Saturday, April 23, 2011

Eating until you can eat no more: Dinner at Montiaone.

We had a very stressful end to our day in Florence, but were determined that, regardless of what happened with Hayley and Ryan’s hire car, we were going to make dinner at Montaoni Agritourisma. Agritourisma are essentially farm stays, where you can stay bed and breakfast and eat in a dining room usually part of the main house. The most appealing feature of this for us is that because they are on working farms, the food at these restaurants is almost exclusively produced on those farms. We arrived a little late, and found the surroundings a little disconcerting at first. There was only one other table of guests, who were locals doing some work at the farm and having their meals in the dining room. There was also a table set for an elderly man who came in soon after we arrived and sat watching a ‘Red Faces’ style variety show on the tv in the corner of the room, occasionally dropping off to sleep over his meal. Soon the food started to appear. First a plate of ribbon-thin slices of pancetta and salami; a big wedge of a firm goat’s cheese, mild but with the characteristic goat’s cheese tang to it; a bowl of giardineri and slices of a cottage loaf. The cheese was so fine and perfect we had to ask, in our limited Italian if it was made on the farm, and received a slightly offended “Yes, of course”. Next was a course for the meat-eaters (we had been told to expect lots of meat), a soft-consistency chicken liver pate on small pieces of toasted bread topped with a peppery olive oil. We were already beginning to get the idea that this would be a very large meal, and were trying to pace ourselves, but it was very difficult, everything was so delicious. There was also a carafe of a Sangiovese style wine which was kept topped up (I was driving so cannot report on its quality, but David tells me it was a very nice light red).

Our waiter appeared next with a large platter of pasta sheets tossed with a mushroom ragu. The smell of the sauce was fantastic – rich and earthy, and it tasted just as good. The sheets of pasta were silky and melt-in your-mouth. As we were dishing that up, out came two more platters: a ravioli with a spinach and ricotta filling topped with butter and sage leaves and another of meat-filled ravioli with a rich oily meat ragu. We were momentarily taken aback, so much food! The pasta was a revelation, so often we hear that there isn’t any point to making your own fresh pasta: it’s time consuming we are told and the dried product is equally good. But I’m here to tell you that after this dinner I am determined to master it – I know you can buy fresh pasta at some delis, but I have never tasted it as good as this.

So after the pasta we were feeling pretty full, we all knew we shouldn’t have kept eating it, but it was soo good – there was even a brief race for the last spinach tortellini (Hayley won). Our young waiter cleared our tables and returned with a dish we had been eagerly anticipating: Fagioli Sorana or Sorana Beans. These creamy white legumes are grown only in this particular valley in Italy, their flavour apparently attributed to the rich soil and something in the mountain spring water (San Pellegrino mineral water is bottled in the next valley over). Apparently they are so prized that they were used as a currency around here several hundred years ago. Today they are sought after by chefs and sell for around E25 a kilo, and here we were in a humble agritourismo sitting down to a huge plate of them. They were joined by a plate of thinly sliced, pink vitello, a platter of roasted goat and chicken and roasted potatoes. The beans lived up to their hype, the vitello was delicious and melt in the mouth, but I found the goat and chicken a little too dry for my taste.

But wait there’s more – just as us meat-eaters felt as if we were going to burst (and the vego’s ate their way through a plate of beans) came the piece-de-resistance – the chingale, wild boar braised with the most basic of seasonings for hours until it was falling apart. We had been promised it would be on the menu and it was, but I kind of wish it had come earlier. Of course we ate it all, but its strong smell, very gamey flavour and saltiness didn’t sit very well after the many courses which preceded it. It was almost a relief when our waiter placed a bowl of ricotta and a jug of honey on the table which signalled the meal was at its end. I hadn’t eaten ricotta except in this way before, and it is a very nice ending to the meal, except it wasn’t and the final hurrah was slices of fresh-out- of- the-oven ricotta cake dusted with icing sugar, a bottle of throat-grabbing grappa and one of a much smoother vincotta and the offer of coffee (which we very reluctantly refused).

The dinner at Montiaone was everything we had hoped to experience eating with the locals in Italy. As Ryan said after the pasta course, you wouldn’t get a better dish of pasta in any of Melbourne’s finest Italian restaurants, and it certainly was better than the average suburan Melbourne Italian eatery. And because everything we ate was produced locally it was probably one of the best souvenirs we’ll take away from Italy. The entire meal at Montaoine including all the alcohol was E22 per head – around $35 AUD – (of course we left more) and as we wound our way down the very steep windy road we all agreed that someone should tell them they really could charge tourists like us much more for such an experience.

A series of unfortunate events

After several experiences of the difficulties of finding parking in the historical town centers we've been visiting (& the terrible narrow alleyways you have to negotiate to get to any), we made the decision to head into Florence by train from Pescia which brought us right into the centre of the city. With only 6 hours in the city, we had a carefully plotted itinerary: catch the big names of the Duomo and Ponte Vecchio as well as walking up to Pizziali Michelangelo, just outside the old walls of the city. We had been warned by Paul, the manager of La Spinosa, that Florence is always overrun with tourists (like us), and it certainly was. At times we felt like we should have had one if the flags that your guides use, just so we didn't lose track of each other in the throng. The Duomo was closed because of Easter preparations, but the cathedral was open and well worth the short line. It is such a huge space that despite the crowds it was still possible to appreciate it's beauty in relative peace. The Ponte Vecchio approach was madness, jostling crowds cheek by jowl, and then suddenly much quieter on the bridge because the intent of most tourists seemed to be to have a photo against the backdrop or on the two open spaces on the bridge. Next we headed up to the Piazzali Michelangelo for the most incredible view of the city, unfortunately one muddied a little by the smog. The next part of the itinerary after a quick lunch ( here as in Rome you can get a foccacia and drink for two people for €6) was shopping. Florence has some really classy shops and even their souvenir market stalls are often a cut above average- lots of leather, but also fine quality paper, artists selling their original work, balsamic, limoncello and more.

As I said a great day, which was unfortunately marred on the way home by a collision between two of Ryan's tires and the side of the narrow Pescia road while trying to avoid oncoming traffic. It has joined my scraping of one side of our hire car along a narrow Castelvecchio alleyway, the crisis with our Rome accommodation, my causing us to miss our plane from Melbourne and Mum's brief loss of her handbag in the London taxi when we arrived as a series of very unfortunate events which have sometimes threatened to derail our enjoyment of this trip. We're booked in for a very special dinner at the local agritourismo tonight, but I'm not sure we're going to make it!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

A week in Castelvecchio

Castelvecchio: A week in rural Tuscany

It’s early on a Monday morning. I’m looking across a valley at the small village of Castelvecchio on the opposite hillside, about 500m as the crow flies. The sun has just cleared the Appenines foothills and is warming up the ten villages of the Deici Castelli. Dogs are setting each other off in the village, the chooks in the garden next door are complaining to be let out. There’s a big fat bumblebee buzzing around the rosemary bushes and the sound of the spring below the villa cascading down to join the creek in the valley. We arrived late yesterday afternoon passing through the town of Pescia on Palm Sunday afternoon to the sight of hunbdreds of town folk taking a Sunday stroll along the river, eating gelati, drinking espresso, pushing babies in strollers. The road winding up to La Spinosa was hair-raisingly narrow, the track to it passing literally between the district church and its belltower. We are looking forward to a great Tuscan week. Disappointingly there are few local markets to shop for food or tabbachi to give us the fix of espresso and cornetto we developed a taste for in Rome. However shopping at Essalunga in Pescia yesterday was tantalising: whole sides of pancetta, looking mouldy in their black spice rub; the bakery selling foccacia and pizza by the kilo. Buffalo mozzarella for less than $1 a ball. Last night I made a porcini risotto and a plate of antipasto, and we’re planning a final night meal in the Italian style, with 4 courses of local dishes. In between there are local restaurants to try (serving wild boar), and a farmhouse we can see at the top of the farthest hill which puts on traditional meals by request. We’re going to Florence for a day and touring the area around Castiglione where my father fought during WWII.

Today was a designated rest day, so everyone slept in. We took a stroll to Castelvecchio for the first time, discovering a small collection of stone houses, hanging cheek by jowl off the steep slopes of the foothills , joined by interconnecting cobblestone alleyways and narrow roadways. Services in these villages is rudimentary at best, but the bar in Castelvecchio serves dual purpose as a general store and tabacchi (phew). The post office is open once a week on a Wednesday, and just as we were wondering what locals did for staples like bread we came upon a small delivery van which would hurtle up to a house, the driver would leap out grab a loaf or several loaves of bread of various kinds out the back and put them in the plastic bag or basket hanging from the front door of a house. Jumping back into the van he would toot loudly and then scream off to the next. A bus does the circuit of the Deici Castelli twice a day and presumably locals who don’t drive can take this to the nearest town of Pescia.

We stopped at the bar for an espresso, an incredible view of some of the other villages from its terrace and then walked back to the house to hop in the car for the 38km round trip of the ten villages. We stopped in Pontito, which was creepily quiet and deserted, and made nervous jokes about the locals watching us from behind the shutters. Pontito is an immaculately maintained village, but we wondered whether its residents are part-time or work during the day in Pescia, or perhaps because it is early in the season those who move out of town for the winter have not yet returned. Later Paul the manager of La Spinosa explained that in many cases residents have moved into larger towns, and rather than sell the traditional family home they shut them up and return only occasionally. As he said this means that sadly many of these villages are ghost towns, a real pity because they are so beautiful and must have been very vital and busy places a few decades ago. We made another stop in Pescia for supplies for dinner at the Essalunga supermarket (more buffalo mozzarella, a kilo of mussels and passata for a pasta sauce) before returning for the ‘rest’ part of our designated rest day. Mum and Dad had stayed behind and spent a lovely day in the sun reading their books and playing cards. Ryan made dinner ( including an interesting version of panforte) and we spent the evening watching ‘Rebecca’. Boy it’s tiring being on holiday!

Day 3:

One of the main reasons for being in this beautiful area was to go back with my father to the area in which he was stationed as a young soldier with the 6th South African Armored Division. Today we headed off early to Prato, where we revisited the square Dad remembered being full of tanks when he was there, in the months after Italy had signed an armistice and the Allies were driving the Germans back out of Italy. Dad lost many of his fellow soldiers and the other destination for the day was the cemetery in Castigilione de Pepoli where 500 men (the majority of them South African) were buried. After a few false turns we were eventually guided to the site by a handyman at the local cemetery. It was heartening to see how well the cemetery was maintained, in a really beautiful spot overlooking the hills and valleys. A walk around looking for names Dad remembered was quite emotional – particularly seeing the youth of some of those who died. We had a sandwich lunch at a hotel overlooking a lake behind Castiglione. It was very quiet, although apparently can be very busy in summer, and very peaceful to sit there before tackling the long winding road home. The weather so far during our stay could not have been more perfect. Although La Spinosa’s manager Paul tells us it can snow at this time of the year, every day has been calm and clear. Temperatures hover around 21 with light breezes occasionally reminding us with their chill that it is still early spring.

Day 4: Another designated rest day, so today David, Hayley, Ryan and I headed off to Pistoia to check out the weekly market and buy food for a meal tonight. Pistoia is a beautiful town. Like many around here it has a very original historical centre, with lots of tiny cobblestoned alleyways leading off the main piazzas. The market is mostly a flea market style with lots of cheap clothing, leather and electronic goods. However at its heart is a small square of food shops in the centre of which produce growers sell fresh fruit and vegetables. We checked out the many butchers (including one dedicated entirely to horse-meat) and bought some Salsiccia. It’s quite hard to buy meat when the names and cuts are so unfamiliar, so sausages were a safe bet. We also bought some great asparagus, zucchini flowers, strawberries, fennel and peppers and some sardines for the veg/pescatarians. We noticed that all the produce was very seasonal, and found it almost impossible to buy potatoes because of course it’s the wrong season. After buying some pannini (2 Euros each) from a roadside stall we headed back for a restful afternoon and an evening cooking up a storm. Although there were grand plans of playing games, yet again most of us headed off to bed early. Tomorrow Florence.

Eating in Rome

The food in Rome: Aside from the amazing back alleys and gorgeous buildings, the ancient monuments and myriad old churches, Rome has fulfilled every expectation I had of Italian food. Every morning (often after a breakfast of muesli) we could pop across the piazza to the Tabacchi, a hybrid milk bar, cafĂ© and cigarette shop where you could throw back a double espresso and a croissant ( or cornetto) for the princely sum of €2.50. And what coffee. I have never tasted coffee so consistently good as I have in Italy. Forget anything we have in Melbourne, even Pellegrini’s doesn’t do a coffee as good. The double espresso is so rich, creamy and smooth I haven’t once needed to add sugar as I often do in Melbourne to counteract the bitterness often encountered. As we travelled through Italy, we would find equally good coffee no matter where we were. Even the Autogrill – the huge freeway rest stops which often cross over the top of the freeway to allow access from both sides-had a tabacchi inside which served great coffee for less than $2

Our apartment is a street away from the Campo di Fiore where a market is held every morning 6 days a week, and though probably expensive because of its central and tourist location, it was nonetheless a great source of vegies and dried goods. At the base of our apartment block was a trattoria ( we never learnt its name, only that it closed at 2.30 and re-opened at 6) where the owner would end every meal we had there with a complimentary something, be it grappa and biscotti after lunch one day or Colombo and coffee after dinner. And it wasn’t an expensive restaurant either. The priciest meal we had was €15 a head for an assortment of large pastas and the best veal saltimbocca I’ve ever had plus a selection of contorno and wine. I learnt a couple of things in Rome: A coffee and pastry served at the Tabbacchi for €2.50 would cost €6 if ordered sitting down. When buying bread by the kilo, olive bread can end up costing you €8 a loaf, so buy only as much as you need, like the locals do. Many shops, including butchers, grocers etc close at 1 – 1.30 and re-open at around 3. While in Rome you could probably find some supplies during this break, the further out into the country we got, the longer this break was (in Pescia shops close at 1 and re-open at 4) although large supermarkets are usually open the whole day.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Rome on our doorstep

Ok expect some disjointed blogs. Internet access us to be grabbed when I can get it, at the moment in a Pescia street corner! No photos- will do that in an album soon.


I had no expectations about Rome: no long-harboured desire to visit; only the lectures and readings from Medieval and Renaissance history as background; scenes from 1950s movies as visual cues. This has turned out to be a distinct advantage, resulting in a series of wonderful discoveries of a magical city, and few disappointments. The position of our apartment in the Campo Di Fiore district has allowed us to walk to every one of the major historical monuments, but also given us the opportunity to wander the myriad tiny back alleys paved in a mosaic of black cobblestones and discover a Rome fewer tourists probably see.

As I have said in other blogs about other cities I have visited, for me these are the best parts of a city. I have stood in the Sistine Chapel with the loud buzz of hundreds of tourists and been unmoved, but was brought to tears by the jewel-like interior of the tiny Santa Barbara de Libraire church discovered by chance up a side alley in the Campo de Fiori. It is flanked by a gelati shop and a restaurant and is barely 15 metres by 10 metres. It has a broken window pane in the front door and no acres of marble, but every surface is covered in beautiful murals and it offers a quiet place of contemplation, even for the non-religious like me.

Our three days in Rome have seen a series of similar discoveries-it is amazing to stand in the Coliseum and think about those who walked here 2000 years ago, but it is hard to get a sense of it if you are surrounded by 20000 tourists, including groups of chattering teenagers in their orange caps, or jammed up against in long queues (the queue to enter the Sistine Chapel was 500 metres). However walking back from a roam around the Trastevere district we happened upon a Roman theatre almost as ancient as the Coliseum, but with only a handful of visitors (unfortunately including a couple of 'ugly Americans' one of whom was overheard to say that she was taking photos of the interpretive signs to read later because she couldn't be bothered reading them now). The dig site was clothed in bright red poppies, with several resident cats, and invited you to take your time exploring.

Of course there are ways to beat the crowds: on our very first morning we rose very early and struck out for the Pantheon. Only locals were about, and by the time it officially opened at 8.30 there was a grand total of 5 people in the queue.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Location:Lungotevere della Farnesina,Rome,Italy

Thursday, April 14, 2011

We interrupt this holiday blog for a consumer alert.

Picture the scene: after an early start, a Eurostar trip to Paris where we spent day riding the buses, we were at the Gare de Bercy waiting for the overnight trip to Rome when my mobile rings. "Ah Madame I am the agent from Rome Power to tell you that we have a problem with your booking for the apartment in Rome tomorrow. There has been a flood in the apartment and you cannot check in but not to worry, I have a solution for you. I have another beautiful apartment available...."

Now here's a little bit of background: we first booked our accommodation in Rome 3 months ago, knowing it was high season. Just after booking a nice apartment on the Campo Di Fiori with an agency, they emailed me to say sorry but your apartment is not available because we have problems with council permissions, however we have a nice apartment in the Vatican area available. Well we didn't want to be in that area as we decided that schlepping over to the main attractions every day would be a pain. So we said no and began looking for alternatives, except being high season, everything suitable was now booked. We were also frequently reading nightmare stories about people being bumped on arrival, of being told an apartment was no longer available but a nice one was in the Vatican area.

So when, 8 weeks ago Ryan found a nice apartment in the Campo di Fiori on Giverno Vecchio (called Gladiator)through Rome Power booking agency, we were relieved and excited when the booking was confirmed. However a month ago we saw the apartment was showing as vacant for the days we had booked.Concerned, Ryan rang the agency. " Don't worry Mr Guillot" he was told "your booking is here and everything is fine, I will get the agent to call you or email you the details." Ryan rang three more times and was told again the booking was fine.

Then when I got to London from Cornwall I rang the agency and was told they would organize a car to pick us up at the station in Rome and take us to the apartment. So you can imagine my reaction when I got the phone call in Paris. The apartment offered as a replacement was, of course, in St Peters area. It seems clear that the apartment was a 'bait' and that if it even exists, it was already booked. The thing about accommodation in Rome seems to be that everyone wants an apartment in the centre of the main sights, but there are a lot of rentals available in the vicinity of St Peter's to accommodate religious pilgrims. Despite our every effort, we still became victims of dubious business practices.

The upside of the story is that I was able to get a message to Hayley and Ryan who were joining us in Rome and they found us a last minute apartment right off the Campo di Fiore, an absolutely magnificent traditional courtyard style apartment in an 1828 building.

(that's our apartment with brown shutters on the corner of the third floor)

(Pasta dinner on night two):

The view from the apartment

The agent Peter from Rome from Home couldn't have been more helpful allowing us to leave our bags in the apartment early after our marathon journey and sleepless night.

So here we are in Rome,blown away by the beautiful streets and literally awe-some buildings and indulging in all sorts of local foods. Sometimes things happen for the best, but I wouldn't wish what happened to us on anyone, thus the consumer alert: be VERY careful who you deal with when booking an apartment in Rome. I can certainly recommend Rome from Home, but not Rome Power.
- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Location:Via dei Banchi Vecchi,Rome,Italy

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Finding real French food on a stopover

We're all pretty exhausted after catching a 5.25am Eurostar from London. We got into Paris at 9 and after stowing our luggage in 2 left luggage lockers took a 4 hour hop-on hop-off tour of the city which was mostly hop-on except for a stop at Notre Dame for lunch at what appears to be a quintessential Paris Brasserie for a lunch of onion soup, croque Monsieurs and hot chocolate (it was freezing).

Paris is just as beautiful as I expected it to be, although much much busier than I had anticipated. The Eiffel Tower was an unexpected highlight. You think you know what to expect, but up close I was blown away by the intricacy and fragility of it, it really is stunning.

As we drove down the Quai des Gds Augustin we passed a series of small stalls selling books, it was all I could do to restrain myself from yelling " Stop the bus!!!" However given three of my Mrs Beeton's already have a bag of their own, it's no more books for me!

In Paris I particularly loved the brasserie and tabac we passed on nearly every corner, wicker chairs lining the pavement for the smokers and people- watchers. It was suddenly clear what so many restaurants and cafes are trying to emulate, but never will be able to because, well, it's Paris and they're not!

After the bus tour we took a taxi across town to the Gare de Bercy, the driver dodging scooters and Velopeds, the traffic absolutely chaotic, and settled in for a 3 hour wait for the train to Rome. Taking a stroll to pass the time, imagine our pleasure to discover a particularly French food truck parked outside: Mimi la Brioche sold a range of baked goods, mostly priced by the kg.

There were huge loaves of brioche (of course), madeleines, le pain epice, thick white slabs of nougat, chocolate coated waffle-like cookies and beautiful cannelles, crisp dark and waxy on the outside, soft and yellow on the inside.

We bought a whole lot of goodies for the trip and settled back down hoping that the huge group of excitable American teenagers wasn't going to be on our carriage.

Location:Gare du Bercy, Paris

If it's Sunday it must be Tintagel

On Sunday morning I woke up with a start. Where was I, what time was it, what was I supposed to be doing? Lace curtains and green carpet in the bathroom, Axminster on the floor, apricot floral wallpaper- oh that's right the comfortable, but very 1980s B&B outside the quaint fishing village of Mevagissey. After our day trip to St Martin's, we went on a whistlestop tour of Cornwall.

We spent a lovely few hours at (quaint fishing village no.1) Mevagissey, where the streets are only barely wide enough for a car to drive down.

We visited the lovely cathedral town of Truro and discovered my grandfather's home was now an op shop.

We visited ( quaint fishing village no. 2) harbourside Padstow, known jokingly as Padstein because celebrity chef Rick Stein has 5 shops and restaurants in town.

We tried to visit (quaint fishing village no.3) Port Isaac which is the location for the Doc Martin tv series. Unfortunately being a Sunday there was not an accessible car park to be found, so this is the best I could do:

So instead we headed off to Tintagel (not a quaint fishing village this time) home to a castle ruin which legend has it was home to King Arthur. On the cliff overlooking it was another wonderful old pile - Camelot Castle built in 1899 in the baronial style. We had a tour through some of the rooms and David and I promised ourselves we'd come back one day and stay.

Along the way we've eaten in little English pubs, had 'cream teas' and the Cornish native Saffron Cake (recipe to come when I return to Melbourne) and my Dad decided to have a Cornish Pasty every lunch time. There certainly was no shortage of places to buy them.Every town had several purveyors, all proclaiming theirs the best. In Padstow there were three shops in a row:

There were sweet pasties and vegetarian pasties, curry pasties and delicate cocktail size ones. But Dad proclaimed the traditional handmade, plate-sized pasties from St Martin's the best he tried (although of course not as good as the pasties my Mum makes from a recipe passed down to her from her Mum):

In the middle of a circle of shortcrust pastry, leaving a generous edge, layer stewing steak (cubed small), diced potatoes and onions. Season each layer generously with sakt and pepper. Wet the edges of the pastry and bring to the middle. Pinch edges together. Put a small slash in the pastry either side of the crimp and brush with egg and milk. Bake in a hot oven for 20-30 minutes then lower to moderate/slow for another 10 minutes.

You can vary the ingredients by adding parsnip or swede.

We're not sure where Granny learnt to make pasties, possibly from my Cornish grandfather, but also possibly from her mother who was a pastry chef in Cape Town, and according to family legend baked the pastries for a banquet for the Duke of Windsor. (Now there's some family history to investigate!)

Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Location:Alphington St,Exeter,United Kingdom

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Mucking around on boats and meeting the ancestors (with Cornish Pasties thrown in)

An early start this morning for our day of mucking around on boats and meeting the ancestors. The Scillonian III plies the route between Penzance and St Mary's twice every day at this time of year (3 times a day in summer). To call the boat utilitarian is generous, and probably a more modern craft would be quicker and smoother, but the Scillonian gave you a real sense of the isolation of this little circle of islands. The 2 1/2 hour trip sticks close to the coast until Land's End, providing spectacular views of hidden villages and grand houses (including John Le Carre's).

Arriving at St Mary's we were met by Paul's water taxi service for the 15 minute dash across the water to Higher Town Quay.

The islands are picture-postcard pretty. Beautiful white sandy beaches and rocky promontories edge a clear aqua sea. St Martin's is the third largest of the group of islands. 2 miles long with a single concrete road barely wide enough for a large car, we weren't sure what to expect in the way of services.

The last thing I expected to find here was a bakery in a restored barn up a picturesque lane which produced food I've come to expect from some of the more cosmopolitan destinations I've visited. There was an amazing range of breads, pastries, quiches and more, all made on site using ingredients sourced locally, including flour grown and milled in Devon. Vegetables and herbs are grown on the island, seaweed from the beaches is included in the sundried tomato and feta sourdough loaf.

The beef in our enormous pasties came from the nearby island of Tresco and the smoked salmon in David's quiche was locally caught by owner Toby and smoked on site. Toby is an Irishman who first came to St Martins on holiday in 1982 and returned to live 10 years later. He is self-taught and believes strongly in sustainable and local production. Despite some hardship, he really is living the dream!

We only had 3 hours on the island, enough time to visit the cemetery to look for Ellis graves, and chat to a lady at the post office who was born and raised on the island as were her mother and grandmother (I think we're probably vaguely related!)

The St Martin's Bakery runs week-long baking courses, and David and I are already thinking It might be a reason to return!

Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Location:Gwavas Ln,Penzance,United Kingdom

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Lunch in the temple: a mixed bag

You know how you have one of those days where everything falls into place? Today was one of those. After weeks, nay months, of trying to work out a way to get my Mum and I to the tiny island of St Martins in the Scilly Isles where her ancestors are from, but which has very limited access, this morning a nice confluence of circumstances saw us booked on the ferry to St Marys where we will be met by a boatman who will taxi us to St Martins and back. We'll only have 3 hours there but we're very excited about seeing the village. Unfortunately Mum suffers very badly from seasickness, fortunately she loves Ginger, which is supposed to be the best natural cure. The housekeeping morning continued with our tickets on the Eurostar booked and also our car for the Cornwall trip.

Feeling chuffed, David and I headed off to Notting Hill for the second time to visit Books for Cooks. It was a gorgeous Spring day, heading for 24 degrees.

Books for Cooks is tiny and was crammed with people browsing the shelves and also having lunch in the very tiny test kitchen up the back of the shop where every day they create a lunch menu from books in stock. Today was a Middle Eastern lentil soup and lamb kofta with a nice red wine to accompany it and lovely cakes on display. We elected for the soup and wine (£12 for two) which was a lovely light lunch.

I was very excited at the prospect of visiting and eating at this iconic destination, but I must admit to being in two
minds about it. On the one hand the test kitchen and the workshops held upstairs are a model for how something like this should be run; on the other hand I could not help but feel that the books have become secondary. It is very hard to browse many shelves because the dining tables are crammed up against them and getting a book from the shelves requires reaching over someone's head as they eat. I also felt that there was an over-emphasis on 'popular' titles like the Australian Women's Weeklys which were everywhere, and less on the serious cooking and food titles. Of course they also have virtually no second hand or antiquarian stock which makes it if less interest to me. While there were some interesting titles I hadn't seen before, some shelves were noticably bare. So a not altogether satisfying visit to the temple of cookbook shops, although still quite interesting.

The other must-do visit of the day was to the Aga shop where I picked up a famous Aga toaster as well as a new cold plain shelf for the fraction of their cost in Melbourne. Now they have to compete for room in the luggage with 4 Mrs Beeton's!

Tonight we're packing for the drive to Cornwall and here is a better photo of some of my older treasures from Monday's shopping

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Location:London,United Kingdom

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Charing Cross Road, Bloomsbury Rd & Cecil Court-trawling London's bookshops

Well today was my idea of heaven. After a continental breakfast at our hotel ( a former Gentleman's Club, think Fawlty Towers with Eastern European staff. When I asked for teatowels for our kitchen I was told: "I don't think we have those") we parted ways with Mum and Dad who headed off to see the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace. We had carefully plotted our travels, but had a false start when we reached Books for Cooks to find it closed on a Monday.

The bonus was that as we took a wander up Portobello Road (with a stop along the way for cupcakes at Hummingbird Bakery)

we found an Oxfam Bookshop with a beautiful 1930s copy of Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management in a glass case. It wasn't cheap - but given one of my aims for this trip was to pick up a copy, I wasn't going to turn it down. By the end of the day I had 4!!

Next stop was the Bloomsbury bookshops, an eclectic mix of antiquarian booksellers like Jarndyce on Great Russell St where I picked up an 1891 "Manual of Domestic Economy; with Hints on Medicine and Surgery" ; and indepent publisher Souvenir Press for a couple of obscure titles on Arabian Cooking and herbal remedies. Nice finds but not yet the treasures I was hoping for.

We detoured to Covent Garden Market where we had been promised an antique market. There was lots of silverware and crockery, but no books or kitchenalia so we had lunch at the very tasteful chain Battersea Pie Shop.

David had a seafood pie with mashed potato and I had a pastie with mash and gravy. Gorgeous concept that I think would go well in Australia if someone had the presence of mind to copy it!

Now fortified against the cold wind and equipped with a copy of Book Lover's London purchased from Jarndyce, we headed for Cecil Court, a tiny back lane behind the theatres on Charing Cross Road jam-packed with specialist booksellers:

David Drummond sells only books and ephemera on theatre and magic and has some beautiful playbills and early programs in his tiny, crammed-full shop;

Marchpane with exquisite children's books, and I was awestruck by an entire bookshelf of Alice in Wonderland in every edition, language and format you could imagine.

Of interest in other Cecil Court traders were several Elizabeth David first editions and a first edition of the Savoy Cocktail Book which had pride of place in the window of an uncharacterictically sparse space with only a couple of hundred books and a focus on the exotic, trendy and risque.

Prices in Cecil Court were high (350 pounds for the Savoy), but it was lovely to browse.

Onwards we marched around the corner to the heart of what remains of the original Charing Cross bookshop district. Henry Prode's produced a circa 1890 Mrs Beeton's (that's 2) and Elizabeth David hardcovers.
There were many more beautiful antiquarian cookbooks and facsimiles of classics like the Williamsburg cookbook, but I had a couple more shops to visit.
One of these was Quinto's with a small but exciting shelf of cookbooks including 2 (count them two!) lovely Mrs Beeton's from the early 20th century (that's 4), Here I also found an Indian cookbook of the British Raj, and several books on domestic ecnonmy: 1892 Household Wrinkles by Mrs DeSallis and 1883 Cookery and Housekeeping by Mrs Henry Reeve Culinary Jottings.

We called it a day with approximately 20 kgs of books and negotiated 2 tube rides before stopping in at our 'local ' for a well-deserved pint.

Now I have what I came for!

Monday, April 4, 2011

Farmer's Markets, Pubs & Food Shops:

After arriving late yesterday and settling in to our hotel in the Marylebone district of London, we started our first day bright and early, setting out for the Cramer St Farmer's Market behind the Marylebone High St. The Farmer's Market website said the market operated from 10-2, but we went down at 9 expecting to be able to buy goods early. Apparently not: some archaic by-law prohibits selling before 10am. So all we could do was drool over the two stalls selling gourmet ready-made meals like confit duck, Boeuf Bourgignon and beautiful sides; the fishmonger displaying huge scallops 6 for £5, turbot and skatewings; the pies cooked in enamelled pie tins etc etc. Nearby is also The Ginger Pig butcher, who offer butchering classes 6 nights a week and are booked out months in advance.

The Fromagerie next door not only had an enormous cheese room, but beautiful baked goods and heirloom veges.

We then took a long tube ride across town to Camden Markets, which turned out to be more of a flea market than I had expected. We shared fish & chips (no fried Mars Bar although they were on offer) before then discovering a large section of the market dedicated to widely diverse ethnic foods. The best discoveries of the day were two bookshops: Walden Books tucked away in a back street produced a couple of Ambrose Heath 1sts. We were directed to it by the owner of Black Gull, home to more recent stick where I was able to pick up some Heston, Jane Grigson and Lindsay Bareham's Big book of Tomatoes.
Tomorrow David and I have planned a major assault on the bookshops of Charing Cross Rd, Bloomsbury and a visit to Books for Cooks in Notting Hill.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone