RIP restaurateur Russell Norman, who has died at just 57. After walking away from his over-extended Polpo empire he re-emerged post-Covid with a fresh Italian venture, trading in one small plate concept (Venetian cicchetti) for another (Florentine trattoria staples) at Brutto in London’s Clerkenwell. Brutto means “ugly” as in “ugly but good”, brutto ma buono. Instagrammers, look away now.

Reviewing it for The Observer in 2021 Jay Rayner wrote: “There are drapes of linen over the lights and sweet red and white checked tablecloths. Just as he did for his cookbook about Venice, Norman spent a lot of time in Florence in preparation for this opening, alongside his head chef Oliver Diver.”

Happily Russell’s wife Julie and son Ollie will continue this solo comeback project from this genuine hospitality ground breaker (Polpo, his take on a traditional bacaró, was a laid-back revelation when it launched in 2009… two years before the San Carlo Group got in on the act with their own Cicchetti chain).

But will 70 cover Brutto ever major in the great Florentine staple it promised to put on the  menu? Jay Rayner again: “I’ve come and gone from Florence many times over the years and I swooned when I learned the menu would include a crusty Lampredotto, or tripe roll of the sort they serve in the Central Market there. It is one of the world’s great sandwiches. They have had problems getting hold of the right tripe from the fourth stomach, but he promises it’s coming. The correct rolls have been commissioned.”

A stickler for authenticity, Russell had despaired of locating in London the exact kind of bread roll to encase the beige strewed tripe ‘elevated’ (sic) by the punch of salsa verde. Our recent visit to the cradle of the Renaissance had me swooning over this plebeian culinary work of art. The legendary lampredotto is not hard to find in a city whose markets bulge with tripe. Unlike the UK’s, where these days you’ll struggle to find even a tranche of honeycomb lurking in the chill cabinet.

Well-researched in all things edible Tuscan, Russell  has his own specific supply problems, as he revealed to one of those exhaustive Guardian long reads – a 2022 focus on the difficulties in opening a new restaurant after the Pandemic and Brexit. “The bread supplier was unable to offer a crusty white roll of the kind typically used in a sandwich stuffed with lampredotto; the lampredottoitself had to be shipped in from France. Except the French suppliers only sold it 20kg at time, so Brutto also had to buy a separate freezer, purely to store the vast slabs of offal.”

So what exactly is this difficult to recreate ‘offal holy grail’?

Russell again: “There are four stomachs to the cow, the feathery one, then the honeycomb one, then a third, bleached white tripe. The fourth and final stomach is the slightly brown lampredotto, the most tender and, it turns out, the most difficult to get hold of. Every UK butcher we’ve spoken to says our guys just throw it away.”

That’s never been the case in Florence in over 500 years of lampredotto as the ultimate ‘cibo da strada’ (street food). The name comes from lampreda, the Italian word for the eel-like ‘vampire fish’ the stomach is said to resemble in shape and colour.

The lamprey was a popular Florentine  treat in Renaissance times, up there with cibrèo, a stew of a stew of rooster testicles, crests and wattle so loved by Catherine de’ Medici she even tried, unsuccessfully, to export it to France when she became Queen. Even in the eponymous Cibrèo ristorante in the Sant’ Ambrogio neighbourhood this dish is near impossible to find these days, Not so the lampredotto. Our first encounter was close to the Sant’ Ambrogio produce market (where prices are cheaper than the Mercato Central mentioned by Rayner). 

The slightly latrine-like smell of the stewing delicacy wafted across the cobbled square from Sergio Pollini’s traditional tripa van. Lampredotto is typically slow-cooked in a vegetable broth of tomato, onion, parsley, and celery, seasoned with herbs. When its is plucked from the cauldron for slicing it is an unappealing beige hue, but it is disguised by the spicy green salsa topping when encased in its crusty bread roll – the panino co i’ lampredotto – and I found it tender and moreish, in taste and texture not far from ox tongue..

The first chomp did take some courage, though. Superficially it resembles the street food of downtown Palermo in Sicily where, I admit, I gagged on specialities such ‘pane con la milza’ – gristly spleen in a similar bun.

Researching the fourth stomach (or to give its anatomical moniker, the abomasum) I was fascinated to discover it’s the source of rennet, the complex set of enzymes that helps separate curds and whey to create cheese, Further findings are more arcane. It is also fried and eaten with onions as part of the Korean dish Makchang Gui and features alongside chickpeas, onion, garlic and saffron in the Persian delicacy Sirabi-Shirdan (thanks, Wiki).

A roam around the realm of lampredotto

Our first meal in Florence after a very early flight into Pisa was lunch at the legendary Alla Vecchia Bettola, one of the trattorie that inspired Russell Norman with its looks, atmosphere, food and giant Chianti fiascos. The menu offered Tuscan classics such as  ribollita, chestnut flour paat with a porcini sauce, bistecca alla fiorentina naturally, salsiccie con fagioli, stuffed rabbit, tripe, but you won’t find lampredotto. You have to seek out the stalls and sandwich shops scattered about the beautiful city. My favourite during our stay was undoubtedly Da’ Vinattieri, tucked away along the narrow Via Santa Margherita close to the Piazza Repubblica.

European food tour specialists Devour, who offer a three Sant’ Ambrogio exploration, also list on the blog the five best lampredotto outlets. Oh, and do remember Italians frown on snacking on the move. Prop up a counter with your treat; grab a tumbler of rough Sangiovese to accompany.

As Russell Norman’s Tratttoria Brutto has aspired to offer, this is democratic food. Let Saveur magazine have the last word: “That a cow’s stomach chamber can be morphed into a triumph of the culinary arts is a quintessentially Florentine phenomenon… In the same way that Dante argued for vernacular Italian to be accorded equal respect and literary legitimacy as Latin, Florence seems to have understood that expensive food isn’t necessarily better food.”

I am lunching in the only 2 Michelin star Chinese restaurant outside China – A. Wong, just down from London’s Victoria Station.  My 15-course dim sum-centric tasting menu, Touch Of The Heart, costs £175 and the sophisticated package includes five splendid matching wines. Curated by chef patron and Oxford-educated chemist and later social anthropologist Andrew Wong, this is no ordinary dumpling experience. 

The menu, based on Andrew’s extensive explorations, has this mission statement: “The world of Chinese cuisine is limitless and exciting, a journey of tasteful cultures and flavoursome histories, from Buddhist temple cuisines of the Tang Dynasty Silk Road and the lantern-lit teahouses of bustling Ming Dynasty Suzhou to the cocktail hour of Hong Kong and Shanghai’s jazz age. We are honoured to have you join us on this culinary journey, with a menu that celebrates Chinese food heritage, historical recipes, and kitchen crafts that evolved over 4000 years.”

I hope Fuchsia Dunlop approves. She too is a standard bearer. Her new book, Invitation To The Banquet: The Story of Chinese Food (Particular Books, £25) explores through 30 widely disparate dishes/food styles the extraordinary culinary universe of that vast nation. Not the dumbed down version of Cantonese cuisine that has been long peddled in the West. Now thankfully changing at the top end, if not in takeaways.

Invitation seems the logical progression from a series of cookbooks that have earned her an authoritative reputation, not least in China, commencing with the groundbreaking Sichuan Cookery (2001). Even Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, her 2008 memoir of how she trained as a chef in its capital, Chengdu, came with a recipe at the end of each chapter. Her latest doesn’t. Both evocative and encyclopaedic, part travelogue, part social history, it’s not a stoveside tome. Instead you are by proxy by the side of local food producers, chefs, gourmets and home cooks spread across a homeland of over 1.4 billion people. Ultimately you are worshipping at the shrine of Fuchsia’s foodie hero, one A Dai, proprietor of Dragon Well Manor in the city of Hangzhou, whose ‘cooking rooted in the local terroir’ mirrors that of forward-thinking chefs in the West.

Before reading it I knew something about Dongpo pork, named after an 11th century Song Dynasty poet and governor of that same Hanghzou, and about Pockmarked Mrs Chen’s mapo tofu from Fuchsia’s wellspring, Sichuan, but pomelo with shrimp eggs or the trophy dish of the mega-rich maverick even today – bear’s paw? Emperors had that rarity served with the tiny tongues of crucian carp fish. Like serving pangolin or shark’s fin, all very arcane subject matter, but the book’s mission is less about the exotic, more about dispelling the scariness of many regional specialities and explaining how more recognisable delicacies came about.

Take the procession of dim sum I’m enjoying from Andrew Wong’s buzzing kitchen. In Invitation Fuchsia devotes a couple of chapters to dim sum, dumplings, noodles and baos and they are among the most enchanting, firmly pinning down their Turkic Silk Road origins. ‘Transforming Dough  knife-scraped noodles/dao xoao mian’ and  ‘Kindling The Spirits: steamed soup dumplings/xialong bao’ trumpet the skills that put many non-Chinese chefs to shame. Well, that culinary triumphalism is a constant trope from stalwart Sinophile Fuchsia. Still I do get her point as midway through my steady Wongathon I’m actually purring.

Dim sum at 2 star Michelin level? Pull up a lunchtime stool

I’m perched at the end of a shiny green-tiled counter, marvelling at the sheer elan of the operation and the warmth of welcome not always apparent in either Michelin places or old school Chinatown. What was once a standard Cantonese, run by Andrew’s parents in one of Pimlico’s less fashionable streets, has been transformed over the last decade thanks to his ambitions.

While evening service centres around The Collections of China, a wide-ranging three hour banquet, this Touch Of The Heart tasting menu of smaller dishes is available only at lunch alongside an à la carte dim sum offering. The title springs from a translation of these between meals snacks – ‘dian xin’ in Mandarin – which first came into use during the Tang Dynasty.

Fuchsia writes: “In its literal meaning dim sum is ambiguous; the two characters which compose it can mean ‘dot’ or ‘press’ and ‘heart’ or ‘mind’, which is why some people translate it into English’ as ‘touch the heart’…

“Food scholar Wang Zihu suggests that the emergence of this new term for a kind of ‘edible pick-me-up’ reflected a whole new era in Chinese gastronomy, in which eating was increasingly seen not just in terms of sustenance, with pleasure a a secondary goal, but as something that could be done mainly for fun, as was the case with dainty snacks that were designed to appeal to the senses as much as fill the belly.”

Cut to me at 70 Wilton Road, SW1V 1DE on a Thursday lunchtime. So which components appealed to my senses most?

Chilled ‘smacked’ cucumber with trout roe, chilli and garlic vinegar was an appetiser before  a glorious trio of dumplings, dim sum and wontons served together. Pick of the bunch was an incredibly delicate Shanghai steamed pork dumpling with a sharp ginger infused broth, the quintessence of xiao long bao. Equally classic was an almost transparent shrimp dumpling, sweet chilli sauce, topped with a cloud of rice vinegar foam. Sturdier, with a more compact dough, was a pork and prawn dumpling crowned with pork crackling.

Perhaps the ‘rabbit and carrot glutinous puff’ proved less delicious than it sounded but its fellow puff, the ‘999 layered scallop puff’ with powerful XO oil was a convincing bite, ahead of a dish (main image) that was a genius level artful deconstruction. ‘Memories of Peking duck’ arrived in a swirling nest of feathers and straw, the classic thin pancake encasing duck and foie gras. It’s a two bite experience. Go left and the topping is caviar, right and it’s a shaving of truffle. 

Further stand-outs were a cheung fun, that Cantonese rice noodle sandwich, here matching an Isle of Mull seared scallop with honey-glazed Iberico pork, then ultra delicate  ‘bamboo pole’ noodles with king crab and spring onion oil (my server first showing me a video at table of the deft noodle-making process) and the main pudding, a fluffy steamed duck yolk custard bun that benefited from not being over-sweet.

Before that, though, a skillet arrived bearing the component parts of our Xian lamb burger – a dish at odds with the rest of the culinary parade, its inspiration the pork-free Muslim-centric north west vastness that is Xianjing province. The author mentions in passing “the plight of its Ugyhur people” that ”has been well documented in the international media” and that’s it. Food takes precedence over geopolitics.

Here at A.Wong the mix and match presence of sesame, coriander, chilli and pomegranate alongside the lamb pattie transported me along the Silk Road – the route west. What better way to conclude a remarkable pilgrimage through the world’s most diverse cuisine?Thank you, via your different routes, Andrew and Fuchsia.

Chewy, bouncy, slippery, crunchy? I settle for century-old eggs

The menu was a sublime procession of flavours, but none of it was challenging – the kind of macho Chinatown ‘take me off piste’ stuff that ‘old China hand’ critics such as Jay Rayner and Giles Coren occasionally indulge in… and Fuchsia Dunlop has grown to relish after her first tentative coming to terms with a nation of eaters that value food for mouthfeel as much as flavour. “They want chewy, bouncy, slippery and even crunchy ingredients which ‘feel beautiful’.”

Tripe I do, even slippery pig brains, but I gag on chicken feet or tendons. Still, broadening my horizons, I’m now a convert to century old eggs. My recent dish of the month for Manchester Confidential came from Noodle Alley in the city’s Chinatown. They were done Sichuanese style. Here’s what I wrote: “Smoked beers? I’d sampled a few at Smokefest, niche celebration at Torrside Brewing in New Mills, so what perils could a surfeit of Sichuan pepper hold for kippered me? Hence it was a ballast of ‘Burning Noodles’ all round at Ken and Wendy Chen’s Chinatown basement homage to her native province. This version of the classic dish featuring minced pork is not the tonsil-cauterising challenge you might encounter in the back alleys of Chengdu, but it is the most authentic manifestation ever to pop up in Faulkner Street. Numbing enough to need the quenching (unsmoked) neutrality of a Tsingtao lager or two.

“My foodie focus, though, was more left field. I am currently working my way through Invitation To A Banquet, Fuchsia Dunlop’s newly published introduction to Chinese cuisine, so I felt I had to order £6.80 small plates of Sichuan starch jelly with house chilli sauce and charred green chilli with century old eggs. The former was testimony to the Chinese love of texture, the latter proof that an ammoniac whiff doesn’t have to be off-putting. 

“The wedges of egg fanned around the plate, resembled on first glance, streaked dark green tomatoes. The Chinese see a pine pattern, so another name beyond the usual pidan issonghua dan, or pine-patterned egg. That look is the result of several weeks’ fermentation. Traditionally this consisted of pickling duck eggs in brine and then burying them in a mixture of coals, chalk, mud and alkaline clay. Result – they can last unrefrigerated for months but not long years. Bite through the gelatinous coating and the taste is uncompromisingly ripe. Think blue cheese on steroids. The impact at Noodle Alley certainly skittled any lingering ashtray beer tastes.”

Big birthdays demand a blow-out. For my 70th last year it was unforgettable Ynyshir. Playing catch-up this, my bluestocking wife required Dreaming Spires and the Forest of Arden – so off to Oxford (where we met several decades ago) and to Stratford-upon-Avon for a rather apt staging of As You Like It (in the main theatre below right, image by Stratford Computers).

Theresa’s own version a few years ago tapped into youthful enthusiasm; the current RSC adaptation regroups a cast of grizzled veterans, supposedly 45 years on from the original production they were in. Cue all kinds of riffs on time passing. The best summation from another Shakespeare play, The Merchant of Venice: “With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come.” Occasionally creaky, this As You Like It was all a rather joyous self-indulgence. As was the rest of our Stratford leg.

Familiar territory this half-timbered town, yet it never loses its allure. Top advice is to get to the major Shakespeare attractions early or, for those out of town honeypots, later in the day when the coach parties are dispersing. 

Before filling you in on all those must-sees a mini-guide to more modest off-the beaten track discoveries we made on this recent visit. Just stray off thronged Sheep Street, Henley Street and the like to a Stratford shorn of Edinburgh Woollen Mills, Harry Potter shrines and shop windows rammed with tourist tat and you might encounter… 

Ya-Bard – ‘a quart of ale is a dish for for a king’

The quote is from The Winter’s Tale (1611); of rather more recent vintage (2020) is Dave Moore and Sam Thorp’s splendid craft beer bar/bottle shop at 13 Rother Street (next to the Playhouse). The narrow space is lined with Belgian lambics and serious sharing bottles, but the five beers on tap are witness to Dave’s preference for hoppy pale ales and IPAs. Manchester’s own Track Sonoma was just about to go on when we dropped by. This is the real beer deal in a town whose bars and pubs don’t really cut the mustard. Falstaff would give them the sack!

Shakespeare Hospice Bookshop – ‘Knowing I lov’d my books, he furnish’d me From mine own library with volumes that I prize above my dukedom’ 

The Tempest this time. We think its hero Prospero would approve of the good deeds of The Shakespeare Hospice, which runs a range of fund-raising shops, this gloriously well-stocked shrine to the printed the word the pick. We browsed there for the best part of an hour, relishing the generous prices… for quite recent review copies in many cases. I snapped up John Kampfner’s Why The German’s Do It Better for £4 and my wife a tome on moles for a quid more. If you visit don’t miss the quirky upstairs display of “Things we found in books”.

Box Brownie – the curtain’s down!

Coffee didn’t arrive in England till the mid-17th century (according to Samuel Pepys, England’s first coffee house was established in Oxford in 1650), so understandably there’s no mention in Shakespeare. Chocolate, in liquid form, was probably familiar to the Bard but the brownie is a late 19th century American invention. They do a delectable version at Ben and Hayley’s bijou coffee house at 20 Henley Street. An antidote to all the chains infesting this tourist town, their brilliant brews from locally roasted Monsoon beans.

Four Teas – ‘When the hurly-burly’s done, When the battle’s lost and won’

Wartime home front style at this 1940s-themed tea room/English brasserie, which offers arguably Stratford’s best cream teas. Spoiler alert: the icing on the cake may be a soundtrack of Vera Lynn and Glen Miller. There’s always the garden to escape to, which comes complete with an authentic Anderson shelter. It being ‘Taking Back Control Britain’ the Classic Ivor Novello Afternoon Tea will eat up a lot of your ration cards. £27 per person, £32 with prosecco. Pass the tin hat, Captain Mainwaring.

The Kingfisher – ‘Marry, here’s grace and a cod piece’ (Lear)

Best quality sustainable fish from Grimsby, proper chips from Lincolnshire spuds at this Ely Street chippie. Lots of thesps (the likes of Patrick Stewart, John Nettles and Judi Dench) have ordered fish and chips from this low key gem, along with a certain Princess Diana apparently. It was in the same family’s hands for 42 years until 2020. The good news: it’s as good as ever and reasonably priced.  Round the corner is Salt, Stratford’s only Michelin-starred restaurant. The tasting menu is the inevitable focus here, but it offers affordable lunch options. Chef patron Paul Foster is currently opening a second restaurant in Camden, so may not be at the mothership every day. A wonderful Salt alternative is just further along Church Street, located handily in our hotel base, the Hotel Indigo, a beautiful melding of a 1500s original building with contemporary lodgings set around a hidden garden (central Stratford car parking, too!)…

The Woodsman – ‘Why let the strucken deer go weep’

Hamlet quoting an old ballad there. Venison was very much a Tudor staple, so it is appropriate that a restaurant specialising in deer and other game sits squarely opposite the site of Shakespeare’s house, New Place (our bedroom looked out upon it). Exec chef Mike Robinson, whose other restaurants include the Michelin-starred Harwood Arms in Fulham, The Elder in Bath and Chester’s The Forge, sources venison from his own private deer park in Berkshire. A dinner that featured chicken terrine, octopus and exquisite lamb as well as venison (loin and faggot) was a feast fit for a Bard, Recommended, as is the hotel.

So, what’s to see at New Place across the road?

Bought by Shakespeare in 1597, the largest house in town was where he lived with his family and later died in 1616. It was controversially demolished in 1759, but the ‘footprint’ of the razed property has been restored evocatively – notably with the creation of the Great Garden and the Knot Garden. Helping explain the history is the adjacent museum in the Grade I listed Thomas Nash House. This was owned by Shakespeare’s granddaughter’s husband and features a fascinating exhibition of archaeological finds from New Place.

Roman Catholic palimpsests in the Holy Cross Guild Chapel

The debate whether the Shakespeares were covert Papists has never been settled, but this unassuming medieval church on neighbouring Chapel Lane offers some clues. Notably the vestiges of Catholic murals. These were ordered to  be wiped out in the Reformation and John William’s father John was given the task of doing this but chose just to whitewash over the paintings, perhaps in the hope of preserving them for prosperity. 

Thus we can still make out over the chancel arch Jesus presiding in Judgement, with the souls of the elect rising from their graves to be greeted by St. Peter in Heaven. Meanwhile, the damned (whose sins of pride, luxury and gluttony are labelled) are rounded up by demons and dragged through hell’s mouth to unspeakable torments beyond. Elsewhere Popes to peasants parade in a devilish ‘Dance of Death’.

Shakespeare’s last resting place – ‘Alas poor Yorick’

Far overshadowing the Guild Chapel is the beautiful Holy Trinity, where the Bard and other members of his family are buried in the 15th century chancel. His memorial offers the famous curse “blessed be he who spares these stone and cursed be he that moves my bones”. That may not have deterred 18th century grave-robbers. AGPR (ground penetrating radar) has suggested the skull may be missing. Entry to the church is free but there is a £1.50  a head charge.

Avon calling – join the swans on the river 

Avon Boating by the Clopton Bridge offer all sorts of ‘self-drive with oars’ opportunities on the river. Cruises, where the skipper takes the strain, are the most laid-back trips. Downriver there are unparalleled views of Holy Trinity and the RSC theatres, including a sneak peek into the balconied dressing rooms of the RST and, our guide informed us, it can be a bit of a shock to see Julius Caesar consulting the Ides of March on his iPad. Then head upstream in pursuit of kingfishers and the idyllic back gardens of Tiddington Road, the most expensive street in Stratford.

The Play’s the Thing – ‘All the world’s a stage etc’

You can’t go far in this town without stumbling across quotations emblazoned on the pavement and statues contemplating skulls. All this bardolatry would, of course, be pointless without the hub – the RST, the Swan and The Other Place. Stratford is about theatre and there is a host of exciting Shakespeare performances currently playing and lined up for the near future. For details visit here. For true theatre geeks there’s also a selection of backstage tours. Starting in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre Cloakroom, you will learn about the history as well as exploring a production in more depth to learn about the theatre making process.

Your Shakespeare pilgrimage – further places to visit

But then many visitors are happy just to bathe in the aura of our greatest playwright. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust manages the five very different properties relating to the playwright with a mission to reach out to all ages. Its website features videos and virtual tours to whet the appetite. And at the moment it is offering a great value special ticket covering all the houses.

In the town itself, besides New Place, there is Shakespeare’s Birthplace, the comfortable Tudor house where young Will grew up and (alas closed to the public at the moment) my favourite, Hall’s Croft, home to the surgeon John Hall and Shakespeare’s daughter, Susanna. High-ceilinged and furnished to show wealth, it has a magnificent formal garden with herbs that would have been used in Hall’s remedies. Alas, it is currently closed to the public.

As both houses have the original flagged floors there’s a frisson to know you are literally walking in Shakespeare’s footsteps. Knowledgeable guides in costume loiter in rooms with intent to draw you into the experience of 16th century family life. In the Birthplace guest room a woman playing a harp explains about the mouldy oranges – bought for show and  never intended to be eaten. 

A costumed glover stands in John, the playwright’s father’s workshop amid an array of his wares, all designed for different purposes. In the window hang a range of “pockets” or Tudor man-bags, the must-have accessory for any Stratford dandy. We learn also about the less pleasant side of glove making – urine used as bleach and the noxious smell of human and animal waste from the tannery in the backyard.

Country Matters with Anne Hathaway and Mary Arden

The two out of town properties with their land and gardens offer great family entertainment. The family home of Shakespeare’s wife-to-be, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage at Shottery, is beautifully preserved with the settle on which William and Anne did their courting and, again, a minor life-enhancing detail of a descendant who reputedly chipped splinters from it to sell for sixpence to tourists. Knowledgeable volunteers fill you in on period language and customs. You want to know the origins of upper crust? You’ve come to the right place.

The gardens are a delight, in high summer a riot of sweet peas and lavender. Don’t neglect to take in a sonnet in the Sonnet Arbour, its trellises channelling the surround sound of the actor’s recorded voice.

Mary Arden’s Farmhouse, (the home of Shakespeare’s mother) has been developed into a fascinating period attraction where costumed guides and volunteers cook Elizabethan feasts using authentic ingredients and care for the heritage animals and poultry without mod cons. We watched Kate the English longhorn cow being milked by hand into a wooden pail while her calf (Quickly) looked on. Why “Quickly”? Because all the cattle must be called after Shakespeare characters and the names (rather like hurricanes) have to go through the alphabet. The calf may have had designs on being Viola or Titania but she ended up named after a brothel keeper. 

You can also stroke the cute black Mangalitza pigs, learn to herd geese and groom the resident horse. The period feel is enhanced by groups of schoolchildren in costume, the only incongruous detail their trainer-clad feet. There are also birds of prey displays.

Enough period charm – let’s close with some Horrible History

A very different slice of period life was delivered up in Tudor World. Lurking down a cobbled alley in the old Shrieve’s House off Sheep Street, this is a hands-on fun experience for all the family. On the way in you are given a Tudor ID card with details of ‘your life’; on the way out you learn how you died – usually painfully and by execution. In between are chances to dress up, sit on the throne, pose in the stocks and glance in at some gruesome period practices. In one installation the barber surgeon extracts a patient’s tooth with no anaesthetic and much blood. 

In another the magician and alchemist, John Dee, sits surrounded by the paraphernalia of his trade. On the wall behind is the fascinating fact that he was a spy, code-named 007. And Ian Fleming took the moniker for what must now be the most famous secret agent ever.

Main image of Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and subsequent images of Birthplace, Hall’s Croft and Mary Arden’s Farmhouse from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

It’s a glorious sweep down through the North Yorks Moors from Whitby to Hovingham. En route 30 odd miles of heather heaven in high season with the pastoral lushness of the Howardian Hills at the end of it. I just wonder if the legendary Captain Cook ever made the journey? We always associate the adopted Whitbian with seaborne expeditions to the furthest corners of the globe. Did he know this Tyke hinterland of ruined abbeys and fine local produce?

He was certainly familiar with tetragonia, the spinach/sorrel like leaves now on my plate at Mýse in bonny Hovingham. Back in the 18th century he enlisted what the Antipodeans also call warrigal greens or New Zealand spinach to ward off scurvy among his crew on the Endeavour’s long voyages.

There’s little chance of me contracting this disease of vitamin C deficiency over the course of Josh Overington’s beautifully balanced 10 course tasting menu, among the highlights of which is the Herdwick lamb ‘main’, where three tetragronia leaves are draped over Herdwick lamb, fillet and belly, cooked over coals and served with an anchovy-umami rich garum sauce on a base of pearl barley, tiny cubes of lamb tongue and addictive garlic capers. The tetragonia is tangy, slightly chewy, grown specially for Josh by a local farmer.

Such a dish is typical of Josh’s spanking new project. At the end of last year, after a decade in York, he and his sommelier wife Victoria sold up their acclaimed Cochon Aveugle restaurant and wine bar Cave du Cochon. Their new home is a restaurant with rooms in the former Malt Shovel opposite that most eccentric of 18th century Palladian big houses, Hovingham Hall (clue: its architectural focus is the stable block).

The makeover of the premises has been stylishly managed. What was a village local is now the crucible for the French-influenced ‘Bistronomie’ food that once had critics swooning, despite the no choice menu being served blind (Cochon Aveugle = Blind Pig). The big difference in Hovingham is you get a printed menu.

According to Josh in a newspaper preview the food focus has also shifted. “This is our chance to create something more ambitious and a reflection on our incredible Yorkshire surroundings. I grew up here and it has been home to Victoria for 10 years, so we wanted to create a welcoming, homely spot, each dish a nod to dinners that my Yorkshire grandmother would cook for me, but elevated and refined.”

Maybe that’s a culinary leap of faith along with naming the destination Mýse, apparently the Anglo Saxon term for ‘eating at table’ (pronounced meez). The word does translate as ‘table’, but I’ve dusted off my old copy of Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer (revised edition 1970) and got no further. My bluestocking spouse suggests it might even be a Latinate derivative similar to mesa. Surely there’s also a play on the French term mise en place (everything chopped and measured out before cooking in a professional kitchen. None of this bothers me over much. With food this sublime they could call it Beowulf’s Magic Mead Hall and I wouldn’t fall on my sword.

So what did I eat there that sun-dazzled July noon time?

A trio of snacks – a postage stamp sized tranche of smoked eel dusted with bilberry powder poised on a cup of eel and apple broth; on a wooden spoon delicate shards of razor clam given rare oomph by a tangle of salted rhubarb and lightly pickled elderflower; ox cheek fried in Yorkshire pudding batter with fermented cucumber. I‘m sure granny would have loved the latter without knowing it might rate as a beignet. I saved some of the seeded sourdough to mop the juices of the next-up Orkney scallop. The temptation was to keep on smearing it with the proffered Ampersand Dairy cultured butter and chicken drippings. The fat hand-dived mollusc was a classic Overington dish, baked in the shell with a sea urchin butter for a sweet salty kick. A crumble of bottarga-style crisped coral enhanced this further.

Josh told me the broth for my line-caught cod had been created by simmering in-season senshyu onions with water for three days. The pearly North Sea fish itself was poached in aged beef fat, senshyu and lemon verbena. Then followed that lamb – Herdwick not Swaledale as predicted, but the perfect taste of the North following Josh’s brief.

My fave pudding of a trio was ‘day old bread’, which meant soaking yesterday’s brioche in vanilla custard then caramelising the edges, so it superficially resembles a fat fish finger. It came with a trio of preserves for messy dipping, the best of which was a little raspberry and rose number but honourable mentions for goat’s milk caramel and a ‘hidden’ hazelnut crème fraîche main image – serving for two). 

Simpler was a plate of four strawberries ‘dipped in their own jam’ with a citrus marigoldice cream. Then came a petit four like tab of linseed caramel that called for coffee and a tempting local cheese offering that I declined.

I also restricted my wine intake to two glasses because I was driving. A vinho verde and a Greek xinomavro. Such a shame when the wine list is heavily weighted towards Keeling & Andrew’s remarkable ‘Noble Rot’ roster.

The obligatory tasting menu costs £80 at lunchtime (wine pairing £65pp); £110 in the evening (wine pairing £85pp).

Wheat field ramble, Tristram Shandy, Tommy Banks’ new boozer

Poppies line the Ebor Way out of Hovingham. If I keep to the dusty footpath for an hour and more I’ll be sure to reach Oswaldkirk, the sign says, but the sun is relentless over the fields of wheat and broad beans, so after a brisk stretch walking off lunch I retreat to my car and drive 10 miles east to Coxwold and Shandy Hall. Cock and Bull Story (2005) was Michael Winterbottom’s appropriately absurd attempt to film the unfilmable – Laurence Sterne’s anarchic, baggy 18th century novel, Tristram Shandy. The groundbreaking novelist’s home lies at the top of the sloping village. Now a museum, Grade 1 listed Shandy Hall is open to the public at weekends, the two acre grounds most days, but not today (‘private function’). Instead I take a table and a Harrogate Water at the Fauconberg Arms in the centre of the one-road hamlet. An umbrella shields me from the sun as I bask in the charm of a place that almost defines unspoilt.

It’s the base camp for my exploration of another pub transformed by an accomplished chef. Back in 2017 Tommy Banks and Josh Overington were part of a trio of chefs representing the North East in the BBC’s Great British Menu. Tommy now holds Michelin starts at Roots in York and his flagship Black Swan at Oldstead three miles down the road from Coxwold. 

En route to the Swan you’ll come upon Byland Abbey. A ruin under the care of English Heritage, it’s hardly in the same league as Rievaulx up the road, but that fellow casualty of the Dissolution of the Monasteries doesn’t have an idyllic pub garden opposite where I’ve been served the finest beef burger I’ve ever tasted outside Hawksmoor.

Yes, Tommy has taken over the Abbey Inn – where as a lad he washed pots – and its menu follows the sustainable tenets of his restaurants. The Dexter chuck brisket and short rib for the patty is from the Banks family farm. Topped with bacon and chicory jam, oozing cheese, tomato and cucumber pickle, it is accompanied by beef fat fries (less impressive). It will cost you £21 from the garden menu or inside, even now at the steep end for a burger, but it’s worth it. The menus here are very much posh pub, not dedicated restaurant. Once a farmhouse built by the monks, it has been a hostelry since 1853 and is staying that way. At 70, the Abbey Inn has double the covers of Mýse; each, though offers three luxury rooms to stay over. Hard to resist ordering the extra Timothy Taylors or Xinomavro red or two and crashing. This is a wonderful corner of England.

Restaurant Mýse, Main Street, Hovingham, York, YO62 4LF.

The Abbey Inn at Byland, York, YO61 4BD.

Under the radar? That’s definitely Abruzzo. It’s the poor touristic relation of Toscana, Umbria, Piemonte and yet this predominantly rural Italian region has so much to offer. Three National Parks, one Regional Park and several natural reserves are home to an unprecedented 75 per cent of Europe’s flora and fauna species. The slow food on offer, washed down with the local soft Montepulciano reds, is reason enough to visit the scores of  ancient hilltop villages.

Take lentils. The medieval town of Santo Stefano di Sessanio holds a festival every September in their honour, the Sagra delle Lenticchie, and is campaigning to win them DOP (Denominazione d’ Origine Protetta) status alongside such iconic foodstuffs as Parmesan, Balsamic vinegar of Modena, San Marzano tomatoes and the like.

I source my Abruzzo lentils (via the wonderful Ham and Cheese Company in Bermondsey) from the Casino di Caprafico 100km south east which accesses the same scrubby terrain that somehow brings out the iron-rich best in these tiny legumes. Easily the equal of France’s acclaimed Puy lentils. The same deeply traditional operation also yields my go-to new season olive oil. The head honcho is Giacomo Santoleri. Let Ham and Cheese Co tell his story:

“Giacomo Santoleri was an engineer before turning to agriculture 20 years ago. His Caprafico farm is on the eastern slopes of the Maiella National Park, close to the town of Guardiagrele and there he has chosen to grow a range of heritage grains to mill for bread and pasta. Pasta from his barley and emmer (farro) is a long way from the uniform white mono flavour of pasta made from high yielding wheat varieties and it is also much healthier; emmer is known to be good for the heart and immune system. It is high in antioxidants, fibre and protein. Like many heritage grains the plants are strong and sturdy and can be grown without the need for chemical fertilisers and pesticides.”

And the Caprafico lentils?

“Giacomo grows ancient grains and pulses on the Caprafico plain in Abruzzo. These lentils are sown at the end of March on poor, chalky soil and they thrive in the harsh mountain temperatures of the Maiella National Park. Surviving these adverse conditions gives the lentils lots of flavour

“The lentils ripen at different times depending on their altitude but the majority are harvested during August. Harvesting takes place by hand because the lentils grow so close to the ground that mechanised harvesting can destroy up to 40 per cent of the harvest. Inside the cloth bag are 500gs of the most beautiful, speckled lentils. Cook them with a carrot, an onion and a stick of celery then stir them – still firm – into some softened dice of the same vegetables. Top them with a sausage or poached egg.”

The form the perfect base for toothsome New Year’s Day treat, Cotechino, sausagey subject of one of my Italian Food Trail pieces, but with my latest lentil batch I have wilfully ditched seasonality.

Just as summer is almost convincing Yorkshire it is Abruzzo I’ve assembled in my garden the ingredients for a decidedly autumnal Lentil and Chestnut Soup, loosely adapted from a Rachel Roddy recipe. It was an excuse to use up two vacuum packs of hulled chestnuts that had lain too long in the store cupboard. Plus I had an excess of chicken broth in the freezer and a surfeit of herbs from the garden.

Lentil and Chestnut Soup


4 tbsp good olive oil

1 onion,

1 carrot

1 stick celery,

100ml Noilly Prat

3 tomatoes, skinned and diced

Ready cooked chestnuts, broken up

2 litres of chicken broth/water

Parsley, chervil, dill, marjoram or other mixed fresh herbs.

1 bay leaf

Salt and pepper, to taste


In a large pan heat olive oil over a low flame, add chestnuts, stir for a minute then add vermouth and let it bubble for a couple of minutes.

Rinse the lentils and add to a separate pan with chopped veg, herbs and stock water mixture. Simmer for an hour or so over a low heat until the lentils are tender Unlike red lentils they keep their shape). Remove bayleaf. Take out half the mix and blend roughly before returning to the lentil pan along with the chestnuts and a splash of good extra virgin olive oil. Caprafico would be perfect.

A Proustian madeleine moment? With hops? Not quite. The lager in the iconic Budweiser Budvar tankard glass flaunted all the right credentials, including the distinctive huge frothy head, bringing back glorious travel memories. Yet the taste was subtly different from what you’d expect of the classic Czech beer. 

Adam Brož, the brewmaster of that state-run enterprise was at my elbow to explain their unique link-up with Derbyshire’s finest, Thornbridge. Our native Golding hops and Maris Otter malt give Czech Mates (a bit of an ouch name, but hey) its own tang, benefiting from the legendary Budvar yeast. Cheers – or, as they say in South Bohemia ‘Na zdraví’!

Budvar’s first ever collab outside its home country is not meant to replicate the original. At 4.8 per cent it is weaker and the maturation period is shorter, though considerably longer than most lagers including even Czech rival Pilsener Urquell. And don’t even mention the dreaded American Budweiser, which perennially bombards Budvar with legal challenges over the brand.

I am at a Czech Mates launch night in a Thornbridge tied house in Leeds, The Bankers Cat, and Budvar global ambassador Ridem is generously plying us with samples of Thornbridge’s crisp, well balanced labour of love. Like Adam, he is delighted that I have visited their iconic brewery in České Budějovice. I tell them how it was the final destination of an eye-opening pilgrimage to the Czech Republic (or Czechia as it now styles itself). That was in 2016. My previous visit to their country had been in 1976, just eight years after the Prague Spring and the Soviet crushing of Czech dreams of freedom. How different it all felt…

A land of fairy tales and golden lager

Advent Sunday in Český Krumlov (main picture) and the bells are ringing. The first sighting of blue sky in this most misty of autumns in South Bohemia has lured me out into the old town before breakfast. Winding alleys that had breathed mystery after dark are equally entrancing by day. Who needs Prague when you can have a place like this to yourself?

Except around the corner comes a selfie-driven Japanese coach pack. UNESCO World Heritage status means off the beaten track just doesn’t happen these days. Still this historic city, set in a horseshoe bend of the River Vltava (Moldau) and lorded over by an immense 13th century castle, wears its tourist honeypot trappings lightly. 

We are 170km south of the Czech capital, not far from the Austrian border. This has been territory fought over for centuries. When Germans ruled the roost it was called  Krummau an der Moldau just as the region’s main centre, České Budějovice, was Budweis (hence the brewery name, more of which anon). 

After the collapse of the Soviet empire and the splitting of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia Český Krumlov arose from decades of decay like some Sleeping Beauty. Which seems quite apt in a land entwined in folklore and fairytale.

Especially around Christmas when it all takes off. Well, Flying Baby Jesus does. When the Velvet Revolution kicked out Communism there was a rush to introduce Czechs to that burly guy in red with the white beard. They were having none of it. Their festive bringer of gifts is Ježíšek, variously depicted as a baby, toddler, and young lad (see the image below from a church we visited). 

On Christmas Eve families deck the tree and share a traditional Czech dinner of carp and potato salad, then the children are sent to scan the skies for Ježíšek. When a bell rings they rush back to find their presents have arrived.

Snacking on the Christmas Markets

The Czechs have the highest beer consumption in the world – 129 litres a head. Their food, from pretzels to goulasch via dumplings, sauerkraut, grilled meats and sausages, seems custom-built to match the foaming brews.

We were there at Christmas Markets time, more home-made affairs than the ersatz ones inflicted on the UK every November and December. In both Český Krumlov and České Budějovice I sampled these Czech snacks for the first time:

Trdelnik: a hybrid of cake and sweet pastry made from rolled dough that is wrapped around a stick, then grilled and topped with a sugar and spice mix.

Sazanka: a thin omelette on rye with gherkins and browned spring onions.

Kapri Hranolky: carp fries, the fish chunks spiced with cumin and ginger then floured and deep-fried. Delicious with a noggin of mulled mead, but I opted for a bottle of Krumlov’s own local beer, Eggenberg. 

Green man riding a catfish and other tall tales

My best present was discovering the unanticipated wonders of Český Krumlov. After being captivated by the view from the Castle of its close clustered rooftops encircled by the river came the defining focus of the stay: the Fairytale House – Puppet Museum. Here you could learn about contemporary puppeteering, even try your hand, but it is the marionette mausoleum aspect – some tableaux dating back to the 18th century – that captivated. Czech childhoods seem populated by sprites, witches and demons. None more creepy than the water spirit ”vodník”. This green man riding a catfish drowns unwary folk and captures their souls in a jar. 

Equally spooky is the White Lady who haunts the Castle and makes appearances in the nearby Hotel Růže. If the spirit is smiling, good news will follow; if she looks serious, and wears or carries black gloves, the news will be bad. Legend has it she threw herself off a cliff when her father refused to allow her to marry the man she loved.

Another Krumlov story, much more horrific, featured deranged Don Julius, bastard son of the Hapsburg Emperor Rudolf II. When he took up residence in the Castle in 1607 he was joined by the local barber’s daughter, Markéta Pichlerová, with her family’s permission. 

Tiring of her, he beat her up and threw her from a turret window – she escaped death only because a rubbish heap broke her fall. After she recovered from terrible injuries, the tyrant demanded her back – and then cut her into tiny pieces. In subsequent captivity in the Castle he degenerated into a human wreck and was probably murdered on the Emperor’s orders.

Near the knuckle – St Reparatus and Egon Schiele

A dark past but visiting the Castle nowadays is a jolly experience. The exuberant Baroque theatre is only open for occasional concerts and the two resident bears penned below the battlements are coy about showing themselves, but the 29 room Museum in the colourful tower is equally colourful and eccentric. Don’t miss the reliquary of St Reparatus, his bones gaudily embellished by nuns.

Just as near the knuckle is some of the raw, explicit imagery inside the Egon Schiele Art Centrum. The Austrian painter died in the Spanish flu epidemic, at just 28, in 1918, the same year as his inspirational mentor, Gustav Klimt. This gallery in a former brewery exists because Schiele’s mother came from the town and he spent time here, enraptured by the Bohemian forests, before being driven out because of his bohemian (as in unorthodox) lifestyle. This is charted in exemplary fashion alongside changing exhibitions of current artists.

The Museum Fotoatelier Seidel is an altogether sedater affair. This house/studio of early 20th century photographic pioneer Josef Seidel is a time warp with its abundance of original cameras and props. He was a chronicler of a pre-war, pre-Soviet age and the images are fascinating. 

All these attractions are within close walking distance. The best passport to seeing them is the Český Krumlov Card, covering five museums and the Krumlov monastery complex. For a single adult it costs £15

Czech craft beers and a castle crammed with antlers

Visiting castles is bound to work up an appetite… and a thirst. Hluboká nad Vlatou, 10km north of České Budějovice, is home to a very stately pile. The 13th century Hluboká Castle was transformed into its current Neo-Gothic Windsor look in the 19th century by the Schwarzenberg family. They had downsized from Český Krumlov Castle to this 11 tower, 140 room, glorified ‘hunting lodge’. In the hall the Schwarzenbergs pose en masse in a family photograph of the time, the menfolk itching to get away and blast the life out of all the stags they can bag. You can’t move for trophy antlers and gun racks throughout the public rooms, only the odd manic boar’s head breaking the plush monotony. 

There are various tours on offer, after which you will probably be ready for a  substantial repast at the village’s characterful restaurant, Solidní Šance. Specilaity is potato pancakes stuffed with cabbage and pork. The house strudel is benchmark stuff, too. To accompany there’s a range of unfiltered and unpasteurized ‘Czech-style craft beers’ brewed in-house at the Pivovar Hluboká, using Budvar yeast, Czech or Bavarian malts and Žatec hops. Go for their Žatec semi-early red, if available.

Some 20km to the west of České Budějovice is another UNESCO heritage gem, the model village of Holašovice. Ranked around a village green are several dozen houses refashioned in the 19th century in the ‘Folk Baroque’ style aping noble mansions. Think lacy, colourful gables.

I’m told the number of houses has remained constant throughout Holašovice’s  800 years of existence and most are still lived in by villagers. Two taverns, a chapel and a blacksmith are here to serve them, and No.6 of the 17 farms in the village offers a fascinating collection of bygone rural tackle. Thought-provoking indeed our lugubrious guide’s demo (without animal) of how to castrate a sheep.

Our journey’s end – the refreshing city of České Budějovice

But then the whole trip was full of quirky revelations. The main purpose of our visit to České Budějovice 25km north of Český Krumlov was to visit the brewery but on a guided tour around the town every building seemed to boast an odd back story. Climb the 250 steps to the top of the Italianate Gothic-Renaissance Black Tower (1577) and you are rewarded with a spectacular view over Budějovice’s vast main square and the Blanský Forest in the distance. The abiding memory, though, is of the goat who once shared the tower apartment with the guardian.

Walk over to Piarist Square. On one side is the steeply gabled Salt Warehouse, once an armoury, today a motorcycle museum. Inset randomly in the facade are three reliefs of stone faces, believed to represent a trio of thieves beheaded.  On the other side, high on the exterior of the Church of the Sacrifice of Our Lady, a frog-like gargoyle bulges just below the roof. It recreates a frog crawled into the foundations of the Dominican church during construction and kept causing the church walls to crumble; in the end, it was ejected from the foundations. It is said that its sculpture used to be placed lower, but the stone frog has been crawling upwards step by step until it reaches the roof and then the church will collapse and it will be the end of the world.

An equivalent doom will arrive when the vast underground lake that supplies the perfect, pure soft water for making Budvar beer runs out. It’s not going to happen any time soon but it’s a nagging long-term quandary for the state-owned brewery that upholds the country’s beer traditions, lagering (slow conditioning) its top-fermented, burnished gold beer for 90 days in comparison with just 25 for arch-rival corporate-owned Pilsener Urquell in the northern town of Plzeň, where the classic beer style was created.

Budvar are meticulous, too, in sourcing locally only pale Moravian malt and Saaz whole hops (not the pellets used by most brewers, even the of the artisan craft persuasion). It was a glorious sight watching hops being loaded into one of the gleaming copper vessels.

So does Budvar Budweiser taste better at hallowed source?

At the end of our Budvar Visitor Centre Tour we tasted the end product in the cellar. Patiently conditioned and unpasteurised, lacily frothy fresh from the tanks, it lived up to Garrett Oliver’s tasting note in his magisterial Oxford Companion to Beer: “Refreshing, showing a rich malt and vanilla aroma, and fine, floral hop character. The finish has a fine balance of juicy malt, tangy hop resins, and a delicate hint of apple fruit.” Quite.

Oliver touches at length on the decades-long legal wrangling over naming rights with the US brewing giants Anheuser-Busch, who produce their own (vastly inferior) ‘Budweiser’ and Bud Lite. At the height of the squabble Budvar was saved from a takeover by them after the intervention of then president Vaclac Havel and today worldwide sales are soaring. In the fairy tale land of Bohemia they like happy endings.

Budějovický Budvar Brewery, n. p.K. Světlé 512/4 370 04 České Budějovice. To plan your (highly recommended) Brewery Tour visit here. End your tour with a meal at Budvar’s own restaurant 100 metres away on the corner of Pražská and K. Světlé streets. The rich, dry Budvar dark lager is a consummate match for the house speciality, goulasch. For full tourism information about Czechia visit this link. fly regularly from Manchester to Prague. České Budějovice is two hours south of the Czech capital with Český Krumlov a further half hour away.

One boon of the lockdowns, as we sought solace beyond our isolation, was stumbling upon digital escape routes for which we felt a kinship. Mine were strangely consoling. Among the social media tumult of misinformation and malice what a relief each day to receive via Twitter an Eric Ravilious artwork (@Ravilious1942) or a snatch of Seamus Heaney verse (@HeaneyDaily)? Best of all was my discovery of the Friends of Friendless Churches. I was not alone – there were 46,000 followers of @friendschurches helping spread the word about a tiny 65-year-old charity ‘caring for 60 redundant but beautiful places of worship in England and Wales.’

I also follow @BatsinChurches. This project tailors the interests of our 18 native species to the delicate structures they choose to inhabit. Both these niche organisations – the first mostly privately resourced, the second a Heritage Fund recipient, each a labour of love – get their moment in the spotlight in Peter Ross’s vivid trawl across the ecclesiastical edifices of our island, Steeple Chasing (Headline, £22, published May 11).

Appropriately enough, Friendless Churches is the focus of the chapter titled Dust. The author meets its director, Rachel Morley an Irish woman in her thirties, on site on a bend of the River Monnow just across the Welsh Border. St James Llangua is nearing the end of its working life. It’s not in a good state. Can they afford to rescue it it? It will take £300,000 to fix the roof and make it safe. That’s half of the Friends’ annual income. 

Further chapters are entitled Steel, Fire, Stone, Bone, Fen, Light etc in this award-winning Scottish feature writer’s neo-WG Sebaldian quest for meaning among the steeples and bell towers. Elegiac, yes but more… The melancholy element is inevitable, if not as pervasive as in its predecessor, A Tomb With A View: The Stories and Glories of Graveyards (Headline, £20).

That came out in 2020. This suggests a publisher cashing in with a quickfire follow-up. Far from the case. Steeple Chasing is given an extra dimension by the intervening pandemic. The quirky stories are still there, as is Ross’s wry charm, but essentially this is a book about people caring deeply. About the fabric of churches and the fabric of community. It has become a state of the nation book. While focusing on structured religion in decline.

The dressing-up box meets secret anointment excesses of this weekend’s Coronation (of the ‘Defender of the Faith’) made me wish for a simpler communion with history. Alone in a Norman church, perhaps, among fields. Such architectural survivors, of course, feature in Simon Jenkins’ comprehensive England’s Thousand Best Churches, which offers a star rating for each. This can easily become a tourist ticker exercise. I say this as a man already compiling a Steeple Chasing bucket list. On it for starters are two slightly spooky churches – Holy Trinity at Stow Bardolph in Norfolk and St Peter’s and St Paul’s at Chaldon in Surrey.

The former is host to a life-size wax effigy of one Sarah Hare, a member of the local gentry who died aged 55 on April 9, 1744 ‘after poisoning her blood with the prick of a needle’. It was her wish to be memorialised this way; the body itself is buried beneath the church floor. The face is “plump and over-ripe, ingrained dirt gives the impression it is veined like cheese, The eyes are blue. Dark curls fall across the forehead. The effigy has grown grubby and worn. The neck and décolletage are filthier than the face and the hands are filthiest of all. Her left index finger is coming away at the knuckle, “ writes Ross.

He compares the experience to Dorian Gray, Miss Havisham or the end of Don’t Look Now. “It would be the most natural thing in the world, the most dreadful thing in the world, if she smiled.” After which he takes tea with her descendant, Lady Rose Hare, who is rather fond of Sarah. The only other funeral effigies in the UK are in Westminster Abbey. Surely some Royal hangers-on were auditioning for the part last Saturday.

Grand Guignol in pictorial form at the Chaldon church, tucked in a fold of the North Downs. Dating back to 1170, ’The Ladder of Salvation of the Human Soul and the Road to Heaven’ is a 17ft by 6ft red mural depicting purgatorial torment. Demons stir a cauldron full of murderers, a hell hound chews a woman’s arm, devils press forks to the head of a money-lender until white-hot coins spill from his mouth. How precious to find such a masterpiece still in situ rather than transported to a museum.

As so often in the book, Ross’s empathy comes to the fore. Acknowledging it is intellectually quite complex, offering new ideas about the afterlife, he writes that “the total  effect is visceral. It must have been a fearful experience for medieval churchgoers to stand facing the altar with this horror show behind them. I bet they smelled the sulphur. I bet they felt the heat on the back of their necks.” 

Linking it tenuously to Picasso’s Guernica, Ross concludes: “it seems both ancient and queer and radical and modernist”. That could apply to Stanley Spencer. In the same chapter, Paint, Ross takes in his vast religious war painting, Resurrection of the Soldiers, at Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere, Hampshire. I love these (sic) leaps of faith throughout Steeple Chasing.

The book ranges far beyond country churches. Sheela-na-gigs and other ruderies, wooden angels among Norfolk rafters, Glastonbury’s sacred springs, the abandoned brutalist seminary of St Peter’s outside Dumbarton. The mighty centres of Christendom are also tackled – Lindisfarne, Durham Cathedral, St Paul’s. With the latter, in the Fire chapter, his fascinating tangent features the air wardens who stood sentinel over it during World War II, when miraculously it survived. My favourite London contribution, though, is in the next chapter Cats. Worth buying the book just for this account of a feral Borough Market ratter enlisted to serve in the same capacity at adjacent Southwark Cathedral. Christened Doorkins Magnificat, she patrolled the grounds by night and found favourite spots inside to snooze during the day. This famous feline even met The Queen on one royal visit. 

Alas, Doorkins’ eventual end was hastened by being caught up in the 2017 Islamist terror attack on London Bridge with its fleeing crowds, sirens and flashing lights. After the Cathedral doors were blown open in a controlled explosion, she was never the same cat again. No spoilers. Buy this fabulous book to find out what happens to Magnificat.

A YouTube postscript

Each time I finish reading a Peter Ross book there’s a pattern developing. I Google a film. In the case of A Tomb With A View it was One Million Dollars, Anife Kellehers’s documentary about Dublin’s Glasnevin cemetery that’s also an elegy for its legendary tour guide, Shane MacThomais (who committed suicide aged 44, though that’s not mentioned in the film). It’s a remarkable watch.

In Steeple Chasing John Betjeman’s A Passion for Churches gets a mention in relation to Norfolk’s rich holy building heritage. The BBC screened it in  1974 and it’s still available grainily on YouTube. Watch it and be amazed at how 50 years has transformed Britain (an absurd lapse into medieval kingship ritual aside). Did people really look like that? Was it all so grey? It out-Larkins Larkin, a vastly superior poet to Betjeman (witness Church Going or An Arundel Tomb). And yes, at least in the country parishes, we were still clinging on to being a church-going nation.

Quite a day. Two Glasgow bucket list musts ticked off in a couple of hours: Crabshakk restaurant and Barrowland Ballroom. A reward – after two intense days of butcher awards judging – of a feast of fresh seafood in still hip Finnieston, then Father John Misty in full sardonic flow at the legendary Gallowgate venue. For all this I had the blessing earlier in the day of Salvador Dalí’s Christ of St John of the Cross, as breathtaking as ever on its astral perch in the Kelvingrove Museum.

It’s the kind of fervent embrace I’ve come to expect from that great sandstone city on the Clyde. On previous visits I’ve rigorously researched Glasgow’s thriving food and drink scene or thrown myself into its rich musical heritage. Yet there were always gaps to be filled. 

Thanks to the judging invitation from the Q Guild (from bacon to rib-eye via sausages, pies and stir-fries  it was a lot of fun) and a handy Merchant City base in the Moxy Hotel I had time to explore. Extra time thanks to rail strikes extending my stay.

King Tut’s, St Lukes, Oran Mor – I’d done them all on that specifically music trip but I’d only stared across at the Barrowland from The Gate cocktail bar opposite. In the absence of a gig that night, the famous Technicolor lights were out. The raucous Father John Misty concert more than made up (even if lonesome me was adopted by the Glaswegian equivalent of Beavis and Butt-Head bellowing out the lyrics they knew by heart).

Dining solo at Crabshakk was an altogether more sedate affair. Even if I probably needed a large bib as I messily ripped into a whole crab at the counter. Contender for most beautiful fish dish of the year so far followed – a tranche of halibut in a tomato miso with a draping of monksbeard.

This brilliant ‘high tea’ made up for a less convincing dining experience the previous evening (in company). Tucked into the Cathedral Hotel, Modern Italian Celetano’s came with a glowing recommendation from The Guardian’s Grace Dent but, fennel salami and a couple of accomplished pasta dishes aside, it didn’t deliver the promised bliss.

It is handy though for a mooch around the spooky Necropolis, which looks down on a cityscape packed with steeples and towers. This 19th century burial ground, inspired by Paris’s Pere Lachaise, lies on a ridge close to the city’s pre-industrial centre, rubbing shoulders with the magnificent Gothic Cathedral. For 700 years St Mungo’s tomb has drawn pilgrims there.

The Necropolis boasts 3,500 monuments, commemorating the city’s grandees. More than 50,000 other souls keep therm company from their unmarked graves. The cemetery upkeep is an ongoing challenge, my guide from the Friends of Glasgow Necropolis, told  me as we stood beneath the hulking monument to religious reformer John Knox (“he is Edinburgh, nothing to do with us really.”). 

Glasgow-based journalist Peter Ross in his great celebration of Britain’s graveyards, A Tomb With a View (Headline, £20), says the Knox statue “functions as a sort of Statute of llliberty, representing all that is stern and joyless and unbending about Scotland”.

His own favourite Glasgow cemetery is the gentler Cathcart on the Southside; for Gothic ghoulish, though, head for the Southern Necropolis, across the Clyde from Glasgow Green. Here the eerie marble figure known as The White Lady, marking the grave of two women killed by a tram in 1933, is said to turn its head to gaze at passers-by. It’s also the alleged haunt  of the Gorbals Vampire with its iron teeth and lust for the blood of local lads.

Such urban folklore is enough to make you turn to drink. Wee drams aside, in this city that’s traditionally been courtesy of Tennent, whose mass market lager brewery looms to the south of the Knox Necropolis. As a family business it predated the boneyard by centuries and there were once genuine fears the arrival of corpses would contaminate its spring water supply.

Tennent’s commitment to the present is undoubtedly its collab with Alloa indie brewers Williams Bros – Drygate, a converted box factory on its estate, now home to a US-style craft brewery tap. The Drygate labels are designed by students from the Glasgow School of Art.

Which leads us neatly to the on-going saga of the iconic Art School building designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. This was extensively damaged when a blaze broke out late in the summer of 2018 as it neared the end of a £35 million restoration project following a previous fire in May 2014. The scaffolds and tarpaulins remain in place. It will be years yet before the current rescue project is finished.

Born in 1868, policeman’s son Mackintosh had none of the advantages of his architect contemporaries, just more talent. To get a taste of the whole Art Nouveau-dabbling coterie sign up for one of the Mackintosh’s Glasgow Walking Tours or download as self-guided leaflet.They all offer an illuminating introduction to the city as a whole, particularly the Victorian and Edwardian era where the vast wealth raised through shipbuilding and the sugar and tobacco trade was lavished on elaborate architecture.

I like the fact that Mackintosh designed both the main newspaper offices – the Daily Record, all glazed brick down a dark lane (home to vegan cafe and gig venue Stereo) and the Glasgow Herald building, deftly transformed into the panoramic Lighthouse, Scotland’s Centre for Architecture and Design (alas still closed post-pandemic).

My favourite building on our tour had to be James Salmon Junior’s Gaudiesque 1902 St Vincent Street Chambers, nicknamed the ‘Hat Rack’. Small in stature, Salmon was nicknamed the ‘Wee Troot’. A recent bridge over the Clyde has been dubbed the ‘Squinty Bridge’. Yes, the city’s dry humour takes no prisoners.

So much architecture but Glasgow has a wealth of green spaces, too. I love Kelvingrove Park and the shady promenade along the River Kelvin, taking in Kelvingrove Museum. This fantastical Spanish Baroque pile, spring cleaned inside and out two decades ago, houses an eclectic collection of art and objects that takes your breath away – from Rembrandts, Van Goghs and Salvador Dali’s vertiginous Christ of St John of the Cross to armour collections, a stuffed elephant and a dangling Spitfire. It’s a great place to acquaint yourself with Mackintosh’s influence and the contemporaneous Glasgow Boys art movement.

The interior of the Glasgow house where Mackintosh lived with his wife and artistic collaborator Margaret Macdonald has been reassembled up the hill within the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum, featuring a definitive collection of his austerely beautiful furniture. From here it’s a 10 minute walk to Byres Street and the West End – the 

Bohemian buzz of which would surely have delighted the dandy in Mackintosh.

Much quieter, in the southern approaches of the city, is another green oasis voted Europe’s best park in 2008, Pollok Country Park, home to elegant Pollok House, great walks and the remarkable Burrell Collection Museum – a Mackintosh-free zone.

It is a custom-built modern repository for more than 9,000 objects bought by Sir William Burrell, cannily using wealth from the family shipping business. Chinese, Muslim, Medieval and Gothic treasures rub shoulders with Impressionist masterworks. Unlike the Kelvingrove, it feels uncluttered, displaying at any one time only 20 per cent of the collection. The landmark building reopened last spring after four years shut for water damage repairs.

t is too far out to feature on Glasgow’s official hop on hop off (with commentary) City Sightseeing Tour. This double decker’s circular route takes in the East and West Ends as well as the revitalised banks of the Clyde with its award-winning, Zaha Hadid-designed Riverside Museum. Offering an even more fascinating insight into the city’s past is the People’s Palace on Glasgow Green in the East End. This sandstone working class cultural centre charts everything from tenement poverty to entertainment diversions. Attached to it is the elegant Victorian glasshouse of the Winter Garden. 

Nearby you’ll find the Templeton Carpet Factory, modelled on the Doge’s Palace in Venice, and, of course, The Barrowland Ballroom. Take them both in on a walk up to Merchant City, once home to mansions and markets and now reinvigorated as a creative hub after decades of decay, good for bars and people watching. 

It’s after here you start to recognise the grid system Victorian expansion built along. Look down long straight streets and you’ll inevitably see church towers or steeples framed at the end. It all feels uncannily American. Indeed when the cityscape turns hilly around Blythswood Square it might almost be San Francisco. Not quite sure John Knox would have approved.

Fleeting tips on food and drink in Glasgow

Crabshakk, as you already know. The Finnieston original has spawned a sibling up at the Botanical Gardens. Other fish restaurants of note – the veteran bistro Gamba on West George Street and the Finnieston Bar and Restaurant. Nearby Gannet, paragon of Scottish sourcing, is probably the pick of the Argyle Street eateries.

Pubs? My fave remains The State Bar, off Sauchiehall Street, with its glorious Victorian interior, fine cask ales and Glasgow’s longest-running blues jam. In the Merchant City, a short stroll from the Moxy Hotel, is the laid-back Babbity Bowster, named after an old Scottish wedding dance and offering a countrified beer garden at odds with its urban surroundings. Current craft beer mecca is down on Southside – Koelschip Yard with 14 cutting edge keg lines.

It’s that time of year again and as I prepare to barbecue a big bundle of calçots in my rather blustery backyard the whole celebration is tinged with sadness. Because these long thin Catalan onions that resemble a leek (but aren’t related) will forever be associated with Lunya in the Barton Arcade and Iberica in Spinningfields. Both these now departed Hispanic standard bearers in Manchester hosted jolly, messy events around that quirky veg’s brief season. Bibs were essential as the charred objects of our desire, fresh from the coals, were dipped in a pungent Romesco-style sauce and accompanying wine was poured from a great height from needle-nosed porróns. 

Calçots’ journey from plot to plate is far more epic than your supermarket spring onion’s. The Catalans plant them in early autumn, traditionally as the moon is waning, then a few weeks later, when the shoots have pushed up, transplanting them. The following summer they are harvested and stored in a dry place to germinate again, then in August/September they are trimmed and replanted in trenches. 

Now the fun starts. Let Colman Andrews, author of the still definitive Catalan Cuisine (1997) take up the story:

“As they begin to sprout once more earth is packed around the new growth to blanch it (as done with chicory and celery) – and this is how calçots got their name, from the verb C, to put on boots or shoes. (The Catalan word for shoe, in fact, is the almost identical calçat. Compare the Italian word calzone, ‘big stocking’, meaning a stocking-shaped turnover pizza).

“By the time the calçots – as many as 12 or 13 of them from each large onion,  seven or eight from each smaller one – are harvested in January and the ensuing few months, they have become not only much larger but much milder and sweeter. And because of their ‘shoes’ of soil, at least half their length is white.”

What was once a seaside speciality around Tarragona province, is now commonplace across Spain, as ubiquitous as paella or churros. A colleague noticed Manchester’s acclaimed 10 Tib Lane is currently serving leeks with romesco, saving on the air miles for the real thing.

In truth the annual La Calçotada wasn’t remotely on mind until a visit to Liverpool this week for the opening of Daniel Heffy’s impressive new restaurant NORD. En route I happened upon the original Lunya restaurant/bar/deli, where founders Peter and Elaine Kinsella retrenched after their Manc exit. And there for sale was a stack of calçots, in all their earthy prime, which I snapped up on impulse, The Kinsellas will be hosting their own Calçotada this Sunday afternoon (March 26) at Lunyalita at Albert Dock, with not just calçots smoking on the grill but also a selection of grilled meatsand yes, the cava will flow. For afters, crema catalana, naturally. My more modest party at the same time may feature fino sherry en rama, my preferred tipple, decidedly un-Catalan. but hey  I will, of course, have make my own take on Romesco (recipe below).

I’ll endeavour to char the calçots almost black, wrap them in newspaper as tradition demands.To be topical, I used Times columnist Matthew Parris’ caustic consignment of Boris Johnson to history’s scrap heap. Leave them to steam for 20 minutes, then gingerly peel open the sweet insides from their feathery casing. Serve them simply with lashings of romesco and garlicky tomato bread. The Catalans serve them in long terracotta roofing tiles to keep them warm, but it’s not my priority, obviously.



200g piquillo peppers

6 garlic cloves, unskinned, raosted for 20 minutes

6 plum tomatoes, roasted

100ml sherry vinegar

 250ml olive oil

1tsp smoked paprika

50g breadcrumbs

150g blanched almonds

juice of ½ lemon 


Toast the almonds in a dry frying pan for 3-4 mins until starting to turn golden and smelling toasted. Shake the pan often to turn them. Tip out and leave to cool, then grind. Roast the tomatoes in the oven until soft and sticky
Drain the red peppers and tip into a food processor with the almonds, breadcrumbs, tomato, lemon, garlic, vinegar and smoked paprika, then blitz to a chunky mixture.
With the motor still on, slowly drizzle in the olive oil to make a coarse sauce. Season well.

The last time I wrote about San Diego it was as a staging post on my road to discovering that the Brussels Sprout is cool in California. The foggy, coastal area south of San Francisco grows 95 cent of the American crop and it’s definitely not cool there to boil the little bullets into mushy oblivion. My Brassica oleracea gemmifera Damascene moment came in a downtown taproom, when shrimp tacos were accompanied by tempura sprouts – their natural hint of bitterness in harmony with the hop.

The Golden State’s Sprout Love is quite mainstream. Check out the menu at the Desmond Restaurant in San Diego’s Kimpton Alma Hotel on Fifth Avenue. For $19 you can order a plate of sprouts with dashi broth, Japanese curry, scallions and a poached egg. When I used the Kimpton as my base for exploring California’s most southerly city its culinary emphasis was elsewehere – on dishes from across the Mexican border 20 miles to the south.

Sprouts weren’t really what brought me to San Diego, though. Of all the places to live the West Coast dream it has few equals. Immoderately blessed with perfect weather, surf culture and pristine beaches, its laid-back attitude belies its history as a major deep sea harbour for the US Navy. 

So many major attractions to see but sometimes Seaworld and Aquatica, San Diego Zoo and the USS Midway Museum, based upon a legendary aircraft carrier, may have to take a backseat to exploring the possibilities of the city’s many cool hang-outs. Here are 10 suggestions to make you want to get up and go…

Go to the Park

Sounds a dull place to start? Not when you are talking Balboa Park, which stretches across 1,200 acres and encompasses everything from the 660 species San Diego Zoo to nearly 20 museums and a host of other venues in glorious lush gardens, the Japanese one the pick. Best place, for an overview is the California Tower, closed to the public for 80 years but now open for tours via seven sets of winding stairs from the Museum of Man. You are rewarded with a spectacular panorama of the city. You almost duck when low  planes fly past. The Park, a National Historic Landmark, is named after Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa, in honour of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, held on the site. A Balboa Park Explorer Pass costs from from $56 for one day, giving access for up to four venues. For full city tourism information visit

Go El Greco

It seems appropriate that in a US city with so many Hispanic ties that the San Diego Museum of Art, among the country’s finest, should boast such a strong Spanish collection. Francisco de Zurbarán, Murillo, Juan Sánchez Cotán’s iconic Quince, Cabbage, Melon, and Cucumber and, of course, El Greco. Check out his glorious Adoration of the Shepherds and the unearthly Penitent St Peter. The SDMA is not just about Old Masters; you’ll find benchmark collections of Indian art and 19th and 20th century American paintings and sculpture. All set in one of Balboa Park’s original Mission-style buildings, with a Platereresque frontage inspired by Salamanca in Spain.

Go fly a kite

After all that history it’s time to get the wind back in your sails. And where better than Embarcadero Marina Park? We didn’t exactly fly our own kite but it was good to see lots of them fluttering against the backdrop of the mighty Coronado Bridge. The breezy harbour-front Embarcadero walkway is jogger and dog walker heaven, while Seaport Village offers a cluster of folksy gift shops. The harbour is where it all began for San Diego back in 1542 when Juan Cabrillo sailed into the sheltered Bay. Loma Point, where the explorer stepped on shore is celebrated with a scenic National Monument. There are breathtaking views from here and the adjacent Ballast Point Lighthouse.

Go Gaslamping

It’s not all exhilarating green spaces. In a transformation typical of many American cities The Gaslamp Quarter, a once dead downtown, is now the centre of a food and drink-centric nightlife. A long period of neglect preserved the Victorian architecture of this 16 block historic district. Just wander around, looking up at the ornamentation of buildings such as the Romanesque Keating Building, ornate, domed Balboa Theatre and the hallucinogenic Louis Bank of Commerce, once home to a favourite bar of Wyatt Earp and the notorious brothel, the Golden Poppy Hotel. When your neck starts to get stiff there’s an abundance of bars to recover in. Restoring the green wrought-iron gas lamps (they actually run on electricity) was an inspired move to inspire after-dark footfall. We succumbed, dining at upmarket seafood restaurant Lionfish in The Pendry Hotel on Fifth Avenue.

Go for a beer

Ever-impressionable, where better to dip into San Diego’s unrivalled craft beer scene than the pioneering brewery that calls itself Ballast Point? It caused quite a splash in 2015 when it was bought for $1billion by an an international beverage group; last year its major rival Stone was snapped up by Japanese giant Sapporo. Craft is no longer all about plucky minnows. All quality dilution fears allayed at Ballast Point’s original brewtap up in the Little Italy district. The flagship Sculpin IPA, served unfiltered, was fantastic. Elsewhere, you are definitely spoiled for choice; there are over 150 breweries – check out the likes of Modern Times, Border X, Karl Strauss, Societe and Belching Beaver.

Go to market

Little Italy, these days more chic eaterie and art gallery territory than Genoese fishermen’s  slice of the ‘Old Country’, does offer the pick of the city’s farmer’s markets – the Little Italy Mercato open Wednesday and Saturday, straddling several streets, its 175 vendors showcasing the richness of Southern Californian food culture. We had brunched first at at Herb and Wood – immaculate baked goods, Kombucha, house-made bone broth and savoury specials such as salmon rillettes on avocado and sourdough. Very different to the Mercato, though equally buzzing, is Liberty Market, a seven days a week artisan-led operation in a former naval training complex. It’s an eclectic mix with a vintage comic bookshop rubbing shoulders with a feminist museum and and a bistro/boutique brewing facility run by Stone. The focus, though is the globally-influenced food hall, where you’re spoilt for choice. In the end I went for a trio of ceviches plus oysters and a sea urchin from the Poke Bar. Washed down in the ‘Mess Hall’ with sour beers sourced from the comprehensive Bottlecraft beer shop.

Go plant based, heavy metal brunch

As with craft beer and small batch coffee roasts, we in the UK are always playing catch-up with our West Coast cousins. So too with San Diego’s vegan culture. Combine it with a heavy metal ethos and you get Bar Kindred, cool even by the cool standards of its South Park setting (North Park isn’t bad either if you are into foraging for vintage vinyl, thrift store chic, hipster brews and chakra practitioners). There’s no booking at Kindred, so get there early for breakfast cocktails, drop biscuits with mushroom gravy, then brunch mains that might deliver calypso beans, soy curls, maitake mushrooms, charred kale, jicama salsa and Creole aioli. Ask if you can sit under the giant four-eyed snake wolf. No wi-fi. Well, we said it was heavy. 

Go grab a coffee 

Locals claim the city’s coffee culture rivals or even surpasses Portland and Seattle’s. Amazingly there are 1,900 coffee shops in the city, so definitely a risk of caffeine overload in your quest for the best. I asked the locals and they came up with this trio: Black Horse (North Park, Normal Heights and Golden Hill) and the Barrio Logan district duo Cafe Moto and Cafe Virtuoso, the latter organic. A current fad elsewhere is to spike your morning ‘bullet’ coffee with a shot of omega-3-rich flax oil or fat-burning coconut oil. Avoid.

Go to the beach

There is a string of strands to show off your beach body all along the coast. We ended up at La Jolla, which boasts some of the USA’s most expensive beach front real estate and boutique shopping to match. Ostensibly we were there for kayaking to the La Jolla Sea Caves with the added carrot of possible whale or shark watching but, gauging the ocean swell, I chickened out and instead sauntered the length of the beach for refreshment at Caroline’s clifftop cafe at the fascinating Scripps Institute of Oceanography. Lunch was at award-winning Galaxy Tacos. Ask for the terrace; order the essential Baja rried fish with chile lime crema, avocado mousse, cabbage, pico de gallo or the more unusual Lengua (tongue) with cilantro, onions and  avocado salsa verde. Sprouts here come roasted with chipotle mayo. If you stay until sunset I’d recommend a cocktail and sea view at Level 42 at ‘California Modern’ restaurant Georges at the Cove. 

Go hiking

The coastline to the north of La Jolla offers a string of laid-back beach towns, seafood and surfing, along the legendary Route 101, but before you get to all that take in the managed wilderness of Torrey Pines State Reserve. The name gives away its raison d’etre – preserving 3,000 endangered examples of the US’s rarest pine tree, Pinus Torreyana, which only grows here and on Santa Rosa Island off Santa Barbara. Below the 1,750 acre clifftop reserve you’ll find one of the last great salt marshes and waterfowl refuges in Southern California. The well-kept trails – family-friendly or more testing – provide stunning views of the Pacific. ‘Beware of rattlesnakes’ notices made me watch where I was putting my dusty Vans.

Go Chicano

Eighty colourful, politically provocative murals under a fly-over? Chicano Park is the emotional epicentre of the Barrio Logan district. Its painted pillars depict the life and struggles of San Diego’s Mexican community. Back in the Sixties, when the Coronado Bridge was constructed through it, the Park itself was the cultural focus of these struggles. It still is, its cultural importance confirmed by being granted National Historic Landscape Status in 2017. The street art has spread out across the Barrio now as vacant warehouses have become creative spaces and live music venues and authentic Mexican food is a big draw. At La Cuatro Milpas the tortillas are made fresh each day, while fish and chorizo are the tacos of choice at Salud! by the San Diego Taco Company. Alongside the Barrio coffee already mentioned there’s also a strong craft beer presence with the likes of Iron Fist and Border X Brewing (try the Blood Saison made with hibiscus). If all this has whetted your appetite for Mexico proper? Cross the border into Tijuana, the city once called ‘Satan’s Playground’. Be sure to sample Caesar’s Salad in its hotel birthplace (or if you can’t make it, try my recipe.)