From Russia with love

 

 

It had been many decades since I had been to Russia or as it was the USSR then.  Back then we were on a camping trip and memories were scant.  A long wait through Customs with  EVERYTHING checked.  Officials took off the tyres to check to see if we were importing roubles (the currency) being smuggled in.  That was the era of taking blue jeans and chewing gum to sell.  It was very cool for Russians to have anything from the West.  We did not know then ourdriver/leader had decanted a large catering tin of instant coffee and places roubles in the bottom and replaced the coffee.  Fortunately we were unware of this pre-arrival.  Goodness I don’ know what we would have done if they had been discovered and he was thrown in jail though I was guilty of selling jeans at our campsite and then had a pile of roubles to get rid of…but that was another story.

Although it was a long and expensive process to obtain my visa as it took my kind and generous  travel agent two hours to fill in the details and she had completed visa applications to Russia before.  It had been made more difficult as we needed to submit the countries visited the previous ten years and dates.  As my passport was stolen in Lisbon a few years ago I needed to rely on the passports of two of my son’s to supply the details with whom I was travelling at the time to check for details.  But three weeks later my passport was returned with the visa and we were free to go…..

In saying this, cruise ship passengers do not need to have a visa as they arrive on vessels – up to six ships a day to clog up the sights of wonderful st Petersburg (formerly Leningrad)  which was our arrival point in Russia.

It had been exciting to pour over brochures of some of the must see sites in st Petersburg and we had arrived a few days  before our ‘Real Food Tour’ to see what the fuss was about.

After flights from Melbourne via Doha we checked into our centrally located hotel and grabbed a map to explore.  With little English written street signs we were with jet lag a little confused so hopped on a ‘ hop on, hop off’ bus to become familiar with the area.  I have done this previously when travelling alone in a new and unfamiliar city.  Our tickets were for 24 hours so we could use them the following morning and we could also use them for a relaxing boat trip around the canals with excellent English commentary.

We stopped off the bus at the ‘Savior of Spilled Blood’.  I actually had to pinch myself when we alighted the bus to see the  spectacular and colourful onion dones of the church.   It was late in the day so crowds had left so we were free to wander around and then became spellbound at the interior with its 7,000 square meters of mosaics.  Why ‘Spilled Blood’? Emperor Alexander II was severely wounded here in 1881 and consequently died.  The construction of the church was started a few years later by his son Alexander III.  It is a must see in st Petersburg.

Next morning we had The Hermitage on our radar and arrived early though there were no signs in English as to advise us where to obtain tickets so we joined the long queue and were finally allowed in the doors though we did not have access to tickets for another 30 minutes till the ticket selling office opened.

Finally we were in and headed to the Russian section.  Such opulence and grandeur!  Gorgeous and unique!  It was like a huge rabbit warren.  Then the cruise ship passengers arrived with their guide usually carrying a long stick with a flag or flower so they could keep the leader in view.  The earlier ease of taking photos was overtaken by visitors pushing their phones directly in front of your viewing.  We retreated for a late lunch of a delicious smoked salmon sandwich on light tye and headed to the hotel.

 

Early the following morning we headed with our guide and driver in a shiny black Mercedes on our extremely expensive prebooked trip to visit the Catherine Palace and garden and Peterhof palace at Pushkin.  Again such grandeur and oppulance,  The Amber Room was something out of this world….sadly no photographs were allowed though I don’t think one could do justice to this room.  It was restored in 2004 with funds from Germany.  Peterhof is also referred to as the Russian Versailles and the gardens and water features were beautiful.

Although we travelled by car it is also accessible by sea.

We made time as well to visit the fabulous Faberge museum which was within walking distance from our hotel.  There are nine of the eggs on display and over 4,000 pieces of decorative art.  Then time for a river cruise to see the city from the canals off the river Neve passing under the bridges which actually open in the early morning to allow for small vessels.

Our final pretour was a visit to the well known grand historical railway stations with wonderful murals and elegant decorations of history.  For the price of a regular train journey (the price is standard regardless of the distance travelled) one could visit all of the decorated stations.  Perhaps what also fascinated me was the lack of graffiti and cleanliness of the very busy stations.  Trains ran approximately every ninety seconds.  Maybe offenders were afraid of a one way ticket to the salt mine of Siberia.  Another gesture on all the trains we took in both st Petersburg and later in Moscow one was also offered a seat regardless of one’s age or sex.  One could learn a lot about travelling on the Metro in Russia and not just admire the decorated stations.

But after a few exciting days when we felt we had become locals it was time to meet our guide and fellow passengers for the Intrepid Real Food Tour of Russia.

Let the fun and food begin!

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Tuesday Night cookbookclub

With my travelling and part of the group away as well we have not had all of our monthly get togethers but I will now add to those missing dinners.

But let me recapture who we have visited so far:

We started off with a bang with Yotham  Ottolenghi and his runaway success ‘Simple’ and followed it with the ‘Monday Morning Cooking Club’ with their three lovely Jewish books with tales from around the world.  I am looking forward to their long awaited fourth which will be a sweet one!  Yea!  Can’t wait!

Next was Annabel Crabb who with Wendy Sharpe have penned two cook books. These I chose as it was pre election time. ‘Special Delivery ‘ and ‘Special Guest’ as Annabel has interviewed and cooked for many politicans in her much admired television series.

May and I was in Greece, Turkey and Portugal so I left it up to the rest of the group to do their own thing.

Rich Stein was our June chef with ‘India’ though that was a difficult choice with all his excellent books and TV shows too.

And keep with the spicy wintery season I chose  ‘ Bazaar’ the fourth book – a vegetarian book from Sabrina Gaynour though I encouraged the group to seek out her previous books as well.  She is an English based chef  with a Persian grandmother who taught her to cook so it was suggested that it was not truly authentic.  As I haven’t had enough experience in food from Iran I cannot comment.  She is very popular anyway and her lemon and pistachio shortbread are one of my favourite.

Something similar could be said for John Gregory-Smith, again a UK based chef and his ‘Orangeblossom and honey’  book on the food of Morocco but he was out most recent dinner and dare I say one of the most delicious meals we have had.  His latest cookbook is about Lebanese food and previous ones are about Turkish food.

But choosing a favourite meal, chef or cookbook is like choosing your favourite child is impossible!  They are all wonderful.

So I will be away from next month’s cookbookclub but looking forward a Greek food extravaganza in October.  In the meantime I will be off to Russia, Armenia and Georgia for more food and travel experiences.  Till then….wish me luck!

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Cairns

The flight from Melbourne to Cairns takes about three hours but is a world away especially in mid winter.  It was a very chilly day leaving Castlemaine on the airport bus for Tullamarine in Melbourne and head north to Cairns in far north Queensland.  From 5 degrees to 25 in a matter of hours.

The reason for my visit….apart for some winter warmth was to catch up with my youngest son who is based there as a marine engineer.   I had visited there before but this visit was to be a road trip with his girlfriend who is a local and could assist with the itinerary of the Tablelands.

The Tablelands lie west of Cairns and it is an area that I had not explored before as previous visits were around the the attractions of Cairns and north to the popular tourist destination of Port Douglas.

Before our requested visit to Rusty’s the well known local weekly market we discovered a flat in our hire car.  With not a great deal of support from the car hire company my son managed to change the tyre and repaired the flat and we were off.

 

 

We found a park easily and headed for coffee and pastries and admired the fabulous fresh tropical fruits and vegetables.  This must be one of my favourite markets with the variety of amazing products especially Asian ingredients.  But we weren’t cooking we were heading up through the mountains on a spectacular ride.

 

 

Our first stop was at Barron Falls.  I imagine the wet season would have provided us a much bigger  waterfall which would have been spectacular viewing.

Then it was time for a little snacking.  Some delicious icecream with unusual flavours and onto coffee and chocolate.  I found the scenery at every turn so beautiful from the mountains in the distance to the local farms with cattle grazing and orchards.  It was such a fruit bowl.  The weather was perfect.  I later saw pictures of the weather down south with wind, rain, sleet and even snow.  I had chosen the best weather to visit Far North Queensland.

 

 

Our accommodation for the evening was a delightfully renovated guest house in picture perfect scenery outside of Malanda.  As there was no cafe or restaurant our delicious dinner was a platter put together by Madeleine and Hugh and it was a beauty.   We enjoyed it in the gardens of the guesthouse with the company of a couple of very attractive locals…a noisy rooster and his female companion.  We enjoyed some pate, terrine, olives, meats and vegetables with crackers and bread purchased from Rusty’s and cheeses from a local dairy.  And some wine and beer.  Fudge and rum balls were later enjoyed in front of a very comfortable fire.  A perfect end to a truly enjoyable day with these two great travel guides.

 

 

After all that delicious food it was hard to believe that we were off to brunch at the gorgeous little town of Yungaburra  short drive from our guesthouse the following morning.  But it was suggested that we make sure we stop at one of the main attractions in the area and I am pleased that we did.  I had never heard of the Curtain Fig Tree.  It is a heritage listed tree in the Curtain Tree National Park and one of the largest trees in the area.  And it is totally amazing and believed to be over 700 years old.

 

 

Then it was the trip back to Cairns passing yet more mountain ranges including the state’s highest mountain Mt Bartle Freye and gorgeous green sugarcane farms and banana plantations.

After a lovely dinner at a downtown restaurant with Hugh’s ‘ Cairns family’ it was an early night before catching an early flight back to Melbourne and saying goodbye to one of the prettiest spots in Australia.

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Cooking classes

 

As part of our food tours we are invited to attend classes to learn to make new dishes, and often new ingredients.  Often these are in peoples home who give  us the added advantage of meeting the family, seeing the family home and learn more about how the family lives day to day.

In Turkey we were exposed to four different classes and families  – all very different but equally interesting.

Our first was in Bodum just a few days after leaving Istanbul.  It was in the country where vegetables were grown in hot houses on a farm.  We picked some of these for our lunch before visiting land where olive trees were producing oil, goats to produce cheese and of course grape vines for local wine.  Herbs were picked on our wander through the farm and used in our lunch.  Our host showed us how to provide dishes for our lunch from our fossiking.  Sitting next to me at lunch (the husband of the hostess)  was an artist who has been to Shepperton in Victoria which was close to where I live.  His work was on display through their fascinating home but it reinforced in me how small the world was getting.

We were thrilled to be invited to the home of our guide to again experience some hospitality.  His mum was absolutely charming.  Her English was as bad as our Turkish but she offered genuine hospitality and generosity.   We sampled some of her homemade borek and then proceeded to show us how to make some dolmades from scratch.  Many hands make light work.  We went into prepare these which were our dinner that night on our surprisingly comfortable overnight train journey.

For me one of the most memorable cooking experiences was in a tiny village.  Our hostess showed us how to make pasta from scratch which she rolled out with a family owned rolling pin and sliced very finely.  A tiny piece of meat was stuffed into the pasta and it was then cooked and served with a sweetish cheese sauce flavoured with a spicier chilli topping.  Interesting indeed!

Our final class was again in the home and featured egg plant stuffed with spiced lamb, stuffed zucchini with rice, and vegetables.  As it was Ramadan our hostess/ teacher could not taste any of the dishes to check for seasonings which of course was strange for us.  She was thoroughly delightful and was looking forward to the exact minute when she could break the fast and enjoy some food.

Perhaps the most professional cooking class was a cooking school in Portugal.  Here we were taught by a professional chef in a kitchen set up to teach.  Seafood was on the menu.  Mussels were a focus both stuffed and served simply steamed.  We learnt a scallop dish which we prepared and a hake and potato main with a paprika sauce which I loved and plan to make soon.  It was ironic and perhaps amusing that I was teamed with a American woman who told me she couldn’t help with the cooking as she didn’t cook!  Interesting perhaps as it was a food tour and she wasn’t interested in learning to make different food?  Our dessert was made by the chef and a local specialty which was a baked Santiago cake.  Short pastry is filled with a ground almond and lemon cake.  It was decorated with a sprinkling of icing sugar over a cross of Santiago ( St James).  This was our only cooking class in Portugal but it was the best one we shared.

Off to Greece.  We were fortunate in having a qualified chef as a guide here which made such a difference to our whole tour. Although we had only one cooking class in Greece having a chef who was extremely knowledgeable with dishes to try, restaurants to visit, markets to visit it made it my favourite trip.  Our visit to her family restaurant in Kalamata was a special day.  Our cooking class did feature stuffed tomatoes and peppers and a delicious cheese cake.

Since I have returned home I have been given advice from a friend married to a Greek Cypriot and encouraged to make some of the dishes we enjoyed in Greece.

Next up is a food trip to Russia, Georgia and Armenia.  When I tell friends about a food trip Russia they look a bit bewildered……’Russia and a food trip? Maybe cabbage rolls or beetroot soup ‘ they comment!  I remain upbeat reminding them about the three days we are spending in st Petersburg before the trip and the vodka.  I have to admit it is my second trip to Russia or the USSR as it was then.  But that is another story.  Georgia is becoming a popular destination with wonderful wine and Armenia has such a history.  Roll on!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Breakfast

 

What do you have for breakfast?  Rick Stein recently  commented that his favourite breakfast in Greece was the yoghourt with local honey!  I cannot but agree.  This combination was SO good and I enjoyed it most days!

Toast, coffee, tea!  Fresh fruit in summer with Greek style yoghourt or rolled oats in winter with brown sugar with condensed milk (a favourite from my childhood) or a weekend bacon and eggs or today’s trendy avocado on chargrilled sourdough?  Or grab a muffin or croissant and coffee to go.

Breakfasts have changed over the years!  In fact almost anything goes! Cake! Sure or like one of my sons did not eat anything till morning tea (or recess) at school!

My preference is a slice or two of organic lemon with hot water which was something I inherited from my mother.  Something about getting rid of the toxins in your body I remember her saying!  No idea if this is correct but hopefully it can’t hurt!

Then depending on the day I will have some poached or fresh fruit and yoghourt ot toasted sourdough with honey or peanut butter!  Am not a fan of jam though I gave a notorious sweet tooth (always checking the dessert section of the menu before looking at entrees or mains!  So don’t judge me).  If I am hungry or have had a light dinner the previous evening it will be scrambled eggs or mushrooms on toast.

Fairly standard fare!

So when I travel overseas I am curious at the selection of hotel breakfasts or what the locals eat.  An expresso with a custard tart standing at the cafe counter in Portugal!  Pomegranate juice freshly squeezed with a sesame semit or bagel in Turkey..

Breakfast was included in most of out hotels served buffet style.   Olives, cheese, bread, tomatoes,  cucumber, sometimes sliced meats, bread, jams, butter, honey, pastries, yogurt, cake even and juice, tea and coffee.  It was convenient to have a hotel breakfast but it would have been fun to try a less international spread.  Some shakshuka perhaps or cilbir….the cold yogurt with garlic and a poached egg and butter.  Shakshuka is a great weekend brunch with a spicy tomatoes and capsicum stew with eggs added.  Both served with Tutkish bread.

Hotel breakfasts in Japan are fascinating and lovely with various little bowls of assorted food from rice, egg, fish, pickles, and miso soup.  I love it.  Congee is popular in Asian hotels which is a kind of rice porridge and very nutritious often served with egg or mushrooms.  I clearly remember a young Japanese student cutting up a slice of toast with a knife and fork. Fortunately he didn’t have to see me with chopsticks!

Scandinavian breakfasts too are delicious with their  crispbread with cheese and rollmops, pate, sliced meat, yogurt and fruit.  I find them very healthy and nutritious not to mention them delicious.

Next month I will be travelling….visa permitting to Russia, Georgia and Armenia.  What breakfast food will wait for us there.  Stay tuned!

 

 

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Kardamyli

 

 

Our last stay in Greece.  It was a stunning hotel in the village of Kardamyli where we enjoyed a cooking class.  The drive from Kalamata to Kardamyli was not for the fainthearted as it was a windy two lane road but worth the journey.  The cooking class featured some stuffed tomatoes and capsicum, some cheese pies and a dessert with yoghourt.  We needed more cooking classes!

The following morning we were advised not to wear a colorful clothing as our visit included a trip to an aviary (bee keeping) and olive groves.  Who knew bees did not like colours?

But first breakfast at our lovely hotel.  I could not believe seeing a friend from Australia.  Anne ..with whom I used to play tennis with about ten or more years ago.  I mean had I known Anne was staying here and with her identical twin I would have dressed up for the occasion.

Not only did I play tennis with these women  (of course I was a better player) but Anne’s son worked for my eldest son in Sydney and  her daughter is best friends with my daughter in law to be!  They were staying at the hotel celebrating their older sisters significant birthday.   What a delightful surprise!

Previously I had come across at an laundromat in Lisbon a young Aussie guy who had attended the same high school as did two of my sons in Sydney.  We had a great chat.  The world is getting smaller….

But here on our visit to learn about bees and olive oil we enjoyed a simply delicious treat with our coffee.  Freshly made galaktoboureko!  Still warm from the oven.  It is still on my list of ‘ must make’ back in Australia.  Heaven on a plate and I could have eaten the whole dish.

Our final dinner at the hotel was equally delicious including a cooking class in the kitchen.   Delicious food and wine and friends made.

It was a four hour comfortable bus trip back to Atlens with a stop at one of the most incredible man made canals one could imagine.  Having a fear of heights it made it difficult to me to photograph successfully especially with the wind….let alone bungy jump from this location.  I felt relieved that my youngest son wasn’t here to share this experience as I am sure the jump would have appealed to him.  The canal itself was built in the last century from Hungarian engineers.  The view was stunning however.

Onto Athens and overnight at the hotel where our trip started from ten days ago.  Drinks from the rooftop bar with a view of the Acropolis in the distance. New friends and cherished memories and a list of new dishes to make on our return.  Just the long trip home to face up to the realities of a normal life until next time.  Goodbye Greece!

 

 

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Kalamata…market and lunch

This perhaps is what I have been looking forward to most.  I love visiting markets in foreign countries and when you have a local showing it to you it is so much more interesting and fun!

But first a coffee and visit to maybe the prettiest sweet shop I have seen in a long time.  I chose a tin which was beautiful and contained chocolate coated fig and walnuts.  I could have done serious damage here but was mindful of my expanding backpack.  There were other cakes, biscuits and sweet treats.  Just add well we were being dragged off to the market!

We had samples of local produce….cheese, olives and bread washed down with some rose and yes maybe 11 am.  The produce from the vegetables, meats and freshly caught fish was starting to make us feel hungry and we headed back to lunch.  Our guide for the trip was called Sylvia and this was her family run and owned restaurant so it was special for all of us.  Her lovely mum, Anna was the chef and I think one of Sylvia’s brothers was the manager and owner.  I asked Sylvia how the financial situation in Greece affected their restaurant.  She said business was still good though customers perhaps had takeaway instead of eating in as they could could still have good food and would perhaps add a salad to their takeaway.  She said everyone really had to work harder for less.  Maybe the world over though I am pleased that Greece is a lovely country and tourism probably is what is keeping the country going.

Onto lunch though and the moussaka was as promised the best in Greece.  We shared some delicious vegetable dishes and the saganasi was more morish.  Wine was served in interesting metal containers which I purchased a few of to use as vases at home.  Dessert was perhaps my favourite of the trip and something I must learn to make when I return but only when I have friends to share it or I might eat it all.

Such a lovely lunch on a beautiful sunny day in a wonderful part of the world but we aren’t staying here.  Our last few days will be spent on the coastal town and we are off.  Next up Kardamyli on the rugged coastal region of the Mani Peninsula.  And a surprise awaits!

 

 

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