Tag Archives: slow food


nancy-photoEveryone who has been on an On the Road trip with our super-guide Nancy Wu will understand why she is our first On the Road Star. With a wicked sense of humour, bags of energy, an encyclopaedic knowledge of Yunnan’s people and places, and peacock dancing skills that are in a class of their own, she has given many of us happy memories from our journeys with her. I sat down to talk with her about her and her work:

First of all, why did you become a tour guide?

dsc_6412Not the reason you might think! I’ve always liked using language as a tool and working with people – the worst job for me would be working alone in an office. When I was a child I would always sign up for public speaking opportunities and debate teams, and originally I wanted to be a lawyer. But my father told me that I would never look the part, because I’m too short! That might sound silly, but Chinese people care about things like that, so I started thinking about other options. By then I was studying English at university, and tourism was taking off in Yunnan, so I decided to train as a tour guide. My mother used to organise trips for a workers’ organisation, so perhaps I took some inspiration from travelling with her when I was little…

And now that you’ve been doing it for 15 years, what do you love most about your job?

I really enjoy introducing things that I find beautiful to my guests, and sharing with them. I learn from them and they learn from me! As we travel we all become friends and I’m able to interpret Chinese culture for them, and maybe correcting misunderstandings that people from overseas have about China.

What’s the worst part of your job?

nancy-wuThe worst part of my job is related to the best part! When I’m travelling, I often come across Chinese people doing things in an… uncultured way, just because they don’t know any better. It drives me crazy, because I want to show off the best of Chinese culture, and don’t want my guests to think that we’re all uncultured! Sometimes I can help to improve whatever it is they’re doing badly, and sometimes I end up feeling embarrassed and caught in the middle. I understand why they’re doing it, but I can also see things from my guests’ perspective. So all I can do is to try and communicate with both!

How did you learn the Dai peacock dance?

My mother liked dancing, and I often went to watch dance performances with her. So I’ve enjoyed dancing ever since I was little, but I’ve never studied formally. I just taught myself the peacock dance, but I’d be a lot better at it if I’d started when I was younger.

What are you favourite places in Yunnan?

dsc_5282Jianshui! Jianshui is one of the places I like best – I prefer small towns with their own character to big cities. In Jianshui the people are very cultivated, the pace of life is nice and slow, and – very importantly – the food is good. Then I like Xishuangbanna (again the food is delicious) and Dali. Near Kunming, I like Shilin [the Stone Forest] and Qiongzhu Si [Bamboo Temple] the best – one is full of visitors, the other is very quiet and peaceful, and you can sit and drink tea…

And which of On the Road’s itineraries do you like most?

The one with Jianshui in it! Haha… I really enjoy the drive from Jianshui via Yuanyang and Jiangcheng to Xishuangbanna, then on to Thailand [“From Yunnan to the Lanna Kingdom”]. But I also like the new Burmese itinerary, perhaps because my mother was half-Burmese…

Finally, you always seem to know the best restaurants to visit and the tastiest dishes to order – and your cooking is great too! What do you like to eat most?

img_1562Barbecue! Spicy barbecued fish is one of my absolute favourite things to eat, but barbecue restaurants here sell lots of different dishes – rice noodles, different vegetable dishes, meat and fish. As long as it’s spicy, I love it. When Peter took me to Europe, I was dying for something good and spicy to eat! [Smacks lips.]

Thank you, Nancy!

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(For parts 1 and 2 of this 3-part series, please see “A holiday? Not exactly…” and “Impatient to run free…“)

In the Vipava valley

In the Vipava valley

“What do you really mean by a ‘Hidden Gem’?” people often ask me. Everyone intuitively knows what we mean, but it’s tricky to put it into words. When I try to describe my idea of a hidden gem, I say that it’s a well-kept secret, found in the most unexpected location at the most unexpected of times.

Still, that’s the kind of answer that, if it came from a politician, might make you roll your eyes and say to yourself “That’s why I hate politicians,” because it feels calculated and inauthentic. And so, often, I end up answering “I know one when I see one.” While this is still unhelpful, at least it has the merit of being completely true.

Whenever we’re researching a new itinerary, the quest is really to uncover hidden gems. From the moment I type a query into Google or e-mail a friend for suggestions to the day I finally program the address of one of my potential gems into the GPS, I am filled with anticipation that we might, perhaps, have found another one.

Majerija garden 1

What’s in the garden goes…

Back on June 23 this year, when I looked at my map of Slovenia the restaurant on our “to-do” list for the day, Majerija, looked like it was right off the highway. Thinking of greasy fast food at charmless service stations, I was almost put off visiting it. Would it be worth our while visiting it? That the restaurant is located in a village called “Slap” did little to assuage my worries.

Matej in the garden 1

Matej: “from the garden to the plate…”

From Lipica we turned north toward Ljubljana, before turning onto the highway to Trieste. After ascending a gentle pass, the modern highway swoops across elevated bridges and through brightly-lit tunnels into the Vipava valley, one of Slovenia’s wine-growing regions. Descending to near sea level, the temperature had risen to 35 degrees by the time we exited the highway. By this time one thing had become clear: wherever and whatever Majerija was, it wasn’t in a service station.

The road to Slap was so small that I missed the turn-off and had to do a U-turn to get back on course. Once on this little road, we saw a tiny village ahead, its diminutive skyline dominated by a church steeple. The road led through meadows, the air alive with the sound of cicadas and birds. Even though we were no more than two minutes from the expressway, it could not have felt further away. Both Pei Fen and I felt that as we drove we were not only slipping away from modern busy-ness, but also back in time.

Slap’s red, brick houses are situated on a gentle slope, and the village looks neat but still organic. Just 427 Slappers live in here. As we approached, I was filled with a mixture of apprehension and hope. It seemed highly unlikely that a restaurant worth a forty-five-minute drive could be here, in such rustic surroundings.

Dining in the garden 2

Dining in the midst of nature…

We drove past the church of St. Matthew and before we knew it the village was in our rear-view mirrors, and still the road kept rising and winding its way through the countryside as the road gradually narrowed futher. According to the GPS we had just another 200 meters to go to Majerija. We rounded one final corner and turned into a farmstead: if ever I’ve seen a “hidden gem” of a restaurant, this had to be it.

Majerija exists and is what it is because the owners, Matej and his wife, love what they do and because they are who they are: no attempt is made to convince others to like what they like; instead, they welcome those who, by word of mouth, love what they love.

Majerija Dish 1

Boletus pate with wild fennel flower topping and crostini

Majerija is a collection of four 18th century buildings that were and are one home. Dark wood-framed windows, decorated with bright red geraniums, contrast against white stone walls. The buildings are surrounded by vineyards, trees and verdant undergrowth, and festooned by tangles of roses. On the day of our visit, the deep blue sky completed the image of a home completely in tune with the environment that surrounds it.

A curved walkway leads to the entrance of the restaurant. As we turned the corner we see a few wooden table with white tablecloths, crystal glasses and gleaming silverware set in the shade by the side of the house. Shortly after we sat down, Matej emerged from inside the house and handed us his menu. I knew we should order – we had so much to do in the afternoon – but I put down the menu, closed my eyes and felt that I wanted to stay there for the rest of the day.

Eventually I picked up the menu again and ordered: “Boletus pate with wild fennel flower topping and crostini”, “Roasted shank of suckling pig and traditional autumn vegetables” and “Chestnut pave, homemade vanilla ice cream and cinnamon foam”, each one a feast for my eyes and my palate.

We spent one-and-a-half hours in the hands of Matej and the lap of Majerjia, a blink of an eye, it seemed – far too short in any event. When we took our leave it was with great anticipation of the time, in September, when we can share this experience with guests because, in the end, no words can do it justice.

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This post concludes a series of three posts about a single day on our latest research trip, June 23. A mad day of research? Yes, certainly. A typical day on the road when we’re putting together a new itinerary? Yup! But above all, an unforgettable day!

Peter

 

 

 

Interested in our new itinerary?  Please see here the Journey Dossier for Austrian-Hungarian Lands I: Vienna, the Adriatic, the Alps and Prague (12, 10 or 8 Days)

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Batelina. The restaurant’s name came up three times in the span of three days while we were preparing for our research trip. A wine maker, an olive oil producer and a business school friend from Croatia, had all mentioned it in response to our enquiries about where we could enjoy the finest seafood in Istria. “Book well in advance”, I was told. A month before our trip, I dialled their number from Hong Kong. Greeted by a recording in Croatian, I decided to call back later. Which I did on the same day, the next day and quite a few more times. Never did I succeed in speaking to a person. “I can’t reach them,” I told one of the referrers. “They’re only open in the evenings,” he told me.  Given that “in the evening” in Istria means midnight or later in Hong Kong, for me, a morning person, that wasn’t going to work out any time soon. I could have asked referrers to help, but they had helped enough already, so I didn’t want to bother them further. I decided to wait until I was in Europe.  When eventually I called around 6pm Croatian time, I was greeted by a friendly voice, “How can I help you?” “I’d like to make a reservation,” I said, adding that there would be two of us on April 4th. “That’s a Monday night,” I tried to be helpful. “At night we sleep,” came the reply, “but in the evening we’re open. Would you like to book?”

Konoba Batelina

Konoba Batelina

While I still love printed maps, when it comes to finding a specific place, GPSs beat maps hands-down. When the GPS said “you’ve reached your destination”, we didn’t concur: finding ourselves on a residential street, we didn’t see anything that looked like a restaurant. We circled the “destination” once. With still nothing obvious in sight, we called Batelina and described what we saw around us. “Park your car on the lawn in front of you and walk around the hill to the house with the lights on…that’s us.” We did as we were told, trudging up the hill, still slightly doubtful that we were heading in the right direction until we spotted a sign leaving no doubt that we had arrived.

Batelina StartersSince it was a chilly evening, we opted for a cozy-looking dining room with a fireplace.  We were served by Ilya, who spoke excellent English. This came as a surprise – we had thought that we were coming to a very local restaurant – and almost put us off. Perhaps Batelina was no hidden gem after all, and that perhaps we were in for a meal of “tourist fare”. As became quickly apparent, this was an unnecessary worry: we had the finest seafood dinner of our lives.

I believe that one’s enjoyment of any experience in life depends at least as much on the setting, the circumstance, and your expectations as it does on the raw nature of the subject itself. The subject in this case was, first, the recommended starter selection – on this day, ten small dishes featuring the day’s catch, each one a culinary jewel coming out of the treasure chest of the chef’s imagination. For our main dishes, we chose scallops and clams. For desert, we picked mascarpone cream with wine-cooked figs and homemade biscuits.

Batelina - MainWhat made this evening such an utter delight? Was it that every bite enchanted our palates? Yes, indeed. Was it the complete absence of pretension? Was it that there was no Michelin, no Gault Millau, no Falstaff, no accreditation whatsoever in sight?  Was it the story of Danilo, the fisherman owner of Batelina, and David his motorcycle-loving son and the current chef who joined us after dinner for a chat? I don’t know except that this evening has engraved itself forever in my memory.

“How do you find a place like this?” I’m often asked. In our world of search engines, there is a belief that “you can find anything on the internet”. By now, I assume you will have googled “Batelina” and, voila!, there it is, you found it and with that “About 46,700 results (0.73 seconds)”. But Donald Rumsfeld comes to mind:

Batelina - Desert“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

The magic of travel is that of turning some of the world’s unknowns – whether known or unknown – into knowns, the process of discovery that begins with a hunch, stops along the way at points of reference, and ends with an experience you’re dying to share. It’s that feeling of wonder about what “lies around the corner.” The hunch gives you the feeling that there is something out there waiting to be discovered. The points of reference, otherwise known as “friends”, are lighthouses that guide you along.  And the discovery ends with your personal experience, which is when you know whether your hunch was right, whether your friends know you well. Sometimes, the answer is no and you move on. At other times – at times like Batelina – the answer is a resounding yes and you linger to tell the story.

Come and visit Istria while I feel it to be true that “rarely have so few known so little about a place that offers so much.”

Peter

 

 

 

P.S. My research was for a new On the Road Experiences itinerary: “Austrian-Hungarian Lands: A driving holiday (Part I)” that will wind through the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia and Croatia. E-mail me (peter@ontheroadexperiences.com) if you’d like to be among the first to hear more about our newest European journey.

 

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Something seemed different here. The previous evening, we had crossed the border from Slovenia into the Croatian region of Istria, a triangular peninsula that points south into the Adriatic. After driving south for a little while, Angie and I stopped at San Rocco, a small hotel in the small town of Brtonigla in the triangle’s northwest corner.

Brtonigla

Brtonigla

A friendly receptionist greeted us and helped us check in. The receptionist turned porter and helped us carry our bags to the room. Then, when we came down for dinner, the porter had become our waiter, expertly explaining all the dishes and, to Angie’s delight, how each of them was made. He went on to recommend superbly matched glasses of wine for each course. When Angie observed that had she rarely met a waiter who knew so much about the dishes he served, we discovered that, in fact, our receptionist-porter-waiter, Teo, was also the chef.  And, as it turned out the next morning, he is also the third in a story of four generations.

Over the years, I’ve lived in quite a few different countries: Austria, France, America, Japan, and China. Living in each meant, of course, moving from place to place. There is, as we learned after breakfast, another way of living in different countries.  Teo’s grandfather was born in the same house in Brtonigla, then part of Austria-Hungary. By the time Teo’s father was born, Brtonigla had “moved” to become Italian in the inter-war years. Teo was born in the same place, which was then part of Yugoslavia. His son, net yet a teenager today, came into this world when Brtonigla had become part of Croatia.

San Rocco Familiy

San Rocco Familiy

With the family’s youngest generation playing in the dirt of a shallow pit that is destined to become the hotel’s new swimming pool, as we sat and talked with Teo and his father, Tullio, two things became evident: one, clearly stated, was that the family is more optimistic about the future than they can remember; the other, not stated but felt, was that they were filled with tremendous pride in their homeland, and in particular the produce that springs from Istria’s fertile land and surrounding sea, and the traditions that turn the harvest into culinary treasures.

The sea provides excellent langoustines, oysters and fresh fish; while the land offers asparagus, truffles, olive oil, wine, and ham – all of which are the pride of Istria’s inhabitants.  This strong feeling of pride is tinged with a sense of injustice. Talk to Istrian truffle hunters and they will tell you, without any hesitation, that their truffles are at least as good as the ones from Alba: “In fact, some Piedmontese truffle merchants come to Buzet to buy our white truffles!” Talk to an olive oil producer – in our case, the producer of one of the world’s best olive oils, as ranked by expert Marco Oreggia – and he will say that in Roman times the best olive trees were moved within the Roman Empire from today’s Istria to Italy. Everyone seem to be saying that little Istria has battled for centuries against overwhelming odds to put itself on the culinary map.

Istrian Olive Tree (c) Istria Tourism

Istrian Olive Tree (c) Istria Tourism

Istrian White truffles (c) Istria Tourism

Istrian White truffles (c) Istria Tourism

Istrian Prsut (c) Istria Tourism

Istrian Prsut (c) Istria Tourism

But put itself on the map it will. In preparation for the trip, I read a charming article, entitled “Istria is not the new Tuscany”. It seemed to suggest that Istrians needn’t look to Italy to learn how to attract visitors and that their culinary heritage is worthy of recognition on its own terms. However I disagreed with the author’s conclusion that “No, Istria is not the new Tuscany.” Instead I feel that it’s more like the old Tuscany, devoid of crowds and brand names and redolent of “how things used to be”. Not to mention – though this is a story for another time – the peninsula’s traffic-free roads and back roads are a pure joy to drive…

Peter

 

 

 

P.S. My research was for a new On the Road Experiences itinerary: “Austrian-Hungarian Lands: A driving holiday (Part I)” that will wind through the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia and Croatia. E-mail me (peter@ontheroadexperiences.com) if you’d like to be among the first to hear more about our newest European journey.

 

 

 

 

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Push StartMost of my travel this year has been restricted to the armchair variety – reading about others’ journeys and reliving my own. My mind returns again and again to certain trips; a cycling tour of New Zealand and a very bumpy journey across Myanmar on public transport last year, and a meandering trip to Kashgar the year before. Eventually, I realised that my fondest memories were of the journeys where I felt that I made a connection with the place and the people I travelled amongst, journeys where I’d lingered rather than rushed.

With everyday life often feeling like a hectic, headlong dash between home, work and social engagements, many of us wish to do nothing more on vacation than lie on a beach with a book. Others may prefer the other end of the spectrum and strive to fit as much as possible into a few precious days off, tearing across a continent on a breathless five-countries-in-four-days tour. Either option seems a reasonable reaction to the “time poverty” that we increasingly experience; however, another more meaningful way of seeing the world has recently gained popularity – Slow Travel.

LakeSlow Travel is an offshoot of the Slow Food movement, founded in Italy in the 1980s in protest against the opening of a McDonald’s outlet in Rome. The Slow Food philosophy, which celebrates regional cuisine and traditional farming methods, has since burgeoned into a movement that emphasises the connection between people, places and life in general.

Slow Travel is less to do with your mode of transport (or your relative speed), but instead concerns your mindset on each journey. It means taking back roads, travelling overland rather than by air where possible, and focuses on forging a connection between traveller and destination. Instead of tackling a place armed with a list of “must-sees”, the slow traveller slips into the pace of the local culture and soaks in their new environment. It’s about not letting the anticipation of arrival undermine the pleasure of the journey.

Farm HandWhile Slow Travel is a new term, there’s nothing modish about the practice itself. Some of you will have instinctively travelled slowly before – stopping to observe local customs, interact with the people you meet en route and try local foods, preferring the quality of your experience over sheer quantity.

Through our experience of creating memorable driving journeys, we have become firm believers in the merits of Slow Travel. While crafting each of our itineraries we’re always on the lookout for what makes each of our drives and destinations special – whether it’s a spectacular view to soak up, a fantastic but out-of-the-way hotel, or even something as simple as a chance to dip your feet in a cool, clear stream on a hot day. We also enjoy searching for opportunities to bring our guests together with local people, whether that means joining a yodelling choir in the Swiss Alps or watching craftsmen at work in Lhasa’s old town. A journey is made as memorable by the people we share it with as it is by our destination, after all!

Market Day5 enjoyable ways to practice Slow Travel (even if you start at home):

  1. Linger over a drink in a locally-owned café, bar or teashop
  2. Take a back-road or try a new way to get from A to B – turn down a street you’ve never used before
  3. Hunt out regional dishes and specialties, and visit a local market.
  4. Savour the unexpected – missed connections can create new opportunities
  5. Take a breath, check your stride and remind yourself to enjoy the pleasure of the journey.

Jo_white (1)

 

 

 

To read more about the Slow Movement visit http://www.slowmovement.com/

 

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