In pictures: Twenty little snapshots of Zurich

“Switzerland is simply a large, lumpy, solid rock with a thin skin of grass stretched over it” – Mark Twain

It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for a country, is it.

But, when I visited Zurich on the Germany side of this split-cultured city, I was delighted to discover that there is beauty to be found, from the lazy aqua green river that scythes through the turreted and cobbled centre of old town to the hidden pockets of foodie paradise dotted around this terribly modern, yet terribly traditional financial hub.

Much more on that later, but for now, here’re just a few snapshots of my oh-so-brief encounter with Zurich.

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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.

In pictures: Lucca and Ponte a Moriano, Tuscany

What feels like a lifetime ago now, but was, in reality, just a few short months ago, I visited a little pocket of heaven on a foodie holiday to Tuscany.

It was, in short, idyllic. Heart-burstingly wonderful. And, as per usual, almost all too difficult to put into words. So I won’t, yet, I’ll say it with pictures.

Food pictures, naturally.

My arrival on this particular gastronomic trip, however, was anything but idyllic.

Landing late from a dreary london into the sweltering, disorganised melee of Pisa airport isn’t much on the best of days. Even less so on a sleepy Monday afternoon, when most members of staff seem to have decided to take an impromptu holiday and the ones who are there look at you with undisguised hostility at your audacity at interrupting their espresso break to ask in broken Italian about local trains.

A frantic sprint, a rickety train to Lucca and a taxi later, I was sitting, panting, dishevelled and probably looking every inch the pink-skinned idiot tourist, in the back of a taxi whose metre was currently reading a four-person plus luggage load and whose charge was soaring about on a par with my irritation levels.

As I smiled through gritted teeth at the grinning taxi driver, we rolled out of Lucca’s heaving city centre towards the the tiny green speck of Ponte a Moriano and, along the way, something miraculous happened.

As we began to climb the winding roads with the heat of an orange sunset spilling through the windshield, the stress of travelling began to melt away and, as we swung through the ornate gates of Villa Bocella, it felt less like arriving, and rather more like I was coming home.

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.

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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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Sun, sea and silver sardines: Malaga memories of El Cabra

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“It’s just down here. Come on, I’m hungry.”

I heard his voice but lost sight of Antonio as his black cloud of curly hair dissappeared around the white-washed wall and his voice floated just out of reach at the end of the alley.

I peered down, my eyes screwed up against the white hot glare of Malaga’s late June sunshine. I shrugged thinking, well, at least he knows where he’s going and padded down after him, pinned to the sliver of shade that dripped from squat houses, which seemed to have slumped against the heat.

As I reached the end of the alley – wondering why I had decided to lug my stupidly heavy DSLR and with the heat from the bleached, sand-worn stones burning through the soles my thin summer sandals – I glanced up and saw a sign for Pedregalejo.

When I rounded the corner, the mouth of the alley opened up and joined the curve of the Pedragalejo beachfront: a narrow strip of greyish sand littered with rainbow-coloured sun umbrellas, the rocky fingers of the manmade reefs pointing out into the bay.

As Antonio led me along the line of shoreside restaurants I read the names that were painted onto beached boats that had been transformed into smoking bbqs; Las Palmeras, Mar de Pedragalejo; La Paloma. We stopped under the awning of one half way along. I had a moment to glance back out to sea and scan the name of this particular place, just noticing a white-haired man in a cap leaning over something that was sizzling over the flames before I was nudged into a seat next to the promenade. El Cabra.

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Nearby, chubby, sweat beaded boys were kicking neon pink footballs on the scrubby grass, and, further towards the sea, I could hear the shrieks of local girls as they were thrown into the foaming, icy waves by sunburnt men with tattooed torsos; the girls’ thick swathes of hair scything the hot air like damp black velvet and showering unlucky sunbathers in tepid rainfalls as they sprinted past.

Tall african men sauntered around, some with at least four pairs of glasses on, clutching racks of knock-off Raybans, eyes scanning the restaurant fronts for tourists; bands of lime green, gold and tortoiseshell pushed up their foreheads like plastic bandanas.

“Only locals come here really. That and tourists if they have good guides.”

Antonio winked at me before waving away the menu and ordering wine for him and beer for me and explaining why this is his favourite place to eat the local speciality: skinny, silver sardines; freshly caught and chargrilled over the flames.

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As I wiped the condensation from my beer bottle, trying not to notice the huge picture of Xabi Alonso that decorated it (I visited after Spain had been knocked out of the World Cup and any attempt to talk about it was met with stony silence), the first plate of seafood arrived.

There didn’t seem to be much of a menu here and no one else seemed to speak much English, but, when the dishes started coming I realised that that was part of the charm. You got served what was fresh that day and were served it in abundance.

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Bowls of impossibly sweet little clams dripping in butter and sharp with white wine; huge, coral-coloured mussels steamed gently open and served with wedges of lemon to squeeze over their tender flesh; salads of bright scarlet peppers with tuna and raw onion soaked in olive oil and sea salt; towers of golden fried whitebait and rings of crispy calamari and, when I was protesting the arrival of more, the ‘sardinas’, their silver skin burnt ash blonde and curling away from the soft, salty meat underneath.

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As the meal was tapering off and Anotnio was trying to force a shot of limoncello down me, promising it was a Spanish lunchtime tradition, a blast of music startled me. I swung in my seat to see a middle aged man with a portable kareoke box that couldn’t have looked more out of place on a beach if he tried.

He looked so incongruous, standing there in smart black trousers, polished, pointed shoes and an embroidered shirt, unbuttoned to the bone of his sternum, wiry chest hair spilling over the top button and hair from his impressive mullet falling past his collar. Without hesitation, he launched into a rendition of Sinatra’s My Way in heavily-accented English, the tinny sound of his jukebox crackling against his surprisingly mellow voice.

Antonio laughed at my bemused expression and explained that the singing man was a regular fixture on this stretch of beach and he’d be round after his performance, asking for tips.

“We should dance.” he said suddenly, his brown eyes dark with mischief, before bursting into fits of laughter at my panicked expression.

“I’m kidding, I’m kidding! You British girls are so proper, so easy to make fun…unless…do you want to?”

He was looking at me through a thick fan of black lashes across the table, still grinning as his hand stretched over, palm facing up and reaching for mine.

“No!” I screeched, wrenching my arm back as though he might burn me, blushing furiously and startling the couple eating next to us.

“No one else is dancing; I can’t dance; I’ve just eaten; I’m supposed to be on a serious press trip.”

Even as I said the last one I realised how silly it sounded. I cringed inwardly, sarcastically congratulating myself once again for succeeding in maintaining an aura of professionalism at all times.

Antonio was still making fun of me when the bill arrived.

As we walked back out into the afternoon haze I caught the eye of El Cabra’s grill master and paused, asking Antonio if I could meet him.

He shurgged and helped me down the sand-covered steps before calling out to the man in an unintelligable stream of Spanish. But the man, having clocked the heavy camera poised for a shot in my hands, cut him off, grinned and turned to grab a plate of freshly grilled sardines and posed, his eyes staring of into the middle distance.

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I still look at that picture today, there’s something about it, something that reminds me of The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner or The Old Man and the Sea. It’s his eyes you see; scrunched up and burning like gimlets in the lines of his leathery face. That and the memory of the salt and the sharp lemon from the lunch.

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It’s his thousand mile stare and remembering the scratchy heat of the sand under my heels on the bay and the smell of the sea, tinged with an edge of woodsmoke and the faint tang of sweat and suncream.

That meal, that view, that picture and that memory of the silvered fish at El Cabra that afternoon has become the Malaga I remember.

El Cabra, Paseo Marítimo Pedregal 17, Playa de Pedregalejo, Malaga, Spain (+34) 952-291-595 www.restauranteelcabra.es/

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.

Life lessons and writing wishes: Looking back at 2014 and forward to 2015

As a wise man (or character if you want to be pedantic) once said: “Get busy living, or get busy dying”, so here are my five life lessons learned from 2014 and five writing and personal goals for 2015.

This morning, when it was still dark enough to hide my shambling form from the new year resolution joggers on Clapham Common,  I dug around under my bed and pulled out my old trainers – and believe me they were rammed back there so far it involved a lot of digging and crawling.

And so I went for a run, something I never do but have decided to do more of in 2015 as I feel one’s exercise shouldn’t just consist of opening biscuit tins or tottering in high heels as you approach your thirtieth year.

As I rambled along, breath white against the murky black of a London morning and ripped from my unsuspecting lungs by a bitter January breeze, I decided it was about time I addressed one of those dreaded yearly round up posts – very slow off the mark I know, but then I’ve always been a late bloomer.

There was also a lingering fear of actually writing one and officially letting go of 2014. I’m silly like that. You see, 2014 was a very good year. A year of travelling and food and friends and consistent work and new houses after a disastrous 2013; and I can’t shake the feeling that a bad year MUST follow a good one.

But then my vaguely more sensible side kicked in and I remember that there’s no point in moping around at my kitchen table sipping endless cups of tea and waiting for good and/or bad things to sweep into my life this year. As a wise man (or character if you want to be pedantic) once said: “Get busy living, or get busy dying”, so here are a few life lessons learned from 2014 and some writing and personal goals for 2015.

Lessons learned in 2014

Early on in 2014 I travelled to Dubai, somewhere I have never wanted to go and thought I would hate with a passion, but, after a little digging through the brash and the bombast, I discovered that Dubai can be a beautiful place if you look hard enough.

….and it’s also home to massages that can transport you to nirvana, the height of decadent eating and one of the strangest sports I have ever been given the chance to try.

That some of the most challenging projects can be the most rewardingeven the ones that feel like they might kill you in the process.

That Malaga is more than just a gateway to the horrors of the Costa del Sol 

That it is possible to see too many musicals, plays and operas. I took on a role late in 2014 as the interim editor of the Ticketmaster UK blog, which meant that I spent my days doing fun things like chatting to Lulu and going backstage at Urinetown and my nights watching back to back shows, from Wicked and Cats to The Marriage of Figaro and La Boheme. After a while, all this lovely theatrical stuff gets under your skin and you start to wonder why no one is singing on the tube or why you haven’t fallen in love by 10am and been torn apart from your new beau an hour later in dramatic circumstances.

By the end of it all not only was I exhausted, but every morning was starting to feel as though it should begin like this:

That cooking keeps me sane and I love writing original recipes for tasty treats like pain perdu, lemon polenta cake and ice cream sandwiches and that Rachel Khoo is one of the most fun people to cook with.

That London can still surprise me with secret jazz salons and hidden, half-forgotten graveyards.

That there is such a thing as the perfect girly weekend destination…and it’s Cologne…more on that in 2015, but for now, here’re some pictures of that fabulous city.

Wants and wishes for 2015

To run more, which is, as goals go, the one I’m looking forward to least as I am miles away from breaking through that barrier and starting to enjoy it.  On the other hand, I still have the ‘run a marathon’ goal on my ancient 30 before 30 list hanging over my head…let’s see how close to this I get by the end of the year…

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To cook more, and I’ve got two new projects about food in the mental pipeline that I’d like to tackle…more on that soon.

To read more. I lost my ability to devour books in a single session somewhere midway through last year. Instead of automatically reaching for a book, I’d find myself ploughing through box sets on Netflix or Amazon Prime or playing Candy Crush on the tube instead of leafing through newspapers and scribbling in journals.

This year I’d like to try getting through a minimum of four books per month, and here are the chosen ones for January:

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I’ve decided that 2015 will be the year I try my luck at living in another city, perhaps just for a few months to start with. High on my wish list is Paris, so I can finally improve my French and simply because writing about it for Flight Centre made me realise just how much I love it.

And it’s being in that foreign city for a few months that will, hopefully, help transform my ideas for a book into an actual book. Which brings me round to another goal: to finally write up all the snatches of short stories I’ve collected from all my travels, starting with a series scribbled in a succession of Viennese coffee houses.

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Finally, my only other personal goal is to stop letting London life get to me. London is a strange place. It’s beautiful in parts, heartbreakingly ugly in others. It’s a place of random kindness, but also of horrible brutality. It’s a place that simultaneously throws you into contact with an international crowd yet holds you apart and often alone from making any real connections.

I often find myself teetering on the edge of agony and ecstasy, one brilliant exhibition or one mind numbing commuter crush away from happiness or depression. It’s the sort of city that offers you everything on a platter then holds it just out of reach unless you’re that magical combination of cash and time rich. It makes you feel bad for spending evenings and weekends indoors and berates you for missed opportunities. Well…it does me anyway, so this year I’ve decided I need to give London a break.

– I will be patient and understanding when tourists block any and every road/station/escalator in the capital

– I will smile when shop assistants/cashiers/waiters are surly to the point of rude and act as though helping you is a massive favour, not their actual mode of employment

– I will stop rushing. I will stop running for tubes/dates/dinners and leave earlier and start walking more instead of grabbing that lazy bus or train

– I will stop beating myself up if I miss exhibitions or if it takes me a little longer to see the latest films or if I can’t always afford to eat at that ‘must try’ restaurant. These things are not a necessity but a treat.

– I will visit different boroughs outside of my comfort zone

And finally, I think I will definitely make a ‘Good Things 2015 Jar’ – an idea that I stole from Frankie (As the Bird Flies):

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Image: As the Bird Flies

In the spirit of my new, slightly more magnanimous and London-loving self, a happy new year to you all. Bring on 2015.

A Weekend In…Riga

Riga - Flickr-robertpaulyoung

Image: Flickr @ robertpaulyoung

The Baltic Jewel in the Crown

Often called the Paris of the East, Riga is fairy tale confection of turrets, cobbled streets and sumptuous art nouveau architecture that manages to look just as beautiful against the cold steel sky of a Baltic winter as it does against the cobalt blue of a Latvian summer.

With its thriving modern art scene, a handful of heavyweight restaurants and a thumping, glitter-coated nightlife, this mini capital punches well above its weight. If it’s history you’re after then the Old Town won’t disappoint with its labyrinthine streets lined with chichi clothing boutiques aimed at wealthy Russians, jewellery shops glowing orange with Baltic amber, bakeries and ancient stone houses that have crouched there for hundreds of years, determined to avoid the encroachment of the modern high-rises and shopping malls that circle the centre of the city.

Art Nouveau - Flickr-Jean-Pierre DalbÇra

Image: Flickr @ Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

Art Nouveau staircase - Flickr-Jean-Pierre DalbÇra

Image: Flickr @ Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

Riga Fact file

  • Riga uses the Euro as its currency
  • There are more Russians than ethic Latvians in Riga so expect to hear a mixture of Russian and Latvian spoken in the streets.
  • Riga is a designated 2014 Capital of Culture. Check out all the cultural goings on through the official portal at riga2014.org  
  • The app: Riga Tourist Guide has a downloadable app on Google Play with maps and sightseeing guides to the city
  • The book:  Commodore Hornblower by C.S. Forester is a book about the high seas adventures of Horatio Hornblower is set in the historic centre of Riga during the Napoleonic war

Where to stay

Image: Flickr John S Y LeeStepping into the Ekes Konvents Hotel feels like you’re stepping back in time, which is unsurprising when you consider that it was the very first guest house to open in Riga back in 1435. It was turned into a sanctuary for the widows of Guild’s craftsmen at the end of the 16th century by the City’s Burgomaster Nikolauss Eke who thought that opening the Konvents would clean up his public image after he was accused of syphoning off money from the City Treasury. Ekes was opened as a guest house in 2005 and retains the long, cloister corridors with small rooms known as cells.

Luckily for the guests, the cells are more boutique chic than jailbird with traditional furnishings, wooden floors and miniscule bathrooms expertly squeezed into the small double rooms. While the atmosphere in this tiny hotel has the potential to feature on Most Haunted Live, its smart renovation and the helpful staff on hand to highlight the best of the cities entertainment make it seem more like a family B&B than a historic sanctuary.

Nestled on Skārņu street, Ekes forms part of a pretty line of shops, galleries and restaurants facing St Peter’s church in the centre of Riga’s old town. If you’ve had one too many sips of the national liqueur, Black Balsam, then just look out for the bronze statue of The Musicians of Bremen, which is exactly opposite the hotel and which, incidentally, offers the perfect post-evening selfie opportunity.

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Image: Flickr @ Natodawn

What to eat

Baltic cuisine has a bit of a reputation for being all meat, beer and potatoes but Riga is fast turning into a diner’s dream with a new generation of restaurants specialising in fine dining and utilising some of Latvia’s seasonal, local ingredients like Baltic herring, berries and birch tree juice.

However, no trip to Riga would be complete without sampling some of their famous rye bread and hemp butter and drinking a Clavis Riga cocktail made with apple juice and Black Balsam, a tar-black, medicinal liqueur. Try the bread, pastries and cakes on offer at Rigensis, Tirgoņu 8.

Vincents Restaurant is 15 minutes outside the Old Town but it’s well worth the visit as it was voted the best restaurant in Latvia this year and the likes of Prince Charles, Elton John, the Emperor of Japan and Heston Bluhmenthal have eaten there. Owner and celebrated chef Mārtiņš Rītiņš produces exquisite dishes of seasonal food sourced from local producers like wild salmon and venison from the forests of Ventspils.

Pelmeni - Flickr-Leon Brocard

Image: Flickr @ Leon Brocard

If you’re short on cash and time you can’t go wrong with the hot, stodgy fare on offer at one of the Pelmeņi XL cafes, which serve up plates of steaming pelmeni (Russian dumplings) or varenyky (Ukranian dumplings) with lashings of sour cream to hungry patrons at rock bottom prices.

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Image: Flickr @ Fearless Fred

It’s not all just bread and booze in Riga. Take a trip to the Central Market on the outskirts of town and browse through the seemingly endless airport hangar warehouses for anything from haunches of beef and gleaming cured fish to stacks of brightly-hued fruit and jars of golden Baltic honey. The honey, heady with lavender and wild flowers and jammed full of sticky combs, only costs a few euros and makes the perfect foodie present.

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Image: Flickr @ wseltzer

Where to drink

  • Star Lounge Bar: head to the highest bar in Riga at the top of the Albert Hotel for a cocktail and bird’s eye view of the old town 
  • Rīgas Balzams: a favourite with diplomats, expats and well-heeled locals, this bar, unsurprisingly, specialises in glasses of the bitter local drink Black Balsam. Torņa 4, Riga.
  • D’Vine Bar: futuristic metal furnishing, a glowing ceiling and wall to wall glass make this wine and tapas bar the place to see and be seen in the city
  • I Love You: ignoring the twee name, I Love You is one of the coolest little places in Riga with dark wood, exposed brick, hardwood floors, a bohemian vibe and a plethora of decent cocktails and beers

What to do

Art Nouveau - Latvia TourismYou can’t visit Riga without taking in the magnificent architectural homage to Art Nouveau that makes up 40% of the city centre’s buildings. The best part of these UNESCO World Heritage sites is that they are free, all you have to do is wander down the streets and look up to see the artistic movement in all its gothic, lavish and sometimes downright spooky splendour. Think gargoyles, tormented faces and plenty of artistically bared breasts.

Art Nouveau architecture - Latvia Tourism

Most of the more elaborate building are found along Alberta Street, a 20 minute walk from St Peter’s Church where you’ll also find the sumptuous Riga Art Nouveau Museum at No.12. Housed in the old apartment of the architect Konstantīns Pēkšēns, the place is packed full of dainty treasures and even the winding staircase is a work of art. If you fall in love with Riga’s style then don’t forget to visit Art Nouveau Riga as it’s the only shop on the city to sell exclusively all Art Nouveau merchandise from plaster busts to silk scarves and lamps.

If you like your buildings to pack less of a pretty punch then visit the hulking Riga Cathedral, the largest place of worship in the Baltics with two-metre thick walls and an organ that comes with a terrifying 6,768 pipes. If you can fit it in, an evening at the National Opera House is a surprisingly cheap night out with performances ranging from international opera companies, jazz bands, ballet stars and cabaret artists and tickets starting from a bargain-basement £1.50.

How to get there

Riga has one major airport located at Skulte, 8km west of the city centre.  There are Airport Express minibuses that regularly shuttle passengers on the 30 minute journey between the airport and the city centre for £4 per ticket. Riga’s international bus station can be found behind the railway embankment next to the Central Market. Ecolines +371 6721 4512 ecolines.lv runs weekly coach services to Germany, Brussels, London, Moscow, Paris and Prague. Eurolines have coaches that travel daily to Tallinn, Vilnius and Tartu +371 6721 4080 eurolines.lv

Ekes Konvents offers double rooms from £47 per night based on two sharing including breakfast. To book, call +371 6735 8393 or visit www.ekeskonvents.lv

AirBaltic flies to Riga from Gatwick daily, with single fares starting from £60. Visit www.airbaltic.com  to book.

in Pictures: Open Garden Squares Weekend

Every year, for two days, the inner sanctums of some of London’s most prestigious organisations and poncey padlocked squares are open to the average joe public.

Gardening Leave

There are over 200 squares, gardens, allotments and private grounds open for nosing about this weekend and most of them are absolute gems, from the floating garden barges near Tower Bridge to the too-posh-to-be-true rose-covered Cadogan Square Gardens and the walled peace of Royal Hospital’s therapeutic veg patches, where veterans and Chelsea Pensioners sow runner beans and sweet williams.

Gardening Leave

Yesterday the mother and I pottered all over London oo-ing and ah-ing at the bijoux, blue-painted courtyard outside Rococo Chocolates on Motcomb Street (yes, of course we ate a fair few of the freshly-made, award-winning truffles on offer before we left), we learned about the deadly poisons posing behind the luscious blooms and delicate fronds at the Royal College of Physicians and wandered around the labyrinthine Academy Hotel, stumbling across courtyard gardens that were once the haunt of the Pre-Raphelite Brotherhood and the literary Bloomsbury Set.

There are still tons of gardens open today, including the Royal Hospital’s Gardening Leave, Rococo Chocolates MaRoCoCo Garden, The Academy Gardens and Cadogan’s Square and Place Gardens and a host of other places open all over London in 25 boroughs. Check the website for a garden near you and grab your opportunity to see these leafy little slices of hidden London that are normally kept under wraps and away from prying eyes.

Dubai Part Five: Sticks at Dawn – How Hard Can Camel Polo Really Be..?

I’ve already written about the madness of Dubai in Part Three: The Good, The Bad-Ass and the Exquisite and the gluttony in Part Four: Five Hotel Restaurants to Try in Dubai, but I couldn’t go any further without writing about one of the weirdest experiences of my life, which happened, yep, you’ve guessed it, in Dubai.

It turns out this Emirate city isn’t just the capital of excess, it’s the mayor of crazy town too, as on the third day of my visit I found myself wedged into a two-man saddle on the back of a prepped and preened camel with a giant stick in my hand and the words of an instructor ringing in my helmet-covered ears: “Don’t let go of the saddle…or the mallet…and keep your eye on the ball…and hit it!” Right. So away we went….

Skirmish

“Hit it! Hit it!” My jockey, Riaz, pleaded with me as I swung my arms backwards, shoulder screaming in protest and biceps like malnourished grapes straining to bring the leaden stick downwards onto the demon of a ball that had eluded me all morning.

“Ahhhhhrggh.” Out gurgled an underwhelming battle cry as the hammer connected with a thunk, shunting the ball all of two, spectacular feet across the pitch. Unfortunately, the thunk was swiftly followed by a crunch as, unable to control to momentum of the swing, I thwacked my mount, Moussiah, around the ankles. She turned her long, elegant neck towards me, swivelled her regal head and batted eyelashes like spider’s legs in mild frustration.

“Idiot.” Her liquid brown eyes said. “Bugger.” I said. Who knew a game of camel polo could be so difficult to master?

Dubai Equestrian & Polo Club

At the Dubai Polo & Equestrian Club there’s a real grassroots sport on the up. In fact, this small but prestigious club-cum-restaurant-cum-spa is the only place in the world where you can try your hand, no matter how inexpertly, at camel polo. Apparently it’s popular for corporate days out and I can see why – there’s nothing quite like getting rid of some lingering office rage by ‘accidently’ hitting a colleague with a seven-foot stick.

Camels, with their reputation for short tempers, bumpy rides and indiscriminate spitting, are worlds away from the sort of sleek polo ponies that you see Princes William and Harry cantering around on at Ascot Park, but these specially (and patiently) trained camels are a different breed.

Moussiah the Camel

It’s a rare day that you’re out groomed by a camel, but against these high class beasts, with their once-a-day shampoos, massages and expertly brushed honey-coloured coats, let’s just say that I didn’t fancy my chances in a beauty contest.

The morning haze was just lifting as the white-hot, Dubai sunshine burnt through the clouds, turning the temperature up to a muggy 25 degrees when I, and five other journalists, descended on the polo club on the outskirts of Dubai. We were met by a smiling row of slender men in harlequin shirts and alarmingly tight, white trousers who proceeded to fit us with hats, chaps and sticks and, before the ink on our safety waiver had even dried, we were released onto the pitch to practice whacking polo balls.

None of us had ever lifted a polo stick before, but after twenty minutes of concentrated swinging we were all managing to successfully aim the white cricket balls at the instructor’s knees. After a few near misses he decided that we were ready for the real thing and handed us the camel polo sticks, which were, sadly for us and luckily for his shins, three times longer, ten times heavier and near on impossible to wield. To put it in perspective, if you played camel polo regularly you’d soon develop one single, hulked arm like Rafa Nadal.

Line-Up

It was greens versus blues as we mounted up and trotted *cough*lurched*cough* jockeys in the front of the heavily padded saddles for the first skirmish. There’s a switch in me that flicks when I take part in team sports. It’s an embarrassing combination of bloodlust, terror and ineptitude that generally results in me shouting a lot, psyching myself out and missing all scoring opportunities. In short: the worst player in the world. As soon as that ball came into play I started bellowing at my mild-mannered, fifty-something-year-old Sunday newspaper teammates like a mounted Attila the Hun, although a less intimidating version in Velcro chaps and an oversized, tally ho helmet.

The Blue Team

It was carnage in slow motion on the field as we took massive wind up swings only to give the ball a light stroke rather than a smack. As the midday sun started scorching the grass, our jockeys began to get cross, with Riaz making a few underhand swipes at opposing team’s jockeys, catching one with a playful slap around the ear as a polite warning to get out of the scrum and let the blue team get on the scoreboard. All in the spirit of the game, I’m sure.

One of the camels accidently kicked the ball through the posts before I had even managed to score the first of my two goals but, eventually, amid the misses and howls of irritation, both teams managed to win two rounds of three scuffles. The match finished in an amicable tie, although there were mutterings of match fixing, which would make sense considering that a couple of the jockey’s on the green team seemed intent on keeping their increasingly irate players out of the action.

Once it was all over there was just enough time to watch our jockeys in action – and to realise just how rubbish we’d been in comparison to the professionals – before we were sent packing back to our hotel with our swanky polo shirts as a memento.

One and his Camel

It was only when we walked back into the foyer of our hotel that I realised what we must look like – six dishevelled people, me in jodhpurs and boots, and all wearing official-looking shirts complete with the club’s camel polo badge.

A girl to my right clocked us, did a double take, eyes wandering down to the badge and up again to look, suspiciously at my face before she fiddled with her camera, contemplating if it was worth her time to capture what quite possibly could be the Dubai Camel Polo Team. At the last minute she decided against it and we strolled straight past and back to our rooms to nurse our camel thighs and polo shoulders.

The average hotel guest in Dubai is clearly wise, very wise.

A Very Different Sort of Camel Train

Gulf Ventures can organise city transfers, half day city tours and a camel polo experience like the one I tried. Visit www.gulfadventures.com to book or for more information.

 

Moti Mahal: A Passage to India along The Grand Trunk Road for Foodepedia

As I walked into Moti Mahal and down to the dark chocolate and burgundy dining room on the lower floor, my stomach was already crunched into a pulsating ball of excitement and anticipation. I was there for the first in a series of four dinners at celebrating the culinary and cultural heritage of The Grand Trunk Road in India and tonight’s experience was with photographer and author Tim Smith.

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Few people get to actually travel this serpentine behemoth of a trade route and transport road that has linked the eastern and western portions of India for 2000-ish years. Even Foodepedia’s head honcho, Nick Harman, has thought longingly of the legendary route that’s peppered with foodie delights. Luckily for the both of us, Moti Mahal has beentransporting diners to this not-so-off-the-beaten track since 2009 (Moti Mahal Hits the Road), with Nick getting his food passport in the restaurant back in 2013: The Grand Trunk Road – Taking a Trip with Moti Mahal. Tim Smith, however, has travelled extensively over, round and along it, from the edge of the Ganges and the seething streets of Calcutta, through Delhi and Amritsar and up to the rugged expanse of the Khyber Pass into Kabul.

Alongside Tim’s photographs of the people who have lived and travelled along the road, there was the promise of a culinary journey along the way from Moti Mahal’s head chef, Anirudh Arora, who has made his way to the Covent Garden restaurant via Kashmir, Ladakh, Lucknow and Calcutta.

IMG_1971Tim Smith

I’ve always felt as though my stomach was connected to India by an invisible thread. Most of my memories of travelling there boil, simmer and reduce down to food memories: the crispy, saffron-gold jalebis, dripping in syrup and blisteringly hot from the fryer outside the Golden Temple in Amritsar; the skewers of charred tandoori chicken, smoking and red like hellfire from a tiny restaurant in Calcutta; the greasy triangle samosas packed with chillies and crunchy vegetables served with thimblefuls of ketchup and chai tea on the train to Delhi. In short, I was ready to take another trip along India’s flavour trail.

IMG_1965In between the trays of Indian canapés, which arrived in the form of miniature samosas with a deep maroon sauce, plump, deep-fried prawn kofta dumplings and fat cubes of marshmallow soft Saufia Paneer – Indian street food after a Michelin-star makeover – Bradford-based Tim showed us a window into the working and social lives of British Asian communities in the 80s.

He has been taking pictures in Bradford and beyond for years and, with every sharply-focused black and white image that swam across the screen, he delved deeper with images of archaic fabric factories and workers in the cold, northern winter. Tim joked that he used to say you could travel the world on the Bradford city bus, passing West Indian weddings, a Ukraine church and ending up at a mosque on the way.

It was Tim’s very own whistle-stop tour of Indians and Pakistanis at home and abroad that we were taken on at Moti Mahal, along an ancient road that is now, mainly, motorised…although you’ll still see the odd camel and elephant on the way apparently. As his eye-searingly bright photographs of elaborately-painted Indian trucks and art work pit stops splashed across the projector screen, Tim managed to achieve that rare multi-sensory experience where you are almost able to smell the truck stop grease and oil, hear the roar of the struggling engines and the rasp of the artist’s paintbrush against the metal work.

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As the buzzer on his phone interrupted his sweeping view of The Grand Trunk Road, the close of his immersive talk heralded the arrival of the feast to come.  Thickly-battered aubergine pakoras from Punjab, Sorshey Macchi (sea bass in vibrant, yellow mustard curry) from Bengal, Squash curry from Ambala, a buttery, delicately-spiced lamb biryani from Lucknow and violently green Saag Paneer from Delhi.

IMG_1978And they were only the dishes that I could reach across the table. By the time sharing platters of peanut brittle Gajak, sticks of Kulfi and tiny cakes of red carrot Halwa came I felt as though I my taste buds has trekked the full chaotic, entracing and confusing length of The Grand Trunk Road and all that was missing was an earthenware cup of masala chai…although, to be honest, the punchy shiraz that kept finding its way into my glass wasn’t a bad substitute.

Future immersive eating events at Moti Mahal will include a Beer and Indian Barbecue evening with London microbreweries, a talk from a renowned filmmaker and an Asian wine pairing event with wine-maker Matt Thompson. For more information and booking for this series of Grand Truck Road nights, see the Moti Mahal website.

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Moti Mahal 45 Great Queen Street, London, WC2B 5AA www.motimahal-uk.com

Originally written and published for and by the excellent www.foodepedia.co.uk and can be found here.