Friday, May 28, 2010


My culinary sojourn in Italy started at a one-stop-wonder called “Eataly” in Torino, which was a destination in itself .I thought it was a great way to know more about the local culture by simply browsing around a well-stocked store!I found some of the best food and wine in Italy there, running the gamut from over 42,000 wine labels, delicious charcuterie and cheeses to fresh fruits and vegetables, meat and fish, hand-made pastas and biscotti which were beautifully displayed and systematically organized into sections.

I loved the “Sundries” area which was full of specialty food from the Piemonte region — and all of Italy and had on offer more than five aisles of local sweets including a semi soft candy called Gianduiotto , a cousin to the marvelous Nutella. In the mid 1800s when cocoa became scarce and expensive, locally grown hazel nuts were roasted and mashed into a cream as a substitute and mixed with chocolate!
I ambled through the best olive oils from each region in Italy, a fresh milk dispenser filled with raw milk from local farms and premium blends of coffee beans. I also learnt here that Torino has been the world’s top chocolate producer for years. I simply loved the cellar too where one could bring an empty bottle and fill it with wine from a huge glass jug. The store even had seven eateries, and a one Michelin Star restaurant — alas only by reservation — a café , a pastry shop, and a gelataria where I had the best gelato ever.
Had I more time on me, I would have stopped for a few cooking classes, more tastings and encounters with great chefs. A whole day was just not enough to enjoy this superior quality, artisanal, and value for money food of Italy under a one roof. If they had a place to sleep too, I would have never left! Why don’t we have such marvels in India yet?
A day later (after doing the tourist stuff in Torino) I moved on to Alba which is home to Italy’s slow food movement . No wonder I cannot spot a McDonald’s here! Alba is also the fount of noble wines made with the Nebbiolo grape (Barolo), and those exquisite white truffles.
After a short tour of the historic centre, I was in Alba’s local food market and it being a Saturday the place was in full swing. For me one of the most enjoyable aspects of travel is a visit to local markets. Sometimes discovering a pocket-sized market in a small neighborhood can lead to a treasured souvenir, or a rare local gourmet product. Either way it leaves me with vivid memories of the sights, smells, sounds and tastes of the local culture.
wandering through Alba’s wonderful and extensive outdoor market I found abundant vegetables, cheese, olive oils, cured meat, seafood and more. As I mentioned before the best white truffles come from Alba, so I found some — for a killer 5500 euro per kilo!. The shopkeeper kindly allowed me to sample a concoction of white truffle — infused with honey and mixed with Brie, he spread it on a piece of baguette. Decadent! A profusion of flowers were on hand as well, a colorful reminder of the importance of beauty in the lives of residents here.
Satisfied I drove on to Langhe hills, for panoramic views and more food and wine experiences. These hills are ancient, rich in visual and culinary pleasures. There’s loads to see: lovely little towns, beautiful scenery and vineyards, up and down the hills and valleys. The best way to explore is always on foot or a bike but failing that a car is essential. stopped for lunch at “La crota” , located in Roddi d’ Alba amid lush greenery and hills, as suggested by my local guide. This restaurant served regional cuisine and wine growers seemed very much at home there. There was also a wine cellar beneath the sitting area of the restaurant located in an atmospheric underground vaulted cave, beautifully decorated with paintings et all.

Young owner-chef Danilo and his mum rustled up a meal that introduced me to the true flavours of Piemonte cuisine, including such classics as “tajarin” which is handmade egg noodles with pomodoro (tomato sauce) and basil topped with a generous amount of shavings of parmigiana reggiano. The tiramisu was the pride and joy of Danilo’s mama, but another good bet was the lush strawberries dunked in sweet wine.
Needless to add, I washed down this traditional meal with copious quantities of red Barberesco wine. I also bought a delicious Barolo for just 20 Euros to carry back home ...Mama Mia, what more could I ask for in Italy...a surreal experience indeed! There can be no doubt; Piemonte is a region where you can taste the best flavours.
That, quintessentially, is the charm of Europe: there are so many places replete with homegrown attractions both culinary and visual that a traveller never tires of it. And everything seems to be geared for the enthusiastic visitor. There’s a lesson in this for India too!
Published in  ET Travel Delhi

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


My arrival in Manchester promised so much. The city was beautiful, the hotel in the heart of Manchester was lively with a nice indoor bar and a view overlooking a tiny market square, and the weather was gorgeous. Checked in on a Saturday evening, the city seemed to have a vibrant nightlife. The next morning I walked around the centre of the city and headed to Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United and the Imperial War Museum. The guided tour took me through the ground, the changing rooms and to the trophy room. It’s here I found out how important this great club is to UK, and indeed, world football. The stadium was impressively modern, which they keep expanding to a capacity, which is just shy of 76,000 now for a match. To go behind the scenes at Old Trafford, as this tour does, is a treat and is like being part of the club. By the way, I also got to sit in Beckham’s corner of the change room, where he used to sit.

The guides have a good sense of humour, though if you don’t like football, some of the jokes and history might go over your head.

This is a region that greatly rewards the visitor who grabs a map, not that you can ever really get lost in the ordered grid of roads here. So as hunger pangs struck, I caught a ride from Piccadilly to Bury. From Bury I stepped onboard the East Lancashire Railway for a journey back in time until the town of Ramsbottom (where my lunch reservation was).

This line, operated usually by volunteers, runs through the Irwell Valley along the edge of the West Pennine Moors to the town of Rawtenstall, and is so very Harry Potterish, more so with the Thomas and Friends engines and open cars for the special kiddies’ trains.

It was soon time to get off my steam engine journey and a short walk later I reached Ramsons Restaurant Lancashire, a small, intimate and very personable restaurant serving a modern British menu. I’d say it was a fantastic experience, decor was interesting and service very attentive without being intrusive, including the legendary owner Chris Johnston himself, who was very helpful. The wine list is exceptional and Chris’ knowledge is phenomenal.

Chris selects all the wine himself and is probably the only importer in the UK of his wines. The cooking is probably even better with a real flair for quality and precision. My scallops were excellent and the venison was succulent.

After wandering around in the local market, my last stop at Ramsbottom was at the chocolate café owned by baker and entrepreneur Paul Morris, and his wife Emma. On offer was a wide range of local and luxury European produce with a warm Lancashire welcome.

I ordered myself a real hot chocolate which was decadent to the core and a happy me caught the steam engine train back to town.

Published in The Asian Age on 23-05-2010

Monday, May 10, 2010


Rupali Dean was treated to a traditional Syrian Christian feast when she visited an organic farm and spice estate in the backwaters of Kerala

KERALA is famous for its spicy and tangy cuisine as much as its scenic beauty; it isn't called God's own country for nothing. On a recent trip to Alleppey with my husband and daughter, I realised just how true that adage is...

We “discovered” Puthankayal Island quite by chance. Our boatman told us that it’s the last island to be reclaimed from the backwaters for agriculture and is therefore some two meters below sea level! The retaining dyke around the perimeter of the island keeps the lake water from entering the farm, apparently.

“One can take a tour and have a meal for Rs 1200 per person there,” he told us. The foodies that we all are, we simply had to go for it! What could endear us to this land more than a lip-smacking meal at Phillipkutty’s farm?

We were welcomed warmly by Anu and her mother-in-law Aniamma, with some chilled gingery lemonade in hand. Anu then took us around her family-run organic farm that produces oodles of coconuts, figs, tapioca, bananas, pineapple, guavas, cacao, vegetables and spices like nutmeg, pepper and cinnamon.

Previously Anu also had vanilla on her farm, but unfortunately fungal disease claimed all the creepers. A vanilla crop, I learnt, fetches money for its fruits (beans) as well as its stem and is in popular global demand. Seeing my enthusiasm for vanilla, however, Anu helped me get some from her uncle's farm…absolutely fresh and wonderfully aromatic.

After that wonderful tour, it was time for our lavish lunch which represented the best of traditional Syrian Christian cuisine. What makes this cuisine different from other Kerala styles is its non-vegetarian character. It can also lay claim to hoppers (idiappams), duck roast and the famed Kerala red fish curry. And, of course, that indispensible mate of the crispy-soft appams — stew.

It was a treat to share that sumptuous meal with the family in their dining room. We began our culinary sojourn with vazhapoo cutlets. These breaded patties were served along with a refreshing onion and tomato salad. Crisp on the outside, the filling of banana flower, potato and spices was moist and delicious.

Next came the famed karimeen or Pearl Spot fish. The taste of karimeen fried in flavourful coconut oil is quintessentially Kerala! With innumerable lakes, lagoons, canals and a network of rivers, Kerala's backwaters offer a treasure trove of fresh water fishe, and the Black Pearl Spot is prized for it’s irresistible taste.

But the highlight of my lunch were the Idiappams or string hoppers — amazingly light and fluffy — and Meen Moilee or fish cooked in mild spices and coconut milk. It’s an incredible dish of a million contradictions, subtly flavored to suit most palates.

Syrian Christian food is a mix of Portuguese influence, British flavour and Kerala tradition, they day. Thus, the food tends to be mild in spice terms and not too fiery for the taste buds.

Another dish I couldn’t get enough of was the Pineapple pachadi, whose balance of savory, sweet and tart flavours makes it a delicious accompaniment .On a more traditional vein on offer was a wonderful mix of other items like dal, "tindly fry, pappadams and lime pickle, perfect as accoutrements for red matta rice.

This type of rice is quite similar to brown rice because each grain retains its healthy outer bran layer. It is this rust colored bran layer which gives it its name. “Like all brown rice, red matta

has a lengthy cooking time and requires a ratio of 2:1 liquid to rice,” explained Aniamma. The robust, earthy flavor of the red rice also made it an enticing companion to the scampi masala.

Though I was full, as always I found space for dessert. I’d say the Ila ada was the perfect ending to our meal. This interesting dessert is made by spreading rice flour batter thinly on banana leaves. Then these crepes are either steamed or cooked on the griddle, and stuffed with a decadent mixture of jaggery and grated coconut. We had the griddle cooked version, which had a whiff of smoke from the banana leaves…Simply divine.

Publication: Economic Times Delhi;  Section: ET Travel;