Venetian Visiting

Venice. A place of my dreams and possibly my favourite place in the world. I’ve been obsessed with this city for over half my life. Lucky enough to visit often, due to life events totally getting in the way I haven’t been back for almost 5 years.  It’s the light that gets me. Every time and even when it’s foggy. The reflection of sky and water creates a luminous glow that artists have tried to capture for centuries. It calms me and makes me happy to be there. Add in the architecture, the art, the quirky narrow streets that suddenly open up into grand squares, the bustle of the Rialto and St Mark’s, the quieter residential neighbourhoods with washing hung like flags, the boats and gondolas; and my love for the city becomes obvious.  Everywhere I go the gentle susurration of the water accompanies my footsteps echoing on the stone pavements and bridges. It’s a feast for the senses – visual stimulation especially to the max. I’ve visited Venice some 15 times in my life, residing there for a few months in my early twenties and still each time I visit, I find new things to look at and experience. It never becomes totally familiar and Venice always shows me a little bit more.

It was a flying visit this time, two days, three nights with a dear friend who shares my love of Venice, and capacity for enjoying all that La Serenissima has to offer her visitors. We arrived giddy as kippers to be back again and left clutching booty in the form of eye watering expensive water glasses, dried porcini mushrooms, formaggio Asiago & of course lots of biscotti.

Hungary Home

I took a trip this week. It was short, involved a LOT of travel but was very worth it. On Tuesday I left my house in Liverpool and travelled to Pécs in Southern Hungary to visit my aunt Klari, the last of my Dad’s siblings. I lost him in 2010, so it’s always bittersweet to go to Hungary and hear the familiar language and eat the food he used to make me here in Britain. I don’t speak Hungarian – just a few basic phrases, (though funnily enough I know ALL the food words) and my vocabulary is that of a four year old who spent a lot of time with her Nagymama (Hungarian granny) before things like school got in the way. Klari doesn’t speak much English, but as she says, we are “sympatiko” and it’s amazing how much of a sense of the Hungarian language I seem to have retained, we have long involved conversations in pidgin Maygar & English with a pair of dictionaries between us to check on the odd word or phrase that our gesticulations cannot convey.

It’s quite a hike to Pécs. I had to drive to Manchester, get a plane to Budapest, then get a three hour train to Southern Hungary. Pécs is practically at the Croatian border, following the loss of almost 2/3 of Hungary after one world war or another…

Museum Street Pécs

Museum Street Pécs

It’s an ancient university town, which has been under German and Turkish rule as well as Hungarian during its long life. It’s situated in prime wine country, and has a similar climate to Tuscany, basking in golden autumn sunshine during my visit.


I didn’t arrive until the evening, as I was met from the plane by my cousin Peter, who works in Budapest, arranging elaborate lunches on board river boats on the Danube. Food runs in the family. Last time I visited, he and I made a point of seeking out obscure little restaurants to try specific Hungarian specialities such as Halászleves – a spicy river fish soup that is the bouillabaisse of Hungary. This trip didn’t give me enough time to stay with him, so we made do with lunch at the Huszar restaurant near Keleti station. I had a bowl of Jókai bean soup – rich with pieces of kolbász sausage (the Hungarian equivalent of chorizo) and given extra kick by a slice of ‘erős’ (hot) pepper to dunk in the bowl yourself to add spice to suit your taste buds. We then shared a plate of



nokedli – like spatzele but smaller – made this time with added dill and ewe’s milk cheese , with fried fish in a paprika cream sauce. The gorgeously garlic heavy cucumber salad accompanying it ensured I would be safe from vampires on my train travel south…

Three hours later, on a train that was clean and cheap – £10 journey for 2nd class, which was as spacious and comfortable as that which passes for 1st class in the UK, I was met at the station and taken to my aunt’s house by another cousin. Hungarians are insanely hospitable. It’s a source of pain to them to think that you might ever be hungry. My aunt greeted me with bowls of pork and vegetable soup, followed by chocolate nut stuffed pancakes. She wasn’t taking no for an answer. I remember once arriving at her home at 2am after a late evening flight, and still being greeted with bowls of soup and cakes when all I really really wanted was my bed.

Wednesday was visit the neighbours day. But for a specific purpose. I love Hungarian food, it says home to me. I learnt to cook Hungarian food with my Dad and so it always makes me think of (and miss) him. I was packed off to Hungary for the summer when I was 12, to stay with another aunt, also now passed, who showed me how to bake Hungarian cakes and strawberry ice cream. This time, I wanted to find out how to make a real Hungarian speciality – Rétes – the paper thin pastry that rolls round a variety of fillings and is baked in the oven until crisp. Much thinner than strudel, it’s more like filo pastry and is part of the culinary legacy of the Turkish rule of Hungary during the 16th C (other things include insanely strong, thick black coffee; paprika; pale green peppers; and kefir yogurt).

One of Klari’s neighbours was making a batch of rétes and offered to show me. Anouska and Janos welcomed us into their home. Whilst Anouska toiled in the kitchen, kneading flour, water and an egg into an incredibly elastic dough that she then rested and stretched across a tablecloth until it was as thin as tissue paper;IMG_4465

making rétes

making rétes




Janos regaled us with home-made plum pálinka (Hungarian brandy made from fruits, not dissimilar to grappa). He insisted it was good for my health to drink at least one glass. At 10am. I took notes and photos of Anouska’s work, getting steadily more out of focus as the pálinka found its way into my blood stream. I’m going to have a go at making rétes, and that will be the subject of another post.

Anouska made three types of filling

IMG_4487 IMG_4494– morello cherries with ground walnuts and cinnamon; cottage cheese with lemon and sugar; and cabbage with paprika and bacon. All completely delicious and had for lunch.

Klari and I spent the afternoon walking around the centre  of Pécs, once a walled Roman spa town, it’s built of honey glowing stone, with much of the 17th C buildings restored and used as museums.



IMG_4521 Pécs is where Zsolnay porcelain comes from – one of the great ceramic houses of the 19th C – creating amazing art nouveau pieces that graced the houses of the well to do around the world, and there are two museums devoted to showing off the techniques and unusual pieces the Zsolnay family created. We met up afterwards with my cousin Bondika and his family for an early supper, eaten out on a terrace on one of Pécs pedestrianised streets. I gave in half way and had half of my ridiculously huge schnitzel wrapped for the dog… I ate all my cucumber salad though.

Thursday was an early start for the 13 hour door to door trip home. Did I mention Hungarians are hospitable? Aunt Klari packed me off home with wrapped parcels of rétes; home-made chocolate salami; and three frankly anti-social sandwiches reeking joyously of garlic and paprika. A short but very sweet trip “home”.

La Vialla – a Tuscan farm

A two week holiday in Tuscany with friends. Fantastic weather, food and wine. Trips to Arezzo, Lucca and Florence but the highlight for me was a visit to Fattoria La Vialla, an organic, biodynamic farm in Castiglion Fibocchi. I’ve ordered from their wonderful mail order catalogue in the past (available via, so was thrilled to discover it was within an hour’s drive of our village base.

Retro Fiat truckThe office!Hayrick




A little background info, La Vialla was purchased in 1978 by the Lo Franco family, and is a family run agricultural enterprise that is one of the largest organic-biodynamic farms in the Chianti area. They produce their own award winning wines, olive oils, vinegars, pecorino cheese, handmade pasta, vegetable sauces and biscuits. Tremendous pride is taken in their determination to farm using organic and environmental principles. La Vialla supplies directly to people across Europe using their mail order catalogue.

Shop - ExteriorCheese StoreWhat to choose?

I persuaded (which wasn’t that hard), four of my friends to accompany me on my visit. We set off early, and after a minor detour via a one-track road that wasn’t exactly designed for our rented car, we find ourselves parking in a shady grove and walking up to the main building. Cats sit blinking in the sun, and bees hum in the rosemary and thyme. White aproned women scurry around bearing flat baskets of bread. Ducking into the shop, we find a cool dark interior scented with aged pecorino and hanging salamis. Wine bottles line the walls, accompanied by the fresh sauces and hand made pastas produced here. I already want to live here.

A smiling blonde English girl named Phoebe takes us on tour , offered Mon to Fri at 10, 11.30 and 3pm in a variety of languages. We start by visiting the production areas for the sauces and pastas. A fabulous combination of high tech machinery housed in old buildings but still operated by hand. We watch as bakers hand roll and shape cantucci biscuits before sampling a delicious Peperonata sauce with fresh baked bread.

Making cantucciSamplesGrinding the flour

We are led to where an ancient wooden mill still produces the fine flour used on site. Phoebe explains how the Lo Franco family are keen to rescue and restore to use old farm machinery. As the farm has expanded, derelict farm buildings have been rescued from oblivion and are being slowly restored for use and holiday rental. We head out again in the blinding sun to see the wood fired oven, manned by a bent backed old man who tells us he starts the heating process at 4am each morning.

This way to the ovenThe ovenA delicious result!

Down the hill to a semi subterranean wine cellar. Dark and cool, the barrels stretch into the distance. The air is redolent with the “angel’s share” – the portion (share) of a wine’s volume that is lost to evaporation during aging in oak barrels My four travelling companions become more animated as bottles are uncorked and we are encouraged to taste a pure Sangiovese, an aged Chianti and a Barricato. Rich and heavy with berry flavours, we photograph the labels to aid future orders.

Just leave the key...IMG_1819So we don't forget

Back out into the sun, we saunter slowly back up the hill for lunch. Seated in a shaded loggia, hung with fragrant drying bunches of herbs, we enjoy a simple but delicious lunch. Aged and fresh pecorino, salamis & braesola accompanied by the estate’s chestnut honey, La Cipollina and La Poverella sauces. Fresh bread and La Viella’s own peppery green gold olive oil and a mixed salad complete the repast. We sample a bottle of chilled La Chiassaie, a vino spumante.  Light and refreshing with floral notes, we return to the shop to purchase more for evening consumption. Lunch concludes with short, stingingly hot fresh espressos that jolt us out the stupor engendered by the heat and wine.

Shady spotLunch!Happy!

A final visit to another cellar, where the vin santo sits in barrels, gently evaporating into the luscious dark amber wine that is perfect for cantucci dipping. Again the air is heavy with the perfume of wine, a heady mix of toffee and alcohol.

Vin Santo CellarPhoebe and the boysCiao La Vialla

We leave. Laden with purchases – wines, whole pecorinos, pastas, sauces. A chorus of ciaos and smiling waves from the staff follows us down the hill. We are exiting Paradise but have the key within our grasp via the mail order catalogues waiting for us at home.