Category Archives: Uncategorized

48 hours in Hong Kong

First published in Sawubona Magazine – July 2019 edition

Twenty years ago and before, at a time when an incursion into the Mainland was too forbidding for most, Hong Kong offered a précised and sanitised ‘Chinese experience’.  For travellers and traders alike it was a window to China.  This view of things is now a footnote in history, completely outdated, redundant: the world has shrunk and liberalised China is on our doorstep, readily accessible.  The territory’s days as a cheap destination are similarly long gone – the shopping’s still good, but don’t expect the fabled knock-down prices of the past, and as for the rest – food, accommodation, entertainment – you’ll by and large be paying top dollar.  But despite these changes, or maybe because of them, Hong Kong is a sexier and more rollicking ride than ever before.  Its essence, as a confluence of East and West, continues to define its course, but not in any cartoonish sense.  Instead it has evolved into an established hybrid, both reflective and independent of its progenitors – an inimitable, compelling amalgam of cool sophistication, warm hospitality, and vibrant energy.  The place just keeps raising its (gripping!) game.  For a visitor with a few days to fill there’s little to beat it.

Stay

Your lodgings can make or break a trip, so ensure the former with an astute selection.  You’ll struggle to find a better choice than the Island Shangri-La, the pre-eminent scion of a home-grown group, and the epitome of unpretentious refinement.  The typical benefits of a great hotel are superbly delivered – large rooms, lavish breakfasts, premium facilities, with the skyscraper-surrounded pool-deck a splendid highlight, especially in a city known for having more of them than any other in the world – but it’s with the finer touches that the hotel really excels: from the traditional welcome tea on arrival, beautifully presented in an insulated tea caddy, and the uber-comfortable mattresses and linen, developed by Simmon’s and Frette specifically for Shangri-La, to the day-of-the-week inscribed carpets in the lifts, and the L’Occitane and Acqua di Parma toiletries, they amplify the accommodation to an indulgent celebration.   The hotel houses eight restaurants on site, including the Michelin-starred Summer Palace, but it’s Restaurant Petrus that’s perhaps the star attraction.  Set on the 56th floor, in elegant, conducive surroundings (the ceiling frescoes and piano-accompanied strings live large), with breathtaking views over Victoria Harbour, the place offers classical fine dining, fine wining fare, but with just enough of an edge to stir the imagination.  Sample the green pea tart with yoghurt, meringue and coriander for dessert.

Island Shangri-La, Pacific Place, Supreme Court Rd, Central, Hong Kong

+852 2877 3838

Move

Taxis are plentiful and relatively affordable, but it’s often quicker and more convenient, especially when crossing from island to mainland and vice-versa, to use Hong Kong’s outstanding public transport system, one of the most effective and user-friendly worldwide, encompassing buses, trains, trams, and ferries.  The Octopus card, which you should definitely invest in on arrival, is probably the world’s leading fare collection and contactless smartcard payment system (and the model upon which London’s Oyster card was based), allows you to breeze on and off for the duration of your visit without worrying  about buying individual tickets.

See

Hong Kong is intense.  Visually spectacular, with a compact frame of sea, city, and mountain, and densely constituted, with its bustling population of enterprising people on the go, there is no shortage of things to see and do.  In geography there are some resonating parallels with Cape Town.  Victoria Peak, like Table Mountain, offers a spectacular vantage point from which to view and contemplate the city, and indeed the whole of Hong Kong Island on the walks around its circumference.  It’s accessible by foot for the fit and energetic, or otherwise by tram.  The Southern District, like our Southern Peninsula, is dotted with picturesque day-tripping towns – Aberdeen, Stanley and Repulse Bay notably – all easily accessible via the excellent public transport network.  Aberdeen in particular is something unique.  Historically the channel separating its settlements was home to a floating village of fisherfolk.  The boats remain, a ragtag but impressive fleet numbering in the hundreds and bearing testimony to this heritage, although fewer and fewer people still reside aboard permanently.  The area is also renowned for its cheap and cheerful fish ball noodles – test your chopsticks technique on the rendition at Nam Kee Noodle on Main Road.

 The Peak Tram Lower Terminus, Garden Road, Central, Hong Kong

+852 2522 0922

 Exchange Square Bus Terminus, Ground floor, Exchange Square, 8 Connaught Place,

Central (Bus 70 to Aberdeen, from Aberdeen Bus 73 to Stanley via Repulse Bay)

 Nam Kee Noodle, Shop 1-3, G/F, 208 Aberdeen Main Rd, Aberdeen

+852 2552 2731

 Drink

A dark passage, a nondescript staircase, and an unmarked door.  This is the low-key entranceway to Stockton, one of Hong Kong’s coolest bars – a pre-emptive measure maybe against intrusion by the roving bands of Jack the Lads from neighbouring Lan Kwai Fong, Hong Kong’s notorious party district.  Or other random arrivals.  If you’re not in the know, clearly you shouldn’t be here.  Named for Hunter Stockton Thompson, reporter, writer, reveller, the place is inspired by literary themes and influences, from its seasonal cocktail menu, the latest being a dive into Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (featuring drinks such as “The Berry Picker”), to its eclectic collection of vintage furniture and decorations, allusions to a private library or a reading room.  You get the sense that everything here has been well thought-out and deeply considered: it’s a place of substance for people of substance.  There are intimate crevices and alcoves, a thronging bar, a “secret” cigar den (known as the “Rake Room”), a discerning selection of fine liquors, a toilet with a two-way mirror (!!), and a menu featuring unusual delicacies like duck scotch eggs and cauliflower fritters.  Treat yourself to an exceptional Old Fashioned, hit repeat, and spend a rewarding evening at this superb, atmospheric venue.

Stockton, 32 Wyndham Street, Central, Hong Kong

+852 2898 3788

Eat

You can get the best of pretty much anything you want in Hong Kong, but it’s always a good idea to eat local.  The speciality here is Cantonese, the style of Chinese cuisine most internationally prevalent:  chow mein, sweet and sour pork, and dim sum being typical dishes. There’s a gaping chasm though between what you get at your local Chinese, and the finer exponents available in situ.  Duddell’s, an eatery-cum-art-gallery in the heart of Central on the island, gives you exactly that, the finer if not finest exponents of the style, but with a modern interpretation.  Their dim sum is off-the-scale, the scallop dumplings with caviar and asparagus good enough to break the gauge, whilst their use of non-traditional ingredients such as Wagyu beef and ibérico pork exemplifies Hong Kong’s flair and individuality.  Other highlights include the a double-boiled mushroom, bamboo and cabbage soup, shrimp spring rolls wrapped in rice sheets, a vegetarian ensemble of asparagus, mushrooms, lily buds and black truffles, and their signature chicken dish: marinated, air dried and then deep fried.  The best approach though might be to explore their unlimited Weekend Salon Brunch, with an option for free-flow Veuve.  Go hungry (and thirsty)!

Duddell’s, Level 3, Shanghai Tang Mansion, 1 Duddell Street, Central

+852 2525 9191

Over the bay, in Kowloon, you’ll find the pinnacle of an unpretentious, uniquely Hong Kongese speciality being served from a tiny, humble outlet.  Whilst the physical structure belies the presence of something special, the constant queues give it away.  Mammy Pancake serves egg waffles, a base batter of eggs, sugar, flour and evaporated milk, supplemented with various other ingredients, such as chocolate, peanut butter, and banana, according to taste, prepared on a waffle iron which moulds interconnected little pods (which you break off and eat by hand), and served in a brown bag.  Simple and delicious.  Try it as a breakfast snack, or at any time of the day.

Mammy Pancake, G/F, Carnarvon Mansion, 8-12 Carnarvon Road, Tsim Sha Tsui

 

 

 

Advertisements

Fiddling with flavour

PATRICK LECLEZIO trains a straining spotlight on the invisible ingredients inside your drink.

First published on WineMag.co.za (November 2018).

If you’ve never encountered the term “bonificateur” you’re not alone.  Until last year I hadn’t, and I’d reckon the same goes for most.  Loosely translated from French as “good maker”, prompting the unfortunate inference that some sort of rectification is needed, it denotes a slug of additives introduced into brandy during blending, to influence its flavour or colour or both.  I’d long believed South African brandy to be made only from three ingredients: grapes, yeast, and water – and of course whatever it extracted from its casks during maturation, perhaps better defined as flavouring agents than ingredients – so this sudden edification made me question my convictions, about brandy and beyond.  My purist naiveté was in need of an overhaul.

Brandy casks

The dearth of available information is a telling place to start in weighing up the matter.  Bonificateurs have not been referenced on any packaging, in any promotional or educational materials I’ve come across – with the solitary exception of a fleeting mention in the official industry compendium “Fire Water”, nor during any brandy presentations I’ve attended.  They don’t even feature in the Van Ryn’s Advanced Brandy Course – described in some media as “the most thorough and sophisticated of its kind…” covering “…in-depth all the steps involved in brandy-making…”.  And by this absence I mean of the process and its existence, never mind any specific detail.  When I started with my enquiries one leading distiller told me that the practice was a “very, very sensitive matter “that was “kept as a secret by all manufacturers”.   I needed to get to the nerve centre for further insight.

In this pursuit I was privileged to be hosted recently by Johan Venter and Mare-Loe Prinsloo, Heads of Product and Brandy respectively at Distell (i.e. two leading heavyweights working for the country’s largest brandy producer), for a wide-ranging discussion on the matter during which I questioned if the industry might be hiding this process from consumers, by omission if not actively.  Despite a comprehensive denial, and despite an enjoyable and informative session, the disclosure went so far and no further.  When I asked for an indication of which of their brandies used bonificateurs and which didn’t, I was given some satisfaction on the latter, more on this later, but none on the former, other than being told that it was a minor percentage.  My impression was that they were concerned that this constituent would taint those products identified.  If I’m right then this would explain, if not justify, the perceived silence.

Before going any further I need to clarify, at the risk of being pedantic, that the use of additives, within certain parameters, is entirely legal.  Table 6 of the Liquor Products Act titled “SUBSTANCES WHICH MAY BE ADDED TO LIQUOR PRODUCTS” clearly regulates the practice.   I’ve summarised the additives for brandy in the following list (taken from the latest update of the Act, issued on 2/05/2014): bentonite, caramel, carbon dioxide, concentrated must, dessert wine (seemingly also encompassing fortified wine in practice), filtering aids of inert material, flavourants of vegetable origin or extracts thereof (prune and vanilla extracts being two examples), gelatine, honey, must, potassium ferro cyanide, silicasol, sugar of vegetable origin, tannin if it is not foreign to wine, water, and wood.

I should also stress that this practice is hardly limited to South African brandy.  The use of additives and flavourants is pronounced in many of the classic spirits.  Rum is maligned for its use of added sugars and colourants in particular.  Cognac and Armagnac prolifically use a substance called boise, an oak extract, to mimic additional maturation.  Canadian whisky allows an injection of other wines and spirits of up to 9.09% and in certain cases even more, depending on the nature of the deployment.  Scotch whisky often touts that it doesn’t allow any additives, other than flavourless caramel colouring, but in a sense this is hypocritical: it permits peat smoke, and bourbon, sherry, and all sorts of other wines and spirits to be imbued into its product during malting and maturation respectively, the latter in largely uncontrolled proportions; though, to be fair, whilst they’re not acknowledged as additives these flavouring agents are widely communicated to consumers.

That additives are allowable however, is not the issue.  They are – full stop.  The real questions are whether they’re desirable firstly, and whether their presence and use should be made (more) explicitly transparent.

Let’s tackle the last question first.  Yes!  Undisputedly and emphatically – yes.  There’s a real, growing thirst amongst modern consumers to be educated about their consumption, the denial or manipulation of which would be obstructive and disingenuous.   More importantly direct access to this information is a fundamental right underpinning our freedom.  We should be presented, without having to search for it, with the content and composition of any foodstuffs we consider buying and ingesting, because this awareness has an essential bearing on our ability to protect our health and our interests generally.  I have the right quite simply to know what’s in my drink – whether it’s because of potential allergens, or because I may, for instance, be inclined to pay more for conventionally matured than boise-augmented cognac.

Unfortunately when it comes to alcohol the letter of the law is yet to catch up to its spirit.  Whilst it’s legally required of most foodstuffs, liquor is exempt from having to disclose a list of ingredients (or, quite incredibly, even the presence of “foreign” matter), for seemingly unfathomable reasons.    It may be challenging to consistently define certain elements, such as those deriving from the oak – although the exemption applies to most liquor, whether cask matured or not – but it’s clearly not impossible: the European Commission stated in a March 2017 report that “objective grounds have not been identified that would justify the absence of information on ingredients and nutritional information on alcoholic beverages or a differentiated treatment for some alcoholic beverages”.  The report concludes that change to this effect is imminent.  In fact it is already mandatory to display consumer information about calories, additives, vitamins and microelements on the labels of spirits containers in 13 member states of the EU.

When I questioned an official at our local Department of Agriculture on the topic I was given this response:  “At the moment this is optional, you can indicate the ingredients on the label but it is not compulsive (sic).  The reason for this is that there is not yet any international guideline or requirement for wine or other liquor products.  South African legislation follows international requirements to make sure that we stay up to date, that our labels still complies with the requirements of the overseas countries when we export … If it should become an international requirement to indicate the ingredients on a label, the Liquor Products Act, Act 60 of 1989, will be amended accordingly.”  So whilst the industry has been remiss in respecting our right to this information of its own accord, it ostensibly will to be forced to do so in the medium term.   Good news!  How everyone’s going to react to the sudden appearance of all sorts of unexpected things in their drinks is another matter.

Once transparency is assured, the debate then becomes about whether an allowance for additives is of benefit or detriment: a thorny and complicated matter to unpack.  There is no right or wrong in my opinion, there are only varying perspectives.  One perspective is that if it’s able to contribute positively to flavour, with a result improving what it would otherwise have been, then it must be of benefit.  Another contrasting perspective is that it masks inadequacies, and fosters low standards.  Johan Venter voiced Distell’s brandy-making philosophy as endeavouring to get things right from the start rather than correcting mistakes at the end.  The existence of this recourse though – for any spirit, not just brandy – provokes the exact opposite motivation: you can bet that any short-cuts on offer will be exploited by less principled producers.  The knowledge that shortfalls can be corrected may limit ambition, or may engender the wrong kind of ambition.  Further perspectives concern identity and purity.   Additives introduce the potential for widely varying flavours, narrowing the boundary between diversity, which we want, and divergence, which we don’t.  When I buy yoghurt (read brandy), I want something that tastes and feels like yoghurt, not like milk or cream (read grappa or pisco).  It gives me the context in which I can root and understand my appreciation.  South African brandy regulates its additives precisely, sufficiently one would hope to preclude this risk, but it may not be the case elsewhere.  Canadian whisky’s only real limit to the extent to which permitted additives can be used is a clause stipulating that it should have an “aroma, taste and character generally attributed to Canadian whisky” i.e. it depends on an organoleptic evaluation, which can’t be objective or consistent.

During my meeting at Distell, I was given five brandies to nose and taste: Flight of the Fish Eagle, the potstill component from Klipdrift Premium, Oude Meester 12YO, Van Ryn’s 12YO unfiltered, and a Van Ryn’s 47YO, none of which employ bonificateurs, the intention being to show me these aren’t necessary to make great brandies.  If I needed any convincing, then this did the trick in spades, the experience of the two Van Ryn’s being a particular privilege.  The 12YO is not available for purchase unfiltered, which is a shame, its usual bold fruity flavours being amplified to gigantic, and the 47YO, an intense, dead-in-your-tracks eruption of  nuanced complexity, is not marketed at all…yet.  I had not long before also tasted the Van Ryn’s 27YO, a big, boisterous, irresistible hug of toasted oak and dried fruit, which was also confirmed additive-free.   A pattern was beginning to emerge – from these Distell learnings and from elsewhere.  Potstill brandies and more mature brandies typically don’t use bonificateurs.  When I asked Johan Venter if he wished this allowance didn’t exist, his response was “horses for courses”.  Whilst it’s a deduction supported by constrained information – I’m entirely aware that I haven’t tasted this Pierian spring – it makes sense that these horses would be most needed on courses where the muscle of pot distillation and maturation is inhibited i.e. blended brandies.

VR27YO

The best will always be the best, and with additives, in some cases like Scotch (and its flavouring agents), maybe even more so. There’s also no doubt that our best brandies are exceptional.  The additives allowance – on the face of all available evidence – has not been necessary for this splendid outcome.  It may be the case however that the worst may be worse than would have been the case.  Like my hosts at Distell I personally don’t like the idea of papering over cracks that shouldn’t be there in the first place.  Equally, it may mean that pleasant brandies are available to us more cost effectively than would otherwise be possible.  You’ll have to take your own perspective.  One thing’s for sure though – most of my misgivings would be decisively expunged if (and will be when) the curtain is drawn back just a little further.

As it appeared: http://www.winemag.co.za/patrick-leclezio-how-widely-are-flavouring-agents-being-used-in-your-brandy/

 

 

 

 

 

Get with the JET SET

The formula for travelling with ease and poise

The golden age of travel may long be over, but there’s no reason why those of us on the move can’t emulate the élan of our predecessors.  All it takes is a few grains of insight and a spot of preparation…conveniently supplied by THE INDY’s three step guide.

Step 1: Before you go

The first step is also the most vital.  Your baggage needs to stay within that shifting, easily shot line at which enough lapses into overloaded.   The trick to transitioning is to remain as unencumbered and unburdened as is reasonable.

If it’s going in the hold it’s got to be bold.  You’ll need something tough, functional and protective, but also inexpensive – don’t fork over for a piece that’s going to be punished.

THE INDY suggests: Think Travelite rather than Louis Vuitton.  Hard shells only – you may be wanting to return with a fragile bottle of that hard-to-find Japanese whisky.  Quality wheels are important – reserve your energy for walking the Champs Elysees not for pulling a recalcitrant case through CDG airport.  Built-in locks – your bag should be the only thing carrying your stuff.

On shorter trips take a cabin case so that you can glide past without breaking stride whilst others congregate like cattle at the conveyor belt.  Efficiency is of the essence.

THE INDY suggests: The Victrinox Spectra is light, robust and impeccably-engineered – and if not licenced then at least dressed to kill, in its cool, matt carapace.  You could take it to a black-tie dinner without anyone blinking.

Does anyone travel anywhere without their laptop these days?  You’d likely feel naked without it.  Your laptop will need a bag – one that’s able to accommodate a few other necessities as well: notebook, e-reader, cables, passport, and the like.  Ensure that this bag includes a padded shoulder-strap and a pass-through to slip it over the handle of your suitcase – you’ll want to set out with your sword hand hand free.

THE INDY suggests: Thule is best known for its exceptional roof racks, but it puts out a mean set of bags as well.  The Subterra 15” hits the sweet spot with its travel-busting, rugged outer skin, its chamois-lined sunglasses pouch (one of a multitude of convenient pockets and pouches), and its slick well-thought out design.

_TSBE-2115_Gray_01

Clutter is the enemy, but there are those bits and pieces that you ignore at your peril.  Get adaptors before you go – our local plugs are virtually unique (the odd Indian socket notwithstanding).  And remember the travel restriction on liquids – you’ll need to decant these into small containers.

THE INDY suggests: The chaps at GO Design specialise in travel accessories.  They’ve got those adaptors and bottles, and pretty much every travel related item that you can imagine.

Step 2: In transit

Comfort is king.  The flights and the in-between flights will set the tone for your trip.  Time away is premium priced, so you’ll want to get to the other side well-rested, relaxed, feeling fresh and ready to seize the day.

The single most important influence in accomplishing this objective is your choice amongst airlines, which are not all created equal.  Some offer more than others – whether it be in terms of space, coverage, catering, entertainment, amenities, and ground support.  Pick wisely.

THE INDY suggests:  Emirates has become, in a very short space of time, the world’s second largest conventional, international airline.  With good reason.  It is industry leading in almost all respects,  from its fabulous footprint numbering 150 odd destinations, its consistently razor-sharp pricing, and its fleet of modern aircraft, to the bars on its cavernous A380’s, the chauffeur-drive to and from the airport, the free in-flight internet, and the complimentary meal vouchers and hotel rooms for extended layovers.  It is virtually unrivalled.  Whether in economy, business or first – and we tested each cabin, and the accompanying lounges, on a recent trip to make sure – you’ll get unsurpassable bang for your buck.

When you’re stuck in a seat for hours, the boredom pinning you fast on all sides, you’ll be desperate for some reprieve.  On most airlines the entertainment system offers a double-edged surprise: pleasant in that the options of movies and shows are plentiful, nasty in that the headphones with which to listen in are disappointing – ranging from diabolically bad in economy, to mediocre in business and first.  BYO good people.   And don’t forget the adaptor.

THE INDY suggests:  Go in-ear – remember the golden rule: unencumbered and unburdened, and noise cancelling – an aircraft is droningly loud.  Which bring us to the Bose Quiet Comfort 20, unanimously (to the best of our knowledge) rated by credible reviewers as the best in-ear, noise cancelling headphones in the world.  You’ll not look back.

Quiet_Comfort_20_001_black_HR

At some 40 000 feet you have limited hierarchy of concerns.  You want to avoid plummeting from the sky.  You want to be fed.   You want access to a lavatory.  Your most pressing needs assured, you’ll move on to entertainment – as already covered.  That leaves sleep.  Glorious sleep.  You can best beckon the sandman, frustratingly elusive on an airliner, by properly equipping yourself with earplugs, eye shades, and a travel pillow.

THE INDY suggests:  With products based on NASA cushioning technology, Tempur has been at the forefront in foam, the material of choice for your sleep inducing requirements, for decades.  They offer the typical travel “doughnut”, but this works for some and not for others, and it’s useless in the upper cabin classes.  You’ll sleep tightest with our hands-down favourite: the slumberous, travel-sized version of their standard erganomic pillow.  Tempur also supplies eye shades – which are soft, comfortable, and easy on the eyelids.

Step 3: At your destination

Whether you’re travelling for work or pleasure you’ll want to be primed for action – looking good, and feeling confident.  Don’t leave these things in the lap of the gods.  It pays to be prepared.

At THE INDY we believe that one should always be impeccably turned out, presenting oneself to the world to the best possible effect.  To make this happen on your travels you’ll need to have your grooming essentials securely packed and conveniently accessible.

THE INDY suggests:  Tumi’s ballistic-nylon luggage has become iconic amongst die-hard travellers, and it includes a range that represents something of a zenith in toiletry kits.  Check out the Hanging Travel Kit for extended voyages and the Split Travel Kit for shorter sojourns; both sport a well-organised, stylish layout, and an aura of rugged invincibility.

22191D2_alt1

You can’t be carrying everything that you could conceivably need, but if your destination is prone to precipitation, then you’d be well advised to sacrifice space for a brolly.  You’ll be wanting after all to maintain a crisp comportment in any given set of conditions.

THE INDY suggests:  The Blunt XS_Metro is a compact umbrella that’s slightly overgrown its class, but what it costs in size, it repays tenfold in strength and build quality.  Rain has the nasty habit of running with wind, the mortal enemy of most umbrellas.  Not of this one though.   As a bonus it’s available in an array of funky colours.

BLUNT UMBRELLAS(PAGE 49)

You’re walking about sightseeing, folding and unfolding one of those damned hotel maps, clueless tourist written all over your face.  What do you do?  Your historic predecessors would have hired a cicerone, but that time has passed and you wouldn’t want a stranger harshing your vibe anyhow.

THE INDY suggests:  Ulmon’s CityMaps2Go app offer interactive, easy-to-use, offline maps (no roaming required, it works using GPS) for most of the world’s major cities.  You’ll stay so effortlessly orientated, and informed – with its photos and insider tips – that you might even be mistaken for a local.

Final tips:

–              Pack your clothing rolled.  It’s amazing how much more you can fit using this format.

–              Check-in online and download your boarding pass.  You’ll get your choice of seating, and you’ll avoid those long, dispiriting queues on arrival at the airport.

–              If you don’t have frequent traveller status, review your banking package for lounge access privileges.

–              Travelling across time zones wreaks havoc on your internal body clock (the so-called “jet lag”).  Speak to your doctor about supplementing with the natural hormone melatonin to assist with the adjustment.

Feasting in paradise

An insider’s guide to the best-loved foods of Mauritius

First published in the Sunday Times (25/02/18).

You’ll eat and drink well in Mauritius whether or not you read this article.  It’s one of those places where it’s impossible not to.  The melding of a rich history, diverse cultures, obliging natural resources, and slick hospitality have contrived to make great food a virtual inevitability.  This island is endowed with a special culinary proficiency, one amongst the many charms which have been vital in making it such an appealing destination.  The stuff that you’ll find on the surface however – the half-board buffets, the occasional stop at a street stall, and the internet-guided restaurant selections – will only take you so palate-pleasingly far.  There’s the good, and then there’s the exceptional – the gems that need to be unearthed, like a truffle by a cultivated hog.  Whilst I hesitate to liken myself to a pig – others may not be as reluctant – I have a certain voracity for and knowledge of the island’s foodstuffs, which may be useful to you, the discerningly hungry visitor.  In the interests of full disclosure though, given that you’re about to invest some time, I should mention that I recently convinced a group of visitors to Mauritius, whilst we were taking drinks on a terrace overlooking the ruins in Balaclava, that the mask of the same name had its origins in the ritual headgear of monks who inhabited these structures in the early eighteenth century.  Don’t let this deter you.  I’m more serious when it comes to food.

Mauritius has a population that is majority of Indian descent, so it’s no surprise that their influence is pervasive in its cuisine.  My particular favourites are the flatbreads, and of course the curries.   Whilst these exponents have been carried far and wide by the Indian diaspora, there are variations that are if-not-unique-to then well-honed on the island.  The paratahs (or rotis / faratas, as you would have it), a great Indian staple, are here in force, but it’s to the dhal puri that you should dedicate particular attention.  Made from dough containing split pulses, which cooks to a flaky consistency, and typically served with chilli, pickles or sometimes curry, it is only commonly available in Mauritius (although a distinct style has manifest itself in the Caribbean).  The dhal puri is the ultimate snack (or indeed meal!):  displaced Mauritians, like myself, are known to habitually order towering stacks during our visits, which we’ll then freeze and take back with us, such is its delectability.   They are widely available at street stalls but the most reputed, sought-after dhal puris are probably those from Dewa, located in the big Bagatelle mall in Moka.  Another interesting flatbread worth trying is the ti poori.  This is effectively the Indian deep-fried puri, but served in Mauritius with a mix-and-match selection of local dishes, such as rougaille (a tomato-based stew of many varieties), bredes songes (Mauritian water cress), achard de legumes (pickled vegetables) and bringelles au miel (honeyed eggplant), as well as the obligatory curries.  It’s best procured from a specialist caterer like Modley (+230 5796 5084), for a long, lingering, gregarious lunch on a verandah overlooking the ocean.

ti poori

Moving from flatbreads to their ostensible fillings, two indelibly Mauritian curries that’ll reward the seeking out and then some are the curry de cerfs (venison), and the curry d’homard (lobster).   The former is tied into the earliest recorded history of the island, when the original Dutch settlers introduced Java deer – populations of which have persisted over the centuries, considerably outlasting their masters.  It’s not easy to find on a menu, the supply of deer meat being irregular, but stay on the lookout, and if you’re in a villa get your housekeeper on the job – spicy and gamey make a heady mix of flavours.   The latter’s finest purveyor is the unassuming but outstanding Chez Rosy in Souillac in the south.  There are members of my family who are unable to mention this place and its lobster curry without visibly salivating.

If you’ve ever eaten and enjoyed madumbis (or even if you haven’t), then Mauritius has a special treat in store for you.  One of the local taro yams, the arouille violette, is closely related (but markedly superior), and makes the most delicious mash that you could hope to taste, knocking the socks off the potato version.  They’re available from most vegetable markets on the island, and are best appreciated in combination with a meat dish.

arouille violette

Another exotic item of Mauritian produce is the highly nutritious tamarind fruit, the dark sticky pulp of which is used to produce juice, pickles, preserves, and chutneys.   Most people describe its flavour as sweet, tangy and tart, but I find it musky as well – it’s quite unique.  Les Vergers de Labourdonnais offers an outstanding, brilliantly refreshing tamarind juice (distributed to most of the major supermarkets), which might be the most convenient and accessible means to sample this unusual fruit.

Tamarin juice

The arouille and the tamarind fruit, of all the victuals of my childhood, live largest in my memory, along perhaps with the punch mariage, an iced concoction of rum, lemon juice, sugar, water and egg white, traditionally served at Mauritian weddings.  I’ve remembered it well not because it was regular fare for me, despite the relaxed European-leaning Mauritian attitude to liquor for children, but for one striking occasion in particular:  my younger brother at the tender age of four, unobserved during a function, got stuck into a bowl of this punch, with unfortunate, albeit hilarious results…if I might be allowed to find a sauced infant hilarious.  He clearly found it delicious.  It is delicious.  Punch mariage can be sourced by order only from Nathalie Maurel (+230 5257 2172), considered to be the island’s foremost expert.  I’d recommend that you request it to be made with New Grove’s Plantation Rum, one of the best of the white Mauritian  rums.

As one would expect from the “pearl of the Indian ocean” fish and fruits de mer are integral to the culinary life of the island.  Whether it’s bistro fare at a place like Hidden Reef in Pointe aux Cannoniers, or fine dining at Jacqueline Dalais’ (the Mauritian Heston Blumenthal) La Clef des Champs in Floréal or the more touristy but nonetheless enchanting Château Mon Désir in Turtle Bay, the best dishes are likely to be seafood based.  A trip to Mauritius is an opportunity – which you should seize with both hands – to partake of this natural bounty.   There are two fish in particular that are spoken of in hallowed tones by those with deep roots on the island: Sacré Chien and Gueule Pavée.  They’re less abundant today although they do appear in restaurants here and there.  You may be most likely to strike it lucky with a trip to the Débarcadère de Grand Baie, the jetty for the town’s fishing boats, an interesting excursion regardless, and if you don’t you can also opt for delightful alternatives such as Vielle Rouge and Capitaine.   Mauritian waters, and consequently tables, are replete not only in fish, but also in octopi, crabs, oysters, mussels, lobsters, prawns, scallops and the like, but the most iconic of the island’s dishes hinges on a combination of its aquatic and terranean resources.  Make it your particular mission to track down and savour palmiste with crevettes or camarons, the  succulent heart of a palm tree, served with prawns, typically in a red sauce, and prepared in a variety of ways;  Curepipe landmark La Potinière has a souffléd version which is especially noteworthy.

I’ve left the sweets, one might say the best, for last – last but not least, because for nation built on sugar, the expectations excited by its confectionaries, patisseries and desserts, which won’t be disappointed, quite the opposite, should rightly be at the front of the queue, and fervent.  There are so many stops on this glorious journey – some prime examples ranging from sucre d’orges, a twirly hand-made rock candy fashioned by the religious sisters on the island, and papaye tapée, rich, juicy slabs of candied fruit contributed by the Chinese-Mauritian community, to puits d’amours, an egg custard tart perfected by the Patisserie Marimootoo in Curepipe, and the genoise au coco, a coconut cake so good that you’d be tempted to sell your soul for a slice– that the end will always be another trip away.  The pinnacle though, the cherry on the top of this massive Mauritian mountain of mastication, must surely be the napolitain.  Whilst its origins are unknown, lost to the mists of time, one thing is certain: the napolitain is indubitably, exclusively, and comprehensively Mauritian – it is not found anywhere else, unless transplanted by Mauritians.   Made with two shortbread style biscuits sandwiching guava jelly (classically, although other jams are also used), and then covered with pink icing, this melt-in-your-mouth delicacy exhibits flavours so extraordinarily  complementary that one might say they are fated to be fêted.  The crème de la crème are those made by Patricia de Speville (+230 5788 3331) according to an old family recipe at her bakery in Tamarin and sold under the name Pat’s Cookies in various outlets all over the island.

napolitains & puits d'amours

Napolitains and puits d’amours

Mauritius, as you’ll be realising by now, but as you’ll only truly appreciate when you sink your teeth into it, offers much, much more than sandy beaches, sunny skies, and sapphire oceans.  That it’s a gastronomic paradise as well is one amongst its many other dimensions.  Enjoy your trip – and bon appetit!

Sunday Times mauritius

As it appeared.

One night in Budapest

First published in Marie Claire (December 2017 edition).

The long nights of the European winter, if my delving into its extents is to serve as any indication, are perhaps at their longest in Budapest.   I’m not proposing that accolade for the time from dusk till dawn – clearly it’s trumped in this regard by the large continental swathe that enjoys a latitudinal advantage – but instead for the other more compelling (if less scientific) measure of a night’s duration: the time from dress till duvet.  On this score other contenders would be hard-pressed to compete such is the allure and volume of its nocturnal charms, evidenced during my visit.  I wanted to eat and drink fine things.  I wanted an excursion that straddled storybook romance and rampant revelry.  I wanted to suck out all the marrow, but without paying the earth…a tall order that the Hungarian capital, as it kept on keeping the day at bay, somehow contrived to deliver.

With the sub-zero temperatures and falling snow adding an exotic edge to our anticipation, we – my wife and I, intersecting trips allowing us to steal a weekend together in the city – set out from our hotel, glove in glove and scarves fluttering, headed for nearby Erzsébetváros (Elizabeth Town), the beating heart of the city’s after-hours action.   I’d been vaguely aware that Hungary was a wine producing country, having been (presciently!) introduced to one of their renowned dessert wines at a recent dinner.  Accordingly, being both keen to broaden my experience and to get the ball rolling for the evening with a few mellow glasses,  we made our way to Doblo, the city’s premier wine bar.  Luckily I’d booked because the place was packed to its exposed rafters – with a young, stylish crowd seemingly cast for this backdrop, described to me as “Brooklyn loft style”.  Call it whatever, it’s a happy space for some relaxed appreciation, the unplastered walls in particular giving a warm, cellar-like ambience.  The two of us wandered our way through Kreinbacher Extra Dry, apparently the country’s best bubbles, the visceral Bull’s Blood, the national blend, the best examples coming from the Eger and Szekszárd regions, a Royal Tokaji, the sweet wine that put the region on the map (and on my radar), and a few others recommended by the venue, until eventually, reluctantly, departing, a little more cultured than when we’d arrived, and thoroughly primed for the night ahead.

Given a charged itinerary that depended on getting from one place to the next efficiently and making the most of things in the short time available I’d been worried that communication difficulties might hamper us.  It came as a relief then, the extent of my language preparation having been to add the h-sound to the pronunciation of “Budapesht”, to find that English is spoken widely and well.  In fact the waiters we encountered had an almost native proficiency.  At our next stop, the intimate Gettó Gulyás for a spot of dinner, this facility played out to delicious advantage, the staff taking us through the menu in detail, understanding our preferences clearly, and making astute recommendations, a pleasing contrast to some of my other travels when choosing dishes had been a roll of the dice.  The food managed to strike an unpretentious balance between the unusual, the interesting, and the accessible: a soup of beetroot, cheese, cream, pear and parsley to start, a satisfyingly central European main of wild boar, and the odd-sounding but sumptuous tasting goat’s cheese dumplings with cinnamon dressing for dessert.  Encouragingly the pricing was comparable to SA, here and elsewhere in Budapest, which was surprising for Europe, even this far east.  We left Gettó, fuel in our tanks to fire the festivity to follow, feeling like we’d found the holy grail of foreign eateries: small and authentic, trendy but comfortable, frequented by locals, and, most importantly, magnificent – in both quality and value.

The two features for which Budapest’s nightlife is most reputed are its Ruin Bars, and the fact that it has the cheapest booze in Europe, the latter sounding a tad dubious to me, initially at least.  I had it in mind to enjoy a few digestifs after my dinner, a natural opportunity then to explore this scene, and to check out what all the fuss was about.  The problem with cheap liquor of course is that it tends to attract certain types of people.  The streets by this time were thronging, the glacial temperatures notwithstanding.  I caught glimpses of Irish, American, and English accents, and scatterings of French, German, Italian, and other languages that I couldn’t identify.  The odd bachelor and hen party cruised past.  Groups of revelers spilled out of bars.  Whether it was the price of drinks or the city’s many fine attributes, or a combination of these things, people had come here from all over to party.  Unswervingly though, at that point and for the rest of our visit, the atmosphere in the district was festive rather than rowdy – with not a hooligan in sight.  By the time we arrived at Szimpla my misgivings had laid to rest.

A Ruin Bar, whilst not a ruin as such, is pretty much true to the name.  It’s an old, dilapidated building that’s been transformed into a nightspot.  Szimpla Kert was the first of its kind, the mother from which all other Ruin Bars sprang.  The site was originally a furnace factory, subsequently converted into a residential block before falling into disuse.  It couldn’t be demolished or materially redeveloped, having been assigned heritage protection, so an enterprising entrepreneur decided to make a bar of it, creating a Budapestian tradition in the process.  There are now Ruin Bars all over the city, and elsewhere.  Szimpla, and the similar Fogas, our next stop, are stalwart examples, exuding the dingy, grotto cool that’s come to characterise these places.  We found ourselves in a maze of stained, pitted walls, raw floors, and random fittings and furnishings, amidst a deluge of other patrons.  Their popularity – each can and regularly do take in over 1000 guests at any one time – stems I’d venture from their distinctiveness, and also because they offer something for everyone (without diluting each experience), from raging dance floors to quieter lounges, from live music and traditional dancing to silent movies, and so much else that I lost track of it all.  We sampled two local favourites, my wife the mulled wine, me a few palinkas (fruit brandy), whilst we explored and soaked up the rising vibe.  When I next looked up it was already eleven.  Budapest was only just beginning to hit its straps.

One of the attractions that drew me to this city was the Danube, the second largest river in Europe, and once the frontier of the civilised world.  It is undeniably one of the world’s great rivers, so the idea of incorporating it into the night’s activities was hugely appealing.  Enter the A38, an old stone-carrier ship, moored on the Buda side of the river, now enjoying a second life as the best club in the world (an honour bestowed by Lonely Planet three years ago).  Elizabeth Town being in Pest, this required a bit of a mad dash to catch a tram over before the system shut down for the night.  It’s a bit of a trek, but well worthwhile for this inimitable experience.  We boarded the ship, impressively protruding out of the ice floes covering the river,  just in time for a performance by the German electronic mega-band Tangerine Dream.  I can’t claim that this is my preferred style of music but we abandoned ourselves to it, the dreamlike communion with hundreds of devotees in the hull of this ship taking us there, making the occasion unforgettable.

Back in the heartland, in Pest, things were starting to reach high gear.  We had a little left in us and we decided to make our last stand at Tesla, a pulsing dance club that’s as electric as the name suggests.  I merged a bit of deep house with few shots of Oban, and found it to my liking.  By this stage I knew I was going to pay the price the next day but I just didn’t care.  Tesla’s energy buoyed us along for a few hours, pointing and popping, shuffling, neck bobbing, fist pumping and Saturday night fevering, until we had to concede defeat.  An honourable defeat though.

At about five in the morning we were done.  Budapest however was not, and neither were our new found friends at Tesla.  It’s somewhat counter intuitive for a country on the eastern fringe of a time zone to be on this kind of late night cycle, especially in winter, but there was no disputing it, seen with my own eyes, tried and tested.  If you’ve got what it takes, which they clearly have over here, I guess it doesn’t matter.  Party like a Russian, end of discussion?  I beg to differ Robbie Williams, you’ve obviously never been to Budapest.

———————————————————————————————————————————-

We didn’t twiddle our thumbs whilst waiting for our epic night in Budapest to begin.

Spa culture

Swimming in the mist-shrouded outdoors in minus seven degree temperatures is surreal – but good surreal, in fact great surreal.  Budapest is built on a chain of hot, mineral springs, giving rise to the preponderance of spas that have earned it the name ‘City of Spas’.  Locals make regular visits a habit, touting the health benefits of the waters, although the premise struck me as social more than medicinal.  Széchenyi, one of the best-known and the one to which we gravitated, is a massive, sprawling complex of pools, steam rooms, saunas, and other spa facilities.  We opted for a massage before trying a variety of the warmer pools, culminating in a dip in the large, cascading expanse outside.  If you happen to be around in the warmer months, be sure to attend a unique Budapest “sparty” – which is, as the name suggests, a party in a spa!

Cruising the Danube

Whilst these city cruise setups are admittedly a bit formulaic, they’ve got a lot going for them nonetheless, presenting the opportunity to see some unparalleled vistas of a city, sit down to a traditional meal (chicken paprikash amongst others in our case – Hungarians are particularly proud of their paprika!), and listen to some live music.  Our experience with Danube Cruise broke the mould though, made special by the stunning sheets of shifting ice through which we were being propelled.  We felt compelled to sneak up to the prow for a Titanic moment.

Eating out

Kiosk is an all-encompassing, envelope-pushing bistro, set on a square facing the river.  The fabulous location is fittingly complemented by spectacular (renovated) eighteenth century accommodations which boast generous space and high ceilings, divulging their origins as a high school gymnasium.  Old Hungarian black and white movies are projected onto a wall, and there’s a tree canopied over the central bar, adding quirky flair to the polished ambience.  It’s a place for all seasons. The menu offers vegan, vegetarian and lactose free options throughout, the drinks list accounts for 250 varieties of Hungarian wine (stocked in a large walk-in fridge separating it from its adjacent fine-dining sister restaurant) and a range of hyper-creative cocktails, and the desserts, a speciality, are all produced at the in-house patisserie.   Try the ampoule cocktail, the forest mushroom soup, and any given pastry – outstanding!

If you’re looking for something a little more casual, a quick bite whilst you’re taking in the sights, you won’t go wrong at Bors.  This ridiculously popular little food bar puts out, under the vigilant eye of its Darth Vadar mascot, a range of soups, baguettes and desserts, and the odd pasta and salad as well.  I normally wouldn’t recommend going over to the dark side, but I’ll make a delicious exception in this case.  May the Bors be with you.

Budapest on blades

Imagine a giraffe on ice and you’ll get an idea of my skating talent.  Having heard though that Budapest hosts the largest outdoor rink in Europe (Városligeti Műjégpálya), I was determined to give it a go regardless.  And I was glad I did.  The long stretches of crisp ice underfoot, the beautiful old castle in the background, the whizzing and whirling crowd all around make for a sensational outing.  Furthermore, the place is quick to access – it’s a short walk from the nearest metro station – and skates are easily and cheaply rented on site.  Even the spasmodic exertions of my boskak style couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm. What a pleasure!

Marie Claire Budapest p1

As it appeared – p1.

Marie Claire Budapest p2

As it appeared – p2.

Marie Claire Budapest p3

As it appeared – p4.

Marie Claire Budapest p4

As it appeared – p4.

Primed for whisky

Wanted’s gallivanting guide to six of the finest

First published in Wanted Magazine December 2017.

Whisky, the so-called nectar of the gods (justifiably so!), originated in Ireland and Scotland, where over centuries it was passionately nurtured from humble beginnings to the globally popular drink that it is today.  We browsed through the collections of these two countries to find a few of the best.

The Glenlivet, Scotland’s first licensed distillery and industry groundbreaker, is synonymous with Scotch whisky and its history.  ‘’THE Glenlivet is THE ORIGINAL’’, says South African brand ambassador Isaac Pooe.  ‘’It’s been the Original Speyside Single Malt since 1824, setting the benchmark in taste, heritage and exploration ever since.  This is the reason I enjoy hosting private tastings so much – I get to reveal the story behind our whisky, and the tenacity of George Smith, the founder,  whose passion for his craft made me fall in love with whisky in the first place’’.

At the helm since 2009, Master Distiller Alan Winchester has ushered in a raft of progressive expressions from the Guardians’ Chapters and the Alpha to the extension of the Nadurra range, helping to entrench the brand as one of the world’s leading single malts.  It’s the inception of Founder’s Reserve though that’s been the most compelling development of recent years:  a multi-vintage whisky that triumphs in the ambitious trifecta of affordable, accessible, and interesting.

Nose: citrus fruit, sweet orange; Palate: zesty orange, pear, toffee apples; Finish: long, creamy, smooth

Wanted says: fruit compote in silky porridge

Equally special amongst the country’s gems is Aberlour (pronounced Aber-lauer).   Founded by James Fleming in 1879, there’s a deep sense of continuity and tradition at this distillery.  The acclaimed A’bunadh, a mouthful in every sense, was recreated from a bottle dating back to 1898.  And distilling chief Douglas Cruickshank, along with most of his team, has been forging these exceptionally balanced whiskies for some 25 years, not least the metronomic 12YO.

Nose: Soft and rounded, with fruity notes of red apple; Palate: A fine sherried character, balanced with rich chocolate, toffee, cinnamon and ginger spiciness; Finish: Warming and lingering – sweet and slightly spicy

Wanted says: a ripe plum of a whisky that’ll never let you down

Across in Ireland it’s single pot stills that preside, rather than single malts.  This once dominant style, made from both malted and unmalted barley, is staging a rousing comeback, led by the Midleton Distillery.  Crafted by a team under various “Masters” including Billy Leighton (Blending) and Brian Nation (Distilling), Midleton’s muscular pot still portfolio is making the rich, fruity and spicy band of the flavour spectrum its own.

The backbone of the style, especially during its hiatus, Redbreast is now the world’s best-selling single pot still.  The range numbers five delicious, aged expressions, but the 12YO remains the paterfamilias, exercising authority over both its stable and style with sheer force of character and weight of credibility.

Nose:  A complex spicy and fruity aroma with toasted wood notes evident.  Palate: Full flavoured and complex; a harmonious balance of spicy, creamy, fruity, sherry and toasted notes.  Finish:  satisfyingly long, the complex flavours linger on the palate.

Wanted says: Every day is Christmas with this baked melange of dark fruits

The Spot Whiskeys were named after the method of identifying the age of the casks used for their maturation i.e. by daubing them with a spot of coloured paint.  Yellow Spot, with its unusual mix of Bourbon, Sherry and Malaga cask influences, delivers a succulent sweetness is that is almost uniquely special.

Nose:  Mown hay & cracked black pepper. Red bell peppers, nutmeg, clove oil & green tea.  Sweet honey & peaches from the Malaga casks. Palate: Honey sweetness with pot still spices.  Flavours of fresh coffee, creamy milk chocolate & Crème Brûlée. Notes of red apples & toasted oak.  Finish: Sophisticated & complex with a sweetness throughout.   a mix of red grape & dry barley on exit.

Wanted says: a dripping honey pot infused with fruit and spice

Powers whiskey dates back to 1791 when James Power established a distillery at John’s Lane in Dublin.  Since then it’s built a reputation for bold to bursting, flavoursome whiskeys, one of latest exponents being the Signature Release.

Nose:  Crisp herbal notes with touches of nutmeg, fig and black pepper corns. Sweet vanilla, followed by succulent berry fruits.  Palate: Vanilla with black licorice and cinnamon reveal fresh fruit – melons, green apples and pears – followed by crisp barley.  Finish: Long and wonderfully complex honey and spice.

Wanted says: a punchy combination of orchard fruits and sweet spices

Its eponymous brand is also the distillery’s most premium, with good reason.  Whereas the others are overtly demonstrative, Midleton runs to subtlety, complexity and refinement.  The Barry Crockett Legacy takes its name from the distillery’s long serving, now retired Master Distiller, a pivotal figure in the resurgence of Irish whiskey.

Nose: Elegant aroma of vanilla and toasted oak complimented by a touch of lime, succulent green berries, pears and green sweet pepper.  Palate: Light pepper carries onto fresh citrus, limes and mandarin orange sweetness. A hint of cinnamon with vanilla and oak reveals its years spent in American oak.  Finish: The full spectrum of flavours lasts well into the finish, slowly fading to expose the clean American oak foundation.

Wanted says: sweet creaminess and autumn leaves one moment, treacly honey, tart fruits, and tangy candy the next, it reveals one delight after the next – drink it in slow reflection of time well spent

Wanted Magazine Dec 2017 p2

As it appeared.

Lies, obfuscation and contempt – an AirBnB story

I love AirBnB.   Please don’t let the title above convince you otherwise.  Actually, to better express my sentiments, I should probably say that I love the AirBnB concept.   The simple business genius of it aside, it’s done so much genuine good: prompting and enabling, for ordinary people on a vast scale, experiences and livelihoods that would otherwise not have been possible.  When it works, which is most of the time I’m sure, it works a treat.  I’d venture though that it’s in adversity that core truths are revealed, be it about a person, or an organisation.  If my story is anything to go by – and on the one hand that I’d concede it’s just one story, whilst on the other I’d question, as should you, whether it’s an aberration or an indication – the treat it seems can easily sour into a trick.  If you’re a prospective AirBnB user then stay with me as I tell my story.  Forewarned is forearmed.

The story begins rather well.  I booked an apartment in Rio de Janeiro – for three of us.  The host levies a surcharge of US$25 per person per night, for occupancy by more than two guests.  Fair enough.  The third person subsequently withdrew from the trip.  We advised the host of this late change shortly before arriving.  The trip then unfolded relatively pleasingly.  The accommodation was pleasant, if not ideal.  Specifically there were two points which bothered us:

Firstly this apartment was located immediately adjacent to a play school for young children, resulting in constant, excessive noise from just after 07h00.  There was no reference whatsoever made to this in the listing, which I felt was a somewhat disingenuous omission – especially for a holiday let:  who wouldn’t relish a little lie-in during their break?  This information would have been a material consideration for us and for most others I’m sure.

Secondly, the host offers access to “his driver”, free of any commission, for transits from the airport, elaborated as follows:  “I urge you to take advantage of this generous offer.  It is in your interest to avoid added costs and stress…”.  Our conclusion, reasonable I think if admittedly lazy, was that this was a competitive rate, so we took him up on it.  On returning to the airport via Uber, and after subsequent research, we learnt that we could have done the trip for 25% of the cost.  Whilst Uber and a driver with a placard are different types of services, we felt, given the scale of the difference, that most people would want to know about it, rather than succumbing to the same assumptions that we did.

These are the “perils” of this format, and this is what the review system is there for.  We mentioned both points in an otherwise and overall positive review.  The host reviewed us (we use my wife’s account) as follows: “Marni is a charming and experienced (URL HIDDEN) to host anytime!”.  Keep his review in mind as we continue with the story, particularly the fact that AirBnB redacted it.

The Review

On seeing our review the host went postal – a reaction, an attack really, that ranged haphazardly over a lengthy international telephone call, and then a series of emails, to eventually stalking us on Facebook, slinging mud and spewing lies.  The details aren’t relevant or important – this isn’t a story about unpleasant and vindictive people; they’re unfortunately just a part of life.  The gist of it, what you need to know, is that he wanted the review removed, which on principle we refused to do.

A month or so later I arbitrarily checked on the review.  It was gone.  We got in touch with AirBnB, to be told that our review had violated their content policy: “Reviews are the backbone of Airbnb’s community. In order to maintain this structure, we have guidelines in place that ensure that all reviews are fair, honest, and relevant to your travel and experiences.  The content of your review did not comply with these guidelines. It is therefore our responsibility to hide it from view. Your Host contacted us regarding this”.  Now let’s skip past a series of aggravating emails disputing this outcome, and being repeatedly stonewalled with non-explanations, to the end of this particular chapter.  After tweeting our discontent – it’s a little frightening that it takes public exposure to beg some common courtesy from a place where you’re spending your money – we were put in touch with “Jenny” at the head-office, who was slightly more forthcoming:  the reason our review had been deleted she said was that it had violated another policy that precluded reviews from mentioning company names (ours mentioned Uber).  A recent policy change also meant that reviews could no longer be edited under any circumstances, thereby neatly taking the option off the table for me to make a quick change to remove this offending mention.

But this explanation does not add up:

  • The review in fact was not deleted because of this Uber mention. This was only brought up much later, after our tweets, once Jenny got involved.  As quoted above we were clearly told that, motivated by the host, it was deemed by AirBnB to be unfair, dishonest and or irrelevant.  When we had queried how AirBnB could come to this conclusion without speaking to both parties (us as well as the host), and what it was about the review that did not meet these standards, we were told repeatedly, by two different people, without any further clarification, that the decision was final.  Medieval style justice, as dispensed to the peasantry.
  • The Uber mention at this stage (a stage which lasted weeks) had not yet been identified, or had not yet occurred to them (otherwise they would have referenced it). There would be no reason not to, as it later proved an easy out (the only out).  Yet in its absence despite having no valid substantiation for deleting the review, despite the process by which they went about it being flawed, and despite having both these points emphasized to its staff, AirBnB doggedly stuck to its position.  One has to wonder why.  Gross incompetence?    It seems less than likely with multiple parties involved.  The logic we were presenting was compelling and not difficult to grasp.  It seemed rather that the decision was predetermined.
  • Eventually, in the Uber mention, AirBnB found a rationale that could stick, at least in terms of the letter of their policies. But even this doesn’t make sense.  Why would an organisation that (in its own words) considers reviews to be the “backbone” of its community choose to delete one in its entirety, when a basic redaction would have brought it back in line?  It should, one would think, be bending over backwards to encourage and enable a preponderance of reviews.  Our host’s review was redacted (ostensibly for some sort of a policy violation), but it seems that we could not be afforded the same treatment.   This question, like most of our other questions (such impertinence!), also went unanswered.

The Surcharge

I requested a refund of the surcharge.  My understanding of this surcharge was that it was there to compensate for the incrementally heavier use of the facilities and utilities, and for any additional items provided, by way of toilet paper, soap and so forth.  There was no third person and we’d given a day’s notice, enough for the host to avoid any attendant costs (i.e. withhold said extra items).   But I was open to another explanation.  I conceded from the start that if there was good reason for the charge I would withdraw the request immediately.   As became a feature of my dealings with both the host and AirBnB these types of questions would not be answered.  I was again relentlessly stonewalled, and quoted policies that did not make sense.   I still have no idea how or why the surcharge is justified.  I paid US$25 for eight nights, US$200.  I may as well have been mugged in the backstreets of Rio, with the police stopping just short of cheering for the muggers.

The host responded that his policy (the AirBnB “Strict” cancellation policy) required cancellation (I guess notice in this case) seven full days in advance, which had not happened.   When I pointed out that the policy did not specify that it applied to the surcharge he changed tack to find something that would stick (a feature of this story), insisting now that another AirBnB policy required me to “make a claim” to AirBnB within 24 hours of check-in.  I was lost by all the policy talk – I am after all, like most, just a casual AirBnB user – and I’d learnt enough about this guy at this stage to be disabused of any faith that he’d be fair or reasonable so I pursued the matter further by requesting AirBnB intervention via their “Resolution Centre”.   When AirBnB denied the claim (the fourth different staff member I dealt with regarding this stay), it was on the grounds that I had not made an “alteration request” on check-in.

Now imagine for a moment that you’ve booked into a regular hotel on a similar basis.  On check-in you advise the staff of the change.  They say nothing.  On check-out you are charged nonetheless.  You protest.  You didn’t fill out the alteration form they tell you.  You didn’t tell me about this alteration form, you say.  Tough shit they say (effectively), it’s our policy.  It’s quite simply an inconceivable situation.  It would never happen with any ethical establishment.

Yet, with AirBnB, it has and it does.  I was charged for something that I advised upfront I wouldn’t use, that I then didn’t use, and that didn’t cost anyone anything.  And I was charged for it because I didn’t follow a process that wasn’t flagged to me, of which I wasn’t aware, and of which I’d suggest any awareness on my part could not be reasonably expected.  Why didn’t the host bring the alteration request to my attention when I advised him of the change in plans?  Surely this is where the responsibility belongs?  In this fiefdom of the fine print though, it seems that the law lords have deaf ears.

I acknowledged from the start that this is just one story.  It doesn’t prove anything beyond this single case of appalling service.  But it certainly musters justifiable supposition.  We transact with AirBnB, as we do with most apparently reputable companies, in good faith – in the belief that the company, if not the individual host, will treat us fairly and with respect.  That it certainly didn’t happen in this instance; that I’m out of pocket for no good reason, and that other guests will likely be misled when booking this apartment, is disconcerting.  But more worrying – for all of us – is that this might be the tip of a very large iceberg.  In the absence of sensible answers, for which multiple invitations have been proffered and rejected, we are left to our inferences.   The matter could be ascribed to a series of unfortunate mistakes, or to some truculent staff, or to something equally isolated; it could though feasibly also point to something more sinister, such as a systematic bias towards hosts, who effectively represent the income-generating assets of the business, or indeed a systematic bias to whatever happens to best serve the company’s interests in any particular given case.  But what do I know?  I just have my one little story.  Let’s then consider this to be just another review – a little bit of karmic balance for all those reviews that may have been deleted and those surcharges that may have been withheld, and a little cud to chew on as you’re deciding where (and how) to stay on your next holiday.

Update:

During August I submitted this article to a few media outlets for publication.  These outlets in turn approached AirBnB for comment.  Shortly thereafter we received an email from AirBnB (18/08/07) confirming that a (another) investigation had taken place, and concluding as follows: “we can confirm that there was no violation on the review and we can reinstate the review”.  I can verify that this has been done and that the review is back up on the site.

The same email went on to say: “Another part we want to address from your letter is the fact that it’s fully up to the host to refund you for the extra charges. The person surcharge is not included in the cancellation policy and if the host refuses to refund through the resolution centre, it’s up to him. I hope you understand our policy in this matter”.

I rejected this explanation – for the reasons I propounded in the article.

We then received another email later the same day, informing us that “a refund of R2436 ZAR” had been issued to our credit card, but that it would take 15 days to reflect.  No further explanation was given.  I take it in good faith that this is the surcharge and that it will be made good shortly.

Update 2:

An article by Georgina Crouth taking up the matter was published on 28/08 in The Argus, The Star, The Pretoria News, and the Daily News.  The Daily News version is shown below.  Small correction: the Uber was about 25% of the cost of the host’s taxi, not 25% cheaper.