Thursday, 19 July 2012

Oxford Sunday

Sunday dawned wet and dreary and after a substantial full English breakfast we were treated to a talk by Barbara Santich about Aboriginal cooking in Australia.  The native Australians wrapped fish in banana leaves or paper bark, covered with thick mud and then baked on hot stones.  Wallabies were killed and gutted and hot stones placed inside to cook from inside as well as being wrapped and cooked from the outside.  The British felt they had a duty to "improve" the life of the Aboriginals and replaced the paper bark and mud with cooking pots.  Paper bark was also used to make canoes.

The next item consisted of the unveiling of a Joselito Iberico ham which was placed on a special carving stand, different knives were shown us - a boning knife for working around the bone as the ham diminishes and a flexible thin ham knife for carving slices.  The best way to carve is upwards from the foot towards the bone and it requires a lot of practice to become an expert.  The ham we watched (and later ate) was taken from a pig born in 2006 in Extramadura and had been fed solely on acorns and chestnuts.  The pigs' teeth have separated during evolution and they manage to eat the nuts and expel the husks through the gaps.  Our pig had been slaughtered in 2008 and hung at Salamanca for four years in the air, the first year in a dark cellar to enable the flora to develop.  The flavour was superb.

After coffee there was a round the table discussion on The Art of Table between Theodore Zeldin,  Elisabeth Luard, Claudia Roden and Paul Levy.   Some of the points made give much thought for the future; conversation is the art of life; we never know what is going on in someone else's head; food is a form of communication; empathy comes when food is shared; twitter and facebook have taken over and many people no longer sit at tables. 

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Oxford Saturday Afternoon and Evening

The afternoon session began with a film about cassava "The history of Chikwangue" which is a popular part of the diet in the Congo.  Cassava was imported to Africa from Brazil by the Portuguese in around 1630 and is a very important source of nutrition.  Chikwangue is a bitter cassava root which takes a great deal of preparation before it is edible.  The roots are soaked in running water for two to three days to wash away the toxins and then the tubers are pressed through a sieve to enable the fibres to be removed.  The resultant pulp is then drained in a canvas bag for a further two or three days, kneaded and steamed.  At this point the cassava is separated into small lumps and wrapped in either plantain or banana leaves and steamed again.  It is now ready for consumption - it takes ten days from start to finish and does not look particularly appetising when done. 

We then had a really interesting talk about the importance of Sarma (rolled) and Dolma (stuffed) dishes as therapy tools for the Anatolian woman in the kitchen.  Social activity between women in parts of Turkey is severely limited but the preparation of feasts is considered a significant social opportunity for women to get together.  The ability to produce perfectly stuffed dolma and rolled sarma is a "marriageability" test for the young maidens of Anatolia.  The dolma are made from different leaves all over Turkey because the climate means that some species flourish - vine, mulberry, cabbage and hazelnut leaves are all fairly common.  There are special dishes made for weddings, feasts and celebrations and the women communicate whilst collaberating making them.  Chubby women are affectionately referred to as "Dolma" and highly regarded.  Aubergines, peppers and courgettes are hollowed out and dried on strings in the sun, these tubes are hoarded for the winter and reconstituted.  Meat dolma are made the day before consumption and then reheated and served hot, they are a sign of wealth.  Vegetable dolma are generally served cold with a dressing of oil  Rice and maize can be used to stuff them and lots of spices are used to add flavour and interest.

Saturday supper was a Turkish feast sponsored by the Gaziantep Chamber of Commerce and was an authentic and wonderful experience.  We began with nibbles comprising baked and folded borek with cheese and tarragon, mini spicy walnut spread rolls and fried cheese rolls accompanied  by Buzbag Narince, a dry white wine, and Terra Kalecik Karasi, a delicious rose.   The main course consisted of vine leaves stuffed with spicy lamb,  aubergines and peppers stuffed with beef and courgettes stuffed with smoked green wheat all served hot and accompanied by cold vegetable stuffed vine leaves and lentil balls wrapped in vine leaves and lettuce.  The wine here was a Terra Narince dry white.   Pudding was a massive tray of those gorgeous baklava style pistachio pastries - enough presented to eat a couple of dozen each.  I managed three. 

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Oxford Saturday Lunch

Lunch on Saturday was a German sausage fest organised by Ursula Heinzelmann, Ursula is a journalist based in Berlin and a Trustee of The Symposium.  She had managed to get various companies to sponsor all the food and drink for lunch and it was magnificent.  I lived in Germany for some nine years altogether and acquired a taste for all German foods and drinks - a dear friend still keeps me supplied with certain necessities on his annual visits to UK. 

We started with Maultaschensuppe from the Swabian area and this was absolutely delicious, a very gentle clear broth flecked with a little fresh parsley which had one large ravioli floating in it.  The ravioli was stuffed with meat and about two inches square - more like a pillow really, a German pillow anyway!  This was accompanied by a 2011 Silvaner Kabinett from Juliusspital in Wurzburg, there was also plenty of beer in case that was preferred - in this case Distel Spezial from the Distelhaeuser Brewery in Frankfurt.  The second course was an assortment of different sausages, the Pfaelzer Saumagen was a stomach stuffed with minced and chopped pork liberally spiced with pepper served in chunks, there was a Berliner Blutwurst and a Berliner Leberwurst - both steamed whole - and a Thuringer Bratwurst which had been grilled.  To accompany we had bowls of thinly sliced white radish which the Germans call Rettich and we call Mouli lightly dressed with vinegar, bowls of sauerkraut and bowls of potato salad.  There were baskets of different German breads and pretzels plus pots of Thuringer mustard and freshly grated horseradish - which was not as hot as I expected it to be.  The pudding was little poppyseed cakes made by spreading a sweet yeast dough with poppyseed paste and then rolling up like a Swiss roll and cutting into slices before baking.  The German word is Mohnschnecken and they looked exactly like snails with the creamy/brown and black whorls.  The pudding was accompanied by a 2002 Riesling Auslese Urziger Wurzgarten from Bernkastel on the Mosel. 

More Oxford

There was a sort of panel discussion on the stage between four people called "Stuffing, Unstuffing, Wrapping and Rapping" - the title eventually became clear as the discussion progressed.

The first speaker was called Harry West, he is a professor at London University but since he is American I am not sure if he was using the term "professor" in the British or the American sense.  He is a bit of an authority on cheese and showed a few pictures of a French affineur removing paper wrappings put on by the actual cheese producers and then allowing a mould to form on the rind over the maturation period.  This mould was then in turn brushed away before the cheese was rewrapped in paper using the affineur's logo.  The title of his presentation was "The Audacity of Wrapping and Unwrapping Cheese" and since I could see nothing at all audacious I decided that we are definitely two nations divided by a common language. 

The second panellist was called Ben Coles. also American, but from the University of Leicester.  He 
gave quite an entertaining talk on Chicken Kiev and the magical process by which the stuffing (the garlic butter) becomes a sauce when the wrapper (the chicken) is cooked.  He also got quite heavy about the ethics of a product placed in a tray, wrapped in film and then placed in a box.  At least Marks now charge 5p for a carrier bag.  He also debated (with himself) the likelihood of free range chicken being used in the production of Chicken Kiev and decided it was unlikely.

The third speaker was the only female and the only Brit.  Her name is Emma Jane Abbots and she is a doctoral student studying nutrition.  She made some very interesting points which will have me reading food labels with even more vigilance than presently - and I am pretty vigilant since I buy very little processed food.  Apparently corn syrup is the baddie in 21st century food production, it  affects the human liver in the same way that force feeding acts on geese to produce foie gras.  A lot of prepared ready meals name corn syrup in their ingredients and in some products they are alarmingly early on the list, since ingredients are listed in order of quantity as a percentage - the highest coming first - this is truly frightening.  She made the point that feeding can be used as a form of power as well as nourishment and care and the refusal of food can mean a rejection of the provider.  She talked about the marathon eating competitions which are really obscene.  The link to the theme of the Symposium was that stuffing oneself is abuse of the very worst kind.

The final speaker was Michael Goodman, also American, who talked about how food is central to relationships and that eating together is an intimate thing.  Food can mean pleasure, we use the expression "I am stuffed" when feeling pleasurably full.  The anorexic feels pleasure when totally empty and disgust if full and can then turn bulimic.

The panel then generally discussed other things that their individual offerings had provoked in the audience.  Some of the points I noted was that food can travel, there is very little food not available in major cities due to the demographics of shifting world populations.  The enormous power wielded by supermarkets who get 75% of the total food shopping market in the UK.  The ethical stances taken by some celebrities, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver particularly got mention.  Food is safer today than it has been at any time in history.  Certification of food can imply ethical or moral stances being taken but the point was made that Lochmuir does not exist as a loch in Scotland and the name was chosen by Marks & Spencer marketing team to imply that the salmon was swimming around a loch happily without actually claiming that.   Supermarkets are about selling food and food products.  They invest huge amounts in development of value added food.

To be continued.

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

More Oxford

Saturday morning dawned and after fortifying myself with a splendid breakfast I wandered across to the lecture theatre for the day's activities.  Paul Levy, Elisabeth Luard and Claudia Roden opened the proceedings by reminding us that the ethos of the Symposium was the exchange of ideas and this is encouraged via the medium of table talk.   Food is history, social, art, redemptive and culture.  And I thought I was just greedy.  We were advised that the Julia Child Foundation had made a substantial donation to enable this year's proceedings to be recorded and then put on the Symposium website so that is a treat to look forward to.  We were advised that there is a new virtual museum to food which can be found at and should be worth looking at, it is in the process of being set up at the moment but a quick peek shows it will be worth visiting.

The young chef scholarship was awarded to Lucas Weir and the Sophie Coe Award to Di Murral.  Di's book, Food on the Move, tells the story of the inland waterways (specifically canals) and the people who lived on them and how they managed to feed their families whilst transporting goods around the country.  As Di accepted her award she announced that she is living proof that it is never too late to start writing as this is her first attempt and she looked to be over 60 years old and described herself as a rank amateur.

The first lecture was given by Laura Shapiro (Julia Child's biographer) who declared that food is social history and gave us a hysterically funny account of The Pillsbury Bake Off.  The Bake Off is a competition in America which began in 1949 and is still running today where the top prize is a million dollars.  Thousands of people enter with the weirdest ideas (marshmallow baked in bread dough and tunnel fudge cake are just two of the more notable winners) and 100 finalists are chosen every year, gathered together for a luxury holiday and bake their recipes under competition conditions when a winner is chosen.  There is a Bake Off Hall of Fame and every year a recipe book is published of the finalists' contributions - I must keep my eyes peeled for one in second hand shops.

To be continued

Oxford Continued

After the tea party it was time to report to the Lecture Theatre for the opening of the Symposium proper.  The theme this year was "Wrapped and Stuffed" and the proceedings opened with a short film made by Barbara and Joe Wheaten entitled "Pancakes aloft and other Anomolies" which was quite unusual to say the least.  Have you ever seen a thin buckwheat pancake (a la Breton) folded like origami into the shape of a bird and then sent flying across the kitchen?  I have.  There were fast mini demonstrations of sushi and ravioli making too but the flying pancakes remain with me.

The Jane Grigson Memorial Lecture followed and was given by David Thompson on the theme "Thai Food - Stuffed, Wrapped and Beyond" which was absolutely fascinating.  David Thompson is a renowned Thai food expert and chef, he is Australian by birth and Thai by inclination.

He explained that Thai cooking is deft, elegant and complicated.  The cuisine has many metaphysical connections and the wrapping patterns have significance, the rituals are used to propitiate gods.  Thai food is not just sustenance, it is used as a vehicle to convey worship and has celestial connotations.  The Thais believe that the stomach and soul are intertwined and if the main influences of Brahmin, Buddhist and Hindu religions are considered, all the goods can be appeased and the human is guaranteed a smooth passage through life.

Thais are very superstitious and believe that food is affected by astrology.  Monks calculate the best times to make certain things and then visit the premises, bless the surroundings and eat.  All food is freshly cooked and prepared and a lot of it is wrapped in banana leaves which are easily obtainable, they are also used as serving plates.  It is believed that food has value beyond nutrition and feeds the soul.  The more complicated and sophisticated the preparation, the more merit is bestowed on the finished dish.

The Thais have a great reverence for the past and consider that historical days are also halcyon days.  It is believed that the late 19th Century was the high point of Thai gastronomy.  They also think that food unifies and makes a "communion" which embraces the spiritual.

David described a pancake made using egg yolks and coconut which is spread very thinly on a hot plate and then used to wrap pineapple which I cannot wait to try.  The pineapple's "eyes" are considered to signify great learning.  He also described the rice porridge commonly eaten for breakfast which is known as congee, apparently the addition of expensive seafoods does not stop it being a "fasting" food!

We then went for a tasting of Thai wines (the Monsoon brand - they were very good) to kick off the evening and our celebration opening dinner which was cooked by Rowley Leigh and the staff of Catz led by head chef Tim Kelsey.  We started with a lovely bisque with Scottish langoustines and Scottish haddock wrapped in filo pastry.  This was followed by a Saddle of Lamb Wellington which was amazing, the lamb was salt marsh lamb and it was served with samphire and new potatoes - absolutely delicious.  This was followed by the best summer pudding I have ever tasted - I usually find them too sharp and smother with cream but this was perfection on a plate on its own. 

We then went off to the Junior Common Room and had a great party with people reciting poems, singing songs and drinking more wine.  I felt like a proper student and staggered off to bed at midnight.  I slept like a log, perhaps something to do with the amount of wine consumed.  Caroline Conran had cadged a load of wine from the Spanish Government and we had the most distinguished white rioja, a Rueda Verdejo 2011 and a Ribera del Duero Crianza.  The generosity of the hospitality is really noticeable - there were probably two or three bottles per person available and some people had a good try at drinking their own bodyweight.  I am a lightweight these days so did not even manage my share.

To be continued. 

It should be noted by my readers that I am not only poor and cannot afford a camera, I am also incompetent and would not know how to use it if I had one.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Oxford Food Symposium 2012

I was again privileged to be able to attend the Food Symposium and this year was rather less star struck, even though there were more of my heroes of yesteryear present.  I was perfectly capable of having rational conversations instead of gibbering without pausing for breath - which must make some of my vocalising rather unintelligible.

The weather has been absolutely foul since our return from Cyprus and the rain is still coming down in sheets.  The opening Friday of the Symposium began rather earlier than in former years in that a Mad Hatter's Tea Party was planned to be held in the afternoon at Merton sports ground.  The rain simply poured down so we took shelter in Merton sports pavilion instead. 

We had a couple of Mad Hatters, at least four Alices and numerous Queens - all barking mad.  One lady had dressed in a gorgeous Edwardian tea gown complete with massive hat and another had made a hat completely from food by threading pea pods and chillis on wire which was twisted into a circular snail and topped with bunches of parsley as a crown.  Magnificent.  People in fancy dress were given a 50% discount on the entrance fee (this was an extra to the programme) but I would rather pay full price than go to the effort of making a suitable costume.  All the profits from the tea were donated to the Friends of The Oxford Symposium so it was all in a good cause.

The food was amazing - forgive my wander into Toad Hall - but there were


And there were also three amazing cakes.  One was a massive (about a yard square) sponge cake which had been iced with green icing and sprouted one huge red shiny mushroom which was a cheesecake covered with red jam plus about twenty smaller mushrooms made from meringue.  There was a three tiered wedding type cake decorated with pictures from behind the looking glass.  The third cake was supposed to be a 3D printed cake (alleged to be the first in Europe) made by Hod Lipson of Cornell but it got lost mid Atlantic so we were treated to a photograph of what it should have looked like.  All quite in keeping with the mad theme.

The tea was donated by the Tregothnan Estate in Cornwall and it is the first time I have tasted English grown tea - very nice. 

There was a bit of a cabaret - the Mad Hatter kept on disappearing and reappearing, Baroness Elisabeth von Bismarck read from the recently discovered love letters between Lewis Carroll and Alicia, the favourite grand-neice of Count von Bismarck and Mairtin Mac Con Iomaire (my favourite Irishman) read and sang poems from Alice.

A wonderful start.

To be continued.

May and June

I have shamefully neglected to update my blog for a good ten weeks despite several things of interest happening such as a wonderful wedding at Kilver Court of my beloved goddaughter, visiting Kilpeck church in Herefordshire, spending ten days in Bournemouth looking after four teenagers and a nine year old, a day trip on a charabanc to Weston Super Mare, a weekend in Bath involving Loch Fyne and Haydn's Creation in The Abbey and, finally, supporting a badly disabled old army colleague when she was chosen to carry an Olympic torch in Lincolnshire.

Apart from those highlights my life has been a long treadmill of gym, swimming pool, voluntary work and cooking.

Consider yourselves lucky to have been spared the boring details

Sunday, 22 April 2012

The Mountains

We hired a car for a few days and spent a day in the Troodos Mountains which was really lovely.  We drove over Mount Olympus to Kakopetria and there was plenty of snow up there.  There were children with sledges having a wonderful time zooming down the slopes and the ski lift was operational.  The roads have improved vastly and the driving was very easy.

Kakopetria is a really pretty village, much larger than I remember, with a river running through the middle.  We enjoyed a coffee sitting on an outside balcony watching the river run below us and seeing a waterfall at the far end.   Just as we were getting ready to leave the village the morning service finished and lots of families swarmed all over the street dressed in Sunday best.   For a large village the church looked huge, as though it would accommodate a couple of thousand worshippers.  There were several restaurants getting ready for lunch, one had dozens of chickens rotating on spits and another had a whole lamb turning and being brushed with oil using a rosemary branch as a brush.  The smells were incredible. 

We then drove over the western side of the mountains, hairpin bends and fabulous sights at every turn of the road.  We drove through the wine growing area but since it was Sunday all the tasting places were closed so I never got the chance to try different wines.  We came off the main road and headed for Kolossi since we wanted to see the castle again.  The cafe just outside the entrance to the castle looked a good spot for another drink so I ordered orange juice.  The waiter walked across to the orange grove by the side, picked a few oranges and squeezed them for me.  Quite possibly the freshest orange juice I have ever had.  He brought me a large separate glass filled with ice cubes so I could chill and dilute to my satisfaction, earning a rather large tip in the process.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Kyrenia and The North

It is now possible to visit the north of Cyprus so we took advantage of an organised full day tour, being taken by coach.  We stopped at the border in Nicosia and two Turkish officials boarded the coach and checked all our passports, one of them remaining on the bus and accompanying us all day.

We then drove over the mountains to Belapais where we had a stop for an hour or so and the opportunity to visit the Abbey and get a drink.  The Abbey was a bit of a ruin but there was some lovely fan vaulting and superb views down to the sea.  We ordered a couple of drinks at a cafe by the Abbey entrance, these were accompanied by glasses of chilled water and packets of chocolate biscuits - all for the princely sum of three euros.  The North is much better value than the South and they accept euros and sterling as well as Turkish Lira which is their currency.

I had always wanted to see Kyrenia harbour, I read about it in a book as a teenager and it was described as the most beautiful harbour in the Mediterranean.  I am not arguing with that and I have been to Venice.  There were lots of boats in the harbour, some of them really old but quite a few gin palaces too.  The harbour is surrounded by little cafes and we had a lovely lunch with wine which came in at twenty one euros including tip.  The sun was shining and the view magnificent.  We were even entertained by several begging cats. 

The castle at Kyrenia is well worth a visit, lots of history and a wonderful exhibition of an ancient shipwrecked boat and all the contents.  The Cypriot equivalent of the Mary Rose I think.  The views from the top are absolutely stunning - with binoculars on a clear day Turkey can be seen but there was a bit of a heat haze when we were there so we missed that.

We then had half an hour to mooch around the town centre before returning to the coach so I had a lovely time in a Turkish Delight shop and found a couple of different brandies from the Turkish side to take back to make brandy sours.  Turkey is not in the EU so we were warned about only duty free allowances being taken back - the brandy was within our joint allowance.

All in all a really lovely day.

Thursday, 12 April 2012


I went to Nicosia on the green bus from Limassol which had a bus stop by our hotel.  The bus ride itself is quite an adventure.  The bus was a mini bus with seats for twenty passengers and starts down at the New Port and picks up at four stops in Limassol and then takes about an hour to get to Nicosia, stopping at a couple of places on the outskirts.  The bus was fairly crowded when I got on and the fare was seven euros return so it must be subsidised in some way.  Two of the main stops in Nicosia are the hospital and IKEA and about half the passengers got off at them.

Nicosia was just as lovely as I remembered.  I spent a couple of hours wandering around the back streets and then set off for Famagusta gate intending to take in the market on the way.  The market was fabulous, no proper stalls as such, people had come in from the villages with their produce and it was displayed on upturned milk crates.  One woman had about twenty different types of green leaves, all beautifully cleaned and bunched.  All the bunches were one euro each and she had maybe two or three of each type and since I got there fairly late she could have started with considerably more.  There was one chap selling his olive oil, all bottled up in anything he could find.  There were Keo brandy bottles, plastic water bottles and lots of small plastic Coke bottles.  Another woman had live chickens and was wringing necks to order.  This is exactly my type of market and I absolutely loved it.  It made me long for a kitchen to play in instead of being fed (wonderfully) in a hotel.

I went up to the top floor of Debenhams for a drink in the cafe and the views were stupendous.  The sight of the Turkish side of Nicosia means that there is a ban on photography from the restaurant but the views are engraved on my brain.  I had a little mooch in the foodhall in Debenhams and they were selling Wyke Farms cheddar cheese at eighteen euros a kilo - about three times the price in UK - and that was the best cheddar they had.  I can imagine the expat community being very grateful for any sort of cheddar despite all the lovely local Cypriot cheeses displayed.

When I went to catch the bus back I found quite a queue waiting - some dozen or so black young men who I thought might be students.  I could not understand the language they were speaking so have no idea of their nationality and when the bus came they more or less stormed on taking up more than half the bus.  I got on but at least half a dozen people were left in Nicosia to wait two hours for the next bus, they were not happy and harangued the poor bus driver.  The driver was incredibly polite and stopped at the bus stops on the outskirts of Nicosia to explain that he was full up and could not take any of the waiting passengers.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Changes in Cyprus

There have been many changes in Cyprus since I was last there (30 years ago) and not all of them are for the better.

When we were at AyNic (one of the British Sovereign Bases) we used to go down to a lovely little fishing village called Ayai Napa at the weekends sometime.  There was a beautiful little monastery and a fishing cove with half a dozen restaurants selling wonderful meze meals - no choice, you just sat down and were served what they wanted to feed you and it was always delicious.  We had a hire car for a few days and went across there to have a look around and refresh our wonderful memories.  I almost cried, I did not even stop the car, just turned round and drove all the way back.  It is absolutely horrid, a mass of bright plastic hoardings - a bit like Blackpool but without the class.  The monastery is still there but it has been built all around and is now hemmed in by all the development.

Another thing which struck me was how expensive Cyprus has become.  I think I noticed it particularly since it is our third island holiday this year and much, much, more expensive than the others.   A simple one course meal for two of us with a glass of wine, a coke and a coffee cost around fifty euros and with practical parity that is about forty six pounds. 

Cyprus is a very beautiful island and there seem to be a lot of immigrants.  Lots of Russians who are obviously very well heeled since they drive incredibly expensive vehicles and wear loads of bling.  A Cypriot friend tipped me off about Sunday afternoons in Limassol Sculpture Park when the island's Sri Lankan community all meet up for a big picnic.  The Sunday I went down to have a look was also the day of the Cyprus Marathon so there were hordes of people there.  The Sri Lankans were pretty evident because of their dark skins and delicious smelling foods and there were a lot of them.  Over a thousand at a rough guess.  Apparently they get special seven year visas to come into the EU and work on the land in Cyprus.  They are not very well paid and send most of their earnings back to their families.  There were also a lot of Filipino faces around.  Another Cypriot friend has organised a Filipino maid/companion for her mother and even though it is not very well paid she received over a hundred applicants for the job - all Filipino.

When last in Cyprus houses never seemed to get finished being built.  I recall that until the roof was finished no local taxes were payable even if the property was being lived in.  These days the roofs are all finished and have large white tanks and solar panels on them.  Apparently 99% of the hot water in Cyprus is provided via solar means and the roof needs to be finished for the tank to be fitted.  It would appear that the cost of the taxes is offset by the "free" hot water.  There are also lots of satellite dishes which were never there in the early 80's.

There are a lot of "Supermarkets" in Cyprus.  Most of them are like little corner shops and sell an incredible variety of goods.  There may only be one or two of each item on the shelf but most needs can be met.  The shops will try and provide anything needed - you only have to ask.  That was something which had not changed a bit - the general willingness of people to anticipate every need and to cheerfully offer suggestions of alternatives when necessary.  The lovely sunny nature of most of the people I had dealings with was very evident.

Monday, 9 April 2012


I had chosen to stay in Limassol because of its location - everywhere I wanted to go to was easily reachable.  Our hotel was on the very outskirts but there is a fantastic bus service which covers a loop from St Raphael all the way to the New Port and just goes round in circles at fifteen minute intervals.  A day pass to hop on and off the bus cost only two euros so it was very cheap - much cheaper than paying for parking in Limassol.  A real bonus was that the bus stops at Lidl near the new port so on our way home after a day in town we would just jump on the bus to Lidl, procure consumables and then go straight back for the bus to the hotel.  We had a little fridge in our room which was really good for fresh milk for tea and an ice machine on the corridor to fill the ice bucket and put a bottle of  something white in to chill.

The old town is delightful.  There is a bit of a building site in that a new marina is being built in the Old Port area so that area was very dusty and dirty but there were quiet spots everywhere.  The pavements and streets in the old town were being relaid and repaved which caused a bit of a problem at times but the area is fairly compact so it was simply a case of turning back and finding another way to where I wanted to go.

There is a central market which was a bit too clean and tidy for my liking - no chaos anywhere.  The area around the market is really interesting too, I found a lovely hardware shop and browsed for ages and there is a square with a dozen cafes opening on to it so plenty of choice for a snack or a meal.  There are caged canaries hung up all around the market square and serenading musicians with a begging tambourine in hand.  The atmosphere is very Mediterranean - which is a bit obvious to state but it simply was.

Some of the architecture is really interesting, a lovely Art Deco town hall and a Colonial style building with much wrought iron work houses part of the University.   The Cathedral is lovely and for the first time ever I went in a mosque.  I had to remove my shoes and wear an all covering robe over my clothes to go into the mosque but am really glad I did.  Limassol Castle contains an amazing collection of artefacts, including some carvings of what I think of as the Maltese Cross which were 5th century so predate the Crusaders by a good few centuries.  There are wonderful views from the top of the castle so it is well worth climbing all the stairs.

I really liked Limassol.  It is a genuine living and working town and does not close down in the off season, unlike a lot of the more popular holiday areas.

Shopping in Cyprus

We went to Cyprus with the firm intention of looking at spectacles with a view to replacing them for both of us.  From memory Cyprus was considerably cheaper than UK but since spectacle provision has much improved in England over the past thirty years we were not convinced that it would still be so.  However, the quotes in Cyprus for very stylish spectacles was around a hundred pounds cheaper for each of us so we went ahead and bought them.  They are most comfortable after a little adjustment.

The other thing that Cyprus was good for was leather goods and since I was in need of a new handbag I carefully perused all the sops wherever we happened to be.  I came across the perfect bag in Limassol and at E22 for a good quality leather bag consider it an absolute bargain.  The husband picked up a couple of good leather belts for E5 each so he was pleased too.

Thursday, 8 March 2012


We arrived yesterday - rather later than planned due to strike action at Larnaca airport.  We breakfasted at Wetherspoons in Birmingham Airport and I noted that they are offering Eggs Benedict so opted to try that.  It was absolutely fabulous - as good as The Wolsely and rather better than many I have tried over the years.  Two muffin halves perfectly toasted, luscious juicy thickly sliced ham folded over each muffin half and then softly poached eggs covered with creamy Hollandaise sauce.  If I have a criticism it is that the accompanying rocket could have done with a bit of dressing - but that is the worst I can say.

We arrived at our hotel just after dark - we are staying at the St Raphael Resort Hotel in Limassol - and as the transfer coach stopped a porter came out with a trolley luggage and took our cases away.  Registration took only a few minutes and we were shown to our room and taught how to operate everything.  I am seriously impressed with both the hotel and the service levels.  The public rooms are quite spectacular with some wonderful art and our bedroom is spacious and comfortably appointed.  The little balcony we have looks out on to Limassol and the sea from the east so we should get nice sunshine this afternoon whilst enjoying a preprandial brandy sour.

Dinner last night was excellent, it is always a buffet but the theme changes daily so we should not get bored.  Last night I had some hoummus, olives and Greek salad as a starter.  Lovely roast lamb which had been rolled in mint with a sort of courgette casserole was the main and I ignored the quite delicious looking puddings for a plate of the local cheese.  I have never before had feta as an after dinner cheese - but I will have it again.  It went very well with the last of the wine.

This morning's breakfast buffet received Onslow's full approval.  The full gamut of bacon, eggs and sausages were available for him whilst I enjoyed a dish of gloriously thick yoghurt with fresh fruit salad followed by some toast with apricot conserve.

A wander around the leisure suite shows that there is an excellent gym, three pools, a spa, sauna and jacuzzi and I can even get a haircut or a pedicure.

All in all, much posher than we are used to!

Saturday, 3 March 2012

The Yellow Submarine

We decided to take a trip to Peurto del Carmen and go on the underwater trip on the Yellow Submarine.  This was declared a brilliant success.  A coach picked us up at Rubicon and drove over some of the lunar landscape via one or two hotels collecting other people.  The scenery from the coach was fantastic, I like being up high and being able to look around and see over hedges.  My basic nosiness takes over very easily when in pastures new.

One thing that really struck me on this trip was the roundabouts.  There is very little green on the south of the island but two different colours of lava - some is rusty red coloured and some is black.  Some bright spark had designed the (very large) roundabouts most artistically using swirls of differently coloured lava to make lovely patterns.  There were odd cactuses planted here and there and some really interesting palm trees at one roundabout - they looked for all the world like a bunch of fat little pineapples with bulbous bottoms and wildly swaying fronds.

We had about an hour to wander around the port before our trip and it is very well laid out, some interesting shops and some very interesting looking restaurants.  Alas, we never had time to try the restaurants but did manage an absolutely delicious icecream.  The whole area was spotlessly clean (something I noted all over Lanzarote - it is quite the cleanest island I have ever visited), the sun was shining and it was a positive joy to walk around.  There were some pretty posh shops - the sort that never display prices so I know they are out of my price range.

The submarine trip itself was brilliant.    There is only room for about forty people on the submarine and everyone gets a seat (much more comfortable than the airline seats) and a porthole to look out and see the marine life.  The actual underwater bit takes about forty five minutes, during which we saw loads of different fish swimming around.  The submarine descends to the sea floor (which is only about a hundred feet at that place) and then toddles along, past a couple of wrecks on the bottom going along one and then turning round and coming back.  This ensures that everyone sees both sides of that particular bit of the Atlantic ocean.  The company which owns the submarine also employs a scuba diver to swim alongside the submarine clutching food fish to attract more fish to follow.  There was a massive stingray at one point, lots of barracuda and many other smaller fish.  By the portholes were charts with photographs and names to enable us to identify the different species.

My fifteen year old grand-daughter decided it was the best thing she had ever done - I call that a result.

That evening we got back to Rubicon around six thirty so decided to go out for supper and went to a Japanese restaurant.  We had a lovely seaweed salad, a miso and tofu soup, sushi, lovely fish with rice and then a sort of sweet dumpling filled with a spicy peanut thick sauce.  We thoroughly enjoyed it and both grand-daughters declared it a red letter day in their lives.

Wednesday, 29 February 2012


I decided to take my two grand daughters to Lanzarote for half term, leaving the husband at home with his cat.  The trip did not start well because our plane was delayed for almost three hours leaving Bournemouth airport which meant that we arrived on Lanzarote in the dark and lost our first evening.  We were tired and hungry and all went to bed after a bowl of cereal.

The following morning things cheered up a bit, the weather was glorious, our accommodation comfortable and the neighbourhood on investigation proved to be very nice.  We were staying just outside Playa Blanca at The Rubicon Marina, there was a comfortable fifteen minute walk into the centre of Playa Blanca along a promenade by the sea.  The promenade had the back entrances of two or three major hotels and there was a magnificent bougainvillae hedge for a good stretch of it.  There was also a lovely beach - Lanzarote is a bit short of beaches so it was a bonus to have Playa Dorada in walking distance.  There was one of those adult outdoor gyms on this little walk too and number two grand daughter took full advantage of it.  The girls are aged 13 and 15 and Lanzarote was chosen as being a bit more lively than my usual haunts.  I was surprised at how much I liked Lanzarote, I thought I was going to be in a very obviously touristy place and instead found immense beauty and culture everywhere I looked.

Friday, 10 February 2012


Most of the things I wanted to do and see were in Funchal so I ended up spending quite a few full days there.  The shuttle bus from our accommodation dropped and collected us from the marina area so we had the opportunity to see the cruise ships which make the island part of their itinerary.  Because the island rises out of the sea practically vertically the big ships can anchor very close to the shore so can be inspected in some detail easily without the aid of binoculars.  There was at least one ship in every single day and one day there were three.  Of the ships seen two impressed me particularly for different reasons.  The Royal Caribbean Spirit of Independence is absolutely massive.  I have never seen anything like it before and am certainly not tempted to go on it.  There are fourteen passenger decks and more than four thousand people can be carried.  Add on more than a thousand staff and we are looking at the population of the small market town in which I live.   The second ship - which might tempt me on a cruise - was German and called Aida.sol which came in twice during our visit.  They had bicycles on board and there were organised trips round the island on the bikes for about fifty people at a time.  We saw groups of ten being competently led - all properly dressed with matching helmets.  We saw groups on ordinary bicycles and some using electric ones.

I have never been particularly good at heights and foolishly was persuaded to go up to Monte and then the Botanical Gardens on the cable car.  I broke out in a cold sweat, felt physically nauseous and ended up doing the journey with my eyes closed - which helped a bit.  Although I really enjoyed both Monte and the lovely garden I was unable to return on the cable car and caught the bus back, wasting my return ticket.  The day we were at Monte one of the big ships was in and we saw 19 separate groups of fifty being led around.  A bit crowded, to say the least.

There are two rivers running through the middle of Funchal which were practically dry whilst we were there, the severe floods two years ago caused the banks to be rebuilt and they are covered in concrete with bridges across to navigate from one side to the other.  Some bright spark had the idea of stringing wires across the top and planting bougainvillae at the sides which have grown across and there is now a fabulous sight - a mass of scarlet and purple beautifully scented.

The pavements are amazing, they are made from stones in black and white and have been made into patterns.  It is really interesting to simply walk around looking at them - the ones in front of the theatre are works of art.  Thinking about it, Funchal is one big work of art.  The architecture is amazing, the Bank of Portugal has most impressive wrought iron everywhere, the Blandy Wine Lodge is beautifully maintained with original shutters, the theatre is lovely and the municipal buildings really interesting.  I had intended to go to Reid's for afternoon tea but never managed it, our trip on the open top bus enabled me to look over the walls though and I would really have loved to have gone there.


Sunday, 5 February 2012

Madeira Churches

One of my passions is ecclesiastical architecture and having never been to anywhere Portuguese before I had high expectations which were not disappointed.  Funchal has two of the major churches of the island which are beautifully decorated.  The Cathedral looks quite small from the outside but on entering seems to be about three times the size of initial perception.   The second major church is that of the Jesuit College which is astonishingly filled with gilt and art.  The Stations of the Cross there were bronze casts which had a vagueley Art Deco style to them and there are altars all around the walls.  Well worth a visit.

We took the cable car up to Monte to see the church there which was quite an experience.  I am not awfully good at heights and ended up returning via the bus and not using my return ticket.  I broke out into a cold sweat and felt very nauseous - even with my eyes closed.  The church itselt was lovely though, it is at the top of a massive flight of steps and pilgrims climb them on their knees as an act of faith.

We hired a taxi for a whole day to see more of the island and went to the north coast to Sao Vicente and the church dedicated to St Vincent there was extremely pretty.  Quite small but filled with colour and a very peaceful atmosphere.

Funchal has a museum dedicated to sacred art which was well worth the entrance charge.  All the artefacts and paintings have come from all over the island as churches have closed and placed in a central gallery opposite the Jesuit College.  There was some amazing filigree silver gilt exhibited, a particularly beautiful chalice comes to mind.  There were also some astonishing beds there - one depicting the last supper with Jesus and the Disciples on the bed head and a snarling looking Judas on the foot clutching a coin bag. 

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Madeira Food

The food of Madeira is more or less Mediterranean in that there are lots of fresh vegetables and fruit but some bits are quite stodgy.  The local bread is rather different from anything I have come across before, but none the worse for that.  The bread is made from a combination of grains and sweet potatoes.  It is not uncommon to find cornbread that has been enhanced with a good dollop of mashed sweet potato.  The dough is proved and then patted into discs about six inches in diameter and around an inch or so thick and then baked on hot stones, being turned after about twenty minutes for a further ten minutes the other side.  This results in a dense dampish loaf with a distinctive aroma and flavour.  It keeps pretty well in exactly the same condition for two or three days.  The garlic bread is made by cutting across the middle of the loaf and spreading garlic butter on both sides, sandwiching together and baking again. 

Because Madeira has no shores and therefore no beaches (there is one but I think it was man made) there is no endemic seafood or shellfish.  Limpets are available but I never saw them for sale in the shops, or even the magnificent market - the Mercado des Lavators.  A wonderful art deco building which has three floors of mainly food substances.   The ground floor and first floor are mainly fruit and vegetables with all the butchers around the outside and accessed from their own doors on the street rather than from the market side.  The middle of the ground floor is an empty square most of the week but on Friday the peasants come in from the countryside and sell their wares - wonderful herbs and oranges.  I cannot forget the sight of the flower stalls, Birds of Paradise at E5 for a dozen seemed an amazing bargain - but they do seem to grow wild in the countryside. 

The fish market in the basement sells all the local fish, particularly available is the Black Scabbard Fish - quite possibly the ugliest fish I have ever come across, even uglier than monkfish.  I ate the Black Scabbard on three different occasions at restaurants and it was a nice fish - the taste and texture being a bit cod like but rather softer.  One of the times I ordered it I could have been in Brighton because it was simply battered and served with chips.  The second time it had been wrapped in an omelette, the soggy eggy cover did nothing for it.  The third time it had been simply grilled on the bone but was served with an asonishing array of carbohydrates, rice, boiled potatoes and boiled yam - with a few Brussels sprouts and boiled carrots on the side.  I thought that Ford Madox Ford said that the South of France was heaven indeed because the Brussels sprout would not grow so far south?

We did have a little mini market on site which was fine for most stuff but I can never resist wandering around the local food shops and seeing what is on offer.  The supermarket in Funchal that I used (called Sa) had chicken carcasses for 50C each so I bought a couple whilst there to make fabulous chicken stock for soups.  I could also buy plenty of fresh vegetables and was very taken with a type of runner bean unlike any I have previously encountered.  Very flat and with a satin smooth pod, no strings to remove and cooked beautifully in about two minutes in boiling salted water.  Very tender and delicious.  I looked for packets of seed to bring home but there were none to be had.

Madeiran bananas are absolutely tiny - short and stumpy and when yellow they peel very easily.  The scent from a peeling banana overwhelms the room and I cooked some with the local rum made from sugar cane which were declared fabulous.  I bought some odd looking fruits from the market and cannot remember the name, they were about the size of a lychee and had a stone of about the same size inside.  The fruits themselves were like little Scotch Bonnets and rather tart so I stewed them with a little sugar and poured hot over vanilla ice cream - delicious.  The tangerines were picked from the tree the morning I bought them and they practically peeled themselves, leaving gorgeous juicy segments.

Dairy produce on Madeira is a bit mixed - all the pasteurised milk is imported and the milk ship comes in from Portugal on Tuesdays.  UHT is available when the fresh milk runs out - as it inevitably does after about Saturday - so I took the precaution of buying a couple of litres on Fridays to keep us going.  I did find some interesting cheese - a lovely goats cheese with a hard yellow rind and a soft crumbly interior and a rather nice soft cheese made from sheep's milk which had been rolled in pimento powder. 

The cake shops were amazing - really beautiful looking cakes (heavy on the thick custard) with pretty iced tops which all meant something.  I had the most gorgeous soft brioche type "horn" filled with the custard.  Another one was a sort of chocolate roulade sprinkled with Madeira wine and spread with custard before rolling.  There was a lovely sort of milles feuilles filled with custard - the pastry truly like leaves it was so thin - and then iced with a coffee flavour.  And the custard tarts - oh, the custard tarts.  I will dream about the custard tarts until I go to my grave.  The pastry thin and crispy and the filling soft and warm with the top blackened because of the burnt sugar.  Oh - the custard tarts.

I have to stop for a bit - the thought of those tarts makes me want some breakfast - but I shall return.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Madeira - First Impressions

I had a problem accessing my blog whilst in Madeira so this is going to mean that my postings about it will be a bit disjointed and not necessarily chronological.  I have finally sorted it out this morning so will attempt to share some of my experiences of this wonderful island.

We flew from Birmingham early on Monday morning, I had noticed last year that there is now a Wetherspoons after passport control and security so we elected to leave home after only coffee and juice and have a full breakfast at the airport.  It was an excellent strategy and successfully filled the hour and a half hanging around.  We left Brum at a temperature of 3C and landed at Funchal just before lunch to a temperature of 21C.  Our ordered transport was waiting for us and drove us to Cabo Girao to our home for the next fortnight.  I had booked a two bedroomed two bathroomed apartment through our Holiday Property Bond and it was excellent.  The drive to Cabo Girao in bright daylight showed that the roads are ALL like the Hardknott Pass - some of the stretches of the main road were practically vertical and I vowed not to hire the car I had been thinking about.  Coward?  Moi?  You bet I am when faced with roads like that.

The vegetation was amazing - there were thousands of red hot pokers lining the sides of the roads - they were growing like weeds everywhere and provided a brilliant carpet of scarlet.  There were some weird looking plants - I thought of them as Triffids - which were like a huge swan's neck which had thick stems at the base tapering to a point at the top which dipped and swayed in the wind.  I found out afterwards that they were a member of the aloe vera family and grown for their sap.  There were plenty of banana trees by the sides of the road too, some of the hands of bananas closest to the traffic had blue plastic bags wrapped round them to protect from exhaust fumes.   The Madeiran soil is amazingly fertile and every scrap of level land was cultivated.  The entire island is terraced in the occupied parts and a square metre of land means three or four crops of something every year.

We settled into our flat and found our bearings.  We had a lovely big terrace with dining furniture, sun loungers and loads of geckos scurrying around.  Quite little ones with scaly looking skin and lashing tails.  We had access to a large L shaped swimming pool which was half inside and half outside so that was my daily swim sorted.  For energetic types there were tennis courts and a clubhouse with table tennis and billiards but I got quite enough exercise climing the hundred or so steps between the pool and our flat.  I did say the entire island was terraced.  There was a shuttle bus around the site which Onslow took advantage of but I now have the calves of a Gurkha having done the steps three or four times daily.