India Pt 4: To the land of tea and tourism

21 Jan
The view from the Darjeeling hills.

The view from the Darjeeling hills.

Having grown up in the Canadian countryside, I am almost always more at peace in places with a spattering of soaring, snow-capped mountains dotting the horizon.

And so, after a week in the heat of central northern India, it was with joy that the boy and I began our journey to one of India’s most north-eastern states: West Bengal.

As with our past travel in India, it was not to be easy: 24 hours of train and road journeys followed, during which we waited in the searing Varanasi heat for our delayed first leg, battled at least 1,000 people in Patna station while desperately trying to find our train platform and bedded down in the wrong train carriage, only to be unceremoniously rooted out and shunted to a dirtier carriage three cars away for the final 10 hours. We had, luckily, already arranged a pick-up at the end of our train trip through our hotel, which meant the last three hours of road travel into the West Bengal mountains were spent in a more comfortable 4×4 jeep.

The Himalayan view from Glenburn Tea Estate.

The Himalayan view from Glenburn Tea Estate.

West Bengal and the state’s most famous region (Darjeeling) was to be unlike any other area we experienced in India. An hour after departing the dusty heat of New Jalpaiguri – the last major train hub before heading north – everything began to change, from the style of dress worn by passersby to their identity, with most villagers looking Nepalese or Tibetan rather than Indian. Strings of prayer flags and Buddhist temples dotted the hills and, in the distance, the mighty Himalayas poked through when the clouds cleared. It was more peaceful, less populated and welcoming.

Our first night was spent at the stunning, colonial era 1,000 acre Glenburn Tea Estate and Boutique Hotel, a full review for which will appear in the coming months on online luxury magazine, The Arbuturian‘s, website. Without giving away too many details, I can promise you that if you are planning a journey to this region anytime soon and fancy indulging in the most serene service, location and food, and fancy learning a whole load about tea, you will fall in love with Glenburn. Director Wes Anderson (of The Darjeeling Limited fame and many more films) stayed there and was apparently inspired to name that film after a sign found on the tea estate.

Bags of tea for export at Glenburn.

Bags of tea for export at Glenburn.

After a day of some serious relaxation (and laundry washing/intense bathing), we headed on our way to Darjeeling, a hill town surrounded by luscious tea estates and the awe-inducing Mount Kanchenjunga – the fourth highest in the world.

Our original intention was to spend three nights in Darjeeling before heading off to Sikkim – a more northern state that is wedged between Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. Unfortunately, the boy got a terrible cold and – having traveled so extensively – we were officially exhausted. As such, our short trip to Darjeeling turned into a three day/four night stay.

We both fell thoroughly for Darjeeling. I’d heard many people say it is a very touristy town and not that appealing but for us, it was bliss.

VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100Our first night in the town was spent at the fantastic Revolver Hotel – a Beatles themed lodge run by a small, friendly woman named Asenla. She told us her inspiration for starting a hotel based around the fab four came from a childhood growing up in rural Nagaland (a far-eastern Indian state) during which she listened to the band’s albums that her uncles – who traveled frequently – would bring her and her family. The boy and I chose it because of the simple fact that we figured we’d be unlikely to stay in a Beatles themed hotel in India ever again.

The hotel has five basic, wood-paneled clean rooms – named George, Paul, John, Ringo and Brian (for manager Brian Epstein) – filled with quirky Beatles memorabilia. With an electric blanket and heavy woolen comforter, it was a perfect place to bed down for the chilly night (it was only around +5 when we were in Darjeeling). The next morning – for the low price of around £2 – we even had breakfast in bed.

The ramshackle but wonderful Dekeling Hotel.

The ramshackle but wonderful Dekeling Hotel.

As the hotel was fully booked up for our remaining nights in Darjeeling, we checked into the (slightly pricier but lovely) Dekeling Hotel, right smack bang in the centre of Darjeeling with beautiful views of Kanchenjunga. We counted our lucky stars for having found yet another fantastic hotel – our track record was 100% on our India trip to that point and the Dekeling – with its big lounge with long, cushioned benches to curl up on and a toasty woodstove to play chess beside – was just right.

The boy meets a Buddhist dog.

The boy meets a Buddhist dog.

The rest of our days in Darjeeling were spent exploring more of it than I would guess many tourists – who seemed to pass through in a day or so on their way to remote Sikkim – would have had the chance to take in.

One day we took a pleasant 1.5km stroll from the town’s central crossroads called Chowastra Bazaar over to the quaint, picture-perfect Bhutia Busty monastery, which was first located in Sikkim before it was transported and reassembled in Darjeeling in the late 19th century. Rumour has it the Tibetan Book of the Dead’s original manuscript was housed here. VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100

Later that afternoon we headed to the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre, which was set up in 1959 to accept Tibetans fleeing the crackdown by the Chinese Communist government.

The man formerly in charge of the Dalai Lama's dog's safety.

The man formerly in charge of the Dalai Lama’s dog’s safety.

There we learned the history of – not only Tibet – but the escapees’ survival over the decades through their making of handicrafts such as intricate hand-dyed and spun carpets. We even met an ancient, weathered man who was said to have been in charge of the Dalai Lama’s dog during his escape from Tibet to India in 1959. The Centre now includes men’s and women’s retirement homes, a school and museum.

Another day we visited the influential Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park, which is renowned for its conservation breeding programme and research of the stunning snow leopard, red panda and Himalayan wolf. Later that night we caught an adorable dance performance by the local Tibetan school’s children on a stage set up in the town centre.

And, as the boy was also feeling very under the weather, we ate lots – as they say, starve a fever but feed a cold. From Tibetan Momos (or, dumplings) at Kunga Restaurant (located, conveniently, under the Dekeling Hotel) to surprisingly delicious Thai food at The Park restaurant and filling vegetarian Indian fare at Hotel Lunar, we were never short on tasty meals.

View of the quirky Darjeeling streets.

View of the quirky Darjeeling streets.

On our final night, we were moved to the Dekeling Resort (the more upscale sister hotel of Hotel Dekeling) because there was no room at our former spot. Our huge room had a big lounge with roaring fireplace. As we sat beside it drinking beer, the boy and I both realised how much we’d fallen for the charms of Darjeeling. The people were always friendly (but rarely pushy), the food was great and the attractions of interest. It was, by far, one of favourite places in India and the perfect spot to recuperate after the heat and chaos of Delhi, Agra and Varanasi.

In Part 5, the boy and I take the world’s slowest train journey and I experience the joys of a stick massage in the hill town of Kurseong.

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India Pt 3: Trains, Cows and the Ganges

4 Jan
Varanasi at sunrise

Varanasi at sunrise

The moment I fell for Varanasi was when it finally became peaceful. It was six in the morning, the pale sun was lifting a yawning head above the skyline and everything was dripping in an orange and pink haze.

Our captain.

Our captain.

The boy and I boarded a small rowboat with two young American girls from our hotel and our rower – an older gentleman with a welcoming smile. A little boy – no more than six or seven – hopped across the deck and over other boats to ply us with candles draped in marigolds to light and send bobbing out over the Ganges. We agreed to the inflated price he was offering and handed over our rupees, before lighting our candles, making a wish and nudging them away from the boat. Around us, dozens of other tourists were doing the same thing but – rather than feeling like we were on a tour group with these strangers – it felt oddly peaceful.

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We had been in Varanasi for less than 24 hours, having arrived via a 12 hour train journey from Delhi. I was still feeling delicate, having succumbed to Delhi Belly sickness two days prior, which saw me curled up in the fetal position at my friend’s flat in Delhi for an extended period of time. Primed with antibiotics and three other unpronounceable pills, the boy and I took a risk of boarding our planned on train and continuing our journey.

Vara2

Luckily, I managed to rest and I arrived in Varanasi feeling worse for wear but ready to continue our trip with increasing hopefulness.

Varanasi is considered the holy city in India. Belief goes that if you come to die in Varanasi and have your body cremated by the riverside at one of the burning ghats and your ashes spread by your relatives in the Mother Ganga (as they all refer to it as) you will break the cycle of reincarnation, finally allowing your soul to escape to the other world. It is here that people come to pray, to die, to live – it is a city full of more noise and colour than anywhere else I experienced in India but it also has its wealth of peace.

Vara9

We were met at the station by a young man from our hotel – Kedareswar Bed and Breakfast, a small, family-run place right on the river Ganges. We’d arranged the pick-up ahead of time opting for a non-AC car. What we found was barely a car itself dating back to the 1960s and driven by a man so sun-weathered and wrinkled we were amazed he was still able to walk, let along operate a vehicle. After multiple attempts to shut the trunk and doors of the pea-green car, our bottle-glasses wearing driver inched his way out of the train station lot into the insanity of Varanasi’s traffic.

Vara1

We had both thought that Delhi was bad – but Varanasi took chaos to a whole new level. It is the superstar of insane roads and with the smog, dirt and stench rolling in through our windows, it was soon clear that my nausea had not yet abated and that taking an AC car would have probably been wiser.

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When finally we arrived at the B&B – located at the end of a string of winding alleyways piled high with cow dung and rubbish – we were most glad to discover our place of residence for the night was cool, clean and relatively quiet bar the workmen pounding away on the building next door. It faced straight onto the Ganges and, at the cost of £16 for the night for a room with AC and private bath, was just right.

The balcony at Kedareswar.

The balcony at Kedareswar.

After a nap, we went out exploring, but the 35 degree heat proved too much for my exhausted self – having not really eaten for two days I was weak. Instead, we did what we normally avoid and opted to take a tour arranged by the hotel. I’d heard negative things about the tours in Varanasi being overpriced and usually a scam, but we lucked out and had an honest hotelier who arranged for us to take a tuk-tuk with a knowledgeable and friendly driver all around the city.

The

The Sankat Mochan temple in Varanasi.

We toured the beautiful, tree-lined grounds of Banaras Hindu University – one of the top universities in the country according to our driver – and proceeded to visit four different temples, including the peaceful Sankat Mochan Temple dedicated to Hindu Lord Hanuman, and the 8th century Durga temple, with its grounds filled with (not so evil) monkeys. For £5 for the tour for us both, it was well worthwhile in my state.

Evening puja.

Evening puja.

That evening, we punted out onto the Ganges in a private rowboat (arranged, again, by our hotel at a steal of 100r (or, £1.20 each) to watch the evening puja (or prayer) ceremony at Dasaswamedh Ghat. Dozens of other boats came up beside us but we were lucky to be the only couple with a whole boat to ourselves to sit back in and relax while we watched the intense dance of men from the temple wearing orange and red, dance with fire and make music.

Morning scenes in Varanasi.

Morning scenes in Varanasi.

But it was the next morning when I really fell for Varanasi. In that beautiful morning light, the city came alive as hundreds of people bathed in the Ganges, said their prayers and let the cremated ashes of their relatives float out onto the river. Despite the continual chaos of the city, that morning’s boat ride was filled with peace.

Our candles drift out.

Our candles drift out.

Varanasi for us both ended up being a highlight, which surprised me not only because I was still quite ill but because I had read numerous negative stories about it before arriving.

Sunrise in Varanasi.

Sunrise in Varanasi.

I believe much of our enjoyment came from staying in a place with friendly owners, who seemed to really care about their guests, without wanting to rip them off or overcharge for tours/transfers/the room. It was basic but just right for letting the peace of Varanasi wash over our tired, Delhi trod-souls.

In Part 4, the boy and I escape the heat of central India and head north to the Himalayan hills of a tea estate and Darjeeling in West Bengal.

India Pt 2: the Taj, a fort and one evil monkey

28 Dec
The evil monkey sits and waits...

The evil monkey sits and waits…

It was a stand-off to rival the best of the Westerns.

The boy vs a monkey.

Perched confidently on a window ledge was contestant number one – the monkey.

And behind the table, grasping his Coke tightly, the boy.

And me? I was at the back of the room, squealing.

We’d arrived a few minutes before this scene began, trudging our way up the rickety stairs of a hole-in-the-wall restaurant on Agra’s main drag, Miyan Nazir Road. We were hot, dusty and thirsty, and decided to go upstairs to see some views of the Taj and experience greater airflow.

After our drinks (a Coke and a banana lassi so filled with unblended banana chunks it was rendered undrinkable) arrived, we sat back in squeaking, metal chairs to have a moment of peace.

And then the monkey swung into the scene.

At first, he simply stared at us, long arms hanging on the grate of the fencing around the rooftop’s perimeter. But then, after a scratch of his belly, he inched forwards…and then further forwards…until a few seconds later,  he was sat on the chair opposite us, looking very determined.

I switched into “flight” mode while the boy chose “fight”. Clutching his Coke, the boy and the monkey eyed each other up fiercely while I took to the back stage. The monkey then turned to me with a look that almost seemed to say: “That’s a bit rude. I’m just here for a visit.”

Feeling I’d hurt the monkey’s emotions, I edged a bit closer. But then he glared, gave a hiss and looked terribly evil.

At that second, the owner came back up for a smoke and chased the monkey away. But not before the monkey had peed all over the table, as if to say: “That’s what I think of you all.”

Agra Cantt station.

Agra Cantt station.

We had arrived in Agra that morning after a very early train journey from Delhi, which we almost didn’t make due to the fact a scam train worker wouldn’t let us through the gates, telling us our journey had been cancelled. This was despite the fact our train was clearly showing on the departure board and matched our ticket numbers. Yet another scam we had to deal with. We ended up sneaking onto the platform via the exit, just to avoid him but I noticed him trying the same thing on with many other confused looking tourists.

Luckily, the journey on the Shatabdi Express was very pleasant and – as it was 6am – we were able to watch the hazy colours of sunrise filter over yellow and green fields, casting a perfect pale light on the surroundings.

Taj4

After arriving at Agra Cantt, and taking a quick tuk-tuk ride into the main part of Agra (where the Taj is) we had a light breakfast, getting our first views of the astounding structure from a beautiful rooftop restaurant (this earlier one, without monkeys). Even from afar, it was magnificent.

The Taj in all its glory.

The Taj in all its glory.

As we were there on Eid, we discovered entry to the Taj was free before 10am so we headed quickly to the entrance to make it on time.

I relax in the sun at the Taj.

I relax in the sun at the Taj.

The day was perfect weather wise – an azure sky and pounding sun made it hot even by 9am but we were more than chuffed with the temperature change from rainy London to not mind a bit of potential sunburn.

And, of course, the view was even better. While the Taj Mahal is one of those images most of us have seen umpteen times, nothing beats experiencing it in its marbly flesh. The waterways leading up to the structure are crystal clear and reflect its towering lines, while the gardens are hushed and delightfully cool. We wandered around for an hour, taking in every inch of this 17th century wonder. My favourite part was taking off my shoes (a rule when you walk onto the main section) and feeling the solid, icy marble beneath my feet. I saw dozens of tour groups wearing special socks over their shoes but I wouldn’t have missed getting my soles dirty for anything.

Precious stone inlays decorate the walls of the Taj.

Precious stone inlays decorate the walls of the Taj.

After a long walk around and inside all of the parts we could visit, the boy and I took our leave feeling a delightful calm within us that only a structure of such beauty, spirituality and grandeur could create.

And then we met the monkey – so much for relaxation!

The boy at Agra Fort, with the Taj Mahal in the distance.

The boy at Agra Fort, with the Taj Mahal in the distance.

We continued on our journey of Agra’s sights by visiting Agra Fort, about two miles away from the Taj Mahal. This red walled fort dates back to 11th century. It acted as the seat of the Sultan of Delhi in the 15th century, but became more famous when seized by the Mughal empire in the 16th century, then becoming a walled city and the seat of Shah Jahan (the creator of the Taj). You can see the Taj from from the Fort, and it was here that he was eventually imprisoned by his son – Aurangzeb – and put in a cell with a tortuous view of his precious Taj, bound to never enter its marble surroundings again. While it is not half as famous as the Taj, it is well worth visiting if you have the time.

Agra Fort

Agra Fort

When finally we departed Agra for the journey back to Delhi, it was with a feeling of accomplishment. Seeing these incredible structures in person was a highlight of our trip to India. And knowing we survived our encounter with the evil monkey made it all the more pleasurable.

In Part 3, I succumb to ‘Delhi Belly’ and the boy and I find peace in chaotic Varanasi.

India Pt 1: Learning Lessons

21 Dec
A tuk-tuk on a very quiet roadway in Delhi.

A tuk-tuk on a very quiet roadway in Delhi.

Rahul seemed like a nice chap when we met him.

The b0y and I were standing at a roundabout near Connaught Place in Delhi having freshly arrived from London. We had been standing there a while watching the throngs of never-ending traffic with frustration, wondering when we might be able to cross.

“Be careful,” said Rahul, appearing suddenly by my side. “The traffic is a bit crazy here.”

Smiling at us, the boy and I followed him as he weaved his way through the traffic while it paused for a second.

“England?” he asked, when we got to the other side, having felt we’d played a real-life game of Frogger.

“Yes, England,” the boy responded.

“Ah, I lived in London, is that where you’re from?” he continued.

“Yes, we’re from there,” I said.

I wouldn’t normally open up about my life to strangers but Rahul seemed a nice enough chap – well dressed with baseball cap on and a comfortable grasp of English, we spent another ten minutes walking around the beaten up and excavated Connaught Place, speaking about England, Bollywood and his movie date. We asked if he knew of any good restaurants nearby and, saying he didn’t, he added he knew a local tourist information office that would be able to provide us needed information. As we approached it, I instantly felt slightly wary – the outside was all falling apart and was obviously being renovated. Rahul went in for us and, emerging a minute later, said it was no problem – it was simply being redone.

Rahul headed off to his movie and girlfriend and we thanked him and wished him well. Inside, we met Rahim who said he’d tell us about Delhi’s sights. It wasn’t long before we started to get the hard sell about what tours we could do with his tour agency. Declining most, we said we’d return after a meal to discuss a potential quick jaunt out to Rajasthan.

Heading out into the warm evening, the boy and I felt unsure if we could trust the tourist agency – but we equally felt that with jet lag we were possibly being slightly harsh on what could just be nice people.

Connaught Place as it used to look pre-"renovation" (photo credit: delhitravel.org)

Connaught Place as it used to look pre-“renovation”        (photo credit: delhitravel.org)

We wandered around Connaught Place, surprised at its dereliction. Our guide book (the Lonely Planet 30th anniversary edition) had told us it was the most upmarket area with lots of nice restaurants and shopping areas. As it was our first night, we’d taken the tuk-tuk up specifically because it seemed an easy first choice and we were exhausted. Instead, we found ripped up streets, excavators on every corner, hazardous holes with no signage and (later on) many people doing crack in the alleyways.

We read menus at a few restaurants finally choosing United Coffee House – a more up-market locale with suited waiters, a doorman and lovely, Raj-era interior decor. It was pricy but we decided to treat ourselves for our first night in the city until we became more acquainted with it.

And I’m ever so glad we did – it was definitely one of our best meals in Delhi. I recall little (given the waves of jet lag washing over me at the time meant I wasn’t up for making notes) but we had some gorgeous chickpeas in a rich, spicy sauce, lovely lamb and fresh cold beers. It was expensive – around £23 for the meal – but we were so happy to finally be in India that we couldn’t have cared less.

After our huge meal, we wandered back over to the tourist office to check in with Rahim. Seeing us return, his eyes lit up and he was soon trying to talk us into going to Rajasthan. I wouldn’t have minded – in fact, it was an area I was sad we hadn’t planned on going to – but the fact he was really trying to hard sell us made me keep my guard up. Another 20 minute conversation followed after which – with me giving “I don’t know about this” starey signals to the boy – we said we’d be back the next day to finally make our plans.

I'm usually pretty intuitive when it comes to scames, unlike Dilbert.

I’m usually pretty intuitive when it comes to scams, unlike Dilbert.

A tuk-tuk ride back to the place we were staying – a shared apartment in the nice Nizamuddin East area found through my favourite accommodation site, airbnb – followed and, in eagerness, I opened up my Lonely Planet book to see if it talked of any scams. Sure enough, it warned of friendly looking, English speaking, young men who direct tourists to travel agencies and get a referral fee.

Trying to keep my cynicism at bay, I left it in my mind that maybe it was just coincidence. Until the next night that is when – unsure where else to go for a late night dinner – we headed back to Connaught Place and, outside of a bar, saw both the Rahul and Rahim drinking beers.

“Hey Englishman,” they yelled to us, laughing.

It was a lesson all around (and a bit of a sad one at that). But at least Lonely Planet was right for once – something we did not find so frequently in the weeks to come.

In Part 2, the boy and I head to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal and get accosted by both a “security guard” and a monkey.

A tipple of apple

12 Dec
Domaine du Coquerel

Domaine du Coquerel

Before I discovered Calvados, I thought the main way to have apples alcoholised was in cider.

I enjoy cider a lot, having family in Herefordshire – one of the main cider producing regions of the UK. I can even remember taking illicit sips from a cup of the sweet staple Strongbow as a kid. My taste buds have moved on from the very sugary brand onto drier, more farmhouse style ciders, like those from Gwatkin.

But during a recent trip to France with the boy, I discovered I quite like what happens when apples get much more alcoholised and turn into calvados.

Luckily, the boy’s family live in Normandy – the region where calvados has been produced for centuries. We headed off to award-winning Domaine du Coquerel, a small independent producer in France. It was started in 1937 by Rene Gilbert and was, at one stage, owned by the Guinness group, before Jean Francois Martin, the owner, gave up his job working at Diageo to buy out the company in 1996.

Casks with aging calvados.

Casks with aging calvados.

Everything is done on-site at Domaine du Coquerel as we discovered during a walk around the premises, which features a huge, stone chateau and large sweeping grounds looking out to the countryside of Normandy. Each year, between 5,000-6,000 tonnes of 55 different varieties of apples are brought to the distillery, all collected within 15km, making it truly a local business.

The apples are then fermented (pips and all) in vats for at least one month, after which it can be called cider. Afterwords, that fermented juice is distilled in copper column stills, allowing for a much more alcoholic spirit. The spirit is reduced to 40-42% before it is put into white oak ex-Cognac casks for aging which are managed by the distillery’s cellar master who has worked for the company for 30 years.

Jean Francois Martin, the owner.

Jean Francois Martin, the owner.

Like Cognac, Calvados is bottled at varying ages with different ‘age statements’. In its case, the ‘Fine’ label indicates it’s two years at least, the ‘Vieux’ is a minimum of three years, while the ‘VSOP’ label equates to four years of aging and the ‘XO’ to eight years (although it will include a blend of 8, 10 and 15 year old Calvados).

A tipple of apple.

A tipple of apple.

Domaine du Coquerel is considered a small, independent producer, but still makes around one million bottles a year, 50% of which is exported. It has recently been given a gold medal at the World Spirit Awards for both its ‘Fine’ and ‘XO’ bottlings.

We tried a variety after our tour and during our discussion with Jean. My favourite was the youngest one, the Fine. While the others were very tasty, they verged too much into whisky territory, with loads of vanilla and oak influence. I preferred the slightly more acidic, heavy apple end of the younger style. The boy agreed, and we ended up with a bottle for our drinks shelf. And a realisation that highly alcoholised apples are rather pleasurable to sip on!

Sampling Sambrook’s & Cheese

30 Nov

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One thing I love about food is finding out what different flavour combinations people enjoy. It is for this reason that I am particularly interested in food and alcohol pairings.

Recently, the boy and I headed off south of the river to the Sambrook’s brewery to do just this – sample food and beer matches.
As background, Sambrook’s was started in 2008 by Duncan Sambrook, a former accountant for Deloitte who decided to quit the financial world. It became one of the first breweries in (fairly) central London and recently won the coveted award of World’s Best Pale Bitter for its Wandle brand at the World Beer Awards.

The night the boy and I visited was all about celebrating the win for Wandle and recognising some other great beers that took top honors in this year’s awards. It all took place in the brewery’s Boadicea Bar, a newly opened in-brewery bar where patrons can sample some of the great beers being made on the premises. To make things even more appealing, each beer was matched with a different cheese, provided by specialist cheese monger, Hamish Johnston.

Sambrook's 3And this was where things got really interesting as everyone on my table had a different viewpoint of what worked and what didn’t.

On the night, we sampled the Wandle, paired with a Gorwydd Caerphilly; a Weihenstephaner Kristall Weissbier with a Wigmore (from Ann Wigmore); a Thornbridge Raven Black IPA paired with a Stichelton from Joe Schneider; a Keersmaeker Kriek with an Ossau-Iraty; and, a Keersmaeker Gueze with a Lanark Blue from Selina and Andrew Cairns.

Each was distinctly different. I loved the Weissbier – a sparky orange, clove and nut beer – paired with the Wigmore, which was an ewe’s milk cheese that was more delicate than a goat’s cheese but with enough backbone to stand up to the beer. My other powerhouse winner of the night was the Thornbridge Raven Black IPA, which was a soothing dark beer with notes of umami, wood and wet grass. When paired with the fantastic Stichelton, a real sweetness emerged on my palate that heightened the beer even more for me.

But, the other five people at my table all had a different opinion. Some preferred the sharper, acidic-sweet note of the Kriek, and others ate up the Wandle and Caerphilly. The boy loved the Keersmaeker Gueze – a Lambic based beer with soft fleshy fruit and citrus notes – paired with the super-sharp, ammonia laden Lanark Blue. I thought the two together was really off putting (although, I liked each separately).

And so, it just goes to show – the only way to find out if you like something is to try it. So, as always, I encourage you to sit down with a group of friends, grab a few varied pints and some cheeses and see what you like. You never know what pleasures you’ll discover!

Thanks to Sambrook’s Brewery for inviting the boy and I down to try some fantastic drinks. For more information on the brewery and its beers, visit: http://www.sambrooksbrewery.co.uk

Surviving boot camp – Part 3: Talking crisps and the GL diet

16 Nov

A word to the wise: arriving at boot camp with a bag of crisps in your luggage is a bad idea.

At first, I forgot they were even stowed away in my rucksack. But then three nights in, I found myself sat in my room at 8pm – absolutely starving! And the crisps suddenly started speaking to me – trying to lure me into eating them.

I called the boy. He counseled me to find anything possible to distract me since I would only feel guilty the next day. And he was right, but it wasn’t easy. The fruit tea just wasn’t doing it for me anymore.

When I arrived at NuBeginnings I was quite worried about the food situation – mainly because I’ve cooked for myself for years now and the idea of having someone else cater to me on strict regulations with no control on my end was slightly off-putting.

The boot camp ascribes to the GL (Glycemic Load) diet. To give a quick rundown, this basically focuses on glucose and how it affects the body.

Unlike the GI (Glycemic Index) diet – which became very popular a few years ago – the GL diet doesn’t only focus on the sugars in foods and how our body absorbs them, but also at how much glucose is in each portion size.

A nut burger with beetroot salad.

The reason glucose is the focused on is because it is the key thing that gives our body energy – but ‘good’ carbs on this diet are ones that release slowly so our body’s insulin levels don’t jump up and down as the body tries to adjust to that incoming energy.

The idea is to eat smaller amounts, more frequently so our body doesn’t ever ‘crash’ and we don’t lose energy. As Jennie said: “We make poor food choices (ie: junk food) because our blood sugar levels are low.” We just want to eat something quickly to give our body’s blood sugar a boost.

The theory with GL is if you keep your blood sugars in check, you’ll feel less hungry, get fewer cravings and the body won’t store the excess sugars as fats. There is also a big focus on eating meals slowly to allow time for digestion, staying hydrated and being ‘mindful’ of what you’re putting in your body.

Thai curry for lunch.

What I enjoyed most about this diet (and that’s a big statement for me since I don’t like ‘diets’) is that almost nothing is restricted. Okay, you can’t sit around eating chocolate bars, but you can eat loads of good things like almonds, olive oil, coconut milk, goat’s cheese, fish and avocados. Yum! It’s also about getting the most out of those carbs you are eating. So, if you eat a piece of fruit, for instance, you’re always meant to eat it with some raw nuts (like almonds or Brazils) because the protein helps slow down the release of sugar to the bloodstream.

At NuBeginnings, however, the focus is on weight loss so the portion sizes are even smaller than a person would normally eat. When you combine that with four or five hours of exercise a day, it means things like the crisp incident start occurring. And no one wants to face talking potatoes when they’re at boot camp.

My only other major difficulty with it was the lack of caffeine. Getting off of it was tricky – there was no tea or coffee, only fruit tea, which after a while does get rather repetitive.

Luckily, while there were restrictions, there was also Gary, the retreat’s chef. He’s been at NuBeginnings for two and a half years, having previously opened his own restaurant in Dorchester and spent time traveling the world to learn about varied cuisines. He is highly influenced by Mexican and North African flavours, both of which featured highly in his meals. According to Gary, guests “are not there to suffer by my hands.”

Chef Gary whips up a crisp sea bass with couscous and asparagus.

But he wasn’t always so convinced. When a recruitment firm told him of the job, he says he could only think: “You’re having a laugh.” He has since come around to it fully, finding interesting recipes that work within the restricted ingredient space. “I’m developing recipes all the time. But they change, depending on who walks through the door so I don’t work to set recipes,” he told me.

While I was there, food ranged from Thai coconut chicken with crispy vegetables, to baked figs with goat’s cheese and Asian sesame noodles with prawns and salad. There were delicious, there was no doubting that.

Gary admitted he’s not entirely a convert when he’s cooking for himself, but added he loves cooking to this diet because it not only challenges himself as a chef, but also because he sees real changes amongst many guests.

A pepper roasts for use in couscous.

“The satisfaction is something else, it is something I was never expecting. I see people who really need to change their lives around and I feel I’m in a very privileged position to help them. I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t believe in it. I just couldn’t,” he explained.

And I did feel satisfied for most of the trip. While the portion sizes were small, they were filling – the only time I found difficult was in the evening when we were eating at 6pm and then not again until the next morning. I also didn’t stick to one of the ‘mindful’ eating tactics of leaving a bit of food behind on the plate – I was a clean plate gal myself. But, otherwise, I liked the GL diet because it seemed quite logical really – don’t overeat, don’t eat processed foods, don’t let yourself go long between meals and listen to your body.

In the end, the bag of crisps stayed unopened until I arrived back home. But I did, admittedly, have a few secretive mints when I was starving! But, I also survived…boot camp, exercise, food plans, the whole kit and caboodle. And knowing that was ever so pleasurable!

I was a guest of NuBeginnings. For more information on the boot camp, visit: http://www.nubeginnings.co.uk

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