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Donuts and Beigels

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The sign says “possibly DEFINITELY the best dougnuts in the world.”
Misspelling aside, that’s a bold statement to make. Especially to these American eyes. We did, after all, invent obesity thanks in large part to an endless supply of delicious donuts.
But, this is indeed a special donut. A big ball of fried dough oozing forth a vanilla cream that’s like eating a storm cloud, rich and thick…but also light and airy. I’m eating a storm cloud. (foreshadowing). Eating this thing is a gymnastic exercise in contorting your arm in all various positions to get every last bit of the cream before it’s claimed by Newtonian physics. I suppose you could use a knife and fork; but, that’s just un-American…even in England.
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With nary cloud in the sky the stream of the day is keeping us outdoors. The walk along Southbank is burnished into our subconscious, which is nice because that’s when you can relax a bit and pay attention to all the little things happening around you.
Lauren hasn’t been to the UK since high school, so the mission is to walk it out under beautiful blue skies and be tourists. Walking alongside Whitehall there is a small park with a series of war memorials. One of them is a simple oblisk with a soldier dedicated to the Korean War. It’s a sharp contrast to memorialize the same war on the National Mall. Again it’s fascinating to see how the collective memory works differently across international borders, perhaps it’s also a showcase of just how BIG we like to remember things in the States.
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DCIM117GOPRO

Passing by Big Ben the crowds thicken. It is Friday, and a gorgeous one at that. We opt out of a walk through Westminster Abbey, I’ve been in there before and Lauren isn’t £20 interested. A long walk later puts us in front of Buckingham Palace where the crowds actually aren’t that bad. Sometimes it’s fun to return to a landmark, it’s another case where your attention works differently. The little details matter more, you’re less awestruck. For me, this is a good spot to play around with the camera and then watch people as they watch a palace presumably full of royal people. At least according to the flag.

The goal for the afternoon is to spend some time in the National Gallery, but that’s the only official item on the itinerary. And official is a loose term here. I was also debating with going into the Churchill War Rooms, which was the underground military brain during the Battle of Britain. The Gallery wins, in large part because I dragged Lauren through the British Museum for hours longer than she wanted to the day before. And I’m genuinely interested in the collection at the Gallery. Not to mention it, also, is free. Trafalgar Square is a fun place to photograph, the neoclassical design of the museum combined with the fountains in the plaza and the lions at the base of the Nelson monument create interesting scenes. The sun hangs low in the southern sky offering up some great light for a good part of the afternoon. Inside the works are nothing short of inspirational. I’ve written many times about the ability of art to transport you to another place, another frame of thought, if you let it. A few hours and a few IMG_2026Renoirs, Monets, Dagats and da Vincis later we were on our way back to Southbank. Another one of our friends is flying in, and a we have plans to meet a whole other set later in the evening.
Walking back along the river the Christmas markets are really picking up along with the post-work rush. As we walk along Southbank the milk tree is gone, replaced with…wait for it…a BEER tree. It’s a promotional stunt by Carlsberg, but all we have to do is wait in a short line and pour some beer from a tap IN THE TREE! Of course. So we pour a beer and sit and watch the river traffic along the Thames. It’s an English Christmas miracle.
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There are moments, if you’re paying attention, when you realize the depth and breadth of the scope of your life. It is through pure circumstance that I’m now at a place called Wheatsheaf adjacent to Borough Market sharing pints with seven Penn Staters. Five of them are good friends I’ve known for almost 15 years. A quirk of timing and opportunity brings us back together, and this is how life is great. Recreating the past, living in the present, pushing forward towards the future.
The pub scene of London is on full display here. We were lucky enough to score some inside territory, and a table, but the crowd is spilling into the street. That’s how the post-work pub party happens. It’s communal and maybe a tad bit excessive, but clearly traditional and, dare I say it, a bit more neighborly than the D.C. version of happy hour.
After a few pints we make some moves towards another part of town. The mission is salted beef bagels and, purportedly, the best pizza in London. In the process we lose one of our party to familial obligations, putting the kids to bed.
We choose the bus over the tube for this trip, and I’m more than happy with that. The double-decker buses are just as much tourist delight as they are public transit. The journey becomes the experience.
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Shoreditch is a model of gentrification. There are traces of a more traditional, and even turbulent past, but for the most part people here now have money and free time and a hunger to consume both.
We work up and put our name in at Homeslice. It’s actually a product of Covent Garden, but they’ve just opened this second location this week. The hope is that not too many people know about it yet.
Two hour wait.
So much for hopes and dreams. We put our names in, but with stomachs growling the new mission is IMG_2067salted beef beigels. We slice deeper into the neighborhood towards Brick Lane where the graffiti artist is a little more bold.
There are two competing places serving these sandwiches. Think Pats and Genos in Philly with smaller crowds. I’ve been forewarned that ordering is akin to an experience with the soup nazi. So yeah…just like Philly.
Within minutes we’re all on the sidewalk devouring these sandwiches from Brick Lane Beigel Bake. Some are pleased….others not so much. Me, well I’m in heaven. It’s a perfect balance of crunchy/chewy savory. Without even a word this thing is gone.
But, I can’t very well leave without trying the competitor. I walk two storefronts down to the Britain’s Best Beigel Shop. The sign says it’s the first and it has “best” in the name, so it has to be true.
“Kris, seriously…you don’t want to fill up on this before the pizza,” Em warns me.
IMG_2072Who’s filling up? This is the appetizer. And this is a mission, an experiment to determine the salted beef bagel champion.
The second is gone as quickly as the first. But, they lie: it is not “best”…it’s good…but not best.
With that eternally burning question satisfied we double back towards Homeslice, stopping at a pub called the Owl and the Pussycat to kill a little more time. This place is also packed to the brim, a situation made worse as we walk in the front door to the sound of shattering glass. It’s enough to prompt the bouncers to shuffle everyone inside. For about five minutes we’re playing the Jurassic Park drinking game. Oh, you don’t know the game??? It goes like this:
You’re in a crowded bar packed shoulder to shoulder such that extending your arm for a proper sip is an impossibility, thus the only way to bring rim of glass to lip is by pretending that your arms are little-T-Rex arms that you have to meet halfway. Jurassic Park. It’s a thing.
A beer or two later and it’s time for some pizza.
Here’s the deal, you know how I said there were seven Penn Staters…we now it’s actually eight on the evening. Another one of our friends from another era is in London with his wife house shopping ahead of a move to the city. Just another round of pure luck and he’s here with us for some pizza.
IMG_2081The pizza is delicious, not gonna lie. The chorizo and sweet corn is monstrously good. We plow through three of these pies with American efficiency. The stories along the way are as rich as the toppings (unfortunately those won’t be shared here).
The invisible string binding us all together is sometimes revealed when plucked just the right way. Tonight we’re playing that string like a harp.
Hugs, handshakes and waves later we’re back on a bus heading towards Southbank set for an early morning and a grand adventure (foreshadowing).
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A Cooking Class in Rome

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A trip to Italy is associated with a delicious, stuff-your-face-with-the-best-food-ever kind of experience. So, participating in a near 7-hour cooking class in Rome delightfully checks a major box off the nom list.

Cooking Classes in Rome in the heart of Trastevere is owned by a half-Italian, half-American couple who is charismatic, witty and ready to open their kitchen to you for a day that will leave your belly full and your heart happy. Chef Andrea Consoli and wife Erica begin with an introduction to Roman cuisine and transition into what is a full afternoon of interactive cooking that’s educational and super fun–and I’m talking in the form of taking a meat cleaver to a chicken or making your own bow-tie pasta from scratch.

You’ll be greeted with espresso and breakfast sweets in a beautifully decorated front room and given a chance to mingle with the other students (a small international group of 10). Following that, you don your apron and get to work stirring, chopping, laughing and tasting.  Andrea provides Italian culinary histories, tips and know-how the whole way through. It’s a hands-on experience with never a dull moment.

You should be prepared to eat. A lot. Our menu included stuffed artichokes that we trimmed and cleaned ourselves, a blow-your-carb-loving-mind dish with porcini mushrooms, prosciutto, sausage over pasta, a traditional chicken cacciatore with 2 side dishes and, naturally, a sweet and creamy tiramisu.

Not only does Cooking Classes in Rome provide you with an opportunity to learn more about traditional cooking, but it also makes you feel like you had a chance to really delve into the culture and expand your knowledge through your taste buds.

Class including 4-course meal is €65 per person; optional wine pairings €20 per person.  Menus change seasonally and based on dietary requests.

Previously posted by Lauren on Girl Meets Food 

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Florence for Foodies

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Florence. The birthplace of some of the most inspirational people in the Western world: Michelangelo, Da Vinci, Dante and…Natalie Panozzo, co-owner of Florence for Foodies; a walking food tour that will school you on everything from grassy olive oil to grappa spray.

Florence for Foodies begins with a marocchino; an espresso with milk, cocoa and melted chocolate (pictured above) at a lovely little cafe where Natalie or her partner Samantha Boi teach you the Italian Coffee Code of Conduct—i.e., no dairy in your coffee past lunch. That’s for babies.

In the central market, you’ll sample the very best bollito (pictured), a sandwich made of marinated veal and two secret sauces that the people of Nerbone have been making since 1872. You’ll also try outrageously fresh cheeses, cured meats, olive oils and decades-aged balsamic vinegars, all accompanied by chianti—a breakfast wine, of course.Bollito Sandwich

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At the next stop, you’ll be greeted with a glass of Prosecco and a fantastically salty, doughy coccolo sandwich filled with prosciutto and creamy Stracchino cheese. Wash this down with more Chianti Reserve and learn about the wine region while you stand in a 500-year-old wine cellar that was once a prison cell!

Next, a dreaded grappa spray. Grappa = hard alcohol made from grapes, to the tune of 120 proof. This mouth spray of death comes in an innocent-looking perfume bottle and has been used as an afternoon pick-me-up for decades. Oh yes, it will definitely induce an involuntary yowza at first. But don’t worry bella, everything gets sweeter from here on out as you live la dolce vita with chocolates and gelato.

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IMG_4392Florence for Foodies lasts 3 hours and leaves you with a wonderful experience. You’ll learn about the historical nature of food production in Tuscany and eat and drink your way through one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Who can say “no” to that?

 

Previously posted by Lauren on Girl Meets Food

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5 Awesome and Edible State Fairs

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The dog days of summer are here kids. Which typically means that we are all sweating and hating it but this summer has been more like getting rained on and hating it. At least that’s what happening here in D.C. for the most part. In the midst of the August heat come those nostalgic, 2/3 really fun, 1/3 exceptionally questionable state and county fairs. I think that when you are from the Midwest like me, reminiscing the days of cotton candy and gravitrons go hand in hand with blue ribbon contests for pigs, pie judging, a showcase of canning skills. And let us not forget that since we witnessed the delicious Ryan Gosling hang from a ferris wheel in The Notebook we haven’t looked at one the same since.

I grew up going to the Hillsdale County Fair and Jackson County Fair  (where I saw a Destiny’s Child concert in 1997 for $15) in Pure Michigan. Both reeked of the unadulterated Midwestern bliss that comes with farming and simplicity. That and hormonal teenagers. And cow manure. Living in the city, I probably won’t have the opportunity to make it to a fair this year but if I did, I’d try to hit one of the big ones. The kind that have been around for over a century and have morphed into an “only in America” campaign where a highly coveted prize is winning the creativity trophy for a new conception of food on a stick. Or deep fried food on a stick. Here are 5 iconic American State fairs:

Iowa State Fair: Held since 1854 and spread of 445 acres, the Iowa state fair is one of the largest in the country. It’s almost hard to choose the best thing available at this fair. Perhaps its the monster arm wrestling or cow chip throwing contests. Or the 600 exhibitors to see. Or the cow that is entirely sculpted out of butter. Or the nearly 65 food items available on a stick like a bacon-wrapped corn dog, deep fried Snickers bar, Twinkie Log (frozen Twinkie (WHERE did they find said Twinkies?!) dipped in white chocolate and rolled in cashews), or the bacon-wrapped riblet. All available sans plate.

Minnesota State Fair: Trailing only behind Texas in terms of attendance, the Minnesota State Fair, or the “The Great Minnesota Get-Together,” has been kicking since 1859. Check out Machinery Hill where, yep you guessed it, can see one of the largest displays of farm machinery in the world in addition to motorcycles and lawn mowers. Before heading over there, see livestock exhibits or an art or cooking show. A food item of this fair that’s really intriguing in a whaaaat the—- sort of way is the corn dog pizza. However, I am not doubting at all that it’s culinary genius.

State Fair of Texas: We all know that everything is bigger in Texas. Sort of. But really the state fair, held annually since 1886 is the highest attended fair in the country and no joke. This year, Dallas will gratefully welcome back its fair mascot, Big Tex, who caught on fire last year. Other highlights include livestock, a garden show, and the historic Red River Rivalry football game between Texas and Oklahoma. Fried options include deep fried jambalaya and a deep fried bacon cinnamon roll.

Great New York State Fair: The oldest state fair in America, this celebration has been pleasing fairgoers since 1841. Here, you can view contests for antique tractors to farm products, Midway rides, extreme log makeovers, and butter & cheese sculptures. There’s also Pan-African and Iroquois Indian villages to tour and if you’re hungry you can try the deep fried macaroni or the long john donut hot dog dipped in maple syrup.

Wisconsin State Fair: America’s dairyland has held a state fair since 1851. Play bingo with the Potowatomi Bingo Casino Road Show or educate yourself in the Wisconsin State Fair History Museum. There is also a white tiger discovery exhibition where keepers feature the last remaining five species of tigers in the world. Naturally, there’s food on a stick you can try like the cajun frog legs, breaded oysters, or deep fried cheesesteak. The most popular food item at this fair, however, is the cream puff, a delicious cream filled pastry served since 1924.

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Britt’s Donuts at Carolina Beach

Britt’s Donuts

 

 

OK. I am not much of a donut person, in that I don’t crave Dunkin or Krispy Kreme in the mornings like I do bitter, unadulterated caffeine. But on a recent trip to Wilmington, NC, I found the perfect donut. Did you hear that? The perfect donut.

Britt's Donuts

Located on a small boardwalk at Carolina beach in Wilmington, Britt’s Donuts has been making these little bundles of bliss for beachgoers since 1939. The shop is very humble and only serves one type of donut—the plain, glazed, melts in your mouth kind. No complaints here. If you need a drink, your choices are soda, coffee or my favorite, milk.

Britt's Donuts

Naturally, the recipe is a tightly guarded secret (damnit) and Britt’s doesn’t have time for people who even try to ask for sprinkles or jelly filled sweets; when your donuts taste this good with a simple glaze, you don’t need any more pomp and circumstance. I expected to have one and move on but these babies are literally still warm when they are served to you. I finally left the shop after eating three, with two more in a to-go bag.

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Britt’s is only open during the tourist season so head there in the summertime. It’s refreshing to see an independently owned shop, operated by local high school and college kids looking for some extra cash and a tan during summer break. While it’s more common to see boardwalk fries and pizza, these donuts will definitely have you rethinking your beach food of choice. Or, let me rephrase that: Britt’s Donuts are a fabulous addition to your current, favorite stuff-your-face boardwalk fare.

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Now You’re Cooking with Romans!

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And so it rained.

A rainy Roman morning
A rainy Roman morning

Throughout our time in Rome we had been waiting for the rain. It was supposed to start the night we arrived, and yet conditions remained dry. Until this morning. But really, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. We had a cooking class that was to take up half the day.

We walked across the Tiber into the neighborhood of Trastavere, where things seem far more residential…and maybe a smidge less touristy. The challenge would be finding this place, because Cooking Classes in Rome looked to be run out of a house in the neighborhood on a small side street…at least that’s what I got from the website. In truth the operation is run from a storefront, but inside it feels like a warm home. There are pictures on the walls of cooking classes past and a large dining table in the middle of the main room.

We were welcomed in by an American named Erica…originally a Michigander, which made Lauren happy. The table on this particular day would be full, with fellow cooks in training from Germany, Hungary and the U.S. All said there were ten people, half of whom were named Nicole.

Chef Andrea showed up as we were enjoying some coffee and breakfast pastries around the table. Erica and Andrea are married…Andrea is not American, he’s from Rome and full of amazing insights to Roman cuisine.

Look at all this food we have to cook!
Look at all this food we have to cook!

He struggled to get in the front door, both arms strapped down with bags and bags of food. Everything we were about to cook had just been picked up from the local market. After a few minutes of introductions we moved into the kitchen, we heard the rundown of what makes Roman food so different and special. Andrea also spent a lot of time stressing the importance of locality and seasonality. For that reason we’d be carving artichokes for one of the courses. If you’ve never carved an artichoke it’s an adventure.

I’m not going to go over every detail of the class…I’m not looking to give away any secrets. But here’s what we made: stuffed Roman style artichokes as the appetizer, home-made bow-tie pasta with a fresh mushroom and sausage sauce for the first course, chicken cacciatora with a side of roasted potatoes with rosemary and sautéed flat beans with cherry tomatoes for the main…and the desert was tiramisu. I ate a lot of the tiramisu.

Here’s what you need to know about the class: it’s very hands-on. Whether butchering chickens (don’t worry you’re not killing chickens) or properly cleaning mushrooms fresh from the earth or making pasta from scratch I picked up a bunch of new skills in the kitchen. The class isn’t going to teach you to be a chef, but it will give you an appreciation for cooking…and maybe inspire you keep learning once you get home. And because of Chef Andrea’s focus on locality, you’ll learn a lot about Roman cuisine and Roman culture.

We're happy because we spent all morning chasing this stupid bird
We’re happy because we spent all morning chasing this stupid bird

It’s been said many times on this blog: eating is at the core of travel. We all eat. We all eat differently based on where we are. So if a person is what they eat, a key way to understand them is to eat what they eat. At the very least you’ll get a taste of their culture.

Chef Andrea was very good about “showing” and then letting everyone “do”. I’ve been to a lot of cooking classes that are a whole lot of show without the do…or, even worse, the do without the show.

When we finally sat down to eat it felt like an accomplishment. We were about to consume the spoils of a great victory. The class also offers a wine pairing with each course, Lauren and I opted out because we had a busy afternoon and evening ahead. Everything was delicious…and because we had spent the last few hours with these people it was a very relaxing friendly meal. There were students experiencing travel for the first time, photographers

Here we are all enjoying the dinner
Here we are all enjoying the dinner

offering the eye of perspective, a few just visiting Rome for the weekend, some looking for the next step in another land and at least one who was absolutely obsessed with Bon Jovi. All in all it made for great dinner conversation…such that we got carried away and stayed longer than the class actually ran. But in true Italian fashion there was no rush to get anyone out the door…because that’s all part of the experience.

Lauren and I were the first to leave, because we had a laundry list of things to do on our last night in Rome. Before we left though, Erica gave Lauren a list of shops to find some of the great ingredients we used through the day…she also gave us a list of restaurants and at least one tiramisu spot to find.

As we walked out the door the rain was finally letting up…it seemed perfect as we walked through Trastevere on a hunt for some of the spots on the list. Collecting things along the way we worked our way back up to the Pantheon. We stopped by the other night, but it was closed. I really wanted to get inside, since that didn’t happen in my last trip to Rome.

The Pantheon is also important to me as a Washingtonian. So much of our architecture is inspired by this building: The Capitol Building, Museum of Natural History, National Archives, West Wing of the National Gallery of Art and most obviously the Jefferson Memorial. Walking into the Pantheon is the last piece of the puzzle when it comes to appreciating the classical

A look at the Pantheon from the outside
A look at the Pantheon from the outside

Romanesque influences around Washington.

Like all the great Roman buildings still intact, or partially intact, the Pantheon is still here because it was turned into a church. Being inside and seeing these Catholic symbols littered about the building I can’t but help to feel sad for what once was. There’s a certain silliness in making this a church, with it’s high unsupported domed roof with an oculus leading to the heavens. This was a temple to all the gods of Rome, putting crosses and portraits of the Virgin Mary inside doesn’t change that.

And that’s why the Pantheon is important…because it’s not a testament to Roman polytheism or to Christianity…but instead to human power and the use of symbols to solidify that power. Making the Pantheon a church was a way for the Church to show it reigned in the absence of Roman power. Taken in that context the Pantheon is very much a living building. On this night it felt a little more alive as the moisture in the atmosphere outside succumbed to the wicked ways of gravity and fell into the building through the oculus. The rain reinforced the idea that the reclamation of forces bigger than all of us combined are never far away. Still though, for about two millennia this was the largest unsupported dome in the world. The Romans knew what they were doing.

St. Peters from up the Tiber
St. Peters from up the Tiber

We headed back across the Tiber to a shop that Lauren wanted to get back to on Via Cola di Rienzo. I probably would have put up more of a fight but I wanted another shot at that gelato. And so we walked. While we were in the shop the skies opened up and Lauren, with hopes of making things faster, had me wait in line while she went looking for one other item. Our plan was to rendezvous at the gelato shop.

Back outside and without an umbrella I darted from awning to awning hoping to dodge the raindrops. It was not an effective strategy. By the time I made it to the shelter of the gelato shop I was thoroughly soaked and Lauren was MIA. I ordered and paid, she still wasn’t there. So I went outside to look (under the awning of course) and I heard Lauren shouting from down the street. She was soaked.

“I was missing!” she said grabbing her gelato. She had walked out a side entrance of the shop and ended up on a completely different street. We finished the gelato as the rain subsided and then headed back towards Piazza Navona for dinner. We had already made reservations at a restaurant we scouted the night before, and we wrestled with whether we should just break them and try one of the eateries Erica had listed for us. Ultimately proximity was the deciding factor, we were just across the bridge from the place with reservations…and we had done an amazing amount of walking in the last three days. In fact, I kept track. In three days we walked 17 miles.

The dinner was alright, not to the level of what we’d experienced over most of the trip. But I think a lot of that was due to my still being full from our earlier dinner at the cooking school. Still though it was a nice romantic spot to enjoy the last night in Italy with Lauren.

Throwing our coins in...it looks a little freaky
Throwing our coins in…it looks a little freaky

We stopped by the Trevi Fountain on our way back home…seeing as we were in bad moods the last time we were there we didn’t want to jinx any possible return to Rome. And so we returned to throw our coins in again to curry favor with the fates. Even at the late hour the fountain was busy, although nothing like the mobs that are there during the day. It’s touristy, and it’s awesome.

Coins deposited we took our time wandering through the streets of Rome back to our hotel. Again I had fallen in love with this city, with this country. For Lauren this would go down as her favorite trip abroad, and I’m inclined to agree with her. From the canals of Venice to the streets of Florence and Rome there’s something around every corner to stir the heart and inspire the mind. And obviously there is the romantic appeal, the notion that one of the biggest moments of our lives will be forever frozen in time in this country. The next morning we flew home to Washington, where the broad streets seemed out of place. Buildings a few hundred years old now seemed brand new. Meals seemed rushed.

For a moment we had returned to our native landscape seeing it as a foreigner. That is the true mark of an excellent trip.

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So. Much. Food.

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About 500 years ago.

That was our joke by this point in the trip…that just about every story starts, “About 500 years ago…” if not a thousand years ago. Italy’s history is immense, complicated and…well…overwhelming. I like to have a mastery of the history of a place I visit. And on my second time through Italy, I still feel like I’m scratching the surface.

And through the day my comprehension would come into sharper focus…because of food.

I had booked a food tour through Florence as a surprise for Lauren with an outfit called Florence for Foodies.

Lauren posing
Lauren posing

I was a little apprehensive about devoting half a day to food…but this is Italy, no, this is Tuscany. Let me say this quickly: before attending a food tour…don’t eat. We had a quick breakfast at a cafe around the corner from our B&B, it was good but not as good as what were about to spend the next four hours consuming.

On the steps of San Lorenzo we met our guide Nat. That’s when she told us there would only be two other people joining us…awesome news. I hate being among big gaggles of tourists jockeying for the best spots to take a picture or get a bite or hear. After a few minutes the other two showed up, a couple from Hong Kong Chris and Sandy. They were about our age, and very excited to be on the tour.

Nat started us out at a cafe, she sat us down and explained the rules of coffee in Italy. I don’t know if it was quite a “Paul-on-the-road-to-Damascus” moment…but it was pretty close (remember what I said about coffee being a religious experience in Italy). She explained why coffee to-go is a horrible thing, how the barista takes great care in the creation of the experience, from warming the cup atop the machines to taking the time to properly grind the beans and measure the ingredients to creating little pieces of art atop the finished product. Obviously every coffee house in Italy isn’t going to take this great care, but I can tell you more do than don’t.

We continued onto the market up the street. We grabbed these sandwiches called bollito: they were ridiculous. Veal and cheese and secret sauce and more secret sauce, both of which were spicy served on “Roman” bread. The market reminded me of Reading Terminal in Philly. And I suppose at the very surface level that can be attributed to Philly’s very Italian heritage. But I digress, the sandwich was great. I ate two. I would’ve eaten five were it not for our ill-thought out pre-breakfast breakfast.

We moved through the marketplace sampling cheeses and meats as we went. I believe I had my first taste of pecorino (it’s sheep cheese) and now I’m addicted. Except it’s expensive in the States…we need more sheep. To be honest there were a lot of things along the way I’d never tasted, and probably wouldn’t have had I not been on this tour.

Meat!
Meat!
A Twilight-free zone
A Twilight-free zone
Balsamic...balsamic and more balsamic
Balsamic…balsamic and more balsamic
Little bites of delicious
Little bites of delicious

Eating is a necessary component to travel. I’ve never understood how people get on a plane, fly a dozen hours and then eat exactly what they would at home…or complain when they can’t eat like they do at home. And before you say that doesn’t happen I can bring up hundreds of examples during my time with Contiki.

And Nat did a fabulous job of explaining the historical context of what we were eating…like why Tuscan bread was so bland: blame Pisa. The need for prosciutto: blame Pisa. The same goes for Ribollita: blame Pisa. Or why olive oil tastes different in Italy: it’s not pasteurized…probably Pisa’s fault. Clearly Florentines hate on Pisa like Washingtonians and Philadelphians hate on Dallas.

Oh…and by the way we were washing everything down with wine. We sat down at one of the counters in the market and tried nearly a dozen different varieties of balsamic so we could taste the evolution in aging. We did the same thing with olive oil, although they are better in reverse: balsamic is better with age, olive oil is better with youth. Before this experience I shunned balsamic, but I walked away enjoying it. And to taste a fresh olive oil endowed upon me an appreciation for why this ingredient is the centerpiece of so many Italian dishes. The freshest bottle we sampled tasted like the Tuscan hills on a fresh summer afternoon, if I close my eyes I can see that taste.

And it seemed like everything had a bit of truffle in it. I don’t like truffles, call my palate unrefined if you will, but I’ve never been able to appreciate the taste of a sweaty sock found on the floor of a Metro train. Nonetheless, I sampled and sampled and sampled. Truffle infused honey…bruschetta with truffle…truffle infused spice mix…balsamic and truffle. On the other end of the spectrum Chris was rapturously consuming every bit of truffle he could get his hands on. With every bite he closed his eyes and slowly shook his head, probably trying to wash the flavor over every taste bud in his mouth. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone enjoy food that much.

Into the wine cellar
Into the wine cellar

Moving on from the market things got serious. We went to a wine bar called Zanobini, which looks a lot like a bottle shop…except: there is one counter about four feet long as soon as you walk in. The floor is worn showing where patrons stand throughout the day. It’s the sort of place that you nip into between breakfast and lunch or lunch and dinner to have a glass of wine and socialize…or in the case of the guy sitting in the only chair, to stay from breakfast to dinner and drink several glasses of wine: such is the Italian way, such is the Tuscan way.

The black rooster...the one that won I suppose
The black rooster…the one that won I suppose

The owner of the place welcomed us in, and explained the history while offering up a toast of prosecco…I love prosecco.  That’s probably why I can’t remember the history of the place, the prosecco or probably the grappa spray…yeah…it was probably the grappa spray. From what I remember the wine bar was a prison cell some 500 years ago (roundabout) and a guy who opposed the Medici family was imprisoned here for plotting to kill them, or maybe tickle them…I can’t be sure…grappa. At some point a black rooster fought another black rooster from Siena to set the border between the two regions…grappa. In the basement of this wine bar was the wine cellar, amazing I know. The room smelled musty and old and haunted. We drank before heading back into the proper wine bar, and then it was grappa time.

Wait, what it this grappa you speak of?? Well I’m so glad you asked…it’s like killer death spray. It’s the alcohol of grapes taken past the point of wine, way past. It’s like 60 percent alcohol and it’s used as a “pick-me-up” for Tuscans in the afternoon or morning. But you don’t drink it, and you don’t inhale it…you do something in between. Grappa is sprayed from what looks like a perfume bottle onto your tongue, and let’s just say there’s a bit of a shock to the system.

Everyone took their sprays, and we were all happier having done it. We went from there to wrap up with some gelato. And yet another mystery was resolved: how can you tell good gelato from bad. Nat walked us by the Duomo and outside one of the gelatories (?), there she gave us a lesson. If the gelato is on display it is no good, they want to bring you in with the colors not the taste. Those who make superb gelato do so fresh every day, and to keep it fresh they don’t display it to the open air. They are confident enough in the taste to keep it out of view. I wish I could remember the name of the place she took us to, but…grappa.

The tour ended at the gelato place, but Nat took the time to give us a list of restaurants to check out through the remainder of our time in Florence. One of those recommendations ended up being the best meal we had in Italy…but more on that later.

A Duomo shadow
A Duomo shadow
Soaking in the Tuscan sun
Soaking in the Tuscan sun
The Florentine skyline
The Florentine skyline

We made our way back to the Duomo…the weather again was superb: mid-50’s and sunny. Great for February. My last swing through Florence took me into the Duomo, but not on the Duomo. So we bought our ticket and walked the 463 steps to the cupola. Little windows brought fresh air into the ancient stairway and breathtaking peaks at the Florentine skyline. Atop the view is truly astounding. Present-me was momentarily angry with four-years-ago-me for not taking this climb last time. Spread before us was a sea of rust-colored roof tiles soaking in the soft rays of the waning afternoon sun. Streets appeared as capillaries instead of the broad veins of North American cities. The Tuscan hills hugging this enclave that would produce the next evolutionary leap in human thought to catapult us from the dark ages into discovery. If you are not moved by such a site I implore you to burn your passport and never leave home again.

We lingered letting the afternoon continue its course as we took photos, and then eventually descended the steps back to ground level. After a quick stop at our hotel to make a reservation for dinner we walked towards the Piazziale Michelangelo for the sunset. This involved more steps and a lot more walking. I stopped feeling guilty for not running while on vacation.

The wide view of Piazzelle Michelangelo
The wide view of Piazzelle Michelangelo

The vista was terrific with the whole of Florence sprawled out before us as the encroaching night gave the skyline new character and depth. The winds whipped up the Arno and the temperature dropped, but again I was lost in the view. A bit of advice here: even on this chilly evening there were a lot of people at the park…if it’s nice and you want a good spot show up well before sunset. There are vendors selling snacks and drinks up there.

We walked down from the hill along the now dark Arno, it just seemed that every corner of the city was beautiful. My love of Florence was again justified and overflowing.

Getting to the restaurant proved to be a challenge as navigator Lauren led us to Pizza San Spirito instead of Via Santo Spirito. In her defense Spirito was in both. This is where I turn into a whiny bitch…no more grappa. I had been carrying my camera gear around through the day and wearing bad shoes for all the walking. I was tired and sore and lost. We found our way back to the river and then honed in on the street (which by the way is only named Santo Spirito for like a block).

We got to the restaurant, Il Santo Bevitore, before it even opened…many restaurants in Italy open for dinner at 7:30pm. Another reason I love the place, eating late into the evening is very much my style. The restaurant’s atmosphere was romantic and traditional with hundreds of bottles of wine adorning the walls…and the place was busy, make reservations. The meal was another show-stopper with a course of a traditional bean soup, followed by a pasta course of ravioli stuffed with basil and pecorino and finally more steak. I could be more specific, but Lauren’s the food writer…I just eat the stuff. And stuffed I was, after yet another long meal at the end of a long day of eating and walking and eating and walking and eating and walking.

We made our way home we wandered through the arch of Piazza della Republica and onward back towards the Duomo before calling it a day. A full, full day.

A dimming Duomo
A dimming Duomo
Ponte Vecchio and the Arno
Ponte Vecchio and the Arno
Towards Uffizi
Towards Uffizi
Doumo alit
Doumo alit
David...but not David
David…but not David
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Let’s Talk About Soul Food

Ooh and Aahs

So. There’s a delicious place on U Street in Washington, DC that will dazzle you to the soul. You may have seen it on this episode of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives on the Travel Channel. Oh yes, I’m talking about Oohs and Aahs. It’s obviously named that because when you eat there it’s inevitable that you will make those noises the whole meal through.Ooh and Aahs

I mean, SRSLY. It’s amazing. Kris and I finally got over there last month after wanting to go since we moved to DC. If you’re not looking out for it, you might pass it by as it’s pretty low key. But that’s because what’s inside is so fabulous there’s no need for flashy sign. Really peeps, it’s that good.inside oohs and aahs

The inside is also low key save for the R&B music videos playing from the TV on one side of the seating room and the pictures on the walls of all of the famous faces that have naturally, stuff their face at Oohs and Aahs. We got the fried catfish, macaroni and cheese, collard greens and corn bread. I’m pretty sure the greens melted in my mouth. The mac was oh-so-cheesy and rich, I seriously couldn’t even stop eating even when I was full. Maybe that’s why America has a bit of a problem. And the corn bread, is that vanilla that I tasted? This was not your average jiffy mix.The Feast

We are lucky to have a plethora of good eating in DC but if you want something that reaches your soul, head here. Promise.

 

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Girl Meets Falafel

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I’m going to sound like a total chump right now. I knooooow. But until this week, I had never been to Amsterdam Falafelshop in Adams Morgan. And I’ve lived here for nearly two years. And it’s a 7.2 minute walk from my Apt. I know, pathetic.

BUT. Then I went. And it was magical.falafel 1

When you order your falafel (and seriously the small is still a ton of food) they just give you the pita and the balls and then there is a whole bar of fabulous, fresh Mediterranean/Middle Eastern goodies that you can get pile on all by yourself. Naturally, this turns into “let’s see how much I can stuff into my pita and possibly even my spare hand” before grabbing a seat but for the fresh baba ganoush, red cabbage and cucumber dill sauce, it’s totally worth it to make a falafel loving glutton out of yourself.garnish

falafel 2

They also serve double fried Belgian style frites that are marvelous and can conveniently be placed in one of the cut out holes that are in the tables. Genius. I’m so happy that I’ve begun this love affair with Amsterdam falafelshop; and coming in at around $5 for a load of food my wallet is thrilled as well.frites

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Holiday Wreaths and a Pig’s Head in Colonial Williamsburg

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A trip to Colonial Williamsburg around the holidays is always fun if you like to feel festive circa 1776. Kris and I went to enjoy a historical, touristy adventure sans the thousands of vacationers that pour in every Spring and had a marvelous, revolutionary-esque time.

As amazing as Williamsburg is with its in-depth presentation of what the Virginian colony was like back when the House of Burgesses was still kicking but let’s be serious; I, of course, was more interested in pretty decorations and food. Enter: Holiday wreaths and a roasted pig’s head!Food spread at Governor's Palace

The pig’s head was sitting pleasantly on a table along with a bunch of other period treats in the kitchen of the Governor’s Palace. The cook, Frank Clark, was just washing the final dishes for the day and told us about all of the fab colonial delights he spent the week making which included stewed eggs and spinach, orange marmalade, squab (think domestic pigeon…I know, gross) and a variety of puddings. If you are interested in cooking like Martha Washington (or more appropriately, her servants) you too can learn how to broil a sturgeon, 18th Century style. Find their whole recipe index here.Colonial Kitchen

Now to the food you can eat while visiting Williamsburg. The historical area has many taverns that will mostly require a reservation and promise to plunge you straight back to revolutionary days. You will be served by those in period costumes and eat meals specific to the era. The King’s Arms Tavern and Christiana Campbell’s Tavern are two of the favorites.  We went the more casual route to DoG St. Pub for beers and a lovely Guinness beef stew.Guinness Beef Stew, DoG St Pub

Naturally, a holiday trip to Williamsburg is not complete without incessantly wondering how they make the wreaths and decorations so beautiful. I fell into a conversation with a lovely period shoe-maker who told me to keep my eyes on the western side of the road. Most of the wreaths here have dried fruit or flowers on them while the eastern side (less sunny side) has more wreaths with fresh fruit. The landscaping crew also combs through early every morning to replace any fruit that may be rotten. So, there’s some fruit for thought that you can share with all of your colonial loving friends.Holiday Wreath

 

Holiday Wreath

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