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.

To market, to market (Pimlico, Victoria)

It is 8.00 am and Tackbrook Street Market is in full swing. This small market provides locals with their weekend essentials of fresh produce, fish and odds and ends.

Sweet red radishes and witloaf invite a second look as do the raspberries and blueberries. The catch of the day is Cornish sardines but I am distracted by what I think are Nursery rhyme cockle shells. No, they are whelks, a crustacean that you can eat raw or with vinegar and pepper.

The taste is like snails, the fishmonger tells me, but I remain unconvinced. I spot bunches of green tentacles that look like seaweed. It is. Samthire grass is boiled and served with melted butter. It has a short season that’s due to finish next month. Perhaps I’ll try them next time. “No worries, darling” he tells me. What a character. His great uncle, Robert Wight opened the first fish and chip shop in Fitzroy Square, Melbourne. He included “A branch in Westminister” on the sign.

Directly opposite the market is Ivano Delicatessen, one of the many Italian/ Southern European delis that you find in this area. Ivano has had the business for seven years. He’s known for his Spanish omelettes made with fresh dairy eggs and flavoured with strands of saffron. I know what I am eating for dinner tonight. There are four to choose from: chorizo, ham and mushroom, spinach, and vegetable, I can’t decide. They all look good. He tells me that he sells 45 omelettes a day. I’m not surprised.

Next door to Ivano’s is Bonne Bo Che, a Swiss/ German Bakery. The gateaus are good but it is for the bread that you come here. The walls are lined with loafs of spelt bread, herb breads made of wheat, linseed, corm, and rye flour. There is walnut raisin bread and sunflower seed breads. The loaves are petite, sitting neatly on the shelves but are heavy and dense. This is bread to be chewed, enjoyed and savoured.

Just around the corner is Rippon Cheese Stores, a speciality store with over 500 cheeses on their books.
Coming here is an education and I am guided through an impressive collection of cheeses from a pungent semi-soft Alderwood from Kent to a classic French brie. All the UK cheeses are brought directly from farmers. Many of the cheeses are matured on site - downstairs, below street-level, under the road.

Walking away from Tachbrook Street over Belgravia Road, I find myself in the heart of Belgravia. Amidst the white Georgian terraces and freshly coloured hanging baskets, I discover Khallouk & Taylor deli.
It is a picturesque cafe that offers breakfast and lunch as well as groceries to the well-heeled. Fruit are displayed in deep wood bowls and on a scrubbed wooden table, there are flans and pastries. It’s like a country ladder. In woven baskets, there are green mangoes, cherries and oranges. There are cured olives of every description. I choose the breakfast of granola, a seasonal fruit salad and honey natural yogurt with green tea and mint. The tea arrives in a silver teapot with Moroccan tea glasses. The mint is wonderfully refreshing, fragrant and sweet. The Moroccan theme continues downstairs in a richly hued interior of watermelon pink. I am in the marketplace, all rich colour silks with the sounds of overheard French conversations from upstairs.

Heading towards the Thames, I discover Delizie D’Italia. This authentic deli with its hexagonal facade looks onto Warwick way. Inside I discover an array of Italian delights from homemade pestos – basil, sun-dried tomatoes, rocket and grilled aubergine to delicious sfogliatine to have with my expresso. They are crisp, flaky pastries filled with chocolate, vanilla and lemon custard and lightly dusted with sugar. Ahh, it’s Saturday morning. The smell of fresh basil, mixed with freshly ground coffee and the deli is close to perfection.