Blue Sardinia – the authentic taste of this unique island

I love my new career.

Don’t get me wrong….nothing can ever replace the raw excitement of commuting to London every day, compiling a set of statutory accounts, or reducing aged debtors by a couple of days. But travel writing, and all the eating, drinking and exploring new frontiers that naturally follow, come a pretty close second to all that bean-counting and high finance.

Image courtesy of Pexels

Throw books into the new mix and that might just clinch the deal….

Thanks to my relationships with the lovely people at TripFiction and Silver Travel Advisor I went to bellissimo Sardinia in the summer. My first brief was to ‘stalk’ author Rosanna Ley, following in the footsteps of her own research and the characters in her novel, The Little Theatre by the Sea.

Here are some of the pieces I wrote for TripFiction:

I also wrote articles for Silver Travel Advisor, on both the area and – as Literary Editor of the Silver Travel Book Club – on Rosanna’s book:

The third prong in my Sardinian fork was – with my friend and colleague Mark Melling and our Great Escapations venture – to create captivating content and short films for Sardatur Holidays, a Silver Travel Advisor partner who kindly sponsored our time in Sardinia.

Gianni Bonuglia, Sardatur’s Managing Director, must have liked what we created because he has kindly asked us to make a new short film for an event he us hosting in London for travel agents and journalists.

But what theme should we focus on, when Sardinia has so many jewels in its glorious crown?

Food would certainly be one. Step forward Blue Sardinia restaurant, located close to us in Guildford and passionate about creating authentic Sardinian food for the good people of Surrey.

A couple of phone calls introduced Great Escapations and what we were looking to create for Sardatur, and Cinzia – one of Blue Sardinia’s founders and a brilliant chef – graciously and generously offered to let us film in the restaurant, as she cooked some pukka Sardinian dishes.

And I mean authentic…..

  • first up, Sardinian gnochetti (traditional Malloreddus pasta) Campidanese with sausage ragout.  Cinzia heats the pan, adds oil and garlic with that chef-like insouciance, in goes the fennel seeds and sausage, together with salt, torn basil leaves, red wine, fresh tomato sauce and a little bit of stock. Fresh pasta cooks for just 2 or 3 minutes, is drained and combined with the sauce, topped with freshly grated pecorino cheese – before being filmed by a creative cameraman and eaten by a greedy writer. Buonissimo, Cinzia!

  • next up, black tagliolini with clams & bottarga fish roe. The freshly made pasta dough – the Sardo way, with flour and semolina – is made jet black by adding squid ink, and a little water. For the sauce, Cinzia marries clams, wine, chopped parsley, more wine, chopped cherry tomatoes and some salt. The fresh pasta is again cooked for just a couple of minutes, before being crowned with the clam sauce and some delicately chopped bottarga fish roe, Sardinia’s caviar. Wow!

Jonathan, sommelier at Blue Sardinia and one of Cinzia’s 6 brothers, poured outstanding Sardinian wines to accompany these dishes – a classic red Cannonau  Sardiglia with the sausage ragout, and a delicious Vermentino di Gallura white with the clams & bottarga

See, I told you it was a tough gig.

Grazie mille, Cinzia, Jonathan and the whole team at Blue Sardinia. Looking forward to eating more of your superb Sardinian cooking, and I’ll send you a link to the final film for the Sardatur Holidays event very soon.

And Cinzia even taught me a useful Italian idiom:

anche l’occhio vuole la sua parte – literally ‘even the eyes want their share’ but really you eat with your eyesQuant’è vero!

We’ll be in touch. Pronto.

Jersey reflections

I’ve only been to Jersey once before. That was more than 50 years ago, when Dad was close to accepting a job  on this charming Channel Island. Our lives could all have been so different….

This was definitely Gill’s first visit to Jersey, so close to Gatwick airport that we had barely buckled up our seat belts before we were on our way down again.

We were here for a 4-night Secret Escapes break, at a bargain price but packed full with luxury. Here are just a few reflections of a fun and interesting few days.

Coastlines:

Wide sandy beaches seem to encircle the island, with the exception of the more rugged north coast. A nice contrast, although one of the greatest tidal ranges in the world can catch you out, wherever you are on the island. We’re talking close to 40 feet….be warned!

Food:

This turned out to be a real foodie trip. We were staying at Longueville Manor, Jersey’s premier hotel and also top-rated restaurant, thanks largely to long-serving and renowned chef Andrew Baird.

The Secret Escapes deal included two dinners at the hotel, one table d’hôte, the other à la carte. Both were outstanding, as were the gargantuan but well-balanced breakfasts on all four mornings. Stand-out dishes? Gill’s seafood platter, fresh seafood swimming off the vast plate into her lap. And a beef dish I had, the meat meltingly soft and served with an unctuous sauce that should probably be illegal.

We never made it as far as the cheese course, served on a trolley designed by master carpenter Remi Couriard from 180 year-old French oak, and groaning with dozens of pungent cheeses in various stages of evolution.

Walks:

There’s no better way to explore this compact island than on foot.

On our first full day, we set off from the hotel on a bright November morning, heading south towards the beach of St Clement, just east of St Helier. The extreme tide had well and truly ebbed, peeling back an interesting beachscape of hard-ridged sand, lunar-looking rocks and brightly coloured buoys, fastened by rusting metal rings and waiting patiently for the water to return.

10 miles and several hours later, we had explored the south-east corner of the island, past Le Hocq to Grouville, before heading north to the sheltered harbour of Gorey, watched over by historic and protective Mont Orgueil Castle.

The following day we enjoyed a shorter, and very different, walk. The central north coast is more rugged and quieter than the south, and the coastal path zig-zags high above the sea. We followed it as far as Devil’s Hole – a blow-hole eroded into the rocks and steeped in island myth after the shipwreck of a French boat in 1851 – before heading inland, through quiet villages and farmland, home of Jersey cows and Royal spuds.

Jersey Zoo:

We were reluctant to visit Jersey Zoo, despite encouragement from friends and positive reviews from everyone online. Wild animals aren’t meant to be caged, are they?

But we’re very glad we went, because this is much more a conservation project than a traditional zoo, inspired by the legendary Gerald Durrell more than 50 years ago.

It focuses on endangered species from around the world – go to the Education Centre to enjoy some excellent films about certain species and projects, understand the challenges involved and then see some of these well-fed and much-loved animals in environments that are as natural as possible in the circumstances.

Overall impressions:

  • the island has a gentle – and genteel – feel about it, with an overall sense of affluence and insulation. It exudes an aura of peace, and relative lack of stress
  • someone told us the population of Jersey has increased by 50% – from 70,000 to 105,000 – in the last 20 years or so. Away from St Helier and the more developed south, the island still seemed quiet and empty to us, but hopefully that rate of population growth doesn’t damage Jersey’s intrinsic charm and equilibrium
  • we couldn’t fail to notice the significant proportion of foreign voices in and around St Helier, with a strong presence of Portuguese and Poles working in the hospitality industry. Where does that leave young Jersey natives, when agriculture is under pressure and if they’re not excited by financial services, I wonder….

Thanks, Secret Escapes and Longueville Manor for a very enjoyable – and great value – trip to Jersey. I have a feeling we’ll be back before another 50 years have passed….

Theatre review – The Real Thing

The Real Thing – review for Essential Surrey website.

A revival of Tom Stoppard’s painfully witty play about love and infidelity is being performed at the Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford until Saturday 11 November

Mr. Ingram was my English teacher in the mid-1970s. He instilled in me a love of English language and literature that has endured, and for which I am constantly grateful. He introduced me to Tom Stoppard for old-fashioned ‘O’ & ‘A’ Levels, and – from hazy, distant memory – we studied ‘Jumpers’ and ‘Travesties’, both terribly clever, wordy works from the wunderkind playwright who was just hitting his considerably long stride.

By the time Stoppard wrote ‘The Real Thing’ in 1982, I was distracted by Real Life so it was a joy to see this play for the first time this week, in a revival performance that remains faithful to its period of creation.

Max is brooding and drinking in his minimalist urban lounge, building a house of cards that collapses when his actor wife Charlotte returns from a trip ‘abroad.’ After some wickedly witty wordplay, Max tells Charlotte that he has found her passport in the bedroom. She refuses to respond to Max’s accusations of infidelity, and leaves him.

It is only in the second scene that we come to understand that the first was the performance of a play, written by Henry, a renowned playwright who is himself married to Charlotte. In this real world, where life and art are often hard to distinguish, Henry is in love with Annie – Max’s wife and another actor, but also a nascent political activist – and they’re having an affair.

Fast forward two years: Max discovered Annie’s infidelity, and she and Henry have been married for a while. But cracks are beginning to show….

There are multiple themes in this intellectually challenging play. One is words. Writers and words. In a parallel thread, Annie has asked for Henry’s opinion on a play written by Brodie, a former soldier who has been imprisoned for making a misguided political gesture, and whose cause Annie has taken up.

I don’t think writers are sacred, but words are. They deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you might nudge the world a little or make a poem that children will speak for you when you are dead. Henry’s cricket bat analogy to compare his writing with Brodie’s is a huge hit, smashed over the literary boundary.

But the main theme of the play is love. Can The Real Thing survive betrayal and imbalance, infidelity and uncertainty?

‘I believe in mess, tears, pain, self-abasement, loss of self-respect, nakedness. Not caring doesn’t seem much different from not loving.’

Stoppard’s inspiration for The Real Thing came from being ‘intrigued by the playful thought of writing something in which the first scene turns out to have been written by a character in the second scene.’ Otherwise the play has less theatrical artifice than most of his others, and relies more on raw emotion oozing from the actors, as they bring the playwright’s dazzling wordplay to life.

Laurence Fox plays Henry in this emotionally charged revival, directed by Stephen Unwin. He acts with less outward exuberance than the rest of the excellent cast, but perhaps that is just his interpretation of a man constantly torn between his art, life and love.

Image courtesy of The Telegraph

And in the final twist of the play-within-a-play theme and life imitating art, it’s interesting to reflect that Stoppard had a long affair with Felicity Kendall, after she acted in the first performance of The Real Thing in 1982.

Image courtesy of The Telegraph

But it didn’t endure. Unlike my love of English. I wonder if Mr. Ingram is still alive….

Theatre review – Tango Moderno

Tango Moderno – review for Essential Surrey website.

5 STARS, November 1-4. This is an irresistible explosion of dance, music and song, says Andrew Morris

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The tango has its dance roots in the barrios of Buenos Aires, fused with immigrant influences and rhythms from Andalusia and Africa. It thrived in Argentina in the 1930s and exploded anew into the British consciousness with the huge success in recent years of Strictly Come Dancing.

The authentic Argentine tango exudes passion and physical closeness, ‘the heat of the streets and the pulse of life.’ To the spectator, the dance steps look impossibly intricate but for the dancers, the emotion is perhaps more important than the technique. As Al Pacino says in the famous scene from Scent of a Woman, ‘there are no mistakes in the tango. Unlike life.’

Vincent Simone and Flavia Cacace have become synonymous with the tango revival in this country. Multiple UK, European and World Champion dancers, they have used their Strictly stardom to move into choreographing, and performing in, innovative new shows.

Their first – Midnight Tango – was based in a moody Buenos Aires bar, weaving a story of tangled love through dazzling displays of the authentic version of the dance.

They are now performing their fourth collaboration – Tango Moderno – co-choreographed with, and directed by, Karen Bruce and I was lucky to catch it at Woking’s New Victoria Theatre. Sadly, Vincent was injured and unable to dance, but his place has been taken temporarily by two world-class dancers, Italian Pasquale La Rocca and Argentinian Leonel Di Cocco.

Tango Moderno is heavily influenced by the classic Argentine dance, but the show has been deftly constructed to be so much more.

A dynamic team of youthfully exuberant dancers perform routines influenced by ballet, hip-hop, cha-cha-cha, break-dancing and many other styles. A cleverly consistent theme of searching for love runs through each piece, with whimsical sets energising the stories. In one, would-be lovers swipe a huge mobile phone screen to deliver Tinder-matches and entertainingly danced date nights. In another, the couples introduce garden tools into a dance. Really.

The story of the show is narrated by Tom Parsons, often in comedic rhyming couplets. The epitome of cool, he wanders through the performance like a roaming troubadour, guitar slung across his shoulder and breaking into excellent voice to accompany some of the dances. His delivery of Rag ‘n’ Bone Man’s I’m Only Human will haunt me for a while yet. Rebecca Lisewski shines with voice and is also one of the dance team.

But of course the star of the show is Flavia Cacace. She floats in and out of the danced love stories, and book-ends both halves of the show with sensual performances of the authentic Argentine tango, lithe limbs wrapping around her partner in a blur of ochossacadas and trabadas.

This quality of dance and song is only achieved with the help of equally professional musicians, especially from Oliver Lewis, a virtuoso performer who was recognised as the world record speed-violinist in 2010.

The final tango number, with a sensational marriage of classic Argentinian dance and raking violin, brought the house down, sending the rapturous audience out into the Woking barrio, in search of an empanada and dreaming of a trip to Buenos Aires.

Argentina map, courtesy of Encyclopedia Britannica

 

Theatre review – A Song at Twilight

A Song at Twilight – review for Essential Surrey website.

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(image courtesy of Alexey Kuznetsov)

I love ScripTease performances from the innovative team at Lynchpin Productions.

Classic, rarely performed or completely new plays are delivered as rehearsed readings. This creates a very different actor-audience dynamic, compared with a traditional play delivered on a large stage, accompanied by complex set designs and with multiple costume changes.

A ScripTease performance is stripped down to a few actors sitting on stools, the playwright’s words, some succinct stage directions read by one of the actors…..and the audience’s imagination.

At last night’s reading of Noël Coward’s A Song at Twilight, we may have started off in the intimate bar space at Guildford’s Electric Theatre, but we were immediately transported to the suite of an opulent lakeside hotel in Switzerland.

Sir Hugo Latymer is staying here for a few months, recovering from illness and lamenting the onslaught of old age. He spends his time abusing Hilde, his loyal Germanic wife of 20 years, and barking orders at Felix, the strapping young Italian-Austrian waiter. The literary titan of his generation is irascible, arrogant, rude and has a jaundiced view of humanity.

And he’s nervous about the impending arrival of Carlotta Gray, with whom he had a 2-year love affair more than 40 years ago. What can she possibly want now….revenge for what Sir Hugo wrote about her in his blunt autobiography? Money, after a less than stellar acting career in the United States, where she fled at the end of the affair? Or something less tangible, perhaps?

The stakes – and voices – are raised when Carlotta tells Hugo she is collaborating with a Harvard professor on a biography about him, and asks for permission to use some old love letters written by Hugo to her and to a mutual friend.

Coward’s script and the actors’ nuanced readings lead us through a labyrinth of witty words, bluff and counter-bluff, surprises and shocks, camouflaged lives and missed opportunities, to a surprising denouement.

Alan Freeman and Rowan Suart clearly enjoy their verbal jousting as Hugo and Carlotta, Edie Campbell’s subtle German accent never wavers and belies Hilde’s inner strength, and Ray Murphy switches seamlessly between the roles of subservient Felix and stage director.

‘A Song at Twilight is the first in a trilogy of plays entitled Suite in Three Keys, which Noël Coward called his ‘swan song’. Each takes place in the same suite of a luxurious hotel in Switzerland.’ Jack Lynch of LynchPin Productions is considering whether ScripTease will perform readings of the other two plays. I hope they do.