Green and white chicken noodle soup

Classic comfort: a colourful bowl of chicken noodle soup

Who doesn’t like to sit down to a bowl of some variety of chicken noodle soup? Surely, only a hard-hearted soul would not yield to its comforting flavours and textures!

In the Wikipedia entry for chicken noodle soup, a section headed ‘In different cultures’ has 25 entries – including at least one from every continent except Antarctica – plus a sub-section in the United States entry for canned soup.

Over the years, Maggie and I have used two quite different recipes, one for each of us. Maggie’s version was relatively uncomplicated, as she usually made it to cater for the young palates of her daughter’s children.

I preferred a more elaborate production, which was adapted from a recipe by a local chef with both Italian and French heritage. You can find my recipe here.

A few weeks ago, Maggie found another recipe, from a renowned Sydney chef, that she thought might appeal to both of us, including my liking for multiple steps in a cooking method.

The first half of the recipe involves poaching a whole chicken to yield both the stock and the meat for the soup. We by-passed most of that rigmarole, using a blend of a good-quality commercial stock and some stock we had made using the carcass of a rooster or cockerel. (The latter is another story, saved for a rainy day!) And, for the meat, we simply poached some pieces of skinless chicken.

Secondly, we made several changes and additions to the recipe for the soup itself. We were very happy with the end result, so much so that we have it twice more since then. Maggie will take the latest batch to her daughter’s house today, to serve to the now more sophisticated palates of those grandchildren, for a school-holiday lunch.

Here is our recipe.

Ingredients

350-400g skinless chicken breast or thigh fillets
15-20g butter
2 medium-sized leeks, trimmed, halved lengthways and finely sliced
2 long sticks of celery, chopped
½ large turnip, peeled and diced
6 cups (1.5 litres) chicken stock
100g spaghetti, broken into short pieces
100g fresh peas
1 cup shredded baby spinach leaves
salt and black pepper

Method

  1. Well ahead of time, place chicken meat in a saucepan and cover generously with water. Bring to the boil and simmer for 10 minutes. Leave the chicken in the cooking liquid for a further 10 minutes. When the meat has cooled, dice it finely.
  2. Melt the butter in a large saucepan or stock pot, add the leek, celery and turning, and cook gently for 7-8 minutes to soften the vegetables.
  3. Meanwhile, cook the peas briefly in simmering water, ie a couple of minutes less than you would to serve. Drain and refresh with cold water to prevent them cooking further.
  4. Add stock and chicken meat to the large pan, bring to the boil and simmer for 8 minutes.
  5. Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti in salted, boiling water for about 5 minutes. This part-cooking step reduces the amount of starch released by the pasta into the actual soup.
  6. Add the pasta to the pan and simmer for a further 4 minutes.
  7. Season with salt and pepper, then add the peas and spinach, and cook for 3-4 minutes.
  8. Adjust seasoning, serve and enjoy the colourful mix of green and white ingredients.

Leek, celery and turnip, softening in butter

Poached chicken meat, finely diced

Peas, shredded spinach and part-cooked pasta added to the pot

 

If you happen to have an egg-white leftover from some other cooking activity, you could continue the colour theme by heating enough soup for two bowls and whisking the white through the hot liquid. This adds a lovely textural element as well.

Cheers for now!
Rick Grounds

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Rooms at the top: our stay in the Umbrian towns of Orvieto and Todi (part 2)

Now to our three days in and around Todi.

Todi’s population is more than 16,000, a tick over 80% of Orvieto’s. However, it looks and feels very different to Orvieto, although not in any ways that mattered to Maggie and me.

Unlike Orvieto, Todi is not located on a train line or major highway, making it slightly less accessible for tourists and its buildings and piazzas, including its (former) cathedral, suffer a little by comparison. These small differences have something of a domino effect – there are far fewer high-end retail stores and hospitality businesses.

On the plus side, the pace of life is slower, the voices are mainly Italian and, by late afternoon, the piazzas are occupied by local families, enjoying the period of transition to evening and catching up with friends over a coffee or a glass of wine while their children play or ride their bicycles. And good, authentic food is not too hard for the visitor to find.

Here is some of what we ate at Vineria San Fortunato, a smart wine bar with an outdoor terrace set below the namesake church.

Another distinguishing feature of Todi is the surrounding countryside of gentle hills and valleys, dotted with olive groves, vineyards and more, interspersed with verdant woodlands, and so very typical of what gives the province of Umbria its nickname ‘the green heart of Italy’.

 

Embedded in this rich agricultural land are 37 villages that have been part of the Commune of Todi for many centuries, as depicted in this medieval ‘map’ displayed in the municipal museum.

This is the idyllic area where we were taken on a winery tour and, in a country house at the edge of one of the villages, for our pasta class.

The next photo looks across the countryside, with the famous town of Assisi lying on the distant slopes, followed by the reverse view, taken from the terrace bar of the hotel where we stayed during a visit to Assisi in 2008!

 

 

Here are some scenes of Todi itself.

 

Our accommodation in Todi was Residenza D’Epoca San Lorenzo Tre. In structure and decoration, it was a slightly quirky, period-piece but it offered an expansive, high quality continental breakfast, Italian-style. You can find out more about the hotel here.

Another delightful feature of the building was its rooftop terrace, replete with comfortable seating and glorious views over-tiled roofs to the surrounding countryside.

 

And, for Maggie, no stay in an Italian hilltop-town could be complete with yet another rendition of Tiramisu!

Next stop, Venice!

Cheers for now!
Rick Grounds

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Rooms at the top: our stay in the Umbrian towns of Orvieto and Todi (part 1)

 

Orvieto’s impressive  Duomo

In these two posts, I will tell you what we saw and did in and around the Umbrian hilltop towns of Orvieto and Todi late in September 2019.

We spent three nights in each of the towns and enjoyed them both very much. However, there are marked differences between the two.

Orvieto has a population of just over 20,000 and is a popular destination for international travellers, who go to view the late-thirteenth century duomo, explore some of the 1,200 underground caves, have a leisurely lunch at one of the numerous dining establishments or purchase items of the ceramic ware for which the district is renowned.

The town is quite accessible, as it lies on the main train and vehicle routes that run from Rome to Florence. In our case, we came by the train from the north, having entered Italy through the alps from France, thence to Milan for an overnight stopover, before taking trains to Florence and then to Orvieto.

One of Orvieto’s best-known landmarks it its cathedral (duomo), which has a very distinctive external appearance. Our hotel room looked directly across a piazza to the cathedral.

             

The view from our window

Although we are not at all religious, we do find some places of worship quite interesting to examine and explore. Inside, Orvieto’s doumo had some outstanding features, but it was not at all excessive.

       

Exploring the town by foot takes you to a wide variety of interesting sights, including stunning views of the surrounding countryside.

             

No visit to an Italian town is complete without a red Vespa!

 

   

For a small fee, you may ascend to the top of the tower in this next photo, …

… and take in the panoramic views.

   

The vast majority of the tunnels below the town are privately owned. However, two are controlled by the municipality and are open for guided tours. The tours take you to sites where grains were ground into flour and olives were pressed for oil.

 

Other tunnel sections intersected with wells dug deep into the rock, while others were used to raise doves as a source of food.

     

Orvieto’s popularity with international visitors is reflected in the number and quality of accommodation options, high-end retail stores and numerous cafes, bars, trattoria, enotecas and restaurants.

Several stores sell the colourful, locally-made ceramic goods. Browsing in one of them, we witnessed an American woman spending a five-figure sum on a collection of pieces and watching, somewhat anxiously, as the goods were carefully wrapped to be sent to her home address!

And here are some examples of Orvieto’s thriving food and wine scene.

   

Ultra-fresh zucchini (courgette), herbs and grated parmesan, drizzled with thick, delicious balsamic

   

One of five versions of Tiramisu that Maggie put to the taste test during our four weeks in southern Europe

 

Next, to Todi.

Cheers for now!
Rick Grounds

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It’s hot and steamy, smells like hell, could cost you an arm or a leg … and they call it Wonderland!?

Thermal mud pool, Rotorua, New Zealand

Maggie and I feel very fortunate, especially about our international travels through the years from 2008 to 2019. In October last year, we flew home from Rome at the end of our eighth visit to Europe, content in the belief that we might not visit that part of the world again, nor anywhere else requiring a long plane flight or considerable expense.

We are both 66 years old and we have spent a great deal of time and money on travels in distant countries. Now it is time for us to both tighten our belts a little and explore places in or near to our home country of Australia.

The arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic only heightened our sense of being fortunate. If it had hit six months earlier, our planned travels in France, Italy and Greece would have been cancelled, leaving us feeling somewhat bereft. And in February, we went on a cruise around New Zealand and across the Tasman Sea to Melbourne, one of the last virus-free cruises of early 2020. Lucky us!

Of course, we can both think of quite a few far-away places we’d be delighted to explore. Top of my list would be Yellowstone National Park in the United States, with its incredible variety of outstanding features: geology, topography, plants, wildlife, scenery, the seasonal changes and so on. So significant is this great park, the first national park in the USA, that National Geographic devoted its entire May 2016 edition to it. I know this because I came across it in my dentist’s waiting room, borrowed it and read it from cover to cover!

As most readers would know, one of the features that make Yellowstone so special are its geothermal formations. Well, New Zealand is also home to some remarkable geothermal activity and we got to explore some of it in February, on a day’s outing from our cruise ship (Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth). Here is some of what we saw.

The first site we visited was a large thermal mud pool. It was fascinatingly hideous, as illustrated in this short video clip.

The mud pool was a mere warm-up act for what followed – the Wai-o-tapu thermal wonderland, which is home to the largest area of surface thermal activity within the Taupo volcanic zone in the centre of New Zealand’s north island. (Wai-o-tapu means ‘sacred waters’ in the Maori language.)

We spent a couple of hours following some of the trails around Wai-o-tapu, marvelling at the variety of geothermal formations.

Here is a busy stream of heated water, which gave off sulphurous vapours.

Next, a collapsed site from which ‘rotten-egg’ gas was emanating:

This group of pools contains unrefined crude oil. In the early 1900s, they were skimmed to extract fuel for kerosene lanterns. Imagine doing that for a living. Ugh!

The next group of photos were taken from various viewpoints around a couple of large pools. Amazing colours were generated by a variety of minerals and the heat.

   

  

   

Holes in the walls of this collapsed crater are home to three species of small birds. The heat from below helps to keep the birds warm in winter and to incubate their eggs.

The last stop on our track was this large pool, with its attractive chartreuse tones. But its virtues are only skin-deep – with a pH of 2, it would made short work of an arm or leg, should you be foolish enough to test the water!

We plan to visit New Zealand again in the years ahead, once, if not twice. However, Maggie’s nostrils have had their fill of the country’s geothermal wonders, so we will turn our attention to the ‘shaky isles’ other scenic and cultural attractions.

Cheers for now!
Rick Grounds

 

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Easing out of isolation!

The last time I published a post was early in March, when the world was about to be turned upside-down by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The pandemic hasn’t actually made a dramatic difference to my daily life, partly because Maggie had one of her knees replaced on March 5, which meant we faced a period of semi-isolation anyway. However, with most of the world’s citizens having little or no prospect of doing any meaningful international travel for the foreseeable future, I couldn’t summon enough desire and creativity to write anything interesting about our various pre-pandemic travels from 2019 and the beginning of 2020.

So, what’s changed to bring me back to the keyboard?

Well, by a combination of good fortune and good management, the spread of the virus has been arrested in Australia, enabling our federal and state governments to ease some restrictions on our movements and activities. In our state, Victoria, restrictions on holiday travel and using commercial accommodation were eased two weeks ago, just a few days before a long weekend.

Faced with a scheduled power outage in our street, we decided to get ahead of the long-weekend pack, booking two mid-week nights at Boondaburra BnB at Ruffy, a small community at the western end of the Strathbogie Ranges in north-central Victoria.

For most of the two-hour journey, we drove through drizzle and rain showers. By the time we arrived at Boondaburra, the sky was clearing but a fresh south-easterly chilled the air. No matter! Our hosts had two fires going, one in a pit close to a sheltered patio, the other warming our comfortable and spacious open-plan accommodation.

The pit fire at Boondaburra

Inside the BnB

We would describe the property as a part-time farm, stocked with some beef cattle but also home to a wide variety of native birds, wombats and a few healthy-looking koalas. Exploring Boondaburra – a First Nations word for platypus – on foot is encouraged but we were advised to keep a lookout for the numerous wombat holes!

One of the koalas, up a gum tree

After a good night’s sleep and a few slices of fresh homemade bread, we set off in what we thought was the direction of the town of Nagambie. Happily, we got lost – by at least 90 degrees actually – and spent an hour wending our way along unsealed roads through a series of valleys featuring swift-flowing creeks, woodland and bushland. The valleys alternated with expanses of lush granite-strewn green pastures, dotted with cattle, sheep and sulphur-crested cockatoos, all of them seeming to be very pleased that good rains had brought plenty of new food!

Our unplanned adventure ended at the large town of Seymour, where we went in search of a quality coffee. Our luck held, as we came upon Little Stones Cafe, which was on its fourth ever day of business. Their single-origin coffees were outstanding, as was a tangy orange & almond cake. Even the hipsters of Melbourne’s inner suburbs would have been happy.

Reinvigorated, we made our way to the Vietnam Veterans Commemorative Walk, a series of 106 digi-glass panels, listing the names of every member of an Australian defence unit that served in Vietnam, set against a backdrop of black & white photos taken during the years of Australia’s involvement in what is known to the Vietnamese as the ‘American War’. The panels are supplemented by some information boards describing key activities and battles in which Australian personnel were involved.

(If you click on the link, you will read that Australia’s participation in the Vietnam conflict was “a tumultuous part of Australia’s history”, as was the case in the United States. I was old and interested enough to attend some of the massive anti-war rallies held in Melbourne in 1970 and 1971.)

From Seymour, we drove northwards along the Goulburn Valley Highway, making for Tahbilk Estate, home to some of the oldest shiraz vines in the world, dating from before phylloxera devastated vineyards across the world.  We had booked to be two of the 20 customers permitted at any one time in the winery’s Wetlands View Restaurant. (Social distancing is still mandatory in restaurants and cafes.)

We enjoyed an unhurried lunch of a main course and glass of estate wine each, a shared dessert and coffees. The food and service were both excellent, as was the view from the venue’s large timber deck.

View of the wetlands at Tahbilk Estate

After lunch, another hour-long drive – on sealed roads this time! – took us through more of the district’s idyllic scenery, arriving at Boondaburra in time to light the fire for a second cosy evening.

A clear, early-winter’s sky produced a frosty morning, so we took our time over breakfast, before making our way to the main road back to Melbourne. (We interrupted our return journey for another dose of the coffee at Little Stones Cafe!)

As we reached the outskirts of Melbourne early in the afternoon, Friday’s holiday traffic heading north was building up quite noticeably. We were content that we’d had our ‘long weekend’, two wonderful days that gave us just what the doctor ordered to blow the pandemic’s cobwebs away.

Boondaburra BnB, with its wood-fuelled fires, green scenery and clear skies worked well as a winter destination. We hope to return early one November, when the spring weather should be at its best.

Cheers for now!
Rick Grounds

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The sounds of New Zealand …

… are quietly awesome!

Maggie and I recently visited New Zealand. We flew to Auckland and spent two days exploring some of the scenic areas near to that city, before boarding the Cunard Line ship, the Queen Elizabeth, for a cruise down the east coast of New Zealand and then across the Tasman Sea back to our home city of Melbourne.

One of the main reasons we chose to explore parts of our near-neighbour by ship was the opportunity to visit a national park in the South Island known as Fiordland, a mountainous region scarred by ancient glaciers to produce fourteen spectacular fiords (fjords in Europe).

[Although ‘fiords’ is the correct term geologically, they are known geographically as ‘sounds’ in New Zealand, for reasons I don’t quite fathom (pun intended)!]

The most famous of these deep bodies of water is Milford Sound, one of five sounds that our ship was scheduled to visit. However, just because your itinerary includes Milford Sound doesn’t mean you will actually get to see much of it. Its annual rainfall is more than 6,400 mm (250 inches), spread across an average of 182 days, ie half the days in a year. Indeed, soon after we sailed out of Auckland’s harbour, about one metre of rain fell over Milford Sound in 24 hours, causing landslides, road closures and a ban on cruise ships going there for several days.

So, we count ourselves lucky for the near-perfect conditions that prevailed when we visited Fiordland, with a scattering of clouds to add atmosphere and contrast.

Of the sounds we visited, four were in pairs because glaciation had created islands bound on two sides by distinct fiords and, on the remaining side, by the Tasman Sea. If you click here you will find a map of Fiordland, showing the pairing of Dusky and Breaksea sounds in the south, Doubtful and Thompson sounds in the middle and Milford Sound at the northern edge.

Our experience, extending over six hours, was greatly enhanced through detailed information provided by a senior ranger who had boarded the ship at our previous port, finally leaving us at the inner end of Milford Sound, where there is a small settlement and an airstrip.

Alright, enough words from me. I hope you enjoy this selection of our photos.

   

                 

   

   

                 

                 

   

 

Further posts about our New Zealand experiences will be published soon.

Cheers for now!
Rick Grounds

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Accessible wild places in Tasmania

In March 2018, just on a year after my father’s life reached its end, Maggie and I spent eight days travelling around Tasmania and visiting some of its famous wilderness spots.

I mention Dad because he grew up in Tasmania and I spent the first four years of my life there while he worked as a young country doctor in the north-east of the state. Our family then settled in Melbourne but we visited Tasmania several times, for holidays and to catch up with Dad’s extended family.

As well as those trips to Tassie, as it is known to most Australians, I went there on two hiking trips organised by my secondary school. I visited three national parks, including Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair, where I twice completed the famous Overland Track.

So, after my home state of Victoria, Tasmania is probably the part of Australia with which I am most familiar. Over the last decade or so, I have steadily introduced Maggie to some of my favourite corners of the state, as well as discovering new places together.

Our first two visits to Tasmania covered the areas around the two largest cities: Hobart, the capital, and Launceston, where Dad lived as a boy. (In May 2016, I published a series of posts about our time in and around Hobart, beginning with this one.)

These ‘soft’ introductions were all well and good. However, the time had come to take Maggie for a walk on Tasmania’s wild side, as in some elements of its world-famous expanses of wilderness.

When I say “walk”, I don’t mean going for a hike. Maggie has issues in both ankles and one of her knees; and I am not the sleek rodent of my youth! So, I put together an itinerary that would enable us to visit some areas of outstanding natural beauty without having to trek up hill and down dale. (This itinerary would also be relevant for younger or fitter people on a tight time budget.)

After flying into Hobart, we made our way up the east coast to the town of Swansea, which overlooks the beautiful Freycinet Peninsula.

   

The next morning, we drove across to Coles Bay, the peninsula’s main settlement. We had booked to go on a half-day cruise around the peninsula, most of which is a National Park.

Here is some of what we saw, including a large school of dolphins. The geology of the national park is dominated by a type of granite with a distinctive orange hue, owing to its high content of the mineral feldspar.

 

After rounding the southern tip of the peninsula, the cruise hugged the east coast until we reached the park’s most famous feature, Wineglass Bay. You have to see the bay from above, eg the top of the modest mountains overlooking it, to realise how it got its name; here is an example.

Our cruise boat anchored in the bay while we enjoyed a quality bento-box lunch, followed by the return journey to Coles Bay.

   

We then began to make our way across southern Tasmania to our next wilderness destination on the island’s west coast. As you can see, the weather was sunny and there was plenty to admire along the way, including Lake St Clair, where Tasmania’s longest river rises.

   

Our next stop was the town of Strahan, located on Macquarie Harbour, which is a large inlet of sea water providing shelter from the winds and swells of the Southern Ocean.

Next morning, we boarded a large, modern river-cruise boat for a journey up the Gordon River, which is a major element of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. You can learn more about the river’s significance here.

The cruise boat docked at a spot called Heritage Landing, from which there is a boardwalk through parts of the surrounding rainforest, the world’s most significant temperate rainforest.

         

After we returned to the boat, it headed back downstream, re-entered Macquarie Harbour and picked up speed, taking us all the way to where the harbour meets the Southern Ocean, the outer limit of the boat’s suitability.

 

Then we backtracked to Sarah Island, another significant site within the boundaries of the World Heritage Area. The island was included in the listing for its historical values, arising from the fact that a British penal settlement was established there in 1821. (Every one of the British settlements established in Australia between 1788 and 1826 began as a penal colony, housing convicted men and women from Britain.)

You can read more about Sarah Island here.

   

From Strahan, we made our way to our last wilderness destination, the Cradle Mountain area at the northern end of the national park which bears its name.

This was where my two hikes along the Overland Track had concluded, the second being 50 years ago next month. Back then, the only building of note was Waldheim (meaning Forest home), a stunning, rambling, replica of the house built by an Austrian botanist and his Tasmanian wife in the first two decades of the 20th century. And there was just a modest dirt road, along which buses would make their way to collect weary hikers and transport them to one of the towns dotted along Tasmania’s north-west coast.

Nowadays, there is a wide variety of accommodation, from camp grounds to a resort, a carpark that will hold several hundred vehicles (as it did when we arrived) and various other services and facilities. The Austrian was a strong advocate of establishing the national park and encouraging visitors but I suspect even he would have been gobsmacked by the vast numbers of people from all corners of the world who visit the Cradle Mountain area each day during the milder months (December to April). I was. Gobsmacked, that is!

Maggie and I spent part of two days in the area, basing ourselves at a wilderness retreat in a forest located an hour’s drive further north. Our first, very gentle activity, was to traverse a boardwalk that meandered through a patch of temperate rainforest.

         

Next was a visit to Devils @ Cradle, a sanctuary dedicated to the care, protection and breeding of the world’s largest carnivorous marsupial, the Tasmanian Devil. The survival of this unique animal has been threatened by a transmissible cancer that generates facial tumours, often causing death. An outstanding national program is now making progress in controlling the spread of the disease and creating a population of immune devils, supported by a comprehensive ‘family tree’ that averts the risk of in-breeding.

We learnt much of this on a guided-tour and we even got to pat one of the young, disease-free devils that have been bred and reared at the sanctuary.

   

And here is a photo of one of the two species of Quoll supported by the sanctuary, both of which are also under threat in the wild. (You can learn more about the Devils @ Cradle centre here.)

Our time with the Tasmanian Devils was quite a thrill but we had saved the best for last: Cradle Mountain, the most iconic landmark in Tasmania, the view that launched a thousand calendars!

It appears at the beginning of this post and here it is again, majestic and serene, accompanied by its reflection in the waters of Dove Lake. Well, serene if you can avoid the non-stop flow of selfie-wannabes, that is!

There is a walking track that encircles the lake, for which you would need to allow up to 2 hours, depending on your fitness. Although it involves little uphill walking, the track is quite uneven and rocky in places, which is why Maggie found a quiet place in the shade by the edge of the lake while I completed a short section of the walk.

I had completed the full circuit on a day just like this back in December 1996, accompanied by my then nine-year-old son. The weather was so idyllic that I booked a guided ascent of Cradle Mountain itself for the next morning, something poor weather had twice prevented me from doing in the 1960s. But my cursed luck held and thick clouds rolled in overnight. I still did the climb and had my photo taken by the cairn at the top to prove it, only to see the clouds roll away as we neared the end of descent. Sigh!

This cautionary tale has a more serious intent. Even at the height of summer, the weather in the high country of Tasmania can change very quickly, due to the cold air masses that can be generated by the Southern Ocean, with little or no warning. So, if you decide to explore the wonderful Tasmanian wilderness in more depth than we did last year, I recommend that you pack for a wide range of conditions and seek advice from local experts before you venture out.

Cheers for now!
Rick Grounds

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Pasta class in Umbria

From mid-September to mid-October, Maggie and I travelled around parts of southern Europe.

We began with a couple of nights in the lovely city of Avignon, followed by a river cruise along the Rhone River from its delta – known as Le Camargue – up to Lyon. Then we used Europe’s efficient train system to move to the Italian province of Umbria, where we spent three nights in each of the delightful hilltop towns of Orvieto and Todi.

From Umbria, another train journey took us to Venice, where we enjoyed three wonderful days well before the recent tidal flood disaster – so shocking and sad! From Venice we flew to Athens, where we spent two nights in full view of the Acropolis before taking a short cruise across the Mediterranean Sea, disembarking at Civitavecchia for the flight home from Rome.

So, quite an adventure! Here is one of the scenic highlights. Ha!

Our decision to visit Umbria was inspired by a cookbook called My Umbrian Kitchen, written by Patrizia Simone, a renowned – now retired – chef in my home state of Victoria. Patrizia grew up in Umbria, learning to cook by her mother’s side. Then, as a young adult, Patrizia migrated to Victoria, where she and her husband established a much-loved restaurant in the town of Bright, some 300 kilometres by road from Melbourne.

When we were planning the itinerary for our time in Umbria, we discovered the website of Todi-based siblings Alessandra and Leonardo Mallozzi, who are qualified sommeliers and olive-oil tasters. The Mallozzis offer a variety of wine and olive oil tours and cooking classes. We booked a a half-day pasta class and a full-day wine tour.

The pasta class was held in the Mallozzi family’s country villa, located in one of the 37 villages dotted through the idyllic landscape of farms and woodlands surrounding Todi.

Leonardo began the class with an informative account of the history and varieties of pasta, including the fact that, for many centuries, the region’s inhabitants were too poor to buy salt. The tradition of not putting any salt in pasta dough – and bread – is maintained to this day. (We can vouch for that, based on the bread that was served to us in Todi.)

Once Leonardo had guided us through the preparation of our pasta dough, Alessandra showed us how to prepare two pasta sauces while the dough was resting. The first sauce featured meat & passata; the second one, mushroom, meat & cream. The meat ingredient was taken from traditional Italian pork & fennel sausages.

Next, Leonardo taught us how to roll out our pasta and feed it through a cutter to make fettuccine. After the Mallozzis had cooked the pasta and finished the sauces, they assembled the two dishes at the table and we sat down to a delicious lunch, accompanied by local wines.

     

It was a wonderful learning experience and the siblings were charming and generous hosts. Touring and cooking with Alessandra and Leonardo proved to be an ideal way to experience more of the province of Umbria, which is known as the ‘green heart’ of Italy due to its bounty of agricultural produce.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

A couple of weeks after we had returned to Melbourne, we got to work applying the lessons of our time with Leonardo and Alessandra.

We already had a pasta rolling machine but we had only used it to make pasta sheets for dishes of lasagne; we were overdue to use the machine’s cutter attachment. To complete our equipment inventory, we tracked down a hanging rack. And we bought some Italian sausages, widely available in multi-cultural Melbourne, as the base ingredient for our pasta sauces.

We began with our interpretation of the mushroom and meat sauce that Alessandra had prepared for us in Umbria. We were happy with the result, as were the two neighbours who are our go-to guinea pigs when we are making a dish for the first time.

Recently, we made it again, just for the two of us, and measured the quantities of the ingredients so we could codify the recipe. Here are some photos of our work, followed by the recipe.

   

Mushroom pasta sauce (serves two)

Ingredients

1½ French shallots, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
110g Italian pork sausage meat (discard skin)
90g large flat mushroom   ) vary this mixture
50g shitake mushroom      ) according to taste
50g Enoki mushroom        ) and availability
30-40ml cream
salt and pepper, to taste
120g fresh pasta

Method

  1. Cut the large mushroom in half and then cut into slices 4-5mm thick. Cut the shitake mushrooms into slices 2-3mm thick. Trim the stalks of the Enoki mushrooms.
  2. Saute the shallot and garlic for about 5 minutes in plenty of olive oil, until they begin to soften.
  3. By hand, tear the meat into small clumps and add it to the pan. Saute for 2-3 minutes until the meat has lightly browned.
  4. Add the pieces of flat and shitake mushroom and more olive oil to the pan. Cover partly with a lid, to sweat the mushrooms for 2-3 minutes.
  5. Remove the lid and add the Enoki mushrooms. Increase the heat to medium and cook, stirring regularly, for a further 2-3 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  6. Add cream to taste and adjust seasoning.
  7. Meanwhile, bring one and a half litres of salted water to the boil, add the pasta, let it cook for 2-3 minutes, until it is al dente.
  8. Drain the pasta, spoon the sauce into a large serving bowl, add the cooked pasta and toss to combine. Serve immediately.

Note 1: We do put some salt in our pasta dough. It’s not as expensive as it was in the days of the Roman Empire when soldiers were paid in salt (hence the word “salary”)!

Note 2: Fresh pasta, allowed to hang on a rack for about 1 hour before cooking, needs much less time in boiling water than dry pasta from a packet.

Note 3: This sauce is so tasty that you don’t need to add cheese. But each to their own!

Cheers!
Rick Grounds

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Pretty bowl of our favourite spring green

It took me until well into my 40s to develop a taste for fresh asparagus, mainly because the only asparagus spears I ever knew about came in a tin and I didn’t like those one little bit. Fortunately, I spent a few years at the beginning of this century living in an asparagus-growing region, soon after I had learnt how to make hollandaise sauce. Since then, I have been making up for lost time and I always look forward to late winter, when the first fresh spears appear on our greengrocer’s shelves.

Maggie, on the other hand, has always liked fresh asparagus and has fond memories of sharing some fresh out of the pot with her maternal grandmother, who taught her to appreciate the plumpest of the available spears, served simply with butter, salt and white pepper. So, Maggie is in charge of selecting the fat green spears for our table, while I take responsibility for cooking them.

On the strength of some particularly tasty early-season asparagus, I suggested we consider make an asparagus soup. I began my search for a recipe by looking to see if Felicity Cloake had published one in her regular ‘How to cook the perfect …’ in The Guardian newspaper. Indeed she had! You can find the recipe here, including her usual exhaustive process of testing techniques and ingredients as favoured by various well known recipe-writers.

We decided to follow the recipe that Felicity settled on, with two slight variations. For our litre of liquid, we cooked the chopped woody ends in just 500ml of water and supplemented that liquid with 500ml of salt-reduced chicken stock. This produced a satisfyingly robust result without diminishing the pre-eminence of the asparagus.

Our other variation was to add one-quarter of a teaspoon of white pepper at the same time as the cream. To our palates, white pepper is a must-use ingredient when preparing a dish of asparagus.

Here are some photos of the method, followed by a bowl of the soup we made (twice and counting!)


On the left below, we have just added the liquid after the spring onion has been sauteed in butter and the plain flour has been cooked for a minute or so. Once the liquid has warmed through, the chopped asparagus goes into the pan.

   

The camera doesn’t really do justice to the colour of the soup; it is actually greener than it looks here.

And here is another option for serving cooked fresh asparagus – cooled down in the fridge then wrapped in pieces of smoked salmon which have been smeared with a paste of sour cream, grated horseradish and a pinch each of salt, pepper and caster sugar.

Cheers for now!
Rick Grounds

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Review of our journey through the middle of Australia

Are you an Australian who is yet to explore the Northern Territory or travel on the Ghan train? Are you from overseas, with Australia on your ‘bucket list’, but you’re not sure where to go first?

If so, this review of the main elements of the fortnight-long journey Maggie and I recently made through the middle of Australia, from south to north, might interest you.

While this post will be more of an evaluation than a travel story, a detailed account of where we went, what we saw and what we did is provided in the seven posts I have published over the last six weeks. An easy way to find these is to go the ‘Our travels’ page, which lists each place we visited and provides a link to the post about that place.

Uluru, Kata Tjuta and Kings Canyon

When Maggie and I meet people while visiting their countries, many of them ask us where we they should go if they were to visit Australia. Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is always top of our list, alongside the Great Barrier Reef. Each of these icons is unmatched elsewhere in the world.

In the case of Uluru and Kata Tjuta, it is not only a case of their beauty, remarkable geology and the surrounding landscapes, but also the rich and profound indigenous cultural element.

You do need to be aware of the extreme seasonal variations in climate, arising from the fact that the area is not subject to any significant oceanic influences and is located close to the Tropic of Capricorn. So, it is better to avoid visiting during the southern summer and you should be be prepared for sub-zero nighttime temperatures during our winter.

Our recent visit to the area also included a night and morning at Kings Canyon. It is a popular destination and does have its own virtues, as shown in the photos below. However, the amount of time we spent getting in and out of there, plus the comparative inadequacy of food & beverage options for coach-tour passengers, reduced our ‘bang for the buck’. In hindsight, we wish we’d spent an extra day in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Self-catering travellers would probably enjoy a Kings Canyon visit more than we did, especially if they spent more than one night there.

               

               

Alice Springs

Alice Springs is the only sizeable town for at least 1,000 km in every direction. It is located on both the only railway line and the only sealed road running through the middle of Australia. ‘The Alice’ is also accessible by regular direct flights from every major city of Australia, as is home to a large number of coach-tour services, hire cars, four-wheel-drive adventures and so on. So, it is an excellent base for exploring Central Australia.

The town had a somewhat troubled history for much of the second half of the 20th Century, mainly due to the calamitous circumstances of many of its Aboriginal residents. However, it seems to be a happier place these days and there is plenty to see and do, both in the town and within the MacDonnell Ranges, which run east to west either side of the town. Exploring the latter remains on our ‘to do’ list.

Katherine Gorge

Our visit to this significant site was organised in conjunction with our Ghan train journey, so we spent less than three hours there. It was a pleasant enough experience, highlighted by the fact that our guide and cruise-boat operator were both local Aboriginal men.

We would have left with more appreciation for the gorge and its environs if we had either see it from the air in a helicopter or had a day or two to explore several more of the thirteen gorges that the Katherine River has cut through this southern end of the massive Arnhem Plateau.

The town of Katherine itself has a good range of facilities and services, including several adventure and tour options. It is located on the main north-south highway and it takes less than four hours to drive there from Darwin.

Darwin

Darwin has long since recovered from the impact of Cyclone Tracy, which destroyed most of the city in December 1974. It has steadily developed and become a modern and lively city. There is plenty to see and do in Darwin itself, including a well-priced hop-on hop-off tour bus service, and there is plenty of accommodation to suit all tastes and budgets.

As well as the twice-weekly Ghan train service from Adelaide via Alice Springs, there are daily flights to and from all of Australia’s major cities. Once you are there, it is the ideal base for exploring the highlights of the ‘top end’ of Australia, with sealed roads out to the major national parks and a wide range of short or long tours available.

Kakadu

Kakadu is one of Australia’s most important national parks, with world heritage status for both its natural and cultural qualities. The incredible variety of features to explore include the living Aboriginal culture; a vast collection of ancient rock art; the remarkable geology of the Arnhem Plateau; tropical rivers and extensive wetlands; abundant birdlife; fascinating plants; and the presence of an estimated 10,000 saltwater crocodiles!

It is only 150 km from Darwin, so you can take yourself there easily enough. However, to get the most out of a visit, you should avail yourself of a well-researched guide book or some of the many guided tours based within the park itself.

Litchfield day trip

We added this to our itinerary because we wanted to visit Litchfield National Park, a popular destination due to its year-round waterfalls and rock pools. We enjoyed those, as well as the remarkable termite mounds. However, if you have read my post about this outing, you will know that the highlight was coming up close with saltwater crocodiles on the Adelaide River.

Here are a couple of examples:

   

This tour is operated by Litchfield Escapes, a small Darwin business, which enjoys a close relationship with the most famous crocodile cruise boat on the Adelaide River. If you check them out on Trip Advisor, you will understand why we regard this as a ‘must have’ experience for visitors to the ‘Top End’.

Ghan train

Maggie and I have travelled extensively overseas, commencing with three weeks in Italy in 2008, followed by a dozen other journeys through parts of Europe, North America and Asia. Along the way, we have made room for some short trips within our own country, several of which have been documented on our blog.

However, we decided a year or so ago that the time had come to devote more of our travel budgets – time and dollars – to some longer explorations of Australia.

One such journey we had in mind was a long road trip, taking in Central Australia, the ‘Top End’ and possibly returning to Melbourne via northern Queensland and the east coast of Australia. An exciting concept, in principle, but a lot of driving, much of it through ‘the middle of nowhere’; an epic fuel bill; not to mention our limited mechanical prowess!

So, when I stumbled upon some information about the availability of a Ghan train trip packaged together with the main attractions of the Northern Territory, it got our full attention. The closer we looked, the more attractive it became and, before long, we had booked ourselves into a 15-day adventure, including a daytime train ride from Melbourne to Adelaide.

Now, travelling on a train in comfort, as it proved to be, can be quite expensive. However, when we factored in all the side-trips and off-train accommodation, as well as avoiding the stresses and strains of the road-trip alternative, we believe we got good value for our money and didn’t come out far behind financially. And the train journey was world class.

You can find out more about the Ghan here.

AAT Kings coach tours

With the exception of our visit to Katherine Gorge and the Litchfield day tour, all of our side-trips were conducted by AAT-Kings, a large coach-tour company which operates throughout Australia and New Zealand.

Coach tours have been a popular way of travelling in outback Australia for many decades, reflecting the long distances involved and the extremes of climate, among other factors. Consequently, AAT-Kings offers an extensive range of options, as to routes and duration; has a large modern fleet of coaches; and has a large pool of experienced drivers with excellent knowledge of the main visitor attractions, to a level not far from that of expert guides. (And, no, I am not receiving a commission for this puff-piece!)

The scale of AAT-Kings’ operations in Central Australia is illustrated by the fact that, at 3pm every day, three of their coaches rendezvous at the junction of the road between Alice Springs and Uluru and the road to Kings Canyon. This means that visitors can mix ‘n’ match their options and employees of the accommodation village near Uluru can make their way to and from other locations. We stopped there twice and watched on as up to  20 passengers hopped from one coach to another.

You can find out more about AAT-Kings here.

Interactions with Aboriginal persons and with Aboriginal culture

The final lesson from our journey is that visitors to the Northern Territory have numerous opportunities to interact with Aboriginal people and their culture, to a greater extent than in any other part of Australia.

The reasons for this include the extensive Aboriginal ownership of traditional lands, some coming with joint management arrangements for national parks and the subsequent opportunities for guided tours, cultural performances and sales of paintings and craft. Traditional cultural beliefs and practices and the use of original languages have survived to a significant extent and, as a by-product, this enhances the range and quality of visitor experiences.

Across our journey, we had a good number of such experiences but, in reality, we barely scratched the surface of what is available. However, we also had the unanticipated pleasure of meeting young Aboriginal men and women from other parts of Australia who had taken up some of the many hospitality industry on-the-job-training opportunities within Yulara, the village located just outside Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.

All in all, this was one of the best trips of our lives. So much so that we would mention it in the same breath as a tour through the Rocky Mountains. Seriously!

Cheers for now!
Rick Grounds

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