Wild Mushroom Salad with Parmesan and Prosciutto

We recently spent a week in Slovenia – two days in the capital Ljubljana and 4 days in Bled. If you haven’t been to this part of the world I recommend you put it on your list. Amazing scenery with dominating mountains, crystal clear turquoise blue rivers and majestic forests. The neat little houses each had a neat little woodpile and a well kept veggie garden. Everything was spotlessly clean and well-maintained. A good way to see some of this beautiful scenery is to arrive in Ljubljana by train from Vienna, which takes between 5 and 6 hours.

In late summer and early autumn farmer’s markets in continental Europe sell a variety of wild mushrooms – porcini and ceps to name two that I am familiar with. One of the culinary highlights of our stay in Slovenia was a salad made with wild porcini and garnished with shaved parmesan and crispy bits of prosciutto. In Australia you can’t find wild porcini (well that’s what I thought, see below) so I used a mixture of shitake and enoki mushrooms to recreate it back home. It was not the same but still delicious.

After doing some research on the internet I discovered that wild porcini mushrooms have recently been found growing in parts of South Australia and Victoria. Their location is a well kept secret and any that are sold are snapped up by top chefs for between $60 and $120 a kilo. They apparently like similar growing conditions to truffles and can be found under pine and oak trees.  I have thought about blitzing some dried porcini in the food processor and sprinkling the powder under a large oak tree in our garden. Might work?

Wild Mushroom Salad with Parmesan and Prosciutto6 handfuls rocket and/or baby salad leaves
Olive oil and lemon juice or white wine vinegar
1 tsp honey (optional)
salt and pepper to taste
400g wild porcini (I used enoki and shitake)
olive oil and 1 clove garlic, crushed
200g shaved Prosciutto
100g shaved Parmesan cheese
Toasted pine nuts (optional)

Lightly dress salad leaves with a simple dressing made with olive oil, lemon juice or white wine vinegar, a little honey and salt and pepper to taste. Arrange on four serving plates. Slice or cut  up the mushrooms and mix them with a little olive oil and crushed garlic. Add a little salt and pepper to taste. Pan fry the mushrooms in a non-stick pan over high heat, stirring, for 3-5 mins or until lightly browned. Divide mushrooms between the four serving plates. Cut Prosciutto into small bits (I used scissors) and add to the pan. Cook over high heat, stirring, until crispy. Divide amongst serving plates, top with Parmesan and pine nuts if using – I didn’t in the photo but they would make a nice addition. Drizzle some olive oil around the salad and sprinkle with some coarsely cracked black pepper.

Serves 4

Millefoglie di Melanzane

We recently spent a week in Sicily where we hired a car and drove from Palermo to Patti, Taormina, Syracuse and back to Palermo. We spent a couple of days in each of these cities, soaking up the history and visiting some amazing churches and ancient monuments in the area. I won’t go into details of where to stay and what to do – there’s plenty of information on Trip Advisor and we found most of our accommodation on Airbnb.

Lots of windy roads and a few crazy drivers made the driving something of a challenge. The weather was considerably hotter than we had expected for mid-September, so we avoided sight-seeing in the middle of the day. Nonetheless we had a great time and would definitely recommend a trip to this part of Italy.

On the whole, the food in Sicily is good, especially if you’re a fan of pizzas and pasta. Finding good places to eat other dishes was more of a challenge. Everything we ordered which involved eggplants (aubergines) was delicious – stuffed eggplant, capponata (an Italian version of ratatouille with eggplant as the main ingredient) and eggplant fritters to name a few.

Our favourite city was Syracuse, especially the old city located on the island of Ortigia. Our favourite restaurant in Syracuse was Notre Dame where we ate outside enjoying the balmy evening weather. This bistro is run by an enthusiastic young couple and serves an interesting menu including this delectable Millefoglie di Melanzane – a layered Eggplant Terrine. It was so good we went back twice and on the second occasion the chef gave me the recipe.

Millefoglie di Melanzane

Canola or a mild-flavoured olive oil
2 large eggplants or 3 smaller ones
400g red capsicum (peppers)
2 eggs
2 sheets gelatine, soaked in water or 3 tsp powdered gelatine
Salt and pepper to taste

Cut capsicum into quarters and remove stalks and seeds. Cook in boiling, salted water for 15-20 mins or until soft. While still hot place them in a food processor with the eggs, gelatine, salt and pepper and process until smooth.

Meanwhile slice eggplants thinly lengthwise, discarding the first cut which is just skin. Heat some oil in a large frying pan and fry the eggplant slices, about 3 at a time, until golden brown and cooked on both sides. Add more oil as required. Drain on paper towels.

Choose a silicone loaf pan which doesn’t need to be lined, or line a metal one with non-stick baking paper. Starting and ending with a layer of eggplant slices, layer the eggplant and red capsicum puree in the loaf pan. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Using a serrated knife, cut terrine into 4-6 thick slices and serve with some lightly dressed rocket leaves.

Serves 4-6

A Kimberley Expedition on the Orion

The Kimberley region of Western Australia is huge and stunningly beautiful. It was named after the first Earl of Kimberley, John Wodehouse, who was Secretary of State for the Colonies in the late 1800s. Largely inaccessible except by boat or sea plane, we decided the best way to discover this remote coastline was to book a 10 day trip on the Orion, which sails from Darwin to Broome, or from Broome to Darwin. It’s not cheap, but we’ve decided it’s time to start spending our kids’ inheritance and it was worth every penny.

The OrionOur gregarious Irish captain Mike Taylor was quick to point out that we were on a ship, not a boat, and that this was an expedition, not a cruise. In Wyndham passengers could opt for a small plane flight over the amazing Bungle Bungles and Lake Argyle or a river boat cruise on the Ord River. From Wyndham to Broome daily excursions by Zodiac allowed passengers to get up close to the spectacular scenery, colourful bird life and hungry-looking crocodiles. We visited the King George River and Falls (a helicopter ride over the falls was an optional extra), the huge Montgomery Reef – which appears at low tide, but is invisible at high tide and the Horizontal Waterfalls in the Buccaneer Archipelago. The rapid Aboriginal cave paintings in the Kimberleytidal fall on the ocean side of the cliffs creates a “waterfall” up to 3 metres high as the water runs through a small gap, into the bay on the other side. A fast boat ride across these falls was one of the most exciting activities of the whole trip, causing a real rush of adrenaline. At Raft Point we were met by some of the Aboriginal landowners and visited caves containing ancient indigenous rock art.

One of the highlights of the trip was the spectacular geology of the region. Many of the bays have high ochre-coloured sandstone cliffs formed about 2 billion years ago when two continents – Australia and Sandstone cliffsKimberley – collided. Other geological events have resulted in intrusions of magma and twisting of the rock strata, producing natural artworks in amazing colours.

Each evening our expedition leader Mick Fogg gave a presentation on what we had done that day, accompanied by photos, some candid. “I told you not to go near the water because of the crocodiles, but there’s always someone who doesn’t listen”. The culprit, caught red-handed washing the sand off his thongs, was there for all to see, causing much laughter. After this recap of the day’s activities Mick explained arrangements for the following day. The timing of excursions has to be spot on because tides in this part of the world are very high and conditions are constantly changing.

Nothing was too much trouble for the Orion crew. Everyone, including the captain, helped to lift our two disabled passengers in and out of the Zodiacs, so they didn’t miss any of the adventures. We were impressed.

Food on board the Orion is excellent. Dinners are mostly à la carte, with dishes created by French-Canadian Serge Dansereau, owner-chef of the Bather’s Pavilion in Sydney. These are served in the formal below-deck dining room, interspersed with the occasional BBQ or seafood buffet on deck. Providing it’s not too windy it’s delightful to eat under the stars. Lunches and breakfasts are mostly served on deck, buffet style, with a different lunch-time theme each day and closely supervised by Clinton, our friendly and charming Kiwi Maitre d’.

The cabins are comfortable and well-equipped. Ours was on level three and wasn’t huge but certainly big enough and we didn’t spend much time there. As you go further up in the ship, which has six decks, the cabins become more expensive and larger. A spacious elevator makes life easier for anyone disabled or a bit unsteady on their feet.

We became hooked on the late afternoon game of trivia, accompanied by tea and delicious morsels (tried to resist but didn’t always succeed) and run by Glen, the French-Canadian musician, who entertained us after dinner each evening, impersonating the voices of everyone from Charles Aznavour to Louis Armstrong.

The top echelons of the crew were from all over the place – Ireland, South Africa, New Zealand, Russia and the Ukraine – while the remainder were smiley-faced Philippinos. They are a nation of performers and one night passengers were treated to a show, compered by our delightful “hotel” manager Ian Vella. I couldn’t help thinking that if the crew had been comprised of bashful Aussies they would have struggled to put a show together. We once attended a dinner hosted by the Philippine Ambassador to Australia. After the meal it became apparent that everyone was expected to “do a turn” and provide the evening’s entertainment. You can imagine the look of relief on Matthew’s face when we ran out of time and the party ended before they got to him.

Filling in the questionnaire about our trip we were unable to come up with any complaints or suggestions on how the Orion could do things better. Here is my favourite quote from Ian, as he explained disembarkation arrangements: “And if Plan A doesn’t work we’ll go to Plan B. We’ll let you know as soon as we’ve worked out a Plan B.” This comment gave everyone a good laugh, but the truth is that the Orion has everything planned, down to the very last detail.

Asparagus on Lake Como

Some years ago we spent a few days in Varenna, on Lake Como in northern Italy.  We stayed in a small family-run hotel called the Olivedo we had read about in a travel forum.

Having read some of the comments on this forum we came to the conclusion that this was an Italian hotel run along the lines of Fawlty Towers.  In true Aussie spirit we decided to give it a go, hoping that the stunning views and home cooking would compensate for the eccentricities of the staff. Anyone who hasn’t heard of Fawlty Towers, just look on Wikipedia.

Unless it’s changed hands, the Olivedo is run by a middle-aged single lady called Laura and her mother, who does the cooking. On our first day Laura told us that dinner would be served at 7.30 pm, on the dot, and she meant it.  Late-comers have to go without as we witnessed one evening when a Belgian couple arrived at 7.50 pm and were sent away.  It’s a fixed menu with no choice, but fortunately it was all very good.  Halfway through our first evening meal we commented on how fit and slim Laura was, despite all the excellent food cooked by her mother. Before you could say Jack Robinson, or Bob’s your Uncle she fell to the floor and did 20 push ups, just to prove the point.

We were sitting in the bar enjoying a cup of tea one afternoon when an American hotel guest walked in.  She asked Laura if she could buy an ice cream from the freezer which was located there.  Laura tapped her watch and replied very sternly  “No, you can’t have an ice cream, it’s too late, it will spoil your dinner.” And that was that.

One day we were enjoying a pre-lunch aperitif on the front terrace when a very large group of German tourists arrived. They said they wanted lunch, so Laura said they could sit anywhere on the terrace. It was a cool and rather damp day and the average age of the group was over 80, so the tour leader not unreasonably asked if they could sit inside.  “No” Laura replied emphatically “Today we are eating lunch outside.  If you want to eat inside you will have to go somewhere else.”  So they did.

We stayed on Lake Como for six days. When I say that it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world I should add that during our stay it rained almost constantly. Anywhere that’s beautiful in the pouring rain is really beautiful!  The Olivedo was right up our alley. Give me a small unconventional family-run hotel any day rather than a boring five star chain hotel.

One night we were served grilled wild asparagus with parmesan cheese. Asparagus probably grows wild here, if only I knew where to go and pick it, but I had never seen it for sale until the other day when I found some in the Organic shop in north Lyneham called Choku Bai Jo. Well maybe it was cultivated wild asparagus, but it certainly looked like the wild version, which is pencil thin. Here is my version of the Olivedo dish.

Grilled Asparagus with Parmesan Cheese

1-2 bunches asparagus (wild if possible)
50-75g grated Parmesan
good quality olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper

Trim asparagus and steam till al dente.  Dry well with paper towels then place in a greased shallow dish, sprinkle with the cheese, drizzle generously with olive oil, then place until a very hot grill until browned and bubbly.  Grind some black pepper over then serve with crusty bread.

Serves 2-4

The Sarojin in Khao Lak Thailand

For a luxurious, romantic holiday in Thailand, the Sarojin in Khao Lak is hard to beat.  Located an hour and a half’s drive north of Phuket airport, it only has 56 rooms and a no children under 10 policy, making it a popular destination for honeymooners and couples who want to feel thoroughly relaxed and spoilt for a few days.

Highly recommended by numerous posts on Trip Advisor and similar sites, the Sarojin, with its 2:1 staff-guest ratio, more than lived up to our expectations during the six nights we spent there. We were there in the low season, when it rains a bit most days and when, consequently, prices are more moderate.  The rain really didn’t bother us as most of it fell at night.  We stayed in one of the garden room bungalows which each has a private pool.  The spacious accommodation includes a bedroom, office/bar area and bathroom which has a huge overhead shower and an equally large oval bathtub which was full of floating frangipane when we arrived.

The main swimming pool is surrounded by wooden sun beds with umbrellas so you can be in the shade if you prefer.  As guests arrive one of the smiling Sarojin staff brings a towel and a glass of water and shortly afterwards a complimentary fruit punch arrives.  The pool is just the right temperature and after a swim it’s a perfect spot for reading, dozing, contemplating the peaceful tropical garden and listening to the birds.

A la carte breakfast with sparkling wine is included in the room rate and can be enjoyed as late as you like – even as a very late brunch, which was our preference.  Rooms are furnished with very comfortable king size beds, a choice of top quality pillows, cable TV and the quietest air conditioning I have ever experienced.  Fresh fruit and bottled water are provided daily and there’s a well-stocked mini bar, free wifi, a gym and everything else you would expect to find in a good hotel or resort. Indeed, you know a place is seriously good when the only criticism we could think of was that the map of Khao Lak they gave us at the front desk was somewhat out of date!

The town of Khao Lak is a 15 minute drive away and the resort supplies a fairly regular shuttle bus, for a small fee. It’s small and relatively quiet – the way Phuket used to be 20 or 30 years ago.  There’s no need to leave the resort at all if you don’t want to. Meals served in the Sarojin’s two restaurants are five star and they have an award winning spa.  Theme nights such as the seafood BBQ on the beach most Saturdays are very special.  However, Khao Lak offers numerous dining and massage options for those on a tighter budget or wanting a change of scenery.  We particularly liked Smile restaurant, run by a very friendly Frenchman called Frank, which we also found on Trip Advisor.

Day trips to nearby islands, elephant and monkey parks can be arranged by the Sarojin or by Frank, a Jack of all Trades. When we told him we had just spent 6 weeks in Europe and were now travelling with two suitcases full of dirty washing he offered to arrange for it to be laundered by one of his many local contacts!  We politely declined, especially as a swimsuit, a pair of shorts and some thongs are all you need in the tropics.

South African born Dawid is the General Manager and if you should have any problems he’s never far away.  We didn’t, but he checked in with us regularly during our stay, to make sure everything was hunky dory.

This resort ticks all the boxes and we will definitely be back.  In fact we did contemplate emailing our son to say “Please look after the dog for another six months.  Back in time for Christmas.”

French Bed and Breakfasts

When we holiday in France we use Alistair Sawday’s French Bed and Breakfasts as our bible.  We have a hard copy, but you can find it online.   Over the years we have stayed in more than 50 of the listings and while almost all have been more than adequate, some stand out as exceptional.  Places to return to.

Two of the best we have tried are the Moulin du Goth and Les Vieux Guays.  As the name suggests, the Moulin du Goth is a converted 13th century mill. It’s run by a charming Australian/British couple and within five minutes we felt as if we were old friends.  The mill pond and English-style garden are beautifully maintained by Coral, who is a very good cook and serves a delicious dinner if you book ahead.  There’s plenty to do in the area, including the underground caves at Padirac (the best I have ever seen, quite amazing), a walnut oil mill at Martel and several stunning Medieval villages, located on the nearby Dordogne river.  We spent two nights there and fell asleep to the sound of water running gently over the weir.

We only had one night at Les Vieux Guays but will definitely go back.  They also do dinner but only on Fridays and Saturdays and again it’s wise to book ahead.   It’s run by a French/Chilean couple and sits in 200 acres of woods with plenty of land for chiildren and dogs (who are welcome) to run around.  In winter it’s run as a hunting lodge.

Relaxing in Bali

Spending a week relaxing in Bali at the Green Garden Hotel and Spa.  A small place with comfortable rooms, good aircon and friendly people.

Last night we had a delicious meal of fried calamari rings, satay chicken and chilli prawns with rice.  Today a light lunch down by the beach.  I chose a salad which was just right for the warm weather.  Here’s my take on it.

Mozzarella, Tomato and Avocado Salad with Olive Dressing

4-6 handfuls of small salad leaves including rocket if liked
250g mozzarella or bocconcini balls, sliced or cubed
4 tomatoes, sliced, or the equivalent in baby tomatoes, halved
2 large avocadoes, sliced
½ red onion, thinly sliced

Dressing:
1 cup vegetable oil e.g. canola
¼ cup cider or white wine vinegar
1 Tbs Dijon mustard
2 Tbs finely chopped olives (green stuffed with pimento are nice)
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tsp honey or sugar

On four plates arrange the lettuce leaves, then the tomatoes, avocado slices, onion and mozzarella.  Place all the dressing ingredients in a jar with a lid and shake vigorously.  Drizzle dressing over the salads.

Serves 4 as a light lunch