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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.

Fruits of the Dragons in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam

As the mighty Mekong reaches Vietnam and approaches the South China Sea the main waterway splits into a maze of rivers that form the Mekong Delta. The region is known locally as Cuu Long, or “Nine Dragons”, representing the nine main tributaries.

Three to four hours’ drive away from the relentlessly loud and energetic Ho Chi Minh City, the hectic hubbub of the city slowly transitions to rural rice fields. It is possible to undertake a river cruise from a number of locations in the area; there are plenty of choices and each offers various levels of indulgence. It’s a lovely way to see the country from a very different perspective and at a pace that is much more laid back. We made the journey from Cần Thơ to Cái Bè starting along the Sông Hậu branch of the river and sailing into the Mekong.

Depending on budget there are different boats available. Some are rather splendid – compact, but with all the facilities you might want.

All have decks with seating so that you can enjoy the view.

Many of the boat trips offer excursions to various attractions along the way. These include floating markets and factories that produce rice paper, whiskey or sweets. It is also possible to visit some of the onshore villages in the area and to explore them on foot, visiting local farmers and learning about the food that’s produced there.

The area is extremely fertile and rice is the major crop grown. Due to the climate in South Vietnam it is possible to achieve three crops per year.

There are no cemeteries in Vietnam so families set up graveyards in the fields.

There are also a number of fruit trees that grow in the delta. Some are familiar.

Pineapples…

Coconuts…

Bananas.

Wild limes also grow in the area.

Jackfruit has become hugely popular in recent years as a ‘meat substitute’. Its texture and ability to absorb flavours make it incredibly versatile for vegetarians and vegans – mock ‘pulled pork’ is a particular favourite. But actually it is very tasty as a fruit in its own right.

Tapioca is the starch derived from the roots of the cassava trees and often used in puddings (which are far more delicious than school dinners).

Some of the residents are happy to open up their houses and it is possible to do home stays with local families. If you’re just on a day trip, visitors are sometimes offered some of the amazing fruits grown on the island.

This platter was exceptional. It may seem strange but there is an order to eating the fruit to gain maximum enjoyment: Always start with the sour flavours and finish with the sweet.

One plate that was a particular revelation was the pineapple. Of course fresh pineapple is utterly scrumptious, especially when it hasn’t travelled half-way around the globe, but it was served by sprinkling a little chilli and salt on each piece and was a taste sensation. It makes sense: like a lot of Vietnamese food it includes sweet and sour flavours (which the pineapple provides) plus an additional salty dimension and a good dose of heat from the chilli. Delicious!

Banana leaves are not only functional, they can also be decorative – just look at this lovely banana leaf ‘origami’ grasshopper.

It was late afternoon by the time we returned to our boat.

Time for a delicious, decadent dinner.

Then after-dinner drinks watching the sun set over the Mekong.

Making Miso Happy Part 1

Miso is the very essence of the fifth flavour umami, that enigmatic taste of ‘savouriness’ or ‘deliciousness’ and forms the flavour base of so many Japanese dishes. At its heart it is basically a fermented mix of soy beans, rice, koji (aspergillus oryzae, the national mould of Japan – really!), salt, water and time…

Like many Japanese foodstuffs, miso has regional variations. As a general rule (and there are always exceptions) the colour of finished miso is darker in the north, and lighter in the south of the country. Kyoto is famous for sweet white miso, for example. This means that it is possible to encounter a wide variety of miso on your travels – from rich umami to salty to sweet and with textures from smooth to chunky.

We visited a miso factory/koji park on a trip to Kanazawa on the western coast of Japan. Shinkansen (bullet train) construction reached Kanazawa just recently, in 2015, and the city is now easily accessible from Tokyo; the journey takes around 2.5 – 3 hours. It’s a great city with a lively market (which has some amazing seafood restaurants) and one of the top three gardens in Japan. The miso factory is located at Ohno machi (Ohno port), which is a bit of a journey; you can catch a bus from the Kanazawa station area (ask for the location of the bus stop at the tourist information centre inside the station concourse – it’s a five minute walk away) and it’s the very last stop. When you arrive at the sea you are there. You’ll likely be the last ones on the bus. Alternatively you can get a taxi. The journey from the station takes around 20 minutes but the cost is considerably higher than the bus. Then just walk over the bridge to the little island.

As an aside, at the far end of the island is a charming museum of mechanical toys which has a brilliant hands-on exhibition where you can spend hours playing games and enjoy viewing antique toys and games. The staff were absolutely delightful and very much wanted to make sure we enjoyed the exhibits. They were also very helpful when it came to supplying a timetable for the bus journey back into the centre of Kanazawa.

There are many historic mechanical puppets – karakuri – on display. The museum is a memorial to Benkichi Ohno,a master craftsman who lived in the area from 1831. Many of his creations can be seen at the museum.

Some exhibits show you how the puppet mechanisms work.

Some dolls are cute(ish) which turn into scary (incidentally these words are, respectively, kawaii and kowaii in Japanese, be careful not to confuse the two!).

Around the circumference of the main building there are tables and chairs set out with all sorts of puzzles that you can try to solve.

It’s a really hands-on museum and it was lovely to see families with children of all ages sitting together and working out solutions to some of the puzzles.

This doll is 300 years old, from the Edo period. The craftsmanship is exquisite.

After a lovely diversion, it was on to the Yamato koji park, just a 10 minute walk away at the other end of the island. It’s part factory, part museum, part shop and part café. There weren’t any specific tours when we visited but the staff were super-helpful and directed us to a display where we could understand how miso is made.

Miso basically contains five ingredients: water, koji, soy beans, rice, salt. Koji thrives on the rice. Then it is mashed with the soy beans, salt and water. After about six months yeast forms. The miso flavour develops thanks to the interactions between the yeast and the koji. Fermentation can take as long as three years.

Soy sauce is made using a very similar process and ingredients to miso but uses wheat instead of rice. A mash is formed and then it’s pressed (like olives for olive oil). After fermentation, the resulting liquid is soy sauce. It was fascinating to taste the difference between pasteurised and unpasteurised soy sauce. Unpasteurised soy has a more complex flavour because some of the aromas are lost in the pasteurization process.

Some the the traditional fermentation vessels are enormous.

You can also dip your hands into a koji hand bath which will, apparently, give your skin a soft and delicate sheen. It’s quite nice to be able to dip your hands into a warm bath, especially on a cold, wet day. Apparently two minutes is the optimum time – there is a timer so you can check. And yes, we can confirm that our hands did emerge from the bath silky-smooth.

There is a shop with an extensive variety of products and you are able to sample before you buy. It is particularly interesting to be able to taste different sauces.

Amazake is a sweet, low alcohol drink made from fermented rice and koji. Amazake literally means ‘sweet’ (ama) ‘sake’ (sake, which can be used to describe alcohol). You can buy the paste, mix with hot water and drink. It’s sweet and has a smooth, creamy texture. And for a delicious dressing, you can mix amazake with ponzu soy sauce (ponzu is a citrus juice comprising Japanese fruits sudachi, yuzu, and kabosu and vinegar mixed with soy sauce to give an amazingly tangy, salty flavour) in the ratio 1:1.

And one of the best foodie souvenirs – for the adventurer who cannot travel without seasoning – spray soy sauce, conveniently packaged in a container that would even fit into your hand-baggage.

They also have a café and ice-cream maker. Amazake and soy sauce ice-cream were on offer and we tried both. Soy sauce ice cream sounds so wrong but it was delicious, full of rich salty umami flavour that complemented the creamy ice-cream.  

What was also rather lovely was that the CEO, Mr Yamato, was on site that day and came to say ‘hello.’

We shopped for as many products as we could fit into our luggage. One particular packet that we were very happy to find was that of inoculated rice koji. It was also conveniently flat for packing and much cheaper than koji that we can purchase in Europe.

Making our very own miso was most definitely going to be one of our foodie missions on our return home. To be continued

Super-Vlaai!

Limburg in the south of the Netherlands offers a complete rural contrast to the cosmopolitan charms of Amsterdam. When we recently picked up train tickets at Schiphol airport’s railway station to make the two hour journey, the friendly ticket master enquired, “are you sure you are going to South Netherlands?” On receiving an affirmative reply he very kindly printed out a suitable timetable for us showing us where and when to change trains. He was super-helpful.

Limburg is much more rural and the way of life is more relaxed. The flat landscape, interspersed with pretty towns and villages, is ideal for walking and cycling at an easy pace, especially along the banks of the broad River Maas.

Limburg residents are very sociable. This is emphasised by their greeting technique: not one, not two, but three kisses on the cheek. Left-right-left. Or right-left-right. Either is fine.

If you are lucky enough to visit a local home you will almost certainly be offered coffee and vlaai. Dutch coffee is always properly made ground coffee. Vlaai – also known as Limburgse Vlaai – is a tart. The base isn’t made from traditional flaky pastry but from a yeast dough which gives it a light, cake-like texture. Each vlaai comes as a big round disc of deliciousness, usually around 30 cm in diameter. It is cut into large slices for all guests to enjoy.

The traditional vlaai is a fruit-based tart, often with a latticed pasty top. Cherries, apricots, apple – all sorts of soft fruit can be used as a filling. It may also be served with a decadent dollop of rich cream.

And then there are more unusual variations. The gooseberry topped with fluffy meringue combination is both tart and sweet.

Berry mouse and meringue is also a great combination.

The rice pudding vlaai, with cream and chocolate shavings for added decadence, will keep you satisfied for a week.

Tradition dictates that visitors are offered coffee and vlaai and it is polite to accept. Apparently it is also considered to be a little bit rude not to accept a second slice. It’s possible that Limburgians have a secret second stomach as it is genuinely impossible to eat two slices of vlaai in quick succession, scrumptious though it is.

Love at First Bite – Costa Rica Chocolate

We had always wondered what the point of mosquitoes actually was. As far as we could see all they do is bite people to suck their blood which causes much irritating itching and, worse, they spread horrible diseases. We might be particularly biased against the nasty little blighters as we seem to be strawberry flavoured to them and are guaranteed to attract any within our vicinity so that they can have a really good feast on us.

But it turns out that mosquitoes have a hugely important – and very beneficial – role in the ecosystem: they pollinate chocolate flowers. Yes, without mosquitoes the cacao trees of Costa Rica would not produce nearly enough fruit and hence there would be less chocolate in the world. And Costa Rica’s chocolate is fantastic quality.

Monteverde is one of Costa Rica’s most visited locations. The primary reason for visiting would be to experience the cloud forest nature reserve with its abundance of spectacular wildlife.

There are all sorts of other activities available, including adventure tours such as ziplining across spectacular scenery.

And, indeed, a number of foodie tours are also available. Don Juan’s plantation in Monteverde offers the opportunity to see chocolate being produced, as well as coffee and sugar cane.

Cacao trees produce a fruit which has the shape of a rugby ball but is a little smaller. It has a tough orange leathery rind.

You cut it open to reveal 8-12 beans inside, all covered in what appears to be a slimy membrane that is white with a pale greenish tinge. It is these almond shaped beans inside that will become chocolate.

First of all, the beans are removed from the pod and undergo a fermentation process for five days. By day five you can really smell the alcohol. This process helps develop the chocolate flavour.

The beans are then dried naturally by spreading them out in the sun for a couple of weeks before they are roasted.

The roasting gives a bitter note to the complex flavour which feels counterintuitive because we all know chocolate to be sweet. But the sweetness is, of course, due to the vast quantities of sugar added to our favourite childhood confections later on in the process.

Winnowing separates the beans from their shells leaving the cocoa nib which forms the basis of the chocolate. You can eat the nibs directly – they have a slightly bitter flavour.

The nibs are then ground into a paste. The result of this is chocolate mass (also called chocolate liquor) – a combination of cocoa solids and fat in roughly equal proportions, the friction of the grinding process brings out the cocoa butter. The cocoa mass can be processed further to make chocolate or squeezed out in a press to separate the two elements – powder and cocoa butter. In combination, the cocoa mass is what gives chocolate its special qualities – the flavour and aroma from the hundreds of chemical compounds and the amazing meltiness. Cocoa butter doesn’t impart flavour but it has a melting point that is at body temperature which means that chocolate remains solid at room temperature but starts melting in the most gloriously decadent way as soon as you put it in your mouth.

Of course there are lots of variations on the next stage of the processing. The nibs continue to be ground and then other ingredients can be added to produce chocolate. Of course, we are all familiar with the different types of chocolate and very likely have our childhood favourites.

Dark chocolate is made from sugar, cocoa butter, cocoa mass.

Milk chocolate is made from sugar, cocoa butter, cocoa mass, milk or milk powder.

White chocolate is made from sugar, cocoa butter, milk or milk powder. Curiously, there is no cocoa mass in white chocolate.

There is a further process to making chocolate and that is tempering, which creates uniform crystals of the cocoa butter and makes the texture of the chocolate smoother and less prone to cracking. Tempering involves heating the chocolate to about 50⁰C in order to melt all the types of crystals that form, then agitate at 27⁰C then heat slightly to 31⁰C. This gives the chocolate its silky shininess.

We tried some of the products on offer. These treats were direct from the plantation and had had minimal processing.

Pure cocoa butter is all about the texture – soft and luscious, it is completely different to the white chocolate bars you grew up with as a kid.

And, of course, we couldn’t refuse a cup hot of chocolate made direct from grated cocoa mass. It is a rich, smooth, warming, slightly bitter drink – a very adult hot chocolate.

Sweet Treats in Candy Alley, Kawagoe, Japan

There are loads of cool and interesting districts to visit that are just a (relatively) short train journey from central Tokyo. Kawagoe is one such place. It is just half an hour to one hour’s train ride away, depending on where in Tokyo you are staying, in Saitama prefecture. You can get there directly from Shinjuku on the Seibu line. It’s known as Little Edo because of its old warehouses and merchant homes, called Kurazukuri.

It has a charming old world feel, albeit with lots of shops for tourists, and there are loads of foodie attractions and restaurants to look out for; charcoal boiled eel in a sweet soy sauce is a speciality here, as are sweet potato dishes.

One of the attractions in Kawagoe is Kashiya Yokocho – Candy Alley – a street chock full of traditional Japanese shops offering sweet temptations.

This emporium had a giant penguin minding the store.

The Kawagoe tourism website has a brief history of the alley:

It is said that the beginning of this Kashiya Yokocho was in the early Meiji Period when Suzuki Tozaemon started to make candy in this prospering town in front of Yojuin Temple. In 1923, after Tokyo was damaged in the Great Kanto Earthquake, this area became the main producer and supplier of candy. There were more than 70 shops in the early Showa Period but due to the war and changes in lifestyle the number has decreased.

If you don’t have a sweet tooth, no problem. There are plenty of savoury snacks on offer as well. Takosen is takoyaki (deep fried octopus balls) sandwiched between prawn crackers.

The name combines tako (octopus) with senbei (cracker) and advertises itself as junk food. It is seriously good.

Sweet potatoes are particularly popular, in fact Kawagoe is known colloquially as the city of sweet potatoes. Once considered a staple after the war, when food was scarce, the city still makes multiple products from these tasty tubers.

And if you’re given a photo opportunity to pose as a sweet potato you have to take it, don’t you?

Imo senbei snacks are thinly sliced, dried sweet potato crackers sprinkled sparsely and randomly with black sesame seeds.

The curious thing about these is that you would expect them to be either sweet or slightly salty and they are neither. They are not bland, but rely on the natural sweetness of the sweet potato and have just a hint of sesame for additional flavour. They have a lovely crunchy texture and are great to eat as an accompaniment to a cool beer.

They are also very thin and lightweight – so they are ideal for slipping into your suitcase as an omiyage (a souvenir/gift) for your friends. Or you could just keep them and scoff them yourself when you get home!

Red Crowned Crane ‘Eggs’ in Hokkaido

The red crowned cranes of Hokkaido, Japan’s northern – and second largest – island, are so famous that they feature on the country’s banknotes and as the logo for Japan Airlines. Half of the world’s population of these distinctive and beautiful birds, amongst the rarest cranes in the world, reside on the eastern part of the island. The cranes mate for life and are known for their ‘dancing’ together as part of their courtship ritual. Many red crowned cranes are migratory but the ones that reside in Hokkaido are resident all year round.

It isn’t always possible to see wild cranes – wildlife being wildlife can be somewhat elusive – but the Akan International Crane Sanctuary is located close to the town of Kushiro and offers the opportunity to see these marvellous birds up close. It can be enjoyed as part of a day trip visiting the beautiful countryside surrounding the town.

Kushiro is the last stop on the line. If you’re using your JR Pass and travelling from Sapporo, the train has a logo at the front that is highly appropriate.

The sanctuary has information about its work which is mostly in Japanese but, like a lot of Japanese information, it uses plenty of graphics as well.

The cranes almost became extinct during the 20th century and remain on the endangered list. The centre acts as a feeding location for wild cranes and also has a number of captive cranes which are held in as natural an environment as possible making it possible to see the cranes all year round.

If you want to see them dancing in the snow you need to visit in winter but be prepared for loads of tourists with very expensive cameras who are all vying to snap that elusive shot of the crane couples’ fascinating dances.

The birds are able to breed. It was rather lovely to see one of the newest arrivals.

And what point is there in a visit to a local tourist attraction without indulging in some edible souvenirs? Made from local ingredients, you can buy ‘crane egg’ omiyage (souvenir gift), which come in presentation box.

Each cake is individually wrapped with a crane logo and, on opening up each wrapper the eggs don’t look as though they survived the journey home! However, any cracks in the shell caused by a slight crushing in our rucksacks as they endured a 24 hour journey home just added to their charm.

The egg’s shell is chocolate which coats hollow cake, and a soft smooth bean paste moulded into a sphere represents the yolk. The flavours are very subtle and not over-sweet. Our only complaint would be that they are much smaller than actual crane eggs and vanish in just three bites.

Roman Streets and Sweet Treats in Jordan

Jerash is within easy 50-ish km drive of Jordan’s capital Amman and its Roman ruins are some of the best preserved in the world. The site makes for a fascinating day trip; covering a very large area it is possible to wander all over the city. It is definitely worth finding a guide who can point out all the features and explain the history and the architecture, especially as there aren’t many signs or information points, although beware as they may encourage you to buy stuff you don’t really want to buy from various vendors who can be found waiting for tourists.

The arch of Hadrian (who had already started construction of the wall in the north of England) was erected around 129-130 AD , when the Emperor visited Jerash.

The hippodrome was an enormous arena which was used for chariot races and gladiator fights. Sometimes chariot races are re-enacted in the space. Sadly, not when we visited.

The colonnaded forum, an area designed as a marketplace but used for social gatherings, including important political meetings, is stunning. Its oval shape is very unusual.

The nymphanium, a monument to the nymphs, was fed by an aqueduct.

It’s possible to walk down the roman street, also known as a cardo and as straight as Roman roads are reputed to be, again lined with columns. The road’s surface is original.

There’s an amphitheatre where you can stand on the stage and let your inner thespian out. Even if you don’t feel up to a full performance of your favourite speech, it’s worth standing on the stage and just speaking – the acoustic design of the theatre ensures that your voice can be heard with remarkable clarity, even normal speech levels.

And at the end of a day’s exploration, you are likely to be peckish. We were. Amman has some really excellent restaurants so on our return to the capital we went to Habibah to eat Kanafeh.

Everything Stops for Tea

A very British tradition is the afternoon tea. The British are, of course, well known for their love of tea.

Tea to the English is really a picnic indoors.
-Alice Walker

Afternoon tea originated in the early 19th Century. It was a time when tea drinking was becoming extremely popular amongst all classes but this was also a time when people tended only to have two meals a day: breakfast and supper. Supper was usually taken around 8pm in the evening which meant that there was an awfully long gap between meals.

Anna Russell, Duchess of Bedford and friend of Queen Victoria, invented the afternoon tea. She had decided that the gap between breakfast and supper was just too long (who can help but agree?) and she would start feeling peckish mid-afternoon. She solved this problem in around 1840 by indulging in a cup of tea and a snack at around 4pm. The tea was generally accompanied by bread and butter and some cake. She invited her friends to join her and soon enough afternoon tea became highly popular amongst high society.

The elements comprising afternoon tea evolved over the years. Fortunately sandwiches had already been invented by the Earl of Sandwich, who had discovered the joys of putting something delicious between two slices of bread in 1762, so afternoon tea could accommodate this as a menu item as well.

Scones are also considered to be an essential element of afternoon tea these days. These are usually sweet scones, eaten with jam and clotted cream. The scones are presented whole: they should be cut in half and the jam/cream or cream/jam combination applied copiously. Never reveal whether you put the jam or the cream onto the scone first to anyone from the West Country. Devon and Cornish folk have very different ideas about the order in which the scone should be adorned. We politely suggest that they taste wonderful either way. As well as disputes about how to eat scones the English also disagree on how to pronounce the word – is it scone to rhyme with ‘gone’ or scone to rhyme with ‘stone’? We’re originally from the south of England so both use the former but have regular arguments with friends about the true pronunciation.

The quintessential afternoon tea comprises a selection of sandwiches, a couple of scones served with clotted cream and jam and a variety of miniature pastries, cakes or sweet treats. Served with a cup of tea. This might simply be an ordinary cuppa but it is more likely that you would be offered some speciality teas or herbal infusions. Coffee and hot chocolate are usually available for non-tea-drinkers. The more indulgent modern afternoon teas may also offer a tall glass of fizz; Champagne (preferably) or Prosecco to accompany the treats.

Etiquette suggests that you start with the savouries on the bottom tier. Scones next, then the sweet treats on the top tier. This particular one had four pastries each, including a fruity pannacotta and layered cake.

Almost a meal in itself, tea is refined and rather decadent. This particular one was a splendid way of relaxing after spending an afternoon exploring small villages in the English Cotswolds.

Just Desserts – Kanafeh in Jordan

Middle eastern desserts are not only delicious they are also quite addictive. One of the defining elements of the desserts we tried in Jordan was the sweet, sweet syrup that soaks into and pervades the pastry or dough that forms the base. The sweetness is probably a good thing as it does limit your ability to scoff vast quantities of these scrumptious desserts.

The magic ingredient in Kanafeh is cheese. Kanafeh comprises pastry or dough, saturated in syrup and layered with a very slightly salty cheese, traditionally nabulsi or akkawi, which adds a comforting and savoury contrast to counterbalance the sweetness. Kanafeh can take a variety of forms – some use vermicelli type noodles as the base, others a pastry type dough. The syrup can be flavoured with rose or orange water to give a light fragrance to the dessert.

Habibah in Amman have been in business for several decades. It’s easy to see why. Their kanafeh is superb.

The kanafeh we tried was based on a pastry dough with layers of cheese. Topped off with pistachios for crunch and a nice green colour, and served warm, it is an absolutely delicious way to round off any meal. Or you could just order a really large portion and eat that instead of a meal – it’s worth it.