Tropical Fruit vs. Deciduous Fruit

Taken by me at the WACA in Perth the day that ...Image via Wikipedia
An Australian cricket team in happier days: Perth 2006.
With the Ashes series all but decided in England’s favour. And deservedly so too, perhaps it’s time us Aussies learnt to lose gracefully (hint, hint, Ricky Ponting!). And who better to learn from than the very English who have bested us?

Last Ashes series in Australia, to distract from their teams miserable performance, I read that the Barmy Army took to chanting the following chant:

We’re fat, we’re round, three dollars to the pound!

What’s that? The exchange rate? English fans are singing about the performance of their currency in relation to Australia’s? Yes, that was the case - you gotta love those barmy poms!

So, as a distraction of my own: “English food vs. Australian food” or more specifically “Tropical Fruit vs. Deciduous Fruit”. I must warn my readers, however, that I’m no botanist and I am going to using the terms “Tropical” and “Deciduous” shall we say “loosely”. And, if I happen to claim some mediterranean fruits as “tropical” forgive me, in penance I shan’t include the really unbeatable foods like coffee and chocolate because they don’t grow in Australia.

The "hedgehog" style is a common way...Image via Fir0002Wikipedia
Australian Mangoes
To begin with: Mangoes. As I was surprised to find earlier this year, you can get mangoes in “Old Blightey”, and I was even more astounded to hear a work colleague confess that she didn’t actually like mangoes! But, the reason is, I suspect, that the mangoes you’ll find in Morrisons or Sainsbury’s aren’t really mangoes. I mean, sure technically they are, but no, not really. A mango isn’t sour. Sure, in the early part of the mango season, you’ll find one with some green sour-ish patches, but the ones one sale in Morrisons could be substituted for lemons! To enjoy the real mango experience, you have to come down under, or better yet, visit India - because in all honesty, the mangoes I tried when I was in India beat anything I have had before or since! When you bite into a ripe red and gold mango you’re biting into a summer’s worth of tropical sunshine, a mango is unbelievably sweet like no other fruit. Sweet but mellow and deliciously juicy, you know it’s ripe and ready to be devoured when you can put it to your nose and literally breath-in the decadent excess of sugar it has stored. Mangoes go straight onto the top of the list.

Next, Strawberries. We get strawberries down here in Australia. Great big juicy Queensland strawberries, some as big as apples, and they taste like... they taste like... well, to be honest, they don’t really taste of anything, I don’t know what the big fuss is with strawberries? Or at least I didn’t until my first ever visit to the Northern Hemisphere, Québec, England, Finland, France, all delivered strawberries that were unbelievably sweet and full of flavour. In Australia, strawberries are generally eaten dipped in sugar and a punnet occasionally rots in the fridge uneaten. In England, a punnet might be finished on the same day it was bought, especially if it was bought from the local farmer’s market.

Strawberries gariguettes DSC03052Image via Wikipedia
French Gariguette strawberries
Blueberries. I could say the same for blueberries as I said for strawberries, and for that matter, blackcurrents, raspberries and cherries. I don’t think blueberries and cherries suffer as much as strawberries from the tendency to tastelessness - they simply don’t grow to enormous, watery proportions like strawberries do - but there’s no doubt they taste better when grown in a cold latitude.

Grapefruit. It’s a bit sour, being a member of the citrus family, but if you follow these directions you can’t go wrong. 1) Cut the grapefruit in half. 2) Cut out the white “pith” from the centre. 3) Cut out the flesh of the fruit into “pizza” segments, but be careful not to cut through the skin. 4) Sprinkle 1 teaspoon of sugar over both halves. 5) Repeat step 4 - it is a member of the citrus family remember. 6) Dump another teaspoon of sugar right in the centre from where you removed the pith. 7) With a teaspoon, eat each of the segments you cut. 8) Now here comes the best part, close your eyes and picture yourself stranded on a tropical island where you haven’t had anything to drink for days, lift the grapefruit half to your lips as if it were a cup, now pour the delicious sugary fruit juice into your mouth, being sure to let some of it miss and run down your cheeks and neck in true Robinson Crusoe style!

Now, you can’t do that in England can you?

Ok ok, next fruit. Deciduous this time. Um, how about apples? Nice, but a bit boring. Then plums? Yeah, they’re delicious, but frankly the more sun the better and Australia has more than England. How about peaches? Ditto what I said about plums. Well, we’ll have to choose a tropical then: chillies! Fiery and exciting, forceful and with a take-no-prisoners attitude, definitely not a fruit for the faint-hearted. Sure you can grown them in England as well as in Australia, but whose temperament do they really suit better?

Well, if you’ve been following the Ashes series this summer, you’d have to say: “England”.
Enhanced by Zemanta

The Parasites of European Tourism: Awful Restaurants in Top Spots

For any of the cafés at the Piazza della Signoria, Florence,
expect to pay exorbitant prices.

The greatest problem with going on a tour of the main sites of a new and foreign city is lunch. Where do you go, when you’re hungry from exploring a city that you don’t know very well, you’re miles away from your hotel and you haven’t packed anything to take with you? Occasionally, you find yourself going to familiar fast-food chains just because you’ll know what to expect. But when in Paris, or Florence, or somewhere with a good reputation for food, do you really want to be eating at McDonalds? So you try having a look for a nice restaurant, or café to eat and here comes the real problem: those parasitic restaurateurs that live off of the good culinary reputation of a particular country or city or region to serve you rubbish on a plate and charge the world for it.

Such restaurants and cafés are always to be found in tourist hubs, a pub in Covent Garden, the bistro across from Notre Dame, or the Al Fresco café in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria. They survive because they get their traffic not from their own good reputation, but from the reputation of whatever tourist attraction that they are close to. As David Whitley of Grumpy Traveller has commented:

They know they won’t get repeat trade, they know people on holiday fritter away money at a rate they’d not dream of at home, and they know that the odd upset customer is worth the gain.

“And they’re always the places where service is worst.

But the corollary that no-one seems to notice about this parasitic practice is that the loser in the end (apart from the unhappy customer) is the reputation of the country or the place that is being so parasitically exploited in this way. So much so that, having visited Tuscany I can honestly tell you that although Florence is such a significant city in European history and although it has such great architecture and the Uffizi and Accademia are unmissable, the entire city is a giant tourist trap, and for the real Tuscan experience I would recommend nearby Lucca, which has its own splendid Piazzas, cathedrals and fountains and a significant and interesting history of its own.

And the real big-time loser in this parasitic practice is France. To the extent that you might find a columnist in Britain’s “The Independent” fatuously claim that British food is better than French. For an Australian who’d never been Paris, such a claim would be dismissed as ridiculous, just on reputation alone, even more so for an Australian whose experience of British cuisine was the pub-grub of north Hertfordshire. But for my part, as I had been to Paris, I could see that there was some credibility in the columnist’s claim. Unfortunately, France which, since at least the 50s has enjoyed a pre-eminent position in the culinary world, nowadays suffers from such a rash of mediocre restaurants that I can well imagine that around the world, everyday there are hordes of holidaymakers returning from France with a massive sense of disappointment at the much-vaunted “French cuisine” that they’d heard so much about.

A view of Paris from the Galerie des Chimères ...Image via Wikipedia
A beautiful view from atop the Cathédrale Notre-Dame 
de Paris, but I'm sure that there aren't any great
restaurants to be seen! Tourist hubs like the Île de la
Cité are no-go zones for good food and good service.
For Paris in particular, the world’s most visited city, with 45 million tourists a year, it is a particular problem, and having visited the city four times, I still can’t recommend a restaurant for my readers for a mind-blowing French-food experience. For that, I would urge readers to visit l’Alchemiste in Saumur in the Loire Valley, a place I never would have found were it not for the recommendation of my hosts when staying at Château de Verrières.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Autumn in the Loire Valley

Image via Tom Häkkinen
The town of Langeais
Image via Tom Häkkinen
Leaf-fall outside the Château de Chenonceau
In October, before returning to Australia, Esther and I went on one last continental excursion from the UK. To a part of France we’d never seen before but wanted to visit. The Loire Valley - a region of vineyards, chateaux and an incredible river.

We stayed in a small boutique hotel in the town of Saumur. It’s a fantastic region, quintessentially French, and Autumn was a perfect time to visit as well. Approaching France, as always, from a literary-historic background, what first attracted me to the Anjou region was the knowledge that this was the homeland of the Angevin Kings of England. Henry II, King Richard the Lionheart and John Lackland. This period in history was singularly important in English history, coming as it did, so shortly after the Norman Invasion and which saw the signing of the Magna Carta.

Image via Tom Häkkinen
The Maze in the grounds of Château de Chenonceau
The first Angevin King, King Henry II of Anjou, who married Eleanor of Aquitaine, presided over a realm that extended from the border with Scotland in the North to the Pyrenees in the South, encompassing much more of France than the King of France, Louis VII actually controlled. The Angevin’s origins amongst the French nobility and historical ties to lands in France were to sow the seeds for the Hundred Years War two centuries later. This was also the period, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, that saw all those fantastic French loan-words enter English, words to do with Gouvernance, Justice and the Court, etc. Not to mention it being the most-romanticised period, a time of troubadours, chivalry, Robin Hood and England’s favourite King: Richard the Lionheart or Richard Coeur de Lion. So I was eager to visit that part of France where the Angevin influence began.

Image via Tom Häkkinen
The Mairie of Chenonceau
But, as I found out, if you’d never read a history book before in your life. You’d still love this part of France. Unlike Provence which is also beautiful, the Loire seems quintessentially French in a way that happily reflects all of your preconceptions. That perfect table at a French cafe, sitting in the dappled sun of plane trees, which you’d hunted Paris up and down for, is in fact much more likely to be found in Tours. Travelling the high-speed rail-link that connects Nantes to Paris, you will come across the most delightful kind of towns, so quaint and picturesque, like the town of Chenonceau, with it’s few streets, Mairie, ecole and bistro, and surrounded by vineyards and woods.

Image via Tom Häkkinen
Grape vines - laden with ripe fruit
Our hotel was likewise a fantastically clichéd chateau. It’s gothic dimensions actually intimidating at night. And the Saturday farmer’s market was really alive with all varieties of mushrooms, berries, fruits and vegetables. When buying a punnet of strawberries I asked whether they were grown locally:

« Qu’est-ce que le provenance de ceux-ci ? »
« Trente kilomètres. »

Image via Tom Häkkinen
The Hôtel de Ville, Tours
Thirty kilometres! That’s local. One day, waiting for the train from Chenonceau, the vines heavy with grapes in the vineyard opposite almost tempted me to jump the ditch surrounding the vineyard and sample some. They did look delicious and fat from a bountiful and verdant land.

Image via Tom Häkkinen
Picnic on the banks of the Cher: Château de Chenonceau
is visible in the background, whilst mushrooms arise from
the Autumnal earth in the foreground.
So with the vineyards, the local produce, the cute little towns with their municipal buildings and symbols of the Republic, as well the chateaux and the history, I couldn’t imagine a better place to visit.
Image via Tom Häkkinen
The gothic lines of Château de Verrières come alive at night.
Enhanced by Zemanta

The Battle of the Ashes

England v Australia 5th Day 2nd Ashes Test @ L...Image by 6tee-zeven via Flickr
England's victory in the last Ashes series in 2009
means they are defending the Ashes in Australia
this summer.
I find myself in the rare position of reading Australian newspaper commentators praying for rain ahead of day 5 of the second Ashes Test in Adelaide tomorrow. This has been a tough year for Australian sport.

Notwithstanding Ian Botham’s supreme confidence that this English side will be the first since 1986/87 to retain the Ashes on Australian soil, my own expectations were for another Australian victory. Australia got off to a good start too, with Peter Siddle’s Hat-trick and Brad Haddin and Mike Hussey’s three-ton partnership in Brisbane, I was able to rattle off a gloating email to some colleagues in the UK.

“Doesn’t this seem familiar?”

But I spoke too soon! England fought back with a determination I don’t remember seeing in an England squad in Australia. After England finally managed to dispatch first Haddin and then Hussey they pulled themselves together and dismissed the rest of the team for 481 - this was after having reached 5/450 at the height of the Haddin/Hussey partnership. Even as my emails were traversing cyber-space I was blithely ignoring the ample evidence of English resolve.

The next day proved un-ignorable. England’s opening batsmen Alistair Cook and Andrew Strauss together produced a century each. The day after, another two centuries, and only 1 wicket. Alistair Cook himself proved invincible to all the attacks of Australia’s bowlers. By the final day of the first test, far from thinking that this test was following a rather familiar pattern of the last two decades, I thought that England were being overly cautious in not putting Ponting’s men in to bat earlier and having a crack at winning the test.

Ricky Ponting at a training session at the Ade...Image via Wikipedia
Australian Captain Ricky Ponting has been feeling
the pressure in this Ashes series
So how did we get to this role-reversal? How did we get so far from the familiar the situation that I can recall from childhood, where if I went home to my older brother after losing a game in any sporting competition, my “did my best” defence was only met with jeers and comparisons with Mike Atherton, whereas now it seems like it’s the Australians who are full of excuses for their poor performance (some commentators, oblivious to what blind freddy could see, are claiming that the pitch has been the cause of these indomitable English batsmen).

Now this morning Australia are 4 for 238 and looking to the skies for rain to interrupt the game and save them from a defeat at the hands of the English.
Enhanced by Zemanta