Eat Drink Venice

Venice, tourist cafes by the canal
Venice, tourist cafes by the canal

It is all too easy to go to Venice (or anywhere in Italy) and sit outdoors at a café, under an umbrella, on a plastic wicker chair – just like at home at a cheap Italian themed chain restaurant. And the food will be as bad (and more expensive) than those same theme restaurants at home. But it doesn’t have to be like that, just watch where the locals seem to go and give that a try instead. Back when I was a young backpacker I was pretty happy with over-cheesy, over-greasy faux-italian, but now I want to find the genuine local food, I want to eat and drink well in Venice.

First: What not to do.

There was a tourist restaurant, right next to my hotel, a block from Plaza San Marco (the Hotel Al Ponti dei Sospiri was brilliant by the way). On my first evening, succumbing to jet lag and sore feet from walking, I decided this would be good enough. It wasn’t. I didn’t make that mistake again for the rest of my stay. If the menu looks a lot like this one above at Trattoria Canonica, if it is headed “Pizza + Soft Drink” and has a special price in a big star, it’s probably best to avoid it.

5 ways to eat and drink well in Venice.

  1. The markets. Head to the Rialto markets first thing in the morning and stock up on your own supplies from the fruit and vege stalls and specialty stores. Bread, cheese, cured meats, sweet treats, can all be picked up for a picnic breakfast or lunch, sitting under a tree in cobblestoned square, or watching out over a canal. It’s all fresh, it’s tasty and there’s a huge variety
  2. Caffeine. No surprise that Italians do coffee well, and as I love my coffee black, I was in coffee heaven in the morning, sampling perfect little expresso and ristretto. For the best coffee go into the little ‘stand up” bars, where the patrons order and then drink their coffee while standing up at the bar – don’t look for sit-down coffee shops. A bonus first thing in the morning was finding I was drinking my coffee while standing next to Gondoliers, resplendent in their black and white stripes, who were knocking back their expresso shots and then putting some muscle into getting a perfect shine on the paintwork and gilding of their gondolas- fun to watch while drinking my coffee.
  3. Drinks. Prosecco is my local summer favourite, and of course you can’t be in Venice and not try the Bellini – Prosecco and peach nectar. You can pay a small fortune for bad service at the famous Harry’s Bar, or pay only half a fortune at any flash outdoor waterfront bar on the bigger canals, which is a nice way to watch the sun set in the evening. In cooler months I found there are some great red wines to sample from the surrounding region, particularly the pinot noirs (Pinot Nero).
  4. Bacari. These are the local taverns, mainly small, hole-in-the-wall places. Many double as stand up coffee bars in the morning. But it’s not just drinks, they also serve a selection of appetisers or small dish snacks, called cichetti in Venetian dialect. (It sounds something like “cheekattee” with accent on “a”.) You can create your own dinner or graze from one Bacari to another. Some may also have tables to sit at, some may have a dinner menu in addition to the cichetti, but most customers will be standing at the bar, ordering their wine and their desired snacks. It’s fair to say that I fell in love this this style of establishment, food, and drink, and sampled far too many of them. The variety and quality was amazing. Here’s some of the cichetti I sampled:
    1. a single boiled egg skewered with an anchovy,
    2. fresh sardines in tomato sauce
    3. Calamari in black ink sauce
    4. numerous versions of bruschetta – tomato, salmon and cheese; gorgonzola and walnut; raw white fish with tomato; prosciutto;.
    5. and the places I ate at included
      1. Al Stagneri on Calle dei Stagneri. It also has an amazing roof inside  – look up from your bar stool.
      2. Osteria De Carla in a laneway off Frezzaria – you’ll see it at the end of the tunnel, the bruschetta selection was phenomenal and went well with a cool prosecco; it also has a sit-down restaurant part but I didn’t try that.
      3. Bar Piccolo Martini, also on Frezzaria, had beautiful dainty fresh little sandwiches.
  5. Restaurants – I was very happy sticking to Bacari for lunch and dinner every day, until I stopped off at a cool wine bar for a late afternoon glass one day. Not only was the wine bar and it’s wine list lovely, but it was part of a cool restaurant with a mouth watering menu. I decided to splash out for the evening. The place was Osteria-Enoteca San Marco, on Frezzaria just west of San Marco Square – it was a modern take on Italian cooking, I can still taste the perfect gorgonzola and asparagus soufflé I had there.


Do you have a favourite spot to eat in Venice -do share!

5 good reasons to get up early in Venice

I am a fan of the holiday sleep-in, but I can be persuaded to be an early riser if the reasons are good enough.


It is a bit of an understatement to say that Venice is popular with tourists. Venice is small (and expensive), many visitors come in on day trips and stay outside on the mainland overnight, therefore from about 9am to 5pm it is even more crowded. If you are lucky enough to be staying in Venice itself, make the most of both ends of the day, and her charms will be easier to enjoy.

5 reasons to get up early in Venice

Venice Rialto markets
Venice Rialto markets

1.            The Rialto Markets. The markets are open from 8am – these are produce markets that the locals still treat as their local grocery store. The stalls are piled high with deliciously fresh fruit, veges and fish, and the surrounding small shops have bread and cheeses and meats of all descriptions. Every stallholder displays their produce in beautiful and creative patterns, they take their design ethic seriously here. Getting here early before the crowds means the stallholders have time to chat to you, and offer you tastings of their wares. At 8am only the produce market is open, the souvenir stands open later, and the Rialto bridge is almost empty. And you can stock up on supplies for your breakfast or lunch as well.

Venice Rialto markets
Venice Rialto markets

2.            Photography. Get your camera and head outside, the light will be softer and your photos will show the tones and shades of Venice so much better than in the midday sun. And there will be less crowds to shoot around.  In a place like Venice, where clichés like “beauty around every corner” seem very true, I am guilty of getting carried away snapping every thing I see, every minute. So to slow down and get some perspective I signed up for a photography tour one morning (starting early). For two hours I had a photo guide show me new ways to capture the iconic views, as well as hidden corners I may never have stumbled on by myself. More than just photography tips, I also learned interesting tales of history, geography, and how it was as a city to live in now. Great for a holiday snapper or a keen enthusiast.


3.            Avoid the crowds. Once I’d seen the shoulder to shoulder crush in St Marks Square at lunchtime, I finally understood how good it is to be in central Venice with no crowds. See the Bridge of Sighs without peering over someone else’s shoulder (if only it wasn’t covered in scaffolding and advertisements). Wander around St Marks Square, get right up close with the detail on the arches on the front of the Bascilica, then stand way back and get the whole vista. Lie on the ground and peer up at the Campanile (not recommended in the months when Venice is flooded). Gaze on the rows of gondola tied up together in front of the square, gently bobbing in their bright blue covers, and step back to get them in a panorama shot without anyone walking in front of your camera. Watch the city wake up and come alive. And then when the crowds do arrive, breeze past them to all the best sights with entry tickets and skip the line passes purchased in advance, for the first timeslot of the day.


4.            Gondolier Spotting.  Go grab an early morning expresso in a hole-in-the-wall café and watch the gondoliers turn up in their black and white striped jumpers, see them throw back their own coffee at the counter, and then head outside to watch them polish up their boats ready for the day. How to find them? Go (early) to the edge of any canal (not the Grand Canal, go somewhere smaller) where there are gondolas tied up for the night, pop into the nearest coffee shop you can see, stand at the counter with your own caffeine fix and they will be there.


5.            Earning my siesta. By the time it’s the middle of the day, crowded and hot, it’s easy to justify taking a siesta, or at least a very long lunch under a shaded umbrella, with a good view over the canal. Watch everyone else get hot and bothered, and then head out again late afternoon, all refreshed, as the crowds start to thin.

Milford Sound – the Wet Wonderland of NZ

As a proud ex-pat Kiwi, I head home to New Zealand every chance I get to visit friends and family. The downside is I am usually visiting the same (lovely) places every time. But sometimes I want to branch out and see somewhere new, because there is no end of beauty in NZ. So when I visit friends in Lake Hawea, outside Queenstown, I finally take the chance to visit somewhere I have always wanted to visit – New Zealand’s wet and wonderful Milford Sound, in Fiordland.

Wet & wonderful Milford Sound

I come here expecting rain and I am not disappointed. Milford Sound has the highest annual rainfall at sea level anywhere in the world – more than 6 metres of rain each year. It rains 2 days out of 3, but usually not all day every day. Of course it is the rain that makes it so stunning, lush rainforest clinging to vertical cliff faces and waterfalls twice the height of Niagara. Perversely, my best chance of a blue sky day is in winter time, but then I am only going to see the five permanent waterfalls, and not the thousands of temporary ones which appear during every rainfall and disappear about a few hours later.

Remote Milford Sound

One of the reasons I have never been into the Sounds is because it is a remote and difficult area to access. There are 16 fiords on the bottom half of the western coast of the South Island of New Zealand. They are hidden behind the Southern Alps, have almost no road access, and open into the Tasman Sea, a notoriously rough piece of water.

But the sounds themselves are deep, calm and serene, up to 500 metres deep, surrounded by sheer cliffs (the highest is 1,600 m) soaring vertically above the sounds, and protected from the sea by many twists and turns.

The thrill of the road to Milford

The drive out to Milford Sound is as stunning and as much an adventure as the Sounds themselves. We pass down the side of Lake Wakatipu, and then stop at Kingston early on, to jump on board the Kingston Flyer. This restored steam engine takes me back to another era of travel for the half hour chug through the countryside to Fairlight, where the bus picks us up again. The high country farmland turns into ski fields, and as we go ever higher up through the Alps and over two high mountain passes, the view from the road alternates between soaring and scary. The penultimate point is passing through the very steep, one-way, 1.2km Homer Tunnel at the top of the pass. On the descent to Milford the view changes again to lush alpine rain forest. We get lots of photo stops as the driver stops whenever we request it, but the rain is so heavy it makes getting the photos quite difficult, (and staying dry impossible)!


The landscapes are dramatic – I recommend stopping at the Chasm, just after the tunnel on the Milford Sound side – the river levels here rises 3.9 metres on the day we stop by, and the small streams become raging glacial torrents. The same big rain dump has trapped about 120 hikers on the famous Milford Trail and other neighbouring trails – stuck between trekking huts, between rivers both in front of and behind them which have become too dangerous to cross, they all have to be helicoptered out.

Overnight on Milford Sound

Once in Milford we get onto our boat as soon as we can and head out into the Sound. The towering vertical walls, clad in rainforest, are so straight up & down that the boat can get really close, nosing in under waterfalls just a few feet from the cliffs, but still with a huge depth beneath the boat. It’s magical, with views emerging from and disappearing back into the rainclouds. As I am already wet from the rain, I have no hesitation to get even wetter standing too close to waterfalls, almost being knocked over by their sheer force. I stay outside, and wet, for a good couple of hours as we cruise up the Sound. The only downside of the wild weather is that it is deemed unsafe to let us out in the kayaks. I have been looking forward to getting out on the water for a paddle. Instead I take advantage of the hot shower and hair dryer in my comfy little cabin. Dry and warm again, I make friends with other passengers over a delicious dinner. I enjoy some good NZ pinot noir with my new-found friends, and the evening is topped off with an entertaining talk from the onboard nature guide. I feel pleasantly exhausted.

Morning on Milford Sound

I know something is good if I am up at sunrise (not normally a morning person), and this is a good one. I can see a rain-free and snow-capped Milford sound in all its cloudy glory (and yes, the winter snows also started last night!). We head out through the mouth of the Sound into the Tasman Sea, the dolphins find us and swim alongside, we pass some seals resting on the rocks, but no penguins today. We cruise back up the Sound, revisiting the scenes of the previous days waterfalls, many of which have now disappeared. Everything looks different and new again without the torrential rain, and I am sure that will be true again if I ever get to see it in sunlight.

The locals say that if you want a change of weather in Milford, just wait a few hours. I contemplate this as I sink into my hot tub back in Queenstown.

Top Ten things I love about Havana Cuba

It would be a much shorter list to write down what I don’t love about Havana (ATMs don’t work?), but what’s the point of that when there is so much to love? Of course, in addition to this list, there is another underlying pleasure of being in Havana, and it’s that feeling of being naughty, of being somewhere I am not allowed to be. Even though it is legal for me to be here, it isn’t for a lot of people, so it does feel like a form of protest just being here. Which just adds to all the other pleasures, which include:

Havana, Cuba, music
Havana, Cuba, music
  1. Walking along the Malecon in the daytime. The Malecon is the wide path running along the seawall around the huge sweep of bay in central Havana. On a hot sunny weekend I am amazed at the number of families at the beach, swimming, sunbathing on rocks, having picnic lunches. There are cyclists going up and down; there are people fishing for their dinner off the wall; there are couples cuddling on the wall; there are musicians playing the sax, drums, guitars, along the Malecon; it feels like the heart and soul of daily Havana is laid out for me to stroll past.
  2. Walking along the Malecon at night. I find this just as interesting as during the day time. Now there are more couples promenading, more groups of teenagers hanging out with their friends. There is a huge curved vista of the lit up city at night spread out in front of me, and there are more tourists out and about as well.

    Havana, Cuba, The Malecon
    Havana, Cuba, The Malecon
  3. Strawberry and Choc Chip icecream. Actually this is a Cuba-wide obsession of mine, they do some fine icecream, and the Coppelia in Havana is particularly intriguing, looking more like a spaceship than an ice cream parlour.
  4. Queueing for up to two hours for meals. This may not sound like a good thing, but it’s a sure sign that I am going to eat in one of the more popular paladars. We spent one and a half hours one lunchtime queueing on the street, in direct blazing sun, to get into a restaurant up three floors of rickety staircase, but it turned out to be worth it. One night we queued outside a paladar for over two hours and got dinner at around 10.30. But we got to sit in the garden down the side of the house while we waited, and drunk our way though so many Rum Collins that I have no idea what we eventually had for dinner, but we did have a fun night. And lets face it, queueing for food is a fairly good way of getting a small insight into what the locals have had to deal with for decades.
  5. Hiring a bright pink Cadillac convertible for a sightseeing drive. Getting driven around the embassy district and Revolution Square in a vibrantly painted 1950’s pink convertible has the added bonus of turning us into a tourist attraction too. Other visitors unlucky enough to not be in one of these cars are busy snapping us and our car as we cruise slowly by. Its even more fun when we add a few hats and hairscarves to channel the appropriate period. At the same time  we get to explore the embassy district, where the palatial houses of the richest families before the revolution have since become embassies of Cuba’s allies, some restored to their former glory, some still falling apart depending on the wealth of the nation represented. It seems mildly inappropriate arriving this way in Revolution Square, huge enough to accommodate those massive Castro rallies, surrounded by the starkly serious architecture of the revolutionary government, and the gigantic iconic outline of Che on the side of one of the government buildings.

    Havana, Cuba, car
    Havana, Cuba, car
  6. How many of the beautiful buildings have been restored and how many haven’t. There has been a huge amount of restoration work in Havana, especially the heritage protected Old Havana, which enables the buildings to glow in all their former pastel glory. And there are equally as many buildings just a few blocks away that are run down and on their last legs, a faded shadow of their former selves. For me this helps prevent the centre of Havana from becoming a theme park to its former self. The government is actively bribing citizens back into the restored heart of Old Havana to try and make sure it doesn’t become a sterile shell for visitors, that it remains a neighbourhood. It makes it fascinating to go walking, zigzagging through these streets, around every corner is a different type of view.
  7. The perfect snacks: the cold chocolate milkshake at the Museo del Chocolate; the mojito in La Bodeguita del medio, claimed as its birthplace by Hemingway; the perfect expresso at Cafe Escorial in Plaza Vieja.

    Havana, Cuba, mojito
    Havana, Cuba, mojito
  8. The Tropicana Show. Once upon a time, before the revolution, Havana was the original Vegas – it attracted the stars, the parties,the gambling, the corruption, the crime. And its centrepiece was the Tropicana Show, the original showgirl routines that Nevada has since built an entire industry on. It somehow has survived the decades of revolution and blockade, and the growth in tourism to Cuba has seen it regain some of its original lustre. Its pricy but we still wanted to go, its a little window back in time to a lifestyle that no longer exists. The Tropicana is a large open air amphitheatre under the stars and the trees, perfect for evenings basking in the sultry cuban heat. Tables are arranged in circular tiers around the stage so that everyone gets a view. There are really big production numbers with showgirls and guys, contortonists, aerial and high wire performers and strongman acrobats. And for a show based around displaying lots of naked flesh, it seems free from any sleaze. This may be partly because it was easy to, literally, see the frayed edges of the show. The costumes were obviously originally very elaborate, and just like the old 50’s cars, appear to have been held together with string and wire for the last few decades. The dancers shoes are permanently scuffed, the metallic paint worn off the edges. The dancers all wear “nude” coloured bodysuits, to give the impression they were completely naked except for the strategically placed nipple rosettes and g-strings. Once upon a time I guess these suits were made specifically for each dancer and matched their skin tones. However the Cuban population has skin tones varying from the blackest black to the whitest white, so it is definitely not a “one flesh coloured body suit fits all” kind of environment. Now the dancers and body suits are often mismatched – dark brown “flesh” on a pale girl, a pale cream on a darker girl, which if nothing else does give quite a homely quality to the pretend nudity.
  9. La Torre Bar – cocktails and views for sunset. On the top floor of a 36 floor building, with floor to ceiling glass windows, this bar is the place to come, sit back, sip a cocktail and watch the sun set over all Havana. Of course the drinks are overpriced, but it is the best view in town. Its part of the famous La Torre restaurant, reputedly so ridiculously expensive it makes the bar look cheap, but we don’t bother finding out, it is back to the paladar for us.
  10. Wandering the Old Town, between Plaza Viejo and Plaza Cathedral before 11am. In this small area of Old Havana, there are dozens of tiny cobblestoned streets to explore, opening onto many hidden and not so hidden squares. The buildings hide a huge variety to explore, everything from an armoury which still sells guns to the public, to a cigar shop which is one big humidor and has its own bar inside, to the Museo de Chocolate, to so many art galleries that I lose count. Up until about 11 in the morning I pretty much have it to myself, then it fills up quickly and is crowded for the rest of the day, just in time for me to retire to a rooftop bar for a refreshing mojito. So get up early and  get to enjoy it both ways.

Tangalooma – a tropical trip back in time

Shall I tell you a secret – a really well kept secret? There is an island, a tropical playground only 75 minutes by ferry from Brisbane. I’m talking about Tangalooma Island resort, on Moreton Bay island just off the coast from Brisbane. In my ten years in Australia I’d say that pretty much every local and about 50% of imports and visitors I have talked to have heard of Moreton Bay Island, and yet I can count on one hand the number of people I’ve come across who’ve heard of Tangalooma. I suspect if I lived in Brisbane that number might be higher, but for the rest of us, its been a secret for far too long.

Tangalooma Island Resort, a trip back to the seventies.

Moreton Bay Island is a large sand island surrounded by beautiful shallow turquoise water teeming with sea life. Its 95% National Park, so if you are on Moreton Bay island its likely that you are at the Tangalooma Island Resort. In spite of their excellent efforts to modernise the accommodations, what I love about Tangalooma is how it feels like a step back into a good seventies motel. Here’s a holiday spot where I can embrace my inner bogan. Bring out your beer brand t-shirts, your hawaiian shirts, your tracky-dacs or your checked bush shirt and you will feel right at home here. I order a XXXX Gold – no,  I don’t have a choice, its the only beer on tap – at least it is lovely and cold. I mull over my choice of fish and chips, pizza or meat pie for dinner, order from behind the bar, sit outside in the beer garden, watch the sky turn deep orange and realise I really don’t need any other mod cons.


It may be the 1970s but there is a raft of brilliant things for us to do. First off we are staying on a beautiful sheltered white sand beach with calm shallow clear blue waters. As well as swimming, we can snorkel, kayak, or go for a ride on a water trike (giant three wheeled floating tractor for those who haven’t yet had this thrill). Around the resort there is tennis and archery. Heading inland there is sand tobogganing and quad biking. But we are looking at the sea, so we head off for an afternoon of whale watching. The boat heads around to the seaward side of the ocean, where from June to October each year the humpbacks migrate right past the island. We see a lot of humpbacks, including a few that come right up and swim under and around us, slapping their tails, blowing through their blow holes, but sadly no spectacular breaches today.

Hand feeding wild dolphins.

Night-time brings the most unusual entertainment – hand feeding the wild dolphins. Now this doesn’t immediately sound very ecologically sound to us, but we are reassured that it is in fact a highly controlled program, only about 11 of the population of around 600 local wild bottlenose dolphins participate (at their choice), and they are all feed only a small proportion of their daily requirements so that it doesn’t stop their normal hunting and feeding patterns. Re-assured that we are not doing anything bad, we line up for the process of dolphin feeding, which goes like this:

  1. Strip down to swimwear.
  2. Stand under a cold shower and make sure we’ve washed off any trace of mossie repellant, sunscreen, moisturiser or any other lotions and potions, as these can irritate the dolphins.
  3. Stand in a queue waiting our turn, getting colder and colder  – warm sunny day has turned into cold windy night
  4. Wash hands again in a special antibacterial solution to ensure we don’t pass any bugs on to the dolphin
  5. Pick up nasty slimy smelly fish from bucket and try and hold in the approved fashion, which is “just like an icecream “, the head is poking out toward the sky and the tail resting in my palm, as apparently dolphins prefer to munch their fish head first.
  6. Then its my turn and I shuffle forward hip deep in the cold water with one of the biologists, hold my fish a foot under the surface, and wait while one of the dolphins swims up and and swallows it straight out of my hand. I notice what big teeth it has as it opens its mouth wide.
  7. There is a strict no touching rule (we can’t touch the dolphin) but the dolphins have their own rules, and my dolphin starts nudging my shin – the biologist says it OK so I stand there with it nudging me until it gets bored at my refusal to play, and off it swims – the whole time I am desperately trying to stop myself from reaching in and giving it a huge hug – dolphins do have that effect on us humans!
  8. We wade back onto the beach and start dancing around in excitement – again its that joyful effect dolphins seem to have on us.


Dugong spotting.

In the morning we go for a walk up to the northern end of the beach, where there is a large man-made ship graveyard just offshore. This has been created deliberately in recent decades, and has turned into a spectacular dive and snorkel spot, with rusting skeletons of boats in shallow clear warm waters housing a colourful parade of fishes and sea life.
Then we jump on another boat to go Dugong spotting. Dugongs are a protected species, are notoriously shy, and can swim a long time under water without having to come up for a breath, so they can be hard to find. Thats why we head to the sand banks, in some very shallow water between Moreton island and the mainland, as it is easier to spot them when they are close to the surface. The dugong are large, up to 3 metres long, and have a rather ugly bulbous head which rather belies their legend of being the animal that made sailors think they had seen a mermaid. But when spooked they can instantly accelerate and speed off like a missile, no speed boat has a hope of keeping up with them. So both we and our boat try and stay as quiet as we can, and we are rewarded with a mass of sightings, pod after pod of dozens of dugongs, and we are under their spell for the next couple of hours, watching as much of their antics as they will let us.
As the afternoon shadows lengthen, we head back to the jetty and are soon on the ferry and heading home to Brisbane, very happy with our sea mammal encounters for the weekend.

Banging the wok in Bangkok

It’s a long flight from Australia to the UK, which is why I am exiting Bangkok’s airport at midnight into a wall of pleasant heat for a twenty four hour stopover. First priority is to get to the hotel and sleep. Now that its morning, I am relaxed, refreshed and ready to jump into my cooking class, or more specifically jump into the free transport van which is waiting to take me to the BaiPai Thai cooking school in a lovely two-storey house in the suburbs.  Downstairs is a big open air but roofed, custom built cooking area. There’s a huge central bench where the whole class (up to 10) sit around and watch the chefs demonstrate each dish, there’s even an overhead mirror to make sure we can see every bit of the action.

Then there are 10 separate cooking stations, with our own gas ring, wok and implements, where we attempt to create the same dishes. On the side are beautifully set tables where we sit and dine on each course as soon as we have finished cooking. I am looking forward to this stage, having skipped breakfast on the assumption I am going to be doing lots of eating.

Bangkok Cooking Class – Deep Frying.

They throw us straight into making Kra-tong Thong, Crispy Golden Cups. This one scares me – its involves large amounts of very hot oil and an extremely steady hand. I’ve made the batter, now I pick up a brass utensil that looks like a tiny tart tin on a long handle. I dip it into the batter, the goal is to evenly coat the outside of the shape with batter, right up to the lip, but not letting any get over the top to the inside. Then I thrust it into the wok of hot oil, holding it just barely submerged for 3 seconds, then pushing it gently to the bottom of the wok and holding there for a few more seconds until the little fried pie crust pops off the tool as I release it from the bottom, and I quickly scoop it out, put on the side to drain and then start the very precise process all over again. If I get it wrong it either sticks to the mould, or breaks into little pieces. Due to my expert supervisor, I manage to make my six more easily than I had imagined. We now make a quick tasty stirfry filling with pork and sweetcorn, and with an audible sigh of relief, sit down to savour our crispy golden cups.


Bangkok Cooking Class – Noodles.

Our next dish,  Yam Woon Sen, (glass noodles), is a more gentle option of a simple light five-minute meal. The glass noodles are “cooked” by standing in boiling water. We use the wok  to make a light minced pork & mushrooms mixture, seasoned with celery, shallots and spring onions, and pop in the prawns at the end to quickly cook. As I have repeatedly learned in asian cooking classes, the trick to the wok is to toss and swirl the ingredients as I stir-fry, and not to push them around with a spoon – use the arm and wrist muscles and the stir-fry won’t stick or burn. I add the now transparent and drained noodles to the pork & prawn mix for about 20 seconds, tip onto my plate, and add a dressing of chillies, lime juice, fish sauce, and sugar. Its so light its like eating spicy air.

Bangkok Cooking Class – Curry & Chilli

Finally its time for the chillies and curries. First is Nuea Pad Prik, a beef chilli stirfry. I thinly slice my beef, green and red chillies and onion, and add garlic, oyster sauce, soy sauce, a splash of broth, and a touch of sugar to balance it out, and toss around the wok till just cooked. This is where the individual cooking stations come into their own – I love chilli and some of my classmates don’t, so we each make and eat our own with our own preferred level of heat. Finally we tackle the rich yellow chicken curry, Gang Ka-ree Gai. Having pounded my own yellow curry paste of red chillies, salt, ginger, galangal, shallots, garlic, curry powder and turmeric in the stone mortar, I now add it to fried onions, with a mix of coconut milk and coconut cream. I add chicken meat with diced potato and carrot, and surrender my senses to the rich aromas and glossy yellow thickness of this curry as it quickly cooks. A side relish of cucumber, shallot and chillies in rice vinegar, water, sugar and salt is a fresh contrast to the big taste of the curry. Although this is now the equivalent of eating four dinner mains, I have to finish off the whole bowl, it’s addictive.

Bangkok sightseeing

I am amazed we have achieved all that in half a day, thanks to the very friendly, professional and helpful approach of the class chefs. So clutching the glossy little pack of recipe cards for the dishes I have cooked, covered in my scribbled notes, I am happy to roll back into the van and head off back to my hotel with a very full belly indeed. And I still have about eight hours left before I head back to the airport. This is where getting a very late check-out is essential. It means I can walk off all that food in the steamy heat, explore Wat Pho, home to the world’s largest reclining buddha, neighbouring Wat Phra Kaew and the Grand Palace, and nearby Chinatown, get a massage and still have a hotel room for a final shower, change and then head off to the airport in the middle of the night feeling fresh and relaxed.

Shanghai Stirfry

Wet markets are brilliant, all that fresh produce, some so fresh they are still alive, at least until you pick them out from the display. This local market in Shanghai has live chickens, fish, crabs and frogs amongst others.  And lets not be squeamish about this, the floor is very wet from the constant hosing off of blood and guts as we pick out our live ingredients and the stall owner dispatches them quickly into whatever serving size and shape we find appropriate. Add to that the array of fresh and exotic fruit, veges and spices and we soon have all the ingredients for our cooking lessons. Luckily we are not cooking frogs, or even the black chickens that I saw, the strangest things – their skin and flesh (raw) is completely black. All in all a lot more fun than a supermarket.

Shanghai Stirfry Cooking Class.

We make our way back  a couple of blocks to an edgy industrial Shikumen block that has been converted into a maze of small creative businesses. This is where the Chinese Cooking Workshop has one of it’s two classrooms, near the centre of Shanghai.  We all share one large central bench to prepare, and each have a dedicated gas burner and wok to cook with. The classroom is on the top floor of the building, and we can climb out the sash windows onto a roof terrace to take a break and take in the view. We have Chef Huang teaching us stirfry dishes today, and I am excited. The wok has been a staple in my kitchen since my student days, it’s quick one-dish cooking at its best. But I know there is a big difference between cooking in a wok and creating a genuine chinese dish, and I am hoping to bridge that gap a bit today.

Colourful Fish Strifry.

We start with San Se Yu Si, which translates literally as colourful sliced fish. It’s a simple dish of thinly sliced fish with red and green peppers. This is when we learn that pretty much every stirfry in Shanghai has a base seasoning of salt, sugar, pepper and chinese cooking wine, only small amounts, maybe half a teaspoon each of the salt, sugar and pepper per serving size, and a splash of cooking wine. In the same way, most will be finished with a last minute addition of corn starch (half a tablespoon) in cooking wine, to thicken any juices and create a glossy glaze so that the meal presents well. We slice the fish up into small strips by removing the skin, and then slicing the fillet into two layers about one cm thick each, and then slice across the fillet to create even strips one cm wide as well. Then we slice the the peppers into strips of the same size, as we strive to create the visual appearance of balance, so important in chinese cooking. Now its time to practise our wok skills, getting it really hot over the gas, first adding some green onion and ginger and then the peppers and fish, keeping the wok moving, tossing the ingredients around constantly. A quick final swirl of the cornstarch/cooking wine mix, and we serve up and sit down to eat our own creations. Now this is delicious,  it looks and tastes better than any stirfry I have cooked before, and is one I want to try again at home.

Shanghai stir-fried mushrooms.

Now we move onto Chao Shuang Gu, two mushrooms with oyster sauce, another descriptive name. This time we dunk the mushrooms and bok choy in boiling water briefly first, then start the stirfry with the salt, sugar, pepper and cooking wine, add oyster sauce and mushrooms, then the corn starch. Plate up with the bok choy and a dash of sesame oil. Another chance to sit down and eat our own efforts, and its also a good opportunity to hear about the life of Chef Huang and his family in Shanghai.

Shanghai Chaomain.

Our final dish is also a classic, Shanghai Chaomian. This follows the methods and techniques already learned, except we boil the noodles first, then stirfry shredded pork, baby bok choy, mushrooms with both light and dark soy sauce, and then mix through the noodles. This dish is so filling, on top of the two plates that I have already eaten, that I can’t even finish it, but it does taste delicious as well.

And all too soon our half day is over, our bellies are full, our cooking skills improved. I want to make sure I remember my salt/sugar/pepper/cooking wine seasoning mix as the base of each dish, the dash of starch/cooking wine at the end to make it shine, and the need to constantly throw the ingredients around by agitating the wok continuously over the flame, using my wrist, not by stirring. These are my souvenirs to take home and put into practice. Now it’s time to explore all the studios in all the alleyways in this Shikumen building, full of all sorts of intriguing creative studios and businesses.

Walk like an Epicurean – in Portland, Oregon

Today is all about FLOSS  – no, I am not on my way to the dentist, this is about exploring the Fresh, Local, Organic, Seasonable, and Sustainable local produce of Portland. Portland, and indeed all of Oregon, has a reputation of being a clean, green, wet and rainy kind of place, populated by mountain biking, snow boarding, beer and pinot drinking locals. As I walk down the street to the meeting point for my epicurean walk, this stereotype seems confirmed by the rows of mountain bikes tied to the fence near where the queue of people are slowly inching their way into this weekend’s beer festival – but it is a bright sunny day, no rain, so that at least is beating the odds. I am looking forward to the treats in store on this small group walk – walking, drinking and eating being three of my favourite things to do.

Epicurean walk, bikes, Portland, Oregon
Epicurean walk, bikes, Portland, Oregon

The edgy Pearl District, Portland.

We start at the Flying Elephant deli with a sample of their award winning Tomato Orange soup, and then jump on the tram and head to the other end of the Pearl District. This is the once-rundown dodgy light industrial area long since transformed into the edgy, trendy, hipster, and expensive area of town. I had dinner here last night at the large communal table in an upmarket bar/restaurant called Clyde Common – delicious cocktails and locally sourced food, and lots of friendly ’20 something years younger than me’ hipster types to chat with around the communal table. I’m not convinced about the edgy tag though, it may have been originally, but now? I explored the area some more after dinner and found a number of homeless people, but not like homeless people anywhere else I’ve been – these ones  had trendy hairstyles and clothing (but maybe not very clean), their tatts looked very artistic, and I would not have been surprised if they had their mountain bikes stashed behind the rubbish bins. Maybe I had it all wrong and they were just actors taking a break from filming?

What’s brewing in Portland?

I am delighted to find our first stop in the Pearl District is at the iconic Bridgeport micro brewery (although pretty large in relation to the rest of the Oregon microbrewery scene I suspect). They have impeccable green credentials, recycling everything from the grains that form the base of the beer (into breads and pastries in their on-site bakery), to their glasses and bottles, to the fat from their kitchen. So while we sample their range of beers, the charming beermaker tells me the story behind IPA (Indian Pale Ale) beer – something I had never known in my ten years in the UK. He says that many people order it thinking they are getting a lite beer, and are then surprised by its dryness and bitterness. It all dates back to the days of colonial India, when the British found that too many of their soldiers were getting ill from the local water supply in India. So they instructed the soldiers to drink beer instead of water. But they had the problem of getting enough beer from Britain to India to supply their daily needs. Because of the long boat trip from Britain to India, around the coast of Africa and through a lot of heat, the beer was spoiling before it arrived. The solution they came up with was to add more hops as a preservative, and this is where the bitter flavours and dry aftertaste come from. So now I have a taste rule of thumb for ordering beer: dark beer is sweeter, amber beer is balanced, and pale ales are more dry and bitter.

What’s baking in Portland?

All that beer sampling has me ready for the next stop, the Pearl Bakery. Here we don hair nets and slippers to go behind the shop counter and into the bakery proper for some bread tasting to soak up a bit of the alcohol consumed so far. Their baguettes are crunchy with a soft centre that melts in the mouth, the sourdough is an interesting and healthy chewy wholegrain version, and the croissant is of perfect buttery flakiness. They also have some super sweet treats, a sweet bread with flavours of orange peel and anise, and a dark chocolate mini muffin, although I think the sweetness overwhelms the flavours a bit in both of these, a little bit less sugar would be a good idea. Maybe they just don’t mix well with that super dry IPA. One of the chefs explains that although they would like to be completely organic, all the best grains available in the US for breadmaking are grown in the mid west – not an area with a groundswell of organic farmers, so they just have to go with the best grains and make sure all the other ingredients are local and organic.

Portland Tea and Mustard anyone?

Escaping from our hair nets, and grateful that there’s no one who knows me here to see that particular look, we visit a specialist cookware shop for a glass of refreshing pinot and some mustard tasting. The mustard tasting was disappointing as each of the samples was busily disguising the mustard taste. One was  mixed with orange and egg and tasted like a mild mayonnaise, one was a lemon, mustard and dill sauce that tasted like mild sweet vinegar, and one was a mustard and curry paste that actually tasted like a nice strong curry paste (but also overly sweet – I am starting to worry about this trend of too much sugar added to things that should be savoury). This isn’t a problem at our next stop for a cuppa (of tea). The Tea Zone is one of those wonderfully cosy cafes with an extensive collection of quality teas from around the world, so I was able to refresh myself with samples of Lapsang Souchong, Camomile and a delicate white Green tea.

Portland Pizza divides opinion.

Now we get to sit in the sun outside Hot Lips Pizza in the Eco Trust building – yes, an environmentally friendly pizza place with vegan pizza bases and the source of each of the possible toppings listed by their farm and even paddock of origin, and located in the greenist 6star rated building in town. I like this place, they are of the “thin crust, no more than three ingredients on top simplicity” school rather than the “load it up with as many toppings as possible and then inject more cheese inside the crust” school of thought. Listening to the comments of my walking companions though, it seems I am in the minority on this. If only they didn’t go and spoil it by bringing out the pizza on trays about a metre in diameter – this isn’t Texas, there’s just no need for this kind of ridiculous oversizing – are you listening Hot Lips Pizza?

Portland’s cupcake sweetener.

And we finally fizzle out at Cupcake Jones, just down the street, where I mainline on more over the top sugar in the form of their organic mini cupcakes (from locally sourced ingredients) – at least these are supposed to be sweet, and these ones were not skimping on the sweetness. My head buzzing with the sugar high, I decide I need a lot more walking, so I head for the riverfront and start by strolling through the weekend market stalls. Plenty of spicy but not sweet organic soaps to sniff, and some pretty interesting jewellery as well. Then I find the beer tent, a tradition that too many markets miss out on, and I am able to grab another bitter IPA to keep me cool as I walk south along the riverbank for a couple of hours on this hot sunny day, watching the locals taking their kids swimming in the public fountains that pop up all around this city. On reaching the Downtown Waterfront area, I find an outdoor table, overlooking the river, and order a selection of baked olives with a flight of Oregon Pinot Noir, and settle in for some much needed savoury bliss. Which just goes to prove that one epicurean’s savoury special is another epicurean’s sweet nightmare.