Archive for European Adventure

Tips for a Traveling Gourmand

Tips for a Traveling Gourmand

Weave a trip abroad around passion for food and you have quite an adventure on your hands. Dodge tourist traps, discover cultural experiences and taste the real foods of a country.

European travel is a food lovers dream come true. Italian wine, French cheese, Belgium chocolate; each country promises the best of so many foods. Farmers markets and gourmet shops are found in each city and town, and the world’s best restaurants crowd into these countries. A good meal is always nearby. With such an affinity for fine food, unfortunately the market for poorly made imitation goods and restaurants flourishes. With visitors from all over the world, many of Europe’s streets have become overrun with tourist restaurants and shops selling expensive and poorly made items. To avoid these misses, a little research goes a long way for a travelling gourmand. Here are some suggestions for traveling abroad with a food agenda.

1. Subscribe to travel newsletters. Fill your inbox with travel ideas and you’ll have a head start for the next trip you take. Most travel newsletters cover dining options and they tend to stray away from tourist spots. Subscribe to newsletters from Daily Candy Travel, Frommers, Smartertravel, Rick Steve’s Europe, and Travel Smart.

2. Use online guides. Chances are, where you are going, someone has traveled for food before. Reading online guides(and checking to make sure the suggestions are still around) is a good way to plan a foodie’s day. The New York Times has a series of articles covering 36 hours in many different European city’s which includes off the beaten path restaurants and dining spots. Bon Appetit and Gourmet have food focused guides on several cities, and the Travel and Leisure Food+Drink section is full of advice for travelling gourmands.

3. Take advice from other foodies. Forums on Chowhound and Slowtravel have comments and reviews of restaurants all over Europe. Ask questions on forums about specific cities or search posted information for advice from other travellers. It may take some time to do the research, but taking advice from those you have traveled before you will help unearth great places to try.

4. Book ahead. Make reservations, especially during the high tourist seasons. Walking into the charming restaurant you’ve researched may be disappointing when you find yourself being turned away from the full house.

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Many Europeans vacation during the summer, closing their restaurants for several weeks. Plan ahead to avoid disappointment.

5. Ask the locals. When dining out, ask the people around you for suggestions. Look for information at hostels and from your hotel concierge for nearby special places. Pick up a copy of the local community newspaper or stop into the tourism office for schedules of upcoming food events.

6. Look for locals tips. Belgium has Useit Maps, helpful maps with locals tips, published every year. In Italy you can pick up a copy of Osterie d’Italia for a comprehensive listing of local, sustainable restaurants. Tourism information guides walk through the trains outside of Budapest helping travelers. Seek out local advice and you will find the true food destinations.

7. When in doubt, stay away from fast food or expensive. Local specialties shouldn’t set you back too pretty of a penny.  Wander away from the tourist area and you will probably find the same items for less. Although sightseeing is important, these areas tend to be the touristy ones, so try and find some time to discover a more secluded area of your cities. These are the places you will stumble upon hidden gems.

Venetian farmer's market
Most European city’s have a farmer’s market to explore where you can try fruits, vegetables and local specialties.

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Following the sign of the snail

Following the sign of the snail

On a trip to Italia,  following the little snail symbol of Slow Food can land you in some of the most authentic  dining rooms in the country.

Slow Food

When traveling in Italy, Where to eat? can often be the hardest question. It is few and far between that you stumble upon the experiences romanticized in movies and books, where characters discover local trattorias happy to serve the secret, regional specialties for a minimal price. Even on the less traveled roads,  bright signs target tourists with special menus, serving American items at a high cost. Other restaurants offer guests menus labeled tipico, but the fare is often nothing more than Americanized Italian cuisine. Afraid that you’ve traveled to Italy, only to eat the same food served in the tourist traps of Little Italy, NYC, pick up a copy of  Slow Food’s Osterie d’Italia before you embark on your next trip Eastward. Using this guide to to plan out your meals will ensure you miss the overpriced tourists hangouts and get a true taste of Italy’s gastronomy.

Published every year in Italy, the Osterie d’Italia is a guide recommending many of the country’s most traditional restaurants. In 2007, the book was published in English as Osterie & Locande d’Italia, combing a region-by-region listing of both restaurants and lodgings. Instead of rating the most fashionable or avant garde restaurants, along the likes of the Zagat or Michelin guides, the book is produced following the guidelines of the Slow Food organization, which maintains “the responsibility to protect the heritage of food, tradition and culture.” The restaurants found in the Osterie are often the most simple you will eat at; this is a collection of unpretentious dining rooms, with chefs using local produce, serving local specialties. Find your way into these restaurants and you are sure to avoid the tourist menus, and really taste Italian cuisine. Be fair warned, the patrons are not likely to make substitutions for picky American eaters, the restaurants are not always centrally located, and the servers may not be as pleasant as those you’ll find in the Menu Americana spots. But if your heart is set on true Italian cuisine, this book, written by Italians for Italians, will be the best guide you can use to choose for you dining destinations.

In the heart of Tuscany, Montepulciano offers a few restaurants in the guide book, including favorite Osteria dell’ Acquacheta. In a simple dining room filled with travelers and locals alike, feast on Bistecca alla Fiorentina, the local specialty. The owner cuts the meat to order and presents each cut to the table before it is grilled on the wood fire. The portions are quite big(the smallest is a whopping 1500grams!) so if your appetite is a bit smaller, try one of the many pasta options. Homemade tagliatelle is tender, served with raw and cooked porcini mushrooms. And an excellent way to sample the local sheeps cheese is a dish of pecorino baked with sliced pears on top; the pear’s sweetness cuts some of the the sharpness of the cheese, a nice ending to the meal.

In Roma, slip away from the crowds and busy streets and tuck down the tiny side street of Via del Leone to find Matricianella. Reserve a table on the outdoor deck and listen to a street musician play the accordion as you sip one of the 600 national wines on the menu.  Start with fried artichokes or zucchini blossoms, whichever happen to be in season for your trip. For a pasta, try the northern staple of risotto with radicchio, creamy and surprisingly spicy. The braised chicken with truffles is flavorful, rolled around spinach, and full of aromatics. And a dessert of chocolate mousse is smooth, decadent and rich.

Tagliatelle with Porcini Mushrooms

Polenta and Squid in Ink at L'Anice Stellato in Venice

Along the canal’s of Venice you’ll find more than a few Slow Food bacari serving wine and cicheti, the region’s bite sized version of tapas. The guide also includes several restaurants offering some of the best seafood you’ll eat in Italy. Book a table in advance, especially during the summer months, reservations are hard to come by, especially a coveted table on the water. Avoid the very touristy areas of San Marco and San Polo and head to the Cannaregio district for dinner at L’Anice Stellato. Sample the fish with the misto di cichetti di pesce, a mixed plate of eel, sardines, and monkfish marinated in different ways. And the polenta with squid in ink sauce is a true Venetian classic, superbly prepared at the restaurant. In the Dorsoduro neighborhood, on the tiny street of Calle lunga San Barnaba, find Quattro Feri. A casual, bustling eatery, you’ll be pleased with pasta with clams, grilled swordfish, and monkfish served with pesto. A plate of mixed grilled and marinated vegetables rounds out the meal.

Radicchio risotto at Matricianella in Rome

Mixed Vegetable Plate at Quattro Feri in Venice

Whether you are interested in eating every meal of traditional Italian cuisine or are just looking to escape one or two nights of the traveler crowded restaurants on the main piazzas, the Osterie & Locande d’Italia will steer you in the right direction. With helpful guidance, including location, operating hours, phone numbers, and local dishes to try, the book is a great resource to own, and to pass along to other travelers. And if you can’t manage to pick up a copy before you land on Italy’s shore’s, just look for the snail sticker on the doors, the seal of Slow Food, and you know you’ve found a good spot.

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La Vita Tuscana: Crema di Lemoncello

La Vita Tuscana: Crema di Lemoncello

Tuscany is sunny, tranquil, and the wind seems to blow life  around in a different sort of way. Spend a week or two in Montepulciano and you may have trouble leaving. A glass of cool, creamy Crema di Lemoncello, a local specialty, is the perfect way to cool down on a hot summer night.

Montepulciano LandscapeMontepulciano Landscape

Montepulciano is one of the rustic, hillside towns of Tuscany. Set in the heart of a prominent wine producing area, it is a region rich in culture, gastronomy and scenic views.  Days spent here are filled drinking the local Vino Nobile, eating steak Chianina and  walking around the walled city. On a hot summer night, a cool, glass of crema di lemoncello is a nice way to chill down. Usually a winter drink, the creamy liquor is a great way to enjoy the classic Italian Lemoncello drink. This recipe, given courtesy of local Nicla Bernardini of Belmondo Farm, is an easy way to enjoy the drink at home.

Lemon Zest soaking in Lemon PeelsMixing the liquor with the milk and sugar

Crema di Lemoncello
1000g Everclear or very strong, inexpensive vodka
10-15 lemons, organic (you can use a mixture of lemons and oranges if you prefer)
1000g whole milk
1200g white caster sugar
1 vanilla bean

1. Pour alcohol into a large vessel and zest lemon rinds into it. Let sit for at least 24 hours(pictured left).

2. In a medium sized, heavy bottomed sauce pan, bring milk to a simmer. Whisk in sugar and vanilla. Allow to cool completely and strain. Milk must be completely cooled or you risk it curdling when adding alcohol. If easier, do this step the day before as well.

3. Strain lemon zest from alcohol. Slowly add alcohol to milk, tasting for strength according to preference (pictured left). Make necessary adjustments with extra sugar as needed. Whisk to combine thoroughly. Pour into bottles and store. Serve chilled.

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Hop into Espana

Hop Into Espana
Just over Spain’s border, the city’s of San Sebastian and Barcelona offer visitors two views into a country rich in food, culture, and a spiced up life.

View from Mount Igedo

Bracelona Skyline

Hop over the French border into Spain and at either end of the Mediterranean country you’ll find two starkly different, brilliant examples of what Espana has to offer. On the Western side, lays the sleepy seaside town of San Sebastian, with charming medieval streets lined in tapas bars. The Eastern edge is home to the massive metropolitan of Barcelona, richly painted with the exuberant architecture of Gaudi, bustling with people and energy.With the wines, gastronomy, and culture of Spain rich in both areas, either end of the Northern tip of the country offers a city worth visiting.

San Sebastian is the quiet, seaside village to get carried away in for a lost weekend. The city is divided by the River Urumea, with several beautiful bridges crossing it. Gros on one side is the lesser traveled area and on the other is the historic area of Parte Vieja and the city center. During the day, walk down the famous La Concha Bay beach. Ride the funicular up to the top of Mount Igedo for impressive views of the bay and the city. Or spend a day surfing on Zurriola beach, across the bridge in Gros. Back down in the historic area, tour the Gothic church of San Vicente and the Baroque church of Santa Maria for examples of classic Spanish architecture. Further down, in the city center, you will find the impressive Neogothic Buen Pastor Cathedral. Walk around the shops selling local  of fresh fish, Jamon Iberco, and postcards with beautiful views of the city.

Tapas bars along the historic streets of San Sebastian

San Sebatsian Fish Market

After enjoying the walking sites San Sebastian has to offer, fill your appetite with the specialties of the area, pintxos and sangria. The streets of the historic center are lined with tapas bars. Walk in and order a glass of wine and a few tastings. Being choosy can have it’s benefits; there are many tapas bars and some of the selections are much better than others.  For pintxo typical of the area, prepared well, with moderate prices, Asdelena on Inigo Calle, is a wonderful place to try. Items offered include crispy fried frogs legs topped with fruit chutney and crunchy breads topped with spreads and fish, like tomatoes and anchovies or salty Jamon Iberico.  In the Gros area, Ramontxo is a hidden gem. Creamy risotto with foie gras is perfect, tender, rich and topped with a Parmesan tuille. The pintoxs here are a bit of avant garde in a town of rustic charm. Croquettes flecked with jamon are smooth and melt away in your mouth; you won’t be able to just eat one.

Frogs legs with Fruit ChutneyRisotto

Filled with bustling people, the bright colored architecture of Gaudi and many busy markets, Barcelona is a loud, vibrant world. With so much to do in this metropolitan, you need more than a sleepy weekend to conquer the city. A well chosen foodie agenda makes the city a bit more manageable. A visit to Barcelona isn’t complete without a stop at the famous, and quite loud and pedestrian overrun, Las Ramblas. Start at the pretty fountains at Plaza de Catalunya. Walk along the boisterous avenue, passing by the odd vendors selling live birds, rabbits, and fish, as well as streets performers dressed in vibrant costumes, and the many tourist shops selling postcards and key chains. Keep walking along, moving to the less crowded sidewalks if you can’t manage the masses along the main Avenue, until you reach Mercat Boqueria, one of Barcelona’s large and incredible markets. Inside vendors sell everything from fresh squeezed juices, fresh produce, fish, and meats. Stop and have a bite to eat at the very popular tapas spot, Bar Pinxto,  and relax for a minute amongst the crowds, with the tourists and locals alike.

 Mercat Boqueria

Blood Sausage topped with mushrooms and fried pepper

Leaving the market, head to the trendy Born neighborhood, full of shops, restaurants, and museums. A foodie’s trip to Barcelona must include an hour touring the Museum of Chocolate. Inside you will find a plethora of chocolate information about the history, growth, and taste of chocolate, all while nibbling on your ticket, a chocolate bar. The displays’ inside are incredible, chocolate models of Spanish bullfighter’s, cartoon characters, and famous religious statues. After the museum, walk to the Pesseig del Born, near the Mercat del Born, where a number of restaurants and tapas bars await. Casa Delfin offers a few great tastes, including blood sausage topped with creamy mushrooms and a delicious monkfish stew.

The city of Barcelona is painted bright by artist and architect Antoni Gaudi. The leader of the Spanish Art Nouveau movement, his work provides many of the cities most notable landmarks. A trip to the famous temple of La Sagrada Familia, or Gaudi’s other works such as Casa Mila, the Guell Palace, and  Casa Calvet show the intense depth of the artist. From bright colors, ornate sculpture, and organic structure, his work is unlike any other, and really makes the scenery of Barcelona unique. After a morning of Gaudi’s impressive art, take a stroll along Barcelona’s waterfront neighborhood of Barceloneta. At Salamanca Silvestre enjoy a wonderful meal sitting sea side. Start with a large plate of crispy fried calamari and green peppers, followed by the local specialty of seafood paella, accompanied by a cool white Spanish wine.

Gaudi BarcelonaCalamari and green peppers

Spending a few, well-chosen days in Espana, the city’s of San Sebastian and Barcelona offer visitors a mixture of food, culture and true Spanish life. Each supply a variety of activities, from beautiful beaches, wonderful foods, unique architecture, and lively culture. You’ve barely crossed the Northern border before you’ve hit these two meccas, but they both provide a great view of what Espana has to offer.

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Le Ferme de Montages

Le Ferme de Monatges

As the train pulled out from Bordeaux, we unloaded our lunch. Fresh chevre, salami purchased from the market we stumbled upon in Bordeaux, apricot jam, warm bread from the boulangerie, and crisp, red wine. As we began to eat slices of salami, cheese and bread, our French neighbors across the train asked, “ You are American? What kind of cheese is that?

“It is chevre, we made it on the farm we’ve been working on for the last few days,” we happily replied.

“Oh! That must be where you learned to eat,” our companions said, in all seriousness.

I couldn’t help but laugh. Eating cheese with jam is something so natural, and yet to this couple, it was a solely French way. With our cheese, salami, and wine, we were in France, living as the French do. Watching the rolling hills of France speed by as the train headed towards Spain,  our week as French goat farmers had come to an end just as we were becoming French to the French.

Goat in France

Cheese making france

Tucked away in the South west of France, 50 kilometers from the rustic town of Agen, we had found ourselves surrounded by vineyards and foie gras producers, on the Ferme de Montages in Lagraulet. Owned by Cyril and Ted Braam, the 20-acre goat farm is home to a herd of thirty five goats as well as chickens, sheep, dogs, and cats. With goat cheese production, chickens with eggs, and a vegetable garden full of tomatoes, potatoes, herbs, lettuce varieties, and beans, the farm is primarily self sustained. The family supports themselves from the trade of hard and soft rind goat cheese and barter for other farmer’s wares, affording them the simple French country lifestyle they are happy and comfortable with.

This is not the story tale of a farm passed down from generation to generation. The Braams’ moved to France over 30 years ago from Holland, changing their lifestyles from city goers to goat farmers. Once a photographer and marketing executive, the couple now continuously spend their time taking care of the big and little tasks necessary for a farm to function. Cyril makes fresh bread, tends to the vegetable garden, and does much of the heavy labor, making hay, firewood, and cleaning the grounds. Ted makes jams, preserves, and prepares the daily meals. She also cleans the cheese room daily and is responsible for selling the cheese at local markets.

The day always begins with milking the goats. The goats are called into the the stable to be fed and milked.  The only male, a thin, brown goat, whose long hair gives him a wise, ancient look, is tied up in the center of the stable.  The females are lured to their slots in the stable with feed of oats and grains. The milk is taken from each goat, relaxing the females,  and brought into the cheese room. Twice a week it is poured into the large kettle, where it is gently warmed and combined with rennet, yogurt, and whey. This is made into hard, pressed cheese. For the soft rind cheese, the milk is cooled and rennet, bacteria (penicillin, which causes the outer skin to form) and whey is added.

The goats are led back into the pastures to feed and the cheese making has begun. It is time for a simple French breakfast of coffee, fresh bread, jam, and butter. Afterward, the days work continues. The cheese room is cleaned; all the cheese is wiped with salt water and turned over. The chilled cheeses are turned over and their trays are cleaned. Work on the garden is done; plants are mulched, seedlings are replanted.  Wood is collected for firewood, repairs are made to the barn and stables. Fruit is collected and cleaned, jams are put on the fire to cook down into preserves. Once a week, Cyril takes the cheese to clients, selling for the week. Around midday there is another break and a larger meal. Simple salads of grated carrots or beets with vinaigrette or a creamy soup of garlic or tangy green tomatoes begins the meal. Hearty dishes of stewed goat with rice or potatoes with anchovies are the main dish. A dessert of tangy fromage blanc sweetened with sugar ends the main meal of the day.

In the afternoon the work continues. Bread is baked and cheese making is finished. Hard cheese is pressed into molds, the whey is pushed out, and the cheese is weighed down. Soft cheese is scaled into molds and chilled. The goats are milked again in the early evening. On hot summer days, a fiesta is taken, a mid-day break. The couple enjoys a glass of locally made wine or a local French beer. Later in the evening, a simple meal of salad, cheese and bread will finish the day.

Farmhouse in FranceGoat Cheese Stall at Market

Life is simple on the farm; the cheese is made, the animals are taken care of and the garden is tended to. The work is hard and all consuming, but it is a satisfying, quiet way of life. Spend a week living this way; slow down the pace of life, but work hard, and experience France in a way no hotel could show or website could suggest. Form relationships with real people living in France, travel to small towns in tiny corners of France, away from the hustel and bustle of tourists and big cities. And eat bread with salami and cheese and jam. And be French with the French on a train speeding through France.

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Running Through Londontown and Grand Paris

Running Through Londontown and Grand Paris

This week has been a few quick days in London and Paris. After a stroll through the art exhibits of London’s Tate Modern, there was just enough time left for a wonderful lunch of smoked eel, ox hearts, and treacle pudding at St. John’s, creamy sheep’s milk cheese from Neal’s Yard Dairy, and a few good beers from Jersulem Tavern.

Ox Hearts at St JohnTreacle Pudding at St John's

Jumping on the Eurrorail in London, it was a fast train ride into France. The Paris day began with caffe and chocolate croissants and then a rainy trip to the Eiffel Tower. Nearby, the Marche du Pont de l’Alma is a weekly farmers market. Shoppers peruse a variety of produce including asparagus, tomatoes, strawberries, figs, and cherries, as well as fish, fresh cheese, pasta, and meats. Vendors sell sandwhiches, pastries, and crepes to customers hungerly waiting in line for their goods.

Paris Farmer's Market

Fish at the Paris train station

Of course, the best part of Paris is the macarons! There is Laduree on the Champs Elysées  with Baba Rum, Caramel Mille Fuille, and chocolate, coffee, pistachio and raspberry macarons. Creamy fillings, sweet whipped creams, and boozy pastries; this pastry house is well known for a reason, everything is divine. At Rue Bonaparte there is the Pierre Herme shop and more macarons, passion fruit, olive oil, cassis, and caramel. The cassis sublime, light as air; the passion fruit were tart and rich. After a day spent walking throughout Paris, a stop in a cafe for Kronenbourgs and jambon de burre sandwiches is the perfect ending. A quick run through two of Europe’s great food cities, still worth every bite! Cheers until next week when it will be goat cheese making on a farm in Agen, France!

Laduree PastryPierre Herme Macarons

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Spending some time The Fat Duck

Spending some time The Fat Duck

The Fat Duck

This week I’m at the Fat Duck. It’s an exciting, educational and awe inspiring experience. I have met chefs from all over the world; New Zealand, England, Ireland, Canada, and Argentina. There is an Australian who spends his days testing experimental recipes, an Italian chocolatier who looks like a mad scientist dressed in his lab coat holding a chocolate spray gun, and the most talented and educated chef I have yet to meet, ironically, from Los Angeles.  During my day spent in observation of the restaurant’s service, I desperately wished to morph into a fly on the wall; the tiny kitchen barely had enough extra space for my pinky finger. Oh but how the chefs work with finesee and talent, in such a small space they are able to create such beauty. Already I have seen and learned so much. I have made ice cream and sorbet, wrapped loads of caramels in edible wrappers, and watched how the lightest chocolates imaginable are made. Everything here is created with a bit of whimsy, as though it’s meant to bring out the inner child in each guest. And yet, as much as I believed I was a stickler for attention to detail, nothing I have ever experienced comes close to the intense level of standards that are upheld here. With three days left, my week is only half over, and it’s truly is rounding out to be an unforgettable time. Cheers until next week when I will be at another amazing point along the road of my European adventure!

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