A few years ago, a good friend who has sadly moved away, was kind enough to take me to Restaurant Le Meurice for dinner. The first memory of walking into the done-up dining room was the way the waiters brought her an Hermès stool for her purse, which was an Hermès Kelly bag. The second memory I have, was shortly after when we sat down and they asked if we wanted apéritifs. I’d heard about the house apéritif they were serving back then, which was famous, so I ordered one.
Recently in Dining & Travel category
The good news about my trip to Sicily is that it wasn’t all eating almond cookies and cannoli, looking for parking spaces in Palermo (and paying one of the fellows lurking about to keep an eye on the car), gorging on fresh ricotta, and wiping and everything you possible can in generous drizzles of the amazing olive oil produced there.
There was “pasta” – made from almond paste, a plate that’d fool even those with sharper eyes than I. We had the aforementioned spleen sandwiches, which I was relieved to hear were not made from pancreas, and we ate salumi (charcuterie) because it was so good that it would have felt like a crime not to. (And I didn’t want to get into trouble in Sicily, if you know what I mean.) Since I only had one week on the island – two days of which were travel days, and two other days were dedicated to work that landed in my Inbox right before the trip – we managed to make the time for a quick trip to Modica.
I’ve been living in what is arguably the center of Europe for a while now (and I’m certain someone will get out their ruler and argue that technically, I don’t actually reside in the precise center of the continent – but let’s just go with that for the sake of the story), I don’t visit other countries as often as I’d like. It’s so easy to just stay home, not worry about airline tickets, packing, making sure you bring enough socks and don’t forget shaving cream, getting to the airport on time, the stress of unpacking everything to pass through security, and being herded onto, then cooped up in, a tight plane for a few hours in a seat that’s just barely big enough to hold a small child.
The reward, however, is arriving somewhere, leaving the airport, and realizing you’re somewhere magnificent. Even if you have to nearly blow-up like a smoldering Sicilian volcano to get there.
Sicily has been at the top of my list for a while now, but by the end of fall, less folks want to travel there. And because it’s not a popular winter destination, airlines heavily reduce their flights to Sicily and I had to do some sleuthing around to find out which one would actually take us there.
I don’t gush all that often, but one of the people in Paris that I really admire is Gregory Marchand. He’d probably be a little irked that I said that (or maybe not), but he’s one of the few chefs in Paris that’s been successful at creating what have become some of the best places to eat in the Paris. His restaurant Frenchie is always complet, and I went to Frenchie wine bar the other night, getting there just before opening time, and there was already a line of folks waiting outside for it to open so they could snag a table. And the food, from cornmeal-crusted “nuggets” of sweetbreads to the pulled pork sandwich, was as good – if not better – than dishes I’ve had in multi-starred restaurants. A friend who I worked with in San Francisco was there as well, and he kept giving me the thumbs-up from across the room.
Gregory took a previously deserted street, set up shop, and now it’s a bustling, charming little rue with a seafood shop where the fish is purchased directed from the fisherman, an excellent butcher, and a vegetable shop that has bins of things that you rarely see in Paris, from gorgeous (and giant) citrons from Corsica to leafy greens like dinosaur kale, and crates of curious root vegetables – parsley roots, tiny celeriac, and something else that I forgot the name of, but went by a Latin name that I never heard of before. (So, of course, I want to try it – whatever it was.) I was tempted to pick up a bag of the bright-yellow, smooth quince that were no larger than tennis balls, until I realized how much peeling would be involved. So I put them back.
His other talent, which is perhaps the most profound – and rather challenging, is that he’s great at taking American flavors and using French products, making them appeal to the French palate. This is obvious when you bite into a sandwich at Frenchie To Go, a take-out place with a few stools for those who want to eat & run.
Even though I only went to Spain with a half-empty carry-on, I came back with my luggage, and head, stuffed full. Not because of the in-flight oxygen, but from attending a food photography workshop with ace food photographer Tim Clinch. I’d met Tim a few years ago and he had been kind enough to try to give me some advice via Skype in my continuing quest to streamline the way I do things. Everyone who is everyone has told me that Lightroom would change/rock my world.
But when I open the editing program, my head goes into a tailspin. Partially it’s all those levers that promise to make your photos as top-notch as the pros, which are also so gosh-darn miniscule. (It’s like they designed them to purposely exclude anyone who has vision problems, as it’s a real challenge to hover my mouse over them to hit them precisely right.) I know there are all sorts of tutorials and books that promise to teach you everything you need to know.
Call me cranky, but I have enough things on my plate, like worrying about using “it’s” instead of “its” (can’t we just collectively decide to let them be interchangeable? – especially because my grammar-check keeps flagging the first “it’s” in this paragraph), and making sure I’ve got my photos tagged correctly; I goofed and posted a picture on my Facebook page that was incorrectly tagged, and after a visit to a lovely market, I came home and found a slew of less-than-pleasant words aimed in the direction of yours truly.
But now that I’m older and wiser – and believe me, after working in restaurant kitchens since I was 16, I’ve heard everything – I was happy to be able to just take a deep breath, and focus my efforts – and my trusty camera – on doing what makes me happy. And that was taking a trip to Andalusia to practice with a pro, and have some fun while we were at it. Because if it’s not fun – why do it?
Since everyone agrees that this Lightroom editing program is the best thing since sliced pan, off I went for a long weekend with Tim. I was also looking forward to learning from him how to see things differently, and taking pictures out of my comfort zone. So this post I’m kind of thinking of as my “homework.” There are a jumble of photos, sizes, styles and so forth. But what the heck.
And for sure, I’d rather be eating, tasting, and exploring new cities than going through technical manuals. So there.
(Although I did realize after I edited all the photos that I got the size wrong and had to rework ‘em. Can someone please advise me of when I will catch a break?)
Spain isn’t quite known for its breads. It’s probably because bread is more used as a vehicle for eating other foods – like pan con tomate (toasted bread with olive oil, then rubbed with fresh tomato and a bit of salt) or as a resting place for marinated sardines, or another tapas, rather than enjoyed on its own.
To make a little confession; when I came to Spain, I brought a little loaf of bread from France with me to have for breakfast. Because as much as I like pan con tomate (which is often eaten for breakfast), I didn’t think I would have the time, or the inclination, to gather all the ingredients and prepare them in the kitchen of my apartment. And I’m a creature of habit and the morning isn’t exactly the time of day when I’m looking forward to any surprises.
So I was excited the first day when I met Juan Gomez, the owner of La Azotea, and he invited me to come along the following morning to visit the baker who makes the bread for his restaurants. What I wasn’t so excited about was waking up at 6:15am, so I would be all set to go (ie: already coffee’d up) when he would ring me up to meet.
Fortunately Spaniards seem to be pretty laid back in the morning and Juan took me to La Campana for my 47th café cortado in twenty-four hours and some pastries, including a tasty flat, crisp bread known as torta de aceite, a local specialty made with lots of olive oil, sesame, and usually a touch of anise – although I did have one version with candied Seville (sour) oranges that blew my calcetínes off*.
I’m not a fancy guy. I don’t insist on expensive clothes, I don’t drive a car, my hair is such a disaster I take the clippers to it once a month just to so I don’t have to deal with the unruly mess, nor do I give a hoot about sitting in a suit in a 3-star restaurant, with a tie closing up my throat while I try to pretend I’m enjoying a fancy meal. To me, one of the great joys in life is simply a good cup of coffee.
Over the years, I’ve whittled my tastes down to espresso, which is the true essence of the bean. While I like café au lait for breakfast, probably because it encourages the lingering that I need in order to gather up the courage to face yet another day. But in Spain, however, no matter what time of day it is, I always order a café cortado. Even though it’d described as a similar riff on the caffè macchiato in Italy, or the café noisette in France, which gets its name from having just a noisette (hazelnut) of foamed milk on top (although another description says that it’s because it turns the coffee the color of hazelnuts), to me, it tastes like a very different drink altogether.
Café cortado – perhaps it has something to do with the name, the alliteration with those two Cs in a row that roll off your tongue, helping it sound so resolutely Spanish. Or the tiny glasses they serve it in, which the vested waiters with black ties set down before you with one hand, and a moment later, the other hand swoops down with a pitcher of steamy milk, to create a frothy, yet strong, coffee drink. And whatever they do to the milk, it’s especially velvety. They just seem to get the foam right. There’s nothing worse than having a coffee drink with a crown of airy foam on top – who wants to dive into that first anticipatory sip of coffee, but instead end up with a mouthful of air? Pas moi. And the café cortado combines the soothing creaminess of steamed milk with a reasonable jolt of a café solo.
I also like the glass. An Italian friend told me never to order espresso in a cup in Italy – to ask for it in a glass – because the porcelain retains some of the flavors of the dishwashing detergent. (Unfortunately my Italian isn’t very good and I always forget the phrase I’ve tried to memorize, to ask for it in a glass.) That may be one reason the café cortado alway tastes so good to me. It’s the glass. Or maybe it’s the sharp waiters with their slicked back hair and dark Spanish features, accompanied by the smell of sugary pastries in the fluorescent-lit showcases? I don’t know, but standing at a stainless-steel counter watching them pour the milk into the darkly extracted coffee in the glass while the milk foams up around it, but making sure it’s not too airy so you can enjoy the coffee that it’s mingling with, is one of the great joys in life. And one of the joys of visiting Spain.
I was en route to a workshop outside of Seville and right before hitting the “buy” button for the plane ticket, I thought – “What the heck am I thinking? Why not go a few days earlier, and some time in Seville?”
I know I say this every time I visit somewhere, but I want to move here. In fact, I even think I found my apartment.
My last visit I think was in, uh, 1983 – or something like that. So I didn’t remember much. But I do remember that when I left Spain (I was on an 8-10 month trip through Europe), I distinctly recall saying that I wanted to spend more time in Spain. So to prove that good things come to those who wait (and wait, and wait, and wait), I found myself back in the country. More specifically, in Andalusia.
After walking from the bus station, admiring the Moorish architecture, apartment buildings with spacious courtyards and stunning terraces, the tiled patios and walls (I went to the post office to mail some postcards, and it had the most lovely tile work!), and friendly people, I unpacked as fast as I could and decided to get down to business, and eat.
Seville is small enough so you don’t need to worry about taking public transit, getting lost, getting bored, or going hungry. And not necessarily in that order. It seems like every other business is some sort of eating establishment and people eat at all hours – starting with breakfast in the morning, standing at the stainless-steel bar, sipping cafe cortado. Then later in the day, between lunch and dinner (whose hours I have yet to master), people crowd sidewalks cafes. But unlike in Paris where everyone is drinking beer or wine, in Seville, most tables seem to have plates of something that people are collectively digging their forks into.
And there are plenty of little places to stop in at all hours, such as La Campana confectionary, where they candy everything – from green figs and tiny pears…
…to sweet potatoes!
A few days isn’t quite enough to do Seville justice. And with over 3000 tapas bars, it’s hard to hit them all. But I was in touch with Shawn of Seville Tapas Tours (who gave me that staggering figure) and we met up my first day – and later that night – for some tapas action.
When I was booking my trip, right after I hit the “Book it” button on Expedia, the price had miraculously risen, which I find kind of odd (it’s like going to the supermarket and when you get to the register, they tell you the price has gone up since you put the item into your shopping cart) so I found an apartment on AirBnB which was great; right in the middle of town. Not only was it close to all the great tapas bars, which I later found out, renting an apartment had the added feature of no one knocking on my door at 8:35am to see if they could “service my room.” #hotelpetpeeve