Saturday, August 28, 2010

Repeat after me: paella

Valencia: home of oranges, a park where once a river ran, and most importantly to this blog, paella.
Now, for who just read that word as ‘pay-ella’ STOP. Say it again like that, and you may as well line up at your nearest tattoo parlour for your very own Southern Cross on your shoulder-blade. Would it help if I tell you that in Spanish language, double L, as in the double L in paella, is pronounced as a Y? OK, now try it again: pie-ay-uh.
I’m not quite sure how Paella came to be born in Valencia, but I’m really glad it did. I’m also really glad that I managed (with some help from my travelling companion) to suss out a somewhat less touristic restaurant in which to sample this Valencian speciality.
When thinking of paella (did you pronounce it correctly this time?) most people see bright yellow rice with opened mussels, prawns and other sea-dwelling creatures swimming around enjoying their saffron-bathed surroundings. I hate to break it to you, but that is not traditional Valencian paella. While it’s nice, it’s not the real McCoy.
So what is? When we took our seats at a beach-side restaurant in Valencia, it was already 4:30pm on a lovely, balmy afternoon. We took a look at the menu, spied what we came for and requested in our best Spanish: quesiera Paella a Valencia. “Are you sure you don’t want the seafood one?” came back at us in accented English “it is very nice”. No, we wanted what we came for: paella with rabbit and chicken, like any Valencian would want. “Oh, OK, if you sure...but might be 40 minutes”. No problem for us – at least we knew we were getting freshly cooked paella, and not a batch of packet-mix that had been sitting there for hours.
Two jugs of sangria later and out came our very own pan of paella – it was huge, or at least it seemed huge. We of course managed to finish the entire thing. On top of our saffron-infused rice and hunks of rabbit and chicken, were cooked snow peas – something we would notice more of on top of this Valencian speciality.
For those who followed Master chef season one (an eternity ago now) you may have remembered Gary and George crapping on about the importance of the ‘crust’ in paella – now, I’m still not quite sure what they were going on about, but I do know that the tastiest rice in the paella dish is what I would suppose is the equivalent of a crust – slightly more cooked than the rest of the rice, each grain takes on additional flavour and texture. Much like the skin on a good roast chicken, but it’s not a crust as such – just clumps of rice that have come stuck in places to the paella pan.
I think I almost ate that entire meal with my eyes closed, savouring each mouthful of that golden grain.
For those who claim that paella is a glorified version of risotto, I have this to say to you: seriously?!? Are you kidding? Step away from the Ainsley whatshisface packet paella and go to a decent Spanish restaurant and try saying it again.
Next up: horchata and fartons in Valencia
Tapas gratis in Granada; and
Pasteis de nata in Lisbon, Portugal

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Comidas a Espana

I’m sitting here writing this from the common room of a hostel in Valencia Spain. Yep, the budget travelling has finally kicked in.

Goodbye iced-coffees of New York and Frappes of Greece, add-ons such as these are no-longer included in the budget. Instead, I’m back to a somewhat more usual diet: muesli and yoghurt for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and meat and veg for dinner. My digestive system is thanking me after those rich, heavy meals of New York and the potential meat-overload in Greece.

Yet while I may no-longer be dining in restaurants each night, the gastronomic encounters have not ceased to exist – they’ve just changed slightly. And Spain is a great place for this to happen.

It freaked me out the first time I walked into a Supermercado and found a pig trotter reaching for the heavens, its disembodied leg trailing behind it, and several, in fact, dozens of other little pigs' trotters all waving ‘hello’ as I picked up my basket. Yes friends, that would be a whole leg of jamon, live (er, dead?) in the flesh, waiting for Spanish Mamas to take home to their hungry jamon-eating families.

From the Supermercado, to the normal Mercado, and the vibrant colours of fruit stalls, smells of fresh herbs and the general bustling vibe is enough to buoy you along the aisles as if you were there for your weekly shop. La Boqueria is Barcelona’s answer to Melbourne’s Queen Vic Market, although I would say, somewhat more impressive.

Having started as an open-air market in the early 1700s, La Boqueria is “one of the best markets in Europe” according to Chairman of the Vendors Association of the Boqueria Market. Biased somewhat? Perhaps, but I think he may be on the money.

As soon as you enter the market underneath its impressive stained-glass arch, the vibe of the market is evident – it’s a bustling, functioning market that also happens to have dozens of tourists floating through it. Delicatessens, grocers, fruiterers, dried fruits and herbs, fish mongers who will cook their produce right in front of you, it’s all happening in this market. We elbow our way through the crowds who congregate at the front, unaware that by doing so, they’re actually being duped into farewelling an extra euro or two on everything they purchase. It’s in the heart and towards the back of the market where prices are somewhat more affordable.

Having heard tales of amazing juices available in Brasil, I was bowled over by the colour and vibrancy of the fruits and juices on offer at almost every single fruiterer. Packaged mixed fruit each with its own fork, dragon fruit, the juiciest strawberries by the punnet – it really is a fresh-food heaven inside La Boqueria. But back to the juices. For EU1.50, I chose a raspberry and banana juice, while my partner chose a blackberry and coconut. Obviously fresh, I could almost feel the nutrients and vitamins coursing through my veins as I sipped my fruit juice cocktail, while taking in the other sights of the market.

Sheep’s head anyone? Rabbit carcasses? Pig’s head? Oh and yes, all still with their eyes in. A little disconcerting, but the Spanish would probably find it unusual that our butchers keep everything nicely removed from any memory that this meat we have before us on a Sunday afternoon was once baa-ing in a field. Oh, and more legs of jamon, with those little trotters neatly strung from the ceiling.

In addition to the traditional fruit and veg stands, there are also several stalls set-up as food stands, offering the freshest seafood cooked on the spot, baked goods, pizzas, pasta and salads. The seafood stalls are obviously popular, with locals and tourists alike sitting around shelling pipis and mussels while sipping a Spanish white wine.

We choose a fresh baguette with jamon for me, and chorizo for my partner. Everything is fresh, the jamon lovely and salty and stringy. For EU2, it really is a bargain. We top off our meal with a cabello de angel – or angel hair. When chowing down, I likened the little empanada-shaped pastry to a Christmas mince tart; there was obviously some sort of dried fruit in there and the pastry was crumbly, much like a mince tart.

From doing some further reading, I would never have guessed that the ‘fruit’ in the middle of my sugar-coated empanada was actually pumpkin!

The following is an excerpt from the translated Spanish Wikipedia page on cabello de angel:

The pumpkin is made by boiling the pulp of a gourd in a highly concentrated sugar solution until it unravels into a kind of fine threads of golden yellow. In Spain we use the pumpkin cider or musk. A syrup is often used in the same amount of sugar pumpkin. It is sometimes added to the mixture of lemon juice (an acid) and cinnamon for flavouring.”

Since visiting La Boqueria, I’m going to try and go to the market in most places we visit – the vibe is fantastic, and I think a really great insight into the types of food a culture eats.

While currently in Valencia, we have indulged in some seriously amazing paella and sangria – but they shall be a posting unto themselves.

Stay tunes, mi amigos!

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Γειά σου, υποδοχή στην Ελλάδα (welcome to Greece)

You know what makes me happy? OK, it's Thus, it would come as very little surprise that Greece made me one very happy Von Strudel.

We all have Greek friends whose Mums and Yiayias make the most amazing food, and we’ve all vied for an invite to Greek Easter to sample the pastitsio, moussaka and tyropita at one stage or another.

Well my friends, it was like all my Greek Easters had come at once.

Staying within spitting distance of the Acropolis, we were literally surrounded by Greek restaurants, each with a multi-lingual spruiker posted at their entrances, promising the best mixed grills for two for EU20.

Jet-lagged from our flight from New York, when it got to the eating hour, all we knew was that we wanted some Greek lamb and we wanted it now. Trying to find the most affordable 500ml Amstel, our stomach’s got in the way of our budgets, and we settled for a nice looking touristy place, where a dapper, greek, silver fox had promised us free shots if we dined at his restaurant. Sold.

We settled in to look at the menu, and after sounding out the names (oh, so THAT’S how it’s spelled) we decided on dips to begin (tzatziki and eggplant) as well as a refreshing stein of Amstel (EU4). Chunks of fresh bread were brought out in a basket, and we ravenously tore into them, swiping licks of greek yoghurt and cucumber, eggplant and olive oil before devouring it all in 5 minutes flat (possibly less).

A Greek salad (yes, a greek salad in Greece is the same as back home) with a thick slab of feta on top arrived next, with Patatas: crudely cut potatoes deep friend and doused in salt.

Taking our time between ‘courses’ to chat with newly arrived friends J & L, we eagerly awaited the holy grail of our meal – lamb shoulder baked in a bag with potatoes and lemon. It was good, I wouldn’t go so far to say very good, but it was what we were after: lamb.

The next day, having collapsed in to bed full and maybe a little tipsy from happy hour at the hostel roof-top bar, we began the day afresh. When lunch time came (although these days lunch time can be anywhere from 12-6pm, usually around 4pm) we found ourselves just outside the touristic area, and what a blessing that turned out to be.

For those who’ve not had the privilege of having gyros in Greece – get thee to a travel agent. Simple, fresh, and not a ten-tonner like the doner kebabs of Brunswick St, the Greek gyro is manageable, but certainly filling. Flat, freshly made pita bread is wrapped around pork (or chicken..sadly summer is not lambing season) straight from the revolving spit, doused in garlic sauce, lettuce, onion and tomato...and wait for it – chips...I mean fries. It’s simple, it’s GENIUS, it’s delicious. Chips/fries in a gyro. Loves it. And for a measly EU2, you’re on to a budget-traveller winner (remember, I’m meant to be a budget traveller...)

Finally, there’s no way I can end a blog entry about Greece without a knod to the most unbelievable Greek Yoghurt and honey I have ever had. Not normally a fan of Greek Yoghurt, the home of the stuff certainly knows what to do with it, and does it well. Seriously good breakfast nommage.

PS - had the BEST freakin' Moussaka in Fira, Santorini, watching the sunset, with a glass of Santorini wine. Life doesn't get much better!

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