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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.

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.

Gorillas in the Mist… And Pouring Rain

Although it has its fair share of excellent safari locations where you can see the so-called Big Five game animals, Uganda is also well known as a top destination to see primates. We had the opportunity to track chimpanzees in Kibale and mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable in the south-west region of the country.

The mountain gorillas are critically endangered – there are only about 900 left in the wild and they can be found in Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Uganda and Rwanda offer a limited number of gorilla tracking permits each day. We chose to travel in the low season when it is more likely to be rainy, because the cost of the permits is reduced significantly during certain months of the year. It’s worth booking the permits in advance. They are really expensive, even out of season, but the money goes directly towards the conservation of these marvellous creatures. And it is really a once in a lifetime experience.

The Ugandan conservation programme has ensured that half of the gorilla population has been habituated – wild, but comfortable in the presence of humans – and the other half remain completely wild. This is a good strategy. The conservationists’ greatest fear is that the gorillas, which share about 98% DNA with humans, could catch a human disease for which they have no immunity. You are requested not to track the gorillas if you have a cold. Following the start of the pandemic, the area was closed off for a while, Covid presenting risks both from the disease but also an increase in illegal poaching activities, but it has now opened up with extra precautions in place that trekkers need to adhere to in order to protect these magnificent creatures.

The trip starts with a briefing at headquarters. Then you are allocated to a gorilla group – a maximum of eight people join each trek. It can take any time between 30 minutes and 6 hours to reach the gorillas – some parties have returned after nightfall in the past. Additionally, we were tracking at altitude, around 2300m above sea level, which enough to knock the breath out of you going up some of the steeper slopes! We were assigned the Bitakura group in the Ruhija area. One member of our party had mobility issues and was carried on a sedan by a team of four porters (who rotated shift with an additional four porters at regular intervals) who did an amazing job and ensured that she had full access to the gorillas. Our guide called it “the helicopter”. This system can be used if any trekker becomes unwell during their hike.

You wouldn’t have known it was the rainy season for most of our trip – virtually every day was bright and sunny and it had rained for a maximum of 15 minutes on just a couple of the days throughout our trip. Of course, on the day we really wanted it to stay dry the rain absolutely chucked it down.  That’s why we packed good walking boots and raincoats.

We were advised to borrow walking sticks and also to employ porters to accompany us on the trek. This was a really good idea. Not only do they carry your backpack (you are advised to take three litres of water and a box lunch because you just don’t know how long it will take to reach the gorillas and you will need the energy) they will also hold your hand to steady you if things get slippery and push/pull you over obstacles if necessary. Importantly, they are local people who can earn a decent living from tourists, so hiring a porter also contributes directly to the community. The porters are available at the starting location and will be allocated if you ask for one.

The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA – apparently pronounced Oo-er!) have an excellent system in place which ensures that you have practically 100% chance of seeing the gorillas: each morning two trackers head out into the forest to find the troop based on their location the previous day. They then radio to the guide, who will lead the tourists via the best route to see the gorillas. The trackers do an amazing job – they spend all day with the gorillas, even after the tourists have left, so that they know where to trace them to on the following day. We were advised that they would appreciate a personal tip as most tourists don’t recognise the brilliant job they do and we were delighted to do this.

There’s a reason the region is named “Bwindi Impenetrable”. We trekked along a main path – up and down some very steep, muddy and slippery slopes, for a couple of hours. Then our guide indicated that he was close to the trackers. The rangers/trackers cut through the forest with machetes and we followed a newly made path, through dense forest to where the gorillas were located.

We were soaked through to the skin, muddied, shattered and utterly bedraggled. But nothing beats the sight of wild gorillas just a few metres away from you. 

We saw one of the group’s silverbacks…

…some younger males…

…and a mother and child.

It’s difficult to find the words to describe how magical it was just being in their presence. The rules say that you are allowed one hour with these amazing creatures. It flew by. Then there was the slippery, steep trek back to base. It was a tough climb but we made it without difficulty. Exhausted but elated.

The gorillas were feeling a bit sleepy too.

At the Elizabeth National Park we managed to purchase some Gorilla Coffee. Made from arabica beans it is grown, processed and roasted in Uganda, and is delicious. It has a lovely aroma – it smells of sweet, buttery caramel and has a smooth taste with just a touch of distinctive coffee bitterness. Even better, some of the profits from its sales go towards conservation efforts to help the marvellous mountain gorillas.

Temple of Heaven and Heavenly Tea in China

The Temple of Heaven, along with the Forbidden City, is a must-see attraction in Beijing. Both of these amazing building complexes were constructed in the 15th century by the Yongle Emperor, the third emperor of the Ming Dynasty.

The Temple of Heaven comprises a complex of beautiful buildings set inside a lovely and extensive park. Its purpose was for the Emperor to pray for good harvests.

The Circular Mound Altar was constructed in the 16th century in the time of the Ming Dynasty. Its purpose was for the Emperor to pray for favourable weather, particularly in times of drought. It has three circular terraces, each of which has four entrances with precisely nine steps. The number nine plays a significant part of the architectural design with many of the numbers of pillars and slates being multiples of nine. It is surrounded by gorgeous marble carvings. The design also allows sound to resonate throughout the construction creating an echo that amplifies a voice – useful for the Emperor to make certain that the gods would hear his prayers.

The Imperial Vault of Heaven is circular building, one storey tall.

From this, a walkway leads to the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests. Like the Imperial Vault, it is a gorgeous circular construction, and large too, at 36 m across and 38m high. As its name suggests, it was here that the Emperor prayed for good harvests. A wooden construction, apparently built without using nails. The decoration is marvellous – highly detailed and intricate. The detailed decoration contains images of mythical creatures and birds and radiates with a wonderful glow as the light of the setting sun casts its rays upon the building.

There are a number of tea houses just outside the park. They provide an opportunity to taste a variety of Chinese teas.

It was in one of these that we discovered blooming teas. These are neatly crafted hand-bundled into a small ball, a little smaller than a ping pong ball. They look rather nondescript folded up.

But pop them into some boiling water and they bloom into a flower whilst infusing the water to create tea. They are usually comprised of white tea or green tea leaves. Sometimes jasmine or similar flowers are used.

The flavour is mild but some have a touch of tannin.

Delicious and beautiful. You can buy these online. We also treated ourselves to a splendid glass teapot so that we could enjoy watching the flower bloom.

Couple of things worth noting. If you are on a tour you are likely be invited to purchase products in the inevitable shop that can be found alongside museums, factories, tourist attractions and tea shops. Our experience was that we weren’t pressured to buy anything. We also found that in some factory outlets prices were regulated by the government which meant that we didn’t have to haggle, much to our relief, because we’re rubbish at it. Although we did somehow come home bearing a vaccuum-packed silk duvet from one emporium because it was genuinely good value.

There are some scams whereby friendly people approach you and invite you to drink tea with them at a local tea house. It may be perfectly legitimate and genuine but there have been situations where you are taken to what appears to be a charming, authentic tea house and when the bill arrives it is considerably higher than you might expect for a pot of tea.

Lunching in Luang Prabang, Lao PDR (Please Don’t Rush)

There’s a general assumption that the cuisines of many countries in South East Asia – Thailand, Lao, Cambodia and Vietnam – are pretty much the same but that would be doing them a great disservice. While they may share many ingredients and seasonings, each cuisine is different and it is a joy to be able to discover the nuances of the foods from each country.

Lao, for example, being landlocked, relies on the river for its piscine bounties rather than the sea. Hence most of the fish served will be river fish. River weed, dried in in the sun and flavoured with seasonings, makes for a tasty snack.

Luang Prabang, Lao’s former capital, located in the north of the country, lies on the Mekong river at its confluence with the Nam Khan.

It’s a lovely, laid back town with plenty of temples and palaces to explore, which are largely within easy walking distance.

Wat Xieng Thong is the best known of the temples, located a short walk from the confluence. The main Wat has an intricate design and a beautiful tree of life mural.

The Royal Palace was built in 1904 when Lao was under French occupation. The monarchy was overthrown by the communists in 1975 and the building converted into a museum.

Crossing the Mekong and following a short hike up a hill you can reach the small temple of Wat Chomphet with its old stupa and Wat Long Khone. It’s more peaceful and less touristy on this side of the river.

It’s also possible to hire a longboat and drift downriver at sunset, cool glass of beer in hand, enjoying the colours of the evening.

Lao’s formal name is Lao PDR – People’s Democratic Republic. Informally, locals will let you know that PDR stands for Please Don’t Rush – a wise philosophy which also means that you shouldn’t worry if service at restaurants is slow. (Actually, we didn’t notice particularly slow service anywhere we went.) But it’s a good reminder to relax and enjoy your time in this friendly country.

Luang Prabang has a number of bars and restaurants which range from cheap eats to higher end offerings. Utopia is a short walk away from the town, set atop a cliff which overlooks the river. It’s a very laid-back place with a cool vibe and is located in a quirky garden setting.

There is a sorrowful side to the garden design though. Many of the flower pots are actually bomb shells from the time of the Vietnam War when, over the course of nine years, the US dropped roughly two million tonnes of bombs on Lao in a secret attempt to support the royal Lao government against the communists led by Pathet Lao, as well as impact the Ho Chi Minh trail. The country remains the most bombed per head of the population in history.  Worse still, a significant amount of the ordnance – about a third of the devices dropped – failed to detonate and, more than forty years later, there is still a huge problem with unexploded bombs that remain embedded in the ground, despite some international efforts to clear them.

Utopia is popular amongst backpackers for its chilled atmosphere during the day (it has activities such as yoga lessons available) and livens up a lot at night, and it offers local and western food.

One of the best restaurants in the city for Lao food is Tamarind, on the Kingkitsarath Rd, and they specialise in local cuisine. They offer tasting menus which give visitors the chance to try various specialities. It’s a fantastic introduction to local fare. It’s a popular restaurant so it’s worth booking ahead if you can, although we got lucky with a walk-in for lunch.

We started with Lao-Lao shots as an aperitif. Lao-Lao is rice whiskey. Its name isn’t a cute term of endearment – the two words have different tones in pronunciation and hence different meanings. The first Lao means “alcohol” and the second means “from Lao”. The whiskey has a mild flavour but is pretty potent at round 40-45% alcohol.

The starter was chunky bamboo and vegetable soup. A lot of Lao food can be searingly hot, with chilli often providing the heat, but this wasn’t; whilst still spicy, it had a piquancy in the seasoning that allowed the flavour of the vegetables and herbs to shine through.

Then came a platter of Lao specialities. These included dinky little sausages with a variety of relishes, which varied in the amount of spice they delivered, as well as kaipen – crispy sun-dried river weed coated with sesame seeds.

The next dish was fragrant lemongrass stuffed with chicken which felt like a bit of a contradiction. Usually you would expect lemongrass to flavour the meat but this was soft minced chicken, delicately spiced, placed into the bulbous part of the lemongrass stalk, then steamed and fried. The gentle scent of the lemongrass imparted a delicate citrus flavour. It was accompanied by herbed river fish steamed in a banana leaf along with local vegetables.

Finally, purple sticky rice cooked in coconut milk with tamarind sauce – which was sweet and slightly sour as well as delightfully sticky – rounded off a splendid meal.

The Skye’s The Limit

The Isle of Skye is a popular destination in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. It’s the largest island of the Inner Hebrides, located around 200 miles from Glasgow and it takes around 5-6 hours to drive there. There are some fantastic places to stop off along the way, though, either to stay for a night or two, or just to break up the drive for an hour or so.

If you are travelling from the mainland you can take a ferry ‘over the sea’ to Skye from Maillaig or drive to the Kyle of Lochalsh and cross the beautiful bridge.

Just before arriving at the Kyle of Lochalsh you can visit the 13th Century Eilean Donan castle located on a small islet just off the coast and accessible via a bridge.

Skye is much, much larger than you think it is. You really need a car to be able to explore it. The scenery is spectacular so take it slowly and enjoy a leisurely drive.

It’s worth noting that a lot of the villages marked on the map are very tiny, usually comprising just a few houses. Portree is the largest town on the island and would be a good central location to stay for a few days especially if you are exploring the northern attractions.

We stayed in Broadford which had some nice hotels and restaurants and was closer to the Skye bridge but further from some of the attractions. It meant quite a lot of driving each day, especially as roads on Skye can be slow. But then if the view from your bed looks like this, you really can’t complain.

Oh yes, our hotel had a Cornetto hotline – free ice-cream on demand – which is a policy that should be implemented in hotels across the world.

Skye has some fantastic scenery although it can get crowded as it is a popular destination. A lot of the roads near the main geographical attractions are single track and it’s worth knowing the convention for driving on these sort of roads: Single Track road advice – Skye Guides  Look ahead to see traffic that may be approaching and locate the next passing place. Only use the passing place to the left. If there is one on the right, wait on the correct side of the road and let the approaching car use the passing place. If you have just passed a passing place but you can see that it would be difficult for oncoming traffic to have to reverse their car in order to allow you to pass (for example, if they have to reverse up a hill or around a corner) do the decent thing and reverse up. Also, if you are driving more slowly than other traffic, it’s polite to move into a passing place and stop briefly so that other drivers can overtake you. Take your time. The scenery around you is guaranteed to be gorgeous so relax and enjoy the drive.

There are also loads of walking opportunities across the whole island. The car park for the Old Man of Storr was absolutely chocka so we skipped that.

There are car parks scattered along the road for much of the northern part of the island and they are mostly free but you have to pay to park at some of the more popular attractions. They are usually not very far from a fantastic view.

The Quiraing offers an amazing walk. Located right at the north of the island via a single track road the car park is located at the top of the hill. You can do a circular walk or just trek along the path and back. It’s absolutely manageable for the average walker but there are some sections where you may need to scramble. And the views are splendid.

Carrying on over the top of the hill from the Quairang takes you to Uig, which has a pleasant harbour and also the Skye Brewery which makes cracking beers. The beers on offer are broad in range but because it was a cold and windy day we opted for two of their darker varieties. (Which, of course, we imbibed later that evening as it was a long-ish drive back to the hotel.)

Skye Tarasgeir beer has a wonderfully complex flavour and you can really taste the peat on the malts. It’s light on the palate initially but the flavour develops and lingers on the finish. A fine quaffable beer.

As expected, Skye Black is a very dark. On first taste it feels like a porter. Roasted malts give bitterness but this is tempered by the addition of local heather honey which comes through subtly. It also has rolled oats and hops which add to the flavour to the beer. 

Close to Uig is the Fairy Glen, a delightful landscape.

Neist Point is a remote lighthouse located on a peninsular and again offers spectacular and dramatic views. It is possible to walk to the lighthouse (just park with all the other cars along the roadside).

Further south on the western coast, the Talisker Distillery offers tours but can get very busy. It’s the oldest and probably the best known whisky distillery on the island. It’s well worth booking a tour in advance if you’d like to visit. Even the shop had a half hour queue when we turned up.

On leaving Skye and heading back into the Scottish mainland there are some other interesting stop-off points.

We were generally blessed with uncharacteristically good weather for much of our trip to Scotland. Unfortunately on our way back from Skye the rain swept in and, while we went to the Five Sisters of Kintail viewpoint, reputed to be one of the finest views in Scotland, we didn’t experience it at its finest.

The Glenelg Brochs, Dun Telve and Dun Troddan, are amazing dry stone constructions over 10m tall with a concentric design that provides an outer and an inner wall. They date back to the late Iron Age and are around 2000 years old.

They are something of a cross between and fort and a mightily impressive house. You are free to wander around them.

Incidentally, the little village of Glenelg has probably the coolest twinning on the planet.

You’re the Wine That I Want- The Maipo Valley in Chile

Less than an hour’s drive from the bustling capital Santiago is Chilean wine country. The Maipo valley is ideally located for growing vines – a combination of perfect soil, altitude and climate.

Concha y Toro is probably Chile’s most famous wine producer – its wines are exported all over the world. Their working vineyard isn’t available to visit, which is a shame, but just outside the village of Pirque they have a visitors’ centre whereby you can tour the grounds and cellars as well as visit a very big shop. There are tours available in English and Spanish which all have a set starting time.

The vineyard was established in 1883 by Chilean businessman Melchor Concha y Toro who recognised the potential for winemaking in Pirque. He procured French vines from Bordeaux and invested in the equipment needed to start producing wine on a grand scale.

You get to see the exterior of the family house, its gardens and a display areas showing the different grape varieties with commentary on how the grapes are cultivated.

Then it’s into the cool, cool cellars where you can see lots of barrels and a sound and light display.

There was a legend that in the early days of the winery, despite the cellars being locked, bottles of wine used to go missing overnight. The owners started a rumour that the devil lurked within the cellars. And since that rumour circulated, not a single bottle of wine ever went missing again.

You are given a tasting glass which you can keep. (If you are travelling to other destinations, stuff a t-shirt inside the bowl, wrap it around the whole glass, taking special care to protect the slender stem, place the whole lot gently back into its souvenir box and hope for the best – both of our glasses survived a further fortnight travelling around South America.) And receiving a glass means you get to taste a variety of the winery’s produce.

Originally grape varieties were brought over from Europe (Bordeaux) and these included Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Merlot and Carménère. The latter is very rare in Europe these days, having been pretty much destroyed by the dreaded phylloxera, a sap-sucking bug, so Chile is now the Carménère capital of the world. It’s a variety that we had never tried before. The wine we tasted was incredibly fruity, like raspberries and cherries with sour notes and a lingering finish.

As with all the grape varieties the vines are watered using only a teeny amount of water. Literally a few drops per day. This means that the plants work extra hard to produce fruit which leads to a higher yield and, of course, more wine.

The wines on offer for tasting included a smooth blackcurranty Cabernet Sauvignon, a mellow Carménère and a zingy Sauvignon Blanc.

We took full advantage of being in Chile to sample the local wine – it was massively cheaper than in the UK. Even visiting ordinary supermarkets to stock up on a tipple was definitely worthwhile – we could taste some really splendid wines for a fraction of the price that it would have cost in our home country.

Cheese and Toasting in Georgia

 

There is a legend that when God was handing out land to the nations of the world, the Georgians were so busy feasting that they lost their place in the queue and there was no land left for them. But when they invited God to join the party, he enjoyed himself so much that he gave them the best bits of land that he had been saving for himself.

We visited a number of families, ostensibly to see how they produced wine or made cheese, but everywhere we stopped we were greeted by the most amazing hospitality and generosity. Meals would last several hours and involve large quantities of superb fresh food along with overflowing glasses of wine and chacha (grape vodka). Moat houses we visited grew their own grapes and made their own wine. Many had a still.

Toasting is a tradition in Georgia. You don’t tend to drink at your own pace, but at the behest of a toastmaster (tamada). A merikipe is on hand to make sure that glasses are always full and the wine never seems to stop flowing. Georgians toast their enemies with beer (we had a hilarious enemy-toasting session with our guide one night) – it is wine and chacha that are appropriate for feasting. We didn’t go to a formal grand feast (supra), but had many, many meals at guesthouses and family homes and we followed the toasting tradition each time. Meals are designed to last the evening – they comprise several scrummy dishes laid out on the table. Everyone just helps themselves and offers food to their dining companions. And, of course, every meal included a ubiquitous, delicious and calorie-loaded cheese pie (khachapuri).

At this feast, both wine (tall glasses) and chacha (small glasses) was offered.

At regular intervals throughout the evening the tamada proposes a toast. Everyone adds their wishes and much wine/chacha is consumed. If you are toasted, it’s appropriate to thank everyone for their good wishes and later ask the tamada if it is okay to reciprocate with a toast of your own. One guesthouse supplied us with a jug (probably about 4 bottles worth) of strong homemade red wine made from the Sapaveri grape, which was utterly splendid and eminently drinkable, to accompany the enormous evening meal they had provided. We ate with the family. Our driver was both tamada and merikipe and led the toasting throughout the evening. (At the end of the day, naturally, when no further driving was required.) On finishing the jug our driver, an excellent merikipe, asked if we wanted more wine. We said we’d join him in a tipple but only if he was partaking, not realising that he would return with another 4-bottle jug. Gulp.

You can toast anything and everything. We were toasted several times as ‘easy guests’ (people who were thoroughly enjoying the trip, didn’t make a fuss, and were always on time) as well as ‘guests that didn’t go to bed at 9pm but were happy to stay up late feasting and enjoying the hospitality of our hosts.’  We reciprocated by toasting our hosts, Georgia, Georgian hospitality, wine, food, family, friends, finding Mr Right (for our guide), young people, old people, men, women, happiness, health, friendship between our countries, anything. We easily knocked back the second jug. Amazingly we weren’t hungover the following morning. Just as well as we were due to visit three different vineyards for wine tasting – hair of the dog and all that. We did rather stagger round the Kakheti region that day.

What we didn’t realise until the last day was that we had been doing the toasting all wrong. We’d been having a sip/swig from the glass per toast which seemed to us to be the best way to regulate the drinking (we’d copied our hosts, who had the same idea). Apparently we were supposed to drain the wine/chacha glass each time. Oops!

Black Balsam in the Baltics – Riga, Latvia

The Latvian capital of Riga is both beautiful and sociable. Over the years Riga has gained a reputation as a place for hen/stag parties, but it is a city rich in heritage and culture and has a great foodie scene as well. The old town is so charming and historically important that it has been declared a world heritage site by UNESCO, recognised as ‘a living illustration of European history.’ The architecture represents many different styles of building throughout the ages, from mediaeval through to Art Nouveau (Riga is one of Europe’s most important cities for Art Nouveau architecture) but generally they complement each other extremely well.

Riga’s cathedral, the largest mediaeval church in the Baltics, was constructed in 1211 and is located close to the River Daugava. During Soviet times, between 1939 and 1989, it was used as a concert hall but reverted back to a place of religious worship in 1991. It has a magnificent organ, constructed between 1882 and 1883. The cathedral’s original organ was the largest in the world at the time but was destroyed in a fire.

St Peter’s church has a very distinctive octagonal steeple. Dating back to the 13th century, it has been constructed and reconstructed a number of times over the centuries.

Although the House of the Blackheads is now a museum, the original building dates from the 14th century. It is a reconstruction following its destruction during World War 2. Originally, it was constructed for the Brotherhood of Blackheads, who were an association of unmarried merchants, shipowners and foreign people living in Latvia.

Fans of felines will like the Cat House on 10 Meistaru iela. Its style combines mediaeval and Art Nouveau architecture. It was built in 1909 and is best known for the angry cat sculptures, backs arched and curvy tails pointed upwards, on the towers of its roof. There are two possible reasons associated with the positioning of the cats, notably connected with the direction that their tails – and bottoms – are facing. The owner of the building was apparently a wealthy merchant who had a dispute, either with the Riga Tradesmans’ Guild or the City Council, and wanted the cats’ tails pointing towards direction of his grudge. Both the town hall and Great Guild Hall are located in the same area.

Further out of town it’s possible to visit the 368m tall TV and radio tower outside the city. It has an unusual tripod construction and you can use the elevator to reach the observation platform where you can see a splendid view of the Daugava river and the city.

The old town is quite compact and largely pedestrianised and is delightful to wander through. Add in a whole bunch of excellent restaurants and drinking emporia and it makes for the perfect city break. The market, which used to be a zeppelin hangar, is one of the largest in Europe and offers foodie tours so that you can try local delicacies.

There are a number of bars and these offer a whole range of local beers and alcoholic beverages to enjoy. One of Latvia’s signature boozy beverages is black balsam, a strong liqueur. Created over 250 years ago by pharmacist Abraham Kunze from all natural ingredients it’s medicinal and environmental – a healthy traditional tipple. It’s basically an infusion of botanicals in a spirit.  

According to the Baltic Spirits website the ingredients are:

Bilberry/Blueberry (Vaccinium myrtillus)

Raspberry (Rubue idaeus)

Birch buds (Miricia gale)

Bitterwort root (Gentiana lutea (Great Yellow Gentian))

Peppermint leaves (Mentha piperita, also known as M. balsamea Willd.)

Wormwood stalks and leaves (Artemisia absinthium)

Ginger root (Zingiber officinale)

Valerian root (Valeriana officinali)

Sweet Flag root (Acorus calamus)

Melisa leaves & stems (Melissa officialis)

Linden blossom (Tilia cordata Mill.)

Oak bark (Quercus robur)

St. Johns Wort (Hiperycum perforatum)

Buckbean leaves (Menyanthes trifoliata)

Black pepper (Piper nigrum)

Bitter/Wild Orange skins (Citrus aurantium)

Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans)

Peruvian balsam

Brandy

Natural honey aromatics

Glucose syrup

Browned sugar

Grain spirit  

Partially frozen 189 to 198 metre deep arterial waters.

It has a very classy brown ceramic bottle. The liquid itself lives up to its name. The legendary Nigel Tufnel from the mockumentary film This is Spinal Tap, might describe it as follows: ‘It’s like, how much more black could this be and the answer is none. None more black.’ Actually, if you hold it to the light it isn’t quite as black as it initially appears. On first pouring the black balsam you notice the fruity, floral and leafy aroma. The blackcurrant flavour is notable as are the distinct essences of the more herbal, bark, root and leaf ingredients that accentuate the medicinal properties. This, then, is welfare with real spirit. The initial flavour matches expectations but the varied combination of herbs and roots make it distinctively different compared with the earthy but almost perfumed scent.

It is an acquired taste but the blend is superb. What is even more noticeable is the aftertaste that lingers on the palette as a robust reminder of your delicate sip.

The classic way to drink black balsam is straight or on the rocks. But of course there are all sorts of cocktail variations which can make it a bit more palatable if you find that it’s a touch on the strong side. There are also different versions of balsam including a fruitier blackcurrant flavour and smooth cream liqueur.

Taking Tea at Great Heights in the Inca Valley, Peru

Much of Peru is at altitude as the Andes mountain range takes up a considerable part of its land mass. This can be a problem for visitors as a visit to this marvellous country can result in altitude sickness when staying at height. While the amazing Inca ruins at Machu Picchu are at an altitude of around 2400m, the city of Cusco, from where most trips to Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail begin, is at an altitude of around 3400m and that is a bit of a shock to the system.

When arriving in Cusco, especially if you fly in from Lima, the coast or the jungle, it is advisable to take things easy for a couple of days.

It’s a lovely city to wander around – gently – with a variety of good restaurants to suit all tastes and budgets, and some interesting museums.

Cusco’s Centro Historico is a UNESCO world heritage site and sees colonial architecture sit alongside Inca ruins in a fusion of cultures and history. Plaza de Armas is right at the heart of the city centre, a large square with the city’s cathedral located in the north-east corner. There are various shops and restaurants lining the perimeter of the square and it is frequently used for bands, who play concerts, and dance troupes – a lively place where locals and tourists intermingle. As with most central squares across the world the restaurant prices are likely to be higher than if you wander through the back streets and discover some of the less prominent, although no less quality, dining options. And there are likely to be vendors wanting to sell their wares to tourists.

There are some sites to visit close to the city, the most notable of which is Sacsayhuaman, a dramatic citadel initiated by the Killke and expanded by the Inca, located on a hillside about Cusco. The construction is remarkable, notably the enormous stones that form the terrace wall which is adjacent to the plaza. The tallest parts of the wall reach over 6m in height and the huge stones are apparently packed so tightly that it’s impossible to slip even a single sheet of paper between them. If you’re lucky you might even get an impromptu concert from a visiting band.

There’s a lovely view of Cusco from the site as well.

There are also some fascinating day trips to take around the Inca Valley. And, of course, Cusco is the main city from which to access the railway stations that run the trains to Aguas Calientes for access to Machu Picchu or to head out for the Inca Trail.

At altitude you really notice the thinner air and the lack of oxygen. You don’t feel it initially but climbing a seemingly innocuous flight of stairs, even a single storey, can leave you puffing and panting and wondering if you need to be working out more. More serious reactions include headaches, nausea, tiredness and dizziness. If you do feel poorly, stop and rest.  Make sure you are well hydrated, avoid consuming alcohol and smoking. And acute mountain sickness can be fatal – if symptoms get worse, seek medical advice immediately.

One local remedy that is reputed to help with mild symptoms is coca tea. It won’t cure altitude sickness but is apparently helps alleviate the headaches. (It’s not recommended for those with high blood pressure, heart problems or diabetes.)

Our hotel had free coca tea available all the time and this is the case with most accommodation in the city. A nice cup of hot tea after a morning or afternoon’s sightseeing was always welcome. The tea is brewed from the leaves of the Coca plant, which the Incas considered to be sacred. It’s not tannic and has a pleasing flavour, a mild, refreshing taste that is a bit like green tea.

You can buy coca tea bags in Peru to bring home. They last ages and can still be enjoyed at altitudes much closer to sea level.

Just brew them as you would any cup of tea: teabag in a cup, add boiling water, steep to the strength you like, sit back, put your feet up and quaff.