Category Archives: travel

Experiences near and abroad.

Going Iberian (plus Paris)… eating tips sought

Hello my lovely gastronauts. Guess what? I’m off to Iberia (and Paris). Quite soon, actually. Impending, so to speak. So bring on the tips. But wait! Read where I’m off to first…

So, this is the itinerary:

an evening in Madrid (it’s a transity thing, so no, I’m not on a Contiki tour or something)
2.5 days in Córdoba
2 days in Granada
3 days in Sevilla (and possibly Ronda)
1.5 days in Elvas (Portugal, Alto Alentejo)
4 days in Évora (Portugal, Alto Alentejo)
5 days in Lisbon — I know Lisbon well, so only super-hot new things or personal secrets, please
5 days in Paris — I know Paris well, so again, only super-hot new things or personal secrets, please

And remember that yours truly is mostly obsessed with savoury or sweet traditional cooking, plus chocolate, cakes and pastries. Plus the occasionally glitzy-glam novelty.

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.]

London 2007

Borough Market
[This is the second article about travel. Others: chocolate in London, Paris.]

It’s three years since I was last in Britain and I was curious to see what might have changed in the food scene. I’ve tried to keep up, reading the Observer Food Monthly as often as possible (I prefer the paper version rather than just browsing articles online) and paying attention to discussions on eGullet. It wasn’t hard to miss the popularity of gastropubs, the growth of decent chocolatiers, and the burgeoning enthusiasm for organics. (I last lived in Britain at the turn of the millenium and saw the beginnings of the organic boom there.) Below are some observational tidbits.

Organics and markets

Daylesford Organic

A fairly new chain of organic lifestyle stores in the UK (not to be confused with a grower in Australia). The emphasis at Daylesford Organic is primarily on food, but they also stock other items (homewares). I visited the store in Pimlico – a large store over three floors, with very clean, minimalist appearance (polished stone surfaces, pale timber, white white white). The ground floor contained an eatery (absolutely bustling on a Saturday morning) and fresh produce, while upstairs were honeys, oils and other edibilia, plus homewares. It won’t come as a surprise to you that the prices were, well, hhhhigh… which is not to disparage the impressive range of products.

At the back left of the ground floor were refrigerated displays of dairy and other products, including some very pretty gull eggs. A lady was carefully filling a six-egg carton. As she walked past me, I asked her what she would use them for.

‘Oh they make a wonderful omelette,’ she said. ‘The flavour is lovely. Though probably not enough to justify the expense.’

I wandered over to the cabinet and finally saw the price tag. GBP 3.50 (A$8.75) per egg.

Pimlico Road Farmers’ Market

Opposite Daylesford Organic is an island of concrete and trees. This is Orange Square, the site for the weekly Saturday farmers market. A modest market, with approximately 20 stalls. (The London Farmers’ Markets website lists 42 vendors, but this is a far cry from the number there on my visit.) Juice is a popular item. Fresh, variety-specific apple and pear juices. Some meat and cheese stalls, bread, flowers and veg. The produce was interesting and generally of good quality, but not all stall-holders were able to answer (fairly basic) questions about their produce.

Markets require planning and control, so there are often quotas on how many competing stalls there can be. The rather perverse result is that some stall-holders sell ‘unauthorised’ wares under the counter.

Marylebone Farmers’ Market

This one is a Sunday market. Definitely larger than Pimlico’s, there are about 40 stalls. Produce variety is slightly greater, though I saw more ready-to-eat food here than at Pimlico. Some overlap in vendors between the two markets, which probably shouldn’t be surprising.
Marylebone Farmers
The greatest happiness came with the discovery of a stall selling unpasteurised milk. Descriptions of fresh (raw) milk often talk about the warmth and creaminess of the milk. Unfortunately, I find warm milk quite vile, so the thought of warm, thick, tasty milk has never been a marketing success in my books. Thank goodness the Grove Farm Hollesley Bay Dairy were offering tastings, chilled. The milk was, well, not at all vile. Not special either. Just nice, cold milk with more cream. We bought a bottle.
Real milk
Look at the cream
Close by, on Moxon Street, is the London butcher and charcuterer The Ginger Pig, renowned for raising their own livestock, thus controlling the entire foodchain for most of the products they sell. They also have a refreshingly blunt philosophy about this process:

We need to move on from our obsession with the word ‘organic’, which is now less about product than about lifestyle. From planting the seed to harvesting the crop, from breeding the animal to feeding it and slaughtering, we oversee the whole process. We’re not selling a lifestyle. We’re selling food. (Read more)

A few doors up from The Ginger Pig is La Fromagerie, a grocer and café with an impressive cheese room. The website has numerous pictures that give a good feel for the place, and a great cheese search engine. Sensibly, the number of people permitted into the cheese room was limited. The café space was bustling and the food smelt good. Although the appearance of La Fromagerie and Daylesford Organic are very different (earthy, rustic modern vs stark modern), I’d say the clientele is fairly similar.
La Fromagerie London

Borough Market

I’ve heard far too many people rave about Borough Market. It seems to be a writer’s duty to mention it with enthusiasm (if the number of mentions in articles, interviews and live talks is anything to go by). While living in London about six years ago (as the market’s popularity was on the rise, thanks in no small part to Jamie Oliver), I went to Borough Market twice. It was not impressive for someone used to Melbourne’s Queen Victoria Market.

I had resolved to give the place a third chance. So many years had passed and people were still enthusing. Maybe something had changed. I went.
Borough Market views
Six years ago I found Borough Market to have a disproportionate number of takeaway food stalls and not enough produce for real people. Sure, you could buy Austrian jams for wildly inflated prices (perhaps three times the retail price in Austria) and organic chocolate truffles for a cool GBP 100 (A$250) per kg (if memory serves me right), but this wasn’t a market for the everyman/woman.
Borough Market French cheesemonger
I was so happy to see a number of well-stocked cheesemongers with knowledgeable, engaging staff offering liberal tastings. The same could be said for some of the charcuterers. The initial impression was of a more accessible, interesting market than previously. However, it still lacks the feeling of lively competition and practical purpose that makes real everyday markets atmospheric. There are relatively few vegetable stalls or butchers (quite a lot of cryovac produce too). (If my impression is wrong, please correct me.) There are quite a few boutique producers but many show a too-strong tendency to head down the cute-expensive path. At least I found some absolutely delicious fudge from Burnt Sugar — if you have the chance, try their ginger or sea salt varieties!
Burnt Sugar fudge
You still get the feeling at this market that cooked food dominates. There is a real thronging of people to buy lunch or snacks, and searching the internet reveals more comments about ready-to-eat food than produce at Borough Market. The atmosphere at this market is good and on a warm day is vibrant. But despite the pleasant experience with the cheesemongers (and I’m sure there are other gems in the market), I don’t feel it’s a place for people who love food and cooking without trendy pretence – it seems very much a reflection of food-as-lifestyle.
Borough Market crowd


British supermarkets differ greatly from Australian ones. Ready-meals take up whole refrigerator aisles. Environmentally suspect packaged portions dominate in lines that Australians would expect to find loose at the deli counter. Conversely, the quality of unpackaged meat at the butcher’s counter is miles ahead of that in Australia. Dairy sections have an excellent range of cheeses. The quality of in-house bakery lines is generally better too, and there is more diversity and quality in the cakes and patisserie lines sold. (Let’s face it, in-house bakery/patisserie lines in Australian supermarkets are mostly aimed about one millimetre above garbage.) British supermarkets have a greater range of baking ingredients and, increasingly, the quality of fruit and veg should shame the Australian giants, Coles and Woolworths/Safeway (and the price difference between the two countries for fresh produce is much, much smaller than it was a decade ago). Before you think I’m on a love-in with Sainsbury and Tesco, I assure you that the presence of more basic multicuisine ingredients (from tofu to kaffir lime leaves) in Australian supermarkets and the generally more friendly and efficient service (yes, even if your Safeway only has seemingly-vapid sixteen-year-olds on the tills) is enough for me to embrace Coles and Safeway.
Sainsbury baguette and flower holder
An interesting development at Sainsbury and M&S (and, presumably, Tesco and Waitrose) was the greatly increased detail in labelling. The bag for the potatoes showed the variety, which farmer/producer grew them and where. The same was the case for the bacon I bought. This is impressive, catering to the burgeoning demand for information on provenance. In Australia this is still primarily a point of discussion about meat, if at all. Imagine asking your supermarket assistant where the bacon was from! Australians aren’t yet (hopefully never) as scared of food as the British seem to be – in Britain there is more reason, given the BSE and foot-and-mouth scares, the presence of salmonella in poultry, a very strong animal rights lobby, and (broadly) a loss of understanding of food during the twentieth century. If enthusiasm for this kind of labelling were to rise in Australia, it would require a radical change in the food industry, challenging large, faceless producers and suppliers and introducing a public accountability that the supermarkets and many others would be distinctly uncomfortable with.
Detailed food labels 1
Detailed food labels 2
Detailed food labels 3

Dodgy food

Of course, you can’t expect everything on the British food scene to change overnight (or in a decade, say). There are still patisseries in Soho serving outrageously priced little choux pastries filled with chocolate cream. The cream is that cheap-bastard favourite: crème pâtissière with lots of cornflour and little (if any) egg. GBP 4.00 (A$10.00). The establishment (like so many others everywhere) is in most of the guidebooks and presumably survives on past glory and the gullibility of guidebook readers (I’m sure we’ve all fallen for these places many a time).

And on a starkly different wavelength, Harrods is now an outlet for Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
Krispy Kreme at Harrods


The Tube
I came over all warm and fuzzy as the beautifully calming Voice on The Tube announced ‘This … is Waterloo.’ She’s new since last I was there. Much nicer than the ‘Pleasemindthegapbetweenthetrainandtheplatform’ man. My Eurostar train awaited.

– DM
[This is the second article about travel. Others: chocolate in London, Paris.]

Chocolate 2007 – London

L'Artisan du Chocolat
[This is the first article about travel. Others: London/UK, Paris.]

I was in the mood for cocoa bean product. I set off with a sheaf of addresses under my arm. Chocolate from here to eternity. Well, Melbourne to London, Paris and Lyon, more like. I knew there would be ups and downs; disappointments and cries of delight. I wasn't sure where (or if) I would find satisfaction.

This is the first instalment of my Chocolate 2007. What I ate in London. It wasn't all from London, but it was all English. Well, it was all sold by English producers.

Later instalments will cover other places, and I'll add links to those articles.

I do not pretend to have the experience and vocabulary to adequately analyse the flavour profiles of chocolates. Nonetheless, I have a good nose, eat a hell of a lot of chocolate, and endeavour to describe things in a way which gives some idea of why I like or dislike a product.


Hotel Chocolat | Prestat | Charbonnel & Walker | Montezuma’s | L’Artisan du Chocolat

Last time I lived in London, people seemed to talk about Leonidas and Godiva at the luxury end, Charbonnel & Walker and Prestat too, and Thorntons as some sort of non-supermarket mid-range special thing. By 'people' I mean 'the general populace'. There might have been other purveyors. Indeed, The Chocolate Society has been around for over fifteen years. At that time, Charbonnel & Walker and Prestat were both beyond my means, while Thorntons was officially banned from my household because of the very sweet, gritty nature of many of its products. I don't consider British Cadbury to be chocolate in any meaningful sense (indeed, I'd rather eat my toenails), so I'll leave that there.

Hotel Chocolat

My London friends live, in 2007, around the corner from a new purveyor. Hotel Chocolat. Although I trust my friends' taste implicitly, my eating-Britain track record meant that I ventured into this 'Hotel' with scepticism. Unfounded scepticism, for Hotel Chocolat really is quite impressive as a chocolate retailer. Hotel Chocolat is a retail brand associated with both a long-standing mail-order product, The Chocolate Tasting Club, and now a surprising number of shopfronts. There is a certain British tackiness to having a producer of good chocolate in a so-common-in-Britain chain format, and their very skillful marketing adds to this big-business impression (a number of British foodbloggers received tasting samples in the mail at Easter, for instance. And I'm jealous).

Hotel Chocolat - shop
Source: Hotel Chocolat

The brand is clearly pitched at a broad, self-indulgent market, as the products range from fairly gimmicky through to seriously well thought out blocks of single estate chocolate (GBP 4.25/75g). There are lots of pralines (bonbons), numerous coloured and flavoured blocks, and a rather dizzying range of simpler blocks of chocolates (GBP 2.90/100g). The prices are within typical ranges for this sort of retailer.

Hotel Chocolat - pretty block
Source: Hotel Chocolat

With such an ambitious range there is a reasonable danger that the focus on quality is lost, even with a large producer. Consider that the single estate 'Purist' range alone contains thirteen different bars, four of which are flavoured. Indeed, I’ve read that some of Hotel Chocolat's products are sourced from other European producers, including the German company Coppeneur, so there is even more scope for variability in product.

With the exception of a truffle with gritty couverture, I was quite happy with what I tried: three standard bars (Venezuela 43%, 72% and Ginger, Ebony (72%) and Orange) and a number of the pralines. All of these were good for their price bracket. Not exceptional, but clearly better than the mostly mundane 'luxury' products of many major chocolate manufacturers (Lindt, Nestlé, etc). Perhaps a little overpriced in comparison to the excellent Belgian brands Dolfin and Café Tasse which are generally around the EUR 3.00 mark for 70-85g. Hotel Chocolat is probably pitched below the main consumer focus of those two brands.

I also tried one 'Purist' bar — the Milk 62%. Many people regard this as an impossibility when I first tell them: how do you make a milk chocolate with 62% cocoa solids? You reduce the sugar content. This block had min. 19% milk solids. It was bitter but with a touch of creaminess — an unfamiliar combination in block form, perhaps more familiar if presented as a truffle. It's made from a Trinitario bean grown on volcanic soil in St Lucia. I would assume that the soil is in part responsible for the rather unusual flavour profile of this chocolate, with a dry and initially cold profile, gradually bringing out black tea leaves, cocoa and a touch of orange perhaps. Not really something I need to revisit. And especially at the price.

Despite my feeling of commercial overreach and slight overpricing, I would welcome it if something like Hotel Chocolat made a foray into Australia. As it stands, Australia is suffering from a gaping hole in the middle of the chocolate market. More about that in a later article in this series. (I'll add the link to that when it appears on the site.)

Charbonnel & Walker, Prestat

Two long-standing chocolate purveyors in London are Charbonnel & Walker (henceforth 'Ch&W') and Prestat. Both present their wares in attractive packaging reminiscent of decades long past and vie for a monied, snobbish market. The brands were a surprise component of the redesigned David Jones foodhalls in Melbourne and Sydney a few years ago, with that retailer's own bonus markup to make the prices even more unrealistic.

Located in the Piccadilly Arcade, a stone's throw from HRH Prince Charles's digs at Clarence House, Prestat has a small old-fashioned arcade shop. The selection of loose chocolates was more modest than I expected. An attempt at conversation with the sales assistant wasn't a failure, but any enlightenment about brand differentiation (interested tourist wanting to know how Prestat and Ch&W differ) was not forthcoming, as the Prestat assistant claimed never to have tried any of Ch&W's wares. These little revelations (whether as truth or marketing rubbish) just piss me off. Little better than a sports coach who doesn't know anything about another team's players, claims of ignorance of a close competitor's product smack of mediocrity.

I permitted the assistant to guide me to a handful of chocolates — three 'customer favourites'. Double mint: very dark mint-flavoured couverture with a firm mint fondant with pasty mouthfeel. Coffee mint: firm fondant, milky coffee flavour. Banoffee: Sweeeeeet. Banana and caramel. Kiddiefood. Violet cream: quite firm (not hard) fondant, somewhat violetty.

No reason to return. Old-fashioned is good, but why pay the price for too-firm, pasty fondant?

Onwards to Charbonnel & Walker, whose main shop is also in an arcade, the Royal Arcade, in Mayfair (a little northwest of Prestat, in other words). Ch&W have a somewhat more modern-refined air than Prestat, but the packaging is designed to evoke a similar era. They have a wider range of boxed and loose chocolates and associated products. The sales assistant was charming, but largely unknowledgable about anything beyond Ch&W's product. She freely volunteered that she had no knowledge of chocolate until 'just recently' when she joined the company. Marvellous. I had nothing against her, but certainly wonder about a company at this level which doesn't train its staff to converse intelligently about the basics of chocolate (and I wasn't being demanding). I found I wasn't interested enough in Ch&W's range to warrant a purchase beyond a violet cream. The fondant was rather firm and the violet clean. Slightly more incentive to return to Ch&W than to Prestat, but the feeling of snob-value pricing is too great.


A relatively new kid on the chocolate block, Montezuma's has a shop in the new buildings at the western end of Old Spitalfields Market, near Liverpool Street Station. It appears to be pitched as a 'fresh young thing' with a touch of cheeky hipness and a definite philosophy, as reflected in the text on their website. The firm is based in West Sussex.


A small range of pralines sports exciting-sounding flavours and cute names (Scurvy, Irish Tipple, Fitzroy). Montezuma's chocolate bars are also novel: peppermint and vanilla, nutmeg, and more.

Staff were young and friendly, but I didn't get the feeling that there'd be any intelligent choco-talk. I might be doing them an injustice.

The chocolates were, broadly, enjoyable. The truffle centres were sometimes clearly and cleanly flavoured, though the vanilla one in particular seemed underendowed. Scurvy is stunningly fruity and perfumed, and reminded me clearly of a Fry's Five Centre Bar (for those who know/knew them). Two of the bars I tried were good: Orange and Geranium (73% cocoa solids) was brightly floral (a little heavy at first), while the Milk Chocolate: The Dark Side (54%, organic) showed warm cocoa notes, with strong hints of chocolate ice-cream and cake. Nice melt and good thick mouthfeel. Alas, one bar really disappointed: Strawberry and Sweet Paprika was distinctly anodyne. A fruity sweetness and the occasional minute piece of strawberry were the sole non-chocolate elements of this bar. The sweet paprika was indiscernible by four tasters. I can't understand how a manufacturer can produce such a dud next to a range of good stuff. Nonetheless, at GBP 1.85-2.20/100g for the bars, the best items in the range are very well priced. The truffles are about GBP 3.00/100g which is also good, though I'd need to try more of the range to be convinced of the value. Choose carefully and you'll be happy.

L'Artisan du Chocolat

Getting serious now. L'Artisan du Chocolat is probably the UK's most prominent serious quality chocolate brand at present. They make their own couverture and have a strong reputation for very fine pralines and other products.

L'Artisan du Chocolat

Notwithstanding the seven-year-old child nagging his mama to buy 'another' bag of Tasties at GBP 5.50 for 150g (what the rest of the world would call Smarties, though that is, of course, a trademark of Nestlé), the shop in Lower Sloane Street wasn't as dauntingly exclusive as I had feared, and the aroma and display of chocolates was seductive. The pralines take the (increasingly common) form of uniform filled rectangles with an identifying pattern on the upper surface, and cost between GBP 5 and 10 per 100g, depending on how you buy them.

The pralines (all from the 'Couture' range) were rather variable, though clearly all of a much more impressive standard than any of the previously mentioned producers and with a lovely ganache. Still, it was odd that my sample ranged from the bold and fruity Rose, clearly evoking Turkish Delight rosiness, to the almost absent Lavender. In between were Moroccan Mint (mild and hard to characterise), Violet (so delicate as to disappoint), Madong (smoky and interesting), Green Cardamom (delightful), Tobacco (intriguingly hot and fruity, reminiscent of chewing tobacco).

Another product, the Liquid Salted Caramels, has received a good deal of praise in Britain. They were good, but by no means earth-shatteringly amazing. I think the novelty of a chocolate ball with a runny caramel centre perhaps seduces people too readily.

If I had the ready cash, I would make L'Artisan du Chocolat one of my regular haunts — by choosing the successful varieties for my palate I could happily grow squidgy on this producer's diverse range of yummies.

And finally

Alas, I arrived on the wrong day to sample Paul A Young's wares in Camden Passage. The shop was closed. Very sad, as I'd been building up to this final tasting before moving on to Paris. C'est la vie and all that. There will, I hope, be another opportunity.

– DM

[This is the first article about travel. Others: London/UK, Paris.]