Tuscany Day 2: Montalcino and Montepulciano

Jet lag woke me up absurdly early this morning and I figured I’d make the most of it and fit in a workout and some writing. Luckily I was rewarded with this gorgeous sunrise.

IMG_2347

Here are my top 5 from Day 2:

1. Brunello di Montalcino
Our first stop today was Poggio Antico, a vineyard and restaurant in Montalcino. About 60km south of our hotel, Montalcino is home to the famous Brunello di Montalcino, one of Italy’s most revered wines. Montalcino has one of the warmest and driest climates in Tuscany and, at 450m above sea level, Poggio (literally “knoll”) is one of the highest altitude producers. Over the course of an hour, we learned how the unique soil conditions (volcanic, rocky) and location (high altitude, flanked by the coast on the East and Amiata Mountains on the West) give Poggio wines their particular character.

In order to be called a “Brunello”, wine from the Montalcino region must meet a laundry list of requirements as stipulated by the DOC and DOCG including being made from 100% Sangiovese grapes, containing 12.5% alcohol and a minimum of 2 years ageing in wood and 4 months in bottle. I’m a huge fan of Brunello (as is most of the US apparently — 1 in 3 bottles are sold in America) and it’s always reminded me of French Pinot Noirs. Both are smooth and easy drinking but Brunellos are heavier and have those characteristic tannins. After the tour and tasting, we had lunch at Poggio, all of which I’d highly recommend. You need to book ahead for the tour and they’ll only take groups of up to eight at a time.


2. Tuscan Cypress
Originally from Syria, this evergreen tree was once believed to have supernatural powers, leading the Etruscans to plant it around their burial grounds. Today, it’s hard to think of Tuscany without it — it flanks driveways, demarcates roads and cuts a clean line against the sky on hills and mountains. Tall, elegant and vertical, Cypress trees also impart a distinctive fragrance to the Tuscan air, I can’t get enough of them!

IMG_2439

3. Sunflower Fields
The first time we spotted one of these, we had to stop the car and get out for a mandatory frolic. Seeing hundreds of these tall, golden flowers with their heads tilted towards the sun makes for a spectacular sight. They’re past their peak but they’re still gorgeous, and they’re everywhere.


4. Summer Rain
Remember how I was complaining about the heat? Well it rained today. A lot. Fortunately, it’s not the torrential sort of rain we get in Sydney (or New York for that matter); it’s more of a British drip: docile yet persistent. The storm clouds started forming this afternoon and by 3pm it was coming down hard. It’s a welcome respite though; just today someone told us how the week before we arrived, temperatures were in the early 40s!


5. Montepulciano
After lunch we headed 45 minutes East to Montepulciano to sample some delicious Vino Nobile. Montepulciano is another hilltop renaissance town boasting gorgeous views of red-roofed houses, rolling hills, olive groves and of course vineyards. We climbed to the top of Palazzo Communale for some even better views.

Tuscany Day 1: From Bondi to Bagnoregio

Bagnoregio: quintessential Italy

Bagnoregio: quintessential Italy

Ciao from Italia!

At the beginning of this year, I attempted to capture our 11 day trip to Japan in a daily travel journal. I think I published maybe three blog posts and ended up with a folder of half complete musings. This time, I’m going to do better because these posts will be short (I’m limiting myself to an hour writing each day), not-every-day (although if they are, that’s OK) and will capture 5 observations from the day that passed.

Here’s Day 1 (brought to you by 430am jetlag, a Canon 7D and an iPhone 6):

It’s my first time in Italy in 7 years. How did that happen? Italy is one of those countries, like France, that always feels familiar. The espresso, the pasta, the pastries…Italian culture has permeated the world, and its presence is felt no stronger than in Sydney, where the coffee culture, delicious bakeries and creative Italian cuisine is delightfully authentic. 

We landed in Rome in the wee hours. It’s one heck of a flight through Dubai, with more than 20 hours in the air, but the bright sunlight and sheer excitement wiped the sleep from our eyes. After collecting our Europcar rental, a Fiat of course, we headed straight out on our 250km journey to Tuscany.

The plan was to grab a bite and stop at a couple of the towns along the way before heading towards Siena. We’re pretty good at road trips and we’ve recently taken to seizing any opportunity to be in a car to listening to a podcast. Usually, it’s something about tech, occasionally its from the Moth or the New Yorker. Today it was about startups. And so, with Jason Calacanis gushing about the soon-to-be-extinct Zirtual as background music, we made good time to Bagnoregio.

Civita de Bagnoregio

Civita di Bagnoregio

Civita di Bagnoregio is a medieval town about 150km north of Rome. It was founded more than 2500 years ago as an Etruscan settlement and sits atop a mountain that is slowly eroding. It was, in a word, breathtaking. 

Like so much in this part of the world, Bagnoregio feels like a perfectly preserved postcard from Roman times. A paved footbridge connects it to “the modern world” and the view from the approach, set against bare ridges, cuts a dramatic scene.

With the sun out in all its mediterranean glory, temperatures had soared to the mid thirties and the 8,000 step round trip was punishing. We stopped on our way back for a refreshing granita and took every opportunity to bask in the shade.

By the time we got to Siena, it was 3pm. We stopped for a quick (late) lunch in town and then drove an additional 20 minutes North to our hotel. Hotel Le Fontanelle sits on a functioning vineyard set against the gorgeous Chianti Hills. Tucked away, tranquil and yet perfectly executed, it’s a beautiful escape and feels unlike anywhere I’ve ever stayed in Italy. By dinner time, temperatures had finally eased and we were able to sit outside and soak in the beauty of the scene…and eat and drink far too much.

Here are my five observations from day 1.

1. So far, Tuscany feels a lot like French wine country: Provence, Burgundy, Alsace. I suppose all wine country shares characteristics but the rolling hills, winding roads and historic townships combine to create something uniquely old world.

2. Speaking of dry sun, did I mention how hot it is? It’s hot as. Coming from the Australian Spring, we’ve been caught by surprise. The Tuscan sun can certainly hold its own. 

3. Italian, the language, is just as beautiful as I remember. I studied French for several years and can rattle off some survival Spanish but I can’t claim to speak much Italian. All I know is it’s music to my ears.

4. People drive fast. Like really fast. And unlike Australia and much of Northern Europe and Switzerland, there’s little concern for speed cameras. We were clocking in at 100kph on the highway from Rome to Siena and were constantly being overtaken. Oh the narrow, winding country roads? The Italians are zooming there too.

5. This one’s a little random but I thought it was really interesting: there are a ton of tour buses with tourists from Mainland China. It might just be the airport and the towns we’ve seen so far, but I thought this was a big shift from the last time I was in Italy. We’ll see if it’s true in the smaller towns as well. 

Skiing in a sunburned country

Thredbo

Threadbo – get amongst it!


Ask people who’ve never been what they associate with Australia, and you’ll hear things like deserts, beaches, surf, kangaroos and crocs. Did you know though that you can ski in Australia? I’m talking real snow, mountains, lifts, boozy hot drinks — the works.

If you’re an Aussie local, you may want to skip this post, but if you’re an expat like me, this could blow your mind.

Ski holidays are amongst my favourites. Slicing through (and falling in) fresh powder on a bluebird day, wintry nights snuggled up in front of a roaring fire eating calorie bomb bolognese, sipping mulled wine and getting overly competitive at charades with a big group of friends… what’s not to like?

When we moved to Sydney a few years ago, ski trips were one of the things we’d reconciled ourselves to giving up trading for the beach. We knew there was decent skiing over in NZ but that seemed nowhere as easy as a roadtrip from NYC to Vermont. Shortly after I started working, a colleague mentioned he was leaving early to drive over to Perisher for a ski weekend. Say what?? Now mind you, this was July in Sydney, a time when the Harbour City is supposedly plunged into the depths of winter (but really it feels like a San Francisco summer). How could there be snow a few hours south, when it’s 20C in Sydney?

We missed that year’s Aussie ski season and the one after :( But this year, we made it!

Last weekend, we drove down to Thredbo. Nestled in the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales, Thredbo is a 500km drive from Sydney and part of Kosciuszko National Park.

Now before I get into it, I should clarify that we didn’t have particularly high expectations. Pretty much everyone we knew had told us that “the snow was crap”, that there were “hills not mountains” and that “everything was twice as expensive”. I’ve never skied in the Pocanos but my husband grew up on icy East Coast skiing and had braced himself for man made snow, thin cover and short runs. To our delight, we couldn’t have been more wrong.

Here are the highlights:

1. The conditions.

IMG_0020

Blue skies

For starters, we lucked out with the weather. On an average year, Thredbo gets 196cm snow over a 4-5 month season; the night we arrived, the resort was dumped on with 30cm of fresh snow. Yippee! On top of that, we had blue skies, warm temperatures (barely a few degrees below freezing) and plenty of sunshine. Our second day however, they resorted to making snow and the conditions got a little icy. I can see how a snow dry-spell could wreak havoc.

2. The lifts

IMG_0043

Pure magic

The lift situation turned out to be pretty good.  Thredbo doesn’t have a gondola but the high speed quad “Kosciuszko Express” gets you most of the way to the top and it’s only a T Bar or two from there to the bowls. Also, the lines are short and very orderly. Having skied a few times in France, I have a newfound appreciation for Aussie queuing obsessions ;-)

3. The Terrain

This came as another pleasant surprise as we were expecting mostly groomers and some steeps. There’s some great tree skiing, lots of rocks and bumps, a terrain park and, if you take Karel’s T Bar to the top of the mountain, you can ski Golf Course Bowl, a gorgeous powdery expanse.

IMG_0046

Hiking down a treacherous section of Funnel Web

Our last run of the day, we made our way down Golf Course through Funnel Web. Not for the faint of heart, Funnel Web is a double black that’s narrow and uneven with rocks and roots poking out the entire way. There are lots of trees, some powder and, at times, you have no option but to take your skis off and walk (crawl?) along the face of the mountain. It took more than an hour to get down and there’s no way I’d go back in poorer conditions / with lower visibility.

4. The Village

Thredbo Village is charmingly European — another surprise, although I wasn’t sure what to expect. Kareela, the mountain lunch spot of choice (if you’re happy to splurge) oozes rustic charm and boasts waiters and waitresses dressed in traditional lederhosen and dirndl serving hearty Bavarian fare.

Apple cider and smores at the Alpine Lodge

Apple cider and smores at the Alpine Lodge

One thing that never ceases to amaze me is the Aussie ability to drink, and Thredbo is no exception! In the time that I’d enjoyed my gluhwein and Niraj had had a beer, the three blokes next to us had downed a ski’s worth of shots — 15 to be precise, that’s 5 shots each. A few other tables were splitting a bottle of wine or doing shots themselves, and this was at lunch time, in the middle of the mountain, with a long run to the bottom. It’s a sight worth seeing!

5. The Skiers

IMG_0035

Fresh powder in the Golf Course Bowl

Finally, I was very impressed with the skiers at Thredbo. For a nation with very little snow, the average Aussie skier seems pretty darn good! I suspect it may have something to do with Aussie ski school, which everyone seems to go through. When I learned to ski, I spent three days in ski school and took a couple of lessons after that, but I suspect that’s because I learned as an adult. A lot of my American friends learned to ski pretty much on their own — at most copying a sibling or a friend. It’s harder to nail that perfect form or go nearly as fast without some sort of professional training. The Aussie standard has definitely made me want to step it up!

Overall, Thredbo gets a big thumbs up. It’s definitely pricier than other ski resorts and I can see why, especially as a family, you’d be better off making the trip to Japan (and getting some of that world class #japow!), but it’s not as terrible as people made it out to be. It’s no Utah or Colarado but heck, it’s just as good (better than?) Vermont! I’m looking forward to going back :)

Very Strawberry Pie

Strawberry Pie

Baking is one of those things I love to do but don’t have nearly enough occasion to do so. Naturally then, I jumped on our July 4th BBQ as an excuse to bake some pies, more specifically strawberry pies.

I’m not much of a dessert person but I’m a sucker for fruit. It’s definitely the one food group I couldn’t live without. And when it comes to fruit, strawberries are up there in my top 5. There’s always a punnet of strawberries in my fridge.

This pie is super simple and quick to make. And in the scheme of pies, it’s relatively healthy.

Here’s what you’ll need (one pie serves 8)

Crust

  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 125gms unsalted butter
  • 5 tblsp ice water
  • 1/4 tsp salt

Filling

  • 2 cups quartered strawberries
  • 2 cups whole strawberries to decorate
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 3 tblsp arrowroot (or other thickener such as cornstarch)

Method

1. Make the dough per my all butter pie crust. Once ready, flatten into a disc, wrap in clingfilm and chill in the fridge for at least 20 minutes. Roll out the chilled dough and place carefully in a 9″ pie dish. You can scallop the edges using your fingers or a fork. Blind bake the shell with pie weights or pennies at 200 C for approx 20 minutes.

2. Toss the quartered strawberries in a saucepan with the sugar and heat on low. Meanwhile, whisk the arrowroot in the water until dissolved. Add to the saucepan and cook on low heat until it reaches a thick, jammy consistency. I like to use arrowroot rather than cornstarch because it gives a gorgeous shiny sheen to fruit fillings as well as a jelly-like consistency.

3. Finally, pour the jammy filling into your baked pie shell and decorate with halved or whole strawberries. Leave to cool and then move to the fridge so it can fully set. Serve with a scoop of vanilla icecream.

Enjoy!

Five differences between Indian and Western yoga

Amanda Bisk inspiring thousands with her yoga #fitspo

Amanda Bisk inspiring thousands with her yoga #fitspo


Growing up in an Indian family in England, yoga was always a familiar and comforting concept. Even though we didn’t practice on a regular basis, we had an innate reverence for yoga’s healing and spiritual benefits. Friends and family back in India often had their own teachers — wizened individuals who’d dress in all white and exude an air of spirituality that made you want to sit up straight and listen. We’d hear stories of how someone’s yoga teacher helped cure an ailment — eye infections, food allergies, even asthma.

The Indian yoga teacher is a bit of an institution: someone who bridges generations and brings the family together. Of course, it helps that yoga in this context is typically far less physically demanding than the sort of yoga that’s become en vogue in the West. The focus of these Indian practices would always be breath, mindfulness and flexibility.

Yogananda Parmahansa's Autobiography of a Yogi was a popular book in our household

Yogananda Parmahansa’s “Autobiography of a Yogi” was a popular book in our household

After an eight year stint in India, I moved back to the UK and had my first real encounter with Western yoga. While working in London, I  decided to take a yoga class at the company gym. I was sorely disappointed. Like most gym yoga, this class was uninspiring, repetitive and underwhelming. I never went back, choosing instead to throw myself into traditional cardio. I became an obsessive runner, I swam, I biked, I went to the occasional Les Mills class and began resistance training. Yoga and I were over.

In 2008, I moved to New York. and, at the behest of a colleague, gave yoga another try — this time also at our company gym. The instructor was an athletic looking guy who, in quick succession, took us through a series of lunges, squats and extensions, cleverly masked behind Sanskrit names. It was challenging but accessible and I left sweaty and energised.

Soon enough I became a yoga addict. It turned out my natural flexibility combined with years of sports made me pretty good at “Western yoga”. I also loved whatever little connection it provided to my Indian roots and would seek out teachers who incorporated meditation into their practice or used the original Sanskrit names for asanas. Ironically, I was almost always the only Indian person in class.

So what’s the difference between Indian and Western yoga? To boil it down:

1) The Indian yoga teacher is almost always male.

Unlike the West, where we tend to associate yoga with lithe, long-limbed lycra-clad beauties, yoga in India is a man’s world. Think lean, wiry, simply dressed with an often freakish degree of flexibility. The Indian yoga teacher is up there with other family gurus — he’s part fitness instructor, part spiritual coach, part moral counsellor. He is kind yet stern, demanding yet peaceful and he prefers simple white cotton clothing to Lululemon Athletica.

2) Indian yoga is rooted in spirtuality

While not a religion, Indian yoga is deeply rooted in spirituality and a certain degree of asceticism and self-sacrifice. Yoga takes a far more holistic view in India and students will often eat vegan diets, live simply and engage in extensive meditation alongside their yoga practice. It is less a form of exercise and more a way of life. While certain Western yoga teachers may draw upon meditative practice in class, it’s certainly not the norm.

3) The student-teacher relationship is different

As I mentioned above, the Indian yoga teacher is a highly revered individual. He has not only dedicated his life to the practice and principles of yoga, but commands a level of respect and obedience from his students that is uncommon in the West. The typical Indian yoga teacher will endeavour to educate his students on the history and principles of yoga and the dynamic is more formal. In the West however, the yoga teacher is more often seen as someone teaching an exercise class than a guru or spiritual leader.

4) Each has different physical demands

Indian yoga focuses obsessively on the breath. Once you have the basics down, you progress to various poses, and the emphasis becomes staying and growing in that pose. You’ll often see Indian masters holding pretzel-like poses that make you queasy.

Mainstream Western yoga on the other hand, epitomised by the ever popular vinyasa, is more about rapid transitions from one pose to the next and leans more heavily on athleticism and endurance. The idea of “yoga lunges, pushups and squats”, while popular in the West, is alien in India.

4) Western yoga has a wide variety of styles

Western yoga has spawned a whole host of “sects” — forms of physical exercise that are grounded in yoga but deviate considerably from the traditional. Bikram and hot yoga, while popular in the US, are virtually unheard of in India. I recently attended a core fusion yoga class in San Francisco where the instructor had us toting dumbbells and doing crunches and leg raises to the beats of Pitbull. Other emerging forms include anti-gravity yoga and acro-yoga and while these styles might not be for everyone, they have amassed large followings in their own rights.

June 21st is International Yoga Day. What’s your favourite kind of yoga?

Aerial yoga in San Diego

Aerial yoga in San Diego

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 46 other followers