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30 August 2016

The Caffeine Chronicles: Milkbar Revisited

As part of my 'Caffeine Chronicles...Revisited' series, where I return to some of the first speciality coffee shops I visited in London, I dropped by Milkbar a few weeks ago. Milkbar is Flat White's little sister and it's located a few blocks further east in Bateman Street, which connects Frith and Greek Streets in the heart of Soho — and, indeed, in the heart of Soho's coffee scene (I noticed this as early as 2008, while the aforementioned Soho coffee scene was very much a work in progress).

Although Milkbar has a similar monochrome décor as Flat White, it is usually a little less hectic than its Berwick Street sibling, especially if you on a hot summer's day where many might prefer to be out in the sunshine. I'm happy to step into the shade, though, if it means I get a good coffee. At Milkbar, there are a dozen or so small tables inside and a bench outside in case you want to take advantage of the previously mentioned clement weather. As well as the monochrome menu board and sleek black La Marzocco, pops of red, white and blue brighten up the café's petite but well-proportioned interior.

I happened to arrive at a quiet moment on an otherwise busy Saturday, which meant that I was able to persuade the barista to prepare me a pourover, which they had initially said they weren't serving. This was lucky as I'd already had my milk allowance for the day (one piccolo's worth). They had some batch-brew filter coffee on offer too but my preference for the subtler flavour notes that are drawn out with a good hand-brewed filter coffee intensifies on a warm day, even if I do feel like a terrible human being for turning up my nose at the prospect of bulk-brew.

Like Flat White, Milkbar uses coffee from Swedish roaster Drop Coffee, and I tried a very fruity Ethiopian coffee in my pourover (£4). The barista did a great job and it was a very well brewed coffee. My recent experiences at Flat White and Milkbar have encouraged me to add Drop Coffee to my list for my upcoming visit to Stockholm.

There's plenty of good grub at Milkbar too — I had already brunched before this visit, but they make a mean avocado toast and they also do great scrambled eggs and bagels. Oh yes, and the cakes aren't bad either!

After my coffee, I chatted with one of the friendly baristas about the changing coffee scenes in London, Brussels and Paris and then stepped back out into the sunshine. Milkbar hasn't changed very much since my first visit in 2008 but as they say, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Milkbar. 3 Bateman Street, London, W1D 4AG (Tube: Tottenham Court Road). Website. Twitter. Instagram.

26 August 2016

Sorrento: Sun, Sea and Sandals

Sorrento is a small but attractive resort town famous for its lemons. It lies about 30 miles south of Naples — not close enough to see its northern neighbour, although you can usually see Vesuvius looming across the Gulf of Naples. To reach Sorrento, we took a hydrofoil from Molo Beverello, which takes about 45 minutes and cost about €13 with a suitcase. On the way back to the airport, we took a car, which took just over an hour; the Circumvesuviana train takes a similar amount of time and passes through Pompeii and Herculaneum. The ferry was very pleasant, though, and offers great views of Pompeii and the islands.

Where we stayed
We spent four nights in Sorrento, although I didn't have that much free time in the city because of our day trips to Capri and the Amalfi Coast and the events surrounding my cousin's wedding (the reason for our trip). Despite being a popular resort town, with frequent cruise ship arrivals, Sorrento is notable for its near absence of a beach. Several of the restaurants and 'beach' clubs have small pontoons, as did our hotel, the Bellevue Syrene, which is one of the most beautiful hotels I've ever stayed in.

The building dates to 1820 and it is quite literally carved into the cliffside — if you walk down to the pontoon rather than taking the lift, you will wind down a steep tunnel inside the cliff. Most rooms have a sea-view and many also have balconies: even after four days, I didn't get over the excitement of opening my curtains to see the Mediterranean, Sorrentine peninsula and Veusvius; I have about 50 photos of essentially the same shot. The rooms are also large, comfortable, bright and elegant, and there is a 'club lounge' where complimentary drinks and snacks are served all day.

We spent most of our free time on the sun loungers on the hotel's pontoon, dipping into the cool, clear sea for a refreshing dip from time, although I also paid a couple of visits to the hotel's small but gorgeous swimming pool. I also managed a couple of trips to the outdoor gym. The staff were extremely professional: friendly, courteous and helpful. My only complaint was the wifi, which was so awful that it would often take 15 minutes to upload a single photo; and yes, I probably should have been taking my holiday time to switch off from the internet!

What we ate
We ate at the hotel's 'snack bar' a couple of times — the grandest snack bar I've ever seen: a leafy colourful tables with a panoramic sea view, under the shade of a leafy pergola. I had pasta both times — the shrimp and lemon tagliolini was particularly good — followed with an espresso. The crockery was so beautiful, I wished I could have taken it home with me. One day, I also stopped for a Bacio (chocolate and hazelnut) gelato at Momi; it was ace.

We dined at two other restaurants in the city. I impressed the staff at L'Antica Trattoria by calling up to make a reservation in Italian. We had a lovely table on the bustling, pedestrianised Via Padre Reginaldo Giuliani, and struggled to choose among the tempting options on the menu, which advertises itself as classic with a twist. In the end, I went for prawns in breadcrumbs with sardine sauce, tomato and capers; it doesn't sound like much but the prawns were incredibly flavoursome and the textures were spot on. For my main course, I had the 'chicken roll' (not a chicken sandwich, I learned, but perfectly juicy chicken stuffed with mozzarella and sundried tomatoes. My mum's beetroot (barbabietola in italiano) risotto looked great too. The waiters were very friendly and the food was great.

We liked Ristorante Il Buco so much that we went there for dinner twice. The first time, it was almost 10 o'clock and we were starving after a cocktail reception with the wedding party. Luckily, Il Buco was near by and they found a table for us in the cavernous former monks' wine cellar where the restaurant is located. We went back again with my brother and sister-in-law when they arrived in Sorrento the following day. I couldn't resist ordering three courses both times — there are also a couple of palate-cleansers/pre-puddings included. The best dishes I tried were the scallops, the lobster and the perfectly cooked chateaubriand that I shared with my dad, and the 'enjoyment of chocolate' (chocolate mousse, gel, brownie and...something else, with passionfruit and strawberries). They also have a seriously impressive gin library and I tried a Czech gin with my tonic called OMG; I hadn't heard of it before but with its wide range of botanicals, it tasted great. The service both nights was impeccable.

What we did
The town centre of Sorrento is small and very walkable — as long as you don't mind the inclines and steps (pro-tip: there are several elevators down to sea level that charge €1). The buildings are colourful and, in summer at least, the town has a lively energy. There are also several churches and a couple of small museums.

As I mentioned, we didn't do very much apart from shop, eat and sunbathe (it's a tough life). Corso Italia (pictured first below), in the town centre, is home to many of the towns shops and boutiques, while Via Fuoro (pictured second), a narrow pedestrianised street one block north, and the alleyways that stem from it are the best places to shop souvenirs. When I say 'souvenirs', about 90% of these involve the lemons for which the town is known: lemon sweets, lemon soaps, lemon crockery and, of course, Limoncello.

I was on a mission to buy some leather sandals (leather is another big product in the town), but the only pair I really liked didn't come in my size and I didn't want to get them made for me in case they didn't fit. I must have visited several dozen shops selling variations on the same theme — most places will customise everything from the colour(s), to the design and decorations, but the prices were steeper than I expected.

In the end, I went to Ca Gi Sa at Via San Francesco 24, just opposite the Convento di San Francesco. They made me a pair of sandals with bronze leather straps in about 15 minutes, which fit very well (the woman also showed me how to readjust them so you don't have to keep undoing the clasp). Total cost: €35. Not cheap, but reasonable for the quality (some of the bejewelled designs can go for €150). I didn't get the name but there was a gorgeous leather bag boutique on Via Torquato Tasso, near the junction with Via Fuoro; they had great modern designs and I particularly liked the turquoise bags.

I wouldn't eat at the tourist-trap restaurants on Piazza San Antonio but it is a good spot for people-watching. I had wanted to pay homage to the 16th century poet Torquato Tasso, for whom Piazza Torquato Tasso is named. I struggled through his most famous work, La Gerusalemme Liberata, in the only Italian literature class I took at university ('visions of hell'; Dante was more fun). Piazza S. Antonio is a better place for watching Sorrento go by, though.

Five minutes further east from the centre along Via Corso is L'Agruminato, an attractive citrus garden. I suspect it is more impressive in the spring rather than the parched days of August, but it was nice for a quick, shaded wander; they also do Limoncello tastings. There are also two marinas, Marina Piccola to the east of the town centre and Marina Grande just to the west. We walked down to the latter one evening and it was very pretty all lit up by night. We would have liked to eaten at Da Emilia one night but ran out of meals.

The wedding
My cousin and her new husband had their wedding ceremony at Villa Fondi in Piano di Sorrento, in the hills just to the east of Sorrento and overlooking the sea. It was a small but beautiful outdoor ceremony, after which we travelled further up into the hills to Villa Eliana for the reception. It is one of the most glamorous wedding venues I've ever been to — we could almost have been in LA with the outdoor pool and palm trees.

It was really hot so everyone — including the bride — had the urge to jump into the pool. We all enjoyed some excellent martinis from the martini bar while we waited for the couple and then had a delicious wedding breakfast. We were even treated to a perfect sunset. My cousin did a great job of organising everything and it was wonderful to see her and her new husband so happy together. A fitting end to a wonderful week in Naples and Sorrento.

24 August 2016

Grotto Hopping in Capri

The island of Capri lies just 3.5 miles from the southwestern tip of the Sorrento peninsula and about 10 miles from Sorrento town. It's a small island, about 3.5 by 1.5 miles, with about 12,000 residents. In the peak season, tourists outnumber residents by a ratio of about three to one, but the island hasn't shaken its glamorous past it remains one of the most popular Italian islands, as well as being the birthplace of the caprese salad and capri pants.

There are regular ferries from both Sorrento and Naples but we hired a small motorboat for the day and our charming skipper Teodoro steered us out to Capri, where we circumnavigated the small island in a clockwise direction from Marina Piccola on the south shore. It took us about 45 minutes to reach Capri, and we rode past some of the pretty perched villages and Roman remains on the mainland, including Villa di Pollio Felice (not Pollo Felice (‘happy chicken’) as I first thought Teodoro said!).

Capri's most famous attraction is the Grotta Azzurra (blue grotto) on the north shore, but there are dozens of other smaller and still very beautiful grottos and Teodoro took us into several of them, including the Grotta Verde (green grotto), Grotta Bianca (white grotto) and Grotta dei Santi (grotto of the saints). The water is so clear and appears in various vibrant shades of green, blue and turquoise; when the water catches the light, the effect is absolutely stunning. 

We stopped off to swim and leap off the boat on numerous occasions. This was a good call given that the relatively small beaches of Capri were all incredibly crowded; laying down your towel requires exceptional Tetris skills.

We docked at Marina Piccola and caught a taxi up to the town of Anacapri, which is smaller and higher than the island’s main town, Capri. There isn’t a great deal to do in Anacapri and we didn't have time to take a ride on the chair lift up to the highest point on the island, Monte Solaro, but we wandered through the town’s main drag, Via Giuseppe Orlandi, and looked at the Casa Rossa (a Moorish style house in a vibrant red colour) and the church before stopping for lunch at Le Arcate, a large, rustic restaurant with friendly waiters and good value food. I had a pizza (shocker!), which was very good, although a little too crispy to be truly Neapolitan.

The taxi journey back down to Marina Piccola was just as exciting — the roads are very narrow and twisty and there are stunning views over the bay. After hopping back onto our boat, we carried on sailing around the island, passing various lighthouses, watchtowers, Roman ruins, grottos and the three faraglioni rock formations, one of which you can boat through.

Although we hoped to visit the Grotta Azzurra, we weren’t sure how long the queue was going to be. We had asked Teodoro whether we should head there first thing in the morning but he told us that the afternoon was less crowded. There were still quite a few tour boats waiting when we arrived, not to mention the long queue of people waiting on the mainland. Our skipper managed to arrange for us to jump the line, however, which must have been incredibly annoying for everyone else (sorry to anyone else who was in Capri on Saturday).

The five of us were crammed into one of the tiny row boats, which are the only boats allowed inside the grotto. After we had each paid our €13, our brusque but characterful rower sung O Sole Mio (this is not optional) and rowed us into the grotto. I was fully expecting it to be a) not much more impressive than the other grottos we had seen and b) a complete tourist trap. Happily, although it was not dissimilar to Disney’s 'Pirates of the Caribbean' ride, it really was an impressive sight and one that cameras can’t capture very well, especially not in the five minutes you get inside. The water really does glow an ethereal turquoise, like an incredibly beautiful swimming pool but without the lighting. If you stick your hand in the water, it glows too. We asked ourselves how much we would pay to have a private visit into the grotto for an hour at sunset (when the light strikes the cave mouth at the perfect angle) and the answer was quite a lot of money!

We had one last swim and then it was time to head back to Sorrento. But then disaster struck! Well, sort of. A rather large ferry-generated wave struck the boat and ruptured the belt that powers the water pump. Teodoro called for back up but started trying to fix it himself. As you can imagine, we were devastated to be lying in the sun on the front of a boat with views of Capri and the mainland for an hour! Just as the rescue boat arrived, Teodoro had got the motor started again and we were soon on our way home, just in time for a stunning sunset over Capri and Ischia. I don’t think I have ever been less bothered by a transportation breakdown!

Our day on the boat was one of the best of my holiday and I think it is one of the best ways to visit Capri, especially in August when the ferries, beaches and buses on the island are all extremely crowded. There are plenty of restaurants and some good shops on Capri, especially in Capri town, but it is expensive to stay on the island and if you are on a budget, a day trip might be a better option.