Aiolos – Dining Excellence, Napflio Greece

Aiolos – Dining Excellence, Napflio Greece

And now, a piece from the Saint Mother, Mrs St Nick

We arrived at the Aiolos restaurant after dark on a balmy evening during our stay in Nafplio, on the East coast of the Peloponnese. It‘s one of the most popular restaurants on the Odos Vasilissis Olga, a lovely marble paved street typical of the old town, with bright blossoms climbing up the sides of the houses.

We ordered a local red wine, from nearby Nemea, dry but very smooth. Our starter, following an amuse bouche of home made hummus, was called Bougiourdi, a piquant combination of baked feta cheese with sliced tomatoes, onions and peppers.

We had Beef Stifado to follow and one of the specials, Chicken Mavrodafni (featured image). Both were served with fried potatoes.

Stifado is a favourite of the Greek menu – a casserole of slow cooked beef in a tomato based sauce with whole small onions. The onions created a sweet taste complementing the tender meat.

The Mavrodafni consisted of chicken breast cooked in the eponymous red wine with cream, perhaps more inspired by french cuisine but equally delicious and tender.

We ordered two Greek coffees, medium sweet which were the best we had on our trip – strong but not too sludgy at the bottom! The restaurant gave us a small complementary bottle of grappa and desert – ravani, which is a sponge made with semolina soaked in an orange flavoured syrup. To make it well you need to let it soak up all the syrup slowly until it is completely and evenly absorbed. I wonder if they guessed we were doing a review! The desert was delicious and just the right side of something sweet to end the meal.

All in all a very friendly and relaxed atmosphere- including traditional musicians to entertain. The price was very reasonable. I would definitely recommend a visit if you are passing through Nafplio.

 

The Heuriger – Authentically Austrian, Grinzing

The Heuriger – Authentically Austrian, Grinzing

The Heuriger is an institution in Vienna. The idea is simple: serve new wines, locally sourced, together with a largely cold buffet, add some traditional Viennese songs in the background for some extra Gemütlichkeit, and watch the paying public come rolling on in. It’s easy to see why these wine taverns are so successful, especially the one dad and I visited in Grinzing, a suburb north of the city centre.

Heuriger translates to “this year’s wine” in Austrian and Bavarian dialects of German. The tradition of serving new wines like this dates back to the reign of enlightened Habsburg emperor Joseph II who decreed that his subjects could sell wine from their own properties without a special permit. Enlightened indeed! Grinzing itself has its own fair share of history. In Beethoven’s day it was a village outside the city walls, and the great composer visited here often to recover from his many illnesses, as well as famously nearby Heiligenstadt. Franz Schubert, too, came here often and I believe Einstein may have lived here briefly. Gustav Mahler is buried in the local cemetery.

Anyhow, I think that’s enough mention of dead people and cemeteries for one food review, let’s give some thought to the cuisine. Starting with the drinks. Pater and I enjoyed the local wines greatly, but the particular highlights were the Veltliner and Riesling (from Nussberg). No doubt a distinguished wine critic like Cedric would be able to tell you the various different flavours of fruit and vegetables these hinted at, but I also distinctly tasted wine alongside these.

The food is a kind of walk up to the stout waiter and ask for a plateful kind of affair, which suits me wonderfully because of my enormous gluttony. To start with we opted for a couple of small dishes, a variety of local cheeses, a salad of sliced carrots and sauerkraut, a tasty quiche and a dish of Speck accompanied by a rather long sausage.

For what I suppose might be described as the mains, dad and I went our separate culinary ways, himself opting for the mushroom goulash, yours truly judiciously choosing the Braten (roast pork). Both came with a big dumpling which soaked up the alcohol nicely.

The atmosphere is key to the success of this place. It’s convivial, and very Austrian. It’s the sort place you could see Brahms (the North German interloper to Vienna) turning up to, cigar in hand, to admire some of the Grinzing Fräulein or Schubert, rocking up with his circle of friends, drinking their wistful melancholy away.

I am pleased to say a storm interrupted proceedings halfway through, as if in homage to Beethoven’s sixth symphony. This was a quite a joy for dad and I as we appreciated mother nature’s knowing reference. The heavens soon cleared as well, and the two of us left this charming spot, with “Freude” in our hearts and wine in our guts.

 

Hotel zur Post – Culinary Bliss in Melk, Austria

Hotel zur Post – Culinary Bliss in Melk, Austria

Many people have inquired from me how to go about life without being blown-over with awed appreciation. To this I invariably reply that one should start by not asking for restaurant recommendations from Cedric Conboy. You see this mutual friend of ours has an extraordinary knack of finding eateries that make one’s jaw hang open. I don’t suppose that Cedric has ever visited Melk, yet when Dad and I turned to him for a place to have dinner in the charming little town during our recent cycle ride along the Danube, he came up with the goods as if he were a lederhosen-wearing local named Friedl.

Hotel zur Post is a delightful little haunt with a stunning view of  the Benedictine  monastery. It’s traditional, family run, with excellent quality to match. Father and I kicked off the proceedings with a glass of the local beer which went down very nicely after a long day’s cycling, believe me. After this we ordered a bottle of Veltliner  and eagerly awaited our mains.

The Paterfamilias had ordered a sumptuous dish of chicken breast with a tomato, basil and mushroom sauce complete with small dumplings. By the look of things he enjoyed this greatly. Which is the least that can be said of what I thought about my exquisite main: taglioni in a truffle sauce with Danube crayfish.

 

If I had any great knowledge of food, cooking or indeed even the most basic insight into either, I could tell you why I found it so delicious. But as I don’t, I can only say it was tasty. In fact, it was bloody tasty.

On to the deserts,  Pop Jenkins opted for a gooseberry tart for reasons unbeknownst to me. I, on the other hand, judiciously selected the Topfenstrudel, cream cheese strudel, which was very nice. Presumably this had something to do with how the chef prepared it, but I haven’t the foggiest.

We ended the evening with a drop of Apricot Schnapps, or Marillenschnapps, and parted ways with Hotel zur Post on the most cordial of terms. Praise must be heaped on this worthy establishment, as it must be on the man who recommended it.

 

Brain Jar – Living Well in Hull on Earth

Brain Jar – Living Well in Hull on Earth

Dear loyal readers, I return, but this time exiled to Hull, and surprisingly enjoying it. I suppose it will now become my task to persuade the world that there is more than just the letter e that separates Hull from Hell. But believe me, it is not all Stygian gloom up here, the people are friendly and I have fallen in love with the old town with its cobbled streets and many pubs. One place that has become a bit of a staple for me is the Brain Jar.

The Brain Jar, in case you were wondering, is a little bar near the Minster that serves a variety of drinks as well as a selection of food. I’m afraid owing to being constitutionally boring, I have opted every time for some whiskey, Laphroaig or Talisker Skye usually. But I am sure Cedric’s more adventurous audience will be able to pick something slightly fruitier.

I believe the technical term for this place would be “funky”. The decor is interesting to say the least, complete with a bebosomed banana, and generally there is an atmosphere of hipness that even this perennially uncool reviewer could not help but notice.

As for the food, well that is where it gets special. You see, they serve home-made pizzas here with a choice of toppings. Crispy authentic, and very delicious. The one pictured below has nduja on it. Up until now I had not realised nduja was a thing. Clearly, the royal society for nduja awareness must get their act together. It is quite spicy, so good if you like that kind of thing.

To conclude, as I suppose I ought to, the Brain Jar, is a pleasant find, with a good selection of drinks, great pizza, and “hip” atmosphere. It all just goes to show one can make a heaven out of Hull, a Hull out of heaven.

Nick Drake – Five Leaves Left – AOTM May 2019

Nick Drake – Five Leaves Left – AOTM May 2019

On 3rd July 1969, Nick Drake’s debut album, ‘Five Leaves Left’, was released . It sold poorly for the times, sales totalling about 6,000 records. A combination of Drake’s reluctance to tour, bad luck, and perhaps the complexity of the music meant that he was far from an instant hit. It was only after his death, at the age of 26 from suicide, that a substantial following began to grow. As the lines of the penultimate song on the album had so eerily predicted:

‘Fame is but a fruit tree

So very unsound.

It can never flourish

‘Til its stalk is in the ground.’

Fast forward almost half a century to December 2016, a date of considerable less importance to the world (but of tremendous personal significance for myself), and to an Oxfam charity shop in Balham, south west London, when I was first shown a recording of Drake’s music. It was for me an instant hit. A number of things were immediately recognisable in the music, first of all the sensitivity of the Drake’s voice. I had never heard someone sing so softly and yet with such clarity. Secondly the skill and complexity of the guitar playing. Finally there was the poetry of the lyrics. A number of the lines already stood out to me like this one from ‘Time has told me’:

Time has told me

You came with the dawn

A soul with no footprint

A rose with no thorn’

Image result for nick drake

                       Nick Drake (1948-1974)

That day I rushed back home to buy Five Leaves Left on Itunes (remember this was B.C. – Before Cedric, and consequently no Deezer). The album still stands out to me as an all time favourite, which is why I am so grateful for the honour of paying to tribute to it. A number of aspects are worth mentioning besides the enormous talent of Drake himself. The string arrangements are stunning, all completed by Robert Kirby (a friend of Drake’s from Cambridge), aside from the one on ‘River Man’. The supporting musicians, assembled by legendary record producer Joe Boyd, are incredible and the recording itself is superb, thanks in large part to sound engineer John Wood.

Image result for john wood and robert kirby

Years later, John Wood (left) and Robert Kirby (right) on a documentary discussing their friend Nick Drake’s music and life

I think to give you a glimpse as to why this album is so dear to me, I should discuss some of the songs in greater detail. The opening track ‘Time has Told Me’ is a particular favourite of mine, I have always loved the twangling electric-guitar of Richard Thompson (from band Fairport Convention) on this track, and Drake’s lyrical delivery. The words themselves appear to sum up a love that could not be, and there are some tremendous insights like this one:

‘Your tears they tell me

There’s really no way

Of ending your troubles

With things you can say’

Then there is ‘River man’. Perhaps, the very greatest on this album, and possibly the best Nick ever wrote. It’s in 5/4 time, established throughout by Drake’s faultless guitar line, giving the song its asymmetrical but constant rhythm, like the flow of a river. Composer Harry Robertson provided the string arrangement this time (the young Kirby felt uneasy arranging in 5/4 time). Drake mentioned composers like Ravel and Debussey as a template for the arrangement, and no doubt this influence can be detected by the cognoscenti, but it is also worth mentioning that Robertson was credited as composer on a number of horror films at the time. Perhaps this is in part what gives the arrangement such a haunting feel. The lyrics expand on this atmosphere, with lines like:

‘Betty said she prayed today

For the sky to blow away’

There clearly is a macabre feel to the song, and it’s not surprising that people have interpreted the ‘River Man’ of the title as Charon, the boatman of the Stygian flood that divides our world from that of Hades.

Image result for nick drake album back cover five leaves left

Another favourite of mine is ‘Fruit Tree’. This time the arrangement is by Kirby, who said in an interview that this was just about his favourite he did for friend Nick. I would generally agree (which is a tough call given the high quality of his other arrangements). His use of the oboe and cor anglais in this song is particularly impressive and adds to the wistful melancholy.

Fruit tree has some of the best poetry of the album. Its tempting to read into the words a kind of premonition of the Nick Drake story. A tale of fame that was unsound because it could only truly flourish after his death. Yet when Drake recorded this album we know he was still fairly confident of success. It’s better to see in it a young man, wise beyond his years, steeped in the poetry of the English Romantics and French symbolists, making a universal statement, with language such as this:

‘Safe in the womb

Of an everlasting night

You find the darkness can

Give the brightest light.

Safe in your place deep in the earth

That’s when they’ll know what you were really worth’

Image result for nick drake grave

The Drake family gravestone in Tanworth-in-Arden, Warwickshire, both parents outlived their child

Great art has the power to change us, or so they say. But sometimes with our favourite artists we find they have not changed us, but rather that they have acted as a mirror, reflecting back to us an undistorted image of ourselves. I have found this to be the case with Nick Drake. I do not believe I have changed after listening to his music, rather I believe it has always had such a strong effect on me precisely because it has spoken to me as I am, not as I might be. All art is a game at communication, and its aim is the same no matter the medium: to let us know we are not alone. For myself and many others since his tragic early death, Drake’s music has helped us feel that we are not alone. I hope that this article will encourage someone new to discover Nick. Perhaps, they will find as I have found, that he is:

‘a rare, rare find

A troubled cure

For a troubled mind’.