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Archive for the ‘Sips and Bites’ Category

It’s January 2 – a new year and the end to what friends of mine call the “Eating Season”. The past month has been filled with parties and gatherings, chock full of diet-busting treats. It’s a time when food is all around me and my thoughts naturally turn towards the many wonderful things out there to eat.

January is also the start of a long three months of the year: it’s cold and grey and my mood invariably turns sour. Spring seems like an endless time away. The last few years, one of my coping tools has been to plan where I’m going to travel in the upcoming year, to give myself something to look forward to. I’ll also spend time reading over my travel journals and looking at my photos to remind myself of good times with the hope of more to come.

So, of course, what better time of year to try and narrow down my favourites out of everything I’ve eaten on my trips – things I’d seek out to have again if ever and whenever I go back. Many may be disappointed in my choices (you won’t find fermented shark or anything as adventurous on here). In fact, many of these I can find easily here in Toronto – I can find them and but they’re not going to be nearly as good. So, in order of discovery, here we go:

1. Albondigas (Spanish meatballs)

Such a simple thing, the meatball, but oh boy did these rock my socks. After a few days of mostly grilled pork and ham, I ordered these in a tapas place in Olot, Spain, and it was love at first bite. The meat itself was moist and flavourful and swimming in a really tasty sauce. Not being a seafood eater, I wasn’t sold on Spanish food until I tried these.

2. Fresh buffalo mozzarella

I’d never eaten fresh mozzarella before it came as part of a caprese salad I ordered in Trieste, Italy, and my immediate thought was, where have you been all my life? I love cheese like I love my own mother, and this was so indescribably good. In fact, I may have moaned when I first tasted it. The tomatoes weren’t shabby either. This was something I tried finding when I got back to Toronto, but I’ve not found any that tasted as good yet.

3. Pizza margherita

I had a lot of pizza during my time in Italy, but one I had in Florence stands out in particular. I like my pizza simple, and when the ingredients are as good as they are there, you don’t need a ton of toppings. The local ingredients are what make the difference between the pizza I had in Florence and any of the numerous ones I’ve had elsewhere: the tomatoes for the sauce, the cheese, and the fresh basil. I normally view the crust as a cheese-and-sauce delivery platform, but even the crust was a delight. Yum, yum in my tum.

4. Pain au chocolat

My breakfast every morning I was in France consisted of some form of croissant; in fact, I made quite a study of them wherever I went. I find dairy products in general to be superior in Europe compared to home, so naturally any pastry that uses butter so generously in its creation is going to be better there than anything I’ve tasted before. The best I found (so far) was a pain au chocolat from a pastry shop in Reims – so buttery and warm, with a gooey chocolate center. I definitely moaned when I took my first bite (I want to moan thinking about it now).

5. Skyr

Commonly known as Icelandic yogurt, its consistency is more like a cross between yogurt and cream cheese. I only ever ate it sweetened and flavoured with fruit, but it does have that underlying sourness that yogurt has. It is much, much thicker than any yogurt I’ve ever had at home – the kind you can find in tubs in stores is almost spreadable. As rich as this tastes, it’s truly amazing that skyr is low-fat and full of protein, so it’s a pretty guiltless treat compared to everything else on this list.

And on that note, I’m hungry – I wonder if I have any Christmas cookies left?

Happy New Year, happy eats, and especially happy travels!

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Even though this is my third post on alcoholic beverages, I’m not much of a drinker, particularly when I’m by myself. But I was in Paris at Thanksgiving (in Canada, this would be the second Monday in October), and I decided to treat myself to a meal in a restaurant a step up from the cafes I’d been haunting so far. I decided on the boeuf bourguignon and a lemon tarte, and was going to splurge on some wine to accompany it all. However, looking at the menu, I was baffled: 35 cl, 45 cl, etc. It wasn’t pricing, but I didn’t know what it meant. Embarrassed by my ignorance, I was too shy to ask and ordered sparkling water instead.

I never gave this another thought until I was in Rome, and again was confronted with a wine menu I could barely decipher. I saw a white house wine, 75 cl for something like 8 or 9 euros. I’d realized by that point that this was the volume in centilitres, but for some reason, I could not picture how much wine 75 cl would be. I was used to paying $8 or $9 for a glass of wine in a restaurant at home, so in perfect vacation logic, 8 euros for a glass just made sense.

I felt like an idiot moments later when the waiter brought a bottle of wine to my table for one (for those still as foggy as I was, 75 cl = 750 ml, or the equivalent of about 6 glasses of wine). In my defense:

  1. I was on vacation, newly arrived and jet-lagged
  2. The centilitre is not a common unit of volume in Canada; litres and millilitres are used almost exclusively
  3. Math is hard, yo!

My choices seemed to be either waste a perfectly good bottle of wine that I was already paying for by only drinking a glass or two, or get tanked on my first night in Rome and hope I stumbled back to my hotel in good shape. I chose option C instead: while I didn’t drink the whole bottle, I did put a very serious dent in it (I believe my final tally was about 4 glasses).

Approximately a half hour later, I rose from the table after my meal, feeling no pain. Though the world was spinning a bit, I still managed to walk away without tripping or running into anything. Luckily, my plan that night was to take a night walk around some of Rome’s more famous public spaces; though I was acutely aware of every step I took, the fresh night air (and the tartufo I stopped for in the Piazza Navona) restored my equilibrium and I no longer felt as lightheaded.

I’d been schooled, and I’m a better wine drinker for it.

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One day, our tour guide asked, “would any of you be interested in having lunch one day at a nearby Tuscan farm?” We were in Lucca, Italy for a few days, and had been discussing the activities planned for our time there when she suggested this extra day trip. Would I be interested — Uh, yes please!

Fattoria Cercatoia Alta is a lovely farm run by a couple who bought the land and restored the buildings on it. They rent out rooms in their farmhouses to visitors, but will host small groups for lunch. The owner, Angelo Fornaciari, had been a successful chef in London before he returned to Lucca where he had grown up, and we were salivating at the idea of the traditional Tuscan food he would be preparing for us.

This is a working farm and vineyard, and as far as the eye can see there are grape vines, olive plants, and fruit trees. We were given a glass of wine (made on the premises) on arrival and given a tour around the grounds. We passed the chicken coop, donkeys and two cute little ponies (adorable!). We winded our way through the grove of apricot trees and headed over to the pool, where we enjoyed a swim and some more wine before lunch.

The grounds are beautifully landscaped, with gorgeous red rose bushes lining the paths. Scattered on the patio were lemon trees in pots. In every direction you looked were acres of green fields and trees, with the odd house here and there in the distance. They had an outdoor kitchen with a grill out back and long wooden tables with benches had been set up for us under a roofed portion of the patio. The whole thing reminded me of the Diane Lane movie Under the Tuscan Sun.

I think these are olive plants, with very young fruit just budding

The lunch we were served was a veritable feast: bread salad, spelt salad, pasta salad, bean salad, grilled polenta with pieces of sausage and cheese on top, bruschetta, cheese and capers, and more bread grilled and drizzled with olive oil (that he pressed himself from their own olives). Platter after platter was passed around as we took a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Bowls of green and black olives, which he had preserved in flavoured oil, were placed all along the table and we nibbled from them all through lunch. Through all of this, the wine kept flowing; I don’t think I saw the bottom of my glass all afternoon which meant I couldn’t even guess how many glasses I had when all was said and done.

Dessert was a piece of biscotti to be dipped into a glass of “holy wine”, a sweet dark dessert wine, the true Italian name for which I can’t remember. Then Angelo gave us a tour of his wine-making facilities in his cellar where he bottles his own wine. He shared glasses of young merlot with us straight out of the cask to show us the difference aging the wine makes to the taste (to be honest, it tasted like red wine to me. My palette is not refined when it comes to wine).

Too soon, we had to pile into the vans to be taken to where we could catch the bus back to Lucca. It had been a fairy tale afternoon, but after all that wine, I’m sure I must have returned only to indulge in one heck of a nap!

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Unlike Paris Hilton, my life has been more Asti Spumanti than Dom Perignon. A friend of mine splurged on a little bottle of Veuve Clicquot a few years ago for New Year’s Eve and I’m pretty sure it was my first taste of true French champagne. By law, only sparkling wines produced in the Champagne region of France can be labelled as “champagne”; though many other regions produce a similar product, they can only be known as “sparkling wines”. French champagne can be notoriously expensive, perhaps in part due to this exclusivity of name.

I had been looking forward to a tour of the Veuve Clicquot champagne caves (or cellars) during a stop in Reims, France, but I had been plagued with one of the worst colds I’ve ever had. I had already been suffering with a hacking cough for a few days, so I was miserable and tired from lack of sleep when we made our way over to the winery.

The cellars were located deep underground, and so were dark, cold and damp. The stone walls actually had some kind of chalky finish to them, which made them very spongy and cool to the touch. This was done to help absorb and control moisture that can build up underground.

Our guide provided a thorough history of not only the Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin House and Madame Clicquot, the woman often called “La Grande Dame de la Champagne“, but also the “riddling” technique she developed in the early 1800s that resulted in the dry champagne that is so valued today. She is also credited with helping to establish champagne as a luxury product thanks to her efforts in placing her wines in royal courts across Europe. We were taken, step by step, through the traditional process of making champagne and passed by racks and racks of bottles in various stages of fermenting. Needless to say, the traditional ways have been overtaken by modern machines.

As we travelled through the various caverns, pausing to have a look at some display or another, the dampness quickly got to me and I could not stop coughing. Surrounded as I was by floor to ceiling rock walls, I was so embarrassed as that poor guide tried to be heard over me. Sound carries through stone caverns (go figure).

In the end, I consoled myself with the very thing I had been looking forward to the most: the tasting portion of the program, courtesy of a beautiful glass of Brut champagne.

For anyone interested, I found this interesting news story online about a 100-year-old case of champagne that had been found on the ocean floor from a shipwreck. According to the story, it may have been preserved enough by the conditions underwater to still be drinkable!

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If there is one thing I’ve learned about Europe, it’s that it is cheaper to drink wine in a lot of countries than almost anything else except water. But I’m not much of a wine connoisseur so when I went to Spain, I knew some sangria would be in my future. Made with red wine, brandy, fruit juice, sweetener and pieces of fruit, it’s the way I prefer to drink my wine particularly in hot weather.

Imagine my surprise when I got home and I googled some recipes for sangria to find a few fairly snotty articles about how only tourists order sangria in bars or restaurants; instead, locals will order something called tinto de verano. Attitude aside, this is true as far as I’ve found in my research. Sangria is the equivalent to a fruit punch here in North America, served usually at gatherings with family and friends like barbeques as it’s made in larger batches and is easy to serve to a crowd. When you order it in a bar or restaurant, it’s usually in a 1-litre pitcher. Tinto de verano is red wine with sparkling lemonade (or 7-Up or Sprite); like a wine spritzer, it can be made by the glassful.

I do believe to really see a country, you should move beyond what a country is stereotypically known for and sangria is one of those things with Spain. But here is why I will not give up sangria:

  1. It is delicious
  2. It is cheap (I’m not sure about the big cities and I’ve never ordered a tinto verano so I don’t know what it costs, but I bought that pitcher up above there for about 6 euros (C$9 at the time) in a pub in Olot and it contained about 4 to 6 glasses’ worth. In Toronto, that pitcher would easily cost C$20 so to find actual bargains while on vacation is a rare treat to be savoured.)
  3. It has more booze (as many recipes call for wine and brandy, sangria has more kick than you’d think)

In all honesty, I will be trying tinto verano the next time I go to Spain, not because I have some delusional idea that I’ll blend in with the locals better by ordering one, but because it actually sounds delicious as well. In fact, I wish I had known about it before I ordered that pitcher of sangria for myself at dinner one evening. Let’s just say that sometimes buying in volume is not the way to go.

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