Thursday, 27 December 2012

...Europe (The Last Suppers)

A snowy Prague
Another day, another sodding Christmas market. Finn swore it was the last one in - where was it? Bratislava? Vienna? Budapest? Who knows? We're moving so quickly through European capitals that they are becoming a blur of twinkly lights, crooning versions of Christmas songs and the aforementioned markets. Anyway, the last market in wherever it was was 'the last one'. But it's sooooo cold and our stomachs, immune to Christmas overload, are crying out for meat and gluhwein. Well at least we're in the right places then. Prague fed us smokey 'old-Prague ham', in Budapest we had potato dumplings with sausage and doughy pancakes with cheese and ham (and Finn got his hands warmed by the overly friendly waitress), and in Bratislava we munched down fried potato cakes smothered with sour sheep's cheese. The Christmas markets in these cities have given us the opportunity to try local specialities (I use that word loosely but there were lots of locals eating at them too), warmed us up and saved us money.

A sign in the Christmas market
It was only in Vienna where we fought back. Mainly because it was this-has-gone-beyond-a-joke cold, we simply had to get indoors and warm up. We made our way to Hotel Sacher and joined the queue of other tourists (an elderly English gent in tweed seemed rather disappointed when he discovered that there wasn't a local to be seen there). Hotel Sacher prides itself on reproducing Sacher-torte to the original recipe which was created in 1832 by a 16 year old apprentice chef for Terribly Important People. The Sacher-torte is essentially a chocolate cake sandwiched together with apricot jam and covered in chocolate icing. We ordered a wedge of the stuff which arrived with cream. It is a lovely cake - baked perfectly. However, I found it to be a little too perfect and not very exciting. Which is how I could sum up my feelings about Vienna really. I would be happier with a Sara Lee chocolate gatuax (and richer for it). I guess by that reckoning I'd also be happier having a weekend in Blackpool than in Vienna.

Coming back into Eastern and Central Europe we have been shocked by the endless glowing signs advertising Tescos, McDonalds, KFC, Starbucks, Subway... The usual suspects. I hadn't realised it before but Italy really has done a good job of fighting them off. Thankfully, the smaller capitals we've visited seem to be alive with independent coffee shops. Bratislava in particular had some lovely places to while away snowy afternoons. In the Next Apache we lounged on a regal looking sofa and flicked through old copies of the New Yorker and felt very bohemian. Until we put our anoraks back on.

Finn being all regal in the Next Apache cafe
It was also rather wonderful to be in an environment that hadn't been 'Ikea-ised' (if it wasn't already a term, it is now). In one place we noticed a sign printed on the door telling customers that it was free from Ikea furniture. Unfortunately it was closed but it got our pulse rates up at the idea there might be such a movement. However, after some 'research' I have been unable to find out anything more and have instead boosted Ikea's search results. But it is reassuring to know that people are fighting this dull uniformity.

In Berlin we got all excited about going to the Museum of Currywurst where for €11 we could 'relax on a hot dog sofa' or experience what it's like to 'work in a hot dog van'. However, after reading such shocking reviews online we settled for a tray of currywurst and chips, all smothered in ketchup, curry powder and paprika. Job done.

Chips and Currywurst
Our final stop in Paris generally involved drinking copious amounts of red wine with friends we met in Kashgar. Nicely hungover, we boarded the train that would speed us back to our beloved London.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

...Slovenia (Horses and Hostesses)

I did not imagine for one second that I would be doing another blog entry about eating horse. Then again I didn't imagine we'd still be travelling. But here we are and there are horses to be eaten.

Within 2 hours of arriving in Slovenia, we had filled up on lovely borek (with pizza filling! The ultimate fusion food!) and smoked a shisha. It is good to be back in Eastern Europe. Excitement reached fever pitch when we discovered there was a burger chain called 'Hot Horse' which served, yes! Horse burgers! However, the experience was rather disappointing so to make it more interesting Finn and I have come up with some horse-related puns to describe it. They are a little subtle so I have italicized them so you don't miss them.
The horse burger
We arrived in Ljubjana hungry. In fact, so hungry we could eat a horse! Ha! We weren't dettori-ed by the long walk there, nor did we bridle at the price. Neigh, it seemed very reasonable. We had to rein ourselves in otherwise we would've bought more than we could eat. The cashier behind the mane canter was very helpful and greeted us with a cheery "hay there!". He offered us ketchup, mayonnaise and other dressages to have on our burgers along with saddle such us lettuce and tomato. Finn looked at his burger and announced "cheval'll do nicely". I bit into mine. "What the fetlock is this? This isn't a fetlocking burger! Give me a proper fetlocking burger" I thought to myself, rather rudely. Surprisingly there was a shetland of people queuing (it must be a night-mare in the evening). My motto is neigh-ver say neigh-ver. However, on this occasion I say neigh-ver again. And that's the gospel hoof.

In a nutshell, it was a bit bland.

Thankfully, our experience of Slovenian food improved dramatically thanks to the wonderful Petra. We spent a weekend with Petra, her husband Bostjan and their two girls Lara (4) and Tajda (2) in their huge house just outside the capital (but far enough away to be in the proper Slovenian countryside). Petra was apologetic about our first meal as she'd promised the girls homemade pizza. However, this meant we got to taste her delicious pickled mushrooms, picked locally and watched as the girls stacked up our pizzas to resemble something Jackson Pollock would be proud of. 
The 'artists' at work on our pizzas
Though working as a lawyer, taking care of two young children and running a large house, Petra somehow found the time and energy to ensure we tasted traditional, home cooked, Slovenian food. A particular favourite was the pork preserved in mountains of its own fat. For a Sunday tea we spread the fat on brown bread and then layered thin slices of the pork (which had been soaked in water, salt and herbs and then cooked in a pan over an open fire) on top. The next morning, before venturing out into the snow, we ate eggs fried in the pork fat. 
The lovely Petra with the pork and pork fat
During our stay, we were invited to a neighbour's 80th birthday party. We were treated like royalty - if being treated like royalty is being taken out onto the patio for a shot of homemade blueberry brandy and being fed until we nearly burst. All the vegetables were homegrown and the desserts were all homemade. Our eyes lit up at the stack of baklava and we devoured potica, a bread with sweet walnut paste that's eaten on special occasions. We also tried Vatican Bread, a kind of fruit loaf that apparently you only make once in your life and divide the mixture to give to friends and family so that they can make their own. A kind of 'chain-bread' if you like. We spent an enjoyable but admittedly bizarre afternoon getting drunk on sour, Slovenian red wine that smelt of Stilton, watching people test their blood pressure (a machine was produced), avoiding being dragged onto a man's lap and being asked by the birthday girl if we could dance 'gangnam style'. We can't. And if she'd asked us a week ago we wouldn't have had a clue what she was talking about.

What a Slovenian 80th birthday party looks like!
Hmmm. I'm feeling a bit peckish. In fact, I'm feeling a bit Hungary! Onwards!

Thursday, 29 November 2012

...Italy (Never tell an Italian that their bread is rubbish)

Eating with new friends in Turin (shortly after ´bread-gate`)
There are millions of books waxing lyrical on Italian food and pages upon pages analysing 'why Italians love food'. Quite frankly, I've spent over two months in this country and I can't really say that Italians love food more than any other nation I've had the pleasure of eating in. And I include Briton in that. What I have observed and feel I can confidently say is Italians seem to take food and drink more seriously than most cultures. And I would like to use this post to illustrate this point. And tell you some other random stuff I discovered.

Firstly, the title of this blog refers to an occasion where Finn announced to a table of Italians that he thought that Italian bread wasn't very good. The jaws dropping around the table suggested he had made a big mistake. You do not criticise their food it would seem. When we later pointed out that someone at the table had agreed, we were told ´Yes but he can be a real sh*t sometimes`! Excuses and then recommendations were made for where to find 'good' bread. (We never found it).

In a small town near where we were staying in Emilia Romagna, we were advised that we could take any wild mushrooms we found to a man at the council offices who would identify them for us. If he wasn't available then the mayor could do it instead.

Wild mushrooms
When residents of Modena, a large town in the north famous for its Balsamic vinegar, heard the church bells warning of American bombers during World War Two, they fled with their cherished possessions including small kegs of the prized vinegar.

You can buy lasagne hot from vending machines (Finn thinks this says the opposite to my point about Italians being serious about food but to me, it suggests they think 'well if you want a cheap and quick fix then have a lasagne rather than a Mars bar).
Lasagne vending machines
To cook Florentine T-bone steak, you are advised by cook books to follow the rules of the 'Association of the Florentine T-bone Steak Academy'.

A sign in a Florentine butcher
You can buy dried pasta in vending machines.

Women in Umbria are advised to eat a chicken everyday for forty days after giving birth. In another region it's chickpeas.

Many bars do 'aperitivo' where you buy a drink and get access to a buffet. However, whereas in Britain we'd just get scotch eggs and sausage rolls (though I'm not complaining), here we tucked into plates of lasagne and pasta.

Good balsamic vinegar makes everything taste glorious. Including ice cream. And bland lasagne which is made even more tasteless by racist waiters.

This post is the last for Italy. It has been difficult to decide what I should write about as we really have eaten some very tasty things. Earl grey and chocolate ice cream, small calzones bursting with mozzarella and Parma ham, 50 year old balsamic vinegar, homemade cheese, a meal where every course was based on mushrooms, rich and thick hot chocolate. We've had memorable experiences too. Discovering the farm where we were working had a room where they made balsamic vinegar, dipping Tuscan biscuits into Cuban rum, learning how to make pasta, eating homemade pizza with a family on a Saturday night in their living room which they'd turned into a cinema for the night, having to describe to a table of new friends exactly how our meal tasted, cooking over an open fire, watching Finn's face slowly turn black from the squid-ink pasta he was eating. Italians (and ex-pats!), I am eternally grateful for what you have taught me about food and hope you will eventually forgive us for thinking (and telling you) your bread is a bit rubbish. But really, everything else is pretty frickin wonderful. Good job.

Making pasta

We've got three weeks until we catch our home-bound train from Paris. I guess we might as well go and see what they eat in Slovenia...

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

...Italy (The Sound of a Good Cheese)

There is a sharp intake of breath all around as the Italian gentleman in the white coat moves towards the shelf labeled 'Carlotta'. He lifts the 40kg golden cheese and taps it with his little silver hammer. "Tap tap", he knocks around the side, "Tap tap", he raps it on the top and the bottom. The cheese is placed back on the shelf and the sound of breath being released followed by a spontaneous round of applause from us spectators echoes around the vast hall. For the cheese has passed the test. It's a good 'un which is a relief as it belongs to the owner of the farm on which we are staying.

The Parmigiano Reggiano factory we are visiting is award winning and has been awarded gold status. This means that last year every cheese passed 'the hammer test' (when you consider they produce 12 cheeses a day, that's no mean feat). The white-coated official is listening for hollows in the cheese. Hollows suggest bad quality and less superior taste (but this is good for us because it means we can buy the rejects in Lidl at a reasonable price. Oh the shame!).

So how do you make an award-winning cheese? Firstly, the cows must be fed only hay otherwise the cheese won't bond. Milk taken in the evening sits in long troughs and is mixed with 'morning milk' the next day in a big copper vat where the 'cheese' drops to the bottom. After being 'blessed' (the sign of the cross is made in each vat) the rest of the milk is taken to be used for making ricotta (or to reduce swellings - you immerse the affected limb in a jug of the stuff!). The cheese is then wrapped in muslin and put into moulds. For the next 20 days the cheese sits in a salty bath (mmmmm salty bath). This causes a chemical reaction within the cheese that makes it easier to digest - you could give it to a baby and they could digest it, though you might want to grate it first (the cheese that is). After that the cheese sweats the last of the salt out in a Turkish bath (mmmmm salty, Turkish bath). It then sits in a large hall on a shelf to mature from anywhere between 12 and 52 months.

And here we are, back in the factory gazing at rows upon rows of glorious cheeses. We are taken to taste cheeses of different maturities which contort our faces to degrees a professional gurner* could only dream of. The cheeses are surprisingly sweet and are tasty on their own. The idea of biting into a lump of Lidl's parmesan is unthinkable (for a start it would probably break my teeth). But the Parmeggiano Reggiano is often served as a cheese in itself. With a drizzle of balsamic vinegar over the top. Bellissimo!

* if you are unfamiliar with this word it would be far more satisfying for you to google it rather than have me explain it. Trust me.

Friday, 5 October 2012

...Italy (Pig Cheeks)

(Apologies for the absence of photos, having a few technical problems. Just imagine my happy face with a big bowl of pasta and glass of red wine and you've pretty much got it).

On our last night in India, rather than be all reflective and stuff about our trip, I flicked through the Rome section of our guide book and did a little research on Roman delicacies. Sadly it would appear that things have moved on since Ceasar and co dined on dormouse stuffed with pork and rolled in poppy seeds. To my utter joy, I discovered a dish that combined tomato, pasta and that classic ingredient, pig cheeks. I immediately turned to Finn. 'WE CAN EAT PIIIIIG  CHEEEEKS IN ROME!!!  I LITERALLY CANNOT WAIT!!!'. I exclaimed in capital letters and lots of exclamation marks for, after all, I was exclaiming. He was somewhat surprised by my enthusiasm (we have a vague memory of me being vegetarian once) but I explained that for 20 whole frickin weeks of the year we have been denied pork due to the whims and fancies of various religions . Ten weeks of those were about to end and if there's one part of the pig I'd choose to eat after this porky drought, it'd be the fleshy cheek. In his sage-like way (no, no, not annoying at all), Finn calmly suggested I might be envisaging a rosy-cheeked cartoon pig (with a cartoon apple in its mouth). And, as usual, he was right. But I was still excited. Pig cheeks!

So we arrive in Rome and I cannot tell you how excited I am to be back in Europe mainly because a)the weather is like nowhere else, b) there are fewer things trying to bite me and c) no one stares at us which means I can wear clothes that suit the weather (but I'm still pretty modestly dressed compared to these European hussies! Ha ha!). Anyway. It is our second visit to Rome and we immediately know we've made the right decision to come back as we wander past shop windows stacked with fat sandwiches bursting with gloriousnessness. On our way to the hotel, I go into the train station to find an ATM and come out with a hot baguette oozing greasy slices of dark ham. We are however on a budget. And in that respect we are in the worst place in the world. Everywhere you turn there is something tempting you, dammit. At least, I think, I'm not on a diet. Thanks to ten weeks in India, I need to put some weight on.

So being on a budget, we have to limit ourselves to the odd restaurant visit. I find one with the pig cheeks dish (bucatini all'amatriciana) and we head there to find queues of locals. We get a table and experience the no-nonsense approach to dining that I've missed. What do you want to drink? What do you want to eat - pasta or soup? Within 2 minutes we have half a carafe of full-bodied red wine, within 10 minutes two bowls of pasta arrive. 'Ten minutes!' I hear you say. 'that's nothing! That's McDonald's speed!'. Well, what do you expect when you only have 5 options of pasta sauces, each comprising of a maximum 5 ingredients and the pasta is as al-dente as a tough old boot (though a classy one and one that you'd really like to just, you know, have a gnaw on because it looks soooo lovely)? And you can stop imagining a big flappy pig cheek. I counted no more than 4 slivers of fatty cheek and do you know what? That's all that was needed. Why oh why in the UK we insist on drowning food in meat is anyone's guess. Less is more! And the Italians know this and that's why the food in this country tastes so delicious and healthy. Shockingly, on our table there was no salt nor pepper and parmesan was not an option, it was a NECESSITY. The dish arrived simply smothered in the stuff. Of course it helps that the tomatoes and onions used in the sauce are local and have not travelled an obscene and totally unnecessary distance. And yes, the fact the pig clearly had an enjoyable life rolling around in meadows, taking long afternoon baths and rollerblading or whatever, makes a massive difference. But I can (and do) grow good tomatoes in my kitchen, I'm sure I can grow an onion and I have an amazing butcher round the corner which is admittedly so expensive, once a month we treat ourselves to 4 rashers of bacon. But the point is I don't need to use a lot of meat! It's so very obvious and wonderfully simple that I feel like an imbecile.  LESS IS MORE! Hooray! (Though perhaps different rules apply here when it comes to fake tan. Just an observation).

Sunday, 16 September 2012

...India (Journeys)

 On a train in the Rajasthani desert
At midnight, two hours into our train journey we were informed that the train had been diverted and was now hurtling 8 hours away from our destination. We quickly consulted our map and realised we could go to Varanasi instead. This added another 12 hours onto our journey but we both knew what the other was thinking. Twelve whole extra hours to enjoy the Indian train food experience.

It started as soon as we peeled ourselves from our grimey bunks. "Chai, chai, chai". There is no better way to wake up than with a cup of sugary chai served in a terracotta cup to be smashed out the window once empty. But what to have for breakfast? I was holding out for the 'bread-omlette' wallah (seller) but the samosa wallah beat him to it and we were soon eating hot potato samosas smothered in florescent pink ketchup.    

Finn tucking into another unhealthy breakfast
Next along was the coffee wallah, followed by the monkey-nut walllah and then the cucumber-chilli wallah. The procession continued with bananas, biscuits, slices of coconut, barbecued corn-on-the-cob, tomato soup (with croutons!), ice cream... Until lunchtime when the biryani wallah came along and we filled ourselves up on the greasy rice and sachets of hot Indian pickle. On another train journey we were surprised to find a man distributing business cards for a restaurant. Some clever so-and-so has had the brilliant idea of offering a food delivery service where you call up, order some tasty morsels which are delivered to you on your train at a designated station. Wonderful!

A vegetable biryani
Buses are not exempt from the procession of gourmet wallahs. Before a night bus into the Himalayas, we filled up on vegetable momo, plump Tibetan dumplings served with a hot chilli sauce (the best I've had were fried cheese and potato ones. Unbelievable). In a 4 hour traffic jam over a high mountain pass, chaat (snack) wallahs showed ingenuity by weaving between the vehicles offering fried corn and bhel puri (puffed rice with onion and a sweet sauce). Why doesn't this happen at home?!

Chaat wallahs on a Himalayan pass
Buses always stop at dhabas too, a cheap restaurant serving rice, dhal, curry and, of course, chai. Just what you need when an 8 hour journey in the mountains turns into a two day test of endurance. After travelling on buses for 8 months, a well positioned dhaba restores the faith of a lost soul who is beginning to tire of the seemingly endless road ahead and who begins to dream of a decent pillow and proper cup of tea. Well, almost.

A welcoming dhaba at the top of the pass
And yet it would appear this journey does have an end. This part anyway. After much soul searching we are heading back to Europe. An urge to do some work is driving us back west and quite frankly, we miss Europe. We plan to work on organic farms and hope to learn how to make among other things, honey, olive oil and the best goddam bolognese sauce you ever tasted. My next entry will be coming from the land of food and wine (ah wine! Sweet, sweet wine!). I thank you all from the bottom of my heart for taking the time to read my ramblings, let alone comment on them and email me! I will continue to tell anyone who will listen about what we ate but hopefully also a bit about what we made. I hope you will continue to join us as we start the last phase of our trip. That cup of tea will have to wait until Christmas. Itaaaaaly here we come!

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

...India (Five Cures for Homesickness)

Sun setting on the ex-British hill station town Shimla
Seven and a half months on the road begins to take its toll. So thank god for India which has the amazing ability to make one (well, me) homesick and at the same time offer 'cures' for said homesickness. Surprisingly, India is great for comfort food. When our tropical-ized bones rattled in the very British climate (i.e cold and damp) of the mountains, our bodies called for chicken curry and they were answered satisfactorily. Very satisfactorily. To the point where once again, I daydreamed about the actual number of our feathered friends I've consumed on this trip. Though they may no longer consider me a 'friend' I suppose. Where was I?

Rainy Shimla
In the ex-British hill station of Shimla, we sat on a bench eating local honey ice cream. If a food could capture an English summer's day (a rare non-rainy one that is) then this was it. It tasted of meadows, sun light breaking through trees and...hay fever. Really, it reminded me of my hay fever treatment which is akin to snorting a meadow. Still, as we sat in the damp cloud, like so many 'Britishers' before us we dreamt of 'home'.  Which was all golden and happy with an acoustic guitar soundtrack. Basically a mobile phone advert.

Another taste of home has come in the form of the utterly divine gulab jamun, a small ball of sponge cake drenched in butter and syrup. It is like treacle pudding and is at its absolute loveliness when served piping hot (sometimes I force myself to feel homesick so that I have an excuse to eat one). 

A sweet maker
While not quite a taste of home, there is one snack that I am considering exporting to Britain as it incorporates standard ingredients of British food - bread, potato and batter. To make bread pakora, take one slice of crappy white bread, cut into two triangles and fill with boiled potato. Dip into a spicy batter. Deep fry. Serve with ketchup. I had to try it, though perhaps having it for breakfast before a 13 hour bus journey wasn't one of my finest ideas.

Another unhealthy breakfast

And finally, cheese! In Rishikesh, we'd planned to do some meditation* (me with the aim of staying awake for the whole session). On an 'off day' we managed to score some cheddar cheese (one of the better legacies of the British empire). While enjoying a sandwich in our room, I looked over to the open door to see a figure. At first I assumed it was a stray dog but then I realised it was a huge bruiser of a monkey. Dear reader, I confess I shrieked! Finn assumed an ant had crawled onto my sandwich but then he too saw the beast, stood up, shrieked and fell back on the bed. I searched for something to throw and my gaze fell on the tin plate with my sandwich on. My sandwich! Could I sacrifice my cheese sandwich? No! Don't be ridiculous! By this time, undeterred by our shrieking, the monkey was eying up the room. AND MY SANDWICH! Thankfully, Finn had (unlike myself) pulled himself together and leapt up again, this time to bravely shut the door. Saved! I spent the next 5 minutes laughing and crying hysterically. I then finished my sandwich. The monkey returned later to wee on our balcony. I don't know what that means.

* In my third mediation session, I was overwhelmed by a vision so strong, it was like nothing I'd ever experienced before. A burger, to be precise, a Big Mac (I haven't eaten a Big Mac in about 20 years), came floating towards me out of the darkness. Aware that imagining a juicy beef burger in the middle of a meditation class in a Hindu ashram might not be appropriate, I tried to shake it off. But I couldn't! I could even taste the damn thing. And again, I am moved to write the sentence: I don't know what that means. Actually, what am I on about? It means I want a burger.