Wednesday 15 August 2012

Sardinia, Alghero - Summer 2012

 Rich for a week

Friday, 11 August 2012

The Haven caravan park in Felixstowe was our standard yearly family holiday and I have warm memories of fish and chips on stoney beaches and joining in with tacky "Cabaret times".  It has been 8 long years since then (and any family holiday) so this year we decided to do it in style.  A beautiful 7 bed, brand new villa (Vista Blu) in Alghero was a big step up from the sardine tin caravans of the old.  Barbecue, pool, terrace... Brilliant!  We arrived with just enough time to get some dinner in the centre and so we dropped our stuff off and caught a taxi to Alghero port; a bustling medieval centre with cobbled roads and honeycomb walls.  With a family of 7 and no designated leader it took a while for us to pick a restaurant but we finally sat down to a place with horse meat on the menu!  Now if i was in France i would have had no choice but to order it.  Instead i went for one of Sardinia's very own; Fregola pasta! A cross between large cous cous and tiny gnocci it tasted great with the seafood medley and sauce i had with it.  Sardinian dish number 1, done!  My brother had the horsemeat so i managed to pinch a taste.  A texture of beef steak with a bit of a liver after taste.  I was happy with my Fregola. 

Sitting outside for breakfast on the first morning i actually felt rich sipping on my real Italian espresso and eyeing up the pool.  This is the life.  Three of us decided to cycle to the nearest shop to buy some more breakfast goods which was a nice downhill breeze all the way.  Filled our bags with bread, cheese, cured ham, eggs and milk and then slogged it back uphill all the way.  In late 20's heat and a bike chain that kept coming off i was feeling a little less rich and looked as if i fell into the pool whilst cleaning it.  Day 1 of our holiday had started and we began to plan our stay. 
The first day was billed as a lazy day where we roamed around the port, booked a few trips for the week, did a big supermarket shop (where we accidentally bought 24 litres of fizzy water - they love that stuff over here), chilled by the pool and had a BBQ.  We came to the executive decision that hiring a car would have been more expensive and inconvenient (some issue about getting a fine for driving through restricted traffic areas in a hired car) than using taxis so all the activities we booked included transport.  Yesterday we had an all day boat cruise from Alghero port for 45 euros.  We visited a few caves before dropping the anchor at a crystal blue bay for swimming.  My brother brought a little fishing rod with him and so an afternoon of swimming and fishing was perfect.  The fishing was a slight problem though as when we caught our first fish the whole boat was watching and we felt obliged to throw the fish back.  That could have been dinner!  Slightly annoying but we didn't want to fall into a stereotype of the Indian family trying to catch their dinner.  Though that was exactly what we were trying to do! Anyway, with the intention not to upset the onlookers, we threw the fish back and a frickin seagull swooped down and grabbed it!?  We may have lost dinner but lunch was being served.  It was a little more basic than i was expecting and so a tad disappointing.  A bowl of basic tomato pasta followed by a plate of a mixed seafood salad.  It was alright.  
Before leaving for Sardinia I put a list of top food places together using recommendations from blogs and forums.  Last night a few of us went on the hunt for some of them.  The Focacceria Bar Milese was suggested as one of the best and the taxi driver confirmed this on the way.  We decided that we would have starters there and then mains at Poco Loco which was a recommended pizzeria.  Bar Milese turned out to be next door to the restaurant we ate in on the first night!  We did notice that everyone around us seemed to be eating some kind of sandwich at which i probably scuffed at in a "i can get that at home" kind of way.  I now know that i 100% can not get this at home.  They have a number of different fillings but their biggest hitter is the "milese".  I stood in awe watching them fill these massive focaccias with great speed and technique.  The place was heaving with people and a ticket system was being used to ease the crowed.  I ordered two for €5 and got the ticket number 657 to listen out for... what the hell is 657 in Italian!?  After a good 15 minutes I just showed them my ticket to find that mine was there waiting.  Not to worry though, the Focaccia Milese was well worth the wait.  Tomatoes, tuna, egg, salad and ham with some special sauce in a fresh and fluffy focaccia.  Easily without a doubt the best sandwich i have ever had.  After an hour of searching for Poco Loco our focaccia was nicely digested and we were ready for our pizza.  Pizza ordered by the meter!  Great quality as well as quantity; we just about managed to push down a whole meter between the four of us. 
I have spent the best part of today by the pool trying to contain my excitement over tonight's plans.  Tonight we are eating at a fixed menu seafood restaurant which tripadvisor seems to rave about the sheer mass and quality of the food.  Reviewers have written in capitals "MAKE SURE YOU GO HUNGRY!".  Genuinly can't wait!

The See-Food Diet

Saturday, 12 August 2012

As a group, i can't even begin to think how much we have eaten.  Several BBQ's and a few 5 star all you can eats later my waste line is widening and stomach bulging.  Friday we had the seafood buffet in the evening and so we all planned to have a light lunch so we were nicely hungry for our seafood pig-out.  However, having spent a large part of the day by the pool we lost complete track of time and accidentally had lunch at 5PM.  We literally finished eating, looked at the clock and instantly presumed that it was a good 4 hours out.  Confirmation from another clock told us that we had messed up.  

So With full bellies we went anyway and ate plate after plate of the most amazing seafood ever.  The restaurant was called "Mabrouk" and cost €40 per head including unlimited drinks and wine.  The free wine was useful as we developed a tactic to get a little tipsy so we could eat more.  I don't know if it worked but if you were to pick out a family in that restaurant who you thought had just eaten before they came; you would have not picked us. We polished those plates better than a dishwasher.  We were welcomed to our table by an array of delightful cold appetisers of octopus salad, pickled sardines, mussels, swordfish and some crispy fried aubergines in a rich tomato sauce.  These were followed by a plate of culurgiones (a Sardinian type of ravioli) in a fish ragu, a tray of sea food risotto and a birds nest of spider crab linguine! This was just our second course out of 5 and though my mind was telling me to pace myself my belly was telling my mind to go suck eggs.  No spices, a few herbs and extremely fresh produce is all it takes to keep a usually loud family silent for half an hour.  The crab was by far my favourite as every strand of pasta oozed with crabby goodness.  The squeaky clean platters were taken and replaced with the mains; A whole sea bass, deep fried calamari and grilled prawns.  By now the gaps between the buttons on my shirt were revealing skin but we still managed to reenact a game of hungry hippos pounding the table until nothing remained.  A choice for desserts and then digestives of various Italian Liqueurs; Grappa, Limoncello and two types of Amaro.  If we weren't pissed already, this saw us off. 

Today we took a tour bus to Bosa for €18(return).  Bosa looks how I imagined Sardinia to be in my head.  Each building a different pastel shade to the next, dusty cobbled roads and old ladies drying tomatoes out in the sun (so annoyed i didn't think to get her in the photo!).  We walked up to the Malaspina Castle during the peak heat which was well and truly, absolutely pointless.  We even had to pay to get in! To look at old rocks...  We didn't really do much in Bosa but it was still nice to see.  Further more, on the way down to the beach we ate a cactus fruit straight off a cactus and then found fresh figs growing on a tree and ate those too.  I've never had cactus fruit before.  Luckily a friendly local saw us holding it with a question mark above our heads and taught us how to eat it.  You could never do this in England! Tomorrow is my mums birthday so I have booked us an afternoon at an agriturismo called Sa Mandra.  Agriturismo seems to be the name given to a farm restaurant where all the food served up is grown and bred on site.  Sounds pretty impressive if it is true and my mum is a proper organic snob so perfect birthday present.  Another five star all you can eat jobby but this time meat instead of seafood.   Lets hope we remember not to eat beforehand... 

Pigging Ourselves

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

I love how Italians eat.  A proper Italian meal takes a good couple of hours to be seen through.  The apperitivi is like a pre-starter and is pretty much just a round of drinks and maybe some tiny bites.  Then it is the Antipasti which is almost the equivalent to our starter but it is usually a cold dish of some sort.  Cuts of ham, cheese etc.  The "Primi" and "Secondi" is from what I can work out our main course split into two; the carbohydrate part (Primi) and the meat part (Secondi) or something along those lines.  Where we would have fish and chips they would have some fancy potato dish for Primi and then after have a fish dish all on its own for Secondi.  Dolce (dessert) is next and is followed by Digestivi which is another round of drinks but somewhat stronger. 

On Sunday we had another epic meal at an agriturismo called Sa Mandra.  The term agriturismo is usually given to accommodation on farming land but we specifically went to eat.  Sa Mandra is properly out in the sticks and when we arrived it felt like we had gone back to the days when fields were ploughed by cows and cows were milked by hand.  All the old farming contraptions were on show and bread, olives, cheese and cuts of pork were out to pick at with glasses of wine to wash it down.  All, they say, produced on site.  The sweet scent of roasting meat fills the entire farm and so i followed my nose to find several little piggies skewered around a fire in a fireplace.  This was one of Sardinias most recognised home dishes; Porchetto or slow roasted suckling pig. 

We followed the full Italian meal plan.  For the anti-pasti we had several types of cured hams and a variety of cheeses.  Sheep's cheese seemed common and had a light, creamy flavour.  Primi was pasta with a wild boar ragu and more culurgiones.  Secondi was stewed pigs lung, stewed lamb and the Porchetto.  Nothing to fancy, all cooked with little masking of the natural flavours.  The piglet wasn't as good as we hoped.  It had very little flavour and its texture was so soft it became a bit pasty after a couple of chews.  A suckling pig has only drank milk all its life and so the lack of flavour kind of makes sense.  Its young, so not enough fat to make decent crackling either.  Still, i love the idea of it roasting on the fire and that picture still makes me salivate.  I can't help but think that it would have been awesome with a Thai sweet chilli dip.  The experience overall was great and I enjoyed walking around the farm after seeing the animals and vegetable patches.  In the end, however, it was more expensive than Mabrouk and not as good.   

Sunday evening we took our makeshift rods to the port for a spot of fishing.  We did manage to catch a few and had we brought more bait i recon we would have had some biggens.  But i suppose that's what they all say.  We planned to have our last BBQ  yesterday with the fish we caught.  7 people and 6 very small fish... It didn't take much math to realise that we needed an early morning trip to the fish market.  We went to two different markets; the first was along the port and wasn't very busy, the second nearer the park.  Fish is expensive here!  For some reason i thought it was going to be dirt cheap but we bought a large cuttlefish for €34 and lobsters were selling for €120 per kilo!?  That's ridiculous!  The last thing on my list of things to eat in Sardinia was not going to happen.  Doesn't matter.  We bought a load of prawns that were recommended to be eaten raw (raw prawns?!), a couple of kilos of mussels and a few steaks of swordfish.  The prawns were almost sickeningly sweet when eaten raw.  I could have dunked it in my morning espresso as a sugar substitute.  With coals on, marinades made and table set up in the veranda we got to work.  My job was the cuttlefish which took far to long to dissect and prepare with a blunt knife.  It was no Mabrouk but it was a damn good seafood feast nonetheless.  And probably less than a third of the price.
I forgot to mention Bottarga which is something i have only seen here.  It is a very expensive item of cured fish roe which you can slice or grate for a super strong sea taste.  I had it in a panini in Bosa (but didn't know i had at the time) and on a pizza for lunch today.  I only learnt what it was after seeing it in a really smelly meat and cheese shop.  Probably too strong of a taste for pizza but grated into a pasta dish would work wonders. 
After our BBQ we lazed all afternoon and evening until we decided to go out on a hunt for spaghetti.  It didn't end well as we found ourselves in a "Jamaica Inn" (what were we thinking?) eating microwaved spaghetti carbonara.  Ok exaggeration (i think) but it wasn't good.  Our last dinner on holiday wasn't going to ruin our final impressions of Sardinia.  This place is a foodies heaven.  Food seems more of an experience here rather than just a means to an end.  Something to take your time over and enjoy.  This is true for Italy all over i think.  We have loved it all over.  Great food in the sun with a kitchen, pool and barbecue has made an awesome holiday for a foody family and beats caravaning in Felixstowe hands down.   :o)

Sunday 5 August 2012

The French Alps - Summer 2012

Just a few weeks after Newquay and i am on another school trip, this time in the French Alps.  I am not too keen on writing up school trips so i will be keeping this brief.  It started with a gruelling 24 hour coach trip with 35 kids.  Sounds awful but i kind of enjoy having an excuse to sit and do nothing for a whole day.  A 100% guilt free laze.  The last couple of hours was a stunning (and a little stomach turning) meander up the Alps with our final drop off at "Hotel La Portette" in Les Orres.  After freshening up we spent the afternoon in a swimming pool on the beautiful mountain side.  The ideal past time after the long journey and mid 20's heat. 
The Alps is famous for its winter skiing but the summer brings out a whole different load of activities.  The ski slopes become downhill mountain bike tracks for the mad with the ski lifts carrying the bikes and bikers to the top.  Our first activity was an adventure jungle with high ropes (left) feeling much higher being on the side of a mountain.  No time for me to be scared though as it was my job to encourage the kids that its all completely safe as i nervously lean out to prove that the rope will catch me.  This ended up being a common theme throughout the trip as after a quick lunch back at the hotel we had an afternoon of rock climbing.  We had to walk a good half hour up a mountain before we could even start climbing.  It is certainly a little scarier climbing a rock which base is already pretty high up.  Nonetheless, with little judging eyes watching, i got up there (above)
One busy day followed by another.  The coach took us to the top of a mountain where mountain bikes awaited us.  A 2 hour down hill dash took us through villages, past farms and over streams.  Out of all the activities, if there was going to be an accident, it was going to be this one.  And yet this was the one which the kids were least scared of!?  At one point the instructor stopped us at the top of a slope and said in broken English "this hill has many bees".  Bees? I wrongly presumed that he made a mistake in his English.  Could this get any more extreme!?  Damn it was fun though.  My backside was sore for days after but completely worth it.

As if a 25km bike ride was not enough for a days work we went on to do a Via Ferrata in the afternoon.  I had never heard of one of these before.  It is the Italian name given for a climbing route across a mountain face aided with metal staples.  Aided with metal staples because it would be completely impossible to climb the flat vertical rock face without them. Now this was scary!  Oh my days it was scary.  Forget staying strong for the students, i had a full sized turd in my pants.  Some students refused point blank before starting, many gave up half way (and had to abseil down) and the rest braved the whole thing.  I managed the whole exhilarating experience and lapped it up.  It was amazing.  

The rest of the week involved white water rafting, chilling on a lakeside beach, roaming around towns and a 6 hour mountain trek.  The lake beach had a brilliant inflatable park with trampolines and icebergs to scale and jump off.  An hour playing on that with the students really takes i out of you.  I was shattered and had a proper lakeside snooze after.  For the mountain trek we took the chairlifts to the top and hiked back down with a picnic stop half way.  A real french picnic of wine, cheese, baguette and pate munched sat next to an aqua blue mountain lake.  Perfect!  Other than this, food took a back seat on this trip and pretty much acted as fuel for the energy draining activities.  A medley of ham, cheese, baguettes, croissants and cereals made breakfast.  Lunch and dinners ranged from steak hache to tartiflette.  So pretty good french fuel on the whole!  The trip was fantastic and I genuinely don't think i would have enjoyed it as much as i did if there weren't any students.  It's a bit like having children round for Christmas.  Their excitement makes you excited.  The French Alps are breath taking in the Summer and i am massively looking forward to coming back in the Winter to slide down some slopes on yet another school trip.  Love it.  :o)