When the apricots bloom

There’s a saying in Egypt -“bukra fil mish-mish”

بكرة في المشمش

Literally it means “when the apricots bloom,” but people say it to mean “never.” Sort of like “when pigs fly.”  That’s because in Egypt apricots (mish-mish) have a very short season.

Guess what? It’s that time…


When the apricots bloom, you have to act quickly. Good thing I keep my tart pan handy.

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In fair Verona, where we lay our scene…

There are lots of great things about living in Cairo, and one of them is that we have easy access to many other great places.  Cheap non-stop flights are available to (for example) Turkey and Greece and France. We carefully examined the bargain airline offerings before finally deciding to spend our four-day Easter holiday in Verona, Italy.

Before last weekend, I honestly didn’t know anything about Verona except as the setting for Romeo and Juliet and Two Gentlemen of Verona. Shakespeare probably never visited Italy (though it is possible) so maybe he isn’t a reliable source anyway. Some friends told us they’d had a great time there, though, and it’s fun to explore new territory without researching too much in advance. We knew for sure the food would be wonderful, because it always is in Italy.

Except on the airplane. Note to self: next time bring your own meal when flying cheapo Meridiana Air.

Seriously?

We landed in Milan and took the train the next morning to Verona. It was a beautiful day to walk from the station to our Airbnb, a cute second-floor studio apartment in the old medieval part of the city.

A family enjoys gelato on our street corner

Verona is small, and we spent the weekend wandering around the old cobblestone piazzas, streets, bridges, and alleys, many of which are pedestrianized.

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We followed a paper tourist map that our host gave us, stopping in at the medieval and Renaissance churches,

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museums (I have a special fondness for creepy old religious art),

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Roman ruins,

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and Romeo and Juliet landmarks.

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We skipped the tall Lamberti tower because the queue was huge on this holiday weekend, but we had lovely panoramic views from the top of the castle and also from the Roman amphitheatre across the river.

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And, as predicted, the food was wonderful (and yes, we brought our own food on the flight home).

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Tent-makers’ alley

In the Khan el-Khalili, the big old market in the center of old Cairo, you can find just about anything you want.  A visit to the Khan is on every tourist itinerary so of course there is no shortage of  belly-dancing costumes, stuffed toy camels, and plastic pyramids. But the winding side-streets are also home to hundreds of little shops where Egyptians go to buy everyday goods at low prices, and where everyone can enjoy street food and a lively atmosphere in the evenings.

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The Khan is also the place to find many of the local products and artisan items that Egypt is known for. Some parts of the khan are still divided into districts selling specific things, such as gold jewelry, copper goods, and spices.

 

One of my favorite areas of the Khan is tent-makers’ alley. The vendors here in this old covered souk specialize in made-to-order Bedouin-style canvas tents like the one we stayed in when we visited the White Desert.

Most of the tentmakers also sell other textile items like decorative cushion covers and tablecloths made from bright geometric Ramadan fabric.

But my favorite thing in tentmakers alley are the appliqué wall hangings and bedspreads.

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Knowing how much I admired them, my sweet husband’s Christmas gift to me this year was the promise of an appliqué wall hanging (a practical choice, too, since we were traveling at Christmas and you don’t have to wrap and pack promises).  This past weekend we finally found time to go downtown and pick out my present.

We looked in ALL the shops along the alley. I knew I wanted a colorful wall hanging with birds on it, but the workmanship varies and I wanted one with small, even stitching.

Once we settled on a shop, the vendor sent out for tea (part of the process when they’ve got a serious customer),

and when I told him I wanted one with birds, he started pulling out one piece after another from cupboards and drawers. It was a bit overwhelming, but eventually I narrowed my choices down to five, then two, then finally one.

But in the process Andreas found one he just had to have. So in the end we went home with two wall hangings.

There are small workshops in the back streets here where they make beautiful perforated metal lamps. Maybe next Christmas….

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Kathakali

Kerala is home to a unique theatre form called kathakali. By chance, Andreas was studying kathakali just a few weeks ago as part of an IB theatre teaching training course, so he was very excited at the prospect of seeing a live performance.

Kathakali developed in southern India out of older Hindu temple dramas, and has remained essentially the same since the 17th century. A performance features elaborately made up and costumed actors who use a specialized language of hand gestures, facial movements, and dance to tell a traditional story or epic. The actors are supported by a singer and musicians.

The training for this art is rigorous and lengthy: four years to be a makeup artist, and six minimum for a singer or dancer/actor. The performances themselves are also lengthy, lasting from evening until dawn. A temple in Kochi hosted one of these while we were in India, but unfortunately we missed it because we were away in Aleppey. But happily for us there was a kathakali school right around the corner from our homestay in Kochi, and this school offered a nightly show for tourists. We went twice.

If you go early you can watch the performers putting on their makeup.

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A man decorated the space with flowers, candles, and sand paintings.

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Because this was a demonstration for tourists, the actors showed some of some of the basic movements while a narrator explained what they meant. Kathakali actors spend thousands of hours learning to control eye and facial muscles.

Then they performed a scene or short story from one of the plays. On the nights we went we saw two different parts of the epic Mahabharata.

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One of our heroes kills the bad guy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Backwaters

If you mention Kerala to anyone who’s been there, chances are the first thing they will say is “houseboats.”

For many generations people in Kerala used wooden boats called kettuvallam to transport goods to larger port towns like Cochin. These days rice and spices travel much faster by truck and train, and the kettuvallam boats have been to converted into holiday excursion boats. In the backwater areas of coastal Kerala, particularly around the towns of Alleppey and Kumarakom, you can book a private boat with crew to take you on a leisurely one- or  two-night cruise along sleepy canals and lagoons.

The boats have between one and three bedrooms, bathrooms, and a deck area at the front. Some have both an open and a closed lounge/dining area, and some have an upstairs room or sundeck as well. There is a kitchen at the back of the boat where the cook will fix you some yummy Kerala food.

A typical houseboat, from the kitchen end

To book a boat you need go down to the docks at 9 am. That’s when the boats return, and you will have the pick of the fleet.  You ask to go aboard and look around. Some are quite basic, others well-appointed. We were advised to turn on the shower, lie down on the bed, and bargain for the best price. We looked at three or four before choosing a boat for our one-night excursion.

Going to look at some boats.

After you strike a deal with the owner, you go away for a couple of hours and come back at 11 to get settled in before noontime departure.

Andreas enjoys his welcome drink before we go.

Our cheerful captain

Some boats have TVs, but who needs TV when you can read a book and watch the people on the river.

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The cabin boy/cook (on our boat it was the same young man, assisted by the captain when we weren’t moving; on some boats it’s two different people) prepared and served us lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner on the first day.

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The boats have to moor before the sun goes down. We connected to a power source overnight (which provided us with welcome AC). We parked near our captain’s house – he said hi to his mom while Andreas and I went for a walk in the rice fields to watch the sunset.

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The next morning we watched the river people at their morning activities as we ate our breakfast and slowly motored our way back to town.

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When we docked in Alleppey, a young couple came aboard to inspect the boat. We advised them to take it, they wouldn’t regret it.

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High tea

I wanted to visit a tea plantation while we were in India. Darjeeling and Assam are famous for their teas, but those places are both in the far northeast, too distant for this trip. Within India, though, the south is also known for its tea. There are tea plantations all around the hill station of Munnar in eastern Kerala, as well as in the next state over, Tamil Nadu.

India is huge. The area we covered this holiday is marked by the little purple triangle in the southwest.

After some poking around on TripAdvisor, I decided that we should visit Kolukkumalai, the world’s highest elevation organic tea plantation. It’s a remote estate just over the border in Tamil Nadu where they still practice the old-fashioned “orthodox” method of tea production.  I booked and paid for (or so I thought) an overnight reservation at the plantation’s mountain hut, a converted workers’ cabin located at about 7,000 feet –  the same elevation as Addis Ababa.

There was lots to look at on the long bus ride from Kochi to Munnar hill station.

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Once we got to Munnar we had some trouble connecting with the tea estate people. Things would have run much more smoothly if I had decided a few days earlier to book the visit, but our entire Kerala trip was planned on the fly and this was a last-minute call. Because I’d made the reservation on the weekend, the payment was delayed, and it’s a rather long and boring story so I won’t get into it all the details, but the really great part is that the wonderful Kolukkumalai people jumped into action and made it work. As it happens there was another last-minute traveler in the tourist office at the same time, also trying to book a night at the tea estate, so once it was finally all sorted the three of us were able to share a jeep for the long uphill journey.

We stopped in the little town of Suryanelly for supplies.

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Next we stopped for a tea break (of course) at a nearby tea estate.

Then began the arduous part of the journey. The road up to Kolukkumalai now holds the title of The Bumpiest Road I Have Ever Been On in My Life. It surpasses even the road to the Yemrehanna Kristos cave church in Ethiopia, the previous holder of this dubious distinction.

Tea!

We spent two relaxing nights in our “mountain hut”, which turned out to be nicely equipped with all the comforts of home.  The cabin has three rooms, but during our stay we and the young woman we rode up the hill with were the only guests.

The view from our porch. The green-roofed building is the tea factory.

On both mornings we rose early to walk up the hill behind to watch the sunrise. The first morning it was too foggy to see anything.

But the second morning we enjoyed a lovely sunrise above the layer of mist blanketing the mountains.

Later after breakfast we took a walking tour of the estate to see the workers tending the plants and harvesting the leaves.

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Most of the workers who pick the leaves are women (it is said that men don’t have the patience to do it right) while the tea factory workers are mainly men. The workers live on site in housing provided by the estate. They have a child care center, a small temple, and a tea house in the compound, but they have to travel down the mountain for shopping and for any medical services beyond basic first aid. School age children live down in the town during the week.

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We also toured the factory, where they showed us the seven steps of orthodox tea production: withering, rolling, sieving, fermenting, drying, fiber extraction, and grading. Most of these steps employ machines that were brought in for the opening of the factory over a hundred years ago.

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In addition to hot and tasty Tamil meals three times a day, our guide served us tea at breakfast, at mid-morning, after lunch, at tea-time, and after dinner. Any time is tea time, it would seem.

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In fact, we spent much of our time wrapped in warm blankets, sipping tea and enjoying the view from our little front porch.

Here are some more pictures of this beautiful green place.

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Sinai weekend: Saturday on Mt. Sinai

It was our friend Jeff who had the idea for the weekend in Sinai. He is leaving at the end of this year and Mt. Sinai had been on his must-see list since arriving in Egypt three years ago. Jeff is interested in Bible history, and this is a place where some significant Old Testament events are believed to have happened. So on Saturday morning we all got into a van and headed into the desert.

Look for Sharm el Sheikh at the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula, Dahab on the east coast north of there, then go west into the center of the peninsula for Mt. Sinai PC: http://www.nationsonline.org/oneworld/map/Sinai_map.htm

Look for Sharm el Sheikh at the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula, Dahab on the east coast, and Mt. Sinai in the south center of the peninsula. http://www.nationsonline.org/oneworld/map/Sinai_map.htm

Mt. Sinai is a sacred site for Muslims, Jews, and Christians. Great numbers of them were there at the entrance to the trail. It looked liked it was going to be a very crowded hike.

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Boy would I ever look stupid in one of these ponchos. Glad I brought a warm jacket.

We walked up a short trail to St. Catherine’s Greek Orthodox monastery, where the hordes of people were gathered. We had been unaware that the monastery is only open from 9 to 12, and it was now 5 minutes to noon. We got inside the gate with just enough time to view its main attraction, and the reason the 6th-century monastery was built in the first place:

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According to monastic tradition, this Rubus sanctus plant is the actual, original Burning Bush featured in Exodus 3:2.  At some point the monks of the monastery transplanted it from a few yards away to this courtyard corner, but there is a chapel on the grounds (which we didn’t get to visit) marking the original location.

We were quite sorry not to be able to see the rest of the monastery. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site that houses the second biggest collection (after the Vatican) of codices and manuscripts in many different languages, as well as a tremendous collection of early Christian art. I don’t know how much of this stuff is on display, but I suppose we will have to return another time to find out.

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As we left the monastery we realized that all the people were heading back down the hill to the parking lot. Out of the hundreds there, our party of seven was the only one continuing up to the top of the mountain where Moses received the Ten Commandments.

Dedicated walkers Andreas and Ger struck out ahead, much to the consternation of our Bedouin guide. The five of us remaining chose to take camels as far as we could go.

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Setting off. That’s the monastery in the background.

I have ridden camels before, but only in the sandy desert. This camel experience was rather different, and not in a good way. I think that camels are not really designed for hard, rocky paths. Nevertheless it was a beautiful clear day and the scenery was spectacular.

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After a couple of hours we finally made it to the camel station. The camels can’t go beyond this point because the last bit is a steep slope ending with a long staircase, which camels can’t manage. I decided I couldn’t manage it either, at least not in the time frame required (we would have to move quickly to be able to make it back down the mountain in time to catch our plane). Another slowpoke friend and I kept the camels company while our faster friends carried on up the mountain.

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Abdul is the one in the middle.

I saw the photos Jeff took on the top and it truly was a gorgeous view. One of the others said it felt as if you could touch the sky. That would work with the Commandments thing for sure.  Maybe sometime I will get up there myself. But as it was, we rode our camels back down the mountain (surprisingly even less comfortable on the downhill). We got back late and had to get special security permission to travel on the roads as we had missed the 5 pm convoy and the next one would have made us miss our plane.  But we made to Sharm and the airport, and back to work on Sunday morning.

 

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Sinai weekend: Friday in Dahab

We try to get out of town whenever we have a three- or four-day weekend, but most of our regular Fridays and Saturdays (that’s right – weekends in Egypt are Friday/Saturday) are spent close to home catching up with household and school tasks.

This weekend we did something different and escaped to the seaside, where the air is fresh and the weather is warm. We bussed to the airport with a few of our friends right after school Thursday and flew to Sharm el Sheikh, at the tip of the Sinai peninsula. A van met us in Sharm and drove us north to the beach town of Dahab on the east coast facing Saudi Arabia.

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It was after 11 when we got there, but the beach bars close late in Dahab.

Dahab is a laid-back sort of place filled with inexpensive hotels, shops, and cafes that cater to low-budget divers and snorkelers. It’s got a very different feel from glamorous resort towns like El Gouna and Sharm. Less Las Vegas, more Santa Cruz. My husband says it reminds him of Bolinas in the 70s.

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Although I’m pretty sure Bolinas had paved streets.

Some of our party went diving and snorkeling at the Blue Hole, a nearby spot favored for checking out the sea life, but my husband and I deemed it too chilly for that sort of thing. Andreas is taking an on-line class, part of his IB Theater teacher training, and he had some assignments to do anyway.

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If you have to work on the weekend, why not here?

I left him to his laptop and wandered off to explore the length of Dahab’s “boardwalk”, a pathway made of cement but still charming. Actual boards are in short supply in the Sinai. I did a lot of window shopping and picture taking. Although bargains were plentiful, I managed not to buy anything.

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In the late afternoon some friends hailed me from a rooftop bar.

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Rooftop bars are very much a thing in Dahab.

Andreas joined us a little later, followed by the chilly-but-happy divers.

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Eventually we all headed across the road for a delicious fresh fish dinner and shisha to end the evening.

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Chumbe Island

If you’re a regular reader of this blog then you know how I feel about islands. Our friend Lori who we met in Lalibela a few years ago told me that if we were going to Zanzibar we absolutely had to see Chumbe island if possible. I looked it up and knew I had to go.

Our Z tour travel buddies are not quite at my level of island obsession, so we left Kim and Andre to explore more of Zanzibar’s main island of Unguja while Andreas and I set off for a two-night stay on Chumbe.

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Chumbe is essentially uninhabited.

Except by crabs. Here’s our greeter.

In the past, there was a lighthouse keeper’s family, and there have been a few fisherman off and on.

The lighthouse keeper’s mosque

Now Chumbe Island Coral Park is a privately managed nature reserve with seven eco-lodge bungalows and an indoor/outdoor common structure for visitors.

A stay on Chumbe includes nature walks and snorkeling excursions.

We could borrow snorkels and fins at any time, but guides were available to motor us to the reef once in the morning and again in the afternoon. I don’t own a Go-Pro (yet) so I am sorry I have no photos to share with you of the gorgeous fish, eels, crabs, turtles, clams, urchins, coral, anemones, and other exotic creatures. But I do have LOTS of pictures of hermit crabs.

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We took an evening walk to see the nocturnal coconut crabs, the largest species of land crabs in the world.

You can’t really tell how huge this baby is from the picture. Google it if you want to be amazed.

There were only about 12 people staying at the lodge, but the cooks fixed us some elaborate tropical meals.

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Our bungalow was like something the Professor would have designed for Gilligan’s Island.

Bungalow plan, from the Chumbe Island website

 

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Here are some more pictures from Chumbe Island.

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And the trip back to Unguja.

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The Elephant Café

I almost didn’t go to the Elephant Café.

When Kim first suggested it, it didn’t sound like anything I’d want to do. Pet the elephants, then have dinner at the elephant place. It was crazy expensive and sounded like a classic tourist trap. I said we should skip it.

But then, while paging through the latest issue of Zambezi Traveller quarterly over my full English breakfast at the ZigZag Hotel, I ran across an article written by a Livingstone chef called Annabel Hughes. She wrote about using locally grown and foraged ingredients unknown outside Africa, foods with names like masawa, nzembwe, and mongongo nut. The photos of her dishes in the article were beautiful. And she was the chef at the Elephant Café!
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Hey Kim, I said – I changed my mind. And so we made a reservation for the four of us for an evening on our return trip to Livingstone. A locavore feast to look forward to!

But then on the afternoon of our reservation I almost cancelled.

The proprietor of our hotel, Lynn, is also a devoted animal lover who runs a busy animal rescue charity in Livingstone.

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Lynn with one of her rescue kittens.

I told her where we were going for dinner, and she got quiet. Then she said, she didn’t actually know much about the Elephant Café, other than that she had heard it was headed in a new direction. Maybe I would be so kind as to tell her what I thought of it when we got back.

Uh oh. The last thing I want to do is to patronize a business that might abuse or exploit elephants. And I most certainly did not want to ride on an elephant, if that was what they were about. I was ready to cancel. But in the end I decided to go, because at least I would be able to tell Lynn what they were up to over there.

As it turned out, I have only good things to say about the Elephant Café. The herd has been  together at this location for many years, and currently numbers ten elephants. Most of the animals were rescued, although a couple of them joined the herd voluntarily over the years (the land is unfenced, and the elephants forage freely in the area and return to their shelter at night – and on a couple of occasions, they brought friends back to stay). It is true that the proprietors were using them for “elephant safaris” for tourists, exactly the kind of thing I didn’t want to support. But since opening the restaurant two months ago they have been rapidly phasing out that aspect of their business. They are honoring reservations already made but booking no new ones. The new business plan is an “elephant experience” combined with gourmet dining. Which I suppose is still in a sense exploitative, but in the modern world there has to be an economic incentive to protect animals with a high black market value.

Elephants are brought in to greet guests before dinner. The owner and handlers tell you some things about the herd and the individuals in it. You get a bag of food to hand out as well. Our party was the first to arrive and they led a few elephants to the lawn just for us.

It was really a little surreal to be interacting with these immense creatures on the pleasant grounds of the restaurant. It was a very relaxed, unhurried encounter.

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After the elephant visit we had a little time to explore the grounds. Kim and I had to be warned away from the riverside, as it seems there was a man-eating crocodile in the neighborhood.

The monkeys were fun to watch.

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After champagne and appetizers on the lawn, we were seated for dinner on a cool covered deck by the river well out of crocodile snapping range.

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Every aspect of the meal was superb. In fact, it is one of the top five meals I’ve had in my life. When you think about the restaurants that cater to expats and tourists in developing countries and the trouble they have with sourcing ingredients, there is definitely a lesson to be learned about studying and experimenting with local ingredients (a good lesson for home cooks like me, too). Of course it would help to be an amazing chef like Annabel.

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At the end, Chef Annabel brought out her crew for a well-earned round of applause.

 

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