May 31

Breakfast in Singapore – Kaya Toast and Kopi

Kaya Toast and Kopi, Singapore.

The most quintessential breakfast in Singapore, kaya toast and kopi, did not initially excite us. However, it’s hard to resist an opportunity to participate in a local morning ritual that involves sipping, dunking and crunching.

We’ve long loved a good strong kopi – since we first sipped the inky brew on our inaugural trip to Malaysia twelve years ago. But we were ambivalent about the kaya toast, which we only tried for the first time on a not-so-distant trip to Borneo. It didn’t make an impression, though that was set to change…

Kaya Toast and Kopi
Kopi is the Malay-Hokkien name for the smooth, thick, syrupy coffee made from sweetened condensed milk found all over Singapore, Malaysia, parts of Indonesia, and in Thailand where there are Thais of Chinese heritage.

Kaya is a sweet almost custard-like spread concocted from coconut, sugar, eggs, and either pandan, when it’s greenish-yellow, or palm sugar, when it’s a brownish colour. Kaya is way too sweet for my taste and would be more palatable if the coconut was more pronounced.

Kaya toast is simply kaya spread over thick slabs of margarine or butter, sandwiched between two pieces of toast. Often twice toasted, it can be very dry and crispy (although I’m told this is how Singaporeans like it) and it tends to be cold by the time it arrives at the table.

It’s thought that Hainanese immigrants, who often worked as cooks for the tea and toast-loving British during the colonial period, replaced European-style jams with their Southeast Asian equivalent, thereby inventing the breakfast dish.

Kaya Toast and Kopi Singapore Style
What made kaya toast and kopi more appetising in Singapore than Sabah was the addition of soft boiled eggs served in a small dish on the side into which the kaya toast is dipped. As dunking buttered toast fingers (or soldiers, as we called them then) into soft-boiled eggs was a breakfast favourite of our Australian childhoods, we got this completely.

And the way they do their eggs in Singapore, so that the yolk is still runny and the whites soft, is something I usually struggle to get hotels in Southeast Asia to do. Dunking the kaya toast softens the crunch a tad and the savouriness of the eggs balances out the sweetness of the kaya. The bittersweet flavours of the kopi… well, let’s just say there are few better ways to kickstart a day.

The Kopitiam
So where do you go for kaya toast and kopi? Head to a kopitiam of course – another term from the Chinese Hokkien and Hakka dialects.

These traditional coffee shops are all over Singapore (as well as Malaysia and southern Thailand) and come in many shapes and forms, from simple, old-fashioned places that have clearly seen better days to smart, contemporary cafés that have been franchised, like Ya Kun Kaya Toast, which started out as a coffee stall in 1944.

You also don’t have to limit kopi and kaya toast to breakfast time. In recent years, as part of what I like to call the ‘everything old is new again trend’, kaya toast and kopi has gone beyond breakfast to become a popular snack at anytime of day that young Singaporeans increasingly go out to enjoy together with a group of friends. And this is how to explain the flourishing of the contemporary kopitiam franchise.

How to Order Kaya Toast and Kopi
You can order your kopi, kaya toast and eggs separately or as a set that will be presented to you on a tray. In most kopitiams you generally order at the counter and the tray delivered to your table. The set always tends to be a little bit cheaper too.

If you want the coffee I described above with condensed milk, just order ‘kopi’. If you’d prefer it with evaporated milk, it’s ‘kopi c’. (The ‘c’ comes from the Hainanese ‘xi’ meaning ‘fresh’, as in fresh evaporated milk.) If you want either of those with ice, then it’s ‘kopi peng’ (‘peng’ meaning iced) and ‘kopi c peng’ respectively.

For sweet, hot black coffee, order ‘kopi o’ (‘o’ is black); with ice, it’s ‘kopi o peng’. If you’d like it hot and black but without sugar, say ‘kopi o kosong’ (‘kosong’ means zero); with ice, ‘kopi oh kosong peng’. And if you prefer any of those options with evaporated milk instead of condensed, just add a ‘c’ after kopi, so ‘kopi c kosong’, which is hot coffee, unsweetened, with evaporated milk. You get the idea.

Our Picks of the Best Kopitiams in Singapore

Ya Kun Kaya Toast
Our first experience of kaya toast and kopi was at Ya Kun Kaya Toast, one of the oldest kopitiams in Singapore, which is now part of a fast-growing chains. The original coffee shop has more character but this simple café in the Fortune Centre (famous for its Muslim vegetarian eateries), was recommended to us. It was some of the crunchiest toast we had, the kaya was creamy and sugary, and the kopi was syrupy and sweet. But the eggs, oh the eggs. These must be the world’s most perfectly soft-boiled eggs.
18 China Street, Far East Square (original)
Fortune Centre, 190 Middle Road, Bras Basah-Bugis area, open from 7.30am

Nanyang Old Coffee
Toast that wasn’t too crunchy, kaya that wasn’t overly sweet, precisely cooked eggs, and deliciously muddy kopi. At this Chinatown branch of Nanyang Old Coffee, a small franchise, locals tend to sit inside in the air-conditioned cool while tourists opt for outside tables on the corner of the recently revitalised Smith Street eat street. There’s a miniscule coffee museum inside with a small display of coffee paraphernalia, including a primitive roasting machine, traditional porcelain cups and antique coffee tins.
Corner Smith Street and South Bridge Road, Chinatown, open from 7am

Tong Ah Coffee Shop
The kaya is coarse and flavoursome, the butter spread thick, and the twice-grilled toast crunchy. The coffee, half of which ends up on the saucer (presentation is not the old bloke’s strong point) is syrupy, strong and sweet. The noodles (different menu; made out back) also appear to be popular.
36 Keong Saik Road, Chinatown, open from 7am

Killeney Kopitiam 
At one of Singapore’s oldest Hainanese coffee shops – first known as Qiong Xin He – you can expect heady, freshly roasted coffee and creamy butter and pandan kaya on thick soft toast. French toast is also a signature dish of one of the original owners, Ah Gong, who started at the old kopitiam in 1951 before selling it in the 1990s when it became Killeney Kopitam. It’s now a chain with franchises across Southeast Asia and Australia.
67 Killiney Road, near Orchard Road, open from 6am

Good Morning Nanyang Café
Creamy aromatic coffee and pandan kaya jam and butter spread on your choice of thickly sliced white or brown toast, fresh-baked scones or Italian ciabatta. Set in a community centre, it’s largely locals sipping, dunking and crunching here.
Telok Ayer Hong Lim Green Community Centre, 20 Upper Pickering Street, Chinatown, open from 7.30am

Do you like kaya toast and kopi and do you have a favourite kopitiam in Singapore? Feel free to share your recommended spots in the comments below and we’ll try them on our next trip.

May 30

Delicious Food and Wine Road Trips in Australia

Vineyards in the Barossa Valley, South Australia. Copyright 2014 Terence Carter.

With a ridiculously diverse range of jaw-dropping landscapes, a good connection of highways and impossibly scenic back roads, Australia is a country that is just made for road trips. Add fabulous produce sold from farmers’ gates, fantastic seafood served up sand-side, wonderful wineries with welcoming cellar doors, gastronomic restaurants overlooking the grapes, and small town bakeries you can smell a mile away, and you also have tantalizing food and wine road trips to make.

These are just a few of our favourites from some of the most delicious food and wine road trips in Australia you can do:

The Margaret River
You can easily take a week exploring this fabulous food and wine region south of Perth – or you could spend a weekend getting a taste of what it has to offer. The spectacular coastline is home to white-sand beaches, crystal-clear waters, windswept walking trails, and some of Australia’s best surfing spots at Yallingup, Prevelly Park and Margaret River. But inland you’ll find some of the country’s finest food and wine.

Thanks to a 1965 academic report by Dr John Gladstone, which pinpointed the region as one with enormous potential, the Margaret River now boasts sensational wineries producing award-winning drops. You should stop at the four pioneering wineries for tastings: Cullen Wines (notable for its Chardonnay), Cape Mentelle (for its Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon), Moss Wood (Semillon Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon), and Vasse Felix (Chardonnay and Semillon Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon). These are still some of the most distinguished.

The region is also noted for Shiraz, Merlot and Cabernet Merlot. The most welcoming cellar doors with the best set-up for travellers are at Vasse Felix, Sandalford, Lenton Brae, Amberley Estate, Cape Mentelle, Voyager Estate, and Evans & Tate, while Leewin Estate, Xanadu and Palandri also have lovely restaurants for lunch. It’s not all about the wine either.

As you drive around the region, you’ll also spot small producers and gourmet shops you can call into to sample berries, preserves, olive oil, truffles, venison, cheese, fudge, and chocolate. Margaret River town has casual restaurants and buzzy wine bars while the fine dining restaurant at Cape Lodge is the best in the region.

Many of the wineries are located along the Bussell Highway between Carbunup River and Cowaramup and between there and along Caves Road to Yallingup. There are more south of Margaret River, between Wallcliffe Road and Redgate Road, as well as east of Witchliffe. Pick up a winery map from the visitor centre in Margaret River Town.

Western Australia’s Southwest
From Perth you could drive inland instead via Nannup and Manjimup to Pemberton, and then through the Southwest region to Albany over the space of a week. Your first stop should be historic Bridgetown, a mill town that has developed a reputation for its organic produce, marron and olive oil. The timber town of Manjimup has become famous for its truffles, which you can try and buy at the Wine & Truffle Company (www.wineandtruffle.com.au) and go truffle-hunting in season.

Set amidst undulating farmland and surrounded by towering centuries-old forests, Pemberton has charming cafés, galleries and crafts shops, while the surrounding countryside is dotted with boutique breweries, wineries, and trout and marron farms. In the Pemberton area you can catch marron and eat cherries from December to February and go salmon fishing from March to April.

Continue southeast to Denmark for wild windswept beaches on the coast and inland idyllic countryside with lofty forests, natural bushland and more gently undulating vineyards. You can throw in a line with the local fishermen at Denmark or take the Shadforth Scenic Drive up into the hills above town, which snakes through scenic bushland, stopping at myriad local producers of cheese, honey and wine, on your way to Mount Barker.

Before leaving town, drop into the Denmark Visitor Centre to pick up the Wine Lovers’ Guide to Denmark, which lists over twenty local wineries, some on the way to historic Mount Barker, which is well-regarded for its Rieslings, planted in the late 1970s, as well as Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir.

Once there, line your stomach with a couple of piping hot award-winning home-made pies from Mt Barker Country Bakery before hitting the cellar doors at Plantagenet, Galafrey Wines, Goundrey Wines, Ferngrove, and Poacher’s Ridge wineries. You should also spot some fine local producers of olive oil and cheese as you cruise around.

The holiday town of Albany was the site of the state’s first settlement and it boasts more wineries, a boutique brewery, fantastic art cafes and restaurants, as well as a year-round Saturday farmers market. Call into the Tangle Head microbrewery for a beer tasting tray and delicious deli board of snacks and don’t miss lunch in the sunshine by the sea at the Squid Shack Boat Ramp for a feast of fantastic local squid and calamari fresh of the boats, washed down with local white wine.

The Adelaide Hills and Hahndorf
Everybody knows the Barossa Valley, but the nearby Adelaide Hills and the charming town of Hahndorf are closer to South Australia’s capital and makes for a good weekend getaway or short road trip if you’re not a fan of long distances. In half an hour you can be in Adelaide Hills, and while its wineries might not be as well-known as those in the Barossa Valley, but they are still worth a trip.

The Adelaide Hills is the coolest wine-growing region on mainland Australia so it means you are in for tastings of some fresh crisp Sauvignon Blancs, light Chardonnays, and cool-weather Shiraz. Hahndorf Hill Winery (www.hahndorfhillwinery.com.au) produces award-winning Sauvignon Blancs and a rosé made from rare German grapes, Nepenthe (www.nepenthe.com.au) does everything from hand-picked Riesling to Pinot Noir, while Petaluma Bridgewater Mill (www.bridgewatermill.com.au), apart from making beautiful wines has a wonderful restaurant in an atmospheric mill dating to 1860.

Founded in 1839, Hahndorf, Australia’s oldest German settlement, boasts Bavarian-style restaurants, coffee houses, and pubs. It’s also home to Udder Delights (www.udderdelights.com.au), where you can buy some sublime cheeses (we loved the pungent goat camembert) handcrafted by cheesemaker Sheree Sullivan, who also offers cheesemaking classes.

Their café also does lovely lunches made from fresh local products. Try the caramelized onion and goat cheese tart with a local wine. It’s also the starting point for the Adelaide Hills Cheese and Wine Trail, a three-course progressive picnic following a wine route through the hills.

For dessert, visit the German Cake Shop, which specialises in bienenstich, a yeast cake topped with honey and almonds and filled with cream, butter and custard. For authentic locally brewed pilsner hit the Hahndorf Inn Hotel, but dine at the Stirling Hotel’s casual bistro or stylish restaurant.

TIPS
* If you’re only in Australia for a short time and you’re doing jaunts from the capital cities, you can easily rent a car. All the major international car rental companies are represented in Australia.

* If you’re spending a substantial period of time in the country and perhaps doing an extended around-Australia trip and combining a number of road trips like the ones we suggested here then you might be better off buying a vehicle and selling it before you leave. Do your research, however, as some cars will depreciate in value more than others. We like this motoring site for reviews of vehicles.

* When you’re on the road, always book your accommodation in advance – firstly, because you’ll always get a better rate online, and secondly, because many of the smaller motels and B&Bs operate on 9-5 office hours, so may be closed when you rock into town. Book in advance and they’ll let you know where they’re going to leave the key or arrange to meet you.

* Plan your day carefully as most wineries and their restaurants close around 5pm, so if you’re hoping to eat at the winery restaurants we’ve recommended, you’ll need to do so for lunch.

* When you book accommodation, find out if there are decent local restaurants open for dinner, otherwise make lunch your main meal and buy lots of cheeses, cold cuts and other scrummy snacks for an in-room dinner.

* Cafés and bakeries in small towns often only open from 9.30am-4.30pm Monday to Friday, although bakeries will open earlier, and may only stay open until noon on Saturday and close entirely on Sunday, so also plan your weekend eating carefully.

* If you are doing a long around-Australia trip consider having some of your wine purchases shipped home so they don’t spoil in the boot of your car.

May 29

Underrated Cities in Europe That We Love

Gypsy Jazz Band in Brussels, Belgium. Copyright 2014 Terence Carter.

I have a love-hate relationship with travel lists. When they’re inane, generic, lack perspective, and are researched from a desk, I loathe them. When they’re useful, subjective, personal, and written from experience, I find them inspiring. A good list reminds me of passionate conversations over glasses of wine with old friends about our all-time favourite films, songs, books, and places we love.

The other day a friend on Twitter asked if we’d written about Crete. Terence and I crisscrossed the Greek island by car updating a guidebook years ago but unfortunately we don’t have anything on the place here, as that was before we began Grantourismo. I recalled our time there: after the stupendous mountain scenery what we loved most was the island’s lively seafront cities and towns, like Heraklion, Chania and Rethymno – cities and towns that don’t get written about nearly enough.

I began recalling all the other relatively off the radar, underrated cities in Europe that we’ve enjoyed over the years that don’t get covered much in the travel media or don’t get the visitors they could. My mental list went beyond ten so I scribbled down a list that conveniently came close to 26. As like organizing structures, this is my A-Z of underrated cities in Europe that we love that you should try to include on your next European itinerary. (And, yes, sometimes I’ve doubled up to make up for the lack of anything for Q, X and Y.)

They’re not, ahem, ‘hidden gems’, although I think they’re special. Not all are off-the-beaten-track – some are busy commercial cities with a vibrant everyday life that mainly draws local tourists and business travellers. Other see masses of tourists heading to nearby hotspots who overlook the charms of the alluring city that’s right under their noses. So here are our picks of under-appreciated, undervalued and underrated cities in Europe that we love:

Antalya
This seaside city may be on Turkey’s Asia side, but Antalya feels European, and it may soon become a full member of the European Union. Most tourists go for the sun and sand, making a beeline for the colossal resorts a short drive east on the Turkish Riviera. The old town, Kaleiçi, where we rented a centuries-old sandstone house one winter (and raised a litter of kittens), is much more compelling, with handsome Ottoman architecture, a scenic harbour, historic hammams, and waterfront seafood restaurants. There are also a handful of sights outside its Roman walls, including an atmospheric bazaar, stunning ocean-side park, and Antalya Museum, home to Turkey’s largest collection of archaeological treasures.

Antwerp
Belgium’s hippest city is a hotbed of creativity and culture. There’s the idiosyncratic fashion of the young indie designers who followed in the groundbreaking footsteps of the avant-garde Antwerp Six (Momu, the fashion museum is a must), an abundance of Art Nouveau architectural gems, and the home and work of Pieter Paul Rubens at Rubenshuis. Forget the diamond stores and chocolate shops, and hit vintage shops, flea markets, antique cafés, jazz clubs, and atmospheric bars. Jenever (Belgian gin) is the drink to sip at De Vagant.

Brussels
Belgium’s capital is frequently called boring yet when we rented an apartment for a month while writing a guidebook we found it anything but dull. We ambled Art Nouveau-rich neighbourhoods like Ixelles, poked around markets and watched gypsy jazz bands in Marolles (above), and spent nights sipping Belgian beers in dimly lit bars. Like Antwerp, Brussels has an avant garde fashion scene, laidback local cafés, superb restaurants serving up lots more than moules and frites (as tasty as they are), and lively multicultural neighbourhoods with myriad ethnic eateries like the Turkish district on and around Chaussée de Haecht, and Matongé, home to an African community.

Cologne
Its famous gothic Cathedral and Romanesque churches aside, this German city on the Rhine won’t win any beauty prizes – it was one of the most heavily bombed of World War II – but its residents might. My memories of Köln include images of gorgeous blonde people in beautiful clothes shopping on busy Schildergasse. Köln may be a big destination for business travellers, with hundreds of conventions and fairs, but visit for the fashion, art, culture, and nightlife, especially in multicultural, working class Ehrenfeld. There’s a rich arts scene, with hundreds of museums, galleries, music venues, and theatres, and the shopping is interesting on Ehrenstraße and in the Belgian Quarter, which is crammed with boutiques, cafés, bars, and restaurants.

Düsseldorf
I visited riverfront Düsseldorf on Germany’s Rhine river on my way to the Oberhausen Film Festival years ago and I was hooked. A huge centre for theatre, music, film, media, and advertising, it’s the birthplace of Kraftwerk and home to a fine arts academy where Joseph Beuys, Gehard Richter and Gunter Grass studied and painter Paul Keel and video artist Nam June Paik taught. Düsseldorf’s creative edge is on full display in its audacious architecture, such as Frank Gehry’s stunning Neuer Zollhof ‘leaning towers’ at Medienhafen and impressive arts museums like the Kunstsammlung, Grabbeplatz and Ständehaus, where I whiled away a day drooling over works by Picasso, Kandinsky, Klee, and Pollock.

Estoril
Most travellers visit elegant Estoril and adjoining sister-city Cascais, former fishing villages only 15 kilometres along the coast from central Lisbon, on a day trip. Yet it’s worth spending longer at these genteel Portuguese royal retreats with their pretty pastel painted residences, soaking up the history as much as the sun – it’s also a popular surfing and swimming spot. Fascinating museums, a charming albeit compact old town, lovely beaches, alfresco cafés, gastronomic restaurants, and a sunny seaside promenade make it a lazy spot that’s worth lingering at for a while.

Ferrara
Birthplace of one of my favourite Italian filmmakers, the legendary Michelangelo Antonioni, and bursting with Romanesque, Baroque and Renaissance gems, Ferrara must be the most underrated of Northern Italy’s beautiful walled cities. Boasting a majestic castle surrounded by a moat, a monumental marble-clad Duomo, countless elegant palaces, a sprawling old university, and many traffic-free streets, it’s a city made for exploring on food. There’s a youthful energy, a cosmopolitan vibe thanks to a sizeable African community, a fantastic aperitivo scene and gastronomic traditions dating to medieval times. Nearby Bologna gets more attention, but I prefer Ferrara, and not only because it’s often overlooked.

Ghent
Another university city, Belgium’s laidback yet buzzy Ghent doesn’t get anywhere near the visitors more touristy Bruge does yet I think it’s more beautiful and more interesting. A powerhouse in the Middle Ages, it has a well-preserved medieval centre, picturesque canals, and plenty of historic attractions. Yet its Ghent’s everyday life I find alluring: there’s with an abundance of cafés, bars and pubs in the student district of Overpoort, countless restaurants lining the cobblestone streets of Patershol, and endless ethnic eateries en route from Oudburg to Sleepstraat.

Heraklion
Our welcome to the capital of Crete was dramatic. Wild, wet and blowing a gale the evening we arrived, the next morning we woke to clear skies, sunshine and the splendid Venetian castle on the harbour below jutting into a serene cobalt sea. Heraklion (Iraklio) is all at once crazy and chaotic and cultured and refined. Crammed with archaeological and architectural remnants of Minoan, Arabic, Venetian, and Ottoman rule, it has sturdy Arab fortifications, elegant Venetian loggia, pretty Turkish fountains, Byzantine churches, and, just out of town, the stately ruins of Knossos, centre of Minoan civilization, with its vivid murals. Birthplace of the great Nikos Kazantzakis, it’s an arty intellectual city – on any night of the week, you’ll find classical music, theatre, poetry, folk music, and even tango.

Innsbruck
Innsbruck’s student population is what sets this lively Austrian university city apart from other winter resorts. While the splendid medieval streetscapes might trick you into thinking you’re stepped back in time, Zaha Hadid’s space age Hungerburg Funicular and Bergisel Ski Jump will have you thinking you’ve been transported into the future. Its tourism may centre around its winter sports and mountaineering, but its everyday life deserves a look. There’s a wonderful covered market offering local farm-fresh produce, cosy cafés, superb restaurants, and snug wine bars serving outstanding Austrian drops.

Jerez de la Frontera
Best known for its flamenco, fortified wines and Spanish dancing horses, the Andalusian city of Jerez is also a delicious culinary destination. Each morning at the busy Mercado Central de Abastos, locals line up for mouthwatering produce from Cadiz and surrounding provinces, such as glistening fresh fish, flawless fruit and veg, bull’s meat, and local cheeses, olives and pickles. On the square outside, at Cafeteria La Vega, there is piping-hot sugar-coated churros, and in the backstreets and lanes, countless tapas bars, traditional restaurants, white washed bodegas, and snug flamenco clubs. Most tourists visit on day trips from the southern Spanish coast but this is a city you need to settle into to appreciate. Time your visit to coincide with the flamenco festival.

Kotor
Set around the spectacular fjord-like Bay of Kotorska, Montenegro’s walled town of Kotor is a mini-Dubrovnik without the crowds. Colossal ships dock at its port, their tour groups doing a circuit of the labyrinthine old town, Stari Grad, yet strangely enough they don’t stay long nor sleep overnight. You can spend days exploring the skinny marble-paved lanes and sunny squares, admiring the splendid old churches and stone houses, poking your nose into private courtyards with tangled gardens. Late afternoon is for hikes up to the Fortress of San Giovanni and long ambles on the waterfront. After dark, sample local specialties like fish soup and smoky cheeses in cave-like restaurants before mingling with the locals in smoky wine bars and loud rock pubs.

Lausanne
When we lived in Dubai we spent winter holidays in Europe so Terence could get his snowboarding fix and I could settle in front of a fireplace with a good book or two. We’d go to Italy, Germany, Austria, France, and Switzerland, where Zurich was our favourite city. We never really took a liking to Geneva, but we loved Basel, Lucerne and especially Lausanne. I became smitten with Lausanne the first time we stayed – in a grand old hotel on the shore of serene Lake Geneva. I’d love Lausanne if I could do nothing but sit in the winter sunshine and stare at the still water, but fortunately the pretty city is also home to fantastic art museums, alfresco cafés, countless cellar doors and wine bars, and outstanding restaurants.

Mantua
Strikingly situated on peninsula surrounded by manmade lakes built in the 12th century for defensive purposes, compact Mantua or Màntova in Italian is an elegant low key city that sees more local than foreign tourists strolling its pedestrian-friendly streets. It maybe be scorching in summer but the empty piazzas and quiet lanes are a delight to wander when Venice and Verona are uncomfortably crowded. The imposing castle is actually a complex of majestic palaces with secret courtyards and gardens. Cafés overlook the sprawling main square with views of the massive Duomo, while breezy arcades shade elegant shops and fine restaurants. Mantuan cuisine, old and new, is outstanding, and there are several Michelin-starred restaurants in and around the town, including Dal Pescatore, one of the world’s best restaurants, some 40kms away.

Nicosia
The first time we visited Cyprus, the inland capital Nicosia (Lefkosia in Greek) had a modern district hopping with stylish coffee shops and minimalist lounge bars and a quieter ramshackle quarter within the walled town that was the world’s last divided city. Cut in two by barbed wire barricades, a so-called Green Line separated the old town into two sectors, watched over by machine gun-toting soldiers from both sides in guard boxes. On the southern Greek-Cypriot side, pedestrianised Ledra Street, Nicosia’s main commercial thoroughfare, was the busiest part of an otherwise quiet historic centre. The northern half of the city in Turkish Cyprus – accessed through a no-man’s land that was necessary to cross on foot – felt quintessentially Turkish with bustling markets and a splendid stone caravanserai, Buyuk Han. Nicosia felt all at once Ottoman, with its stone hammams and diminutive mosques with slender minarets, and Greek, with its whitewashed houses with blue shutters, especially in the delightful Laïki Geitonia quarter. Nicosia wasn’t the liveliest city on the island yet it was endlessly intriguing with its old-fashioned shops, small museums, bouzouki bars, and traditional tavernas. We haven’t been back since the year before Ledra Street’s barricade came down in 2008 yet it’s a city to which I’ve often wanted to return.

Palma de Mallorca
Palma is often overlooked by tourists, who head straight to the beaches, yet we drove all over Mallorca researching and photographing a guidebook before renting an apartment to do the write-up in a historic stone house in the heart of Palma’s substantial old town. It became our favourite bit of the island. Palma is packed with history and formidable architecture and art including a wonderful cathedral and whimsically decorated 20th-century buildings by Antoni Gaudí and protégés. The Museu Fundación Juan March, a museum of contemporary Spanish art, displays wonderful works by Picasso, Gris, Miró, and Dalí. There are busy traffic-free shopping streets boasting elegant old stores, a bustling fresh produce market, Mercat de L’Olivar, and boisterous traditional tapas bars in La Llotja-Borne.

Perpignan
The southwestern French city of Perpignan, not far from the border with Spanish Catalunya, almost feels like a Gallic version of Palma, only Perpignan’s old town is even more maze-like, boasts fascinating multicultural neighbourhoods you won’t find on Mallorca, and the tapas bars are replaced with characterful brasseries serving bubbly and freshly shucked oysters (in season). The sunny main square, Place de la République, hosts stalls selling fresh local produce, while the backstreets and laneways are lined with gourmet grocery shops, small neighbourhood restaurants, and buzzy organic wine bars. With affordable holiday rentals (like Palma), this is a wonderful city to settle into for a while.

Ravenna
Another one of my favourite Italian cities, Ravenna sees relatively few foreign tourists compared with the other big destinations in the neighbourhood yet for me it offers so much more. Ravenna has an air of refinement, grace and grandeur due to its designation as the capital of the Western Roman Empire, Visigoth Empire, and Byzantine Empire. As a result it also possesses elegant piazzas, an astounding amount of Byzantine mosaics littered about the place, imposing churches, and lively traffic-free streets that these days are dotted with cafes with alfresco tables and bars where patrons spill out onto the lanes after dark.

Sóller
Sóller is a stunner, with a lively promenade that wraps around one of Spain’s most picturesque bays, after the better-known San Sebastian, one of our most favourite cities in the world. But if you can drag yourself away from the waterfront, the backstreets are home to some of Mallorca’s most flamboyant architectural examples of the Catalan Modernismo that I love in Palma, designed by Gaudí’s protégé, Rubió. There’s the breathtaking parish church (no, it’s not a cathedral) with very pretty spires, the handsome Banco de Sóller, with its ornate window-grilles, and the over-the-top Can Prunera on 90 Carrer Sa Lluna, which is now a private home. Add to that, characterful cafés, old-fashioned tapas bars, and nearby beaches, and Sóller is hard to resist.

Thessaloniki
Elegant Saloniki, as the locals call it, is our favourite Greek city. It’s more welcoming than Athens and has a wonderful seaside location, with splendid Byzantine churches and sleek art deco apartment blocks. Add to that fantastic markets, a shopping scene to rival Athens, award-winning museums, and cutting-edge art spaces, and you have a city like no other in Greece. There’s a vibrant café culture, buzzy bars, and noisy tavernas serving fantastic Greek food. Cruise the funky outdoor cafes and bars on Plateia Aristotelous any night of the week, but especially on Sunday afternoons, and you’re mixing it with the same kind of crowd that makes most foreigners feel decidedly outside the in-crowd at a beach bar on Mykonos or Santorini.

Vicenza
Nearby Venice and Verona are included on most Northern Italian itineraries but not enough travellers get to lovely Vicenza, which is a big part of its appeal. The city is most notable for its classical architecture by Palladio – including 23 elegant buildings, which earned the city and surrounding region a UNESCO World Heritage Site listing. Vicenza’s tranquil canals were once linked to those of Venice, but it’s the city’s beautiful churches, many crammed with paintings by the likes of Tiepolo that most visitors are here to see. Don’t miss the Duomo and Pinacoteca Civica, but equally enjoyable are the cafés, bars and restaurants that hum with the chatter of locals. Whatever you eat or drink, make sure to try the sparkling white wine, Durello, made in the hills surrounding Vicenza.

Getting there and around
By far the best way to get between most of these cities is by rail and we like sites such as Railbookers to research journeys and buy train tickets online. For the islands either ferry or low-cost flights are your best bet. We’re yet to find sites that serve as one-stop-shops for either European ferries or no-frills airlines. Tourist office sites are good resources for how to get to their destinations. We’ve travelled between many of these cities by road, picking a car up from one airport and returning it to another. We’re not fans of bus travel in Europe.

 

May 23

Our Local Guide to Rio de Janeiro

On the beach in Rio, Brazil.

As the FIFA World Cup is kicking off in less than a month, we thought we’d share some of our favourite things to do in Brazil’s sexy seaside city, the things that locals love to do, from sipping sucos to samba dancing. Here’s our local guide to the best of Rio de Janeiro.

Start with a suco
The energy of Rio’s locals is legendary and their secret to surviving the seemingly never-ending days and nights is an energy-packed, vitamin-laden juice or suco. Sipping a suco is a daily ritual and almost every block boasts a juice bar with glass counters decorated with colourful displays of fruit and menus listing countless varieties of freshly squeezed juices, blends, andvitaminas – thick smoothies of juice, milk or yoghurt, honey, wheat grass, and guarana (Brazilian caffeine berry). Our pick is Polis Sucos, opposite the Nossa Senhora da Paz, Our Lady of Peace church, at Ipanema.

Hit the beach
Rio’s beaches are busy from sunrise until sunset, when Rio’s locals – or cariocas, as they are called – are by the beach, on the sand or in the water. When they’re not working they are walking, running, cycling, and skateboarding along the beach promenades of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon, or they’re down on the squeaky soft sand, playing volleyball or football or out in the water swimming and surfing, and they’re doing it until the sun goes down when they head home to get ready to go out.

Head for the hills
The hilly, bohemian neighbourhood of Santa Teresa is a lovely place to explore. Wander – or rather, hike – the steep, winding streets, lined with colourful colonial houses that house galleries, craft shops, cafés and restaurants. The locals’ favourite is Bar do Mineiro, hidden around the bend from a handful of more expensive restaurants the guidebooks recommend. Illuminated by fluoro lights, the white-tiled Bar do Mineiro’s walls are covered with black and white photos and its tables are packed with locals. Start with a basket of Brazil’s national snack, tasty bolino de Bacalao (cod balls) and savoury pasties, then order the specialty, most popularly eaten for weekend lunch, the traditional feijoada, a hearty bean and pork stew. You can also learn to make it on one of the most fun cooking classes we’ve ever done, Cooking in Rio.

Sip coconut water
It’s a close call as to whether Brazil’s national drink is coconut water sipped from a straw thrust into a freshly cracked coconut shell or the potent caiparinha cocktail, made with plenty of fresh limes, sugar, and the Brazilian sugar-cane spirit, cachaça. Both are sold for a couple of dollars from the tiny bars dotted along the beaches. We recommend pulling up a plastic chair at one of Ipanema’s many beach bars and starting with a coconut water which you should sip while watching the sky turn pink, peach and tangerine as the sun goes down. Then order a caiparinha.

Sample creative cairparinhas
At nearby Leblon, the shelves of the bar at the Academia da Cachaça are weighed down by dozens of bottles of different types of cachaça, common and rare, most unavailable outside Brazil. Alongside a superb classic caiparinha the Academia mixes up creative cachaça based cocktails such as pineapple, orange and passionfruit caiparinhas, cachaça that has been infused with everything from cinnamon to cashew, and juice-based concoctions like the cocada geladinha, made from cachaça, coconut and coconut juice. Soak up the liquor with some hot fried snacks for which Rio’s bars are deservedly famous, such as the queijo coalha asado (roasted curd cheese) and bolinho de quejo (cheese balls), which are said to be terrific hangover cures.

See some football
Brazilians are passionate about football (soccer) and Cariocas are no exception. While the World Cup is what most visitors in June will be in Rio to see, the most exciting game of the local football season is the clássico or derby between rival clubs such as Flamengo and Fluminense or Botafogo and Vasco da Gama, Rio’s four most popular teams. We saw a clássico between Botafogo and Vasco de Gama from the high seats at Sao Cristovao stadium with a whopping 20,000 people on our last trip. The tension was palpable and the energy ignited well before play by the hardcore fans who beat drums and chanted songs and during the game, cheered, screamed, applauded, hugged each other, danced, and lept in the air. The atmosphere was electric.

Savour serene bay vistas
After the excitement of a football game, you’ll be in need of some calm. At the end of the tranquil peninsula in the peaceful, posh, residential neighbourhood of Urca, you’ll find waterfront Bar Urca. Upstairs is a popular seafood restaurant, but downstairs is a simple bar where you should do as the locals do and buy bottles of cheap icy-cold beer, which the bartender will tops with plastic cups. Order some fried snacks then cross the road to try to snag a space on the crowded sea wall. There you should find locals sitting cross-legged on the wall or swinging their legs over the side, in chatty conservation as they sip beers, while couples will be kissing and cuddling as they watch the planes fly in over the still waters of serene Guanabara Bay.

Sway your hips to some mellow samba
For something livelier and sexier the answer is samba. While you can dance the night away at one of Rio’s most popular spots, like the massive (touristy) Rioscenarium, you could instead opt for something more laidback and low-key – samba’s more mellow cousin pagode. We like Bip Bip, a miniscule botequim or neighbourhood music bar in the backstreets of Copacabana, where it’s played by a motley group of musicians. There, you can help yourself to beers from the fridge at the back of the bar – there’s an honour system and you pay for what you drink on the way out – and sway your hips to the beat of the cuica, a Brazilian drum that sounds like a cross between a monkey and a car horn. While the bar stays open until late most nights, on Sunday the music seems to wind down around 10pm or so.

Do a boteco hop
If you’re hungry after all that football, drinking and dancing, head to a boteco or local neighbourhood bar for more of Rio’s famous fried snacks. Most stay open late, some until the wee hours of the morning, and there’s nothing we like to do more than a boteco hop or bar crawl, a quintessentially Rio de Janeiro ritual. These simple places often have stainless steel counters, retro menu boards, and rickety wooden chairs or plastic seats that are often packed with locals, young and old. We like Rua Visconde de Caravelas in Humaita, home to a handful of bars, and nearby Cobal do Humaita, a fruit and vegetable market with half a dozen bars with outdoor plastic tables and chairs crammed with Cariocas. Leblon is where you’ll find classic old botecos such as Bar Jobi and Bar Bracarense, which haven’t changed their décor – or customers – in 50-60 years. Late at night, among the tanned young locals you’ll find sprightly, silver-haired, seventy-somethings deep in conversation as they sip beers. No doubt, thanks to those vitamin drinks!

Getting there and around
There are numerous direct flights to Rio de Janeiro although we went via Sao Paolo with Emirates. From a rental apartment in Ipanema, we mostly explored Rio independently, however, we did do that fun cooking class as well as an excellent favela tour. For a good Rio guide try Madson Araujo at www.MyRioTravelGuide.com who specializes in private tours taking in everything from football to favelas, markets to beaches. For getting around on your own, use the metro and bus systems by day, but after dark, taxis are safer and fairly affordable.

May 20

The Cambodian Curry Paste Called Kroeung

Cambodian Saramann Curry Paste. Copyright 2014, Terence Carter.

Along with prahok (fermented fish), the Cambodian curry paste called kroeung is one of the distinctive signature ingredients in the Khmer kitchen. Flavouring everything from soups to stir-fries, its characteristics are a source of immense pride for a good Cambodian cook.

With a base of lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime zest, turmeric, garlic, and shallots, kroeung is made daily giving it fresh flavour notes even when used in curries as heavy as the spicy Saraman, which I’ll write about in my next A year of Asian Cookbooks post.

But are the characteristics of the kroeung curry paste unique to Cambodia? Yes and no. The base ingredients for the curry paste are common in Thai cooking — not surprisingly considering the shared history of the two countries — but it’s the use of turmeric in the standard base curry paste of Khmer cooking that sets it apart.

However, of the Thai curry repertoire, some ‘foreign’ Thai curries (as Chef David Thompson calls them) do often contain fresh turmeric, such as our Hang Lay recipe.

One thing that perhaps sets kroeung apart from Thai curry pastes is that there is no chilli in the base paste mix of lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime zest, and turmeric which is often sold fresh in markets already chopped finely — you then add the required garlic and shallots when you’re ready to finish the paste.

This goes some way in justifying the myth that Cambodian curries are lighter than their Thai counterparts.

A Cambodian Saraman curry will be very spicy when made in a manner one would call authentic, but it still doesn’t have a chilli kick. It’s spicy in the way that an Indian curry is — also no surprise given the history of Cambodia.

A Cambodian red curry chicken dish will arrive a little milder than one in Thailand, but the base curry requires almost the same amount of chillies to be pounded in the mortar and pestle. In fact, it’s almost the same recipe, give or take a coriander root (in many Thai versions) and some fresh turmeric (a must in Cambodian versions).

But what you will find in Cambodia is some fresh bird’s eye chillies on the table at local eateries (you’ll have to ask for it at the anodyne tourist restaurants). We’ve asked every Cambodian we’ve met about their ability to eat spicy food and most do like it spicy and will make versions of their classic dishes much spicier than they’re found in restaurants. Having eaten a few home-cooked meals here, I have to agree.

So why are Cambodian curries generally considered milder that their Thai cousins? The general consensus is that it’s so they don’t scare the tourists away. “It’s like Thai curry, but not spicy!” waiters will say. The reason? The chillies are milder in Cambodia, particularly the bird’s eyes. But the real reason is that they don’t want to offend the tourists.

Another myth about Cambodian curries is that there are only two curry pastes, red and green. There are actually five curry pastes that are regularly used in Cambodian cooking; red (kroeung samlar kari), k’tis (kroeung samlar k’tis), Saraman (kroeung samlar saraman), yellow (kroeung samlar m’chou), and green (kroeung prâhoeur).

Some pastes have a specific use such as Saraman, while others, such as the yellow paste are used for amok (the famous Cambodian steamed fish ‘soufflé’), as a marinade for meats, and are used in stir-fries.

As a follow on from the last recipe, Beef Massaman Curry, the next recipe I will explore will be its Cambodian cousin, the Saraman curry.

Older posts «

» Newer posts