Tag Archives: food

Our final day

Our last day in Tuscany was very full. In the morning we went to San Gimignano, a little medieval village on a hilltop. And it certainly was a charming place. The bus parked in the bus carpark with the other buses at the bottom of the hill and we walked up, through the gates, into the town. Have you noticed a pattern here?

The town is famous for its towers. Each powerful family tried to outdo the rest by building a higher tower, so in the distance the little town looks like the CBD of a modern city. Eventually everyone agreed that no tower could be higher than the church tower. This link will tell you a little more about the city’s history – and show you a landscape photo of the towers on the hill.

Both Pete’s pic. With enhancements by me. πŸ™‚

There’s no doubt these places were very much like castles. Often you’ll find two sets of gates close together with an enclosed area between them, That was so you could trap the enemy between the two and drop boiling water, or fire, or faeces down on them. Apart from the entrance gate this town has two main squares, with gates between them. One – the most important one at those times – has the well which supplied water to the town. When we visited both squares were chock full of market stalls, and tables and chairs spilling out from cafes and restaurants. And people.

Pork was very much the order of the day. It’s apparently wild pig.

Lovely ceramics. Pete wanted to buy a bottle for olive oil, but they weren’t cheap and I said we’d be able to get one in Oz. Maybe in the ’70’s we could have…

Walking up the hill we passed craft shops, food shops (many displaying wild boar, which seems to be a speciality in these parts), souvenir places offering Florentine leather goods at much better prices than in Florence itself. Needless to say, the streets were full of tourists.

The well and the market. Pete’s pic.

What the square looks like without the market. Pete’s pic.

However, if you kept your eyes open to read the signs, you could nip away from the throngs onto places with panoramic views over the surrounding countryside.

The view from the village

There’s always a haze in Europe

Roberto wasn’t driving our bus today. He was ‘out of hours’ so another fellow did the driving, though Roberto did come along, too. We set off down the motorway and through several of the many, many toll points. It costs a bit to drive on Italian roads. Then we veered off into the Tuscan landscape, all rolling hills and golds and browns. It reminded me a little of Australia.

One thing we didn’t see much of at any time in Italy was livestock out in the fields. It was so rare that one of us would say, “Oh look. There’s a cow.” We never got a good explanation. But we were told that just about everyone in Italy takes August off. Factories close – and we knew that was true because we visited a leather factory where we were shown how goods were made, although there were no workers at the benches. So we figured the animals had gone to the beach, too.

We drove along narrow country roads barely big enough for the bus, negotiating curves and hair pin bends. I guess the drivers are used to it in the little towns. They try to leave enough space for the buses to ease their way through. But it doesn’t always work out. Our bus side-swiped a BMW. The bus driver didn’t stop, later claiming he didn’t know he’d hit anybody. Maybe he didn’t, but we in the middle rows of the bus heard the noise and felt the bump. The evidence was displayed along the bus’s side, a long scratch of black paint.

Pete’s pic from the bus

Our destination was a sheep farm which specialised in making pecorino cheese. We had lunch there, sampling pecorino of different ages. I confess I found it a bit bland and tasteless. But we had a lovely lunch of tomato soup followed by cheese, salad and cold meats. I’d count it as the nicest meal we had in Italy. We still didn’t see any sheep, although the resident donkey at least showed us his rear end as he flounced off. We were told the sheep were resting down in the gully in the shade. At least that made sense.

The resident donkey wasn’t at all interested (Pete’s pic)

Lunch. That’s a spelt salad – and in fact it looks a lot like the soup we had at the feast – without the water. There was also a green salad. Pete’s oic.

That evening, the last of the tour, Roberto drove us to the second hilltop of Montecatini Alto, not the one where the funiculare runs, where we were taken to a restaurant overlooking the town for what we were told would be a Tuscan feast. At a different time of year we might have seen a great sunset. The meal itself was interesting. We were served a plate of antipasto, consisting of different salamis. Nothing else. The soup was spelt mixed with diced vegetables (Spelt is a bit like pearl barley). This was followed by two types of pasta with sauces. There’s never much sauce with pasta in Italy. After that we were offered a plate of white beans, something like butter beans. The four of us declined, pretty full up on stodge by now. There were two meats courses; a slow cooked beef stew, and thinly sliced roast beef served with a green vegetable like spinach. All of this was accompanied by local wine, red and/or white. We all remarked on the absence of vegetables.

Dessert was delicious, pastry topped with custard and fruit in clear jelly, like a fruit flan.

And that’s it for Europe 2018. Unless you didn’t read about our Wonderful Trip Home. Don’t miss that. You’ll find it here.

Oh – and if you like my blogs, you might like my BOOKS. They’re for sale, you know.

 

 

Farmers’ markets and the French Revolution

 

Dawn at Libourne

Our river boat was tied up at Libourne on the Dordogne river. In the morning the mist burned off, promising a beautiful day. The river is always turbulent, probably as a result of the tidal movements opposing the river’s own flow. In fact, the Dordogne is one of those rivers which has a tidal flow strong enough to create a wave that can be surfed. Later in the day we actually saw surf skis riding the wave – which wasn’t very high at this time. Here’s somebody really enjoying the ride.

The Libourne market, held in the town square

In the morning we walked up through the streets to the village square to do a tasting tour of the Libourne farmers’ market. So much food, so many things to taste. Our guide bought examples from the merchants – crepes, apricots, cheese – and oysters, which were supposed to be wonderful, sourced locally. Pete loves a good oyster. I watched him eat one and thought it wouldn’t rate high. He said on a scale of 1 to 10, if Coffin Bay oysters in South Australia were 10, these were 1. There you go. We tasted some cheese aged in walnut juice, made by the nuns, and a sample of pate de foie gras. These days it’s usually duck pate, in this case made by a farmer who raises his birds free range – which is always nice to know. There were cherries and plums, cakes and roasted chickens, clothes, baskets and artwork. Back when I bought souvenirs (aka dust collectors) I might well have been tempted.

Chateau d’Albac

Later that day we went to the Chateau d’Albac. Yes, they make wine, but by this time we’d seen the demonstrations and knew how it was done, so we walked around the house and learned a little of its history. The baron, a dapper gentleman well into his seventies, conducts the tours himself. He was late arriving so we played an impromptu game of kick the football until he joined us. Europe is so very full of history and in places like this, events you’ve heard about take on a face. One noble family had owned the chateau until the French Revolution. The baron at that time barely escaped the guillotine when the peasants of the estate protested on his behalf but he knew it wouldn’t last. In 1792 he bundled up his pregnant wife and fled to Germany. He never returned.

Meanwhile, the chateau was sold. In time, the rightful heir returned to France and the then owner offered to rescind the title, despite having down a lot of restoration work. The original owner refused the offer, saying he and his family had moved on. So the current baron is a descendant of the man who bought the chateau during the French Revolution. The two families remain good friends. The building has been restored and the family live there. We were shown their present sitting room, and another restored as a museum piece. The baron is very much a part of the community. He’s the village mayor and takes part in all the major activities of the town. And he shares his lovely home with visitors – for a fee, which is fair enough.

The factory where paper was made

The estate had industrial buildings, too, paper factories powered by a water mill. They seem to have been enlightened industrialists. The photo shows the paper mill, built next to the river. These days paper is made in factories elsewhere.

Yes, we got to taste the local wine – whole glasses if we wanted.

An angler takes advantage of the rapids

It was a lovely day. Now we could relax on board the ship, enjoying the sites and a glass of wine or two as the River Royale returned to Bordeaux for our final day.

Surfing a rather small Dordogne wave

The fortress of Blaye

Across the moat and into the citadel

Today we visited the imposing Blaye fortress. Situated as it is on the heights overlooking the Gironde estuary, there would have been a military installation here from the very earliest times. In fact the remains of Eleanor of Aquitaine’s castle nestle inside the walls. Remember her? King Richard’s and King John’s mum?

Louis XIV’s military engineer, the Marquis de Vauband, modified the fortress into what it is today. He used the star shape (first introduced in Italy) so that there were no blind spots along the perimeter walls. He also used earth banks clad with stone instead of high, thick stone walls which could be broken down with cannon fire.

The more I learn about Louis XIV, the long-reigning Sun King, the more obvious it is that he set the stage for the destruction of the French monarchy in the revolution of 1788, just seventy-three years after his death. Everybody knows he was into self-aggrandisement, most evident at the Palace of Versailles. But I think this fortress is a better example of how little he cared for anyone but himself. The feudal system was alive and well throughout Europe at the time. Peasants worked on their lord’s lands in exchange for protection. It had worked well for centuries. But Louis made the peasants in this area work for him, constructing his citadel. What’s more, our local guide told us the building materials used came from the destruction of the local village. The resentment would have been palpable and entirely understandable. It simmered for decades, combined with the increasing burden of taxation on the peasants and the absence of the land owners, who were at court in Versailles, until at last the revolutionary bomb exploded. Years later, the remains of Eleanor’s castle were used to rebuild the town. And yes, I know that’s an over-simplification of the origins of the French Revolution.

A few small factoids: The fortress is a UNESCO building. For a long time that meant the villagers in the town within the walls could not even repair their houses and shops. Fortunately, somebody has grabbed a brain and realised the people who live there have the greatest interest in maintaining the buildings.

Only one of the residents stayed on in the shop because of the UNESCO restrictions

Very old building, + need for power

The island in the Gironne – nobody wants to buy it

There’s a fortress on the island in the Gironne. The island is for sale but nobody wants to buy it because it is a UNESCO site so the owners can’t do anything with it. Whatever is over there is slowly mouldering away. Yet another wonderful UN initiative.

Goat herding

Life goes on inside the fortress. These two fellows led their goats to a new pasture. And we met the Citadel Cat.

The citadel cat

Staged rescue

While we were visiting the French fire brigade conducted a training exercise, retrieving an injured person at the base of the wall. You know what they say about firemen. I did my best, ladies, but this is as good as I could manage.

French firemen. Nice butt.

After our visit to Blaye, we went down into the town outside the fortress and enjoyed the wonderful markets. Food, fashion, wine… I’ll leave you with the pictures.

The settlers from Pitcairn

Cows have right of way on Norfolk. There used to be free-roaming horses, too

The third wave of immigrants to Norfolk Island were the people from Pitcairn Island, and they form the basis of most of the permanent population. The mutiny on the Bounty is part of their family history. It’s how their ancestors came to Pitcairn Island, a remote 2 square miles in the South Pacific. I suppose everybody has heard of the mutiny, if only because of the movie starring Marlon Brando. But we Australians maybe know a little more. Bligh was forced into the ship’s longboat with eighteen companions – more would have gone with the captain had there been room. In an extraordinary feat of seamanship, Bligh navigated the overloaded long boat across to Timor, then on to Batavia. Bligh became one of Australia’s early governors. [1]

For the people of Norfolk Island what happened to Fletcher Christian and the ‘mutineers’ is much more important. Christian eventually took those men who had not supported the mutiny to Tahiti, then, knowing the Admiralty would come looking for them if the mutiny was discovered, he set sail for a safe haven, taking with him eight mutineers, six Polynesian men, twelve women, and a baby. 2

Pitcairn was safe enough, but very small; there was increasing tension between the white men and the Polynesians, and eventually all but one of the men was killed. John Adams had turned to religion and led his remaining flock well. But the island was soon overpopulated. In due course the islanders wrote a letter to Queen Victoria, begging her for a new home. Now I’m something of a cynic: I think that request happily coincided with the decision to close the penal settlement on Norfolk. There were good economic reasons for closure – but it did offer an opportunity to those pesky French if the island was abandoned. I imagined a scene from “Yes Prime Minister”, with Sir Humphrey explaining the value of handing over the island to the Pitcairn folk, who could be left to it with very little further impact on the English purse. And they’d keep the dreadful Froggies out. Win win win.

Ahem. Back to Norfolk. Two local artists have created a cyclorama that illustrates the history of the Pitcairn islanders from the Bounty’s departure from Portsmouth through to the mutiny, settlement on Pitcairn and then the first landing on Norfolk in 1856. The cyclorama is a series of stunning, realistic paintings set in a circle. As you walk from one scene to the next, you listen to music and sounds to accompany what you’re looking at. Documents explaining the history are on the opposite wall. It’s a spectacular historical experience. No photos are allowed, but here’s the website. Click through the header to get some idea of this very special place.

The Pitcairn Islanders were confronted with a very different environment to the one they’d left. I can’t do any better than their own description, so pop over here and read it. It’s not very long, and I’ll wait for you to catch up.

Welcome back. The Norfolk Island people are proud of their heritage and are very happy to share. We visited the Pitcairn settlers’ village to learn a little about the lifestyle of the earliest settlers. In fact, much of what we were shown was the result of the industry of George Bailey, who joined the community from outside. He was a blacksmith, a skill the earlier settlers would definitely need.

The still-working forge

The boys leaning over the engine of the 1929 Ford

Norfolk has a sub-tropical climate, so many different varieties of plants can be grown. The exceptions are anything that needs a cold winter, like berries and apples. The Pitcairners grew the plants they knew – many types of bananas, guavas, arrowroot, corn, and kumara. Pretty much everybody has a vegetable garden to this day. We went for a short drive in a 1929 Ford which had been the island’s very first tourist ‘bus’. It’s fun, but my back was not impressed. Once again, the locals have done a better job of describing the Pitcairn Settlers’ Village than I can, with details I’d forgotten, so here’s the link. We spent some time in Jane Evans’s shed in Music Valley. Jane is the descendant of a whaler, and proudly displayed his telescope. She grew up here in this little piece of paradise. If she wanted a fishing rod she cut a length of golden cane bamboo, tied a short line to the end so that it hung down to her waist level, slung her catch bag over her shoulder, and strolled the short walk to the sea. When she caught a fish it hung at waist level when she raised the pole, and she could easily slip the fish into her catch bag. She showed us two uses for bananas – which she called plun. The first, from overripe bananas, was a delicious banana bread. The second was made from green plun almost ready to ripen. She skinned the plun using a knife, then grated it. The grated plun is formed into little dumplings and fried in oil. She served it with a sauce made of cream mixed with a little bit of golden syrup. She demonstrated a wonderful contraption that removes the kernels from dried corn, then returns the core to the operator. And she showed us a number of hand woven Norfolk Island hats, with a brief demo of the techniques used.

Jane showing the corn-kernel-remover. The cores are used as fire lighters. Waste not, want not.

Later in the day we were treated to a detailed demonstration of the art of hat-weaving using several different local materials, each requiring different preparation. These were all techniques the Islanders had learnt from their Polynesian forebears.

That fusion of cultures is so important. Early in our visit we heard one example of how the British got it very, very wrong. I mentioned in a previous post that Cook had noticed a plant he’d identified as flax, which was used to make sailcloth. It was actually a lilium, so techniques used in Europe to process flax didn’t work. However, it was known that the Maoris in New Zealand used a similar plant to weave cloth, so the enterprising Europeans with their incorrigible feeling of entitlement kidnapped two Maoris so they could explain how to process the plant. But white entitlement actually meant white male entitlement. The women did the cloth making so the Maori warrior and his cleric mate the English had kidnapped couldn’t help them. (Haha) The two men were taken back to New Zealand after their kidnappers explained they just wanted to know how to make flax. [3]

We had an opportunity to sample Norfolk Island food at the fish fry – a fun outdoor gathering involving deep fried fish nuggets Norfolk Island style, salads, a number of local dishes, alcohol, and an entertainer, all while the sun sank into the Western sea.

The Norfolk Islanders have developed their own spoken language, which is a kind of pidgin mixed with Tahitian words. On one of our tours Kath taught us a little song in Norfolkese (the chorus, anyway), accompanying the singing with her home made ukulele.

Kath’s little song

There was so much to see and do on this little island. I’ve barely scratched the surface. So much to follow up on, and read about. And to think about. It’s interesting to look at human impact on this tiny piece of nature. I’ll do that next time. I’ll finish with a few more nature pics. Because I can.

The view from Mt Pitt

Sunset into the sea

 

Hong Kong shopping

City crowds. This was taken at Causeway Bay. We didn’t take pictures in Kowloon

Years ago what attracted Australians to stay a day or two or three in Hong Kong was the shopping. Sure, it was an accessible way to get a look at the Orient, but mixed with that was the great exchange rate, and the quality goods for sale at substantially less than the prices in Australia. Even when the sales taxes were altered back in the Keating years, you could still snap up a bargain in Hongkers. With that in mind, Pete and I set out after our lunch escapade in search of bargains.

I’ll interrupt that story with a small side arc. The cost of ‘roaming’ on mobile phone plans in Australia is outrageous, but it’s possible to buy ‘roaming’ plans that charge just the cost of a local phone call. Using Travelsim, we put $5 on such a sim and inserted it into a cheap phone, then told a few close friends the number so they could contact us in case of emergency at home. I also downloaded an app called Maps.Me. It’s free and lets you download a functioning map for overseas travel. Yes, Google does this, too, but Google has upset the powers that be in China, and you can’t download Google’s China maps. We put the app on Pete’s tablet, which he always has with him to take photos. Pete fell in love with Maps.Me. You don’t need access to Wifi, and of course the GPS function will locate you on the map. It certainly helps with navigating in foreign parts.

Back on the streets of Hong Kong, we made our way towards the electronics street. We had already discovered that our mate Andy (tour guide) had given us a bum steer as far as directions went. But Pete is quite happy to ask for help, and managed to find an Aussie working in a shop to tell us where to go. So we worked our way across Nathan Road, which runs up the middle of Kowloon, and into the back roads where the shops line the streets.

Hong Kong was always a busy place, and this was the weekend, but the throng of humanity was extraordinary. The streets were sardine packed everywhere. For Aussies, think sideshow alley at the Royal Show on steroids. The demographics had changed, too. Not so many years ago, the crowd would have been mostly Asian, but there would have been a good number of European people. Now, people like us were a rarity. I hate crowds at the best of times. I don’t get anxious or claustrophobic, but I hate the press of people invading my space, brushing their bodies against me as they pass. When I find myself in a crowd I start to move faster, ducking and weaving my way between the people. Where there’s rudeness, pushing, shoving and the like, the nostrils flare, the elbows come out, and although I won’t push first, I’ll shove second. We were both struck by the rudeness and total lack of consideration for anyone else on the street. And we discovered we weren’t the only ones with that perception.

We were looking for a camera lens. We had done our homework at home and knew what we wanted, and what it should cost. I leave all negotiations about price to Peter, who enjoys the cut and thrust, and is very good at it. But while he would have had a lovely time haggling in years gone by, it doesn’t happen anymore. For a start, far fewer Hong Kongers speak English. We would go into a shop, they would wheel out their English speaker, we would tell them what we wanted, and they would give us a price. That was it. No negotiation. Take it or leave it. You can get it for that in Australia? Shrug. In days gone by, they wouldn’t have let you out of the shop, at least trying to sell you something else. That’s how it still is in Singapore. But not here.

What was happening? What had changed? The answers came from our tour guide in Macao, a Portuguese gentleman who had lived in Macao for 33 years. The vast majority of tourists in Hong Kong (and Macao) now are mainland Chinese. They require less personal space and have a different perception about how to behave in a crowd. And they pay whatever the vendors ask. They have money, and they know they will get a quality product in Hong Kong. I have never seen so many stores selling up-market merchandise like Gucci, Armani, Yves St Laurent, and all the other big-name designer brands. Every fifth car (that wasn’t a taxi) was a Mercedes. I must have seen half a dozen Maseratis (I’ve never seen one on the street before) one red one being driven by a kid with P plates, doing his best to hoon around a packed Hong Kong block. Β The best-selling item for the Chinese? Tins of powdered baby milk. There is a ration of two tins per person. They also love to gamble. But I’ll leave that to my Macao post.

After a fruitless few hours fighting our way through Kowloon, we gave up and caught a taxi to the star ferry which plies the waters between Kowloon and the Island. It’s a short ride, and not very crowded on this Saturday afternoon. The ride in a lift made up for it, though. The last fellow to insinuate himself in could only just lean out of the way of the closing doors. Now that WAS claustrophobic. I keep on wondering how it would be if the lift failed…

That evening we decided to go out for dinner. I’m not a great lover of Chinese food – I hasten to add that there are very many excellent Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong, I just wasn’t in the mood. I love Indian, though, and on the concierge’s recommendation we went to a restaurant tucked away in an arcade in an alley less than 10 minutes from the hotel. We spent a lovely evening there. The menu listed a vast array of dishes, but since the owners were Hindu, not beef. Peter asked the Indian waiter where he came from, which was greeted with a big grin. “I was born here, sir.” Turned out his ancestors had been in the British army stationed in Hong Kong, and had decided to stay. The barman was from Indian, though. He didn’t speak much English, but that was okay. We tried a shot of Indian whisky (better than Johnny Walker IMO) and Pete had Indian beer. I had a glass of house white, which arrived in a bucket (not really – just a very generous serve). The menu included standard combinations, so we picked the ‘Happy Meal’ – tandoori chicken for starters, then lamb tikka marsala served with naan and condiments, sweets and coffee.

We slept well that night. Join me tomorrow for our last day in Hong Kong, pottering around in a different part of the city.