Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | November 17, 2018

Decadent Dalí Dinner Extravaganza Featuring a Bush of Crayfish

DSC_0772Feeding frenzy: Finally we sit down to sample the Bush that Jane built

To distract me from several unsavoury episodes at the dentist, my friend Jane Ripley offered to do something special for my birthday. Involving teeth for the more pleasurable activity of mastication, she proposed a Decadent Dalí Dinner.

Jane has a book you see: Les Diners de Gala. This was Salvador’s collection of recipes first published in 1974 and thoughtfully reissued by Taschen. It was up to me to choose the menu, but I knew in my waters that Jane had a hankering to sculpt something in prawns, in this case the Bush of Crayfish with Viking Herbs.
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Raw materials

We learnt a number of things from doing this. Firstly, the Vikings really liked dill. Secondly, prawns/crayfish poached in a broth containing cognac is a Very Good Thing. Thirdly, the cabbage does not make a stable base for a Bush of Crayfish and when the sodding thing has been assembled and then it falls over, then that is Very Bad Thing. Especially for an ancient damask tablecloth.

Allez, to the recipes. Yes, I realise Salvador was Spanish, but many of his recipes seem to have come from Parisian restaurants such as Maxim’s. And while my French is pretty mal, my Spanish is non-existent. On y va.

This is the book. Lovely shiny – decadent even – gold cover.
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Research and recipes. With cognac
The Bush of Crayfish with Viking Herbs is a recipe from a Parisian restaurant called La Tour d’Argent. After sharing it, the chef decided he didn’t want to share it, so the description of how to make it is rather vague. Ingredients are mentioned – though not in any specific quantities, and method is practically non-existent. Research was required.
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Here is Jane surrounded by cookbooks trying to figure out proportions of wine, vermouth and cognac for the broth (or bisque). This is a very First World set of problems. Then you may well cry: BUT WHAT ABOUT THE HERBS? C’est difficile, aussi.

A great deal of shopping was required.
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Somehow we struggled on. Jane valiantly trudged around Notting Hill and Holland Park looking for shellfish, a saddle of lamb for the main course, and some chestnut puree to make the dessert. Here is the menu with insights courtesy of Dalí.
Menu

This was a man with a very strong stance on spinach. To be exact, he hated “that detestable degrading vegetable”. He loathed it “because it is shapeless, like Liberty.” So no spinach then. We did have asparagus, which I think was OK, because there was a photo of it in the book. I can’t imagine Salvador would have let that happen if he had no fond place in his heart for greenery that could hold its shape. He really was very particular about food. He wanted to make a table out of boiled eggs so he could eat it afterwards. Go Cool Hand Dalí.

We figured out that crayfish would taste good in a broth of fish stock with 2 cups of wine, half a cup of Noilly Prat and half a cup of cognac. I imagined that drinking of cognac would be required at some point too.
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Herbs were needed. Vikings really loved dill, so that was a given, and after puzzling over a few books, Jane made a microbush of thyme and dill to be lowered into the broth. Et voila.
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The prawns/crevettes/crayfishy things were added.
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And cooked. Then the pot was put outside to cool where Wolfie and Cheekymouse, the Burmese cats who come to visit, gave it their seal of approval by trying to get at the contents. They were foiled by two bricks. Not on the cats, on the pot.
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Stuffing was required for the saddle of lamb. This meant chopping a lot of mushrooms, and then cooking them down, before adding chopped pâté. Foie gras was in the recipe, but duck pâté was a palate and wallet-satisfying substitute.
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Here’s the saddle of lamb au naturel.DSC_0720.JPG

The lamb bones were used to make stock.
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The lamb avec its stuffing.
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Bush of Crayfish Construction
This proceeded in a number of stages. Firstly, there was the matter of the core skewer and in what it might be inserted. A pumpkin was an early contender.
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Then the focus moved to a cabbage. Wrinkly tomatoes and some peppers were procured to form the middle section.
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Broccoli was poached in lemony water. Broccoli had to be in there, as I am highly regarded as a connoisseur of broccoli. Even my front page when I left The Times featured broccoli.
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Build it and they will come for dinner

Jane attempted a decorative base. This looked attractive, and then it fell over. Jane studied set design, worked on theatre productions and even decorated sets for John Cleese’s training films, but bending crayfish to her will in time for me and our lovely guests to eat them was a challenge.
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There were four main stages:
1. Partial construction with cabbage base, followed by collapse and minor damage to tablecloth.
2. Full construction with cabbage base followed by total collapse, frustrated muttering and more damage to tablecloth.
3. Construction with tomato base. Euphoria, followed by complete collapse, anguished shrieking and tablecloth decimation.
4. Final construction with extremely large onion base. This time the fucker stays where it is put. Yaay.
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Cabbage base: A good look, until it fell over

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Cabbage discarded: Looking good with a tomato base and slightly prawny tablecloth

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Nearly there …

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Yeah baby!

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Leaning tower of crayfish … Blame it on the broccoli

And then it fell over, which meant prawny juice everywhere and starting again.
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Finally! And not falling over, though tablecloth is a bit damp

When we thought it was safe to approach the table was set.
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Note the citrus used as ballast

We have many dishes to put on the tablecloth so prawny stains are not a major issue. Phew.
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Jane is happy the Bush of Crayfish is not falling over

Feeding the people

In the midst of crayfish chaos, guests arrived. Here are Richard, Lyndall and Michael with their Dalí Dribbles wondering if they will ever get fed something apart from crisps.

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Here I am, looking slightly crazed. Possibly I am just really hungry.
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The eyeliner is a tribute to Dalí. I was going to draw on a moustache, but that might have put people off their food. I am holding a Dalí Dribble, which is a great colour for a decadent cocktail. Maybe it needed a crayfish garnish.

Oh yes, the food: The crayfish/prawns were pronounced delicious. All that alcohol produced a stonking good broth too. Lyndall was having a month off drinking alcohol, but we made sure she ate plenty of it, as it was in the crayfish, the lamb sauce, and the dessert. Lyndall has been known to cook with alcohol though – I have eaten her Beer Bum Chicken.

When everyone had stuffed themselves into a mild stupor with cognaccy crustaceans, it was time for the lamb. Look away now, vegetarians.
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We put Michael to work and made him carve it.
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Twas a thing of beauty with its filling of diced mushroom and pâté. Cheekymouse was scratching at the back door demanding a slice, but he would have to wait for leftovers. C’etait magnifique!

Chocolate
This is my main criterion when it comes to dessert and Dalí came through with a chocolate, chestnut and rum concoction. The prunes on the top were soaked in rum too.
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It was marvellously moist and chocolatey, as I think most food should be. I would build a table out of this and eat it.

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A bit of birthday sparkle

DSC_0832.JPGWith fruit and no flour, it’s almost healthy

The Decadent Dalí Dinner was anointed a wonderful success: great to eat, and plenty of discussion points to chew over later. While this menu might be a little more taxing than the average person might consider for a mid-week supper, the individual dishes were not that difficult. Especially once we’d figured out the components. They are definitely all worth cooking – and eating – again.

As an added bonus, this meal was quite light on carbs. We were going to have bread, but we forgot to buy it and then we found we didn’t need it. Of course we did have cake – I think Marie Antoinette would have approved.

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Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | July 10, 2018

Italian summer eating in the City

sat 10

Happy hens, muscular salmon cured with Maldon sea salt and a jazzy film-inspired soundtrack are just some of the ingredients that make Satyrio wine shop and restaurant a great spot to stop off for a taste of Italia.

I was invited to the launch of Satyrio’s summer menu in Aldgate last week and behind the restaurant’s unassuming facade lies great culinary skill courtesy of chef Danny Martin and many, many bottles of fine wine. Like wonderful restaurants I have visited in Italy, Satyrio is proud to display its alcoholic wares on the wall, and I say a wall full of wine is just about the best kind of wall there is.

The a la carte menu is more extensive, but the tasting menu comprised five dishes that were full of deep flavour, yet light enough to be enjoyed during a heatwave. Many of the ingredients are sourced in Italy, or in partnership with High Quality Food, a supplier that works with local farmers and producers to deliver specialty ingredients.

First was a velvety beef tartare and creamy burrata, the tender yet full-bodied texture of the beef a product of grass-fed Fassone cattle roaming the foothills of northern Italy looking for pasture.

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The second starter was a delicious sculpture of Maldon Salt-cured Scottish salmon, with avocado mousse, a tiny sweet melon and balsamic vinegar pearls, which was exquisitely arranged and with lots of complementary flavours.

sat 14

The pasta course was al dente ravioli parcels of intense mushroom cream with parmesan crisps, crunchy crumbs of Norcia sausage and shaved truffle. The firm pasta was made with Italian eggs from the Uova di Fattoria, where hens are comforted by ceramic duplicates so they lay fewer but more nutritious eggs. It was delightfully earthy.

sat 7

The main was “Italian sushi” – Sicilian red tuna dressed with oil and pink pepper, a rice tuile and horseradish mayo. This seafood treat could be enjoyed knowing that the red or bluefin tuna is a species that has not been overfished. Like everything else, this dish was impeccably assembled.

sat 5

No matter how much I have eaten, there is always room for dessert. Not that it was difficult to make room for Rhapsody in Red – a celebration of the summer strawberry. In particular this dish features dried perfumed Tortona strawberry on the light cheesecake, accompanied by strawberry sorbet and nutty base. The Tortona strawberry is only available for around 10 days a year, and is a sought-after specialty of Piemonte. It was my first encounter with this berry and I hope there will be many more.

It was a splendid meal in convivial surroundings, with an imaginative dimension thanks to the dishes’ titles and their pairings with music, courtesy of Monica Olivieri. If you are in the Aldgate area, or anywhere in the City, and need an infusion of delectable Italian fare, then Satyrio should not disappoint.

Satyrio Wine Shop & Italian Cuisine: 49 Aldgate High St, London EC3N 1AL
http://satyrio.co.uk/

Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | October 10, 2016

More eating in France

Platter of Auvergne cheeses especially for moi at Le Tour du Chateau. In the centre, a blue cheese ice cream on pear puree. Orbiting this, a cube of Cantal, crispy garlic and goat cheese log, comtesse de Vichy on a bun

Platter of Auvergne cheeses especially for moi at Le Tour du Chateau. In the centre, a blue cheese ice cream on pear puree, then above and left, a cube of cantal, right, crispy garlic and goat cheese log, and finally, comtesse de Vichy on a bun

In July I went to Auvergne again, consuming my way frequently and enthusiastically, through some of the region’s great restaurants. Here’s a piece I wrote about that for A Luxury Travel Blog.

Auvergne is a lovely area, with cheese to make a vegan weep. Despite having dormant volcanoes and beautiful countryside, the area has not been the focus of much tourist activity. This could change, now that Lonely Planet has put Auvergne on its “must visit” list for 2016. Meanwhile, it offers exceptional value for money in accommodation. Excellent meals at just around or nestling below the level that attracts stars in guide books are also extremely reasonably priced for the quality.

Montpeyroux perches on a hilltop and is one of “les plus beaux villages de France”.

Along with the volcanoes begging energetic types to hike them, Auvergne is also home to many charmingly picturesque villages such as Montpeyroux and Charroux. Moulins, capital of the Allier department, presents a fascinating architectural core crammed with cobblestones and historic buildings, and also features a museum of essentially religious haute couture that designer Christian Lacroix visits regularly for inspiration.

Moulins, once the seat of the powerful dukes of Bourbon

Moulins, once the seat of the powerful dukes of Bourbon

Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | February 4, 2016

Baby, there’s cheese outside

Countries where I’ve previously done Christmas include Italy, South Africa and Nepal, but now I can add France and its transformational dairy to the list.

It was cold (even in the south), but there was so much amazing cheese – enough to clog my arteries till the end of time – that I didn’t care. There was also incredible paté on offer, and palate-caressing dessert wine at the village supermarché for tres petit €4 a bottle. I had forgotten how intensely satisfying even simple French food could be. It was a like a dream – for the first couple of days after I arrived paté and wine were thrust at me from all directions (and totally in a good way).


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Accommodation was a gracious Provencal semi-chateau (above), surrounded by vineyards and also occupied by various beasts: dogs, a cat, a mud-covered horse and some chickens. I had to come to grips with driving on the other side of the road, but as the car was the only way of reaching the site where all the cheese had congregated, it had to be done.

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So much cheese …

Among the triumphs of this visit were driving to St Tropez, not getting mugged in Marseille, and a conversation at a bus stop. Information was exchanged! I said something in French, a French person understood, replied and I actually processed in a meaningful way what they said back. I felt a bit like Helen Keller with her hand under that tap realising the possibilities of communication.

grubby horse

One day, when it stops raining, the body of this horse will be the same colour as its head

Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | June 11, 2014

Japan: Neon-lit steps in a dark place

True brew: Sake bottles at a distillery and restaurant in Takayama

True brew: Sake bottles at a distillery and restaurant in Takayama

On this trip I spent seven weeks in Japan, and while I had some good experiences, I’m not sure I shall return. There were a number of things that disappointed me, though that is probably my own fault for having certain misconceptions about the country.

I first visited in 2002 spending most of my time in Tokyo with friends who had lived there for two years and learnt as much as they could about a country still little visited by tourists.

What has changed, or what I think has changed, since then
The Japanese have discovered baked goods. When I was first in Tokyo every second shop was a hairdresser dyeing inky Japanese hair a kind of rust colour. Now every second shop is a boulangerie, selling pastries and bread. The Japanese also like cheese now. It’s a good thing they still eat small portions, otherwise they would soon resemble fugu, the round poisonous puffer fish they love to nibble.

Japanese food is not healthy. It’s full of MSG that made my ears buzz. After hunting for stereo equipment that didn’t exist in the middle of the night, I concluded my hearing was shot. Then I discovered tinnitus is a symptom of excess MSG.

I no longer think Japan is technologically advanced. Due to protectionism and corruption, a traveler cannot buy a SIM card in Japan, and their homegrown phones don’t work very well, though when you are reduced to using a payphone, this is all academic. They haven’t really embraced the web either – wifi is scarce and to use the “free” wifi in Kyoto you have to give a credit card number online. (The answer to that is no.) There are passes you can buy, but again only online even if you are in one of their retail outlets. Flexibility is not a big feature in Japan. To use the wifi in a Starbucks you need to register first. By email. Somewhere else.

The train services are great, but can cost as much as flying. If you don’t want to pay a premium for the Shinkansen, a journey can take hours and hours and hours by local trains, using railway lines which seem to be privately owned.

Japan is more welcoming to tourists than it was, but not that much. You look at the Japan National National Tourism Organisation and it is full of press releases talking about boosting tourism and yet the body is absolutely useless. I wasted a lot of time contacting them hoping for some support and despite around 30 emails I got nowhere. I had a commission from a magazine to do an article for an airline magazine – the kind of article most organisations dealing with tourists are desperate to be part of – and in the end I had to abandon it. Most people I contacted didn’t even bother to reply. It was very disappointing, not to mention rude.

Japan’s hotels largely do not seem to understand hospitality. The most accommodating staff were in casual youth hostel type establishments. Possibly service is more adept in the very expensive five star hotels, but as a solo traveler I was not frequenting those. I had an introduction to a marketing person at an international high-end hotel chain and he took weeks to reply and then was not at all helpful

One upmarket ryokan I stayed at almost chased me back into the street because I committed the crime of arriving at 2.45pm and check-in was at 3pm. Arriving at the YMCA in far northern Burma at 4am in the rainy season I was treated more graciously. Another ryokan had a printed sheet instructing guests to arrive after 4pm, and to “leave before 10am”. So much for a relaxing stay, you’re barely there before you have to leave again. (Yesterday I left a hotel in Malaysia which arranged a late check-out at 3pm with no fuss at all.) And this ryokan charged me when I was leaving for using the onsen (hot bath) even though my room did not have a bathroom attached – a surprise considering what I was paying.

I expected to find charming country towns outside Tokyo. Largely, these do not exist, except for Takayama, near the Japan Alps, which is worth visiting. Most of Japan is full of nondescript modern development and a lot of concrete – well there are about 100,000 construction companies in Japan that need to be kept busy.

I had thought the Japanese were really well educated. Having spent time this trip with a teacher at a Japanese school who filled me in on what happens at a Japanese education establishement, I now think Japanese students are extremely well socialised to devote themselves to work within groups, while accepting permanent exhaustion and dull, dead-end jobs.

These conclusions were aided by reading Dog and Demons: Tales From the Dark Side of Japan by Alex Kerr, which really helped me make sense of what I was seeing: a country that is on one hand extremely disciplined and advanced, and on the other, stuck in the Dark Ages.

Japan has a terrible environmental track record, they burn a lot of their garbage and Fukushima is a mess – the worst nuclear accident in 25 years and an ongoing source of contamination that is not under control.

Still, getting a good look at Mt Fuji was nice. Although with the cryogenically cold weather and the toxic food, it took me weeks to recover after I left the country – infected toes, a blocked ear, laryngitis and a cough I could not shift.

Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | February 14, 2014

Japan: Fried food and freezing temperatures

Shinsekai: This kind of seedy is fine with me, at least there is plenty to eat

Shinsekai: This kind of seedy is fine with me, at least there is plenty to eat

Nothing prepared me for how cold it was in Osaka. I’d been to Japan before in winter and recall nothing of my feelings about the weather (unlike, say the whale restaurant in Shibuya and Otto-san and his stuffed dog in Nagano).

But I will never forget how cold I am now. Yesterday I wore six layers, including two fleeces, and I was still cold. I don’t remember feeling this cold in the Arctic Circle when it was 30 below.

The Japanese think it is cold too, though they are not wearing as many clothes as me. Maybe four years of living in the Tropics have ruined me for places with more than one season. Today I looked out the window and it was snowing and all I could think was: “Damn, wet feet.” By then I was in Kyoto and though told it doesn’t snow in Kyoto, well, the weather had other ideas.

Apart from being freezing, Osaka is nice in an orderly built-up kind of way – rather grey in winter with a rather overwhelming amount of concrete. However the shops are colorful, especially near the “youth area” of Amerika Mura. And everything is so clean and the public transport is really well organised.

Giant sushi: All you can handle

Giant sushi: All you can handle

It is said Osakans spend more on food than anything else, and there are plenty of dining opportunities to help this happen. I was researching street food for an article and a nice man called Toshio was showing me around, introducing me to okonomiyaki (the Japanese “pizza” with lots of cabbage), and takoyaki (octopus balls).

After seeing Shitennoji Temple, I told him we had to eat more, so we headed to Doutonburi Street, where crowds gather beneath neon and signs in the shape of food (giant crab, cow, octopus, sushi, puffer fish).

Big decisions: What if they only have 80 tidbits that can be dipped in batter and deep-fried?

Big decisions: What if they only have 80 tidbits that can be dipped in batter and deep-fried?

We found queues besides takoyaki stalls – it is fair to say that Osakans love balls. And kushikatsu – stuff on skewers, battered and cooked in hot oil. It is fair to say I ate my own weight in fried food that afternoon.

Later Toshio took me to see Shinsekai, a postwar development that is now considered a little seedy by the Japanese, which means the rest of us won’t even notice. This place is the kushikatsu center of the universe, with illuminated mobile menus outside most restaurants advertising their fat-soaked morsels. There is all kinds of food here, but kushikatsu is a big draw. One place, with a giant smiley chef holding a skewer stuck to the front of the building, had more than 100 kushikatsu varieties, from meat to lotus root to ice cream. One menu had eight kinds of pork (fatty belly, heart, stomach, ears, etc) waiting to be battered.

Where the snacks are: Giant gyoza

Where the snacks are: Giant gyoza

To finish off a full day of new experiences, Toshio and I drove through the red light area. It seemed silly not to – it was right by my hotel. Even this was clean and tidy and appeared to be well organised. Small groups of mostly young men were wandering around looking sheepish through a small grid of streets. These featured ground floor “shops” which were open to the night, with an older madam type in a kimono and a comely young miss in lingerie/nurse’s uniform/skimpy frock sitting on a Hello Kitty cushion behind her.

The women looked very attractive, the madams looked business-like. I imagine they were rather cold sitting out there like that and just wished those young men would get over themselves and make their minds up already. Though at $300 a pop, I guess you want to make sure you get the sexual fantasy and kawaii (cute) soft furnishings.

Then it was back to the Hotel Mikado, which I’d found on the internet. It’s popular with travelers of all kinds and I can see why – it’s clean, the staff are very friendly and speak good English, and the price is very reasonable. It has computers and a laundry and even a small kitchen. I liked it, though there was little sound insulation and I found the futon on the floor a bit thin after staying with an American friend who believes in comfort.

My room being on the 7th floor, I had to go down to the ground floor for a shower, which probably wouldn’t suit everyone, but there was plenty of hot water and clean towels. The hotel even provides a robe and slippers so you can travel around with minimal inconvenience. If you are a light sleeper, I would recommend the top (8th) floor, maximum distance from the lift and the ding ding dinging microwave.

Arriving in Osaka the plane was late. We were delayed leaving LCCT in KL (and after I was thinking good thoughts about Air Asia being punctual). Instead of making up as much lost time as possible, the Captain got on the loudspeaker and wittered on interminably about which way he’d go when he entered Taiwanese airspace and what speed he’d be going when he got to Osaka. He woke me up and I have trouble sleeping on planes, so I was cross to be disturbed by such utter drivel (subsequently translated into two more languages). The whole thing took about 20 minutes. By then I was too angry to sleep anymore.

So we landed at 11pm and there was a huge panic to get out of the airport and catch a train into town, as I imagined taxis would be extremely expensive (and I was right). The guy next to me was not happy either, he had to catch a train to another area altogether and pessimistically said it would take an hour to get through customs.

I’ve never spent an hour getting through customs and I wasn’t going to start now. I barreled through the airport in about quarter of an hour, with enough time to harass the poor ticket man and get him to call the hotel and tell them I was on my way, having read something about check-in finishing at midnight.

Then I reached Namba, and was supposed to catch the subway – I had maps and everything! Of course it was finished, and I had to take a cab, which cost $16 to travel about one train stop. Then we couldn’t find the hotel, and he switched the meter off while we frowned at my map. Anyway, I got there and the hotel was a heaving hive of activity and I met a young nice young guy on reception, who was from Tokyo but spoke great English with an American accent and knew more about Osaka than all the other people I met put together.

Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | January 22, 2014

Myanmar: Ayeyarwady revisited, part four

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It was in Burma, after some of the most uncomfortable and yet memorable journeys of my life that I felt like a real traveler. Having seen northern Myanmar via accident-prone trains and leaky boats – and generally the only Western foreigner in sight – it was a very different experience to cruise the Ayeywarwady aboard Road To Mandalay, a German-built vessel that was shipped to Myanmar nearly two decades ago. During rainy season, when water is high, the ship goes as far north as Bhamo, the trading post just 50 miles from China.

DSC_0727Most tourists don’t go much further north than Mandalay – there are no lattes and pillow menus in this part of the world. The stars and the sunsets are incredible though, and Bhamo is a pleasant town with two Chinese-style hotels foreigners might comfortably stay in. One, the Friendship, I sampled three years ago. The guide book said it had plenty of hot water and it didn’t, but it was fine for a night of restless sleep before I boarded the government ferry next morning at 6am.

As for places to eat recommended by my popular guide book, the dumplings at the tea house were doughy and had been sitting around for hours, and the curried chunks of meat at the Indian restaurant were about as tender as an old bit of goat’s hoof. As literally the only Caucasian in town, I was something of a novelty. I feared for motorcyclists so busy looking at me that they forgot to look at the road or where they were going.

Passing through the second defile (gorge)

Passing through the second defile (gorge)

Road To Mandalay always had hot water, dispensed four-course meals from the daily menu in the evening (with cheese), afternoon tea, Bulgari toiletries, and even a small pool on the top desk where passengers were known to gather for drinks in the afternoon, or even nap while pretending to watch the scenery. RTM, part of the Orient-Express stable) is a floating boutique hotel and comfortable by any standards, and about 100 times more comfortable than anything ashore. You don’t get to have as many interactions with locals of course, but you get to see plenty. Westerners are a source of huge entertainment. One of the other passengers carried his small blond son on his shoulders through the local market and caused a sensation amongst the women (yes, everyone working in the market was female – I have no idea what the men were doing).

Whenever we went ashore for an excursion we never had to walk more than about 15 steps without the staff setting up a table with drinks and snacks. I think my only complaint would be that it couldn’t really be Burma without feeling hot and sweaty while bumping over a goat track for ten hours and fishing a piece of chicken out of a few inches of oil at a cafe along the way. (There isn’t much refrigeration, so the oil is a preservative. This isn’t an issue on the ship, which has refrigeration for food and air-conditioning for people.) For those who don’t enjoy goat tracks and repetitive meals, RTM is utter joy. The staff take such good care of you I wasn’t sure I would be able to travel again when I had to be responsible for my own belongings or go more than an hour without local delicacies, juice of the day or wiping my brow with a chilled towelette. My usual refreshment is lukewarm water sucked out of a plastic bottle.

DSC_0890The first day meant rising at 4am for an early, but fabulous breakfast (brie! parma ham! olives!) at The Governor’s Residence, Orient-Express’s hotel in Yangon. RTM’s maiden voyage in Myanmar was in January, 1996 – the company are not newcomers to Myanmar and have always had a steady clientele, though no doubt they will be even more successful now Burma is such a popular destination. OE offerings are not cheap, but if you want to see the country – especially the northern part – in relaxing comfort, you can’t go wrong here. Plus the food is great and really varied. There are Burmese staples to try like mohinga (fish or lentil soup, that most Burmese eat for breakfast), and tea leaf salad, but dishes from other parts of Asia and appealing Western food such as rack of lamb and foie gras as well.

Traveling around on my own I wasn’t overly inspired by what was on offer in the eating department. The street food, including intestines on sticks, is often covered with flies, and at cafes the choices were generally limited. Usually I ate the chicken set – curried chicken under a layer of oil, with some curried or pickled vegetables, soup and rice. There is a restaurant in Yangon called Monsoon and it serves well-crafted dishes in a heritage mansion – that was probably the best meal I had in the former capital. It’s recommended as a place to try good Burmese food in pleasant surroundings.

All-purpose river: Bathers on the banks of the Ayeyarwady

All-purpose river: Bathers on the banks of the Ayeyarwady

I’ve seen videos of foodie people extolling the joys of Burmese cuisine, but no one I’ve known who went – including one who was there last month – raved about the food. (I won’t talk about the cockroach eggs someone I know found in fried rice). If you are going to find good local cooking, it will be at lunchtime, apparently, when dishes are fresh.

In a video I saw someone helping themselves to a selection of cooked dishes at a kind of street restaurant, but I never saw a selection like that. In 2010 most people were very poor, and they ate poor people’s food, ie lots of rice and noodles. There probably is great local food but I didn’t find it.

Three years after my first visit, the Burmese did look better fed and the markets were full of produce. At the markets you will see items you won’t see anywhere else, including strange fruit that makes the Burmese feel unwell, though this isn’t enough to stop them eating it. I wasn’t tempted.

The itinerary

We flew to Mandalay and boarded the ship, then we went to the ancient city of Sagaing. This was a quick visit as we had to set sail up the river. The Ayeywarwady is also known as the “national highway” of Myanmar and to see the country by boat is to see it as the Burmese have seen it for centuries. Transport wise, it was the backbone of the country. In the Twenties the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company was the largest fleet of river boats in the world, consisting of more than 600 vessels carrying some 9 million passengers a year.

The locals turn out to see the dancing girls and the strange white people when we arrive at Naba

The locals turned out to see the dancing girls and the strange tourist people when we arrived at Naba

We sailed north, stopping at Nwe Nyein village famous for its pottery, Kyan Hnyat village where OE supports a school, and at Katha, the town George Orwell was stationed at and described in his first book, Burmese Days. In Katha during two stops we saw Orwell’s house, the lively local market and took a train (90 minutes to go 15 miles) through teak forest to a small town where we were greeted with a band and dancing girls like we  were a time-warped delegation inspecting a corner of the Raj-era Empire. There was coffee served in OE china at the station (very Raj) and a kind of cocktail service on the train going back. When I was on the overnight train three years earlier you had to buy a bowl of water at a train station if you wanted to wash your hands.

Then up to Bhamo and a walk around town to be surprised at a local bakery with biscuits, beer and sparkling wine. We stood in the street drinking the wine from flutes, taking photos of each other and all the locals who came to watch and it was quite surreal – in a good way. Big improvement on doughy dumplings.

Heading south we stopped at Katha again, admiring its golden pagoda shimmering in the water at night, passed through the gorges of the Second Defile, and pampered passengers got a taste of real Burma on rattly buses to visit some elephants. Hundreds of people turned out to see us and the elephants. Maybe it was mainly the elephants, but they were all along the riverbank when we went back to the boat and there weren’t any elephants there. We rode the elephants (better in a basket than just bareback), and I think the elephants had quite a nice time. Mostly they just stood there while a group of people fed them pounds and pounds of bananas and balls of tamarind and salt. Tamarind balls are like elephant candy.

DSC_0419Then it was back to Mandalay, Burma’s second city which is not as romantic as its name might suggest. Still, there are views from Mandalay Hill, the “craft” street where workers suck down lungfuls of marble dust sculpting Buddhas, and my favorite, the Mahamuni Buddha Temple, where the Buddha’s legs grow ever fatter from the gold pressed onto them. And of course in the afternoon we visited the U Bein Bridge, where we were greeted with chilled towelettes and sparking wine, which is a pleasant accompaniment to paddling by the longest teak bridge in the world. Last time I was there we spent more time here, walking the bridge and drifting about in the boat, but we had a lot of pack in that day. And as always aboard RTM, there was another large meal to pack in that evening.

By that stage of the trip I’d made some good friends, including an irreverent Australian couple who made me laugh over dinner most evenings. Our waiter “William” came to know us quite well and we had a good laugh with him too. His name wasn’t William actually, despite his gold badge. He eventually confessed when we remarked on the non-Burmeseness of this appellation that it wasn’t his badge but it was the only one he could find to complete his uniform. When he approached each night with two kinds of rolls and sesame bread sticks, we’d just say: “Sticks, William!” and then cackle like deranged parrots. He probably thought we were mad, but at least we were mad in a jolly sort of way. I looked forward to seeing his smiley face each night.

DSC_0537The staff were lovely. So helpful and courteous, and not in a sycophantic way. It appeared most of them genuinely loved working on this boat and you could feel it. Many had been offered promotions to work on OE’s new ship, the Orcaella, but most had refused.

After Mandalay we sailed to Bagan, number one tourist site in Myanmar. It was a photograph of its temples swathed in an otherworldly mist that inspired me to go to Burma in the first place. Last time I’d traversed the area in a pony cart drawn by a small, grumpy stallion called Rambo. This time we had an air-conditioned bus and our knowledgeable guide San pointed out many interesting features in the temples that I would have missed on my own. The smell I remembered from temples before was that of bat poo; some of these smelt much more pleasantly of jasmine. There were many golden images of Buddha to admire.

DSC_0545We did sunset at a temple I remembered from before; the steps were steep, but the views were worth it. Early next morning we went to another temple and saw a man ploughing a field with oxen. I felt very privileged to have the opportunity to see this beautiful place again. Later we visited Shwezigon Pagoda and the town of Nyuang U, and its busy market. Everyone looked very well fed, as we were on the ship before an optional trip to Mt Popa.

In 2010 I was watching TV in a crumbly hotel in a hill station near Mandalay, and it was like watching the BBC in 1975. There was a black and white soap opera I thought was made in 1974, except then I noticed the characters were using mobile phones (which are now much more readily available in Burma; they were really expensive in 2010).

Between programs there were panoramic shots of Myanmar, including a cork-shaped mountain with pagodas on the top. This was Mt Popa, a volcanic plug inhabited by spirits (or nats) with a lot of steps covered in monkey poo. It actually looks more impressive from a distance, and this time we didn’t go up, we went to a resort near by with excellent views.

That was the conclusion of the tour and that night was the farewell dinner, preceded by a cocktail party and an elephant dance on the top deck.  I said “Sticks, William!” for the last time, and we had a lively meal, tinged with a little sadness. I always feel said at the end of a good trip, and this one I enjoyed almost as much for the gracious hospitality as for the opportunity to revisit Myanmar.

DSC_0634

Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | January 8, 2014

Myanmar: Ayeyarwady revisited, part three

Teak experience: I was happy to see the U Bein bridge again, equipped with a better camera

Teak experience: I was happy to see the U Bein bridge again, equipped with a better camera

The night before I left for Myanmar I couldn’t sleep. I had to fly to Bangkok, then fly to Yangon. I’ve flown to Yangon before – it’s quite short, and an essential part of the journey as you can’t enter the country overland. The first time I went I reached the airport at 5am and there was a cockroach on my hat when I stepped out of the grubby minivan I’d taken from Khao San Rd. I’d been sitting next to a Japanese scientist doing research at Oxford in the UK, and he’d fallen asleep and banged his head on the window every time we hit a bump, so I was pretty sure his brains had been bumped out by the time we reached Suvarnabhumi Airport.

That first time, as I sat on the cold and half-empty plane, to land and echo through a surprisingly modern but almost empty airport, I was quite nervous of what I would find. It was a bit like visiting South Africa; I’d read so much that the country had become more alien rather than more familiar. At a point of information overload you start to wonder if buildings will even sit on the Earth in this strange beleaguered country the way they do elsewhere.

As it turned out, Yangon looked rundown, and was the place where cars of the Eighties came to splutter and die, but otherwise it seemed like a fairly normal Asian city. At least on the surface. I don’t why I was so nervous the second time, I was being met, I knew exactly where I am going, but my departure anxiety seems to be getting worse. Or I was just a bit strung out by recent events.

There was a time when I was super casual about catching flights, but that was before cattle on train tracks and breakdowns (mechanical) and strikes and huge delays and 9/11 and ubersecurity. Once I slept in a prayer room thanks to a malfunctioning board at LCCT in Kuala Lumpur. Another time I had to stay in Venice because there was a BA strike and I was bumped off my flight. That wasn’t so bad, I got compensation, missed some work and everyone thought that was the best excuse (or story) ever for being late. But I digress.

If you say so: Tourist transport in Mandalay, 2010

If you say so: Tourist transport in Mandalay, 2010

This Myanmar trip was work, and I take work I have committed to do very seriously. When I got the assignment I thought two things: time was tight, and (based on previous experience) this would be a nice job as I was going on some boat trip already organized and I simply needed to speak to the right PR people and off I would go. Well, I was right about time being tight.

Nothing was organized, no flights, no trip – nothing. In the world of travel journalism these things are usually taken care of. At a newspaper I worked at in London, the travel desk had more trips than it knew what to do with. And PR people are usually keen to help because they want coverage for their client. But this was not the case here. And if I didn’t organize something pronto, I wasn’t going to meet the deadline. My other concern was a visa. The first I went to Myanmar I got a visa on arrival, on the last day of a scheme that is yet to be reinstated. Without a visa I wouldn’t be going at all.

After several days and more emails (around 70 in the end) I make a connection with a PR agency working with an international travel company that operates the trip I need to write about, and they may help me, but I have to buy air tickets first. They MAY be able to help with a visa, but they’re not really sure. There is a lot of toing and froing. I know the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok issues visas, but I don’t really want to go to Bangkok and hang around just to get a visa. And it’s expensive. Then there’s the embassy in Kuala Lumpur, but it’s nearly the end of Ramadan and the country will soon shut down for Hari Raya, the holiday at the end of Ramadan.

I can’t get a straight answer on anything from the PR person. I keep getting emails asking me the same questions I’ve already answered, and I don’t get a sensible answer on the visa question until after I’ve had to go through exactly what I wanted to avoid. And after a week of messing around, that’s when I find out I have to get airfares before they will actually do anything.

I didn’t lose sleep when the kid with the knife attacked me, but I lose plenty of sleep over this.

Maybe it’s easier just to list the complications.
With 12 days to go before the only trip that will allow me to meet my deadline, nothing is in place.
I need a visa.
To get a visa it looks like I need an itinerary.
An itinerary won’t be considered until I’ve arranged flights.
I am in a place where there is no Myanmar Embassy.
Malaysia (and its embassies) are about to shut down for Ramadan (as it turns out Bangkok is about to have lots of public holidays and shut embassies also).

A friend told me their travel agent could get a visa – I went there, discussed it. To get a visa in KL I would have to go down on Sunday, be there Monday and hope they do it in two days before Ramadan ends on Wednesday. I think the KL embassy will be open long enough to process it. Travel agent said it will take all week, but they could do it. When I went back on Monday, agent said she “didn’t listen properly” and she can’t do it that week because of Hari Raya. Maybe if I go that afternoon I can still get a visa (and someone to beat the travel agent around the head with a bag of potatoes). Adrenaline is pumping, which is not good because I’ve had adrenal exhaustion and I don’t want that again.

No response from Hong Kong. I told them I needed an answer NOW or it was an emergency run to KL. Nothing.

So I went and everything was full because of Hari Raya. I got a seat on a crappy bus that meandered around the island for 90 minutes before it even set off in the direction of KL. Making me feel even more ecstatic, people told me I wouldn’t be able to leave KL, because everything was booked out to return. And nothing would be running on Thursday. I didn’t sleep at all that night. Stressed! I really did not want to be stuck in KL for days and days pointlessly and expensively when I had things to do elsewhere.

At Myanmar embassy on Tuesday morning (visa section is a collection of tin sheds on dirt with a grimy cafe and lots of miserable Burmese sitting around on plastic chairs), the Burmese woman I dealt with could see the desperate look in my eye when I asked if I could get the visa that afternoon so I had a chance to return to Penang on Wednesday before everything stopped. Bless her, she did it. And for another European traveler who looked slightly crazed as well, but not probably because he is dealing with a PR agency dealing with a London office at a speed that made the average turtle look like its on crystal meth.

Then I had to run across town to try to find a seat on a bus back to Penang. My usual bus line (Konsortium Bas Ekspres) was booked out, and they directed me to another company which by some miracle had a seat left. I started to feel calmer.

That afternoon I got my visa. I checked it about eight times and it seemed to be correct so I felt my blood pressure start to drop. I slept a little that night, and there were no interventions by narky Higher Power and I g0t on another crappy bus the next morning, with a seat on top of the engine, and it was fine, I was so relieved, and so happy not to be stuck in KL.

Battles and circular movements continued, and FINALLY the trip was confirmed, 6pm on the night before the journey to Yangon. Even my own worst-planned, idiotic, ignorant and just plain stupid plans have never been as close to the wire as that.

But when I did get there, the boat trip was rather lovely. This post is too long now, so highlights in the next one.

Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | January 5, 2014

Christmas: Time to get weird with a fringe on top

Oh yes, the weeks before Christmas were a haze of minced wine and mulled pies. That has been true of some years, though not really this one. Mince pies and mulled wine are not flung about with abandon in December in the Tropics. It’s winter, I think, but it’s not really plum pudding weather, just a bit less sweaty. And I suspect many people in Malaysia have never actually seen a mince pie. They’re not missing much, I never really liked them anyway.
Even without the cement-like effect of Christmas food on the GIT, I still had the post-Christmas torpor. In the aftermath of all that tinsel and goodwill towards retail outlets the brain was too cooked to perform useful functions so I started sorting through crap to enable feeling useful without having to think.
I found what follows in a folder of emails; a folder that Microsoft didn’t destroy when I bought a new computer. For some reason there are all these things you cannot do on this computer unless you have a Microsoft account. Maybe I don’t WANT a Microsoft account. I happen to have one (hotmail) that I keep mainly because I’ve had it for a really long time but it’s rubbish, and this new version I didn’t want is worse. Things the old Hotmail did that were useful have been stripped from it … Then I couldn’t use it anyway without answering all these intrusive questions, the result being I was locked out of the account for a MONTH. Then it let me back in – but only on one computer – and did stuff to my email that it never asked for or was given permission to do, the results being missing emails and me hating Microsoft fairly intensely. That is the sound of my teeth grinding in Microsoft-induced fury.

Need a picture here, and don't really have anything suitable, so ... let's have some elephants

Need a picture here, and don’t really have anything suitable, so … let’s have some elephants

Next computer will be Apple I think. And I am using do not track me, a Firefox add-on that stops cybertrolls gathering information as you surf. Hopefully. This never started out as a computer whinge but it feels good to vent.
Anyway, I found the following. it was part of a script I wrote where this gay guy wanted to have a baby (I think this is Alexander), and he is on a horse-drawn float in a parade (where else?) with some grumpy drag queens who are on a low-carb diet, trying to channel the musical Oklahoma (surrey with the fringe on top, beautiful mornings, Hugh Jackman in the revival and all that). These drag queens are HUNGRY. In my mind at least they are truck-driving drag queen Oklahomos with big love handles, a bad attitude and a yawning void within. There’s no flapping yer gums round croissants in front of this crowd without causing violence.

Alexander, by the way, has a fish phobia, which extends to seafood in jars and cans. Kate was the clueless potential babymama.

This fragment remains …

OKLAHOMETTE 1 and 2 are watching ALEXANDER eating.

OKLAHOMETTE 2 bitches TO OKLAHOMETTE 1

Who does she think she is? Just, just CHEWING front of me like that!

(They move closer in a menacing way.)

OKLAHOMETTE 2 (threateningly)

Who said you could eat a muffin?

ALEXANDER (startled)

I, ah, sorry. Do you want some?

OKLAHOMETTE 2

Of course I want some! And I don’t need you tempting me like that with your brazen bakery products. Now you’ve set off my cravings, and seeing as I can’t have the triple choc truffle mousse cream cake I really want, I’ll have to eat this!

OKLAMOMETTE 2 pulls a jar of herring out of her pocket and brandishes it under ALEXANDER’S nose. ALEXANDER sees it, screams, staggers backwards and falls on the driver who is knocked off the float. The horses are frightened and start trotting off. Everyone screams. KATE with butch friend on a motorbike is approaching the Oklahomo float as it takes off. ALEXANDER IS clinging to the side of the float yelling. OKLAHOMETTE 2 stumbles and drops the herring.

KATE

It’s Alexander! Follow the Oklahomos.

DYKE ON BIKE

Whatever you want honey.

FENELLA, DUCHESS and HUSSY see what’s happened and commandeer other motorcyclists to pursue the float. Unnoticed, a man with a video camera does the same.

FLOAT IN STREET, DAY

The jar of herring is rolling around on the float and ALEXANDER is paralyzed. He is frozen with fear, gasping, but he closes his eyes, focuses, grabs a nearby hoe and sweeps the herring off the side.

OKLAHOMETTE 2

Hey, I wanted that.

END

A friend read this and said she liked the dialogue but thought it was derivative. I guess it is, though it still makes me laugh when one of the Oklahomos barks at Alexander for eating a pastry. And I have yet to see anyone triumph over their deepest fears by dispensing with a container of processed fish.

But probably what it really needs is a big bag of guns and a meth lab. Righto, back to watching Breaking Bad.

Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | December 30, 2013

Myanmar: Ayeyarwady revisited, part two

Katha on the Ayeyarwady: There's no need to worry about being stabbed in northern Myanmar, or indeed any other part of this country

Katha on the Ayeyarwady: George Orwell was stationed here in 1926-27. Tourists don’t need to worry about being stabbed in northern Myanmar

Walking back from taking photographs for a piece on the Hungry Ghost festival in George Town, Penang, this youth I’d been chatting to earlier started running behind me. It was 1am, no one was around and I had a bad feeling. Stopping to say hello to the kiosk man, the youth disappeared. Turning the corner into the deserted part of the street next to the basketball court and a few businesses before I reached my shophouse, the youth appeared again, or rather I could hear him running behind me calling, “Where you from? Where you from?”

I’d already told him where I was from. And now I had a really bad feeling.

At least my instincts were right. The youth kept calling, then ran up beside me, got too close, then grabbed me, while yelling, “Give me money!” and pulling a knife. Having no money on me, I told him this, while retaining a tight grip on the Nikon camera concealed in my bag. Later I berated myself for not doing more to fend him off, but one hand was holding the camera, one hand was trying to push him away, there was not falling over to take into consideration, and there was that knife to watch.

The camera cost a $1,000 and I was not giving it to some kid who wouldn’t even know what to do with it. Besides, why should I reward him for being a little shit? I guess it has something to do with what I have survived in this life, but when someone attacks me like this, I don’t get scared. Well maybe a little. Mostly I get angry.

Many thoughts were running through my head while I was in the grip of this belligerent young Indian, including appraising the length of the knife blade (I suspect it was from his mother’s kitchen) and how far it could penetrate my abdomen, whether I should try and hit him with the camera, and could I count on my reflexes to grab his wrist if he went to stab me. Luckily I was larger than him, and he seemed fairly unfamiliar with stabbing technique so these things worked in my favor. We tussled, he pulled my hair, tried to throw me into a fence and grabbed at my breast. Obviously frustrated on several levels, he eventually ran off.

Later I reported the attack to the police, because I had a feeling this youth – he was maybe 15? – would try this again. And probably practice until he got really good at it. Not that the police were very interested, especially when they learned nothing was actually stolen. I consider the kid not getting anything a good result, as just maybe it would make him think a life of crime was harder than it looked. As nothing was stolen I didn’t have to fill out one of those crime report sheets in Malaysia with all its questions about race and religion.

Following this incident I was not in a good mood. However, I did not lose any sleep over it – it wasn’t the worst thing that had happened to me that week. Trying organize this work trip to Myanmar: Now that was stressful.

Cheeky: Burmese children with thanaka on their faces

Cheeky: Burmese children with thanaka on their faces

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