La Dolce Vita: Bake with Maria, Tuscany and me

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Recently, I was woken early by the lone cry of cockerel instead of the sound of some star-crossed lovers screaming at each other over who necked the last bottle of Bulmers. I opened the shutters to a rosy Tuscan sunrise spilling over a ridiculously green hillside instead of the sickly yellow glow that struggles through London’s grey skies like an undercooked egg.

And instead of a sweaty sprint for a seat on the circle line, all I had to do was wander down three flights of stone stairs and across a dewy lawn, past the potted lemon trees and into a kitchen where I and a bunch of food fanatics were about to spend five days being taught the rudiments of Italian cuisine.

I distinctly remember smiling at that notion, and yes, it probably had an unbearably smug edge to it.

Italy and London are the only places where I don’t feel to exist on sufferance. – E.M. Forster

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There’s something intrinsically magical about food and Italy, in particular, the sun-drenched, olive tree-scattered rolling hills of Tuscany. When you tell people you’re off on a gastronomic trip there their mouths tend to emit mumbles of ‘ooo’ and ‘ahh’ while their eyes glaze over in a sort of envious state of dreamy irritation — half jealous that you’re going and not them and half lost in the thought of the culinary delights you’re sure to sample.

And who can blame them? Italian produce alone deserves to be talked about in hushed tones of reverence; coming as it does from one of those Mediterranean idylls where the tomatoes are plumper and more outrageously red, the pasta is fresher and richer, the milk-white mozzarella is more delicate and everything tastes, well, indefinably better.

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My friends seemed especially envious/rage-filled when I casually explained the trip that I was actually taking: five days in the Tuscan countryside learning how to cook traditional Italian food interspersed with copious wine drinking and bread gorging at the sprawling 19th century Villa Boccella in the hills outside Lucca courtesy of Bake with Maria’s Maria Mayerhofer.

Even I couldn’t quite believe my luck as I peeled my pink-skinned tourist self out of my taxi at the top of the tiny town of Ponte a Mariano, gawping at the Villa’s Keatsian Ode-worthy facade…and a tiny part of me waiting for some bronzed Italian Baron to set the dogs on me for trespassing on his family’s ancestral homestead.

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That was until Maria Mayerhofer herself came striding around the side of the villa, smiling like I was an old friend arriving for dinner and insisting I had a glass of wine immediately. And to be honest, that’s exactly what cooking with Maria feels like: a casual lesson with a friend. It just so happens that this friend is a wizard with bread and has the ability to make even the most kitchen-phobic of chefs leave feeling like they could take on Masterchef.

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Bake with Maria opened in 2010, with classes being held in Maria’s own kitchen before demand soon outgrew her home and she moved into the fully equipped Baking Lab in November 2011. I’m no stranger to her bread masterclasses or her cooking classes either, having been tutored on how to be gluten savvy there earlier this year.

Maria has been running the five-night cooking course at Villa Boccella for four years, and it’s become a family affair with her parents, her husband Marshall and their toddler, Kasper, all coming along for the ride alongside a Bake with Maria regular and teacher, Annamarie Jones. Throughout the trip, while I and the rest of the Villa’s latest cooking ingenues were busy baking in the onsite kitchens with Maria and Annamarie, it was this crack team of family food enthusiasts who were whipping up vast panzanella salads, tackling endless mountains of washing up and hauling up vast quantities of wine for us all to glug between lessons (Kasper less so; sadly his baby arms could only carry a pitiful amount of wine).

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It didn’t take long before the sprawling, 19-bedroom Villa, with its array of eccentricities that ranged for the gorgeous – the ivory marble bathrooms, the library, the tiny stone chapel – to the ridiculous – namely the huge murals of a yoga-loving jesus that cover the dining room’s walls – began to feel like home and the prospect of leaving this sun-soaked Italian idyll more and more unappetising.

But, there’s more to this trip than just lounging around like a lizard in the afternoon heat; the course included four half-day cooking classes with the aim of making enough food to cater for the group for lunch and evening meals.

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As well as endless variations on bread, from olive-oil saturated foccacia and stone-baked pizza spilling over with bubbling pools of mozzarella to ciabattas studded with handfuls of herbs from the kitchen garden, we learned the rudiments of rustic Italian cooking.

We discovered how to massage hand-chopped mix of herbs and garlic into huge haunches of pork, juicy chunks of which was served later, and rich under the white hot afternoon sun with glasses of chilled white; how to make egg pasta by hand and roll it to the flimsy transparency of skin before stuffing it with ricotta and peppered spinach; how to layer smoky chargrilled aubergine with ladlefuls of tomato sauce and fistfuls of parmesan to make unctuous parmigiana reggiana and how to turn the lemons from the Villa’s own trees into a canary-yellow curd, which in turn became a marshmallow semifreddo coated in a slick of vanilla-scented raspberry coulis and crunchy with shards of toasted almond.

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Between throwing and proving dough we wandered into the town. Ponte a Mariano is a sleepy, pretty little residential place that feels like it hasn’t quite caught up with the rest of the world, where mustachioed men in clapped-out Nissans slow down to wish you bonjourno as you walk into the bar-cum-ice cream-shop-cum-ticket-office by the scrubby train station to spend your small change on train tickets to Lucca.

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We caught the rusted trains that shed flecks of cobalt paint for the short hop to Lucca and got lost in the city’s honeycomb streets of pink stone; using its wide central piazzas and famous tree topped tower as our marker. The days fly by in a tangle of flour-smeared aprons, sunburnt faces and evening meals spent discussing shared kitchen disasters that stretch into the balmy nights.

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On the final evening, sitting in front of the great stone fireplace burning old newspapers and feeling distinctly grumpy (and fat, by this point I was monstrously fat) I realised that I would eventually have to write about this trip and, in doing so, share it. Which, when you find a place like this, a place that becomes your own personal slice of edible Italian heaven for what feels like the briefest of moments it is one of the hardest things to do.

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Five nights at Villa Boccella with Maria and her cooking crew costs £1,250 per person (including accommodation, four cooking/baking classes, a vineyard visit with lunch, a trip to Lucca with an evening meal and a recipe book of all the dishes cooked during your stay. Excluding flights).

The next trip will run 1st-6th May, 2016.

If you can’t wait until next May to experience Maria’s authentic Italian cooking, get a taste of the trip with her recipe for fool-proof pasta recipe or her Cantuccini recipe for crunchy, nutty biscuits atypical of the Tuscan region – perfect with your morning cappuccino.

Fresh pasta

Ingredients

180g flour type 00

2 medium eggs, lightly whisked

1 small pinch of salt

Method

Whisk the flour and salt then mix all the ingredients in a bowl, transfer on the table and knead until the dough starts to clump together. If the dough feels a little sticky, then you can add a touch more flour. Knead the dough until it’s silky smooth and elastic.

Wrap in plastic and let it rest for about 20 minutes at room temperature. Keep refrigerated up to 12 hours if you don’t use it immediately.

Feed ¼ of the dough through a pasta machine at a time, keeping the rest of the dough wrapped so it doesn’t dry out. Start with the widest setting and roll the dough several times, changing the direction that your feed it in each time so that the gluten develops evenly, until the dough is smooth and elastic.

Reduce the thickness setting and roll through until the desired thickness is reached.

When you’ve rolled your pasta, it can be left in sheets to make lasagna, cut into small strips by hand to make tagliatelle or filled with stuffing to make ravioli or tortellini: just dot spoonfuls of the mixture along one sheet, dab around the filling with water and cover with another sheet of pasta, pressing down gently to seal around the stuffing mounds and cutting out with a pasta stamp or roller.

Cantuccini

Ingredients

300g Tipo 00 flour

200g sugar

100g halved almonds

2 large eggs

40g milk

1tsp orange zest

pinch of salt

½ tsp bicarbonate of soda

Method

Line a baking tray with baking paper and preheat oven to 190 degrees.

Sift flour, salt and bicarbonate of soda into a large mixing bowl. Carefully mix in the sugar, orange zest and halved almonds.

Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients and add two eggs.

With a small fork, ‘gather’ up the dry ingredients to form a soft dough, which you can just handle – Don’t overwork it or the dough will become too sticky!

If it’s too soft to shape, add a little more flour and if too stiff add a little milk.

Shape into three long ‘sausages’ on the baking tray – about 4cm wide and a little over a finger thickness deep. Leave plenty of space around them to rise and spread.

Bake for 15 minutes at 190 degrees until golden brown.

Remove from the oven and while still on the baking tray, cut each ‘roll’ diagonally into 1-2cm slices to get the classic cantuccini shape.

Spread the biscuits out and put back in the oven to ‘dry’ for about 10 minutes until golden brown.

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Malaga memories: On finally appreciating Picasso

“I was born of a white feather and a small glass of Andalusian eau de vie. I was born to a mother the daughter of a fifteen-year-old girl born in the percheles of Málaga the handsome bull who sired me with his forehead crowned with jasmine.” – Picasso: Écrits. Paris. Réunion des Musées Nationaux Gallimard, 1989.

Mercedes swivelled suddenly, her brown leather bag stuffed with tickets stubs and empty water bottles crunching against my hip as she held my arms and looked me square in the face with dark eyes livid and shining, bubbling over with barely concealed passion.

You would have thought that I was used to the fire and the fervour that seemed to simmer just below the surface of most of the Malagans I had met so far, but it still jolted my prim little English self like a rabbit caught in the glare.

“Do you know Picasso? Do you love him? Well, today you will.” She intoned in looping, Spanish splashed English, punctuating her sentences with empathic head nods, like a bright little bird observing a worm it’s just trapped in its claws.

“Ah…good.” I replied meekly, trying to muster some convincingly reverent energy against the mega watt rays of her enthusiasm.

“Come, come, we will explore eaaaavarythink. I will show you it all.”

She refocused the intensity of her gaze into the first room of the Palacio de Buenavista – a great, sweeping Andalusian mansion that has been turned into the home of some of Picasso’s most intimate paintings – and ushered me on, honing in on a painting that, from a distance, looked like a mess of square and splotches.

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I’ve never really got Picasso. Well, to be truthful, that’s an understatement. I never really liked him. That also may be an understatement. I have, without doubt, never understood him.

There was always something that rankled, perhaps the harsh, geometric lines, those misshapen, melting faces broken apart and reformed like your own reflection is mangled in water when you stick your finger in and swirl.

They’re indistinct and fragmented and, underneath it all, there’s that venomous little slithering whisper that thinks given enough paint and canvas any artistically gifted child could do just as well.

But then, one sunny Spanish morning in Malaga, where Picasso was born, my guide Mercedes whisked me around and began to slowly instil her deep seated and deeply rooted adoration for this renegade painter and serial womaniser in me.

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It grew slowly, burning softly at first, born from a grudging respect that sprouted in my belly and grew in increments, finally bursting forth in front of one painting that managed to wrench tears from me as Mercedes stepped back, finally satisfied that her job had been done.

But it took a few paintings before I got there, each picked out from the multitude by Mercedes who pulled me from room to room, positioned me at different viewing points; forced my eyes to watch from doorways and corners and impossible angles to reveal strange aspects in seemingly ordinary pieces and opened a deep well of pure, unfettered emotional attachment to paintings I would have, save for her, observed politely before shrugging off.

As a rather unproductive writer, I can’t help but admire such a prolific artist as Picasso was. He produced thousands of works of art and was still painting in his 90s before he died. He had mastered and dismissed stuffy still life and angular, Renaissance perspectives by the time he was 17, although that’s not to say he didn’t admire the masters: El Greco, Matisse, Degas…he just liked them deconstructed and reformed through his own eyes.

Which is probably why I find it hard to appreciate his work, because he paints everything at once and it’s too much. Picasso saw that real people moved, and objects showed you their whole selves from every angle at once; not just a blank, prettily one dimensional facet. So his works became a multitude of positions and expressions all contained in one canvas. It’s confusing, it’s arresting, it’s bold and it’s what made him unique.

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But it wasn’t Picasso’s reinterpretations of still life or inanimate objects that made me love him, that made me feel him. It was his women, which he talked about through the portraits he painted of them. And one woman in particular, Olga Stepanovna Khokhlova, a Russian ballerina and his first wife.

They weren’t his most famous pieces and they certainly weren’t his most celebrated, but they were, to me, his most accessible and they were all tucked away in this little collection kept in his home town.

“I think about Death all time, it is as a woman who will never leave me.” – Pablo Picasso

It started with a painting that wasn’t actually of Olga, it was of one of Picasso’s later lovers, a photographer called Dora Maar. It’s her face that later became The Weeping Woman and it’s her screaming face I see in Picasso’s most famous piece: Guernica.

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“Look at her hands, fighting and clawed; look at her eyes, she is full of fear and pain.” Mercedes whispered to me.

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Her hands were up, tearing through the canvas. Her body was militated and deformed into a human wheel, her mouth open in an endless, unquenched scream. Her picture, while it seemed harmless enough at first, terrified me.

And then Mercedes showed me Olga.

Olga

Picasso married Olga in 1918 and they had a son, Paulo, together.

Later, Picasso started having an affair with a 17-year-old French girl called Marie-Thérèse Walter and she became pregnant. When Olga found out in 1935, she took Paulo and moved to France and asked for a divorce. Picasso refused to divide his property with her, despite the law, so they stayed legally married until she died from cancer in 1955.

Picasso didn’t attend her funeral.

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Wearing a classic Spanish Matiquilla Picasso makes a young Olga look cold, yet dewy and rosy.  She looks like she’s made from fresh cotton and the underside of a lily; untouched and clean. When Picasso looks at Olga in 1917, a year before they were married, she appeared pristine and perfect to him. This was Picasso’s Olga at the peak of their love, at the very beginning.

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This painting might not even be specifically of Olga, but she was still his muse in 1921, which was the year she gave birth to their first son, Paulo.

Suddenly Olga has taken on a beatific, religious and almost regal air, She’s lost her almost waxy, floral glow and been replaced by a white holy fervour. Gazing fixedly at her child she looks like devotion incarnate.

She could be a renaissance oil masterpiece, a old madonna and from afar this painting makes her elegant, white and swanlike. But, as you step closer, creeping like grandmother’s footsteps,  her image mutates and she appears dumpy and squat up close, her body obscenely fat. There’s something almost cannibalistic in it, as if she’s drawing her bulk from Picasso to feed to the infant. His brush and paint devouring her image in return.

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In the final painting I saw of Olga, she was transformed again. There was none of the florid prettiness of before or of the overt womanliness. There was just a pale woman with her head in her hands. The blue of her housecoat sapping her colours.

She and her painter no longer seem to like each other, their love has dimmed and all that’s left is this painful distance between canvas and eyes. She looks withered, all her original rosy softness has been carved away to this ivory boney lines, her plumpness deflated.

As Mercedes recounted the decline of Olga and Picasso’s love and marriage it all felt so unutterably sad and as she talked, my eyes begin to mist over and the blue of Olga’s coat swam in my eyes, burning through the water.

But it wasn’t just Olga’s portraits that made me finally fall for Picasso, it was all the paintings of his lovers, his muses, his wives.

It was his French ladies, painted feline and blue, all elongated and calm.

It was the pink and round paintings of Marie, flushed with youth and gleaming.

It was the depictions of ‘The Flower’, Françoise Gilot, her face wreathed in petals.

And it was his raw, sexual and strangely regal portraits of Jacqueline Roque.

It took all of Picasso’s women for me to finally love his work, to finally connect to it, although I couldn’t help but wonder as I left the cool shade of the Palacio de Buenavista, was it really Picasso that I loved or was it the women he loved through paint and portrait.

Malaga

I was shown around Malaga as a guest of the Malagan tourism board and Monarch Airlines. You can read all about my sunny Spanish adventuring here.

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HouseTrip, a Song for the Day & a Local Hero: Clapham Common’s All-Singing, All-Dancing Shalamar

I mentioned in a previous post that I’ve been busy working on a special project recently. This project has become very close to my heart, so you’ll have to forgive me if I keep banging on about it over the coming weeks!

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I’ve been working with HouseTrip.com to help project manage their Where to Stay Guide for London. Now this wasn’t your ordinary, bog-standard ‘you can do this, don’t forget to see this’ guide, these were personal, insider journeys all over London, written by some proper Londoners and London-lovers. So, 26 boroughs (yes we made a few up), five languages and near-on 88,000 words later, it’s live and you can delve into it here: housetrip.com/content/where-to-stay/london.

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It was long, gruelling and challenging, (have you ever tried to organise journalists plus photographers, translators and videographers to deadline? They don’t compare it to herding cats without reason) but it was also incredibly fun.

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I got to work with some fantastic London bloggers like Emily Gibson from Curious London, Fabienne Henry from Lost in London, Laura Porter from About.com London, Fiona Maclean from London Unattached, Julie Falconer – the lady behind A Lady in London – Donald Strachan and the lovely Zoe Hedges from The Z-Factor, whose individual guides you should check out immediately!

The last few weeks I’ve carried my camera and wandered around what feels like most of London. I’ve followed paths and alleyways I never knew existed, discovered buildings and parks I’ve never seen before, eaten cake EVERYWHERE and and met some fascinating people. I’ve learned a few important lessons like if you try to take a picture of the hard-as-nails looking florist in an undisclosed south London location she’ll give you the finger; and no matter how much I wish I did I DO NOT live in one of the town houses in Sloane Square and need to stop pretending I do as it makes the real owners uncomfortable.

It’s has forced me to re-evaluate areas I thought I knew, like my five-hour jaunt around Kensington following Fiona’s fantastic recommendations – and yes, we did spend about two hours drooling over the food in Wholefoods before getting lost in the tulips and wisteria of Holland Park, but don’t take my word for it, read her guide here: housetrip.com/content/where-to-stay/kensington.

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My guides were Lambeth, Chelsea, Wandsworth and Canary Wharf, but there was one thing that didn’t make it into my Lambeth guides that I regret – for some reason late night, drunken singing and fried chicken didn’t seem family-friendly enough!

I’m pleased to introduce the all-singing, all-singing Shalamar of Shalamar’s chicken near Clapham Common station – a local legend extraordinaire who, if he remembers you, will do his very own version of a Backstreet Boys hit, complete with interchangeable hats and some sick dance moves.

This video is shaky, loud, out-of-focus and taken at the end of a very long night (I’m really selling it here), so feel free to play the real soundtrack linked below from YouTube if you can’t bear the distinct background sounds of drunken caterwauling. Enjoy your 90s flashback, because it doesn’t get much better than this boy band classic…or at least it seemed that way a few drinks down!

Shalamar! from emma sleight on Vimeo.

In the next few weeks I hope to post more on my forays into London for HouseTrip, from star butchers and deserted skyscrapers to prostitute’s graveyards and hidden street signs – including all the photography that didn’t quite make it in to the official guides, like these from Lambeth that I’ve been dropping in!

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Please do let me know if the guides feature one of your favourite places, or if we’ve manage to unearth a gem you didn’t know about…or even if you’ve seen Shalamar in action yourself!

Dubai Part Two: The Best Massage in the World at Raffles Dubai

“Breathe out Miss Emma, please. Three big breaths.”

I do as I am told, slowly and self-consciously.

“Is she looking at my spine alignment?”

“Is she monitoring my lung capacity?”

“Can she see my thighs wobbling under the crisp, white sheet?”

Shhh! I hiss at my subconscious as I breathe so deeply and thoroughly – scraping the depths of my woefully unexercised lungs – that I make myself light-headed. I open my eyes on the third breath like a naughty child to sneak a peek at what this ninja-footed, softly spoken therapist is up to only to realise that all she’s doing is letting my own breath warm her hands in preparation for my spa treatment. Oh.

I’ve always had this problem with spas. I have never reached that nirvana moment of happy gormlessness where your body and mind melt away leaving only the basest of instincts functioning: touch and sensation.

I’m always firmly in the room, listening to the plinky plonky music, worrying about the tension in my neck and anticipating the next painful jab as the masseuse digs their thumbs into my shoulder blades in a vain attempt to undo years of slouching in front of computers. I always leave scolding myself, berating myself with mantras: “I will sit up straight. I will go to yoga. I will stretch five times a day.” All forgotten, of course, the next time I’m on a deadline and hunched like a skeksis from the Dark Crystal, my face glowing a sickly ivory from the low light of my old laptop screen.

But then I have clearly never been to the right spa.

Raffles Spa Garden RetreatThe Raffles Dubai Spa was different. The setting was familiar, dimly lit, five-star reserved luxury, the air filled with the smell of mysterious unguents and the halls filled with clients, padding around in pristine dressing gowns like contented ghosts.

Sari, my tiny masseuse, had hands that felt like the inside of a lily. When she poured various oils into my palms to help me tailor-make my massage and later held and kneaded my fingers and wrists, it was like holding hands with an exquisite, finely-made doll.

I was about to have a hot stone massage with an oil that I had hand-picked and that smelled vaguely of oranges, frangipani and almond blossom. Sari told me I had chosen a relaxing oil and it was a good choice. Phew, good. First intimidating spa job done.

I had never had a hot stone massage before and had always thought that it looks and sounds silly – all those women in the pictures, blissfully face down with a line of rocks on their backs,  it never looked like my idea of a decent massage. What I stupidly didn’t realise is that they don’t actually sit lines of stones along your spine. It’s actually a far more physical and tactile experience where stones are heated and rubbed into your prepped and oiled skin and kneaded deep into the muscles like pushing flint into dough.

Sari started to move along my neck, which was rigid with a familiar tension, the tendons stretched like strings across a banjo, ready to snap at any moment. But Sari had fingers of granite and, despite saying she was going for light to medium pressure, pushed her hands into my screaming muscles, taking me to that embarrassing point when you’re about to release an inadvertent squeak of pain before easing off. If this was her light to medium pressure her hard must be like Medieval torture.

So far so expected. As she moved down my body, performing that strange but chaste massage striptease, revealing one limb at a time from the full body shroud, that irritating voice piped back up again.

“When did I last shave my legs?”

“I bet her last client was that supermodel with legs like Gisele Bünchen that’s sunbathing by the pool.”

“I hope she isn’t offended by my wonky big toes.”

Then I heard the clink of the stones and the first burst of contact heat spread across my neck like wildfire, blossoming into a rose-tinted glow as the warmth slowly faded and the stone continued its arc down the curled wing of my shoulder blade.

It was like touching a match to paper, singeing it and watching the heat eat away at the surface and slowly fade away. It was unlike anything I had ever felt before. It was a sort of controlled pain that took me to the edge of wincing every time a new stone was applied and left me exhaling deeply as the fire dimmed. I had to remind myself that Sari was holding the stones, so they couldn’t possibly be as hot as I thought they were. But with my eyes closed, face down and blinded, I felt everything more.

All this might sound like I was straying into 50 Shades territory, but somewhere in the mixture of those hot stones and oil and Sari’s steely fingers, something remarkable happened. I stopped thinking about the slight bend in my spine. I stopped wondering if she could see any cellulite on my thighs. I almost forgot to breathe as I slipped into mindlessness.

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My brain went dark. Not blank, exactly, but as though someone had turned down the dimmer switch and all I could concentrate on was the slow swish of those stones, wait for the first pulse of heat and the feel of the heavy air on the rapidly cooling skin after the stone had carved its path on my flesh. For the next twenty minutes my whole world was the clink of changing stones and the soft padding of Sari’s feet across the tiled floor.

She cradled my head, supporting what must have been, by that point, a cannonball of dead weight as she pushed the remaining stones against and under my shoulder blades and draped a dark cloth across my eyes. Then, too soon, or it could have been hours later, she coughed delicately.

“Miss Emma, the massage is finished. I will leave the room while you get dressed and take you to the relaxation room.”

“Hmmm waaa? Yaaaa.” Was my articulate response.

And for the first time that I can remember I had to concentrate on reminding myself how to move my legs. It was like being half awake, in that space of sleep purgatory when your mind is active but your limbs haven’t quite caught up. Except this time there was no panic, no jolt, there was just liquid bones and a mind that was moving at the rate of a two-legged tortoise. Or Joey Essex on a good day.

Raffles Spa - Relaxation RoomAs I levered myself off the bed, I honestly thought that I might melt into a pool on the floor the moment I touched the ground, like a scene from Alex Mack. I didn’t, rather disappointedly, and was perfectly able to struggle into my clothes, even managing to remember how bra hooks worked, before floating and across the hall into a curtained room with nothing but tea, loungers and dried fruit.

I was given a about ten minutes to scoop my thoughts together before the absurdly handsome spa manager came to tell me that my friends were out and the chef was sending something to my room for afternoon tea. All I could manage was a wide, moronic smile and a heavy-headed nod, which probably made me look like a narcoleptic.

Raffles Spa - TherapistsNo words. I didn’t want to speak yet because I was scared that words would break the only spa spell I have ever been under and I wanted to hold onto it, just that little bit longer, before the world came rushing back in.

Raffles Spa focuses on rejuvenating treatments that are inspired by Asian, Middle Eastern and European traditions and is set within the Raffles Dubai Hotel in the Raffles Botanical Garden. The seven soothing treatment rooms, including a couple’s suite with private whirlpool and an outside retreat are open to guests of the hotel, members and non-members by appointment. See a list of the treatments on offer on their website here.

I had a 60 minute Traditional Hot Stone Massage, which costs £78.

For more information call the spa on +971 4314 9870 or Email spa.dubai@raffles.com.

Restaurateurs Behind the Restaurants: David Moore on Pop-Ups, Pied and His New Smokehouse

As a massive food-lover (translation, piggie) I always find it incredibly exiting to meet the people behind successful restaurants, so when I was offered the chance to meet Mr Pied à Terre himself, David Moore, I jumped at the chance.

We talked salted butter (conclusion use it, always, and spread it as thick as cheese), making pasta and restaurant scams, which were far too blue (and potentially libellous) to print – although the articles about David’s run in with a dine-and-dasher are still online here.

Here’s the original article, published on The Huffington Post, which can be found here. For potentially libellous stories you’ll have to meet David at the last month of pop-up Pied Nus before it closes and ask him yourself…

IMG_1473My white chocolate tart with macerated blackberries, the only kind of blackberries I will hitherto deign to eat.

“David Moore, the phenomenally successful restaurateur behind the Michelin-starred Pied à Terre and L’Autre Pied, is about to launch his next food venture. I caught up with him at his Charlotte Street venue to chat about his upcoming restaurant; a potential re-pop-up of Pied Nus, food bloggers and the new celebrity chefs.

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When I arrive in the dimly-lit confines of Pied à Terre, David is already there, grinning at me and guiding me towards ‘the power table,’ – a tiny two-seater facing the bustle of the restaurant. By the time we’re tucking into the bread basket, I realise that he isn’t on a charm offensive, he’s just naturally as gregarious, colourful and bright as the loud paisley shirt he’s sporting.

David, a father to two young girls who sometimes critique his food with helpful comments like “urgh Daddy, that’s disgusting,” might be about as unpretentious as an owner of a couple of Michelin-starred restaurants can get, but there’s no mistaking who’s king of the castle at Pied. Even the charming sommelier, Mathieu Germond, admits that he has nicknamed him ‘Daddy’.

All this is unsurprising when you consider that in an article by The Telegraph last year it was reported that “turnover at the business hit £4m last year and Mr Moore is expecting “double digit” growth in 2014.” All pretty impressive for someone who started at catering college in Blackpool and whose first job was, in his words, cooking for geriatrics, well, at least until the fateful day his renegade head chef made the audacious decision to cook the beef medium rare. Out of the 120 plates send out, 118 came back and David left in protest.

David landed his first big job at front of house by catching Monsieur Desenclos on the back foot at Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. He started as a chef de rang and, fast forward a few years, was a head waiter and then assistant manager before starting his own ventures in 1991.

David might have looked coy when I asked if those 2014 predictions had become financial reality, but there was no disguising his pride when his hugely popular pop-upPied Nus popped up in conversation. Diners and critics alike were heralding the death of the pop-up a few years ago and they still have their dissenters with Michael Hogan at The Telegraph bemoaning what he described as “the hipsterfication of the dining scene.”

2014-02-11-PiedsNusinterior.jpgPied Nus

But David and head chef Ed Dutton managed to make a good impression, and it’s isn’t hard to see why. There’s no need to, as Hogan dreads: “queue in the rain or loiter on the pavement, self-consciously scoffing out of a disintegrating cardboard box.” There’s just stripped back, seasonal food, informal surrounds and, to the pop-up lover’s delight, real tables, chairs and, gasp, napkins. After a busy five months it’s safe to say that the venture has been a success, so much so that David floated the potential to re-open Pied Nus at a different location after it closes in March this year. Re-popping the pop-up? Now that’s innovative.

David hit the issue with trend restaurants on the head when he told The Telegraph that: “People only care about the new kid on the block.” According to David, food editors focus journalists on the latest discoveries because they think the only thing people want to read about is what’s new. “I was sitting having dinner with a pal and he said ‘I need to go out for dinner on Saturday night. Where’s new?’ … I asked him when was the last time you went to Club Gascon? … It’s the guys that have been around 10 years that need the support.”

So how do you keep up with the fast-moving food scene and be innovative without gimmicky? David thinks the emphasis has to be on substance and authenticity, with chefs and managers hand sourcing produce from farms and breweries. His next restaurant, a US smokehouse-style concept, 160 Degrees Fahrenheit, with Sean Martin and Andrei Lesment is set to open in early Spring in West Hampstead and once again, he’s bang on trend. Smoking features across the board in food this year from butter to veg (alongside adult milkshakes, vinegar and healthy junk food…think kale lollies).

2014-02-11-133665600.jpgA man hanging eels in a smokehouse in England, UK/VisitBritain/Britain on View/Getty Images

American concept restaurants might have had some mixed reviews lately – with Jay Rayner being underwhelmed by Jamie Oliver’s grill joint Barbecoa, and Mariana O’Loughlin failing to fall for New York-alike Jackson + Rye – but David is confident that his new place will serve smoked eggs, hunks of meat, ribs, fish and vegetables that’ll be right on the money.

But it’s all to play for until the reviews start trickling out, which leads me to ask David how he feels about food bloggers and the effect they have on new restaurants, a somewhat thorny subject for most industry people.

He shifts and exhales, eyes on the pristine tablecloth before carefully replying: “I think the critics have become less important … Neither of them are more important than the other, but you have to embrace the bloggers, it’s not going away, it can only grow.”

“The way that a restaurant markets itself now has definitely changed. You’ll find that new openings now will not just have hard hat events and canapé evenings for all the mainstreams, they’ll have a blogger’s evening or a blogger’s event. You have to get them onside, they have a very large reach.”

“I’ve even got my blog now” he says incredulously, genuinely surprised that anyone would want to read about what he gets up to in day-to-day life. The thing is, with chefs toting millions of twitter followers (Jamie Oliver is currently on 3.74 million, six times more than David Cameron) and a string of high-profile TV appearances, they’ve become the new rock stars and the reach is only going to get wider with industry insiders, suppliers and restaurateurs taking their turn in the spotlight.

David reckons it is because the standard of good food is now so high that it’s become ubiquitous and people are interested in every facet of dining now. Fellow restaurateur Russell Norman, the force behind Polpo and Spuntino, is currently starring in BBC2’s new series, The Restaurant Man and David has a new TV project in the pipeline.

Yet it’s still hard to prise David away from the front of house, despite the long hours and the stress. So why does he still do it? He smiles, “I love the conviviality of it all and I’m never happier than when I’m bouncing around at Pied Nus with a corkscrew and a pen.” On saying that, like a coiled spring, he’s up from the table, chatting to a couple of regulars and hugging me before heading out and off to try and catch a cat nap before the start of the school run and a shift at Pied Nus, at the front of house, naturally.

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Beef Tartare, with Smoked Eel, Celeriac and Watercress at Pied Nus

David Moore’s London Food Picks:
Butcher: McKanna Meats, 21 Theobalds Rd London WC1X 8SL‎
Fishmonger: Steve Hatt 88-90 Essex Rd London N1 8LU‎
Greasy Spoon: Andrews Restaurant, 160 Grays Inn Road, WC1
Favourite Restaurants: Club Gascon, 57 W Smithfield, London EC1A 9DS, Texture Restaurant, 34 Portman St, London W1H 7BY & Haozhan, 8 Gerrard St, London W1D 5PJ

Follow Emma Sleight on Twitter: www.twitter.com/EmmaCSleight

Faces not Places: The Dog Mushers

Last week I wrote about Stian and his beloved dog Varg, who I was lucky enough to meet on a trip in Tromso last December when I learnt (ahem, attempted) to live like a dog musher in the frozen north of Norway.

Stian couldn’t do what he does – looking after and racing his team of 23 huskies – without his girlfriend Nieske and their recent recruit, a dog handler called Amalie. I was inspired by these two women. They live and work this unforgiving and physically demanding lifestyle everyday, couldn’t be happier doing it and, for both of them, the job came along as a bit of an accident.

Nieske Wierda

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Nieske is originally from Rotterdam and met Stian at university in Norway a few years ago, although it wasn’t exactly love at first sight.

“I thought he was rude, he was this crazy man who lived in the woods with his dogs. We worked together doing night shifts at a nursery home and I helped him out in the dog yard but I never thought of him as a boyfriend.”

One night at university however, some serious pheromones kicked in during an 80’s party: “I was standing next to him and, it sounds weird, I smelled him and something clicked.”

A few weeks later Stian gave her a plant in a plastic bag – Nieske doesn’t like flowers – and said that she should be his girlfriend. In 2012 they bought their cabin in Tromso and started expanding their pack of dogs and Nieske started racing. The only thing they argue about now is what to call the dogs, Stian wants to name a new pack after famous glamour models…Nieske isn’t quite as keen.

She’s guided ‘celebrities’ on sled races for the ITV show 70 Degrees North (and was, incidentally, highly unimpressed by the inconsiderate and selfish way some of the guests treated her dogs) and will take part in the Europe’s longest dog sledding race, The Finnmarksløpet, in March this year.

Firelight

Amalie Miko Jæger

AmalieAnimal lover, dog whisperer, iron woman, traveller and she’s only 20-years-old. We were all a little bit in love with Amalie.

Amalie originally planned to join the police or the Norwegian military working with their animals or in a medical capacity, but fell in love with Stian and Nieske’s dog handling philosophy when she worked with them on a school placement.

Amalie went to one of Norway’s Folk High School – schools which offer a sort of funded, structured and tailored gap year where students can pick a sport, job or field that they are interested in and work there for a year. Amalie chose working with dogs because, in her own words: “Most of the time I like to be out of my comfort zone.”

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Image: Amalie Miko Jæger/Facebook

Most of her friends think she’s crazy and look incredulous when she explains that during the winter, when the pipes freeze, they have to take it in turns to lie, face down in the snow and collect bottles of river water for the cabin’s tank. While she might miss her bath and family home back in Bodø, she find big cities stressful, thinks people who live their lives online are terrifying and works with Varg and the other dogs to re-establish an inherent, sympathetic connection to nature.

Stian, Niekse and Amalie work with adventure company Magnetic North to show how dog mushers live in Norway a few times a year during northern lights season. You can explore and ask about any of their trips to Scandinavia here.

Faces not Places: The Children of Gondar

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We stopped in Gondar, the gateway to the Simien Mountains, to stock up on food and essentials (namely a teapot) at the market and I was struck by how beautiful the children were and how genuinely pleased they were to have their picture taken.

Tourists in Gondar are becoming more of a common sight, yet they still retain a touch of the exotic to the local children who crowd round to wave and run along with you as you shop, occasionally, and optimistically, asking for chocolate or cash. I have never said hello more often or waved as much as I did when in Ethiopia, it almost felt like I was experiencing what the Royals must do in official visits. I now see the point in adopting the Queen’s gentle rotation wave to save one’s wrist.

Yes there was poverty in the dust-choked and litter-strewn streets, but there was also a sense of fun as the children posed for my camera and the gasped in delighted glee as I showed them their images painted onto the camera screen.

Here’re my favourites taken during the trip.

Faces not Places: The Peace Eye-ers

When travelling I’ve always found that the places where I meet interesting, inspirational or just downright insane people are the places that stick the most in my mind. It’s often their faces I remember, those wine-soaked nights out or the spontaneous deviations from travel plans that come from starting a conversation on a cross-border bus, being invited into a local’s home or bonding with a Brit over missing decent (and decently-priced) cheese in Asia (or America or Africa or Australia, actually).

They are often people that you’d never naturally meet at home, like finding an unexpected friend during a moment of hell during an activity that makes you realise you’ve bitten off far more than your muscles can actually chew or just before you jump out of a plane and it suddenly occurs to you that this was perhaps not your brightest idea.

From the 17-year-old backpacker’s high on Khao San Road’s cheap clothes and beer to the travelling forty-somethings, revelling in a mutual lust for food, travel and foreign culture or re-inventing themselves and their professions abroad or the pensioner on their last hurrah, blowing the kid’s inheritance on one last, intoxicating swoop around the globe. From the Nepalese chef and the Amsterdam-dwelling nomadic writer to the Norwegian dog mushers and Chinese potato sellers, pocket-sized Philadelphia line dancers and the Japanese business man who thew in the corporate towel and intended to spend his foreseeable future island hopping.

Faces not Places is my attempt to record and remember these people that put certain destinations on the map for me.

Peace Eye, Pokhara, Nepal

I’ve already mentioned The Peace Eye Guest House in a rose-tinted Review Postcard, but it’s worth repeating that for me, and for my then boyfriend, despite memories of Pokhara being made up of cloud-clogged skies, boat graveyards and seemingly endless rain, it was also where we meant some incredible travellers who brought colour to the grey scape.

boat grave

Billy
Billy never offered a surname and we never asked for one. He is and always will be, simply Billy, like Madonna, or Jesus. When we met him he claimed that my boyfriend and I were surrounded by an aura of love and he must be born in December (he is) and I must be born in the Spring (I’m not). He looked puzzled and shrugged, claiming that I must be from the southern hemisphere then because I definitely looked like Spring. Apparently Billy was a seriously big deal on the 90’s DJ scene and if his hollow, spaced-out eyes and jittery gestures were anything to go by then it’s clear that the decade wasn’t kind to him.

Billy was hired by a club in Nepal to do their new year’s eve gig – techno, trance and dance have taken a firm, throttling grip on the Nepalese music scene … that and Beiber anyway. Billy never left Nepal and can be found either philosophising in Peace Eye, stoically playing chess in a herbal haze outside the distinctly lascivious Bar Santana, or physically coercing customers into buying his beer.

Tim
pictur159Tim is a sardonic American writer whose speech has a touch of the Bill Murray drawl. He grew up in Indiana in the conservative American Mid-West and, against his mother’s wishes (she still refuses to read his books in protest), he quit his job as a teacher and left with his wife to cycle around the world. He has been travelling for nine years and claims he can’t go back for another four, until his mortgage on his house is paid off back in America. So he drifts from place to place writing travel journals and self publishing them. You can read about his exploits at downtheroad.org

He was full of happy little tales like the time his wife went into an ashram in the foothills of India and never came back out. The last time I saw him they were in the middle of an acrimonious divorce. He offered me nuggets of wisdom gleaned from his years of travelling such as: ‘You’ve got to always look for the Adam’s apple man’ and ‘Every Euro girl needs a crazy American Uncle. It’s just the law.’

Jack
Jack is a Kiwi conservationist who seems to have lived in every continent on the planet and still maintains an insatiable wanderlust and genuine passion for exploration. He seemed to be El Capitan of Peace Eye, the ‘Red’ of Shawshank – all requests or queries went through him, he’s a man who knows people and who can get things. He shepherded and welcomed new comers, drawing them into his close-knit, random collection of friends. He works with wild tigers.org helping to protect and cultivate habitats and national parks and to stop illegal trading and poaching of wild animals in northern Nepal and across South East Asia. He is like the BFG, 6’5 and can be frequently found hunched at his ‘desk’ in the Peace Eye coffee lounge, huge hands tapping away at his tiny netbook, planning his next escape back into his natural habitat.
Jack

Cecile
Jack’s ‘Petit Croissant.’ The delightfully French Cecile was Parisian, without the pretence or the intimidating polish. She was reluctant to talk about her work and was pleasingly mysterious in her conversation. All I knew was she didn’t have to go back to work for another year and was about to visit her pregnant sister in Spain. Cecile gave up TV eight years ago and read voraciously instead. You’d often find her curled up with a book near the fire in Peace Eye, or softly talking with Jack in the corner, sharing plates of cheese and bottles of Chilean wine, smoke from her imported cigarettes curling around them as she giggled to punctuate each carefully phrased sentence: Je ne sais quoi doled out in snatches.

Paul
Paul looked like the outdoors. His skin was burned nut-brown from endless exposure to the elements. He was built like the knotted trees of Pokhara and smelt of sickeningly good health (he is a tea-total, vegetarian, non-smoker whose only vice is coffee). He comes from Hackney and trains TV camera crews and presenters to climb mountains and prepare for wildlife and adventure documentaries. Essentially he is personal trainer of the extreme sports variety and is, naturally, astonishingly fit. He casually mentioned that he had been to base camp – this is supposed to take 14-16 days – three times in two weeks. It only took him four days each time. Paul was an interesting bag of secrets who disappeared one morning without a warning or goodbye.

There were others who drifted in and out: Simon the middle-aged Palestinian who came to Pokhara to learn to para glide and who had just been reunited with his adopted son who grew up in Amsterdam. Katrine, the Danish student studying for her masters in molecular biology who came to climb mountains and Shieran, the then-owner of Peace Eye who yearned to play the guitar. He had a brilliant back catalogue of old rock, jazz and blues including Nora Jones, Eva Cassidy, Django Reinheart, Bob Dylan and Johnny  Cash and spent all day baking bread and brownies.

cinnamon roll

Peace Eye became our rose-tinted bubble, vaguely anaesthetised and tinged with gold. The prospect of leaving it and venturing out into the big, scary expanse of greater Pokhara seemed a terrifying prospect. I felt like the Lady of Shallot there, looking out of the windows, observing and documenting the passing world beyond the wooden frames without ever touching it, never leaving for fear of dying on the outside.

Peace Eye

We would venture out in groups to have lunch and read by the open fires in the restaurants along the river front: Mexican food in Maya against a moody soundtrack thrumming with bass and trumpets like a Frank Miller movie, fiery cocktails with names like ‘Monk’s Ruin’ and Mango Madness’ that burnt away brain cells in Love Kush, drinking beer and listening to abysmal Nepalese cover bands butchering Queen and Nirvana songs while drunk Russians formed mosh pits at Busy Bees.

Time slipped then stuck there in a vacuum of blank space but that hollow feeling that comes with wasted time was strangely absent. I was content to sit, to talk and to rest as the days faded and until the light retreated and the lanterns appeared. It was fabulous inertia, drug-like and soporific.

Of course all good things come to an end and mine ended one night with the return of a familiar bite of melancholy and itchy feet. There was a cyclical pattern to being with these people of WANT NEED HAVE WANT. I wanted to travel, so I did, but it wasn’t enough. There was always this debilitating sense of inadequacy, of insatiable and infuriating restlessness. I wanted to go and save tigers in Badia like Jack. I wanted to climb mountains in Patagonia like Paul. I wanted to live in Paris like Cecile and immerse myself in my own idea of being French; of drinking pernod and café au lait and swearing in thick, lyrical français. I WANT I WANT I WANT.

These people seemed aeons older than me. They were essentially roamers but they had jobs, reasons and responsibilities for being in Nepal and in Pokhara, and I envied them that – that complete assurance in their own purpose. As Jack whispered to Cecile as he hugged her goodbye at the bus station: ‘We both knew it had to end, this was part of the plan.’ But I’ll always have Peace Eye and all those who stayed with me.
Lake View