Monthly Archives: September 2017

Insider Hospitality

There is nothing quite like showing visitors around your own home town or country. Of course you know all the good sites, your favourite restaurants and can probably provide an excellent guide to your favourite shops!!!
Nothing changes really when you visit families all over the world and the best is you get an insiders view, get to learn what the locals do and be part of the their customs and traditions.
Immediately after the tour I was invited to go back to the Veneto with the tour bus. (a very long day) Alberto and I departed Beaune at 8am, dropping tour group people off at Geneva Airport to travel back to New Zealand and after a 20 minute drive through the Mt Blanc tunnel continued the long drive across Italy to the little Village of Onigo in the Veneto – arriving just on 9.30 in the evening.
I was staying with the owner of my bus company Daniele and Marika and their  family of four children.They were all waiting to have dinner with me and the fresh orata fish from the lagoon was cooked in piles of salt on the barbecue and although ‘quite ‘ tired we talked – me with my bad Italian and them with some better English until late into the night. Deborah the eldest is coming to New Zealand to stay with us and experience our lifestyle for a year.
The weather has suddenly changed all over Europe and most places were experiencing cooler temperatures with rain, lightning and thunder. Daniele and Deborah were very keen to show me the Dolomites and drive through to Cortina. It was a spectacular day. The mountains had a light dusting of snow the previous day and our exhilarating ride up on a Cable Car to the bottom of the ski chair had a sensational view. We actually continued on up in a four wheel drive and felt very small surrounded by the majestic Dolomites. It was easy to pick out the numerous ski fields and look down on the ski jump from the 1956 Olympics.
I would love to come up here in the winter to see Cortina and the surrounding villages covered in deep snow, filled with skiers and tourists.Returning, Daniele took a deviation through the very very ancient village of Maserie – renound for murals painted on the buildings. It was a very tight squeeze for Daniel’s Mercedes  and I can’t help thinking who is going to be living in these character filled villages  in the future.
The family always sat together around the dining table for meals. The children came home from school which started at 8 am and finished at 1 for 6 days a week. Lunch would start around 1. 30 pm followed by a siesta. Work  however, continued for Daniele and Martina in the office of the bus company until dinner at 8-9.
It was similar on my last night in Italy where I stayed with my Venetian guide Cristina . I met her mother and aunt having coffee around 4.30, then an aperitif  with her sister in the piazza of their own gorgeous medieval village, followed by dinner at a fish restaurant with her friend at 9pm.
Life style is so different from what we are used to in New Zealand and I have come to enjoy their relaxed dining times.
France on the other hand is not so different.  I flew from Venice to Paris Charles De Gaulle Airport, taxied into Paris and finally trained to the Normandy city of Lisieux.
I spent 3 days in the countryside with my darling friends Jacque and Anny, who spoilt me with Beef Bourguignon, duck and Jacques delicious home made foie gras which I can’t get enough of, served with classic french crusty bread. I was left well rested with plenty of time for walking and sleeping.
A great day was spent on research for my Normandy/Scotland tour, where I found the best restaurant in the countryside serving stunning traditional French food. Plus a chance to cruise a few eclectic Brocante fairs!!!
Life style in France is quite customary and I always wondered why so many cars are on the roads around 12.00. But, it’s everyone heading home for lunch and a short siesta. Shops are closed for 2 hours and work stops. Dinner for Jacque and Anny was in the middle of the day and in the evening after the ritual whisky and nibbles we usually ate cheese, more foie gras, bread or a salad – always around 8.30 and completing the meal with fresh slices of honey dew melon.
It was a delight to buy vegetables at the local market garden, see the charcuterie shops and understand the how the French are very particular about their food and eating customs.
Paris life is quite different however, although the copious quantity of restaurants and cafes are full of city workers taking time out for a substantial lunch with a glass of wine.
Autumn is on its way and so are the mushrooms – these are bought in from the south of France and find themselves on the local menus that change daily with the season and serve produce ripe, ready and available.
Food customs are vital in Italy and France along with many countries. The joy of being a tourist is experiencing where, how and why the region you are visiting lives and works and nothing helps more than having the opportunity to stay with locals, eat, sleep and follow their daily routines. All the while enjoying their history, art and culture.
I feel very fortunate to have spent time with my very dear friends. I know when they come to New Zealand we will get to host them. But, probably won’t get a siesta in the afternoon that I learned to love.

What is a Truffle ?

Truffles do belong to the mushroom group and are fruits produced simply when mycelium bacteria come in contact with the roots of trees like Oak, Hazel, Hornbeam to name a few.
I think many people  wish it was that simple and the usual terroir, climate and temperatures make growing truffles very interesting and challenging.
New Zealand’s emerging Trufferies means we too may be able to purchase the elusive truffles in the future. Who know’s when we could have our own truffle markets like the famous ones in Alba – Italy or many regions in France from Dorgogne to Richerenches in Provence from November to March.
Varietal names like – Burgundy, Brumale, Perigord, Borchi, Summer, Alba and Borchi hopefully will become familiar and learning how to distinguish varietals, develop a taste and gaining a few new skills to cook with truffles will be essential.
My tour group spent most of a day with Claire and Hubert from Montpelier,  Beginning our morning at Claire’s brother Jean Louis ‘Clos’  – which means a property surrounded by closed walls. He has repaired the walls as well as topping them with high fencing to keep out pigs and 3 years ago planted grapes, rows of raspberries and currants, raised beds for vegetables and introduced 6 varieties  of trees inoculated with mycelium to produce truffles.  Jean Louis was very excited, because the following week he was to be picking his first grapes and hopefully get 1 barrel of wine –  about 300 bottles .
Under a group of old pine trees we became acquainted with Hubert’s Truffle dogs – an Italian bred called Lagotto Romagnolo which are the perfect dog to seek truffles.
They followed their noses to track the elusive perfumed truffles planted by Hubert for our demonstration.
Meanwhile in her usual attention to detail and perfection Claire was ready for our workship in the basement of a council building in the busy little village of Pommard 10 minutes away.
Over the next 3 hours my tour group tasted, cooked and ate a magnificent degustation lunch. Every course of course had truffles including black truffle ice-cream and truffle in salted – butter caramel.
Claire and Hubert both come from Botany backgrounds and both were flirting with truffles. They are now experts and in high demand,demonstrating all over France.
In France truffles have always been available in local forests and many people including Claire have been bought up truffle hunting with grandparents and used to eating them.
My tour group enthusiastically involved themselves in the new world of truffles and came away  happy with a new respect for these elusive, rather expensive, lumpy  fruits.




Hot and Dry = Early Harvest

In Burgundy the famous vineyards of Cote de Nuit and Cote Beaune which sit to the North and South of the picturesque charming town of Beaune were all bustling with activity as thousands of pickers were hand picking the precious Premier Cru and Grand Cru grapes. It was a hive of activity between the pickers and machines doing the Village and Borgogne grapes. Europe has experienced a hot long summer and I have never been here at this time of the year to see the harvest in full swing. Many tractors carrying trailers of grapes were readying the individual wineries to begin the de-steming, crushing and fermentation process and  commence the 2017 vintage.


This is a stunning region in the of the world wine and the appellation of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir is world famous. Wine here reaches the most expensive prices in the world and with the the help of the most enthusiastic character of a local guide called Jean Louis my group enjoyed an afternoon they will never forget.

Tasting wine is an art and understanding the complicated system of wineries in Burgundy takes time. Even more scary is trying to choose a wine from the huge bible at each restaurant and become familiar with some of the names of the wine makers.


 Towns all over France have gorgeous displays of colourful perennials filling roundabouts, hanging baskets and borders. Most are colour coded and I just love the selection of plants, from flowers, grasses and vegetables that always look stunning and I plan to copy in Dunedin.

As in my previous blog – Beaune too has a market that operates each week to provide local produce to the surrounding towns and villages. Beaune’s market never fails to impress me and once again I couldn’t resist the old old linen from the Brocante stalls. At least it is relatively light and easy to pack – Well that my excuse!!

Picnic in the Park

Just over an from our home base of Yvoire on Lake Geneva are the French Alps, which are covered in ski fields in the winter and beautiful villages with exquisite wooden cladded chalets. Each year we always enjoy a mountain lunch experience at Le Bettex over looking Mt Blanc and the following day a picnic lunch beside the gorgeous Lake Annecy.

Both days provide a chance to become familiar with food available to the French on a daily basis and provide an opportunity to look and buy.

The first stop on the way to our mountain lunch is at a supermarket in Sallanches and apart from the TV’s, clothes, toys and electrics etc, the fresh food, chacuterie , cheeses, meat, seafood and bread is incredibly extensive. It’s surprising how a walk through a supermarket can  provide you with an indication, not only of the local food choices but obviously the cuisine and culture of the region. It was nice to know the good old Savoy cabbage’s history evolved from this region. Terrines and pates are sold by the slice from very nice terracotta baking dishes and are available at any charcuterie counter, along with a wide range of hams, air-dried meats and salamis.


On the other hand markets are held in Villages on certain days during the week.The Annecy Market is always on a Tuesday and vendors line the narrow streets in the old medieval part of the town. Everyone had to buy something to contribute to a picnic lunch under the trees in the park.

While I was standing in a long queue waiting to purchase a slice of terrine and pate. I got to observe what the locals were buying and they were very fussy if the product wasn’t up to their standard. An old man in front of me had a long list and it was a good lesson in patience as no one was hurrying. The perfect espresso is hard to find in France and I just don’t understand how it can be so different to Italy. However, I was amused by this cute little puppy  asleep in its basket on the counter of  the coffee vendor. But, sadly once again the coffee was average. I would loved to have bought a bunch of flowers full of colourful zinnias but it is one purchase that is difficult when you are traveling.

Our picnic lunch selection was enormous. Everyone excelled themselves with  a huge variety of cheeses, foie gras, meats, breads, salads, olives, radishes, heritage tomatoes, figs, myrtles, strawberries and grapes. Even a plate of hot roasted potatoes!! Charles provided Aperol Spritz, so really we didn’t lack for anything other than a few deck chairs.

We even had enough for lunch the next day in our hotel garden after a morning visit to Geneva.  The sun was out and the temperature was perfect for a relaxing afternoon around the pool. Yvoire is a small medieval village and one of our highlight meals is on the balcony of the restaurant Lac Leman overlooking the impressive architecture towards the lake eating fried lake fish and chips.Timing is all important on tours and meals here take time. Nothing is rushed, dining starts at 7.30 earliest and there is always baskets of delicious French bread. Its a good lesson for us to embrace the French style of eating out.



Dahlias in the Pink

My father loved Dahlias and as teenagers we used to make fun of him and his flower choices – like Gladiolas. (which I love but not to plant in the garden) Each year we visit the garden of Villa Taranto on Lake Maggiore and it happens to have an astonishing display of very tall, very colourful dahlias.  I am always mesmerised by the range of colours, shapes and the sheer size of some of the blooms. This year was no exception and I have picked on ‘pink’. Plus I could have put up many more photos !!!

Europe has had a long hot summer and the gardens are showing signs of tiredness and look rather ‘Over’. They all need good shower of rain, but for many trees they have started to drop their leaves already.

The vineyards too are having a difficult season and grape picking is much earlier this year. Our day trip to Piemonte to visit New Zealander Jeffrey Chilcott at Marchessi de Gressi was very different since they had almost picked all their grapes except for the Nebbiolo. In past years the harvest usually hadn’t started, so they are contending with less juice and a challenging year. Jeffrey wanted rain and indeed he got a night of impressive thunder, lightening and torrential rain.

Our long lunch after a wine tasting in the village of Barbaresco never fails to impress and Jeffrey enjoyed a 3 hour lunch with us, which was a treat for him during busy harvest time. Course after course of delicious Piedmonte food along with a range of wines ensures this lunch always goes down very favourably – especially with Charles and we had some very jolly people getting on the bus for the drive to Lake Maggiore.(well for the first 30 minutes ) Here too experienced the stormy weather all night and the lake and mountains remained moody and stormy looking the following day although rain didn’t eventuate. Island hopping from Isola Madre – Islola Bella – Islola Pescatore makes for a fun day on the lake and a peak into the life of the Borromean family which still to this day own the lake and the islands.


 Lake Como to Milan

In less than an hour on a good traffic day Milan is a short train trip or drive from the Lakes of Como and Maggiore. To live on the lake and work in the city for many must be the ideal life style.

For my tour group we spend a day on the lake and a day in the city. Obviously most people live in apartments or small multi story houses almost built on top of each other in this part of the word but for us the shear size and opulence of the villas lining the lake edge on Lake Como – some of which are surrounded with vast gardens,beautifully clipped hedges and huge mature trees, they  are very impressive.Many seem to have their shutters closed and since it is now the end of summer for the Italians I presume these vast villas must be holiday houses!!

There is always movement on the water with the constant hum of ferries and the odd smaller boat. It’s easy to sit in the sun people watching and taking in the the magnificent scenery. Como is surrounded by very high hills and houses are dotted way up the slopes. Not sure how scary the access would be in the winter! Our weather is very hot and clam and dinner at my favourite La Baia was  fabulous as usual – with all the doors open to the verandah above the lake and you couldn’t wish for a better night

Our  day in Milan is planned around a visit to Leonardo Da Vinci’s work of the  “Last Supper’. It has to be meticulously planned with only a 15 minute time to view the work, followed by a walk onto the largest castle in Italy, once owned by the the Sforza family and is now a popular tourist site and home to many galleries.  It’s history is fascinating and of course was a fortress  with a colourful past. Again we are in awe of the size of the buildings. You do get used to the shear size of the churches and the enormous numbers of them but walking in the Sant’Ambrogio neighbourhood with tree lined streets and large apartment blocks is fascinating. On closer inspection you can see through the huge iron gates and most of the them have inner courtyards where you can park your car and include tranquil private gardens. I think we were in the most expensive real estate in Italy !!!

So from the Lakes to the City it is all pretty impressive and life here is intertwined and connected by trains and the frenetic motorway system.  Our drive in and out of Milan was painless and didn’t have to experience a traffic jam.!!


Delicious Food Choices in Venice

Life in Venice revolves around everything arriving on the water by boat and departing on water by boat. Although there is an island which does grow a substantial amount of fruits and vegetables – especially the little purple artichokes. Hotels, restaurants, bars ,cafes and locals depend on the hundreds of vessels bringing produce, meat and fish daily, selling it at the Rialto Market or even canal side boats which provide the best of seasonal fruits and vegetables to locals  and of course supplying the local supermarkets doted over the city.

3 Days in Venice with my tour groups means you can’t rely on just popping in and ordering dinner for 16 and in reality even by yourself researching and booking is advisable.

Local, regional delicacies like Fegato – Liver / Fritto Misto – Little Fried Fish / Risotto with Black Cuttle Fish Ink / Sea Bas or Prawns are all consumed with the famous local Prosecco.  The Veneto hills are carpeted in  grape vines  all producing evidently the worlds most popular sparkling wine.

This year we had a brief visit to a charming little wooden ‘villa’ set between rows of grape vines ; where you eat the bread, salami, cheese and tomatoes, drink the prosecco and enjoy the unique special location. Everything is provided in refrigerators and you leave a donation. Groups were enjoying their own picnic in the vineyard, sitting looking over the hills and the many wineries and probably there for the day.

I get to choose group meals on tour and our long lunches from Venice are always exceptional. First night dinner in our local Campo San Barnaba is a 2 minute walk from our hotel and the perfect start to introduce simple Venetian food, after the long haul flights from New Zealand.

Day 1. Carprese Salad / Melon and Prosciutto / Gnocchi with Fresh Tomato Sauce / Fritto Misto a choice of desert.

Day 2. Sitting high on the terrace in the picturesque historical village of Asolo at Hotel Al Sole where lunch is always outstanding. Our long table was beautifully set with colourful Murano glasses , thick linen and white china.  The slick operation of Elena and her team ensured our lunch was faultless and beautiful. Effortlessly lunch goes by too quickly, although this year the heat accompanied by Veneto wines meant a few more hours relaxing would have been nice. We started with a crumbed large prawn in bean soup , followed by scallops in black squid ink ravioli, salt crusted sea bass and tropical fruits with the most sublime mango sorbet, ending with espresso and petit fours. Very special and a huge treat.

Day 3. Our day on the Lagoon was in a private water taxi with my best local guide Cristina. A few years ago she recommended Ristorante D’Avola on the Island of Torcello  for lunch and now they love my New Zealand group arriving each August. It was hot and sultry, but sitting in the restaurants large logia with our own outside fans made lunch very pleasant and comfortable . The second Italian long lunch in two days was once again delicious with an unexpected plate of stuffed zucchini flowers to start and a traditional tiramsu to finish.

Venice never fails to impress and good food choices certainly helps.