Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Foodie Penpals: July Reveal

A couple weeks ago, I found out about the amazing Foodie Penpals program while browsing through recipes on Cooking With Jax. Each month, participants are assigned a new penpal, to whom they ship a box of food-related items--the cumulative value of which cannot exceed £10. Penpal assignments are made at the beginning of the month and participants are left with just over 2 weeks to find out about their partners' culinary/gustatory interests, get shopping (or preparing, whatever the case may be), and drop the package in the mail. The person to whom you send a parcel is not the same person who sends you a parcel, and so each month can see quite a bit of variety coming into and going out of your home. 

As anyone who has read this blog (especially recently) knows, I love food. I also love getting packages. I also love food shopping. So, obviously, I signed up for the program right away...and here is my very first Foodie Penpals parcel:

It is from Carl Legge, a permaculturist living in northwest Wales. Since Carl's passion and full-time job is producing and preparing his own food, I knew I could expect an exciting package. Even better, the contents would be ecologically friendly since they are both sustainable and local.

I received Carl's package just as I was stepping out to go host my first Source FM radio show. I decided to open it on my return so that it could act as a little reward for making it through my first broadcast. As soon as I got home, I grabbed a pair of scissors and my camera and dug right in:

The envelope contained a card that was made by Carl and his wife; it showed a beautiful landscape shot of the view from their home on the Llyn Peninsula. Inside the card was a two-page letter describing all the goodies enclosed in the parcel, as well as providing advice on how to use the items or replicate them in my own kitchen. Very handy.

Once I'd removed all the protective bubble packs from the top of the box, I could really start to smell its contents; it was the kind of earthy jumble of scents you experience after walking into a spice shop. I'm actually not sure where the smell came from, since everything was carefully sealed shut, but it made me feel as though I was standing in a bazaar in some warm and arid country. Sigh.

The first thing I unwrapped was a beautiful loaf of sourdough bread that had been homemade from Welsh-milled English Amaretto flour provided by Felin Ganol:

Next up was a selection of homemade canned goods made from homegrown (or hand-picked) ingredients:


Specifically, these include achocha and courgette chutney, dried tomatoes, damson and lavender jam, spiced mango and chilli jam, and blackberry, apple, and chilli chutney. I had never heard of achocha before, so I was glad that Carl provided a description of this ingredient: "The achocha is a rampant vine that produces pods that taste a bit cucumbery when young."

One of the things I particularly like about this selection is how very British it all is. When Carl initially contacted me, he asked what sorts of things I'd like to receive. I didn't really have any suggestions, though I did mention that because I'm American I would enjoy trying some UK specialties--and boy did Carl deliver. In addition to being made by a British person from British ingredients, as I already mentioned, they also reflect the deep British love of things that can go on a cheese plate and/or accompany afternoon tea. Chutneys and jams abound in this country, and I am still discovering new flavors and ways to use them.

Another great thing about all these items is that they are fairly healthful--even though some of the jams and chutneys undoubtedly contain sugar, they also contain lots of fruits and veggies packed with vitamins and minerals. While I'm not a health nut per se, produce is definitely my friend, and I love things like this that taste light and fresh.

Anyway, on to the rest of the box. The remaining three items were thin cylindrical objects that looked like this:

They turned out to be a bottle of damson vodka, a bottle of vanilla essence, and a beautiful blue candle made by Carl's wife Debs--not edible, of course, but included in the hopes that it "could illuminate a meal." The color was specially chosen for me, since I'd mentioned that my favorite hues are blues/turquoises/teals.

I am a big baker, so I'm thinking it won't be long until the vanilla essence finds its way into some cookies or muffins. I only drink rarely, but when I do I tend to like fruity concoctions that disguise the flavor of the alcohol (this is one of the few things about me that is undeniably girly). I'm thinking that the damson vodka would make some great cocktails, though of course I'd also need to sip a little of the raw ingredient just to experience the damson flavoring on its own.

Fortunately for me, I had not eaten lunch prior to opening my Foodie parcel, and so I was immediately able to put some of my new treasures to good use. I sliced off a couple pieces of the bread, smeared them with the blackberry, apple, and chilli chutney, and then loaded them with a thin layer of cheddar cheese. The flavors were both deep and bright (if that makes any sense), and it was a light but filling repast--reminding me very much of the sort of meals I used to read about in Brian Jacques' Redwall series when I was a young girl. The food described in those books is unbelievably appealing; I remember the culinary details of those stories better than any of the characters or plot developments--even 20 years after the fact. I always tried to replicate the menus myself, but without proper British components like damsons and spicy chutneys, I could never quite get there. I hadn't thought about that for ages, but thanks to Carl I've had a childhood dream come true!


All in all, my first foray into the world of Foodie Penpals was a huge success; thanks very much to Carl (and Debs!) for a lovely introduction to the program. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing what the mailman will bring me next month. 

If you're curious about what I sent to my own penpal, head over to her blog to read all about it!

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Where to Eat in Falmouth, Part II: The Shack

Indoor picnic tables and picket fencing aren't usually associated with a gourmet meal, but don't let appearances fool you: Although The Shack (9 Tidemill House, Discovery Quay, Falmouth, UK) may look and sound humble, its food is anything but.

It is a family-run establishment that opened in the late summer of 2011, since which time I have visited often; I have never had a meal I didn't enjoy. In a town where, understandably, the seafood restaurants have a very British feel, The Shack is more reminiscent of a traditional New England seaside cafe. Although the menu is heavy on shellfish--lobster, mussels, shrimp (or "prawns," depending on where you are from), scallops--there is always a fish dish, a steak option, and at least one vegetarian meal; in addition to the regular menu, The Shack also features specials that change daily. No matter what the main ingredient, the chefs focus on simple preparations that highlight the natural flavors. It is hard to find fresher-tasting, more perfectly cooked seafood in town, and that is saying something--I've eaten almost everywhere and enjoyed many excellent meals.

During my most recent visit to The Shack, I started with one of the day's specials: seafood broth.


For some reason, I had expected this to be starter-sized, and I guess it might be for some people. For me, though, it was pretty substantial--not that I'm complaining. The broth contained shrimp, mussels, fish, calamari, and samphire--an ingredient I'd never even heard of until I moved to Britain, but now see everywhere. Samphire can be incredibly salty and so it usually needs to be blanched prior to inclusion in a dish; failing to de-salt the plant adequately can result in a nasty surprise for the diner. I really like samphire because I am a fan of greens, and even when cooked, it maintains its flavor and crunchiness. Here, it was a great contrast to the richer taste of the seafood.

I should mention that I'm normally a bit wary of calamari because it can so easily be cooked into a rubbery oblivion. In this instance, though, it was delicate and ultimately very "moreish," as the Brits would say; I could definitely have partaken in the calamari starter that my friends indulged in before my husband and I joined them!

Speaking of my friends, they worked on a bowl of the Fowey (pronounced "foy") mussels mariniere, which are prepared with cream, shallots, garlic, white wine, and fish stock. Unlike some restaurants that give you lots of broth and only a few mussels, The Shack is very generous with the shellfish, as you can see here.

For my main course, I ordered the same thing that I have eaten pretty much every time I've been to The Shack: Falmouth Bay scallops.

I have been told our local scallops are world-renowned, and this dish really shows why--they are tender and sweet and utterly addictive. Also, even though I only ordered 6, I was actually given 7. A part of me wishes I could move on and try something else on the menu, but I just can't bear to pass up the scallops; I just steal bites of my friends' food in order to see what the other things taste like.

The prawns, scallops, and crab all come with a choice of homemade sauces, including garlic butter, lemon butter, sweet chilli dip, blushed tomato, tarragon and caper butter, and aioli. I tend to go for the garlic butter--because, as far as I'm concerned, there is no such thing as too much garlic--but the tarragon and caper butter is also quite nice. Maybe some day I'll get around to sampling the other options, as well.

My husband is a big fan of lobster, and so he went for what might be described as The Shack's signature dish: the St. Ives lobster (or, in this case, half a lobster). He was even so generous as to offer a taste to one of our friends, who had never before eaten that particular shellfish. I've never been a great fan of lobster, and so I must admit that I abstained. However, he was very pleased.

Our companions opted to sample two of the other shellfish on the menu:

 Razor clams, which look so strange you can't possibly imagine them tasting good;

and shell-on shrimp in lemon butter sauce.

Together, the four of us managed to sample nearly every species on the menu, plus some of the fresh, chewy (in a good way) bread and skinny fries. 

One thing we didn't have, but which I have eaten in the past and definitely deserves a mention, is the restaurant's seafood sampler for two. It includes a collection of pretty much all the shellfish on offer, including (if I remember correctly) shrimp, scallops, crab, mussels, and oysters; it also comes with a bit of salad and some skinny fries. The whole ensemble is presented on a hefty rustic wooden platter and is accompanied by some seriously weighty tools for breaking into the tough shells of the brown crabs (which are much thicker and heartier than the snow and king crabs I am used to from the US). I live 2 stories above The Shack and often hear the loud and unmistakeable "thwack!" of the oversized mallets as diners try to extract their meals.

The nice thing about shellfish is that you work so hard unwrapping your dinner that you are totally justified in having dessert (in case you needed an excuse to begin with). The restaurant makes their own sorbet, and it is incredible. I had lemon and "forest fruit" the first time I went, and this time around the options included raspberry and pear:

I love raspberry, but the scoop of pear really stole the show. You could tell that it had been made with real fruit, and it was just like eating an actual pear--only colder and a bit creamier. Delicious.

Our friends had the lemon tart with raspberry coulis and (obligatory) Cornish cream, which is something else I've always wanted to try. Judging by the speed with which they inhaled it, it was pretty tasty.

Overall, we spent about three hours at the restaurant, sampling our way through various dishes and multiple courses. The staff were quite happy to put up with all our requests and orders, and never once tried to hurry us along so they could close up shop. It seemed to me that they only started each new course after watching us finish the previous one, which was great for our purposes--since we weren't in a rush--but might not work for people who are on a tight schedule; if you have to run to catch a movie after dinner, you might want to request simultaneous preparation of your dishes.

It is also worth mentioning that the menu is very reasonably priced--perhaps not by American standards, but definitely by British standards and, especially, British seaside standards. The largest order of scallops (9) only costs £17.95, for instance, while that massive bucket of mussels my friends ordered only set them back £11.95. The four of us together spend about £100--a tally that includes 2 bottles of wine, 2 bottles of water, starters, mains, desserts, and coffee. I suppose this is a pleasant economic side effect of ordering from a menu that features locally-sourced items--something that is also beneficial from an ecological perspective.

If you are in the neighborhood--perhaps visiting the Maritime Museum that is also located in Discovery Quay, or going shopping at the venerated Trago Mills--you should definitely stop by The Shack for lunch or dinner. If you see someone on the third-floor balcony, that will likely be me or my husband, so you can give us a wave and thank us for recommending such a fine restaurant.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Trieste: The Strap of the Italian Boot

When Sasha asked me if I'd like to accompany him on a conference trip to Italy, I didn't even hesitate before answering "Yes." I'd never been to Italy, and I like Italian food, so really it was a no-brainer. My excitement was diminished a little bit when I found out that Trieste is kind of in the middle of nowhere. It is the capital of a province (Friuli Venizia Giulia, if you can believe that) that is kind of like the Italian equivalent of Cornwall: It's very pretty, and is pleasant once you're there, but is not the easiest or quickest place to get to.

  (Map showing Trieste in the extreme NE of Italy--just a few kilometers from Slovenia, and only a few more to Croatia)

Fortunately for us, Trieste is a popular-yet-out-of-the-way enough place that it is the destination of a direct Ryanair flight from London Stansted. Now, everyone always talks about how terrible it is to fly with Ryanair, but the whole reason I could afford to go to Italy was that my entire round-trip flight cost less than $100. Plus, had I not been on my particular flight to Trieste, I might not have appreciated the trip so much because I would have missed out on seeing my life flash before my eyes during the landing. (Seriously. We veered sideways so substantially that I truly thought we were going to lose control.) After an experience like that, you are so grateful to be alive that pretty much nothing could ruin your trip. Thanks, Ryanair!

(Who says Ryanair doesn't provide free food?)

Actually, it would have been a very pleasant trip anyway, primarily because of how easy everything was. Take, for instance, the public transportation system. Sasha and I had no problems finding the bus stop at the airport and nabbing two seats just before a flood of people arrived and battled each other for a place to sit. Likewise, later on in the week,  we had no difficulty purchasing tickets for the local bus service and getting ourselves to the beach and back. In fact, our obvious familiarity and comfort with the bus system even inspired an Irish tourist to ask us for assistance.

Another great thing was our hotel. It turned out to be just a stone's throw from the bus station, and, because it was located right on one of the main roads through town (the Corsa Cavour), it was also pretty convenient for getting to all the other points of interest, as well--including shops, restaurants, the oceanside footpath, and all the major cultural/historical sights. Plus, it had a complimentary hair dryer in the bathroom, and you can't ever argue with that.

(The cheerful facade of the building across from the NH Hotel Trieste)

Perhaps the best thing was how easy it was to walk everywhere. That was particularly helpful for me, since that's pretty much all I did for the 5 days I was in town. Once Sasha made his way up to the university for the conference, I would head out and traipse around town, sometimes with a destination in mind, sometimes to look for good photography opportunities, and always to enjoy the novel feeling of sun and warmth on my skin. 

(So this is what summer in Europe is supposed to be like?!)

In fact, since Sasha had to go register for the conference shortly after we arrived in town, I started my walking tour of Trieste pretty much right away--after trading in my jeans for a pair of shorts, and slathering some sunscreen on my face. It was about 5 PM when I headed out, which might seem a little late to begin sightseeing. To be honest, though, I found this to be the nicest time of day, since the temperatures were less forbidding, and the entire city was suffused with a pleasing orange glow. (In fact, if you visit Flickr and look through my entire slideshow of trip pictures, you'll notice that a very high proportion of them were taking during the long, slow sunset.)

Evening was a particularly fantastic time to see the Palazzo del Governo, one side of which faced the Piazza Unita d'Italia, and another of which overlooked the Adriatic. The setting sun beamed directly onto both of these facades and made the gold decorations glitter and sparkle in a magical way.

(The Adriatic side of the Palazzo del Governo)

Looking at this sight, it is hard to believe that the Lonely Planet guidebook describes Trieste as "grand but not spectacular, melancholy but not sad, historic but not legendary." It also goes on to claim that Trieste "rarely inspires on first viewing," and that it "is one of Italy's most cryptic cities." Personally, I would describe it as "charming, in an understated sort of way," but I guess my point of view is probably influenced by the fact that I've never been anywhere else in Italy; my opinions are not swayed by expectations set according to the standards of places like Venice, Naples, or Rome, all of which would surely out-compete Trieste in many ways. 

(The Arco di Riccardo--an old town gateway dating back to 33 BC. The Coliseum it is not, but still--it's standing after 2000 years, which makes it pretty awesome in my book.)

Sometimes I felt as though the entire city was under construction, since everywhere I looked there were safety fences and orange cones and cranes and forklifts. There were also many places--including some right along the main drag--that were badly in need of structural or decorative makeovers. Those sorts of things never really bother me, though, because they just make a place seem more genuine. Nothing was glitzy or touristy or overwhelming; it was just a pleasant place to go and get a taster before ordering the Italian main course. I suppose this sort of evaluation is to be expected from a practical Midwest girl who has never been all that impressed with the supposed glamor of big cities; also, I kind of like the whole "urban decay" vibe.

(View down the Grand Canal towards the Chiesa di Sant'Antonio Taumaturgo. Much of this area of the city was designed in the 18th century "at the behest" of Empress Maria Theresa.)

Interestingly enough, despite what I've just said about using Trieste as a way to become familiar with Italy in general, it is, in many ways, pretty un-Italian. Originally named Tergeste, it was established in 178 BC as a Roman port town. Its riches attracted the attention of the Goths, Byzantines, and Lombards, then finally the Venetians, who captured the city in 1202. After winning back its independence, Trieste then turned around and voluntarily welcomed the rule of the Austrians from 1382 onwards. Thanks to this final development, many structures in the city--including the Grand Canal shown above--were commissioned and/or financed by various members of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Thus, although there are some unmistakably Italian touches around town, there is also a lot of architecture that has a more Germanic look. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the intense intellectualism of northern Europe also had a big impact on Trieste, since many academics and artists came to the town to work on their various projects. Notable visitors include James Joyce and Italo Svevo, both of whom are commemorated in town in statue form.

(Life-size statue of James Joyce, located on the Via Roma bridge over the Grand Canal)

Because of Trieste's long and interesting history, it is chock-full of museums, some of which are rated very highly. I did not go to any of these. It was just too nice outside, and the allure of the Adriatic was too strong. I wandered up and down the waterfront footpath, occasionally stopping to photograph interesting people and make minor detours down nearby side streets. 

 (Successful fisherman extracting his hook from a rather small fish)

During my meanderings, I saw first-hand many of the things that the Lonely Planet guide mentioned in its "Day in the life of an Italian" section. For instance, the book went at length to explain the concept of fa la bella figura, or "cutting a fine figure." Basically, the idea is that Italians want everyone and everything to be as aesthetically pleasing as possible, and so they take pains to achieve this. The is one of the reasons why I kept noticing that seemingly nobody--except the tourists--looked unkempt; also, almost none of the women wore flat-heeled shoes, and I repeatedly observed them critically eyeing my flip-flops. I got another taste of the bella figura attitude when I went into a shop to buy my father a birthday present: The sales associate meticulously bagged and packaged and wrapped and decorated the gift before allowing me to leave the store with it.

Another thing I saw in action was the demographic shift in Italy. Although Italy is decidedly Catholic, only 15% of the population regularly attends mass. Indeed, I noticed that churches were routinely empty; in fact, when I went up to visit the Basilica di San Silvestro, I not only found it to be completely shut in the middle of the day, but also heavily graffitied--in a way that suggested it had not been open for a while. 

(The Basilica di San Silvestro. It supposedly has a "tiny painting by Sassoferrato of the Madonna della salute," but I was unable to go inside and see it.)

I could also see signs of the heavy influx of immigrants--particularly Romanians--into the country. In a nameless park near the Piazza Tommaseo, I spied an older woman who I assumed to be an immigrant gypsy; later on, I saw her again along the waterfront.

(Small world!)

One thing that surprised me was the number of large families I encountered. According to the statistics quoted in the Lonely Planet guide, birth rates in Italy are among the lowest in Europe--so low, in fact, that the government recently offered a 1000-Euro incentive for women to have babies. Families in which many births are occurring are, reportedly, more likely to be immigrant. However, I saw lots of 3- and 4-children families that looked and sounded pretty Italian to me. This may have been a result of the fact that Trieste is a family-friendly tourist destination and so happens to have a large concentration of kiddies.

In terms of actual landmarks, one of my favorites was the Chiesa di Santo Spiridione, a Serbian Orthodox church built in 1868. This was one of the few churches I went into before being scared off by the signs which seemed to indicate that no tourists were allowed. These were present on nearly all the churches I passed, and I couldn't tell if the stricken-through people in shorts and t-shirts indicated that no tourists were allowed ever or just during actual religious ceremonies. There certainly were tourists inside, but I was reluctant to accidentally become that annoying American who disrespects other cultures/religions.

(Chiesa di Santo Spiridione)

The interior decorations of the Chiesa di Santo Spiridione were breathtaking. I wasn't sure if photography was allowed, so I sneakily used my iPhone to quietly grab a few shots of the ornate walls and ceiling. I realize this may sound hypocritical given what I've just said about being disrespectful, but I like to think of myself as an ambassador, using my photography to spread goodwill towards the Chiesa. Also, it was just really pretty, and I wanted a picture.

(Gorgeous--so inspiring it could make a believer out of anyone. Almost.)

Santo Spiridione was incredible both inside and out, and I loved wandering along the Grand Canal in the evening and seeing the church's domes rising up into the city skyline. The swifts seemed to love it as well, judging by how much they swooped around it.

I also enjoyed visiting the Roman Theater, which was built between the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. Amazingly, there are actually still performances held there during the summer; I guess you can afford to be cavalier about 2000-year-old ruins when they are as common as they are in Italy. As with the Chiesa di Santo Spiridione, I wandered past the ruins at all hours of the day and enjoyed how their "feel" changed depending on the lighting and presence/absence of other people. One evening, I discovered that there is a black cat who likes to frequent the theater and stretch out on the rocks to absorb their heat after the sun has gone down; the next night I encountered it again and even got a little cuddle.

If I correctly recall my mother's tales from past trips to Italy, feral cats are a real problem in some areas of the country. I'm assuming this guy (or gal) was wild, as was the one I later saw shoe-shopping in the commercial district:

(Cats like shoes, too)

Sasha and I did actually do a couple of planned activities--I didn't spend all my time meandering around aimlessly. For one thing, we went to visit the Acquario Marino (Marine Aquarium), which was a tad depressing because of its small size and cramped quarters. One thing I did like was the way that the "Adriatic tanks" (as opposed to the ones with tropical fish) were arranged and decorated according to where in the ocean you could expect to see particular species. In the tank with harbor species, for instance, there was faux garbage, while one of the deeper-sea tanks featured an old amphora. Some might argue that the displays weren't "natural" enough, but I'd say they were pretty accurate; the Mediterranean is brimming with spilled cargo from wrecks both new and old.

Unexpectedly, the upper floor of the aquarium had a large collection of European reptiles, which was eye-opening; neither Sasha nor I realized how many native snake species there were--some quite intricately patterned. My favorite display, though, was the fantastic collection of shell art arranged in a two-sided cabinet painted in bright turquoise:

(Least biological display ever found in any type of natural history museum)

The pieces in there were absolutely hideous, and, other than being made of shells, had absolutely nothing to do with wildlife. I can't imagine making any of this, buying it, or showing it off; as a result, I found this kitschy collection to be stupefyingly wonderful.

We also experienced the marine environment first-hand, by going to the "beach." I put this in quotation marks because the word is a bit of a misnomer. There is no sand anywhere to be seen, and, in fact, there are few places where you can walk out into the water. That is both because the shoreline is incredibly rocky, and because much of the coast is lined with a stone retaining wall--a retaining wall that is very wide and gives visitors ample space to spread out towels and lie in the sun. In the occasional spots where the shore is lined by small pebbles instead of massive boulders, there are little staircases allowing you to descend from the wall and stroll out into the water; elsewhere, there are ladders so that you can just jump in straight from the cement and then climb back out later.

(The cement beach)

It is unusual, but not as unusual as the fact that, along much of the coast, the road runs right next to the other side of the retaining wall. This means that when people talk about going to the "beach," what they really mean is that they are going to the "sidewalk." Even better is the fact that some of the female sunbathers go topless, and so you can find yourself driving or walking down the road, and suddenly there is a pair of breasts right in front of you. Trieste residents themselves seem to find this amusing/awkward, judging from the almost apologetic attitude of our hotel receptionist when we asked her for directions to the waterfront.

The beach that Sasha and I visited was fairly fancy, in that it featured a park in between the waterfront and the road. The trees there were full of insects (cicadas?) that were loudly buzzing in a rhythmic fashion, and we also saw some lizards running along the ground. Oddly, there seemed to be very little other wildlife in Trieste, with the exception of gulls and pigeons. There were, however, a bunch of retirees playing some sort of odd bocce ball-like game that involved little disks:

I was sad not to see any bocce at all, primarily because it is so quintessentially Italian, but secondarily because I really enjoy playing and was hoping that Sasha and I might have a game.

One thing I did find a lot of in Trieste was man-bags. Man-bags and scooters and people who talk to themselves. The scooter thing I understand, because European towns have narrow streets, and people often don't have to travel very far during the day, and so a scooter is more appropriate than a car. I even kind of understand the talking-to-yourself thing, because (as Sasha discovered at his conference), Trieste has a novel setup for treating mental health: It encourages functioning patients to live together in small outpatient communities, from and to which they can come and go as they please; I suspect that many of the people I encountered were psychiatric patients going about their daily business. The man-bag thing, though, really defies explanation, because let's face it: Those are purses. There are men walking around carrying purses. The only time this is ever appropriate is when cross-dressing or temporarily carrying a bag for someone else (who is female). Italian men may know how to dress stylishly, but clearly they have issues with accessorizing.

Speaking of accessories, I did finally break down and do a little bit of shopping during my last full day in town. It's really hard to be in Italy and not go clothes shopping, because people are dressed so nicely and all the shops' window displays are so attractive...it took a lot of willpower for me to avoid temptation. When I finally did visit some stores, it was to look for presents for other people (I swear!). While browsing, I ran across a flamingo pendant and a pair of flamingo lounge pants, both of which I had to buy for myself; they were 50% off, so really I had no choice. It was pretty thrilling to see that flamingos are a popular decorative item in possibly the most fashionable nation on earth. That must mean that my upcoming flamingo book is going to be very chic. I also found a matching Buddha necklace and bracelet and so was able to add to my international Buddha collection in a novel way. The best thing was being able to purchase items for my Foodie Penpal in Italian food stores; not only did I get some unique foreign ingredients to ship her, but I was able to buy a larger number of things before reaching the 10-pound spending limit because I was paying in euros rather than pounds.
Unfortunately, while I didn't actually buy that many things, my purchases cumulatively weighed more than the 1.5 kilograms that I was allowed before sending my luggage over Ryanair's paltry weight limit. Rather than give the airline the satisfaction of charging me more money, I decided to buy a small carry-on suitcase in the airport in order to redistribute my possessions and try to avoid extra fees (which I guessed would be more costly than the price of the suitcase). And you know what? It worked. I'm getting very good at re-packing luggage in the airport at the very last minute.

 (I used my recent trip from Columbus as a trial run for Trieste.)

At the end of the day, I got some flamingo and Buddha paraphernalia (in addition to my new-found knowledge of northeast Italian history and culture), two of my family members got Italian presents, my penpal Lisa got some Italian edibles, and Sasha got his very own carry-on suitcase (which he is currently using during a trip to Germany). Win-win-win-win.

(Look how happy we are that we avoided paying Ryanair any unnecessary fees.)

Additionally, because I walked many sunny miles in my Teva Olowahu flip-flops (seriously--most comfortable sandals ever), I got a pretty sweet criss-cross tan on my feet. Of all the things I brought back from Italy, that's the one that would have been hardest to come by in England. Thank Heavens for the Mediterranean, and thank Ryanair for cheap flights there. The British "summer" just wouldn't be tolerable without them.

Thanks to World Guides (WG) for the map of Trieste/Italy. The WG website also made a really useful supplement to the Lonely Planet guide that was my primary source of information during the trip (Thanks, Jodie!).

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Eating in Trieste, Italy

The "Food & Drink" section of the Lonely Planet's guide to Italy begins, "Let's be honest: you came for the food, right? Wise choice." Well, I didn't go for the food--I went for the sun and warm temperatures--but that sure didn't stop me from eating my way around Trieste. Sun and warm temperatures usually dampen my appetite, because who wants to eat a plateful of hot food when it's 90 degrees outside? Luckily, though, all the walking I did each day seemed to keep my metabolism up, such that even if I wasn't in the mood for a big lunch, I could easily indulge in one of Italy's famous multi-course meals come dinnertime.

My first dish--unless you count the tepid panini that I had in the airport, which I'd rather just erase from my memory--was one of my all-time favorite things to eat: a bufala mozzarella salad, consisting of a stack of tomato and mozzarella slices topped with basil and surrounded by rocket (or arugula, for my American readers).


This lovely concoction, which I had never seen before in vertical format, was on offer at Spritz@Lunch, a restaurant that I chose pretty much at random while walking by Trieste's lovely Grand Canal. Sasha was dining at his conference venue and so I was on my own. Perhaps feeling sorry for me in my solo state, the fatherly waiter set up a waterside table just for me, then offered me his arm to lead me there. Later, seeing me snap a few photos while I waited for my meal, he insisted on borrowing my camera to take a couple shots of me. The lighting wasn't great and my camera is a little complicated for a novice (not to sound snooty), but here is the resulting portrait:

 (I swear I'm not a hunchback; I'm just mimicking one)

As far as views go, you could definitely do worse.

For much of the week, I visited the local Spar in order to pick up quick and easy lunches. I have never thought very highly of British Spars--which are generally comparable to American 7-11s--but their continental counterparts are pretty snazzy. They had all sorts of salads, sandwiches, lunch meats, breads, pastas, and soups, plus a microwave in the front of the shop and a picnic area outside so you could prepare your meal after purchasing it and then dine al fresco. I discovered a delightful type of taffy called "fruit toffees," which are like banana-, orange-, and strawberry-flavored Starbursts, only bigger, softer, and more natural. I demolished one bag in Italy and brought back two more to work on in the UK; so far I've managed to restrain myself, but those things are addictive.

Sasha accompanied me on my next culinary outing, which was dinner at another randomly chosen restaurant along the Grand Canal--this time, the Fratelli la Bufala ("Buffalo Brothers"). We ate quite late--how European of us!--and were seated outside, so all of my food photos are a bit dark. Hopefully the dim lighting will convey the experience of watching the distant sunset over the Adriatic, all the while having a gentle sea breeze play on our faces. (By the way, did I mention that I was wearing a sleeveless shirt and shorts during all of this, but never felt cold? That, my friends, is the definition of summer. Britain, take note.)

In true Italian style, Sasha started off with a pasta dish--specifically, spaghetti with clams. I, on the other hand, sampled another version of the bufala mozzarella salad, this time with cherry tomatoes instead of the regular full-sized variety.

For his main course, Sasha selected buffalo sausages accompanied by potatoes and greens. We assume that these were made from true buffalo meat--not bison, which we Americans tend to call "buffalo." If that is the case, it's the first time I've ever seen that particular species on a menu, though I guess it is not uncommon in Asia, where water buffalo abound.

I chose to go meatless for my main course, ordering a (giant!) plate of ricotta gnocchi covered with a tomato ragu. It tasted both rich and fresh, and I regretted having to leave quite a bit on my plate.

(Really, this could be just about anything, couldn't it? I should try my iPhone flash next time...)

Sasha finished off with a dessert, but the one that arrived at our table was either not the one that he ordered, or not the one that he meant to order; we're not sure whether he or the waiter was responsible for the mistake. In any case, what he ended up with was some sort of traditional regional dessert consisting of kind of a thin fruit jam covered by a custardy cream and topped by little shortbread fingers. It was not remotely close to what Sasha had intended to get, but it was still pretty nice--not too heavy, not too big, and overall a pleasant way to end the meal.

The next evening was the big conference banquet, which was held in the San Giusto Castle. Because I'm not sure how many times in my life I will ever be able to say this, let me just reiterate the point: I ate dinner in an Italian castle.

(The entrance to San Giusto Castle, which is located on a hill in the middle of town)

Unfortunately, the whole experience was rendered a bit awkward by the fact that we sat at a table with people that we didn't know, in a room full of other people that we didn't know. That's because neither Sasha nor I normally attend this conference, and it addresses a topic that neither of us really studies (or cares about, truth be told). To make matters worse, everyone else at our table came from the same Japanese institution; so, they all knew each other, and several of them seemed to speak little or no English. Those that did were quite friendly, but it was still a little weird.

I have to admit that the best part of this odd arrangement was watching the reactions of the Asian diners to the very European food. They seemed quite comfortable with our starter, which was fish carpaccio--similar, in many ways, to sushi. On the other hand, there was a clear dislike of the barley risotto, which I actually thought was quite tasty; several of the guests left large portions on their plates, and a couple did so after having only two or three bites.

(Mullet and salmon carpaccio with melon and tangerine, accompanied by a bit of toast and balsamic reduction)

(Zucchini and shrimp barley risotto, garnished with--oddly enough--lime rind)

I would have been quite happy to have finished my meal at this point, but we still had two courses to go. This is probably a good time to mention that even though the Italians are renowned for their lengthy, multipart meals, they don't actually eat like that all of the time--which is pretty obvious when you look around and see nothing but thin, fit people everywhere. As the Lonely Planet guide explains, this is a style of food consumption that is normally reserved for special occasions--such as my husband's cousin's wedding, at which something like 6-8 courses were consumed over a period of 12 hours. I feel full just thinking about that.

Our third course was deemed an improvement by our fellow diners, who ate the fish but tended to only pick at the mashed potatoes.

(Grouper/mullet with capers, cherry tomatoes, mashed potatoes, and a balsamic reduction)

Finally--thank God--we finished off with what the menu referred to as "millefoglie with strawberries." In reality, the latter was lemon sorbet with a drizzling of strawberry syrup. This was amazing and I could have eaten an entire bowl of it, regardless of how full I was. The millefoglie tasted pretty nice, but was such a hassle to eat; the layers were kind of a sticky sponge that tend to stick together, and our only utensil was a pointlessly tiny fork that was absolutely useless for cutting off bites.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Sasha and I opted to walk home after the banquet rather than wait for the shuttle bus--we both needed to speed up our digestion a little and burn off some of the many calories that we consumed during dinner.

On our last full day in Trieste, we decided to visit restaurants that had been specifically recommended by the Lonely Planet guide. For lunch, we checked out Circus, which is described as follows: "A rather quirky hangout for sometimes over-serious Trieste, Circus lives up to its colorful name with a vaguely big-top decor mixed with old-time movie paraphernalia. It's a great lunch stop with its ample panini, huge bowls of salad, and a selection of nicely priced primi. The atmosphere's cool but not haughty." 

(Basmati rice salad with pineapple, chicken, and cherry tomatoes--a dish I will have to try to recreate in my own kitchen)

Indeed, Sasha and I noted that the clients were mostly locals rather than tourists, and many were obviously well-known by the restaurant's staff. There was nothing wrong with the food, but it also wasn't off the charts; really, I think that people go to Circus in order to see familiar faces and be at a "cool" hangout. Also, it's right in the middle of the shopping and eating district, so it's in a very convenient location. 

Our dinner choice was more successful, but definitely one of the most unusual meals I've ever eaten. To provide a little context, I should point out that Trieste is very far north and east; although it is definitely Italian now, it was, for a very long time, a part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Thus, while you do find traditional Italian pasta and seafood dishes, the regional specialty is much more Germanic. Specifically, the big thing in Trieste is buffets that serve up meat--particularly pork--accompanied by sauerkraut, cheese, and/or beer. Normally this is not the sort of thing I would ever eat, but, as they say, "When in Rome..."

We performed our culinary experiment with buffets at Buffet Da Pepi, which the Lonely Planet describes as follows: "One of Trieste's signature buffets, Da Pepi has been concocting traditional boiled meats, cold cuts and beer since--oh--1897. All kinds of pork joints are produced here, served up with sauerkraut, hot mustard, and kren (a tangy horseradish)." Our waiter explained that they don't really have a menu; instead, they just bring a sampler and whatever side dishes you want--some combination of fried zucchini, potatoes, and/or sauerkraut. Sasha and I both nixed the sauerkraut (I'm adventurous, but not that adventurous--that stuff is disgusting in any country), but we ordered both of the other options.

Shortly thereafter, this is what the waiter delivered to our table:

(Oh my God.)

This was definitely one of the most disturbing things I've ever seen on a dinner table, mostly because the combination of meats and pig-shaped platter made me feel as though I was eating directly out of a dead animal. Not that that stopped me from gorging.

The thing closest to Sasha was, obviously, a hot dog, and it was very tasty. Underneath that--between it and the mustard--was, basically, sausage that wasn't in a casing. It was delicious, and I ate most of it by myself. The fat-marbled pink stuff in the middle was a combination of ham and thick-cut bacon; the ham was really tender, but I wasn't in love with the bacon because it had an awful lot of gristle, *shudder*. The brown stuff near the pig's "ear" was straight-up pork, which normally I avoid like the plague but which I actually liked in this instance; next to that, over the pig's eye, was more ham.

Before I get to the other two things on the plate--give me a minute to gather my courage--let me just take a moment to discuss the potatoes, which were possibly one of the best things I have ever put in my mouth. I don't know how these were prepared, but I need to find out. Basically, it looks like they took really soft and starchy potatoes and mashed them together with bacon and--I suspect--a lot of bacon fat. It's really hard to improve on either bacon or mashed potatoes, but putting them together in a single dish pretty much does the trick.

One more side note: here is the kren mentioned by the Lonely Planet guide. The waiter came and grated it fresh for us. I tried it several times but never really got much of that overwhelming spicy taste that I usually associate with horseradish; maybe I just wasn't eating enough, or maybe it was being overwhelmed by the mustard that was also on my meat. Incidentally, just as I normally don't eat pork, I also normally don't eat mustard; I really rocked the boat on this little outing.

Now, speaking of rocking the boat, it's time to get back to those last two cuts of meat on our plate. Sasha and I had absolutely no idea what the brown thing was closest to the pig's front hoof, but we're pretty sure it was some sort of offal--perhaps tripe. There was no way that either of us was going to sample a piece of the piggy GI tract, so we just left that alone. The other thing--the dark red strip right on the pig's belly--was tongue. (It has just occurred to me that the food would have been a lot less mysterious if they'd arranged it on the plate in an anatomically correct fashion.)

Now, Sasha is a fan of beef tongue, but I have never eaten the tongue of any species, and have never felt compelled to do so. However, after much dithering and quite a lot of time spent sitting frozen with my loaded fork raised in front of my mouth, I did finally manage to force myself to try a piece. Shockingly, I survived. It wasn't bad. In fact, it was pleasingly tender, and other than that seemed pretty much like a piece of ham. I just have a real mental issue with eating tongue because I absolutely hate biting my own tongue, and so I have this strange (and ridiculous) feeling of sympathy for the meat that I am eating. But I did it, so I can check that one off the bucket list (assuming it was ever there to begin with).

The only other culinary experience worth mentioning is our sampling of the many flavors of gelato on offer. There were several gelato trucks that roamed around town, including one that often parked up near the Piazzo Unita d'Italia:

(Three generations of gelato-lovers)

(Self-portrait of a strawberry gelato eater)

We visited one of these during our outing to the "beach," and I tried strawberry while Sasha had chocolate. We also stopped by a gelato specialty store called Grom, which is located near the--you guessed it--Grand Canal; there, Sasha tried apricot and raspberry, while I had lemon.

I'm not entirely sure why people are so obsessed with gelato (as opposed to, say, ice cream or frozen yogurt), because, as far as I'm concerned, all of the products in this genre are equally wonderful in their own ways. That said, the flavors I tried in Trieste were very light, fresh, and all-natural, so they were especially refreshing and summery...The perfect cure for all the cold and rain we've had on our plate for the last several months in Britain.

Consider this a little taster (pun intended) of our trip to Trieste...a full blog post on the rest of our Italian adventures is on its way!