Archive for October, 2012

30 Oct 2012

The Dolomites: a different winter wonderland

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You don’t have to ski to enjoy the snow. Forget the flight, pass over the pistes, cut your carbon footprint and take the train to the Dolomites this winter.

Sunrise over Pedraces

Winter activity holidays don’t have to mean downhill skiing. Later this winter I will return to my particular winter wonderland, the Dolomites, to enjoy the snow, but without the queues and unsightly lifts. And, with the added bonus of a relaxed rail journey there through some of the world’s most spectacular scenery, free from airport hell and flight guilt.

Like most other visitors, I was immediately captivated by their vibrant colours and spectacular shapes when I first experienced these dramatic mountains. Tucked away in the northern corner of Italy, the area (known as Trentino/South Tyrol) benefits from a unique combination of Germanic/Latin culture, history and cuisine and five years ago the Dolomites were, deservedly awarded UNESCO world heritage status.

Santa Croce Church and Refugio

But the natural and unaffected character of the area is another, equally persuasive, magnet that draws me back to these mountains every winter. Although the region boasts over 1,000km of piste, the Dolomites are not the exclusive preserve of downhillers. The people are welcoming and genuine and the hamlets of South Tyrol are as far removed from the archetypal, commercialised ski resort as is possible to imagine.

The unspoilt villages of Arabba, Pedraces and Corvara in the dramatic Alta Badia region lie in a stunning mountain setting and provide a perfect base for snowshoeing, cross country skiing and winter walking: three excellent cardio-vascular activities that take you in close and personal to this winter wonderland, but with a negligible impact on the environment.

Winter Wonderland

Snowshoeing is much easier than it looks and within minutes of leaving the villages, you will be tracking along rivers, through woodland and across winter pastures. Higher up, waymarked trails give access to remote, snowbound landscapes normally only reached by mountaineers. Make sure you visit the tiny Santa Croce church, 2045m asl, high above Pedraces. Next door, the original Santa Croce Hospice, built over 500 years ago to accommodate pilgrims visiting the church, is now a mountain refugio (tel:+390471839632). Take a well-earned lunch break, enjoy the wholesome food and wonder at the fabulous mountain vistas.

Cross country skiing takes a little longer to master, but Corvara alone has 17kms of woodland and riverside routes below the magnificent Sella Massif. Winter walking (bring good hillwalking boots, or “four season” if you intend to use crampons) will soon take you far away from the pistes into a remote winter panorama with only its equally magnificent fauna for company: the brilliant blue skies and pristine white landscapes cleverly camouflage the arctic hares and silver foxes, but it is not unusual to spot golden eagles and chamois.

Sunset on Santa Croce Rock

Another bonus is that no expensive, specialised equipment is needed. Other than boots, pack waterproof outers, warm jacket, hat, gloves, layers and sunglasses. Snowshoes (around five euros per day) and cross country skis can be hired from sports shops in the villages, such as Sport Kostner in Corvara (Col Alt 34, 39033 Corvara, tel:+390471836112).

How to get there:
One of the key highlights of a holiday in the Dolomites, for me, is the journey itself: boarding the overnight train in Paris, travelling through the Alps, then lifting the blinds up next morning to the delightful medieval roofscapes of Verona and Padua. And a more prosaic advantage is that you can take as much footwear, bulky outer gear and extra layers as you can carry.

Sun, snow and rock: Pedraces

Eurostar’s www.eurostar.com carbon neutral trains whisk you to Paris Nord in just over two hours and return journeys start around £60. One useful, but little-known, hint for those outside the capital: discounted fares to London can be obtained through www.raileasy.com or the “Eurostar” section in www.seat61.com Remember to enter your destination as London International and not the terminus you arrive at.

Leaving the wonderful new St Pancras station www.stpancras.com mid-afternoon, it is possible to reach the Dolomites around lunchtime the next day on the overnight “Stendhal” service, departing Paris Gare de Bercy at 20.33, arriving Venice at 9.34 next morning. The return train leaves Venice at 19.57, arriving Gare de Bercy 8.19 next morning.

Use Mark Smith’s indispensable www.seat61.com (it’s worth a look even if you don’t travel by train) for inexhaustible details of routes, fares, booking instructions, connections, maps and even advice on the best way to travel between different termini in Paris.

As well as providing a superior journey experience, travelling by train can be cheaper, depending on type of accommodation and number of travellers. While it can be expensive for one or two people in a first class sleeper, six people sharing a couchette can travel for as little as £33 each, one way, booking well in advance and taking advantage of discounted fares. Remember, the price also effectively includes overnight accommodation as well as journey cost.

Venice has two stations: Mestre, on the mainland and Santa Lucia in the city centre. Tickets are valid to and from either station. Many of the hotels in the Dolomites offer transfers from Venice (Marco Polo) airport: get off at Mestre and take one of the frequent buses from outside the station. Journey time is about 15 minutes and details are available from the airport’s website:http://www.veniceairport.it/page/servizi/trasporti/treno?m=01020201#The site also contains a wealth of details about Venice and surrounding area, including how to reach the mountains by public transport http://www.veniceairport.it/page/turismo?m=1500002

Where to Stay: Collett’s Mountain Holidays www.colletts.co.uk offer a range of accommodation in hotels, hosted chalets and self-catering properties in Arraba, Pedraces and Corvara. Collett’s are renowned for their love and knowledge of the Dolomites and their flexibility, offering snowshoeing, winter walking and cross country skiing. They are a particularly good choice for anyone holidaying on their own as they attract an eclectic mix of ages, families, groups, couples and individuals, offer a sociable “office hour” each evening and serve meals in a communal atmosphere.

For independent travellers, the Hotel Melodia del Bosco Runccac, Runcac
8, 39036 Badia/Pedraces www.melodiadelbosco.it offers warm hospitality, wonderful Mediterranean and Tyrolean food and helpful, multi-lingual staff. Run by the Irsara family and extensively renovated two years ago, it occupies a stunning position, has stylish en suite rooms, a whirlpool and provides guests with extensive local knowledge.

 

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20 Oct 2012

Hedgerow Recipes

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Now you’ve picked  your hedgerow fruit, here are some suggestions as to what to do with it.

Firstly, and most importantly, remember to wash it: anything near a road is liable to pick up pollution from vehicles, but crop spraying in fields is perhaps a bigger hazard. Although it’s tempting to eat brambles straight away, it’s even more vital to wash these first as they will not be sterilised by high cooking temperatures.

Brambles (wild blackberries) are probably the best known and most versatile hedgerow fruit and can be used in crumbles, fruit tarts and various other desserts, as well as being ideal for pureeing. Substituting around 50g of pureed brambles for raspberries makes a richer and deeper coloured top layer for coconut ice.

Coconut Ice

 

Elderberries are one of our most common hedgerow fruits, but are routinely ignored. The berries are too bitter to eat, but when boiled and sweetened, make a deliciously rich jelly, with a unique flavour. The great thing about jelly making is that you don’t need to core, or de-seed the fruit before boiling it.

1. Cut the berries off the stocks, add some apples (the humble crab apple is best, but ordinary cookers will do), chopped roughly, with cores and skin.

2. Cover with just enough water and boil gently until it resembles a soft pulp.

3. Strain through a muslin bag (jelly bag) – a clean linen tea towel will do – and allow to drip overnight. Avoid touching or moving it, or the jelly will tend to become cloudy.

4. Measure the liquid – as a general rule you need the equivalent amount of sugar, eg, 1pt liquid = 1lb sugar (preserving traditionally uses imperial measurements) – and bring to boil.

5. Add the sugar, then continue to boil till setting point is reached – best way is to use a jam thermometer, but test by putting a spoonful on a cold saucer to see if it wrinkles when you draw your finger across it, as a back up.

6. Bottle and cover immediately – make sure jars/bottles have been sterilised and are hot, otherwise the jars may crack and anything other than scrupulously clean jars will attract mould.

Elderberry Jelly

Rosehips and rowans can also be used in hedgerow jellies, but be careful with the rosehips as they should be chopped before boiling and, as their inner fibres contain irritants, it’s best to do this in a processor and handle them wearing gloves.

Sloes are just coming into fruit and you can pick them well into November. They look like tiny purple damsons, but as they cling to blackthorns, take care when you pick them. They make a deliciously rich (and potent) liqueur type drink, the best recipe I’ve found being an adaptation of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s damson vodka.   Make it now for drinking next Christmas (allowing yourself a taster or two on bottling, of course). Makes around 1.5 litres. 1kg sloes, washed 500g sugar 1 litre vodka

  1. Prick each sloe several times with a pin, then transfer to a large, clean Kilner jar, demijohn or other suitable glass container with a tight-fitting lid or stopper.
  2. Add the sugar, pour in the vodka, seal and leave in a cool place away from direct sunlight.
  3. Every week or two, turn the jar on its head, then back again.
  4. After six months, strain the liquid through several layers of muslin, then bottle and seal tightly.
  5. Leave for at least another six months. It will be even better after two years – or more – provided you have the patience.
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20 Oct 2012

Make the most of Sustrans Cycle Routes this Autumn

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We all know that Sustrans routes are great for getting from A to B safely, healthily and scenically, helping you to keep fit and do your bit for for the environment at the same time. But, they also have other attractions, particularly at this time of year.

This hasn’t been the best of summers, but one of the few benefits of the rain and lack of sun in June and July is that the hedgerows are still heavy with fruit: brambles, rose hips and even elderberries that usually ripen six to eight weeks ago, are still there.

Red Rowan berries in fruit

And as many Sustrans routes run along old railways and canal towpaths – ideal hunting grounds for hedgerow fruit – you’ll be spoilt for choice.  Even when the route runs along a country lane, you’re still in the driving seat, so to speak, as you can cycle further away from the half a mile radius out of the villages and car parks, which is as far as most of the pedestrian and car driving fruit pickers get to.

Normally I find mid to late August as the best time for the blackberry harvest, but walking the West Highland Way (which shares Sustrans Route 7 for parts of the route) in early September I was amazed at how many wild brambles  were still to ripen.

Nearer home, Route 54 between Burton and Lichfield, is (or was until I gathered the elderberries)  ideal hedgerow territory, running parallel to the Trent and Mersey Canal for a few miles and then along some high-hedged lanes.

So, pack some plastic bags in your panniers and see what you can find in the hedgerows, – but hurry because as the sun weakens, any fruit that is left will rot quickly. Blackberries will be past their best, but slows are just beginning to ripen – add sugar and a bottle of vodka/gin, leave in a dark place for as long as you can – and they make a deliciously rich (and potent!) liqueur.

Elderberries make a full-bodied (and equally potent) wine, or can be boiled up with crab apples and rose hips to make a delicious jelly.  (Recipes to follow in next post.) You can even use rowan berries, as well, but do take care and if you’re not too sure of your berries, err on the safe side with those you are familiar with.

So, in a few months time you can indulge in some mouthwatering jellies and agreeable drinks, without guilt, knowing you have picked, delivered and cooked them, all by your own efforts. Bon appetite!

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