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Esala Perahera in Sri Lanka: What you need to know

Esala Perahera in Sri Lanka: What you need to know

I’ll be honest. I had never even heard of the Esala Perahera before, let alone considered getting in on the action. But, in one of those wonderful strokes of luck, we arrived in Kandy in time for this most magnificent of Asian festivals.

The Esala Perahera is linked to the Buddhist Temple of the Tooth in the Sri Lankan hilltop town of Kandy. The temple holds the sacred Buddha’s tooth and, for 10 nights every summer, a grand procession is held to honour this relic. It’s one of Sri Lanka’s – indeed, Asia’s – biggest festivals. So that’s why it helps to be at least a little bit organised if you want to visit Kandy at this time – unlike us! For a start, hotels are more expensive and get booked up much faster. If you want to stay in Kandy but you’re not bothered about seeing the festival, choose a different date. That way you’ll get a much better deal on your accommodation.

Kandy town centre is EXTREMELY busy during the Esala Perahera, making it pretty much impossible to explore at your leisure. People start camping out on the pavement hours before the parade starts and most of the pavements are fenced off, so you either have to climb over the sardine-like sets of families picnicking on tarpaulin sheets laid over the floor or take your chances with the traffic on the road. You also get funnelled through security checkpoints where your bag is searched and you get a very “thorough” pat down. None of this makes for a particularly relaxing experience.

However, gird your loins because it’s totally worth checking out this incredible festival. For a start, you get to see a totally different side to daily life in Sri Lanka. The general sense of excitement is wonderful; people start getting into the party mood well before festivities properly kick off and the streets are filled with vendors selling balloons, flags, whistles, popcorn and other snacks. The festival attracts visitors from all over Sri Lanka and it’s fascinating to observe the anticipation building throughout the day. It’s nothing like anything you would see in the UK.

So, how do you get to watch the parade? You can join the locals on the pavements if you don’t mind making a day of it. It’s free but you’ll need to get there early to get a good spot – and bring plenty of provisions with you. However, you can also buy tickets for the numerous seats that are dotted around town. One of the most popular places for tourists seems to be the Queens Hotel. This old colonial building is located right at the start of the parade route so you will get a great view. Tickets here are very expensive though; you’re looking at paying between $95-$125 per seat! They also tend to sell out pretty quickly so you need to be a bit more organised than we were.

We had done hardly any research before rocking up into Kandy and, in fact, had only found out about the Esala Perahera the night before we arrived. So we literally had no idea what we were doing. The owner of the guest house we were based at said that he could get us tickets for the parade at a cost of 9000 rupees, but he couldn’t tell us exactly where we would be sitting. Without having seen the parade route or even the town, we weren’t confident that we would actually have good seats. However, upon heading into town we saw that there were loads of different seating options available. Pretty much every local business had opened up the front of their shops and/or constructed makeshift balconies with seating. The owners hang around outside selling tickets and most of them will approach you if they see you looking. We simply wandered along the route, checked out a few different places and eventually bought a couple of seats above an electronics shop for 6000 rupees each (about £30).

The only “problem” was that, because we hadn’t got our shit together beforehand, our seats were three rows from the front. All the front row seats tend to sell out in advance so if you want a first-class view then you need to get straight onto it. Bear in mind that you will pay more for a front-row seat, however. We were seated a couple of hours before the parade started as well – it’s basically a case of bagsying your spot. Oh and it can be a bit of a squeeze and a scramble to reach some of the balcony seats, so if you’re wobbly on your feet then look for a seat at pavement level.

Squishing in with a bunch of other tourists and locals was all part of the fun of the Esala Perahera, however. It really helped build a sense of anticipation and when we heard the distant cannon fire, signifying the start of the parade, followed by the sound of the first whip-crackers coming down the road, the excitement was palpable. The parade kicks off with the whip-crackers and incredible fire dancers, who “clear” the streets before the flag bearers arrive, solemnly carrying Buddhist flags. Next up is wave upon wave of dancers and musicians in traditional dress, who become increasingly frenetic as they process down the street. The atmosphere is intoxicating; the frantic sound of drums and pipes swells in the smoke-filled, flame-lit night. After each wave of dancers, come elephants – yes, actual massive IRL elephants. These really are an incredible spectacle. Splendidly caparisoned and covered in fairy lights, they stomp through the streets with costumed riders sat astride.

There are five phases to the Esala Perahera and the tooth relic makes an appearance during the first one. It arrives on the back of the Maligawa Tusker – a huge, magnificently decorated elephant. All the locals stood up and bowed their heads as it passed by (although these days the “relic” is actually a replica; the original stowed safely away in the temple). The other phases of the procession include peacock dancers and female dancers venerating different deities, as Hinduism mixes with Buddhism in that way that is so typical of Asia. We didn’t stay until the end; jet lag was kicking in and the Esala Perahera is very long – something else to bear in mind if you’re visiting. Getting back out of the town centre was a bit tricky and I’m pretty certain I stepped on a LOT of people!

The Esala Perahera is definitely worth it. If anyone really needs any more reasons to visit Sri Lanka, this is one of them. It’s a spectacle like nothing else and was such a wonderful way to kick off my trip to Asia. I can’t wait to see what else I’ll discover over the next few months – but hopefully we’ll try to be a bit more organised from now on!

What amazing things have you accidentally stumbled upon when travelling? Let me know in the comments!

PS. My photos are DIRE because I was sat so far back and it was dark. If you want to get good pics, bag a seat right at the front somewhere and bring the usual low-light equipment.

Travel and leaving home: A letter to myself

Travel and leaving home: A letter to myself

Travel photo: Women in village in Nepal playing musical instruments

It’s only a matter of days before you leave London and start your big travel adventure. To say that your emotions are all over the place is an understatement. On one hand, obviously, you’re excited beyond words. On the other, you’re absolutely bloody terrified. Dealing with change is not one of your strong points really, is it. Which is a bit weird because you hate routine as well. How many years have you sat at your desk in work and wished that you were somewhere else? How many times have you got on the tube in the morning and silently cursed the uncomfortable tedium of it? For as long as you’ve lived in London you’ve wanted to do things on your own terms and not be beholden to a boss, a corporation, set hours. And now you’re finally breaking free from all of that and everything you’ve ever dreamed of is about to come true.

Anxiety
But you’re worried. Because that’s who you are – a worrier. Actually that’s putting it mildly. You have anxiety. You suffer from anxiety. This has been medically confirmed, so don’t beat yourself up over the fact that you’re stressed out because you won’t be able to buy your usual brand of moisturiser while you travel through Asia and your skin will shrivel up and it will bug you every day for the foreseeable future. Chances are you’ll be able to find an alternative. Chances are you won’t even care. But these weird, random little things do keep you awake at night, on top of this huge sweeping change that you’re making to your life, because that’s what suffering from anxiety is like. It’s a constant dialogue tapping away inside your head going “what if, what if, what if?”

Travel photo: Man selling pizza in a market outside Camaguey, Cuba

Security
This is where your mass of contradictions really comes into play. You get easily bored, so you yearn for adventure. You long to travel the world because you understand that there is so much more out there then the London bubble. But man, you do love your security. Having your own place, your little home is so important to you. Feeling comfortable in your town – especially a constantly churning, aggressive city like London –  makes you proud. Effortlessly knowing where to go, what to do and who to do it with, gliding from one borough to the next, navigating public transport with ease… Your wonderful group of friends that you managed to make all by yourself (yep, that still amazes you even at the age of 38!). And most of all – having somewhere to retreat to. You’re an introvert so being around other people – even your friends – can eventually become exhausting. You need a place of your own and space of your own. Removing that comfort blanket is terrifying.

But, you know what? All change is terrifying, And you were stagnating and you recognised this. That in itself is an achievement. Actually doing something about it is brave. Because no-one really likes any upheaval to their lives but you went ahead anyway and turned change up to 11. You decided to burn the whole thing to the ground and build something new. Be proud. Yes, it is scary and yes, you will doubt yourself but push on. You know it’s the right thing to do.

Travel photo: Tibetan people in Dharamsala, India

Depression
The black dog. Churchill nailed it with that description. It’s always there, following you around, no matter where you travel to. For a long time you believed that you just needed to escape; that if you could break free from your small life and see the world, see how other people live, keep moving, keep discovering, your black dog would be left behind. But that’s just running away and we all know life doesn’t allow that to work out. Your black dog will follow you to the ends of the earth and there will still be times when he comes too close, when he lies on top of you and wraps his tail around you and you feel like you can’t breathe. When things get bad you retreat to your little house and hole up with snacks, books and Netflix until the storm passes. You won’t be able to do that anymore, so you’ll need to come up with a new security system. But be brave, look that dog in the eye and know that you’re bigger than it will ever be.

And so….
You’re scared. Really, really, really scared. You’re walking around feeling like you’ve stepped off a cliff, hoping that you’ll somehow be able to fly before you reach the ground. Maybe you will and maybe things will go according to plan. Maybe you won’t and you’ll just go splat. Know that is a real possibility and think about how you will deal with that. It might feel like the worst thing ever but it won’t be. No matter what happens, whether you fall or whether you do actually fly, know that you’ll have done something amazing. And that, in itself, is something to be proud of.

In Pictures: The prettiest streets in west London

In Pictures: The prettiest streets in west London

The beauty of living in such a big, old city is that there is always something new to discover. London is full of hidden corners, delightful cobbled mews, and secret squares. I love west London and its candy coloured houses, especially at this time of year when the blossom is out. It really does feel like being on the set of a Richard Curtis film. Here are a few of of my favourite streets. Now, where’s that lottery win so can I move into one of them?

Godfrey Street, Chelsea
Godfrey Street, Chelsea, London

Lennox Garden Mews, Knightsbridge
Lennox Garden Mews, Knightsbridge, London

Hillgate Place, Notting Hill
Hillgate Place, Notting Hill, London

Bywater Street, Chelsea
Bywater Street, Chelsea, London

Kynance Mews, Kensington
Kynance Mews, Kensington, London

St Luke’s Mews, Notting Hill
St Luke's Mews, Notting Hill, London

Pond Place, Chelsea
Pond Place, Chelsea, London

Ennismore Gardens Mews, South Kensington
Ennismore Gardens Mews, South Kensington, London

Elm Place, Chelsea
Elm Place, Chelsea, London

Kensington Place, Notting Hill
Kensington Place, Notting Hill, London

Cresswell Place, Chelsea
Cresswell Place, Chelsea, London

And, not forgetting…..

Portobello Road, Notting Hill
Portobello Road, Notting Hill, London
What are your favourite London streets? Let me know in the comments or send me a photo and I’ll retweet it!

5 London travel hacks all tourists should know

5 London travel hacks all tourists should know

After living in London for 12 years I’m now able to navigate this vast city with relative ease.  But I still remember how it felt arriving here as a total newbie.  London can feel like a pretty intimidating place at times.  Working out where to begin, navigating public transport and the sheer volume of people swirling around you at 100mph can be enough to make your head spin.  So here are my top 5 travel hacks to help you get the best out of your time here in the Big Smoke.

1.  Rush past rush hour 
I cannot stress this enough.  It’s called “rush hour” for a reason and trust me when I say it’s not something you want to find yourself caught up in.  For the uninitiated, this is when London’s huge workforce travel to and from their various jobs across the capital.  And, despite the name, it’s not just for an hour.  Generally it’s between 7:30 – 9:00 am and 5:00 – 7:00 pm, Monday to Friday.  The tube gets absolutely rammed and people are usually ever so slightly humourless at this time of the day – to put it mildly!  Do everything you can to avoid travelling at this time and you’ll have a much more pleasant journey.

2. Walk (but don’t dawdle)
Following on from the first point, it’s actually pretty good to avoid using the tube in general and stick around above ground.  Walk as much as you can.  London is great for exploring.  There are loads of little side streets with independent shops and eateries, enchantingly pretty cobbled mews, some of the loveliest houses you’ll ever see, secret gardens… I could go on forever.  Plus the people watching is spectacular.  I once spotted a witch selling herbs off a canal boat and a man with a giant blue parrot – both during the same walk.  Everything and anything goes in London so who knows what you might see?  One word of warning though – Londoners walk very fast and don’t take kindly to people getting in their way!

3. There’s more to life than Primark
Ok, so perhaps only a certain demographic frequent the barn-like Primark stores that bookend Oxford Street.  However, Oxford Street is not the shopping mecca people believe it to be.  It’s a busy, traffic-choked drag, containing nothing but chain stores and tacky souvenir shops.  If shopping’s your thing then check out the Carnaby Street area of Soho or Covent Garden or one of the many markets, like Spitalfields.  You’ll still find the usual high street shops – it’s hard to avoid them these days – but they’re mixed in with independent retailers and the setting is much easier on the eye – as well as being pedestrian friendly.

4. Get out more
A lot of the big ticket sights are in Zone 1 but, if you have the time, expand your horizons.  Head north to the pretty “villages” of Hampstead and Highgate, separated by the vast, green expanse of Hampstead Heath.  Venture south-west to Wimbledon Common and Richmond Park where you can wander among herds of deer.  Eastwards, you will find the Olympic Village, the Lea Valley and a burgeoning hipster scene.  Don’t limit yourself to the West End.  Explore.  Get lost.  Discover London.

5. Queue for food, but not for Pizza Hut
I work around the corner from a big, West End branch of Pizza Hut and it frequently makes me want to cry.  Every day I see people queuing to get in.  The same for Frankie & Benny’s, Angus Steakhouses, TGI Fridays and all the other bland, over-priced chains that litter the West End.  And every day I ask myself why?  The mass produced steaks at Angus Steakhouse start from £18.50 but if you walk just a little way in the other direction, you can get a blinding steak dinner at Flat Iron for a fraction of the price.  It’s tempting to gravitate towards the familiar, but there’s a reason none of the locals eat at these places – and that’s because they’re crap.  London is one of the foodie capitals of the world.  Be adventurous and eschew the chains in favour of one of the fab independent restaurants that this city is famed for.

London is brilliant, exciting, messy, chaotic, diverse, pulsing but never boring.  It’s a city you can visit repeatedly and always find something different.  It still turns me on, despite having lived here for over a decade.  I hope you love it as much as I do.

What are your top London travel hacks?  Share them in the comments below.

Rum and dancing: Valentine’s Day in Cuba

Rum and dancing: Valentine’s Day in Cuba

The best Valentine’s Day I ever had didn’t involve hearts, flowers and chocolates.  It didn’t even include a card.  The best Valentine’s Day I ever had was spent with one of my closest friends, getting drunk in a rooftop bar in Santiago de Cuba.

Santiago de Cuba is the second largest city in Cuba and is located in the south-east corner of the island.  While Havana is swiftly becoming sanitised, Santiago has all the faded elegance of the capital but feels grittier, grubbier, seedier.  It’s sweaty and tropical, closer to Haiti and the Dominican Republic than it is to Havana – both in terms of geography and atmosphere. Reggae mixes with salsa, the heat makes everything feel languid, yet the spirit of the revolución remains close to the surface.  It was the home of Frank País, a revolutionary who campaigned for the overthrow of Batista and who collaborated with Fidel Castro.  It was where Castro’s rebellion began, and where he eventually proclaimed victory in 1959.  It’s also where I found myself one Valentine’s Day…

Turns out that Valentine’s Day is a massive deal in Santiago.  It felt like the whole population was out in town that evening, dressed in their finest, parading arm in arm.  Heart shaped balloons were everywhere – outside restaurants, being carried by grinning girls, even in the form of giant balloon arches in the plazas.  “Careless Whisper” belted out of a huge sound system while couples enjoyed dinner out.  So popular is Valentine’s Day that it was completely impossible to get into any restaurant in town.  Everywhere was booked out.  After drifting aimlessly around town, we eventually wandered into the Hotel Libertad in the hope of at least grabbing a seat and a drink while we came up with a plan.  Little did we know that we wouldn’t be leaving until we stumbled out in the early hours of the morning.

The Hotel Libertad looked like most of the other old colonial hotels you find around Cuba.  A sky blue exterior gave way to an elegant interior, lots of marble, wrought iron etc.  Not a bad spot to kill some time.  However, my eagle-eyed friend spotted a sign saying “rooftop bar”. Several flights of narrow stairs later and we were in another sort of hotel altogether.  A makeshift sound system had been set up, pumping music videos onto a projector screen.  A simple bar contained one, slightly stressed, barman, a fridge full of beer and Coke, and lots of rum.  And best of all, we had a spectacular night time view over the sticky, pulsing city.  We were the only foreigners in the place, which did feel a little intimidating at first.  But we quickly realised that no-one cared who we were.  We were there for a good time and that was all that mattered.

As pretty much everyone knows, when you’re in Cuba, you drink rum.  It kind of goes without saying.  And Santiago de Cuba is actually where the Barcardi brand originated.  You won’t find Barcadi in Cuba though; the Castro government confiscated all of the company’s assets in 1960 and they moved overseas.  In its place is Santiago de Cuba rum, which is produced and bottled in the oldest distillery in Cuba.  I’m no rum conoisseur – unless I’m drinking the really good, really aged stuff it all just tastes like fire to me.  That’s why I prefer to drink it in cocktails.  My trip to Cuba so far had involved liberal consumption of Cuba Libres – rum, Coke and lime.  The lime didn’t always make an appearance and the rum usually filled up half a highball glass.  If you could see through the Coke, you knew it was going to be a good drink!  Valentine’s Day was no exception.  The barman spoke no English and the music was loud, but at least my basic Spanish included “two more Cuba Libres please”.  I always make a point of learning the important phrases…  The cocktails were strong and cheap.  Two turned into four, four into eight…well you get the picture.  Afterwards, we gatecrashed a party back at our own hotel, having mistaken it for a disco.  We still laugh about that night to this day.

I’ve never been a big fan of Valentine’s Day but I had felt a little sad earlier, having seen photos of my ex on Facebook celebrating with his new girlfriend.  But rum, music, dancing and laughing under the warm night sky of a Caribbean town?  Who needs romance when you have these things instead?

Taking A Bite Out Of…..Rye

Taking A Bite Out Of…..Rye

With cheap flights to Europe seemingly a dime a dozen, it’s easy to overlook the delights of our very own green and pleasant land.  For a start, travel in Britain is expensive!  So, of course, it’s tempting to forgo a trip to the English countryside in favour of something a little more…well…foreign.  That’s a real shame though, because there are some darling destinations right on London’s doorstep.  The historic town of Rye, on the border of East Sussex  and Kent, rises up out of the endless flats of Romney Marsh as if it wants to flaunt its medieval beauty to the world.  And rightly so, because Rye is movie-set stunning.  What’s more, it is a haven of independent shops, cafes and restaurants.  You won’t find a Starbucks or KFC.  Instead you get to discover the likes of Edith’s House and the Rye Deli.  Rye puts you in a situation where you have to take a punt on an unknown quantity.  And isn’t that what makes travel exciting?

I’d made a few day trips to Rye several years ago, but this time I was staying for a whole weekend.  I had booked myself into The Quarter House – a cosy medieval retreat in the heart of the town.  I was looking forward to a break after a particularly difficult few months, and the thought of escaping into the misty silence of a wintery Romney Marsh was really appealing.  As usual, though, I was looking forward to exploring new places to eat.  Even before I arrived, I had decided to treat myself to dinner at the Mermaid Inn, which is one of the oldest buildings in town (making it positively ancient).  Taking up prime position on the impossibly beautiful Mermaid Street, this hotel was rebuilt in 1420 but has cellars dating as far back as the 12th century.  Never mind the food; just spending time in a building like this is an experience.

The hotel restaurant has been awarded 2 AA rosettes and the menu celebrates local produce; something that always get a big tick from me.  However, something about the place was reminiscent of the hotel restaurants I’d experienced as a child in the 1980’s.  Obviously it was going to be dated – see above.  However, the dried hops and “Old Masters” decorating the walls, plus the rather formal service, all combined to create a weirdly “bad retro” vibe.   Furthermore, the staff were all dressed in a strange mix of historic costumes, although I’m not sure whether they do that all the time or if it was just because it was almost Christmas.  Their awkwardness was palpable.

Anyway, onto the food.  The Mermaid offers a set menu with two courses for £29.50 or three for £38.50.  I opted for a main and dessert, in a half-assed attempt to save money.  Thingskicked off with an amuse-bouche of butternut squash soup.  They may have thought that this would have been welcome on a cold, December night – and they wouldn’t have been too far off the mark.  The soup was tasty and comforting, as butternut squash should be, but also fairly average.  I’m also unconvinced by the effectiveness of aheavy soup as an amuse-bouche.

I was particularly excited about my main course: trio of Romney Marsh lamb.  Locally sourced lamb is usually fantastic and this was no exception.  Thelamb arrived in the form of a cutlet, a cricket ball of pulled lamb that was deep fried in breadcrumbs and some kind of fillet (the waitress wasn’t sure what).  It was accompanied by a potato mille-feuille, Jerusalem artichoke puree, poached apricots, green beans and a curry jus.  It was like one of those dishes you see cooked up by some hapless Masterchef contestant, desperate to show off all their skills in one go.  The lamb was cooked perfectly, the puree was earthy and the apricots added some welcome sweetness.  However, the potato mille-feuille could have done with being cooked for a bit longer in a lot more butter, and I couldn’t detect any curry flavour in the jus.  Although I wasn’t too sad about that last point.  The addition of curry probably wasn’t necessary.

Choosing dessert was particularly tricky, as there were so many tasty options on the menu.  After much hemming and hawing I eventually asked the waitress for her recommendation.  She suggested the blackberry souffle, with honey and vanilla infused blackberries and shortbread.  Now, I have a MASSIVE sweet tooth, but eating this was like licking a pot of  blackberry jam.  Don’t get me wrong, it did taste really good (albeit slightly under-cooked).  But I suspect it’s probably given me diabetes.

I was a little underwhelmed by the Mermaid Inn.  The food was ok, but the main draw is the beauty and the history of the building.  For really good food, head to another inn: The Ship Inn.  As with most places in Rye, the Ship is housed in a historic gem; the building dates from 1592, when it was a warehouse used for storing contraband seized from smugglers.  These days it’s a super-cosy restaurant with rooms, owned by the former proprietors of The Engineer in Primrose Hill.  That tells you everything.  Imagine a fabulous London gastropub transplanted into a medieval warehouse.  Squishy sofas and fairy lights mixed with wooden beams and flagstone flooring.  The atmosphere was warm and welcoming, and I could tell straightaway that this was the kind of place you could easily lose a few hours in.

This was helped by the food.  The menu consists largely of straightforward comfort food, like steak or cottage pie.  The sort of thing you can you demolish without too much effort.  I actually decided to order a couple of things that I’d never tried before, starting with potted smoked cod.  This arrived in a jar with some wholewheat toast soldiers on the side.  The cod was blended to a pate-like consistency, making it easy to spread onto the toast, and had a surprisingly delicate flavour.  They could probably have got away with a bit more smoke, but overall it was an interesting and tasty dish.

The main course was where things got really good.  I ordered ricotta dumplings with butternut squash and sage.  Again, I wasn’t too sure what to expect, but I was delighted to be presented with a dish containing ricotta-stuffed dumplings the size of my fist, smothered in a cheesy sage and butternut squash sauce.  I use the word “sauce” rather loosely as it was actually more just like melted cheese.  It was the stuff dreams are made of.  I could feel myself melting into my chair with every creamy mouthful.  Admittedly, that might also have been because this dish was incredibly rich and therefore made me feel incredibly fat.  It was pure decadence.   It also meant that dessert was totally out of the question!

Rye is really easy to reach by train from London and there’s plenty to keep you occupied for a weekend.  It’s easy to forget just how much of a tonic it is to escape from the Big Smoke, even if that’s only taking a train to somewhere an hour away.  Rye may not be as exotic as Reykjavik or Rome, but it’s hard to beat when it comes to quintessential English beauty.  Sometimes a staycation can be just as rewarding as a trip across the Channel after all.

What are your thoughts on staycation vs vacation? Let me know in the comments.

The Best Food and Drink of 2016

The Best Food and Drink of 2016

Fried chicken waffle by Waffle On at Maltby Street Market

Yes, everyone keeps saying that 2016 has been the worst year ever.  But when it comes to food and drink, this year has been a cracker.  With more new restaurants and more foodie entrepreneurs than ever, there is no excuse to eat badly.  Here are the best things that I snaffled into my greedy face this year:

Chicken and pistachio shish from Arabica Bar & Kitchen
I wanted to eat everything on Arabica Bar & Kitchen’s menu.  I’ve eaten a lot of samey mezze over the years, but these guys really know how to sex it up.  It’s easy to be bamboozled by choice; however, you should definitely include the chicken and pistachio shish in your order.  Forget all about those dry old shish kebabs you may have had the misfortune to eat in the past.  These little skewers are succulent, dripping with meat juices and are infused with the flavours of the Middle East.

Chicken and pistachio shish from Arabica Bar & Kitchen

Kürtöskalács in Budapest
Yeah I have no idea how to pronounce it either.  But that won’t be a hinderance to you when you visit Budapest because you can find it everywhere.  It’s a chimney cake made from a doughnut style dough and rolled in sugar.  It’s served hot with various toppings, like nuts or desiccated coconut, but I chose good old fashioned cinnamon.  It was huge but worth every stomach-straining bite.

Fried chicken waffle from Waffle On
You’re spoiled for choice when it comes to eating at Maltby Street market.  However, I can definitely recommend the fried chicken waffle with maple syrup butter from Waffle On.  Street food is generally naughty but this is really decadent.  The chicken is fried to perfection, and the combination of sweet and savoury flavours here is sheer bliss.

Rabbit risotto from Cafe Murano
Rabbit’s another one that is so often dry and dull.  And a perfect risotto sometimes feels like the holy grail. Not so when these things are in the hands of the chefs at Cafe Murano.  The risotto was creamy, topped off with chunks of juicy rabbit meat and a drizzle of stock.  It’s a wonderfully, sinfully rich dish that stood out on a menu that was full of wonderful dishes.

The Meihua Shan at Oriole
Many bars claim to be “speakeasies” but Oriole probably comes closest to the real deal.  For a start, it’s genuinely hard to find.  I walked past it a couple of times in increasing confusion.  But once you’re in, you’re truly through the looking glass.  Their incredible cocktail list – inspired by the golden age of exploration – helps to transport you to another era and another world.  Again, you can be bamboozled by choice (and some unusual ingredients), but the Meihua Shan is worth splashing the cash on.  Made with Hendricks gin, plum rosolio, juniper chou syrup, egg white and lemon, it manages to be both refreshing and creamy.  And, as with all the cocktails from the team behind Nightjar, it looked like a work of art.

Meihua Shan cocktail from Oriole

All of the cheese from La Latteria
La Latteria specialise in mozzarella, stracciatella and ricotta.  And they do this exceptionally well.  Scoffing down a plate of their ricotta felt incredibly naughty – it was that creamy.  Then I did the same with their stracciatella.  Seemingly simple produce that, when done well, tastes exquisite.  Find them at newbie food destination, Mercato Metropolitano.

Pork confit bao from BAO
Yes, this has become a bit of “a classic” but justifiably so.  Judging by Instagram, I think everyone in London has now eaten this but, if you haven’t, then brave the queue at the door of BAO.  This little squidgy mouthful is worth it.  As is the rest of the menu.

Goat kofte salad from Gourmet Goat
Goat is a much under-rated meat but, when it’s handled well, it’s delicious.  Gourmet Goat know exactly what they are doing and their goat kofte salad is delightful.  The meat is tender and flavoursome, and the salad is one of the tastiest I have eaten.  It was packed with beetroot, chickpeas, goat kurd and came with a punchy chilli “pistou” – and I gobbled the whole thing up in a matter of minutes.

Goat kofte salad from Gourmet Goat

Everything I ate at Rotorino
Admittedly, I’d had a few shandies before my friend and I decided to grab a bite here.  But everything I ate here was delicious.  So much so, that it managed to make an impression through the fog of gin that surrounded me – and one that has lasted.  My starter of marinated mackerel with pinenuts, almonds and breadcrumbs was fresh and zingy.  The roast chicken on toast (yes, toast!) that followed was one of the tastiest roast chooks I have eaten (although annoyingly a little under-cooked in places).  The buttermilk pannacotta with rhubarb for dessert was perfectly executed.  Can’t wait to go back.

Chicken livers with pomegranate molasses from Meza
It’s taken me 7 years to get around to going to Meza in my ‘hood of Tooting.  I now can’t believe that I have gone without their chicken livers for so long.  Melt-in-the-mouth with a sticky, sweet, tangy dressing and a great smack of Middle Eastern spices.  I think I might have to nip up the road and get some now….!

“Strawberries and Cream” from Fifteen 
This wasn’t a dish of strawberries and cream.  It was actually a cocktail, made for this year’s London Cocktail Week.  The list of ingredients was as long as my arm but the end result was simple and elegant.  It really did taste of strawberries and cream, reminiscent of those old fashioned boiled sweets.  And of course it looked as pretty as a picture.

Strawberries and Cream cocktail from Jamie Oliver's Fifteen

Slow cooked beef cheek pie from The Holly Bush
My second choice dish from the menu at The Holly Bush in Hampstead actually turned out to be the right decision after all.  This “proper” pie was fully encased in buttery shortcrust pastry and stuffed full of the most tender chunks of beef cheek I have ever eaten.  It came with a rich, dark gravy and every mouthful was a pleasure.  Comfort food at its best.

Ricotta dumplings from The Ship Inn, Rye
This dish.  My God.  Ricotta, sage, pumpkin all forming a perfect storm of flavour.  It was so delicious and so comforting to eat.  The cheese was rich and gooey, counterbalanced by the sweetness of the roast pumpkin.  Exactly the sort of thing you want to eat on a dark, chilly winter’s night on the Sussex marshes.

Ricotta dumplings from The Ship Inn, Rye

Disappointment of the year: Hatchetts
Hatchetts, a new arrival in 2016, had a limited, unimaginative menu that was very over priced for what they offered.  Weirdly, they had a “Christmas dinner” on their standard lunch menu when I visited.  I ordered it because the other three main courses available appealed to me far less than this one did (which is saying something).  It was average.  So was their chocolate fondant dessert.  The plates were stone cold and the restaurant was empty.  When you charge premium prices then you should deliver a premium experience.  This was just lazy and complacent.

I ate a lot over the course of 2016, but I barely scratched the surface of all the amazing restaurants and bars that are only in London  I tend not to make New Year’s resolutions but I think, for 2017, I’m going to have just one: eat more.

If you have any recommendations for me then drop me a line.  I’d love to hear them.  Happy New Year!

Taking A Bite Out Of…Istanbul

Taking A Bite Out Of…Istanbul

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Kebabs.  They have a bit of a bad reputation to be honest.  My first experience of the delicacy known as kebab meat and chips, “fresh” out of the local chippy in Pontypool town centre, was enough to put me off for a long long time.  Even the more upmarket grilled meats of Turkish restaurants around London didn’t really help to convince me that a kebab is anything more than a greasy, stomach-churning mistake.  So would a trip to Istanbul,  the home of the kebab, change my mind?

Istanbul is a crazy, colourful, feast for the senses, and food plays a huge part in this.  Everywhere you look there are stalls selling hot chestnuts, grilled corn on the cob, watermelon, fresh bread.  Ice cream vendors, wearing embroidered waistcoats and fezs, churn their thick, sticky confectionery (known as dondurma) and ring the bells above their booths.  Shop windows are piled high with Turkish delight and baklava.  And all this is before you even think about setting foot inside one of the hundreds of restaurants, lured by the smell of grilled meat and fish.

Most of our meals in Istanbul tended to follow the same pattern.  A selection of meze to start with (usually hummus, cacik, spinach in yoghurt, and smoked aubergine, with baskets of the most delicious fresh bread), followed by a kebab.  Yes, that’s right.  A kebab.  Every day.  However, in the words of Marks & Spencer, these weren’t just any kebab.  The meat was moist and flavoursome, without any hint of grease or gristle.  This was simple food, done well.

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Of course, there is more to dining out in Istanbul than just kebabs.  Fresh fish also features prominently, particularly on the Princes Islands.  This charming archipelago offers a refreshing contrast to the hustle and bustle of Istanbul.  Motor vehicles are not permitted so the best way to explore is via bicycle or horse and carriage.  We visited Buyukada, the largest of the islands, and headed straight for the Splendid Palas hotel, a beautiful turn of the century sanctuary.  We enjoyed glasses of iced peach tea in their gardens overlooking the Sea of Marmara.  When it comes to food, fish is really what it’s all about.  All of the restaurants lining the sea front have large coolers displaying the catch of the day.  We ordered a whole sea bass between three of us, which was served grilled with chips and fresh salad.  Nothing more was needed other than a squeeze of lemon.

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Turkey is also famous for its coffee.  More to the point, its rocket fuel, thermonuclear coffee that is so thick you could almost stand your spoon up in the cup.  Like kebabs, coffee has really never done much for me; however cafe culture is huge in Istanbul, so when in Rome etc etc…  Our favourite spot was a tiny little outdoor cafe underneath the Galata Tower.  There are no menus – they only serve coffee, tea and soft drinks.  Coffee was served in tiny, patterned china cups, alongside the ubiquitous bottle of water to cleanse your palate.  Groups of students and families sat around in the amphitheatre style seating area, chatting, sketching or smoking shisha.

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Istanbul is a city that challenged my culinary perceptions.  My next challenge is to find a Turkish restaurant here in London that can match all those wonderful kebabs!!!

Taking A Bite Out Of…Krakow (Part 2)

Taking A Bite Out Of…Krakow (Part 2)

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Having resigned myself to the fact that I may put on a pound or two while in Krakow (although calories on holiday don’t count, right?), it was time to fully embrace a cold weather diet.  This was helped along by the fact that the best pierogi shop in Krakow – Przystanek Pierogarnia – was situated right at the end of my street.  Pierogi are boiled dumplings usually filled with potato, cheese or meat – sometimes all three – and topped with fried onions.  This is food that really sticks to your ribs.  I went for the potato and bacon dumplings, and just kept going back for more….  Comfort food has a new name, and it’s “pierogi”.

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However, you can’t just rely on hearty food to keep you warm when the snow is falling and it’s -5C outside.  Sometimes it helps to have a nip or three of something strong and alcoholic.  Luckily, Krakow has plenty of options when it comes to all things spirituous.  Vodka is perhaps the most obvious choice but hot vodka?  Well, it warms the hands as well as the belly.  The gorgeous Cafe Camelot serves theirs mixed with cinnamon, honey and citrus fruit.  It may look elegant, but it kicks like a mule.  I made sure to soak it up with a large slice of their homemade cherry pie.

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When night falls and so does the temperature, the bohemian Jewish quarter is the place to go.  Its narrow streets are speckled with enticing, dimly lit hideaways.  I stopped off at Marchewka z Groskiem for potato pancakes with pork stew, washed down with hot Bracka beer mixed with honey and ginger, which I am sure is good for you in some way!  The pancake/stew ratio was skewed in favour of pancakes, which were a smidge too heavy and greasy for my liking; however, I still managed find room for dessert.  Possibly one of the best things about the Polish food scene is apple cake.  Moist, delicately spiced, with the sweet tang of baked apple.  Despite being overloaded with beer and potato pancakes, I still could have polished off a second piece of this cake.  Instead, I compromised with a quince vodka, which is another common sight in Krakow, and something that I can definitely recommend.

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My last morning in Krakow was spent with a heavy heart from having to shortly leave the Polish winter wonderland, and a heavy head after way too many Zubrowkas from the huge range at Ulica Krokodyli the night before.  I trudged through the snow to Cheder Cafe, which is situated in a former Jewish prayer house.   The walls are lined with bookshelves and there are squishy sofas aplenty, giving it the feel of a cosy living room rather than a cafe.  They also offer a range of hot chocolate with a difference.  So thick that it can only be imbibed with a spoon, you can drink/eat this kosher interpretation of chocolate heaven with tahini and almonds, cherry liqueur, or sea salt and chilli.

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I was fairly confident that Polish food and drink would be my kind of thing, and my visit to Krakow confirmed this.  If you are a lover of simple yet hearty comfort food, washed down with lashings of beer and vodka, then this is most definitely the place for you.  If you are watching your weight (or a vegetarian), then it is probably best avoided.  I’m now determined to find the best Polish restaurants in London, even if my liver and my skinny jeans are already protesting!

Przystanek Pierogarnia, Bonerowska 14
Cafe Camelot, Świętego Tomasza 17
Marchewka z Groskiem, Mostowa 2
Ulica Krokodyli, Szeroka 30
Cheder Cafe, Józefa 36

Wine from the Rias Baixas

Wine from the Rias Baixas

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It’s not often that wine evokes strong memories; usually it has the opposite effect.  However, I will always remember the first time I ever tried wine from the Rias Baixas region of Galicia, in north-west Spain.

We had journeyed across northern Spain, starting out from Barcelona, and our trip so far had been defined by rain, rain, and then a bit more rain.  As we headed towards the north-west coast, I wasn’t expecting anything different.  This corner of Atlantic Spain was known for it’s wild weather and it’s equally wild coastline.  When we arrived at the city of Santiago de Compostela, the rain looked like it had well and truly set in for the duration.

We went for dinner that evening at a tiny hole in the wall restaurant, the name of which I have long forgotten, although the memory of the food and drink remains.  It was the kind of place that grinds to a halt when you enter, and all the local diners stare as you make your way to the table.  There was no menu; you were served whatever was going.  In Galicia, this usually means seafood, especially shellfish freshly harvested from the rain soaked seashore.  We ate mussels and scallops, the biggest and juiciest I have ever encountered, octopus sprinkled with paprika, and razor clams.  This was all washed down with a bottle of the local white wine.

I had never tried Spanish white wine before.  In fact, I didn’t even realise that such a thing even existed.  My only experience of Spanish wine up until now had been trusty old reds.  I was delighted to discover that this was a wine of beauty.  Light and crisp, it was the perfect accompaniment to the salt water freshness of the seafood, and was both dangerously cheap and easy on the palate.  It was no great surprise that we ended up stumbling out into the glistening granite streets of Santiago more than slightly worse for wear!

I have always since struggled to find a wine that matches up to what we tried in Galicia.  Sadly, it appears that wine from the Rias Baixas doesn’t travel all that well.  However, the Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Albarino comes pretty close.  It has the same drinkability, with a fresh, clean taste that makes it very easy to finish off a bottle before you even realise it.  Now that we are moving towards the warmer months, this is definitely a wine to put on your shopping list.  Although, as my experience in wet and wild Galicia testifies, you don’t necessarily need the sun to be able to enjoy Galician wine.  Which is probably just as well when you are dealing with the British summer.