Sunday, July 31, 2011

Hidden Gems- London

I’ve been in England for about a month now and I’m pretty sick of British food.

Say what you want. Tell me that I haven’t been ordering the right stuff or eating at the right places. But let’s be honest here, is it really known for being the most amazing cuisine in the world? Now, I would never totally hate on British food because that would mean hating on comfort food. What’s not to like about meat and potatoes? At the end of the day, British food is honest, unfussy, and simple...

...and heavy and, well, unimaginative. Look, I need some complex flavors. And where’s the pizazz in fish and chips or steak and ale pie? However, I must admit that there is ONE traditional dish that I can’t seem to get enough of, and surprise, it's a dessert.

I know. I’m a glutton for sweets. I believe in pre-dinner desserts and midnight sweet snacks. Every day. These ladies had the right idea.

Midnight cheesecake solves everything. You go girls.

If you haven’t had this delicious dessert before, here’s the run down. Sticky toffee pudding is a moist, steamed sponge cake made with chopped dates and topped with a velvety toffee sauce. Many enjoy it with vanilla custard, but I like mine a la mode. This dish is a heart-warming, soul-satisfying sweet treat.

We wandered around the affluent, elegant Notting Hill area of London, looking for a place that was still open, and more importantly, serving sticky toffee pudding. We hopped from pub to pub with no luck. It was ridiculous, really. I mean, an hour to find a place serving sticky toffee pudding in London?

Just when we were about to throw our hands in the air and give up, we found Ffiona's.

It was a busy night, so we were lucky to be seated after a group failed to make their reservation time. After a month of eating in chippy's and pubs, I had no idea what to expect, but Ffiona's turned out to be one of the coziest little bistros I have ever been to. It was romantic and glowing with candlelight. It was so intimate that I felt like I was eating in someone's home. Ffiona herself bustled around the restaurant, serving, cleaning, and taking orders. She was a little overworked, a bit eccentric, and maybe even bossy, but she was amazingly quick and attentive. She had a sort of don’t-mess-with-me attitude, and I could tell that she had a following because she was on a first name basis with some of her customers. It was charming. 

It is a bit on the pricey upmarket side, so I would save it for a farewell to London dinner, or just stop by for coffee and dessert. But if you're looking for an "off the beaten path" restaurant in London, I would highly recommend Ffiona's.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Best Day Ever: Tuscany

My friends (strange, nocturnal creatures who sometimes sleep until well into the afternoon) constantly make fun of me because I typically fall asleep just when the party is getting started, and wake up bright and early the next morning when everyone is usually going off to bed. I prefer to have classes in the morning. And the last time I consistently slept in, I think I was in 8th grade.

There were so many days during the trip when I tried to force myself to remember that this was a vacation—that I didn’t need to plan every moment or wake up at the crack of dawn every morning.

But what’s better than waking up early when everything is quiet and peaceful? I feel like I don’t have to rush, I can just take my time to ease into the day brimming with possibilities ahead of me. And isn’t that what this trip is all about? Having days full of beautiful experiences?

Since a friend told me that I absolutely had to go to the Mercato Centrale, and only before the afternoon tourist rush, I took advantage of the early morning quiet in Florence and made my way to the famous covered marketplace. I sipped on a cappuccino at a café while nearby shopkeepers chatted with me in broken English. They slowly enjoyed their coffees while flipping through newspapers, and then they hurried back to their stalls to set up their cases of meats, fruits, breads, and vegetables for the day. I bought a few apples from a friendly woman who proudly told me about her son who moved to America. Everyone was helpful and kind. I walked around, tempted to buy some fresh pasta or cured meats, but I left before my hungry eyes could get the better of me.

As I mentioned before, our hostel in Florence set up all sorts of fun and relatively inexpensive excursions and tours. You could go on a nighttime bike ride around the city, take a cooking class, or even go horseback riding through Tuscany. We opted for a wine- tasting tour cleverly called “chiantipsy”.

Our first stop was Greve, a town located in the Chianti Classico region of Tuscany. This area is known for having mineral-rich soil, and locals have been producing wine here since, well, practically forever. We learned that the mark of a true Chianti Classico wine is a black rooster label on the bottle. Here’s the story behind it.

The basement of a cheese and meat store in Greve. Heaven.

The legend of the black rooster goes back to the time of city-states in Italy, when Florence and Siena fought to claim the Chianti Classico region as their own. The fighting was getting pretty ridiculous, so the leaders decided to settle this dispute with a competition. A horseman from each city was to set out at the crow of a rooster, and the border would be established wherever the horsemen met. Fair enough. The Sienese chose a happy, well-fed white rooster while the Florentines starved a black rooster. Animal cruelty much? But wait! He soon became the star of the city because he was so hungry that he woke up  early in the morning and crowed, allowing the rider to get a head start on his journey.

The black rooster is a symbol of authenticity, and he has been since 1398. Our next stop was a nearby vineyard for a light lunch and chianti tasting. Our guide told us that Lorenzo, a close friend of his, is a twelfth generation wine-maker. His ancestry dates back to the time of the Medici family. Yes, I’m talking about the same Medici family who essentially financed the early Renaissance. Lorenzo’s family was extremely wealthy, but they were reduced to farming-class status after a number of disputes with the Medici’s, who clearly weren’t the kind of people you wanted to piss off. So ever since then, Lorenzo’s family has been farming in Tuscany.

I’m not sure what I expected, perhaps a man dressed like a count or a lord or something like that, but Lorenzo was far from this. He wore jeans and a casual cotton shirt. His curly black hair was pulled back in a ponytail. He was smiling, down-to-earth, and shy. As he led us through the garden to his grand house, he lovingly checked on his olive trees and grapevines, delicately brushing the leaves with the tips of his fingers. He spoke about his estate in Italian while our guide translated. He spoke of his family’s wine with pride, and warmly invited us to explore his home.

We walked into a great room with tables set up for lunch. The meal was simple, yet delicious. We ate slices of bread with prosciutto and salami, and sipped on two kinds of red wine. Lorenzo served us olive oil produced on his estate, generously drizzling it onto our plates. And if it had been socially acceptable for me to lick my plate, I would have. Finally, we were served a delicious penne pasta with tomato sauce. It felt like something out of a movie. I was eating a beautiful meal with wonderful people, looking out the window onto softly rolling hills covered in grape vines and olive trees.

I don’t know much about wine, but I could definitely tell a difference between the Chianti and the basic red wine we were served. The first wine was light and fruity, while the chianti had a deeper, richer taste.

We ended our trip at a grappa factory. I had never heard of grappa before this tour, so I was fascinated by it. Originally made to avoid waste, grappa is a byproduct of fermented grape skins, so all the left-overs after winemaking. At the factory, a portion of the grappa is stored in great barrels, giving it an amber color as well as a unique, aged flavor.

Many people use it as a ‘digestivo’, or an after-dinner drink to aid in digestion. Some even drink a little with espresso to create ‘caffe corretto’. First you enjoy the espresso, and follow it with a few ounces of grappa. Delicioso!

I enjoyed the smell of it more than the taste. I can only describe it as similar to vodka, but with a sweet flavor. Overall, not bad, but I don’t think I can handle it straight!

As if that wasn’t awesome enough, we were served fruit skewers drizzled with creamy balsamic vinegar, which reminded me of a recipe I recently came upon.

Macerated Berries with Balsamic Vinegar
1 quart of strawberries, washed and sliced
1/3 cup of balsamic vinegar
1 tbsp honey
chopped mint or basil

Simmer vinegar over medium-low heat until reduced by half. At this point it should be thickened a bit and a little sticky. Remove from heat and stir in honey. Pour over berries and let sit for approximately 10 minutes. Stir in herbs and serve atop vanilla ice cream.

(sorry, I had to!)

I am so absolutely in love with Italy.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Madrid in a day.

A somewhat last minute trip to Madrid? Well, why not.

I would be lying if I said that the main purpose of this trip was not to eat Spanish food. You’re probably asking, Megha, you seriously went all the way to Spain just for food? And the answer is yes, yes I did! You see, I have always been in love with the idea of eating little tapas and sipping on sangria, but I have never really experienced authentic Spanish cuisine. I wasn’t sure if it really was as amazing as I wanted it to be or if I just romanticized the whole thing in my head.

One thing I learned is that in Spain, eating is much more than just a meal. It is an experience. It’s sitting at your favorite restaurant with your friends, sipping on wine and chatting late into the night. You take your time. You allow your taste buds to savor and appreciate every tangy, salty, and sweet flavor in your mouth. You observe the way the flavors mingle and complement one another.

My favorite place by far was Mercado San Miguel. It might not be as large or grand as some of the other markets I visited in Europe, but this is definitely a case of quality over quantity. If you want a true tapas experience, then this is the place to visit. Locals stand at the counters, drinking sangria while they snack on all the delicacies this place has to offer. So of course, we did the same.

First, we ate little foi gras sandwiches. A warm little patty of foi gras topped with caramelized onions and placed on a soft bun…what could be better? 

Next on the to-do list: fish. One slice of soft bread topped with salmon, tomato, cheese, chives, and drizzled with olive oil. The other with a garlicy jam, marinated pieces of squid, and herbs.

And finally, to wash it all down, sangria. Surprisingly inexpensive and served with a little bowl of delicious green olives. Yum!

I could go on an on about the different foods I experienced like croquettas (little creamy fried balls of deliciousness filled with spinach, fish, jamon, or anything really), paella, and tortilla. But I should really stop myself before I just go on and on forever. Why don’t I just move on to dessert?
We know churros as fried sticks of dough topped with cinnamon and sugar. We eat them at baseball games (what, we only do that in Texas?!) and all we really want in life are Ryan Reynolds and a lifetime supply of them.



Now, imagine them without all that cinnamon sugar nonsense and instead served with a cup of piping hot, melted dark chocolate. Yes, google images tells me that this is common knowledge to the rest of the world, but this was totally new to me.

The chocolate isn’t as overwhelmingly sweet as one would imagine. It’s creamy with a slightly bitter edge. The churros are crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. We also ordered porras, which are the thick and soft pillowy version of churros. 

The verdict? Spanish food was even better than I imagined.

I was sad to leave sunny Madrid. Yes, I ate and ate and ate. BUT I was also able to experience some of the other beautiful things the city has to offer like the incredible and historic Plaza Mayor. I even rowed a boat for the first time in my life in Madrid’s beautiful central park, Retiro. 

This was a whirlwind trip, and it definitely left me wanting more.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

White Night in Tuscany

After a few days of sunny weather, the gloomy gray clouds and chilly air have returned. It was nice while it lasted, and believe me, I took advantage of it. I went to a beautiful park down the road and discovered the prettiest creek I think I have ever seen. I watched families picnicking (that sounds kind of creepy, doesn’t it?) and little baby ducks bouncing around on some lily pads in a pond. I even ate my lunch outside, and this time on a bench and not in the middle of the street!

Since I’m dreaming about beautiful weather, I think this would be the perfect time to tell you about my experience in Tuscany.

If you ever visit Florence, I highly recommend staying at Hostel Plus Florence. We walked there from the train station and were immediately greeted by friendly staff members who gave us tons of helpful resources and ideas! The hostel even has its own reasonably-priced café and bar, and the view from the roof is incredible!

Our first night in Florence happened to fall on “white night”. We failed to ask what that actually means, but we discovered that on designated Saturdays all the markets stay open until very late and the streets are filled with vendors and live performances. Kelsey, Jenny, myself, and a kind of strange girl from Florida who happened to be sharing our room with us made our way across town to see what this “white night” business was all about.

The streets were full of tourists and locals. A group of people gathered to watch some old black and white film, which was being projected on the side of a building. Vendors were selling big cups of sweet, fruity sangria. An Italian hard rock band was screeching and head-banging in the street, drawing a large applauding, drunken crowd. Local artists were selling jewelry and little trinkets. A butcher was making made-to-order sandwiches with fresh ciabatta and thinly sliced pieces of meat, which he carved right before your eyes.

So I know this is a given, but kids, you really shouldn’t trust people you don’t know.

You also shouldn’t trust people with skunk tail-looking highlights.

The strange girl from Florida with the weird name I can’t remember, who seemed to know where she was going but actually didn’t have a clue, was leading us further and further away from the markets. By the time we realized this, it was midnight and we were lost in a city that we had been in for about half a day.

I guess they say that getting lost in a city is the best way to truly discover it, right?

By the time we reached the hostel, it was well after 1am and we were cranky and achy, but the night had been so incredible that it didn’t matter. As I lay in bed, all I could think about was this: I had woken up in Venice and I was falling asleep in Florence.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Oxford: Day One

Hello! Did you miss me? I know I left you hanging with my, "I'm off to Europe!" followed by ZERO entries for three weeks. I truly wanted to write, and believe me, I meant to. However, it turns out it's quite hard to blog when you don't have a laptop. Obviously, I didn't think this plan through.

But, fear not! I'm back! It took a taxi, a bus, and one helluva walk to get me here but I have arrived in Oxford. I have stories to tell and even a few recipes to share if I can find the napkins and bits of paper I scribbled them on.

So, let me begin by saying that I have learned a number of things on this trip. The most important is this: I really need to learn how to pack lighter. The second: I was stupid for thinking that summer in America is kind of like summer in England, because, well, it’s really not.

I took a taxi from my Aunt’s house in Uxbridge to the bus stop. The grumpy cab driver left me across the street from the actual stop, so I was forced to drag my giant backpack, my little backpack, my duffel bag, and the lunch sack my Aunt packed for me across the busy road. That was a battle in itself. Three cars plowed through a massive puddle, leaving me completely drenched by the time I even made it to the bus. And to make matters worse, it’s cold here.

Luckily, Thom, the friendly bus driver helped me with my bags. Thom is a jolly fellow who wears his hair in a ponytail and speaks in an accent I can barely understand. He is from a town that ends in “shire”, which really narrows things down in this place. He hates London and doesn't really care for fish and chips. He loves Oxford.

“That’s Oxfords oldest buildin’.” Thom said as he pointed at an old tower on the high street. “Think it was built in 1000 or somethin'. Pretty cool eh?” (Please excuse my horrible and probably offensive effort to convey his accent.)

“Wow, that’s…older than America.” I said stupidly.

Thom didn’t respond.

To be honest, I was totally in awe of the incredible architecture and history before me. Oxford is beautiful, and it’s actually not very big. In fact if I had blinked, I would have missed the city center. It’s a quaint little place filled with massive stone buildings. Parts of the shop-lined streets are cobblestone. It’s everything you can expect, and oh so much more. Many people don’t realize that the university itself is made up of nearly forty small colleges, and each college seems to have a personality of its own. The quads of Keble differ from the gardens of Trinity and the grassy grove of Magdalen. It's amazing.

I finally arrived at the bus stop. The weather had cleared up, and thinking I would save a few pounds on bus or taxi fare, I figured that I would walk to my dorm. It seemed like a great idea at the time...

Lesson number three: It rains all the time in England.

I was a mere three blocks away from the station when it started to pour. I was tripping and slipping over cobblestones. My bags were falling down. I pulled my sweatshirt over my head only to end up looking like a giant gray pillow hobbling down the road. And after making every effort to avoid it, I fell on the street. My bags toppled over my legs, so I couldn’t really move. So there I was, pinned to the ground by my own luggage. The rain was pouring. And all I could think to do was eat my egg salad sandwich.

People were staring at me, and an old man actually patted me on the head as he walked by. I didn’t care. I had finally made it to Oxford, England. After weeks of sleeping on trains and buses and creaky hostel beads, I was here. By the time I finished my delicious sandwich, the rain cleared up. I gathered my things and carried on to Parks Road.

So yes, this was my first day at Oxford, England. Unpredictable Weather: 1 Megha: 0. But tomorrow I will buy an umbrella, find myself a map, and explore my new (temporary) home. 

Don't worry, I wont forget to tell you about Europe! But I think a good nights sleep is definitely a must for me. Sweet dreams!