The macarons of Paris — 2008 review

Ladies and gentlemen, meringue aliens and hypoglycaemics, here is the second of two macaron review articles. It’s time we visited the home of the macaron de Paris, alas frequently called ‘French macaroons’. The macarons de Paris de Paris are plentiful and pricey, and not always superdooper (but mostly miles better than those currently found in Melbourne).

If all goes to plan, this will be my last article about macarons for a while. I can hear some of you sigh with relief! And there are others in Melbourne who are honing their skills as we speak…

To the review!

I ventured forth with Harry, my Parisian correspondent. We had a list of seven establishments to visit in one day.

First stop, Fauchon on Rue Saint-Antoine, near the Bastille. Shock! Fauchon had morphed into Lenôtre. A notch or two more stylish. The array of cakes was as tempting as a Brazilian gigolo on a dancefloor, but we maintained our discipline and only dribbled on the macaron cabinet.

Discipline was also needed in the number of macarons to be purchased per shop. With seven venues plotted on our macaron-crawl map, the danger of billiousness was considerable.

Three. So restrained.

lenotre_violette_a.jpg lenotre_coquelicot_a.jpg

Coquelicot – poppy, stunning colour but little discernible flavour, sweet
Chocolat à la violette – pleasant chocolate with a herbal note from the violet
Caramel fleur de sel – salted caramel, heavy and rich

They were quite dense. EUR 72/kg or 1.30 each. Large macarons: 3.50, crinkly surface.

Stop number two. Gerard Mulot’s newish shop near the Place des Vosges.


Mûre – blackberry with tea, pleasant, hollow shell
Passion – passionfruit, delightfully fruity
Pêche-abricot – peach-apricot, unexciting, crunchy
Chocolat – light, rich chocolate ganache, unexciting

EUR 68/kg or 0.85 each. Large macarons: 3.15, rough surface.

Next stop, Pain de Sucre, one of Paris’s most impressive small patisserie-boulangeries (I wrote about them last year). We resisted the wild strawberry tarts, the lime curd, the bread, the marshmallows…


In a break from tradition, Harry was permitted to choose a special, elongated macaron. The rather green, onomatopoeically named Krac-Krac (EUR 4.50) was about 15cm long, contained a green tea butter cream, a long sliver of white chocolate, and… pop-rocks. Lots of fun, but no flavour was particular assertive. Rather expensive.

Cassis – blackcurrant, discreet
Griotte-pistache – cherry shells with pistachio filling, interesting and complex
Menthe-chocolat – spearmint with a chocolate wafer, pleasant, delicate, but not exciting
Angélique-chèvre – angelica shell with goat’s cheese cream, unusual in that it’s a savoury macaron. An interesting experience, but probably not one I’d repeat.

In stark contrast to last year’s visit, this round of Pain de Sucre’s macarons were coarse and irregularly shaped. Disappointing. EUR 68/kg or 1.30 each.

At this point, just three stops into our research, neither of us was feeling particularly enthusiastic. Our tummies were filling with almond meringue and fatty fillings. We hadn’t yet exclaimed in joy about anything. Hmmm.


Citron – rather mild lemon
Bubblegum – oh my sweet childhood! Mind blowing, but a bit scary
Orange-rose – mild, pleasant
Framboise-amande – attractive taste


We weren’t impressed with the texture of these macarons. I suspected they weren’t fresh, as the shells were too soft. They also had dull surfaces and the fillings seemed too damp (perhaps contributing to the un-fresh impression).

EUR 1.60 each. Large macarons: 4.00.

Sadaharu AOKI is our fifth stop.

Pêche-canelle – peach-cinnamon, delighfully fruity, but a little delicate
Sésame – interesting sesame creation, nice sweet-savoury aspect
Violette – great appearance, but fleeting violet flavour
Umé prûne salé – salted plum, delicious (with violent disagreement from Harry)


Aoki’s macarons were the smallest of all that we bought, but only by a few millimetres. They were also the cheapest, at EUR 0.85, despite being the most creative. These were the first macarons of the day to use a rich buttercream in all flavours.

At this point we surrendered from exhaustion and blood sugar crises. The last two stops would have to wait til the morrow.

Ladurée is lucky number six. We arrived a little late. At 1pm the queue consisted of about fifteen people outside the shop and considerably more inside. It was raining. As luck would have it, a member of staff enticed us to another entrance, leading into the salon de thé, where we could buy some macarons away from the surging crowd in the shop.


Muguet – lily-of-the-valley, a new flavour for me, strongly floral, but not as assertive as rose (Harry hated it)
Rosanis – a subtle combination of rose and anise, very pleasant but could have been stronger
Citron – outstanding lemon (it was a special type, but I didn’t catch its full name in either French or English)

EUR 1.50 each.

Pierre Hermé comes last. No insult intended.

The rain continued. The queue outside stretched a short distance, perhaps ten people. On many Saturdays the queue is much much much longer. Only the hardiest devotees could withstand the rain. These devotees were about 80% tourists, most of them American. After quite some time huddling under our umbrella, we could at last cross the threshold. The boutique seemed brighter than I remember it. Most interestingly, the staff were markedly more friendly than on my last visits, two and three years ago. A sign of the dominance of the tourist trade and the need to present a warm face? My first visit to Pierre Hermé was marked by stiff hauteur. What a change.


Arabesque — apricot, peach and pistachio (if I remember rightly…)
Caramel salé — superbly delicious, a salted caramel butter cream
Jasmin — delicate, almost too faint

EUR 1.85 each.

We also bought an Ispahan, a tarte au citron and a tarte au café. Heaven. Pics can be found in my birthday deliciousness post.

There ends the crawl through the macaronic universe of Paris. To round up, prices ranged from EUR 0.80 to 1.85 (A$1.50-3.40) per piece — close to EUR 100 per kilo at the top end. For comparison, the typical Parisian bakery price is approximately EUR 40/kg (probably less than EUR 1.00 per piece), while an upmarket foodhall like the Grande Epicerie at Bon Marché charges EUR 60/kg.

There was absolutely no question in our minds about who does macarons worth travelling for. Ladurée and Pierre Hermé stand heads above everyone except, probably, Aoki. The three have in common that they often use rich (but not heavy) buttercreams, appear to have thought more about the success of flavours, showed product quality and consistency across their ranges and, most importantly, were the only ones which we felt we wanted to return to. The amount of filling varies from place to place, but Hermé and sometimes Ladurée clearly prefer more filling. I’ve even read a blogger criticise Hermé for having too much filling (I forget who, alas), but I must disagree. I definitely favour fat macs.

The crucial lesson learnt. You can joyfully make yourself ill on good ones, but

(wo)man cannot live by unremarkable macarons


Solstice 2008 cake – with a slightly Parisian touch

Phew! I’ve just finished making my Solstice 2008 cake, and not a moment too soon. Sunset is in nine minutes and Another Outspoken Female has demanded that all entries in her baking meme be in by sunset! Of course, it helps if I check my calendar better… I’ve just realised I’m a day early for the deadline. Don’t you just hate it when you bust a gut prematurely?!

I’m not sure if my entry will be regarded as legit. It’s a slightly Parisian take on fruitcake, if you get my drift.

I present to you my Solstice 2008 Spiced Macaron Cake:


The base is a disc of macaron flavoured with clove and nutmeg and dotted with currants (the first time I’ve used such large inclusions in the batter.

On top there are small macarons in two shapes, and two flavours. Some are the same as the base, while others are cinnamon and orange rind.

And sticking this all together is a butter cream with ground almond, brown sugar, allspice, cinnamon, mixed glacé peel and rum (I had run out of brandy).


I hope this brings out all the characteristics of a pagan festival cake:) Happy belated Solstice everyone (it was, after all, on the 21st, not today).

Mainstream and new media incompatible? (or: Does The Age Epicure censor bloggers?)

[This article will be updated if further information comes to hand. I can be contacted privately via the contact page, or comments can be left below.]

The relationship between mainstream media publications and the online world is strange in Australia. A new media of blogs, independent commentators, expert forums and the like has burgeoned in cyberspace. Meanwhile, attempts to integrate new media into the online presence of existing old media entities have been late to the stage and range from tokenistic to populist. Online resources are used freely by journalists and the mainstream media, but a willingness to incorporate these resources into old media offerings is lacking, seemingly to the point of wilful neglect.

Bloggers, the major part of the new media spectrum, get a bad run in much mainstream press. Howls of outrage emanate from desks and laps around the world quite regularly. Print editors huff back at the howls, pointing out that bloggers are illiterate, opinionated, unmoderated, attention seeking gits who need another hobby. Neither side has the highground in this argument.

There are many successful bloggers who do exactly what print media opinion writers are paid to churn out. Some blogging domains (subjects) work well for a mainstream audience and are readily incorporated into mainstream publications. Tech-blogging is the obvious example. There are many successful, well paid tech-bloggers with their finger on the pulse of an incredibly fast-moving area. Some media organisations have recognised their value. Political blogging also works well for some people and has created names both locally and overseas (Crikey and it’s contributors are an early crossover media format). I don’t know that political bloggers earn much from their sites, but I expect that other lucrative opportunities arise for the more credible writers.

There are domains other than tech and politics that lend themselves to high-interest blogging, of course, though without the money. The number of bloggers in Australia and almost everywhere else who want to communicate something about what they cook or eat is enormous, though hardly surprising. Cookbooks sell well. Restaurants do a roaring trade. People like to communicate about food. As with anything, it’s not all done well. Passion doesn’t always translate into perfect prose. For many people, the warmth of the experience and (probably) photographic evidence is a higher priority. Each to their own. Most food bloggers aren’t seeking renown. They want to share their enthusiasm. And of those who do find renown, not many successfully move from online enthusiasm to gripping commissioned prose.

I’ve always found the vehemence of the print media response to bloggers a bit perplexing. Yes, bloggers mostly present unedited text, often longwinded or self-indulgent, but take a look at a range of professional writers’ raw text and you’d quickly realise that some of those writers produce copy which is little better than middling blog content. It gets polished by others.

Certainly, far too many foodblogs rely on other people’s recipes or derived content, too often without attribution, to gain a following. However, I’m often surprised at how obviously nicked some recipes in mainstream magazines are. Loosely derived content is often the meat in the lifestyle feature sandwich. Plagiarism isn’t the preserve of poor bloggers.

Thank god for the editors, eh?! Yep, the editors who are meant to act as gatekeepers for quality and, um, quality? No. Not quite. The writers are generally relied on to check their own facts or not to nick others’ material. Ironically, food isn’t treated as enough of a specialist area to always warrant editors (or, sometimes, writers) who actually know about their subject matter. There are exceptions, naturally, but not enough of them. Neither writing nor editing pay enough to retain many people who really know. And neither job is much fun. Editors have an unenviable position between readers, advertisers, writers and management. Writers have to work really hard to make a living. As Ed Charles mentioned on Tomato recently, even big names like Jill Dupleix and Terry Durack aren’t necessarily raking in the moolah.

I’m trying really hard to keep some balance here, as discussion of these topics so often deteriorates into one-sided rants. I’ve been reworking some old ground in talking about the problems between blogs and the media. As recently as March this year, it was made clear, yet again, just how blindly prejudiced mainstream media editors can be about bloggers [1][2][3]. So why do I raise it again?

Yesterday, in the aftermath of my annoyance at an article in The Age Epicure — probably once Australia’s most interesting wide-circulation food publication — I was told some disturbing information. It was suggested to me by a source who I would usually trust that Epicure will not, as a matter of policy, write about or make reference to bloggers. (Let’s ignore John Lethlean’s mention of Stephanie Wood’s blog late last year, cos, you know, she’s not just a blogger. She’s also a stunningly opinionated editor. Who blogs.)

Just in case you missed it the first time: it is suggested that Epicure will not, as a matter of policy, write about or make reference to bloggers. Leanne Tolra at Epicure responded to an enquiry about why an interview with me was omitted from an article yesterday saying, plausibly, that the article needed to be shorter and there had been a number of bloggers interviewed, but in the end they had to be cut. Sounds reasonable. If you are a blogger who was interviewed, please leave a note in the comments section. A follow-up to Tolra asking about the issue of deliberate omission hasn’t yet seen a reply.

Could Epicure (or perhaps Fairfax as a whole?) be so stupid as to have a policy that wilfully deprives any (external) bloggers of media exposure? If it’s true, what could be the reasons?

Let me see…

  1. Financial. Readership numbers are important for advertising revenues. Mentioning bloggers might mean readers would switch to reading hundreds of colourful food sites. But wait, aren’t bloggers crap? Why would readers switch? The primary fear is probably of restaurant reviews. A newspaper’s reviewer profile is the biggest drawcard for the majority of readers. That’s right, Epicure could churn out the same stuff every week, use foreign syndicated material, and ignore informed debate, just as long as John Lethlean and Matt Preston remain popular with the readers. (It’s notable that blogs that review restaurants bear the brunt of the animosity from the mainstream media.)
  2. Company brand strength. Tie readers into an internal blog setup so that they lose sight of the rest of the blog world. I suspect only a small subset of online newspaper readers are drawn into their blogs, not least because of the mess of comments that follows. It also means paying more writers or pissing off existing staff writers by making them produce even more content.
  3. Ideological. We already know that at least one Fairfax editor holds foodbloggers in such low regard that she’s happy to throw uninformed insults at a knowledgeable audience. Could this malady be more widespread? It’s easier to paint a whole cohort of people with one disdainful brush than to spare a moment to read or (heavens!) participate. Off the top of my head I can’t think of any Australian foodwriters or foodmag editors who openly participate in the shadowy, mysterious community of foodbloggers in Australia (I’m completely ignoring Ms Wood here, but I’m sure I’ll have missed someone somewhere!). Has anyone had a comment on their site? A majority of the foodwriters I know admit to rarely if ever reading foodblogs. Not just that, they don’t read dynamic forums like eGullet or Chowhound, which is kinda strange, given that many overseas foodwriters worth their salt are active contributors.

So, let’s think for a moment. I can’t for the life of me recall a mention of a blog in the pages of Epicure, but my reading of it has become less and less enthusiastic in the last two years, so I might have missed something. More broadly, The Age and other print media rarely mention external blogs, except in the technology pages or when a prominent person has one. For the moment, I’m quite willing to believe that Epicure and perhaps its master, Fairfax, are deliberately obscuring the contribution of external new media to Australia’s information landscape.

If we assume that points (1) and (2) are valid, then I guess we have to resign ourselves to an enduring real-blogs-vs-media-companies existence. However, if point (3) forms part of the picture then the online community must proselytise and chastise in equal measure. The diverse character and depth of new media participants’ contributions to the world of food and eating is substantial. To obscure this from old media readerships would be to pretend the world is flat. There’s little excuse for wilful ignorance.

[This article will be updated if further information comes to hand. I can be contacted privately via the contact page, or comments can be left below.]

Melbourne’s not so great macarons, plus rubbish in Epicure

Regular readers of these pages are very familiar with my obsession with Parisian macarons. Although I’ve recounted my baking traumas and occasional joys, described in considerable detail ways of making macarons and the hazards to psychological health, and told of encounters with the products of many Parisian patisseries, I haven’t done any product reviews. Things are changing!

This, ladies and gentlemen, meringue aliens and hypoglycaemics, is the first of two macaron review articles. This one is local.

Here are the results of the Syrup & Tang jury. Pierre Hermé of Paris, douze points. Melbourne, null points. Oh, okay, six points. I’m sorry for cutting to the chase so quickly, but Melbourne’s macarons can be summed up as somewhere between middling and utter rubbish.

Before I continue, I must digress a little to address something up-to-the-minute: I’ve held off publishing this article because I knew there was also something coming in Epicure soon. You see, I was interviewed for it. Epicure had commissioned someone to write a piece about macarons. (Let’s put to one side that I’ve written for Epicure before and you’d think I might have been the obvious person to approach to actually write about macarons. No?) That article appeared today, Tuesday 17th June, and there is no mention of me. That’s a little odd, but I could grudgingly accept that if the article were factually okay. I’d like to correct a few points:

‘a macaroon, a close relative of the meringue’ — the standard concept of a macaroon has little relation to a meringue. There is no similarity in the key processes. That’s why the common macaroon and the macaron are quite different beasts.

‘Macaroon purists insist the French petit four is called a “macaron”‘ — macaron purists do, perhaps. But they also know the difference between Italian almond macaroons, coconut macaroons and the Parisian style of macaroon. The latter is often called a ‘macaron’ for preference, so as to reduce the confusion which arises (or is spread).

‘Macaroons are the poor cousin, an English, coconut-based biscuit that is larger, much clunkier, and somehow offensive to macaron enthusiasts.’ — Macaroons are not English. Coconut macaroons are probably Scottish in origin and probably most popular in the US. Almond macaroons are widespread in Europe and seem to originate in Italy. I’m not aware of any macaron enthusiast who poo-poos the other macaroons. They are entirely different products.

‘the macaro(o)n, which dates back to the late 17th century’ — Rubbish. The Parisian macaron in its familiar form is less than 100 years old. It’s appearance in the film Marie Antoinette provoked derision because it was historically impossible.

‘”If I had a shop in Paris I would only sell macarons,” says [Laurent] Boillon, who first sold macarons in Australia in 1993’ — okay, but maybe he should read the review below beforehand. (Not the journalist’s fault.)

I could write more, but hey, I don’t get paid for it!

Now, back to Melbourne’s macarons. Let’s start at the bottom of the barrel and work our way up.

Laurent. Or perhaps more precisely Laurent Boulangerie Patisserie. I’d seen their macarons. Frequently misshapen. Sometimes for sale despite being broken and mutated. I am not exaggerating. Indeed, I regret not having had a camera on me when I saw the pitiful display at their Glenferrie Road shop. Macarons that should have been given away free or trashed.

Still, I try to have an open mind. Malvern correspondent, Josh (formerly of the Expanding Man blog), and I sat down to, um, consider the macarons at the Laurent shop in Albert Park. There were five flavours on hand. The macarons were flat and dull, with flat frilled feet extending outwards from the colourful shells. There was no visible filling.


Leftovers. We didn’t want them!

Deep inside the macarons we discovered what seemed to be a marzipan paste. In all(?) of them. Regardless of flavour. A flavoured paste for each one. A modest, thick dollop, insufficient to reach the edges of the macaron. They were very chewy. We didn’t want to finish them. Flavours were unremarkable and the pistachio seemed to have been pepped up with a strong dose of almond essence. As ‘rustic’ almond macaroons of some sort, these might pass muster. As macarons, they’re pitiful, based on what we were able to purchase. Would we cross the road to buy one? Hell no! They could throw them at me and I’d swat them away. Josh was even more scathing. Shame, Laurent.

Next on the list is Baker D.Chirico, perhaps Melbourne’s most successful artisan baker. Alas, the macarons, though miles better than Laurent’s, aren’t great. Flavours were unnuanced. The shells were okay, but texturally less-than-perfect, and with spread feet. Would we cross the road to buy one? Nup. But others might.


Some were broken or hollow. Many weren’t.

We headed for Noîsette in Port Melbourne (yet another Melbourne establishment with an erroneous and irrelevant cîrcûmflêx în îts nâme), mentioned very positively by Stickyfingers in comments previously. No macarons. ‘When does he make them?’ ‘Oh when he feels like it.’ Fine. I attempted a follow-up visit six weeks later, but had the prescience to call in advance.

Me: Do you have any macarons today?
Them: What do you mean?
Me: Do you have any French macarons today? Last time I came past you didn’t have any.
Them: Which ones? Do you mean the meringues?
Me: Maybe. I mean the French almond macarons sandwiched together with a filling.
Them: Oh no, don’t have any.
Me: Can you tell me when you’ll have some?
Them: Hang on. … Oh, they’re only making them to order now.


Onwards to La Tropézienne in Glenferrie Road, Hawthorn. The owner, Guillaume, left a comment recently in one of my macaron articles.


Macarons from La Tropézienne, June 2008. (Note that the broken shell was my fault.)

I first tried his macarons back in November. They looked great, but the shells had been left to crust for a long time before baking and were thick and too crisp. The filling was a heavy buttercream, weakly flavoured. The second visit, a fortnight ago, saw macarons which looked less attractive (see above — not quite within Parisian standards). The flavours were interesting on paper (orange caramel, raspberry, chocolate), but while the chocolate was a pleasant ganache and the orange caramel was strongly flavoured, the raspberry was an underflavoured buttercream. Disappointingly, the macarons didn’t appear to be fresh. The shells were almost soft (offering no resistance at all) which indicates humidity or staleness. The potential is there for a good product, but with such variation between November and June, I don’t know if they are achieving a consistent product. Would I cross the road to buy one? No. Other people do and should when the macarons are fresh.

And finally, my almond-crunchy friends, it’s time for Vue de Monde. Yes, Melbourne’s most written about French restaurant brand sells macarons in their Café Vue. At least, that’s what I’d been told. I sent my sister on a purchasing mission.

Sis: Do you have any macarons?
Them: Any what?
Sis: Do you have any macaronnzzz?
Them: Ummm… do you mean the macaroooooons?
Sis: {Sigh} Do you have any?
Them: I’ll go and check. {Laughter is heard from the kitchen.} They’re not ready yet.
Sis: I’ll come back.

When my sister returned she was told that the pistachio ones hadn’t worked (alarm bell number one) but there were chocolate and orange ones. She bought two for me.

Let me explain the alarm bell: What hadn’t worked? Macarons aren’t sold on the day they’re made – they need to mature for a day or two. They aren’t filled on the day of sale either. What hadn’t worked that morning?

My sis hefted a large red box to the rendezvous point. Inside were two mammoth, weighty macarons. I looked inside. The surface of the shells was porous (alarm bell 2) and uneven (alarm bell 3). These are being sold as macarons? (no, sorry, ‘macarooooons’)


Crunchy, heavyweight oddity from Vue de Monde.

Vue de Monde’s macarons are very heavy. As a snack, they’re very rich and filling, possibly overly so! They’re quite tasty. I’d buy them as a weird sort of cake. There’s nothing wrong with the diameter — large macarons are common in France — it’s their tenuous resemblance to a good macaron which disturbs me. At A$3 they’re a good deal, especially compared to the crap brownies you can buy for the same price or more elsewhere. But as macarons, no. Would I cross the road to buy one? Possibly, if I felt like cake.

The shell was thick and crunchy. These babies had been left to crust for hours, perhaps a day. The fact that piping marks were clearly visible indicates the batter was too thick or otherwise flawed (and might never work for a real macaron). And despite the crust and thickness, one shell still showed a fissure.

I don’t know if this was an aberration, not having seen other exemplars, but given the multiple problems, I wonder if they know what the product should actually be like. Permit me to assist:


Orange macaron with chocolate and seville orange marmelade ganache.

Making macarons isn’t easy, especially for home cooks. But it isn’t horrendously difficult for pastry chefs working in professional kitchens. I doubt that Melbourne lacks the talent, so I’m left wondering if some of these businesses are content to assume that punters will still buy mediocrity for lack of an immediate comparison. Excuse my cynicism.

For the closest thing to a serious macaron, go to La Tropézienne. For an entertaining, crunchy, rich cakey thing, go to Vue de Monde.

(Thanks to Josh for planning the first part of the macaron crawl!)

An opening in the cupcake market

A little spy SMSed me today to announce that Crabapple Cupcake Bakery in Prahran Market is closed with a mysterious notice on the door. Sounds like there might be an opening in the cupcake market for Melbourne’s cupcaking blogger Vida!

What’s the goss?

I’ve not been a fan of Crabapple, not least because of the price-to-quality relationship (but I hope nonetheless that they didn’t do anything silly to damage their business). And i’m not a convert to cupcakes anyway (Vida, seduce me!).

The scales of creativity

A few oddball devices I’ve found while surfing:

First off, the EggCurate digital scale. It weighs… eggs. Like, wow. Luckily it weighs anything, pretty much, but the demand for an egg-oriented scale seems, well, a tad niche.


Then we have the stylish Uma scales from Casa Bugatti. I can’t help wondering at what point they topple over. Pretty though. And as they retail in Australia for up to A$300, it’s no surprise that a websearch shows that this product is a popular ‘prize’ or ‘luxury reward’ in various points and incentive schemes.


As you might guess, I was looking for new kitchen scales. Problem solved.

Travel 2008 – returning to Portugal, Elvas


“In Portugal, every website is broken,” says the concierge as we try for the third time, in vain, to book a bus ticket online. I suggest that he is exaggerating slightly. Three or four years ago I might have agreed, but nowadays the situation is much, much better. Sure, numerous major tourist towns have websites that were written by someone’s least technically minded assistant, many hotels fail to provide so much as a map to help their guests, and crucial sources of information collapse after about three clicks. Only restaurants and the railway company, CP, seem to provide good, solid websites. (It is my turn to exaggerate slightly.)

Despite the online (and other) adversities of being a tourist in Portugal (of which more later), it is perhaps my favourite country in Europe. Portugal possesses a combination of antiquated charm and a decent dose of decay alongside a vibrant, open approach to life and the world. (Just don’t get entangled in its bureaucracy.) And the Portuguese know how to cook meat and seafood. I think Portugal has left more positive memories of simple meat dishes than anywhere else on my various travels.

Even more prominent in my mind are the sweets, however. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a food culture in Europe with a sweeter tooth. Tarts, cakes and almond-and-egg confections abound. I just wish there were more chocolate!

My travels take me to inland Portugal, the Alentejo, stretching from approximately the same latitude as Lisbon southwards until it almost reaches the southern coast, the Algarve (where frighteningly white northern Europeans gather like albino seals every summer).

I arrive in Lisbon on my flying bus (the tightest squeeze I’ve had in a while) from Sevilla. Landed and released from my seat, I see my backpack arrive on the conveyor belt in just 15 minutes, about four times faster than on previous visits. A miracle! Lisbon Portela Airport is not many people’s favourite place. I venture into the loos with great reluctance, for this is where the airport experience can be least pleasant. Men’s toilets in Portugal aren’t for the faint hearted. To my surprise, it is a more pleasant greeting to Portugal than usual. Perhaps things have changed since last time.

I collect a map from the tourist office. I’m on my way to Lisbon’s main bus terminal, Sete Rios (no website). The friendly lady tells me to take a local bus from just south of the airport, a mere ten minutes’ walk away. With more time to spare and less threatening skies, I might have followed her advice, but I’m not in the mood for navigating airport roads to a large roundabout and trying to find a bus stop for a bus which might not run often enough to make my life simple. I’ve researched my own route in advance (little thanks to Lisbon’s dodgy new journey planner) and buy myself a rechargeable ticket at the post office, catch a city-bound bus, change to the Metropolitana (underground) and make my way to Sete Rios.


For reasons unknown to anyone but transport planners, it pays to know your way to Sete Rios before you attempt the journey. The Metro station is called Jardim Zoológico (‘zoo’). Sort of above it is the elevated CP station Sete Rios. Next to it is the bus terminal, also known as Sete Rios. On the underground platform there’s a sign pointing towards the bus terminal. I think it says Terminal Rodoviário. I don’t think there’s anything saying Sete Rios. When I surface into the concrete space between the raised CP station and the sunken Metro station there are no more signs. Walking straight ahead, I’m suddenly in one of those cold, grey, empty spaces where only people up to no good lurk. So strange. An elderly lady comes down a flight of stairs and I venture a few words of Portuguese, unpractised for three years. She points me up a (different) flight of stairs, unmarked.

I come to a pathway leading across a small road, past a few bushes and lo! into a large building. There’s an enormous bustle of people, from school students to crones, farmers to strange twitchy people. I buy a ticket for my bus, departing an hour later, and settle in to wait, watch, and avoid sitting next to the more inebriated travellers. Large, shiny coaches depart in waves every half hour, leaving the long concrete concourse briefly barren.

I’m on my way to Elvas, a small fortified town close to the Spanish border. It’s famous primarily for its aqueduct and its historical importance as a fort town. The trip takes about three hours. Elvas lies on the edge of marble country. From the highway I can see piles of white stone on hilltops.


We pull into the small bus station and I peer at my little map. There is, of course, no signposting anywhere pointing towards the old town. The bus station is to the south of the fortified walls, thoroughly concealed behind houses and some large commercial buildings. It’s a steep but mercifully short climb to the closest town gate. I walk along the battlements to my rather luxurious hotel. There weren’t many to choose from and, faced with the option of an overpriced ‘dingy’ (Lonely Planet) pension and a not-too-expensive fancypants hotel, it seemed a no-brainer for two nights. The Hotel São João de Deus isn’t bad at all. High ceilings, comfy bed, nice bathroom, complimentary breakfast in your room, bougainvillea covering the walls outside. Nice. Just a pity the aircon blows hot air even when set to ‘cool’. It’s Portugal. And the very slight whiff of sewer from the bathroom is an old Portuguese friend. (A common problem at seemingly any point on the accommodation spectrum.)


The original town of Elvas is small, barely a kilometre across, enclosed by star-shaped fortifications (a ‘star fort’). The streets are narrow and frequently steep. It’s very sleepy on the weekend. Diminutive, leather-skinned elderly men in bars are complemented by a trickle of Spanish tourists passing through and the occasional couple of earnest Germans with their Nordic walking sticks. In summer it would see more traffic, I’m sure, as it lies on one of the main connections between Spain and Portugal and is listed in most guidebooks. (Elvas used to have a few daily train connections to Badajoz, across the border, making it fun for intrepid train travellers. The train service ceased a few years back. There are, apparently, occasional local buses that ply this route, but I saw no evidence of this and the Spanish bus company didn’t reply to an email. The Lusitânia night train Lisbon-Madrid-Lisbon ran via Elvas until early this year, when a landslide damaged the line. The train is now routed via Vilar Formoso. It is possible the damaged line won’t be repaired.)


Elvas is a fairly pretty place. There are a few churches and small museums. The views of the countryside are gorgeous on a clear sunny day. To the north and south are smaller hill forts, both military installations, I believe. And the aqueduct is humungous. I’d never thought of aqueducts as modern structures, but this one was only completed in the seventeenth century. A baby in the history of aqueducts.


Staying in a very small town from Saturday evening to Monday morning means there won’t be a lot of shopping to be done. Nor will some sights be accessible. That’s life. Elvas is worth a stay of about eighteen hours to get a feel for the place, or about four hours if you just want to see the main sites, have a refreshment and wander along the walls a bit.


I dine in the hotel restaurant, a respectable option in this town. When I arrived at the hotel, the bar was heaving with a wedding party. Unsure whether Saturday evening might be a big night out, I go to the restaurant just a little early for Portugal – about 8.00pm. The restaurant is empty (and would remain so for the entire evening). A waiter speaks a little English, while the younger waitress speaks none. Luckily, I’ve been eating in Portuguese for many years.


The couvert – the numerous little nibbles that appear unbidden (but not free) on your table at the beginning of every restaurant meal here – look great. Where many restaurants serve up a few containers of tuna paté and perhaps a small round of unexciting cheese, the hotel restaurant delivers marinated carrots and mushrooms, olives, roasted capsicum, an oozing aged ewe’s milk cheese (queijo ovelha curado, see also here) and some quite good bread. I could eat my fill on this and not worry about the roasted baby lamb (cordeiro de leite assado no forno) I’ve ordered.


Edible items may be larger than they appear

The lamb arrives on a trolley. The waiter carefully removes all the meat from the rather small (ie, young) leg on his platter. He piles the meat in the centre of a plate and places it before me. Here am I, already quite satisfied from the couvert items, and I’ve got a week’s worth of succulent, fragrant, wonderful protein to get through. Sacrifices! This was accompanied by a glass of local red, Figueira de Cima 2004. It was stunning, though not the perfect match to the delicate lamb.

I’d love to skip the fact that I also, foolishly, had dessert. Luckily it was a pretty stingy slice of a slightly singed nut cake, submerged (much like a South Australian pie floater) in a sea of ovos moles, an excruciatingly sweet egg and sugar substance much favoured in Portuguese pastries.

The next day is spent climbing battlements, photographing churches and hilly streetscapes, and consuming numerous espressos. I love Portuguese coffee. It isn’t as dark as the coffee of southern Italy, but is rich and flavoursome without much bitterness. And it’s cheap, costing as little as EUR 0.50 and rarely more than EUR 1.30 in touristy areas anywhere. (That’s A$0.90-2.40.) I order a café pingado, an espresso with a little milk.

Rain clouds gather mid-afternoon. I curtail a walk in the municipal park, southwest of the town walls and divert briefly to a Lidl supermarket (little different from Aldi). It’s one of the few shops open and it satisfies my desire for chocolate. I haven’t had any chocolate (except the liquid variety) for ten days. I’m surprised I haven’t been whisked away in an ambulance.

The skies open just as I return to the hotel. Good timing. It rains for much of the late afternoon and into the evening, so I spend my time packing while watching Portuguese TV. The news broadcasts are long and stupendously boring. If a soccer player stubs his toe, it’s likely to be covered in minute detail for the first thirty minutes (actually, on this particular evening, it’s the retirement of Rui Costa). It’s also political party conference season, so another half hour is spent on the speeches of the conference of the Partido Social Democrato. The remaining half-hour (yes, 90 minutes in total) covers any remaining sports news, the occasional cow with three udders and, if you’re very lucky, some brief happenings from somewhere in Europe.

As my thoughts turn to dinner, I realise I’m still digesting last night’s meal. The thought of another large repast leaves me feeling queasy. Some savoury snacks and a righteous apple become the preferred nourishment. Atonement.