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2 min read, france, opinion

Alastair travels back in time through the medieval châteaux and forgotten farmhouses of France

11th May 2015
Alastair travels back in time through the medieval châteaux and forgotten farmhouses of France

Are we not all seduced by historic buildings? Only exceptionally are they not beautiful. We rarely retain memory of a 60s tower block, or a commercial warehouse, or a shopping centre.  So historic buildings are precious, to be dignified with our respect. It is for the old historic centres that we love a city, never for the modern accretions. Continue Reading…

2 min read, food & drink, friends of sawday's

A day in the life of a truffle hunter

18th March 2015

Paolo Ciccioli, professional truffle hunter and owner of Agriturismo Ramuse in the Italian region of Marche, shares his journey from city centre truffle trading to running a remote agriturismo.



What inspired you to start your own Agriturismo, Paolo?
It has always been my lifelong dream to build Le Marche Agriturismo Ramuse on the grounds of my Grandmother’s fruit farm. Starting in 2004 and finishing on 2007 I used the finest materials to completely reconstruct the two buildings you see today.

What were you doing before this project?
Before I started the Agriturismo business, I was selling my truffles to many top chefs in London and Oxford and in London’s Borough Market.


Why did you choose the Ascoli Piceno area to set-up?
I was born and bred in the Ascoli region and so this is where my heart is. After my experience in London, I decided that the best solution is to taste the truffle in the place where it is found to appreciate the maximum fragrance and the magic of their perfume.

Were there any challenges that you faced getting started?
The main challenges were having the right craftsmen available at the right times, along with sourcing proper materials such as vintage bricks and stones. Sometimes bureaucracy slowed the project down.

What has been the best bit about your new life?
Although it is hard work, running an Agriturismo allows me to always follow my heart. Each morning I wake up to a truly beautiful panorama of nature.



What tips would you give anyone else trying to set up a hotel/B&B?
You need to plan and re-plan. Also, whatever your budget is, you will need 50% more!

What do you think makes your place a really special place to stay?
Le Marche Agriturismo Ramuse is set in a tranquil beautiful valley that brings you close to nature, being ideally placed between the Adriatic & the Sibillini mountains.

I only use local products, many from my own farm such as Oliva Ascolana Tenera (a tasty olive), eggs from the free range black Ancona chickens, and our special pink apple the mele rosa dei Monti Sibillini. We have fresh peaches, cherries, apples, homemade jams and nuts to eat throughout the year. Having worked in the wine trade, I also have a very good knowledge of the local wines and have a selection available for any time of day or night.



Tell us about your truffle hunting, what does a typical day as a truffle hunter involve?
A day in the life of a truffle hunter begins with checking the weather. It has to be dry so that Trilly my truffle dog can smell the truffles. Next we have to dress in the hunters outfit and with our special digging tool we are ready to set off.

What we bring back depends of the time of year. Truffles are seasonal with the stronger smelling White Truffle (Tuber Magnatum Pico) being found around Ramuse between October and November, and the Black summer truffle (tuber aestivum) from May to October.



How do you use the truffles in your cooking?
My favourite meal is freshly scrambled eggs with grated black summer truffle on top, simple but delicious!


2 min read, friends of sawday's, opinion

The Daily Telegraph’s Jo Symons shares her top 3 places to stay

3rd March 2015
The Daily Telegraph’s Jo Symons shares her top 3 places to stay

As a seasoned globetrotter with a passport brimming with stamps, how could you be expected to narrow down your list of favourite places to stay? That’s exactly what we asked of Jo Symons, Commissioning Travel Editor at The Daily Telegraph, who tipped us off with three of her stand-out spots.




Fuente de la Higuera, Andalucia (where I’m relaxing in the photo!)

Whether you choose a grand hotel or a small B&B, it’s the atmosphere that makes a stay really memorable.This small hotel, set on a hill outside Ronda, gets it just right. Laid back but with great attention to detail, it has stylish rooms, a lovely small pool, friendly staff and sweeping views across olive groves and plains to the mountains beyond. The food is spectacularly good.



Bruce Castle, Normandy is one of my favourite B&Bs in the world. A convincing replica of an 18th-century chateau, it’s run by the delightful Fontanets who create a happy and welcoming atmosphere. The large sunny sitting room and three en-suite bedrooms are decorated (without a hint of preciousness) with good antiques and paintings and there’s a peaceful and beautifully tended garden. Breakfast – the table laid with antique linen and silver – includes freshly poached fruit and home-made jams. It’s well placed for the Cherbourg ferry, and for exploringthe lovely Cotentin Peninsula and D-Day beaches.



Northcourt, in the peaceful Isle of Wight village of Shorwell, is one of the loveliest of the local manor houses, but the real highlights here are the spectacular grounds that reminded me of a mini Lost Gardens of Heligan. Rooms are large, comfortable and traditionally furnished – and the friendly hosts provide an excellent breakfast. It’s all great value. Superb walking, beaches and the rolling countryside of West Wight are nearby.

2 min read, spain, travel diaries

Mercados and Flamenco – Alastair writes about his trip to Madrid

19th February 2015
Mercados and Flamenco - Alastair writes about his trip to Madrid

Last month I spent a week in Madrid, taking part in a session on sustainability in tourism at the vast, overwhelming, FITUR travel trade show. I gave a radio interview in Spanish, then a speech about sustainability and tourism. It was like hectoring passers-by at Paddington during the rush hour, with frequent announcements over the intercom and the buzz of humanity all around.

I sat on a panel with five formidable Spanish women and discussed how we can build on the great work done by the national parks system. Gosh – they can talk, the Spaniards. My Spanish is good, but embarrassingly not up to Spanish speed via sound systems.


Madrid is a tonic, more interesting by far than most of us imagine. I could spend hours in the Mercado San Miguel listening to the chatter and trying out new dishes. It is a handsome 19th-century market building, exquisitely ‘done’. I am struck by the conviviality; everyone is up for a chat, and sharing food comes naturally.


A night of flamenco is not to be missed, especially as Carlos, our Man in Spain, chose a tiny bar as a very special alternative to the more touristy places: La Quimera, close to the Madrid Plaza de Toros in Ventas. Weate ‘jamon’ and ‘tortilla’, drank red wine and plugged ourselves into the frenetic ‘zapateado’ of the five dancers. I was exhilarated, but needed moistened dough in my ears to reduce the noise.

One evening we welcomed a dozen of our Spanish owners to drinks in the hotel. This was memorable for the eclecticism of the group and the fantastical talk that ensued. Grand Spaniards and humble Spaniards, with wildly differing politics, mingled with similarly differing English owners. It was warm, funny and touching – and a reminder of the wonderful range of types Sawday’s embraces.




To Alcala de Henares for the Saturday night, to catch up with the Parador system. The Paradors are a feather in the Spanish cap. There are nearly 100 of them, most of them ancient buildings rescued from decline to create a network of state-run hotels. So the visitors are sleepingin buildings that are unique and magnificent. Alcala is a short train ride away from Madrid, a 16th-century town of almost perfect beauty, a collection of monasteries, convents and ecclesiastical buildings preserved now by the University of Alcala.  This was the world’s first purpose-built University campus, we are told.  The Parador is in a 17th-century convent, with vast rooms and the finest modern additions.  We are hoping to include some Paradors in our collection, as they are all pretty special in their own way.

I will definitely be returning to Spain in the near future. My next visit may well be to the south-west, to Cadiz and Jerez – both over-ignored – and to the long and empty beaches nearby. We have some remarkable, and eccentric, places down there.


Planning a trip to the Spanish capital? We recommend:

La Torre Box Art Hotel


Contemporary style and period charm combine in a hip boutique hotel with superb mountain views, a lovely private spa and a pool.

Hotel Life


Independence, clever design and lots of light make this handy hotel the perfect pad to whisk someone away on a spontaneous city break!

2 min read, food & drink, friends of sawday's

Rathfinny – A vineyard adventure

19th February 2015 barn&

Inspired by a trip to New Zealand in 1990, it was another 20 years before Mark and Sarah swapped life in the big smoke to take the great leap into wine production on the soils of Sussex. They offered an insight into the trials and tribulations of starting their own vineyard…


Why did you make the big move into wine-making?
Inspired by a trip to New Zealand in 1990, it took a further 20 years before we found the perfect site for a vineyard and Mark had retired from the city enabling a new venture in wine production. Following a two year course in viticulture at Plumpton College the dream started to take shape. An initial planting in 2012 produced the first harvest in 2014 and an expectation of our first Sparkling wine in 2017.



Out of all of the places that you could have set up in, what was it that made you settle in Alfriston?
The South Downs share the geology of the “Paris Basin”, a triassic geological feature that also encompasses the vineyards of Champagne. Our vines should flourish on the South facing chalky soils that are so essential to the development of the great sparking wines. Rathfinny was the perfect site in terms of size and location to realise our ambitions. Sussex isalso an important location for the development of the English wine industry as a whole. We hope to be contributing up to 1 million bottles a year by 2020 to English wine production.



Has the venture turned out how you expected it would?
We always knew it was an expensive, long term investment. We are on track with our plans in terms of the development of the Vineyard and buildings on site. We have also established a strong team with key members including New Zealand viticulturalist Cameron Roucher, who has left New Zealand to join the new venture, while Epernay-born Jonathan Médard is Rathfinny’s winemaker. It’s challenging and a huge learning curve.

It sounds like you’ve been pretty busy! Do you have any new projects coming up at the site?
We are about to open our Flint Barns – seasonal workers accommodation during pruning and picking but available for special interest groups and schools to visit as well B&B visitors. Our Cellar Door in Alfriston, which sells locally sourced and wine related products, will stock a small release of our first still wine in May and is the starting point of the Estate Tours. The Rathfinny Trail is due to open in May.

We are also holding a three-day Chamber Music Festival in June which will be the inaugural weekend of many for our resident ensemble, the London Conchord Ensemble.

Seasonal workers are invited to stay at Flint Barns during pruning and picking as well as B&B visitors. More “poshtel” than hostel, find chunky doors, reclaimed oak floors, view-filled windows, bedrooms with luxurious mattresses, crisp white cotton, good lighting and shower rooms worthy of Babington House.


2 min read, france, opinion

France in the fifties – Alastair Sawday on his everlasting love affair

19th February 2015
France in the fifties - Alastair Sawday on his everlasting love affair

In the Fashoda Incident in 1898, the French and British had a stand-off on the White Nile in the Sudan. The British, surviving on grim army rations, were invited to a dinner of fresh vegetables by the French. They had carried the seeds for 14 months across Africa.

That is why I love the French – for what they consider important: like fresh veg and baguettes, good coffee and good manners, books, cartoons and lampoons, sharp femininity, their own way of doing things. They stick like limpets to their Frenchness. They are French and proud of it.


My early French memories, from the ‘50s, are of empty roads, wine cooling in streams while we picnicked on bread and cheese and tomatoes. A café and bar in every village, farmers, cows, Citroën 2CVs bouncing along with hay-bales, old men in berets, and ineffable charm at every encounter. Ridiculous, of course, to hark back to those days, but they have left their mark on me and early marks survive.



I was introduced early to the châteaux and castles, to the beautiful buildings and villages scattered throughout the country. I thought that Azay Le Rideau was an architectural paradise, a château-jewel in its own lake. I spoke French early, at the urging of a mother who had learned it as a girl, so my connections were alive and nourishing. I felt French, wanted more of it all. Years later I would read JeanGiono and Moliere, take travellers around the country in coaches and then myown mini-bus. I fell in love with French women, idling in Montmartre and underthe bridges of Paris. I took a girlfriend to Les Folies Bergeres – oh how grown-up that was. Paris made me, makes me, think about beauty, about aesthetics, about love.



I have been to Martinique, too, and heard French patois in other islands. I have enjoyed croissants in Pondicherry, and French-style coffee in Kerala, relieved to retreat into nostalgia. France has captured me, and I can see why. I have been touched by Frenchness in so many ways, starting affectionately at a young age. I even taught the language for 5 years, but confess to my love stumbling at the third year of the imperfect subjunctive. However I can still produce it, to startle older French people and mystify young ones. Luckily, we have many ‘older’ owners of our Special Places, and my enjoyment of them is deep. They, too, enjoy their subjunctives.