Category Archives: Uncategorized

A Cheers salute to men in skirts

First published in Cheers Magazine (January / February 2017 edition).

It actually makes more sense, anatomically at least, for men to be wearing skirts rather than women.   The momentum of history however has denied us this breezy freedom.  The prevailing aesthetic of men’s fashion dictates, and has for a long time now rather jeeringly, against our adoption (re-adoption would be more accurate) of this versatile garment.  In today’s world you might get away with wearing a sarong, at a push, but for aspirant skirt wearers wanting to project their robust manliness there’s only one unambiguous refuge.

What

The kilt.  Even the sound of it is comfortingly masculine.   A kilt is a knee level skirt (or a type of skirt) made from a single length of wool pleated at the rear, which is wrapped around the waist to navel height, and secured with straps. Its usage originated in the Highlands of Scotland in the early eighteenth century, evolving thence to become one of that country’s most iconic symbols.  More recently it has been adopted in other places as a unifying sign of Celtic identity.  The wool from which a kilt is made would usually display a tartan pattern, which typically has some sort of meaning to the wearer – either an association to a Clan or to a region.  Most importantly though – they’re great fun to wear.  Say it with me now, you know you want to:  “Aye, fight and you may die. Run, and you’ll live… at least a while. And dying in your beds, many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they’ll never take… OUR FREEDOM!” It sounds even better in a kilt, if that can be imagined…

How

A kilt is the central item in the Highland Dress set of formal attire.  There are various degrees and permutations, but the gist of it, from top to toe, is as follows: a dress shirt with bow tie; a jacket, of which a variety are acceptable, from the old-school Prince Charlie to the more modern Argyll, and an optional waistcoat; the kilt itself, along with a kilt pin, a sporran and sporran belt – the sporran is an elaborate pouch employed ostensibly (its aesthetic appeal notwithstanding) to compensate for the absence of pockets – and a belt, the latter only donned in the absence of the waistcoat; knee length socks (kilt hose); garter flashes (in the same tartan as the kilt); and smart, laced leather shoes.   You can further choose to carry a sgian-dubh (pronounced skee-an doo), a small ceremonial knife which is tucked into the hose.  And why not indeed – just watch yourself when you’re boarding an aircraft, or scrapping (good naturedly of course) with an Englishman.  Kilts are also worn more casually, traditionally with a ghillie shirt, but increasingly with rugby jerseys and the like, as suits the occasion.  Critically, you should be able to answer the question: “is anything worn under your kilt?” with this response: “no, nothing, everything is in perfect working order”.

Where

In South Africa kilts are strongly connected to Scotch whisky, so you’ll see them swishing about at whisky festivals, Burns suppers, and other whisky functions.  They’re also popular at weddings and various celebrations – at least those with Scottish links.  The most epic local kilt-wearing event though is undoubtedly the annual banquet of the Keepers of the Quaich in early November.  The Keepers as an organisation is only about 30 years old, established circa 1987 – by a South African no less, James Espey – to promote the interests and the fellowship of Scotch whisky, but it gives the deep impression that it has accumulated centuries of venerable existence.  The organisation is exclusive – there are only 53 Keepers in the South African “Chapter”, each having served a minimum of five years in the industry, having been nominated to join and seconded by two existing Keepers, and having been inaugurated at the magnificent Blair Castle in Scotland – but it is not elitist – the organisation simply does not recognise rank.   Attendance at the banquet is by invitation only, so you’d need to cultivate a relationship to crack the nod.   And make no mistake – it’s a golden invitation.  There are few things to compare with feasting on haggis and fine whisky in the boisterous company of kilted-up whisky folk.  May the dram be with you!

Sidebar – Kilts and the accompanying dress can be purchased or rented from Staghorn, the country’s only Scottish outfitters, based in Plumstead, Cape Town.  021 761 4853.  http://www.scottishoutfitting.com/.

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San Francisco days, San Francisco nights

The long haul will be quickly forgotten, the city once there etched on you forever.  We never will be through, San Francisco.

First published in GQ Magazine (November 2016 edition).

San Fran.  Frisco. SF.  It’s hardly surprising when remarking on this city, that these conversant-with diminutives abound, even from those who haven’t come within a parsec of the place.  The tendency exists for good reason: because the city is so damned pervasively to-the-marrow-of-its-bones cool that people subconsciously ache for this familiarity.  And I’m not talking about some indefinable, je ne sais quoi cool.  No, this is the obvious, all-encompassing kind.  Very simply – San Francisco is the complete package.  Awe-inspiring beauty.  Tick.  Distinct and interesting character.  Tick.  Cosmopolitan.  Tick.  Diverse range of things to see and do.  Tick, tick, tick!  I could go on ad nauseam but I think you get the picture.  They say things are bigger and better in America and with San Francisco representing even an unimpressionable (if not downright cynical) person like me would find the sentiment difficult to dispute.  To quote Jim Morrison: “The West is the best.  Get here, and we’ll do the rest”.   He may just as well have been thinking of San Francisco when he wrote it.

Stay

The Mission, Castro, Nob Hill, SOMA, Chinatown, Haight-Ashbury…  San Francisco is replete with a plethora of fascinating, willful, extraordinary neighbourhoods.  As I was wandering through Castro, I happened upon a guy wearing only takkies (sneakers!) and a cock-sock.  Not something you see every day I thought to myself.  Apparently though, in Castro, this is exactly the sort of thing that you see every day.

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Most of these areas have their own unique personality, into one of which you may want to immerse yourself for the duration of your visit, depending on your particular preferences.  Personally, I’m an advocate of the central location, the convenient springboard from which to access and explore a city easily.  In pursuit of this objective you’ll be hard pressed to find better than the brand-new, downtown-based Axiom Hotel.  From its fibre-optic internet connections delivered via individual routers, its interactive TV-interfaced information and entertainment system, and its paperless philosophy, to its communal tables, its pets welcome policy (with no extra cost), and its foosball table and arcade games, this place is a mirror of the city’s young, progressive and tech-savvy essence.

28 Cyril Magnin Street San Francisco CA 94102, +1 415-392-9466

http://www.axiomhotel.com/

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Drink

Some places keep their distance, warming to you and you to them only gradually.  Frisco, with our trip kicking off at the Press Club San Francisco, gave us a big, welcoming hug right at from start.  I was cognisant that I was near the heart of America’s wine country, but that I wouldn’t have the time to visit any of the outlying wineries.  Lucky then for wine bars like this one.  I sat back in the elegantly appointed surroundings, the DJ creating a buzzing atmosphere for the 200 odd patrons (with some excellent remixed hard rock), and tasted eight of the 300 different available expressions, paired with options from a vast, exquisite small-plates pairing menu.  The sumptuous food and wine, the relaxed cosmopolitan crowd, and lesbian speed dating taking place at the table behind me plugged me straight into the SF vibe.

20 Yerba Buena Lane San Francisco CA 94103, +1 415-744-5000

www.pressclubsf.com

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Eat

I’ve travelled extensively to Paris, Rome, and London, cities that I’d consider to be heavyweight culinary capitals, but I’ve never eaten as well, across the board, as I did in San Francisco – a compliment not lightly dispensed.  I set out specifically to experience three types of eateries: traditional, funky, and fine dining.  In that order then.

Fog Harbor Fish House

Dungeness crab, and clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl – these are the iconic San Francisco dishes, in which Fog Harbor specialises.  With the restaurant being located in Pier 39, the city’s equivalent of the V&A Waterfront, and being part of a group, I was somewhat concerned that the experience might be a bit artificial, pre-packaged for the tourist masses.   There were tourists, no doubt (I tend to overlook in such instances that I’m one myself), but this didn’t detract from what turned out to be a long, lingering, satisfyingly authentic lunch, drinking craft beer and local wine, and contemplating the knockout view of the Bay.  We sampled the crab, the chowder, the bread (from reputed baker Boudin), and a mixed seafood grill, all of which was delicious, but, ironically, the highlight was the outstanding crème brulee.  Go figure.

39 Pier 39 Concourse San Francisco CA 94133, +1 415-421-2442

www.fogharbor.com

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Foreign Cinema

Ostensibly this spot’s claim to fame is its screening of seminal movies, foreign or otherwise (the Goonies whilst we were there), intended and executed as ambience rather than active entertainment.   They’ve created a unique atmosphere, possibly the most charming and compelling that I’ve ever experienced in a restaurant, from the retro, theatre-style façade and entrance passage to the al fresco dining area, a large courtyard fringed by a wall onto which the films are projected.   But as attractive as it is, it would be a disservice to get overly caught up in the veneer, because Foreign Cinema has a real epicurean depth and credibility to it.  The wine list numbers 800 odd, flabbergasting for a neighbourhood brasserie, and the selection of oysters alone, a speciality clearly, runs to a dozen odd, impressive for any establishment anywhere.   The rest of the menu is expansive and imaginative – the American caviar, cod gratin, fried chicken, and rhubarb and huckleberry cheesecake that I was served were all delightful – and to my further astonishment, I was told that it changes daily.  You’d have to twist my rubber arm to go back to verify.

2534 Mission Street San Francisco CA 94110, +1 415-648-7600

www.foreigncinema.com

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Photo by Charlie Villyard

Saison

Wow!  If Mazlow’s hierarchy was adapted to eating specifically, then Saison would be its self-actualisating apex.  After a visit here it seemed vulgar to me that food should have to be used for physical sustenance when it’s so obviously suited to a much higher purpose.  I asked the head sommelier on arrival if there was any particular theme to his wine and drinks menu.  His reply was that they simply look to source and offer the very best of everything.  And that was my sense of it for the place in its entirety.  Our 15-course tasting menu introduced itself with salt seasoned caviar in an egg custard accompanied by a little loaf of fat basted bread, so ridiculously good that I thought they’d overreached too early.  Oh ye of little faith indeed.  In a meandering, bibulous journey with such highlights as trout (from “Battle Creek”!), lobster, abalone (in a sauce of its liver and capers), crab, and wild boar, and a variety of dishes – such as the grilled artichoke barigoule – made from vegetables cultivated in the restaurant’s own garden, my doubts were put to the sword in decisive fashion.  The wines with which these courses were paired were predictably spectacular but it is the Eiko Fuji unpasteurised sake and the Jacques Perritaz cider (who knew cider could taste like this!) that live largest in my memory.   A place of understated elegance and outrageous tantalisation.

178 Townsend Street San Francisco CA 94107, +1 415-828-7990

www.saisonsf.com

2nd Course: Golden Osetra Caviar

Shop

Valencia Street in the Mission, a hip, slightly eccentric assemblage featuring artisanal purveyors of all persuasions, offers the opportunity for an extended stretch of mellow ambling and browsing, with a stop for some gelato here, and a nibble on some chocolate there.  Drop in at Tartine in the general area for an excellent if overpriced pastry (or even for an asparagus croque monsieur).  Hayes Valley flaunts a lively retail scene, Haight Street still has the same vibrancy as I imagine it did during the Summer of Love,  the Ferry Building market is a gourmet’s treat , and if you’re about at the right time of year you’ll want to catch the inimitable 420 (look it up) exhibition (a pop-up market really) in Golden Gate Park.   However whilst these trendy, signature San Fran spots are all well and good, this is still the US of A, where the shopping mall is king.  Here specifically it’s the Westfield that reigns.  Large (170 shops), upmarket (Bloomingdale’s, Michael Kors, Hugo Boss), central (epicentral!), it presented me with the occasion to track down and secure an obscure-ish piece of luggage that I’d been hankering after.  In fact the selection was so vast that I found it in no less than three places.  Never mind Alice’s Restaurant, it’s here where you can get anything you want.  Special mentions for David’s Tea, an outlet offering 150 varieties, and Tap 415, where you’ll get a large range of not only draught beer but also wine on tap (which prevents oxidisation), and other specialities like chicharones, pretzel nuggets, and the show-stopping Tap burger, a hamburger for the ages.

865 Market Street San Francisco CA 94103, +1 415-512-6776

www.westfield.com/sanfrancisco

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See

There are dozens of exciting possible excursions in and around Frisco, but the area’s incredible beauty is perhaps best appreciated on the Bay itself.  From the variety of operators plying the water we opted for the Hornblower brunch cruise.  Americans don’t mess around when it comes to buffets, and this lavish spread was no exception.  I was able to enjoy unparalleled views of the city (those famous ski-jump streets), the Golden Gate and Bay bridges, and the surrounding areas (Oakland, Sonoma, and Sausalito in the distance), all from the sated comfort of a liner-style dining deck, with live piano included.

Pier 3 Hornblower Landing The Embarcadero San Francisco CA 94111, +1 415-788-8866

www.hornblower.com

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These are views of which you just can’t get enough, and I had a second bite when we subsequently visited Alcatraz.  I’d been fascinated with the place since watching Clint Eastwood in “Escape from Alcatraz”, a true story – one of many colourful stories about the island and its former inhabitants, so I was determined to fulfil it with my own on-the-spot insights of America’s most notorious prison.  Alcatraz is welded into San Francisco’s landscape both geographically and culturally, and as such it’s an indispensable inclusion in any itinerary.

Pier 33 Alcatraz Landing San Francisco California 94133, +1 415-981-7625

www.alcatrazcruises.com

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For a young city San Fran has a rich history.  The Presidio, a large tract of land at its northern end, offers a great portal into parts of this past, by way of its museum, its heritage buildings and structures, its free programs at the The Presidio Officers’ Club, and its own pivotal role in local and national events.  Dating back to 1776, the time of the Spanish settlement, it served as a military base for most of its existence before being transferred to the Presidio Trust to manage as a national park.   Moreover though, it’s a kill-ten-birds-with-one-stone, multifaceted type of place, the possibilities ranging from walking and biking (and just gazing out from the overlooks) along a picturesque, 24-mile trail in its forested parklands, mass picnicking on Thursdays and Sundays, feasting in one of its choice of ten eateries (try the margaritas at Arguello, yum!), golfing, swimming at Baker Beach, camping at the city’s only campground, and much much more given that it also accommodates a brewery, a bowling alley, a trampoline park, and tennis courts.  This rambling resort is easily arrived at to boot by means of a free shuttle from downtown.  Stay at the historic inn, take in some live music, get a look at the Walt Disney Family Museum, and visit Yoda’s statue outside the Lucas Films HQ.

The Presidio San Francisco ‎CA 94129, +1 415-561-4323

www.presidio.gov

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Listen

I read a report recently that claimed that San Fran’s black population had declined from one in seven in 1970, to one in twenty today.  One of the casualties of these shifting dynamics has been the city’s jazz scene, previously bustling, now reduced to only a few dedicated clubs.  Deluxe is an endearingly gritty jazz “dive” that’s keeping the flag flying and flying high.   Their focus is firmly the music – the excellent Bastet, playing on the night that we visited, is one of 60 odd bands on their books – but they also mix a mean Tom Collins.

1511 Haight Street San Francisco CA 94117, +1 415-552-6949

www.clubdeluxe.co

Tour

It’s not really feasible to walk San Francisco.  It may not be the largest of cities, by American standards, but it’s large enough.   Cycling though, which retains a point-blank perspective but with added reach, is a great option.  It’s popular in these parts both as a sport – Specialized has its head office close-by – and as a commuting format, with multiple bike lanes facilitating.  We chose Streets of San Francisco bike tours, based on excellent TripAdvisor reviews and it didn’t disappoint: from the decent bikes, and the complementary water and snacks, to the knowledgeable guide, very importantly, who was able to instruct us on a diverse topics including street art, architecture, culture, and history, never mind the geography of the place (one part of it being the reputed “Wiggle”, the hill-avoiding traverse) – making us feel like we were able to get under the surface of the city in a short space of time.

370 Linden Street San Francisco CA 94102, +1 415-448-7673

www.sosfbiketours.com

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Special thanks to San Francisco Travel (www.sanfrancisco.travel).

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Back to its roots

Whisky finds new inspiration from within.  PATRICK LECLEZIO looks at the emerging trend of beer cask maturation.

First published in Prestige Magazine (October 2016 edition).

Sometimes the best ideas are those that have been staring you in the face all along.  Familiarity is fickle lens.  Often you can’t see the potential in something that is closest to you.  Until you do.  And even then it can be a while until it takes hold.  The situation I’m about to describe has taken hundreds of years to emerge, when it was right there from the start.  Perhaps the world wasn’t ready for it, perhaps the industry and market conditions were not amenable until recently.  It is flabbergasting nonetheless that something so obvious should have taken so long.  Shortly before 2001 the chaps at William Grant looked at whisky deeply (I like to imagine them scrying, like a soothsayer with a bowl of water), at its very DNA, and saw a glimpse of the future.  That future was in fact the elemental past.  The future of whisky that revealed itself to them was…beer.

There’s a certain synchronicity to this occurrence, because whisky is in fact made from beer – the wash from which it’s distilled is also known as “distiller’s beer”.  The ingredients are virtually the same, with the exception of the hops – although where legislation allows, as is the case with American whiskeys, distillers have been experimenting with making hopped-up whiskey, so to speak, from consumer-ready, finished beer.  These are undoubtedly interesting developments worth exploring but since these products are yet to wash up on our shores, the effort is best shelved for another time.  More relevant is the flowering of those early Grant’s initiatives, which resulted in the Grant’s Ale Cask Reserve, and incidentally in the Innis & Gunn range of cask matured beers.

The intention had been to season casks with ale, casks which would then be used to further mature (i.e. finish) whisky, and impart flavours which it would draw from the ale.  This intuitively feels right.   What better way to bring balance and equilibrium than to find it from within yourself?  The analogy that comes to mind – intellectually, I certainly won’t be dwelling on it when I’m suiting down to nip on a dram – is an organ transplant. If you were able to donate organs to yourself (stretching this to make more sense, imagine yourself in this scenario as being an identical twin brother or a clone), then the chances of a harmonious result are hugely enhanced.

The Ale Cask Reserve and its successive incarnation, the Grant’s Ale Cask Finish, were well received, but in fifteen odd years since its ignition, the flame of this new phenomenon has spread only modestly.  In fact its widest (and unintended) impact has been on the arena not of whisky but of beer.  Once this beer had done its job on the casks, it was “discovered” that the casks had also done a job on the beer.  The story that we’re told is that the beer was slated for disposal but that workers were taking it home to drink it, such was its tastiness.  Now this sounds somewhat cultivated, it makes for good copy as they say – who’d believe that canny Scots would waste potentially good beer (or anything really) without checking it out first.  Regardless of whether it was all part of the plan or not, the beer was unarguably good, and it birthed the delicious Innis & Gunn range, and gave a massive impetus to the development of cask-aged beer.   A great idea is a still a great idea though, even if people are slow to see it.  The flame is now starting to flare.

With the release of Jameson’s Caskmates last year and Glenfiddich’s IPA experiment this year the next wave of beer matured whisky, now pounding at the dam wall, is being unleashed.  The former is partly matured in stout seasoned casks, fittingly for something of Irish provenance, and the latter is finished in casks that have been seasoned with a craft India Pale Ale.  I was impressed by the boldness of the Caskmates, which is a departure from the standard, more muted Jameson (which I always find interesting, but limited by diluted-seeming flavours).  This whisky may have sprung from the same loins, but it’s the rowdier and more boisterous sibling, the one who’s had a few pints.  A loud but good natured whisky. I’m a huge fan of the IPA style of beer so I found myself gravitating naturally to the Glenfiddich, which beautifully evidenced the anticipated hoppy flavours.  The whisky is rich without being full, possibly because it’s a touch young, but it’s wonderfully layered and palate hugging, with tranches of citrus and boiled sweets overlaying oak and cereal.  This is a sit-down-with-a-buddy-and-finish-the-bottle kind of whisky – which I almost did, finding restraint only because I knew I’d be appreciating it in diminishing measures.  It’s good enough to tempt you, but concurrently good enough to stop you.

The time seems to be right for this trend to kick on, for that dam wall to burst.  We’ve witnessed an explosion and proliferation in the craft beer arena, so if conditions weren’t optimally in place previously, the stars are now unequivocally in perfect alignment.  There is a plethora of variety from which to constitute a new palette of well-integrated, complementary flavours.  In an industry where the scope for innovation is limited, this is a breath of fresh, invigorating barley air, a genuine meaningful dose of originality in a marketplace where the invocation of “new” is beginning to feel like lip service.  May the brew be with you.

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Amsterdam in brief

Familiar and foreign both, Holland’s metropole strikes a poised balance as the ultimate place for a short city break.

First published in GQ Magazine (September 2016 edition).

I find myself in the fortunate position, courtesy of my work commitments, to be able to intermittently sojourn in a European city, typically for a long weekend.  The choice of destination is critical in this endeavour.  Given that these trips only manifest about once a year, so regularly but not often, and given the parlous state of the currency, I simply can’t face the prospect of disappointment.  The chosen city must therefore meet certain conditions – it must be convenient, distinctive, and interesting.  This year I opted for Amsterdam.  The conclusion, first – before you read on any further:  wau!  Or so the Dutch would say it.  The visit left me struggling to imagine any alternative that would have more emphatically fulfilled my criteria.

Convenient

If your time is limited you don’t want to be dealing with multiple transfers and contorted logistics.  Amsterdam Schiphol is a direct flight on KLM, a single stop on a host of other airlines, and an easy connection from all the major (and many of the minor) European cities.  It’s then a short journey of 20-odd minutes from the airport to the city’s central station by train.

Foreign languages are part of the charm of a holiday abroad, a charm particularly poignant in Amsterdam because of the filial relationship between Dutch and Afrikaans.  But they’re also an impediment, especially during a short stay when you’ll have neither the time nor inclination to wrestle with a language barrier.  The Dutch, and probably Amsterdamers in particular, speak the best English in Continental Europe.

The city’s tourism organisation IAMSTERDAM offers cards for purchase which include all public transport, canal tours, museum visits, and discounts at shops and restaurants.  They’re handy, although I found that I rarely needed to use the trams and the buses – the city centre is condensed enough that if you’re at your leisure anything other than walking is largely unwarranted.

Distinctive

The places that etch their mark most profoundly on our consciousness, that live longest and most vividly in our memories, are the ones with their own, unique, individual character.  If you were wake up here with no recollection of where you were – this city, with its canals, bicycles and winching beams…and its “coffee” shops and red light district, would immediately reveal itself to you, and impress itself (favourably!) upon you.

Interesting

Amsterdam has it all.  A deep and rich history.  A heritage of arts and innovation.   A broad culture encompassing food and drink, music and theatre, fashion and sports.  It’s a place of vibrant energy and unpretentious cool, endowed with a seemingly endless supply of things to see and do.

 Stay

The Conservatorium

Taking its name from the music school previously resident, the Conservatorium Hotel occupies a heritage building, renovated and extended by Piero Lissoni.  The result is a blend of the traditional and the contemporary that creates a reassuring, luxurious elegance.  The place is a spoil, be warned, but it delivers throughout: from the unusual split level rooms, the superbly well-equipped gym, the sumptuous spa with its watsu pool, and the Asian restaurant (Taiko) with its certified sake sommeliers to the quirky decorations, the shopping gallery with its cigar club, and the host department, which gets in touch with you ahead of your visit to assess your requirements and offer advice. The highlight perhaps is the flagship I love Amsterdam suite, nudged from the spectacular that you would expect to the outrageously sublime by a viewing deck, accessed by a spiral staircase to the roof of the hotel, which offers wraparound views of the city.  My only caution would be that its location is set slightly outside the thick of things, but the hotel offers bicycles to guests (naturally!) as a remedy so this is a negligible concern.  If it’s beyond your budget to stay then stop in at the excellent brasserie – with its community table for solo travellers, what a simple but beautiful idea – for a meal of duck breast or pikeperch, both exquisite, washed down with a Petit Chablis, to take in the charm of the place.

Paulus Potterstraat 50 – 1071 DB Amsterdam, +31 (0) 20 570 0090

http://www.conservatoriumhotel.com

Dine

In a city that is both rooted in its traditions and that pushes the boundaries I thought it was important to experience both ends of the spectrum.

Supperclub

This restaurant seemed so avant garde to me that I was taken aback to learn that it had been operating for some 25 years.  Patrons recline at tables set on large beds, whilst being entertained by DJ’s and a variety of unconventional performers – imagine a fusion of Madame Zingara’s and the Blue Oyster Bar.  I don’t think I was successful in bringing out my “inner travolta” as they urged me to do, but I made a great time of it nonetheless.  It goes without saying too that the food was sumptuous.  An iconic Amsterdam experience!

Singel 460 – 1017 AW Amsterdam, +31 (0)20 344 6400

http://supperclub.amsterdam/en

Haesje Claes

This family-run restaurant is an institution, having maintained persistent popularity since its inception some 40 years ago.  It’s a large place, but with its multiple dining areas enclosed into smaller separated spaces, with its decor of authentic Dutch furnishings, and with its friendly, chatty staff, an intimate atmosphere prevails.  Haesje Claes is a window to the past, to the old Holland of the seafaring age – I imagined myself a sailor, freshly stepped off a ship from the Indies, as I devoured a much anticipated meal of my favourite pea soup and stamp potten (a stew of sorts), whilst my wench, delighted at my return, celebrated with a dish of the local weaverfish with prawns and mussels.   Hearty and delicious.

Spuistraat 275 – 1012 VR Amsterdam, +31 (0) 20 624 9998

www.haesjeclaes.nl

Drink

Wynand Fockink

With a name that made me smile every time I articulated it I was enjoying this place – a working distillery in the very centre of town – long before I actually got there.  Tours of the distillery are available on weekends, offering the ideal opportunity to learn about Holland’s traditional spirit, jenever (pronounced ye-nay-va).  It’s an ancestor of gin, but I found it more related to blended whisky, especially the premium Korenwijn style.  The accompanying bar is small but hugely popular, and incredibly fascinating.  Its knowledgeable barman schooled me in Dutch drinking habits:  the “buigen voor de borrel” ritual, which involves bending over to drink from an overfilled glass in order to avoid spillage (the Dutch are known to be thrifty), and the “kopstouter”, the traditional manner of drinking jenever, which is beer accompanied by a chaser of the stuff.   The real highlight though is a stupefying range, shelf after shelf, of sensational liqueurs and fruit brandies.  I’m not a huge fan of liqueurs but the flavours of the “half and half”, the “singelburger” and the “hansje in de kelder” blew me away.

Pijlsteeg 31 – 1012 HH Amsterdam, +31 (0) 20 639 2695

http://www.wynand-fockink.nl

Hoppa

I love the concept of craft beer, so when I learnt that Amsterdam had a bar entirely dedicated to the genre I inked it on my itinerary immediately.  The beers were hit and miss, as one might expect from microbrews, but the array of flavours was impressive, living up easily to the promise suggested by their colourful names: Tropical Ralfie, Howling Wolf, and Thai Thai, to name a few.  I was particularly pleased to be served from a growler tap, one of only two in the city, a device which I was encountering for the first time and which apparently controls the level of carbonation (to prevent over-foaming) – and indeed it was a superlative pour.  Hoppa is the perfect place to while away a few hours, enjoying great beer and charcuterie, whilst gazing on the adjacent canal and contemplating this enthralling city.

Singel 460 – 1017 AW Amsterdam, +31 (0)20 344 6400

http://hoppa.amsterdam/en

Snack

If a Dutch person were stranded on a desert island and given a choice of two foodstuffs as sustenance, it would undoubtedly be cheese and pastries.  And I wouldn’t argue with it.

Reypenaer

If you thought like me that great cheese was in the making then you stand corrected.  The people at Reypenaer don’t even make their own cheese, they’re entirely focused on maturation because they believe that it contributes 80% of the eventual flavour.   Based in Woerden, Holland’s cheese capital, with its conducive microclimate, Reypenaer cheese is matured in a wooden warehouse, allowing it to absorb flavours from the wood over time, much like a fine spirit.  The shop in Amsterdam offers a tasting of six cheeses paired with wine, ranging from a light, tangy four month-old goat cheese, to the rich and potent three year-old gouda XO.  Yum?  An understatement!

Singel 182 – 1015 AJ Amsterdam, +31 (0) 20 320 6333

www.reypenaercheese.com

Pastries

You couldn’t throw a croissant in Amsterdam without hitting a bakery or a patisserie, and you’d probably be locked up for callous wastage if you did.  There’s a bit of everything – Amsterdam after all is one of the world’s great cosmopolitan centres – but the local fare, the moreish stroopwaffels and poffertjes, should be foremost in your attentions.   Inexplicably they haven’t travelled; you’re unlikely to get them easily elsewhere, so make hay whilst the sun shines.

Listen

Café Alto

Holland is home to the North Sea Jazz Festival, so the country’s a bit of a hub for this style of music.  Café Alto is one of Amsterdam’s foremost live jazz venues,  with a reputation for hosting top quality acts – and, for the most part, somehow, not charging couvert.   No second invitation required.

Korte Leidsedwarsstraat 115 – 1017 PX Amsterdam, +31 (0)20 626 3249

www.jazz-cafe-alto.com

Shop

De Bijenkorf

I was in Amsterdam during the late-January sales, which were so compelling that purchases made sense even in beleaguered Rand terms.   The city centre is replete with a wide variety of shops and stores, including those of reputed Dutch labels such a G-Starr and Whisky and Soda – which is brilliant if you’re inclined to expedition about, but for a quick one-stop shop head to De Bijenkorff, an all-singing, all-dancing department store usefully located at the epicentre on Dam Square.

Dam 1 – 1012 JS Amsterdam, 0800-0818 (Netherlands) or +31 (0)88 245 3333 (other countries)

www.debijenkorf.nl

  Chill

All that walking around might up your shares on Fitbit, but it also parches the throat and piques the appetite.  Take a break at these enchanting cafes.

Ivy & Bros

This place screams hipster at the top of its voice, which I’ll confess had me in two minds.   My fears though were unfounded.  Whilst the pricing was a touch liberal, and the service a little off-beat, predictably so, the value of the experience could not be faulted.  I was held in rapt by the Ismael Lo soundtrack, by an excellent, original smoothie, and by décor which included a replica of the jaws of a megladon – something you don’t see every day.

Oudezijds Voorburgwal 96A – 1012 GH Amsterdam, +31 6 1192 4244

https://www.facebook.com/ivyandbros

De Laatste Kruimel

I kept walking past this quaint little eatery at inappropriate times but it made such an impression on me, its windows almost bursting with home-style baked goods, that I committed myself to returning.  And I’m glad I did.  The fare is simple – quiches, sandwiches and cakes – but it’s wholesomely delicious.  In case you’re wondering I did polish off my order of a turkey sandwich and a raspberry frangipane tart…to the last crumb.

Langebrugsteeg 4  – 1012 GB Amsterdam, +31 (0)20 423 0499

http://www.delaatstekruimel.nl

See

Rijksmuseum

This marvel is everything that you’d anticipate from the national museum of a country as pioneering, energetic and prolific as Holland.  The art collection (I use the term broadly) is astounding for its own intrinsic value – there are Van Gogh’s and Rembrandt’s aplenty, including the breath-taking, outsized Nightswatch, and much, much more besides – but also because it tells the story of a captivating history.  Not to be missed.

Museumstraat 1- 1071 XX Amsterdam, +31 (0)20 674 7000

www.rijksmuseum.nl

Anne Frank House

A visit to this memorial is both emotional and, in my opinion, necessary.  There are certain things that should never be forgotten.  The horror and absurdity of Nazism is excruciatingly vivid, and haunting, when seen through the eyes of a child whilst sharing the very same space in which it was experienced.  You’ll want to brace yourself but this excursion is well worthwhile if you want to add some meaning to the fun of your trip.

Prinsengracht 267 – 1000 AS Amsterdam, +31 (0)20 556 7105

www.annefrank.org

GQ Amsterdam 1

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GQ Amsterdam 2

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Complementary drinks

A contextualised guide to the appreciation of fine liquor

First published in GQ Magazine (March 2016 edition – South Africa).

I recently watched Kingsman, a rip snorting romp of a spy movie in which suave veteran Harry Hart mentors young buck Eggsy on how to be a gentleman, the latter being a bit rough around the edges. His second lesson instructs on the making of a proper Martini. A little overly-trodden, and a little insufficient, but it had me nodding in agreement – yes indeed, gentlemen should know their liquor. What to drink when, and how. The right juice if you will for the right occasion. I don’t think I’m overstating the matter in suggesting that a cultivated repertoire is a vital attribute if you hope to evolve your masculinity to the next level. Well, maybe a little, but let’s just agree that it’s important. I may not be cast from the same aristocratic superspy mould but in this case I think I can step in where he left off. If you thought then that this was going to be a piece on cadging free booze I have this suggestion (now that I’ve assumed the mantle) for you: a gentleman should also own a dictionary (preferably the dictionary). But that’s just in passing. The matter at hand is drinks, and it is where I’ll make my bid for a small contribution to the lexicon of gentlemanliness.

Complement: “something that completes”, “one of a pair, or one of two things that go together”.

When it comes down to it life is about complementariness. The search for harmony. For optimality. The bringing of balance to the force. There are moments and occasions, which, whilst giving their own fundamental value to how you experience them, can be amplified, transformed even, made complete at the very least, by the right complements. In these instances, when they pertain to the not insignificant (as I think we’ve established) subject of drinks, it is beholden upon you to bring your gentlemanly knowledge to bear.

When: celebrations

What: champagne
An obvious one to start. From victories and Valentines, to birthdays and betrothals, this geographically indicated sparkling wine is synonymous with celebration. The crisp, dry taste – and the tingling mouthfeel, courtesy of its hallmark fine bubbles – of brut champagne is the foundation on which it’s forged its popularity, but, as if often the case with liquor, perception plays almost as much of a role as the liquid itself. The popping of corks, launching of ships, the sabrage method, the champagne towers, and its many other rituals have all impressed this drink on our collective consciousness as something distinctly special.

Try: Veuve Clicquot Rich. I’ve marked many of the milestones in my life with Veuve, and it’s always lived up to expectations, with its superior taste, depth of heritage, and innovative approach. The Maison Veuve Clicquot in Reims too adds to the charm and is well worth the visit. Rich in particular is an accessible, versatile offering which lends itself to personalised drinking. Shake things up by mixing in some cassis for a classic Kir Royale, or by creating your own infusions.

When: landmark celebrations

What: vintage spirits
A vintage bottling refers to liquid that was distilled and put into maturation in a single calendar year – the one denoted on its label. It is individual and variable by design, differing from a distillery’s standard bottlings, which may draw from production spanning various years in order to achieve flavour consistency. As such it captures the essence of one particular year – and what better way to fete an epic birthday or anniversary than by experiencing a little “stolen” taste of that specific period in time.

Try: Balblair vintage highland single malt Scotch whisky. I’ve had the privilege of enjoying their 1983, 1989, 1990 and 2000 vintages, all occupying the zone between delicious and outstanding, and I can reliably say that each is a fitting tribute.

When: summer and sunshine
What: caipirinha
Nothing evokes summer like sand and sea – so it seems fitting to take the lead for the season’s drink from the world’s foremost beach culture. A well-made caipirinha ticks all the boxes: it’s cool and refreshing – the essential attribute of course, it builds further with its complex and interesting flavour (but without being too challenging – that type of effort would only interfere with the fun and relaxation), and it’s strong and pure enough to be taken seriously – fun is great, frivolous is a waste of your gentlemanly time.
Try: Germana cachaça. The prime ingredient in the caipirinha is Brazil’s inimitable (no, it’s not rum) home-grown spirit. This stuff ranges from the cheap and nasty to the aromatic and sublime, with corresponding results for your caipirinha. Germana – a pot-stilled, artisanal cachaça housed in an unmistakeable banana bark wrapped bottle – features within the latter category. One word of caution – easy on the sugar.

When: gala events
What: martini
Ah, the martini resurfaces, as we always knew it must. Whoever said clothes maketh the man had clearly not yet encountered this most elegant of drinks – or he would have supplied an addendum. Your dress attire simply isn’t complete without the iconic martini stemware dangling languidly from your hand, and conversely a martini will never taste as downright delightful as it does when you’re suited and booted. And should it turn out to be a stuffy affair…well, let’s say that your bases are covered.

Try: Bombay Sapphire. Everyone has their own take on the Martini – here’s mine: Gin, of course, not vodka – it’s so much more interesting; and preferably a soft gin like Bombay. Dry vermouth – it exists for a reason. Noel Coward’s diametrically opposed view is that “a perfect Martini should be made by filling a glass with gin, then waving it in the general direction of Italy”, but how seriously can you take someone who thinks that the vermouth deployed in a martini comes from Italy? Pas du tout, I’m afraid. A ratio of five parts gin to one part vermouth – stirred or swirled, not shaken. Pour into a chilled glass. Garnish with olives or a twist, depending on your mood.

When: sports

What: craft beer
It’s difficult enough to maintain your cool, calm, gentlemanly demeanour when watching your favourite team play a nail-biting game without introducing liquor into the equation. But then again it wouldn’t be half as enjoyable as with a few drinks. The solution is something moderate, like beer. It’s crisp and refreshing, which is important for day-time drinking, it can be deliciously flavoursome, and, let’s face it, we’ve been pre-conditioned by a relentless avalanche of advertising and sponsorship campaigns to associate beer with sports. It feels right, so why fight it? You can choose though to cock a snook at those corporate puppeteers by applying your refined palate to the consumption of small-batch beer – to reassure yourself that you still have free will, and because it’s tastier by far.

Try: Jack Black. One of the original operators in the proliferating Cape Town craft scene, it now boasts the three additional variants, alongside the legendary flagship lager – my favourite being the Skeleton Coast IPA, a pleasingly bitter ale with a full well-balanced cereal flavour. The 440ml format, which seems to be a standard in the category, and the 6.6% ABV employed by Jack Black on the IPA, deliver what I would describe as an ideal per-unit level of satisfaction.

When: a birth

What: cognac
It’s a time honoured tradition, the origins of which are obscured by the mists of time, to present and smoke cigars at the birth of a child, and there’s nothing better suited to supplement a stogie and to toast such a momentous event than a fine cognac. The fragrant aromas of the former, and the rich flavour of the latter, and the theatre of two in concert, cigar between the fingers in one hand, balloon glass filled with smoke in the other, is the best of backdrops for this congratulatory gathering.

Try: Courvoisier XO. The Jarnac-based Couvoisier is one of leading producers of cognacs, having established its reputation as the preferred cognac of no less a figure than Napoleon Bonaparte, a man with Europe at his feet and with the pick I’m sure of any fine spirit he might have desired. XO, which stands for extra old, refers to blends of cognac in which the youngest component is no less than six years old, and whilst age isn’t everything, it’s nonetheless a loosely reliable indicator amongst cognac’s big brands that you’ll be getting a suitably-matured, quality drink.

GQ comp drinks p1

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GQ comp drinks p2

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GQ comp drinks p3

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Running on the roof of the world

A tribute to the Himalayan. Patrick Leclezio reports on one of ultra-running’s unique races.

First published in Runner’s World magazine (March 2016 edition – South Africa).

Running brings out the best in people. It may be because we are born to it and that it is our essential state of being, if you accept (as I do) the theory proposed by Christopher McDougall; it may be because it challenges us to strive for many of the finer human qualities – discipline, persistence, and courage; or it may be, perhaps, because it inspires us to respond to adversity from a deep and pure place within ourselves. There’s just something about running that motivates us to reach for our better selves, or at least parts thereof. Now I don’t claim that this observation will stand up to any kind of scientific scrutiny, but it’s how I felt recently after watching a party of some thirty odd participants attempt the epic Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race. I bore witness to a group of runners doing some amazing things.

The Himalayan takes place over five gruelling days covering some of the most spectacular, but arduous, terrain imaginable. Run in the Darjeeling region of West Bengal in Northern India, it is as idiomatically far removed from a cup of the local produce as you could possibly fear to expect (and fear you should, at least somewhat). The race straddles the Nepalese border for much of its course, covering some ridiculous elevations, and reaches an oxygen-scarce altitude of almost 3700 metres. I may not be ultra-running fit, but I am fit – yet at this height above sea level even a light uphill stroll gave me pause for thought. Throw in the elements – we experienced rain, hail and bitter cold – and it became clear why this type of running is considered an adventure sport, and why this race is touted to be India’s premier adventure event. As I found the Race Director (and founder), the inimitable and voluble C. S. Pandey, to be fond of saying: an adventure is a “calculated risk”, and indeed the Himalayan delivered its fair share of uncertainty, on this its 25th anniversary as I’m guessing it did in previous years, for many if not most of the competitors.

The first stage sets out from Mane Bhanjang at some 1900m and climbs to the race apex at Sandhakphu, delivering gradients of hair-raising steepness during its course, uphill naturally, but also downhill – prompting I’m sure the disheartening sense of gains being given up in the progress towards this formidable summit. As a runner finishing in the cold and wet, on the verge of hypothermia, or ailing from altitude sickness, or just tired, sore and depleted, that first night, with sleep at such an unaccustomed altitude difficult, the thought of getting up to do it all over again the next day would have been a serious test of will. Yet get up they did, to a man (and woman, as the case had been).

The most, but by no means the only, remarkable example, was one my media companions, Helmut Linchbichler of Austria, a 74 year old, third-time Himalayan veteran. He’d been one of those badly affected by the weather, prey to a logistical miscalculation in the deployment of his rain gear. His predicament had been further aggravated when he’d taken a tumble during a trail run in the week preceding the race, leaving his upper leg badly bruised. On arrival at the finish he was chilled to the bone and looked in bad shape. 25 miles of torture. Wet, glacial conditions. No jacket and little insulation. 74! This guy was done…or so I had thought. But when I got up the next day, warmly ensconced in my down jacket, there he improbably was, in his running gear, smiling and joking, looking ready for come what may. I had clearly underestimated the fortitude of the man, of the running mindset, and of the Himalayan spirit.

The first two nights, with the second stage doubling back on itself along the ridge line, were spent at the summit at Sandakphu, where we were afforded the opportunity to sight four of the world’s five highest peaks – a breathtaking, affirming experience, when the participants would have needed it most. Kangchenjunga in particular, the third highest, and the most impressive in terms of breadth, more a massif than a single mountain, is so close that you can almost reach out and touch it. The place is both magically beautiful, its position dramatic, its views unparalleled (virtually), and vividly stark, the accommodation spartan, the comforts few. It is the perfect backdrop to test yourself in and against the majesty of nature.

The third stage also happened to be a marathon, the 263rd (!) for one of the runners – RAF retiree David Green, although there was some debate over whether it was standard or not, never resolved because of the patchy GPS connections in the region. Regardless, it featured a tremendous, quadriceps-crippling descent to the town of Rimbik, a return to approximately 1900m, where if I was delighted then the runners, despite their stoic forbearance, must have been maniacally overjoyed, to become reacquainted with running water and hot showers. Our little lodge (Hotel Tenzing Sherpa), made excellent by the earlier deprivations, but a warm and friendly place of its own accord, also offered another, entirely unexpected treat, which would have been a major boon for the calorie-craving runners: a tagliatelle napoletana of Neapolitan standard (poetic licence, apologies), with what tasted like genuine parmesan cheese. To suggest that this was surprising in these rural backwaters – where I couldn’t even get my hands on Indian tonic water – would be entirely insufficient.

As the race wore on into the fourth and fifth stages, with any significant flat stretch of track still to be taken into evidence (did I say gruelling?), it gradually started to become clear that stage racing is a beast all of its own. Experience and holistic preparation (as opposed to just training) would be crucial. The Himalayan is more about participation than competition – something that would have been apparent to any bystander from the camaraderie that prevailed throughout. To underscore the point the 2015 participants were each amateurs. All the same it is a race and it had attracted some prodigious runners. Over the first three days the contest was hard-fought by three of these – a hugely talented, 18 year-old Canadian, the leader at that point, running his first race of the kind, and two highly practiced Australians. The Aussies, Tegyn Angel and Kellie Emmerson, eventual winners, were noticeably well equipped, and were set apart by a professional approach to their race nutrition, which started to tell in the latter stages. The aid stations provided small oases of respite and nourishment, but their fare of bananas, potatoes, biscuits and water wasn’t enough for peak performance. Taking nothing away from their own talent, and the immense discipline and determination that would have been needed to train for and run this event so effectively, I’m sure nevertheless that this supplementation played an important role in staying stronger, and, critically, healthier, when many started to wane.

Others too fought and won their own battles. An Englishman struck down by an adverse reaction to the altitude and by the lingering effects of a cold gutsed it out over the full five days and finished strongly, in an impressive display of stiff-upper-lipped resolve. An American woman struggled with diarrhoea – woe betide the person whose immune system lets down its guard in India! – but also persisted bravely, to the end. It was rousing stuff. Insanely admirable. At times I had to ask myself why. What was it for? All runners have their own reasons, their own motivations, but I think everyone is driven by the elation that comes with finishing, and, for a race of this scale and stature, that unbridled joy – at overcoming the obstacles, at surmounting the challenge, at completing the mission, at giving the best of yourself and not being found wanting – seemed enough reward in and of itself. It was an occasion that enhanced the lore of running. And, say what you will, scrutiny or no scrutiny, it was truly an experience that brought out the best.

RW RUN THE WORLD MAR16

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India from the top

From Delhi to the Himalayas and back again. Patrick Leclezio recounts the highlights of a journey through northern India.

First published in Sawubona magazine (February 2016 edition).

No view can compare to the view from the roof of the world. I’m completely certain then that for as long as I live I’ll see few sights to rival a sunrise over Sandakphu. It’s difficult to describe the extent of its impact. The unfolding of it was so spectacular, its searing magnificence so pronounced, that the experience, spiritual if ever there was one – and if you’ll humour such an overused and underappreciated expression, will remain with me forever. If you’re lucky a trip will be defined by a staggering moment, that on its own justifies (and amplifies) the time, the expense and the effort. Standing there on that mountain, amidst a jumble of emotions, that was my sense of things. I felt completely fulfilled. Sated. I had the powerful realisation that – wow! – I didn’t need anything more.

The journey to Sandakphu, located on the Singalila Ridge in the Darjeeling district on the Indian border with Nepal, is long and progressively arduous: starting with a long haul flight to Delhi, then onto the lottery of Indian air travel with a domestic leg to Bagdogra, followed by an initially chaotic, later winding and precipitous road transfer to Mirik (in my case) and then Mane Bhanjang, and ending with a bone-jarring, at times hair-raising, ride to the 3700m summit in ancient, bald-tyred Land Rovers. The final stage is hiked over a few days by many visitors to the area, or, as was the case with the party I was accompanying, an audacious few, the participants of the Himalayan 100 Mile Stage Race, it can be run. The result is the same, give or take a few doses of exhaustion. You find yourself off the grid – no running water, no plumbing, no mobile phone signal, and if that’s off-putting then it’s your loss – in a rustic place that it would be trite to describe as beautiful. It was overcast when I arrived: grey velvet draped over a dramatic landscape, primed for a grand reveal. We were up at 04h30 the next day, ready for the show, anticipation now properly heightened. And then there it was. When the sun rose shortly thereafter, it gradually illuminated four of the world’s five highest peaks. Everest of course, iconic, clustered with Lhotse and Makalu, but at a distance. The most impressive – huge, dwarfing the others from our point-blank perspective – was the broad Kangchenjunga massif, culminating in the world’s third highest peak. Its presence was so imposing that I felt it more than I saw it. I had no doubt that I had experienced something profound.

The experience of the Himalayas proved central to my enjoyment of India. The prime objective of travel is to experience new places and new cultures, but the real reward comes from stepping outside of yourself and of your fixed views and habits, and of experiencing their reality through the eyes of the locals, or even of your fellow travellers. I was prompted with this “insight” whilst visiting the fascinating Himalayan Mountain Institute in Darjeeling early in the trip. Everest was first summited by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953. When I was growing up, learning history, Hillary was the central figure in the accomplishment, whilst Norgay was a footnote. In India, as I remarked at the Institute, those roles are reversed.  A matter of perspective. It reminded me to review my own preconceptions – which made the trip, especially the parts of it in the Himalayan region, literally translated as “house of snow”, considerably more enriching.

One of the features of the Darjeeling district  is of course its tea – the mountainsides are dotted with plantations – so in a when-in-Rome spirit I drank tea until it was coming out of my ears. We were afforded the opportunity to sample a variety of the Darjeeling styles but the one I found most interesting was a brew that we were served in the town of Rimbik – a smoky variety, the leaves clearly dried over a fire, reminiscent of lapsang souchong. My one regret, being pressed for time to make the departure of the Toy Train (officially the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway), was missing the chance to visit the Glenary Bakery, a highly reputed old colonial establishment which I’m told is the perfect place to enjoy these famous teas accompanied with some quality cakes and pastries.

With the race finished – five days of what seemed like torturous running and trekking for the participants, five days spent drinking deep of the stupendous scenery for me – we returned to Delhi, and to India proper. We would swap the teetering but relatively vacant roads, posted with signs imploring you to “enjoy the beauty of hills”, for an urban tumult of epic proportions. A Delhi traffic jam is bewildering. Every spare inch of road, the shoulders, the pavements and whatever other space is available, is utilised to bursting point, with the only rules seemingly being the same ones that govern the game of chicken. The city’s highlights for sightseeing include the Minaret, a structure that marks the onset of Muslim rule in the area, India Gate, the massive Arc de Triomphe style monument to the unknown soldier, surrounded by festive (during the weekend) parks, its many bazaars, which are overwhelmingly crowded, and the Gandhi Monument – at which I found it particularly interesting to tour the perimeter, where trees have been planted by representatives from countries around the world in tribute to this great leader, whilst everyone else was focused on the eternal flame at the centre.

A trip to India would not be complete without visiting its most celebrated structure – the Taj Mahal. I can’t say that I’m a connoisseur of architecture , but I’ve travelled Europe extensively and I’ve visited some of its most impressive historical structures, from the Colosseum and the Tower of London to Notre Dame and St. Peter’s Cathedral, and whilst I wouldn’t say that I’m blasé about it all I thought I’d be inured to more of the same. The impression that the Taj made on me though took me by surprise. It stands apart because of its simple, stunning beauty – both in conception and execution. The former is particularly meaningful. The significant buildings of human history are dedicated almost exclusively to the display of military, political or religious power, whereas the Taj is a memorial to love – the tribute of a king to his dead wife. Located some two hours (they say – in reality longer) south of Delhi, in Agra, a typically messy Indian town of haphazard construction, wandering livestock, and dense population, its pristine, shimmering white form in contrast eventually appears through the haze like a mirage in a desert. I was particularly taken with the impermeable white marble with which it was built, its feel and texture being as impressive as its appearance. It’s with no small reason that the Taj has become one of the most recognisable structures in the world.

India is a jewel of incomparable value and beauty, sometimes rough and unpolished, sometimes cast aside unknowingly. It’s worth taking the time to pick it up, clean it off and look at it with unencumbered appreciation. You get the feeling here that your experiences are often earned rather than just accessed or bought. And once earned it’s the type of place that rewards you tenfold. Bon voyage!

Travel tips

Cuisine: Their curries are legendary, vegetarians in particular will rejoice, but less well widely celebrated are the Indian desserts. I highly recommend the yoghurt based Shree Khand, a two thousand year old dish that has stood the test of time.

Airports: You’ll be required to show some proof of your ticket before being granted access to an Indian airport, which can take you unawares in this electronic age. Have a printout ready.

Yes or no?: Indians will shake their heads to signal an affirmative response, the opposite meaning to the rest of the world.

Lunch in Delhi: Escape the frantic bustle of the city with lunch at Lutyen’s Cocktail bar, one of Delhi’s hottest new eateries. Its colonial décor is a quaint throwback to the British Raj period, but more importantly – for me at least – is its wide range of imported beers, which provides a welcome respite from the diabolical (!) Indian fare.

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Rocking the repertoire

Entertaining with spirits.  A rough guide by Patrick Leclezio.

First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2015 edition).

Prestige Spirits Dec 2015 p1

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So you’re hosting a dinner and you’re fussing over the wine. Chenin with the fish. Or maybe a Chardonnay. And then a robust Shiraz with the fillet. Cool, sorted. Well, no, not really. Don’t feel bad though. This is a trap into which you’re easily ensnared. It’s become bizarrely commonplace to spend time and effort (and money!) selecting great wines for our guests, whilst then at the same time absentmindedly relying on whatever happens to be around, or perhaps just grabbing a six-pack or two, for the balance of the beverages. I’ve lost count of the occasions during which I’ve been disappointed by an absence of whisky, or gin, or been elated to find some gin, only to be told that there’s no tonic (vermouth – forget it!)…and that’s without even delving into the less popular drinks. There’s clearly something wrong with this picture.

And that’s that it doesn’t make sense. It is illogical, for three reasons. Firstly, the time spent eating is actually in the minority. That’s not to say that you can’t enjoy wine before or after the meal – but there are so many spirits out there that are considerably more interesting for the purpose. It brooks no argument that more attention can and should be devoted to making your guests happier during the larger part of their time with you. Secondly, if you harbour ambitions as a good host, a complete and cultivated host, then you should be encouraging a repertoire in tastes, or at least catering for a variety thereof. We have an incredibly diverse heritage of drinks from which to draw, established over centuries, tried and tested, and evolved to suit a multiplicity of occasions and a range of palates. It seems positively uneducated to act in ignorance of these traditions. Lastly, very simply, without being silly about it, spirits are simply more fun than wine. There’s a reason they call it a dinner party. Don’t let yours get stuck on the first word.

Freddie Mercury memorably sang: I want it all and I want it now. That’s not what I’m suggesting here. You don’t need to open a bar. And for that matter you don’t need to do it my way. This isn’t rocket science though, and I’ve given it some thought, so why reinvent the wheel. There are four easy considerations: what you should serve before, during and after the meal, and what wildcards you should hold (apologies for being coy, an explanation will follow). This is how you should play it.

The drinks served before the meal are called aperitifs. You’ll be serving these on arrival, and typically with snacks, so they need to be both refreshing and lubricating. The primary (but not exclusive) focus then should be on drinks that are typically consumed with a mixer of some sort. An aperitif is usually dry for classical tastes, but there’ll also be preferences for sweet. Keep an array of the more popular spirits: gin, vodka, rum, brandy, and whisky, along with these mixers: tonic, soda, coke, lime cordial, ginger ale, and a juice, perhaps cranberry. Water of course, preferably bottled, so that your fine spirits aren’t tainted by the chlorine in tap water. I personally don’t opt for garnish, but many people do, so it’s advisable have lime and lemon available. These are only the basics of course. I’d further recommend that you offer some depth of choice for at least one of these spirits – any other than vodka, where intrinsic variety is close to meaningless, and that you be prepared to mix a cocktail or two – caipirinhas and martinis are less frivolous options. This opening period sets the tone for the evening – first impressions count as they say – so it’s essential that it be effective.

The opportunity may now present itself to throw a wildcard on the table – a round of shooters. This may sound juvenile, but how it’s received is all in the context and the execution. Who’s in the mix? What’s the prevailing mood? Is there cause for celebration? Shooters are your firestarter – be ready to deploy, but don’t do it unnecessarily. Read the situation. And as for the choice of shooter: frozen vodka. Its curious texture and its innocuous taste should find universal appreciation.

With the meal – wine, as rule with few exceptions. It’s become quite trendy to pair fine spirits such as whisky and brandy with food, but whilst this is plausible for experimental or promotional purposes, it’s not self-perpetuating. These spirits should only be marginally diluted (or you’ll lose their flavour) and as a result they’re not lubricating enough to accompany anything heavy. Dessert is an exception, with rich spirits serving well both as an accompaniment to the sweet flavours; try a well-matured brown spirit in particular, and as an ingredient, try a liberal dash of Chambord or crème de cassis – with just about anything.

Last but not least, the digestif, and the moment to cast a final impression, to seal the approval of those present, and, more importantly, to continue their enjoyment of the proceedings (as well as your own!). The obvious fare is cognac (or brandy) and whisky, but this is a chance to pull out another wildcard – something exotic. Offer your guests “un petit Calva”, or a sipping rum, or even an aged tequila.

You’ve now successfully avoided the wine tunnel-vision trap. Hopefully, as they’re reluctantly leaving, your partygoers would now be reflecting on the rich repertoire, on your superior hospitality, and on having shared an entertaining and fulfilling evening. You’ve unleashed the enormous spirituous potential. Let the good times roll. Chin chin.

From one whisky to another

Painting the town a golden amber. Patrick Leclezio looks back at 2015’s whisky calendar.

First published in Prestige Magazine (December 2015 edition).

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It’s been another lively period on the scene. Year-in year-out South Africa offers a wide variety of interesting diversions to the whisky devotee, from festivals and shows, to dinners and launches, with fanciful and sometimes extravagant events in between. We are one of the world’s largest (and still growing) markets for Scotch whisky. This pretty much ensures a continuous cycle of activity. There’s little I enjoy more than drinking whisky, but one of those things is drinking whisky with other people who enjoy little more than drinking whisky. If you’re one of those then it’s worth keeping your eyes and ears open, and staying abreast of the possibilities. These were the highlights from 2015. May the dram be with you.

The Wade Bales Wine & Whisky Affair

This is one of my not-to-be-missed favourites. I’m almost never ill, but in 2013 I managed to contract a 24-hour virus concurrent to this event, and I was absent as a consequence. The regret still hangs over me like a pall. Its eponymous founder is a wine specialist, but he’s fluently extended the “affair” into whisky, and he gives it enough focus for the result to be meaningful. It is an outstanding show in every respect: well-catered, I particularly enjoy the enormous parmesan wheel which makes an annual appearance (I hope I’m not jinxing it), relaxed and elegant, it draws a fun-loving but refined crowd, and diverse, the association with wine is natural, beneficial, and convenient, giving you the rare advantage most especially to attend with friends who may not particularly like whisky (yes, there are such people, unlikely as it may seem). I love the ambiance of the occasion – it affords the opportunity to engage, with the various whiskies’ representatives, and with other whisky lovers, without having to battle a crowd.

Checkers single casks

Earlier this year the retail juggernaut launched the latest batch in its series of single cask whiskies. Single casks, as the name implies, are single malts drawn from a single cask. One style, one source, one cask – they epitomise the romance of whisky. With each expression limited to no more than some 600 bottles, the Checkers range represent a golden (and in SA virtually unique) opportunity to sample a small share of fleeting whisky uniqueness. I had a few reservations about some of the previous offerings but these latest few variants are a step ahead, mostly sourced directly from the distillery owners, which is a good indication both of quality and of the group’s expanding influence in the industry. Expect more in the years to come.

Three Ships PX finish

It’s been an open secret for some time that Three Ships (and Bain’s) Master Distiller Andy Watts has been busily cultivating some extra special whiskies. This year, prompted by a Twitter campaign – #DistellAreYouListening – orchestrated by blogger Mark Hughes and whisky luminary Marsh Middleton, distillery owner Distell duly stepped up and decided to release one of these onto the market. We were witness thus to a shot across the bows of whisky’s big boys (ok, maybe not quite that dramatic) with the launch of the heraldic Three Ships single cask PX finish – a vatting of Three Ships whiskies finished in a single Pedro Ximenez sherry cask. The whisky is deliciously well crafted of course, but, more importantly, it signals the advent of a brave new era in South African whisky-making.

Whisky Live

Albeit under new management this year, and having weathered some challenges in the past this whisky extravaganza continues unabated, testament to the value of the concept, the skill of the organisers, and the substantial public appetite for whisky and whisky entertainment. There have been events in Cape Town, Durban and Soweto (and plans for the smaller cities as well) but the flagship event in Sandton is a beast of a spectacle that dwarfs all the others; it is reputed to be the single biggest whisky show in the world. I was invited this year to host The Glenlivet’s Dram Room, a quiet-ish (nothing escapes the bagpipe music!) pod set apart from the throng, where I had the privilege of talking whisky with small groups of fellow enthusiasts. It kept me busy but on my occasional excursions into the main hall the pulsing heartbeat of whisky love was overwhelmingly in evidence. If you haven’t attended before (or even if you have) then make a point of it next year. It’s a scarce chance, for relatively little outlay, to taste a wide range of top class whiskies, speak to the experts, and share in the communion.

Keepers of the Quaich banquet

After years of deliberation I finally decided to take the plunge and get a kilt. It was made for me by Staghorn, South Africa’s only Scottish Outfitters, in the tartan I’m proud to say of the Breton town from which my ancestors originated. Kilt in hand I now needed an occasion to wear it, and there’s no better time and place, the baking late-November weather notwithstanding, than at the annual banquet of the Keepers of the Quaich. The Keepers is an invitation-only society, intended to serve the interests of Scotch whisky, and into which members are inducted on the basis of their service to Scotch whisky. With its convocation of Highlands attired guests, its pipe bands, its haggis, its Burns recital and its generous lashings of whisky, this is truly the feast of feasts for South Africa’s whisky folk. The guest of honour at this year’s function was industry legend James Espey, the founder of the society, and the man behind landmark products such as Johnnie Walker Blue Label and Malibu, a special treat.

The song of the single cask

How bias governs the malt universe, and why it doesn’t matter. Patrick Leclezio runs the rule over blended malts, single malts, vintages and single casks.

First published in Prestige Magazine (August 2015 edition).

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With whisky there is the spirit and then there is the story. And make no mistake the story is important. In his bestselling book on cognitive biases: “The Art of Thinking Clearly”, Rolf Dobelli explains that people have an innate need to seek the meaning in or the understanding of a thing through the vehicle of a story – something he calls the ‘story bias’. A narrative – a suggested meaning – that may be irrelevant or inconsequential to the underlying matter, such as the concept of single malt is to the actual, real quality of the whisky for instance, can nonetheless be found to be irresistible and compelling. Whisky lovers, as much as we’d want to deny it, are not immune to this logical lapse – but whether it’s a problem in this sphere, ignoring the ostensible exploitation of pricing by producers, is less evident. I’ve always found that even if certain factors don’t affect the liquid they may well indirectly influence a person’s perception of the liquid. This is whisky after all, not the Matrix – we’re not being deceived so much as inspired.

Have you thought about the differences between blended malts and single malts? I mean really thought about it. The malt whisky universe is categorised into four types: blended malts and single malts, as a start, and then the latter further into “regular” single malts, vintages, and single casks. Typically, all other things being equal, pricing tends to correspond to the order that I’ve listed, because that’s the order in which they’re valued by whisky buyers. Yet, as much as we see these types as distinct, there’s no actual physical difference between any of them. They’re all made from the same ingredients (malted barley), using much the same production and maturation processes (specifically the copper potstills and oak casks that are so important to the flavour). The difference is only in the story – and what a lyrical story it is.

The concept of single malt is rooted in its unique source and single point of origin. This is the theme that drives its story – although, as an aside, it’s worth nothing that some have strayed slightly from the script: many distilleries don’t mature on site. It goes something like this (in my own words, no insincerity meant, the tangible reality notwithstanding, I believe it and I intend it). These whiskies embody a singular terroir and style: their unique stills, their local water, their people, focused on a coordinated, defined, unified purpose, for the most part multiple generations in the making, their heritage, and indeed their very air, the breath in their casks, set single malts apart from other whiskies. They are pure, distinctive, rare and limited – and bound to their birthplace – and each individual single malt is a critical point, one of many, on the map that makes whisky the great, complex, varied, and much-loved spirit that it is today.
These are the melodic sounds that have catapulted single malts deep into the popular imagination. It’s not much considered by the casual whisky drinker but in fact most single malts are in fact blended (or, more correctly, “vatted”) – different casks of different wood from different years can be and are typically used, to give the blender enough range to maintain flavour consistency from one bottle to the next. The succeeding verses, whilst more specialised, are in much the same vein. Vintage single malts are slightly more specific; only whisky distilled and put into casks in the prescribed calendar year can be used in these vattings. Here flavour consistency is less important – or often disregarded. The appeal of the vintage plotline is that whilst each bottling might reflect a broad distillery style they will vary from one another; each will offer something new, something different, and something limited in an absolute sense i.e. once the vintage has expired then that’s it, it’s over and done, for ever. The outstanding Balblair distillery offers outstanding exponents of vintage whisky – with subtle, interesting variations of their primary philosophy of bourbon cask maturation, to the odd wild deviation, such as the excellent sherry matured 1990. The final type, the single cask, is the apex, the chorus: one source, one year, one cask…(although these can be double matured or finished). The ties to its heritage, always important if not definitive with whisky, are particularly strong here – single casks explain its history. They are the origins of the story, whisky at its  purest and most unadulterated.

All of this though is pure romance. There is nothing that a single malt can do, that a blended malt cannot do better. In fact as one moves up the value trajectory, from blended malts to regular single malts, and then to vintages and single casks, as a whisky maker one becomes increasingly limited. In terms of the hard science this inflating status is counter intuitive. Blended malts can summon all of the intrinsic advantages of the others, and then can add to these – by calling on its blender’s palette, at least in theory – an unlimited potential for variety and complexity.

I challenge you however to name ten blended malts, off the top of your head. You’ll struggle. Five? The fact is that there’s just no story. No quaint distillery, no home in a craggy corner of Scotland, and no shiel-wielding old-timers, working the same malt as their grandfathers, and their great-grandfathers before them. They just don’t have the same ability to inspire. This might afford us a new appreciation for the potential of blended malts but it shouldn’t dampen our enthusiasm for single malts, vintages or single casks in the slightest. The story counts for something. Enjoyment does not need to be rational. The single cask serenade may influence my appreciation of the sumptuous Private Barrel Company GlenDronach 20YO that’s currently cradled in my hand, but it’s a positive influence, so why fight it. We’re human, and these are two hand-in-hand human vices – whisky and whimsy – that we should be able to enjoy without restraint. May the dram be with you.