Sicilian Wines

Wines from Sicily, Island in the Sun

Head south to the drowsy, holiday region that is the island of Sicily and you will note that it has awakened, at least in the domain of wine. Sicilian bulk wines had always anonymously ended up in blends further north, including Tuscany. But recently, the producers took a long hard look at their vineyards. The outcome – the Sicilian terroir of dry hot summers with hillside and maritime locations, is especially suited to the production of high quality bottled wines.

by qifei

Alessio Planeta, whose wines have charmed New World wine drinkers is convinced that Sicily will live up to its new reputation as the ‘new frontier’ of Italian winemaking,  alluding to Sicily as the ‘Australia of Europe’.

Indeed, the Sicilian terroir is a winemaker’s dream, enabling the easy production of ripe, sound grapes. But that can be a two edged sword. On the one hand, producing in volume, intensely coloured, high alcohol wine with not much character is easy. Conversely, if Sicily was to break from its mold, and head for the boutique end of the market, producers had to put on hold future streams of income from bulk wine in order to transform their operations.  This they did with varietals such as Chardonnay, Cabernet and Merlot, indicating to the wine world that Sicilian wines have a place on the connoisseurs table.

by depinniped

Some of the oldest companies like Corvo and Tasca d’Amerita continue traditions but have updated approaches. Corvo in the last few years has become a leader in the value for money stakes with its generic and worldwide ubiquitous bianco (white) and rosso (red) wines. Tasca d’Almerita has achieved the transition to modernity.  The techniques go beyond new vineyard work or cellar techniques. The production philosophy extends to alternating grapevines plantings with that of other crops and using natural means of cultivation with an awareness of the ecological environment.

As Sicily’s northern regional wine producers looked on with surprise at how quickly Sicilian wine gained acceptance in the world marketplace, Sicilian producers raised the ante further. Alongside the internationational varietals, they have begun producing outstanding versions of their indigeneous varietals such as Inzolia and Nero d’Avola, to name a white and a red.

Amongst the ambassadors of unique traditional varietals are Benanti and Palari, both offering incredibly tasty wines made from unheard of grapes such as Nerello, Cappuccio, Carricante and Galatena. If, you are not totally convinced, try a glass of something less esoteric sounding; say a Nero d’Avola, by Morgante or from any Sicilian producer.  The wine will seduce you with its juicy, cherry fruited but classy nature with its nuances of mint and eucalyptus, spice, vanilla and more.

Then go on to taste unabashed blends such as Nero D’Avola with Syrah, Petit Verdot and Cabernet (Santa Anastasia) or that of Nero d’Avola with Pinot Noir (Rapitala). You will begin to understand the Sicilian red grape’s accommodating nature and the enthusiasm of producers, attempting to bridge traditions and modernity.

Cottanera, whose un-irrigated vineyards are located on the slopes of Mount Etna has begun showcasing top end wines made from grapes, ‘foreign’ to Sicily such as Mondeuse and Syrah.  Sole di Sesta ‘Syrah’ shows incredible mastery of the French Rhone varietal.

And if market forces are an indication, Donnafugata’s Mille e una Notte, hardly into its 20th vintage, already boasts a price that reflects the super Sicilian status of the wine, yet the wine, a 100% DOC Nero d’Avola, is French oak aged.

Undoubtedly, Sicily has undergone its own wine revolution – her wines are now dazzling critics and winning the hearts and minds of restaurateurs and connoisseurs.

About Sicily

Sicily, lying south of the mainland of Italy, is an island set in antiquity. Fought over by countless invaders, its culture and heritage owes something to them all. Lovers of history, art and architecture will be swayed by the monuments of each of her historical epochs – from Greek temples, Roman Piazzas and Arabian buildings to Swabian palaces and churches overlaid with the baroque stamp of the Spanish.

Today, the adventurous might wish to scale or ski down the slopes of Mt. Etna, one of the world’s largest active volcanoes. Alternatively the drowsy, holiday region of Sicily offers lots of sun and sea, making for a perfect holiday with the bonus of good wine and food.

There are people who go to Sicily just for breakfast where they serve ice cream with morning coffee.  Throughout the day, you can delight your tastebuds with crispy and sweet ricotta cheese turnovers, chewy pistachio cookies, honey rice fritters, chocolate, cannoli, cassata and more.

Sicily is notable also for its seafood – mussels, tuna, sardines and swordfish are main and starter dishes. Pastas in fish sauce and eggplant dishes are aplenty.  Caponata is a sweet and sour speciality made from chillis, capers, olives, peppers and brinjals/eggplant.

As for wine, Sicily boasts hosts of good wines. Thousands of years ago, the Greeks brought their know-how, vines and wines to Sicily. For the last few decades Sicily has been known for her bulk wines. But of late, world wine drinkers have demanded something else – boutique and higher quality wines.  Thanks to the island’s diverse topography – from valleys to hillsides to maritime locations, diverse grape growing conditions exist. Thrown in are potassium rich volcanic ash soils and you get a range of ideal high quality bottled wines.

Thus we’re seeing firstly, wines made from familiar varietals such as Chardonnay and Shiraz but also Sicilian indigeneous varietal wines such as Inzolia (white) and Nero d’Avola (red). The Nero d’Avola, if you haven’t tried it, is a seductive grape which entices with its fragrance of blueberry and wild strawberries in the wine. Furthermore the wine will have soft smooth tannins and delight you with its lightly smoky bitter chocolate undertones.

If you have tasted Sicilian food, you might wonder if there are some similarities to Asian food. They have salted fish, sweet and sour flavours are found in many dishes and chilli is liberally used to spice things up. As such, Sicilian wines that go with Sicilian food could go well with certain Asian dishes.

Here is a shortlist of producers to look out for. Enjoy!

Corvo/Duca di Salaparuta offers economically priced wines. The value for money generic Corvo Bianco is crisp and delicate whilst the Corvo Rosso is well balanced and smooth.

Planeta, who specialise in New World styled wines put Sicily on the wine map. These days, they produce traditional wines as well.

If you thought Marsala was wine made for cooking with, try drinking the Superiore fine dry marsala of  Florio with Thai stir fried vegetables. The wine’s dried fruit and soy flavours and lightly sweet finish will make the food-wine marriage heavenly.

Tasca D’Almerita makes splendid traditional varietal red and white wines at various price points as well as a delicious but higher priced Chardonnay with well integrated fruit and wood flavours.

Baglio Hopps offers a beautifully textured Chardonnay blend (Briaco delle Gazzere), a Nero d’Avola with forest fruit flavours and a plummy Merlot-Cabernet blend (Incantari). Any of the three wines will go with grilled vegetables, salted fish, tuna or steak.

Lovers of Australian Shiraz and Southern Rhones will be impressed by Cottanera’s Sole di Sesta ‘Shiraz’ which is peppery, not jammy but leaves a warm glow in the mouth.  Donnafugata is a leading producer who has managed to place Sicily on the world wine map with the majestic red wine named 1001 Nights (Mille e un Notta). The producer’s sweet white wine called Ben Rye should goes well with nasi lemak. Try it also with chicken rice.

Benanti is a pharmacist who wanted to revive old Sicilian wine traditions so began producing Nero d’Avola and other wines. Benanti’s white Pietramarina Etna Bianco Superiore has soft fruit flavours and a honeyed texture. It is ideal for accompanying peppery or sweet-sour dishes.

Palari makes a wine from indigenous grapes too and it is called “Faro” (which means lighthouse) although it is also a DOC. The wine, blend of Nerello Mascalese, Nerello Cappuccio and Nocera, elevaged in French oak, is  complex, elegant, with savoury notes of spice and earth combined with that of fruit.

Juicy, cherry fruited, classy Nero d’Avola is the offering from Morgante.  With nuances of mint and eucalyptus, spice, vanilla, the wine drinks like a red Burgundy and is perfect for Peking Duck.

OTHER NAMES TO CONSIDER
Calatrasi, Rapitalà, Spadafora, Santa Anastasia, Valle dell’Acate.
RECENT TASTINGS
2006 Vignali Roccamora, Cataratto Bianco Sicilia IGT, $55
The “Vignali Roccamora” estate is situated in Contrada Montoni, at Agrigento, near the south west coast of Sicily. The wine project came about as the result of a collaboration between producers Gian Andrea Tinazzi (from Verona) and Gaetano Alfano (from Agrigento).
Taste: Pale straw yellow in colour, herbaceous with basil, lime and sour plums, pine and peppermint and a sustaining elegant finish.  ***
2005 Vignali Roccamora “Cratey’s” Nero Avola Merlot IGT $35
The Cratey’s is a 70% Nero d’Avola with 30% Merlot blend, intended to combine the exuberant bright fruit of Nero d’Avola with the velvety texture of Merlot. This wine is matured for 12 months in American oak.
Taste: Beautiful, warm spicy, red fruit, morello cherries, plums, medium weight with round and plumy finish, solid, yet not overbearing, with good length.  ***
2005 Etna Rosso, Feudo Di Mezzo, Etna DOC, $56
Terre Nere is located on Sicily’s Mount Etna, and vineyards are planted with late-ripening indigenous Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Capuccio — many of these vines were planted pre-phylloxera. The soils are mostly volcanic ash speckled by black pumice and peppered with abundant volcanic rock. Marco and Iano de Grazia are the proprietors here.  The first vintage was in 2002.
The Feudo di Mezzo vines average 80–100 years old. The 1.35-hectare vineyard is terraced, although not as steeply as the Guardiola vineyard. The soil here is a blend of volcanic ash and volcanic sand, quite unusual in this area. Feudi di Mezzo is located at high altitudes, ranging from 650–700 meters above sea level. The wine is a blend of Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio.
Taste: Perfumed with cherries, coconut, blueberry and almonds; well-balanced, and with nice acidity and longish finish. ***
2005 Etna Rosso, Guardiola, Etna DOC, $56
The Guardiola is comprised of two vineyards planted to 100 per cent Nerello Mascalese for a total of 2.1 hectares. Vines are 50–150 years old. At 800–900 meters above sea level on the north side of Mount Etna, the Guardiola vineyard is the highest red-wine producing vineyard in all of Europe. Days are hot and tempered by breezes while it gets very cool in the evenings. The vineyard is organically farmed and vinification includes 10–15 days of maceration and 18 months in 25 per cent new French oak barriques.
Taste: Raspberries, vanilla, cherries, nutmeg, cinnamon, coconut and multi-layered; well-knitted with a stone fruit-bitter aftertaste. ***1/2

2005 Etna Rosso, Sottana Calderara , Etna DOC, $42

The Calderara Sottana, is from 40- to 50-year-old vines grown at 700m altitude.
by Christina de Fontao
The ‘Calderara Sottana,’ made from the indigenous Nerello Mascalese and Nerello Cappuccio. The Calderara vineyards are well exposed, and are not surrounded by hills; the “airiness” helps to protect the vines from mildew and oidium. The grapes are harvested at the end of October (making it the second to last harvest in all of Italy, after Aglianico). Vinification is simple, classic, and Burgundian in technique. Alcoholic fermentation and maceration on the skins lasts between 10 to 15 days; malolactic fermentation and maturation are carried out in oak (25% new). After 18 months the wine is bottled without filtering.
Taste: Plush with almonds, exotic spices, Christmas cake, soy sauce, with a dry mid palate and some light chewy tannins, and quite elegant.   ***

Barbaresco

by danielebneter

Only a one-hour drive south from the city of Turin (Torino) in Italy and an equal distance from the Mediterranean and the Western Alps is the wine sub-region of Barbaresco.The greater region is called the Piedmont and her famous wines are the Barolo and Barbaresco.

Like Barolo, Barbaresco is made from a noble grape called Nebbiolo, which has been cultivated in Northern Italy since the 14th century. Thanks to the microclimate, Barbaresco’s grapes are picked earlier. The laws require Barbaresco to have a lower alcohol requirement – 12.5% compared with Barolo’s 13% –  and Barbaresco is aged for a shorter period than Barolo.

As a result, the wine tastes a little less tannic, is less structured and comes across more elegant than Barolo. Hence, Barbaresco wines have been described as the smaller sibling to Barolo – or the yin of the yang

Barbaresco’s unique personality is also due to terroir. Lying next to the Tanaro river, the microclimate is moderated by the influence of the river – this allows the Nebbiolo to ripen here a little earlier than it does in the Barolo region. Most of the soil of Barbaresco is calcareous marl and, in parts, calcium rich soils are mixed with fertile alluvial soils (altogether sandier than soils in Barolo).

Because Barbaresco’s ripening period is shorter than Barolo’s, the resulting wine contains less tannins, acidity and fruit structure. This explains why Barbaresco wines tend to be lighter in body than the wines of Barolo; and are usually fruitier, more perfumed and more accessible in their youth compared to Barolos.

Why then do we hear so much about Barolo and so little about Barbaresco?

There are several reasons. Barbaresco producers are mostly small growers turned winemakers and production is about a third that of Barolo. The larger companies running estates in Barolo find it easier to promote and distribute their wines overseas. As such, Barbaresco has always been in the shadow of Barolo – often mentioned in conjunction with Barolo.

If Barolo consists of 11 villages, Barbaresco’s villages are small and number only four. They are Barbaresco, Nieve, Treiso and San Rocco (Alba). However, the vineyard names to remember (if you are a diehard aficionado) are just as numerous!

·BARBARESCO – Wines can be described as elegant, perfumed and complex; grapes are grown at an elevation of 270m.

The Grandi Vigne or cru vineyards are Asili, Bricco o Bricco Lemondo, Casotto-Loreto, Cavanna, Cole, Faset, Martinenga,  Moccagatta, Montaribaldi, Montefico; Montestefano, Morassino, Ovello, Pagliuzzi, Paje, Pora, Rabaja, Rio Sordo, Roccalini, Roncaglie, Roncagliette, Ronchi, Secondine and Vitalotti.

·TREISO – To the south of Barbaresco, grapes are grown here at an elevation of 410m. Wines are lighter in texture with sticky tannins.

The Grandi Vigne or cru vineyards are Bernardot o Bernardotti, Bordino, Bricco, Casot, Castellizzano, Manzola, Marcarini, Montersino, Nervo, Pajore, Rizzi, Rombone and Valeirano.

·NIEVE – Lies in the hills north-east of Barbaresco around the Neive township; grapes are grrown at 320m. Wines are full-bodied with medium-full tannins.

The Grandi Vigne or cru vineyards are Albesani, Basarin, Bordini, Bricco, Bricco Mondino, Canova, Cotta, Curra, Fausoni, Gaia Principe, Gallina, Marcorino, Messoirano, San Giuliano, Santo Stefano, Serraboella, Serracapelli and Starderi.

·San Rocco, Seno d’Elvio – Part of Alba, this tiny strip lies west and at an 180m elevation alongside the Treiso commune. It produces easy to drink wines, with stronger tannins balanced by sweet ripe black fruit flavours.

Note that all wines are called Barbaresco, although the commune may be named, similar to the case of Barolo. Note that almost 95% of Barbaresco is produced in the first three areas – Barbaresco, Treiso and Neive.

The Barbaresco appellation is a quarter of Barolo’s, and soils are more even, so differences amongst the various commune wines of Barbaresco are subtle.

Reading the label

Many wines can be identified by the name of the vineyard and some are better than others. Producers may share vineyards and some make better wines than their neighbours. Labels are easy to read but the information is difficult to process. If you think Barolo is difficult to understand, Barbaresco is even more complex.

Many producers own vineyards in different communes. Some make wine the old fashioned way, others offer modern wines. Occasionally you will find two styles from a producer as well as crus (single vineyards) and blends. Some of the best wines are those that combine both tradition and modernity – for example, the ageing of wines in new barriques for a period, to round out tannins and to pick up sweet spicy notes, and then in traditional large oak (botti) to draw out the amplitude and develop finesse in the wine.

Terms such as Bricco and Sori may appear on the label. They mean “ridge/hill peak’’ and “slope’’ respectively and producers might use these terms to indicate that wines produced from grapes grown on the vineyards on these ridges and slopes could be better than the normal.

Santorini Spellbound

In this mythical lost city of Atlantis, many treasures lie waiting

By Edwin Soon

The birth of Santorini began with its total destruction. Around 1630 BC, angry Gods caused a catastrophic volcanic eruption, wiping out all traces of life in the Minoan capital leaving only a large caldera, volcanic ash, lava and pumice stone behind. And what a difference 3,600 years makes. Every year, more than one million intrepid travelers, including many a starry-eyed honeymooner, choose to spend their first days of married life here. At this, the most dramatic of the Greek islands, perched on the southernmost of the Cycladic islands.

Where else but in Santorini (also known as Thira) can one find snow-white cube villages straddling sheer cliffs, blue-domed churches and arid rocky landscapes aside multi-coloured sand beaches. All surrounded by the tranquil, azure waters of the Aegean Sea.

Aside from its obvious outstanding natural geography, well-heeled visitors will feel much at home in Santorini. If it’s creature comforts they crave – Santorini caters, above and beyond. Luxurious swank hotels with views like-no-where-else-on-earth abound whist traditional ‘cave’ hotels provide a sense of history. Gourmands can indulge in outstanding restaurants and lively tavernas, where the catch-of-the-day is literally netted from the sea seconds earlier. Shopping takes on a different vibe here – unique and unusual finds – from Minoan statues to jewelry can be had, for a price, in tiny boutiques set in glamorous and charming villages with flagstone streets.

Rock-stars, film stars, heads of states, old and new money arrive in Santorini in their own dramatic fashion. Some choose to fly in by private planes (the flight from Athens is a mere 45 minutes) whilst others arrive in luxury sailboats – there is docking for mega yachts in either of the two ports.

Deciding where to stay on this tiny (73 km square) island is key. Every village has it’s own ambiance and rhythm. The beaches, concentrated on the east and south of the island (of which the majority are volcanic black sand) span from isolated to those favoured by the reality TV producers of The Perfect Catch. Kamari beach has its share of tourists whist Baxedes beach, to the north-east flaunts a more genteel clientele.
The towns of Fira, Firostefani, Oia/Ia or Imerovigli are perched at the summit of the island’s crescent-moon shaped caldera. Most visitors will undoubtedly pass through Fira, Santorini’s capital, located 600 steps above the old port (and where many a cruise ship will dock).

As much as it’s picturesque with its narrow alleys and Venetian manors, Fira is as commercial as it gets. In the peak season, day-trippers spill out of the cruise liners and the streets become grid locked. Much the exception on this island, you’ll also find nightclubs, bars and loud music here. On a positive note, many museums, churches, cathedrals and great restaurants are situated here and should not be missed.

You’ll breathe easier in Firostefani village with its sweeping views of the capital and the sea, situated just above Fira. And at the northern tip of Santorini is the picture-postcard caldera-rim settlement of Oia – noted for it’s windmills, charming manicured walkways, 19th century merchant’s villas and restored troglodytic peasant houses spread around the ruins of a 13th century Venetian castle. Luxury accommodations abound here, thanks to the strict zoning laws as do gentrified shopping and dining options. Oia is also where you’ll witness Santorini’s sunset at it’s most dramatic. A point to note before choosing to reside at any of the caldera villages is to prepare for challenging walks and steep steps. The island, after all is the product of nature at its rawest. A pair of good walking shoes and a spirit of adventure will take you to some of the most awe-inspiring views on earth.

For our stay, we choose the Astra Apartments and Suites – one of the luxury hotels carved into the cliff side above the magnificent caldera in serene Imerovigli, built opposite the volcanic isles of Nea Kameni, Palea Kameni and Thirassia. We arrived in the ‘preserved’ town square at 330 meters above sea level to waiting Astra porters only to notice, to our surprise, all heads turned to the sea. For several minutes, everyone froze, captivated, as a great orange ball of fire languidly made its way into the big blue Sea. Mesmerized, we forgot to take photos of what was truly the most Godly sunset we had ever witnessed but all its vivid details remains with us to this day –in our memories.

With 16 apartments and 12 suites, restaurant, eternity pool and brand-new spa, the charm of the Astra remains in its intimate size and personalized service. From a distance, it looks like a tiny, whitewashed village of its own. The spacious accommodations are decorated in the traditional Cycladic style, of curved white walls, high vaulted ceilings and stone floors, offering guests a taste of genuine island life. Minimalist sculptures by renowned Greek artist, Yorgos Kypris can be found throughout the hotel. For the ultimate in indulgence, book the very private Deluxe Pool Suite with its spacious balcony and panoramic caldera views. Not-to-be-missed are the famous Astra cooked breakfasts (complete with homemade Greek yogurt, delis and freshly-squeezed juices) delivered to the room or poolside each morning by the young and hip Astra staff.

There are guests who check into their sublime lodgings and never leave throughout their stay. We were falling into that category until the third day when curiosity got the better of us. Our hotel subsequently armed us with pages of handwritten recommendations of the best places to dine and visit on the island. A brand-new Smart car was delivered and off we went, exploring!

First stop was for us to pay homage to Santorini’s past – the ruined city of Ancient Thira.
Located on a high rocky headland, one must endure many hair-raising hairpin turns to finally reach the top of windswept Mesa Vouna. Originally occupied by the Dorains in 9th century BC, most of the well-preserved structures date back to the Hellenistic era (4th century BC). As we strolled down the ancient main street, past the Temple of Dionysos and the Sanctuary of Apollo Karneios, we couldn’t help but notice the silence that prevailed – no chatter, no narration from tour guides. Just a respectful quiet, as we shared in the lives of a people long gone.

Next we headed west to the “Minoan Pompeii” of Ancient Akrotiri. Destroyed and preserved by a catastrophic volcanic eruption around 1450 BC, many believe this is in fact the lost Bronze Age city of Atlantis, as described by Plato (427-347 BC) in ‘The Republic’. While excavating this massive 20-hectare site (much of which is intact still), scientists discovered a highly developed civilization with intricate infrastructure and architecture. Uncannily, even the layout of the city matched Plato’s description of Atlantis. Due to a collapsed roof, this archeological site was unfortunately closed when we visited.

Driving inland near Oia, we stopped at Domaine Sigalas, Santorini’s most noted winery. A ten-minute tour confirmed that climatically, Santorini is hot and dry – perfect for grapes. An interesting feature is that vines here are not grown into bushes like in the hot regions of Australia or California, nor are they trellised like in the cooler wine regions. Instead the Santorini vines are ‘woven’ into a basket – called ‘kouloures’ for additional protection from the intense heat and winds. Soils are volcanic with a high content of sand. Wine buffs that appreciate history would be excited to know that when phylloxera (root louse) struck and decimated the vineyards in Europe, these vineyards remained unaffected, due to the high sand content. It’s incredible to think that many vines on that you see on the island are 100 years old, bearing original rootstocks.

Back in the courtyard of the tasting room, under the shade of some vines and in the company of the estates two charming Greek lady oenologists, we quenched our thirsts with an Asyritiko-Athiri white wine blend, with mineral nuances and acidity. Another wine simply called Santorini (Asyritiko) was round, warm and full-bodied, with peachy notes. Next, an oaked 2007 Santorini version brought on exotic pear, lime –vanilla scents. Amongst the reds was a Niamiteao – a blend of the tannic Mandaloria grape and the soft fruity Pelleponese grape called Agiorgitiko. The wine proved to be subtle with aromas of small red fruits, with fine tannins– reminiscent of a Red Burgundy. The last wine was Mezzo Apeleotis (100% Mandaloria) – an unusual sweet red wine with a hint of raspberries, rich in texture yet dry tannins.

So impressed, we decided to visit another winery – this time, up in the hills, near the village of Pyrgos. Hatzidakis it is a boutique winery, not as grand as the previous, but the wines have a cult following on the islands. Here, I chatted with oenologist Haridimos Hatzidakis who was only too happy to share the fruits of his labour with me. I tasted a floral-citrus tasting Aidani (white varietal) wine, perfect for seafood. Four versions of Santorini’s most famous white varietal – Asyritiko showed the grape’s versatility. The first is simply labeled as Santorini Dry White was crisp and fresh; the next, called Cuvee No; 15, was impressive, complex with a delicious mineral saline quality and finishes long, like a Loire white destined for cellar ageing. Next was Santorini ‘Barrel Fermented’ that resembled a Chardonnay, with lovely wood integration and the fourth, the Nykteri which in tradition, mean late picked, pressed within a day and then fermented was rich, minerally and juicy with 15 % alcohol. What a chameleon grape Asyritiko is! Finally I tasted a red wine called Mavrotragano – and with aromas of cherries, earth and leather, reminiscent of a fine Nebbiolo.

Hunger beckoned, and off we were to the restaurant Selene, in Fira. Critics have described it as “one of the best restaurants in Greece”. So it was with the highest expectation that I bit into the appetizer of sea urchin salad on grilled artichoke with creme of fava and scallops with lemon foam. How delicious it was! The mains of roasted rabbit with fava risotto and rosemary sauce was marvelous in its simplicity. Added to the whole dining experience was the incredible ambience – happy, relaxed diners from all corners of the globe, and that incredible caldera view. So many folks want to take Selene’s cooking home with them and now they can – by signing up for the one-day cooking course with the owners.

On our last evening in this mystical island, we decided to return to our favourite Fisherman’s Taverna in Ammoundi. We arrived earlier to watch our last sunset (as we did faithfully everyday on the island) and dine by the ocean. ‘Dimitri’s’ might not be the slickest restaurant but what made us return was the owner’s genuine hospitality and the home-style cooked seafood. Its location on the Bay of Ammoundi, 250 steps below Oia wasn’t bad either. As we were walking to the tavern, local fisherman hauled their day’s catch into the habour and proceeded to do business with the restaurateur – now that’s what we call fresh! For the next two hours, we chowed down on mussels steamed in wine, garlic, olive oil and shallots, sprinkled with fresh parsley. The huge grilled snapper served with olive oil and vinaigrette was, like the spectacular lightshow earlier on – heaven!

Several miles offshore, brave men and fortune-seekers trawl the oceans for long-lost treasures. If only they knew what we knew, that if only they cast their eyes to the once-lost, but found-again island of Santorini, all their hearts desires will be found.

FACT FILE

Time to go – ‘Start’ and ‘end’ of the peak season – April or September translates into good weather without the crowds. Off-season, few businesses are open.

How to get there and around – Fly into Athens to connect; even if  you are island hopping. Book your accommodation early, up to a year ahead as there are many return visitors from Europe and the US. Let your hotel arrange airport transfers, tours and transport for you, that way, you can be assured of a high quality of service. Tipping is always appreciated and ten percent will do.

Places to stay:

Astra Apartments and Suites, Imerovigli, www.astra.gr

Chromata, Imerovigli, www.slh.com

Mystique Hotel, Oia, www.starwoodhotels.com

Not to be missed:

  • The Santorini cherry tomato and its paste; found in salads, served up as fried tomato balls and used as a paste to augment pasta sauces.

Recommended books:

  • Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernières
  • The Republic by Plato

The Palace on Wheels

There are many ways for the intrepid traveler to traverse India. You can do it by plane, car or train. After hearing tales of missing luggage and giant potholes/camels/cows on roads, we choose to travel the latter. We were set to begin our journey into the “Land of Kings” – Rajasthan, onboard The Palace on Wheels (POW).

Centuries ago, Maharajas traveled in grand style across India’s vast terrains in the luxurious splendour of their own carriages. Today, the inquisitive traveller, can enjoy the same experience onboard POW. For 7 nights this famous train will take you to visit no less than 7 princely states in Rajasthan – bastions of royal opulence and pageantry. Then to Agra in Uttar Pradash, where in one day, you will witness 3 World Hertiage Sites.

Travelling on the POW is all very civilized. The train comprises of 14 deluxe saloons to which each saloon has 4 cabins and a lounge with 2 excellent ‘khidmatgars’ or personal butlers to attend to your every need. Each saloon is refurbished in the style of the various princely Rajput states and named accordingly– from Rajputana to Jhawalawar. A bar, two dining cars, kitchens and a whole entourage of serving staff completes the train.

It was always a lifelong dream to experience the historical forts and palaces of India. And so it was a sunny late afternoon when our close friends, the Teos, my wife and I arrived at Delhi Cantonment railway station.  Under a specially-erected tent, we were duly checked-in, garlanded and anointed with a bright red tikkas. We were now initiated and members of the ‘palace’.  Yonder, on the tracks stood a long gleaming beige train that seemed to go on forever. It’s presence next to the local trains – both human and cargo seemed a little surreal and the presence of many foreigners, dressed to the nines, and their train drew any curious stares from the locals.

Our living quarters turned out to be compact (as one would expect from a train). The cabin had dark wood panelling and large picture windows that were framed with intricately beaded fabrics. The motif was even repeated on the ceiling. A functional bathroom completed our quarters. Everything were spotless but already showing some wear and tear. Though we were a little a taken aback with its size, we would come to appreciate coming home to this little abode every night in the next week.

The best things about the POW are its staff, it’s food and its itinerary. Throughout our journey, we had it first-class all the way. Guests are not expected to ever wait for anything, including admission to the cities great monuments. Even savouring the best food at various cities would only be at the top-notched 5-star palace hotels. Your butlers have been trained to anticipate your ever need. They would be on hand  24/7 and would do everything from waking you up in the morning to turning your beds down at night.

The train comes equipped with 2 lavish dining cars ‘The Maharajah’ and the ‘The Maharani’ where guests would dine at least once a day. There are two kitchens, one western and the other asian. Lunch or dinner would be an assortment of chinese and Indian fare (with a emphasis on Rajasthani cuisine), typically around 15 courses and always different and delicious!
What we saw in a week, friends have told us, they didn’t even get to see in 3 weeks by car. Historical forts and palaces, royal centotaphs, grand temples on a scale one couldn’t imagine. The amazing thing about the train is that one makes the long journey between cities effortlessly – hundreds of kms are covered while you dine or sleep.

Guide books tell you that one visit to India will forever change you. They were not wrong.

The cities on our itinerary
Jaipur
With a population of 2.3 million and amongst the most tumultuous and polluted of cities, this capital city of Rajasthan is a real eye opener for visitors. ‘The Pink City’ was built by the great astronomer-warrior, Maharaja Jai Singh II in 1727. Here you will find the very much photographed Hawa Mahal, the intricately–trellised, five-storied building where in the past, the ladies of the Court would gaze down to the street life below, unseen.

Nothing will take your breath away like the stunning Rajput-architectured Amber Fort, perched on a hilltop. To get there, you will ascend on elephants. Once in the fort, you will witness how the royals once lived. Delicate mosaics, inlaid mirrors, latticed galleries grace vast rooms with sweeping views. See where the maharaja held audience in the Diwan-I-Am (hall of public audience) and explore the women’s Zenana (women’s apartments). So clever was the design that the maharaja could embark on his noctural visits to the various rooms, without the other wives ever knowing about his comings and goings. Although not in the best of shape, as with most monuments in Rajasthan, the fort is currently undergoing restoration.

Other places of interest in Jaipur – the Jantar Mantar or royal observatory and the City Palace, once home to the last Maharani of Jaipur, the beautiful Gayatri Devi.

Jaisalmer (285 km NW of Jodhhur, 570km W of Jaipur)
From the sands of the Thar desert, the ancient fortified city of Jaisalmer rises up like a giant sandcastle, thus it is also known as “The Golden City. Isolated and remote, it’s a city like no other.  Built in 1156, Jaisalmer is home to one of the oldest of the Rajasthani forts.

As you enter the citadel that is the City Palace, you will step into the main chowk where the king reviewed his troops and also where ceremonial sacrifice and jauhar (mass immolation) were performed. Looking up at the crumbling 14th century Raj Mahal (maharaja’s palace), one can still appreciate the glimpses of lacy marble screens, rose tiles and miniature paintings. Today 5,000 people still live within the fort.

Magnificent works of art can be appreciated at the Jain temples which you will find within the citadel complex. Shoes and all leather goods must be removed before stepping into the complex but once inside, you won’t regret the inconvenience. Before you stand thousands of friezes of elephants, Hindu deities, chariots and even women, many carved out of a single large boulder. Best of all, these temples have withstood beautifully, the sands of time.

Other must-sees in Jaisalmer – the elaborate one-of-a-kind Havelis, built by wealthy Jasin merchants in the 1800s and the rainwater-fed Gadsisar Lake surrounded by many golden shrines.

Must-do side trip – Camel ride at Sam Sand Dunes, 42km from Jaisalmer. All POW passengers will get a fresh white sheet thrown over the saddle as you embark on your next 30 minutes journey into the dessert. Be forewarned, it’s much more uncomfortable sitting at the back saddle for two. What you’ll get for your discomfort however, is magical wind-shaped sand dunes and a peace that is carried only in the desert winds.

Jodphur (343 km W of Jaipur)
Beautifully maintained and rich in treasures, Jodphur is also known as ‘The Blue City’ – so named after the blue houses of the Brahmins. A fortified city, it was the capital of the Marwar kingdom for five centuries. Walking around the city is hassle-free as there are few beggers and hawkers.

Perched proudly on top of a hill, the famously impregnable Mehrangarh fort is a sight to behold. Built in 1459, to get inside, you must first climb steep walkways past eight massive gates. Each has it’s own history but is it the last gate which is the most poignant. Like most Rajput forts, it bears the sati handprints of women who immolated themselves by fire after the deaths of their husbands in battle. Inside the fort, you’ll be greeted by one of the best maintained historic properties in Rajasthan. Part museum, learn about it’s proud history and it’s priceless exhibits. Inside the palace, marvel at the extensively decorated walls, ceilings and floors of marble, mirror work and gilt. And if that’s not enough, there’s the view. The city with it’s blue houses look like something from a story book.

Must visit hotel/museum – Umaid Bhawan Palace. Part royal residence, part museum, part hotel, this art deco palace was built entirely out of interlocking sandstone between 1929 and 1942. Inside, you’ll find yourself speaking in hushed whispers as you marvel at the sheer enormousness of your situation as stuffed big cats and royal finery gaze down at you. Be sure to slip down stairs for a glimpse of the horoscope-themed blue pool. Outside, the gardens, with it’s marble chattries (canopies) and never-ending lawns and the view of the fort in the distance will make you never want to leave.

Definitely worth your time – visiting the Jaswant Thanda or royal crematorium built for Maharaja Jaswant Singh II in 1899. Some great views of the city can be had here and the all-white marble complex and collection of centotaphs are a peaceful reminder of a time long gone.

Ranthambore National Park at Sawai Madhopur. (161km S of Jaipur)
You’ll be woken up at the crack of dawn and hurdled into open top jeeps (so bring your wollens) as your wildlife expedition begins. Witness a dreamy sunrise over the Aravalli and Vindhya hills and for the next 3 hours, you’ll cruise around a tiny part of the 1,334 sq k reserve. Except to see many species of birds, mammals and reptiles. The wild tiger, however eluded all of us, but we did get photographs of a recent paw print.

Chittorgarh (112km NE of Udaipur)
The stuff of chivalric lore – that would be the story of Chittaurgarh fort. Once capital to the Mewars from the 8th to 16th centuries, the 700 acre fort on a hill was besieged and sacked three times by the Moghuls through time. Each time, as their warriors rode out in a hopeless battle, the women, in their thousands, commited jauhar and burned themselves in pyres rather than submit to the enermy. Hear the story of beautiful Rani Padmini and visit her palace.. Look though the same mirror where the enamored Sultan of Delhi caught sight of her beauty and thus set of a tragic chain of events. Walk around its strangely moody grounds where tourists mingle with friendly monkeys grooming stray dogs. There are many temples and several ornate victory towers to keep you fasinated.

Udaipur (335km SE of Jodphur)
The City of the Lakes or Venice of the East had suffered a 3 year drought when we visited and its legendary waters had turned to mud. Not all was lost however, as the city had still much charm. Founded in 1567 by Maharajah Udai Singh by the banks of Lake Pichola, Udaipur has the vibe of a laid-back city.

Think 007’s ‘Octopussy’ and you’d have seen the famous Lake Palace (Jag Niwas). POW guests were treated to a lavish buffet lunch there and the service as well as the food was top notch. Even without the water surrounding it, the cool wind, fluttering white drapes and white marbled building seemed incredibly romantic.

Spend a few hours taking in the City Palace, residence of the Marajah Arvind Singh of Mewar. A complex of palaces built on a ridge, the sand colored, five storied buildings overlook the lake.

A must for garden lovers – Sahelion Ki Bari (Garden of the Maidens). In the 18th century it was for the Maharanis and their ladies-in-waiting only. Today, stroll amongst lovingly landscaped hedges, exotic flowers and gushing fountains (which run solely on gravity, without pumps).

Bharatpur (150km E of Jaipur, 55km W of Agra)
Home to the Keoladeo National Park, it served once as the duck hunting forest of the maharajas. Today, you’ll be taken by rickshaw guides for a glimpse around the 29 sq km of forests and wetlands. Expect to see cranes, herons, egrets and many migratory birds. We even spotted deers and a few big snakes.

Fatehpur Sikri (37km SW of Agra)
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Fatehpur Sikri is also known as ‘The Ghost City’ as it has long been abandoned and never resettled. What you’ll find here is the ruins of the city Emperor Akbar built in 1571. Great sandstone buildings, with Persian as well as Indian architectural styles are all that remain of a city that once used to exceed London in population as well as finery.

Nearby lies the marbled laced tomb of Salim Chisti – the Saint who predicted a male heir for Emperor Akbar. Women come from all over India today to wish for a son at his tomb by tieing a string to the latticework and covering the tomb with a cloth.
A note of caution – expect unrelenting hawkers at Fatehpur Sikri as you board your coach.

Agra (200km SE of Delhi)
Home to another 2 World Hertiage sites – the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort. Arga today can initially shock the visitor – it is crowded, dirty and tourist sites are filled with unrelenting hawkers. But once inside the sanctuary of the monuments, all will be forgotten as you loose yourself to the splendor of your surroundings.

So great was his love for his favourite wife, that when Mumtaz Mahal died at childbirth, the Emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal in memory of her. 20,000 laborers and 17 years later, one of the world’s most magnificent buildings was completed on the exact anniversary of her death in 1643. The Taj Mahal’s perfect proportions and exquisite workmanship came with a price – many skilled labourers had their thumbs or hands amputated so that the Taj’s perfection would never be repeated again. This garden-tomb stands on a raised marble platform flanked by 4 minarets at each corner. Under the central dome lie the false tombs of Mumtaz Mahal and Emperor Shah Jahan (the actual tombs lie in a crypt in the basement, and are closed to the public). A close-up examination of the white marbled Pietra Dura reveals intricately carved floral designs inlaid with as many as 43 different precious stones.

Agra Fort
The fort comprises of a fortified palace, royal apartments, mosques, assembly halls and even a dungeon all enclosed by a 2.5km wall. Today, a part of it is home to the Indian army and so is closed to the public. There’s so much to see however, as you take in the early eclectic style of Emperor Akbar and compare it to the more genteel elegance of Shah Jahan, who added to the complex. Not to be missed are the scalloped colonnaded arches of the Diwan-I-Aam – an arcaded hall within a courtyard. There within, lies the setting for fabled Peacock Throne, where the Emperor met with his audience. Make sure you also take a note of the Musamman Buji, with clear views of the Taj. Here in this doubled-storied octagonal tower, Shah Jahan lived out the rest of his life, imprisoned by his own son, Aurangzeb.

Points to note – The Palace on Wheels only runs from Sept – April. High season rates per couple is US$700 a night. All meals, tours, monument fees, transportation is included. For more information, check out www.palaceonwheels.net

Pairings 2

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Pairings 1

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Others 2

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Others 1

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Coffee Savvy

The ripe berry on the tree is processed in one of two ways:

Dry method – the ripe berry  is picked, cleaned and dried and then hulled.

Wet method –  the berry is immersed in water and then put through a screen that removes the skin and some pulp. Additional flesh surrounding the seed/bean is removed  either by fermentation (to break down the cell walls) and washing or via mechanical scrubbing to obtain the bean. The bean is then cleaned and dried.

The structure of coffee berry

1: center cut   2:bean (endosperm)   3: silver skin (testa, epidermis),   4: parchment (hull, endocarp)   5: pectin layer 6: pulp (mesocarp)   7: outer skin (pericarp, exocarp)

source:  YT Yambe

Roasting the Bean

Coffee beans are green and almost lentil like in texture.

As they are roasted, some steam is formed as the beans loose moisture and turn yellow.


Then the coffee beans turn tan in colour, and soon you will hear a crack as the bean turns brown.

Coffee can be roasted to various degrees to suit different tastes:

1. Light/American/Cinnamon roast – after first crack and before second crack, light bodied taste, tangy acidity

2. Medium/City roast – first audible snaps of second crack – caramel taste

3. Full/High/Vienna/Light French roast – second crack is under way – caramel-chocolate undertones

4. Full French/Double roast – quite a lot of smoke, oily sheen, second crack rapid and near its end – little acidity and burnt undertones in taste – espresso lovers like this level

5. Italian/Spanish roast (where sugars are heavily caramelized) – after second crack has slowed and beans are carbonised – flat flavour with charcoal overtone.

Ways of enjoying coffee


Do you know your cafe from your cappuccino?

Ordering a cafe in Europe often gets you an espresso.

lungo or alto is expresso with a little water. 

Doppio simply means a double espresso and yes, doppio ristretto’s exist – four doses of expresso but in about the same volume as an expresso.

Note however a double latte is not an upsized latte but the standard latte with two ’shots’ of expresso. And when in Australia, children not yet of age can partake at the coffee table but they get babiccino – steamed and frothed milk, sans coffee.

Like it with a little kick? Then ask for a Cafe Corretto – which contains some liqueur or spirits- usually Grappa.

Cafe Freddo – Could James Bond have ordered this at the bar, on the Mediterranean, early one morning ?   Cafe freddo is an expresso shaken in ice but not stirred!

Ordering ‘local’ coffee of ‘kopi’ in Singapore

Kopi-gau – coffee (strong brew – “gau” is “厚” in Hokkien)

Kopi-po – coffee (weak brew – “po” is “薄” in Hokkien)

Kopi-C – coffee with evaporated milk

Kopi-C-kosong – coffee with evaporated milk and no sugar (’kosong” means empty in Malay)

Kopi-O – black coffee with sugar

Kopi-O-kosong –  coffee without sugar or milk

Kopi-O-kosong-gau –  a strong brew of coffee without sugar or milk

Kopi-ping or Kopi-ice – coffee with milk, sugar and ice

Kopi-xiu-dai – coffee with less sugar

Kopi-gah-dai – coffee with extra sweetened milk

Taste of Coffee

Cupping describes the sensory evaluation of coffee. In essence, it involves putting to words the look, smell, taste, flavour, style and a qualitative assessment of the coffee.

Acidity – rather than the unpleasant sour-sharpness, it is the pleasing tanginess that brings about a dryness in the mouth.

Aromas and flavours – they range from fruity to the woody. Other descriptors include char, caramel, lemon, cereal, floral, cocoa, chocolate, malt, earth, herbal, smoke, ash, nut, tobbacco, hay, spice etc.

Bitterness – considered desirable up to a certain threshold.

Body – a combination of texture and the weight of the coffee, described as thin, light, medium, or buttery/heavy/big bodied. Kenyan coffee is often light bodied whilst kopi (local Singapore/Malaysian) coffee and even Thai or Vietnamese coffee is big bodied.

Aftertaste & finish – like for wine and most other foods – a good finish is defined as a pleasant lingering taste in the mouth long after consuming the product. Some coffees finish sweet whilst others finish dry.

Did you know? : Civet coffee or Kopi Luwak is coffee obtained from coffee berries which have been eaten by and passed through the digestive tract of the Asian Palm Civet. Yep, the faeces of the civet is collected, the beans are extracted and then washed and dried in the sun before roasting. I did try the coffee. A bit muddy in taste and didnt do much for me.

Coffee and Cheese go well together


Try

  • ristrettos with a triple cream cheese
  • espressos (sweetened) with blue cheese
  • macchiatos with edam
  • long blacks with tete de moines
  • mochas with an aged cheddar of parmigiano

Chocolates

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