Category Archives: Travel

Tales from the road

The Beautiful South II – a holiday in the Western Cape

We returned via the ultra-scenic mountain route; staying in Stellenbosch, the pristine university town where most of the country’s wine makers receive their education. We relaxed at a delightful guest house we’d found via the net. The Beautiful South is run by two hospitable young Germans, Lars and Emily. A thatched roof with a star-gazing window, an ‘honesty bar’ and a small swimming pool added to the charm, as did Emily’s inventive breakfasts – I can taste her lovely oeufs florentine as I write. The area around Stellenbosch and its neighbour Paarl is crammed with vineyards, some compact and homely, – like Ernst and Gwenda Gouws’ Hoopenberg to which we were kindly invited for a traditional braai – the legendary emperor-sized barbecued game and sausage fest. Others are more overtly commercial, like Vergelegen, with its gracious restaurant and beautiful gardens or Charles Back’s Fairview, home of the punning gems ‘Goats do Roam’ and ‘Goat Rôtie’ that have so got up French noses. Fairview also makes excellent cheeses that counterpoint nicely the trademark Rhône varietals on offer.
Currently they are planting Syrah like mad in the Cape. One of the great exponents is Kevin Arnold who hosted an alfresco lunch for us at the elegant Tuscan-themed villa at the heart of the hypermodern Waterford winery.
We enjoyed yet another fine repast at 96 Winery Road, a restaurant at Somerset West owned by winemakers Ken Forrester and Martin Meinert. Ken is chief custodian of the reputation of Chenin Blanc, South Africa’s ‘traditional’ white grape.Inspired by such French gems as Savennières, he continues to swim admirably against the tide as ‘Steen’, to bestow its local name, is ousted by massive plantings of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
Our next destination was Franschhoek, the town founded by Huguenots who fled France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Fittingly, it’s South Africa’s high temple of gastronomy, where fusion-tinged classical cooking is augmented by fresh local ingredients and local wines. We dined at Le Quartier Français, a perpetual listing in the country’s top 10, where an exceptional chef, Margot Janse cooks with imagination and deceptive simplicity. By and large Franschhoek’s restaurants can be exempted from the two cardinal sins of South African eating-out, namely disrespect for vegetables and adoption of coarse glassware and cutlery. We were also delighted to unearth an excellent Franschhoek wine, for a change a Semillon, from the boutique winery Landau du Val.
Pushing on to the coast, we basked at Hermanus for a few days. This teeming (at this time of year) seaside resort is reputed to be the ultimate venue for whale-watching but as the season was over we couldn’t test the proposition. Venue for our stay was Whale Rock Lodge, a welcoming and well-appointed thatched-roofed guest house with capacious, immaculate grounds and a large pool that compensated for the crashing waves that rendered a swim in the sea nigh impossible. The substantial breakfast rendered lunch unnecessary – nevertheless we couldn’t resist making a pilgrimage another hour eastward, to the beguiling village of Stanford in order to sample gourmet home cooking at Marianne’s (a tip-off we received from Margot Jansse). When in Hermanus, a visit to Hamilton Russell to check on the state of South Africa’s benchmark Chardonnay and Pinot Noir is a pleasure as well as a duty. We found both in good health. Meandering back to Cape Town at a dawdle, we were impressed with both Onrust and Betty’s Bay, both quieter than Hermanus.
Our last four days in the Cape were spent at Whale Cottage, a friendly guest house blessed with picturesque views over Camps Bay, once a ‘Whites Only’ resort, now abuzz with reggae as well as rugby. It was gratifying to watch a mix of ‘races’ playing volley ball. Somehow, it symbolised what we had found in the Cape of great hope: a will to make things work, perhaps more pragmatic than altruistic but people seem determined to let neither the shadow of apartheid nor the mistakes being made in other parts of Africa spoil the party. The wine farmers, in particular, are appreciative of the new access to world markets; no one wants to go back to isolationist times. Of course there are huge problems, medical and social, but there seems at least the will to tackle them. Optimism was further reinforced by our visit to Robben Island. We were shown round by a former inmate, whose lack of rancour, determination to say “what’s past is past” and impressive inner calm would stand as role model for the people of this island too.
So, having laid my own ghosts to rest, would I return? Yes, and soon, hopefully. The combination of friendly people, fine food and wine, stunning scenery, a sense of history and a mix of cultures is abundantly compelling. Old Africa hands say the continent seeps into your soul. Who am I to disagree?

The Beautiful South – a holiday in the Western Cape

A friend prone to both travel and hyperbole is wont to proclaim that there are only four truly beautiful cities in the world: Sydney, Vancouver, San Francisco and Cape Town.

This thought was in my head, though not for long, as I drove in from the airport past the euphemistically nicknamed ‘Cape Flats’, a huge and motley housing estate of reclaimed wood and tin shacks, so ramshackle you’d imagine a stiff breeze would scatter them all over the motorway. The geographic location could not be better chosen if it were deliberately planned to infuse the overseas visitor with guilt and shame. It screams, as it should, “Do something!”

At this point I ought to come clean and admit that this was my first visit. For years I would not go to South Africa. I have been firmly in the anti-apartheid camp since my teens, my conscience pricked by the experience of my late uncle who had gone there to visit relatives. Uncle Jack was a Lancashire coal miner, back in pre-Thatcher days when this was a permitted occupation. An afternoon free, he asked his brother-in-law if he could organise a visit to a local mine. Underground, at the copper face, he made to shake hands with a denizen of drill, pick and shovel, a man doing the same job that he did back home. He was forcibly prevented from executing this gesture of solidarity and friendship. Why? Because the fellow face-worker happened to be black. Leaving the plane, I did what I’d tacitly promised myself in the intervening years. I bounded down the mobile steps and grasped the hand of a bewildered bus driver.

The architecture of the city centre, a blend of Cape Dutch and Imperial British, attracts the tag of ‘shabby genteel’;like an erudite old relative clad in a threadbare suit that was once haute couture. Many of the modern buildings are utilitarian, compared to, say, Perth WA, a city that’s superficially similar. But by day there’s an appealing vibrancy about the place despite the fact that the upmarket shopping has migrated to suburban precincts or to the V&A Waterfront, that audacious hotchpotch of boutiquerie, gastronomic joy and free open-air entertainment. By night the city centre seems half asleep but there is good jazz and great dining if you know where to go. A guide book is essential. Cape Town’s quintessential beauty lies in its verdant suburbs, vast expanses of sand and rocky coastline, its apogee Cape Point where legend, defying geographical fact, says the African and Indian oceans converge. Also in the dramatic sunsets made more spectacular by the looming dominance of Table Mountain, always in view from wherever – would that our own Sugar Loaf were higher! Not forgeting, of course, the hospitable climate – though it did blot its copybook by raining on our personal Christmas day parade.

At the Waterfront’s Table Bay Hotel, a cocooning experience begins the moment you hand over your car keys at the gate. The staff at this sybarite’s palace, friendly yet unobtrusive, would serve as role models for any hotel in the world. Every request is serviced with calm efficiency. Our bedroom, the acme of luxury, enjoyed a view over the quayside and it was easy to imagine the days when the quays were a hive of commercial maritime activity. We took breakfast on the terrace where we found Dublin dining’s erstwhile enfant terrible, Conrad Gallagher instructing a sous chef. He looks well, certainly more at peace with himself than the last time we saw him – handcuffed to a brace of guards! Word is, among Cape cognoscenti, that he’s already made a difference, cranking up the cuisine at the Table Bay’s Atlantic Restaurant a notch or two. At the Atlantic we enjoyed one of the best meals of the holiday. Three courses from the à la carte cost less than the meal we’d had the night before at Belthazaar, a new trendy Waterfront eaterie, and the quality was far higher. An efficient restaurant manager and a knowledgeable sommelier copper-fastened the enjoyment. Even if you are staying elsewhere I’d recommend you pop in and have breakfast at the Table Bay – so good there should be a preservation order on it.
Driving out next day we found a little gem in Kloof St. called Café Paradiso, featuring simple Cal and real Ital dishes, making best use of the fresh ingredients abundant in The Cape. Later, we took the panoramic cable car up the face of Table Mountain and went walkabout on the plateau before snuggling down with a Castle lager to watch the luminescent technicolour sunset, an unforgettable experience.
One of Cape Town’s many aesthetic gems is the Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens, where you can stroll at will or, on a Sunday afternoon, enjoy a picnic at the open air concert. Don’t worry if you haven’t brought one with you – gourmet picnic boxes can be purchased in the grounds. The District 6 walking tour is also well worth doing for historical perspective. A visit to the penguin sanctuary at Boulders Bay will give as much joy to children as a theme park. Grown-ups can likewise indulge themselves in what many believe to be Cape Town’s best restaurant, at the Constantia Uitsig winery. Constantia also boasts another fine restaurant, La Colombe.
After three days, wanderlust struck. We set off early in the morning for the winelands, first north to Paarl, then swinging east through the formidable Huguenot Tunnel, to Robertson. We visited Graham Beck’s tidy winery and partook of among other things, the excelent sparklers, then had lunch at Bon Courage, after which we sampled thge ‘stickies’.
WE stayed the night at Springfield Estate as a guest of Jeanette Bruwer who, with her brother Abrie, is responsible for some of South Africa’s finest wines, all intuitively made, without the benefit (or maybe the hindrance) of formal qualifications.
After a tasting, a tour of the vineyard and a swim we set off for a sundowner at Fraai Uitzicht, a delightful hyper-boutique winery/restaurant with accommodation in the hills above the town. Axel is a meeter-and-greeter in the Martin Corbett (Chapter One) league. Marius’ cooking is topnotch: food – inspired; presentation –_up there with the best. All-in-all it didn’t take much to persuade us to stay on for dinner, particularly as we were promised a concert by a young Xhosa choir. The evening brought home the meaning of serendipity. The felicitous combination of fine food, great wine and gospel songs, against the backdrop of a dramatic sunset made for a highlight of the holiday.

Burgundy – continued

Sunday’s crowning glory was the feast at the Hotel Dieu, the medieval almshouse otherwise known as the Hospices, a thrilling masterpiece of late Gothic architecture with its distinctive polychromatic Burgundian tiled roof. The Hospices de Beaune is a charity founded by Nicolas Rolin, chancellor of Burgundy, in 1443, a man famed far and wide for his ability to extort money from the well-to-do. So much so that King Louis XI remarked that “having made so many people poor and homeless he could well afford to make his peace with the Almighty by providing for some of them.” Rolin started the process which underpins the Hospices’ finances even today; he endowed a parcel of land on which to grow grapes and others followed his example, down to Maurice Drouhin who, in the 20th century, bequeathed some of his finest plots. Sale of the Hospices wines was originally conducted by private treaty but in 1851 the foundation decided to hold an auction, starting a custom that’s been observed annually ever since. This now takes place in the less characterful but more commodious covered market. Prices fetched are generally inflated, partly from charitable motives but also because of the publicity value – in the manner of a butcher buying the Supreme Champion Aberdeen Angus at London’s Smithfield Cattle Show prominent restaurateurs are eager to cash in on the cachet. The negotiants watch anxiously, for the Beaune prices, while not definitive, give a clue as to the worth of the current Burgundy vintage.
The feast takes place in the bastion, beneath the Hôtel Dieu, with an overflow room upstairs; a total of almost 1000 guests are accommodated. We were treated to an eight-course banquet, with wines to accompany five, plus choice of a Marc de Bourgogne, the fiery ‘brandy’ of the region or a prunelle, as digestif. The left-hand side of the king-size parchment menu listed all the Hospices wines, 30-something in total. If you wished to taste any (or all!) of these you simply wrote your selection down on your place card and handed it to the waitress. At one point Findlater’s Maureen O’Hara and I had six glasses in front of us – each! Of course many of the wines were too young and all were hard to appraise, overwhelmed as they were by the occasion. I do remember being particularly impressed by our host’s Mazis-Chambertin and by Le Corton but then, to paraphrase Dr. Johnson, the man who couldn’t appreciate Le Corton couldn’t appreciate life itself. The cabaret that accompanied the feast was another thing of wonder; a jazzband rooted in the tradition of Sidney Bechet and Claude Luther; a leather-aproned male voice choir culled from the growers; and a brilliant chanteuse/comédienne who demanded audience participation, plucking diners from their seats to dance or take part in a mime. The night was punctuated by regular choruses of ‘Le bon Bourguignon’, a drinking song popular with the locals. Of course things couldn’t end there; at the conclusion, guests spilled out into the town’s restaurants and wine bars to drink yet more.

Unbelievably, next day we were up with the lark and on the road north to Chablis. We travelled in three Espaces, the first booted along by adrenalin-fuelled Bruno from Bouchard who fancied himself an F1 ace; Catherine hustled to keep up with him while we brought up the rear, entrusting our safety to a young Japanese whose first drive on French roads was further complicated by the fact that, back in Tokyo, he drove an automatic. Verily, a hair-raising ride.
William Fèvre is quite a name in Chablis; a man who led the fightback towards quality after the depredations of the late sixties when want of pride and general dilapidation combined to damage the wine’s reputation. He also pursued relentlessly the counterfeiters who, by their actions, debased the good name. In Fèvre’s mock period château we found an amusing collection of ‘Chablis’ bottles from all over the world. William was a hard act to follow until Joseph Henriot, who had acquired the business, parachuted in a young régisseur, Didier Séguier from their subsidiary Bouchard Père et Fils. Didier set about revitalising the Domaine, changing the style to make wines that are very much his own ‘handwriting’. We tasted over a dozen of the 2002 vintage, from the humble Domaine Chablis to the Grands Crus. At several stages during the tasting I found myself slipping back for a sip of the core product. It was reassuringly good and, what’s more, manifestly in the house style, rather like being at a wedding where relatives, close or distant, could be identified by a pattern of speech or the curve of an eyebrow. Spot on fruit/acid balance was a constant and there were other family features. The five Grands Crus were distinctively different – my preference, as always, big, buttery Vaudésir with its heather and hymetus honey notes and pronounced lime overtones, in contrast to the lemon of the other four.
Chablis is hilly and chilly, denigrated even by the Beauneois in our party as “little Siberia” but it meant something to drink one of your favourite wines and, afterwards, stand on the slope where it gestated.
All in all, a heroic trip. The following week in the office, chastened by boring Dublin 2 sandwiches and vile coffee, was a nightmare. For diversion I recalled that first evening in Beaune when I relished a plate of crème de foie gras with good bread and a glass of Volnay-Santenots 1997. It cost e11.40. What am I doing here?

Burgundy – Hospice de Beaune & Chablis

I promised the full story of my trip to Burgundy for the Auction at The Hospice de Beaune. Here it is…

Why all the fuss? A question I asked myself as the TGV sped southward.
Size wise it’s insignificant, comprising as it does a mere 02% of the earth’s surface that’s covered by vines. What’s more, the fêted Grand Crus make up a mere 1% of the region’s total output and the Premier little more than a tenth. The bulk of the production, entitled only to the name of Burgundy tout court, is honest but unremarkable wine. Yet the region carries an undeniable charisma, an attraction exceeding even that of the Medoc.
Partly, of course, it’s that aristocrat of wine words, terroir. Nowhere else in the world do you find, in the midst of an otherwise unremarkable array of vineyards, hallowed patches where the grapes yield up wine of exquisite quality. Where even the vinously literate search in vain for clues, getting down on their knees to turn over handfuls of soil or gazing down from the crest of the slope in utter bewilderment.
Much is made of the terrain. The buzz word is ‘Kimmeridge’ or ‘kimmerigien’. But beware, there’s more bollocks talked about Kimmeridge than even politics or football.
I’ve been told, by those who should know better, that it’s a corruption of an old French word for ‘high ridge’; that it’s the name of an American professor of geology. Truth is Kimmeridge is actually the name of a village in Dorset, England where the substrata and soil is remarkably similar to that of Burgundy – limestone blended with fossilised rock and sprinkled with marl overlaid in parts by other clay pocked with bituminous shale; a topography that took shape during the Jurassic era.
History is another aspect to Burgundy’s appeal. Its wines were patronised in turn by Louis XIV, Napoleon and General de Gaulle, not a bad trio of endorsees. Some claim viticulture in the region stemmed from a colony of Greeks settled in Marseilles, some of whom ventured north. Others date the process to Caesar’s conquest of Gaul in 52BC. What is certain is that medieval religious orders, Benedictines and Cistercians, advanced matters, the latter by being the first to cultivate the back-breaking inclines of the Côte d’Or. Much of the credit, though, must go to that Duke of Burgundy who, in the late 14th century, supervised the wholesale ripping out of the common weed-vine Gamay and its replacement by the aristocratic Pinot Noir.
Temperamental Pinot Noir and ever-complaisant Chardonnay are the real glory of Burgundy, the former making red wines that, while wholly enjoyable when young, develop a patchwork quilt of nuances given some bottle age; the latter achieving its world-wide apogée on the sacred slopes of Montrachet just south of our destination, the town of Beaune.
All this flashed through my mind on the journey. We changed trains at Dijon, capital of the region and took the stopper. I was pleased to halt at Nuits-St.Georges, home of the first wine I ever drank. If Dijon is the Duchy’s capital, Beaune is undoubtedly the wine capital, especially in November when it plays host to the world. Norwegians and Koreans, Americans and Japanese and other poles apart pairings crowd the streets, either as invitees of the merchant houses or as independent travellers with a common aim – to attend the great annual wine auction at the Hospices de Beaune and enjoy the remarkable gastronomic accompaniment. Some arrive, chequebooks at the ready, to bid for a barrel or three. Others, merely to spectate and join in the festivities. These blow-ins are catered for by a hundred restaurants, from bistro to temple of gastronomy, remarkable in a town of only about 27,000 people. It’s said that Paris is the head of France, Champagne the heart and Burgundy the stomach and after four days there I can confirm that it’s a very full stomach indeed. Burgundians, like me, are food-obsessed and it’s not uncommon to receive a lecture on how to buy or how to cook the andouillettes or poulet de Bresse when you’re standing in front of an open market stall contemplating purchase. Such advice could come from the vendor, a fellow-shopper or a mere passer-by. Meet the locals and five minutes later they’ll be telling you who’s the best butcher in town. The food shops are crowded too; twice a day there are queues outside the bakers.
Importers, merchants, journalists from a veritable league of nations took lunch chez Bouchard Père et Fils in the delightfully elegant orangery across the road from the château that serves as the company HQ. Bouchard are big in Burgundy, owning 12 hectare of Grands Crus and 74 of Premiers, the names of which sparkle like diamonds: Chambertin, Clos Vougeot, Echezeaux, Le Corton, Corton Charlemagne and an array of Montrachets shine from their portfolio.
After lunch we went off to Meursault to taste, pausing on the way at Le Montrachet to genuflect. I look back at my notes as I write and find my terse cyphering that’s gaining notoriety in wine writing circles is speckled with exclamation marks. The Meursault Genevrières 2002 “affords genuine excitement”, it seems. The Corton-Charlemagne of the same year was “tense and weighty, sea salt and Cox’s apples framed by delicate but insistent peachy flavours”. The Chevalier Montrachet “still a kit of parts but the class is undeniable”. I want to come back and taste the same wines in 5 and 10 years.
In the evening we returned to the Bouchard château for dinner in the cellars. The cooking was rich, classically Burgundian from the etherial gougères, “like eating cheese-flavoured clouds” as someone said, to the marbré de canard, to the cepes-stuffed suprême de volaille fermière, to the marc-soaked roast figs. The wines, Chevalier Montrachet 1997, Nuits St.Georges Les Cailles 1998 and the Beaune Teurons 1964, still standing up to be counted, were magnificent. Only problem was to prevent falling shards of limestone falling from the cellar roof from tainting the precious liquid.
The auction itself is, I have to say, totally underwhelming for those not in possession of the wherewithal to buy. You queue to get in, this year in teeming rain; once inside you stand or sit, mute and motionless, afraid of nodding your head or scratching your ear for fear you might be called upon to stump up for a pièce, a lot, consisting of around 300 bottles. The numbers roll on the electronic ‘scoreboard’ in euros, yen, pounds, dollars etc, the vendors grunt and groan and then it’s on to the next lot. They have a curious, time-honoured way of ending the bidding but when you’ve seen one guttering candle you’ve seen ‘em all. Ten minutes of this and you’re ready to roam the streets, buying Epoisses and the gorgeously named Ami du Chambertin cheeses, bargaining for truffles and watching the side shows – the cork-pulling contest and the demonstration of the cooper’s craft were the pick of them.

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London's Burning

Went to London last week (16th July).

Fell asleep on the plane so missed the great Irish breakfast (did I miss much?). Still, noblesse oblige and Club Class Row 3 meant I could get off the aircraft at the speed of light and whizz down to the Underground station and emerge at Leicester Sq less than an hour after touchdown.

Why was I there? To view the Marks and Sparks Christmas collection; to find out where the dining hotspots were for F&W; and to indulge in a bit of nostalgia, first of which being to sit in Soho Square and wait for someone to turn up who died a long time ago, but that’s another story.

Pulled myself together and legged it down Oxford St (horrible as ever) to Scotts, where the IRA lobbed a bomb in so may years ago, presumably because of it’s quintessential Englishness. I only found out yesterday, btw, that the excelent Caroline Workman’s (NI food writer) dad was in the place at the time.
Fantastic Bostonian barman downstairs, deffo the Remrandt, if not the Picasso of cocktail makers – best Bloody Mary I have had in my life (probably the biggest, too).

Like many restaurants in London it seems, they have a young Australian chef who is pulling out all the stops. Fantastic cock crab – it was more than a cock, it was a Priapus, a giant phallus – so big I delved and dug for an hour without making too much of an impact. I was in tears when I had to hand the carcass back!
My dining companion had quenelles de brochet, pike to you – delicate, perhaps too much so, real invalid food.

In the evening I hooked up with Irish chef Richard Corrigan, big amiable guy from Meath and one hell of a cook – mission bound to convert Savverners to real food, rabbit, offal and those parts of the beast the pillocks throw away. Hasd to cry oiff eating at Lindsay House his One Star Michelin as I’d eaten so many of his amazing pigeon & quail’s egg canapes at this charity reception I couldn’t move.

Anyhow, if any of you have a few dibs to spare can I suggest War Child or The Irish Youth Foundation – a near-to-home charity desined to succour Irish second generation immigrants to the UK who are at risk through poverty or social attitudes.

Next day went to Gay Hussar in Greek St Soho – old style Hungarian restaurant beloved by all those Old Labour politicians who were intent on “levelling up, not levelling down” as one of those claret heads once put it to me.
Amazing restaurant – no change since I was last there in about ’89 – if they tookk the crispy duck with red cabbage and Hungarian potatoes off the menu there’d be a riot, or at least a strike!

In the evening I went to Lindsay House, Richard Corrigan’s restaurant and the food and wine were absolutely amazing. Very natural flavours and great ingredients, especially he smoked haddock, the rabbit with black pudding and the lamb, sweetbreads and kidneys.

Next day to lunch at Pied a Terre in Charlotte Street; a two star but utterly informnal with a gorgeous (though teeny-weeney bit pregnant) Maitresse D’ who indulged in humourous banter with a couple of the regulars who were sipping Brett Maris’s brilliant Wither Hills Pinot Noir. Actually, I didn’t think the food was quite up to the Lindsay House mark, nice, but a bit over-elaborate and the desserts were a bit ill-conceived, flavours didn’t quite hang together.

That night I dined at Nahm on the ground floor of the amazing (though mega-expensive) Halkin Hotel in SW1. It’s the only Thai in the world with a Michelin Star and though I saw in one of the Restaurant guides the cooking described as “bizarre” and the ambience as “zero” these guys are talking through their arses. The ambience is fine – cool, postmodern like the hotel but once there are a few people in the place you don’t notice because the food is great – 100% uncompromising Thai – if you have the 7 course tasting menu the palm sugar buzz will have you awake all night but such is the price of authenticity. I was delighted to meet the chef, David Thompson,who’s long been one of my culinary heroes since I bought his first cookbook in Oz back in ’95….

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New Orleans

have my own version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s nostrum. It goes: better to arrive than to travel at all. Low spots of the journey: confiscation of my cigar cutter by Aer Rianta’s bully boys; the ludicrous Shannon stopover; airline food, compounded by the cock-up that had me labelled as vegetarian – moi, king of carvivores!; airline wine – twist off the top and there a whiff of sulphur that says the devil’s on board, probably disguised as the supersonic snorer in the next seat; three hours in Newark Airport.
But I love N.O. I’d like to go to there to sample the balmy climate in early Spring and Autumn; to tap my feet at JazzFest and to caper with the utterly nutterly in Mardi Gras. I wouldn’t go in August. To visit in August is to tote your own personal sauna.

Arriving at Louis Armstrong Airport the sponsor’s white stretch limo beckoned. We breezed into ‘The Big Easy’, sunroof open, moonroof glowing, TV, and air-conditioning in top gear and the burred walnut cocktail cabinet in overdrive. Of course it couldn’t last. We got pulled over by cops erecting barricades and had to hump the suitcases the last three blocks to the hotel.
The Royal Sonesta, plush, expensive and unctiously over-serviced in the American manner is located on Bourbon Street one of the main arteries of the Vieux Carré, the French quarter, heart of old New Orleans. Bourbon is ‘the strip’: end to end tourist cheap NBA jerseys bars, jazz emporia and dance clubs. Arrive during Mardi Gras and you’ll find an immobile, impenetrable mass of frat-pack guys and dolls, eyes and arms stretching upwards, if not to heaven, to the private balconies where the privileged fling strings of beads to anyone below who catches their fancy. Sometimes the beads come the other way and pert young girls and even bold grannies flash their tits in acknowledgement. Muchdrink is taken, although it has to be said I only ever saw two fights, both of them of the ‘handbags at fifty paces’ variety. Bourbon Street has to be experienced, especially as one of the best live music haunts, the Jazz Parlor is there – brilliant R&B bands in the afternoon, a reminder that New Orleans was home to Fats Domino as well as Jelly Roll Morton. Down the far end there’s Preservation Hall, a tatty jazz shrine with probably the best trad music in town.

Royal Street, a mere block away is restrained and elegant; browse the impressive antique shops and vibrant art galleries. Also on Royal is my nomination for the World’s Finest Coffee Stop. At the House of Brews. Leah’s pluperfect double macchiato is the perfect antidote to sightseer’s fatigue. Each morning I sprawled out on a comfy banquette and scoured the Times-Picayune for the day’s events.

In this way we found the Gospel Mass at Our Lady Star of the Sea on St. Roch. The tourist map did not prepare us for the hour and a half’s trudge, the last mile through an area that could only be designated ‘dodgy’. Our reward was to be surrounded by the friendliest congregation on earth and confronted by the most beautiful angels in heaven – a fresco of girls so gorgeous you’d beg to take one to the Trinity Ball. The Rev.Tony Ricard gave an eloquent sermon, theme: “If God calls you up on the telephone, you better star-9 him right back”. His God was a jovial host, his heaven, a party. The thrilling choir was led by an Aaron Neville sound-alike.

You can eat great food in New Orleans. And some not so good. Worst meal we had was at the Palm Court, a trendy jazz café where even a stomping sextet could not make up for the straight-out-the-freezer fare and the dumb waitress who poured the second bottle of red into glasses half full of the first. But Arnaud’s!!! New Orleans’ oldest restaurant provided a main course to die, for. Sweetbreads, shrimps, crawfish tails and shitake mushrooms in a Creole-tinged sauce played chords on the keys of memory for weeks. At the fine ethnic Alex Patout, we tucked into marinated turtle wrapped in cabbage leaves and local duck, étouffée (smothered) with the thoroughness of a Shakespearian assassin. Nicely ageing Zinfandel, Edmeade’s 1996 provided the perfect accompaniment. We also relished tasty, muscular shrimps with pasta at the French Market Restaurant, washed down with the excellent dark, strong, local beer Turbo Dog.

One of the finest meals we had (prime shrimp, oysters on the half shell and succulent veal) was some way out of town at the homestead lovingly restored by our hosts, Southern Comfort and immortalised on the bottle label. To lounge on the verandah not giving a damn (“Scarlett, give us a bit of feckin cunus willya”) on a warm February day, sipping Plantation Punch, was near heaven
Southern Comfort is the archetypal Louisianan tipple, being invented by a New Orleans bartender, M F Heron, back in 1870. A ‘right of passage’ drink, first step up from beer and cider; as Janis Joplin’s favourite gargle Southern Comfort acquired a rake-hell reputation much favoured by rebellious youth. But blended with cranberry juice or Triple Sec, the teeny-treat sweetness fades, the charming aromatics come into play and it becomes more sophisticated.
A short walk away stood a restored Chinesische church and inside, a bar and restaurant where a small pirogue, traditional fishing boat of the region, sat awash to the gunwhales with prime shrimp and juicy oysters on the half shell – mmmm…
On the last night we hove up at fashionable Brennan’s and spent an hour salivating over the wine list, marvelling at the low mark-ups and the d’automobiles tremendous selection of Old and New World classics. The food was immaculate, in a modern, highly finished way. There was nothing on the menu that whispered ‘lovingly simmered for three hours in the traditional fashion’.

A word on waiting. What is it about the American ‘waitron’ that keeps him or her in your face throughout retreat a meal? The young guy at Soup Brennan’s seemed determined to be on first name terms by the end of the evening, capping our jokes, sharing his unsolicited views on everything from Napa wines to Arcadian migration.

Don’t lurk in your hotel. Get up, wholesale NBA jerseys go out and have breakfast at a diner in the New Orleans fashion: mushroom omelette and grits or poached eggs with lump crab meat and remoulade. N’Awlins Cookery Company on Conti Street is excellent for all-day food at reasonable prices. Staff are friendly and the recommended ‘alligator sausage with chef’s own special (hot) barbecue sauce and macaroni cheese’, an ethnic treat. Lulu’s on Exchange Alley has great barbecued pork ‘po’ boys’ – unfeasibly large filled long rolls. Don’t miss the muffuletas at the New Orleans Deli or Luigi’s on Decatur (pronounced Deck-ay-der) – cartwheel-sized flat rolls filled with ham, salami and provolone cheese and salad dripping with olive oil and other goodies. Red beans and rice, jambalaya, catfish pie and filé gumbo of song and legend are all available, from diners, pavement stalls and even expensive restaurants, with varying degrees of quality and authenticity. Try the rich, nourishing gumbo wholesale jerseys – the soup you eat with a fork.

Take a riverboat cruise up the Mississippi or a swamp trip. We went with Captain Terry. Half-Choctaw, half-French. Once we came to terms with Elvis the baby ‘gator, crawling round the boat at our feet we had a fascinating afternoon.
Visit the ‘Cities of the Dead’, the cemetries where, because much of New Orleans is below sea level, the departed are buried above ground in elaborate tombs. Try St.Louis No.1 between Conti and Basin where ‘voodoo queen’ Marie Laveau is buried (Voodoo is the second most-celebrated religion after Catholicism). Shun the pseudy-voody capering around the grave and gain enlightenment at the Spritual Temple on North Rampart Street or the Voodoo Museum on Dumaine.
An hour or two in the Confederate Museum, near Lee Circle where the talismanic general sits atop a 60-foot marble column, poignantly facing North, will give you a fascinating insight into the South’s history.

Go down to the Café du Monde in the French market and pig out on beignets and coffee before buying an assortment of scary sauces with rude names (Dave’s Arseburner, The Mean Green Motherfucker). And your Mardi Gras gear…
Mask ($3 in the flea market – you can pay $100-250 for one bespoke crafted on Royal) and innumerable strings of beads are minimum essentials. Buy a couple of arty sets – you’ll be amazed at what people will offer to swap for these you could get the best beady bargain since Stuyvesant bagged Manhattan – and a shedload of cheap baubles in case you get invited on to someone’s balcony, not impossible as NOers are gregarious folks.

After that it’s up to you because Mardi Gras is for participation not for gawking at a procession going by. It’s what Paddy’s Day should be in Ireland if we could ever shed our inhibitions and our taste for drinking ourselves into a state of oblivion in the name of ‘the craic’
There’s always something to see – right up to the witching hour on Fat Tuesday itself when the police and the National Guard pull down the curtain on the the street theatre. Sure the parades are rolling down Canal St from mid-January onwards, propelled by the fat cat businessmen and artists, influential politicians and exclusive social clubs who bankroll the operation.
But the most fun is to be had getting togged up in the disguise and capering down to Jackson Square to mingle with the other masked eejits and, afterwards, drifting back to locals’ haunts like Harry’s Corner for an Abita Amber and a spot of hot jazz.

Alas, we didn’t have time to venture into the Garden the District where the great houses are, stroll through Audubon Park, take the free ferry to Algiers, sip a Sazerac or dance to Zydeco. Got to leave something for next time.