The 3 Sis Vacation Lodge, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The entrance to the 3 Sis, down a Quiet soi.

The entrance to the 3 Sis, down a Quiet soi.

Just call me a creature of habit, but when I find a lovely place to stay, there really isn’t any reason to ‘shop around’. In Chiang Mai I always return to the 3 Sis Vacation Lodge. This modest sized boutique hotel is run by three charming sisters who are helpful, humourous and genuinely interested in the needs of their guests.

Sister number one, funny and helpful.

Beautiful Sister number one, funny and a gold mine of local knowledge.

The hotel is ideally situated inside the walls of the old city and opposite Wat Chedi Luang. Despite its central location, it is quiet, especially the rooms located along Phrapokkload Rd, Soi 8. Choosing can present a dilemma. The rooms in the front building facing the main road can be a little noisy in the morning, but then, imagine a room looking down on a golden Chedi below, with the sound of morning bells and gongs (7 am) and Wat Doi Suthep shining on the mountain in the distance? Double happiness.

Beautiful sister no 2. Affectionate and warm.

Beautiful sister no 2. Affectionate and warm.

The upstairs rooms in the back section along Soi 8 ( soi means lane), have windows fronting a quiet residential area with French windows opening onto the greenery below. Very Graham Green-esque! Squeeze a fresh lime into that Vodka or Gin, open the shutters and let the warm air work its afternoon magic. Another Wat bell rings: to sleep or to read, that is the question.

A little fresh air.

Fresh, tropical  air. Turning off that aircon!

The decor is clean and uncluttered, with beautiful Lanna (Northern Thai) decor. The beds are large and comfortable, the breakfast is sensible without being overwhelming, and the price suits my budget.

A simple unclutteed room comes with a writingdesk, a sitting area and a lovely bathroom, No plasma, no spa, no nonsense.

A simple uncluttered room comes with a writing desk, a sitting area and a big bathroom. Plenty of plugs to charge things, a fridge, and polished boards to caress your bare feet.

Downstairs the lobby area is airy and inviting, a place to plonk oneself after long days of walking, temple visiting, or feasting.

The lobby, 3 Sis, Chiang Mai

The lobby, the 3 Sis, Chiang Mai

Lobby , the 3 Sis, Chiang Mai.

Lobby , the 3 Sis, Chiang Mai.

On Sundays, the famous walking market begins outside the front door of the 3 Sis. This popular market sees the main streets ‘pedestrianised’ after 4pm, as thousands of stall holders set up their stalls for the highlight of the week. There is music, street food, wandering blind singers, tourist nick nacks, herbal medicine, deep-fried crickets and other bugs, sweets and all sorts of wonders, from North Thailand to Laos, for sale. It is popular with the locals as well as tourists. After the long slow stroll, worn out and over stimulated, it is so nice to come back to a gentle lobby and familiar faces.

Beautiful sister no 3, World travelller and ex Melbourne resident.

Beautiful sister no 3, World traveller and ex Melbourne resident.

The fine print:

Rates start from 1650 Baht per night ( AU$63), depending on season and room size.

the lobby at the 3 Sis, Chiang Mai.

The inviting lobby at the 3 Sis, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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Today Was a Good Day

Today was a very good day, but then, every day is special in my favourite Asian city. We’re in Chiang Mai again, and each time I visit, my heart grows fonder. Like an old lover, Chiang Mai unfolds slowly and deserves many visits.  It’s no wonder that so many expats call this town home.

First stop, the Writers Club for a wine.

First stop, the Writers Club for a wine or beer, or just because it’s a bit French and it’s always there.

Today we ate at a remarkable Thai vegetarian restaurant, and since we have discovered the word Jeh, along with the little yellow and red flag displaying this symbol, เจ, we then found some more. 

View from the writers club, Chiang Mai, a town with hidden sophistication.

View from the writers club, Chiang Mai, a town with hidden sophistication.

Thai Vegetarian and Vegan food is not at all boring and holy. You won’t miss onions, meat or eggs when you taste these treats. Deep fried shitake mushroom sate with peanut sauce, minced tofu larb studded with dried chilli and basil leaf, a refreshing drink of crushed lemongrass on ice, and so much more. I wanted to order everything from the menu at Pun Pun Slow Food Vegetarian Restaurant. Visit and be delighted by this wonderful temple cafe. Cost, around AU$10 for two.

That evening, following a siesta and another temple visit, it was off to Taste From Heaven.  Deep-fried mushrooms, coated in a sesame seed batter, made an excellent appetizer to go with a cold beer (Chang, of course). The rain bucketed down outside, and we continued to order. Next a rice noodle dish, a vegetarian version of a Pad See Ew arrived.  I love big fresh rice noodles: smoked by the breath of a hot wok, the dish was classic comfort food and went well with the rain. Another dish, a deep-fried tempura morning glory vine, kangkung, with cashew nuts and tofu, was a surprising twist on the meal. All were helped along by a generous portion of red rice. Vegan chocolate brownie? Yes indeed, and a little fork war followed.

My glorious day will be followed by more, I know. But today was the day of the Jeh restaurant discovery. I’m in heaven.

The details:

Pun Pun Restaurant,  Wat Suan Dok temple, Suthep Road, Chiang Mai. Or see other locations here. http://punpunthailand.org/restaurant/index.html

Taste from Heaven, Ratmakka Road, Chiang Mai. or see http://taste-from-heaven.com/

For my brother Michael, who loves Chiang Mai too.

Posted in Budget, Restaurant Review, Travel | Tagged , , , , | 16 Comments

Wat Chedi Luang, Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand, is the most beautiful city in Asia and an important centre for Lanna culture and Buddhist temples, with over 200 temples in and around the city. One of my favourite temples is Wat Chedi Luang, which sits at the centre of the old walled city. I like to base myself nearby so that I can visit old Chedi often. It is always the first temple I visit before wandering the town endlessly, discovering new delights. Gleaming with golden Buddhas, colourful prayer flags drift from the ceiling and Lanna glass mosaics line the walls.

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Ligurian Focaccia with Sage

Salty and oily. Focaccia di Liguria. This one comes with Sage leaves.

Salty and oily. Focaccia di Liguria. This one comes with sage leaves.

Focaccia is one of the culinary delights of Liguria and what better place to try a lovely green oily version than in the Cinque Terre. The five villages of this area, Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso, perch precariously along the edge of the Ligurian sea and at the base of steep terraced hills. These towns are connected by a wonderful little train which travels through tunnels carved into the mountains, with an occasional glimpse at the wild sea through gaps in the tunnels along the way. They are also connected by walking trails and by sea.

Left over pizza dough.

Left over pizza dough.

I first tried green oil drenched, salty focaccia in 1985 in one of these towns. Other Ligurian specialties from that era included spaghetti al pesto, spaghetti con vongole and a very young dry white wine that I can still taste. Above the five towns, with colourful houses that tumble down to the sea, a steep walk takes one to a rural district with spectacular views of the coast. In those days, the towns petered out quickly: rural life was still in full swing: steeply terraced vines were well-tended, the tall irregular trellises constructed of hand hewn wood. Vineyards then led to further terraces of olive groves above.

dough placed in rectangular baking dish

Dough is  placed in a well oiled rectangular baking dish. The thicker the better!

I haven’t returned to the Cinque Terre since then- I don’t wish to spoil good memories. The terraces are now, apparently, poorly maintained and the vines untended: there is more money in tourism than farming. The area was also severely damaged by floods and mudslides in 2011. It is very popular and heavily touristed in the Italian summer months. The Cinque Terre National Park and the towns are now a Unesco World Heritage Site: there are attempts to preserve the unique aspects of this area.

Second rise- the dough under a damp cloth.

Second rise- the dough  under a damp cloth for another 40 minutes.

Before baking in a hot ( 220c) oven, the dough is dimpled, then liberally dressed with EV olive oil.

Before baking in a hot (220c) oven, the dough is dimpled, then liberally dressed with EV olive oil.

Focaccia con Salvia

Focaccia con Salvia

I follow Carol Field’s recipe when making focaccia, however I tend to use left over pizza dough that has been rising for another day in the fridge.

  • After returning the once risen dough back to room temperature, I roll it into a rectangular shape to suit the size of my baking tin – in this case, a tin with sides, such as a old fashioned lamington tin.
  • The tin is well oiled, the dough is pressed in with fingers and left to rise again under a damp cloth. The damp cloth trick seems to produce the right moist texture that I recall from all those years ago. The cloth needs to be very well dampened but sit slightly above the dough so that it doesn’t stick.
  • After 40 minutes or so, the dough is dimpled by pressing indentations with your fingers. These will catch the oil. Very therapeutic and a good task for little ones.
  • Lots of Extra Virgin olive oil is applied, followed by salt crystals (coarsely ground sea salt or rock salt), then sage leaves are pressed onto the dough.
  • The focaccia is then baked in a preheated oven, 220c, for around 20 minutes or until it looks done.
  • Cool, remove from tin, and slice into rectangle pieces or slices. I guarantee that the bread will not have time to go stale. It doesn’t hang around for long.

The green olive version from Liguria is also rather nice.

This forms part of Leah’s The Cookbook Guru,  where we are spending a month or two looking at one of my favourite cookbooks, Carol Field’s The Italian Baker.

And I hope it brings back a few travel memories for my three children, who will always remember Signore Andrea P. Poggi, and that screaming cat below the sea wall at Vernazza!

Posted in Bread, Budget, Recipes, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 25 Comments

Travelling Cattle Class on a Budget Airline

The best laid plans often go awry, especially when travelling economy class on a budget airline. Just go with the awful flow is my advice. This was aptly demonstrated recently when Mr Tranquillo studied the seating layout of the plane a day before departure and re- assigned our seats, so that we would be surrounded by fields of empty space, rows to colonise, restful rows on which to loll and spread. Foolish man. He hadn’t factored in those travellers who had left their seat allocation to chance at check in. I am now left wondering how peaceful our original chosen seats might have been.

The Melbourne to Thailand flight, on a good day, takes just over 8 hours, not exactly a short trip.  Behind us we have a mother with two small children who enjoy the healthy pastime of kicking of the seat in front of them – ours. In front we have three women who enjoy a few cans of Bourbon and Coke, their seats fully reclined by 3.30 pm, shortly after take off, and who are partial to random bursts of shrillness. Their partners have taken up the standing room between the toilet and the plane door exit: they are enjoying their own beer festival for four hours. I am so pleased we not sitting in that leg spacious area.

Being prepared, we look forward to our longish flight with one pre-ordered meal. It arrives 40 minutes after take off, at 3.45 pm. I ask politely if it could stay warm somewhere until a more reasonable eating hour, such as, say 6 pm. No, that was not possible. OK, could the meal be kept somewhere until we are ready to eat it, warm or cold. No, he couldn’t do that either. I then suggested curtly that he could stick the meal in the rubbish bin (I promise I did not preface the word ‘bin’ with any expletive beginning with the letter F ). Mr Tranquillo, known for his inner calm and reasonable approach in the most annoying situations, intervened and told the young male attendant that the food would stay warm, and that we would like it in two hours. End of story. How did he do that? Flight attendant whisperer?

The kicking from the rear continues with a persistent rhythm, thumpthumpthumpety thump_thumpthump_THUMP, directed at my lower back. I ask the father could he tell ‘the child’ to stop. Not long after, Mr Tranquillo, who is being kicked constantly by the other little darling, half stands, turns and firmly addresses the mother with the same request, a distinct edge to his voice. I smile inwardly. Not so tranquillo after all! The kids finally stop. They take up singing and loud games with their Mother, which is lovely, really, except that the din drowns out all sound from our earphones.

We finally ask for our meal at 6 pm: the packet is still super hot, and the ice cream melted. I don’t mind melted ice cream, although the exploding affect, when removing the puffed up foil lid, produced a sticky foamy spray over me, my clothes and the back of the seat- but not on the kids behind, who by this stage, had found a way to pull my hair as they climb the back of the seat.

Note. If you don’t pay $24 for a pre-ordered meal, you can eat a $10 meal any time at all: just press the button and along comes a bit of industrial fodder from the Pie Face company, a slab of ham and pineapple thing vaguely resembling a pizza, or a vacuum packed salad that purports to have health properties.

We resort to wine, a saviour in situations like these. There is an attractive picture of a barrique on the back of the food brochure where the words ‘cellar selection’ are mentioned. The choices are- Sauvignon blanc or Shiraz. Hmm great, how much do I dislike Sauvignon blanc, let me count the ways. The cheap red slides down well enough although the desired effect, relaxation, is replaced by headache. No water bottle is delivered at any stage throughout the flight: a purchased meal is accompanied by a miniature foil topped container of water, such fun to open. I notice that the Bourbon women are now drinking water from tiny paper cups from the toilet and I consider doing the same.

I try to meditate, to think more calmly, to recall a few Dalai Lama quotes of the day. “The ultimate source of comfort is within ourselves”, he advises on his Facebook page, but it’s not working and besides, I am sure HH travels business class. I watch ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ or rather, I see it mimed: fortunately Hardy’s story hasn’t changed in all those years of remakes, the cad is deliciously rakish and the good guy, in the end, wins.

Me doing my Munch Scream Face again.

Me doing my Edvard Munch Scream Face again.

My advice for travelling on budget airlines?

  • Don’t plan anything and consider taking calming or sleep-producing substances.
  • Buy noise reducing headphones which won’t work in the Jetstar sockets unless you get a double pronged plug attachment that happens to match.
  • Have your own media loaded onto your own device using your top quality earphones.
  • Take an empty large plastic bottle in your hand luggage. Filtered water bottle filling stations can be found in various spots throughout Melbourne’s international airport.
  • Prior to departure buy your own food for the flight, such as packed sushi, mixed nuts, biscuits and cheese, or home made slices and sandwiches.
  • If travelling as a couple, choose an aisle seat and a window seat. Very rarely is the centre seat filled.
  • If you have paid for Jetstar’s media ($10), note that this prepayment will be loaded into your allocated seat. If you move, you may lose your media.
Posted in Rant and Rave, Travel | Tagged , , , , | 42 Comments

Mellow Evening in Langzhong.

Card players of Langzhong meet to relax on a hot evening in summer. The mood is mellow and the pace is slow.

Cad players, Lijiang, Sichuan, China

Card players, Langzhong, Sichuan, China. 2014

Langzhong is situated in the North East of Sichuan Province, China. It is one of the best preserved ancient cities in the area, home to many well restored Tang dynasty houses, cobblestoned lanes and temples. The traffic remains outside the city walls, making street life more appealing for all.

A weekend post, responding to a themed challenge from Ailsa in Ireland, allowing me the indulgence of vicarious travel as I search through my digital files.

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Pane al Formaggio: Italian Cheese Bread

This month I have returned to breads made with yeast, particularly those from one of my favourite reads, The Italian Baker, by Carol Field. Carol Field journeyed through villages and homes throughout the Italian countryside to collect recipes. They were then published in her original volume in 1985. This classic was revised in 2011. Few photos or glossy styled food shots adorn this book. It is a pleasure to read even if you never bake from it. It is often assumed, because of its title and appealing photo of ciabatta on the front cover, that it deals solely with bead: in fact, there are numerous chapters on cakes, biscuits and pastry, some of the latter collected from Nonne in remote villages, recipes that are tinged with nostalgia e memorie.

A traditional walnut cake made by the older folk in Vaireggio, Toscana

A traditional walnut cake made by the older folk in Viareggio, Toscana, Italia.

A good egg enriched cheese bread is not a daily offering but a special treat to go with a creamy soup, a celery velouté, for example. I followed Field’s recipe for this, but decided to make dinner rolls and a little bâtard with the final dough. The recipe is simple and precise, but next time, I might use all the little odds and ends of leftover cheese residing in boxes in the fridge.

The recipe includes details for making the bread by hand, by mixer and food processor. Each method is a little different. I am using a stand mixer, because I am lucky enough to have one: it gets a good workout every week and was a worthwhile investment.

Pane al Formaggio– Cheese bread.

  • 2½ or 7 g active dry yeast
  • 1 cup warm water
  • 2 large eggs at room temperature
  • 2 tablespoons or 30 g olive oil
  • 3¾ cups or 500 g unbleached bakers flour
  • 2 teaspoons or 10 g salt
  • ½ cup or 75 g grated parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup or 50 g grated pecorino cheese
  • cornmeal
  • I large egg white, beaten, for glazing.

Method By Stand Mixer

Stir the yeast into the water in a mixer bowl; let stand until creamy, about 10 minutes. Mix in the eggs and oil with the paddle, then the flour, salt and cheeses. Change to the dough hook and knead until firm, velvety and elastic, 3- 4 minutes. The texture may be slightly grainy from the cheeses.

First Rise.

Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise until doubled, about 2 hours.

Second Rise and shaping.

Punch the dough down on a lightly floured surface and knead briefly. Cut the dough in half and shape each piece into a round loaf or batârd shape. Place on a baking sheet or peel sprinkled with cornmeal, cover with a towel and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour.

six rolls and a batard, ready for the oven.

six rolls and a batard, ready for the oven.

Baking.

Thirty minutes before baking, preheat the oven with a baking stone ( if you have one)  to 220c. Just before baking,  baste the loaves with the egg white. Slash the long loaves with three parallel cuts. Sprinkle the stone with cornmeal and slide the loaves onto it. Bake for 40 minutes, spraying the oven three tines with water in the first 10 minutes. Cool on a rack.

Panini al formaggio.

Panini al formaggio.

The Italian Baker, revised. Carol Field, 2011. Ten Speed Press.

Another contribution to Leah’s Cookbook Guru, who is highlighting The Italian Baker this month.

 

 

 

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Beneath My Feet

Morning offerings, Canang Sari, are made with such devotion. A silent and personal ceremony, the Balinese make daily offerings to Hindu Gods, but often include a few extras for their departed relatives.

Kanang sari, Bali

Canang Sari, Bali

As you walk along, they turn up beneath your feet in the most surprising places. I try not to disturb them as I walk along, but soon enough the traffic, tourists, birds or dogs will destroy these artistic creations, the debris swept up in the early morning. New canang sari appear each day, some more elaborate than others.

See also my other posts on Canang Sari:

https://almostitalian.wordpress.com/2015/01/23/tradition-and-change-in-ubud-bali-canang-sari/

https://almostitalian.wordpress.com/2015/04/18/early-bird-in-sanur/

Posted in Photography, Reflections, Travel | Tagged , , , , | 11 Comments

Through the Window

Saturday mornings sees me trawling through the digital show box, coffee and toast nearby, lost in another land and another time. Procrastination and Relaxation. The weekend still lies ahead. Today’s Through the Window  photographic prompt by the Daily Press, has taken me back to Santiago, Chile.

Through a glass panelled window, Santiago, Chile

Through a glass panelled window, Santiago, Chile

I have just discovered that ‘Through the Window”is this weekend’s writing prompt and not a photographic challenge at all!  Never mind, I usually write too much.

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Cafe Bellino and the Demise of the Local Italian Restaurant.

Hand crafted thin crusted pizza at Cafe Bellino, Brunswick.

Hand crafted thin crusted pizza at Cafe Bellino, Brunswick.

Dean Martin sings ‘Cha cha cha d’amour” in the background; locals drop in for a quick chat or a coffee, groups greet each other warmly with ‘auguri‘ or buona sera‘. Introductions are swift- meet Dino or Toni- as working men greet their friends and gather for an antipasto or a hearty bowl of pasta and a glass of rosso. Poking one’s head in to greet the chef at work in the semi open kitchen seems to be the norm. The style is distinctly Italo- Australiano and I feel very much at home here. Front of house is a charming young waiter from Milano, no doubt working on a 457 working visa, like so many other young Italian camerieri in Melbourne, and the pizzas are truly excellent, dare I say, the best I have had in a long while. At $13- $15 for a large hand crafted thinly crusted pizza, they are a steal.  But here’s the sad news. Cafe Bellino in Victoria Street, Brunswick has less than 90 days left to run! Like so many others in the district, the couple responsible for the excellent cooking here is about to retire. The signora is looking forward to spending time with her grandchildren: restaurant life is hard work, she explains. The young Milanese waiter hopes to be able to work for the new lessee, but no one really knows what kind of business will replace the beautiful little Cafe Bellino.

Young Italian Camerierie at Cafe Bellino, Brunswick

Italian Cameriere at Cafe Bellino, Brunswick

It’s a common story around the inner suburbs of Melbourne, as more Italian couples reach retirement age and sell up. A recent closure was Cafe Mingo in Sydney road, when Jo, his wife and helpers retired. Their simple Italian restaurant became home away from home for many. I loved the way that Jo would slide over a complimentary plate full of sweet wafers and a tall bottle of grappa at the end of a meal. Sweet memories. The place has since become an Indian restaurant. It’s always empty, there is no licence and no ambience. It has lost its soul. Last week when we dropped into La Bussola Ristorante e Pizzeria in Lygon Street east, we found that retirement had struck again! La Bussola, home of the simple pizza and cheap pasta, a warm retro space where you could bring your own wine or buy a caraffa di vino da tavola for $10, has become the Compass Pizza Bar. The emphasis is now on the word “bar” as this seems to be how the young Brunswick cafe managers make their money. It’s all about mark up and less about the food. We were ushered into the old retro space but shock horror, a head-phoned  DJ had been installed, playing extremely loud music at 6pm. We were told curtly that our BYO bottle was not welcome, and no, we couldn’t pay extra for corkage or glasses. We promptly left. Another wonderful family run institution had become gentrified and in my humble opinion, wrecked. Crap bottled wine, of unknown source and vintage, was offered at a starting price of $32 a bottle. Most were more costly.

Antipasto selections at Cafe Bellino.

Antipasto selections at Cafe Bellino.

The simple joy of stepping out for a pizza or a bowl of pasta with a shared a bottle of wine is quickly vanishing. I have nothing against licensed restaurants. Most of the old style BYO places hold full licences as well, offering the diner a choice. What disturbs me are the ridiculous mark ups on wine at these new hipster places. Take a bottle of ordinary wine that retails for $8 and mark it up to $35 or more. Why? Isn’t turnover and ‘bums on seats’ more important in these leaner times? Cheap, affordable wine, as well as BYO wine, has made the Melbourne suburban restaurant scene dynamic and lively in the past. These practices enabled families to regularly dine out at their local restaurant, introducing children to restaurant life and the culture of food. Simple places with prices to match. Hipster joints with their huge mark ups on wine will attract only one type of customer, young affluent singles and childless couples. A sad trend indeed, and one that would never happen in France!

If you’re in the area, footloose and fancy free or loitering with intent and in need of a drink, a coffee, or a bowl of something authentically Italian, try Cafe Bellino, 281 Victoria St, Brunswick VIC 3056. ( Just around the corner from Sydney Road). Open from 10 am to 10 pm. Closed on Sunday. You only have 80 days left.

Cha cha cha d’amour
Take this song to my lover
Shoo shoo little bird
Go and find my love

Cha cha cha d’amour
Serenade at her window
Shoo shoo little bird
Sing my song of love

Posted in Rant and Rave, Reflections, Restaurant Review | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 30 Comments