Memorable meals

The Rock Restaurant, Zanzibar

The Rock Restaurant, Zanzibar

Over the years, I’ve had the good fortune to eat in some top quality restaurants in the UK and around the world.  But, while gourmet food is always fantastic at the time, I’ve come to the conclusion that memorable meals are really made so because of the location, the occasion and the people they are shared with.

One of my most unforgettable meals was a stuffed butternut squash, cooked over an open fire in the Okavango Delta in Botswana.  The fact that the guide leading our trip bothered to make such an intricate and tasty dish with only a wilderness camp fire for an oven still amazes me.  The act of sitting under the stars to share it with new friends from around the globe and our local guides from a neighbouring village in Botswana before we all embarked on camp fire tales and singing made it a meal to remember forever.

When it comes to scenic restaurants, a couple of places top my list.  In Israel, we once ate at The Red Sea Star restaurant which is underwater in the Red Sea.  I no longer have any clue what I ate on the night, but I’ll never forget the bizarre experience of eating a three course meal as beautiful species such as Red Sea Clownfish, Lionfish and the odd turtle swam past the windows.  I’m pretty sure we didn’t eat fish.

On the beautiful island of Zanzibar, we once spent a very happy lunchtime eating at The Rock Restaurant, a tiny little place on an islet just off the beach.  The view out across the Indian Ocean was breathtaking and part of the fun was wading back to shore after our meal, when the islet had become cut off by the high tide.

Without doubt though, top of the memorable meals list for me was a dining experience we shared in a rural family home in Vietnam, after a morning visit to the villagers involved in an micro financed project we were supporting.  We were invited into the home of a local lady who showed us how to cook a delicious range of traditional Vietnamese dishes, including fresh spring rolls, which were fried over the open fire in her kitchen.  For us  the very fact that we’d been invited into a village home made it a very special meal for us.  I think we provided some reciprocal enjoyment for our host too, because she was most amused by our attempts to use chopsticks to turn the food frying over the open fire.  Thankfully, she intervened and deftly flipped them, or we’d have frazzled them for sure.

It was simple home cooked food, but in a place and with people I will never forget.





November 11th, 2014 | Comments Off on Memorable meals

Trying traditional food preservation – salted beans

Salted green beansAs an enthusiastic allotment holder, I love the opportunity it gives me to grow weird and wonderful fruit and vegetables that I can’t find in the shops.  I also love the fact that we sometimes have such a huge crop of some vegetables that I can try out recipes and food preservation methods which are new to me.

Such was the situation last year.  By the end of August, we were awash with runner beans.  They’d been cooked in every way we could think of and given away by the bagful to friends and family, but still we had the classic glut dilemma – what to do with them next.

In modern day kitchens, freezing is the natural solution, but I hankered after trying something a little more time honoured and so it was that I looked into the tradition of salting beans.  Now, I know that too much salt is a big no-no for health these days, but stay with me here, because the excess salt is washed off before eating them. (Although I’d be keen to know how much is actually retained compared to non-salted beans, if any scientists out there have an answer!)

To salt beans, a large sterilised container is required in which to layer them. Large glazed ceramic crocks or glass preserving jars are ideal but metal and unglazed ceramics should be avoided as the salt can react with them and spoil the contents.

The process itself is really simple – weigh, wash and pat dry the beans then slice them to fit your jar or crock.  Then, place a handful of salt in the bottom; add a layer of beans, then another handful of salt and so on, pressing down lightly and finishing with a good handful of salt once the jar is full. Having consulted the oracles of traditional food preserving, I discovered the ratio of salt to beans should be about 1lb salt for every 3lb of beans. In the old days, they would have used blocks of salt, but as this is not easily available now, preserving salt or sea salt can be used.

As the beans sit layered between the salt, liquid brine will develop and the beans will shrink, creating more room in the jar, so further beans can be added as they are harvested.

Once full, the jar or crock should be sealed tightly and stored in a cool dark place.

We haven’t tried our beans yet (we are still working through the winter kales, cabbages and roots) but pretty soon we’ll hit the lean period before our spring vegetables are ready and we’ll turn to our jar of salted beauties.

To prepare them for eating it’s important to remove the excess salt.  Take the beans you need from the jar and rinse under cold running water for about 5 minutes, then soak in fresh cold water for a couple of hours, ideally changing the water halfway through.  Some people advocate soaking for up to 12 hours, but others claim this makes the beans tough.  We’ll probably try both methods to see which is best.

It’s then a matter of boiling them in fresh unsalted water before eating and (hopefully) enjoying!

April 25th, 2014 | Comments Off on Trying traditional food preservation – salted beans

Taking the train–overland travel in India

Beautiful Darjeeling - worth the long trip to get thereHere’s a number one tip for anyone planning to travel by train in India – expect delays.

After months of careful planning and timetable checking, our travel schedule came unravelled in one fell swoop when the departures board at Mughal Sarai Junction informed us that the Shatabdi Express was delayed by thirteen hours.  Thirteen hours soon became sixteen hours, then twenty and before we knew it, our train was running a whole day late. The dejected but resigned faces of those around us confirmed that this was by no means uncommon.  In India you can travel pretty much anywhere by train – providing you have plenty of time, patience and a healthy dollop of good humour.

The taxi driver who’d dropped us off at the station knew before we did that the train was delayed and was quick off the mark to offer his services in running us – via the ATM – to a ‘friend’s hotel’, but given that we’d only just met him, we decided to err on the side of caution and take matters into our own hands.  And so it was, that we discovered the joys of the Indian Railway system’s retiring rooms. Enquiries in the waiting room alerted us to the fact that there might be a ‘hotel’ at the railway station and after a tedious hour of queuing (including half an hour in the ‘wrong’ queue), payment of a modest amount for a room, plus twice as much again in baksheesh to oil the wheels, we had the dubious honour of unlocking our room.  It was less than salubrious with bed sheets that didn’t seem to have been washed any time recently, so the term hotel was something of an overstatement, but needs must when you opt for the budget adventure travel option across India. It beat an unplanned night on the platform with all our baggage at any rate.

A constant stream of platform announcements and the relentless clatter of thousands of people passing through the station put paid to any attempts to sleep but at least we had a bed to lie on, a light and book each to read.

Finally the departures board announced the imminent arrival of our train so we heaved and shoved with the best of them to get on board, only to discover an old lady sleeping in one of our allotted bunks. With relief, we soon established that she did indeed have her own space with family in the compartment across the corridor, but she’d decided to spread out a bit – cosily tucking herself up in our bedding as she did.  Thank heavens for sleeping bags.

Sighing with relief, we settled down into the journey and the next fifteen hours aboard proved to an experience like no other, presenting us with a fascinating insight into the intricacies of Indian train travel. Like a haat on wheels, there is nothing (or so it seemed) that you can’t buy on board a long distance train in India… Tea and coffee salesmen traversed the length of the train with steaming kettles of hot beverages, quickly pursued by others dispensing sometimes dubious looking snacks from cavernous buckets while yet more peddled a mind boggling array of household goods.

Finally, as the first rays of early morning light pierced the grey shadows of a very long night, we peered through bleary dust caked windows as the scenes of rural India unfolded before us, a landscape of lush green fields, dotted with the bright jewels of sari clad workers.

At long last, we heaved ourselves off the train into the luminous sunshine of New Jalpaiguri station, ready for the next leg of our trip to Darjeeling.  An  adventure on the world famous Darjeeling Himalayan Mountain Railway beckoned…

January 2nd, 2012 | Comments Off on Taking the train–overland travel in India

Beautiful Broads

Norfolk Wildlife Trust boat

Norfolk is a gorgeous county. Many of its coastal towns and villages, such as Cley and Brancaster Staithes are still wonderful havens of peace and tranquillity, where the simple holiday pleasures of rock pools, buckets and spades and great seafood still rule the day. Perfect for a relaxing English  seaside break. Just a little further inland, are the Norfolk Broads; a winding trail of waterways that provide a haven for birds and wildlife.

Inspired by the glorious early June weather, we decided to head off to the Broads recently, in search of British birds and wildlife.

A bit of research lead us to the Norfolk Wildlife Trust which manages a number of nature reserves in the region.  We’d booked ahead to join one of their wildlife spotting boat trips and duly joined skipper Maurice and a couple of other visitors for what turned out to be a truly idyllic two hour journey through the reed beds.

It was like stepping back in time.  On the larger expanses of water, people were busy with the traditional ‘brown boat’ sailing dinghies, streaming along in the wind, for all the world as if they’d just dropped out of ‘Swallows and Amazons’.  The more sedate sailors were pottering around on houseboats and day cruisers, or sitting on deck in the sunshine with a mug of tea.Coltishall riverside pub

On our eco friendly electric boat, we were able to chug quietly up and down some of the narrower channels, keeping a sharp eye open for anything interesting along the way. We were rewarded with close up views of many birds, including Reed Warblers and Sedge Warblers and there were so many Marsh Harriers soaring on the thermals above us that we lost count.  Our eyes popped as we saw a grass snake swim from one side of the reed bed to the other and Swallowtail butterflies fluttered around in a mesmerising aerial dance.

A one stage, we briefly left the boat and climbed to the top of the Trust’s special viewing platform, to take in a panoramic view of the Norfolk Broads, with sailboats dotted like tiny handkerchiefs in the distance.  We fancied that we might have glimpsed one of the region’s breeding pairs of Cranes, but had to concede that it was in fact a Grey Heron lurking to fool us.

Topped off by a pleasant saunter around the reserve’s nature trails and finally a leisurely pub lunch, it would be hard to imagine a more perfect English summer’s day out.  It didn’t cost the earth, we learned a lot about the area and our visit helped to provide a little bit of the money that the Trust needs to keep protecting this precious environment for generations to come.

Who could ask for more?

June 21st, 2010 | Comments Off on Beautiful Broads

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