Monthly Archives: June 2014

Love Food 2 Love Life !

If you read my last blog, you will know that, probably due to my disco queen display at a party last weekend, I have a problem with my hip that has rendered me immobile. My son’s embarrassment has been addressed – he now believes that there really must be a God!

Come hell or high water, I need to get off this sofa soon and my husband urgently needs me to get off the sofa as further requests for tea, water, food, books, papers, pens, cushions and top ups to my evening glass of wine (imbibed for medicinal reasons, of course!), will not be so solicitously attended to.
I am eager to get back into the kitchen now as during my incapacity, we have supported just about every take-away outlet in the area. And sitting here, I have been researching recipes and compiling new  menus. And as soon as I am able, I plan to make a Ghanaian meal. I have recently been experiencing a strong desire to return to the country of my birth and childhood. I don’t know what is drawing me to make this journey, but I know that it is something I must do soon. In the meantime, the next best step is to cook Ghanaian, so watch this spot – I will report back. I can recall some of the delicious meals prepared by our cook and I would love to relive the flavours and aromas. I remember our garden full of exotic fruit trees/bushes including mango, plantain and paw-paw (papaya). I am lucky that I still remeber so much and I think all these wonderful recollections have resulted in my life long desire to visit new destinations and learn about other cultures, which in-turn developed my love of food and cooking. Conversely I had to learn to cook (as did my brother) given we were both born of a mother who can’t cook / won’t cook. My mother treated food as the enemy – it was a necessary evil and to be avoided if at all possible. If a tablet substitute had been invented, she would have been at the head of the queue. I think I’ve made my point, so I’ll go no further. Suffice to say, I am the opposite. As soon as I had charge of my own kitchen, the sky was the limit. I have always been very social and love to entertain. There is nothing more satisfying than sharing food with friends and family – the bubble of conversation, wine filling glasses, laughter and relaxed ‘bonhomie’. A meal around a table gives us time to talk, time to share our day or experiences. I think food should be promoted as the mortar of life – it can bond friendships and build bridges. It should be encouraged as a much more valuable tool in nurturing a cohesive family life – good communication helps understanding and understanding helps harmony and if we are harmonious in our lives with friends, family and colleagues, then the world has a better chance of living in unity. Okay, that’s enough – I’m off my soapbox now! I didn’t quite mean to go down that path right now, but there you have it. Its the core message of my blog. Food is fab! Growing it, choosing it, thinking about it, preparing it, cooking it, sharing it, eating it. The washing up of it, alas, is not so fab! If every cloud has a silver lining, then mine at the moment is that I can’t stand at the kitchen sink. 

A Fishy Tale of Beauty and Beasts on the Road!

Yesterday was Sunday! A Sunday in July, in the Algarve and it was hot. It still is hot, although there is a waft of a breeze today. No complaints though as we had an extraordinarily wet and cold winter this year. I like the heat but I don’t like the crowds and it is high season here in Portugal now. The sky was/is gloriously blue, so after attending the early church service in Praia da Luz, Peter and I decided to take a trip north on the coast road, stopping off for coffees at some of the little bays along the way.

The west coast of Portugal has a dramatic coast line interspersed with sandy bays that attract more locals than tourists. This part of the country is largely under developed and appears, thankfully, not to appeal sufficiently to the majority of today’s tourists.

The road from Sagres, in the far south-west, winds through wooded hills passing small farming villages along the way to Aljezur and beyond. For me, it is always good to be away from the madding crowds of the Algarve’s southern shores hosting ugly hotel blocks, exorbitantly expensive amusement parks for thrill seekers (why pay – just hire a car and drive on the highways with the locals), stalls selling snide football gear and ‘kiss me quick’ hats, restaurants selling all-day English breakfasts, egg and chips, reconstituted battered fish and chips, beer and chips, and chips and more greasy chips! You may have guessed by now that I am not too keen on this part of Portugal! In search of a plus – every cloud normally has a silver lining somewhere and I have to admit, in this case, it does bring revenue to the country; and Portugal desperately needs revenue at the moment. Well, with that in mind, I’ll stop ranting, so long as I’ve conveyed how I feel!

If you haven’t visited this part of Portugal, please make a note to put it in your ‘100 things to do before you die’ diary because it’s simply …… beautiful. The air is clean, the birds sing, goats and sheep graze contentedly together, the waves thunder and crash against the ancient cliffs that line the coast as far as the eye can see, and the scent from the eucalyptus and Mediterranean pine trees are both restful and invigorating. The journey up to the border with the Alentejo region is a pleasure. Though (expanding on my earlier reference to the local drivers) I just wish some of them would slow down a bit to enjoy the surrounding beauty. Is it necessary to over-take in the most hazardous places? Have they developed an ability to see around blind bends or an instinct to detect an on-coming motorist, and have simply failed to  tell the rest of the world about it? We have a future trip in mind – we intend to travel further along this particularly winding road, making our way slowly up to Lisbon. I’ll take a sedative before!

We turned around at the border with Algarve and Alentejo and headed back in search of lunch, stopping at one of our favourite restaurants on the cliff top at Arifana. It is called Restaurante O Paulo and has the most wonderful choice of fresh sea food and fish. It is my kind of restaurant – it is about real food, the staff are friendly (and so they should be, but it’s not always the case!) and the views catch your breath. The choice on the menu is almost too much and, as dining out is such a treat – there is nothing better than sitting down to savour the prospect of a delicious meal – I did not want to make a regrettable choice! Although, I think I would have found it hard to regret anything on the menu – the choice of freshly caught fish was dazzling! Peter ordered the sea-bass and I had a stone-bass steak. The stone-bass is one of my favourite fish – it is a large creature with just a central bone, so one can tuck into it quite heartily without fear of having to fish (ha,ha!) small bones out of one’s mouth. Most un-lady like! If properly cooked, the meat is succulent and flakes away.

Stone-bass with garlic, olive oil and sea salt. No other words needed – simply delicious!
The veggies were tasty too!

Peter’s sea-bass was cooked to perfection. They know how to cook fish at O Paulo. It’s not rocket science – especially when it’s your trade but it’s amazing how many restaurants don’t get it right!

The Restaurant Lottery!

I have found eating out to be a lottery and often there is no guarantee of quality by spending more. I am sure that I have much support is saying that there is nothing that makes the spirits sink than spending money on a disappointing eating experience. I try to take time to select the venue and am getting better at detecting those that promise much from the outside but deliver little on the inside. We recently had such an experience and I should have taken note of the warning signs. However, after a long journey we were tired, and although we traipsed a few streets to find an entising restaurant that would satisfy our hunger and mark the start of a good holiday, we were to be sorely disappointed. The restaurant in question is Bodega La Plancha in Saint Jean de Luz in South West France. To begin, the waitress who led us to our table was sullen and one could easily detect that she didn’t want to be there. At the point we were shown the designated table, we should have declined but the restaurant was filling up and I didn’t want to make a fuss. My son always gets embarrassed and that would have got the evening off to a sullen start. So, wedging ourselves into a corner and after apologising to the other eaters who we had to jostle around to get ourselves seated, we waited for the waitress to return. The wait was long and I had to gesticulate wildly to attract attention – further cause for embarrassment on the part of son, Jonathan! It was quite clear that, as far as the management were concerned, the sale was in the bag and the priority was just to fill all the tables. The waiting staff were well versed in the art of ‘ignoring the customer’, as they moved, eyes down, with rapid speed between the tightly packed tables. It was an exhausting experience from beginning to end and the food did nothing to make up for the noisy and frenetic environment. We paid the excessive bill and retreated feeling ‘ripped off’ and exhausted.

Conversely, in the same town an evening later, we had an excellent evening as we savoured several courses from the ‘gastronomique’ menu at Restaurant Zoko Moko. The environment was comfortable and there was no piped music! The gentle bubble of conversation and sounds of enjoyment were enough. And for this outstanding fayre, we didn’t pay much more than the previous evening. Let photos tell the story!

Le tout Canard.
Morue de ligne facon Viscayenne, piment padrones, ail rose.
Boeuf de Pays Basque, la joue en Basquignon, le filet juste saisi, condiment bearnaise.

Washed down with a chilled Sancerre, each mouthful was tantalising and totally satisfying. Each plate displayed the chef’s passion and commitment to his art.  Truly a moment in heaven!

Basque-ing in the sun!

A flash back to our recent holiday . . . . . . .

My son is the shorter one!

From our base in Ciboure at the Hoteliere Residence du Golf (highly recommended), we were able to accommodate all our diverse needs to create a perfect holiday. Ciboure neighbours St. Jean de Luz, a few kilometres along the coast from Biarritz. The region is a great favourite of ours and one that we will continue to return to. For Jonathan, it has a great choice of golf courses and golf is his passion, so he is happy. So long as he has internet and golf, all is well. This time, he had golf, internet and a friend so we were left in peace to follow our own gourmet interests. And we made the most of the opportunity by exploring the region with visits to markets, small mountain villages, rural farms producing foie gras and towns along the coast. We were extremely lucky to have fabulous weather, given the region is prone to heavy bursts of rain, which always makes exploring and appreciating any location more enjoyable – and oh, what joy – the market at St Jean de Luz – held every Friday morning – was glorious and tantalised all our senses. The sight, a feast for the eyes, was colourful, bustling with activity and the smells as we passed the various stalls stimulated hunger (greed) despite a recently devoured breakfast of freshly baked flaky croissants and crusty baguette, heaped with oodles of ‘naughty’ butter (Normandy butter with sea salt crystals). As my son might say – lush! Anyway, back to the market. Here are some photos to help convey my story:
Paella – Basque Style – here is a recipe that I was given at the market – (it’s for eight people, but 5 of us managed to clear the dish).
1/2 chicken, 1/2 duck, 1/2 rabbit (I used pre cut portions), 24 cleaned mussels, 12 shell-on prawns, 300g smoked bacon pieces, 1 strong chorizo and 1 mild chorizo, 5 tomatoes,
2 red peppers, 4 cloves of garlic, parsley, salt, pepper, saffron, olive oil, a lemon, 500g of good quality rice. It’s a personal thing, but I take the meat off the bone.
Method: cut the meat into chunks, except the chorizos, and put them in the olive oil to cook until browned. Add in the chopped peppers and the bacon pieces. Add the quartered tomatoes, the chopped garlic and parsley, salt and pepper and a few strands of saffron. Add 1 litre of water. When it’s boiling, add the rice and cook for 20 minutes. During this time add anothe 1/2 litre of water, add the chorizo finely chopped, add the mussels and the prawns. Cook for a further 10 minutes and serve.
I wish I could waft the smells and sounds to you. I hope there are markets in heaven (I am assuming that I might go to Heaven!). Having purchased mountain cheeses, Bayonne cured ham (to comapare with the Spanish varieties), beautifully polished vegetables, fresh tuna (recipe to follow) and prawns, Charolais beef, sausison and stuffed peppers, we found a cafe in the market square and enjoyed delicious coffee and, as my waist line is living proof, more pastries. Oh, la la – very naughty but why not? Carpe Deum!
Armed with our treasures purchased at the market, we returned to the apartment to meet up with the boys – listened to their shot by shot account of their round of golf – and plan our feast for the evening.

A special find!

I discovered a great little bar and restaurant tucked away in a delightful location between Guia and Pera on the Algarve coast. If you are close by or visiting on holiday, it’s a ‘must go’! Quinta da Saudade (Farm of Well-being) in the Vale da Parra, is located on an estate of privately owned villas, is quintessentially Portuguese in its style. The barman/manager Jorge was very friendly and welcoming (and easy on the eye ladies!). The wine list was small but well put together and the prices slipped down very well. A generous glass for €2.00 ! A refreshing alternative to the multitude of touristy restaurants and ‘Brit’ bars that blight the coast. Good simple menu with enough choice – for a relaxed evening out, you’ll not be disappointed by the quality or the price. Simply a refreshing find!

Jorge, a great host!
Guest enjoying ‘bonhommie’ and a relaxed evening drink.

Viva Espana! (Continued…)

Sorry about that. I don’t know what happened but I must have tapped on the wrong button. I am a techno dinosaur!

So ……. we arrived at the hotel. Our first encounter was very disappointing – I remember wanting to drive on. The hotel is in the centre of an industrial estate on the outskirts of town and the facade is not at all appealing, it looks like something that time has forgotten. Ripped and water stained curtains adorn the windows flanking the main entrance and the lobby is dark with a mishmash of furniture. Leaving our bags in the car (in the event of a speedy retreat), we advanced to the reception desk cautiously. The young man was very welcoming and cheerful, so we checked in, feeling a little more encouraged, and took the ancient lift which creaked its way up to the second floor. The rooms were ‘ok’ – functional and clean. To the delight of the teenagers, WIFI was available so all was good with the world.
The main reason for returning, apart from the excellent service we received, was the most delicious and generous plates of  ‘Jamon Iberico’ that we had enjoyed on our first visit. And there was another BIG plus – a shop – my favourite kind of shop, better to me than any other kind of shop – a shop specialising in hams of the region, along with other scrumptious products like chorizos, salamis, sausages, pates and a variety of local cheeses,wines, olive oils, olives, paprikas, stuffed peppers and much much more. The smell was sensational and I could ramble for ages. The ‘senhor’ was knowledgeable and helpful and imparted a lot of information about the black pigs from which the ham is produced. I learned that the best ham is the ‘Bellota’, meaning ‘acorns’ which form pigs’ staple diet. This meat is salted and hung for longer than the less expensive varieties. The meat is darker than the meat of Serrano which is more pink in colour. I left more knowledgeable and with lots of goodies and a promise that we would visit again on our journey home. How fabulous to have such a treat to look forward to at the end of a holiday!
We enjoyed our simple meal, all feasting on plates of this very special ham accompanied by rustic bread, a deliciously fresh tomato and onion salad and …….. chips. How could we not have chips – sometimes the boys are a good excuse! The wine was good too. 

Viva Espana!

We have just returned from a short holiday to the Basque region of France. It was a most wonderful journey for a food lover like me. When we travel, I like to plan very carefully where we stop, so as to make the most of the local specialities and delicacies. So long as we have sufficient time, we prefer to travel by car. The ‘we’ here, is Peter and me. Jonathan (our 14 year old son) is not so keen and like so many teenagers these days, he requires immediacy. A ‘tardiss’ to zap him and his friends into a theme park with a burger stand on every corner, would be his idea of heaven. For the moment, however, he has to do it our way and maybe, one day, he will look back on our ‘culinary-biased’ travel with more appreciation. Am I dreaming? Anyway, on with the purpose of this blog.

With the car packed to the gunnels – we booked a self catering apartment on a golf course – we set off on our travels. I had been looking forward to this short holiday with great expectation. It would be the relaxation, after a particularly stressful period of our lives, that we needed; it would give us some family time and be all things to all of us. Jonathan, with his accompanying friend Jack, would enjoy 4 days of golf while we took ourselves on outings to discover some of the Basque region. Opportunities for more culinary exploits and my heaven!
At the break of dawn, we took the coast road east along the Algarve, crossing the border into Spain. The landscape changes quite noticeably, as the golden sun flower fields pass our view. They are an absolutely splendid and cheerful sight. As I think I might already have said – I adore their boldness as their heads turn to follow the movement of the sun – tournasol – in French. I deviate again, sorry!
The boys slept most of the way to our first stop – the town of Plasencia – waking only for sustenance, or to try and find a more comfortable position, wedged between all the necessary paraphernalia for the holiday. Plasencia is a good half way point between the south-west tip of Portugal and the Spanish border and comes at about the right stage of the journey for me. Seven hours in a car is quite enough for me – I could never be a long distance lorry driver! We have stayed at the Hotel Cuidad de Plasencia before, so I am not at all disappointed on arrival this time, because I know what is in store and I could hardly wait

Market Day

I live in a small traditional Portuguese village away from the tourist towns along the coast of the Algarve, and one of the things that I love most is the market. It is predominantly a fish and vegetable market serving the local Portuguese community – we don’t have many visitors, so the prices have remained as they should be. Yesterday morning, I was there early to buy my vegetables for the weekend. The new potatoes are delicious (we had some earlier in the week) and they really ‘taste’ of goodness – both nutty and creamy. I also bought figs – the season for figs is just starting here and soon we will be able to gather our own from the garden and the road sides.
Last night I cooked the potatoes using a recipe that was given to me by the cook at my son’s new school. It is a typical and very simple dish from the region around Aljezur on the west coast – I will call it Aljuzurian Garlic Potatoes: in a casserole or baking dish, cut the larger of the new potatoes in half, add a generous number of crushed cloves of garlic, slice a medium size onion into wedges, add some cherry tomatoes, coat everything with a good quality olive oil and insert sprigs of fresh mint around. Season with sea salt and ground pepper. Bake for 30 minutes in an oven pre-set to 180 degrees. It was absolutely scrumptious and was a great accompaniment to the tiger prawns! We are so fortunate to have such wonderful fresh produce on our doorstep. And I am enjoying cooking at home after restaurant life, although I’m still finding it hard to work with smaller quantities!

Bom Dia from sunny Portugal

This is my first blog! I’ve wanted to blog for a long time, but work (I was a restaurateur until a couple of weeks ago, when I sold my restaurant) and family commitments have consumed all my time. And I don’t like to do anything if I can’t do it properly. So here goes . . . I’ve always liked writing, it is like releasing a pressure value and sometimes I’ve used it to sort out problems. It helps me to see things more clearly and to work things through in my head. Combining this with my other passions – food and travel, I should have a whale of a time! I’ve been fortunate enough to visits many part of the world for both work and vacation; and on each of these journeys, I have always tried to learn about the food of each culture and how food and eating brings people together.

I live in the south of Portugal, in a village inhabited predominantly by Portuguese, away for the coast though close enough to visit. It is a higgledy-piggledy sort of village. Quite scruffy compared to the pristine villages of West Sussex where I once lived. I like it here. A mishmash of architecture stands side by side, lining a network of small roads and alley ways. Today the sun is shining brightly and the air is warm. I have the doors wide open onto an elevated terrace and all I can hear is the clucking of a neighbour’s chickens and one very persistently vociferous cockerel. It’s been creating a din since 5am this morning, but we’ve got used to it. It’s more melodic than the night long chorus of the local wild dogs!
This morning, I’m sending out a ‘coup de soleil’ before heading off to the village market. The photo was taken locally and I just love it! Sunflowers are my favourite – strong, bright and bold.