The Great Sicilian Escape

I’ve been anticipating this trip for several months. A country that’s as rich in its cultural heritage whether that be Greek, Roman or Phoenician as it is in its food and wine whether that be the searing acidity of those legendary Sicilan lemons or the sweetness of their ricotta filled pastries.Leaving a cold and damp Gatwick behind us on a Friday, our first surprise was an upgrade on our car from the charming Simona at Avis Preferred. Within an hour we arrived at the majestic Belmont Villa Sant’Andrea our base for the next 4 days. Set like a jewel into the rocks with an adorning landscaped garden giving way to breathtaking views of the ocean, its not hard to see why this is the hottest ticket in Taormina!

Receiving the warmest of Sicilian welcomes from La Bella Leah on reception we check into our room to be wowed with this view.


A nice touch was a welcome note from the General Manager with complimentary pastries.

After a quick dip in the chilly waters of the Med we headed round to the cove by the picturesque Isola Bella. There we found a beach restaurant, Ristorante La Pizzichella, with a deck which the incoming tide was lapping.

The perfect location we thought for pre dinner Negronis!


The first 2 were sooo good the words Ancora Negroni! Just tripped off our lips!

Such an idyllic location with the water lapping at our toes, it was hard to be beat so we just caught last orders at 19:45 for the kitchen and ordered the chef special,  swordfish linguini. Rounded off with a sublime bottle of Vignavella Chardonnay. Hints of oak and a dry acidity this was delicious although the Negronis impaired my memory any further.

As we strolled back up the steps from the beach we felt a craving for something sweet to finish off! We found a delightful bar and Gelateria, Ai Paladini Cafe, a few metres down the road and fed our cravings with a selection of chocolate and pistachio pastries accompanied of course by some sweet nectar like Sicilian dessert wines.

As we ordered il conto the waiter brought us a local speciality of pistachio cream liquor which was something you could easily get addicted to!


Less than 24 hours in Sicily and we had already fallen in love with the island!

 

Unspoilt Quiet Beaches, Wine Tasting and a Killer Sunset – Another Day in the Paradise that is Maremma!

After a first full day in the paradise that is the Maremma, we wonder what day two would hold in store for us.

We had already researched that we could join a guided trek in English through the wilderness that is the Maremma National Park at 9am that morning. So we make an early start, leaving behind us Porto Santo Stefano, already bustling with life, its marina awash with daytrippers ready to board the shuttle service to Isola del Giglio.

We arrive in the sleepy village of Alberese just before 9am and make our way to the Tourist Information Centre to book ourselves onto the trek.

To our surprise we find that the English tour was the next day and that the Italian tour that day didn’t start until 10am!

Undeterred by this seemingly large setback we decide to take a flyer on the Italian tour with my limited knowledge of spoken Italian our restricted audio guide!

With an hour to spare before the tour begins we head over to a little cafe bar opposite, where we order two doppios and two large glasses of iced water and settle down in a shady spot to take refuge from the already searing heat with our holiday reading for amusement.

At five to ten the transfer bus rolls up with our guide who to our relief speaks some English and was an Ecologist from the University of Pisa.

Within 15 minutes we are in the thick of the park with wild boars and deer visible from the bus as we drive to the drop off.

The Maremma is one of the last great unspoilt ecosystems in Italy. Its biodiversity and beauty fiercely protected by controlled entry. Access to the park by vehicle is restricted to guided tours and these are limited to just a few a day.

One of the commonest trees indigenous to the park is the Mediterranean Oak which has evolved so that it can survive drought. Unlike our native English Oak it is an evergreen and is characterised by hard small green leaves. When thriving en masse like in the park it gives the hills and mountains an intense green colour that contrasts against the azure blue sky.

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Droughts here can be extreme, exacerbated by the permeability of the limestone rock which causes the winter rains to rapidly drain away.

The only sound we hear is the faint swish of waves lapping the shore below and a few odd cicadas at the end of their season, this is in contrast to late spring and early summer when their chorus of mariachi can be deafening.

All along the Maremma coast there is a series of defensive towers a relic of the sixteenth century when this area was prone to raids by Saracen pirates

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A rich canvas of olive green hues leads out to the turquoise sea, beyond which the islands of Elba, Montecristo and even the faint outline of Corsica creep along the horizon.

The Maremma is also home to the Maremmana longhorned breed of cattle which can be traced back to the Etruscan period. After a period of population decline it has reasserted itself, thriving in the harsh environment of the Maremma.

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We descend down through the rocky path onto a huge expanse of wild beach, completely unspoilt and with just a handful of people sprinkled across the shoreline. Our guide advises us we have twenty minutes to take a refreshing dip before the short hike back to our bus so we take full advantage of this tranquil paradise.

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We work up quite an appetite during our morning hike  and decide to head to the recommended nearby Osteria La Nuova Dispensa.

The recommendation is insightful! We sit in the shade under a pergola our table covered in a rustic style patterned cloth.

Highlights on the menu are the local charcuterie with cheeses and beef T-bone cooked Florentine style.

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We opt for both! The starter is a mix of spicy wild boar salami, strong flavoured capo collo and a silky prosciutto Umbria with strong umami. A glass of Maremma Sangiovese from the nearby Santa Lucia vineyard  accentuates the flavours even further. A crumbly pecorino cheese is served with wild honey from a local bee keeper.

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The main course arrives with a simple garnish,it’s a full on fest of rare cooked meat on the bone simply flavoured with salt and pepper.

Our bellies full we head off in search of the Santa Lucia vineyard. Located near Grosseto it’s a fairly modern affair with a tasting room located in a large bungalow style building at the heart of the estate.

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We had the opportunity to taste 3 wines:

Brigante: 100% Vermentino.

Betto: A Super Tuscan comprising Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Sour cherries balanced with sweetness of the Merlot to produce a great example.

Santa Lucia: 100% Ansonica. A great expression of the local varietal that is crisp with a steely minerality and aromatic nose.

We arrive back at Cala Piccola in time to catch the last shuttle down to the little cove at the foot of the hotel.

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As the mountains start to shade the falling evening sun we indulge in some open water swimming in the warm clear turquoise waters and for a finale sip on some ice cold tequila sunrises!

Before dinner we are treated to one of the most dramatic sunsets we have ever witnessed.

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As we sip our pre dinner drinks on our balcony the sun finally slips behind the distant Isola di Giglio and a cooling sea breeze blows in as we descend into darkness.

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Dinner is a simpler affair this evening after our meatfest for lunch.

Emilano, the sommelier again delivers a perfect recommendation:  Vini Montauto Enos I, DOC Maremma Toscana. A wine made by one of Tuscany’s new generation of winemakers who are reinvigorating their family owned vineyards with new enthusiasm for producing stunning wines that really express the terroir in which they are grown.

Exhibiting a classic nose of Sauvignon Blanc with gooseberry, fresh grass and Granny Smith, a great balance of acidity and minerality with notes of white fruits, herbs, apple and star fruit rounded with a long finish and perfect with the light summer pasta.

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An appetiser of anchovy and buffalo mozzarella is very light, sourced directly from the farmer and served in a slightly quirky style. Nonetheless the saltiness of the anchovy balances nicely with the rich cream of the mozzarella!

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Our main course is macaroni with a mirepoix of carrot, aubergine and bacon bound in a light pea velouté. The silky yet fresh execution of this dish sings a ballad of summer with every mouthful.

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We are again seduced by the Valrhona chocolate dome with passion fruit ganache and dried fruit crumbs. As spectacular in its delivery as it was the night before!

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Notching up the ante just a little Emilano our sommelier recommends one of my favourite dessert wines the rare Passito Pantelleria from the tiny Italian island that is closer to Africa than Italy!

Its a heady fusion of honey and honeycomb which is a rich golden colour, with a palette of rich marmalade.

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With our second day in paradise drawing to a close we take a stroll around the gardens of the hotel serenaded by cicadas!

 

Northern Powerhouse!

Samuel Johnson, writer, journalist and critic is credited with the quote

“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

I wondered what Dr Johnson, as he was also known would have made of the regeneration and transformation of the great Northern city that is Leeds.

Anecdotaly I’ve heard that discerning global shoppers now shun London and make Leeds their first port of call when visiting the UK. It’s not hard to imagine why. An airport that’s close to the city with ease of transit through it on your return, with terminal departures area to gate in less than 10 minutes!

On every visit there’s something new, this time it’s a John Lewis department store to compliment the plethora of shopping malls. The retail scene catering for all tastes from the budget to high end.

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The Victoria Arcade is one of my favourites which could easily rival even the most exclusive Jermyn or Bond Street offerings, with classy jewellers, bespoke shoes and a Vivienne Westwood boutique to name but a few!

Leeds also has a huge amount to offer the discerning foodie. On a previous visit I posted a review of the Crafthouse restaurant which blew me away.

I’ve blogged before about the renaissance of the independent coffee shop in the face of the colonisation of high streets by Costabucks. Leeds is no exception. A little research led me to Laynes Espresso on New Station Street.

With a cool vibe and range of brew methods to show off their range of coffees plus some awesome breakfast offerings (shame I’d already eaten at T5!) this place rocks.

I go for the single origin El Sunzita from El Salvador by Stockholm based Drop Coffee Roasters. Brewed with the Classic V60, a nice touch is the tasting coffee mats which they hand scribe with tasting facts for the single origin that you are drinking! Indeed their insights are spot on with notes of milk chocolate sweetness, apple acidity and nuts!

Leaving the hipsters at Laynes behind I go in search of the new redeveloped south side of Leeds. Inside the Vue cinema complex called The Light I find La Bottega Milanese.  An authentic Milanese style espresso bar serving Italian pastries and amazing Piadina (Italian Flatbread) toasted sandwiches. Here they not only sell a range of coffee beans but also the kit to brew it with from the stylish Aeropress to the Classic V60.

Before leaving the city there is just time to take in a quick early dinner at Pintura, an authentic  Basque style Pinxto restaurant. The place is fairly quiet as it’s only 5pm so I opt to sit up at the counter and start chatting with Jimmy the chef.

Going with his recommendations I choose three small dishes, his colleague recommends three sherry pairings which set off the three dishes nicely!

Pulpo Salpicion

A delicious pickle of Octopus, Peppers, Onions with Sherry Vinegar. A real sweet and sour surprise with the octopus al dente.

Served with a bone dry Williams and Humbert Manzanilla with the saltiness that compliments this seafood dish.

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Brochette de Queso Y Jamon

Intensely rich and buttery Iberica Ham with a hard tangy Goat’s cheese

Served with a Williams and Humbert Palo Cortado 20 year old.  A great fusion of sweet and savoury to compliment the contrasting flavours in the brochette.

Chistorra

Tiny small but spicy chorizo sausages fried on the plancha grill.

Served with a full treacle like and rich Williams and Humbert Pedro Ximenez (PX) 20 year old that total handles the chilli heat and enhances the sweetness of the chistorra.

 

I just have enough room to squeeze in a…..

Mousse de Chocolate

Divine and sublime Valrhona chocolate in a rich mousse topped with a chocolate crumb

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Served with a Williams and Humbert Sweet Old Oloroso, 15 year old semi sweet so as not to cloy with the chocolate and yet enhancing it at the same time.

I’m transported back from San Sebastian to reality as my taxi driver calls to say he is outside! He whisks me  back at the airport in time for a quick look around the Duty Free before boarding the flight back to London eagerly anticipating my next visit to Yorkshire!

 

 

Seaviews, Sublime Wines, Sunshine & Stunning Sunsets and a Gourmet Dinner; Is It a Dream or Are We In Paradise?

The long journey down from Lake Como had really wiped us out so there was no chance that we were going to see the sunrise over the Tyrrhenian Sea! When we did eventually wake up we were in awe at the stunning views from our room.

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The room was really well appointed inside too with a large bathroom comprising of a walk in shower, deep bath and his/her twin sinks.

Our decadent lie in precipated a quick turnaround if we were going to make breakfast which finished around 10:30am.

We made our way down to the restaurant which afforded similar views of the cove below to our bedroom but with the added benefit of parasols to shade you from the increasing burn factor of the sun.

Breakfast was a feast in itself! We were given a table at the edge of the restaurant with one of the best views by the charming Alessandro. Then its was down to the serious business of making some tough decisions about the buffet.

For me a no brainer, salty prosciutto and sweet melon, toasted sesame bread with local cheeses and honey rounded off with the obligatory double espresso!

As we breakfasted with the azure blue sky and olive green pine trees providing a natural wallpaper behind us our thought turned to how we were going to spend our next four days in paradise.

I’d already researched that there was as interesting Antinori coastal vineyard near Castiglione della Pescaia and we thought the coastal town itself would be worth a punt. Chatting with the guest relations team we also discovered a guided walk in the nearby Maremma national park and the thermal springs at Saturnia were a must.

I phoned Le Mortelle, the Antinori vineyard only to discover that the only English speaking tour was on Saturday, the day that we had booked to do the national park walk. We decided to head down towards Castiglione della Pescaia anyway and do a drive by if the vineyard was on the route!

As luck would have it as we neared Castiglione dell Pescaia we picked up some tourist signs  for Le Mortelle (Antinori vineyard).

As we drove down the dusty track to the tenuta (estate) it was flanked by rows of vineyards.

Le Mortelle Vineyards

On arrival we were met by the charming Barbara who explained that although the full English tour was as we knew the next day she could do a personal tasting of their wines for us!

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The estate covers a huge 270 hectares of which 160 are planted with grape vines. There are also 15 hectares of organic fruit orchards. The two main varietals planted are Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon. Recently they have also begun to cultivate white varietals such as the local Ansonica, Vermintino and Viognier.

It’s also remarkable for it’s commitment to sustainability, with the design of the cellars underground on a system of levels to allow  production “by falling”. The grapes arrive at the upper level  with the vinification process continued on the middle level and the ageing on the lowest level before the wine is ready for sale.

The cellars are lit by lateral openings in the ceiling and a huge one at the top of a helical winding staircase which connects all the levels.

After an introduction to the estate it was down to the tasting. This took place outside on the terrace with stunning views over the terroir.

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2014 Vivia – Maremma Toscana

Using the typical Tuscan varietals of Ansonica and Vermentino with Viognier added after years of experimentation to find a suitable aromatic varietal to balance the blend. The result is light pale straw coloured wine, with a nose of stone fruits , white blossom and candied pineapple. On the palette, white pepper and spice with peach with fresh acidity. A fat and full flavoured wine with a smooth finish. Ansonica whether in a blend or on its own should usually be drunk young.

2013 Botrosecco – Maremma Toscana

Taking its name from a now long dried out ancient moat on the estate this blend is 60% Cabernet Sauvignon with 40% Cabernet Franc for balance. Notes of vanilla on the nose from the oak barriques, fruity aromas when mixed with the vanilla reminiscent of blackberry crumble. A dark cherry colour with a fuller finish. Still some tannins, pepper, star anise and spice on the palette.

2012 Poggio Alle Nane – Maremma Toscana 

The premium blend from this estate. 80% Cabernet Franc with 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. the terroir and microclimate of where these grapes are grown on the state yield the highest potential on the estate for fine wine.

A nose of tar and cherry, intense blackcurrant fruit and peppery spice on the palette with soft tannins and a full long finish with complex flavours. Would be an ideal partner for bistecca fiorentina. 

Barbara also arranged for me to taste 2 other wines which are produced only for sale at the estate.

Rosé Mortelle

A dark rose colour with a nose of cherry boiled sweets, continuing onto the palette. A full dry finish with rose hip acidity and freshness. Would be a great as an aperitif or with canapés.

Roso Mortelle

Made with 100% Sangiovese , this had notes of black cherry on the nose with a light fruity style on the palette and a hint of young slightly spicy morello cherries. The finish was short. Drinking young as an everyday wine with charcuterie, pizza etc…

The final tasting treat was an Eau de vie made from organic plums. A whopping 42% Alc, a strong clear spirit with a background flavour of plum. Unusual and one that I felt compelled to purchase.

Distillato di Susine – Le Mortelle

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This was one of the most scenic estates for a tasting on the whole tour.

Panoramic view of Le Mortelle vineyard from my tasting seat!

Laden with our purchases and some tasty produce from the organic farm shop we made our way back down to the coast. Our energy levels slightly sapped by the heat of the Tuscan sun we found some cheap parking just a few hundred yards from the public beach in Castiglione dell Pescaia.

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Taking a dip in the warm but still refreshing waters of the Tyrrhenian Sea we cooled down sufficiently before heading back to Monte Argentario and our hotel at Cala Piccola.

That evening we decided to dine al fresco in the hotel restaurant. Their chef, the very talented Salvatore Cioce had a 5 course tasting menu on offer, it looked to go to miss!

Taking pre dinner drinks on the terrace of our room before sunset we were anticipating a gourmet evening ahead of us.

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Although by the time we sat down to dinner the sun had set it was still magical to be eating under the moon and stars.

We turned out attention to the menu and without hesitation plunged into the 5 course course tasting menu that had caught our attention earlier in the day.

Whilst salivating over the menu the sommelier, the charming Emiliano Leuti, recommended us this stunning wine from the Friuli Venezia Giulia region. A Vintage Tunina Bianco 2013. Made from Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia Istriana, Picolit grapes. This is a fantastic blend. Brilliant straw-yellow colour with golden highlights. On the nose the aromatics hit you with elegant notes of honey and wild flowers. On the palette, Its taste is dry, velvety, and complex with fat flavours of quince and lychee and a hint of mandarin, ending on a rounded and long finish. Still relatively young but with definitely another 5 years in the tank! This is also a very versatile wine that was perfect for the tasting menu and its range of big flavours!

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The Amuse Bouche set the standard for the gastronomy that followed. A Buffalo cream ricotta cheese with black pepper and light and crispy crostini. The ricotta was light and velvety in texture yet rich in flavour.

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Following on; the next course was scallops wrapped in pancetta in hazelnut butter with apple jelly and spinach foils. The scallops were sweet and cooked to perfection and lifted to heady heights by the sweet mango sauce.

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Canteloupe melon gazpacho with whole langoustine lightly marinated in citrus fruits with mandarin flavoured mayonnaise. Beautifully decorated with wild flowers! My first ever melon gazpacho which balanced perfectly the sweetnesses of the soup with the saltiness of seafood.

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Veronese Vialone Nano risotto with local squid, salmon caviar and sepia powder. Visually stunning and theatre in itself,  this dish contained concentrated seafood flavours, rich and al dente risotto with a dusting of squid ink for show!

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Monkfish fillet in panchetta on crovarelle potato cream and crustacean bisque. A classic combination, well executed and cooked to perfection.

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Valrhona chocolate dome with passion fruit ganache and dried fruit crumbs. The last course and definitely a show stopper! The king of chocolates used creatively for a chocolate boat with passion fruit cream and then as a chocolate carpet to bind together fresh seasonal fruits and toasted sweet biscuit! Absolutely sensational. Emiliano also wanted to make sure this triumph had its own special partner and so recommend a lovely slightly sparkling red from Montalcino.

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The Rosa Regale Brachetto D’Acqui from the famous Banfi house in Montalcino was the perfect partner to the chocolate fest; almost like a sweet low alcohol (7%) sparkling cherry cordial! Delicious.image

We strolled back from the restaurant taking a post dessert espresso on the  terrace listening to the sounds of waves crashing onto the rocks before we headed off to bed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Magical Mountain Adventure

Waking again to the same sound of the Giessbach Falls which had sent us off to sleep, we started the day of our wedding anniversary with more than a hint of anticipation and excitement for what the day would bring forth.

We took breakfast on the terrace and secured pole position overlooking both the Falls and the lake. The Grand Hotel Giessbach breakfast was a sumptuous smorgorsborg of hot and cold dishes. Highlights were local cheese with wild alpine honey straight from the honeycomb, partnered with fruit bread and a killer Bircher muesli. Starting the day as we meant to go on we reached for the Prosecco and charged our glasses!

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As we swung back past perception to confirm what time the boat left for Interlaken we had another nice surprise. Jonathan our helpful hotel receptionist from the day before had bought us an anniversary card and some Swiss chocolates as a gift. A very thoughtful and generous touch.

The concierge confined that the funicular which connects the hotel with the boat station departed at 10:40 and handed us the complimentary passes that hotel guests have for use of this novel transfer.
The funicular has the honour of being the oldest and first to have been installed in Switzerland. I’ve seen these in many locations around the world but this one certainly is the most dramatic.

imageThe Grand Hotel Giessbach stands proudly on the side of a mountain adjacent to the Giessbach Falls. It was saved from destruction after falling into disrepair by a consortium of wealthy Swiss businessmen who were keen to preserve this iconic bundling. It has the air of a palatial grand estate adorned with chandeliers and ornate furnishings and has been faithfully restored to its former glory.

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The funicular took just a few minutes to convey us from the hotel down to its own boat station on the lake. Long before the winding road was built the only way to reach the hotel was by boat from Interlarken and then funicular.

Hotel guests can also purchase a first class return ticket for the hour or so trip to Interlaken which was a subsidised bargain at 30 Euros per person. First Class also guarantees you a seat on the upper deck where we were afforded some stunning views of the Lake Brienz and the surrounding mountains. There was also a little bar so we decided another Prosecco was in order!

The toot toot of the ferry announces to us our embarkation. We pass several lakeside villages dotted around lack Brienz as we zigzag our way to Interlaken Ost across the lake. It’s turquoise green waters contrasting with the intense blue of the sky.

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On arrival at Interlaken Ost boat station we changed to our third mode of transport for the train journey to Wengen changing at Lauterbrunnen. One of the great things about Switzerland is the Swiss passion for ruthless efficiency which means trains running to time with minimal hanging around between connections!

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At Wengen just five minutes walk from the train station is the Cable car to Mannlichen. Already within striking distance of the stunning Alps this last stage of journey was for me the most exciting! Powdery white snow dusting the majestic peaks of the mountains like a patisserie chef adding the finish to a fondant!

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Exiting the cable car, the vista was breathtaking, a combination of quaint Swiss chalets, rolling green alpine pastures and snow capped mountains set against an azure blue sky.

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A further surprise as we passed a group of cows, their large bells clunking in harmony around their necks was the dramatic and haunting sound of the local Alpenhorns and an annual Alpenhorn festival.

Click here for clip of Alpenhorn Festival
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Walking from Mannlichen to Kleine Scheidegg along trail Number 33 was breathtaking and ranks as one of my favourite walks of all time! Words and pictures can’t really do justice to the beauty of the panoramic vistas.

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After ninety minute of walking along the trial we arrived at the tiny village of Kleine Scheidegg just in time to pick up the mountain railway to Grindelwald.  From here we crammed onto another train full of international tourists returning from the Jungfrau theme park back to Interlaken hoping to catch the last ferry back to our hotel.

We arrived back at Interlaken Ost some thirty minutes or so after the last boat departed but realised if we took the next fast train to Brienz we could catch it up there so as to enjoy our return to the hotel in the same way we departed and save on a thirty Euro taxi fare from Brienz!

We made excellent time back to Brienz and still had time for a refreshingly short dip in the icy waters of lake Brienz, so cold that it actually took my breath away, in time to catch our boat.

As the funicular pulled us back up the mountainside our thoughts turned to dinner. We had booked a table in the critically acclaimed Cascades restaurant in the hotel but having spent the day in the alpine fresh air we were reluctant to relinquish the great outdoors and so decided to opt for the bar menu again on the terrace.

When we got to the bar the terrace overlooking the lake was buzzing as it was such a beautiful evening. We need not have worried! Our new found friends from the previous evening Swiss Toni and Giota had reserved the best two tables for us so that we could chose which one we wanted! They had anticipated that we would probably want to eat al fresco and didn’t want us to have a disappointing end to our special day!

Hotel dinner

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Sautéed Goat’s Cheese with Wild Garlic Pesto.

The wild garlic pesto was a triumph complimenting the richness of the goats cheese perfectl!

Main course

Entrecôte steak with thin fries and garlic/herb butter. Juicy , perfectly cooked: rare for me and medium rare for Gillian. We asked if the sommelier could come from the Cascades restaurant to advise on a wine to partner the steak, something Swiss.

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We had the chance to meet the charming sommelier, Kevin Hischke who recommended Teninento La Prella from near Ascona on Lake Maggiore, in Ticino. This wine, a Merlot grand reserve had a nose of chocolate, cherry and spice. On the palette there was morello cherries and a hint of cherries in kirsch combined with soft tannins in a well rounded finish. A perfect recommendation with the steak.

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As we ordered a post prandial coffee we asked Swiss Toni to recommend a typical Swiss digestif . He recommended Nocino a nut liquor which was syrupy, sweet and with a buttery nutty taste.

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Giota, Tim and Swiss Toni!

imageThanking both Toni and Giota for looking after us both so well and making the end to our special day so memorable we climbed the two flights of stairs and slept like the proverbially logs!
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Dinner Fit For a Gourmand

We arrived at Chateau Courban shortly before 6pm still buzzing with the excitement of our serendipitous visit to Champagne Louise Brison . As the evening sun bathed the exquisite gardens in warm light we planned to take a cooling dip in the pool as soon as we checked in.

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Check in was smooth and efficient but they kept from us the best surprise of all…. An upgraded room which was straight out of a scene from the new BBC drama Versailles. A master bedroom with stunning views across the Côte d’Or countryside leading to a bathroom whose central feature was a beautiful roll top enamel bath, with shower room and toilet in separate rooms off of the bathing area so as not to spoil the Feng Shui!

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We wasted no time in heading to the pool area for a refreshing pre dinner swim. Decadently we enjoyed a half bottle of the 2010 vintage Louise Brison champagne as an aperitif while getting ready for dinner and luxuriating in our sumptuous surroundings. (See previous posting for tasting notes)

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This was our second visit to Courban after discovering this stunning oasis last year. We weren’t the least bit surprised to learn that many guests return again and again in what is a case of once discovered never forgotten.

It’s a great stopover at anytime of year especially if you’re heading south to the French Alps, Switzerland or Italy. It was also incredibly great value at a pre Brexit booking price of around £200 for half board which included a four course Discovery menu from their legendary Head Chef, Takashi Kinoshita. The restaurant is also deservedly included In the Michelin selection 2016.

Whilst perusing the Discovery menu we enjoyed a glass of the house champagne, Champagne Robert Barbichon, a Blanc de Blanc with 15% Pinot Noir, made to biodynamic standards in the Côte des Bars. This was the first time I had tasted a Champagne made in this style and the 15% Pinot certainly added to the taste making it arguably a more suitable companion for the amuse bouche.

Dinner

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Amuse Bouches No1

Mustard macaroon with toasted pecans.
I loved the sweet and savoury juxtaposition of this mouthful, a perfect balance of light sugary meringue and tangy mustard. It also looked incredible.

Deep fried epoisse parcels presented on a bed of dried lentils. I think this dish would work better with a more over ripe epoisse when its power would balance with the Tempura. Tasty though the same.

Amuse Bouches No 2

Gazpacho with Celery Foam.
Like a lightly textured fresh and slightly spicy Bloody Mary.

Starters

Prawns with baby aubergine.
Prawns in a light tempura with daikon salad, wakame with a yuzu and toasted sesame oil vinaigrette.
Lemon foam and sweet soy sauce binding all the ingredients together.

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Duck Foie Gras with petits pois mousseline.
A fusion of spicy flavours including coriander seeds and chorizo offset by perfect soft and silky textured foie gras. Garnished with lemon foam and egg yolk confit.

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Main Course
Roasted supreme of Bourg en Bresse chicken with duxelles of girolles mushrooms new potato soufflé and courgette ribbons, veal jus, spinach with red basil. Garnished with whole sautéed girolles.

This breed of chicken in my opinion deserves its place as the best in the world. Melt in the mouth breast, moist and flavoursome. The devil sauce carrying loads of Unami flavour from its base veal jus.

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Dessert

Courban countryside dessert.
A soft cream cheese set in a light green meringue wrap with white chocolate batons and ice cream.

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A Summer Swim
Segments of Pink grapefruit and red shizo sorbet, peach and toasted sesame meringue with red shizo garnished with rose wine jelly and green spun sugar.
Light, fresh and sharp the perfect palette cleansing dessert in stunning summery like technicolour.

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We chose a stunning local wine from nearby Chablis…..with the main course in mind.
Chablis Grand Cru Grenouilles Regnard 2011. A great nose expressing both minerality and fruit. On the palette, further minerality, augmented with notes of plump ripe quinces, a fat wine with a long finish and one that I believe will continue to improve with age.

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We had just enough room for coffee and petit fours. These provided the perfect finale to this discovery menu. Light and chewy meringues and rich lavender flavoured chocolate truffles.

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We strolled back to our room having thoroughly enjoyed our Gastronomic experience wondering what the next day would bring as we drifted off into a deep sleep.

Al Boccon di Vino -Venetian Gastro Heaven!

We’d been planning to go to the Richmond institution that is Al Boccon di Vino since my friend Jojo went there about a year ago and hadn’t stopped raving about it since. Be warned you really need to book in advance and although I usually prefer dinner over lunch, as their menu free banquet  can last well over two and half hours on Jojo’s advice we opted for a Saturday lunchtime booking.

Joining us were Jojo and her other half Pete, they had the advantage of knowing a little about the running order. “Don’t ask for the wine list Tim, there isn’t one!” Jojo said. This was great insight as when the restaurant manager Simona asked us”You want Redda or Whita wine?” in her thick Italian accent, I was able to resist the temptation to ask for the wine list!

Whilst I love to spend time pondering a menu and wine list I am equally happy to just go with the flow especially on the back of some great recommendations. I love the confidence dare I say even arrogance of a restaurant that says “we’ll serve you the most amazing, seasonal fresh ingredients and wines that match but don’t expect a choice!” I think if more establishments could pull this off,  dining out would be more of an adventure!

Having strolled down the river from Twickenham to Richmond before lunch we went for the white wine option and were rewarded with a crisp Lugana, a delightful floral wine with a wonderful bouquet.

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The Lugana proved to be the perfect accompaniment to our never ending run of starters.

First up. English asparagus with parmesan shavings, rocket and pomegranate. Deliciously simple and a great seasonal starter to kick off the proceedings.

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This was augmented by the classic pairing of Charentais melon, with its wonderful bouquet and sweet tasting flesh, which worked brilliantly with the slightly salty air dried prosciutto.image

We were by no means done with the rolling starters, the next duo was a delightful vegetarian course one of sliced artichokes in olive oil with herbs and garlic and the other a mixture of grilled courgettes, aubergine and peppers with plenty of freshly baked italian bread to capture all that nectar like dressing.

The next offering was a juicy seafood combo of giant garlic prawns and razor clams in their shell served in a rich garlic and herb sauce, perfectly cooked so that the seafood retained its texture without the rubbery consistency that comes with over cooking these delicate morsels.

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We were still a course away from the mains and the wine was flowing well, Pete and I were already exhibiting a healthy glow….

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Finishing off the last of the Lugana as the pasta course arrived we ordered red to come with the meat pasta dish, a delicious Sangiovese I recall but to be honest I was starting to feel a little squiffy at this point.

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As the pasta course was cleared away,  a fanfare from the kitchen heralded the entry of a ceremonial cortege of waiting staff carrying a vast roasting tin with a whole suckling pig inside, its crackling sparkling.

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Riccardo (left of photo) is every inch the Italian stallion, proudly showcasing the wonderful fare on offer, its’ no surprise that he is both chef and owner and never seems happier than being front of house exuding Italian charisma and charm that the likes of George Clooney can only dream of!imageThe Suckling pig was a triumph although I was starting to feel just a little full. The crackling was crisp but the meat juicy, succulent and flavoursome, served with a simple pomme purée.

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Our finale came in the form of a simple strawberry compote with pannacotta and served with a deliciously rich Moscato di Trani from Puglia. One of the oldest DOC in Italy, exhibiting a wonderful nose of buttery honey and yellow fruit jam; a taste that had real depth with a rich flavour perfect with the fruit compote.

With the wines costing approx £25 and the the meal fixed at £45 you know where you are budget wise here but do be prepared to be blown away by the quality of the food!

One nice surprise at the end was that with my half century birthday just 2 weeks away our generous friends Jojo and Pete treated us to lunch!  We really did feel quite spoilt!

 

A Birthday celebration in the Cotswolds!

A few weeks ago I reached that most auspicious of birthdays! The half century! To be honest its been a great excuse for a little more of the things that a like to do best; drinking fine wine, eating amazing food and catching up with friends!

On the day itself Gillian had planned an overnight stay at the legendary Lords of The Manor hotel in Upper Slaughter. Still recovering from the previous week in which I had managed to get in a vintage tasting at Furleigh Estate in Dorset combined with an overnight stay at the incomporable Summer Lodge Hotel in Evershot, dinner at The Quality Chop House in Farringdon with friends and a magnum of the iconic Domaine de Trévallon 2001!

Determined to make the most of the forecasted flaming June weather we made an early start arriving in the sleepy Cotswold village of Upper Slaughter shortly before 1pm.

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The front lawn at The Lords of the Manor

Quickly checking into our room, we changed into our walking gear and set off on an appetite building 15 mile circular walk of the local villages.

Our first stop was the neighbouring village of Lower Slaughter. The contrast could not be greater between these two Cotswold jewels. Lower with its bustling hoards of visitors, picturesque stream and Mill juxtaposed with the tranquility and calm of Upper Slaughter and without a single coach party in sight!

By contrast Lower Slaughter is a world away from the heaving hordes of visitors that flock to Bourton-on -the-Water, our next stop on our walk. I don’t know why towns feel it’s really necessary to tap into some sort of Romantic association with things Venetian, but I do feel that just because there’s a few little streams running through the town that calling it “the Venice of the Cotswolds” is really poetic licence gone too far!

We picked up a delicious picnic at one of the really outstanding gems in the village, Bakery on The Water. Quiche Lorraine’s with melt in the mouth pastry, delicious spiced pork sausage rolls and a tempting selection of tarts and cakes!

We made our escape from the maddening crowds and found peace and tranquility adjacent to the River Windrush.

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Our picnic spot by the River Windrush, Bourton-on-the -Water

We picked up the pace fortified by our picnic and followed the waymarked trail across woods and valleys of buttercup clad pastures and sun kissed meadows.

After several hours we arrived in the tiny village of Naunton and headed to the village pub for some refreshments before completing the last few miles back to Upper Slaughter.

On arrival back at the hotel we were greeted by Michael Obray, the General Manager who informed us that we were being upgraded to the full tasting menu which was a really lovely surprise!

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The bedrooms at the Lords of the Manor

We thought that we’d start as we meant to go on and ordered cocktails to sup whilst getting ready for dinner! The long walk had given me a thirst and so this Negroni went down a treat!

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Pre Dinner Negroni!

Included in our Secret Escapes package was a complimentary glass of NV. Tattinger, currently one of my favourite champagnes.

We decided to take this with our canapé al fresco in our attempt to squeeze every last drop of warm sunshine out of the day.

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A trio of Canapé: L-R Mackerel with Apple, Foie Gras Tuile. Goats Cheese with Raisin and Caper Jelly

These were all outstanding and really set the tone for the whole meal. I loved the delicate balance of the food pairings here e.g. the saltiness of the goats cheese with the sweetness of the grape and caper jelly.

As the sun started to go down we were called through for dinner and the anticipation of what would follow was almost too much!

 

The appetiser arrived with a flourish! Like an exquisitely composed still life the complimentary colours of the tomato and chervil enhancing each others colour whilst the natural colour of the viola shone on the consommé canvas. Flavours and textures balanced perfectly with added creaminess from the ricotta and crunch from the pine nuts! A real triumph! Meanwhile the Rousette grape delivered a steely clean and fresh taste with an apple like acidity that partnered the consommé jelly to a tee.

 

The next course arrived with another sublime pairing suggested by our sommelier Michael Bray. The richness of the Petit Manseng grape yielding notes of thick unctuous honey and sweet orange marmalade. By contrast the duck liver’s richness enhanced by rolling in port contrasted with the texture and acidity of the apple jelly, pickled rhubarb and hazelnuts.

Course number four arrived and we were already feeling the wow factor! It was really no surprise to learn of the restaurants well deserved one Michelin star status. This course balanced oriental spiciness with stabilising flavours of oriental mushrooms and tomato. The exotic notes of papaya combined with hints of apple and honeysuckle in the superb 2014 Mangan Vineyard Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc with a little vanilla spice from light oaking and good natural acidity.

My favourite red meat is always going to be new season English lamb. Here served three ways with spectacular presentation and garnished with olive tapenade, tomato confit, minted broad beans and lamb jus, it was just heaven! What made it even more special was the pairing with a stellar 2009 La Rioja Alta, Reserva! Just 2 months earlier I had sat in their tasting room in Haro, with Ainhoa Elosegui, their PR manager learning more about this iconic estate! Here the wine combines notes of violets, and damsons with a little pepper. So good it’s one I’ll be seeking out again!

A palette cleansing Mango and Kalamansi foam shot prepared our tastebuds for the finale…image

Before the soufflé finalé they bought me a lovely decorated  plate with a single macaroon and a candle with a chorus of happy birthday!

The raspberry soufflé followed…..which was incredible, light and with a zing of raspberry sharpness contrasting with the light creaminess of the tonka bean ice cream. The finale eclectic pairing was a rare Franz Haaz Moscato Rosa from Friuli. Its rarity and low production are due to the low yield. It is not a late harvested grape, nor it is a passito, naturally it has a high content of sugar and is harvested when ripened well.

Before heading into the lounge to take coffee we had our final surprise of the evening and something that speaks volumes for the brigade working the kitchen at Lords of the Manor, the entire service that evening had been executed under the supervision of Senior Sous Chef, Paul Evans, who came out to meet us in person.

It’s always really great to get the opportunity to speak to the chef in person especially when they’ve delivered such a memorable tasting menu!

 

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We settled down with a little espresso and these delightful petit fours before rolling into our comfy beds for a wonderfully long lie in!

It’s always hard thinking about breakfast after such an amazing dinner the night before but Senior Sous Chef Paul, had already piqued my interest! The full English was so worth it!

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Beautiful presentation and the really neat thing was that it was a manageable size portion that left you satisfied without disappointing! Perfectly poached eggs and the crispiest of bacon excited my taste buds all over again.

After breakfast we decided to walk around the ten plus acres of grounds and gardens. Truly stunning as this little montage shows

Before heading off Michael Bray the sommelier had one more trick up his sleeve and offered to show me round his extensive cellar under the dinning room! Above ground they’ve also converted one of the old fire places to house some of the more popular wines in a more ambient cool temperature.

Overall a stunning way to spend my 50th birthday and a brilliant introduction to this jewel in the Cotswold crown!

 

 

 

 

 

La Rioja and San Sebastián – A Gastronomic Adventure Part 3

We had pre booked a car rental from Sixt car hire just a short distance from our hotel for the day trip to La Rioja and to our surprise although we’d booked just a modest entry level manual car we got upgraded to a rather nice Mini Countryman Automatic  by the charming and helpful Laura.

By 8:15 we had hit the road. The weather was not so kind to us on the drive down to Haro but by the time we arrived at our first stop, the legendary Vina Tondonia, the rain stopped and the sun started breaking through.

I had been recommended to visit Viña Tondonia by an oenophile friend and having contacted them the week before had managed to book on the only English speaking tour that day. The downside was that we had to be there by 10am and it was at least a ninety minute drive!  In the end it took longer as we ended up taking a wrong turn! By the time I had realised my error we were running twenty minutes behind schedule and consequently missed the start of the tour at  Viña Tondonia.


We joined the tour just in time as they were about to enter the cooper’s workshop! This was a real highlight for me. Oak barrels are something that I kind of took for granted until on a recent trip to France I learned that the copper’s art is a dying one.

With Viña Tondonia making the most classic style of Rioja it’s no surprise to learn that they are the only Bodgega to employ to full-time coopers. It stakes on average 2-3 years to serve a cooper’s apprentice and currently there is no apprentice learning the craft!

It’s a highly skilled job and there’s a lovely Spanish phrase that really epitomises this “When you can measure something without measuring you have the eye of a cooper!”.

The American Oakis seasoned fror twelve months then in strips measuresd oiut

The cellars themselves

 

 

 

 

 

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Wines , cooper take, La Vina Pombal,

hard and Vitoria

Lunch Pintxos

Dinner amazing restaurant

From Pintxos to 3 Michelin Stars – A Gastronomic Advenure in San Sebastián – Part 4

Waking to the sound of waves crashing on to the Playa de la Concha my thoughts turned to the day ahead.

Sunrise over the Playa de la Concha

I was already looking forward to my first ever three Michelin star dinner with anticipation but also wanted to indulge in some more of the creative delights that are the nano gastronomy of the old town’s Pinxto bars.

There was only one way my body was going to take the assault of a day’s gastronomic indulgence and that was with a 20,000 step count walk!

We had yet to really explore either of the peaks at opposite ends of the Playa de la Concha and so with an outline plan we headed off in search of coffee and a little sustainance to fortify us for our first walk. Just a few hundred metres from the Playa de la Concha opposite the park is the delightful Gogoko Goxuak. A bakery come cafe with sensational pastries and excellent coffee.

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Mouth watering pastries at Gogoko Goxuak.

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Interior of Gogoko Goxuak.

With our blood sugar levels up and with the caffeine racing through our veins we headed down towards the marina through the gardens to pick up the footpath to Monte Urgull.

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The summit of Monte Urgull our next destination

As we climbed the steps behind the aquarium it was like passing through a Narniaesque corridor!  The hustle and bustle of San Sebastián left behind  us with just the sound of the waves crashing against the seawall and the fierce wind whipped up as it travelled over the Bay of Biscay.

Waves crashing against the sea wall along the Paseo Nuevo, San Sebastian

After a few metres the path led us away from the sea and through a tranquil gardens. The pathway ascends to the Castillo de la Mota at the summit which houses a fine Basque museum within the castle walls as wells as the imposing Rio style statute of Christ that is the crowning glory of this landmark. Our heart rates increased as the path climbed more steeply and within this countryside paradise we were treated to birdsong and wild flowers.

If this was not enough on reaching the top of Monte Urgull we were afforded stunning views of the Playa de la Concha, San Sebastián and the opposite higher peak of Monte Igueldo.

Views of Playa de la Concha and San Sebastian from Monte Urgull

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Monte Igueldo with Isla Santa Clara in foreground from Monte Urgull

If your planning to do this walk just remember to take water and refreshments with you as there’s nothing at the top!

By the time we descended and picked up the Paseo Nuevo again for the completion of our walk around the peninsula we had worked up quite an appetite. Turning right behind the San Telmo museum we were in the heart of the old town.

Boy oh boy were we in for a treat! Our first stop was at Zeruko. These guys are really the daddies of the nano gastronomy that has taken the world of pintxos to dizzy new heights! This is a a must stop for anyone venturing into the seductive maze of side streets and pintxos bars that make up the old town of San Sebastián.

My favourites were the sea urchins! Colourful, with the roe mixed with breadcrumbs and a creamy veloute and added back to the shell before being finished under a grill. Rich, textured and totally decadent with the unmistakable taste of the sea!

I learnt the following 3 rules of how to get the best from each pintxo bar we visited.

  1. Take in the spectacular visual beauty of the counter displays but keep your powder dry!
  2. Having surveyed the carpet of tantalising morsels in front of your eyes pluck up the courage to ask what are the signature dishes of the house ( often cooked to order and rarely displayed).
  3. Limit yourselves to just one or two pintxos and a glass of a suitable wine, in Zeruko’s case a stunning Albariño.

imageAlways a sucker for a post savoury sweet we stopped off at this Basque chocolatier. Txokolate in the old town where they make an amazing selection of chocolate truffles. With apples featuring heavily in Basque cuisine I had another first, a cider chocolate truffle!

We headed out of the old town for a lovely beach walk along the Playa de la Concha’s golden and expansive sandy beach. We narrowly missed a soaking as we scrambled over a rocky promontory at the end of the beach before crossing over onto the family beach, Playa de Ondarreta. A smaller quieter beach at the western edge of the Playa de la Concha.

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At the end of this beach a small funicular railway steeply climbs Monte Igueldo and brings you to the breathtaking vista and children’s theme pack at the top.

View of Monte Urgull from Monte Igueldo, San Sebastian

Water flume ride in theme park at top of Monte Igueldo

After taking in the views and with theme parks not really being our thing, we descended through a dense woodland which afforded stunning views of the Playa de la Concha below. After about half an hour and passing through a dazzling display of spring flora we arrived back at the foot of Monte Igueldo and strolled back along the Playa de la Concha to our hotel.

The days activities had somewhat drained me and so with a few hours to spare before dinner we relaxed on our terrace with a chilled glass of White Grenache!image

Watching the evening sun slip behind Monte Iguledo with a fanfare like dramatic display of colour we scrubbed up and put our glad rags on for our gastronomic dinner at Martin Berasategui’s 3 Michelin star restaurant of the same name.imageIt took us about 20 minutes to get out to the suburbs of San Sebastián where the hills start to undulate against the backdrop of mountains.

We arrived punctually for our 7pm reservation and were shown to our table. The decor was sophisticated minimalist, with low lighting and clean lines.

I knew we were going to be in for a really special evening when a selection of coloured and flavoured butters were brought to the table to accompany the home made bread. (L-R Beetroot, Plain. Spinach and Mushroom)

imageBefore we got down to the serious business of choosing the wine it was a no brainer when it came to the food; we both opted for the 13 course “Great Tasting Menu”

imageOur sommelier, the charismatic Valentina (from Buenos Aires) recommended this sensational wine from the Valquejogoso estate, an unusual blend of Albillo, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. It worked brilliantly with the Tasting menu. A fat and full wine that possesses flavours of oak and vanilla but also with notes of stone fruit (peach) and white pepper.

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Each course was exquisitely prepared and presented so that the core key ingredients excelled and complimented each other. The kumquat appetiser was busting with citrus flavour! The smoked eel contrasting with the crunchy texture and acidity of the apple in the layers of mille-feuille. The Red Shrimp Royale was a theatrical piece of light foam with a sweet shrimp centre beneath.

Gillian opted for an alternative to the oyster (bottom right) with a local delicacy know as ” KoKotxas” or Hake cheeks. The sweetest and most succulent part of this fish served in a garlic and herb marinade. The sea urchin curd was rich and heady and offset with a anise and salty cured ham emulsion.

 

I loved the cleverly executed “faux” truffle dish using wild mushrooms to create the illusion of a black truffle. The colour of the beetroot juice salad was incredible and the shimmering translucency of the crimson sauce offset perfectly with the green dill fronds.

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Perhaps my favourite dish was the vegetable heart and seafood salad. Visually stunning and exquisitely simple. Probably without doubt the ultimate way to showcase the delicate and subtle flavour of fresh Basque lobster.

 

  1. Suertes Del Marques Trenzado A white wine from the Canary island of Tenerife.Slightly oak and heavy on the lees with a hint of lemon. I loved it and it’s available in the UK from Bibendum (sea urchin)
  2. Envinate Taganan. Another from the island of Tenerife. This was rapidly becoming a must visit wine destination! This one a blend of many local red varietals with a slightly smoky flavour.(Truffle)
  3. Petite Fleur Malbec from Mendoza. 100% Malbec with a 14.5% punch great with the beef and the pigeon!
  4. Emendis Dulce Monastrell from Penedes in Catalonia. A sweet red Mourvèdre that worked brilliantly with the desserts.

It was a real treat to dine here and it marked the start of my 50th Birthday celebrations. A highlight was when Executive Head Chef Martin Berasategui came out from the kitchen to present me with a commemorative plate signed by him wishing me Happy Birthday!

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If this wasn’t enough after desserts we were presented with a stunning display of petit fours in a classic Basque sculpture style centre piece.

As a final curtain call we treated to a behind the scenes visit to the kitchen’s, the engine room of the operation and fascinating to see the different prep stations and the array of appliances and gadgets available to the brigade of chefs that form Martin’s team.

The last word really should of to Anul our waiter who guided us through the 13 course tasting menu without being obtrusive. He definitely contributed to the ambiance of the occasion.

As we left in a slightly squiffy haze dazzled by the culinary skills of this master chef I just hoped that I wouldn’t have to wait another 50 years for my next visit to a 3 michelin star restaurant!