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The Silver Travel Book Club goes to Sardinia

The story of my trip to Sardinia, for the Silver Travel Book Club, following in the footsteps of an author, her characters and locations in Sardinia.

Silver Travellers may already be aware of the Silver Travel Book Club (“STBC”), set up recently as a result of our new partnership with TripFictionSilver Travel Advisor members can now access TripFiction’s database of location-based fiction and travel-related memoirs, set in thousands of alluring global destinations.

Debbie Marshall, MD and founder of Silver Travel Advisor: “The worlds of travel and books go hand in hand, and we know that our members will enjoy browsing the wide range of novels and memoirs on the TripFiction site, providing ideas and inspiration for their future travels“.

Rosanna Ley, the authorThe first STBC book of the month was The Little Theatre by the Sea, written by Rosanna Ley. Two lucky Silver Travellers received a free copy of the book, and have been reading it along with Andrew Morris, one of our regular writers and Literary Editor of the STBC.

The Little Theatre is firmly rooted in Sardinia, and Rosanna’s vivid prose transports you to the wild, unspoiled west coast of this intriguing island. Newly qualified interior designer Faye visits friends Charlotte and Fabio in charming Deriu, where she is employed – by brother and sister Alessandro and Maria Rinaldi – to draw up plans to restore the crumbling old theatre in the village.

Bosa StreetThis engaging romantic mystery is a classic destination novel. Close your eyes, and the author will have you walking through the narrow cobbled streets of Deriu’s centro storico, where pastel-coloured houses tumble down from the old castle to the Temo river, just a short distance from the sea and the marina. Or eating local speciality spaghetti con bottarga, washed down with a bottle of Cannonau wine.

But our intrepid Literary Editor wanted to get even closer to the author, her characters and locations…so we packed Andrew off to Sardinia to see if he could track down Deriu and solve the mystery of the Little Theatre by the Sea.

Over to Andrew

Before heading out to Sardinia, I contacted the author – Rosanna Ley – and she kindly answered a few questions, giving me an insight into her writing approach and a few clues about hunting down some of the places, characters, food and wine she included in Little Theatre. You can read the detailed Q&A session on the Book Club Forum thread here.

Bosa rooftops from near the castle, looking down to the snaking river TemoMy first port of call had to be Bosa. Rosanna: “I wanted somewhere that didn’t already have a theatre so that I could make it my own! I renamed it Deriu because it is easier then to “make it your own”, and hopefully none of the locals will be offended by anything I write about places & people which they might construe as being taken from real life.”

I wandered along the banks of the river Temo, spotting the converted houses on the river bank, where Faye stays with Charlotte and Fabio, and the ponte vecchio, where Faye gets closer to Alessandro.

But it is the centro storico that engaged Rosanna most, and which enchants Faye too: “the jumble of buildings lay mainly between the far riverbank and the hill beyond; Faye could see what looked like a castle on top of the hill, the other old buildings sheltered beneath. The cluttered houses were painted various shades of pastel, the river snaking from the cradle of the lush mountain valleys in the east through to the sea beyond.”

“That’s the centro storico, the old mediaeval town. It was originally founded by the Phoenicians – because of the fertility of the soil and the river.”

Malaspina CastleI too fell in love with beautiful Bosa/Deriu, home of the mythical Little Theatre. I ambled through the labyrinthine cobbled streets, craning my neck to see washing stretching from one pastel-coloured house to another. I climbed ever upwards towards the Malaspina castle, as Faye does when describing her quandary to her mother, and from where: “a prickly pear was outlined against the summer sky. From here she could see a jumble or orange roofs and flower-laden terraces; vines twisting around wooden pergolas, purple jasmine blossoming in a blue haze.” And I visited the Deriu Museum, from which Rosanna borrowed the name for her fictional town.

Outside Bosa, I went north – via a spectacular coast road – to Alghero, a fortified Catalan city jutting out into the sea. Faye eats “a delicious lunch of aragosta alla catalane, lobster with tomatoes and onions” with her father here. I had spaghetti con bottarga instead, another local speciality eaten by Faye back in Deriu, with Allesandro:Spaghetti con bottarga, local speciality with mullet roe “a type of caviar made from the roe of grey mullet. Faye’s bottarga was good; she loved the deceptive simplicity of Sardinian recipes and produce.” I also saw the restored Teatro Civico in Alghero, part of Rosanna’s inspiration for Faye’s redesign of the crumbling imagined old theatre in Deriu.

I found the marina at Bosa, where Alessandro works at a boatyard, but it was too large and on the wrong side of the estuary. Through the magic of social media, Rosanna pointed me in the right direction, teasing me perhaps in a game of literary cat-and-mouse.

Following Rosanna and Faye was a joy. I would love to have had more time to visit some of the other places seen by Faye, on different trips away from Deriu with Alessandro and with her visiting father, but I hope you’ve enjoyed sharing what literary stalking I did manage to achieve in Sardinia.

Where next, I wonder?

On literary location in Sardinia….

I read The Little Theatre by the Sea recently, written by Rosanna Ley and chosen as the first read for both the TripFiction Book Club and the Silver Travel Advisor Book Club.

Thanks to Silver Travel Advisor, their partner Sardatur Holidays and Is Benas Country Lodge, I shall soon be following in the literary footsteps of Faye, Rosanna’s lead character in the novel, to explore the blurred world of fiction and reality on the unspoiled west coast of Sardinia.

In anticipation, Rosanna kindly answered some questions I posed about the places she had used in the book, the characters, food, wine, culture and history of this intriguing island that had influenced her research…..

Rosanna

Your latest novel, The Little Theatre by the Seawas published by Quercus in March 2017 (hardback) and on 1st June (paperback). 

The intriguing romantic mystery – can I call it that? – takes place mainly in Sardinia. As you know, Little Theatre was chosen as the first read for both the TripFiction Book Club and for the Silver Travel Book Club.

And thanks to Silver Travel Advisor partner Sardatur Holidays and Is Benas Country Lodge, I will be travelling to Sardinia in June to follow in the footsteps of your principal character, Faye.

Thank you so much for taking the time to answer some questions about The Little Theatre by the Sea, Rosanna, and about your writing approach.

I’m delighted. This is so exciting! I can’t wait to hear how you get on – and yes ‘intriguing romantic mystery’ sounds good to me.

Q. Your previous novels have been based in Cuba, Marrakech, Burma, the Canary Islands, Sicily, and now Sardinia. How do you decide where to base your stories, and how important a role does location play in the novels?

A. It’s different for each book. With Return to Mandalay, for example, my husband’s family had a fascinating story and a wealth of sources concerning the country and my late father-in-law’s life there. While the book is in no way a biography, it did inspire me to visit and use much of the material in my story.

For ‘The Saffron Trail’ the original seeds for me were saffron and the ‘hippie trail’ – I formed a story around these and Morocco was the obvious choice of setting. ‘Bay of Secrets’ came from the plot (based on a true story) and Last Dance in Havana I chose because I wanted to write about dance and because the history and politics of Cuba fascinated me. With ‘The Villa’ however I visited Sicily for a holiday and was simply inspired to use it as a setting. When it came to Sardinia for ‘Little Theatre by the Sea’ I wanted to write about transformation and I immediately imagined my crumbling theatre to be in Italy. It seemed the perfect setting for the story.

Location is a big part of a book for me – they have been called ‘destination novels’!

Q. Once you’ve decided on a location for a novel, how do you approach your research on “place”? And do you then write while you’re in the location, or can that creative process take place back at home in Dorset?

A. I read about the place both in fiction and non-fiction – anything I can get hold of really, and research it thoroughly using the Internet and libraries. I may also watch films or documentaries. I go there to get the flavour and travel around with my husband taking photographs and me making notes. I find the places I imagine the characters to live, work and play and the journeys that they might travel in various scenes. I generally write a few scenes while I am away but much of the work will be done when I am back at home using my notes and the photos to remind me.

Q. Your Little Theatre lead character Faye, a newly qualified interior designer, is invited by old friends to restore a crumbling old theatre in the Sardinian village of Deriu. Can you please describe where the inspiration for that fictional village came from?

A. I chose Bosa before I went there, just through research really. I wanted somewhere that didn’t already have a theatre so that I could make it my own! When I got there I realised that Bosa was perfect for the needs of the story. I re-named it Deriu because it is easier then to ‘make it your own’ and hopefully none of the locals will then be offended by anything I write about places and people which they might construe as being taken from real life! The truth is that all the people I wrote about were fictional but a few of the real places crept in, sometimes disguised…

QBosa sounds like a charming, traditional Sardinian town on the north-west coast, in the province of Oristano. What should I do and look out for there, to feel that I really am following in the footsteps of Faye and her creator? And how much do you think history has shaped the town today?

A. History has definitely shaped the town into what it is today. I think you can find the converted houses on the river bank (where Faye stays in Charlotte and Fabio’s house) including the museum. You can cross the bridge where Alessandro and Faye have a few ‘moments’ and admire the colourful houses on the other side. You can visit the Castle by walking up the steps through the olive grove as Faye did when talking to her mother on the phone about relationships and the mistakes we make and see the stunning frescoes in the chapel at the top and also the view of the town Faye reflects on. Casa Deriu is also worth visiting because although it does not feature in the book, I took the name for the town and you will see why when you visit this charming museum. At the marina you can see where Alessandro’s boatyard might have been and walk round the bay as they did. Best of all, just wander the old mediaeval quarter of Bosa to explore the area, the pretty piazzas, the artisan markets, the narrow cobblestone alleys that make up the old town. With a bit of luck you will find a building in a piazza which is actually an old chapel but has a rose window and could very well have been used as the basis for the Little Theatre itself.

Q. Where did the inspiration for the old theatre come from, if not from Bosa

A. Partly the old chapel (see above) but I also used the theatre at Sassari and other old Italian theatres that I found images of online. But basically, it was a madeup building, a fusion of all these parts.

Q. Food and wine play an important role in Little Theatre, as they do in Sarda cultureWhat local cuisine can you and Faye recommend…and what is your favourite wine from that part of Sardinia? 

A. Oh yes, lovely food! Some of my favourites were: burrida (a spicy fish soup), spaghetti con bottarga (with mullet roe) and malloreddus (a gnocchi style pasta cooked with saffron in tomato sauce). I also loved fregola – an unusual pasta similar to cous-cous, often served with clams. The seafood pasta was always good. And as for the lobster… Take me back there – now!

A lovely wine to try is the golden dry Vernacia di Oristano DOC.

Q. Whilst in Sardinia, most of the plot develops in Deriu. But Faye also discovers other parts of this intoxicating island, with theatre owner Alessandro and also with her father. Where should I go beyond beautiful Bosa, to see and feel what Faye experienced? Have you explored many other parts of Sardinia…and how would you say that this western coastal area differs from the rest of the island?

A. We travelled around the island in our motorhome to explore and research and spent three weeks drinking it all in. We didn’t get the whole way round, but focused mainly on the west of the island and the South, rather than the more touristy but stunning Costa Smeralda in the east. I would say that the west is more rugged and dramatic and is much less touristy and developed, which suited my purposes for the story.

We began by driving through the cork forests of the interior to the West coast from Olbia. We started at the National Park of Asinara in the north and basically drove down the coast. Some other high points were: Capo Falcone, the white beaches at Stintino, the ‘ghost’ mining town of Argentiera, Alghero (see below) the stunning coves on the magnificent Costa del Sud from Teulada to Chia which were also inspirations for the beach scenes, Nora (see below) and Cagliari.

In particular, Cala Domestica leads to the secret beach where Alessandro takes Faye. In the novel, this is near Deriu but it is actually a lot further down the west coast from Bosa and near the old mining town of Buggerru.

Nora is the site of the ancient village Faye visits with Ade. It is south of the island near Cagliari and is where she sees the ancient amphitheatre. This is a very interesting historical site.

Alghero is in north west Sardinia and Faye visits with Ade. It is a fascinating Catalan city which is a fusion of Italian and Catalan in food, history and architecture. It is also home to Teatro Civico.

The capital of Cagliari doesn’t feature in the book but is well worth a visit if you get the chance!

Q. There are some other lovely characters living in Deriu in Little Theatre. Are any of them based on real people you met while researching the story? Who should I try to meet while I’m in Bosa?

A. No, sadly none of the characters are based on real people! However, you will see women sitting outside their houses lace-making and men playing dominoes outside or in cafés. Down at the Marina you will also hopefully see fishermen – perhaps even mending their nets as we did!

Q. Do you know yet where your next novel will be based, and when we can expect to read another romantic mystery in an exotic location from you? I may have to follow you and our characters there too….

A. The next novel is entitled ‘Her Mother’s Secret’ and is set in Belle-Ile-en Mer, a small island just off the southern coast of Brittany.

Grazie mille, Rosanna, for giving us some insight into your latest novel The Little Theatre by the Sea and into the location that inspired your characters and plot. Good luck with promoting Little Theatre and see you at the location of your next novel!

An absolute pleasure. Thank you so much, Andrew and I hope you have a wonderful trip to Sardinia.

Winter adventure in Romania

My article on a fascinating Winter Adventure in Romania with ExploreThe Adventure Travel Experts – published on Silver Travel Advisor:

So what do you know about Romania?

That it’s somewhere in Eastern Europe? The home of Dracula? Ruled with an iron fist by the Communist despot Nicolae Ceausescu in the 1970s and 1980s? Gypsies? Orphanages? Nadia Comaneci?

I’m ashamed to say that I knew little of this fascinating – and endlessly surprising – country until experiencing Explore’s Winter Adventure in Romania tour early in March.

This revealing trip provides the perfect introduction to the country – its rich history; diverse wildlife; spectacular landscapes; fun activities – and will almost certainly whet the appetite to discover more.

Bucharest

The packed itinerary is book-ended by stays in the capital city of Bucharest. Far from being a utilitarian metropolis with a Communist hangover, the city earned the nickname of Little Paris in the early 1900s, thanks to its tree-lined boulevards, imposing Belle Epoque buildings and a reputation for good living. Today, it still has its own Arcul de Triumf – in honour of Romanian soldiers who fought in World War I – and Gare du Nord.

The Bucharest balcony where Ceausescu made his last speech in December 1989The crazed vanity of Ceausescu meant parts of the city were destroyed to make way for his mad projects, including the obscene Palace of Parliament. Started in 1984 – and still unfinished – it is the second largest administrative building in the world (after Washington DC’s Pentagon), has 12 storeys (including 4 underground), more than 3,000 rooms, 4,500 chandeliers and covers a scarcely believable 330,000 square metres.

Visit Revolution Square and see the balcony where the dictator made his final speech in December 1989, before people power forced him to escape by helicopter from the roof. He was found shortly afterwards and, after a brief show trial, executed by firing squad.

Lipscani Street, Bucharest by Carpathianland via Commons WikimediaThe atmospheric old town Centru Vechi, also known as Lipscani after its main artery, survived both World War II bombings and Ceausescu’s bulldozers. Wander its labyrinthine streets to discover monasteries, small churches, old inns for travelling traders and a vibrant modern collection of bars, cafes, restaurants and coffee shops pulsing from its otherwise jaded buildings.

An insightful walking tour with your knowledgeable guide will also pass The Old Court, built in the 15th century as the residence of mediaeval princes, including infamous Vlad the Impaler. Vlad is a national hero, battling to defend the city from the powerful Ottomans as they advanced from the east. His methods to deter traitors were perhaps a little extreme though: a successful impaling would take 5 days to kill the victim, the hot instrument of torture entering the, erm, backside before finding its exit point somewhere near the collar bone, if the impalee were not to die prematurely. Ouch.

Geography

Modern Romania is dominated by the three separate principalities of Wallachia (in the south, including Bucharest and bordered by Bulgaria and Serbia), Transylvania (in the heart of the country, with Hungary and Ukraine across the border) and Moldova (east, bordered by the independent state of Moldova).

The country and these provinces are delineated by the mighty Carpathian mountains, swooping south-east all the way from Poland and Slovakia, before jagging west in central Romania, near beautiful Brasov.

Activities

Bear tracks in the foothills of the Carpathian mountainsLeaving Bucharest, the tour soon introduces you to the first natural wonders of this ever surprising country. Join a wildlife expert for a walk in the snowy, forested foothills of the mountains to track deer, wolves, lynx and bears, which all thrive in the Carpathians. We saw fresh deer and bear tracks, and the guide explained the tactics adopted by herbivores and carnivores respectively, to survive or to kill. There are an estimated 6,000 bears in the country. The best time to see them is either in autumn, when they’re stocking up for the winter, or in spring, when they hunt for food after the long, hard winter. We came within 200 metres of a known bears’ den, but if you want to ensure you see one of these magnificent creatures in the wild, take a look at this separate tour with Explore.

Another highlight of this winter adventure is time spent frolicking in the snow. Take a cable car up to Balea Lac, a glacial lake 2,034 metres high in the Fagaras mountains of Transylvania, strap on some snow-shoes and trek out into the deep powder, like Bond hunting down his nemesis in a wintry lair. Don’t worry, it’s easy, just remember not to try and walk backwards, Mister Bond. Later, jump into a rubber ring, after taking off the snow-shoes and be pulled up a gentle slope for a spot of ice-tubing. Really.

Towns and villages

During the tour you will visit some beautiful towns and villages, which help to tell the story of the country’s rich history and cultural heritage.

Council Square in BrasovBrasov lies in Transylvania and is surrounded by the southern Carpathians. The town was our first introduction to the Saxon influences in this area, German colonists having first arrived in the middle of the 12th century – at the behest of Hungarian kings – to develop Transylvania’s towns, build mines and cultivate the land at this strategically important point, on the trading route linking Western Europe and the Ottomans in the east. Brasov is still also know by its Saxon name, Kronstadt. Visit the town’s old city walls and its famous and imposing Black Church, built in 1477 and one of the largest Gothic churches in south-east Europe. Then enjoy lunch in the charming Council Square – Piata Sfatului – where the town’s young population eat pizza and drink beer, surrounded by red-roofed history

Bran is a short drive from Brasov and is famous for its eponymous castle. The small town epitomises the constant struggle for power in this part of Europe, across the centuries: Hungary’s King Sigismund ordered a stone castle to be constructed in 1377, while the settlement developed nearby, and on a steep hilltop from where it could levy taxes on wealthy traders travelling between Transylvania and Wallachia; in 1498 Bran fell under the jurisdiction of Brasov; in the 16th century Bran became part of Transylvania, following defeat of the Kingdom of Hungary by the Ottoman Empire; the Austrian Habsburg Empire had their time in control before the town became part of the Austrian Empire in 1804, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1866. Only after WWI did Bran join the Kingdom of Romania. See, I told you it was a complex history!

Bran Castle - the inspiration for Bram Stoker's DraculaBran Castle is one of the country’s most visited sites today. It might resemble the home of Dracula in Bram Stoker’s entirely fictional novel – and was once besieged by our old friend Vlad the Impaler, who also provided inspiration to the author – but calling it Dracula’s Castle was a cynical marketing ploy conjured up by the Communist regime in the 1950s, to increase visitor numbers. The castle is open to the public and well worth a visit, if only to see how Queen Marie restored it after the castle was bequeathed to her in the 1920s

Biertan is a quiet village in Transylvania, near Sibiu, and is renowned for its impressive fortified church, one of the best examples of Saxon heritage in this part of Romania, and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1993. The Saxon population thrived here in the middle ages, but many people decamped to Germany as a result of WWII and the collapse of Communism in 1990. However, it remains historically important for the annual reunion of Transylvanian Saxons, many returning from Germany to their roots. I will remember Biertan fondly for another less prosaic reason though – drinking a generous glass of rum schnapps with locals at 11 o’clock one sunny morning, on the street outside a bar. It cost the distinctly historic sum of 2 Lei, approximately £0.40

Sighisoara, also a UNESCO World Heritage site, has even older origins, from the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD. Now, it is one of the best preserved and most attractive mediaeval towns in Europe. Admire the 14th century clock tower, nine separate towers of the citadel, cobbled streets, burgher houses and ornate churches, including the striking Church on the Hill. And the house where our old friend Vlad the Impaler was born, around 1428

But the small, remote village of Viscri captured my heart more than anywhere else. Bump along an uneven 8 km track off the main road between Sighisoara and Brasov, and you will find life here much as it was 100 years ago. Viscri is another traditional Saxon village in Transylvania, but it has cherished its ancient traditions more than any other. The busy main street in teh Saxon village of ViscriTake a horse and cart ride along its main dirt-tracked street, towards the restored walled citadel. Inside, you’ll find a 12th century Lutheran church at which the remaining Saxon community of just 17 souls still worship, and a charming small museum depicting Saxon customs. Visit the local baker, making huge rye and spelt loaves by hand every day, blackened in the oven before tapping off the charcoal layer. We watched the animated Gypsy brothers Istvan and Matei Gabor fire up the blacksmiths’ furnace with the ancient bellows, and make horseshoes and nails on the anvil exactly as their grandfather had done many years ago. And just cherish the way large wooden gates of each house open up in the morning and evening, to allow their small herds of cattle to wander across the main street and guzzle from the long water troughs, hewn from the trunk of a single tree. Watch a video of gypsy blacksmiths in Viscri courtesy of Sam Laurie.

Food and wine

Another admission – I was expecting Romanian food to be typically eastern European, heavy and a little unimaginative. Another surprise. We enjoyed some excellent meals, including a pork dish with pickled cucumbers in Bucharest; a delicate herby potato and tarragon soup at Casa Zada in Moieciu, near Bran; and a stellar duck dish, with prune sauce and star anise, pickled gherkins and potato puree at the imaginatively restored Viscri 125 Guest House.

And did you know anything about Romanian wines? Its viticulture dates back more than 6,000 years, the country’s climate, geology and soil providing an attractive canvas for winegrowers. After a phylloxera crisis in the late 20th century and the Communist regime’s destructive presence until 1990, the industry is fighting back. Supported by foreign expertise and investment, its vineyards are flourishing again, growing enough to make it the 6th largest producer in Europe and 13th largest in the world.

The Rosu de Ceptura red is the perfect soul-mate for duck, and we tried quite a few decent white wines too.

Accommodation

Explore include accommodation that fits perfectly with the tour’s location and activities. A comfortable tourist hotel in Bucharest allows you to wander the city’s safe streets and easily explore its history and vibrant nightlife.

Moieciu - by fusion-of-horizon via Commons WikimediaNorth of the Carpathians you’ll stay in a friendly Alpine-style chalet guest house in Moieciu, with lovely home-cooked food after drinking home-brewed apple brandy poured from a teapot, as you stand in the garden and get warm by a blazing log fire; the faithfully restored Viscri 125, with traditionally furnished bedrooms and a spectacular converted barn where you eat, drink and play table football; and the Ice Hotel at Balea Lac, constructed every December with a different theme – this year’s is the movies: stay in the Harry Potter suite, or Star Wars, or Gladiator. You get the drift, and with polar sleeping bags the experience is not as cold as you’d imagine and the mulled wine before laying down on the ice bed certainly helps.

All in all, this trip to Romania was a revelation. Historically interesting, charming towns and villages, beautiful natural landscapes, friendly people, great food and wine – and not an impaler or vampire in sight.

Christmas Wine Taste Test Results

We sniffed, we looked, we held to the light, we checked for tears and legs, we sipped….and then we guzzled.

Image result for wine tasting clip art

Christmas Day in the Morris household (thanks, Paul & Carol) got off to a flying start, with a rather special wine tasting challenge.

I wrote before Christmas about how I was about to break open my first prized bottle of Sassicaia, from the renowned Tenuta San Guido estate, near the Tuscan coast. And how I didn’t think my oenophile brother would be able to tell the difference between a £120 bottle of wine, and a more modest £10 one.

I moved the goalposts a little, I must admit. The contenders were a decent Barolo (£20) and a more modest Cabernet-Merlot from the Barossa Valley in Oz (£10). Neither of which were direct Cabernet Sauvignon competitors for the mighty Sassicaia.

Image result for sassicaia

So the test was all about price v taste.

How did we do?

It’s all a bit of a blur, to be honest. The only thing I can report with any confidence is that nephew Steve was the only guzzler to get all 3 wines in the right order. Take a bow, Steve. Move over, Bruv…the baton has been passed to the next generation.

What conclusions can we draw?

Absolutely none.

I probably didn’t let the wines breathe for long enough. They were all transported close to a lot of cheese. And some cranberry jelly. And we’d already drunk a glass or two of Sauvignon Blanc, with some smoked salmon and other nibbly stuff. And we swallowed, rather than spat. And perhaps we just know a lot less about wine than we thought….

But it was fun.

I think the next bottle of Sassicaia will be opened in splendid isolation. No fraternising with cheese during transportation. No confusion with other wines, however extravagant or humble. And decanted, aerating for much longer. And perhaps eaten alongside some rather buonissimo Italian food.

But in the end, I guess all that matters is enjoyment. Whatever the price. A metaphor for life.

 

Christmas Cabernet Taste Test

It’s just over 2 years since I hung up my abacus, and entered the Retirement Zone. As a leaving present, my thoughtful and generous ex-colleagues at Runpath and lovemoney gave me 6 bottles of wine.

But not just any old wine.

2011 Sassicaia, Bolgheri Sassicaia, Tenuta San Guido, Tuscany

This was 6 bottles of Sassicaia, from the renowned Tenuta San Guido estate, on the Tuscan coast just south of Livorno and not far west of the enchanting towers of San Gimignano, in our beloved Italy.

Image result for san gimignano

Sassicaia is now recognised as one of the world’s best Cabernet Sauvignons. But it wasn’t always so. Read here about the interesting history of the estate, and about how the wine was only drunk privately from 1948 to 1967.

And this is what posh vintners Berry Brothers & Rudd say about it now:

Sassicaia is today one of the most sought-after fine wines in the world. This is largely because of the vision, energy and drive of proprietor Mario Incisa della Rocchetta.

The Sassicaia estate at Bolgheri came from Mario Incisa della Rocchetta’s wife’s family who had owned land there since 1800 – the name Sassicaia means,place of many stones, and the gravelly soil has been compared to those found in the Médoc. He planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and engaged the services of Piero Antinori`s winemaker, Giacomo Tachis.

Sassicaia’s first vintage was released to universal acclaim in 1968. Sassicaia is now widely accepted as one of the world`s greatest Cabernet Sauvignon wines and made history recently, being the first single wine to be granted its own DOC. The wines of Sassicaia combine intense notes of cassis and cedary elegance, with extraordinary power and length.

My own humble 6 bottles of the 2011 vintage have been laid down in bonded storage at BBR since 2014. But no longer. They have finally been released into my sweaty hands, awaiting suitable occasions to enjoy. And with my 60th year fast approaching, I’m not expecting any will survive until this time next year.

My brother Paul fancies himself as a bit of a oenophile.

Image result for oenophile cartoons

(image courtesy of Jantoo Cartoons)

Well, let’s find out, shall we?

I shall be uncorking my first prized bottle on Christmas Day, at the festive gathering of the Morris Mob. But to make it interesting, I’m going to give a blind tasting of 3 separate red wines.

Will Paul – or any other Morris – be able to tell the difference between an everyday drinking £8 Cab Sav from the Sunday Times Wine Club, a very decent £20ish option from the posh section at a supermarket, and the mighty 2011 Bolgheri Sassicaia Tenuto San Guido vintage, yours for around £120 a bottle?

Stay tuned to find out.

I just hope the Sassicaia has travelled well…..

Theatre review – Sideways

There was a dramatic surge in sales of Pinot Noir wine, after the 2004 movie Sideways became a surprise hit.

Writer Rex Pickett has adapted his script for the stage, and after success in La Jolla it has now made its way across the pond to the St. James Theatre in London.

Miles is a wine bore. And he’s depressed. He’s a failed husband and a failing writer. He loves Pinot Noir. He hates Merlot.

He and his buddy Jack are hitting some California wineries for a week before Jack’s wedding, but they have very different agendas. Miles is searching for some answers at the bottom of an expensive wine bottle. Jack – a second-rate actor and ageing lothario – just wants to get laid before his nuptials.

Opportunity knocks in the form of Terra – a winery host – for Jack, Pinot Noir – and waitress Maya – for Miles.

After a languid first sip or two, the performance really hit its stride mid-way through the first half. By the time the bottle is emptied, the audience is gurgling with laughter as Miles and Jack have to face the music.

Sideways is a touching, funny and poignant story of love, friendship and grapes. The English cast admirably ape the American characters and voices, but Paul Giamatti as Miles and Thomas Haden Church as Jack in the original movie are hard acts to follow.

A few cautionary words. There is a lot of swearing. And some full-frontal nudity. And get some Pinot Noir down the off-licence before it sells out.

 

Restaurant review – Drake’s, Ripley

Foodie neighbours and friends Ian & Jean have long eulogised about Drake’s in Ripley, but somehow we had never quite made it across the Georgian threshold ourselves.

Well, tick that one off the bucket list.

We’ve just enjoyed – with Ian & Jean – our first adventure at this stand-out Surrey temple of gastronomy. And, mange tout Rodney, was it worth the wait!

Remember the saccharine rom-com movie Jerry Maguire? Towards the end of this far-fetched Hollywood piece of schmaltz, sports agent Jerry (Tom Cruise) finally expresses his love for Dorothy (Renee Zellweger) in a long-winded speech.

Her simple reply? Shut up. You had me athello“.

The very first bite, one of three amuse bouches – a tiny morsel of tender beef inside a feather-light crunchy bread-crumbed parcel – sets the tone for everything still to come in a long, lazy lunch at Drake’s.

You had me atcroquette“.

And we were still in the bar at that stage, agonising over the many menu options: should we go for the simple, cheaper fixed-price seasonal lunch menu? The grazing menus….either the 6-course Journey * or the 8-course Discovery? With or without the matched wine flights? Or the a la carte multiple-choice option?

We all decided on the Journey*. Well, it was bucket-list time….

We put ourselves in the expert hands of the sommelier to recommend complementary red and white wines. He delivered. And how appropriate – but surprising – that he served up a subtle, spectacular Pinot Noir from Tasmania, where we were a year ago to the day.

I can’t find words that will do justice to the food that we savoured over the next few hours.

The Journey* was quite simply a culinary trek through perfectly balanced ingredients, beautifully married tastes & textures, and impeccably judged quantities and pacing. All transported from the kitchen by charming staff, professional but friendly, helpful but unobtrusive.

My own highlights?

  • the will o’ the wisp texture of the parsnip crackling, accompanying slow cooked pork cheek, scallop and gribiche sauce
  • the complete dish of guinea fowl, coq au vin, dandelion, wet polenta, king oyster mushrooms and pancetta
  • cinnamon, hibiscus ice and Pedro Ximenez

But that’s really unfair to the rest of the menu, like singling out Geoff Hurst from his 1966 World-Cup winning team-mates.

No wonder Steve Drake has been awarded a Michelin star for the 13th consecutive year, and has recently been voted number 35 in the Sunday Times Top 100 UK restaurant list for 2015/16.

It took us a few years to get here, and it might be another few years before our bank balance has recovered – but thanks, Ian & Jean. We’ve finally been Draked. And we loved it.

JOURNEY

Available for dinner Tuesday and lunch/dinner Wednesday – Saturday

Designed to be taken by the whole table

Leek, Haddock, Quail’s Egg

Slow Cooked Pork Cheek, Scallop, Parsnip Crackling, Gribiche Sauce
Brill, Romanesco, Vanilla and Parsley Root, Grain Mustard, Baby Spinach

Guinea Fowl, ‘Coq au Vin’, Dandelion, Wet Polenta, King Oyster Mushrooms and Pancetta

Cinnamon, Hibiscus Ice, Pedro Ximenez

Roast Plum, Hazelnut Cake, Caraway Syrup, Mint Jelly

Europe – IN or OUT?

I love Europe.

In the early 1960s, when I was just 5 or 6 and England still hadn’t won the World Cup, my pioneering parents bought a travelette (a collapsible caravan contraption). The neighbours in suburban West Wickham waved us off, and we drove all the way down to the Costa Brava, spending two weeks on the beach of a blissfully unspoiled and still quintessentially Spanish fishing village.

I honed my nascent German language skills – and snogged Bridget Heap from Clarendon House – in Koblenz, on exchanges with Detlef and his family in the 1970s.

More recently, Gill and I have whizzed all over France on Eurostar

We have a continuing addiction to all things Italian, and have just returned from skiing in bellissimo Champoluc.

In April, we’ll be going to Greece for the first time, visiting Thessaloniki to write an article for the lovely folks at Silver Travel Advisor, then moving on to historic Mount Olympus and Halkidiki.

I embrace everything about Europe…its people, languages, history, food, wine.

Everything.

Except the bloated, bureaucratic European project that is the EU. It’s teetering on the precipice of failure, and I’m leaning heavily towards the exit door.

I’m not racist. I’m not xenophobic. And I’m not rooted in the past. But I can’t believe the status quo is sustainable.

When we signed up for the Common European Market in 1973 – ratified in a 1975 referendum – could our worst fears have anticipated the reality of 2016?

  • an annual EU budget of close to €150 billion
  • more than 750 Members of the European Parliament
  • EU auditors reported that the bureaucrats had misspent €7 billion of the 2013 budgetThe auditors have refused to sign off the accounts for 20 years in a row
  • 2-speed economies of the greatly enlarged EU over protracted periods, and yet no single country being able to resort to interest rate changes to stimulate or slow down its own economy (thank goodness we stayed out of the single currency and retain the £)
  • a plethora of unwanted and stifling legislation handed down from Brussels
  • untrammelled immigration, from other EU countries and – through assimilation over time – well beyond Europe

I may sound like a Daily Telegraph reader, or – worse – a UKIP voter, but it feels like we have lost control, to differing degrees, of our sovereignty, our legislation and our borders.

And I don’t buy the IN camp’s scaremongering that our economy will collapse if we decide to exit. Yes, there will be obviously some significant adjustments required, and there may well be a reduction in GDP and a threat to some jobs. But that impact will hopefully be temporary, until we rediscover old allies, sign up new trade relationships with vibrant emerging markets, and embrace our renewed independence,

But we will regain control of our own British future for the long term.

I love Europe. But I love its separate, beautiful, independent cultures rather than its homogeneous, bureaucratic mass.

I’m walking inexorably towards the OUT door. Possibly regardless of any outwardly face-saving deal Mr Cameron might try to bring back ahead of the referendum, to persuade us to stay IN, as I fear it won’t represent substantive change.

And if we vote to leave, it might just signal the beginning of the end of the grand federal Europe project.

Champoluc ski trip

Just back from a very enjoyable week skiing in virgin territory for us, Champoluc in the beautiful Aosta valley in Italy.

A group of local friends went there last year and enjoyed the village and the skiing. So when old Kentish friends Nigel & Julie Cripps mentioned at a recent reunion that they were heading there in early January, it somehow seemed like fate that we should join them. Whether they wanted us to, or not.

Nigel & Julie are old Champoluc hands, lauding its quietness, beauty, friendliness and good value.

And now we’re converts too.

The skiing domain – even when fully open – is not vast. comprising 45 lifts, 95 slopes and 4 valleys in the total Monte Rosa area. And after the warm snow-free start to the season, hardly any of that capacity was accessible over the Christmas and New Year holidays.

Fortunately for us, the white stuff began to fall early in 2016….and at the moment, it just keeps on coming. So we went from the sublime – skiing on decent snow in bright sunshine and good conditions on our first day – to the frankly ridiculous. On our last day, so much fresh powder had fallen overnight that we had to push our way through a snowdrift as we jumped off the chairlift from the base of Frachey.

In a continuing blizzard, on-piste was off-piste and goggles fogged up faster than Sepp Blatter’s memory.

In decent conditions between those extremes, we loved the long intermediate red runs – and occasionally more challenging black ones – spread out above the Champoluc, Frachey and Gressoney villages

It’s hard to find words that capture the simple pleasure of skiing on a quiet mountain in such a beautiful area. Whatever the conditions.

It’s easier to describe the gluttony we indulged in, every night during our hotel’s challenging 4 course dinners and, during the day, at some buonissimi mountain restaurants. Enjoy a freshly baked pizza and a couple of glasses of local vino rosso for lunch, at 2,700 metres, whilst a blizzard rages outside, and somehow your senses feel sharper than the edges of an Italian suit.

And back in Champoluc, the village is a charming enclave of local artisan shops, traditional houses and friendly people, sitting happily alongside the tourist bars, hotels and ski lifts. Long may that comfortable marriage remain…it would be a shame if over-development spoiled the essence of this gentle place.

Pine Cottage Supper Club – entertainment

Well, my head still hurts and today is a very slow Saturday, after last night’s Tuesley Lane neighbourly shindig at Snoo Powell’s Pine Cottage Supper Club in Hydestile.

For better or for worse, we asked everyone to provide a short piece of inter-course entertainment. On a strictly voluntary basis. It helped the evening whizz by. As did the alcohol.

My own humble offering is reproduced below. It wrapped up the evening. It wasn’t funny but it came from the heart.

Numbers and Words

65 million people living in the UK.

22,000 in Godalming.

19 bottles of wine.

12 people.

3 courses.

1 host.

Numbers….functional, precise, unemotional.

But numbers can’t describe the friendships forged between 12 people over the gentle effluxion of time, initially neighbours but becoming so much more with each passing year.

You need words to describe the simple pleasure of those people sharing birthday celebrations; a bike ride on a grey winter morning; a walk across harvested fields in the full glare of a late summer sun.

18 years of marriage. But how can a stark number begin to convey the depth of love, affection and respect forged in that period, through times of work, stress and leisure alike?

Words are needed to portray a child’s love and memory of their parents, prompted as simply perhaps as by running a finger over the well burnished handle of an over-used garden tool.

5 holidays in 12 months, but only words can allow family and friends to share and understand the cultural differences experienced in an alien land, the exhilaration of seeing an Oriental sun rise at dawn from a volcanic crater rim, or the taste of a freshly cooked blacktip trevally, redolent still of the Indian Ocean waters.

4 countries in 16 years, but words are needed to give depth to the multi-layered emotions of expatriate life..the unalloyed pleasure of meeting new friends from a foreign culture; freedom from the straitjacket of domestic routine; the thrill of spontaneous weekends in another country. But all the while, an invisible force pulls you back to the home you left, as surely as a foraging bird returns to the nest.

19 bottles of wine. 2 colours. 5 countries. But that gives no sense of the soil from which the vines eased upwards, the passionate, nurturing hands of the winegrowers, the patient fermentation process in oak barrels as old as the estate owner’s grandfather.

1 host. Well, 2. But neither number can begin to tell of the generosity of spirit from Snoo and Gary in opening up the doors of Pine Cottage to 12 complete strangers. Nor of the flexibility and friendliness. Nor of the brilliant food and hospitality. Thank you, Pine Cottage….thank you, Chef Snoo & sous chef Gary.

Thank you, words.