Monday, 20 July 2015

Ristorante Manna, Noto, Sicily

The bat in Risorante Mana, Noto
Ristorante Manna in Noto is a place that I could quite happily move into.

On our final evening in Noto we headed out to look for somewhere to eat. As we set out on our search we caught site of a stylish, empty looking bar through a narrow doorway, a few doors down from our hotel.

We continued our promenade round town and returned to Manna for dinner. The restaurant has the feel of somewhere that has recently opened, or been substantially refurbished, and it was like they'd done it exactly to our taste. Sleek, stylish interiors and carefully chosen bursts of colour created a very attractive dining room. I couldn't help myself but to have a look under the tables and chairs to see if I could find the manufacturers name. (Sadly I coudln't.)

It wasn't just about the interior though, Manna was our second 'expensive' meal of the holiday. The food had a different feel to anything else we ate during our time in Sicily. There was the same emphasis on local ingredients and good flavours, but everything was done with a little more finesse. The standard of the presentation was higher, there was a bit more technique on the plate and the service more attentive.

I recognised several of the same wines, at lower prices, that were on the wine list at Crocofiso where we'd eaten on our first night, reinforcing the feeling of value.

My photo taking and admiration of the interior hadn't been that subtle and at the end of the night the owner / manager offered to show us round the restaurant on the way out. I think she appreciated that we obviously loved the place as much as she did.

The bar

Codfish croquettes

Shaved articokes with Ragusano cheese and sun dried tomatoes in a tuile basket

Salt baked rabbit

Mixed fish of the day

Dark chocolate cake

Ricotta cheesecake

You can view everywhere we visited on our honeymoon on this map.

Ristorante Manna
Via Rocco Pirri 19


Saturday, 18 July 2015

Brighton Phoenix 10km Race Notes

Start line photo courtesy of Andy Leates
On Wednesday evening I headed down to Brighton for a 10km race organised by the Brighton Phoenix club. It is one of only two races I currently have scheduled as a warm up for the Berlin Marathon in September so I was keen to put in a good performance. I was also hopeful of setting a new 10km PB, improving on the time I ran at the Ashford and District 10km a couple of years ago.

There were quite a few Kent runners at the event and we arrived around an hour before the start, which was plenty of time to get changed, drop off our bags and have a warm up. The race field was around 550 people and it was very well organised meaning there was no queue for the baggage tent and only a relatively short queue for the loos.

I'd had a really good run at the Assembly League two weeks previously, which had given me a lot of confidence going into the race, but I also wasn't sure how to pace the distance (as it was only my fourth 10km race) and I was pretty tired coming off the back of a hard week or training and a couple of bad nights sleep. I decided I'd try and give it some welly and go for 34:59 if I could.

As we lined up at the start four of us from Kent decided that we were going to go for the same time and would try and work together. As the air horn went Amy shot off leaving the three of us behind! I felt that I was running as hard as I wanted to in the first kilometre, and was on target pace, so let her go rather than keep up.

As small pack of us had formed by around the 2km maker and I was happy to sit at the back of the group. It was feeling a harder effort than it had done at the Assembly League, but I was trying to stay relaxed and as comfortable as I could.

The course was an 'out and back' more of less along the sea front and we were running into a headwind as we ran west on the outward leg. I didn't look at my watch too much during the race, as I was trying to run it on feel, but I did see that our 3km split was 6 seconds off the pace and I knew that sub-35mins was off the agenda already so just decided to have the best race I could from that point on.

Just after the 4km marker, David from Kent moved to the front of the group we had been running with and I decided that I'd go with him. As I stepped out from behind the people around me I could feel the headwind and was pleased that I'd been sheltered from it up until now. As we rounded the 5km marker to start heading for home David and I were in the lead of our pack. I was focusing on what I was doing rather than looking backwards, but I think we'd started to break them up by this stage.

About half a kilometre later another runner ran through and neither David or I reacted. Around the 6km mark, Che from our club also came alongside and then past us and pulled out a 20 - 30 meter gap onto us. I was feeling pretty happy with the effort level that I was putting in so decided to let him go.

Around the 8km mark I started to find the race quite a lot tougher. While at Wokingham I let negative thoughts get on top of me I made a conscious effort to stay more in control this time. Rather than thinking about the finish I was breaking the race down into smaller segments, get to the next bench, litter bin or pavillion along the sea front. It must have done some good as I sped up for the last two km, with the final km being my fastest of the race!

Just before the 9km it felt I could push on past David, so I made an effort to get past him and to catch up with Che. I pulled level with Che around the 750m to go marker and got past him as well. As I went past the 400m to go marker I could sense someone coming up on my shoulder. I didn't look to see who it was, but assumed it must have been Che coming back at me. I was going to let them come past me and then decided that I wasn't going to do that! I knew at the speed I was going, and how tired I felt, I wouldn't have much of a sprint finish in me so needed to get rid of them before the final 50m. With 200m to go I put in a small kick and it was enough to open up a two second gap!

I was exhausted when I crossed the finish line, possibly the most tired I've been after a race and had to have a lie down on the grass for a few minutes to recover!

It hadn't occurred to me to go for a swim at the end of the race, but when one of the other Kent runners suggested it I thought it would be rude not to as we were right next to the beach on the promenade. There was quite a lot of seaweed, but otherwise it was lovely.

I came 24th overall in a time of 35:27.

The official results are here.

The data from my watch is here.

The photo at the top of the post is used with the kind permission of Andy Leates. You can see all of his photos from the run here. (Including a couple of good ones of the fastest Kent AC finishers Phil and Amy.)

Saturday, 11 July 2015

161 Food + Drink, Sydenham

Lamb and beef meetballs
I wasn't expecting to find a slice of Sydney in Sydenham, but café 161 Food + Drink, complete with antipodean waitress from the 'Gong, provided just that.

We'd been shopping for tiles over the road and, based on a recommendation from friend Laura, headed to 161 for lunch. The small café had a counter and tables made from reclaimed Victorian doors. It sounds a little bit hipster, but didn't feel like the type of place that was trying too hard and the doors probably came from the reclamation shop further up the road.

Overhearing someone order a Vegemite scroll, Becks immediately wanted a taste of the homeland so we asked for one too. The scroll contained a generous amount of Vegemite providing its own unique savoury taste. If Paul Holloywood was giving a verdict, he definitely would have said 'under baked' but that wasn't bothering Becks one bit.

Heuvos rancheros
I ordered the the lamb and beef meatballs with couscous (£7) from their compact sounding brunch menu, hoping it would be one of their more substantial options after my morning run. It was a tasty little number with five tender meatballs and a flavoursome tomato sauce. It wasn't as generous as I was hoping for and definitely could have done with more couscous to make it more substantial.

Becks had the huevos rancheros (£6.50). A fried egg topped with a little chilli, black beans and avocado were sitting on top of a tortilla at the bottom of the bowl. I didn't get to try the huevos, but the reports were good. It similarly wasn't a generous portion.

Strawberry and vanilla cake
We debated whether or not to have a slice of cake, but were pleased that we were tempted by the strawberry and vanilla cake. The cake was much lighter than I expected it to be and the strawberries provided a lovely summer hit without making it too wet.

It's just a shame we don't live closer by.

161 Food + Drink
161 Kirkdale

SE26 4QJ
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Wednesday, 8 July 2015

The best ice-cream in the World?

A big reason (well, perhaps the reason) for booking to stay in Noto was this Guardian Travel article where Giorgio Locatelli makes the bold claim that Noto has the best ice-cream shop in the world. A quick internet search can find lots of similar claims and even the exciting prospect of Noto having the best and second-best ice cream shops in the world. We’d have been remiss if we didn’t try both of them.
Dolceria Costanzo
We first tried Dolceria Costanzo and to be honest I thought I’d walked into the wrong café. I was expecting a mecca to ice-cream, a dessert fantasy like Adriano Zumbo’s Patisserie or Gelato Messina (both in Sydney). Instead we were standing in a classic, even plain, looking bar. It took me a couple of moments to notice the small ice-cream counter that was tucked just inside the door on the left hand side. We each ordered a cup of ice-cream with two flavours and went outside to take up a seat on the terrace.

I ordered a bowl of pistachio and chocolate. The pistachio for a local flavour and chocolate because it is always a benchmark for me. There are a lot of bad chocolate ice creams out there and only the top people can make a good one. It was  strawberry and almond for Becks. All four ice creams and a lovely smooth texture. The pistachio and almond ice creams had delicate flavours. The chocolate flavour was bolder. At €3.50 per bowl, the price of a Magnum in London, you definitely couldn't knock the value.
Almond, strawberry & almond and blood orange granita in Cafe Sicilia in Noto 
On our final morning in Noto we visited Café Sicilia, the more famous of the two venues. Famous for their granite we ordered a tasting plate €5 of the almond, strawberry and blood orange & almond flavours, all made with local ingredients. They were subtle and beautiful flavours and the granite was very refreshing.

The granite was 'officially' for Becks so I ordered a cassatina €3.50, a ricotta cake covered in a pistachio paste and topped with icing and a glace cherry. It was like Sicily meets the Bakewell tart, and wins. I loved it.

Café Sicilia added a 22% service charge to the bill, which was the first (and only?) time I noticed service being added to our bills. When it was such a low value transaction it didn't hit the pocket too badly, but I did think it was a bit of a cheek.
So, do Dolceria Costanzo and Café Sicilia serve the best ice cream in the world? They were both very good ice creams, but all the ice cream we tasted in Sicily was very good and this unrefined pallet wouldn't place them higher than some of the others we tasted.

Dolceria Costanzo
Via Silvio Spaventa, 7
96017 Noto SR

Cafè Sicilia
Corso Vittorio Emanuele, 125
96017 Noto SR

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Track Taster Session at the Olympic Velodrome

A little over two weeks ago Ruth and I completed a track taster session at the Olympic velodrome. I’d bought her a couple of gift vouchers for Christmas and we were finally getting to use them after quite a few attempts at the painful booking process (I think it is too popular for its own good).

I’ve never cycled in a velodrome before and always quite fancied the idea. It was quite a bit more intimidating than I was expecting it to be!

As instructed we arrived 45mins before our session was due to start and after signing in and getting changed, we took the tunnel into the centre of the track and watched the final 30mins of the session before ours. People were whizzing round the track, being told to go higher or lower up the track by the instructor and being encouraged to go faster. It looked like they were going pretty quick!

With about 10mins to go before our session we were given helmets and bikes. The bikes were very light single speed Condor fixies that didn’t have any brakes. I haven’t ridden a bike without brakes before and to be honest I wasn’t looking forward to it!

As the previous session finished we went out onto the back straight of the track and lined up ready to start. I suddenly realised that I’d made a mistake of being near the front of the group, but Ruth had made the ultimate mistake of being in the lead!

After a quick introductory talk we started doing laps of the track. We were told to circle around on the apron beneath the track. The instructor was standing on the back straight and we had to pass him on the right hand side each time we went round. He slowly edged up the track each time making sure we could look and move out safely. It was all quite tame until I had to pass him right at the top of the track near the barriers and then absolutely whizzed back down to the apron below and I realised just how steep the track was! My normal reaction would have been to touch the brakes and it was a bit frightening to realise that I didn’t have any and trying to slow my leg rotations to brake was not a natural reaction.

Once the instructor was satisfied we could all handle the bike safely we were called to stop on the back straight. Having watched the previous group on track stopping was something that I was a bit scared about. We had to slow down (without brakes) and because we were clipped in, come to a rest by grapping onto the rail on the inside of the track. Thankfully I negotiated stopping without falling off each time we needed to do it!

The second time we were let loose on the track we were allowed to overtake and it would be fair to say Ruth and I didn’t stay anywhere near the front of the pack for very long! There were quite a few club cyclists in our group and those that clearly don’t know any fear and they went flying round. We were told only to overtake on the straights (as the ends are much more steeply banked), but soon all the rules were being broken and Ruth and I were being overtaken left right and centre.

I was a bit too scared (official excuse - had tired legs from running) to go too quickly, but did eventually decide to overtake Ruth. Over subsequent laps I managed to make up a full lap on Ruth and came round to overtake her again. A couple of people passed me at the beginning of the straight, meaning that I didn’t pull out to pass Ruth until midway down the straight. I couldn’t complete the manoeuvre in time and ended up going round the top of one of the bends. It is very steeply banked up there and I peddled a bit faster to make sure I had enough momentum not to fall off!

After coming to rest again, we were instructed to follow the leader / form a train going round the track, with the objective of being right on the wheel of the person in front of us. I was mid / front of the pack and was a bit scared about how fast we might go, but was more or less able to keep up with the person in front of me.

I wasn’t looking behind, but the train had evidently split, as after a few laps we caught up with a group being led by Ruth and formed onto the back of them. We continued to circle for the next 5 – 10 mins and with the instructor urging us to go faster and a few people in the group clearly getting a bit restless. I didn’t really envy Ruth being at the front of the pack, but she was gradually winding up the pace.

Our session ended 5mins early as we had to let Bradley Wiggins onto the track for a final practice for his attempt at the World Hour Record the following day. Unfortunately I didn’t see Bradley come onto the track, but speaking to a couple of others in the changing room afterwards they had caught a glimpse of him being very slow to leave the track at the end of the session.

I feared that the session might not have been Ruth’s thing and she might have hated it. It turned out she had a good time and I think enjoyed it more than me!

I’m pleased I got to cycle on the Olympic velodrome, but I don’t think I’m enough of a thrill seeker to want to do it again. You just go in circles, so unless you really enjoy the speed I’m not sure there is much in it. I think the sessions would be better if the instructors were less pushy about going quickly and perhaps the sessions were graded so club cyclists and slow coaches could self select into different groups.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Honeymoon Day 3: Riserva Naturale Orientata Oasi faunistica di Vendicari

Ruins of Eloro
When planning our honeymoon I had my eye on a day trip to Regusa, another baroque town in southern Sicily that is, crucially, home to two Michelin 2* restaurants. However, when it came to deciding what to do for the day we instead chose to head to the coast and the Riserva Naturale Orientata Oasi faunistica di Vendicari.

Our first stop was the Greek ruins of Eloro at the nothern end of the nature reserve. Getting there was a bit of an adventure. We had a long drive down an unmade road and then had to negotiate our way to El Loro down farm tracks with absolutely no road signs. We arrived at a small car park next to the beach, pretty pleased with ourselves that we'd got to the right place first time, only to realise that we were the wrong side of the creek and had to loop back round.

With the exception of a small amphitheatre, it's quite hard to know what you are looking at. The ruins are in a dramatic position above the coast and it was very pleasant to walk round the mown paths in the field. It doesn't have the feel of a place which is visited very frequently.

Next up was the absolutely stunning Villa Romana del Tellaro. Unfortunately no photos were allowed inside the Roman villa, but the mosaics were absolutely stunning. There were three large mosaics of a Tiger, hunting scene and Hector (a Trojan prince). Almost as incredible as the mosaics was the fact that we were the only ones there. Perhaps there are finer examples in Sicily, but I was surprised there weren't more people there.

Tonnara di Vendicari
After the Roman villas we headed into the nature reserve proper for the first time. Again in the absence of road signs, Becks perfectly guided us towards the Tonnara di Vendicari, an abandoned tuna factory inside the reserve.

This section of the reserve had been well set up for the visitor with bird hides to watch the pink flamingos on the lake and a boardwalk so that you can access the coast. Once we reached the shorelines we headed north towards the abandoned tuna factory. The roof has gone, but a number of striking pillars remain. It was a bit hot and tired as we looked round, but it had a definite beauty in the Sicilian sun. 

Tonnara di Vendicari
Back at the car, and having consumed a couple of snacks to restore my blood sugar level, we drove round to Cala Mosche a small beach in the nature reserve that can only be reached on foot. After a false turn down a dead end track, we arrived at the car park for the beach and set off on foot.

The beach is a 15 / 20 min walk from the car park. The beach was the most popular attraction of the day with around twenty other people sunbathing and swimming in the water. We headed straight into sea for a swim. It was a little on the chilly side so we had to keep moving.

Coming out of the water we sat on the beach reading for a while before I went for a second dip and then we headed back to the car and home to our hotel.

Arriving back in Noto I got a spot in the car park just next to the hotel and had a play with the parking sensors as I reversed in. Win!

4 - on the way to Cala Mosche

Sunday, 7 June 2015

Trattoria Del Carmine, Noto, Sicily

Antipasto misto della casa
Dinner at Trattoria Del Carmine was one of my favourite meals while we were in Sicily. It was our only experience of a family run, unpretentious trattoria. The husband and wife team were cooking the local food that they enjoyed and I was pleased to be able to taste it.

Although at the start of the night I wasn't sure it was going to be one of my favourite meals. We were given a table in an empty section of the dining room, filled with basic furniture. It wasn't the most promising start, but I definitely warmed up to the place.

We ordered the antipasto misto della casa to share as a starter. Considering it was only €6 what arrived was a very generous place of courgettes, aubergines, roasted peppers, salami, aranchini, fritata and cheese. Washed down with a glass of house white from the carafe we ordered it was a lovely start to the meal.

Veal chop, with an orange and onion salad
By the time our main courses arrived a couple of extra tables had joined us in our dining room and our end of the restaurant had started to develop a bit of welcome atmosphere.

Is was one of the few times that I ordered from the secondi section of the menu for my main course and had the filietto de vitello al romarino (€9). It was literally just a pan fried veal steak covered in a little chopped rosemary and drizzled with olive oil with a wedge of lemon on the side. It was well cooked, but I was pleased that I'd ordered the insalata di arance e cipolla (€3) on the side and we had a basket of bread that I could chomp through too.

Pasta with Sicilian pesto and tomatoes
Becks ordered the pasta el pesto Siciliano (€9). The Sicilian pesto is made with almonds instead of pine nuts and (I think) has a local alternative to parmesan cheese in it too. It was a generous bowl of what looked like handmade trofie pasta and I was very happy to help Becks out with a few mouthfuls.

Cannolo for dessert - pistachio and chocolate
Having had an ice cream stop that afternoon, we certainly didn't need dessert, but I couldn't resist the cannolo and at only €2 they surely had to be small? They certainly weren't small, but they definitely were delicious and probably my favourite cannolo of the holiday.

With wine the bill came to an unbelievable €37. We thanked our host, left a small tip and headed back to the hotel happy.

Trattoria Del Carmine
Via Ducezio, 1,
96017 Noto, Italy
+39 0931 838705