Archive for the ‘Food’ Category

Often it’s the little things that can seem the most different. Take the shot below. There are a number of things in it that speak of foreign lands and different cultures; the palm trees in the background, the wooden ‘home-made by Robinson Crusoe’ tables and stools, the similarly desert island-esque thatched straw roof. But most of all it’s the sign.

You might think that given the design of this terrace this occupied a prime location overlooking a dreamy beach. But if you fancy popping out for a quick dip from here, the beach is a three hour trek through a ravine. This is at Masca on Tenerife; quite a bit inland.

So by the time you’ve popped out for your swim and made your way back, you’ve worked up a serious thirst. What better to quench it than with some cactus lemonade?

The prickly plants are abundant in these parts and apart from adding a touch of sub-tropical exoticism to the landscape, you can eat their ‘pears’ and, as the sign says, make lemonade from them.

I tried it once – you’ve got to really – and it didn’t really have any distinctive flavours. It certainly wasn’t unpleasant. But these days I tend to be boringly conventional and go for the seductively icy friendship of a cerveza after a strenuous hike.

Sadly the bar no longer looks like this… but the cactus lemonade is still there.

‘I normally don’t like Italian food.’ The line jumped from the page and slapped me around the ‘lightly seasoned’ chops.

I just don’t get people who make trawler-net statements about a country’s cuisine. How can anyone say I don’t like Italian, Thai, Greek, Indian (add the country of your choice here) food? Any country’s cuisine is far too diverse to write it off with a line like that (some pedant will no doubt come up with a place where everything consists of  things made out of a yak). What it suggests to me is that the person making the statement is a) possibly a fussy eater and b) certainly not a foodie. A person who doesn’t like a country’s cuisine has more than likely not sampled very much of it. Maybe they ate one dish as a child that they didn’t enjoy.

It’s amazing how many of our culinary likes and dislikes stretch back to a childhood experience…or how many people don’t like food that their parents didn’t like. Try this test out. Think about something you don’t enjoy eating and then ask yourself why (brussel sprouts are exempt from this test for obvious reasons). Then try it out with friends. Nearly all of mine can trace personal culinary quirks back to childhood and family.

What particularly surprised me in this case was that the statement was made in a restaurant review in a local paper. Whether it’s a local rag or respected broadsheet I expect the food critic to be a wee bit open minded when it comes to dining. I don’t expect ‘I don’t normally like Italian food.’ Everybody likes Italian food; what is there not to like? If a restaurant reviewer doesn’t like Italian food, what else don’t they like? With that line their credibility as a reviewer flew right out of the window.

Similarly, a couple of weeks ago I followed some tweets from a travel writer complaining about the food in a Spanish hotel. Complaining is too mellow a word, they were slating the food to the high heavens and above. When I read on I saw that the travel writer was vegetarian.

Being vegetarian in Spain isn’t always easy (understatement). When we moved to Tenerife we didn’t eat meat but we did eat fish, so not too much of a problem. However, we have a number of friends who are full blown, card carrying veggies so know exactly how difficult it is to find restaurants where the choice isn’t confined to tortilla, tortilla or tortilla. In Spain even vegetable sandwiches sometimes have ham, so Iberia can be a testing destination for vegetarians.

Subsequently when the writer ranted about the appalling quality of the food, I empathised…but it did raise a question. Surely she could only pass judgement on the food when it came to the choice and quality of what was available for vegetarians? There was no way she could pass judgement on how good the meat or fish dishes were in the hotel she was slating. As a critique of that place it was subjective in the extreme. Many who saw her complaints may understandably write the hotel off as having crap food. But would that be fair? In this case we simply don’t know.

And that begged the question can, or should, a writer who is vegetarian write a review or even a guidebook listing that recommends, or not, restaurants unless it’s clear that what they are writing relates solely to a vegetarian perspective?

When Andy and I started writing about restaurants we made the decision to start eating meat again because we felt we couldn’t honestly review a restaurant otherwise.

Which takes me back to the reviewer who didn’t normally like Italian food. As a travel writer, restaurant reviewer, whatever, shouldn’t the author be willing to try just about anything that’s on the menu…if not how valid or useful is their review?

This was a dish that had pleasantly filled my belly in a quite unique restaurant in Oviedoeating in a barrel was definitely a first for me. Trouble was neither I nor my dining mates had realised it was a starter. They’ve clearly got good appetites in Asturias as this hearty mix of beans, chorizo, morcilla and bits of pig is a main meal in everyone but Desperate Dan’s book. There, the fabada was followed by a Mount Teide-sized platter of grilled meats. After that meal they could have stuck me beside one of their cider-spouting wooden barrels and no-one would have noticed the difference.

But despite my tum’s moaning and groaning, I was impressed with the flavours of the popular Asturian stew and picked up a recipe from a woman in Oviedo’s market who had a stall that sold only ingredients for fabada.

Funny thing is that on my return to Tenerife and a visit to the supermarket I spotted lots of little fabada packs with morcilla, chorico and tocino (a bit like belly of pork) that I’d never noticed before. In fact there were about five or six different varieties, so this week I threw one of them in the trolley.

Fabada is a peasant dish; one of those meals where you throw everything in a pot and leave it whilst you go and thresh the wheat, milk the goats, feed the hens, kick the cat for chasing the hens…you know the sort of thing.

The recipe I had was obviously fabada 101 – big, dobbing great haricot beans thrown in a pot with the morcilla, chorizo and tocino, saffron and salt. We threw in a couple of bay leaves as well just for good measure…oh and some paprika just because it felt right.

The whole lot is covered with water and left to simmer for three hours. There must be a few variations on how to cook this meal, because it seemed to me that the morcilla and possibly even the chorizo wouldn’t take three hours of simmering and in Oviedo the beans had been served separately from the meat. Anyway within seconds the house was filled with the sort of aromas that have you salivating when you walk down any traditional street in Spain at lunchtime.

Three hours later it was ready for eating. The beans looked similar to the fabada I’d eaten in Asturias but sure enough the morcilla and the chorizo had been largely absorbed into the mix. Although it didn’t quite match the Asturian fabada in the looks department it tasted pretty much how I remembered it – meaty, savoury…filling – and was considered a big enough success to be given the thumbs up regarding featuring again on the Montgomery menu. But next time I’m going to take a different approach with the morcilla and chorizo, so a bit more research is in order.

I’ve been chained to my laptop for almost two straight weeks now trying to catch up with work. But, as always, that elusive finishing post stays way out of reach. I don’t really mind that part, it means that there are lots of projects on the go and that fact in itself keeps life spicy and interesting.

But, as I type, my feet are twitchy, I catch my fingers drumming out an impatient rhythm on the table and every so often my eyes drift from the screen to gaze longingly out of the window at some undefined spot in the distance. They want to be elsewhere…places new, doing things that thrill, educate and even scare them. For two weeks I’ve done nada except write and, as much as I love writing, I feel I’m going a bit cold turkey. I crave action and adventure and I want to meet new, interesting people. I’m desperate to do things that I haven’t done before and it’s making me terribly restless.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been spoiled by new experiences whilst gathering great material for our latest website Buzz Trips as well as other travel sites; some have been little things like eating Palamós prawns in a fishermen’s hut overlooking the most beautiful of bays at Tamariu or sitting on a rock in the Picos de Europa tasting blue cheese matured in a cave.

Others have been hi-octane experiences such as free-falling from the heavens above Costa Brava and manoeuvring through a sea cave in a zodiac to reach an enclosed lagoon in an uninhabited island near Lanzarote.

Then there’s been the moments of pure luxurious decadence that I’ll probably never get to experience again; wallowing in the comfort of a suite on the Transcantábríco as it gently chugs through the Asturian countryside and having my taste-buds pleasurably assaulted over and over again with 19 courses at the world’s second best restaurant, El Celler de Can Roca in Girona.

Possibly the most memorable experiences of all have been the people I’ve met. Apart from those who share an interest in…well everything. There have been those who impressed with their passion and commitment and reminded me that there are people out there who put their altruistic objectives before themselves.

Finally there were a couple of extra special individuals, people who are blessed with a quality that draws your attention to their every word like a moth to a flame – Ferran Adriá and Antoni Pitxot. Funnily, after I’d researched Ferran Adriá, hailed by many as the world’s greatest chef, I expected someone who might be annoyingly pretentious (blasphemous words in Catalonia) – instead I found a down to earth man with an zealous passion for his art whose eyes twinkled with amusement at our attempts to ask him questions he’d never been asked (except for maybe a zillion times before). But the person who made the greatest impression was painter and close friend of Salvador Dalí, Antoni Pitxot. Antoni Pitxot is an absolute sweetheart of a man; funny, open, talented, fascinating (this is a no-no word in writing terms at the moment but I’m using it anyway) and about as instantly likeable as a person can be.

A tour through Dalì’s house at Portlligat with Antoni Pitxot narrating and throwing out anecdotes galore was one of those extra special moments in life. He performed magic and brought Dalí back to life amidst the surreal décor.  It was an experience that will be difficult to top.

And that’s the thing. Having new experiences, great and small, is incredibly addictive. Once you unlock the door to that fact there’s no going back and, like any drug, you need to feed the desire on a regular basis.

It’s the reason why I could never spend a holiday simply lazing by a hotel pool. For me it is the key to what travel should be all about…even if the journey is only a few kilometres from your front door.

Apart from watching football in one here on Tenerife I tend to avoid British bars and restaurants outside of Britain.

That might come across sounding like a bit of travel snob; the sort of person who only frequents watering holes and eateries owned by the indigenous people of the country I’m visiting. But nope I don’t subscribe to that either. In Britain I ate at restaurants serving food from all over the globe and I had no idea usually who owned the bars so why restrict myself when I travel? I normally choose to eat mainly at restaurants serving local cuisine, but variety is the spice of life and every so often it’s nice to have a change – even over a two week holiday period – especially if the local cuisine isn’t great (just because it’s abroad doesn’t always make it good).

There’s one reason and one reason mainly that I avoid Brit bars and restaurants and that’s because so far, most of the ones I’ve experienced abroad are not the sort of places I would frequent in Britain, so they’re certainly not going to do it for me in another country.

Last week we were on Lanzarote in Costa Teguise. I like Costa Teguise. It has a nice mix of different nationalities which is reflected in the resort’s bars and restaurants. In some ways it reminds me a bit of El Médano on Tenerife.

However, because of flight times, on our last day there we found ourselves needing to grab something to eat at around 6pm. The hotel’s snack bar was closed so the only option was a British bar opposite.

There was nothing particularly offensive with the place, the people were friendly enough, except that it fit a model that seems to be a blueprint for nearly every Brit bar in Spain.

First of all there was the ubiquitous ex-pat client bitching about everybody and everything (do you get one of these with the deeds I wonder?). The décor was mock Tudor and there were blackboards all over the place advertising football, Corrie and the oh so passé pub grub on offer. Then there was the music. It was circa 1980…it’s always circa 1980 (with a heavy dash of 1960s thrown in). As well as the bitchin’ ex-pat, Brit bars abroad seem to be only able to pick up music from decades long gone.

The menu was from the same era – fish and chips (of course), steak and kidney pie (frozen), burger and chips (frozen), chilli con carne and, best (or worst) of all, saveloys – does anyone apart from Brit bars abroad really use that term these days?

And there’s my problem with Brit bars abroad. Before I left Britain nearly eight years ago the bars I went to were modern and stylish, played the same contemporary music I listened to driving to work and at home and had imaginative menus where not everything was fried or microwaved.

That’s not the case with Brit bars abroad. Most times when I go to a Brit bar abroad I feel as though I’m an extra in an episode of Ashes to Ashes. They seem to have been stuck in a groove for quarter of a century and for the life of me I can’t get my head around why they are all following almost exactly the same outdated format.

Do people still actually believe that a frozen burger in a bready bap and Billy Ocean belting out When the Going Gets Tough on the radio is really good enough in this day and age?

But hey, maybe it’s me that’s out of step… but if that’s the case who were all those people that packed out the bars I used to go to?
By the way if anyone does actually know of a quality British bar that strays from the norm, then I’d love to know about it.

P.S. If it includes even one of the qualities (an ironic use of the word) I’ve mentioned then don’t bother.

Over the last week I’ve enjoyed the privilege of being able to sample the taste-bud tingling best of gastronomy in Asturias on Spain’s verdant northern coast. My belly has been satisfyingly filled and, maybe less satisfyingly, swelled to bursting point by a rich and diverse journey through the region’s cuisine. It has been a culinary voyage that has transported me from hearty rustic dishes such as fabada (bean stew flavoured by chunks of chorizo, tocino, tacón and morcilla) and mountains of grilled meat, as high as the Picos de Europa themselves, to delicately flavoured dishes that were presented with such artistic finesse that I felt like an uncouth vandal as I plunged my fork anarchically into them.

I could write reams about each (and probably will) but for the moment I’m only going to mention three wonderfully unique places that made dining in Asturias an unforgettable pleasure for all my senses.

Tierra Astur – Colloto
Empty jade-coloured bottles hang from the ceiling; legacies of cider fuelled good times past. A calle length counter is topped with perfect specimens of locally grown produce. Huge grills blast out heat as intense of that from a foundry’s furnace and the best seats in the house are inside immense cider barrels.
Asturianos seem to possess voracious appetites and a main course of succulent grilled meats piled high and topped with char-grilled peppers has everyone but seasoned veterans waving the white flag long before the summit of the meaty mountain is conquered. A bottle of locally produced Cangas de Narcea wine with its earthy, full-bodied attitude is just the fellow to unlock the flavours of the food served in Tierra Astur.

The Clock Tower, Laboral, Cuidad de Cultura
Gijón’s eye-catching grand utopian vision, former orphanage and now cultural city is worthy of a visit in its own right. Throw in a lunch in the Hitchcock setting of the clock tower- right behind the clock face in fact – and you’ve got a seriously sexy spot for a chic buffet.
Admittedly it’s a bit of a tease to talk about having lunch in the clock tower of the Laboral as it isn’t  a venue where visitors can just pop in for a quick bite in super stylish surroundings. However, it can be rented out for parties, celebrations and conferences. If eating in a clock tower wasn’t enough of the bees knees, the colour of the tower’s clock faces can even be changed to match those of any corporation holding an event there. The vistas from the top of the tower are increible as were the little Cabrales roulades (blue cheese) that formed part of the buffet when I visited.

The Transcantábrico Gran Lujo
There can be few culinary experiences to match dining somewhere as exciting and nostalgically romantic as the dining carriage of the Transcantábrico Gran Lujo. It’s impossible not to sigh pleasurably as the train trundles past meandering rivers and rolling green countryside where cattle graze lazily and black horses try to outrun the train. This is the stuff of 1930s travel, and dining on elegantly prepared dishes such as hake with spider crab illuminated by the soft light from a Tiffany lamp is paramount to enjoying a tantalising taste of travelling nirvana. It’s particularly impressive how the impeccably attired waiting staff serve food and pour wine without spilling a drop as the train weaves and sways its way through the glorious Asturian countryside, especially considering I couldn’t walk through the carriage without accidentally getting up close and alarmingly personal with my fellow diners.

Of course had it not been for the fact that I was a guest of the Asturian Tourist Board I wouldn’t have been able to eat in a clock tower or in the cosily luxurious confines of the exquisite Transcantábrico Gran Lujo. But if the opportunity for anyone visiting Asturias to follow suit comes up, my advice is to grab it with both hands…and feet.

At the very least seek out Tierra Astur. Eating there is an experience that is accessible to all. One final piece of advice though; don’t eat for a week before going if you want to have any chance of making it to the summit of that meat mountain.

Last night I saw something that sent a shiver of excitement down my spine and brought a tingle to my tastebuds; something that seductively whispered ‘carnaval is here’ in my ears and had me licking my lips in anticipation of the maelstrom that was about to assault the senses of anyone who had the courage to plunge into its all-consuming madness.

I’m not talking about seeing the carnaval stage taking shape or the mini taster parade to announce this year’s carnaval queen candidates…no, I’m talking about a force that was responsible for pulling me out of a decade of being a pescatarian and back, grunting with desire, into the world of the carnivores again.

I’m talking about a food stall extraordinaire…Mesón California.

Forget the wussy bite-sized montaditos of the Madrids and the Barcelonas of this world; at Mesón California you get Desperate Dan-sized, jaw testing versions. Check out the picture if you think I’m exaggerating. These are montaditos for real men – and women of course – and being carnival, also for ghouls, vampires and slutty nuns and nurses etc.

Its erection is the sign for me that carnaval has arrived and I’m positively salivating at the thought of my annual pilgrimage to worship at this exquisite shrine to Spanish street cuisine.