Liguria (2) Camogli – one of the most charming fishing villages

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The view of Camogli – a charming fishing village

The first time we visited Camogli, we missed this fishing village, it is so hidden. The GPS in my car, normally reliable, took us to a hill whereby we could observe a superb view of Camogli and the Ligurian coast but couldn’t spot the way to get there.

After some time driving around we finally discovered that we needed to take a narrow street down towards the village centre. What we then discovered was amazing. Parking may be difficult depending on the time of year you visit but don’t be discouraged. It is really worth your time.

Camogli (Camuggi in Genoese dialect) is a small Italian fishing village and tourist resort located on the west side of the peninsula of Portofino, on the Golfo Paradiso at the Riviera di Levante, south from Genova. The name means “house of wives” ( casa delle Mogli ).

We visited Camogli twice in May and another time in June. Both times the weather was great so people were eating out in the terraces with a splendid view either of the coastline or the tiny but colourful fishing village which bustles with activity. It is said that the fishermen of the village painted the houses in this manner to ensure that they could spot it when they were returning back to the port after their fishing trips. This makes for a great vista as you can see from the photos.

IMG_4649The maritime museum is also worth visiting though not easy to find. For a Maltese, this museum is special because it has paintings of a well known marine artist Nicola Cammillieri, active during the first half of the 19th century who painted beautiful ship portraits both entering the Maltese Grand Harbour as well as in other Mediterranean ports. There are a number of Camilleri’s paintings in the museum, many donated by families from Camogli and most of these are in excellent condition.

Where to eat: Just like in most places in Liguria you will find many Focacceria’s in Camogli. We tried Vento Ariel which overlooks the harbour. The food here was excellent. The menu changes according to the season so you are bound to experience different dishes whenever you go. The children devoured the Ligurian pasta (trofie) with freshly made pesto and I still remember a pate made with cuttlefish and anchovies which are a speciality of the region and the restaurant. The pasta with seafood and fresh fish were also extremely good as was the wine we drank from Azienda Agricola Pino Gino.

Semmu Friti, on the way down to the fishing village is a small takeaway serving, as the name suggests, typical Ligurian deep fried dishes. Here you will find delicious frittelle di baccala, stuffed anchovies and even the traditional ‘farinata’ made with chickpea flour. The deep-fried calamari is also exceptional.

Xodo is another good restaurant and bar serving typical dishes. This is an inexpensive restaurant which is normally packed. On a nice day, you eat outside overlooking the beach. The deep-fried anchovies as starter were excellent as was the fresh seafood black ravioli (using squid ink),

What to do: Just stroll around the seafront, visit the touristic boutique shops and sit and enjoy the sun. Visit the Maritime Museum. Walk on the pebbled beach or take a boat ride to neighbouring Portofino or San Fruttuoso, the latter only reachable by sea. In a recent article in the FT food and drink section Ruth Rogers of the River Cafe mentioned da Laura, on the beach of San Fruttuoso as one of her favourite restaurants in the world. Clearly something to remember for my next visit to Liguria.

 

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The colourful fishing port
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The view from the hill overlooking Camogli

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Santorini – a wine region worth discovering

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Santorini’s views can be breathtaking. Its wines are however worth discovering

It might sound like a cliche but Santorini is all that you can imagine about a Mediterranean island if not more. This volcanic island offers crisp blue seas, breathtaking views, glorious sunsets, excellent produce (particularly tomatoes and aubergines) and incredible wines.

The latter may come as a surprise for people not necessarily in the know. Greek wines can be surprising in their quality. But in terms of island wines, the ones which come from this beautiful island in Southern Aegean are exceptional.

If you have never tried the white wine Assyrtiko, which has a potent dryness and minerality with strong hints of lemon, then you are clearly missing something really special. Just like with Riesling, the first time I tried this grape variety, I was immediately hooked.

The volcanic soil of Santorini is great for grape growing and while many might consider the conditions to be too harsh for wine growing, both the land and the climate make for exceptional wines with great ageing potential.

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The Domaine Sigalas vineyards

The wine makers to look out for in Santorini, and those which are also available outside the island are Domaine Sigalas, Hatzidakis and Gaia – not to be mistaken for the wines of Italian wine giant Angelo Gaja.

Another white grape variety is Athiri which is also an indigenous, white variety. Athiri is an aromatic variety, of lower acidity than Assyrtiko and lower potential alcohol. This is also blended with Assyrtiko making a very interesting combination.

Among the reds is the lesser known though equally excellent Mavrotragano, a red variety indigenous to the island.  This grape came close to extinction but is again being grown by a number of wineries on the island. I can confirm that this wine has exceptional ageing potential. I have tasted a few 2004 over the years and still have a few in my cellar.

When in Santorini we visited the winery of Domaine Sigalas close to Oia. The wine tasting was exceptional in that you tasted the wines pretty much in the middle of the vineyards in a perfect setting. Despite being a small island, Sigalas produces around 300,000 bottles of wine annually and their wines are exported to many countries including Germany, France, Belgium, Austria, Holland, England, Cyprus, Switzerland, Hong-Kong, Shanghai, Sweden, Singapore, Australia, Brazil, USA and Canada.

We were told that the vines in Santorini are extremely old and have resisted to phylloxera (which is attributed to the fact that that the volcanic soil is well drained). This means that the vines did not need to be replaced during the epidemic of the late 19th century. What is interesting about the Santorini wines is that the vines are planted far apart to get as much exposure to dew as possible and they are often made in the shape of low-spiralling baskets, with the grapes hanging inside to protect them from the island wind.

My recommendation is to try the wines from Santorini if you come across them whether in your favourite wine store or a restaurant or wine bar. You will surely not to be disappointed. The white Assyrtiko might well be among the best wines you have tried in many years.

 

 

 

Monschau – a beautiful German town on the border with Belgium

 

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Monschau, the main square

Summer has started and we have had our fair share of barbecues already. Crisis point was reached a few days ago when we ran out of our special mustards with tarragon and Riesling which we had purchased from our annual visit to Monschau, Germany during the Christmas season.

We had never visited the idyllic town during spring or summer for some reason and have always associated the town with winter especially given how spectacular it looks when it snows. So, we did what some might consider a crazy day trip, which is heading to Monschau to stock up on mustard lest our barbecues suffer from the lack of magic ingredients.

Now you might probably have realised that when it comes to food, I do not cut corners and am bound to take a detour if I can procure great ingredients. But, given the fact that until a few years ago, I was not really keen on mustard, you will understand that the Monschau mustards are indeed special. All it takes to convert to the joys of mustard are a trip to Dijon or Monschau, away from the commercial stuff you find in supermarkets.

But back to Monschau. Monschau is a beautiful town located in the hills of the North Eifel within the Hohes Venn – Eifel Nature Park in the narrow valley of the Rur river.

The historic town centre has many preserved half-timbered houses and beautiful narrow streets which look as if they have remained unchanged for time so long. The setting is fantastic given the town is literally in a valley and is surrounded by beautiful hills.

The town is extremely picturesque. In summer, all the restaurants and hotels have tables outside making dining al fresco a joy given the stunning vistas and fresh air.

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The Monschau city hall

A few shops are worth visiting including some cafes which serve typical German cakes. A bakery just off the main square has typical German breads and sweets from the region while the special mustard shop sells a lot of regional produce including alcohol and pork products.

Mustard here varies from the classic, which is spectacular used in a salad dressing, to tarragon, garlic, chili, green pepper, old German, Horseradish, English curry, caraway seeds, lemon, orange, tomato, currant, honey with poppy seeds, fig, Riesling, wild herbs, ginger and pineapple as well as the new beer mustard which also promises to lift our coming barbecues to something special.

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One of the many restaurants in the town

The drive there from Belgium is also spectacular. You pass through Eupen, a  very pretty Belgian town from the German speaking part of Belgium and then through the the Hautes Fagnes, which is the highest point in Belgium at an altitude of 694 metres.

Verdict: A great place to visit both in summer and winter. If you go in winter, try to visit when it has snowed because the charm of the place is incredible. In summer the town also has great charm.

 

 

 

 

Beat your fear – how I overcame my phobia of cheese

IMG_6135Phobias are irrational and unexplainable. Cheese until a few years ago was my achilles heel. Few people could understand how someone who could be so obsessed with food and wine had a ‘fear of cheese’. This was not an allergy but rather real fear.

I recall a day when I was still at school and a friend had placed a piece of cheese in my school bag as a joke. I never used that bag again. I remember protesting with my father to refrain from using the same knife he had used to cut a piece of cheese to cut bread or spread butter. I even would tell him to wash his hands before handling anything else.

Such was my fear. Now, with the benefit of hindsight a fear of cheese is not only irrational, it is also ridiculous. This was not an allergy. That would be perfectly understandable. Can you imagine never eating a pizza with mozzarella. Hard to believe but true.

So you can just start to imagine what a big deal it was to actually try cheese for the first time. I overcame this phobia thanks to my wife who  talked me into trying what in Malta we call fresh goat’s cheeselet, similar in taste to ricotta which was the only ‘cheese’ I liked.

It took a few weeks to convince myself that I would try this cheese which has a similar texture and taste to ricotta but which was out of bounds because of this fixation.

I still remember the day in Gozo, the second island in Malta, when served with this mild goats’ cheese. The anticipation was tremendous. But as soon as I tasted it for the first time, my reaction was a rather incredulous one. I remember smiling and then wondering ‘what was all the fuss about?’.

The next hurdle to overcome was Mozzarella di Bufala and again the reaction was pretty similar.  As soon as I tried it, I again remember that the reaction was a similar one. Then it was an overdose of pizza with mozzarella to compensate for what I had missed in the past.

The conversion to Parmigiano Reggiano was more painful. I recall going to Fulvio Pierangelini’s Gambero Rosso, at the time considered as the best Italian chef who had an exceptional restaurant in a small Tuscan town near Bolgheri called San Vincenzo. I promised myself that I would try whatever was served to me in this restaurant.

The tasting menu looked safe given it was mainly fish-based but I opted to add suckling pig as an additional dish on top of the tasting menu. All was fine until the kitchen sent an amuse bouche which was a small ‘cannolo’ stuffed with mince of suckling pig. It was sprinkled with Parmigiano Reggiano. I started sweating, my face turned red and I panicked. The table next to us realised something was wrong because they were looking at us constantly. There was clearly no turning back. Leaving the dish there would have led to lots of questions and probably a visit from the chef to our table to ask whether there was a problem.

And then, I plucked up the courage and tried it for the first time. Those were probably the longest moments of my life. But again my reaction was one of wonder. What was all the fuss about? Not only was the taste mild, it actually boosted the flavour of the dish.

So for the time being, only blue cheese is off limits though I must say that this is again more psychological than rational. Actually, I have tried Roquefort once and again found it rather mild except for the smell which takes some getting used to.

Proof, if any was needed, that I overcame the phobia, came a few weeks ago at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana. There served with his signature dish, the five ages of Parmesan, I actually thought that it was one of the best dishes I have ever tastes. Such are the wonders of life.

The moral of the story is to fight your fears and try to beat the irrational.

Here are my tips

1. Talk yourself into fighting your fear.

2. Believe that you can beat your fear.

3. Read about what you are afraid of. In my case it was reading about food and wine including articles about different cheeses, pairing with wines etc. If you are  afraid of flying, read travel books, think about places you would like to visit or about planes. You get the gist.

4. Start gradually and increase the dose step by step.

5. Speak about your conquest. Be enthusiastic and tell anyone who wants to listen.

6. Ideally find someone with whom you can share your steps.

7. Good luck – you can beat your fear.

Discovering Ligurian wines

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Vineyards in a spectaular location. Overlooking one of the villages of the Cinque Terre, Vernazza

There is nothing more pleasant for a wine ‘amateur’ then to close ones eyes and judge a wine on its own merits without looking at what wine critics have to say about the wine or the price. Nothing beats a surprise. This can come in the form of a supposedly inferior wine surpassing ones expectations even when compared against a more expensive or prestigious wine. Or else it can come from discovering a new grape variety or a region which you have not heard much about.

In today’s globalised world where wines from pretty much everywhere can be bought locally, it is becoming harder to discover new wines when you travel to specific regions. Wine is not just about sharing a moment, it is also about breaking misconceptions or prejudices. Nothing is more true than for Ligurian wines.

Look into any wine magazine or book, including renowned wine encyclopaedias and you will barely get a mention of Ligurian wines. It is as if this region in Italy has been completely overlooked. Surprising, given that it borders Piemonte and Tuscany, the two giants of Italian wine.

My first taste of Ligurian wine was a Pigato from the west side of Liguria which we tried at Balin Cuisine in Sestri Levante. It was a great match to a fish based meal but what made us sit in awe was a wine which the owner of the restaurant opened at another table. True to his nature, seeing we were interested, he came and poured us a glass. It was an aged Vermentino Etichetta Nera (Black Label) from Cantine Lunae which had incredible complexity. He told us that he was also surprised at how well this white wine could age.

From there, the next morning I immediately headed to the main wine shop in Sestri Levante to discover more wines of the region.

There I was told the secret as to why Ligurian wines do not travel the world. Ligurians and tourists who head to the region consume most of it. Sometimes, stocks are already exhausted before the summer approaches.

Then there are the tourists who visit the region by car and take these wonders home to remind themselves of the beauty and splendour of the region.

What makes the white wines special, at least the ones which I have tried, is the fact that the Vermentino grape is very difficult to grow. But here, and in particular in the area close to La Spezia (where the Cantine Lunae come from) and the Cinque Terre, the location of the vineyards perched on the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean sea are protected. Moreover, there is a pronounced minerality to the wine (nearly a salty sensation) making this a perfect wine to sip either before dinner as an aperitif or else in combination with fish and shellfish.

Then, what can I say about the Sciacchetra, the sweet white passito wine from the spectacular Cinque Terre tasted for the first time in a bar overlooking the beautiful town of Rio Maggiore and the cliffs which make the Cinque Terre so special. Bosco, Albarola and Vermentino grapes are used to make these wines, the same grapes used to make also the excellent dry counterparts.

Five wines to try when you are in Liguria

1. Cantine Lunae Colli di Luna – Vermentino Etichetta Nera – The Colli di Luna area borders Tuscany.

2. Costa de SeraLitan – a fabulous white wine grown on the hills of Rio Maggiore look at their website to see the location of this incredible vineyard. Made in small quantities if you find it, don’t hesitate to try it.

3. Cantine Lunae Colli di Luna – Auxo, a very interesting blend of Sangiovese, Ciliegiolo and Canaiolo. Incredible price/quality ratio.

4. Clan du Corsu – Sassarini. If you cannot find the Costa de Sera, this is a great wine to discover what wines from the Cinque Terre area are all about.

5. Az. Agricola Pino Gino Missanto – a blend of Bianchetta Genovese and Vermentino grown in the vineyards on the hills above Sestri Levante in Castiglione Chiavarese.

 

City guides (1) – Modena – a delightful city for the gourmet traveller

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One of the narrow streets of Modena

Eyebrows were raised when I told some Italian friends that we were travelling to Modena for a weekend trip. Although Modena is renowned in Italy for its liquid gold or Aceto Balsamico, Parmigiano Reggiano, salumi such as the culatello and freshly made pasta many would probably skip a visit to this buzzing city unless they are either Ferrari fans or else heading for a gastronomic experience at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana (see review here) or his new casual brasserie Franceschetta58.

Why, did they ask, are you heading to Modena, when you can visit other places like Bologna, Ferrara, Parma or Verona for example.

Modena is a very welcoming city with a buzzing historical centre which turns to life in the evening as the streets are jam-packed with people or flocking the many bars and cafes that are dispersed around. On a warm evening, crowds spilled onto the streets drinking cooling drinks such as a glass of the regional Lambrusco, which tastes so much better on location. Here you will also find what is becoming a new trend in Italy, a choice of many Italian artisan beers.

On arrival we headed to Caffe Concerto (Piazza Grande), which is perfectly located in the Piazza Grande overlooking the splendid Romanesque cathedral of Modena. On a beautiful day, the terrace is filled with people sipping espressos in the morning or having an aperitivo in the evening. The Caffe also has a great interior which must look particularly welcoming in weekends. The restaurant menu is extremely interesting with focus on quality ingredients and the staff were very flexible given we ordered food for the children despite the fact that the restaurant was closed for a private function. This Caffe is a great place for people watching and is also where most seemed to hang-out before heading to the more trendy area around Piazza della Pomposa with its thriving bars and cafés.

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One of the stalls at Mercato Albinelli

Modena also houses a splendid food market, Mercato Albinelli, (Via Luigi Albinelli). When we visited the market, it was packed with locals making their daily shopping. The fare on offer was impressive, from different aged Parmigiano Reggiano to culatello, freshly made pasta to vegetables, fishmongers and meat shops as well as wine merchants selling top quality Italian wines from neighbouring regions. The shopkeepers are geared for tourists. Many things can be vacuum packed so if you are heading there make sure to leave space in your suitcase.

Like other Italian cities, Modena is also a great place for ice-cream. We came across Bloom Gelato (Via Farini), a splendid ice-cream parlour run by a passionate young ice-cream maker who is obsessed with quality ingredients. His ice-creams were sublime and he tasted some original flavours such as ricotta with an orange marmalade from Sicily for example.

If you want a great pizzeria, you should look no further than Pizza Erasmo. The place is full of locals and apart from the traditional pizzas also serves some special ones including the one I tried with straciatella di burrata and prosciutto crudo di Parma aged for 24 months as well as fior di latte.

A trip to Modena is not complete without a visit to Maranello, just a few kilometres away from Modena which is the home to the Ferrari factory as well as the Ferrari museum with a permanent display of over 50 cars.

The centre of Modena is full of boutiques.

A day trip to Bologna or Parma is only 45 minutes away by car.

We stayed at the Hotel Cervetta 5 (Via Cervetta). This is a nice 22-room hotel with an unbeatable location just next to the main square and cathedral and the Mercato Albinelli. Rooms looked better online but still pleasant and the hotel includes free Wi-Fi and a daily continental breakfast.