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Archive for the ‘Travels’ Category

Jamón

jamon2.jpgAn unfamiliar smell woke me up. My eyes opened and looked up at the white ceiling. Rich, yet delicate, the smell was sweet and savory at once. Peering around at my surroundings, I remembered that I was a stranger in an unfamiliar house.

Only hours before, I was crouched on a sunny corner in suburban Madrid, waiting for my host family to pick me up. Tired and queasy from several days of packing and planning, as well as my first overnight flight, I sat on the curb bent over, trying to relieve my sore stomach.

Elisa, all jutting angles and dangling cigarette, came to pick me up. This way to my house, she indicated. I silently nodded, grateful to be going anywhere. We wound through a tight maze of Madrid streets – alleys here, courtyards there. Eventually she buzzed her way into a tiny private street, lined with flowerpots and enclosed patios. At some point I was introduced to a more mature, stockier version of Elisa. Kisses were exchanged all around, and I was shuttled to the upstairs attic and a soft bed. Elisa disappeared, and I drifted off into a sun-filled, warm place.

As I stared at the ceiling, I thought about how difficult the coming weeks were going to be. My classroom Spanish was rudimentary at best, and I wasn’t quite sure why I spent my weekend-job money on a flight to a place so far away. More immediate than that, there was a woman downstairs cooking.

I looked at my watch. 4:30 p.m. Slowly I stood up and took in my surroundings. This room was an office of sorts – a desk, bookcases, some basic furniture, a plastic covered stationary bike – so familiar, yet so not. I walked over to investigate the books. Medical journals and texts in Spanish, I registered with surprised embarrassment. Yes, not everyone speaks English. I walked over to the dormer window in the attic, cranked it open and stuck my head out into the bright Spanish afternoon. Stretched out in front of me was a jumble of orange tiled roofs. The air smelled warm and clean, and dogs barked in the distance.

I was hungry, very hungry. Just how long can a girl pretend she’s asleep anyway? It was time to go downstairs and face Elisa’s mother. I smoothed my clothes and stretched out my limbs, before approaching the staircase downstairs.

Hola? I walked toward the kitchen, following the sounds of utensils clanging against metal pots, sizzling food and soap opera stars arguing fierce and fast. Elisa was gone. In her place, Elisa’s mother looked up at me and smiled. Lo siento, no hablo una palabra del ingles, she said. Please, sit down, she indicated towards the round wooden table. Spanish words were floating in my head, but somehow would not come to my tongue. I sat in silence, while this spirited, solid woman turned back to her hot stove, stirring her pans.

While the heroine on the screen leapt about in fury, cursing the grandchildren of the man who had scorned her, Elisa’s mother set a cool glass of water in front of me. Onto my round white plate she ladled a sticky rice studded with golden raisins, and a few black mounds, slowly leaking their inky sauce. Squid? My world back home was decorated with rows of Campbell’s Cream of Chicken Soup and boxes of Shake ‘N Bake. I formed my lips into a smile and waited for her to serve herself a plate. Together we sat in silence, television yammering in the background. I watched Elisa’s mother pick up her fork and eagerly attack her plate. Please, she said, nodding her heads towards my plate. I looked at the whole squid, blacker than anything I had ever eaten before, and dug in.

The following weeks bled together into a collage of sights and sounds. When I was presented with an unfamiliar food, I closed off my taste buds and quietly consumed. Back home, I prided myself on being the unpicky one – the one, unlike her brother, who would eat anything. Tortilla sandwiches, marinated anchovies sitting in a bed of bitter greens, pungent hard cheeses – I consumed all and tasted nothing.

One night several weeks later, Elisa and I returned home after a long day of cathedrals, museums and monuments. We entered the house, picking up the daily bread delivery sitting in the outside patio, and I followed her into the yellow light of the kitchen.

Elisa’s father greeted us both with a smile and a kiss on each cheek, his beard rough against my cheek. I mimicked her lead and slumped into a chair at the table. While Elisa explained away her adequate biology grade, I studied the kitchen. On the counter, a long, lumpy object sat covered with a checked dishcloth. My eyes traced the lines of the object, landing on the hoof peeking out at one end.

I looked around the table. Elisa was gesturing, imitating her teacher. While her brother buried his head in a comic book, Elisa’s mother pulled dishes down from the cabinets. Does no one else see this? There is a piece of a decapitated animal sitting on the kitchen counter, I thought in alarm, and no one seems to know it’s there.

To my horror, Elisa’s father rose from the table and approached the beast. In between comments about respect for authority, he drew a long knife out from a drawer underneath the counter and pulled back the dishcloth. As Elisa’s mother sliced the bread from outside, Elisa’s father began to rock the knife gently against a huge, exposed leg of pig. Pink ribbons peeled off the edge of his knife, landing into a rippling pool on the plate below. Gently he laid down his knife, and began to pile the ribbons onto the freshly cut bread. From the other end of the counter, he uncovered a gooey piece of cheese and began spooning a bit on top of the bread and meat. On top of all of this he drizzled a bit of olive oil from a pitcher sitting on the kitchen table.

Without a hint of hesistation, Elisa’s father dropped the plate in the middle of the table. The family leaned forward and began feasting. Elisa’s father eased into his chair, and while her mother removed her apron, he uncorked a bottle of opaque, purple wine. Salud, he said, and pushed a fat tumbler towards me. I looked at the hoof on the counter and back at the nearly translucent pieces of meat on the platter in front of me. I took a gulp of burning Spanish wine and reached towards the plate. In my hand was a perfect round of bread, moistened slightly with greenish oil, topped with those pink slices and oozing cheese. I closed my eyes and opened my mouth.

Quite simply, it was the best thing I’ve ever eaten.

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To Market, to Market

Now that I have a new Saturday gig selling Italian wines at a lovely shop near Union Square, it’s become my custom to loop through the farmers’ market on my way to work. As I described in an earlier post, these waning days of early autumn are surely the market’s best. When I take my leisurely morning stroll past the piles of pumpkins and potted mums, I’m reminded of the markets I visited this summer. It seems like every country has their own focus – hanging meats of every variety and cut in Spain, rows of glistening fish in Portugal – but no one masters nearly every category like the French. Perhaps one of the only countries in Europe to still rely upon the open air market for daily supplies of fresh bread, meat, cheese and produce, the markets I saw in Provence made all other farmer’s markets I’d seen up to that point look downright shoddy. Let’s face facts – the French know how to eat.

With wicker baskets in hand, local men and women milled through the markets with expert eyes, selecting perfectly ripe specimens of fruits and vegetables, while greeting the visiting farmers with a kiss on each cheek.  The markets in Provence also cover some territory that the USDA would surely gasp at – fresh cheese so young the whey is still running out of it, handmade cured sausages resting uncovered on trays, rotisserie chickens still spinning on portable spits, and fish laying out on beds of ice. Throw in an impromptu jazz band on the market’s outskirts, and you’ve got an entertaining walk through the bounty of France’s farms. Oh, and did I mention the perfect picnic lunch that can emerge from a quick peruse through the market?

I couldn’t decide which pictures to highlight, so here’s a much more entertaining journey through what I saw. (Thanks for the tech advice, Rita!)

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Lucca, we only just met

lucca-house5.jpg When I bought the Sunday Times today and was practicing my customary flip-through spot check to make sure that all sections were intact, the cover of the travel section suddenly looked very familiar — hey! I’ve been there! Apparently, I’m not the only one who’s onto the charms of Lucca, Italy. In today’s paper, food writer and minimalist Mark Bittman explores why Lucchese cuisine is richer and more deliciously complex than that of surrounding Tuscany. Bittman even dined at Trattoria Da Leo, where I also spent my first evening in Lucca, savoring rustic Chianti and tortelli e brodo and listening to Italian women at the next table profess their love for the most beautiful bambino the Lord ever created.; The food in Lucca is certainly rich, and wonderfully satisying in a simple, straightforward way. As for the town itself, from the quiet shuttered houses to the ornately carved churches, Lucca is quite simply, lovely.

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About two days into France, I realized why Marie Antoinette lost her head to the guillotine.

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The French simply cannot live without bread. The baguette appears like magic on the table during every meal – yesterday’s leftovers lightly toasted and spread with fresh butter and jam for breakfast, filled with meat and cheese for lunch, and sliced thinly, resting in a wicker basket at dinnertime.

French bakeries amaze me. Sure there’s steamy fresh loaves in the window early morning each day, but most bakeries fire up the ovens again just before dinnertime, so that workers on the way home can also purchase a warm, yeasty loaf. Some even squeeze in a third round somewhere between morning and evening. With all of this activity, the bread ovens in France seldom grow cold. Who needs plastic bags of Wonder Bread, when you rarely have to walk more than one or two blocks to purchase your warm baguette? Not to mention that the price is usually well under one euro. Maybe I should drop a suggestion note off to Balthazar in Soho, where a baguette baked earlier in the morning (and thus no longer toasty warm) costs about two dollars.

But back to my original point, I’m not sure what would happen if the bread supply in France suddenly dried up. Anarchy? Mayhem? Surely some sort of revolution would ensue, not unlike the first time around. Around 5 p.m. or so each afternoon, the wonderfully comforting smell of fresh bread begins to waft through the streets of France, and you can almost see the French noses turning slightly upwards as if to sniff out the nearest bakery. And besides the classic long baguette, bakeries peddle their product in shapes and forms of all kinds, in addition to sweet rolls and savory slices of homemade foccacia and pizza…a flour wonderland!

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When you purchase a baguette (or two or three), it’s generally handed over to you with just a small piece of paper wrapped around the middle for your hand to rest on. A good number of loaves don’t make it home intact, though. It’s a common sight indeed to see French citizens of all types, tearing off bits of bread and munching as they walk through the streets. In Nice, I passed a group of punk kids loitering on the sidewalk, dressed head to toe in black with sullen expressions to match, passing a baguette round. Somehow, I just can’t see that happening with a group of young American hooligans. Dude, I’m so over Cheetoes. Um, no.

But all of this leaves me with one last point. Dare I suggest to all of the carbophobes out there that perhaps bread does not make you fat? Given that we’ve already established that French women do not get fat, and I’ve seen many a French woman wolfing down whole baguettes, I think it’s finally time to welcome back bread to the American table. Atkins diet be gone!

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Spotted on a wall near the University in Parma…

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I’m not sure what it says, but I get the ‘boycott McDonald’s’ bit, and I’m assuming that the rest is the usual hoo-ha about animal rights, worker rights, and nutritional rights. From what I understand (and partly from what I observed) Europeans are in the midst of a new onslaught of obesity-related diseases, just like Americans. While their obesity rates are nowhere near ours, they are quickly growing. (Pun somewhat intended.) This is mainly due to an abandonment of traditional lifestyle and cuisine in favor of more American-style eating of processed foods on the go.

One interesting thing to think about is that America basically invented industrial agriculture. We also invented the official ‘organic’ movement, as a means to clearly label products that were grown outside of our conventional, pesticide-laden factory farming standards. While travelling through Europe, the organic label doesn’t exist so much. Some countries have their own words to indicate a naturally grown product, but chances are a lot of Europeans are still eating naturally, since most small family farmers don’t use pesticides, animal growth hormones/antibiotics and never have. That’s not radical, that’s just their tradition. You go to the market early in the morning, you purchase fresh bread, cheese, meat and produce from the actual artisan who made or grew your product. Of course, these traditional ways take time, not to mention cooking skills. Hence the emergence of indoor supermarkets and fast food chains.

I am encouraged, though, that with global organizations like Slow Food, young Europeans can be educated about simple, healthy, delicious eating. Each country has such a rich food tradition… it would be shameful to instead consume calorie-laden, nutritonally deficient food with roots no deeper than a good advertising campaign. The McDonald’s boycott is the first step!

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Long time, no post…

Blame it on the French. Not only are their internet cafes very expensive to use, but the keyboards are funky. Certain letters are rearranged, as well as other symbols like commas and apostrophes. While that may not sound so bad, it´s a big problem if you´re a fast typer that can type without looking at the keyboard. Basically, it reduces even the fastest typer to a two-finger pecker. Oy.

Anyway, though I´m in Barcelona now, I will try to play catch up for a bit… After leaving the Lucca/Florence area, I took the train north out of Tuscany towards Modena, which is in Emiligia-Romana. Modena is perhaps most famous for being home to the Ferrari factory, and of course, everyone’s favorite vinegar — balsamico di Modena. While I know I complained earlier about the hordes of tourists roaming the streets of Florence, Modena was the exact opposite. Since the heart of the old town is fairly small, there were not mant tourists at all, and nary an American. The setting is traditional Old World — winding alleys, arched porticos over wide sidewalks, and ancient churches scattered here and there, with one main cathedral…

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and a grand plaza in front of said cathedral…

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Someone told me in Florence that the further north you travel in Italy, the more European and more wealthy the citizens become. Definitely true. Modena is lined with lovely stores, none of which I could afford to enter. (It helps that Italian stores display price tags on the clothes in the window, which immediately lets you know if the store is in your league or not.) And besides Ferraris, the streets are lined with more than a few luxury cars. Come evening, since Modena is not so much a tourist destination, many restaurants close up shop, leaving cafes and pizza shops to choose from. So my first night in Modena, it was pizza and house wine. I forgot until the waiter plunked down the little quartino in front of me what house wine means in Emilia-Romanga — lambrusco! I know poor lambrusco has a not so great reputation in America, but truts me, it can be delicious! (Lambrusco is a type of red grape grown in Emilia-Romagna that is made into either dry or sweet wine that is slightly sparkling and served chilled. In other words, completely unique.) I once met a woman who described Lambrusco as the syrupy sweet plonk she and her friends would drink at the beach in the summer, in the same category as Blue Nun or Lancers. Personally, I think a dry Lambrusco is terrific in the summertime. Being that it´s red, it stands up to heartier food a bit better than most whites, but since it´s fizzy and cold, it´s very refreshing. And it goes great with pizza! And in Emiligia-Romana, it’s what most wine stores peddle.

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Modena is also where I discovered that Italians employ silverware in their pizza consumption. The small round pizza is served intact, with no precut slices, so you have to attack it yourself with knife and fork. Anyway, I think it was Edna Lewis who said in reference to pairing food and wine, “If it grows together, it goes together.” Europeans have had centuries to perfect their regional agriculture and winemaking. It sort of makes sense that regional food and wine tend to match together, since each has surely influenced the development of the other over the years. Hence that Lambrusco goes so well with pizza, as well as cheese and cured meats, which are both Northern Italian specialties.

Like most cities and towns in Europe, rather than rely upon a grocery store, there is generally a large open-air market. Open mornings only, the market in Modena offers the typical array of meats, cheese and seasonal produce, along with heaps of balsamic vinegar, fresh pasta and lambrusco. One thing did catch my eye, however. At the Arthus Schwartz talk I attended a month or two ago, he made a really big deal about how superior San Marzano tomatoes are and how rare they are in the United States. He even said that there’s some debate as to whether or not the San Marzanos being peddled in Italy are genetically related to the real thing. I can’t comment on that, but if you’re ever in Modena and want to whip up a traditional tomato sauce by hand…

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Modena is also ideally located between two other notable cities in Emilia-Romagna — Parma and Bologna, both of which are about a half hour´s train ride away. Any foodlover knows Parma. For that matter, most Americans know Parma, since Parmesan cheese is a staple of many households. The other famous food product is, of course, prosciutto di Parma.

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As for Bologna, you might be familiar with Bolognese sauce for your pasta, or perhaps the much corrupted lunchmeat American supermarkets ply schoolchildren with. Yes Bologna has amazing cured meats, and no, none of them are like supermarket baloney. Bologna also has the most amazing array of fresh pasta I’ve ever seen. Windows display hand formed tortellini and gently rolled balls of long noodles, with loving explanations of each product.

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Both Parma and Bologna offer more friendly deviations from Modena´s slightly chilly character, and Bologna in particular is like an eccentric old aunt that doesn´t care what anyone thinks of her. While most Northern Italian cities and towns are picture perfect, Bologna has a little bit of a haphazard character. Since there is a large university in Bologna, the sidewalks are lined with scooters and mopeds.

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The streets are a bit dirtier, there are fewer open spaces, and even the main cathedral lacks a facade past the first 50 feet or so. Most churches and cathedrals are built out of stone or brick to be sturdy, but the main beauty comes from the often ornate facade that’s slapped onto the exterior later. It´s sort of surprising to round the corner into the main plaza in Bologna, and see a huge cathedral (I think the third or fourth largest in Italy) that is mainly built out of drab maroon brick. It´s as if the building is declaring, Take me or leave me!

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I had delicious meals in Parma and Bologna both. I won´t go into too many details, other than both meals involved savory cured meats and fresh pasta. I could live forever on good bread, cheese and cured meats.

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Good morning, Italy

Breakfast in Italy is a simple affair — a jolt of caffiene in the form of a cappucino and maybe a sweet pastry. Once cafes throw open their doors early in the morning, Italians flock to their favorite neighborhood spot. Orders are placed and sometimes consumed while standing at the counter. For maybe 50 cents more, a table outside could be secured, but for the most part, breakfast is 10-minute affair of scanning the newspaper headlines and making small talk with the cafe owner or other customers. You’ve gotta leave room for lunch, after all! Wait, Earl Grey tea is what you want? What’s tea?

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Mid-morning, the cappucino is replaced by a simple espresso. And since summer in Tuscany can be boiling hot without the relief of air-conditioning, what’s better than a sweetened double espresso shaken over ice? The result is a frothy concoction, accompanied by a tiny glass of sparkling water.

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