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… a drink with jam and bread

March 5, 2014

Has anyone else woken up to March with an incredulity that the third month of the year is here already? Maybe it’s the pace of life in Dubai, or the stage of my own life where I’m juggling work, teens on the run up to major exams and a busy social life. Every day that passes flags up that I am on the cusp of change. My elder teens ‘this is my last’ before she goes off to University (we’ve just had her last half term). The mornings are lighter and warmer pointing to a time soon where we won’t be able to sit outside in the balmy evenings and will crave the icy blast of the air conditioner.

The produce at the weekly farmers market has been phenomenal this season. I start every Friday morning there buying my picked-that-morning, organic vegetables for the week from the farmers that grow the food. On my return the teens ask immediately for the 2 kilo bag of fresh peas in the pod and eat the whole lot raw.

A look into my kitchen reveals some of the things I got up to in February. There are quite a few goodies including:

How could I resist some jam called Cherry Amour with labels inspired by the Paul Nash designs and from the fly-leaves of old books? Gulfood is the polar opposite of the farmers market (a huge trade exhibition with 20000 brands, 4500 exhibitors) and I struggled between the stands of highly processed packaged foods, big brands and hordes of men trailing wheelie computer bags. However, there were a few artisan producers among them all and a tweet brought me to England Preserves.

I met founder Kai Knutsen, who, with Sky Cracknell, started making high quality jams on their kitchen hob and selling them at local farmers’ markets. When I asked why he said that he and Sky came from families who had always made jam. The Raspberry Deluxe was pure and intensely fruity, the gooseberry and elderflower sharp and moreish, the London Marmalade dark and tangy; they don’t boil the jam so the fruit flavours shine through and the sugar content is kept low. I’ve got lots of plans for this cherry preserve (a Bakewell tart, over Greek yoghurt or ice cream…) if it doesn’t disappear ladled onto fresh bread and butter first. Don’t you love this tea towel too?

Another message from another friend/food blogger took me to Gaby Machel on the Argentinian section at Gulfood who raved about the quality of the juicy, juicy mangoes grown in Argentina, that were the inspiration for her range. I went away clutching a very large jar of cranberry chutney which is fabulous eaten with meltingly ripe Brie.

I first tasted this variety of Lindt in France two years ago so hope the rumour is true that it will be on our shelves here in Dubai soon. Stop press: Just informed it’s available in Choitrams.

Have a mentioned Balqees honey before? This raw honey from remote areas of Yemen is now a permanent fixture in my kitchen. I naively thought that all honey was the same until I was educated by owner Riath at the market. Most honey is flash-pasteurised (for consistency and longer shelf-life) and many contain sugar-solutions or the bees are fed with sugar. Tasting Balqees honey you are first struck by the totally different texture, it’s not so sticky and has an almost waxy mouthfeel like molten toffee. And it is toffee-like in taste but not as sweet, with none of the metallic tones you often get, just pure floral notes. I wish I could send you some.

I hauled home this great can of olive oil from the market too (it does come in smaller sizes). Kostas on the Astraea stall lives in Dubai but his brother lives on the Greek island of Samothrace and tends the family olive grove. Astraea olive oil is smooth tasting, not aggressively grassy and I use it in everything. My bread making resolution has been undermined by the ease of picking up a sour dough loaf or focaccia made from organic flour at the market. So patting myself on the back for baking this flaxseed loaf inspired by a Dan Lepard recipe and prompted by Kellie who managed to make this loaf while suffering severe jet lag.

I buy good wine, the best olive oil and finest raw honey.  So I get a bit embarrassed when people ask for a coffee in my house. Tea drinker to the core, I’ve hummed and haaaed quite a bit about getting a special machine. Coffee Planet, a start-up company here in the UAE, serve really good coffee at the Farmers Market and offered me a try-out of their Mocca Master and range of their locally-roasted beans. Grinding the beans and brewing fresh does produce fantastic coffee. I was surprised at the differences I tasted between the single origin beans (loved the Kenyan) and how refreshing it was too.  It’s made up my mind though – we don’t drink enough coffee do justify a machine, so I regretfully sent it back. I will buy a coffee grinder and the beans though and make do with my cafetière.

wine from al hamra cellar

Six fine wines for 600 aed from The Cellar

In my kitchen …. of course wine shouldn’t really be in my kitchen as it’s the worst place to store it. Wine likes cool, constant temperatures and to be kept away from the light (whoops – this picture was taken in my garden). However, food needs wine and wine needs food and I drove to Ras Al Khaimah to visit The Cellar, Al Hamra and picked up these bottles among other things. Driving outside Dubai means that it’s lower tax (30% in the off-licenses here) and I can spend more than my liquor license limit which is vital for drinking more than cheap plonk. These six interesting bottles were an offer (buy six for 600 AED) from the Le Clos (fine wine) section in the shop. Well worth the easy drive down there.

I don’t think Julie Andrews had this kind of drink in mind with her jam and bread but it’s what’s in my kitchen this month. Pop over and see what’s in Celia’s kitchen (at Fig Jam and Lime Cordial) as well as links to a whole host of other kitchens.

What’s in your kitchen this March?

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Glenmorangie single malt, cheese and men

March 3, 2014

Glenmorangie tasting in DubaiCraig is a self-confessed whisky geek. He knows about the nuances of the flavours that casks impart and the symbiosis with whisky makers and other users of barrels. He is on first name terms with the movers and shakers of the Scottish whisky industry. If he was sitting in the black chair with Magnus Magnuson firing specialist subject questions at him he’d be a single malt Mastermind.

I’m in an oak panelled room with a group of whisky nerds hanging off his every word. Craig peppers his sentences with the famous names of single malt as though everyone in the room has memorised a map of the distilleries of Scotland. He asks “has anyone not heard of the solera system?”*. He’s so excited about the whole topic that he moves rapidly from one side of the room to the other as he talks, turning his head like a bearded crane. Sipping from various drams and watching him is like drinking single malt while watching Wimbledon so I look down and concentrate on the aromas and flavours.

This is miles away from wine tasting – my usual descriptive lexicon is in the bin and it seems as though different parts of my tongue and taste buds are involved. Nuts, vanilla, sandalwood – the malt whisky tasting notes make wine ones seem positively austere. I take a wine nosing sharp sniff and the alcohol strength knocks me out. I have to hold the glass at a tilt and much farther away to sense the aromas which are delicate, like the scent of flowers on a summer breeze.

And why does this amber liquid attract such nerdiness and obsession by men? Outlet Manager Jovana, Glenmorangie account manager Remé, whisky-lover Ekta and myself are the only women in the room at Grape Escape (Hilton Jumeirah).  Craig’s enthusiasm is infectious and while there are enough funny stories and anecdotes to keep everyone’s interest I start to drift during some of the detailed questions from the floor and the warmth of the whisky. Although it’s billed as a whisky and cheese tasting, there is no formality and we are encouraged to taste our way through the cheeses and pile of charcuterie so I nibble my way through the board trying a bit of this and a bit of that. The sweetness of the Comte (I’m guessing as nothing is labelled) goes brilliantly with the Glenmorangie The Nectar D’or (12 years old), a pear and Roquefort starter only goes with the Glenmorangie Original and the blue cheese is a quite nasty match with everything else. Surprisingly a soft rinded cheese (Camembert?) is great with them all. A bite-sized slab of Argentinian beef cooked rare is best with The Quinta Ruban.

Do I like the flavours of Glenmorangie? At the start I struggle, and this says as much about me as the whisky. There was a moment during a recent Kilchoman tasting when I was transported into the countryside. I was standing under pale blue skies, in a salty maritime breeze, watching the waving golden barley. The Glenmorangie is smooth and sophisticated; it lacks a sense of place for me. And then they pour the 18-year-old which is like being wrapped in a soft golden blanket.

For whisky nerds, this is what we tasted (and my inexpert tasting impressions):

  • Original – 10 year old: strongly mandarin oranges on the nose, with a freshness that was minty, overwhelmingly silky vanilla taste (perhaps just too smooth for my tastes).
  • Nectar D’Or - 12 year old: Orange peel, ginger and nutmeg aromas with a creaminess on the palate and burnt orange flavours. The tasting notes said lime but I didn’t detect any of that kind of freshness but nutmeg came through in the finish. Paired extremely well with a dried apricot from the cheese plate.
  • Quita Ruban – 12 year old: Agreed wholeheartedly with the tasting notes about chocolate, Christmas pudding and sandalwood aromas. I would add caramel to that list. Chocolate smoothness and candied orange peel flavours predominate.
  • Lasanta – 12 year old: Caramel toffee on the nose with rum and a touch of citrus (tangerine?), orangey and buttery flavours with all the nuances that you’d expect from maturation in Oloroso sherry casks. There was a sweet nuttiness on the finish.
  • Glenmorangie 18 years old: The tasting notes read “appeals to the luxury spirits drinker who appreciates serious quality” – that’ll be me then as I preferred this way and above all the rest! Honey aromas captivate and the geranium mentioned on the notes was really alluring. Creamy honey tastes with caramelised grapefruit and a coffee finish.   Not sure how much this retails for in the UAE but it’s £85.00 in the UK. so I probably won’t be tasting this very often.
  • We also tasted something which was extremely rare and from my photos (see below) seems like it was 100% 57.2% proof. I have no recollection of what it was like except that I enjoyed it!

Will I return to the Single Malt Society? Oh yes indeed – met some lovely men people over some delicious cheeses and charcuterie. I’ve learned a huge amount about malt whisky courtesy of engaging and entertaining malt whisky expert Craig. It’s exceptionally good value – 275 AED for (at least) 5 drams with cheese and charcuterie (and more) on this occasion. The events are varied too – the next one is hosted by a bourbon distiller who is flying in from Heaven Hills in Kentucky, at a Cajun restaurant with food cooked by a chef from Louisiana. Sounds good? See you there…

To join the MMI Single Malt Society register here and Craig will send you news of up and coming events. There’s a Facebook page and you can also follow him on Twitter.

* The solera system is complex system of barrel aging (usually sherry or port) and a method of fractional blending in which old wine is constantly refreshed with younger wine.

I left my camera at home so all images are taken on an iphone – sorry.

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The taste of an island

February 27, 2014

Even if I didn’t know Anthony and Kathy Wills of Kilchoman, the whole story and ethos behind this farm distillery and single malt whisky would appeal to me.  A bit of history explains why.

While there are bottles of whisky on every off-license shelf now, commercial production of the spirit didn’t start until the late 1700s. Before then farmers in Scotland who grew barley couldn’t store the crop for long due to the damp climate so they germinated any grain left over, dried it over peat fires, brewed it into ale (the rough barley grown then was called “bere” which is where the word beer comes from). Some of the ale was also distilled and the leftover barley meal (called draff) was fed to their animals.

Improvements in farming yields and a reduction in tax in 1823 led to the establishment of many commercial distilleries and at one point there were 23 on the isle of Islay alone. But by the 1990s, only seven remained, all owned by large multi-nationals such as LVMH, Suntory and Diageo, most using barley purchased from malthouses. Anthony and Kathy had the vision and nerve to build the first new distillery on the island of Islay for 124 years and they started production in 2004. Going back to traditional methods similar to those early farmers, the whisky is made from start to finish at Kilchoman, from the barley grown in the fields that surround it, to germination on the malting floor, drying over peat fires, combining with water from the brook to make ‘mash’, distilling, maturing and bottling. They even feed the draff to farm animals.

When we visited the distillery in 2010, Kilchoman was at the very early stages of its journey. The start is a precarious time for a business that cannot sell its new product for three years (it must be matured for three years minimum to earn the name of single malt whisky). However, designing and building a distillery around the whisky they were aiming to produce has reaped rewards in distinctive styles and flavours. Since then Kilchoman has earned a place in the BBC Food and Farming awards, various IWSC medals and the 2007 Vintage was awarded Islay Single Malt of the Year by the Whisky Advocate Magazine. Tasting from the very beginning means I’ve been able to follow its journey through flavour; as a young whisky it is good, but age will change with each release and it’s predicted to get better and better over the years.

Four years on in Dubai and I am welcomed to the bar at Celebrities in the Royal Mirage with a single malt whisky sour made with Kilchoman Machir Bay, lemon juice, a touch of sugar syrup and a dash of bitters. It’s the perfect blend of refreshing sharpness and mellow smokiness. I quiz barman Raoul for the recipe and Craig from MMI’s Malt Whisky Society promises to send it to me. We sit at tables for dinner and Anthony talks us through every glass of Kilchoman, two of which have never been tasted in Dubai before,  each matched with a different course.

Honestly, I have reservations about drinking whisky with every course instead of wine, but enjoy the experience. Machir Bay is a typical Islay style, floral and peaty, and cuts through the fattiness of the first course foie gras beautifully; a herb coated, lightly smoked soft salmon fillet benefits from the delicate, floral notes of the 100% Islay (3rd edition). The smokiness of the 2007 Vintage Release (the oldest release by Kilchoman to date) goes incredibly well with pink lamb. The golden mellowness of the Single Cask Release 2008 momentarily takes me to Islay, the nose is like walking through peat bogs while breathing the maritime breeze, with a minerality which is almost salty on the palate. It’s a pretty good match with the soft chestnut and whisky cream inside a chocolate cigar but I just want to savour it on its own.

The light golden colour of the whisky in the glass is seductive and totally natural – Kilchoman use no colouring or caramel. Neither do they chill filter which ensures clarity but can strip out proteins which add to the character and texture.

The thing that struck me when I was talking to the distillers at Kilchoman was how in tune with the environment and the stunning natural surroundings they were. The whisky seems to capture this and bottle it; it truly is a scenic tour by taste of one tiny corner of a very small island. I’m looking forward to the next chapter…

How to make the best whisky cocktail I have ever tasted.

Machir Bay Sour

30 ml Kilchoman Machir Bay
30 ml fresh lemon juice
15 ml sugar syrup
Dash of Angostura Bitters
Shake together over ice, strain and pour into an ‘Old fashioned’ glass over ice garnished with a slice of lemon.

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Totally devoted to Beaujolais?

February 17, 2014

It takes a fair bit of devotion to keep toiling year in year out to make a highly unfashionable wine. A wine that’s right next door to a revered appellation. A wine that was once on everyone’s lips for all the wrong reasons and then was dropped like a hot stone into partial obscurity tinged with derision. Perhaps it’s a bit harsh to talk about Beaujolais in these terms, but the Nouveau craze of the 80s, a marketing ploy, became more about racing and hot air balloons than the taste of the wine. A clever idea to take a traditional drink of the harvesters – the just pressed wine of the new vintage – to a wider audience to generate a bit of cash-flow, eventually back-fired; a wine became craze, became yesterday’s news and the mass market moved on leaving a whole region in shadow.

So is it possible for Beaujolais to make a come back, slipping out from under the invisibility cloak of Nouveau? This week it was listed as one of six exciting wine regions to explore, in a Forbes article and The Guardian reports that “a new movement of young, enthusiastic winemakers throughout the region is producing exceptional wines, often using organically grown grapes.”

At the Foodies Festival last summer in the UK, I joined a Beaujolais tasting session led by Susy Atkins. It was my first opportunity to taste a wide range of wines from the region, from Beaujolais Villages (a group of 38 villages allowed to use this designation of higher quality differentiating them from plain Beaujolais AOC) to some of the Cru Beaujolais – 10 areas allowed to use the highest classification on the label. The ten Crus are Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Cote de Brouilly, Fleurie, Juliénas, Morgon, Moulin à Vent, Régnié and Saint Amour.

Susy took us through six wines, urging the audience to think differently about Beaujolais. All grapes are picked by hand and the main grape variety of the region is Gamay; wines are juicy, with fresh acidity when young but, despite its reputation, is capable of producing serious wine and some age.

Beaujolais Tasting

1. Arnaud Aucoeur, Beaujolais-Villages Blanc 2012 – Yapp Brothers

Susy couldn’t have started with a more unusual wine – a white Beaujolais in a region that almost exclusively makes red. This was made of Chardonnay, from 25 year old vines, not surprising as the region has often been considered as part of adjacent Burgundy. Pale lemon in colour, with citrus and almost floral notes on the nose with a restrained, buttery hint (from old oak), rounded body and good acidity.

2. Château de la Terrière, Beaujolais-Villages 2010 – Majestic Wine

Ripe, fresh strawberries on the nose, soft-tannins, bright red berry fruits with a cherry drop twist on the palate and mouth-watering acidity made this deliciously refreshing on such a hot summers day. The fresh lift of acidity was reminiscent of Sangiovese and would be great with charcuterie.

3. Domain de la Madone, Fleurie Vieilles Vignes 2011 – Corks of Cotham and Davis Bell McCraith

This had elusive aromas of cherries and raspberries, an elegant wine with some green notes and fine tannins that lingered on the finish. Fleurie is one of the most Northern areas in Burgundy and this Cru produces restrained and more mineral wines. It’s not as light and delicate as the name suggests and will take a bit of aging.

4. Juliénas, Château de la Bottière, 2011 Laurent Perrachon – Christopher Piper Wines and Averys

Made from Gamay grapes from 40 year old vines, this had a slightly vegetal nose, a spicy, rich, deep black cherry palate lifted by a hint of raspberry leaf. Not quite as high acidity as the previous wines but still juicy, with more forward soft tannins and a slightly herbaceous finish.

5. Château Thivin, Cote de Brouilly, Les 7 Vignes 2007 – Nick Dobson Wines

This ‘Cuvee Zaccharie’ is from some of the oldest planting of the Chateau and grown on well-drained soil of volcanic blue stone (diorite porphyrite). Soft, savoury aromas on the nose with a hint of tar which is repeated on the palate. A rounded, spicy finish with a hint of cherry syrup.

6. Château du Moulin-à-Vent, Moulin-à-Vent 2010 – Berry Bros & Rudd

Moulin-a-Vent make some of the biggest wines Beaujolais following a more Burgundian style of wine making. With this wine there is no carbonic maceration and the wine is aged in French barriques. This one was big and broad with more structure that the other wines. There was a spicy pepperiness, with forward tannins and although still juicy there were blackcurrant characters within the cherry and strawberry fruit flavours.  It’s a style I loved and my favourite of the day.

This tasting took place inside a marquee on a very hot summers day in England and it made me wonder if Beaujolais isn’t the perfect red wine to drink in Dubai. On days when you long for something more complex but the thought of a fruit bomb or heavy tannins is just too exhausting, the fleshy mouthfeel and bright, fruit of a slightly chilled glass of Gamay could be just the thing. In fact one I could be totally devoted to when the warmer weather arrives.

Submitting this (by the skin of my teeth) for the Monthly Wine Writing Challenge (MWWC7). The theme was ‘Devotion’ and set by SAHMmelier. Do pop over to MWWC to read the other entries and vote.

P.S. A generous friend let me taste some Domaine de La Chapelle des Bois, Fleurie 2006 Paul Beaudet – Le Clos – last weekend and it added further evidence to my case (of Beaujolais being the perfect red wine to drink in Dubai).

If you’d like to know more about Beaujolais there’s a great explanation here and Jancis Robinson casts her cool gaze towards the region and explains why unfashionable wines can deliver great value.

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Jaipur – eating, staying and getting about

February 15, 2014

“You need three things to drive in Jaipur”, said Kadir with a twinkle in his eye. “Good horn, good brakes and good luck.” As we darted through the throng of tuk tuks, rickshaws, bicycles, four-wheel drives, taxis, camels, donkeys, horse-drawn carriages, meandering pedestrians, sacred cows and stray dogs I closed my eyes and prayed for the latter.

Getting about

Apart from our airport drivers arranged through the hotel, Kadir was our transport and guide for three days. He was quietly spoken, tried hard to guide us to sights we would enjoy and was a bit protective of us without being bossy. He showed us his guest book, packed with glowing testimonials, with pride. He asked us for 250 rupees for the first afternoon and evening (about £2.50).

In the course of three days, I went from white-knuckle terror with my eyes closed to slightly jumpy. The low-down carriage and open sides meant we were level with everything. We rattled through the streets and when my eyes were open I hardly blinked not to miss a thing.  We didn’t see a single bump or crash during our time there which was an astonishing testament to the crazy system somehow working, relying on the ability to get through the smallest gap, gauge where traffic was coming from by the sound of the continual beeping and stop at very short notice. It did explain a lot about some of the driving here in Dubai too (where 40% of the population is from India).

On our drive back to the airport (by car not tuk tuk) on the Sunday morning we noticed people with numbers on their backs, running through the usual mayhem. They were taking part in the Jaipur marathon. No roads closed, no police escort, just a very small section cordoned off for the finish line where all traffic diverted to the oncoming lane to bypass.  Thinking about it now still makes me chuckle and admire the brave/foolhardy athletes who attempted it.

Eating and drinking

Intending to eat only cooked vegetarian food during our stay to minimise the chance of the famous ‘Delhi belly’ we found the hotel food was of a high standard and even ate bacon for breakfast one day. We had a thali in the elegant courtyard on the first night with a bottle of wine. The list was pretty good and we decided to sample our first ever wine from India – a Fratelli Cabernet Sauvignon – which was well balanced and fruity.  One night I spotted D’Arenburg The High Trellis that I’d not tried before;at around £20 a bottle this was great value for a restaurant list. We also sampled Sula Merlot, another Indian producer, which was well made, balanced, easy-drinking. Gin and tonics (Blue Riband Indian gin) went down very well sipped to the sound of the gurgling fountain mingled with the sitar player.

Our lunch choice on day two was so good we returned the next day too. Kadir said he’d take us to candle wall which turned out to be Khandelwal. We climbed up the stairs to this minimal, airy, canteen style restaurant where local families and a few tourists sat at the simple tables. The Kaj Kari was recommended, a rich, brick-red curry topped with cashew nuts. We plunged the piping hot fluffy bread into it with relish. Missy roti, a slightly spiced bread was also good for dipping into Dal Makhani (a very good lentil dish), Shahi Paneer (spinach and cheese), Alu Mutter (spicy potatoes) and Dal fry. Second time around we tried Began Barter – a very, rich aubergine dish, Paneer Butter Masala which was our favourite of the day and Gatta Masala (with chickpeas).

We couldn’t visit Rajasthan without a bite of Daal Baati Churma – I knew this from my first Frying Pan Food Tour.  It’s a strange dish – evolved from having to transport food – a ball of hard wheat that you soften by crumbling into dhal and eating with a spicy sauce. We enjoyed the dhosa more I’ll admit, at the restaurant that Kadir called ‘Rambo’ which turned out to be Rainbow. This had a much more sophisticated décor than our lunch venue and was a whole £2 more expensive.

I loved looking at all the street food stalls dotted along the streets, with chai stalls on every corner, but we didn’t chance trying anything. Perhaps we were too reticent – the pani puri stalls with their crisp coatings and spicy insides, really tempted me. The fruit and vegetable stands were filled with the most beautiful fresh produce.

The pool

Staying

We bucked the trend of budget accommodation we usually choose for our long weekend travel adventures and I’m very glad we did. The Samode Haveli was a lavish residence built for the royal family over 175 years ago, which was metres away from the crowded, ramshackle streets but an oasis of calm we welcomed at every return; the constant honking horns only dimly audible in the distance. Other guests were all slightly older but very varied nationalities including one band of motorcyclists stopping off on a tour, all riding original Royal Enfield vintage motorbikes. A turbaned sentry welcomed us at the top of the elephant ramp entrance each time we came back from another adventure.

The gardens were full of very English flowers like nasturtiums and dalias, and the lawns the site of a puppet sho, a game of cricket and a daily dog walk conducted by staff round the perimeter leading the residents’ canine pedigree pets.  We tried a massage at the spa and despite all asking for different ones ended up with the same – not the best ever but relaxing. Areas that were a bit lacking from usual 5 star standards, like thin mattresses and very unfluffy towels, were amply made up for by friendly attentive staff (four porters were sent to take our luggage from the room) and the palatial surroundings including marble fountains, purdah screens and a gorgeous painted dining room. I wouldn’t have wanted to stay anywhere else.

Street life and a conundrum

There’s something that really puzzled me about India. We saw quite a bit of squalor and some people who are not very well off at all. Families were living on the street and there were quite a few beggars. So I presume that some people do not have enough to eat. However, food was being scattered around the streets in abundance. Women made special long sausage things to give to fish, there were great platters of food to give to the multitudes (and I mean mega population explosion) of pigeons outside the City Palace, monkeys got special peanuts, great rubbish heaps punctuated the street corners with stray dogs and cows munching happily away in the debris with passers-by popping up now and then to heap a bit of greenery under their noses. I’m exceptionally grateful that there were no rat temples about. All this in the name of karma. And yet… bony old horses dragged carriages, cobras were denuded of venom and very likely drugged and the sound that a particular goat made next to our hotel indicated that it was far from happy.

What about giving food to people? And why were some animals favoured over others? But then I wondered whether we are just as guilty of animal double standards in the West. We spoil our pampered domestic pets, visit petting farms and get agitated about culling bushy-tailed foxes (who wreak havoc in the countryside if left to their own devices) yet we tolerate (and actively encourage by our buying habits) the insufferable cruelty of millions of industrially farmed animals. You learn not to judge so hard.

Last impressions

Once home, my head hit the cool cotton pillow and I sank into the comfort of a good mattress truly spent – but my mind was still revolving like a kaleidoscope. I returned from Jaipur feeling like I had seen every single shade and hue known to man, and a few extra; as though I’d tasted all the spices in the world, tested every muscle and bone in my body, filled my head with so many sights and sounds that there wasn’t room for a single syllable, mote of dust or beep of a horn. And this was after only thee days in the city. I came back to Dubai feeling extremely grateful for my life, perhaps with a slightly better understanding about some of the residents of this Emirate.  Some of my expectations were confirmed but some blown away in smithereens. Witnessing India in reality was so much more than the books and films promised. I was glad to experience at first hand all its colourful, dirty, frenetic, crazy, grand, bonkers splendour.

ice cream stall

Ice cream seller

More info

We flew direct from the UAE via Sharjah on Air Arabia Flight time about 3 1/2 hours. We booked ahead and the flight cost less than 1000 AED per person. A note of caution though – they changed our flight times both ways at short notice.

We stayed at Samode Haveli – there’s a nice review and a video of the rooms (as well as more about food and drink in Jaipur) here by Gourmet Chick. It’s very popular and gets very booked up so plan ahead.

You can find Kadir near to the hotel or check his website. Highly recommended.

We used the Eyewitness book on Jaipur as a guide book which was pretty good. There is a very interesting book shop in departures at the airport (after your boarding pass has been stamped 6 times – no joke) where I bought this very interesting edition on 10 Easy Walks in Jaipur.

Visa: Check in plenty of time before you go. The forms are extensive and for UK Citizens you have to apply in Bur Dubai and it takes about a week (go early). Visas on arrival soon thank goodness.

So this concludes three posts about our three days of adventure in Jaipur, the sights and sounds, the shopping and the getting about. Thanks joining me in a look back, all your comments so far and for your shared experiences of India. It seems to have a special place in many people’s hearts.

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Jaipur – shopping

February 12, 2014

I’m clutching at the back of my friend’s jumper like a small child. This is one of the most terrifying things I have done in a long time. I’m crossing the street in India. We have gazed at the painted doorways of the City Palace, marvelled at the wonders of centuries-old instruments that measure the stars and planets, and looked down on the bustling pink city of Jaipur through a purdah screen on high. It’s time to attack the shops and we cross the road by the entrance to the Hawa Mahal. There’s the English way of crossing the road: look right, look left, look right again and if all clear, cross the road looking and listening. But this is the Indian way of crossing the road: step out into the constant stream of traffic, chatting to your friend and looking straight ahead, the traffic will brake and allow you to cross, resuming millimetres away from you when you’ve passed that individual vehicle’s section of road. I’ve now booked the hairdresser to cover the traces of my extra grey hairs.

Jaipur was built for shopping; Maharaja Jai Singh II planned the city with nine blocks or chowkris and the bazaar areas are neatly contained within this grid system (well as neat as anything in Jaipur can be). We dive down a narrow side alley and are surrounded by gleaming things; this area is dedicated to parties so contains decorative hats, streamers, party bags and even fireworks. We won’t be taking any of those back on the plane.

Easing our way through the crowds of haggling shoppers party glitter turns into wedding splendour, with crimson turbans and jewelled material for saris.  Emerging out on the edge of the market, by rows and rows of motorbikes parked so close you can’t see the pavement, we find a shop with raw silk stoles. We take our places seated on the floor with the shopkeeper who, although very grumpy, gets the whole shop out for us to inspect. He will not budge from his fixed price although we try every trick in the book developed over years of living in the Middle East, but we leave happy, clutching lengths of colour.

We return several times to the bazaars, meandering down along the shop fronts. I peer into little nooks set in the wall between the shops which contain tiny shrines or utensils for chai-making.  A seller presents a highly scented rose to me in the flower market; salesmen sit cross-legged on the floor behind rows of orange garlands and other pink and white blooms. We find the source of the kites that appear as soon as the sun starts to fade and children head for the rooftops with paper, bamboo and string that bob over our heads. We’ve asked Kadir about Bapu bazaar several times and he is uncharacteristically evasive. Walking towards it, the bright street starts to become gloomier. There is a soup kitchen and with disheveled men hunched over bowls of food. The eyes upon us are more intense. Flocks of birds of prey swoop and soar overhead. Reaching the corner we are lured into one of the first shops. The salesmen are very intense and pushy. They argue and argue asking inflated prices and packing things away for us when we haven’t agreed to buy. Suddenly we’ve had enough and go to leave, but one bars our way. It’s very intimidating and we flee at speed.  Reaching the spice market we gaze half-heartedly at bottles of rosewater and piles of saffron but we’re relieved when Kadir finds us and his tuk tuk whisks us away.

Next time we make sure we shop during the day and in areas where there are lots of women. We adore the textile bazaars where groups of ladies all sit amid jewel coloured cloth and taking hours to choose just the right material for saris.

Of course this is not the only way to shop. Jaipur is famed for its craftsmen and in particular blue pottery, traditional camel-leather shoes, paper, wooden painted statues, block printed materials and carpets. Inevitably (as referrals are an income source) Kadir takes us to some showrooms. They pretend to make the things on site but actually bring them in from surrounding areas. This was not a bad experience as it took us into the quiet, residential back streets of Jaipur and its a less frenetic place to buy than in the bazaar. I pity the poor shopkeeper who tries to sell us pashminas (Dubai is the land of pashminas).

On our way to another showroom we stick our heads into a courtyard where they are dyeing cloth, heated over a wood fire and then visit a man dyeing thread. Our least favourite place is Handicraft Haveli – presented to us as a ‘museum’, it is chock-a-block with very expensive items for sale which other tourists are buying. There are some lovely things and fun to browse but the prices are way over the top. As we return to the hotel, for some reason R walks through the archway next to the entrance. She runs back with excitement. Right next door there are craftspeople block printing, spinning and weaving. No hassle at all, in fact everyone ignores me as a wander round with my camera.

A list of the main bazaars in Jaipur is here and the Eyewitness guide book has an excellent map, however they all merge into each other so it’s best just to wander.

We bought pashminas, raw silk shawls, cotton scarves, cushion covers, silver bangles and loose cotton baggy trousers. Sorry KP, I didn’t buy you a kite.

shopping in JaipurShopping in JaipurWhat’s your favourite thing about a bazaar? The shopping or the people watching?

Read more about the sights we visited here. More about where to stay, eat and getting about to follow soon.

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Jaipur – sights and sounds

February 8, 2014

Hawa MahalFrom the moment I mentioned that I was going to Rajasthan, KP kept singing “Jaipur” – to the tune of the Slumdog Millionaire dance tune, with increasing intensity and volume as the day of my departure drew near. Many of us form our opinions of the Indian sub continent from a variety of media. For me it was through the pages of many books from White Tiger, to Midnight’s Children, A Suitable Boy, The God of Small Things, Heat and Dust, Eat, Pray, Love, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Life of Pi, Narcopolis to Shantaram and more, plus films such as Monsoon Wedding and the aforementioned Slumdog. Through food I now count many lovely people who hail from different parts of India as friends; over 40% of residents in the UAE are Indian nationals and via Fooderati Arabia I’ve got to know a lot more about the people, cuisines and country. So with all these preconceptions in mind I headed off with two friends for a long weekend in Jaipur; now I can hardly believe that we were there for only three days and the tumultuous impressions won’t all fit into one post. So this is part one about what there is to see in Jaipur, with more to follow about shopping, where to stay, how to get there and what to eat. This is not a guide book with all the facts and figures – these are my random experiences and impressions of the sites we visited (and loads of pictures).

Jaipur is known as the pink city as in around 1876, Maharaja Ram Singh II decided to give everything a fresh coat of paint in honour of the visit of The Prince of Wales and he chose pink. It is now a regulation colour for all houses and shops although the hue changes because of light, surface, age and circumstance from rusty terracotta to delicate rose. The original capital of was in nearby Amber but the new city, including many temples and palaces was planned by Sawai Jai Singh II who laid it out on a grid system, referring to the Hindu treatise on architecture (Vastu Sastra) with wide roads, a city wall and seven gates in collaboration with two architects Vidyadar Bhattacharya and Sir Samuel Swinton Jacob. Throughout the centuries the royal families activity encouraged artists and craftsmen to move to Jaipur and it is still famed for artisan craft skills such as block printing of textiles, hand-dyeing, weaving, blue pottery and paper making.

City Palace - Jaipur

City palace

Our first port of call and feeling vulnerable as we leave our tuk tuk and approach the arch to the palace.  A snake charmer appears and we pounce with cameras, but the lid is swiftly thrown on and the cobra disappears until notes are proffered. We refuse a guide but the signs are not very helpful (Jaipur 10 city walks has very clear info to all the rooms). We meander around taking in elegant pillars, the imposing palace fascia, some museum rooms of costumes and armaments, and the marble-floored Diwan-I-Khas, a private audience hall with enormous silver vessels that Maharaja Sawai Madho Singh II filled with water from the Ganges to take with him on a two week trip to England.  The Pitam Niwas Chowk which portrays the four seasons and Hindu gods is truly stunning especially the peacock arch with delicate designs and vibrant colours. Closed doors indicate the continued residence of the current Maharajah; we are still in the presence of royalty.

City Palace - Jaipur

city palacecity palace detail

Jantar Mantar

These extraordinary and ingenious  structures, listed by UNESCO,  for reading the weather, astrology, astronomy nevertheless look like an extreme skateboard park from an inner city estate. Korean tourists with made to measure face masks wander in groups. A couple of disenfranchised young men, possibly lovers, use the surroundings as a tableau backdrop to pose and display their fashionable clothing; silk voluminous drop crotch pants for one, gold trainers for the other, sharp haircuts and cheekbones in common. The instruments are still used to used to predict the intensity of monsoons; pretty amazing as they were built in the early 18th century.  It’s quite peaceful, despite the tourist hordes and feels like a garden of modern sculpture.

Janta Manta

Janta Manta

 

Hawa Mahal – the palace of the winds

The view from the road is disappointing as pictures give the impression of serenity and isolation; it is nothing of the sort. Rickshaws lurch, camels groan, hawkers pester, aromas rise up from the drains, pores, nooks and crannies and the ornate facade that I took to be pink stone from the pictures, in reality, is painted pink. However, we seek the back entrance and the real delights unfold. The view of the street below is much more alluring when viewed through the eyes of the women in purdah from behind a screen.  The lacy lattice frames, the cacophony dims, the rapidly lowering late afternoon sun bathes everything in its kinder glow. Baboons frolic on distant rooves below; we are on top of the world.  Beginning our shaky descent we hear a sudden communal gasp. The fountains have been switched on.

Hawa Mahal

Jantar Mantar visible in the background

View from Hawa Mahal

Jal Mahal – water palace

In need of revitalising after our packed first day and thinking of roof top bars looking over the city on our Istanbul trip we ask Kadir (our guide) to take us to something similar. Arriving at a clean, modern coffee bar on the top of a petrol station we realise he isn’t quite on our wavelength but glancing to the other side of the road see that it looks out onto Jal Mahal. The evening light is perfect and we’re glad of the happy accident that has brought us here now rather than the next morning as planned. Families gather near the edge of the lake and there is a constant swell and thrashing of fish which come to the surface to be fed. Sari-clad ladies are occupied in the futile action of rolling a paste into small sausages to sell as fish food; patently these beasts will eat anything.

Jal Mahal

Jal Mahal

Amber fort (also called Amer fort)

Our tuk tuk engine starts to wail as it tackles the gradient of the winding approach road to Amber.  “No overtaking” we command as Kadir indicates with his body language that he is considering passing a truck on a blind bend. Suddenly the fort appears reflected in the Maota lake below in the misty morning light and there is a snake charmers 100 metre sprint to get to us as we stop with our cameras. Walking up the cobbled approach lane, painted elephants with tourists in swaying howdahs on their backs rise up above us. Warned to keep off the elephant road by a passing guard “elephants are very hard to control and it is dangerous”, the two routes eventually merge and we are forced very close to their pounding feet.

Amber fort The fort is vast and signage not great but we resolutely eschew having a guide so just ramble about happening upon labyrinthine corridors, purdah screens, latrines (there were more than 100 throughout the fort all leading directly out into the fresh air), the famous mirror room – the Sheesh Mahal – and the king’s bedroom which has private entrances leading directly to it from the ladies’ apartments.  The scale of the place is pretty mind-blowing and we try to imagine life there in late Medieval times; secure behind walls, freezing cold in Winter, a vast army of people required to maintain the life of the court. Not being part of a group means that we find ourselves alone a few times, a nice respite from the competitive clickers. ‘The garden in the lake is closed’ says a guard placed there for the sole purpose of communicating this information – it only opens at night during the light show and there are serried rows of benches set for this purpose. We climb higher along the wall which snakes through the surrounding hills. The concrete cladding, streaked black by polution-laden precipitation lends a weird sense of Cold War era Eastern block to the hills even though the Medieval forts lower above us on higher hills. We are shadowed by a man who is following us at distance to beg; we are relieved when he gives up after twenty minutes. Our entry fee to this astonishing place as foreigners is 200 rupees each – about 2 GBP (12 AED). The charge is 25 rupees for Indians.

Amber fort

Amber fort

Amber fort

Amber fort

Amber fort

Mirror room

Amber fort

Galtha, Galta, Galtaji, Galwar Bagh or monkey temple

This has many names depending on which guide book or guide you follow. We approached from through the Galta gate. Pigs wander about the dirt rubbish-lined track, monkeys swim in a water trough. A boy selling food to give to the monkeys thrusts peanuts in our faces. Through the grinding poverty Ravi approaches dressed in an bright white cricket jumper and chinos. “Galta is my birth place” he says proudly. Nervously, we scan the monkeys and dogs that line the route for signs of rabies and climb up the winding path giving us a view over Jaipur shimmering in the haze of pollution of a million two-stroke motors. Not sure we are in the right place, I keep asking about the tanks of water from seven springs which I’ve seen in the guide book but which is not apparent in this decrepitude. Cresting the brow of the hill, which has a cluster of shabby looking shrines and equally shabby Holy men, we descend into a valley. The red-haired monkeys are everywhere and doing everything, we quickly avert our eyes from one enthusiastic couple. Ravi gives us a pep talk before we reach the temples warning us that the first one is small, we will feel uncomfortable and they will demand money. We see what he means when we are level with the entrance and refuse the invitation of the persistent Holy Man. Walking round a rank pond of water (‘for the monkeys to swim in) we look down on the first pool over a high wall topped with jagged, coiled razor wire. Apparently a prevention against further suicides. It is all fairly grim but there is enthusiastic washing going on at the bottom of the stairs.

GalthaThe lower pool is closed for washing as the water is not clean – although it has exactly the same amount of floating debris and scum as the upper pool. The once grand temples are crumbling and dotted with modern Holy paraphernalia. A piece of string is tied round our wrists – for long life – and a blob of yellow dabbed on our heads by a young, earnest ‘Holy Man’; we give money. A less reticent member of the religious community harangues our guide as we exit and I sense that this is because we avoided the Hanuman shrine, which Ravi confirms as true. We retrace our steps up the hill, taking a ‘short cut’ which thankfully avoids aforementioned pushy mystics. Ravi chats about cricket and how the monkeys often raid his house and steal things like shoes (and his brand new trainers). “They are having sex” he points out helpfully; we quickly avert our eyes.  The path is steep and hot but we are rewarded by the view of Jaipur again as we reach the top. Proudly, Ravi points out the school where he is a student; small children are helping their mother wind thread on a rickety wooden contraption in a garden; families beg from tents along the track.  The approach from the Surajpol Gate has given us a pleasant walk and a very different view from just arriving at the main entrance to the shrine. The tranquil peace of the hotel grounds has never seemed so welcoming.

Monkeys in Galtha

Hindu Temple

We’ve had an uncomfortable moment when out in the bazaar and fled to find Kadir. It’s too early to eat but we have no more appetite for shopping. He speeds through the streets to a Hindu temple – we are all too tired to notice where it is. Removing our shoes we are too nervous to leave them at the street gate in case they disappear. Intending to carry them round, disapproval makes us leave them at the door but the rest of the greeting is in kind gestures and very welcoming. It is bright, light and every surface is dazzlingly reflective. People visit the altar or shrine in the middle then do a circuit in a corridor around it, touching pictures on the wall as they go. It is tranquil to the ears and soul, if not the eyes. Our bad experience is forgotten.

This is merely one dimension of our three days in Jaipur. I felt that I could hardly blink or I would miss something. More about the sights from street level, the shopping, where we stayed, how to get about and, of course, what to eat, to follow soon.

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