Friday, October 31, 2014

A Memory Knot Ring That Reminds Me Of My Grandmother

I'm in love with this memory knot ring from Of A Kind - a New York-based online retailer specializing in one-off, limited editions from independent designers and artists. This particular ring is is a result of a collaboration between artist Orly Genger and jewelry designer Jaclyn Mayer and it's stunning: simplistic but exquisite at the same time.

I particularly love the oversized knot. While other gold bow or memory knot rings are dainty and sweet, there's something irresistibly, unapologetically carefree about this loop, which spans 1.5 inches, according to the website. And yet in contrast, the knot itself anchors the loop - lending it both stability and assurance (can you tell I've thought way too much about this?).

And in many ways, this ring reminds me of my wonderful grandmother who, before a massive stroke rendered her speechless and virtually lifeless, used to sit down with me for little chats in her Hong Kong apartment, which was directly across from the Hong Kong Jockey Club in Happy Valley.

One day, I showed her a pair of earrings I'd bought from Causeway Bay. "What do you think of these, Mar Mar?" I asked, addressing her in the affectionate form of (paternal) "grandma" in Cantonese.

She considered them for a long minute before finally answering, "Ah Mar doesn't know anything, my opinion doesn't count! As long as you like it, that's all that matters." She patted my hand. I always marvelled at how her hands, though wrinkled and gnarled from arthritis at the age of 88, could feel so soft and cool. Sometimes, I'd sit and hold her hand while we watched a Cantonese soap opera together, and it would make me want to cry.

I pressed her for an answer. "But do you like them?"

Her expression was pained. She hesitated before saying again, more emphathetically, "I don't know the trends nowadays with you young ones. I'm old and useless. As long as you like them, that's what's important."

Now, I was amused. "Come on, Mar Mar!" I cajoled. "Tell me what you really think!"

"Well," she said, tentatively. "I think they look like ... like ... some crumpled up wire." She looked extremely apologetic when she said this, worriedly knitting her eyebrows together, and seemed surprised when I threw my head back and laughed. She pushed herself up from the leather couch we were sitting on and waved her hand in the air as she got up. "But don't listen to me! My opinion doesn't count."

This ring reminds me of that memory. I can see my grandma, being pressed for an opinion on this ring, saying in that sweetly apologetic tone, "It just looks like a piece of wire." It reminds me of how loving and generous my grandmother was - always careful to never hurt anyone's feelings, always putting others before herself, and always lavishing her family with everything she owned, while living a very simple life herself. I remember the jewelry she wore when we'd go out for dinner, which reflected none of her wealth - a pair of simple pearl earrings and a very small, gold watch. I felt so proud of her in those moments, contrasted against sharp, red manicured talons and very ostentatious displays of money from other members of my far-reaching, extended family. She'd cook elaborate meals for us that took hours - even days - of preparation, before serving herself a humble bowl of rice and a small piece of fish when it finally came time to eat.

She remains, to this day, my ultimate heroine - my feminist icon, my beauty icon, my every kind of icon.

And this ring reminds me of her.

All photos from the Of a Kind website.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Kate Spade New York and GapKids Collaborate. I Want It All.

Yes, I was one of those women, furtively combing through the racks at GapKids a few years ago when the DvF collaboration happened, holding up a smock-like dress to my chest and ask-whispering* my friend the question, "Do you think I could wear this as a tunic?" (*Ask-whispering is what you do when you're too embarrassed to let those within earshot hear you. It happens at frozen yogurt stores when you've accidentally let too much out of the machine and have to ask-whisper your companion for help).

I woke up this morning to an email in my inbox chirpily announcing the arrival of the Kate Spade/Jack Spade/GapKids collaboration and scrolled in disbelief at all the adorable items that were just slightly too small for me. WHAT. THE. HECK.

I've been a fan of the chic, Upper East Side-aesthetic Kate Spade brand since my friend loaned me her trendy, polka-dotted Kate Spade baguette bag in college. Today, I find the preppy, brightly-colored line a little too overwhelming en masse, but throw a few select pieces into my everyday look? Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner. In particular, I love the 50s-inspired party dresses with a fit-and-flare silhouette, plus the jewelery line - especially their watches (I wear the Gramercy watch in rose gold on a daily basis).

To torture myself further, I'm going to show you the items that I would wear, if I could (and maybe even one or two that I could squeeze into, if I tried really, really hard, and wore lots and lots of Spanx).

First of all, they need to make this dress in my size:

I'm sorry. Yes, I'm a grown woman, but yes, I could still make it work. I'd pair it with a statement necklace from J. Crew (similar to this one) and patent, pointed-toe flats (similar to these) to keep it from looking like I just left circle-time in pre-school (what Brits call "reception", I believe).

Also, this sweater has built in arm-candy:

YOU WOULD NOT NEED TO ACCESSORIZE. IT'S ALREADY DONE FOR YOU. PRESTO. Again, to keep myself from looking childish, I'd pair this with a pair of cropped, cigarette-style trousers or dark, distressed skinny jeans. And heels, of course.

Then there's this shirt:

Layered under a sweater, it allows just the right amount of "fun" to peek out (plus, I'm pleased to see it comes in sizes XL and XXL, which I could hopefully squeeze into).

Let's move on to the accessories.

Gap calls this a "pencil case". I call it a clutch (also, what kid needs a leather pencil case? It's all PVC for my future unborn child. Sorry, future unborn child.).

Instead of "playing hooky" from school (which certainly should not be encouraged - cough, cough), I would like to play hooky from work, or life in general.

Of course, there's this fun slogan tote (which I could potentially wear and pretend it's an existential question, rather than a literal whine. Like, "Are we [collective "we"] there [like, that "place" in life] yet?") that I'd take around with me on the weekend.

So, if you see a woman rummaging in the racks of Gap Kids Covent Garden, please say "hi" (or whisper "hi"). That'll be me.


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Homemade Ice Cream @ Udderlicious, Islington

My dad and I have a tradition. After dinner, he'll look at me and bellow, "BLIZZARD!" Followed by my favorite flavor: "Banana cream pie!" Then he'd disappear for 20 minutes or so and bring me back a Dairy Queen blizzard, which I'd eat until I felt sick and watch the remaining melt into a puddle at the bottom of the cup.

Our tradition started in college, when I went home for the summer and Christmas, and it's continued since then, but really, getting ice cream together was always an activity I did with my dad as a kid. Then, it was Baskin Robbins, where I ordered vanilla ice cream every single time -  that is, until I felt sick eating it one day and never ordered it again. After that, it was mint chocolate chip ice cream, which I ordered every single time until my mom remarked in passing that it "tasted like toothpaste". And I never ordered it again.

But anyway, I love ice cream - mostly because it's delicious, but also because it reminds me of my dad.

Erin, a reader of this blog (and now friend!), first introduced me to Udderlicious on Islington's Upper Street after we had dinner together at Ottolenghi (just a few doors down). We sat in the window and watched people go by while we chatted about all things West Coast (she's from San Diego) and ate our waffle cones filled with scoops of salted caramel and dark chocolate sorbet.

Not that I needed any excuse, but it's been unseasonably warm in London for the past two days, and after eating the leftovers from Alison's amazing, magical, healing stew last night, I had a sudden hankering for ice cream. Of course, while Dairy Queen is a 8-minute drive away back home, Udderlicious is about a 20-minute walk. But no matter - we had stew to digest and ice cream to "work" for!

We arrived to what seemed to be a fan gathering of sorts: the woman in front of us was gushing about how there's "no other ice cream shop like it!" in London and that Udderlicious had "made her day" with their selection of flavors (and I thought I was enthusiastic!). The next man in line ordered a large tub and said his "kids couldn't get enough" of the store's handmade ice cream, asking what their plans were to expand to other locations. By the time it was my turn to order, I was at a loss as to what praises I could offer, besides the feeble, "Um, can I take some photos for my blog?"

Of course, there were a lot of things I could say about why I love Udderlicious: their flavors, for one thing, are scrumptious. I'm a die-hard fan of their salted caramel but the peanut butter, wild cherry, and Nutella options always make it difficult to decide. Secondly, they make brownie and banana sundaes with hot chocolate or caramel sauce - similar to my beloved banana splits back home. 

And finally, it's a lovely space to sit in - just look at those colorful pom poms and bunting! I dare you not to be cheered up by those decorations. John and I ate our cones sitting on a sweet wooden swing, which was a romantic way to end the evening, considering we'd eaten at home that night. It also made me realize that doing something outside our ordinary routine of catching up on emails, watching TV, etc. after dinner is necessary and fun.

What about you? Are you an ice cream fan?


Monday, October 27, 2014

Cornfields and Miniature Horses: A Country Walk in Wistow, Leicestershire

At the end of last week, I'd managed to cough so hard while I was recuperating from a nasty cold, I tore one of my intercostal muscles - making every slight move agonizing. Tearfully, I texted my mother-in-law to ask if we could visit for the weekend, knowing that she'd take good care of us.

So, after sleeping in until 11:00 a.m. on Saturday (which is unusually late for us), I went downstairs to find this breakfast feast awaiting us, which - very nearly - brought me to tears. Even as an adult, it feels so good to be looked after by a parent.

My head was still feeling fuzzy and blocked from my cold, so I initially rejected the idea of a country walk, but the fresh air was tempting and we set off for Wistow, a small village in Leicestershire less than a 10-minute drive away.

One thing I love about country walks in the UK is that you can walk for miles and miles across rolling hills and fields filled with sheep and cows without any disturbance. In Leicestershire especially, walks are clearly marked and signposted, so you know which fields you can and can't enter (I feel like there'd be a high chance of getting shot at if I was doing the same in the States).

I missed the fall foliage we usually have in the US (trees near us in the city are sparse, though I'm sure there were some spectacular colors in London's parks), so I was happy to come across my first scattering of autumn leaves during our walk.

We also saw this incredible cornfield, which John and I decided to get lost in for a while (fun fact: Wistow's also home to a maize maze, which we didn't make it to, but I'd love to visit!).

Within minutes, my head started clearing and my ear - which had been blocked for three days (that's three days of me saying, "I'm sorry? Excuse me?" to everyone who spoke to me) - popped! I whooped with joy and claimed the country air had cured me of all ailments (except for my rib, which was still excruciatingly painful).

Actually, I believe my exact words were, "This is the best walk of my LIFE!" You know, in that true American, over-enthusiastic way. "You know what would make it a lot better though?" I continued. "If there were, like, sheep, just like, here." And I gestured to the place beside me.

Of course, that happened, since there seemed to be a sheep speed-dating event nearby (see the ram in the middle? The ladies are alllll over that).

But, of course, the walk got even better when we ran into these AH-DORABLE miniature horses, who wanted to play.

They both stuck their heads through the fence as I rubbed the black one's head and he curiously sniffed my leg.


I almost passed out from over-excitement; they were the cutest things I'd ever seen!

Afterwards, we headed off to Wistow Rural Centre, where John and I picked up this foxy doormat as a homage to our garden friend. It's kind of amazing.

And of course, Alison didn't let us leave without filling our stomachs with a delicious Cumbrian beef stew and a blackberry apple crumble (she packed us leftovers too, which I can't wait to eat tonight!).

It was such a wonderful weekend and a great escape from the city life in London - especially since John and I were feeling a little less than our usual selves. There's something about being taken care of like children that made me feel so sentimental! I realized (as I was lying prone on her couch watching a re-run of Sherlock on BBC - another one of my wishes that came true that weekend!) that Alison really hasn't treated me any differently today than she did 9 years ago when I first stayed over at her house.

Gratitude doesn't even begin to describe how I feel.

Friday, October 24, 2014

#ZomatoMeetUp @ Pont St, With Executive Chef Sophie Michell

I've been so excited to share this with you! Last night, I was treated (along with 19 other bloggers) to an extravagant foodie-focused evening at Pont St restaurant in the heart of Belgravia as part of Zomato's #ZomatoMeetUp - a chance for food-obsessed bloggers to meet, eat, and talk all things food related. And thankfully, I'd recovered from my cold enough to regain my sense of taste so I could enjoy all the ah-mazing food and drinks (otherwise I would have probably cried).

Upon arrival, we were served two delicious cocktails from Pont St's bar, a Lavender Mogul and Winter Alexander, before being whisked off to the kitchen below for a demonstration by the restaurant's Executive Chef, Sophie Michell - currently the UK's youngest female Executive Chef. Aside from running The Gorgeous Kitchen at Heathrow's Terminal 2 and penning three successful cookery books, Sophie has also served as private chef to Claudia Schiffer and Leonardo Di Caprio. NBD, then.

Downstairs, Sophie described the process she uses to make her pasta dough, before hand rolling it out (with a few eager assistants - I stook in the back, mute and dumb at the sheer novelty factor of it all) into paper thin sheets and deftly spooning in some butternet squash filling to make perfectly formed ravioli, accompanied by the sound of 20 SLRs and camera phones snapping away.

Afterwards, we headed back upstairs to our table, where Alexandra (Zomato Community Manager and blogger) had crafted adorable place settings with Instagram-inspired menus and a social media directory of who's who for the evening (totally ingenious).

We were then treated to a gastronomic feast of starters, which included taste sensations such as maple & bourbon glazed pork belly, beef carpaccio with truffle cream and parmesan crisps (my favorite!), scallop carpaccio, grilled oysters, hot cheese balls with quince jelly (my second favorite!), and a beautifully presented slate of crudité composed of baby seasonal vegetables served with a delicious, tangy dip.

Sidenote: the best thing about eating with food bloggers is the unspoken understanding that no one dares touch a plate until everyone's snapped a photo to their satisfaction (I often come under fire for this when dining as a couple and get an exasperated, "Can I eat now?" from the other side of the table - sorry, John!). In fact, no one was shy about passing their camera down the table to ask for assistance in photographing a slider from just the right angle.

I'd been looking forward to my main course of lobster tagliatelle all week and I wasn't disappointed: generous portions of succulent lobster mixed in with a homemade tagliatelle cooked perfectly al dente brought back memories of our recent vacation in Sicily and was the perfect example of decadent comfort food (something I definitely needed after struggling with this cold for a week).

But then.


I think all 20 of us let out a collective gasp of shock around the table when we saw the selection of desserts: doughnut balls with salted caramel and vanilla milkshake, flourless chocolate cake, nutmeg custard tart with bay leaf poached apricots, cinnamon rice pudding with apple compote and clotted cream ... the list seemed endless.

The flourless chocolate cake was divine, and I couldn't resist sneaking in a second bite! My favorite dessert, however, had to be the madeleines (complete with delicate, edible gold foil) and lemon curd, which I'd seen in preparation downstairs in the kitchen earlier that evening.

Though the posset was nearly too sweet for me, it was the perfect accompaniment to the madeleine and the presentation made the confections almost too pretty to eat (that flower!).

Aside from the fabulous food, it was so much fun to meet bloggers with similar interests and talk about how we started, why we write what we do, and our different reasons for putting our thoughts down in this particular form of digital digest. It made me think about how food is such a terrific connector; it brings people together in a way that no other activity can. Why else are family dinners so fun and important?

My night ended rather unglamorously as I floated on cloud nine through the pretty streets of Belgravia when I observed an inebriated man throw up on the bus (right next to the driver), then watched as unsuspecting passengers proceeded to walk through the vomit as they stepped aboard. It definitely didn't help that I was Instagramming a photo of raw oysters at the time. Oh, blogger life.

I was generously hosted by Zomato and Pont St. last evening. Special thanks to Zomato UK and Sophie Michell for this unique opportunity!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Tourists, I'll Help You Take A Selfie

There's nothing more painful than watching someone attempt to take a selfie from afar (okay, I can think of a few things more painful, but ...); that outstretched arm, the leaning back, the repeated attempts. I see it every day: on my way to work, after yoga, when I'm out to dinner. Usually, it's on a bridge - Waterloo Bridge, to be exact. I don't blame them. The view of Southbank is beautiful from there. And, at the right angle, you can probably get the London Eye as well as the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben all in the background.

Last Thursday, Caroline and I were debriefing our attendance at the Frieze Art Fair over a plateful of Pizza Express dough balls (garlic butter FTW) when something beyond her shoulder caught my attention: a man was trying to take a selfie of his entire table of four with his phone and clearly not succeeding. After the fourth painful attempt, I finally interrupted Caroline mid-sentence by touching her arm and saying, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I have to help this guy." 

The secret to asking people if they'd like you to take their photo is not to act awkward - otherwise, it just becomes super awkward for everyone (I only mention this because I have been that awkward person). So without really thinking about it, I approached their table and breezily asked, "Do you want me to take that for you?" "Oh please!" came the grateful reply. And after two snaps, they came away with a perfectly good group photo framed by their pizza Romanas - no chopped heads or long, extended arms in sight (it also helped that he had an amazing camera phone). 

I get it. Not every event warrants a group photo, but sometimes, you just want to commemorate the experience - freeze that moment in time. 

I remember observing a family of four standing in front of us in line at Comiso airport, Sicily. Father and son were on their way to London; mother and other son were staying behind. They must have taken four or five photos. Ordinarily, I might have been judgmental, questioning the necessity of taking airport selfies, but then I pictured the woman flipping through the photos on her phone with her friends at lunch, showing off her husband and son on their way to London. I thought about those photos being printed and placed in an album somewhere; I thought of the son showing his children someday, that photo of him and his dad about to board the plane for whatever mysterious adventure they were going on. It made me nostalgic for the times my family was "sent off" at the airport at the conclusion of our annual visits to Hong Kong. Our entire extended family would gather at Hong Kong airport together and take photos: the little ones sitting on the floor, the men looking stoic and stiff, the women smiling slightly with upturned corners of their mouths.

Of course, those were the times before selfie-sticks or camera phones - or even digital cameras - for that matter. Film cameras were passed around from hand to hand, before prints finally appeared in our home in Small Town, Washington a few months later with the par avion sticker firmly planted on the front of the envelope they arrived in, having traveled over 6,500 miles to reach us.

So the next time I see someone struggling to take a selfie, I won't hesitate to step in and help. Maybe they're traveling solo and want to send a photo back to family and friends. Maybe it's a couple celebrating their engagement, or honeymoon, or anniversary. Maybe someone just wants a photo of themselves in front of a pretty backdrop.

What about you? What's your selfie style? Would you step in to help or continue on your way?


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Hot Dogs and Prosecco at The Delaunay Because We Want To

Yesterday, we met Joe, Jodi, and their sweetie-pie of a baby girl, Elizabeth, at The Delaunay for brunch. When we got there, I realized that I didn't feel like having any of the "typical" brunch options, even though they all sounded amazing (in particular, the "Viennese Breakfast" was tempting: smoked ham, salami, artisan Gouda, boiled egg, and a pretzel). Actually, I wanted a hot dog and fries (and, as it turned out, so did John and Jodi - Joe opted for a lobster roll). And, even though it was only 11:30, we wanted some prosecco.

So we ordered a bottle.

When our hot dogs and side of green beans arrived, we all dug in with our hands (including the beans, which we picked at, one strand at a time) even though we'd been provided with an appropriate hot-dog slicing knife and cutlery. Call us barbaric, but you can't name an item on the menu "New York hot dog" and expect us to eat it daintily with a knife and fork!

But this is one of the reasons why I love The Delaunay: no one blinks an eye. It's an elegant restaurant in a fabulous location (we once sat at the table next to author Hilary Mantel - the play, Wolf Hall, based on her book of the same name, was being performed next door at Aldwych Theatre). But it's certainly not pretentious - you can easily order half a dozen Jersey rock oysters or chicken noodle soup. It's a place where I feel like I can be myself. I've been for dinner and afternoon tea as well, and enjoyed each occasion. Service is courteous and friendly, and there's a great, buzzing atmosphere. Plus, the dining room is beautiful - we talked about how we could easily spend a whole day there (though I'm not sure how much the staff would love having us there!), enjoying a leisurely breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

We finished up our unconventional brunch with warm apple, marzipan and poppy seed strudel with vanilla ice cream before heading off to Covent Garden in search of some (early) Christmas presents.

Next time you're in the West End, I'd highly recommend stopping into The Delaunay (or even The Delaunay Counter - a more laid-back version of the restaurant - for tea and cake next door) for a pink grapefruit ... or sea bass. The menu is your oyster (pun intended!).

Square Meal

Thursday, October 16, 2014

London, You Ruin My Shoes

There are times when I hate London. There are instances when I curse it under my breath, and then there are times when I scream about it on the street. Usually, it's when I'm carrying two bags of groceries from Sainsbury's on my way home from work and it's dark and wet outside, my hair's sticking to my face because of the wind, three completely full 38 buses pass me without stopping because, well, they're completely full, and this results in perfectly reasonable grown-ups pushing and shoving like a group of pre-schoolers when a half-full 38 finally arrives after 15 minutes of patiently waiting.

Most recently? I've hated London for ruining every single pair of nice shoes I've ever owned, including this pretty pair above - which I only purchased a few weeks ago during my trip to New York. Repeated trip-ups on uneven sidewalks have resulted in not only stubbed toes and a lot of swearing (I'm swearing like a sailor these days), but scuffing on the beloved gold detail of these perfectly good loafers (btw, New York was like sidewalk paradise - no raised ridges that seem to catch you up on purpose and then silently cackle with an evil laugh when you nearly fall on your face because you didn't lift your leg like a ridiculous, marching soldier).

The cobbler knows me by name now.

When they see me, my parents (especially my mom) constantly bemoan the state of my shoes, simply because they're not used to seeing well-worn shoes. Of course, there's not a lot of scuffing that can happen between walking from a building through a parking lot to your car, where I'm from. But in London, even a short, 8-minute walk to the bus stop can result in trips, scuffs, and - if you're not careful during wet weather - an entire shoe being drenched in a muddy puddle. Not to mention all the fabulous dog owners who don't clean up after their dogs and seem to pick equally fabulous dark (I kid you not), shadowy spots on purpose for their dogs to shit in once night falls.

It's gotten to the point now that when I overhear tourists saying, "Oh look, how cute - COBBLESTONES!" I start laughing maniacally because I hate cobblestones so damn much. Cute on a postcard, not cute when you're trying to navigate slippery stones and your bus has just whizzed past in front of your eyes.

I see you, rolling your eyes at me. "Why don't you just wear a pair of shoes to walk in, like, sneakers and then change them when you get to work?" you ask. Oh, yes. I do that too. I'm the master of surreptitiously side-stepping into a dark corner and swiftly slipping off my heels into a pair of flip-flops or New Balances. But sometimes it isn't convenient to carry two pairs of shoes with you at all times, and sometimes I just want to wear my nice shoes out - because they're nice to look at.

What are your commuting woes? Do concrete sidewalk gremlins also lurk in your path, or is it just me?

Monday, October 13, 2014

Stamp Collection

Happy Monday! How was your weekend? We had a quiet one but still managed to socialize with some friends, which was nice. On Sunday, we went to this production of Shakespeare's Henry V at The Proud Archivist. I was totally skeptical before we arrived, but once we got into the swing of thigns, I ended up really enjoying it.

I just wanted to share with you these beautiful stamps I received this morning from a publisher I work with in Singapore, which brought back a huge sense of nostalgia for me. I especially love the "Vanishing Trades" stamps on the left, featuring a cobbler and a goldsmith.

Did you (or do you) collect stamps? I did. I took it quite seriously! I remember cutting out stamps from my mom and dad's mail and soaking them in water for days (to get the adhesive off) and pressing them between heavy books after they were dry so that they'd lay flat.

For Christmas one year, I asked for a proper stamp album and my dad bought me a beautiful hardback book with delicate rows of transparent sleeves to slip my stamps in (that's one thing I loved about my parents: they always took my requests seriously!). I'd spend days in my room, obsessively arranging and rearranging the stamps by country, color, and size. My mom would buy me collector's editions from the local post office, which I also loved, but they weren't as special to me as the ones I "discovered" myself.

Looking back, I think that collecting stamps was my way of (figuratively) traveling the world. I loved collecting stamps from Europe and countries like Finland, Estonia, or further afield. I stared long and hard at each of the stamps, looking at the pictures within them and wondering what life was like in that place. Most of all, I just marvelled that a stamp traveled all that way around the world and eventually made its way to me, sitting in my little room in Small Town, USA.

I think I'll save these stamps from Singapore and add them to my collection back home when I visit during Christmas.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Lulu Guinness for Uniqlo: Help Me Decide!

Happy Friday and TGIF, indeed! I'm absolutely in love with these sweatshirts by Lulu Guinness for for Uniqlo. The problem is, I can't decide which one(s) to buy! They're an online exclusive only, otherwise I'd try them on in store.

Help me decide? I'm veering towards the car and the burgundy eyes, but I asked for a vote on Instagram and the hearts/lips/stripes is winning so far.

Let me know your thoughts! (At £19.90, they're kind of a steal!)

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

An Agriturismo Stay at Masseria Susafa, Sicily

Would you ever consider an agritourism (farm) stay on your next holiday or vacation? We did it in Sicily and it was one of the best travel experiences I've ever had. Masseria Susafa is a farm house located deep in the Sicilian countryside (near Polizzi Generosa) owned and run by the Saeli-Rizzuto family for over five generations. Today, it functions as a hotel with 13 rooms and a restaurant, plus plenty of places to lounge around and relax, including a gorgeous pool (for unbearably hot weather) and a wine bar converted from the original millstone (where wine was produced) for cooler days.

I know, I know, stifle your laughter: I'm the last person you'd expect to see communing with pigs (my idea of hiking attire consists of Steve Madden rain boots with contrasting zips and a Tommy Hilfiger trench - neither of which are waterproof or slip-proof for walking up hills, for that matter - topped with an oversized pair of Michael Kors sunglasses), but there they were: sniffing around our car when we arrived.

We were lucky: the other agriturismo resorts were fully booked by the time we decided we wanted to escape the over-populated, touristy avenues of Taormina and stay in the country somewhere. At the final hour (literally, around 11 p.m. before the day we left Taormina), I stumbled upon this Telegraph review of Masseria Susafa and saw that they had one room left. I snapped it up. At £90 per night, it was considerably cheaper than our previous stays in Syracuse and Taormina.

Not to mention, it had a pretty magnificent (but freezing cold!) pool, with panoramic views of the Sicilian countryside.

In the summer and fall, the rolling hills are barren and dry. But in the spring (around May, we were told), everything turns green again and you're guaranteed green pastures of epic Teletubby proportions (as to why that's the first thing I think of when I think of green rolling hills, I have no idea).

The drive there can be a little tricky: our TomTom was quite old, so the map didn't recognize the address. Luckily, we had an iPhone with free data, so Google Maps helped us out on the last 10k or so. I'd read on a few Tripadvisor reviews that the final 4k stretch to the hotel was a little harrowing, due to the condition of the roads. They were basically fine, except for quite a few large and very deep pot-holes, or what John dubbed as "major bottoming-out territory". 

But once we arrived, we were stunned by the majestic scenery that surrounded us - it's just so breathtakingly beautiful. Hills and valleys can be seen for miles and miles, with clouds settling in some of the valleys early in the morning. When the clouds roll in at desk, creating a thick, foggy mist, you're unable to see anything beyond the farm for a while until it clears.

The hotel's rooftop terrace was an incredible place to soak up all the views and relax with a glass of wine and a book. The only sounds I could hear up there were the low, musical jangles of the cowbells of the cows grazing below. At night, it was completely silent, which took some getting used to coming from London!

The rooms are rustic charm at its best: decorated simply but beautifully, with beds made with tightly tucked corners and original dark, wooden beams angled from the ceiling above. Doors to each room were left open during the day (if you wished) separated from the outdoors by a light curtain blowing gently in the breeze to let just the right amount of sunlight in.

But where Masseria Susafa truly shines is at its restaurant. Housed in what used to be the farm's granary, service at "Il Granaio" is headed up by a superb and friendly small team, with a kindly, older lady who only spoke Italian and whom I absolutely adored (mostly because she once intuited that I wanted more of the insanely delicious bread and rattled off something in Italian, of which I only caught the word pane, and nodded my head vigorously to in response).

Dishes are prepared using produce grown either on-site or locally and, of course, made with Susafa's biological extra virgin olive oil (yes, it has its own website). Menu prices are very reasonable (between £9 - £12 for a primi course and slightly more for a secondi, as I recall) and the food is just ... delicious. Easily the best we'd had on the entire trip.

This salad of nectarine, toasted pine nuts, salami, raisin, and rocket (or arugula, for my fellow Americans) drizzled with a honey and balsamic dressing was divine. On our second night of dining there, I loved the fresh tagliatelle and ragu dish I had the night before so much, I ordered it again (I know, so unoriginal, but I just had to!).

During the day, we read by the pool or took long walks in the neighboring countryside (though I got super creeped out by something I termed the "zombie house" - ask me about that at some point!). Well, we tried to take long walks. John's idea of a "walk" was charging up a steep and prickly hill while I shouted at him from below, enraged, "This isn't a WALK; this is, like, fucking STAIRMASTER!" I'm rude like that. Also: there were a lot of flies. Everywhere.

But these were the views we had when we got to the top:

Pretty worth the trek, even though I sulked and stomped around practically the whole way up. We had lovely weather for the majority of our stay, until it started raining when we left - perfect timing, really.

When it was time to go, I felt so sad! I loved the peaceful tranquility of Masseria Susafa, but what I loved even more was the downright honest and genuine hospitality we were shown during our stay - something that seemed to be missing from our prior visits to Syracuse and Taormina.

We hope to return in the spring, when the hills are like Teletubby-land, but I'm not sure how likely that is to happen. I'd love to take my dad with us next time, as he'd absolutely love it there. 

What do you think? Would you stay here?


Tuesday, October 7, 2014


Buongiorno! We've just returned from an absolutely magical week away in Sicily - we had an amazing time. Have you been? It was our first, "proper" vacation together this year, believe it or not, and I'd been so looking forward to it. We flew into Comiso and rented a car, touring the Ionian coast before embarking on an agriturismo (farm-stay) at a beautiful resort in Central Sicily and spending our final evening in the pretty, awe-inspiring hillside town of Modica.

Here are the highlights, if you'd like to see!

I'm a huge beach bum when it comes to vacations - are you? My favorite holidays are probably the beach-oriented trips we took to Santorini, Thailand, and Vietnam. I love falling asleep in the sun and triumphantly peeling off my swimsuit to reveal tan lines at the end of the day!

Our first stop in Sicily was Syracuse, which is composed of two parts: the mainland and Ortigia, the historical centre of Syracuse. We stayed at the gorgeous Musciara Siracusa Resort, which had its own private beach with dreamy furnishings like the veranda above and the comfiest beach-side pillows ever.

The first thing I did when we arrived was ...

... order a huge bowl of spaghetti alle vongele. How could I resist? I was in Sicily! The clams were sweet and delicious and the tomatoes were out of this world. Cooked simply with a few ingredients (garlic, white wine, clams, parsley, tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil), spaghetti alle vongele is one of my favorite dishes.

Afterwards, we strolled into Ortigia and got (intentionally) lost in the maze of alleyways that opened up into courtyards like the one above, until an elderly Sicilian lady came out from behind a laundry line to point us in the right direction. "Grazie!" we shouted over our shoulders as we found our way out. "Prego!" came the immediate response. I was charmed.

We continued walking until we reached the Piazza Duomo and found the Fountain of Diana at the Piazza Archimede, which looked spectacular in the sun.

By then, I was getting a little hot and bothered (it was gloriously sunny!), so we stopped for some gelato. I'd read on a blog before our trip that Sicilians often liked to enjoy their gelato sandwiched in warm brioche - for breakfast! I couldn't believe it, but when I saw it on the menu, I knew I had to try it.

Let me tell you: it was the most delicious ice cream sandwich I've ever had. The gelato was pistachio with melted dark chocolate and the brioch was warm, sweet, a little sticky, and very chewy. John had serious food envy, but he helped me finish it in between licks of his own gelato cone.

After another night's stay in Syracuse, we headed off to Taormina, on Sicily's east coast.

Can I just say? John is fantastic at driving in other countries (actually, he's just a great driver in general). He kept a cool head even when cars behind us practically leapt into our exhaust pipe and drove at inexplicably high speeds or when an exit turned out to be an abrupt right turn off a major freeway. I tend to hyperventilate when I can't set the GPS correctly.

In Taormina, we stayed at the beautiful Hotel Villa Belvedere, a grand hotel built in 1902 with magnificent views of Mt. Etna and the Bay of Naxos. Also, their pool had a 100-year-old palm tree growing from an island in the middle of it - how amazing is that? I spent a lot of time floating on my back, looking up at the palm trees and the clear, blue sky.

The next morning, we got up and (literally) ran to the Teatro Greco, an ancient Greek theatre, before the busloads of tourists and cruise groups could descend. And I'm so glad we did. This was the view when we ran to the top of the amphitheatre:

Breathtaking, isn't it? Especially with Mt. Etna looming in the background. Could you imagine watching a performance here (sadly, no events were taking place during our visit, otherwise we would have gotten tickets!) with the sun setting? Just incredible. It's one of my favorite memories of the trip.

From there, we hiked 5k up to Castelmola - a village built around a ruined castle near one of those peaks you see in the photo above. (Side note: J. Crew, Gap, New Balance, and Longchamp are not appropriate attire to hike up a rugged mountainside. Not really.)

We found this empty, quiet little church near the top - the view was breathtaking.

And rewarded ourselves with a glass of granita limone - a refreshing, lemon-flavored shaved ice dessert that made our hot trek to the top worth it!

That night, as we walked back to Hotel Villa Belvedere after another delicious meal, we couldn't decide where to go next in our trip. We hadn't booked anything for the Thursday or Friday before we left, preferring to leave those days free so we could decide closer to the time. Initially, this put me in a bit of a panic (I'm a planner and a control-freak), but I could see why it was a brilliant idea on John's part: this way, we could go with what we felt like and not be committed to a particular place just because we had booked it in advance! I'm really getting the hang of this last-minute thing ...

We knew we wanted to stay in the countryside somewhere but ... where? The places we had researched before we left were now fully booked. I started to panic a little. Taormina was nice, but just too touristy - I couldn't imagine staying for another day, let alone two. I also wanted a break from the hustle and bustle of cities and towns. Finally, I stumbled upon a review of Masseria Susafa, an agriturismo resort in Central Sicily, near Polizzi Generosa. The next day, while sitting by the pool, I booked it!

When we arrived, I couldn't believe how picturesque it was: butterflies and bees fed on the lavender bushes by the rooms, which were originally farmers' houses, now converted into individual hotel rooms with comfy, rustic, farmhouse charm. I don't want to post too much here as I'd love to write a separate post about our stay. It was really incredible and I'd highly recommend you try an agriturismo stay if you're travelling through Sicily.

After two nights of the best food we'd had on the trip so far and the tranquil surroundings of Masseria Susafa, we regretfully packed up our bags and left for Modica. It rained to match my mood as I was so sad to leave the farm!

Funny story: on our way to Modica, I really, really, really needed to use the bathroom. I regretted having that cup of coffee and juice at breakfast. "It's only an hour to our next stop," said John. "Do you think you could wait that long?" I nodded bravely, but it soon became clear that he'd have to pull over - like, immediately. So we found a little lay-by (not a rest area!) where a very British-looking older couple had also pulled over to consult a map. Without a glance in their direction, I tore off towards a bush, which I swear had been designed for such pit-stop emergencies (it was a good height and perfectly angled away from the road). Desperate times.

To cut up the journey to Modica a bit, we stopped off to see the mosaics at Villa Romana del Casale, a Roman villa constructed in the 4th century. Although the pathways were pretty heavily blocked by large tour groups, we still caught some excellent glimpses of the intricate mosaics that lined the floors of the villa. My favorites were the "bikini girls", who are depicted playing sports such as discus and weight-lifting (those dumbbells ... I die). Nice abs, right?

By the time we arrived in Modica, it had stopped raining and the sun started to peek out of the clouds. We stayed at an Airbnb which was delightful and centrally located on the main street in Modica's Old Town, Corso Umberto I.

The sweeping, panoramic views of the rooftops in Modica were utterly breathtaking.

This is what both John and I had envisioned Sicily to be like, so we were caught off guard when we arrived in the modern, busy cities of Syracuse and Taormina. In contrast, this lively hillside town had an air of sophistication and character, both which really came out at night when people emerged for their evening stroll (the passagiata) before mealtime.

And dinner is late! We tried to make a reservation for dinner at 7 pm in Taormina and the concierge at our hotel apologetically told us that it was a bit early ... 8 pm is the typically the earliest that most restaurants open and most Sicilians don't eat until 9 pm. I was stifling my yawns in this sweet little Modica restaurant when a baby in its stroller was brought in, followed by a 3-year-old and his parents. The 3-year-old sat quietly in a grown-up chair while his parents carefully considered the wine menu in silence! I was super impressed.

Modica was so pretty and charming - I wish we had another day there to ourselves, but unfortunately, we had to fly back to London early the next morning.

Before we went, I snapped a few more photos:

The door and shutters of the houses and apartments in Modica are just phenomenal; they're, like, real versions of those imitations you find in so-called "shabby chic" furniture stores. I couldn't get enough of the intricate wood carvings and detailed brass door-knockers. And the colours of the walls made the whole city look as though it had an Instagram filter applied to it - all light, sandy browns, warm rose-gold tones, and sea-foam greens. Just gorgeous.

Cats. Were. Everywhere.

So, that's it really. If you're planning a trip to Sicily, let me know! And if you've been before, tell me where you went!

Thanks so much for reading, and, ciao!
© angloyankophile

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