Wanderlust and Adventures of Gastronomical Proportions

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And so we have returned to our homeland after weeks of travel in Western and Southern Europe.  The trip had been a year in the making:  months of research, bookings, planning, and finally – execution.  This trip of a lifetime was all that and more.  Hubby Dear and I have traveled to Europe on a few occasions for work and play, but the purpose of this trip in particular, was to really immerse ourselves as locals (as much as possible) and to absorb 3000+ years of history.  Coincidentally, the trip was exactly ten years after a similar solo trip I had taken.  But, to have traveled together, and experience new things through fresh eyes, yielded a new joy altogether.

Full immersion into any culture, involves using all five senses, and food provides the perfect vehicle.  Farmer’s markets or neighborhood markets are ideal locations to scout out and try the best, newest, and freshest foods available in the season.  As a foodie, it was akin to stepping into heaven.  I had painstakingly researched the various farmer’s markets in each city, and had full intentions of visiting and sampling each one.  We were not disappointed.  Each market was abuzz with activity, fresh fruit, meats, dairy, and the pièce de résistance:  prepared foods!  I’ve tried to capture the details of a few gastronomic highlights from our trip.  Apologies in advance, if the pictures and descriptions cause you to run over to your closest patisserie or cafe! 😉

First stop:  London.  After a bit of sight-seeing on our first afternoon, we made a beeline for London’s Borough Market.  Borough Market is a 1000 year-old local market, located in Central London (Southwark), a short fifteen minute walk from Tower Bridge.  As we approached the market, I was intrigued by the modern looking facade of the entrance.  Not the original entrance, but it stood out from the Georgian, Tudor and Stuart style buildings nearby.  After some sampling, we settled on fish and chips and a lovely olive/onion/tomato/rosemary focaccia bread.  Both were delicious beyond words and the act of chowing down in the middle of the market, in the middle of London on a chilly Autumn afternoon (after a long transatlantic flight) was simply decadent.  Post meal, blood had conveniently settled into our respective stomachs, and hot mulled wine was much-needed to warm up the rest of the body.  After all of that, sleep was imminent and inevitable.  Timely, as we had an upcoming early morning flight to Edinburgh, Scotland.

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We took a day trip from London to Edinburgh to explore Edinburgh Castle and The Royal Mile.  Edinburgh was regal, historic (and cold!) and I don’t think I could get enough of that lyrical Scottish accent.  After being on our feet all day, getting doused by the rain, we were in dire need of warmth.  Enter marshmallow hot chocolate, an Americano, and a fresh scone with jam.

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Winding down from the day’s adventures, we settled in for supper at an authentic pub, that is said to be Edinburgh’s oldest gastro-pub, built in the 17th century:  The Doric.  Before our meal, we tried whisky tasting at The Whisky Experience,  which is conveniently located near the entrance of Edinburgh Castle.  Our guide informed us that Whisky and Scotch is as complex as wine, both in production and taste.  I concur.

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Back to dinner..I indulged in more fish and chips (justified of course, by telling myself that I was on vacation after all), and Hubby Dear had a very tasty and spicy fish curry with rice.

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Upon returning to London and after more sight-seeing, we were bound for the City of Lights:  Paris.  If there was one city I could live in, and never grow tired of, Paris would.be.it.  The architecture, the Seine, the bouquinistes along the Left Bank, cafes and patisseries around every corner, yes, this City is it.  Hubby Dear fell in love with the City at first sight, and we vowed to visit Paris as much as we possibly could in this lifetime.

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We stayed in St. Germain in the 5th arrondissement, very centrally located.  It proved to be quite convenient for sight-seeing as well as transportation in and out of the city.  We were less than a mile’s walk away from Notre Dame Cathedral and the Seine.  A few hours after we had arrived, feeling peckish, we decided to try a boulangerie between Notre Dame and our hotel called La Parisienne.  I have never been one to be indecisive, but at that very moment, it was simply impossible to choose from the assortment that lay before us.  After several minutes (which probably seemed like hours to the lovely and patient young woman at the counter), we decided to split a tomato and brie panini and indulge in sweets:  eclairs filled with chocolate cream and a sinful creme brûlée.  No further explanations needed. 🙂

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Every morning, in a small plaza along the Rue Monge, there was a farmer’s market from roughly 7 till 9 AM.  Our first morning in Paris, we decided to grab breakfast from Le Boulanger de Saint Germain.  Hubby Dear had a chocolate pave and I had a plump brioche a tête (“bun with a head”) that had been brushed with some kind of honey or marmalade glaze.  Oh yes, just typing this is making my mouth water.

Throughout our stay in Paris, we also indulged in amazing French wines (Merlot and Bordeaux…the 75 centiliter size bottles were just perfect for two), pastries, and entrees (mussels in white wine and butter, apple galette, custard).  Speaking of wines, having lived in California most of my life, and thus having very very good Napa and Sonoma Valley wines at our disposal – I did not previously understand the big deal about French wines.  My eyes (and palate) have been opened.  Those creamy, rich, red French wines (12-14% alcohol content by volume)….the kind that coat your mouth, give you rosy cheeks, and put you in a happy place…bliss in a bottle!  In fact yesterday, I made a special trek to Whole Foods and World Market to seek out a few bottles to carryover the vacation effect into this week. 😉

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Next stop “The Floating City”:  Venice.  I cannot find the words to describe this fairy tale city and do it justice.  Beautiful.  Abundantly beautiful.  We were blessed to be able to celebrate Hubby Dear’s birthday in this enchanted city, surrounded (and at times, submersed) by the Adriatic Sea.  This was our entrée into Italy and Italian cuisine . While we were not able to visit the daily market during market hours, we did catch one or two vendors selling their fruits and vegetables in the evening.  We had an absolutely indulgent and satisfying meal on Hubby Dear’s birthday at Marco Polo, not too far from the Ponte Rialto area.  Bruschetta, fresh fish, polenta cake, tiramisu for dessert, and the ever delectable limoncello as an after-dinner digestive.  We both became so fond of limoncello, that I purchased a small bottle of it a few days later in Rome and yesterday, started to make my own (hoping it turns out okay).  Venice’s cicchetti or snacks/tapas are abundantly available in local bacari or osterie and we had a chance to indulge on our last night.  It was the first time I tried a Campari cocktail and loved it.  Bitter and sweet, it was a nice change from the usual Chianti or Merlot (not that I am complaining).

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The next Italian destination city was Florence, one of my favorite Italian cities.  The Renaissance city.  Steeped in culture, art, history, and science.  And when it comes to food, this city did not disappoint.  Centrally located in the heart of the city, is the Mercato Centrale (or central market).  It has been in existence since the late 19th century and in the Spring of 2014, celebrated it’s 140th anniversary.  The enclosed market is on two levels, with the lower level dedicated to produce, dairy, and meat, and primarily ingredients essential to Tuscan cuisine.  The upper level is a smorgasbord of prepared food from artisanal chefs that offer everything from pizza and pastas, to freshly caught and fried fish, to hamburgers and fries, and of course, locally cured meats and cheeses (and Italian wines).  The food was so good and fresh and not to mention fairly-priced, that we ate here practically every single day.  My favorite was the fish stall, which served freshly fried fish and shrimp for 8 EUR.  Couple that with a piece of bread and some wine, and I was set to go.  Our first day at the market, we tried the pizza stall.  I ordered a Pizza Marinara and Hubby Dear ordered the Pizza Napoli.  It was my first foray into cheese-less pizza and it was magnificent!  Indulgence without the extra calories.  Hubby Dear’s Pizza Napoli was scrumptious as well.  Here is where I fell in love with olio e peperocino or Italian chilli oil.  So much so, that I made a bottle of the good stuff yesterday!

During the day, we also tried local casual establishments and tried one that had the best ready-to-go slices.  They offered unique combinations and a particular favorite was the yellow onion, salt, pepper, and olive oil variety.  These simple ingredients combined, created one delicious pizza, especially when washed down with a bottle of Peroni.

In the sweets department, we continued to indulge in gelato and came across another amazing sweet dish:  fresh waffle sandwiches with a syrup glaze with Nutella in the center.  We simply could not get enough of these and spent many a Euro on this little dessert wonder.

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Last stop on the itinerary and where all roads lead: Rome.  This ancient city took us back in time, when the powerful Roman Empire ruled the world.   We took advantage of every last moment to take in the sights and sounds of this major metropolis.

On our first night in Rome, we discovered this little family-owned restaurant near our hotel called La Villeta.  While the service was a bit slow (a popular establishment with locals and tourists), the food was simply amazing.  We loved it so much, we ate here two nights in a row.  The penne arrabiata, spaghetti pomodoro, spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino (spaghetti with olive oil, garlic and red peppers), and sautéed chicory with garlic were all simply divine dishes.  I just came to know that this little establishment is very highly rated on TripAdvisor and Yelp.  Who knew!  I am planning to replicate the spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino dish for dinner tonight.

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After much site-seeing in Rome, we spent our last day exploring the Vatican.  Weary, tired, and armed with memories to last a lifetime, we treated ourselves to our last helping of Italian pizza at a small cafe close to the Vatican.  We both settled on the pizza marinara, and washed it down with our last Peroni followed by a satisfying espresso.  It was over.  The trip of a lifetime.

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And alas, the end..  No trip would be complete without picking up a few trinkets and souvenirs along the way.  For me, these little treasures include local foods, chocolates or delicacies not readily found elsewhere.  Tea, biscuits, and marmalade from Fortnam and Mason in London – an establishment that has been in existence since the 1700s.  A small bottle of Limoncello in the shape of Italy’s “boot,” Italian peppers to make olio e peperocino, and espresso and chocolates from Italy as well.  I hope the taste of these goodies will linger on my tongue longer than the memory of my trip!

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Santé!  Salute!  Cin cin!  Cheers!

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