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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 -

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 -

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 -

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 -

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 -

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 -

24 hours in Manila -

24 hours in Manila -

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 -

The bridge leading to the Santo Nino de Paz chapel

24 hours in Manila -

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 -

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

24 hours in Manila -


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.

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

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.


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 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…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

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

New Wine Festival 2015 Tbilisi on

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.

Seriously adult mocha stout muffins with salted caramel and lime

June 21, 2015

Mocha stout muffins on mycustardpie.comBefore we go any further, I must warn you that if you are a milk chocolate lover who shudders at the thought of ingesting a morsel of 70% of the super dark stuff, these may not float your boat. There again if you like salted caramel…

A bottle of mocha stout appeared in our fridge, was opened by Houseguest, who took one sip, wrinkled his nose and switched to a beer (Cornish pale ale as it happens). An idea wormed its way into my head and I couldn’t stop thinking about how it would work in cake even though a) it’s too hot for cake-making or cake-eating  in Dubai right now b) my muffin top doesn’t need any more muffins c) veggie teen is vegan this month plus it’s Ramadan so cake eaters are thin on the ground, especially for baking which includes alcohol. However….

…the next morning I braved my steamy kitchen, tinkered with some muffin recipes and produced some crumbly, knobbly, damp, slightly bitter, darkly chocolate, definitely not-for-children muffins. They needed a sweet foil to their goth-like tendencies. Thanks to everyone who pitched in on Instagram and Facebook to suggest flavours; salted caramel came out top. I was tempted by Karin‘s mint cream cheese and butter idea, but Jennifer‘s ginger suggestion got me thinking too.  As a citrus addict, my light bulb moment was to add lime.

These are not difficult to make but involve a few stages. I’m imagining them strewn, nay thrown on a large tray for dessert when you have friends round. Filled with salted caramel and daubed and drizzled with both toppings in a way which would make Jackson Pollack proud. Mini-muffins would be good too (shorten the baking time).

Mocha stout muffins on

Salted caramel filled mocha stout and chocolate muffins with lime and ginger drizzle

  • Servings: 12
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

Ingredients for the muffins

  • 300g plain flour
  • 100g raw cacao (or cocoa)
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 2 free range eggs (medium)
  • 125ml vegetable oil or melted butter
  • 250ml mocha stout
  • 200g soft light brown sugar
  • 100g dark chocolate chips (or cut up chocolate)


  1. Sift the flour, cacao and baking powder into bowl.
  2. Beat the eggs with the oil and stout. Add the sugar and stir until dissolved.
  3. Add the wet ingredients into the dry and stir until just combined. Fold in the chocolate chips.
  4. Line a 12 cup muffin tray with baking cases and spoon in the mixture (I use an ice cream scoop).
  5. Bake in a preheated oven to 200C for about 20 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean.
  6. Place on a wire rack and when cool remove a cylinder from the centre of each muffin with an apple corer. Fill with salted caramel (great recipe here). Drizzle with ginger lime icing.

Ingredients for ginger lime icing

  • 75g stem ginger
  • 200g icing sugar, sifted
  • Zest of 1 lime, grated
  • 3-4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 1 teaspoon of syrup from the ginger jar (optional)


Whizz the ginger in a food processor (or chop finely by hand). Add the lime zest and icing sugar and whizz again to combine. Slowly pour in 2 tablespoons of the lime juice and the stem ginger syrup and process briefly. Leave for 1 minute. Lift a spoon out sideways and it should drizzle off in thick ribbons. You can add a tiny bit more lime juice to loosen if it doesn’t.

Mocha stout muffins on

Mocha stout muffins on mycustardpie.comDig in. Eat with your hands. Cram the crumbling cakes into mounds of caramel and lick the icing off your fingers. Don’t worry about your table manner – I’ll forgive you. Serve with coffee or a vin santo such as Domaine Sigalas Vinsanto made in Santorini (in Dubai, ask in MMI and they will get it for you).

Beer in cake tickle your fancy? Try this chocolate and porter cake from Kavey Eats or double chocolate stout brownies on Fuss Free Flavours.

Have I persuaded you to come over to the dark side?

Best places for a massage in Dubai

June 14, 2015
Best massage in Dubai -

SensAsia spa (before recent refurb)

Take some constant worrier genes, add a large amount of desk bound computer work, fold in a soupcon of stressful driving, mix together with bad posture from childhood asthma and, voila, you have cast-iron knotty shoulders. I’ve had this achey, clicky tension framing my neck as long as I can remember – and have passed them onto younger teen (benevolent Mum). My remedy is to sneak off for a massage every so often. Over the years I’ve tried many, many places; in the UK, overseas and here in Dubai. This city is chocabloc with spas and beauty salons, there must be hundreds if not thousands, so the choice is incredible. These are the places at the top of my list, depending on how I feel, how flush my budget is and the time available.

And yes, there is food…..

Best for consistent pampering

SensAsia Urban Spa:  When hoping for a spa voucher in my Christmas stocking, I cross my fingers that it’ll be for SensAsia.

What makes it special?

You can smell their seductive signature blend as soon as you step out of the lift. Even though the branches are small and in shopping malls and other urban establishments, you fall under their calming aura the minute you enter. The decoration is high-end Far Eastern. The spa is constantly innovating with new treatments on the menu. Their real strength is the consistency of treatment – you know that whoever you book they will deliver the same massage. The attention to detail and comfort is exceptional, from heated beds, to foot washing before your massage, a flower below your eye gaze under the head hole, to seamless, unjarring music. They train each new therapist for at least six weeks to ensure this happens and the group spa manager visits each branch every day.  After your treatment you are led to a recliner, covered in a blanket and a neck warmer. I could spend hours in the calm surroundings and find it hard to prise myself away.

Food and drink: Fresh, hot ginger tea – not too sweet – and crisp, cold, slightly salty cucumber and carrot sticks are brought to the recliner.

Recommended massage: The SensAsia hot stone massage is the ultimate 90 minutes of bliss.

More details: SensAsia Urban Spas – located at The Village Mall, The Palm Jumeirah, Al Manzil Souk Downtown and Emirates Golf Club (with discount for members). Packages available and an in-house loyalty scheme. No wet room facilities (sauna, steam etc).

Best for luxury

Amara Spa, Park Hyatt Dubai: Feel like you are living a celebrity lifestyle in the beautiful surroundings of this spa. A great place to take visitors or having a very special treat.

What makes it special?

The Park Hyatt is a very pretty hotel and the Arabic influenced decoration extends to the spa. On arrival you are asked for your preferences including the scents you like and the music. You can use the steam room or sauna beforehand (there’s no jacuzzi) before donning a huge, fluffy white robe and being led to your treatment room. This is where the luxury really starts as each room opens onto an outside courtyard and tiny garden. You can shower there or just sit and have a glass of water while the therapist washes your feet. You lie on and are covered with crisp white cotton sheets instead of towels which makes it feels as though you are at home in bed (albeit a luxurious version). After your treatment you can recline on loungers in a long outside courtyard lit with flaming torches. The reception phones for your valet-parked car to be brought when you’ve finished so you don’t have to hang around and ripple the calm waves of total bliss which are now washing over you.

Food and drink: Tea and small snacks including dates are brought to you as you recline. You can also exit the spa directly into the pool area and have lunch at the pool bar.

Recommended massage: Botanical Arabic massage – a perfect, aromatic blend of Eastern and Western techniques.

More details: Amara Spa, Park Hyatt Dubai  Couple and group bookings available (e.g. ‘Hen half day’). You can use the hotel pool and the fitness centre when you book a treatment.

Best for serenity

Spa Zen, Radisson Royal Hotel, Dubai: Really does live up to its name.

What makes it special? It’s hard to believe that somewhere this tranquil is situated in the middle of a busy area on the Sheikh Zayed Road. The first thing you are struck by is the silence when you enter this spa on one of the upper floors of the hotel. The interior lines are clean and decor minimal, it’s as though the smooth concrete walls are muffling everything outside. The wet areas of jacuzzi and steam room are similarly unadorned – no embellishments or ornaments interrupt the energy flow – but it doesn’t feel at all spartan, just incredibly relaxing, especially with great views over the city. A place to truly switch off your mind as well as your body. The minimalism doesn’t affect the quality of the treatment either – heated beds keep you warm while the room is comfortably cool, for instance – and the massage is high quality and service personal and attentive.

Food and drink: Tea is brought at the end of the treatment where you can relax on loungers. You can have lunch at the pool bar (use of the pool is included).

Recommended massage: Zen Royal Massage

More details: Spa Zen, Radisson Royal Hotel, Dubai Spa Zen runs different promotions and often give vouchers off your next treatment when you’ve booked a massage.

Best affordable de-stress

De La Mer Spa: Not just convenient for Umm Suqeim 2 dwellers like me, this spa keeps my knotty shoulders at bay as I can afford to visit regularly.

What makes it special? This lovely spa in a villa on the Jumeirah Beach Road boasts many of the features of more expensive places but keeps its prices lower. The decoration is Asian inspired and while not as high end as the more luxurious spas it is relaxing and comfortable. The changing area doesn’t have cubicles but once you are inside the treatment rooms the pampering from Thai or Filipino staff begins. Foot washing and good quality oils are used, and ginger tea and crudites are given to you on the sofa areas at the end of the treatment. The spa has an outdoor pool and many of the treatments use homemade scrubs and products made with botanicals grown in the garden. Booking service is friendly and efficient – you receive an email to confirm your appointment.

Food and drink:  Ginger tea and crudites are given to you on the sofa areas at the end of the treatment.

Recommended massage: Balinese

More details: De La Mer Day Spa There are vouchers in the Explorer Body (and HSBC Explorer) plus you can use Snappcard loyalty app and get one free massage for every five. There are regular promotions and discount packages. Parking is easy if you drive to the street behind and walk through the alleyway.

Reviews based on my own paid-for experiences. I received a complimentary head massage from SensAsia and a treatment from Zen Spa but after I’d written this review.

P.S. If you happen to be on Cebu in the Philippines, Chi at Shangri-La Mactan is absolute bliss. Also while I didn’t test it out, the Aum spa at Crimson Resort looks amazing too.

What’s the best massage you’ve ever had (or do you dislike them – it’s true KP does)? Have you anywhere to recommend in Dubai or elsewhere? Is it even possible to get a good massage in the UK (I’m always disappointed)?


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