Sharpen your knives, cross your swords – make way for Kungfu Kitchen

Let’s leave the generic sweet and sour tastes behind and move onto the umamis – Kungfu Kitchen fuses the best of Finnish ingredients with a strong slash of Asia thrown in.

Miro Kurvinen – Finnish Master Chef and innovator

The octopus is slightly charred but picked up with the sweetness of the mango, imported sadly and not as sweet as I, as a South African, am used to it. But the octopus ink mayo sheds a whole new shadow on this dish complementing the smoke of the main ingredient. Salmon is so soft it can be severed with a chopstick and sweet with a nutty dash of sesame oil. I love tartar, any form of it and this one is made with Finnish beef and Kimchi mayo that looks like two perfectly formed egg yolks on the side. It makes your mouth tingle especially with the Brandt Riesling from Pfalz, Germany that teases out the flavour of the parsley garnish for some strange reason. It’s a delightful combo.

Charred octopus with a bite of chili on top

Can’t say much for the shiitake mushroom dumplings or the hoisin duck banh bao, those fluffy buns from Vietnam, since both lack punch. More acidity perhaps? The Frank Massard Mas Amor Rosé tends to dominate the delicate flavours. I look forward to the marbled beef Yakiniku and especially the Nebbiolo d’Alba and there it is, a simple, no-nonsense dish with a lighter style of this typically big wine, filling in the edges to complete the main course.

Sweet, soft salmon
Tartar with Kimchee mayo

The concept of this restaurant is tight, the wine list is well chosen and ambience can be found around every nook and cranny with new details to be discovered in the upholstery, lighting and seating. Oh, and don’t forget to see the Zen-type garden in the courtyard. It too, oozes elegance.

Marbled beef Yakiniku

Link:

Kungfu Kitchen

Berat – an Albanian Must-See

When the overcrowded, touristy beaches all get too much, head for the hills.

If you’ve had it up to here with new architecture, crowded beaches, dirty resorts, jump on a furgon, privately-owned minibuses, and get the hell away from the coast to this beautiful city where old, Ottoman architecture in all its white glory still survives. Most Albanians are pretty friendly, but hospitality takes the biscuit in Berat.

Ottoman Architecture in Berat

I always choose Airbnb because it lines the pockets of the locals and not some huge probably foreign-owned conglomerate chain. You get to know the people too and here’s where the real Albania lies. The guy sitting behind me on the bus, peers over my shoulder with the address I’m looking for on the piece of paper. What would normally seem like strange manners, he tells me where to get off and I’m grateful to him. My little suitcase doesn’t weigh much but rolling it over the slippery stones towards my destination is not an option so I have to carry it. I stop to ask some young guys directions. They smile at me, call my landlord Petrit Sheshaliu and lug my luggage up the hill to his place. A warmer welcome you couldn’t get. The airy room is high up, looks over the city and is equipped with air-conditioning, phew!, and excellent wi-fi. Petrit and his wife are delightful. Petrit serves me homemade berry juice, drive me to Çobo Winery (see Albanian Surprise: http://foreignfinn.com/?p=1638) and waits for me to take me back. The breakfasts come with homemade jams and they’re quick to point out that the butter and cheese has not been bought in the supermarket but locally sourced from a farmer. It’s all delicious.

Petrit and his lovely wife

The Mangalem district or Old Town with its three mosques and Ottoman architecture, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Exploring it takes you over rocky patches, through small walkways, passed flowery window boxes and quaint chimneys. If you keep looking, you will eventually find Lili’s Homemade Food which is absolutely where you want to eat. The four or five tables in the tiny courtyard are usually fully booked in the evenings but lunchtime is a good bet and lasts from 12.30 to 4.30pm. Lili, strange as it may sound, is a man with impeccable hosting skills who knows how to make you feel comfortable, wanted and at-home. Stuffed tomatoes, aubergines, pork with cheese, and byrek pastry, come in huge quantities and don’t be fooled by the size of the portions on the photoboard that acts as a menu, it’s a lot bigger than you imagined. Lili’s father makes the homemade wine from Shesh i Zi and Merlot and it’s a brilliant accompaniment to the food they serve. You get chatting with people at the next table and before you know it, you’ve exchanged details about your life with complete strangers. Getting away is the hard part and Lili insists on drinking a small, yes homemade, raki or firewater with you which settles the tummy and sends you on your way with the best of memories. Don’t give up on finding this unique spot – just keep asking and eventually you’ll stumble upon it.

Lili’s Homemade Food – keep trying until you find it
You’ll not go hungry (or thirsty!) at Lili’s

The climb up the mountain to the Castle is a trek but needs to be done to see the sweeping views over the city and the Byzantine churches. On the way back, take a break from the super-slippery stone road to see the Ethnographic Museum which constitutes an enormous home of a former rich Muslim landowner and gives you a glimpse into the daily lives of the citizens of Berat. The archways are low so be careful of your head.

Ethnographic Museum, Berat

The Boulevard or ‘strip’ as I might call it, fills up with the people who live in this city in the evenings. Well turned out families buy ice cream for their kids, young guys try to catch the eyes of the stunningly, sexy girls while the elderly amble along enjoying the cool, breeze and the social chumminess of it all. Tolerance is a word that springs to mind when you know that Muslim, Orthodox and Catholic all live and have lived side by side for many centuries here which is the oldest, continuously occupied city in the world.

Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics live in perfect harmony in Albania

Links:

Airbnb – Petrit Sheshaliu

Ethnographic Museum

Lili’s Homemade Food

Butrint – City of Occupations

A 45-minute bus ride from Sarande will get you to Butrint for 100 lek (0,76EUR). Entrance fee will set you back another 700 lek (5,50 EUR), every bit of it worth it. Its history has seen all kinds from pre-historic man to Romans, Greeks, Christians, Byzantines, Venetians and finally Ottomans. It tells a tale of civilisations and how they lived but also enables you to take a walk through the National Park of Butrint on the banks of the Vivari Canal. Historical monuments, nature and landscape all make it a well-deserved UNESCO World Heritage listing.

Eucalyptus trees line the entrance to the ancient city of Butrint

In spite of cars and tourist buses blocking traffic to and from the entrance, it has remained remarkably untouched by development. There’s a little kiosk inside that sells some handicrafts from the area but mostly people are lining up for the cold drinks from the fridge. The restaurant close by is the only one and no one crowds the sidewalks with made-in-Taiwan trinkets for sale.

An avenue of massive eucalyptus trees provides much-needed shade as you begin your walk. It takes you through the Chapel of Asclepius, Greek god of healing whom the frail and ailing would worship in hopes of a cure. They would sleep in the area and relate their dreams to physicians and medicine men eagerly proffering interpretations and selling them herbal concoctions to make them well again. The ancient Theatre was established by the Greeks but later re-modelled according to the Roman style. Today the International Theatre Festival Butrinti2000, held in July, fills the stone seating with audiences applauding drama, orchestral and dance performances in this magical setting.

What is left of the cult of Asclepius, on display in the museum.

The Baptistry and the Great Basilica attest to the Episcopal or Christian period albeit a cult establishment from the 6th Century. A staircase through the medieval Lion Gate leads you up the hill to the crowning glory where the remains of a Venetian castle, beautifully reconstructed in the 1930s, houses the museum. If you’d been wondering what had happened to the archaeological finds dug up over the years, this is where you’ll see the intricate sculpture of the Greeks, the fine glassware of the Romans and the primitive flint tools of the ancients. It is an excellent collection with easy to read explanations of each period. In praise of the Greek period are the inscriptions alluding to manumission or the freeing of slaves and that done by women who, unlike their Greek classical counterparts, were able to own and release them at Butrint.

The Baptistry
The Great Basilica

This ‘microcosm of Mediterranean history’ as mentioned on the UNESCO website, survived occupations by the Byzantines and the House of Angevin or Anjou, English kings also known as one of the four royal houses of the Plantagenets. Who would have thought their empires in the 13th Century would extend so far east? Fortifications kept on getting bigger and stronger until Ali Pasha, the notoriously cruel Albanian Ottoman, built a new one in the 19th Century. After the decapitation of the ‘Lion of Yannina’ by the Ottomans because of his separatist attacks, Butrint was abandoned.

Fine Roman glassware

What is left is a rich legacy of a long period in time which stands as a testament to history, architecture, sculpture, theatre, science and domestic life.

Links:

Butrint

 

Albanian Surprise – Çobo Winery, Berat, Albania

Some kilometres outside Berat you think you’ve landed in a real dump with nothing much to offer than a statue in the centre of town and the ubiquitous cafés surrounding it. The place is called Ura Vajgurore and this is where the gem is to be found.

Çobo Winery in Ura Vajgurore, near Berat, Albania

The winery consists of a huge house attached to the cellar, bottling plant and tasting room. A charming gentleman steps forth and introduces himself as Muharrem Çobo, owner, winemaker and marketing director. He knows how to do all three of these things well. Here’s why.

Muharrem Çobo, owner, winemaker, marketing director

Taking us through the cellar which produces no more than 100 000 bottles per year, he tells us that the grapes are sourced from their own vineyards and others that they buy in. The stainless steel tanks for primary fermentation look pretty new and shiny and then there’s the room where all the vats are kept most of them new Barriques and some older large ones. I notice the riddling board where several bottles of sparkling are awaiting a turn and he tells me it’s his new baby, making a bubbly out of Puls, a white wine grape only found in this region. Everything is done by hand and carefully monitored by Muharrem himself. His first batch of Shendeverë, the name of the fizz suggesting the good life, has been sold out except for a few bottles kept for tasting.

An impressive tasting room

Our next stop is the tasting room, a fabulous facility where you’re able to indulge in the line-up of wine as well as have some bread, cheese and olives to go with it. Shesh I Bardhe is an example of a traditional Albanian white wine, kept as pure as possible to its traditions without too much interference. It’s got a strange flowery nose almost like honeysuckle and has some gooseberry on the palate with good acidity and something slightly bitter but not offensively so, on the finish. Shesh i Zi reminds me of Pinot Noir which I find out later is in fact true. It’s acidic, bright and fresh with berry fruit on the palate. But it’s Kashmer that gets my attention. The name is made up of the 3 grapes it contains viz. Cabernet (Kabernet) Sauvignon, Shesh i Zi and Merlot. This is an earthy wine and tells the story of its terroir. There’s enough fruit and acidity to keep it interesting right through the finish which is medium. The flagship is next up – E Kugja e Beratit meaning ‘the red of Berat’. This grape varietal is also called Vlosh and has seen the inside of small oak barrels for 6 months and 4 months in big ones. It comes from a small parcel of land measuring 2 hectacres. It has a deep nose of horse, leather and covers the palate with thick, velvety tannins that are not overwhelming. The finish is looong and satisfying. Put it together with a meaty dish on a cold winter’s night and life’s complete.

The reds got my attention
Muharrem’s new baby – a sparkling made from an original Albanian grape called Puls.

As I said before, Muharrem knows what he’s doing. The pricing is somewhat more than you would expect from Albanian wines but the quality is all there and for a small set-up like his, paying €30 for their E Kugja e Beratit is not unthinkable. It might be difficult to sell this to a consumer after import taxes, transportation, etc. but production is so little that he probably doesn’t have a lot to export anyway.

What a surprise to find a top class winery in the wilds of Albania that understands the international market and sticks with what it knows best i.e. grapes from the area that speak of the oldest winemaking tradition in Europe.

Links:

Çobo Winery

Sad in Sarande, Albania

From Corfu to Sarande, the ferry takes about 30 minutes. A nice, easy ride across the Adriatic gets you there but upon arrival I was shocked by the hotchpotch design of the city perched against the hill facing out over the bay. Electric cables join some pleasant looking buildings with some half-finished construction sites and if it weren’t for the boulevard and its palm trees, all would be lost.

Flowers Room – a haven in the heart of Sarande from Airbnb

The streets and steps, and there are plenty of the latter, are fairly decent but veer slightly off the beaten track and you notice so much trash and litter with rubbish bins overflowing and not a hint of recycling in place. Then you find out that tap water is undrinkable and that you need to buy bottled water to survive the hefty heat in the summer. Too much plastic, too much waste and very little urban planning is turning this seaside town into a concrete jungle with little more to offer than clear water and wall-to-wall beaches, a lot of which are private ones where you’re required to rent a lounger and umbrella. Top of the awful pops music blares and one bar competes with another as to choice and volume.

Ksamil islands – ‘commercial’ takes on a new meaning

You can’t say it’s not cheap, cheap it is in every way possible. Few shops have anything of value to offer and the restaurants have the same menu wherever you go i.e. ‘country’ salad, risotto, spaghetti, fish, seafood and meat. My country salad consisted of deliciously fresh veg and lettuce with feta cheese and olive oil salad dressing but the lamb ribs which I was looking forward to, came piled high on a plate with no more than a wedge of lemon. Ribs they weren’t, just random cuts of meat.

Too much plastic and trash

Everyone recommends Ksamil Islands but if you think Sarande is commercial, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Every inch of beach is lined with the ubiquitous sunbeds and umbrellas all costing something albeit cheap in comparison to other Mediterranean countries. Trash decorates the sidewalks with not a collector in sight.

My saving grace in Sarande was the haven of peace and beauty called Flowers Room which I booked through Airbnb. Besmir and his family couldn’t have been kinder or more generous and the smell of herbs and foliage filled the night air. Air conditioning meant that you could close out the sounds of honking hooters and get a good night’s sleep. I felt as if I’d hit the jackpot.

Kristiano Wine Bar – a must-see

Having said what I’ve said so far, there is one spot which is worth a mention – the wine bar called Kristiano, way up high on the hillside and perhaps impossible to find if it weren’t by taxi. The interior is elegantly rustic complete with stuffed animals and the terraces outside look out over the bay. Sip a glass of wine and just take it all in, including the huge cruise vessels that stop in during the summer months. My hike down the mountain was made all the more pleasant when I joined a mother, her child and grandmother who took me down a shortcut through bush and thoroughly uneven terrain. What amazed me even more was that granny and daughter were both wearing wedge-heeled sandals leaping across boulders and rocks with the sure-footedness of gazelles. We waved a friendly goodbye to each other when we hit the first tarred road.

View over the bay from Kristiano Wine Bar

Friendliness, smiles and generosity are in ample supply in this city and while English doesn’t trip off their tongues, they make an effort to understand you and to get you what you want. Here’s to the locals, in every way! My advice on food – go to the market, buy the freshest of ingredients and cook your own. The fish and seafood from the fish shops is excellent as is the meat from the many butcheries scattered across town. With a lathering of olive oil and green herbs, you’re your own best chef. One more thing, the internet works well in cafés and restaurants.

Links:

Flowers Room

Kristiano Wine Bar

 

Ackerman Winery – Saumur, Loire Valley

The more you read about this company, the more you like it. From the word go, Jean-Baptiste Ackerman, understood the principals of local and locality. He did his homework well and then transferred his store of knowledge applying it in a new place.

Ackerman Winery, Saumur, Loire Valley

From the caves of Champagne where this wealthy banker’s son from Antwerp, learnt the tricks of the trade, Ackerman proceeded to Saumur in the Loire Valley in 1810. His vision was to recreate those fine bubbles of mousse rising steadily to the top of the glass using the grapes of the area. He bought some of the best tracts of underground galleries consisting of cool, limestone caves and started implementing his ideas. Instead of importing experienced workers, he decided that local was best and launched forth in educating the people around him teaching them the ‘méthode traditionelle’. He even married locally. His bride was the daughter of a rich banker carrying the name of Laurance and hence the brand name Ackerman was extended. His sparkling wine, which he labelled ‘champagne’, a mistake that would cost him dearly, received high acclamation from a wine-tasting jury spurring the company on to export. Due to his efforts, an addition to the railway line from Paris to Rennes and Angers, ended up in Saumur and from there Saumur Brut became widely known in England, Russia, Sweden, Germany and Belgium.

Ackerman and Laurance, a formidable pair

Today, Ackerman has not lost the vision and passion that Jean-Baptiste Ackerman had for the product and the company. They operate sustainably, making sure that waste is separated, water re-used and their footprint minimised. They’ve been able to reduce pesticide-use by 40% without losing production, cut down the amount of water that is used mostly for washing the bottles and have encouraged their growers to plant grass in between vineyards which works against soil erosion.

The cellar master’s chilly office at 12C

Taking care of their labourers is high priority. The average age of their 150 workforce is 45 years, an ageing population and hence training in load carrying is vital. Planning for retirement with mentor-based training is another way this way company looks out for its own. Disabled people are employed in bottle-conditioning.

The products from this winery are held up as benchmarks for the rest of the region. In 1956, they joined forces with Rémy Pannnier and have gone from strength to strength in quality and quantity. Both still and sparkling wines are produced from the highest quality of grapes grown in the Loire Valley creating tannic, earthy Cabernet Franc from Chinon, delicate sparkling wines using Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc and even Pinot Noir in their cuvées and nutty, intense Chenin Blanc.

Creamy crémant

The iPad guided tour takes you on an informative, delightful journey through the caves including an installation art exhibition with a writhing python, a beautiful blonde and a spider web stretched across a huge hall. The whole tour costs a meagre €5 including a tasting of their entire extensive range, if you so wish. When the personnel are chatty and genuinely friendly, you know you’re in the Loire Valley and not in Paris or some other renowned regions where egos outstrip generosity and kindness. The service here is superlative and when you can walk away with a stash of outstanding bubbly and a few robust stills, most of them for under €10 per bottle, you count yourself lucky.

Tourism – Treat or Threat?

The travel industry is growing at an unprecedented pace with numbers increasing from 1,2 billion to 1,8 billion in the very near future. It also accounts for 10% of the world’s GDP, provides 1/10 jobs and is responsible for a massive carbon footprint due to airline travel. To encourage people to travel less is hardly an alternative since it is a valuable resource in developing countries some of which would be deprived of much-needed income if it were radically reduced. Besides, we expand our knowledge of the world, become more tolerant of other cultures, enrich our lives by experiencing new destinations first hand and escape the ignorance bubble of thinking that all we need to know about the world is on our doorstep. But this industry is in dire need of decoupling from abusing resources.

Drinking from a stream in Croatia

Choosing to sail by ship to our country of choice, is simply not an option due to time restrictions. The suggestion is not that we should all start travelling by boat but what if this is so, holidays could be extended to become ‘staycations’ in stead of just ‘vacations’. Here’s how:

  • Companies should get involved in work programmes whereby they transfer their employees to foreign places together with their families, to work and live there for periods of 6 months or more. The enrichment such an experience would bring to the table is immeasurable.
  • Visas should be lengthened beyond the current 3 month maximum.
  • Sabbaticals should be a requirement

And while we’re thinking of how we could gain from all this, what about the residence in these highly sought after spots that we so eagerly invade? Some villages, cities and countries, some with tiny populations, get overrun with tourists during high season. Resources are overwhelmed with all the demands made on them and it becomes all too easy for the traveller to complain causing angry rebuttals from locals who are then branded as ‘unfriendly’.

If you’re a visitor in a foreign country, that is exactly what you are, no more. We may dream of ‘staycations’ but if our holiday extends for a short week or maybe two, we should all be painstakingly aware of how we conduct ourselves.

Request:

No change of towels during your one week stay

No change of sheets

Use the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign and make your own bed, or not!

Where the bottle deposit is

Added to this:

Take your own trash home with you especially in places where recycling is minimal

Use containers for toiletries and cosmetics that can be reused over and over again

Eat and drink locally produced products

Eat less meat

Travel by land if possible using bicycles and public transport rather than renting a car

Travel light and carry your own water bottles

Treat your hosts with respect even in the face of frustration

Look into the projects that Future Camp is involved with and join their community of believers by checking out their Living Lab Hotel and their Zero Waste Hotel to reduce your carbon footprint and expand your mind in stead.

Links: Future Camp 

Living Lab Hotel

Zero Waste Hotel