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!

Duck and Pinot Masterclass – Luv-a-Duck, Port Melbourne

I am fairly skeptical when it comes to those websites that peddle daily deals that are usually too good to be true, so when a friend of mine mentioned that she had recently taken a cooking class through Living Social, I subscribed more out of curiosity rather than intent. A couple of weeks later, hands-on duck cooking classes were offered at an unbelievable price and when I realised that it was provided by Luv-a-Duck, I didn’t hesitate to take advantage of the discounted offer to participate in the Duck and Pinot Masterclass.

The long awaited day finally arrived and I excitedly arrived early at the Luv-a-Duck retail showroom in Port Melbourne, and meandered around the refrigerated stands selling the extensive range of duck produce, and associated gourmet sauces and condiments. Class participants receive a 10 per cent discount for items purchased on the evening, so I mentally started to prepare a shopping list of things to buy after the class. The chef’s table had been laid out in anticipation and the kitchen stations were ready for action.

The night began in the small classroom area with Wendy, our instructor for the evening, giving a brief overview of the history of the Luv-a-Duck company and the format of the masterclass. We were also introduced to Steve from PinotNow who was supplying the matched pinot wines for the evening. As there were five courses to be prepared and served throughout the night, the class needed to divide into teams of two and proceed into the kitchen, where packages of whole duck and sharp knives were waiting for us.

Wendy demonstrated the process for preparing and cooking a perfect roast duck before moving on to show us how to dissect the duck into smaller portions and extract the duck breasts and marylands for some of the evening’s recipes. Then it was our turn to pick up the knives and get to work on breaking down the duck, which wasn’t always as easy and effortless as Wendy made it appear but fun nonetheless. I tried to imagine myself doing this at home and could only conjure an image of me sailing into my local Foodworks to pick up a couple of pre-packaged duck breasts!

The next task was to volunteer for a course to prepare so I partnered up with a couple of guys to make the Duck and Portobello Mushroom Pie. While Fazil started on preparing the marinade for the duck breasts, Jesper and I set about preparing the shortcrust pastry made with duck fat for the pies. The pastry was extremely easy to make and duck fat seemed to make the pastry soft and malleable. After rolling out the pastry we lined a dozen small ceramic dishes and strangely enough, while it was somewhat labour-intensive, I could readily imagine doing this at home or for a dinner party.

Once finishing the first preparation stage to our recipes, the first entrée course of Smoked Duck with Lentil and Pear Salad was ready to be served. Steve had matched this first course with a 2008 Grey Sands Pinot Noir from Glengarry, Tasmania. With a 92 point rating from James Halliday in the 2011 Australian Wine Companion, this wine was now showing signs of age in the colour and has probably reached its peak. It had a very elegant nose with subtle black cherry aromas and a short finish on the palate. The soft acidity and fine tannins were a good match with the smoked flavour in the dish. This course was exceptional and I started to secretly wish that I had prepared this course so that I could replicate it at home. The lentils were softly cooked in duck stock and the caramelised pears were a wonderful addition to the dish and balanced out the ripe fruit flavours in the wine.

Wendy got the teams back into the kitchen to keep preparing our courses. As the pastry cases were chilling out in the fridge, our little band of three started to prepare the filling for pies. It was fun working together and pretending to be sous chefs so that one person could cook the mixture on the stove while we scrambled about chopping the remaining ingredients and throwing everything into the pot. Somehow we just got our pies filled and into the oven before we were called back to the dining table for the next course.

It was another case of food envy as a plate of Sticky Marmalade Duck Breast with Duck Fat Roast Potatoes was set before me. This dish had been matched with 2011 Stoller Dundee Hills Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley, Oregon USA. In the WSET 2 course I had studied about premium wines from Oregon but I hadn’t actually tasted one, until now that is. This wine had distinctive floral characteristics and I could smell and taste violets, lilac and cherries but also on the palate the spicy elements of this wine started to evolve. With a white pepper finish, the wine had traces of cinnamon, cloves or Chinese five spice which helped to bring out the Asian flavours in the duck. Beautifully cooked and prepared, the duck breast had been roasted and basted in citrus, ginger, soy and sesame seeds so the wine Steve had selected was quite a good match. This dish is definitely on my must-do list!

With the pies nicely warming in the oven, the last task for the course I was helping to prepare was cooking the Braised Baby Cos and Speck accompaniment. So easy to prepare and yet incredibly delicious, I had never thought to wilt baby cos quarters in a mixture of speck, rosemary, currants, verjuice and vino cotto in a frypan. This dish was matched with a 2010 Domaine Jean-Marc Millot “Aux Faulques” Pinot Noir from Cote de Nuits, France. The wine was elegant in style and its taste resembled a fine, classic burgundy. Although I’m generally not a fan of mushrooms, the mini duck pies were superb and a good choice for a cold Autumn evening.

With my course of the way, I could relax as the next team served the Duck Leg Tagine with Chermoula and Jewelled Cous Cous. This dish had been paired with the 2011 Pisa Range Estate “Run 245” Pinot Noir and as soon as I caught the beautiful bouquet on this wine, I reached for the order form. This wine was award 4 stars or 93 points by Gourmet Traveller Wine Magazine (September 2013) and is finely crafted with distinctive red berry characters and suitable for cellaring. The duck tagine was an array of rich colours and flavours and the spices in the Chermoula paste complemented the wine.

While we were all full and just about ready to head home after a long day, the first team had whipped up a delicious Hot Raspberry Souffle with Rose Petal Cream for dessert. Extremely light and sweet to taste, this was a perfect end to an incredibly fun evening. The only job left to do was to exit through the gift shop with my duck and Pinot purchases ready to take home. Apart from recreating my duck dishes at home, my new hobby is monitoring the daily internet deals for the next Luv-a-Duck special as it was $50 extremely well spent.

Bress Wine, Cider and Produce New Release Wine Lunch 2014 – Plough Hotel, Footscray

Instead of my usual Saturday breakfast adventure, my fabulous foodie friends Adrian and Mez, kindly invited me along to special long lunch at the Plough Hotel in Footscray, showcasing the new release wines produced by Bress Wine, Cider and Produce. It’s been a few years since I have visited the cellar door at Bress in Harcourt so I leapt at the opportunity to enjoy their stunning wines, and the afternoon certainly didn’t disappoint.

I’ve never been to the Plough Hotel before, so the first thing that caught my attention was the beautifully designed and newly renovated interior. Right on trend with an industrial decor complete with a series of exposed filament hanging light bulbs, clean lines, and neutral colour palette. Upon arrival, I helped myself to a glass of NV Pinot Noir Chardonnay Sparkling (Macedon) and a canapé of white anchovy fillet which created a heavenly explosion of flavours that kicked started the lunch off with a little bit of zing and pizazz.

Making our way into the main dining room, we were lucky to be seated near the open kitchen area and I had fabulous views looking towards the bustling streetscape outside. Almost immediately our first glass of wine, 2014 Vermentino (Heathcote) was poured. The bouquet on this wine is simply stunning and smelt like bananas with a hint of musk lollies. An unctuous mouth feel, with an apple crisp freshness and acidity on the finish. The only word that we could say was “Amazing!”. It would be fair to say that the food served during the lunch was a mere accompaniment to the wine on display. The velouté was served in a small shot glass, with the salt cod croquette balanced above on a toothpick. Delicious but it disappeared all too quickly.

The next wines to be served were the 2014 Cabernets Rose (Harcourt Valley) and the 2013 Pinot Noir (Yarra Valley & Macedon). Both of these wines had beautiful pink and ruby hues of colour. The Rose was a dry style of wine, which I prefer, and had the delicious aroma of candied strawberries and cherries which morphed into candied toffee apple on the palate. I don’t think the Rose lasted long enough to be enjoyed with the terrine of guinea fowl and foie gras. The Pinot Noir had classic characteristics of forest floor aromas, savoury notes of white pepper, together with red cherries and strawberries and a beautiful mouth feel.

The Pinot brought out the gamey meat flavours within the terrine, which was delicious and beautifully presented and an elegant accompaniment to the savoury characters within the wine. I love brioche at all hours of the day so I was happy to see a small portion on my plate to balance out the rich and bold flavours of the meat.

Next on the tasting menu was the bold and beautiful: the 2014 Cabernet Franc (Harcourt) and the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon (Yarra Valley) wines. The Cabernet Franc had a beautiful violet colour and perfume of violets. A light sweetness on the finish, this wine was fruit driven had a silky smooth mouth feel. Not to be outdone, the Cabernet Sauvignon displayed its own intense black fruit aromas and hints of spice. The perfume was divine  and all I could think of to describe the wine was “You had me at hello”! The steak was served medium-to-well and was a good match with the luscious and complex full-bodied flavours of the wine.

For something a little different, the next course was cheese with cider. The NV Bon Bon cider was sweet and creamy with a draught flavour. Although cider is likely to be next revolution, it’s something that I rarely drink and I found the sample of the Bon Bon to be very enjoyable.  The white mould cheese was really stunning and Adrian and I were wielding duelling knives to get to the soft outer rind and creamy texture. Something I hadn’t seen before on our cheese board were thinly dehydrated slices of fennel, which were crispy and had sweet flavour that matched the sweetness of the cider.

No meal is complete without a sweet wine to finish with and true to form, the grand finale The Kindest Cut Late Harvest Riesling Viognier was served as the last wine of the day in a signature Bress wine glass. With aromas of honeysuckle or baked honey and nectarine, this wine had a slight spritz on the finish. The panna cotta was creamy yet light and the rhubarb was beautifully poached and decorated with wafers of biscuit. The lemon balm leaves that adorned the dessert were small explosions of flavour, like little shots of lemonade icy poles bursting in your mouth.

This was the first “new release” wine lunch and it was a fabulous display of stunning and elegantly crafted wines. Throughout the day, I was thinking that each wine would be perfect for Christmas Day and that I needed to get my hands on some of those bottles as soon as I could. I missed out on getting an order form but I think can foresee a road trip to Harcourt in the not-too-distant future.

Plough Hotel on Urbanspoon

Mikla Restaurant, Istanbul, Turkey

After I had posted my impromptu degustation adventures at the Istanbul Culinary Institute on Facebook, my friend Paul recommended that I should also try Mikla. I promptly started researching where Mikla was located, and was pleased to find it was very close to where I was staying.

The next day, I went to the Marmara Pera hotel to make a dinner reservation for my return stay in Istanbul, however as it was a Sunday, the restaurant was closed and unable to take bookings at that point in time. The hotel staff recommended that I come back the next day. Unfortunately I was about to depart for a thirteen day tour of Turkey, so that suggestion wasn’t practicable however I was given an email address to request my preferred date and time for dinner at Mikla. The next day I wrote an email, however I did not receive a reply. I wrote again the following week, and still no reply. By this time, my tour had nearly finished and I had arrived back in Istanbul and at the same hotel I had stayed previously. When I had a spare moment, I walked back to the Marmara Pera hotel and made another request for a dinner reservation. My preferred dining option was for the Saturday night, which would be my last night in Istanbul. But of course, despite my best efforts to secure a table for that evening, the restaurant was fully booked. Thankfully, fortune was on my side and there was one table available which would allow me to dine the next evening. There was just one slight problem … I was also doing a gourmet food and market tour the next day. Ignoring the pain in my stomach, I decided to accept the booking.

The following evening, making my way into the lift to take me to the top floor of the hotel, a huge wave of excitement started to well up inside of me. Upon arrival I was escorted into the dining room with a modern and contemporary elegance, and to a table with beautiful night time views of the Golden Horn and the Blue Mosque in my line of sight.

Mikla Restaurant, Istanbul, Turkey
Mikla Restaurant, Istanbul, Turkey

Looking at the menu, there were various dining options available including a three course prix fixe à la carte menu for 160 TL (AUD $80) and a seven course tasting or degustation menu for 240 TL (AUD $120) with six glasses of matching wines for an additional 120 TL (AUD $60). Despite the effort in securing a table for the evening, the thought of eating seven dishes was not going to be a pleasant or enjoyable experience.

I decided to compromise and select the three course dinner option which would allow me to select my own dishes for each course, and I could use the degustation menu as a guide. The added advantage with the prix fixe à la carte menu, is the opportunity to enjoy three glasses of wine that are matched to my selected courses for 70 TL (AUD $35), which was excellent value in my opinion.

The seven course tasting menu comprised of the following dishes:

  • Vegetables & Zeytinyağlı – Zeytinyağlı, Raw and Other Vegetables
  • Balık Ekmek – Crispy Hamsi, Olive Oil Bread, Lemon
  • Dried Tenderloin & Humus – Salted and Dried Beef Tenderloin, Humus (sic), Antep ‘Birdshit’ Paste
  • Grouper – Slow Cooked Grouper, Sunchokes, Green Lentil, Whole Wheat Erişte, Halhali Olives, Chive-Fig Vinaigrette
  • Lamb Shank – Trakya Kıvırcık Lamb Shank, Smoked Eggplant, Stew of Kayseri Sucuk & White Bean
  • Cheese & Honey – Anatolian Raw Milk Cheese & Honey
  • Pumpkin – Crunchy Candied Pumpkin, Antep ‘Birdshit’ Ice Cream, Sesame Paste, Grape Molasses

Birdshit! I could count three dishes on the entire menu that had a reference to that word. When my waiter came over to ask if I had any questions about the menu, I bravely asked what it meant and discovered that it was a pistachio mixture or paste. Interesting.

Salted and Dried Beef Tenderloin, Humus, Antep ‘Birdshit’ Paste - Mikla, Istanbul, Turkey
Salted and Dried Beef Tenderloin, Humus, Antep ‘Birdshit’ Paste – Mikla, Istanbul, Turkey

My first selection from the menu was the Dried Tenderloin & Humus. To quote my friend Paul, Turkish wines are a revelation! They are indeed. While I was waiting for my meal, my matched wine was presented and poured – a glass of Plato, 2011 Kalecik Karasi, which proudly displayed a medallion on the bottle announcing that it had scored 90 points at the 2012 Master of Wine (Istanbul). A smooth, dry, medium-bodied red wine with hints of chocolate on the nose. Kalecik Karasi is a Turkish grape variety, which means “black from the small castle” and comes from Aegean wine region of Denizli.

The entrée was delicious but had an interesting presentation. The rocket and other leaf served on the plate looked somewhat out of place with the other elements of the dish, particularly as it was bitter to taste. The birdshit paste was indeed a finely ground pistachio pesto, and did resemble fresh bird dropping when smeared across the white plate. The hummus was a slightly red colour with a creamy texture and went well with the thick cut beef medallions, which were delicious and easy to cut. They were not too salty and looked fresh and full of flavour.

Slow Cooked Grouper, Sun Chokes, Whole Wheat Erişte, Halhali Olives, Chive-Fig Vinaigrette - Mikla, Istanbul, Turkey
Slow Cooked Grouper, Sun Chokes, Whole Wheat Erişte, Halhali Olives, Chive-Fig Vinaigrette – Mikla, Istanbul, Turkey

Those who know me well, know that I dearly love lamb shanks and I would certainly proclaim that smoked eggplant is one of my favourite things, but I was looking for a lighter option and something that is a little less familiar and so I chose Grouper for my next course.

The wine match was an Anfora 2010 Chardonnay Reserve again from the Denizli region, near Pamukkale in Turkey. A beautiful golden yellow colour, the wine was served chilled, and had a glorious bouquet on the nose. I kept thinking that this was one of those wines where you wish you could bottle the perfume and savour it again and again. It smelt of honey, pears, roasted nuts and the toasty flavours of French Oak, indeed an excellent match for the thickness and rich flavour of the fish. This wine regularly features on the best Turkish wine lists.

A lovely tasting meal with a myriad of ingredients and flavours working well together. Chives and fresh lemon zest on top of the grouper, thick green olives in a sauce thickened by thin strips of pasta (or eriste) and the beautiful flavour of fresh dill, which is a staple ingredient of most Turkish cuisine.

İhsangazi Siyez Bulghur Ice Cream, Confit Malatya Apricots - Mikla, Istanbul, Turkey
İhsangazi Siyez Bulghur Ice Cream, Confit Malatya Apricots – Mikla, Istanbul, Turkey

And finally the dessert course. The dessert selection on the tasting menu didn’t appeal as I had indulged in cheese and candied pumpkin on my food tour earlier in the day, so I opted for the healthier sounding option of Apricot & Bulghur which consisted of İhsangazi Siyez Bulghur Ice Cream and Confit Malatya Apricots.

The apricots were fresh and had a wonderful natural sweetness. From their slightly brown colour, you could tell they were preservative free with the confit cooking method helping to soften their texture and retain their moisture. The ice cream was served on a bed of finely crushed pistachios which added a little extra crunch and flavour, to the fine granules of burghul wheat in the creamy mixture. It was a lovely dessert and I’m glad I chose a dish that was elegant in its simplicity and taste.

The matched wine was a Doluca Safir 2011 Semi-Sweet White Wine, again from the Aegean region and made from Muscat grapes. Sweet to taste, the wine had hints of lime and lychees on the nose and was pale lemon in colour and was another excellent choice.

I enjoyed my dining experience at Mikla and am glad that I had the opportunity to enjoy a modern interpretation of Turkish cuisine, complimented with a selection of beautiful award-winning Turkish wines from the Aegean region and outstanding views of Istanbul. Thanks for the tip Paul!

Uncorked Wine Tours – Cooking Workshop, Santiago Chile

It’s a privilege to be able to travel the world and experience different cultures, languages and cuisines. Whenever I have the opportunity, I indulge in my love of cooking and register for a cooking class so that I can continue to enjoy the memories and share my gourmet experiences with my family and friends. Connie and Jose from Uncorked Wine Tours also offer cooking workshops that help you to create authentic Chilean food at home, with each course matched with a premier wine from the key wine regions of Chile.

Two couples on their honeymoon from the US were my fellow cooking companions for the Saturday evening class, and we all became acquainted over a sample of delicious cheese marinated with oil and green peppers, served with toasted bread before our class commenced. The menu for the evening showcased authentic Chilean cuisine commencing with the renowned cocktail, Pisco Sour.

Although we made the Peruvian version with egg white and Angostura bitters, Connie expertly guided us through the preparation of the cocktail including the shaker technique to ensure that the drink had enough foam. So with a little trepidation, I mixed my drink and while it didn’t look too bad, I needed a bit more practice at using the cocktail shaker to achieve the fluffy foam appearance that a good Pisco needs.

Quietly sipping on our drinks, we then watched Connie demonstrate the preparation of a chanco en piedra, which is a version of Chilean salsa called pebre made from garlic, green chilli or peppers, tomatoes and salt flakes ground into a paste or sauce-like consistency in a mortar and pestle. It was delicious with toasted bread and cut through the acidity of the Pisco.

Next Connie made pebre which is typically served as an accompaniment and is made from finely chopped green pepper, coriander, tomatoes, white onion and olive oil. The pebre was going to be served later with our meat course.

I have been wanting to learn how to make ceviche for a long time and after a constant two week diet of ceviche at different restaurants in Santiago, I was eager to learn how to cut the raw fish properly so that I could have the confidence to prepare it at home. Connie was extremely gracious in letting me come to the class earlier than the starting time so that I could get some practice cutting the fish into small bite-size portions for the dish that we would be preparing in the class.

Whilst ceviche looks like a simple dish, there are a number of little things that you need to be cognisant of, so that the acidity of the lime juice does not overcook the fish. In teams, we all took up different tasks and positions to add quantities of fish, shrimps, salt, chillies, whilst someone else was constantly using their hands to ensure that mixture was evenly combined with the lime juice and ice cubes in the bowl. It was a bit of a delicate balancing act to ensure that we had the right quantities of salt and citrus and as we continued to mix the ice cubes to bring the fish and flavours together, resulting in a beautiful leche de tigre juice for the ceviche. With the hard work over, we enjoyed eating our ceviche with a chilled Sauvignon Blanc that Connie had selected for us to enjoy with the meal.

Every country has their own interpretation of a crème caramel and for Chile, it is Budin del Cielo. After using small amounts of palm sugar syrup to line a flan dish, we poured a mixture of condensed milk, eggs, milk and vanilla extract into the dish which is then placed in the oven in a water bath. When cooked, it is chilled in the fridge until ready to be served for the dessert course.

The next course on the menu was Empanadas de pino which is another staple of South American cuisine. Connie showed us how to make her preferred but simple version of the pastry with lard, flour, warm water and salt. Whilst on the stove, we prepared the onion and meat mixture with a combination of spices for the filling. Rolling out the pastry, we all got to work preparing our empanadas with the meat, a piece of boiled egg, black olives and raisins.

While the empanadas were cooking in the oven, our next task was to make the mixture for Chupe de jaiba which is a creamy seafood casserole or stew made with crab meat and shrimp, with a crust of gratinéed Parmesan cheese. Following the recipe that had been prepared for us, we created a delicious thick mixture which was then prepared into gratin dishes and decorated with crab claws and cheese, ready to go into the oven.

With all the hard work and preparation completed, it was time to indulge and enjoy the fruits of our labour. Connie selected a Max Reserva Carmenere to match the beautifully cooked meat empanadas and pebre. Then it was time to eat the deliciously creamy and cheesy Chupe de jaiba.

Everyone has just enough room for a dessert course, and with the Budin del cielo chilled, the flan was turned out onto plates to let the syrup run over the plate. Connie had prepared a few sauces and bowls of fresh blueberries, mint and strawberries and we had the opportunity to prepare and decorate our own plates, which brought out the artist in all of us.

Content but supremely full, it was time to say “Gracias!” and bid farewell to Connie, Jose and to Chile because it was time to fly back home to Australia and get a good night’s sleep on the plane trip home.

Uncorked Wine Tours – Casablanca Valley, Chile

It’s been a while between postings, or drinks you might say, and while I’ve been absent from cyberspace, I took the opportunity to affirm my love of wine and complete the Wine and Spirit Education Trust Level 2 qualification. The eight week course provided an understanding of old world and new world wines and an overview of wine production and grape varietals in France, Italy, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and Chile. One evening, during a lesson on Pinot Noir, I was intently studying a map of Chile and its major wine growing regions and the very next day, I was asked if I would like to travel to Santiago on business. Naturally I said yes and started planning my next wine and food adventure in Chile as soon as I could.

After an intensive search on Google for wine tours near Santiago, I came across Uncorked Wine Tours and had the good fortune to book a semi-private tour to the Casablanca Valley, an internationally recognised producer of premium Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir wines.

Bodegas RE

It was an early start to a Saturday, but the sun was shining and I was excited to be out of the office and ready to explore the Chilean countryside. I met Stefan, my guide for the day at the hotel, and we headed downtown to meet the other three guests who had travelled from the US and were also looking forward to the opportunity to enjoy Chilean wine. After a short drive out of the city, the first stop of the day was Bodegas RE. The family behind the Bodegas RE vineyard is well known within the Chilean wine industry, however this new and innovative vineyard takes pride in experimenting in diverse varietals of grapes that are traditionally known to Casablanca Valley and Chile, and the results are bold and exciting wines.

After a walk to the vineyard and a tour of the “nursery” where olives and stone fruits were fermenting and maturing into oils and liqueurs respectively, we went through the gift shop and down into the cellar to see examples of ancestral methods of wine production using large clay pots and jars.

The wines that we had the pleasure of tasting at Bodegas RE were:

2011 Pinotel (70% Pinot Noir, 30% Muscatel): a dry, crisp wine, with a bronze-pink colour and a floral, orange blossom and jasmine perfume;

2011 Chardonnoir (55% Chardonnay, 45% Pinot Noir): Champagne recreated as a still wine! Gold-pink in colour complete with yeasty, bready notes, with a slightly sweet dried fruit, apricot aroma with an off-dry, medium sweet finish;

2008 Caberignan (80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Carignan): With hints of ageing and a ruby garnet appearance, with black fruits and hints of black pepper and oak on the nose, with a peppery taste on the palate;

2008 Carignan (100% Carignan): Fruit from 60 year-old vines and single vineyard, a superb wine with deep, ruby red colour, a long finish, dry with blackfruit and white pepper on the palate, blackberry and black plum notes on the nose, hints of oak and stewed prunes. A spectacular wine …. I couldn’t help myself and purchased a bottle on my way out through the gift shop!

2009 Valedo (100% Pinot Noir): The word valedo means “veil”. A gold coloured white wine which is vinified like a rosé and then aged under a veil of flor yeast giving the wine very complex aromas of sweet almonds and white pepper.

Loma Larga Vineyards

A little further down the road, we pulled into a winery that is surrounded by natural parkland complete with a mountain range and eucalyptus trees, and it almost reminded me of being back home in Australia.

With vines growing over the surface of the winery and barrel room, our little group enjoyed a private tour of the winery and walked up into the production area to see the wines ready for export to China and wines maturing in oak barrels.

Specialising in producing several red wine varietals and two white wines, the original country farm house at Loma Larga now serves as a tasting room, where we had the privilege of tasting a selection of one white (2012 Sauvignon Blanc) and three red wines 2013 Pinot Noir, 2010 Malbec and 2008 Cabernet Franc).

House, Casa del Vino

The final destination for the day was House (Casa del Vino) which is a unique centre offering wines produced by the Belen Group, educational tours and gastronomy.

Tirazis, which is the Persian name for Shiraz, is the specialty of the winery and is a cool climate Syrah planted with bush-vines in the Casablanca Valley.

After an enjoyable morning of sampling different wines, it was time to enjoy lunch, which was a degustation affair with matching wines.The first course was a ceviche of grouper, salmon and calamari matched with a glass of Morande 2012 Sauvignon Blanc Reserva. Ceviche is a staple of Chilean cuisine and this dish was stunning in its pairing of the different types of fish, including its textures and colours. The citric acidity of the ceviche was matched with a pale yellow fruity wine with green apple citrus flavours.

The next dish was a delicious squid ink risotto with seafood sautéed in butter and topped with parmesan cheese paired with an offering of Morande 2009 Pinot Noir Gran Reserva. The vegetal aromas of mushroom and leather and red fruit flavours typically associated with Pinot Noir were an excellent match with the rice which was a substantial component of the meal.

Carmenère is a red grape varietal that is uniquely produced in Chile. Originally thought to be Merlot, Carmenère is a stunning red wine that defies description but I think everyone should have the pleasure of enjoying. Our third course was a pork loin with bacon, eggplant, tomato, zucchini, potato and salsa verde served with Morande 2011 Carmenère from the Maipo Valley. Absolutely delicious, although I can’t say which I enjoyed more – the wine or the food.

Then just when I thought I couldn’t possibly eat and drink another thing, a glass of golden Morande 2009 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc was served with panna cotta, fresh berries and a Shiraz reduction. Both were rapidly devoured, so it must have been good.

Normally after I have been filled to the brim with excellent wine and delectable food, I am in ready need of a small siesta however our next appointment was a private tour of the winery to see how the wine is made in a didactic style. Escorted into a large room with stainless steel tanks (which bore some resemblance to the daleks from Doctor Who), large exotic concrete eggs and oak casks, a sommelier explained the wine making process for producing the special blend of Syrah that the winery is known for. The highlight of the day was definitely tasting two vintages of Syrah directly from the oak barrels.

Just when I thought the fun was about to come to an end, we were escorted into what every serious wine-loving girl needs – a private cellar of Shiraz with a trademark Christian Louboutin red concrete floor. All I need to do now is work out how I can build one into my new apartment.

I had a wonderful day enjoying Chilean wine from the Casablanca Valley and beyond, with many different wines and varietals to taste, and the opportunity to enjoy excellent food. I owe a big thanks to Stefan who made sure I got back home to my hotel safe and sound and that my wine purchases were also intact.

La Maison Arabe, Marrakech Morocco

It’s my last day in Marrakech, my final cooking class, and quite frankly I’m exhausted and wondering whether my plan to complete four sequential cooking classes in Marrakech might have been a little too ambitious. But walking into the beautifully decorated La Maison Arabe hotel complex, all symptoms of tiredness and exhaustion seem to melt away.

At a table outside by the pool, I meet my fellow cooking companions and our hostess and wait for the day’s program to commence. When it was time to begin, we started with watching a demonstration of Moroccan pancakes being made with savoury fillings, cooked on a hot grill by a dada in the outdoor kitchen. They were so delicious that I almost forgot that I was there to cook! After devouring our pancakes, we made our way to the purpose-built kitchen on the other side of the pool area. The kitchen was fully equipped with individual cooking stations with sinks, stoves and spices, LCD TV monitors and mirrors and I almost felt that I was about to appear as a guest contestant on a televised cooking show.

Having settled at our station and put on our aprons, we were introduced to Fatima, our cooking instructor and began with making batbout, Moroccan bread. Thankfully, having made it a couple of days earlier, the technique came back instinctively when it was my turn to knead the dough mixture. While the bread was proving, we gathered together to watch a demonstration of how to make authentic Moroccan mint tea, which tastes much nicer than the variety that it is usually available from the supermarket.

After enjoying our tea in the sun, we had the opportunity to visit a communal bakehouse near the hotel and watch the local people bring in their own bread to have cooked in the oven while they do their daily shopping in the souks. Around the corner from the bakehouse, we visited a smart-looking shop with glass jars of spices, decorative interior lights and an array of souvenirs for our spice workshop.

Back in the kitchen, it was time to don the aprons again and start preparing Moroccan salads for our lunch. Under strict instructions to carefully peel the skin from the tomatoes to fashion into a rose decoration, I threw caution to the wind and sliced half the skin and tomato flesh together into a pulpy mess. Satisfied with my hideous creation, I kept cutting the rest of the vegetables required for the rest of the salad. Fortunately, Fatima took pity on me and donated her beautifully crafted rose into my bowl.

With one salad completed, it was time to start on the zaalouk, tomato and eggplant salad. After completing five different cooking classes in Morocco, zaalouk was the only constant dish prepared in each class, which speaks to the incredible variety of food within Moroccan cuisine. After five different variations, it’s still my favourite salad.

Putting the salads to one side, the gas burners were lighted in readiness for the chicken tagine we were about to prepare. Fatima carefully guided us step by step through the process, from chopping the ingredients and adding the spices in order, and in next to no time the chicken was cooked and it was time to add the preserved lemon and olives to the dish.

With our tagines cooked and ready to eat, we bade farewell to Fatima and went outside by the pool to wait for our lunch to be served. When I registered for my class online back home in Australia, I also registered for Moroccan wine tasting to enjoy with my meal.

When the salad course was served, I was given a glass of a light and fruity Beauvallon Blanc (100% Chardonnay) from the Meknes region which was an excellent accompaniment with the cold salads and baked bread. Hot on the heels of the first wine, my next wine arrived to enjoy with the tagine course.

Reading the wine notes, this red wine came from Domaine du Val d’Argan, which I had read about in a recent Gourmet Traveller Wine article on Moroccan wine by Jancis Robinson MW, where she wrote about a roussanne wine she had enjoyed in a riad in Marrakech and went in search of its producer, Domaine du Val d’Argan near Essaouira. My sample was the El Mogador red blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mouvedre, which was delicious wine but best drunk with restraint in the heat of the day.

The dessert course was a beautiful milk pastilla made with deep-fried filo pastry, a light orange blossom custard and toasted almonds matched with a glass of Thalvin Cuvee du President (CP) Rose (50% Cinsault, 40% Grenache, 10% Cabernet Franc) from Domaine des Ouled Thaleb in the Ben Slimane province.

After enjoying a wonderful day and delicious meal with new friends, I returned to the kitchen one last time to say thank-you to our host and was pleasantly surprised to receive a gift bag containing the recipes of the day and a small terracotta tagine to take back home to Australia.