THE WHOLESOME TABLE
Dedicated to the provenance of their ingredients and with a commitment to sustainability, the art of eating well is redefined at these hotels
The art of eating well is defined at these hotels
SIX SENSES DOURO VALLEY
A few minutes into our drive across the Douro Valley, we couldn’t resist rolling down the windows to take in the fresh breeze at this serene slice of northern Portugal. Hugged by the Douro River on one side and rolling terraced vineyards on the other, the winding road served as a redcarpet welcome to the oldest demarcated wine region in the world.
Portugal has seen a massive tourism boom in recent years, so much so that crumbling buildings in both Lisbon and Porto have been transformed into trendy hotels and restaurants. While the Douro Valley is popular—especially for keen oenophiles—it has managed to retain a sedate character. Built structures are few and far between, a triumph of regulation that respect the area’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
However, even the staunchest of purists would delight in the 19th-century manor that now houses the Six Senses, which opened its doors in 2015. Perched on a hill, each of the 41 guest rooms, nine suites and seven villas make the most of their privileged position, with strategically placed windows that lovingly frame the surrounding majesty. This is more than your average panoramic view—the beguiling vineyards and the rich biodiversity of the Douro, which has 3,500 different botanical species, inform much of the hotel’s direction.
As one might expect, we began at the wine library, where we found bottles of all sorts—rare wines behind glass doors, biodynamic picks lined up on an Enomatic dispenser and empty bottles cleverly upcycled as lighting fixtures. The sommelier gave us an overview of Portuguese wines, highlighting the best of the country’s 335 grape varietals, including the Touriga Franca, a noble grape from the Douro. Port is the star, but the session provided a taste of the region’s lesser-explored whites and reds. Especially memorable was the 10-year tawny port Fernão de Magalhães, dedicated to Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who grew up in the Douro region. The evening was peppered with such tidbits of history—a window to the country’s past as a naval power and a reminder of its deep winemaking prowess and how we are only starting to savour it.
In Portugal, one cannot drink without food, and those with large appetites could theoretically eat their way through the country at Vale de Abraão, which serves regional dishes. In fact, dining is serious business at the Six Senses and the main restaurant is only one of seven places to enjoy a bite. Blessed with balmy spring weather, we had most of our meals at the lovely stone-paved terrace; it was the prime spot to take in the multicoloured sunsets while sipping one of the 700 wines on offer.
In keeping with the brand’s focus on well-being and sustainability, large swathes of the Six Senses estate are devoted to plants—a four-hectare woodland is set aside for old-growth trees, while a working organic garden of vegetables and herbs is located nearby the glistening swimming pool. The latter is the epitome of rustic chic, with orderly plots teeming with chives and leeks, punctuated with a long wooden table sitting underneath a green canopy. Chef Luis Borlido and his team harvest here daily, ensuring a real farm-to-fork experience for every guest.
Perhaps the most tangible way to experience their commitment to serving local is at Terroir by Chef Ljubomir
Stanisic. This year-old initiative features a well-thought-out menu, with simple yet stunning dishes such as organic garden tomatoes and a green, red and yellow pepper purée, made with produce from the in-house garden. Not only does it offer a distinct taste of the Douro, but it’s also an ingenious balance of wellness and indulgence—something that’s usually an oxymoron, except for here.
A thick cloud of mist hung over the lake, a mesmerising sight framed by an array of mature trees on the foreground. The mizzling rain added a romantic flourish to a setting that looked straight out of a postcard, but as we were soon to discover, Lake House is a picture of cosy perfection come rain or shine.
The gloomy weather made for a good excuse to indulge in the art of doing nothing, and the Wolf-Tasker family, who own and run the Lake House, certainly knew how to create a backdrop ripe for slowing down. Arriving at The Retreat, the hotel’s most luxurious private accommodation, the standard bowl of polished fruit and generic welcome bubbly were noticeably absent. In their place were hand-picked fruit, a basket of freshly-baked sourdough, and an entire fridge stocked with fresh juice and Australian wines. The elegant interiors, decorated with paintings of patriarch and artist Allan Wolf-Tasker, create an appealing lived-in quality that encourage you to curl up with a book in your pyjamas. That was precisely what was on our agenda given that everything we needed to stay in and feel at home was in place.
A work in progress, as the owners husband-and-wife Alla and Allan describe it, the Lake House, feels more like an elegant country home than a hotel, testament to the warmth of the family who built this charming property in stages. It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that they put Daylesford, a spa town just an hour’s drive from Melbourne, on the culinary traveller’s map. When they arrived in the Eighties, it was far from the gourmand’s paradise it is today—a journey that Alla details in her latest tome, Three Decades On: Lake House and Daylesford.
The transformation has a lot to do with Alla herself, a bespectacled, larger-than-life character and celebrated Australian chef who pioneered a pivot to regional dining and who is a strong advocate for sustainable farming in the region.
The restaurant has been the longest feature of the Lake House, a property part of the Luxury Lodges of Australia portfolio, remains its beating heart. It continues Alla’s vision of championing local and seasonal cuisine, something that seems de rigeur today but was extraordinary when she began cooking over 30 years ago. Larissa Wolf-Tasker, daughter of the proprietors, talked to us about the recent mushroom harvest and what else we might expect for dinner that evening. From a casual discussion on the menu, the conversation drifted to our personal travels and mutual love for dogs. Pleasant, genuine encounters such as this were a constant over the course of our stay, another reminder of personal touches that set Lake House apart.
Contrary to the room’s homely flavour, the multi-awarded restaurant proffers a more sophisticated ambience. The guiding ethos of seasonality and the use of local produce was evident in every dish, which also included a sprinkling of international influences. The winter tasting menu began with a Kangaroo flaxseed sandwich with Trewhella farm mountain pepper and progressed to the much-awaited dish of Forest Mushrooms, a medley of earthiness that beautifully encapsulated the season. Another highlight was the fork-tender ballotine of Milking Yard Farm chicken, which was accompanied by winter salsa verde, black barley and jus gras. Comforting, familiar and thoroughly elevated—it pretty much sums up Lake House on a plate.
ANANTARA PEACE HAVEN TANGALLE RESORT
Like a shadow out of the past, Ranji the fisherman rounded the bend of the stream in his small, wooden catamaran—its blue timber frame faded and cracked from countless days in the sun and Indian Ocean. With slow, methodical strokes, he dipped his oar in and out of the sun-dappled water, coming eventually to a gentle gliding stop by the edge of the stream where we waited.
He stood, elegantly dapper in a white tee-shirt and blue sarong, and clasped his hands in the traditional Sri Lankan greeting. “Ayubowan.” Our chef clambered down the dirt slope to inspect the flat woven straw basket sitting on the bow. Filled with the day’s catch, sunlight glinted off the scales of mullet and sardines, while gleaming calamari slipped beneath a baby yellow fin tuna and silvery mackerel.
“What would you like for lunch?” the chef asked. Later, we would reflect that in a world so intent on rushing headlong into tomorrow, there was something to be said for a moment when one is forced to pause and seriously consider such a quotidian question. What would you like for lunch?
The greatest surprise was that we weren’t marveling at our good fortune in some remote Sri Lankan fishing village. Instead, the setting was the Anantara Peace Haven, a green-clad 152-room five-star resort that’s framed by the wild surfed coastline of Tangalle, a three-and-a-half hour drive south of the capital, Colombo.
Here, on the south-west corner of the property, framed by a bijou stream lined with mangrove trees, is a sliver of edible Eden where a checkerboard of red rice paddies is outlined by a small organic garden that fairly
bristles with okra, brinjal, cassava, bottlegourds, chillies, dragonfruits and bananas.
The garden supplies around a quarter of the resort’s ingredients, but for a literal farm-totable experience, guests can book a bespoke, seasonal lunch in the adjacent two-storey treehouse dining room built of cinnamon timber. A few steps away is a coconut leafthatched kitchen made of straw, clay and packed earth. Inside, a small army of whitesmocked chefs busied themselves preparing the Harvest Table, the Anantara’s answer to an escapist lunch conceived of produce pulled straight from the earth an hour earlier.
And if the setting was rustic, the presentation and preparation of each dish was decidedly city-slick—slivers of beetroot paired with baby corn and a buffalo curd and mustard dressing; grilled aubergine and shards of snake gourd draped in a coriander-lime vinaigrette; perfectly grilled fish; an ochre-hued pumpkin curry and red rice pilaf; and, to finish, a rolled pancake stuffed with caramalised coconut and mango drizzled with amber jaggery syrup.
It was, hands-down, the most memorable meal of the year. The cause was aided by, we decided, a certain bucolic thrill about watching the world go by—specifically, of bluefeathered ducks waddling through rice fields, and spotted doves cooing in the branches— all while sipping 2017 Yalumba organic chardonnay.
Ross Sanders, the Anantara’s general manager, is justly proud of the Harvest Table, an experience that could so easily slip into kitsch were it not for the genuine working farm, alongside the commitment to good food in a sustainable, eco-friendly setting. “It’s is about cooking the freshest organic produce in the heart of the resort’s farmland,” he says simply. “And that’s what it’s all about— discovering that hyperlocal spirit of people, traditions, cuisine and place that cannot be replicated elsewhere.” We’re sold.
PRETTY IN PORTUGAL The Six Senses Douro Valley is a feast for the eyes, from the azulejo-clad walls to the contemporary detailing throughout the hotel
MIST OPPORTUNITIES The idyllic surroundings of the Lake House in Daylesford is a gourmand’s paradise
EDIBLE EDEN Organic produce is grown on the grounds of Anantara Peace Haven Tangalle Resort, where guests enjoy a literal farm-totable experience