India’s indigenous nectars

Thirsty travellers take note: a chilled pint of Kingfisher beer does not an Indian evening make. Traipse through this incredible nation, and you will come across an awesome range of indigenous nectars. For those looking for a taste of local brew, here is a quick rundown of some of India’s sweetest poisons:

The wines of Nasik
Sauvignon, chenin, merlot or even a crisp chardonnay – if you like your grapes fermented, Nasik is where you should be headed. Located deep in the fertile valleys of the Deccan Plateau and blessed with balmy conditions similar to Bordeaux, this town in northern Maharashtra has been churning out premium wines by the truckload to compete with labels from around the world. Dindori, an estate reserve bottled by Sula Wines, remains a sommelier’s favourite, as does the chardonnay from the cellars of Tiger Hill Vineyards.

Feni from Goa
The Portuguese introduced the cashew to Goa in the 16th Century and before long, India’s sunshine state was tapping a heady infusion from the foreign crop. Extracted from the pulpy fruit of the cashew tree, feni boasts a pale ginger hue and a pungent fruity smell, and is a wonderful complement to spicy Goan curries such as the xacuti or the vindaloo. Pour generously on the rocks with a dash of lime for maximum effect. To add to Goa’s alcoholic repertoire, there is also coconut feni and sweet port – a throwback to Goa’s colonial past.

Liqueurs of Rajasthan
Clearly the stuff of kings, the exquisite liqueurs of Rajasthan embody the intricate regal heritage of countless dynasties that once lorded over the desert state. Made from age-old royal recipes and flavoured with local ingredients such as cardamom, saffron, dried fruits and herbs, these liqueurs once fuelled noble conversations among kings and statesmen. Kesar Kasturi, a liqueur that owes its provenance to the royal house of Jodhpur, is a raging favourite among connoisseurs.

Bengali Bangla
This colourless rice spirit has long been the chief nourisher of life’s feasts throughout the Gangetic floodplains of Bengal. Full bodied and boasting an alcohol content of nearly 50%, Bangla – sold under brand names such as Toofan and Farinni’s No 1 – makes a fabulous base for several party cocktails. Try mixing up an Indianised caipirinha with lime, salt, sugar and chilli.

Himalayan Chhang
A jaunt in the Eastern Himalayas can only come full circle with a swig of chhang, the starchy millet beer that drives the imagination of every local in Darjeeling and Sikkim. Also known as tongba in certain areas, chhang is a popular dinnertime aperitif and can be intensely invigorating when drunk hot – especially through those cruel winter months.

Toddy in Kerala
If Kerala is God’s own country, then toddy must surely be some kind of ambrosia. Walk into any town in India’s deep south, and you will find the party in full swing at a neighbourhood shap (shop), where copious amounts of the milk-white palm wine – locally called kallu – is put away by a happy crowd, often in tandem with some lip-smacking Kerala goodies such as crab curry, fried prawns and steamed karimeen (pearl spot fish). Pull up two chairs, for you and your appetite, and let the good times roll.

Hotel lobbies are going social

Hotel lobbies used to have the look and feel of a home’s formal living room – lovely to look at but not the kind of place you’d want to spend much time in.

To change that, hotels are transforming their lobbies to appeal to varying social habits, hoping guests will hang out and spend money at the hotel, rather than going out to local bars or restaurants. For example, earlier this year the Holiday Inn chain began rolling out a new lobby concept called “The HUB” which “integrates the lobby, bar and restaurant space into an area with multiple places for guests to eat/drink, connect, relax and have fun”. Other hotels are following suit with improvements in the following categories:

Wi-fi is available in nearly every hotel lobby in the world, and in most cases access is free, even if there’s a charge to log on in your room. The desks, computers and printers that used to be in the hotel “business centre” are finding their way into the open space. Electrical outlets are no longer hidden behind the curtains or sofas — instead, they’ve become part of the furniture, incorporated into tables and lamps. The Marriott chain of hotels is installing touch screen “Go Boards” that offer guests quick access to local maps, weather, events and nearby restaurants – information that was once provided by a concierge.

If you don’t feel like sitting in your room to wind down at night, many hotel lobbies now offer giant flat screen televisions and plenty of seating so guests can gather to watch sporting events or movies together. Many lobbies also have “gaming areas” that allow guests to play on Xbox, Nintendo or Wii consoles.

Food and drink
Hotels are breaking down the walls that used to separate full-service restaurants from the rest of the hotel, and are turning the spaces into less formal cafes. Last summer, Le Meridien hotels launched a “hub” lobby concept which is a coffee-inspired space during the day and a wine-inspired space at night. In the US, Marriott Courtyard’s “Bistro” offers cooked-to-order egg sandwiches for breakfast, and sandwiches and salads the rest of the day. At Starwood’s new Element hotels, there’s an evening reception four nights at week that includes free beer, wine and hot or cold snacks.

At the end of the day, would you be more likely to socialize with other hotel guests or colleagues in the lobby, or would you rather spend your free time in your hotel room? Please leave your comments on our Facebook page.

Postcard from Lisbon, Portugal

I don’t expect to fall in love with Lisbon but I fall as hard as a swooning Regency heroine. This compact, decoratively crumbling city has the lot: swooping views down to the sea, evocative architecture and, most importantly for me, a thriving bar and restaurant scene.

Our hotel is the Tivoli Lisboa on the stately Avenida da Liberdade. At first its blocky exterior isn’t rocking my world, but it grows on us in a big way. The hotel’s Sixties look is rather groovy, baby; the sprawling lobby bar makes you feel like you’re in an episode of The Avengers. And amenities are 100% 21st century.

Terraço, the hotel restaurant, is a serious destination in its own right – the eponymous terrace is a magnet for the city’s beautiful people. Chef Adelaide Fonseca fuses traditional Portuguese recipes with contemporary flair: our meal is stunning, from delicately fried fish – reminding us it was the Portuguese who introduced tempura to Japan – to cataplana, the famous fish stew popular on the Algarve, dotted with coriander and fish-stuffed ravioli, to a reinvention of sericaia, a fluffy, meringue-y hybrid of soufflé and sweet omelette.

Lisboetas have an unashamedly sweet tooth – just think of the famous custard tarts. There are a couple of justifiably renowned cafés in the centre of town but they’re on every tourist’s radar. We’re headed to the business district of Saldanha and Café Versailles (Av. da Republica 15, 00351 21 354 6340). Excuse me while I catch my breath; this is the most beautiful Art Nouveau café I’ve ever seen – Paris, eat your heart out. Vast, wood-panelled, mirrored and many-chandeliered, with formally attired waiters and acres of twinkling cabinets groaning with every cake you’ve ever imagined; it’s jaw-droppingly lovely. We have been warned that the Lisbon waiter default mode is grouchy, but they couldn’t be more heavenly. Nor could the thick hot chocolate, muffiny queques, and pastéis de nata either.

Célia Pedroso and Lucy Pepper, authors of the newly published Eat Portugal, take us to Ramiro, a seafood lover’s fetish parlour, every surface piled with sea creatures and a basement rammed with tanks where crabs blow leisurely bubbles until it’s time to meet their fate. I’m a huge fan of Portuguese wine anyway but it truly comes into its own when served with mountains of langoustines, oysters, salt cod croquettes, clams, sizzling, garlicky prawns, an oddly mean steak sandwich, and ripe, silky Portuguese cured ham.

Considerably more upscale is Tavares. This is Belle Epoque at its most gilded, making Café Versailles look positively minimalist. It’s like eating inside a jewellery box. The Michelin-starred chef clearly decided his cooking should match the sensory overload of the surroundings: if there’s a ludicrous spin on a traditional dish, he’s there – dehydration, spherification and miniaturisation a go-go. He’s now moved on; I do hope the latest incumbent lets the surroundings and quality of the ingredients tell their own story.

Like they do at Restaurante Solar dos Nunes. When we arrive for dinner, one exclusively male table is just finishing lunch and taking receipt of what appear to be minihamburger petit fours. Oh, yes please. There’s nothing foofy, just vast amounts of rustic, Alentejo-accented food: ham and whole, oozing sheep’s milk cheeses while you look at the menu; a steaming cast-iron cauldron of pap açorda – like a collision between bread sauce, Tuscan panzanella and Mediterranean fish stew; game birds and hunks of beef.

I think it’s against the law – and if not it should be – to leave Lisbon without a visit to Pastéis de Belém, near the Jerónimos monastery. Here in this cool, traditionally tiled interior, the pastel de nata reaches its apotheosis. Pretentious? Maybe. But I’m prepared to bet it’s the best custard tart anyone has ever tasted.

A local’s guide to Singapore

Mention this buzzing city-state and several things comes to mind: urban jungle, chilli crab, hawker food, perhaps even shopping. Yet, Singapore has a skyscraper-free side that even locals do not know about. From green corridors to hot springs, these places and experiences are slices of a rustic, unique Singapore that is best to see now – with the city’s tendency to change rapidly, it is easy to blink and miss something.

Walk Singapore’s grassy train line
When the 23km-long railway line leading from Tanjong Pagar to Woodlands was shut down in July 2011, the abandoned trail along the tracks experienced a surge in visitors hiking its quiet, green-lined tracks. The route starts near the central business district in Singapore and winds its way northwest, across railway bridges and through parcels of Singapore’s priciest and most beautiful real estate.

While there is still debate as to what will become of the land, a passionate grassroots movement is petitioning to turn the area into a green corridor. The group organises walks through various sections and has handy route maps.

Hot springs in Sembawang
From the outside, the barbed-wire gated fence seems more “military installation” than “hot spring”, but once you are inside, you can join in-the-know Singaporeans soaking their feet in water drawn from a tapped underground spring. Grab a plastic tub, draw some water from the tap, sit back on a plastic chair or bring your own mat and away you go.

First discovered in 1909, the springs have had a colourful life. From having its water bottled by soft-drink company Fraser and Neave to being turned into recreational baths by the occupying World War II Japanese force, to being acquired and then subsequently saved from military redevelopment, the springs are still pumping out water 100 years on.

Take the MRT (subway) to Woodlands station then take bus 858, 965 or 969 to Sembawang Hot Springs, Gembas Ave, Woodlands.

The last kampong
As if willed into existence from an old black-and-white photograph from the 1950s, the kampong (rural village) at Lorong Buangkok is mainland Singapore’s last blip of resistance against the tide of modern development. Hidden behind a wall of trees, this little swathe of land contains a ramshackle collection of wooden houses, many with simple corrugated-iron roofs.

The few residents live a seemingly idyllic existence, not unlike how many Singaporeans did before the development frenzy. Chickens roam the grounds, dogs flick flies away with a flap of their ears, crickets and birds hum and chirp in the background, and the 28 families here seem to have carefree sensibilities not commonly found in the general populace (the $30 per month rents probably help).

Hurry though. The kampong has been earmarked for — what else — redevelopment into housing blocks. From Ang Mo Kio MRT station, take bus 88 (in the direction of Pasir Ris). Get off on Ang Mo Kio Ave 5. Walk north up Yio Chu Kang Rd and, after about 50m, turn right onto Gerald Drive. After 200m, turn right into Lorong Buangkok — you will see a dirt track on your left that leads to the village.

Bukit Brown cemetery
Singapore’s oldest cemetery is home to nearly 100,000 graves, many capped by elaborate Chinese-style tombs and headstones. The earliest reported grave dates back to 1833, and many of Singapore’s earlier pioneers are buried here. Sadly, the place was abandoned in 1973. Today, the cemetery is a quiet, lush overgrown patch of land, 0.86sqkm in size (huge by Singapore’s standards). For a decidedly non-Singaporean experience, take an early morning stroll through the grounds and chat with the resident caretaker. Of course, it is no surprise to find out that there are government plans to build a road that cuts through part of the land.

Check out for stories related to the cemetery and this Singapore blog for directions and information on who is buried there.

The king of Kuchen in Black Forest, Germany

Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte, a classic chocolate, whipped cream and cherry cake, is staging a comeback in the Black Forest, a wedge of southwest Germany where the dessert was invented in a humble confectioner’s kitchen almost a century ago.

Stretching some 200km east of the Rhine, from Karlsruhe almost to the Swiss border, the Black Forest is something of a misnomer. It is definitely more green than black, unless seen on a snowy day when the landscape appears monochromatic, and it is more a series of thickly wooded hills, high pastures and valleys than one big forest. Scenic roads dip and rise through the region, past farmhouses huddling on hillsides and half-timbered towns with a rustic, fairy-tale-like prettiness. Nearly every cafe serves Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and milk) at 3pm sharp.

Ask the locals where to find the best Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte (known as Black Forest gateau in England) and they will probably rattle off the names of a few traditional hilltop cafes, where you have to earn your Kuchen with a brisk three-hour hike through woods of fir and pine, or sing the praises of Oma (grandma) who makes her cake with cream fresh from the cow. Other locals have embraced the new — and highly controversial — Black Forest gateau that can be found in a tin, the brainchild of baker Johannes Ruf who runs the Holzoffenbaeckerei in St Peter. He made the cake small enough to fit in a picnic basket, just big enough to share.

No matter what the size, all are in agreement as to the gateau’s core ingredients — layers of moist sponge and sour cherries, lashings of whipped cream, a dash of Kirschwasser (cherry schnapps) and a dusting of chocolate shavings. Get it wrong and the cake is gooey and boozy. Get it right and the dessert is light and spongy, the sourness of the cherries perfectly offsetting the sweetness of the cream. For a taste of the real deal, try the following spots:

Café Schäfer
Famous as the home of Germany’s highest waterfall and the world’s biggest cuckoo clock, Triberg is a kitsch, quaint, storybook village. The Sheik of Dubai and the BBC’s Hairy Bikers have made the pilgrimage for the prized Black Forest gateau at Café Schäfer, baked by Claus Schäfer, the heir to Josef Keller’s original 1915 Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte recipe. “I only ever bake a couple of cakes at a time and use top quality Kirschwasser,” said Schäfer. “A little marzipan adds flavour to the shortcrust pastry base, too.”

Café König
The grande dame of Germany’s spa towns, Baden-Baden has been baden (bathing) ever since the Romans discovered the therapeutic benefits of its waters. Today it is a gentrified city of leafy avenues, belle-époque villas and delightfully old-world cafés — none better than Café König. Alongside petit fours, éclairs and fruit tarts that look (almost) too good to eat, sits the crowning glory, Black Forest gateau. Order a slice and do as royalty and celebrities have done before you – savour it on the chestnut tree-shaded terrace, watching the world go decadently by.

If you can never have your fill of cake, consider timing your Black Forest trip to catch the annual Black Forest Gateau Festival. Celebrating the Black Forest’s most famous export with baking contests and brass bands, the festival is held in Todtnauberg, a village with fine views of the region’s highest peak, Feldberg, on clear days. Even if you miss the fun, there is always the option of — whisper it very quietly — taking home a Black Forest gateau in a tin. They last for a year, you know.