Writing Portfolio


Time for tea

A forum post on the Wanderlust website got me thinking today. What’s the best tea or coffee I’ve ever had?

I really like tea. I get through rather a lot of the stuff every day and I have a somewhat larger-than-usual mug at work, because that second cup is never quite the same as the first.

But the best one? That’s tricky.

Sometimes they’ve been memorable for the venue. Tea served with condensed milk in rural Kenya, or out of a samovar on an overnight train in Ukraine. Tea from a Thermos flask on top of Pen-y-Ghent in the Yorkshire Dales, or on a windswept Suffolk beach.

Or, let’s face it, served slightly stewed when poured from a very large pot during tea at a cricket match.

My strangest tea-drinking experience was in Khartoum where there are women who serve chai on street corners for passers-by. They all have their own small single-burner stove and a kettle that looks like it was hand-made out of an unidentified larger metal container. I cannot speak Arabic and so had no idea what I was being charged – I just grabbed a handful of coins from my pocket and the woman selected the correct change.

But in the end, I think that the best one is the first of the day. Wherever I may be.

And coffee? Well, in my opinion you can’t beat an espresso in a cafĂ© in any Italian town. But I am partial to Tim Hortons when I’m in Canada.


Travel book reviews

Reading is a favourite pastime of mine, and in my opinion there’s nothing much that beats a good travel book (it’s not for nothing that I regard the six months I spent working for Stanfords as one of the best jobs I ever had). Below are my reviews of four travel books that I’ve read recently.

To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron

I rather like Colin Thubron. He can take a while to get going at times, but he had me gripped from the start with his latest book in which he treks into Tibet to join the faithful of four different religions on the pilgrimage to Mount Kailas. Although he never quite explains why he, an agnostic, opted to undertake this highly spiritual yet physically very arduous journey (there are autobiographical snippets woven into the text which offer some clues), what is clear is that he is in his element, combining his travelogue with asides about Nepalese and (particularly) Tibetan society and descriptions of why this mountain is held sacred by so many people – around a fifth of the world’s humanity. Thubron has been described as one of the last of the gentleman-travellers – his public-school background and his obvious erudition are factors here, but there’s much more to him than that. He’s made his name by going to out-of-the-way places and providing the reader, who is frankly unlikely to visit such parts of the world, with vivid descriptions of the terrain and the people he meets. What’s more fascinating with this particular adventure is that he did this trek, which is not for the faint-hearted as several fellow-walkers discovered, when he was seventy; there are people half his age who wouldn’t have lasted five minutes.

By the way, I found this interview with Colin Thubron on the BBC recently. Fascinating stuff!

On the Shores of the Mediterranean by Eric Newby

Eric Newby was one of those writers who didn’t improve with age. His early material was very, very good and made his reputation, but his later work was largely generic stuff which failed to match his earlier standard. Compare and contrast, say, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush with Round Ireland in Low Gear. Written in the 1980s, this book is one of the later efforts – a travelogue in which he and his wife visit countries which lie on the Med, and the ‘eccentric Englishman abroad’ persona that Newby made his own is very much to the fore. A couple of the chapters are very good, and it so happens that they are the ones in which the Newbys went off the beaten track into countries that were very much closed to foreigners at the time – namely Communist Albania and Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya. However, much of the rest is fairly derivative, and the overall effect is not so much a travelogue as a collection of essays wrapped around a central theme. There’s never enough space for all of my books in our little flat, so I fear that this one may be on its way to the charity shop the next time I decide to purge my bookshelves.

Vroom by the Sea by Peter Moore

First of all, let me state that Peter Moore is one of my favourite writers so any review by me is probably going to be favourable. I re-read this book after my recent Italian holiday, and I read it with a smile. This is the second of Peter’s Vespa trips around Italy (Vroom with a View was the first), and the basis for this particular adventure is that Peter’s wife is expecting their first child, and with fatherhood imminent he gives his old, carefree life one last hurrah by flying out to Italy, getting astride a bright orange Vespa and heading for the coast. I’m no biker, but it’s hard not to warm to this two-wheeled trip around Sardinia, Sicily and the southern Italian mainland. He is able to describe the journey and his surroundings so well that you feel that you’re there with him – on the road, meeting the locals and eating that lovely food. Frankly, I challenge anyone to read this book and not imagine, if only for one fleeting minute, about riding round Italy on a scooter. The final chapter, in which he joins hundreds of Vespisti on a night rally in the hills outside Pisa, is a particularly fine ending not just to the book but to Peter’s time as a solo traveller.

A Season with Verona by Tim Parks

I’d not read anything by Tim Parks before, and quite frankly the appeal in this book was that it promised to show a side of Italian life that the tourists never see – and quite frankly would be shocked if they did. This is an introduction to football fandom, Italian-style, which begins with an epic description of a return journey from Verona to Bari in the company of some decidedly eccentric individuals who live for the team that is Hellas Verona. At 54 pages, it’s the longest chapter in the book and there are times when the rest of it fails to live up to such a lively introduction. That said, this is no Italian take on Fever Pitch as Parks even gets to explore things from the club’s perspective when he is invited to fly with the team to a couple of the games – a writer’s perk, it seems. Given that he was doing this during a season in which Hellas Verona were involved in a relegation dogfight, there’s an element of suspense that will keep you guessing to the final few pages whether the team will manage to avoid the drop if you don’t know what happened already (I would guess that most readers will not). This isn’t a conventional travel book as there is no almost no tourist stuff here – football fans don’t go to Rome for the sights, they go for the match and are expected to leave as soon as the game is over. However, it does present a view of Italy and the Italians that is a few steps removed from the guide books, and as such it’s something I’d recommend to anyone with an interest in that country.

Just so you know, these reviews have also been posted on Amazon.


The Butcher of Panzano

A write-up of our lunch at Dario Cecchini’s place during our Tuscan holiday last month, a slightly different version of which I’ve already posted on the Wanderlust website. Highly recommended.

It’s eleven on a Sunday morning, and a small crowd has gathered outside the butcher’s shop in Panzano-in-Chianti, located just off the main square. This hill-top Tuscan town is located approximately half-way between Florence and Siena on the Chiantigiana (the ‘Chianti Road’), better known on the road-maps as route 222. We’re staying there for a week, and today we are dining in one of several restaurants ran by the town’s most famous inhabitant. Who happens to be the butcher.

The butcher’s can be seen from the main road due to its striking red and white colour-scheme. Immediately outside, the first indication that this man is no ordinary butcher can be seen by a red rose pinned to the wall below a plaque mourning the death of the bistecca alla fiorentina, the thickly-cut T-bone steak usually served very rare that can be had in the restaurants of Florence for about €45 per kilo which was the victim of EU attempts to ban beef on the bone back in 2001.

Only later, by the way, do I spot the obvious link between the bistecca and the vast amount of leather goods that can be purchased in Florence.

The crowd outside and inside the butcher’s is mostly but by no means exclusively Italian, and they’re all enthusiastically eating samples of cooked meats. Inside, assistants in clean white aprons offer trays covered in slices of Tuscan bread liberally spread with lardo. Despite the early hour, glass tumblers are filled with locally-produced Chianti from overly large fiasco bottles. The combination of the lardo and the wine is inspired, and a great way of breaking the ice. This gathering at the butcher’s on a Sunday morning has to all intents and purposes become a gathering of friends.

The man we’ve all come to see is Dario Cecchini, who inherited the business from his father over thirty years ago (he’s a seventh-generation butcher) and who sees himself as an artisan in search of quality. A living legend in foodie circles even though he’s never published a book or fronted a TV show (he sees this as being too commercial), he is constantly working to discover the best cutting and cooking methods for each piece of meat. In his search for the perfect meat, he imports beef from Spain as well as using locally-raised beef. Butchery Italian-style – no, make that Tuscan-style – is a world apart from any butcher’s I have ever seen in London.

He appears behind the counter to cheers from everyone who has managed to cram into the shop. Speaking through a translator, Dario recites from Dante before expanding on his ‘manifesto of meat’. He’s all for making use of the whole animal, which he believes needs to have lived a happy life in order for it to become good quality meat. One thing he says gets a big laugh. “He says, if you just want a sirloin steak, you can go away,” explains the translator.

We’ve opted for the Solociccia, the lunch which is held in the building opposite the butcher’s and costs €30 per head. Those in search of bistecca alla fiorentina have the option of the Officina (€50 per head). As lunch time approaches, the crowd disperses. I make my way to the restaurant, hoping that the amount of lardo I’ve taken on board won’t affect my enjoyment of what is to come.

As we enter, the table is groaning with bottles of water (still and sparking), red wine, bread, olive oil, salt and raw fresh vegetables (carrots, celery and onion). The way to eat the vegetables is to dip them in the oil, which is of the finest quality, and the salt. Waiters bring out further non-meat options by way of veggies deep-fried in batter. I have long been of the opinion that nothing that’s been deep-fried in batter can be bad, and in this case my views are vindicated.

Two types of bread accompany the meal – focaccia and Tuscan bread, which is made without salt. It is best eaten dipped in oil and salt – the salt in question being Dario’s Profumo del Chianti, a combination of the finest sun-bleached salt and aromatic herbs.

This is no conventional restaurant. There won’t be a waiter to take my order – we’ve all got a menu saying what will be served, and we can have as little or as much of each as we want.

Looking at the menu, there is some momentary confusion when the English translation of the first item is ‘muzzle and broth’. Surely, I wonder, this should be mussels? If so, why is a man famous for the many ways in which he serves beef giving us seafood? But no. When a man like Dario Cecchini says it’s muzzle, it’s muzzle – served in a broth. Like I said, every part of the animal is used. It’s delicious.

While I’ve been acquainting myself with muzzle, the waiters have brought out plates of Ramerino in culo – ‘rosemary up your bum’. It’s a cube of almost-raw minced beef an inch in diameter with a sprig of rosemary sticking out. Speaking as an enthusiastic amateur cook who regards minced beef as something to be used in cottage pie, chilli-con-carne or that Anglicisation of Italian cuisine that is spag bol, I find this simple dish to be a revelation.

All of the dishes are served on platters which the waiters leave on the table for the customers to pass round. This inevitably leads to interaction between the customers, who are all sitting around one big table. This communal dining makes for a very friendly affair in which mutual appreciation of very good food overcomes any language barrier.

Next up are Arrosto fiorentino (a top round roast cooked rare with herbs and Profumo di Chianti and mixed with olive oil), Tenerumi in insalata (boiled beef in vegetable salad) and Umidi (braised meats), accompanied by fagioli (white beans, a Tuscan staple) in oil. I’m lost for words, and am convinced that I’ve gone to Foodie Heaven.

We’re sitting at a table of a dozen people. Next to me is a twenty-something Italian who works for Gucci in Florence and has come here for lunch with some friends. I find it fascinating that the Sunday meal out of choice for a group of twenty-something Italians should be to a place like this. They’re smart people, those Italians – and I don’t mean in terms of their dress sense. As well as our own Anglo-Canadian trio, we also have a group of elderly Americans at our table, who know of Dario through a wine dealer back home in California. When the man himself appears to check on how everyone is enjoying their meal (we all cheer him), the Americans ask him to sign a photo for their friend back home.

Outside, the overcast April day turns into a short hail-storm which peters out into a bright and sunny afternoon. No-one pays any attention to this.

And then, too soon, the meat dishes have all been finished. Although I don’t think I can eat any more, I find room for the olive oil cake, which is light and delicious. I need to find a recipe for this online.

Dinner is concluded with a choice of digestivo – grappa or a shot of Cordiale dell’Esercito Italiano (Italian military spirit). Even the Italians at our table shy away from the latter, but I gamely give it a try. I don’t know much about the Italian military, but I can confirm that their post-dinner spirit of choice is powerful stuff.

Thus fed, we make our way back to our apartment in glorious sunshine, thankful that we don’t have to drive anywhere. We do not eat anything else for the rest of the day.

For further information, please refer to Dario Cecchini’s website.


I'm not just in the local paper. I write for it.

I write for my local paper in East Finchley. It’s called The Archer (after the iconic statue on the Tube station) and it’s delivered to around 9,500 households in London N2. It’s non-political and is run entirely on a volunteer basis. I’ve been reporting for them for over a year now, and in that time I’ve interviewed the executive producer of Embarrassing Bodies (he lives in East Finchley), the manager of our local greengrocer’s (they’ve been going for forty years), written several articles about birdwatching in the local area and even done a match report of how the cricket team I play for, N2 CC, did in the Mill Hill Sixes. Being a volunteer journalist, I have rediscovered, is a lot of fun – much more fun than my real job!

Anyway, I have three articles in this month’s edition on subjects as diverse as a recent council by-election, a brass band raising money for charity and a watch shop that sadly closed down thanks to Barnet Council’s outrageous CPZ charges. Plus, one of Allison’s recipes has been published. Believe me, it’s a good one.