Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Food shopping with Nikos

It was lovely being reminded what great hosts the Greeks can be. Our friends in Athens have a family house near Marathon in a town called Nea Makri where they enjoy long relaxed meals at the weekend. This part of Attika is a large fertile coastal plain that has traditionally provided Athens with an abundance of fresh produce.

While there, I was taken food shopping by my friend Nikos – a real treat at the end of May as you can see from the pictures. For simple, seasonal food, you couldn't have asked for more. I was particularly taken by the smiley chap with the furnace-like rotisserie. Apparently, he usually sells out by lunchtime when he wheels it in and shuts up shop for the day. He opened it up for me so I could appreciate the white hot charcoal and delectable aromas. I look forward to trying one of those sheep heads another time. Maybe.

Acropolis Museum and Parthenon

Our recent trip to Greece was my first time in eight years, so a visit to the new Acropolis Museum was a priority. It opened in 2009, taking over from the original museum on the Acropolis near the Parthenon. It's an impressive building. As you enter the museum at the foot of the Acropolis on the southern side, you pass over part of the Roman city, a large archeological site in its own right, and parts of this can be seen in great detail through transparent floors.

The museum is spacious, cool and airy and flooded with natural light. At every turn you have stunning views of Athens, especially the Parthenon looming above. Don't overlook the beautifully situated café/restaurant with its imaginative menu and comprehensive selection of Greek wines (and delicious teas).

We then climbed up the Acropolis to explore the Parthenon and take in even bigger views across Athens towards the coast. While most people stick to the obvious areas, I love being able to glimpse behind the scenes at such a major archeological site and imagine what it must be like handling these extraordinary items. And, as you'd expect in Greece, you'll always find a cat lurking – just as things were getting a bit boring for a 7 year old!

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Poros and the Aspros Gatos (White Cat) taverna

While we were in Greece during half term we had the good fortune of spending a few days on Poros. Poros, one of the Saronic Gulf Islands, is conveniently located about an hour from Piraeus on the hydrofoil, but you can drive there via Corinth and Epidavros (where you can stop for lunch and a swim – first pic below). A narrow channel separates it from the Peloponnese mainland where you can park on the seafront in Galatas and take a shuttle across the water. If you're travelling from Piraeus on the hydrofoil (Sea Cat), it's on the same route as Hydra and Spetses. All wonderful destinations. As well as being important during ancient times, these islands played a crucial strategic role during the Greek Revolution of the 1820s and were previously occupied by the Venetians during their lengthy battles with the Ottomans. This is all evident today strolling around the picturesque, steep narrow streets of these islands.

I have long been a fan of Hydra and Spetses, but this was my first visit to Poros (other than admiring it from the hydrofoil). It turns out that Poros ticks many boxes. As well as its interesting history and beautiful location, it is divided into two distinct parts linked by an isthmus. Small steep Sferia is dominated by the bustling, well serviced town and busy marina, whereas the larger green, forested Kalavria has child friendly, sandy beaches ideal for safe swimming, snorkelling and water sports. I was travelling with my daughter, so all these features suited us perfectly. We were also lucky in that the little village house we rented had a small garden with a pool where we were tempted to laze around all day, gazing at our stunning view.

Furthermore, Poros boasts allegedly one of the best tavernas in the Greek islands. The Aspros Gatos (White Cat) is elegantly located just across the tiny isthmus offering stunning views back to Poros Town and across the water to Galatas, increasingly twinkly as the light fades. The taverna dates back to 1909 and is still run by the same family and their charming, enthusiastic staff. Our two meals there included delicious seasonal stuffed vegetables (especially big juicy lemon scented tomatoes) and cheese and herb pies made with delicately crunchy home made filo pastry. A particular highlight was super tender, slow cooked veal in lemon sauce. More local citrus fruit appeared in their orange pie – a sort of baked batter pudding comprising oranges, eggs, vanilla, crushed filo pastry and then soaked with an orange syrup. I drank small carafes of local wine and the prices were incredibly reasonable.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Agly Valley by train: vineyards, gorges and Cathar castles

The last time I sat in a rail carriage gazing at breathtaking vineyards was in Portugal's Douro Valley. However, this time I was in Roussillon on the seasonal Train Rouge (full name: Train du Pays Cathare et du Fenouillèdes) that connects Rivesaltes near the coast with Axat in the Pyrenees. This century old narrow gauge railway has been revived by enthusiasts and operates a tourist service from April to September. The route follows the Agly Valley, currently one of the most dynamic wine regions in France producing age-worthy mineral reds and white, but also the source of some of the country's best-known traditional fortified wines (vins doux naturals).

We boarded the train at Rivesaltes at 10am and settled ourselves into a wonderfully retro carriage. You can buy drinks on board including some very decent coffee. The three hour journey to Axat takes in rivers, mountains, gorges and Cathar castles. The first stage of the journey is heavily vined, passing through the towns of Espira d'Agly, Estagel and Maury with the brooding Cathar stronghold of Quéribus in the distance. Look out for the names of notable wine producers on hoardings around the vineyards with their distinctive schist soils, another feature this region shares with the Douro.

At St Paul de Fenouillet we changed onto an open topped 'panoramic' train and continued through Caudiès, pausing on a viaduct near Lapradelle to admire another Cathar castle, the magnificent Puilaurens. Heading towards Axat, the landscape becomes increasingly mountainous as we go deeper into the Aude gorges, passing through several pitch black tunnels to the delight of the children on board.

We reached Axat just before lunch and had plenty of time to explore the town before boarding the train to Rivesaltes at 4.10pm. Axat was cool and fresh in comparison with the scorched coast and the names of Pyrenean ski resorts appeared on roadsigns. We found a picnic area by a fast-flowing stretch of the river Aude and every so often whitewater rafters would come hurtling by. It was also a popular lunch spot with cyclists. Keen walkers might want to factor in an overnight stay here and return to the coast on the train the following afternoon. It's a stunning location and the air felt pure and cleansing – a treat in high summer.

The return journey was just as memorable. The scenery seemed more gentle in the softer late afternoon light, compared with the harsh morning sunshine. Between St Paul de Fenouillet and Rivesaltes, especially around Maury, you really appreciate the scale of winemaking. The landscape is blanketed with vines and, as we reached Rivesaltes just before sunset, it was serenely beautiful looking towards the coastal plains. In this article in the Financial Times Jancis Robinson explains how significant these wines were historically. In the mid 20th century a jaw-dropping 70 million bottles of vins doux naturels from the Rivesaltes appellation were sold annually, a sizeable proportion exported to the French Army because the high levels of alcohol and sugar made the wines so stable. These hardy wines age well and, if you can get your hands on older vintages, offer remarkable value for money. Last November at The Quality Chophouse I enjoyed a glass of 1946 Rivesaltes for just £8.

We didn't visit any wine estates on our trip, just sat back and admired the beautiful landscape. However, an option would be to take the train as far as Maury, have some lunch ('resto-cave' Pichenouille is widely recommended) and visit some of the wineries clustered around the station before catching the return train to Rivesaltes later in the afternoon. Either way, it's an unforgettable day out.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Ten Minutes by Tractor: Australia's answer to grand cru Burgundy

Back in the 1980s when I first started drinking wine, Australia wine wasn't known for its fine wines, although there were some big stonking icons like Penfold's Grange from one of its oldest regions, the Barossa Valley. Over the years things have changed. Newer, cooler regions such as Margaret River in Western Australia, Adelaide Hills, Victoria's Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsular in Victoria and the island of Tasmania came to the fore. Then and now long-established family run companies like Henschke in the Eden Valley and Tyrrell's in the Hunter Valley produce first rate wines, some of which from vineyards more than a century old.

For many years Australia seemed to pander to multiple retailers with brands loosing their identities, swallowed up by large corporations. Many wines became anonymous blends from enormous areas (particularly viewed from a European perspective) created to meet price points.

While foreign markets lost interest in Australian wines, high end site specific wines have been emerging. As a judge at the International Wine Challenge, I've been starkly aware of how much Australian wines have been improving over the past few years, particularly whites (and notably lightly oaked Chardonnays). What I've been slower realising is just how good the finest examples have become. Earlier this year I had the fortune of tasting wines from Ten Minutes by Tractor – Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Mornington Peninsular that give the best of Burgundy a decent run for its money.

The estate dates from the early 1990s with vineyards ten minutes by tractor apart, but clearly defined by place. The concept of terroir plays a key role and tasting through the range is like contemplating subtly nuanced Burgundy crus. The cool coastal locations give the wines poise and structure with delicate aromatics, fleshed out by judiciously handled French oak. I was tasting wines from the notably cool 2011 vintage so the wines seemed particularly refined and brisk – until very recently something I'd never have expected from Australia.

Take a look at their website for more wonderfully detailed information but, better still, try to get your hands on a bottle. Hedonism Wines in London's Mayfair currently stocks the Wallis Chardonnay 2010 and Majestic has the Estate Pinot Noir 2011. The prices for these respectively are £50 and £35 – steep, but not unreasonable for world class wines.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Simply baked fish and veg with Knorr Flavour Pot

The people at Knorr recently sent me some of their new Flavour Pots to try out. If I'm not using home-made stock (usually chicken) and I need to pep things up I use Marigold powdered stock or Oxo cubes,  so I didn't mind giving these little pots of seasoning paste a whirl.

They sent a selection of flavours and a hamper of fresh produce from Waitrose so, in a sort of Masterchef fashion, I created a dish based on these ingredients. Using some sea bream I'd bought the day before, I assembled a light, spring inspired fish supper.

As you can see I cut up the peppers and fennel, arranging them in the baking tray before placing the fish on top. Then I combined the mixed herb Flavour Pot with about a glass of white wine, topping up with water to pour into the tray. I left it unseasoned in order to test the strength of the Flavour Pot, covered it loosely with foil and baked it in the oven at 180°C for about 20 minutes. The result was a tasty, easy (and healthy) meal.

Since then I've been trying out the other flavours. The curry flavoured pot was good and pokey in a prawn biryani (that went brilliantly with Veuve Clicquot demi-sec) and the garlic flavoured pot worked well with some braised vegetables. My main gripe is with the plastic packaging as they are single serve portions (I'd prefer small glass jars – think pesto or tomato purée), but otherwise a helpful addition to your larder.