It's the time of the year for two words that bring universal joy - summer holidays!
With my tickets booked and my passport deposited at the required embassy, it's time to indulge in that most enjoyable of activities - planning where to go and what to eat this summer.
But I also thought it would be a good time to highlight a few foodie cities that instantly conjure up memories of balmy holidays enjoyed in years gone by.
So first up - foodie postcards from Barcelona! Hope this and the posts that follow inspire you to eat up this summer. Happy holidays!
There's something about plump shrimps tossed in chilli and olive oil, paella and crispy fried calamari - all washed down with chilled white wine - that just spells summer.
Add evenings spent popping pintxos in the Barri Gotic, lazy afternoons sipping sangria by the beach, and plates of croquetas and boquerones to fill in the gaps between checking out Gaudi's fabulous creations and there's nothing quite like summer in Barcelona.
While I didn't really spend too much time in the city ( much less than the time I've spent in it's Southern Spanish cousin Madrid), the sheer variety of places you could head to for a bite makes eating in Barcelona a real treat.
And who am I kidding? Eating in the capital of Catalonia - a region that could by all accounts be crowned the culinary capital of the world - could in no way, shape or form ever be considered a wash-out. So I'm not going to attempt to wax lyrical about Barcelona's gourmet charms - my mouth would be too full to try anyway ;)
Must tries: Gambas al ajillo, albondigas, sangria, morcilla, pipo, boquerones, pulpo gallega, jamon iberico, jamon serrano, manchego, rioja, croquetas, cava.
Where to eat and what to do if you find yourself with 24 hours in Spain’s grand capital, Madrid
9.00am: Wake up to churros con chocolat
When in Madrid do as the Madrileños do and start the day with a piping hot plate of churros, a gloopy cup of dark chocolat to dip them into and a steaming café con leche. And where better to do that than the charming cream and green halls of Chocolatería San Gines, which has been churning out churros since 1894. Sinfully thick chocolate, slightly salty crisp dough – there are few more perfect ways to start the day.
In and around the area: Madrid’s monumental plaza - Plaza Mayor - is perfect for taking a stroll or gawking at buskers, artists, protestors and football fans, while the little shaded shops lining the square are good places to pick up some trencadis curios, mini Velazquez meninos, matador aprons and other take-away tat.
11.30am: Taste some tapas
No one goes far in Madrid without being hit by the urge to graze and there’s plenty of grazing to be done at Mercado de San Miguel – the buzzing covered market where you can have your fill of all sorts of tapas, sherry, wine and desserts and still find loads more you wished you had tried. From croquettas de jamon iberico, to Galacian octopus, truffle arancini and crispy fried langoustines,
grab a glass of syrupy sweet Pedro Ximenez, a dry sherry or a glass of sangria
and taste your way around as many stalls as you can get through.
In and around the area: The pretty Plaza de la Ville; Palacio Real de Madrid with its sweeping colonnaded courtyard; the glowing stained glass interiors of Almudena Cathedral and people watching among the statues and gardens of the grand Plaza de Oriente.
2:30pm: Lunch at a legendary spot
The world’s oldest restaurant and high praise by Ernest Hemingway to boot (he called it “the best restaurant in the world” in The Sun Also Rises), if that’s not enough to tempt you into the tiled dining halls of Botin, then the row-upon-row of roasted suckling pigs (cochinillo asado) should do the trick. A moist chunk or pork, crispy crackling and a swig of Spanish wine – delicioso!
In and around the area: You’re in the original land of the siesta so follow the lead of the locals and head back to your hotel for a nap. If you are feeling a little more energetic, grab a metro to the lungs of the city - Retiro Park - and spend the afternoon rowing on the lake, strolling down the pretty paseos or visiting the Palacio de Cristal. (And if the urge to nap is too strong after all, you can always crash on the lawn under a canopy of trees.)
7:30pm: Drinks and duende
Head to Villa Rosa, settle back with a drink and catch some of the country’s best
flamenco dancers whip up a storm at this charming restaurant tucked along one side of Plaza de Santa Ana. With its colourful Andalusian-tiled interiors and intimate stage, you can see why some of Madrid’s most famous inhabitants, movie stars and even King Alfonso XIII himself often headed here to catch the moving magic called duende that is the mark of a great flamenco tablao.
9:00pm: Kill the night with a tapas crawl
Don Ernesto (that’s what the Spanish called Ernest Hemingway) put it poetically when he said “Nobody goes to bed in Madrid before they have killed the night” and you can take a fair stab at it with a tapas crawl in some of Madrid’s most famous tapas quarters like Huertas. Head to Casa Alberto for some typical Madrileño dishes such as oxtail stew and pig’s ears and other favourites such as boquerones, croquettas, meatballs, patatas bravas, chorizo and more. Then wander down to La Casa del Abuelo for fried langoustines and melt-in-your-mouth gambas al ajillo. Just make sure you pace yourself so you can try several tapas bars.
In and around the area: Wander down to Puerta del Sol for an obligatory picture next to 'El Oso y El Madroño' - the statue of the bear eating from a Madroño tree that is the symbol of the city, and a chance to step onto the kilómetro cero – the plaque that marks the symbolic centre of Spain.
I'm all for trying weird new food. So when these little babies turned up at our tapas table in Serrano, Madrid, and at least two of our party cringed and pushed their stools back a bit, I thought 'Great. All the more for me!' :)
The truth is, not all my experiments with weird food end well. I tried pig's ears in Madrid last month (more on that in another post), unknowingly ate frog ovary fat in Taipei (probably wouldn't have eaten it if I had known what it was!) and once ate a truly disgusting durian sweet that resembled something someone with bronchitis had coughed up - it looked, smelled and tasted vile!
But thankfully, these little eels - angulas, as they are called in Spain and elver eels elsewhere - ended up being one of my more successful weird food experiments.
If you took the angulas out, the rest of that particular tapas creation was fairly run of the mill - salmon wrapped around a cream-cheesy filling. But the angulas gave it real bite. Slightly fishy, a little vinegary... a nice little touch to top off a classic combination.
Although the eels look like little babies, don't get too squeamish as they are actually almost 2-3 years old by the time they get to the size they are in the image. And although they might also look as though they were still moving when I took this picture, thankfully they weren't.
Turns out angula are fairly pricey, so in recent years the ever resourceful Japanese have found an answer for the everyday angula-lover - faux angulas called 'gulas' made from surimi.
The best way to know if you are eating the real thing is to look closely for the little eel eyes and little eel smiles.
But don't look too long... it may make you change your mind about biting off the teeny little heads, which - in the world of tasty weird food experiments - would be real shame.
It's time for yet another dish list and this time it's dominated by all things
Spanish and Portuguese. Here are the top 5 things I hope to be chomping down on (or slurping up) in the next two weeks:
Pedro Ximenez Sherry
Yes it's yet another sweeter than sweet wine on my list of favourites. With it's thick, syrupy texture, raisin and mollasses flavour and deep berry scent, this sweet sherry was one of my top finds in Spain last year and I'll be looking to raise a few happy glasses (and hopefully bring back a bottle) when I visit Madrid this weekend.
Despite its deceptively dainty name (it means little French girl) the Francesinha sounds like a monster sandwich. The sandwich is a Porto specialty and according to Wikipedia is made with "bread, wet-cured ham, linguiça, fresh sausage like chipolata, steak or roast meat and covered with molten cheese and a hot thick tomato and beer sauce served with french fries". If that doesn't sound like a Man vs Food-style sandwich, I don't know what does. Still, I guess I'll need something stodgy to soak up all that port ;)
I've already sung the praises of this cherry liqueur before, and although I'm still not sure if I'll make it up to Obidos, I'm hoping to spot a bottle of chocolate ginja on the bar shelves elsewhere in Portugal. Sweet morello cherry nectar paired with dark Belgian chocolate.... mmmm. I know alcohol shouldn't make my mouth water but this does :)
Pasteis at Pasteleria Picole
I stand firmly by my belief that Pasteis de Belem is the only place to eat Lisbon's famous pasteis de natas but my sister says otherwise. According to her, Pasteleria Picole gives the famous Belem pastry shop a run for its money. What has come to light in the last discussion we've had on these famous custard tarts is that my sister has never eaten pasteis de natas hot from the oven in Belem (she ate takeaway pasteis which I believe may have taken away something from their piping hot goodness). I however have never eaten pasteis at Pasteleria Picole. Ever. So guess I can't really knock them till I've tried them. So the pasteis-off is declared. May the best tart win :)
Pesticos at Pérola do Fetal
When I think about my most memorable meals, lunch at Pérola do Fetal definitely comes to mind. More so because it wasn't even the mains that did it; it was a humble platter of pesticos - small snacks that are served at the start of a meal in Portugal to whet the appetite. The ones we were served did so much more - I'm close to drooling just thinking about them and I ate them three years ago. Dates wrapped in bacon, soft cheese with berry preserve, crusted mushrooms, bacalhao fritters... it was a simple selection of food that tasted divine. Again, not sure if I'll be able to find this restaurant again or get to it as it was some distance out of Lisbon, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I will.
Tickets booked, visa stamped, less than a month to go before I board a plane to Spain. Needless to say, I can't wait! :)
It's a super short stop (basically a day and a half in Madrid each way, sandwiched around a longer trip to Portugal and France) and it's sure to be fraught with the battle I always face on visiting a place I've been to before - should I eat at a tried-and-tested favourite or venture out to sample something new?
I think I might have to meet myself halfway - visit top food haunts such as the Mercado de San Miguel and order stuff I haven't eaten before, and dine at new tapas bars and restaurants on bites I can't afford to miss (like croquetas de jamón Ibérico).
Either way, I'm sure I'll leave knowing a lot more about Spanish food than I do currently. Here are the top 5 things I learnt in Spain last summer:
Number 1: How to order coffee the way I like it
Until I went to Spain, I thought 'caliente' was something semi-rude Latino men shouted at hot women. Turns out it is something Latino men shout at hot women, only it isn't rude. It simply means 'hot' in Spanish. And adding the word caliente to the end of my coffee order made sure I always got my cup of coffee just the way I like it, steaming hot and not at a terrible tepid temperature.
Number 2: Salt + chocolate = delicious
I can't believe I never came across this combination until my very first taste of churros. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water! Hot, crisp churros (or porras, their thicker cousins) are the perfect vehicle to deliver this sinful flavour combo. Deep-fried salty dough, dipped in sweet, muddy chocolate of perfect churro-coating consistency... heaven!
Number 3: Squid ink has a distinctive flavour (and mouth feel)
Until actually tasting squid ink paella in Barcelona last summer, I always assumed squid ink was used primarily for its food colouring abilities. Turns out I was wrong. Squid ink actually has a pretty distinctive taste - something that's somewhere between briny and metallic - and even more weirdly, a distinctive feel - like something thick, heavy and comforting that coats your mouth. I can't really describe it, but let's just say seafood paella with squid ink tasted (even if it didn't look) a lot nicer than seafood paella without.
Number 4: Coffee with condensed milk can actually be improved
As I have described before, Vietnamese ca phe sua da was a revelation -something that made my world instantly a better place to live in. But how could anyone improve the potent coffee+condensed milk combo? Enter cafe pipo - a shot of espresso, a liberal layer of condensed milk and a shot of whisky. Nothing could make a more perfect night cap than this sweet concoction (as we found out almost every night in Barcelona). This is one thing I'm definitely going to keep my eye out for in Madrid.
Number 5: Toothpicks = tab in pintxo bars
I've written about this before and I'll probably mention it again at some point. Holding onto the toothpicks that spear your pintxos to arrive at your bill is probably one of the coolest food customs I've ever come across. (Yes I know, it really doesn't take much to amuse me).
PS: I plan on maintaining a very healthy toothpick tab when I head to Spain next month :)
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