Chez l'abeille

Culture. Travel. Writing. My world in words and pictures


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In which I go to Kerala. Part 2: Spice up your life (again).

masala dosa

The best masala dosa in a roadside cafe.

For many years I lived in a part of London that is well-known for Southern Indian restaurants; the variety and tastes of this regional cuisine have long been my preferred go-to curry night menu. Give me bonda, vadai and masala dosas over tikka masala anytime.

Travelling across Kerala, it’s not hard to see why it is called “The Land of Spices.” This part of India is lush and verdant; the hills covered in a mosaic of tea bushes and the waterways lined with coconut trees. So many of the different spices typically used in Indian cooking grow here and a visit to a spice plantation was a real insight into the cultivation of the spices that live in my store cupboard.

 

Pepper

Green peppercorns

Surprisingly, although there are several different colours of peppercorn, they all come from the same climbing vine and are the product of different stages in the  development or treatment of the seeds. Historically, pepper has been called “black gold”, much prized for trade or as a commodity for payment in its own right – hence another pepper related phrase still in use: a “peppercorn rent”.  Peppercorns are traditionally picked by men, due to their height from the ground and the difficulty in climbing trees if dressed in a traditional sari.

 

Cloves (2)

Young Clove buds

Cloves are usually a dark brown, hard spice we stick in oranges or chuck into mulled wine. I don’t think I’ve ever considered what they look like before they arrive in my little jar from the supermarket. It turns out cloves are actually the bud from an evergreen tree – they start out pale green and gradually turn red as they develop. These were a surprise but not quite as much as the cardamom plant.

 

Cardamom

Cardamom seeds

This grows on a low down plant that was quite easy to miss. Again the dried-up, three-sided cardamoms in my kitchen bore no resemblance to the fresh, young seed pods. The cardamom flower has an orchid like quality which somehow matches the aromatic fragrance of the really fresh pods. cardamom is also one of the most expensive spices and is typically picked by women, who don’t have to climb trees to get to them.

 

One of the most interesting activities I took part in during my trip was a cookery class in Thekkady. This was led by the hilarious Sheril, whose catch phrases of “mixing, mixing,” and “cooking, cooking,” lasted longer than the night we visited his homestyle restaurant! Over the course of an evening we prepped, cooked and devoured a really delicious meal – using many of the spices we had seen earlier in the day. As I can’t share the smells and tastes of the food, I shall leave you with a visual collage of what we cooked and ate. You’ll just have to imagine the rest.

 

©Chez l’abeille  2018

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In which I go to Kerala: Part 1. So near and yet so far…

Of all the things I thought might cause havoc on my way to Kerala, the one I really hadn’t considered was fog. The weather reports for Heathrow were clear. The threats of snow had remained largly in the North. I was on a plane and heading for Cochin…until fog  brought the carefully scheduled Christmas plans of several hundred people crashing down into one spot: the transfer desk in Abu Dhabi airport. FOG! For the next three hours I queued and finally achieved two things: I found one of the other two people who were travelling to Cochin to join my holiday group and I got a flight out of Abu Dhabi 14 hours later, with a hotel room thrown in for good measure.

What to do then when your body clock is screaming stay awake and you’ve got several hours to kill? When The Louvre has just jointly opened a multi-million pound gallery on its own island, the answer was a no -brainer.

Louvre Abu Dhabi

Opening in November 2017, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is the first in a proposed group of internationally linked, cultural spaces on Saadiyat Island (the island of happiness). Designed by Jean Nouvel, the building is a collection of spaces interlinked under a dome of layered latticework, reflecting the traditional use of palm leaves for roofing. Light filters through this intricate structure and dapples the internal courtyards, creating a harmonious mix of light and shade. Unlike many of the other buildings in Abu Dhabi, the building sits low down on the island, close to the water’s edge; its full beauty is slowly revealed through a screened walkway. We were so entranced by the exterior that it did take us some time to finally make our way inside to view the collection!

And what an amazing collection it is. Spanning every medium, pieces are carefully curated to tell the universal stories of humanity. Linked by brass inlays that guide the vistor from space to space, glass cases present artefacts with a simplicity that is mesmerising. Play, work, food, family, love, war, art: all the great themes are explored and presented as shared experiences across times and spaces. Many works have been loaned but the museum has a very healthy aquisitions budget too, leading to a growing permanent collection. A surprisingly comprehensive collection of 20th Century and current artists was also a treat, with several much loved impressionist works on loan from the Musee D’Orsay. The galleries lead finally out into the covered courtyard where sculptures create focal points under the shady dome.

Getting stuck in Abu Dhabi was a pain, but without it I doubt I would ever have been able to visit this delightful, cultural oasis. Although we arrived a full 24 hours late for our Keralan adventure, the holiday had already started.

©Chez l’abeille 2018

 


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Montalbano, Sono…

Montalbano sonoIf you watch “Inspector Montalbano” the sun is always shining. Sicily bathes in golden sunlight that illuminates the buttery stone buildings of fictitious Vigata. Our heroic Chief of Police wanders the streets in his reflective Ray Bans, solving crime then lunching on Linguine with sea-urchin and a nice glass of something alcoholic to wash it down with at his local trattoria.

My week in Sicily was wet torrential. So there was only one thing for a bunch of avid Montalbano fans to do: hunt out some of the programmes most loved locations.

Our first stop was the tiny seaside town of Punta Secca. It became evident that, after the beach, the B+B that doubles as Montalbano’s home is probably the key draw. Just as we arrived, the rain actually stopped for a short while, which meant we could get out of the car and have a wander around.

The house is exactly as we see it in the shows but there must be a fair amount of post production to remove the motley collection of beach houses and businesses that we definitely don’t see spoiling the Inspector’s peace and quiet. A regular event in each episode is his solitary swim, brought to life by a hardy local who was to be seen defying the weather and causing the visiting fans much excitement!

Enzo's Restaurant Punta Secca (4)

Turning left around the lighthouse and following the beach front took us to the lunch location of choice, Enzo a Mare. Generally Montalbano is the only person out on the terrace savouring the linguine with sea-urchin, but in reality, even on a blustery, rain-sodden day, the terrace was packed with diners tucking into some of the commissario’s favourites.

Fortified with local wine and ultra-sweet cannoli, our next location was the nearby maze of a town: Scicli.  Regular watchers will be familiar with the town hall which doubles as the exterior of the Chief’s police station. It is an impressive building in a very pretty, paved street and it wasn’t hard to imagine our hero casually parking his Fiat and leaping up the steps.

Our final location was the impressive Castello di Donnafugata, known to Montalbano watchers as the HQ of the Sinagras, the local Mafia family. The lure was the terrace, from which the Mafia henchmen watch every visitor’s approach. Unfortunately the opening times for the castle were so confusingly reported in the various guide books and websites we checked that by the time we arrived it was well and truly closed. Despite that, even from the outside, the magnificence of the castle was apparent.

The fictional world of Montalbano, created by author Andrea Camilleri, is deeply rooted in the culture and traditions of Sicily. Visiting the sites used in the programme drew back the tourist curtain a little and despite the weather was a great way to explore and appreciate this fascinating part of Italy.

©Chez l’abeille  2017

 


In which I go to Crete. Part 3: Rethymnon

Rethymnon (2)

It’s a few weeks since I got back from Crete but since then I have been trying to recreate some of the flavours I experienced there. It’s not so easy to track down Cretan wine in London, but having discovered a rather delicious wine from Peza in the local Oddbins and coupled it with a home made filo pastry, spinach and feta pie, today I’ve come reasonably close!

There was much eating and wine drinking in Rethymnon too. It’s a busy old town but small enough to get around comfortably on foot. It’s also brimming with restaurants. My favourite spot was Raki Ba Raki where I finally found horta, the steamed or boiled cretan greens (or weeds as I’ve seen them described) which are delicious when drowned in olive oil and lemon. The closest similar plant I have found back home is dandelions, so I might have to wait until I go back to try them again. I have read that the greek word for vegetarian is “hortofagos,” which apparently means “weed eater!”

Sitting above the narrrow streets of the old town is the fortress or fortezzo. This Venetian bastion has been around since 1580 and was designed as a place of safety against Ottoman attack. This plan failed in 1646 when the Ottomans besieged the city and the Venetians surrendered. Inside the grounds there is a mosque and an orthodox church, giving testament to the varied history of the island. The views are magnificent from the parapets and it’s easy to see how this spot would be chosen to defend the city behind it.

At the foot of the Fortezza is the Contemporary Art Museum, which has a variety of shows throughout the year.  I wasn’t too engaged with the work by the artist Nikos Viskadourakis that was on display when I was there. Through intensely worked pieces, using a limited acrylic palette of reds, blues, blacks and ochres he explored the myth of Odysseus in Hades – I guess you might need more than a passing aquaintance with book XI of Homer’s Odyssey to really see what was going on. However the building is worth a visit and in the heat of summer the aircon would be delicious.

Walking around it’s easy to see where the Venetians left their mark in other ways. The Rimondi Fountain lies at its heart, providing drinking water for animals and the people alike in times of drought. Equally the old harbour provides a lovely sheltered spot for some people watching, especially after church turns out on a Sunday morning. Despite the touristy air, there’s also a relaxing, homely atmosphere in Rethymnon, which made it a great place to finish my Cretan soujourn.

©Chez l’abeille  2017


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In which I go to Crete. Part 2: Heraklion

20170406_173821

I was a little apprehensive about my time in Heraklion; having finally read my guide book (on the bus), I was expecting a city full of fumes and dirt. Instead  I found a delightful “Old Town” that is easy to walk around and full of  comfortable cafes and bars where I could sit with a glass of cretan wine. It also has one of the best museums I’ve been to in a long while.

Day 3: Heraklion

Arrival in Heraklion from Chania is at the imaginatively named Bus Station A. I’d deliberately picked Hotel Lato for two reasons: proximity to the bus station and the roof top bar. It was an excellent choice on both counts and I was soon checked in and heading back out again to visit the Archaeological Museum before it closed at three.

For someone who loves beautiful pottery, this museum was like being stuck in a veritable sweet shop. From the moment I entered the first room I was hooked: each and every case is crammed with stunning Minoan treasures. It was hard to focus on each one because there was always another, more attractive looking item, glimpsed from the corner of my eye! The main ground floor rooms focus on the Minoan civilization, which flourished in Crete from about 2600 to 1100 BC. Just looking at these finely considered art works gives you some idea of what was important to the people who lived on the island in this Bronze Age world. A few hours just wasn’t enough and closing time came around far too quickly.

Day 4: Knossos.

There was a surprising number of athletic types hanging out at breakfast and some probably not so subtle stalking around the cheese pastry buffet, revealed that Agrotikos Asteras F.C. were in residence, for a Greek football league match against local team OFI. So I lingered over my tea and toast for a bit until only the coaching and physio team were left and set off for the days main appointment.

Bus Station A is also the starting point for bus route 2 , which handily heads directly to the ancient palace of Knossos. This is not so much palace in the traditional Buckingham sense, more a labyrinthine township tumbling down into the valley below. I knew Knossos is bound up in the Greek myths of King Minos, Theseus, the minotaur and the labyrinth but I didn’t know that it was also linked to Daedalus of the wax wings and Icarus fame. He was apparently the architect of the labyrinth before he turned his hand to flying. As in all legends there is probably a grain of truth in the mythology and walking around the site it is not too difficult to imagine how complex this site would have been, layered up on the floors below to create a maze of buildings, rooms and terraces. Highlights were the underground clay water pipes which are very similar to the ones regularly exposed by Thames Water around my street and the “Royal Apartments”  with their hidden doors, designed to give both warmth and ventilation as the user required.

Around the site some replica murals and painted pillars help give some idea of what this site may have looked like, yet so much about the Minoans is pure conjecture. What isn’t in doubt is the sheer size of the place and the sense of culture that existed here nearly 5000 years ago.

20170406_182151Back in Heraklion it was time for some excellent stuffed squid at Ippokambos, some more home grown wine and then a stroll through the old town market area and the El Greco Park gardens back to the waterfront and my hotel where the roof top bar was the top spot for a nightcap.

Day 5: Heraklion and the bus again

The Agrotikas boys were all back at breakfast but they couldn’t hold a candle to my destination du jour – I had time before my bus to go back to the museum and catch up with the rooms I hadn’t seen already! After my day in Knossos I really wanted to see the original murals.Original fresco work from Knossos  Once again the Minoans didn’t disappoint. The ochres, reds, whites and blues which they made from the plants, minerals and shells they found around them, are still as vibrant as when they were painted onto wet plaster somewhere in the palace. Only tiny fragments remain but the restorers have managed to fill in the gaps so you get an idea of just how beautiful these walls would have been.

Time was racing by so rather reluctantly I was tracking back down the hill to Bus Station A and off to the final stop on this trip – Rethymnon.

©Chez l’abeille  2017


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In which I go to Crete. Part 1: Chania.

“I was quite all right on this Cretan coast” ― Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek

Along the northern coast of Crete there are three great places for a short trip; Chania (Hania), Rethymnon (Rethymno) and Heraklion (Iraklio). I last went to Crete in the late 90s, so with a few days leave on offer, I booked a flight and took off. First stop: Chania

I had arranged two nights in Chania, but with the afternoon arrival of my oh-so-early Easy Jet flight from Gatwick, most of the first day was spent in planes, trains and automobiles.

Finally opening a more up to date copy of the guide-book (much of my planning had been done using my original 1998 Rough Guide second edition), I decided that in the intervening decades, not that much had changed apart from the switch to euros. Crete is still a place steeped in its own culture and history. As I discovered, Chania has back streets a-plenty that just cry out for a wander and with the help of locals a bus trip took me out-of-town for a delicious treat.

Day 1:

Chania old town is bordered by the Venetian Harbour and the city walls, which date from the fourteenth century. After escaping from the maze of narrow streets around my hotel, a sunset walk out to the lighthouse was a welcome breath of fresh air. It was still quite early in the season but the restaurants were busy with locals, so the food was guaranteed to be good!

Cretan wine was a particularly pleasant surprise – the dry whites and floral muscat blends were a perfect match for the ultra-fresh seafood and local dishes. Sitting by the harbour front eating a simple dish of fava bean and octopus salad was the best way to end a very loooooong day!

Day 2:

Following a tip from the lovely people who ran my hotel, I was in the mood for a bit of adventure. My first stop of the day, however, was the Agora market hall. The building is organised in a cross shape with four equally sized wings and as with all markets everywhere, it’s a mix of everyday essentials and touristy nick nacks. I spent quite a while at the fish stall, mesmerised by the utter freshness of the produce but also the distinctive way that the fishmongers packaged each purchase in a cone of paper.

Market done – now it was time to find the bus and head out to the Venizelos Grave on the Akrotiri peninsular, with the promise of the best cake – EVER.

After many years of backpacking around India and South America, I have always put my faith in the people who run the buses. They generally know where you want to go/be/get off and get on from. As I discovered Crete has a slightly confusing system of stops, often with no little or no evidence that this is the place to wait! More of that later. Getting out to the graves however was relatively simple and after a short walk I found myself in a quiet garden with stunning views across the bay.

The garden surrounds the graves of Eleftherios Venizelos, seven times Prime Minister of Greece and his equally Prime Ministerial son. The trees buzzed with bees and blossom coloured the pathway with pops of pink as I wandered through to my main destination, Koukouvaya.  According to my hotel host this is THE PLACE FOR CAKE. It was just warm enough to be out on the terrace, so I sat here for a while savouring both the polenta walnut cake with ice cream and the view of Chania in the distance, until it was time to get the bus back.

Ha! Not so simple. With no sign of a bus stop in either direction I headed off down the road in the direction of Chania but after several minutes of walking and no apparent stop I began to think I would be walking all the way home! Some backtracking, general enquiries and close observation of a bunch of students eventually located the stop as a portion of unremarkable pavement just off the main roundabout. A number 11 bus soon appeared and whisked me back to the market and the now familiar streets of the old town for a late afternoon wander around the Kastelli area and into the Orthodox Cathedral of Agios Nikolaos.

 

My last night in Chania was spent at Tamam, a favourably reviewed restaurant right next door to my hotel. I have to say I was a little underwhelmed, although my left over courgette and dill fritters were easy to carry out as a snack for the next day. Time now to prepare for the bus journey to my next stop, Heraklion.

©Chez l’abeille  2017

 

 


The Balkan Trilogy Part 3: Macedonia

As I navigated Macedonia Square in the Macedonian capital, I couldn’t help but be reminded of old hollywood movies – you know, the ones where someone wanders around a back lot amongst the left over scenery from Ben Hur or Cleopatra. As a result of “Skopje 2014”, a project implemented by the Government, Skopje’s main square and surrounding area is crammed with warriors and marble clad museums. As day fell to night, the main pedestrian zone became a fabulous wonderland of faux history. I loved it!

In the preceding weeks to my visit there had been demonstrations and protests, so many of the main buildings had been paint bombed. Somehow this added to the carnival feel of this rather surreal city.

Outside of Skopje, the other main Macedonian attraction is Lake Orhid, one of Europe’s deepest and oldest lakes. Depending on who you talk to, it is alternately a Macedonian lake with a bit taken away by Alabania or an Albanian Lake which Macedonia has usurped. Either way it is a vast fresh-water ecosystem, littered with monasteries and reed beds.

Heading into the countryside around the lake, something rather eerie lurked in the kitchen gardens and small holdings. Like many cultures the evil eye is feared here and the use of an effigy protects both home and family. These two were the best I saw!

There is so much more to this ancient country than oversized statutes and lakeside tourist attractions but for the casual tourist it felt hard to scratch the surface. The Macedonian leg of the trip was also short and sweet – time was speeding up in the way it does when a holiday is nearly over. Too soon, Tirana was calling. With a last, lingering look across the lake, we crossed the border and said goodbye to this fascinating country.