A night of perfection in Pauillac

lafite 2 From a dark corner of my humble cellar-under-the-stairs I carefully pick up the Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1985 and carry it upstairs. I’m fearful it may not live up to expectations, having been moved more than once including a change in homes. But then, if I never open it I’ll never know. And what’s the point of having a bottle of fine wine other than drinking it?

This precious bottle, now worth an estimated $500, was a gift from Baron Eric de Rothschild himself, presented to me as I left the Bordeaux chateau at the close of the most amazing wine night of my life.

In the space of a few hours, in the august company of the baron, other Bordeaux luminaries and a coterie of owners, managers and sommeliers from top restaurants in Paris, I’d feasted royally in Chateau Lafite’s superb underground cellars and sampled the finest array of top French wines that I’m ever likely to taste.

cellarBefore we sat down to eat Baron Eric had led us through the estate’s oldest cellars where racks hold vintages of Lafite dating back more than a century, the sight of which prompted gasps of passion all round. Nobody does the act of homage quite like the French.

Dinner was many dishes, each served with a different vintage of Lafite. Meanwhile, other great wines of the Medoc were being freely dispensed from tables set up around the circular cellar. Between courses we roamed among these tables sampling whichever wine we fancied. It was a phenomenal affair.

I tasted Haut Brion, Mouton Rothschild, Palmer  and Pichon-Longueville, then moved on to Leoville Barton, Latour and Margaux. The evening climaxed with the serving of Lafite 1959, poured from magnums left untouched in these cellars for decades.

Lafite lableMy only possible regret about this singular experience is tasting so many incredible wines in just one night. Given the choice I’d have opted to stretch my Bordeaux blitz across my lifetime.

I intended saving my gift for a significant occasion yet suitable moments had come and gone and here it still was unopened.

Enough is enough! Carefully I ease the cork from the neck and notice with joy that it’s still pretty much intact. I allow the bottle to stand for a couple of hours then gingerly pour the first splash.

The wine is deep purple and has that reddish brown tinge from age. The aroma is slight, mere suggestions of wood, leather and plum. I take my first sip and instantly I get the message in the bottle – a trifle past its prime. It’s enjoyable but no longer spectacular, the lesson being never leave a wine too long.

Nevertheless, my gift bottle of Lafite does retain hints of the magic of that one night of perfection in Pauillac. As Baron Eric told me: “Whenever you open a Lafite, it is a special occasion”.

Taking it to the streets

IMG_0057 (1 of 6)Food is always with easy reach on the streets of Vancouver, which may well be the food cart capital of the free world. My home town Sydney has followed slowly in its BC cousin’s footsteps in recent years and now has about eight trucks around town. In Vancouver there seems to be one on just about every corner.

James Iranzad, former president of the Street Food Vancouver Society, says the food revolution that’s swept his city began with mayor Gregor Robertson’s drive to improve food choices beyond the staple hot dogs and popcorn: “to provide something more reflective of Vancouver’s ethnic diversity”.

Legislation allowing the expansion of colourful, tasty sidewalk dining was passed in 2010 and an expert panel now assesses all vendor applications. “It’s all about great food under 10 minutes and under $10”, says James.

There are more than 100 vendors, carts and trucks registered but not all are operating. Those that are can be most easily tracked down using the Street Food Vancouver smartphone app. IMG_0044 (5 of 6)

Most carts have fixed spots around the city’s core, particularly along Robson and Burrard streets, and these carts do an especially brisk lunchtime trade as hungry workers stream out of the surrounding office blocks.

Mobile food trucks can’t operate within the Downtown area but have the advantage of being able to pitch at prime suburban locations including beaches and provide food at events and private functions.

The food cart style of casual, impromptu munching seems to suit the times and everyone’s tastes. It’s popular enough that, at one time, it prompted some entrepreneurs to offer an “Eat your Cart Out” city tour during which punters sank their teeth into a range of sidewalk dishes such as slow-smoked pulled pork sandwiches, pan-Asian tapas, bacon every-which-way, short ribs, soups, tuna tacos, hot smoked salmon sandwiches, perogy, pupusas and fajita wraps. Burp! IMG_0021 (6 of 6)

* There is currently a “World’s Best Food Truck Tour” available weekdays at 11am through Tour Guys Vancouver

London’s ‘octopus card’ for dining

PolpoGiven the bewildering choice in this greatest of English speaking cities I find it amusing that one of the best options for great food at a great price should be Italian in name and nature.

It’s the result of the most recent Norman conquest of Great Britain. Inspired by his passion for the Italian city and in particular for chiceti (Venetian-style tapas), Russell Norman created his first Venetian-style bacaro in Soho’s Beak Street. Called Polpo, it’s serendipitously housed in an old building that was once home to the famous Italian painter Canaletto.

The Polpo empire has since expanded its tentacles beyond Soho, exporting its bare brick and raw timber rustic cool to Covent Garden, Smithfield and Notting Hill, while its offspring Polpetto, originally squashed into a teensy location in Dean Street, has reopened as a larger location in nearby Berwick Street. Put together, these restaurants are my London “octopus card” to fine food at a fine price.

The Polpo menu suits those wanting to graze lightly as well as those who are ravenous. Best of all, with dishes ranging between £3 and £10, it’s easy to shape a meal to suit your wallet.

The chiceti include salami butter and broad bean crostini and the ever popular potato and parmesan crocchetta. Wafer-thin pizzetta have toppings such as spicy clam and wild garlic or cured pork shoulder and picked pepper. Polpo’s famous meatballs come in five varieties.

Seafood includes octopus (naturally) and a prawn and artichoke linguini. Wines are from top northern Italian producers. Polpetto’s more adventurous, seasonal menu currently features hare papardelle, veal cheeks and game faggots, yet it’s no more expensive an experience. And three of these restaurants have popular wine bars in their basements.

covent garden piazza# Polpo in Covent Garden is a top option for pre-show dining should you have tickets for a performance at the nearby Royal Opera House.

 

A fine Swedish habit

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Fika time in Uppsala

One thing is certain in Sweden. You don’t explore the streets for very long before you are hankering for a fika. This urge comes on strong largely because in the generally chilly weather the act of fika swiftly becomes an imperative. It’s no struggle whatsoever to succumb to this delightful local practice.

Invert the two syllables of the word and you’ll immediately understand. Fika (ka-fi) is an institution in this friendly, convivial country. In Uppsala, in particular, we are never far from a cosy, warm, comfortable cafe in which to indulge our instantly-acquired Scandanavian habit.

But fika is so much more than simply having a quick cup of coffee. Fika almost always involves sharing lively conversation while, at the same time, nibbling on delightful small pastries called bulle – Swedish for “boulders”. The prime specimens are flavoured with cinnamon or cardomum.

The finest examples of kanelbulle and kardemummabulle that we tasted were at Rosendal, a greenhouse-style cafe set amid a community agricultural project on the island of Djurgarden in Stockholm. But that particular outdoors excursion is the basis of another Scandinavian yarn.

Meanwhile, on this cold and wet Uppsala day, having paid a visit to the splendid cathedral and marvelled at its extraordinary collection of Medieval vestments, our first fika stop is at Ofvandals (Sysslomangaten 5), which has been a legend ever since opening in 1878.

The cafe is popular with all ages but is a particular favourite among Uppsala University students who generally impart a sparkling vibrancy to the streets of this lovely old Swedish town.

IMG_0173Later in the day we stop for a second fika, this time at Caffe Linne Hornan (Svatsbackgaten 22). It’s on a corner across from the city gardens made famous by association with Sweden’s most famous professor, Carl Linneaus.

Having no fixed agenda we spend more time than the usual fika break lounging in comfy armchairs enjoying the convivial atmosphere and simple, elegant creature comforts that are a natural feature of Swedish cafes. Bravely, we resist overindulging on the chocolate cakes, lemon slices and other rich pastries and confections displayed before our eyes in glass cabinets.

Another fabulous choice for fika in Uppsala is Guntherska Hovkonditoriet (Ostra Agatan 31) where everything is made in-house. On our second day in town we sip our coffee beneath chandeliers while watching artisans make chocolates and other mouth-watering seductions.

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Guntherska Hovkonditoriet

Guntherska is also the perfect place to try one of those huge, fresh North Sea shrimp sandwiches that are a staple of the Swedish diet. But this is only possible if you have learnt the golden rule of fika: go lightly on all those tempting, tasty boulders!

Some fika trivia:  

The city of Kalmar was the first to set a Swedish fika record when on 6 June, 2007, 2,620 people sat down together for a fika. In 2009, a Swedish coffee company organized a fika tour in ten different cities to break the record: Östersund was crowned the new Swedish fika champions for having 3,563 people at fika on 30 May that year. 

– courtesy Wikipedia

Cut down to size in Tonga

pizza_sliceWeird things can happen under a tropical sun. While in Tonga I’m truly cut down to size and left in no doubt about how I shape up in the overall local scheme of things.

Ravenous after a day of round-island sightseeing without even a sandwich, I urgently seek food along Vuna Road on the Nuku’alofa seafront. The pizza joint looks appealing so I take a seat at a table in the courtyard. A jovial lady breezes over to take my order.

I’ll have a pizza, please.

She considers me thoughtfully, then with a sweet smile she says, “Sorry, but you cannot have”.

What’s this? A pizza joint with no pizza? Surely not? Not even in Nuku’alofa.

So what else is there?

There is pizza  … and there is spaghetti, she replies.

But you just said no pizza!

toma

The island nation of Tonga in the middle of the Pacific

She giggles, squirming with embarrassment. There is pizza, she says, but you can’t have.

Why on earth not?

Covering a smirk behind a hand she mutters what sounds like, You too small.  Cue more smothered giggling.

Too small? I’m amused by this unexpected ripost but also puzzled. What do you mean by that? 

More embarrassment before she replies:  You too small. You can’t eat!

By now three hefty Tongans hunched over a nearby table within earshot are also chuckling openly. With growing indignation I ask, Surely anyone can eat here?

Yes, yes, she assures me, but you just you, no one else.

This doesn’t make any sense to me but before I can think of a reply a waiter arrives carrying a metal tray the size of car wheel, which he plonks onto the table with the three men, revealing in all its glory a truly gigantic pizza, a huge, steaming, mass of pastry and gooey melted cheese. The hungry trio get stuck in.

Hah, look! exclaims my waitress in triumph. You, only you. You cannot eat!

This one, she says, pointing at the colossal pizza, this one for two, for three, like these (indicating the three massive Tongans). But for you? You too small!

Market forces

Wherever I may roam, I always aim to spend time exploring local food markets. As well as being enticing and colourfully attractive, a market is a barometer of trends and tastes, providing an appreciation of local flavours and also some indication of the state of the local economy.

Fresh food markets allow me to sample foods I might not have seen before. And I can stock up on tasty victuals at the going price, which helps stretch my limited travel cash. But why say any more when every picture tells a story?

Borough Market London

Borough Market, London

Fes merchant, figs, dates,nuts

Fes market, Morocco

Le Var, Provence

Leeks, Montreal

Leeks, Montreal

Vienna 4

Naschmarkt, Vienna

Nougat sellers in Fes medina

Nougat sellers in Fes medina

Panzano Italy

Panzano, Italy

Papeete

Papeete, Tahiti

Pickles Budapest

Pickles, Budapest

Saturday markets, Salamanca Square

Salamanca market, Hobart

tomatos Montreal

Tomato stall, Montreal

Venice, near Rialto

Market near Rialto, Venice,

Fishy times in NZ

New Zealand has provided some of my most memorable outdoor adventures, including my best fly fishing moments along with some fishy yarns.

The Tongariro River on North Island is world famous for its wily trout with rainbows averaging 4lbs (1.8kg) and browns about 5lbs (2.26kg). Trophy fish in excess of 10lbs (4.53kg) have been hooked.

Fat fish were skulking in the shadows at Whitikau Pool. The idyllic peace of the surrounding forest was shattered only by my guide Mike shrieking “NOW!” whenever a trout took a tentative nibble at the fly. As the I Ching says, righteous persistence brings reward. At Whitikau I made my first strike. It was a 5lb female rainbow, it’s glistening body a shimmering pink that matched the flush of excitement on my face.

Trout are notoriously twitchy creatures and a pool fished too often soon becomes home to fish far too skittish to ever rise to a fly. So the keen angler hopes to keep the knowledge of at least one “secret” pool to themselves.

From Whitikau we moved to one of Mike’s “secret” spots, located on the Poutu Stream that spills into the Tongariro. At this secluded pool I managed to land a magnificent rainbow male after a thrilling encounter that left me spent.

trout

“The one that got away is always bigger than the one you gotta weigh.”

We ate my catch for our dinner, during which Mike commented that we had enjoyed a “tu meka day”, which is Maori-speak for awesome. Anyone within earshot in the lodge dining room probably thought different and that I’d greedily used up all my luck in one swoop. Fishing is a competitive sport  ….

On another visit I spent time on South Island and while down Otago way I heard fishing guide Harvey Maguire spin the tale of a legendary trout that once lived in the Lochy River near Queenstown.

Years earlier an angler visiting from the US had watched this particular trout take his dry fly and immediately zoom off at great speed, slip around a large rock, hurtle into rapids above the pool and strip the fly right off the line, prompting the amazed fisherman to yell, “That’s no fish, that’s a freight train!”

In subsequent years this particular trout, forever to be known as Freight Train, was hooked many times but landed only once –  when the ferocious fish shunned its usual escape plan and instead sped downstream and was lifted in slower water. It weighed 8.5lbs. Returned to the river, this champion catch finally ran of steam in old age. You have to love a fishing yarn like that.