Idyllwild, California

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IMG_0866 (1)I lived for years in Los Angeles before I first learned about Idyllwild, a steadfast wisp of a town nestled in the forest of the San Jacinto mountains. Angelenos are obsessed with their own coastline, and fascinated by the arid vacation playground of Palm Springs, and even mildly intrigued by the anthropomorphic Joshua Tree National Park. But the forests east of L.A. draw far fewer visitors and I can’t decide if that’s a bonus. It’s allowed towns like Idyllwild to retain a tranquil, folksy feel even in the height of summer vacation season. But of course I’d like even the pokiest café there to succeed, and it floors me to think some lifelong Californians still don’t know Idyllwild. Even after providing the backdrop for an episode of “Transparent”, its potential for buzzy weekend getaway hasn’t lit a match with the L.A. crowd as a whole. I spent a blissful couple of days in July getting re-acquainted with old friends, and Idyllwild was one of them.

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Mountain Mike’s Harley

An apocalyptic carved-wood menagerie welcomes visitors to the heart of town, which is about a quarter-mile in radius and features a pretty, new green space in the middle. Rustic architecture abounds, and proprietors capitalize on the throwback aura with kitsch aplenty. Visitors can shop for locally made food and clothing, souvenirs and bric-a-brac. One stand-out enterprise is Mountain Mike’s. The stock is mostly leather goods crafted by the store’s namesake: a burly-looking, gentle man whose personal style is a study in native Americana—extending even to his motorcycle. The town also offers a movie theater, a few good coffee shops, and enough opportunities to stock up on groceries, although you’ll have to drive down the mountain to Hemet if you want an enormous selection.

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Tommy’s Kitchen is fronted by an al fresco deck and a sign that teased us Thursday visitors with $3 mimosas (available only on weekends). Taking pride of place on their morning/lunchtime menu on any day is the Swiss version of hash browns, rösti. Try it atop roasted vegetables or as a side to an omelette. Idyllwild’s dining options aren’t confined to lazy brunches; there are old-school Mexican restaurants, the “upscale” Gastrognome (if garden gnomes can represent upscale), and the night-lively Idyllwild BrewPub and Idyology. The latter two bring live music to their bar/deck/parking lot. At  Idyology we enjoyed a mellow dinner on the deck and were taken by surprise each time we made a bathroom run inside, squeezing past a lively bluegrass band and their 15 euphoric, dancing fans.

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Tommy’s Kitchen

 

The sprawling tasting room and art gallery of Middle Ridge Winery should not be missed.  Its effusive captain, Chris Johnston, walked us through a first-class tasting of his wines whose grapes he sourced from around California and processed at his Temecula winery. July heat notwithstanding, we swished and swallowed our way through a flight of reds and I was delighted to discover a Pinot Noir that may be my favorite from California.

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Middle Ridge Winery

A mountain experience demands charming mountain accommodations, and there’s no shortage within a short drive of Idyllwild’s center. A-frame houses and log cabins are dotted around the mountainside and listed on the standard vacation rental websites. The Boulder Lodge is just up the hill in Pine Cove and can sleep up to 7 people. Lovers of Frank Lloyd Wright will bask in the outside-inside design of this 1960s-era house: a 15-foot piece of granite rock takes up most of a living-room wall. The original black metal chimney and mighty fireplace sit neatly in front of the boulder: fire and earth allied to bring guests primitive comfort in the most artful way.

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The Boulder Lodge

The exterior of the Boulder Lodge echoes the period of its construction but the old-fashioned mountain charm ends at the doorstep. The owners have created a plush, modern retreat with just the right dose of bohemian homage. Think swish ski chalet rather than Grandpa’s hunting lodge. You can explore the granite landscape of the back yard, push your lung capacity on the nearby hiking trails (6,000 feet above sea level!), then sink onto the daybed overlooking the mountains, and spend a tranquil hour with your laptop or book. At night, the wraparound top deck shows off pink skies that reflect the sunset off of Suicide Rock, a favorite climbing spot.

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There are hiking trails aplenty, winding up through fantastical manzanita trees and lizards lazing on rocks. At this height above sea level it can be tough to catch your breath at times, but the views and utter peace are well worth the effort. The intrepid hiker can aim for the top of the Palm Springs cable car system in just 10 miles.

The happy-go-lucky inhabitants of Idyllwild are a symbiotic blend of old and young, retiree vacationers and hippies. They’ve staked their claim on this part of the world for its timeless allure: a snapshot of another era, or maybe even another planet, where residents gather on fold-out chairs in front of a wooden bear to debate local issues. They wear moccasins. They see shamans. Their mayor is a Golden Retriever named Max. And they’ve solidified their resistance to all the commercial plasticity of that metropolis 100 miles west, opting instead for a hopeful life of small-town good vibes. The vibes may not last forever, but I’ll be back again to try to catch some.

On 25 July 2018 an arsonist started the Cranston fire in the forests of the San Jacintos. By the next day, the fire had mushroomed and was destroying the area’s iconic Ponderosa pines and any other wildlife in its path. All communities in and around Idyllwild were evacuated and at least five homes perished before the fire was fully contained. The town itself was spared and is back open for business, although the windy, scenic road leading up to it from the desert flatlands is blackened and barren until nature begins another cycle. Show your support for this lovely community by booking a weekend and enjoying everything it has to offer!


Help me fight Alzheimer’s: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

Out of context: ma vie à Paris

 

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Welcome to my neighborhood: Canal Saint Martin

The boyfriend, the dog, and I moved to Paris on a well-considered whim. Oxymorons aside, the idea was born after a couple of beers in May and we had moved by mid-June. But on this occasion, beer bred an adventure with unarguably sensible aspects. We wanted to leave London and spend less money without putting ourselves out to pasture. Paris may not spring to mind when one considers fiscal responsibility, but it turns out we could rent an Air BnB by the month for less than what we paid in rent alone in South London…with bills included! So we put the wheels in motion and began a 3- to 6-month stint as Parisienne imposters.

I’ve made several big moves before, and delight in seeing what a new environment will reveal about me. Seeing yourself in a different context is an invaluable human experience — like shaking up a box of yourself and seeing what parts slip away through the cracks, and what parts remain as your core. Paris has been no exception, particularly given that I knew only about five words of French before we left. Here are my revelations from the inside, as the grains of me sift down and settle…

I am living in a cliche

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Predictably game-changing cakes from La Pâtisserie Cyril Lignac

This place is seriously as charming as its hype. Any retail chains are scarce and nestled in beautiful buildings, or they’re French and I wouldn’t recognize them as a chain unless someone schooled me. The women are beautiful, with their slouchy tops and artless ponytails and high-heeled open-toes clicking neatly along cobblestoned streets with not the slightest tremor. The pastries are exquisite, and the bread so fresh and airy you could curl up in it and go to sleep. The buildings are stately, ornate, sublime. The city squares are peaceful. The bulldogs are plentiful. The wine is cheap. The language is sensual.

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Le Barboteur, a floating bar on the banks of Quai de Jemmapes

Much more than that, the French are more free than you will ever hope to be. They worship art, sex, leisure, and revolution, and it shows in everything from their hairstyles to their endless cigarettes. Yes, they’re drinking wine every day, but they’re sipping it because there’s plenty and who needs to get drunk when life is this beautiful? (I have not seen a single incident of alcohol-related abuse or disorder yet.) Need another example? Look no further than the cars parking on the street, slamming to and fro as they nestle their way into a parallel position. Their bumpers are bruised, dirty, dented, because they’re used as bumpers. Their doors bear marks in the dust where people leaned on them, rings on the top where they set their drinks. Treating someone else’s car as a coffee table means a culture that acknowledges the transience of material goods. And that, my friends, is true freedom.

I am living in a film

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Take 1: Montmartre, sunrise, on the Rue Saint-Vincent, flanked by the famed Au Lapin Agile cabaret club on the left and Paris’s only working vineyard on the right

Our first apartment was in the center of Montmartre, around the corner from the famed Sacre Couer cathedral, whose bells toll proudly and intermittently throughout the day. This quartier has been the setting for many films (Amelie being the most recently notable) and has the curious condition of being an imitation of itself. Once a magnet for artist and bohemian types who frequented sidewalk cafes and met for creative sessions, it’s now a film-set–like recreation of that environment. You’ve got the unmistakably Parisian sidewalk cafes, and artists selling their works around Place du Terte, and lovely cobblestoned streets with ivy aplenty. But the bohemians are now American tourists, and Chinese, and Italian, and English. And the price of a meal or a drink is nearly twice what you can find elsewhere.

Maybe the cinematic effect works to its credit as well. The architecture is well preserved and there are two acclaimed museums in the area (Musée de Montmartre and Dali Espace). It never feels unsafe, because there are always people around. But I can’t help seeing film scenes everywhere. The first I viewed from a bench at Place Dalida, where I stopped on a walk with the dog. I watched a couple across the road having an emotional scene, arguing, crying, flinging themselves against lampposts and railings, while in the foreground another couple made out passionately. Love and conflict played out in dramatic opposition to each other, with me serving as the sole audience member. At its climax, the upset man slapped his girl and in an instant a dozen “extras” in the area surrounded him, driving him off with their French insults. I nearly cheered.

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Le chien noir goes film noir near Place Dalida

The second cinematic moment happened the next day, to the boyfriend, actually. He was wandering a side street near the Rue des Martyrs when a man stopped him so he could recite a page from the works of Chekhov. Despite the girl giggling at his side, he clearly intended a serious performance, and the boyfriend applauded, receiving a bow in return.

Last week we were having drinks outside a cafe called Le Progres, and a street musician warbled “Venus” in a scratchy baritone while he beat the melody out on his guitar. Playing music publicly takes courage. Playing a Bananarama song with teen-like enthusiasm when you’re about 80 years old and have no voice left warrants a total disregard for the seriousness of life.

I am woman

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La femme on La Seine

Seems redundant, je sais, but I’ve spent the past eight years in England, where men would rather burn their eyes with hot pokers than gaze at you meaningfully on the street. (Unless it’s midnight and the pub’s closing, obvs.) Their deference is as alienating as it is sweet. I was used to the overt appreciation of Homo Americanus…an attitude the Parisian men match, and then some.

Suddenly I notice men noticing me…often just a neutral look, but they don’t immediately look away. They look, they absorb, they judge. And only once have I felt uncomfortable, but even an inappropriate gesture seemed a mere miscalculation on his part. In general, the Parisian man is polite but bold, unafraid of rejection, even embracing it when it comes…making us both into a melodramatic spectacle: Look at the woman turning me down, ‘ere in the street, in front of you all! She breaks my ‘eart! Men flirt with me walking the dog, selling me things, even checking my passport to board the Eurostar. I have no interest in these men, but I want to shake their hand just for trying, just for being men, and being brave.

Becoming a femme fatale

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I spent 15 minutes on this “hairstyle”

The Frenchwoman’s quintessential style is something I didn’t realize I’ve been aiming at my whole life. I’m high maintenance posing as low maintenance, and that fits perfectly with the look: a bit messy but inherently clean, casual but well-considered. Join me in my quest for Paris style!

  • Don’t look perfectly made up, like a Southern debutante. Some great advice I heard from a Frenchwoman is “Make up the eyes, or the lips. Not both.”
  • Buy fewer clothes that cost more. Your smaller wardrobe will then always have something well made that looks great.
  • Borrow from the boys. Turning a masculine item on its head is what French women do best.
  • Wear heels. I can’t do this, for orthopedic reasons, and it’s devastating.
  • Wear your hair back, or up, but make sure it’s slightly untidy.

I am speechless

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His French is slightly worse than mine

That guy who made the inappropriate gesture? He deserved something. An eye roll at least, or a sharp manners check at most. But beyond lacking the language to deliver a perfunctory reprimand, I also can’t determine what cultural reaction to display, in that situation and many others. I’m reading a book on Paris culture, but there’s a lot of ground uncovered, and most of it can be chalked up to the mere peu of French I’ve grasped so far.

We’ve moved to the decidedly less touristy neighborhood of Canal Saint Martin. Amazingly, we can still live day to day speaking Franglais, but without formal lessons we’ll never leap the biggest hurdle: handling conflict in French. Case in point occurred when two girls hogged the single bathroom at Chez Prune. I went to knock on the door to encourage their ejection, then stopped short. I didn’t know how to verbally express such a thing. And I would have returned a blank stare to whatever sassy French response they may have thrown back at me. I have become passive by default. I didn’t even know I had it in me.

This is another undoing of eight years in England; I became confident in confrontation over those years—not because I enjoy it but because I got such great results. The English hate confrontation, and meet it with apologies…affected, maybe, but they backed down enough times that I began to invite confrontation, so hot was the fire of my ego. Cutting in front of me in the Tesco queue? Allow me to call attention to it, and regain my rightful place. Making too much noise in the cinema? I am American, hear me aggressively admonish.

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My running route, Parc des Buttes Chaumont

In my Parisian world, I am an ineffective communicator. My speech, when I do dare to speak, is quiet, halting, often accompanied by an expression meant to convey “I’m really trying but I’m aware I make little sense and am hoping you’ll just pretend to laugh with me rather than at me.” And they do laugh, as I try to order another beer or see the wine list (carte du vin, not vin du carte!). I say merci when I should say bonjour, and vice-versa. I apply an overly articulate style in my French delivery, which everyone will agree is pretty much the antithesis of beautiful, lilting, flowing-like-wine French. And I’ve even been known to flee a bathroom cubicle with lightning speed, aware that I could not explain to the next girl waiting that there was no toilet paper.

At best I am annoyingly, passively polite; at worst, I am cold (at least I can get away with it here!). But most of the time, I am just really confusing/ed. I encourage you to remain in one country once you decide to embrace a language, because flitting back and forth across the English Channel once a week means I regularly thank and greet Londoners in French, lending myself an air of haute pretension I definitely do not intend. And after we spent a week in Italy, I was literally left speechless upon return to London, then Paris, staring at waiters, trying to remember which country I was in and what language they expected to come out of my mouth. I could laugh this off if it didn’t actually seem to be affecting my English skills; recently I ordered a tagliatelle in a London restaurant and finished by telling the waitress “You’re welcome”.

Lessons learned

The written rules are made to be broken in Paris: don’t walk your dog in the park, don’t drink from glasses canalside, don’t jump the turnstile at the Metro station. It’s the unwritten ones you should pay attention to:

  • IMG_6297Try to speak some French, if only at first. However crude, it’s appreciated and shows you don’t presume everyone speaks your language.
  • Don’t take pictures with bystanders in them; the French are classy enough to care if they’re in the background of your vapid selfie.
  • Don’t suggest the French are wrong; if there’s a mix-up, imply it’s the result of accident rather than personal error to avoid insulting them.
  • Show up 20 minutes late for any social engagement.
  • Order your drink before your food.
  • Don’t expect to buy/receive rounds of drinks with Parisiennes. Pay for your own.
  • If you don’t get what you want, look for le système D (Plan D). Turn on the charm and be persistent; there may be a way to win you hadn’t considered.

IMG_6038Even as I continue to be seduced by this city, I’m grappling with the melancholia of having to leave it in one week. I’ve never felt nostalgic for something before it’s actually in the past. I’ve spent six months completely out of context, forever an outsider, but have started to see myself as more than a background player. I suppose that means I’ll be back, but next time I’ll be speaking French.


Help me fight Alzheimer’s: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

 

 

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Gaziantep, Turkey: tasting heritage

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn impressive Byzantine-era castle rises above Turkey’s southern city of Gaziantep. Circling the base of the hill it sits upon, you can feel the weight of the country’s history represented by this single, immense structure, defying the bright blue sky behind it. The Turks defended their city against the French, Italians and English during the Turkish War of Independence in the 1920s, losing 6,361 people. Once known simply as Antep (City of Kings),  after the war the city added “Gazi” to its name, meaning warrior. This castle, originally a Roman tower built 5,000 or 6,000 years ago, was the centre of the city’s valiant defence against attackers, and stands as an impressive reminder of hometown heroes.

Local pride runs strong throughout Gaziantep, and not just for its bravery under attack. This smallish major city (2 million people) was recently declared a UNESCO Creative City in the category of gastronomy. Claiming more than 300 unique dishes, Gaziantep can proudly say it’s an integral pinpoint on the foodie map of Turkey. Some of these local dishes have names recognisable to your average visitor to Turkey, but Gaziantep puts its own spin on each one of them, arguably improving them through its vast oeuvre of spices, ancient techniques and agricultural bounty. My quest on a four-day trip? To let my tastebuds find out what all the fuss is about. The bonus? A lovely glimpse of a city rich with cultural offerings across the board. This plucky little city outshines gastro-hubs like Istanbul and Bodrum for eleven reasons (and then some)…

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Terebinth menengiç (pistachio coffee)

1. On first glance, Tahmis Kahvesi could be one of the many cafes in any Turkish city, or even the Middle East. When I visited, fragrant cherry-flavoured smoke pillowed out of shisha pipes, old people in headscarves played backgammon, lute music prevailed. But the outlier of this familiar tableau was the coffee, which is not coffee at all but ground pistachios with milk—creamy, nutty, and totally unique. It’s only found in Gaziantep, one of many delicious secrets this city holds. The great thinkers of Gaziantep used to gather in the garden of this very cafe to discuss the big issues of their time. Looking around, I wondered if the tradition continued. If so, they were hashing out the refugee crisis and the city’s five-year-long efforts to help Syrians. But they may very well have been talking food, as central as it is to their culture.

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2. Pistachios are the “edible emeralds” lining the treasure chest that is Gaziantep cuisine. This city produces 65% of the country’s crop, just outside the city. Their variety is grafted from the wild terebinth pistachio—smaller and slimmer than other varieties, with purplish coats and vivid green meat. The nuts’ sweetness and dense flavour makes them obvious additions to candies, desserts and ice creams—plus that incredible “coffee”, terebinth menengiç. But this star player also underpins a whole host of savoury dishes, and can stand on its own as a snack.

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Fresh trays of baklava from İmam Çağdaş

3. Where there are pistachios, there had better be baklava. Gaziantep is its birthplace, and the dessert takes centre stage at every special occasion, but pops up at almost any meal and all over the city, even in bus terminals. In Gaziantep master bakers use durum wheat from the Harran Valley and early-harvest pistachios, and cook the baklava in stone ovens. Techniques are passed down to apprentices in a respected, ancient tradition, such as at İmam Çağdaş restaurant, where they’ve been turning out exceptional trays of the stuff for 125 years. In three cavernous rooms above the restaurant, old men toil alongside boys at large metal counters, flogging phyllo dough amid swirling clouds of flour, the whole production blanketed in a dreamy haze. Each tray gets 20 to 40 layers of dough, ground pistachios and an oil mixture, plus cream for a truly decadent variety. The takeaway version is drier, to last longer, but the kind served at İmam Çağdaş is probably one of the best things your mouth will ever receive: a complicated parcel of dripping wet layers with varying textures and richly complex flavours, thanks to the efforts of 50 floury men.

 

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Breakfast spread

4. Like its baklava, Gaziantep’s cuisine is layered, multi-enriched and old school. The city has emerged out of an incredible history spanning the Palaeolithic, Neolithic, Chalcolithic, Hittite, Mitani, Assyrian, Persian, Alexandrian, Seleucid, Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, Seljuk, Turkish-Islamic and Ottoman civilizations. Techniques and recipes have sifted down through the ages, leaving behind a near-perfect collection of about 300 dishes that are considered unique even within Turkey. Given its geographic position, Arab and Syrian influences are discernible, and recipes showcase the grains of Mesopotamia, fruits and vegetables of the Mediterranean, and spices of Asia. Although characteristically Turkish in its reliance on meat, Gaziantep gives almost equal billing to regional fruits and vegetables for colour and nuance. ‘Nouveau’ and ‘fusion’ aren’t part of the vocabulary. The city’s restaurant menus feature popular staples that date back to ancient times. Kebabs, stews, pastries and flatbread pizzas may seem like a limited offering to an outsider, but within that oeuvre lie hundreds of subcategories, divided by method of cooking and by choice of spices and sour ingredients that distinguish their colour, aroma and strength of flavour.

 

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5. Gaziantep’s markets and bazaars, or hans, are as charming as they are useful, offering ubiquitous items in a vibrant, non-pressured shopping environment. Colourful piles of mostly dried ingredients get weighed out from tall tubs, and sun-dried vegetables hang from awnings – peppers, aubergines, squash, fuzzy cucumbers – ready to be rehydrated, stuffed and roasted as side dishes. There are also pyramids of the ubiquitous Turkish delight and some less-familiar treats: bright-green cylinders of ground pistachios and honey, and Şira, which look like sticky, amber-coloured seedpods—they’re nuts tied on a string and dipped in a grape juice–wheat starch mixture for drying. Typically, locals shop for their main meal in the morning, moving from butcher to grocer to baker, informing each what they intend to make. The shopkeeper doles out the appropriate amount of ingredients, some already prepared with spices. The integral nature of this practice means grocers, butchers and bakers are always found next to each other, making shopping an integrated experience that benefits everyone.

 

img_44606. Wood-fired ovens have endured throughout the ages without losing popularity. They lend a savoury, smoky quality that beautifully complements regional sun-dried ingredients, pastries and breads. Gaziantep lays claim to several breeds of flatbread, known to most of us as pides. They’re fired in wood ovens, then served hot or cold alongside stews, soups and other dishes. Many home kitchens have such ovens, but if you need a large or special one for a particular dish, chances are your baker will fire his up for you.

7. Kebabs are the cornerstone of Turkish gastronomy, and here the default is local hallik lamb, with mutton, beef and chicken playing understudy. After careful calculation of the fat-to-meat ratio, it’s sliced or ground into chunks, then the Gaziantep factor comes into play: marinades add a umami punch with white truffle, loquat or garlic. If it’s minced, the meat might also be mixed with bulgur, garlic or mint. Then it’s skewered alongside artichokes, tomatoes, aubergine, onions, garlic, plums or apples before being fired on a grill over oak charcoal. The custom is to fold a flatbread around the skewer to nudge the meat off, then top it all with parsley, mint, tomatoes, peppers, ground sumac and ground sweet pepper. It may look like your Western-style kebab, but all those local flavours and home-grown additions make it taste like fire and freshness dancing the tango.

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Outside one of the city’s popular kebab shops

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Yuvarlama soup

8. All that meat can tax your digestive system, which is where yoghurt and its probiotic properties can save the day. It’s the main component of a tart but satisfying drink, ayran — the perfect accompaniment to a rough-and-tumble lunchtime kebab or a multi-course banquet. Yoghurt is also a critical enhancement to many Gaziantep stews and soups, its tang countered by fresh spring produce, herbed butters and meat. A much-loved example is yuvarlama, a labour-intensive dish of lamb chunks, chickpeas and tiny, delicate dumplings in a yoghurty stew flavoured with mint and pepper. If you’re used to only having yoghurt with breakfast, take a page from the Gaziantep playbook and your cooking will reach a whole new level.

 

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Chef working the zirh

9. Lahmacun is the local version of a flat, streamlined pizza. Pizza isn’t uncommon in Turkey, but Gaziantep leaves its mark by making it with fresh garlic instead of onion. It’s finely chopped with minced meat, other seasonal vegetables (parsley, tomatoes, peppers), pepper paste, and sometimes cumin. A curved knife known as a zirh helps the chef work it all into the consistency of a pate, before adding salt and red pepper. A very thin layer of the mixture is patted over an equally thin circle of dough and slid into the wood-fired oven on a long board. As with a kebab, you can roll parsley and other salad embellishments into a lahmacun and achieve what’s surely the best of all possible worlds: a pizza-salad-burrito.

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Lahmacun fresh from the oven at Sirvan restaurant

img_432510. A popular local breakfast option is arguably a dessert. Katmer is made with wheat dough that’s flattened and heaped with cream, pistachios, sugar and butter…a sort of Danish pastry on steroids. It’s folded into a square-foot parcel, and fired for 5 to 6 minutes in a wood oven for crispy, gooey results. Traditionally, a groom’s parents deliver katmer to a bride on her wedding night, but locals can enjoy it daily (cholesterol count notwithstanding) at a few bakeries. An unpretentious and seriously authentic operation takes place at Metanet Lokantasi, a family-run business that’s been perfecting katmer for 130 years, rivalling any French patisserie for speed and efficiency.

 

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This local restaurant turns out 500 katmer a day

11. Love it or leave it, offal lends a distinct element to many Gaziantepian dishes. Popular choices include stuffed intestines, known as mumbar, as well as gahırdak, which is minced sheep tail, roasted and drained of fat to form a dry pulp used in pastries and soup. Even breakfast doesn’t escape this wild-card ingredient: beyran çorbasi is a pungent, spicy mutton stew simmered overnight and then topped with fried rice, crushed garlic and red-hot peppers. Similarly gut-bracing is kelle paça, another garlicky breakfast soup made of sheep’s head and feet. If the smell of these breakfast sucker-punches doesn’t get you out of bed, you’re probably in the wrong city.

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Gaziantep street vendor

Special thanks to the Turkish Tourism Board and London’s Turkish Culture and Information Office for making this story possible, as well as Aynur Tattersall

Help me fight Alzheimer’s: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

Delta Diner, Wisconsin

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diner shot“The Center of the Middle of Nowhere” is where we turned up for brunch in northern Wisconsin on a Tuesday morning. Along a forested stretch of highway a converted 1940s train car was packed with locals and a few of us the hostess affectionately identified as “newbies”. Lake Superior is only about 25 miles away, and some visitors pass through this area en route to their lake cabin or campsite. “Popular” is a relative term in such a remote setting, but Delta Diner could at least be described as bustling that day, and it’s safe to say this hole in the wall is putting the tiny non-town of Delta on the Midwestern foodie map.

diner shot 3My dad moved to the wilderness about 50 miles from here, and his neighbor tipped him off about it. The diner’s gotten some outside attention after word-of-mouth made its way to the press rooms. They even have a website, where you can buy your Delta Diner merch and find out about the Burger Monday policy. (Burgers are not served Tuesday through Sunday!) I wish I had discovered this place, or that it was maybe a dream I had, but it’s for real and I would be doing Wisconsin itself a disservice to keep quiet about it. Beer and cheese curds alone do not a state tourism campaign make.

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The kitchen was bustling, so we ordered some shakes while we waited, and the waitress came by to “walk us through” the menu. She was friendly and casual, leaning against the wall after she was finished to explain how they treat their staff. Tips are factored into the total bill and each employee is paid a higher wage accordingly. They have interns. They believe in nurturing the personal growth of their staff. Did we have any questions about that? She took her time, and she seemed to genuinely care. How long has it been since I left the Midwest, that this seeemed like a novelty?

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PBLT with fries

Center nowhereThe menu varies a little with each passing day, but the “blue plate” specials that day were Norwegian pancakes, french toast stuffed with mascarpone cheese, bacon-eggs-toast, a cheeseburger omelette (big points for upping the American ante), The Big Boy, Pedro’s Mex Benny, a breakfast “sammich”, and The Lucky Denny. Their standard menu also offered sandwiches — the PBLT, grilled cheese or deli meats, as well as deep-fried mac-n-cheese, onion rings and fries. Also, delightfully, mimosas are on the drinks menu next to beer, wine and the requisite malts and shakes.

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Stuffed french toast

The food arrived within about 20 minutes and was consumed within 10. There wasn’t a bad choice on our table, and where the chefs sought to mix up the traditional diner menu, they succeeded in spades. The pancakes came with a pat of vanilla-bourbon butter. My PBLT was enriched with battered local perch and rugged fries, all predictably hearty but balanced with strikingly fresh veggies.  And if you think a cheeseburger omelette is pushing the envelope, you did not behold my sister’s Pedro’s Mex Benny: a Mexican variation on eggs Benedict that boasted green chili cornbread, softly poached eggs, chipotle peppers and chorizo. All framed by a serving of toast that, frankly, could have been a meal on its own.

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Pedro’s Mex Benny

Delta Diner pushes the kitsch buttons in its design, all bright and retro, and pushes them hard. This is exactly the place you want to show your friend from another country, or even another state. But those who turn a blind eye to cultural nostalgia will still walk away with a full stomach and vivid memories of imaginative, intensely flavored dishes. This kind of food reminds us of our American heritage while acknowledging that we’ve moved beyond bland and canned. It was a privilege, in this case, to be stuck in the middle of nowhere.

14385 County Highway H, Delta, WI 54856, www.deltadiner.com


Help me fight Alzheimer’s: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

Shoryu, London

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You can’t throw a gyoza in London these days without hitting an East Asian eatery, to my extreme delight. Gone are the days when you had to muscle past tourists in Chinatown to get your noodle on. Shoryu now occupies a valid place in this burgeoning field. On a frigid winter’s day I visited the Kingly Court branch of this small chain.

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A gong resonated to my left as I entered a lively atmosphere. The gong marks anyone entering or exiting, meaning it sounds roughly every 20 seconds at lunchtime — a solemn tone balanced by laughter and dishes clattering. A chattering group of waitresses broke off conversation to greet me in Japanese, and I was shown to a stool by a wooden counter.

This ground-level branch has an open kitchen and attached dining room that extends past the counter seating to a second dining room. Having not yet been to Japan, I wondered whether the cafes there are as sexy and inviting as those in London – all blond wood and mood lighting. The boyfriend assures me they are not, at least in Tokyo, where he frequented flourescently bright, acoustically aggressive places focused solely on eating, ambience be damned. Lucky London, with our appreciation of zen dining.

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Shoryu specialises in tonkotsu ramen from the Hakata district of Fukuoka, which didn’t strike me as wildly different from other ramens I’ve tasted except the noodles were straight, rather than curly.

They take 12 hours to fine-tune the signature opaque, pork-based broth and their diligence has earned a legion of fans, considering the attention on social media. Breaking with convention, I tried their “white natural” vegetarian version, made with tonyu soy milk, miso, konbu and shiitake broth, atsuage fried tofu, kikurage mushrooms, spring onion, menma bamboo shoots and nori seaweed. On that freezing February day, it had life-giving properties.

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Pork buns are an obvious choice these days, so I went for the Shoryu chicken from bun options that also included tiger prawn tempura, halloumi-mushroom and Wagyu beef. Diehards would miss the pork, but I’m not a huge fan and the key ingredient was there: a light, spongey bun that came stamped with Shoryu’s logo. In it was nestled tangy soy-marinated chicken karaage (translation: deep fried). There’s a long list of other sides, including fishcakes, whitebait, onigiri and tofu.

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The counter was a good choice for a lone diner and her laptop, but there’s a palpable air of conviviality in the restaurant. Maybe it was the warmth exuded through feng shui. Maybe it was the pervasive sound of the gong and cries of Japanese welcome. In any case, I suddenly wished I had brought a friend to share this experience.

I look forward to taking in an hour on Shoryu’s terrace this summer, but ultimately this is exotic winter comfort food, something you can never have too much of in England.

G3-5 Kingly Court, London W1B 5PJ, www.shoryuramen.com


Help me fight Alzheimer’s: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

Opso, London

exteriorI like being the first one of my party to arrive for dinner. On a cold February night this gave me the chance to get a good first look at the modern Greek tapas joint that is Opso. I craved comfort after getting lost outside Regent’s Park tube station, but walking into the sexy bar area I felt a bit underdressed and began self-consciously peeling off layers. I appreciate the urban style of such a bar — hidden lighting features, bearded bartenders, a grid of steel pipes balancing stemware and bottles — but on this occasion I sought cosiness. Glancing at the dining room beyond, I found it: brown paper table coverings and wicker, farmhouse chairs. In this corner of Marylebone, it seems, I had found an urban-pastoral mash-up (with a touch of dirty take-away…but I’ll get to that).

My friend arrived and I handed her a glass of the bubbly the chalkboard advertised that night: NV Amalia Tselepos Brut. We headed to the comfort zone. About half of the dining room featured small tables, with a communal, high table at the center. interior

I’m surprised whenever a waitress asks me if I’ve ever had tapas (“Do you know how it works?” “Are you OK with sharing?”), but then I remember to savour the now: modern-day London, with its scores of small plates and global cuisine. One could share every meal for 365 days, and never have to face another shepherd’s pie. The only real question is how many dishes will satisfy two people, and here the answer was five. So we ordered seven.

Classic spanakopita came first, a handmade pie with spinach and feta that we ordered almost out of obligation to Greek society, but — holy Acropolis — did it deliver. Sourdough bread cubes came with a sort of Greek hummus: yellow fava-bean spread from Santorini, topped with crispy capers and red onion.

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Spanakopita and sourdough bread cubes with yellow fava-bean spread

The healthy option arrived next: Dakos salad, in another sublime example of what any of us would consider quintessential Greek food: cherry tomatoes, olive oil rusks, organic capers, Kalamata olives, and lovely, ultra-smooth mature feta cheese. Behind the salad lurked the sin: fried Metsovone cheese, inconspicuously perched on a slab of slate. A tight shell of breadcrumbs concealed a small cylinder of smoked cheese, the likes of which I may never erase from memory. Smear it with homemade rhubarb jam and it’s easy to forget you don’t even have bread or crackers. You’re just forking it in with abandon, molten bite after molten bite.

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Fried Metsovone cheese with rhubarb jam

Here’s where the dirty take-away factor dropped in: our next two plates weren’t actually plates. The arrival of small fast-food boxes made me look at my watch with alarm, before I processed the situation. It’s the mash-up aesthetic again: mixing casual street-food style into our otherwise elegant meal. Dinner had gone from traditional to trendy in one beat, but I couldn’t find fault with either. Although it did leave me wondering if Opso’s having a bit of an identity crisis, trying to be all things to all diners. Some questions should just be ignored for the sake of beautiful flavour.

The first box revealed our soutzoukaki hot dog;  personally, I would never disrespect such a delicacy with the term “hot dog”, but I think I’ve visited too many American ballparks. This was a grilled beef shortrib patty with a traditional tomato-cumin sauce in a tahini brioche bun.  The second boxed item was a salmon burger with tomato jam and aioli mayo in a striking squid-ink bun. We shared both tapas, but probably should have ordered one each.

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You know when you forget you’ve over-ordered and you’re kicking back, digesting, when suddenly you’re staring at a steaming pile of noodles? That is when I advise you to ignore the wheel of hot cheese you’ve already consumed and draw upon your inner strength. The pastitsio noodle box (yes, another box) sheltered traditional hylopites pasta, with slow-cooked pulled beef cheek dripping in a tomato-and-beschamel sauce. To be fair, it was much like dessert, having a certain sweet quality, and I have no regrets about skipping the official last course.
Opso also has a basement floor, with more of the same vibe, and on a Tuesday night neither dining room felt too crowded. After paying the bill I took a quick trip to the loo, only to return and find the waitress waiting beside my friend at our table, to let us know the next party had arrived. We had pre-agreed to relinquish our table after 1.5 hours, and were still well within this range, so it would have been nice to leave with a bit more dignity. Still, we were fed, we were warm, and we knew the way back to the station. I maintain: no regrets.

Opso: 10 Paddington St, W1U 5QL, Marylebone, London, http://opso.co.uk


Help me fight Alzheimer’s: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

25hours hotel, Vienna

muralexteriorVienna in January is for the über-hardy or slightly mad. I’m from Minnesota (hardy), but not a fan of frozen eyelashes. My Viennese survival plan was to wander the streets just long enough to feel the icy burn, then spend the rest of the time indoors. Thawing. Nibbling. Alternating between tea and beer.

To cap off 3×10-hour days of this nature, the boyfriend and I were seeking cozy, laid-back quarters. Circus theme optional. But hey! Bonus! The 25hours hotel chain applies various themes to its 8 branches, and took a light hand branding its Museumsquartier, Vienna hotel with big-top style: Yes on whimsical furniture and colourful, dramatic accents, but No on live monkeys wearing vests. I’m all for a playful theme, but I don’t need clowns in the lobby, that sort of thing.

doorWhat I do need, apparently, is 25 ways to tell housekeeping to make up my room or not (via door tags, eg “Please place aspirin in front of the door, and leave”). Other needs were met with free WiFi, a loaner bike-messenger bag, and a quirky minibar. Besides these and a few other creature comforts, the hotel adopts a minimalist approach. As in many hip hotels that post-dated 2005, a spare aesthetic means edgy style but low cost. Here, simple metal racks replaced a wardrobe, crates replaced end tables, and a stuffed elephant toy…actually, I have no idea.

clothes rackBrushed concrete floors lent urban cool without sacrificing cosiness. The room heated up quickly and felt much like a winter-proof den when we drew the floor-to-ceiling velvet curtains over our windowed wall. The room had plenty of dance space and the bathroom could have held a disco floor of its own. It was skylit and covered in slate tile that produced a Zen-like echo under the rainfall shower. The large, refillable toiletry bottles encouraged savings: plastic, costs, kleptomania.

bathroomDownstairs, the lobby lounge presented relaxing corners and playful resources: a bench swing, a photo booth, an internet kiosk plastered with posters. Front-desk staffers spoke impeccable English, demonstrating efficiency and casual cheer, whether giving directions or manning the corner shop next to the desk, which sells travel-related ephemera and outrageous socks (4, please!). But possibly the best things these happy Austrians were peddling were free: bikes and car rides. A bike in January was fundamentally contrary to my self-preservation instincts, but a free ride in a Mini? The answer to every cold tourist’s prayers. The hotel has a partnership with Mini so a simple phone call from the front desk gets you a tiny chariot, on the house.

lobby2At the back of the lobby is an Italian restaurant, of sorts—1500 foodmakers—more zealous staff members, more urban-chic, and some really good pasta and pizza choices. (Though I was much more taken with the gnocchi than the white pizza.) In the summer guests can also eat at the hotel’s burger truck out front, overlooking a city park.

lobbyOne of the only aspects of the hotel we couldn’t fully enjoy, being warm-blooded mammals, was a long terrace lining the 8th-floor, glass-fronted bar. Token city architecture can be admired from it, from Rathaus (city hall) to the Hofburg museums. And inside…what a bar! Impeccable cocktails, creamy Austrian beers, and a zeitgeisty soundtrack had stylish locals draped all over the low-riding sofas alongside hotel guests. Even on a Monday the bar was still half full at last call (1 am).

We were happy Brits abroad by the time we checked out of 25hours hotel. We’d seen cool stuff, we hadn’t incurred frostbite, and we’d discovered accommodations that squeezed extra fun into our itinerary, even if we chose to simply laze in bed, under the ringleader’s smirk.

25hours Hotel Vienna at MuseumsQuartier, Lerchenfelder Straße 1-3, 1070 Vienna, http://www.25hours-hotels.com

REMEMBER:

  • Minimalism means you’ll have to bring your own corkscrews and travel adaptors (or ask to borrow them at the front desk)
  • There’s no room service, so pay attention to the restaurant’s hours
  • The nearest U-Bahn stop is only a block away: Volkstheater

FORGET:

  • You won’t find a gym, but the hotel does offer yoga sessions (and meeting rooms)
  • The restaurant doesn’t offer a full Italian menu; it’s almost totally pasta and pizza
  • There are no tea/coffeemakers in the rooms

Help me fight Alzheimer’s for my mother: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

 

 

Jinjuu, London

IMG_3639-0At the end of my meal at Jinjuu I discovered what I’d been missing, as I descended stairs to the loo. Tucked away below the main floor of the Carnaby-area Korean restaurant is the perfect cultural symbiosis of food and art. This subterranean diner-like area seemed a more appropriate environment for the à-la-mode street food I’d been inhaling upstairs; up there was a suitably sexy-fun dining experience, but down here was a Korean Happy Meal. Brass pipes dangled from the ceiling, catching the light. Art splashed the booths and polished concrete walls. Metal chopsticks clicked against a smooth house soundtrack. It felt like Asia for beginners: colourful and cool, but comfortable.

IMG_3633-0My friend and I were seated on the ground floor, which was not unlike other bar-restaurants in Soho—dark tones, wood tables, and a massive bar. It lacked the vibe I had picked up downstairs but that didn’t detract from the yum. We sank into soju cocktails —mine like summer in a glass, the perfect after-work antidote when you have finally escaped recycled air and long for something that wakes and soothes.

IMG_3634-0 The friend added Bulgogi (marinated) beef to her main of Jap Chae, a colourful pile of veggies with sweet-potato noodles and egg. I selected Kimchi fried rice to accompany Bulgogi beef tacos. In addition to the main menu, Jinjuu offers one of anju, Korean small plates and side dishes.

Both mains were solid choices, and either would make a reasonable late-night indulgence, having that slightly sinful touch of grease and goodness we all demand from our street food. But the kimchi fried rice was a mealtime victory; I abandoned my tacos entirely, crudely excavating the bowl with my sticks, moving from crunchy seaweed crisp to smooth fried egg to tender rice and chewy pancetta.

Bulgogi beef tacos with kimchi fried rice

Bulgogi beef tacos with kimchi fried rice

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Jap Chae with Bulgogi beef

Scanning the rest of the menu, I wondered whether Korean-Mexican-American fusion has made its way to Korea. My first taste was at the iconic Kogi BBQ truck in L.A., but the buzz has floated over the pond and cross-pollinated Western menus far and wide. Jinjuu’s speciality is their fried chicken; it may suggest KFC but it screams Korea with hot, sultry sauces and white radish on the side. Also on offer were carnitas fries and sliders, plus more homogenous Korean plates like dumplings and bibimbap bowls.

My next visit to Jinjuu will comprise a binge downstairs after a few cocktails in some random Soho bar. Not because I need alcohol to appreciate, but because it’s a bit heavy and a bit naughty, and infinitely better than a corner-shop kebab.

IMG_3638-0Jinjuu, 15 Kingly Street, London W1B5PS, http://www.jinjuu.com


Help me fight Alzheimer’s: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

Flat Iron, London

ceilingI recoil at the sight of raw meat. But picturing it charred and lying supine next to a sharp blade? That’s a vision that gives me the good kind of shivers. In London, as in almost any major city worldwide, steak is primarily a luxury. A birthday treat. An expensed work dinner. An option you offer up when you know your dad will pay. The creators of Flat Iron clearly took a hard look at this sad truth and stampeded into Soho to capture the hearts of We With Fragile Overdrafts.  For less than the price of a Zone 1 travelcard you can nurture your bloodlust at the original Beak Street location, or its hot little brother on iconic Denmark Street. bathroom

The boyfriend and I had the audacity to swagger into the latter at 7 pm on a Saturday, having heard you can score a good steak and some salad for £10 but fully aware they don’t take reservations. Not sure what karma we had racked up, but we were seated immediately. In America you’d have to put up with 20-year old carpets and stale drapes to get beef that cheap; here was a decidedly tasteful new-world steakhouse, a sort of  carnivory palace outfitted with cleavers on every table and plenty of solid wood and iron. Daylight gave way to candelight and Flat Iron came into its own, oozing sexiness the way their sirloin oozes…well…sexiness.

A sublime Old-Fashioned to start the meal seemed essential. It’s easy to convince yourself of such things when your main costs only a tenner. I was sipping away merrily when a tin mug of popcorn alighted on our table, the better to whet our palate and necessitate more drinks. The mainly male waiters that night were casually elegant, in the same vein as Flat Iron itself. We couldn’t be more pleased at getting a high-end experience at bargain basement prices. menu

We each went for the speciality – flat iron, a shoulder cut known as butler’s to Brits – the boyfriend’s with peppercorn sauce and mine with bearnaise. We specified medium and it arrived looking – then tasting – about six kinds of awesome. Side orders range from creamed spinach to aubergine, but we stuck with fries to round out the ubiquitous steakhouse experience. Plus the steak comes with a perky little salad to appease your arteries. Medium steak

Each location features apparently daily specials of specially sourced UK meat, in addition to the flat-iron; the night we went there were burgers, but a quick dip into their Twitter pool hinted at Wagyu beef and a belly cut at other times. I loved the intimacy of the Denmark Street restaurant, but I hear great things about the long communal tables of the two-storey Beak Street venue, and the St John’s doughnuts that are sorely lacking on Denmark Street. The prices aren’t not serendipity; they’re good business sense…I’ll come back to this lovely little spot again and again, throwing down my tenners and knocking back whiskey like JR on a Monday lunch break.

9 Denmark Street, London W1F 9RW (or 17 Beak Street WC2H 8LS) https://twitter.com/flatironsteak


Help me fight Alzheimer’s: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

Kerala, India

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IMG_3090The first sign we were caught in a parade was the noise. Our plane had landed at the southern tip of India an hour prior, where we then hired a taxi to take us to the beach 60 km north. Now we approached a village, and above the din of horns and Hindu mantras broadcast from temples came the jaunty dischord of a band warming up. Our car inched slowly through lines of musicians in t-shirts, followed by women in full traditional makeup and jewelry, followed by five elephants, shackled and bedazzled with sequins and silk. The boyfriend and I gaped out the windows, delighted to be stuck in a colourful cacophany after four hours on a plane from Dubai. As we would discover in the next eight days, India’s south-western state of Kerala is noisy, colourful, and charming whether you’re in a parade or not. The adventure had begun.

We were en route to Varkala Beach from Thiruvananthapuram (pronounciation mastered, thank you very much). It was easy to rent a car and driver at the prepaid taxi stand, and a 1.5-hour ride cost only 1,470 rupees (about $23). Easy, cheap, but not exactly relaxing after I discovered India’s dirty little secret: there are no road rules. Or, if there are, they aren’t followed and the roads are paved with peril. Sometimes I found it comforting to not look out the windshield at all, given the near-misses as we swerved around auto-rickshaws and families on motorbikes, or joined a maze of vehicles swarming at an intersection like protozoa in a petri dish…and always honking, honking, honking. The horn seems as critical here as the turn signal; certainly it’s used more often. Of greatest concern to me were the many pedestrians just hanging out in the road, chatting or resting with their fruit carts.

After sunset our car tore up a little road to the south end of North Cliffs, Varkala Beach. To our left were the South Cliffs, home to a famous temple and a beach where funeral services take place. To our right was a long path along the clifftop. Straight in front of us? The glorious Arabian Sea. We grabbed our bags and headed right, to find our hotel along the clifftop.

IMG_2993Here is a special place in the world, despite Varkala’s commercial aspect, with its many shops and restaurants lining the cliffside path. Step carefully down one of the several crumbling staircases to the beach, and you have your own slice of the Malabar Coast; it’s not yours alone, but it’s breathtaking. Wild dogs roam around looking for hand-outs and old women sell coconuts and pineapple…they’re all part of the charm. At sundown the locals play football on the wet sand made orange by the sky.

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North Cliffs path, Varkala Beach

Tourists seem to be in equal numbers to the locals who work the businesses up on the clifftop, but they intermingle happily. We made more friends with locals than fellow tourists before departing three days later. At first we were taken aback by how friendly the Indians were, chatting with us and holding our hands as we spoke. More than that, they just seemed so happy and unafraid to show it. Men walk down the street with their arms around each other. Girls sit together in casual embrace. What a beautiful phenomenon, this happiness! I felt us coming out of our own hardened urban shells the longer we were in Kerala.

Our first friend was Ravi, the main man of Blue Moon Cafe, which we discovered midway down the path, having flung our bags into our new home at Bamboo Village and peeled off several layers. We had our first magical meal at Blue Moon that night, discovering how light and complex an authentic Indian curry can be. Mine was mild, but I gained confidence when ordering over the next week, as I came to realise Indian chefs aren’t out to smother me with spicy heat; the strength lies in the alchemy of spice combinations and fresh, fragrant ingredients. A few mustard seeds, some grated coconut, the tang of kaffir lime leaves…these simple additions make Kerala’s cuisine the best Indian food I could imagine. And if you haven’t yet discovered the fluffy heaven of a parotta, you have the luxury of continuing to believe naan will do just fine. This girl knows too much.

Traditional Kerala breakfast at Blue Moon

Traditional Kerala breakfast at Blue Moon

Ravi lured us back to his restaurant with respectful insistence on at least two occasions. One was for a traditional Kerala-style breakfast, which he personally started preparing for us at 8 am, in anticipation of our 9 am arrival. Three appams of doughy rice flour were laid on a plate like snowy white pancakes. We ladeled a spoonful from each of two bowls onto an appam, and ignored Indian convention by tearing in with a knife and fork. The vegetable masala was buoyed by the lighter coconut broth. We had a few masala dishes while in Kerala, and came to learn there are subtle differences in flavour and spice level, although you won’t know which you’re getting until it’s in your mouth. Masala is the general term for spiced, and can apply to even a chai tea. That breakfast is burned on my brain – us chewing rapturously on the sunny terrace of Blue Moon while Ravi shared pictures of his family and stories from 15 years of work in Varkala.

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Blue Marine Resort, Varkala Beach

The first two nights we roughed it a bit in an adequate bungalow at Bamboo Village; we didn’t miss hot showers (it was 34°C outside), but it wasn’t as clean as we’d hoped. After two days we moved to a lovely big room at Blue Marine Resort. Our room was in the main building, set back across a courtyard. Our shared first-floor balcony overlooked the outdoor restaurant/bar at the front, by the cliff path, which perfectly framed the sunset over the sea. The guys who work here, Vinod and Aji, are beyond friendly; they gave us advice and served us beers late into the night, playing guitar and singing Beatles songs with a Malayam accent.

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Blue Marine serenade

A word here about costs: if you can get yourself to this part of the world, you can live cheaply for about five times as long as you might on other trips. Rooms can be rented for as little as 800 rupees ($12, as at Blue Marine) or as “much” as 4,000–5,000 rupees ($63–$79). Dinner will often cost as little as 600 rupees ($9.50) for two; ours were usually about 1,300 rupees ($20) with four 22-ounce Kingfisher beers. We bought leather shoes for the equivalent of $8 at one of the cliffside shops. You’re expected to haggle for a bargain, but I couldn’t bring myself to most of the time; shopkeepers work such long hours for so little profit, and I felt suddenly wealthy for the first time in my life.

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Backwaters houseboat

We left Varkala with reluctance, headed north via taxi to Quillom, where we caught the 10 am public tourist ferry through Kerala’s backwaters to Alappuzha (Alleppey). The 1,500-km backwaters network is made up of freshwater and saltwater canals, lakes and lagoons. There’s a variety of ways to traverse them, but at this time of year (February), they weren’t jammed with boats, as I’d feared. Our ferry service ran once daily and carried only about 20 passengers, but had a capacity for triple that. The 400-rupee ($6!!!) eight-hour ferry ride suited us well, although the houseboats looked like an inviting way to travel if you were with a group and could spread the costs. A Canadian traveller told us he had spent a night on a houseboat with only his companion, the chef and the driver. He had dined under the stars and slept comfortably on a bed inside. IMG_3069Motoring slowly through the backwaters is a sublime way to glimpse rural India: women washing pots on the banks, families bathing and splashing each other, Hindus walking to temple along riverside paths, cows and goats grazing beside laundry drying in the sun. Hindi chants echoed off the banks as we drifted by houses as vibrant as Easter eggs. Many people stopped in their tracks as they heard our motor approaching, broad smiles breaking out and frenzied hands waving. I was beginning to discover Indians’ interest in me as a foreigner. Varkala has a plethora of white tourists, but we were entering a part of Kerala that saw mainly Indian tourists; I had become the object of curiousity. IMG_3059

We reached Alleppey at sundown, and a rickshaw driver engaged us immediately after we disembarked, thrusting a hotel business card into my hands. Why not? It was a gamble, but we felt no obligation and had no other prospects yet. The Gowri turned out to be a neat little estate of cottages, and we chose a quirky treehouse room. From our perch among the jackfruit trees, you could hear only marginal nighttime street noise but — quite distinctly — morning mantras at the temple next door. I love such involuntary wake-up calls in a foreign country — the strange harmony of human voices and weird bird calls mixed with rickshaws tearing through the streets, reminding me before I open my eyes that I am deep in the heart of no place like home.

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Dyed yarn drying in the sun

Another of the hotel’s rickshaw drivers, Kabir, offered to take us to the city of Cochin, 60 km north. We had been thinking of taking a taxi, but he promised to follow small coastal roads and make interesting stops. Saying yes changed my life a little bit. It took twice as long as a taxi ride, but we took in ten times as many sights, sounds and smells in our open-air rickshaw. Twenty minutes on the road, Kabir pulled over by a brick wall and told us to follow him. Beyond the wall we found a yarn-dyeing plant. We stepped delicately around huge vats of dye and piles of fluffy yarn drying in the front yard. Kabir led us to a roofed area where two men were making colourful rugs on old wooden looms. Try getting that out of an Uber ride.

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One woman, many coconuts

Turning husks into rope

Turning husks into rope

At the next stop we met a woman at a mat “factory” fashioning rope out of coconut husks, binding their threads together in long strands being twisted by a small machine. She took 20 mincing steps backward, away from the machine as it twisted, charting her course along the sand floor, only to return to the machine and start another strand. I think of her now, still binding filament after filament, in the shade of the corrogated roof, all day long, every day. Two men worked looms behind her, turning her rope into sturdy brown floormats, such as you see outside doors all over America. The primitive machines clacked and creaked as the men worked the gears.

Back on the road, we caught glimpses of the sea as we worked our way north. The rickshaw next slowed to a stop outside a coconut oil plant, where a tiny old woman bent over, sorting hundreds of coconut shells in the midday heat. Inside the plant Kabir showed us a huge machine that consumed the coconut meat and spit out pressed oil, which would be bottled and sold for ten times its value to Western markets. Glimpsing all these moments of working life enriched our relationship with India, I think. It feels right to remind oneself of the human effort that goes into creation of the products we use every day in the Western world.

This man probably made your doormat.

This man probably made your doormat.

Fishing nets outside Cochin

Fishing nets outside Cochin

Next Kabir showed us the little-known Marari Beach…the kind you dream about at your desk…with soft, pristine white sand and dogs sleeping in the shade of moored boats. He saw the joy in our eyes and turned to us to ask, “You stay here?” For a brief moment the boyfriend and I could see our whole lives blissfully unfolding if we just…stayed here. But we’d promised ourselves more than sand on this trip, so it was back into the rickshaw and on to Cochin.

Upon entering the outskirts, we made a final stop, to see up close one of the very large “spider” fishing nets found all around Cochin. The net is attached to the ends of long wooden poles extended over the water. The fisherman, a short man with high hopes, pulled on weighted ropes tied to the poles, and the net rose from the water, dripping empty disappointment. Back down it sank, in another cycle of ancient labour that repeats itself every day, for endless days.

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Fishing net weighted pulley system

Almost immediately after we said goodbye to Kabir in Cochin, I was plotting our escape. It’s a nice enough little city, with Portuguese colonial architecture and a burgeoning art scene, but I felt stifled as we navigated the burning midday streets of the Fort Cochin neighbourhood, dodging motorbikes and trying to find wifi to explore hotel options. This neighbourhood is on the water, but not the actual waterfront, and the heat is staggering when you’re even a block away from the sea breeze. Plus, as a city kid who doesn’t get enough nature, I felt irritated by the hassle of negotiating a foreign city centre at that moment.

With only four days left of our trip, we decided to spend just one day and night in Cochin. There are several homestays in the area, which are rooms in homes where you can experience the food and customs of an Indian family. We opted for a nearby hotel room instead; after a shower and rest, we headed to the centre of Fort Cochin, to find its Tourist Desk. This service offers a two-day, one-night tour to Munnar, in the Cardamom Hills east of Cochin. The hill country is dotted with old estates formerly used by British colonials for a cool mountain respite in the summer. The real draw for us was the tea plantations, having an intense curiousity about where our daily fix comes from.

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Munnar is only about a four-hour drive from Cochin, but the tour promised many interesting stopping points that would stretch it into almost a full day. Some did prove interesting; others may well have been, if we had known what we were looking at. It turned out our driver spoken very limited English. We pulled up to an elephant camp in Kodanad around 9 am. “Where do these elephants come from?” I asked him. “Yes!” he exclaimed. After a few similar exchanges, I christened myself the unofficial tour guide, reading from our Rough Guide book and educating the other English passenger and a couple from Rajasthan, our travelling companions.

Ayurvedic spice garden

Ayurvedic spice garden

To be fair, the Tourist Desk brochure said nothing about a guided tour. But then, it also didn’t advertise a driver with a near-fatal intent to overtake every vehicle he encountered for two days. Nor did it promise a close encounter with the back of an oil tanker that stopped short after we’d been tailing it for two miles. Finally, it failed to describe the exhilaration of careening 60 mph through a highway construction site in near-darkness on our arrival back in Cochin. I had become used to a prolonged sense of terror in rickshaws driving through cities, but this trip in the back of a seatbelt-less SUV on steep roads pretty much drained every drop of relaxation I had soaked up on this vacation.

That said, the views from our backseat were incredible. We zipped up the hills through vibrant green tea trees, which clung like a carpet of neat puzzle pieces to the jagged landscape. At Kodanadu we had watched five elephants bathed in a river — a twice-daily routine that I don’t fully understand (can’t they clean themselves?) but they seemed to relish. We also stopped at Cheeyappara waterfall, and made an unofficial visit to one of many roadside Ayurvedic spice gardens. But the Munnar Tea Museum was the pinnacle of the day (physical and metaphorical), and we spent a happy hour watching tea leaves being sorted, oxidised and dried, before sampling a couple of brews in the lobby.

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Tea trees in Munnar

01cafe95a4c875108bec89b4aae09556ccdda14370We stayed that night at a four-room bungalow the Tourist Desk runs in south Munnar, called The British County. Two lovely girls took care of us, prepping the rooms, making us chai and serving us savory meals in a dining room with knock-out views of the Sahya Mountains. The British County has no TV or wifi, so after the sunset we watched regulated fires burning on the far-off mountainside, then read books until we were sleepy.

The second day of the tour covered Kundala Lake, Mattupatty Dam and the Top Station; the latter is a 1,700-m-high lookout point on a ridge among the mountaintops of the Western Ghats. Tea pickers used to bring their leafy loads up to this station for transportation and processing. The visitor who makes the extreme effort to hike steeply down a trail — and then up, to reach the furthest vantage — is richly rewarded. There were 360-degree views of Indian countryside such as I’d never envisioned. So green! So open, wild, and remote! I saw then how Kerala had come to be dubbed “God’s own country”.

IMG_3271I snapped the photo above at a rest stop on our tour, charmed by the sleeping dog on the stones. In the bottom of the frame you see an extinguished fire in some kind of basin. This is unusual, in that the fire had obviously been contained: the only evidence of a contained fire I witnessed in India. For days I’d been puzzling over the many random small fires we had passed…on the roadside, behind a restaurant, in front of a house. Turns out they’re burning trash, but the irony is that litter seems to remain a huge problem in India. In other words, I figure there should probably be like 500 times as many fires as we saw, at any given time. Our Indian tour mates thought nothing of tossing an empty cup out the car window, or chucking a wad of paper shoulder-wise into the ravine of a pretty tea plantation. Such seemingly systemic behaviour has resulted in a blight on most of the lovely natural places we visited. Stop the car, gaze at the view, then pan down from any given scenic point: there it is, on the ground below, litter, litter everywhere.

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(Litter not pictured)

After our weekend in hill country, we decided to end the vacation with two days on the beach. A little-known treasure about 25 km north of Cochin is Cherai Beach. We rickshawed over a bridge and up Vypin Island, arriving at Baywatch Beach Homes. We had booked a standard room on Agoda.com, but the manager insisted on showing us an option to upgrade; this decision turned out to be pretty much a no-brainer, after he showed us the windowless room we had reserved. As he flicked on the sharp flourescent light, a terrified cricket fled underneath the bed. We were used to bare bones, but an oceanfront room with toilet paper seemed like a nice prospect for our final two nights.

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Baywatch Beach Homes

Our air-conditioned room had patio doors opening onto a broad shared balcony with tables and chairs. Hardly anyone ventured onto the balcony for two days, except the wait staff when we ate our meals in front of our room, the better to view the sunset. Other times we walked downstairs into the open-air dining room, oddly reminiscent of a 1980s skate park. The staff at Baywatch were so nice, and the location so perfect…only a few steps and we were on the beach. It didn’t matter that there weren’t many other restaurant options or bars nearby; the only reason we found to leave the property was to take a short trip into town for some shopping.

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Pubescent paparazzi

Cherai Beach stretches for miles but it seemed so pleasantly empty; this was mid-February, and the end of tourist season. A few hotels neighboured ours, but they were sparsely occupied. Most locals didn’t use the beach until the sun fell low in the sky. Those who did appear during the day often wandered our way and stood in groups, mostly of teenage boys, gaping at our white skin and… taking our photos?! I had become accustomed to this on the roads, as boys on motorbikes screeched to a halt, wanting a “selfie”. Driving through villages, I’d been starting to feel like Princess Di as people caught sight of me in a rickshaw and began their frenzied waving, nudging their friends. But in my swimsuit,  trying to find peace in this beautiful stretch of beach, I could never shake the discomfort at being stared at. I couldn’t even come to terms with their wanting photographs of me, despite the boyfriend’s assurances that they’re just fascinated and want to show people they have Western “friends”. I think I’d need an extra week to get past this odd aspect of Indian beach culture, but it didn’t taint my joy at playing in gentle waves and taking long morning walks.

I’m back in the London winter now, watching my tan fade to freckles. A vibrant slideshow of memories plays in my head as I stare at the map of South India on our kitchen wall. The area we travelled, 375 km from Thiravananthupuram to Calicutt, looks such a tiny part of India. There are so many varied experiences one can have on such a massive subcontinent, and mine ended up surprising me; what I saw seems so markedly different to the India I had heard about, all dusty city streets and poverty. Kerala has both, but so much more.  Mine is an India of smiling faces, balmy ocean scenes and colour everywhere. I might stay away forever to preserve it that way. IMG_3128


REMEMBER:

  • Chai in India is simply black tea cooked in a pan with milk and sugar, resulting in a creamy, caramely drink, not a spiced latte such as you find at Starbuck’s
  • It’s often the custom to remove your shoes before entering a building
  • The further north you travel in South India, the more Muslim it is; alcohol is scarce and you should cover your shoulders and legs

FORGET:

  • Toilet paper, unless you bring it; you’ll find a hose beside the toilet instead and if that confuses you as much as it did me, educate yourself in advance
  • Drinking tap water, or eating ice or vegetables/fruits washed in local water
  • Visiting from March to November, unless you prefer extreme heat and monsoons

Help me fight Alzheimer’s for my mother: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society