The Cinque Terre in Liguria

Riomaggiore Cinque Terre
The colourful Riomaggiore

Many people rave about the Cinque Terre that you may wonder whether you might end up being disappointed when you visit. Sometimes places just do not live up to their hype.

This is not the case with the five villages which make up the Cinque Terre. As the sun glistens on the sea, the waves break on the bow of the small ferry taking you from Monterosso al Mare to one of the other villages, you cannot help but stand in awe at the natural beauty of this place.

The sea is a beautiful dark blue, the cliffs are dark grey making them all the more dramatic and in the background you see beautiful greenery and vineyards and you wonder how this all came about.

It is difficult, if not outright impossible to list what the must see destinations are in Italy. If you do not live there, the only way to go about it is to return time and time again to different parts to savour it all in.

Many times, it all depends on what you would like to do and see. Whether its city trips, a mix of city and countryside or else spectacular scenery, there is a choice for pretty much everyone.

View from Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre
The view from a bar in Riomaggiore

There is, however, something spectacular about the Cinque Terre which makes them one of the most well known destinations in Italy. The “Five Lands” which is the literal meaning of CInque Terre in Italian comprises five villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. The coastline, the five villages and the surrounding hillsides are all part of the Cinque Terre National Park. When  you go there you will realise why it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Ligurian coast might not be as spectacular as the Costa Amalfitana but it gives it, in my view, a very good run for its money.

The Cinque Terre is a must visit in any case. With villages perched over cliff-tops, or accessible only by train, sea or on foot this is really a special pal e.

Both if you are at sea or looking towards the sea the views are nothing short of breath-taking. There are many ways to approach the Cinque Terre. Many people head there for a day trip from Tuscany or some of the main cities of Italy. This is a great pity because Liguria has so much to offer.

The first time we visited, the Cinque Terre had been hit by deadly floods which caused devastation and havoc in some of the villages, particularly Monterosso and Vernazza. The marks of the flood where still visible when we visited.

There are four ways to get to the Cinque Terre. The best option is probably by train. The train ride which goes from Genova to the Cinque Terre and keeps going to La Spezia is spectacular. In many places you will be literally within a stone throw away from the sea. The views are great.

If you are staying in any of the coastal villages or towns (check out my post on Sestri Levante) you will be able to catch the train to the Cinque Terre. In that case, I would recommend that you stop in Monterosso, visit this first village and then take a boat-ride to Riomaggiore which enables you to see the villages from the sea. This is clearly one of the highlights.

Another option would be to take a boat ride from Sestri Levante or Porto Venere at the other end of the Ligurian coast. There are also boats from the harbour of Genova and La Spezia. We are told that the views are amazing. Unfortunately, the two times we visited the boat rides were not operational because of the rough sea.

The third option, once you get there, is to walk from one village to another. The Cinque Terre are in fact famous for a walking trail called the Sentiero Azzurro which connects the five villages. Given that most of them involve climbing or going up stairs, we have unfortunately not walked the trail or parts of it yet given our children are still too young to walk the whole way.

The other option is to go there by car. But this is not recommended. First it is not easily accessible and you will only be able to reach a few of the villages. Parking is not cheap and easy to find particularly during peak season.

The villages have been built over the centuries by people who carefully built terraces on the rugged steep landscape right up to the cliffs that overlook the sea. One of the allures of these villages is the fact that they are not ruined by commercial interests and while paths, trains and boats connect the villages, most of them are not reachable by car.

The wines of the Cinque Terre are very special. You can see why from the photos because the terrain is very rough and the vineyards are on cliffs which go down to the sea and the wines produced therefore have exceptional minerality. The grapes are Bosco, Albarola and Vermentino. These grapes are used to make the Cinque Terre wine as well as the Sciacchetra which is a really special sweet wine. One recommendation if you are in the Cinque Terre is to try the Sciacchetra as an aperitivo. Sip it while enjoying great views. Life doesn’t get much better.

Vernazza
Vernazza with the vineyards in the background
Tiles of Riomaggiore
The tiles of Riomaggiore
Cinque Terre
View from Monterosso al Mare
Cinque Terre
View from the sea

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Discovering the beauty of Champagne

IMG_8874The first time we went to the Champagne region in France we had read about a very small producer in the South-East area of champagne in the Aube region known as the Côte des Bar. This is far away from the glitzy Champagne capital of Reims and Epernay. The Aube region produces a quarter of France’s champagne, and much of what the small producers make is sold on to the big houses that line the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay.

We were relatively new to visits to wineries in France and given that this was just before the summer period, we assumed that going to wineries for tastings would be pretty easy.

Finding the winery in Ville sur Arce did not prove a problem but given we arrived at lunch time there was a problem. The village just had a few houses and since it was lunch time we were by now pretty hungry. We headed to the winery to see whether we could get the tasting over and buy a few cases of champagne but found a note saying that the winemaker would only be back in three hours.

Given the fact that there was nothing to eat anywhere in the village, we headed to a village closeby. But to our dismay, everywhere was closed. This was again a wake-up call for us. I had read that holidays are taken seriously in France and Italy in summer but this seemed to defy logic.

Two village restaurants were closed for the holidays, we tried the bakery but it was also closed for the afternoon and would only reopen at 4pm. By now, panic was setting in. I am normally calm but there are a few things which can bring a temper. These are normally thirst and hunger. Only two shops were open at this point, the village supermarket and a bar. We asked at the bar whether there was any place we could eat and they told us the kitchen was closed but they would be happy to make a steak with fries.

Beggars cannot be choosers so we ventured in and had what at the time was probably the worst ever meal that we could eat in France. Nothing bad about it but just the fries were from a packet and the meat overcooked. It became all the more disappointing when some locals walked in half an hour later and were served with what looked like very appetising food.

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Not yet ripe for picking

We finally made it to champagne Remy Massin et fils and ended up spending a good hour with Madame Massin who gave us a thorough explanation of the soil conditions of the terroir and then led us through a tasting. This was our first experience with champagne and was indeed a great eye-opener particularly since we then headed to Epernay and Reims for some champagne tasting at the major champagne houses. It was also the first time I managed to have a full conversation in French, albeit with a pronunciation which must have been close to incomprehensible.

We headed to Moet et Chandon a few days later and toured the beautiful champagne house and cellars. While the wine house, grounds and cellars in the city of Epernay are majestic, the minute you taste the wines, you realise that these are commercial champagnes and have nothing to do with champagnes produced by smaller producers or the top cuvees.

It seems like adventures are always within reach when we are in Champagne. When our stocks finished, two years later we headed back to the region, given it is within 2 and a half hours drive from Brussels. We were having a great time when on a Sunday morning towards the end of July panic struck again.

I was taking a scenic route amid the beautiful scenery of the Montagne de Reims and was hoping to fill my fuel tank since it was now on reserve. I still had a 70 kilometre range so there was no reason to panic. Little did I know that finding a petrol station open on a Sunday would be a far greater challenge. I tried two in different villages but both were closed and did not have an automatic pump. Given I was on reserve, I looked for the nearest petrol stations on the GPS and headed to the next village to again find the petrol station closed. I therefore went to the next one. This was on a national road so I was confident that this time we would be able to fill up the tank. But as we arrived, there was a sign saying the petrol station was closed for the holidays. It was 1 August and the sign said the petrol station will be closed till the end of August.  By now, we were reaching a state of desperation. I walked into a hotel next door to the petrol station and asked the receptionist to guide us to the nearest petrol station explaining that we only had an 11 kilometre range left. She sent us to a supermarket a few kilometres away and told us that she was sure that there were automatic pumps. We ventured there knowing that if we got it wrong this time we would run out of fuel in the countryside on a hot August day. We were relieved to make it with just 7 kilometre range to spare and find that we could finally fill our fuel tank.

But amid these adventures (and this happens in many wine regions in Europe in the quiet months), this is a region worth visiting and not only for tasting champagne though there is a certain allure to walking in a bar, restaurant or cafe and being able to order a glass of champagne and enjoy the world go by.

One word of warning though, you will never look at champagne in the same way after a visit. You might become a bit more discerning and snob some champagnes which you might have been accustomed to before but which become too glitzy and commercial. That is not a bad thing though.

There are various ways to approach Champagne as a region. You can either base yourself in one of the main cities and then go for a day trip outside the cities or else you can try to stay in an idyllic village though risk not having amenities closeby.

There are three main areas to discover. There is Reims and its surroundings also known as Montaigne des Reims, there is Epernay and the Marne Valley with the famous Cote des Blancs which specialises in champagne made solely from the Chardonnay grape. Then there is the Aube, further south.

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Great scenery wherever you go

The scenery in Champagne is always pleasing. Hautvillers, the home of Dom Perignon (who discovered the famous champagne method to make sparkling wine) is a very scenic village with picturesque houses and amazing views. The small champagne house Champagne G. Tribaut is not only worth visiting for its wines but also for the splendid views from its terrace. On a nice summer day, you might be able to taste their champagnes on a terrace overlooking vineyards. It is worth keeping in mind when you are visiting the region that most small champagne houses are closed on Sunday.

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View from the terrace of Champagne G. Tribaut

In Hautvillers you can also sit and laze in the main cafe in the centre, the Cafe d’Hautvillers or else head to a splendid wine bar and shop Au 36 where you can either buy a great range of champagnes, taste wines and eat.

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Another favourite village of ours is Oger in the Cote des Blancs. Getting to the Cote des Blancs is firstly very scenic. Oger is home to one of my favourite small champagne houses Jean Milan.

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The picturesque village of Oger

Apart from the small villages, you would do well to visit the main cities of Champagne. These are Reims, Epernay, Chalon en Champagne and Troyes.

Reims is easily reachable from Paris and Brussels. The architecture in these cities is stunning, the cathedrals, as you can expect in this part of Europe beautiful. If you have time to visit only one champagne house, make it Pommery. Its chalk cellars are stunning as is the estate.

There is a big difference between Reims and Epernay. In order to visit a few of the major champagne houses in Reims you will need a car because the avenue which houses these wineries is huge. On the other hand, most of the champagne houses in Epernay can be found on probably the most spectacular street in the whole of Champagne. This is the Avenue de Champagne which houses some of the most impressive estates in the regions. All the top champagne houses of Epernay are within an area of less than a kilometre and the estates such as the one below are stunning.

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In future blogposts I will give you tips on what to do and see in Champagne and its surroundings as well as a review of some of my favourite small Champagne producers.

 

O Liban – a great Lebanese restaurant in Bascule

There was a sense of disappointment in our family when Giovanni on Chaussee de Vleurgat closed a few years ago. When we arrived in Brussels nearly nine years ago, it was not only close to home but it also served one of the best Italian espressos or cappuccinos you could find in Brussels. Moreover, the cannoli (which we are so accustomed too in Malta) were to die for.

Now either my palate has become accustomed to ‘worse’ coffee or else the Belgian coffee scene has clearly made remarkable improvements. I tend to believe that it is more the latter than the former.

Italian food is clearly comfort food but Lebanese food can be exceptional particularly when using fresh ingredients. I can today say that his replacement has proved himself on many occasions over the past years.

O Liban is a great place to stop for a quick lunch or dinner. It is also perfect to grab a take-away or to try one of their delicious typical Lebanese ‘sandwiches’ or pittas. They are all excellent using fresh ingredients, excellent sauces like the garlic sauce or hummus. They are so good that you might develop a craving for them. Whenever I am in the area of Bascule at lunch time, I nearly always end up going to grab a sandwich from there. My favourites are the lamb kefta, chicken and the falafel.

Hummus (better known as a chickpea dip) can easily be made at home or bought from a supermarket or speciality shop. Nevertheless, the test for a Lebanese restaurant is to make hummus taste special. O Liban passes this test with flying colours.

This is also an excellent place if you are vegetarian. Among the lunch or dinner options, you can put together a plate of your choice with some of the dishes that are ready prepared and which you can either eat at the restaurant or else take home. The meat option includes a choice of meat as well as six vegetable dishes or salads while the vegetarian option (also excellent for non vegetarians) gives you an option for eight different choices. You can of course include the excellent hummus as well as the Moutabal which is an incredibly tasty aubergine dip.

O Liban is great for a quick lunch or dinner. It is always busy which is a guarantee for fresh ingredients and salads. Service is extremely good though at times when it gets extremely busy might be a bit slow at the start.

If you are craving Mediterranean food and looking for something quick, comforting and good, O Liban on Chaussee de Vleurgat is a great choice.

If you have never tried Lebanese wine, this is also your chance to try it. We have always tried the ground floor snack and ‘traiteur’ though there is a restaurant on the first floor which also serves interesting set menus.

Verdict: If you develop a craving for their ‘sandwiches’ using the typical Lebanese flat bread do not blame me. They are that good. Among their vegetable choices, you need to try the hummus, moutabal and the ‘moussaka’. This Lebanese version is a stew of aubergine, chickpeas and tomatoes and is incredibly tasty. Go there for a quick takeaway or else for a casual lunch or dinner. You will not be disappointed.

O Liban is open everyday (closed in the evenings on Sunday and Monday). He can be found at Chaussée de Vleurgat 324, close to La Bascule.

There is no such thing as a free lunch

If you only have 15 minutes to spare this weekend, you must watch the video reportage from The Guardian on poultry factories.

Under the heading Revealed: the dirty secret of the UK’s poultry industry, it shows disgusting scenes from chicken factories and suggests that two thirds of chickens sold in the UK are contaminated with campylobacter. The report suggests that although the bug is killed by thorough cooking, around 280,000 people in the UK are currently made ill each year by it and 100 people die. It suggests that the contamination rates are known to have increased in the past decade.

My perspective of food changed completely after I read Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser. It is since that summer of 2001 that I have never set foot again in a fast food chain. That book had a deep impact on how I viewed food. This new reportage in the Guardian just goes to prove that many years down the line, nothing has improved

There are a few lessons to learn from this reportage.

1. There is no such thing as a free lunch. If a deal is too good to be true, then it is. Unfortunately, many people fall into the trap of trusting the provenance of their food just on the basis that they can buy it from the supermarket or that it is attractively packaged. Many trust that if it is being sold then it has to be good.  It is unfortunate because times are difficult and deals can therefore be very attractive but one needs to be cautious about the source of the produce they are buying,

2. It is better to enjoy meat (including chicken) every so often if you cannot afford it but ensure that when you eat it you go for free range or organic chicken. If a supermarket is selling a whole chicken for just over 3 Euros then you need to ask yourself some soul-searching questions before you even decide to buy it.

3. There have been too many food scandals in the past years which are eroding the trust of consumers. But so far, it does not seem to have an impact on the behaviour of consumers.

4. It might not be convenient to shop in your local shops. But everyone of us needs to make an effort to support our local shops rather than big chains since they usually know the precise source of their produce. Build a rapport with these shopkeepers. They are normally incredibly passionate about what they do. We owe it to our children that such stores survive.

5. We need to vote with our feet and show supermarkets that business as usual cannot go on as if nothing has happened. After the horse-meat scandal, one would have expected at least some basic checks. That this has not happened is rather shocking.

And for those who have never read or seen the documentary Fast Food Nation, here is the trailer of the film based on the book.

There is also Food Inc on the same theme.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Volpaia – a medieval Tuscan village you have to visit

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Volpaia at sunset

It is possible that you can go to Tuscany many times and completely miss Volpaia. This is a tiny village in the middle of the Chianti region which is not mentioned on tourist guides and only accessible by car unless you feel like walking for kilometres up a never ending hill. This is a place which is completely off the beaten track though a few years ago I got worried when one of its restaurants was reviewed in a travel magazine as one of the best places to dine al fresco in Tuscany.

There is no such thing as tourist shops like many ‘touristic villages’  in such popular tourist areas. The allure comes from a picturesque medieval village, great views, a great bar, two restaurants and a winery which goes by the name of Castello di Volpaia.

This is a village that you can visit time and time again without getting bored. There is not much to do other than walk in the countryside or amid the narrow streets, drink a coffee or a glass of wine at the village’s only bar. All you need is good company or a nice book to soak up the splendid views.

There is also a winery which is part and parcel of the village and which has been making wine since the 1100s.

The impact as you head up to Volpaia is immediate. The view of this fortified town is breathtaking. But what is stunning about Volpaia is the unique atmosphere of this medieval village.

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The Bar-Ucci

Once you arrive to the square you will see the restaurant La Bottega on one side and the wine bar Bar-Ucci on the other side. At the opposite end you will also see the entrance to the winery Castello di Volpaia which makes some exceptional wines including Chianti Classico as well as a range of Super Tuscans and the Tuscan sweet wine Vin Santo.

The Bar-Ucci which takes its name from the owner of the bar is a gem. Firstly, the coffees in the morning are exceptional. There is a great selection of wines by the glass from the Chianti region and you can also get platters of home-cured meat as well as pecorino which is served with honey and a selection of mustards.

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The stunning terrace at La Bottega

The restaurant La Bottega has probably one of the best terraces in Tuscany. It has a view of the famous Tuscan rolling hills (see below). But on top of that this is home cooking at its best. You get simple but great ingredients and turn them into a perfect meal. We have eaten here many times and the service and quality of the food has always been top notch. A few recommendations include the Pici al Cinghiale (a Tuscan type of pasta with a wild boar sauce), the pappardelle al tartufo or porcini mushrooms, the ribollita, rabbit served with a truffle sauce, the obvious bistecca alla fiorentina (t-bone steak) or a wild boar stew with olives. Their chocolate tart is unbelievably good. It is the first and only time that I can remember that all of us at table (six) ordered dessert twice it was so good.

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The Castello di Volpaia winery

We did not try the other restaurant in Volpaia but visited the winery and tried a range of their wines. Castello di Volpaia, with vineyards surrounding this hilltop village, makes Chianti Classico, the Chianti Classico Riserva and a white wine which is a blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc). They also make single vineyard wines which are all exceptional. My favourite is Il Puro Casanova, a 100% San Giovese. The property also produce wines from the upcoming region of Tuscany, the Maremma.

Their Vin Santo is also extremely good. The last time I tasted their Vin Santo was last December. it was a 15 year old wine with great complexity and still incredible freshness. Volpaia is only a few kilometres away from Radda in Chianti. If you are in the area, I recommend you visit and then drop me a line about your experience.

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The view from Volpaia

 

Wines from the Mosel

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Stunning views in the Mosel. The wines can be exceptional.

German white wine is probably the wine lovers best kept secret. It only takes a few tastings of a German Riesling, whether bone dry, semi-sweet, sweet or even in its ice-wine variety and you are likely to be hooked. Riesling ages incredibly well, is very versatile and changes character along the way. It is also extremely versatile with food.

When the wine is not mass-produced, and mass production is probably one of the reasons why it had such a bad reputation, it can be brilliant. It also provides exceptional value for money.

A good Riesling to me has unique qualities. It is fresh, vibrant and has a great perfume. The freshness can be surprising even when you are drinking an older wine. It is not uncommon to open a 10 to 15 year old dry wine and still find incredible freshness.

IMG_3854The Mosel Valley is a beautiful and scenic region in Germany and exploring the vineyards and wineries is a great way to get a taste of German culture, its people and some wonderful wines. Most of the region is centred around eating and drinking.

For non-German speakers, German wines can be intimidating because of the labelling even though once grasped it is incredibly simple and extremely transparent. The classic gems of German wines are sweet wines which are best enjoyed alone. I have quite a number of sweet wines in my cellar which can be savoured over the years given the ageing potential is huge. However, because sweet wines are no longer so much in demand, German producers have opted for dry wines called trocken. When it is medium try it is called halbtrocken.

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This weekend, we tasted two different wines from the Mosel. They were from Weingut Lotz.

We tried two wines from the same terroir. One was a 2010 and the other was a 2013. Both were great but also incredibly different one could not help wonder whether the 2013 would develop in such a way.

The location of the vineyards that produce these wines is the Erdener Herrenberg. The slate-stone ground is very weathered and produces wines with a special minerality.

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The Lotz wines. (Photo taken from website of wine producer)

We first tried the 2010 Riesling Schieferstein from Weingut Klaus Lotz. For a four-year old wine this still had incredible freshness. It is complex on the nose with hints of exotic fruits. It has the right balance between acidity and sweetness and goes perfectly well with a light meal. We tried it again a day later and it still showed the same sort of freshness indicating that it still has the potential to age. Overall this is an incredible value for money wine.

The 2013 Lotz Schieferstein from the same producer has different labelling now. This is the sort of wine that you will enjoy drinking when it is extremely hot. It is crisp and has great acidity. It is not as complex on the nose as the 2010. It is indeed rather gentle on the nose though it has a really nice aroma which reminded me of marzipan. To me this was a perfect wine to drink as an aperitif also because the finish was not as long as the previous wine. Overall, it was still fantastic.

The great thing about Rieslings is their ageing potential and therefore the possibility to try different wines of different vintages. You do not need to worry if you don’t finish the wines. Firstly these two wines had a screw cap. Moreover, given that these wines can age, you can actually test their ageing potential by trying them days later. If they still taste good, then you know that they can still age.

The only problem with these wines is that they are so hard to find. But that makes them all the more alluring.

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Recipe 2 – Charred Aubergine Salad

20140720-231424-83664975.jpgBarbecues should not be boring. There is nothing like sausages or burgers on the barbecue but grilling outdoors can also be sophisticated. It all depends on your level of ambition.

Before grilling meat or fish, I always like to prepare vegetables on the barbecue. Chargrilling peppers, onions, courgettes, aubergine, leeks, potato you name it. With the right condiments (herbs, olive oil and balsamic vinegar they are second to none) they can make for an excellent antipasto or perfect accompaniment to meat or fish.

Among foodies or those who regularly view the BBC, Raymond Blanc needs no introduction. He is a French chef who settled in the UK many years ago. He is the chef of a Michelin starred restaurant Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons. He is passionate about cooking and his charisma whenever he is presenting a television programme is always visible.

This winter, BBC had a superb series by Raymond Blanc on How to Cook and one of the programmes was about grilling. The following, which I have tried twice to great acclaim is an adaptation of his recipe. It is easy but impressive. The flavours are strong but harmonious. This is an exceptional vegetarian starter. I love my meat, I love my fish but if all vegetarian dishes were like this I could be eating many more vegetarian dishes.

Whenever I have tried recipes from Raymond Blanc or else adapted his ideas I have never been disappointed. So I really recommend you try the following dish.

Ingredients (serves 4)

  • 3 Aubergines
  • 1 Garlic Clove
  • Juice of half a lemon (or to taste)
  • 1 fresh chilli
  • 6 dates
  • 1 tin of good quality chickpeas
  • Ricotta salata (if you do not have this, you can also use fresh ricotta)
  • Toasted Almond flakes
  • Fresh coriander
  • Mint
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Balsamic vinegar

Method

1. Once the barbecue is hot, place the aubergines on and ensure that the skin is ‘burnt’. Turn frequently. Once you see that the aubergines have softened, remove from the barbecue and wait for them to cool down slightly. The aubergine will have a very smoky flavour because of the charred skin.

2. Half the aubergine and scoop out the flesh. Place into a bowl, season with salt and pepper and stir in some extra virgin olive oil. Add the garlic and half the chili with the lemon juice and stir. Then add the chopped dates, a handful of chickpeas, chopped mint and coriander to taste (a handful of each should suffice). You can now put the mixture into the refrigerator until you plate the dish.

3. Spoon the mixture into the plates, add some chickpeas to garnish on the side of the mixture, then top with some toasted almond flakes to add texture, a handful of the remaining chopped chili  and then crumble the ricotta salata. Drizzle the best quality olive oil you can find and then add a few drops of balsamic vinegar.

Raymond Blanc had suggested using feta cheese in his recipe but I have tried it both with ricotta salata and with fresh ricotta and it works extremely well. Enjoy.