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A Walk Around Alderney

Alderney is the third largest, or indeed, third smallest of the populated Channel Islands, an archipelago in the English Channel, which are closer to the coast of France than to England and a crown dependency of the UK. Alderney is a small island, around 8 square km, and has a population of just 2000 people. It is also very beautiful. One of the loveliest things you can do when visiting Alderney is to walk all the way around it. There are plenty of good footpaths and, although it can be a bit hilly in places, it’s an easy walk that affords the most splendid views all the way around.

Braye is the obvious place to start a walk around the island. If staying in the pretty town of St Anne, let gravity guide you to the beach along the main road, passing the railway station. Braye Bay is the largest bay on the island and is characterised by its breakwater, a construction that stretches about 1400m into the sea, shielding the harbour and beach from the treacherous currents of the Swinge tidal race. It’s a beach with a broad sandy area on the western shore and rockpools to explore at the eastern end. It’s possible to walk the length of the breakwater but make sure the weather is fine – it is dangerous to do so on a windy day as waves do crash over it. It can be spectacular during a storm.

On an anti-clockwise tour, walking west, past the inner harbour and electricity generator station, lies the tiny rocky inlet Crabby Bay before the coastline stretches to the sand flats of Platte Saline. Despite its inviting appearance, the tidal currents are swift and it is not safe to bathe on this beach.

Heading towards Fort Tourgis, one of the many Victorian fortifications on the island, the coastline becomes rockier. Clonque (pronounced ‘clonk’) is a wonderful beach for walking and exploring. The bay overlooks the tiny uninhabited island of Burhou, a puffin colony, which is a protected site, and, further out to sea, the big oval rock Ortac, and Les Casquets with its automated lighthouse.

About two thirds of the way along the beach is a chair-like rock, known as the Monk’s Chair. Legend has it that a monk fought the devil there and, having vanquished his opponent, the monk sank onto the rock, whereupon it transformed into a chair to provide some comfort.

At the far end of the bay is Fort Clonque, another Victorian fort located on an island and accessed via a causeway, which is cut off from the main island at high tide. The property is owned by the Landmark Trust and it is possible to stay there. If you are travelling with a large group (it can sleep up to 13 people) it represents really good value and is a tremendous place to stay.

ALONG THE CLIFFS

The terrain climbs rapidly and it is not possible to continue along the shoreline, so following a zig-zag up to the south-west end of the island it is possible to walk along the top of the windswept cliffs. Along the Giffoine you can look out to the Garden Rocks where a noisy gannet colony has made its home. 

In this area there are several German fortifications from World War 2 when the island was occupied during the war and the local people evacuated. (The larger islands Jersey and Guernsey were also occupied and the residents remained under Nazi rule for five years.)

A walk along the undulating paths of the south coast is always a delight especially in spring and summer when the flowers are in bloom and the area is scented with the coconut smell of gorse.

It used to be possible to climb down steps cut into the cliff to reach the charming Telegraph Bay but the beach is now only accessible from the sea. The walk is adjacent to farmland so it is likely that you encounter some beauties such as these.

They are not Alderney cows, even though the breed is quite famous, having appeared a number of times in literature, from Jane Austen’s Emma to AA Milne’s poem, The King’s Breakfast:

The King’s Breakfast
The King asked
The Queen, and
The Queen asked
The Dairymaid:
“Could we have some butter for
The Royal slice of bread?”
The Queen asked the Dairymaid,
The Dairymaid
Said, “Certainly,
I’ll go and tell the cow
Now
Before she goes to bed.”

The Dairymaid
She curtsied,
And went and told
The Alderney:
“Don’t forget the butter for
The Royal slice of bread.”
The Alderney
Said sleepily:
“You’d better tell
His Majesty
That many people nowadays
Like marmalade
Instead…”

Sadly the breed was lost during World War 2 when the animals on Alderney were sent to Guernsey to help the islanders stave off starvation. But while the cows that graze on the lush grass may not be Alderneys, they do produce the most amazing dairy products. Alderney has its own dairy and produces a variety of delicious products including the creamiest milk and butter so yellow it rivals the colour of buttercups. It is absolutely delicious and a real treat to eat. Forget the marmalade, it’s best on bread, spread so thickly that you can see your teeth marks when you bite into a slice.

The journey continues past the airport along the cliffs to Essex Hill.

DESCENT TO THE BEACHES

The Hanging Rock (far right of the picture) overlooks The Race, another treacherous tidal stream across a reef of sharp rocks and the cause of many a shipwreck over the centuries. There is a legend that the people of Guernsey tried to pull Alderney to across the sea by throwing a rope over the rock and having a really good tug… to no avail, of course.

Then the cliffs fall away and you can stroll downwards to Longis Bay, Alderney’s original harbour. It’s a popular bay for bathing, the sandy beach shielded from the inevitable Alderney breeze by a concrete wall that spans the length of the bay, again built during the occupation.

Raz Island, with another fort at the end of the causeway marks the limit of the bay. There used to be some tourist attractions at the fort but it’s no longer possible to visit Raz, although some work is currently being undertaken to open it up again. A gentle stroll along the coast brings you to Houmet Herbe, a ruined fort again constructed on an island and only accessible at low tide.

Remnants of a basic causeway remain and, if you’re willing to scramble over the rocks, it’s possible to explore the fort. On a clear day you will get a fantastic view of the French coastline and Cherbourg, around 11km across the sea. Keep an eye on the tide, though, you will get cut off and have to wait a few hours for the tide to turn again.

Continuing along the coastal path you will arrive at the island’s lighthouse. It’s fully automated these days.

Opposite the lighthouse is Fort Les Hommoux Florains, which has largely been destroyed – each year battered by relentless winter storms. It is possible to get out there to view but you may need to swim across a small channel if the tide isn’t especially low, which probably isn’t worth the effort.

Also, close to the lighthouse, and overlooking Mannez quarry is a German fortification known locally as The Odeon. It is one of the most distinctive buildings on the island. It is an enormous concrete tower that was built by forced labourers 1943. It was planned to be used as a range-finding location to observe enemy ships. It was derelict for many decades but it is now possible to visit The Odeon.

Also at Mannez Quarry is the end of the line for the Alderney railway. Yes, those are London Underground carriages! The railway was originally constructed to bring stone from Mannez to the harbour for construction of the breakwater. It is now open as a tourist attraction for passengers to enjoy a delightfully scenic journey to the quarry from Braye station.

Further on (and don’t tell anyone) are the very best beaches for bathing: Corblets, Arch and Saye (pronounced ‘soy’). Overlooked by private residence Fort Corblets, the eponymous bay has a broad sandy beach and is popular for an energetic and invigorating swim. It’s worth bearing in mind that the sea temperature can be pretty cold, even in summer, but the water is crystal clear and it’s an absolute delight to swim there. (You do warm up!)

Arch is also sandy but has a steep incline. It affords a good view of the lighthouse and Odeon.

Saye can be found by walking underneath Arch Bay’s arch, past Château à L’Etoc (another privately owned fort) and beyond the dunes beside the island’s campsite – again it’s sandy but the enclosed geography of the bay ensures that the sea is much calmer than on Corblets.

Then it’s simply a walk around the grassy headland upon the top of which Alderney’s largest Victorian fort is located, Albert, originally designed to protect the harbour, and the familiar view of Braye, the harbour and the breakwater come into view. Burhou, Ortac and Les Casquets can also be seen in the background.

Go With The Sloe – How to Make Sloe Gin

It’s autumn in the UK, which means it’s the perfect season for foraging for fruit and mushrooms in the countryside. We are lucky to have many sloe (blackthorn) bushes in our local area and one of our favourite things to do at this time of year is to make sloe gin. It’s a really easy process but just needs a little patience. Here’s a flow chart – or, if you will, sloe chart – to show you how to make it:

This is what the colour of the sloe gin will look like after around three months.

Cheers!

Postscript – sloe gin is also great if you pop the bottle into the freezer for a couple of hours. The alcohol doesn’t freeze but becomes slightly syrupy. It’s delicious.

Big In Japan – A Day at the Sumo

The recent news that Yokozuna Hakuho, the record-breaking sumo wrestler, is finally planning to retire after a stellar career, prompted us to look back on a splendid day at the sumo in Tokyo, back in 2007 when Hakuho had just been promoted to the highest rank in the sport. Sumo wrestling is the national sport of Japan and is steeped in tradition. Indeed the origins of sumo are thousands of years old and it is thought to have originated in the Yayoi period in Japan (300 BCE-300 CE).

The rules are very simple: Two rikishi (wrestlers) face each other in a ring known as a dohyo, which is 4.55m in diameter. When mutual consent is given to begin, signified by each wrestler touching his fists to the floor, the bout commences. A rikishi loses when he is either forced out of the ring or touches the floor with any part of his body other than his feet. The wrestlers wear just a mawashi (belt), which can be grasped and used to push, throw or lift their opponent out of the ring or onto the floor. Some rikishi don’t use the mawashi and tend to have a push and thrust approach to taking on their opponent.

There are very few techniques that are banned, but fist punches, poking the opponent in a vulnerable area or pulling the opponent’s top knot, which is part of the chonmage (the hairstyle), are all considered to be unacceptable and any rikishi that uses these moves will automatically lose the match. A gyoji (referee), wearing robes based on medieval imperial court attire, oversees proceedings, encouraging the rikishi to spar and deciding which has won the bout. Sometimes the outcome is extremely close so additional judges sit around each edge of the dohyo in order to assess which wrestler first exited the ring or touched the floor.

The first characteristic that most people notice about sumo wrestlers is their weight, which can be substantial. Sumo wrestlers put on weight because it is more difficult to force a heavy opponent from the ring. But they are extremely fit, flexible and agile. There are no weight categories in the sport so a 100kg wrestler could easily face an opponent twice his weight. This is also what makes sumo so exciting – weight isn’t necessarily an advantage as the smaller rikishi may be more nimble and can employ moves that outsmart their opponents.

The bout itself is often, but not always, short in duration, although there is no time limit. It is always preceded by a series of rituals that have origins both in Japan’s Shinto religion and ancient warfare. The rikishi throw salt into the ring to purify it. Other practices include wrestlers raising a leg and stamping on the ground to scare away enemies and also clapping their hands. Once ready, they take their mark and squat in a position known as shikari, facing their opponent, ready to thrust forward when the bout begins. It’s often an explosive start as two large men crash into each other and it’s hugely exciting.

Grand Sumo Basho, or tournaments, are held six times every year. Three are held in Toyko at the  Ryogoku Kokugikan (January, May, September) and then there is one each in Osaka (March), Nagoya (July) and Fukuoka (November). (These schedules have changed a bit during the last couple of years due to Covid.) Each tournament lasts 15 days. The most popular days to attend are weekends and the final days of the basho as the excitement mounts to see who will win the Emperor’s cup. We were honoured to be invited to the sumo by a family friend. It made for the most splendid entertainment. The tournament schedule and ticketing information can be found at the Japan Sumo Association website.

The Ryogoku Kokugikan dohyo in Tokyo is located just a two minute walk from the JR Sobu Line Ryogoku Station West Exit (useful if you have a JR pass), or five minutes walk from the Toei Ryogoku Station A3 exit on the Toei Subway Oedo Line. The Ryogoku Kokugikan is easy to find and outside you will see the brightly coloured flags bearing the rikishi names lining the route to the entrance.

There are various tiers of ticket available and the most popular seats do sell out quickly. Ringside tamari seats are the most expensive. They are the closest you can get to the action and sometimes audience members can be a little too close if an energetic bout results in a wrestler falling on top of them!

Box seats are designed for either four or six people and you have to buy all the seats within the box. This suits a group of people viewing together. They have a tatami mat base and cushions. The boxes closest to the dohyo are more expensive and they become progressively cheaper the further back they are located. The box seats are very popular.

Arena seats are located on the upper floor in a standard tiered seating arrangement, further away from the action but they offer a good view at a much cheaper price. For the die-hard fan who cannot pre-order tickets, jiyu seki, (free-seating tickets), located right at the top of the building just below the rafters, can be purchased each day at the Kokugikan from 8am. These will go quickly though and if you want some, you may well need to start queuing very early in the morning.

The tickets are valid for the entire day and bouts start from around 8:30am. Sumo is divided into a number of divisions and the lowest ranked wrestlers will spar earliest in the morning. As the day progresses and the higher ranked rikishi start making an appearance the stadium will slowly fill up. By the time the Makunouchi (the highest division) commences the Kokugikan will be full and the atmosphere incredibly lively as the audience members support their favourite rikishi. You can buy banners, t-shirts and other souvenirs at the concession stands.

On arrival at the Kokugikan main entrance, if you have tickets, you will be guided to your seat. It is possible to pre-arrange a bento and drinks. (Alcohol is allowed.) The stadium even has its own kitchen in the basement. There, they make yakitori chicken, which is often eaten as part of the bento meal. There is a reason that chicken is on the menu – it is a bird that stands on two feet, something that the rikishi most definitely want to emulate. It’s also absolutely fine to bring your own food and drink if you wish.

Then it’s a case of sitting back and watching the action, whilst enjoying delicious food, a cup of green tea and, later on, a few beers as well.

You will often see the banners from sponsors of a particular rikishi parade around the dohyo before the bout. These organisations put up prize money for their sponsored wrestler. If he wins, he receives cash in an envelope offered by the gyoji but if he loses, his opponent wins the prize. The higher ranked and more popular the wrestler the greater the number of envelopes. If a lower ranked rikishi beats an ozeki (second highest rank) or Yokozuna, he wins a magnificent wadge of cash.

One of the wonderful things about the sumo is that you can wander around the arena between bouts and will often see rikishi in their yukata (light cotton kimono). More often than not, they are happy to pose for photos.

When it’s time for the Makunouchi bouts, the top tier rikishi will enter the dohyo wearing their keshō-mawashi, which are beautifully decorated ceremonial silk aprons, and form a circle. They perform a number of symbolic movements together before they leave and prepare for their bouts.

The Yokozuna, accompanied by two top division wrestler ‘assistants’ then enters the dohyo, wearing a tsuna (ceremonial rope, the word Yokozuna literally means ‘horizontal rope’) around his waist, to perform the ring entering ceremony. There are two types and the Yokozuna will choose which one he will perform soon after his promotion.

The highest ranked wrestlers fight the final bouts and the crowd become increasingly excited. When the very last bout has been fought, there is a closing bow-swirling ceremony – another ritual steeped with symbolic meaning.

And what better way to round off a wonderful day’s entertainment than going out for dinner at a local restaurant? Of course the only meal we could have was chanko nabe – sumo stew. This is the meal that sumo wrestlers eat at their stables in large quantities after their training sessions. (They go to sleep after eating chanko nabe and this helps them gain weight.) It’s filling and nutritious and, importantly, delicious. It’s a great sharing dish – a hot pot that sits in the middle of the table and everyone helps themselves. It comprises meat and vegetables, sometimes with seafood and tofu, that simmers in a dashi broth (a recipe for dashi can be found here). Sometimes sake or mirin is added to the broth to add flavour. There is no specific recipe which means that loads of scrumptious variations are possible. Unsurprisingly, there are a cluster of chanko nabe restaurants in the Ryogoku area.

If you are visiting Tokyo at a time when there is no basho running, it is possible to watch sumo wrestlers training in their stables. There is no cost to this but you’ll have to get up early as they usually train between 7:30 and 10am. The Arashio beya stable has an English language guide to watching the morning practice: Watching Keiko: Morning Sumo Practice. You generally don’t get to enter the stable itself but can watch through a large window.

And if you can’t get to Japan at all it is possible to watch sumo basho on TV. Japan’s national broadcaster NHK World present the highlights from each day over the entire fortnight.  The first and final day’s events are also shown live.

If you are likely to be in Tokyo at the time of a basho we highly recommend trying to obtain tickets for the sumo. It really is the most lovely way to spend a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon watching this unique and fascinating sport.

RECIPE: Thai Green Curry

Thailand’s famous curries are amongst our all-time favourites. Kaeng khiao wan is a sweet green curry, kaeng phet is a hot red curry. It’s generally the chillies that determine the colour of the curry, although the milder yellow curry, kaeng kari, uses turmeric. Other popular curries include Massaman (which has Indian and Malay influences in its spicing), Panang (another Malay influence with peanuts as a key ingredient) and sour curry, kaeng som, (which has a more soupy consistency with lime and turmeric being important flavourings). Another, less well known, dish that uses both coconut milk and coconut cream is tom kah gai – chicken and galangal in a coconut milk soup.

Thai green curry is probably the dish we cook and eat most often at home. It’s easy to make and utterly delicious. Its translation means ‘curry green sweet’ – the green chillies comprise a significant part of the paste, which forms the base of the flavour, but this curry is slightly sweeter than other types of Thai curry. Some recipes call for a small amount of sugar to be added, others rely on the natural sweetness of the coconut milk. The flavour components revolve around green chillies, galangal, lemongrass, garlic, shallots, kaffir lime zest and coriander all blended together to form a thick, fragrant paste.

The curries are also remarkably easy to make. One thing that’s worth noting is that it is not at all shameful if you don’t make your curry paste. Even though you can get the ingredients and a blender and produce a paste that suits your particular taste, you will often see huge mounds of curry paste in Thai markets ready made for the locals to buy and use. This was an enormous pile of red paste in a market on the outskirts of Bangkok.

Many supermarkets stock good quality paste these days (as opposed to weaker versions aimed at western markets).

We’ve been using Mae Ploy for years as you can get it in industrial sized tubs which will give you several portions and it lasts for ages (store it in the fridge once opened). Although, to be fair, it doesn’t usually last very long in our household.

There are approximately three million recipes for Thai curry on the internet. Here’s ours:

INGREDIENTS

500g chicken thighs, chopped into pieces (thigh meat is definitely recommended over breast meat as it has so much more flavour). Beef and pork also work well with this curry.

Handful of julienned vegetables – e.g. bell peppers, chillies, bamboo shoots, baby aubergine (vegetarians can use these in greater quantities instead of the meat).

A good dollop of green curry paste to suit your preferred level of spicy heat.

1 can of coconut milk.

Splash of fish sauce (probably around a tablespoon).

Bunch of Thai basil (Thai basil is very different to Mediterranean basil), chopped.

A lime.

METHOD

Put a small amount of oil into a pan and add the curry paste. It’s really up to you how much paste to add – if you like more spice, then add more, if you prefer a milder curry, add less. Fry it off to a couple of minutes then add the coconut milk.

Add the raw chicken and bring to the boil.

Then turn the heat down and let the chicken simmer for around 15 minutes.

Add the vegetables and allow them to cook. Add the fish sauce and Thai basil. Allow to simmer for a few more minutes.

We often add a spritz of lime juice at the end (always at the end) to add some zing.

Serve with jasmine rice.

Scoff. Serves four.

Variations: One of the marvellous things about Thai cuisine is that it has a wonderful combination of sweet, sour, salt and hot flavours. Some Thai green curry recipes incorporate a couple of tablespoons of palm sugar (brown sugar can be substituted if palm sugar isn’t available) to the sauce. If you have a sweet tooth you can add it in as an option, although we don’t as we tend to prefer the sour flavours that the lime offers. This recipe is very flexible in terms of you being able to tailor it to your own palette: the coconut milk gives you sweetness (but you can add sugar if you want more), the curry paste gives heat, the fish sauce provides salt and the lime gives the sour flavours – perfect seasoning.

Intro to the Faroes

The Faroe Islands are a tiny archipelago located in the Atlantic ocean, just south of the Arctic Circle. If you look at the map you’ll see them around half-way between Norway and Iceland. They are an autonomous territory of Denmark and comprise 18 main islands with a plethora of smaller islands, all of which are stunningly beautiful. A fly-drive journey is the perfect way to visit the islands.

The Faroes are ideal for a road trip as most of the main islands are connected via bridges or tunnels and you can explore the spectacular scenery at your leisure. The roads are well made, usually clear of traffic and the distances between locations are relatively short. You can hire a car at the airport on Vágar. It’s definitely worth booking well in advance to get the best rates. Bear in mind that some of the driving can be a little challenging occasionally. There are a lot of single-track roads, so be aware of how to use passing places – if you see another car heading in the opposite direction towards you, pull over to the passing place on the right. If there is a passing place on your left, keep right and let the oncoming traffic use the passing place. (It’s similar to driving in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, albeit on the other side of the road.) The Faroes also have an awful lot of sheep, some 70,000, more than the human population of the islands, and many of them roam freely. They can be a little skittish, so slow down if there are any grazing close to the road. If you do hit a sheep you have to inform the police by law. Keep your car’s headlights on all the time (many cars will automatically switch on the lights when you turn the ignition but check that they will do this). The major tunnels linking the islands are large and well-lit but probably the scariest driving experience we’ve ever had was going through single-track tunnels which link the northernmost islands. These do have passing places every 100m or so but nevertheless they are mildly terrifying, especially when you aren’t sure where the passing places actually are and the locals are happy to zoom through the tunnels. Seeing oncoming headlights in a narrow tunnel when you don’t know when to pass is pretty scary so take care when driving through them. We developed a sneaky trick of parking temporarily by the entrance until a local driver entered the tunnel and then we followed them, which helped a little bit. The tunnels are undoubtedly the most likely places where you might have an accident. It’s advisable to checking whether it’s worth buying additional insurance – have a close look at the terms and conditions of the car hire company. Also, there are tolls for some of the tunnels; our car hire company paid the tolls on our behalf and recharged them to our credit card at the end of the trip, which was very convenient.

Terrifying tunnels aside, driving around the Faroes is actually a very pleasurable and practical way to discover these gorgeous islands. Pretty much everyone starts on Vágar as that’s where the airport is located; we flew in using Atlantic Airways, the Faroese airline. We undertook a seven day itinerary. We had complete flexibility to explore and did a lot of walking. There were also a number of boat trips available in various locations. It’s worth noting that the weather can change in an instant – from mild temperatures in the sunshine to rain lashing down and impenetrable fog. But that’s all part of the fun. Make sure you bring clothing for all weathers. We found that a pair of sturdy walking shoes and raincoats were essential and multiple layers of clothing worked very well.

After leaving Vágar we headed to Streymoy via the first sub-sea tunnel, a gentle introduction as it was wide and well-lit. It’s also deep, reaching 105m below sea-level. We headed to Vestmanna as we had pre-booked a boat trip to the bird cliffs. It’s the most popular excursion on the islands and well worth undertaking. There are lots of bird viewing opportunities and puffins are a common sighting.

The boat sails very close to the cliffs and around some of the stacks so you are issued with a hard hat, just in case a bit of cliff decides to fall off while you are underneath it. (You’d have to be very unlucky.)

There is also a bizarre museum located close to the harbour which shows some of the history of the Faroes, complete with scary mannequins, while you wait for your boat.

We then travelled to the beautiful rural Gjógv, a delightful rural town. Our hotel offered a cultural evening with local food and the chance to take part in a Faroese traditional chain dance.

You can go walking on the cliff-tops and view the local puffins.

On the way you can see some famous rock formations – this is the Giant, a stack just off the coast. We didn’t get quite far enough around the headland to see its companion, the Hag.

Saksun was a beautiful place to visit. It’s a village is surrounded by steep mountains and lake with a sandy beach leading to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a lovely walk along the beach out to the sea if the tide is out, even though the weather wasn’t really on our side that day.

We then travelled from Gjógv to Klaksvík, the islands’ second largest city after its capital, Tórshavn.

The tunnel from Oyndarfjørður to the island Borðoy (on which Klaksvik is located) had some amazing light installations created by Tróndur Patursson at its lowest point beneath the sea.

Klaksvík claims to have the most beautiful church on the Faroe islands and it’s difficult to disagree with this sentiment. We stayed in the city and used it as a base to explore the northern islands.

It was during this time exploring the northern islands that we discovered those terrifying single track tunnels. But it was worth it for the scenery: from Viðoy you could see some wonderful views of Svínoy and Fugloy

Viðoy has some of the archipelago’s most spectacular mountains.

And then from Klaksvík we drove to Tórshavn which is, apparently, the smallest, cosiest capital in the world. Certainly according to the locals. It’s a great city to visit, with lots of history, interesting architecture, cool art galleries, fascinating museums and some really good restaurants. Because it’s compact it’s very easy to park the car at your hotel and walk to all the sights in the city.

Tinganes is the site of one of the world’s oldest parliaments, its name means ‘parliament jetty,’ and it was where the Viking parliament first started meeting in around 900 CE. 

Fort Skansin was built in 1580 by Magnus Heinason on a hill close to the city in order to protect against pirate raids of the town.

A day trip aboard the Schooner Norðlýsið made for a very enjoyable excursion.

There’s a choice of a visit to either Hestur or Nólsoy and sometimes you can experience a concert in a cave.

Our trip took us to Nólsoy; we visited some of the caves in a dinghy and made a brief landing on the island itself.

Noodle Nirvana at the Yokohama Raumen (Ramen) Museum

Here at Very Tasty World we have a passion for pasta and, as our regular ramen reviews emphasise, there is a joy in the variety of internationally available variants of noodle niceness that you can enjoy at home with just a kettle, a bowl and a pair of chopsticks. Of course, ramen restaurants are also available, if you are lucky enough to be able to reach one, so you don’t even have to trouble yourself to turn on the kettle.

But what if you want more?: To learn more and to taste more? What if you want to understand the history of ramen, instant or traditional, and to try various examples with different flavours from around the country for which ramen is best known? There is only one place to go, a foodie theme park where you can learn the history and, importantly, taste many different types of ramen in all their broth infused glory. The Shinyokohama Raumen Museum (The English site is here  please be clear of the spelling with the additional ‘u’, which is correct in Japanese, otherwise you might have search engine issues) is that place, a multi-storey building dedicated to everything that is ramen. We naturally felt obliged to travel there and research our culinary favourites. We were not alone in this desire to get to know ramen because Brittany Murphy’s character Abby does exactly the same thing when she visits in the film The Ramen Girl.

The museum is located in Yokohama, the second largest city in Japan, which is easily accessible from Tokyo. If you have a Japan Rail Pass you can use the shinkansen (bullet train) to arrive at Shin Yokohama, which is the closest station, but there are plenty of other train services available too. The ground floor is the museum’s main area of knowledge, displaying a range of information about the history of ramen from traditional to instant. The displays include chronological timelines and also show the progression of instant noodle technology. So you can observe the pots, the packets and even a noodle unravelling.  

But the proof of the pasta is in the eating. So you need to head downstairs in order to fulfil your craving. Pro tip – if you are planning to visit, make sure you do so on an empty stomach – don’t have too much for breakfast in the morning..

The eating area, Sunset Shopping Street, is a recreation of a town in 1958, the year that instant ramen was invented. The whole environment has a sundowner setting with cloudy dark blue sky and street lighting which all adds to the ambience.

There are a number of restaurants where you can sample regional ramen, from miso ramen to salty soy sauce and rich, creamy tonkotsu where the broth is made by boiling pork bones for hours. The only problem is deciding which shop (or shops) to choose from, even though you know its ramen you want, the choices are far more complex than the expected ‘what flavour broth or meat/fish/vegetable combo,’ but the bigger ‘what region?’ question because each venue represents a different region of Japan’s quintessential local concoctions. Regional variations are prevalent in lots of Japanese foods such as udon (thick noodles) and okonomiyaki, so each ramen shop offering different options and all declaring their own as the very best, presents something of a conundrum to the casual noodle-slurper. We did see a number of visitors share a bowl of ramen before moving onto the next shop in order to taste as many different variations as possible. However, since our visit, the museum is clear that all adult visitors to each shop should purchase a bowl of ramen. This seems absolutely reasonable as it’s not fair to the restaurant owner to have table space taken up with multiple visitors sitting around a single bowl of noodles. Still, it’s a very pleasant choice to have to make. And these days you can order different sized portions, so if your appetite is big enough you may be able to sample many different types of smaller bowls. The street also has a traditional sweet shop, just in case you are still hungry!

The northern island of Hokkaido is famous for its miso ramen

Oh, and there’s even a classic kaiju (monster) poster on one of the fake hoardings – what more could you want?

This really is an essential tourist trip for ravenous lovers of ramen. Great fun for foodies in terms of understanding history of the world’s most popular instant food and also getting to eat yummy ramen.

Breakfast of Champions – Breakfasts Around the World

….And Why It’s Often Okay to Go Off-Menu When Travelling

Many years ago we were excitedly choosing all sorts of delicacies at the breakfast buffet at our hotel in Yerevan, Armenia, when another guest glanced at our plates, shrivelled their noses in a very patronising manner and exclaimed, “Ugh! Salad? For breakfast?”

It’s widely considered to be most important meal of the day but so many people seem to be set in their ways when it comes to eating a hearty breakfast. So much that hotels all over the world seem to offer pretty much the same fare. Western visitors are often offered fried food such as bacon, sausage and eggs with bread-based accompaniments and Eastern visitors are usually offered rice or noodle dishes. All these dishes are generally familiar to the tourist and often don’t reflect the traditional breakfasts of the country they are visiting. 

Maybe it’s because people don’t feel so adventurous first thing in the morning, and that’s fair enough, but they may be missing out. Thing is, we’re British and can have bacon and eggs any time we like. (Although, to be honest, we haven’t cooked a fry-up for years as it’s quite a lot of effort.) We’d much rather eat a typical breakfast using local ingredients from the country that we are visiting.

It’s quite common for hotels to ask their guests to pre-order breakfast. It makes sense, they know what they need to order in beforehand and this can help minimise food waste. There is usually a form with tick boxes and you can choose from a variety of typical breakfast offerings. But if you do want to eat like a local, we’ve learned that many hotel restaurants are happy to cook you a regional breakfast. We’ve discovered that very often it’s absolutely okay to go off menu.

It all started in Uganda when we breakfasted at a lodge with a local guide. We were eating standard fare but our curiosity was piqued when something entirely different was brought out for him. On asking, we learned that it was a rolex – a chapati with a layer of omelette on top, then rolled into a spiral cylinder, perfect for munching on. So the next day we asked the lodge staff if it would be possible for us to have a rolex for brekkie and they were happy to oblige. It’s great – tasty and filling – a good start to the day.

In Nepal we were given a standard pre-order form to complete (eggs, bacon, sausage, toast…) to pre-order breakfast for the following morning. We politely asked whether it was possible to have a local breakfast instead. We didn’t specify any dish – just asked for local food. They were delighted. The following morning we were served a marsala omelette accompanied by a joyous curry and roti with home-made yoghurt. It was delicious.

Gallo pinto is a typical breakfast in Costa Rica. It’s so popular it is often eaten for lunch and dinner as well. Which is just as well because it tastes great and is also really healthy. It comprises rice and beans and is usually accompanied by a fried egg at breakfast. Other accompaniments to start the morning include sausage, fried potatoes and some salad.

A dosa for breakfast in South India is an absolute joy. This is a pancake traditionally made from rice and dal (lentils) which are ground to form a batter and then fermented. The batter is cooked on a hot plate to form a large pancake and served with chutney – coriander, coconut and tomato are particularly popular.

In Vietnam breakfast usually took a buffet form but often there were chefs on-hand to cook some food to order. We were always offered Pho – a tangle of noodles, freshly cooked and served in a yummy broth, topped with meat and vegetables. You pick up a side plate and add herbs, chilli, limes and other delicious items so that you can create your own personalised taste sensation. The liquid of the broth also ensured that we were thoroughly hydrated for the day ahead.

In Japan, breakfast often comprises grilled fish, vegetables and pickles, maybe with tofu, dumpling and an omelette.

These are accompanied with a bowl of rice, into which you could crack a raw egg mixed with shoyu (soy sauce) – the egg sort of cooks in the heat of the rice – or that famous smelly fermented soybean concoction, natto, maybe with some sliced negi (similar to spring onion). Just grab a slice of nori (dried seaweed), place it over the rice, then using a pincer movement with your chopsticks grab a portion of rice with the nori. Scrumptious. (It’s worth noting that if you are at a breakfast buffet in Japan the eggs on offer may well be raw – be careful when cracking them.)

And, of course, whenever we are staying away from home in the UK, we’ll always have an honest-to-goodness fry-up. Sausage, bacon, egg (usually fried, poached or scrambled), black pudding, mushroom, tomato, beans and sometime a hash brown are the usual components.

We recently discovered that the best possible place for a full English breakfast that we’ve ever eaten is actually in our home town. While many top breakfast establishments boast locally sourced food (which is, of course, delicious), The Gourmet Food Kitchen in Fargo Village, Coventry go one step further and actually cure their own bacon and make their own sausages and black pudding. And that’s just the start: The hash brown (never the most fabulous component of breakfasts) is a home-made bubble and squeak, a glorious blend of fried potato and cabbage. The beans have never seen a tin – they are home-made baked beans in a rich tomato sauce. Chef Tony even makes his own rich, tangy and utterly delicious brown sauce to accompany the feast.

Spirit of the Sea – A Visit to Fisher’s Gin Distillery at Aldeburgh

Suffolk, in East Anglia, located on the east coast of England, is a beautiful rural county and a fine place for foodies to visit.  It’s famous for its pig farming and high quality pork as well as the seafood bounty from its 50 mile coastline. Adnam’s brewery is also based in Suffolk and most pubs in the area seem to be associated with them. Suffolk can also boast the closest gin distillery to the sea.

Fishers Gin is located in the coastal town of Aldeburgh and the team aim to capture the flavours of the area in their gin using locally foraged botanicals such as samphire and sea purslane. The distillery is located right by the seashore – literally a stone’s throw from the beach. They offer tours of the distillery – an afternoon tour and, later, a sundowner, which has all the elements of the earlier tour but you also get to taste some local food and go home with a Fishers tote bag and a gin mug. We opted for the sundowner.

On arrival we were greeted with a warm, “Hello, would you like a G&T?” which is one of the best possible welcomes. The G&T (a double, of course) comprised Fishers original gin accompanied by a can of Double Dutch tonic water which contains less quinine than traditional tonic waters and hence is less bitter. The G&T was served in a rather splendid tin cup, a nice change from those enormous balloon glasses full of ice that seem to be so trendy these days. Ice and a slice were mandatory of course, but the ice cube was very large, so it kept the G&T cold and did not to dilute the gin. (Note to self: make very large ice cubes in future.) The garnish was a slice of dried orange and a sea purslane leaf. The gin itself is a London Dry Gin but is unusual because many of the botanicals are particularly savoury and have a salty edge to them. Samphire (rock and marsh samphire are both used in this gin) and sea purslane are key ingredients, foraged locally, and both have a flavour which subtly recalls the taste of the sea.

After watching an audio visual display about the local area and botanicals we met the still, which is named Watson after the owner’s dog. The gin making process was explained to us: The botanicals infuse in the base spirit for 16 hours before distillation. There are three outputs from the still: the head (the first few litres of liquid that emerge from the condenser), the heart and the tail (the last few litres). Like whisky, the head and tail are discarded.

As part of the tour we learned about the history of gin – that it originated in the Netherlands – and also about the different botanicals used in the gin-making process by making a botanical tea. We were provided with the botanicals and an empty teabag (as well as another G&T to help the process) and tasted a variety of flavours.  

Juniper is the flavour that defines gin as gin, so that was an essential. Then we experimented with various quantities of the botanicals used in Fishers gin to create a unique tea. Each ingredient was crushed using a dinky pestle and mortar to extract the oils and hence maximise the flavours.

The teabags were then infused in a cup of boiled water and we could taste how our particular combination of botanicals worked together.

After making the tea we were invited to a tasting. There were three gins on offer: Fishers original, Fishers Fifty (which is stronger, having an ABV of 50%) and Fishers Smoked.

The smoked gin used botanicals that had been smoked at Orford smoke house, just down the road from Aldeburgh, for six days. Curiously, you can almost smell smoked fish on the nose but the finished gin is smooth on the palette, loses any fishiness but retains a gorgeously subtle smoky flavour. What is particularly interesting about this gin is the way that Fishers use savoury flavouring in their gins. Salt won’t get through the distillation process but the oils from the botanicals allow some subtly salty flavours to come through. Fishers also have a small still to experiment with flavours when developing a new gin. 

And finally, we were offered a platter of local specialities: smoked mackerel pate from Orford, sesame hummus, sourdough and smoked salmon from l’Escargot deli, smoked cheddar and Stilton style cheeses from Orford.

And the evening was rounded off with a couple of cocktails. A Negroni which comprised of Fishers Gold, Campari and sweet vermouth in equal measure and a Mule which contained Fishers Smoked, ginger ale and lime. Both were delicious.

The Fishers team were very friendly, the tour was informative and the tastings hugely enjoyable (hic!). We ended up chatting with our hosts for much longer than the planned tour time as they were so welcoming and accommodating. The experience is highly recommended.

We attended this experience using our own resources.

Take a Drive on the Wild Side – Self-Drive Safari in Namibia

The Etosha safari park in northern Namibia is the country’s most famous national park and a popular tourist attraction. It’s well designed and has great wildlife viewing opportunities but the best thing about it is that you can take yourself on safari. Namibia is a fantastic country for a fly-drive holiday. The distances may be long but the roads are well made and largely empty. And the scenery is spectacular. It’s worth noting that some of the roads are gravel, so it’s worth packing a spare tyre, and that the petrol stations can be quite a distance apart. We travelled on the principle of topping up the tank every time we passed a petrol station, trying never to let the tank go below half-full.

The great thing about Etosha is that it is accessible for all types of car. We had hired a two-wheel drive saloon car – perfect for the pair of us – and encountered no difficulties at all, there was no need to have hired a 4WD. (Indeed we had been absolutely fine with the two-wheel drive throughout our journey in Namibia, even on the Skeleton Coast.) The roads are clearly marked and easy to navigate. There is plenty of parking around the waterholes, which are the best places for viewing wildlife.

The National Park is located in the vast Etosha pan, the largest salt pan in Africa.  Four of the ‘Big Five’ game animals – lions, leopards, elephants and rhinos (black and white) – live in the area. Etosha became a game reserve in March 1907 and a national park in 1967.

The word ‘Etosha’ means ‘great, white place’ in the language of the Ovambo tribe, which is entirely appropriate. The pan was a lake several thousand years ago. Angola’s Kuene river used to flow into the area but changed its course over the years, eventually flowing into the Atlantic. The result was that the lake dried up completely. However, there are a number of springs in the pan and lower lying areas fill with water during the rainy season. Indeed, if the wet season is particularly rainy the lake can re-form across Etosha, although these days it is fairly shallow and dries up again swiftly. If the area is flooded the chances of seeing wildlife can be reduced as they have no need to travel to the watering holes. Hence the best time to visit is during the dry winter season, from April to October.

On entry to the park you need to pay a fee per person and for the vehicle. and you will also need to show ID. Your passport will be fine to use for this purpose.

On entering the park, the first thing we had to do was stop… for a zebra crossing!

Although organised safaris are available, we thoroughly enjoyed exploring the park at our own pace. The advantage of an organised tour is that the local rangers can communicate with each other via mobile phone to let each other groups know about particular sightings.

We found that when visiting a watering hole it was actually better to wait. A number of organised safari tours turned up to the watering hole, quickly established that there was no wildlife there, and moved on. But waiting turned out to offer a much more rewarding experience. Sitting in the car, looking out across the vast, vast pan, we saw what appeared to be some angular shapes appear on the horizon. We continued to watch. Slowly, a group of giraffe sauntered across the plain. It was such a pleasure to see them as a group.

Giraffe often appear to be somewhat ungainly but actually they were very graceful creatures. It was fascinating to see them part their legs, despite their long necks, in order to reach the water and have a long, cool drink.

We saw wildebeest having a rut.

An encounter between a young lion, an elephant and an impala. (The lion is in the background.)

The impala was very aware of the lion’s presence…

…but he made the best decision to saunter away.

Although the large mammals are the obvious attraction, it’s also great to discover some of the smaller animals, birds and flora.

Moringa ovalifolia is a succulent tree which looks very otherworldly, almost like it has been planted upside down.

And the park is abundant with zebra…

…impala

and gemsbok and springbok.

We also saw a ground squirrel, a marabou stork and a jackal.

There are a number of safety rules. Obviously stay in your vehicle and it’s advisable keep the windows closed when you’re out in the park. You are not allowed to drive at night, so make sure you leave enough time to get back to your rest camp. The speed limit is 60 km/h but it’s far better to drive at a leisurely pace – you have a greater chance of spotting wildlife if you’re not zooming around. Look for other vehicles that have stopped – there’s a good chance that someone has spotted some wildlife worth viewing.  

The area has a number of rest camps with all the facilities you might need. There are various levels of luxury in terms of accommodation. We were in self-catering accommodation in Okaukuejo Rest Camp.

It has a restaurant as well as shops where you can pick up food and other items. And, of course, the all-important petrol station. Our hut was clean and comfortable with a couple of bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen area and it also had a braai, an African barbeque. You can buy meat and charcoal in the local shops and it’s rather nice to relax with a few beers and a barbeque as the sun goes down.

The safari experience doesn’t end in the evening. The rest camps are located very close to (fenced off) watering holes that are floodlit at night so it is possible to wander out to the fence and watch the wildlife as they come to drink in the cooler evening. It was fantastic to be able to see endangered rhino enjoying both a drink and a bathe.

One thing that rounded off our experience happened on leaving the park just as we were checking out. Throughout our journey in Namibia, a number of people approached us, usually at park gates or local attractions, to ask whether we would be prepared to give their friends or colleagues a lift to the next town. We were quite surprised that a lot of people tended to refuse but were absolutely happy to do this – it was a fantastic opportunity to chat with local people on a long drive. At Etosha we were asked whether we could give one of the park rangers a ride to Otjiwarongo. We were delighted to be able to help. We had a brilliant chat with him and learned loads about the park. He was very interested to hear about the wildlife in our country. We don’t have anything nearly as exotic or large as elephants – we reckoned the largest animal in the UK is probably a red deer. And we had a laugh comparing Namibia’s enormous termite mounds with England’s teeny-tiny ant hills.

Stilton Crazy After All These Years

Melton Mowbray is a small town in Leicestershire in the English Midlands which, without wishing to be unfair, doesn’t really have any remarkable features. However it is known for being a foodie town. It is home of the Melton Mowbray pork pie and has a local creamery that makes Stilton cheese.

Stilton cheese comes in two varieties – white and blue –  although the blue cheese is probably the best known these days. It is often referred to as the “king of the blues,” and is likely to have been produced before the 18th century, but probably not in the form we now know it. Indeed in 1724 Daniel Defoe, when travelling through the Cambridgeshire town of Stilton, noted the location to be “famous for its cheese.” Its popularity grew over the years and producers got together in the early 20th century to specify production methods and to protect the origin of the cheese. Stilton is a geographically protected food and is only made in three counties in England… Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire. Ironically, because the village of Stilton is located in Cambridgeshire any cheese made there can’t officially be called Stilton.

There is a very comprehensive history of the cheese here.

You know sometimes, you just have bad luck when you’re on the road? When we visited Melton Mowbray’s market (whilst having a brief break from our canoe building holiday) both the pork pie and the cheese shop were closed. So we just had to go back home and make our own cheese.

The amazing thing about cheesemaking is that it largely starts off in the same way – add a culture to milk, warm it up a bit, add rennet so that it coagulates, separating the solid curds (which will form the cheese) from the liquid whey. It’s the things that you do with the curds subsequently – salting, cutting, pressing, resting, stretching, brining, maturing – that offer such a rich variety of possibilities for the finished cheese.

Cheesemaker Gavin Webber’s site is a fantastic resource. His video recipes are clear and concise but with enough detail to give you confidence to start serious cheesemaking. Here is our attempt at Stilton style. We have to say Stilton style because although we live in the English Midlands we aren’t close enough for our cheese to be able to count. So we’ve called ours Stiltonesque.

This Stiltonesque is a blue cheese, creamy and with lovely veins of sharp blue flavour running through the cheese.

First of all we cleaned all the equipment thoroughly (generally boiling water on equipment is enough to sterilise it) and added 5 litres of organic full fat milk. One of the elements that makes this style of cheese so luxurious is its creaminess which is thanks to the 500ml double cream that we added to the milk.

We put the Penicillium Roqueforti mould powder into the milk and stirred gently for two minutes. This is the bacteria that ensures that blue cheese develops those deliciously tangy blue veins that run through the cheese after it has matured.

Then the milk was gently brought to temperature – 30deg. It’s possible to do this by heating the milk on the hob (very slowly, so as not to burn the bottom of the pan) but if you are serious about cheesemaking it could be worth considering investing in a sous vide. This is definitely a non-essential kitchen gadget but it is very cool and can be used for other purposes such as cooking steak in a vacuum pack. The great thing about the sous vide for cheesemaking is that it has a heating element and immersion circulator which stirs the milk, heating it evenly. You can also set a target temperature and it beeps reassuringly when you’ve reached the correct heat level.

Then we added the culture, stirred for a minute and left for half an hour. We’ve found that if you place a tea towel over the pan it does manage to retain the heat pretty well.

Then we added rennet in water and gently stirred it in. The cheese then needed to sit for an hour and a half. Unfortunately at this stage we had some trouble with the rennet – it just didn’t want to coagulate the cheese. A quick internet search revealed that we should try to add a little more rennet and wait a bit longer. If you add too much rennet the cheese can start to taste bitter but then, if you’ve bought the milk, starter and Penicillium Roqueforti you might as well try to continue. So we did.

We did, somewhat later than expected, get a good break (phew!), so ladled the curds into cheesecloth lined colander.

We kept the bowl of whey under the colander to let the curds sit in the whey for around an hour and a half.

Then we scooped up the cheesecloth and roll the curds into a ball. Let whey drip for 30 mins. Our set-up was a bit Heath Robinson – we tied the cheesecloth around an old broom handle and let the remaining whey drip off in the garden.

Then the Stiltonesque needed to be wrapped very tightly for a further drain and to compress the curds. We put a board on top of the wrapped curds then filled up milk bottles with water to place on top of board. We left this overnight and this process pressed most of whey away.

The following morning we opened up the cheesecloth in a colander, broke up the cheese into pieces and added cheese salt, mixing thoroughly.

Then a plastic mould was lined with a sterilised j-cloth, and the curds packed in. We covered the cheese and flipped a couple of times. The cheeses had a very satisfying schlurp sound as they emerged from the mould and, importantly, maintained their shape well through the turning process. We flipped every 15 mins for 2 hours, then let the cheese sit in the mould overnight. Over the next few days we turned the cheese four times each day.

After the fourth day, with hands duly sprayed with white vinegar to ensure they were extra clean, we smoothed the cheese over to try to remove any cracks. The next stage is very important in obtaining that characteristic blue veining. Using a metal cheese thermometer, we (gently) stabbed the cheese.

Then the cheese was placed onto a mat and put into a cave. A cheese cave sounds hugely exotic. Sadly we don’t have ancient caves inside which cheese can be matured at the bottom of our garden in the UK Midlands – the closest we would get is a coal mine in this area! – so our cheese cave is actually a wine fridge, which can maintain a warmer temperature than a conventional fridge. We matured the cheese, turning every couple of days for the first week or so, for four months.

When you undertake long-term foodie experiments (such as making miso) there’s always a bit of trepidation when trying the finished product. Fortunately our Stiltonesque turned out to be a complete success. Cutting through the cheese, there were lovely blue veins.

The cheese was creamy with a lovely salty flavour and characteristic tang from the blue. It didn’t last long…

Cheesemaking is a fascinating process. There’s a lot of frantic activity followed by a lot of waiting while making the cheese itself and then there’s the anticipation of waiting several months for the finished result as it matures. But it is a very satisfying thing to be able to do, especially if the finished product works out.

You can buy cheesemaking equipment from a multitude of online emporia. There are beginners’ cheese kits – definitely recommended if you are just starting out – as well as equipment such as presses for more advanced cheeses. But you can also get by if you cobble together bits and pieces in your house – it’s amazing how you can convert ordinary kitchen utensils into cheesemaking tools.