Tuesday, December 29, 2009

My Favorite Things

Traveling the world through books..here are some recommendations for those who wish to visit other worlds and other times...

Someone recently wrote asking me what kind of books I read, and so I decided to share with you some favorite books, as a year-end break from the subject of travel. However, in a way, reading books is a form of travel because books take you to places and periods away from home and the present. In fact, books are perhaps the most affordable form of (mental) travel, accessible to anyone with the time and inclination.

Although there are some great fiction books on the market, I almost never read fiction, save for classics of the ancient and contemporary kind. My all-time favorite novel is The Tale of Genji, a lengthy 11th century novel on life in the intrigue-filled Heian-era courts of Kyoto by a court lady who wrote under the pen name Murasaki Shikibu. There are several translations on the market; I've read most of them and prefer the translations of Edward Seidensticker and Donald Keene.

Among contemporary novels, I favor the works of Japanese writers like Junichiro Tanizaki, Yasunari Kawabata and Yukio Mishima, who are masters of subtlety and yet excellent observers of human nature. Tanizaki's Makioka Sisters is a novel about four genteel but impoverished sisters in Kansai worrying about money, saving face and marriage; and Mishima's Spring Snow is the first book in his three-part masterpiece, The Sea of Fertility, which describes the life of an aristocratic courtier family in Tokyo with a wayward son. These books, and a handful of others written in the early 20th century, were responsible for making me a lifelong fan of Japanese literature.

Among living novelists, the only one I have read thoroughly is the Colombian Nobel prizewinner Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. Many years ago, I read his famous One Hundred Years of Solitude, a novel that could kill a person with its heavy weight (it would also certainly kill my rather strict Ateneo English 101 teacher with its lengthy sentences...), and was hooked. His flowery prose goes completely against my Strunk & White training, but I allow myself to be enchanted by his descriptions of a most amazing world of love, courage, intrigue and desperation. I've read his other books since then, but One Hundred Years of Solitude is still my favorite.

My biggest passion, however, is reading biographies. I scour bookstores all over the world for rare ones, especially when in London, where I am probably at Hatchards every other day. In this bookstore with fairly ancient beginnings (1797!), a few blocks from St. James Palace, I've found some very rare books -- the kind written for very small audiences and with an even smaller print run. One of my precious finds here, for example, include a diary of a lady-in-waiting to Empress Alexandra of Russia, the last Empress, that chronicled their secluded life in the Alexander Palace just before the Russian Revolution. I'd read that such a diary was in existence, and you can imagine how happy I was to find it as a privately printed book at Hatchards -- not the kind you can easily pick up at Amazon.com.

Anyway, my library in my weekend house at the foothills of Mount Fuji in Japan is filled wall-to-wall with biographies and also such books that a nephew was once prompted to ask why I loved reading about dead people so much.

Biographies are great studies in human nature and in the common motivations and passions that transcend time, place and situation. It is uncanny how the fears and insecurities of a queen in 16th century Europe, for example, are so similar to those of a senior executive in a Japanese firm in present-day Tokyo. After reading so many biographies, one realizes how similar we really all are. Stories about strong women particularly fascinate me, especially when these women have been able to combine the advantages of femininity with strengths equal to men. Such combinations may not be very unusual today, but until 50 years ago, such women were still short of amazing.

Over the years, I have been heavily engrossed in the biographies of female historical figures in Europe, reveling in the excellent (and also highly-recommended) accounts of the lives of Marie Antoinette of France (by Antonia Fraser), Empress Elisabeth of Austria (by Brigitte Hamann) and Eleanor of Aquitaine (by Alison Weir), among others. (By the way, after reading so much history, I've now realized that many a downfall of an empire was prompted by a woman. This was the case with Empress Elisabeth of Austria, a beautiful woman who led the most purpose-less life imaginable at a time when Austria would have benefited from an intelligent and capable empress and mother; and Empress Alexandra of Russia, a kind-hearted but neurotic woman who did not have the political instincts that could have helped her husband and saved their lives.

In contrast, her mother-in-law, the Empress Marie Feodorovna, was an amazing woman who overcame a so-so education and rather limited physical advantages to truly become an asset to her husband in his short reign. The little-known Danish-born Empress Marie, made larger than life only by portrayals of her as the bitter grandmother living on her memories in all these Anastasia movies, was actually a most admirable queen. She deserves a separate blog entry next year.)

However, my favorite book has been Elizabeth & Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens (by Jane Dunn, published by Harper Perennial in 2004), a historical comparison of Elizabeth I of England and of Mary Queen of Scots, two fascinating women leaders who were bound by blood and rivalry. I picked this up at Hatchards last spring on the strength of its appearance in The Sunday Times bestseller list and was happily rewarded. Jane Dunn combines good writing with meticulous research and an eye for interesting details. I spent the entire flight back to Tokyo marvelling over how one woman was born in a golden cradle and yet she died a queen without a kingdom or wealth (Mary), while another was disinherited as an infant and imprisoned as a young woman, yet she ended up Europe's most revered queen (Elizabeth).

However, to enjoy this book fully, if possible I recommend reading beforehand the respective biographies of Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots to get to know each of them first as persons. This way, it will be like knowing two warring cousins very well and then finding out the real story behind the feud. As far as I'm concerned, the two best biographies on the market are Mary Queen of Scots (by Antonia Fraser, published by Delta Trade Paperbacks) and The Life of Elizabeth I (by Alison Weir, published by Ballantine Books).

Now, you may ask, why spend so much time reading about these two women? First, if you love a good story complete with love, tragedy, and betrayal, none of these will disappoint. Second, their lives, choices and rivalry made a significant impact on Western history and culture. The Elizabethan Age is widely acknowledged as England's Golden Era and this is due largely to the wisdom and foresight of Elizabeth I, a woman of steel who was also full of complex weaknesses, many of them related to Mary Queen of Scots' strong claim on the English throne. Meanwhile, Mary Queen of Scots was a Catholic queen of a largely Protestant Scotland, who was born with so much good fortune but who suffered from bad luck and bad decisions. If she had made different choices and had actually lived to rule her country, who knows what would have happened? Perhaps Scotland would have reverted to Catholicism, or perhaps it would be more aligned with Spain or France than with England even today.

Meanwhile, this year-end, I just finished the biography of Madame de Pompadour, long-time mistress of Louis XV, and a beautiful, intelligent and politically astute woman who fascinates me no end. I've read probably every biography on her, but this most recently acquired one, written by the notorious but talented Nancy Mitford in the first half of the 20th century, has been the most entertaining. The book flows like a novel, and yet without relinquishing any of the strictness required of historians and biographies (although some purists claim she took liberties with the facts).

Madame de Pompadour was a woman advanced for her time. Although not nobly born, she was better educated than most, and she smartly used what skills she had to navigate and conquer the French court. My interest in Madame de Pompadour took me to Versailles, France, to see the palace she ruled, the little theater she acted in and the manor house she created for herself and Louis XV. Then by accident, while having lunch one day at the Tour D'Argent in Paris, I just happened to glance at an ornate little carriage to the right of the restaurant elevator. It turned out to be Madame de Pompadour's palanquin! Meanwhile, in England, while staying at the country house-hotel Cliveden, I happily chanced upon a beautiful gilded room on the ground floor that was just being outfitted for some very wealthy French lady's bridal shower. I learned that this had originally been Madame de Pompadour's room, meticulously taken down piece by piece and transported to England and reassembled in Cliveden by Lord Astor, who owned Cliveden at the time.

Right now, I'm also happily finishing an excellent biography of Potemkin, lover and co-ruler of the Russian Empress Catherine the Great. Prince of Princes: The Life of Potemkin by the respected British writer and historian Simon Sebag Montefiore is such a good read that I almost dread finishing it and having Potemkin's tale out of my life. This book was recommended to me by a good friend in London sometime back, as she and I share a love of history and she is very aware of my passion for Russian history in particular. In addition, her cousin (who happens to be a good friend of Prince Charles) had written it, and she vouched for the meticulousness of the research. He reportedly spent weeks and weeks pouring over dusty documents in the Kremlin that no one had ever seen before, and traveled all over the former Russian republics in search of Potemkin relics in the most unusual places. However I only found time to pick it up at the bookstore recently (yes, it's available in Manila -- and I'm so glad I didn't pay double or triple abroad for this book). The moment I started page 1, I was enthralled by the wonderful writing and meticulous research that together produced a vivid portrait of a great man and a great woman, and their partnership, in tumultuous 18th century Russia. Now with my work winding down at least for the few days before New Year, I've been happily ensconced with this book.

Unlike my other favorite books, this is a biography of a man. But, it is just as much a revealing story of the powerful woman who ruled the country and whom he loved, and their enigmatic relationship -- and this is perhaps why it joins my list of favorites. I've now learned that Simon Sebag Montefiore is currently writing a book on the Russian Imperial Family from the time of Peter the Great to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 entitled The Romanovs: The Intimate Chronicles of the Russian Imperial Family. I can't wait! This is now at the top of my wishlist for next year.

These wonderful books and such musings certainly kept me entertained on many long airplane flights traipsing through continents and on rainy weekend afternoons at home in 2009.

For more writings by the Frequent Flier, please pick up a copy of the latest issue of Travelife Magazine at the bookstore today.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

New York on my mind this Christmas

The first time I visited New York, I didn’t like it. I found the people rude and the city dirty and dark. Moreover, the city’s focus on conspicuous consumption was so overpowering that it unnerved me. Shopgirls sized you up as you entered chi-chi boutiques, waiters and bellboys forever had their hands out for tips, and people competed for everything - from the better seat on the subway, to the table with the best view in a trendy restaurant, to the dress with the largest discount in the Barney's sale. This unsatisfactory experience encouraged me to postpone another visit for years.

Then something happened on my next and very long overdue trip to the city that considers itself the center of the world: I fell in love with it. Like any major capital, New York has its share of good and bad points, and I learned to gloss over the negatives. Of course, the museums, theaters, restaurants and inexhaustible shopping venues made it a very attractive destination. But there was so much more. Suddenly, the pace of the city coincided with my own rhythm, every neighborhood offered a stimulation of all senses; and the variety of cultures and flavors provided endless entertainment that made up for the dirty, sunless streets.

Even the aggressiveness of taxi drivers and pedestrians stopped bothering me, while New Yorkers’ ambitious energy and go-getter attitude inspired rather than repulsed. I loved being among people who woke up each morning fiercely determined to be better than they were yesterday – it was and still is incredibly intoxicating. And since then, New York has been a must-visit destination every year.

For a time, I had my regular two-week New York routine comfortably down to pat. Back in the good old days when Japan Airlines offered WiFi on-board, the fourteen-hour stretch between Tokyo and New York was literally and so effortlessly a day’s work. I’d be catching up on emails, sending drafts and manuscripts, and even surfing U.S. shopping websites for books and bargains that I’d have delivered to my New York hotel room. I'd literally order six months' worth of reading from Amazon.com from 40,000 feet above sea level. (With so much online shopping being delivered to my hotel room, you can imagine what my luggage situation on the return flight was like. Twice I've checked in at JFK for the NY-Tokyo flight with about 105 kilos of luggage!) Once I even ordered my dinner online from my favorite New York delivery service and set it to be sent up to my hotel room the evening of my arrival in New York, knowing I would be staying in to rest that night.

And because I liked to cook and host parties in Manhattan, I usually took a suite with a living room and a kitchen, figuring that the not inconsequential savings on restaurant meals and drinks at bars could instead go to a room upgrade.

New York probably has the most number of restaurants per square kilometer in the world, but there was really no better place to catch up with friends in this claustrophobic city than the quiet of my hotel living room with double views of the Upper East Side and the Hudson River. So I would order groceries and foodstuffs for entertaining from Freshdirect.com from the comfort of my airplane seat as well.

Practically every meal during my stay was booked with a friend, including my all-time favorite meal when in New York: breakfast of leftover dry aged steak from dinner the night before, reheated and served with scrambled eggs and garlic fried rice in my kitchen at 8 am almost everyday.

I never tire of dry aged steak when I'm in New York because it’s just impossible to get really good versions in Asia. I'll happily eat it thrice a day. And thankfully, most of my friends are willing to indulge me for a few days and join me for leftover steak and chop-chop rice in my hotel, with the leftover steak I took home the night before. Occasionally, we would break the steak and rice habit and try some hot new restaurant since the New York dining scene is so cutting-edge and a fantastic source of ideas for everything from food to design. But frankly, leftovers in my New York kitchen were my favorite meals.

Any spare evening or afternoon was always joyously devoted to the theater. I’m not really a fan of musicals, but there’s always a wonderful drama or comedy to see on any day. One of the most interesting plays I've seen in New York was The Vertical Hour, a heavy drama on the Iraq war by David Hare and directed by Sam Mendes, starring Julianne Moore. The play was riveting, but Julianne Moore was a disappointment. I expected her to be just as good on-stage as she is on the big screen, but on-stage she was wooden and uninspired. I guess it's the difficulties of transitioning from tv or movies to theater. Most tv/ movie actors are used to acting sparsely because so much is caught on camera, whereas it's exactly the opposite on the stage, where every movement or sound must be slightly exaggerated.

In London, I'd seen Minnie Driver, Matthew Perry, Rob Lowe and Kevin Spacey on stage. With the exception of Kevin Spacey, all were disappointing. (PS: It's interesting to see how the plays in London that star all these American actors, with the exception of Kevin Spacey and a handful of others, are basically filled with American tourists visiting London rather than British theatergoers. Whenever I go, it's American English I hear all around. One of my London friends told me she loves the theater but she usually avoids plays with American movie/ TV celebrities because they simply can't act in the style of the theater.)

What I love most about New York, though, is that it’s a walking city with a fantastic park right in the center to break the monotony of blocks of buildings. I hardly walk 300 meters in Manila, but in New York I almost never take the train or taxi as it’s such a joy to window-shop, people-watch and just admire various buildings along the way. Several times, I even strolled from my midtown hotel to the Metropolitan Museum via the Upper East Side – that’s a good 27 blocks one-way – and back without hesitation.  

One ritual my college best friend Angelique and I have is to host a drinks party at my hotel. We choose a theme based on the month of my visit -- Halloween, post-Thanksgiving, pre-Christmas and even just to welcome spring – and invite an interesting mix of friends. The party itself is great fun, but preparations are equally enjoyable, especially as it’s quite a challenge to successfully create decor and coordinate food outside of one’s usual comfort zone. But with a dash of creativity, lots of help from the hotel concierge and dollar stores nearby, we’ve always managed to pull it off well enough.

Once, I arrived in New York just before Christmas. It was simply freezing but the entire city was blazing with holiday cheer. Christmas carols wafted in from stores, holiday wreaths and ornaments decked every window, and happy people passed me on the street on the way to and from parties and get-togethers. I remember standing on a corner where I could see Rockefeller Center awash with holiday lights and also Saks Fifth Avenue’s nightly illumination show, and thinking what a truly magical place New York is.

This appears in the current year-end holiday issue of Travelife Magazine. Happy Holidays to all our friends around the world!


Saturday, December 12, 2009

In search of good times and good wine in Burgundy

Last year in autumn, my husband and I holidayed in Burgundy, a mecca for lovers of the grape. Previously, we'd spent 10 wonderful days enjoying food and wine in Paris with good friends from Manila, Jojo & Fides; and when they returned home, we rented a car and drove down via the Champagne region and a tip of the Loire Valley towards Burgundy.

For our base to enjoy drives around this picturesque region, we chose the Chateau Andre Ziltener, a lovely chateau in the sleepy town of Chambolle Musigny, right in the middle of the Cote d’Or, along with some of the most famous vineyards in France, if not in the world. Run by Madame Doris Schwartz, an energetic and very hospitable lady, this four-star chateau has immaculately-done suites that have just the right amount of luxury so that you feel comfortable but still are able to appreciate the general simplicity of country life. Each suite is named after a famous Burgundy wine. We stayed in the pastel-colored Romanee-Conti suite, which had a living room with two doors that conveniently opened up to the garden and to the wood-panelled dining room where a Continental breakfast was served each morning.

In Burgundy, we were eager, of course, to taste and delight in Burgundy’s many liquid bounties; but we also wanted to learn more about the life and people beyond the bottle. Luckily, we were able to arrange a schedule that wonderfully merged both.

One day, we were invited to lunch by Erwan Faiveley, the young and aggressive seventh-generation winemaker of the prestigious Domaine Faiveley, founded in 1825 and one of the biggest domaine in Burgundy, in the nearby town of Nuits-Saint-Georges. We visited him at his sleekly designed headquarters, its wooden walls lined with modern art and framed family documents from the turn of the 20th century, the day before he was off to Paris to meet up with his girlfriend.

After enjoying a few bottles of wine with him in his tasting room, we walked over to La Cabotte, his favorite restaurant -- "my kitchen," he called it. La Cabotte is a small establishment with a very modern theme in the very traditional town center, run by a young chef with tousled hair and a friendly demeanor who served us the day’s specials: a mean rack of lamb and an excellent lemon tart, which we washed down with a very good local red. He also had the most amazing modern decanter we had ever seen and all through lunch we couldn't help wishing we had one. (Thankfully, on our return trip to Beaune, we passed by the wine curio shop Atheneum, and found this wonderful decanter there. We bought it, handcarried it to Tokyo and now it sits happily in our Manila home.)

We then listened with fascination to Erwan’s description of the furious race for premium grape-growing space in this highly-coveted part of Burgundy, where the vineyards along east-facing slopes read like a who’s who of the wine world. Clos de Vougeot, Le Chambertin, Romanee Conti, and Geyvrey Chambertin, among others.

The Faiveleys had been looking for extra land for years, but good ones rarely came on the market. But just then, Erwan was very pleased at having purchased a line of grapes – yes, literally, a single row of growing grape trees – in Burgundy’s equivalent of Forbes Park for grapes, for what seemed to me a shocking sum. Apparently, the going rate for good grape real estate in Burgundy, when you can actually get your hands on some, completely eclipses residential or commercial real estate, and makes prices in some major cities look very reasonable.

“But we had to pay whatever the seller wanted,” Erwan recalled. “If we didn’t, someone else quickly would and that land would never come up for sale again.”

Then, we visited the the historic and beautiful wine trading town of Beaune where we had lunch at Ma Cuisine, an unpretentious little restaurant off the main square that is run by a livewire husband-and-wife team and is reportedly the best restaurant in Burgundy. It came highly recommended by two Manila wine buddies of my husband, Noel (a lawyer and avid wine blogger) and Vince, and so we definitely had to go. It was small and simple (more a cafeteria than a restaurant in feel), but definitely a winelover's destination. The walls were lined with empty Burgundy bottles and the husband ran around taking orders while his wife worked in the kitchen. Happily, we were not disappointed with the food and the prices either.

After lunch, we went on to the Hospices de Beaune museum, which is really Beaune's main attraction. The Hospices de Beaune itself has been producing wine since 1459, and is world-famous for its annual wine auction in November participated in by aficionados from every continent. The museum itself is housed in one of the most beautiful buildings in one of France's most picturesque towns (so you can imagine just how lovely it is), in a classic Burgundy style. Inside, they have impressive lifesized dioramas that show you how this institution began (as a hospital, and a pretty cool one for those times, actually) and how it began producing wine.

After our visit, Roland Masse, the chief winemaker, took us for a private tasting at their wine facility outside town. While the Hospices de Beaune museum is a major tourist destination, few people ever get to see the actual winemaking facilities of the Hospices de Beaune so it was a real treat to actually visit their working cellar and drink straight out of their barrels. I remember passing a few empty bottles on a table by the entrance. When Monsieur Masse caught me looking at them (I was actually trying to see what vintage these were), he seemed to guess what I was thinking and said, "The staff just finished their lunch, but the bottles haven't been cleared yet." Of course.

In the Hospices de Beaune cellars, we strode down each aisle and watched Monsieur Masse consider each barrel with a scratch or nod of his head. If he came upon a particularly good vintage of a grand cru or a premier cru, he opened the barrel and siphoned tasting portions into large glasses for us.

In the evening, we met Peter Vezan, one of France’s most respected wine brokers and tasters, and his assistant Elisabeth Villeminot, at Beaune’s train station. We frequently met up with them during our trips to Paris; and the last time before Burgundy was with Jojo and Fides. On one of our last evenings in Paris, the four of us went over to Elisabeth's charming apartment on a very lively food street just halfway down the hill from Montmarte, and a wine-tasting session that began at 6 easily continued on to an impromptu dinner of salad, ris de veau (sweetbread) cooked by Peter, and fabulous cheeses from a fromagerie just down the street. Our dinner had a little bit of a hilarious aspect, as it was occasionally but very regularly interrupted by the pokings on the floorboards of Elisabeth's cranky neighbor, who apparently objected to anyone having a good time without him.

Nevertheless it was a wonderful evening which made me think: Here we were with some of France's most knowledgeable winos, and we were drinking relatively cheap (but good) wine out of glasses that didn't match -- some of them would probably not even pass for wine glasses! --and mismatched crockery, but with lots of enthusiasm. But that's life in France for you -- unpretentious, joyful and natural. I couldn't help but remember how wine is drunk in many (but thankfully, not all) chi-chi circles in Asia, including in Manila, where so much emphasis is on the label on the bottle and the quality of the wine glasses, and drinking wine has almost become a sport to see who has drunk more of what.

Anyway, Peter and Elisabeth had traveled from Paris for business meetings in Burgundy and Peter had kindly offered to introduce us to boutique wineries in Burgundy, followed by dinner at one of his favorite restaurants in the village of Morey-St-Denis. Together, we visited wineries of all sizes, including one not much larger than the living room of an apartment and another run entirely by hardworking family members -- the father operated the bottling machine, the mother was packing boxes, the sister was inspecting each filled bottle while her cousin nearby pasted labels on the bottles; and her brother -- well, her brother happily dropped whatever he was doing to climb down into the cellar and open a few of their bottles for us.

The highlight was dinner at a place we would never have found on our own – a lively restaurant patronized by locals with a serious tasting menu of heavy Burgundy specialties, and with a Japanese female sommelier to boot. We walked in laden with bags of half-drunk bottles from our many tastings and ready to eat and drink enough for a whole army. The meal lasted for hours, spiced by great conversation with good friends and wonderful wine – a most fitting end to three blissful weeks in France that we can’t wait to do again.

This originally appeared in the September-October 2009 issue of Travelife Magazine. For more stories like this, get your copy of our latest issue at the nearest bookstore today.


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Lean Lunch at The Fat Duck

The five-hour meal that wasn't.

The inspiration to seek out an unforgettable meal suddenly hit me like a thunderbolt, one muggy afternoon in London. My husband and I were holidaying in England and we were just then preparing to check out of the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park and drive out to the county of Berkshire to spend a few days at the Vineyard at Stockcross, a well-known spa, before returning to our home in Tokyo.

Studying the detailed driving map, I realized that our destination, a modern Relais & Chateaux establishment with a two-star Michelin restaurant, was about 30 minutes away from the village of Bray. Bray itself is not a sightseeing spot (although it has plenty of history – what English village doesn’t?), and it doesn’t even make it onto most UK maps; but food lovers the world over know this tiny one-street village as the home of two Michelin three-star restaurants: Michel Roux’s Waterside Inn and Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck. Fat Duck was chosen by Restaurant magazine as the best restaurant in the world several years in a row and, last year, the enigmatic Blumenthal himself received an Order of the British Empire (OBE) for being chef-patron of the world’s best restaurant. It's also consistently included among the top five restaurants in the world by numerous other publications and dining associations.

I gasped upon realizing what this meant to a self-proclaimed foodie like myself. Then, without a second thought, I immediately called Suzanne, the very nice lady handling my membership at a London-based travel concierge I use. Suzanne has been known to perform minor miracles concerning reservations in impossible-to-get restaurants in various cities including New York and London. With little expectations because of the suddenness of my request, I asked her straight out if we could possibly get a table at Fat Duck for that week. This request seemed more like gambling than a sensible query -- especially since the (minimum) four-month waiting lists for this restaurant are more fact than urban legend, if you can even get through to their reservations office at all! – but I thought we should try our luck anyway.

Even the usually non-plussed Suzanne was fazed for a few seconds. "I'll try," she said, after a few deep breaths. Mind you, this was sometime back, before a recession hit the world and threw conspicuous consumption out the window, and also before Heston Blumenthal received some bad publicity for cases of food poisoning as a result of his experiments.

Within half an hour, Suzanne was back on the phone, breathing heavily as if she herself could not believe the good news. “You have a table for lunch on Thursday at 1 pm,” she said. “We have a very good contact there and we had to pull all kinds of strings to do so, so please don’t cancel. Besides, they will charge your credit card 80 pounds per person if you don’t show up.”

Apart from the prospect of a very good meal, the idea of losing 80 pounds certainly was an incentive to show up. I still don’t know how Suzanne did it, but, of course, we were going to be there for lunch at all costs. I’d been hearing of and reading about Fat Duck for years, and my taste buds were already nervous with anticipation. Depending on which reviews you read, Blumenthal is either cutting edge culinary genius and visionary pioneer of the new cool science of “molecular gastronomy,” or mad scientist with a fetish for liquid nitrogen – and possibly just a little bit of both. But either way, his food is guaranteed to be unlike anything you’ve ever tasted before.

We arrived at the very ordinary – at least by English standards -- village of Bray well before our reservation time. We'd actually driven past it three times, looking for a typical English village layout, which we failed to find. The central area of Bray has one very short main street, which can probably be driven through at leisure in less than 30 seconds, and a row of period buildings on one side of it.

In spite of this non-fuss layout, too, we again had trouble finding our world-famous restaurant. Within this very ordinary village, Fat Duck occupies a nondescript village townhouse with no aura at all of culinary greatness, no parking places, and only the most unobtrusive of signs to mark the place where royalty and presidents have dined.

After depositing our car in the common village parking lot, we walked towards the village center and unknowingly passed right by it. We would have gone back and forth, and bypassed it a few more times, if only several well-dressed people -- more appropriately attired for a smart lunch in Kensington than a meal in the burbs -- had not hurriedly appeared out of nowhere and entered the townhouse at exactly at one o’clock.

“That’s our restaurant!” I exclaimed, with the gut feel of the hungry.

We opened the door after them and found ourselves in the first of two small and very simple dining rooms, both with white-washed walls, low wooden ceilings with exposed beams, and modern art on the walls. By the time the people before us were seated, every table in the restaurant was occupied except a small one for two under the stairs at the other end of the room, which we joyfully knew would be ours.

The restaurant was strangely quiet in spite of the small, crowded rooms -- perhaps because they were all so busy trying to figure out what was on their plates. But everyone seemed to be beaming with the aura of good fortune, for being among the chosen few blessed with a confirmed reservation. And the different faces around the room belied Fat Duck’s global appeal: there was a group of Russians, a Japanese couple, an American family, and a handful of Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian men (including two who left in fancy chauffeured limousines afterwards) among the British diners. The room was like a mini United Nations on lunch break.

We ordered the eleven-course tasting menu (115 pounds per person) which serves many of the jaw-dropping food combinations and liquid nitrogen dishes that have made Mr. Blumenthal famous.

Our meal began with the amuse bouche, in this case a series of small dishes including a fresh oyster with horseradish cream, sour passion fruit jelly and lavender; and spicy Dijon-type mustard ice cream that we were supposed to eat with a sour sauce made from red cabbage gazpacho. Each appetizer was unusual, if not unthinkable; but the real shocker was the nitro-green tea and lime mousse that came first. For this “dish”, a waiter wheeled a wagon to our table, puffed out a concoction made of egg white, lime and green tea into a silver bowl, and then poured a thermos full of minus196 degree Celsius liquid nitrogen (enough to instantly freeze the skin off!) onto it. The contents were then scooped up into a hard ball with a mushy ice cream-like substance inside, and deposited onto our plate. We were then supposed to eat this in one mouthful. Hesitatingly, we gathered our courage and popped the ball into our mouths at the same time. The cold exterior quickly melted, revealing tastes and sensations not unlike green tea and lime.

Next was a Blumenthal specialty: snail porridge served with Joselito ham and shaved fennel. Just the idea of snails and porridge together was enough to make me nauseous (I don’t like escargot), but I forced myself to try it. Happily, molecular gastronomy was probably at work because I could not make out one dreaded ingredient from the other. The entire dish tasted more like a pleasant pesto risotto peppered with the strong flavor of ham.

Three other outstanding dishes are worth mentioning because they were so unusual in combination, and yet also extremely delicious. For a fish entree, a juicy piece of salmon was wrapped in sticky dark green liquorice with the consistency of soft rubber, and then served with fleshy pink grapefruit and aromatic Manni olive oil. Who would have thought candy would pair wonderfully with salmon? And yet the entire dish worked, with no ingredient losing its identity to others. I can still taste the flavors as I write this, and the very thought of it is making me hungry.

Then towards the end of the meal, bacon and egg ice cream was one of five unusual desserts. Again, a wagon was wheeled to our table and liquid nitrogen was poured over a concoction of eggs and bacon to whip up another melty ice cream ball that indeed tasted like bacon and eggs. For special effect, a very serious young man served it on breakfast plates and grandly announced, “Breakfast is served, madam” -- as if it was nine in the morning and not five in the afternoon.

Finally, the last surprise in a long day of amazement -- Mr. Blumenthal clearly enjoys impressing guests with tricks. We each were served tea in a clear glass cup that innocently looked like any other herbal tea readily available in these parts. The moment we took a sip, however, we were hit with a sensation of hot and cold lemon liquid all at once. Again, “molecular gastronomy” was at work, somehow seamlessly placing these two very different substances in one cup.

By the time we left Fat Duck, we were literally overwhelmed by our experience. We’d sat there for close to five hours, paid a small fortune, ate the most unimaginable combinations of food (or at least what once was food!) possible, and lived to tell others about it. Yes, we’d survived dish upon dish of liquid nitrogen.

“I think we should go back, even just every few years,” my husband said. “If only to make us think more out of the box. That guy’s a genius.”

I replied: “Then why do I feel like I didn’t really have lunch?”


Monday, December 7, 2009

The Birkin as a Travel Bag

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t mention my passion for a hand-stitched French leather bag that has my husband – and several other hundreds, if not thousands, of husbands around the world – gnashing his teeth over, except for the fact that they make such great travel bags.

When fully loaded with passport, tickets and paraphernalia, the regular-sized and extremely elusive Hermes Birkin bag -- named after the French actress Jane Birkin, more tedious to make than a luxury car and with a waiting list of up to three years, and reportedly designed by Hermes’ owner as he sat on an airplane listening to Jane Birkin complain about the difficulties of finding a decent handbag -- is as heavy as a pair of small weights.

It's also got another downside, as far as I'm concerned. When travelling with one, I’m constantly worried that my bag will be stolen from the hotel room, scratched on an airport security conveyor belt, or stained with red wine or some child’s ice cream. It's too big for the hotel safe, so if I'm not bringing it around town, I usually keep it locked inside my largest suitcase. Meanwhile, on the airplane, where stewardesses ask you to stow bags on top and I'm worried that my Birkin will get crushed under someone's heavy laptop bag, I quickly put it under my seat, spread out my blanker, and start reading the newspapers.

Yet, in spite of the inconveniences, I never leave home without one, and they’ve become such an integral part of my travel life that I’ve given away all my other bags and basically stopped buying other brands.

The Birkin is basically the high-end leather version of a sturdy bayong (shopping basket) so it’s incredibly useful for trips. And contrary to my security worries, the Birkin can actually be a safety blanket. When it's fully loaded, it can be as heavy as three encyclopedias so it’s great security for walking alone along a dark alley as you can probably knock an attacker out with it. I've strolled down many a deserted street in Rome and Florence after dinner at some trattoria confident that I could probably hit a stranger with my Birkin if needed.

Most owners keep theirs open with the lid tucked in so you can see the contents at a glance and easily pick out what you need. No need for rummaging! My mother is constantly admonishing me to keep my Birkins closed when we travel abroad, for fear of pickpockets – but you can’t really close a Birkin once you’ve experienced the ease of an open one. I just put a scarf or shawl on top to cover the contents and I'm ready to go.

And I dare anyone with sticky fingers to try getting their hands into one of my bags when they’re swinging from the crook of my arm (my favorite way of carrying a Birkin) or to even attempt to slash the thick leather. It’s practically impossible.

In major fashion cities, my bags have also been instrumental in securing hotel room upgrades, better service at airline counters, and even center tables at hard-to-book restaurants. I was at a trendy restaurant in London last July, walking with a friend to our designated side table just east of Siberia, when the maitre’d suddenly spotted my gold bag and, without missing a beat, re-directed us to the middle of the room. In New York recently, I walked into a very popular restaurant without a reservation – and my companions all agreed that the receptionist’s quick glance at my blue bag probably got us the table reserved for regulars.

Perks aside, the best part about my Birkins are the adventures they bring. My husband has constantly witnessed, with a mixture of amusement and shock, how complete strangers have struck up conversations at airports and hotels about color and leather, and couples have walked over at fancy restaurants just to inquire about the bag.

One woman in Tokyo, with an enthusiastic husband in tow, approached us as we were having dinner at the Tokyo American Club. I spotted them from afar as they walked towards us with big smiles -- and yet, for the life of me, I didn't know who they were. I assumed they were people we had met at some cocktail party who were now coming over to say hello. It turned out they were complete strangers, and the wife just wanted to feel a Birkin on her arm. Interestingly, the husband was even more conversant about Birkins than his wife. He knew everything about color, leathers and prices -- and even where in the world it's easiest to snare one (Tokyo used to be among the best places to buy a Birkin, and New York and London were among the hardest -- but that was before this awful global recession changed the economic face of the planet, of course).

Meanwhile a fashionable Parisian hotel owner, well-known for her Celine outfits and fabulous Hermes bags, even stopped me in the lobby of her hotel to compare notes on traditional Birkins vs. the newer Jean Paul Gaultier-designed shoulder version which was then dangling on my arm.

It was also a Birkin that led to a chance meeting with my good friend Alexa, a vivacious New Yorker with a bag collection to rival any Hermes store (40 bags at last count!), a wonderfully doting husband, and a family history that traces back to ancient Polish aristocracy and even a Pope. I’d just bought a beautiful calf leather bag in a serious shade of red called Rouge Garance at the Hermes George V store in Paris, and had posted information on it on an Hermes chat page. It turned out that Alexa was flying to Paris shortly, so she emailed to ask if I was interested in meeting up and comparing notes. Rouge Garance was very new then, and few people had seen the color in person.

I usually don’t agree to meet strangers, but Alexa had always been so witty and charming in her posts, that I had little reason to doubt she would be the same in person. She and her husband flew from New York straight to Paris and landed at 7 am, and after depositing their bags at their hotel, they walked over for coffee at mine. She was as different as I could possibly imagine, but we instantly clicked, discovering similar interests in art, history and finance. This has led to lots of correspondence and many very enjoyable dinners together – usually long evenings of nonstop chatter over dry aged steaks and lots of red wine in New York. Alexa and her husband are both strict vegetarians, but they thoughtfully take me to a great steak joint whenever I'm in New York. Dinners with them are always among the highlights of my visits to New York.

The most recent dinner was in November, when I caught up with Alexa after her return from Paris. We walked over to the midtown Smith & Wollensky near my hotel, the New York Palace. She and her husband had joined other Hermes VIPs for an amazing 24-hour party Hermes hosted to celebrate the renovation and re-opening of their flagship store along the Fabourg St. Honore, and entertained me the whole evening with amusing anecdotes from the party.

There are many more stories like this – and all because of a bag!

This originally appeared in a previous issue of Travelife Magazine.


Thursday, December 3, 2009

In Turkey with Mel Gibson's Guide

It takes more than facts & figures to make a great tour guide.

Turkey is one of my favorite destinations. Once, after a cruise from Istanbul to the Ukraine, my husband and I went to see the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Ephesus and the wondrous, sparkingly white crystalline formations at Pamukkale. We took an early morning flight from Istanbul to Izmir, Turkey’s third-largest city and the gateway for our explorations. At the airport, we were welcomed by Marti, our private guide for a week of touring around the region. We basically wanted a crash course on antiquities and Turkey’s ancient world, so I had specifically asked for someone with a good sense of culture, enough knowledge and patience to answer our many questions. An elderly college history lecturer with a good sense of humor, kind eyes and strong arms that he constantly claimed were sunburnt almost black from digging artifacts at the height of summer, Marti fit my wish-list for a tour guide exactly.

He certainly knew how to faze us from the outset.

“I took Mel Gibson around Turkey for a month when he was researching for the movie ‘The Passion of Christ,’” he casually told us at the airport, by way of introduction, as we stood in the driveway waiting for our van. “This was when I was on leave from teaching at the university and not conducting archeological digs.” If this was designed to impress, it worked.

Later on, at a local museum, he pointed to a tiny, delicate gold statue of a plump woman holding a jar, and said with pride, “I dug this with my bare hands two summers ago.”

In another museum, he walked straight to a broken jar of white clay as if this was a long-lost friend. I could have sworn he was teary-eyed. “I still remember how I discovered this,” he said. “I had been digging all day and I was already tired and ready to give up, when my hands felt something hard and round in the soil. I was so excited, but at the same time I had to remember to control myself, in case I damaged some part in the process. When I finally saw this jar, I felt it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.”

In Ephesus, Marti took us to the Library of Celsus and the ruins of the Temple of Artemis. It was a scorchingly hot day but he wove fantastic tales around each set of fallen columns or broken statues, that we were compelled – or rather, enthralled – to keep moving on. Every site had a story, and Marti resurrected each one with the expert touch of a magician.

However, Marti reserved the best tale for last. On our last day, he suddenly turned around from the front seat of the car with a quizzical look.

“Do you like jewelry?” He asked me. Without waiting for an answer, he continued: “Because you are such nice people, I’d like to take you to the place where I bought my wedding ring. We’ve been going here for years, and each year since we were married, my wife has saved up and bought a piece of jewelry here. Because it’s such a special place for us, she told me: ‘Marti, don’t bring tourists to my favorite store. Just bring friends.’ ”

It certainly sounded like a line. But after a happy week of wondrous stories, we willingly gave him the benefit of the doubt. Almost on cue, the driver did a sharp right turn and we found ourselves in front of a two-storey jewelry emporium with very friendly people who rushed out to greet us as soon as the van stopped. Many glasses of Turkish apple tea later, we left the store with some packages and a slightly used credit card.

“You will not regret it,” Marti told us back in the van, beaming back at me like a proud father. He certainly seemed to be in a good mood. “This will be your wonderful memory of your Turkish holiday.” (It certainly was. Each time I wear my necklace, I remember our wonderful time in Ephesus.)

When it was time to say goodbye, the question of tips came up. What exactly do you tip someone who has guided a Hollywood superstar and who practically dug up most of Ephesus with his bare hands? Somewhat compelled to match our appreciation for an educational and entertaining week to his impressive qualifications and to what we imagined might have been Mel Gibson’s Hollywood-sized tip, we gave an amount perhaps larger than necessary.

Back at our hotel, Marti received our parting gift with profuse thanks and left. We stood by the front entrance waving enthusiastically until he was finally out of sight.

“Did you have a good time here?” The doorman who had been observing us the entire time asked.

“Oh yes,” I answered. “Marti's a great guide. He took Mel Gibson around for a month when he was researching for his movie here.” I don’t know why I said this, but I felt this would prove what a good guide -- and what a great time -- we had.

The doorman smiled at me patiently, as if we were sharing a joke. “Oh, did he say it was Mel Gibson this time?”

This travel essay is currently included in the July-August 2009 issue of Travelife Magazine. Get your copy of our latest issue at bookstores and magazine stands now.