Hotel Pheonicia, Malta

Hotel Phoneicia

The Hotel Pheonicia is the jewel in Valletta’s crown. The first five-star hotel to open in Malta’s capital city under British rule in the thirties, Phoenicia has retained a quintessentially English flavour that pervades the property, from the cavernous Art Deco piano bar to the marble ballroom where the then Princess Elizabeth danced in 1949 and the afternoon tea on offer at the Palm Court Lounge.

Relax in impossibly deep leather chairs in the exclusive confines of The Club Bar, sip an expertly made Negroni and peruse the vintage photographs or saunter through the seven acres of kitchen and tropical gardens – a rarity on such a small island – to the Bastion Pool Deck to survey the coastal delights of Marsamxett Harbour.

Palm Court Lounge (art) (1)

The centre of Valletta and the bus station are a stone’s throw away and the staff, who manage to be personable without being stuffy, are on hand 24 hours a day for information on anything from transport to restaurants and local tipples. I stayed in a standard room, which was perfectly comfortable and well-proportioned. More cash gets you a room higher up with a better view and your own balcony. Rates start from £150

Pool

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The Dairy, Clapham Common

The Dairy

Stocked with reclaimed furniture, mood lighting and craft beers, The Dairy could be just another formulaic south London eatery, but instead it’s building a reputation for regional, seasonal and meticulous food.

Head Chef Robin Gill’s CV must read like a who’s who of the chef world with stints at Noma and Le Manoir under his belt and his Michelin-star taught, forensic attention to detail shines forth in his food. The devil really is in the detail here with slate and stone plates arriving covered in a startling array of delicate morsels, smears and cubes.

The Dairy has an informal, small plates (in substance, not in style as the design of the plates proved) menu where guests are encouraged to pick generously from a selection of dishes categorized as garden, land and sea.

I took my mum for a quiet lunch one sunny afternoon in summer and we weren’t disappointed. The first plates arrived looking as though they had been assembled by elves, not the chefs who wandered between the kitchen and the huge robata grill. Everything was achingly pretty, from the slivers of beetroot and pixie-sized dill fronds on the potted salmon and zingy rhubarb and apple top on the butter-smooth chicken liver mousse to the bites of sweetbread that came in crispy batter jackets alongside an earthy cut of goat. The Wye Valley asparagus, hen egg and smoked custard was rich and complicated, in spite of the egg white being cooked to the supremely cheffy consistency of snot. The garden was followed by the sea in the form of a punchy smoked pollock brandade with charred leek and sorrel – a curious mixture of cold, salt and ash that tasted like a mouthful of sea.

The Dairy

While dish after dish was accomplished and challenging, some of the most delectable things here came unordered and uncharged. The meal started with globs of barely set cheese served on squares of bright green vine leaf that tasted like primula from heaven and were quickly followed by Gill’s signature butter, whipped with a smoky applewood aftertaste, served in an unctuous lump smeared onto a pebble and accompanied by a home-baked loaf swaddled in its own little potato sack.

The finale came in the form of a wee vintage biscuit tin whose arrival had my mum squealing in anticipation of ecstasy, a squeal that was short-lived as she was distracted by the jewels concealed inside: gleaming fruit jellies, peppery doughnuts, still warm from the fryer that tasted as though they were rolled in sherbet and buttery tuiles as thin as parchment.

The petit fours were delivered by Gill himself, who’s adopted that thoroughly modern chef conceit of visiting each table during the meal and who smiled kindly in the face of my mum’s staunch egg white criticism, at least while he was out of the kitchen anyway.

The only niggles were the service from waiters who were so relaxed they were almost stationary. Perhaps it was the sheer weight of the slabs they use as plates that slowed them down, but either way my mum had to get up to remind the waitress about a forgotten coffee order, which, when it did arrive in a gimmicky glass was disappointingly lukewarm.  Ignoring this minor mishap, The Dairy has a pleasingly unpretentious wine list, ingredients sourced from their onsite garden and is a Clapham gem that needs to be visited before the foodie whispers spread too far and it’s booked up for 2014.

The Dairy, 0207 622 4165, 15 The Pavement, Clapham Common, London, SW4 0HY

Images: The Dairy

Gondar Market, Ethiopia

Crowds at Gondar Market
At first glance down town Gondar is just an intimidating, urban sprawl of markets, metalwork and moving bodies gathered around the 300 year old monuments and castle ruins, but on closer inspection it’s a thriving hub of activity, a dynamo of trade and full of the some of the friendliest, and photogenic people you’ll meet in Ethiopia.

Every week, hordes of traders gather to to sell anything and everything from batteries to cotton knickers and kettles at Kidame Gebya.

There’s a sort of ramshackle garlic alley where women sit shelling impossibly daunting piles of garlic bulbs on woven mats; spice racks where pouches of shimmering powders and seeds are handled like gold dust and men who stride through the traffic clutching broomsticks covered in live chickens with bound feet and fever-pitched eyes.

Chicken Sellers in Gondar

Boy in Gondar

 

Grab a fistful of coins, get swamped by the crowds and take a break from the castle district in Gondar in this labyrinth of poultry, mud, children and sugarcane. You might end up leaving with more than you bargained for – such as a pocket full of garlic, a poorly printed Che Guevara T-shirt or a goat – but it certainly beats the traditional, weekend Sainsbury’s shop.