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Santorini ε: Fira, Oia, Megalochori

A final return to paradisiacal azure skies, gleaming white walls and tumbling bougainvillea after a months of travel silence! Today I'd like to share our last few days in Santorini: a return to some of our favourite places on the island as well as new experiences: tastes, smells and sights that are seared into my memory seven months later, indelible and wonderful.

By day six, we'd pretty much seen most of what Santorini had to offer and had reached that lovely point in the holiday where we had the luxury of revisiting places we really liked as well as having new experiences. A star of the trip was Lucky's Souvlaki in Fira - a stellar recommendation from Miho. It's practically a hole in the wall but it enjoys a roaring trade, pounding out some of the best gyros I've tried. Order taken, we'd perch up on the bar, fascinated by the speed of assembly, then sink our teeth into the steaming gyros straight away. Fantastic value for money, simple, and oh so tasty. I think we went three times over the course of the trip, which somehow wasn't enough.

Also of interest in Fira: the Museum of Prehistoric Thera. Here you can see treasures excavated from the dig site at Akrotiri - colourful mosaics lifted from the walls, pots with undulating curves and the highlight for me, this sweet little golden ibex.

Tourist trap cafes abound in Fira - you'll pay through the nose for a drink, but the sight of the volcano below, surrounded by the shimmering lagoon, more than makes up for it.

While in Fira I caught sight of a poster of Jurassic World (wouldn't be a self-respecting dinosaur geek otherwise...) and realised that it was advertising an open-air cinema on the south part of the island later that night. So, completely spontaneously, we jumped on a bus down to Kamari, the sun's languorous descent casting long shadows and golden light on to the rocky landscape. 

And the open-air cinema was even cooler than I'd hoped: complete with bar, excellent snacks and comfortable seats. There's something incredible about watching a film under the stars, sipping a cold beer, enjoying the warm night breeze ruffling through my hair. Especially when the film is about dinosaurs. (I mean, not as good as Jurassic Park, but when a movie features Chris Pratt on a motorcycle, I'm prepared to be forgiving.)

Day seven, lost in a haze of books and languid hours soaking up the sun, ended with a return to beautiful Oia, where we went for an evening promenade, taking in engagement shoots and just generally drinking in the scenery before dinner.

Melitini, specialising in 'Greek tapas', was a real hit. Casual dining up on a rooftop is always a good idea, especially when pretty much everything we ordered tasted fantastic - particularly the earthy, smoky pork belly.

Stomachs comfortably full, we wandered back down into the belly of my beloved Atlantis Books for inspiration up the Philosophy Tower and to pet the resident cat.

The disturbing moment when you unearth this on the erotic shelf.

Books have a habit of working up my appetite for sweeter things, so it was only right that we bade farewell to Oia with the most fantastic ice cream at Lolita's Gelato - mine, a devilish concoction of dark chocolate and rum, had me swooning.

Our last day on the island came too quickly for my liking. My early swim in the huge crescent-shaped pool at Amber Light Villas was followed by a morning whiled away on the black beach at Perissa, where I drank in more Steinbeck than juice and sun (seriously, East Of Eden: mandatory reading).

Next, a stroll through the winding streets of the less polished but charming village of Megalochori, where I had the best lunch of the trip at Marmita: caramelised octopus on a bed of the smoothest, most flavourful fava bean mash. Unforgettable. The perfect way to line the stomach for what came next: a tour around the nearby Venetsanos winery, perched high on a cliff overlooking the lagoon.

For someone who is frankly a novice where it comes to wine, this tour and tasting was somewhat of an eye-opener. It was also the moment where I realised my nascent love for dessert wine (and resulted in a later surfeit of sherry in the house at Christmas...) Props to George for leading such a great tour and taking us through the various wines on offer!

The sun set on our final day, and we had one last dinner in an old mill near our hotel in Firostefani.

To be honest, this was more of the wannabe Michelin-style fare that seems to be endemic to most of the restaurants on the island (with the exorbitant price tags to match), but it was fun to see the effort the restaurant had put into the food (such as the 'volcanic rock' potatoes, above) and we left feeling cheerful, suitably restored and ready for our return to the big smoke. 
I hope you've enjoyed my series on Santorini! I'm thinking of doing a highlights post for anyone thinking of making a trip to this most beautiful of islands at some point, so it won't be yia sas forever. Speaking of summer 2016, (which is approaching at lightning speed - help...) I've already planned most of mine. It appears that a little voyage round Europe is on the cards - potentially a few cities in northern Europe that I don't know well or haven't visited before, and a protracted sojourn in sunkissed Italy for a second year which my body, pale and hunched from a month in the library, is anticipating already. Plus, most excitingly of all, I've booked an adventure to a part of the world I've never been before with two of my best friends (there's a clue as to where somewhere in this post...) Honestly, I can hardly wait. Now it's your turn to spark crazy, spiralling wanderlust and envy in me: what are your plans for the summer?

If you've missed my earlier posts on Santorini, you can catch up here: 
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Guan Chua's Nyonya Supper Club

I've been a fan of Guan Chua ever since I saw him flying the flag for Malaysia as Anthony Bourdain's protégé on The Taste. How could I not be, with the Straits coursing through my blood? So when Angela suggested an evening at his renowned and incredibly popular supperclub along with some of my favourite fellow foodies, I literally leapt at the chance. 

Guan's specialty is Nyonya cuisine - the word we use for the inevitable intermarrying that occurred after the first wave of Chinese immigration to the Malay peninsula from the 15th century onwards. As with all the best things, this joining of cultures has resulted in the most amazing food - a riot of Eastern flavours and Southern spices from the Silk Route, creating iconic dishes such as chicken kapitan, asam laksa and kuih. It was time to go back to my roots and discover a few more...

As Chinese New Year was winding down, we kicked off proceedings with a traditional yee sang prosperity toss - a raw salad of sorts made up of vermicelli, fresh fruit and vegetables and smoked salmon which you delve into energetically with your chopsticks and fling up in the air while shouting 'lo hei' and 'huat' for maximum luck. So much fun. (And hopefully I did enough to pass my upcoming exams...) We heard that during Guan's childhood the kids got so into their yee sang that bits of the salad actually hit the ceiling. I would have reined it in, but the messier the luckier, so they say...

Yee sang is such a great way to start a party - there's really nothing like brandishing your chopsticks in other guests' faces to break the ice. And the resulting salad was fresh, sweet and light - the best way to line our tummies for the feast ahead.

Next up, chicken wings taking flight with punchy lemongrass and belacan flavour. As soon as Guan and Jo set the dishes down on the table my expectations for the rest of the night rose by several levels. Let's just say this type of delicate presentation isn't quite the norm back in Malaysia...

The fried assam prawns were a treat, their sweetness left intact thanks to a sensitive use of tamarind, which can easily overpower a dish. 

A plate of sambal belacan greens provided a crunchy, clean foil to the meaty mains to come.

Daging pongteh to die for. Apparently it's more common to use pork or chicken in this dish but I'm so glad Guan opted for beef flank on this occasion. Slow cooked a day in advance with mooli, fermented soy bean paste and palm sugar, the meat was incredibly tender - up there with the best beef bourguignon I've ever had, threaded through with an amazingly addictive sweet flavour attributable to the presence of the gula melaka.

Ikan masak nanas - mackerel curry with pineapple. This was far and away the standout dish of the meal for me, possibly because it's in my genes - this classically Nyonya dish is typically found in Penang, the home of my maternal ancestors. The curry played host to an incredibly complex array of flavours, with the fresh fish, pineapple, galangal, tamarind, candlenut and mint grabbing me by the hand and running from sweet, to sour, to savoury, to spicy. One mouthful of this left me feeling like I'd just been on a rollercoaster, lips tingling and blinking rapidly. Really exciting stuff.

The dish on the menu that had me quivering in anticipation the most (judge me all you like, I don't care) was this: a celestially good Horlicks parfait with a mitre of caramelised banana and a halo of crumbled Nestum. I was a terrible sleeper during childhood and my harassed parents decided Horlicks might help me drift off at night. It worked. I have fond memories of sleepily cradling a steaming cup of this malty, creamy drink, which came flooding back as I dug my spoon into this beautifully smooth, semifreddo-like dessert. 

Three batches of miniature madeleines fresh out of the oven made us all gasp in delight - they were so teeny and so moreish, it was almost like playing at tea with dolls. The pandan flavour was excellent too (a wonderful blend of coconut and vanilla for those who don't know it) and a tapau bag of these secreted home with me gave off the most beautiful smell when I opened it in the morning for breakfast to dip, Proust-style, in my tea.

We were surprised with a dish not actually on the menu but nevertheless a shining star of the evening: crispy, fluffy mini Paris Brest buns filled with gula melaka-flavoured chantilly cream. These took me back to the cream-filled choux buns I used to pick up after school in Soho at Beard Papa (miss that place so much!) - though obviously stepping the game up several notches. For me, they also encapsulated Guan's unique style of cooking. In the pastry one can discern the French discipline and technique only a Cordon Bleu-trained chef can display. The delicate palm sugar notes in that divine chantilly, meanwhile, are testament to Guan's personal knowledge of the exceptional ingredients Malaysia has to offer. Hopefully these will become a permanent fixture at the supperclub, as they get a 10/10 from me.

Thank you very much to Guan and Jo for kindly hosting us in your beautiful home for a night of fantastic food and company. I can put my hand on my heart and say that this was one of the most exciting, technically complex approaches to Nyonya food I've ever had. What surprised me the most was the compound of flavours in each dish, with sweet and savoury elements throughout removing the need for a strict dichotomy between savoury main course and cloyingly sweet dessert, as tends to be the case in Western meals. (Not that I don't enjoy them, of course!) Like Angela, I shall definitely be making a return visit - perhaps with the entire extended family in tow, flown specially over for the occasion...

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