Tuesday, December 26, 2006

1st freelance gig in London

Although things have been very hectic with work, I submitted my first freelance piece for the website, All in London. "First rate" was the response and here's how you get paid. I won't be going anywhere on the proceeds but it's a beginning.

It's a piece on how to keep your New Year's resolutons in London.

So you’ve survived the silly season. You bargain shopped at the post-Christmas sales, you’re back on speaking terms with your family and your work mates have stopped ribbing you about that unfortunate incident with your boss. With 2007 in sight, you’ve been planning your New Year’s Eve, juggling invitations, and hoping that this year’s party will be better than last’s.

When the clock climes midnight, most of us will make some type of New Year’s resolution, fuelled by some bubbly and the euphoria of the moment. The passing of one year to the next only occurs once a year, so why not celebrate. The revellers among us will come up with some of the tried and true resolutions, those that make the following top ten list. Others armed with a bottle of vintage bubbles, pen and paper, will scribe their reflections into the night.

Such heady optimism rarely translates into reality. Our resolutions are often forgotten or dismissed as too hard in the light of New Year’s Day. So if you want to get over the 02 January hump, here are some suggestions that will take your resolutions well into the New Year.

Go to www.allinlondon.co.uk/life (for the full text).

As for my own resolutions for 2007, well top of the list is to do more writing.

The festive season: Christmas 2006

A Boxing Day recovery after a fabulous meal by first time Christmas cooks – Juliet and Ian.

With no public transport in London, I walked from Kensington to Battersea, stopping off to admire the Thames on what was a very mild winter’s day.

On arrival, I was promptly given a glass of champagne and the day only got better from there. I inspected the turkey that had been lovingly dressed in stripy bacon and then happily settled into the role of guest.

Presents had arrived from Australia – a smashing Helen Kaminski hat from Kate, some beautiful earrings from Chris and Gerard, and even a Santa sack full of games and Australia fare. I was touched and overwhelmed.

Lunch was a leisurely affair – a day of eating and drinking.

The turkey was presented with roast potatoes and parsnips (cooked in goose fat), brussel sprouts and carrots. There was bread sauce as well as cranberry. The wine was from Coonawarra from the Majella winery – a very nice, peppery shiraz. We followed with a piece of pud (well two servicings actually) served with brandy butter and cream. Very extravagant but delicious.

It was such a wonderful family day. One that began with a call to Melbourne where I spoke to my Mum and Dad, Finn, Stephanie and Andrew, my grandmother, John and Sue and then another call to Joan and Brian.

Here's me looking a little festive.
It's been a big year. Next stop on the food tour will be Venice.

London foodblog

So, what’s a girl to do when she arrives in London and wants to find like-minded foodies to discover her new city with. Well, she sets up a food group doesn’t she!

The idea for the London food blog started with an idea back in Melbourne. The dilemma of any self-respecting foodie is finding out where to eat. You’ve arrived, found your hotel and unpacked. Next item on the agenda is: where do the locals eat? Thus starts your epicurious adventure.

The tourist menus, including those two for the price of one, hold no interest. Nor do we feel inclined to book into a Michelin star restaurant, however tempting. We aren’t denying that a world trip exclusively devoted to eating at the world’s top 100 restaurants wouldn’t be a good thing. No, the joy of travelling is discovering local places – a fantastic deli, a specialist food store or restaurant much loved and frequented.

So who are we? The London food blog is a group of hungry writers, wine enthusiasts and the food curious that like the idea of exploring the city they live in. Some of us are from the Isles and others of us are foreigners who arrived and just want to stay. Our quest is to produce a local local’s guide to London eating as we follow our noses and our stomachs to explore the celebrated, hidden and recognised food haunts of London.

Stay tuned in 2007 for a new horizon of culinary adventures.

Eating London: my first visitor

My dear friend Jane arrived from the Netherlands several weeks ago to spend her first weekend in London. Her arrival gave me my first opportunity to play tour guide. I picked her up at Liverpool Station with the inspired idea of taking her to the Spitalfields organic market. I had vision of cooking an organic dinner to share with my friend, Lani. Unfortunately, the market was closed for renovations. Not deterred by this first setback as a tour guide, I embraced the role with enthusiasm.

A ride through London on a double-decked bus offered a view of London not normally seen on my daily meanders. Although cold (and I stress cold), it was a real highlight of the trip.

We took a boat down the Thames and lunched courtesy of Harrods food hall – a delicious omelette filled with salmon dressed with dill accompanied by a mushroom and green bean and a chicken and mango salad.

Dessert was courtesy of the Queen’s chocolatiers – Charbonnel & Walker.

A trip to Liberty proved another opportunity to lunch as well as do some wedding dress research for Jane. My roast vegetable salad was all elegance – beautiful presented and served with a chestnut salad with maple cider dressing. Jane ordered a duck salad.

To continue the indulgence of the previous day, scones were ordered with a selection of specialist jams - rose petal jam, organic gooseberry and strawberry preserves, and clotted cream (my first taste of this celebrated English produce).

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Autumn and things Italian

It’s autumn in London. The days have become shorter and my early morning strolls in Hyde Park begin in semi-darkness and end with a very reluctant sun peering through the sky.

There is a depressed greyness to this new season despite the bursts of autumn sunshine. Some days it is bitter and I have become fascinated by the thickness of people's shoes and the down coats that mark the new season's wardrobe. My Melbourne winter coat, so cosy back home, does little to shield me from the sweeping winds that haunt central London on its most autumn days.

Regardless of the weather, I always head towards the Italian Water Gardens to look out, across the balustrades and ordered formality of gushing water. The air is cold and even the ground is covered in the frost from the night before – it’s beautiful.

With autumn on my mind, I am inspired to cook an Italian beef ragu to warm the belly and embrace the depth and flavour of London’s cooler weather.

The recipe is easy enough – beef, garlic, celery, carrots, tomatoes and porcini mushrooms. Cooked for seven hours and served with a soft polenta, it’s the perfect way to celebrate the start of winter.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Gastronomic delights: a photo essay of the Salone du Gusto

Although a week has passed since my return from Italy, I remain passionate and excited about what I saw, tasted and savoured over my extravagant weekend in Turin.

So what impressed me?

The freshness of everything I tasted and sampled.

The artistry of the produce.

The commitment to retaining traditions of eating and the hertiage of food communities.

The ethics of eating and the concern for biodiversity.

The quality of the food.

The size of the Salone and the number of people who attended.

And finally, the Slow Food Movement itself - such an achievement. In a world that continually urges us to go fast, this is a movement that says go SLOW.

Sweet nothings in Turin

Not only is Turin home to the Salone du Gusto, it is also a city celebrated for its cafes, confectionery and chocolate. Saturday morning provides the perfect opportunity to explore the piazzas of Turin, so I head off in search of sweet pleasures.

First stop is La Stratta in the Piazza San Carlo. Long recognised as a master confectioner, the techniques of making sweet nothings has remained relatively unchanged for the last one hundred and fifty years.It’s easy to spot – the tourists clutter its doorway and stand mesmerised by the jewel-coloured boxes and sumptuous display of chocolate and sweets. Never has the saying “food for the eye” been more apt. Inside, the decadence of the window continues into a gilded and mirrored interior. The walls are lined with boxes of different shapes and sizes decorated with either Art Deco styled prints of Puccini Operas or maps of Turin. The boxes alone are worth having.

Walking further along Via Roma and Via Guiseppe Garibaldi gives me the opportunity to take in some of the local architecture and all importantly to do some tasting of Turin’s famous gelati. Chocolate is the theme of the day as I sample Baci with pear.

But it is Il Biceri that I am seeking – a chocolate shop that I have read about on the outskirts of Central Turin. With map in hand and sheer determination, I make my pilgrimage to what has been described as one of the best hot chocolates. I come close to not getting there – the frustration of my tourist map almost gets the better of me. But persistence is my second name and I smell my way to Il Biceri.

It is quaint café, small with a few lonely outside tables because of the cold. Inside, people stand waiting as those who have been lucky enough to have a seat cuddle their chocolates impervious to the crowd. These are hot chocolates to be savoured. I order at the bar. I say si to a question that is more Italian than English and await my pleasure.

My chocolate arrives, topped with cream. I sit nursing it; first allowing the cream to dissolve in my mouth before dipping my spoon further in to taste the chocolate. It is wonderful.I slowly stir the cream into the chocolate watching it change colour before taking my first sip. It is rich, luxurious, heavy. I sit like everyone else does. Impervious to everything except making it last.

Dinner will be small tonight or so I tell myself as I head back to Roma Gia Talmone near my hotel. My feet are killing me but the promise of a small buffet with a glass of champagne is too good to resist.

And besides, I am here to eat. To taste, smell and savour the slowness of Italy. And so I do.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Congratulation to Jane and Edwin

My gorgeous friend Jane has just become engaged to her Dutch boyfriend, Edwin. Jane left Melbourne in September this year to follow her heart to the land of wooden shoes. She is deliriously happy and I'm thrilled that she has found someone so wonderful.

Monday, October 30, 2006

She came, she saw, she ate

A journey of a lifetime – three days in the glorious city of Turin to eat, drink, taste, smell and indulge in all the delights of being a self-confessed foodie.

This has been a journey long in the planning, ever since I read about the Salone du Gusto and the Slow Food Movement several years ago. I admit that my descriptions leading up to my arrival in Turin have long verged on the religious. I have written and spoken to whoever would listen of this pilgrimage of the senses. Where else could you discover in the one place such a celebration of food cultures and traditions, regional produce and artisan food at its very best? .

Was I disappointed? No, it was one of the most extraordinarily events I have ever participated in. (Similar to the Tunick Spencer Melbourne photo shoot.) I return to London, committed to eating good food, supporting culinary arts and traditions and celebrating slowness.

So how or where to begin? Firstly, I need to describe the scale. Home to the Salone du Gusto for the last four days has been the Lingotto, the old Fiat factory and now convention centre in Turin. It is as you can imagine a large open space, which for the purposes of the Salone is divided into three major Pavilions.

The International Market as it is known is the showcase for over one hundred producers from German beer makers exhibiting together under the name of Slow birra to a consortium of producers from English, Scotland and Ireland as Food from Britain. Following your nose or stomach as it may be, you move to the Italian market – a series of food lanes with over 600 stores. Pavilion three is devoted to the Presidia and

Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity
. The scale of this project dispels any thought that Slow Food is simply food-porn. The SFF assists producers to preserve threatened varieties of produce and food traditions such as that art of Italian black bread.

Slow food isn’t simply about regional food but preserving those traditions in a way that sustains cultural heritages. The same project also assists international producers from places as distant as Ecuador, Palestine, Brazil and India.

The scale was overwhelming as were the crowds. On Sunday, there was a crowd of 70,000 people – all eager, buying directly from producers, tasting food and discovering new things.

Day one
I arrive at midday and I spend the first hour walking around in circles. I’m not lost; I just have no idea what to do first.

The first store I am drawn to is Backstube Mack – an artisan bakery. The loaves are covered in seeds and herbs and the crowd around the stall indicates that the bread is good. It is. I want to buy a loaf but get swallowed by the crowd and pushed in the direction of the Food from Britain. Here I am reacquainted with the produce of the Scottish Larder– haggish, oat cakes, shortbreads. Duchy Originals is another popular stall, especially with the Italians, and I probably stay to long tasting the different short-breads.

Sampling becomes the theme of the day – sausages, cheese, bread, olives, chocolate. I simply follow the crowd – excited, overwhelming, eager. I walk without a plan except the real desire to discover everything.

I emerge from the International Pavilion into the Italian market. First stop is Via dei Dolci e degli spiriti (lane of sweets and spirits). The first thing I taste is pannatone – the pastry is a whisper of golden folds laced with fruit. The texture is so light and tastes nothing like the pannatone that I buy for Christmas. I am rapturous and try to speak my enthusiasm to the woman store-holder. There is so little left of my year ten Italian that I end up gesturing wildly with a wild look of pleasure on my face. I have always thought that the appreciation of food is an international language.

What astonishes me over and over again is the freshness of the produce. The sharpness, the clarity and I dare to say it - the fecundity of the produce. I appreciate with new awareness the Slow Food movement concern with food miles. I embrace the philosophy of knowing the origins of what you are eating – where it is grown, who grows it and how far has it travelled.

I also am held in rapture but the diversity of the cuisine – regional variations and again the artistry of the food. I feel like a child when I look in detail at the Sicilian desserts of Patisserie Alba – the prickly pears, peaches, and lemons, all shaped from marzipan look life-like.

Dark chocolate richly decorated with preserved lemons, pistachio nuts and lavender again speaks of the artistry of food making. The dark cocoa has the qualities of silk as I slowly savours it taste and texture. This is real chocolate, not the chocolate that has been tampered with – diluted and ruined by copious amounts of powdered milks and highly processed sugar.

Still in the via dei dolci, I am drawn to a store selling tartufo bianco – a hazelnut dessert, so rich and laced with the freshest of hazelnuts
I leave with a sample of coffee beans dipped in dark chocolate. I appear to have been here for hours.

Everything is alluring and ready to be sampled. I taste for the first time Pastiglie Profumate – a confectionary that looks like wedding confetti and comes in the flavours of violet, rose and aniseed as well as Confetti di Natalie that has the texture of coral and the taste of cinnamon.

Further along, I purchase a fig ball made from compressed figs wrapped in fig leaves. I’m sure I can make something from them at Christmas.

And finally, there is a cunessi di rhum A dessert that is so profane that I almost lose consciousness. I feel heady, start to swoon as I taste the rich complication of rum and a rich cream chocolate. It is a dessert “to lose yourself in”. I do. .

Overwhelmed, fatigued and feeling deliciously good I declare Day One a success and walk home to my hotel via Platti (but that’s another story).

More reports to follow,including eating and drinking in Turin

Sunday, October 22, 2006

All things slow

With the Salone du Gusto beginning next week, my mind has turned to all things slow.

Salone due Gusto is a four day global food village held every two years in Turin Italy. It is the stuff of dreams for any gastronome. Over four days, devotees of all things slow can savour, taste and contemplate their way through taste workshops, lectures and master classes celebrating food philosophies, tastes and ideas.

The salone is a highlight of the Slow Food calendar, a movement that started as a small gathering of friends and is now a global concern addressing issues of sustainability, regional cuisine and food traditions, education and biodiversity.

The highlight of the Salone du Gusto is the commercial produce market. A culinary journey that takes you from the Scottish larder to the sushi trains of Japan. Pavilion 1 is an international market place held in conjunction with branches of the Slow Food Movement. The ‘Buon Paese’ in Pavillion 2 is a taste journey through Italy. You can wander down lanes of oils, cheeses, sweets, cured meats, sweets and spirits as you would through a hillside Medieval town. Pavilion 3 is devoted to Slow Food Presidia and will feature 300 stalls selling products from across the globe from yak milk cheese made by monks from the Tibetan highlands to cured goat meat from Cyprus.In 2004, over 600 exhibitors from 80 countries participated in this event.

The theme of this year’s salone is "good, clean and fair" taken from Petrini’s book on the principles of a new gastronomy. In this Petrini’s response to the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment Project, he sets the challenge of responsible gastronomy recognising the impact of eating upon the environment, agriculture and biodiversity. Good describes the sensory experience of food – tastes, memories, feelings. Clean is respecting ecosystems and the environment. Fair is about social justice.

For Petrini, gastronomy is not simply the appreciation of food and our cultural heritage but taking responsibility for food production and its impact upon ecosystems, biodiversity and the environment.

This year as the Salone du Gusto celebrates its tenth year it will be closely linked to Terra Madre, a meeting of international food communities, and the Ark of Taste, a catalogue of foods and produce under threat of extinction. Over 750 products currently form part of the Ark.

The best of British

It's a typical London Sunday - wet with pockets of sunshine. The suggestion of winter is all too great so I decide that the best thing to do is bake a crumble. It’s that warm comfort food that reminds you of childhood and speaks more about the seasonality of food that anything else.

I use the pick of the raspberries from the market and the new season’s apples. The recipe is simple – 6 large Cox apples and 250 g of raspberries. The crumble is made from flour, butter, orange juice with a sprinkling of sunflower and pumpkin seeds. Cooked for 25 minutes. Simple, …well almost. I’m still getting used to the oven and I burn the top just slightly. The perfect excuse to have the crumble with cream.

A gourmet Saturday

The day began with a market and ended with a stroll through Notting hill and an expected find.

Nottinghill Farmer’s Market is in full swing despite the inclement weather and the early hour. It’s bustling. Dogs, children and parents armed with baskets and bags compete for space in the narrow aisles that separate the store holders. The fare is mostly organic – breads, game, meats, fruits and vegetables, and with most of the storeholders being regulars, its easy to get to know these local producers. Twelve Green Acres farm offers some of the best pork pies and organic and gluten free sausages. Pigeon breasts and mallards as well as pheasant pies can be brought from Manor House Farm. From the Muck and Magic Farm you can buy Suffock potatoes still covered in soil – the perfect companion with their Tamworth Pork or Norfolk Horn Lamb. You’ll also find Dave and Rose’s Hurdlebrook yogurt made from Guernsey A2 milk. This is slow food at its best – low food miles, local producers.

The organic fruit and vegetable store reveals a rare sight - boxes of organic Cox and Braeburn apples. Much has been made in the media of declining number of English orchards. You’ll be hard pressed to find British apples in local stores despite talk of supermarket campaigns to buy British. Local producers can’t compete with imported ones. Looking around the market, it’s clear that the seasons are changing. Most of the berries have gone, although there are a few punnets of raspberries and strawberries to be had, but it’s the new season’s vegetables like kale and leeks that everyone seems to be buying.

Baked goods seem the perfect choice on a day that has a crisp bite in the air. Celtic Bakeries offers traditional soda breads and I overhear that the Californian sourdough is today’s bread of choice. By 11.00 am only a few loaves are left. Dark Sugar Cakes with its sweet indulgences of blueberry and almond tarts, sacher tort and lemon and almond polenta cake are an favourite. The popular mushroom man is the only local missing from the market today. His mushroom baguettes filled with oyster mushrooms cooked as you wait with garlic, parsley and parmesan cheese are wonderfully good.

Being so close to Portobello Road, I can’t resist the temptation of do some antique shopping. It’s easy to be tempted. I feel oddly inclined to buy a silver teapot and partake of the English tradition of elevens. It’s the memory of Brasso (and elbow-grease) that stops me from buying one.

Feeling the need to escape the crowds, I disappear down Westbourne Crescent and into a Still Too Few- a curious antiques store. From the outside, it appears to specialise in glass but at the back is a woman who specialises in kitchenware. I pick up some old editions of Elizabeth David. It’s an odd synchronicity as at the far end of the store is David’s kitchen dresser brought at auction after her death. The dresser is solid and imposing and I can imagine it stacked with books, china, wooden spoon and utensils. In a newspaper article displayed to the left of the dresser is David photographed, the dresser behind her.

With David in mind, I head for Books for Cooks, the famed specialist bookstore. The sky decides to open and so I opt for a simple lunch inside – minestrone served with pesto and courgette and pesto bread. It’s a warming lunch, perfect on this now rainy day.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

In search of the mushroom man

His signature is everywhere. There are the cookery books and the food stores and of course the Neal Street restaurant. Yes, Carluccio’s.

A dinner with a work colleague from Australia is the perfect excuse to investigate the man behind the mushroom. Well sort of. With over twenty Carluccio’s in London, it’s hardly surprising that he’s not there. If he is anywhere, it is likely to be at his restaurant rather than this Italian eatery/ cafe in South Kensington opposite the tube station.

Carluccio’s is safe Italian eating – a gesture towards regional cuisine gentrified to the tastes of London. With its modern stylising and adjoining food store, Carluccio’s is yet another example of food branding. It’s the lifestyle, not the food that you are eating.

Dinner begins well with a fresh and delightful Antipasto di Verdue to share. The pesto has all the favour of a warm summer’s day. The peppers are perfectly chargrilled and the aubergine dip - smoky and enhanced by the inclusion of pine-nuts. It’s the quality rather than the selection that is standout. I select the Silvium (rosè) from Botromagno, Puglia and and “J” orders the Nero D’Avola from Mandrarossa, Siciliy that he describes as “intense and rich with subtle tannins”. I believe him – the wine is good; although again, safe.

Mains prove disappointing; although that said, the wild mushroom risotto is cooked to perfection and the mushrooms retain all their distinctiveness despite a heavy use of cream. The Penne Giardiniera that looked so promising when it was served to the table next to me proved bland. The pasta was cooked just so so and the sauce failed to emerge from an overuse of garlic. The courgette simply wilted in response to it over-powering cousin in this dish. The deep fried spinach balls would have been better on the anti-pasto palate. Disappointing.

To compensate another glass of red was ordered as was dessert: a Sicilian inspired cassata served with a pistachio cream. Very light and delicate in favouring, it was a delight.

Carluccio's is reliable and dependable but for something special, go elsewhere.

One Old Brompton Road, LondonSW7 3HZ
Tel. 020 7581 8101 Fax. 020 7581 2499

Saturday, September 16, 2006

A simple supper

There is nothing better or more satisfying than a perfect Saturday night supper. To be a true supper it has to be a simple affair. Quick to make and satisfying, leaving you with a feeling of contentment.

I knew what I wanted and found everything I needed at Borough Market. This is a foodie market - full of good quality, artisan produce with its stalls of cheeses, breads, cakes, meats and fish from across the UK, France, Spain and Italy. I wasn't alone in my quest for the perfect meal. Everyone seems to have a basket in hand in search of their own perfect Saturday night dinner.

Dinner proved a simple affair - mushrooms on toast. A classic easy dish if ever there was one. Oyster mushrooms sauteed in olive oil with garlic. Seasoned with fresh flat-leaf parsley, salt and pepper. Served on a crisp Swiss brown loaf.

Everything courtesy of Borough Market. What can I say: Delicious.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Souk, Scripts and Soundbites

An unexpected surprise at the Victoria and Albert Museum: the normally serene John Madejski Garden is a teeming marketplace place of food stores, pottery and scarves. Today, the V&A celebrates the opening of its new Jameel Gallery of Islamic art with a day devoted to Souk, Scripts and Soundbites. It is the second of three weekends celebrating the cultural richness and beauty of Islam.

The air is decidedly festive – there is dancing and music and rug-covered paths to sit and watch the spectacle.

The menu is meze – baba ganush that is curiously spicy and yet familiar with its deep smoky taste. The falafel is rustic, densely packed and nutty. The dolma is disappointing but the bazargan compensates with its unmistakable taste of mint and almonds. The swollen cracked wheat has been combined with tomato and meat. I sip zorat tea – roses, chamomile and herb tea and note with pleasure how the rose blends with the sweetness of the chamomile flowers. And finally, I taste ma’moul – a traditional dessert; not sweet, but finely combined dates with pistachio, walnuts and almonds. I decline the offer of a hooker and meander off instead to hear a storyteller recite stories from 1001 nights and speak riddles.

What has a crown like a princess and when it is broken is red inside?

Monday, August 28, 2006

Edinburgh: the city of festivals

Edinburgh at last – after week of travelling, I arrive in this city of festivals. The city is alive with crowds that surge and push forward down the winding streets and sometimes into hidden passageways. This is a medieval city: a world to explore and get lost as well as disappear into. Street performances entertain the crowds. People stand listening to a piper, watching him slowly turn to the music of his own bagpipes. Tourist buses swing their way down the Royal Mile and on top of Camera Obscura, you can look across the city and take in the sights. This is a city that you return to.

A snapshot of Edinburgh:

If you have ever been tempted to go the whole nine yards, Hector Russell will be happy to join you. Nine yards being the traditional length of a kilt.

Hector Russell is the renowned specialist in Scottish attire and as with all things to do with their national identity, the Scots take their fabric very seriously. This store will locate your tartan (if you are in any doubt as to which clan you belong to).
Staff will assist with the ordering of cloth and advise you on how to wear your outfit and the traditions around it. (For women, only the Queen and the wife of Clan Chief wear their plaid shawls over their left shoulder; for everyone else it is their right. It’s important to get the etiquette right. You’ll never know when you’ll find yourself face-to-face dressed in a kilt being introduced to Her Majesty.) Suppliers to regimental bands, pipers, dancers and men in search of a hired kilt come to Hector Russell. It’s worth visiting just to see the display of semi-dress and formal sporrans and the tartan – modern, dress, hunting, muted, ancient and weather.

If you like tartan but don’t feel inclined to wear it, go to Anta. Annie Stewart utilises traditional Scottish designs in her contemporary range of home wares and apparel. The muted hues of the Scottish landscape are the inspiration for her soft spun wraps, shawls and carpets and stoneware. Ness offers a more colourful range of funky clothes based on tartans and cloth from the Outer Hebrides. You can buy tartan Wellingtons, bags, jackets and even brooches and key rings: all made from Harris Tweed.

Close to Anta on Victoria Street, you find yourself peering through the window at MacKenzie Leathergoods. Makers of bags, cases and portmanteaux, these luxury goods will last a lifetime (like your earlier purchase of a kilt). The bags are made upstairs and are beautifully crafted. They also stock bags by I Medici and Braun Buffel.

Close by is Cuttea Sark, a store named after the tea clipper and immoralised in the poetry of Robert Burns. This is a place for serious coffee-lovers. You won’t find fancy tourist tea or coffee (not a tartan ribbon in sight) but familiar roasts and blends. It is a local’s favourite. Drop into Iain. J. Mellis, specialist in farmhouse cheeses, two stores down. You’ll discover cheese from across the United Kingdom as well as Europe. All cheese must come from single herd to be included in the Mellis store.

No trip to Edinburgh would be complete with a trip to the famed Plaisir du chocolate. This is a place for all chocolate (and would be) aficionados. This is a place that understands chocolate and by this, I mean good chocolate. Ordering hot chocolates requires consultation and study with over thirteen chocolates on offer. You can opt for the indulgent (perhaps over indulgent) such as the Fete au Chocolat – a delirious and heady concoction of hot chocolate with Contreau topped with Chantilly cream. I select the chocolate chaud, preferring style over fashion. My chocolate arrives with a spoon of spices - clove, cinnamon and nutmeg. The taste is wonderfully warming, like drinking silk. The spices are aromatic and enticing. The setting itself is worthy of description – it is reminiscent of the belle époque. So rich and opulent. For reasons of pure research, I select two chocolates to accompany my chocolate chaud. I am lured by their filigrees of gold and jewel hues and the promise of sweetness and the mystery of their names. I savour the tastes of Casablanca (Chinese tea with fresh mint) or the Arabesque (white chocolate filling with rosebuds). The perfect time to visit is afternoon tea served between 3.30 – 5.30pm.

For a less opulent but no less old-fashioned tea, Forthym’s Tea Room, down one of the many lanes off the Royal Mile is worth a visit. It reminds me of the Ceylon Tearoom that my grandmother used to take me to when I was a girl. My memories of the tearoom are a little hazy – it was somewhere near The Block Arcade off Collins Street in Melbourne. The Forthym Tea Room has a similar appeal. There is nothing really remarkable about this tearoom expect nostalgia but maybe that’s why it continues to remain open.

Valvona & Crolla is the must-see deli in Edinburgh. Established in 1934 this family-run store is both delicatessen and wine merchant. Within its walls, you’ll find a vast range of continental produce from fresh chanterelle mushrooms to Amedei chocolate from Tuscany. “We need one of these in London” is just one of the comments I heard as I meander looking at things I have only read about. At the end of a series of corridors lined from floor to ceiling with produce, you’ll find the unpretentious café. It’s the perfect place for an expresso and brioche after a morning of sight-seeing. Beware the inauspicious frontage of this store, which can make it hard to find. The first time I tried to find it, I couldn’t. I returned the next day and did.

On the way back to the Royal Mile, walk along George Street – a somewhat long detour, admittedly. Dinner at Centrotre will keep you in the family business – it’s owned by another branch of the Valvona & Crolla store. Despite there being no links between the stores, the food is good. As the logo of the store says – “there are four beautiful things in the world: family, money, sleep and good food.”

The perfect conclusion to my stay in Edinburgh is lunch at Witchery by the Castle, close to (no surprises) Edinburgh Castle. Medieval in stylising: tapestries hang from the ceiling, small pitches of flowers adorn tables and topiary in large stone urns completes the look. I am here for lunch – a set menu. Lunch begins with a 134 page wine volume and a selection of bread – white or grain. I select an Alsace Riesling having decided to order the smoked organic salmon and samphire salad for entrée and the Witchery fish pie. This restaurant is a favourite of celebrities who come to dine and stay here (£295.00 a night). The closest I get to the famous is a Catherine Zeta-Jones look-alike. Nonetheless, lunch provides delightful, simple and perfect for a midday rest. The fish pies arrived in a cast-iron dish with golden-crisped potato. The fish is sweet with the subtle favouring of chives and parsley. My own complaint is that you can’t get to the bottom of the dish to finish off the sauce. A good lunch.

Next stop, London.

Centrotre, 103 George Street, Edinburgh EH2 3ES
The Witchery by the Castle, Castlehill, The Royal Mile, Edinburgh EH1 2NF Camera Obscura, Castlehill, The Royal Mile, Edinburgh EH1 2NF
MacKenzie Leathergoods, 34 Victoria Street, Edinbrugh EH1 2JW
Plaisir du Chocolat, 251-253 Canongate, Edinburgh EH8 8BQ
Hector Russell, 137-141 High Street, Edinburgh EH2 2ER
Anta, Crocket’s Land, 91-93 West Bow, Victoria Street, Edinburgh EH1 2JP
Ness, 367 High Street, Edinburgh

Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Scottish Larder - The Isle of Skye

There is not a single room available in Skye this week. The Europeans have come to escape the searing heat and to walk. The appeal of this isle is undeniable. It is majestic with its soaring peaks and narrow gales. The hills rise up, abandoning their heather covered planes to stand barren. Lower down, soft undulations of moss covered folds hide a rocky terrain that only sheep can pass. Rivers rush forward, moving in serpentine directions and waterfalls like silver threads weave their way down crevices in the mountain path. This is a landscape of soaring mountains and uninterrupted skies.

The harbour of Portree stands in stark contrast to these surrounding hills – it is a busy fishing village overtaken by crowds of tourists: car and buses with foreign number plates that arrive throughout the day. It is a small village but lively with its restaurants and tourist shops. In the morning, the harbour is serene. The fishing boats and langoustine trays seen the night before have been reclaimed by their owners and taken to sea. There is not a soul in sight – it is too early for the tourists. There are only the boats bobbing in this harbour and a pepper cat looking for its breakfast. The sky looms overhead – grey, dramatic.

Much to my delight, a Continental market has arrived and the village has the atmosphere of a circus. Soaps from Marseilles decorated with fresh bunches of lavender are at the entrance. Sweet smells of summertime are unmistakeable – lime, green tea, lemon, rose and lavender, olive oil. But I am distracted by other smells – the sweeter aroma of fresh croissants warm from an oven and the tartitlette – a French mountain stew that has been cooking for an hour. Its ingredients of cheese, bacon, onions, cream and potatoes warming in this dampened weather.

Further on, there are biscuits and pastries from Brittany – all displayed in baskets, fragrant and inviting. Flaky pastry filled with raspberries, custards and almonds attract everyone including the wasps. Rustic loaves, Parma ham and sausages are all for the tasting. A man from Corsica tells me that his family has made sausages for generations – I can choose from wild boar, rabbit and duck, venison apero and wild pig. I choose duck and relish the thought of eating it tomorrow. There is parma ham – seasoned with herbs or pepper for £7.00 for half a pound. Organic olives – up to 12 varieties have travelled to this Isle as have a wondrous selection of Greek pastries sold by a young Iranian. It is 8.00 am in the morning and the store holders are happy to sit and chat before the crowds come, which they will.

Skye is my food salvation – langoustines, scallops, potted crab - a medley of the sea.

After a week of searching for decent food – the Scots have an obsession with potatoes, in particular chips, and limp salad drowned in salad cream – I arrive at the Three Chimneys Restaurant in Colbost. On the peninsula of Loch Dunvegan, this two-hundred year old cottage is a culinary landmark – voted the restaurant in the best location by the Observer in 2006. It has an uninterrupted view of the loch and is reached by following a narrow road from the nearest town, Dunvegan. For twenty-one years, people have travelled here to stay and to eat food from the sea and the game that Scotland is famous for.

Lunch proves to be a three hour leisurely affair beginning with the Three Chimney’s fish soup – a subtle, light broth delicately favoured with saffron, dill and citrus. A sea platter for one is the obvious follow-up course. The highlight are the Loch Dunvegan langoustines, seared Sconscer king scallops and Loch Harport rock oysters – each so fresh that they give new meaning to catch of the day. I can smell and taste the sea.

The west Highland venison is perfectly cooked - succulent and served with barley cake. Local cheese from the Isle of Mull, a marmalade pudding (I have the recipe) and lemon and whisky syllabub allow another hour to be spent enjoying the warm of the restaurant and the view beyond. The perfect conclusion is a Grahams vintage port from Portugal, owned by another branch of the Symingtons.