Outstanding in the Field, Burgundy, France


Outstanding in the field is a foodie’s dream. Turning the notion of dining out on its head, instead of bringing the farm to a restaurant’s table, they bring the restaurant to the field. Their mission is to “re-connect diners to the land and the origins of their food, and to honor the local farmers and food artisans who cultivate it.”

Sounds enticing, doesn’t it?

Outstanding in the Field, Burgundy, France

Starting out in 1999 in California by artist and chef Jim Denevan, Outstanding in the Field was one of the early pioneers to try a such a crazy idea before it was cool for pops ups and food trucks to roam the country. They’re now in their 14th year with 87 events alone this season and have held events in all 50 states as well as 14 countries. My friend Emily has been waiting years for them to come to Europe and I was lucky enough to join them for their first event in Burgundy, France.

Welcome to Outstanding in the Field

We were dropped off in the middle of the vines of Domaine Lebreuil where we were greeted by General Manager Eden before joining the other 80 guests for canapés and generous pours of third-generation winemaker Jean-Baptiste Lebreuil’s selection. I was keenly interested in finding out where everyone was from, there were a few French and English accents I could hear, but the event was overpowered by faithful advocates who traveled all the way over to Europe from the US. That’s some effort!

Canapes 
House-made marbled ham
Salmon gravlax with Fallot mustard
Vegetable tart with a mousse of Fromagerie Delin Delice de Pommard
Beetroot salad with Emmanuelle Bailard Farm back currants and crunchy peanuts
2013 Domaine Lebreuil “Dessus des Gollardes” Blanc
2013 Domaine Lebreuil “Aux Grands Liards” Rouge

Canapes at Outstanding in the field

After Eden shared the history of the program and why we were all standing in the middle of nowhere, 41-year-old Jean-Baptiste followed up with a humble and humorous welcome. “I am so happy we are all here in the earth of Burgundy,” he shared. He was clearly very excited to meet everyone and host his first of this kind, and “for the weather since harvest is next week!” It was a hot day for sure.

Jean-Baptiste Lebreuil

We walked straight through the Grand Cru vines to find a long table set in the middle of the vineyard. You were even welcomed to bring your own plate, but for those of us who hadn’t, we picked through the colorful stack before taking a seat to start our meal prepared by Michelin starred chef David Le Comte of Kook’In.

Domaine Lebreuil

Dinner
Club sandwich with tomato, hard-boiled egg, cocktail sauce, parmesan, bacon & Truites De L’ube GAEC trout

Club Sandwich

Bourguignon perch with espelette butter with grilled Eric Roy Farm seasonal vegetables
2015 Domaine Lebreuil Premiere Cru “Aux Clous” Blanc

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Ligny Farm poultry prepared in the style of Gaston Gerard with roasted Farmer Bruno Grenailles potatoes
2015 Domaine Lebreuil Premiere Cru “Aux Clous” Rouge

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Petite Louisette Charolais beef grilled in the style of Bourguignone with ratatouille
2014 Domaine Lebreuil “Les Boutieres” Rouge

Beef with ratatouille

Assortment of Burgundian cheeses with pain d’epices: Brillat Savarin, Epoisses, Comte, Mulot & Petit Jean
Cheesecake with Emmanuelle Baillard Farm black currents

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The wine pours were generous and Jean-Baptiste even brought out a magnum to share with his guests. He truly was a pleasure to meet and speak to.

Lisa & Jean-Baptiste

So what did I think? If I’m honest, I was disappointed with the food. It could have been the fact that it was nearly 90F degrees and therefore the fish was overcooked, the chicken undercooked, and steak so fatty I couldn’t even get it down.

But what I will praise is our friendly and fun waiter Percy; Jean-Baptiste and his wines; the carrots and vegetables which accompanied the fish were out of this world; and the cheese, OMG!!! Plus that fact that I was lucky to be in a beautiful vineyard in the middle of Cote de Beaune, Burgandy.

Lisa Vecchio Burgundy France

Lastly, the event was poorly organized from a logistics perspective (except for the excellent porter-loo facilities). When the meal ended at around 10 pm most guests made their way to an after party at Jean-Baptiste’s chateaux. We would have loved to join but weren’t quite sure if were invited, and therefore, stood in the pitch black dark in the field scrambling to figure out how to get the one taxi in town to come get us in the middle of a vineyard, literally. Finally one did, for the price of 30 Euro to go 3 kilometers down the road.

I would consider going again because who doesn’t love drinking copious amounts of wine in a beautiful setting while making new friends and tasting some fantastic local grub. But for the steep cost of $250 USD, I’d give it a proper consideration before forking over the cash again. Thanks Outstanding in the Field for a fun dining experience!

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Why Santorini Should Be On Your Bucketlist


Santorini, one of the most stunning Cyclades islands in the Aegean Sea, is an obvious choice for one to have on their bucket list. Whitewashed luxury hotels, infinity pools, and blue domed churches create what looks like a sandcastle drizzle cake on the side of volcanic mountain cliffs jetting over the deep blue ocean.

Firostefani, Santorini

Firostefani, Santorini

This alone is what makes this unique destination one of the most Instagrammed places in the world. On my bucket list for some time, when Steph and I rattled our brains for a sunny European destination neither of us has been to (which is more difficult than it sounds), Santorini was the obvious choice.

On the one side of the island you have small beaches made up of black, red and white lava pebbles. But the heart of Santorini is in the Caldera towns such as the capital Fira, and more picturesque villages of Imerovigli, Firostefani and Oia.

The Caldera, Oia, Santorini

The Caldera, Oia, Santorini

I had my heart set on staying in Fira, being the capital and all, it seemed the place to be. But one thing that became apparent very quickly is that Santorini is not an inexpensive getaway. After doing some initial research, we simply couldn’t afford to stay in any decent accommodation in Fira for our modest budget.

Oia was our next option. Noted for the best sunsets on the island and for those looking for a romantic corner of the earth, tourists flood through the narrow cobblestone streets to catch a glimpse of the red and orange hues over the sea while enjoying an upmarket meal perched deep in the Caldera. After sunset, the crowds flock to see the cliff-side Caldera lit up at night and to peruse the high-end shops before the streets become quiet.

Sunset, Aperanto Suites

Sunset, Aperanto Suites

Luckily we found Aperanto Suites, a brand new property in Finikia just a short 10-minute walk to Oia. There were minimal reviews which made us apprehensive, but after seeing how comfy the luxe blow up pool loungers looked in the photos, it was worth a gamble. And we have no regrets. The place was immaculate, with an infinity pool overlooking the dusty, barren earth below with the sea in the distance. Each morning we would wake to a knock at our door, with breakfast served poolside, accompanied with a glass of champagne (just don’t forget to complete the breakfast form the night before).

Poolside, Aperanto Suites

Poolside, Aperanto Suites

We spent our days lazing by the pool, getting the much-needed relaxation and Vitamin D we purposely escaped our jobs to achieve. At night, we’d walk into the town for a gorgeous Greek meal of moussaka and chicken souvlaki to catch up on our separate lives in London and Sydney. It was a hard balance to find somewhere moderately affordable, opting for modest tavernas like Pelekanos (watermelon, halloumi and fig salad, fresh sea bream, and chicken and cream cheese) and killer cocktails at Oia Gefsis over more renowned restaurants, but then what Greek food isn’t delicious (hint: check out the baklava at Melenio, trust me)! Just make sure wherever you go to book a reservation in advance, especially if you want a sunset view table.

Baklava, Melenio Bakery, Oia

Baklava, Melenio Bakery, Oia

The best part of the trip was hiking from Oia to Fira. Despite strong suggestions of wearing sturdy shoes, taking plenty of water and leaving before the day got too hot (all of which is common sense), we stupidly chose to start our expedition midday. The path entrance was conveniently just behind the bus stop across from our hotel, but immediately after starting off uphill in the scorching heat we quickly realized this would be no small feat. We climbed up steep, rugged hills on dry, rocky dirt paths, catching our breath as we passed tired donkeys and exclusive luxury villas that made us ooze with jealousy and happy that we didn’t go too cheap and cheerful. Santorini is not the type of place you want to cheap out and we found our accommodation to be perfect for what we needed. Otherwise, we’d only be even more envious of the stunning properties parading in our face.

Domed church, Santorini

Domed church, Santorini

We passed churches and hugged the rugged coastline, snapping pics of what you only see on postcards. The whole stretch was 9 miles and took about 3.5 hours. Getting closer to our finish, we stopped in the small, picturesque town of Imerovigli. If I would go again, I’d also suggest staying here. Lunch at Mezzo was one of the best meals we had, untraditionally Greek, the Tropical and Popeye’s salads were something I’d go back just to enjoy again, plus the ocean view over the Venetian Castle and the volcano wasn’t too shabby either. Luckily at this point on our trek, it was only another 45 minutes to Fira and a really enjoyable part of the journey. The uphill battle was long behind us and the remainder led us through the small village of Firostefani, with more whitewashed villas stacked on top of each other with aqua blue pools to contrast the white and make us rush to get our phones out for some more Instagram worthy snaps.

Magnificent Santorini

Magnificent Santorini

We spent the evening in Fira, exploring the capital and taking advantage of the nightlife that doesn’t really exist anywhere else on the island. After seeing chains like McDonalds and Sephora next door to fish spas (the kind where they eat the dead skin off your toes) and ice cream stands, it made me so happy that we made the right choice in staying somewhere beautiful and quiet off the beaten path. The two old men who served us at the traditional tavern Camille Steffani were so friendly, and after devouring the stuffed cabbage and vine leaves, I can see why this place is still a hit after getting its start in the 70s, despite there is no sunset view.

View from Firostefani

View from Firostefani

Nightspots like Koo Club and Enigma are open to the early hours, but a few 12 Euro Aperol Spritz and some poppy dancing with the trendsetters in our hiking gear was all I needed before calling it a night. With apparently only 44 cabs on the whole island, I was more concerned with making sure we got a cab before the clubs let out and I was forced to scarf down an unnecessary gyro while queuing for one. Does this mean I’m getting old? Luckily, 2 am isn’t late enough to warrant such demand and 20 Euro later we were back in the outskirts of Oia, happy we did the hike in reverse and got the hard bit done first.

On our final day we joined Santorini Sailing on the catamaran Dream Catcher to take a dip in the sea and to witness the beaches we yet had time to visit. I thought I heard a familiar accent when boarding, as Captain Ted is a fellow New Jersian (Bergen County), and has been spending half the year in Santorini running his lucrative business and the other half with his family in the states for the last 20 years. Not a bad life.

Ammoudi Bay

Ammoudi Bay

The trip started in Ammoudi Bay, the one place I wish we had more time to explore as the Ammoudi Fish Tavern is meant to be pretty spectacular. We let the sun scorch our bodies as we sunbathed on the boat’s front ropes, then made a few stops to dip into the Aegean, including passing the volcano and stopping off to swim in the hot springs and at Red Beach. The best part of the trip (and what makes it worth the money) was not only the unlimited local Greek white wine I generously helped myself to, but the meal served while we watched the sunset. Fresh Greek salad, olive dip, and eggplant were to start, and I only wish I had more room in me (and wasn’t in a bikini) to further devour the chicken and pork served with fresh tzatziki that even now makes my mouth water thinking of it.

Under the Caldera, Oia

Under the Caldera, Oia

Santorini had been on my bucket list for years, and I had always put it off as somewhere overpriced and touristy. It’s true, you’ll find quieter Greek islands elsewhere where the hordes of tourists don’t exist and you don’t have to spend a pretty penny, but I would definitely go again, maybe for a future romantic getaway or to explore the ruins of Akrotiri Archaeological Site. And when I do go back, an infinity pool deep in the Caldera and a visit to the wineries is the only way to do it.

Lisa Vecchio, Santorini, Greece

Lisa Vecchio, Santorini, Greece

My Introduction to Scotch


Do you know the difference between whisky and whiskey? It’s just one of the many things I learned on a recent trip to the Scottish Highlands to wet my palate with a dram or two…or three. So, if you don’t know, the Irish and Americans spell it with an ‘e’; and the Scots don’t.

Scotch on display

Scotch on display at Oban Distillery

Immediately after getting off the plane in Inverness I was hit with really strong winds and fresh air. Oh Scotland, how I’ve missed you. I didn’t mentally prepare for the feeling of being brought back to when I lived in Edinburgh for a month when I was 20. But this time was different, I was deep in Lochness Monster territory after all, and there strictly for the whisky.

I met up with four friends from Australia for the ultimate road trip. There would be lots of driving through lush, beautiful remote areas, hiking and frolicking amongst nature, and of course, my first proper introduction to the world of Scotch.

Welcome to Inverness

Welcome to Inverness

So what makes a scotch a scotch? Well, the production of water and malted barley which is matured in oak barrels for a minimum of 3 years within Scotland and made to a specific law. Easy enough. Oh, and single malt means it’s from the same distillery.

Inverness & Lochness 

Welcome to Ness Vegas

Welcome to Ness Vegas

If you’re in for some entertainment head to Ness Vegas and check out the decor at B&B Gleninver Guest House. Our host Mandy was friendly, offering suggestions of where to go in town (Hootananny for awesome live Scottish music, bagpipes and all). She greeted us with champagne, as the five of us huddled into one room with black and white Marilyn Monroe wallpaper, and we left her after a full Scottish breakfast, black pudding and haggis included. But aside from the welcoming stay, Inverness was surprisingly a party city.

River Ness, Inverness

River Ness, Inverness

Live music at Hootananny, Inverness

Live music at Hootananny, Inverness

We instead made our way to Lochness to search for Nessie, the famed Lochness Monster and explored the ruins of Urquhart Castle while playing with old swords before setting on for a four-hour journey heading off of the mainland. There’s only one way to road trip in Scotland, and that’s with mini bottles of whisky to taste in the back seat, bypassing waterfalls and stunning scenery and dancing to the bagpipes of upbeat Scottish band Red Hot Chilli Pipers. Don’t forget to slow down when there’s sheep on the road though and keep your eyes peeled for a long haired highland cow! 

Lisa meets a long haired Scottish cow

Lisa meets a long haired Scottish cow

The Misty Isle

The Isle of Skye is a magical place. Remote and desolate, it’s brimming with natural beauty and enchanted, rugged landscapes. Calm lochs, towering mountains, and scenery you only see on postcards made the whole journey jaw dropping.

Fairy Glen landscape, Isle of Skye

Fairy Glen landscape, Isle of Skye

We stayed at the Old Inn & Waterfront Bunkhouse in Carbost, set overlooking a beautiful loch with the Culillin Hills in the distance. The location was a convenient two-minute walk to Talisker Distillery, who provided a very educational tour and a dram of their rich, and evenly balanced sweet and smoky Talisker 10.

The Old Inn, Carbost, Isle of Skye

The Old Inn, Carbost, Isle of Skye

While we received a bit of a cold welcoming from one particular staff member at the Old Inn, who remained that way for our two-night stay, I still would highly rate the visit for both their amazing, locally sourced menu, including fresh mussels, mackerel, juicy steak, scallops and more, as well as bartender Calum, who patiently poured me whisky after whisky each night while I educated my palate. Not that I’m impartial to a cute bartender or anything. We sat around listening to the sound of live fiddling performed by locals in the bar while chatting to friendly old Scottish men, bitter that the English have taken over the Isle.

Hanging on Loch Harport, Isle of Skye

Hanging on Loch Harport, Isle of Skye

Another reason for being on the Isle is to explore the great outdoors. My favorite spot was The Fairy Glen; majestic, spongey grass, unusual and lush cone-shaped hills above the village of Uig, perfect for exploring on a sunny summer’s afternoon running around like school children. In more recent years, visitors come to move the natural rocks around to make spiral shapes on the ground, or piled high into pyramids, which provide a stunning view from the top of the grassy hills.

Jump for joy, Fairy Glen, Isle of Skye

Jump for joy, Fairy Glen, Isle of Skye

Rock formations, Fairy Glen, Isle of Skye

Rock formations, Fairy Glen, Isle of Skye

Further on the topic of fairies are The Fairy Pools, a beautiful natural waterfall phenomenon in Glen Brittle. We were lucky for another sunny day which made the hike along the small and stunning rock pools a glorious way to spend the afternoon.

Fairy Pools waterfalls, Isle of Skye

Fairy Pools waterfalls, Isle of Skye

After road touring the Quiraing mountains, we somehow missed this popular hike, we stopped off in the harbor town of Portree. At the Merchant’s Inn, a pint of Isle of Skye Brewing Co’s IPA made me melt, followed by fresh fish and chips on the pier in front of pastel covered shops. I definitely recommend a stop through Portree.

Fish and chips in Portree, Isle of Skye

Fish and chips in Portree, Isle of Skye

Oban (O-bin)

Sunset in Oban

Sunset in Oban

What a town, this “little bay” (translated from Gaelic), truly is. Cute and picturesque, with striking views over the Firth of Lorn to the Isle of Mull. The perfect place to grab a sunset snap. Even better, it’s the seafood capital of Scotland! The place to be is the green seafood shack out on the ferry pier where they shell out plate after plate of fresh lobster, oysters, mussels, crab, fish, you name it, and oh is it deliciously fresh.

Green seafood stall, Oban

Green seafood stall, Oban

Skip McCaig’s Tower, the random fortress at the top of the city to commemorate John Stuart McCaig, whoever he is, as the most interesting thing is the view. Instead, check out Alice Strange Gallery on the way down the steep hill for some interesting screen prints and funky crafts.

Otherwise, spend your time at the Oban Distillery who gave a stand out tour (shhh, it was way better than Talisker). Young Euan cracked jokes as we learned why this small distillery is so stand out, and one of my favorites to drink. Their signature takeaway was a complimentary tasting glass, definitely a keeper, as well as the crystallized ginger we tasted along with the Oban 14.

Oban Distillery

Oban Distillery

Free whisky! If you register on Discovering Distilleries you receive a friend of the distillery voucher that gets you into both for FREE!

So what did I try? A lot! Neat, on the rocks and with a drop of water just to get a feel for how the taste can change. Good whisky is so cheap in Scotland there’s no reason to go expensive. A decent one is the cost of a pint. But these were a few of my favorites in no particular order, however, those (that I remember) are my favorite are starred. I like both a balanced whisky with some sweetness, but also something smoky and peaty is hard to say no to now as well. What can I say, I’m a convert.

  • Ardbeg ***
  • Coal Ila 12 ***
  • Belvenie
  • Bowmore
  • Bunnahabhain
  • Dalmore
  • Glenmorangie ***
  • Highland Park
  • Jura
  • Laphroaig
  • Oban 14 ***
  • Scapa
  • Talisker 10
  • Tomatin Legacy
  • Tomatin 12
  • And many more I can’t remember

 

How To Fiesta In Alicante


Alicante isn’t a city that’s known for its looks; nor is it a place that I would call ‘pretty’. My anticipation for a picturesque, cute Spanish old town was quickly let down once I realized it was run amok with nightclubs, drunken hen do’s and ugly, decrepit buildings. In fact, you might be wondering what’s so great about this typical English holiday destination with little to see aside from the sea. A fiesta with the locals of course!

As the locals do at Mercado Central, Alicante

As the locals do at Mercado Central, Alicante

Alicante is a small city on the Costa Blanca with a great foodie scene at a fraction of the cost of the larger tourist cities like Barcelona and Madrid. While aside from the monstrous Moorish Castillo de Santa Barbara that towers over the popular beach Playa del Postiguet, there aren’t many massive tourist sites to see (although I do recommend making the time for this one and it’s stunning coastal views). That’s okay though when it’s sunny year-round, there’s plenty of paellas to keep you full (try Dársena on the waterfront) and there’s, of course, a party around every corner.

Where to fiesta in Alicante:

Hogueras de San Juan: We witnessed the start of the summer’s most important festival, the celebration of the arrival of the summer solstice. We were lucky to see the Artistic Fiesta Lights in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento and the parade of natives dressed in traditional garments, impressively some sporting large paper mâché heads whilst on stilts. Unfortunately, we missed the best bit of the festival, on the 24th of June is the Night of Burning or “Noche de la Cremà”, when 200 large satirical paper mâché statues are lit on fire.

Hogueras de San Juan

Hogueras de San Juan

Mercado Central: On a Saturday afternoon locals gather around midday at the epicenter of the city, the central market. After roaming the meat, cheese, fruit, veg, and fish stalls, a common shopping place for regulars (don’t forget to hold your nose from the stench), everyone orders a small plate of pre-cut Iberico Jamon from one of the vendors, grabs an unlabeled beer from the booze stall, and stands in the sun outside catching up with friends before starting their Saturday night. We too took part in the tradition which was one of the highlights of our trip, chatting with amicable locals to the sound of chants for the forthcoming football match and trying different varieties of Spanish ham and cheese…and of course, beer.

Choosing our Jamon platter in Mercado Central

Choosing our Jamon platter in Mercado Central

Devouring Jamon in Mercado Central in Cambridge Graduation (Dr!) hat!

Devouring Jamon in Mercado Central in Cambridge Graduation (Dr!) hat!

Carrer Castanos: If you like generously free poured gin and tonics in large round glasses, shisha’s and salsa dancing at any hour of the day, this is your spot. Bar Ten10 offers all of the above, and we couldn’t help ourselves to a midafternoon boogie after indulging a few too many beers outside Mercado Central. For a safer option, take a turn on Calle San Francisco for a variety of cute tapas restaurants, sit alfresco and enjoy fresh squid, fried green peppers and so much more. El Rebujito Taperia was highly recommended, although the squid didn’t live up to its expectations.

Jules with Al Fonso and Davide

Jules with Al Fonso and Davide

Football: The Champions League Final 2017 took place whilst we were in town, Real Madrid vs. Juventus, and without a question, the city supported their famous neighbor Madrid. Pubs and tabernas put their TV’s outside, as everyone under the sun gathered to witness the epic match. We were lucky to find a spot to sip Aperol spritz perched on the ledge outside Amapola Pub, to observe the locals go nuts in the frenzy watching Real Madrid defend their UEFA Champions League title. Even better, next door, Taberna San Pascual served the best aubergine lasagna and Spanish meatballs; one of our best meals in the city.

Champions League Final at Amapola Pub

Champions League Final at Amapola Pub

Il Barrio: If you’re 18 and want to party, Il Barrio on a Friday and Saturday night is where it happens. Who would have thought we were too old for it? The youngins poured onto the streets out from upbeat discotheques to rock metal clubs. Instead, we chose to dance our hearts out at Havana Club, one of the few places that played both Spanish and Top 20 English-speaking dance beats. For a few hours, we were the only ones on the dance floor, sangria in hand, rocking out as if we were anywhere in the world. Plus, if you venture during the day there’s always spots like La Tasca del Barrio to keep you busy with their killer tapas and wine selection.

Jamon from La Tasca del Barrio

Jamon from La Tasca del Barrio

So there you have it! If it’s simply the sun, sangria and tapas you are seeking, shared with friendly locals and a stunning coastline, leave your tourist map at home because you’re still in for a treat. In fact, there are no hawkers to chase you down, some even need to go find their English speaking friend to help. And whilst we were slightly off season, I can’t comment on the mega beach and pool parties that sculpt the classic summer sesh. So would I go back? Likely not, but for a quick and cheap holiday in the sun I certainly don’t regret going either.

Languedoc wine region

A Rosé Holiday in Montpellier


The student-centric city of Montpellier is not what one assumes when you say you’re jetting off to the south of France. Typically, the exotic beaches of the Côte d’Azur (French Riviera), Nice, Cannes and Saint-Tropez fit the bill but for me and my crew, a short jaunt to the 8th largest city in France to sip rosé in the sun is just what the doctor ordered.

To start, Montpellier is perfectly located to get a quick taste of the fabulous Languedoc wine route. We started off with a half-day tour led by the friendly and knowledgeable Karina from Montpellier Wine Tours to visit two medieval, family-owned estates.

Montpellier Wine TourSet at the base of Pic Saint-Loup, Château La Roque’s entire biodynamic selection was perfect on the palate and we couldn’t escape without two bottles of Château La Roque Rosé 2015 in tow. Followed by Château de Lascaux, sitting amongst the dated stone walls in an old monastery, set the scene perfectly for our second tasting.

Château La Roque VineyardA short train ride from the city is the unpretentious colorful port town of Sète. Narrow canals create a maze around the old town, surprisingly busy for a Sunday when the rest of France shuts down. Families enjoyed ice-creams, as we parked ourselves in front of the foodie mecca Les Halles, to sip more rosé in the sun to the sound of locals playing music in the street out front.

Languedoc coastAfter a scenic walk along the Languedoc coast, we discovered a small, quiet beach. It was an ideal and unsuspecting place to grab a baguette, some cured ham and cheese to picnic, coupled with a light, refreshing rosé in the scorching heat. On our way back to town, it was only necessary to sit along the canal to soak up the last of the day’s sun and try the big fat locally farmed oysters, king prawns and mussels.

Seafood platter in SèteThe best part of Montpellier is not only the short 14k proximity to a stunning coastline but cycling there! A paved path with fit runners, wild horses and fishermen hug the lush green river Lez, topped with Lilly pads and flamingos and lined with bright purple, yellow and white flowers mixed with bright red poppies. We let our skirts flow with the wind as we rode hired bikes along the pathway to its mouth Palavas-les-Flots, and stopped along the way for yet again another indulging picnic and bottle of rosé to reward ourselves for the day’s efforts.

Cycling to Palavas-les-Flots

Montpellier wild horsesMontpellier is an interesting city for sure. A friend asked why go? There’s nothing there, he said. But if you like great wine, fresh seafood and fantastic weather, there’s nothing not to like. It’s a quirky and charming place, tattoo and piercing shops nestle up next to century-old buildings; student friendly cheap eats, kabab and bagel shops rival Michelin recommended bistros while street performers, hippies and homeless dogs roam the streets.

Place de la Comédie“Summer is for tourists, wine country is for locals,” Karina said. And I’d like to pretend just for a weekend I was both. Even better, Montpellier turned Sophie from a rosé sceptic to a convert. Nothing beats a rosé holiday!

We loved:
Glouglou: A cute wine bar with a large range of taste-to-pour varietals. The glouglou platter of oysters, salmon, cured ham, cheese and foie gras was a perfect snack to share post-wine tasting.

glouglouThym Et Romarin: An awesome recommendation from Karina, we had our favorite meal in town here with excellent service by Jean. The confit duck and baked camembert were a dream.

The Beehive Pub: Set in a charming square where local townsfolk enjoy a beer at any time of day, the selection of over 40 whiskies gave us no reason to apologize for enjoying a few post-dinner aperitifs at an English pub in France (gasp!).

Le Pré Vert: This beautiful brunch location has the most enormous, delicious salads. Think goat cheese on toast with orange slices and almonds; smoked salmon and trout with mixed vegetables; or pesto chicken and fresh mozzarella.

Grand Hotel du Midi:  Just on the cusp of the old town, this funky contemporary hotel was perfectly situated in buzzing Place de la Comédie in the heart of the city. Service was great, free-Wi-Fi, a friendly bar with a great selection and small balconies to enjoy the morning sun.

Grand Hotel du Midi

 

Exploring the Souks of Marrakech


Splash…a silver bowl filled with water is thrown straight onto my face by a large woman dressed in black cotton. Splash, she grabs my hair and tilts my head back to make sure it’s fully wet and saturated. Splash, more water is thrown onto my body as the final step.

I’m sitting in a dark round room, my body completely bare aside from a disposable thong, ass slightly burning on the warm multi-coloured tiles heated from the steam. My friends and I anxiously laugh as if it’s not awkward at all to be in this situation in the same room together.

Penny gets called out first. Swoosh, swoosh, swoosh and a few giggles is all I hear in return from the neighbouring alcove as Sophie and I exchange glances and sceptically await our turns. When I enter for the exfoliating full body scrub down, I lay face first on the already soap-slathered plastic mat reminiscent of a slip and slide. First the scrub, then lather of clay mud, another splash of water to rinse out the hair wash and then finally, my head and body were covered in argan oil. Despite all of the awkwardness, my first hammam experience was actually bliss, smooth skin and shiny hair to prove it.

Colourful dyes, Medina, Marrakech

We’re in the thick of the red city, the charismatic and tantalising medina of Marrakech, surrounded by mud brick walls, buzzing souks, cat calls from street vendors and frankincense oil wafting from all corners. I absolutely loved every second of it!

My first experience of Morocco was in the overwhelming port city of Tangier, busy and dirty, with lots of hawkers and children begging to the point of exhaustion and irritability, but I at least still have the handpainted clay ashtray to prove it. But Tangier is not Marrakesh.

It was the perfect girls’ long weekend away taken straight from Sex & the City (naturally since it was the location of the second film we learned). We dined at magnificent restaurants (full list below), sipped mint tea, received daily massages, and shopped until our bags were overflowing, giving Penny the opportunity to perfect haggling in French.

Pom Pom Shopping, Marrakesh, Morocco

The heart of the medina is Jemaa el-Fnaa, the big market square where it all happens. Street performers come out to play, while potion makers and storytellers gather crowds, snake charmers tease half-drugged cobra’s and belly dancers perform their art, albeit cross-dressed they rumour. Locals and tourists watch the spectacle, refreshed on fresh-squeezed orange juice from the many vendors, buzzing on the aroma’s wafting from the food stalls before getting lost in the over 3,000 derbs (winding alleys) of the souks just like Aladdin.

One of the favourite pastimes is to simply grab a tea or tagine in the many restaurants overlooking the square and watch life go by to the sounds of music ringing, horse hooves clanking, locals bargaining, taxis beeping and prayer blasting from the speakers of the local mosques while women in headdress haggle for juice, clothes and fresh veg; a weaver handcrafts towels, while old men slump over in robes like Yoda. Life is simple you could say.

Even better, it’s dirt cheap. We did the whole trip, including flights, accommodation in a stunning riad (traditional palace), plentiful food and shopping for about 500 pounds in total. With the exchange rate, it was an inside joke that if you divide by 10 you’re good, but it’s still even less. “It’s like $7 but less” was a common phrase, depending on the number, that helped us justify our bargain while haggling, a Moroccan tradition it would be rude not to.

It also wasn’t nearly as overwhelming as I initially thought it would be. I had a getaway strategy in case a panic attack came soaring in after our first afternoon exploring in the colourful labyrinth in the souks, but we were absolutely fine in the shopper’s paradise. Once I mastered my haggling, my bags were full of tassels, pom poms, embroidery, crockery and more. A simple “no thank you” after being greeted with a heartwarming “Welcome!” was all I needed to say.

Pom Pom basket

No surprise that one of the best bits was the food. At each meal came the tough decision of tagine or cous cous? Chicken, lamb or veg? But no matter what the combination the result was always without fail, delicious. Seasoned with raisins, prunes, lemons, olives, spices and nuts the list goes on for the combinations of flavour explosion. Within the old town, there are a handful of amazing options, whether an up-market restaurant catering to westerners with a liquor licence (do your research in advance), a back garden hidden oasis, or looking out over the famous market square taking it all in.

Tagine at Le Jardin, Marrakech

As a treat, try the pigeon pastilla (sweet and salty pastry filled with pigeon, nuts and honey). And when you’re not sure where to go or what to do, just wander and get lost, taking photos of the ornate coloured doorways, or do like I did, and surprise yourself by purchasing a massive handwoven blanket with tassels included.

Dyers District, Marrakech

On our last day I watched a local man dye cotton in a massive vat, mixing steaming water with dry pigments from plants as part of the tradition. His neighbouring street vendor showed me his freshly dyed cotton shawls, draped one around my head and face like a local woman would and said, “See, you’re now Fatima Cous Cous” or maybe he said I’m fat because I ate too much cous cous. I’ll never know.

La Fatima Cous Cous

Where we ate:

Le Foundouk: One of my favourite meals, I still can taste the chicken tagine with lemon and olives, but also the lamb tagine with prunes and almonds was the sweetest, most rich and moreish we found anywhere. In the summer, ask for a table on the roof terrace and enjoy the extensive wine list.

Chez Chegrouni: The food is simple and cheap but you come here for the view. Simply write your order on a piece of paper and hand it to the waiter and watch the world go by in the buzzing Jemaa el-Fnaa market square below. No reservations or liquor license.

Le Salema: Just off of Jemaa el-Fnaa, this colonial style restaurant has rooftop views, although the service was average, made up by the best pigeon pastilla and offering of mini salads (13!). Plus the waiter serves your food and wine whilst wearing a fez hat so you can’t argue with that picture perfect opportunity.

Waiter at La Salama with Fez

Le Jardin: Known as the secret garden of the medina, it’s the perfect place to escape the crowds. One of our best meals in the whole city, note no alcohol, try the vegetarian tagine for a flavorful veg option and the monkfish tagine was out of this world.

Nomad: Book in advance as it’s one of the hottest places in town, traditional Morrocan with a modern twist, but the best part is the views overlooking the souk and the Atlas Mountains.

Rooftop at Nomad, Marrakech

Cafe Arabe: Albeit a mix of Italian and traditional Morrocan, the reason to come here is to sip cocktails in the sun on the rooftop terrace whilst escaping the narrow streets below. The food is worth it too, especially as any cous cous dish comes with a side au jus to pour over the top until your heart is content.

Kosybar: A great place for a rooftop cocktail, Japanese and Moroccan decor come together in ‘cosy’ environment to just relax, a popular place for expats. Use this stop off as an excuse to spot the stork’s nest in the distance.

Where we stayed:

Palais Calipau: Nestled in the backstreets of the Old Jewish quarter, we settled into a magnificent suite in this old family run mansion. Free breakfast, wifi, swimming pool and rooftop terrace included.

 

Where we relaxed:
Hammam de-la Rose: A modern hammam and spa with excellent facilities. We opted for the Tour of Morocco (2h)……………………800DHS (that’s like 80 pounds but less; realistically 65 pounds). Royal Hammam 60 minutes plus massage of your choice 60 minutes (Sublime Moroccan massage, Herbal massage, Relaxing Oriental massage).

Le Bain Bleu: Finding this place down a rabbit hole of alleyways is half the fun. Less posh than the above but the tonic massage was the way to go, a firm, deep massage to properly de-stress before leaving town. 

I love Morocco 

5 Things I learned on Planet Iceland


Not-coincidentally timed with it being the hottest destination aside from Cuba (figuratively certainly not temperature-wise), this past New Year’s I treated myself to my all-time bucket list destination, Iceland. Deemed as such from that first layover in 2003 when I bought Renee an overpriced shot glass and could afford nothing else. Tourism is on the rise which made it an interesting time as ever to explore the land of ice and sea and to put myself into deep debt.

One thing I hadn’t done was mentally prepare for the lack of light, extreme cold, shortage of vegetables or the draining expense. My biggest dilemma of all while packing was whether I bring snow boots or hiking boots; and I had no regrets of leaving anything luxury behind and bringing both!

In our 5 days exploring trendy downtown Reykjavik, the famed natural beauty of the Golden Circle and the Black Sand Beach of coastal Vik, there were a few things I was surprised to learn along the way.

Downtown Reykjavik

Downtown Reykjavik

1. Weather
They say weather in Iceland is unpredictable, snowing one minute and dry hours later. Yes, it is Iceland after all but I’ve never before experienced the fury of mother nature as I did at her best there. A snowstorm of fluffy snowflakes on our first day made it feel like Christmas, contrasted against heavy rain and hail with wind so strong an umbrella was useless on our second.

Driving back from Vik, the steering wheel would shake as heavy snow was blown across the arctic tundra onto the road, so fast and thick you couldn’t see in front without searching for the yellow marker on the side of the road. On that day it was so fierce I could barely open the car door to take a quick snap of Skogafoss waterfall but it was worth it!

Skogafoss

Skogafoss

Slippery, black, and constant, there is no shortage of ice and Iceland is well named for its surplus of frozen water in the winter months. Traveling to the arctic on budget-airline easyJet, I was frustrated my flight was delayed only to have learned by a friend who had already landed, the wind at Keflavik Airport was so strong she sat on the tarmac for 2-hours because it was too windy to bring the exit stairs to the plane door.

If heading to Iceland in the winter you will need a hooded lined jacket, snow and/or hiking boots, thermal layers, waterproof gloves and a good hat to keep the heat in. The lowest it got was -6C (21F) but the windchill was so unbearable at times I don’t want to dream of knowing what it actually was.

2 . Self-drive is the way to go
On the one side renting a car allows you the flexibility to choose your own adventure whilst maximizing the few hours of daylight you have. On the flipside, when two Australian’s volunteer to drive then only realize once it’s too late that neither has driven on the other side of the road or in the snow, we might either truly have a proper road trip or a serious problem.

Trying something different, we opted to try Carrenters, an Airbnb-style car rental company where locals rent out their cars to tourists, and insurance and such is legit. In fact, we found the locals so nice and accommodating it came as a bit of surprise especially when we were in the wrong. Our car rental was actually about a 15-minute drive outside of the city, but our rental gladly dropped it off and picked it up from the city center to make things easier for us clueless tourists.

The road signs aren’t the best so I advise using a GPS to read out the few turns in advance. As the roads can be very icy, even on popular routes of the Golden Circle or down the south coast to Vik, utilize daylight hours to the best of your ability, drive slow and be prepared for volatile weather.

In a place where the primary attraction is the natural beauty, it honestly looks as if you are on another planet, self-drive gives you the opportunity to go slow through the landscape as it so drastically changes at each turn; to pull over to pet wild Icelandic horses, or to arrive into your next destination witnessing majestic sunsets and sunrises.

Wind storm during sunrise on the Black Sand Beach, Vik

Wind storm during sunrise on the Black Sand Beach, Vik

It can be eery when setting off, being in the middle of nowhere in deep fog with few cars around, snow tornados dancing on the landscape, driving further into what feels like a white nowhereland, but it also means you can time your visits to the popular attractions when the masses of tour buses are elsewhere and you can chase the Northern Lights night after night.

Big applause and thank you to Jake who put in the tiring hours, kept us safe during crazy weather, and made it awesome!

3.  The great outdoors
It goes without saying that seeing the Northern Lights was my biggest goal for this trip and I’m sad to share that I never saw them, yet! The wild winter weather meant that most evenings the skies were cloudy, the opposite requirement for the dancing light spectacle.

The closest we got however was on a clear night in Vik. After a great meal and awesome service at Suður-Vík, we hiked up past the town’s cute little church on the top of the hill, albeit a bit buzzed with a local beer in hand, and stared into the night sky. The North Star shined so bright I finally got why it was such a big deal. A new discovery came as we stumbled upon the church’s cemetery. Illuminated crosses lit up the graveyard, a huge surprise but a totally cool experience, honoring Christmas tradition.

Not far from Vik is the magnificent, and ever melting Sólheimajökull glacier (a part of the Mýrdalsjökull ice cap). Icepicks and crampons were required for our 3-hour glacier hike with Arcanum Glacier Tours led by chatty Maya. More fascinating than the details of the glacier and the rate at which it’s melting was the fact that neighboring volcano Katla could blow this century and the emergency back up plans are so outdated that the farmhouse a few miles down the road could never cater for the 3,000ish tourists who climb the glacier each day.

Start to Sólheimajökull glacier hike

Start to Sólheimajökull glacier hike

The Golden Circle is a must drive for any visitor to do once. While it’s not a circle, it certainly is a loop of approx. 237k, typically starting at Þingvellir National Park where the North American & Eurasian tectonic plates are split apart creating deep fissures in the ground. Many go scuba diving or snorkeling in the fissure called Silfa which is full of freezing glacier water but that surely didn’t sound too appealing to me.

The next stop is Geysir in Haukadalur, where geothermal pools bubble and geysers erupt at the surprise of the masses of tourists who stand around to witness. The colors alone are spectacular in addition to the water shooting up to 100 feet from Strokkur every 15 minutes or so.

Geothermal pool Geysir

Geothermal pool Geysir

Gulfoss waterfalls puts Niagara to shame! Very icy were the paths to get across both the upper and lower viewpoints to watch the Hvítá river viciously flow over various ravines and into the deep earth below.

Gullfoss waterfall

Gullfoss waterfall

Like something out of a movie, seeing the ice form lines in Kerið Crater Lake was beautiful and I only could imagine how piercing blue the water must be when not frozen. Despite an entry fee to maintain the grounds, it was totally worth walking the perimeter as the sunset over the neighboring mountains.

Kerið volcanic crater lake

Kerið volcanic crater lake

4. Food
There is a big divide between great food in Iceland, and things you don’t want to write home about. Then again, your budget alone may determine if you will eat well at all. In addition, there was strong evidence of a lack of green vegetables, compensated by really good potatoes with every meal, and unluckily for us the local fisherman were on strike.

In Reykjavik, new restaurants are popping up all over town to cater for the surplus of tourists thanks to Icelandair’s clever marketing and free layovers between the US and Europe. Of those we tried, I recommend:

Messin: On our first night the 3 of us shared the traditional Icelandic dish of fish stew. In our unexpected favor, cod was the only fish on offer due to the strike and bad weather. One giant pan was served with mashed fish, garlic, white wine and cream, dressed with potatoes (as is everything), lime and cherry tomatoes accompanied with customary sweet local rye bread. A very moreish meal indeed.

Ostabudin: This delicatessen and restaurant is one of the most popular in town and for good reason, the menu is limited but standout. We shared an over generous cheese board before devouring the arctic char and salted cod, ‘must-haves’ if you are in Iceland.

Baejarins Beztu Pylsur: I would have never imagined I would stand in a line for 45 minutes for a hot dog but let me tell you IT WAS WORTH IT! There’s a reason why The Guardian named it the best hot dog stand in Europe. Go with ‘the works’ and let them pile on all the toppings including ketchup, sweet mustard, fried onion, raw onion and remolaði, a mayonnaise-based sauce with sweet relish aka the special sauce. The combo of all of the above made me wish I got two!

Baejarins Beztu Pylsur

Baejarins Beztu Pylsur

There are other traditional Icelandic dishes to try like smoked trout (the smokiest I’ve ever tried anywhere), rye bread ice cream and Jake took one for the team and tried fermented shark followed by a shot of local liquor Brennin to remove the taste. “Tastes like feet and smells like rubbing alcohol,” he said. Your breath after is apparently the worst, and I was even still going to give it a shot until I saw Rob gag. If interested, touristy Café Loki across from Iceland’s largest church Hallgrímskirkja is your spot.

Iceland's largest church Hallgrímskirkja

Iceland’s largest church Hallgrímskirkja

Note that most cafes open late since it’s dark until about 11 am. That can make it a bit difficult to find a cafe for a good coffee or breakfast if heading off in the early am.

5. Drink
For one, I never expected Iceland to have such fantastic local brews. Even more surprising is the locals don’t know much about them. There were a lot of Christmas beers on tap, with a tradition for most local breweries to change them up each year. That meant that we were often asked which Christmas brew we wanted to try, but no one could actually explain how it tastes other than “Christmas”.

Common brews are Viking and Gull but our favorites were the numbered microbrews from Borg such as Leifur Nordic Saison NR. 32 and Garún Icelandic Stout NR.19 as well as a variety from Einstock. Happy hour does exist at most bars so take advantage of it and save yourself the ISK.

The overall lesson is, they like their beer and have some good ones, just don’t ask them what it tastes like or if you can have a try otherwise they will be dumbfounded.

If you like wine expect it to be overpriced and underrated, totally not worth it. For a great whisky selection, you could spend all day at relaxed rock bar Dillon on the main street Laugavegur.

And don’t be that tourist and buy bottled water. The local water is as fresh as it comes, although because of the sulfur the smell may have you guessing otherwise.

There were tons more interesting and fascinating elements to this trip but that simply means I’ll just have to return once my wallet replenishes. In the meantime, here are a few more snaps to enjoy:

Taken from the Black Sand Beach, Vik

Taken from the Black Sand Beach, Vik

Wedding photo NYE bonfire Reykjavik

Wedding photo NYE bonfire Reykjavik

Blue lagoon, Iceland

Blue lagoon, Iceland

The whitewashed town of Vik from the Black Sand Beach

The whitewashed town of Vik from the Black Sand Beach

Sólheimajökull glacier

Sólheimajökull glacier

Champagne Tasting in Epernay, Champagne


Champers, bubbly, the good stuff – everyone has their preference for a nickname but no matter what you call it, one thing is plain as day, Champagne is one of the most sophisticated drinks in the world. Luckily for me, getting to Champagne from London isn’t as difficult as one may think.

Keep calm and drink champagne!

Keep calm and drink champagne!

My friend Emily sold it to me very easily. She said it’s as simple as hopping on the one-hour and ten-minute train from Gare de Est in Paris to Epernay, the heart of Champagne production. From there it’s easy enough to spend the afternoon roaming up and down picturesque Avenue de Champagne for a few tastings in the handful of Champagne houses that line the street. After that, it’s a quick cab into the countryside for a multi-course fine dining experience at gastronomic Chateau Etoges, and back onto the train home the next day. As the French would say, walla!

Andy Wahloo cocktail bar, Paris

Andy Wahloo cocktail bar, Paris

To break up the trip, the girls and I modified the plan slightly. We took a late Friday afternoon Eurostar into Paris and spent the short evening in town. It gave us just enough time to chow down at the trendy Moroccan restaurant 404 before a quick cocktail at neighboring Andy Wahloo, easily confused for Andy Warhol with its funky vibe. We went to bed early enough that a croquet monsieur for breakfast did just the trick on the morning train northwest up to the Champagne province.

Avenue de Champagne, Epernay

Avenue de Champagne, Epernay

Aside from the famed Avenue, Epernay itself seemed a bit dated. Historically, Epernay was where the Champagne was produced and up-market Reims was where it was sold. Besides an old-school CD and photocopier shop and a market sourcing fresh fish, meat, vegetables, cheese, and flowers, there wasn’t much else to do. That only meant one thing, we better do what this town does best and get our Champagne tasting on!

Moet & Chandon gift shop

Moet & Chandon gift shop

Moët & Chandon is massive, but it’s one of those places that has to be done at least once. The stark white interior and polished gift shop said it all, but then again the brands are owned by Louis Vuitton, the largest luxury producer in the world. In fact, 10% of Champagne production in the region comes from the Moët & Chandon house.

What’s great about a guided tour is that you really do learn a lot, and it’s even a nice refresher on what you may already know. Yes, sparkling wine can only be called Champagne if it’s actually from the region itself, but I always thought it was just Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. There is actually a third grape that sneaks in too, Pinot Meunier.

Pouring bubbles at Moet & Chandon

Pouring bubbles at Moet & Chandon

Even more fascinating is that there is a labyrinth of over 110 kilometers of cellars in Epernay, all running underground the city, some going multiple layers deep. It’s the clay in the terroir which is why Champagne can truly only be called as such if produced in this region alone.

Magnum of Champagne at Moet & Chandon

Magnum of Champagne at Moet & Chandon

There are 3 types of tastings offered at the end of the tour, Traditional (one glass of Moët Impérial, Impérial (one glass of Impérial and one glass of Rosé Impérial), and Grand Vintage (one glass of Vintage 2008 and one glass of Rosé Vintage 2008). We only had the Traditional however I’m so grateful to my friend Jaime who gave me a bottle of their latest, Vintage 2008, for my birthday this year.

Gates of Collard-Picard

Gates of Collard-Picard

The courtyard of Collard-Picard was one of our favorite stops. We were so lucky that the sun was shining and it wasn’t too brisk being the end of October. In fact, the Prestige bottle we shared over gossip and giggles was the best of the day and the only one that made the journey back to London with me. Maybe it’s because the grapes were all derived from prestigious Grand-Cru classified terroirs.

The most special of all was the VIP private tour at de Castellane courtesy of Grape Escapes. Taking a short detour off of the famed Avenue, when I caught sight of the magnificent tower that trademarks the town my mouth did a big drop and I let out a huge “wow.”  Even better, our fast-talking guide Paulina was the best and took us to the top at the close of the tour. She taught us all about the game of champagne making, from deciding when to keep a vintage which you should keep from 10 years onward, or when to blend it into a non-vintage if the taste starts to turn for the worse over time.

If planning a visit to de Castellane, I would recommend doing a guided tour during the week, where you can see the live production line in action. For the four of us however, the underground museum was still very educational and built further on what we learned earlier in the day. What made the tour so special was the visit to the private offices, which housed over 7,000 champagne labels – a marketers dream.

Private VIP tasting room at de Castellane

Private VIP tasting room at de Castellane

We then relaxed in big brown leather chairs for our private tasting of both the Brut and Rosé. We definitely overstayed our welcome but it was the perfect environment to unwind and ask Paulina countless questions about champagne and wine production. In fact, we stayed so long we finished both bottles and Soph left with the hiccups!

Fois gras served in a smile at La Table Kobus, Epernay

Fois gras served in a smile at La Table Kobus, Epernay

After a day long of Champagne tasting there was only one thing left to do, find the perfect bottle from the experts at 520 Champagne et Vins D’auteurs and enjoy it over a classic French meal. La Table Kobus was spot on, Michelin recommended and the menu made our mouths begin to drool before any food was even served. The fois gras was like butter and beautifully presented. The steak and cod were perfectly prepared. Restaurants in town can be limited so book in advance and take advantage of their BYOB policy (corkage fee applies on weekends).

Only one question still remains, should I have tried the frog legs?

Taste Porto


If there’s one thing you must do in Porto it’s Taste Porto downtown food walking tour. One of the best ways to truly understand a city and the cultural drivers is through food. Food is cultural expression.

Besties Lisa Vecchio & Nidya Bellido in Proto.

Besties Lisa Vecchio & Nidya Bellido in Porto.

We met our guide André near Mercado do Bolhão in Porto’s city center. “I can promise you food, wine and caffeine,” he boasted, gearing us up for the next 3.5 hours of indulgence. We were guaranteed some of the best food in Porto, all from local producers. As many tourists would expect to have tripe (intestines) and port; André made sure we tried a few things off the beaten path.

André co-founded Taste Porto with his high school mate Miguel and his wife Carly. Although he trained at university as an engineer, his passion of Portuguese food is what brought this little tour together. Early on we were given a big thank you for our involvement, as a portion of our fee went to the AMI charity.

Pasteis de Chaves

Pasteis de Chaves

From our first stop trying the light, flaky pastries of Chaves, a small city in Northern Portugal, I knew it was going to be good. Only half of the normal sized portion, we tasted savory minced veal with parsley and a dark chocolate filling as our second. To be called such a pastry you must pass the designation of origin, similar to how Champagne can only be called when made in Champagne and Port similarly. Luckily the brother and sister owners of A loja dos Pasteis de Chaves been approved by the city of origin itself.

Andre demonstrating the sardines at Bolhão Wine House

Andre demonstrating the sardines at Bolhão Wine House

My favorite stop was Bolhão Wine House in Mercado do Bolhão. This was not only because owners Patricia and Hugo have transformed their grandmother’s old flower shop into a cute wine bar, but also because the market itself is a must see for any visitor. It has a little bit of everything; from a hair dresser to a butcher to the freshest food, veg and fish you can find in the city. Even the local hotels and restaurants source from there. Luckily for us it was the perfect time of year for fresh, fat sardines so we tried a few samples of tinned sardines, olive oil from the Douro Valley, a traditional cheese pastry (queijadinha) and some muscat wine at the market’s wine house. We were also lucky to try some paio-de lombo, or smoked pork loin, from the neighboring butcher as well. What’s a shame is the market will be shut down while undergoing a 2-year renovation from March. André and the regulars fear the worst during this time for the local economy.

Salsicharia Leandro (sausage factory) in Mercado Bolhao, Porto

Salsicharia Leandro (sausage factory) in Mercado do Bolhao, Porto

We moved on to what can only be described as a flavor explosion. At Flor dos Congregados we were served a double-decker sandwich, Sandes Terylene, warm crusty bread on the outside soaked with the gravy of juicy pork and sweet cured ham on the soft inside. Slow cooked, the famed sandwich takes 24-hours to prepare at this 164-year-old restaurant. Upon being served the sandwich, one of the 8-year-old twins who joined their parents on our tour cried out in excitement,“that looks crazy!” before devouring it.

Being served Sandes Terylene at Flor dos Congregados

Being served Sandes Terylene at Flor dos Congregados

Quite aching in the belly at that point, our next stop was for “an espresso in a teacup, well, because this place is fancy” at the historical Café Guarany, followed by sweet eclairs at Leitaria Da Quinta Do Paco. We finished off the tour, having moved on from strangers to friends over the last few hours, to share charcuterie and wine at the small wine bar Taberna Do Largo. Nidya and I stayed on well after the tour ended and shared a few more yellow bean lupins and wine from the small local producers.

I couldn’t applaud André enough. His affable personality coupled with his passion for showcasing food made the entire tour a pleasure. In fact, I was even so surprised at how well he handled the small children on the tour as well, always making them feel welcome by offering them ‘grape juice’ while us adults had wine and he watched them closely on the busy streets.

What I like most about Taste Porto is their general regard for just having a good time with food. They’ll even run the tour with just 1 person, and never more than 10. Even better, we were given a sheet with full details of where we went and what we ate, followed by recommendations for some other great spots in town; and an email summarizing our day to follow it up.

Knocking to enter the townhouse of Rosa Et Al to attend Secret Garden Supper Club

Knocking to enter the townhouse of Rosa Et Al to attend Secret Garden Supper Club

When Taste Porto invited us to the Secret Garden Supper Club 5-course degustation the following weekend how could we refuse? Set in a townhouse in the art district, Rosa Et Al is also where Taste Porto host their equally well-regarded cooking classes. Just 4 other pairs joined us along with André, Taste Porto marketing guru Marisa, Italian coffee roaster turned bartender Geo, and the brother and sister owners and chefs Patricia and Emanuel.

The table setting of Secret Garden Supper Club at Rosa Et Al

The table setting of Secret Garden Supper Club at Rosa Et Al

Candles lit in the back garden, it was such a warming atmosphere getting to know the couples from Melbourne and the US as we casually made small talk over our first cocktail. Unfortunately before the first course was finished being served, the heavens opened up and the rain poured down. It made for a cozy evening sitting around the table inside, going from lobster tail to beef cheek and finally endless cheese and dessert. The best part was having Patricia and Emanuel join us at different points in the meal so we could learn more about their passion for food, Portuguese architecture and entrepreneurship.

Traditional Portuguese Cheese Boards; Black Mission Figs, Walnuts, Wild Flowers Honey and Cinnamon Bread Toasts at Secret Garden Dinner Club

Traditional Portuguese Cheese Boards; Black Mission Figs, Walnuts, Wild Flowers Honey and Cinnamon Bread Toasts

You’re probably wondering about the port though, but that’s a story for another day. When next in Porto and hungry, you know who to call…Taste Porto.

Pintxos Fever in San Sebastián ​


I must have gained 10 lbs at least. Pintxos for breakfast, pintxos for lunch and more pintxos for dinner. I’m not complaining though. I certainly would call my first visit to San Sebastián in Basque Country Spain a success.

Pintxos, San Sebastian

Pintxos, San Sebastian

Pintxos are sort of a form of tapas, bite-sized snacks typically served on a small piece of crusty bread in northern Spain. It’s common ground for both locals and tourists to stand at the bar, napkins thrown on the floor, as you help yourself from wooden boards sitting out on the countertop with everything from Jamon (cured Spanish ham), gambas (shrimp), anchovies, croquettes, imitation crab meat and goats cheese to some really interesting and unique ones, each place having its own specialty and recipes. They are best paired with a local vino tinto (red wine) from neighboring Rioja or a garagardo (Basque for beer).

Some places are really good at the honor system and keep track of what you’ve taken while you munch away, while others you must first show your plate to the bartender then pay before taking a seat. Once we finally arrived in the pintxos capital of the world San Sebastián it was non-stop snacking.

I met my Australian bestie Nidya in the industrial port city of Bilbao, as it was an easy place to sync up. I was just a short flight from London but Nidya made the long journey from Brisbane to Singapore to Zurich then finally Bilbao. Hotel Abando was perfectly situated for our one night stop off. It gave us an opportunity to catch up and get our first taste of the famed Basque delicacy of pintxos at notorious Café Iruña, then a few others along Ledesma Musikariaren Kalea, a foodie’s dream street, before making the hour journey north the following morning.

Nidya and Lisa selfie at Pintxos bar on Ledesma Musikariaren Kalea

Nidya and Lisa selfie at Pintxos bar on Ledesma Musikariaren Kalea

In Basque they speak their own language Euskal Herria so Nidya’s native Spanish from growing up in Peru didn’t necessarily always get us far. She even admitted it’s not what it used to be as it’s now more of a form of Span-glish, but it still was a big help which defaulted her the role of interpreter at times.

Pension Goiko, in the heart of the compact streets of Old Town (Parte Viaje), San Sebastian was a cross between a hostel and budget hotel suitable for both backpackers and couples. The location was unquestionable. The beach was just a short stroll away as well. One thing that didn’t go unnoticed is the noise from the alcohol-fuelled night owls who filled the streets till the early morning. I’d argue however that you would likely get the same problem anywhere in Old Town so just bring ear plugs and enjoy being in the thick of it.

Unfortunately it rained all weekend but we still managed a walk along the beach and through the picturesque port. We were delighted to come across  fresh oysters in the middle of yet another rain storm, but we weren’t too fussed as it was a great excuse to escape the cold, wet weather. I can only imagine how beautiful the sea would look on a sunny day as the town is known as a surfer’s paradise.

The city was a lot larger than I imagined, with Old Town, two beaches, and the local neighborhoods, there was plenty to do. Known for it’s Michelin starred restaurants, we couldn’t get in so last minute so we stuck to the narrow cobblestone streets of Old Town. My favorite pintxos bars were La Cepa for their melt in your mouth Jamon – seriously it was the most magical and sensory thing I’ve ever eaten; Casa Alcalde for their house vino tinto, and Nagusia Lau for their great pintxos selection including morcilla and fresh octopus. Other popular spots include Taberna Gandarias, La Cuchara de San Telmo, and Bar Nestor although we were so caught up we never made it to those.

San Sebastián Old Town

San Sebastián Old Town

Atari was the real deal when it came to a more formal dinner. Ordering off their raciones (small portions) menu we stuffed ourselves with beef cheek, local fish of hake, and squid with black squid ink. All the tables were fully booked ahead but we were lucky one came free just as we arrived. Even better, the bar turns into one of the hottest after dinner spots in town, as both locals and tourists take their Aperol spritz on to the steps of neighboring church Iglesia de Santa Maria to mingle under the stars.

When the rain finally cleared the following day we stumbled across Mercado de la Bretxa on the cusp of Old Town. On Saturdays the fruit and produce vendors are out, replaced by craftsman on Sundays. Luckily for us, there was a fundraiser taking place for a few hours that we passed by with just chance. We watched a gastronomic cook-off on one side of the market, amateur chefs competing on who makes the best salsa-verde. On the other side, they were dishing out local beer Keller accompanied by merluza (fresh hake fish, lightly battered and fried). A local informed us this was the real deal in terms of authenticity, as two seconds later a small marching band formed, strumming and blowing their horns to traditional Basque songs. 

 

As the San Sebastián Film Festival was on that weekend it made for some interesting additional fun. Later that afternoon our noses lead us to the Japanese pop up Cinema Caravan. We sat out on the wet stone steps of a schoolyard sipping sake and eating takoyaki (fried octopus balls) while watching a video installation against the old walls and jamming along to the DJ set. Later that night while sipping Basque craft beer we chatted to Bertrand from Bordeaux. He was in town for the film festival and gave Nidya some insider tips for her next stop in Barcelona while I sat trying to make sense of his broken english, Spanish with a french accent, and Nidya’s translations.

Port of San Sebastian

Port of San Sebastian

Our luck would have it that on our final day the sun finally came out! It gave us the perfect reason to walk off all our pintxos calories as we hiked to the top of Monte Urgell to witness the famed Statue of Jesus, and stunning views over the sea.

So the biggest question remains, when can I go back?