer things in life. So in exchange for the rather delicious Avongrove 1st Flush ’06 Darjeeling (SFTGFOPI), I propose Stephane’s blog called Tea-Masters http://teamasters.blogspot.com/ – one wine geek to another tea geek, and a couple of food blogs – Chez Pim http://chezpim.typepad.com/ who regularly visits France and has eaten in many of the world’s best restos; and Chocolate and Zucchini http://chocolateandzucchini.com/ with mouth-watering recipes from a 27-year-old Parisian woman who lives in Montmartre.

    Why is it that the best things in life have French connections? And no, you don’t need to send me a postcard with an answer to that question …

    Sooooo, I’ll return to food blogging soon … with a couple of new recipes for the time-challenged cook. Unlike Vatel (the Chantilly cream man) who killed himself because the fish he was going to cook was late, this wait is not suicide-worthy 😉

    loitering in morocco …

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    Marrakech is a place of beauty, which is desperately looking for the eyes of its beholder. Whether it is in the deepest and smelliest alleys of the souks, or the greenest and prickliest parts of the Jardin Majorelle, or the most intricately tiled palaces around Bahia, or the contrast of the fantastic food stalls with the heart numbing squalor of beggars on the Djemaa el Fna, or the freezing cold but picturesque villages in Ourika on the ascent to the Atlas mountains – one is attracted to its beauty in the same subjective way that people generally react to Marmite: you either love it or hate it!

    But on the quality and comfort of our riad (Dar Vedra), the verdict is unanimous – Didier and Sebastien have perfected the art of service to the extent that guests feel like they have been invited to a friend’s home, rather than the usual functional arrangement of providing a room for the night in exchange for money.

    Riads in architectural terms also convey an understated modesty that is prevalent in islamic culture: the high but very plain exterior walls conceal an inner courtyard that is open to the elements, and is often adorned with a central fountain and lush greenery. From this inner sanctum, doors open into rooms on all sides of the courtyard and if it is a dar, there will be a second storey supported by tall columns that tower upwards to an open sky … think of it as a house that has been turned outside in vis-a-vis Lloyds of London which has been turned inside out. And then compare this to an oriental home (or indeed a capitalistic western one) that seeks to flaunt the wealth of its inhabitants with unnecessary alcoves, fancy windows, colourful roof tiles, and in some cases gilded cornices. All houses should be built like riads, where those living in them can enjoy their beauty from within the comfort and security of their homes, rather than waste it all on strangers and passers-by.

    More pics from this little adventure to follow … meanwhile, there is a pile of work to chomp through before the Christmas break …. ummmm, what *is* the collective noun for a mass of emails in you Inbox?

    vacance de lutece …

    Forget April in Paris – August in my opinion is the best time to visit this city … for a number of reasons:

    1) There are fewer Parisians about – the city slickers decamp en famille to the country/sea-side resorts … in France, naturally. And having visited a number of these salubrious summer destinations, I fully understand their xenophobia and reluctance to holiday abroad.

    2) There are fewer cars about (see above) – which means you can easily take your gas-guzzler into town and return home with bumpers intact and unscathed. Plus, not having to face the usual rigmarole of parking (an experience not unlike trying to shoe-horn an elephant’s testicle into a matchbox) increases the the chill-o-meter reading … right at the start of the week-end, which is always a good thing when you’re on holiday.

    3) There are more tourists about – which means if you have even the smallest amout of French, you will gain the respect of waiters and perhaps even earn a Parisian smile as they pick on other linguistically challenged Brits and Americans.

    The only downer is that many good eateries in town are also closed during the month of August.

    However, fortunately for us, the wine cellar at David’s modest apartment was most definitely open and over the week-end, we were treated to a number of rare bottles from his extensive collection. We started as we meant to continue with Champagne Moutard, made from 6 different grapes but still falls within French appelation laws and tasted … well, unusual … but not disagreeable. I was sure we had reached the apex of David’s generosity when the Corton Charlemagne ’96 from Louis Latour was brought out for inspection (and just for ‘fun’, we tasted this against a 1e Cru Chassagne Montrachet ’99 ‘Morgeot ‘), but for Sunday lunch, he produced yet another rare bottle of liquid nectar – this time, a Domaine du Rousset-Peyraguey, not just the usual Sauternes, but a Tête de cru ’96 made from even later botrytis-ridden grapes. Add foie gras bought from the market at Nation on Saturday, fig bread from Eric Kayser (said to be equivalent of Ducasse in bread making terms in Paris) and you have before you all the ingredients to make this a truly decadent week-end.

    Our ongoing quest for bonnes addresses took us to Les Bouchons on Saturday evening – a Francois Clerc resto that serves rather inventive dishes without selling out to fusion, and has the added bonus of a simple but adequate wine list from which the diner can order at just above cost. Tarte tatin aux tomates and slushed cucumber gazpacho in poached plum tomatoes are just a few examples of how easy it is to be creative without going overboard a la Heston Blumenthal.

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    At the Paris Plage by the Seine, the weather was just good enough to pretend you were lying on a sundeck somewhere in Deauville (pic above of J2, hung out to dry). But I recommend that you leave the Musée de Cluny for the winter months – a Roman bath without water (or air conditioning for that matter) is better experienced through a travel guide book, rather than sweating it out as we did, especially when we had forgotten to bring our cattle prods. However, I’m glad we played around the 5th arrondissement – the Left Bank is also home to the only Gallo-Roman arena , the Arènes de Lutèce, which provided the groan-ups with an opportunity to catch up with some Zzzzzzzzzzzz’s and sober up for the drive back to Calais.

    truly, madly, deeply …

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    Husbands/boyfriends, when was the last time your wife/girlfriend looked at you like that? They say a picture paints a thousand words. Well, judge for yourselves and tell me that this isn’t the perfect Kodak moment of a happy couple totally besotted with each other. If only someone can bottle up that look, and put it up for sale on the shelves in Harvey Nichols as Love Potion No 1, I’d certainly buy a case, or 50 …

    It is now 5 days since my return from Waiman and Emily’s beautiful and exquisitely presented wedding in the Far East, and yes though my body is back in Blighty – sizzling in the uncharacteristic heatwave that has settled on us like a 24-tog duvet on a hot sticky night – a bit of me never left Hong Kong and is still loitering with intent … somewhere between Wan Chai and Kowloon.

    I’ve been thinking about what makes a perfect wedding over a good one and have reached this conclusion: timing. Timing is absolutely key and this goes back to the moment when Waiman and Emily discovered within themselves the strength in character and commitment to each other, ironically at the time of his mother’s death, quickly followed by the sudden passing of her father (they were on vacation on South Island in New Zealand when news of his illness came through). As Waiman himself recognises, when you build a relationship based on foundations as solid as these, it is easy to see how they managed to pull off (seemingly with little effort), the complex planning and perfect execution of both the church wedding and banquet – two very special events that will remain in our hearts and minds for a long time to come.

    There is also an element of serendipity in timing for their guests: when friends and family find a way of flying in from the UK, the Netherlands, Canada, Switzerland, Taiwan, France, Japan, Singapore, Thailand etc, you soon realise that you have the ingredients for a very memorable occasion. I am sure each and every one could have found plausible reasons not to attend, but we all made the effort (and for some of us it was a good time to be away from our home environment) and so we were all duly rewarded. Right from the moment we landed, and then punctuated with moments of great camaraderie, for example, the chartered antique tram ride from Sheung Wan to North Point, pulling all-nighters in Insomnia (and sometimes with burger breaks!), chatting up Filipino tarts at the appropriately named From Dusk Til Dawn (I assume y’all have seen the film!), a spot of dirty dancing with a granny (which incidentally cost me a Dior handbag), the congee breakfasts (with and without cockroach!), eating deep-fried octopus mouths in Mui Kee Cookfood stall in Tsim Sha Tsui, being rained in at the Bulldog in Lan Kwai Fong (it bucketed for about 6 hours!), the curious but effective Swiss technique of hailing taxis, the delicious Dim Sum at the Tao Heung Super 88 restaurant and being educated by a 3 year old girl about the different species of garoupa, midnight dashes to the Peak and having our taxi chased away by the Police, a very brief visit to the Bottoms-Up bar of James Bond The Man with the Golden Gun fame (now lap dancing joint) – up to the moment our planes took off when we put our heads down to reflect on new friendships made, and oh yes, catch up on lost sleep 😉

    So thank you Waiman and Emily – for showing us all a great time, but most importantly for reminding me the true meaning of love and devotion. Life-timers like Harry and I need a good kicking from time to time to rekindle the fire that we have with our loved ones. I went to Hong Kong to attend a wedding, and returned having left behind a small piece of my heart in that wonderful, wonderful city… which I fully intend to collect. One day. Soon.

    bohemian postcard …

    Dear Blog,

    Weather is awful (it’s a bright crisp morning here in Prague), the food is lousy (I’ve put on 6 pounds in 3 days living on goulash, duck, dumplings and potato pancakes), the beer is tasteless (Staropramen Granat is just pure nectar), the accommodation sucks (our suite in Hotel Artesse in Mala Strana is one of the most comfortable places we’ve stayed in) and generally having a crappy time (never been more relaxed) …

    Lots of love, Pinocchio xxx

    p.s. Really missing the UK (Ummmmm, thinking of buying a place here) 🙂

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    who hit the freeze button …

    Life is presently rather sweet. The air may be thinner at 3600m and admittedly a tad cooler, but I can’t think of a better way to finish my recuperation than lying on a sun-lounger, dozing off to the ambient tones of Morcheeba.

    We have returned to Les 2 Alpes – our third visit in 3 successive years which is something of a record for us considering the family’s appetite for travel and exploratory pursuits. There was a small change to the accommodation arrangements this year: Les Amis de la Montagne could not or rather did not want to take a mid-week booking so we are installed at the Les Lutins, a simple but functional family run hotel, situated rather conveniently opposite the main Jandri ski lift. Most of the Parisians (who incidentally ski the same way they drive) departed yesterday and we are not expecting the incoming Brits to hit the slopes until Sunday morning … great news for J and the boys, whose skills under the tutelage of Charlotte Swift (of Easiski), have come on leaps and bounds – a tribute to her passion for the sport which she imparts so effortlessly to her students. As for me, I’m happy just to be Caddy Daddy and go for the occasional trek down to Venosc village … gall stones are also a great excuse to put your snow-booted feet up and generally chill 😉

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    le beaujolais est arrivé …

    Which my very delayed Eurostar train to Paris wasn’t doing, and I also didn’t buy the explanation that we had been diverted to an alternative route to France. Sorry, but when exactly did they dig a 2nd tunnel under the English Channel …

    So, the first wines of 2005, led by the (infamous) Beaujolais Nouveau are here … and tasting surprisingly well, helped to a small extent by the additional sunshine in September, and thus negated the need for chaptalisation – the dubious practice of topping up an otherwise insipid and/or unbalanced wine with sugar. Traditionally the 3rd Thursday in November is the day when the first AOC wines of Beaujolais can be sold as ‘Nouveau’, sometimes called ‘Primeur’. The purpose of my long week-end in Paris was to shadow my friend David (also closet wine buff), for tutored tastings around the capital, and ultimately to be persuaded that this region is capable of producing serious wines. I suppose if success is to be measured in bottled purchases, then my laden rucksack on the return journey is witness to my conversion.

    My adventure began at Caves Taillevent (an annex to the chic restaurant located on 199 rue du Fauboug Saint-Honoré) where we tasted a Beaujolais Nouveau by Jean-Charles Pivot, a reputable producer and brother of cultural TV personality Bernard Pivot. While the wine was nothing to write home about, we were otherwise amused when one of the staff hid David’s Lavinia (a competitor) bag from view of other customers! Dinner afterwards at the Bistro Quatre Saison across the road was surprisingly tasty – my marcassin (young wild boar) was juicy and tender as expected and carried the subtlest hint of gaminess that is such a welcoming flavour this time of year when the weather outside is chilling to the bone. When we reached Mélac’s some minutes after midnight, the revellers had already spewed out on to the street. Once again, the wine (a generic Henry Fessy) was barely noteworthy but we observed with some amusement the glass-littered pavement where others had not quite mastered the skill of balancing bottles and glasses on the top of the poubelles (bins) provided. We closed that evening’s celebrations at La Muse Vin, tasting a Touraine Nouveau (also made from the Gamay grape) which also did not leave a lasting impression. The music however was very boogie-able, and naturally we took advantage of the cheese selection included in the droit d’entrée.

    Friday’s highlights included a late morning shop at the Popincourt Market in the 11e arrondissement to buy cheeses from the Beaujolais region to accompany David’s dégustation ensemble on Saturday evening, lunch at Casa Joe’s near Bastille (we ate cheap but agreeable pasta from cardboard cartons!) and finally a visit to the caviste Bossetti where we tasted our first Cru wines of Beaujolais – a Morgon, from the Domaine des Nugues. For me, this was the defining moment of transformation – just like a larva that has metamorphosised into something more refined and beautiful, the Cru wines of Beaujolais bear little or no resemblance to the generic B.N. despite sharing the same genetic code of the Gamay grape. David has written a very informative piece on the wines of Beaujolais, and I shall be seeking his permission to have it published here in the near future. Later that evening, we visited a péniche (sort of a floating gastronomic fair) hosted on one of the Maxim’s boats on the river Seine. Here, I discovered a sparkling chardonnay from the Domaine Dupeuble, simply labeled as mousseux because under the draconian appelation laws, it cannot be called Cremant de Beajolais because the latter is already an AOC. This wine allegedly beat Veuve Clicquot in a blind tasting, but with hindsight perhaps that’s not such a great achievement 😉

    On Saturday, we headed for the Charonne Market for some last minute purchases and stopped over at Mélac’s for a delicious lunch. With our stomachs lined, we embarked on our public tastings for the afternoon, dropping first into Lavinia to perform the mis en bouteille (see photo) of another BN from Domaine Cambon with help from the very likable Jean-Claude Chanudet. Afterwards we revisited Bossetti where I made my greatest discovery of the week-end, and confirmed by the tasting at David’s apartment later that evening: La Roche, a Moulin-à-Vent (one of the 10 Crus of the region) from Château des Jacques by Louis Jadot, the négociant from Beaune. David describes the wines from Château des Jacques as the Romanée-Conti of Beaujolais, and I totally agree. At less than 20 Euro a bottle, this is an absolute steal and will give a Burgundy from a respectable producer costing three times the price, a good run for the money. Really. But it wasn’t until David swapped business cards that we realised we were in the presence of the very modest Baron Guillaume de Curières de Castelnau himself … in the flesh! And like the gregarious Monsieur Chanudet, he too was generous enough to invite us to visit his chateaux at our convenience.

    With time, my passion for French wines has evolved beyond sensual appreciation into a deep respect for people like Jean-Claude and Baron Guillaume, whose understanding of terroir and patience to impart their knowledge of the black art of viticulture to Joe Public continue to egg on enthusiasts like David and me to delve into the secrets that lie beyond the label on the bottle. Because every bottle of wine has a story – not least of all, the humble Beaujolais.

    Update: David has kindly allowed me to publish his write up on Beaujolais – you lucky people can now access it from here (in PDF format).

    adventures in flanders …

    The decorators finished early, and by 0605 on Saturday morning we were already on the continent, en route to Ypres (via Brugges) for an educational week-end in the killing fields of Flanders.

    Ypres – or Ieper in Flemish but never wipers – is typically Belgian with narrow cobbled lanes that contrast the architectural modernity of a town that has clearly experienced re-development since its obliteration from heavy bombardment during the Great War. It also boasts the Menin Gate, where every night since 1920 (except for the war years, when the ceremony moved back to England) locals and tourists gather under this monument to watch wreaths being laid at the playing of the Last Post. I don’t think I have ever been in a more moving remembrance event and while the general mood was decidedly sombre, I also sensed something else … something equating to relief, you know that feeling you get after paying back a long-term debt. To the 37 thousand or so British and ANZACS soldiers whose names adorn the walls of this monument because their bodies have never been formally identified, found nor interred, we can but hope that in over 80 years that this ceremony has been running, the crowds have accrued enough dignity to put their souls at rest.

    For The Fallen
    by Laurence Binyon

    With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
    England mourns for her dead across the sea.
    Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
    Fallen in the cause of the free.

    Solemn the drums thrill; Death august and royal
    Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres,
    There is music in the midst of desolation
    And a glory that shines upon our tears.

    They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
    Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
    They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted;
    They fell with their faces to the foe.

    They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
    Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
    At the going down of the sun and in the morning
    We will remember them.

    They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
    They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
    They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
    They sleep beyond England’s foam.

    But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
    Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
    To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
    As the stars are known to the Night;

    As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
    Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
    As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
    To the end, to the end, they remain.

    However, when it comes to understanding the true horror of this war, a visit to the museum at Sanctuary Wood aka Hill 62 is a must. If the stereoscopic photos, recovered munitions and miscellaneous memorabilia do not paint a clear enough picture of the 4 years of hell endured by the British forces in defence of the Western Front, then slip through the back door and walk in the trenches and/or potholes to get that first hand experience that I guarantee you will not acquire anywhere else. War, at best is ugly and horrific, but the First World War set a precedence for a shameless waste of human lives that has not and hopefully will never be surpassed.

    For a change of scenery, we moved onto Brussels and checked into the Holiday Inn, set a stone’s throw from the chic shopping area of Avenue Louise. Earlier we had promised J2 seafood (mussels in particular) for dinner but not having the stamina to face the touts in Rue des Bouchers, we ate locally at Delire Parisien on rue Jordan, just off Ave Louise. Now this is great french cooking, with very friendly service in a setting that is convivial and spacious. The plats du jour promised l’Os a Moelle (bone marrow) which was quite delicious, but we were too late for the foie gras and pheasant, but found equally delectable alternatives a la carte – J in particular fell silent during her entree of Salade de chevre Chavignol with honey which she pronounced as simply excellent. Note: it seems that even in a French restaurant, the diner cannot escape the Belgian witloof (chicory or endive, depending on your linguistic persuasion). The one on my plate accompanying the rognon de veau was surprisingly tasty, perhaps a credit to chef who has managed successfully to present this rather mundane vegetable so that it actually invites ingestion Anyway, the Ch. Grand Bourdieu (Graves) we selected was perfect accompaniment to an outstanding meal, and afterwards we walked off the excesses by strolling into Sablon and taking in a compulsory beer at the Cafe Leffe!

    The clocks may have gone back on Sunday morning, but we continued to enjoy summer temperatures as we setttled down to waffles and crepes for breakfast, around the corner from the Grand Place. Several chocolate shops later, we were ready for another break, this time at the Cafe de Bxl for a degustation de cinq bieres, which rounded off beautifully our little week-end in Flanders.

    But during our time here, our thoughts were never far away from those men who fought and died that we may continue to enjoy the liberties and pleasures of this life. So boys and girls, remember this …

    When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say,
    For Their Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today.

    ciao venezia …

    My friend David once described Venice as a theme park for grown ups where the rides never end. There’s no denying the magic that’s woven into the network of interconnecting canals and the gravity defying gondoliers, but I just don’t recall coming across so many touts and fake handbag sellers in Disney. Or so many whinging Americans for that matter Oh, and there is another big difference – Disney is not drowning (see photo).

    This has been a holiday of nearlys – like how we nearly missed our flight (making check-in with 5 mins to go), or how we nearly made it to Harry’s Bar for a Bellini, or how we nearly dined at Vini di Gigio or nearly tucked into tagliatelli con granseola at the Trattoria Favorita, and how we nearly visited the cemetery island of San Michele. But for all the near misses, we made some interesting discoveries that I suspect Venetians would like to keep out of tourist guide books – for example, ending up in a wonderful hotel on the Grand Canal ideally located for the buses, trains and vaporetti, sipping lots of Bellinis at Bacaro Jazz with Diana Krall playing in the background, or having the full 3-courses (seafood antipasti including the local Venetian delicacy of sarde in saor (fried sardines braised in wine vinegar, onions, pine nuts and raisins) followed by spaghetti bursara and carpaccio) in the garden restaurant of Al Nono Risorto, or sitting Wagamama-style in long benches at the Osteria al Bomba where J declared she had the best ravioli ever as I slurped at my very tasty spaghetti nero, cooked in squid ink and full of bits of cuttlefish, or how we ended up walking on the long island of Lido, admiring the huge country villas that would make nice holiday and/or retirement homes.

    In a recent BBC TV series, Francesco da Mosto lamented the passing of his beautiful city from a historic strategic trading post to a mecca for street traders, peddling imitation Murano glassware, tacky carnival masks and dodgy leather goods. And while I sympathise with him and the 40,000 or so Venetians who have to put up with the commercialisation of this beautiful city, Venice just wouldn’t be half as interesting without the quaint shopping alleys in Rialto and San Marco. I mean, try to imagine the Champs-Elysee without shops, or the Khan in Cairo without the souks – without commerce, these places would be interesting only to architects, hard core historians and romantics like da Mosto, all pining after a era that is not as encapsulating or relevant to a materialistic 21st century society who is armed to the teeth with the ubiquitous credit card. I’m sure Casanova (or Byron for that matter) never had this problem with shopping – but during his day, he probably had more things to occupy himself … like going skinny-dipping in the canals with his girlies – a practice that is no longer allowed, clothed or otherwise Ummm, there’s a thought – if I was the Doge in 8th century Venice, I would order the sinking of Murano (to obliterate any future in glass making), become more friendly with the Pope, sack a few more cities in Asia, and turn the Lido into a nudist colony. And then I would call my pal Walt to build a giant underwater roller-coaster along the Grand Canal, which will stay open despite the rising sea levels caused by future global warming.

    escaping work …

    In the middle of bid mayhem, we managed to steal a week-end away in Paris, chez David. On Saturday, he hosted a wine tasting of French rose wines at his apartment, attended by like-minded friends and colleagues – and surprisingly, the Chinon by Charles Joguet clipped the Tavel (a Guigal – Chateau d’Ampuis) for pole position.

    For lunch, we ventured as far as the Charonne market before settling down at Melac – a bar a vin, located at the corner of rue Leon Frot and Emile Lepeu in the 11e. Jacques is a great guy with a defining moustache that hides a very witty tongue. We ordered two of his wines from Corbieres to accompany our lunch of Tripous d’Aveyron – a Domaine des Trois Filles (Laura) named after his three daughters and a Domaine des Trois Chieusses (bitches) named after his ex-wives! We had just missed the fete de vendanges which took place last week-end – a blessing I suppose because I would have been tempted to take the week off work to celebrate – instead we visited Monoprix who were hosting the annual Foires aux Vins, and we returned to England with a boot full of nice wine.

    notting hill (yawn) …

    Is it just me, or do you all find that subsequent visits to a place or event fail to deliver that same sense of magic and excitement as the first experience?! Or maybe, this is just another symptom of the dreaded mid-life crisis – or maybe, as the surf-wise turtle said in Finding Nemo, You’ve got serious thrill issues dude. Anyway, the Notting Hill carnival this year was one such disappointment. Some people have been quick to blame the boxed-in feeling on the threat of terrorism – and I can bear witness to the fact that during the warm-up to the processions, there were probably more police officers that revellers on the streets – others accounted for the lethargic atmosphere by pointing out it was Children’s Day yesterday, but I suspect the reason is more simple … commercialism. Having just returned from Egypt where the hawking was almost unbearable, the last thing I expected was to have copious amounts of jerk chicken samples shoved in my face, or yet another trader trying to persuade the kids to buy a second whistle or horn. Carnivals are times when the street comes alive with dance, music, colour etc – making a profit, in my view, has no place in such events. And so, I doubt I will be returning next year

    I will however be returning to the telly next month to (hopefully) witness Michael Vaughan’s boys reclaim the Ashes at the Oval. Yesterday’s nail-biting victory in the 4th Test Match against the Aussies should dispel any myths that cricket is a game for comatose, wimpy couch potatoes who constantly reminisce about the bygone days of the glorious British Empire. At its best (and yesterday’s performance by both teams is a case in point), cricket can give you that adrenalin boost … just when you need it most.

    until next time …

    This is our last day in Cairo and we will leave with fond memories of Egypt and her people, especially the Cairenes. We did meet some top guys in Luxor but most encounters were marred by their salacious desire for money and the dishonest methods for acquiring it from innocent tourists.

    Highlights:

    • finding an old enamel teapot in the souk in Luxor
    • Karnak – the temples & complex in general
    • fresh mango juice from the numerous juice bars
    • half-finished houses everywhere, especially on the drive out to Carrefour in Maadi
    • tucking into the best and cheapest tameeya (only 6p) from Akher Saa (opposite Alfi Bey)
    • being licked by a giraffe at Cairo zoo
    • the felucca trip to Banana Island
    • the medieval walk and shopping at the Khan
    • the good eateries around Cairo
    • taxi drivers in Cairo who drive without their lights at night (it is considered rude to have your headlights on, but honking is ok – go figure!)
    • sipping mint tea / sucking on a sheesha every evening in the Bedouin tent at the Pyramisa Isis in Luxor

    Lowlights:

    • the caleche drivers in Luxor
    • people who say Welcome and don’t mean it
    • hawkers who shout I don’t know what you need, but I’m sure I have it
    • Cairo airport – the place , the people … particularly the immigration officers

    On balance, it was a super holiday and in the immortal words of Arnie We’ll be back.

    Photo below is of the magnificent Opera House, near our hotel.

    last day of shopping …

    I caught a few hours of sleep on the overnighter from Luxor. Dinner on the train was, as usual, a non event (unless you find rubberised beef and soggy chicken particularly appetising) but they did manage to provide us with cold cans of the local Stella beer.
    We arrived at the hotel with the usual rigmarole of room cock-up – this time, the computer system had cancelled our reservation. We guessed that a wedding reception at the hotel later that evening may have something to do with this error.

    This morning, we went on an adventure on the Metro – flat priced tickets at 75 piastres i.e. less than 8p – to Coptic Cairo (Mar Girgis station). While the museum was closed, St George and the Hanging Church provided an interesting insight into this Christian side of Cairo. And for the first time, we were directed by the tourist police and the army to avoid certain streets and lanes – the atmosphere was unsurprisingly tense, considering the evacuation taking place in the Gaza strip.

    Anyway, it’s Saturday – and this calls for a trip to Arkadia (a shopping mall on the Nile close to the WTC), a last minute dash to the Khan to buy a sheesha, a walk down Talaat Harb for some footwear, and general soaking of pollution and adrenalin courteously provided by the local taxis. Oh, pic below is J’s nicely decorated hand, done by a Bedouin lady at the Khan.

    going bananas …

    Question: What do you do when you have two hours to kill in Luxor?
    Answer: Take a felucca trip to Banana Island.

    We were wondering about aimlessly along the Corniche, having been to Eddie’s little shop (Al Araby) for some cans of drinks (btw, Eddie’s the only guy in Luxor who doesn’t inflate his prices for tourists) when Captain Semsen approached us with a proposition. What a wonderful, likeable guy! Not only did he keep to his word to get us back in time for our train back to Cairo, he walked along with us explaining the flora and fauna, that included a 165 year old mango tree – apparently there’s a 600 year old one by the Rameseum on the west bank.

    Banana Island was a favourite retreat of King Farouk’s and has probably seen better times, yet the wildness resulting from several years of neglect has added to the charm of the place, and reminded me very much of the orchard walk to Balik Pulau in Penang. Afterwards, we all sat down to taste the bananas for which the island is famed.

    Anyway, look out for Blue Eyes, moored opposite the Mercure – Semsen also told me he married an English girl from Southampton last month, having fallen in love whilst sailing her into the sunset on his felucca. Lucky girl! See what a boat ride can do to your love life.

    camel ride …

    The kids did not let me forget an earlier promise to take them riding: in Luxor, this activity is relatively cheap – pick your animal (with the exception of J1 who insisted on acting out Frank Hopkins in Hidalgo, we all chose camels) but you will need to tip the boys / handlers who walk along with you. We rented our animals from Arabian Stables, located behind the Mobil petrol station, a short walk from al Mina – the ferry port on the west bank. It’s owned by a great guy called Nobi.

    Afterwards, we took the national ferry service back to Luxor town (1 Egyptian Pound) and came across the Fair Trade shop, where J could not resist a very pretty shawl, hand embroidered by the Bedouin women-folk – I’m sure prices here were slightly inflated too, but 50% of what you pay should go back to these very skilful desert people. And then we discovered McDonalds …

    Now, McDonalds is literally the coolest place in town! The A/C here is constantly set to ‘freeze’ (which is always welcoming in the excessive heat that touches 40 deg C on a normal day) but the view of Luxor temple puts it into my top 3 McDonalds in the world … the other two coincidentally are in France: the McPlage with a terrace that goes out to sea on the road to Antibes in Nice and the other, the little den at the top end of the Champs Elysee, Paris with comfy sofas and CD players.