Welcome to my tales of cookery school, food and travel

The first 30+ posts of this blog describe my experiences as I complete a nine month cooking course - the City and Guilds Diploma in Food Preparation and Culinary Art. I did this after I moved out of full time employment and it was purely selfish - I love food, cooking, eating and drinking. Subsequent posts are about, food, travel and adventures.

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Monday, 10 August 2015

Land of Ouzo and illegal immigrants

Until recently I thought  the Peripherique out of Paris was the road of no escape, but I've revised my opinion: getting out of Mytilene, the capital of the Greek island of Lesvos would try a saint's patience.  This is a very small but crowded town looping around a port, and everyone is out and about the day we attempt to navigate our way out.  Every narrow street is a dead end or one way, generally the wrong way.  I almost miss that bitch Marija - the GPS we had in Croatia - but even though I navigate us into a dead end car park, I've done a better job than she would have! 

Once we'd managed to get the hell out of town - incidentally everyone else we spoke to had the same problem - it was only 40kms to Plomari, our destination on the south coast. Forty kms of a long and winding road that traverses several mini mountains.  

Plomari on the south coast of Lesvos
We were here in early June for a friend's 60th birthday celebrations which she wanted to have in Plomari, her grandmother's birthplace. Over the week we enjoyed gatherings and parties which involved lots of food, lots of ouzo, a seemingly unending number of local relatives (none of whom my friend had met before) and some energetic Greek dancing - oompah!  However no plate smashing - the fun police have outlawed it.

Crystal clear water and a pebbly beaches
Lesvos is the island Greeks go to holiday - it is no Mykonos or Santorini, with their picture postcard whitewashed houses and churches, long sandy beaches and thigh to thigh bronzed German tourists in too small swimsuits. The island is rocky, steep and covered with thousands of ancient gnarled olive trees, and beaches are pebbly rather than sandy. It has a certain rustic charm. 
Molyvos, clinging to the north coast
One day we drove north over more mountains to Molyvos, a beautiful little town perched on the coast. Here, just 10 kilometres of ocean separate Lesvos from Turkey. 

octopus - the true meaning of hung out to dry 
After yet another delicious lunch of crispy little fried fish and squid we took some of the the roads less travelled along the coast. 

As long as you don't mind slamming on the brakes to avoid a head-on with a beat up local car hurtling at you, this is picturesque countryside. In the narrow village streets a good natured (mostly) battle of wills determines who backs up.

these little fried sardines became an obsession for the h-g

It was on one of these steep side roads down to the coast for an after lunch swim that we encountered the dark side of Europe in 2015. 

In the sweltering early afternoon sun a large group of people were slogging their way uphill. They appeared to be Muslim (women in headscarves) and we wondered where they were going.  When we got to the beach we found the remains of a couple of inflatable dinghies and lifejackets on the beach.  The coast of Turkey is clearly visible and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out these are refugees/ illegal immigrants (see linked news item from April 2015)

On our drive back we passed the same group. They made it the 3.5 kilometres to the top of the hill and were heading towards Mytilene. Then we passed another group, and another, and another, carrying packs or bundles; family groups or groups of young men, sometimes taking a break from walking by sitting in the shade on the side of the road.  We must've passed more than 100 people - and that was just one day.  Many looked too Arabic to be Turkish and we assume they're Syrians who have fled to Turkey then onwards.  

If you haven't already gathered, Lesvos is a quiet island. In the early 1900s it had a thriving soap industry, and continues to produce olive oil and lots of Ouzo.  Of course we had to visit a factory and take a tour of the museum and the production plant and do a tasting.  Making ouzo is a basic distilling process and just uses locally grown aniseed, alcohol and water.  

We learned quite a lot about Ouzo but the only thing I remember  - possibly as the result of an over enthusiastic tasting - is that you mustn't add ice, just a dash of cold water to bring out the aroma and flavour (like a good Malt Whiskey)
the original stills in the museum, over 100 years old

modern stills in use

As we were famously travelling with just carry-on bags we couldn't pack any to bring back. Ever resourceful, the h-g convinced the distiller to siphon 100mls of the highest quality Ouzo from one of the vats into a small bottle. Take that airport security!

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Rocking it on Niue

On a recent cruise up the North American coast to Alaska, my brother noted there were more whales on board the ship than in the sea.  Luckily for us, the reverse is true on our week on Niue and we see whales in the ocean most days, although it's fair to say some of the locals do carry quite some heft.

It's July and the humpback whales are migrating to warmer waters for a winter getaway and some fun in the sun.  They come into the bay outside our accommodation, wave a dorsal fin, blow a little spume, then show us their graceful butts as they dive deep again.

Also known as the Rock of Polynesia, Niue is a different little island. North east of Auckland by 2,400kms, the island is tiny -  260 sq kms, a raised coral atoll with its highest point just 69m above sea level. A lava shelf extends into the sea and then drops to a depth of about 30 metres. This extends about 200 metres or so then the outer reef drops very steeply to 2000 metres of very deep blue.  

Forget long sandy beaches, a hammock and sheltered lagoons - you have to take ocean paths and often need to climb down steps or ladders to get to the swimming and snorkelling spots on the rugged coastline.  Even then it is only possible at low tide as the swells rolling in hit the lava shelf pretty violently. The coast here is a slap up side the head rather than a gentle kiss on the cheek.

Makes you wonder why you'd come doesn't it?

mid tide with the reef becoming visible

There's sunshine and warm water, snorkelling, diving, fishing, swimming with dolphins and whales, exploring chasms and caves and rocky coves, and a very laid back vibe.  It doesn't attract lots of tourists, possibly because it lacks the requisite sandy beaches. Anyway there are only two flights a week so that limits numbers.  So exciting are flight days pretty much the whole population turns up at the airport and enjoys a picnic while waiting for the flight to land. There's not a lot of entertainment on the island.

Once a month a freighter brings supplies. The reef shelf means it can't dock at the wharf so it anchors off and a barge ferries containers to the wharf where they are winched ashore.  It's lucky for us our visit coincides with the freighter's arrival -  an hour or two of entertainment PLUS the supermarket will be resupplied!

the barge ferries two containers at a time
everything is winched ashore

As with all the Pacific Islands, everything is very relaxed and runs on "island time". That means the OPEN sign may mean open later, open sometimes, open only on Friday, or on rare  occasions, open right now.

Swanson's supermarket is the only game in town
 We pick up our rental on arrival at the airport and are told to come in to the office in Alofi (the main village) sometime during the week and pay.  No perusal of licences, flashing of cash or credit cards required at this point. One requirement is a local driver's licence but it's Friday, so we are told to call in to the Police station on Monday. The licence costs $22 and this is so clearly a money making exercise we decide only one of us needs one.  So it's pay up and come back later for the licence. 

Later, at 4:00pm, "we're just closing, come back tomorrow".  Tomorrow we get the licence, and chat to the Sergeant who admits that for an island of 1200 people a Police force of 14 is probably 10 too many.  You think??? There's not even any evidence of crime on the island.  Besides, everyone knows everyone else and where the hell are you going to hide? Or how are you going to get off the island? 

Usefully, the licence is valid for a year in New Zealand, so if you are high on demerit points it may be a good idea to pop up to Niue for a spare licence!
one road circumnavigates the island and a few more criss cross it
The island closes on Sunday and the place to go is the Washaway Cafe at Avatele, a sheltered bay on the southern end of the island.  An honesty system operates - a serve yourself outdoor bar, write your name and what you had in the book and pay before you leave.  I think they do great burgers, but as the place was packed there was an understandable and very relaxed long wait for it, and after several gin and tonics I could've been eating whale and wouldn't care.   

Rumour has it some people come to Niue and don't leave, or come back year after year because they fall in love with it.  After a week we are pretty relaxed and another few days or a week would be welcome. But all in all, there;'s something to be said for a sandy beach, a hammock and a sheltered lagoon. 

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Hrvatska - land of my father - or in this case, my mother's father

In 2015, looking at the stunning scenery and peaceful (now!) life in Dalmatia, Croatia, it's hard to imagine why you'd leave for an unpredictable and unknown world in New Zealand.  Yet almost exactly 102 years ago that's what my Grandfather did as a teenager, leaving behind his family and everything familiar to arrive in New Zealand on the 13th July 1913. 

What was he thinking?  Probably that a life of predictable and known hardship was before him if he stayed.  

The rugged beauty of the landscape that we find so attractive limited (and still limits) Dalmatian life to subsistence farming along a thin strip of arable coast, a bit of grape growing and fishing. It hasn't escaped me that I've just described the h-g's ideal life - except for the subsistence bit. 

Along the coast between Split and Dubronvik
The drive down the coast was gobsmackingly beautiful. One picture perfect seaside town after another, all tucked in down from the road, with the massive mountainside looming up behind. Warm at 27 degrees, flat calm, and the ocean a deep navy blue.

But more of that in the next installment - for now we are in the north, a very different landscape.

We flew into Zadar, on the northern coast of Croatia, and drove north east to the most famous UNESCO World Heritage site you've never heard of - Plitvice Lakes National Park

The drive crosses the bony ridge of the Kapela range and links through a series of tunnels. When the Bora, a northern wind, is blowing the highway closes; the wind funnelling down the valleys has been known to blow cars off the road as they emerge from the calm of the tunnel to the smack of the wind. 

Of course, it's a windy day and Marija, as we have named our GPS know it all, seems unable to understand the road is closed and WE NEED THE DETOUR. In the end she and I have a major falling out and I shove her in the glove compartment until she can speak nicely again. 

We finally arrive, later than planned.....which turns out to be a blessing as bus hordes arrive in the early morning but are mostly gone by about 2 or 3 pm. 

Plitvice National Park - here we have 300 sq kilometres of park with 16 lakes connected by a series of waterfalls. Eight kilometres of lakes and waterfalls descend from 1,280 metres to just 380 metres.   A series of walkways, most of which would cause an Occupational Health and Safety inspector to have a fainting attack, descend along the falls and lead you along the edges of the lakes, 

While the walkway in the photo doesn't look busy, we'd at times find ourselves behind a busload of dawdling tourists, two or three abreast, taking up the narrow width of the walkway. The temptation to elbow them into the lake was sometimes quite overwhelming.
green trees, green foliage and green water - note the walkway snaking along the base of the waterfall

The flow varies from calm to raging, and as it had rained for a few days before out visit there were a lot of mini Niagaras.  At times the water was so high it was seeping up through the walkways, which was rather exciting, if dampening.

We planned to take the inland road south from Plitvice but you guessed it, somehow that bitch Marija had us back on the motorway.  As it happened the high winds had lessened and it was very cool traversing the mountains through the tunnels. 

We detoured off well north of Split and drove east to Vrlika, randomly chosen off the map we bought at a service stop - yes a paper map where you can see roads and towns and terrain, as opposed to a wiggly pink line on a matchbox sized screen. Sorry, Marija, but I love a good map.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Pride comes before a fall, but then we're on our way

This old adage proves to be true as we depart on our recent trip to Europe. Our source of pride is that we have, for once, taken my own good advice and packed only hand luggage for our month long trip.

our prideful hand luggage
Our fall comes at airport screening - as it has for so many before! The h-g's son, whom we are visiting in Dubai has asked us to bring some of our home grown honey so we have packed up a kilo for him. And yes, it really is just honey, not hash or meth or crack. Airport security, however, declares it to be a "liquid, fluid of gel" and therefore as dangerous as drugs or explosives, and immediately confiscates it. 

The h-g doesn't cope well and expresses his frustration (I know, this is usually my job, right?) He wants to go back and check in his bag. Uh uh, you have to physically leave the country before you can come back.  The choice is eat it there (not even that fat little Winnie the Pooh could eat a kilo of honey at one sitting) or it will be binned. The lunacy of this is that if we had ten 100 gram pots of honey dutifully sealed in a clear plastic bag it would have passed with no notice.  

The incident reminds me I need means to amend rule 5 to include "don't get pissed off at airport security"

It takes at least two glasses of Veuve Cliquot in the Emirates lounge before the h-g calms down.

And so we depart......a coupe of days sweating it out in Dubai to catch up with the boy and his gorgeous wife, a couple of days in Frankfurt - why not? we've never been there before and it has an enormous Euro sign!  I'm not sure which star stands for Greece - probably none of them seeing it was late in, but quite possibly first out.  Perhaps we'll find out, as that's where we are headed after a couple of weeks in Croatia - land of my Grandad.

Frankfurt also has lots sausages - and potatoes - and cabbage.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Abel Tasman National Park - by boat

You don't need to venture far in New Zealand to find stunning scenery and empty landscapes.  We must never forget that our backyard attracts millions of people who save furiously so they can travel thousands of kilometres to experience what we find within a few hours.

I'm reminded of this when the hunter gatherer and I take our boat across the width of Tasman Bay to Abel Tasman National Park in April earlier this year. The park is the home of one of New Zealand's Great Walks, the Abel Tasman Coast Track

It was Easter 1989 when I first walked the track with a group of friends. Looking back and comparing those faded photos with the views in 2015, the landscape has changed not at all.  Despite carrying all our gear and having to put up tents every night and cook over a fire, it looked like paradise in 1989 and it looks like paradise 26 years on. 
aptly named Sandfly Bay- base for a camping and kayaking expedition
Twice since that initial trip I've returned - another camping trip, but this time kayaking along the coast, and another kayaking/walking trip where we enjoyed the luxury of a hot shower and cosy bed every night. That's the biggest change over the years - the development and abundance of tourism providers plying all manner of accommodations, walking, boating, kayaking and combinations thereof. 

Day trips or multi day adventures across golden beaches and through beautiful native bush 
make for a memorable experience, particularly for the mostly European tourists we met. We
had no need of huts or campsites as we were at home on the boat, but were pleased to see 
the Department of Conservation huts very well maintained and the campsites equally as tidy. 

We wiled away a few days walking, finding off-track gems like the idyllic Cleopatra's Pool, a natural swimming pool set amongst huge boulders made smooth by the years of river flow. 
Cleopatra's pool - this must be Mark Antony

Tidal estuaries snake up river valleys and we take the dinghy to explore these too, finding ourselves under swing bridges that carry walkers across the rivers.  At low tide walkers can cross the sandy expanse, shortening the trip. 

The Torrent River estuary - we had taken the dinghy up here at high tide

There is a seal colony in the marine reserve off  Tonga Island, which is nowhere near Tonga the country. Pups chase each other , slipping and sliding across the rocks and diving under the dinghy.  There are probably 20 or in the nursery pond but not many mums to be seen.

Further along the coast the vast Tasman Bay curves around Separation Point and becomes Golden Bay, but that's a venture for another day.

Writing this, as I did, in Dubai, sitting inside and insulated from the 38 degree heat outside, pondering how the Arabs build ski slopes and waterparks in the middle of the desert, I remind myself to appreciate how lucky we are.
Split Apple Rock near the junction of Tasman Bay and Golden Bay

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

I've been gone so long....

But here I am again, having recently returned from Japan.  The hunter gatherer and I went for a short trip to Niseko, a ski area on Hokkaidothe northern-most island of the Japanese archipelago.

Perhaps you worry Japan is bathing in the light of nuclear radiance.  As our flight path seems to pass directly over Fukushima I look out the window.  Rest assured, I saw no Simpsons-like green glow.

On arrival at New Chitose airport were met by a charming man who spoke not a word of English.  As he was holding up a sign with our names we followed him to his van.  What ensues is a driver with no English, passengers with no Japanese, a night of pitch darkness, very deep snow, and a two hour drive up a mountain.  The snow is so deep there are no roadside reflectors: instead flashing lights hang vertically from elevated wires.  It is 11.00pm before we arrive at our hotel and my nerves are slightly frayed.  I felt sure we were going to end up in a snow drift, freezing to death overnight.  I do tend to catastrophise. 

No, not Mt Fujiama, it's Mt Yotei in the distance. 
It is the promise of Niseko's famed deep, light powder snow that has attracted us.  That and the opportunity to experience Japan for the first time. 

What luck!  It is a warmer season than usual (all that nuclear radiance perhaps) and 10 metres of base snow notwithstanding, we do not experience the knee-deep "champagne powder" we expect.  It is probably just as well, as I have enough trouble skiing on firm, groomed slopes.  We by no means complain!  The snow is still extremely skiable, the scenery is magnificent and the food outstanding.

There are four ski fields on Mt Niseko Annupuri (Annupuri, Hirafu, Niseko Village and Hanazono) and you can access them all from about two thirds of the way up the mountain.  This is useful, as if it is a little windy or too busy on one side you can move across the face to another area. There are 64 runs over 2,000 acres (I read this factoid - between us we ski less than half those runs) and about 40 chairlifts (covered and uncovered) and gondolas.  

Skiing here is neither crowded nor expensive (at least no more expensive than anywhere else). The not crowded part may be due to our visit late in the season (24th Feb to 4th March). I understand Australian and New Zealand school holidays can overrun the place.  I don't think we ever waited more than 5-7 minutes for a lift.  

The only thing to do after a day on the slopes is to go to an onsen, a natural hot spring bath.  These are unisex and there is quite an etiquette involved.  You begin by stripping naked and washing yourself completely, rinsing off every skerrick of soap and shampoo - the pool is for soaking, not washing, and no swimwear is permitted. 

The washing area is typically a row of low seats in front of a mirror (yes, really, who needs that?)  There is a small wooden bucket, a flexible shower hose, shampoo and soap provided so you don't need to arrive prepared.  That is other than for assaults on your modesty.  You do have the benefit of a tiny "modesty towel" if you feel the need but there seems to be little point. 

The pools are hot, about 40 degrees C, and if you are lucky the onsen you visit has baths both inside and out. The outside pools are especially delicious when the air temperature is zero degrees and it's snowing. 

ready to cook in a pot of stock at the table 
And after onsen what else but dinner.  In Hirafu, where we stay, the range of restaurants is all encompassing: we enjoyed everything from bowls of ramen in crowded little noodles houses, shabu shabu we cooked in a pot on a burner at the table, skewers of yakitori also cooked on a little table grill plate, right through to smart French fare. 

Everything was good and nothing more expensive than at home.  Niseko is close to the coast so there is always fresh seafood, and the whole island of Hokkaido is more or less the garden for Japan.  On the trip back to the airport, in daylight this time, we see huge snow covered farms that our driver tells us are potato fields. 

Our daytime trip is more terrifying than the trip up in the dark: our driver speaks English this time and cheerfully informs us he has been to New Zealand to go rally driving.  He shows us photos of himself and his rally car, though it must be said he was far younger in his rally driving days. 

He proceeds to show us his skills are undiminished by time as we hurtle downhill (in a van, not a rally car) on a road that has a thick layer of snowy slush as a dividing line.  As it is not in his nature to follow another vehicle at a safe distance, we frequently aquaplane across the watery median as he overtakes everything in his path, never mind the oncoming traffic.

Fortunately, he delivers us unscathed.  

Would we recommend Niseko for skiing? Heck yes -  but if you are looking for the powder experience wait til the last minute and check the season's snow reports - then book if it looks good.

So you see the snow base is quite deep
and the fields are wide and open

and there's no-one there!