Real Food Adventure – Macedonia and Montenegro

Homemade baklava and hot tea at Duf waterfall - Real Food Adventure Macedonia and Montenegro

I confess – I love food and I’m often guilty of having more than my fair share. I can conquer a buffet like no one’s business but I have to tell you that as I write this post, the prospect of going downstairs to meet my tour group for breakfast is making me ill. I don’t think I can eat anything, anymore. I’ve just done a few squats to make sure the pants still fit and I’m thinking about ringing my personal trainer (at 3am his morning, of course – not that I’m vengeful or anything) and begging for forgiveness and some mercy for when I return home.

The first sentence of the trip notes for this 10-day amazing culinary odyssey around Macedonia and Montenegro says that no one leaves this real food adventure hungry. I don’t think I fully understood the ramifications of that statement until I had the chance to experience this unforgettable foodie adventure around the Balkans for myself. Like my previous post the trip notes fall somewhat short of what actually took place but that’s because we did SO MUCH MORE than what can be put into words, but that hasn’t deterred me from trying to describe what happened on the tour …

Day 1 Skopje

Real  – I’ll be the first to admit that I know next to nothing about Macedonia, or its capital Skopje for that matter, but that’s the primary reason why I signed up for this trip, so that I could learn more about this incredible country. Skopje was actually the birthplace of Mother Teresa and there are plaques and a museum celebrating her life and legacy.

Adventure – This first day of the tour is a chance to become more acquainted with the city and discover the famous landmarks on my own, before meeting the tour leader and the rest of the group in the evening. Skopje could be described as a strange amalgamation of socialist Russia and moorish Turkey – hammans and mosques are easy to identify from a distance but there are several stately new government buildings and a multitude of bronze statues also competing for immediate recognition within the city square.

Food – At our welcome meeting, Jane (pronounced Yann-eh), gave an overview of our ten-day trip and then took us for a short walk to a restaurant area only a couple hundred metres from our hotel. As soon as we sat down, there was wine on the table and food started to appear in front of us. A delicious mezze consisting of a variety of several different types of cheese, accompanied with dips, grilled vegetables and bread. Thinking that this was dinner, I was full after sampling a little bit of everything on the plate, only to learn that there were another two courses still to come. Okay – it’s a food adventure and things just got real!

Day 2 Leunovo

Real – This morning we met our driver Igor, who appears to hold an honorary doctorate in Tetris, as he somehow manages to load a dozen oversized suitcases into the back of a small minivan. Today’s journey begins at the Stone Bridge, one of Skopje’s most recognisable landmarks, where Jane gives us a brief overview of the city as we make our way towards the entrance of the Old Bazaar.

Food – Our breakfast today comes courtesy of a tasting trail around the Old Bazaar, starting with borek and yoghurt at a small cafe. After trying a few types with different fillings, Jane also bought a few pastry cakes filled with chocolate or jam to try. Naturally, the next stop is to sit in the sun at a Turkish tea house and enjoy a few different drinks before moving onto the Bit-Pazar to shop for a few items for lunch.

Food – The Bit-Pazar is one of the biggest green markets in Skopje, located at the north entrance of the Old Bazaar. This is where Macedonian cuisine comes to life with fresh peppers and tomatoes as far as the eye can see, marinated olives of every variety, mountains of black tea and spices bought and weighed on scales, large mounds of white cheese of every consistency and much, much more. We had the opportunity to sample a few different types of the all-important cheese before buying our favourites for lunch.

Food – Located in the heart of the market are two brothers who have recently returned from Germany and have opened a small kiosk, making delicious wraps which we ate in total silence because it was just that good. Making our way back to the bus, we stopped at a local kebap shop to use the facilities. While we were waiting for the amenities, the owner kindly brought a plate of hot kebaps out to us to eat, straight off the grill.

Adventure – The Matka Canyon is rated as the top attraction to see or visit in Skopje. The Matka Lake is one of the oldest artificial lakes in Macedonia and is popular for fishing, swimming, cave diving and kayaking. Today’s adventure is a leisurely boat cruise on the lake with its stunning blue-green water, including a visit to the the Suva section of the Vrelo Cave, noted for its unusual stalactite and stalagmite formations.

Food – The best thing about being on a food adventure is that meals are not always served in a formal setting. Jane and Igor had arranged a magnificent barbeque picnic lunch for us at a secluded spot on the lake and all we had to do was kick back and enjoy a glass of wine or two while lunch was being prepared. These guys definitely know how to cater for a crowd – there were fresh salads made, grilled chicken and sausages, and they even brought along the hand wipes and seat cushions for added comfort. Lunch was a lot of fun in a lovely setting and it was so enjoyable that we didn’t realise that the boats had forgotten to pick us up again until much later in the afternoon, naturally when all the wine and beer had run out.

Real – En route to our next next destination, we stopped in the town of Tetovo to see the painted mosque Sarena Dzamija. Originally built in 1438 by two sisters, this mosque was later reconstructed in 1833 and has beautiful bright, floral decorative glaze and paintings which were created using more than 30,000 eggs. I can honestly say that this mosque is truly spectacular and definitely worth a look inside.

Food – Arriving in the small village of Leunovo in the early evening, our food and most of our home-stay accommodation is provided to us courtesy of residents, Danny and Tina. It’s hard to believe that we need to eat again, but our hosts have kindly prepared a magnificent meal for us to enjoy outside, underneath the stars.

Dinner in Leunovo - Real Food Adventure Macedonia and Montenegro
Dinner in Leunovo – Real Food Adventure Macedonia and Montenegro

Day 3 Ohrid

Food – This morning we’re back outside at Danny and Tina’s enjoying mekici or Macedonian fried doughnuts, with jam, cheese and coffee for breakfast. The doughnuts are heavenly but there is so much food on this trip that it is almost a struggle just to eat one!

Adventure – Not long after leaving Leunovo, we see the stunning view of St Nikolas church, which now lies abandoned near the shores of Mavrovo Lake. The pressure is on to get that perfect shot for our screen savers, blogs, Instagram shots, Facebook posts and Twitter feeds!

Abandoned church of St Nikolas in Mavrovo Lake - Real Food Adventure Macedonia and Montenegro
Abandoned church of St Nikolas in Mavrovo Lake – Real Food Adventure Macedonia and Montenegro

Real – The monastery of Saint Jovan Bigorski (St. John the Baptist) is an Orthodox monastery originally established in 1020, although a fire destroyed some of the complex in 2009. The monastery has a collection of a number of holy relics which a many pilgrims come to see, however the wooden hand-carved iconostasis at the front of the chapel is also a stunning and magnificent work of art.

Adventure/Food – After our monastery visit, we get to stretch our legs again and walk a few kilometres uphill to visit Duf waterfall (yes, it’s pronounced “doof”). Following the marked trail, it was great just to walk in the cooler mountain air and take pictures of the verdant greenery and listen to the sound of running water. Jane had mentioned that there was a “coffee shop” at the end of the trail which kept us all moving. The waterfall is located within a national park and not otherwise accessible except on foot. Somehow our clever-thinking tour leader had organised a friend to meet us at the waterfall where there was a thermos of tea made from thyme and camphor, hot coffee and delicious homemade baklava (made with cow’s fat, no less) waiting for us. So having finally burnt off the breakfast calories, I ended up consuming nearly a thousand more!

Food – With a bit of exercise under our belt, it’s time for some lunch. Nearby in the village of Jance is Hotel Tutto which is owned and operated by Tefik “Tutto” Tefikovski, a pioneer of the slow food movement in Macedonia. After living and working in Europe, Tutto returned to his home town to build his own hotel and restaurant, keen to promote the culinary traditions and produce of the Radika Valley region. The valley is home to approximately 40,000 sheep and renown for the variety of mushrooms that grow there in season. One of the first dishes that Tutto introduces to us is ajvar (pronounced “ivar”), a delicious paste made from roasted red peppers, often served as a side dish or spread and is very popular in Macedonia. It usually takes five kilograms of red peppers to make just one jar of ajvar. The process is quite lengthy and time-consuming, taking several hours of roasting just to produce a small quantity. In jest we asked Tutto whether there was a Thermomix version available and duly received a blank look in reply.

Food – I’m not a fan of mushrooms and while Tutto was displaying them to us and preparing the next course, I was wondering how I could politely refuse as I was sitting right up the front. The mushroom stalks had such a meaty texture that curiosity got the better of me and I tried one … and it was incredibly delicious. I just got that one taste because the pan returned back empty! Our “lunch” was a veritable feast as Tutto kept cooking a number of dishes to try, including a number of different salads, grilled beef chops and dessert. Halfway through our lunch a German camera crew appeared to film Tutto cooking for us … who knows I might be appearing on an Al Jazeera television segment soon!

Adventure – Having sat and watched Tutto prepare numerous courses for our consumption, one of the women from the kitchen came to teach us how to roll the dough to make our own pastry pie. After indulging in several glasses of wine it was no mean feat to replicate the perfect circle that our instructor had demonstrated but I think I managed it in the end! So after arriving at Hotel Tutto at 12.30PM, we departed from the restaurant for the town of Ohrid at 5.00PM. I think I might like this concept of “slow food” …

Day 4 Ohrid

Adventure – Today we have the opportunity to take an optional excursion to visit the St Naum monastery and then enjoy lunch in the small fishing village of Trpejca, following a short boat cruise across Lake Ohrid.

Real – The monastery of St Naum was founded in 905 A.D. and gets its name from the medieval saint who founded it. It’s a popular tourist destination for visitors to Macedonia, noted for its architecture, artisan and historical significance. The hand-painted frescoes and dome inside the church are well preserved and quite captivating.

Adventure – Thankfully the weather held out for our boat cruise as we followed the lake shore. There were dark, stormy rain clouds above the mountain ranges surrounding the lake that looked ominous but otherwise it was relatively smooth sailing. After 45 minutes we arrived at Trpejca, which has its own secluded beach area, and is becoming an increasingly popular destination for visitors because of its private locale.

Food – Lunch had been arranged for us at a family-owned restaurant in Trpejca which specialises in serving fresh trout caught from the lake. The owner’s 86 year-old mother was still in the restaurant keeping a quiet eye on things! It was the perfect Sunday lunch sitting outside, enjoying a glass of wine with a view of the water. Lunch consisted of shopska salad, makalo (garlic spread), cheese, grilled trout and chips followed by pancakes with chocolate sauce.

Adventure – Arriving back in Ohrid in the mid-afternoon, Kym, Jann, Greg and I were keen to explore the old town a bit further, and Jane kindly obliged by guiding us up to King Samuel’s fortress where we could see panoramic views of the city and lake below and hear about its military history. We then followed Jane down the opposite side of the hill to capture the stunning view of the Byzantine Church of St. John, situated on the cliff over Kaneo Beach. I kept thinking that I would never have discovered this part of Ohrid if Jane hadn’t decided to accompany us on a private tour of the old town.

Food – Walking along the lake shore, we stopped by a restaurant along the waterfront for a glass of Macedonian bijelo vino (white wine) and local bar snacks to relax and watch the setting sun.

Food – No less than 30 minutes after arriving back at the hotel, it was time to get back on the bus and travel to the village of Kuratica to enjoy dinner in the mountains. Our host for the evening was Goran and his family, who welcomed us into a purpose-built private dining area with a glass of his famous home-brewed rakija which is made from nettles. With 50 percent alcohol content, it was perfect for a chilly evening in the hills but I wisely limited myself to just the one glass. The regional delicacies served for evening included edible snails foraged from the forest, cheese pie and slow-cooked pork with mushrooms, followed by chocolate cake. Somehow I couldn’t bring myself to try the snails but was more than happy to sample dessert.

Day 5 Bitola

Food – Breakfast this morning was an assortment of borek and pastries from a bakery located in the local market of Ohrid. Being a sunny Monday morning, the market was thriving with plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables and all manner of produce to purchase, including jars of the much-coveted ajvar.

Real – After the market visit, we left Ohrid and drove to the village of Brajcino, passing through the town of Resen, located equidistant between Ohrid and Bitola. Situated near Lake Prespa, Resen is well known for the quality and unique taste of the apples grown in the numerous orchards planted throughout the area.

Apple orchards in the Resen region - Real Food Adventure Macedonia and Montenegro
Apple orchards in the Resen region – Real Food Adventure Macedonia and Montenegro

Food – Later in the morning we arrived in the quaint village of Brajcino, where we are introduced to Milka who lives on a small acreage of land near Lake Prespa, located relatively close to the border of Greece. Carp caught from the lake is considered to be the regional speciality and Milka demonstrated a recipe that she typically prepares for our fish lunch. With the carp in the oven, we kicked back with bijelo vino, helped prepare a salad with a few items bought at the market in Ohrid and had another opportunity to practice rolling the perfect dough to make a pie.

Day 6 Dihovo

Adventure/Food – This morning we met Jane early in the hotel lobby in search of the local breakfast specialty of tripe soup. Not that I was particularly keen to partake but I did want to see what it looked like. Despite wandering through the city square and enquiring at a few cafés, the supposed local specialty didn’t appear to be on the regular breakfast menu. Jane did however find a restaurant that had fantastic homemade soups for breakfast but unfortunately the waiter on duty was more than a little slow on the service aspect which meant that timing for the morning activity had to be changed to accomodate our meals.

Real – After breakfast we met the rest of our group for an orientation tour of Bitola, a city of 75,000 people, it is the second largest in Macedonia, located only 14 kilometres away from the border crossing with Greece and surrounded by a number of prominent mountain ranges. Previously known as “Manastir”, Bitola was part of the Ottoman Empire from 1382 to 1912 where Turks were the majority in the city. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was once stationed in Bitola for a period of time. Bitola has a long history of being a strong trading centre and many cultural organisations and consulates are still located there today. A world-class film festival celebrating the work of cinematographers is held in the city centre every year, bringing celebrities from all around the globe.

Food – Our walking tour of Bitola brings us into the Old Bazaar where the buying and selling of goods continues to be in the lifeblood of the city. It was fascinating to see an old Turkish hamman at one of the entrances to the market now surreptitiously transformed into a supermarket. Everything is for sale in the Old Bazaar – even plastic soft drink bottles filled with pigs fat!

Real – Near the outskirts of Bitola are the remains of the ancient Greek city of Heraklea Lyncestis, later occupied by the Roman Empire. I’ve personally seen the handiwork of a few Macedonian concreters throughout my lifetime and the restoration efforts applied at Heraklea appear to have utilised the same modern day techniques. While there are a few tonnes of concrete poured throughout the ruins, particularly the amphitheater, the tiled mosaics are quite spectacular.

Food – Located on the opposite side of Bitola, in the foothills of Mount Pelister, we drive to the small village of Dihovo for our included lunch and visit to a local beekeeper for a masterclass. Our host at Villa Dihovo was away supervising the current wine vintage when we arrived so we enjoyed a short walk through the village to see the apiary. The first order of business was to put on protective sleeve suit complete with hat and enclosed veil. After that challenge was successfully completed we gathered around one of the hives to learn about how honey is made and extracted, the life and times of the average honey bee followed by an elusive search to locate the Queen bee (the one wearing a spot of blue on her wings). Following our tutorial we got to taste some of the produce and different flavour combinations. My favourite was the creamy, crystallised honey very similar to the one that my late Grandfather used make from his own hives.

Food – Arriving back at Villa Dihovo we met our host Pece Cvetkvski, who kindly took a chosen few down to his cellar to learn more about his wine production and local produce. An amazing banquet of homemade sausages, salads, cooked meat and stuffed vine leaves had been laid out when we made it back upstairs, accompanied by Pece’s homemade pinot noir.

Food – It’s our last evening in Bitola and while we were definitely not hungry after our late lunch, I did want to visit a unique wine bar located in the main square that specialises in Macedonian wines, just so I’m prepared for tomorrow …

Day 7 Skopje

Real/Adventure – When I first heard at the tour briefing that we would be visiting a couple of wineries hosted by an expert in Macedonian wines, I thought all my Christmases had come at once. Now looking back in hindsight, if I had to describe what this day was like, it can be likened to visiting two sets of relatives on Christmas Day and having back-to-back feasts served with free-flowing matching wines. Our group left Bitola mid-morning gradually making our way to the Tikves wine region, arriving at the Popova Kula winery just before midday. Here we met Alexandra, our hostess during our visit at Popova Kula and were also formally introduced to Ivana Simjanovska, who is a wine judge, co-author and publisher of the Macedonian Wine Guide. Popova Kula literally means “Pope’s Tower” which once stood as a distinguishing landmark in the Demir Kapija valley where the winery is situated. A 17-metre replica tower now features prominently at the front of the vineyard as well as in their logo design. Following a short tour around the winery and cellar door area, we are ready to start sampling our selected wines.

Real – Macedonia is very much a part of the “new world” when it comes to wine, yet the paradox is that wine has been produced in this region for a number of centuries dating back to a period B.C. Ivana gave a fascinating overview of the history of Macedonian wine including a discussion on the nationalisation of all wine production after the Second World War and how Macedonian wines are now in a period of renaissance, with a renewed focus on producing high quality wines rather than large yields. As a result these wines are starting to achieve international recognition and accolades.

FoodStanushina is a unique Macedonian grape variety that Popova Kula specialises in utilising in their own signature wines. Ivana chose a Stanushina Rose 2015 with a striking salmon pink-orange colour and soft aromas of fresh strawberries as the first wine to drink. With a dry, medium finish, the flavour of wild strawberries complemented the Macedonian salad that was matched with the wine. The next wine paired with the salad was a Zilavka 2015 which had a pale green straw colour, herbaceous aromas of cloves, sage and thyme, together with subtle citrus notes on the nose. A clean, dry, medium finish and fresh lemon flavour on the palate.

Food – Looking very much like Christmas dinner, the next course served was a delicious dish of pork stuffed with plums matched with a “Perfect Choice” Vranec 2013. Ivana specifically selected the 2013 vintage as there was heavy rainfall recorded during the 2014 vintage. Deep, rich ruby red in colour, Vranec displays blackberry fruit on the nose with hints of vanilla from the American oak barriques used during the maturation process, complemented with aromas of white pepper and tobacco. This wine had a lovely, smooth, soft tannic mouthfeel and plenty of fruit-driven flavour.

Real/Adventure – The next winery was located in a different part of the Tikves region, about 20-30 minutes drive away from our first stop. The Stobi winery is a top producer of Macedonian wine despite only being in operation since 2009, making it the youngest winery in the country. Our visit included a tour of the fermentation facility and education about the production process before concluding at the cellar area where the barriques are stored.

Food – Jane had casually mentioned during a previous conversation that the food at the Stobi winery was exceptional and that we should really wait to eat at this restaurant. The problem with this plan was that it was now 5PM when we sat down in the restaurant to eat the “second lunch” and this is where the Macedonian hospitality came out in full force, with no less than five dishes put on the dining table before us to eat.

Real – Ivana had rejoined us at the head of table and talked a little bit more about the wines she had selected for our meal:

Rkaciteli 2015: Rkaciteli is a grape variety that originated in Georgia and was brought to Macedonia 40 years ago. It produces high yields and the resulting wines were principally exported to Russia. This wine is light-bodied but with a balanced structure. There are aromas of lemon citrus, green grass and jasmine subtly complemented with flavours of honey, apricot nectar and citrus on the palate. This wine pairs well with salads, smoked meats and cheeses.

Chardonnay 2014: Pale yellow straw in colour but also displays a slight green hue. Ripe tropical fruit aromas predominantly of kiwi fruit married with lemon/lime citrus on the nose and palate.

Syrah 2011: My favourite grape variety … now we are talking! This wine had been maturing in French and American oak for a period of 15 months. Lots of spice and pepper savoury notes with hints of vanilla typically associated with the integration of the wine with oak barriques. A combination of black fruit and savoury notes on the palate with a medium, dry finish. Lovely flavour and texture.

Aminta 2013: This wine is an amalgamation of equal quantities of Vranec, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, separately maturing in French oak barriques for 18 months before bottling. Beautiful ruby red in colour, the Vranec brings a powerful black fruit structure to the wine, Merlot adds elegance and softness and the Cabernet contributes pepper and savoury characteristics. A nice full bodied wine with 14% alcohol content. A very elegant wine from an excellent vintage.

Real – The poor restaurant manager was a little distraught when there was so much food left untouched on the table and wanted to know what was wrong. The meals were absolutely delicious and of the highest quality but the quantities served were more than my ever-expanding stomach could accommodate and I am certainly capable of eating vast amounts of food. So just like Christmas, we rolled back on the bus to Skopje with full bellies, happy vibes and ready for bed.

Day 8 Kotor

Real – When you sign up for a multi-country tour, long periods of road travel are sometimes inevitable and today’s journey is expected to be an eight-hour marathon bus trip. We say goodbye to Macedonia and make our way to Montenegro, passing through Kosovo and Albania en route. Kosovo has a deep admiration for Tony Blair and Bill Clinton of epic proportions, so much so that numerous children born after the war were named after these two statesmen. In a small regional town, we drove past the newly opened “Bill Clinton Sports Stadium” so it’s absolutely true!

Adventure – Our first stop for lunch was in picturesque Prizren (affectionately mispronounced as “Prison”), the second largest city in Kosovo well known for its Ottoman architecture, particularly the Sinan Pasha mosque and Old Stone Bridge.

Food – Prizren has a distinct cafe culture with lots of young people enjoying coffee and conversation in the city square. From one of its famed qebaptore (barbecue restaurants) in the Old Bazaar, I ordered the mixed qebap plate for lunch which cost only 3EUR and it was absolutely delicious!

Qebap plate - Real Food Adventure Macedonia and Montenegro
Qebap plate – Real Food Adventure Macedonia and Montenegro

Adventure – The best laid plans can go horribly pear-shaped on holidays, even on organised tours. Shortly after crossing over into Albania the tour bus experienced engine failure so we had an unscheduled coffee stop in the town of Kukes to rectify the issue. After getting back on the road again, the problem reoccurred so we found ourselves at a rest stop that looked like Albania’s homage to Las Vegas, complete with a dedicated wedding chapel and replica Universal Studios signage, while waiting for a replacement bus to come from Skopje. There are worse places to be stranded so with a fully stocked bar on hand and obliging waiter, we kicked back with several G&T’s and a marathon game of cards.

Real – Three hours later our new vehicle arrived looking more like a mobile disco than a transit bus and we were finally on our way again after spending considerably more time in Albania than originally planned. Just after 10PM and only 60 kilometres from our intended destination, we had another unexpected delay when we encountered a roadside accident and waited another 30 minutes for the police and ambulance to clear the road. After more than 12 hours since leaving the hotel, we finally reached the beautiful Old Town of Kotor in Monentegro close to midnight. I’ve never been so happy to arrive at a hotel in my entire life.

Day 9 Kotor

Real – I love James Bond movies, especially “Casino Royale” which was supposedly set in Montenegro (and which might have given me more impetus to take this tour!). Montenegro, which means “Black Mountain”, is a small sovereign state with only 700,000 inhabitants and has been touted as one of the top world destinations to visit. The beautiful Old Town of Kotor has historic cathedrals and churches, a myriad of winding alleys and numerous cafes, restaurants and tourists yet no matter how far I walked, I never did manage to get a glimpse of Daniel Craig.

Food –  The village of Njegusi, located high in the mountain ranges above the town of Kotor (about 900 metres above sea level), is renown for its smoked dried meats and artisan cheeses. Its location made for an interesting trip, given that we had to slowly climb up the dizzy heights of Mount Lovcen, in a small bus on a narrow, winding road. Eager to get some fresh air and stretch the legs, we made a beeline to see the hams drying in the rafters of the smokehouse. In the building next door a small batch of Vranec grapes was currently going through the process of being transformed into wine so we had a look around to see how the vintage was coming together. Platters of smoked ham and beef, cheese, olives and bread were served for our enjoyment together with the customary alcoholic drinks and all the while I was thinking that it’s not even 11AM and here I am drinking shots of rakija and glasses of wine. This tour is starting to wear me out!

Adventure – Given our very late arrival into Kotor the night before, I decided to skip the olive oil visit and spend some time meandering around the Old Town in the afternoon and do some sightseeing before the next cruise ship arrived into port. It was a lot of fun exploring the labyrinth of alleys and wandering into the cathedral without large crowds obstructing the entrance.

Food – There’s lots of places to grab a decent cup of coffee in Kotor but as a popular tourist destination, the price of food and wine (which is now charged in EUR) is astronomical compared to Macedonia and definitely not of the same quality. Our last dinner together was at a restaurant that supposedly specialises in seafood yet the mussels I ordered looked like something John West had rejected a decade ago. Although the fillet of bream was nicely cooked it also came with a hefty price tag. I guess that is to be expected if you hang around the playground of the rich and famous.

Day 10 Kotor

This trip has had so much to offer in terms of amazing food, generous Macedonian hospitality, great wine, fabulous weather, an excellent and dedicated tour leader and driver, beautiful scenery and fun friends to share it all with. Thanks Jann, Greg, Steve, Chris and Kym for being my Intrepid family for the past three weeks and being part of my Real Food Adventure odyssey through the Balkans.

Real Food Adventure - Macedonia and Montenegro
Real Food Adventure – Macedonia and Montenegro

This is where the diet finally starts. You might heard of the song “I lost my heart in San Francisco”? Well my version goes something like “I lost my waistline in Montenegro”. Our tour leader, Jane, keeps telling me that I should be hungry for this tour and that I needed to starve for one month before coming on this trip. I think the opposite is true for me and I’ll need to starve for TWO months afterwards BEFORE I am brave enough to see my personal trainer again. Oh wait … I’m now off to Germany, the land of roasted pork knuckle, wurst, potatoes, sauerkraut, pretzels and Riesling … Okay, I guess the diet will have to wait a few weeks more … Bon appetit!

Real Food Adventure – Slovenia and Croatia

This post is a parody or tongue-in-cheek version of Intrepid’s trip notes for the Real Food Adventure of Slovenia and Croatia, which is an exciting new addition to their unique culinary travel program in 2016.

It is not intended to be a slur against, or criticism of, the Intrepid company or its tour leaders and is entirely reflective of my own experiences on this journey. I loved my tour and the friends and memories that I have made on this particular trip. I am grateful to Intrepid for hosting these culinary adventures and creating the framework which allowed me to explore and experience a part of the world that I thought I would never have the opportunity to see through my own eyes.

That being said, there are trip notes … and there are trip notes. I thought I would compare and contrast my experiences against the current version of the trip notes available for the Real Food Adventure of Slovenia and Croatia.


Day 1 Ljubljana 

Intrepid: Welcome to Slovenia. Known as ‘Europe in Miniature’, tiny Slovenia has a huge heart and a wealth of diversity. The soaring Julian Alps capture a touch of Switzerland, the radiating coastline oozes Mediterranean charm, and Bled’s island church appears to have come straight out of a fairytale. This small country is home to a surprisingly complex cuisine, divided into 23 culinary regions by local ethnologists. Best known for hearty, alpine stews, goulash and sauerkraut, Slovenia also boasts wonderful cakes and strudels, not to mention the culinary treasures found in the coastal Karst region, including teran wine, prsut (air-dried ham) and sensational olive oils. Your adventure begins with a welcome meeting tonight at 6pm.

Picturesque Ljubljana is perfect for starting a food odyssey, with a surprisingly diverse food scene that belies its size – great local eateries, progressive modern restaurants, street food, cafes and cake shops. Toast to your trip with a glass of Slovenia’s national drink: schapps (snopec in Slovene). This fruit-based liqueur comes in a variety of flavour incarnations, although the local favourite is viljamoka, flavoured with Williams pear. Your leader will suggest a great eatery in the heart of the city to sample some delicious traditional dishes.

My version: A day to explore the beautiful city of Ljubljana on your own before meeting your tour leader and fellow travellers at the 6pm. Although Slovenia is a country that boasts 24 gastronomic regions and nearly 190 characteristic, recognisable local and regional dishes, you will need access to the hotel’s wifi capability to ensure that you familiarise yourself with these specialties during your own free time. Take advantage of the opportunity to visit the Ljubljana Castle and discover for yourself why the name Ljubljana means “beloved”. Enjoy a delicious goulash matched with a red wine from the region (self-selected and at your own expense) in a nearby local cafe.

Day 2 Ljubljana

Intrepid:  Get to know this fairy tale city on a breakfast food tour. Savour delicious pastries, cheeses and charcuterie, and in the Central Market discover the importance of apples and especially honey – there are more than 9,000 beekeepers in Slovenia! Along the way, learn a little of the city’s history and culture. Stop at the city centre Prešeren Square, dedicated to the Slovenian romantic poet, France Prešeren. With views of the Triple Bridge and Ljubljana Castle on one side, and a magnificent Franciscan church on the other, you’ll feel like you’ve just walked right into a scene from a beautiful postcard.

In the afternoon, take a public bus to Bled (approximately 1 hour). Situated on stunning Lake Bled at the edge of the Julian Alps, there are many outdoor activities to get the blood pumping in Bled: rafting, caving, canoeing, and swimming, to name a few. But you’ve come for one reason – a delicious cream cake called kremna rezina (kremsnita to the locals). It’s thought to have been invented in the kitchens of Hotel Park in 1953 by Ištvan Lukačevič, chef of the hotel’s confectionery store. Since its invention, more than 10 million kremsnita have been baked at the hotel’s patisserie. Tuck in to your own slice to find out what all the fuss is about. Return to Ljubljana by early evening.

Included Activities – Day Trip to Bled;  Bled – Kremsnita Tasting; Ljubljana – Tasting Trail
Accommodation – Hotel
Meals – 1 breakfast

My version:  Slovenia is a charcuterie connoisseur’s idea of heaven – abundant offerings of cured meats, salami, cheese – all available from the hotel’s breakfast room. After breakfast, your tour leader will take you on a stroll through the city centre where you have the opportunity to learn a little more about the city and its more familiar sites, including Preseren Square and the stunning Triple Bridge. You have no less than 30 minutes at the Central Market to wander around the stalls and purchase local fresh produce. Your induction tour ends at a popular eatery that specialises in Slovenian food – try pumpkin seed oil, goats cheese flavoured with tarragon, chilli or pepper, pate, pork crackle and a smear of pork fat – enjoyed with a glass of Slovenian wine.

In the afternoon, get acquainted with the locals and enjoy a public bus trip to the town of Bled in the north of Slovenia to try the fabled dessert, kremsnita. With a couple of hours free time available to explore, why not climb the hill to visit Bled Castle with its stunning views of the lake below or for a mere 4EUR, jump on the touristic mini train and feel the wind rush through your hair as the conductor races around the lake at breakneck speed and skips all the scheduled stops. As the sun sets, take a short bus ride to the village of Lesce for dinner at the renown “Sova” restaurant to indulge in its eclectic cuisine which is a marriage of both new and old. Return to Ljubljana by train, just in time to pack your bags for the next day’s early start.


Day 3 Motovun

Intrepid:  Travel by public bus to Piran this morning (approximately 2 hours). Piran is a stunning coastal town, located near the border of Italy and Croatia. The region is renowned for it’s production of fantastic quality olive oils, wine (especially the distinctive teran and refošk), as well as a cured ham called prsut. This is air-dried in the cold, dry wind known as the bura, which sweeps down to the coast from inland. Sample all of these local specialties and more on a tasting tour of the town, culminating in lunch at a charming tavern. Next, head to the nearby salt pans of Piran. Here, salt is still manually harvested with traditional tools according to a seven centuries’ old process. Cross the border into Croatia and continue on to Motovun by private vehicle (approximately 1 hour), arriving in the early evening. Motovun sits on the top of a cone-shaped hill, 277 metres above sea level, surrounded by the romantic and natural diversity of the bountiful Mirna River Valley. The town grew around a core settlement surrounded by well-fortified walls, and its Celtic origin name comes from the word ‘Montona’, which means the ‘town on the hill’.

Included Activities – Piran – Tasting Trail including lunch
Accommodation – Hotel
Meals – 1 breakfast, 1 lunch

My version: This morning, bid a fond farewell to Ljubljana as you drag your oversized luggage across town to the bus station to catch the 8am public bus to the stunning coastal town of Piran. Here, you will be met by a local driver, who will kindly store your luggage as you take an orientation tour of the city. Both you and the tour leader will be pleasantly surprised to discover local producers selling a variety of salami, cured meats, cheese, fruit, olives and pastries and kindly offer you samples to try before purchase.

Relax by the Adriatic Sea as you enjoy a beverage at a cafe along the foreshore. Take a short drive to the Secovlje salt-pans to learn about the manufacture and production of Mediterranean salt. After exiting through the gift shop, you will be driven to the village of Dragonja near the Croatian border, to enjoy a lesson in wine tasting and try award-winning wines produced by Ingrid Mahnic, along with a hearty four-course lunch.

The afternoon continues with a short visit to a restored torkla (olive oil mill) however while there will be no olives or olive oil available to try, a visit to the toilets are an absolute must if you have “sampled” several glasses of wine during lunch. Have your passports at the ready as you will now cross the border into Croatia and shortly arrive at the charming historic town of Motovun, situated at the top of a hill. Be rewarded with stunning picturesque views of the valley below and the setting sun, as you skilfully drag both your jostling suitcase and armful of wine and food purchases up 500 metres of steep, centuries-old, uneven cobblestone paths into the village and then up several flights of stairs into your apartment accomodation. Take in the scenery and the opportunity to try some more local wine.

Day 4 Motovun

Intrepid: Croatia has long piqued the interest of curious travellers searching for sunshine, sand and scenery, with charming cobblestone towns and World Heritage sites. Recently it has gained recognition as an exciting food and wine destination, with the region of Istria leading the charge as the culinary capital of the country. Motovun is one of the best preserved medieval Istrian towns in Croatia, with houses scattered all over the hill and a spectacular view of Mirna River Valley. Motovun Forest is the best place for hunting the famous Istrian truffle, and the nearby village of Livade is considered the truffle capital of Istria. Take a walk through the nearby woods with an experienced truffle hunter, and learn how to sniff out a truffle and about this intriguing vocation. Then enjoy a tasting of regional specialties including truffles (of course), olives and honey. Spend the afternoon at your leisure. The medieval charm of the town is still found in its well-preserved architecture, so explore Motovun’s winding cobbled lanes, discovering churches, towers and the municipal palace, or enjoy a glass of wine at Josef Ressel Square.

Included Activities – Motovun – Truffle hunt & tasting
Accommodation – Hotel

My version: The valley surrounding the town of Motovun is well known for its production of teran wine and abundance of black truffles. Treat yourself to a delicious breakfast of scrambled eggs with black truffles for 40HKR. You will need sports shoes or something similar to be able to participate in this morning’s truffle hunting activity with local truffle hunter Miro and his dog Bella. Wander past small plots of olive groves, grape vines and fruit trees as you head further into the forest in search of the elusive truffle.

Celebrate your morning’s success with a delicious truffle degustation lunch beautifully prepared by Miro’s wife, Mirjana. Enjoy family-produced wine from the Istria region and flavourful, succulent produce, all home-grown by Miro and Mirjana. Return to Motovun for a siesta, and enjoy another glorious sunset with a glass of teran or two.

Day 5 Pula

Intrepid:  Travel on to the romantic Croatian town of Rovinj, one of the best-kept towns on the Adriatic Coast (approximately 1 hour). Among Rovinj’s qualities is the beautiful, architecturally intact old town centre, with a relaxed Mediterranean feel. Through the centuries, Rovinj’s character has enchanted many an artist or writer, including Jules Verne. Take an orientation walk through the old town. For fans of oysters, a cruise on Lim Bay is highly recommended. Stop into an oyster farm and taste freshly shucked bivalves straight from the ocean. You may also choose to enjoy a spectacular optional lunch in a celebrated local restaurant that specialises in Mediterranean flavours, using ingredients sourced from the surrounding countryside. Continue on to Pula (approximately 40 minutes) via one of Istria’s celebrated boutique wineries, where the winemaker is paving the way for Croatian wines on the international stage. Enjoy a tasting of his signature drops. You’ll arrive in Pula in time for dinner and your leader can point you in delicious directions.

Included Activities – Rovinj – Winery tour & tasting
Optional Activities – Lim Bay – Oyster tasting – HRK76; Rovinj – Lim Bay cruise – HRK76
Accommodation – Hostel

My version: Leave Motovun early and drive a short distance to the beautiful coastal town of Rovinj. Enjoy breakfast in a seaside cafe and practice your limited Coatian vocabulary with a surly waiter who intensely dislikes tourists. Spend the rest of your morning walking the cobbled streets and laneways of Rovinj with its artisan crafts and famous cathedral.

Take in the panoramic views of Lim Bay on your way to visit another award-winning winery. Your host Tony, will show you the wine making process in addition to a guided tour of the cellar. Finish your tour with a wine tasting session.

Enjoy lunch at 5pm at a popular local fish restaurant near Rovinj and try fresh oysters and the catch of the day. Experience the adventure as you arrive at the town of Pula in the early evening at the wrong hotel – hot, sticky and sweaty – and the local driver deposits your suitcases and wine purchases on the footpath and hastily departs. Make your way on foot towards the Pula city centre and joyously discover that the alternative accommodation is a new and modern establishment that boasts an elevator but lacks breakfast facilities. Head to the local square for a restorative alcoholic beverage.

Day 6 Pula

Intrepid:  Wake up in Pula, the capital of the province of Istria. Pula has a long history as Roman citadel, a pirate target and a naval port, and today this regional and economic centre is powered by shipbuilding, textiles, metals and glass. On a free day, a wander through Pula’s Old Town is like a step back in time to its heyday as a Roman regional administrative centre. Follow the Roman walls and pass through the Triumphal Arch of Sergius from 27 BC. On the pedestrianised streets of the Old Town, see the ancient Forum, whose sole remaining structure is the Temple of Augustus, rebuilt after almost total devastation in World War II. Today there is the option to take a cooking class, focussing on Istrian cuisine and cooking methods. Depending on the week, topics may vary from Istrian pasta-making to perfecting the art of fileting fish. Check with your leader at the start of the trip for more information or to book, as placed are limited. In the evening and weather permitting, you may wish to meet up with your leader for a picnic overlooking the Roman Amphitheatre, Pula’s most impressive sight. Overlooking the harbour, it was built in the 1st century and designed to hold up to 20,000 spectators, who revelled in the bloodthirsty gladiatorial contests shown there. It’s a spectacular sight as the sun sets.

Optional Activities – Pula – Hands on cooking class – EUR125
Accommodation – Hostel
Meals – 1 breakfast

My version: After sourcing your own breakfast, meet your tour leader for a short orientation tour of the city of Pula, including a visit to the local market. The rest of the day is yours to enjoy, but avoid the crowds and schedule your visit to the Roman amphitheatre around 6pm to catch stunning views of the sunset over the harbour from your seat within the arena. Join your friends at a nearby restaurant recommended by your tour leader, which is renown for its tuna and seafood dishes.

Day 7 Zadar

Intrepid: Travel to walled city of Zadar by bus (approximately 5 hours). For centuries Zadar was the capital city of Dalmatia, and the city’s rich heritage is visible at every step. It’s also celebrated for many culinary treasures, including fresh seafood, the sheep and goats that are reared for their meat and milk in the mountains to the north, and the wonderful fresh produce that is grown in a broad belt of land surrounding Zadar. The city is also home to a vibrant café culture. To refresh, on arrival stop into one of our favourite cafes in the city and enjoy a spot of people watching alongside the locals. Your leader will then invite you to try some local food and drinks. Ozjusko pivo is a light beer with a very pleasant taste, just a little bit bitter, with a rich flavour. Afterwards, treat yourself to a gourmet meal at a contemporary Croatian restaurant. Try lamb in red wine, ‘njoki’ with Dalmatian ham and rocket salad, or opt for the popular choice of fresh fish: tuna carpaccio or a fillet in scampi sauce. Also try the famous liqueur, Maraskino, made from locally-grown maraschino cherries according to a centuries’ old secret recipe. This unique drink was a favourite at European imperial and royal courts and has been produced in Zadar since 1821.

Included Activities – Zadar – Cafe experience
Accommodation – Hotel

My version: Today we bid a fond farewell to the famous gastronomic region of Istria and make our way to Zadar, located in Dalmatia. There are only a few more days left on this journey of a lifetime so don’t waste your precious holiday time travelling on public buses when for a mere 120HKR, your group can pile into a small rented van, packed to the rafters with luggage, wine and weary travelers. Be sure to choose your seat carefully as some chairs will be missing upholstery. Take a five hour road trip through tunnels under mountain ranges and arrive at your destination in the early afternoon, thoroughly hot and bothered. Your hotel is an hour’s walk from the city centre, so relax in the courtyard restaurant with a bottle of wine during the afternoon.

Zadar has been hailed as the best European destination in 2015. Similarly, world renowned artists have said that Zadar, with its view of the central Dalmatian Islands, has the most beautiful sunsets in the world, which is what inspired the Greeting to the Sun installation, but you will miss out on this spectacular view and will instead stand around the hotel carpark for 30 minutes waiting because somebody has forgotten to order taxi transport for the group. Enjoy an orientation tour of old town which has a distinctive Venetian presence, followed by dinner at a restaurant where you can try a local Dalmatian speciality of pasticada which is beef stuffed with bacon, carrot and garlic, served with gnocchi and a gravy sauce. Return transportation to your hotel is at your own expense.

Day 8 Zadar

Intrepid: Rise early for a stroll through Zadar’s vibrant fish markets. The fish market is built into the city ramparts at the spot where the fishing trawlers land with their catch. This will also give you an opportunity to ogle some of the produce grown in the area. Depending on the season, you may find citrus fruits and kiwis from the islands, fresh and dried figs and home-made olive oil. Then travel by bus to nearby Pag Island (approximately 1.5 hours). The karst island of Pag is home to sheep, an intricate lace, and a determined group of islanders who wring themselves a living from the barren, rocky landscape. Settled in pre-Roman times, the island has been at the mercy of the shifting fortunes of various Dalmatian rulers, and today reminders of its prosperous salt-mining past lie in the main town. Meet a producer of the island’s renowned cheese ‘paski sir’. This artisan sheep’s milk cheese has long been a valued commodity of the island. Discover more about the production process and enjoy a tasting. There may also be time for a swim in the shallow coves that make Pag Island a popular destination for beachgoers. Return to Zadar by late afternoon. Perhaps visit the famous ‘Greeting to the Sun’ and the ‘Sea Organ’, two of the more modern sights of Zadar.

Included Activities – Pag Island – Cheese tour & tasting
Accommodation – Hotel
Meals – 1 breakfast

My version: If you have seen one fish market, you’ve seen them all. Instead visit Zadar’s homage to the Sphinx before making your way to Pag Island, a beautiful, picturesque region well regarded for its manufacture of sheep’s milk cheese and fine lace. Spend some free time walking around the Pag township before joining your tour leader for a coffee in a local cafe.

Take a short drive to a local farm to sample some of the local cheese. For an additional 100HKR, you can experience an authentic lamb lunch cooked in a peka, which is a large metal baking dish with a bell-shaped dome lid, used to cook food in an open fireplace. Return to Zadar in the early afternoon to wander around the famous sites before heading back to the hotel at your own expense. Enjoy a delicious pizza dinner with your friends at a local restaurant matched with local wine before calling it a day.

Day 9 Split

Intrepid: Travel by local bus southeast to Split (approximately 4 hours), taking in vistas over vineyards, olive groves, bays, beaches, steep cliffs and islands along the way. A vibrant mixture of golden history and present-day delights, the city of Split grew out from the remains of Diocletian’s Palace – some of the most impressive ruins on the Mediterranean. Join a local guide for a walking tour of Split to get to know its history a little. See the original and fantastically preserved basements under the city, as well as the Cathedral in Diocletian’s Peristyle and Jupiter’s Temple. The Peristyle is a large rectangular open space framed by columns and arches on the long sides, with the entrance to the Emperor’s old living quarters at one end. Portions of the Palace are over 1,700 years old, and there’ll be ample time to truly experience this amazing, time-defying structure. Next, meet up with a local chef for a visit to the markets. Collect your ingredients, return to the hotel and ascend to the rooftop where you will be treated to a masterclass in some classic Dalmatian dishes. Savour the results as you sit down to a final feast with new friends.

Included Activities – Split Guided City Tour; Split – Hands on cooking class including market visit & dinner
Accommodation – Hotel
Meals – 1 dinner

My version: Leave Zadar early to make the most of your last day in the beautiful, historic town of Split. Your rented transport will ensure that the total travel time is only 2 hours. Arrive at the beautiful boutique hotel, Hotel Slavija, which first opened in 1900 and is the oldest hotel in Split. Wave goodbye to your tour leader and meet Mirjana, your local guide. Mirjana’s enthusiasm, passion and expert knowledge of Split’s history and that of Croatia in general, will leave you wondering why you are only learning about this now on the last day of the tour. Your two hour walking tour of the old town of Split, as you wander through the remains of Diocletian’s palace, making your way through narrow alleys, listening to the melodic voices of a Dalmatian men’s choir, tasting fresh produce from the green market along the way, sampling chocolate and Croatian specialties and listening to Mirjana’s narrative, is a definite highlight of the trip.

Your final group activity and included dinner commences at 4pm with a fun and interactive cooking class at your hotel’s restaurant, located in the lower ground floor of what was previously Diocletian’s thermal spa. Hosts Natasha and Ingrid, will help you to prepare several popular and delicious Dalmatian dishes for you to learn and take back home to showcase to your friends and family. Sample rakija From the region and plavac mali, which is the distinctive red grape grown along the Dalmatian coast.

The tour concludes at the end of this activity.

If I haven’t lost your attention by now, you may note that there are a few inclusions and activities that do not eventuate and important bits of travel information that do not appear in the official version of the trip notes … however, this tour provides a real insight into the relatively new travel destinations of Slovenia and Croatia, together with an abundance of food (and wine) and plenty of adventure. Above all, remember that this is your trip and it is up to you to create your own unique memories and culinary adventures. Bon appetit!

Lellama Fish Market Visit and Cooking Experience – Jetwing Beach Hotel, Negombo, Sri Lanka

Jetwing Beach Cooking Experience - Negombo, Sri Lanka

Monday 7th December, 2015

Ever since my Year 7 geography class and learning about the capital cities and countries of the world, I’ve had a yearning to travel to Sri Lanka (or Ceylon, as it once was known) to see the tea plantations with my own eyes and learn more about Sri Lankan culture and cuisine firsthand. I was determined that this was going to be the year to actively try and make that trip become a reality.

Knowing that my trip was indeed a “once in a lifetime” experience, I researched a number of places to stay on Google and TripAdvisor, looking for something that would give me an opportunity to enjoy the beautiful beaches in Sri Lanka, and somewhere luxurious to rest and recharge for a few days, but which also offered a unique culinary programme. Sounds impossible? And after a bit of clicking and surfing, I stumbled across the Jetwing Beach website which had a link offering a trip to the local fish market and hands-on cooking experience with the chef for US$45. After sending a few email enquiries to confirm that the culinary experience was still available, I booked my accommodation and eagerly anticipated my impending holiday adventure.

Persistence and a little dash of tenacity are the key ingredients in securing this activity. Despite having a copy of the original email response from the Restaurant Manager, I enquired with the front desk on three separate occasions on the morning of my first day at the hotel as to when this would be taking place, more so that I could plan when to drag myself away from the pool, alcoholic beverages and palm trees and be ready for some knife-wielding action.

A lot of nodding ensued, a few casual “We will ask” responses and then in the afternoon, I called by the reception desk to ask about the activity once more. After a little wait, I was asked if I would be willing to go downstairs to the hotel kitchen and meet with the Executive Chef in his office to discuss my culinary adventure in more detail. Talking briefly about what I wanted to learn, see and do, a trip to the fish market was arranged for five a.m. on Monday morning, where I would be escorted by a couple of hotel chefs to visit one of the oldest fish markets in Sri Lanka and select the fish I wanted to cook with.

I think after that initial meeting with the chef, most of the restaurant and hotel staff recognised my face and were keen to talk to me about my visit, with a few short greetings of “Madam, you are going to the fish market in the morning. No?”. The manager on duty in the restaurant on Sunday night came to my table to introduce myself and ask if I was still okay to start the next morning at five a.m. Yep, bring it on.

Granted, getting up just after four a.m. at a resort to go and pick the catch of the day isn’t everyone’s idea of relaxation or fun, and it’s not something I’ve succumbed to doing at the markets back home. However, travel makes everyone embrace adventure, even jumping into a swank black car with tinted windows and four guys I’ve never met before, in the dead of night without a second thought, to go and look at some fish.

The avenue of neon palm trees - Negombo, Sri Lanka
The avenue of neon palm trees – Negombo, Sri Lanka

On the way to the market, we drove through an avenue of fluorescent glow sticks that symbolically resembled a grove of palm trees. I wasn’t sure if it was part of the town’s Christmas decorations but it was spectacular to behold. I was a little slow getting my camera to capture the image (the photo here was taken on the way back as the sun was coming up) but in truth, I’m glad I made the effort to get out of bed a little earlier than usual.

When we arrived at the market just after five a.m., trading was in full swing with tuk-tuk’s, bicycles, cars and even small motorboats, all jostling for a position around the perimeter of the building. To one side was the local fish sales and the opposite side housed the commercial enterprise, with large trawlers docked against the jetty.

I was led through the smaller market to look at the stalls selling a variety of mullet fish, tuna, shark, swordfish and crustaceans. My chef friends were asking me what fish I wanted to try, and to be honest, at at hour of the morning I did not have a definitive menu planned in advance. The difficult thing though was that once the vendors knew that I was the purchaser, the price seemed to escalate tenfold and so I needed to wander off and become somewhat interested in someone else’s stall in order to secure some of the chef’s recommendations.

Across the other side was the fishing co-operative and large portions of tuna and other fish captured in the night’s haul were being cut, weighed and sold. We came across a few men struggling to lift a massive shark onto a set of scales to be weighed, and there were a few shouts when the final reading came to a staggering 232 kilograms.

The 232 kilogram catch of the day - Lellama Fish Market, Negombo, Sri Lanka
The 232 kilogram catch of the day – Lellama Fish Market, Negombo, Sri Lanka

It was fascinating wandering around the market, watching the dawn slowly break, seeing the trawlers head back out and other boats come back in. Yet in all the frantic hustle, my appearance did seem to be a little out of the ordinary, with one fisherman quite keen to ensure that I took a picture of him and some of his catch for prosperity.

Lellama Fish Market, Negombo, Sri Lanka
Lellama Fish Market, Negombo, Sri Lanka

With my fish portions secured and also fresh fish purchased for the hotel’s daily menu requirements, we headed back to the hotel and arrived just after six a.m. My chef companions went to the kitchen to start their day and gave me instructions to meet them outside the hotel restaurant at eleven a.m., ready to start my hands-on cooking lesson.

Having fortified myself with a few cups of coffee during the morning, I arrived early before the appointed hour, looking forward to learning the secrets of Sri Lankan fish curries and a few new culinary skills to add to my repertoire.

A cooking station had been set up outside for my lesson, with portable gas stoves and barbecue plates primed for action. The first order of business was to get my apron and chef’s hat on, which in the heat and humidity kind of gave me the same hairstyle as Krusty the Clown, but given the idyllic setting, I just had to go with it.

Armed with a sharp knife, my chef demonstrated how the vegetables were to be cut and I got to work on prepping the onion, green peppers, tomatoes, ginger, limes and lemongrass for our different curries.

It was a little disconcerting to have an audience ratio of four staff to one amateur cook to begin with, but once it became apparent that I can listen and follow instructions, chop vegetables without losing body parts and know a little bit about cooking in general, I had a one-on-one professional and highly enjoyable cooking experience.

The lunch menu consisted of a Vietnamese style steamed fish (mullet), fish curry (another variety of mullet), another fish curry (swordfish), grilled tuna, prawn curry and a dahl curry. I received a couple of recipes presented in a folder for a fish curry and the dahl curry to take home with me, but essentially the lesson was hands-on, cooking by instinct and taste.

The steamed fish was seasoned with salt, light soy sauce, sesame oil and fresh ginger, coriander and lemongrass. Whilst it was similar to what I prepare at home, what shocked me was that it is generally accepted that fish is steamed flat, yet our version was tightly wrapped in foil and bent in such a way to ensure it was snugly placed around the circumference of a small steamer and left to cook for 25 minutes.

We then progressed onto preparing the first version of the fish curry by slicing the mullet fish into thick slices and marinating the pieces in a combination of curry powder and chilli powder, before sautéing a mixture of the vegetables and coconut milk with the prepared fish.

While the pot was boiling, I was slicing pieces of swordfish for another fish curry and another flurry of spices, vegetables and coconut milk ensued to create another exotic dish. The chef asked me what I wanted to do with the piece of yellow fin tuna that was purchased, and with the midday sun beating down on us, it was perfect weather for seared tuna cooked on the grill plate, served rare. My little suggestion earnt me a winning smile from my teacher who then taught me to slice the tuna correctly and then create a simple marinade of cracked black pepper, sea salt and lime juice.

With the tuna set to one side, I then stepped up to the hotplate again to create the dahl curry from pre-washed red lentils, in much the same manner as the fish curries; a pinch of this, a dash of that, a spoonful or two of coconut milk, season, stir then sit. My chef also thought that the meal would be incomplete without the inclusion of prawns so I was set to work on creating a dry curry (sans coconut milk) on the strove top.

After an hour or so of learning, listening and instinctive cooking, I had made and prepared my own lunch to now sit and enjoy with the stunning view of the beach before me.

Jetwing Beach Cooking Experience - Negombo, Sri Lanka
Jetwing Beach Cooking Experience – Negombo, Sri Lanka

Sri Lankan’s take their hospitality very seriously and strongly recommended that my meal could not be appreciated without a bottle of Chardonnay to complement the fish and spices. Really, after getting up at an ungodly hour and cooking up a storm, who was I to argue? I was treated like royalty throughout the whole experience and the personal attention continued with my dishes served onto my plate, cold wine poured and steamed rice, coconut sambal and pappdums brought out to compliment my cooking. The head pastry chef suddenly appeared at my table to introduce himself and ask how I enjoyed my morning.

I was perfectly content and grateful that I had persevered in ensuring that I didn’t miss out on enjoying this unique experience, just absentmindedly gazing out to the sea when the chef approached my table with a gift of spices from the hotel kitchen, as a thank-you for participating in the culinary experience.

And just when I thought I couldn’t possibly eat any more, a beautiful palate-cleansing fruit platter arrived to revive me. Truly, great holiday memories are undoubtedly created from doing the things we love and learning from those who are willing to share their love of food and culinary heritage with new-found friends.

ALDI Degustation Dinner

Most people, like myself, either have a love or hate relationship with the ALDI discount supermarket chain. There was a time when I loathed the place and decreed that my parents were forbidden to buy any Christmas or birthday presents from there, which they took great delight in doing. Yet fast forward five or so years and I’m the one calling them up suggesting that they buy me the $99 sound bar in the weekly special buys catalogue for my birthday gift and eagerly scouring the bins for that matte black imitation Le Creuset cast iron pot I’ve been coveting for my kitchen.

Every Wednesday morning feels like Christmas to me when I click on the website and see what the new “7 Day Deals” are. I can’t exactly pinpoint the moment when I had a complete change of heart, but what I do know about myself is that I hate being ripped off and there is a substantial price differential when I purchase branded groceries from the other supermarkets than when I shop at ALDI. I have friends that are confounded by the store layout, wondering why on earth there are lawnmowers next to the frozen food section and why I can be bothered shopping there, and there are other friends who are also enthusiastic shoppers or cooks and like me, love a good bargain.

Given my love of good food, great wine and ALDI, I decided just for a bit of fun to combine all three passions and invite some friends over to my place to participate in a degustation dinner challenge. The rules were to create a dish where 90% of the ingredients are sourced from ALDI which is then served with a matching wine selection, also purchased from ALDI. Perhaps something similar to the mystery box challenge on Masterchef if you will, but where you have a whole supermarket to inspire your culinary creativity.

I nominated myself for a fish course and a pasta course, Mez and Adrian to prepare the meat courses (one being chicken and the other being a red meat of their choosing) and Alisha responsible for the dessert and cheese course to finish, all served with an appropriate wine match. With each guest having exceptional knowledge, qualifications and experience in wine, I was really looking forward to seeing what we came up with.

My ideas for the fish course changed over the duration of the three or four weeks prior to the actual dinner event. Originally I had been thinking of serving portions of grilled white fish over a bed of black rice with a red curry sauce, or perhaps serving a salmon dish but after flicking through a Dish magazine, I was inspired to incorporate mango into my dish, given that it was in season. After doing a reconnoitre of the ALDI fridges to confirm that I could obtain prawns for my dish, I went with Prawns with Lime and Mango Dipping Sauce as the first course. I had read about the highly-rated Corte Carista Prosecco DOC ($9.99), from Veneto, Italy in a wine trade magazine and knew that it would be a match made in heaven. And the result? Pretty good considering that I had never made the recipe before or tried the wine until that evening. The sparkling wine with fragrant floral notes was lovely to drink and well matched with the seafood. Cutting mango properly is still a skillset that I need to develop but I got there in the end, and the tropical fruit went well with the spiced marinade and wine. The only thing I didn’t source from ALDI was the mint required for the dipping sauce. Unfortunately ALDI didn’t have any on hand and my local market sold a bunch for a $2.00 so I figured I still won out.

Ricotta and spinach cappellaccio, spiced pumpkin purée, crispy sage, burnt butter sauce and walnut crumb - ALDI Degustation Dinner
Ricotta and spinach cappellaccio, spiced pumpkin purée, crispy sage, burnt butter sauce and walnut crumb – ALDI Degustation Dinner

The next course was my own creation, inspired from a Coles food magazine recipe which had roasted pumpkin, sage, wilted spinach, walnuts and a packet of Latina Fresh pasta. Thinking about the ingredients and what I could get from ALDI, I went with Ricotta and spinach cappellaccio, spiced pumpkin purée, crispy sage, burnt butter sauce and walnut crumb. You can source a pack of the ricotta and spinach cappellaccio for $3.99 from the cold storage and the rest of the ingredients are readily available. Similar to the situation with the mint, the sage on hand at ALDI looked a little limp, so again I got something more robust and cheaper from my greengrocer. Thinking I needed a white wine match for this course, I dropped by my local ALDI last week and spied a bottle of the Peter Mertes Gold Edition 2014 Riesling ($9.99) from Mosel Germany on the shelves. This wine is very dry on the palate with nice soft, fruity aromas that pairs well with a variety of food so it again was a great accompaniment.

Pork Fillet with a mustard cider sauce, cauliflower purée and broccolini - ALDI Degustation Dinner
Pork Fillet with a mustard cider sauce, cauliflower purée and broccolini – ALDI Degustation Dinner

The next course was prepared by Meredith who was originally thinking of preparing a braised meat dish so that she didn’t need to prepare too much in my kitchen but when reviewing what was available in the meat department, she was inspired to cook a Jamie Oliver recipe that she had tried before, Pork Fillet with a mustard cider sauce, cauliflower purée and broccolini. Mez came armed with a meat thermometer to ensure that her pork fillet was cooked and served at the optimum temperature, and the mustard cider sauce and purée pre-prepared making the serving process a lot easier. The chosen wine match was a Tudor Pinot Noir 2014 ($12.99) from the Yarra Valley region in Australia. The pinot which had the typical aromas of red fruit, particularly raspberries, was soft on the palate, medium-bodied and a nice, long finish. Even though I’m a Shiraz girl, I was thinking that this wine wasn’t bad at all and while the serving suggestion on the bottle recommends gamey meats, the soft texture of the wine paired well with the soft texture of the pork fillet. I really loved this dish, particularly the slightly-sweet mustard cider sauce and smooth purée.

Chicken à la Adrian with a ‘Stop & Go’ accompaniment - ALDI Degustation Dinner
Chicken à la Adrian with a ‘Stop & Go’ accompaniment – ALDI Degustation Dinner

Three courses down and three more to go. When I asked everyone to send their dish descriptions and wine matches so that I could write up our dinner menu, Adrian sent me something along the lines of Chicken à la Adrian with a ‘Stop and Go’ accompaniment which sent my imagination into overdrive. I confused ‘Up and Go’ with the term ‘Stop and Go’, thinking that I was going to be served chicken breasts poached in a breakfast beverage and naturally I should have known better. Adrian had sourced all his favourite ingredients at ALDI to create chicken thighs fillets parcels stuffed with baby spinach and haloumi, and wrapped in thin slices of prosciutto. The ‘Stop and Go’, or red and green items, were oven-roasted, vine-ripened baby roma tomatoes and asparagus, dressed with a balsamic finish. Adrian chose Baron Amarillo Rioja Reserva 2010 ($9.99) from Rioja, Spain which was a wine I hadn’t tried before, but will probably buy a lot more of in the future. Rich and elegant in taste, with a soft lush texture coming from the length of time the wine was aged in oak, this wine had a boldness to it that cut through the salty flavours of the cured meat but complemented the roasted vegetables and chicken. Very, very nicely done.

Alisha was brave enough to come along to our dinner adventure and immerse herself in the weird, wonderful world of ALDI. Her dessert choice for the evening was a Dark chocolate mousse with fresh strawberries inspired by Jamie Oliver’s 30-minute meal challenges and she was also tasked with preparing a cheese platter to finish the meal, selecting the ‘Emporium Selection Aged Warrnambool Cheddar 20-month’ and ‘Danish Smooth Blue’ cheese with assorted crackers with a Keeper’s Glove Special Reserve Tawny. The dark chocolate mouse was delicious but I probably did Alisha a disservice by putting in the fridge beforehand so it lost its mousse consistency when it was served but chocolate never goes out of style. The cheese selection was delicious as was the tawny port which matched well with both the dessert and the cheese dishes.

Approaching midnight and having successfully indulged in six delicious courses and some beautifully selected wines, I was quite pleased that my quirky idea turned out to be a great success. Who knows what exotic dishes we will conjure up in our next ALDI-inspired culinary adventure?

Foodie Trails – Gourmet Indian Masala Trail, Melbourne CBD

It’s funny how we are prepared to try new experiences on holidays, but rarely undertake similar adventures in the places in which we live. One of the first things that I do when planning a holiday to a foreign destination, is to sign up for a culinary food tour or cooking class in that country once I arrive, so that I can get a greater appreciation of the cuisine and culture. Although I live in a beautiful city with a rich and diverse offering of foods from many different nationalities, I rarely take the time to discover the edible treasures readily available on my own doorstep.

When I saw an advertisement for a walking tour around the Melbourne CBD with Foodie Trails, sampling authentic Indian cuisine combined with the opportunity to discover wonderful new places to source spices and obscure food items, it was a journey of discovery that I didn’t want to miss.

The starting point of the journey was the Visitor Information Centre at Federation Square where we met our guide Himanshi, before setting off on our gourmet adventure. What was exciting was that we only needed to walk a couple of hundred metres down Flinders Street before arriving at our first location on the tour, an Indian restaurant and café called Flora. I actually walk past this restaurant every day on my way to work but never had the courage to actually step inside and discover what lay beyond the glass doors.

Seated at a large table towards the back of the restaurant, Himanshi treated our group to a narrative of her love of food and travel stemming from her childhood upbringing in India. With maps of the states and provinces before us, we learnt about the origins of popular Indian dishes and spices, and how centuries of various rulers and empires from around the world had contributed to and influenced, what we know as Indian cuisine today.

The best part of any food tour is being introduced to new dishes under the guidance of someone who knows how it should best be eaten. Himanshi had arranged for servings of a traditional South Indian breakfast dish called idli, a savoury cake or dumpling, served in a warm red lentil and vegetable soup flavoured with chilli and mustard seeds known as sambar for everyone to try, served with a cold coconut chutney as an accompaniment. After watching Himanshi demonstrate how to eat the dumpling with the soup and coconut sauce, we all reciprocated and tried it for ourselves. Yum! It was absolutely delicious, and I particularly loved the coconut sauce which had fresh coriander through it.

No breakfast is complete without a hot beverage and Himanshi obliged by ordering chai masala tea for us to enjoy with our soup. Vastly different from a chai latte, masala tea is made from loose leaf tea, fresh ginger, various herbs and dry-roasted spices such as cardamom and cinnamon, which has been boiled and strained before served with milk. The warm spiced tea had a lovely taste and was very easy to drink, and although I could have happily indulged in another cup, it was time for us to leave and head towards our next destination.

After a short walk through the Melbourne city centre, we arrived at a small shop located in Russell Street called Ceylon Curry Corner, which is in close proximity to Chinatown. I must admit that one of the main motivators for joining the tour apart from my love of Indian cuisine, was to discover a place in the city that sold spices and traditional Indian foods. Once we walked into the shop, I knew that I had found that place.

With walls laden with packets of dried herbs and spices, and shelves stocked with jars of various foodstuffs, Himanshi took the time to explain the traditional elements and key ingredients found in Indian cuisine by passing them around our group. We then had an opportunity to buy our own spices to bring home and incorporate into our own cooking. I had been searching for a five-seed spice blend called panch phoran to use in a recipe for a Sri Lankan curry for quite some time, and I was excited to finally get my hands on a packet for only a couple of dollars.

Our last destination for the afternoon was a well-known Indian restaurant located at the top of Bourke Street called Red Pepper. Red Pepper has a contemporary, modern interior and our group was looking forward to enjoying what Himanshi had ordered for our lunch. It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed an authentic mango lassi and didn’t hesitate to order one to accompany the food, but I found that it was so delicious and refreshing that my glass was empty within only a few minutes.

Soon after, several individual platters of food were served, containing large portions of warm butter naan, and smaller bowls of goat curry, raita, butter chicken, chicken curry, lentil soup , rice and a small salad. Thankfully I had brought my appetite with me on the tour but where to start? Butter chicken is always a favourite and a dish that I have mastered making at home in my own kitchen, so naturally I started there. Everything on the platter was beyond compare – fresh, delicious, full of flavour, the meat dishes were tender and succulent, the sauces were beautifully spiced and not unbearably hot to taste. Naan bread is always wonderful and this was no exception yet somehow I had some left over to mop up the left over remnants of the curries at the end of the meal.

Just when I thought I couldn’t eat another mouthful of food, our gulab juman dessert arrived. These delectable dumplings are made from cottage cheese, immersed in a sweet sugar syrup with a touch of cinnamon and absolutely yummy, even on a full stomach.

This marked the end of a wonderful tour of the Melbourne CBD area, sampling a fantastic selection of culinary delights at popular Indian cafés and restaurants within its locale. Himanshi surprised us all with a little goody bag by way of thank you for participating in the tour which contained a lovely key charm and a packet of spice mix to make our exotic Indian creations at home. What better way to spend a Saturday afternoon in the city?

Flora Indian Restaurant & Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Ceylon Curry Corner Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Red Pepper Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Mr Hendricks Café, Balwyn

As much as I love the art of decluttering and adhering to organising and minimalist principles, I must admit that my iPad is in complete disarray; absolutely chock full of saved bookmarks from newspaper articles and random, unfiled notes on cafés across a multitude of apps, highlighting places that I should potentially go and visit for breakfast. Somewhere in all that mess, I happened to come across something that recalled to mind that there was a café called Mr Hendricks Café located in Balwyn on my must-go list. With the added bonus of staying in Kew this week and discovering that the café is also directly located on the #109 tram route, it would seem like a wasted opportunity to be in such close proximity and not make an effort to go there for breakfast.

Finding the location was easy enough and I seemed to arrive in the nick of time to be able to secure a table, because within fifteen minutes the place was busy and a small queue had started to form. It’s so exciting to see a unique breakfast menu with a number of original signature dishes, not often seen or replicated elsewhere. I’m always a sucker for French Toast at the best of times, particularly when it’s of the brioche variety, but I had already consoled myself with a couple of images from Instagram and moved on. The Francophile in me particularly warmed to the thought of indulging in a Cassoulet with braised beans, smoked ham hock, lamb shoulder, toulouse sausage, confit duck leg, persilade and fried egg. The description of the Prawn and Corn Fritters was beyond compare and even the Avocado on Toast sounded extraordinary with the inclusion of wekame, sesame, pickled cucumber salad and lemon gel as key elements within the dish. My coffee arrived and someone was keen to take my order, but inexplicably I needed another couple of minutes to arrive at a decision. After much deliberation, I finally settled on the Crispy Eggs with sweet potato puree, ham jock, salad of fennel, radish, red onion and candied walnuts.

The café fit-out is absolutely beautiful in its simplicity and elegance, almost a refined industrial décor that made the frustrated interior designer in me just sit back and admire the room’s composition in jealous admiration. Soft tan leather cushions on the banquette seating, attractive pendant lighting, glossy black Thonet chairs, elegant gold lettering on every door and window and beautiful polished wooden bench tops and tables in rich warm tones ticked all of my aesthetic boxes.

Coffee is available in a standard cup size, although after my spree of ordering larger versions, the glass seemed to have shrunk. My latte was creamy and delicious but after a couple of sips, another glass was definitely in order.

Crispy Eggs with sweet potato puree, ham hock, salad of fennel, radish, red onion and candied walnuts - Mr Hendricks Cafe, Balwyn
Crispy Eggs with sweet potato puree, ham hock, salad of fennel, radish, red onion and candied walnuts – Mr Hendricks Cafe, Balwyn

Trying to capture an appropriate image for my food chronicle was no mean feat – there were so many colours and items on the plate that trying to fit them into one frame was a frustrating task. Photographic duties aside, I went straight for the ham hock which was simply delicious, slightly crispy yet soft and salty at the same time. There was plenty of meat on the plate, yet it was something I found myself wanting more and more of. The crumb on the boiled eggs came away easily and delicious with the sweet potato puree, but made for a bit of sport trying to scoop a mouthful onto my fork. “Slippery little suckers”, one might say.

I’m not a huge advocate of salad for breakfast yet surprisingly, I loved it and would say it was absolutely my favourite part of breakfast. From the crunch of the candied walnuts to the finely shaved fennel, the entire salad was beautifully dressed with a silky, smooth and slightly sweet honey mustard dressing, with every leaf glistening with the sheen of olive oil.

Completely satisfied with my breakfast, I even ordered a third cup of coffee just so I could sit and prolong the indulgence for just a little bit longer. A way to a woman’s heart is through her stomach, and Mr Hendricks, I’d have to say that you have certainly captured mine.

Mr Hendricks Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Adeney Milk Bar, Kew

When I first signed up for a brief sojourn to Kew, my friend Alison took me on a quick tour of her neighbourhood and the first place of interest was Adeney Milk Bar Café, just a short walk around the corner. So with the promise of warm weather, blue skies and birds either tweeting or swooping, after many months in seclusion I was so eager to get to Adeney that I almost skipped all the way there.

Naturally with the sun out, all the outdoor seating beneath the front verandah was fully occupied but thankfully there were a few tables near the front window that were still available. The interior of the café is so inviting and homely, making me feel that I was almost indulging in a breakfast in someone’s home.

Perched on the banquette seating along the wall, I had a wonderful view of the street outside and full view of another separate dining space towards the rear of building. It’s quite cosy in the seating department and not long after arriving, a family with very young children sat down at the next table alongside me, which was in such close proximity that I could have helped myself to their breakfast as well. It was no laughing matter when the little girl then proceeded to keep yelling repeatedly in my left ear, “Mummy, what can I have to eat?” for what seemed like an eternity.

The coffee machine was in full throttle with a constant flow of both in-house and take-away orders coming from all directions. Believe it or not, there is a dedicated walk-up sliding window behind the counter, available for those wanting to order take-away coffees without having to step inside. When I had a sip of my large hot skinny latte once it arrived, I immediately knew what all the fuss was about. The Fitzroy Street house blend sourced from Industry Beans was incredibly smooth, creamy and delicious that I found myself just staring absentmindedly into space, nursing the warm glass in my hands and taking lots of long, slow sips.

The Winter menu at Adeney is fairly typical of most other cafés with all the usual suspects present. There are two smashed avocado options available, and after a lot of deliberation, I landed on the Winter Smash with avocado, chilli, coriander and fresh lime on toasted sourdough ($14) and added the poached egg ($3).

Winter Smash: avocado, chilli, coriander and fresh lime on toasted sourdough and poached egg - Adeney Milk Bar, Kew
Winter Smash: avocado, chilli, coriander and fresh lime on toasted sourdough and poached egg – Adeney Milk Bar, Kew

Although it’s called the “Winter Smash”, the bright green colours of the avocado, coriander sprigs and fresh lime were decidedly reminiscent of the approaching Spring season. There was quite a substantial amount of the avocado mixture on the plate to devour and while I thought that the inclusion of the red chilli would be the standout ingredient, after the first mouthful it was apparent that someone had been heavy-handed with the lime which had unfortunately left a slightly sour aftertaste. Although the flavours were a little out of balance, it was still extremely edible and enjoyable when paired with the crusty sourdough toast and soft poached egg. I had once again underestimated how restorative and satisfying a good dose of creamy avocado and bread can be.

Having finished another delicious cup of coffee along with my breakfast, all was good and right in my own little world and even more so when I realised that Adeney was going to be my new “local” for the next few weeks, which might also be just enough time for me to be able to stroll around the corner again and try their new Spring menu.

Adeney Milk Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato