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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Sunday, 10 July 2016

Stockholm syndrome

While we weren't kidnapped in Stockholm we were captivated - another very cool Scandinavian city. 

Stockholm from City Hall tower

As with Helsinki, I was here 36 years ago and this time my 'wanna see again' pick is the warship the Vasa. The Vasa was built on the orders of King Gustavus II between 1626 and 1628. He had an expansionist strategy that included a war with Poland and the Vasa was to be the flagship. 
A scale model of the Vasa

However it turned out to be a good example of the Emperor's new clothes. The King, busy at war, kept sending the shipbuilders instructions that made the ship less stable - she carried two enclosed gundecks with brass cannons, had a high stern to allow for boarding other ships, and a narrow hull which couldn't carry enough ballast, all making the upper structure too heavy. 

The shipbuilders didn't want to go against the King's instructions so no-one spoke up about the structural problems and the Vasa sank on her maiden voyage. About 1300 metres out from the dock a light breeze was enough to capsize her, and there she lay for the next 333 years. A good case study and more info here

The Vasa in 1980, yet to undergo any significant restoration
In 1961 she was recovered, largely intact, and housed in the Vasa Shipyard, where I saw her in 1980. For almost 20 years they had been spraying the ship with a preservative solution and I still remember the smell. There wasn't a lot to see at that time except for the ship itself and I was keen to see what progress had been made. 

In 1988 the ship was moved to the very fabulous Vasa museum, where we saw her more or less fully restored.  Just the sight of the ship itself is breathtaking - she's a huge galleon and the restoration is meticulous.  It is easy to spend a half day at the museum, such are the excellent story boards, displays and detailed information on everything from the shipbuilders selection of the trees for the build, the intricate carving and paintings on the hull, through to the food and drink carried on board. Incidentally, along with my photos I found the entry ticket from 1980 - it cost 3SEK - Swedish Kroner - this year we paid 130SEK. 
The Vasa now - see the museum site for better pics
Also historical and almost as fascinating is a tour of Stockholm City Hall, the home of the Nobel award ceremonies. We find Blå hallen - the Blue Hall - where the awards dinner takes place, isn't blue (just as the Red Square isn't red); the Gyllene salen - the Golden Hall with its 18 million gold mosaic tiles is gold, and as ornate as any we have seen.  It is amazing that they cram 1300 guests into the dinner.  We are told there is a strict measure for the amount of room between each seat, and it seems there's barely enough room for the 210 wait staff to move. They must select them for their slim physiques!  If you would like to recreate the place setting for the Nobel dinner, you will need the specially designed dinner set. 
Setting the table for your Nobel guests 
Elsewhere in Stockholm is the Nobel Museum, home to all things historic and current related to Alfred Nobel, the prizes and winners. We searched out our very own New Zealand Laureate Ernest Rutherford. This took a little bit of doing as we were searching under Physics - after all he is known as the father of nuclear physics - but in 1908 he received the Nobel prize in Chemistry.  again, the museum is well laid out, very information rich and with interactive elements that engage the visitor. Well done Stockholm.

We end our Nobel day with a delicious dinner at a cellar-like bar called The Hairy Pig - what could be less appropriate?  Who needs a Nobel dinner set?

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

That's the Finnish

From Russia we arrive in a country where we recognise the alphabet, even if we haven't a clue what the words mean. Finnish has a surplus of vowels, doubling up and sometimes using all five in one word. Playing scrabble here must be the only place in the world where you are thrilled to have four of the letter 'u' to use.  Finland and Croatia could engage in a vowels for consonants swap. 

I am excited to return to Helsinki after 36 years and find the old downtown part substantially the same, but with lots more tourists and an abundance of cruise ships (the last bit is not so exciting). When here in 1980 I fell in love with Finnish glassware and bought four iitala (there's those extra vowels) wine glasses and four schnapps glasses and, rather amazingly, carried them in my backpack through the rest of Scandinavia and back to London. Even more surprisingly, only one wine glass has broken over the years - and that was in an earthquake. Yet more astoundingly I find a replacement in the iitala shop in their 'classic' section. There's longevity of design for you. 

One of the things that brought me back is the monument honouring the Finnish composer Johan Sibelius. For 36 years this has been one of my most enduring travel memories. No, I'm not a fan of his music, but I am a fan of the sculptor's work. This is a stunning, stunning piece, and while the popular belief is that it resembles an organ the sculptor, Eila Hiltunen, was inspired by nature and the forest (as was Sibelius). 

from below

Except for getting to the 300 islands that form part of the city, Helsinki is very walkable - as long as you have a raincoat and umbrella.  Fortunately we took a boat trip the afternoon we arrived, for it rained most of the next four days (though luckily it was a fine afternoon to visit Sibelius).  

From Sibelius Park we walked around the coast. There's a lot of coast and a lot of boats which the hunter-gatherer has to stop and look at. Imagine my delight as we find marina after marina. What is far more interesting is a rug washing station. 

The Finn's tend to the pine floor with rugs style of interior design and wall to wall carpet is rare.  Rather than hire a rug cleaner, in Summer Finns gather up their rugs and eco friendly carpet shampoo and head to the beach.  Oh yeah, I kid you not. This is a very old tradition. We must've been too early in the season in mid June as the h-g had free rein on the wringer and there was only one rug hanging out.
The h-g ready to wring out 

one is the loneliest number 
 But these photos I took in July 1980 show locals hard out rug scrubbing. It really is a thing. 

After an energetic day scrubbing there is nothing like good meal of reindeer.  And although we did no scrubbing, Rudolph wasn't safe from us. We went to a Lapp restaurant which we were assured served traditional food but was heavy on the tourist trap aspect (as the prices in Euro rather than Finnish marks would suggest) .  

As long time readers of this blog know, I have a particular aversion to fruit and meat in combination so it will come as no surprise the menu below caused me some angst. Berries and berry sauce all over the place. 

We settled on the Lappish Game Selection - roasted elk, reindeer sausage, and braised reindeer. Clearly a very meaty meal, but there was nothing special about either the food or the presentation. Being lean meat it is prone to dry out and that was the case. While the h-g liked them, I could have done without the berries on the side!

Lappish game selection - tasted a bit better than it looks!
Our favourite food was found in the market that runs daily in the square by the harbour - more deep fried little fishes, rather less elegantly presented than the walnut crumbed smelt with gazpacho sauce we had in St Petersburg at the fancy restaurant, but just as delicious. 

lunch - twice (looks redder than it is because of the colour of the tent)

It's not just all this scrubbing and reindeer that makes the Finns one of the happiest countries, it's also the social policies. Although I am sure no-one is too thrilled about paying an average of 54% tax, I'm sure they are more excited about the generous health, education, pension, parental, child care, and annual leave provisions.  Total social protection expenditure relative to GDP is higher in Finland than any other country in the UE. 

And so we move on, taking the overnight floating duty free store from Helsinki to Stockholm - but that's the next instalment. 

Monday, 4 July 2016

Russia - I'll be back

I didn't really sum up my thoughts about our time in Russia but for what they are worth, here goes.

St Basil's Cathedral, now a museum, on the edge of Red Square
(which isn't red at all) 
Obtaining visas at first seemed an incredible obstacle, but that was a view formed by dealing with ill informed travel agents. Although it is an administrative pain in the neck, it is really quite straightforward to get a visa, just make sure you've got all your paperwork as stated on the Russian Embassy website.

We arrived with too many preconceptions: there'll be issues at immigration; we won't understand anything so we'll get ripped off; people will be suspicious; it will be difficult to get around; we'll be stopped and asked for our identification; it will be grubby and disorganised and nothing will run on time.

We breezed through immigration in record time. A short delay in arrivals while we waited for our pre-booked shuttle to arrive. Our driver looked exactly like an Eastern European gangster in a James Bond film. Far from being ripped off, when we arrived at the hotel we were informed they had changed shuttle providers and the cost was half what we'd been quoted.

We found Moscow and St Petersburg to be pristine, modern, vibrant cities and they are both easy to navigate.  As mentioned in a previous blogknowing the Cyrillic alphabet before you go really does help. The trains are frequent, fast, and efficient - in Moscow there's a train every two minutes, and at the end of the platform a clock ticks down from 2 minutes so you know exactly how long before the next one.

There seems to be a deep concern for preserving heritage and history, both the good and the bad. The good is obvious. Beautiful palaces, museums, stunning churches, extensive gardens, galleries overflowing with centuries of international art. 

You see the double headed eagle, symbol of the Romanov dynasty on everything from bridges and monuments to porcelain and furniture. Though one of our guides tells us some refer to it as the Chernobyl Chicken! 

Chernobyl Chicken
On the canals in St Petersburg

The bad depends on your viewpoint. The Tsars lived off the backs of the people, but come the revolution, the Bolsheviks didn't destroy the palaces but rather re purposed them. For example, the Winter Palace became the Palace of the Arts.  The separation of Church and State meant the Churches didn't fare so well: some were destroyed, others, such as St Basil's in Moscow and the extremely beautiful St Isaac's in St Petersburg, were turned into museums.

At the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg we found one of the prisons where the Cheka imprisoned anti Bolshevik activists. The information panels don't shy away from detailing the imprisoning without charges, executions without trial, mass executions and burials in the forests.

Guides are invaluable, particularly in St Petersburg where everything you want to visit is on the hit list of the literally thousands of people flooding off cruise ships every day. We used Moscow Private Tours and their offshoot St Pete Private Tours. In Moscow we organised a half day around the main sites to orient ourselves. 

In St Petersburg we organised a half day just at the Hermitage and then another day a trip out of town to Peterhof Summer Palace. This is a stunning palace, designed by an architect who never met a surface he didn't want to gild, with extensive gardens and lots of fountains, both elaborate and also a few trick fountains for the unwary - as if it wasn't a wet enough day! 
Inside Peterhof (oops - no photos!)

Some of the fountains at Peterhof Palace
Aside from their excellent English and wealth of knowledge about the subject matter, guides posses a priceless skill - queue jumping tour groups and very sharp elbows.  They also are a match for the Soviet era hatchet faced room guards who are constantly harassing you to keep moving! no photos! no touch!  And all three guides we employed had great personalities and a good sense of humour. 

The entrance foyer for the Winter Palace
Probably the most difficult thing to comes to grips with in Russia, especially for open and friendly Westerners, is the distance Russians naturally keep in interactions. This is quite difficult to explain, but I'll try. It is summed up in  the word фамилъярность which translates as familiarity, or acting as if you are better friends with someone than you really are. Now you may think my Russian has come on in leaps and bounds - no. I lucked onto a column written by a Moscow based translator and interpreter who explained that no matter how long your acquaintance, for example with a work colleague, you would never ask about their parter or spouse, or their state of health.  It seems to be about maintaining a distance, not letting people too close, and here's another of my amateur theories - I think it stems from the days when you lived a very private and circumspect life, didn't discuss your politics or beliefs, and didn't tell anyone anything. You never knew if it would lead to a late night knock at the door.  

While providing all amenities and perfect comfort and even our hotels were discreet. Easily missed, just a door like any other. 
Veliy Hotel, Moscow. Five minutes from the Kremlin

Casa Leto Hotel, St Petersburg

Final observation - all our guides and lots of the hotel staff were aged 25 or 26 - I think there was a lot of celebrating around 1990. Check your history for a clue.

White Nights - about 10pm in St Petersburg

Sunday, 26 June 2016

The Bridge to Somewhere

We came to Malmo on the south west coast of Sweden partly because of a Nordic Noir TV programme we'd stumbled across called The Bridge. The Oresund bridge links Sweden and Denmark and in the first episode a body is found severed at the waist, half on the Danish side and half on the Swedish side. Gruesome, but we were hooked.

The Bridge is not just a bridge. It is a bridge running 8 kilometres from the Swedish coast to an artificial island in the middle of the Oresund Strait, then it becomes the 4km Drogden tunnel emerging in Denmark. This whole feat of engineering magnificence deserves that overused term awesome. Much more dramatic photos can be found here.

Our walk to view the structure takes us past the redundant ship building yards and warehouses that housed long defunct businesses. The buildings have either been transformed into IT or biotech centres and apartments, or demolished to make way for new build developments, open spaces, lovely parks, cycle and walkways, and providing water access.

Malmo has surprised us. It seems to merge old and new quite successfully.  We started the day with breakfast at the hotel, eating in what was a cellar built in 1307, nearly 500 years before James Cook came to New Zealand. The hotel has been here in some form since 1519.
Breakfast in a room over 700 years old.  That doesn't happen very often.

In contrast, the Turning Torso (2005) by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava is the second highest residential building in Europe. It defies belief, stretching 190 metres up and twisting 90 degrees from base to top. I have to include three photos so you can appreciate the different aspects it presents as you move around.

The Bridge opened in 2000 and changed the face, and future, of Malmo. It links the city to Europe's motor and rail network through Copenhagen.  Ten thousand Danes now live here (pop 300,000) and commute as taxes are lower in Denmark and rents are cheaper on Malmo.

Half the multiethnic population is under 35, which becomes evident when we go to dinner at the highly rated and evocatively named Bastard.

On midsummer eve it is pulsing and they're turning people away. Earlier in the day we wormed our way into the affections of the maitre d and he told us he'd find a table if we came about 8:30. He did. They serve tapas style sharing plates and we enjoy the best meal we've had all trip: anchovies on sourdough that's been toasted in the wood fired oven, cod roe with crisp radishes, salad greens, veal tongue (braised and made into a patty crumbed and deep fried) served with a salsa verde, and slow cooked rolled pork belly.

When we finally take the train to Copenhagen and cross The Bridge, it's an anticlimax. Much better seen from a distance or from the air.  

Fortunately there were no severed bodies.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Besides caviar, what did you eat in Russia?

I'm glad you asked!
As a non Russian I'd describe the food as comfort food. Hmmm, shouldn't all food give some comfort? But you know what  I mean. Hearty, warming food that sticks to your ribs - soups, bread, dumplings, pancakes, porridge, stews and casseroles, potatoes. My uninformed theory is the love of filling food stems from the days when there wasn't much to go around.

There are always several soups on the menu, including Borscht, and often Okroshka. Our daughter in law (who is Russian) says she can't go two days without soup and she loves Okroshka.  This is a soup of thinly sliced vegetables and boiled meat and it's made with Kvas,  a fermented bread drink.  I know, it's sounding better and better!  That it is fermented probably means it will be trending on western menus before long.  It's an acquired taste.

Our dumpling guy
Dumplings come in all sizes and are often eaten for snacks as well as part of a meal. Cabbage is a popular filling. Mmmm I hear you say.  We found a great hole in the wall coffee place near our Moscow hotel where we conversed with the guy using a translation app. His coffee was excellent as were his Korean dumplings. Go to Russia and eat kimchi and pork dumplings for breakfast. Why not? Delicious.

The son and d-i-l had recommended a beer and sausage place near the Bolshoi, so we went before the ballet. It's all culture right? Spicy sausages grilled over a huge pile of charcoal, stuffed into bread with onions and mustard. You'd think we were at a baseball game. We wiped our fingers before going into the theatre. 
The hunter-gatherer tracking down a spicy sausage

Stews and similar dishes come thickened and always (in our experience) with potatoes. Pork, beef and lamb are all popular. Salads run from Greek to Caesar, along with local compositions such as the delicious Georgian salad with walnut dressing we ate one night.
Georgian salad with walnut dressing
Nuts turn up a lot, particularly walnuts. They coated the delicious delicate fried smelt, acted as binding for the various starter spreads, and popped up in salads. 

Fish is popular, particularly fresh water species including, God be praised, salmon. Delicious salmon tartare, fillets, baked, smoked....yum.  Russians' love of fish means sushi restaurants are very popular, which came as a surprise.  Sushi and Russian don't go together in my head.  Smoked fish, yes, and markets are full of it. And we ate little fish, smelt, quickly fried and very tasty. Like a larger, stronger flavoured version of New Zealand whitebait. 
walnut crumbed smelt with gazpacho sauce
Bakeries have great bread and delicious pies and pastries. Sour cream and cream cheese desserts feature heavily and taste damned good with luscious fresh berries.


As in all European cities there are restaurants of every stripe. Italian, Chinese, Indian and so on. We didn't come away totally wowed by anything, but nothing was really inedible or terrible either. Possibly because I ignored the 'bovine brains' when I encountered them on a menu.  Presentation varied hugely and there are attractive and unattractive ways to serve any dish. We saw some unattractive ones, some over complicated styling, some no frills slapitonaplate ones that still tasted good. 

I love good food!

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Who knew eggs were so expensive?

St Petersburg survival kit: when you leave the house wear waterproof shoes, take an umbrella, raincoat and sunglasses.  Still waiting to use the sunglasses. This is a Russian summer.

Suitably dressed in rain attire we start the day with a walk up to visit the Fabergé museum located In the fabulous (they are ALL fabulous) Shuvalovsky Palace. It's difficult to imagine all these palaces were someone's home in the 1800s. They are immense, richly decorated (when restored) indulgences.  No wonder the peasants revolted! 

Anyway, the tsars. In 1885 Alexander III commissioned jeweller Peter Carl Fabergé to create an Easter gift for his wife.  In Russian Orthodox tradition Easter is like Christmas for Christians, and gifts are given.  From 1897 the new tsar (there were a lot of them!) Nicholas II asked Fabergé to continue making the eggs every Easter for his mother and his wife.

And the eggs are exquisite works of art and engineering. All have a 'surprise' inside - presumably Kinder stole the idea.  The carriage inside one of the eggs is an exact replica of the Coronation carriage. The wheels roll, the glass in the windows is bevelled, the steps fold down, and inside another surprise: a diamond suspended from the ceiling. It took 15 months of 16 hour days to make the carriage alone.
This is not a stage coach! It's an Imperial Coronation carriage in miniature
Of the 50 eggs made and delivered to the Imperial family between 1885 and 1916 (come the Revolution!) 43 have survived, many in private collections. Current valuations vary according to how complete the eggs are; many surprises are missing, eggs vary in workmanship, detail and amount of precious metal and stones, but millions would be a starting point. In 2014 one sold for 20 million pounds. And you thought free range eggs were expensive!

The palace also has a large collection of cloisonné work and Imperial factory porcelain. The sort of thing you could never imagine actually using

From here we went on to an impromptu lunch featuring eggs of a different kind.

If you are in St Petersburg (on a cold, drizzly Summer's day) why wouldn't you spend $150 a head on a caviar tasting at a fancy pants restaurant called Tsar? Ten grams each of Sevruga, Sturgeon and Beluga with an ice cold shot of vodka. My kind of lunch.
Three kind of caviar, the lightest blini in the world, and ice cold vodka.
And if I didn't know the restaurant wasn't average before going to the bathroom, I knew when I got there. You might want to check out the wallpaper - if you've got a strong constitution. 

This is the throne room

Here's more lovely eggs to take your mind off that.

Lilies of the Valley, Empress Alexandra Fyodorovna favourite flower, the surprise is the portraits of the tsar Nicholas II and their daughters Tatiana and Olga

A jade bay tree. A hidden lever opens the top and a feathered so bird rises up, flaps its wins, turns its head - AND IT SINGS! Call Russia's got Talent.

With a pop up rooster and working clock

Saturday, 11 June 2016

On a rainy day in Moscow

In any European city there is always a gallery or museum to keep you entertained on a rainy day.  In Moscow you take the metro.  Forget the dirty or graffiti ridden metros in other cities - Moscow's stations are subterranean cathedrals of art, architecture and extravagance.

The metro system began under Stalin in the early 1930s and today runs 330+ kms of line.  The escalators are some of the longest I've been on - the deepest station is 74m underground.

What? No graffiti? No advertising?
London engineers were consulted and although Soviet workers provided the labour, the main engineering designs and construction plans were done by English specialists. Ultimately paranoia ensued, and the secret police arrested and tried several British engineers on charges of espionage (as they had such extensive knowledge of Moscow's layout) and deported them in 1933. Clearly the Russians forgot to ask how to position graffiti and tatty posters and advertisements as the Moscow metro is in pristine condition.

Once you've sorted out the Cyrillic alphabet, it's relatively easy to find your way around. However if you need to transfer to another line the station will have a different name, which can be confusing.  For the small investment of 100 roubles (about $2:00) we had a morning's entertainment getting on and off trains and gasping in astonishment as each hallway is more beautiful than the last. Extensive use of marble, high ceilings and lighting lend a palatial ambience.
You'd think you were in a palace not a metro station

Colourful murals feature widely

Monday, 6 June 2016

A night at the opera - almost.

  I was on the edge of my seat.   I had to be or I couldn't see.

Before leaving home I'd bought (on line from the Bolshoi website) ballet tickets for the Bolshoi Heritage theatre performance of Ivan the Terrible.  Dressed in our finest - well the finest you take when travelling - we arrive to find our tickets are for The opera  Don Pasquale (who?) in the new theatre. Aaarrrggghhhhhhh.  

Luckily God invented ticket touts. It was 10,000 roubles ($NZ200 ish) for two tickets. We'll take them, but only after I check with the doorman they are legitimate. They are. But no prizes for guessing they aren't the best seats in the house. Who needs to see the right hand part of the stage anyway?

One of these tickets is for the opera and one is for the ballet.
Completely lacking Russian language skills, I fail to spot the problem when I receive the top ticket by email. The bottom is the tout sold 'legitimate' ticket which, for some unknown reason, we got at the price printed on the ticket.
The theatre itself is not as breathtaking as expected. I've seen more glitz in Chinese restaurants. Bolshoi means big and I was expecting something, well, big.  And grand. And spectacularly ornate. It's smaller than I expected, but tall and steep with a narrow floor area.  This makes the seating more of a semi oval then a semi circle around the stage. 
Not so fancy 

We are seated at the third of seven upper levels, right next to the (unoccupied) Royal box. In other theatres the VIP box is positioned so Great and the Good are seen and can rattle their jewels at the proles; here it is positioned for the best view of the stage.  Our two seats are right against it, meaning the seat closest has an imperfect view. 

My imperfect view

I spend the first half leaning on the hunter-gatherer so I can see the right hand side of the stage. We change at half time after a refreshing glass of local fizz in the 7th floor bar.  Really, we have way better seats than those on higher levels close to the stage. 

The ballet was totally beautiful and the technique looked, to me at least, flawless. The story is Ivan's life - from becoming Tsar, marrying Anastasia, going to war, finding Anastasia poisoned by his enemies, wreaking bloody revenge and committing suicide. Your basic boy meets girl really. 

The troupe comprised 50 plus dancers, and some scenes  had 30 to 40 on stage at once. The pas de deux with Ivan and Anastasia were things of beauty, especially when they were, as the synopsis put it, enjoying mutual happiness. 

It was such a fabulous performance I  would've paid double to see it. 
Oh that's right - I did.