photographs

Photo Series: The Pedestrians Of Siena

During our trip to Italy in June 2012, we spent some time in one of my favourite cities, Siena. One day, after exploring the city’s labyrinthine streets, we stopped at a tiny little cafe and sat down for a couple of hours to enjoy a bottle (OK, maybe two) of prosecco. It turns out we were pretty close to the University, so even though it was a small street, it was quite the busy pedestrian thoroughfare. Enjoying the people-watching over the course of the afternoon, I decided to set up my iPhone and take candid photos of the people walking past. I’m assuming this is legal!!!!!

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Uh oh, getting suspicious looks.

Uh oh, getting suspicious looks.

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BUSTED!!!!

BUSTED!!!!

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Ejo #41 – The Best Meal I Have Ever Had In My Entire Life (At Sushi Yoshitake – Tokyo, Japan)

I promised myself (I swore black and blue) that for this month’s ejo, I wouldn’t be writing about our travels (or the food we shove in our faces during our travels). I am quite obviously, a good-for-nothing liar, because as you can see I am very much writing about the food that we ate during our recent trip to Japan. But c’mon, have you read the title of this month’s post??? How do you eat the best meal of your entire life and not write about it? How do you enjoy the most incredible food you’ve ever consumed in 41 years of, pretty well non-stop, eating and not shout it from the rooftop? When you experience a meal like David and I had on the 13th April 2013 you simply MUST write about it. It feels like a moral obligation to do so.

 

So, I did a quick calculation. By my conservative estimate I’ve had in excess of 45,000 meals in my lifetime. I’ve had breast milk, mashed bananas, sandwiches, fruit, two minute noodles, lasagne, stir fries, pizza, hamburgers, veal schnitzel, cheese platters, soufflés, Wagyu steaks and Moulard duck foie gras en terrine with Rose gelée, Pink Lady apple, Génoise, nasturtium, red walnuts and Périgourd truffle.

 

That last one there was one of the dishes we ate at The French Laundry a couple of years ago. That was our first three Michelin star experience. We’ve had a couple since and to be completely honest I haven’t been so impressed by the three star brouhaha. Three stars apparently translates as fussy food, even fussier service and bloody ridiculous prices. I decided a little while ago that I preferred food that was somewhere in the middle. Yes, I still love a good tasting menu. But no, I don’t need each dish to be constructed from two dozen processes and made of ingredients varying from baby seal eye gunk to spherified Siberian tundra. And to be blunt, I have never had a degustation experience where every single course was of the same high quality. Never. There’s always a weak link in the food chain, which of course, ultimately let’s the whole meal down.

 

So, when I made the booking at Sushi Yoshitake (based on a ludicrous amount of online research), the fact that it owned three Michelin stars not only WASN’T a deciding factor, it almost put me off.

 

Just a couple of awards.

Just a couple of awards.

 

I needn’t have worried. Sushi Yoshitake turned out to be the restaurant I have been dreaming of my whole life. It is simple, friendly, unfussy and turns out the most incredible food I’ve ever tasted. For many years, I’ve played the game, “If you were stranded on a desert island, what one food would you choose to eat for the rest of your life?” with friends, and my answer has always been Japanese food. My answer, now, is Masterchef Masahiro Yoshitake’s food.

 

Every single thing that passed my lips, was the best I had ever had. Every piece I ate, literally made me gasp: with pleasure, with joy, with shock! The best octopus, the best snapper, the best sea urchin. And the abalone! When I was younger, my family owned property down at Cape Schanck on the Mornington Peninsula. We would often go fishing and foraging on the beach for crabs, mussels and very occasionally (when we were lucky) abalone, so I am familiar with the taste of this mollusc. I’ve since had abalone a number of times at other Michelin worthy restaurants and always been disappointed. The abalone at Sushi Yoshitake was sheer perfection. I cannot imagine a preparation that could taste better than what was offered. I don’t know what Chef Yoshitake did to it, but I imagine it wasn’t very much. And that’s what sets this 3 star restaurant apart. He simply slices (with great skill) the very finest ingredients available. He doesn’t need a staff of sixty to prepare, boil, reduce, foam, freeze, aerate, spread or dice the food. He allows the food to speak for itself.

 

Before eating at this restaurant, if you’d asked me which meal had been the best meal of my life, I couldn’t have told you. The closest I could come would be to offer you a top five. Nothing before has ever stood out as the most remarkable, the most memorable, the most amazing meal of my life. Since the 13th April 2013, I have no qualms in saying that my meal at Sushi Yoshitake is the best I have ever had. It completely blew my mind. I am no longer in search of the holy grail of cuisine. I have found it. I have experienced it. I am fulfilled.

 

Finding Sushi Yoshitake without Google Maps would have been virtually impossible.  The signage is entirely in Japanese.

Finding Sushi Yoshitake without Google Maps would have been virtually impossible. The signage is entirely in Japanese.

 

Nothing in the seven seat restaurant detracts from the food.  It's all about paring back external stimuli and focussing on the look, smell, texture and taste of what you're about to eat.  They even ask you to refrain from wearing perfume.

Nothing in the seven seat restaurant detracts from the food. It’s all about paring back external stimuli and focussing on the look, smell, texture and taste of what you’re about to eat. They even ask you to refrain from wearing perfume.

 

Masterchef Masahiro Yoshitake is not above serving beer to his customers.  This complete lack of ego is what makes dining here such a pleasure (apart from the spectacular food).

Masterchef Masahiro Yoshitake is not above serving beer to his customers. This complete lack of ego is what makes dining here such a pleasure (apart from the spectacular food).

 

I have a feeling this octopus was alive not too long before this picture was taken.

I have a feeling this octopus was alive not too long before this picture was taken.

 

Fresh wasabi being grated on dried sharkskin.

Fresh wasabi being grated on dried sharkskin.

 

Condiments.

Condiments.

 

Fresh spring Japanese greens topped with sea cucumber roe.

Fresh spring Japanese greens topped with sea cucumber roe.

 

Salt (for the octopus).

Salt (for the octopus).

 

Tako (Japanese octopus).  Superlative.

Tako (Japanese octopus). Superlative.

 

Snapper (which was served in a sauce made from the fish's bones).

Snapper (which was served in a sauce made from the fish’s bones).

 

Japanese abalone

Japanese abalone

 

Sauce made from the abalone's liver.  Sounds (and looks) awful, but was so delicious I actually licked my plate clean when I thought (hope!) no-one was looking.

Sauce made from the abalone’s liver. Sounds (and looks) awful, but was so delicious I actually licked my plate clean when I thought (hope!) no-one was looking.

 

Sushi rice served with the left over abalone liver sauce.  I had no left over abalone liver sauce so Chef Yoshitake instructed his assistant to give me some more.  Was I embarrassed?  Not at all.  Compliments to the chef!  By the way, it probably goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway: BEST sushi rice I've ever tasted!

Sushi rice served with the left over abalone liver sauce. I had no left over abalone liver sauce so Chef Yoshitake instructed his assistant to give me some more. Was I embarrassed? Not at all. Compliments to the chef! By the way, it probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: BEST sushi rice I’ve ever tasted!

 

Nihonshu, baby!

Nihonshu, baby!

 

Marinated baby cuttlefish.

Marinated baby cuttlefish.

 

Smoked bonito tuna with ponzu jelly.

Smoked bonito tuna with ponzu jelly.

 

Sushi towel.  Sushi is meant to be eaten with the hands, so this towel is provided for you to wipe your fingers after each piece.  The sashimi appetisers were incredible, but the sushi is when the magic REALLY started.

Sushi towel. Sushi is meant to be eaten with the hands, so this towel is provided for you to wipe your fingers after each piece. The sashimi appetisers were incredible, but the sushi is when the magic REALLY started.

 

Ika (squid).

Ika (squid).

 

Pickled ginger.

Pickled ginger.

 

Marinated sea-bream.

Marinated sea-bream.

 

The Masterchef at work.

The Masterchef at work.

 

Kohada (I think!!!)

Kohada (I think!!!)

 

Akame (lean tuna).

Akame (lean tuna).

 

Chutoro (medium fatty tuna).

Chutoro (medium fatty tuna).

 

The pièce de résistance - Otoro (fatty tuna).

The pièce de résistance – Otoro (fatty tuna).

 

Saba and mackerel roll.

Saba and mackerel roll.

 

Masterchef Yoshitake, doing the honours.

Masterchef Yoshitake, doing the honours.

 

Torigai (cockle).  I don't know if this was alive when served, but just before serving it, the chef slapped it, hard, and it started wriggling around.  It continued to do so in my mouth!!!!  Oh, and contrary to appearances, it was absolutely DELICIOUS!!!

Torigai (cockle). I don’t know if this was alive when served, but just before serving it, the chef slapped it, hard, and it started wriggling around. It continued to do so in my mouth!!!! Oh, and contrary to appearances, it was absolutely DELICIOUS!!!

 

Meticulous preparation and serenity.

Meticulous preparation and serenity.

 

Uni (sea urchin).

Uni (sea urchin).

 

Kuruma ebi (Imperial prawn)

Kuruma ebi (Imperial prawn)

 

Anago (sea-eel).

Anago (sea-eel).

 

Tamago (Japanese omelette).

Tamago (Japanese omelette).

 

Masterchef Yoshitake brandishing his impressive steel!

Masterchef Yoshitake brandishing his impressive steel!

 

Refreshing matcha tea to aid in digestion.

Refreshing matcha tea to aid in digestion.

 

Even the sign at the door inspires tranquility and harmony.  I took this shot just before Chef Yoshitake came out to see us to the elevator and say goodbye. I have never experienced such hospitality at a restaurant before, and I doubt I ever will again.  Sheer perfection.

Even the sign at the door inspires tranquility and harmony. I took this shot just before Chef Yoshitake came out to see us to the elevator and say goodbye. I have never experienced such hospitality at a restaurant before, and I doubt I ever will again. Sheer perfection.

 

Ejo #39 – How We Discovered Special Accommodation In Tagamanent, Spain (El Folló) and Terre Rouge, Rodrigues (Domaine de la Paix)

Those of you who know me well know that I don’t like to stay in hotels when we travel. I couldn’t think of anything worse than being in some amazing city in the world (Prague, Amsterdam, Singapore, Sydney, Los Angeles, Paris) and staying in a room which tells me nothing of that city. Yes, the five star experience has its place, offering comfort, familiarity and certain expected amenities. But frankly, I’d rather miss out on all of those things in favour of a room with character, personality and charm. A place that smells, looks and feels unique to that town, city or country. And you really can’t get that in a Hilton.

 

For the last couple of years David and I have been using the services of a great website called http://www.airbnb.com – a clever concept in which you can rent a couch, a room or an entire house in the city you wish to visit. We’ve stayed in some awesome places in San Francisco, Amsterdam, New York City, Barcelona, Munich, Berlin and Madrid. And I’m sure we’ll stay in some more in the future.

 

But you know what I’ve found? I’ve found that the quality and variety of apartments is only really great in the big cities. As soon as you start looking further afield, the number (and desirability) of the available apartments tends to plummet. I’ve spent hours scouring Airbnb for apartments in Ibiza, Kalkan, Palm Springs, Poros, Napa Valley, Asolo (and many more) to no avail.

 

So, if you are visiting these smaller destinations and you can’t find an apartment to rent, and you wouldn’t be seen dead in a Mövenpick, what options are available to you?? I’m happy that you asked. We have, in our travels, occasionally stayed at bed and breakfasts, guesthouses, small hotels and inns. Naturally the quality varies (somewhere between horrible and sublime). After all, you are staying in close quarters with people that you have never met before and who may be boring, stupid, smelly or just plain annoying. And, who knows, they might think the same of you. It’s a crap shoot – which is why I spend so much time researching. I want to lower the odds in our favour.

 

In the last two months we’ve hit the jackpot and have stayed at two very special houses. El Folló in Tagamanent, Spain and Domaine de la Paix in Terre Rouge, Rodrigues. They are both very different, but have a lot in common. They are both small. El Folló has seven rooms and Domaine de la Paix has only five. They are both run by interesting couples. El Folló by Mercé and Jaume, and Domaine de la Paix by Claudine and Pascal. They are both in isolated regions. You would never “accidentally” happen upon either of these places – you have to really want to go there, and even then you still might get lost. They both bake their own bread every day. And they both serve amazing home-cooked meals every night. And, of course, for me that is the clincher.

 

I have written reviews of both of them on Tripadvisor (El Folló and Domaine de la Paix). I don’t usually write reviews of places that are already wildly popular and well-known. They don’t need my help. I tend to only write reviews of the small slices of paradise that we’ve lucked upon. The reason being that they do need my help. If someone reads my glowing review and decides to stay, then, well, it’s good for business. It’s the least I can do in return for great memories. In fact, El Folló wasn’t even registered on Tripadvisor before we stayed there. As a favour to Mercé, I contacted them and requested that they add the guesthouse as a “Specialty Lodging”. Which they did.

 

So, let me tell you about it. We arrived at El Folló on an evening during which they happened to be serving an amazing banquet. Aren’t we lucky! We stuffed our faces with leg of venison served with fig and red onion compote, octopus stew, organic roast chicken and rabbit, baked monkfish, two types of regional soup (one pasta consommé style and a thicker leek-like creamy style with mussels and romesco), salads, roast potatoes and a brown rice pilaf. After this savoury cornucopia we were offered six different types of dessert (including semolina pudding, quince custard tart, banana cake, berry muffins and chocolate cake). Later on we waddled upstairs and slept very well indeed. The next night was a slightly more subdued affair, though we ate just as heartily. We also managed to score a free cooking lesson from Mercé (she normally charges for her talents), helping her with the calçots. Check out the photos.

 

Beautiful old farmhouse in the hills just outside of Barcelona.

Beautiful old farmhouse in the hills just outside of Barcelona.

 

Mercè taught me how to peel and cook artichokes.

Mercè taught me how to peel and cook artichokes.

 

Cooking calçots on the open fire.  Calçots are a mild green onion grown in Catalonia, Spain.

Cooking calçots on the open fire. Calçots are a mild green onion grown in Catalonia, Spain.

 

After the calçots are cooked they are wrapped in newspaper to "sweat" for a bit.  Note the heavy duty gloves that Jaume is wearing.  These babies are HOT!

After the calçots are cooked the are wrapped in newspaper to “sweat” for a bit. Note the heavy duty gloves. These babies are HOT!

 

So, you pull out the tender, cooked centre of the calçot from the charred, dirty casing, dip it in Romesco sauce and buen provecho!!

So, you pull out the tender, cooked centre of the calçot from the charred, burnt skin, dip it in Romesco sauce and buen provecho!!

 

Not the fanciest sitting room in the world - but it could possibly have been one of the cosiest on a chilly winter's day.

Not the fanciest sitting room in the world – but it could possibly have been one of the cosiest on this chilly winter’s day.

 

A bedroom at El Folló.  Cosy, rustic and very comfortable.

A bedroom at El Folló. Cosy, rustic and very comfortable.

 

At Domaine de la Paix, there were no cooking lessons. But there were pre-dinner drinks mixed by Pascal, who easily makes the best ti-punch on the whole island. We weren’t required to have dinner at the house every night – we just wanted to. The food was so amazing that we spent five out of five nights there. Sure we could have gone into town for dinner every evening, but when the cooking is that good at home, you’d be an idiot to go anywhere else. Plus, it meant we could drink as much of their wine as we liked without having to worry about drinking and driving. We’re smart like that. So, to serve as an explanation as to how we each gained 3kgs in 5 days, not only did we enjoy Pascal’s home-made bread, brioche, yoghurt and chocolate crème for breakfast every morning (accompanied by Claudine’s delicious jams and marmalades – my favourite being ginger and melon, truly divine). But every night we ate at least three spectacular courses, washed down with free-flowing French and Chilean wines and finishing off with Claudine’s variously flavoured infused rums to help with our digestion. Whoa Mama! All for the ridiculous price of €25 a head. We almost felt like we were stealing from them. On our last night, we were actually treated to a dinner of three lobster courses, out-of-this-world chocolate cake and fresh papaya. C’est très très bon! J’insiste! (We even got a few French lessons each evening, don’t you know!) Have a look.

 

Classic french table settings for our lobster banquet.  We ate outside on one of the few nights in wasn't raining.  It was just lovely.

Classic french table settings for our lobster banquet. We ate outside on one of the few nights in wasn’t raining. It was just lovely.

 

The lobster!!!

The lobster!!!

 

The incredibly rich, gooey, intense chocolate mud cake.  It was literally oozing on the plate.  YUM!

The incredibly rich, gooey, intense chocolate mud cake. It was literally oozing on the plate. YUM!

 

And after we'd already eaten four courses (three lobster dishes and the mud cake) I honestly couldn't even finish this lovely, fresh, light fresh papaya in syrup dessert.  I just couldn't.  Shame on me!

And after we’d already eaten four courses I honestly couldn’t even finish this lovely, fresh, light fresh papaya in syrup dessert. I just couldn’t. Shame on me!

 

The wonderful magnesium pool.  As I'd sustained a pretty bad sunburn in Mauritius the week before we only went swimming when it was raining (sunsmart, you see)!!  I'm pretty sure everyone thought we were mad.  The magnesium made our skin soft and velvety - and actually helped with the sunburn too!

The wonderful magnesium pool. As I’d sustained a pretty bad sunburn in Mauritius the week before we only went swimming when it was raining (sunsmart, you see)!! I’m pretty sure everyone thought we were mad. The magnesium made our skin soft and velvety – and actually helped with the sunburn too!

 

As a little side note, on our last day on the island we had a drink at a place called Le Marlin Bleu, run by one of Pascal’s friends, an awesome guy called Méga. He was warm, funny, entertaining and not too shabby in the looks department either. When my Birkenstock broke he took it, disappeared for five minutes and then returned it to me, patched up with a shiny brass screw. This gesture just blew my mind and warmed my frozen black heart to its very cockles. It encapsulated the hospitality, generosity, warmth and kindess that we experienced on Rodrigues.

 

Méga, the owner of Le Marlin Blue cafe on the beach fixed my shoe.  It warmed my frozen black heart to its very cockles.

Méga fixed my shoe.

 

So, spending hours trawling the internet hoping to come across one of these gems is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea (though man, I would do it all day long if I could figure out a way to get paid for it). But that’s why I’m writing this ejo for you, so that you don’t have to. If you happen to ever find yourself in Tagamanent (a 40 minute drive from Barcelona) or in Rodrigues (a 90 minute flight from Mauritius) then do yourself a favour and seek these guesthouses out.

 

You can thank me later.