Oshima may be officially part of Tokyo and only two hours away by boat, but it offers an experience that is worlds apart, with its unsullied old-world charm and unhurried pace of life.

The island is quite the haven for nature buffs, with as much as 97 per cent of its area preserved as part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park that includes the famous Mount Fuji.

Oshima – or Big Island – is the largest in the Izu chain of seven islands at 91 sq km. It has an active volcano and is home to 8,000 affable islanders, whose warm hospitality can be seen in the repeated offers to buy me and my travel companion drinks.


Saturday

1 HIKE UP AN ACTIVE VOLCANO

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Start your weekend with a hike up Mount Mihara, a 758m-tall active volcano that is spewing smoke to this day. Its last major eruption in 1986, dubbed Gods’ Fire, sent a river of lava through the island before coming to a stop near the main hub of Motomachi. About 13,000 residents and tourists had to flee.


Go on a hike of about 45 minutes to the top of Mount Mihara and be rewarded with panoramic views of other islands around Oshima. ST PHOTO: WALTER SIM

Admittedly, the volcano is not as challenging a hike as I would have preferred and we easily complete the climb within 45 minutes. But the desolate terrain of charcoal- covered rocks and hardened lava sediment, juxtaposed against the pristine blue waters in the distance, is an unforgettable view.


There are as
 many as three
million camellia
trees in
 Oshima and they
 bloom in winter. ST PHOTO: WALTER SIM

The hike up the volcano also offers the chance to experience some pop culture moments.

The volcano was where Godzilla was entombed in the cult Japanese classic, The Return Of Godzilla (1984), before the monster was subsequently revived in a later movie. As a result, Godzilla features in buttermilk cookies that are sold in souvenir shops on the island.

In horror flick The Ring (1998), the volcano was where the mother of the vengeful spirit, Sadako, committed suicide by leaping into the crater.

In reality, the volcano is revered as a holy site for the Mihara Shrine near its peak which, in what is seen as a miracle, escaped damage in the 1986 eruption.

For a closer look at the reddish- brown deposits in the caldera – a crater formed in a volcanic eruption – follow the rocky summit trail at the peak that encircles the crater which is about 300m in diameter. Where: Mount Mihara Admission: Free

2 BLACK SAND DESERT

Think of a desert and you are likely to picture an arid landscape of golden sand dunes. But Japan’s one and only desert – the Inner Desert or Ura-Sabaku – is nothing like that. Its vast plains of soft black sand are out of this world and some liken it to being on the moon. Where: Inner Desert Admission: Free

3 ENJOY MARINATED SUSHI


Bekkou sushi is Oshima’s speciality dish – local seasonal fish is marinated in a piquant mixture of soya sauce and green chilli peppers. ST PHOTO: WALTER SIM

Fresh sushi is pretty much a guarantee on Oshima, where fresh catch is sold daily at a seafood market. But a must-have is its local speciality dish, Bekkou sushi.

Made using seasonal local fish, each piece of sushi is marinated in a piquant mixture of soya sauce and island-grown green chilli peppers, reminiscent of the green chilli that is a staple in Singapore.

While the dish is easily found at sushi joints on the island, we enjoy our meal at Sushikou, which was recommended to us by a kindly obasan (auntie). A set of 10 pieces of Bekkou sushi costs 1,850 yen (S$23). Where: Sushikou, 1-4-8 Motomachi; open: 11am to 3pm (lunch), 5 to 10pm (dinner), closed on Wednesdays Info: Call +81-4992-2-0888

  • GETTING THERE


  • Singapore Airlines, All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines have direct flights to Tokyo every day.

    Ferry operator Tokai Kisen (www.tokai kisen.co.jp/ english) runs the high-speed jetfoil services that ply the two-hour Tokyo- Oshima route, with about four trips daily, depending on season. Ferries depart from the Takeshiba Pier at Tokyo Bay, which is near Hamamatsucho station on the JR Yamanote line or the Takeshiba station on the Yurikamome monorail.

    The ferry departure schedules vary by season and travellers should check the timetable on the website to plan their itineraries. Advance bookings of jetfoil tickets (varies by season, with tickets from April to June priced at 7,020 yen or S$90 each) are also advised. The earliest ferry into Oshima arrives by 10am, while the latest ferry back to Tokyo usually departs before 4pm.

  • WHERE TO STAY

  • Hotel Shiraiwa (3-3-3 Motomachi; call +81-4992- 2-2571; go to www.ryokan.or.jp/english/yado/main/27410) is a pleasant place to stay, with hospitable hosts, an outdoor onsen and sumptuous traditional Japanese breakfast. We paid 11,340 yen a person a night.

    Another option, especially if you visit in the balmy spring or hot summer months, is to camp outdoors. Oshima has well-equipped sites such as the Toshiki Campground (Sashikiji, Oshima-cho; make a free booking on +81-4992-2-1446) near what is purportedly one of Oshima’s best snorkelling spots; or the Umi-no-furusato-mura (Genya 2-1 Senzu, Oshima; call +81-4992-4-1137), which offers tents for rent. Renting a pre-pitched tent will cost 4,000 yen plus 300 yen a person, for up to six people. Renting a tent and pitching it yourself costs 2,000 yen plus 200 yen a person, for up to five people.

  • TRAVEL TIPS

  • • Depending on the weather and tide conditions, jetfoils may arrive at and leave from either the Motomachi Port in the west or Okata Port in the north. The designated port changes daily and also affects local bus schedules.

    • Rent a car or bicycle as buses are infrequent. We rent our car from Motomachi Car Rental (1-4-12 Motomachi; call +81-4992-2-3172) for 5,940 yen a day. Rates differ if it is peak season.

    • Most places accept only cash. While there are international ATMs, they are in service only during office hours.

4 GEOGRAPHIC THRILLS

Put the morning’s hike in context with a trip to the informational Museum of Volcanoes. Its exhibits cover everything from the history of Mount Mihara eruptions to volcanic structures to geographic formations. English translations for the Japanese text are available for only a few exhibits. Where: Museum of Volcanoes, 617 Kandayashiki Motomachi Admission:500 yen for adults, 250 yen for children, 200 yen for film screenings; open: 9am to 5pm daily Info: Call +81-4992-2-4103

5 OSHIMA OF OLD

In Singapore, people geek out over the number of 1990s-style stationery shops that were once ubiquitous, but which have been phased out due to market forces.

Despite Oshima’s relatively small population, such mom-and-pop stationery and book shops are everywhere in the main hub of Motomachi and they offer a vast array of paraphernalia.

On this nostalgic note, the Machikado Freai-kan is also worth a visit. It is a photo gallery that doubles as a lounge which locals frequent. It also sells old-school knick-knacks such as matchboxes.

The gallery takes visitors back in time via pictures of Mount Mihara in the pre-war days, where there were steel and copper playground slides popular with domestic tourists. But these were dismantled as metals were in short supply during the war.

There are also images of the traditional Anko-san, an affectionate term used to refer to an elder sister or older woman in the Oshima dialect. In the past, they used to don kimonos and carried items with a towel wrapped around their heads, in what was once a common sight in Oshima. Where: Machikado Freai-kan, 2-3-8 Motomachi; open: 9am to 5pm daily, closed from noon to 1pm Admission: Free Info: Call +81-4992-2-1036

6 STUNNING SUNSET

Oshima, with its peerless horizon, offers one of the best sunsets I have ever seen. Catch the golden hour from the Sunset Palm Trail, a flat path popular for running and cycling; or from a mixed public onsen that offers unparalleled views. Swimsuits are a must at the Hamanoyu Open Air Hot Spring. Where: Hamanoyu Open Air Hot Spring, 882 Tonchibata Motomachi Oshima-machi; open: 1 to 7pm daily, closed during bad weather Admission:300 yen for adults, 150 yen for children Info: Call +81-4992-2-2870

7 IZAKAYA GASTRO-PUB

We are intrigued by Sakanaya, a modern-looking izakaya gastropub that seems out of place on Oshima.

To find out if the restaurant is open, check if the spotlight at the door is switched on.

The menu, including traditional items such as yakitori sticks and oyakodon – a hearty dish of chicken and egg on a bed of rice – is sumptuous. Expect to pay at least 2,000 yen a person for dinner. Where: Sakanaya, 2-3-3 Motomachi; open: 5 to 10pm (Tuesdays to Sundays) Info: Call +81-4992-2-4555

8 STARGAZE THE NIGHT AWAY

There is nothing much here by way of after-hours entertainment. Nonetheless, the minimal light pollution means any spot on the remote island could be ideal to simply while away time by staring up at the vast starry night sky.

We use the Star Chart app (free on the Apple and Android app stores) to identify constellations and planets in the night sky.

Sunday

9 SMELL THE FLOWERS

Oshima is said to be home to as many as three million camellia trees that bloom in winter. Cultivation of camellias at the Tokyo Metropolitan Oshima Park began in 1940 and the 7ha site today boasts about 1,000 species. An adjacent zoo opened in 1935 and has a variety of birds and animals. Where: Metropolitan Oshima Park, 2 Fukuji Senzu; open: 8.30am to 5pm daily Admission: Free

10 A 200-YEAR-OLD PORT


Boats and yachts docked at the marina of the historic Habu port town. ST PHOTO: WALTER SIM

Wooden huts line the streets of the historic Habu port town that started operating nearly 200 years ago. It was formerly a crater lake until it was linked to the sea by a tsunami in 1703.

The town was also the setting of The Dancing Girl Of Izu (1926), a story by Nobel Literature Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata about a young male student from Tokyo who meets and falls for a travelling odoriko (dancing girl) performer.

A stone’s throw from the harbour is the Odoriko-no-sato Museum, where mannequins of dancing girls can be seen, offering a glimpse of Oshima in its heyday. Where: The Habu Port is on the south-eastern end of the island. The museum (open: 9am to 4pm daily) is less than a five-minute walk away Museum admission: FreeInfo: Call +81-4992-2-1446

11 CURIOUS SIGHTS

While Shinto is the major religion in the country, a towering cross has been erected near an observation point where beautiful coastal views and a small islet named Fudeshima can be seen. It was said be a tribute to Christian martyrs who died on Oshima between 1603 and 1868, when Christianity was taboo. Where: About 2km north of Habu Port Admission: Free

• This is the sixth of a 10-part series. Next week, China Correspondent Chong Koh Ping strolls along the golden coastline of Xiamen and visits a beautiful campus with a link to Singapore.

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May seems a strange month to be thinking about comfort food in Singapore. The days are supposed to be scorching, or at least very hot, and I should be hankering after salads and such.

Not this year. Those April thundery showers have lingered, giving us a few wet days that are blissfully cool, and I think of hotpots and congee.

Another one of my favourite comfort foods is pasta.

I don’t often have it with cream sauces because these are usually too rich. However, some days just call for a big bowl of creamy, cheesy pasta, eaten out of a deep bowl in front of the television.

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This week’s recipe is simple as can be, with everything available in most supermarkets.

Instead of penne, my favourite pasta shape and the one I use by default, I have opted for risoni. You might know it by its Greek name, orzo.

Like other pasta shapes, it is made with durum wheat, but shaped like a large grain of rice.

Cook it in plenty of salted, boiling water. I cannot stress how important it is to use a large pot to allow the grains to circulate and cook properly.

For this recipe, because the pasta spends time in the sauce before it is served, stop cooking the risoni two minutes before the recommended cooking time on the box.

If you dare, stop the cooking three minutes before the recommended cooking time for a firmer bite.

If you cannot find risoni, penne, farfalle or fusili will work as well.

  • RISONI WITH SMOKED PORK, MUSHROOMS AND PEAS 

  • INGREDIENTS

    500g frozen peas
    2 Tbs salt 
    Large onion, 250g to 300g 
    500g white button or Swiss 
    brown mushrooms, or a mix of both 
    300g smoked pork neck
    200g parmesan cheese

    500g risoni (above)
    1 Tbs cooking oil 
    200ml cooking cream 
    Salt to taste 
    Freshly ground black pepper

    METHOD 

    1. The night before cooking, move the peas from freezer to fridge. On the day of cooking, pour the peas into a colander, rinse under running water and let drain. 

    2. Add the salt to a large pot of water, bring to the boil. 

    3. In the meantime, peel the onion and chop finely. Remove and discard the mushroom stems; and slice the caps thickly. Dice the smoked pork into cubes as small or large as you like. 

    4. Grate the cheese. 

    5. When the water comes to a boil, add the risoni and set a timer to go off two minutes before the recommended cooking time on the pasta box. For example, if it is 11 minutes, set the alarm to go off at nine minutes, then turn off the heat and drain the pasta in a colander. 

    6. While the pasta is cooking, heat the oil in a large pan set over medium heat. Add the onion and saute until translucent, about one minute. Add the cubed pork neck and cook another two to three minutes. Then add the mushrooms and saute two to three minutes. Pour in the cooking cream and the peas. Stir the contents of the pan well and cook until the cream bubbles. Add the cooked risoni and mix it in with the other ingredients. It will soak up some of the cream. Add the cheese and mix well. Have a taste and add salt if needed. 

    7. Ladle the pasta into bowls, sprinkle with the freshly ground black pepper and serve immediately.

    Serves six to eight

However, with risoni, you can spoon up the grains, always more friendly and comforting than stabbing pasta with a fork. Spaghetti and other long pasta won’t work as well.

The meat part of the sauce is smoked pork neck, which is not as salty as bacon.

Find it in the deli meats section of the supermarket. If it is not available, try smoked pork shoulder or thick slices of ham or Canadian bacon.

Mushrooms are non-negotiable and feel free to use more exotic ones than the rather prosaic button and Swiss brown mushrooms indicated in the recipe.

If you can buy fresh morels without needing to take out a second mortgage on your home, go for it. Their earthy flavour will be so delightful in the finished dish.

Even the peas can be swopped. I happen to love them, but know that not everyone does.

I had considered using kale, thinly sliced into ribbons, but it seems so “of the moment” and I want a timeless dish. Of course you can use it, or cubed zucchini or spinach leaves.

To make a sauce, I turn to cooking cream, also available in supermarkets. It has emulsifiers and stabilisers added to it so the cream does not split when cooked.

Instead, you get a smooth sauce – nothing to sniff at, especially if you have watched with dismay as the fat in heavy cream floats on top of a sauce.

Grated parmesan cheese thickens it a little. Buy a block of cheese and grate it yourself. It is just a little elbow grease for a huge reward.

The pasta starts soaking up the sauce when it hits the pan – another compelling reason not to overcook it. Add the cheese, mix that in, until the whole dish has a wavy quality.

Then work fast. Dish it out, stake your place in front of the telly and enjoy your bowl of comfort.

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Favourite destination: Luanda, the political, economic and cultural centre of Angola. The Portuguese colony of Angola was founded in 1575 and lasted almost continuously until Angolan independence in 1975. This makes the country quite different from its neighbours, which were mostly colonised by the Germans, Dutch and British.

Angola is home to more than 100 ethnic groups and dialects, and while touring Luanda, travellers will see its historical sites, the diverse ethnic composition of the population and the resulting unique Afro-European culture.

SEE

The National Museum of Anthropology (www.facebook.com/MNAntrolopogiaAngola) is a relatively small museum, but it houses more than 6,000 pieces that represent Angolan cultural heritage, including masks, musical instruments, jewellery and homeware.

The Fortress of Sao Miguel was constructed by the Portuguese in 1576 and is Luanda’s oldest surviving building. It took its present star-like shape when it was remodelled in 1664 and it was the headquarters of the commander- in-chief of the Portuguese Armed Forces in Angola until 1975.

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Today, it houses the Museum of the Armed Forces (museusluanda.weebly.com/museu-dehistoacuteria-militar.html), where visitors can see vehicles, planes and artefacts used during the Angolan War of Independence (1961-1974), the South African Border War (1966-1989) and the Angolan Civil War(1975-2002). The fortress also offers sweeping views of the city and is an ideal place to watch the sun set.

  • GETTING THERE


  • • Singapore Airlines operates daily direct flights between Singapore and Johannesburg, South Africa. From Johannesburg, travellers can catch two daily flights to Luanda operated by South African Airlines and TAAG Angola Airlines.
  • TIPS

  • • I recommend one week to explore Luanda and its surroundings.

    •The base of Angolan culture is the family. At the same time, Angolans are very open and curious, so we welcome and embrace other cultures. Say hello and experience the colours, sounds and smells of a different culture and way of life.

    • Luanda and Angola are mostly safe, but I advise common sense when travelling to ensure a nice and safe stay in Angola. Travellers should also ensure that their vaccines are up to date, including courses or boosters for diphtheria, hepatitis A, tetanus, typhoid and yellow fever.

    •For more information, go to www.welcometoangola.co.ao.

To experience and understand the local culture and to appreciate the diversity of the Angolan people, spend some time on Mussulo Island, a small paradise about 40 minutes from downtown Luanda.

Mussulo is a sandy peninsula which juts out of the mainland and it has several nice resorts and beautiful beaches. For many Angolans, it is the perfect weekend getaway. Most people get there by boat, which leaves for Mussulo from the pier next to the National Slavery Museum.

EAT

For great ambience, food, wine and service, my favourite restaurant is Pimm’s (www.pimmsangola.com), which serves Portuguese food with an Angolan touch.

I highly recommend the bacalhau no forno (baked cod fish), arroz de marisco (rice with local seafood), feijoada (bean stew) and mousse de maracuja (passion fruit mousse). A meal there costs about US$60 (S$84) a person, including wine.

When in Luanda, travellers must try funge, a cassava or corn flour paste which has a sticky texture but does not have much flavour, so it is eaten with different sauces made of fish, meat, chicken or beans and vegetables. We often use our extra spicy condiment called gindungo – made of chilli peppers, garlic and onion – to add extra flavour.

The other must-try is mufete. The dish is a combination of grilled fish, beans cooked in palm oil, boiled plantain, boiled sweet potato, cassava flour and a sauce made of chopped onion, lemon and olive oil. It is a mouthful of delicious flavours.

I also recommend paracuca (sugar coated peanuts) and grilled banana pao (a type of banana which is commonly used in desserts).

You can get these dishes at any local restaurant, but I recommend trying funge at Funge House (bit.ly/2qCvVt7), and mufete at Quintal da Tia Guida (bit.ly/2lsFYQQ). A meal at these restaurants will cost about US$35 a person.

Ilha de Luanda, a neighbourhood on a spit across Luanda Bay from the city, is a favourite spot for locals and where you can find cosy and traditional restaurants serving fresh and delicious seafood.

Ilha de Luanda has a number of hotels and trendy restaurants too. For the perfect place to relax and enjoy the beach and sea views with some music, go to Cafe Del Mar (www.coconutsluanda.co.ao), a beach club with lovely decor, a trendy lounge and great food. I usually go there for brunch.

PLAY

Travellers should try to attend Carnaval, one of the most popular festivals in Angola. It was introduced by the Portuguese and, over time, it has become part of our culture. It starts on the Thursday before Lent, usually in February or March.

Celebrations are held across the city, but the main event is the parade, which takes place on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, when the top 10 carnival groups move in a procession down Marginal Avenue, singing and dancing energetically to pulsating rhythms and percussions.

For a short trip outside Luanda, drive 120km south to the beautiful Cabo Ledo Beach. To get there, you will have to drive through Kissama National Park, a natural reserve where you can find different kinds of vegetation such as mangroves, dense woods, savanna, cacti and the Baobab tree.

This diversity makes an ideal habitat for a variety of fauna, so do not be surprised if you see 60 or more elephants wandering by.

When I have time, I usually fly from Luanda to Lubango, about 900km to the south. From there, I drive 185km to Namibe, a coastal city,a gateway to the Namib Desert, which stretches for more than 2,000km along the coasts of Angola, Namibia and into South Africa. It is thought to be one of the oldest deserts in the world.

I used to travel here with my parents when I was a child and my most memorable moment was seeing the welwitschia mirabilis, endemic plants of the Namib Desert, for the first time.

The welwitschia is notable for its ability to survive in the extremely arid conditions of the desert, mostly deriving moisture from the coastal sea fog. It is commonly referred to as a living fossil because many of the plants are thought to be 1,000 to over 2,000 years old.

The area along the Angola- Namibia border is also home to the Himba, semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers who are distinctive because of the protective paste they use which turns their hair and skin orange and red.

SHOP

For the best shopping and unique souvenirs, go to galleries and artisan workshops such as Espelho da Moda (bit.ly/2qzaDP5). Also visit the Centro de Artesanato-Benfica, a craft market next to the National Slavery Museum, which is about a 40-minute drive out of the city centre. Here, you can find a variety of handicrafts, sculptures, paintings, clothes and accessories made in Angola.

STAY

My favourite place to stay is the Epic Sana Hotel (www.luanda.epic.sanahotels.com), a five-star hotel with very modern, well-maintained facilities and a good location overlooking Luanda Bay. Rooms start at US$410 a night.

For more budget-friendly accommodation, I recommend the Ibis Styles IU Luanda Talatona (bit.ly/2pJxkkv), a 120-room three-star hotel in the city’s commercial area where rooms start at US$150 a night; and Thomson House (www.thomsonhouseangola.com), a 16-room boutique hotel on the beach in Ilha de Luanda, where rooms start at US$100 a night.

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Spain is the world’s third largest wine-producing country and some of its best red wines come from the northern region of Ribera del Duero.

Spanish winemaker Javier Aladro, who was in town recently to conduct a masterclass on Ribera del Duero wines, says: “The beauty of the wines is how they suit different levels of wine drinkers. They are easy to drink, which will appeal to new wine drinkers, and yet have power and complexity that wine connoisseurs will enjoy.”

Fine wines from Spain are now available on the ST Wine Club’s online site.

The latest selection features signature wines from Bodegas Valdubon, an established winery in Ribera del Duero, which produced 800,000 bottles of wine last year.

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Mr Aladro, 45, joined the winery in 2003. He has a doctorate in chemistry and a degree in oenology, or the study of wines.

The region’s primary grape variety is the Tempranillo – the most planted grape in Spain. The high altitude and harsh climate of extreme temperatures work in favour of the grape by giving it bold complexity.

The reds of Ribera del Duero have a distinct intensity in terms of colour, aroma and flavour.

The region gained recognition as one of Spain’s premier wine regions when it received its Denominacion de Origen (DO) status in 1982.

Mr Aladro says the region’s wines carry plenty of fruit flavours, which make them palatable and food- friendly, pairing especially well with meat.

The Valdubon Crianza 2014, one of the winery’s popular reds, is designed to be enjoyed with food.

He says: “The wine is robust with rich notes of red fruit like plum, is well-rounded on the palate, has well-balanced acidity and can be enjoyed with meat such as lamb, pork or beef.”

The wine is made solely from Tempranillo grapes from vineyards older than 40 years. The vines are closely monitored and thinned to produce an average of seven to eight bunches of grapes a vine. The controlled yield ensures quality.

After harvesting, the grapes are swiftly sent to the winery and milled within 10 hours. The wine is aged for 12 months in 67 per cent American oak and 33 per cent French oak barrels.

For even greater complexity, the Valdubon Reserva 2011 is a stately red with more structure than the Crianza and is softer on the palate.

The power and refined elegance come from ageing for more than 23 months in 50 per cent American oak and 50 per cent French oak barrels, followed by ageing in the bottle for two years.

Mr Aladro says: “Ageing in the bottle is a challenge because the wine is free to evolve and, every time you open the bottle, it is a surprise. When you have wine in a vat, you can taste it every day and monitor it closely. For wines ageing in the bottle, we open a bottle to taste every two months. Each impression is different.”

The Valdubon Reserva 2011 pairs well with meat and chocolate-rich desserts. “Try this wine with bitter dark chocolate. You will be surprised at how well the two go together,” he says.


Five things to know about Spanish wine 

1 Spain is the third leading wine-producing country after Italy and France, according to figures from the International Organisation of Vine and Wine.

2 The Tempranillo is a grape variety native to Spain used in making red wines. It is the most cultivated grape in Spain and goes by different names in different regions. In Ribera del Duero, it is known as Tinta del Pais.

3 In Ribera del Duero, most of the red wines are made entirely from Tinta del Pais.

4 Denominacion de Origen (DO) is part of a regulatory classification system used to indicate quality and determine the geographical origins of wine or other food products in Spain.

5 Under DO regulations for Ribera del Duero wines, red Crianza wines must age for two years with a minimum of 12 months in oak barrels. Reserva wines must age for three years with a minimum of 12 months in oak barrels.


Fine wine at great prices

Join the ST Wine Club and enjoy surprise monthly packages of fine wines delivered to your doorstep. The ST Wine Club is a premium wine club of The Straits Times, which works with reputable wine merchants to curate and present a selection of fine wines with the best value.

Gold packages feature New World wines and Platinum packages feature Old World wines.

Those who sign up for any six-month Platinum wine subscription package can now purchase a bottle of Yamazaki Single Malt Whisky 12 Years at a special price of $188. The promotion is limited to stocks available. To order, go to STWine.sg at stwine.sg/wine-packages

For inquiries, e-mail STWine@sph.com.sg or call 6319-5076 during office hours.


ST WINE CHOICE SELECTION  

 

Donnafugata Anthilia Bianco 2015 (above)

Rating: JS 92
Grapes: Catarratto is the predominant variety A brilliant straw yellow, the wine is fresh and fragrant on the nose with fruity notes of apple, peach and citrus peel. On the palate, it is fruity and is ideally paired with fish or vegetable courses.

Ceretto Barbaresco DOCG 2013

Rating: RP 91
Grape: Nebbiolo

The grapes of the vineyard have been cultivated as a single parcel since the 1970s. A review by the Robert Parker Wine Advocate describes the wine as lean and compact, with aromas of wild berry, liquorice, ash and dried rose petal. It also has warmer layers of tar and coffee.

Domaine Auguste Clape Cotes Du Rhone 2015

Rating: RP 90
Grape: Syrah
A dark-coloured wine abundant with red and black fruit both on the nose and palate, with a touch of mineral, black pepper and gamey flavours.

Alceno Monastrell 12 Meses Barrica 2011

Rating: RP 90
Grape: Monastrell

Aged for 12 months in French and American oak barrels, this Spanish red is deep and elegant with an intense colour and complex aromas of black fruit, cocoa and spices.


Spanish wines from ST Wine Club’s latest selections

 

VALDUBON VERDEJO 2016

Grape: Verdejo
Bottles produced a year: 35,000

The wine is a bright light yellow with flashes of green. On the nose, it has vegetal nuances with mineral touches and a background of spices, vanilla and coconut. It is lively on the palate, fruity with good acidity. It is refreshing and has a long finish with a slight hint of bitterness. Best served well chilled.

VALDUBON CRIANZA 2014

Grape: Tinta del Pais (Tempranillo)
Bottles produced a year: 125,000

Its colour is an intense, deep blood-red with purple hues, indicating good ageing. It is clean, bright and fruity on the nose with notes of ripe plum, red berries mixed with cacao, coconut, liquorice and thyme. The palate is powerful and velvety with balance in acidity and alcohol. Ready to be enjoyed now, this wine also has ageing potential.

VALDUBON RESERVA 2011

Grape: Tinta del Pais (Tempranillo)
Bottles produced a year: 35,000

The colour is an intense deep red with hints of violet. Complex and spicy on the nose, the aroma is rich with ripe fruit mixed with liquorice and nuts. On the palate, the wine is bright and elegant, with good acidity and ripe tannins. To best enjoy this wine, decant it 30 minutes before tasting.

•Get all three featured Valdubon wines at a special package price of $168 now available on the ST Wine site. To order, go to stwine.sg


 

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1

MICHELIN BANQUET 

We discover our perfect Provence moment at the two-Michelin-starred La Bastide de Capelongue. The inventive multi-course dinner on the secluded hilltop restaurant beguiles – from the oak-smoked butter to the escargot immersed in lightly creamy broth, spiked with wildflowers and also a bracing, bitter stalk to whet the appetite.

At 10pm, ensconced in our luxurious little corner scented by lilies, we are relaxed and just starting on the main course of oven-roasted quail, moistened with coriander juice. Chef Edouard Loubet is in Singapore cooking a private dinner so his wife Isabelle hosts us, at one point picking savory from the vegetable garden to show us a sauce ingredient.

The late Provence sunset over the hills of Luberon is a midsummer night’s dream.

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Where: La Bastide de Capelongue, Les Claparedes, Chemin des Cabanes, 84480 Bonnieux  Info: www.capelongue.com/en/


2

YOUNG WINE, DESSERTS GALORE

In our hiking shoes, we chill out on the shaded terrace of Le Mesclun, sipping a young, light-bodied, “happy” red wine from a village 5km away. When we do not order the chef’s signature goat cheese (above) for lunch, he sends it anyway and it proves to be delicately flavoured and lovely with baby carrots and other just-picked vegetables from his plot.

It drizzles, so we move to a cosy, contemporary room, where we relish veal done two ways, in an airy fried packet and as a ham-like mince.

It is the good life as we linger over a set of French desserts, from dark-chocolate mousse to pate de fruit (fruit-puree confection) to macaron.

Where: Le Mesclun, Rue des Poternes, 84110 Seguret Info: Call +33-4-9046-9343


3

FOIE GRAS WITH A VIEW

From our elegant rooms, the Restaurant La Citadelle within our hotel is steps away. In our vaulted alcove, we wine and dine with a vista of the Luberon countryside, as the La Bastide de Gordes Hotel is set high on mediaeval ramparts in the citadel-city of Gordes.

I savour five crisp-tender spears of poached asparagus and silken foie gras, served with tart fruit chutney and toast squares. Richly tender lamb chops are paired simply with grilled vegetables.

Where: Restaurant La Citadelle (La Bastide de Gordes Hotel), Rue de la Combe, 84220 Gordes Info: bastide-de-gordes.com/en/home/


4

FRESH FLAVOURS, LUXURIANT NATURE

We walk on a long driveway shaded by impressive plane trees and flanked by a field of wild red-orange Flanders poppies.

The Le Pont de l’Orme restaurant has a luxuriant spaciousness and we lunch outdoors, on a terrace under a trellis of vines, while a cocker spaniel puppy plays.

Pork, chicken and liver terrines are served in a rustic oval container. The octopus ceviche comes with beet sauce and olives. I love the lightness of the zucchini flower stuffed with ricotta (above), and the seared tuna.

Where: Le Pont de l’Orme, Route de Suzette, 84340 Malaucene Info: Call +33-4-9046-1750


5

DECONSTRUCTED BOUILLABAISSE

Bouillabaisse is the flavour of lively port-city Marseille. Originally concocted from scraps of fish and shellfish and cooked in a pot of sea water, this fisherman’s stew is elegantly reimagined (above) at Une Table, au Sud, a serene space with a view of white sails.

Petite portions of sea bass, red mullet and hake are arranged on a plate and a luscious bouillabaisse is poured onto the fresh fish.

Every dish at lunch has finesse with a bit of punch. A long slice of robust squid-ink bread sits with slender ribbons of vivid vegetables, beet and carrot included.

For dessert, flamboyant chocolate petals are paired with a citrus-passionfruit sauce and spiced ice cream. We order a Domaine Gavoty 2015 rose, as refreshing blush-pink rose wine is also redolent of Provence.

Where: Une Table, au Sud, 2 Quai du Port, 13002 Marseille Info: Call +33 4 9190-6353 or e-mail unetableausud@wanadoo.fr

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When former Ember chef Sebastian Ng decided to return to the kitchen after a three-year break, he wanted to do away with the stress he used to face when running a restaurant.

Which is why you do not see a regular Western menu of starters, main courses and desserts at Venue by Sebastian Ng, which opened at the new Downtown Gallery about two weeks ago.

Instead, he took a leaf from dim sum eateries, which group dishes according to how they are cooked – steamed, say, or deep-fried.

On his menu, the groupings are called Fritti & Greens and Pan, Coal & Roast. And instead of having waiters take orders, diners tick what they want on a printed form, just as they would for dim sum.

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All dishes are meant to be shared, with the serving sizes slightly larger than typical tapas that would be enough for two to three people. The chef sends out whatever is cooked first – unlike in conventional service, where everyone at the table is served each course at the same time.

This works in Singapore, where many of us do not really care for the Western dining style of being served course by course. After all, most of us eat at hawker centres, where we have no problem taking a bite of fried carrot cake followed by a spoonful of chicken rice.

In fact, Venue’s concept makes so much sense that I would not be surprised if Ng starts a new trend among Western restaurants here. Waiters no longer have to, er, wait for diners to decide what they want. And the kitchen staff do not have to time every dish to be ready at the same moment.

  • VENUE BY SEBASTIAN NG

  • 01-02 Tower 1, Downtown Gallery, 6A Shenton Way, tel: 6904-9688; open: 11.30am to 2pm and 5.30 to 9.30pm (Mondays to Saturdays), closed on Sundays

    Food:  4/5

    Service:  4/5

    Ambience: 3/5

    Price: Budget about $60 a person

Venue itself is a casual diner with an open concept – everything is in plain sight to anyone walking past. The colour scheme is bright and light, and the vibe is breezy.

Joining Ng in the kitchen is Jonathan Lee, formerly from Artichoke Restaurant. Together, they have come up with a menu of dishes that are straightforward and easy to like. There are no gimmicks here, just simple food that you want to go back for.

Among these is the Cold Pasta, Konbu, Truffle Oil ($22). The angel hair pasta is cooked to a perfect al dente texture, a feat that requires such precise timing that the restaurant serves it only at dinner, when the pace in the kitchen is less hectic. Lunch in Shenton Way is notoriously frenetic.

Served cold, the pasta looks so plain that one is taken by surprise by the amazing umami from the konbu that hits the palate. And any fears of overpowering truffle oil are unfounded. There is just a whiff of the aromatic fungus to tease the senses, no more.

Another must-try is the Cauliflower Fritti, Spicy Mint Aioli ($10). The florets are battered and deep- fried, resulting in perfectly crisped golden nuggets that are lightly spiced. The aioli goes well with the fritters, making them less dry and adding complexity to the flavours.

The Chilean Seabass, Mushroom-bacon Ragout, Truffle Yuzu Butter Sauce ($32) also hits the spot. The fish, which is like a less fatty cod, is nicely pan-fried, but it is the creamy sauce that makes the dish shine. It is not too heavy, but is rich with flavour from the combination of butter and yuzu.

For your meat dish, order the Wood-grilled Chermoula Chicken, Lemon ($15 a leg). The chicken is moist and well-seasoned, with a spice-and-herb mix dusted on the skin. A few drops of lemon juice perk up the flavours.

Each order comes with two pieces – a drumstick and a thigh. Order enough to let everyone at the table have a piece.

The Grilled US Ribeye, Salsa Verde ($48) is good, too, especially if you want something heavier. You can choose the doneness of the meat and my piece of medium-rare steak turns out perfect – juicy and full of flavour.

The salsa verde tastes too green for me, though, and the herbs are rather overpowering. But it is served on the side, so add sparingly. I like to taste my beef, so I am happy to skip it.

The desserts I try are decent, but not outstanding. I prefer the Pear Tart, Crumble, Baileys Ice Cream ($14) to the Apple Pie, Rum And Raisin Ice Cream ($14) – just because I like pears more than apples. But the Baileys ice cream can do with a stronger dose of the liqueur. The rum and raisin ice cream tastes more alcoholic.

Swop the ice cream flavours and I’ll be happy.

•Follow Wong Ah Yoke on Twitter @STahyoke and on Instagram @wongahyoke

•The Sunday Times paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here

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At a coffee shop in Block 117 Commonwealth Crescent, there is a man selling traditional Teochew- style fishball noodles from a humble standalone stall.

“People call me ‘ang moh kia’ because I look ang moh,” says Mr Prem Singh, 63, who is of Indian and Chinese parentage.

The bachelor rattles off in Teochew to his older sister Eileen Singh, 64, with whom he runs the stall. She handles business operations.

Their nephew Cosmo Taylor, 30, whose father is Irish, also chimes in in dialect.

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Mr Taylor, who has a degree in hospitality from Perth’s Murdoch University, is keen to learn the ropes and has been helping at the stall for the past three months.

Mr Singh says he learnt the noodle trade from his stepfather, who used to run a pushcart stall with Mr Singh’s mother off Robinson Road, in a backlane near the former Sin Chew Jit Poh building in the late 1960s and 1970s.

The stall later relocated to various places, including Lau Pa Sat and Orchard Plaza.

He has been cooking noodles for almost 50 years and still fries the lard and makes his own chilli sauce – a fragrant and punchy blend – from scratch.

The stall, which has been at Commonwealth Crescent for three years, has no name, but some may remember it from its Lau Pa Sat days when it was known as Bee Yee.

Watch the video about this stall here: http://str.sg/fishballmee

RECIPES TO TRY

For breakfast this weekend, how about a serving of fluffy scrambled eggs cooked in a pot?

In an article in The Washington Post, celebrated chef Dan Barber of New York restaurants Blue Hill and Blue Hill At Stone Barns shares his recipe for scrambled eggs, a childhood favourite.

It calls for a dash of sugar and a squeeze of lemon juice. His secret to perfect eggs is to never let them coagulate once they hit the pan.

Another recipe to try is a simple one for Japanese sesame dressing from The Japan News. Use it in salads, over blanched greens and more.

Scrambled eggs recipe: http://str.sg/46Rb, sesame dressing recipe: http://str.sg/46zG

ST Food features stories, videos and recipes from The Straits Times and its sister publications, as well as regional and international publications. Use the handy search tool to help navigate the site.

•Follow Rebecca Lynne Tan on Twitter @STrebeccatan

WATCH THE VIDEO:
 Indian-Chinese man whips up punchy Teochew mee. Go to str.sg/fishballmee

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The new South Korean President, Mr Moon Jae In, has been a hot topic on social media since being sworn into office last week – and not just for his policies.

Netizens are going gaga over one of his bodyguards, Mr Choi Young Jae, square-jawed, chiselled and altogether movie-star-like.

After pictures of him went viral, there was so much hype over him that the President’s campaign office has come out to say that the bodyguard is “unfortunately married” and has two daughters.

Mr Choi, 36, has also spoken out in an interview with The Korea Times newspaper about his concerns over stealing the limelight from the President.

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He is not the only bodyguard to find himself the centre of attention. The Sunday Times found five others who threaten to steal the spotlight from the stars they are hired to protect.

• Follow Yip Wai Yee on Twitter @STyipwaiyee


Peter Van der Veen


Peter Van der Veen PHOTO: INSTAGRAM/ADELE

Bodyguard of pop singer Adele

Well, Hello.

As soon as Mr Peter Van der Veen was photographed alongside British singing superstar Adele (both right) in 2015 during a promotional visit to the United States, the Internet instantly fell in love with his blue eyes and smart suit.

Twitter user @Nichole_Herndon wrote: “Although I love the new @Adele album, I think I’m more obsessed with her bodyguard.”

Before working for Adele, he worked as the security detail for another pop star, Lady Gaga.


Choi Young Jae


Choi Young Jae PHOTO: TWITTER/ELENA_YIP

Bodyguard of South Korean President Moon Jae In

Mr Choi Young Jae (above) feels slightly embarrassed by the attention he has been receiving on social media.

In an interview with The Korea Times earlier this week, the 36-year-old hunk, who is said to be a master of multiple martial arts, was quoted as saying: “I feel good… but I’m concerned about the spotlight and attention focused on me. Attention should be paid to the President, not me. I don’t want to steal the limelight.”

With his strong jawline, high cheekbones and poreless-looking skin, the bodyguard could pass off as a hunky South Korean drama actor.

Twitter user @kelblogg wrote: “Why is he so stunningly handsome. Is that safe???”

Meanwhile, another Twitter user @YulinKuang started drafting a story for a “multi-season TV show”, where he falls in love with a “plucky heroine… in a misunderstanding where he thinks she’s part of a plot to assassinate the president when really she was just bad at catering”.

Here is hoping that Mr Choi will consider going into show business, as he is not likely to surface much in public anymore. According to reports, he was serving President Moon only during the campaign period.

Mr Choi, who is married with two daughters, actually works full-time as a businessman, although details of his business are not known.


Greg Lenz


Greg Lenz PHOTO: INSTAGRAM/ JENNIFER LAWRENCE

Bodyguard of Hollywood actress Jennifer Lawrence

Among the attractive bodyguards Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence has been known to employ, her bodyguard of the last two years, Mr Greg Lenz (both above), is a clear winner.

Tall, boyish and often seen in tight button-down shirts, he looks like he has walked straight out of an Abercrombie & Fitch advertisement. Twitter user @TiaChaCha67 wrote, in reference to Lawrence’s ex-boyfriend, Coldplay singer Chris Martin: “This is Jennifer Lawrence’s bodyguard? yummm! He makes Chris M look like an old shoe tbh.”

Mr Lenz is married to his college sweetheart.

But that will not stop smitten women from looking out for him on the red carpet of Lawrence’s next movie.


Tim Chung


Tim Chung PHOTO: INSTAGRAM/ KYLIE JENNER

Bodyguard of reality TV personality Kylie Jenner

Everything that reality television personality Kylie Jenner posts on social media is watched closely by her fans, but one particular Instagram post last year took all the attention away from herself.

In the picture, which is captioned only with an emoji of a crown, she is seen reaching to open a car door, as a tall, dark and handsome man standing next to her attempts to beat her to it.

Twitter user @sagittharryus commented: “If Kylie Jenner doesn’t date her bodyguard or whoever that man is opening her car door for her… I VOLUNTEER AS TRIBUTE.”

That man has been identified as Jenner’s bodyguard, Mr Tim Chung (left), who has since become a star in his own right, with his personal Instagram account (@timmm.c) amassing 56,600 followers to date.


Name unknown


PHOTO: WEIBO

Bodyguard of Chinese actor and martial artist Wang Baoqiang

Being a seasoned martial artist, Wang does not really need a bodyguard. But he has one anyway – one who is good-looking enough to cause netizens to share pictures of Wang whenever the two are photographed together.

With slicked-back hair and often pictured in stylish street wear, Wang’s bodyguard (above), whose name has not been reported, could easily pass off as a member of a boyband.

Next to Wang, in fact, the hired help is the one who looks more like the movie star.

The same bodyguard is said to have worked previously for other celebrities, such as singer Xiao Shenyang and model-actress Du Juan.


Liu Zhongwei


Liu Zhongwei PHOTO: WEIBO

Bodyguard of Chinese actor Huang Xiaoming

Known for his good looks and affable charm, Huang Xiaoming (left, in white) is one of China’s top movie stars.

Ever since he hired Mr Liu Zhongwei (far left) as his bodyguard two years ago, however, even his own fans have been distracted by the latter’s hunkiness, taking to Internet forums to discuss who he is.

Dubbed China’s “hottest bodyguard”, the 1.88m-tall Liu is often said to resemble Japanese idol Shun Ogiri.

Fangirls wishing for any personal protection from Mr Liu can give up hope – in January, he tied the knot with Chinese actress Sun Li’s manager, Ms Guo Si.

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Summer in Provence turns travellers into pleasure-seekers who sip rose wine and stroll through villages rich in Roman ruins. I savour that and also search daily for perfumed strawberries in season.

And yet, Provence is never just about the sweet French life. It is also an arena for the adventurous who trek up mountains, kayak and cycle like world champions. The wind-whipped summit of Mont Ventoux – nicknamed the Beast of Provence – is a gruelling point on the Tour de France cycling race.

The essence of Provence, in both its sun-lit sensuousness and ruggedness, is revealed in my seven-day walking gourmet trip, where we toggle naturally between the indulgent life and 12km-long hikes in southern France.

So, for three days, we walk in fields scented by wild lemon thyme and pass vineyards in this land of the sweet, golden muscat grape, under the bluest Mediterranean sky. Then, in our hiking boots, we lunch well on fresh Provencal cuisine.

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Other days, we spend time in little cities, intimate and varied, among them Arles, where Vincent van Gogh discovered the southern sunshine that infused his later post-Impressionist art. Also lovely are Gordes, a chic city poised theatrically atop a hill, and Avignon, a residence of French popes. We dine sumptuously everywhere (see other story).

COUNTRYSIDE: LACEY MOUNTAINS, SOFT MISTRAL

Our walks in Provence are gently bracing and we are never too far from civilisation – a Benedictine monastery on the edge of the woods, a mediaeval castle in the distance.


Fields of wild poppies are among the sights that greet visitors to Provence, a land of delicacy and ruggedness. ST PHOTO: LEE SIEW HUA

That is partly because the Provence region is more populated in its rustic Rhone Valley – where I am travelling – apart from its glitzy Mediterranean coast, where the rich and famous converge on Cannes and Saint-Tropez.

  • GETTING THERE

    I fly on Lufthansa (www.lufthansa.com) from Singapore to Marseille via Frankfurt.

    From the French port-city of Marseille, we transfer by van to Avignon, where we begin our seven-day journey in Provence organised by luxury travel company Country Holidays (www.countryholidays.com.sg).

    Its Provence Hiking Gourmet trip highlights three days of moderate hiking, and good food throughout the week, including at Michelin-starred restaurants. Our luggage is transported from village to village while we walk.

    A trip from June 4 to 10, under the company’s Signature Departures collection for small groups of up to 16 guests, starts at $7,350 a person. There is one place left. The price includes meals and wine; the services of English-speaking French trekking guides, local guides and a Country Holidays concierge; excursions; hotel rooms, ground transport, insurance and gratuities. Airfare is excluded.

    For next year, tentative dates for Provence are June 2 to 10, but the cost is not yet confirmed. Country Holidays can customise similar private tours in Provence.

    Another walking itinerary, with nightly kaiseki, is the Kumano Kodo Trail in Japan. Tentative dates are May 20 to 25 next year; price to be confirmed.

    For more information about the Provence and Kumano Kodo walking holidays for both the Signature Departures and private tours, e-mail enquiries@ countryholidays.com.sg or call 6334-6120.

  • TRAVEL TIPS

    • Wander on your own sometimes to deeply savour the vistas of Provence and its cities. There are ancient Roman stones to touch, little gardens or museums to explore and cafes to linger in.

    • Ask about outdoor markets, which usually open in the morning until lunchtime on certain days. In summer, there is an abundance of strawberries, olives and honey. Some markets close in winter. Besides farmers’ markets, there are speciality markets for organic produce, flowers, antiques and more.

    • France is prone to strikes that can crimp travel, so plan enough time to get from place to place, especially to the airport.

Our journey on foot begins lightly, as two French guides lead us, 11 Singaporeans and Hong Kongers, out of the village of Vaison- la-Romaine. This castle-city is perched on a high, imposing rock, like a fantastical eyrie, and we look back in wonder as we start walking on forested trails and country roads used by farmers.

Beautiful walled cities like Vaison- la-Romaine, however, were fortified against Middle Ages marauders such as the Germanic-speaking Franks and set on hilltops for survival, not to please the eye.

But that summer’s day, I am not thinking about Provence’s bloodier days, not when the mistral wind is soft, creating a soundscape of whispery leaves that set our senses atingle. In contrast, during spring and winter, the mistral tends to be fierce and cold, blowing for days – though that cleanses the air for a transparency loved by painters and vacationers.

That day, too, we circumnavigate the Dentelles de Montmirail, a small range of mountains with lacey silhouettes. These heights are an untamed paradise for rock climbers. We will in the days ahead keep glimpsing the Dentelles – meaning “lace” in French, though they are also likened to dragon’s teeth. Fittingly, these ridges are a double symbol of the region’s delicacy and wildness.

On other days, we walk along country paths lined with brilliant yellow genet flowers. One such ascending path pops us onto a small summit, where we are rewarded with a panorama of the winegrowing Rhone Valley, which is also dotted with private swimming pools, like shards of the pure summer sky above.

While the terrain is usually green, signs of aridity are visible in the vineyards, where grape vines sink roots 10m deep in search of water.

Once, we trek up rock-strewn slopes that remind me of California’s drier zones. A couple of hours later, parched, we relax over gin and tonic in the courtyard of our inn in hill-top village Le Barroux.

Overlooking the town is a restored castle, Le Chateau du Barroux (84330 Le Barroux; admission €5, or S$7.50), which was torched by the Nazis. It is closed that afternoon, so I sit on a stone bench built for one, obscured by a low spreading tree and ferns. It is a silent retreat in miniature, a moment of unshackling from city life that travellers crave.

After dinner, I retrace my steps to the castle with my curious travel companions. In the darkness, we miss the turning, but a gracious French motorist illuminates the uphill road for us. In repose, the 12th-century castle is mysterious, so not all will wish to linger in the shadow of epochs past.

CITIES: ART, PAPAL DREAMS AND OCHRE CLIFFS

Like Le Barroux, the little cities we visit have a raw elegance, seen in the plain stone of streets and structures now overlaid with a veneer of luxe hotels, art festivals and hidden Michelin-starred restaurants. The past is ever present, in the stories of brilliant artists and French popes and certainly in the memories of turmoil.

Not many know that Avignon was home to seven popes from 1309-1377, at a time of factionalism in Rome. There have been no popes of French ancestry since. At the brooding papal palace, the Palais des Papes (www.palais-des-papes. com/ en), the Gothic walls and towers are still magnificent but, once inside, we have to use our imagination. Paintings and stained-glass windows have been stripped while statues are beheaded, ruined in the throes of the French Revolution (1789-1799).

I like seeing places in a new light so, the next morning, I step out of pretty Hotel La Mirande (4 Place de l’Amirande, 84000 Avignon) and walk a couple of minutes to the palace. There is the enticement of rounding a corner in a new city, past walls that seem to shoot into the sky because the alley is so narrow, then emerging into a European square not yet filled with tourists at 8.30am.

In that pleasant hour, the palace walls are a fresh ochre and the place seems at peace with its vanished glory as a centre of Christianity.

 

Another city, Arles, equally known for vestiges of the past – including a Roman amphitheatre that now hosts plays and even bullfights – is conspicuously artistic. Its calendar brims with international photography, dance and music festivals.


The Roman amphitheatre in Arles, which now hosts plays and even bullfights. ST PHOTO: LEE SIEW HUA

After all, this is the city that inspired van Gogh at his zenith. The Dutchman painted in the sombre hues of northern climes until he arrived in Arles in 1888. He spent 15 months here and zealously produced 200 paintings with swirls of colour, a rendering of the Provencal sunshine and starlight.

We look at the cafe (now named Cafe Van Gogh, 11 Place du Forum, 13200 Arles) where the artist and his French contemporary Paul Gauguin met, drinking strong absinthe. Van Gogh, who was diagnosed with mental illness in Arles, painted this yellow cafe, luminous under a cobalt sky pierced with diamond stars (Cafe Terrace At Night, 1888).

Roussillon, set on ochre cliffs, is another city of light and colour. Ochre, an earth pigment, comes in natural reddish shades, such as sunset orange, russet and rust, and the facades of Roussillon are in this palette.


The ochre cliffs of Roussillon. ST PHOTO: LEE SIEW HUA

In this cheery red city, on a market day, I buy caramel almonds freshly roasted by a young man. I sample the local produce of lavender-tinged honey and bring home my own can of sunshine, sardines in lemon and olive oil.

Even more dramatic is Gordes, a city of layered limestone terraces on a craggy hill. For the perfect view, I walk along a winding road to the hill opposite and Gordes rises like a fabulous confection studded with cypresses, chic cafes, chapels, old stone houses and steep labyrinthine streets that once confused invaders.


Gordes, a city of layered limestone terraces perched on a craggy hill. ST PHOTO: LEE SIEW HUA

For Gordes is a “village-perche” or perched village set in a high, defensive position. It has the austere rock-of-ages look of a fortress, but its old quarter, where our fancy hotel, La Bastide de Gordes (bastide-de-gordes.com), stands, is a quaint space with a boulangerie, art gallery and chateau.

Here, too, is the Saint Firmin chapel, with a faded stone pulpit, pipe organ, statue of the crucified Christ and domed ceiling painted in cornflower blue – all the accoutrements of an old Catholic church and one of so many I have seen. Still, the chapel has a pensive air all its own, I imagine, as we have learnt about the hard life of perched-village residents, who once lived with scarce water in inaccessible spots purpose-built to repel enemies.

Somewhat sweeter is Fontaine de Vaucluse, with its old-fashioned water wheel and sound of water flowing from an unseen spring. Behind the city are mistral-eroded limestone mountains with intriguing caves.

I love the tiny folk-art museum, Musee du Santon (Place de la Colonne, 84150 Fontaine de Vaucluse; admission €5). A fascinating hour or so is spent peering at the little hand-painted terracotta figurines (santons) of Provencal villagers and their wrinkled, expressive faces, as they gather wood, read the paper, adjust a tiny shawl in front of a mirror, play cards, knit with miniature balls of real wool – slices of Provencal life past. Folksy French music plays in the background while the kindly curator, elderly like the santons, hovers now and then to point out highlights – elaborate nativity scenes, for instance, and a humorous tableau of a man, in seven sizes, clutching his hat as the mistral blasts.

The santons convey the sweetness and toughness of life in Provence, and the musee is a magical step back in time for visitors.

PROVENCE, BEYOND THE POSTCARD

And so there is a Provence that lies beyond the postcard depictions of dreamy villages, olive groves and eternal summer.

True, Provence enjoys 300 days of superb sunshine, but there is also an edge or a complexity to this idyll, sensed in the lacily jagged Dentelles mountains, heartstoppingly gorgeous cities planted on cliffs to deter killers, and even the mistral that is a balm and a banshee.

•The writer’s trip was hosted by Country Holidays.

•Follow Lee Siew Hua on Twitter @STsiewhua.


Five gourmet experiences during the seven-day nomadic feast in Provence

1

MICHELIN BANQUET 

We discover our perfect Provence moment at the two-Michelin-starred La Bastide de Capelongue. The inventive multi-course dinner on the secluded hilltop restaurant beguiles – from the oak-smoked butter to the escargot immersed in lightly creamy broth, spiked with wildflowers and also a bracing, bitter stalk to whet the appetite.

At 10pm, ensconced in our luxurious little corner scented by lilies, we are relaxed and just starting on the main course of oven-roasted quail, moistened with coriander juice. Chef Edouard Loubet is in Singapore cooking a private dinner so his wife Isabelle hosts us, at one point picking savory from the vegetable garden to show us a sauce ingredient.

The late Provence sunset over the hills of Luberon is a midsummer night’s dream.

Where: La Bastide de Capelongue, Les Claparedes, Chemin des Cabanes, 84480 Bonnieux  Info: www.capelongue.com/en/


2

YOUNG WINE, DESSERTS GALORE

In our hiking shoes, we chill out on the shaded terrace of Le Mesclun, sipping a young, light-bodied, “happy” red wine from a village 5km away. When we do not order the chef’s signature goat cheese (above) for lunch, he sends it anyway and it proves to be delicately flavoured and lovely with baby carrots and other just-picked vegetables from his plot.

It drizzles, so we move to a cosy, contemporary room, where we relish veal done two ways, in an airy fried packet and as a ham-like mince.

It is the good life as we linger over a set of French desserts, from dark-chocolate mousse to pate de fruit (fruit-puree confection) to macaron.

Where: Le Mesclun, Rue des Poternes, 84110 Seguret Info: Call +33-4-9046-9343


3

FOIE GRAS WITH A VIEW

From our elegant rooms, the Restaurant La Citadelle within our hotel is steps away. In our vaulted alcove, we wine and dine with a vista of the Luberon countryside, as the La Bastide de Gordes Hotel is set high on mediaeval ramparts in the citadel-city of Gordes.

I savour five crisp-tender spears of poached asparagus and silken foie gras, served with tart fruit chutney and toast squares. Richly tender lamb chops are paired simply with grilled vegetables.

Where: Restaurant La Citadelle (La Bastide de Gordes Hotel), Rue de la Combe, 84220 Gordes Info: bastide-de-gordes.com/en/home/


4

FRESH FLAVOURS, LUXURIANT NATURE

We walk on a long driveway shaded by impressive plane trees and flanked by a field of wild red-orange Flanders poppies.

The Le Pont de l’Orme restaurant has a luxuriant spaciousness and we lunch outdoors, on a terrace under a trellis of vines, while a cocker spaniel puppy plays.

Pork, chicken and liver terrines are served in a rustic oval container. The octopus ceviche comes with beet sauce and olives. I love the lightness of the zucchini flower stuffed with ricotta (above), and the seared tuna.

Where: Le Pont de l’Orme, Route de Suzette, 84340 Malaucene Info: Call +33-4-9046-1750


5

DECONSTRUCTED BOUILLABAISSE

Bouillabaisse is the flavour of lively port-city Marseille. Originally concocted from scraps of fish and shellfish and cooked in a pot of sea water, this fisherman’s stew is elegantly reimagined (above) at Une Table, au Sud, a serene space with a view of white sails.

Petite portions of sea bass, red mullet and hake are arranged on a plate and a luscious bouillabaisse is poured onto the fresh fish.

Every dish at lunch has finesse with a bit of punch. A long slice of robust squid-ink bread sits with slender ribbons of vivid vegetables, beet and carrot included.

For dessert, flamboyant chocolate petals are paired with a citrus-passionfruit sauce and spiced ice cream. We order a Domaine Gavoty 2015 rose, as refreshing blush-pink rose wine is also redolent of Provence.

Where: Une Table, au Sud, 2 Quai du Port, 13002 Marseille Info: Call +33 4 9190-6353 or e-mail unetableausud@wanadoo.fr

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It all started when I caught Phil Chang in a Chinese music variety television show called Hidden Singer last year.

The format, a copycat version of a South Korean programme, pitted the Taiwanese crooner against five soundalikes.

As they all took turns to belt out a few strains of Chang’s hits from behind curtained booths, a celebrity panel and the studio audience had to vote for the one they thought was the real McCoy. The singer with the least number of votes was axed each round until the best vocal doppelganger emerged.

The danger, of course, was that the guest star in each episode would make an early exit. But the suspense was not what kept me glued to the show.

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Instead, I was drawn to the songs, overwhelmed with feelings that were at once strange and familiar as the music washed over me.

How long has it been since I last heard these, I wondered as I sang along to tracks from my youth such as Good Intentions and It’s The Moon’s Fault.

ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

Then I went online to check out other songs by Chang that had piqued my interest on the show – and ended up lost in the labyrinthine virtual world. As each search led me to more options, I spent hours that night downloading one retro Mandarin pop song after another to my phone. Soulful ballads, stirring rock anthems, cheerful ditties – I couldn’t get enough of them.

Since then, my playlist has been growing steadily as I reacquainted myself with tunes and singers I once knew and loved, but had somehow slipped between the crevices of my memory.

I grew up speaking Mandarin, but have been interacting with the world mainly in English for more than half my life. While I was weaned on Channel 8 dramas, Western or English-language sources have long made up at least 90 per cent of my cultural diet.

As an adolescent, I was more au fait with the English pop bands and idols of my time – Debbie Gibson, Rick Astley, New Kids On The Block. Anything Western was cool and, hey, I wanted to appear cool even if I wasn’t.

My circle of friends didn’t speak much Mandarin, so nearly all my crushes and friendships formed or faltered to the beat of English pop songs.

I did my first mass dance to George Harrison’s Got My Mind Set On You and had a blast with my classmates.

I’ll Be There by Escape Club was supposed to be “our song”, but became an ironic reminder of puppy love’s inherent transience when the boy and I broke up after just a few months.

Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark’s Dreaming still prompts flashbacks of a group of guys my girlfriends and I met during a chalet stay.

Just catching strains of these songs today whisks me right back to those sepia-toned days of young love and loss, and makes me smile.

But if English pop is the soundtrack of my teenage years, then Mandopop is the balm to my soul.

Mandarin was the first language I spouted and remains the one I lapse into only in the company of those with whom I feel most relaxed.

These songs touch a deep, soft spot within me because they remind me of family and what made me, me. I get the lyrics, I can identify with the cultural context.

My friend C, a karaoke queen who specialises in Mando- and Cantopop, puts it this way: “I’m a different person in Mandarin and in English. I feel more deeply in Mandarin because it’s what I spoke in my childhood, so it’s more primal and emotional. I’m very much more articulate and rational in English.”

I might have hung out with the Perfect 10 (now rebranded 987) crowd. But I also tuned in faithfully with my sister to long hu bang, the weekly Mandarin pop chart countdown on radio, arguing over which song deserved the top spot.

Yet, while I was busy growing up and settling down in a world where English is the lingua franca, I’ve somehow lost touch with those songs that once resonated with me.

Technology has been a boon. With my music app all loaded up, I’ve been playing Mandarin classics in the car, as I work or when I’m plain bored. Sometimes, I even have them on speaker while I’m in the shower.

It is like reconnecting with a dear old friend and making up for lost time.

My playlist came in handy too during a road trip to Malacca with some friends last year. We bonded over Mandarin carpool karaoke, doing textbook renditions of melancholic ballads with a pained expression, half-closed eyes and furrowed brows.

“You guys are my type of people,” I told them, delighted that we share similar family backgrounds and taste in music.

Then when a friend offered us tickets to a private showcase by Wakin Chau last month, my husband and I jumped at the chance.

We walked into the MasterCard Theatres at Marina Bay Sands to find a largely middle-aged crowd waving glow sticks, then walked out two hours later happily humming his chart-toppers.

There was not a single costume change, no nifty footwork and no fancy pyrotechnics. What we got instead were solid vocals, a familiar repertoire the aural equivalent of comfort food and amusing chatter from the Hong Kong-born singer we knew as Emil Chau while growing up.

He is probably the only singer whose concert I would willingly shell out money for, I told my husband.

Now, after months of being a captive audience to my Mandarin playlist in the car, my kids have become converts. They no longer pull a face or plead with me to switch to English songs because “I don’t know what the guy is singing about”.

My 10-year-old son, who goes for upbeat, catchy tunes, often requests Jacky Cheung’s I Just Want To Sing or Liang Wern Fook’s Too Much. His younger sister, who favours mournful melodies like me, has a soft spot for Chau and Chao Chuan.

They indulge me when I replay my favourites ad nauseam and make up their own lyrics to songs that they like, but don’t understand.

I’m hoping that they will get it one day. And perhaps the music that speaks to my heart could then become the soundtrack of their childhood.

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