Scrumptious Sydney

Vibrant, busy, bustling…Sydney is truly a spectacular city bursting with life.

I arrived in Sydney during the exciting Vivid light event taking place. The entirety of the harbour was lit up every evening with a blazing feast for the eyes, and there was plenty to play around with too, from the movement activated light displays, to the Avatar-esque glowing plant forms.

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It was an easy couple of hours entertainment to wander around and soak up the lively weekend atmosphere.

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Sydney is also a great city for food. I’ve already mentioned my excursion to the famous Bourke Street Bakery, and the even-better La Renaissance Cafe Patisserie, but there are so many other gems out there I wish I had longer to explore them all.

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In The Rocks, a picturesque, historical area of Sydney, there were food stalls crammed into the streets, serving all forms of global cuisine. Next door, a kitsch German-themed bar catered to what looked like hundreds of happy beer-drinkers as they were served by dirndl and lederhosen garbed staff.

The flavours of the food were simple, punchy, and delicious. I had a beef steak sandwich on one occasion, and came back for the turkish gözleme the next. The gözleme strangely reminded me of the savoury flatbreads I sometimes make at home, only this was filled with cheese, spinach, and a spicy mixture of ground chicken. So one I might try to reproduce when I return home, although I am increasingly curious to know what kind of cheese they used for the filling….

To sate my sweet tooth, I also found heavy appreciation in polishing off a plate of miniature pancakes, topped with melted butter, icing sugar, sliced strawberries, and a squirt of whipped cream.

There were many other great foodie places, that sadly I just can’t list them all. Kudos goes to the bakery in Katoomba for their potato-and-rosemary pizza. Unusual toppings, but it worked so very well. Perfect after an invigorating hike in the Blue Mountains.

La Renaissance Cafe on The Rocks, Sydney

I’ve found pastry nirvana in Sydney. and it just so happened to be right on my doorstep.

This French bakery shines with its gorgeous, fresh and flavoursome produce. First I was hooked with their excellent almond croissants. Meltingly divine -a crisp sugary crust, buttery layers of pastry underneath, then finally the soft almond cream heart.

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I couldn’t resist going back to try their other creations. The pear danish was a sumptuous blend of sweet, tender fruit under a bed of crisp pastry.

Then came la piece de resistance – the tartlets. I picked traditional flavours – going for a glazed mixed fruit tart on a bed of creme patisserie, then a Valrhona chocolate tart with a peanut caramel filling. Both were sheer heaven.

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La renaissance cafe has given me some inspiration to continue improving my own baking. I could definitely anticipate adding a nutty caramel twist to a chocolate tart, or challenging myself by learning how to make creme patisserie for a tart filling, instead of plumping for easier alternatives.

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Bourke Street Bakery, Sydney

Bourke Street Bakery has an international reputation that surpasses any bakery in Australia. I knew as soon as I landed at the airport I would be paying Bourke Street a visit. Nestled in an inauspicious corner of Sydney, the premises are surprisingly tiny – the window crammed full of rustic breads and tarts. As it was lunchtime, I opted for savoury bake in the form of a cute quiche. The sweet offerings looked so tantalising I couldn’t resist and ordered two tarts – chocolate and a ginger creme brûlée.

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The quiche was very ordinary in taste, with a tough unamenable pastry crust. A little dissatisfied with that, I eyed up the two sweet tarts with trepidation.

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Well I needn’t have worried there, because they were brilliant. The chocolate tart had just the right balance of creamy, sweet and rich. The creme brûlée tart had a powerful ginger kick, with a delightful caramelised sugar crust and unctuous oozy creamy filling. I left knowing that just for that ginger creme brûlée tart, it had been worth it. I am now intrigued to know if the bakery publish a version of their recipe as I’d been keen to try it out!

Southern Paradise

The South Island of New Zealand, is without question, a scenic gem. Full of lush greenery, snowy mountains and miles of unspoilt scenery, it is a veritable heaven for hiking. Or hobbits, if it comes to that. You can definitely see why this is a popular location for filming.

I arrived in South Island by ferry by crossing the Cook Strait from Wellington. This part of the sea is infamous for storms and treacherous waters so thankfully my crossing was quite the opposite with clear sunny skies and calm seas. It was a treat coming into Marlborough Sounds.

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My first destination was the sleepy coastal town of Picton.

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Then onward bound to the nitty-gritty of my trip – deep into the beautiful regions of Mount Cook and Westland National Parks.

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I was lucky to get good weather while I was here although mist and cloud sometimes meant taking great photos wasn’t always possible!

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All the trails and walking routes are very clearly marked and maintained. They really range in difficulty too, you can walk anywhere from 10 minutes on a covered path, to a whole day on rough and rocky terrain. I’m not a very experienced hiker so I stuck to the middle, with easy-paced rambles of anywhere between 2 and 5 hours.

There were so many regions of the South Island I wish I had more time to explore. The glorious abundance of glacial lakes, wildlife watching, and the fjords of Milford Sound, for instance. There is an area near Lake Tekapo which boasts some of the clearest night skies in the world, making seeing the Milky Way a doddle. What could surpass that?

The reason all this is so difficult to fit in is mainly down to the fact that South Island is not easy to travel around. Roads are not built to take you anywhere quickly. I travelled by coaches,which have a very sparse timetable involving early mornings and long journeys. It also doesn’t give you much flexibility in travelling. If I came again I would definitely hire a car.

That’s not to say that the coaches weren’t still an excellent way of travelling about. Good opportunities to take a nap, an informative driver pointing out sights of interest en route, and pickups/drop offs right at the door of your youth hostel.

The youth hostels in New Zealand are friendly, clean, and well equipped, particularly the ones in the remoter parts of the country! Meeting other travellers was one of the highlights of my travels and swapping tales of all sorts of comedic mishaps whilst scrambling over rocks in the dark, peering for glow-worms was great fun!

For the wildlife lovers, there’s plenty to take in, from dolphin spotting, seal spotting, and swimming with whales if that takes your fancy!

I’d love to come back again, who knows?

Windy Welly

I arrived in Wellington on an overcast, grey sort of day, but the beauty of the contoured terrain still astounded me. I was greeted at the airport by some of the friendliest airport staff I’d ever met, which was already an excellent sign of what was to come! 🙂

The ‘Windy’ part of Welly didn’t really live up to its name when I was there. It was sunny, clear and the air was gorgeously warm and still. The harbourside was a buzz of weekend activity, and I got the chance to explore the stalls clustered around a small food market, polishing off a delicious lamb roti wrap on the way. Near the harbour is the renown Te Papa museum, and it was fantastically informative, full of interesting exhibitions on Maori culture, and the colonisation of New Zealand in the last couple of centuries.

Wellington’s parliament buildings are also worth a visit, especially to see the ‘Beehive,’ an unusual circular structure which is set in pretty garden surroundings. For a throwback of what train stations might have been like two hundred years ago, Wellington train station in all its unaltered simplicity is stunning.

I couldn’t leave Wellington without indulging in some movie geekery by paying a trip to the nondescript suburb of Miramar, and getting lost amongst warehouses and second-hand dealers. Miramar being home of the Weta workshop, which is most famous for the creation of the costumes and cinematic effects in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

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You’re not actually allowed entry into the workshop itself due to film confidentiality contracts, so the main visitor area is a small shop known as the Weta Cave attached to the side of the building. It is crammed full of exciting paraphernalia, and they screen a 25 minute behind-the-scenes film, which is a rather nice touch, but does also give yout the overwhelming urge to purchase a full size replica sword. I only managed to resist temptation by reminding myself that the airline wouldn’t have been too impressed by it.

Next post….exploring South Island….

Inside London Part 3 – Shopping

Shopaholics, delight! This is YOUR day out in London.
  • Begin the day early exploring Borough Market before all the tourists ram it packed. Don’t buy too much though, you need those arms for carrying more shopping bags later. If foodie shopping isn’t your thing, start the day off at Spitafields Market. Quirky stuff galore.
  • Admire the view of the Shard then head westwards to St Paul’s Cathedral. It’s worth a look, but don’t bother paying to go inside.
  • Head towards Covent Garden – it’s clustered with all manner of shops, quirky and posh. Don’t forget the shop dedicated to Moomins. There’s also a Laduree outlet here if you want to pick up some macarons.
  • From Covent Garden head up to Piccadilly circus. You can head towards Regent Street and Oxford Circus from here, where shops like Topshop have their flagship stores. Also Selfridges.
  • If Oxford Street or Regent’s Street don’t float your boat, head on the Underground and get the train to Sloane Square. You’re heading for the King’s Road in Chelsea.
  • Shop on the street where the rich and famous shop along. If you want to go for the big name designers, take right when you exit Sloane Square tube station, and head up Sloane Street. Gucci, Prada, Anya Hindmarch….you name it, they’ve got it. Harrods and Harvey Nichols are within walking distance.
  • Stop by the Saatchi gallery on the King’s Road if interested in art.
  • Stop at the Bluebird Cafe, or Beas of Bloomsbury along the King’s Road for a stylish spot of lunch, and to catch a breath.
  • Ready fuelled, head further along the King’s Road to West Brompton station.
  • Catch the overground train to Shepherd’s Bush, and head to Westfield Shopping Centre.
  • Then, exhausted with all that spending, finish the day off with dinner in one of the many many restaurants in Westfield.
  • Dump all your purchases home, and collapse!

Inside London Part 2 – Eating

So, this is the more Foodie Version, given that I do nom my way around London a fair bit. Still plenty of other tourist sights packed in for good measure though!
  • Again, begin the day early exploring Borough Market before all the tourists ram it packed, getting baking inspiration, and carrying away a loaf of gorgeous artisan bread, and something for lunch later. Or pay a trip to Maltby Street market, which is less touristy.
  • Then head for a appetite-inducing walk along the river towards Westminster. Head up the OXO tower and admire panoramic views of London.
  • Admire the quirky shops of Southbank, and the Houses of Parliament.
  • Cross Westminster Bridge, and head over towards St James Park. Have a nice picnic lunch here and feed any leftovers to the ducks and squirrels (but they are fat enough).
  • Admire Buckingham Palace and take some touristy photos.
  • Hire Boris bikes and head across Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens towards Notting Hill. Find a blue door and take a photo in front of it, pretending you are searching for Hugh Grant.
  • Wander the streets of Portobello Road Market, and pop into the Hummingbird Bakery or Primrose Bakery, or Ottolenghi for a slice of something sweet. Take back to Kensington Gardens, and nibble, keeping an eagle eye out for Kate Middleton strolling past.
  • Head down to South Kensington, and get a bit of culture at one of the museums there.
  • Head along Brompton Road towards Knightsbridge, and Harrods.
  • Find the Laduree boutique at the back of Harrods, and pick up a beautiful box of macarons as a tasty albeit French souvenir of your London trip.
  • Finally, finish off the day with fine dining at one of the many recommended restaurants that central London has to offer, including The Hawksmoor (Covent Garden), or The Harwood Arms (Fulham).
  • Walk off that wonderful dinner with a gentle stroll along the Thames.
  • Perhaps fit in a cheeky gelato from Oddono’s on Bute Street before they shut at 10/11pm.

Inside London Part 1 – Sightseeing

I love taking friends and family around the capital, and have a well established tourist route that I take them along. It’s great! I’ve given a very thorough example below, don’t feel like you have to do all of it, or you will be totally exhausted. But it gives a lot of ideas for the main attractions and a good geographical method to get around efficiently.
  • Begin the day early exploring Borough Market before all the tourists ram it packed, getting baking inspiration, and carrying away a loaf of gorgeous artisan bread, and something for lunch later.
  • Admire the view of the Shard, then head across the river to climb up Monument and admire the panoramic view of London.
  • Pop by St Paul’s Cathedral out of interest, but not worth paying the extortionate fees to go inside.
  • Picnic lunch in the form of goodies procured from Borough Market.
  • Ready fuelled, head over to Trafalgar Square, and soak up the atmosphere at the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery. Or if you are more gorily minded, head over to the Hunterian Museum.
  • Then give your legs a break by popping into the cafe under St-Martin-in-the-Fields and definitely try their apple crumble with generous dashings of custard. If apple crumble isn’t your thing, and you still have some energy in those legs, pop along to Chinatown, grabbing some bubble tea and a slice of Pandan chiffon cake on your way.
  • Then hire a Boris bike and cycle through Green Park and Hyde Park until you reach South Kensington. Admire Buckingham Palace along the way.
  • Get even more cultural education from the V&A, or the Science Museum or Natural History Museum.
  • Dinner somewhere like the Dutch Pancake House near High Street Kensington
  • Finally, an evening concert at the Royal Albert Hall, or a trip to the Piano Bar just further along High Street Ken to call the end to a busy busy day!

Melbourne? Meh

In Australia, you can expect a flurry of cheery greetings ranging anywhere from the stereotypical “G’day mate,” to the more commonplace “Hi, how ya doin’?”

I’ve been here for weeks but the latter still puzzles me. I can’t figure out whether you are supposed to respond with the full “Good thanks, how’re you?” or pretend there’s no question involved, and respond with an equally buoyant “What’s up?” Generally I get a funny look, whichever way I decide to go.

For Britons, Australia lingers in the mind as a former British colony, full of the descendants of Victorian felons, who got shipped halfway across the world for petty robbery. Modern Australia has shaken off its Old World roots, emerging with a whole new mindset, culture and personality of its own. Don’t expect to find a carbon-copy of Milton-on-Keynes here.

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Melbourne is a bustling modern city, with the usual accrouments that all major world urban destinations acquire. Galleries and museums abound. The European sections aren’t really worth your time – but there is an excellent array of Aboriginal and Australian art. The Melbourne Museum also holds a stunning collection of specimens, particularly the whale and dinosaur skeletons, and a preserved giant squid floating eeriely in a vat of formaldehyde.

The gardens are also lush, and well-kept, full of tropical foliage, eucalyptus trees, and at night – possums, possums, and more possums. I can’t help but think of them as a larger Australian equivalent of squirrels nosing around in the dark and crawling up and down the trees.

Melbourne has temperamental weather, so I’ve noted that jackets feature prominently in the local fashions, but the temperature never drops to chilling figures.

It was a shocker when I first arrived to note how expensive Australian goods are in comparison to London. Food prices in particular are very high, although it hasn’t stopped me sampling a variety of Australian food. I’ve enjoyed Tim-Tams, the Aussie cousin of Penguin bars in the UK – my favourites being the double-coating, caramel, and dark chocolate varieties.

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Oddly, traditional English tea-time treats don’t really feature much here, which is a real shame. I do miss the comforts of scones, Victoria sponges, lemon drizzle cake and buttery flapjacks. Browsing through local cookery books, they do pop up quite often so I can only assume they tend to be home-baked rather than sold in the shops. Organic food shops are stocked chock-a-block with imported European goods but they are worth a browse for all the wonderful types of local Australian honey.

The macaron is also extremely popular, and can be seen in most cafes. I admit I have been spoilt by having Laduree and Pierre Herme so close to hand, but the salted caramel macaron I tried in Melbourne was unfortunately very underwhelming, with an artifical sugary flavour. I also tried a Lamington in the museum cafe, which wasn’t anything to write home about.

Asian cuisine dominantes the Melbourne food scene. If you love Chinese/Korean/Japanese/Indonesian/Vietnamese/Thai cuisine, this is a dreamland for you as you will be spolit for choice when it comes to picking restaurants, cafes, bakeries, dessert parlours and bubble tea bars. Western cuisine has an American-slant so you are likely to see muffins and doughnuts in coffee shops, along with iced banana and carrot loaf cakes. There are also streets lined with Italian and Greek eateries. However, don’t expect to see too much in the way of quality French dishes unless you are prepared to pay through the nose for it.

There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of a home-grown Australian menu, but we did buy and cook a slab of kangaroo meat. It is dark red, and looks tough and man-meatilicious. I did have to sadly conclude that it is not a delicacy I would eat again, although I think fans of dark gamey meat might enjoy it.

Melbourne has many visitor attractions, but most tend to be packed full of schoolchildren on trips. Perhaps this is the jaded Londoner within me talking, but most of it is nothing new. The real gems of Victoria state are not in the city, but out in the National Parks and the bush.

A final note – birds are very aggressive in hawking (haha) for food. They can be found eagerly accosting you everywhere. Beware of them even when you are indoors, as you could inadvertently end up with more than you bargained for on your plate.

Guimauves and Gelato

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This short break in France has been a lovely rest from all the hustle and bustle that is normal daily life. It also provides a myriad of new-food-spotting opportunities. In between peering at picturesque chateaux, and pretty patisseries, I discovered a flavour sensation that had been jumping for joy.

It started in the form of an amazing gelato in the picturesque town of Amboise.

And finally, I hit the jackpot in pure, pure edible gold by discovering speculoos spread. It really reminds me of the cinnamon-sugar dusted pretzels you can buy in London. I can imagine manifold uses for it in baking, from a luscious filling between cakes, in tarts, as a component of cookies, or sandwiching plain biscuits together. On the other hand, sometimes the simplest ways are the best, and I love this spread lavishly over a slice of thick crunchy toast.

Holidaying in France

On a fashion-related note, I have seen many Frenchmen wearing stripy shirts, black moustaches AND berets. Seriously. I genuinely thought that only happened in cartoons…