Phantassie: Five Weeks of Friends, Food and Fun on the Farm

The hare stops in its tracks, suddenly aware of Nick’s presence. It’s 6:24am on a Friday, and it’s not expecting to see him sitting on the veranda of our shepherd’s hut, waiting for the sunrise. They make eye contact and share a moment of stillness before the hare carries on along the gravel track, past the polytunnels and through the hedge to the wheat field. This moment alone was worth our stay at Phantassie. But a magical moment with a hare isn’t the only reason we’d recommend WWOOFing at this organic veg farm just outside of Edinburgh. In fact, we’d go further than recommend it – if you’re planning on WWOOFing in Scotland at all, it is an essential stop on your journey.

The owners of the farm, Ralph and Patricia, take a stonkingly fair approach to work life balance for a commercial operation. WWOOFers at Phantassie are expected to work 4 days a week in return for accommodation and some of the finest fresh food available in the UK. Work began at 8, a little early compared to other WWOOF places, but a half hour tea break at 10:00am meant this wasn’t a problem. Lunch was from 12 until 1:00pm, plenty of time to devour the daily feasts, and we worked through the afternoon until 4:30pm, usually with a quick cup of tea around 3:00pm to keep us going. Not bad, eh?

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Guy, the ever cheery head gardener and one of the most passionate people we’ve met on our travels, led his band of WWOOFers with pride. He worked insanely hard, but he was never too busy to take time to teach us about organic growing, always willing to share his worldly wisdom and have a good laugh over a cup of strong coffee.

The farm work was varied, always wholesome and with friends. Think the opposite of working in an office and you’ll have a good idea of the working conditions. Sometimes we’d be outside in the big field, planting hundreds of herbs in great rows or hoeing weeds away from long lines of beetroot. Other times we’d work in the gorgeous walled garden, protected, like the plants, from the harsh coastal wind as we hand-weeded rows of fragrant coriander or picked apples from a huge variety of trees, one of which was actually called a Bonzo Dog Doo Da. On one occasion, we had to pick the sweetest little mirabelle plums you’ve ever tasted. This involved Flic climbing the tree and shaking its branches to relieve them of the out of reach fruits. We’d cry “Plum on!” to get her shaking, then “Plum off!” once the bombardment of gages became unbearable and we scrambled around to collect them all. Incredibly, this was considered an afternoon’s good work.

Being Scotland, you’d expect it to rain fairly frequently, but the East coast is blessed with warm weather and clear skies. When that Scottish rain did descend on us, we’d retreat to the polytunnels to sow rows of salad leaves, tend to the out of control courgettes or plant lines of delicate shimonitas, punchy Japanese spring onions.

Our accommodation was a beautifully handcrafted shepherd’s hut, nicknamed ‘The Dascha’ by the joiner who built it due to its Russian architectural influences. Essentially a stripped-back tiny-home furnished with a bed and a desk, we learned the joy of living simply, with just enough room for our meagre belongings stowed away in their right places, and space for one of us to get dressed whilst the other had a bonus 5 minutes’ extra sleep. The sun would rise up to fill the cabin with light each morning and at night we’d sit on our veranda, wondering at the sheer number of stars above us – we often had to remind ourselves that we were in Scotland, not Thailand.

If we weren’t out and about exploring East Lothian’s dramatic coastline, working or sleeping, it’s safe to say we were eating. One of the first things we were told at Phantassie was that we could help ourselves to any of the produce being grown on the farm. “Really?” we asked, “Anything? Even the cavolo nero or the giant crown prince squash?” Guy nodded and smiled, used to these queries. We really were allowed to help ourselves to the abundant crops, whether it was the plump tomatillos ripening in the polytunnel or the plums hanging from the trees. It was all fair game. Obviously, if you knew that cucumbers were in high demand that week and there were only a few on the vines, you wouldn’t take them all, but that’s just common sense.

Our supply of dry goods, bread and jam was kept well stocked by Phil, a long-term volunteer nicknamed the “WWOOF Mum”, denoting his responsibilities at the WWOOF camp which also included preparing accommodation for new WWOOFers, welcoming them to the team and generally keeping the place ship-shape. The rest of our fruit and veg came from the stable, a red whinstone barn where all the wholesale produce was packed. Each day we would stroll up with an empty crate, and fill it with fruit and veg that would otherwise have been destined for veg box schemes, organic grocery stores and some of the swankiest restaurants in Edinburgh. The quality of the produce was astounding. It has left us utterly disappointed, now that we have returned to reality, by the tasteless array of vegetables on offer in most supermarkets. We now seek out organic grocers like pigs hunting truffles, poring over their produce with embarrassing enthusiasm, all thanks to the generosity of Ralph and Patricia.

Perhaps the best part of being a volunteer at Phantassie was the Green Goddess. The Green Goddess is where the magic happens. It’s where friendships are formed, stories are shared and, most importantly, food is eaten. Formerly a mobile breast screening unit, the big metal hut had been kitted out with a just about functional gas cooker, stainless steel sink and handmade wooden banquet table. Worker’s canteen by day, hippy hangout by night, the Green Goddess can be whatever you want it to be.

the green goddess

It might have been a bit grubby from all the muddy wellies and damp from the rain leaking in through the roof, but with shelves stocked full of herbs and spices, saucepans of every size hanging from the ceiling and cupboards full of top quality organic dry-goods, it was a delight to cook up a feast in there. This was lucky, because most days one of the WWOOFers would take on lunch duty, serving a buffet lunch for a working community of anything from 5 to 25 people. We loved lunch duty, even if there were a myriad of dietary requirements to navigate. It gave us a chance to try out new dishes on the ever grateful staff and gain invaluable experience in mass catering. With all the hazards and quirks of the Goddess, like the dodgy oven door and the unpredictable gas burners, we used to joke that a round of MasterChef was nothing compared to cooking in our kitchen. At evenings and weekends, we’d spend ages preparing feasts for our fellow volunteers, baking cakes full of raspberries freshly picked from the garden, devouring it all whilst cracking open a cold can of Tennents.

There was a neat little gang of us at Phantassie, and firm friendships were formed out in those fields. There was Jess, a kind and generous local lass, now a close pal, always up for road trips to nearby seaside towns and French jazz nights in the city; Tim, a swaggering, snickering, extremely talented chef with a thirst for gin, far from his home in New Zealand, finding his feet in Edinburgh; laid back Louis, so laid back that he missed his own leaving party, which went ahead without him, and others, like Phil, Gerda and Ian that were a delight to live and work with. There were local folk too, like Sam, a Scottish nomad with a woolly jumper and his friend, a big souled bearded Mexican whose name we won’t attempt to spell, who would swing by unannounced and stay for dinner. Needless to say, when we all got together, things could get out of hand. The Goddess could handle it though, and the great wooden table seemed incapable of overflowing with beer cans, wine bottles and board games no matter how hard we tried. And, because the standard of cleanliness was already a little dubious, it made the after party clean up even easier!

All things must come to an end, and so it was that in the midst of autumn, we found ourselves saying goodbye to our Phantassie family. Our parting was sad, but it was what WWOOFing was always meant to be: a place where we learnt something new every day, doing good, honest work, eating fine food, all held together with a deep sense of community.

 


 

Not just bagpipes and Irn Bru – why we love Scotland and wish we were Scottish

We can’t stand the drone of bagpipes and, frankly, Irn Bru tastes like sweetened spew. But we do love Scotland. After WWOOFing there for a couple of months, we fell head over heels for Britain’s most Scottish country. It turns out that the rest of the world has too, since a recent Rough Guide poll placed it at the top of a list of the world’s most beautiful countries.

We might be a bit late to the party, but we’re going to throw back a couple of glasses of Scotch and get stuck in with our very own list of why this cold, drizzly land, long ago fought over by the Picts, the Celts, the Romans, and sometimes just angry Scottish clans, has stolen our hearts.

Scotland Wants to be Explored – We grew up in England, where everyone keeps very quiet about how wonderful Scotland is. One fact that no one ever talks about is a little piece of Scottish legislation known as the right to roam. In England, if you want to explore the countryside on foot, you need to stick to the public footpaths and bridleways. Failure to do so will result in an aggressive farmer hurling abuse at you and ruining your day. To top this off, most local authorities appear to neglect the footpaths, so unless you have an OS map, a compass and mad map reading skills, it’s pretty much impossible to work out where they are.

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Nick on a typically well maintained footpath in Shropshire

In Scotland, however, since the 2003 Land Reform Act, citizens and visitors alike have had the right to roam the countryside enshrined in law. Not only does this mean that you can explore the wilds of Scotland with a clear conscience, it also obliges land owners to positively enable passage through their land. As a hiker in Scotland, you can expect to find well maintained stiles, easy to climb fences and unlocked gates. If you see a beautiful river and want a closer look, just stroll on down to it. Fancy wandering through an enchanted looking woodland? Go ahead and wander.

We’ve heard that a lot of international visitors simply don’t believe that this right to roam exists. This is understandable given that many countries have strict property laws and disproportionate measures in place to stop trespassing, such as the possibility of being shot at. But it’s true, and all the details can be found on the Scottish Outdoor Access Code website.

All that roaming can be tiring, and the thought of finding nowhere to sleep out in the wilderness can be a daunting prospect. Not in Scotland though, because you’re free to pitch your tent up wherever you please so long as you leave the land as you found it. If you’re lucky you might find a bothie, a basic mountain lodge, free and open to all for shelter. We’re told that most don’t have running water and you need to find your own fuel if it gets chilly, but it’s comforting to know that the option is out there should you need it. We’ve found that Scottish folk seem far more eager to explore the wild and have a deep understanding of their land. Is it any surprise when it’s so accessible?

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Tunskeen bothy. Photo credit to Geoff Allan @bothiesonabike.com

Lochs, Glens and Bens – We spent a month WWOOFing at Tombreck, helping out on a farm in this friendly community, tucked away between Killin and Aberfeldy in Perthshire, at the foot of Ben Lawers as it sweeps down to Loch Tay. Each morning, as we ate our breakfast of pinhead oat porridge and homemade sourdough toast, we felt the great Ben looming over us, daring us to climb its craggy peak. Most often the mountain would be shrouded in mist, keeping us novice mountaineers at bay, working out in the wet fields instead. Finally a cloudless day arrived, our hosts forbade us to work and sent us up the mountain with a packed lunch and a pair of binoculars.

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The climb was tough, but thankfully National Trust for Scotland keep a well maintained ‘tourist trail’ for those of us who don’t have goat’s legs. As an aside – National Trust  for Scotland do a fine job of managing the land, and we’re always happy to see the iconic NTS road signs pointing out the local landmarks. Anyway, we scrambled up the mountain, taking a good 2 hours to reach the cairn. Standing atop the munro, The Highlands stretched out before us, we were astounded by the wild beauty. Mountains merged with more mountains, each with their own distinct character. Beneath us, roughly to the North, Glen Lyon, known as Scotland’s bonniest glen, lay like an ornate entrance hall to a giant’s palace. To the South, Loch Tay glistened in the sun, its deep waters hiding mysteries never to be solved. We were enrapt, enthralled by the majesty of the mountains. We would have stayed to look upon those views forever, but it was extraordinarily windy to the point that it was unbearable. So we headed back down, windswept and wowed by the sights we’d seen.

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Also worth a mention is Glen Coe, probably the most famous glen. It’s out to the West of Scotland, not quite as far as Fort William and Ben Nevis. The road cuts through the bottom of the valley and makes for a stunning drive. There’s also plenty of easy to reach (and free) parking spots along the route so you can stop off to admire the views and exercise your right to roam wherever you wish.

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Glasgow and Edinburgh: The UK’s Best Cities – It’s not all just wild mountains and lonely lochs in Scotland. It also boasts two of the the UK’s finest cities. Edinburgh, the Scottish capital, comes alive in August for the infamous Fringe, a month long romp of comedy, drama and general lunacy. There’s also an International Festival that takes place at the same time, but sadly for the organisers, this doesn’t seem to have caught on quite as well. We saw 6-7 shows each day for a whole week. That’s a lot of (mostly free) comedy. Out of all that, our 2017 Fringe highlights included Trevor Lock’s Community Circle, a show with no jokes but plenty of audience interaction; Betty Grumble’s in your face feminist, naked cabaret with free lady parts print and Sam & Tom: Unrectifiable, a bonkers sketch show written by two comedy geniuses, thankfully still going strong since we first saw them back in 2012. We saw some dreadful stuff too, but that’s the price you pay for free comedy.

The joy of the Fringe comes not just from the magic of live performance and the sense of community that comes from being part of a challenged, chuckling audience, but from dashing from show to show around the hilly, cobbled streets of old Edinburgh. We watched people make jokes in damp caves, in dark nightclubs at midday and sometimes just in a quiet corner of a pub. By the end of the festival, we knew those streets like the back of our hand.

There is, as most Scottish people like to say, much more to Edinburgh than the Fringe. We’ve been fortunate to see the city post-festival, and with its quiet charm, lamplit streets and laid back nightlife, we have to agree. Even so, for us it is a festival city and all the better for it.

Scotland’s largest city (population 600,000 or a whopping 2,000,000 if you include the suburbs) and the UK’s third largest, is Glasgow. Renowned in England for bad food and bad people, us Southerners have got it all wrong. What we found is a city full of some of the friendliest people in the world. And if there’s anything we’ve learned on our travels, it’s that where there’s community, there’s always good food and drink to be had. Glasgow has a cosmopolitan selection of eateries, organic grocers and watering holes selling a whole lot more than the city’s very own ubiquitous Tennents lager. However, with our budget in mind, we had a coffee in the thriving Botanic Gardens and a picnic of sandwiches and crisps under the trees in the vibrant Kelvingrove Park.

The city also hosts a fine selection of galleries and museums, most of which are free to enter. Our highlight was the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, worthy of a visit for the building’s architecture alone. Beyond that, there were superbly laid out exhibitions focusing on Scottish art movements, as well as collections of art from around the world. The overall tone of the curation, particularly in the exhibition about the emotions and feelings conjured by art, was playful yet sincere, much like Glasgow itself.

Highland Games – No summer trip to Scotland would be complete without attending one of the many Highland Games. Held in towns and villages across Scotland, these festivals are a unique celebration of strength, folklore and food. We visited the Killin International Highland Games, where the action takes place in the wake of several looming mountains, accompanied by the constant hum of bagpipes, often with 4 or 5 pipers piping different tunes, just close enough to each other so that they can all be heard at once. With competitors from far flung lands like Iceland and Hungary squaring up to the Scots, this might as well have been the World’s Strongest Man competition. Hammers were thrown, shots were putted and cabers were tossed, interspersed with folk music dance offs and a ridiculously tough race up and down a hill.

Standing in the drizzle, picking at a delicious Arbroath Smokie (haddock smoked in a big barrel with hessian sacks), watching a bearded highlander tossing a caber, it occurred to us that it couldn’t get much more Scottish than this. But then drizzle turned to rain, the rain became a storm and we bumped into a friendly neighbour who offered us a lift home. Yes, that’s about as Scottish as it gets.

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A Year on the Road – What we’ve Learned from 365 Days of Travel

The 29th August will always be a special day for us. It marks the anniversary of the day we gave up our ordinary lives, packed our essentials, and some not-so-essentials (two person travel hammock anyone?), into our backpacks and headed for the unknown. As the Airbus A380 left the damp tarmac at Heathrow, we had no idea how much our lives would change. Since then, we’ve roamed through Oceania and Southeast Asia and returned to the UK as WWOOFers, learning how to live from the land and exploring our homeland with fresh eyes. If you’d told us this time last year that we’d still be wandering along the weary wild road, living in a little cabin in Scotland working on an organic farm, we’d have said you were crazy. With life turned upside down, and no sign of righting itself anytime soon, it seems appropriate to reflect on what we’ve learnt on our travels so far.

Slow travel is the best travel – Tourists travel quickly. It’s all about seeing the sights, ticking the boxes, exiting through the gift shop. In Fiji, we met folks visiting as many islands as possible, spending just one night at each place before heading to the next beach. Often friends we made had visited 4 different countries before we’d even left the hostel where those friendships were struck up. For us, travel is about taking time to absorb the culture of a place, getting to know the locals and sampling as much of the food as possible. It’s about making a strange land feel normal, forming routines and almost becoming bored with the exotic. Wherever we took our time, whether volunteering in jungle of Koh Lanta, immersing ourselves in the bustle of Penang or farming in the highlands of Scotland, we formed deep connections with the land and the people we met there. These places will remain long in our memories, far longer than the guided tours and coach window photo opportunities.

Coffee is very important – It was all very well saying goodbye to our middle class lifestyle, but we couldn’t leave it all behind. We realised early on that we can’t live without fresh coffee. For the most part, this hasn’t been a problem. Singapore has its typically complex kopi scene, Vietnamese coffee has the power of petrol and the thickness of crude oil and most towns in the UK have at least one cafe that serves a decent flat white (but let’s not get on to the tricky subject of gentrification here). But can you imagine that in some places, people just don’t care about coffee? In Malaysia, cafes don’t serve proper coffee and even have the cheek to charge you extra for a cup of upmarket Nescafe. So it was here that we procured a french press to brew our own coffee, only to find it nigh on impossible to score any fresh beans. Instant coffee is all the rage, with supermarkets dedicating a whole two aisles to the dreadful stuff whilst stocking no real coffee at all. Disheartened, we gave our press away to the Tipsy Tiger Hostel in the hope that it might be of use to some caffeine craving travellers, before heading to the Thai island of Koh Lanta. Lo and behold, here we found the famous Lanta Mart, which sold coffee grown and roasted in Chiang Mai. However, we were living in a bamboo hut in the jungle with no brewing equipment. Lesson learned, we now take our Aeropress everywhere with us. It’s light, robust and makes delicious coffee even with the cheapest beans. Waking up has never been so easy!

Don’t skimp on experiences – Travelling on a budget can make you tighter than a Conservative chancellor reviewing Local Authority funding. That’s ok when it comes to food because we all know that street food is superior to the fancy restaurants, and you find the most interesting people in the cheapest hostels. But when it comes to experiences, like white water rafting in the Upper Navua River in Fiji, diving in the crystal clear waters of Koh Lipe or trekking the mountains from Kalaw to Inle Lake in Myanmar, you have to loosen the purse strings. You may never visit these places again, so put aside financial fears and worries of being a tourist for a few days – it may well be the highlight of your trip.

Don’t always trust your guidebook – It’s cliché for travel bloggers to bash the guidebooks. We have to, given that we’re the underdog in the industry that they rule. But we don’t want to be too harsh here. Our hefty Lonely Planet Southeast Asia on a Shoestring guide was often invaluable when we had absolutely no idea where we were or what we ought to be doing there. Nick also delights in planning adventures, and the guidebook, along with the superb Travelfish website, can be be a rich resource here. But sometimes the guidebooks give places a little too much credit. They over egg the pudding leaving you in a scrambled egg scenario. Take Myanmar, an undiscovered land, according to Lonely Planet. Unblemished by the acne of tourism and cheap to boot. That’s not what we found, as we stumped up huge sums for flea ridden hotel rooms and navigated crowds pouring from their luxury air conditioned coaches wherever they went. What should have been a well planned month of intrepid travel became 4 weeks of overpriced disappointment.

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Always listen to advice – Whether it’s advice from fellow travellers or helpful locals, it always pays to heed their words of wisdom. Many times our plans have changed thanks to insider tips, and our travels have been all the better for it. It’s also become a rule for us to always try food if it’s recommended, and every time this has worked out to be a winner. It gives you the excuse to treat yourself, which is how we ended up buying a dozen slices of gingerbread from the Grasmere Gingerbread Shop and gorging on fried bread with condensed milk in Thailand. Similarly, if a local tells you not to try a dish on the menu because it’s not for tourists, don’t try to be clever and order it regardless. We did this with fermented crab papaya salad in Thailand. With the inedible crab shells and slimy sewage innards, it was the most disgusting thing we’ve ever eaten.

Stockpile Ear Plugs – Ear plugs don’t weigh anything. It’s true. We just tried to weigh a pair on some old scales we’ve found in the kitchen on the farm we’re staying at and they didn’t even register. This means you can stockpile as many as you like, deep down in your backpack and it won’t affect the weight of your luggage at all. Then, whenever you share a dorm with someone that snores like a drunken gorilla with long term sinus issues, you’ll be fine.

Long journeys are usually worth it – How many times we’ve told people we’re heading to the next place and it’ll be a 12 hour bus ride and they reply “That’s a long journey…”, as if to say, it’s probably not worth it, you should just stay at home. But so many times we have found this not to be the case. Take the 11 hour slow train from Inle Lake to Thazi, where the journey truly is the destination, as we passed through astounding mountain passes in rickety old carriages full of friendly faces. Or the 7 hour drive from Shropshire to the Lake District, admittedly mostly on dull-as-ditchwater motorways, but when we arrived in that land of mountains, wow! What a surprise to have lived in England all our lives and to have never known such awesome landscapes and wild expanses. Never overlook the long road.

Sitting on the beach does get boring – Now, don’t get us wrong, we love sitting on the beach. It’s just that sometimes it really does get boring. Of course, take time to sit on the beach and chill out with a beer and a book, but if you plan to do only that you may end up regretting it. Especially with the sunburn, the sand flies and the drunk lads from Leeds. Instead, break up the trips to the beach with a bit of culture or a foodie day, then you’ll really appreciate taking some time out to relax. A holiday isn’t a holiday if you’re always on holiday – that’s what we always say.

Always wear a watch – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy had it right with the advice to always bring a towel. We use those neat little travel towels that dry off quickly but feel distinctly unsatisfying on the skin. However, what good old Douglas Adams didn’t mention is that the seasoned traveller should always wear a watch. Most obviously, it’s handy to know the time when you have a plane/boat/horse and cart to catch, and you’d be surprised how many hostels and hotels forget the necessity of a clock on the wall. What’s more, when you get on the plane/boat/horse and cart, you’d be surprised how often the pilot/captain/horse driver (?) doesn’t know the time. Having a watch means that you and your fellow passengers will be more likely, but by no means guaranteed, to leave on time. We also recommend getting a watch that tells you the date and the day of the week because travelling can become something of a dateless existence, what with the absence of a real job and any significant commitments.

The worst moments make the best stories – Despite popular opinion, travelling isn’t all wondrous experiences, lazy days and forever friends. No. Frequently it’s overwhelming confusion, frustrating delays and terrible, terrible people. Yet these moments, hellish as they feel at the time, often make the best stories. Oh, how we laugh at the time we volunteered to clean a beach on an island near Langkawi, only to be forced to do hard labour with nothing but cheap noodles and a bumper size tin of peaches to sustain us for a month. Oh, how we chuckle at the time we had to take a night bus from Surat Thani to Bangkok because the devastating flooding meant the night train was cancelled, and our backpacks were completely soaked because the water was so high it flooded the baggage compartment. Oh, how we look back fondly at the time Nick got a crippling UTI in Malaysia, could barely walk out of the hospital, and later proposed to Flic from his sickbed in a haze of drugs and fever (this was actually quite a tender moment, but you get the drift). Do we ever wish we were back home on our reclining sofa, cat by our side, Netflix on the telly? Of course we do, but we’ve fallen hard for the road and we’ll sticking with it for a few years yet…


 

Chiltern Brewery – The Best of Bucks

Ah, Buckinghamshire. That fine old English county, famous for… something, surely? We would never have made a trip to Buckinghamshire on purpose but our second WWOOF host lived there, which meant we had to visit. Our first impression of this twee home county was that it was rather dull. People seem to live there primarily because it’s close to London – so much so that it even feels a bit like London, with the overpriced sports cars, unaffordable housing and lack of community, just with more hedgerows.

So what’s a visitor to do there? Visit Aylesbury and browse the usual British high street stores? Take a walk up in the Chilterns, on hills so high you can look down on red kites gliding over Chequers, the UK Prime Minister’s country retreat? These are options, but we recommend visiting the Chiltern Brewery instead and, if not just to buy their delicious beer, taking their bespoke tour too.

display of malt selection for brewing ale

On arrival, we were welcomed with a warm smile from Andy, front of house extraordinaire and keeper of the shop that day. He treated us to a complimentary half pint of our choice, with Nick opting for the Pride of Bucks & Berks, a smooth, citrusy ale with a charitable twist – the brewery donates 5p for every pint sold to Horatio’s Garden, who are running a project to create a peaceful garden for folks recovering from spinal injuries at a nearby hospital. Flic went for the Chiltern Black, a Guinness lookalike but completely different in every other way. Complex flavours of cherry, coffee and a hint of treacle were captured within a light, quaffable brew. We hadn’t even started the tour and already we were bowled over by the beer.

Andy the bartender and front of house at the chiltern brewery

After a few minutes browsing the bountiful brewery shop, we were introduced to Nigel, our host for the springtime afternoon. An ex-fireman, proudly imparting his knowledge of the family run brewery with a no-nonsense East London accent, could there be a better guide for a brewery tour?

Leaving the shop, the tour commenced in earnest. We wandered round the back of the car park and entered the microbrewery itself. We must stress the micro aspect of the brewery here – it was just one tiny room in an old garage. Think Heisenberg’s lab, but smaller and above ground. There was a big old brew tank, sackfuls of hops, bags of barley and a jumbo sized jotter covered in equations. This is old school brewing, the brewers using wisdom passed down a generation to get the job done. Given the limited space the brewery have, they manage to brew a couple of times a week, supplying their own shop, an affiliated pub (The Kings Head in Aylesbury) and a few other local taverns.

kegs of ale and personalised numberplate at the chilterns brewery

After a few interesting anecdotes about family squabbles and the awkwardness of cleaning out the brew tank from the inside whilst being 6ft tall, we made our way out of the shed. We milled about outside for a bit, looking at different types of beer barrels and sniffing discarded grain that would be fed to a nearby farmer’s pigs. And that was it. The tour had finished. It was time for the tasting.

There were 5 of us on the tour that Friday afternoon. On a Saturday, it’s usual for there to be a crowd of 25 or more, which would probably make the tasting considerably more rowdy than our civilised session. Even better, Nigel let slip that there would be more freedom with the sample sizes, increasing our cash to lash ratio so to speak.

We started off with their signature, the Chiltern Ale, a classic session ale at an easy going 3.7%. According to Nigel, this is a popular choice for people in the age range of 18-80, so it has a fairly wide demographic. Our notes say that the bitterness of the hops combined with fresh apple and the sweetness of hops would work wonders with poultry, fish and curry. We also wrote that it was cracking with a slice of ale bread from the local Cottage Bakery in Thame, and we stand by this. Sadly we didn’t get to visit the bakery, but the thick, wholegrain bread was delicious, baked full of beery brilliance and slathered in butter.

ale tasting at the chiltern brewery buckinghamshire

As we quaffed the next beverage, the robust and nutty Three Hundreds Old Ale, we were invited to pair it with a selection of cheese, a mustard seed cheddar being the highlight. By this point we stopped making sensible, or particularly legible, notes. Take this as a sign that we were taking advantage of the light refreshments.

The last ale we tasted was Bodger’s Barley Wine, not a wine as such, but a thicker, treacle sweet ale. We swigged down this heady brew with a slice of ale infused fruit cake, a perfect way to round off our liquid lunch. The tour aimed to open up the possibilities of flavour pairings with ale, treating it more like wine. As Nigel pointed out, it’s not uncommon for trendy hipster restaurants to have a beer list or an ale sommelier. This is the first brewery tour we’ve been on that brought food to the tasting table, and we think it’s all the better for it.

bespoke stoneware at the chiltern brewery buckinghamshire

It wasn’t over yet though, as Nigel announced he had a few spare jugs to use up. The group of 3 on our tour had to leave. Maybe they had jobs or something. With little else to do that day, we knocked back a few more glasses and chatted with our new found friend. Our 2 hour tour soon became a 4 hour session. The tour cost us £15 each, a little pricey perhaps, but not if you consider that given the local clientele, we could be paying London prices. Try having an afternoon out on the craft ales in Shoreditch for £15!

When they started closing up the shop and shutting down the barrels, we took the hint and said our goodbyes. We made our way back to our host’s smallholding, carrying two bottles on the house and a recycled plastic milk bottle full of Chiltern Ale, winding our way along public foot paths, stumbling over stiles and taking our chances on the country lane verges. Ah, Buckinghamshire, famous for the Chiltern Brewery.


 

16 Penang Food Favourites and Where to Eat Them

Penang is the food capital of Malaysia and described by many an uber driver as a ‘food paradise’. For such a small island, the quality and diversity of the culinary scene is incredible and the influences of Penang’s rich history can be found in every dish. We’ve spent 3 weeks eating our way around Penang, seeking out the best food and where to find find it.

  1. Char Kway Teow – This literally translates as ‘stir fried rice cake strips’, but it’s much better than it sounds. Thick strips of rice noodles are fried over a high heat with bean sprouts, chilli, prawns, egg, cockles, chopped Chinese chives and Chinese sausage or chicken, and seasoned with light and dark soy sauce and belachan. It’s kind of like a Malaysian version of Pad Thai and it’s Flic’s favourite dish in all of Penang. The best char kway teow we found was served by a woman we called ‘noodle lady’ (that’s probably not her real name) opposite the 7 Eleven on Chulia Street in Georgetown.char-kwey-teow
  2. Tandoori Chicken – What? That’s Indian food! Yes, we realise that tandoori chicken is traditionally an Indian dish, but Penang serves the best tandoori chicken we’ve ever tasted. Flic’s been to India 4 times, so we reckon she knows what she’s talking about. Our favourite place to eat tandoori chicken, and much more, is the 24 hour restaurant Nasi Dalcha Kassim Mustafa in Little India.tandoori-chicken
  3. Apam Balik – Somewhere between a pancake and a taco, apam balik is made from a coconut milk batter and fried in a deep pan in a thin layer. The cooked shell is folded into a pocket and traditionally filled with sugar, crushed peanuts and creamed corn. Nutella and banana ones the most! Our favourite apam balik is from a hawker stall on the main road in Batu Ferringhi.
  4. Beef Rendang – Traditionally an Indonesian dish, rendang is a rich, dry curry that balances a small amount of coconut milk with the strong flavours of ginger, galangal, turmeric leaves, lemongrass, garlic, shallots, chillies, cinnamon, star anise and a bunch of other spices. Basically, it’s everything you want in a curry. The Penang twist on rendang is to pile on the sugar, which isn’t surprising in a country that insists on adding sugar syrup to your pineapple juice. The best beef rendang we’ve ever had can be found at Helena Cafe in Batu Ferringhi.beef-rendang
  5.  Cendol – This is a bit of a weird one and it’s not something either of us really like, but the locals seem to love it! Penang’s cendol (sometimes spelled chendol or chendul) is famous and we think it’s worth trying whilst you’re here. Rice flour is mixed with green food colouring and formed into little worm-like jellies. These are served with shaved ice, coconut/soya milk, palm sugar (of course) and red beans. It’s refreshing on a hot day, but we’d rather have Maxim’s Gelato. Try Penang Road Famous Teochew Chendul Ice Kacang for a big old bowl of strange.cendol
  6. Lor Bak – You’re going to like this one. Minced belly pork is marinated in 5 spice, then wrapped in a bean curd skin and deep fried. It’s the ultimate sausage. After frying, it’s chopped into bite sized pieces and served with a chilli dipping sauce. We love it, and we love it even more if it’s from the Lor Bak stand in CF Food Court.lor-bak
  7.  Bamboo Charcoal Noodle – Apparently these noodles have untold health benefits and over 400 different minerals. We’re not too concerned by this, but we think they taste pretty amazing! One of our favourite noodle shops in Georgetown – Yeap Noodles – make their own fresh noodles every day and serve a mean bamboo charcoal noodle in seaweed soup. They also sell some excellent chilli noodles that are insanely spicy. We ate a lot of these in Georgetown because most tourists were unable to handle the heat and would have to order a second, more tame dish, and pass the chilli noodles on to us!charcoal-bamboo-noodle
  8.  Double Roast Pork – Not the most imaginatively named dish, but probably one of the most delicious things we’ve ever eaten. Sorry, Fat Duck. The double roast pork is soft, succulent, sweet, salty, chewy and crispy in all the right places. This is not just a recommendation of a dish, but of a specific restaurant – Tek Sen. We’ve never seen Tek Sen mentioned in any guide books or food blogs, but it’s famous amongst Georgetown locals. After a while, we stopped asking for restaurant recommendations because everyone would tell us to go to Tek Sen. The sign is faded, but you’ll be able to spot it by the huge queue of diners waiting outside. It’s so popular that you’re given a menu whilst in the queue and asked to order before you sit down to save time. Get there early because the double roast pork is their most sought after dish, and it sells out quickly!
  9.  Fried Oyster – This is Nick’s favourite thing to eat in Penang. Succulent fresh oysters are garnished with coriander, parsley and basil, then mixed with a batter made from plain flour, tapioca flour, rice flour and egg. The omelet is seasoned with soya sauce and fish sauce before being fried to gooey perfection. Nick’s favourite place to eat fried oyster is the hawker stall in Long Beach Food Court in Batu Ferringhi.
  10.  Assam Laksa – Differing hugely to the coconut based laksa we all know and love, Penang assam laksa is a hot and sour fish based noodle broth that offers a clean, minty mouthful. Assam is Malay for tamarind, which is what gives this laksa its sour taste. The dish varies from hawker to hawker, but usually incorporates poached and flaked mackerel, lemongrass, galangal, chilli, mint, pineapple, onion, shrimp paste, rice noodles and a sprinkling of beautiful, fiery bunga kantan (torch ginger flower). The best assam laksa in Penang, without a doubt, is cooked by the side of the road at the bottom on Penang Hill.
  11. Mee Rebus – Literally translating as ‘boiled noodles’, this doesn’t sound like the most exciting thing on this list, but Penang never disappoints when it comes to food. Yellow egg noodles are smothered in a sweet, spicy gravy made from shrimp broth, lemongrass, shallots, galangal, salam leaf (similar to bay leaf), kafir lime leaves, palm sugar and salt. This delicious concoction is topped with whatever you have to hand, preferably some beansprouts, lime juice, fried tofu, shredded chicken, Chinese celery, spring onions, green chilli, bombay potatoes, fried shallots, shrimp and some green leaves. Our favourite mee rebus is from a hawker stall on the corner of Armenian Street and Lorong Soo Hong in Georgetown.mee-rebus
  12. Nasi Lemak – Considered Malaysia’s national dish, nasi lemak is rice boiled with coconut milk and pandan leaves, topped with spicy sambal sauce, anchovies and boiled egg and wrapped into a pyramid shaped package in a banana leaf. Piles of these cute little parcels can be found at most cafes and hawker stalls in the morning because nasi lemak is usually eaten for breakfast. We prefer it as an afternoon snack, and like to grab one from the teh and kopi stall on the corner of Jalan Pintal Tali and Jalan Dr Lim Chwee Leon, along with Nick’s favourite drink – a bag of sugary teh tarik (best avoided if you are at all concerned about diabetes).
  13. Pasembur – Probably the least healthy salad you’ll ever eat. Pasembur is a selection of deep fried seafood, topped with julienned cucumber, potato, bean curd, turnip and bean sprouts. The ‘salad’ is smothered in a very sweet, thick potato based sauce. We found the sauce to be too sweet most of the time, but the best pasember in Penang can be found at the Gurney Drive Hawker Centre (although we did think it was a little overpriced).pasembur
  14. Popiah – Often referred to as a fresh spring roll, once you try popiah you’ll wonder why spring rolls are ever deep fried! It’s made with a paper thin crepe-like skin, which is filled with finely grated and steamed turnip, jicama, bean sprouts, green beans, grated carrots, lettuce, sliced tofu, chopped peanuts, fried shallots, shredded omelet and a delicious sauce of hoi sin, chilli, shrimp paste and garlic. Our favourite popiah is made in the evenings, down a small alleyway opposite the 7 Eleven on Chulia Street in Georgetown.
  15. Rojak – The term ‘rojak’ is Malay for ‘mixture’. Bite sized chunks of cucumber, pineapple, turnip, jicama, mango, apple, guava and jambu air are smothered in the same sweet brown sauce as pasembur and sprinkled with crushed peanuts and ground pepper. We’re not a fan of the sauce because we find it too sweet, but those with a sweet tooth are bound to enjoy this Penang speciality. Pick up a plate at the CF Food Court in Georgetown.rojak
  16. Satay – Probably Malaysia’s most famous dish and beloved by all. Strips of tender beef, chicken or pork are marinated in a mixture of lemongrass, shallots, garlic, galangal, ginger, chilli, ground turmeric (which gives satay its distinct yellow colour), coriander, cumin, soy sauce and brown sugar. The meat is skewered and cooked over hot coals, or a wood fire, until cooked through and slightly charred. Malaysians often brush coconut milk over the skewers during cooking, making it extra delicious and preventing the the outer edges from burning too much. Once cooked through, the satay are served with a peanut based sauce of dry roasted peanuts, garlic, chilli, coconut milk, fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar and tamarind paste. Delicious! Our favourite satay can be found at Seaview Sizzle in Batu Ferringhi.satay

Choosing the tastiest food and the best places to eat them in Penang has been a difficult yet delicious task. We hope that our ‘hard’ work will help you to explore the island and make the most out of your time in this magnificent place. If you think we’ve missed something, or you find a great restaurant or hawker stall that we haven’t mentioned, please get in touch and let us know! We welcome any excuse to return to Penang, but for now, our stomachs are rumbling and the char kway teow is calling…


Not quite paradise, but still quite nice – travelling Langkawi on a budget

Langkawi is undoubtedly a spectacular place. We wouldn’t go as far as calling it a paradise, as most travel sites do, but it’s worth stopping off there to refresh your soul as you make your way around South East Asia, especially if you’ve just come from the crazy urban hotbox of Georgetown.

We arrived a little baffled as to the best way to spend our time there. It’s not the kind of place you can just hop on a bus and hope for the best, mainly because there are no buses (it seems public transport is illegal here) and the taxi fares are extortionate. Langkawi is crying out for Uber, but that’s another story. Here’s a few ways to get the most out of your stay and keep within your budget.

How to Get There

Langkawi is an archipelago of over 99 islands, and most backpackers arrive by boat, taking the 3 hour ferry from Penang for 80RM. The ferry leaves at 8:30am and 2:00pm each day. Tickets are available online, or from the ticket office which is a 2 minute walk from the ferry terminal. We took this one way, but the sea was so rough that Nick spent the entire time outside, spewing up 3 full sick bags. On the plus side, they did show Ip Man 3 on TV.

If you prefer not to make this gut wrenching trip, you can get pretty cheap local flights from within Malaysia, as well as some international flights via Air Asia. We found that flying from Penang was about the same price as taking the ferry, and only takes 20 minutes. You do the maths.

If you’re coming to Langkawi the other way, from Thailand, you can take a speedboat from Koh Lipe. It’s a little pricey at 140RM each, but it only takes an hour and the sea was pleasantly calm for our trip. Plus, you have an excuse to visit Koh Lipe with it’s crystal clear waters and quality pancake scene.

Where to Stay

Langkawi can seem a bit anti-backpacker with it’s overpriced resorts and stately hotels lining the coast. Yet it is possible to have a good night’s sleep on a tight budget here. We strongly recommend that you stay at the cosy, clean and welcoming Soluna Guesthouse near Pantai Cenang. Tucked away amongst gorgeous rice paddies, complete with white heron and water buffalo, the main shopping strip and long sandy beach is only a 5 minute walk away, through some fields, past clucking chickens and cats lazing in the sun.

rice-paddies-langkawi-malaysia

Check their website for current prices, but when we stayed it was only 20RM for a dorm bed, or 45RM for a double room with a fan. They also have private A/C options, but Langkawi gets cool at night so we didn’t go for this. They’re not on booking.com, so you can just turn up. However, to avoid disappointment we advise you call or email them to book in advance. Oh, and they have hot showers too, in case you weren’t convinced already.

soluna-guesthouse-langkawi-malaysia

What to Eat

As you’ve probably noticed by now, food is a priority for us wherever we go. Langkawi definitely loses a few paradise points for the lack of hawkers and it’s overpriced and uninspiring restaurants, especially on the main Pantai Cenang strip. Most blogs push the bbq seafood here, and we have no doubt that it tastes great. However, when the live seafood is priced per kg, it isn’t going to be kind to your wallet.

Yet you can still get some great meals here, and if you’re strapped for cash, we urge you to visit Bella Restaurant at Pantai Cenang. Here you’ll find mostly local food at fair prices. Breakfast here is a must – sip teh tarik and tuck in to  some nasi lemak, or order a kopi and treat yourself to some roti canai (Malayisan style pancakes) with a variety of flavours, including the winning banana and nutella. All for about 5RM too!

If you find it a cop out to eat in the same place all the time, explore the main strip for something that takes your fancy, and there sure is plenty of choice. A reasonable price per dish is 10-15 RM, although this is definitely unreasonable compared to elsewhere in Malaysia. It’s easy to get ripped off here, so always check the menu before taking a seat.

You should also try to visit a night market during your stay – check Travelfish for days and times. Here you can stock up on satay, pancakes, murtabak and that Malaysian delicacy, the deep fried burger! These markets, with their hawkers and hustlers, are bad for your health but great for your budget with each dish costing around 1-2RM.

night-market-langkawi-malaysianight-market-langkawi-malaysia-2

You’ve probably heard that Langkawi is duty free, and this is correct. However, don’t go expecting bargain booze on every corner (actually, the best corner for cheap beer in Malaysia is Georgetown’s Beer Corner). Remember, this is Malaysia, not Calais in the 90’s, so alcohol is frowned upon in most places. The majority of Malaysians come to Langkawi to avoid paying taxes on kitchenware and chocolate, which is interesting but doesn’t exactly scream ‘PARTYYY!’. Drinking out will cost about the same as anywhere else in Malaysia, and the discount on alcohol in shops is usually quite disappointing. Anyway, if you want to get tipsy, your best bet is to have a few tinnies on the beach and avoid the bars.

What To Do

So, you’ve arrived, settled in to Soluna and checked out Pantai Cenang. We know what you’re thinking – the beach is ok, fairly long with off white sand, certainly better than England (although Langkawi often feels a lot like Cornwall). Still, you don’t want to pay to rent a deck chair and a parasol, and the watersports are lacklustre and overpriced. It’s probably raining too, just like Cornwall,  so the beach is not looking like a viable option for the next couple of days. Yeah, we’ve been here too.

Think you can tell the difference between Langkawi and Cornwall? Take our quiz!

What you want to do now is go back to Soluna and hire a scooter (usually about 35RM per day) or a car for about 60RM per day. We chose to hire a car because of the constant rain, but scooters are also rather nifty for exploring some of the smaller villages. Now you’ve got some wheels you are free to explore the interior of the island, which is where Langkawi’s true beauty lies.

First off, head out to the Langkawi Sky Cab for some awesome views of the island. It’ll cost you 45RM for the Sky Cab entry fee, plus an extra 5RM to walk the iconic Sky Bridge. But for 50RM, you get to travel on Malaysia’s longest mono-line cable car (it’s never been made clear if there are any others in the country) to the top of Machincang Mountain. Up there, you’ll be 708 metres above sea level, affording views of the entire archipelago, and even some of the Thai islands on a clear day. We admit that waking the Sky Bridge sounds a bit cheesy, but it was a fantastic experience and our friend Tugce absolutely loved it – except for the lengthy climb back up to the cable car station!

If you visited the Sky Cab at the weekend and it’s crammed with tourists, the best thing to do is to come back another day. But don’t head home just yet – keep going past the Sky Cab site and follow the signs to the Seven Wells Waterfall. Here, you can hike up to the various stages of the waterfall and swim wherever you want. We found that it wasn’t too busy, and as most people forget to bring their swimming costume, you’ll have the pools to yourself! Just watch out for the monkeys because they stole our crisps.

There are two other notable waterfalls on the island that are definitely worth a visit. Temerun Waterfall is a sight to behold, with several rapid courses flowing over the side. It’s an easy climb up to the main basin, and here you’re likely to find the local lads daring each other to jump from the rocks. Join them if you’re feeling brave – we weren’t. Before you leave, make sure you try the beef rendang burrito from the shack in the car park. Mexican-Malayisan fusion at its finest!

Durian Perangin Waterfall was also a majestic wonder, although the lack of durians there may disappoint some visitors – not Flic though, she detests the king of fruit. We found this to be a quiet spot to refresh after a humid day of hiking, and there was plenty of space to have a picnic and even a few hawkers selling cheap hot corn and noodles.

The next place you should visit is Air Hangat Village for the salt water hot springs. The salt water, present thanks to the area’s low water table, is renowned for its health benefits. The locals claim it will ease your arthritis, boost your immune system and increase your general wellbeing. Whether this is medically verifiable or not, it’s rather satisfying to sit knee deep in a hot spring amid the lush green plains of the island. There’s also a reflexology path made of small stones, arranged to inflict maximum pain and discomfort. Walk what may be the world’s only homeopathic gauntlet if you dare.

If you still have more time with your moped, we recommend visiting Mount Raya (also known as Gunung Raya) in the middle of the island for a superb view of the archipelago. It will take you about 30 minutes to drive all the way to the top, past cheeky monkeys and fallen trees, an adventure in itself. At the summit, you can pay 10RM to take a lift to the viewing tower, and you get a free drink with this too. With the low clouds and our stingy temperaments, we didn’t do this, but we have heard from other travellers that it’s well worth it on a clear day.

mount-raya-langkawi-malaysiamount-raya-langkawi-malaysia-2

Of course, if the weather is fine and you have more time on the island, Langkawi’s beaches are worth a look. Whilst we believe that the word ‘paradise’ is used far too often in connection with Langkawi, there are some cool coves to consider. We recommend visiting the section of Tanjung Rhu Beach by Teluk Ewa Jetty. To get there,  you have to drive through Tanjung Rhu Resort and agree to their terms and conditions, but entry is absolutely free. When you reach the beach, you’ll have a cracking view of a few atolls rising from the waters and it’s usually fairly quiet there. Surprisingly, the Malaysian restaurants there offer delicious meals at some of the lowest prices we found on the island.

nick-on-the-beach

We had a great time just driving around the island, through the tiny kampongs, past highlighter-pen-green rice paddies and thriving woodlands. Just like a day out in Cornwall, you’ll come across tourist attractions that may take your fancy every few kilometers. Usually they have low entry fees so you may as well check them out. Just a final word of warning – avoid the Langkawi Buffalo Park because it was awful. Little more than a walk through a cow shed, we were deeply underwhelmed by this rural ‘attraction’, although Flic enjoyed taking photos of the photogenic buffalo.

buffalo-farm-langkawi-malaysia