Mediterranean Gardens in Cyprus

(More Cyprus garden photos here)

In the less than the full 4 days that I was in Cyprus, I managed to sneak into a couple of really lovely, serene gardens. Larnaca town is full of these surprising little groves. A really beautiful one was around a local post office. Another gorgeous one was around the local Art college, where I sat with my laptop for an hour on a lazy Sunday morning, writing up my first Cyprus post.

What I found particularly fascinating was the mix of flora one got to see. There were ubiquitous tropical blooms that I am very familiar with from my childhood pottering around my mom’s garden in kerala. Particularly hibiscus, the bright red variety. I do believe they are some of the most beautiful flowers on the planet. And added to such tropical flowers were the trees, shrubs and flowers clearly only found here. It was a fascinating mix.

Date palms, olive, pomegranate and other trees mixed easily with lovely bougainvillea, hibiscus, oleander and a number of other flowers I know by sight and whose names I shall one day learn. What I particularly liked was the effective interplay of sunny spaces and shade – to me one of the critical components of the Art of Gardens.

The sense of sitting inside a grove in the Mediterranean is quite different from that in the tropics. In the tropics, as you sit in the shade of a grove, you feel the perfume of the plants mixed up with the heavy scent of moisture in the soil. It is a heady mix that hits you as one acute sensory overload. In contrast, the dry, thin air of the Mediterranean helps you ‘feel’ the distinct perfume of each type of plant and flower. I almost got the feeling that the difference in sensory perception between the two, was exactly the difference in the sensory perception between having an Indian meal versus a Mediterranean meal. Sorry to jump into this food thing. But, think of the difference. Indian food is, in general, an amalgam of very many scents & tastes all presented in an absolutely overwhelming sensory mix. Contrast this to Mediterranean food, where each individual element stands alone and you can actually taste, feel & smell each part pretty distinctly. I know I have not described it too well, but those of you who have had both might get what I am trying to say.

Maybe I am being fanciful here, but I do find interesting, the possibility that Nature (and therefore Geography, really) has had a big role in evolving the ‘way’ food is consumed in each culture.

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Ofto Kleftiko, Halloumi & the world’s lamb capital

(No, Ofto Kleftiko is not the Cypriot term for an old lady by an oven – it is actually very slow-cooked lamb. Just put this photo in for effect!)

Kleftiko is a form of cooking in Greece & Cyprus in which the raw ingredients are put into a hole in the ground, sealed with mud and slow fired for 6 to 7 hours. Lamb done this way is a particular delicacy and having experienced it at the Mona Lisa restaurant on the other side of the Larnaca fort, I can say this with confidence. Go for it.

The origins of Kleftiko are a bit murky, but the more popular version suggests that Greek soldiers dumped meat & veggies into the ground in the morning, fired it with charcoal and left to fight the Romans. At sundown, those of them that survived the day’s battle would come back and eat up the stuff, which to their surprise had become deliciously tender by then. The good men at Mona Lisa plied me with the softest, most delicate Lamb I have ever had along with wonderful rice and potatoes. Kleftiko.

Halloumi is goat’s cheese and is another Greek/Cypriot favourite. Grilled or Fried, Halloumi makes a great course in itself. And if you don’t believe me, check out oomphy Nigella Lawson’s take on it.

As you can see, there is a pattern beginning to emerge. And it is – yes, Lamb.

The middle east & the Mediterranean are the places to go for those who like their Ovine repasts. If East Asia is the place to go for Seafood and the Americas for more bovine pursuits, Asia Minor is great for all forms of goat/sheep/lamb. Whether it is lamb kebab or lamb pilaf from Turkey or the Kleftiko from Cyprus, Lamb enthusiasts will never tire in this land. And after 4 days of unceasing effort in this direction, all I could say was baa.

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Travel writing & the art of writing about Food

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“we counted fourteen separate hors d’oeuvres – artichoke hearts, tiny sardines fried in batter, perfumed tabouleh, creamed salt cod, marinated mushrooms, baby calamari, tapenade, small onions in a fresh tomato sauce, celery and chick-peas, radishes and cherry tomatoes, cold mussels. Balanced on top of the loaded tray were thick slices of pate and gherkins, saucers of olives and cold peppers. The bread had a fine crisp crust. There was white wine in the ice bucket, and a bottle of Chateauneauf-du-Pape left to breathe in the shade”

” The main course arrived – rosy slices of lamb cooked with whole cloves of garlic, young green beans and a golden potato-and-onion galette

“The cheese was from Banon, moist in its wrapping of vine leaves, then came the triple flavours and textures of the desserts – lemon sorbet, chocolate tart, and creme angalise all sharing a plate. A coffee. A glass of marc from Gigondas. A sigh of contentment.”

Peter Mayle can be irritating. Here I had just finished what most observers would call a sumptuous Sunday lunch and settled down to read his “A year in Provence” and before you know it, I am panting for more food. I must say this for the man. He can bring food alive . Continue reading

Times Food Guide 2008 Awards and launch in Bangalore

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(Telugu actress – or, Actor as they seem to prefer it - Ileana giving away a prize)

The latest edition of the Times Food Guide, Bangalore was launched over the weekend with much fanfare at the Windsor Manor.  And I found myself in a Page 3 gathering, not my natural watering-hole. For some reason, the good folks who ran this shindig decided that I was to be one of the 20 odd people giving away a prize and so I found myself wedged inside an unlikely group including Kannada actors Ramya & Ganesh , the snooker player Pankaj Advani and Wipro CFO Suresh Senapati among others.

I gave away the prize to Dakshin the south Indian cuisine restaurant at the Windsor. Which was a relief, since I do genuinely like Dakshin. But specialty food in 5 star restaurants is, in general, not for true foodies. Continue reading

Haggis

Take 1 sheep’s lung, 1 sheep’s heart, 1 sheep’s liver & 1 sheep’s stomach. Add oatmeal, onions, cayenne pepper, nutmeg, salt & pepper. After much gruesome pummelling of all of this, voila, you get Haggis. Haggis is the national dish of Scotland, a dish that I had a few times during my sojourn there.

Serving Haggis is pure theatre. A kilt-clad scotsman walks in, bearing a platter on which sits an innocuous , steaming lump. He sets it down and begins a loud recitation (‘An ode to a haggis‘, by Robert Burns) all the while strutting around the platter. As soon as the poem gets over, a long sword is produced and with much ceremony, the haggis is cut.

It must have been the extreme cold in Scotland; but, I didn’t find Haggis unpleasant at all. Interestingly, while all this was going on, my thoughts turned to my homeland. In times long gone by, the colder regions of the world had to necessarily eat ‘aromatic’ concoctions of meat to stay alive. It was the desire to improve palatability of this stuff that lead westerners half-way across the world in search of spices, notably black pepper. In that quest lay the first seeds of globalisation and the eventual rise of a little sliver of land in the southern coast of India to medieval-world eminence : Malabar (Kerala).

I dug into another helping.