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Coconut and Lime cake

Once upon a time we lived in a house on stilts. We had nothing to put in it, but the rooms did not hum with loneliness. We had no reason to leave it, but we did not go mad with boredom. We did not belong to this house or the country it was in, but we never doubted that we still belonged to each other.

From the deck of the house, at its tallest point, we watched the changing face of the ocean and the rhythms of the land. We learnt nature never did anything without fair warning. The wind would dictate the waves, the likeliness of a storm and the intensity of the day’s heat. The bats would follow the setting sun; the kookaburras would herald the dawn.

And from our bed we could see the moon rise.

Beneath the house was a garden. We rarely ventured into the garden at first. It was a thick green place where leaves rustled and twigs snapped but we could never see by what. We always imagined snakes, and giant lizards. One day we saw both.

Then we discovered the fruit tree, branches bending beneath the weight of tens of dozens of ripe fruit. The ground was covered with the bright nuggets which had recently fallen and the insects gorging themselves on what had already started to rot. Now we had a reason to brave the garden: now we had limes.

We had fresh lime juice with everything: fish, meat, fruit, rum, beer…and then one day we made a cake. This is probably the cake recipe I turn to most often, even these days where I rarely make cakes at all. I make it because it is easy, because people seem to like it, because it keeps well, because it’s moist.

But most of all I make it because it takes me back to our house on stilts. It takes me back to the garden, where I am standing with bare feet and a hoisted up skirt full of limes, and there is still salt in my hair and you are waving at me from up high with a smile on your lips and the sun in your eyes, and that is all we need.

Lime and Coconut Syrup Cake

Ingredients

Cake:
125g unsalted butter, at room temperature
One cup raw caster sugar
Two unwaxed limes, the finely grated zest of
Four eggs
Two cups desiccated coconut
One cup self-raising flour

Lime syrup:
One cup raw caster sugar
1/2 cup hot water
1/2 lime roughly chopped
Two tablespoons lime juice

Preheat oven to 160 degrees Celsius. Grease cake tin.

Cream butter, sugar and zest together until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, until incorporated. Fold in coconut and flour and mix until smooth. Spoon mixture into prepared tin and bake in oven for about 40 – 50 minutes or until gold and cooked when tested with a wooden skewer. Remove cake from the oven but leave in tin.

Place all syrup ingredients in a saucepan and stir over low heat until the sugar has dissolved. Increase heat and boil syrup for five minutes. Remove from heat and pour over the cake, a little at a time, to allow the syrup to soak in. Leave cake in tin overnight. After turning out serve with a dollop of thick cream or vanilla ice cream. Decorate with flower petals, or icing sugar, or both, or nothing.

P.S. Sometimes I put the mixture in a muffin tin lined with individual squares of baking paper for sweet little cakes.

(This cake is a variation of a recipe from the ABC Brisbane website which is a variation of a recipe by Annette Fear from The Spirit House, Yandina.)

I’ve been away for some time, I know. I’m sorry. This is really important to me and I will make more effort in the future.

It’s no excuse but…we had a baby! As for how I feel about her…well…for this I need the exact right words and none are good enough. Instead I shall have to borrow some from someone who borrowed them from someone else. Go here, you’ll have to read for a few minutes but you won’t mind, and you’ll know the bit when you get to it. Trust me, you’ll know.

They say that a baby changes your life, and while I would say that yes, it does do that and I think it should do that, I would also like to be more specific…

I was expecting sleepness nights, nappy changing, unwelcome advice, and a massive surge in LOVE, but I wasn’t expecting it to have such an impact on the way I ate.

In the beginning, there was morning sickness. Out went the vegetables, the evil evil evil green things that made me feel so ill I couldn’t walk past them in the supermarket. (No green smoothies were enjoyed during this time.) Out went healthy proteins like chicken and fish, and interesting grains, like quinoa and barley couscous. And out went water. I couldn’t even eat chocolate or cake. (That really hurt.)

And instead what I ate was – seriously – crisps. And chips. And houmous, salad and olive sandwiches on bread (white bread). I ate pork, particularly parma ham (this I feel is a good thing). I ate a lot of cheese (how I wanted to eat all the cheeses you aren’t supposed to have when pregnant). I was addicted to WINE GUMS – for heavens sake, I could not get behind the wheel of a car without a packet of sweets.

I couldn’t watch anyone cooking on television, I couldn’t read about food (turn the page, quick!), think about it, or cook it.

While I was already in love with our baby, this was also quite a sad time for me. I had lost my favourite hobby.

After about four months into being pregnant my tastes almost returned to what they were before, but not quite. Then, fast forward to baby being born (neatly avoiding any gory details) and you have breastfeeding. My oh my, I have never before in my life experienced hunger as I did when I began breastfeeding. Not even as a stoned teenager. I didn’t know I liked cream so much, especially at two in the morning. Or a couple of peanut butter and nutella sandwiches (highly recommended). And I didn’t know that cake would become a cornerstone of my social life once I had a baby. (You should have said! I’d have done this before!)

You can see how none of this makes for much inspiration for a food blog. I did nearly post my version of a good houmous pitta but thought better of it (it includes crispy lettuce, thinly sliced tomato and cucumber, olives and ham.)

Our daughter is now nearly eight months old and while I am still often ravenous from breastfeeding and I still enjoy cake with my new-found friends (whom I have affectionately termed ‘Baby Club’ and whose members are much, much braver than anyone in Fight Club) some of my old favourites are finding their way into my kitchen, along with a few more recent discoveries.

Anyway. I’m back with a classic: tiramisu, everyone’s favourite Italian dessert.

I’ve chosen tiramisu for a couple of reasons. Because it’s got nothing to do with babies (honestly, you could have got a post about sweet potato, butternut squash and red split pea mush) and because this is my dad’s recipe and my dad makes the best tiramisu in the world.

There is nothing like having a baby to crank up the love and respect you have for your own parents, so this one’s for you, mum and dad.

Cico’s Tiramisu

12 x Savoiardi sponge biscuits

1 cup VERY strong black coffee, unsweetened (I’m embarassed to admit that we used instant coffee because SOMEONE took the coffee machine to a certain music festival which is on this weekend. Don’t you do this.)

3 fresh free range eggs, separated, egg whites only (you can use the yolks to make a lovely carbonara)

4 tablespoons caster sugar

200g mascarpone cheese

2 shots Amaretto or Tia Maria

1 shot brandy

Lay biscuits in a serving dish.

Savoiardi biscuits

Lay Savoiardi biscuits in serving dish

Pour hot coffee evenly over biscuits. You don’t want any to look dry. Pour over your choice of alcohol. (I should add that this ratio of coffee and booze to biscuit and mascarpone will make for a punchy dessert, but that’s what you want. And if you don’t want that, then maybe make something else.)

Soaked biscuits

Soak biscuits in black coffee, Amaretto and brandy

Add the sugar to egg whites and whisk until firm, thick and velvety.

Add the mascarpone to the egg white and sugar mix. Don’t overmix but try to get rid of any lumps – aim for a smooth consistency.

Top the soaked biscuits with the mascarpone cheese/egg/sugar mixture.

Pop in fridge for at least an hour.

Before serving, grate dark chocolate or sieve real cocoa powder over the top.

Chocolate on tiramisu

Top tiramisu with chocolate

And there you have it. A recipe that has nothing to do with babies, for a dish that is completely unsuitable for babies and that even pregnant women aren’t allowed to eat. And as a result, a post that, in the end, isn’t really about babies at all. So nothing has changed.

Oops!

Oops!

As I sat shivering over my smoothie one morning early this winter I got to thinking there had to be a better way to enjoy fruit.

Through the weeks that followed I experimented using fresh and dried fruit in different ways, sweet and savoury, and was more relieved than you could imagine to find it is possible to eat fruit during the colder months without having to put on a scarf or cuddle a radiator.

Here are a few of my favourites:

Grate apple into porridge, or if you’re feeling fancy, slice the apple and caramelise it in butter, honey and cinnamon. Or spread peanut butter on chunks of apple for a low-carb but energy-rich snack.

Add fresh chopped mango to a tofu and aubergine noodle salad and dried prunes to a spicy lamb tagine. Chopped dried organic apricots add a lovely sweetness and texture to couscous or quinoa salads, roasted chunks of oranges add colour and flavour to oven-roasted sausages and sweet potato, while thin slices of blood oranges make the perfect winter salad when combined with slithers of red onion, chopped parsley and whole black olives.

Soak dried prunes overnight with one Earl Grey teabag, a cup of boiling hot water and a teaspoon of vanilla – I have yet to find someone who does not like dried prunes like this – and have them the next day with natural yoghurt or on top of porridge. Lemon juice squeezed onto salads, last thing in an Indian curry and replaced with lime for Asian curries. Fresh pineapple goes well thrown in last minute to a chicken and coconut curry or can be fried with slices of halloumi cheese and served with a dipping sauce of sweet chilli and lime. (Though pineapple it does not work in soup; I tried.)

I’ve found that using fruit in the winter just takes a little more thought and ironically just as I realised this the days started to tease themselves out a little. Bright green shoots began to break through the soil and the birds sang louder than ever. Spring is just around the corner.

What better way to welcome spring than by combining my winter fruit heroes – dried fruit – with a cake that could be enjoyed with a cup of tea in the garden.

This recipe is by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. The only changes I made were to soak the fruit first (the prunes were a little dry and shrivelled up) and to use a loaf tin. I’ll give you the instructions on how to soak the dried fruit first if you find your dried fruit is a little, er, too dry, or you can omit this stage and follow Hugh’s lead.

Chunky fig, apricot and prune cake

225g wholemeal or spelt flour

1 tsp baking powder

pinch of sea salt

150g each of stoned prunes, unsulphured apricots and figs

85g marmalade

the zest of one unwaxed orange and lemon

200g unsalted butter

200g light Muscadavo sugar

4 medium eggs

1 tsp allspice

1 tsp cinnamon (my addition)

If you are soaking the fruit follow the instructions on how to prepare below. Put about 100ml of apple juice and 100ml of water in a saucepan with a cinnamon stick, four cardamom pods, four cloves and a star anise. Bring to the boil, add the fruit. Turn the heat down to a simmer. Leave for 10-15 minutes until the fruit is plump. Take off heat and leave covered for 3-4 hours. Remove from liquid and let the fruit sit in a colander for another couple of hours so as much liquid as possible drains out. Then continue with the recipe.

Lightly grease a 20cm springform cake tin and line it with baking paper.

Put the flour, baking powder, salt and spice in a bowl and mix together.

Cut up the dried fruit. Remove the tough stalk on the fig (it looks a bit like a nipple!) and cut into six; cut the prunes and apricots into two or three chunky pieces. You can use clean kitchen scissors for this (it feels like cutting up jelly babies).

Combine the dried fruit – soaked or otherwise – with the marmalade (use a fork to loosen the marmalade first).

In another bowl, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Beat the eggs in one at a time, adding a spoonful of the spicy flour mix after every egg.

Fold in the remaining flour with a large metal spoon, then fold in the dried fruit and marmalade mix as lightly as possible. Don’t over mix; you want it just combined.

Spoon the mixture into your prepared tin and bake for 1 1/2 hours. Leave the cake to cool completely in the tin.

Hopefully, the fruit won’t have sunk to the bottom – this can happen with fruit cakes – I think if you don’t overmix it’s less likely to. I loved the spices and the subtle citrus flavours in this cake, and the wholemeal flour doesn’t feel too heavy. The cake lasts for a while without feeling stale, but if you have any left Hugh recommends frying slices in butter and topping with ice-cream.

However you eat it, try to make sure it’s outside. Scarves optional. Flowers not.

It is said that you should never discuss politics or religion at the table.  Well, it is almost impossible to avoid the latter of these topics if you go out for lunch after listening to Alain de Botton talk about his new book, Religion for Atheists.

In his book, de Botton begins with the premise that there is no God, but that even so, our society could learn a lot from religion. He discusses the value of rituals, (purposeful) art and community, amongst other things, which are plentiful in organised religion and which all have benefits that non-believers may be missing out on. He believes that there might be ways in which people can enjoy aspects of religion without having to sign up to God as well; he calls it ‘cherry-picking’.

Whatever you call it (and his book has invited some strong reactions) it made a lot of sense to me. Raised as a Catholic, I am now a questioning and uncertain adult. I find it hard to swallow much of what the religion of my childhood dictates – especially the way it regards women and seeks to give easy answers to difficult questions.

But, I still get the shivers when I go into a church and I still go into churches, especially when I am seeking solace; I just make sure they are empty. I also love religious art. And there is a part of me that misses the ritual of going to church with my family (though I suspect that may be as much about lunch that followed).

That Sunday in London’s Conway Hall (a place which has seen much debate and discussion of ideas over the years) De Botton made sense of all of this for me. And, as with his writing, listening to him speak is a bit like being in the company of your wisest friend.

Have a look here for an intervew with Alain de Botton from The Guardian and more on Religion for Atheists.

After the talk we wove our way through the streets of the city until we found ourselves in the seedy backstreets of Soho, looking out for a place that I’d been reading a lot about recently.

Polpo calls itself a ‘bacaro’ (think Venetian style tapas). It is the brainchild of Russell Norman, ‘pioneer of the recession-era restaurant’ who I think might just be the smartest man on the London restaurant scene today.

My very first post for this blog was after a trip to Venice and in it I describe our struggle to find genuine Italian food. I would have been overjoyed to find somewhere like Polpo in Venice, and looking back now, the best place we ate in Venice reminds me of Polpo.

As we approached, we spotted a blue plaque high on the outside wall, commemorating the fact that the Venetian artist Canaletto once lived in this building. Design or happy accident, this was a blessing from above if ever there was one.

With low lighting, exposed brickwork, and lots of raw wood Polpo feels a little dark, a little edgy, supremely confident. But not so much that it was awkward. Lots of different people were eating from the cool kids to a couple with a baby to whole families. We sat at the bar, drank red wine out of little glasses. The menus were on brown paper, the font faded. Like a treasure map.

And the food…

Cuttlefish and squid ink risotto, which managed to distill the essence of the streets of Soho and of Venice: complex, musty and intense.

Moscardini, tiny little squid marinated in olive oil, red chilli, fennel seeds, whole peppercorns, garlic and fresh oregano. The oil was so good that we panicked at the thought of leaving any and ordered some grilled focaccia so we could mop up every last bit.

We tried the chiceti: mozzarella, proscuitto and basil on grilled bread, arancini, and fennel salami and pickled radicchio grissino. I couldn’t be too impressed by the grissino wrapped in salami; my sisters and I used to do the same thing with salami and prosciutto when we were kids. We thought it was our invention!

For dessert, a tiramisu, small and perfectly formed.

It wasn’t perfect – a couple of dishes had things missing (no gremolata with the risotto, no pickled radicchio with the grissino) but it’s a measure of the taste and presentation of the food that we didn’t notice until we’d cleared our plates and I looked at the menu again.

While prosciutto and red wine goes some way in making me feel that all is right in the world, lunch at Polpo left me with yet another existential question: when are we coming back?

Some days, it snows. And you’re cold and grumpy and you miss lunch, and you end up in the pub around the corner standing with your back next to the wildest roaring fire you’ve ever shared a room with and there’s half a pint of fruity local ale in one hand and a bag of salted crisps in the other, and you’re staring out of the window watching the sunset turn the snow pink and listening to the drunk posh girls in dirty wellies talk too loudly and wondering why you get so much pleasure out of the fact that the carpet is faded in a certain way and then slowly, something shifts and everything starts to look alright again.

Other days, it snows. And you make caldo verde.

Caldo verde

You need potatoes, onion, garlic, chorizo, kale and olive oil.

Peel and chop potatoes and onion, add two peeled whole garlic cloves and enough water to cover. Boil until tender.

Remove the vegatables and use a mouli if you have one or just a potato masher to mash the potato, onion and garlic mix.

Add more water, or stock, and return the mash mixture to the pot.

Add the chorizo, sliced, and the kale, very thinly sliced. Bring to the boil and simmer for 15 minutes.

Serve with extra virgin olive oil swirled on the top.

You could make this vegetarian by replacing the chorizo with some chunky beans. Either way, why not try serving with an additional squeeze of lemon and a dollop of good chilli sauce, and some warm bread and cheese on the side, and maybe a glass of red wine, and let the cold try and get you then. Just watch it try.

 

The Guardian describes it as ‘lemon-yellow,’ but I thought it had more of a sickly peach-pink hue to it…although, my eyes could have been deceived by the fading autumnal light bouncing off the ocean at the bottom of the cliff, and the promise of seeing the mermaid of Zennor, so lovely was the sunset.

Another explanation is that the walls may have been recently painted; but who would choose pastels for the exterior of a pub?

While the colour may not be easy to agree on the one thing that cannot be argued is that the Gurnard’s Head in Zennor knows exactly what it is doing when it comes to food.

And confidence in the kitchen is not something that I gave much thought to until recently.

It all started at another pub which shall remain nameless (a clue: it was green). I had read a review by one of the broadsheets which recommended said pub for its atmosphere and food and so we went for dinner when we were in the area.

As soon as we walked in I had the feeling we were going to be disappointed. I don’t know what did it, but bearing in mind that employers allegedly decide on the suitability of an interview candidate in the first three minutes and the way we talk about our ‘first instinct’ when meeting new people, perhaps it is no surprise that we will have a strong sense of a place the instant we walk through its doors.

Red carnations on cluttered tables. The manager, who veered from distracted to smug. The young waitress, so eager to please and inexperienced. She looked terrified every time she approached our table. For my part, I was terrified of inadvertently terrifying her (despite knowing that I wouldn’t, couldn’t; having waitressed before) and thus decorated every interaction with her with an exhausting amount of smiles.

The menu promised fancy food at fancy prices: orchid crème brûlée for £6, anyone? Anyone? ANYONE?

I feared that this place would not be able to live up to its promise.

And it didn’t.

The rosemary bread didn’t taste of rosemary at all. It was just sad white bread that, never mind the rosemary, could have done with some salt.

My starters, prawns with an Asian-style vinaigrette, were fine, and came served on a piece of slate. I appreciate that this is ‘rustic’. But a juicy, messy dish dripping with liquid on a piece of slate does not go well with starched white tablecloths. The stains appeared the moment the dish was placed on the table. No wonder the waitress was terrified.

The rest of the food was ok. Just ok, and mostly forgettable (I have actually forgotten what I ate, which is unheard of for me).

The worst thing for me was the fact that from where I was sitting, I could see over my partner’s head through the dining room window into the kitchen, and the chefs at work.

I know there is a bit of a trend for open-plan kitchens or being able to see directly into the kitchen, (can we blame Jamie Oliver for this?) and it was fun at first but I find now I actually try to avoid looking into the kitchen in case I see something I don’t want to see. A drop of sweat escape a steamy brow. A finger up a tickly nose. A loss of temper. You see what I mean?

Bring back the magic, I say. I want to hear the fluster and flurry of a kitchen only when the door to the dining room opens for a second. I don’t want to see chefs sweat and scowl over my food. I know it’s not real but I want to imagine singing chefs who love what they are doing and glow, not perspire, and have no facial hair…no hair at all, preferably.

I could almost start to think myself a bit over eating in pubs. And then we went to the Gurnard’s Head.

As soon as we walked in I knew we were in safe hands. Front of house polite, but not needy. Table settings minimal. We were tucked into a cosy corner of the bar, having come for an early dinner, and were a thoughtful distance away from a family with a grizzly baby. I couldn’t see the kitchen. The menu was sparse, pithy: ‘leave the details to us’ it said. The food sublime and served on plates. And cheaper.

The homemade bread, white and brown, was perfectly seasoned, with butter at room temperature so that you didn’t scalp the bread spreading it on.

My starter of scallop tortellini, cauliflower purée and crab sauce was so good I nearly ducked under the table to lick my plate clean.

My main: cod with pig’s trotter, galette potato, endive and gribiche sauce.

The cod was fresh and succulent, and all the trimmings perfect, though a little challenging for someone who isn’t that brave with meat as a rule (I’m thinking of you, pig’s trotter).

My partner had Cornish duck with truffade potatoes, braised cabbage and pumpkin purée that gave me dinner envy.

And then he nearly did it again with the peanut brittle and chocolate sorbet for dessert, but my fig and almond tart with honey and lavender ice-cream was equal to it: buttery pastry, sweet chewy crunchy fig. Delicate ice-cream, all very grown up.

There was so much I wanted to eat here it made me dizzy. And I left knowing what critics and food writers mean when they talk about competent cooking. I realised too, that confidence is as much a part of the eating out experience as atmosphere and food and setting because when you sense that confidence, you know you can relax – no encouraging smiles needed.

And that when you serve food this good, you can paint your walls any colour you damn well please.

Worth Flying For

I blame Simon & Garfunkel. If it wasn’t for the lyrics of America, I wouldn’t be considering spending nearly 24 hours on a bus to get from LA to Portland.

The friend I am visiting tries to put me off. She emails: “I would strongly advise against the bus…you would see an underbelly of American culture that would inspire a short story at best and probably psychologically scar you at worse.”

I do a bit of research into the reality of travelling by Greyhound bus and discover that ex-convicts and drug addicts are more likely companions than any ‘man in a gabardine suit’ and that lost luggage, thefts and seriously long delays are part of the package. Enough said.

A few weeks later I board a reasonably priced, clean and comfortable Air Alaska flight to Portland. No short story; but no scars either.

The thousand mile journey takes just over two hours but feels as though we have crossed over to another continent. As we break through clouds and begin our descent through sheets of drizzle, I am amazed at how relatively quickly fir trees and rivers have replaced palms and beaches.

Welcome to Portland: city of roses, America’s ‘new food Eden’ according to TIME magazine, or ‘Little Beirut’, if you are a member of George Bush senior’s staff. Whatever you want to call it, this is the most progressive city in America. Tucked up into the northwest corner of the USA, Portland got its name after a coin toss (the other name in the running was ‘Boston’) and its first inhabitants made their living from fishing, timber, farming and, thanks to its proximity to the Pacific Ocean and Columbia River, the transportation of goods. These days it remains a transport hub, as well as the HQ for many large American corporations such as Intel and Nike, but it is the edible, anti-establishment, environmental and independent Portland that I am most interested in.

Leaving the airport I head to where my friend is waiting; I note her winter coat and my lack of warm clothing. Happily, our first stop is a Swedish-inspired day spa in Hawthorne, a bohemian and artistic suburb in the south east of Portland. First, we stop at her house for the bikes.

Emily is a keen cyclist, as are many other inhabitants of Portland – ten times more people cycle to work here than in any other American city – but as she passes me a bike which is so tall that I have to stand on my tiptoes to reach the seat, she doesn’t seem to notice that I have gone a little pale. Perhaps she has forgotten the last time we were on bikes together, where I lost control and knocked her and her four-month old son off their bike and onto the road. I decide not to remind her.

We arrive without mishap at Löyly (2713 SE 21st Avenue) where physical stiffness and mental fog, the hangovers of a long haul flight, begin to lift and release. I make a mental note to get to a spa after every trip, forgetting I am not a celebrity, and enjoy the lavender homemade body salts and Kombucha tea on offer.

Leaving the spa, mellow and languid, I eye the bike with mistrust. The plan is to head north for dinner. I know that there is every chance that my cycling is going to deteriorate with alcohol in the mix so we agree to cycle there and walk back. I am hoping to get a cab, but it isn’t to be; we are after all in the greenest city in America.

The Whiskey Soda Lounge (3131 SE Division Street) serves aahaan kap klaem – Thai drinking food – and a drinks menu where bourbon with names like Steinbeck characters, bergamot-tea infused vodka and locally-made drinking vinegars replace ordinary cocktails and spirits. The service is casual but waiters don’t miss a trick. The decor is confident Asian-kitsch with the dim kind of lighting that is only polite in a bar and full of smells that make my mouth water and heart rush. Emily tells me that one dish, Ike’s Vietnamese fish sauce chicken wings, has won national awards, and we decide it would be extremely foolish not to give them a go.

Despite being part of a ‘family’ of restaurants, the Whiskey Soda Lounge has an identity all of its own. The food and drink is faultless. This independence and integrity is something I find in businesses all around Portland, but especially in the south-eastern suburbs where most are locally-owned and loyally supported by the community.

The next day begins with the crossing of one of Portland’s many bridges – by car, though the bus service is reliable and easy to get to grips with – which brings us closer to the city centre, and a breakfast of perfect coffee and an otherworldly cinnamon bun at a Portland institution: the Pearl Bakery (102 NW 9th).

In 1997, the Pearl Bakery was the first business to set up in a part of the city that was mostly warehousing, and its success began a process of invigoration for the area – hence the fact that now the entire district is named after the bakery.

Coffee, beer and books are major pastimes here. In the Pearl district you’ll find yet another of the city’s landmarks: Powell’s Bookstore at 1005 W Burnside (more on the beer later). Powell’s is the largest independent bookstore in the USA with over a million new, second-hand and rare books on its shelves. The shop is organised along a colour-coded map system to help you find your way around and as we enter its doors, aware of the weight of my luggage and my weakness for books, I make Emily swear not to let me buy anything.

After successfully avoiding any literary purchases we head out of the city centre for two up and coming hangouts: the districts of Mississippi Avenue and Alberta. Mississippi Avenue describes itself as ‘the most diverse neighbourhood in Oregon’, built on the cultures of Native American Indians, Germans, Scandinavians and African Americans. Most people seem to come here for the shopping though, and not the history lesson.

If you like a retail kick try Flutter (3948 N Mississippi Avenue) just one of several outlets for vintage clothes and quirky homewares, Bridge City Comics (3725 N Mississippi Avenue) for offbeat reading material, or get your pet back home a gift from Salty’s Dog & Cat Shop (4039 N Mississippi Avenue) – one of several pet boutiques I came across in the city, which went some way into making me feel better about the shockingly good taste that Portland consistently exhibited.

Slightly further afield is the Alberta Arts District, which runs along NE Alberta Street. It’s a less affluent area, but even more ethnically diverse, and is the place to go for music or arts and crafts. There is a free festival every last Thursday of the month (from May to September) as well as even more independent shops.

Visit Close Knit (the neighbourhood ‘yarn shop’) at 2140 NE Alberta Street and Bolt, a fabric boutique, just a few doors down at 2136. Despite the pet boutiques I have to accept that Portland does have more than its fair share of great places to eat and drink and shop, and I begin to feel inadequate and envious that I don’t live somewhere as good as this.

The last straw is dinner at Miss Delta (3950 N Mississippi Avenue), which takes me to the Deep South for blackened catfish and more kitsch decor, and I want to weep into my red beans and rice.

On my own the next day, I discover that once I get the hang of the way the streets are arranged, Portland is a gift not just to cyclists but also for those on foot. The city is split into north and south by Burnside Street, and other streets run the length and breadth of the city with compass points (NW, NE, SW or SE) on signs as well as names. When it gets too much, you can hop on a bus or the streetcar, and the latter is free in the city centre.

I walk north from Downtown and head for the Riverfront district, with a short stop at Lan Su, the Chinese garden (NW 3rd and Everett). This is the perfect place for time out. There are over 400 species of plants amongst the Chinese architecture and the garden has been planted so that whatever the season, something is always in bloom. After taking a tour with a guide wearing a yin/yang baseball cap, I shelter from a sudden hail shower in the garden’s Tower of Cosmic Reflections, where Portland-based tea merchants, the Tao of Tea, promote the ‘art and culture’ of the tea leaf.

The Riverfront district, when I get there, is desolate and industrial, not quite what I was expecting. Along NE Glisan Street I walk past a homeless shelter and project where people are queuing quietly. A homeless man dragging a bag greets me with a polite ‘hello’. If this is the grittiest Portland gets, then it’s fair to say I never felt threatened, only saddened. And then, in the midst of it, the Greyhound bus station.

I walk away and continue towards the north-west, a part of the city that I sense Emily disapproves of and I’m intrigued to know why. One word solves the mystery: Starbucks. I see the familiar logo as I make my way down 23rd Avenue, and then the others, MAC, Kiehl’s and Lush, all chains which are noticeably absent in the south-east where independence rules. There’s also the wider roads allowing for more traffic, the busy clip-clack of high heels and very little community feel. If this is the worst Portland can do, it’s really not that bad. However, I have been spoilt by the artisan bakeries and the quirky shops with their exposed warehouse ceilings, and so I jump on a streetcar for Downtown and some food cart action.

Food carts are essentially single units, manned by two or three people serving up fresh street food from cuisines as varied as Japanese to Mexican, and Korean to Hawaiian. I head straight for the Thai Nong Khao Mon Kai for chicken and rice not because I am decisive – the carts stretch for a whole city block wide and deep on 10th and Alder – but because it was listed in Gourmet.com’s top eight food carts in Portland. On the evening of my final day in Portland, after a day walking and counting waterfalls in the Columbia River Gorge national scenic area, Emily and I grab two bottles of locally-brewed ales and make our way to Mount Tabor Park.

They like beer here (and flat caps, beards and chequered shirts); Oregon ranks in the top five American states for number of breweries and craft beer consumption. You can even combine a drink with a movie at cinemas such as the Bagdad Theater and Pub at 3702 SE Hawthorne Blvd. Going to the pub to try some microbrews or watching a movie with a pint would have been easier than climbing to the top of an extinct volcano for a drink, but we are here because from the top of Mt Tabor you can see another volcano, the ‘potentially active’ Mount Hood.

We reach the summit with only enough light left to just make out the ghostly outline of the mountain. It’s simply the grandest thing I have ever seen. At over 11,000 feet Mount Hood is the tallest mountain in the state of Oregon and because it is so close to the city – only 50 miles out of Portland – it is a popular place to ski and hike. But we have come here just to gaze at it, and to have the kind of intimate, disjointed conversations that are only possible in the near-dark with someone who has known you since you were ten years old.

While we drink our beers and look over the lights of the city, I ask myself: why should anyone come to Portland? Portland isn’t flashy like Las Vegas, it isn’t sexy in the way of Los Angeles or even iconic like New York. It doesn’t have the cultural legacy, however tasteless, that so many people would fly halfway around the world to enjoy. But then I work out why it’s worth the trip.

Like Paul Simon, I too have been looking for America, and the hunt has taken me from the East coast to the West coast and several places in between. I have found America in turns edgy and disappointing, thrilling and empty, wild and scenic and vacuous and tacky. Here in Portland, I found the version of America that I like the best. Here, America has hope. And I would go for hope over Hollywood any day.