la dolce vita …

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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 …

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toulouse, or not toulouse …

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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 …

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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.