Category Archives: markets

I visited Costco (Australia) and my blood ran cold

Many Australians are aware that the US behemoth Costco, bulk retailer extraordinaire, opened its first warehouse in Melbourne recently. Costco has received more than a bucket of free promotion through all the media attention it got (and I guess I’m not helping). I’ve been to Costco in the US and wanted to see what the Australian experience would be like. It’s striking how a novelty in one context (me being a tourist in the US) feels so different on my home turf.

In case you don’t know, Costco is a membership-only ($60/year) retailer specialising in large packages or multipacks of edible and non-edible consumer goods, plus occasional items like TVs or iPods or office chairs which are a little harder to sell in lots of ten. An enduring memory of my US visit was a large (two-pound?) bag of pine nuts and enormous trays of meat. The lack of diversity of brands was noticeable (there’s a house brand, and usually at most one or two competing familiar brands stocked for any product). The concept of buying very large quantities of, well, anything, seemed to work well with that USAmerican large-is-better approach to so many things.

But in Melbourne it seemed excessive, inappropriate and depressing. I’m not sure how many consumers can buy a kilo of soft goat’s cheese and eat it all before it goes off. Why do we need 15-inch (approx) ready-to-bake pizzas? They don’t even fit in the average Australian oven. Is it a good idea to only sell wholesale-size boxes of chocolate bars? Or one-thousand-ChupaChup containers? Why in hell do we need imported packages of “American cheese” slices (think fast food burger plastic cheese) or mixed grated cheese? How many people eat a sack of melons before they go off? A kilo of strawberries?

If all that interests you is cheap cheap cheap, then Costco might be for you (though not everything is cheap, some tech is actually uncompetitive). If you don’t mind a large company squeezing brand and product diversity in the Australian market even further (Coles and Woolworths do quite enough of that already), promoting the lowest-common-denominator approach to (in particular) food retailing, then I’m sure you won’t mind the place. But for me much of the experience stank of the same low-diversity, low-quality approach that strikes many foreign consumers who walk into average (not all, but far too many) North American supermarkets.

Whether the annual membership fee will be worth it for you depends on what you can save on (do you have space for 124 nappies or a bazillion rolls of toilet paper?). There will no doubt be specials and occasionally attractive products, especially as they stock tech, kitchenware, stationery, clothes and more. But for anyone who loves fresh food and brand/product diversity, it might be difficult, especially if your household is only one or two people.

What can Costco contribute positively in Australia? Despite importing crap American cheese slices, Costco Melbourne does have an impressive range of cheese (though no quality American cheese, unless I overlooked it). Good roquefort, poor quality gruyère, goat’s cheese, buffalo mozzarella (defrosting on the shelf!), some bries and camembert and some familiar local stuff. Also French butter! The meat looked decent (prices between Vic Market and horrendous Coles/Woolworths) and there was a good range of cuts. Costco might end up being the go-to place for meat amongst those who despair at our existing supermarkets. (But just take a detour to the Queen Victoria Market for goodness sake!)

Perhaps we’ll see a move by the local chains to lift their game and compete more on quality. But many Australian consumers have been successfully brainwashed into prioritising cheap at all cost by those same local chains, so I’m not holding out hope for positive developments.

Sydney’s macarons, Adriano Zumbo, and a few other eating observations

I was enjoying the comments on the supermarket article so much that I decided not to post until my return for a little travel interstate. Now I bring you new tales of macarons (hey, there’s been a break of over six weeks since I last mentioned them!) and cakes, and some other food observations from Sydney.

There’s a pâtissier in Sydney who has been attracting some attention for his Pierre-Hermé-esque creations, including his versions of my beloved Parisian macarons (too often called ‘French macaroons’). Adriano Zumbo has a teency little shop in trendy Balmain. Along the righthand side of the narrow space is a glass cabinet of high-end patisserie. Indeed, you could almost imagine being transported to an exclusive atelier in Paris.

I’ll start with the macarons. There was a range of about ten flavours. I tried chocolate/earl grey, lavender/blueberry, and rice pudding. The macarons had been packed into clear plastic display boxes, making it difficult for the shop assistant to remove them. A number of cracked macarons were visible.

And so to the tasting. Problem 1: some crunch. Problem 2: some hollow shells. Problem 3: hard ganaches. Success 1: well judged lavender flavour (but fleeting blueberry). Success 2: tasty rice pudding filling (but chewiness isn’t necessarily a successful idea in a macaron filling). Zumbo’s macarons are a visual success (mostly), but on the day of this sample, the product was marred by textural problems in both the shells and fillings. The only Parisian resemblance here was the appearance.

As an aside, Sydney’s seagulls have a taste for luxury goods. Halfway through one macaron I was suddenly swooped upon and a moment later my hand was empty, the macaron gone! Bastard birds! I sat, bereft of macaron and wondering if this was one of those times when a man is allowed to burst into tears in public;)

I also bought one of Zumbo’s cakes. The ‘Ed Knocked Me Up’ sounded both amusing and interesting (walnut and coffee elements). It was quite large (and heavy) for an individual cake and cost about A$8. The caramel dome was beautiful and the modest garnish of a coffee bean and a flake of gold leaf added to the allure.

Numerous interesting elements were revealed with the caramel and the nut-encrusted chocolate girdle. Crunchiness, sponge, biscuit, buttercream, mousseline cream and even a lump of a coffee-walnut ‘compote’ (if I recall the description correctly). This was a very, very difficult piece of prettiness to eat without cutlery, especially with gateauivorous seagulls swooping on helpless tourists.

I was surprised to find that the dome was almost completely mousseline. That’s a hell of a lot of sweet, light and fluffy cream to get through. Too much. For someone who clearly has great technical skill, why did Zumbo produce something that could be characterised as Paris-meets-American-excess? Sure, the high-end patisseries in Paris produce things which can be insipid, or small-delicate-exorbitant, or man-that’s-rich, but rarely do their products give rise to an impression of gratuitous-fat-bomb! I know this sounds harsh, and that tastes may differ, but I felt this was a well made, somewhat busy piece of excess. If the amount of mousseline were halved, it’d be much closer to being an outstanding piece of patisserie. I hope his other creations don’t suffer from similar problems.

Moving along now… to Lindt’s concept store in Sydney’s Martin Place. This is the city’s other well known venue for macarons. I’ve read a lot of enthusiasm for the Lindt ‘Délices’ (as well as Zumbo’s), but some correspondents have been less complimentary. I chose three flavours: coconut, blackcurrant, and something I’ve forgotten (oops). Fail. Dry and crunchy in the mouth, with a number of hollow shells. The coconut was damp and dull. The blackcurrant flavour was clean and fruity, but marred by a very hard ganache.

My conclusion on the macaron front: from the Sydney tasting and my review of Melbourne’s macarons, I’ve seen no evidence that there are seriously well made macarons in Australia. THEY SHOULDN’T BE CRUNCHY, GOT IT?! I’ve read claims that David Menard at Noisette in Melbourne can do it, but I’ve not tasted proof, nor had other corroboration of the claim.

Other food in Sydney

With the taste of Portuguese grilled meats still lingering after my travels in May, I headed for Petersham to get a refill. Silva’s (Canterbury Road) is famous for its grilled chicken, but also known for some other dishes. I ordered a bowl of caldo verde (potato, kale and chorizo soup) and a prego (steak sandwich) with chips. The soup was A$9. As I waited, I worried a little that I might not have the appetite for an enormous bowl of soup *and* the main course. No need to worry. The soup turned out to be a very pricey serving. Whilst tasty, it was distinctly meagre for the price. The prego was better, but nothing stunning. So much for the taste refill. Pity.

I ventured out to Bondi Junction for the Thursday Organic Food and Farmers’ Market. A strange market, patently not living up to its name. There was very little fresh produce (three or four stalls), of which most was non-organic and non-farm. One hot-food vendor was refreshingly honest in declaring where there were organic or non-organic inputs. The rest of the small market was a hotchpotch of prepared food (some delicious), non-food stalls and a butcher’s van. Another farmers’ market contributing to the growing scepticism about the concept. A real pity.

As this was a very brief visit to Sydney, there wasn’t much more scope for eating/dining. Thankfully the remaining experiences were positive. Lüneburger German Bakery is a chain which seems to have appeared since I was last in Sydney, two years ago. The pretzels really are very good, the bread looked great, as did many of the pastry items. I also managed to dine at Chat Thai in Campbell Street without queuing first. I’d read glowing reviews of this small, modern Thai restaurant, but it was clear I’d need to dine at an odd hour if I wanted to have a calm meal. It’s not often I eat lunch at 4.30pm, but this was well worth it. (The only downside was the waitress who coughed repeatedly into her hands, all the while making drinks and handling crockery.) The menu is long and refreshingly interesting (see the website). Many of the diners are Thai. Prices are low. I’d return in a flash. Hell, I’d even queue!

And now I’m back in Melbourne after a fragrant detour to Canberra. More about that soon…

Travel 2008 — Sevilla (Spain)

[Lots of photos here, so I’ve compressed them more than usual, with a loss of quality.]

A real city at last. Sevilla throbs with life. As the days have passed, I’ve felt the city-dweller in me yearning for a little more buzz than Córdoba or Granada could offer. The bus pulls in to the estación de autobuses Prado de San Sebastián. It’s a more modest building than expected and showing its age. I wander, somewhat directionless, out onto the street. The bus station is hidden behind a corner of a major intersection. I’d like to say it’s the southeast corner, but that Spanish habit of rotating maps makes it hard to be sure. The city is lush with enormous, blooming jacarandas. Beautiful violet blossom seems to light up the streetscape.

On the opposite side of the intersection is an enclosed garden. This runs in a narrow strip beside the walls of Sevilla’s Moorish/Mudéjar attraction, the Alcázar. Behind this wall hides a garden of considerably greater beauty. It’s warm, perhaps 30C. My garden is lovely but humid, and my backpack presses against an increasingly damp t-shirt. I emerge at the end of the garden into a small square and see the first evidence that Sevilla is indeed home to oranges.


Seville oranges are large, heavy and fragrant. Rarely seen in Australia, they are the orange typically used for making marmelade. Australian marmelade makers know where to find them…

I plunge into the narrow lanes of this city, navigating my way towards my hotel. Behind an old brick façade there’s a flamenco, um, theatre(?) and the Hotel Alcántara, a throughly modern building. The lobby is heaving with elderly Americans. My room is on the top floor, looking down on an unremarkable inner courtyard and situated much too far from the free WiFi signal. The hotel is clean and comfortable, and the staff are friendly and somewhat bilingual. As with most hotels in Sevilla, it’s booked out months in advance. I sit in the lobby, where the WiFi is strongest, and witness bedraggled tourists asking in vain for a room.

It’s mid-afternoon and it’ll be some time before I can meet my local friend. I wander the streets close to the hotel, remembering quickly that I’d better not be reincarnated as a pigeon, because my geomagnetic sensitivity sucks. Curving streets. Lost. Bloody Spanish maps.

The streets are truly lined with orange trees and the gutters and parks are littered with burst, fermenting fruit. A homeless man watches as I forage amongst the fallen oranges for an intact one. He probably thinks I’m a stupid tourist who’ll try to eat it.


I rest for a coffee in a dark bar on a wide avenue beside the university. In a display case against the wall are a range of lunch dishes. Lobster crêpes, a chicken stew of some sort, some pasta. The bar is quite full, primarily with groups of businessmen. One man, sartorially perfect and complete with waxed moustache, receives a small plate entirely covered by a single, enormous slice of grilled pork sirloin. ‘Piggy’, I think to myself. He cuts this solomillo into many bitesize pieces and turns to offer the plate to his companions. I retract my ‘piggy’.


The coffee isn’t bad. I’ve learnt to order an americano con leche in Spain. It’s an espresso shot, lengthened with hot water, and with a little milk added. The milk is invariably UHT. I hate that. Previous visits to Spain have left me very unimpressed by the coffee. At least in Andalucía, it seems better this time. I pay and leave. The transaction is brusque. Coffee life isn’t warm here.

At 7pm, a little before twilight, I meet Javier, my local friend, a real hispalense or sevillano. We explore the park site of the 1929 Exposición Iberoamericana (the Plaza de España is pictured below) and then go into the centre of the city to wander around the streets near the cathedral (the largest Gothic church in the world) and the Alcázar before finding dinner somewhere.


Javier chooses a popular tapas bar called Pepe Hillo. We’re quite early, so most of the high benches and stools are free. He orders for us. Patatas bravas (fried potato with tomato sauce), solomillo al whisky (slices of pork with a tart whisky sauce), salmorejo (Córdoba-style gazpacho), and pechuga de pollo con ciruela (chicken fillet with a plum sauce). Amusingly, almost every dish is accompanied by chips. Simple. Delicious. Each dish costs no more than EUR 2.50.

We wander further, until I eventually decide dessert and coffee are needed. A pastelería on the Avenida de la Constitución — Horno de San Buenaventura — opposite the cathedral, has a lot to offer. The cakes are creamy, too much so. A millefeuille with pinenuts looks more promising. I notice a granizada machine and my coffee craving is replaced by lemony-ice lust. Granizada (called granizado in much of the rest of Spain) is a coarse type of granita, with large ice crystals and liquid consistency. Delicious. I’d like a direct connection to the granizada machine!

svq_mille.jpg svq_graniz.jpg

Later, we sit and watch a flamenco dancer in an old coal merchants’ warehouse. La Carbonería is jam-packed with tourists, but isn’t one of the tacky flamenco traps about which the guidebooks warn tourists. We drink tinto de verano, red wine diluted with lemon softdrink served with ice, a popular summer drink which is refreshing and light.

The next morning I decide to try my churros luck one more time in Spain. (I forgot to mention an awful, greasy, foul experience in my report on Córdoba.) A few streets from the hotel is a small churrería. You buy your churros (or other healthy fare like potato crisps in huge bags, or fried almonds) and can sit at the tables of the adjacent cafés. The guy serving is surprisingly friendly for Spain! He hands me a paper bundle and a polystyrene cup of hot chocolate. I unfold my bundle, finding this a little too reminiscent of fish and chips, and lo! there are lovely little horseshoes of churros, fresh and crisp. The chocolate is runny, but the taste of UHT milk is only faintly discernible.


As I sit dipping my churros in the slightly too thin chocolate, I watch an elderly lady and her son receive a glass of hot milk each, then add a sachet of instant coffee. What?! Instant coffee? Javier tells me later that it’s a common way of serving decaffeinated coffee – decaf Nescafé for breakfast.

I discover that the queues to enter the cathedral and the Alcázar are depressingly long. I go exploring elsewhere instead. On the southern(?) bank of the Guadalquivir river is the Triana district, traditional home to the city’s gypsies. Here I find a fresh produce market, teeming with locals and with a wide range of vendors. One fruit and vegetable stall has a stunning diversity of produce, including numerous mushrooms and fresh herbs. Sometimes, just sometimes, there are reminders that Melburnians’ pride about the various markets in Melbourne is not always justified.


In the afternoon I do indeed manage to enter the Alcázar without queuing for more than a few minutes. The site map is impenetrable and signage in the rooms and buildings is minimal. The Spanish don’t just rotate maps willynilly – they also have little skill at visual communication (something I forgot to mention about the largely unsignposted Alhambra in Granada).

The Alcázar is my third Moorish site of this trip and the risk of Moor-fatigue is high. It is a complex of buildings which developed from an original palace. At first I feel a wave of ho-hum wash over me as familiar tile and stucco motifs return. Thankfully, however, the complexity of the buildings and the beauty of the gardens stir me from my sightseeing indifference. A stunning exhibition of Islamic calligraphy also has me in awe – and simultaneously frustrated that photography is forbidden. The book accompanying the exhibition is attractive, but its photos somehow lose the three dimensional glory of the royal writs, seals, books and scrolls.


The cathedral is a let-down. My EUR7.50 entry fee fails to give me access to the primary attraction – the Giralda tower, originally a minaret – due to some event being held in it, and I find many of the cathedral’s columns swathed in scaffolding. Grrr.


This evening, Javier shows me a square (Plaza del Salvador) where Sevilla’s moneyed crowd gathers to drink on many a summer evening. Drinkers squeeze in and out of bars to get their beer. The atmosphere is warm and festive.


We also go searching for almonds. Not any little nuts, but the famed Marcona almonds, de rigeur with famous pastry chefs for some time. Allegedly from Spain, purportedly the almond non plus ultra. That’s nice. Pity that your average Spaniard hasn’t a clue what they are. Asking around in a few semillerías (a kind of edible seed and nut shop) draws all but one blank. The last shop has a bag of mixed fried nuts which included some Marconas. So while the chefs might rave about these, it seems they aren’t high on the common cook’s radar. A trip to the upmarket department store El Corte Inglés yields a bag of raw, blanched Marconas and Duncan is happy (notwithstanding a kilo price of EUR 20 – about A$35). These almonds are sort of broad and stubby. They are noticeably sweeter than the almonds we usually see.

We eat late, about 10pm, in a pokey little restaurant on the northern(?) outskirts of the city centre. The Antigua Abacería de San Lorenzo serves as a jack-of-all-trades place, selling bread and charcuterie to shoppers and simultaneously feeding hordes of hungry locals, squashed into small alcoves. We sit in a dark, raised nook, slightly behind the ice-cream chest. The two staff are friendly but harried, rushing to and fro and sometimes overlooking the two hungry fellas. The menu is interesting and more innovative than the typical places in Sevilla. Prices are higher than these places, but still markedly cheaper than a number of tapas bars I can think of in Melbourne for the same or superior quality. Is further comment necessary?

We order a fig and fresh cheese salad, sprinkled with cinnamon. Four (relatively) thick slices of jamón ibérico de bellota (from acorn-fed piggies) rest on some soft bread. The jamón almost melts on the tongue. Its creamy fat smears in the mouth in a way I’ve never experienced before. It’s an unusual sensation, not completely pleasant, but perhaps a signature of some of the finest jamón to be had.


The olives are home-cured and excellent. A plate of huevos revueltos con chorizo looks frighteningly like a digestive mistake, but tastes fantastic. Scrambled egg with chorizo may well become my next comfort food!

I spend the following day shopping and exploring. Getting lost. Finding myself. Etc. I seek lunch at the pastelería of the first evening. The menu of bocadillos is a curious mix of boringness. I’m beginning to crave vegetables. Not much hope here. In awful Spanish, I try to ask for a sandwich with jamón serrano (more run of the mill than ibérico, and markedly cheaper), tomato and cheese. Oh my, how difficult. It’s as if I’ve asked for the sun and the earth. They have serrano. I can see it hanging there. They have cheese. They have tomatoes. It’s not on the menu. The waitress and the ham-man go into conference. Eventually I have a lovely bocadillo, as requested, replete with a garnish of potato crisps (and I thought it was only the British that need a bag of crisps with their lunch!).


Spanish cakes are rather sweet. I haven’t succeeded in getting my head around the principles of cake composition. There can be lots of cream. Lots of sweet, fatty or fruity mousse. Lots of lard-based pastry and biscuits. Lots of preserved citron, grated and used as a filling. I don’t see much evidence of a balancing of flavours or textures. There seems to be no drive to mix crunch with squidge or sweet with sour. Despite rich displays of cakes, I find myself unenthusiastic about an afternoon sweet.

Dinner is at a popular tapas bar called Coloniales (I think there are two branches in the city). It’s crammed with people, mostly youngish locals. We find a 30cm space at the bar and eventually procure a menu. Salmorejo spread on bread, topped with jamón. Heaven. Gimme more. Spinach and cheese croquettes. A vegetable!! Crumbed, fried capsicum with salmorejo. Goat’s cheese and dried fig on toast.


I’ve had three great dinners, each showing a different aspect of this style of food. The first was simple and everyday, the second somewhat creative and of high quality, the third more conventional but perfectly produced. The cheapest tapa was EUR 1.30, the most expensive ración we ate was EUR 6.00 (approx A$10). You can certainly go higher, especially for fish or in upmarket or more innovative places.

The next morning I leave Sevilla for Portugal. The airport bus is slightly mysterious. The website timetable is misleading. Hotel staff disagree about where the bus-stop is. I learned long ago not to trust every local’s instructions when it comes to such things. You either check these things yourself, or allow time for the instructions to be wrong. I find the bus-stop, close to the third location suggested to me at the hotel.

The bus takes a long, circuitous route to the airport, then dumping passengers in a carpark some distance from the terminal. The airport is small (11 gates) and check-in is slow, as so often in southern Europe. I board a tiny Portugalia jet bound for Lisbon. They serve a cheese and ham roll which is smaller than a tennis ball.

Travel tips

Eating tapas: Eating at bars can be daunting here, as regulars and others throng in the narrow passages between walls and bar, perching in window alcoves, sliding off the paucity of bar stools or snaffling one of the few tables inside or out. The locals know how to order. The tourists often don’t. Confronted with rapid-fire ordering, frequently in a local accent that bears tenuous similarity to anything you might have heard on telly or learnt in school, it’s easy to wish for a 7-Eleven and an easy life. But, thankfully, there aren’t any 7-Elevens, so it’s do or die. Find a free space at the bar if you can, or accept that you’ll nurse your tapa in your hand amidst the throng. Pray for a menu. Don’t look scared. Take a deep breath. Call out an order for a drink so the waiter registers your existence. Pray for a menu. On lucky days, you might be surprised to find the menu in a seemingly locals-only place is in English too. The Spanish so rarely speak much English, but the number of multilingual menus is helpful. Order a few things. You’ll probably need to say what size (tapa, medio-ración, ración) but how much it will end up being is unpredictable. Some tapas are quite filling, others modest. There’s nothing stopping you from ordering more later.

Travel 2008 — Granada (Spain)


Spain loves its fast trains. We had wizzed from Madrid to Córdoba in 1h45m in an AVE fast train. A distance of approximately 300km. After staying in Córdoba, we travel on to Granada. The carriages are the same oddly stubby ones as for the AVE (perhaps half the length of a carriage you or I might know), just an earlier generation, but this train is called an Altaria. It ain’t so fast. Same but different. It takes almost 2h15m to travel about 130km.

Granada’s RENFE station is just under 2km to the northwest of the centre. We walk up to Avenida de la Constitución to catch a bus. The bus stops are poorly marked – we can see a pile of them, but we can’t easily see any numbers. The buses are full and we’re not in the mood for squeezing in with the lunch rush hour. We walk. The weather’s beautiful.

The streets are buzzing with people. Where Córdoba felt small, Granada feels distinctly city-like. We turn onto the Calle Gran Vía de Colón. Elegant apartment buildings line the street. At ground level are all kinds of shops, from clothing to cafés and numerous banks. As the street comes to its end just southwest of the Plaza Nueva, the streets are buzzing with locals and tourists either loitering in front of the cathedral, wondering why it’s closed (this is lunchtime in Spain, stupid!), or popping in and out of the sidestreets which are lined with bars and restaurants.

Our hostal is two blocks further east from this hive of activity. A pedestrian street with strongly tourist flavour (how many languages are those menus in?) leads us to the surprisingly friendly, relaxed Hostal Costa Azul. The ladies who seem to run the place are genuinely warm and helpful. Add to that a surprisingly spacious room, the best shower I’ve had in a two-star place anywhere, and free WiFi. in the lobby. Such a nice place that we were even able to overlook the large numbers of American guests abusing the Spanish language in unimaginable ways.

Granada is home to the Alhambra, a fortress complex of palaces, gardens and fortifications. It stands high on a verdant hill overlooking the surrounding flatlands. In the distance you see the snow-capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada.

granada_alh2.jpg granada_alh3.jpg

Visiting the Alhambra requires some planning. The number of tickets for the morning, afternoon and (more limited) evening timeslots is restricted and booking tickets online in advance is wise. Failing this, some hotels can find tickets, or otherwise you can try queuing for hours at the site’s ticket office. The Alhambra is a comfortable bus ride or a steep walk up from the Plaza Nueva.

The rest of Granada is not an ugly duckling dominated by the Alhambra. The cathedral is impressive, the centre is stylish, and other points of interest include the Albaicín quarter and the gypsy caves of Sacromonte. Flamenco is big. The tourism industry is enormous. Read between the lines.


Granada is rich with restaurants, tapas bars and bocadillerías (sandwich and lunch places). As a real city, normal life co-exists pretty well with the hordes of tourists. The fancier bocadillerías aren’t overflowing with tourists and the fantastic heladerías (ice-cream shops) aren’t gouging ice-cream lovers with ludicrous prices. Small panaderías sell rather plain bread to queues of old women, and business people hurry to and from a (hopefully) delicious lunch.


Harry and I had one delicious meal. We aren’t thrilled by our guidebook’s recommendations and many promising places are closed on a Monday. We happen upon a rather touristy place with a vaguely enticing menu. Surprisingly, the waiter is markedly jollier than any previous experience in Andalucía and this, along with a rich, delicious plate of rabo de toro (oxtail stew) and an enormous skewer of grilled pork, makes for one of the most relaxed, enjoyable evening meals.


One afternoon we find an almost-empty pastelería. The lunching public has moved on. It’s about 2.30pm. The weather is warm and we need a drink and something sweet. I order a horchata (typically in Spain, a drink made of tiger nuts – chufas, though in Latin America usually made with almonds). It’s sweet and a bit powdery on the tongue. Our cakes were more interesting: a pionono de Santa Fe, made with a rolled sponge flavoured with cinnamon, filled with cream and topped with an eggy custard, lightly caramelised on top. Harry has a creamy orange and chocolate cake. It is, in fact, less creamy than many of the popular cakes in Spain.


Harry flies back to Paris the next day while I stay on. A morning highlight is an ice-cream from a place called (I think) Heladería Los Ángeles on the Acera del Darro. A mandarin ice-cream to make you cry. A quick visit to the central Mercado San Agustín reveals row upon row of seafood, meat and charcuterie, some cheese, but barely any fruit or vegetables. A number of stalls are shut, so I’ve no idea if they would offer non-animal sustenance.

granada_merc1.jpg granada_merc2.jpg

I pack my things and catch a very slow bus to the estación de autobuses, located some distance northwest of the centre. Luckily I’ve bought a mohina to keep me nourished for the journey to Sevilla.

granada_mohina.jpg granada_shop.jpg

Travel tips

Granada: As in most of Spain, maps aren’t always oriented to North (I’ve only seen this in Japan before). this means that comparing maps of teeny, curving streets and landmarks and bus-stops and train stations can be more than a little challenging. At the Alhambra this was particularly bad, with ‘orientation’ maps of the complex being rotated seemingly at will. I think it’s done to keep the tourists on their toes.

The train station is not too far from the centre. The bus station is a long way, and you should allow considerable time for a local bus to get there through at times heavy traffic.

Canberra: not a foodie’s paradise, but a surprise or two nonetheless

old and new parliament houses

Canberra. The national capital. Reputedly one of the most boring conurbations on the planet.

I was last in Canberra in 1992 for the briefest of visits. I had, however, spent four years living there in the late 80s and can’t forget the shockingly quiet and ordered life of that sprawling place. For a city overrun with public servants, diplomats and the entourages of politicians, it offered relatively little in the way of nightlife or culinary enjoyment.

I lived on campus at ANU, which was lucky because navigating Canberra without a car wasn’t much fun. Despite a far-reaching bus network, getting places could be hell because of the infrequency and circuitousness of buses and routes and the dearth of options in the evening or on Sundays. Taxis were few and unreliable. At least life as a cyclist could be good.

Not a hell of a lot has changed.

The bus-stops have been upgraded to poles with a sign rather than stumpy wooden stakes planted in the ground. The same buses (now almost 20 years old) ply the streets. The taxis are still dodgy. The bike paths are more numerous.

canberra busstop boxy house

The sprawl of spaghetti-street suburbs eats ever further into the surrounding bush and pastoral land, perhaps making Canberra one of the lowest-density urban sprawls imaginable. It’s a very pretty sprawl, very Australian in its greenery(/brownery), and with quaintly dated suburban architecture. Given that most residential structures in Canberra date from the 40s and 50s at the earliest, it’s surprising how many two-storey brick dwellings there are, while the boxy metal or fibro houses in some suburbs seem out of place, like the poorer areas of country towns or the estates of fibro housing commission dwellings on generous plots that you once saw (or perhaps still can see) in much of New South Wales.

On weekdays, much of Canberra is ghostly quiet. Everyone is at work and the suburbs become tracts of hushed streets and echoing houses, the silence and still broken only by the various beasties which exist in hordes:

  • Magpies (I survived this visit without being swooped on!)
  • Willy-wagtails (so instead I was molested by a piddly willy-wagtail)
  • Ants (why, oh why, do I stop to take photos whilst standing on a bull-ant nest?)
  • Cicadas (so numerous that they were actually flying around, rather than just creaking from tree camouflage)
  • Spiders (none, this time, thank goodness)

bull ant cicadas fornicating
magpie monster scary willy-wagtail

At 6pm the humans return. The only daytime human life is found at the local shops — mostly small strips of a handful of shops — or in the large ‘town centres’ (Belconnen, Woden, Tuggeranong) and the city centre, Civic. Everything is planned. Corner shops or randomly placed eateries are non-existent because there was no opportunity for them to arise. You could walk Canberra for hours without coming across a source of refreshment.

The biggest change seemed to be in Civic. At the end of the 80s a modest shopping centre was built, adding a touch of modernity to the rather moribund city centre. Now expanded, the ‘Canberra Centre’ is a large, diverse complex of shops, adding vitality to the centre. Other parts of Civic have sprouted al fresco dining and a tangible café culture, something painfully absent two decades ago. Alongside all this you can still find daggy arcades and unrenovated small shops, adding to the strange Canberran ambience of simultaneous modernity, conservatism and anachronism.

Food remains a weak point. There are scarcely any restaurants to compare with the state capitals’ first-echelon establishments. Good supermarkets are thin on the ground. With the exception of one or two local shopping strips, there seem to be few remarkable cafés or purveyors of comestibles. And there seem to be no active foodbloggers there!

Here and there, sparsely scattered, are shops of note, but you have to know them and be willing to travel:

  • Silo Bakery in Kingston — excellent bread and French tarts and pastries. Abuzz from opening to closing.
  • Bruno’s Truffels in Mawson — truffles, hearty pastries and good wholesome bread. Lots of impressive gingerbread houses for Christmas too. The truffles aren’t cheap, at $95/kg, but they were very, very good.
  • Tutto Continental in Mawson — quite well stocked Italian (and more) deli.
  • Asian Noodle House in Dickson — very impressive laksa. Very.

This is not an exhaustive list, but I fear it wouldn’t be much longer if I were aiming to be ambitious! (And I suppose I should mention that there is a branch of Essential Ingredient.)

While the general food scene might make one cry, there is one saving grace. Canberra’s Capital Region Farmers Market outdoes any in Melbourne in its scope, diversity and relaxed, genuine feel. That contrived ‘lifestyle event’ edge to most/all Melbourne farmers’ markets seemed almost completely absent and there was a refreshing multicultural element. A Ghanaian stall, a seller of Middle Eastern sweets, a mainland Chinese snack kiosk, and one or two other vendors added to the already stimulating mix in the two sheds and open area. And the brownie from Amore bakery! Oh mama!

market entrance
apples at the market garlic grower
snack placards inside the market shed

I would almost, kinda, maybe, in a dream (not reality!) move to Canberra for this market. But because the bus system sucks, I can’t face the thought of trekking out to the inconvenient market location. And anyway, Canberra is expensive, flyblown (no, really, their fly plague is worse than Melbourne’s this summer. I was almost drinking Aerogard to keep them off me.), hot, cold, and endowed with too many creepy crawlies.

The birds are pretty, but.

pretty birds

– DM

Lyon 2007

Lyon Basilica by day

Much delayed but newly relevant (as some friends were asking me about Lyon), it’s high time I published a description of a city I visited earlier this year and greatly enjoyed.

Lyon, about 400 km southeast of Paris and accessible by supergroovy double-decker high-speed trains (the TGV Duplex – I love two-storey trains, crave scenic trips in observation cars, but only ever get to ride on suburban versions (Sydney, Holland, Ontario), so a snazzy double-decker really does it for me!).

TGV Duplex

Anyway, as I was saying, Lyon is 400 km from Paris, is the main city of the Rhône-Alpes region (think Beaujolais), and is renowned for its pig-intestine sausages, andouillette, and its proximity to the home of Valrhona chocolate (in Tain-Hermitage) — ok that’s just my bias showing. Lyon is/was also the home to a weaver’s rebellion, a stunning textiles museum, has lots of groovy hidden passageways to get lost in (if you find the entry button on the hidden doorways in the first place), a scenic position and some fancy churches, trompe-l’oeil wall paintings, a good gastronomic bookshop, and a surfeit of homewares/decoration shops.

Traboule - hidden passageway  Trompe l'oeil - visual deception
Lyon Basilica by night

For a Melburnian, there was the added attraction of streets in a grid system (many Melburnians find bendy-street cities like Sydney, London, you-name-it hard to navigate… must be why I like Kyoto and central Lisbon;) ). Very liveable, as one says.

I stayed at Hotel Saint-Vincent, convenient to the old quarters (a bridge away) and the Place des Terraux (town hall, opera, shops). The hotel was simple (two-star) but adequate, though the lovely wooden floors made for lots of creaking as guests moved around and earplugs were necessary. The Russian toiletries were an interesting touch.

I was in Lyon for four evenings (a relevant way of describing it, given my obsession with food), but could only face two full restaurant dinners, alas. However, the dinners I chose to have were exceptionally good choices! Not high-end dining, but delicious hearty fare, well executed. The first dinner was at La Machonnerie. I had scouted out the menu earlier in the day and it looked very tempting. Seeing that the city was overflowing with tourists, I knew I’d have to dine early, so arrived at 6.30 (unusually early for me and for the French). The restaurant was empty, but the place was absolutely booked out. I looked as disconsolate as I could and the waitress took pity on me, offering me a little table squeezed into the back corner near the kitchen door. So nice of her!

La Machonnerie

Dinner consisted of

  • grattons – ‘pork scratchings’; cold, rather greasy pieces of pork rind, fromage blanc and good rye bread
  • salade lyonnaise – a generous salad of lettuce, lardons, croutons, poached egg, horseradish dressing
  • saucisson cuit – a thick, pleasantly porky cooked sausage on a bed of puy lentils cooked with onion in red wine. Delicious!
  • wine – a fillette (375 ml) of côte du Rhône; finally a decent house red!
  • sorbet de cassis – blackcurrant sorbet with a serious splash of marc de bourgogne poured over it (helpful article about marc at NYTimes). A bit harsh at first, but after a little evaporation the combination of grape spirit and blackcurrant worked very well.

A grand total of EUR 28 (A$ 47) made this quite a steal, especially in a rather touristy establishment (the clientele was mostly Japanese, American, British and Swiss, with one English-speaking waitress). This isn’t fancy food, but it was enjoyable, hearty and the atmosphere and service were pleasant.

The second dinner was even better. Oft-mentioned in guidebooks, a popular restaurant in typical traditional Lyon style, called a bouchon, is the Comptoir Restaurant des Deux Places (Tel: 04 78 82 95 10; 5, Place Fernand-Rey, 69001 LYON). The interior was so French you might have feared a tourist cliché, but it was genuinely atmospheric and many of the guests were regulars.

Comptoir 1 Comptoir 2 Comptoir 3

Dinner consisted of

  • langue d’agneau tiède, sauce ravigote – large slices of lamb’s tongue, served cold with a sauce of chopped capers, herbs, onion, stock and vinegar
  • andouillette et sa marmalade d’echalottes, pommes dauphine – traditional pork sausage made with pork intestine, both sweet and salty (almost disarmingly like a breakfast chipolata, though this makes me sound like a heathen), quite porky and with a visual texture of something between a coarse terrine and bubble-and-squeak, due to the strips of intestine (rather disconcerting! Gory picture here). Lusciously rich potatoes and tasty shallot confit too:)

EUR 30 (A$ 51) with some wine. Reasonable value for the quality and atmosphere, making allowance for the effects of its guidebook popularity. Again, hearty and enjoyable.

Now, regular readers are probably wondering where on earth the cakes, chocolate and other sweet comestibles have vanished too in this travel report… Yes, I’m witholding information! Naaaaturally, I ate ice-cream (pain d’epices (gingerbread) and a stunning, earthy rhubarb), munched on chocolate and tried the cakes from the premier pâtisserie/traîteur Pignol, but most of what is reportable there will appear in an article in a few days’ time (sorry!).

I can, however, tell you a little about the market. Lyon is a gastronomic haven, with many open-air markets and one large covered market. This marché couvert, Les Halles de Lyon, is a quite modern building with many rows of merchants (the grid theme again!) selling a wide range of edibilia, from meat to cheese to wine to spices. An impressive place and sure to be bustling if you don’t arrive straight after the lunch break (sigh!).

Les Halles de Lyon - outside
Les Halles de Lyon - inside

A much smaller city than Paris, of course, Lyon has a surprisingly comfortable feel to it. For the culinarily inclined, the presence of a wide variety of markets, food shops, chocolatiers and an astounding number of restaurants makes this a very attractive place.

– DM

Lyon square, playing pétanque

Paris 2007

Paris: woman with baguettes and small dog
[This is the third article about travel. Others: London/UK, chocolate in London.]

There are so many reasons to visit Paris; so many reasons to enjoy the city and – most pertinently – the food. Lacking the resources to hop from one name-restaurant to another (to be honest, places like L’Arpège, L’Atelier du Joël Robuchon, Alain Ducasse and so on aren’t likely to be my preferred eating experience anyway), it seemed much better to wander through markets, browse the shops, and pour money into chocolate, pâtisserie and macarons while staying in a 2-star establishment somewhere for EUR 50 (A$82) per night!

I’ve been to Paris more than a handful of times and have gradually become more careful in choosing the markets to visit, the restaurants I’ll eat at and the pâtisseries worth revisiting. What I haven’t achieved is regular access to a kitchen and the time to exploit that properly. In fact, staying in a simple apartment (EUR 65 (A$107) per night) with a basic kitchen (two hotplates, a fridge, a microwave, some useful pots and enough space to twirl a dishcloth) was only made possible this year.

Markets | Shops | Eating

I’d love to tell you that I cooked up a storm every night. I didn’t. But I did stuff the fridge fulllll of cheese, olives, cakes, charcuterie and butter! And mushrooms and cumquats. And Normandy cider.

I could wax lyrical about the olives…

But let me tell you about food and eating.

Food-related shops

The two most impressive épiceries (loosely: foodhalls, strictly: grocers) in Paris are at Bon Marché and Lafayette (click on the ‘Gourmet’ link in the French version). The former is a cavernous supermarket-like space (without the tacky supermarket feel), part of a department store. The latter is more like the foodhalls of Harrods or David Jones, with numerous delicatessen counters, ready-to-eat meals, café counters and more. Where Bon Marché feels relatively calm and stylish, Lafayette maintains some style whilst drowning in a novel mélange of old ladies who do all their grocery shopping there, Japanese tourists and German schoolgirls. (Both the Japanese and Germans – and presumably numerous other groups – descend like wasps on the impressive chocolate aisles.)

At last I made it to Dehillerin and Mora, the two most renowned cookware shops in Paris. Dehillerin is particularly famous because it’s, well, rather reminiscent of an old, old hardware shop with poky aisles of bits and bobs and men in sensible coats (the people who serve you, not flashers). It was all a little overwhelming, and you can hear hordes of American tourists salivating over the copper pots. Me, I just salivated over the copper bordelais (canelés bordelaises, sometimes spelt cannelé) moulds. As delish as canelés are (and there are long long discussions over at eGullet), I don’t feel quite the same foolish enthusiasm for them as I do for other pâtisserie items, so I decided not to splurge EUR 8 (A$14) per little mould (consider that one mould doesn’t get you far, and four moulds is still a little meagre) and will just leave it for when I’m rich (assuming mortality doesn’t intervene). By the way, if it’s good chocolate moulds you’re after, Mora seems to be the place to go.

The Librairie Gourmande moved to a new location (90 rue Montmartre) near métro Sentier in the 2nd arrondissement earlier this year. It is now on two floors, so has considerably more space than the old location in the 6th. It felt a little chaotic when I was there, hopefully as a result of the recent move. It’s hard to find a really good selection of gastronomic literature in Paris and I hope this shop picks up. I’ve written previously about Librairie Badiane in Lyon, where the shop and their website were a good deal more with-it than Librairie Gourmande when I visited. (Note that the second best shop in Paris for gastronomic literature (primarily cookbooks) is probably Gilbert Joseph on Bd. Saint Michel, followed by Gilbert Jeune on Place Saint Michel.)


This year I made it to the markets on Boulevard Richard Lenoir (Oberkampf, 11th arrondissement), sometimes called the Marché Popincourt, which is my ‘local’ if I dare be so pretentious. A long way further down Bd. Richard Lenoir is the Marché Bastille. And a little to the east is the market at Place d’Aligre. The first of these three has changed from being strongly local to increasingly having tourists in the mix and merchants who know it. The Bastille market is a bit larger, but apart from some nicknacks and a Portuguese bloke selling (primarily) Italian wares (but real chouriço too!), it didn’t feel that much better than the first. The Marché d’Aligre, including the fixed covered market known as Marché Beauvau, is a much more down-to-earth affair. Some of the produce is crap. There’s a bit of a flea market. The covered market is small but has a range of meat and other produce stalls – I almost bought some horse fillet to try, but chickened out (so to speak) for fear of the opprobrium which certain Parisian friends might have directed at me. Nay, it was to be cumquats and comté rather than cheval and chèvre.

Marché Bastille bread
Marché Bastille chicken

I bought lots of cumquats. Well, I asked for not so many. I got a lot. And paid for a lot. But it gave me an excuse to practise making cumquat tea. Cumquat tea? Yep. It’s quite delicious, and I had converted quite a few Parisians to it by the time I left. I would include a recipe here, but that would be a little distracting, so I shall post again once the weather is warmer in Melbourne and someone deigns to donate a bushell of cumquats to the cause.


Multilingual menu

Bon Marché (see beginning) has one more attraction: a café called Delicabar, nestled in the women’s fashion department on the first floor. Not my usual place to tarry, but well worth the exception. I first visited Delicabar after reading early mentions of it on eGullet back in 2004. The novelty? An interesting approach to desserts and pastry, and a blurring of lines between sweet and savoury. Jellies, mousses, fine pastry, vegetables, fresh flavours all find expression in ways which were, at first, novel and unexpected: a glass of spiced fruits in a jelly; a ‘bubble’ (dome) of carrot mousse; sablés (shortbreads) flavoured with olive oil or rosemary; chocolate soup; green tea tartelettes… you get the picture.

Delicabar bar
Delicabar seating

The setting was cool and bright – natural light, white walls, and curvaceous bright pink or yellow banquettes, stools and islands. Staff dressed in black. Delicabar lived up to its tagline: snack chic.

A year or two after opening, Delicabar was extended to include an open-air courtyard that is delightful in warmer weather, successfully extending the simple, naturally lit ambience of the venue.

Alas, the experience has begun to undermine the style. Last year and this, we found staff less and less engaging (they were never effusive, but stylish hauteur seems to have become unmotivated and a little tatty). Last year I found my millefeuille pastry was overcooked. This year, the previously stunning sablés tasted less fresh than usual. And the coffee had declined.

Five visits in four years might not be enough to give an accurate reflection of change – maybe I was unlucky on my last two visits – but my bar chic companions shared my view. Nonetheless, the food at Delicabar can still be special and, more interestingly, you should come back to syrupandtang in about a month’s time for more detail about the food and the chef.

After pigging out on cakes and croques monsieurs (if you feel tempted to pronounce that Crock Mon-Sewers, then please use ‘French toasted ham and cheese sandwich thingo’ instead!), cumquat tea and chouriço, tomme de brebis (a ewe’s milk version of Tomme de Savoie, I believe) and cidre, it was necessary to dine a little more upmarket. Two lovely discoveries were Le P’tit Manger (11th) on Rue Richard Lenoir, near Rue Parmentier (métro Voltaire), serving pretty good Liègeois cuisine at quite reasonable prices. Excellent confit de canard and good chips! Another place was the Corsican Restaurant Alivi at 27, Rue du Roi de Sicile in the Marais (4th). Can’t remember my main dish (veal?) but did have a delightful honey cake, a recipe for which I must go a-searching.


Métro Sèvres-Babylone

I’m going to separate the account of cakes and chocolate into a separate post, so stay tuned for that one.

– DM
[This is the third article about travel. Others: London/UK, chocolate in London.]