Ibiza: Where even sunsets have sound tracks.

They’re battered.

There’s no prettier way to put it. Waiting for my flight out of Ibiza, I watch a procession of , muscle-sore party boys and It Girls ouch and groan their way to Departures. As a blonde Brad Pitt look alike passes out on the bench beside me, his friends stand around helplessly, weakly clutching their six packs and water bottles. After some feverish mumbling, they hoist him up, and wobble to their gate. Think: Saving Private Ryan. In slow motion. With tattoos. And massive hangovers.

A weekend in Ibiza, hedonistic party capital of the world, can be rough.

In the sixties, this island, a part of the Balearic archipelago of Spain, became famous as an idyllic refuge for hippies tripping on flower power, ‘love-not-war’ philosophies and acid – not necessarily in that order. Gradually its distinctive music and anything-goes attitude drew bohemians and rock stars, artists and party chasers, the wild and the reckless from all over the world. If you were hip, cool and anti-establishment, Ibiza was the place to be.

Eventually, the 24-hour raves, fuelled by trance, alcohol and a cocktail of chemical uppers (illegal but absurdly easy to obtain) earned it the tag ‘Gomorrah of the Mediterranean Sea.’ By the late nineties, the Vengaboys were trilling about ‘going to Ibiza,’ but for a large part of the party world, the island was ‘over.’ It had become too accessible, too obvious, too crowded. A metaphor for bad behaviour, desperate partying and juvenile high jinks.

Till now. My friends and I land in Ibiza to find it in middle of a rejuvenation. The hippies and artists are reclaiming the North, along with the likes of celebrities like Jade Jagger. The Gucci tourists are back to sipping sangria over spicy paella in Eivissa Town’s graceful medieval Dalt Vila area, flush with designer boutiques. (We’re told that “rupee squillionaire” Lakshmi Mittal’s yacht is anchored here.) Electronic Dance Music, Ibiza’s greatest export, plays everywhere, a sound track to sunsets, full moons and baking afternoons on the beach. And the clubs, some of the best on the world, are vying with each other to source designer DJs and host supremely riotous party nights.

It seems like the ideal place for three girls to channel their inner hippies. We’re concluding a hectic two week holiday, and after hefty doses of culture, history and architecture in Barcelona and Lisbon, we plan to do little besides lounge about in a zen-like stupor all day, soaking up the music, art and atmosphere. And of course, party through the nights.

This is the start of the ‘season’ – which stretches from June to October. We head to rocking San Antoni to watch sunrise from Café Del Mar. However, with its regulation bouncers and grimly chic waiters it seems rather naff so we amble down a line of sea-facing cafes to find a breezy bar with zingy mojitoes and wonderfully eccentric customers.

As the sun goes down in a flaming chaos of colour, a shy Spanish man with a braided beard teaches us tricks on his unicycle, watched appreciatively by the local Don Juan who chats us up using his scruffy dog as an icebreaker. A British playboy, who lives on his yacht, introduces us to passing friends (“everyone knows everyone else here”), and between it all our tousle-haired Argentinean waitress gives shopping tips. This fluid confluence of nationalities is a large part of Ibiza’s magic.

We choose Pacha, arguably the island’s best known club, to party the night away. Although Pacha has clubs around the world, from New York to Munich, its flagship is in Ibiza. It’s Flower Power night, a tribute to the island’s most colourful phase. Bathed in joyful pink, yellow and blue light, the front doors open into a multi-level room where hundreds of people dance to the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin… The energy is palpable, the music infectious.

Our charming Polish friend Maciek, a global nomad who has spent six months of a year working in Ibiza for the past 10 years, shows us around the club’s five rooms, capable of holding 3,000 people in all. We dance. We lounge. We sing, ‘All we are saying is give peace a chance,’ with a thousand people, hands in the air. The night ends on the terrace as day breaks, watching the sky slowly turn a delicate shade of blue.

In time-honoured Ibiza tradition, we wake up by afternoon and stumble out with sunglasses, hats and hangovers. There’s a dizzying variety of new age fetishism on offer in town, from snake massage therapy (150 Euros an hour) to nude power yoga. We settle for caffeine instead, sitting placidly at a café, watching determinedly botoxed women in clingy dresses totter by.

The buzz at the café is all about David Guetta, who organizes the ‘F**k Me I’m Famous’ nights at Pacha every Thursday, bringing in the likes of Will.I.Am, Taio Cruz and Black Eyed Peas. Since we’re in the mood for a more placid form of clubbing, we head to Bora Bora beach to snooze in the warm powdery sand while all around us beautiful people in gym-toned bodies and designer swimwear groove to the beat of yet another DJ, in yet another bar.

Maciek drives us out of town to demonstrate why he loves Ibiza on our final day on the island. We glide past wide open fields, quiet beaches and glittering salt pans, Ibiza’s white gold. And always, in the background, the deep blue Mediterranean sea. Our last few hours on the island are spent on Las Salinas beach, soaking up the sun, watching cold jelly-fish laden waves wash upon the shore and listening to a DJ dreamily spin that now intensely-familiar Balearic beat.

 

Ginga and Sardines in Lisbon

Every time a car trundles past, I stand and hoist up my red plastic chair.

This certainly isn’t the most glamorous way to have a drink in Portugal. It is, however, the most atmospheric.

In Lisbon’s Alfama district – a maze of candy-coloured houses exuberant with dangling clothes lines – bars unapologetically ramble all over the street. My friends and I dive into a flurry of skinny lanes, watched by old ladies peering curiously from their windows and plump cats wearing supercilious expressions.

After an hour of rambling, we end up at a particularly charming bar, with its daily menu scrawled on cardboard paper and plastic chairs set right on the road. Fortunately only three cars go by in the time we’re there, leaving me just enough time between moving furniture to gossip with the neighbours and sample some fried cod croquettes.

At the next table, I watch with fascination as an old lady, roughly eighty years old, grandly enters with her dog. She grabs a chair and a beer and then sits down for a languid smoke, the leash casually draped around her shoulders. Beside her a gang of stylish old men with rakish hats order a round of beers. A friend tells us this is how to find a good restaurant – look for the ones filled with retired locals.

The next day, on our way to Castelo beach, we stop at Costa Da Caparica, a scenic ferry and bus ride away from Alfama. Our search of antiquated Portuguese people ends at a tiny corner restaurant where we order the country’s much loved grilled sardines, silvery and crisp, soaked with the unmistakable flavour of a charcoal grill.

Over the week we spend in Lisbon, this becomes a familiar smell. Especially because Alfama district, where we’re staying, is swinging into street party mode as summer sets in and random street corners are taken over by smoky sardine grills. We take deep appreciative breaths, savouring the aroma every night, as we head out for Fado music, pub crawls or merely another evening of knocking back countless shots of Ginga, the much-loved and dangerously addictive liqueur made by infusing ginja berries (or sour cherry) in alcohol.

Later in the week we decide to supplement our childhood history classes by a visit to Belem, from where Vasco Da Gama set out for India. The Jeronimos Monastery, a fantastical tangle of spires and sculptures, is easily one of the prettiest monuments I’ve ever seen.

Once we’ve done tourist thing, José Guerreiro, guide turned buddy from the Pancho walking tour, takes us to his favourite haunt: Pasteis de Belem. Loved by the Portuguese as well as tourists, this enormous café has been making its signature egg custard tarts since 1837.

As legend goes, in the beginning of the 19th century this was a small general store linked to a sugar cane refinery. When the liberal revolution of 1820 closed down all convents and monasteries, someone from Jeronimos began making these sweet pastries as an attempt at survival. This secret recipe has been passed on through generations of master confectioners.

Our waiter at Pasties de Belem proudly brings us a tray and suggests we eat each pastry with a liberal sprinkling of cinnamon. Carefully crafted, the flaky, buttery pastry is balanced by a sweet, wobbly interior.

Back in Alfama, we take to rambling through dark alleys to discover new restaurants. One of our best meals is in a hot, crowded Filipino-run nameless restaurant comprising of just two rooms, one of which has unfortunately been captured by a group of spectacularly untalented karaoke singers.

We squeeze into chairs in the main dining room, and are served bowls of deliciously salty olives speckled with garlic along with a generous jug of scarlet sangria. Plates of golden fried rolls filled with mincemeat follow. And then plates heaped with grilled sausages, rice and steamed vegetables. A pot pourri of food traditions – but one that works.

As we leave the gregarious owner laughs as he explains why he has no signboard. “They told me it’s 550 Euro to register,” he says, “So I call my restaurant Hollywood Grill, but only in my head!”

Gypsy dreams and jackal curry

Ayako Iwatani is heading home — to the gypsies.

Her biological family may be in Japan, where she’s an associate professor at the Graduate School of Social Sciences, Hiroshima University. But right now she’s bouncing with excitement about visiting the people she lived, and bonded, with for one and a half years in Trichy while doing research for her doctorate on the ‘dream narratives’ of the Narikuruva (alternatively known as the Vaghizi) people.

 “I came to Chennai first in 1996 to meet them. I’ve been fascinated by the gypsies almost all my life,” says Ayako, now thirty eight years old and fluent in Tamil as well as the Narikuruva dialect. “Though they’re always seen as vagabonds and criminals, they’re also so attractive and mysterious. I was curious about how they see themselves.”

When she finished school, Ayako made a journey that would influence the rest of her life. “I went to the South of France to meet the Gitan gypsies… you know, the ones who do flamenco…” (Once of Europe’s most prominent gypsy groups, the Gitans, who spent many years in Spain before settling in France, are stereotypically colourful, with dusky skin, rousing music and theatrical dancing.) “I stayed with them for a long time; living in camping sites… we became friends.”

Discussing how India is the original home of the gypsies, she explains how their travels around the world are shrouded in mystery. “They began from North West India sometime between the 2nd and 9th century. Today, because of politics they’re forced to settle down. But even if they are not nomadic their lifestyles are very fluid. They change jobs constantly, and do work that’s inherently unstable, like picking scraps, selling antiques, gardening…” She adds, “Because they were always the last to come, they’re perpetual outsiders.”

She chose to travel to Chennai because she was curious how little information there was available about the gypsies of South India. “I went to Madras University and asked about the Vaghizi. They live in the streets, in Triplicane, by the beach…”

Although her first visit was brief she was so fascinated she vowed to return. “I decided to do a Doctorate on them, and this time I wanted to live with them. Otherwise I can never understand how they live and what they feel.”

Since Trichy has the biggest population of Vaghizi, she decided to go there. “No local research assistant would come with me. I was told they’re dirty, dangerous…” So she went alone, and stayed for one and a half years. “For the first 4 or five months it was very hard. Five of us shared one room. Men, women and children all sleeping together. There was no electricity at first, but I got it connected, put in a fan. Also a phone.”

“After a while it got easier. I even went on a business travels with them. We took buses to Goa, Sabrimala to sell beads…” While they have no written records, stories and names are passed down through generations. “One man I met in Trichy could recite his ancestors’ names for 17 generations. They also pass on a folded cloth that represents their goddess.”

The food was wildly varied, cooked on wood fires. “Narikutti Curry… I think that’s jackal – or is it a fox – from the forest. I’ve eaten cat once,” Ayako says blithely, adding “Also pigeons, rabbits… local vegetables. It’s good food. I love the rasam, Same spices but made in a different way. So good.”

Her PhD on their ‘Dream Narrative’ was based on early morning conversations, when everyone discussed their dreams. “For them dreams are important. In their dreams they are goddesses.” Like the Gypsies of Europe who celebrate ‘Black Sarah’ their patron saint (also called Sara-la-Kali and Black Madonna), the Vaghizi believe in a female higher power.

Mesmersized by her new family, she kept extending her stay. “I finally left because I had to go back and write the thesis. It’s tough to keep in touch. They are out of the house a lot of the time… and even when they are home often the phone is cut,” she sighs, adding “Although I submitted my research, I’ve come back every year.”

Ayako’s current trip’s dedicated to the street performers in Gujarat, also of gypsy origin. “I’m here for just one month this time.” Right now however, she’s is a hurry to get to Trichy. “I’m staying a week… and looking forward to going home!”

Swimming With Sharks

I n Fiji, the sun pours down like honey. It delves through the sea, lighting swathes of blues and greens. Leaning out of our boat, we trail our fingers through schools of flirty fish. Perfect. Except, I’m worrying about becoming a shark’s lunch.

The adventure seemed so much more fun earlier that afternoon, when I was safely eating fish fingers at the sprawling Mana Island Resort. Fiji comprises 330 islands strewn across the South Pacific Ocean. Mana’s the largest on the Mamanuca chain, renowned for silky white beaches, bustling coral reefs and Tom Hanks’ “Castaway” (shot on Monuriki). We land at Nadi Airport on Viti Levu, then take a graceful yacht (aptly named Opulence) from Port Denaru marina to Mana Island, about 45 minutes west.

I’m slathering myself in sun block, airily discussing the merits of snorkelling over scuba diving when the team from Aqua Trek arrives with a boisterous round of ‘Bulas’. Over here, the cheery Fijian greeting ‘bula’ is as ubiquitous as frangipani, which is threaded into welcome garlands, piled atop fluffy beach towels and tucked behind the ears of the hunky local men.

A dive for conservation

Aqua Trek’s popular with divers for its experienced local instructors and ‘shark encounters’. In 1999, the company’s Brandon Paige (or as they like to call him — ‘The Shark Whisperer’) created a dive to educate people and aid in the conservation of these creatures.

Divers get to watch up to eight species of shark — from silvertips to 16-ft tiger sharks — get fed.

It’s safe because they operate on mutual respect. Besides, the Aqua Trek guys grin, there hasn’t been a shark attack in Fiji in years. “There’s always a first,” I mutter darkly, as the music of the movie “Jaws” swells up threateningly in my head.

Half-an-hour later, we’re at the Dive Shop, getting outfitted for our swim before clambering on to the boat. Dives offered from here include the South Beach dive, “home to many stingrays”. If that doesn’t excite you, there’s ‘Gotham City’, hangout of the batfish. And, of course, The Supermarket, where the shark encounter takes place. Further north, they offer “beautiful wall dive where you can swim with schools of Barracuda”.

We’re headed to the North Reef, guided by dive masters Jonetani Rokoua and Ilisoni Vaniqi. The sun’s gentle on our faces, the wind’s in our hair, and I’m sidling up to Ilisoni. “So, any sharks expected?” I say, my air of breeziness only slightly marred by the fact that I’m chewing nervously on my cheery orange flippers. “Sure,” he grins, gently pulling them away, and indicating it’s time I put them on. I gulp. “The thing is, I ate fish fingers,” I quaver. “They might, you know… um… want revenge?”

He looks concerned. “Okay, remember this.” I grab a notepad, and nod rapidly. “When you see a shark, look him in the eye…” “And?” I say, breathlessly. Ilisoni finishes: “And say, bula.” He dives off the boat.

I slide into the water, warm enough for a baby’s bath, adjust the snorkelling mask, and look into the sea. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful. Intensely coloured corals form a swaying backdrop to bustling crowds of flamboyant fish. Every colour in the palatte is represented, in fearless combinations.

We swim over schools of self-important Sergeant Major fish, striped convict fish with guilty expressions, ill-tempered triggerfish biting off coral bits. A triggerfish pulls faces at me, wriggling his fat little Picasso-bright body, as his partner pouts her Angelina Jolie lips. A brilliant cloud of tiny blue and green chromis rises up out of the corals.

You never realise how much personality fish have till you go underwater. After snorkeling, we scuba dive, becoming participants rather than audience, swimming carefully to avoid harming corals as delicate as lace. The soft corals gently sway as we swim past spotting electric blue starfish between them. We wriggle between schools of zipping, darting and laughing parrotfish. Angel fish float about thoughtfully as if they’re composing sonnets. Jonetani points out the clownfish. Glowing orange with artfully placed streaks, the local variety — the Fiji Barbari, is loved for its playfulness, and is an unofficial mascot for the divers.

It’s certainly lucky for us. While we affectionately blow bubbles at Nemo, Jonetani tugs my hand. We watch in awe as a majestic baby white-tip reef shark glides past regally. Following from a respectable distance, we see another. And, then comes the black tip reef shark — with that characteristic triangular fin, the staple of screechy horror flicks. I’m too fascinated to worry.

Back in the boat, we head to a sand spit: our own little island. Jonetani bounces ashore with a picnic basket: hot tea and bags of chocolate cookies. We walk about jabbing our bare feet on prickly pretty corals, soak up the sun, and finally dive right back into the invitingly blue sea.

(The writer was in Fiji on the invitation of Tourism Fiji)

This little piggy went to market, This little piggy stayed at the cove, This little piggy got sunburnt…

We notice Joshua’s flaming red flower as he helps us out of the boat at Castaway Island. As we wade through the waves, wriggling our toes in the warm sand of yet another dazzling Fijian beach, he explains the significance. “In Fiji, we have no wedding rings. So wear a flower behind your left ear if you’re single, right if you’re married.”

We thoughtfully sip on chilled Chardonnay cocktails served in tender coconuts as Joshua sums up our first class on Fijian dating. “So, left ear if you’re looking and right if you’re cooking.”

The irony seems a bit unfortunate for the pig-on-a-spit at the Musket Cove Island resort, wearing a jaunty frangipani behind his right ear. Served with tapioca, bowls of bright salad and piles of juicy skewered prawns, this dinner’s an attempt to rediscover the food of traditional Fiji. Destination of choice for tourists from New Zealand and Australia for decades, the islands’ resorts — many owned by expatriates — have spent years focusing on International food with imported ingredients. They now realise it’s time to introduce more local recipes for food tourists and culture-vultures.

Fiji comprises 330 islands in all, of which less than one-third are inhabited. The islanders are so friendly, it’s difficult to believe that this was once a land of fierce cannibals. All that’s left of that lifestyle today are cute brain-picking forks sold in chic boutiques on Viti Levu (site of the nation’s capital city Suva). Apparently they’re great for salads.

Our cooking class is conducted by the beach at Musket Cove Island Resort just before Mr Piggy makes his debut. Under a spectacular island sunset, we learn how to make the much-loved Kokodo. Fresh Mahi Mahi fish is cubed and marinated in lemon, salt and vinegar overnight. Then it’s mixed with finely chopped cucumber, tomato, onion, and capsicum. Finally, the whole concoction is slathered in cool, rich, luxurious coconut cream.

At the local market in Nadi, Viti Levu, we weave between bundles of emerald spinach, chunky taro roots and piles of fat ginger. Though lots of produce comes from Australia and New Zealand, the government is now encouraging local farms, and requesting resorts to buy from them. Fish is plentiful, of course. A long, laden counter glistening with Red snappers and Barracuda. Sea bream and Coral trout. Blue fin trevally, Long-nosed emperors and knots of eels. The small fish are tied on a string, forming a necklace only Lady Gaga could wear, and sold in sets of 10.

Over here, families celebrate major occasions with a Lovo feast, also a staple at almost every resort. The work begins early in the day, as the Lovo pit is filled with wood, then set on fire. Rocks are placed on top of this, so they turn red hot. Then food — wrapped in plaited banana leaves — is placed inside, covered and left to cook for hours. The result is delicious: tender vegetables infused with the flavour of charcoal and spices. Meat so luscious it practically falls off the bone.

On our last day we dive off a boat, to swim in the warm Pacific waters clutching a fistful of soggy bread to feed the fish. They swim towards us indolently and nibble delicately, like socialites at brunch. In the evening, despite our sea-tangled hair and flaming sunburns, we make an effort to glam up for dinner. We’re headed to The Plantation, a fine-dining restaurant at the Sonaisali Island resort. After a flurry of dainty starters, we eat slow cooked pork set on a crab cabbage roll paired with a delicate apple and muscatel confit teamed with glasses of heady red wine. Dessert’s a delicate toffee basket filled with ripe tropical fruit topped with sorbet.

Our host suggests we end our evening with Angry Fijians — a wicked shooter comprising banana liqueur, Malibu rum and Bailey’s Irish cream. He kicks off his shoes and leads us to the Zero Bar at the other end of the property, insisting we walk to enjoy the balmy sea breeze. The perfect Fijian antidote to la-di-dah dining: star strewn skies, barefoot bars and giddy nightcaps.

Eating through Hong Kong

Egg tarts as sweet as sunshine

 

Springy, bouncy, wiry noodles in steaming soup

 

Flashy Mongkok by night

It’s midnight and we’re prowling through the dark, chilly alleys of Kowloon, Hong Kong.
As Temple Street’s night market quietens down, people flaunting fake Louis Vuittons, triple piercings and shiny leather pants elbow past looking for a late night snack. In true flashy big city style, the neon boards and electronic signage act like disco lights, covering the scene in surreal red-blue-green swathes.
We’re looking for Tim Ho Wan, the cheapest Michelin starred restaurant in the world. This tiny eatery, run by the former dim sum chef of the Four Season’s hotel is so popular we’re warned there’s a three hour wait for tables. Yet, in Mongkok, the locals – busy eating pungent tofu, Siu Mai and a Hong Kong style fried chicken covered in sesame seeds – don’t seem to know its exact location.
By 1 a.m. we stumble upon an alternative: a petite, steamy, bright eatery bursting with teenagers wearing their angst and iPhones as badges of honour. After much gesticulation the owner brings us a warm basket, filled with succulent fish dim sum and a bowl of sharp soya sauce. It’s teamed with sticky fried rice studded with disconcertingly sweet, fatty sausage.
Our Hong Kong food adventure’s off to an interesting start.
The next day we wake up to delicate stir fried vermicelli noodle crunchy with peanuts and a stodgy congee. It’s time to tick off the two next items on our ‘best of Hong Kong food’ list: silk stocking tea and egg tarts.
Hong Kong’s Central Business District is chic and busy, bustling with fashionistas in elegant winter coats and edgy hairdos. At the Good Spring Herbal Pharmacy, young bankers in sharp suits and startlingly feminine manbags delicately sip on ginseng tea, dispensed from an ornate, steaming brass pot. Inside, pharmacists read Chinese prescriptions written in graceful calligraphy, rapidly choosing roots and powders from heavy wooden cabinets and wrapping them up in crisp paper.
After a glass of Sweet Flower tea, tasting of honey and gardens, we trip into the Lan Fong Yuen tearoom. This heaving café claims to have invented Hong Kong milk tea, strained through a silk stocking. Serendipity sees us seated with charming Ad executive Jacqueline Ho, who logs onto Hong Kong’s popular OpenRice website on her iPhone to show us the best places to dine. After cups of the thin, smooth milky tea, served in heavy Lipton cups, she walks us to the Tai Cheong Bakery next door for egg tarts.
Ten minutes in line, and we’re rewarded by a warm, wobbly egg tart. Set in a flaky, buttery, golden pastry shell, the deep yellow tart is silky and just sweet enough to be satisfying. The city’s last British Governer, Chris Patten agrees. The store front boasts a blown-up picture of him pasted across the window, declaring his allegiance.
Day three’s dedicated to noodles. And, hopefully, that elusive Michelin meal. Back in central after a lot of walking, much of it uphill thanks to the city’s steep inclines, we find ourselves staring at an unexpected bonus – the Michelin ‘approved’ sign outside a random restaurant in the CBD. Inside, it’s quiet but for the steady sound of slurping as the family at the next table enjoys their bowl of noodles. Our noodles, however, lack punch – they’re watery and tasteless. The sticky rice served with soy and honey glazed pork is delicious, however. The pork’s so succulent and well done, it can be taken off the bone with just chopsticks.
Ever since travelling-celebrity Chef Antony Bourdain ‘discovered’ Mak’s Noodle in Wellington Street, it’s been a tourist magnet. However, following Jacquline’s advice to pick crowded restaurants, we head to Tsim Chai Kee, opposite Mak’s and positively bursting with the local lunch crowd. Inside, the community beach is so narrow and packed I’m a little worried my hungry neighbour will mistake my elbow for his lunch.
Tsim Chai Kee serves just three kinds of noodles: shrimp, fish balls and beef. My bowl of translucent wantons stuffed with king shrimp set on a generous squiggle of wiry, springy noodles arrives quickly. The noodles, wallowing in a fragrant broth, have to be teased out with chopsticks and a soup spoon.
Nobody bothers with small talk. Everyone’s here to eat, and eat well. Who needs a pat from Michelin with food so good.

The Franschhoek Valley Food Safari

We drive past quiet vineyards, gleaming horses and Hansel ‘n Gretel cottages. Watched over by towering mountains, idyllic Franschhoek Valley (about an hour away from Cape Town, South Africa) seems to be the land where time stands still.

More than 300 years ago, when Protestantism was outlawed in France, hundred of Huguenots were forced to flee their homeland. When a group of them arrived at the Cape of Good Hope by ship, the Dutch government gave them land in this valley. It was then home to wild elephants and called Oliphantshoek, or Elephant’s Corner. In a delightfully appropriate twist of phonetics, it became Franschhoek — French Corner.

We kick off our day of culinary tourism at Graham-Beck wineries, where cellar master Pieter Ferreira walks us through the elegant tasting room, lined with lustrous bottles from floor to ceiling. Upstairs, in the private dining area we gather around a table bearing a tray of smoked salmon and an array of wine glasses filled with the most curious ingredients. There’s a glass of bright yellow butter. Apples, oranges and strawberries. Crumbly brioche, thick honey, roasted almonds.

There’s even one filled with what smells like instant soup mix. “It’s got umami — which is the flavour that you also get in tomato and parmesan cheese,” says Ferreira, opening a bottle of Brut NV, a sparkling wine made with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. He then gets us to match the flavours in the wine with the ingredients in the glasses. It makes the usually airy-fairy exercise, so loved by the connoisseurs, far easier to understand.

We’re understandably a very cheery group by the time we get to their Cuvée Clive, a sophisticated bubbly that tastes of spring. Ferreira explains that they wait for six years, till the carbon di-oxide gets more integrated, “it becomes finer; the bubbles feel softer, rounder, like feathers on the tongue”.

We’re plied with more bubbly as we enter the sprawling grounds of Le Quartier Français, a restaurant so distinctive it’s practically become a local institution. Owner Susan Huxtur’s got all sorts of stories about guests, ranging from petulant celebrities to Russian businessmen accompanied by a flood of gun-toting bodyguards. Listed on the San Pellegrino’s influential list of the world’s top 50 restaurants, it’s even managed to edge ahead of Thomas Keller’s iconic French Laundry.

It’s surprising because unlike the restaurants of chefs such as Keller, Heston Blumenthal and Ferran Adrià — all acknowledged to be culinary revolutionaries — Le Quartier Français is defiantly laidback. You almost expect to see people in scruffy Bermudas lounging by the pool, beside the resident cat.

However, the moment the starters arrive it’s clear why this restaurant is special. The food is simple, focusing on maximising flavours by using the best local ingredients and intelligent techniques. And then there’s the tongue-in-cheek presentation.

Fluffy corn bread is served in a dented sardine tin besides crisp sheet bread peppered generously with fennel seeds. All accompanied by the most deliciously nutty butter. “You allow butter to clarify, and then whip it into fresh butter to get that caramelly taste,” explains Chef Margot Janse, adding with a grin, “All the butter and milk here comes from a cow called Daisy who lives nearby.”

That morning, when she was jogging Janse found wood sorrel, which turned up for lunch. It’s set on a salty jelly of porcine, in the form of foam that tastes like sour grass. We also eat a coffee roasted warthog loin served with potato fondant, garlic puree and currant vinaigrette. (It helps that I don’t know it’s warthog till well after the meal.) And there’s lamb, from the Karoo region of South Africa, served with chakalaka marmalade, inspired by the spicy chakalaka made in the townships of Johannesburg.

This is food that is rooted, and that’s its greatest strength. Today’s gourmands don’t want to travel halfway across the world to eat the expected, no matter how smothered it is in time-honoured exotica like truffles or caviar. They’re in search of the unexpected and irreproducible.

Which is why Janse’s approach works: she leans on the strength of local ingredients and is constantly inspired by traditional recipes and flavour pairings. Then, she reinvents it all for a global audience.

Cape Town: City of Faith

This is a city that’s been rescued by faith. Time and time again. The wandering Khoisan and Khoikhoi were drawn here by the benevolence of Table Mountain, which provides the city with water through its porous sandstone structure. They called it Camissa, or ‘place of sweet water’.

Framed by mountains and fringed by beaches, Cape Town proved irresistible to the ships of traders and merchants who docked here — Portuguese, Dutch, British… Eventually, the slave trade was rampant, drawing labour from all over the world to build the city. You know the rest of the story — after all, it’s unnervingly recent history. Apartheid. Rebellion. Freedom. Forgiveness.

As the old order changed, it was faith — in their country, leaders and themselves — that kept the South Africans from plunging into anarchy. Of course, there were, and still are, massive problems — unemployment, poverty and crime. Post-freedom, the country’s biggest cities became recklessly dangerous. Today, this intimidating reputation for violence lingers. A reputation they’re working hard on changing.

Cape Town’s now a playground for the rich. Yet, for a long time, its inner city suffocated under a deluge of graffiti, theft and violence. Till the Cape Town Partnership stepped in. Since 1999, it’s been bringing together corporates, citizens and the Government, to rejuvenate the historic downtown area.

They have faith in the city, believing it’s worth saving for its remarkable beauty as well as history, containing lessons for the world. The partnership has repaired street lights, cleaned graffiti, and worked on crime prevention. Now, they’re inviting businesses, tourists and locals into the inner city to enjoy its public spaces together, with art exhibits, concerts and markets.

“We want to get the locals to come here. Get them out of their cars, high-security buildings and shopping malls…” says Andrew Boraine, chief executive of The Cape Town Partnership. “We run walking tours to teach people the history of our city, which is the history of our country… This is the oldest area of modern human settlement on the planet. People have lived here for 75,000 years.”

Lined with graceful heritage buildings, each with a chequered past, the centre of South Africa’s ‘Mother City’ certainly has atmosphere. History leaves its mark. Especially, when it’s turbulent.

Take the Purple Rain revolt, for instance. In 1989, thousands of anti-apartheid protestors were on the streets with banners stating ‘The People Shall Govern.’ When the police turned a water cannon filled with purple paint on them, intending to mark and arrest, a student swung it around, showering the police. The next day walls were scrawled with triumphant graffiti declaring: ‘The purple shall govern’.

Today, the event is celebrated by stories, public artwork, and the ‘Purple Turtle,’ a club that calls itself ‘the cornerstone of eccentricity and culture in the South African music scene’. As Cape Town has discovered, history stays relevant when it keeps pace with the lives of its people. Hence, reinvention is essential. This way buildings and stories continue to serve a purpose, instead of merely becoming empty repositories for stories and fading memories.

Taj Cape Town, a joint partnership between Tata’s Taj Hotels Resorts and Palaces and Eurocape (an Irish property investment company), for instance, is housed within the historic South African Reserve Bank and Temple Chambers buildings located in the downtown area. Significant to Capetonians, it not just gives a fillip to inner city rejuvenation, but is also a tribute to the rainbow people.

After all, Cape Town’s first Indians, among many other nationalities, first arrived in on filthy slave ships in chains between the 17th and 18th Centuries. The Slave Lodge down the road from the hotel, once a dilapidated, filthy prison, locked in about 9,000 slaves between 1697 and 1811. Today, it’s a glossy museum endeavouring to convey the horror of its past. South Africa has discovered that air-brushing its tumultuous history does nobody any favours. Over here, healing comes with truth, no matter how painful, and reconciliation, no matter how difficult.

Groote Kerk, next door to the Slave Lodge, offered little comfort in those days. The site of the oldest Christian congregation in South Africa, it was open only to the whites. On the other hand, St George’s Cathedral, just down the road, surmounted its inevitable colonial beginnings to become a symbol of protest for the anti-apartheid regime, led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Once home to vigils and high drama, it’s now peacefully hushed, lit by the candles flickering around a striking black Madonna and vivid stained-glass windows.

Today, the inner city is still speckled with barbed wire. Houses and stores bristle with menacing grills, locks and posters promising an ‘Armed Response’ to break-ins. Yet, the streets feel non-threatening.

South Africa’s current focus on tourism has involved locals and traders, explaining how important it is for tourists to feel safe. It helps that everyone we meet is fiercely proud of the country. The bargaining at Greenmarket square, once a place to sell slaves, and now the site of a bustling flea market, is cheerfully spirited. One charming woman selling quirky hand-made jewellery even seals the deal by enveloping me in an unexpected hug.

Healing comes in many ways. Perhaps, Cape Town’s performance poet Malika Ndlovu said it best — “In the light of memory and remembering / Through the streams of ourselves / reconnecting / recollecting / we find our way home.”

***

(Jet Airways recently inaugurated non-stop flights from Mumbai to Johannesburg, six days a week. Return Economy fares start at Rs. 35,595, while return Premiere (Business Class) fares start at Rs. 1,16,020. Jet Airways’ new Airbus 330-200 aircraft departs from Mumbai at 0205 hours, and arrives in Johannesburg at 0735 hrs. From there, it’s a two-hour flight to Cape Town)

Faluknama: My Princess Diaries

I tend to get a little silly when it comes to palaces.

All that history and romance, gilt and glamour. It’s the ideal setting to pretend I’m royalty, with all accompanying affectations and theatrics. So I’m delighted when our prosaic car is replaced with a carriage pulled by neighing, stamping black horses at the gates of Taj Falaknuma palace.

As we gallop up the hill, it looms above us in an appropriately intimidating fashion.

Falaknuma, or ‘‘Mirror of the sky’ is built in the shape of a scorpion, at the crest of a 32 acre compound. As we descend grandly from the carriage, I gawk in a most un-princess-like fashion. A line of glittering guards escort us to the door in a ceremonial welcome, while rose petals softly rain down.

It’s quite a view. The palace blends so dramatically into the evening sky it almost looks like it’s a part of the heavens. And all it took was ten years of restoration, and 30 coats of paint to get the colour just right.

This story begins in 1884. Nawab Vikar-ul-Umra, then Prime Minister of Hyderabad was determined to create a palace of dreams. With foreign architects, luxury products shipped from all over the world and challenging design, Faluknama ended up taking him 10 years to build, and 22 years to decorate. Then, the 6th Nizam of Hyderabad, dropped by for a visit and expressed admiration. And Nawab Vikar-ul-Umra immediately gave it to him as a gift. He moved out the next day with his family, taking nothing.

We glide in over a carpet of red rose petals. In princess mode I sweep through the foyer, featuring images of nubile angels cavorting all over the high ceiling. To the left is the Gossip Room, where Queen Ujala Begum and her girls caught up on the daily news. Under a lustrous chandelier the furniture sparkles with nifty mirrors flaked by shelves for cosmetics. I grab some champagne, and teeter across to the study, where the last Nizam famously used the hefty Jacob’s diamond as a paperweight.

Wandering around, it becomes easier to understand why restoration by The Taj overseen by Princess Esra (who was married to the last Nizam’s son) has taken a decade to complete. Unabashedly ostentatious, the palace is lush with luxury. Even light comes from myriad sources: vivid glass lanterns from Bohemia, Belgian chandeliers dripping stars and sunshine pouring through glass stained windows.

It’s all very over the top – but then restraint was hardly a virtue in those days. Restoration’s been so meticulous we hear Princess Esra got a single carpet dyed 300 times before she was satisfied with the colour.

Though I’m too busy bouncing excitedly around my room to care about interior decorating details. The bathroom’s humongous, featuring marble bowls brimming with delicious scrubs and creams. At night, a tray bearing silky cardamom infused moisturiser is placed on my bed, along with an array of decadently dark chocolates. If I need anything else, there’s a button I can press for ‘palace services.’ I briefly considering trying to order a palanquin or royal elephant to take me to Charminar, 15 minutes away, but am so happy slathering myself in velvety creams I can’t bear to leave the room.

As the morning sunshine filters in through billowing Turkish curtains, I’m finally drawn out by the sound of a flute. It leads me down the garden, and then mysteriously disappears.

So I head to the imposing Jade Room’s graceful balcony for warm sweet pineapple Danishes served with powerfully aromatic coffee. Downstairs, the begum’s bedroom’s open so guests can admire her specially-designed Doulton bathtub, equipped with pipes for hot water, cold water and perfume. I’d be jealous if not for the languid spa treatment lined up at Jiva, featuring frankincense and sandalwood infused sesame oil.

Finally, like the princess in the fairy tale, I climb into my carriage – drawn by white horses this time – and gallop away. As I settle down in my cramped aircraft seat, I wonder why I’m drawing strange glances. Then I realize my skin’s still redolent with the scent of spices. Perhaps I should have called for the palanquin after all.

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Splashing about in Champagne

Apparently you never forget your first taste of champagne.

Mine was at a bustling bar in Singapore, renowned for its easygoing attitude towards customers dancing on their tables. A blackboard announced ‘champagne on the house for babes.’ (Quite flattering, till I realised it was a blanket term for all women.)

Nevertheless, it was a good start, shattering the illusion that drinking it on a yacht in the Cote d’Azure was the only way to go. Except, I now realise it was probably sparkling wine.

What’s the difference? Thousands of kilometres for starters.

Over a chilled glass of Laurent Perrier Rose Champagne at the dramatic Taj Falaknuma Palace in Hyderabad, Rajiv Singhal Ambassador to Champagne in India discusses the fact that Champagne (the drink) can come only from Champagne (the geographical location). He represents the Comité Interprofessionnel du Vin de Champagne (CIVC), an interprofessional body that brings together all the Houses and Growers in Champagne, defining policy, quality control and protection of the Champagne appellation.

With 15,000 growers, 300 houses and 12,000 brands to oversee, they really have their work cut out for them! Especially considering the term ‘champagne’ has become so synonymous with luxury that it’s indiscriminately used to justify anything with a hefty price tag. So far, besides a variety of sparkling wines masquerading as Champagne, Rajiv’s found mangoes, biscuits and — yes — pantyhose bearing the label.

In reality, if it’s not grown in the production zone, delimited in 1927, it’s not the real thing. The area, 150 km to the east of Paris covers roughly 34,000 hectares of vineyards spread across 319 villages.

Thanks to CIVC you’re guaranteed a quality bottle if it originates here since there are strict rules at every stage: only 8,000 vines can be planted per hectare with a 1.5 mt distance between rows, only bunches bearing 12 to 15 grapes can be picked, and then only 102 litres of juice can be pressed out of 160 kg of grapes.

The results are evident when we settle down for a ‘Prestige Cuvee’ dinner at the suitably flamboyant Durbar Hall of the palace, glittering with spangled chandeliers and rows of long stemmed, delicate champagne glasses.

Seared scallops on smoked salmon are served with Ayala Cuvee Perle, 2002, blending ripe citrus fruit with feisty bubbles. It’s followed by the iconic Krug, Grand Cuvee. Rich and toasty it stands up bravely to aromatic lamb shikampuri kebab and spicy king prawns.

More champagne, more courses — each demonstrating that the drink can hold it’s own in any company. As we reach dessert, we’re tipsy enough to find the murmur of bubbles neck lacing up to the surface great theatre. After a dessert of strawberry mousse truffles served with Armand de Brignac Rose (a bottle so delightfully pink I consider using it as an accessory), we’re rambunctiously cheery and dive into the Nawab’s grand dining room, featuring his gleaming table for 101 people, and attempt conversations from both ends.

Of course, gilt and glamour are purely optional. Rajiv says one of the most memorable bottles he drank was in Paris, after he cooled it on a snowy window ledge in winter, teamed with Chicken Mc Nuggets.

The point of this ‘Champagne Experience’ is to prove the drink’s versatility. Rajiv even laughingly offers to send some to our rooms to brush our teeth with. However, after drinking till 1 a.m., all I want is a cup of coffee when I wake up, bleary and hoarse.

Clearly, I’m a lightweight. As I stagger to breakfast at 8 a.m., I find everyone in high spirits drinking champagne with warm croissants and fluffy omelettes. Too early? Apparently not. I stick to coffee and toast. But unbend enough to sip some Louis Roederer by the swimming pool a little later. It’s chilled, complex and fruity — ideal for the gentle sunshine. This is the life.



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