Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Cycling from Innsbruck to Verona: Day 3 Bolzano to Trento

Day 3: Bolzano to Trento 73 km
Day 2: Bressanone to Bolzano (click here)
Day 1: Innsbruck to Bressanone (click here)

I love this couple kissing in the moonlight

Bolzano turned out to be another gem of a place - just lovely.  Our Hotel Scala was great and, hallelujah, had a pool - just what I needed to straighten out the body after a day in the saddle.  So while Michael went off to the museum to check out ORTZI - the Ice Age Man, I spent a happy couple of hours chuckling to Bill Bryson's Neither Here Nor There eating a stale croissant, that I found in the bottom of my pannier, with a cup of hotel room tea; Sunday means that you needn't bother to feel hungry or thirsty in this hotel because everything was closed.

We were really getting to love rocking up to all these towns we had never been to before and doing as much exploring as we could in the short space of time that we had available - it was a real adventure with the stress taken out; all the hotels were booked for us and the bags were transported every day and there was never a hitch in any of that. (UK company FreedomTreks).

Beautiful Bolzano, with its lovely central square lined with grand buildings, is the largest city in the South Tyrol where, once again, you are in Italy, still but it feels very Austrian.  For a large University town it was remarkably quiet - that Sunday thing again, and we were beginning to despair of finding anywhere decent to eat.  That's when we noticed a boutique hotel with a roof-top garden restaurant that was open and, although we were the only customers, the nice young man who served us couldn't have been more helpful.  So with a glass of prosecco in one hand and a forkful of very good lasagne in the other we suddenly felt that, at last, we had arrived in Italy. That was after the capriosca and insalata caprese and, with all thoughts of endless pedalling quickly fading we settled on our rooftop to watch the sun setting over Bolzano with full moon rising over the mountains.

The next day we set off after breakfast destined for Trento on what was supposed to be a mammoth day of riding - 75 km, but we had already decided that this would be a little too much for us and took the train option for part of it - what a smart move!  It meant that we could ride the scenic bits and avoid the not so pleasant parts that followed the autostrada - remember that this is the main route into Italy from the north, and the traffic on these large roads was horrendous.

Our 40km of cycling today took us through mile after mile of luscious scenery;  grapes ripening in vineyards; fertile river valleys edged with mountains, and lovely Lake Caldaro where we were very tempted to go for a swim. As we had cozzies, but no towels, we thought we would try our luck and cycled into the rather grand, but very Austrian, lakeside Park Hotel to enquire about hiring some towels and a bit of lunch. We were met by the frosty receptionist in the whole Heidi outfit - dirndl skirt, white blouse and black velvet waistcoat - she even had her hair in bunches and very rosy cheeks!  She informed us that it was verboten to swim in the lake without first paying 45 euros each for a days' 'Wellness Ticket' (about A$80 each). Well, we din't feel at all well as we wearily pushed our bikes back up the driveway and onto the road again.

The unfriendliness we had encountered over the past couple of days continued on the bike track and, to us, it was very strange.  The lycra brigade would come hurtling past us, without ringing their bells, and just shout abuse at us.  One chap even gave Michael a shove as he was going past - nearly knocking him flying.  I asked my Mullumbimby Austrian friend about this the other day and he said that we were probably breaking some rule that we didn't know about - written or unwritten - I suspect we were just going too slow!.  Anyway, this all seemed to suddenly change as we headed towards Trento with more Italian cyclists coming the other way - people started to give us a friendly wave or a thumbs up - a couple even said 'bravo'. I also noticed that the high wire fences we had seen around all the orchards and vineyards, had suddenly gone and an open rural landscape stretched out before us in all its glory.

The last part was easy because we were on the train.  The only difficulty was that the stations didn't have lifts and we had to carry the bikes up and down several flights of stairs AND the bike carriage at the back of the train had a steep three stairs up to it - that's when I tore a muscle in my shoulder trying to hurl the bike up.  Don't ask me why you would have a specific carriage for bikes on trains and not be able to access them easily - the automatic doors didn't help either - the bruises lasted for months! And then we arrived in Trento - what a gorgeous place!!

Anyway, there we were, finally wheeling our bikes from the train station through Piazza Dante, centred around the most marvellous statue to its namesake, on our way to the Grand Hotel Trento - and very grand it was - we thought we were in the wrong place.  After a quick wash in our marble bathroom we were ready to explore yet another new place and, I can tell you, we were in for a treat. Trento is stunning - a feast for your eyes: cobbled streets, lace ironwork balconies, frescoed villas, shuttered windows, and then the Piazza del Duomo - the cathedral square, which was surrounded by wonderful buildings and a fantastic baroque  fountain of Neptune playing in the centre.

Standing on the steps of the cathedral, as I looked around, the mountaintops of the Dolomites formed a backdrop visible above the rooftops in every direction - just breathtaking.  To top it off, an arts festival was in full swing and the streets were full of flowers and public art.
NOTE: Our daughter, Francesca, subsequently told me that on her first European travels, twenty years previously, that Trento had been her favourite place and that she and her partner had tried to get work and stay there

Dotted around the Piazza were very enticing looking eateries - just deciding which one caused a bit of a marital hiccup, but we (I) settled on Scrigno del Duomo (the bread looked good and the waiters were cute) - and we were both very glad we did because we had a most memorable meal.  Trento is in the heart of prosecco country so we started off with the waiter's recommendation and a delicious roasted octopus salad on a potato and tarragon salad with a passionfruit sauce - sounds weird, but it worked.

This was followed by for me by a homemade fettuccine with a veal ragout and Michael had a very good pea and prawn risotto - the bread was very good too.  We wandered back to our grand hotel and thankfully slept like logs because tomorrow was going to be a real test - Lake Garda or bust!

NOTE: Cleaners throw out art installation because they think it's rubbish.  This happened at the Bolzano Museum just after we were there.  An artist had set up a room depicting the excesses of the 1980's - a room after a very wild party; full of bottles, glasses, overflowing ashtrays, streamers, balloons - except they forgot to tell the cleaners and they binned the whole lot.  I would love to have been a fly on the wall and wonder what they would have thought of Tracy Emin's unmade bed?

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Coconut Prawns

I was cooking a New Year dinner for a few friends and I wanted to come up with something special for entree - something fresh and light to counteract the dripping heat and humidity that we get at this time of year,  and zing the tastebuds after the Christmas blowout. (I'm writing this with the fan on full-blast with it as close as I dare without getting sucked into the up-draught).

Then, I had a distinct memory of eating something like this at a favourite restaurant of ours in Sydney, the Thai Nesia in Darlinghurst. The coconut prawns they served up were definitely zingy and I loved the novelty of wrapping up the tasty little parcel, served on a betel leaf, and popping the whole thing in your mouth - a true Thai taste sensation.

They are not to be confused with betel nut - the red, teeth staining stuff

Betel leaf plant with stolon and rooted node

Betel (Piper beetle) is a sprawling perennial vine in the pepper family with glossy, heart-shaped leaves - which are not peppery, by the way; in fact, they don't taste of anything much.  It is very easy to grow around these parts and lives quite happily in a corner of my garden next to mint - which tells you that it likes semi-shade and fairly moist conditions.  It doesn't, however, like the cold and will die-back in the wintertime, only to pop up again in the spring (hence perennial). It can be rather vigorous but is easy to keep under control.

It is very easy to propagate from cuttings.  The mother plant will put out runners (stolons) and, at every stem joint (node), you will see little roots appearing.  Simply cut off a section with roots and stick it in some fertile compost enriched soil.

Coconut Prawns
I had tried cooking different versions of this dish but wasn't happy with any of them, and besides most of the recipes were way too complicated and contained hard to get ingredients (don't you hate that!).  The last one was one I had cut out from Gourmet Traveller - which, after one try out went straight in the bin!  So here we go - my Coconut Prawns - fully tweaked and tested.

If you can't get betel leaves, try serving the prawns on little pieces of seaweed sheet - the kind you would use for making sushi and nori rolls - I think that could work.

Betel leaves, fresh ginger, lantern chilies, mint and makrut lime leaves from my garden
8 betel leaves
8 green prawns, shelled and cleaned
1 desert spoon peanut oil
Thumb size piece of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped finely
1 long red chilli, seeded and chopped finely
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 fresh kaffir lime leaves (now known by the more acceptable makrut lime), finely shredded - I do this with scissors
2 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp palm sugar
Few sprigs fresh coriander and mint
1 fresh lime, cut into wedges

1 1/2 cups desiccated coconut
1 cup unsalted peanuts

1. Heat up a wok and toss in the peanuts, stirring around until they begin to turn golden. At this point, toss in the coconut and turn the heat down and keep stirring until coconut is golden too, then immediately take off heat because it burns very easily. Get ready for the smell - it's divine!!
2.  When this mixture is cool, whiz up in a food processor - don't overdo it, this should not be too fine.
NOTE:  You can store any leftovers of this mix in an airtight container in the fridge and use it to top stir fries, noodles and fried rice.
3.  Heat the peanut oil in your wok.
4.  Add the garlic, chilli and prawns and toss on high heat for 1 minute
5.  Add ginger, shredded lime leaves, palm sugar and fish sauce and toss for further minute or two until a sauce is formed.  Turn off heat.
6.  Place a prawn, with some sauce, on each betel leaf.
7.  Top with a teaspoonful of the coconut/peanut mix and a sprig of fresh coriander and a mint leaf or two.
8.  Serve with lime wedges.

NOTE:  The betel leaves are edible and simply dissolve in your mouth - they are not stringy.  You just wrap up the prawn parcel in the betel leaf and pop the whole thing in your mouth.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Chargrilled vegetables and couscous salad

We recently had a lunch invitation, and I needed to take a salad with me to go with our hosts herb crusted roast beef.   So are you thinking what I'm thinking - something robust with lots of flavour - well this is what I came up with - and from all the yum noises, and speedy returns for second helpings, it seemed like the delicious beef and this salad were just made for each other.

The inspiration for this dish came from a Karen Martini recipe; one of the many floating around my desk and kitchen on pieces of old, cut-out newspaper that are waiting for a rainy day to get sorted out.   I'm a big fan of using couscous as a base for salads - it just does the trick in soaking up yummy dressing without becoming gluggy; it's also very quick to cook,  and goes a long way!  There was an added bonus to this recipe - I love cooking outside on the barbecue and I could pre-cook the vegetables whilst enjoying the comings and goings in the garden and have a glass of something cold at the same time (cooks need to be rewarded - even if they have to do it themselves!)

Char-grilled Vegetables and Couscous Salad

A few each of the following:
Finger eggplants (aubergine)
1 tbsp olive oil
1 garlic clove, crushed
Some fresh garden herbs, chopped - I used tarragon and marjoram, but you could substitute with rosemary, oregano or thyme
Freshly ground sea salt and black pepper

1 1/2 cups couscous cooked to packet directions

1 tbsp light tahini
Juice of 1 small lemon
1 garlic clove, crushed
1/2 cup light olive oil
Freshly ground salt and pepper
Extra herbs for decoration

1.  Prepare vegetables by slicing lengthways, or into 3's if they are fat.  Carrots may be left whole if they are small.
2.  In a bowl prepare marinade of olive oil, garlic, herbs, salt & pepper
3.  Brush the sliced vegetables with the marinade - don't overdo the eggplant as it loves to soak up oil.
4.  Cook couscous and, 15 minutes before you need it - heat up barbecue.
5.  Place the vegetables on the grill part of the barbecue - mine has coals underneath, which is perfect because the veggies get that lovely chargrilled flavour and those desirable stripes!  Cook for about 3 minutes on each side.  This can be done well ahead of time but infinitely better if they are still a little warm when you are ready to eat.
6.  Tip cooked couscous into large bowl and whisk together dressing ingredients.
7.  Arrange vegetables on top of couscous and pour over dressing when ready to serve.
8.  Dress with some fresh zucchini or nasturtium flowers, if you have them, and some fresh tarragon.

"Never put off until tomorrow the zucchini you should pick today"

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Watercress, radish and edamame salad

Watercress, radish and edamame salad

Note: Edamame are immature soybeans that you can find in the frozen veggie section of the supermarket and they are my latest food discovery - how did I ever live without them?  Simply toss the pods into boiling water for three minutes, then drain and when cool, shell them.

This is a very simple and nutritious salad that is just perfect for the post Christmas blowout - light and tasty.  When I start having to have two cold showers a day, I know it's time for a salad like this.

I love watercress, that spicy nuttiness, and we are lucky that our local farmer's market stocks it most of the year round - I get this from the same family of market gardeners that I make a bee line to every week for fragrant big bunches of dill, coriander and parsley - then leave laden and very happy.  I also love radish - the colour, crunch and taste.

Bunch of watercress, washed and dried
A few fresh radish, sliced
1 cup edamame beans (about 225 grams whole beans before cooking and shelling)
1 tbsp sesame seeds, toasted and sprinkled with nigella seed on top of salad just before serving.
1 tsp nigella seeds* or black sesame.


Juice of half a lemon
Few drops of sesame oil
2 tbsp light olive oil
Freshly ground salt and pepper

Whisk together and pour over prepared salad just before serving.

*Nigella seeds are great little things to keep in the pantry to toast and toss on salads like this   or for sprinkling on top of savoury breads and biscuits.  They are the seeds from the delightfully named Love-in-a-mist flower (Nigella sativa) - which is a lovely old fashioned cottage garden plant that I grow for their spring flowering and for their seeds.  It's hard to describe the flavour - you will just have to trust me and give them a try; they are also available in speciality shops.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Blickling Hall

Blickling Hall, Norfolk, UK

This is the second in a series of some lesser known English gardens that started with Helmingham Hall in Suffolk - that I visited on my last trip to the UK in 2015. Now, some six months later, I had put the afternoon aside for some weed pulling in the veggie patch, but a summer downpour has put paid to that - so I can transport myself back to beautiful Blickling instead - and take you there with me!

Why Blickling?  Of all the wonderful old piles to choose from - why Blickling - well, there were quite a few things that had sparked my interest:

  • This was the original home of the Boleyn family, Anne being born here in 1501, and I have a fascination for all things Tudor - something obviously must have sunk in at school!
  • The last private owner, Phillip Kerr 11th Marquis of Lothian (1882-1940), was an intriguing fellow.  He was instrumental in getting the National Trust Act passed in Britain and Blickling was the first house to be bequeathed to it.  This was during the 1930's when his pro-fascist Cliveden Set caused quite a stir.  Along with Nancy Astor, his good friend, he entertained the Prince of Wales and Mrs Simpson (fellow appeasers) and Von Ribbentrop at Blickling - he even went to visit Hitler on two occasions.(There is currently a marvellous exhibition, throughout the house, detailing Kerr's life and times).  His pro-fascist leanings didn't, however, seem to affect his social standing as he died suddenly in America just after he was made British ambassador - I think there were a lot of influential British people in the 1930's who held similar views.
    Norah Lindsay's original designs for the parterre at Blickling and her painting of the famous blue poppies that she planted here in the Secret Garden.

  • You have probably heard of English landscape designers Vita Sackville West and Gertrude Jekyll, but Norah Lindsay - probably not?  Well, her legacy is equally as important to the Modern English Landscaping Movement and her marvellous gardens endure at Blickling, along with her original landscape drawings and a room dedicated to her life.  Lord Lothian was something of a patron of hers and was able to introduce her to his society friends for commissions.
  • Plus - the peonies were blooming!
The House
My first sight of Blickling was honestly breathtaking, glimpsed through a gap in the immense yew hedge that surrounds this impressive Jacobean, red-brick, manor house with it's sweeping gravel driveway and swathes of manicured lawns. 

With an estate of 4,777 acres and gardens of 55 acres, Blickling has a rich history that is full of myths and legends - and ghosts - and is purported to be the most haunted house in England but, with its history, I'm not really surprised.  The Boleyn family built the original house here, that burned down in the sixteenth century, and the current house has a lovely portrait and statue of Anne (still with her head on!)  It is said that every year, on the anniversary of her execution, Anne Boleyn's headless ghost arrives at Blickling in a carriage driven by an equally headless coachman - she then proceeds to wander around the house with her head under her arm.

Highlights of visiting the house:

We had wonderful volunteer guides that made the place come alive and I could have wandered around here all day - it is just jam packed with treasures and absolutely fascinating - but I'll be brief because we have to get to the garden!

  • Fabulous collection of paintings by Reynolds, Gainsborough, Van Dyke and Canaletto.

Inside Blickling, with a Gainsborough painting of the Duke of Buckingham and flowers from the garden

  • The Blue Bedroom with hand painted Chinese wallpaper from 1740!  The Duchess of Buckingham, living here at the time, was said to be very unimpressed with Norfolk so her husband, the Duke, had it decorated in this exotic style to try and keep her happy!

The Blue Bedroom with hand painted Chinese wallpaper 1740

  • The 127ft long Library with one of the finest collection of books in England - would have loved to be able to sit down and pull some of the books on natural history and philosophy from the shelves. We met the young PhD student who was in the process of cataloguing the whole collection - said it would take another five years - what a dream job - and the views from the windows!!
  • The kitchen!

The Garden

You actually need days to take it all in properly - all 55 acres of it - with beautiful Lindsay parterre and sunken garden, Secret Garden, an 18th century orangery (used to house the potted citrus in the winter time), herbaceous borders, and ancient ha-ha - which is a ditch, invisible from the house, used as a romantic rural landscaping device so that sheep and cows could graze almost right up to the front door without being able to escape into the formal gardens (or the dining room!).

The walled kitchen garden is currently under renovation with a huge effort to try and restore it to its former glory.  This will be just about the last piece in the puzzle of mapping the lives of the people who lived and died at Blickling - what did they grow and how did they feed themselves?

The parterre garden

                                                          The Ha-Ha and Orangery

 The Secret Garden surrounded by magnificent, towering trees

And the peonies were magnificent and worth the price of the admission

NOTE:  It appeared me, as I was wandering around the house and became acquainted with Lord Lothian and his story, that it all seemed vaguely familiar.  And then it struck me - Foyles War, the BBC WW2 drama series.  One of the episodes was called the 'White Feather' and centred around a group of 'appeasers' and German sympathisers called The Friday Club with mostly aristocrats as its members.  I know the creator of Foyles War, Anthony Horrowitz, based every episode on historical fact and just left me wondering.........?

After a marvellous day out, under a leaden sky, we drove to the Becton on the Norfolk coast and had one of the most delicious meals of our whole trip at the Ship Inn - local, dressed Cromer crab.  I can still taste it now - Michael says the local ale was pretty good too. Our overnight B & B - the charmingly named May Cottage - was one of the best too - I can highly recommend it.

NOTE TOO:  "Can you please tell me why the English have their own religion - not Catholic or Orthodox"? This was a question posed to me, some weeks before Blickling, on a ferry from Corfu to Paxos by the lovely Russian tour guide, Anna.  We had struck up an unlikely conversation, as you do, and she was very keen for "all knowledge".  She said that her compatriot clientele often asked her all sorts of questions, particularly to do with religion (being largely orthodox), and she would like to be able to answer them.  I don't know if you have ever tried to explain the shenanigans of Henry VIII and the Reformation to anyone but, in the telling, it sounds bizarre.  "Well, he made up his own religion so he could divorce his wives because he wanted a son - but some of them, like Anne Boleyn - he chopped their heads off to get rid of them"  Anna "So who his head of English church - not pope?" And so it went on. It really was a surreal conversation; when she found out we were from Australia, not England, she said "Is that near Greenland"?.  The conversation came to an abrupt halt, probably fortunately, with her question "So this Henry, he was very sexual, da?" At this point we noticed a commotion and realised that one of her party was being resuscitated on the beach he had tried to swim to after a gut full of booze and tucker - he had suffered a heart attack - he owes his life to two knowledgeable strangers.

I wish Anna could have been at Blickling with me.