Many people think of giving everything up to follow their dream. Very few, however, end up taking the plunge. This is the story of Ray Walker who had a secure career in finance until he took a wine-tasting vacation which ignited a passion for wine that he couldn’t stifle.
Now the interesting part of the story is that unlike most wine lovers who develop their passion over many years, Ray Walker could not be bothered about wine and actually could not really see the point or stand snobbish behaviour related to wine. But once the wine bug hit during a tasting of Burgundy wines, he could not get away from it and pursued his dream taking huge risks and sacrificing family life.
Not speaking French, he took the plunge by watching TV or reading old books trying to learn the techniques of wine making and the language and daydreaming about what it would be like to create his own wine.
He quits his job and gets his hands dirty with some winemakers in California before heading to France to start a winery with little money, a poor command of French, very little winemaking experience and no guarantee that he could procure grapes to produce his own wine.
I would recommend this book not only to wine lovers wanting to read about the life in one of the most talked about wine regions of the world but also to those who want to read about a story of someone who, despite the heavy odds stacked against him, follows his dream to pursue what he really wants in life.
In the process, Ray, becomes the first non-French winemaker to purchase grapes and produce a wine from Le Chambertin which is considered by many to be the king of grand-crus in Burgundy and which challenges Romanee-Conti and Montrachet Grand crus. A few days before the first harvest, he was not yet sure whether he would procure any grapes. At first he set his mind to create a generic ‘village wine’. But by a stroke of luck, he manages to get not only get generic grapes but also the coveted Le Chambertin, a grand cru.
At times ridiculed for using ancient techniques which no longer were in vogue, this is also a story about an amateur whose passion and inexperience leads to a creation which may be considered as special. I will not write more about the story not to ruin the fun other than to say that I will visit Ray when I am next in Burgundy. And I look forward to tasting his wines called Maison Ilan.
Below you will find a short video about how he pursued his dream.
Valletta, Malta’s capital city is known by locals as il-Belt (the City in English). Walking around over the past few days with the eyes of part-insider part-tourist, I noticed that Valletta, which is undergoing heavy restoration, has never looked better.
There are a few things which I do on every visit to the island of Malta. A visit to Valletta is one of them no matter how short the visit is. Whether its to get a perfect espresso, to meet up friends or bump into people that you have not met in a while, Valletta is the perfect melting pot.
It is a city built by gentlemen for gentlemen and for many years, especially after World War II, it stood in neglect abandoned by a nation which is once again discovering its glory at all times of day.
Unlike other capital cities around the world, Valletta is a small peninsula with a population of just under 7,000 though more and more people are returning to live in what is considered as a World Heritage City.
While Valletta has always been busy during the day both with tourists and locals alike who go there for various administrative reasons, the city would fall silent after sunset as offices, museums and shops closed. But the city has been transformed over recent years and is becoming a hub of activity in the evening away from the hustle and bustle of other busier areas on the island such as Sliema/St Julians and Bugibba.
It is difficult to pinpoint the main highlights in Valletta since this is a living monument. This magnificent fortress city is named after its founder, the Grand Master of the Order of St John Jean Parisot de la Valette. It started to be built in 1566 and was completed in just 15 years with its impressive bastions, forts and cathedral.
The following are what I consider to be the 10 must sees of any visit to Valletta:
1. Renzo Piano’s city gate and the Maltese parliament: Enter Valletta from a bridge designed by world renowned architect Renzo Piano and you will be left in awe as you enter Malta’s capital city. To your right you will see the new Parliament, and further on, the site of the old opera house which was left in ruins after the second World War and which has now been turned into an open air theatre. This project, nearing completion now, has been the subject of huge political controversies over the past years. The reasons for this are varied including the fact that the Parliament was built on one of Valletta’s few squares (though it was used as a car park) and the former site of the opera house was turned into an open air theatre angering some locals who would have preferred the opera house to be rebuilt in its original state. Whether you agree with the project or its architecture, the site is now taking shape and the entrance to Valletta is incredibly stunning also in view of the heavy restoration taking place on the surrounding bastions.
2. Walk from City Gate to St George’s Square in Republic Street: A relatively short walk will take you from the City Gate to what was once called Palace Square or the President’s Palace and the Maltese Parliament. You will walk past the national archaeology museum, the side of St John’s Cathedral, the national courts, Piazza Regina where you can see the National Library which leads on to St George’s Square where you can view the Palace. You can stop for a coffee at Cafe Cordina just before you reach St George’s Square. Enter the Palace and visit its museum.
3. Visit St John’s Cathedral: No visit to Valletta is complete without a visit to St John’s Cathedral and its museum. The cathedral is a gem of Baroque art and architecture. It was built as a church for the Knights of St John. The Grand Masters and several knights donated gifts of high artistic value. The cathedral’s interior is full of works of a great Baroque artist Mattia Preti who lived in Malta from 1659 till his death in 1699. You will also find two works of Caravaggio in the museum, the beheading of Saint John the Baptist and Saint Jerome writing.
4. Walk to the Upper Barraka Gardens. On the way, view the sites of the Central Bank of Malta, the exterior of the Auberge de Castille (the Prime Minister’s Office) and the stock exchange. Turn right just after the site of the old opera house and walk up towards the Prime Minister Office (Auberge de Castille). To your right, there is the Central Bank of Malta. As you walk past the Auberge de Castille you will see the old Garrison chapel which houses the Malta Stock Exchange since 1999. From there you will walk to the Upper Barrakka Gardens (il-Barrakka ta’ Fuq) which is a public garden in Valletta with stunning views of Grand Harbour and the three cities. it is twinned to the Lower Barrakka Gardens. From here you can also head down with a new lift to the lower parts of Valletta.
5. Get lost walking in Valletta and view the main attractions at leisure: It is not easy to get lost in Valletta because the city is build like a grid and hence all roads will take you to the central street or Republic street. Nevertheless, you will get lost in time and history walking the streets of Valletta and admiring the architectural beauty and the way of living. There are many streets worth visiting including Strait Street which used to buzz with activity during World War II but has since lost its shine. Walk in Merchant’s Street with its many palazzos now serving as government buildings and head to St Paul’s Street and St Ursula Street or visit the lower parts of Valletta.
6. Visit the Manoel Theatre: Teatru Manuel, as it is known, is a historical monument and a temple to the performing arts. It was built in 1731 by order of the Grandmaster Anton Manoel de Vilhena and it remains one of the finest examples of theatre architecture in Europe. In 2014, it was voted as of the most beautiful theatres by CNN. You can take a tour of the theatre, or attend one of the many cultural events taking place there.
7. Go to the lower end (eastern side) of Valletta: Visit the Lower Barrakka Gardens and then head towards Fort St. Elmo. You will pass in front of the Mediterranean Conference Centre. This building, built in the 16th centre is one of Valletta’s landmarks. It used to be a hospital and was previously known as the Sacra Infermeria. Today it is a convention centre. Head to Fort St Elmo.
8. Visit one of the many churches of Valletta: Discover one of the many churches of Valletta. Despite its small size, (Valletta measures 900 metres by 630 metres in total) it has over 25 churches. This is a reflection of the importance of the Catholic Church in Malta over the years. Many of these churches are open during the day. If you have to pick just one (apart from St John’s Cathedral), I would make it the church of St Paul on St Paul’s Street.
9. Find St Barbara Bastions and admire the splendid views of Malta’s grand harbour with its incredibly rich history and stunning houses. If you are there during the day, you can head to Sicilia Bar for a small snack or lunch with a stunning view. If you are there in the evening, you can sit down on the stairs closeby and have a drink at the Bridge Bar.
10. Walk the perimeter of Valletta: On a cool evening or early morning, walk the perimeter of Valletta for stunning views of Marsamxett, Grand Harbour and the Valletta bastions and fortifications. This will take some time but is worth the effort.
While compiling this list, I realise how difficult it is to come up with a list of just 10 things to see in Valletta. This list stops short of many of the sites which are worth visiting. Some will point out that I have missed many important highlights such as Fort St Elmo, the war museum, the Mediterranean conference centre, St James Cavalier or the national archaeological museum, among others. But I hope that this list whets your appetite and encourages you to visit Malta’s capital which is set to be the European Capital of Culture in 2018.
Watch out for my list of 10 places to eat and drink in Valletta coming shortly.
Malta and Michelin stars do not go together. One of the major problems in my view is not the quality of the produce which one can find on the island or the creativity of chefs but rather the fact that the small island in the Mediterranean is still too small to have a critical mass that can sustain a fine dining experience.
Therefore there was a great sense of anticipation when I read that Eneko Atxa and a British entrepreneur were opening a 100 day pop-up restaurant Aziamendi which the Spanish Basque chef had opened in December 2013 at Iniala in Thailand.
The location that has been chosen for this pop-up restaurant is exceptional. Located in a beautiful palazzo in Archbishop Street in Valletta (the Civil Service Sports Club) it overlooks the Grandmaster’s Palace and the beautiful St George’s Square.
Given we were in Malta on holiday, I was anxious to try it out particularly since Eneko Atxa, born in 1977 is Spain’s youngest ever 3 Michelin star chef in a restaurant scene which over the past 10 or so years has been at the heart of culinary innovation. The chef is considered as pioneering using cutting-edge gastronomic techniques as a feature in his kitchen.
What follows is my view of the gastronomic dinner we had which was served with a pairing of Maltese and Sicilian wines. They say comparisons are odious but with the memory of our last fine dining experience at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana in Modena, some of these views may be considered a bit harsh.
The setting is great and quite a few tables have a view of the Grand Master’s palace with its beautifully lit balconies at eye level which therefore makes for a unique experience.
All the dishes served were flawless in terms of presentation.
The amuse bouche was a ham and cheese airbag which was excellent and a delicious passion fruit bonbon which exploded in your mouth served to clean the palate.
In my view the first dish of the gastronomic menu was one of the stars of the evening. It was a recreation of a Maltese garden with edible soil made of a tomato emulsion which was then covered with beetroot and squid ink to turn it black. On top was a courgette, a tiny carrot, rocket, cauliflower, broccoli and roast tomatoes on the side. All in all this was a dish with bags of flavour, pleasing to the eye and exceptional in its depth of flavour. Not a great fan of beetroot, this was clearly the best beetroot dish I have ever tasted. The dish paired excellently with the Donna Fugata Lighea made from the Sicilian Zibibbo grapes.
The next course was Fois Gras ashes. This dish was beautifully presented, excellent in taste and flavour and also creative because the Fois was smoked and then turned into ashes and served on top of a terrine of foie gras and bread. Now this is one of Azurmendi’s signature dishes in his 3 Michelin star restaurant just outside Bilbao in Spain. But the dish had a problem in that it is extremely difficult to eat without messing one’s hands, which is not something you would expect in such a restaurant. In my view, the dish would have worked much better if served as a one-bite portion.
When we asked for cutlery, they told us that it was meant to be eaten by hand given there had been some accidents in the past. It was in a way a reminder of the ‘hobz biz-zejt’ (bread with tomatoes and olive oil which the Maltese love to eat but which can at times be messy). Clearly not a dish to be served on a first date given it might have created some rather embarrassing moments. The dish was served with a Maltese sweet Moscato wine from Meridiana, the Baltis 2012 which again matched perfectly.
The third dish was tuna two ways. One part of the tuna was served raw, marinated with a soy sauce and a ‘pillow’ with a delicious chive mayonnaise. The second part of the tuna was served seared with a red pepper sauce and garlic crisps. The raw tuna was exceptional, the cooked tuna very slightly overcooked to my liking (but I like my tuna rare). This was served with a wine from Gozo, the Marsovin Antonin 2013.
The fourth dish was rockfish with a traditional Basque “Salsa Verde”. It was served with white asparagus and a clam. The combination worked perfectly with a Spanish wine (but shouldn’t we have been given a Sicilian or Maltese wine with this dish?). The Salsa Verde married heavenly with the rockfish which however was slightly chewy. This was served with Gorka Izagirre G22 from Spain.
The fifth dish was a beautifully presented dish of local pork and grilled vegetables. The pork belly was prepared sous vide and then pan fried and topped with pork crackling. It was accompanied by a delicious roast sweet potato and a sweet potato puree. I found the pork belly to be very tasty but a bit on the dry side and not tender enough. The dish was served with a Nero d’Avola 2011from Feudo di Butera.
The last dish was strawberries and roses. The dish had a certain amount of theatre with the use of chemicals to create a smoke of rose perfume (it came out from a vase with fake roses) but disappointingly, the dessert fell flat in terms of taste and flavour. Fresh strawberries and a strawberry sorbet were placed on top of a rosewater marshmallow. This was served with a Moscato d’Asti from Castello del Poggio.
I asked what wines were going to be served before I opted for the Maltese/Sicilian wine pairing and was told that the last wine (the dessert wine Moscato d’Asti) was not Sicilian. This was a fair choice though Sicily is not short of sweet wines such as the Passito di Pantelleria to mention but one example. It was also surprising to note that one of the wines served during the service was a Spanish wine, albeit a very good wine, the Gorka Izagirre G22, from Azurmendi.
Verdict: If you are in Malta and looking for a unique experience, then you should visit. One tip for the remaining days that Aziamendi is open is to ask for a table on the balcony that overlooks St George’s square. The pop-up restaurant cannot be flawed, the service is very good but in my view lacks the wow factor which one would expect from Eneko Atxa whose restaurant in Spain is considered as no 26 in the World’s 50 Best restaurants.
Malta, or should I say Gozo, has its first artisanal brewery with the opening in June of Lord Chambray at the Gozitana Agricultural Village in Xewkija.
While on a visit to Gozo, I went to meet Samuele d’Imperio, the managing director of Lord Chambray to discover why they set their eyes on making Malta’s first craft beer.
He told me the family had been visiting Gozo every summer for the past 25 years and it was always their dream to eventually buy a property with a view on Malta’s sister island. They finally bought a property in Fort Chambray around five years ago.
It has always been his parents’ dream to retire on the island of Gozo. His father, an accountant, is around five years away from retirement.
Samuele, also an accountant, fell in love with craft beers during a year working with Deloitte in Sydney. “We love Gozo and we wanted to do something for Malta and Gozo. But this is both my family’s and my first experience making beer.”
They are however in good hands. Samuele told me that after they dreamt about the idea, they contacted Andrea Bertola, an exceptional master Italian brewer who is helping the D’Imperio’s in this venture.
For those who do not know about Andrea Bertola, he is one of the first Italians to venture into craft beers and has had a large number of successes since his first venture in 2003.
We met him the first time last year and after discussing our project with him he immediately called back the next day saying he was joining our project.
Lord Chambray set up the company in September last year. They started work on the state-of-the-art brewery in January and started production in June of this year.
I ask what the ultimate aim of their venture is and whether they want to export their beer. “We have just started production in June, so far we have sold our beers in Gozo (an island of around 25,000 inhabitants though with a lot of tourists – both Maltese and foreign especially in the summer months) and we will shortly be selling the beers in Malta. We will take it from there,” he says.
However, he emphasised that his aim is to produce a biodynamic beer in Malta which would be a first for the country. He is also trying to see whether it would be possible to grow barley locally.
Lord Chambray’s concept is to get people to ‘drink different’. Our beer is unpasteurised unlike commercial beer that is pasteurised. We use the champagne method of brewing with maturation taking place in the tanks, following which sugar and yeast are added and a second fermentation takes place in the bottles in a temperature controlled environment. He has words of praise for Malta’s main beer Cisk and says this is a good commercial beer.
All the raw materials used by this craft brewery are guaranteed to have no GMOs and come from Belgium and the United States. “We get hops and barley from Belgium, hops from the United States as well as yeast from Belgium and Italy.”
Samuele says that they also want to give something back to the local community. The must which remains from the brewing process is given to local farms as pig feed or for fertiliser.
Samuele explained the brewing process to me. Water is an essential part of beer so they have top end technology being deployed to revitalise the water, which then goes through a sophisticated reverse osmosis plant.
Once the water is treated, the brewing process starts in kettles and vats. The beer is then moved manually to storage tanks were it is allowed to ferment for around 8 to 12 days. Yeast and sugar are added for maturation and the beer is allowed to rest again for another 18 days. Once it is bottled, the beer gets a second fermentation in the bottles. It rests for a further seven days before it is ready to leave the brewery.
Visitors in Malta and Gozo have a new beer to look forward to. In Gozo, you can also visit the brewery from Monday to Saturday.
For more information on the three beers made by Lord Chambray check my blogpost here.
Craft or artisanal beer has taken the beer scene by storm worldwide. Craft breweries are opening and beer lovers are slowly starting to move from the commercial beers to microbreweries.
Even in countries where beer does not have such a tradition, the rise of artisan beers has been astonishing. The concept of an artisanal beer is different and once you get accustomed to the taste it is not easy to return to a commercially brewed beer.
Living in Belgium means that I get to taste many great craft beers all with different flavours and styles. But it is also exciting to discover that this new trend has reached the country where I was born and lived for most of my life.
Malta is therefore following in this trend thanks to an Italian family, with a love for Gozo, who have invested money to launch the country’s first artisanal beers.
When I read about Lord Chambray a few weeks ago I knew that this was a very important development for Malta and Gozo particularly since Malta already has a tradition of brews, albeit commercial ones.
Over the past few years. the food and drink scene in Malta has developed beyond recognition. New wineries have emerged, olive oil producers are rekindling years long traditions that had since been lost and other innovative entrepreneurs have started a number of interesting enterprises.
Samuele d’Imperio, the managing director of Lord Chambray told me that his family from Novara have been visiting Gozo every year for the past 25 years. It had always been their dream to purchase a property on Malta’s sister island. It was something which they finally managed to do five years ago when they acquired a property at Fort Chambray. From then, it was following their dream of doing something different and of leaving an impact on a small island which they have come to love.
I came across their beer at a shop (Vini e Capricci) just next door to their brewery on the outskirts of Victoria Gozo in Xewkija in the Gozitano Agricultural Village. Vini e Capricci is another place well worth a visit when you are in Gozo, but that’s for another time.
I then discovered that the brewery was just around the corner so I visited Samuele d’Imperio to hear his story of how they set up the first artisanal beer in Malta. You can read about his story here.
The three beers have names of some of Malta’s most idyllic and popular beaches.
Blue Lagoon: This is a Blanche beer. It is an incredibly refreshing beer with hints of coriander and orange. Alcohol content for this beer is 4.6%. The beer is aptly named Blue Lagoon because this bay, in Malta’s third island of its archipelago Comino, has crystal clear waters and an incredible light blue colour.
Golden Bay: This is an American style craft beer. It is intensely golden with an alcohol content of 5%. It has a sweet taste and is brewed with hops imported from the United States with give some hints of citrus and caramel on the nose. Golden Bay is one of the most popular beaches in the North West part of Malta and is named like this because of its golden coloured natural sand.
San Blas: San Blas is a darker beer with an alcohol content of around 5.5%. It is brewed with a blend of hops to obtain a more aromatic flavour. Personally this was my favourite of the three beers given the complexity of its flavour. San Blas is a beautiful tiny bay on the island of Gozo which is located below the village of Nadur.
Visiting a fishing port has a certain allure to it. Gozo’s fishing port of Mgarr is a small but picturesque harbour which is busy particularly in the summer months with the constant shuttling of visitors from the island of Malta for the period in mid-August around the feast of Santa Maria.
Mgarr harbour with its small passenger terminal is no longer just a fisherman’s harbour particularly since tourism on the island is an essential part of the island’s economy.
Nevertheless over the past years, it has become the venue of a number of interesting restaurants and bars just alongside the fishing boats many of which were out at sea.
One of the best restaurants on the island can be found here. It-Tmun rose to popularity in Xlendi, a sea-side resort on the other side of the island before it moved to Mgarr a few years ago. Tmun in Mgarr has gone from strength to strength.
Now this is a family which is renowned in the Maltese restaurant schene. Leli, the owner of the restaurant has been in this business since his return from Canada more than 20 years ago. His wife still does the early morning shopping and preparations in the kitchen while his son Paul works the magic in the kitchen making fantastic combinations, particularly with seafood though I have been told his 24 hour slow cooked pork belly is something rather special.
His other son, Patrick runs what used to be called It-Tmun Victoria but which has now changed name to Patrick’s. That is also another place worth visiting (in the Gozo capital of Victoria) though more formal with a particular attention given to the wine list which is one of the best in Malta and Gozo.
Nevertheless, I have missed going to Tmun in Mgarr for too many times on my visits to Malta and Gozo and it seemed as if this would again be the case particularly given the first night we tried to book, it was fully-booked from the morning.
But the second time we tried, we struck it lucky. And what a great evening that turned out to be.
We ordered a Hugel Riesling 2008 to start with and the kitchen first sent out a slow cooked cuttle-fish served on a small spoon. This was followed by another amuse-buche, a fresh tomato sauce which was full of intense flavour, given its the season when tomatoes are at their best.
This was followed by a mixed platter of fish which included raw carpaccio of tuna topped with white peaches, raw prawns, deep fried white bait, arancini of fish, octopus, a fresh fish soup known in Maltese as aljotta as well as a fish patty (pulpetta). All of these were divine.
For main courses, I opted for a rare tuna steak served on a pea puree while my friends chose a dott abjad (large local monkfish) served with a beurre blanc and mussels on a bed of cabbage. The tuna was cooked to perfection and worked incredibly well with the sweet pea puree that was served at the bottom.
The fish in the beurre blanc sauce, although not necessarily a Maltese way of preparing it was also exceptional with the right amount of acidity coming from the white wine added to the sauce.
The accompanying vegetables were simply prepared but cooked to perfection.
The main courses were accompanied by a Chateau Grand Mayne 2006.
The choice of dessert all looked splendid though by this time we had ate more than we could muster. However, we were tempted by Leli to try the ice-creams, all prepared in house. All flavours looked interesting. I opted for the white chocolate and salted carmel and the zabajone with Marsala. But were perfect.
Malta and Gozo have many good restaurants although it is also dotted with many tourist traps which are to be avoided like the summer midday sun. But what you should be looking for is consistency and the love for good ingredients which make all the difference particularly when simplicity and freshness are required. In this case, It-Tmun ticks all the boxes.
Verdict: Unmissable whether you are visiting Gozo just to eat at this place or staying for a few days on the island. The crossing to Gozo is 20 minutes by ferry so you can even go there just for lunch or dinner without needing a car (you just walk five minutes from the ferry terminal). The fish platter seems to have become his speciality as a starter but there were other many interesting options to choose from both for starters, main course and dessert which is always a great sign. Apologies for the quality of the photos of the food but that is one of the pleasures of dining al fresco. Unfortunately lighting was not good.
Tmun in Mgarr can be found at Martinu Garces Street in Mgarr. Gozo. It is open every day for lunch and dinner except on Tuesday’s.