Category Archives: Travel

Tales from the road

FOR A’ THAT – A review of The Big Burns Supper, Dumfries Jan 24th – 26th 2014

Last weekend I attended the Big Burns Supper 2014, a festival held annually in the pleasant town of Dumfries to celebrate Scotland’s national poet.

devorgilla 1

According to a Scots poet of a later generation, Edwin Muir, the charm of Robert Burns is that he can be all things to all men. Burns represents, he claimed, “to the respectable, a decent man; to the Rabelaisian, bawdy; to the sentimentalist, sentimental; to the socialist, a revolutionary; to the nationalist, a patriot; to the religious, pious”. The sub-text  is, whatever you want your own personal Burns to be, he will be.

The appeal of Burns to the Scots and to their considerable diaspora is easy to understand. He wrote not in highfalutin English but in Scots, for the Scots. He was not afraid to sprinkle his prose and verse with dialect words and phrases. Much of the stuff he wrote has populist appeal, as witness his masterly reworking of a limping old ballad that’s now sung around the world at the turn of the year and been recorded by Bing Crosby, Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, Boney M and Kenny G, to name but a handful of those who’ve tried their hand at ‘Auld Lang Syne’.

On the flight to Scotland, I allowed myself to speculate as to how the Scots should package Burns to widen the appeal, particularly non-Caledonians. Easy, I decided. Here we have a guy who was anti-authoritarian, even seditious. A convivial soul who liked nothing better than hanging around with his pals and downing a few scoops. A graffiti artist, too. Better yet, he looked like the young Elvis, wrote like Shakespeare and put it about like Sven Goran-Ericksen The Swedish Love Machine. Someone should make the movie. But please… spare us Mel Gibson.

At which point we touched down in Glasgow. Half an hour later I had a pristine, ten miles on the clock Arnold Clark-supplied Opel Astra under me and we were winging our way down the M74, destination Dumfries where the 2014 Big Burns Supper festival was to kick off on the morrow. Having time to spare I got off the motorway north of Moffat and drove past enthralling scenery to show Ann, my wife, the Devil’s Beef Tub, a deep, dramatic, swirling hole in the hills. Thereafter, we retraced our steps before meandering down the scenic A702, stopping for lunch in the well-kept town of Thornhill, birthplace of mega-talented and drop-dead-gorgeous Scottish singer, Emily Smith.

In Dumfries, a place I have only happy memories of, there is a camera obscura, a device that’s a precursor of photography. When the weather permits, it shows you a panoramic image of the town on the inner wall of the building. The custodian was, I remember, always at pains to point out the swans on the River Nith; also The Crichton – “Yin’s the biggest lunatic asylum in Scotland”. I was amused but awed to find that this was the location of our hotel for this trip. On arrival, I found the shadows of the past had been vanquished and that the extensive grounds now host the Royal Infirmary, a business park, two college campuses and The Aston, a fine hotel housing a Marco Pierre White restaurant where we dined with Rosemary and Andrea from the organising team of the Big Burns Supper, who outlined the concept to me.

The festival, first held in the town in 2012, aims to celebrate, via a programme of concerts, comedy, cabaret and community participation, the poet’s life and work. Burns, who died at 37 spent but the last four years of his life here, yet produced fully a quarter of his output during that period. A spiegeltent, a large travelling show tent, constructed in wood and canvas and decorated with mirrors and stained glass, had been erected in the town centre and this was to be the core venue for the festival’s programme. There would be a procession through the town lit by 1,000 lantern. 5,000 individual Burns suppers – haggis, neaps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes) would be served up over the course of the event.

Whisky 1

After dinner, we wasted no times in getting into the festival spirit, perhaps literally, by attending an event titled ‘Whisky for Dafties’, an introduction to the delights of Scottish single malt, hosted in robust fashion by comedian/whiskey fanatic Alan Anderson.

Session 1

Afterwards we repaired to The Globe, Dumfries’ oldest pub and Burns’ local where an impromptu music session was underway in the compact ‘Snug’ and a more formal one in ‘The Room’. We opted for informality. The Globe’s manager Jane Brown, herself a devotee of the poet (and President of the worldwide Robert Burns Society) kindly showed us the upstairs bedroom where our hero enjoyed assignations with the Globe’s blonde barmaid Anna Park. Burns’ other amusement while at his favourite ‘howff’ was to inscribe poems on the windows with a diamond-tipped pen. Some of these poems may still be seen.

Ellisland 1

Next day we visited Ellisland Farm, Burns’ first home in the region, a few miles outside Dumfries, where curator Les Byers, impressive custodian of the poet’s lore and legend gave us more inside track. Dumfries, he advised, was in those days a prosperous, bustling town, more important even than Glasgow as the hub of the lucrative trade in tobacco, a commodity imported through the nearby port of Carsethorn wherefrom, in 1851 alone, more than 21,000 people emigrated to Canada, The States, Australia and New Zealand.

Rockliffe 1

After taking leave of Les, we headed for the sea ourselves, seizing the opportunity of a break in the wet weather to walk on the beach at Rockcliffe and ramble up and over to Kippford via the Jubilee Path, something I’d done many times before.

Spiegel 1

Later we attended Le Haggis, an event that fully justified its billing as as “the sexiest show in the festival”, a ninety minute extravaganza involving music, song, cabaret and an amazing display of dexterity, fitness and physique by a pair of burlesque acrobats. In the interim, the band, fronted by a fabulous girl singer (who sings, as I was informed, in the local community choir) brought real meaning to ‘A man’s a man for a’ that’, a song more frequently maladroitly performed either as a turgid dirge or as a jolly knees-up. Another performance that nearly had the tent crashing down on us was a vibrant rendition, by a lassie garbed in a leather basque and ‘sussies’ of Kirsty MacColl’s ‘In These Shoes’.

We attended the lantern procession, a truly amazing sight. More than 30 local groups and organisations took part in the parade, accompanied by several floats and huge puppets. Kudos to the Manchester (another town dear to my heart) Samba School whose rhythmic momentum, aided by a brace of pipe bands, drove the whole thing along. Afterwards, we ducked the late night Roller Disco “I’m not comfortable without my own skates, hehe.” “Yeah, right”, says my wife.

Dick Gaughan 1

Highlight of the next day was, for me, the live performance in the Spiegeltent, of Dick Gaughan, a master interpreter of both traditional and contemporary songs and a guitar genius, whom I first met when I was co-hosting a folk club in England back when Burns was a lad (well, not quite). A dish of the obligatory haggis and its customary trappings fortified us for pints, first in The Ship, my own ‘local’ back in the days when my acquaintanceship with Dumfries was more regular than it is today. The pints there are as honest as ever and the denizens still play dominoes, altogether another proper pub holding back the tide of muzak and expensive swill. Later, in the packed-to-the-rafters Globe we dissected the event with other festival attendees and learned of myriad delights we’d missed. At the end of the evening a girl we met in the street offered to walk us to the taxi rank to ensure we did not get lost, where else on earth would you get that sort of courtesy these days? Truly, Doonhamers (the inhabitants of Dumfries – I’ll explain another time) are salt of the earth.

The festival’s organisers deserve huge credit for The Big Burns Supper. I feel sure it’s an event that will, year on year, grow in stature, appealing not only to the Burns anorak, the patriot and the emigré, but to the wider body of people out there, of every race and creed, who enjoy song, dance, theatre, literature, merrymaking, the craic and just having a great time. Me, I intend coming back – for a’ that.



Homecoming Scotland 2014  In 2014, Scotland will welcome the world as we take to the global stage and celebrate our nation through a year-long series of exciting events. Complementing the Ryder Cup and Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, Homecoming Scotland will be a celebration of the country’s rich culture, natural beauty, active adventures and creative heritage. For more information go to: 

Accommodation  I stayed at Aston Hotel, Dumfries


Big Burns Supper

Ellisland Farm, Dumfries

Dumfries Museum & Camera Obscura The Observatory, Rotchell Road Dumfries DG2 7SW


Recipes for Burns Night

Complete Works of Robert Burns 

fishing boats

Thanks for the SLOW FISH – Genoa May 27th – 30th 2011

Slow Fish 2011, the sustainable fish event, will take place  in Genoa (Italy) from May 27 to 30.

This biennial international event dedicated to the world of fish and marine ecosystems has now reached its fifth edition. Debates, meetings, workshops and tastings will focus on issues linked to sustainable fishing and responsible seafood consumption.

A couple of days at Slow Fish, followed by a journey southward down the Ligurian coast would make a very agreeable holiday. Something I found out back in 2007.

Genoa is a historical port city in northern Italy, the capital of the Region of Liguria. As a tourist attraction Genoa is less feted than cities such as Rome, Florence or Venice. Nevertheless, it holds much of interest for the tourist with its multitude of hidden architectural gems in the narrow, winding alleys and its excellent cuisine (notably seafood). The city hosts one of  Europe’s biggest aquariums. The old port has been restored and the new one is brim-full of yachts, cruise ships and commercial vessels. It was, of course, the birthplace of Christopher Columbus.

With pastel-coloured terracotta-roofed houses, historic churches, elegant seaside villas, and surprisingly good boutique shopping, Genoa is a must see if you want to experience the “quintessential” The city makes a good base from which to sally forth to explore the Italian Riviera, particularly the fishing village-cum-seaside resort Camogli, Santa Margerita Ligure (for my money one of the world’s most under-rated resorts) and, playground of the wealthy, Portofino or to walk the Cinque Terre (tip: take the train to the farthest village, Riomaggiore and walk South-North. That way you can finish by cooling off, plunging into the sea at Monterosso al Mare.)

Vernazza, Cinque Terre

Slow Fish is organized by the Liguria Regional Authority and Slow Food, with the support of the Carige Foundation, the Province of Genoa, the Genoa Chamber of Commerce and the City of Genoa. One section of Slow Fish is dedicated to the international campaigns, launched by Slow Food after Slow Fish 2009.

The campaigns aim to inform consumers, promoting good, clean and fair fish and creating connections between all those working to make fishing and fish consumption sustainable. The theme of Slow Fish 2011 is ‘Small-scale fishers: a threatened species’ The 2009 salon was dedicated to fish species. This year, the spotlight turns on the people of the sea. Displays will reflect artisan fishing as it used to be, outlining the skills and hardships fisher folk incurred and contrasting it with small-scale fishing as it is now, how it has modernized, how it relates to the world and how it has suffered from globalisation.

Foodies will enjoy The Market exhibition area which offers a rich display of fresh and preserved fish, oils, spices, salt, seaweed and other related products. All the exhibitors, Italian and international, have committed to not using artificial preservatives and flavors and will not sell bluefin tuna, swordfish, shark and salmon, species at risk of extinction. The Slow Food Presidia of the Sea can also be found in the Market, offering concrete examples of how fishing communities can live in harmony with the ecosystem, preserving the marine fauna and adding value to their work by selling high-quality fresh fish and processed products. The two experiences organized in the Slow Food Education area, designed for the public and schoolchildren, offer both a look at the sea and its people and fishing techniques and rhythms from the fishermen’s perspective and also suggestions on how to select the best fish, read food labels and prepare delicious seafood at home. Chefs play a central role in consumer education, and so for the first time the Alliance Osteria will find a home at Slow Fish. Here, around 20 chefs from the Italian and international network will be preparing dishes based on Slow Food Presidia. The event will also see the return of the Water Workshops, opportunities for analysis and debate around key issues, and cooking demonstrations from chefs in the Theatre of Taste. Not to mention the Osterias of the Sea, Street Food and ‘Fishwiches’, where visitors can sample gastronomic specialties from around Italy, all paired with excellent wines from the Enoteca.

The Slow Fish website, reveals what’s new for the 2011 symposium, with information on bookable events and all the tastings, conferences and meetings in the program.

If you’d like to know more about sustainable fishing the BIM webiste is a good place to start.



robert burns/shirley spear

This year I won’t be doing  my Burns Night thing. The thought of cooking haggis on crutches just doesn’t appeal.

On the 25th January, anniversary of Scotland’s national bard, I’m heaving the dreaded knee op – not the full bifter plastic joint, I hasten to add, just a vacuum out, scrub and polish which, hopefully, we have me lepping about again soon.

Still, doubtess some of ye (especially those Irish who’ve taken to the wearing of kilts at weddings)  may want each  to celebrate the life and work of the bold Rab.

Here, courtesy of top Scottish chef, Shirley Spear, are recipes for the perfect Burns Supper including a mussel brose to start and her famous hot marmalade pudding to accompany the traditional haggis main course. Shirley is an ambassador for Scotland’s Year of Food & Drink which is being celebrated until the end of May 2011. She is also a cook book author and owner of the award winning restaurant  The Three Chimneys, on the beautiful Isle of Skye. .

Mussel Brose

Stage One. Cooking the mussels.


1kg mussels, washed and de-bearded. Discard any that are cracked or open

50 grams butter

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 large cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 heaped tablespoon chopped parsley

Freshly ground black pepper

200mls dry white wine

100mls water

Melt the butter in a large pan. You will need a good lid to fit the pan. Soften the onion and garlic in the hot butter. Stir in the parsley and add some freshly ground black pepper. Pour in the wine and water and bring to the boil. Add all the mussels, lower the heat, cover with close-fitting lid and leave to steam until mussels have opened. (If you want to serve mussels traditionally, cook them to this stage and serve them in warm bowls with the cooking liquor poured over them. Sprinkle with extra chopped parsley and chives when serving.) Remove the mussels using a slotted spoon and leave on a large dish to cool. Strain the cooking liquor through a fine sieve and reserve. Rinse out saucepan.

Stage Two. Making the brose.


500 grams potatoes, weighed when peeled and diced. Choose a floury variety that is good for mash.

200 grams onion, weighed when peeled and chopped quite small.

50 grams slightly salted butter.

2 rounded tablespoons medium oatmeal.

Approximately 250mls fresh milk plus 150mls double cream.

Freshly ground salt, black pepper, chopped chives and parsley, to finish.

Melt the butter until hot and foamy. Add onions and cook until soft. Add potatoes and stir together with the onion. Allow to cook gently for a few minutes. Pour in the strained mussel liquor. Bring to boil and then simmer with the lid on for at least 20-30 minutes. Add oatmeal, stir and simmer for a further 5-10 minutes. Meanwhile, remove the cooled mussels from their shells and reserve in a bowl. Retain a few whole for garnish. When brose is cooked, add fresh milk and liquidise. Stir in shelled mussels and the double cream. Reheat and season to taste. Be careful, as salt may not be necessary. Adjust the thickness of the brose at this stage. You may need to add a little more cream or a dash of white wine and water. Finish with freshly chopped chives and parsley stirred through the brose. Serve hot in warmed bowls with whole mussels placed on top for garnish.

Haggis, Bashed Neeps & Tatties

Haggis can be bought from good butcher’s shops and in many supermarkets. Vegetarian versions are also available so no-one needs to miss out. The haggis is already cooked and just needs some careful re-heating until it is piping hot.

Method: Bring a pan of water to the boil. Place the haggis in the pan and turn the heat down immediately. The water should only simmer, not boil as this may burst the case…resulting in a culinary disaster and a ‘murdert haggis’. Some haggis come in a ‘cook-in bag’ to avoid this problem – otherwise wrapping it in foil would help to protect the contents. The length of time it should be gently poached depends on the size of your haggis. As a guide, a 1kg haggis takes around 75 minutes.

For the ‘Neeps’ peel and quarter the turnip and boil for 25 minutes or until soft. Drain and mash with a little butter. Add a teaspoon of caster sugar and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Tatties Peel and quarter the potatoes and boil for 20 minutes or until soft. Drain and mash with a little butter and milk to get a smooth, creamy consistency. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Shirley’s Famous Hot Marmalade Pudding


150gms fine brown breadcrumbs

120gms soft brown sugar

25gms self-raising wholemeal flour (white self-raising would do)

120gms fresh butter, plus extra for greasing the bowl

8 tablespoons well-flavoured, coarse-cut marmalade (homemade is always the best)

3 large eggs

1 rounded teaspoon bicarbonate of soda plus  1 tablespoon water to mix

Butter a 3-pint pudding basin well. Place the breadcrumbs, flour and sugar in a large mixing bowl. Melt the butter together with the marmalade, in a saucepan over a gently heat. Pour the melted ingredients over the dry ingredients and mix together thoroughly. Whisk the eggs until frothy and beat gently into the mixture until blended together well. Last of all, dissolve the bicarbonate of soda in 1 tablespoonful of cold water. Stir this into the pudding mixture, which will increase in volume as it absorbs the bicarbonate of soda. Spoon the mixture into the prepared basin. Cover it with close-fitting lid, or alternatively, make a lid with circles of buttered greaseproof paper and foil, pleated together across the centre and tied securely around the rim of the basin. Place the pudding basin in a saucepan of boiling water. The water should reach halfway up the side of the basin. Cover the pan with a close-fitting lid and simmer the pudding for 2 hours. The water will need topping-up throughout the cooking period. Turn out on to a serving dish, slice and serve hot, with fresh cream, ice cream, or – as is done at Three Chimneys – with Drambuie Custard.

Drambuie Custard

This is a proper egg custard flavoured with Drambuie liqueur. It is served warm, poured around the pudding. Alternatively flavours could be added, such as vanilla, ginger, or crushed cardamom, if you prefer. A tablespoonful of fresh ground coffee can be added, which is delicious with hot or cold chocolate desserts.


275mls fresh milk

275mls fresh double cream

6 egg yolks

100gms caster sugar

2 tablespoons Drambuie liqueur

Whisk the egg yolks together with the sugar until pale, slightly thick and creamy. Gently warm the milk and cream until it is just beginning to bubble. Pour the milk and cream on to the egg and sugar mixture and whisk together. Return the mixture to the saucepan. Bring to the boil very slowly, stirring all the time. As soon as it begins to thicken, or coats the back of the wooden spoon, remove from the heat and pour into a bowl or jug for serving. Stir in the Drambuie, or flavouring of your choice. Serve immediately. Alternatively, cool the custard quickly in a bowl sitting on ice and refrigerate when cold, until required. The custard can be used cold for assembling a trifle, serving with frozen or chilled desserts, or reheated carefully for serving with a hot pudding.

For holiday information on Scotland go to

Scotland’s Year of Food & Drink is being celebrated until May 2011 and is the first step on the road to Homecoming 2014 and a legacy of last year’s Homecoming celebrations. · The Three Chimneys restaurant and adjoining 5 star accommodation is located on the Isle of Skye

Shirley’s recipe book ‘Three Chimneys, Recipes and Reflections form the Isle of Skye’s World-famous Restaurant’, is published by Birlinn Ltd. Price 16.99



On my travels again. This time in Languedoc-Roussillon, following in the footsteps of Louis XIII by staying in an immense historic edifice, Chateau de Pennautier. The chateau is but a short car ride away from the famous walled city of Carcassonne. I’m there as a guest of Nicolas whose family have inhabited the chateau since 1620 and his wife, Miren. Now lovingly restored, Chateau de Pennautier is available for corporate functions and also occasionally houses guests like myself who are there to taste and assess the quality of Lorgeril’s wines.

The Lorgeril company is in the forefront of the movement to revive the fortunes of Languedoc-Roussillon by upgrading its wine production. Geographically, the area is huge, producing around a third of France’s wine but it used to be a byword for mediocrity. Now things are changing and changing fast, for appellations within the region such as Faugeres, Saint-Chinian, Minervois, Cabardes, Fitou, Boutenac, Cotes de Roussillon-Villages and Limoux are producing clean, classy, modern wines that fully reflect the terroir – that word again – in which the grapes are grown. It’s maybe worth re-emphasising that ‘terroir’ is more than just the soil; other components include the sub-strata, the micro-climate, the alignment of the vineyard, even the altitude. I find it helps to think of ‘terroir’ as ‘a sense of place’, a bolt-on goodie that helps take wine far beyond being fermented grape juice, enabling the imbiber to get maximum enjoyment out of the glass.

Though Lorgeril’s export manager, the convivial Frank Flugge, might deny it, the company’s approach struck me as remarkably antipodean. “No, we don’t grow the viognier here. We bring it over from one of our other estates” might have come from a winemaker in Marlborough or McLaren Vale. At any rate, it’s far removed from the rigidity of the old guard up in Bordeaux and shows the open-mindedness and flexibility of the Languedoc-Roussillon wine people in the quest to upscale the wines.

The ones I tasted paid tribute to their efforts. Cabardes, the appellation in which Chateau de Pennautier is located has devised a set of interesting rules. Traditionally the grapes grown were an assortment of both Bordeaux and Rhone varietals – cabernet sauvignon often stood next to syrah; merlot to grenache; cot (malbec to you) to cabernet franc. What was grown where, the philosophical locals didn’t much care. When the appellation was formalized the stipulation became that a wine could consist of a minimum 40% of either Bordeaux or Rhone and 50/50 became a commonality.  Again, akin to the Aussie approach where they see no heresy in mixing, say, cab sauv and syrah/shiraz in one bottle. Lots of parallels here.

Dunnes Stores retail Pennautier wines here. The unoaked Ch. De Pennautier “Classic” Cabardes Rouge is  a well upfront mélange of dark fruits – plums, damsons, blackcurrants – easy drinking, without the big alcohol wham that all-too-often accompanies new world reds. I’d almost defy anyone not to like it.

Grading by the altitude at which the fruit is grown is not an original idea – the coffee people did it many years ago, separating plants into Arabica and Robusta – but Lorgeril’s decision to label their superior wines, made from selected grapes from more elevated sites, “Terroirs d’Altitude” has something to commend it. The sensitively oaked Château Pennautier AOC Cabardès Terroir d’Altitude red took silver at the International Wine Challenge last year. I’m not a fan of ‘stickering’ as you’ve probably realised but I can say that this wine is as good as it gets for the €11.34 ask and when, as you occasionally do, you find it ‘on special’ for just of €9, I’d regard it as a ‘must buy’. Other wines that impressed were the clean, understated Marquis de Pennautier “Terroir d’Altitude”, Vin de Pays D’Oc Chardonnay (€11.39) and the beguiling AOC Cabardès rosé (€9.95).

Lorgeril have a number of other properties, including Château de Ciffre which straddles the appellations of Faugeres (my nomination for ‘one to watch’) and St.Chinian. Traditional wine merchants Mitchell & Son stock, among other Lorgeril wines, the genuinely exciting Château de Ciffre “Terroir d’Altitude”, AOC Faugères, red (€16.95) and the warm, uncomplicated user-friendly Rhone-like Mas des Montagnes Classique, AOC Côtes Roussillon Villages, (€11.95).

One the last morning we killed time in Carcassonne, not the World Heritage hilltop site but the working town down in the valley. Locals are apt to be rather scathing about it but we thought it a decent place in which to spend a few hours, with a large food market, a more than adequate supply of bars and a very fine deli.


A short trip to Puglia, in Italy’s extreme south-east, provided one of the most interesting experiences in this wine writer’s crowded year. The Mediterranean climate, coupled with a predominance of soil types suited to grape growing, has made the region a significant producer of wine. Close on half a million acres is dedicated to viticulture, split between wine and table grapes. Back in the 1980s, wine production reached nearly 350 million gallons. To put this in perspective, that’s over three times the current production of Chile.

In those days you wouldn’t have found a bottle of Puglian wine in your local wine merchants. Indeed very little was bottled at all. Some was sold at the cellar door. Some got distilled, or turned into grape concentrate to use for soil enrichment. Most was sent North for blending, chiefly into vermouth.

Our trip was based around the Torrevento winery, housed in a former monastery in the Castel del Monte area, north of Bari. There has been a good deal of investment in Torrevento, in shiny stainless steel tanks, expensive oak barrels and in technology. Torrevento has vineyards in other parts of Pugia and this is reflected in wines like Sine Nomine and Faneros, representing Salice Salentino in the far south of the province, made principally from a luxuriantly aromatic black grape called negroamaro. Another Puglian grape variety is bombino, a mispronunciation of which caused great hilarity over dinner when one of our number declared “I love pompino” – Italian for ‘blow job’! At lunch on the final day I enjoyed an invigorating easy-drinking young white wine, Pezzapiana, made from a blend of bombino bianco and pampanuto, another local hero.

We spent an afternoon picking grapes. It’s a backbreaking task, making you appreciate the efforts of the regulars. Even picking carefully, there still seemed an inordinate amount of leaf and stalk in my basket. To make an exceptional wine this has to be removed, calling for investment in either sorting by hand or expensive complex machinery. Another small reminder why good wine costs more.

On the final night we were subjected to a blending exercise. Blending wines is enormous fun, probably the most you can have with your clothes on; it certainly beats Scrabble, Trivvy and charades hands down. Over the years I’ve taken part in quite a few such exercises. I recall one where Phillip Laffer, at the time head winemaker of Orlando who make Jacob’s Creek, gave assorted wine scribes bottles of the Reserve Shiraz of the four consitutent parts – wines from MacLaren Vale, The Barossa, Padthaway and Langhorne Creek if I recall correctly, with instructions to replicate the finished article. I actually got it right first off but Phil snidely convinced me I was “nearly there” and so I starting fiddling with my blend and finished up further and further away. I remind him of this every time we meet, mainly because the prize for the winner was a case of top dollar shiraz and I was well miffed!

At Torrevento our task was to blend something potable from our choice of the four local wines they gave us. Steering a team of opinionated international wine writers in what you think is the right direction is no easy task. I had to summon up all my years of experience as a trade union official in a former life. Several times we reached a state of anarchy, chaos and instability comparable to the government of a bankrupt banana republic but eventually we pulled together and at the end of the night our wine was declared the gold medal winner.

I’d urge you, especially if you’ve never done it, to give blending a go. You’ll learn a lot about what makes wine tick and have bags of fun doing it. All you need is a few inexpensive bottles of single varietals – a cabernet sauvignon, a shiraz, a merlot will do nicely and a few pals to share the experience. A laboratory jar and a pipette would be handy – maybe ask the kids – but a kitchen measuring jug, marked in millilitres will do nicely, plus a plastic funnel and a few empty bottles to store your efforts . The smart thing is to make a ‘control wine’ first; one that everyone agrees is “almost there”. Keep this and test subsequent efforts against it.

The winery’s glory is the red Castel del Monte Riserva, Vigna Pedale, made 100% from Nero di Troia, a patrician grape that seemed destined for oblivion until rescued by Torrevento in the mid-nineties.  We were given a vertical tasting (same wine, successive vintages) of Vigna Pedale and the gulf in class between 1996, the first and 2006, the latest, were very evident. In quality terms, Vigna Pedale is at least the equivalent of, say, a top notch Chianti Classico. With this rate of progress and (I’m going out on a limb here) it might soon be able to compete with some of the trendy much-trumpeted ‘Super Tuscans’, more affordable too. Certainly the soft tannins and the abundant fragrance of the nero di troia make Vigna Pedale easy to drink when still relatively young.

Alas, it’s not available here in Ireland as yet, though Torrevento are established in the UK.  I’d love to see more Puglian wines in Ireland as the wines have real character, grapes employed are, for the most part, local and regional and make a refreshing change  from ‘the usual suspects’. The region is currently undergoing a huge quality hike in pursuit of which which the Torrevento winery is in the van.

Punta Aquila primitivo 2007, a lovely Puglian red (recently ‘on special’ for €12.99, O’Brien’s) comes loaded with dark, opulent plums, with a hint of black pepper and spice on the back palate. With enough balancing acidity to prevent it being flabby and boring.


Dukka is an Egyptian spice blend comprising toasted nuts and seeds, the combination of which varies depending on the cook. The ingredients are ground together until the texture is that of a coarse powder.

I first encountered dukka, not in Egypt, but in the Willunga farmer’s market in MacLaren Vale, South Australia during Tasting Australia 2005. Dukka seems to have insinuated itself into the Aussie food culture and sharing a crusty loaf of fresh bread, dipped in extra virgin olive oil, then in dukka, over a bottle or two of good wine is as good a way of whiling away an afternoon as I know.

The hake recipe was an experiment that worked, at least for me and my lunch guests. I served it with a butternut squash risotto and a green salad of French beans, mangetout, garden peas, red onion and rocket in an olive oil and tarragon vinegar dressing – an adaptation of a recipe I found in Yolam Ottolengi’s superb book ‘Plenty’.

In Australia it’s easy to buy dukka but I haven’t found it in Dublin. My recipe is still ‘work in progress’. This the best so far.

For the dukka

2 tablespoons whole hazelnuts

2 tablespoons macadamia or brazil nuts

1 1/2 tablespoons sesame seeds

1 tablespoon sunflower seeds

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1 teaspoon coriander seeds

1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Small pinch ground dried chillis (optional)

Small pinch ground cinnamon (optional)

Preheat oven to 200 degs. C. Arrange nuts and sunflower seeds in a single layer on a baking tray. Roast for 10 minutes and remove. Meanwhile, in a large frying pan over medium-high heat, roast sesame, cumin and coriander seeds, stirring often, for 7-8 minutes or until sesame seeds are golden brown. Allow cool. Pulse all dukka ingredients in a food processor or an electric coffee/spice grinder until finely ground – but do not grind to a paste. Apparently dukka can be refrigerated in an airtight container for a couple of weeks but in my opinion, it is best made and used fresh.

For the hake

4 fillets hake, skinned

Small glass of dry white wine

Small knob of butter

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


Preheat the oven to 200 degs. C. Arrange the hake fillets, side by side, in a flat dish. Pour the wine around the fillets, making sure that the tops of the fillets are well above the level of the liquid. Sprinkle some salt and pepper over the fillets, plus a few flakes of butter. Add a squeeze of lemon. Bake in oven for 10 minutes. If necessary, pour off some of the liquid. Crust the fillets with the dukka and return to oven for a further 10 minutes.

Other white fish, cod, haddock, monkfish, pollock etc would work just as well. If using flatfish, keep the liquid level low. If the top of the fish is soaked in the liquid the dukka crust will go soggy.


Day 8

Kicks off very quietly, like one of those old blacky-white colonial-themed movies. “I can’t stand it, Carruthers. The drums have stopped; it’s too demmed quiet out there.” The media room is deserted as I saunter down for my crossants and multiple espressi. Oh, Jesus, it’s only 5.30.

The inner insomniac strikes again! Hard to sleep when it’s so hot. For a person who is pretty conversant with emerging technology how come I can never figure how to work an hotel air-conditioning system? Why is it I always end up with the heating stuck on the ‘American Tourist GTi’ setting? Why do I never seem able to summon up the temerity to seek help from hotel staff? I draft a curt note and leave it meekly on the reception counter. It reads “Please set room air conditioning to minimum. Thank you. 912.”

I go walkabout in a deserted Adelaide, which would be a very pretty town if they knocked down all the utilitarian modern architecture and just left the huge and sympatico parks and fab churches, returning an hour or two later to find my colleagues have eaten all the croissants and taken up all the space at the computer stations. Clearly they have been as tardy about sending copy home as I have and are now breaking their fingers to recover lost time and meet once far-away but now imminent deadlines.

Outside, along the Torrens, the public are flocking to the fair. The ‘boating lake’ is busy once more and the local sailing club has organized racing for Cadet dinghies. The young crews seem much more sporting than the precocious little bastards at Bolton SC. No, well, not much, illegal pumping of sails; no NSPs (non-sailing parents) on the bank doing their F1 Team Manager thing – binoculars draped around neck and screaming “Nigel! For godsakes bloody tack now!” Here, it’s all very civilized.

I mosey back to the hotel and do an interview with a local radio man and another with Evan Kleiman whose weekly ‘Good Food’ programme, produced by Harriet Ells is a great reason for tuning into Los Angeles radio station KCRW. The interview is here It’s the third one on the programme called ‘Compostable/disposable’, no sniggers please

For lunch I go to Mongkok on Gouger Street, a northern Chinese restaurant recommended by the nice student serving in the coffee shop I breakfasted in on day one. Despite her recommendation it’s not that cheap – doubtless there’s a special tariff for attractive Chinese students – but it is very good. I had a searing hot beef dish. I also came across – in Pitt Street, I think – a Korean butcher with sit down barbecue tables in the adjacent room. How good is that for saving on shoe leather, if not air miles. Truly Adelaide is full of sendipitious culinary surprises. After lunch I track down the Chinese herbalist and buy shedloads of ginseng; also a patent catarrh cure I’d recommend to anyone, consisting of little black balls, like large beads of caviar – you take 8 at a go, three times a day. Farewell, Dublin’s winter at last.

In the afternoon the Barossa boys turn out in force. Big Bob Mclean, legend in anyone’s lunchtime tells me he enjoys a bottle of ‘stickie’ for breakfast. “Surely you mean with breakfast, Bob?” “No, for” he emphasizes, with a guffaw of a laugh. Louisa Rose from Yalumba struggles in with an Imperial (that’s six bottles in one) sized monster of the impressive Signature Shiraz. She doesn’t trust any of us to pour.

At some point I have to go up and put on what Rankin calls “your dining t-shirt” for the Cordon Bleu World Food Media Awards Dinner. I decide to confound him by wearing a jacket and tie. After some deliberation I ditch the tie. It is Australia, dammit. At the do I am pleasant and polite to all but of course inwardly seething because the purple prose of my restaurant reviewing didn’t make the podium. Still, one of my NZ chums, Margaret Brooker picked up a Silver Ladle for her children’s cookbook so I was slightly mollified. Rankin makes a fine speech, name-checking me as the man who led him astray in 2005. Fame of a sort, I suppose.

Good to rendezvous with WA’s noted wine writer and old buddy Peter Forrestal again. Forrie was in good form. The après nosh seemed a much lower key event than last time. Didn’t get to cavort in my customary energetic dance sequence with the delightful Maggie Beer, shame that.

Not too late a night. We are leaving for the amazing Kangaroo Island at first light. And the air conditioning has been turned down to 18. Bliss.


Day 7

Enough of all this frivolity there’s work to do.

Up early – insomnia again – down for usual brace of flat whites, croissant, melon and the Hail Mary Muesli Bar – tastes so bad you can feel it doing you good. Tempted to a cleansing James Squire IPA but refrained.

On to web to acquire and marshal argument. Today, myself, broadcaster Alan Saunders and chef-turned-farmer Matthew Evans are involved in Word of Mouth, a new feature of Tasting Australia. We are to debate against some smartypants school kids, topic being ‘The kitchen is the hub of the universe’. We are proposing.

This will be no push-over. The opposition are the local debating champions who have put forward their crack trio. Still, I am on form, despite self-imposed lack of James Squire, having assembled an impressive array of facts culled from history regarding the importance of the culinary output to conquering armies from the days of Alexander the Great to the present. At the eleventh hour, though, I decide to ditch this approach in favour of a tear-jerking tale about a nerdy, geeky, socially-inept kid (me) who was rehabilitated by an awakened interest in cooking. Before we started I went among the audience and distributed Kleenex.

Matt kicked off the debate with a logical dissertation. He was rebutted by a sparky lass with a penchant for filling the unforgiving minute with puns, lots of them, each propped up by a generous dollop of culinary terms. I rose to my feet and accused her of “over-egging the pudding”, (good that eh?) before unleashing my dolorous tale. Tears flowed, two of the ladies in the audience wanted to adopt me.

The opposition’s middle person was firmly of the logic tendency, accusing us gastro types of having low self-esteem and insufficient imagination. She’s probably right. Next Alan, our anchor man, left the audience wanting more with a witty diatribe. We had it in the bag. The gap was narrowed, but not closed, I felt by an impressive youth who entertained the audience by revealing tales of his own culinary ineptitude, nub of his argument being “It didn’t really matter and anyhow I can always phone for a takeaway”. Yes, this one was ours.

Unfortunately, the cunning students had packed the audience. The volume of nose allowed them, marginally, to carry the day. We demanded a re-clap, to no avail.

Afterwards, a walk along the river bank (actually the Torrens here doesn’t seem like a river, more like a large boating lake. Pedalos outnumbered the black swans). The public at large were clearly enjoying the food and drink provided by the various stalls – for Irish readers, a larger and much less frenetic version of ‘Taste of Dublin’. Had a good chat with a man with a mobile pizza oven about the techniques of wood-firing, several glasses of wine and a few zzzs in the sunshine.

That evening we all departed by bus for Sparrow Kitchen and Bar, where the huge cold chamber full of salumi and prosciutto had us salivating. Unfortunately the team from their sister restaurant had been imported to do a near-reprise of the pretty tour de force that had won them the trophy. Have to say that the hard-nosed press gang found some of the combinations a bit contrived, evidence that what works in competition doesn’t necessarily cut the mustard over your actual dinner.

I found a brettanomyces-infused red. Took it over to fellow wine scribes Rick Allen and Winsor Dobbin who concurred, as did the sommelier, a young Londoner who whispered confidentially, “It takes an Englishman to find brett” Hmmm… not sure some of my Aussie winemaking friends would agree.

Afterwards back to Hyacon. Usual chaotic service in the bar but they do have a lass who makes a killer Tanqueray 10 martini.



Up early – can’t seem to sleep beyond 5.15 at the minute, in whatever time zone. Walkabout for massive glass of squeezed fruit juice – orange, pineapple, mango, passion fruit, that will do nicely. Then weakened and nipped into Arcade for 2 x double shot flat whites and a bacon butty. Nice Chinese girl directed me to a restaurant called ‘Mongok’ – “spicy and cheap, I’m a student, need cheap”. Nothing changes.

Nipped into a couple of wine merchants. Prices in Oz have crept up to approaching ours (or maybe ours have come down). The revelation was NZ Oyster Bay Sauv B for which they charge around Aus$20 and make your feel they are doing you a favour for letting it go so cheap. Currently you can buy it in Dublin for the equivalent of Aus$14-15 are the Kiwis dumping here?

On a whim grabbed the guitar and caught tram to Glenelg, the Adelaiders’ nearest seaside scene. A strange, quiet, pleasant-though-faded resort – redolent maybe of the ones on the Bristol Channel, Weston SM, Portishead that I remember from trips on ‘the diesel’ from Temple Meads in my teens. Sat on beach and learned new song – played it to the seagulls because the locals don’t do that beaches and autumn thing.

Then went for oysters – rocks from Coffin Bay, much saltier/spicier than normal gigas and altogether a good eat.

Back to Adelaide, stowed the box and hiked up to Gouger for a late lunch. I love the Star of Siam – some of the freshest Thai food you’d get anywhere, enhanced by sensitive cooking. Always a buzz too. As is usual in SA, eating alone does not mean ‘eating alone’. A couple of nice solicitors (oxymoron, I know) invited me to join their table and I learned an expression new to me – “a cleansing ale”; a bon mot and habit I will henceforth adopt. Characteristically this led on to more cleansing ales and a few glasses of uncleansing Sauvignon Blanc. Oops, it’s half past five!

Back to the Hyacon, where my cronies are rocking up. Met Bisham, unbowed despite his amazing experiences in the Taj Mahal Mumbai and enthuisiastic as ever. Paul Rankin came in and greeted me like a long lost bro, or maybe in view of the horseplay that ensued the following week, ‘father’ would be more appropriate (more anon). Press room now up and running. In the longe I found Tom and Kaylene Murray, Rick Allen, Brenda Christian and David Bowden. Also greeted by that very nice guy/great chef Shannon Bennet from Vue de Monde, Melbourne. Cue for more oysters – Coffin Bays and Tassies (sweeter) – waved down with good Eden Valley Riesling.

In evening to house of Michael Angelis. Found Maggie Beer in the kitchen, flashing that 1000 watt and dead genuine smile. Treated to seafood festival – oysters, mussels, crab, lobster, clams, various white fish, smoked salmon and thg best taramasalata I’ve ever tasted. Wonderful wines too and some Talisker 10 to top off the evening. Most generous hospitality – it will live long in the memory. Met 80-something going on 16 Manchester Manmwho’s a TV gardening expert legend on Oz.

Later to a quiescent Apothecary with AWT and Rankin. Last time I was there the place was pure people – ebullient chefs, mostly. But then it was 11.45 at night. Bish found us as we knew he would. Managed to avoid going to Crazy Horse on way home (phew!!!).


The serious stuff begins, I have an 11am tasting, a Coonawarra Vignerons Masterclass.

Long before 9am the media centre is kicking in. Should perhaps mention that the Media Centre at Tasting Australia is an object lesson for the world’s event organizers. Take a bow, Monjava coffee who, IMO, provided a nicer product than the correct but rather bland Illy of the years before – boosted by a barista who really knows what a ‘double shot flat white’ is and, furthermore, can really do latte art. Throw in fresh crossants, yoghurt, a selection of fresh fruit and you have a good healthy start to the day, the more so if you could manage the somewhat penitential muesli bars – truly an edible hair shirt. Well, semi edible!

Then, in the afternoon, when you come back hot and tired from a trip there’s a fridge full of ‘cleansing’ James Squire ale – the IPA was my fave, followed by the ‘Golden’ (which they’ve snuck on to Quantas, I’m pleased to say). Had to sample the minerals, though (to my shame) I can’t remember the maker’s name – good old fashioned ginger beer and sarsaparilla among them. Barossa vignerons were taking it in turn to showcase their wines. Great to see big Bob McLean.

The inner journo was also kept topped up by decent salamis and cheeses – one day Australia’s Grand Fromage Will Studd drops by and unloads a big wheel of Montgomery Cheddar (bliss in the round).  Oysters, too, made an appearance along with other gourmet goodies throughout the week.

We didn’t have to go far for the Masterclass – up two flights of stairs. It was headed up by Pete Bissell, Sandrine Gimon and Paul Gordon, respected winemakers all. The aim was to explore vintage variation within the region and to this end they showed us examples of 2004 (cool) and 2005 (hot) vintages, also 2007 and 2008, falling into a similar pattern. I guess early ripening during the early 2000s has made the winemakers conscious of climate change and they are looking to adapt the wines accordingly. Had an interesting cross-discussion with American wine writer Kelly Hayes who preferred the more generous 2005s whereas me, having a more typically European palate plumped for the leaner, maybe more complex 2004s. Anyhow, a worthwhile and interesting exercise. Lunch followed in the hotel.

A bit of a doss afternoon as more denizens of grub and grape arrived. In the evening we were split into groups and taken to dinner. We went to the Lion Hotel, a historic building in North Adelaide  turned into a thoroughly modern gastropub – unlike some of the limp Dublin efforts, a true gastropub. Tim proved a most generous ‘Mine Jovial Hoste’ and I had one of the best steaks I’ve had in years, a large ‘scotch fillet’ which, as far as I could tell, is a T-bone with the bone removed, from the Coorong. It was cooked rarer than rare then given a quick turn around the rotisserie. Coupled admirably with Langmeil’s wonderful Freedom shiraz. No space for anything afterwards but squeezed in a brace of excellent homemade ice creams. Much to my disgust we didn’t stay for the Thursday night shindig afterwards. Bloody wimps!



Arrived 6 am amidst a magnificent red, blue and gold sunrise. Worn out from travelling ‘steerage’ across the globe but otherwise I was holding up, only slightly fractured. David Evans, in an Audi courtesy car, collected me and drove me to the Hyatt, now renamed the Intercontinental after a takeover. Hence my confusion over the ‘change of venue’. Brought up to the Club floor for breakfast and the Tasting Australia core team came in to greet me. Annette, Karen, Marina etc and, finally Ian Parmenter from whom I got a big bear-hug embrace and a “Glad you could come, mate.” Glad indeed, for at this stage attending Tasting Australia is like being back in the bosom of a big, warm family. “Did you bring the guitar,” he asked. Clearly, we are destined to jam again. Fresh fruit, yoghurt, cereal, a generous snaffling of macadamia nuts and (the usual indifferent) coffee helped put gastro-Humpty-Dumpty together again. I noted with approval the many old friends and colleagues among the list of journalists and friends attending. It’s difficult to describe the feeling you get from being here, among your peer group. Is the equivalent mass of culinary and food/wine writing talent and expertise ever assembled elsewhere? Hard to imagine. Later, went for a walk. Adelaide was closed for business. Pleased to see the hat shop is still extant, will call tomorrow and purchase a new Panama. Gouger and Grote, the Chinese/Thai/Korean quarter was buzzy and I stopped for a bowl of duck and rice. I couldn’t find the Chinese pharmacy where they sold me the excellent root ginseng last trip. Will have to discover another source. I marked for future attention a Korean butchers with an attached BBQ cafe where they were offering Wagu steak for Aus$ 30, looked like a decent portion too. Almost got made the subject of a citizens arrest for crossing the road ‘on the little Red Man’ as I used to say to my kids. I blame it on Manchester where, growing up, I learned to jay-walk good style. I think in those days you could get an Arts Council grant for it. Really, from the minute you arrive at the airport you start to see how (a) law abiding and (b) absurdly over-regulated Australia is – amazing for a country started by law breakers! Back to hotel for crash, later met Ian for glass of wine (Skilogalee Riesling – totally bracing, what I needed) in bar. The bar food is bad as ever, despite the hotel’s change of owenership. Ian and I had a veteran’s whinge about the new breed of journalists and PR people. South Australia doesn’t know how lucky it is to have this festival/symposium. He gave me an update on the South Australian restaurant scene – good to see Chianti Classico is still in there punching. Afterwards, I met Rosemary Shrager. She evinced the same ‘lucky to be here’ feeling that I recognised from my first trip, back in my days as a Tasting Australia virgin. And so, as Mr.Pepys would have said, to bed. But not before a last scan of the guest list to see if I’d missed anyone.


Up and about early. Eschewed hotel breakfast in favour of eat-on-the go walkabout.  Massive fruit juice (orange/pineapple/melon/mango) from stall on Rundle Mall. Thence to essential shopping. Flat white coffee and egg and bacon muffin in Billy Baxters. Nice Chinese waitress gave me heads-up on a cheap’n’cheerful North China style restaurant.

Thence to haircut and dissertation on South Australian family economics from Tino the Barber. Into Adelaide Hatters for a snazzy new Panama – last time was in there was with Rachel Allen who looked only fab in copper’s helmet and feather boa.

Then off to Central market, marvelling at the variety and quality of the produce. Like the English Market in Cork only 4 times the size. Found an organic place where I consumed a bowl of Greek yoghurt laced with Hymettus honey, fresh bananas and a generous sprinkling of pistachio nuts – Aegina in a bowl. Bought a couple of bottles of Clare and Eden Riesling – strong Aussie dollar and ‘notions’ has forced up prices of wine. Aus$21 for Oyster Bay sauv B, currently being ‘dumped’ on Irish market for around a tenner.

Into footie shop for a squint at the knock-offs, unfortunately not to be had in Size Fat Bastard. One place that does is Brown’s – up to size 8XB in nice fashionable smatter. Came out with a brace of long t-shirts and a pair of jeans, feeling positively anorexic.

Back ‘home’ to type up Winding Stair review to send back.

In afternoon returned to Central Market with Rosemary Shrager whose TV progs are big here. Felt a bit like walking round Calcutta with Mother Teresa in tow. A women actually came up and told her “You’ve changed my life”. Never taken so many photographs on other peoples’ cameras! More good coffee from 2nd generation ‘Lucia’s’.

In evening bumped into Anthony Worrall-Thompson in foyer. In good form despite having wallet nicked by ‘Robin Hood’ burglars just before he left England. Apparently they came round and bunged the (empty) wallet and passport through his letter box, amazing.

Diner, solus, at Chianti Classico. What a good restaurant this is. A proper restaurant. Drank 01 Shiraz, pristine. Good Aussie Shiraz has real ageing capacity. Wonderful fritto misto mare, no trace of verbena bitterness on fried oysters, ethereal batter that would do credit to a tempura specialist. Had issues with lamb sweetbreads (animelle on menu – were these perhaps ‘bollocks’?) – too rubbery and all delicacy lost through overpowering sauce. Restaurant manager was sweetness itself – took the comment on the chin, offered me something else and, when I wouldn’t, struck the dish from the bill. Anyone remember the ‘swordfish/sucking pig incident in Santa Margherita Ligure (it’s on forkncork somewhere)? Fantastic asparagus under layer of sweet pecorino, but slightly overwhelmed by balsamic dressing and crying out for a dab of hollandaise. I suppose we must expect chefs to be ‘creative’? Really good coffee panna cotta, fresh pineapple and orange went some way towards redeeming situation, great staff did the rest. Sometimes it’s more important to respond correctly than get things right from the off. Struck me afterwards that the dish in question would have been absolutely brilliant with kidneys substituted for the sweetbreads.

Later had drinks with Anthony Worrall Thompson, his son who is cheffing in Oz, Karen, Lucia and Annette from the TA mob. Some discussion on the ethics/niceties of killing and eating something. AWT doesn’t come over anything like as stand-offish as I imagined from a previous occasion. I think he’s a shy guy.