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Precious Palmyra

August 26, 2015

Palmyra in Syria on mycustardpie.com

Palmyra in Syria on mycustardpie.comMy camera was old, a sandstorm cloaked the stones; this lends an ethereal nature to these images of ancient city of Palmyra in Syria. It’s hard to evoke the scale of the place which includes temples, a theatre and an extensive burial site with over fifty tombs. While you can wait in the queue for the Colosseum in Rome for over two hours, we shared this once-prosperous city, strategically placed in the middle of the Syrian desert and a vital part of the Roman Empire, with a few hawkers, a handful of camels and a scant bus load of other tourists.

It was a relief to wander undisturbed as we’d been a bit overwhelmed by the eager friendliness of everyone we’d met during our visit, especially in the town adjacent to the ruins. “Where are you from?” was the common refrain and we were thanked profusely for visiting Syria. I wonder where they are now?

Invaders have marched into Palmyra before. Taxes and revenues from the caravans which passed through  fuelled its growth and magnificent projects abounded. Let’s not forget that these riches were built by slaves and their masters’ splendid vision was crafted in toil, blood and death. Success was also its downfall when the powerful rulers of the city, including Queen Zenobia, flexed their muscles against Rome.  The city was raised to the ground by Emperor Aurelian in 273 AD. Luckily he didn’t possess hi-tech explosives.

Countless people have been inspired by the remains of the city: Lady Jane Digby’s grave in Damascus has a piece of its limestone as a tombstone; David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia was filmed here; Lady Hester Stanhope was a visitor after it was ‘rediscovered’ in the late 17th Century, and many country houses of that time have ‘Palmyra ceilings’ based on the zodiac ceiling in the Temple of Bel. Sadly the name that is foremost in our minds is Khaled al-Asaad who dedicated his life to the preservation and restoration of the site, resulting ultimately in his torture and death at the hands of those who exceed the brutality of the past in their actions.

Palmyra in Syria on mycustardpie.comIt seems that man hasn’t changed. Only the weapons have become more sophisticated.

Victoria sandwich cake family recipe

August 9, 2015

“It’s a sandwich cake. A sponge cake is made in a totally different way.” That’s the sound of my Mother in law getting cross at the telly when yet another cookery programme calls this British classic a ‘Victoria sponge’.

“Oh looks so good.” “I need this in my life.” “Wow! And yum! Any chance you can get the recipe or is it a closely guarded secret?”  That’s the sound of comments on a quickly Instagrammed picture of aforementioned cake, freshly baked by my Mother in law, sandwiched together with a layer of strawberry conserve and homemade buttercream.

There is a secret ingredient to this cake that’s probably used more by bakers of a certain age. Margarine.  A highly processed, manufactured ingredient that was marketed successfully as healthier for you (on scant evidence now proved to be suspect), which happened to be much more profitable for the food industry. You can use butter in the recipe but you’ll never get the magnificent rise. If you do go down the margarine route choose your brand carefully and read the label (although if you’ve read ‘Swallow This’ by Joanna Blythman you’ll know that a multitude of sins can be hidden by creative alternative descriptions). Palm oil – demand for and extensive use as a cheap non-dairy alternative has been the catalyst for vast deforestation of the planet putting many species in danger of extinction including orangutans – is often labelled as vegetable oil. Nutella contains palm oil by the way (which is part of the reason you will never find it in my cupboard). Read this ethical shoppers guide to margarine and spreads.

One thing is for sure, whether you use butter or margarine, this is a great tasting cake. Simple, light, not too sweet and a beautiful centrepiece for afternoon tea. My Mother-in-law is a very good cook, and really excels at baking (she was a domestic science teacher). Her pastry is as light as a feather and the first thing I ask her to do at Christmas is make the mince pies. This recipe has been road-tested within her own kitchen, our family and friends and throughout South Devon by hundreds of her past pupils.

This gallery should help you step by step. Click on any image to enlarge and use the arrows to navigate.

Anita's Victoria Sandwich cake

  • Servings: 6-8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Ingredients

  • 3 eggs
  • Self-raising flour
  • Baking powder
  • Margarine or softened butter
  • Caster sugar

Ingredients – Butter cream

  • 60g (2oz) butter, softened
  • 120g (4oz) icing sugar, sieved
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • Jam (for serving)

Method

  1. Grease and base line 2 x 20 cm (8 inch) diameter, deep Victoria sandwich tins.
  2. Weigh the eggs in their shells. Weigh out the same measurement of self-raising flour, margarine or butter, and caster sugar. So if your eggs are 210g (7 1/4 oz) you will need 210g self-raising flour, 210g margarine or butter, 210g caster sugar. Baking powder should be about 1/2 teaspoon per 70g (2 oz), so in this case would be 1 1/2 teaspoons.
  3. Whisk the eggs in a small bowl.
  4. Weigh the other cake ingredients. Put the flour into a large bowl and stir in the baking powder. Add the margarine, caster sugar and beaten eggs.
  5. Beat (with a hand-mixer or in a stand mixer) on a low-speed to incorporate. Turn your mixer up to full speed and beat for 1 1/2 minutes. The mixture should be light and airy.
  6. Divide the mixture into the lined tins evenly. It’s a good idea to weigh them for accuracy. Level with a palette knife.
  7. Bake on the middle shelf of a preheated oven at 190 C (170 C fan) for 20- 25 minutes. The cakes should be golden brown and spring back when touched lightly.
  8. Turn out and leave to cool on a rack.
  9. To make the buttercream: Place the softened butter into a bowl (I prefer unsalted). Gradually beat in the icing sugar and vanilla essence until smooth. Spread the buttercream onto the base of one of the cakes with a palette knife. Add thin layer of jam and place the other cake on top (base downwards). Sprinkle with a small amount of caster sugar.

Here’s the picture that started it all over on Instagram:

This second cake was baked as a massive thanks to the staff at Walter C. Parsons in Plympton for their kindness to veggie teen. Top choice if you need funeral services (don’t worry we didn’t).

Do you have a family cake recipe that goes down a storm? Or a relative that’s a legendary cake baker?

Get the party started with a visit to the ice factory

July 24, 2015

Stocking the cooler - Modern Ice Factory Dubai - mycustardpie.comHaving a group of friends over for a gathering or dinner, one thing is always on our list – ‘buy ice’. Dubai temperatures mean that a large cool box (in Australian an ‘esky’, in New Zealand a ‘chilly bin’) is filled with chipped ice and a load of beers and soft drinks. Drinkable ice is needed in copious measures for long drinks, cocktails and cooling things down. You can buy a bag or two at the supermarket or visit the ice factory which is my favoured option.

It feels like a mini-adventure driving up to the Modern Ice Factory (which looks far from it). Round the corner from the Oasis Centre Mall and gleaming BMW dealership this is a little bit of ‘old Dubai’ operating in the same way for decades. On a Friday morning there is often someone in a 4 wheel drive ahead of you in the queue. When it’s your turn you reverse up the steep concrete ramp and place an order in pidgin English. There is ‘machine ice’ or ‘block ice’ which comes in an enormous block or crushed for cooling purposes only and ‘drinking ice’  or ‘tube ice’ which is suitable for consumption in cubes housed in smaller packets. It’s the same type that you buy in the supermarket but cheaper when you go direct.

Machine ice comes along a chute, out of a hole in the wall onto an elevated platform and one man puts it through a crusher which whines loudly like a chain saw into a sack below (old rice sacks). The sacks are dropped down to from the platform. An older man always loads it into your car and does the deal. Last time I was there I had a bit of a chat (fragmented words and sign language) and found out that his name is Nixamiti (excuse the spelling) from Jaipur in India. He has six children and has been in the same job for 25 years. Do say hello if you visit.

What to do with ice

  1. Fill your cool box or ice bucket with crushed ice or ice cubes to keep drinks cool. If you want to cool things down quickly, a combination of half ice and half water will do it quicker than all ice. If you are doing this with wine, make sure you take it out when it’s reached the right temperature. A quick guide to wine serving temperatures here.
  2. Put into a long tall cocktail or shake one over ice. Here are two simple gin cocktail ideas to get you started.
  3. If you don’t have a pool that’s chilled in the summer (you have to live in the Middle East to understand this), buy some of the huge ice blocks of machine ice. Float them into the pool for evening swimming parties (they will disappear too rapidly if you do this in the day – although can be fun for a children’s party).
  4. I’m tempted to say ‘make an ice sculpture’ – but only if you have thermal gloves and a chain saw or chisel and a lot of patience! These are incredibly popular in Dubai and often the centrepiece of a display or entrance – which is quite bizarre given our summer temperatures.  Apparently you can order one of these from Modern Ice too (they deliver).
  5. Have a power blender (such as a Vitamix)? Make instant sorbet by adding juice, a sweetener and ice cubes and giving a quick whizz.

I’m one of those people who ask for room temperature water and hate masses of ice in drinks (bars make drinks look bigger by filling them with crazy amounts). I’ll make an exception for ice in cocktails – who wants a warm G & T? Not me. Are you an ice-fiend or a chilly mortal like me. Any cool ice ideas (sorry)? Please let me know in the comments….

Visit Manila. What to do in 24 hours

July 22, 2015
Manila capital of the Philippines - mycustardpie.com

The view from my hotel room of Makati – the financial district and one of 16 cities which make up Metro Manila

We’re in Manila for a day. My mind boggles at the population statistics. Can you even imagine living in a teeming metropolis with over 10 million people as they do in ‘Metro Manila’; and Greater Manila houses over 25 million souls. This mental vision of seething humanity and some reports of street crime clouds my expectations about the capital of the Philippines. However, with 450,000 Filipinos in Dubai I was keen to see visit capital; and the reality I experienced was so very different to the dystopian scenario I had in my head.

While it’s charmingly named after a white flower that grows in the mangroves, Manila is not the most picturesque city.  Some of the wide concourses and roundabouts remind me of Plymouth (Devon), which was also devastated during World War II. Manila was second only to Warsaw in terms of destruction. That utopian planning zeal of the late 50s and 60s is evident.  Traffic is naturally a problem but limiting cars via a number plate system is helping to cut jams and emissions. Smoking is banned in all public places. This added to a seriously impressive commitment to environmental issues that kept cropping up throughout my week in the Philippines. Driving into the centre of the city we pass areas of precarious wooden housing structures and shelters around the river (Tagalog means river dwellers), multi-coloured jeepneys, and some staggeringly bland concrete structures (the Cultural Center of the Philippines could earn Prince Charles’ ‘carbuncle award’) and the gargantuan Mall of Asia (which fails to excite our group of mall-weary Middle East dwellers).

Manila capital of the Philippines - mycustardpie.com

A Jeepney – one of thousands, each with unique decoration which ferry passengers around the city

Coasting along the open corniche, we are finally liberated from our mini bus in the heavily restored walled part of the city founded under 300 years of Spanish rule. Our guide for the day is quite a character; enthusiastic, mercurial and forthright; she reveals many contrasting sides of the city, sometimes unwittingly. One snippet of information she feeds us is that boxer Manny Pacquiao owns most of the taxis. Manila seems the embodiment of a forward thinking ambitious nation, with the almost fifty years as part of the US top of mind, still mindful of the legacy – both good and bad – of their Spanish rulers of the past…. but I’m jumping ahead of myself….

1. Old Manila

A small, leafy area of narrow streets, colonial houses and open squares in contrast to the modern concrete of much of the rest of the city. Known as the walled city or intramuros, this was the seat of the Spanish government, fortified to protect them from invaders and uprisings. Am I imagining that our guides are a bit protective? While hawkers of hats and beads approach, they are not intimidating, although some very brazen begging children tug the heartstrings as one is so little. We are taken by bus to the various sites but, with flat shoes, water and a guide (either written or in person) it would be good to go by foot especially at cooler times of the year or by Bambike (see below).

Intramuros or old Manila - Manila capital of the Philippines - mycustardpie.com

Intramuros or old Manila

2. Manila Metropolitan Cathedral-Basilica

Imposing rather than beautiful, this cathedral which has been raised to the ground many times since 1579, was completely rebuilt after World War II and this reincarnation finished in 1958. It  is worth a visit for the contemporary stained glass windows and to immerse yourself in the devotion of this staunchly Catholic nation. We wander under the high, arched ceiling among crowds of nuns and worshippers and buy bamboo hats in the square outside.

Manila capital of the Philippines - mycustardpie.com

Manila Metropolitan Cathedral-Basilica

3. San Augustin

By contrast San Augustin is palpably swathed in history. The only building to remain unscathed in World II this treasure built in 1589 has UNESCO status. The monastic corridors feel so traditionally familiar, yet the view is incongruous overlooking a courtyard of palm trees. The trompe l’oeil ceiling is breathtaking and my eyes are riveted while I steal photographs, not wanting to disturb a very serious-looking religious ceremony next to the altar. “Getting married in this church is every Filippino woman’s dream” says our guide. “All my family did. They’re divorced now.”

4. Casa Manila

It’s easy to imagine life within the walls of the house of a rich family during 1800s in Spanish colonial times with the slatted wooden blinds, parlour palms, gleaming dark wood, polished parquet flooring and a wealth of beautiful antique furniture. The cool, elegance contrasts with the view from the window down into a make-shift shelter where little children, naked in the shimmering heat and humidity, wave up at us.  Finding out afterwards that Casa Manila is a replica house built in the 1980s under the guidance of Imelda Marcos was like peeping behind the curtain at a magic show. (No photography was allowed of the interior.)

5.  Fort Santiago

Perhaps it’s the time of day but we are solitary strollers in the peaceful tropical gardens leading up to the Spanish-built fort which has guarded Manila for over 400 years.  As well as protecting the city from a variety of invaders it houses a shrine dedicated to the national hero of the Philippines José Rizal. Rivalling Leonardo Da Vinci in his litany of accomplishments he was an ophthalmologist, novelist, poet, sculptor, linguist, painter, architect and historian. He also excelled at fencing and martial arts. The main focus of of our guide’s narrative is dedicated to his memory.

“Have you been to the British Museum?” she asks and explains that José Rizal was in London at the time of Jack the Ripper. “Do you know what Jack the Ripper did?” We’re too hot to reply.  “He ripped off prostitutes!”  Apparently his initials and coincidence that the murders stopped when José returned to the Philippines led to suspicion that the two JRs were one and the same (still documented in the British Museum). So potential serial killer was added to this amazing man’s biography.

He met his end wrongly accused of conspiracy and rebellion against the government in 1896 and was led to his death by Filipino soldiers of the Spanish Army. It was quite moving to follow a path of bronze footsteps showing the final journey across the lawn in the gardens of this ambitious and talented champion of the people.

 

24 hours in Manila - mycustardpie.com

In the botanical gardens

6. Forbes Park

On an unexpected detour through Forbes Park we see how the other half live in this millionaire’s gated community. On the main road through, flanked by Manila Golf and Country Club, high nets protect our vehicle from misguided balls. Jeepneys and tricycles are not allowed in to keep the air pure for the ambassadors and wealthy families who live here.

7. American Cemetery and Memorial

White serried rows of crosses on impossibly green undulating lawns amid a few gleaming sky scrapers are an astonishing contrast to the ramshackle parts of the city. It feels like little America but with views over the city to mountains beyond. The site of 17,206 graves of American servicemen killed in World War II were buried here although some of their bodies have been repatriated. 570 Filippino military lives are laid to rest here too.  It’s extremely peaceful, contemplative and moving.

24 hours in Manila - mycustardpie.com

24 hours in Manila - mycustardpie.com

24 hours in Manila - mycustardpie.com

8. Makati

16 cities or districts make up Metro Manila and Makati is the financial and business centre right at the hub. We stayed in the Shangri-la Makati, it’s not far from the airport, and the views through the gleaming towers to the skyline were compelling day and night. Samantha and I went in search of street food stalls and an organic market but were thwarted (it was the night before). However, a really helpful security guard gave us directions to Greenbelt and personally escorted us across the road. It felt very safe to wander in the vicinity of the Shangri-La. There are three museums, four parks and two heritage churches, as well as a lot of high-end shopping.

9. Greenbelt

Yes, it’s an upmarket shopping mall but year round outdoor living makes designing a mall so that two floors of restaurants and cafés look out over a small park a completely viable proposition. Great for hanging out and people watching in the evening. There’s a real buzz and a good selection of places to eat and drink, plus there’s the Ayala museum including an ancient gold collection.

10. Santo Niño de Paz Chapel

Leaving the brightly aisles of designer shops behind us, we crossed stepping-stones and bridge to enter super-modern open-sided church in the middle of the Greenbelt shopping centre park. People of all ages wander in and worship and a service was going on as we strolled through. The confessionals look like milk cartons. Walking out the other side there are model water buffalo amid bamboo and palms. Eating and shopping are all happening a few metres away. Really quite an extraordinary spectacle and a slice of modern life in the Philippines.

24 hours in Manila - mycustardpie.com

The bridge leading to the Santo Nino de Paz chapel

24 hours in Manila - mycustardpie.com

Inside the open sided Santo Nino de Paz chapel

Other places

A few other places to visit: Art Galleries on Chino Roces Avenue including Manila Contemporary, which hosts local and international exhibitions including major artists. Binondo – the world’s oldest Chinatown.  Quiapo Church which is the site of the Black Nazarene statue credited with various healing powers for the market stalls in front of the church and surrounding streets.

24 hours in Manila - mycustardpie.com

View across the Pasig river (from Fort Santiago) which runs through Manila

24 hours in Manila - mycustardpie.com

Jeepney

Safety in Manila

There was a lot of debate with our group and guides about safety in Manila. The top Google results are alarming, slamming the city for being unclean and dangerous. Our guide assured us that it was safe if you didn’t put yourself at risk (by walking around in the wrong areas at night wearing gold jewellery for instance). This vast city where the average wage is 2 USD a day means that petty crime is a factor to beware of. As an organised group we were cocooned a bit but I think that the reality is somewhere in the middle. Keep possessions safe, don’t wander off the beaten track especially at night and go with a guide (see below) to the more down-to-earth areas.

Tours and guides

Old Manila Walks, Bambike Eco-tours and Smokey Tours all look really interesting (except the cock-fighting with the latter).

Where to stay

I stayed for two nights at the Shangri-La Hotel in Makati which has the excellent facilities that you’d expect from a five-star hotel but much more too. It had a character and warmth which made me very sad to leave. The rooms are all curved and lined in a blonde wood which gave it a Biedermeier meets Scandinavia feel. It’s welcoming without fussiness although has flourishes of quirky opulence – make sure you look up at the chandelier and down at the amazing carpets. The atrium and lobby lounge are huge overlooking a small tropical area absolutely crying out for you to sit and drink afternoon tea to the sound of the 14-piece orchestra which plays live every afternoon. The corridors felt like I had stepped into a 1930’s movie with rippled silver walls and gilt. I swam in the outdoor pool on one of the upper floors with the sun turning the sky pink and took a hundred of photos of the compelling view of Manila from my window.

Where to eat

Although our mission to eat street food while in Manila was thwarted (more of that in posts to follow) the places we visited did give us a good opportunity to sample many Filipino classics right away.

Circles Event Cafe – Shangri-la Makati: A good range of traditional Filippino dishes and some international (excellent sushi) at this buffet style restaurant with three open kitchens. Masses of pork and a good introduction to halo-halo.

Café Ilang-Ilang – Manila Hotel: An opulent entrance and the staff dressed in Victorian clothing (think Filippino artful dodgers!) make this an interesting venue. We were fascinated by group of glam older ladies were dressed to the nines in stunning grey dresses all different styles. We discovered that this was a renewal of wedding vows. Another gleaming buffet style venue mixing international favourites with traditional dishes such as lechon. There is also a pork-free section. A show-stopping patisserie display went down well.

People’s Palace:Modern Thai restaurant amid the Greenbelt shopping mall complex. We sat outside on sleek leather benches flanked by a wall of greenery – a good place to watch the world go by. My chicken larb was really fiery and fresh with herbs. Good cocktail and mocktail selection, the latter included some made with calamansi juice and dalandan, both types of citrus. Calamansi is fresh and tangy, a bit like yuzu and this sip started an addiction that lasted all week.

Marriot Cafe – Manila Marriot Hotel: A good buffet lunch selection (including crispy pata – deep fried pork leg) and a very short distance from the airport. Marriot Café is the place to go if you have a couple of hours between flights and are feeling hungry. I recommend the rice pudding.

My friend Rowena, compiled a great list of other places to eat in Manila over on Honest Cooking.

Many visitors to the Philippines skip Manila, rushing on instead to fly to tropical islands with aqua seas and white sand beaches.  By missing the capital you also miss understanding a lot about this country, its history, why the Filipinos you meet will probably speak impeccable English and also have an indomitable work ethic.

I flew to the Philippines as a guest of Cebu Pacific Air and stayed courtesy of the Philippine Department of Tourism. All opinions my own.

Tastes of paradise – in my kitchen

July 1, 2015

Here’s what’s in my kitchen at the beginning of July (take a closer look and read the captions by clicking on an individual image, use the arrows to navigate).

Do we buy souvenirs in a desperate bid to extend our travels? I’m trying to remain in a tranquil, happy place – in spirit, if not in body – that was the result of a week in the Philippines. Various edible mementos  have made it into my kitchen reminding me of shiny, happy people, blue skies and seas and some different and beguiling tastes.*

While local veg is getting thinner on the ground, ripe juicy fruit from the region is flooding into Dubai and filling the shelves of our supermarkets with its aroma. Some of our supermarkets I should say, as several stick resolutely to importing under-ripe, hard, tasteless and expensive fruit which would qualify for a silver card as an airline passenger. My kitchen has a selection of cherries from Syria, apricots from Jordan, grapes and mangoes from India and some nectarines from Tunisia which burst so violently with juice that I’ve had to stand over the sink to eat them.

As usual the return back to Dubai was improved by ordering something from Le Clos. Bags were handed over to me on arrival containing Stellenrust, Tolpuddle Pinot and some Sacred pink grapefruit gin. This went into the cupboard with a bottle of Don Papa rum – I’ll keep up the Filipino tradition of giving visitors to the house a nip or two (which they can’t refuse), perhaps in a dark and stormy?

A few pics of the Philippines from Instagram

Veggie teen has a rampant sweet tooth that baffles me (I haven’t). As she’s vegan this month this puts most chocolate out of bounds so she was delighted to sample Pana Chocolate which is raw, organic, handmade, vegan and also contains no processed sugar (relying on agave syrup instead). She loved it. I wasn’t so sure about the texture, although enjoyed the very dark versions especially the mint. I’ve made another batch of salted caramel for her today as she wasn’t able to eat it or these muffins during her vegan month of June.

Some people just manage to choose the most thoughtful gifts. I was honoured to be asked to speak for an hour at a recent workshop held by legendary food writing guru Dianne Jacob at the Dubai International Writers Centre. She brought me a sachet of dried sour dough from San Fransisco; just thrilling. I’m going to activate it after the summer so I can tend to its needs alongside Prudence.

I’m leaving strict instructions for KP to keep Prudence, my sourdough starter, alive as I’m off to the UK this month. My feet will be planted firmly in stout walking boots striding across the springy grass of the Brecon Beacons in  a couple of weeks time. Just. Can’t. Wait.

Before I leave for the summer I usually do a big clear out of my spice cupboard and restock in September (especially as this year I’m going to my first Indian wedding in Hyderabad). I couldn’t resist a jar of special spice mix, known as B’zaar or Biz’har,  that is used in Emirati cuisine; most families make their own.  This is the first time, to my knowledge, that you can buy some made to a personal secret recipe (which is never revealed). Stocked at Baker and Spice and The Change Initiative.

Puerto Princessa in the Philippines on mycustardpie.com

Puerto Princessa – Philippines

If you are wondering what’s in other kitchens around the globe, visit Celia’s page and follow the links in her side bar for this monthly event. You can also look back on past goodies in my kitchen here.

*I travelled to the Philippines as a guest of Cebu Pacific Air and the Philippine Department of Tourism so some of my edible souvenirs were gifts, as was the Amira rice and Pana chocolate. Opinions my own.

What’s in your kitchen this July?

Two world class gin cocktails you can make at home

June 27, 2015

There’s a frivolous excitement about ordering a cocktail. It makes the start of an evening special and really gets the party started. The alchemy of different spirits, mixers, juices and ingredients in a distinctive glass can be akin to turning base metal into gold. But all too often cocktails are meh-tails – a watery, over-iced, over-sweet disappointment. And if you do have a great one then they are nigh on impossible to make at home, requiring botanicals plucked at full moon from the middle of a rain forest and a professional sous vide machine.  Visiting the Embassy Club Dubai recently, I was on the hunt for an amazing cocktail that I could make for myself and my friends.

Entering a nightclub in the afternoon is a strange experience. This is intensified when some of the leading bartenders in the world are mixing up drinks and glamorous PR and media people are standing around smoking, with light streaming through the windows, the water of the Dubai Marina glinting in the sunshine many floors below. Feeling fairly conspicuous clomping up the stairs in my Birkenstocks and casual Dubai summer attire, I was a little tongue-tied meeting Jeff Bell from PDT, New York and Charles Joly from Chicago – the latter dapper in waistcoat and a smooth line in patter.

World Class UAE gin cocktails - on mycustardpie.comCharles and Jeff were in the Dubai for the UAE Diageo World Class finals, a hotly contested global bartending competition, as a Dubai bartender has been in the top five every year for the past five years and came in second two years ago.  Jet lag followed by a succession of late nights was faintly discernible. At moments like these I keep it simple and instead of a stream of questions I just asked them to make me a great gin cocktail that would not be too complicated to replicate at home.  And they did.

The gin-gin mule was good. Gin and ginger combine brilliantly. But Jeff normally uses his own homemade ginger beer which would make it less sweet and more intensely gingery (which I’d like to taste solo). I fell in love with the Apposta – although Charles just deemed it ‘passable’.  He described it as a more refreshing version of a Negroni – and I agree, the pink grapefruit citrus bitterness offsetting the medicinal orange peel of the Aperol and the botanicals of the gin.

Foodiva had a proper chat with Charles and managed to extract some fascinating commentary on cocktail making. Mix up one of these to sip while you’re reading.

Apposta

Charles Joly explained that apposta means ‘on purpose’ in Italian. He’s the current Diageo Global World Class Champion (2014), the first American ever to win it. Voted American Bartender of the Year in 2013 he’s renowned for a mad scientist approach toward creating the perfect drink. This is his delicious creation.

  • 60ml gin (Charles used Tanqueray 10)
  • 30ml Aperol
  • 30ml sweet vermouth (he used Punt e mes)
  • 15ml fresh lemon juice
  • approx 60ml San Pellegrino Pompelmo (grapefruit) Soda
  • grapefruit peel and fresh thyme sprig to garnish

Build over 4 cubes of ice into a chilled Collins glass. Add the gin, Aperol, sweet vermouth, lemon juice and stir briefly. Top up with grapefruit soda (you could use bitter lemon or ‘squirt’ as an alternative). Garnish with grapefruit peel expressed (slightly squeezed) and placed in the drink. Add thyme and 2 narrow straws.

Gin-gin mule

Recipe given to me by Jeff Bell of PDT (Please Don’t Tell) in New York (which is a secret reservations only bar which looks exquisitely intimate and mysterious).  Jeff was named 2013 StarChefs.com Rising Star Mixologist and was the US representative at Diageo World Class global finals in 2013 coming second overall at the global finals. The Gin-gin mule was invented by Audrey Saunders of the Pegu Club, it requires homemade ginger beer which looks pretty simple to make.

  • 6 mint leaves (plus more to garnish)
  • 20ml fresh lime juice
  • 30ml simple syrup
  • 45ml gin (Jeff used Tanqueray)
  • 30ml homemade ginger beer
  • Slice of lime and candied ginger to garnish (optional)

Muddle the mint sprigs with the lime juice and simple syrup. Place the muddled mixture with the gin and ginger beer in a cocktail shaker with ice. Shake well and strain into a Tom Collins glass. Garnish with more fresh mint sprigs.

Mehmet Nur Sur from Zuma Abu Dhabi won the the Diageo Reserve World Class UAE Bartender of the Year 2015 and will compete against bartenders from around the world at the seventh annual Global Diageo World Class Competition to be held in Cape Town, South Africa, in October.

Cocktails – magical or a let down? Ever make them at home? What’s your favourite?

Why Georgians are the best people to hold a wine festival

June 26, 2015

New Wine Festival 2015 Tbilisi on mycustardpie.com…and why you should visit the New Wine Festival in Tbilisi.

Grey clouds muffle the Spring sunshine but under the bright awnings no-one seems at all fazed by this. Hundreds of people have gathered together in Deda Ena Park to celebrate one thing – Georgian wine-making.

The family winemaker stalls are cheek by jowl and covered with plates of cheese, bread and the ultimate Georgian combination of the two – khachapuri – cheese cooked into bread. The Georgians have over forty different variations of this rib-sticking, irresistible, carb-laden oozy speciality. Vessels of all kinds from pottery crocks, to bottles scrawled with hand-written labels, are spread across the tables. It’s the norm for Georgian families to make their own wine even if they have to ferment the grapes on the balcony of their city flat or buy grapes from another region.

Along a path, in a clearing among towering trees are the traditional winemakers who follow a method used for centuries in Georgia, which was nearly lost under a hundred years of Soviet rule, of fermenting their wines in qvevri. These are enormous clay vessels, taking a special skill to make, which are buried underground and sealed with beeswax. Both red and white wines are often fermented on the skins, pips and even stalks to give a distinctive style to the wines. Gravity causes natural filtration and the method has been emulated in other countries as the ultimate in natural wine making and it has UNESCO status.

Another area of the park houses stalls and tents belonging to larger producers using conventional wine-making techniques but mainly indigenous Georgian grape varieties which are estimated at about 525 (although a core of about 45 are used commercially at present).

New Wine Festival 2015 Tbilisi on mycustardpie.com

Three awesome female winemakers, Tea Melanashvili, Marina Kurtanidze of Mandili and Mariam who has just made her first wine

Jolly, relaxed, convivial; music plays as visitors wander about tasting wine, washing down the bread and cheese. More and more families stroll into the park and something dawns on me that is utterly astonishing, but appears totally normal to the Georgians. This wine festival is absolutely free of charge – anyone can come into the park, taste wine from the stalls and enjoy their spread of food.

A group of men in traditional dress break into haunting polyphonic singing which announces the ceremonial opening of a qvevri. Chairman of the National Wine Agency, Giorgi Samanishvili, breaks the beeswax seal and dips a ladle into clear white wine, sharing it into glasses for whoever wants to drink.

For 10 lari you can buy a wine glass and tasting pouch for hanging the glass around your neck if you’d rather not taste out of plastic cups. Juggling a bag, camera, phone and my attention elsewhere I miss the pouch and my glass shatters to the floor. My efforts to move the shards out of the way of passing pedestrians is interrupted by a man who races up with a brush and scoops them away. I haven’t noticed until this moment a small army of cleaners dotted around the park.

All ages are present at the festival, a few families in traditional dress, a small girl looking very important holding tightly to the hand of her toddler brother who looks totally bewildered. A few parents are giving their children tiny sips of wine. I ask one stallholder if the grandson on her lap likes wine, “yes of course” she says proudly. Wine is at the heart of this culture, written into its history and language.

A band playing some excellent jazz draws me to a bit of the park close to the river.  Skewers of meat are being grilled over charcoal and they’ve set up a bread oven or tone to make fresh shotis puri, diamond-shaped flat breads with a honey-combed centred.  Meanwhile sixty wine companies, winemakers and family cellars continued to pour their late harvest (or new) wines with at least 72 grape varieties, to an appreciative audience.

All this gets me to the crux of…

Why Georgians are the best people to host a wine fair

1. Wine is in Georgian’s blood, so rooted into their culture, it’s part of everyday life. There was no pushing and shoving, no drunkenness, no over-indulgence on an obvious scale. Can you imagine a civilised free wine festival anywhere else in the world? Me neither.

2. Hospitality to visitors is intrinsic. Living in the Middle East, I’ve been the recipient of legendary levels of generosity; with a Dad who was Polish I also know all about force feeding visitors; but Georgians take it to another level entirely. Everyone is welcome.

3. There is a certain way of doing things. Perhaps it was the time under communism but, despite their laid back friendly appearance, there is a way of doing things that Georgians adhere to. I was the guest of an amazing wine tasting at a venue with stunning views of the city the night before which was the official ceremony to open the New Wine Festival. There was attention to detail in organising the event, such as the sweeper-uppers, which meant it felt effortless.

4. They are relaxed about things that matter. A trust that people are adult enough to drink from glass (ahem) in a park without going OTT on health and safety. A family environment meaning that wine is something to be savoured, respected and enjoyed in moderation.

5. Georgia is the longest continuous wine making culture in the world with over 500 unique grape varieties and wine making traditions. Surely the perfect foil to the intensive viticulture, commercialisation and homogenization of the global wine market which focuses on a handful of popular grapes with cookie cutter styles of wine. No more boring wine.

Meet you there next year? In the meantime, here are some of my (shaky iPhone) video highlights:

Recent events

Central Tbilisi is a very attractive, the Mtkvari river divides it and many bridges cross its brown waters (fed from the mountains) including the famous Peace bridge which looks like a modern, transparent armadillo. At night, particularly when viewed from the cable car or the top of the funicular railway, the lights of many splendid churches and the Narikhala fortress reflect magically from its surface.

With pictures in the news a few weeks ago of escaped wild creatures from Tbilisi zoo, cars being dug out of silt and the reports of fatalities both human and animal caused when the river Mtkvari flooded the city, it’s hard to imagine that, in March, I was enjoying this really special event on its banks. The Georgians have shown their resilience yet again and everyone has pitched in to help disaster-struck victims, roads are clear and I have been assured by Georgians that it’s perfectly safe for visitors, who will receive the usual magnificently warm welcome.

New Wine Festival 2015 Tbilisi on mycustardpie.com

New Wine Festival 2015 Tbilisi on mycustardpie.com

Tbilisi – viewed from the top of the funicular – at night

How to visit the next New Wine Festival in Tbilisi: Pre-publicity was a bit thin on the ground. Visit Vinoge for information about Georgian wine including details of the next festival when available. Follow mycustardpie on Facebook and Twitter where I’ll post details as soon as I have them.

More about the New Wine Festival 2015:

I travelled to Georgia as a guest of the Georgian National Tourism Administration, the Georgian Wine Club and the Georgian National Wine Agency.

Please note that no images or content can be reproduced in part or in full without express permission from myself. Ask first.

Read more about my other visits to Georgia here.

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