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?