Andy & Stevie’s Matera Travel Guide

We were only stopping off in Matera on our way to Salento in Puglia, but we wish we could have stayed longer in this ancient city in the Basilicata region. In 2019, it will be one of the European Capitals of Culture (along with Plovdiv, it seems a way of promoting cool places…). We were completely enchanted by the place: the dramatic setting, the dwellings built into the cave walls, the different colours of the old city during the day and at night.

It was just so pretty. If you get the chance, do visit this magical place, and stay at least two nights. Maybe longer! It has an amazing history. The caves have been used as dwellings since 10,000 BC! It was a really poor area in the early part of the 20th century, and shut down by the government in the 50s and 60s as an unhygenic slum! But in the 80s, the Sassi (‘stones’) started to be revived and the historic area slowly taken over by artists, hotels and cafes. And yet, it still seems unspoiled, at least this year!

Before we passed through, I stumbled on a little travel guide from New York Times which gave us a good preview of some of Matera’s charms. The guide gave us the tip to go to the amazing Area 8, the hippest and coolest bar in town. Great place for cocktails, food and the ambience. We loved it.

The recommended gelato place was delicious, though all gelato in Italy seems to me to be delicious:  I Vizi degli Angeli – Laboratorio di Gelateria Artigianale.

I really wanted to try Cucina Povera in Matera, cuisine of the poor, the local specialty. But their recommended pick, Osteria al Casale, was closed. How lucky were we to stumble on this gorgeous, high-end restaurant, Dedalo, instead. Not cuisine of the poor at all, but a beautifully designed restaurant serving incredible high-end food. My TripAdvisor review is here. It felt all the more luxurious for being unexpected. We were welcomed with complimentary prosecco, floating at the surface tiny beads of white chocolate with raspberry shells.

There seems to be lots of accommodation available and we were really lucky. Our reservation at an Agriturismo venue, outside of Matera, had lost our booking! This lead us to find a hotel and our room was right in the Sassi. It was a cave! It was wonderfully charming: the owners were so friendly and we loved this place. Thymus. Highly recommended. Cars aren’t allowed in this area, but the hotel owners arranged that we could drop our luggage off with the car and then there is free parking before you enter the cave area.

You can’t leave Matera without zipping across to the park across the way, Parco della Murgia Materana, where you get a full view of the Sassi di Matera. We spent a lovely half an hour there, no more, just for the view, though a longer walk might have been nice.

Finally, what they are selling to tourists, we found charming. They carve the calcareous rock, known as tufa stone, and it is the same material which the caves and churches are carved out of. So, the carved stone feels like an authentic piece of Matera, and for us, it made a perfect souvenir of an amazing trip through Southern Italy.

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Sydney Food Diary: IKEA, Tempe

So, I would completely understand someone who would call IKEA’s famous meatballs as bland and without texture, and wonder from where its fame came from. However, I am not that person. I find something deeply comforting about industrial food. I don’t know. In university, I found that the tuna noodle casserole and macaroni and cheese that was prepared to feed hundreds of students at a time in the college cafeterias tasted much better than trying to make it at home.

While I’d heard about IKEA meatballs, I think it was a Filipina friend Malu who first told me that this should be your priority for IKEA shopping. And while I have enjoyed the various other things you can buy, after you escape the main section, the meatballs are my favourite (though I like Daim bars, that Daim bar cake, and the condiments for the meatballs: the mix for making gravy and the lingonberries).

So, now whenever I drag my husband to IKEA to stock up on tealights, napkins or whatever-else lately is sporting a Swedish name, we have a meal here. Neither of us could stray from the meatball platter, with its dollop of mashed potatoes, the afore-mentioned gravy and lingonberries. The only thing is that when I make them at home, I bake them in the oven for longer, and it is a more tempting colour, with a bit of crispness. In fact, the illustration on the package shows the same browning, so it would seem the cafeteria was rushing these or having an off-day. They could have used a bit more oven time. But I still loved them.

We washed them down with large cups of coffee.

By the way, after many years, they’ve changed the packaging on the meatballs. So, some things don’t stay the same.

IKEA Restaurant & Café Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Sydney Food Diary: The Orient Hotel and Mrs Jones

Looking for a little Sunday lunch in between sessions of the Antidote festival of thoughts and ideas at the Sydney Opera House, we decided to wander over to the Rocks. I thought it was my obligation as an Oriental person to see what the Orient Hotel is all about. In fact, it seems like they’ve added a Mrs Jones to elevate it above the usual pub food and fare (and I spotted *at least* one other Oriental there besides me).

It’s an airy and welcoming place; we sat around the side where there were tables but there’s a fun-looking drinking area…

We decided to split a whole bunch of appetizers: duck spring rolls, a charcuterie plate and lamb croquettes. We liked the croquettes the best, little meaty bombs of goodness with a crisp coating, and a lovely combo of sauces.

The spring rolls were fine and elevated by their duck filling, tender and flavourful.

The charcuterie plate was also fine. My friends were in rapture over how good it was; I thought it was fine but not special. They kindly brought us some extra pieces of bread with no charge. The cost of a glass of wine was reasonable.

I’m not sure what the options are in the Rocks, but this certainly isn’t a bad one! A nice place to while away some time on a weekend afternoon, I reckon.

Orient Hotel - Pub Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Product Review: American Tourister – Technum, expandable 77cm spinner suitcase

My last review on the Air Force 1 Suitcase (also by American Tourister) is one of my most-viewed blog posts, so I thought I should review the Technum as a public service!

So, here’s a funny story: in the first months of 2017, I bought a new suitcase, the afore-mentioned American Tourister Airforce 1 to replace my trusty ten-year-old fallen-apart Samsonite.  As you can read in that review, I really do like this suitcase … except that I found it too big. It was the first hard-sided suitcase I’ve owned and the first four-wheeler!

But packing for three weeks in Italy in July 2018, I thought to myself, ‘This is ridiculous. I can fit everything that I need into half the suitcase’. Even though the Airforce 1 suitcase moves like a dream, and wouldn’t be hard to get around half-full, I had the idea to get the medium-sized suitcase of the same brand. Also, I saw that once again, luggage was on sale at Myers and I had enough credit card points to cover pretty much the whole purchase.

So, stressed out from packing, but with limited time, I used my last free afternoon to head down to Myers. The same model of American Tourister wasn’t available but there was a good array of other suitcases, which I’d checked on their website beforehand. I sort of fell in love with the Technum, used my credit card points to pay for nearly all of it, and brought it home. It did confuse me that it seemed more expensive than the website’s price but I didn’t pay much attention since I was using my points. It was 40% off the regular AUD $359 price tag (still pretty cheap, I thought) so ended up costing $215.

I ripped off all the tags, and repacked my stuff, and yup, it was a better size. Except… it actually wasn’t that much smaller. So. I pulled out my other suitcase and… Well, even though I had bought the Airforce 1 76cm and thought I was buying the Technum 68cm model, I had, by mistake, bought the Technum 77cm spinner, which as you can see really does look substantially smaller than what is supposed to be the same size Airforce 1.

Sigh. I’d ripped the tags off and I had no time to go and explain my mistake and try to get a refund. So, I went to Italy with it. And you know, that smaller size really did make a difference. It was just that much easier to get around trains and metros, move around airports and get into the trunk of rental cars.

It’s a gorgeous colour. I like the textured pattern and the bright red contrast colour. It has the same really beautiful interiors as the Technum. I love the colour details and the various zippers and straps. I am really happy with it and loved travelling with it. I’m still a little curious whether the 68cm model would have suited me (It’s $259 regular price, but is still on sale at Myers for $155). I’m not unhappy, with what happened but now I have a beautiful extra suitcase that I probably won’t use. I suppose I could try to sell it on eBay or Gumtree!

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Sydney Food Diary: Hopper Kadé, Darlinghurst

I first managed to enjoy the delights of Hopper Kadé at their pop-up restaurant in the Tramsheds in Rozelle, so I was super happy to find that they’ve opened a sit-down restaurant in the old location of The Goods Cafe on Crown Street, a short walking distance from where I live!    

I convinced a friend to come for lunch; he’d tried it at dinner and found the service chaotic and the food not so good, but being a good sport, he was OK to come again for a Friday at lunch. He was glad he did.

We both had lunch specials, string hoppers (these are the patties of rice noodles) with beef brisket (me) and curry chicken (him) ($14 each). We had sides of eggplant chips ($11), lentil patties ($8.50) which they nicely gave us 6 instead of 5 so that we didn’t have to divide one, and two mango lassis ($9).

D thought the food was really, really tasty, and I have to agree. I missed having the delicious coconut sambal that I’d tried at the Tramsheds. I loved the hoppers; delicate and interesting, with a nice curry and condiments. The sides were crispy and delicious. The lassi was suitably creamy and sweet. In all, I found the food slightly different than other cuisines I’ve tried, and with some great combination of textures, and nicely savoury, but not too spicy. In fact, even with the deep-fried goodness, the dishes here tasted light, in a good way.

But I was reminded of my first experience with really slow service. There is still an air of confusion. I received a plate in front of me that wasn’t the right order at all, so had to send it back. This is the wrong dish: looks tasty though.

I think, if possible, that you should serve both people at the same time. The mains took a while to get to us. And I did find the prices a bit high.

I’d definitely recommend the food, but I think the service is going to need to be tightened up in this tough marketplace that is Surry Hills. Maybe I’ll report back more after I’ve tried it for dinner.

Hopper Kadé Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Review from April 2017: Zomato says it was viewed 6117 times!

So, I’ve been meaning to get to the Tramsheds for a while, even though I had no idea where it was or what it really looked like. What a cool space. Chock-full of tempting restaurants and apparently, as my expert friend informs me, a good grocery and liquor shop.

So, hoppers. Yum. Basically. We split a traditional string hopper with chicken. I loved the texture of the noodles. The chicken was perfect and crispy. And the dahl for dipping the hopper into was delicious. And the coconut sambal. Wow, that is divine.

We also split a fish curry hopper, with the more light, crispy pancake-like hopper. The flavours were sensational, and everything tasted very delicate, the light hopper, the sambal, the fish. It was delicious.

So, no complaints food-wise. The service, on a Friday lunchtime, was surprisingly slow in terms of getting the food out. We washed it down with ginger beer, and it’s a nice, casual and open place to sit and catch up with a friend. I’d be happy to come back here!

 

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Coffee in Sydney: Let’s Cafe, Darlinghurst

I like that I can get a coffee almost area in Sydney that I think is better than coffee abroad. You get coffee art, which is essential, really, and it’s super tasty.

I had to kill some time waiting for a package at the Australia Post Office at Whitlam Square (I’ve never understood which part if the square part), where Oxford Street meets Hyde Park. Considering there aren’t any libraries around, or really, any spacious cafes, it’s pretty good that there’s a cafe in the lobby of this building at which you can sit inside or outside of it; and it’s bright and airy, and there are tables and you can hang out, as I did, for an hour and not be bothered.

And the coffee was delicious. It surprised me that it was robust and savoury, an earthy tone but not burnt; not like, say, my favourite creamy and milky lattes at Single O, but nice for a change. And while the building is pretty corporate, this cafe has a nice neighbourhood, casual feel to it.

Let's Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Andy and Stevie’s Salento Travel Guide

Any chance you’re visiting Salento, the southern part of Puglia? We spent four days there in July 2018. I think I would have preferred to have a bit more advice before I went. The truth is that when I read advice on travelling around Italy, I find it hard to match it with my own desires and preferences. Blogs on the top towns to visit or the best 10 beaches to hunt down didn’t make much sense to me. The other travel blogs seem to be by women married to Italian men, who can do one or two day visits, or by people who have spent months at a time in different parts of Italy, and not those looking to do an adventure of a few days to a week.

So, here’s advice… if you might relate to the way I like to travel. We’re a gay couple who basically like to drive around and visit interesting places, eat and drink well, and stay in interesting and nice places but necessarily the most expensive. We’re open to art and history, but may not make it a priority; at the same time, we aren’t ‘resort’ type of people who want to relax in luxury for a few days or to hang out on a beach.

If that sounds like you might welcome our advice then read on…

A cooking course? Our whole trip to Puglia was inspired by NYT article about cooking courses, as the region specialises in Cucina Povera, cooking of the poor, which is using humble ingredients like fresh vegetables, local cheese, bread and beans to make meals. People often talk about how wonderful the markets are in Sicily and Southern Italy, which is true, but how are you going to take advantage of this unless you have a place to cook and have preferenced doing this instead of eating at the fabulous local restaurants? We did one course, which lasted over a whole evening, with the wonderful Gianna Greco with her school, Cooking Experience, in Lecce. It’s costly, but worth it, and at the beginning I wasn’t sure how she’d managed to wrangle all of us (two families with kids and grandparents, and us) but we had a wonderful time, ate an amazing meal, and learned a lot.

Drinks at sunset, and coastal drives? Salento isn’t a big area, and most of the sites are around the coastline. On the west coast is Gallipoli, not the famous site in Turkey that Australians often visit to honour those who fought there, but a place with a bustling old town, filled with restaurants and shops, surrounded by a boardwalk with a few bars and restaurants: magnificent for a cocktail at sundown. Friends, with kids, enjoyed exploring the beaches near Gallipolli.

The very southern tip of the heel, Leuce, seems a bit of a rundown beach resort, with some odd and interesting art deco apartments next to the water, and a great lighthouse that has a view of the city and of a huge staircase, an area where once or twice a year they release water from the acqueduct. Otranto, on the east coast, has a church with a famous mosaic inside (closed in the afternoons when we were there) and was pleasantly busy with tourists. We found the drive between Leuce and Otranto GORGEOUS.

Swimming and beaches? While a number of online blogs touted the beaches of Puglia, and while it’s evident that people do head here for a beach holiday, we didn’t find the beaches every appealing, generally not too scenic, and with the ugly system of renting beach chairs and umbrellas. We searched for beaches on the west coast, and on the east coast, between Otranto and San Cataldo, and found nothing pretty. On the other hand, between Leuce and Otranto, we stopped by chance at a bridge, looked over and saw all these people swimming below. It looked SO beautiful. A bit of a hike to get down there, but looked good for a swim and stop. And there was parking. And you can go for a short hike away from it. Look it up: Il Sentiero Vecchio del Ciolo Galgiano del Capo. It also seems like people visit caves and go for short boat rides from there.

We thought the Grotto of Zinzalusa was unexceptional (except if you really like caves) and the Cave of Poets looked like a gorgeous place to swim (and is very photogenic) but was hugely crowded. If you’re in the area, perhaps get there first thing in the morning?

Where to stay? We really loved the Italian Agriturismo system where you stay on properties attached to farms (hobby or commercial) and slightly out of the way (but close enough to cities and other attractions). With some research, you can find some real gems: historic farmhouses and other old buildings. Many have pools and are nicely renovated. And they’re inexpensive. So, definitely worth checking out. Otherwise, I’d recommend staying in Lecce: in the old city if you can find somewhere as I think it is SO charming to say in a place with cobblestone streets outside your doorstep. You have to check on parking (as often the old parts of a city don’t allow traffic, or if they do, you have to get a daily permit through the hotel or a tobacco shop).

Eating? I’m not sure if there’s fancy restaurants as in other parts of Italy: I think the specialty and emphasis here in on more humble cuisine. All over Puglia, the orecchiette are famous, as are paccheri (thick pasta tubes); gelato and brioche (for breakfast) is apparently a Southern Italian thing, as is spumone (the layered, moulded gelato, we had a recommended version at the Caffé Parisi in Nardo).

My number one recommendation is a pasticchiotto, a very crisp and crumbly pastry, painted on top with egg yolk so it’s a little shiny and inside a delicate custard (a specialty of Lecce; I believe in other parts of the country, they have different fillings). Delicious.

Cucina Povera (Cooking of the poor) may involve some deep-fried bread balls, or local cheeses (fresh mozzarella, ricotta and burrata), and a well-known dish of fava beans and chickory root (which we didn’t like that much). Pizza&Co in the old town of Lecce is supposed to have top-notch Napolese pizza, and is managed by a Canadian couple.

Drinking? Aside from the ubiquitous Aperol Spritz (or Campari Spritz) as your evening aperitif, you could try a bitter (or amero) to help your digestion after. Local versions are available though I quite liked Amaro del Capo from Calabria. I love the various versions of carbonated mineral water (frizzante) and take them over still, to accompany a meal, any time. And of course numerous coffees all morning should help get you through the day. My favourite was a caffe macchiato, an espresso with a small shot of milk. I love that these cost a euro or less, and you drink them at the counter with a little cup of water (although Italians love their environmentally unsound plastic cups for water). I barely nicked the surface of trying all the local grapes: Primitivo, Nero d’Avola, Aglianico and more.

Shopping? It was perhaps refreshing that we didn’t find much to buy and bring back as souvenirs. Perhaps a nice bottle of local olive oil? We’re bringing back some souvenir pasta (though suspect this could be found at home). There are some local ceramics, brightly coloured plates and bowls, and we’re bringing back a ceramic leaf of the prickly pear, which were all over the place (the real things).

On your way to and from Puglia? Unless you fly right in, most people will be driving to Puglia from Rome or Naples. So, there are some interesting choices to stop. We fell in love with Matera and its caves and its views (and a great bar called Area 8 and an amazing restaurant called Dedalo). If we could have, we would have stayed for more than one night.

The strange, round houses (that look like hobbits might live in them) are extremely amusing. We saw them in Alberobello, where, when clustered together, have a bit of an unpleasant touristic feel, but you can still spot lived-in ones on the way in and out of the town. I hear they are also nice in Martina Franca.

We both really loved the Castel del Monte, a beautiful octagonal castle, built in the 1200s, on a hill. To get to it, you have to park and walk about twenty minutes or half an hour so it is a bit of a detour.

All in all, we had a great few days in Salento. I might have stayed an extra day… but on the other hand, I don’t feel we missed out by staying three days and nights, at the end of a week in Sicily. I can imagine stretching out the three days into a full week and staying a few days and exploring around the north part of Puglia, around Bari. Salento surprised me in the end, turning out to be a lovely coastal driving holiday with some beautiful towns, with certainly enough to do and see, in a relaxed way, in a part of Italy that is a bit off the beaten path.

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Sydney Food Diary: Blacksmith, Surry Hills

I’ve mentioned it before in my blogs but I have great admiration for ANY restaurant in Sydney that has staying power. It’s a tough business, a tough market, and lots of work. Blacksmith in Surry Hills has staying power, and seems to be ticking along nicely making great food in a fun atmosphere.

I was last here over three years ago! This time I brought a friend who’s vegetarian, and I’m experimenting with the keto diet. As a vegetarian, David often has limited choices at restaurants, which often mean vegetarian burgers, but he commented right away and after: he’s had many veggie burgers but this one was really, really good.

For me, the dish that looked most free of carbs was a caesar salad. I opted to have it with chicken rather than salmon and while I also have had a lot of caesar salads in my time, this one was pretty much perfect, tasting more of chicken than salad, with a great combo of cheese, creamy dressing, chicken, greens, a soft-boiled egg and croutons. Oh, and bacon. Mmmmm….

All this with good coffee, friendly service and funky decor, though with the theme being ‘Blacksmith’, the furniture and decorations are comically heavy.

In any case, Blacksmith: keep up the good work. I’ll be back sooner than three years next time!

Blacksmith Cafe & Bakery Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Previous review from May 2015; Zomato says it was viewed 21,057 times

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Very tasty combo salad on a rather pretty blue plate.

There’s this thing going on in Sydney cafés at the moment which seems to be a moment. Lots of wood, a bit of iron. Great coffee, moving into cocktails and drinks after work. A casual feel but a contemporary, smart menu with a nod to those are health-conscious and a friendly, jokey Australian tone. Lighting not too bright.

IMG_3033Blacksmith has always been busy when I’ve went by so we decided to stop by for lunch in March. There was an amusing sign about caffeine addicts near the coffee machines and a glass counter that looked full of luscious pastries.

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IMG_3067My lunch pal had a baguette and seemed pleased with it. Also a blue protein shake and drink and we’re wondering whether the mason glass jars will ever go away, or whether they’ve just become part of local culture. I had a combo salad because I couldn’t decide between the green one (with risoni and broccoli and pesto) and the chicken confit and… oh, I don’t remember all the ingredients. It was delicious.

I went back in July for brunch, and had this luscious breakfast burger pictured below. My better half had a very healthy quinoa salad with avocado and goat’s cheese and stuff. Yummy, and lovely to sit outside on a sunny winter’s day. The place was hopping!

With Meadow Cafe just across the street and a stumble into the park away, how did two such good cafés open so near to each other within a year?

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Coffee in Sydney: Hangout Café, Darlinghurst

There are ample options for coffee in the area, but this is a cute option if you want to hide away, within the walls of the National Art School, and pretend you’re an art student, in someone’s living room basically, or the truth is, a cafeteria that’s been made to look like someone’s living room.

My latte was perfectly fine. It’s amusing to me that I prefer the coffees in the most humble cafes in Sydney over coffee overseas. If I were hungry, it looks like they have various snacks: quiches and sausage rolls, and when I’ve been by around noontime, I thought their lunch specials looked tasty and inexpensive.

Hangout Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Sydney Food Diary: Mjølner, Redfern

Could Sydney really support two Scandiwegian restaurants where you go through a non-descript door and to a darkened basement for fantastic, modern Viking food? Well, the answer is no, as I found out that the Norsk Dor in the CBD was transformed into a cocktail bar in November 2017.

Luckily, Mjølner is here to take its place, and man is the food good here (I’d read really good reviews already). If it wasn’t so good, I’d find the Viking theme a bit hokey: you get to choose your own scary looking knife for the meat dishes, you get a complimentary glass horn of mead at the start (and are instructed on how to say Skål!) and worst of all, the outfits that they make the female servers wear looks really uncomfortable, black corsettes that hike their breasts up to their neck. Ouch.

Every dish was tasty, hearty and interesting. The roast bone marrow was perhaps even better than the last time I’d had this dish, in Paris, where it’s common. Apparently served with powdered and fermented mushrooms. Maybe that’s why it tasted so good. The grilled bread of course, also tasty.

Loved the venison tartare with pickled beetroot and wild rice miso. Silky smooth. Readers of the blog will know I had a terrible tartare at an Italian two-michelin starred restaurant. This redeemed tartare for me.

The roast chicken was pretty much perfect, with kale and grains.

Crispy brussels sprouts on the side, moist with pork back fat and a smear of cheese curds on the side.

And then my favourite: a single grass-fed beef short rib with meat nearly falling off the bone; tender and delicious with an earthy, savoury onion soubise (and a bit of wheatgrass because… why not?)

We were recommended to order a starter, main and side each (to share) and we did two starters, two mains and one side, and left just a little bit of food at the end. And then instead of dessert, we indulged in some really expensive and amazing whiskey from their extensive collection. Bring a whiskey lover here for a treat!

All in all, while I knew this was going to be good… it was fantastic. What a treat.

Mjølner Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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