Friday, 24 May 2013

Mushy Peas, Ginger Beer and Notorious Haggis; Culinary Adventures in the UK

Note the almost divine glow, ginger beer is one of the best things about the UK.

Relaxation in Crete came to an end after a nasty series of flights that saw Becca, Russ and I touch down in the UK at some ungodly hour. After experiencing the joys of dodgy budget accommodations such as a sofa bed which was really just a yellow stained mattress under a couch, as well as London traffic I was reunited with Shannon, beginning our UK adventure in earnest!

After being awed by the splendid luxury of Windsor and Eton, we visited London. We were able to enjoy some tasty paella served from a gigantic pan street food style, after the greasy meaty food of the UK it was quite refreshing!

Mmmmmm semi-street food

Although the city was not my favorite it was definitely a great experience, one which allowed me to peek my head into the Twinings store. As the oldest tea shop and retailer in Britain, Twinings was a special treat, tucked into a little cranny on the Strand it was narrower than imagined and swimming with tourists.

A hop a skip and a jump had Shannon and I leaving Russ, Becca and Russ' very hospitable roomies behind for the lovely lushness of Scotland as we headed up the island by train. The countryside was breathtaking with rolling green hills, age-old castles and oodles of sheep dotting the majority of the landscape, if ever you head up to Scotland, I absolutely recommend the train!

The historical city of Edinburgh was truly beautiful. With a population of under half a million people the city is relatively small, a factor which plays to its favor keeping the city contained to original buildings with relatively few modern atrocities dotting the city and no actual skyscrapers disfiguring its panorama. Our hostel was gorgeous and equipped with a very functional kitchen which saw us dining on fresh shrimp from the fish shop nearby and disturbing golden syrup soaked pre-packaged pancakes from the grocery store, an anomaly which we found to be truly curious.

Although we had some delicious Indian and Mexican food, the latter being shown to us by some friends, food in the UK was otherwise rather bland. While fish and chips were of course good, if artery clogging, it was quite refreshing to be surprised with a side of peas (Something healthy on my plate!? Sacrilege!) once the fish and chips quota was met I encountered what I considered something of a culinary wasteland. Now don't get me wrong, I'm sure that there is good food in Scotland, and certainly in the UK as a whole! However, the traditional grease-soaked food whipped together everywhere seemed more apt as a late night accompaniment to a drink then as an actual meal consumed on a regular basis.

Authentic British food (not).

Grease is its own food group right?

The infamous Haggis fit into this stereotype being fatty and quite decent tasting, somewhat like the strange lovechild of thanksgiving stuffing, hotdogs and oatmeal. Its ok taste was matched by its lackluster appearance which did little to encourage its consumption. Haggis is served with neeps and tatties ie turnips and potatoes as well as with rock hard oatcakes altogether it was pretty ok but it violated what I refer to as the yummy to calorie ratio. This led to me classifying it as not tasty enough to be consumed considering how unhealthy it, unlike'll have to wait for the Paris post for that!

Nothing says appetizing like mush with a side of mush and mush

Ok, ok I think I've ripped into the UK enough, here are some positives. Although I got sick of the fish and chips they were very good! And as aforementioned, the peas were a nice addition. However, I must state that what I enjoyed most in this bastion of grease-filled processed food were the beverages. Much as I love the atmosphere of pubs, I am not a beer person, repeat, not. Somehow, I am of the school of people that likes to eat my bread instead of drinking it. Now, as one might guess, this puts me in a bit of a pickle considering that no one wants to be the person who orders wine in a pub, you just don't do it. But then BAM! Cider and (alcoholic) ginger beer come to the rescue! Looking almost like beer and being served from a brown bottle, these lovely beverages allow the non-beer drinker to integrate himself almost seamlessly into a pack of otherwise oblivious beer swigging peers while drinking what is (in my opinion of course!) a vastly superior beverage.

While we're on the high notes of culinary ventures in the UK I must absolutely return to my earlier statement about Indian food, it was fantastic! Following a recommendation from 'the Guardian' we headed over to the Mother India Cafe and Indian tapas bar located near the heart of Edinburgh. Dishes were small, allowing us to try a bit of everything and it was quite delectable and very affordable for the UK. A highlight was the huge homemade garlic butter soaked naan which was truly to die for!

Oh and on a final note? Rhubarb yogurt...the UK sells rhubarb yogurt! It's awesome, really. I'm serious.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Pizza, Souvlaki, Greek Salad and Iced Coffee; Crete!

My trip began rather unconventionally, with a fly in to Paris, Luton and then Chania, Crete, all of which was done within 24 hours. This is the beginning of what I refer to as my “Grand Tour”, although hardly a conventional this trip, this little adventure has already taken me to London and I’m heading to Edinburgh as I write this (Edit: this was published from Istanbul). The next few weeks will see Shannon and I off to Istanbul then up to Copenhagen, Malmo and Paris on a trip that has been in the planning for years and one which totals 5 weeks in execution.

While the majority of the trip, starting from London, includes both Shannon and I traveling together, Crete was somewhat different. Having headed off early I met my two good friend Russ and Becca in the UK and we hopped over to Crete to stay in the apartment that was graciously lent to us by his uncle Lee.
Greeted with middling to gorgeous weather our time in Crete was more vacation than adventure. Whereas Russ and Becca were still suffering through the writing of their dissertations, I was recovering from mine. We were also quite far from urban centers and did not have a car at our disposal. This of course is all an excuse to mention that I spent most of my time in Crete, eating drinking and swimming in the Mediterranean (when it was warm enough).

The juiciest part of this little blurb is of course the food! What was it like? Absolutely great! Healthy, light and extremely fresh, we lived mostly off Greek salad, souvlaki and tzatziki. Crisp fresh cucumbers, juicy tomatoes (that actually taste like tomatoes!) and smooth Greek yogurt became constant features of our diet. We were also constantly spoiled by extremely affordable and delicious feta (we ate three large blocks in 5 days) and we had fantastically smooth red onions. This leads me to mention that if you’re staying in Crete, I recommend renting a place with a kitchenette, the island’s bounty of fresh produce and delicious olives will keep you  more than satisfied.

The Becca poises to strike at the wild Greek Salad

In the pastry, bread and dessert department, Crete did pretty well. As in many places, croissants were a common feature in bakeries and as with many places, many of them were palatable at best, being made largely with pastry shortening instead of butter. We did however find some decent ones at the bakery, Montepno, in our little town. These butter croissants were a tad too sweet, being stuffed with oodles of Nutella but this turned out well when washed down with their delicious iced coffees. Regular croissants and other pastries were also available, however most native greek pastries were savoury when I wanted something sweet so they kind of flew under my radar as we only had breakfast out twice (oops!). However, the baklava was as good as usual, tasting pretty much identical to the ones found at home.  The bread was alright but it hardly blew my socks off…except of course for the pita bread! Fresh, steamy and warm, the pita bread in Crete was to die for but must absolutely be eaten fresh.

 It lost much of its appeal a day later.
While on the island we found ourselves tempted (a shameful three times) by the lovely pizza of nearby restaurant Nesaki. While the fare was very simple it was extremely fresh and quite addictive. As implied by our constant return to the place we really enjoyed the friendly ambiance and perhaps most of all the pizza. The end of the meal at Nesaki was consistently drawn to a close with a complimentary offering of Raki and dessert which we politely downed with the loud “yamas!” expected of us, cautiously  keeping in mind the saying: “one raki, two raki, three raki, floor!”. Although the pause between the main meal and the raki sometimes bordered on excessive, we still loved out time there at the affordable rate of around 32 Euros for tzatziki, bread, a large pizza, wine, dessert and raki, enough to comfortably feed three people. If you ever happen upon this wee restaurant, I especially recommend their garlic bread, tufts of pizza dough coated in a liberal soaking of fantastic Cretan Olive oil and garlic and then blasted in a pizza oven until perfectly crispy and chewy.

Last but not least, the typical Greek souvlaki was omnipresent throughout Cretan menus.  The one time where we had it from a restaurant was in a touristy restaurant in the bay of Chania where it was somewhat dry and left me rather rather cold (something which was  possibly reinforced by the fact that they charged us two euros each for bread, ack!). The souvlaki that we made however, and cooked on our charcoal grill was delightful!

The recipe off the top of my head went something like this:
Souvlaki with Tzatziki:
For souvlaki:
-5-6 cloves garlic
-1/4 -1/2 tsp. salt
-Freshly ground pepper to taste
-About one pound of fresh pork
-Juice of one lemon
-a liberal drizzle of olive oil
-a few spoonfuls of greek yogurt
- Dried basil or oregano (optional and to taste)
The direction itself are rather simple, crush the garlic, cube the pork, juice the lemon and combine all the ingredients in a bag or container. Leave to marinate for at least a few hours or overnight, skewer and grill!
Half of a large cucumber
3-4 cloves garlic
1 ½ c. or so of greek yogurt
Salt, pepper and lemon to taste
Directions: Split and core the cucumber, dust liberally with sea salt and let sit for a few hours to drain. The salt dehydrates the cucumber preventing your tzatziki from being liquid. The best way to do this is to coat as much of the inside of the cucumber with salt as possible and let it sit. After it has reduced substantially in volume, rinse it quickly in cold wated and, pat dry and chop coarsely. Incorporate it into the yogurt with the garlic and season with liberal amounts of salt. Consider adding pepper or lemon if you wish!