August 31, 2012
IN the absence of my wife who was attempting to wreak as much havoc as possible to her credit card in the shortest time available, a travel-writing colleague and myself made the near-fatal decision of asking our Lisbon hotel barman where we could find a couple of local tarts – and if it would be okay to bring them back to the bar.
So on enquiring of our possible whereabouts on her return, my wife was told that "Mr Ellis and Mr Andrews asked where to find tarts, and I told them to go to Belem down on the waterfront," the helpful barman told her. "The tarts there are Portugal's best."
And thus on our return soon after, I was invited to 'fess up very quickly – after 46 years of marriage – as to just what we two had been up to.
Fortuitously we were saved by the evidence we still carried in a box: not two, but a half dozen of Lisbon's famous Belem Tarts, sweet and more-ish little custard pastries that are considered somewhat of a Portuguese national treasure.
When discussion turns to the finest of the world's more-sugary creations, Portugal seldom springs to front of mind, thus on our recent travel-writing mission there we decided that rather than do the usual round of ancient buildings, Malcolm (who writes and talks about travel on radio in Port Macquarie) and I decided to go in search instead of the tart that had put a town on the map.
We found Belem itself no longer a town, having been absorbed many years ago into Lisbon's urban sprawl, and that it's Pasteis de Belem is the best-known patisserie not just here, but in the whole of Lisbon and Portugal.
The story of today's Belem Tart goes back to 1837, although its origins lay centuries before that in the nearby Mosteiro dos Jeronimos (the Jeronimos Monastery.)
It seems that in days of yore, nuns used huge amounts of egg whites to, somewhat strangely, stiffen their habits, and to also remove cloudiness from monastery-made wines, leaving them with great quantities of egg yolks to find a use for.
Many imaginative dishes were thought up at the Jeronimos Monastery, one being a small baked puff-pastry tart with a custard filling of crème brulee-like consistency. But the Monastery and others were closed during the liberal revolution of the 1800s, putting an end to the making of the tarts.
However on also finding himself suddenly out of work, an enterprising lay baker at the monastery and who knew the tart's recipe, Domingo Rafael Alves bought a small shop nearby and began making the tarts there to considerable success amongst the locals.
Today that same shop is now the Pasteis de Belem and is run by the Clarinha family who are descendants of Domingo Alves – and of these, only three know the recipe of the filling for the Belem Tart, each day meeting in a locked kitchen to make the egg custard mix.
Whatever it is it's been drawing locals and tourists to the shop for nearly two centuries, with around 18,000 of the little tarts with their caramelised tops sold each day.
Customers can queue for an hour or more if they want to take tarts and drinks at the patisserie with its yesteryear blue tile walls, but take-away service is quicker. And if you see tour coaches outside, do yourself a favour and have a look at the Jeronimos Monastery nearby until the mobs have gone – the beautiful old building is the resting place of many of Portugal's kings, queens and the explorer Vasco da Gama.
As good scribes we tried out best to discover the secret of the Belem Tart recipe, even tracking down a waiter who has worked at the patisserie for nearly 40 years, but who pleaded total ignorance.
We did learn from others, however, that the pastry and custard are made during the day and rested overnight – and then baked for 30-minutes at a furnace-like 400-degress Celsius.
And while we'd expect the custard filling would comprise the usual milk, cream, egg yolks, caster sugar, plain flour, cinnamon, probably lemon peel and vanilla extract, just what the secret ingredient that sets those of Belem apart from the rest will remain just that.
 NATIONAL treasure: Lisbon's famous Belem Tarts – the caramelised top comes from being baked at a furnace-like 400C.
 QUEUEING-up is a daily ritual outside the Pasteis de Belem that opened in 1837 and sells 18,000 Belem Tarts a day.
August 29, 2012
WE'RE not sure if this comes under the category of trivia or the coincidental, but this year's Tulip Time Festival in the Southern Highlands of NSW will be the 52nd of what has become one of the biggest celebrations of the tulip in Australia, and a far cry from when the first bulbs were planted all those years ago in the town of Bowral for its new-fangled Festival of Flowers.
Coincidental perhaps, because this year twenty council gardeners have planted around 65,000 bulbs in Corbett Gardens, Bowral that will be the centre-piece of Tulip Time – and if visitor-interest continues as it has in the past, 65,000 buffs will flock into the Southern Highlands to see those 65,000 tulips (one visitor for each tulip)… together with 25,000 other flowering annuals and 40,000 more tulips in Winifred Street Park just up the road in Mittagong, and just down the road at Moss Vale's Leighton Gardens.
And that's not including many thousands more tulips and daffodils, bluebells, peonies and diverse other annuals, bursting-forth in rainbows of Spring-time colour in private gardens proudly thrown-open to public viewing. These amazing venues, in many cases acreages dating back to the late 1800s, surround grand mansions and manors to which early Sydney-siders escaped summer's heat, planting cool-climate gardens after the fashion of those they'd left back home in England.
But it's not all just about tip-toeing through the tulips. The 14-day Festival that this year will run from September 18 to October 1 will also include a colourful Street Parade through Bowral at 3pm on Saturday September 22 with classic cars and historic and modern-day fire engines, marching bands, dancers and other performers – and the Sydney Cycling Club whose members will punch the pedals for over a hundred k's to join-in.
Plus during the fortnight there'll be local radio station 2ST's Tulip Time Dinner Dance featuring crooner Tom Burlinson on September 20 and Breakfast in the Park in Corbett Gardens on September 21, a Food and Wine Fair as well as a House and Garden Exp on September 22 and 23, a Festival of Rugby (September 29,) Tulips After Dark on September 22 after the Street Parade… even a "Battle of the Bangers" at the historic Surveyor-General Inn at Berrima (Sunday September 30) to find the region's best snag makers and cooks.
Certainly a long way from that first one-week Festival of Flowers that was later re-named Tulip Time, and whose main attraction away from the tulips was a street parade with the obligatory Queen of the Festival Competition.
And while early festivals were supported mainly by council, local service, sporting, cultural clubs and church communities, today while these remain part of Tulip Time, support has literally blossomed-out across the whole of the Southern Highlands community with businesses decorating their shop-fronts for the fortnight, many offering special Tulip Time concessions and bonuses, and funds from major events going to a different charity each year – for 2012 Lifeline Macarthur and Southern Highlands.
Among historic buildings available for inspection this year are the grand Berrima Courthouse that was opened in the 1830s in this village that's an almost time-warp back to Georgian colonial times, and Hillview at Sutton Forest that will also have its historic grounds open for garden-lovers.
Hillview is the last Vice-regal country residence in authentic state in Australia, a rambling and grandiose structure to which sixteen NSW State Governors would retreat from Sydney's heat in summer – and with enough rooms for fifty guests whose comfort was assured by no fewer than 35 butlers, cooks, maids, stable-hands, and secretaries.
Plus two Chinese gardeners retained full-time to look after the fruit and vegetable gardens, orchards and the chook-houses.
The grounds still contain a huge Monterey Cypress planted in the 1870s, and camellia gardens designed by renowned camellia expert, Professor E.G. Waterhouse in the 1940s.
Tours of the residence during Tulip Time are $5pp and for both residence and gardens $10pp including complimentary tea and coffee. For details phone 0487 123 778.
For Tulip Time information, garden entry prices, and assistance to book accommodation, call 1300 657 559 or visit www.tuliptime.net.au.
(FOOTNOTE : Corbett Gardens' 65,000 bulbs will be dug up and sold on Saturday November 10; dig your own 50 for $15 or buy 50 pre-bagged for $20.)
 SOUTHERN HIGHLANDS Tulip Time: now one of Australia's biggest celebrations of the tulip.
 CLOSE up look at part of a Tulip Time display in Bowral.
 TULIP Time has come a long way since the first event 52 years ago.
 HILLVIEW – last Vice-regal country residence in authentic state in Australia, and open for inspection during Tulip Time. (Photo Hillview Estate)
(Photos: Tourism Southern Highlands and Hillview Estate.)
IN his continuing search for the more weird, whacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says hundreds of people with obviously little better to do, descend on the English village of Willaston in Cheshire every July for the World Worm Charming Championships.
The idea is to lure as many worms as possible out of a designated 3m X 3m area of farm turf in half an hour, with contestants using a wondrous array of devices to "vibrate" the soil, which makes the inquisitive worms come up for a look.
It's an ancient art often used by anglers seeking bait, and in 1980 after a Willaston farmer's son lured over 500 worms out of the ground in a half hour, the International Federation of Charming Worms and Allied Pastimes was formed to conduct the annual Willaston Championships.
Today it attracts worm charmers from around the world, some contestants simply thumping the ground with their open palms, others plunging wooden stakes in and rubbing them with steel rods, while some drive garden forks into the ground and "twang" their handles with wooden or metal objects somewhat like guitars to apparently make the fork's prongs vibrate.
And several contestants a few years ago sprinkled the turf on which the Championships were held with cold tea and beer to encourage the ever-thirsty worms to pop up for a drink – until "drugs and stimulants," that even included water, were barred.
The current record of 567 worms charmed out of the ground in thirty minutes was set by schoolgirl Sophie Smith and her dad Matt in July 2009.
August 27, 2012
IN his continuing search for the more weird, whacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says one of the world's more bizarre tourist attractions is the world's longest-burning light bulb that's been glowing for an amazing 111 years.
The 4-watt bulb was donated as a night-light to Fire Station #6 in Livermore, Northern California in 1901 by its maker, Dennis Bernal who was a pioneer electricity provider and owned the Livermore Power and Light Company.
It was switched off in 1976 for 22-minutes when Station #6 was moved 3km to a new location, but apart from being off briefly during two minor power failures has been glowing all those years.
The Guinness Book of Records, Ripley's Believe It Or Not and the General Electric Company all agree it is the world's longest-burning electric light bulb, and put its longevity down to a perfect seal that maintains its vacuum and therefore prevents the filament from deteriorating, its low 4-watt voltage, and the fact it's not being constantly turned on and off.
Today it's still used as a night-light and is protected by a surge protector as well as both a battery and diesel power generator back-up – and people travel thousands of kilometres just to take a picture of it.
And Station #6 fire-fighters who treat it as a lucky omen while ever it's glowing when they're on duty, have strict instructions not to touch it – unless they're planning on updating their resumés.
ONE morning in January 1942 as Masaitchiro Shimasaki was enjoying his regular breakfast cigar on the beach off his comfortable little home in then-American Samoa, he noticed something unusual glittering off-shore in the early South Pacific sun.
These islands had long been used as a Naval base by the Americans after they had been ceded to them by the locals back in the late 1800s, and Masaitchiro was used to seeing American warships steaming through the channels off Tutuila, the largest and main island in the group and on which he lived.
But what he saw on this day was different. It was a submarine, but certainly unlike any American submarine he had seen on the Americans' newsreels.
As it drew closer to the reef off his little beach, Masaitchiro now saw the emblem of the Rising Sun on its conning tower. And worse still, as water sheeted down its still-rising hull, he realised that sailors were swinging a cannon in the direction of his island, and more to his horror, of he himself.
And in that moment, little would he have known that one of the most bizarre clangers in Japanese naval history was about to embroil him.
Masaitchiro had migrated to Samoa soon after the First World War, telling friends in the mid-1920s he feared more dark clouds were already looming on the horizon. So, he told them, he was selling his Tokyo hardware store, and heading to the peace, quiet and dollars he reckoned could be made in the wealthy American-controlled half of Samoa.
His decision appeared a well-founded one. He settled quickly into island life, even though he was the only Japanese person on all of Tutuila, opened a trade store in the capital Pago Pago, and was soon flourishing in his peaceful new environment.
And the more so when he found himself in love with the daughter of a local chief, a delightful lady who reciprocated his feelings and was a chief in her own right. They married and for the next 15 years ran a very successful trade store and trading business, raising along the way a hearty tribe of future chiefs.
But the wheels of peace had already fallen off in Europe and there were ominous signs on the Pacific horizon: Pearl Harbour was about to go into the history books, and after that many other islands of the Pacific as well, as the Japanese sought control of the whole of the South Seas.
And on this sunny Samoan morn, Masaitchiro Shimasaki, too, was about to go down in those history books.
He watched open-mouthed as the first shell from the submarine's bow canon whistled towards him, fortuitously falling short of its onshore target and doing little more than to stir-up a school of tuna fish frolicking in the lagoon inside the reef.
The second went too far and landed inland in a rainforest, creating mayhem amongst the local bird population. But the third, to Masaitchiro's horror, whistled straight overhead – to hit and totally demolish his home behind him. Fortunately it was empty at the time and no one was injured or killed.
The submarine then dived and disappeared… it was the only enemy action in America Samoa for the entire Pacific war, yet that one Japanese shell had hit the home of Tutuila's only son of Japan.
Masaitchiro was so hopping mad that he wrote a letter to the Japanese High Command, pointing out what they had done to one of their own, and demanding to know what were they going to do about compensation?
When he got no reply he became really stirred up, and launched a one-man protest by declaring that no member of his family – including himself – would ever again speak his native Japanese in their newly-rebuilt Tutuila home.
In the 1970s a group of Japanese business people visiting Pago Pago met Masaitchiro and he agreed with them that, yes, enough was enough and that he would end his lone protest over something that after 35 years should now be forgiven and forgotten.
And besides, as he told his visitors, he was now well into his 70s… and the war was so long ago that he and his family had now forgotten how to speak Japanese anyway.
 IT was near this idyllic setting that all hell broke loose when Masaitchiro's house was hit by a Japanese submarine's shell.
 AMERICA'S First Lady, Elanor Roosevelt inspects troops on Samoa during the Pacific War.
 JAPANESE submarine similar to this that shelled the home of the only Japanese living on Samoa's Tutuila Island.
 PICTURESQUE and peaceful Samoa today.
(Images Samoan Tourism)
August 15, 2012
IN his continuing search for the more weird, wacky and wondrous in the world of travel, David Ellis says a major bane of cruise-goers could soon be a thing of the past – on Carnival ships at least.
Because they're trialling a system to stop early-rising passengers "claiming" deck-chairs by putting towels, books, clothing and other personal items on the best-positioned ones, and then going away and not using those deck-chair or sun-bed for sometimes hours.
Crew aboard the company's new Carnival Breeze in the Caribbean have begun "policing" deck-chairs by putting stickers showing the time they've noticed them "reserved" with personal items, but not being occupied. After 40-minutes if still unoccupied, staff are removing the items, leaving a note explaining what they have done, and advising where the items can be re-claimed.
A spokesman said reserving deck-chairs or sun-beds and not immediately using them had long been of concern. "Once our trials aboard Carnival Breeze are completed we will make any necessary adjustments and roll it out fleet-wide," he said, adding that 40-minutes grace had been chosen as that was thought long enough for guests to duck-away for something to eat, take a swim, get a drink or go to the toilet.
And not surprisingly, Carnival says reaction in the first fortnight has been "overwhelmingly positive" amongst those who've often been deprived for hours from enjoying their place in the sun.