Category Archives: Travelogue

At the Chapel. A weekend for one

I’ve travelled on my own a lot. Buenos Aires, New York, Rome, Lucknow have all been solo adventures; each trip planned in excruciating detail down to where I would have my 4pm coffee and post dinner stroll. Bruton was different. The street I live on in London is possibly longer than the distance between the start and end milestones of this quaint village in Somerset. And save for long walks, an occasional cheddar cheese farm and a country outpost of a city art gallery there is little else to “do”. 

I packed my tablet with several movies, carried as many books as clothes, and took along more newspapers for this long weekend than I usually read in a month. I’m a city girl. What was I doing spending my birthday on my own in the middle of nowhere? Mad. 

Cold and windswept, I walked into At the Chapel in Bruton. Welcomed by muddy gumboots leaning cosily against each other, wafts of freshly baked bread, and the warmest smile I’ve been gifted in the longest time, I knew I had just made one of the better decisions of my life. Charlie swept me into the beautiful atrium restaurant, where I would return like a homing pigeon for the next three days.

  

   

I don’t make New Year resolutions, I never begin diets on a Monday… so the only way I can describe what happened in Bruton is ‘revelations’: 

Where you come from matters 

I imagine Somerset is beautiful in every season, but especially scenic as spring takes hold of its rolling hills and bustling coastline. A short drive from Bruton is Tom Calver’s Westcombe farm, where 280 cows graze their days away in lush fields, less than a mile from the dairy (something about not wanting to disturb the milk’s molecules with too much travel). A small group of men make this award-winning cheese by hand, carefully slapping and turning the cheese until it’s ready for a long sleep in the cave. Tom could have turned the family dairy into a “business”. Instead, he chose tradition. His commitment to artisan techniques has resulted in the best Cheddar anyone will ever taste.

 

Where you are going matters too

Beginning with my first skinny, dry cappuccino, At the Chapel got everything right. And whatever they didn’t, they corrected with smiles so wide, and hearts so warm that I struggle to name any flaws in my stay. I was lucky to meet owners Catherine Butler and Ahmed Sidki who first bought this now fabulous restaurant, bakery, wine shop and hotel to convert into their home. Instead what they ended up doing was create a home for everyone who walks through their doors. A home with gorgeous bedrooms, outstanding pizza, and a team of inn keepers who look after you even before you realise you need looking after.  

 

Where you are matters most 

I have not stood still for a while. Always looking back and looking forward, I lost sight of the ground right beneath my feet. I weep for the loves I have lost, for the life that may never come my way. I weep a lot. The love and warmth at At the Chapel brushed away my tears long enough for me to realise that I am already surrounded by old friends and new strangers who love me today, now. Where I am, matters the most.

 -p 

 This is how I spent my weekend in Bruton:

  • Stayed At the Chapel in a lovely room (£150) with South-facing views of The Dovecote (and not once felt the need to hide behind my collection of books and movies). Each hotel guest wakes up to a warm croissant left outside the door first thing in the morning. Best I’ve ever tasted.

     

  • Walked through muddy fields to the fantastic Hauser & Wirth gallery. 
  • Roth Bar & Grill makes a decent Negroni with the longest orange peel I have seen. I don’t recommend the food.
  • Spent all other meal times at At the Chapel.
  • Visited Westcombe Dairy and came back with a truck load of Tom Calver’s Caerphilly, Cheddar and Ricotta. Sipped on the local brew – Fresh by Wild Beer Co.
  • Walked to The Dovecote.
  • Promised myself to return to Bruton. Soon.

 

 

 

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Filed under Bar, Bar food, Breakfast, British, Cheese, Cocktails, Coffee, Hotel, Hotel restaurant, Pizza, Travelogue

Calcutta. Of pujas and puchkas

Calcutta felt like a wedding. Every street dressed up in lights; everyone resplendent in their traditional best; music pouring out of every household; and food stalls at every corner. The entire city was pulsating with celebration, coming together as one, to pray at a festival dedicated to Goddess Durga.

But this is a very romantic notion of Calcutta, one that I only witnessed briefly. If I had visited during any other time I would have come in search of the Calcutta of poets and philosophers, of colonialism and character. And I would have been disappointed to find that these don’t live on its garbage ridden streets anymore. I had come to Calcutta for its famous puchkas and for the puja, and wasn’t going to let the city get in my way.

My first port of call was Aaheli. Every first time visitor to Calcutta should do themselves the favour of a delicious meal and outstanding service at this Bengali restaurant. Even though I was referred to as “single madam” by the entire service team I enjoyed my Bhuri Bhoj Thali of topsey bhaja, begun bhaja, Gobindo bhog, dal raibahadur, bhaja masala alur dum, phulkopi kadaishuti, chingri malai curry, ilish paturi, shorshe bhetki, kasha mangsho, pualo, loochi, kalojam, and doi. My favourite from this feast was the ilish – the magnificent hilsa fish cooked in a banana leaf.

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IMG_3441The next day I ate a very similar meal at Kewpies, housed in a restored bungalow. The city’s food lovers seem to be divided between the two. I, unlike the locals I consulted before my travels, am firmly in the Aaheli camp.

Calcutta is an awkward city and most interesting neighbouroods are drives away from each other. The trick was to follow each meal with a walk. So Aaheli was followed by a stroll in the city’s Esplanade area and its absurdly popular New Market; I explored Park, Camac and Russell Streets and Shakespeare Sarani after tea at Flurys; and a much-awaited Calcutta chaat evening was preceded by a walk through Rashbehari Avenue and its innumerable saree shops.

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IMG_3488It is true what they say about killing an experience with anticipation. That happened with me and Calcutta’s street food. I ate all the right things at all the right places – jhal muri on Russell Street, dahi papri chaat outside Lighthouse Cinema, puchkas at Vivekananda Park, alur dum outside Dakshinapan – but give me Bombay’s bhel, Delhi’s gol guppas, and Benarsi papri chaat any day.

It wasn’t until I was picking my way through bloody intestines and goat’s hooves that I realised Saturday – dedicated to animal sacrifices to Goddess Kali – was not the best introduction to the city’s revered Kalighat Temple. There is nothing spiritual, or religious about going to most temples in India. There are more shops than devotees, priests sell their blessings for a quick buck, and people like me treat it like a tourist destination. But when I looked past the crowds, and silenced the cacophony of temple bells, mobile phones and mantras, what I was left with was the power of utter devotion.

IMG_3482I saw more of this power at the seven Durga Puja pandals I visited that night. Each one more exquisite than the next. Preparations begin eight months in advance and each neighbourhood puja committees fights for artistic supremacy, but the majesty of their devotion is undeniable.

One of the best meals I had was at Shiraaz – a simple meal of mutton chaap and chicken rezala in a room crowded with families on plastic chairs and laminated tables, takeaway orders, and too many waiters. It was also the restaurant where I was informed by a disapproving cashier that I was their first ever single, female diner. I loved it!

IMG_3491I drove on Howrah Bridge, walked across Dalhousie Square, got drenched in Victoria Memorial Park and paid my respects at St. Paul’s Cathedral on the way to my last stop – mishti at Girish Chandra Dey & Nakur Chandra Nandy. What I thought would be a quick stop turned into a 40 minute chat with the man in charge – Pranab Nandi. Seeing how lost I was before the sweet counter teeming with sandesh in every shape and flavour, he took pity on me and I was invited to wait in their kitchen. Over limbu cha and a sandesh tasting he spoke about his love for Bombay, of Calcutta’s milk being the best in the country, and how I had the eyes of a Bengali actress.

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IMG_3577I had only three days in the city, and so I must come back. For the rolls at Nizam’s, and a proper Calcutta paan; for a tram ride and a drink at the Tollygunge Club; to visit Dakshineswar and a first chai at the Mullick Ghat flower bazaar; a sherbet at Paramount after a stroll down College Street, and an afternoon in Tangra.

I must also come back to give puchkas a second chance.

Will the second chance I give Calcutta be an honest one? Do I really believe in second chances? In life? In love? I’ve had my version of the-one-great-love. Recently, I experienced something different. Something better. But will I free this new future from comparisons with my past? Will he?

-p

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Filed under Bengali, Calcutta, India, Indian, Street food, Travelogue

Barcelona on a plate

I’ve been to Spain all of twice. Barcelona in 2001 and then Madrid, a few years later. To say I hated my time in both cities would be an understatement of some sort. I had shoe bite, then food poisoning; I had restaurants refuse me entry and shop keepers deny me service. My handbag got stolen at a wedding reception and the boyfriend of the time… well, less said the better.

That should serve as some context for where I am coming from.

Eckhart Tolle writes: “The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it.” Over the past 11 years I have been so committed to hating Spain that I left absolutely no space in my heart or travel schedule to change my mind. It’s been a few years since I forgot what it actually felt like to be in those unpleasant situations. But I didn’t let go – it became a party anecdote, an office joke… Allowing an old story to become the real story is exhausting! Time had come for me to repair my relationship with Barcelona and decide anew where we stand.

The only aim of this trip was to walk the city, eat good food and ensure plenty of cava at breakfast. And get a tan while I’m at it. The magic of Twitter and some well-travelled friends (thank you Sabrina, Saffron, Aki, Maggie, Adarsh) ensured I was armed with enough restaurant names to last me a month. A last-minute gorgeous travel companion in Gina ensured we could now order for two and try more food!

Barcelona’s food was a revelation; a mismatch to the city’s ugly landscape (it’s time to look past Gaudi and the Gothic Quarter) and (mostly) surly people. Gina and I stayed away from five star hotels and Michelin meals to dig into the real magic of the city’s culinary scene – La Boqueria and the city’s tapas bars. Three meals a day weren’t enough for the greedy girls and we had to sneak in an extra tapas or two over the weekend. In no particular order, these are the highlights of my trip (we only ever ordered from the tapas bar, staying away from main course dishes).

LOLITA TAPERIA

A walk through a pretty dodgy area brought us to an unassuming neighbourhood where Lolita Taperia has made her home amongst dog walkers and local residents. Owned by Albert Adrià (yes, related to the El Bulli Adrià), this restaurant is bright and sassy. Lolita is a red-lipsticked bull who watches over the chefs from her place on the main wall. Like almost every tapas bar we visited over the weekend, this one too is very quiet at 8pm. I loved:

  • La Burrata Lolita (creamy Burrata with with mustard sprouts, rocket, semi-dried tomato and black tapenade)
  • La Gilda ‘Verd Picant’ (Basque ‘piparras’ or long green pepper with a stuffed olive, wrapped by an anchovy)
  • El Llom de Tonyina en escabetx lleuger (tuna loin in ‘ponzu’ (marinade of soy, olive oil and natural lemon juice)
  • Les ‘Rabas’ de pollastre (crusted chicken nuggets with potato crisps and Kurkuma sauce)
  • And of course, Cava.

TAPAÇ24

The kitchen is directed by El Bulli trained Carles Abellan who prepares simple tapas with a unique twist. A rare all day diner-style café, Tapaç24 is all about casual and counters. The service bordered on rude… that is, until we were seated. Soon as we were settled in with our Cava we had attentive help from not one but three wait staff (including, telling me to be careful about leaving my phone around). I loved:

  • Bikini Comerç24 (grilled truffle ham and cheese – WOW)
  • Iberian ham croquette
  • Pa amb tomàquet (available in every restaurant in Barcelona; literally “bread with tomato” in Catalan. The toast is rubbed with tomatoes, garlic, and seasoned with olive oil and salt.)
  • A white fish ceviche that was so divine, Gina could not stop talking about it the entire weekend
  • And of course, Cava

BAR VELODROMO

Barcelona is dead quiet Sundays and Mondays, with more than half the (non-touristy) restaurants and shops closed on these days. Bar Velodromo was one of two restaurants near us that was open seven days of the week. Every review I read tagged it some version of a “Barcelona institution”. Re-opened after nearly a decade with the shutters down, the bistro is art deco stunning with a formica-plated steel bar, mahogany staircase, lime green banquettes, marble floors and a double height ceiling. Legend has it that for most of the 20th century this was a meeting place of the Catalan intelligentsia, underground political groups and the 1960s artistic group known as La Gauche Divine.

Everything on the menu was reasonably priced and it was all excellent. We sat at the bar and pointed at food on the counter. Still hungry, we were grateful for the English menu that was kindly sent our way. The highlight for us though, were two salads we ordered at the end of the meal. Catalan food is extremely meat/fish focused and by Sunday night we were craving something fresh and colourful. Anything fresh and colourful! Gina’s tomato salad and my spinach and orange salad were just the ticket. And of course, Cava. (Bar Velodromo is at Carrer de Muntaner, 213 Barcelona.)

PACO MERALGO

Paco Meralgo, the other restaurant open everyday, means “to eat something”; and eat we did. This is the only restaurant we went back to twice. Like most of our choices this weekend, this menu too has a long list of mostly tapas-style options, with a strong focus on the seafood items. It was also the only meal we had more wine than food and flirted with unsuspecting diners. I loved:

  • Zuchini blossoms stuffed with mozzarella
  • La Bomba – an oozy potato croquette stuffed with a meat and cream sauce, served with a spicy Romesco sauce.
  • All the croquetas – meat and seafood
  • And of course, Cava

JAI-CA

Gina and I wanted to spend Sunday on the beach, and the plan was to begin with brunch at a hot recommendation. We spent the better part of an hour looking for this restaurant but to no avail (we later found out it was closed for August). Nick, a friend’s friend, was playing tour guide for the day and when he saw us in near tears at the news, he took us to Jai-Ca. Nick ordered for us and after the first few dishes I lost track of what I was eating. The highlight however was their “Tigre” – mussels crumb fried in their shells served with a sauce. Not only was this some of the best food I had in the city, it was also the cheapest.

 

The hot, over-crowded tapas bar was possibly the most authentic Barcelona experience I had the entire trip. Neon signs, food display – shrimps, navajas, calamares, pimientos del pardon, pictures of Barça players on the walls, inordinately long queues, shocking service, and outstanding food – Jai-Ca is easily one of my current top 10 restaurants in Europe.  (Jai-Ca is at C/ Ginebra, 13 08003 Barcelona.)

I didn’t get to try a xuxos in the Boqueria. The famous Cal Pep was closed for the Summer and I forgot to look up the address for Dos Palillos. Tickets is booked out for years to come and I don’t know what a Catalan yemas tastes like. But I can live with that. As Tolle said: “Sometimes letting things go is an act of far greater power than defending or hanging on”. The only reason yesterday’s story seemed so real today is because I insisted on bringing my past into my present. I did that with Barcelona and wonder how many other stories need to be laid to rest?

-p

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Filed under Bar, Bar food, Barcelona, Communal tables, Seafood, Spanish, Tapas, Travelogue, Wine