Discovering Poland, Romania, Wales, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, revisiting Germany and Oman, and making a number of tasty trips to India and England - Life literally handed me a very full plate in 2014!
But there have been a few stand-out moments along the way that made this year particularly Platetrotter-worthy. So if you ever find yourselves in the very special corners of the earth listed below, these are some places you just have to try:
With its romantic Medieval centre and haunting modern history, Krakow is a city I would return to in a heartbeat. And all the other good reasons aside, the best one would be Ancora, the Modern Polish restaurant in which I possibly tasted the best bisque of my life. If you ever visit Krakow, this is the place to head to on a cold winter's night for a bowl of life-changing crayfish broth.
Other must-tries: Krakow's gorgeous cafes and "milk bars" are a cozy collection of places stuffed full of antique furniture, glowing candles and crocheted tablecloths that create an atmosphere unlike any other. My top picks are Cafe Camelot, Singer Cafe and Mleczarnia.
BRECON BEACONS, WALES
My trip to the Brecon Beacons may have been a bit drizzly, but the wet weather led to a series of incredibly fortunate incidents that gave me a whole new understanding of Wales' proud industrial past. What I was probably happiest about however, was its incredibly exciting culinary present. My top pick - dinner at the Felin Fach Griffin, a gastro-pub hailed for its focus on locally-sourced farm-fresh food. From the moreish cup of butternut squash soup that arrived as an amuse bouche to the palate-bursting poached rhubarb dessert, this was definitely a fantastic spot to spend a rainy evening in Wales.
Other must-tries: I was pretty keen to try some Welsh wine but sadly didn't get the chance - a constant drizzle didn't make for the best winery-visiting weather. But that's something for next time...
BUCHAREST AND BRASOV, ROMANIA
Romanian wine is universally excellent, but its bars are equally interesting. From specialist vinotheques with walls stocked floor to ceiling with the country's incredibly rich variety of grape, to others decked out like apothecaries where you can sip a cocktail out of a test tube, and even a furniture store masquerading as a bar where you can decide which of the antiques surrounding you as you sip your drink may make a good addition to your home (handy price tags on your chair or the lamp beside you help make that decision pretty easy) - a bar crawl around Romania is a must-do for the quirky gems you are guaranteed to find.
Other must-tries: Don't miss a meal in the capital's atmospheric old caravanserai Hanul Lui Manuc, a 19th century inn that is one of the last of its kind in this part of Europe.
SARAJEVO, BOSNIA AND HERCEGOVINA
How amazing could a kebab possibly be? I suggest you answer that question yourself after trying a cevapi (Bosnian kebab) at Sarajevo's most famous cevabdzinica, Zeljo. From the moist, minced meat to the warm pita bread, sharp onions and thick sour kaymak, this is one place whose reputation as a place of culinary pilgrimage is very well deserved.
Other must-tries: If you aren't sure what to expect from a bar named after a goldfish bowl, Zlatna Ribica will defy your wildest imagination. A jumble of randomness that is stylishly put together, head here for a drink and the chance to add your own little scraps of memory to the sideboards full of notes from previous patrons.
"Watch where you walk, you sometimes find snakes among the stones," says our guide Miran.
"What sort of snakes?" I ask, not too fussed. For some reason European snakes never seem to induce the same dread that Asian snakes do.
"Oh, vipers usually," he replies, casually.
I look down at my flip-flopped feet - they look very bare and snake-bite-friendly next to the other two pairs of sneaker-clad feet next to me. Suddenly the thought of tramping through the gloriously green vineyards stretching towards the brightly lit Hercegovinian horizon seems less appealing and I teeter on the edge of the stony field, using my zoom lens a little more enthusiastically.
But the viper fears quickly fade as Miran points out the sights.
"Look at the two fields - the green grapes, Žilavka, grow in drier, stonier, whiter fields. The red grapes, Blatina, grow in less dry soil. Žilavka comes from the word "Zila" meaning roots because they need a strong root system to soak up the little water available in this region," he says.
I have heard an alternative theory about the name of the grapes - a variety that is indigenous to the south-western region of Hercegovina we are in. The word "zila" also means veins and some say the name refers to the thin, spidery veins one can see through the grape skin when they are ripe and ready to be plucked.
Either way, the yellowy-green grapes are bursting with flavour, a result of clawing their way up from the dry, limestoney ground. We break a few plump specimens and eat them - they are juicy and incredibly sweet.
"Most of the grapes grown here are Žilavka," adds Miran, gesturing us back into his car as we drive out of Plantaza Blizanci, a state-owned winery whose roots go back to the collective farming era of the former Yugoslavian nation.
Our journey to the wine country of Citluk from the picture-postcard town of Mostar takes us up winding hill roads. The view below of a patchwork of bright green vineyards is truly breathtaking - although the twisty road makes capturing it on a camera difficult as the fields disappear and reappear around bends.
Our next stop is the family-owned Andrija Cellars where we are taken around by the incredibly helpful vintner Martinovic Josip. Paintings of the original owner and his sons plaster the walls of the tasting room and kids are deftly fixing cork toppers to the bottles in an anteroom. "A good summer job," says Martinovic with a grin.
Outside, Martinovic proudly shows us the vineyard's newest addition - a branded touring bus kitted out with old barrels, tables and benches. "We wanted something to take visitors out right into the vineyards," says Martinovic.
Less chance of encountering any vipers, I think, so definitely a good idea :)
As we jump off the open bus, he points to a small white building in a neighbouring plot of land. "That's going to be a wine museum," he says.
The whole area seems to be gearing itself up towards creating a busier wine tourism industry, confidently building the infrastructure in expectation of the visitors to come.
But Miran says there's still lots more to be done and he is right. Driving through the region towards Mostar a few days ago I was excited to see several boards announcing the existence of a Hercegovinian Wine Route. But the reality is that there is still no easily bookable way to travel along the entire route. Individual travelers or groups of wine enthusiasts need to do much of the legwork themselves - emailing, booking and arranging one-off visits to various wineries in Citluk and neighbouring Trebinje and Medjugorje through local tour operators, like the one owned by Miran.
Although, it does mean you get an extremely personalised tour of the wineries - we have Andrija's vintner Martinovic exclusively to ourselves and he is very generous with the tasting session following the tour :)
First up is the winery's white Žilavka - which is served with cured meat and a dry cheese similar to the region's famous Livanjski sir from the town of Livno. The dry white is made from 90-95% Žilavka grapes and 5-10% Bena grapes which is another local Hercegovinian variety. It is delicate and soft - exactly how I like it and I am extremely disappointed to discover that the bottle I picked up at the winery got mistakenly left in London. The winery distributes its wine to 13 countries globally (unfortunately not Dubai or the UK) so I will probably have to keep my eye out for the wine in more obscure European countries.
Next is its red Blatina. A strongly red berry-flavoured wine made from local Blatina (85%), Trnjak - a local Dalmatian variety found close to the Hercegovinian-Croatian border (10%) and Allicante - a French variety used predominantly to add colour (5%). Medium bodied with a taste almost like jam, the wine went surprisingly well with the chorizo I enjoyed it with once back home. I am saving bottle number 2 for another spicy feast.
The jewel in the vineyard's crown is its Blatina Barrique - a well rounded barrel aged red made from 85% Blatina, 10% Cabernet and 5% Merlot. Having made a trip straight back to town from the vineyard toting our purchases, both the bar we stopped at for a drink and the restaurant we chose for dinner had the staff come up to us and congratulate us on our good choice of wine, so the Blatina Barrique definitely seems to have a happy local following.
Martinovic also generously let us taste the vineyard's grappa and a delicious sweet wine called Andrijana made from syrupy grape must. Sadly the vineyard was all out of the latter for commercial sale and was currently preparing its next batch. But that was definitely something I would happily have bought in bulk - sucker that I am for sweet wines :)
The tour of the vineyard was just another element that showed huge promise in this stunningly beautiful part of Eastern Europe - an area that was torn to shreds in a brutal Balkan wars of the 90s, yet has still managed to rise from the rubble and set itself back on the road to recovery.
All across Bosnia and Hercegovina, the wine was good and plenty, the vistas we spectacular and the people generally seemed keen to leave the past where it belonged and move ahead towards a brighter future.
I will happily drink to that!
We arranged the tour of Andrija Cellars through iHouse Mostar - a local travel agency whose Death of Yugoslavia tour is also definitely worth booking for anyone wanting to learn more about this country's complicated history (or simply for anyone wishing to visit a Soviet-era secret bunker!)
With just three weeks to go before I jump on a plane and make a beeline for the Balkans (with a short stop in London for a bite of my favourite foodie city) it's time to put aside the list of city landmarks and focus instead on the only list that really counts - my summer dish list.
So here's a roundup of all the things I plan on eating as I make my way round the English capital, down a bit of the Adriatic and into the green hills and riverside towns of the Balkans.
Maltby Street Market, London
A wintry trip around Borough market - trying to balance piping hot mead with a grilled chorizo sandwich and get them both into my tummy without ruining my gloves - is one of my favourite memories of eating in London. Pretty much straight after on the list would be a trip huddled around a plate of jerk chicken in a corner of Brixton Village a few months ago. So I'm aiming to add some summer food market memories to the mix with a visit to Maltby Street Market this time round for more sandwiches, pies, pastries and Pimm's. Touted as smaller, friendlier and less crowded than its bigger cousin in Borough, I can't wait to have a snoop around the food stalls and practice juggling multiple plates of goodies once again.
Fresh seafood along the Adriatic coast
The konobas or taverns strung along the Adriatic coast look just like my ideal dining destinations - quaint seaside restaurants overlooking glassy bays, wild green mountains mirrored within, Roman palaces tumbling down hillsides and of course, fresh seafood by the basket load to tuck into at each meal. From shrimp to squid ink risotto, fish, octopus salad and more, the menu in Montenegro and Croatia sounds absolutely perfect for summer dining by the sea.
Coffee and cevapi in Sarajevo
My favourite Turkish proverb describes how the Turks prefer their coffee - "black as hell, strong as death and sweet as love" - which is also my preferred poison, so I can't wait to wile away a couple of afternoons in Sarajevo's famed Ottoman-influenced coffee houses and spend my evenings feasting on that other Turkish import - cevapi. Cevapi are kebabs stuffed into pita and onions, drizzled over with kajmak (sour clotted cream), preferably eaten while taking in the city's famed minaret and church tower-pierced skyline. Considering how much descriptions of Sarajevo liken its history-seeped, shifting, multicultural vibe to my most-loved city in the world, Istanbul, I can't wait to visit this Balkan gem.
One of my most anticipated trips on my holiday is a planned visit to the wineries of Hercegovina to find out more about how this region produces its local Žilavka and Blatina grape. I still regret not getting a chance to do a spot of wine touring when I visited Romania, but the Eastern European country had some of the smoothest wines I've tasted recently and I expect Hercegovina's wines to be as exciting.
The Balkans seem to have a rich and distinct culinary tradition - stuffed full of indigenous cheeses, popular Ottoman-empire influences, sweets and cakes from the Austro-Hungarians and Italian-influenced dishes from across the sea all mashed up into a menu that's equally strong on meat and seafood specialties.
If you have any top tips on things to try or restaurants to visit in Sarajevo, Mostar, Kotor Bay, the Montenegrin mountains or Split, do leave a note on where I could find them :)
Named Best Blog for Food & Travel
Top 10 UAE Food Blogs in UAE