There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..



Wednesday, 19 July 2017

The Cameron Highlands, A Rainforest Walk, BOH and Curry: Part 4 of the Malaysian Peninsula

This a new post though it describes the events of the 2nd  of  March 2017.
It will be moved to the 'right place' in a few days' time.

I cannot be sure it rained all night, but it was raining when I went to sleep, raining when we had a cup of tea at 4.30 (after being woken by the rain) and raining when we got up.

It was raining when we dashed to breakfast, skipping lightly (as I don’t) round the puddles. A ‘Forest and Farm’ walk was scheduled for the morning but over breakfast we considered the need for a plan B.

The cool, wet Cameron Highlands in the centre of the Malay Peninsula
When we met our walk guide, Francis, the rain had actually stopped. We asked about the forecast and he pulled a face, but we went anyway - why come all this way and be put off by a little rain?

Francis drove us down into Tanah Rata and out the other side, parking his Land Rover where the tarmac finished and the jungle started.
 
Lynne and Francis at the start of the walk, near Tanah Rata
We set off into the trees on a flagged but slippery path...

A flagged but slippery path into the jungle
…which took us past a Poinsettia tree. A native of Mexico, it derives its English name from American diplomat Joel Poinsett who took it to the US in 1830 from where it has travelled the world. Familiar as a pot plant, we had never realised it can grow into a small tree.

Poisettia Tree, near Tanah Rata
It is always nice to know where you are going….
 
So that is where we are going.
….when you are following an awkward path along the side of a heavily wooded valley. Down to our right we could hear a rushing stream, but no waterfall as yet.

Along the valley edge above a rushing stream, near the Robinson Falls
Francis was good at spotting flora; Poinsettia may have become a citizen of the globe, but Golden Balsam, impatiens ocidioides is endemic to the Cameron Highlands.

Golden Balsam, Impatiens Ocidioides, near the Robinson Falls
He was good with fauna, too, spotting a giant snail which had climbed a tree to well above head height….

Giant snail hauled down to head height, near the Robinson Falls, Cameron Highlands
 ….and a small multi-legged creature, presumably a caterpillar. We had never seen anything like it, and even Francis was stumped.

Unidentified caterpillar(?) near Robinson Falls, Cameron Highlands
We had been walking for half an hour before the final 20m drop of the Robinson Falls came into view. There are, apparently, more tumbles upstream but this is by far the biggest and the only one visible from the path. Herbert Christopher Robinson was Director of Museums for the Federated Malay States from 1903-26. After retiring he started the massive five volume Birds of the Malay Peninsula, though completing only two before his death in 1930. I cannot guarantee the falls were named after him, but I know of no other likely candidates.

Robinson Falls, Cameron Highlands
By now the flagged path had given way to a muddy track, sometimes wide and easy…

Sometimes the path was wide and muddy, Jungle Walk 9, Tanah Rata
… sometimes tucked into the edge of the steep valley. In places trees had fallen across it; we ducked under some, climbed round others.

Sometimes the path was tucked into the edge of valley, Jungle Walk 9, Tanah Rata 

We paused to admire fungus growing on a rotting log and then,…

Fungus on a rotten log, Jungle Walk 9, Tanah Rata
…but for Francis’ sharp eyes, would have walked into the little creature below, or at least its web. (S)he is one of the spiny-backed orb-weaver spiders, the Gasteracantha. There are many species, a dozen or more resident in Malaysia, but I think this is Gasteracantha Kuhli. They are common, Francis said, but difficult to spot.

Spiny-backed Orb-weaver spider, Gasteracantha Kuhli, Cameron Highlands
The gasteracantha come in a variety of shapes and colours. Kuhli is almost identical to Gasteracantha Cancriformis which is widely distributed throughout the Americas. It easy to know which is which - provided you know which continent you are on (and not all internet users do, apparently).
No rain had fallen the whole time we were walking, and I removed my jacket as the day warmed up.

The path had been dropping from the start but now began to descend more sharply as it twisted along the valley side.

The path begins to drop more sharply, Jungle Walk 9, Tanah Rata
As we rounded the bend we saw an old man walking towards us, naked except for a blanket slung round his neck, the loose ends dangling down his back. He was plodding up the path barefoot and muttering to himself. As he drew closer I realised how small he was; he passed me by, his head lower than my shoulder. However much I wanted a photograph I could not bring myself to stick a camera in his face; these were his hills not mine and a guest should not be so rude. He continued up the path. Lynne turned hoping to photograph him as he walked away, but he turned at the same moment and stood motionless staring down at us. Lynne waved, he waved back and was gone.

‘Orang Asli,’ Francis said. Most of the local members of Malaysia’s ‘original people,’ he told us, had moved into town. Three old men continue to live in the old village – Francis pointed up the valley side – they cultivate some land and hunt a little. Occasionally one of them ventures into Tanah Rata to collect plastic bottles in return for a few coins from the recycling company.

A little further along we marvelled at the steep, almost imperceptible, track on which the old man had descended the valley side. Francis had been young, he told us, when he first encountered the man who seemed old then. Now admitting to be well over forty, Francis had no idea how old the man was.

The traditional world of the Orang Asli was as incomprehensible to us as our world was to him, but he was also a source of wonder to Francis; he may have lived close by geographically but his life style was much closer to ours.

So I have no picture of one of the Original people, but I offer some wild ginger flowers, instead.

Wild ginger, Jungle Walk 9, Tanah Rata
An hour and three quarters from the start Francis turned onto a path dropping steeply into the valley….

The start of the steep descent
….from half way down we could see the trees gave way to cultivation on the valley floor.

Cultivation in the valley bottom, Cameron Highlands
We were soon down among the cabbages. They looked healthy to me, but Francis lamented that it was a poor year and the hearts should be twice the size – which would make them monster cabbages.

Descending through the cabbages, Cameron Highlands
We reached a lane running between the fields. ‘Japanese cucumber,’ Francis said, pointing to the verge. He told us that most farm workers were Bangladeshi seasonal migrants who planted these little extras on the roadside to sell for a ringgit or two. At the end of the month they might have 50 or 60 ringgits to send back to their families, roughly £10 – hardly enough I would have thought to be worth working thousands of miles away from home. ‘50 Ringgits goes a long way in Bangladesh,’ Francis observed.

I spotted a huge centipede working its way along the gutter. Scolopendra is a large genus of large centipedes and Scolopendra dehaani or Malaysian Cherry Red as it is known locally (other names occur throughout SE Asia) is famed for its painful, poisonous bite.

The extremely unpleasant Malaysian Cherry Red Centipede, Cameron Highlands
This was as close an encounter as any sane person could want

Finding a waiting Land Rover, we hopped in and were delivered to Francis’ office in Tanah Rata to await our own driver. We said goodbye to Francis and thanked him for a fascinating walk which had been entirely in the dry. As he left the drizzle restarted.

‘Lunch,’ said our driver when he arrived. ‘No,’ we said, as one. After a couple of hours slogging along muddy paths in high humidity ‘shower’ felt a more immediate need.

He returned us to our hotel and when we emerged, clean and refreshed we went not to lunch but north past the Big Red Strawberry Farm (strawberries – considered extraordinarily exotic in Malaysia - are a major local product) and on to the BOH tea plantation.

The BOH tea company was founded by JA Russell in 1929 and is the biggest tea producer in Malaysia responsible for 70% of the country’s output. The name probably refers to Best of the Highlands, but other derivations have been suggested.

They have four ‘tea gardens’, three of them in the Cameron Highlands, and we visited the largest, Sungai Palas. We have seen several tea factories recently in Sri Lanka and India and from what we could observe through large Perspex windows the production process varies little.

BOH tea factory, Sungai Palas, Cameron Highlands
After a wander round and a visit to the shop (and the inevitable purchases) we had a pleasant cup of tea on a platform built out from the hill to give impressive, if misty, views over the rest of the estate.

BOH Sungai Palas Tea plantation, Cameron Highlands
Here, too, the pickers were migrants. BOH makes a big play of treating their workers fairly, supplying accommodation, recreational facilities, and mosques and temples for all persuasions.

And then we did go for lunch. It was nearer 3 o’clock than 2 before we were sitting outside the Restoran Sri Brinchang in Tanah Rata. They promised the best south Indian food in town (hardly an extravagant claim in such a small town!) but also offered clay pots (Vietnamese) and tandoori dishes (north Indian) among other delights.

Restoran Sri Brinchang, Tanah Rata
We went with the south Indian theme ordering mutton varuval, which was served on a banana leaf with appropriate accompaniments. Varuval is a Tamil dry curry, suitable for a banana leaf, but this came in a pot with ample sauce. No matter, it was an excellent lunch. While we were eating, the sun came out and I removed my sweater. The climate is described as cool and damp with an average high of 23 or 24° - and today had been a perfect example, the ‘high’ being reached for some 30 minutes before ‘cool’ reasserted itself.


Mutton Varuval, Restoran Sri Brinchang, Tanah Rata
After lunch, we walked around Tanah Rata, there is little to see, and made some purchases. Clean and prosperous, it is a typical Malaysian small town – apart from the climate.

Tanah Rata, unofficial capital of the Cameron Highlands
The temperature dropped and the rain reappeared as we returned to our hotel.

In the evening we found the hotel bar occupied by a Dutch tour party. We squeezed onto the two remaining seats in time to see the barman lighting the fire; the evening looked more cheerful with a roaring blaze. Finding they were offering Pernod at a reasonable price we ordered two glasses. Apparently few French groups come this way as they had no idea how to serve it, but they had the sense to ask rather than blunder on and spoil it. We dined, almost alone, in the hotel’s Thai restaurant where they managed a very decent red curry.


Part 5 coming late July/early August

Friday, 14 July 2017

Penarth and Restaurant James Sommerin

Our wedding anniversary excursion into the world of ‘fine dining’ happens later this month, but first a bonus; a visit to Restaurant James Sommerin in Penarth. This excellent idea came from Anne, a friend of forty years and Vale of Glamorgan resident, who has featured in the blog before (Cannock Chase Through Fresh Eyes).

Lynne outside Restaurant James Sommerin, Penarth
Born in Caerleon, James Sommerin started his career in Wales before moving to the Farleyer House Hotel in Aberfeldy (which sounds Welsh but is in Scotland). He returned home as sous chef at the Crown at Whitebrook in the Wye Valley. He became executive chef in 2003, won a Michelin star in 2007 and maintained it until the Crown closed in 2013. He opened Restaurant James Sommerin in Penarth in 2014 and was awarded a Michelin star last October.

Wales has only 7 such restaurants, the other six in country houses or other rural locations relying mainly on visitors. Restaurant James Sommerin is different but, I wondered, is Penarth the right place? Why not central Cardiff, or the Bay Development? Wikipedia rather strangely describes Penarth as ‘the wealthiest seaside resort in the Cardiff Urban Area’ though I struggle to think of any others, and although within the urban area, Penarth is not actually in Cardiff being west of the River Ely and thus in the Vale of Glamorgan.


South Wales and the Bristol Channel
Caerleon is NE of Newport, almost but not quite a suburb, Whitebrook is in the Wye Valley between Chepstow and Ross-on-Wye. Flat Holm and Steep Holm (see later) are either side of the 'W' of Weston-super-Mare
I had previously visited Penarth once. My father was an only child and uninterested in his wider family so I was ignorant of his wealth of cousins until Lynne took up genealogy. She discovered Cousin Jude and her husband John and we visited them six or seven years ago when John was Mayor of Penarth; we would have called again this time but for a delayed letter. Penarth had seemed a pleasant enough small town, without making a big impression on us.

Our taxi failed to arrive so Anne drove past Cardiff City’s impressive new(ish) stadium before turning west and then south to Penarth. After negotiating the tidy and prosperous town centre the road dropped sharply to the coast.
Penarth was en fete, the esplanade closed to cars, so Anne dropped us by the pier and went to find a parking space. On a balmy summer evening we strolled through the crowd…
Penarth Summer Festival
… pausing to photograph the pier…
Penarth Pier
…and Flat Holm and Steep Holm in the unusually calm and blue Bristol Channel. From this angle they looked much closer together than they really are.
Welsh Flat Holm on the left and, several kilometres beyond it, English Steep Holm (though it does not look that way)
The restaurant sign is suitably understated and we walked past, only realising our error when we reached their kebab stall. ‘Harrumph,’ went my resident Food Snob, ‘a fine dining restaurant peddling kebabs to revellers?’ ‘Lighten up,’ my Better Nature shot back, ‘community involvement is to be applauded.’ ’And why ignore a money-making opportunity?’ added my Inner Cynic.

The interior was better lit than most of its kind (though not as bright as Loam in Galway last year) and felt a touch functional with no bar, just a few small tables at the side for perusing the menu and ordering aperitifs.
Restaurant James Sommerin, Penarth
Only the tasting menus are available at the weekend and although I might once have argued for the 9-course version I have now reached a state of maturity (or decline) where even 6 courses sounds daunting.


Menu, Restaurant James Sommerin, Penarth
Anne re-joined us before we ordered drinks – gin and tonic for Lynne (drowned), dry Martini for me (too much Vermouth) and Noilly Prat for Anne (who maybe knows how to pronounce it!). Moving to our table we were presented, 6-course or not, with an amuse-bouche. An espuma (creamy foam) of garlic with toasted seeds eaten from a glass pot with a wooden spoon only slightly more sophisticated than an ice cream spoon. For me, it could have been a tad more garlicky but the seeds had a pleasant crunch and we enjoyed failing to identify them. Taramasalata on tapioca crackers was a lovely combination, not too aggressively fishy, and gougères injected with flavoursome goat’s cheese were a finger licking delight.
Lynne, Anne and Taramasalata on tapioca crackers, served in a box of pebbles, Restaurant James Sommerin, Penarth
I have no idea why Lynne looks so worried (I wasn't worried, I was eating! L)
I am unsure why bread always appears at this juncture, but it happens at every level of restaurant. At James Sommerin, as you would expect at Michelin star level, the bread was spectacular, or as spectacular as bread can get, but did we need bread? I don’t know, but we ate it.

Now we were ready for the first of the six: 'Beetroot'. Linguine of yellow beetroot (fun with a spiraliser), morsels of ‘normal’ beetroot, cubes of feta and a sprinkling of pine nuts. There was more, too, though I couldn’t say what. A clever dish proving that beetroot can be pickled but does not have to be, and is brilliantly complemented by feta cheese, well who knew that?

The accompanying wine was a Viognier, only a Vin de Pays but with far more class than that suggests. Viognier is not my favourite grape, but that is my problem, it has its fans and this wine would impress them.

‘Venison’ was a tarragon flavoured pile of venison tartar, as tender and rich as could be wished for, a mandolin slice of raw mushroom, a trio of carrots, a dusting of nutmeg a covering of beetroot leaves and a small oil slick, walnut oil, I thought. Not much cooking involved but the ingredients were so well chosen I could happily have eaten it twice.


Venison, Tarragon, Carrot and Mushroom, Restaurant James Sommerin, Penarth
Chilled Cheverny, a Pinot Noir/Gamay/Cot blend, was the perfect partner. The lightness of Loire valley Pinot Noir gaining body from the Gamay with little loss of character.

Number three, ‘Langoustine’, was a single largish ravioli (a raviolo?) of flaked langoustine in a sauce à la Indienne accompanied by broccoli, carrot, globe artichoke and fresh, crisp samphire. The langoustine was excellent and the sauce sublime but I could have done without the flabby artichoke heart and the pasta could have been thinner – or possibly even absent.

The accompanying Saar Valley Pinot Grigio was a revelation. In a Burgundy-style bottle it had more body and less sweetness than Germany is noted for, more flavour than Pinot Grigio usually manages and enough acidity to cut through the sauce. I enjoyed it but sometimes wonder if traditional German wines, their reputation long ago sullied by cheap Liebfraumilch, are due rehabilitation.

All courses were of similar size, but it was hard not to think of ‘Guinea Fowl’ as the main course. The thigh meat was excellent, the breast, rolled and water bathed, was tender but lacking in flavour. The menu mentions sweet corn, truffle and potato. In the picture the corn is obvious, the truffle, inevitably invisible, could have been more assertive, but where is the potato? The answer was, in the jus, which somehow had an intense flavour of jacket potatoes. I do have no idea how this was contrived but I was delighted, even if potato lover Lynne was disappointed.

Guinea Fowl, Sweet corn, truffle and potato, Restaurant James Sommerin, Penarth
With it we drank Devil’s Corner Tasmanian Pinot Noir. Henning’s Wines describe it as ‘A strongly perfumed style redolent of black cherries with hints of violets and even a touch of ginger spice. Soft and full of flavour this wine is showing upfront flavours of cherry supported by some savoury elements. The finish combines fine tannins and firm acidity but the overall impression is of soft lingering flavours...’ I have nothing to add except that it was a grown-up contrast to the charming if lightweight Cheverny.

Lynne and Devil's Corner, Pinot Noir, Restautant James Sommerin, Penarth
At least she looks happy now
We decided to go for cheese before the dessert; although not included among the six courses the choice of 32 cheeses, all British, was irresistible. We were talked through them, from the goat’s cheeses through hard cheeses, washed rind cheeses and blue cheeses. There is an artisan producer for every style imaginable, though I was slightly disappointed that apart from the local Caerphilly they were all described in terms of foreign cheese, ‘like Manchego’, ‘like Brie’ and so forth. It is a shame we do not have our own points of reference.

We let them make the choices for us, five cheeses each, all different, meant we had a taste of 15 different cheeses. Dairy heaven lubricated by a glass of ten-year-old tawny port!


Lynne, Anne and more cheese than you can shake a stick at
Restaurant James Sommerin, Penarth
As they had suggested we gave front of house a nod after course 3 so they could order us a taxi. Together we estimated an 11.15 finishing time, but the marathon cheese course put us behind. Consequently, the desserts, ‘Pear’ and ‘Apple’ followed each other swiftly, both accompanied by Pacherenc de Vic-Bilh. In the days when I sought out unusual wines this Gascon oddity would have delighted me, now I can enjoy its sweetness while wishing it had a little more acidity.


I have little to say about ‘Pear’ with flapjack, honey, cream and hazelnuts, other than it was sweet, surprisingly light and very pleasant. ‘Apple’ with puff pastry, caramel and vanilla, was a warm tarte tatin except the pastry lay on the plate in shards. The courses had been small, but there were six of them, plus cheese, so shards were enough. It looked a tad untidy, but the vanilla ice-cream actually tasted of vanilla and the caramel sauce was nicely restrained so all was forgiven.
Lynne with apple, caramel and vanilla, Restaurant James Sommerin, Penarth

Between courses Anne interrogated the Romanian sommelier who worked part time while completing a degree and certainly knew his wine, and the head-waiter (?) who was remarkably confident on his second day in the job. A window let us see into the kitchen from where dishes were brought out and explained by a succession of personable young men and women, perhaps those who had actually cooked them.
With a taxi waiting we omitted coffee and brandy - probably a good thing, there had been ample wine already – and were driven home by a friendly and loquacious east European who had been in Wales long enough for his accent to occasionally take on the local lilt.
And so ended an excellent evening at a restaurant thoroughly deserving of its Michelin star. A big ‘thank you’ to Anne for having the idea and for putting us up for two nights - and for rather more. In the morning I showed my gratitude by giving her a lift back to Penarth to collect her car. I could have made her take the bus, but I am not that kind of guy.
'Fine Dining' posts

Monday, 26 June 2017

'A Fine Drinking Man's Country'

I have long intended to write this post but now, with a huge bloggy backlog and much else to do, I don't have the time.
 
But I've written it anyway. Oh well.
 
My father retired in 1980 and bought a house beside a golf course in Portugal. 'Why Portugal?' I asked. Unlike Greece it was not a country he had visited much and although the dust had largely settled after the 1974 Carnation Revolution the new democracy remained fragile. 'Because,' he said, 'it’s a fine drinking man's country.'
 
A younger me standing in the doorway of that house in Portugal (April 1992)
For my father was a drinking man, not an alcoholic or a habitual drunk, but a man who liked a drink, then another one and that was the evening started. I differ from him in many ways, but I share his face - I often stare into the shaving mirror and wonder what the old bugger is doing in my bathroom - and his fondness for an occasional tincture.
 
I enjoy the occasional tincture
A toast in home made mulberry vodka, Goris, Amenia, July 2003
So, staggering in my father's footsteps, here is a drinking man’s guide to a small selection of the 50 or so countries I have visited. I also like eating, so I have rated them as eating men's countries, too. And when I say 'men' I only echo my father from those far off less inclusive times.

I like to eat - but I should point out that is a sharing plate
Tallinn, Estonia, July 2011
The ratings, on a scale of 0 to 5 (halves permitted), are personal, any woman or man is free to take issue with my scores, but to give a semblance of objectivity here are my criteria.

Drink: How easily available is it? How much variety is there? What is the quality of the local products? Are imported drinks available to fill gaps in variety or quality? Is the price reasonable?
 
Food: I am judging food from everyday rather than high-end restaurants. How easy is it to find such restaurants? Are fresh ingredients used? Is there a variety of ingredients? Is there a variety of cooking methods? Is food a cultural expression or a commodity?

So with an idiosyncratic selection of 10 countries across 3 continents here (in alphabetically order) are my scores.
 
1)                  China
 
Scoring only the Han heartland; travelling among Uighurs and Tibetans has its charms, but they do not include food and drink.
 
Drinking 3½

Chinese drinking culture exists but European-style cafés are unknown and bars are not obvious. Beer is widely brewed and available but the quality is poor – too much rice and too little (or no) barley. Chinese wine is best avoided - you rarely see locals drinking it. Spirits are easily available, cheap and drinkable – once you have acquired the taste. Knock-off western brands exist, too; I treasure the memory of a bottle of ‘Bushtits Irish Whiskey’, with its familiar black label.
 
A litre of sorghum based bai jiu (clear spirit) bought in Hangzhou
50% abv, it cost around £1
Eating: 4½

Restaurants of every class abound but I never cease to be amazed by the variety and quality of food that can be produced so quickly by one man and a wok working behind little more than a hole in the wall.

Even little local restaurants like these in can be relied upon for an excellent meal
Beijing September 2013
It is difficult to get a bad meal in China.

But it doesn't get much better than this - though it still costs less than a pub meal at home
Beijing duck, Quanjude roast duck, Beijing Sept 2013
 
Why not 5? Lack of dairy products (I do like my cheese) and their tendency to relish things....

Why am I nibbling the webbing from between the toes of this unfortunate water fowl?
Dinner with Mr Zhua, Huizhou 2004
.... nobody else regards as food (1.2 billion Chinese can’t be wrong – or can they?)
 
Scorpion soup, somewhere in Guangdong Province 2003/4
Picture credit Sian Morris

2)                  France
 
Drinking: 5

What could you want that they do not have? Good wine at any price level, fine beer (in the north, anyway), the world’s best brandy, pastis (a particular favourite of mine) and a huge range of other drinks. If you insist on scotch or gin & tonic, that is available, too.

Eating: 4
 
Shock horror, the home of European gastronomy and no 5! You can eat excellent regional dishes, but too many of France’s mid-range restaurants are resting on their laurels. Menus read better in French, but we don’t eat menus.

Spiny lobster - excellent local speciality
Cargèse, Corsica July 2006
 
3)                  India
 
Drinking: 2

Hindus are often tee total vegetarians, Muslims tee total meat eaters. Beer, though, is widely available at least in tourist areas, and passable local gin and rum in bars, hotels, and ‘wine shops’ - often disreputable looking places which don’t actually sell wine. Gujarat is dry, Kerala has reportedly put its ‘rolling prohibition’ into reverse.

Naughty boys at a 'wine shop'
Thomas and I, Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu, March 2016
 
Eating: 3½
 
Good Indian food is among the best in the world but finding it is tricky. Most restaurants catering for western tourists are clean and relatively expensive but dial back on the spices; desperate not to offend anyone they ultimately please no-one. Those aimed at the local market can be dull too, the same melange of spices in every dish regardless of the other ingredients, which you cannot taste anyway. But sometimes, and not necessarily in a smarter restaurant, each spice retains its individuality and the combination complements the ingredients instead of drowning them out. Thomas Mathew, our driver on our last two southern India trips, has a gift for spotting the right restaurant in an unknown town. Many of the best meals I have eaten have been in his company, and some cost less than £1 a head.

Thomas' choice in Coonoor, Tamil Nadu, March 2016
Here the humble biryani is raised to thing of joy

4)                  Iran
 
Drinking: 0

Iran is dry.


Tea house at the tomb of the poet Hafez, Shiraz 2000
It's the nearest we got to a drink!
 
Eating: 1½
 
I hate to say this about the land of my birth, but the restaurant food we encountered was too dull to photograph and numbingly repetitive; mountains of rice with a pat of butter, maybe some yoghurt to moisten it and kebabs, unseasoned chunks of beef, chicken or lamb, every day, sometimes twice a day. Home cooking, we were told, is much better, and maybe it is. My (Hampshire born) sister’s recent visit suggested variety has improved markedly, but as Iranian cuisine eschews garlic and all spices, how much better can it be? Pluses: breakfast feta-style cheese and the world’s finest pistachios.

 
5)                  Macedonia (Former Yugoslav Republic of)

Drink: 4½
 
Mastika (better than ouzo, maybe as good as pastis) before a meal, a choice of wines with and an acceptable brandy after. Tikveš is the only wine region of note but it produces a range of interesting varietals including the dark, smoky and seriously underrated Vranac. Skopsko Beer, dominating the market, is a pleasant lager but hardly memorable.


Popova Kula winery, Demir Kapija, Tikveš region, Macedonia May 2015
 
Eating: 3½

The Balkans specialises in grilled meats but Macedonians have a lighter touch than most. Vegetables are rare but salads, often covered in a blizzard of grated cheese, abound. Being landlocked, fish only figures around Lake Ohrid, but trout, eel, carp and whitebait were fresh and sympathetically cooked.

Carp and eel, and a bottle of Tikveš Zupljanka beside Lake Ohrid, May 2015
 6)                  Mongolia
 
Drink: 2½

In Ulanbaatar there is good beer and, as a former soviet satellite, more vodka than is good for some locals. In the countryside there is airag, fermented mares’ milk. Good manners say you must taste – and it is not unpleasant – but drink more and you will discover it rifles through the European digestive system with destructive haste. Believe me.

Making airag, Mongolian encampment July 2007
 
Eating: 1

Outside Ulaanbaatar there are no vegetables or salad – digging in God’s good earth is a rude intrusion. Goat’s milk cheese is sun dried until it has the colour and consistency of a pot sherd, though it (eventually) softens in the mouth to release a punchy goat flavour. In a week, 12 of our lunches and dinners were mutton. For the thirteenth we found chicken in a restaurant in Ulaanbaatar. The fourteenth? We were too full of chicken to eat  anything!

The first step in cheese making, Mongolia encampment, July 2007

7)                  Morocco
 
Drink: 1½

No Muslim country can be a drinking man’s country, but the Moroccan wine industry limped on after the French departed and has recently undergone a revival. There is a full Appellation d’Origine system, but the wine is easier to find in France than in Morocco. Flag lager used to be a contender for ‘worst lager in the world’, but I am told it has improved. The Jewish community distil a spirit from date palms for which a taste can be developed.
 
Food: 3

Moroccan food is excellent - tender mechoui roast lamb, tagines of lamb, beef and fish with couscous, pastilla (a savoury pastry with pounded chicken and almonds), mountains of fresh fish on the Agadir dockside - but by day four you are going round the cycle again. The quality and skill on show are impressive, the variety sadly limited.
 
8)                  Portugal
 
Drink: 4½

Portugal offers the world’s most underrated wines, plus Port and Madeira, brandy, bagaçeira, and liqueurs of varying palatability. My father was right; it is a fine drinking man’s country. Why not 5? Portuguese beer, though widely available is of modest quality and limited variety.

Modest quality, limited variety - but that won't stop me
Evora Sept 2016
 Eating: 4½

I eat more fish in two weeks in Portugal than in the whole of the rest of the year. Restaurants use fine, fresh ingredients and let them speak for themselves. Why not 5? Although the variety is impressive (unlike Morocco), too many restaurants concentrate on the same old favourites; a little innovation would be welcome.


Sardines with Mike and Alison, Portimao Oct 2016
 
9)                  Sri Lanka
 
Drink: 3

Falling like a dewdrop from the end of India’s nose it might be expected to be similar, but not so. Lion lager, overwhelming the best selling beer, is available everywhere as is arrack, the very enjoyable national spirit, distilled from toddy (see The Backwaters of Kerala) and bottled at various qualities. They also distil gin and more.

Eating: 2½
 
Drinking maybe better than in India, but eating is not. Rice and Curry (in that order) involving three or more bowls of vegetable and meat curries with little variation is ubiquitous. Devilled meat or fish – resembling sweet and sour with a chilli kick - or ‘Chinese’ noodles dishes are the only alternative. Beef is always tough.

Rice and curry, Anuradhapura, Sri Lanka
 
10)              Thailand
 
Drink: 3½
 
Chang Beer is the sort of light, fizzy, flavourless lager I would normally avoid like the plague but, in the Thai heat, it somehow hits a spot. There are other beers (notably the more characterful Singha), Mekhong ‘whisky’ (which is not whisky), SangSom rum and several other easily available spirits.

Chang beer works its magic, Cha Am beach, November 2015
 
Food: 4.5
 
We have eaten one or two dull Thai dishes, but generally the standard of cooking is high; a red curry in Bangkok and squid with lemon and chilli beside the Mae Klong River stand out. All tourist orientated restaurant dial back (sometimes omit) the chillis while other restaurants often clock a large lumbering frame and a pale face and do the same automatically. You sometimes have to fight for your right to a chilli.

Squid with lemon and chilli (and some fish cakes) beside the Mae Klong, November 2015

Being a mathematician I put the results on a graph.
 
Microsoft calculated the line of best fit and I calculated Spearman’s rank correlation coefficient. It was 0.69. (The coefficient is a number between -1 and +1, 1 implies perfect positive correlation, -1 perfect negative correlation and 0 no correlation) so there is a moderately strong correlation between good eating and good drinking. Well who’d a thunk it?