Posts in Travels
All clear now
 
 
“I trade the sill's dryness for the sound”
Jonathan Hadwen

  The rain has cleared now. The ‘cold’ is here and the sun beams warmly from bright winter skies. It really is the best of Brisbane’s weather for a recently returned pseudo-European. Autumn in Brisbane means rain – quite a lot of it. I enjoyed hearing the soft pitter-patter on the leaves outside my kitchen widow. It’s different type of rain from the wispy, drizzly, sodden kind you get in London.

I don’t know why I expected to relocate to the other side of the earth and find non-stop clear sunny weather. Actually that’s not fair, Queensland is a very sunny place. I have no right to complain. The state has emerged from a drought followed by terrible floods in its recent past. And it is especially in this regard that I have no right to complain.

Since I’ve returned it’s been its calm self and I have enjoyed following a different set of seasons.  The clearest of blue skies, a slight chill in shade and a deeply warming sunshine that makes you want to be walking out of doors. Eating and walking, two of my favourite things and lots more 'winter' to do it in.

London, my friend

A little under five months ago I left my beloved London town and, a little over three months, I returned once again to the warm southern shores of Brisbane, Australia. The latter half of 2011 has been a supa-dupa roller-coaster but, before letting you live my new warmer lifestyle vicariously through my blog, I must publicly acknowledge my love of London and more precisely my little home suburb of Kew.

London was my home and my friend for the past seven wonderful years. I’ve grown and she has supported me, encouraged me and shown me just how easy it is to pick yourself up and find a way forward. She’s introduced me to hoards of fantastic, supportive friends and talented individuals and characters. I am a better person for having lived in her boundaries.

Before B and I left I was lucky enough to be able to spend three weeks enjoying every opportunity she threw at me. It was a joy and a privilege, and here are just a few of the fantastic things I got up to.

In no particular order and in all likelihood leaving some crucial events out, I partied with 200,000 in Hyde Park for THE Royal Wedding. I learnt how to appreciate all the wankery that goes along with a great cup of coffee. I even attempted a bit of latte art with Australia’s top latte artist of 2010 (fyi - I wasn’t great). I celebrated my 29th birthday in style at a fantastic sitting of @SpagnettiWednesday with Francesco Mazzei (I even have the video to prove it). I devoured suckling pig carefully and lovingly roasted by Uncle Ji and then stayed far too long in her lovely canal-side apartment.  I feasted at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal c/o of Olive Magazine. I dressed up like the abominable snowman on top of Festival Hall on the Thames in order to know the plight of the urban bee. And speaking of rooftop adventures, there was also the rowing and drinking atop the iconic Selfridges Oxford Street and the feasting on Hammersmith Rowing Club rooftop c/o @FridayFoodClub. I foraged for wild foods and was privately educated in the ways of Persian foods by the lovely and generous Sabrina (@SabrinaGaynor the preserved fruit strips were a lovely shot of sugar while trekking in the Himalayas). I discovered and rediscovered the treats that lay in wait for you at Brixton market and will never forget gobbling the sourdough doughnut on the tube.

I miss mint cocktails on Miss Clare’s balcony in SoDa. I miss culturally themed feasts and ridiculous dress-ups at a certain address in Lower Putney. I miss Sunday art class at Jim and George’s. There is so much I miss but there is also so much to discover in my new old home. Please stay tuned.

Credits to these folks and many, many more (in no particular order):

Please keep up the tweets :)

TravelsAnne Giacomantonio
Lukpah extraordinaire!

In a room butted up against the Monsoon-swollen River Ganges in Varanasi I think back to the eight-day bone-dry trek from which I have just returned in India’s northern province of Ladakh. India’s ample size means that in the 15 or so days B and I have been in the country we have already experienced the ends of the extremes. From Dehli’s immaculate new, post-Commonwealth Games airport and security-tight air-conditioned Metro system to their fetid waste and slum-dwellers and the humid chaos of the Old Town. Then on to the provincial capital of the Indian Himalayas, Leh, with it’s western hippies and adventure-seekers, Tibetan refugee traders and its landscape dotted by Buddist Stupas and Gompas. And now back down to wet, wet Varanasi.

Our trek took us up and over 5000mts twice within the eight days, both feats of which I barely (only ever so slightly melodramatically) survived and in turn did much better than others, yet in all likelihood won’t be repeated in my lifetime. Depending on who you talk to the journey through the Markha Valley is an ‘easy’ trek, or something that should only be attempted by experienced walkers with ‘all the gear.’

For me, it was HARD! But very enjoyable. A reasonable part of this enjoyment is the responsibility of one man – Lukpah, our trek cook. I know, you thought I was going to say B, don’t worry, he also contributed significantly to my survival as did our trek guide, not to mention the incredible scenery.

I don’t need to tell you that eight days of walking is hard work even if there were ponies to carry our camping accoutrements (clothes, sleeping bags etc). But whatever hardship we felt at the end of the day it ALWAYS paled at the sight of Lukpah putting up tents, scrubbing pots, brewing our tea, preparing veg for supper.  Day-to-day he travelled, often walking, the route we took with his camp kitchen and all the ingredients packed up on the ponies only to arrive at our next stop to settle, set-up, make us tea and prepare a 3-course supper. And how!

We were warned at the start of our trip that he was the ‘best cook’ in the organization but this really didn’t sink in until the evening of the first day when, after a restorative fresh mint tea and biscuits set on a makeshift table-clothed chest. We were then presented with a meal of steaming hot soup with spicy popadams, followed by two curry dishes, pilau rice and fresh cucumber salad and pudding. This was definitely a precursory sign of things to come. The following nights produced a dexterous array of cuisine including decoratively presented chop-suey, a fantastic chilli-paneer, macaroni-cheese, tempura spicy fried aubergines and capsicum rings, steamed sponge pudding and even a respectable pizza. Lukpah was up cooking us a hearty breakfast as well: a particular favourite being fried home/trek-made bread. The highlight for me was supper on day seven, delicious Tibetan momos.

Much like a dumpling or dim sum, momos are small, thin pastry cased parcels of vegetable, or vegetable and cheese, or vegetable and meat that come as a steamed or fried variety. And they are deliciously served with a slightly punchy tomato sauce.

What is to be applauded really is cooks that, like Lukpah, do a truly great job under conditions that many would deem unthinkable. Lukpah’s kitchen consisted of two kerosene flame stoves, a chopping board made from the cross section of a tree trunk, a steamer, an array of tin bowls, plates and pots of various sizes and a very sharp knife. He cooked in the squat position, which I’m sure he is very used to, but having tried it I myself I found almost impossible for any length of time. His selection of arrayed ingredients had to last 8 days without refrigeration (we had temperatures fluctuating between 20 degrees to -5). He was also sensitive to the purpose of the trek providing ginger tea for relief at altitude and rice pudding when B’s tum decided to give him some jip. Cooks and chefs who work in these kinds of conditions deserve to be celebrated.  So here’s to Lukpah – camp cook extraodinaire!

Vegetable and cheese momo

I observed Lukpah making these from scratch in a darkened and really quite cold tent on top of a mountain. Various livestock, cashmere goats and mountain cows, peaked in while he was cooking only to be shouted abuse at in Hindi. NB: I hope the quantities are correct but the recipe remains untested until my return.

 For the casings

2 handfuls of flour (300g)

2 cups of water (400ml)

For the filling

¼ small cabbage (finely chopped)

2 carrots (grated)

100g grated cheese

2 tbl spn butter

For the sauce

5 tomatoes

50ml tomato puree

1 tspn coriander powder

Salt and pepper

Utensils

Steamer bamboo or other.

  1. Grate carrot and cabbage into a bowl.
  2. Score the bottle of the tomatoes with an ‘X’ and place into a pot of boiling water for a minute or so until the skins start to peel. Remove from water, peel off skins a chop finely then set aside.
  3. Put the flour in a bowl and slowly add the water combining as you go to form a firm dough.
  4. Prepare steamer by boil water and oiling the surface on which the momo will be places (to prevent sticking).
  5. Fry off the carrot and cabbage mix in a little oil till it’s wilted but not dry. Add the grated cheese to the pan and stir, remove from the heat.
  6. Add the chopped tomatoes, tomato puree and coriander powder to a small pan over a medium heat and stir. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  7. Tear off walnut sized pieces of dough into a bowl with a dusting of flour.
  8. Roll the dough very thin, place in the centre of your palm and fill with a teaspoon of carrot and cabbage mix. Firmly pinch the sides of the momo together and place in the steamer 2 cms apart in the cen ready to be rolled thin and stuffed with filling.
  9. Steam for 10-15min and serve immediately (or fry in a little oil if you prefer the fried version).

So many croissants, so little time!

The final leg of the European half of our travels took us to Paris and a TGV journey to Aix-en-Provence, followed by a week spent in the hills behind Nice. I would have loved to write about the multiple decadent three-course Provencal spreads we indulged in but, alas, budgets did not allow. I am not, however, implying that we didn’t eat well. We ate very well indeed. Like Kings. But then that’s France for you.

Paris revealed many opportunities to indulge in all the food stuffs that make life worth living – creamy oozing cheeses, fantastic breads and the fully developed flavours of French wines; all at minimal cost.

Good food is so democratic in France. Everyone expects it as if it’s their right: ‘Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité’ and cuisine being one and the same. It really does feel as though to be served something substandard is an offence. We, of course, indulged in the ubiquitous croissant, baguette and numerous pastries; we also tasted some fantastic moules frites, millefeuille of goat’s cheese and aubergine, pot au feu, Provençal olives – the list goes on.

What I am always really impressed by in France (as well as most Mediterranean nations) is the quality of produce available in addition to the way people choose and purchase their 5-a-day.

In the London the ‘norm’ seems to be, mostly for convenience’s sake, supermarket chosen, plastic pre-packaged veg. Often with no ability to smell, touch, squeeze or talk to a knowledgeable person about quality the produce is, in addition, sold by the unit and not by the kilo. Crazy.

I know the supermarket shop is necessary and the trend for all-in-one-shopping that negates the green grocer is creeping into even the Med but I really do think it’s a great shame.

While nestled away in the hill behind the small town of Vence in Provence, B and I ate well and often. Fresh salads made from the bitter-leafed greens, vinaigrette and figs coated in grilled goat’s cheese, Italianesque minestrone made with market fresh veg of all shapes and sizes, and ricotta-stuffed zucchini flowers – what a treat. It’s produce like this that makes cooking an absolute breeze – perhaps that’s where one should start in attempting to encourage healthy eating?

 

Issues, TravelsAnne Giacomantonio
Ode to the berry

Surely one of the greatest pleasures in life is to eat a punnet of berries. Any berry you sample from the endless rouge-palette of varieties is a joy and evoke a childlike excitement and greed. As most Australian travellers to Europe would testify, there is a novelty that knows no bounds to be able to purchase a punnet of raspberries, sweet ripe blackberries or fresh blueberries and gorge one’s self as you walk through a city market; more so to be able to pick your own free of charge.

Walking through Portobello market in London I would often think to myself while watching the English, they don’t know how lucky they are! I mean we do have the odd strawberry in the city I grew up in, and a short-crazed couple of weeks where children stain their fingers picking syrup-sweet mulberries. We also have truckloads of tropical fruit coming out our ears, but growing up in Australia, it was the European berries from the Grimm fairytales and bedtime stories that seemed to be so out of reach.

In Europe the joy at the appearance of berries on a riverbank or mountainside means the height of summer. Berries ripen in the very best of the sunshine of the year and at a time of plenty. And berries mean summer holidays.

When my Australian friends and I discovered brambles full of blackberries on the Thames towpath last summer it was all we could do to stop ourselves from stripping them bare, as best we could. Being amateur berry pickers we failed to equip ourselves with gloves, long sleeves or appropriate footwear and were injured in the process, but it was worth it. I also made an intriguing batch of elderberry jam. Intriguing in that I had never even heard of an elderberry before and found the taste to be like nothing I had ever eaten before. What an adventure!

On our numerous visits to Norway I have been repeatedly delighted to find our friends had raspberry, cloudberry, lingon berry (white and red) and alpine strawberry growing in their front yard - as well as a cherry tree! What’s more, I found blueberries as well as more of all the others growing on local mountainsides, on road sidings and surrounding the local golf course. I mean, didn’t they just spend their entire summer fattening on fresh berries, berries and ice cream and berry tart, pies and cakes of all descriptions? It was with disbelief that I was told that no, not really, they like them but they aren’t racing out in some kind of berry-induced frenzy at first sight of the crop. They in turn couldn’t understand how us tropical fruit eaters could let mango fall and rot.

On my return home I will be happy with my tropical delights but I will miss those berries.

 

TravelsAnne Giacomantonio
Nothing like an eis on a hot day

B and I have been coming to the German city of Münster in the north-western province of North Rhine-Westphalia for as long as we have been in Europe. The city is the home of his Australian father and his German wife (the father’s, that is) who generally host us and generously feed us up. It’s a university city full to the brim with students, bicycles and various denominations of the Christian faith. Westphalia is also well renowned for its horse breeding.  The province is flat as a tack, hence the abundance of bikes and perhaps horses, but I’m not sure the geography goes anyway to explaining the faiths. We have visited this flat land in all kinds of weather.  Though something like last winter’s snowfall was exceptional, summer is definitely my favourite season, with long warm evenings spent lingering over eine große bier in one of the many biergartens that populate the city.

One of the other delights at this time of year is the uniquely German creation of the Eis Café (ice cream shop). These cafés spring up in any available space all over Münster and in the surrounding small towns only to shut or transform during the winter months.

Proliferations of chairs and tables appear like summer blooms on paved forecourts and cobbled squares to provide an ice-cold relief for the eager and greedy customers.

But this in itself is not the unique part of my Münster summer ice cream eating. These Eis café’s don’t just serve your everyday cone and cup, they specialise in the becher.

Eis becher: A literal mound or tower of ice cream, fruit and/or nuts, cream, and topping.

It is nothing to sit at a sunny table of an afternoon and consume what must be close to 500ml of ice cream and unthinkable quantities of calories. These ices aren’t a sweet reward for the diet conscience; you need courage and conviction to take on a becher.

You will also need similar amounts of courage and conviction to navigate the menu with, on average, over 100 options and various combinations of eis, topping and sprinkle. Perhaps you’re in the mood for a Hawaiianbecher?  Or a Heidelbeerbecher?  A Zabaglionebecher?  How about a Rumtofbecher? The options are endless and the kinder have their own separate comprehensive menu including a bizarre creation called spaghetti eis.

Once you’ve chosen your poison, you place your order with a grumpy male waiter and ogle as those around you gulp down their cream and wafer creations. The waiter will reappear carrying anywhere from three to six towering sundaes at once, balanced on little silver plates.

When finally the marvel has been placed in front of you it’s time to negotiate the additional summer pitfalls of ice cream eating; namely melting, multiple curious and hungry wasps and the dreaded ice cream headache.

Sure, other countries enjoy their ice creams and even have respectable ice cream sundae options but nothing compares to the German eis becher for scale and indulgence. Guten Appetit!

TravelsAnne Giacomantonio
Brown cheese PLEASE!

If it’s one thing a Norwegian loves, almost without fail, it’s a slice or three of brown cheese - or brunost. Some compare it to vegemite/marmite, declaring it a love-it or hate-it affair, but I don’t think it contains nearly as much potential for offence as either of those local delicacies.

It’s called brown cheese because that’s the best way to describe it: a creamy caramel brown colour, with a smooth texture and a mildly cheesy flavour. It has a sweetness that’s quite pleasing and helps make it a snack for any time of the day or night. Breakfast brunost on toast with jam, lunchtime brunost for that little sweet craving after a sandwich or for an anytime snack – mid-afternoon, after dinner… Needless to say they eat A LOT of it.

Head to the local supermarket and you’ll find a fridge full of brands and consistencies. But what is it?

Gleaned from the expert and no doubt precise knowledge of Wikipedia (check for yourself) brunost is the result of a process of boiling goat and cow’s milk, cream and whey to the point where the water evaporates and the sugars caramelize. This gives the brunost its sweetness.

A lighter treatment results in a substance that shares similarities with something closer to a spreadable cream cheese.

Now the BBC  tells me that ‘brown cheese’ isn’t cheese at all, technically, but why change the habit of a lifetime and nation?

I always get quite excited at the prospect of a week or so of brown cheese eating when I come to Norway but I wondered if there was anything more to be done with this very particular substance.  It being a sweet ‘cheese’ I though that the natural conclusion would be cheesecake. This, apparently, wasn’t a conclusion anyone in the household had come by but they were enthusiastic in their support. We gave it a shot and I’m happy to report the experiment had pleasing results, although I think some of the natives were humouring me with their complements and will continue to devour their brunost  in a more traditional manner.

If you can find some brunost outside of Norway give it a try.

 

Brown cheese cheesecake/ Brunostkake

250g choc top digestive biscuits

50g butter

400g cream cheese

300g prim (soft brown cheese)

½ cup icing sugar

¼ lemon

 

Melt the butter in a small pan. Use a small amount to brush onto the 20cm round springform cake tin.

Crush the digestive biscuits to a fine sand-like crumb in a mixing bowl and add the remainder of the melted butter and mix though thoroughly.

Press the biscuit mixture on the base of the tin and refrigerate.

Beat the cream cheese until light creamy. Add the Prim and lemon juice beat till combined.

Sift in the icing sugar and mix.

Pour onto the biscuit base and smooth evenly over the surface. Refrigerate overnight.

Serve with foraged raspberries – if you’re lucky enough to have them!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rolf’s first date blue cheese pasta

B and I have been coming to Norway to visit friends for years now. Each visit is a treat and a delightful distraction from the bright lights of London. Our friends live in Hakadal, “the most beautiful place on earth”, a little hamlet 45min north of Oslo. This is said with tongue firmly planted in cheek but in truth it is stunningly beautiful and we wake each morning with a view of the surrounding mountains. We eat brown cheese for breakfast, go for long walks in the surrounding hills and generally enjoy the wonderful company of good friends, their children and extended family, friends and pets.

Rolf is the man in a house of women, although he’s dominance had been challenged with a recent arrival. Still, his prowess in the kitchen is incomparable. He knows, for instance, the absolute optimum temperature to pre-heat the oven in order to cook the perfect frozen pizza. And don’t even get me started on the fish balls!

The story goes that this was the first dish Rolf prepared for his wife when they were dating, and to this day it is cooked on every one of our visits to their lovely home.

Rolf’s first date blue cheese pasta

Serves 4

150g blue veined cheese (Rolf uses Costello Blue)

1 tbl sp plain flour

2 tsp salt

1 good dollop of cream

1 good dollop of milk

400/500g spaghetti

1 knob of butter

 

In a large, pot boil some water for the spaghetti adding a good pinch of salt.

Heat small saucepan and add the cheese to melt. Keep stirring making sure it doesn’t burn.

Once cheese has melted add the flour and keep stirring.

Add spaghetti to the boiling water – Rolf likes to break it in half.

Add the cream and the milk to the cheese sauce and stir. Once combined take off the heat.

Once the spaghetti is cooked to al dente, drain and place in a serving bowl.

Serve the pasta and the sauce separately at the table so that your guest can choose just how much they would like.

 

I took the notes for this recipe as it was prepared on the first night of our recent visit and like all true gourmets Rolf was a little hazy on the exact quantities. “You know when you are experienced as I am,” he says modestly,  “but too much salt and it’s not tasteful, “ he adds.

In truth it is a tasty and simple pasta dish, which we will continue to look forward to on every visit.

Thanks Rolf!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A foray in the fields

You know how it happens. It’s one of those ideas you’ve always thought about looking into or having a proper go at but it never quite eventuates. That is until a stroke of fate or twitter and you find yourself nibbling freshly picked wild greens on a hillside two hours out of London and close to the Bristol channel.

That is exactly where I found myself this past Sunday with a few fellow foodies: @sabrinaghayour + her dear Mum (well it was Mother’s Day after all),  @nicmonks@donalde and @stewed. In a way it felt quite dream-like but this was probably in part due to the 6am start and two hour drive – very capably executed by heavily-caffeinated @donalde.

We had all gathered at a ridiculously early hour – OK, 10am’s not that bad – to glean some knowledge from our host @sarty1, Mr Wild Food Larder, about foraging for the wild foods of the British Isles; where to find, what to gather, what to taste (and what not to). I’ve done a little gathering in my time, mainly from the Thames riverbank near my house for sorrel, a little wild garlic, elder flowers and enough berries for a nice little 2010 vintage batch of jam, but I’ve always wanted to be a little more certain of what I am collecting. Foraging can be a bit of a mug’s game after all and one wrong mushroom or leafy green and you could be in real trouble.

@sarty1 is a fountain of knowledge and his wild food forays, including a very promising sounding mushroom foray in autumn, are very popular. Ours, being the inaugural event for the season, was mainly in search of luscious greens and came with the promise of as much wild garlic as we could carry. Which of course I took to the extreme bringing my lovely large French market basket.

Fortunately @sarty1 is also a dab hand at a spot of charcuterie.  So, greeted with a fresh cup of freshly plunged coffee and a home-cured bacon roll we embraced the damp Sunday morning adventure.

‘Wild food’ has had a resurgence of popularity over the past year or so with the celebrated cooking style of ‘the best restaurant in the world’ where delicate foraged herbs, greens and flowers form a dominant part of the menu. And let’s be honest we all like a bit of free food, don’t we?

Spring is a fantastic time for gathering the fresh salad green types of wild foods and we commenced our day with a wander down the drive to see what we could find. Once you know what you’re looking for it’s clear that there are edible goodies all around. From the tiny delicate fronds of Common Vetch that taste of sweet pea shoots, the citrus bite of Sheeps Sorrel (not to be confused with the poisonous Adders Tongue), to dandelion heads w/ the sunny heads on show and a familiar tasting and weedy looking Garlic Mustard. We all nibbled, ummed and ahhhed trying to guess the identifiable flavours. It really is an exercise of the mind and it’s amazing just how hard it is to recall, on demand, the name of the flavour you know is familiar. It was on the tip of the tongue in the most literal sense.

The flavours of wild food seem to be both delicate and striking at the same time. By its nature it’s hard to gather in large predicable amounts, barring, of course, wild garlic which, in early spring, the term prolific does not begin to describe. But the flavours of the various greens once collected deliver the type of punch that cannot be delivered by mass agriculture. In short they are a delight and an intrigue to the palette.

An additional delight of the day’s foray was foraging by the seaside where we were taught how to identify Rock Samphire – Marsh Samphire’s higher cousin, wild fennel, sea spinach, Alexanders, wild chives, salad burnet and scurvy grass with its sweet white flowers. The wispy tails of fennel are a hit and have us scaling rock faces and dreaming of risotto.

At last the combination of exertion and sea air gets the better of us and we buzz back to our secret-ish location for a locally-sourced lunch including cheeses, venison burgers, hot smoked ham, wild garlic risotto, dips, sauces and spreads of various hues of green and pickled this and that.  It is all an utter delight. To finish things off we are lucky enough to pick up some fresh morels which I pop straight in my oven for drying when I get home.

After a day’s foray I can honestly say I am knackered but brimming with excitement and recipe ideas for my lovely foraged foods. Now the work and the washing begins!

Huge thanks to Andrew (@sarty1) for the foray, to the Mrs for the back-up and the risotto, to Molly for the canine company and all my fellow foodies – may you all have full stomachs and sound sleeps.

You can find recipes for all your lovely foraged goodies at www.thewildfoodlarder.co.uk

Viva la Recreación

One whole month after returning from a two-week jaunt to Cuba I am still struggling to construct an accurate statement of my experience that doesn’t undermine any aspect. It’s an almost impossible task (even for this supposed journalist)

Just the country’s name conjures up a myriad of different images; perhaps it’s bearded revolutionaries and a romantic 50’s tinged version of communism, the music of the ubiquitous, and now mostly deceased, Buena Vista Social Club, perhaps it’s decrepit leaders hanging on to power and ‘American imperialism.’ For most English travellers it also paints a picture of heat and the all inclusive resort.

And you know what, all of these images exist in Cuba, they are all correct in their own way but they are part of a whole that is much more complex.

My trip took the form of a 10-day, three city Santiago de Cuba/Trinidad/Havana overlander, with a few days trekking the hallowed mountain-sides of the Sierra Maestra for good measure. As it happens this was probably my favourite part of the entire trip. The electric-green tropical slopes with their small communities and slice of a preserved past really felt like a get away and an enjoyable eye opening experience.

Being a self-confessed food lover I tried to do my research re: cuisine before going but what I was amazed to hear repeated over and over again is the mantra that the “food was/is BAD!”

The reality is that the cuisine has suffered terribly from the conditions within the communist system. To say they live seasonally is an understatement. Poverty and rationing means you eat what’s available and you supplement with black market goods when you can. For myself and my fellow travellers this mean a tropical fruit fest supplemented with chicken or por or ‘illegal’ seafood when eating in the homestays or ‘casa particulars’ and the odd dodgy peso pizza if out and about. Avocado’s the size of a baby’s head, fresh guava juice and bright bananas are fine for two weeks but any more and we might have gone mad.

Working our way east to west to Havana meant the availability of variety improved exponentially as we went and we did have quite a nice ‘middle eastern’ style mezze meal in Havana Old town itself. But ultimate the standard was reasonable to poor.

What seemed to me to be missing from the cooking itself was herbs and spices and seasoning other than a little salt. At a guess this is due to the lack of ability to trade freely which is such a shame. I can’t help thinking back to my Italian heritage and how they managed to create amazingly tasty meals within the cucina povera tradition with very little at all.

Still, one thing the Cubans and the Italians have in common is their love and divine execution of coffee. Granted Italians can do a thousand things with the stuff but both nationalities knock out a BRILLIANT espresso and appreciate good grounds.

It’s really in this realm of the beverage that Cubans come into their own. Their love of cocktail is something else. Perhaps it was the intense sweaty heat that made their piña colada extra rewarding or the Latin rhythms (or most likely the rum) that made the mojitos SO more-ish and finally the queen of them all the daiquiri. Whether with blended ice (as us westerners are more used to) or without the daiquiri with its lemon tang and intense hit of Havana’s best Ron hits the spot. And give me a Bucanero or a Cristal lager over an Australian beer any day.

Cuba was an amazing experience and I would highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in going – just do your research. And one last piece of advice, NEVER be tempted to try their dessert speciality of marmalade and cheese (TRULY  TERRIBLE) especially on a hot day.

Ps. Our group of four included two vegetarians, who despite getting a little sick of eating eggs in all their forms, did not go hungry buy any means.

TravelsAnne Giacomantonio
Pastry or pudding?

smaller

Sometimes, in all my pseudo Italiano bravado, I forget just how passionate proper Italian people are about food and then someone or something crops up to remind me. Nipping down to the backer for some bread this morning I found myself behind a lovely lady who seemed to be in the middle of buying the entire shop. She apologised for taking so much time and polite conversation began. She said she had come a long way “from Heathrow” to stock up on goodies for Christmas. And they do have some lovely goodies at Newens. This lady was from Italy and was very proud that she had ‘discovered’ the little bakery when none of her English friends new about it.

She told me about her friend who has a pasticceria in Turin. “The most lovely bite sized pastries (she demonstrated with her hands) – there is nothing like it in London,” she extolled. When I said I was impressed with the pasty I had sampled in Naples this year, in true Italian style, she rolled her eyes and said it was nothing like they have in the north.

You see Italians are passionate not about food, but their food. Their particular way of preparing it. Nothing else lives up to it and nothing else will do.

My experience of the Neapolitan pastry was of a delicious ricotta-filled shell, Sfogliatelle or the fluffy but rum-drunken Babà (which isn’t strictly Italian but they are passionate about all the same). There is also the Neapolitan version of the cream-filled donut, a Zeppola. All as decedent and indulgent as good pastry should be and all made with care and passion. But this is it, the Neapolitans will tell you their pastry is the best in the country. And when you try some I god help you if you disagree with them – you wouldn’t anyway. Then you would speak to the Venetians or the Sicilians and it would be the same story and the same delicious regional speciality. My questions is where is that pride, that competitive spirit that bravado in English cuisine?

The Italian lady did tell me that she sends a Christmas pudding to her baker friend in Turin every year “as she can’t get anything like it in Italy.” So maybe the English do have something to be proud of.

TravelsAnne Giacomantonio