Friday, December 25, 2015

Orange Flavoured Ricotta Cheesecake - Something Festive!

Merry Christmas everyone!  Where we live, in the sub-tropics of coastal Australia, it's very hard to get enthusiastic about traditional Christmas fare - although I love it - it's just too damn hot for roast turkey and boiled puddings, so I thought I would share with you this orange scented cheesecake recipe - as simple as it is delicious.  It's based on the traditional Italian recipe that has the self-forming crust - so no need for biscuit or pastry bases, but mostly an adaptation of a Belinda Jeffery recipe - and is the perfect end to any festive meal.

800 g fresh ricotta
2/3 cup fresh cream or sour cream (gives it a bit of a tang)
2/3 cup caster sugar
2/3 cup sultanas, soaked for a couple of hours in Cointreau (or any other sweet alcohol)
zest of one large orange
1/2 cup plain flour + 1 tbsp (for dusting cake tin)
6 eggs
Pinch of salt
Flaked almonds for decoration - they look nice because they become golden and give the cheesecake a bit of a crunch.

1.  Preheat oven to 150oC
2.  Line 23cm springform pan with non-stick baking paper (what did we ever do without this?), lightly grease it with butter and dust with flour - this helps to form the crust.
3.  Whiz the ricotta in a food processor until smooth.
4.  Break eggs into separate jug, just to be sure - nothing worse than spoiling the whole lot with one not quite fresh or with bits of shell.
5.  Add orange zest, sugar, cream, flour, and salt to ricotta and whiz for 10 seconds.  Scrape down sides.
6.  With processor on, add eggs and continue for another 30 seconds.
7.  Stir in the soaked sultanas, with any residual Cointreau.
8.  Pour into prepared tin, smooth over surface and sprinkle with flaked almonds.
9.  Bake for one hour until firm and slightly golden. Let the cheesecake cool before you serve it - and it's very nice with any kind of berries, in fact it's the main reason why I made it - my loganberries where fruiting for the first time and wow, are they delicious!

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Cycling from Innsbruck to Verona: Day 2 Bressanone to Bolzano

Day 2:  Bressanone to Bolzano 47km
For Day 1: Innsbruck to Bressanone, click here

Eiseck River on the way to Bressanone - full of roaring meltwater

Our Hotel Golden Rossi in Bressanone (Brixen) was a very welcome sight after our mammoth first day on the bike, but even though the map said we were in Italy it still felt very Austrian - in fact most folks refer to it as Brixen - its Austrian name.  As the lovely Vivianna on Reception said, "The soil might be Italian, but the brain and heart are German."  Vivianna was from Sicily and explained that this region of the southern Tyrol was still part of Austria until the end of World War I when it was annexed to Italy, and that, "you don't get to feel that you are really in Italy until you get to Trento" - another two days cycle away.

To emphasise her point she also told us that 75% of the locals still spoke Austro/German and the rest a mixture of Italian and Ladin - an old local dialect.  Our hotel was a charming 400 year old building in the Tyrolean auberge style with low ceilings and huge wooden beams; very comfortable with a marvellous spread for breakfast.

We would have loved to make use of the inviting hotel pool but instead collapsed on the more inviting bed until hunger drove us out to explore Bressanone.

Medieval backstreets of Bresanone

So here we were in Bressanone, being spoilt by yet another delightful town with plenty to keep us occupied for a few hours - we would certainly have liked to have stayed longer.  The highlight was the medieval quarter around the central square - the Piazza del Duomo, dominated by the 10th century cathedral, with cobbled streets leading in and out dotted with cafes, restaurants and the obligatory Tyrolean outfitters!
Another porky/schnitzel/cabbagey/dumplingy meal and we were off to bed for an early start and Day 2 of our adventure.

Piazza del Duomo, Bressanone

Day 2 was an absolute doddle after Day 1 - only 47 km and mostly downhill - the path following the river.  There was only one problem - I was extremely saddle sore.  I wondered why my brother had been sending me urgent text messages prior to the start of this adventure; 1. Asking me if I was bonkers, and 2. Had I got any padded shorts?  Now, I never knew such things existed but, by Day 2 I could see why one would need them.  Not possessing such an item of clothing, I resorted to stuffing 2 spare t-shirts down my shorts.

Michael breaking Rule 4 (see previous post for Rules 1, 2 and 3).  Your must dismount from your bicycle in a built up area - we wondered why we were getting such filthy looks until someone pointed out a sign to us.  Without fail, everyone gets off their bicycles and walks - it now occurs to me that I think you are actually supposed to do this in Mullumbimby too!

As we headed out of Bressanone on the bike path, I came upon this lovely garden tended by an elderly nun.  I stopped, and with hand gestures and smiles she proudly showed me around.  Fortunately I had a couple of photos of my garden on my phone that I could show her - isn't modern technology marvellous?

Our journey south took us along this lovely valley past hillsides that become a snow covered playground in winter - Bressanone deriving much of its income from all things snow and skiing.  The ski fields rolled down to verdant farmland, orchards and then vineyards - I knew when we were approaching them because the stink of fungicide began to fill the air, which was to be repeated through every wine growing area we cycled through all the way to Verona.

NOTE: Why is it traditional to plant a rose bush at the head of every row of grapes in a vineyard? Because roses also get attacked by fungal diseases and they act as a 'health' indicator to the grape grower.

The very picturesque countryside along the way provided some equally picturesque villages for rest stops and refreshment.  As usual for the early part of this trip, we ended up with some pretty average tucker simply because we didn't know the ropes as far as what to expect and being unable to decipher the menu - still, we knew that Italy - the 'real' one - was just around the corner!

After a wonderful day cycling through the South Tyrol we headed to our hotel in Bolzano with excitement mounting for Michael because he couldn't wait to meet ORTZI
- a five and a half thousand year old Iron Age man that was discovered about twenty years ago, fully preserved and poking out of a glacier and is now housed in a museum in Bolzano.  To be continued!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Mussels with Rice

This is a really easy one-pot meal - the kind we all love - that is simply delicious and very nutritious.


"Mussels are an inexpensive, sustainable shellfish that gives a boost to your immune system and your brain"

  • Mussels have the most impressive nutritional content of ALL shellfish containing high levels of B12, iron, zinc and calcium; ALL of the things that can be lacking from meatless diets.  They are also a good source of protein.
  • They contain high levels of long chain fatty acids EPA and DHA that have many beneficial effects, including improving brain function and reducing inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis.
NOTE: It seemed timely to include a recipe like this today as new advice from the World Health Organisation is in the news for announcing the results of its findings into the correlation between cured meats/red meat and colo/rectal cancers. What did the research show; well, if you eat 50grams of processed meat (bacon, salami, frankfurters etc) every day or a total of 350 grams per week - your risk of colon cancer goes up by 18% - which is a lot! Too much red meat is not good either and we should be having less than 500 grams per week of beef/pork/lamb.  

All not good - so put away the bacon and get yourself some mussels because somehow you need to be getting all of the essential food elements in your diet from other sources if you don't want your health to suffer.  Deficiencies in B12, iron, zinc and calcium can be a concern for vegetarians; particularly B12 and iron - vital vitamins and minerals for the health of blood cells and nervous system; this can be a particular problem for pregnant and menstruating women - anaemia being all too common a problem for many women friends of mine.

Mussels with Rice (to serve two people)

1 kilo fresh mussels - fortunately these now come cleaned and de-bearded in vacuum packed bags that keep for a few days and are grown in environmentally sustainable and clean environment.  Discard any opened mussels.
3 tbsp olive oil 
1 large brown onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 red capsicum, diced
1 cup cherry tomatoes
1 long red chilli, chopped
2 cups long grain rice
750 ml fish stock
Handful fresh parsley
Salt and pepper to taste


1.  Heat oil in large pan and sauté onion
2.  Add chopped capsicum, chilli and tomatoes and cook for few minutes
3.  Add rice and stir around until rice becomes slightly glassy.
4.  Add stock and let simmer for 5 minutes.
5.  Add washed mussels and cook for further 10 minutes with lid on until rice is cooked and mussels are open.  By this time all of the liquid should have been absorbed.
NOTE:  You may have to stir it a few times to prevent it burning but a bit of golden crust on the bottom is quite desirable - I believe there is a special name for this in Spanish cuisine, which is the inspiration for this dish.
6.  Serve sprinkled with chopped parsley and a simple salad.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Cycling from Innsbruck (Austria) to Verona (Italy)

Day 1 Innsbruck (Austria) to Bressanone (Italy) 55km  (more like 65km)

This madcap idea was dreamt up by my husband as a circuitous way to get me back to Greece.  It went something like this.  "I know you don't like flying from Gatwick or Heathrow, well Stanstead flies to Innsbruck and from there we can cycle to Verona, take a train to Milan, fly to Athens and get the ferry back to Sifnos - how does that sound?".  Somehow I said yes, but alarm bells should have been ringing when I saw that the chap we were   dealing with at Freedom Treks (the cycling company) was called Andrew Bracegirdle - I'm still wearing one two months later.

This 220km was embarked upon in almost total ignorance and no lycra. The company provided the bikes and maps, booked us into 3-4 star hotels en route and carted the bags every day - how bad could it be - and, "it was all downhill" "level 1" (the easiest)?

Getting to the airport and the flight from the UK on easyJet was a total nightmare but all was forgotten when we were coming into land in Innsbruck - I had never been to Austria before - and it was spectacular; snow-capped mountain peaks and plunging verdant valleys - total Heidi!
View from our window Hotel Congress Innsbruck

The Hotel Congress (is this where they come for dirty weekends, says he!) was superb in a very modern, Austrian kind of a way.  Huge room with spectacular plate glass windows overlooking white peaked mountains and a milky green snow-melt rushing river.  Obviously busy in the skiing season with basement boot rooms, sauna and a chair-lift right opposite, it was very quiet now.  Realised I needed a hat that wouldn't blow off for this bike trip and bought a Tyrolean skiing cap from a display case in the darkened bowels of the hotel (it took the receptionist about 20  minutes to find the key). Buying the cap was the sum total of my preparation for what was to be my life on two wheels for the next week - silly me. But we felt everything was going pretty well so far, so went out to explore Innsbruck.  Well, all I can say is, we have to go back sometime - it was just lovely.


We just happened to be reading Bill Bryson's tales about travelling in this part of the world Neither Here Nor There in 1990, but nothing seems to have changed since then and his experiences seemed to be reflecting our own.  Here are just a few of them.

1.  The Locals: I have never been anywhere else in the world where the people were so unfriendly - no passing 'hello' smiles, no eye contact in lifts, no greeting across a breakfast room - it was very weird.

2.  Dining Out:  This is one of the few places I have been where the menus were totally unintelligible and you are really a little scared about what you are ordering.  Bill Bryson talks about seeing mit schlag on a menu and thinking it sounded awful, didn't order it - only to find out later that it was whipped cream and would have been perfect with his strudel.  That's entirely our problem for not speaking the language (still, I can't see a real need for Austro German?), but it is very off-putting - everything sounds like someone clearing their throat. You just have to remember when ordering that pork is life in Austria as you are bound to get some part of the animal on your plate. So here in Innsbruck for the first time, we did our usual thing and tried to find a restaurant where the locals were eating and, of course, had what the locals were having - and ended up with something very porky, dumplingy and cabbagey (Scweinsbraten with Semmelknodel) with beer - of course.

The more that things were different the more they were just the bloody same!

Made our way back to the hotel through the Innsbruck Botanic Gardens and was very surprised to see bananas and datura growing there - how do they do that in the snow?  Our scheduled briefing with Freedom Treks and been cancelled ("because there were only two of us") and we were told that this would happen in the morning after breakfast on the way to our drop-off point near the Brenner Pass.  Just a teensy bit nervous at this stage.

Matteo from Freedom Treks giving Michael our 5 minute briefing before we set off into the unknown for the next six days (he looks a little worried, don't you think?)  

Matteo's parting words were ringing in my ears seven hours later when we reached Bressanone "it's easy today - all downhill - will only take two to two and a half hours at the most".  Finally collapsing in our hotel room in Bressanone with my legs, bum and back aching I knew two things; Either Matteo had never cycled from Innsbruck to Bressanone or he was a consummate liar AND, body willing I would do it all again tomorrow hey, we WERE doing it all again tomorrow - it was absolutely wonderful - like cycling through The Sound of Music.
Somewhere on the cycle track on the way to Bressanone

For almost all of the six days we were on a designated cycle track made from an old rail route which followed the new train track, motorway and river, but not always, and they were the best bits; the ones that ventured into the forest, along the edge of a glacier, through picturesque villages, around vineyards, orchards and fields of flowering crops.

The trail notes were very good - all we had to do was follow them - how hard could that be? Well, did get lost quite a few times but that was often down to confusing similar sounding place names (Marco and Macio?) and all the signs being in both Austro German and Italian - take your pick!

How do you know you're in Austria? - you come across a stall selling Edelweiss

On this first day there were also quite a few diversions on the trail with Achtung! signs accompanied by a picture of rocks falling - hence the lengthy delays.  What we found out about the Austrians, lesson number 3.

3.  Signs are there to be obeyed and Austrians obey them  There was no way that any other person, apart from Michael and myself and a few Italian bikies, would even investigate a track with a diversion sign on it - even if it meant untold delay and a hellish detour onto the autostrada - which was extremely dangerous and very scary (we tried it).  We quickly learned that these diversion signs were put up 'just in case' and after venturing forward on one realised that it was because of something trivial e.g. a minor rockfall and no problem to get around (as he said "They've obviously never had to negotiate the Montecollum Road to Goonengerry after a thunderstorm"!).  We saw a whole bunch of familiar obedient Austrian cyclists lurch into Bressanone about two hours after us - looking lost, fed-up, and sweaty after struggling up hill and down-dale just so they wouldn't have to disobey a sign on a bike trail!


For part of the day we travelled along the Eisack River valley to the very pretty town of Vipiteno which was full of cobbled streets, clock towers and sightseeing Italian tourists..  We soon realised that one of the real joys of this journey by bike was coming across lovely places like this that we had never been to before and, were unlikely to ever visit again - which made it even sweeter.

This glorious Tyrolean countryside made your heart zing.  I spent most of the day singing to myself (you can guess what the soundtrack was) and crop spotting; maize growing on the river flats for winter fodder, home gardens that shouted self sufficiency and, as we got closer to Bressanone, grapes and orchards full of cherries, apples, pears and fields of tomatoes and cabbages.  There was one mystery;  I couldn't understand why I didn't see one cow when we had passed numerous yoghurt and cheese factories and why there was an overpowering dung odour that heralded our arrival at every farm.  Then I saw these huge, ornate sheds and realised that the cows were being reared inside them - why weren't they out in the fields?  These are the tiny thoughts that consumed me as I pedalled and pedalled the 65 km away - kind of zen?

As we cycled into the late afternoon (probably shouldn't have had that second beer and more dumplings for lunch?), warm gusts of wind, that occasionally blew in the high country, were now beginning to cook us as we headed further south along the valley and we started to strip off our layers of clothes, finally reaching our hotel in Bressanone absolutely exhausted - a hill too far!

Highlight of the day grandparents having a picnic by a river with grandchildren, she in dirndl skirt and he in lederhosen, Tyrolean jacket, long white socks, hat with feather in it and smoking a pipe - this was not a one off - we got quite used to spotting folk, just going about their everyday business dressed like the Von Trapp family.
To be continued.  Day 2 Bressanone to Bolzano .............

Friday, October 9, 2015

Zucchini and Haloumi Fritters

These delicious fritters were inspired by a Neil Perry recipe that I saw in the paper a couple of weeks ago.  This is the kind of little pre-dinner nibble that you get in tavernas all over Greece, made fresh with whatever comes to hand that day - just my kind of food.

The first batch, made to the Neil Perry recipe, needed tweaking, in my humble opinion - because they were a little too bland in flavour and way too salty.  I conferred with my go-to food person and lovely neighbour, cook book writer Belinda Jeffery, and this week saw me wandering up the street, at about 5.30pm, in apron with progressively evolving plates of these fritters with a "what do you think". I felt a bit like Goldilocks - too salty, too bland - just right!  She offered all kinds of helpful advice and a couple of alternative recipes and I think we have finally nailed it - see what you think, but I reckon they are a real winner!

The saltiness arose in the original recipe which told you to grate the zucchini in a colander and cover it in 2 teaspoons of salt - leave it for an hour or so and then squeeze out as much liquid as you can.  This is done because zucchinis contain a lot of water and the fritters would be too sloppy and not hold together if you didn't.  The downside of this is that you can't wash the salt off afterwards.
NOTE: salting food sets up an osmotic process whereby the liquid is drawn out.
What we worked out is that you only need about half a teaspoon of salt and just more squeezing to get the liquid out - as Belinda said "less salt and more elbow grease" - which works just fine.

About 1 kg zucchini, coarsely grated
Half teaspoon sea salt
150g haloumi, finely grated
1/2 cup grated parmesan
100g day-old white sourdough breadcrumbs
Half cup fresh chopped dill
3 free-range eggs
Freshly ground pepper
1 cup olive oil, for frying

Dipping Sauce
1 cup thick Greek style yoghurt
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1 garlic clove creamed in mortar and pestle with pinch of sea salt

1.  Place grated zucchini in colander and sprinkle with salt.  Leave to drain for an hour.
2.  Mix together lemon zest, creamed garlic, yoghurt and pinch of salt and set aside.
3.  Squeeze excess moisture from zucchini and place in large bowl.  This is an important step so try and get out as much liquid out as you can. DONT WASH IT
4.  Add grated haloumi, dill, parmesan, breadcrumbs and eggs.  Stir to combine and set aside for 10 minutes.
5.  Heat oil in frying pan or wok.
6.  Get small spoonfuls and form into patties.  Shallow fry for 2 minutes on each side or until golden brown and cooked through.
7.  Serve with yoghurt mix as dipping sauce.

NOTE:  From another guru, Linda Ruttledge owner of LuLu's cafe in Mullumbimby, don't be tempted to put feta in the fritters as it just melts when heated and the fritters will fall apart.
ANOTHER NOTE: Most fritters of this kind have flour as the binding agent, but the breadcrumbs give them a really lovely texture, light and fluffy, that doesn't seem to soak up the frying oil.

FOOD ETHICS  I have been involved in a raging debate this week over an octopus salad recipe, that I posted on a local information sharing website, when I unwittingly incurred the wrath of radical vegans. I couldn't use a better response than this recipe as an example of MY food ethics - that is, GROW YOUR OWN OR BUY IT LOCALLY if you want to save yourself and the planet. 

Every time I cook a meal I consider three things - HOW NUTRITIOUS IS IT, WHAT DOES IT COST and WHERE DOES IT COME FROM?

When I posted this recipe I got this response from a vegan:
"You can so veganise this recipe - and make it gluten free too - use rice crumbs instead of sourdough crumbs - chia seeds instead of eggs, tofu instead of haloumi. Nutritional yeast instead of parmesan. For the dippings sauce - cashews blended instead of yoghurt"

My response to this:

1.  They wouldn't be zucchini haloumi fritters anymore.
2.  The zucchini, dill and lemon came from my garden; eggs from my daughter's chooks; haloumi, bread and garlic from the local farmer's market; and I made the yoghurt with milk from the local dairy.   The only thing I bought from a shop was the parmesan cheese - which was Aussie.
3.  The last time I looked tofu came from somewhere else, processed in a factory with non-reusable packaging; chia seeds were $30 a kilo from Bolivia in the local health food shop.  Cashews from the same shop were from Vietnam at $32 per kilo.  I have no idea about nutritional yeast - whatever that is?

You can see where I am going with this.  This person has given themselves a big pat on the back for being vegan but has no concern about the source of the food, packaging, cost and food miles involved in getting it on to her plate.

Next is a visit from me and my trombone zucchini!

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Pineapple and Cardamom Cake

Pineapples are plentiful at the moment so it seems a shame not to give this luscious cake another airing.  This is one of those sticky upside-down affairs that is best eaten warm and the marrying of the cardamom with the pineapple just seems to be one of those inspired flavour combinations -  simply made for each other.

You can make this cake look really elegant - if your fruit arranging skills are more advanced than mine - and create something really impressive for a dinner party desert - but I just made it for afternoon tea for the marauding after school hordes.  We had it with some homemade yoghurt, but goes equally well with cream or ice-cream.


60 g butter
1/2 cup brown sugar firmly packed
Fresh pineapple slices or 470 g canned pineapple

125 g butter
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 eggs
2 cups self raising flour
1/2 cup milk (can be buttermilk)
1 level teaspoon cardamom seeds
NOTE: You can use ground cardamom - just not as good


1.  Preheat oven to 160oc
2.  Grease and line a 20cm springform cake tin with non-stick baking paper
3.  Melt together butter and sugar until combined and spread over bottom of cake tin.
4.  Arrange pineapple slices over base of prepared tin
5.  Beat together sugar and butter until light and creamy.
6.  Add eggs, one at a time, beating well between each addition
7.  Add the flour, milk and cardamom seeds and mix to combine
8.  Spread mixture evenly over pineapple base
9.  Bake in pre-heated oven for 35-45 minutes until skewer inserted in centre comes out clean.
9.  Remove from heat and set aside for 15 minutes before turning out.
10.Best eaten warm.

Baby pineapple fruit just forming
NOTE:  Pineapples are really easy to grow in a frost-free garden.  They are part of the extensive bromeliad tribe - which means they are a really easy and trouble-free plant and the home-grown ones are most delicious pineapples you will ever eat.  You simply take the top off an old pineapple and plant into some good soil. Depending on where you live, they take 18 months-2 years to produce fruit - I use them as a border plant in front of my edible hedge.  They really are a most attractive plant and always create a talking point - well worth giving them a go.

Will be ready to eat in another month or so

Friday, September 4, 2015

Helmingham Hall Gardens

Helmingham Hall Gardens, Stowmarket, Suffolk, UK

There has to be some joy in visiting the UK right now because the exchange rate for the Aussie dollar is crippling (more than two dollars to the pound!) - and what better way to cheer oneself up but to visit some lesser known English gardens. For me, this is a pastime that never fails to do just that - cheer me up and inspire and delight at the same time. When I have visited a gorgeous garden, usually set around an equally lovely old building, I feel satiated - full up, as if I have eaten the most wonderful meal.

Those of us in love with the beauty and joy of European gardens will probably already have been to some of the most famous ones in the UK like Sissinghurst, Kew, Wisley, Bodnant, Great Dixter, Hidcote and, while everyone should visit them once in their life, these not so well known ones also have so much to offer - they have their own beauty and unique histories but are a lot less commercialised and 'packaged' - and, there are rarely any crowds!

My mother lives in a beautiful part of the world on the Stour River, bordering Essex and Suffolk, with access to lovely countryside, picturesque villages and valleys that have been havens of rural life for centuries.  It was this landscape that was the birthplace and inspiration to two of England's most celebrated painters - John Constable and Thomas Gainsborough.  Travelling to Helmingham we passed through Sudbury where a statue of Gainsborough (1727-1788) stands in the centre of town and, on the day we were there, he was keeping a watchful eye on the bustling farmers market - something that time hasn't altered over the three hundred years since he was born - Sudbury always having been an important market town.  I bought the most delicious cherries, strawberries and pork pies and headed for Helmingham.

The House

The first thing that strikes you is the utterly romantic setting of this moated, Tudor manor house - almost Lewis Carroll like in it's imagining - with swathes of wild meadow and grasses dotted with topiaried 'blob' bushes sweeping all around the house (reminiscent  of the entrance to Great Dixter).  Here and there a pathway has been mown through the meadow to help you with your happy wanderings - where I fully expected to see the Mad Hatter dashing along in front of me.

This has been the home of the Tollemache family since 1480 - and they still live here - which means that, unfortunately, the house is not open to the public.  Beautiful in its design and construction, it is built around a central courtyard, has all the fancy Elizabethan brickwork,  ornate chimneys and two working drawbridges - utterly entrancing and I was dying to take a peek inside!

Honeysuckled gateway leading into the Potager Garden
The Garden

Helmingham, however, is best known for its fine garden (Grade 1 listed), which is regularly open to the public. It is also part of a larger estate of over 400 acres, with herds of deer, sheep, cattle, magnificent trees, woodlands, thatched barns and rural farmland.  This is England and, if the English weather had been kinder, I would have loved to have taken a walk on the many of the public footpaths that criss-cross the estate and surrounding countryside (how I wish we had these in Australia!).

June can be one of the best times to go garden visiting in the south of England - you have some of the leftover delights of spring and all the early summer flowering.  The semi-formal mixed borders were bursting with blossoming colour - peonies, poppies, lupins, alliums, tumbling roses and everything that makes up an English perennial border.

These walled borders have been evolving since the garden was first laid out in the 1800's and had a major makeover by the Tollemache's in the 1990's adopting the typical English romantic style of the 20th century (Sissinghurst being the most famous) -  formal design with informal planting - the long borders have been broken up with buttressed, clipped yew hedges and the walls with espaliered roses.

NOTE:  Vita Sackville-West was influenced by other gardeners of the 20th century: Gertrude Jekyll, William Robinson, Edwin Lutyens, Lawrence Johnston and Norah Lindsay whom we will meet later at another wonderful garden that I visited on this trip.

Alliums (onion family) in the long border with the buttressed yews - informal planting with structured design.

Talking to the head gardener, he told me that at the beginning of the season the colour scheme in these borders is chosen to blend with the old roses; pinks, blues, mauves, lilac, creams and pale yellow, but as summer intensifies they give way to the stronger coloured bronzes, deep reds and yellows.

Early summer colour scheme with climbing roses along the walls of the Apple Tree Walk

A love of plants permeates a garden like Helmingham, with their personalities allowed to flourish.  The abundant planting enhances shading of tender plants and encourages self-seeding - on the day we were there, a young lady member of the gardening staff was carefully moving some of these 'opportunists' that had popped up to spots in the sun where, as she said, "they would be happier".

The Parterre and Knot Gardens are a nod to the past in their Italianate and French designs originally made to impress and say 'look how clever I am - I can control nature' in their formal geometric design and proportion they were meant to look like an extension of the house and show off the owners wealth and status.  The Parterre at Helmnigham has been softened by the planting of swathes of white and blue santolina and lavender - striking a contrast to the clipped hedges of box and yew.

The Knot Garden, typical of gardens from manor houses of this period was, in fact, only  created in 1982 to be historically sympathetic to the house with the clipped box hedging depicting the Tollemache initials and heraldry,  and interplanted with species introduced into Britain before 1750.  As well as being historically sensitive, the family wanted to create a garden that gave a real sense of time and place - a romantic setting that captures the imagination when viewed across the moat from the windows of the house. (The skill, time and money involved in maintaining a garden like this is mind-blowing - see end note!)

The garden also has an Apple Tree Walk, Rose Garden and walled Kitchen Garden - these beautiful iris formed a stunning border around the veggie beds - their iridescence glowing in the darkening day.

The garden is open from May to September - check online for daily opening times. 

What was my favourite part of Helmingham - the meadows around the house where I sat and ate my pork pie and strawberries.

NOTE:  On an earlier visit to the UK I visited the garden of Squerrys at Westerham and realised that not all garden staff have an eye for topiary and hedging - well, not a straight one anyway - either that or they take a hip flask to work with them!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Walking the Corfu Trail

If you have been wondering why I have been quiet lately the following is your answer.

Nissaki, north-east coast of Corfu

If, like me, you were captivated by Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals when you were a kid you may also, like me, have been harbouring a a burning desire to go to Corfu - the setting for this wonderful book - well this May my long-held wish came true and found me (and him) about to embark on a memorable adventure - a walk around Corfu.

Here's what Durrell had to say about Corfu almost 60 years ago.  The island lies off the Albanian and Greek coastlines like a long, rust eroded scimitar.  The hilt of the scimitar is the mountain region of the island (in the north), for the most part barren and stony, with towering rock cliffs haunted by blue rock-thrushes and peregrine falcons.  In the valleys in this mountain region, however, where water gushes plentifully from the red-and-gold rocks, you get forests of almond and walnut trees, casting shade as cool as a well, thick battalions of spear-like cypress and silver trunked fig trees with leaves as large as a salver.  The blade of the scimitar is made up of rolling greeny-silver eiderdowns of giant olive trees, some reputedly over five hundred years old and each one unique in its hunched, arthritic shape, its trunk pitted with a hundred holes like pumice stone.  Towards the tip of the blade you have Lefkimi, with its twinkling, eye-aching sand dunes and great salt marshes, decorated with acres of bamboo that creek and rustle and whisper to each other surreptitiously.  The island is called Corfu.  Birds, Beasts and Animals  Gerald Durrell 1969

While certain tracts of the coastline of Corfu have been swallowed up in tourist development, much of the interior is still instantly recognisable from Durrell's description written during the five years that his family lived there in the 1930's.  Historic pathways of the interior, connecting one village to another, are still 'off the beaten track' that lead you into a landscape that is both wild and ancient  The patchwork groves of gnarled and towering olives, citrus and almonds are still there.  So too the picturesque coastline, topped by a white domed monasteries that lead to shingle coves of stained glass coloured sea - then, on the scimitars blade in the south, to  wild sand dunes, lagoons, wind blown arching grasses and wading birds.  There might be more hotels, cruise liners and golf courses, but you can get away from it all on the Corfu Trail - you just have to start walking!

The smell of the hilltops still lingers with me, wherever we walked was wonderful - heat, dust, wild sage, thyme with the occasional waft of something sweet and fragrant - jasmine or orange flowers.

We felt very fortunate about the hotel we had booked in Corfu Town - sometimes you just get lucky with the internet!  Housed in a Venetian villa with only nine rooms, our upper floor room looked out, through green-shuttered windows and balcony, to a courtyard dominated by a flowering 200 year old Magnolia grandiflora - then beyond, over the rooftops of the Old Town to the sea and mountains of Albania in the distance.  Breakfast and afternoon tea in this courtyard were an absolute treat with homemade cake always on offer.  We woke in the mornings to the sounds of church bells, doves cooing, children playing and the smell of coffee brewing - a blissful way to start any morning and our holiday.

National folk dance festival - celebrating the day Corfu was unified with Greece after they chucked the British out.  Held in the grounds of the Palace of St Michael and St George, built by the British and their seat of government when they were in power from 1815 to 1864.

And, if this isn't enough to make you want to hop onto a plane and fly to Greece, Corfu Town (the capital) is one of the most beautiful I have ever visited.  A UNESCO World Heritage site dominated by elegant Venetian villas in faded pastel colours, a palace, two ancient fortresses, a sweeping bay, churches, a large park and esplanade (where they play cricket!) and bordering the esplanade the Liston - an elegant arcaded terrace of fashionable cafes and restaurants that rivals anything in Paris.  The whole place has a kind of crumbling grandeur about it.

The Venetian Orthodox church of St Spiridon, Corfu

Corfu owes much of its elegant architectural beauty to its history of occupation; being variously overrun in the past by the Venetians, French, British and Germans but, they will proudly tell you - never the Turks.  This, they believe, is largely due to the divine intervention of the patron Saint of Corfu, St. Spiridon whose relic i.e. mummified body - is held in the Venetian church that bears his name and dominates the old town.  In 1716 a Turkish force of 33,000 men sailed to Corfu and laid siege to the city.  The naval attack was repelled by the Venetians with Count Schulenburg in command, but the attacking Turkish  land army laid siege to the city for 22 days; being eventually defeated when word spread among the Turks that  St. Spiridon had been seen wandering through the streets with a lighted torch and, taking fright, they retreated and surrendered.

NOTE:  For classical music buffs:  After the victorious outcome of the battle Venice honoured Schulenburg and the Corfiots for successfully defending the island by commissioning the great composer Antonio Vivaldi to write an oratorio - Juditha triumphant - one of only four that he composed in his lifetime.
Venetian plaque on the wall of the Town Hall looking a lot like a triumphant Judith to me?

The Corfiots, like a lot of Greeks, are deeply religious and superstitious people and their patron saint is held in great reverence - hence over 60% of males in Corfu are called Spiro and you will hear St Spiridon being called upon to intercede in all kinds of emergencies - traffic altercations, inclement weather, battery running out on phone etc.  I love icon spotting and seeing if I can guess which saint it is by the gear he is wearing - it's all symbolic e.g. George always has a dragon hanging about and John an eagle (he of clear eye).  St Spiro is now instantly recognisable by his flowing white hair and, black crosses on his shoulders and, what looks like, a basket on his head - this goes back to his early days as a shepherd in Cyprus - apparently typical headgear from those parts.  Whe he died in 348AD he was initially buried on Cyprus, but moved to the safety of Constantinople when it was overrun by invading Turks.  When, in 1453, Constantinople fell to the Turks, Spiridon's relics were removed again to safety to Corfu - his final resting place but, as me travelling mate said "he looks like he's been about a bit."

The devout outside St Spiridon's Church

NOTE: He cropped up later on in our trip on Sifnos island in the Cyclades  - which has a tradition and history of ceramic making - old Spiro is also the patron saint of potters because he once used a shard of pottery as an analogy for the holy trinity being one thing but made from three - clay, fire and water. (This was at the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea in 325AD).  As he was explaining this the shard apparently turned to dust in his hand, which no doubt increased his 'wow' factor, and his fame spread.

A favourite pastime of Corfiots and pilgrims, is to line up and kiss the blackened extremities of his mummified body which is kept in a kind of ice-cream cabinet in the depths of the church watched over by crow-like women who solemnly slide back the lid for you to bend in, pucker up and kiss the old saints blackened and shrivelled toes  - I'm afraid I declined, but had the most overwhelming urge to ask for a Golden Gaytime.  Margo, Durrell's older sister, apparently caught the most frightful influenza from having a 'pash' with Spyro's toes and was banned thence forward by her mother from indulging in "all that superstitious mumbo-jumbo."

St Spiridon with the tell-tale basket on his head, crosses on his shoulders and white flowing beard

What finally got us there this year was not dear old Spiro but the discovery that a walking trail, from top to bottom - all 200km of it, had latterly been marked, mapped and documented - The Corfu Trail.  This is a designated walkers trail with no vehicular traffic, but you might just find yourself sharing it with a farmer, his tractor and the odd flock of  tinkling-bell'd goats, but that's about as busy as it gets.
On top of the highest peak - Pantokrator


1.  The trail notes accessed by downloading them from the website The Companion Guide to the Corfu Trail.  They are PDF format and a few euros each - which you can get before you go.

2.  The wonderfully detailed Corfu map by Freytag and Berndt 1:50,000 available in bookshops in Corfu Town (I love a good map!).  When all trail markers had disappeared this saved our bacon many times when we were wonderfully lost, yet again.


We decided to stay in a small hotel on the north east coast (close to where the Durrells lived) Nissaki, hire a small car and access the Trail for day walks.  This turned out to be  ideal for us as we could swim every morning, before breakfast, in an azure blue cove just below the hotel; easily get to wherever we wanted to by car and come back to the same place every night without having to keep packing up and finding new accommodation.  I had pre-booked this hotel before we left Australia and were fortunately able to extend our stay as we were outside the high season of mid-July to August and it was inexpensive - 35 euros per day.
Nissaki - our morning swimming cove and evening dining spot


1.  We gave a lift to a German woman (Karen from Berlin) who had stayed at our hotel for the night, and was about to set off on the last day of a ten day trip, starting in the south and finishing in the north, and covering the whole 220km in one go.  She just had a small pack, carrying everything with her and found somewhere to stay every night. The previous night, high up in the hills, she had slept on the floor of a shepherds hut!.  She, like us, did find, that much of the accommodation in Corfu is pre-booked through agents and, unlike in other parts of Greece, it's sometimes difficult to find casual accommodation.

2.  If you want to do the whole thing go through Aperghi Travel, based in Corfu,  and they can organise it all for you from  booking your accommodation and transporting your bags day to day - they can also provide a guide to take groups.  We met one of these guides with his group, Spiro (of course!), high up in a mountain village and spent a happy half an hour or so over a Greek salad and tsitsibira (Corfiot ginger beer - a hangover from British rule - like cricket on the green) discussing the wild flowers we had seen that day and if I knew what a particular stem-clasping sage was? (Spiro, if you are ever looking at this, Smyrnium rotundifolium - I think)

Our Greek not up to scratch for some of the signposting
Walk 1:  From PORTO to OLD PERITHEA via the highest peak on Corfu - PANTOKRATOR (980m).  What magnificent views of the Albanian coastline, heady fragrance of all the wildflowers - too many varieties to count - and the air abuzz with so many insects and butterflies. The way not clearly marked and we took a wrong turn finding ourselves heading down to the coast instead of inland.  Had a fortunate encounter with some other walkers - the only people we saw that day - who put us right and told us we should have turned up behind the goat shed!

Backtracked about 4km and eventually found our way to the base of Pantokrator and the ruined village of Old Perithea - once the capital of Corfu in the 14th century and now a village of 130 ruined stone buildings - which are gradually being restored - with, thankfully, four working tavernas, being a regular stopping off point for those climbing to the summit.

Old Perithea

Wandered around happily among the ruins, donkeys, chickens and burgeoning vegetable gardens with people starting to reinhabit this tranquil place - there is even a 4star B&B, The Merchant's House.  With lunch under our belt we headed back to Porto and our hire car parked in the grounds of the old church.

About 12km round trip and an absolutely wonderful day's walking.

Walk 2: SPARTILAS to PANDOKRATORAS IPSILOU (ruined church) with wonderful views down the coastline to IPSOU and DASIA. 

The comment in my diary after this hike was "The Corfu Trail is either going to turn me into an Olympian or a hospital case - I suspect the latter". This was a challenging walk that climbed and descended steeply - often clambering over large boulders.  What it did though was give us spectacular views of the coastline to the south and Corfu Town and across the Ionian sea to Epirus (Albania and Greece) and the Pindus mountains - which I am dying to go and explore.

The absolutely best thing about walking is that you leave the madding crowd behind - you rarely meet a soul.  Corfu has long-been a mecca for British package tourists, Italian holidaymakers and cruise trip day-trippers, which can be really overwhelming in the town and resorts but, up here, you have it all to yourself and it's heaven.

Walk 3: SOKRAKI  to VALANIO and the waterfall at NIMFES through ancient olive groves and holm oak forests.

Having taken the advice of Spiro, the walking guide we had met the previous day, we set out to do a circular walk  to some of the northern inland villages that started in SOKRAKI - a two donkey wide village where the locals gave all sorts of advice about where the Corfu Trail might start - none of it helpful - eventually being put right by olive wood turner, whom we spotted in a little workshop (Spiro!!) who spoke good English.

We were headed for some of the loveliest and remotest villages on Corfu that are full of myth and legend, walking past groves of flowering orange and almond trees.

Such a contrast to the previous walks - now in quite dense shade from towering olive trees - some over 7m - marvellously gnarled, mossy and full of fist-like holes.  Everywhere else we have ever been in Greece - from the Peleponnese to Santorini - the olive trees are radically and regularly pruned, but not on Corfu and I don't know why? Spotted many new species of  wildflowers, butterflies and birds (and lots of shotgun cartridges!).  After, what we thought was going to be a 6km walk which turned into 10km, and getting lost again, we just about made it to the village of Horepiskopi before a sudden and torrential downpour shrouded the valley in a veil of mist.  We just made it in time to the local cafe before the rain came down in drenching sheets. Thankfully dry, and with a spanakopita and coffee inside us, we called it a day and got a taxi back to our car.  It cost us 25 euros but, I think I would have paid 100! 

Walk 4: NISSAKI TO KALAMI coastal walk past the Durrell White House

Started in the very pretty bay of Kaminaki, next to where we were staying at Nissaki, and took the Corfu Trail past some lovely bays and coastal headlands  ending up at Kalami where Lawrence Durrell lived with his wife in the White House.  It's still there - has a taverna underneath and been turned into a guest house.  

This whole coastline has long been the playground of a certain kind of holidaying Brit and is known as Kensington on Sea - I spotted the first cravat I have seen in a long while.  It has also been a permanent home to many of them - just like the Durrells - who were refugees from a post colonial era, not being able to settle in Britain after their birth-lands gained independence when the Empire crumbled.  The poignancy of this struck me when I was wandering around the British Cemetery in Corfu Town - just how many of those British people who had ultimately called Corfu home and subsequently died there, had been born in the far-flung corners of the Empire like India or Malaya - just like Ma Durrell - or maybe they just couldn't stand the weather in Britain after living in places with heat.

This is a marvellous 'swimming' and 'boating' coastline dotted with azure bays and climbing cliffs punctuated with cypress and olive trees.  The ruggedness of the coastline also means that the road stays at the top and you can only get to the more secluded bays on foot or by boat - just the way I like it.  Ended up for lunch in the bay of Agni - which has three tavernas with most folk arrive by boat which get parked by the jetty boys employed by these very busy tavernas  One of them is famously run by Theo (Taverna Agni) and we were advised to go and chat to him about nipping over to the mainland as he conducts trips there focussing on food.  Unfortunately, the day we picked he was way too busy to chat so we just had to be content with quick lunch, cold drink and make our way back to Nissaki for a well-earned siesta.  Epirus will have to wait for another time.

We had dinner to look forward to at our taverna at Nissaki - 'Mitsos' run by Agatha and her family.

Best homemade taramasalata (she made it with finely sieved potato instead of bread), meatballs and daily specials - here we were having gavros (fresh anchovies) - my favourite.

I'm not a fan of chips, but she made the best, crispy with creamy yellow flesh.  The half litre of local white wine was cold and good too AND the very best meatballs in tomato sauce.  Unlike most Greek food these are spicy with chilli and cinnamon.



When we asked our fellow Trail walker, Karen, what had been the highlight of her journey on the Corfu Trail, she nominated this walk for the fantastic coastal views - and she was not wrong.  PALEOKASTRISTSA has a series of stunning cypress studied bays that fall down to spectacular rocky coves and beaches with mouthwash sea all a'bob with impressive looking yachts flying the colours of every nation.  The downside is that the hillsides and beaches are crammed with holiday villas and tourists, with bus loads of day-trippers heading for the historic Theotokas monastery dedicated to the Virgin Mary and dating from 1228.

The monastery is well worth a visit, if you can find a quiet time - it has a beautiful garden, olive press in a cave and stunning iconography and adornments in the church.  We were there on a day when coach loads of Orthodox Russian tourists had arrived from a visiting cruise ship in Corfu harbour.  Crammed into queuing behind them I was transfixed as the women shrouded themselves in headscarves, kissed the icon of the Virgin Mary and genuflected so low that their hair swept the floor, back and forth several times.

There is also something else that attracts visitors - the bay of Paleokastritsa is steeped in Homeric myth and supposed to be the place where Odysseus' ship was wrecked (the rocky headlands said to resemble the ship) and, in his nakedness, where he first clapped eyes on Nausikaa.
Odysseus and Nausicaa from the collection of paintings held at the Achilleion Palace, Corfu 
(This palace, built by the Empress of Austria in 1890, and dedicated to the mythical hero Achilles, is somewhere else that is well worth a visit)

We bolted for the inland village of LIAPADES to escape the wind that had blown-up from the sea.  This is a lovely traditional village and contains everything, according to Lawrence Durrell, that a  village should - a square with a church, a kafenion (cafe), and a Tree of Idleness for shade.  Where these are absent - according to Hilary Whitton Paipeti (maker of the Corfu Trail and Trail notes) - the lifestyle perishes and the village is no longer a village. (Sign on the bottom of the menu, Liapades Kafenion "The shop is obliged to have printed documents in a special case beside the exit for setting out of any existed complaint" - we didn't have any!)


If you are staying in Corfu Town there are many places of interest that you can walk to including the English Cemetery; The Old and New Fortress, the Old Port and cobbled backstreets, the produce market in the old moat, Mon Repos (villa where Prince Phillip was born) Achilleon Palace (a short bus ride), the Esplanade and Liston (catch a cricket match on Sunday afternoons) and a fine Archeological Museum.

We took a walk, in the fading evening light, to the English Cemetery which I had seen featured on a travel series on DVD by Joanna Lumley called Greek Odyssey.  I loved the genuine passion she showed for Greece and some of the out-of-the-way places she visited and shared - not the regular journey that these kind of shows normally take.  For an overview of Greece, I highly recommend it.

This graveyard is overseen by George Psailas who was born in the gatehouse of the cemetery in 1927 - his father was the gardener before him - and he has lived here ever since taking pride in its special beauty and history.  This place tells many stories - of battles won and lost and soldiers buried far from home and all the British expatriates who, for the past two hundred years, have called Corfu home.  It is also a garden of wistful beauty and contains many wild and cultivated flowers.  Out of 200 orchid species found in Europe, 30 can be found in here.  George was awarded the Empire Medal for his dedication to the upkeep of the cemetery and he showed the plot he has already chosen for his final resting place - with the best view of the garden.  Here's something he had to say.  "If all people loved flowers we would never have wars.  It may seem incredible, but it is very true.  For 67 years I have been living, night and day, in a piece of land where our beloved persons rest for ever in peace, without disturbing anyone, without claiming anything.  However, the nature, 'Mother Earth', offers them her best jewel, the various flowers of the seasons: daisies, iris, orchids, cyclamen, saffrons, snowdrops and many others.  The loveliest thing in the world is a flower - don't look for beauty anywhere else"

NOTE:  Something about Corfiot cuisine

Being a lover of Greek food I was intrigued to find something a bit different on Corfu - food that is inextricably linked with its geography and history and is reflected in some specialities flavoured with cinnamon and nutmeg and spiced up with chilli.  Here are a few to watch out for:

Clinging to every rock face and an important part of Greek cuisine - capers and samphire - we are in the land of hunter gatherers!

BOURDETO  A fish stew, usually made from scorpion fish, in a tomato based sauce and flavoured with red pepper, both hot and sweet.

PASTITSATHA  Rooster cooked in cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and paprika and served with pasta. 

AVGOTARAHO  Smoked fish roe from PETRITI on the south coast is one of the gourmet treats - like botargo - it is the salted , sun-dried roe of the grey mullet.  The Corfiots preserve it by coating it in beeswax.  A delicacy, like caviar, it's usually sliced thinly and served with olive oil, pepper and lemon and paired with fruits such as dried figs. 

SOFRITO Veal cooked in wine sauce with garlic and white pepper

TSIGARELI In the horta tradition of wild greens, they sauté them on Corfu (usually chard) with onion, garlic, olive oil, chopped fennel leaves and red pepper.  This was a favourite and we had this most days.  Not being a fan of 'greens' this was an absolute first for me - so tender, not stringy, and delicious.  An important part of the Mediterranean diet, wild greens can come in many shapes and sizes and it's often hard, for a non-speaker,  to pin down what it actually is and can be; chicory, lambs lettuce, dandelion, chard, silver beet, samphire, beetroot tops and even leaves from the tamarisk tree - to name but a few.  They are always served with fresh lemon and olive oil.
We had many memorable meals, but one of the best was at a cliffside restaurant in the north-east, Caryatids.  There we had a typically Corfiot meal of octopus stew, spiced with paprika and cinnamon, accompanied by local potaoes, creamed and flavoured with nutmeg. Oh, and don't forget the nod to the neighbours with an Italian salad, insalata caprese - local tomatoes and cheese with fresh basil.  Yum - and I can't wait to go back. 

"Other countries may offer you discoveries in manners or lore or landscape; Greece offers you something harder - the discovery of yourself"
Larence Durrell, Prospero's Cell, written on Corfu in 1939