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48 hours in Milan by nose and mouth

March 27, 2016

48 hours in Milan Italy.

A long weekend in an industrial European city in Winter might not sound like the biggest attraction, but it wasn’t Birmingham. It was Milan. Having not googled the word ‘Milan’ even once, my expectations were vague – modern design, fashion, perfume and football. Driving in through the outskirts, even the decaying concrete flats of the 1970s had a certain elan, and the ochre and yellow peeling paint of traditional buildings looked poetic under the pale skies. I’m a desert dweller after all, coming from a city where most buildings are less than ten years old and everything gleams. As we reached the city centre, I tried not to blink as my eyes feasted on the elegant Belle Époque architecture and cobbled streets, complete with original turn of century trams all elegantly faded in the grey winter light. I was a little smitten already.


Hotel Excelsior Gallia. Read more about 40 hours in Milan on mycustardpie.comHotel Excelsior Gallia

The surfaces of our hotel interior glistened in a very Dubai like way, with marble, chrome, white orchids and curvaceous lighting. Outside in the street it was easy to imagine The Excelsior Gallia as it would have been in the 1930s when the monumental structure opposite opened, the grand railway station built to a scale to represent Mussolini’s regime. Horses and carriages, and early cars would have bustled through the wide square and sweeping boulevard. Trams of that era still rattle past, interspersed with more modern ones. But once inside the hotel, those early guests of the hotel would recognise only a few pillars and the central staircase which now houses a breathtaking chandelier albeit inspired by the clean lines of Art Deco. A signature scent envelops you as you step through the doors and the quiet insulation of the rooms means the odd distant rumble is all that is detected from the station even though my windows look directly out onto it. I tried not to mourn the things that must have been carted away in skips and console myself that with turn of the century period architecture Milan has an embarrassment of riches.

The complete renovation of the Excelsior Gallia (which is part of the Starwood Luxury Collection) means it has been doubled in size with a modern steel and glass extension; this leads seamlessly from old to new along the corridors. It is chic, comfortable, and captures the essence of Art Deco translated by collection of top name designers using the very best materials. The rooms are simply elegant and the bed so comfortable I wanted to buy the pillows (you can by the way). When I got up in the night, heading for the marble and glass-clad bathroom (with far too many mirrors), sensors detected my movement and switched on a night-light to guide my way. The minimalist interior of the Shiseido Spa was ultra-calming, with white surfaces, diffused natural light and the most comfortable massage bed I’ve experienced (and believe me, I’ve tested quite a few) dispelling any thoughts I might have had that this wouldn’t be up to the standard of Dubai spas (which is sky-high due to huge competition).

We discovered the real soul of the hotel down in the kitchens, the beating heart of the hotel where teams of bustling staff wield knives, piping bags and huge steel trays. Eager and proud to show us the fruits of their labour, they notice our hungry looks at a stack of club sandwiches (which are delicious). Italian modern design has even transformed the subterranean staff dining room into a bright yellow space which wouldn’t look out-of-place in the Prado.

Excelsior Gallia


Terrazza Gallia

The Central station in Milan viewed from the Excelsior Gallia - read more on

Luckily for us there is a super-intriguing restaurant within our hotel (plus it has a separate entrance from the road).  Terrazza Gallia is up the rooftop (the 7th floor) manned by rising star chefs Vincenzo and Antonio Lebano managed with the advice of the Michelin-starred Cerea family. We start with some aperitivo – i.e. excellent cocktails and some fairly substantial nibbles. I love this about drinking in Italy; you soak up the alcohol with delicious bites of food. We sit outside the bar area on the terrace, pashminas and heaters meant we’re perfectly comfortable in February, with an unparalleled view of the Statione Centrale.

The ultra-modern interior of the restaurant follows on from the Art Deco theme of the hotel with added industrial chic; the lighting more conducive to techno lovers than un tavolo per due. The food is modern, seasonal and based on new interpretations of Milanese classics. The ingredients are all sourced from Northern Italy where possible especially flour, charcuterie and cheese. The milk and yoghurt used is from a local farmer.

My starter came in two parts; first buffalo mozzarella foam floating over a Sicilian red prawns with pine nuts and extract of tomato in a small bowl suspended over ice, then a plate of lightly cooked and raw sea bass. The Alaskan cod main course I’d ordered came with potatoes, creamed herbs and moss foam. The risotto Milanese had trendy bone marrow on it and the tiramisu was in the form of a ball to be cracked, theatrically, with a spoon. A crowd and Instagram pleaser that last one.

Terrazza Gallia

The Wine Cellar

At the other extreme is a subterranean series of rooms in the Hotel Excelsior Gallia which is much less formal and a temple to cheese, charcuterie and wine. We tried out the show cooking experience which groups can book in advance. Executive Chef Davide Castoldi led a team of chefs (including pastry chef Federico Rottigni) who prepared a series of dishes for us while we sat at a bar in front of them tasting our way through matched wines. It’s the ultimate fun girls night out for foodies and the chefs compete with each other to show off their expertise while we chat, drink, eat – until we are begging for mercy – and admire their prowess. Italian charm, good food, a bit of theatre and rivalry by people who clearly love what they do – what’s not to like.

The Wine Cellar

OM Food

I peered into countless intriguing and inviting courtyards while walking the streets of Milan. OM Food – described as a bio-bistro – is a little restaurant and shop tucked away in a beautiful courtyard of an old palace. So many restaurants boast of fresh, quality ingredients these days but it is truly at the heart of this place. The simple menu is drawn from fresh organic ingredients and products from their herbalist company, Officinali di Montauto, which makes essential oils and cosmetics in Tuscany. My plate of comforting testeroli pasta is made of chestnut flour (the pasta dried then cooked on a stone ‘testo’) with a pesto made of basil, almonds and olive oil but free of garlic (so diners can go back to work with fresh breath). We poured their estate grown olive oil in gleaming, grassy lakes on our side plates to mop up with the robust freshly baked bread. This is my kind of lunch.

OM Food


Dry cocktails and pizza - Eating out in Milan Italy on mycustardpie.comThe faces of our hosts from the hotel lit up when they described Dry to us. “This is the best pizza place in town and the place to go”. My friend who lives in Milan confirms this is true, “You must try their cocktails. The French 47 is amazing”.  We stand out on the pavement for ages while our booking is confirmed, looking longingly through the windows at a bar that is already buzzing, bartenders theatrically choreographed, dark wood tables and benches occupied by huddles of animated young people. Snaking through a narrow dark corridor and down precipitous stairs to the basement where an art installation is being projected onto a screen, we knock elbows at our rough-hewn table. The lighting is dim, the pizzas when they arrive could indeed be the best in Milan, Napolitan-style, crisp singed but softly pliable and tomatoey. The wine label is witty, better than the wine inside to be honest. The French 47 – gin, Champagne and lemon juice – is phenomenal, and I had to use every ounce of self-restraint not to conduct in-depth exploration of the cocktail menu.

Dry cocktails and pizza

Sauce Milan

Journalist Sara Porro is a voluable, witty and knowledgeable guide. After chatting we realise that not only have we been to the same dinner event in Dubai but her experience with Frying Pan Adventures was a catalyst for setting up her own food tour, Sauce Milan. The website acts as an excellent guide to the food scene and she’s happy to share her recommendations so you can go solo, but then you don’t get the behind the scenes info she imparts or her entertaining company. She even told us the recipe for perfect pizza dough.  She explained that as Lombardy (where Milan is situated) is landlocked meat is traditional and not fish, and butter is used rather than olive oil. Her Grandmother said she tasted olive oil for the first time on her honeymoon in Liguria. Fat is also synonymous with quality and there is an old saying in Milan “You have to eat lean meat from fat animals”.

Sauce Milan

We visit the following places with Sara as our guide:

Pasticceria Marchesi

We spotted the elegant windows and dark wood of another era from across the street and were appeased from rushing in there with the promise of our visit the next day. Established in 1824 in a building that dates back to the 18th century, the interiors come from the beginning of 1900. The shop is famous for its windows of cakes and patisserie. We join the throng of Milanese who knock back espresso and rush off again. We linger for a cappuccino and a few pasticcini. Find our more about Italian coffee drinking habits and Milanese breakfast haunts on my recent post.

Pasticceria Marchesi and Pavé Milano


In the middle of white concrete walls, coloured geometric structures, and spacious grass areas that make up the futuristic Isola Garibaldi area, only Ratanà remains from another era. It’s a memory of the 19th Century industrial past in a neighborhood razed to the ground and completely rebuilt around it. Ratanà was the nickname of a legendary priest-healer who allegedly cured the poor of this area during that time. For lunch it is filled with well-heeled workers from nearby offices with a bustling energy permeating throughout; people-watching is rewarding. Our courses have been chosen ahead so we just relax as they are brought. This vies for my favourite food of our trip, matched with superb wines (which you can buy to take away – see below). The menu is a modern take on Lombardy’s traditional recipes, simple in concept and beautifully presented. The saffron risotto is sublime in balance, flavour, texture and creaminess and topped with a sliver of bone marrow. At the end of service, Milanese chef Cesare Battisti sits at the front bar and chats to appreciative diners, patently a champion of good ingredients.



Terrazza Aperol

Eating out in Milan Italy by

Aperol Spritz anyone?

Sara dragged us away from the stunning wedding-cake-esque crenelated Duomo up into a cartoon-like place, with curved orange bar and pop art details. As I sat on the terrace outside, the warm Winter sunshine making us shed our coats, eating freshly cooked homemade potato crisps and sipping a Negroni I thought any prayers for me to reach heaven had been answered.

Terrazza Aperol



Milan is famous for its perfume houses and we were given a fascinating ‘scented tour’ guided by Mariangela Rossi who is the author of several books on the topic. After an insight into the development of a fine fragrance by perfumier Luca Maffei AFM Atelier Fragranze Milano, we browsed the sculptural bottles in the heady atmosphere of Perfume by Cale an “olfactive boutique”. Our perfume diagnosis was conducted by the stylish shop assistants as their exclusive test on an i-Pad was not working. A great place to discover distinctive creations outside the usual big brands.

We also stepped into Foglie, fiori e fantasia, an exquisite jewel of a flower shop run by floral designer Margherita Angelucci who works with many fashion brands.

Perfume by Cale and Foglie, fiori e fantasia, Via Brisa 15, West, Milan.


When I studied for my wine exams, Italy was one of the most extensive and confusing countries to study but it’s the home of some of my favourite wines. I was determined to bring back something unusual and visited several places. First there are wine shops called Enotecas (a bit like off-licences for wine which also sell confectionary). I wandered into Vini & Sapori which was a short walk from our hotel; the young shop assistant was a bit shy but ultimately helpful.   Signorvino was a bit like the wine hall at Harvey Nichols but more stylish and trendier. The staff were super helpful and very knowledgable. In addition to the shop there is a wine bar (with food) overlooking the Duomo. My favourite bottle – Maria Pia Castelli Orano 2010 came from Ratanà (see above) and was half the ‘in restaurant’ price.

I bought wine at Drogheria Grossi (see below) but suspect that the stock doesn’t move very fast given the dust on the bottle. Peck would have been another good place to forage (see below).

Vini & Sapori and Signorvino

Edible goodies

Peck - Eating out in Milan Italy by

Drogheria Grossi is a blast from the past; visit to marvel at the original dark wooden shelves which climb up to the ceiling and old-fashioned service catering to Milanese old ladies in fur coats (with dogs – see below).  Shop for unusual flavours of sweets and choose from over 300 different types of tea.

Peck was founded in 1883 by Francesco Peck from Prague and its clientele included the Royal House,
major hotels and famous families. You would never have to cook again if this was on your doorstep; glass cabinets are lined with platter after platter after platter of delicacies, many slicked with aspic, or with a nod to the past such as Peck’s signature liver patè or insalata Russa. It was like stepping into an old cookbook and seeing the watercolour line drawings come to life. There are areas dedicated to meat, cheese, charcuterie, preserves and a display of fruit and veg so perfect it would be a crime to take something. But to think this temple to gastronomy is all about show would be bestowing a great disservice as we discovered in the enormous kitchens and then down in the copious cellars. Transformed into replicas of Casper the friendly ghost by our protective clothing, we descended and were given a tour showing the attention to detail about things that matter to taste – choice, storage, preparation and aging; it also explained the price tag of the items. We peered into multiple cold storage rooms lined with beef, lamb, pork, chicken and game, cheeses, charcuterie each item prized like a jewel and tended like royalty. Italians can be fanatical about food and produce but this was on a scale I had never witnessed. Sadly there was no time to  visit the wine cellar, where more than 3,000 labels are stored – although we saw some excellent Chianti being poured into a homemade ragu (a tub came home in my suitcase).

OM Food (see above) is a good source of artisanal products from their own estates. Don’t leave without the exquisite olive oil.

Domori chocolate is left on your pillow every night at the Excelsior Gallia and we are given some of the most exquisite single origin Neapolitains to take home. Chocolate has to be very good for me to rave about it – I raced veggie teen to the box everyday.

Drogheria Grossi , Peck and Domori


Our short trip concentrated on the pleasures of the palate but we did take in a few major landmarks, most of which have been cleaned up for the Expo of last year:

Duomo di Milano – Milan Cathedral

In the square by the Duomo in Milan Italy. Read more on

The duomo Milan Italy -

We had a few hours free and I elected to walk around the city centre which is very doable if you are a pavement pounder like me. Looking up I could see people on the upper levels outside and was tempted to scale the heights of the Gothic Duomo for the view, however opted for the pleasures of pottering round the huge piazza below with mingling with people, pigeons and buskers (including a guy who must have been 60 delivering heavy metal classics with impeccable insouciance).


L.O.V.E. statue outside the stock exchange in in Milan Italy. Read more on


Nothing can prepare you for rounding the corner and getting your first sight of the cathedral and there is a similar sharp intake of breath when you enter the Piazza Affari containing the smaller but no less impactful structure called L.O.V.E.  This sculpture, which is literally giving the finger to the financial establishment, is situated right outside Milan’s stock exchange, an imposing 1930’s building which radiates power and would not look out-of-place in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.  Its creator artist Maurizio Cattelan denies the intention of sending an anti-capitalist message, instead citing a criticism of totalitarianism by mutilating Italy’s Fascist hand salute from the 1930s through severing the fingers. L.O.V.E. is an acronym for love, hate, vendetta, eternity in Italian.

Castello Sforzesco – Sforza Castle

While it might take you a day to wander round this enormous castle, parts dating from the 14th Century, which houses many museums and art galleries (including works of several famous Italian masters), you can wander along paths along the perimeter and through some of its imposing courtyards as I did.

Milano Centrale Railway Station

Milano Centrale Railway Station - on

Milano Centrale Railway Station

As mentioned above, the scale of this structure alone is impressive and it drew me to it every time I looked out the window or walked, ant-like, in its shadow. A cursory Google search reveals many warnings to avoid the area around it as being dangerous. While never advocating complacency, I didn’t feel any hint of this in the slightest even when walking early evening in the dark and living in a place where crime is very low my ‘fear radar’ is on a higher setting than people from other cities.

Visit the Duomo, L.O.V.E., Castello Sforzesco and Milano Centrale

And less conventional sights which was part of Milan’s appeal:


I could have just written about the dogs of Milan. Everyone seemed to have at least one with Yorkshire terriers in particular vogue. They went everywhere… I mean everywhere. From the lady doing her grocery shopping in Peck – with a miniature Dachshund in tow – to the woman who brought her small dog to dinner at Terrazza Gallia and popped him up on the banquette beside her.


Scooters in Milan Italy on

In Dubai, motorbikes are mainly ridden in groups celebrating particular owners clubs on the weekend, the mode of fast-food home delivery, or a lone rider on a death wish driving at the speed of light on a stratospherically expensive super-bike up the Sheikh Zayed Road. Maybe this was why scooters fascinated me so much in Milan being so much a part of daily life and in very well-ordered ways. From swathes of dark black macho bikes parked within millimetres of each other to brightly coloured scooters positioned on the pavement like modern art there was an invisible code of conduct policed by energetic traffic wardens.


I am equally attracted and repelled by the graffiti in Italian cities. The artists or vandals, depending on your point of view, seem to see no surface as sacrosanct. They show no mercy to beautiful architecture, statues and ancient artifacts layering bold signatures or coloured designs on their targets. There was so much in Milan that I was tempted to go out at 3am to discover this alternative community presuming that their work is carried out under the veil of darkness.

Bull’s testicles

In the grand vaulted shopping arcade, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, next to the Duomo is a mosaic of a bull. It is said by some that if you spin on your heel three times in the bull’s balls it will bring you luck. I had a go but my luck had already been granted with a visit to this splendid city.

Flying Emirates business class meant this short break was very doable from Dubai and would be super easy from Europe. I was definitely bitten by the Milan bug – a combination of heritage, style plus huge energy. The perfect city break for me and I walked everywhere. In fact I’m returning to the city again next month for another food-related event. Is there anything else that’s a ‘must do’ while I’m there?

What to see in Milan Italy on

What to see in Milan Italy on

Read Top 10 dining and drinking haunts in Milan by Foodiva and more about our visit by Naomi (who takes incredible pictures of desserts), my tour companions.

What’s your favourite city for a short break?

I travelled to Milan as a guest of the Excelsior Gallia.

Dubai Desert Classic in a cocktail

February 29, 2016
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Desert fizz - a cocktail to celebrate the Dubai Desert Classic. Recipe on mycustardpie.comThe aromas of the souk, the warmth of nutmeg, the refreshing bite of citrus, a hint of creaminess… all this in a cocktail but…

…I like wine.

It’s endlessly fascinating encompassing history, geography, geology, agriculture, language, culture, climate change, politics, fashion and food-matching. Oh, and at times, it’s the most sublime liquid evoking a unique sense of place, time and overwhelming sensory pleasure.

Spirits? My interest in gin is well-documented here. And I totally get the fascination with single-malt whisky as it steps over into some of the reasons I like wine.


I love the idea of them. I like the ritual too. The Bloody Mary on the plane (I know I’m not alone in this), minty Mohitos with your mates, the end of week gin and tonic, sipping Moscow Mules while wrapped in a fur blanket watching the sun disappear behind a mountain. The theatre and anticipation of watching the bartender prepare your cocktail heightens the expectation… which can often be dashed as you sip a bland, watery, sweet, underwhelming drink.

Denzel Heath of the MMI Bar Academy - for his cocktail recipes visit

Meet Denzel

So when I met a man who said he liked wine but found it very boring compared to the infinite variety and interest offered by the world of spirits I was intrigued. Denzel Heath heads up the Bar Academy at MMI. There are two main suppliers of alcohol in Dubai, MMI and A+E, and both offer training to the staff of hundreds of bars and restaurants here, ultimately to foster loyalty of their brands and services. Denzel is like a whirlwind behind the bar and you can almost see his mind whirring through options and flavours as he decides which drink to create for you. He knows a phenomenal amount about his topic and recently hosted an entertaining and illuminating gin tasting house at my house. He also makes stellar cocktails.

Keen to learn from him, he’s come up with some gin-based recipes for me which fit into the Dubai calendar. We started the year with his tips on making the perfect gin and tonic. February is a big month for golf with the legendary Dubai Desert Classic. I’m the original golf widow, don’t play, have the sport gene missing, but even so thoroughly enjoy this tournament. Wandering around Emirates Golf course watching the best in their field then returning to the club house where many mingle with the members there, sipping a cocktail…

Dubai Desert Classic

So a classic cocktail with a twist – a Dubai Desert Classic – based on a gin fizz.  This has to have three things: gin, citrus and something fizzy. Denzel added the flavours of a date-studded carrot cake and some camel milk for a touch of creaminess. If you can’t get camel milk where you live use single cream but it will be a little heavier. Laban works well too adding an extra touch of sourness.  Camel milk is actually very light and this is a refreshing, moreish cocktail. Ophir is very scented and described as an oriental spiced London Dry Gin. As well as obligatory juniper it has a whole range of spices including cubeb berries, black pepper, coriander, cardamom and cumin making its aroma and taste warm and earthy, evocative of wandering through the spice souks in this part of the world.

Desert fizz - a cocktail to celebrate the Dubai Desert Classic. Recipe on

Desert Fizz

  • Servings: 1
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print


  • A shaker
  • A strainer
  • Long glass


  • 60ml Ophir gin
  • 30ml fresh carrot juice
  • 20ml date and pineapple syrup*
  • 15ml fresh lemon juice
  • 15ml egg white (approx 1/2 large egg)
  • 30ml camel milk
  • Soda water
  • Cubed ice
  • Nutmeg, star anise and dates (optional).
  • Edible sand (optional – see below)**

How to mix

  1. Put all the ingredients into a shaker without ice and shake it hard so that the egg white turns into foam.
  2. Add some ice into the shaker and shake hard for another 20 seconds so that the liquid is very chilled.
  3. Pour 50ml of chilled soda water into the Collins glass and strain the cocktail over the soda.
  4. Garnish with grated nutmeg and star anise. You can also serve with a side dish of dates, some edible sand (see below) and a parasol for that extra Arabian desert vibe.

*Date and pineapple syrup

Denzel makes his own syrups often using a sous vide but you can buy both date and pineapple syrups.  For homemade I wouldn’t bother making date syrup – it looks like a real faff but here’s a very simple pineapple syrup recipe.

**Edible sand

Crush 5 digestive biscuits (Graham crackers if you are in the US) into fine crumbs using a food processor or putting into a sealed plastic bag and bashing with a rolling pin. Combine with 2 tablespoons of Demerara sugar and 1 teaspoon of caster sugar.

Coffee and elbows. How to have breakfast in Milan

February 13, 2016

The view from pasteccherie marchesi. How to have breakfast in Milan, Italy by My Custard Pie


“We may have to use our elbows a bit”, says Sara, our gracious but determined guide. We approach through a row of people who are moving in a way that seems random but orderly at the same time – like the worker bees in a hive. The scratched, zinc bar is scrubbed clean; we give our order to the man behind it, bend our arms a little bit more than we normally would and look around in fascination at the procession of coffee drinkers. They are oblivious to our interest as this is a normal daily routine; a few pleasantries exchanged with the server, small plates of pastries placed on the counter, short dark drafts of coffee knocked back like medicine, then out through the art-deco, glass-paned doors at the ultra-swift walking pace of the Milanese. After a while we vacate our spot. Nothing has been said, but it’s just not the done thing to hog the bar at this time in the morning.

This is the most famous pasticceria in Milan dating from 1824, but similar scenes are being repeated all over the city and all over Italy.

Cakes in the window of Pasticcherie Marchesi. How to have breakfast in Milan on

Cakes in the window of Pasticcheria Marchesi

What makes a good cappuccino?

Sara explains that this is a good one – it should be all foam. When you stand your spoon up in it there should be no liquid at the bottom of the cup.

What should you order?

An espresso (pronounced as it is spelled – not with an x) is usual. A cappuccino is acceptable before 11am but never after. And don’t ask for a latte or you will get exactly that – some hot milk; caffe latte is the correct term. Don’t expect a green juice or a smoothie – a nerve-tingling shot of grappa is more likely to put the brio in your day.

How should you order?

You might encounter a very Italian system of paying, which I love. It involves placing your order at one counter, taking a ticket to the cashier who takes your money and gives you a receipt to give back to the dispenser of pastries and cakes. Also note that it is common to pay different rates based on whether you stand to eat and drink, sit at a table or take away.

The wrapping for my ‘pastries to go’ was like an art form and ensured that my purchases easily survived being bashed around in my hold luggage.  At home it was like opening gorgeous gifts; little custard-filled buns – called fratelli in Milan – and only available at carnival time, delicate chocolate cream biscuits and a small, tall pie (called a pastiera di riso I think) filled with rice, ricotta and – yes – custard.

Will there be eggs?

Forget what you might normally order. This is known as an ‘international breakfast’ and served, almost exclusively, in hotels. The generous breakfast spread and eggs Benedict (with a choice of Parma ham, bresaola or smoked salmon) pictured above is from the Hotel Excelsior Gallia, a stunning Luxury Collection hotel next to the Stazione Centrale.  Or go local and stick to pastry, butter and sugar confections with your coffee.

Where to go in Milan?

The Pasticceria Marchesi on the Via Santa Maria alla Porta is a must for the traditional wooden cabinets and painted ceilings that ooze history, the slightly tight-lipped ladies in aprons behind the pastry counters and the beautiful array of cakes and perfect cappuccino. It is now owned by Prado – don’t go to the new branch by mistake.

By contrast, Pavé Milano is has a very contemporary vibe, with geometric graphics, quirky modern interior combined with shabby chic and suspended bicycles, and a range of products with slogans like “sex, love and panetonne”. The dedication to good ingredients is not compromised – this is Italy after all – and there is a range of all butter croissant made with a sour dough yeast as well as other fruit and custard-filled breads and pastries. We were not the only ones waiting for it to open early on a Saturday morning and there was a relaxed feeling about the place – people actually sat down to eat!

For more suggestions read Best breakfast places in Milan on Sauce Milan.

And a great guide to the bewildering array of coffee by the Travel Bunny here.

For an outsider’s view on the Italian approach to breakfast rituals (and a lot more) read Extra Virgin and Ripe for the Picking by Annie Hawes.

I visited Milan as a guest of Hotel Excelsior Gallia.

Let’s talk – about the last 6 years!

February 3, 2016

Doing a little forward roll to celebrate (and failing dismally). My Custard Pie is six years old today!

What’s on your mind?

So what’s happening in 2016? I’d like to get to know you better as there’s no way I would have come this far without you. While my curiosity leads me on a winding path of what I publish, I’d really like to know what you’d like to see more of (and less of). Pure Google numbers won’t tell me as they can’t have a conversation with really, truly loyal readers. But we can talk…

Would you fill in this questionnaire for me? It’s totally anonymous and will take no more than five minutes (or quicker). I’d be so grateful as it will help me to know a little more about you and make this space a better place for the people who matter the most.  That’s you.

Thank you in advance for your valuable time and for visiting My Custard Pie. Your feedback is genuinely appreciated. I’d love to send you food as a thank you, but as this isn’t possible, if enough people reply, I’ll share the video of my failed forward roll!  And hope you’ll stay with me for more of the journey.


How can you refuse?!

How to make the perfect gin and tonic

January 31, 2016

How to make the perfect gin and tonic on mycustardpie.comWhy is a gin and tonic such a perfect drink? It’s refreshing, but not sweet, slightly bitter from the quinine in the tonic water with depth and interest from the botanicals. I had to be persuaded to try my first one – I always thought it was an old person’s drink – and I remember the revelatory experience of that first sip to this day.  Back then the standard was Gordon’s gin and Schweppes;  in retrospect just down to good marketing as the base spirit was just flavoured with botanical extracts. Thankfully since the gin trend explosion there is an amazing choice with craft distillers going back to the old way of distilling with various interesting herbs and spices combined with the essential juniper.

With a three ingredient drink (if you count the garnish), you have to make sure your gin and tonic is perfect. This depends on choosing your components carefully and attention to detail when making it. I asked super talented Denzel Heath, from the MMI Bar Academy, for his advice. Here are his tips plus my own personal preferences below:

Top tips for the perfect gin and tonic

  1. Ice. Make sure you use a whole heap of ice made from good quality water. More ice, means less dilution, so you won’t end up with a watered down drink. The clearer the ice, the longer it will last in your drink, resulting in a colder more refreshing tipple.
  2. Gin. There is a gin out there for everyone. Try different ones until you find your favourite. If you like a dry drink then Sipsmith is your brand; like it spicy, go for Ophir; something a bit more subtle, then Bulldog is your choice of base. If you have sweet tooth – sloe gin is for you.
  3. Tonic. Great quality gin, is produced using REAL quality botanicals from all over the world and so is good tonic water. The perfect tonic water is naturally flavored with no preservatives. Try anyone of the wide range of flavours from Fever Tree and taste the difference.*
  4. Garnish. Pick a fresh fruit, vegetable or herb that will best compliment your gin. Select your garnish by smelling (nosing) and tasting your gin neat – perhaps with a touch of water added, to make it a bit less sharp on the tongue.
    Those are Denzel’s tips, and, as you can see from my images, I’m clearly not using enough ice. Apparently having more ice traps in the bubbles to keep the tonic fizzier for longer too. My extra tips:
  5. Measure: The proportion of gin to tonic is important as you need to be able to taste the gin without it being too overpowering. How disappointing is a weak and watery G & T? I use one and a half UK measures (a single measure is 25ml) to one bottle of tonic (Fever Tree is 200ml). Never pour by eye as you can lose track of how much you or your guests are drinking (and home drinkers notoriously over pour). A drinks scientist has prepared I guide to the proportions here if you want to get nerdy.
  6. Glass: There’s a lot of debate right now about the right glassware for drinks (especially Champagne). Some recommend a traditional highball whereas the Spanish trend of serving in a stemmed balloon glass is gaining credence. My own preference is a wider tumbler akin to a Scotch glass, with a chunky base. It gives the wider surface area for inhaling the botanicals but enough space for ice, garnishes and tonic.

*Never, ever use slimline tonic. Just don’t.

My favourite gin

What’s your favourite gin is a question I get asked a lot – perhaps it’s due to having a mere 16 bottles in my collection (to date). It’s like choosing your favourite child! Actually part of the joy of drinking gin is discovering different nuances in each one and suiting them to your mood. So:

Dry. A dry style is my top choice for my end of the week G & T on a Thursday night. My hand reaches for Portobello Road, Sipsmith or No. 3 from Berry Brothers; all are balanced, elegant, crisp and clean.

Clean. Or as Denzel says “subtle”. When I’m looking for something really understated I’ll choose Plymouth (standard or Navy strength).

Spicy. Warner Edwards has a warm layer of cinnamon and black pepper balanced by the citrus flavours. Psychopomp is another interesting gin with those characters.

Botanical. I don’t have Monkey 57 in my collection but adore the complexity from the 57 botanicals used in it if lucky enough to have a drop in my glass (it’s very expensive). Cotswold is what I pour from my collection.

Floral. The delicate Devon violets of Tarquin’s or the chamomile of Bloom are both seductive. Nothing overblown here.

CrazySacred Pink Grapefruit or William Chase Seville Orange Marmalade for livening things up a bit – like a Negroni… but now we’re getting off topic.

So what else can you do with gin? Denzel has come up with a unique gin-based cocktail for every month of the year based on some seasonal and Dubai based events. Can’t wait to share February’s with you.

So what’s your take on a G & T?

How fine is Australian wine?

January 26, 2016

Australia Day fine wine tasting - read more on My Custard PieHappy Australia day. A big shout to about 16,000 Aussies who live in the U.A.E. especially the mad, outgoing, generous, wonderful bunch who I’m proud to call my friends. I presume the celebrations will involve cold beer… and possibly wine.

Earlier this week I got to taste some Australian fine wine. Are you shaking your head at this concept or do you think you have the measure of mass market Australian wine? I looked back at my copy of Jancis Robinsons’ Wine Course which was published and went with me to Saudi Arabia in 1995. Why did I take a wine book to a place where alcohol is strictly forbidden? My logic was I’d have more time to study, if in theory only rather than actual tasting. This was to a country where the word wine is blacked out on boxes of wine glasses! End of aside.  Anyway, Jancis’ intro to Australia is all about the divide between grape growers and makers (not the same), mechanical picking and lorry loads of refrigerated grapes travelling miles to make crowd-pleasing bulk wines, unfettered by legislation, regulation or parsimony with acidification or oak chips.  The Brits in particular took to the honest, uncomplicated, easy (binge) drinking wines, without mystifying labels and names that were easy to pronounce, with gusto. I remember Jancis saying in a wine programme, people who think they like Australian Chardonnay actually like the taste of oak.  After such a passionate love affair, there was an inevitable a cooling off period and I have friends in number who have adopted the ABC approach (anything but Chardonnay).

Of course this is just a simplistic picture of the winemaking scene and from early on there were pioneers in quality over quantity, most notably Penfold’s Grange Hermitage. Made annually from 1951 – despite being forbidden to do so by the vineyard’s owners – by winemaker Max Schubert, who emulated a European style of vinification, it’s been in the hands of winemaker Peter Gago since 2002. Maurice O’Shea of Mount Pleasant, is known as the father of modern winemaking in Australia. The late Peter Lehmann, the “baron of the Barossa”, carved out his own niche for more nuanced, well-balanced wines with great aging potential. Henschke Hill of Grace is another icon. Chester Osbourne has added bucketloads of Australian exuberance and contempt for convention by making distinctive and pretty quirky wines since the 1980s for d’Arenberg with minimal input viticulture including organic and biodynamic practises. There are many more…

So back to the wines of today. The tasting was held at Le Classique at Emirates Golf Club and I was advised to start with Victoria (Beechworth, Mornington Pensinsula, Yarra Valley and Heathcote) and Tasmania, via Western Australia (Margaret River) ending with South Australia (Adelaide Hills, Barossa Valley, Clare Valley, McLaren Vale and Coonawarra).

My favourites

Victoria produced the bulk of my favourites and the Pinot Noirs stole the show. William Downie labels stand out as they have no text whatsoever on the front of the label and hand-drawn typography on the back. The wines stood out too; all three I tasted were balanced, polished and quite Burgundian in style:

  • William Downie Pinot Noir 2012 – rusty colour in the glass, with a little bit of attractive funkiness on the nose – I like Pinots which aren’t completely perfect – luscious raspberries and cherries. Ordering this one. 220 aed
  • William Downie Pinot Noir 2013 – balanced, velvety, sour cherry sweets finish. 190 aed
  • William Downie Thousand Candles 2012 – attractive pinky, rusty hue in colour, soft fresh cherries with a slight earthiness. 260 aed
  • Dexter Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noir 2013 – jammier than the Downies but good value at 110 aed
  • Jamsheed Beechworth Roussanne 2013 – rounded, fresh apricots, not overly complex but great value at 110 aed.
  • Jamsheed Beechworth Syrah 2013 – licorice notes and good acidity temper the ripe plummy fruit. Good value at 150 aed
  • Jasper Hill Georgia’s Paddock Shiraz 2013 – rounded tannins, good acidity but not sure it’s worth paying more than Jamsheed for – 220 aed
  • Jasper Hill Georgia’s Paddock Nebbiolo 2013 – closed nose, ashes and tobacco over deep, dark cherry. Too young but could reward keeping. 190 aed
  • Giaconda Estate Vineyard Chardonnay 2013 – flinty, citrus crispness balanced perfectly by slightly fat creamy, biscuit lees. Swooning at this exquisite wine – by far the best white of the night – and at the price (although you’d expect fine wine to come at cost..and this is). 480 aed

Runners up included  Dexter Mornington Peninsula Chardonnay 2014 and Pipers Brook Pinot Noir 2013 from Tasmania. Both well made and good value (110 aed and 120 aed respectively). Sadly my favourite Tasmanian Tolpuddle Pinot Noir was not at the tasting.

From Barossa my favourite was Peter Lehmann’s Stonewell Shiraz 2009, more restrained with good acidity, a foil to the heavy hitters. A bit of Viognier added some welcome green notes to the inky, graphite Torbreck, The Descendent 2006 (but this Shiraz is too huge for my tastes). From McLaren Vale Clarendon Hills were interesting especially the freshly picked raspberries of the Blewitt Springs Grenache 2010. I have a soft spot for d’ Arenberg but didn’t get round to tasting anything that night;  should have poured some of the Rhone style d’Arenberg Ironstone Pressings 2010.

So tackling preconceptions head on, was there a roomful of jammy Shiraz and over-oaked Chardonnay? Yes and no. Shiraz was by far the most represented red and some huge, vanilla scented, tobacco laden, deep inky reds of at least 16% volume were being poured. This is not my cup of tea but the murmurs of approval showed that this style, especially appreciated in the US, still has masses of appeal. Molly Dooker Carnival of Love Shiraz 2012 and Torbreck, The Factor 2007 were going down a storm. I overheard St. Hallett Old Block Shiraz, 2012 described as the perfect pizza wine.

One Chardonnay from Western Australia, which will remain nameless, had the burnt match of sulphur on the nose and an unappealling cloying oakiness. There was a relatively high alcohol Riesling which was nauseatingly flabby. These were exceptions and it seemed as though flinty, lean Chablis style whites were on the ascendency.  Perhaps some were a little too spare, but all more restrained, balanced and citrus forward. I would have loved some more unusual whites – maybe harking back to the days of Mitchelton Marsanne for instance.

Cheeeeese - Australia Day fine wine tasting - read more on My Custard Pie

My supper! As still on Vegetarianuary the roast beef, foie gras, charcuterie, salmon and all the canape were off limits

While Australia taught the world about consistency and drinkability, it seems that the more interesting winemakers have learned from the past, especially when exports became less attractive after the rise of the Aussie dollar, and are more nimble and distinctive. Modern winemaking is tempered by respect for age-old traditional principles, including using combinations of grape varieties instead of just the single varietal sytle the Aussies trailblazed. At a De Bertoli tasting I attended last year, winemaker Stephen Webber conceded that the French might have had something all along. There is a new interest in ‘regionality’, still unfettered by the demands of appellations.

In Dubai you can find these wines at Le Clos at the airport terminals 1 and 3.  More info about buying wine in the UAE here.

I was invited to the Le Clos tasting as a regular customer and decided to tell you about it – no obligation. Happy Australia day.

A very red cabbage salad

January 22, 2016

Missing my weekly shop at The Farmers’ Market today as I’m in Nottingham in the UK taking veggie teen to an interview. It’s bloomin’ freezing and despite my thermals and multiple layers, the blissful balminess of Dubai winter is beckoning me back.

It’s been a strange start to the year with so many well-known names shuttling off this mortal coil. David Bowie’s death had a profound effect, as he was so much part of my teens. I wasn’t prepared for how sad I’d feel about someone I didn’t know. When Elvis died, as a callow youth I couldn’t understand the fuss about the demise of an old has-been (as he was in my eyes at that time). I wonder if teens now are thinking the same or even know who he was. Veggie teen says some of her friends couldn’t name even one song of his.

His death has provoked such wide ranging reportage from the role of education, the liberating effect his ground-breaking chameleon-like image had on people, the music that he inspired, his discipline, work ethic, his generosity and business nous and even his role in changing the way people think about dying. For me it opened up a treasure chest of memories and feelings which had been buried for a few decades. Farewell to the thin, white duke.

Did you make any resolutions for January? Dry January seems to be a big thing this year – even Helen of the Knackered Mother’s Wine Club is doing it. This article why you should or should not go cold turkey for a month is worth reading. I’ve opted for glass of wine now and then, but I’ll report back on my month of vegetarianism once it’s over – so far so good. I’ve definitely been eating lighter which is no bad thing after the total over-indulgence of Christmas. The sparklingly fresh local, organic veg from the market makes it easy and I’m always tempted to buy a little bit too much so I’m cramming veg into everything.

We get a box delivered once a week by Fruitful day, with some whole fruit, some ready prepared. There have been lots of pomegranate seeds of late so I’ve been scattering them into all sorts of things from smoothies to salads.

This recipe is for a good-tempered salad that will sit in the fridge without wilting ready to be dipped into whenever hunger pangs strike (and my downfall, a yearning for crisps). All the red things in this salad, which happened to be in my fridge, just seemed to go together.

The real game changer here is to use argan oil. You may have heard of this in beauty products but it’s an amazing ingredient in the kitchen too. Not all argan oil is equal though and you have to buy a good one. My friend Dana introduced me to this elusively light and nutty tasting oil famed for its health giving properties. She sources the oil for Arganic direct from Berber women in Morocco and works with them directly to ensure the quality is top notch. You can buy Arganic from Jones the Grocer here in Dubai and she’s just started supplying to M&S in the UK.

Red cabbage, pomegranate and argan oil salad

  • Servings: 4-6
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print


  • 1 small red cabbage
  • 1 handful of radishes
  • 5 red spring onions (or half a small red onion)
  • 1 or 2 red peppers, cored and seeded
  • 1 red apple, cored
  • 2 handfuls of pomegranate seeds
  • 120 ml argan oil
  • 50 ml red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
  • Squeeze of fresh lime juice to taste
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


  1. Put the fine slicer on your food processor; quarter the red cabbage and shred. Repeat with the radishes so they are in fine, papery slices. Swap the blade to coarse for the red pepper, and then chop the spring onions and the apple (cored but not peeled) coarsely with the main blade. You could do all this by hand of course.
  2. Mix the dressing ingredients together well and place in a large serving bowl with the salad. Stir well to combine, cover and refrigerate if not eating immediately.